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Nationalistic 2005

The rest of the planet generated some good CDs this year, too.

Don't downgrade musicians just because they live somewhere other than Colorado. It's not their fault that their parents or guardians raised them in different states, or even foreign countries. Many of them would have objected if they'd been old enough to talk, no doubt, but by the time they'd mastered the art of conversation, it was too late. As for those outsiders happy where they are, well, there's no accounting for taste.

Even so, the list below, painstakingly compiled by many of your faithful Backbeat servants, features something for every taste. So set aside your preconceptions and check out the best of what the rest of the world has to offer.

Acid Mothers Temple & the Cosmic Inferno, IAO CHANT From the Cosmic Inferno (Ace Fu Records). The latest from musical madman Kawabata Makoto simultaneously offers less and more. There's just one song here: "OM Riff From the Cosmic Inferno." Yet the ditty is more than 51 minutes long, and Makoto and his psychedelicized brethren pack it with enough drones, grooves and uncategorizable miscellanea to fill a dozen ordinary discs. Heady stuff. -- Michael Roberts

Antony and the Johnsons, I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian). Why does Bird fly? Because behind his fey vocals and fondness for gender-bending melodrama, leader Antony Hegarty is a singular talent who consistently transforms impossible situations into surprising triumphs. Tracks like "For Today I Am a Boy" are emotionally resonant mini-opuses that regularly take wing. -- Roberts

APSCI, Thanks for Asking (Quannum Projects). We've all heard complaints that indie hip-hop, for all its good intentions, lacks the boom-bap! of the bitches-and-bling thing. Fortunately, APSCI provides a fine substitute: the singing, rapping and sheer presence of Dana Diaz-Tutaan, which serve as perfect counterpoints to wonderfully dense soundscapes and Raphael LaMotta's conscious rhyming. -- Roberts

Art of Flying, asifyouwerethesea(Discobolus). Like Ahab obsessed with that rascally whale, Art of Flying frontman Dave Costanza stares down the blowhole of seafaring mythology. Straight out of Questa, New Mexico, and with a refined taste for sad, psychedelic folk, AOF harpoons the beast with quiet, loving precision. Better yet, the unassuming trio makes it all seem effortless. -- John La Briola

Big Business, Head for the Shallow (Hydra Head). Heavy metal, from its name on down, has always been metaphoric. But simple comparisons to earth-moving machines or the applied physics of fucking don't do justice to this debut by Seattle's premier drum-and-bass metal act. So Big Business it is: a staggeringly humongous, inexorably bone-sucking specimen of rock monstrosity. -- Jason Heller

Vashti Bunyan, Lookaftering (DiCristina). A thirty-year gap between albums isn't much of a career plan. Then again, British folk chanteuse Vashti Bunyan always sounded more like a creature of the earth than of the music industry. Lookafteringreprises the sylvan charm and minimalist majesty of her 1970 classic, Just Another Diamond Day, and proves that Nick Drake and Nico had more in common than anyone ever knew. -- Heller

Cage, Hell's Winter (Def Jux). Hell's Winter is the rap equivalent of James Frey's memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Like the book, Cage's story is a harrowing account of struggles with substance abuse ("Peeranoia") and father figures ("Stripes"). When you hear Cage rap about helping his abusive Vietnam-vet father shoot up heroin, you'll feel like you're eavesdropping on a therapy session. -- James Mayo

Chris Liebing/Speedy J, Collabs 3000: Metalism (Novamute). Electro-dance albums that succeed in clubs often fail in settings that lack the requisite number of sweaty bodies -- and/or easy access to social lubricants. Not so Collabs 3000, in which Chris Liebing and Jochem "Speedy J" Paap balance pumping beats with quirky touches and intriguing arrangements that actually inspire repeated listens. -- Roberts

Common, Be (Geffen). With some help from Kanye West, Common has produced a record that's on the same level as Resurrection, his 1994 classic. Sounding at ease throughout, he displays an introspective maturity on the gospel-tinged "Faithful" and introduces a new generation to the Last Poets, who help him educate listeners about the sociological importance of "The Corner." -- Mayo

Ry Cooder, Ch´vez Ravine(Nonesuch). A tribute to the once-vibrant hillside later bulldozed to erect Dodger Stadium, Cooder's conceptual masterstroke combines baseball, UFOs, communism and J. Edgar Hoover. It also blends jazz, pop and every musical strain known to East L.A., showcasing pachuco boogie king Don Tosti and Chicano legends Ersi Arvizu and Little Willie G., whose "Muy Fifi" is muy excelente. -- La Briola

Edan, The Beauty and the Beat (Lewis Recordings). A seamless, heady mix of '60s psychedelia and old-school rap that sounds at times like a Brian Wilson remix of the Treacherous Three. The combination shouldn't work, but it succeeds because of Edan's experimental production style, which injects hip-hop with a much-needed sense of rejuvenated innocence. -- Mayo

The Evens, The Evens (Dischord). Minor Threat, Embrace and Fugazi helped engender hardcore, emo and post-hardcore, respectively. At the front of them all was Ian MacKaye, and while the debut by his new coed duo isn't about to jump-start a new genre, it's a tuneful yet edgy meditation on global and personal politics that, despite its sparseness, makes screamo sound like a squeak. -- Heller

FantÔmas, Suspended Animation (Ipecac). Mind-boggling in scope and execution, Mike Patton's wickedly entertaining tour de force assaults the senses with a brutal mix of speed metal, film noir scores and cartoon sound effects. Everything and the kitchen sink, this claustrophobic long-player not only boasts members of Slayer and the Melvins, but finds Ipecac raising the bar of art music to new heights. -- La Briola

Felt, Felt 2: A Tribute to Lisa Bonet (Rhymesayers). Writing songs that would make Ms. Bonet blush and Bill Cosby want to beat some ass, MCs Slug and Murs trade barbs on their favorite topic: women. The two display undeniable chemistry on tracks like "Woman Tonight" and "Marvin Gaye," built upon Ant's fatback beats. No grand statements here, just two rappers having fun. -- Mayo

Jason Forrest, Shamelessly Exciting (Sonig). During this playful exercise in mash-spastic excess, Forrest guides listeners through an aural assault featuring '70s-era Top 40 nods, beloved punk snippets and something called "Skyrocket Saturday," which suggests Seals and Crofts being mangled into a paste of Blood, Sweat and Tear-stained hooks. Exciting honors John Oswald's "Plunderphonics" while turning pop afterthought into an art form. -- La Briola

The Game, The Documentary (Aftermath/G-Unit/Interscope). Coming straight outta Compton, the Game single-handedly puts the West Coast back on the hip-hop map. Outstanding production from Dr. Dre ("Westside Story"), Havoc ("Don't Need Your Love") and Kanye ("Dreams"), as well as some vocal assistance from 50 Cent, makes this one of 2005's best-sounding records. -- Mayo

Gang of Four, Return the Gift(V2). Today's throbbing dance punk pales in comparison to what Leeds produced during the Thatcher era. Subversive and groundbreaking, Gang of Four's distinct, rubbery brand of sexless funk more than holds up after two decades. These new versions of old classics serve as a blueprint for every imitating upstart from Franz Ferdinand to the Futureheads. -- La Briola

Gris Gris, For the Season (Birdman). The Bay Area's nu-psychedelic scene may be overshadowed by the mighty Comets on Fire, but Gris Gris is on a way deeper trip. Akin to John Coltrane's Ascensionas filtered through the webbing of Syd Barrett's brain, For the Season converts folk, noise and the human voice into one vast, primordial Om. -- Heller

The Hold Steady, Separation Sunday (Frenchkiss). The last thing you want is your rock band to be considered literate. It's a good thing, then, that the Hold Steady, just like all the truly smart kids throughout history, knows how to punch itself in the face and make dumb, even as it's spitting out some of the most deceptively cerebral lyrics and riffs since the Fall or Blue Öyster Cult. -- Heller

I Wayne, Lava Ground (VP Records). I Wayne's seductive, Smokey Robinson-like voice helped usher in the return of one-drop roots riddims, which ruled Jamaican dancehalls this year. On his fiery debut, the Jamaican native speaks out on the evils of prostitution ("Can't Satisfy Her") and critiques those of African descent who lighten their skin ("Bleacher"). -- Mayo

Leela James, A Change Is Gonna Come (Warner Bros.). On her forward-thinking, retro-sounding debut, this L.A. product puts heartfelt soul into tracks like "Music," in which she sings, "We can't go back to yesterday/But can we just put the thongs away?" Her stirring rendition of the Sam Cooke title track is a great alternative to R&B cheese. -- Mayo

Little Brother, The Minstrel Show (Atlantic). Much of Little Brother's major-label debut supplies entertainingly twisted takes on themes director Spike Lee fumbled in 2000's Bamboozled. But there's more to this Show than satire. MCs Phonte and Big Pooh are legit talents, and 9th Wonder, who's loaned his production acumen to Jay-Z and other marquee types, turns the studio into a funhouse. -- Roberts

Lords, Swords (Jade Tree). Lords rule. Swords kill. Put them together and you've got one murderously oppressive record. On its first full-length outing, this young Kentuckian trio can't seem to find any difference between the rabid savagery of Void and Venom, but doesn't mind decimating its laughable metalcore competition in the attempt. -- Heller

Magnolia Electric Co., What Comes After the Blues (Secretly Canadian). Jason Molina, true to his hero, Will Oldham, likes to shift band lineups and toy with his name for the sake of sheer pretension. Luckily, Molina's music hasn't suffered a whit because of it. His first album as the leader of Magnolia Electric Co. is a full-bodied cup of ragged country rock that'll put grit between your teeth and a sliver in your heart. -- Heller

Shannon McNally, Geronimo (Back Porch). Shannon McNally's approach to Americana is as expansive as the country itself, encompassing rock, blues, soul, twang and plenty more. This eclectic mélange hangs together thanks to her sturdy/sassy voice and tell-it-like-it-is lyrics, such as the "Miracle Mile" confession that most of what passes for quality these days "sounds like bullshit to me." Amen. -- Roberts

M.I.A., Arular (XL). Maya Arulpragasam, a Brit of Sri Lankan descent who wisely goes by M.I.A., specializes in party music, and a global audience is invited. Arular is a funky-fresh amalgam of dancehall and other rhythm-centric styles that's sonically spare but conceptually inclusive. "Pull Up the People" isn't just a title; it's a philosophy. -- Roberts

Ennio Morricone, Crime and Dissonance (Ipecac). This two-discer from insanely prolific composer Ennio Morricone cherry-picks the maestro's obscure foreign scores from 1969 to 1974. Drawing on a musical lexicon that includes ghostly vocal choruses, church organs, clattering percussion and plenty of audible heavy petting, Morricone discovers places that the acid-gobbling Miles Davis couldn't find with a map. -- La Briola

Pilotdrift, Water Sphere(Good Records). With arguably the year's most ambitious offering, Texarkana's Pilotdrift takes the clouds by storm, lifting listeners to dizzying heights normally reserved for the Flaming Lips, Queen and composer John Barry, of James Bond soundtrack fame. With music this rich and dramatic, the first band signed to the Polyphonic Spree's Good Records goes yard with its first at-bat. -- La Briola

Platinum Pied Pipers, Triple P (Ubiquity Records). On Triple P, Detroit-raised producers Saadiq and Waajeed assemble a cast of talented artists to flesh out their vision of progressive soul music. One listen to the disc's takes on rap ("Act Like You Know," with Jay Dee), motor-booty funk ("Deep Inside," with SA-RA Creative Partners) or space-age jazz ("One Minute More," with Tiombe Lockhart) and you'll find yourself getting down with the PPP. -- Mayo

Red Sparowes, At the Soundless Dawn (Neurot). Featuring members and associates of such abrasively unnerving acts as Neurosis, Isis, Angel Hair and the VSS, Red Sparowes could easily have wound up being the sonic equivalent of a collapsing star. Instead, At the Soundless Dawnis a fugue of droning ambience and dreamy oblivion that mesmerizes rather than maims. -- Heller

Terry Reid, Superlungs(Astralwerks). If Robert Plant ever has nightmares of Terry Reid wearing a bigger codpiece, there's good reason: Reid had the pipes, 'tude and tenacity to lead Led Zeppelin in a direction beyond cuddly hobbits. An exceptional collection of reissued hits and rarities, Superlungs finds Donovan's old drinking buddy (and one of Cheap Trick's main influences) earning more than a bloody asterisk in the book of British rock. -- La Briola

Beanie Sigel, The B. Coming (Roc-A-Fella). Facing federal gun and drug charges as well as accusations that he was complicit in a murder, Beans sought refuge from his ghetto pain by imbibing '70s soul. Today the murder beef is behind him, but his time in jail limited his ability to properly promote his best record, which features a "Purple Rain" that has nothing to do with Prince. -- Mayo

Six Organs of Admittance, School of the Flower (Drag City). Ben Chasny either grew up in the Catholic church or in a satanic cult. Regardless, the latest release from his Six Organs of Admittance evokes awe, trembling and an almost religious mystery. As conversant with John Fahey's The Yellow Princess as it is with John McLaughlin's Extrapolation, the disc thankfully embeds some comforting psych-folk songcraft in its chanting, incense-steeped eeriness. -- Heller

Supergrass, Road to Rouen(Capitol). Pucker up, Beatles fans. What begins as a pastoral venture into the land of Humpty Dumpty winds up with brassy pageantry and a psychedelic twist on string quartets. After a disappointing greatest-hits album, Supergrass delivers the goods this go-round, turning lush pop arrangements into a jaw-dropping screed of middle-aged angst. If you think you'll be 21 forever, think again. -- La Briola

System of a Down, Mezmerize/Hypnotize (American/Columbia). This hard-rock double-header isn't 2005's biggest bargain; the songs on these discs, which were released six months apart, could (and should) have been squeezed onto a single CD. Then again, the thrilling inventiveness that Daron Malakian and company bring to the material undermines value-based complaints. Punishing, political and, against all odds, popular. That's an unassailable combination. -- Roberts

Tarantula AD, Book of Sand (Kemado). Despite millennia of conditioning by Western culture, human beings often create the greatest art by making no fucking sense whatsoever. Case in point: Tarantula AD's Book of Sand, an utter babble of prog, classical, post-hardcore, piano ballads, pizzicato fiddles, bird sounds and celestial voices. Oh, and total rock. Stravinsky meets Cerberus Shoal? The end must be nigh. Bring it on. -- Heller

Chad Van Gaalen, Infiniheart(Sub Pop). Chad Van Gaalen crafts the kind of haunting melodies that one might expect from a guy who spends too much time brooding in a hooded parka, not an exotic-instrument builder from Calgary. Van Gallen's prolific phobias range from underground blood machines to being killed in his sleep. But cabin fever this compelling and tenderhearted rewards a close listen. -- La Briola

David S. Ware, Live in the World (Thirsty Ear). Somewhere along the way, many exploratory-jazz artists stopped testing the genre's boundaries for an entirely defensible reason: They want to eat on a regular basis. But for saxophonist David Ware, creative satisfaction apparently trumps a full belly. His latest consists of three in-concert performances that are as challenging as they are exhilarating. -- Roberts

Kanye West, Late Registration (Roc-A-Fella Records). In the beginning, Mr. West's well-documented egomania was at least partly a pose -- the instinctive reaction of a born geek desperately trying to keep up with the cool kids. Now, though, he's the pacesetter, and deservedly so. Commercially savvy, artistically sophisticated and entirely of the moment, Late Registration is right on time. -- Roberts

Zion I, True & Livin' (LiveUp Records). Oakland-based underground vets MC Zion and Amp Live uphold their city's activist tradition by producing a politicized seventeen-track party platform on True & Livin'. On "Stranger in My Home," they dissect hip-hop's racial gentrification with Gift of Gab, while Aesop Rock joins them on "Poems for Post-Modern Decay" for a critique of the robotic wage-slave state. The album feels True. -- Mayo

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