BEST FAREWELL ALBUM:
Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around
It wouldn't be the last thing he recorded, and if the album and box set that followed weren't so great, it would have felt disrespectful. But this was the last thing the Man in Black released before his sad death in 2003. The album, much like Warren Zevon's The Wind, is the sound of a man who knows his days are numbered, and he wishes he had a bit more time to make up for all his mistakes.
BEST CHRISTIAN RAP ALBUM:
116 Clique – Amped
It seems like a dubious achievement, but Lecrae, Trip Lee, et al, have created something even the most hardcore gangbangers could enjoy. Everything else in this genre either gets the rap right and the spirituality takes a back seat or it's earnest but totally wack. Here, this EP provides the best of both worlds.
BEST BOOTLEG ALBUM:
Danger Mouse – The Grey Album
By blending two great albums, the DJ (and future half of Gnarls Barkley) created something new and better. Who knew they'd work so well together? He did, and everyone's better off for it (except EMI, who sent him a cease-and-desist letter).
BEST GREATEST HITS COLLECTION:
Talking Heads – The Best of Talking Heads
What really needs to be said here? An updated version of The Name of This Band is Talking Heads adds their essential '80s output, including my personal favorite "(Nothing But) Flowers".
BEST BREAK-UP ALBUM:
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
"Hello, this is Justin Vernon, you've reached the winter of our discontent." Recorded in a Wisconsin cabin after his devastating break-up, this is brutal catharsis that everyone can relate to.
BEST POP ALBUM:
Justin Timberlake – FutureSex/LoveSounds
Who knew the former icon of boy band NSYNC would deliver an album that more or less got everything right. There's the dirty funk jam ("SexyBack"), the karma-is-a-bitch anthem that's become his staple ("What Goes Around...Comes Around") and the beginning of his great recording relationship with T.I. ("My Love"). So when's he going to release something else?
BEST LIVE ALBUM:
Rufus Wainwright – Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall
Rufus Wainwright's verbatim recording of Judy Garland's landmark Carnegie Hall concerts is wildly ambitious, extremely gay but also a tremendous piece of music. The torch singer is like a relic from a bygone era, but still one of the most exciting voices in contemporary music.
The Clash – London Calling
Hard to believe it's been 30 years now since the Clash's landmark punk album was released. With a guitar smash, Joe Strummer and co. planted their flag on the musical landscape. A second disc of demos and a DVD on the making of this essential album.
BEST BOX SET:
various artists – Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the '80s Underground
Four discs of '80s nuggets, from household names like Red Hot Chili Peppers and R.E.M. to lesser-known but just as essential artists like Echo & the Bunnymen and Cocteau Twins.
BEST INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM:
Explosions in the Sky – The Earth is Not a Cold, Dead Place
(Temporary Residence, 2003)
That it found success nearly a decade after first forming is not because they sold out, but rather that the editors of film trailers, sportswear commercials, et al, know that the Austin band's music is so malleable that it convey any emotion. It's all open to interpretation.
BEST CRISIS OF FAITH:
Brand New – The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me
What Jesse Lacey captured on this bold leap forward for the Long Island band was what so few Christian recording artists fail to grasp: that life isn't all sunshine and lollipops. This is a dark album with no easy solutions. If only other emo bands had a tenth of this ambition.
MOST SELF-ASSURED DEBUT ALBUM:
Great Scots! I can't remember a band coming out of the gate so aware of the message it wanted to send: all cocky come-ons and self-deprecation. But by keeping it under 40 minutes, the band never wears out its welcome. That confidence waned on their follow-up then came back but felt hollow on Tonight. At least they started out strong...
BEST EGO DEFLATION:
Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak
Perhaps the most conceited artist in all of rap (and that's saying something), Kanye West had the chops to back it up. But on this marvel of an album, a Blood on the Tracks for the iPod age, is the first time the Chicago MC and producer pulled back the façade to reveal the human underneath the superhuman talent and achievements.
MOST DRAMATIC SHIFT:
David Crowder*Band – Church Music
The Waco band is one of the most versatile and talented bands in all of Christian music. He's so good in fact, MSN users voted the group the best artist of any genre in 2006. But after his ventures into bluegrass (A Collision) and pop-rock (Remedy), no one could have predicted this. A journey through about every style imaginable, this proved they could do anything, and succeed better than their peers.
(Sub Pop, 2008)
It's not quite country, it's not quite folk, it's not quite chamber pop. What it is, in a word, is gorgeous. And not to get all pretentious on you, but pastoral also comes to mind. Basically, this is what Aaron Copland would sound like were he alive today--and a hipster.
BEST ALBUM YOUR DAD LIKES:
U2 – No Line on the Horizon
After winning their second Album of the Year GRAMMY for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and more than 25 years in the biz (which got them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), the Irish band could have done anything they wanted. Instead, they took five years to record this massively underrated, deeply spiritual album. This is their most personal--and best--album since their unequivocal masterpiece Achtung Baby.
Morrissey – You are the Quarry
Once you're the leader of the Smiths, you pretty much get a pass for the rest of your life. But a true artist like Morrissey wouldn't settle for a so-so solo output. So for his first album in nine years (following the lackluster Maladjusted), he brought out the venom, on vicious tracks like "Irish Blood, English Heart", "All the Lazy Dykes" and "America is Not the World". A master with words, the veteran singer-songwriter's acerbic wit was back in full force.