2. LTJ Bukem, Journey Inwards (Good Looking/Kinetic) Englishman Bukem single-handedly resurrected electrified soul music on his debut full-length after the greater part of a decade releasing atmospheric jungle singles. This double disc would be worth the price for "Sunrain" alone, an R&B tune so agelessly funky that you'll instantly forget the entire 15 years of quiet storm pap the genre has suffered through before it. But the rest of Journey Inwards has plenty of headphone bliss to offer as well, from the retro-swinging lounge groove of "Deserted Vaults" to inventive tracks in the more traditional tempo range of jungle. What's most impressive of all is that he pulled together this refreshingly varied album after years of being written off as a one-trick pony, and from a genre that seems to be going the way of Kate Winslet's career after Titanic.
3. Dead Prez, Let's Get Free (Loud) Once you get over the inherent contradiction of an explicitly socialist, black power group signed to Loud Records, a subsidiary of Sony Music (call it the Rage From Within the Machine Syndrome), you'll find much to be hopeful about on Let's Get Free. First off, MCs Stic.man and M-1 believe that a rapper's responsibility involves more than just not spilling bubbly on the interior of the Bentley. While touching on subjects as diverse as inner-city school conditions, vegetarianism, mental foreplay and hip-hop's moral bankruptcy, Dead Prez never sacrifices listenability or the almighty thump. And perhaps most refreshing for a rap album these days -- no guest appearances at all!
4. MJ Cole, Sincere (Talkin Loud) Speed garage, which sounds like jungle after taking anger management classes from house music, grabbed urban London by its pasty shoulders last year. Oddly enough, its skippy, two-step beats and full-bodied vocal arrangements have yet to catch on in the States (or really anywhere outside of the U.K.). MJ Cole's approach is much more musical than the easily digested work of his colleagues, opting for warm, synthesizer-painted backdrops and collaborations only with the finest divas. "I See" sounds like Roberta Flack getting her groove back, and "Sincere" ripples like a pool of syrup being disturbed by syncopated kick drum and snare hits.
5. Burnt Friedman & The Nu Dub Players, Just Landed (~scape) Mr. Friedman, who boasts one of the most open minds and deepest talents in electronic music, splits his time between Germany and New Zealand and numerous deeply esoteric projects. The implications of dub, the "studio as instrument" approach pioneered by Jamaican legends Lee Scratch Perry and King Tubby, have been reverberating through techno, ambient, jungle and related galaxies since the very beginning. But never has the original vibe -- its rootsy yet outerspacey bottomlessness -- been re-created so authentically outside the Caribbean or the year 1978. Through the Nu Dub Players' live instrumentation and Friedman's mad professing behind the mixing board, they manage to extract dub's cosmic consciousness from its traditional reggae constraints, transporting Just Landed to a whole new genreless dimension.
6. Outkast, Stankonia (Arista) Outkast, the greatest chorus writers in hip-hop, managed to remain "so fresh and so clean, clean" while exploring the malodorous regions of the Southern inner city/backwoods experience on Stankonia. With their freelance studio consultants Organized Noize taking a backseat, the production isn't as richly melodic as it was on their masterwork Aquemini, but raucous headbangers like "Gasoline Dreams" and "B.O.B." are sure to get the party jumping -- or even moshing -- every time this near-classic is put on the platter.
7. I-f, Mixed Up in the Hague, Vol. 1 (Panama) I-f is an obscure Dutch producer and DJ who briefly set international dance floors ablaze with his retro-electro smash "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass" back in 1997. Not comfortable with the spotlight in the slightest, he crawled back into the shadows of the city he calls Murder Capitol (The Hague), only surfacing to spin a set of the most esoteric, tragically forgotten Eurodisco records of all time. Here he blends the themes from Blade Runner and Dr. Who with proto-techno oddities by Giorgio Moroder (responsible for Donna Summer's smash "I Feel Love") and A Number of Names (whose "Sharevari" directly led to Detroit techno). A fascinating -- and thoroughly booty-moving -- tour through the back alleys of electronic music of yore, expertly sequenced by a DJ who really knows his history.
8. Various Artists, Harry the Bastard Presents Club H, Vol. 2 (Statra) Perhaps an even lesser known DJ than I-f, Harry the Bastard masquerades by day as the record buyer for the largest domestic distributor of dance music. But as is becoming increasingly the case, smaller named jocks like him are selecting the true gems, only as their club-headlining counterparts were able to five years ago. Harry, with his limitless crates to pull from, has an ear for deep, immaculate house grooves layered with live jazz instrumentation and only the most understated vocals. What's more, he hasn't included a dud yet on either of the two volumes of Club H. Dig through a specialty record shop for six months looking for 12-inchers of this quality, or pick this up -- the choice is yours.