Liz Armstrong

These are the ten albums I've listened to most in the past year, in alphabetical order. I could've ranked them according to how often they ended up on my stereo, but that would've been ridiculous.

ALBERT AYLER

Holy Ghost | Revenant

Unfuckingbelievable. Ten CDs. A dried dogwood flower. Albert Ayler. 'Nuff said.

COUGHS

Fright Makes Right | Mythologie

Local homemade hard-core noise with saxophone, bass, shrieking female vocals, and a drum kit's worth of five-gallon buckets and trash-can lids--it's like Stomp rendered by a ratty, ass-kickin' band of hyenas.

CRACK: WE ARE ROCK

Silent Fantasy | Tigerbeat6

Noisy, ethereal darkwave disco, fronted by evil aerobicizing cutie-pies.

FLYING LUTTENBACHERS

The Void | Troubleman

The most minimal, intense, headbangin' album from Weasel Walter's revolving-door ensemble since 1996's Revenge.

THE GET HUSTLE

Live at the Little Fawn | self-released

With just four explosive, carnivalesque tunes, this trio of organ, drums, and vocals collapses the distance between its shows and its records.

METALUX

Waiting for Armadillo | Load

Torrid black-eyeliner electronics zigzagging into the deserted distance.

JOANNA NEWSOM

The Milk-Eyed Mender | Drag City

Stirring neofolk from a centauresque beauty with a harp and a tender but distinctly witchy voice.

PIT ER PAT

Emergency | Overcoat

Fluttery, jazzy histrionics from a local trio fronted by singer Fay Davis-Jeffers and her electric piano.

THE STREETS

A Grand Don't Come for Free | Vice

Mike Skinner's sometimes desperate, sometimes giddy book-on-tape is a refreshing diversion from the usual excesses of UK garage.

TV ON THE RADIO

Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes | Touch and Go

The second album from these sensitive smarty-pants New Yorkers is a warm, shiny, crazy diamond.

Keith Harris

1. RILO KILEY

More Adventurous | Brute/Beaute

Bright, forthright pop from these LA indie rockers, decked out here and there with horns and strings.

2. THE STREETS

A Grand Don't Come for Free | Vice

Chatty British MC's album-length comic story goes off on plenty of tangents on its way to a surprise ending.

3. YOUSSOU N'DOUR

Egypt | Nonesuch

The Senegalese superstar collaborates with an Egyptian orchestra on an album he says "praises the tolerance" of his Sufi faith.

4. KANYE WEST

The College Dropout | Roc-a-Fella

The Chicago-bred producer, best known for his use of sped-up soul samples, turns MC and airs hip-hop's dirty laundry on the radio.

5. MOUNTAIN GOATS

We Shall All Be Healed | 4AD

Onetime lo-fi acoustic stalwart John Darnielle adapts his stories of speed freaks and drifters for a full band.

6. M.I.A. & DIPLO

Piracy Funds Terrorism Volume 1 | Hollertronix

Philadelphia DJ Diplo mixes tracks from the London-born Sri Lankan pop upstart and MC with a crateload of hip-hop and R & B hits for the year's best illegal dance party.

7. MODEST MOUSE

Good News for People Who Love Bad News | Epic

Defiant crankiness from indie-rock graduates old enough to be comfortable with their own bad vibes.

. CAPITAL D

Insomnia | All Natural Inc.

The Chicago rapper waxes political, balancing full-throttle anger with controlled analysis.

9. THE FEVER

Red Bedroom | Kemado

Hyper, twitchy postpunk, featuring the savviest New Yorker currently throttling a guitar.

10. DEVIN THE DUDE

To Tha X-treme | Rap-a-Lot

Pot-scented observations and woozy G-funk from the Texas rapper.

Monica Kendrick

It should go without saying that I didn't hear every good record made in 2004. I don't believe in Top Tens, and I don't have any faith in consensus-based canons--"conventional wisdom" is an oxymoron, like "free market." If my picks aren't on your list, all that means is that dinner conversation between us might be lively; if they are, great, I'll see you at the show.

Disclaimers dispensed with, here are ten records I enjoyed a lot in 2004 and managed to find again in my office on deadline, in alphabetical order.

ARCADE FIRE

Funeral | Merge

The decadently blissful debut full-length from this out-of-nowhere Montreal act is shaken, stirring, shimmering art-rock that rewards repeated listenings generously.

BOXSTEP

Backroads | Homesleep

Boxstep belongs with the Mammals and the Tarbox Ramblers on the list of bands helping make Americana everything it should be. Backroads weds lonesome mountain music to influences as varied as X and Kraftwerk.

ENTRANCE

Wandering Stranger | Fat Possum

Hair-raising avant-psych blues from a man way too young to sound so ancient.

FAUN FABLES

Family Album | Drag City

Nils Frykdahl of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Dawn "the Faun" McCarthy make weird and righteous heathen hippie folk. McCarthy sounds like Sandy Denny raised by wolves. Or maybe dolphins.

ISIS

Panopticon | Ipecac

Combining progressive metal and space rock without anhedonic jerkiness or directionless whooshing, this is lush, laser-focused, and rapturously beautiful.

KAYHAN KALHOR & ALI AKBAR MORADI

In the Mirror of the Sky | World Village

Kalhor, a master of the Iranian spike fiddle called the kemence, and Moradi, who sings and plays a lute called a tanbur, team up for an album of ecstatic Sufi trance music. If you're not ready to be ravished, get out of the way.

MASTODON

Leviathan | Relapse

The year's best example of a musical feat so earthshaking only a metal band could pull it off: Moby-Dick reimagined by guys who really get its bloody-minded madness.

SHOGHAKEN ENSEMBLE

Traditional Dances of Armenia | Traditional Crossroads

Given this album's bland title, the dignified, bittersweet joy of the music is a bit of a surprise--but if you're going to get whisked away, it's best not to see it coming.

TINARIWEN

Amassakoul | World Village

These Malian Tuareg musicians seem to be taking the blues back to Africa--trance-inducing grooves play out amid call-and-response vocals and guitar lines that undulate like the desert.

TOM WAITS

Real Gone | Anti-

Waits has just about completed his transition from post-Beat troubadour to less-unhinged Beefheart--clattery, creepy, and tasty, his latest record is damn near perfect.

Peter Margasak

1. KANYE WEST

The College Dropout | Roc-a-Fella

The debut album from the Chicago producer and MC holds up a year after its release--it's still fun as hell to listen to him puncturing hip-hop cliches.

2. JOANNA NEWSOM

The Milk-Eyed Mender | Drag City

The most exciting singer-songwriter to arrive in 2004--provided you can adjust to her strangely prepubescent vocal tone and her choice of harp over guitar.

3. CULTURE MUSICAL CLUB

Waridi: Parfums de Zanzibar | Virgin/Jahazi

Another gem from this veteran taarab ensemble--imagine Arabic classical music rippling across the translucent blue waters of Zanzibar.

4. BJORK

Medulla | Elektra

Save for a few keyboard touches, Bjork uses nothing but voices--choral backing, sampled vocal percussion, her own multitracked singing--to create a strangely intimate quasi-orchestral splendor.

5. M.I.A. & DIPLO

Piracy Funds Terrorism Volume 1 | Hollertronix

Until M.I.A.'s debut album drops later this year, fans of the UK-based Sri Lankan hip-hop dynamo have got this frothy mix of old-school electro, wheezy dancehall, and unlikely mashups, masterminded by DJ Diplo.

6. FLY

Fly | Savoy Jazz

Saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jeff Ballard back away from the usual sax-forward trio dynamic in favor of an intimacy that comes from genuine coleadership.

7. MOACIR SANTOS

Coisas | Universal Music Brasil

The Brazilian composer and arranger cut this masterful mix of samba with west-coast tone colors and east-coast small-group jazz in 1965, and it's finally been issued on CD.

. FIERY FURNACES

Blueberry Boat | Rough Trade

Despite the occasional overstuffed arrangement or lyric, these siblings' century-spanning musical ambition is totally beguiling.

9. TRAPIST

Ballroom | Thrill Jockey

A minimalist Vienna-based trio featuring Radian drummer Martin Brandlmayr, by turns beautifully lyrical and menacingly austere.

10. YOUSSOU N'DOUR

Egypt | Nonesuch

Senegal's mbalax master takes on Arabic classical music, swaddling his otherworldly vocals in lush Cairo strings for a powerful statement of pan-Islamic unity.

Bob Mehr

1. EDDIE HINTON

Playin' Around: The Songwriting Sessions (Vol. 2) | Zane

Eighteen unreleased studio tracks (and two live tunes) from the man Jerry Wexler once dubbed "the Anointed One, a white Otis Redding."

2. COUNTRY SOUL REVUE

Testifying | Casual

A host of southern soul legends--Tony Joe White, Donnie Fritts, George Soule--backed by top-notch Memphis and Muscle Shoals session players and produced by Dan Penn.

3. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS

Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus | Anti-

A double album from the Aussie gloom kingpin, his best since 1994's Let Love In.

4. ANDREW MORGAN

Misadventures in Radiology | Broken Horse

Orchestral pop from a newly minted Chicagoan, recorded in Elliott Smith's LA studio; Seattle's Sonic Boom Records will release it domestically in March.

5. MICAH P. HINSON

Micah P. Hinson and the Gospel of Progress | Sketchbook

Powerful breakup record from a 23-year-old Texas-bred singer-songwriter, to be released in the States by Overcoat later this year.

6. RICHMOND FONTAINE

Post to Wire | El Cortez

Fifth and finest studio album from Willy Vlautin's Portland-based Americana ensemble.

7. CHARLEMAGNE

Charlemagne | Winterlander

Debut from the bubblegum-psych-country collective led by Noahjohn's Carl Johns.

. REIGNING SOUND

Too Much Guitar | In the Red

Third outstanding LP of pop- and soul-spiked garage rock from former Oblivian Greg Cartwright.

9. TOM RUSSELL

Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs | Hightone

An old-west epic from the well-traveled folk storyteller.

10. CHUCK PROPHET

Age of Miracles | New West

A slow-growing solo charmer from the former Green on Red guitarist.

Bill Meyer

1. THE EX

Turn | Touch and Go

The only punk band that still matters reinvents itself at age 25.

2. ALBERT AYLER

Holy Ghost | Revenant

This ten-CD box charts the entire recording career of the late free-jazz saxophonist.

3. CALIFONE

Heron King Blues | Thrill Jockey

Local rock band goes disco and Beefheart--simultaneously.

4. PHILIP JECK

7 | Touch

Jeck uses battered portable turntables and even more beat-up records to create startlingly gorgeous soundscapes.

5. JOHN FAHEY

The Great Santa Barbara Oil Slick | Water

Late-60s live recordings by the founding father of American Primitive steel-stringed acoustic guitar (and author of How Blue-grass Music Destroyed My Life).

6. TONY BUCK/AXEL DORNER

Durch und durch | TES

Free improv meets sound art on this collaboration between the drummer for the Necks and the radical German trumpeter and electronicist.

7. KEITH ROWE/BURKHARD BEINS

Keith Rowe/Burkhard Beins | Erstwhile

Live electroacoustic improvisations by AMM's tabletop guitarist and a much younger German percussionist achieve the density of studio-concocted musique concrete.

. KEITH FULLERTON WHITMAN

Antithesis | Kranky

On this LP-only release, Whitman eschews the freaky beats of his alter ego Hrvatski for a series of layered, minimalist instrumentals indebted to Krautrock.

9. ANTIETAM

Victory Park | Carrot Top

The first album in a decade from this New York-by-way-of-Louisville indie-rock trio.

10. BARDO POND + TOM CARTER

4/23/03 | Three Lobed

The mind-altering Philadelphia-based rock band and the Charalambides guitarist improvise an impressively heavy set.

Ann Sterzinger

1. SPACE MARCH

Space March | Ninthwave

Craig Simmons of the bouncy Australian synth-pop duo Electrosquad has released a surprisingly somber solo album that mixes the Magnetic Fields, Erasure, and a dollop of Momus.

2. M'S

The M's | Brilliante

Ornate, psych-influenced garage pop from local boys made good; a great sound track for sex.

3. REIGNING SOUND

Too Much Guitar | In the Red

Nasty and infectious new band from Greg Cartwright of the legendary Oblivians. See also the M's re: sex.

4. THE TOUGH & LOVELY

Born of the Stars | Spoonful

Soulful Ohio garage with a go-for-broke female singer. See also the Reigning Sound re: sex.

5. ALAN REPLICA

Clockworks, Juliet | Ninthwave

An 80s new-wave also-ran returns to music with a synth-pop opera in which drones' dreams are stolen by the overlords of a consumerist dystopia.

6. THE SAFES

Family Jewels | Failed Experiment

Chicago foursome mates early Replacements with Little Richard--and unlike most punk rockers, these guys seem to regret being drunken fuckups.

7. OPERATION S

Operation S | Broken Rekids

Core members of '77-style Parisian punks the No-Talents add a load of synth and pop hooks but stay obnoxious. (The S is for "suicide.")

. LOS REACTORS

Dead in the Suburbs | Rip Off

Reissue of live, studio, and rehearsal recordings from a hard, fast, synth-injected punk-wave band from Tulsa that put out two 45s before disbanding in 1983.

9. FINAL SOLUTIONS

Disco Eraser | Misprint

Memphis garage scenesters branch into metal and new wave, with scary-sounding yet danceable results.

10. DIONYSOS

Whatever the Weather | Sony International

Muscular concert recordings of the French rockers' stadium-worthy, Pixies-influenced tunes, available in acoustic and electric versions.

Neil Tesser

1. MARIA SCHNEIDER ORCHESTRA

Concert in the Garden | Artist Share

The most ambitious work yet from the subtly inventive composer-arranger--music that buoys and transports the terrific soloists.

2. DAVE DOUGLAS

Strange Liberation | Bluebird

Faithfully documents the trumpeter's quintet, one of the top five working bands in modern jazz.

3. PIERRE DORGE & NEW JUNGLE ORCHESTRA

Dancing Cheek to Cheek | Stunt

Perhaps the wackiest of the great jazz bands, the NJO channels Monk, Ellington, Sun Ra, and even West African griots, joined here by trombone surrealist Ray Anderson.

4. VON FREEMAN

The Great Divide | Premonition

Go east, old man: at age 80 the Chicago tenor legend recorded his first album with a crack New York rhythm section, focusing his playing in a new way.

5. ROSEANNA VITRO

Tropical Postcards | A Records

A great overlooked jazz vocalist enhances the Brazilian songbook with warmth, spice, and improvisatory sparkle.

6. MATTHIAS LUPRI GROUP

Transition Sonic | Summit

The vibist crafts a supple, often disturbing album-length suite, with invaluable contributions by trumpeter Cuong Vu. (I wrote the liner notes.)

7. TIERNEY SUTTON

Dancing in the Dark | Telarc

Songs made famous by Sinatra in surprising new arrangements, delivered with dead-on intonation and breathtaking command of phrasing and dynamics.

. TED SIROTA'S REBEL SOULS

Breeding Resistance | Delmark

Maybe the strongest set yet from the Chicago drummer's killer quintet, fronted by guitarist Jeff Parker and trombonist Jeb Bishop.

9. GERI ALLEN

The Life of a Song | Telarc

The first album in six years from the elliptical pianist, with her gorgeous but unsentimental playing supported by bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

10. OMAR SOSA

Mulatos | Ota

Cuba's piano genius stirs together Latin rhythms, Middle Eastern colors, and Indian percussion with a jazz inflection.

David Whiteis

Given the diversity of subgenres represented here, I don't think it's appropriate to rank these albums. Consider each the best of its kind that I encountered in 2004.

KENNY NEAL & BILLY BRANCH

Double Take | Alligator

Acoustic guitar and blues harp, full of fiery emotional immediacy and blessedly free of attempts at "authenticity."

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Stompin' at the Savoy: The Original Indie-Label, 1944-1961 | Savoy

Choice samples from one of the most important smaller labels of the mid-20th century, when small-group jazz gave way to R & B and then to rock 'n' roll; the lineup includes the likes of Billy Eckstine, Johnny Otis, and Brownie McGhee.

EVANGELIST C. SCOTT

God's Got the Last Word | Style

Better known in Chicago as street hustler, activist, preacher, and bluesman Little Scotty, here Scott sings gospel testimonials in a fervid deep-soul baritone.

BOBBY RUSH

FolkFunk | Deep Rush

Spiked with Alvin Youngblood Hart's knife-edged guitar and just enough funk to pass muster on the chitlin' circuit, this greasy stew is brimming with Rush's trademark mix of repurposed folktales and backstreet aphorisms.

MAVIS STAPLES

Have a Little Faith | Alligator

One of the most diverse and satisfying albums in the six-decade career of Chicago's First Lady of Gospel.

PYENG THREADGILL

Sweet Home: The Music of Robert Johnson | Random Chance

The daughter of composer Henry Threadgill combines vaudeville, classic blues, free jazz, and more in an audacious tribute to the Delta legend.

LUCILLE BOGAN

Shave 'Em Dry: The Best of Lucille Bogan | Columbia/Legacy

In the 1930s Bogan sang in a whorehouse wail about the joys of drugging, fucking, and fighting, beating modern-day gangstas to the punch by half a century.

SAM CARR'S DELTA JUKES

Down in the Delta | R.O.A.D.

Drummer Sam Carr is one of the most respected bluesmen still active in the Delta, and this joyful, raucous live-in-the-studio recording should make blooze pretenders hang up their axes in shame.

VARIOUS ARTISTS

The UK Sue Label Story Volume 2: Sue's Rock 'n' Blues | Ace

VARIOUS ARTISTS

The UK Sue Label Story Volume 3: The Soul of Sue | Kent

Guy Stevens's London imprint, which leased its masters from stateside soul, blues, and R & B labels, blew the minds of a generation of rock-starved Brits in the early 60s, putting out records by everyone from James Brown to Lightnin' Hopkins to Paul Revere & the Raiders.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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