The Mars Volta, Frances the Mute (GSL/Universal). When the Mars Volta played before an intimate crowd at Tulagi a few years back, few would have predicted how adeptly this act would harness its artistic vision. Or how fast. The band -- led by former At the Drive-In members Cedric Bixlar Zivala and Omar Rodriguez Lopez -- exhibited an abundance of potential, yet the players seemed awkward and a bit unsure of themselves. But a short time later, when the Mars Volta returned to the Gothic in support of its brilliant debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium, it turned in an epic, jaw-dropping performance. Since then, the band has continued to refine its already dense aesthetic into a sound that's as confounding as it is invigorating, infusing earlier, heavy prog leanings with subtle horns and Latin-inflected percussion. The result is Frances the Mute, Volta's sophomore full-length that's about as easy to digest as an entire side of beef in a single sitting. It's also the most challenging (and rewarding) listening experience of the past year. The album, inspired by a journal that Jeremy Michael Ward, Volta's late sound manipulator, stumbled upon while working as a repo man, is vastly cinematic in scope. From Storm Thorgerson's ominous cover photo to Bixlar Zivala's esoteric lyrics -- partly in English, partly in Spanish -- this high-concept package was 2005's best release.
Dungen, Ta Det Lugnt (Kemado). Dungen's melodies are instantly entrancing -- even if you can't understand a single word. "Something tells me he's not singing in English," a buddy commented when he first heard Ta Det Lugnt. In fact, Gustav Ejstes, the Dungen mastermind who composed and recorded this immaculate disc, is singing in Swedish, his native tongue. But music, like love, is a universal language. This fuzz-drenched, acid-washed, retro-pop masterpiece is so freaking good that any intelligibility issues are lost in the beauty of Lugnt's sweeping psychedelia. Originally released in 2004 on Subliminal Sounds, the album wasn't made available in this country until 2005 -- but how Swede it is.
The Fruit Bats, Spelled in Bones; Rogue Wave, Descended Like Vultures (Sub Pop). Several remarkable parallels between these two discs justify lumping them together. First, the obvious: Both bands have endured countless comparisons to Sub Pop labelmates the Shins. Then there's the fact that both essentially began as solo endeavors and grew into cohesive, collaborative group efforts. And finally, both acts' songs revolve around the gorgeous, lilting vocals of their frontmen -- Eric Johnson and Zack Rogue, respectively -- supplemented by primarily folk-based arrangements. Although Vultures ultimately edges out Bones in range, each effort is stellar in its own right.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Naturally (Daptone Records). Tired of watered-down retro funk and R&B presenting themselves as neo-soul? Meet Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, whose anachronistic recording breathes such life into the dormant, analog soul of yesterday and sounds so stunningly genuine that you may double-check the release date to make sure it isn't a reissue. This shit doesn't just sound classic. It is classic.
Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty). A one-man folk-estra, Sufjan Stevens takes the prize for the most overwrought release of last year. The second installment of a planned fifty-state project -- the multi-instrumentalist reportedly intends to create a concept album for every state in the country -- Illinois succeeds despite its inexplicably verbose song titles and grandiose framework. Stevens's soft, sturdy tenor and fragile falsetto on tracks such as "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." add moments of unexpected poignancy to the de facto history lesson that includes lines like "And in my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid." Can't wait to see what Stevens does with Alfred Packer.
Get Him Eat Him, Geography Cones (Absolutely Kosher). Over the years, more than a few rock critics have tried their hand at making music. And with a few exceptions -- the Trouble With Sweeney's Joey Sweeney being the most notable -- these endeavors have been laughable, ill-advised excursions that give credence to the notion that those who can't do, teach...or in this case, write. (Lester Bangs and the Delinquents, anybody?) So the fact that Matt LeMay, a part-time Pitchfork scribe, has thrown himself into the fray with Get Him Eat Him is nothing novel. What is noteworthy is that his band doesn't suck. In fact, it's quite good. Geography Cones, recorded at John Vanderslice's Tiny Telephone studio, is a charming quirk-pop opus brimming with sparkly guitar/synth-driven songs worth, well, writing home about.
Paul Weller, As Is Now (Yep Roc). After releasing Studio 150 -- 2004's palate-cleansing covers album in which he reworked tunes by Rose Royce, Sister Sledge, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, among others -- Paul Weller returns with As Is Now, his best solo outing since 1997's Heavy Soul. The Modfather's smoky voice is in fine form on upbeat cuts such as "Blink and You'll Miss It" and "From the Floorboards Up," as well as on mellower ditties like "The Start of Forever," "Pan" and "The Pebble and the Boy." Weller, who became legendary as the frontman of the Jam and the Style Council, is one elder statesman who's aged gracefully.
Bloc Party, Silent Alarm (Vice). In spring 2005, Bloc Party was lauded by media on both sides of the pond as the Next Big Thing. A victim of its own rising profile, though, the Party was shut down just as things were getting going. But those diminishing box-office sales aside, Silent Alarm is an exceptional -- albeit conspicuously derivative -- disc. Buoyed by frenzied drumming, pulsating bass and vigorous off-kilter guitar lines, it's the best release from the so-called neo-British invasion. With this quartet now safely out of the limelight, it will be interesting to see how the Party progresses.
Z-Trip, Shifting Gears (Hollywood). With Shifting Gears, his aptly titled major-label debut, Z-Trip, the master of the mash-up, has taken a hard left. While everyone expected to hear the revered DJ dropping more of the groundbreaking unions with which he built his name, Z-Trip opted instead to follow his own muse and put out a straight-up hip-hop album, enlisting hot underground MCs such as Busdriver -- whose expeditious cadence can give Twista a run for his money -- to appear alongside such legendary framers as Whipper Whip and Chuck D. For fans of vintage hip-hop, this is a trip well worth taking.