Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge)
Playing eccentric pop songs on eccentric instruments--including a singing saw and something called a zanzithophone--Neutral Milk Hotel has turned the fuzz-pop potential of On Avery Island into front-porch folk reality, if the front porch happened to be located at Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is full of whimsical melancholy, showing the dark side of the Elephant 6 (Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, etc.) collective's sugar-sugar sensibilities. It's an album of white-boy spirituals and dark campfire songs, sewn together by Jeff Mangum's mournful croon, which can even make nonsense like "When you were young you were the king of carrot flowers" sound like the most important thing in the world. The saddest and happiest record of the year.
The RZA, Bobby Digital in Stereo (V2/Gee Street)
With more layers than a hundred feet of limestone, and beats just as solid, the debut album by The RZA's alter-ego Bobby Digital confirms the former Robert Diggs is so far ahead of the rest of the pack, they would need a time machine just to catch up. It's house-of-cards hip-hop, as scratchy samples, plinking piano loops, "Theme from Shaft" strings--all useless by themselves--are carefully and cleverly added on top of one another. Bobby Digital in Stereo would be the best hip-hop album of the year even if The RZA never said a word: His hands talk loud enough.
Sunny Day Real Estate, How it Feels to Be Something On (Sub Pop)
As tender and thrilling as a first kiss, How it Feels to Be Something On should have been a mere rehashing of the band's first two records, a for-the-money reunion disc that trotted out new versions of hits they never had. Surprisingly, only the name remained the same, as the band chucked its chugging rhythms and guitars in favor of a sound more in line with the opulent, orchestral pop of lead singer Jeremy Enigk's solo album. Far away from Sunny Day's earlier post-punk gems, How it Feels to Be Something On at times feels like a folk album, paring the sound down to acoustic guitars and Enigk's astonishing, anguished falsetto. It's the rare case of a band getting back together for the right reasons and making an album that proves it.
A Tribe Called Quest, The Love Movement (Jive)
The final installment in an unimpeachable body of work, The Love Movement is a rousing farewell, the sound of a band burning out even as it fades away. The music has been scaled back from the heights the band attained with The Low End Theory's jazzmatazz, but it doesn't matter much. Q-Tip's two-steps-forward-one-step-back delivery is the best it's ever been, as he runs the table on every track, his nasal flow making anyone else's contributions irrelevant. It's yet another reminder that we never deserved a hip-hop band as good as A Tribe Called Quest.