Our man Butt-head, in spite of his primate-like intellect, was spot-on a few years back when he asserted that he likes music that "doesn't suck." The Backbeat critics, knuckle-draggers that we are, concur wholeheartedly. So after sifting through more crap than a Roto-Rooter guy (some of which would've tested his gag reflex), we submit these suck-free national releases as reason not to stick a shank in your speakers.
The Anomoanon, Joji (Temporary Residence). As much as the songwriting of the Anomoanon's Ned Oldham -- brother of Palace's Will -- gets typecast as classic-rock pastiche, it retains a stiff, bracing strain of post-rock brittleness. Akin to Slint scraping resin with Buffalo Springfield, Joji is a stoned, avant-folk hoedownsmeared with fistfuls of shitty distortion. Makes My Morning Jacket sound like Bowling for Soup. -- Jason Heller
Black Eyes, Cough (Dischord). Now defunct, Black Eyes left us with this swan song of teeming, exultant cacophony that pours the Ex, Nation of Ulysses and Albert Ayler into a maelstrom of hymnal chants and free-jazz spirituality. As close to a gospel record as the revered hardcore label Dischord will ever get. -- Heller
Chin Up Chin Up, We Should Have Never Lived Like We Were Skyscrapers (Self-released). Pop and art have long been sacrificed at one another's altars. Chin Up Chin Up, though, makes cerebral songcraft seem as streamlined and kid-friendly as paint-by-numbers. But beneath its vibrant, Pinback-hued palette and impressionistic textures, you'll find a framework of soaring -- if sorrowful -- melody. -- Heller
The Dresden Dolls, The Dresden Dolls (8ft Records). Injecting melodramatic cabaret stylings into the framework of rock isn't a new concept. Ask Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf. Still this Boston-based duo's ominous take resembles the soundtrack of some twisted vaudevillian snuff film. Amanda Palmer's tortured wails and vitriol make Tori Amos seem well-adjusted, and coupled with Brian Viglione's acute sense of dynamics, they make this the most exhilarating listening experience of the year. -- Dave Herrera
End, The Sounds of Disaster (Ipecac). Next time the CIA needs to drive some foreign combatant out of an embassy or spider hole, they might consider cranking this baby up. A relentlessly twisted glitchfest steeped in kitchen-sink electronica, jungle beats, B-movie samples, brass-band snippets and sci-fi schizophrenia, End is as much an acquired taste as sleep deprivation. -- John La Briola
Bill Frisell, Unspeakable (Nonesuch). Hometown-boy-made-good Frisell creates consistently strong albums, but Unspeakable is impressive even by his high standards. Along with Hal Wilner, an idiosyncratic producer who's overseen tributes to both Thelonious Monk and Disney film music, the guitarist uses jazz instrumentation, electronics, a string section and the occasional turntable to create music that's ambitious, elegant and mind-expanding. -- Michael Roberts
Green Day, American Idiot (Warner Bros.). Green Day should just go ahead and pack it in after this one. This is Billie Joe and the boys' pinnacle record, their Nothing Shocking, BloodSugarSexMagik, Pinkerton. Better to go out on a high note, unlike the others -- whose subsequent releases made us realize that we'd rather be shocked, that the Peppers are better hot and bothered, and that Weezer really isn't that far from Winger. -- Herrera
Jolie Holland, Escondida (Anti-). Holland, a Texas native, is sometimes referred to as an alt-country performer. Such a description seems ridiculously limiting when applied to Escondida, a disc that encompasses the width and breadth of American songcraft. Occasional hints of country rub shoulders with sounds from a slew of traditions -- show tunes, lounge music, New Orleans R&B and plenty more. Holland wraps these influences together in one marvelous package. -- Roberts
Isis, Panopticon (Ipecac). In the wrong hands, metal and hardcore can seem hide-bound, with the rudiments of the genres fitting as snugly as a straitjacket. In contrast, Isis, led by singer and guitarist Aaron Turner, embraces a universe of aural possibilities. Panopticon juxtaposes bludgeoning riffs with gentle plucking, hardcore tempos with lilting passages, aggro-screaming with lyrical intellectualism. The recording is a stereotype-free zone. -- Roberts
Will Johnson, Vultures Await (Misra). There's a universe of longing and frustration hanging between each struck key of a piano -- especially when it's being pawed by Will Johnson. Whittling down the grizzlier alt-country of his band, Centro-Matic, Johnson casts his bleak, jagged voice like a flock of ravens over these smoky and consuming torch songs. -- Heller
Jem, Finally Woken (ATO Records). If Dusty Springfield was reincarnated in the body of a smoky Scottish lass with an appetite for sampled beats, dirty guitars and tropical fairy tales, she'd be the uni-monikered Jem. Forget Cher. To hell with Madonna. A growing international pop phenom with one of the most soothing voices ever committed to wax, Jem could take 'em all in her sleep. -- La Briola
J.U.F. , Gogol Bordello VS. Tamir Muskat (Stinky Records). While fronting Gogol Bordello, deejaying at a Bulgarian bar, hiring Jamaican taxis and patronizing Punjabi restaurants, Eugene Hütz envisioned the world's ultimate after-party and dubbed it J.U.F. Here, then, in time to Balkanize America in her hour of global supremacy, is an infectious discotheque meltdown boasting everything from Arabic dancehall to Transylvanian avant-hard bop. -- La Briola
The Killers, Hot Fuss (Island). The Killers' retro-tinged romp humps the legs of everyone from Duran Duran to vintage U2. Even so, their prophetically titled debut, Hot Fuss, contains "Somebody Told Me," which is loaded with the most infectious sing-along refrain of the year -- next to Black Eyed Peas' "Let's Get Retarded," which is just that. In the Killers' case, however, arrested development has never sounded so good. -- Herrera
Killswitch Engage, The End of Heartache (Roadrunner). The End of Heartache projects Euro metal through a cracked hardcore lens. Start-stop-start-stop-squeal-like-a-stuck-pig guitar riffs bludgeon, while frontman Howard Jones traverses effortlessly from spine piercing shrieks to soaring, soulful croons. Killswitch is bar none the harbinger of the latest batch of metallurgists. Heartache is fierce, yet accessible enough that your girlfriend might actually dig it. -- Herrera
Ray Lamontagne, Trouble (RCA). On Trouble, Ray Lamontagne's husky baritone plods along like a newly minted wino through several feet of freshly fallen snow, making Astral Weeks seem like years. Gentle and engaging, Lamontagne's ruminations/lamentations of love lost and gained sting as much as they caress. -- Herrera
Lansing-Dreiden, The Incomplete Triangle (Kemado). Of the many nu-rock acts that have surfaced of late, Lansing-Dreiden is among the most intriguing, since its music packs a conceptual punch. The players present themselves as anonymous cogs in a corporate structure whose music is merely a commodity. Their artsy instincts pay off as a result of music that, on The Incomplete Triangle and A Sectioned Beam, a recent EP, is smart, arch and masterfully mechanistic. -- Roberts
Graham Parker, Your Country (Bloodshot). Biting English pub-rocker Graham Parker dabbles in country music from time to time but saw fit -- after a three-year absence -- to fully immerse himself in lap steels and bolo ties. Giddyap! Mellowed with age but still able to see a tornado's silver lining, Parker has always possessed a storytelling gift that deserved more recognition. -- La Briola
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum of Natural History (Web of Mimicry). A nightmarish feast for the senses, Oakland's Sleepytime Gorilla Museum takes a cue from Russolo's art of noise, interweaving junkyard clatter with chamber-minded opulence. The result is a collision of classically trained prog-metal that can skillfully pulverize bones or land soft as a butterfly with sore feet. -- La Briola
Elliott Smith, From a Basement on the Hill (Anti-). Would this record have sounded the same if Elliott Smith hadn't stuck a knife in his sternum? Probably not. After all, it was cobbled together posthumously from various raw scraps of session work. Yet it succeeds: Rather than his recent, friction-less pop, From a Basement has a fiery, scattershot scope that veers from folk-like to megalithic. Rest in peace, Mr. Smith; with this harrowing emotional document, we sure won't. -- Heller
The Snake the Cross the Crown, Mander Salis (Equal Vision). "Small ghosts await us," read the Basquiat-styled liner notes of The Snake the Cross the Crown's debut full-length, Mander Salis. And ghosts it delivers: Between bouts of devout Thursday and Suede allegiance, the group haunts listeners with an utterly unique and moody post-hardcore that trades in choppy dynamics for soft strums and a shadowy, atmospheric angst. Chilling. -- Heller
TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch and Go). Of all the albums this year that have made the critics' hands go numb from hyperventilating, this one actually deserves the accolades. Once you get past the fact that, yes, Tunde Adebimpe's voice is markedly similar to a certain "Sledgehammer"-wielding minstrel, you'll find sprawling euphoric sounds and vibrations that bleed together like a watercolor left in acid rain. -- Herrera
Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella). No, West isn't the planet's most dynamic MC. Still, his awkward but innately human flow is perfect for Dropout, a set that leavens typical hip-hop braggadocio with self-deprecation. Thematically, "All Falls Down" and "Jesus Walks" couldn't be more different from most rap fare, yet West's production panache turned them into hits anyway. A year after celebrating OutKast, could the dopes who dole out Grammys possibly reward another deserving artist? Did Babe just sprout wings? -- Roberts
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