10. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus, Dig! (Anti-/Mute)
Last year Nick Cave shook off the dust with the snarling humor and no-nonsense muscle of his Grinderman project, and on his latest with the Bad Seeds he's absolutely on fire, tapping into the wild energy of his Birthday Party days but this time holding it firmly under control. At 51 he's sharper and smarter than ever.
9. Rachel Unthank & the Winterset, The Bairns (Real World)
I doubt this British folk outfit would've landed so high on my list if they hadn't completely wowed me during the World Music Festival. Rachel Unthank and her small but resourceful band use gorgeous vocal harmonies, clever arrangements, and a subtle pop sensibility to bring new life to tunes that have survived centuries--and the easy charm and wit of their live set made their striking inventiveness seem totally nonchalant.
8. Mary Halvorson Trio, Dragon's Head (Firehouse 12)
Probably the most original jazz guitarist to emerge this decade, Mary Halvorson has already distinguished herself in projects with Anthony Braxton, in a folksy, genre-bending duo with violist Jessica Pavone, as a member of Taylor Ho Bynum's sextet, and in the art-rock duo People, among many other contexts--but on Dragon's Head, with bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith, she distills all her vast talents as a composer, improviser, and sound explorer into one compact ensemble.
7. Martial Solal Trio, Longitude (Cam Jazz)
On the one hand, Longitude is just another album by veteran French pianist Martial Solal, who's now 80. But on the other hand, every album he makes reasserts his brilliance in redefining and revitalizing post-Monk piano playing. The rhythm section--twin brothers François and Louis Moutin on bass and drums--does an especially fine job anticipating and accommodating Solal's curious lines and chords.
6. Deerhoof, Offend Maggie (Kill Rock Stars)
With the addition of a new second guitarist (former Flying Luttenbacher Ed Rodriguez), these San Francisco art-pop geniuses have regained their ultrasharp six-string interplay, and the whipped-up rhythms, loping bass lines, and hooky melodies just keep getting better. Deerhoof aren't reinventing the wheel--or rather their somewhat eccentric version of it--but man are they on a roll.
5. Kassin + 2, Futurismo (Luaka Bop)
It's hard to separate Futurismo from the two preceding records by what's come to be known as the "Plus Two"--Alexandre Kassin, Moreno Veloso, and Domenico Lancellotti. Like the others, Kassin's outing is cool, cosmopolitan, and diverse, casually shuffling between Brazilian forms, electro, rock, pop, and just about anything else that strikes his fancy. I prefer to think of it as the last disc of a mind-blowing three-record box set that just happened to be released across eight years.
4. Mike Reed's People, Places & Things, Proliferation (482 Music)
Local drummer Mike Reed transcends homage by reinventing overlooked tunes from Chicago's late-50s postbop heyday. His killer quartet, which also includes reedists Greg Ward and Tim Haldeman and bassist Jason Roebke, updates the songs with fierce multilinear improvisation and free-jazz techniques, allowing them to be heard afresh, but doesn't diminish their soulful core. The best part is the joy and mutual trust these guys radiate onstage--they're my favorite working band in town.
3. Gnarls Barkley, The Odd Couple (Downtown)
It didn't produce a hit like "Crazy," but Gnarls Barkley's sophomore effort is a much better album on the whole: the 60s vibe crafted by producer and keyboardist Danger Mouse fits perfectly with the raspy gospelized shout of Cee-Lo Green.
2. Donny McCaslin Trio, Recommended Tools (Greenleaf)
Saxophonist Donny McCaslin has been one of the most reliable players in jazz since the mid-80s, and in the past few years he's become one of the most exciting as well. This lean trio session with bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Johnathan Blake is a genuine tour de force: McCaslin pushes his granite-hard tone anywhere he wants it to go, from tender ballads to harmonically adventurous barn burners.
1. Atomic, Retrograde (Jazzland)
On Retrograde this Scandinavian quintet--bassist Ingebrigt Haaker Flaten, drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, and pianist Havard Wiik from Norway, trumpeter Magnus Broo and reedist Fredrik Ljungkvist from Sweden--opts for a set of compositions much looser than its usual repertoire. The musicians' intuitive rapport and high-level communication skills allow them to transform even the sketchiest melodic or rhythmic structures into gripping narratives--they nail this new paradigm with all the gusto and daring they brought to their old freebop-based approach.
Harris Eisenstadt, Guewel (Clean Feed)
Annbjørg Lien, Waltz With Me (Heilo)
Duke Ellington, Uptown (Columbia/Legacy)
Ximena Sariñana, Mediocre (Warner Music Latina)
ICP Orchestra, Live at the Bimhuis (ICP)