The Best Records of 2004

From "indie rock" to mix tapes to y'alternative country.


One to keep you up at night: the ultimate end of instrumental electronic music just may be a cappella and acoustic music. Björk wrapping herself in Icelandic choral washes, throat singers, beatboxers, and not much else hits moments of dancefloor drama that Moby or the Chemical Brothers, with their banks of machines, can only hint at. (Elektra)

No one’s sure if Ann Arbor’s Matthew Dear means to hijack pop music with his nano-fragmented laptop techniques, or just turn on a few million Prince fans to the lockstep grooves of techno. Who cares? This is vocal dance music on the bleeding edge, but it requires no special patience to figure out. (Ghostly International)

Devin Dazzle & the Neon Fever
Crusty Chicago house old-schooler Felix da Housecat ended more than a decade of undue obscurity with his retro-chic Kittenz and Thee Glitz album three years ago. On this one, he drives the crunchy drum machines that made him a DJ booth legend further into the backstage guitars-and-groupies underworld that decadent disco has been threatening to penetrate since its start. (Rykodisc)

Mixed Up in the Hague Vol. 2
This is the second installment in what gets my vote for the best DJ mix series of all time, a truly sleazy and brilliant splash through dance music’s long-forgotten primordial ooze. I-F is the fountainhead for all these attempts to bring back Italo-disco and ’80s electro back, although he hates the electroclashers, and most of them haven’t even heard of him. That both sets are available for free downloading is proof that he’s the Fugazi of dance music, tragically underexposed because he refuses to merchandise. (

Orange Border
Another otherworldly DJ set that’s just floating out in cyberspace free for the taking. Koivikko is a Finnish devotee of microhouse, that latest attempt to reunite the brainy, all-left-feet experimental techno camp with those who actually dance to dance music. Constructed only out of fuzzy hums, clinically precise clicks, and analogue moans, his breed of house is ruthlessly efficient yet surprisingly soulful. So shake it, smarty pants. (

Destroy Rock & Roll
The BBC’s Web site almost crowned this album of the year when it dropped in May; at year’s end, I’m leaning that way myself. The balls-out-titled Destroy Rock & Roll is the Halley’s Comet-rare electronic music LP that has everything: continuity, stylistic diversity, big ideas, instant accessibility, spliffy downtempo cuts, icy ’80s-inflected kookiness, and a huge club anthem (“Drop the Pressure”). Beyond categorization and ahead of music journo cliché, this newbie producer managed to turn only a few heads (what with his self-started label and all), and he managed to do so from Scotland. This last bit would be plenty puzzling, since nothing even remotely listenable comes out of the Highlands for the most part, but we can take some credit — Mylo spent a while in the Bay Area soaking in our sounds. (Breastfed)

In the last three years, nü breaks (basically drum ‘n’ bass crossed with techno, slowed down and raved up) has been the big draw at underground parties on the West Coast, including Burning Man geodesic domes. There were quite a few good DJ mixes released in ’04 from this frenetic “new” subgenre, and this is as solid as any of them. No outright classic numbers on this or any of the others, but for syncopation madness, Pilgrem is a trusted name, and digital funk will always tickle that special spot. (TCR)

All of nineteen, outlandishly talented, and wielding last year’s Mercury Music Prize trophy, Dizzee Rascal — two-step’s second cash money millionaire (after the Streets) — was expected to crash and burn upon reentry. Ha. Slightly more mature but just as apocalyptically funky as his debut, the aptly named Showtime slaps the put-up onto any shut-up a doubter could conjure. (XL)

This dark electro gem had only a small release, so you might have to convert to euros to track it down. Rother, a funky, robot-worshipping German who makes music for having sex with machines, has consistently impressed but stayed pretty close to the Kraftwerkian template. Here he breaks out by undermining his sinister uprocking breaks with wobbly basslines and trancey synthesizer arcs. There are also some fucked-up Eurotrash chant-choruses to make the whole thing go down like a sketchy encounter in a public bathroom. It’s druggy and a bit frightening, sure, but what’s the point of staying out past two without some sort of risk, right? (Datapunk)

Sound of Young New York II
It took rock kids a while to pick up on the whole continuously mixed compilation thing and the stop-staring-at-your-Chuck-Taylors-and-dance thing, didn’t it? Now that they’ve finally figured out DJ mixers, we’re suddenly spoiled with these awesome indie-rock stomp-alongs. This one has the Faint, the Glass, !!!, and the RZA. Having cake? Eating it? Um, both, please! (Plant)


I can’t believe this record exists in 2004: ridiculous, overwrought, melodramatic, pompous, hilarious, and utterly exhilarating art-guitar rock that Kurt Cobain, or Kid A, or 9/11 allegedly killed forever. It has too many fancy geetar effects for Nickelback fans and too much soft-verse-loud-chorus pandering for Arcade Firemen; instead, it balances perfectly on the Schick Quattro’s edge of English self-absorption and alt-rock self-flagellation. It also rocks yer face off. (Warner Bros.)

Shake the Sheets
Ken Burns should make a ten-episode documentary about “Little Dawn”: the Punk Guitar God riff, the melody cribbed from “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” the thirty-story-buildings-packed-with-amplifiers-aflame chorus, and the final three minutes, wherein Ted moans It’s alright it’s alright it’s alright over and over, the only thing you need or want a rock star to tell you, especially now. King him, Queen him, Knight him. (Lookout!)

Love Songs for Patriots
Only Mark Eitzel — poet laureate, sad sack, meltdown time bomb — could sequence the gorgeous dew-eyed optimism of “Another Morning” and the ranting decrepit-male-stripper-as-metaphor-for-America dirge of “Patriot’s Heart” back-to-back and knock both outta the park, opposite-field home runs, if not opposite universes. Further proof Matador’s entire back catalogue — and mild depression — should be mandatory possessions. (Merge)

Tyrannosaurus Hives
I know what you think of this band, and I don’t care. Behold the world’s most arrogant Jazzercise instructors, ludicrously self-absorbed but shockingly invigorating. This breathless half-hour of power’s best song, “Dead Quote Olympics,” is a derivative garage-punk tune that derides rival garage-punkers for being derivative. The word for this is “genius.” If you jogged to this record every morning for a month, you’d lose 150 pounds. (Epitaph)

The CD that came free with The Believer‘s Music Issue
The Walkmen’s “The Rat” for arena-rock grandiosity. TV on the Radio’s “Dreams” for nervous, devastated funk. Death Cab for Cutie’s “Title and Registration” for the vibraphone solo. The Constantines for Tom Petty, the Gossip for Aretha Franklin, the Mountain Goats for Neutral Milk Hotel. That and a Dodge Durango’s worth of breathy, despondent singer-songwriter dudes add up to a favorable prognosis for Literary Rockers nationwide. God bless the mix CD. (The Believer)

The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Ah, the blatantly cheating reissue double-entry. But who among us is writing brilliant robo-funk pop tunes fetishizing architecture like the Heads, or emulating Pavement’s habit of making utterly nonsensical lyrics and ramshackle, barely-not-falling-apart grunge laundry piles glisten like the rough surrounding the diamond? Forsake not the Gold Soundz and the Psycho Killers: Both belong in the Pixies’ league, in our hearts if not on our stages. Yet. (Rhino, Matador)

The Slow Wonder
Effortless, effervescent melody. Continuous sonic inventiveness. Weird, weirdly evocative lyrics. Multiple projects, multiple guises. A certain prolific nature, a certain cult appeal. Anyone else think Carl Newman is Guided by Voices’ Bob Pollard minus the Budweiser IV and goofy-ass onstage high-kicks? Anyone think he’s often better? Anyone know how to react when the redheaded stepchild grows up and starts joyfully beating you? (Matador)

Now Here Is Nowhere
Drums, so far as capital-R Rock is concerned, are designed to make one noise: WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP WHUMP. No record this year WHUMPS with more aplomb, the kick-drum pounding like the footsteps of lumbering, Corona-drunk giants as the tunes blossom into sprawling, panoramic alt-rock vistas as breathtaking as the clear night sky in (insert red state here). Like your heartbeat at the senior prom, powering melodies as catchy as your senior prom’s theme. (Warner Bros.)

This record is violently unpleasant — spastic, migraine-inducing, terrifying, and lyrically macabre to a Saw-like degree, the dueling vocalist Brothers screaming in unbelievably high-pitched shrieks, like miniature teenage girls drowning in your bowl of Cheerios. But an old BB song title says it all: “Every Breath Is a Bomb,” and the morbidly thrilling napalm highlights here prove hardcore has a future, and the world, sadly, does not. (V2)

Pressure Chief
This is Cake’s worst album, in that everything’s great, but three or four songs are just-sorta-okay, skippable at worst. This is also Cake’s fifth album. Cal Ripkin Jr. has nothing on the endurance and ingenuity of this band’s run, powered by the wittiest, craftiest, and most outlandishly unique band sound This Un-American Life has to offer. Furthermore, that Bread cover (“Guitar Man”) is glorious, and frontman John McRea’s interview technique is stellar. headline: “Cake Singer Not So Excited About Touring, Admits His Band Is Irrelevant.” Wrong, but oh-so-right. (Sony)


Waltz of a Ghetto Fly
This album spent a lot of time in my CD player in 2004, and with good reason: It pulses, throbs, and moves like few other releases this year. There aren’t many artists whose music sounds as good in your living room as it does in the clubs, but Amp is definitely one of them. Mr. Fiddler didn’t just sit on a roof, he tore that mutha off with hypnotic neo-funk grooves like “Superficial,” “Soul Divine,” and “I Believe in You.” (Genuine)

Who Is This America?

Antibalas’ third album just barely edged out Wale Oyejide’s One Day … Everything Changed and Chief Xcel’s Fela mix CD in the contemporary Afrobeat category. Who Is This America? not only kept the genre’s momentum going, but made strong social and political statements, most notably on “Indictment,” which tried and convicted the Bush administration’s cabinet. Even so, the polyrhythmic grooves were ubiquitous and universal enough to make even Republicans dance to the music. (Ropeadope)

Who knew that Senegalese hip-hop was so fly? Straight outta Dakar, Daara J’s Boomerang established a new high point for Motherland rap, while supplying what’s missing from its American counterpart. Blazing-hot tracks like “Esperanza” and “Bopp Sa Bopp” suggest there’s a positive side to global warming, and the band’s sound — equally influenced by American hip-hop, Jamaican reggae, and West African mbalax and tasso — is both esoteric and accessible, without being predictable in the least. (Wrasse)

Raphael Saadiq as Ray Ray
Pimpin’ is easy, if you’re Raphael Saadiq. On Ray Ray, the neo-soul architect drives his white Cougar past tired R&B clichés, delivering an album designed for “Grown Folks” who still like to groove. The album’s nu-blaxploitation theme song is dedicated to Rick James, and Saadiq makes the late funkster proud with an appealing combination of emotion-stirring songcraft and musical chops. You’ll find hooks for days on jams like “This One,” “Detroit Girl,” and “Not a Game,” while “Rifle Love”‘ (featuring Tony Toni Toné and Lucy Pearl) locks on target and doesn’t miss. (Pookie)

What a year for MF Doom. The illest villain who’s still chillin’ made guest apps with everyone from Wale Oyejide to De La Soul, released a dope solo LP (Mm..Food) and, most importantly, dropped an inspired collabo with producer Madlib that proves hip-hop’s heart still pumps fresh blood. Madvillainy‘s fiendish concoction of beats and lyrics was as zany and bugged-out as the combination of its two iconoclastic principals would suggest, but behind all the dark humor lies serious science. (Stones Throw)

Mayhem Mystics
It’s almost too bad John Ashcroft is retiring, because his affinity for Big Brother-like voyeurism provided inspiration for songs like Azeem’s “Under Surveillance,” one of the best commentaries yet on the social consequences of the post-PATRIOT Act era. The rest of the album is just as good, blending Azeem’s insightful observations (“Birth Right First”), metaphysical spirituality (“Seals”), and rebel-rousing exhortations (“Yes We Can”) with the jazz-funk beats of the Wide Hive collective and the turntable cuts of DJ Zeph. (Wide Hive)

Fear of a Mixed Planet
Digital Underground founder Shock G will always be linked to his colorful, proboscis-flaunting alter ego Humpty Hump, but there’s more to him than just a nose. His first “solo” album — which ends up being a collective effort, as usual — reveals a poignancy that has all but disappeared from rap music since onetime DU protégé Tupac passed. Shock elegizes ‘Pac while gently mocking the misanthropic tendencies of the Thug Nation on “Keep It Beautiful,” revisits classic EPMD on “Weesom Hustlahs,” and updates PE on the title track. Shock’s positive messages are perfectly complemented by original production that’s funkier than George Clinton’s Underoos. (33rd Street)

If Led Zeppelin were politically active tribal nomads from the Sahara, this is the album they would make. Combining electric and acoustic instruments with world, folk, and rock rhythms and lyrics sung in their native tongue, the “blue men” of Mali have crafted a must-listen masterpiece that transcends the world beat genre. Mystical, sublime, and totally engaging, Ammasakoul demands to be placed alongside any conventional guitar-based pop album, or for that matter, any album from any genre released this year. (World Village)

Tree of Satta
More than 450 variations on the “Satta Massagana” theme have been recorded, and this aptly named compilation collects twenty of the best versions of roots reggae’s most enduring and meditative riddim, beginning with the Abyssinians’ original. Amazingly, the “Satta” melody never gets weary — even as it’s put through its paces by the likes of Yami Bolo, Luciano, Tommy McCook, Ernest Ranglin, Natural Black, Jah Mali, Anthony B., Big Youth, Dean Fraser, and others — resulting in a much wider appeal than the typical riddim-driven LP. (Blood+Fire)

Ancestry in Progress
Zap Mama hits you with a harmony-laced bop gun that gets under your skin and into your heart. Freely blending traditional African chants, vocal percussion loops, and elements of neo-soul, hip-hop, and R&B, Ancestry in Progress shows who really has the goodies. It’s easy to fall dangerously in love with ZM frontwoman Marie Daulne, but there’s nothing toxic about the organically stimulating melodies found here, which raises the creativity bar for female vocalists and then some. (Luaka Bop)


Is Ever Gone
The astonishing folk universe of ex-San Franciscans Dave and Ann Costanza is simultaneously expanding and becoming more focused, with production by Larry Yes that spreads a soft, glowing blanket of keyboards, bicycle bells, finger-snaps, reverb, and ambient goodness all over the proceedings. Most of the vocals are Dave’s this time, though a young Costanza daughter offers a startling reading of a piece that begins Fuck you, America. (Artistown)

Faded Seaside Glamour
From the synthesized steel drums of opener “Wanderlust,” it’s clear the Delays don’t get a lot of sunshine in Southampton, England, which would explain why their version of sunny pop is so rich and exciting. Faded Seaside Glamour unites the VU-inspired dream-pop of the La’s with shoulder-shaking melodies and Cocteau Twins-style layered vocal intoxication; Greg Gilbert’s rapturous falsetto lifts it all above the gray clouds. (Rough Trade)

Goodnight Nobody
Whether singing about a sort of Zen hopefulness or taking the perspective of a just-left lover, the Montreal-based mother of three lays it all honestly and simply on the line, downcast but never dreary. Her voice is buoyed by fuller instrumentation than on previous efforts, and vocally, Doiron calls to mind the smoky altos of Shannon Wright and Cat Power, but without the histrionics — in their place is a peaceful sense of poetry. (Jagjaguwar)

Uh Huh Her
In 2004, this formerly shy lass from Dorset turned her self-consciousness inside out, covering the CD liner with a decade of self-portraiture and creating a record where the instrumentation is so minimalist and warmly muddy as to be her very innards hanging out, red and indistinguishable. And “Shame” is one of the best songs of her career. (Island)

Our Endless Numbered Days
An upgrade in studio quality hasn’t hurt Iron & Wine one bit. Sam Beam’s voice (and the soft shadow of his sister Sarah’s harmonizing) still forces your mind to shut up and listen, the melodies are as hypnotic as ever, and his lyrics remain just raw enough to be almost creepy but entirely engaging. Southern Gothic at its slo-folk finest. (Sub Pop)

The Volunteers
Emo labels aside, Jonah Matranga is more than just a tortured-boy soul with a yen for strangled hollering over four chords. There are fist-pumping anthems to flawed spirit and numerous nuanced examples of well-worn honesty here, including an acoustic takedown of Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” that effectively skewers “The Scene.” Furthermore, “A Ghost” is a melancholy, magical-realist narrative of the highest caliber. (Jade Tree)

Moody Pike
That these guys are from Brooklyn isn’t so strange in the wake of the y’allternative revolution, but the fact that Pale Horse and Rider’s sophomore record was recorded in Kentucky and features production by the requisite Oldham (Paul) adds the golden twang touch to Jon DeRosa and Marc Gartman’s tales of late nights, love, sex, and excess, not to mention their new backing band’s glimmering pedal steel and jazzy drums. (Darla)

Scissor Sisters
All of the pleasure and none of the guilt. Okay, maybe there’s a twinge of guilt over this being a product of the Major Label Devil, but anyone whose childhood was spent grooving to Elton John, the Bee Gees, and Stevie Wonder on the car radio should just let his guard down and give a good listen to this ecstatically lush genderfunk techno-pop. Deal-sealer: The Sisters make a disco symphony of Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” (Universal)

She Like Electric
Record geeks who plop themselves at the mention of the Shaggs merely raise one eyebrow when I tell them about singer and keyboardist Asya, twelve (who sounds remarkably like Mary Lou Lord at times), and drummer Chloe, ten. But the sisters have the chops and the innocent moxie, and they pull more sass and raw heart out of their loosely melodic, honey-sung pop than most duos two and three times their age. (Pattern 25)

The Golden Apples of the Sun
This twenty-track compilation, curated by Devendra Banhart for Arthur magazine, could’ve been just another random collection. But each cut offers its own take on the newly minted “freakfolk” movement — folk gone psychedelic or psychedelia gone folky — with standout tracks by Vetiver with Hope Sandoval, the Long Winters, Josephine Foster, Joanna Newsom, Iron & Wine, Viking Moses, and Banhart himself, with oddfolk godmother Vashti Bunyan. (Bastet)


From Hell to Baton Rouge
Two words: electric dulcimers. Throw in sundry guitar, banjo, and plaintive vocals for a sound that buzzes like summer flies and hums like high-tension power lines through a post-modern Appalachia. With the exception of the Big Audio Dynamite-styled “Weight of Love” (which would be better situated as an end-of-disc bonus track), this could be the soundtrack for a Deliverance remake. If it was filmed at night. (Catamount)

Aw Cmon/No You Cmon
These are actually two separate (if not quite differentiated) albums released simultaneously, à la Use Your Illusion. Billed as Nashville’s “most fucked-up country band,” this grouping of more musicians than you can count on both hands looks like the lost freshmen who spent their weekends playing Dungeons & Dragons in the lobby of your college dorm. But led by the droll, basement-floor vocals of the bespectacled and trucker-hatted Kurt Wagner, Lambchop wraps around a massively gorgeous yet edgy range from Love Tractor to the Love Unlimited Orchestra, and that’s a much farther distance than it sounds. (Merge)

A Fix Back East
Strange how the best roots updates of recent years have been rendered by Yankee boys. Jack White hangs in Detroit, the Black Keys in Akron, and the Tarbox Ramblers in Boston, but good is good no matter the ZIP code. If you ever questioned what the blues and gospel have in common, look no further. (Rounder)

Underachievers Please Try Harder
Does the world really need two twee pop bands from Glasgow? Well, need may be pushing it a smidge, but Camera lead singer-songwriter Tracyanne Campbell brings her own distinct charm to the table. A proper supplement of self-conscious Scottish similes (He was uncomplaining as a tree) for those suffering Belle and Sebastian withdrawal. (Merge)

Headed for the Hills
Jim Lauderdale’s voice is one of the purest in Nashville (that alone puts the “alt” in front of “country”), and for the past several years he has treated himself to a recording session with upstate New York jam band Donna the Buffalo, and two with bluegrass legends Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. If that’s not enough to gain Lauderdale the title of Master Collaborator, then this latest release, co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, puts him over the top. (Dualtone)

Rubber Factory
“10 A.M. Automatic” has now been appropriated by CBS Sports to accompany college football replays. An unusual choice to be sure, but if TV production types are beguiled by thick guitars and wildass drums recorded by two guys in an abandoned building once owned by Akron’s General Tire (get it?), then maybe there’s hope for the world after all. (Fat Possum)

Van Lear Rose
Well, sloe gin fizz works mighty fast when you drink it by the pitcher and not by the glass. Uh-huh. Absofuckinglutely. The Queen of Country Music is in full bloom, ambitiously penning thirteen of fourteen songs across a variety of styles, and performing with a surprisingly strong voice for an icon now in her seventies. Some guy named Jack White produced and played guitar. (Interscope)

Dents and Shells
Alt-folkie Buckner is a poet, a traveler, a Bukowskian vagabond with change in his pocket, and the path he follows is murky, like a two-lane highway cutting through the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. Though the consciousness streamed here is much too insular to suggest anything more than a mood, it’ll damn sure get you there, whether you drive a Volkswagen or not. (Merge)

New Roman Times
CVB’s first studio album in fifteen years is a veritable rock opera, tracking a nameless Texas youth into the military, through disillusionment and drug abuse, and out an explosive other side. And while this decidedly political treatise is, by definition, more resolute than previous fare, Camper still brandishes a palette (as with the Twin Peaks nod “That Gum You Like Is Back in Style”) most bands only dream about. (Vanguard)

West of Rome
This year yielded a bumper crop of significant reissues: the more-or-less-25th-anniversary reprises of the Clash’s London Calling and Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, another Miles Davis box set, and the much-anticipated Nirvana set, With the Lights Out. Easily overlooked are the singular revelations that are Vic Chesnutt’s first four albums. While all worthy, West of Rome raises the literature of self-loathing to near-breathless heights. (New West)


Cee-Lo Green Is the Soul Machine
This is one of those albums that makes you wanna slap a beautiful big booty and go “Damn!” — especially when you hear the horns on “My Kind of People.” An equally eccentric, freaky-deaky sequel to Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections, Cee-Lo’s latest will win over anyone who boogied down to “Closet Freak” or “Suga Baby” in 2002. And if you’re not already a fan of Ludacris’ vulgar cameos, “Childz Play” will convert you. (Arista)

Both a hypermodern opera and an alien rose in the garden of electronic music, Medulla is weird enough to earn adjectives like “avant-garde,” but melodic enough that classical conceptions of musicianship still apply. It’s as though Björk gave Selma from Dancer in the Dark a series of arias and built vocal arrangements around them, combining the talents of beatboxers, international choirs, and even human trombone. What distinguishes Medulla from jokier albums like Homogenic and Post is the way she invests herself fully in the drama of each piece. (Elektra)

Ancestry in Progress
Although Marie Daulne sustains her African roots through slinky conga rhythms and raspy vocals, this aptly titled album shows how much she has evolved since Adventures in Afropea 1. Formerly an all-female a cappella group that built songs from pygmy melodies and Moroccan chants, Zap Mama now sounds sample-driven, urbane, and remarkably neo-soul-ish. This musical hybrid is likely the result of Daulne’s moving from Belgium to Philadelphia, where she recently began collaborating with Common, Erykah Badu, and the Roots. (V2/BMG)

When MF Doom emerges on “Accordion” and announces, Don’t touch the mic, like there’s AIDS on it, you’ll realize he’s achieved a level of profundity that’s surpassed the literal. The appropriate response is: “Hold on a second while I take all the drugs I can find in my house, and I’ll get back to you.” Combining this rhymesmith’s talents with Madlib’s jazzy production, Madvillainy is an artful pastiche of obscure trash culture samples and shroom-induced ruminations. (Stones Throw)

White People
It’s a little befuddling that the School created such a gorgeously weird album by coupling relatively banal rhymes with absolutely bizarre beats — but you’ve never heard the banal and the bizarre jell so well. Comprising producers Prince Paul and Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, this duo is one of the few current hip-hop outfits that’s actually stretching the genre. Their glossy production and oddball humor works best on “If It Wasn’t for You” and “First … and Then.” (Atlantic)

Van Hunt
If you can forgive him for being a little Ben Harper-ish, Van Hunt will make you swoon: This self-titled debut harks back to ’70s R&B — meaning it’s all about sweeping you off your feet, baby — but provides more musical depth than the recent neo-soul releases from Anthony Hamilton or Jill Scott. Songs like “Seconds of Pleasure” and “Down Here in Hell” make you feel as if Van Hunt is sitting next to you at a party and trying to tell you something intimate. (Capitol)

Tha Carter
Putting bling-blingy artists on your Top Ten is always dicey, and if I had my druthers, this slot would go to a more high-minded spiritual guide like Kanye West. But there’s a reason people are talking about Tha Carter: It’s hot. Tracks like “Go DJ” and “Hoes” are really funky, and Lil Wayne has a more distinctive character than most of his peers in the Southern crunk scene. This gets better the more you listen to it.(Cash Money)

If you’re not seduced by the confidence in Sparks’ delivery (I had a dutch, lit it/Let me just spit it, to make it vivid), you’ll love the clamorous boom-bap on his tracks, all produced by beat-cobblers in Copenhagen. Even while he burns rhymes into your nerve cells, he sounds completely unaware of himself. (Rapster)

Who R You
What the Frontline lacks in figurative language, it easily compensates for in hooky rhymes and battle-rap rancor. But the best part of Who R You is E-A-Ski’s production: the booms and slaps on “Uh Huh,” the scraping sounds on “Smile for the Camera,” and the funky looped bass on “What I Can” make this album both more infectious and more ambitious than most commercial booty-bangers. (Landmark Ent./Infrared Music Group)

A Long Hot Summer
Rife with Spike Lee references — the album cover being the first, and most obvious — and held together by skits featuring fictional mobster Fats Belvedere, A Long Hot Summer is a worthy homage to Masta Ace’s native Brooklyn. The raps aren’t too fancy-schmancy (mostly shaggy-dog stories about an MC on the grind), but with the addition of horns and melodic piano, the tracks on this album are beautiful. (Studio Distribution)


Street Signs
The outspoken Cali groove band got national news attention this year when Texas cops busted the group for taking its party to the streets of Austin during SXSW. But Street Signs is a bigger story: Like every Ozo album, it’s a rare look at struggle, oppression, and the possibility for hope. The band’s fluency in English and Spanish helps cast positive messages that unite folks with potent beats, breaks, grooves, and real musical instruments. (Concord)

Fountain of Youth
Not only is Haynes one of the best-dressed people in jazz, but at 79 he remains one of its elder statesmen. Still upholding his bebop royalty status, he is playing his ass off with musicians young enough to be his grandchildren. Fountain of Youth, recorded at NYC’s Village Vanguard in 2002, explodes with young lions like Martin Bejerano (piano), Marcus Strickland (sax) and John Sullivan (bass). Plenty of Monk, Metheny, Berlin, Oliver Nelson, and more. (Dreyfus Jazz)

Ahora Si!
Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez is a godfather of Cuban music. Having innovated the mambo and descarga (Latin jam session), the 86-year-old is still going strong — in fact, this CD and DVD package, produced by actor and director Andy Garcia, shows he’s still one of the best. With a stellar cast that includes the East Bay’s own timbales master Orestes Vilato, the jams are supercharged with rhythms that never let up, and superb soloists who breathe new-millennium life into these Cachao classics. (Cineson)

Jazz diva Nancy Wilson’s RSVP (“Rare Songs, Very Personal”) is one of her finest efforts in quite some time, packed with songs she’d always wanted to sing and accompanist friends that only complement and enhance her enrapturing voice. “An Older Man Is Like an Elegant Wine” with Toots Thielemans is a delightful example, but every tune here is special, blessed with the nuance, styling, and passion that only Nancy can provide. (MCG Jazz)

The Ride
As one of the best road trips I took all summer, The Ride finds Los Lobos celebrating thirty years together with good friends and cool songs. “La Venganza de Los Pelados” with Mexico City’s Care Tacuba was a fave, along with “Is That All There Is?” featuring East Los Angeles’ Little Willie G and “Wicked Rain”/”Across 110th St.” with Bobby Womack. Add Mavis Staples, Tom Waits, Rubén Blades, Elvis Costello, and others to the mix, and you’ll agree this is quite a rendezvous. (Hollywood)

Don’t expect much Cuban music to sneak over from the island anytime soon, given George W. Bush’s reelection. It’s too bad, because talents like singer Haila Mompié need to be seen to be believed. The former Bamboleo lead singer is riveting here, with great tunes like Ignacio Piñero’s “Sobre Una Tumba, Una Rumba” and special guests including Chucho Valdés, Issac Delgado, and Mayito Rivera from Los Van Van. (BIS Music)

Para Ellos
As a scholar of sacred and secular drumming traditions of the Caribbean, Santos is recognized worldwide as a master of rumba and bata drumming. On Para Ellos (“For Them”), he uses these traditional forms to honor departed masters like Mongo Santamaria, Julito Collazo, Oscar Valdes Sr., Chichito Cepeda, and Malonga Casquelourd. Rich, original songs with superb Afro-Cuban folkloric drumming make this quite a treat. (Machete)

Virgen de la Caridad
Anthony Blea is a gifted Bay Area classical and charanga dance music violinist who is starting to blow up nationally with this debut release, which offers eight pieces with special guests including trombonist Jimmy Bosch and violinist Alfredo de la Fe. Venezuelan singer Eduardo Herrera is featured on the exceptional “La Cintura de Maria,” which highlights this excellent introduction. (Hopping Mad Productions)

What alto saxophonist Zenón delivers on this Marsalis Music debut is a jazz style that blurs borders between the straight-ahead and Caribbean varieties. His melodic invention and ethereal harmonies create a thought-provoking lyricism, fueled by an exceptional band featuring Luis Perdomo (acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes), Hans Glawischning (bass), and Antonio Sánchez (drums). Zenón has arrived, and we should be glad. (Marsalis Music)

Grabaciones Originales 1952-1954
This pioneering conjunto norteño duo tore up Oakland’s La Paloma Bar in the ’80s. Squeezebox, bajo sexto guitar, and their voices were all they needed to tell their Mexican corrido folk ballad stories. Grabaciones lovingly details the songs that put Tomas Ortiz and Eugenio Abrego on the map at their youthful best. (Arhoolie)

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