1. Neko Case: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-)
She calls her music "country noir," an apt description of Fox Confessor, which is at once rootsy, timeless and vaguely experimental. Case's clarion pipes brim with passion, and she liberally stacks them in thick, echo-soaked harmonies. The songs unspool in unexpected ways, yet are never bereft of hooks. And her beautifully poetic lyrics can really get under your skin. From the left-of-center girl-group pop of "That Teenage Feeling" to the mountain gospel of "John Saw That Number"— which could be an outtake from O Brother, Where Art Thou? — Fox Confessor offers one delightful surprise after another.
2. Dave Douglas: Meaning and Mystery (Greenleaf)
The trumpeter/composer is one of the leading lights in contemporary acoustic jazz, his output consistently first-rate. This quintet session, which skews toward the Miles/Shorter sound, teems with invigorating melodies, spirited playing and impeccable group interplay. Uri Caine's exclusive use of a Fender Rhodes adds shimmering tones and a cool, retro-'70s feel.
3. Los Lobos: The Town and the City (Mammoth)
More than 30 years into its storied career, the East L.A. combo serves up a platter that's among its best. Reinstating the sonic adventurism of their masterpiece Kiko, Los Lobos touch on smoldering rhythm-and-blues, rootsy rock, a handful of south-of-the-border numbers, some rollicking blues and a few tender ballads. The writing, singing and playing — all top shelf, courtesy of one of America's greatest bands.
4. The Black Keys: Magic Potion (Nonesuch); Chulahoma (Fat Possum)
The Akron, Ohio purveyors of grimy garage blues-rock scored big with two releases this year. The duo signed with a major label, Nonesuch, but kept its visceral guitar-vocals-drums sound intact. Magic Potion is a bit heavier and hookier than past Black Keys outings, and frontman Dan Auerbach comports himself like a rock star in every way but the pomposity. Earlier in the year, the tandem unleashed the six-song EP Chulahoma, a seething slab of North Mississippi drone blues inspired by the late Junior Kimbrough. This one reeks of dark country crossroads and looming danger (perhaps the swipe of a knife from a jilted woman).
5. Pearl Jam: Pearl Jam (J)
Contrary to prevailing opinion, I personally never thought Pearl Jam tanked, even though the band took any number of side roads that alienated fans. Pearl Jam returned the band to rock accessibility and commercial success, without the scent of compromise. Kicking off with a five-song explosion of punk-infused rock, the band then hits the usual touchstones — brooding ballads, post-classic-rock numbers — and even a nod to Memphis soul ("Come Back"). Eddie Vedder's vocals, from low moans to larynx-shredding blasts, are the sound of rejuvenation.
6. Bill Frisell: Bill Frisell/Ron Carter/Paul Motian (Nonesuch)
If this column has a perennial, it's my favorite instrumentalist, Bill Frisell, whose guitar-playing always beguiles. This trio session with venerable bassist Ron Carter and nearly as venerable drummer Paul Motian carries Frisell's usual emotional heft (rarely heard from jazz guitarists) and improvisational mastery — the decidedly jazzy disc has an open, free-flowing vibe throughout.
7. Frank Black: Fastman Raiderman (Back Porch)
On this sprawling two-disc set, Black leaves the Pixie dust in the pouch and adroitly taps into a deep well of Americana: country-rock, R&B, troubadour folk, piano-driven ballads, a few lovely pop numbers and more. It's all held together by Black's rugged vocals and an impressive array of studio musicians, among them Steve Cropper, Spooner Oldham, Levon Helm, Buddy Miller and Jim Keltner.
8. Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Domino)
The Sheffield, England band — über-hyped in the spring — lived up to the lavish critical praise with a debut disc of sinewy post-punk, marked by unbridled energy, hardscrabble hooks, knotty guitar and Alex Turner's heavily British-accented vocals. The songs provide often riveting glimpses into post-adolescent life in working-class Northern England.
9. John Mayer: Continuum (Aware/Columbia)
If you asked me in early September if John Mayer would ever make one of my year-end Top 10 lists, I'd have said I'd be more likely to break out in stigmata. Then Continuum hit on Sept. 12, and I couldn't resist its blue-eyed-soul charms. These slinky R&B tunes reconcile the cute strummer boy and his alter ego as a Hendrix-worshipping bluesman. I'll be curious to find out if I have the least bit of interest in Continuum in a couple of years, but for now I keep returning to it.
10. David Binney: Cities and Desire (Criss Cross Jazz)
Alto ace Binney enlisted tenor ace Mark Turner for this elliptical, cinematic suite of jazz tunes, each titled after a city. Along with piano wizard Craig Taborn, they set off some improvisational fireworks. Terrific compositions and the best solos I heard all year. (crisscrossjazz.com)
11. (Yes, this column goes to 11.) Ali Farka Toure: Savane (Nonesuch)
No African artist displayed a more explicit link to American blues than Malian singer-guitarist Ali Farka Toure, who died of cancer this year at age 66. Savane's closest kinship is to the drone blues of North Mississippi, yet it's very much its own animal. Toure mixes indigenous African instruments with his chimey electric and acoustic guitars, and gets contributions from American harmonica man Little George Sueref. He ladles his gruff vocals over the top. The music lopes along, mesmerizing.
... and 12. Here's an extra-special bonus category: Best Album from 2003 that I Didn't Hear 'Til 2006.
Fountains of Wayne: Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve)
This 16-song power-pop epic very likely would've ended up No. 1 on my survey this year. Hey, better late than never. Whether it's the relentlessly rocking "Red Light," the weary sweetness of "Hackensack" or the classic post-Beatles of "No Better Place," Managers always scores. Lyrically, the songs wittily evoke the ennui felt by young folks entering the corporate world.
Too Good Not to Mention:
Ray Davies: Other People's Lives (V2) — The ex-Kink in an impressive return to form; The Raconteurs: Broken Boy Soldiers (V2) — Jack White was the calling card, but to me Brendan Benson was the ringer; Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs: Under the Covers, Vol. 1 (Shout Factory) — An irrepressibly poppy set of '60s remakes; Andrew Hill: Time Lines (Blue Note) — A jazz cult legend makes yet another triumphant return to Blue Note; Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood: Out Louder (Indirecto) — With guitarist Scofield on board, the trio turns in its most focused outing in awhile; Irma Thomas: After the Rain (Rounder) — The New Orleans R&B goddess issues a deeply soulful offering.