The Best Records of 2005 

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

Rachel Swan

Missy Elliott
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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)

DangerDoom
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)

Fatlip
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
Trauma

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
Institutionalized

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.)

Gorillaz
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)

MIA
Arular

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
Vivian

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

Spoon
Gimme Fiction

I would sacrifice all the music I heard in 2005 for the first six songs on Gimme Fiction: dramatic, literary rock dissolving Purple Rain's sly sensuality in waves of acidic modern snark. Austin's finest vacillates wildly between cocksure bravado and vague unease, until you can't tell whether the blowout falsetto torch song "I Turn My Camera On" is a come-on, a put-down, a saucy Battle of the Sexes war cry, or simply a cry for help. Regardless, Elvis Costello is out of a job. (Merge)

The New Pornographers
Twin Cinema

The Pornos' own Return of the Jedi unfolds like a veritable thirty-ring circus for power-pop lovers: The unstoppable Carl Newman as ringmaster, Neko Case as the booming-voiced bearded lady, cryptic weirdo Dan Bejar as the Elephant Man, and a full cast of swirling voices and exotic instruments as the clowns, acrobats, and human cannonballs. Alternately heart-racing and heart-stopping, Twin Cinema is an overwhelmingly joyous spectacle, and, yes, the Greatest Show on Earth. (Matador)

Low
The Great Destroyer

How appropriate, that such an infamously narcotizing band's latest disc would get slept on. No one likes The Great Destroyer: It's either too dour and monochrome for outsiders or too fancy and gussied-up for superfans. Both camps get the dreaded gas face. "When I Go Deaf" is a monster of minimalist melodrama, and "Silver Rider" wraps Low's classic boy-girl slow-churning duets of doom in brightly colored Wagnerian grandiosity. Beautiful and devastating. (Sub Pop)

Art Brut
Bang Bang Rock & Roll

I remain deeply conflicted. These Brit jerkoffs insist on the very first track ("Formed a Band," in fact) that this is not irony. Such a denial is necessary -- boneheaded punk fronted by a sneering speak-singing wiseass generally raises one's Terror Alert to orange, at least. But some of this shit is hilarious ("Good Weekend" and "Fight" especially) and, in a profoundly ironic twist, "Emily Kane" is the one love song of this year that I choose to believe. (Fierce Panda)

The National
Alligator

They're NYC cool-kid magnets and Modest Mouse disciples now, but swear to god I can smell the Midwestern on these Cincinnati boys: that crooning, overwrought angst so unsightly in person but so mesmerizing and invigorating on Alligator, which uses the classic "electric guitar in one hand, glass of bourbon in the other" paradigm to point out the joy-, fear-, and heartbreak-shaped clouds floating menacingly in perpetually gray Ohio skies. (Beggars UK/Ada)

Jamie Lidell
Multiply

Just an absurdly good time, this one. Lidell, a UK techno bloke known primarily only to studious readers of The Wire, suddenly crafts a party-annihilating mix of classic soul screamers and dense, shockingly fly sampler manifestos, sonically linking Al Green, Thriller-era Michael Jackson, and that beatboxer guy in Police Academy. "When I Come Back Around" is the jaw-dropper; "The City" is the jaw-breaker. (Warp)

Stars
Set Yourself on Fire

Broken Social Scene and Wolf Parade steal all the headlines, but Stars are the relentlessly romantic Canadian supergroup to beat. There's not a shred of artifice or insincerity to Set Yourself on Fire's string of busted relationship vignettes, be they brutally honest ballads ("The Big Fight") or gauzy, cooing rockers ("Ageless Beauty"). And even when the focus turns to techno-fied Bush-bashing (I hope your drunken daughters are gay), the result is still winsome, straightforward, and gorgeous. (Arts & Crafts)

Doves
Some Cities

Dour, lush Britrock is an endlessly renewable resource, but this is gourmet shit. Third in a criminally underrated series of Doves missives, Some Cities steps confidently from jaunty, almost Christmas-y piano rock ("Black and White Town") to more indulgent vistas of keyboard/guitar pedal/studio wonkery that retains its humanity even while bombarding humanity with squalls of orchestral weeping and thunderbolts of angry distortion. High-maintenance, high-reward. (Capitol)

System of a Down
Mesmerize

Oh man, is this band ever ridiculous. Cementing its reputation as the only remotely tolerable nü-metal band ever, Armenia's finest goes apeshit on the first of its two-disc '05 output, juggling arena rock, thrash metal, and jaunty Eastern flourishes into a Category 7 testosterone tornado that's thrilling, terrifying, and resolutely dumb as hell. A pleasure so guilty they'll sentence you to the chair, but an electrifying riot nonetheless. (Sony)

Rogue Wave
Descended Like Vultures

Lo-fi my ass. The Bay Area's bittersweet Sad Bastard Rock prodigies get the gorgeous production they deserve on this sophomore set, slick and disorienting and romantically soft-focus, like a Guy Maddin film filtered through Sub Pop's new dream-pop lens. Two years from now Evan Rachel Wood will enthusiastically declare "Rogue Wave will change your life!" in a soapy hipster flick, and she'll be ever so right. (Sub Pop)

David Downs

Weezer
Make Believe

I crushed on this CD as if it were a ninth-grade girlfriend -- three straight weeks of my Walkman's (yes, my Walkman's) "Repeat All" function followed by a sudden dumping. Weezer's latest burns hot and quick, and that's the essence of great pop music. Months later, Make Believe is just a memory except for the last track, "Haunt You Every Day," which, like those old girlfriends, still manages to do just that. (Geffen)

Nine Inch Nails
With Teeth

"It sounds just like The Downward Spiral," the haters say. Well, what the crucified Christ was wrong with The Downward Spiral? A cleaner, sleeker Trent Reznor returns here on 'roids and feeling a little funky. "Funky?" you sneer. Yeah, funky. The slap bass in "Only" is funky as hell. Try not to shake your pasty, jaded, 35-year-old goth ass. (Interscope)

Various
2K6 Basketball (The Tracks)

Fill in the rap blank: A little bit of this is all I need/Can't wait to get home and smoke some ______. The answer? Salmon. Smoke some salmon. Which is why I love this PG-13 rated orgy of video-game/hip-hop synergy, starring the Roots, Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, Common, Hieroglyphics, RJD2, Zion I, Jean Grae, Redman, Aceyalone, and Aesop Rock. It's a chaste frat party in a jewel case. Just add smokeables. (Decon)

DangerDoom
The Mouse and the Mask

Hip-hop is so wack -- its biggest stars are on the cover of Vanity Fair while the actual talent cavorts with cartoon characters. MF Doom, Dangermouse, and the stars of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim effectively shame 99 percent of the sewage released this year. However, the masterful rhymes of sentient fried product Meatwad somehow got cut. A secret transcript: And I'm a motherf**ing n**a you will never try/F**k you hos 'cuz I'm a pimp till I die! (Epitaph)

Gorillaz
Demon Days

This "cartoon monkey band" gets a lot of crap, and I agree: Cartoon monkey bands deserve short shrift in this world, unless they mint the summer jam of the year ("Feel Good Inc.") and recruit Dennis Hopper for an antiwar song. Yes, these bungholes demand in-costume interviews and are richer than God. But I'm starting to feel as though it's the cartoon monkey bands' world; we just live in it. (Virgin)

The Herbalizer
Take London

Big. Brassy. Sassy. Sexy. This UK hip-hop collaboration album works well with espionage movies and hard liquor-based parties. Most of the talent ends up bowing to standout star Jean Grae. Right off the bat, the South African-born, college-educated NYC emcee calls herself the Jonas Salk of hip-hop and says she has the cure, earning the plaque for Best Polio Reference in Popular Music 2005. (Zen)

Roots Manuva
Awfully Deep

Roots Manuva was supposed to blow up by now, and Awfully Deep was supposed to be his breakout album. Luckily, he released fourteen ham-handed tracks that are only half club-stompers; the rest concentrate on existential navel gazing. "Chin High" destroys on the dancefloor, while "Thinking" goes nowhere. It's this mix that's kept Manuva low-key and close to my heart. (Big Dada)

Gravenhurst
Fires in Distant Buildings

Gravenhurst is for people who want to like Wilco, but want to be first. Meet an obscure indie band from a far-off land called Bristol, England, home to Massive Attack and neighbors to Portishead, though the similarities end there. No, Fires in Distant Buildings sounds a lot like Wilco, with the guitars and the lost lyrics and the experimental sections with those huge moments that make you want to tear your face off. Plus, you can tell people you were into Gravenhurst before it got popular. (Warp)

Queens of the Stone Age
Lullabies to Paralyze

ProVigil is an antipsychotic drug developed by the military and used by methamphetamine addicts who've been up for 72 hours or more: It prevents them from having violent psychotic breaks, or "going werewolf" as they call it. A little-known home remedy for going werewolf is listening to this QOTSA record on repeat at high volume. Studies show Lullabies to Paralyze saves people from carving worms out of their arms or shooting the postman for spying on their mail. (Interscope)

Fiona Apple
Extraordinary Machine

The women in my life immediately loved this CD with a defensive fervor that I found a) hot, because the women in my life don't usually fight about music, and b) sad, because this CD is all over the place. Fiona has totally lost her marbles. It's a car crash -- a hot, sad car crash that I constantly put on to make girls happy. Thanks, Fiona. (Sony)

Eric K. Arnold

Colossus
West Oaktown

Acid jazz made an official comeback in 2005, perhaps best symbolized by this double CD that stacked up a mountain of press clippings faster than you can say "Bring it, mate!" The result of importing an English jazz-funk head like Charlie Tate to urban Oakland and letting him marinate, West Oaktown's combination of complex time signatures, soulful mood swings, chilled beats, and scientific raps from Capitol A, Roots Manuva, and Azeem made it hip to be Cool like dat all over again. (Om)

Emmanuel Jal & Abdel Gadir Salim
Ceasefire

Perhaps the only thing more fascinating than this groundbreaking fusion of traditional East African rhythms with up-to-the-minute electronics and stirring raps was the artists' own backstories. MC Emmanuel Jal hails from southern Sudan, while Abdel Gadir Salim is from the north. Their historic collaboration constitutes a strong cry for unity -- healing the civil-war-ravaged nation with insistent messages of peace as well as captivating melodic textures. (Riverboat/World Music Network)

Seu Jorge
Cru

This South American singer and actor (City of God, the Bowie guy in The Life Aquatic) has the versatility to pull off Elvis Presley and Serge Gainsbourg covers, Brasilelectro remixes ("Tive Razão"), and acoustic ballads ("Fiore de la Città") on Cru, which lives up to its title (it means "raw" in Portuguese). Jorge globalized and energized the singer-songwriter shtick with percussive rhythms, soothing guitars, and a dash of electronic treatments, all held together by his intense vocal delivery. (Wrasse)

MIA
Arular

A tricky blend of jump-up, garage, and drum 'n' bass that flaunted simplistic yet ultra-infectious emcee styles, Arular is 2005's most impressive debut, an instant classic whose cutting-edge hotness registered at radioactive levels. MIA's singsongy vocals proved a clever front for her subversive, revolutionary sentiments -- her personal history as a Tamil Tiger baby turned soundsystem siren lent double meanings to rebel-rousing dance tunes like "Bucky Done Gun" and "Fire Fire," and you couldn't help but love the cute but insistent way she said Quiet up, I need to make a sound. (XL/Beggars US)

Orishas
El Kilo

On their third album, the Latin Grammy-winning Cuban trio Orishas -- who broke new ground for international hip-hop on their previous two releases -- continue to make amazing musical leaps and bounds beyond any artistic statement even attempted by their American rap counterparts in 2005. Fully infused with Afro-Cuban musical sensibilities, El Kilo is a spirited, rhythmic triumph from start to finish, a confidently executed effort assuring us that the Orishas' juju is only getting stronger. (Universal Latin)

Roots Manuva
Awfully Deep

All the buzz from trendy ol' England was on grime MCs like Lady Sovereign, but Mr. Manuva kept it real with lines like I don't give a damn about UK rap/I'm a UK black, making UK tracks, and his third album confirmed he's the only chap who can hold his lyrical weight against America's elite MCs. The Rootsman stretches himself artistically on Awfully Deep, departing from the familiar bashment boogie of previous efforts to make more personal ("Colossal Insight"), ironic ("Too Cold"), and serious ("The Falling") statements -- while still delivering the hotness ("Move Ya Loin") as necessary. (Big Dada)

Platinum Pied Pipers
Triple P

This talented duo from Detroit has wrapped its hands around a gritty, urban, soulful style all its own, revving up the Motor City's engine once again. Breaking away from the overly smoothed-out approach of neo-soul, the Pipers leave the edges sharp and rough on their debut album, favoring raw grooves that perfectly capture the atmosphere of an underground club at 2 a.m. Whether you call it garage soul or warehouse funk, songs like "I Got You" present a welcome alternative to tired club music, brainless rap, and "safe" R&B. (Ubiquity)

Prefuse 73
Surrounded by Silence

A sublimely eclectic sensibility runs through Surrounded by Silence, which boasts some of the illest beats of the year, hands down. Prefuse 73 (aka Scott Herren) is no ordinary producer. Like Amon Tobin and DJ Shadow, he's a composer who happens to work with samplers, analogue synths, and other electric instruments, eschewing the obvious in favor of uncharted rhythmic territory. Prefuse makes the most of cameos by Ghostface and El-P (the verbally lacerating "Hideyaface"), shows his soul chops (the beautifully fractured "We Go Our Own Way"), and crams more interesting musical ideas into short interludes than most folks manage on entire albums. (Warp)

Warrior King
Hold the Faith

I-Wayne and Junior Gong got all the hype, but Warrior King delivered the most consistent roots/dancehall album of the year. Hold the Faith could've used an over-the-top crossover single, but what it lacks in flashiness, it makes up for in steadiness; songs like "Can't Get Me Down," "They Don't Know," and "Education" reiterated the Rasta creed in fine style. No gimmicks or celebrity collaborations to speak of -- just an upful yout' holding firm over updated versions of classic reggae riddims. (VP)

DJ Cheb i Sabbah
La Kahena

Break out the baba ganoush, falafels, and pointy slippers. After thoroughly exploring the trancelike qualities of Hindustani music, original world beatnik Cheb i Sabbah turns to the trance-like qualities of the Arabian diaspora, bringing "les voix du Magreb" to the forefront with an intoxicating excursion into Moroccan gnaoua styles. Gently stitching electro-dub layers onto traditional rhythmic garb, La Kahena fits like a disco-ready djellaba -- its flavorful beats and beautifully melodic vocals make it the musical equivalent of chicken tagine. (Six Degrees)

Mark Keresman

Billy Joe Shaver
The Real Deal

Although it's a cliché, Shaver is the real deal, maintaining the singing storyteller tradition (Hank Williams Sr., Lefty Frizzell, Lightnin' Hopkins) with a big voice as cracked and parched as a Texas dirt road on a hot afternoon, and an unaffectedly relaxed style that makes you feel as if he's singing from a back porch. The accompaniment is old-school lean 'n' wiry (guitars, pedal steel, fiddle, piano, soft drums) with just a touch of Western swing. (Compadre)

Bobo Stenson/Anders Jormin/Paul Motian
Goodbye

You know the adage "less is more"? Tired of jazz musicians engaging in endless soloing till an idea comes to them? Then Goodbye is for you -- American drum wizard Motian joins Swedish pianist Stenson and bassist Jormin for fourteen concise gems of spare, contemplative, impressionistic beauty resplendent with melody and harmony. (ECM)

Bill Frisell
East/West

This two-CD set starts with a live Yoshi's date (featuring bassist Viktor Krauss) and ends at NYC's Village Vanguard (subbing in bassist Tony Scherr), with ex-Bay Area drummer Kenny Wollesen providing continuity as Frisell respectfully yet stunningly reinvents Marvin Gaye's "Heard It Through the Grapevine" and Bob Dylan's "Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." With amazing variety -- ethereal, cool blues riffs, snappy rockabilly, modern minimalism -- and heartfelt aplomb, East/West is not just for guitar fanatics. (Nonesuch)

Angels of Light & Akron/Family
Akron/Family & Angels of Light

With his new angelic crew, Michael Gira aims for a considerably less harsh, far more melodic approach than his last band Swans, sometimes accompanied on this split LP by Brooklyn's multi-instrumental Akron/Family. Gira still weaves disturbing scenarios, but you get the feeling he's trying to exorcize his demons, rather than lounge with them in hell. A/F's half finds the Brooklyn crew in out-there eclectic mode, adapting and combining styles to suit their twisted whims/songs -- imagine King Crimson, Butthole Surfers, and the Band passing the bong around during an outdoor party. Pretty/scary stuff. (Young God)

Dave Douglas
Keystone

This is a tribute to silent film star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, yet there's nothing "retro" here. Douglas -- whose clear, crackling tones evoke trumpet titans Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard -- aims to complement Arbuckle's surreal, over-the-top zaniness with edgy yet engaging electric jazz. Keystone features glistening, moody hardbop conjoined with early fusion (circa 1969-1972), with poignant horn lines that glide and twist above deep grooves shaped by slightly distorted keyboards and an elastic rhythm section. (Greenleaf Music)

Maceo Parker
School's In!

The baddest alto sax in R&B/funk history is back! Parker, sax god in James Brown's great 1960s band, blows euphorically throughout with his sizzling, blues-rich tone. With terse horn riffs, punchy and rippling bass, snapping drums, chunky guitar, and BBQ-flavored Hammond organ, this is hard funk, boys and girls, of the kind Sly, Funkadelic, the Fatback Band, War, and Soul Bro #1 served up hot in the '70s. Get this! (BHM)

Red Sparowes
At the Soundless Dawn

Imagine if Black Sabbath circa 1971 had collaborated with film-score titan Ennio Morricone for the soundtrack to an end-of-the-world-themed sci-fi film, but the film is never finished, and the tapes go in the vault until 2005, when dense layers of guitars (including pedal steel) get thrown on top. Witness this Dawn and imagine no more. (Neurot)

Amy Rigby
Little Fugitive

She's the Elvis Costello of soccer moms! No, wait -- she's the female Dylan of Wisteria Lane, the most desperately rockin' housewife! I got it: Ray Davies writes songs for the Shangri-La's if they were born ten years later! Rigby is all those things and more, a fearless chronicler of a particular rock 'n' roll demographic: the Mod housewife with tattoos who has to make breakfast for her kids even though she and her band played out the night before. (Signature Sounds)

The Domino Kings
Some Kind of Sign

At first you think, "Yawn, another roots-rock combo." Then you play this a few times and you notice these Domino Kings' songs have many of the timeless qualities of Buddy Holly, Buck Owens, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Swan Song-era Dave Edmunds: simplicity, directness, melodies that are plaintive and strangely exultant at the same time, lyrics about the heart sung with heart. Before you know it, you've played this ten times in a row. (HighTone)

Mingus Big Band
I Am Three

Charles Mingus took jazz' roots in blues and gospel, Duke Ellington's orchestral élan, bebop's feverish modernism, and 20th-century classical music and simmered them in his imaginative, sensitive, outraged, mercurial pressure-cooker of a mind (he once punched out his trombonist's front teeth) until it became Him. Three features a number of ensembles performing his compositions, all with one thing in common: Each captures the indomitable spirit of the man in all his ragged, poised glory. (Sunnyside)

Justin Farrar

The USA Is a Monster
Wohaw

This isn't quite as concise a statement as the USA Is a Monster's previous release, Tasheyana Compost, but Wohaw is insanely more ambitious. In addition to this New York duo's physical fusion of political hardcore, proggy histrionics, Lightning Bolt-inspired techno-metal, and eco-conscious Native American war chants, this two-hour epic also documents the group's forays into elfin-folk, Tin Pan Alley schmaltz, and campfire field recordings. Wow! No American band extant attempts to bring together so much diversity while still kicking out them jams. (Load)

Temple of Bon Matin
Infidel

The lonesome howl of percussionist and vocalist Ed Wilcox feels lonelier than ever before, and this Philadelphia ensemble's usual brand of churning psychedelic noise-rock is sparser, more fractured, and way more acoustic. Disjointed, lo-fi production and a ragged set of song fragments are precariously pasted together using Wilcox' sadness for glue. So, yeah, Infidel is a downer and sonically challenging, but it's also the most emotional record I listened to all year. (Spirit of Orr)

Kemialliset Ystävät
Kellari Juniversumi

Originally released in über-limited quantities in '02, this year's reissue of Kellari Juniversumi is just too damn important to ignore for technical reasons. Kemialliset Ystävät (Finnish for "chemical people") constructs these ghostly little jams full of chimes, acoustic guitars, prayerlike vocals, odd percussion, and tweaked electronics. However, each of these live jams actually moves like a digitally manufactured patchwork of sounds, forming a bridge between folk music and minimal techno. (Fonal Records/Beta-lactum Rings)

Arthur Russell
World of Echo

The New York disco producer Arthur Russell released the World of Echo LP in '86; the CD reissue of this prescient work finally came out this year. His gorgeous, spellbinding mixture of soft dance grooves, raga-inspired cello work, minimalism, and studio wizardry makes this "Buddhist bubblegum music," as Allen Ginsberg once tagged it. It's also the spiritual contemporary to New York's current crop of innovative psych-dance noise-jammers like Animal Collective, Gang Gang Dance, and Jane. (Audika)

Alvarius B
Blood Operatives of the Barium Sunset

Sun City Girls' Alan Bishop moonlights as the scatological singer-songwriter Alvarius B. Over aggressively finger-picked folk tunes and touches of cello, electric guitar, and percussion, he shifts from demented sneer to playfully sinister chirp as he croons songs of pain, pubic hair, blood, and death. And while poetic verse like My next door neighbor dusted off the chemical weapons in his garage sure makes me giggle, Blood Operatives of the Barium Sunset is ultimately a dark soundtrack to the undertaker shoveling that last scoop of dirt on our country's coffin. (Abduction)

Avarus
Ruskeatimantti

I believe the dude who owns the Tumult imprint works at Aquarius Records in San Francisco's Mission. So head on over there and plant a big, sloppy smooch on his kisser, because this double-disc compilation of super-rare jams from the Finnish collective Avarus only further proves that Finland's underground is in the vanguard when it comes to creating tribally droning, psychedelic folk-rock jams. Ruskeatimantti is as hypnotic as throbbing electronic dance music, and as elastic and free-form as any classic acid rock. (Tumult)

Niellerade Fallibilisthorstar
Hålrum

This Swedish outfit's 43-minute industrial ritual (divided over twelve tracks) is at times meditative and ambient, but often cacophonous as well. Dominated by ringing electronics, uneasily moaning men, and percussive clatter, Hålrum initially sounds like a massive chunk of rusted sheet metal. But repeat listenings reveal a warm, moist flow to this moody racket. (SNSE)

Carly Ptak
Both

Baltimore's Ptak is a noise musician, performance artist, designer, experimental filmmaker, curator, record-label owner, and electronics enthusiast. She employs all these myriad activities on this self-released CD/DVD set, an immaculate package of twelve electronically processed vocal abstractions, four psychedelic video collages, and a silk-screened print. All this media congeals into intricately constructed patterns reflecting her obsession with reconciling the order-chaos dichotomy. (Heresee)

Various
Niger Magic & Ecstasy in the Sahel DVD

Okay, so a DVD is not exclusively a listening experience, but this riveting documentary contains some of this year's best music. Seattle-based filmmaker Hisham Mayet scours poverty-stricken Niger, capturing musical performances that exude a pure, mystical soul. Niger Magic is full of trance-inducing percussion and vocals, faith-based congregational songs, street musicians playing the "talking drum," and Group Inerane, the most kick-ass Afro-funk garage band of '05, featuring BiBi Ahmed (who is so damn cool). (Sublime Frequencies)

Jane
Coconuts

Animal Collective helped pioneer the fusing of minimal techno and improvised psychedelia. Unfortunately, the band's 2005 disc, Feels, replaced this novel fusion with standard pop tunes. Luckily, Jane (featuring DJ Scott Mou and Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox of AC) created Coconuts, which sports two twenty-minute workouts. Each maintains a repetitive, slowly mutating groove while Mou and Lennox blast into deep space with synthesizers and echo-drenched ululations. Jane is the Grateful Dead for indie kids, and that's cool. (Psych-o-Path)

Duck Baker

Derek Bailey and Evan Parker

The London Concert Guitarist Bailey and saxophonist Parker were two of the defining forces in the challenging avant-garde style of free improvised music when it evolved in England in the '60s and '70s. Unfortunately, personal issues have precluded their playing together since the early '80s, which makes this reissue of their best duo effort especially significant. Includes thirty-plus minutes of previously unissued material. (psi)

Paul Bley
Nothing to Declare

Early in his long career, Bley was underrecorded, but since the mid-'70s he has more than made up for it. Of the dozens of records he's made since then, few meet Nothing to Declare's standard. Bley stretches to the utmost on this solo outing, demonstrating why jazz aficionados find him to be one of the most daring and consistently rewarding pianists of his generation. (Justin Time)

Fred Hess Quartet
Crossed Paths

One of the frustrating facts of the jazz life is that it's all but impossible to find out about dedicated artists whose music isn't "commercially viable" (i.e., too edgy for jazz radio play), and it's even harder if they aren't NYC-based. Tenor saxman Fred Hess is a case in point: Working out of Denver with an excellent quartet, his solid modern-to-free concept becomes clearer with each new record. (Tapestry)

Peter Horan and Gerry Harrington
Fortune Favours the Merry

Though they represent not only very different regional styles but different generations, flutist Horan and fiddler Harrington combine beautifully on this beguiling record. Nobody is trying to prove anything here, but like all great traditionalists, these guys know how to let a tune tell its own magical tale. They also know how to select a fine program. It really doesn't get much better than this. (Clo Iar-Chonnachta)

Alan Jabbour & Ken Perlman
Southern Summits: 21 Duets for Fiddle and Banjo

Fiddler Alan Jabbour has been a force in old-time Appalachian music since the '60s, while banjoist Ken Perlman began his career the following decade; nonetheless, this may be the best record either has made, one of a tiny subset of records devoted to fiddle-banjo duo playing. More importantly, it's great listening. (Self-released)

Catherine McEvoy & John McEvoy
The Kilmore Fancy

These days it seems that most great new Irish records are self-produced, and this offering from two Birmingham Irish siblings is a case in point. Catherine's flute and John's fiddle achieve the kind of seamless blend that only blood ties can provide on an exemplary program that's brilliantly delivered. Every embellishment and nuance has a reason, making this the best McEvoy record to date. (Lagore)

Grachan Moncur III Octet
Exploration

Moncur emerged in the early '60s and quickly became one of the definitive free-jazz trombone voices. His best work was on several Blue Note records that found a middle ground between hardbop and free approaches, and he returns to mine that rich vein more deeply on Exploration. The supporting cast is excellent, and reworkings of early triumphs like "Frankenstein" are inevitably glorious. (Capri)

Ray Nance
When We're Alone: Complete 1940-1949 Non-Ducal Violin Recordings

The AB Fable imprint specializes in jazz violin rarities, but this release should appeal to a wider audience. Best known for his trumpet work with Duke Ellington ("Take the A Train"), Nance was also a significant violin stylist. The eye-opener here is a 1941 session with Ben Webster on clarinet, conjuring a sound like no one else and executing lines that often don't recall his tenor playing at all. (AB Fable)

Sacha Perry Trio
Eretik

In an era when every pianist sounds like Bill Evans, Perry has chosen as his model the chronically underrated Elmo Hope. Perry appeared on one of the best jazz records of 2004 (Across 7 Street), and he sounds even better on this hard-swinging trio date. Harmonically advanced but never merely cerebral, Eretik is the best debut by a jazz pianist in recent memory. (Smalls)

Various
Seoltaí Séidte -- Setting Sail

Until now, these recordings have been known to very few, drawn from 78s cut but never released in Ireland between 1957 and 1961. Helpfully, this two-CD set features a 93-page booklet with invaluable information about the singers and players heard as soloists. Revered names like Willie Clancy and Dennis Murphy abound, and the lesser-knowns more than hold than own. A must for Irish music lovers. (Gael Linn)

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