1. THE ROOTS Phrenology (MCA) The mediocre crossover single "Break You Off," featuring wan vocals from Musiq, is the Philadelphia hip-hop band's sole concession to biz pressure--even their inclusion of murmured hooks from Nelly Furtado, Jill Scott, and Alicia Keys sounds like an aesthetic choice. Staying true to the restless spirit of invention that gave birth to hip-hop, they stake out new turf with a tossed-off hardcore track, a three-part epic dominated by an abstract instrumental section, and a scrappy soul-rock collaboration with Cody Chesnutt. But they also play to their strengths, carving out their deepest grooves yet, and each listen reveals one more subtly shifting detail in their kaleidoscopic mix.
2. DOMENICO +2 Sincerely Hot (Nippon Crown) The remarkable percussionist Domenico steps to the fore of the trio that made Moreno Veloso's 2001 debut, Music Typewriter (released under the billing Moreno +2). This pop-rock record is a headlong rush that mixes the expected sambas with twitchy, knotted-up electronica ("Alegria, vai la"), cheeky hot-tub soul ("Felizes ficaremos na estrada"), and even a combined assault of noise, rock, and Brazilian hip-hop ("Voce e eu"). Too bad it's only available as a pricey Japanese import (locally you can get it at Dusty Groove). The trio's next album will be led by the group's bass player and producer, Kassin.
3. WILCO Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch) An "uncommercial art record," sez Rolling Stone, but all I hear is beautifully constructed introspective pop. Over the last year and a half the tunes have too often been overshadowed by the album's admittedly great back story and mixer Jim O'Rourke's rep. But none of this would resonate if the album weren't chock-full of heartbreaking melodies. Though they're adorned by a nearly orchestral catalog of instrumental effects, Jeff Tweedy's plaintive hooks are still what make 'em go.
4. STEVEN BERNSTEIN Diaspora Blues (Tzadik) The leader of New York pomo-jazz pranksters Sex Mob sobers up for this project, a gorgeous collection of pieces associated with and inspired by the great cantor Moshe Koussevitsky. Collaborating with octogenarian reedist Sam Rivers and his trio, trumpeter Bernstein brings his staggering technique and range to bear on heartfelt Jewish music that's free of klezmer's velocity and bombast. Steeped in minor-key melancholy, the extended improvisations flow like tears.
5. ORCHESTRA BAOBAB Specialist in All Styles (World Circuit/Nonesuch) This storied Senegalese dance band reunited in 2001 to record this new offering, their first in 15 years. The group indulge in some warm and fuzzy nostalgia for the days when they were Senegal's leading music makers--before Youssou N'Dour (who coproduced the album) became a star by mixing ethnic musical traditions with rock-tinged rhythms to create mbalax in the early 80s. Their gentle Afro-Cuban grooves are cut with dollops of reggae, while the vocal blend of three Baobab vets and griot newcomer Assane Mboup sounds both bluesy and faintly Middle Eastern. Issa Cissokho's airy tenor saxophone and Barthelemy Attisso's sublimely precise guitar--which underlines every lilting phrase with tonal bite, every stinging lick with plush depth--make the band sound as vital as any of their modern peers.
6. SPOON Kill the Moonlight (Merge) Early on, this Austin combo slavishly imitated the Pixies, but over the years Spoon has developed a sound distinctive enough to warrant its own legion of copycats. Front man Britt Daniel's arrangements are as spare as they are meticulous: terse keyboard riffs recur insistently, taut grooves build from looped body sounds (snaps, hand claps, breathing), and the occasional electric guitar lick drifts in, each piece locking perfectly in place. Daniel's melodies are pretty stripped-down too, but he fleshes them out with a canny mix of falsetto soul and dry plainspeak.
7. ANTIPOP CONSORTIUM Arrhythmia (Warp) Many hip-hop risk takers (like the Anticon collective) craft exciting new sounds but can't keep the beat. But this New York trio (which unfortunately disbanded this summer) found ways to be both wiggy and jiggy. Beans, Priest, and M. Sayyid (occasionally abetted by production ace Earl Blaize) fashioned a twisted landscape of alien analog belches, Ping-Pong samples, and booty-shaking grooves, and on the mike each is a futuristic spoken-word artist capable of logic-defying gymnastics, reeling off dense internal rhymes and breathlessly spilling goofy phrases from one line into the next.
8. LINDA THOMPSON Fashionably Late (Rounder) Sidelined since the mid-80s with hysterical dysphonia--a rare psychological disorder that's like a crippling case of stage fright--folk-rock great Linda Thompson made a powerful comeback with this album. She surrounds herself with bright lights--Martin Carthy, Van Dyke Parks, Rufus Wainwright, and Kate Rusby--but Thompson's clearly the star. Her austere grace and intense focus are a welcome antidote to the breathy, self-involved style of Ani DiFranco, Tori Amos, and their ilk--with a slight dip in pitch or a change from clipped to curved phrasing she can convey more emotion than an entire Lilith Fair roster. Most of the songs were cowritten with her son, Teddy; together they've crafted contemporary murder ballads, sordid tales of leaving home, and a long-delayed response to the nasty rants of her ex-husband, Richard.
9. JASON MORAN Modernistic (Blue Note) On his first solo disc, singular jazz pianist Jason Moran continues to find ideas in the most unlikely places. Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" wouldn't seem to offer much meat for jazz improvisation, but Moran cleverly overcomes the lack of harmonic movement by basing piano lines on the rhythms and melodies of the original raps, and he emulates the tune's beats by hammering out a prepared-piano groove. As if that weren't enough, in "Planet Rock Postscript," he spins a potent improvisation from the left-hand part he uses for the preceding cover. His moving originals and inventive readings of pieces by James P. Johnson, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Robert Schumann recognize jazz as a continuum, drawing on its past but looking forward.
10. KRONOS QUARTET Nuevo (Nonesuch) I'm usually turned off by the Kronos Quartet's high-concept approach--the group's attempt to go global on 2000's Caravan, for instance, jammed too many disparate musical styles into a lifeless mishmash--but this is just too much fun to resist. Violinist David Harrington set out to reconstruct the jumble of traditions he heard while walking along the streets of Mexico City, drawing on a century of music in the process. There are wild banda, a schmaltzy Esquivel cover, and a dramatic piece by the great composer Silvestre Revueltas, and the quartet collaborates with everyone from Cafe Tacuba to Nortec Collective charter member Plankton Man to a Mexico City street musician who plays the melody to "Perfidia" by blowing on the edge of an ivy leaf. A postmodern collision that works.
Honorable mentions: William Parker Quartet, Raining on the Moon (Thirsty Ear); Sleater-Kinney, One Beat (Kill Rock Stars); Arto Lindsay, Invoke (Righteous Babe); ICP Orchestra, Oh My Dog (ICP); Neko Case, Blacklisted (Bloodshot); Ekkehard Ehlers, Plays (Staubgold); Von Freeman, The Improviser (Premonition); Radian, Rec.Extern (Thrill Jockey); Marcus Schmickler, Param (A-Musik); Nacao Zumbi, S/T (Trama).