1. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (Anti-)
Nick Cave's magnum opus, a thrilling pasticcio of magnanimous rock, pastoral folk, and wicked church music, covers more ground in two discs than most artists can in an entire career. God, cannibals, deception, nature, divine inspiration, slaughterhouses, Johnny Cash, mythology, comfort, love, greed, sorcery, and little redemptions in the face of massive tragedies represent just the half of it. Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus is a sprawling "Song of Myself" manifesto, bubbling with piety, fear, and hope. The Bad Seeds sound like they're capable of anything; they use Cave's poetics as kindling to set fire to any stereo willing to risk its mechanical life. This year's gospel.
4. Elliott Smith, From a Basement on the Hill (Anti-)
From a Basement on the Hill presents a rawer Elliott Smith than we had recently become accustomed to; its songs are rough around the edges and frequently devoid of Smith's impeccable bridges. Still, the final record of Smith's career is loaded with peerless melodies that guide the lyrics to an emotional resonance lacking pretension. From naked acoustic tracks "A Fond Farewell" and "Memory Lane" to the kitchen-sink absolution of "King's Crossing" and "Coast to Coast", From a Basement on the Hill plays like a best-of collection filled with previously unknown songs.
12. Tom Waits, Real Gone (Anti-)
When it comes to Tom Waits, weirder is better. Real Gone reclaims the farmland funkmeister thread of Bone Machine, a sloppy stew of cacophonous percussion and Mark Ribot's Ginzu knife guitar. "Hoist That Rag" and "Make It Rain" groove with weathered authority and knowing futility -- eyes rolling into the back of the head, James Brown singing Kurt Weill, real gone funk stuff. Waits is the undisputed heavyweight of surrealist blues.