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Steve Chupaska's picks:
1. "WOLFGANG AMADEUS PHOENIX," Phoenix (Glass Note) Mon dieu, what a record. Phoenix was simply everywhere this year: on jukeboxes, radio, "SNL," Cadillac ads, on the stereo nearly every time I went for drinks at the Oasis. But while you might be justified to recoil at such lavish praise and exposure, you'd be missing the point and the party. There hasn't been such a declaration of universal, danceable, rock-out-able joy since the Stone Roses debut 20 years ago. Easily, quite easily in fact, the album of the year.
2. "MY OLD, FAMILIAR FRIEND," Brendan Benson (Ato Records) You might recognize Benson from The Raconteurs, who also feature Jack White on guitar. It's obvious that band gets its tunefulness from Benson, as demonstrated on this album's lead cut, "Feel A Whole Lot Better," which lays out a power pop manifesto: "I fell in love with you/And out of love with you/And back in love with you/All in the same day."
3. "MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION,"Animal Collective (Domino) If Pablo Picasso and Brian Wilson circa "The Beach Boys Love You" made a pop record together, it might sound like this. Every song asks you to return and listen to it again, and it'll be a different catchy thing altogether. Then, after a while, you're confused and disoriented again. I'm still baffled by it, but haven't stopped listening to it.
4. "IT'S BLITZ!," Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Interscope Records) In 2003, YYY released "Maps," the past decade's most beautiful love song. They end the 00's, by, for the most part, replacing their trademark scum-rock guitars with keyboard washes and light industrial beats, with Karen O's sad and sexy voice way up front in the mix.
5. "LIVE AT THE OLYMPIA," R.E.M. (Warner Bros.) Given that most of them are hacked together greatest hits records, live albums usually reek of eau d'contractual obligation. Not this one. This document of six days of "live rehearsals" rediscovers the band's onstage spirit that made teenage me salivate over R.E.M. bootlegs at the Mystic Disc. Make sure you check out "Circus Envy," hitherto filler on "Monster," that here rumbles like an oversexed Count Five.
Rick Koster's Picks
1. "THE INCIDENT," Porcupine Tree (Roadrunner Records)
2. "INSURGENTES," Steven Wilson (KScope Records)
It's a shame more folks don't realize that Steven Wilson is the closest equivalent in our time to Brian Wilson (and, in fact, I wonder if they are related). SW's Porcupine Tree is the best band in the world, and "The Incident" hijacked my ears and brain for months. It's a masterpiece I wouldn't have thought possible after 2007's equally-brilliant-yet-quite-different "Fear of a Blank Planet." The more you listen (to both Nos. 1 and 2), the more you hear - and the more you hear, the more you can't believe how it all fits together. The "Time Flies" single edit: best song of the year. As for "Insurgentes," Wilson experiments with a variety of styles of great personal interest - and yet makes the whole thing come together as a unified work. Listen to "Significant Other" and watch your head twist free and fly away.
3. "NIGHT IS THE NEW DAY," Katatonia (Peaceville)
4. "YEARS OF REFUSAL," Morrissey (Lost Highway)
5. "TICK TOCK," Gazpacho (HWT Records)
6. "FLOWER PETALS," the subdudes (429 Records)
7. "STRANGELET," Hands (Wheelhouse Music)
8. "THE RESISTANCE," Muse (Warner Bros.)
9. "I AND YOU AND LOVE," The Avett Brothers (Sony)
10. "GET LUCKY," Mark Knopfler (Warner Bros.)
Ted Mann's picks
1. "I'M GOING AWAY," The Fiery Furnaces (Thrill Jockey) In 2009, siblings Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger made their best record yet, a melancholy song series about break-ups, disconnection and memory. The record frequently swings into a sprint, only to slow into trotting choruses, heavy on the ride cymbal, wry asides and pounded piano. See "Drive to Dallas" and "Even in the Rain." For extra credit, also check out "Take Me Round Again," their second disc of the year, in which the band covers all the songs on "I'm Going Away." Once more for good measure, I guess.
2. "VECKATIMEST," Grizzly Bear (Warp Records) On their third full-length, Grizzly Bear is a four-piece with a host of talented guests, making pop music as intricate and layered as it is wide open. "Two Weeks" is irresistible, and "While You Wait for the Others" isn't far behind. The record has a dramatic sound, from the hushed harmonies to the crescendos of the meticulously crafted and mindful songs.
3. "FALL BE KIND," [EP] Animal Collective (Domino) First the news: This disc's "What Would I Want? Sky" contains the first legally cleared sample of the Grateful Dead (from "Unbroken Chain," if you're keeping score at home). Here's what matters more: This five-song effort heaps more evidence on the pile that already suggests this group's remaking of a pop music archetype, a sound both slickly engineered and soulful, as dense as it is inviting.
4. "JOSEPHINE," Magnolia Electric Co. (Secretly Canadian) More perfectly rendered woe from Jason Molina and gang. "Josephine" is country-standard loneliness daydreamed over long nights, redolent with past misdeeds that the evening seems to render universal. "Count every rhodedendron in this cool mountain light," Molina sings. "I've made more mistakes than that just tonight." We are inclined to believe him.
5. "DARK WAS THE NIGHT," Various Artists (4as Records) Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National produced this two-disc compilation for the Red Hot Organization, which directs some proceeds to fight HIV/AIDS. A staggering array of great talent, worthy songs and a good cause. Includes David Byrne, dirty projectors, Spoon, Grizzly Bear, Yo La Tengo and Cat Power, Antony, Sufjan Stevens and The Books.
Milton Moore's pick:
"THE COMPLETE PIANO TRIOS OF FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN." Haydn Trio Eisenstadt (Phoenix Edition) On the 200th anniversary of Joseph Haydn's death, the Austrian ensemble Haydn Trio Eisenstadt's eight-disc boxed set of his complete piano trios was a gift to all of us. It's hard to imagine an investment of less than $40 that offers more listening pleasure. There are 39 trios in all, succinct musical ideas with a depth of feeling that reveals itself with repeated listening. The recording is vivid, with a big, robust sound; the performances are knowing, seeking a distinct identity to each of the short trios; and the discoveries here for any chamber music lover are many.
Kenton Robinson's picks:
1. "ECCENTRIC SOUL: SMART'S PALACE," Various artists (Numero) Smart's Palace was a nightclub in the black section of Wichita, Kan., from 1963 to 1975. In other words, it was about as far away from the musical mainstream as you could get. But give a listen to the funk and soul artists who were performing there, and you won't believe you've never heard of them. This is awesome music, 19 tracks of sheer soul bliss: Theron & Darrell, Baby Neal, Chocolate Snow and a host of others. Just listen to Fred Williams & the Jewels do "Tell Her," 2 minutes and 23 seconds of heart-wrenching perfection, as good as anything James Brown ever dished.
2. "NA TEEF KNOW DE ROAD OF TEEF," Pax Nicholas and the Netty Family (Daptone) Nicholas Addo-Nettey of Ghana ended up playing congas and singing backup with Fela Anikulapo Kuti during the years in which Fela became the king of the new sound called Afrobeat. But Nicholas cut a couple of records on this side. This one, a disc of deep and truly spooky Afro-funk, was cut with Fela's band in Ginger Baker's studio in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1973. Fela, the story goes, was furious and demanded it be suppressed. Now, more than 30 years later, it's being released by Daptone. This is haunting stuff, music so murky that it sounds like the work of a man who sold his soul.
3. "SECRET AGENT," Tony Allen (World Circuit) Speaking of Fela, let's talk Tony Allen. He was Fela's drummer back in the day, and Fela is said to have said of him that he played "like four drummers." Allen has been taking Afrobeat into funkier and funkier places for years, mixing in everything from electronica to hip-hop. "Secret Agent" is no exception, filled with beats that get inside you and horns tighter than tight. Frankly, it's amazing that the whole world isn't dancing to this stuff. Allen, by the way, is also a co-founder of The Good, The Bad and The Queen with Damon Albarn.
4. "IMIDIWAN: COMPANIONS," Tinariwen (World Village) If you haven't yet caught up with Tinariwen, you've been missing a thing both brilliant and strange. Tinariwen is a group of Touareg tribesmen who live in the Sahara and play mean, sweet, growling electric guitars. The sound is on the one hand weirdly familiar, like that of the old Mississippi Delta bluesmen, and passing strange, band members singing in Tamashek over choruses of ululating women (and how often do you get to hear ululating women?). It's unworldly and unbelievably beautiful. This is their fourth album, which means you have a lot of catching up to do.
5. "WARM HEART OF AFRICA," The Very Best (Green Owl Records) Last year, this group posted a free mixtape on the Web that was better than most anything you could buy. This year, they've released their first official album, and it's glorious, bringing together electronica, dance pop and the rhythms of eastern Africa's Malawi. The Very Best is Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya and the European production team known as Radioclit. They're joined on this album by singer M.I.A. and Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig. This is probably the most pop friendly album on this list, with soaring, anthemic choruses and an overall sense of joy.