This Sri Lankan–born, British-raised M.C. pushed the buttons that mattered in 2005, stealing from every hot street music in the world, making irresponsible use of terrorist imagery, and looking fine in camouflage pants. Drenched in Day-Glo colors, anchored by murderous sub-bass, Arular is trashy plastic fun.
2 Fiona Apple, ‘Extraordinary Machine’
That old-fashioned thing, an album of thematically coherent songs best played from start to finish. The theme is relationships, and Apple sorts through the debris of hers with uncommon wit and insight.
3 Sleater-Kinney, ‘The Woods’
The prototypical indie grrrls let loose with seriously hard rock that remembered Jimmy Page’s riffs were melodic, not just heavy. The needle’s in the red, the volume’s on eleven, the levee breaks.
Damian Marley, “Welcome to Jamrock”
He has Dad’s fire in his voice, but he steals as much from hip-hop M.C.’s, and his killer chorus had everyone singing “Murder!”
2 Amerie, “1 Thing”
Proof that even after 30 years, nothing moves a dance floor like an old Meters drumroll.
3 Franz Ferdinand, “Do You Want To”
How many hooks can you cram into one song? The Scots managed to one-up last year’s breakout hit “Take Me Out” by making every bit of this rubbery groove sound like a chorus.
Young Jeezy, ‘Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101’
The latest in a long line of hyperrealist hip-hop classics. Young Jeezy reveals many inventive metaphors for selling crack in a charmingly gravelly monotone. State-of-the-art beats split the difference between brutalist southern crunk and epic northern soul.
2 LCD Soundsystem, ‘LCD Soundsystem’
An album that wears its influences on its sleeve—a Fall tribute here, some acid house there, a little Eno to close it all out—yet transcends them by being genuinely funky. They’ve become a bona fide roof-raising live band, too.
3 Miranda Lambert, ‘Kerosene’
Who would have expected a runner-up on Nashville Star—C&W’s version of American Idol—to make country that rocks so hard?
The L.A. scenester was behind both the best unreleased album of the year (his warped cabaret version of Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine) and the big crossover hip-hop hit, Kanye West’s Late Registration. Brion’s brilliant string arrangements for tracks like “Gone” and “Hey Mama” elevated West’s soul samples to symphonic heights.
British girl groups like Sugababes, Rachel Stevens, and Girls Aloud have picked up the avant-garde-pop baton from American R&B, powered by this group of writers and producers. With an overload of hooks and enough background detail to keep geeks enthralled, Xenomania’s work is the pure, uncut Pop rush.
3 Luny Tunes
No one did more for reggaeton. On their Mas Flow 2 compilation, a roomful of lilting singers and rapid-fire M.C.’s fight for the mike while child’s-toy melodies ring over that quasi-martial beat.
Best Live Show
The Rapture, at Crash Mansion (October 6)
The most famous unfamous band in New York reclaimed the scene at this cramped show after a yearlong live hiatus. New songs displayed impressive commitment to form, and for those who would pigeonhole them, there was “House of Jealous Lovers”—limber, clamorous, glistening with the sweat of two years past.
2 TV On The Radio, at Union Pool (September 11)
At this Katrina benefit—cobbled together fast enough to shame FEMA—TVOTR debuted the agit-noise “Dry Drunk Emperor”: “Did you believe the lie they told you / That Christ would lead the way?”
3 The Killers, at Central Park Summerstage (June 4)
Duran Duran revivalists made the shift from backlash to post-backlash at this show. New label boss Jay-Z rode his bike there; culture-clash photos ended up on lastnightsparty.com.
The Short List
She may never be an Aretha, but with the entertaining Emancipation of Mimi, Mariah did add a line crucial to any diva’s résumé: triumph over adversity. The key to her return from crazy-famous-person land? Learning that, when it comes to endlessly sustained notes and octave-straddling trills, less is more.
Best Lyric, SensitiveSinger-Songwriter Division
It was Don DeLillo, whisky neat, and a blinking midnight clock / Speakers on a TV stand, just a turntable to watch … / It was grass-stained jeans and incompletes / And a girl from class to touch / But you think about yourself too much / And you ruin who you love.
Bright Eyes, “Gold Mine Gutted”
Best Lyric, Arrogant Hip-Hop-Star Division
Dear summer, I know you gonna miss me / For we been together like Nike Airs and crisp tees / S-Dots with the Polo fleeces / Purple Label shit with the logo secret / Gimme couple years, shit, I might just sneak in / A couple words and like Peaches and Herb / We’ll be reunited and it feels so hood / Have the whole world saying, “How you still so good?”
Jay-Z, “Dear Summer”
Best Album by 60-Year-Olds
The Rolling Stones, ‘A Bigger Bang’
Not many bands can claim they just recorded their best album in twenty years. Mick’s lyrics are still stuck in a clichéd rut, but Keith and Ron, remarkably, continue to find new ways for two guitars to rub up against each other.
Best Pitchfork Band
Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney
The Website’s tastemaking influence over a certain effete strain of indie rock is so strong, it’s practically a genre unto itself. This duo—Bonnie “Prince” is actually Will Oldham—is so obscure that it’s members will never follow in Arcade Fire’s footsteps to open for U2. On Superwolf, they weave a haunting tapestry of country-tinged sixties rock. No less an authority than Neil Young counts himself a fan.
Best Canadian Band
The New Pornographers
With apologies to Wolf Parade (and Arcade Fire, and Metric, and Broken Social Scene …). The seamless, irresistible Twin Cinema confirmed the members of this eight-or-so-piece outfit—with their obsessively layered sound and allergic aversion to clichés—as pop’s craftiest songsmiths.
The Game, “300 Bars and Running”
The Compton rapper’s feud with ex-boss 50 Cent was elevated above rote put-downs and shootings of minor posse members by this fourteen-minute-long evisceration set to a clever mix of classic dis beats.
Best Obscure D.J. Mix
Logan Sama, ‘RWD AAA The Mixtape’
Britain’s top grime D.J. tears up 25 cutting-edge tunes in rapid-fire style for a scene magazine. More raw energy than anything else you will—or won’t—hear this year.
Beck, ‘The Gameboy Variations EP’
Beck commissioned tinny eight-bit versions of songs from Guero, and then art collective Wyld File turned them into bizarre visual cornucopias. The vivid, hyperreal clips—melting aliens, Yanni lounging in the backseat of a car—are rendered in bold colors that evoke early Nintendo, Saturday-morning cartoons, and highly sugared cereal.
Once a reliable hard-core seven-inch label, Troubleman’s main currency is new owner Mike Simonetti’s restlessness. In recent months, he’s tackled art-metal (Growing), freak-folk (Devendra Banhart and Jana Hunter), and spazzy no-wave (Glass Candy’s cover of “Iko Iko”). Every small scene needs an incubator, even if everyone chooses the same one.
Best Music Book
Jeff Chang, ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation,’ and Peter Shapiro, ‘Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco’
Often considered antagonists, hip-hop and disco have more in common than either remembers. Read side by side, these books form a vivid history of parallel responses to New York’s seventies civic crisis.
Best New Venue
Deep in the basement of the TRL Times Square building, the city’s most humane venue opened quietly this fall. The sound system is arrestingly crisp, whether you’re tussling stage-front or sitting in the stadium risers. And the booking policy, which has already covered everyone from Bauhaus to Dierks Bentley, is appealingly catholic.
Paolo Suarez at Knitting Factory
This will go down as the year hipsters discovered beats—not digging up old ones but finding them in the rest of the world. Thanks to Paolo Suarez, the Knit—which hosted M.I.A., Lady Sovereign, and a 3:30 a.m. rumble with OutKast’s Big Boi and friends during CMJ—is all over the trend.
Ry Cooder, ‘Chavez Ravine’
Nobody else takes the archival impulse quite so seriously. For the follow-up to The Buena Vista Social Club, Cooder tracked down legendary fifties Chicano musicians from this vanished East L.A. neighborhood (it was razed for Dodger Stadium). If the concept is overambitious, the music is unfailingly pretty.
— Jon Caramanica, Hugo Lindgren, Adam Sternbergh, and Ben Williams
The Year of Micro-Trends
A playlist of the sounds that broke barriers in 2005.R. Kelly, “Trapped in the Closet” parts 1-12 (and counting)
Only our leading twisted genius could (a) release a radio serial as a single, (b) have a hit with it, and (c) make the music as melodramatic as the narrative.
Arctic Monkeys, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance floor”
Maybe the Internet really can break artists now. This sharp, witty punk song hit No. 1 in England after demos circulated online.
The Legendary K.O., “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People”
Kanye West’s live TV outburst triggered a slew of Internet mash-ups. The best flipped the chorus of “Gold Digger” and added bitter verses.
Na-na-nas, churning guitars: Beck remembered to have fun again on the excellent Guero.
Catchiest track from the year’s best electronic album, We Are Monster, cuts up a big surf-guitar riff with twitchy beats.
Antony and the Johnsons, “Hope There’s Someone”
Drag cabaret as high art; androgyny as higher state of being.
Animal Collective and Vashti Bunyan, “It’s You”
Brooklyn experimentalists and exhumed British singer made beautiful freak folk in thrall to Alice Coltrane.
Sufjan Stevens, “Jacksonville”
Illinois was too long and too precious, but still packed with joyful moments. Lady Sovereign, “Random”
Cartwheel beats and playtime chorus from the grime scene’s cutest offshoot.
Girls Aloud, “Biology”
Best of the year from Xenomania solders Muddy Waters with ecstatic electropop.
Rachel Stevens, “I Said Never Again”
Another British cyber-pop classic. Glittery stomper could be about an on-again-off-again relationship, anal sex, or both.
Daddy Yankee, “Gasolina”
The prototypical reggaeton hit never lets up.
Mike Jones, “Still Tippin’ ”
Houston hip-hop proved that subcultures still exist. The eerie violin on this signature hit led the way.
Gorillaz, “Feel Good, Inc.”
D.J. Danger Mouse beat the Gray Album with Demon Days. Bouncy bass and hazy atmospherics sound like driving a dune buggy on Mars.
Mariah Carey, “We Belong Together (Remix)”
Cuts the syrup on the summer anthem with crashing beats. The chorus is still indestructible.
The White Stripes, “My Doorbell”
Get Behind Me Satan was patchy, but this soul rave-up is as good as anything they’ve done.
Ying Yang Twins, “Wait”
The easily offended should avoid this filthy sex rap, but the whispered-vocals-over-bottomless-bass sound set off a rash of copycats.
Madonna, “I Love New York”
Lyrics so silly they’re wonderful and a grungy neo-disco beat made this the best on Confessions.
The Industry Award
Rob Stevenson, Island Records
In an age when artists don’t wait for major labels, A&R men have to learn new skills. Rob Stevenson’s breakthrough: Sign white-boy rock bands willing to talk smack about each other in the great hip-hop tradition. First, the Killers and the Bravery tussled over the new-wave-revival limelight. Then, in the wake of Fall Out Boy’s success, the Killers’ Brandon Flowers moaned that he was feeling neglected. In response, Fall Out Boy threatened to write a song for its next album called “You Can’t Spell ‘Star’ Without A&R.”