The best albums of 2005

LOOKING UP Chris Brokaw's Incredible Love is one of the year's top records.

Photo: Anthony Saffery

Cristina Black, music writer

1. The Mars Volta Frances the Mute (Universal).
The post-prog geniuses craft a visceral suite for the ages.

LOOKING UP Chris Brokaw's Incredible Love is one of the year's top records.

Photo: Anthony Saffery

Cristina Black, music writer

1. The Mars Volta Frances the Mute (Universal).
The post-prog geniuses craft a visceral suite for the ages.

2. World Leader Pretend Punches (Warner Bros.).
This New Orleans quintet's searing, wintry pop sheds new light on the themes of love and loss.

3. Fiona Apple Extraordinary Machine (Epic).
Sprightly show tunes and yearning ballads make it so good to be back inside Apple's lovesick head.

4. Devendra Banhart Cripple Crow (XL).
Freak-folkie Banhart's otherworldly magnum opus ups the spook factor with ghostly reverb and a real live howling wolf.

5. Martha Wainwright Martha Wainwright (Zo).
Martha's wail soars in exquisite melodies over watercolor soundscapes, proving her surname isn't her only asset.

6. Brakes Give Blood (Rough Trade).
Averaging under two minutes per track, this U.K. supergroup only bothers with the good parts.

7. Sufjan Stevens Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty).
Campfire sing-alongs, a UFO sighting, Chicago.... This is one man's take on middle America, writ large.

8. The Negatones The Negatones (Skylab).
Brooklyn studio geeks assemble a Moog-slick ride through rock history that's over in 30 minutes flat.

9. Neil Diamond 12 Songs (Columbia).
Somehow, producer Rick Rubin transforms the Jewish Elvis from kitsch figure to pop genius.

10. Lyrics Born Same !@#$ Different Day (Quannum Projects).
Move over, Kanye; this release is the year's most innovative shindig soundtrack.

Jay Ruttenberg, music writer

1. M.I.A. Arular (XL).
Like Beck or Bjrk of ten years past, this London rapper makes playful pop with a twist; it's like listening to radio broadcasts from some alternate universe.

The Go-Betweens

Photo: Stewart Dayman

2. The Go-Betweens Oceans Apart (Yep Roc).
The sole band in rock's history to stage a successful reunion offers its third album since returning from the grave. It's a charm.

3. Devendra Banhart Cripple Crow (XL).
This guy thinks he's Captain Hook or something, yet he's that rare performer who thrives musically by tempering his eccentricities.

4. Clem Snide End of Love (Spinart).
Eef Barzelay writes old-fashioned songs mocking God, happiness and Lucille Ball.

5. Adam Green Gemstones (Rough Trade).
The Moldy Peaches' brat channels Jacques Brel via Howdy Doody; the big question is why only Germans seem to like it.

6. The Howling Hex All-Night Fox (Drag City).
Until Tom Verlaine gets off his ass, here's the place to go for wild guitar work.

7. Nic Armstrong and the Thieves The Greatest White Liar (New West).
This young British band plays rock & roll as if the music never made it past 1964.

8. Kanye West Late Registration (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam).
The sky is blue, President Bush doesn't care about black people, and Kanye West makes clever-ass records.

9. The Heartless Bastards Stairs and Elevators (Fat Possum).
This Cincinnati trio's classic rock is powered by Erika Wennerstrom, who sings like a less-girlish Robert Plant.

10. The Books Lost and Safe (Tomlab; Germany).
At long last, a word-oriented folk and found-sound hybrid suitable for librarians and lab rats.

Hank Shteamer, music assistant

1. Deerhoof The Runners Four (5RC).
The Bay Area art-pop darlings transcend quirk with their richest material to date.

2. Orthrelm OV (Ipecac).
Mick Barr and Josh Blair take minimalist metal to thrilling extremes.

3. Matthew Welch Dream Tigers (Tzadik).
The local composer's bracing, lyrical pieces draw from the Scottish and Indonesian traditions, but never simply reiterate them.

4. Sicbay Suspicious Icons (5440' or Fight!).
Math-rock veteran Nick Sakes funnels his twisted aesthetic into intricate guitar-pop gems.

5. Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Matt Sweeney Superwolf (Drag City).
Partnering with a fellow traveler, Will Oldham delivers another batch of wise, stoic songs.

6. Big Business Head for the Shallow (Hydrahead).
Jared Warren (ex-Karp) and Coady Willis (ex--Murder City Devils) unite to deliver the year's catchiest and most bruising hard-rock slab.

7. Mostly Other People Do the Killing Mostly Other People Do the Killing (Hot Cup).
Bassist Moppa Elliott's boisterous quartet represents the perfect marriage of chaos and chops.

8. Sunn O))) Black One (Southern Lord).
A host of guests help Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson realize a menacing ambient-metal opus.

9. The Locust Safety Second, Body Last (Ipecac).
Grindcore has rarely sounded more dire or deranged than on this blistering EP.

10. Coptic Light Coptic Light (No Quarter).
The Brooklyn trio's roiling jams explore a new vista of avant-rock.

Steve Smith, associate music editor

1. Antony and the Johnsons I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian).
Fey enigma Antony pours ravishing soul into ineffably sweet songs of loneliness and longing.

2. Nickel Creek Why Should the Fire Die? (Sugar Hill).
The plucky California trio mixes newgrass dexterity with classic-pop savvy, blazing trails for young Americana.

3. Fiona Apple Extraordinary Machine (Epic).
Long delayed and ever-so-slightly defanged, Apple's third album strikes a vertiginous balance between quirk and genius.

4. Made Out of Babies Trophy (Neurot).
A disturbing mix of pulverizingly heavy riffs and singer Julie Xmas's whiplash-inducing mood swings provides the year's most provocative debut.

5. Sufjan Stevens Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty).
Stevens's gleeful stylistic sprawl doesn't overwhelm first-rate ballads such as "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." and "Casimir Pulaski Day."

6. Ulver Blood Inside (The End).
Norway's Kris Rygg delivered the most engrossing art-metal epic with this explosive blend of black metal, electronica, vintage prog and Pet Sounds.

7. Napalm Death The Code Is Red...Long Live the Code! (Century Media).
The ferocious social conscience of underground metal demonstrates that maturity needn't imply mellowing.

8. Dave Douglas Mountain Passages (Greenleaf).
Douglas's remembrance of his father, an airy mix of folk balladry and second-line strut, is the trumpeter's most poignant statement to date.

9. Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane Carnegie Hall (Blue Note).
Overdue evidence that Coltrane may well have been Monk's greatest foil? Well, you need it.

10. 4g Cloud (Erstwhile)
Keith Rowe, Christian Fennesz, Toshimaru Nakamura and Oren Ambarchi atomize guitar-playing conventions with the elegance and egalitarian spirit of a string quartet.

K. Leander Williams, music writer

1. M.I.A. Arular (XL).
Whether your frame of reference is Rio baile-funk, Jamaican dancehall or U.K. grime, it's still safe to call this Sri Lankan Londoner's debut joint rebel music.

2. Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane Carnegie Hall (Blue Note).
There's nothing quite like unearthing the cool.

3. The Go-Betweens Oceans Apart (Yep Roc).
The Aussie tunesmiths lay down the most sublime disc this side of their millennial comeback.

4. The Perceptionists Black Dialogue (Definitive Jux).
Most hip-hop high rollers spit at humility; in defiance, the regular-guy MCs in this incisively humble threesome spit right back.

5. Gogol Bordello Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike (Side One Dummy).
Philosophically, GB's vision seeks to turn punks, hip-hoppers, dubheads and, yes, Gypsies into the contemporary equivalent of James Brown's party-crazed longhairs and Afro blacks. Musically, it's the Clash gone to the Balkans.

6. Amy Rigby Little Fugitive (Signature Sounds).
The lonesome cowmom's heart is always on her sleeve, and her songs continue to prove that's right where it belongs.

7. Joe Lovano Joyous Encounter (Blue Note).
The no-gimmick sax balladeer holds onto a quartet that soars while letting jazz be jazz.

8. Amadou & Mariam Dimanche Bamako (Nonesuch).
Half the cuts on the blind couple's breakthrough may sound more like stoked-up Manu Chao (who produced the disc) than Amadou funk, but variety definitely has its advantages.

9. Kyle Gann Long Night (Cold Blue).
The composer-turned-critic dusts off a minimalist piano sketch from his apparently not-so-misspent youth.

10. Billie Holiday The Ultimate Collection (Hip-O).
Say hello to your new favorite Lady Day comp—guaranteed.

Mike Wolf, music editor

1. Chris Brokaw Incredible Love (12XU).
A talent that first appeared on the radar 15 years ago, this singer-songwriter and guitarist delivers his masterwork.

2. Cass McCombs PREfection (Monitor).
Indie rock's best young artist crafts an idyll of the ideal.

3. Oneida The Wedding (Jagjaguwar).
Even those who've followed the Brooklyn band from the beginning had to be shocked by the vast scope of this record.

4. Residual Echoes Residual Echoes (Holy Mountain).
The first of two insanely wild psych-rock albums from this Santa Cruz, CA, band in 2005 raised the bar on freakouts.

5. Ilk Canticle (VHF).
One of Scottish artist Richard Youngs's three excellent albums this year, Canticle is possessed of a stirring spirit that should shame every folk-rock pretender in the world.

6. Ghostface Killah and Trife Da God Put It on the Line (Starks Enterprises).
The most distinctive (living) Wu-Tanger and his first mate just plain kill it over 18 tracks.

7. Yura Yura Teikoku Sweet Spot (Sony; Japan).
It took seeing this Japanese band onstage to prove that this album of exaggerated rock gestures is really as good as it seems.

8. Coptic Light Coptic Light (No Quarter).
Could this Brooklyn trio's ideas be that much better than everyone else's? Rock & roll has rarely sounded so fresh and gripping.

9. The Psychic Paramount Gamelan into the Mink Supernatural (No Quarter).
This wordless trio's default setting involves every instrument being in-the-red distorted. From there, things only get heavier.

10. Kanye West Late Registration (Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam).
A truth- talking, barely tolerable self-centric genius is exactly the kind of star these times call for.