Our music writers pick the yearís national bests.

Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere (Downtown). After toiling for years in Goodie Mob and as a solo artist, Cee-Lo connected with Danger Mouse (who made his name with an illegal Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up) to form Gnarls Barkley. St. Elsewhere's creativity, boundary-defying sound and catchy but meaningful lyrics make it one of the best albums in the past five years. -- Salazar-Moreno

Gojira, From Mars to Sirius (Listenable/Prosthetic Records). Heavier than Led, more massive than Mastodon and, um, French, Gojira might just have made the best metal album of the year -- a progblackdeathmelodic thesis on growling and gravity. This Gallic Godzilla bends notes, genres and time signatures to create complex yet visceral rock that's absolutely crushing -- even when it's quiet. -- Eyl

The Gossip, Standing in the Way of Control (Kill Rock Stars). Beth Ditto's unforgettably powerful and soulful vocals have been the centerpiece for this band since its inception. On its latest, however, the act incorporates an unexpectedly effective disco beat into its sound, resulting in incendiary punk rock that's more danceable than almost anything else going on right now. -- Murphy

Hanalei, Parts and Accessories (Thick). Wide-eyed troubadour and band deliver artless alt-country punk pop about how their lives were saved by rock and roll, all while driving a beat-up pickup down the dusty road of emo-ricana. Lactose-intolerant listeners who occasionally cringe at Brian Moss's bravely sincere lyrics will quickly be disarmed by the honesty and irresistible melodies. -- Eyl

James Hunter, People Gonna Talk (Go Records/Rounder). England native James Hunter has a lifelong appreciation for American soul and R&B that manifests itself in his jaw-droppingly authentic retro sound, which recalls the jangly funk of James Brown, the vocal essence of Sam Cooke and the simmering cool of Ray Charles. Van Morrison and Elvis Costello both admire this old soul, and it's easy to see why. -- Hutchinson

Isis, In the Absence of Truth (Ipecac). Truth doesn't provide the instantaneous jolt of metal at its simplest. Instead, its complex structures allow the drama to escalate step by deliberate step, alternating moments of tension and release with wicked proficiency. The CD requires patience, but those willing to wait will be rewarded with the sort of emotional payoff that the immediate-gratification crowd will never experience. -- Roberts

J Dilla, The Shining (BBE). Shortly before he passed away in January 2005, producer extraordinaire J Dilla completed several projects, including The Shining, which features hip-hop luminaries Busta Rhymes, Pharoahe Monch and J-Rocc. The album is a tribute to Dilla's beat-making wizardry, with the Common/D'Angelo duet "So Far So Good" and the Black Thought-helmed "Love Movin'" exemplifying his prominence. -- Salazar-Moreno

Jesu, Silver (Hydra Head). Jesu's MySpace headline says "Perfect for drifting off and smoking too much dope," which is a fairly accurate summation of Silver. The latest offering from Jason Broadrick (of Godflesh and Napalm Death fame) shows that even tough metal guys have their sensitive sides -- except that his is still pretty black and gloomy. -- Nguyen

Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris, All the Roadrunning (Warner Bros.). Rather than rest comfortably on their laurels, Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris deliver the goods on standout cuts such as the wistful title track and the well-radioed "This Is Us." Knopfler's acclaimed six-string work and pleasingly gruff vocals enhance Harris's warm country crooning for a memorable trip to Rootsville. -- Hutchinson

Ray LaMontagne, Till the Sun Turns Black (RCA). To much of America, Ray LaMontagne is that guy American Idol Taylor Hicks really likes. Fortunately, there's a lot more to his artistry than this association implies. Black is an understated tour of relationship hell, with LaMontagne serving as an all-too-experienced guide on one psychologically devastating cut after another. It's the kind of disc that even Idols worship. -- Roberts

Liars, Drum's Not Dead (Mute). Liars can do no wrong. The transcontinental outfit (one lives in Berlin, two reside stateside) makes musical experimentation sound effortless, and moody post-rock feel light. Drum's Not Dead is a reverberating clamor of unblemished orchestration that layers rhythmic drone under wily chorused vocals. Who says all Liars are bad? -- Nguyen

Metal Hearts, Socialize (Suicide Squeeze Records). A little record of big ideas, Socialize brims with unassuming yet formidable masterpieces of achingly beautiful, dreamy rock. Anar Badalov and Flora Wolpert-Checknoff spike their intensely personal indie pop with ethereal harmonies, saxophone squawks and plenty of warm electronic textures as they plead quietly and paradoxically for human connection and solitude. -- Eyl

Juana Molina, Son (Domino). The latest from Juana Molina, an Argentine emigré with a background in, of all things, sketch comedy, initially seems like a fairly standard world-music effort. But it soon becomes clear that the album's gently strummed acoustic guitars and serene singing are building blocks for an impressionistic opus distinguished by organic arrangements and naturalistic sounds. Together, they make Son rise. -- Roberts

Van Morrison, Pay the Devil (Lost Highway). Constructing an unlikely bridge between Celtic soul crooning and country-Western, Morrison puts his own spin on cow classics while throwing out a few of his own. His offspring, including the Mephistophelian title cut and the fetching track "Playhouse," more than stand up to their country cousins, making the trip from Belfast to Nashville downright enjoyable. -- Hutchinson

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