1. THE ROOTS Phrenology (MCA)Genre: Mindbending hip hop (no, really, it is)
There’s only one band in hip hop, and it’s one to be reckoned with. The Roots’ fifth studio album cuts to the chase, literally stopping in the middle of the commonplace intro to start the first proper track. Black Thought’s lyrical intensity is Rakim-esque throughout the album, from the vocal tour de force “Thought @ Work” to “Complexity,” featuring Jill Scott. By the time you get to “The Seed (2.0),” featuring stud soul singer Cody ChesnuTT, The Roots should have you by the lapel. Then the album goes into hip hop’s uncharted waters. The beautiful cellos in the final movement of “Break You Off” float us along into “Water,” an ode to former Roots emcee Malik B, which goes from catchy hand clap to haunting pianos, screams and grinding guitars.
This album is groundbreaking, irrespective of the genre. Whereas The Roots’ last album, Things Fall Apart was about the love of hip hop, Phrenology is about the love of music. Years from know Phrenology will still seem fresh.- A.P.
2. WILCO Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch)Genre: Dad rock
The yearlong music critic orgy over Wilco’s YHF, which included almost every music publication, has come to a nostalgic head by way of countless year–end “top ten” lists. Well, break out the KY jelly — who are we to argue with greatness?
Wilco, the princes of folk/alt/country/rock melding, has released the best rock album since Radiohead’s millennial masterpiece Kid A. And, boy, is it a breath of sweet, fresh musical air.
The album has sold more than 300,000 copies to date in a market normally reserved for the Bizkits and Britneys. But it is no mystery why YHF has surprised record-execs alike with its success. This album is a portrait of mature songwriting coalescing with experimental instrumentation. It is a soundtrack of middle-age uncertainty and youthful exuberance at once. More importantly, it is a testament to the fact that a few regular guys with a few good songs can single-handedly shake up an entire industry and leave a lasting mark. -N.M.
3. VARIOUS ARTISTS Afro Rock (Kona)Genre: Chubby Checker meets Shaka Zulu
Here’s the “what the @#%$ ?” album on this year’s list. The album cover for Afro Rock, Volume One (the best this year, if you’re into sledgehammers) says the album is “a collection of rare and unreleased Afro-Beat quarried from across the continent.” I don’t really know what “Afro-Beat” is, but I do know that Afro Rock, Volume One is the funkiest thing I’ve heard in years.
Each was recorded between 1966 and 1978 and many of these songs have never been heard off the continent. These bands, and post-colonial Africa in general, embraced the “I’m black and I’m proud” sentiments of African-American artists such as James Brown. Many of the bands feature more than a dozen members, and whatever instruments they could get, from wah wahs to whistles. What develops is a rollicking album. The horns and drum breaks on “Fever,” the first track, let you know this album drops the funk, and you better get down. -A.P.
4. THE WHITE STRIPES White Blood Cells(V2)Genre: Rock ‘n’ Roll (remember that?)
All hail the new king and queen of rock.
Jack and Meg White, better known as The White Stripes, dress like peppermint candies and play the sweetest swirl of raw rock ‘n’ roll and gut-wrenching blues in modern music. And, it is captured perfectly on their newest release, White Blood Cells.
Their sound starts with Meg’s voracious drumming. It is solidified by Jack’s precise, soaring guitar licks and indignant lyrical delivery — “I’ll speak until I break/with every word I say/Offend in every way.”
Are they siblings? Are they a couple? Everybody wants to know — what’s the truth? Well, who cares? These two couldn’t make anymore noise if they stuffed their drum kit full of C-4 and flipped the switch.
Rock ‘n’ roll, welcome back. -N.M.
5. COMMON Electric circus (MCA)Genre: For all you players, here’s the GM
“I’m the only cat in hip hop/that can go to a thrift shop/then get up to the ghetto and get props.” That’s Common in a nutshell. With Electric Circus, Chicago’s finest emcee drops a hip hop Fifth Dimension, with everyone from Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu to Prince and Louis Farakhan(!) either featured or sampled. Recorded at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios, Electric Circus flows effortlessly between disparate genres, from the rock heavy “Electric Wire Hustle Flower” to big band jazz with “I Am Music.” This album harkens back to a time when black people made all kinds of music, psychedelic funk and jazz, soul and rock ‘n’ roll. The way rap music has pervaded into all aspects of American culture has pigeonholed African American musicians into “urban music.” Thankfully, Common knows this, and has delivered an album with a vision as diverse as the black culture he embraces. -A.P.
6. SONIC YOUTH Murray Street(DGC)Genre: Soft guitars to heal a wounded town
What happens when the members of a guitar punk band gets in to their 40s, has a few kiddies, and terrorists blow up their city? Why, only the most beautiful album they’ve ever made.
The lyrics throughout Murray Street are full of caring and thoughtfulness that Sonic Youth hasn’t shown in some time, raising the album above other works that reflect on the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Instead of the grinding guitars, SY kicks it back with long songs filled with lilting guitars and emotional vocals.
In only seven songs, Murray Street enriches listeners with uncommon guitar beauty, melding rhythms, melodies, loud-enough guitars, and strong lyrics into a capsule of an album. Just put it on and let it go. -A.P.
7. THE FLAMING LIPS Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (Warner Bros.)Genre: Synthesized happiness
It took three years to come up with an album anywhere as brilliant as their 1999 gem, The Soft Bulletin, but when The Flaming Lips released Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots this summer, the music world fell to its knees.
Their eleventh full-length release is a concept album about carnivorous robots, a black-belted heroin and optimism in the face of certain doom. Who says the concept album is outdated?
However, the best trick the Lips may have ever pulled was slipping themselves under the music industry’s radar and into semi-pop stardom thanks to talk show appearances and those delightful Hewlett Packard commercials.
But it would have never happened without this elaborate album adorned with vast soundscapes, spacey breakbeats, and Yoshimi and her pastel nemeses. -N.M.
8. BRAD MEHLDAU Largo (Warner Bros.)Genre: Un-smooth jazz
Brad Mehldau’s influences range from Beethoven to Miles Davis. A Likely story coming from a jazz musician. But when it comes time to play the fan, he’d likely thumb right past his copy of Kind of Blue instead opting for Sgt. Pepper.
That is why Largo, his ninth release, is such an intriguing album. Mehldau has made a career out of not only bringing out his rock ‘n’ roll inspirations in his song crafting, but also by covering his favorite tunes.
On Largo he follows “Dusty McNugget” — a track that marries his Monk-like playing with some sharp yet heavy drumming for an intense outcome — with a rendition of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” so soulful, you’d never believe it was written by a few scrawny, white limeys. And then, Mehldau drops his own version of “Sabbath” — enough said. -N.M.
9. MERCURY PROGRAM a data learn the language (Tiger Style)Genre: Music you can study to.
There’s two sides to instrumental indie rock, with the now-defunct Don Caballero on the hard edged, up-tempo side and Mercury Program holding down the “let me chill and ” side. With a data learn the language, the members of Mercury Program has the throne to themselves. Now that they stopped the not-so-great singing he used to do and focused more on instrumentation, the members of Mercury Program can mellow out with the best of them, with looping guitars soundscapes and subtle but steady drumming. I never knew I’d like the xylophone so much. -A.P.
10. TALIB KWELI Quality (Rawkus)Genre: Hip hop, pure, not simple
Quality showcases much more than “Get By,” this year’s song of the year (see sidebar, left). Kweli, hip hop’s most intelligent emcee, rhymes about the frailty of spiritualism in the ghetto with “The Proud,” and drops killer lines such as “I see the souls of black folk like W. E. B DuBois” in “Gun Music.” Kweli raps about his kids on “Joy,” with Mos Def on the hook, and on “Talk to you,” where Bilal does his best Eddie Hendricks impersonation, Kweli whispers sweet nothings in your ear like, “You must live in that infinite black that exist when I close my eyes.” Aww Talib, you shouldn’t have, but thanks for showing us how hip hop should be done. -A.P.