2. Dave Alvin, Public Domain (Hightone) An album of ancient, mostly obscure American folk-blues-country songs from the ex-Blaster, backed up by the Guilty Men, through which he pays homage to his musical influences. It doesn't sound like anything else Alvin's ever done, but once you spin Public Domain, it makes perfect sense in a way few records do.
3. Moris Tepper, Moth to Mouth (Candlebone) Oh, yes, you have too heard him. Tepper's been a guitar-playing force for good on albums by Tom Waits, Frank Black, Robyn Hitchcock and so on and so on, and he was the youngest member (at 18) of Captain Beefheart's second Magic Band incarnation (Doc at the Radar Station). This year, on his sophomore effort, he found a cranky, noisy, melodic, utterly genuine voice. PJ Harvey recently caught his act three nights running and asked him to open up for her on a clutch of U.S. dates; we're happy to report that we sang his praises back in July, and we're always glad to be on the ground floor of anything PJ Harvey thinks is cool. Available by mail order from www.candlebone.com.
4. Patti Smith, Gung Ho (Arista) Smith sounds committed and fierce on this record in a way she hasn't, really, since Radio Ethiopia. She hasn't lost the genuine honesty of her poetic stance, despite having been recently enshrined in a number of "collected writings" volumes designed to drop-kick rock musicians into the realm of Voice From Olympus (Lou Reed did this as well with Collected Lyrics, but . . . somehow one blames him more). The title track is kind of a "Birdland" updated, a long meditation on her father's wartime experiences and the process of getting older. After a run of albums understandably focused on death and mourning, following the loss of friend Robert Mapplethorpe and Smith's husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith, Gung Ho finds her angry and sly once again, which is the mode in which Patti Smith thrives best.
5. Lambchop, Nixon (Merge) Even a jaded music hack has to unconditionally love something once in a while, and I love the way Lambchop inspires outright teeth-gnashing hatred in music critics who insist that this experimental, Nashville-based, big-band y'allternative outfit is some kind of decadelong art school in-joke. When Vic Chesnutt needed an epic sound to carry 1999's The Salesman and Bernadette, he went to Lambchop, whose dobros, vibraphones, full brass section, Hammond organ and metal shop percussion provided just the right ambiance for Chesnutt's song cycle of misguided and mistaken love. Nixon isn't about the Great Satan at all, but the unsettling ghost of Tricky Dick's (and Reagan's) vicious America is all over this record, particularly on the cruelly titled track "Up With People."
6. godspeed you black emperor!, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (Kranky) God alone knows how many people are in this band, or what their names are, or what they think about when they write these dark, brooding instrumentals, but this double-disc set is atmospheric and noisy and sinister throughout. This is the kind of music you hear in your head when you've been up all night on coffee and No-Doz, the constant low hum of everything in the world catching up with you at once. godspeed is the most interesting band to come out of Canada since Nomeansno, which is not at all a backhanded compliment. The temperamentally nervous should avoid at all costs.
7. Baha Men, Who Let the Dogs Out? (Artemis) Ha, ha: Of course not. Number seven is really Medeski Martin & Wood's The Dropper (Blue Note) Contemporary jazz music needs a big steel-toed boot in the ass, and MM&W is currently the group best poised to deliver it. From the opening track "We Are Rolling," this album hits like a grenade, dropping samples, loops, beats and shell fragments all over modern jazz riffs. Far from being simply jazz-flavored hip-hop along the lines of Us3 or Digable Planets, this is the first album ever to make a fully coherent statement using both those idioms as its primary language.
8. The Glands, The Glands (Capricorn) A freshman effort, this one collects the flotsam of U.S. and British pop from about 1975 on to craft one of the most genuinely sweet albums of the year. From Bowie riffs to Beatles production, this release from the Atlanta-based Glands flies a number of colors without ever overwhelming its audience, or lapsing into look-at-me smarminess. Intelligent, crafty pop music you won't be ashamed to listen to.
9. David Thomas and Foreigners, Bay City (Thirsty Ear) As with his previous album Erewhon, the Bay City of Thomas' most current release doesn't really bear any relation to any known geography except for the geography of Thomas' own mind. But there are few artists as consistently interesting in their evaluation of that inner landscape, and Bay City is another in a line of Thomas-helmed recordings (Pere Ubu's Pennsylvania among them) which chronicle and tote up the vast changes in the Great American Society at the dog-end of the 20th century.