yhf1. Wilco…..Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Its like the sound of experienced explorers setting foot on a new musical continent. Wilco’s restlessness has found them territory all their own. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the bravest and most creative record of the year. (You can learn all about how it came about by seeking out the new documentary titled I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.) Working back through their catalog, you’ll hear new ideas rattling around in their reckless mix of country, grunge, folk, and blues. This is the sound that was taking root, and now it has burst into bloom. Here, Wilco peppers their carefully developed homemade folk-rock sound with electronics, creating a dissonant and emotional language of depression, confusion, and longing. It’s a story told over a cycle of songs: the singer looks back, nostalgic for innocence; it looks around at the heartbreaking present and the singer admits responsibility; and then it looks forward, with renewed conviction and hope. Jeff Tweedy creates an engaging lead character who breaks a heart, regrets it, wishes he could take it back, and learns to admit his mistakes. The more familiar you become with Tweedy’s whiskey-sour-and-cigarettes voice, the more beautiful it seems.

zzz-bsc2. Beck…..Sea Change

Sea Change is a gorgeous, sprawling album of heavy-hearted introspection. I think it’s Beck’s finest album and, as is so often the case, it comes out of a time of heartbreak and trouble. This recording may as well be dubbed the first album of a daring duo: Beck and Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich. Godrich seems liberated by the slow, sparse arrangements of these heartbreak narratives, so that Beck’s lyrics creak and groan like a battered ship at sea. And the sea… the sea is an ocean of strings more overpowering than on any rock record I can remember. Beck doesn’t suggest anything beyond the merest hope of healing for his broken heart. But art is not required to give us the whole picture. If it gives us part of the picture as fully and honestly as possible, we should be able to fill in the rest. The music, while sad, is beautiful, and proof enough that all things work together for good.

zzz-tomwaits3. Tom Waits…..Alice

Alice is a surreal journey through a wonderland full of freaks and frights. The songs come from a play for which Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan composed music in 1994. The play follows the strange relationship between Lewis Carroll and the “Alice” of Through the Looking Glass, and thus there are references to obsession, madness, dreams, and the reflective surfaces of glass and ice throughout.

The singer’s surreal and suicidal groans are painful because they are so beautiful: “But I must be insane/To go on skating on your name/And by tracing it twice I feel through the ice/Of Alice…”

4. Elvis Costello….When I Was Cruel

Costello’s many styles and explorations seem to fuse here into a fascinating hybrid. He’s calling it his return to rock, but straightforward rock only occurs in occasional bursts on this release. “45”, “Dissolve”, and “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll Revolution)” certainly recall the rowdy noise of early Elvis C., but others like “15 Petals” and “Spooky Girlfriend” demonstrate he can dip into other genres and sound like a seasoned professional. (Would you believe “Spooky Girlfriend” doesn’t just sound like a Destiny’s Child single? Yet, it lyrically lampoons the superficiality of the songs those girl-pop groups usually.sing.) Lyrically, these songs emphasize the sad burden of wisdom that comes with age. It’s interesting to hear a middle-aged rock star singing with more passion and energy than the youngsters.

5. Sixpence None the Richer…..Divine Discontent

While it fails to show the band moving into new areas, this is another solidly built, shiny pop album, heavy with spiritual questions, disillusionment, struggle, and determined hope. Matt Slocum writes heavy lyrics. Few songwriters use pop and rock as a vehicle for prayer the way he does; he stands under the banner of contemporary psalmists alongside Bono, Bruce Cockburn, Julie Miller, and Linford Detweiler, to name a few. His somber psalms sting because they are delivered by the light, airy voice of Leigh Nash. Nash sounds like the kind of singer whose agents would advise her to spend her short career on frivolous pop ditties; instead, she brings qualities of vulnerability and humility to her expressions of grandiose spiritual themes. To borrow a phrase: It’s a voice “like a bloom that pushes up through stony ground.”

6. David Bowie…..Heathen

Another old-timer. Hey, these guys were at their peak of popularity before I was teenager. While their popularity may have declined, their material has not necessarily peaked. Here, Bowie revisits old sounds, mixes them with new ones, and fuses it all into an expression of spiritual discontent. It’s fun, funny, sad, soul-searching, whimsical, angry, and even hopeful. He may not have made his peace with God, but he still believes enough to argue, and that makes for a compelling listen.

7. Lauryn Hill…..MTV 2.0 Unplugged

This isn’t so much a great album of music as it is a great recording of one person’s spiritual epiphany. When the Grammy-winning Lauryn Hill disappeared for two years, there were rumors of some kind of breakdown. The opposite was true. From her testimonies between songs on the MTV Unplugged stage, Hill recounts her awakening to Scripture and to God’s love. When you see the truth as fully as she has encountered it, lies are shown up as repulsive, and she shakes off the trappings of celebrity here with a passion. Then the songs, rough, raw outpourings of emotion, anger, prophecy, and ecstasy, reveal a woman in intimate dialogue with her Lord. While they may not be carefully crafted art just yet, they are the sounds of a new voice and a new beginning. Like the sounds from rusted pipes after a long winter, they are the vibrations and quakes signifying clear water is soon on the way. An astonishing record.

8. Linda Thompson…..Fashionably Late

Linda Thompson returns to the spotlight after a near 20-year absence. Having worked through her vocal difficulties, she now sings with a cold, clear beauty, like a traveler who has suffered many storms and learned the difference between lies and the truth. Many of these songs speak of disillusionment with various love affairs, but she writes these characters as humble enough to see the error of their own ways as well as the ways of those who did them wrong. This brings a quality of honesty and experience to the writing. The harmonies with her son Teddy and with folk singer Kate Rusby are thrilling, and the instrumentation as precise, spare, and lush as last year’s masterful Fan Dance from Sam Phillips.

9. Tanya Donelly…..Beautysleep

Another triumphant comeback. Tanya rediscovers some of the creative genius she displayed in her early days with Belly. She brings wit, world-weary wisdom, and passion to her vocals and her lyrics in an album more focused on the joys and mysteries of motherhood than even Sinead O’Connor’s Universal Mother. (You won’t find many rock records that will even raise the issue.) These songs are testaments of survival, perhaps a little too enamored of the singer’s own self-reliance. But it’s great to hear her sounding hopeful and excited again. Best of all, the creative potentail Donnelly teased us with in Belly’s brillian debut Star is bursting out all over this stormy album.

10. (tie) U2: The Best of 1990-2000 /
Coldplay…..A Rush of Blood to the Head

The reigning kings of rock-and-roll released something more than a “best-of” this year. This stands as a chronicle of the band’s reinvention, their self-effacing parody of rock stardom, and their triumphant return to hopeful anthemic rock just when the world needed them the most. But it also works as a standalone album, featuring new and improved versions of some of their best works. The biggest highlights are a glorious new version of “Gone”, an edgier and more amusing take on “Numb”, and two new songs that hold their own among these tried-and-true hits: “Electrical Storm” and “The Hands that Built America.” Complaints? How could a “best-of” fail to include “Elevation”, “Please”, “The Fly”, and “Love is Blindness”? Oh well, that’s just quibbling. This is a great addition, and it comes with a collection of rarities and B-sides. This supplemental disc is a hit-and-miss affair, but it boasts some real gems, especially “Your Blue Room” from the Passengers album and the underrated “North and South of the River.”

As if applying to be a U2 for the Next Decade, Coldplay released an unapologetically hook-heavy album of carefully crafted arena rock. While their songs are sometimes annoyingly simplistic and rendundant, the vocals soar and the lyrics, while a bit sophomoric, are full of hope and gospel inspiration. They’re still looking for their own unique sound; there are too many echoes of U2 and Oasis here, but it’s exciting to watch them grow.

11. Bruce Springsteen…..The Rising / Peter Gabriel…..Up

Two albums that deal with loss and grieving. One is musically richer and more rewarding than almost any other album this year, but the lyrics are mired in near-despair, and what few gestures of hope are offered are rather empty and vague. The other is musically forumulaic and familiar, but lyrically it stands as a collection of soul-searching poems in which the writer gives voices to those who suffered personal loss in the recent terrorist attacks. Peter Gabriel’s Up is at once a thrilling musical journey and a severe disappointment — lyrically — for this longtime Peter Gabriel fan. Bruce Springsteen, on the other hand, has never done much that excited or interested me, but this year his lyrics were like psalms during a dark time, and the familiar Springsteen rock-and-roll felt rather reassuring.

Others that never strayed far from my stereo this year:

Buddy Miller…..Midnight and Lonesome
The Flaming Lips…..Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
Tom Waits…..Blood Money
Spiritualized…..Let It Come Down
Pedro the Lion…..Control
Michelle Shocked…..Deep Natural
Steve Earle…..Sidetracks
Neil Young…..Are You Passionate?
Ed Harcourt…..Here Be Monsters
The Eels…..Souljacker
Beth Orton…..Daybreaker
Peter Gabriel…..The Long Walk Home (Soundtrack to Rabbit-Proof Fence)