- Avalanches, Since I Left You (London-Sire). Good record collections have been given a bad name by rare-groove snobs and narrow-minded hip-hop classicists like D.J. Premier. But like De La Soul and D.J. Shadow before them, the Avalanches capture the sheer bliss of skipping through genres, searching for the perfect beat.
- Basement Jaxx, Rooty (Astralwerks). Impatient with boundaries in the best possible way, the U.K. house-music duo Basement Jaxx mixes everything from Minneapolis funk to two-step garage into its second album and creates some of the most exuberant party music since Parliament's mother ship first landed.
- Björk, Vespertine (Elektra). The Björk album for on-the-fence fans like me: All the elfin joie de vivre and twinkling soundscapes without the overt whimsy or irksome kitsch.
- Blaze, Natural Blaze (Lifeline). Soulful house slipped into self-parody this year, all precious solos and odes to "deepness." But the New Jersey house duo Blaze maintains a multi-instrumental groove without falling into fastidiousness. They're more Earth Wind and Fire than Body & Soul.
- Bob Dylan, Love and Theft (Columbia). Dylan can be cranky and conservative (he told the Los Angeles Times he "wouldn't even think about playing music if I were born in these times"), but Love and Theft has ease, humor, and the pure country swing of The Basement Tapes.
- Missy Elliott, Miss E . . . So Addictive (Elektra). The lyrics cover well-traveled hip-hop territory -- insufficient lovers, excessive partying, outsize joints -- but the beats (mostly from producer Timbaland) are so radical that even electronica's fringe can't quite keep up.
- Fischerspooner, #1 (International Deejay Gigolos). Half D.J. duo and half art-school project, Fischerspooner brings the eighties back to the future with dazzling sonics and a sly, sexy sense of clubland decadence.
- The Horrorist, Manic Panic (Things to Come). A grimly hilarious trip through rave culture's underbelly. Imagine The Gangs of New York as written by the Prodigy.
- Prince, The Rainbow Children (NPG/ Redline). A glorious mess, Children features rambling jazz fusion and indecipherable political commentary -- but also flashes of genius not seen since Sign o' the Times.
- The Strokes, Is This It (RCA). They're despised by indier-than-thou sourpusses for their distinctly un-punk lineage. But the hooks are everywhere.
- Austerlitz, by W. G. Sebald. The German-born writer explores the mysteries of guilt and identity in a densely textured tour de force about a Welsh preacher's son who finds out he's really the child of Czech Jewish Holocaust victims.
- Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. A hypnotic fable about an opera singer who seduces a group of South American terrorists into a new appreciation of what beauty means.
- Borrowed Finery, by Paula Fox. Too long neglected, the Brooklyn-based novelist and author of numerous children's books hits it big with a memoir that, like so much of her work, combines hawk-eyed perceptions, total lack of sentiment, and deep (but never cheap) emotion.
- Collected Poems, by James Merrill. The late, great American master's collected shorter poems prove that his real epic wasn't the Ouija-board "Sandover" trilogy but the flawless lyrics in which he wrote about -- well, just about everything.
- The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. Oprah, shmoprah -- this sprawling epic of a midwestern family's disintegration is the real thing: an important American novel that sums up the tragedy -- and comedy -- of late-twentieth-century American life.
- How I Came Into My Inheritance, by Dorothy Gallagher. This small but fierce (and fiercely funny) memoir by the New York writer of an unconventional youth never yields to sentimentality -- but the uncompromising ferocity is mixed, winningly, with tenderness.
- The Rock, by Kanan Makiya. In this first novel by the distinguished Iraqi-born architect and journalist, the story of how the Dome of the Rock got built provides a perfect vehicle for exploring the origins of Arab-Jewish-Christian hostility.
- Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand. A biography of a racehorse? You betcha. Hillenbrand's rich and often gripping account of a short, squat underdog's improbable transformation into a national icon will have all secret Cinderellas at the edge of their seats.
- The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski. The brilliant Polish journalist and author of devastating accounts of the fall of the Shah and of Haile Selassie turns his attention to the whole continent of Africa, creating a searingly wry and insightful portrait of a continent -- and colonialism.
- Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris. Morris had to write a quasi novel to give Ronald Reagan some depth and substance; no need for that here. You can almost hear the author sigh with relief to have a subject as interesting -- and substantive -- as Teddy Roosevelt.