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Twenty Damn Records That Can Make You... Break Down and Cryyyyy. Or Dance or whatever.

I've been writing these year-in-review lists for just over 40 years now. Few of my previous efforts, however, have seen publication, and in this respect, fortune smiled on us all. Looking though a box labeled "Letters, Juvenilia, and Unfinished Epic Poetry for Posthumous Anthological Consideration," I find that my earlier Top 10 lists reveal a reasonably sure-footed handling of ordinal numbers (though 1987 contains no #7), and little else.

To wit, from 1983: "With Big Country's success, the question isn't so much whether more combos will move toward bagpipe-inflected guitar tones, but whether the public will tolerate guitars that don't sound like bagpipes."

From '87: "Ice-T's Rhyme Pays and Schooly D's Saturday Night—The Album mustered some underground favor, but no widespread success, proof that when it comes to crime narratives and potty-mouthed sexism, today's record buyer wrinkles his nose and harrumphs: 'Keep it clean, fellas!'"

From '91: "This year my favorite platter was Chunky A's Large and in Charge."

And from 2003, a tough year for me: "Best records of the year? Who gives a fuck? It all sucked, like everything else in this godforsaken life. Still, a pretty good year for bluegrass."

Nothing is quite as embarrassing as one's past, except one's present. And so, in an effort to put some sort of cap on errant prognostications and blinkered Zeitgeist spotting, I've forgone the customary what does it all mean? introduction and will now proceed directly to the year's finest albums and singles, which judgments I stand by resolutely. For now.

1. M.I.A.
Arular
XL
Introducing an artist who'd stop at nothing short of global economic justice or a guest spot on the next Missy Elliott album, whichever came first, Arular was touted as a cultural masterstroke before Americans could even preorder it. The hype grew from possibly overzealous to oppressive, but reflexive skeptics missed out while reflexive followers, typically superior dancers, partied like it was 2005. The thrill of the new can lead to a pernicious addiction; it can also be thrilling. There's nothing inherently admirable about amalgamation, but Arular does arrive at some sort of cosmopolitan Shangri La with its crossfaded mix of grime, dancehall, Missy and Timbaland, baile funk, vintage video-game soundtracks, righteous populism, dirty sex rhymes, silly terrorism chic, and hiccupping whoops. Or maybe it was just a very nearly perfect British pop album.

2. Mannie Fresh
The Mind of Mannie Fresh
Cash Money/Universal
I used to think that, in the best of all possible worlds, all albums would last 44 minutes and 56 seconds. This was back when 90-minute blank cassettes and borrowed LPs played a larger role in my life than they do today. This year my favorite albums tended to be either just over half an hour or really, really long. This solo debut from New Orleans producer-MC and Cash Money Records honcho Mannie Fresh is really, really long. I won't swear by all of its 30 cuts, definitely not "Shake That Ass," the closing strip-club ballad (yes, ballad), or all of the skits, though most of them are pretty funny. (It took 16 years, but I'm pro-skit now.) Still, I love this album, for its torrent of jokes, its chubby-lover anthems, its crassness and wisdom, its wheezing and wheedling keyboards, elephantine bass, wham-wham-wham drums, sweet-soul choruses. Mannie is no virtuoso MC, but he has a supple, everyman delivery and a gift for hard-boiled poetry: "Heineken green," "Dr. Pepper-can-colored Turbo Coupes"—he's the Warhol of Southern hip hop, turning bottles and cans into art. Already rich and not terribly interested in crossing over, he uses his solo album to do whatever the fuck he wants, pursuing stupid ideas seriously (the chitlin'-circuit soul send-up "Not Tonight" and lots more) and serious stuff with wit. Though the album is mainly lighthearted (and dirty), among its highlights are the introspective and gorgeous "Nothing Compares to Love," and "Mayor Song," a good survey of New Orleans's pre-Katrina woes, with a good beat.

3. William Parker
Sound Unity
Aum Fidelity
Free jazz rarely gets better or more accessible than this live outing from (world's greatest) bassist William Parker, trumpeter Lewis (sounds as big as) Barnes, (keening) alto saxophonist Rob Brown, and (world's greatest) drummer Hamid Drake. Its accessibility is relative, I suppose—it does squeal and squawk and bang, and offers only a few immediately embraceable melodies. One of these, from "Wood Flute Song," is a bit doxological for my heathen tastes, though I've gotten used to it. After a handful of listens, though, Sound Unity unfolds a few hundred melodies, coming and going like subway cars or semi-stray cats. Open-ended, Ornette-derived, improv stuff such as this is sometimes said to be more fun to play than it is to listen to, but this music isn't indulgent. It's generous, in fact. And in the giving spirit, they reward you on the last track with a reggae groove you can dance to. Into abstraction but not obfuscation, they call it "Groove."

 

4. Kanye West
Late Registration
Roc-a-Fella
I don't prefer this melodically and harmonically purple album to, for instance, Boogie Down Production's skeletal Criminal Minded any more than I prefer Sgt. Pepper's to Beatles for Sale (which kicks Pepper's epaulets even with "Mr. Moonlight" tagging along). Nor do I prefer Registration's classical, pretty density to the modernist, not pretty density of, for instance, It Takes a Nation of Millions. But to my knowledge no one—not De La Soul, Tribe, Common, or Blackalicious—has made a hip-hop album this extravagantly beautiful in the (loosely) Beatle-y manner, and I'm glad someone did. Give partial credit to orchestrator, vintage keyboard noodler, and former Fiona Apple aide de camp Jon Brion, though he insists his role was decidedly subordinate. (I tend to believe him, since West seems control-freaky.) I'm still on the fence as to whether Registration is better than the The College Dropout. Either way the qualitative difference is slight. Both have a couple of mediocre tracks; both allow Jay-Z to sabotage a minute or two. This one's darker, still funny but not goofy—even the skits have an edge. Also it's less schizophrenic but similarly far-ranging. West is a realist and a materialist, so presumably he's more committed to his mother than he is to the revolution, but it's a luxury to have the tender and moving "Hey Mama" share space with the brassy and defiant "Crack Music." Also: "George Bush doesn't care about black people!" I take it to be another sign of West's genius that he pulled off the greatest act of agitprop in recent network television history and proved once and for all that Austin Powers isn't funny.

5. Sufjan Stevens
Illinois
Asthmatic Kitty
I tend to listen to this marathon album late at night, and usually fall asleep somewhere around track 19. Its closing statements, especially the Steve Reich-like finale, remain something of a mystery to me. They might be informing my dreams. Strangely, I've been having violent dreams lately. Is my unconscious rebelling against this delicately crafted music? On the subject of violence, the delicate and melodramatic tune here about John Wayne Gacy is embarrassing in ways that it doesn't intend to be. And the allusion to the Cure's "Close to You" heard in the early going of this song cycle about the Midwest's second-greatest state is too close (to the original, that is). So what do I like about Illinois? Everything else: the unexpected melodies, the bona fide literary inspiration, the complex but not rococo arrangements. Like Van Dyke Parks, Stevens thinks like a "serious composer," likes banjos and folk songs, and finds a way to make fussed-over book-type language sing like regular song lyrics. Except I've never heard a Van Dyke Parks record quite this good, not even the one he made with the Beach Boy.

6. Luny Tunes and Baby Ranks
Mas Flow 2
Universal Music Latino
Reggaetón, the year's obligatory trend story and a genuine grassroots phenomenon, is a hybrid genre, drawing mostly on hip hop and dancehall and ragga but also incorporating salsa, R&B, Puerto Rican forms such as bomba and plena, plus all variety of schlock. To their mothers, Luny Tunes are Francisco Saldana and Victor Cabrera. They're often dubbed "the Neptunes of reggaetón" because there are two of them and they've produced a lot of hits. Here they're joined by vocoder-dependent third banana Baby Ranks and 15 or 90 (I can't remember) of the genre's big and mid-sized stars. For instance Daddy Yankee, who teams with Deevani for the Near Eastern-flavored "Mirame," which features one of Luny Tunes' trademark girl-boy call-and-response choruses. I'm also big on Mr. Vegas's showcase, "Oh Johnny," a clanging hip-hop track with an extended cheese-synth outro. Some people will tell you that this sort of music is best heard in a club setting. For example, nightclub owners will tell you that, and other people sold on the idea that one must "leave the house" in order to have a rich social life. Actually, this album sounds best at my house, just after supper.

7. Amadou and Mariam
Dimanche a Banko
Nonesuch
These long-active Malian marrieds scored a world-beat breakthrough with this soulful collection of dance-and-heartbreak tunes, juiced up not watered down by Franco-Iberian experimentalist hookmonger Manu Chao. Chao's production is not exactly unobtrusive—his trademark atmospherics (distant chatter, traffic noises) is a constant presence, and the hopped-up collage-pop aesthetic is very much akin to his own records. The collaboration works wonderfully, though. Diamanche splits the difference between blue and bubbly and winds up with blubbly—I mean, beautiful.

 

8. John Doe
Forever Hasn't Happened Yet
Yep Rock
X co-leader and punk's most elegantly expressive vocalist sings folk-blues-rock tunes stolen from tour-bus daydreams. Later he washes his hair in the sink and conscripts Neko Case to portray Exene Cervenka on a tune co-written by Exene (Exene was busy playing Madden NFL 2005?!). Case sounds great, though, as does Dave Alvin when he drops by to play pomade-dabbed guitar through a tiny 1956 tube amp (I'm guessing) turned all the way up to best sound like a king bee, baby, buzzing around your hive. I can't say for sure, I wish I could, but I'm pretty sure the undercurrent here has something to do with wisdom.

9. Parry Gripp
For Those About to Shop, We Salute You
Oglio
Parry Gripp is the former leader of Nerf Herder, and I didn't find that fact enticing either. A few years ago he was invited to compose some jingles for a kid-targeted frozen-breakfast-food product. Yet his resplendently catchy and juvenile efforts did not impress some tin-eared ad-agency gatekeeper as the kind of songcraft that could move a toaster waffle off the shelves. Undaunted and inspired, he went on to write dozens of jingle-like trifles about food, sports, pickup trucks, personal hygiene products, bargains, and alcohol, plus more songs about waffles. Fifty-one of his miniatures are compiled on this 35-minute, laugh-out-loud funny novelty album. Ridiculous music composed with obvious haste and offhanded craft, For Those About to Shop is the sort of record that unites 12-year-old nose pickers with 35-year-old record collectors, which is like uniting ottomans with divans.

10. The Hold Steady
Separation Sunday
French Kiss
Market-savvy ex-punks offer another variation on working-class hard rock suited to the hipster palate. And they succeed because they slum with more ardor than irony—occasional winks of cornball bombast notwithstanding. Also the lead guitarist smokes, the drummer smokes even more, and the keyboardist has a great moustache and better stage moves. Me, I don't find the album's picaresque narrative of druggy glamour and despair to be particularly dramatic or affecting, never mind unexpected, but lead slurrer Craig Finn's wordplay is indeed high-level, maybe even publishable. Today my favorite line is "Later on we did some sexy things/Took a couple photographs and carved 'em into wood reliefs." Soon, all the cool kids are going to be whittling!

Singles

1. Hal, "Play the Hits"
AM heroes the Raspberries reunite as fresh-faced, small-town Irishmen on power-pop should-have-been smash. A masterpiece of gleeful formalism and falsetto high jinks.

2. Amerie, "1 Thing"
Rich Harrison, who produced Beyonce's overrated "Crazy in Love," proves his genius with this propulsive song of desire, led by a hot-in-the-mix drum track cobbled together from dusty Meters records. Those drums are saying: I Want You...to Want Me.

3. Miranda Lambert, "Kerosene"
Golden-haired young-woman-next-door gets jilted, vows revenge on Steve Earle-y single. It's rare for a pop-country hit to deal so frankly with immolation fantasies. At least I think it's a fantasy. The insistent drums and hollering harmonica, those are literal.

4. The Legendary K.O., "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People"
A classic rush-job protest single in the tradition of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's "Ohio," only now you don't even have to be famous to score a topical hit. Inspired by Kanye West's resonant ad-lib, Houston unknowns Damien Randle and Micah Nickerson laid pissed-off rhymes over West's "Gold Digger" beat and watched the download numbers grow. Check it out onwww.k-otix.com.

5. Mike Jones, "Back Then"
Plot summary: Women reject Houston man, explaining that he's "cute but too chubby." Houston man's rapping career gains momentum and women begin to find him sexually appealing, though his weight has remained constant. Rapper revels in this development while Houston hip hop's trademark slowed-down vocals provide much-needed tonic after a few years of Kanye-led chipmunk samples.

6. Antony and the Johnsons, "My Lady Story"
Transgender angst plus transcendent harmonies. What's prettier than beautiful?

7. Kanye West, "Gold Digger"
In which a stock theme (partnering for money) is treated without prejudice, and the closest thing to vitriol is saved for fickle men. A joyful song about cruelty or a cruel song about joy?

8. Big & Rich, "Comin' to Your City"
"We're an American Band"-style arena anthem made with equal parts professionalism and inspiration. The disco breakdown deserves the classiest mirror ball money can buy.

9. Brad Paisley, "Alcohol"
An ambivalent drinking anthem narrated by the booze itself. An instant country bar-band standard. The great na-na-na-na-na outro is appropriately intoxicating.

10. Toby Keith, "As Good as I Once Was"
Pipe-laying and bar-brawling skills are in decline, admits long-in-the-tooth tough guy, but almost-as-good is good enough. Mavericks-style roots-pop tune and salty guitars back up the claim.


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