1. Transatlantic, SMPTe ((Metal Blade/Radiant)
Quite simply the best kept secret this year. A prog/rock project featuring drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater), keyboardist Neal Morse (Spock's Beard), guitarist Roine Stolt (Flower Kings) and bassist Pete Trewavas (Marillion), Transatlantic takes the genre to new heights. Sure the influences are there (Yes, Genesis, King Crimson), but musically, SMPTe is a far more palatable record than that of their predecessors, if not downright engrossing. The record features impeccable musicianship, intoxicating arrangements, excellent harmonies and dynamic excursions that leave no particular idiom untouched. If I were going to introduce someone unfamiliar with progressive rock to the genre, this would be the record I would go to bat with. Clocking in at almost 80 minutes, the album is long, but there is not a boring note or uninteresting second of this record.
2. Bottlefly, Bottlefly (UNI)
You'd be hard pressed to find another pop album release in the past year to rival Bottlefly's self-titled debut. Although, the band wears their influences on their sleeves, from Revolver-era Beatles and Pet Sounds-period Beach Boys to soaring '90s rock, their music comes across as surprisingly original and thoroughly modern. Not to mention, that "Lemoneyez" is the best song you haven't heard this year.
3. Eleven, Avantgardedog (A&M)
Eleven's approach to creating great, eclectic rock music has always been an exercise in experimentation that has, historically, defied all of the conventional musical mores. Avantgardedog is exactly as its title suggests: a conviction of making music without limitations, saying yes to the inclusion of different styles when others say no. Eleven is all about imagery and they conjure up plenty of it here; courtesy of Natasha Shnieder's haunting vocals and eerie organ playing coupled with Alain Johannes' fiery bumblebee guitar outbursts. The record has a dark, Goth-like feel, but it's rooted in rock, pop and punk; the Indian, Bulgarian and Pakistani tinges serve to give the record color and texture. Avantgardedog is a superlative effort and deserves to be heard, not described.
4. King's X, Please Come Home...Mr. Bulbous (Metal Blade)
King's X will never get the respect that they truly deserve, but that really doesn't seem to matter to them; they just keep churning out consistently, fantastic albums. Please Come Home...Mr. Bulbous maintains that model of consistency. Though a bit darker than previous releases, all of their trademark elements are present seamless Beatlesque harmonies, heavy-rock riffs, Revolver-era psychedelia and driving prog/metal rhythms. These guys simply aren't capable of making a bad record.
5. XTC, Wasp Star (Apple Venus Vol. II) (TVT)
First of all, I despise everything this band has ever done. Frankly, I've never understood the attraction. When this disc was put before me, I almost passed on it. What a mistake that would have been. Wasp Star is a brilliant pop record. Song after song, it just seems to stay fresh. Colin Moulding and particularly Andy Partridge, finally have my complete and undivided attention.
6. Ian Anderson, The Secret Language of Birds (Fuel 2000)
Totally unplugged, The Secret Language of Birds picks up where Jethro Tull classics like "Thick As a Brick" and "Skating Away" left off. The record testifies that Ian Anderson has lost absolutely nothing in his 30-plus year career. With his trademark capoed acoustic guitar playing and brilliant flute work, coupled with Andrew Giddings warm, orchestral keyboard stylings, Anderson creates rich, pastoral melodies that are simply a thing of beauty.
7. Tsar, Tsar (Hollywood)
This record will instantly grab the listener and refuse to let go. A little bit rock, a little bit Britpop, Tsar thrives on writing propulsive, high intensity anthems with a sound and energy reminiscent of Cheap Trick in their prime. An excellent debut.
8. Mile, Driving Under Stars (Aware/C2)
It's interesting, I never really listen to lyrics that much, and I very seldom make references to them either. For me, it's all about the vibe and that's usually what I write about. Driving Under Stars is one of those notable exceptions. While I was fascinated by the alt/rock energy and catchy melodies, I was blown away by Noel Hartough's thought-provoking lyrics. He touches on a variety of subject matter, from organized religion to alcoholism and all points in between, and does so with amazing insight. Not many records can lure me past the vibe, but one listen to Driving Under Stars, and you quickly find that the words are the vibe.
9. The Rockfords, 2000 (Sony/Epic)
A side project of Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready and members of the defunct Seattle band, Goodness, The Rockfords is blistering rock fueled by the band's lively blues-based grooves and McCready's gritty guitar passages. However, it's vocalist Carrie Akre who steals the show. Her strong, emotive pipes combine the sensuality of Chrissy Hynde and manic urgency of Alanis Morrisette. The combination of tasteful musicianship and stellar compositions make this record a must for any rock fan.
10. Goldfinger, Stomping Ground (UNI/Mojo)
Forget about Blink 182 or Green Day. The best post-punk release of the year is Goldfinger's Stomping Ground. The record has a much broader appeal than that of previous releases, due in part to the incorporation of hook-laden pop influences. But make no mistake about it, these guys still deliver the goods with the angst and attitude that has been the hallmark of their music. They're just writing better songs...much better.