Susana Baca, Eco de Sombras (Luaka Bop). Singer/ethnomusicologist Baca, a Lima native, infuses these melancholy, mysterious Afro-Peruvian folk songs with a downtown-NYC feel, thanks to help from John Medeski (of Medeski Martin & Wood) and Tom Waits associates Marc Ribot and Greg Cohen. Fancypants collaborators notwithstanding, Baca's warm, expressive contralto is the real draw.
Bebel Gilberto, Tanto Tempo (Six Degrees). Joao's daughter nudges bossa nova into the 21st century, with sexy trip-hop beats and scratchy samples courtesy of the Thievery Corporation, Amon Tobin, Mario Caldato Jr. and the late producer/arranger Suba. A dreamy conflation of past and present.
Handsome Family, In the Air (Carrot Top). On their fourth album, husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks grace us with more sad/funny, beautiful/brutal songs about Nature, red in tooth and claw. A girl is carried off by crows, kissed by a gravedigger's son. A mob hurls bricks and bottles at a milkman in love with the moon. Brother kills brother, and the dead roll their bones in the grass.
Ute Lemper, Punishing Kiss (Decca). Uber-glam mezzo-soprano Lemper delivers an exquisite musical bastard. These corrosively elegant songs -- penned by the likes of Kurt Weill, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave and Philip Glass -- celebrate cabaret as concept, its festering sexiness, its high-camp appraisal of an exhausted, amoral culture overrun by perverts and pimps, misfits and murderers, unfaithful spouses and desperate debauchées.
Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2 (Superego). Fed up with the record industry, Mann self-released this album, her best yet. Moody, majestic, George Martin-esque arrangements augment her sweet and throaty warble and canny pop craftsmanship.
Mekons, Journey to the End of the Night (Quarterstick). For more than 20 years, these post-punk geniuses have been putting out wonderfully uncategorizable records, and Journey ranks among their very best. An end-of-the-empire raucousness keeps the mood from getting too somber but never undercuts the prevailing prettiness.
Nadine, Lit Up from the Inside (Undertow). St. Louis natives Nadine bring us glimmering experimental Americana. Whatever alt-country is, they've done it one better.
Puerto Muerto, Your Bloated Corpse Has Washed Ashore ... (Actiondriver). On their debut album, married duo Tim Kelley and Christa Meyer cram spooky folk, glam-rock, spaghetti-Western weirdness, art-song and cabaret into 19 fiercely original tracks.
Sixths, Hyacinths and Thistles (Merge). Fourteen singers -- ranging from Momus to Melanie, from Odetta to Gary Numan -- interpret love songs by prolific pop genius Stephin Merritt. Exquisite and strange.
Sleater-Kinney, All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars). On their fifth album, the all-woman trio combines the confrontational but cerebral punk rock of their earlier records with girl-group harmonies, poppy handclaps and even the occasional organ and Mellotron. They sound like themselves, only more so -- wholesome and dangerous, bubblegum catchy and heart-attack serious.
Black Heart Procession, 3 (Touch and Go). An indie/folk-rock tour through the shadowy crannies of love's lonely places. Sad like a breakup, quiet like man-crying and strong as the realization your ex ain't never coming back. The perfect soundtrack for introspection and regret, no matter whose fault it was.
Boredoms, Vision, Creation, New Sun (Sony Japan). No more of the spastic freak-rock, epileptic time signatures and mad-dog howling. The Boredoms discover a new genre, drum & whoosh, which is a lot like fingerpainting on LSD. Blurry mosaics of sound, bird calls, small animals with toy instruments and occasional crooning in Japanese.
Botch, We Are the Romans (Hydra Head). Incredibly dense sonic assault that takes the minimalism and anger of hardcore punk and forces it to breed with the iron riff structure of metal. Intelligent, loud, powerful, honest and human, Botch are the antithesis of everything Nu Metal represents.
Charles Bronson, Complete Discography (self-released). Two discs, 117 songs, 94 minutes. That is more hardcore than most people want, but with songs like "Phil Anselmo's Pain Burns in the Heart of My Little Brother" and "Tony Victory Knows How to Party," these guys prove that too much is never enough. Smart, smartass and oh-so-punk, Charles Bronson were a kick in the pants.
Various artists, Charlie's Angels soundtrack (Sony Music Soundtrax). It looks embarrassing on the shelf, but it's so sweet in the CD player. Marvin Gaye, Heart and Looking Glass acquit the '70s with grace, and Caviar and Fatboy Slim represent the finest of the Oughts. Pure pop pleasure, with the exception of Destiny's Child and Aerosmith.
High on Fire, The Art of Self Defense (Man's Ruin). Guitarist Matt Pike (ex of Sleep) continues writing monstrous fuzz-guitar psalms. Stony, burly, reverent caveman-style rock, just playing it will give you a contact high.
John Cale, Tony Conrad, Angus MacLise, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Inside the Dream Syndicate: Vol. 1: Day of Niagara (Table of the Elements). Thirty-plus minutes of tabla, viola, violin and vocal drone. Five minutes in, you wonder where they're going. Ten minutes in, you wonder where you are. When it stops, you wonder at where you've been. Brilliant.
J. Mascis and the Fog, More Light (Ultimatum/LLC). The soul of Dinosaur Jr. roars back to life with his best album yet. Caustic, catchy, plaintive without being whiny, J. and the Fog do everything Dinosaur did, only better. "Ammaring" should be the official prom song for the disenfranchised nationwide this spring.
Melvins, The Crybaby (Ipecac). The Melvins play backup for a host of all-stars, finishing their triptych of albums with style. "We make music for stupid people, too," King Buzzo once confided. Yeah, well, at their stupidest, the Melvins still are smarter than everyone else. David Yow and Hank Williams III on the same album confirm it.
Mondo Generator, Cocaine Rodeo (Southern Lord). The secret identities of various Queens of the Stone Age rock out with tongues in cheeks and straws in their noses. The musical equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson arguing with a bored-out Chevy 350, Mondo Generator is no-frills gonzo rock & roll.
Shelby Lynne, I Am Shelby Lynne (Island). A scorched soul's secrets, that vast inner history of beauty and terror that, without music, without the kind of imagination and voice Lynne brings to her stories, might never be believed: I Am Shelby Lynne makes you believe and won't let you forget.
Dolly Varden, The Dumbest Magnets (Evil Teen). Chicago's Dolly Varden steps off the precipice of rootsy indie rock -- and soars. They can still rock madly but now handle emotional enigmas more delicately. An absolutely glowing album.
Johnny Cash, Solitary Man (American). Without ever trying, Cash's latest addition lays waste to our hunger for all things new and revolutionary. Such individual statements aren't hard for Cash, not when fate is dragging every syllable from his throat, not when he knows what's at stake: the unabridged story of one man's life, all our lives.
Marah, Kids in Philly (E-Squared). As Springsteen did with New Jersey, so Marah has done with Philadelphia. Through rock & roll that looks neither backward nor forward but all around and into every corner, no matter how dangerous or troubled, they create a dense, enduring mythology of urban America.
Larry Sparks, Special Delivery (Rebel). Sparks is one of the great bluegrass tenors, whose ripe, vital voice taps a mainline to the spirit. The songs he has now chosen are stories rooted in haunting images: devastated farms, a lonesome timberline, a Civil War letter, a snow-covered grave. Truth rings from every line.
Susana Baca, Eco de Sombras (Luaka Bop). Peruvian chanteuse Baca sings like Sarah Vaughan lost in luxuriant dreams of Amazonian rivers and unbearably rhythmic seas. "Like dawn, I drink awakenings," Baca sings, her voice a rivulet of fire, "I don't believe in the material." Everything disappears in Baca's voice; nothing seems real anymore.
Arthur Blythe Trio, Spirits in the Field (Savant). Sometimes it seems that the alto-saxophonist's time has come and gone. No, not yet, argues this live disc. Corresponding with Bob Stewart's pumping tuba and Cecil Brooks III's battering drums, Blythe sounds rejuvenated, almost religiously inspired.
Nadine, Lit Up from the Inside (Undertow). The car stereo is a good litmus test for great rock & roll. How many times can you play and rewind, play and rewind a cassette, never once taking it out? I stopped counting after replay 234.
Matthew Ryan, East Autumn Grin (A&M). Ryan's second album is an ambitious maelstrom of scathing, Dylanesque lyrics and gorgeous guitar rock that recalls the strung-out passion and rebellion of early U2 and the sonic mysteries of Daniel Lanois.
Justin Treviño, Loud Music and Strong Wine (Neon Nightmare). The best country album this year comes from a young, blind Texas honky-tonker. The sound is as majestic and subtle as anything Lefty Frizzell recorded, and the songs are unearthed from the least obvious country corners. Treviño isn't just well-suited to honky-tonk music: He embodies it.
AC/DC, Stiff Upper Lip (Elektra). It's the same old song, but how can you get tired of righteous riffing rock & roll, with more and different ways of celebrating the joys of down-and-dirty sex? This is music for the whole body, head to crotch.
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, One Endless Night (Rounder). Gilmore sings the hell out of a crop of great songs from a crop of great writers, from Walter Hyatt to John Hiatt, from Butch Hancock to Jerry Garcia. The Garcia song can make your hair stand on end.
Madonna, Music (Maverick). Truth in labeling: This is music (of course), not near as good as Ray of Light but more consistently tuneful than most dance-oriented artists.
Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2 (Superego). She's become so damn consistent, you'd hardly notice this is her career best, both lyrically and melodically. Her faith in beauty is absolutely intertwined with her bleak worldview.
Outkast, Stankonia (LaFace). It is no blight on the thousands of funk records to come out in between to say this is the hardest and catchiest set of booty-shakin' rhythms since Parliament-Funkadelic was on the Mothership.
Rockhouse Ramblers, Bar Time (Hayden's Ferry). Three great singers, all of them great songwriters, and two incredible guitar players: Five musicians matching the timeless verities of honky-tonk country to the freshness of a modern worldview.
Steely Dan, Two Against Nature (Warner Bros.). Two old reprobates get together and sing wonderfully intricate melodies with words about the delights of much younger women. Inspiration comes back after 20 years.
Teddy Thompson, Teddy Thompson (Virgin). His dad picks some delicate counterpoint and Emmylou Harris turns in a gorgeous guest spot, but the real treat is the songs, yearning, searching and as clear as an intelligent, educated, old-fashioned sensitive college kid can be.
Various artists, Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska (Sub Pop). It's a rare tribute album that can both beautify the original recordings, which were always pretty stark, and increase the listener's understanding, which used to wander out of focus. You can admire Nebraska by Springsteen, or you can love this.
Various artists, Better Than Fruitcake (Sound System). Nineteen St. Louis artists turn in their takes on Christmas, mostly on extremely short notice. Individually, most of these are better than could be expected (with maybe three outright losers); put them all together, you get a genuinely new look at the holiday, one filled with laughter, terror, awe, joy and beauty.
Brian Blade Fellowship, Perceptual (Blue Note). On his second recording as a leader, drummer Blade blurs the boundaries between jazz, rock and other genres without falling into the "something for everyone" trap. Mesmerizing music from a true "band."
Cubanismo! Mardi Gras Mambo (Hannibal). This great Cuban band headed to New Orleans, teamed up with fine musicians such as John Boutte and Donald Harrison, and the result is a great record that exposes the Latin roots behind the Big Easy mix of jazz, R&B and blues.
Georgie Fame, Poet in New York (Go Jazz). Yes, he's the same guy who recorded "Yeh, Yeh" during the '60s British Invasion -- and worked with Van Morrison for many years. Fame also makes great jazz vocal recordings like this one. If you're a Mose Allison fan, pick up on this or any of Fame's other recent stuff. It's all excellent.
Charles Lloyd, The Water Is Wide (ECM). This Memphis-born sax player first hit his stride in the late '60s with his great quartet. He's still around and still creating a wonderful mix of lyrical, complex, impassioned music.
Joe Lovano, 52nd Street Themes (Blue Note). One of the finest sax players on the planet pays tribute to the great New York jazz scene of the 1950s -- and composer Tadd Dameron. Lovano takes plenty of chances in a variety of settings and makes every one pay off.
Danilo Perez, Motherland (Verve). This talented Panamanian-born pianist continues to explore the common ground between jazz, Latin rhythms and the folk songs of his native land. And he continues to produce startling, mesmerizing music.
Paul Simon, You're the One (Warner Bros.). Simon continues to fold an array of Third World rhythms into his music, and he's become so successful at it that the sound seems totally natural. Add a large helping of his finely crafted, intelligent and heartfelt lyrics, and you've got another classic.
Steely Dan, Two Against Nature (Warner Bros.). Speaking of classics, Becker and Fagen have given us one as well. Their latest inspired exploration of the dark side of humanity hits home with a mix of mordant wit, hip arrangements and slick, slinky grooves.
Irma Thomas, My Heart's in Memphis: The Songs of Dan Penn (Rounder). Get the "soul queen of New Orleans" together with one of the finest writers of soul songs ever, and you've got a combination that's a natural winner. Just get out of the way, roll the tape and enjoy the results.
Robert Ward, New Role Soul (Delmark). Ward, who started his musical career back in the late 1950s working with the likes of Wilson Pickett, may be the most underrated guitarist in blues and R&B. This is his first recording of new material in five years, and it's a barn-burner.
Built to Spill, Live (Warner Bros). Doug Martsch can write songs just as catchy as Bob Pollard's; he just takes six minutes to get them done instead of 45 seconds. On this double live LP, the songs stretch and breathe even more, making it heaven for fans of indie guitar rock.
Beachwood Sparks, Beachwood Sparks (Sub Pop). Creating harmony-drenched AM-radio pop with a strong but not overpowering country tinge and enough vaguely psychedelic bits to keep things interesting, Beachwood Sparks come off like an Elephant Six band gone Byrds instead of Beatles.
Go-Betweens, Friends of Rachel Worth (Jet Set). Picking up right where they left off a decade ago, the Go-Betweens are reunited, and the melancholy feels so good. The smartest songwriters of the '80s, Grant McLennan and Robert Forster are still crafting brilliant jangling odes to the tragic and glorious unfairness of love.
Elastica, The Menace (Atlantic). Picking up only vaguely near where they left off half-a-decade ago, Elastica have augmented their punkish pop with bloopy new-wave keyboards, ending up sounding a bit like the Fall, circa 1985. The Fall's Mark E. Smith even guest-rants on a couple of tracks.
Sleater-Kinney, All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars). Toning down doesn't mean turning down. It also doesn't mean selling out. Sleater-Kinney transcend hyphen rock (punk-rock, girl-rock, Olympia-rock) and now just straight-up rock.
Olivia Tremor Control, Singles and Beyond (Kindercore). Although technically a reissue, the ridiculous obscurity of most these singles and compilations tracks makes this a new release to all but the most dedicated eBay bidder. The shorter time frame imposed by the 7-inch single format forced the band to play up their pop hooks somewhat, but some of this stuff would be just plain weird at any length.
Grandpa's Ghost, Il Bacio (Upland). Grandpa's Ghost created the only regional rock release in recent memory that could honestly be called a work of art. They find the beauty in chaos and in calm, in clamor and in quiet. A masterpiece.
Best live shows:
Guided by Voices at the Rocket Bar. The short-notice, word-of-mouth nature of this show made it feel like a private party with the world's greatest garage band. And they played "Baba O'Reilly"!
Patti Smith at Mississippi Nights. This was probably a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience one of the ones who started it all, amazingly still at the top of her game.
Star Death, anywhere and everywhere. Go see this band. Just do it.