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4. Ghostface Killah
Bulletproof Wallets (Epic)
The passionately dramatic, dizzyingly abstract lyricist behind last year's best album, Supreme Clientele, has fallen off ever so slightly, but Ghostface's latest joint still tops all but three contenders. Willfully mysterious (the track listing on the back of the disc doesn't correspond with the actual order in which the songs appear) as well as amazingly expressive and unmistakably real, Ghostface delivers his narratives with cinematic clarity. Wu-Tang producer RZA, who always does his best work when teamed with Ghostface, stacks classy samples onto formidable solid blocks of soul, then decorates these hard-driving beats with intriguing piano loops and horn bursts.
Radiohead continues to confound listeners who want easy musical answers, but that doesn't mean Amnesiac is inaccessible -- its melodies float near the songs' surfaces in clear view. Still, focusing on the immediately evident features of Radiohead tunes is like watching Mulholland Drive with the sound muted: It's still a beautiful experience, but there's much more available for those willing to dig deeper. Tool's first album in four years offers a different sort of challenge. With its two-part compositions, recurring musical themes, startling mood swings and slow-developing ebbs and flows, it's a seventy-minute behemoth that's best consumed as a whole.
7. Rufus Wainwright
8. Loudon Wainwright III
Last Man on Earth (Red House)
Opening with a definitive examination of self-destructive behavior during which Rufus Wainwright admits he's a little bit Tower of Pisa, the album Poses brims with riveting first-person character studies. Using nuances and inflection, Rufus communicates countless moods using a voice that's amazingly effective given its narrow range. While Rufus' piano arrangements result in graceful, ornate compositions, his father, Loudon Wainwright III, uses his acoustic guitar to craft spare backdrops that place the emphasis where it should be -- on his insightful lyrics.
9. Billie Holiday
Lady Day (Columbia/Legacy)
10. Various Artists
The '70s Soul Experience (Rhino)
Stunning in its magnitude without seeming even slightly overdone, Lady Day fits Billie Holiday's Columbia recordings between 1933-1944 on ten equally enthralling discs, wrapping the music inside deluxe packaging that reflects the singer's delicate, understated grace. Informative and essential, Lady Day comes with a hundred-plus-page book that provides the often-vivid stories behind the songs. The '70s Soul Experience's box is tackier, and appropriately so -- the fake eight-track cartridges poking out of the false-wood carrying case summarize the era that these tunes recreate. All the greats appear on this six-disc set -- Curtis Mayfield, Sly & The Family Stone, Marvin Gaye -- plus an impressive sampling of one-hit wonders and a booklet that includes a jive glossary. Outta sight!
11. The Strokes
Is This It (RCA)
12. The White Stripes
White Blood Cells (Sympathy for the Record Industry)
While the Strokes' largely stationary appearance in Lawrence didn't do much to justify the band's rep as live killers, it did serve as an effective advertisement for the band's much-hyped album. There was just enough motion on stage to distract audience members from the game of spot-the-influence that many of them play while listening at home, so it was easier to appreciate the smart, catchy (four-car-) garage-rock. The White Stripes make spot-the-influence much simpler, appropriating entire chunks and riffs from their blues and rock ancestors. Jack and Meg White could have become indie-rock's Puff Daddies; instead, they're more like the RZA, injecting enough personality into their sample-heavy creations to make them seem raw and original.