1. Outkast, Stankonia (LaFace/Arista)
Imagine if Sun Ra collaborated with 2 Live Crew or if Afrika Bambaataa and Chuck D had a threesome with Pauly Shore, and you might have a good idea what Outkast’s Stankonia sounds like. The revved up electro-shocking BPMs and caffeine-dada lyrics of “B.O.B.” hit you over the head and keep it spinning like you’re Linda Blair possessed by the demon spirit of Sir Mix-A-Lot, and the rest of the album ain’t too shabby, either.
2. Steve Earle, Transcendental Blues (E-Squared)
Nashville’s (most and least) favorite survivor. He has the eye of the tiger and he knows how to write a killer melody infused with heart-wrenching emotion. Perhaps the best album of his career.
3. Jurassic 5, Quality Control (Interscope)
Too many acts who try to “stay true” to hip-hop focus so much on the art of rhyming and making non-jiggy beats that they forget that hip-hop was founded, quite literally, on good times. Fortunately, Jurassic 5 haven’t forgotten this, and their debut long-player Quality Control has more bounce to the ounce and more glide to the slide than any hip-hop album in recent memory.
4. Sade, Lovers Rock (Epic)
After an eight year sabbatical, she has returned with her vocal powers intact, and without any embarrassing “updates” to her sound. On Lovers Rock she sings about sexy, sweet taboos, crooning lovelorn lyrics with a melancholy voice that will mellow out the most hyperactively happy, but which will also uplift the most suicidal. The album’s first single, “By Your Side”, is perhaps the most beautiful song I’ve heard all year, a work of unassuming grace and soothing warmth sung for the loneliest of the lonely.
5. Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador)
Ah, wedded bliss, indie-rock style. Matrimony and drone-y melodies, living together in perfect harmony.
6. Ghostface Killah, Supreme Clientele (Epic)
Don’t call it a comeback! Well, actually, it is. Supreme Clientele was the first great Wu solo shot fired by these Long Island lunatics in quite a while. On Supreme Clientele, Ghostface and company serve up a Shaolin chef salad of bizarre beats, witty wordplay and more style than you can shake a diamond studded chopstick at.
7. Kitty Vermont, Wonderful You (Motorcoat)
On this album you’ll find the most darkly-textured, yet honey-drippingly sweet synth-pop numbers since OMD unplugged their keyboards and called it a day. “Back to Better Days” sports a melody those ’80s popsters would have traded 100 spiffy haircuts for, and “Avalon” would make them feel like proud fathers. In these times when all that glitters goes gold or platinum, it’s albums like Wonderful You that insure that pop doesn’t go completely to the weasels.
8. Chappaquiddick Skyline, Chappaquiddick Skyline (Sub Pop)
Forget Sting. Joe Pernice is the real king of pain. This year the former Scud Mountain Boys leader and current Pernice Brothers front man added two new aliases to his treasure chest: Big Tobacco and Chappaquiddick Skyline. The CS album begins with the line “I hate my life”, which serves as a sub-textual motto for an album filled with sadness, regret and mean-spirited bitterness.
9. John Prine, In Spite of Ourselves (Oh Boy!)
An album full of country duets. It’s nothing new or earth shattering, but he somehow manages to sprinkle some fairy dust on a timeworn idea by choosing some of today’s best female vocalists-Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Iris DeMent, to name a few.
10. Damien Jurado, Ghost of David (Sub Pop)
Competing with Joe Pernice for the musical sad sack award is Seattle’s Damien Jurado. Ghost of David is unrelenting in its melancholia, and is a tour de force for the depressed and dispirited.