1. Phoenix. "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix." Glass Note. The moment the electrified, bopping strains of "Lisztomania" start popping out of your speakers like musical candy, it's obvious this French pop/rock quartet's fourth album is something special. From the upbeat, danceable opener to the more subdued, dreamy two-part "Love Like a Sunset," Phoenix's command of your ears and feet is unassailable.
2. Neko Case. "Middle Cyclone." Anti-. Austin, Texas-based alt-country singer/songwriter Neko Case's fifth studio album is rife with grand, layered production and intriguingly evocative lyrics built around the concept of "respect nature ... or else." Case recorded most of "Middle Cyclone" in a retrofitted barn in Tucson, Ariz. Given the imminently memorable album opener, "This Tornado Loves You," and its fierce overall beauty, it would be a wonder if the barn survived giving birth to such a whirling dervish of an album. Additional kudos: the best album art of the year (Case crouched with wind-blown hair, sword in hand, on the hood of a '68 Mercury Cougar).
3. Justin Townes Earle. "Midnight at the Movies." Bloodshot. This sophomore release further establishes Justin Townes Earle, son of outlaw-country legend Steve Earle, as a strong artist in his own right. Like last year's "The Good Life," "Midnight at the Movies" is a brisk, half-hour affair, and the dozen tracks exhibit the warm, confident versatility of his excellent debut with tighter production and beefier arrangements. At this rate, the son shows every sign of shining as brightly as his father.
4. Imogen Heap. "Ellipse." RCA. If there's one defining feature of British singer/songwriter Imogen Heap's third solo outing, it's its ridiculous stylistic diversity. The 13 meticulously (and creatively) produced tracks range from playful, spacey soundscapes and heart-wrenching ballads to an environmental treatise set to a driving African beat. They tumble one after another like self-contained musical playgrounds, yet Heap somehow manages to keep control of her maelstrom. The results sound inventive and exploratory, not scatter-brained.
5. Glasvegas. "Glasvegas." Columbia. The Scottish indie/rock quartet's music paired James Allan's distinctive, pining vocals with a spacious, epic pop/garage sound that draws obvious, positive comparisons to U2. This was an early comer (Jan. 6) -- and thus one of the albums to beat all year -- but it managed to stay at the top of the heap.
* Honorable mentions: Allison Brown, "The Company You Keep"; The Felice Brothers, "Yonder Is the Clock"; and Mark Knopfler, "Get Lucky."
1. The Avett Brothers. "I and Love and You." American/Columbia. With Rick Rubin on the board, you figured it would be good, and it is. This is the Carolina group's sixth album, and first on a major label, and it is a fun listen from start to finish. It's a little more restrained or polished than earlier efforts, but I like it.
2. GLASVEGAS. "Glasvegas." Columbia. Yeah, they sound like U2, but I liked the energy and the freshness they bring to their music.
3. YEAH, YEAH, YEAHS. "It's Blitz." Interscope. It's poppy. It's jammy. It's trippy. It's jazzy. It's good.
4. ELVIS PRESLEY. "Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight." RCA/Legacy. There's good Elvis, and there is not-so-good Elvis. There is also Elvis in leather, and there is fat E in polyester and bling. This four-CD collection captures all of that, but the packaging is first-class and the collection is worthy of the King of Rock 'n' Roll, who would have celebrated his 75th birthday had he been able to pass (pun intended) on the fried foods and the pills.
5. Ray Davies. "The Kinks Choral Collection." Decca. If for no other reason than Davies put a choir behind "Celluloid Hero," this CD makes my list. Throw in "Victoria," "All Day and All of the Night" and "Days," and you have a winner.
* Honorable mentions: Peewee Moore & The Awful Dreadful Snakes, "The Leaving Side of Gone"; Andrea Bocelli, "My Christmas"; and The Impressions, "I'm Coming Home for Christmas."
1. ANIMAL COLLECTIVE. "Merriweather Post Pavilion." Domino. Listening to this layered, textured, throbbing, ethereal mess o' pop/dub/electronica forces a man to examine his self-worth. Am I living life to its fullest? Am I squandering away my only chance at happiness by turning my back on those few people for whom "love" and "me" were vexed? Probably. I probably am. Oh, and "My Girls" and "Summertime Clothes" are perfect songs. Buy this for a loved one. If they hate it, make them bleed.
2. ROWLAND S. HOWARD. "Pop Crimes." Liberation. This is the long-awaited second solo album from the former member of The Birthday Party. I'm particularly hooked by the "smoky" sound of the whole album, as if it were recorded in the worst rock club in the worst part of a major city. Yeah, it's weird, but no weirder than the stuff that used to come out of Grandma's mouth when she was alive. If David Lynch had set "Twin Peaks" in New York, Rowland S. Howard would've been his Julee Cruise. Also, watch "Twin Peaks." And buy this album, too, but definitely watch "Twin Peaks."
3. THE XX. "XX." XI Recordings. Has a strange woman ever kissed you in your own home? Me neither. However, I imagine the experience would be relatively similar to hearing the xx's debut album for the first time. This music is sexy, sexy, sexy in the way that Chris Isaak's "Wicked Games" is sexy. Yeah, now you know what I'm talking about. Wink. Go grab a bottle of pinot and find a stranger to invite home. Put on this album and kiss the night away. If you have a beach, roll around on it.
4. SQUASH BOWELS. "Grindvirus." Willowtip Records. Squash Bowels is second only to Dead Infection for Polish goregrind, but Dead Infection didn't put out a record this year, so here we are. "Grindvirus" is no-frills, blasting, guttural torment. It's completely brain-dead and absurd, and I can't help but like it. The album is 29 minutes long. See also: "Katharsis -- Fourth Reich"; "Impetuous Ritual -- Relentless Execution of Ceremonial Excrescence"; "The Ruins of Beverast -- Foulest Semen of a Sheltered Elite."
5. LEE FIELDS & THE EXPRESSIONS. "My World." Truth & Soul Records. I've dusted off my soul cloak for the first time in years because of this album. I kept it in a shoebox under my bed with a note taped to the top that read: "Do not open until you feel it." Lee Fields and the Expressions are as close as I'll come. Imagine being in Memphis in the 1960s, and you'll have an idea of how this album sounds. We're talking SOUL, a la Sam Cooke, Al Green and Otis Redding, with a modern twist. This one makes me feel sorry for the deaf.
* Honorable mentions: Twin Sister, "Vampires with Dreaming Kids"; Built To Spill, "There Is No Enemy"; and Camera Obscura, "My Maudlin Career."
1. ANIMAL COLLECTIVE. "Merriweather Post Pavilion." Domino. It's easy to dismiss the work of Baltimore's Animal Collective as an incomprehensible collection of bleeps and bloops and drumbeats, but listen close to the standout tracks from this album -- "My Girls," "Brother Sport," "Bluish" -- and you'll stumble upon something amazing: a riotous celebration of home life. This is dance music for adults, beautiful all the more for its hopeful faith in family, love and the importance of four walls and an adobe slab.
2. GRIZZLY BEAR. "Veckatimest." Warp. Listen to just a few notes from Grizzly Bear's third full-length release, and you'll likely take notice pretty quickly that these four guys and their composer collaborator, Nico Muhly, really crafted these songs. Everything is just so, every note in just the right place, every harmony layered delicately as the air itself. And yet the group doesn't abandon rock for some backward Baroque nostalgia. I dare you not to nod your head to these tunes.
3. PHOENIX. "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix." Glass Note. If you had guessed a decade ago that a French indie-pop group that references classical composers in its album and song titles and lends its music to Cadillac commercials would also be one of the most rightly celebrated groups of the year, you'd probably get laughed out of just about any room you could think of. And yet, here we are. That prediction is reality, and I can play you the songs to prove it.
4. DOOM. "Born Like This." Lex. In modern underground hip-hop, three years is a lifetime. Especially for someone as prolific as Daniel Dumile, a.k.a. DOOM and a hundred other pseudonyms, whose output between 2003 and 2006 was so vast that even fans found it hard to keep up. So the break between his last release and this one left fans rabidly waiting. Luckily, he cranked out a record that met the expectations, rasp and all.
5. NEKO CASE. "Middle Cyclone." Anti. It takes guts to close out an album with 20 minutes or so of croaking tree frogs, but Neko Case earned it with all the songs preceding it on this, her best album to date. From the opening whirlwind track, "This Tornado Loves You," one of the best songs of the year, to the mellower closing number, it just plain satisfies.
* Honorable mentions: Monsters of Folk, "Monsters of Folk"; Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, "Up From Below"; and Jay-Z, "The Blueprint 3."