A zany wood-sprite to Björk's possessed tree goddess. With her pint-size voice and full-size harp, Newsom baffled and charmed indie-folk fans this year, mainly because you'd expect someone who sings about love and loss as sweetly and surreally as she does to sound older than 12. Mender might be off-putting on first listen, but it's totally addictive thereafter. And yes, she's a distant cousin of gay-marriage-performing San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, a detail which somehow brings her down to earth. JOE GROSS
Staten Island's most tempestuous Wu-banger argues with his own racing brain, demands some banana Nutrament, knocks boots with Missy in a '75 Cordoba, elbows his way into the Delfonics, and hyperventilates through one of the best cop-fleeing desperation scenarios in hip-hop history, all over nicotine-stained, Vietnam-era soul. Ghost starts contentious — gun-clap seethers like "Biscuits" and "Metal Lungies" turn vintage R&B all Scorsese-sinister — but by the end, he's begging for his girl ("Tooken Back"), sprinting for his life ("Run"), and taking stock of everything worth living for ("Love"). NATE PATRIN
Released in the wake of Jeff tweedy's rehab stint (and built on a sonic mulch clearly inspired by migraines, panic attacks, and prescription painkillers), A Ghost is Born is more ambient, less structured, and way weirder than its high-profile predecessor, the supposedly too-weird-for-public-consumption Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Yet this is Wilco at their most organic and instinctual; it's experimental classic rock that questions God, love, and whether or not an unplayed guitar still makes a sound (and whether or not that matters). CHUCK KLOSTERMAN
In a year lousy with emo guys who were obsessed with feeling what their feelings felt like and '80s-pop revivalists who were obsessed with how the Cars got that rhythm-guitar sound on "Just What I Needed," one lonely DJ beat everybody else. Largely foregoing the head-nod in favor of the long sigh, Philly-based RJD2 mixed trouble-man funk, trouble-man folk, synth-soaked rock, and tear-stained psychedelia into a song cycle about what it's like to be the sad man behind the turntables. ALEX PAPPADEMAS
Not since Alanis Morissettte tore through the firmament has a former child actress-turned-California folk-rock princess made falling into uncool situations with married older men seem so brutally universal. They should give out some sort of Daytime Emmy for this; it's no easy sell, and yet the tony pedigree might be what makes Rilo Kiley's elegantly self-lacerating odes to Hollywood and broken dreams seem so — oh, what's the term? — lived. She oughta know. But in music this rough, forgetting seems to be the only victory. JON DOLAN
The artwork for Talkie Walkie is littered with mathematical scribblings that imply the French duo have logged many hours in a cold synthesizer laboratory rejiggering their formula to include 37 percent more bells. In truth, Air's fourth album is as warm as it is clever, marked by a smooth, lulling atmosphere, cascading pianos, and beats that pulse like fingers lightly tapping on your eardrum. Aided by Radiohead's producer/guru Nigel Godrich, Air fashioned a soundscape that's paradoxically simple and dense, and way too sexy to have been born in a test tube. CARYN GANZ
These goth-chic New Jersey dudes, products of the same tortured hotbed that produced Thursday, take emo to its logical comic-book conclusion on an album with a plot that's like Dante for the Hot Topic crowd: Frontman Gerard Way must bring the souls of 1,000 evil men to Satan in order to be reunited with his dead lover. More satisfying: the way the band lay waste to their genre's fear of triumphant arena-rock bombast. If the last half of self-help single "I'm Not Okay (I Promise)" doesn't give you chills, you're either dead or over the age of 19. MIKAEL WOOD
A blast of free-form, in-the-red, gut-punchingly primal psychedelic-country-noise rock, made by Santa Cruz stoners who might actually have the space-pilot chops to land on real comets and set up camp. Druken guitars smash into each other and tumble down the stairs, the drummer wears boxing gloves, and some dude with an Echoplex beams the whole thing back to a time when sonic revolution meant an army of guitars. Through the haze, Cathedral proved that it's not a freak-out if you never let up — it's a way of life. J.G.
The miracle of life, as explained by five new-wave-addled Nebraskans — a creeptastic voyage through the birth canal and beyond, from Jell-O shots to ankle stirrups. This group used to sound painfully self-conscious about their retro instrumentation, but on their fourth record, they ditched the quote marks and made their moldy old synthesizers rock in ways Nine Inch Nails only dreamed. "Erection" is not only a natural choice for Spike TV promos and ironic strip clubs, it's also the best song about getting wood since AC/DC's "Stiff Upper Lip." And who hasn't been waiting for that? ANDREW BEAUJON
Forget the Nick Cave, Tom Waits, and Captain Beefheart comparisons — Polly Jean is really her generation's Neil Young, willfully flipping from lush to throat-clenchingly raw with every record, and sounding just as convincing either way. Which isn't to say Uh Huh Her was necessarily autobiographical, though dedicating "The End" to former paramour Vincent Gallo didn't exactly dispel any rumors. Gossip aside, though, Harvey's parched howl and scorched-earth guitar on cuts like "Who the Fuck?" still took every New York rock band to school — not bad for an album that's basically a self-recorded demo. MICHAELANGELO MATOS
London cuties whose debut charmed 'em with effortlessly mangled NYC-style punk and chic hedonism, the Libertines battled co-frontman Pete Doherty's crack addiction all year. On the band's second album, Doherty and partner Carl Barât struggle to hold their homages together and keep their guitars correctly mistuned, seeking serendipity amid chaos. Barât concludes this beautiful train wreck with a warm-hearted yet cold-eyed three-song intervention — eulogizing a friendship, a moment, maybe a band. KEITH HARRIS
Or, if you prefer, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb Using Only a New iPod, Guitars That Suggest Your Oft-Mentioned Love of Punk Isn't Entirely B.S., Kofi Annan's Cell Number, and a Serious Messiah Complex. Sweeping yet intimate, this record sounded optimistic the day before the election and superhumanly optimistic the day after. Believe in me, Bono seems to say, and anything can happen. An end to third-world debt. An '80s rock band making a great 11th album. A thousand Joshua trees blooming in downtown Falluja. A.P.
Cologne, Germany's Kompakt champions dance music's most fascinating sub-genre, microhouse (basically low-carb, high-protein techno). The label's 100th release is a sterling collection of remixes of earlier Kompakt work. From Kaito's unpacking of Superpitcher's elegiac "Tomorrow" to Sascha Funke's rumbling take on Thomas Fehlmann's "Radeln," the tracks find ever newer permutations of the sinew, thrust, and ambient pop that have made this genre the hot soundtrack for contemplative body-jacking. JON CARAMANICA
Old tricksters die hard, especially when they've found their niche — or should we say groove? We should, thanks to MVP guitarist Marc Ribot (dig his hyper-alert comping on "Hoist That Rag"), a dozen overdubbed, mouth-noisemaking Waitses, and son Casey's turntable scratches, which fit right into Dad's already-voluminous musical scrap heap. "Groove" means you can mumble something called "Sins of My Father" for ten-plus minutes and just keep gathering momentum. It also means that your plug-ugliness can grow more beautiful with each passing year. M.M.
It begins with the hollow thunder of crowd noise, and ends with the artist pulling out his new gun and blasting away at the fans — just like Sid Vicious! In between, Marshall Mathers does it his way, puking on fame's red carpet while waving to the cameras, anger-managing like Tony Soprano with an Excedrin headache, growling a too-late-if-not-too-little anti-Bush screed, and rapping about his bunghole. Until he breaks up with himself, citing "creative differences," he will remain America's finest reality show: crass, oddly tender, riveting. A.P.
This album is like a long drive (across Texas) for someone with nothing to think about and a stoner's iPod on the dashboard. Transplants from red-slate Dallas to hypnogogic-state New York City, Josh Garza and brothers Brandon and Ben Curtis navigate by landmarks, drifting through Pink Floyd's comfortably numb kingdom one minute, cursing the krautrock Autobahn the next. But these are just roadside attractions; the restlessly inventive Now Here Is Nowhere never stops moving long enough to call any of them home. ZAC CRAIN
Oh, Los Angeles, so much to answer for. You cast Pope Steven Patrick the First into the desert of obscurity, and then in the seventh year of his exile, you brought him to the promised land of career revival, or at least the lobby of the Regent Beverly Wilshire. In thanks, a re-energized Morrissey opened up his music, making room for synth beats, gangster pinstripes, tributes to his legion of Latino fans, and a whole lot of frothing anti-imperialism — viva Bush-hate! And there was panic on the streets of Oxnard, Juárez, El Cajon... J.G.
Chris Martin shouldn't have left us without a dope beat to step to. Gwenyth, the baby, that rubbish rap-video download — what a selfish git. Luckily his Scottish counterpart Gary Lightbody stepped up to the plate with Final Straw, Snow Patrol's breakthrough third album and the best Coldplay record in a year with no new Coldplay record. Pro-smoking epic "Run" challenges the cell-phone waving majesty of "Yellow," while the zippy "Spitting Games" sounds like zooming home through the Chunnel for Christmas break. Feel-good Britpop for nonbelievers. M.W.
In 2004, a little-known, feminist dance-punk trio did what a legendarily hip threesome of white rappers couldn't: They produced a vivid, clever, stunningly original love letter to New York City. On their major-label debut, Kathleen Hanna and crew boil incendiary political rants, jumpy bloop-pop, and crunchy power chords into a blazing statement of anger, hope, and pride. The luxury of a few extra bucks lends a newfound call-to-arms "New Kicks," ensuring that this revolution will be broadcast from a much louder dance floor. C.G.
Jimmy Eat World frontdude Jim Adkins is an optimist or a sap — how else could he still sing lines like, "I hope for better in November" without choking? Either way, Futures expands the platinum punch of 2001's Bleed American: Full-blooming pop-rockers like "Work" and "Polaris" reconfigure emo for the stadium set, stacking choruses, harmonies, and 100 percent irony-free sentiments like Jenga blocks. The results quake but never topple — these are gorgeously overwrought anthems that someone other than your little sister could love. ANDY GREENWALD
Irish blood, American heart of oak — Ted Leo was born to serve as this country's punk conscience. On Shake the Streets, his well-meaning, left-leaning protest songs sound like actual songs, not position papers; call it electoral-college rock. Leo still big-ups his latter-day saints (Joe Strummer, Paul Weller, and Phil Lynott, among others), but there's not much room in these fat-free tunes for hero worship. Instead, Leo stays on message and lets his D.C. hardcore roots show through, even as the party turns into a wake. Z.C.
Gregorian chants and human beat-boxing: together at last! On her sixth solo album, Björk abandoned inanimate instruments to get down with the primal avant-garde. Recording while preggers, she enlisted an Icelandic vocal choir and the Roots' Rahzel as a rhythm section, then got her cast to keen, grunt, and howl like fairy-tale forest creatures. Over the years, we've seen her morph into a bear, a robot, and a swan, but the joyously high-concept Medulla lays bare the true Björk: She's a siren, luring us into the mystic with nothing but her voice. JULIANNE SHEPHERD
After (not) dropping his own Black Album, America's sexiest five-foot-two Jehova's Witness could have retired as Lord Mayor of Erotic City — and some of his recent, herniated jazz-funkathons made us almost wish he had. But this shockingly concise single-disc album shows that there's still plenty of (pop) life left in him. He burns through the uptempo numbers — particularly the 2-good-2-B-true war-jam "Cinnamon Girl" — like he's got a crankcase full of Crunk juice. And the do-it-all-night ballads are both introspective and unfailingly elegant. Mr. Kiss-his-ass-crack remains a class act. A.P.
Evoking the '60s in a way that hip-hop's rarely tried before, Madvilliany recalls yellowed Marvel comics newsprint, indica-musty jazz records, and Bond-henchmen menace, all with an aloof sense of humor that suggests Bill Cosby murmuring thug-weirdo slanguage. MF Doom is an MC who never met a cliché he couldn't make zing, a deadpan conversationalist tossing out one-liner asides with more panache than Guru dealing high-stakes baccarat backstage at the Apollo. Partner Madlib's production — thick, woozy slabs of beatnik bass — keeps things hotter than an underground volcano lair. N.P.
All of the British bands that American Anglophiles worship (New Order, the Smiths, Happy Mondays) hailed from Manchester, the dreariest, working-classiest major city in England. Accordingly, the Killers — the U.S.'s best stab yet at slickly alluring Anglo electropop — are a bunch of white-bread boys from Las Vegas, who, on sure-shot party starters "Mr Brightside" and "Somebody Told Me," make hedonism sound almost holy. Full of sweaty, ambisexual songs and sweeping John Hughes-worthy ballads, Hot Fuss is like doing a semester abroad without ever having to leave your suburb. A.G.
On this set of gutter-glam anthems, Love plays the rock-widow role to the hilt — self-destructive but fabulous, loudly muscling her way out of one of rock's longest shadows. Ten years after Kurt Cobain's death, she aims her flamethrower back at the '90s, hijacking Nirvana riffs with caustic wit, then turns on Los Angeles, the yellow-wallpaper environment she blames for warping her into a gossip-column "freak show" and assault-charge defendant. Delirious and fierce, America's Sweetheart is a disaster, but it's a brilliant one. J.S.
What the early CBGB punks were to stadium rock, what the White Stripes were to Creed, DFA production team James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy are to the billowing mush that dance music has lately become — stark, riveting, arty, heedless. And it turns out they're just getting started. Whether resuscitating art-funk godfathers Liquid Liquid, inventing toy-instrument disco with J.O.Y., making the year's best non-Usher "Yeah" song as LCD Soundsystem, or rewinding "bonjour" with Black Leotard Front, their two-discs-plus-DJ-mix showcase never lets up, and you won't want it to. M.M.
It takes extremely smart men to make rock'n'roll this stupid. Back in Colonel Sanders neckties and Captain Stubing suits, the Hives studiously reduce rock to a dinosaur pose on their third album — big beat, cheap guitars, distorted bass. But they still can't resist drawing an analogy between Caesar's assassin, World War II traitor Vidkun Quisling, and modern corporate amorality (in "B Is For Brutus"). That they can make you hop around like an anvil got dropped out your foot while they do so is a marvelous example of the white-hot advances in Swedish rock technology. A.B.
This year, while Mos Def struggled to create beat-savvy black rock, this Brooklyn quintet pulled it off. Easily the year's dizziest album, their debut sound like Kanye West producing a punkabilly space-rock troupe. The love-note "Ambulance" runs barbershop harmonies through indie-rock diffidence. "Bomb Yourself" is one of the best rebukes to military aggression we've got ("You've made a family / Now kill them dead"). And "The Wrong Way" is a swipe against racial stereotyping — much like the band itself. J.C.
"All I want is cash money like lightning," the man with the C-3PO brio and the PlayStation-griot ear admits on his stardom-pressured second record. In Dizzee's Dickensian grime, every fixed relationship (man and machine, predator and prey, rhythm and language) bursts into terrified flux. Future-shock beats aside, Showtime's real emotional core is a classic new-wave paradox, one that you'll remember from another alienated London travelogue: "What have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?" And how do I get some more? J.D.
In an autumn full of out-there cultural miracles (Red Sox in four, the Dylan memoir), this was one of the biggest — a new version of the great, lost Beach Boys album put together by a not-altogether Brian Wilson. The meaty songs you know ("Good Vibrations") and the link tracks you don't ("Vega-Tables") give simple humanity the complex orchestration humans deserve. The fact that this visionary songster finally summoned the will to assemble the fragments of an album long consigned to history's what-if file, though, seems less miraculous than heroic. J.G.
The dark princes of New York rock royalty, Interpol set the room on fire by pairing enigmatic singer/guitarist Paul Banks' louche Black Francis verbiage with goose-pimply dance rock, perfect for choosing which jet-black Helmut Lang suit to wear to bed tonight. As usual, Banks lays the closing-time mojo on heavy, but this assured sophomore album also flirts hard with the effortless expansiveness and indomitable spirit of early records by future U.N. peacekeepers U2 and R.E.M. Turn on the (even brighter) lights. M.W.
Thanks to Jack White's hard-nosed production, Van Lear Rose may be Lynn's greatest album to date — a triumphant steel-and-rhinestones hootenanny. White tethers the beautifully hazy "Portland Oregon" with chunky riffs while Lynn one-ups the White Stripes' "Hotel Yorba" with "This Old House." Like fellow golden gals Dolly, Patsy, and Reba, Loretta has been on a first-name basis with country fans for years, but by playing Maude to White's Harold, she hit the less-familiar blue states like a stiff Panhandle breeze. YANCEY STRICKLER
Does Mike Skinner make "real" hip-hop or not? One thing's for sure: He has very little use for skits. Instead, on his second album, he folded omniscient narration, dialogue, scene changes, and more into a gripping headphone-movie about lost love, broken appliances, and mislaid funds. Skinner kept the music purposefully skeletal, which left room for details, from the bad-trip paranoia of "Blinded By the Lights," the first-date jitters of "Could Well Be In," the laddish girl-hawking of "Fit But You Know It." As concept albums go — in or out of hip-hop — nobody came near it. M.M.
As enigmatic as Nick Drake or Kurt Cobain before him, Smith was a specter of romantic tragedy even in life. With a voice melancholy and serene, with chords huge and wrenching, he played the self-aware victim and self-hating perpetrator. Crippled by depression whether on or off the drugs, Smith always seemed to know his story would end, and Basement feels monumentally final: a letter of resignation from another songwriter who found hope in melody, but couldn't find it in himself to live for it. J.S.
A brilliant, little-known DJ runs Jay-Z's Black Album vocals over rearranged shards of the Beatles' "White Album," creating dreamlike mosaics that are newly dazzling. After Capitol blocks the music's distribution, some folks remember that the U.S. Constitution establishes copyright law to "promote the progress of...useful arts," not so corporations can make bank off pre-recorded music forever. On "Grey Tuesday" — February 24, 2004 — 170 websites post tracks from the project, leading to one million downloads, an unprecedented act of electronic civil disobedience. Democracy lives happily ever after — if only for one day. K.H.
Schlubby indie-rockers whose sound grew with their budget, and who kept their sense of rhythm without feigning the funk, Modest Mouse offered a plaint that was well-suited to a nation of maturing malcontents learning that you can't stay emo forever. After all, if Isaac Brock can grumblingly learn to accept that life isn't all misery, then there's hope for the rest of us who can't always get what we want. No, we won't overcome, but we'll all float on, all right. K.H.
Like their historical namesake, Franz Ferdinand prove that size doesn't matter — that even the seemingly smallest players can possess the potential to change everything. Though first albums are unreliable predictors of future success (see: Strokes, The), this Scottish quartet's debut feels life-altering from first listen; full of odes to unrequited passions and indeterminate sexuality, it's a somber yet strangely danceable affair. Some detractors dismissed Franz's moody music as a purely European phenomenon, but one year and more than 600,000 records later, they're the fops heard round the world. DAVE ITZKOFF
Punk has changed a lot in the past decade, but the soul-sucking suburbs that birthed it have gotten only worse. On this conceptually brilliant, unstoppably alive rock opera, Green Day dive headfirst into Bush's America: an endless 7-Eleven parking lot filled with sexy violence, violent sex, empty Pepsi cans, and emptier emptiness. Billie Joe's a dad now, and he narrates with infinite patience for his kids. "Jesus of Suburbia" is the fabled "youth vote" in all its Ritalin-snorting glory, and Armstrong is its President-reject: still swearing, still sneering, still questioning, still hopeful. A.G.
If you need to love yourself before you can inspire others to love themselves, then producer-turned-rapper Kanye West really was 2004's musical savior. His debut album boasts more well-intentioned ego and ambition than Southern Baptists got offering plates. While saving hip-hop has always been an odd preoccupation — from what, exactly? Capitalism? — this bling-swinging son of a college professor and Black Panther (and grandson of civil-rights marchers) claims to do that and more on The College Dropout. As bumptious beats push up on tenderly melodic samples, West eagerly sells the sort of message-oriented raps that often get tagged as "conscious" (or "self-conscious," as he puts it), preaching fidgety sermons that address life's soulless grind with soulful sass. He is witty (sending up fitness freaks), provocative (getting little kids to sing the chorus, "Drug dealing just to get by / Stack your money till it gets sky-high"), and intensely devoted (the volatile revival march "Jesus Walks"). Never posing as a ghetto sufferhead or G-rated fresh prince, he speaks a universal gospel. So if you're lost and about to put your hopes and dreams on layaway at Wal-Mart, cue up The College Dropout. Kanye's got a plan for you. C.A.