This was the year music lost its shape. For more than a century, musical performances have been contained: on piano rolls, on vinyl, on compact discs. With the rise of online music, the art form became free: songs could be exchanged from fan to fan across continents, acts were able to reach audiences directly. Much has been made of online music's economic threat (despite the fact that top-selling acts, from Scott Joplin to TLC, have faced money woes doing things the old way), but the Net is also changing the sound of music: rare tracks, remixes and material too strange for stores are now all available with just a click.
1. D'ANGELO, VOODOO: Slick as chicken grease. Hotter than summer asphalt. D'Angelo summoned old ghosts Jimi and Marvin and woke up a new artistic spirit in R&B. Voodoo is a ménage à trois of soul, hip-hop and jazz, all tangled up like lovers caught in the act. Even as D'Angelo pays homage to music's past, he proves the future is in good hands.
2. RADIOHEAD, KID A: Well crafted and inscrutable, this deceptively mellow CD has the haunting power of a dream remembered. Tinged with electronica, bursting with restless creativity, it delivers rock's elegy and its raison d'être.
3. SINEAD O'CONNOR, FAITH AND COURAGE: This time around, the defiant Irish singer delivers not a sermon of fire but a psalm of forgiveness. Her pop songs bear weighty spiritual messages about loving one’s self, but they carry themselves lightly, as if lifted by seraphim's wings.
4. THE EMERSON QUARTET, SHOSTAKOVICH STRING QUARTETS: Shostakovich turned Stalin's Great Terror into art in his 15 string quartets, a laceratingly vivid document interpreted here by America's greatest quartet.
5. SADE, LOVERS ROCK: The soulful singer returns with a solemn CD that was worth the eight-year wait. These elegant songs explore heartbreak, yes, but racism as well. On each cut, Sade's lovely, melancholy voice blossoms like a blue bruise.
6. SHELBY LYNNE, I AM SHELBY LYNNE: Is it country? Is it soul? Maybe the words rhythm and bluegrass best capture the revelatory jolt of songs with which Lynne, a Nashville expatriate, bends two great rivers of American music into a pool brimming with fresh ideas.
7. SARAH HARMER, YOU WERE HERE: Harmer, a Canadian singer-songwriter, has a voice with some of the sublime charm of Dido's and writes erudite but colloquial lyrics that evoke the folksy smarts of the Indigo Girls. This is the year's best debut, with honorable mention going to Nelly Furtado's blithe "Whoa, Nelly!"
8. MARIA SCHNEIDER, ALLEGRESSE: Schneider's big band paints musical landscapes full of glowing pastel harmonies and sharp-angled rhythms. Listen to her sweepingly ambitious compositions, and hear the next wave in jazz taking shape before your very ears.
9. JAMES CARTER, CHASIN' THE GYPSY: This tribute to Django Reinhardt offers more than covers of the Gypsy guitarist's songs. Carter also serves up involving originals inspired by Reinhardt and, in doing so, establishes himself as one of the premier saxophonists in jazz. The chase is on, and Carter is closing in.
10. WYCLEF JEAN, THE ECLEFTIC: 2 SIDES II A BOOK: While other hip-hoppers just lay tracks, Wyclef writes songs. No topic, from romance to the Amadou Diallo killing, is beyond his range, and no musical style, from reggae to country, is beyond his grasp. Political, comical, unpredictable Wyclef is the most inventive male performer in rap.
THE WORST: Eminem's misogyny and gay baiting. Eminem is talented, but his attacks on women and gays poison his rap. Artists should have free speech, and rebellion in pop is a good thing. But attacking women and gays isn't rebellious, it's archaic. One fears that fans and mainstream critics may admire Eminem because he's giving voice to their prejudices.