This year, critics drooled more than they ever have over artists average music consumers will never hear. (Just scan Pitchfork Media’s Web site if you want to feel unhip.) That may or not be a tragedy (you won’t find us crying over the relative obscurity of such overpraised bands as the Arcade Fire, Fiery Furnaces or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah). The real story of 2005 was how sturdy and vital rock’s warhorses sounded.
The New Pornographers, “Twin Cinema” At times too inaccessibly smart for their own good, Vancouver’s pop encyclopedists can move your body even when your brain is in subreferential overdrive. Message to NPs honcho Carl Newman: We’ll sing you “Spanish Techno” any time you’d like.
—John Legend, “Get Lifted” Though technically a 004 release (but only by a whisker), “Lifted” was still very much a this-year phenomenon. Mr. Legend’s gifts as singer, pianist and composer made him a formidable new presence on the R&B scene.
—The Rolling Stones, “A Bigger Bang” Mick and Keef supposedly got onbetter than they have in years for their gazillionth studio album. It shows. The set might have done without a track or two — especially the trite protest number “Sweet Neo Con” — but “Bang” made good on its much-hyped promise.
—B.R.M.C., “Howl” Perhaps a beter Stones album than even the Stones themselves can manage. The San Francisco noise-rock trio switched gears on this effort and produced a neo-“Beggars Banquet”: an inspired set of spiritual Americana and country blues.
—Shivaree, “Who’s Got Trouble?” —Answer: Every gal who can’t arry a tune as sexily and assuredly as Ambrosia Parsley.
Paul McCartney, “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” — Oh, Macca: What would we do without thee? “A Fine Line” is still ringing in our head, and “Jenny Wren” proved you can cobble a tune that would have sounded great not just in 2005, but in 1705, too.
Marah, “If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry” — The Bielanko brothers left their native Philadelphia behind, but not their dazzling lyric sense and punk-folk brio.
Aimee Mann, “The Forgotten Arm” —- The title of this quiet masterpiece comes from boxing. To stick with the album’s narrative concept, put this one in the knockout category.
Bright Eyes, “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” Young Conor Oberst is one narcissistic twit, but when the boy is good, he’s good. This alt-country half of Mr. Oberst’s dual releases this year (“Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” was the other) stood the test of a months-later revisit.
Bruce Springsteen, “Devils and Dust”— —- If the Boss had taken this approach potently straightforward, righteously angry yet unflappably cool for 2002’s “The Rising,” he might have had a claim on the greatest album of the young century.