1. The Decemberists, Castaways and Cutouts (Kill Rock Stars)
First released by Hush Records in 2002, the Kill Rock Stars reissue of Castaways and Cutouts managed to outstrip the bevy of this year's proper releases, including the Decemberists' own Her Majesty the Decemberists (still a fine album, I might say). Not only outstrip: out-reference (Turkish prostitutes, French legionnaires), out-instrumentalize (decadent guitars, benevolent accordion, honeyed stings, and bellowing drums), out-intoxicate (listen to "Grace Cathedral" and just try to keep your mind from spiraling into dizzy rapture) and out-convince (the Decemberists' reputation as one of the most interesting bands currently recording is more than justified here). Hear frontman/mastermind Colin Meloy's heart beating through every emotion-soaked missive, feel the wheels of his mind turning through the literary and historical content, believe in the power of this group to shock you into unfettered, obsessive adoration. What's more: play this album, again and again, this year, next year, and beyond.
2. Clearlake, Cedars (Domino)
An obvious key to the triumph of Cedars rests near its conclusion: the chilling hesitancy of "Treat Yourself with Kindness", the album's second-to-last track. It is anything but a denouement. Guitars crawl eerily out of dark silences to captivate your consciousness; drums and bass lines pinning you down to be slowly, surely compelled by Jason Pegg's legato singing, his words constant yet distinct, like the pace of water between droplets and a stream. Then the burst: clashing cymbals, deafening guitars, singing that seems to be begging the noise for mercy. Dynamism, theater, action, expectation -- all here in one package, but threaded masterfully throughout Clearlake's sophomore effort.
3. OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
What the hell is this album? This release doesn't just simply separate OutKast into its component parts (one album by Big Boi, one by Andre 3000); it also dresses those parts up like freaks, pumps them full of acid, and drives them off a cliff at 100 miles per hour. The result is The Love Below as the jazzy, horny, Bobby Rydell-meets-Teddy Pendergrass-meets-Eazy-E soul spaz-out, and Speakerboxxx, a pulsating, concentrated, party-hopping rap-and roll that speaks the Devil's tongue. I defy you to make it through this set without an orgiastic soiree spontaneously erupting.
4. Blur, Think Tank (Virgin)
One member lighter and a million times more creative, Blur reinvent themselves -- and maybe British rock music -- with the landmark accomplishment of Think Tank. The difference is there immediately: from the gospel litany of "Ambulance" -- classic Blur vocal pops, but woven through the jungle of soulful primal techno-futurism -- which gives way to mishmash folk salsa love song "Out of Time", which in no way prepares you for the go-for-broke rock fuzz of "Crazy Beat". And on and on: the genres are multiple and conflicting, the soundscapes mind-bending and psychotic, but the result mature, overwhelming, and outstanding.
5. The Shins, Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)
The Shins are insistent on this album, intermittently loud, and sometimes reckless -- a giant leap away from the dreamy, controlled fantasy that charmed listeners on their debut two years ago, Oh, Inverted World!. But the relative wildness that comes through on Chutes is a welcome transition, one that sees the band realize their rock sensibilities without sacrificing their adorable pop charm. If, on Chutes Too Narrow, the Shins unleash their animal instincts, that animal is a lion cub.
6. Turin Brakes, Ether Songs (Astralwerks)
Nobody -- I mean, nobody -- sings quite like Olly Knights. His is a romantic and tactile voice; you can feel its physics, sense its logic, understand its ethics and passions. He and Gale Paridjanian have enhanced those kinetics on Ether Songs, which fuses their folk soul with cosmic channelings. Appropriately named, Ether Songs feels atmospherically immense -- but also tiny and sweet, intimate and dark, and gorgeously down to earth.
7. Kenna, New Sacred Cow (Columbia)
Kenna's had a tough go. Initially dropped from Fred Durst's Flawless Records, this album went unreleased for more than two years. When it emerged in mid-2003, the praise was ferocious, but it quickly died down and Kenna seemed to all but disappear. But thankfully, New Sacred Cow hasn't -- one of the most genre-defying, highly evolved albums to be released this year. The Ethiopian singer brings body and soul to rock, pulse and sensuality to synth, and (with the help of Neptunes) combines it all into an electrified, insanely hooky brew. It's shameful that Kenna is still a relative secret, because the glories of this album should be shouted from the rooftops.
8. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Take Them, On Your Own (Virgin)
Finally, BRMC reach their potential. The second release from the Brit-inspired Californians finds their buzzsaw guitar slashes sharper, their lyrics more focused, and their songs generally catchier. They've ceased taking a postmodern posture toward music (no more "Whatever Happened to My Rock and Roll") and have simply decided to make it; they've ceased simply regurgitating the musical moves of influences (Jesus and Mary Chain, Oasis, Ride) and have finally begun being influential. If this band maintains a solid career in the future, this album will be pointed to as their turning point.
9. Goldfrapp, Black Cherry (Mute)
Trying to keep your ass still during "Crystalline Green" -- the first track off Black Cherry -- is almost as hard as trying to keep your mind from wandering off into naughty places. Allison Goldfrapp has emerged anew on the group's second album, encasing her angelic voice in fiendish sex appeal and slithering along the sexy course of this album, built largely by Will Gregory's erotic sonic creations. The risks Goldfrapp take with their new sound here are well worth it.
10. Stars, Heart (Arts & Crafts)
The Canadian foursome whose expertly crafted Nightsongs won them critical accolades in 2001 are back this year with the pretty little Heart. Torquil Campbell and Amy Milan's vocals meld like miscible liquids; the Smithsy, St. Entienne-ish songs are breezy, uplifting, and as sweet as cherry wine. With Stars' Heart, they'll capture yours.
Top 5 Songs
1. Relaxed Muscle, "Sexualised"
Jarvis Cocker's new project, Relaxed Muscle, has yet to hit stateside, but once it does, we all better run (or dance, or screw) for our very lives. Not only brutally rhythmic, unforgivably loud and ruthlessly hot, this sonic concoction also has some of the most memorable lyrics ever, heavily doused in Cocker's cheeky wit. "Shopping malls are sexualised"? Thank god! I don't know about, you but I can't wait.
2. The Rapture, "House of Jealous Lovers"
Highly touted local darlings The Rapture have managed to convince New York City to do the one thing that it hates to do: dance. Now if only somebody would have also given the kids some rhythm
3. Justin Timberlake, "Rock Your Body"
Yes, I like Justin Timberlake and no, I don't feel I need to apologize for it. And if you say that you didn't jam at least once to this song this year, you're a big fat liar. Next?
4. Deerhoof, "Dummy Discards a Heart"
It's been rumored that lead singer Satomi Matsuzaki has no idea what she's saying on this or any other song off Deerhoof's 2003 release, Apple O. I'm not certain I believe that, but I certainly can't understand a damn word. No mind: the sheer joy in Matsuzaki's chirping, matched by hells-bells guitar abandon, is enough for me.
5. OutKast, "Spread"
Somehow, Andre 3000 manages to make a song entirely about a one night stand sound like fun for the whole family. I've actually seen an intergenerational cross-section of revelers go hog wild to this song, only to back up and play it again. Come on, grandma --"spread for me!"