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1. “Confessions,” Usher: This was the most overplayed, overexposed album of the year — and the best. It’s hard to remember when a heartbreaking cad sounded so appealing: From the breakup anthem “Burn” to the scandalous title track, Usher wooed listeners with his sensuous tenor. Expertly crafted grooves and artful storytelling didn’t hurt either. Though Usher’s been one of R&B’s brightest young stars for a while, this album put him on top the entire music world, deservedly so.
2. “The College Dropout,” Kanye West: Though technically a rap album, at its heart, West’s stunning debut was every bit soul music. Its songs spoke to struggles of everyday life — from the small to the gargantuan — through gripping lyrics, biting satire and David Chapelle-worthy skits. Cleverly conceived and excellently executed, West’s album provided a rich portrait of street life in a genre built on caricatures.
3. “Virgin Ubiquity: Unreleased Recordings, 1976-1981,” Roy Ayers: This sweet collection of the jazzman’s lost recordings is a wonderfully orchestrated symphony of funk and soul. Songs like “Sugar” will make you wanna dust off your old disco ball (or steal it from your mom’s closet), while “I Really Love You” will make you want to get down in a whole ’nother fashion. Though the music definitely has that ’70s sound, it doesn’t sound dated — simply classic.
4. “Rebel Soul Music,” Martin Luther: Like the black rock scene itself, Martin Luther — one of its most talented stars — has been producing sizzling music that’s gone pretty much unnoticed. But it should not go unheralded. “Rebel Soul Music” recalls the heavenly voice of Seal, the guitar-infused funk of Prince and the sexuality of D’Angelo, but it still sounds original (unlike a lot of neosoul artists, who seem to be borrowing too liberally from the past). The pressure-cooker “Growing Pains” and the sexy “Truth or Dare” are standouts on a stellar album.
5. “One Blood: Una Sangre,” Lila Downs: Though she’s known as Mexico’s leading lady of song, Downs crafted an album that encompassed all different genres and worldly influences with her latest, from blues to even a little rap. But it’s not some hodgepodge attempt to cross over, and she doesn’t sacrifice her gorgeous, Latin-inflected melodies in the process. What she ends up with is an album that shows how universal music truly is.
6. “Launchpad,” Particle: This jam band takes you on an intergalactic head trip with their trippy album. No spacecraft needed here, though, just dizzying guitar solos and a pulsating rhythm section. By the time the record ends, you’ll be wanting another ride.
7. “Rbg: Revolutionary But Gangsta,” Dead Prez: Like a lot of other artists, Dead Prez put out a record about war in 2004, but it had nothing to do with Iraq. Instead, the fiery rappers put their focus on the war they believe the government is waging on the black community. They paint a bleak portrait, but far from taking the voice of the victim, the group offers compelling, and certainly controversial, ways to battle back. And with a blistering lyrical assault, they’ve provided the perfect rallying cry for their troops.
8. “Afrodisiac,” Brandy: At this point, many of you will surely be saying: “Brandy came out with an album this year?” Her third disc, “Afrodisiac,” came and went faster than her faux marriage — a shame, because this disc, with major production work by Timbaland, was surely her best. From the tell-all, autobiographical themes to the hypnotic beats, this album captures your attention from the first note and refuses to be ignored. But you’ve got to hear it first.
9. “The Grey Album,” Danger Mouse, Jay-Z and The Beatles: Danger Mouse must be kicking himself right about now: The DJ/producer cleverly mixes the lyrics from Jay-Z’s “Black Album” and the music from legendary Beatles “White Album” to create the widely downloaded “The Grey Album,” one of the most ingenious mashups to date — then Jay-Z and Linkin Park make a subpar mashup that goes on to sell almost 400,000 copies in its first week. Go figure. But he can take solace that his was the better project, and, being free, was probably heard by many more.
10. “Finally Woken,” Jem: Yes, this British import does sound awful lot like fellow U.K. songstress Dido, at least vocally. But what sets her debut apart is now how similar she is — and how different. She entranced listeners with a gorgeous, delicate blend of haunting ballads, chill-out grooves and whimsical tunes. The melodies are lushly arranged, and her lyrics are just as ear-catching. In a year when we heard more female voices from the alternative music scene, Jem’s was the strongest.
Honorable Mentions:—“Ray!” Soundtrack, Ray Charles—“Free Yourself,” Fantasia—“Oumou,” Oumou—“Get Away From Me,” Nellie McKay—“Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone,” Yo-Yo Ma.