All Sussed Out

Where the Year Ends and the Lists Begin

1. Radiohead – Hail to the Thief (Capitol)

Among the most frustrating proclamations of the Bush administration is their insistence that history will prove their actions justified. It takes no small measure of ego to make such a cocksure assertion. Yet I have no reserve in insisting that Hail to the Thief will be viewed, in the years to come, as the finest of Radiohead’s first six albums. With Thief, the band take a brief pause from their constant experimental momentum to release their version of a greatest hits record. “2+2=5” recalls the guitar-driven bravado of The Bends and the standout “We Suck Young Blood” envelops a classic Amnesiac sound with pleading anxiety. But the updated aesthetic of the band guarantees no simple hook is left untangled and no sterile melody left emotionless. Speaking of Bush, Yorke is onto the president’s sneaksy ways, crooning to his own son on “Sail to the Moon” of the potential misuses of power and generally tapping his inner paranoid android to give the album’s final tracks a cornered hostility. Finer words have been published about this album, but don’t bother looking for them—just give the record about a dozen chances and it will gradually steal your soul.

2. Drive-By Truckers – Decoration Day (New West)

You can draw a big meaty bass line from Flannery O’Connor to the Drive-By Truckers, who distill a murky Southern legacy of incest, murder and generational family feuds. Decoration Day is less ambitious but ultimately more satisfying than their patchy double-disc breakthrough Southern Rock Opera, as the band better weaves their shotgun triple-guitar formula and continue to deliver their moonshine-soaked tales with equal bouts of irony and reverence. With no less than three capable songwriters at their disposal, the songs occasionally sound better off the lyric sheet than through speakers. But when the band get their pedal steel and acoustic drawls all in a row, they forge some gin-u-ine heartbreakers.

3. M83 - Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts (EMI)

On Dead Cities, each inveterate drone and clunky snare forms a unique texture of a cohesive reality, resulting in perhaps the purest aural approximation of human experience put to record. The enlightened “In Church” recreates a Christian mass from organs, disparate choral fractions and a persistent solitary fuzz-synth preacher. “Gone” is bombarded with the memories of a lost love, culminating in a cathartic screech that clears out until all that remains is the dull memory of the sensation. With only Crayola-simple synth beats and the occasional muted female vocalist at their disposal, French duo M83 paint a collection of vivid masterpieces.

4. Brother Ali - Shadows on the Sun (Rhymesayers)

“I keep an eye on heaven and an ear to the street/I spread a thick layer of blood, sweat and tears on the beats.” On the cornerstone title track of his sophomore effort, Brother Ali tallies up the qualities that herald Shadows on the Sun, professing a proclivity towards old-school beats, refreshingly articulate vocal delivery and an assured baring of his albino soul. The finest product of the Minneapolis hip-hop scene, Brother Ali—with the help of reliable producer Ant—clears a nice path for his inevitable mainstream invasion.

5. Cursive – The Ugly Organ (Saddle Creek)

Cursive are so busy winking at themselves throughout The Ugly Organ that most critics chose to write them off as insufferably pretentious. But the self-referential lyrics, an attempt to analyze the efforts of your average indie rocker, are mostly successful. It’s the sort of album Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst would be writing if girls didn’t keep destroying him. The disc’s strongest element is its assonant buried melodies, formed by a rather unsettling mash of orchestral gestures and bloated guitar blasts.

6. Pernice Brothers – Yours Mine and Ours (Ashmont)

The only selection on the list that’s gratifying for its sheer aesthetic qualities rather than its challenging material. Joe Pernice doesn’t stray far from his standard summer-break style, efficiently harmonizing instantly unforgettable hooks with radiant vocals. The falsetto chorus of “Baby in Two” will damage you.

7. My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves (ATO)

The sound of this Kentucky quintet doesn’t merely reflect the grandeur of the sunrise, it seems practically responsible for it. Lead singer Jim James beckons the daylight from some distant, reverb-rich galaxy and shimmering guitars alternately evoke Johnny Cash and Jimmy Page.

8. The Rapture – Echoes (Universal)

Hearing the words “heart attack” does not quite capture the experience of actual cardiac arrest, and to a greater extent, “dancepunk” fails to capture the brute power that is Echoes. Last year’s single “House of Jealous Lovers” set up the disco ball, but viral rump-quakers like “Killing” and “I Need Your Love” knock it out of the club.

9. British Sea Power – The Decline of British Sea Power (Sanctuary)

The bastard stepchild of the great ’80s mope-wave bands and the psychedelic ’70s acidheads, British Sea Power successfully mine both influences for some sturdy hooks. The lyrics may be unnecessarily dense (“Then we’ll hyperventilate in the old forest/Then I will see all those things, things that cannot be seen”), but are delivered with palpable conviction.

10. Pretty Girls Make Graves – The New Romance (Matador)

The New Romance continues the grand post-punk PGMG tradition, with the schizophrenia of the band’s tempos and chords supplementing the delicate imperfections of Andrea Zollo’s vulnerable voice. The disc’s highlight, “This Is Our Emergency,” serves as a perfect exercise in false-climactic restraint.

—Crimson Arts columnist Ben Y. Chung can be reached at bchung@fas.harvard.edu. This is his final column of the semester.