1. At the Drive-In Relationship of Command (Grand Royal) – Relationship of Command will blindside you and knock you on your ass. The frantic rage of Cedric Bixler’s politically-charged vocals, the gang chants and the raucous fury of each pounding note are all filtered into one memorable line after another. Such a level of intensity hasn’t been achieved since Guns N’ Roses and Rage Against the Machine slapped us with each of their punk-minded versions of heavy metal. The faint of heart may not be able to stomach them, but those physically and emotionally prepared to digest At the Drive-In will honestly never be the same.
2. Dead Prez Let’s Get Free (Relativity) – The debut album from Dead Prez is equally as revolutionary and confrontational as N.W.A. and Public Enemy’s efforts at the height of their powers. Attacking racism, political agendas and inner city school curriculum with a pro-black call to arms, they articulately educate and empower minorities oppressed in the ghetto struggle. They also take a little time to promote a healthy diet and the importance of stimulating conversation before casual sex. Let’s Get Free is extremely well thought out and executed – a critical landmark in hip hop.
3. Eminem The Marshall Mathers LP (Aftermath/Interscope) – Hip hop’s class clown has matured and recorded the album of his life. Yes, Eminem still loves to grab your attention with shocking and inappropriate imagery. And at times The Marshall Mathers LP takes violence and misogyny to hideous extremes. But for the most part, Eminem’s lyrical wordplay, the strength and clarity of his delivery and his expert pop songcraft elevate hip hop to a caliber of composition and production never heard before. There are at least four all-time classics on here and several more high-level hits.
4. Common Like Water for Chocolate (MCA) – With expert hip hop beats that dabble in spiritual soul, bohemian jazz and dirty funk, Common raises his game on his fourth album. His laid back flow and nimble urban rhymes are often positively uplifting, but he also takes a break to play the part of a pimp and a gangsta. Like Water for Chocolate is a rich treat with great texture and depth.
5. Blonde Redhead Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons (Touch and Go) – Blonde Redhead’s noisy, distorted and detuned rock has always brought on Sonic Youth comparisons. Having both a male and female lead vocalist split duties helped strengthen the claim. With Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, though, those references should stop. This time around, they have a cleaner and more delicate sound that alternates between bouncy synths and hauntingly spare guitars. Each odd and mesmerizing soundscape leaves ample room for their otherworldly vocals. This is one of the most original and consuming albums of the year.
6. Deltron 3030 Deltron 3030 (75 Ark/Tommy Boy) – Dr. Octagon fans take notice. The production wizard (Dan the Automator) behind that 1996 underground hip hop masterpiece (Dr. Octagonecologyst) has teamed up with a new veteran MC (Del Tha Funkee Homosapien…instead of Kool Keith) to create another futuristic and intergalactic classic. Make no mistake, the sci-fi concept is highbrow and geeky and Del’s wordplay is verbose and thesaurus-assisted. But the flow is phenomenal and the soundtrack truly transports you to another planet in another time.
7. Linkin Park Hyrbrid Theory (Warner Brothers) – It seems that every other band is combining rap and rock these days. Linkin Park’s not just another one of those bands, though. Their blend of hip hop lyrics, gentle melodies, cathartic screams and soaring choruses takes on a new-found cinematic style with their industrial electronics and upper echelon production. Love it or hate it, most of these anthemic choruses will remain lodged in your head indefinitely.
8. PJ Harvey Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island) – Over the last decade PJ Harvey has been a supremely artistic and ever-changing singer/songwriter. In typical form, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea finds her exploring a new direction…straightforward rock with her cleanest production to date. Some may miss the raw, lo-fi energy of her punky early stuff or the ambient electronics of more recent releases, but this new sound cuts through those potential distractions and focuses on the songs. These New York-inspired tales of big city glamour, heartfelt love and loss, and animal lust reveal a mature and confident PJ that’s quite appealing.
9. Neko Case & Her Boyfriends Furnace Room Lullaby (Bloodshot) – Neko Case has a slightly nasal but commanding and powerful set of pipes. With them and her boyfriends, she mixes country and folk with some underground rock attitude and energy. Heartache and pain are recurring lyrical themes, though the mood avoids getting too somber by remaining a spirited, group effort.
10. Coldplay Parachutes (Parlophone/Capitol) – Jeff Buckley’s untimely passing three years ago and Radiohead’s new experimental electronic direction have left a void in the dark, fragile and lightly floating rock category. Coldplay aren’t quite as tortured or heavy as either of them, but their intricate guitar work, delicate crooning and soft piano ballads have enough atmosphere and intrigue to make them prime candidates to carry on the torch.
11. Queens of the Stone Age Rated R (Interscope) – With Kyuss and the first QOTSA album, Josh Homme emerged as a premier player of crunchy, stoner rock. Rated R finds him softening up a bit and getting more experimental. The fuzzy blues riffs veer into wild, ear-catching directions while the harmonies get trippy, blasé and ethereal. There is room, though, for some ass-kicking ferocity and monster screams (from bassist Nick Oliveri). Heavy rock has a bright and exciting future with Queens of the Stone Age around.
12. New Pornographers Mass Romantic (Matador) – In mid-90s band Zumpano, Carl Newman wrote pleasing power pop that was highly reminiscent of the late 60s. Now with the New Pornographers, his super sweet melodies transcend time. A large part of the success can be attributed secret weapon Neko Case’s fun and carefree vocals (yes, the same dark, alt country singer/songwriter) and the impossibly catchy falsetto harmonies from the rest of the guys in the band. Beware, though, there’s a lot of lyrical depth and pain wrapped up in all the unbridled joy.
13. Papa Roach Infest (Dreamworks) – A little rap and a lot of metal come together for a perfect mix of meaty riffs, big melodic hooks and, on occasion, furiously rhythmic MCing. In a time when hip hop-flavored, adolescent angst is storming the airwaves, Infest stands a cut far above the rest (except for Linkin Park).
14. Outkast Stankonia (La Face) – Stankonia is a wildly eclectic and unprecedented mix of futuristic funk, R&B and hip hop that also leaves room for some hard hitting guitar riffs and freaky solos. At 24 tracks, it’s unnecessarily long, especially since the quality gets spotty and the mood sluggish from track 16 on. If Outkast would have lopped off the final third of the album, this highly inventive statement would have been a best of the year candidate.
15. Sunny Day Real Estate The Rising Tide (Time Bomb) – Emo-core has always been relatively progressive with its complicated tempos and challenging guitar interplay. It’s never really been what you’d call pretty, though, until now. With The Rising Tide, Sunny Day Real Estate has moved into a bombastic, Yes-like prog direction with super-high vocals and lush production meeting hardcore tension and rousing anthems. As long as the music stays agitated, it’s stunning. But occasionally, The Rising Tide gets a little too beautiful for its own good.
16. Ghostface Killah Supreme Clientele (Razor Sharp/Epic) – The second solo album from the Wu-Tang Clan member is a step above his solid debut. The Clan’s signature spooky street vibe stays fresh and dangerous with some soulful samples, funk horns and cinematic strings. Fellow crew members spit quality guest verses all over the album, but the weirdo, relentless and piercing flow of Ghostface rises above the rest and keeps the album feeling focused. Supreme Clientele is one of the best albums in the crowded stable of Wu-Tang projects.
17. DMX And Then There Was X (Def Jam) – DMX always comes hard with feral energy and abrasive grit. On his third album he adds an occasional touch of pop bounce and puts together his most consistent collection of songs. And Then There Was X maintains his spot as one of the most rugged, thuggish and rousing MCs in the game.
18. Bettie Serveert Private Suit (Hidden Agenda) – Carol Van Dijk’s yearning vocals never lash out and the Dutch quartet never rock hard, but the music hits you with a heaviness through its conviction. Private Suit returns to the mellower mood of their first two albums and makes for a subtle, slow-burning, indie rock gem.
19. Bright Eyes Fevers & Mirrors (Saddle Creek) – Fevers & Mirrors is grandiose for a small, indie-label album. For starters, it jumps around from angsty folk rock to clamorous aggressive rock to restrained alternative country. Then there’s a kitchen sink list of instruments that includes: accordion, vibraphone, glockenspiel, piano, organs, flute, dulcimer, mandolin and more. And on top of it all, vocalist Conor Oberst delivers his hyper-observant and poetic lyrics with a strained warble and assured self importance. It can be polarizing stuff, but, when it’s on, it’s jaw-dropping.
20. The Wallflowers Breach (Interscope) – The multi-platinum smash album Bringing Down the Horse established Jakob Dylan as a solid songwriter and hitmaker in his own right (away from the shadow of his legendary father). Breach advances his abilities further. At times the band’s roots rock becomes surprisingly hard and edgy with songwriting sharp enough to match the intensity. They can also lay back with mellow confidence, too. Breach ranks right up there with some of the best and most creative material in the Tom Petty catalogue.