1.OUTKAST Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista) The most fascinating record of the year was this matched set of solo albums by Outkast's Big Boi and Andre 3000. Both are obsessed with love and sex, not necessarily in that order, but all subject matter here is overshadowed by an amazingly polymorphous musicality. Andre 3000's disc is more eclectic, recalling Prince at his late-80s best, and contains the highest of the many highs--the dark, minimal slow jam "Pink & Blue," the irresistible pop hit "Hey Ya!"--as well as the lowest low, a turgid electro-jazz version of "My Favorite Things." But Big Boi's is more consistent, flying through a dozen variants of funk and making them all sound fresh.
2. CALIFONE Quicksand/Cradlesnakes (Thrill Jockey) Califone has fashioned a completely distinctive, contemporary identity by running old-fashioned rural sources--the blues, old-timey music, the songster tradition--through the filter of Miles Davis's improvisational ethos. Using an inviting, lived-in palette of dry string sounds, amp buzz, low-key percussion, occasional electronics, and Tim Rutili's tender, beautiful croak, the group generates endless surprise from archetypal song structures.
3. STEVE COLEMAN & FIVE ELEMENTS On the Rising of the 64 Paths (Label Bleu) Layering a bebop-derived melodic sense over hard-funk polyrhythms, composer and alto saxophonist Steve Coleman generates dreamlike tension and ritualistic power. Acoustic bassist Reggie Washington, electric bassist Anthony Tidd (chording here like a keyboard player), and drummer Sean Rickman spread out a detailed map of rhythmic and harmonic possibilities, and the front line--Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and flutist Malik Mezzadri--responds with careful polyphonic movement and long, coiling solo explorations. Two charging takes of the Gillespie classic "Dizzy Atmosphere" augment a batch of craggy originals, including "Call for Transformation," where Mezzadri puts down his flute and chants like an improvising muezzin.
4. FIERY FURNACES Gallowsbird's Bark (Rough Trade) The best debut I heard in 2003 was from Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger, a sister-and-brother team raised in Oak Park and living in New York. Like Califone, they draw from a century of American music, recombining genre elements with the zeal of mad scientists, but Eleanor's singing--which exudes Bob Dylan's cockiness, Deborah Harry's opulence, and Patti Smith's authority--is too charismatic to be just another ingredient. Behind her, Matthew plays manic parlor-room piano and riffy blues guitar with an urgency that belies the underlying craft.
5. NEW PORNOGRAPHERS Electric Version (Matador) The debut from this Canadian pop all-star team sounded like the remarkably good ad hoc project it was; the follow-up seems the product of a bona fide band. The songs--mostly by Carl Newman, with a few by Dan Bejar--come at you in a giddy rush of daredevil melodies, Beach Boys-worthy harmony parts, and airtight playing. I wish Neko Case sang lead on more than one song--often, as on "The Laws Have Changed," her backing vocals steal the show--but Newman does the job just fine.
6. OTTO Sem gravidade (Trama) On his third album Brazilian singer-songwriter Otto continues the tradition of multicultural style hopping that's been prevalent in his country's pop since the tropicalia movement of the late 60s. This time out he floats his melodies over grooves derived from dub, Kenyan guitar music, old-school psychedelia, reggae, and Afro-Cuban music; thanks to arrangements carefully constructed from acoustic and electronic elements by Otto and coproducer Apollo 9, it all reads as a series of considered choices rather than grab-bag eclecticism.
7. BAD PLUS These Are the Vistas (Columbia) Jazz has long looked outside itself for new inspiration, taking show tunes and Afro-Caribbean rhythms alike as points of departure. The Bad Plus, a self-described "power piano trio," are hardly the first jazz artists to investigate the compositional forms and dynamics of rock; but in their catchy originals and covers that include "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Aphex Twin's "Flim," they prove themselves to be among the few who understand what makes rock rock.
8. JAY-Z The Black Album (Roc-a-Fella) On what he says is his final album Shawn Carter delivers a eulogy for his own career. At times his self-absorption borders on parody: he actually brings in his mom to reminisce on "December 4th" (that's his birthday, if you were wondering), a song he wraps up by suggesting "If you can't respect that your whole perspective is wack / Maybe you'll love me when I fade to black." But his demonstrative flow has never sounded more natural, and the guests at this send-off include a veritable who's who of producers: Just Blaze, the Neptunes, Timbaland, Kanye West, Eminem, and even Rick Rubin, who makes his return to hip-hop with the knockout "99 Problems."
9. DELGADOS Hate (Mantra) The Glasgow quartet has reached a new peak with this suite of elegant ballads and billowing rock epics united by a lyrical thread of Zen-like acceptance. The majestic pop sound--overcompressed drums amid dramatic orchestral depth--is reminiscent of coproducer Dave Fridmann's work with the Flaming Lips.
10. PERIYA MELAM: TEMPLE DE CHIDAMBARAM (Ocora) The ensembles called periya melam are the last link between the ancient Carnatic music of southern India and the rituals of Hinduism. The predominant instrument in their music is the nagasvaram, a double reed instrument with a piercing tone (often associated by Westerners with snake charming) that can take some getting used to. Over a harmonium drone and undulating, elaborately subdivided rhythms played on drums and metal castanets called talam, the two nagasvaram players heard on this album (recorded in the temple at Chidambaram, on the Bay of Bengal) reel off wildly zigzagging lines, either in tag-team fashion or both at once. It's definitely not for everyone, but I find it mesmerizing.
Honorable mentions: Sally Crewe & the Sudden Moves, Drive It Like You Stole It (12XU); Cafe Tacuba, Cuatro caminos (MCA); Vranisht, Kenge polifonike labe (Daqui); David Sylvian, Blemish (Samadhi Sound); Diverse, One A.M. (Chocolate Industries); Nicolai Dunger, Tranquil Isolation (Overcoat); Geof Bradfield/Noel Kupersmith/Ted Sirota, Rule of Three (Liberated Zone); Jason Moran, The Bandwagon (Blue Note); Vijay Iyer, Blood Sutra (Artists House); Eyvind Kang, Virginal Co-Ordinates (I Dischi di Angelica).