The Best Records of 2005 

Tribal drones, lush Britrock, and cartoon monkey bands beguiled our critics this year.

Rachel Swan

Missy Elliott
The Cookbook

The force of Missy's personality, combined with the musicianship of her production, makes her one of the most fascinating artists to emerge from bling-era hip-hop. She stretched the genre with Under Construction (which could've been a techno album, if you turned the vocals down), and she delivers again with The Cookbook, half hip-hop and half R&B, laced up with acidic tributes to ex-paramours and (hiss!) frighteningly sexy beats. (Atlantic)

The Mouse and the Mask

Like most MF Doom projects, this collaboration with the adventurous (and apparently indefatigable) underground hip-hop producer Dangermouse is archly clever in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge way. Throughout its fourteen tracks, Doom telegraphs dozens of jokes to listeners familiar with both the emcee's previous works and the Cartoon Network's mighty Adult Swim empire. Fortunately, Doom's penchant for pop-culture wanking isn't so all-consuming that he can't provide humor for the uninitiated, and the beats are uniformly seamless. (Epitaph/ADA)

The Loneliest Punk

This ex-Pharcyde rapper's long-awaited solo debut has to be one of the most compelling hip-hop albums ever -- Fatlip is ten times more committed to self-flagellation than Kanye West, and a million times funnier. However, the emcee's frequent allusions to his cocaine problem -- coupled with the fact that, performing live, he looks like a cross between the son of Rick James and the Ghost of Christmas Past -- make him seem like a douchebag. But anyway, buy this album: It's amazing. (The Lab)

DJ Quik

DJ Quik isn't one for ornate lyrical phrases; his raps are all traditional West Coast yarns that begin with a Range Rover and a bottle of Seagram's gin. But whether you're intrigued by the artist's glamorous quotidian life (or the language he employs to describe it) doesn't really matter -- what's really impressive about Trauma is that the beats and choruses are so hooky you probably won't skip over a single song. A rare feat, even for an artist of Quik's caliber. (Mad Science)

Ras Kass

Thank you, Ras Kass, for dropping another hit, because frankly, it would be a damn shame if you spent all that time in jail and came out with a stinker. Opening with a glacial bass-beat and the crackle of gunfire, Institutionalized revisits an era of classic gangsta rap spearheaded by Notorious B.I.G. Kass revels in violence and decay, and his intricate, brooding rhymes always take you to a dark emotional place. (ReUp)

Leela James
A Change Is Gonna Come

Having doe eyes and an hourglass figure will apparently facilitate your lasting three to nine months in the Top Forty R&B Dream Factory, but unless your name is Mariah Carey, ultrapackaged looks don't equal longevity. Only one slot opens up each year for the next Aretha or Jill Scott, and to fill it, you have to have actual, phenomenal talent. This year's winner is Leela James, the gospel-influenced, scratchy-voiced diva whose perky Afro recalls a much funkier era, and whose Sam Cooke covers actually do justice to the originals. (Warner Bros.)

Demon Days

Despite production by Dangermouse and cameos by such underground titans as MF Doom (credited as D. Dumille) and De La Soul, Demon Days doesn't qualify as hip-hop in the purest sense. But hey, if you're one of those who wishes the genre would incorporate more technical innovations and veer more toward psychedelia (because you'd rather hear tweaked-out basslines and vocal vamps than the same looped elevator beat over and over), this is the album for you. It's worth buying for "Fire Coming Out of a Monkey's Head" alone -- a brooding spoken-word poem read by Dennis Hopper. (Virgin)

Kanye West
Late Registration

Whether or not you're impressed by Kanye West's extemporaneous speeches, you gotta admit that Late Registration is the most important hip-hop album of 2005. An improvement over last year's College Dropout, this year's joint displays more musical depth -- all those ornate bows, whistles, and sped-up R&B hooks -- backing a ponderous, self-consciously cool rap-style. As a lyricist, Kanye is merely above average: It's annoying that he'll drift from braggadocio to self-loathing in a single sentence. But as a producer, he's brilliant. (Roc-a-Fella)


There's a reason hipsters are imbuing this breakout electronic diva with god-like powers: Arular is one of the most adventurous joints of 2005, a digital-age techno-dancehall tryst that combines slinky jungle beats with smugly political lyrics. Bass-heavy, visceral, and often garbled, this is mostly a dance-party album -- meaning it's not intensely psychological or character-driven. As long as you come to MIA with a "Move your ass, and your mind will follow" type of attitude, you'll be pleasantly surprised. (XL/Beggars US)

Vivian Green

We'll probably hear the singles from Vivian for a long time -- serene, pop-charty tunes about breaking up and being a liberated woman -- but the best songs on this sophomore effort aren't playing on the radio. Not afraid to peel back the surface and reveal all her emotional muck, Green is, ultimately, a more compelling singer than most of her contemporaries in R&B. Ironically, she's prettiest when her less-pretty underside shows through: rankled and petulant on "Mad," gushy on "Sweet Memory," subtle and crestfallen on "Under My Skin." (Sony)

Rob Harvilla

Gimme Fiction

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