Top 20 Albums of the Year (1-5)

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Thousands of discs were released this year, but only 20 could make the final cut. With the most scientific of instruments (headphones, and sometimes CD players) we whittled down this year’s releases, and each Thursday for the three weeks we’ll deliver to you five of our faves. Let us know what we missed, and what you loved.

Dax Riggs, We Sing of Only Blood or Love (FAT POSSUM)

01_daxriggs.jpgThere?s only so many times you can listen to the umpteenth Eddie Vedder- or Chris Cornell-style crooner before vowing to shred your flannel. That, as it turns out, might be hasty: For every 3,000th 3 Doors Down, there?s at least one Dax Riggs, a manly man?s musician who?s got a throat as crusty and damaged as the BQE and miles of bad road behind him. (At one performance earlier this year in New York, Riggs, shirtless and sweating and wearing guy-liner, but not in the Ashlee-Simpson-is-my-lady way, limited his banter to the following: ?Magic is real.? That night, it was true.) Composed of short, filthy little songs, his low-octave growl and piercing shrieks make for cathartic relief from the radio. Songs like ?Demon Tied to a Chair in my Brain,? ?Dog-Headed Whore? and the utterly brilliant ?Didn?t Know Yet What I Would Know When I Was Bleedin?? — as fine a use for the future-perfect as any — evoke the presence of a real artist, someone who absolutely will not stop until he?s been exorcised completely. Fans of southern rock, take note. Please.

Ryan Adams, Easy Tiger, (LOST HIGHWAY)

02_ryanadams.jpgThere are a lot of reasons to dislike Ryan Adams. He?s the voice-mail-leaving, journalist-harassing, actress-dating enfant terrible of the alt-country world, a musician whose profound self-seriousness is rivaled only by his market-flooding output (three albums in 2006). But a funny thing happened with Easy Tiger: Adams got on the quality-control (and off the heroin and cocaine speedballs), took his own advice (referenced in his album title) and returned to his Heartbreaker roots, arguably what he does best. In abandoning his forays into AM radio with Gold and rock with Rock N Roll — hollow exercises — Adams has returned to emotionally wrought alt-rock, evidenced by the cracks in his voice and his display of his vulnerable upper registers. On ?The Sun Also Sets? Adams wavers between moan and growl, a sob caught in his throat as he outlines how easily relationships fall into disrepair. The sunny ?Two Hearts? belies the impending disappointment of a budding relationship, and Adams can?t resist a nod at irony when he summons a guitar solo by speaking its name on the inscrutable arena-rocker ?Halloween Head.? Hell, we even forgive him the Sheryl Crow duet on ?Two.? We?re just glad to have him back.

Abbey Lincoln, Abbey Sings Abbey (VERVE)

03_abbeylincoln.jpg The earthy jazz singer turned plenty of heads when she ditched her usual piano-bass-drums outfit and took up with Bob Dylan?s guitarist, Larry Campbell. But one person?s heresy is another?s revitalization, and the philosophical tunes that Lincoln?s known for not only fit right into the bluesy riffs and twangy peals, they resounded anew. Whether she?s singing about the way the world is falling down or questioning the wisdom of God?s judiciousness, she lets her 77-year-old rasp expose a song?s sentiment and sensuality. The way it slides between this melancholy program?s accordions and dobros is a joy.

White Stripes, Icky Thump (WARNER)

04_whitestripes.jpgWhen biography threatens to eclipse an artist?s work, the results are invariably poor. Between Jack White?s super-model marriage, Meg White?s incipient breakdown, major major-label expectations and the collective begging of indie U.S.A. desperate for something important, it?s little wonder that 2007 was the year that the White Stripes began to implode. That said, the candy-colored Detroit duo?s sixth studio album was a thoroughly engrossing affair, an ADD-suffering collection of songs that ran the gamut from the ridiculous (?Conquest?) to the sublime (?300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues?) to the classic (?You Don?t Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You?re Told)).? There?s no denying that the album?s overall vision feels muddy, but then, that doesn?t seem to be the point: Rather, Jack and Meg are trying their best to put a smile on your face, and at that, this entry into their catalog is entirely successful. Yes, the spoken-word bit in ?Rag and Bone? becomes tiresome, and the bagpipes elsewhere are grating, but the exuberance with which the two approach their work is infectious, and the courageous way they build their material (and, in the case of Jack, their facial hair) is an inspiration. Anyone who claimed that Get Behind Me Satan would be remembered as their ?weird? record ought to polish their crystal ball.

Bjork, Volta, (ATLANTIC)

05_bjork.jpgVolta isn’t Bj?rk‘s most-forward thinking achievement, and that’s exactly why it’s such a breath of fresh air. The future, it would seem, has caught up with the reliably sci-fi Icelandic songstress, and so on Volta, she splashes in the streams of her memory. References dating back to her Sugarcubes day litter Volta‘s brass-and-beats framework, and, somewhat paradoxically, the result is Bj?rk’s most cohesive album since her 1997 masterpiece, Homogenic. Volta reaches a gorgeous peak with “The Dull Flame of Desire,” a duet with Antony and the Johnsons‘ Antony Hegarty that smolders and finally ignites thanks to Brian Chippendale’s pummeling drums. Future, past, present? Who cares when you have music that’s this transcendent?