1. Beck: "Qué Onda Guero," from Guero (Interscope). So Guero's no Odelay? Big deal. What is? Those who chose to dismiss Beck's latest album robbed themselves of this treat, a hip-hop stroll through the barrios of Los Angeles that is truly crack-like in its addictive properties. Michael Bolton, Yanni and James Joyce all get shout-outs — that's a first for all three, we think — and Beck flexes his bilingual tongue as he describes the neighborhood of his youth. For him at least, it's a straightforward lyric and exemplifies Guero's focus. Beck — at this point — can do whatever he likes.
2. Spoon: "Two Sides/Monsieur Valentine," from Gimme Fiction (Merge). Musical highlight of my year: Rushing from a tremendous Arcade Fire show to catch Spoon's set at this summer's Lollapalooza. The Austin band's performance was not exactly world igniting, but that may have been due more to the triple-digit temps than the group's actual show. Heatstroke or not, there was just one song I was singing the whole way home: this one. Give it a listen and try not to do the same.
3. Danger Doom: "Sofa King," from The Mouse and the Mask (Epitaph). As anyone can attest who has watched a Rodney Dangerfield film while wasted, bad jokes are funnier than good ones. I'm guessing that MF Doom and Danger Mouse — MC and producer here, respectively — would agree. "Sofa king retarded." Say it quickly. Get it? Har-dee-har-har, right? The joke's so idiotic that it's somehow hilarious. To sum up the rest of the track: a chopped-up beat with a violin and Doom commanding, "Order a rapper for lunch and spit out the chain." Genius.
4. The Hold Steady: "Cattle and the Creeping Things," from Separation Sunday (Frenchkiss). The following was my profound reaction upon first hearing this song: "Awesome! This dude just mentioned Ybor City! I've been there!" Pretty deep stuff, huh? What makes us so happy when a singer deigns to mention some locale we're familiar with? An off-hand reference to a Tampa 'hood is hardly enough to entrench the song in this here Top 10 list. Nope, it's the odd way the Hold Steady is able to take everything familiar about rock 'n' roll and still surprise you. In the meantime, we can all wonder: What rock band will be the first to name-check Lakewood Ranch?
5. Sleater-Kinney: "Wilderness," from The Woods (Sub Pop). S-K's seventh release is a goddamn beast, and "Wilderness" is no exception. The drums are so loud that they're distorted and fuzzy, and the guitars split the sonic space between Thurston Moore and Jimi Hendrix. S-K was always intense before, but on Woods the ladies actually sound scary. Beneath this veneer, though, there's a whole lot going on. "Wilderness" is the tale of a year-long marriage and describes both the euphoria of love and the angst of heartbreak, with equal poetry for both.
6. Broken Social Scene: "Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)," from Broken Social Scene (Arts & Crafts). This is one of the tougher offerings from this Canadian band's third album, but it's never abrasive. The strength here is majestic and big, with layers upon layers of sound. Yes, there's the usual vocals, drums, guitar and bass, but there are also odd little waves of noise pushing and pulling against the singer. And then the horns worm up from out of nowhere and carry the whole thing to its triumphant conclusion.
7. Sound Directions: "Dice Game," from The Funky Side of Life (Stones Throw). Oddball rap producer Madlib throws a block party on this track, lifting one of those Hip-Hop 101 beats that are classic for a reason and letting the assembled musicians have their way with it. The track is wordless except for background shouts and there's little in the way of structure, but it remains instantly re-playable for its inarguable ability to force your head to move up and down with the beat. It makes one suspect that Madlib holds stock in neck brace manufacturers.
8. M.I.A.: "Pull Up the People," from Arular (XL). Despite having read countless analyses, I didn't know what the hell this record was going to sound like before I ordered it — and playing name-that-genre seems like a lot less fun after having heard it. M.I.A. basically combines simple hip-hop beat patterns with samples and electronic effects, over which she throws down her inimitable Pootie Tang-like patois. And yes, you could justifiably insist that her lyrics are sloganeering at its most banal, but who else has "got the bombs to make you blow"? Lil John?
9. Laura Cantrell: "What You Said," from Humming By the Flowered Vine (Matador). This track pulls a sneaky trick, pasting autumnal lyrics about longing and change on top of a summery country tune that tosses in accordion, fiddle and handclaps. The song was originally penned by singer-songwriter Jenifer Jackson for her 2001 album, Birds, but Cantrell has no trouble making it her own. Her voice possesses its usual beauty, but the phrasing and timing on display are particularly impeccable.
10. Cage: "Too Heavy for Cherubs," from Hell's Winter (Definitive Jux). This begins with a sound that's nothing like what you'd expect from a rapper, with lazy guitar tones that would sound more at home on a mumbling indie rock track. Cage narrates a harrowing tale about helping his abusive father shoot up, with the eye for gruesome detail that characterizes the rest of Winter. Check these lines: "[He] wrapped my rubber snake around his arm and made me pull it tight/ Hit himself with a spike, drew blood and pulled his mask down/ My hands blue until he let my arm go and he passed out." Damn.
Sonic Youth: "Tunic (Song for Karen)," from Goo: Deluxe Edition (Geffen). This track is out of the running since it was originally released back in 1990, but it popped up again on the Goo reissue the Youth put out this year and its excellence is just inescapable. Kim Gordon narrates the entire track from the perspective of Karen Carpenter, watching herself waste away from anorexia. You would think that the Youth would tackle the Carpenter story in a mean, ironic way, but the scraping guitar and Gordon's incorruptible seriousness let you know that the band means it from start to finish. If only all the bands that claim the Youth as an influence could actually play like this.