1) The Mars Volta, "Frances the Mute"- Head and shoulders above everything else I listened to this year, "Frances The Mute" is a stunning album in every sense of the word. Channeling the long lost ghost of Led Zeppelin, FM radio play and prog-rock with a vengeance, they throw everything at you in this 75 minute opus. More free-form and improvisatory than their previous album, this is one helluva great cd to get lost with.
2) Explosions In the Sky, "How Strange, Innocence"- This quartet from Austin, Texas will never hit it big. Why? They're four guys who play instrumental pieces without a single word! I discovered this band by accident late in the year and their sound (a cross between Mogwai and the repetitive background fuzz of early Sonic Youth) builds to hugely satisfying crescendos. This album, entitled "How Casual, Innocence" was released in '05, but it's a remix of eight early demo songs that never got off the ground after they formed in 2000. Just as I was conducting more research on these guys, I kept thinking how perfect their moody music would be for soundtracks, then I realized a lot the unique music in the film Friday Night Lights is courtesy of Explosions In the Sky. I can't recommend this band enough. It's always engaging when you discover a band you feel no one else has heard before.
3) Smile, Smile- "Smile Smile"- This debut EP from Dallas male and female duo Jencey and Ryan Hamilton (and the inferences to The White Stripes must be infuriating) is deceptively simple. Lush melodies are overlapped against keyboard, guitar and a mechanized drum beat, creating some of the most oddly moving sounds of the year.
4) My Morning Jacket, "Z"- Whatever one wishes to classify My Morning Jacket under (alt-country, bluegrass, rock fusion), after three albums it's clear they're here to stay. "Z" is an all-out exploration of genre and sound, easily swooning between 70's style rock and lazy alternative country. This one stayed in my cd player for three months straight.
5) Gorillaz, "Demon Days"- Former Blur frontman Daman Albarn took refuge with his band Gorillaz (really no more than himself splurging in the studio and inviting various musical personalities, and Dennis Hopper, to join in the fun) and this second album progresses his playful and irreverent sense of hip hop, electronica and…. Gospel? At first glance, this all seems like a mess. But on repeat listens, there's a definite method to this album's madness. The tunes become hypnotic and tell unique stories, either through spoken word or through the way Albarn's voice suddenly becomes clear after mumbling. It's all very subtle… and brilliant.
6) Coldplay, "X/Y"- Let the bashing begin. Wasn't there a cute little line about me being gay if I liked Coldplay tossed into a film somewhere this year? Oh well. I’m comfortable with my masculinity, and I still love Coldplay.