1. Gomez, Liquid Skin (Virgin)
This album hooked me from the first listen, and I still smile with uncontrollable delight every time I push play and the sounds of “Hangover” begin. Guitar lines mingling muddy blankets of sound with quiet acoustic melodies are backed by percussive rhythms that drive the tunes. Ben Ottewell’s deep and gravelly voice carries the weighty stoicism of blues’ best yowlers, but it’s the harmonies that wind their way into my unconscious. From the restrained and bitter “Rosalita” to the raucous fun of “Bring It On,” Gomez’s craggy rock is under my skin.
2. Moby, Play (V2)
Moby mixes techno beats with gospel and blues influences, filling the music with a soul often lacking in the synthesized sounds of other bands. It also gives the album range and variety that lure those who have come for the infectious grooves of “Bodyrock” into staying for the rich melodies of “Natural Blues” or “Find My Baby.” This is joyful and intense dance music with depth.
3. Ben Lee, Breathing Tornadoes (Grand Royal/Capitol)
As much as its dance beats and tunes are grounded in the late-’90s, Ben Lee’s album seems eerily like a message from another time. The piano chords that open “Cigarettes Will Kill You” are as loungy and smoky as the song’s title, the lyrics of “I Am a Sunflower” are sweetly poignant, and the guitar of “Birthday Song” is uncomplicated and lovely. My favorite, “10ft.Tall,” reveals a charming boy-next-door quality in Lee’s music that makes this album irresistible.
4. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, I See a Darkness (Palace Records)
This latest release from Will Oldham (formerly known as Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, etc.) may be my favorite of his albums so far. Not only is Oldham’s voice rich and full, but the harmonies enhance the already haunting quality of the simple melodies and beautiful lyrics. Although Oldham could be compared to such alt-country bands as Wilco, his music is more tender, troubled, and almost transcendent.
5. Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs (Merge)
It would seem funny to call this quirky and subdued collection a tour de force, but its three albums in one pack a powerful wallop. With 69 songs at his disposal, Stephin Merrit can thoroughly explore and document every aspect of love’s throes, from country music despair to pop rock giddiness.
6. Owsley, Owsley (Giant)
Beatles revival pop at its finest, this is sweet and wistful rock. The solid back beats are guaranteed to start heads bobbing. The distortion that creeps into the vocals and guitars lends the tunes a touch of good-boy-trying-to-rebel swing.
7. Beck, Midnite Vultures (DGC/Interscope)
Campy, funky, and loungelicious, this album is Beck’s latest step into musical mania. A sort of homage to early Prince that occasionally blossoms into the glory of a blaxploitation soundtrack, Midnite Vultures is playful, fun, and undeniably groovy.
8. Low, Christmas (Kranky)
An antidote to the commercialism of the holiday season, this is a somber but ultimately warm and comforting album. Low’s version of “Little Drummer Boy” is hauntingly wonderful, and the whole album is filled with quiet Christmas lullabies guaranteed to produce visions of sugarplums.
9. Everything But the Girl, Temperamental (Atlantic)
Warm but melancholy folk music set to techno rhythms, Temperamental‘s dance beats sound like the beats of a heart struggling against loneliness.
10. TLC, Fanmail (BMG/Arista)
TLC are sultry, self-possessed, and sassy, and their music carries all these strong character traits. The diva funk of “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty” make the album’s weaker spots all worthwhile.
Robert Arellano, Havanarama
A great album packed into a six song EP, Havanarama puts a whole new spin on 1999’s Cubamania. Songs by Arellano are mixed in with covers of Johnny Cash and Will Oldham songs translated into Spanish…. And, rest assured, the only qualities Arellano shares with Ricky Martin’s music are Martin’s energy and exuberance.
Leo Kottke, One Guitar, No Vocals (Windham Hill)
Kottke has returned to what I love best about him: amazing guitar playing. This album is filled with guitar lines so full that no voice is necessary, and singing would only detract from the beautiful melodies.
Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Live at Luther College (BMG)
I’m not overly fond of concert albums as a genre, and I think Matthews can be accused of exploiting this genre to the hilt this is the second of three live albums he’s released in the past few years. However, this album played incessantly on my stereo last spring; and “One Sweet World,” “#41,” and “Crash into Me” made me want to reach for my lighter every time.