1. Brian Wilson, "Smile" (Nonesuch). There have been countless rock-opera, art-rock and prog-rock projects, but most have merely dressed up mediocre rock 'n' roll in the gowns of grandiosity. By contrast, Wilson has used the moving parts and shifting textures of art music not to show off but to reflect adulthood's mixed emotions, not to replace pop's intimacy but to reinforce it.
2. Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, Steve Swallow and Billy Drummond, "The Lost Chords" (WATT/ECM). Like her two role models, Thelonious Monk and Fats Waller, Bley is a jazz pianist with an irreverent sense of humor. That often causes critics to underrate her, but it also allows her a playfulness that leads to some of the most inventive, rewarding compositions of our time.
Rilo Kiley -- Blake Sennet, from left, Jason Boesel, Jenny Lewis and Pierre de Reeder -- is "More Adventurous."
Michael O'Sullivan's Top 10 Exhibits (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
The Year in Music (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Richard Harrington's Top 10 (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Mike Joyce's Top 10 (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Mark Jenkins's Top 10 (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Desson Thomson's Top 10 Films (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
. . . And the 10 Worst Films (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
The Best Bites of 2004 (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Looking Back: Bugs, Bars, Poker and More (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
3. Jon Dee Graham, "The Great Battle" (New West). Austin's great new-wave band of the '80s, the True Believers, graduated not just one but two world-class singer-songwriters. Graham's latest album is the equal of Alejandro Escovedo's best work, and that's as high a compliment as one can pay.
4. Talib Kweli, "The Beautiful Struggle" (Rawkus). "People, let me paint a picture," Kweli declares on "Around My Way," and he proceeds to do just that. This is not the usual rap rhetoric; this is actual description, the kind of street-level journalism that hip-hop so often promises and so seldom delivers.
5. The Drive-By Truckers, "The Dirty South" (New West). The world's greatest rock 'n' roll band follows up last year's masterpiece, "Decoration Day," with an album that's nearly as good. This bruising bar band boasts three top-notch songwriters -- which is three more than most bands can claim.
6. Dave Alvin, "Ashgrove" (Yep Roc). This collection of indelible character portraits is Alvin's best record in 10 years. Alternating muscular blues-rock and understated country-folk, he once again proves himself one of the best songwriters of his generation, untying the tangled knots of defeats, victories and mixed feelings that are adulthood.
7. Lafayette Gilchrist, "The Music According to Lafayette Gilchrist" (Hyena). This Baltimore jazz pianist is young enough to root his improvisations in funk rhythms rather than swing, but he's smart enough to give those muscular grooves real melodies and sophisticated harmonies. The result is a breakout project that should transform Gilchrist from local hero and perennial sideman into a major jazz figure.
8. Rilo Kiley, "More Adventurous" (Brute/Beaute). What if the understated indie-rock sound of the Shins, Beth Orton, Cat Power and the early Rilo Kiley albums had lyrics worthy of its beguiling moodiness? The answer comes on Rilo Kiley's third album; singer Jenny Lewis masters the songcraft of desire and doubt, and her L.A. quartet matches the conflicted lyrics with equally disorienting arrangements.
9. Nellie McKay, "Get Away From Me" (Columbia). McKay's music evokes the lost elegance of pre-Elvis pop music because she recognizes that such stylishness and wit are worth pursuing. But those goals inevitably collide with the realities of money, sex and politics, and she documents those collisions in her tongue-in-cheek lyrics, emphatic beats and bubbly melodies.
10. Everlast, "White Trash Beautiful" (Island/Def Jam). Previous attempts to blend hip-hop and country-rock have ranged from the amusing (Kid Rock) to the embarrassing (Bubba Sparxxx), but now someone has finally done it right. There's nothing gimmicky about Everlast's latest album; he's blending the genres not to be cute but to serve the fistful of terrific songs he's written.
Concert: Anthony Hamilton at Baltimore's African American Heritage Festival, June 20. In the parking lot between the Orioles' and Ravens' stadiums, Hamilton delivered one of the best R&B shows since the heyday of Al Green. Combining his original story-songs, so reminiscent of Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield, with the testifying fervor of a Baptist preacher, he claimed not only soul music's past but also its future.