1. Richard Ashcroft, Alone with Everybody (Virgin)
Ashcroft's work with The Verve solidified him as the single best songwriter of the 1990s; Alone with Everybody sets the bar for 21st century songwriting. Through a sublime combination of beautifully honest lyrics celebrating life and love and a heavenly blend of country, soul, and cosmic rock, Ashcroft created the most intelligent, poignant, and exuberant album since The Verve's own Urban Hymns.
2. Sigur Rós, Agætis Byrjun (Fat Cat/Bubblecore)
Superstars in their native Iceland, Sigur Rós are a haunting and captivating throw back to the ethereal space rock days of yore (i.e. early Verve, Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine), yet they simultaneously maintain their own very forward-looking vision about the extents to which music can travel. An irresistible aura of enchantment floats over each of the 10 incredibly diverse tracks, proving that Sigur Rós is one of the most promising bands on Earth.
3. Primal Scream, Exterminator [XTRMNTR] (Astralwerks)
XTRMNTR is an album so angry, wrathful, and caustic that raw, unfiltered anarchy explodes from the speakers in a barge of white noise informed beats and bitter politically charged shrieks. It is not an album to dance to, but an album to rebel to, to revolt to.
4. Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (Kranky)
GYBE!'s second full-length album is a towering 87-minute tour de force, an epic in every possible sense. A nine piece Canadian instrumental collective, GYBE! construct striking compositions that move slowly toward an astounding climax in which heavenly delay-laden guitars, rich enveloping basses, thundering percussion, and screaming strings all jostle for space. Though the consistency of their profoundly moving music of cinematic grandeur is somewhat lessened by the presence of aimless sporadic noise bits and random tape loops, Lift Your Skinny Fists is nonetheless a powerful and emotive album; at its best, it is a legitimate soundtrack to the apocalypse.
5. Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (Matador)
With this their 11th album, Hoboken, New Jersey's Yo La Tengo drifted away from their former guitar-driven psychedelic noise pop, favoring an atmospheric tapestry of gently flowing guitar, waves of soothing organ, soft drum brushes, and the perfect harmony of soul mates Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley's voices. It is the American equivalent of Alone with Everybody: a smart and touching form of perfection.
6. U2, All That You Can't Leave Behind (Interscope)
With each successive album, U2 have simply gotten better and better. This trend culminated with 1992's Achtung Baby, and since then, U2 have released a series of excellent albums. All That You Can't Leave Behind is no exception. All of U2's patented best elements, Bono's soaring passionate vocals, Edge's crystalline guitar lines, and the rock steady rhythm section, coalesce perfectly here in a mood of total elation and joy. All That You Can't Leave Behind is so optimistic and exultant that if nothing else, it will bring a smile to your face: a smile that you simply can't leave behind.
7. Mojave 3, Excuses for Travellers (4AD)
One of the most consistent bands working today, England's Mojave 3, the remnants of legendary shoegazers Slowdive, put out their best record to date. A shimmering piece of exquisite neo-folk, Excuses for Travellers proves that there is still room for a nice pedal steel tinged melody or celebratory blast of horns in today's often sterile music landscape. In addition, "Return to Sender" is one of the year's two or three most beautiful songs.
8. Radiohead, Kid A (Capitol)
Faced with ungodly expectations and hype, Radiohead put one of the most satisfyingly experimental albums of the year. In spite of some brief uninspired lapses, Kid A holds together quite well as an exhilarating adventure in sound.
9. Lambchop, Nixon (Merge)
Lambchop are my pick for the year's most improved band. Nixon completely forgives them for their previous tired and bored dabblings with classic country music. Throughout Nixon, lush musical arrangements complement lead chop Kurt Wagner's intriguing lyrics and wholly unique vocals, but what really propels Nixon is the glorious presence of what Lambchop once sorely lacked: soul.
10. Oat, Hoof (self-released)
Oat, the unsigned solo project of Livonia, Michigan's Witlow Gordon, is the best of all Michigan bands right now. Random tape loops and samples glide gracefully through a serene swirl of delicate acoustic guitar strum and sumptuous keyboard; Hoof, a subtle concept album of sorts, also features the finest use of the digital delay pedal this year. Gordon's Dean Wareham-esque vocals emotively deliver lyrics laden with rich imagery, expressing the undeniable and universal effect that dreams and memory play in every moment of our lives.