1. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar) - As bleak and desolate as its creator, Justin Vernon, and his northern Wisconsin surroundings, Emma is a devastatingly direct and moving record that functions as equal parts confession and depressive howl. Vernon turned bad winter into good.
2. Vampire Weekend (XL) - There's so much to hate about this band and this record: the Ivy League educations, the too-cute references to Lil Jon, the cribbing of Paul Simon's cribbing of world music. But damned if they don't turn all of these things into exactly what makes them loveable.
3. Department of Eagles, In Ear Park (4AD) - Grizzly Bear's Daniel Rossen and his old N.Y.U. dorm pal Fred Nicolaus make a record that sounds a whole lot like Grizzly Bear. Seeing that Grizzly Bear is one of the greatest bands in the world, that's enough to make this record great too.
4. Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop) - Zero-to-sixty in six months for good reason, Robin Pecknold and band went from completely unknown outside the Pacific Northwest to stories in essentially every national mag. All on the basis of the surprisingly mature combination of folk-rock echoes and more recent, yet equally hirsute, influences.
5. Frances, All the While (Gigantic) - You might expect a band made up of music majors to be totally inaccessible, but this Brooklyn sextet's debut features totally listenable songs that succeed with simple melodies and grandiose arrangements.
6. Why?, Alopecia (Anticon) - Finally finding the middle ground between hip-hop and jangle-pop, these Bay Area iconoclasts turned in the finest record of an already solid, if under-noticed career.
7. Jenny Lewis, Acid Tongue (WEA/Reprise) - Although she may have made her musical bones as Rilo Kiley's cofounder, Lewis' second solo album suggests that it may be time for a permanent break from her old cohorts.
8. Jeff Hanson, Madam Owl (Kill Rock Stars) - Will the world ever catch on to this guy's stunning sense of melody, distinctive voice and superior arrangements? Three albums in, the former M.I.J. frontman continues to excel, even if no one seems to be paying attention.
9. No Age, Nouns (Sub Pop) - Calling this L.A. micro-band art-punk might miss the melodic nuance underneath all their bluster. Nouns' songs refuse to be overshadowed.
10. Tindersticks, The Hungry Saw (Beggar's Banquet) - Easily the most welcome and surprising return of the year. Stuart Staples may have reconvened only half his band's original members, but it's a full plate of great songs and more passion than they had conjured in years.
1. Street Dogs, State of Grace (Hellcat) - On the Street Dogs' fourth album, original Dropkick Murphys singer Mike McColgan matches his old band at their best, organically fusing street punk, barroom sing-alongs, classic rock and wicked-traditional Celtic tunes.
2. Made Out of Babies, The Ruiner (The End) - N.Y.C. combo makes post-metal audio S&M. Splayed across jackhammer rhythms, frontwoman Julie Christmas is a force of nature who sings like an angel whose wings are being ripped off.
3. Mr. Gnome, Deliver This Creature (El Marko) - Cleveland duo combines fractured trip-hop beats, psychedelic guitar and orgasmic siren vocals for a full-length debut that doesn't sound like anything else out there.
4. Nine Inch Nails, Ghosts I-IV (The Null Corporation) - Two discs full of gray rainy-day music. Many great bands have an undercurrent of unusual material that doesn't represent what they're best known for. But only NIN mainman T-Rez has ponied up a whole double album of the offbeat stuff.
5. Warbringer, War Without End (Century Media) - On atavistic thrashathons like "Total War" and "Hell on Earth," this California killing machine sprays the battlefield with classic-caliber crossover.
6. The Gutter Twins, Saturnalia (Sub Pop) - Two of the modern era's greatest voices - Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli and Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan - go together like Guinness and Jameson on this dark, moody rock masterpiece that's death-kissed with trip-hop and soul.
7. Rachel Yamagata, Elephants …Teeth Sinking Into Heart (Warner Bros.) - The piano girl of the year isn't Tori Amos or Fiona Apple. But that's a good start. Apparently it's a double album and the second one rocks. But I'm still stuck on the mellow first one.
8. Raphael Saadiq, The Way I See It (Columbia) - R&B songsmith nails a platter of authentic Motown-style retro-soul. They don't make 'em like this any more. Well, Saadiq does.
9. Grand Buffet, King Vision (Fighting) - Pittsburgh indie-rap duo goes post-rap with rock sprints and locked-and-loaded 1980s-style synthesizers. The disc is seething with the kind of substantiated paranoia that was on display in Fight Club and Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions …
10. Guns N' Roses, Chinese Democracy (Geffen) - As a whole, Axl Rose's long-awaited solo debut is unlistenable, riddled with dated filigrees and WTF? moments, like electro beats and disco breaks. But the most, if not only, overly ambitious classic-rock record of recent memory runs 14 songs, 71 minutes. Cut it down to seven songs, and you have an album-rock landmark that's a solid 35 minutes, which was all you needed in the pre-CD era.
1. Alias, Resurgam (Anticon) - The hip-hop/electronic producer makes his finest record, an absolutely beautiful collection of moody instrumentals. It's clear why Alias stopped doing vocals: He clearly doesn't need words to convey emotions.
2. M83, Saturdays = Youth (Mute) - This is a record that you don't just listen to; you feel it. It oozes with the group's usual reverb and sonic textures, but this time the songwriting is impeccable too.
3. Why?, Alopecia (Anticon) - Yoni Wolf's weird mix of Tom-Waits-meets-hip-hop succeeds again. He's a truly diverse and one-of-a-kind artist with a serious knack for storytelling.
4. Portishead, Third (Island) - We waited 11 years for this record, and it was definitely worth it. While some fans complained that it didn't sound like their previous masterpieces, the rest of us were more than happy with their growth.
5. Murs, Murs for President (Warner Bros.) - When Murs jumped to a major label, fans were waiting to cry "sellout!" But President is so good, they couldn't say a word. Murs stayed true to himself, checking in with his best record.
6. Neil Diamond, Home Before Dark (Columbia/American) - After 40-plus years of making music, Diamond nails it on his second terrific pairing with Rick Rubin. Hey, Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, let the man in - now!
7. Nas (Def Jam/Columbia) - Extremely raw and highly controversial, Nasty Nas brings substance back to hip-hop. He also proves that even as he approaches 40, he's unbeatable when it comes to mic skills.
8. The Cool Kids, The Bake Sale (Chocolate Industries) - This one's worth all the hype. By taking us back in time, the Chicago duo moved hip-hop forward a few steps. Dope!
9. Metaform, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (metaformonline.com) - Metaform fills the void that DJ Shadow left when he took a break from cinematic instrumental hip-hop to try hyphy. Giants is a pleasant surprise that never loses steam.
10. Hayden, In Field & Town (Fat Possum) - The Canadian folkie gets better with age. Here, he delivers a short but sweet set of earnest pop gems that was the perfect soundtrack to autumn.
1. My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges (ATO) - Everything you need to know about this album is crammed onto its title cut, a sprawling epic that begins in Prince's bedroom, rockets to outer space and then crashes to Earth at a zillion miles per hour. After that, frontman Jim James gets even freakier.
2. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals (Illegal Art) - Copyright laws be damned! Mash-up maestro Gregg Gillis skips around like an ADD-addled kid with a broken iPod, piecing together snippets of OutKast, Dexys Midnight Runners and Radiohead songs for the year's best party-starter.
3. TV on the Radio, Dear Science (DGC/Interscope) - These artsy New Yorkers bust a move on their third album, an edging-even-closer-to-the-apocalypse dance party. They still can't shake their cryptic lyrics and a noisy soundscape that's about to teeter off the end of the world. But you'll be too engrossed to notice.
4. Taylor Swift, Fearless (Big Machine) - I have no idea what it's like to be an 18-year-old girl. But I'm pretty sure I'd be a lot like Taylor Swift: obsessing over boys, then writing songs about them. But there's no way they'd be as catchy as the faintly twangy tunes found on the year's best pop album.
5. The Hold Steady, Stay Positive (Vagrant) - Frontman Craig Finn abandons the drunk and horny kids who popped in and out of the Hold Steady's first three albums for his most traditional set of songs. The theremin- and harpsichord-graced cuts add musical muscle to the band's E-Street swagger.
6. Vampire Weekend (XL) - On their debut CD, these Ivy League smartasses play bouncy Afropop like they learned it from (admittedly terrific) Talking Heads and Paul Simon albums. Another way to tell it's not the real thing: Only privileged white kids would sing about Oxford commas and mansard roofs.
7. Santogold (Downtown) - Santi White has been part of the music scene for years now: as an A&R rep, as a punk singer and as a songwriter for Ashlee Simpson. On her debut album as Santogold, she blends pop, rap, new wave and about a dozen other genres for the year's most restless record.
8. Conor Oberst (Merge) - Oberst's best album since Bright Eyes' 2002 breakthrough, Lifted, is a winding trip through dusty backroads and barren vistas. Oberst has been steering toward classic singer-songwriter territory for the past few years. On this assured solo project, he finally gets there.
9. Coldplay, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (Capitol) - It's big, blustery and audacious. It's also pretentious as hell. But Coldplay's fourth album, populated by disgraced 18th-century dictators and other folks spiraling toward destruction, sounds like that big art project Chris Martin always wanted to make.
10. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III (Cash Money/Universal Motown) - Weezy released about a zillion mixtapes since his last official album. Seems like every time he thinks of something (say, an orange or a razor commercial), he makes a rhyme about it. His best album boils it all down to life's essentials, like making money and getting blowjobs.
1. Blitzen Trapper, Furr (Sub Pop) - These Portland trailblazers strike classic-rock gold. The unforgettable title track perfectly categorizes these six runway rockers as the wolf children of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. Every number channels the souls of great pop icons, from the ELO ode "Saturday Nite" to the Merle Haggard murder ballad "Black River Killer."
2. MGMT, Oracular Spectacular (Red Ink/Columbia) - Party chemists Ben Goldwasser and Andrew Vanwyngarden cause nosebleeds of glee with this overdose of psychedelic David Bowie disco. Songs like "Electric Feel" and "Time to Pretend" take indulgent pop music into space, rocket-fueled with over-the-top mega production, hilarious lyrics and addictive hooks you'll snort like moondust.
3. Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson (Say Hey) - The 24-year Brooklyn prodigy splits the singer-songwriter mold with his six-stringed axe. This self-titled debut creates its own genre, which we'll call feedback folk. It sounds like TV on the Radio doing Daniel Johnston covers in the Black Keys' basement after a bad night of cigarettes and scotch.
4. The Mighty Underdogs, Droppin' Science Fiction (Quannum/DefinitiveJux) - Just as rap succumbs to T-Pain's clone wars, the Bay Area league of lyrical lounge heroes creates a supergroup. Labelmates Gift of Gab (Blackalicious) and Lateef (Latyrx) battle the villainous grooves of producer Headnodic, blasting out 15 indie-rap gems with underground icons DJ Shadow and Lyrics Born.
5. Neil Halstead, Oh! Mighty Engine (Brushfire Records/Universal) - Stargazer Halstead gave us the gifts of Slowdive and Mojave 3; here he allows us a sneak peek into his solo world of sleepy dreampop. Autumnal guitar anthems like "Paint a Face" and "Witless or Wise" belong in castles in the sky, where the ghosts of Nick Drake and Bert Jansch parade folk's most poignant verses.
6. Neil Diamond, Home Before Dark (Columbia/American) - One of the world's greatest songwriters composes 12 intimate and enigmatic ballads that capture the idea of ageless music. There are no drums on this album - just Diamond, his guitar, the occasional piano and producer Rick Rubin, howling out new hits like "Don't Go There."
7. Adele, 19 (XL) - As Britain burns the charts with a neo-soul revival, the genre's true talent sits quietly in the corner of the coffee shop, grooving on her guitar like a smoky jazz diva. This entire album is full of bittersweet R&B masterpieces: acoustic Jill Scott-like gems ("Daydreamer"), smoking Fergie-style dance-floor hits ("Cold Shoulder") and soul-wrenching Etta James sonnets ("Melt My Heart to Stone").
8. CSS, Donkey (Sub Pop) - Brazil's party-rock powerhouse pays homage to the grungy Sub Pop releases of yore. It's a foreign-exchange program that takes Nirvana's loud and aggressive power chords and introduces them to South America via cheap synths, sexy vocals and undeniable club funk.Ê
ÊÊÊ 9. Sporto Kantes, 3 At Last (Le Village Vert) - This year's most eclectic electronic party mix comes from French computer kings Benjamin Sportes and Nicolas Kantorovwicz. These 12 songs have it all - sinister space dub, retro Europop, big-beat club mixes, straight-up rock 'n' roll and the understanding that Sporto Kantes is one of the most underrated outfits in the electronic EU. ÊÊÊ
10. Tricky, Knowle West Boy (Domino) - Cue the candles, spark a blunt and howl at the moon: Trip-hop pioneer Tricky is back. It took 13 years for him to recreate the eerie energy of his debut Maxinquaye. Tunes like "Bacative" and "Cross to Bear" are an even more wicked brew, sizzling with raga atmospherics, ominous string arrangements and gritty Bristol street sludge.
1. Grand Archives (Sub Pop) - Pull Band of Horses' ex-guitarist aboard, pen a slew of pop songs with roots in the American psyche, stack on heavy harmonies and unusual instrumental reveries, and reap the musical harvest.
2. Adele, 19 (XL) - This would be soul gold even if it weren't a debut.
"Make You Feel My Love," Bob Dylan's most heart-wrenching ballad, rises to find the right angel to sing it.
3. Avett Brothers, The Gleam II (Ramseur) - Pair this EP with the newgrass bros' Gleam I and you've got the roots album of the year. Here's hoping these stripped-down-or-screaming North Carolinians can teach Dave Matthews a thing or two on tour this spring.
4. Delta Spirit, Ode to Sunshine (Rounder) - You've probably never heard of these well-rounded So-Cal soul-rockers. That's your loss. They've got a groove that sets you up like the Kinks goin' country.
5. Black Keys, Attack and Release (Nonesuch) - How the neo-blues movement got this Akron duo at the wheel is right here on a more polished but no less visceral vehicle. It's full of instant classics that swells an already impressive repertoire.
6. Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop) - Unleashing a harmonic splendor and lyrical precision unmatched in today's field of pop rocks, this Seattle band shows what the Polyphonic Spree could have done if they knew how to write music that matters.
7. Flight of the Conchords (Sub Pop) - This compendium of ditties from the comedy duo du jour is, indeed, mother flippin'.
8. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar) - A simple grouping of melodic innovations, delivered with a fragile yearning voice on the verge of universal acceptance.
9. Langhorne Slim (Kemado) - When this city mountaineer sings the blues, you'll swear you hear T. Bone Burnett long before the Cat Stevens comparisons become clear.
10. Rachel Yamagata, Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart (Warner Bros.) - Half a soft, sweet hug, the other half an unexpected uppercut, folk-rocker Yamagata finally breaks out of the gate with a sophomore set of piano-driven bluster and strummers to hum to.
1. Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop) - While their music is self-described as "baroque harmonic pop," the Pacific Northwest band has, almost seemingly overnight, become the new face of the independent music scene.
2. Grand Archives (Sub Pop) - Former Band of Horses co-founder Mat Brooke's new band strikes gold on its debut.
3. Langhorne Slim (Kemado) - Along with his band the War Eagles, Slim delivers an emotional album reminiscent of Tin Pan Alley's finest.
4. My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges (ATO) - MMJ's modern-day rock opera has elevated Jim James and Company to iconic status.
5. Blitzen Trapper, Furr (Sub Pop) - Portland, Oregon-based experimental folk rockers deliver the goods with Furr, so much that even the musically handicapped Rolling Stone took notice.
6. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar) - As with Ray LaMontagne a few years earlier, Justin Vernon found solitude living alone in the woods and emerged with a self-produced masterpiece.
7. Felice Brothers (Team Love) - North American label debut from three brothers whose songwriting illustrates modern-day struggles with a true old-timey sound.
8. Black Keys, Attack & Release (Nonesuch) - Danger Mouse produced the Akron duo's fifth album, putting a new twist on the Keys' wall of sound. 9. TV on the Radio, Dear Science (Interscope) - With 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain, TVOTR achieved critical acclaim. They've successfully created a cleaner and better produced album with the follow-up.
10. Elliott Brood, Mountain Meadows (Phantom Sound & Vision) - Canadian band beautifully narrates the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre, which resulted in the slaughter of 120 emigrants by a Mormon militia.
1. Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop) - I was given this album in the summer. I can't stop listening to it. It's everything right about music today.
2. My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges (ATO) - After an epic late-night Bonnaroo set, a fantastic album and a New Year's gig at Madison Square Garden, MMJ had its most successful year. Can't wait to see what Jim James and band do next.
3. Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely Heart (Warner Bros.) - Jack White is a contender every year, whether it's with the White Stripes or Raconteurs. His "other band" is even better live.
4. TV on the Radio, Dear Science (DGC/Interscope) - Dear Science doesn't quite eclipse the brilliance of Return to Cookie Mountain, but TVOTR proves they're one of only a handful of bands capable of continually making inventive music.
5. Vampire Weekend (XL) - Like many buzz bands before them, Vampire Weekend almost drowned in indie-rock praise. Let's hope these guys don't follow in those other bands' footsteps and disappear from the face of the earth. 6. MGMT, Oracular Spectacular (Red Ink/Columbia) - MGMT came out of nowhere earlier this year with a combo of heavy synths and distorted finesse. "Kids" is one of the best songs of the year.
7. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals (Illegal Art) - You can't help but shake your hips and rock your head listening to Gregg Gillis' chaotic mash-ups. 8. Kings of Leon, Only by the Night (RCA) - Kings of Leon continue to get better. While many of their contemporaries dawdle between albums, these guys consistently turn out excellent gritty and sweaty guitar rock.
9. She & Him, Volume One (Merge) - Soulful and sweet, M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel made for a memorable pairing. There's something comforting about the simple beauty of what they accomplish.
10. Sigur R—s, Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust (XL) - I have no idea what any of these songs are about. But this is the most uplifting album in Sigur R—s' catalog. Powerful and occasionally overwhelming, these guys conjure tons of emotion without speaking a word of English.
1. Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop) - This album encapsulates everything I love in this world: gorgeous harmonies, impeccably written folk music, down-to-earth men in flannel clothing, songs about strawberries in summertime and pure beauty.
2. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar) - This album makes me cry almost every time I hear it, and I'm not afraid or ashamed to admit it. It's not just because it's about heartbreak; it's because it's also heartbreakingly emotional. Justin Vernon puts more feelings into this album than most artists put into their entire career.
3. My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges (ATO) - In which MMJ mix Prince with Winnie the Pooh and juxtapose electro-blips with classic-rock riffs. 4. The Dodos, Visiter (French Kiss) - Intricate guitar and fierce, nonsensical drumming patterns are a perfect recipe for music that's detailed, pretty and original.
5. Vampire Weekend (XL) - I got a leak of this band's debut so long ago, I feel like it was my favorite album of 2006 (OK, maybe 2007). I can't say anything about these guys that you haven't read 10 gazillion before. Let's keep it at this: so good. So good.
6. Tokyo Police Club, Elephant Shell (Saddle Creek) - Cool things about this band: Almost every song is upbeat and fun; lyrics like "dead lovers salivate, broken hearts tessellate" would be a fine replacement for a week's worth of poetry readings; and they recently played a band called Cold Ice on Desperate Housewives. OK, maybe that last one isn't so cool.
7. Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer (Sub Pop) - Upon first listen, Mount Zoomer is odd and alienating. But it grows into this strangely beautiful mess of distortion and proggy grooves. Kinda like the musical equivalent of an orchid, I suppose.
8. Coldplay, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends (Capitol) - Many people criticize Coldplay because they put them to sleep. They make me drowsy too. But that's not necessarily a bad thing - I want to fall asleep to this album. Maybe I'll have dreams about Chris Martin, Bono and lush soundscapes.
9. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals (Illegal Art) - College parties don't even exist without Girl Talk anymore. In fact, it's probably illegal not to play this album. An Eminem rap about getting crunk over Yael Naim's "New Soul"? Irresistible.
10. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Perishing (Polyvinyl) - Grab your sunglasses: This album is too sunny to be true. I even like to dance around the house to it when nobody's watching.
Michael David Toth
1. MGMT, Oracular Spectacular (Red Ink/Columbia) - MGMT's curiously textured, inventively layered, spacey synth-psych XTC/Bowie bubblegum glam pop gets richer and more unforgettable with every listen.
2. Cineplexx, Picnic (Portia) - Brilliantly mesmerizing, densely immersive soft-psychedelic dreampop with ecstatic echoes of Os Mutantes, Phil Spector, Air, and early Jesus and Mary Chain.
3. Bryan Scary & the Shredding Tears, The Flight of the Knife (Black & Greene) - Scary's sophomore outing takes the band's Queen/Kinks/Move psych-glam-prog-pop into more sophisticated territory with more intricate and involved instrumentation.
4. Awake My Soul/Help Me To Sing (Awake) - Definitive overview of the haunting early American shape-note-music genre. A documentary soundtrack and even cooler tribute disc of new interpretations on two staggering CDs.
5. These New Puritans, Beat Pyramid (Domino) - Odd Fall-esque spoken/sung vocals, effortlessly bizarre and conceptually integrated lyrics, and unorthodox integration of electronica and guitar rock trends add up to complex, powerful, distinctive, fresh sounds.
6. Sam Phillips, Don't Do Anything (Nonesuch) - Phillips further expands and refines her smart, shadowy neo-Tin Pan Alley pop. She's in a league of her own, digging into interpersonal and spiritual themes with uncanny depth and elegance.
7. Gringo Star, All Y'All (My Anxious Mouth) - Super-catchy, explosive power pop in a T. Rex/early Kinks British Invasion vein that rises above this decade's glut of generic garage-rock soundalikes.
8. Breeders, Mountain Battles (4AD) - On shaky ground since Last Splash, the Deal sisters stabilize with a particularly focused, wildly experimental yet accessible, moody and eccentric gem.
9. The B-52's, Funplex (Astralwerks) - One of 2008's most wonderful surprises, this album ranks up there with the group's first three (and best) albums. An exhilarating, energized, goofy great time.
10. Magnetic Fields, Distortion (Nonesuch) - Just when it seemed Stephin Merritt might be getting a bit too stuffy in highfalutin' music circles, he nobly returns to the foggy, slushy sounds of early Magnetic Fields with great effect.
1. British Sea Power, Do You Like Rock Music? (Rough Trade) - They caught a lot of flack for trying to sound like U2, but they sounded better than any other band doing it.
2. The Cure, 4:13 Dream (Geffen) - A completely unexpected return to form from the legendary British band.
3. My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges (ATO) - The perfect blend of It Still Moves and Z, with a dash of funk thrown in for good measure.
4. Robin Saville, Peasgood Nonsuch (Static Caravan) - One of the finest mixes of ambient and electronic music that came out this year.
5. Sam Goldberg, Out of Body Experiences (Pizza Night) - Thirty minutes of delayed guitar minimal bliss.
6. TV on the Radio, Dear Science (DGC/Interscope) - Yet another great release from this remarkably consistent band.
7. Parts & Labor, Receivers (Jagjaguwar) -This band's third effort is full of dystopian rock tailor-made for the times we're living through.
8. Land of Talk, Some Are Lakes (Saddle Creek) - After a stellar debut EP a few years ago, their first full-length is almost as good.
9. Beach House, Devotion (Carpark) - Bewitching, enchanting, beguiling, enticing, tempting, alluring and very very tantalizing.
10. Mark McGuire, Amethyst Waves (Wagon) - A half-hour of beautiful psychedelic ear candy.