Alicia Keys, “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart” from The Element of Freedom
I find her albums awfully inconsistent, but Alicia Keys is a fine singles artist; other R&B performers might have her beat in terms of style, flash, or pure diva power, but for my money, Keys packs more soul per square inch than any other Top 40 artist. This song, the second single from her so-so The Element of Freedom, is a sly tip of the hat to early ’80s R&B — in fact, I can almost hear Chaka singing it, and that makes me happy.


Beausoleil, “Carriere Zydeco” (download) from Alligator Purse
Another good ‘n’ greasy side from the Cajun legends.


Blakroc, “Done Did It” from Blakroc
I was sadly underwhelmed by Blakroc, the hip-hop spinoff project from the Black Keys, but this track stood out for me.


Bob Schneider, “Bicycle vs. Car” from Lovely Creatures
My Twitter feed is often home to various levels of anti-Schneider sentiment, but that has more to do with the “cult of Schneid” that’s rubbed some of my friends the wrong way than the music. Make no mistake, Schneider is far too prolific for his own good, and given to bogging down his albums with sophomoric crap — but he’s just as prone to moments of sheer beauty, like this one.


Brandon Schott, “Seasons Turn” from Dandelion
A heartrendingly lovely invocation to one of the year’s most unfairly overlooked singer/songwriter efforts. Check out samples from Dandelion at Brandon’s YouTube channel.


Bruce Hornsby, “Invisible” from Levitate
After a decade of flirting with the stylistic margins (and testing some fans’ patience with the piano-free Big Swing Face), Hornsby manages to wed his commercial instincts to his wanderlust with what might be the best (and certainly most concise) effort of his career. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but this song is as good as any.


Chali 2na feat. Raphael Saadiq, “What Dudes Do” from Fish Out of Water
After making us wait all these years for a proper solo album, the former Jurassic 5 standout owed us something better than the mostly hook-free Fish Out of Water; still, this track — which, signaling Chali 2na’s artistic confusion, closes out the album — is all kinds of cool.


Chickenfoot, “Get It Up” from Chickenfoot
I didn’t realize how fondly I looked back on the AOR I stuffed my ears with during my junior year of high school until I heard Chickenfoot, the unjustly maligned union of messrs. Hagar, Anthony, Satriani, and Smith. It sounds like Van Halen kept right on going after For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, and this track — which finds Hagar screaming “Arriba!” like a stubble-covered, potbellied Speedy Gonzales, was my favorite of the bunch.


Chris Trapper, “Black Hearted Bride” from Til the Last Leaf Falls
The wandering Push Stars frontman continues his prolific streak with a dependably solid collection of folk-tinged pop. I wish he’d resume the Dixieland experiment he started with his second solo album, Gone Again, but until then, songs like “Black Hearted Bride” will have to suffice.


The Clumsy Lovers, “Start Over” from Make Yourself Known
Mix the Barenaked Ladies with Nickel Creek and you’ve got the Clumsy Lovers, my favorite hard-touring, frequently tongue-in-cheek roots outfit in the world. “Start Over” is the smartest, most ruefully funny divorce song I’ve heard in as long as I can remember.


Dean Jones, “Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All Here” from Rock Paper Scissors
In which one of the kindie genre’s leading lights teams up with the Felice Brothers for my favorite children’s album, ever. It’s less than two minutes long, but this joyous, gloriously ragged opening track tells you everything you need to know.


Ellis Paul, “The Day After Everything Changed” from The Day After Everything Changed
Paul’s voice, while quite pretty, is such a wispy thing that he’s frequently found it difficult to frame it properly; your average Ellis Paul record has a few beautiful songs and a lot of filler. The Day After Everything Changed is a different story: with an armful of his best songs and ex-Billy Pilgrim/current Suglarland member Kristian Bush acting as executive producer, Paul delivers his best, most consistently engaging album yet. There are no bad songs, but the haunting title track is as good an introduction as any.


fun., “At Least I’m Not as Sad (As I Used to Be)” from Aim & Ignite
Whipping Jellyfish and Queen into a frothy Technicolor meringue, fun.’s Aim & Ignite redefined power pop for the laptop era, and gave me one of my favorite albums of the decade in the process.


Gift of Gab, “Rhyme Travel” from Escape 2 Mars
Like Chali 2na, Gift of Gab failed to deliver on the anticipation of this year’s solo outing — too many half-baked songs and not enough examples of Gab’s wicked, mind-bending flow left me cold. This song, though, hasn’t left my iPod for months.


Glasvegas, “Go Square Go” from Glasvegas
How can you not love a song that culminates in repetitions of “here we fuckin’ go”?


The Guggenheim Grotto, “Fee Da Da Dee” from Happy the Man
Refreshing as a cool drink of water and warm as your favorite old sweatshirt, the Guggenheim Grotto’s Happy the Man will tide over hyperactive Blue Nile fans until the next album. “Fee Da Da Dee” is one of the more hypnotic tracks on a record full of them.


Ian McLagan & the Bump Band, “I Will Follow” from Never Say Never
Until the Faces get their shit together and give the world the reunion album it so desperately needs, this worn but defiant set of pub rockers will have to do.


Imogen Heap, “First Train Home” from Ellipse
Wide chunks of Heap’s latest left me cold, but given the way she builds her tracks from countless interlocking layers of frosted pop glass, I suppose that’s probably sort of the point — and sometimes, as with Ellipse‘s spellbinding opening track, it really works.


James Perry, “Dreaming of You” from Now You’re Gone
How impressed was I with Perry’s song suite about a breakup, backed with a home-studio orchestra and fleshed out with some of the beefiest arrangements I heard out of any artist all year? I designed the booklet.


Jay-Z, “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” from The Blueprint 3
Yes, Hova’s third Blueprint was sort of underwhelming, but he reasserted his dominance on a handful of tracks, and though “Empire State of Mind” got more airplay, I thought “D.O.A.,” with its trend-tweaking verses and proudly off-kilter chorus, was the best of the lot.


Joshua Jesty, “I See God in You” from Girl
See? Good things do come out of Cleveland!


K’naan, “Wavin’ Flag” from Troubadour
Part of what I consider a banner year for mainstream hip-hop, K’naan’s Troubadour meshed old-school bangin’ machismo with thoughtful political analysis — and the Somalian rapper came by both halves of his perspective the hard way. “Wavin’ Flag” might have been the most moving song I heard all year; I still can’t decide whether I’m confused or pissed that it wasn’t a huge hit.


La Roux, “Bulletproof” from La Roux
I was lucky enough to spend a week in Ireland with my family this spring, and “Bulletproof” was inescapable. It didn’t land quite as solid an impact here, but if you’ve never quite gotten over the breakup of the Eurythmics, La Roux suggests what they might have sounded like if they’d been born 30 years later.


Lady Gaga, “Teeth” from The Fame Monster
Dismissing Lady Gaga’s Madonna-indebted shtick out of hand is as trendy as it is tiresome (I’m looking at you, Vrabel) — outside of a Young Republicans convention, I can’t imagine who’d be able to resist the swaggering S&M roleplay of “Teeth.”


Lily Allen, “Fuck You” from It’s Not Me, It’s You
Don’t let the door hit you on your way out, George!


Lisa Donnelly, “Laugh” from We Had a Thing
Early advances of We Had a Thing saved this jaunty life lesson for last; wisely, its position was eventually flipped, and although leading with her strongest song didn’t help Donnelly sell a ton of records, it does reflect a savvy recognition of her strengths and weaknesses. “Open your heart and close your legs/They only want what makes ’em beg.” That’s poetry, folks.


Living Colour, “Bless Those” from The Chair in the Doorway
I guess it’s kind of a bummer that the catchiest track on Living Colour’s 2009 release is a Little Annie cover, but what the hell — a good song is a good song, and regardless of its origins, “Bless Those” takes equal advantage of the band’s way with a hook and its gift for sheer shreddery.


The Lonely Island, “Santana DVX” from Incredibad
Comedy albums are rarely as anticipated as the debut outing from the Lonely Island, and it’s just as rare that they deliver. It had its share of dead air, but where else can you hear “I’m on a Boat,” “Punch You in the Jeans,” and Norah Jones extolling the virtues of Chex Mix — not to mention this gleefully profane, hysterically over the top advertisement for Carlos Santana’s sparkling wine? (Yes, it’s real.)


Loudon Wainwright III, “High, Wide and Handsome from High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project
Wainwright’s two-CD tribute to Charlie Poole, a banjo icon most Americans have never heard of, was far too esoteric to sell as many copies as it should have; still, it provided a worthy endcap to a terrific decade for a criminally ignored songwriter.


Matthew Ryan, “Dear Lover” from Dear Lover
We all speak the language of heartbreak — if we didn’t, Chris Isaak wouldn’t have a career — but Matthew Ryan speaks it more eloquently than most, using life’s disappointments as a way of tearing away his defenses and wiring directly into one of the biggest, fiercest hearts in rock ‘n’ roll. The title track from his latest effort includes a line that could be a manifesto for his entire career: “We might be fucked…but goddammit, so what?” Visit Ryan’s YouTube channel for samples from Dear Lover.


Maxwell, “Pretty Wings” from BLACKsummer’snight
I can’t make a case for “Pretty Wings” as Maxwell’s finest hour, but I do think it was one of the sexiest, most soulful slow jams we heard this year, and that’s enough for me.


Mika, “Touches You” from The Boy Who Knew Too Much
Do you miss Faith-era George Michael? So does Mika.


Miley Cyrus, “Party in the U.S.A.” from Some Goddamn Walmart Exclusive EP
The prudent thing for me to do would be to ignore “Party in the U.S.A.,” but screw that — Miley’s latest big hit would have been the summer anthem of the year if Hollywood Records hadn’t fumbled the ball and released it a few months too late. No matter: you can move your hips like “yeah” any time of the year, and regardless of whether or not Miley had anything to do with writing this song — or has even truly experienced the joy of hearing a Jay-Z song on the radio — this is one of the most rock-solid pop nuggets to slide down the major-label assembly line in years. It’s almost enough to make Annette Funicello come out of retirement for one more beach movie.


Mos Def, “Quiet Dog” from The Ecstatic
Giving a half-lidded nod to “Rapper’s Delight,” this subtly raging track helped counterweight The Ecstatic‘s less accessible moments, and provided the Letterman show with one of the year’s most captivating live performances.


N.A.SA., “The People Tree” from The Spirit of Apollo
Chali 2na and Gift of Gab may have disappointed with their solo sets this year, but their easy chemistry on this track (with David Byrne singing the hook!) reminded us of just how great they both can be — and made me, for one, wish they’d cut a full LP together.


Pet Shop Boys, “All Over the World” from Yes
You slept on a terrific Pet Shop Boys album this year, America. What have they done to deserve this?


Sanders Bohlke, “The Weight of Us” from Web Single
I wrote about Sanders Bohlke several months ago, and I’m still listening to this vast, mournful ballad.


Steel Panther, “Community Property” from Feel the Steel
There are lots of reasons to love this faux power ballad — how can you resist a gag whose payoff is “my cock is community property”? — but for me, the capper is the synth string section that sounds exactly like something you would have heard during hair metal’s heyday. I grin every time I hear it.


Steve Martin, “The Crow” from The Crow
Yeah, Steve Martin released an album of original banjo music this year — and yeah, it was awesome. Watch this Letterman performance for proof.


T-Pain, “Take Your Shirt Off” from Take Your Shirt Off
I don’t have many regrets, but I do find it profoundly sad that the nation missed out on an opportunity to start the coolest dance craze in history with this song.


Wale, “Pretty Girls” from Attention Deficit
Kid Cudi got all the attention for repurposing Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and turning it into the hilariously misogynist “Make Her Say,” but it isn’t half as catchy as Wale’s “Pretty Girls,” which breaks down with the callous chant “Ugly girls be quiet, quiet / Pretty girls clap, clap like this.”

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