1. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco (Nonesuch). Even before this record came out, people were touting it as exceptional, and for good reason. The subtleties of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the instrumentation, the simple pop songs turned atmospheric soundscapes, have catapulted Wilco from alt.country to influential rock band.
2. Control, Pedro the Lion (Jade Tree). David Bazan has the ability to write songs that communicate their emotional complexities through both lyric and melody. Listening to this record is like watching a really good movie, the kind you can watch over and over again and still notice new things.
3. Kill the Moonlight, Spoon (Merge). Britt Daniel can hit you with one great pop hook after another until you feel like you've been beaten over the head with a rock. And you don't want it to stop.
4. I Break Chairs, Damien Jurado and Gathered in Song (Sub Pop). While not Damien Jurado's best album, I Break Chairs is more guitar-heavy and louder than any of his previous records, which provides the perfect juxtaposition to Jurado's heart-wrenching lyrics.
5. Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Flaming Lips (Warner Bros.) This record may be my No. 5, but it wins No. 1 Most Existential Moment: I was standing alone on the top floor of a clothing store I worked at briefly, bored out of my mind. The sunlight was streaming down through the skylight, reflecting off the dust on the shelves, when I heard Wayne Coyne sing "Do you realize / that everyone you know someday will die?"
6. Lifted, or, The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Bright Eyes (Saddle Creek). Really long title, really long record. Conor Oberst writes songs that are both narrative and lyrical, and his craft style continues to become more original. In the middle of "False Advertising" the song stops and you hear a girl yell, "Oh, I'm sorry!" and then Conor says, "No, it's okay, it's okay" and starts the song right where it left off. It's my favorite moment on any record this year.
7. Universal Truths and Cycles, Guided by Voices (Matador). Universal Truths and Cycles is GBV taking a few steps backward, as if Robert Pollard suddenly forgot he was writing really catchy pop songs for a couple albums there, and remembered how to keep things short and surreal.
8. And the Surrounding Mountains, Radar Brothers (Merge). The Radar Brothers recipe for a great record: Mix together clean, bright guitar with synthesizers and midtempo rhythms, simmer until the mood is consistent. Add vague, familial lyrics with reoccurring images and stir.
9. Under Cold Blue Stars, Josh Rouse (Rykodisc/Slow River). Rouse perfectly combines quiet, introspective guitar with dance beats and an array of instrumentation; this record makes me feel like a real grown-up, like I should have an espresso machine and a DVD player.
10. Daybreaker, Beth Orton (Astralwerks). Beth Orton's records are always beautiful and swirling and produced. Daybreaker has Orton collaborating with Emmylou Harris and Ryan Adams (who wrote "This One's Gonna Bruise" especially for Orton), and even they don't distract from Orton's singular talent.