1. Radiohead, Kid A (Capitol)
Ignore the critics who call this too challenging, too out there. Anyone who’s ever listened to ambient, free jazz or post-rock will tell you this is a pretty mainstream record. What it does it does well, and that’s to synthesize a whole host of seemingly disparate musical styles into one, coherent whole, making it sound like a logical follow-up to OK Computer in the process. Thom Yorke has learned how to use his voice as an instrument, and by subverting the usual crush of Jonny Greenwood’s guitars, the band learned how to create sonic tapestries that are seamless, a wash of blissful sound on each track.
2. Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker (Bloodshot)
In what will seem a theme to this year’s list, Adams was spurred to do his best work after label trouble forced his hand. The Whiskeytown leader found his band without a label after Geffen folded, so he headed back to his friends at Bloodshot Records and cut his first solo album. Recording with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (with guests that include Kim Richey and Emmylou Harris), Adams came up with a record that is equal parts Blonde on Blonde and Grievous Angel. His promise, long hinted at, is fulfilled here.
3. Travis, The Man Who (Epic)
While Radiohead was busy pushing the envelope, this middling Britpop combo was putting together a clutch of songs that mined that band’s sweet, near-soulful side. While not exactly an album full of “Fake Plastic Trees” ripoffs, this is clearly influenced by Radiohead. Fran Healy has an angelic voice, and he uses it well, soaring above these sparely arranged songs. The band’s first LP, Good Feeling, was over done bombast in comparison. So is this a fluke or artistic growth? Can’t wait for the follow-up to find out.
4. Shelby Lynne, I Am Shelby Lynne (Island)
While it’s probably not a good idea to piss off this sassy soul-country crooner, the results are worth the wrath. Fed up that Nashville didn’t get what she was trying to do, Lynne split, wrote a batch of songs, and cut them with a soulful combo. The result is an album that mixes country, rock and soul in a way not heard since Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis LP. Lynne pours her pain into her music, giving a gut-busting performance that will be hard to top.
5. Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2 (Superego)
This might have been the top disc of the year if every song didn’t seem to have her record label battles as a lyrical undercurrent. Artists can and should use personal struggles as songwriting fodder, but her continual insistence on painting herself as poster child for a forgotten class of musicians especially in light of her well-selling, major label soundtrack to Magnolia and the resulting Grammy nomination made these songs ring hollow. Too bad, because it’s a stunning collection musically. Would that she had the same ability to channel her angst as Shelby Lynne.
6. Badly Drawn Boy, The Hour of Bewilderbeast (XL/Twisted Nerve)
The Brits conferred the Mercury Prize on this disc, annoiting it the best of the year. It’s not, but it’s certainly among the best. The Boy, Damon Gough to his mother, has crafted an album that likely would not have been made without Elliott Smith’s success to pave the way, yet owes as much to Nick Drake as to anyone making music this decade. His is a meandering album, instrumental passages giving way to full-blown songs, ideas presented and then cast aside. It takes a keen ear to appreciate this, and it is definitely not the record to throw on to get your party started. But for the thousands who sit in their bedrooms pouring over every syllable and note on their favorite records, that collection just got bigger by one.
7. Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man (American)
Getting anything out of the Man in Black at this late date is worth celebrating. When it’s this good, it’s nothing short of miraculous. Cash offers a cover-heavy set in which the originals aren’t half bad. But his interpretations of two songs Will Oldham’s “I See a Darkness” and Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” are stunning, serving as a deep centerpiece to the album. Neither songwriter is a slouch as a performer, but Cash blows both away.
8. Jurassic 5, Quality Control (Interscope)
Remember when rap was good? While you’re thinking on it, pick up this record. While it is thoroughly modern sounding, it does reference the late ’80s/early ’90s sound of the Native Tongues (Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, et al). No bitches, no hos, just solid beats, clear, clever rhymes and a whole lotta groove. This six-member collective takes a step forward by taking a look back. A liberating breath of fresh air for a tired form.
9. John Hiatt, Crossing Muddy Waters (Vanguard)
True, Hiatt’s last disc didn’t light up the charts or fill the airwaves the way his Perfectly Good Guitar album did for a few brief moments a few years back, but it was still a risk for the good-time rocker to offer an acoustic folk blues album before the coals of his past success have cooled. This plaintive collective strips away the gloss that has increasingly infected Hiatt’s work, leaving only the singer and his songs. Lucky for us, these are some of his best. Dylan makes an album like this and people fall all over each other trying to heap on the praise, but Hiatt’s latest is no less accomplished, no less real.
10. Greg Brown, Covenant (Red House) / Over and Under (Trailer)
A parochial pick, to be sure, but that doesn’t lessen its value. Brown is a buried treasure of sorts, an Iowa-based folk singer with a low, rumbling voice that seems to come from the basement of his soul. On Covenant, his 15th album (and his “official” release this year), he sings about both the loss of and search for love on songs that are the most accomplished of his career. On Over and Under, a small-label release that vents a dozen quickly written songs, Brown shows his raunchy side, growling through rockers and ravers, never losing his keen eye for detail or his lyrical dexterity. Consider it a double album, the yin and yang of one of our most gifted songwriters.