Just For The Record...

Ten scientifically approved verdicts about the best albums of the year

1. FRANZ FERDINAND
Franz Ferdinand
Domino

In a year when happiness was a warm M-16 rifle, "Take Me Out" was not so much a pickup line as a plea for someone to put a bullet through your brain. A hit in every sense of the word, last summer's sleeper single rang out like a shot heard round the world. With a jerky beat you could ride like a coin-op pony, other new-wave gems followed: a guide to movie-theater loving, a coy gay-club romp, a rave-up about the fire within. Sometimes I think that last one's actually about arson or STDs, but the lesson is the same either way: That burning sensation you're feeling? Let's just say it ain't love.

 

2. CANDI STATON
Candi Staton
Astralwerks

The original diva of "Too Hurt to Cry," now available with 60 percent more waaaaaagggggghhhhhhhh!!!! With a violent gospel howl that could scrape the barnacles off Aretha Franklin's "Old Ship of Zion," Staton nearly hollers herself hoarse on these long out-of-print singles, recorded in Muscle Shoals from 1969 to 1973 and collected here for the first time on CD. Red-state Casanovas get the meanest tongue-lashings, but when the country-soul diva is through hitting below the Bible belt, she gets right back to singing "Stand by Your Man." After all, it's hard to walk away from your lover when your stiletto's still stuck in his throat.

 

3. SUFJAN STEVENS
Seven Swans
Sounds Familyre

Twelve fingerpicked love songs penned by the boyfriend who left you for another man--one who got crucified two thousand years ago. These teenage symphonies to God are all grownup for postgrads who pray the Second Coming will commence before the bartender forces them to pay their tab. Pulling out his banjo in the eleventh hour, Stevens makes it clear that the only thing more powerful than preaching is believing. And when he rhapsodizes about a world filled with light, atheists will thank God that the label execs paid the electricity bills.

 

4. MAGNETIC FIELDS
i
Nonesuch

Having serenaded deep-sea divers, rodeo clowns, chicken decapitators, wolfboys, and plain old schmucks, Stephin Merritt returns to his first love: himself. These odes to the first person may sound solipsistic, but i is just winking at you, poking fun at the idea that, in the universal language of pop songs, every me sees himself in a you. Merritt can't be that kind of everyman because there's no one quite like him--except, of course, the evil twin whose ravishing good looks he praises on track seven. But in the epic baritone that moans its own self-deprecation, a nation of common people will find their voice. Or at least Cole Porter's.

 

5. KANYE WEST
The College Dropout
Rock-A-Fella

He boasts more platinum than Paris Hilton's head, and for good reason. With sped-up samples that giggle like a first gasp of nitrous and politically savvy braggadocio that brings big pimpin' all the way to the ballot box, West bridges the gap between the indie-hop underground and the gold-plated rappers who walk the streets above it. And yeah, he still gets high--he just happens to be the kind of guy who plays Jackson 5 records and talks about No Child Left Behind when he's stoned. Turn on. Tune in. Light up. Get down.

 

6. TV ON THE RADIO
Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes
Touch and Go

Lying in the gutter and staring at the sun makes these Brooklyn cacophonists get a little weepy. Or maybe it's just the tear gas wafting in from the riot down the street. Chords expand like mushroom clouds, feedback loops swallow their own tails, doo-wop doomsayers sing a Greek chorus from a street corner, and multi-instrumentalist David Sitek stands in the middle of everything, listening to the din of industrial progress, waiting for all the rock-revivalists to hang themselves by their guitar strings.

 

7. ELLIOTT SMITH
From a Basement on the Hill
Anti-

Done with the needle but not with the damage, Smith rolls up his sleeves to stare at the blood on the tracks. Between the lines, he finds grace notes: chirping birds, cough-syrup guitars, a melody that's as pretty as a smog sunset and as cracked as the Liberty Bell. "Little One" is a lullaby for an optimist who knows his story ends badly, and "A Fond Farewell" makes Basement sound like Smith's way of helping people deal with his death: "This is not my life, it's just a fond farewell to a friend." The most reassuring message for those Smith left behind? If anyone could have saved him, it would have been his friends. The most damning message? If anyone could have saved him, it would have been his friends.

 

8. PJ HARVEY
Uh Huh Her
Island

Forget the neurosis, the psychosis, the psychoanalysis--these days, Polly Jean simply wants to write feel-good letters to all her prospective ex-husbands, though she still signs them in blood just for fun. Chalk up another one for the Death-Do-Us-Part Army of '04: The bride killed Bill, the courts avenged Lacy Peterson's shotgun wedding, and Harvey's feminist murder ballad "Pocket Knife" warned single girls that once you tie the knot, your life is literally over. Good thing she's still so fiercely independent--bluesy, noisy, nasty, folked-up, freaked-out, and blowing kiss-offs to every older woman who suggested she settle down. Daughters, lock up your mothers.

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