Sufjan Stevens, Illinoise (Rough Trade)
Imagine an album 22 tracks long and 74 minutes in duration, which divines the lyrical spirits of Carl Sandburg and Saul Bellow and the musical genius of Steve Reich and Rodgers and Hammerstein - and which is neither boring nor pompous. Illinoise, by 30-year-old Midwesterner Sufjan Stevens, is that record: the second instalment in his ambitious plan to write and record an album for each of the 50 US states. Banjo-led folk ballads sit next to Broadway epics covering topics such as the shoddiness of late capitalism, existential crises in tourist attractions and having one's faith in God shaken by bereavement. If Stevens were a novelist he'd win the Pulitzer hands down.
Franz Ferdinand, You Could Have It So Much Better (Domino)
There's something Midas-like about Franz Ferdinand, the sharp-suited Glasgow quartet who, only last year, sold three and a half million copies of their debut album and became the first guitar band in years to get the girls screaming and the boys copying their dress sense. Their second album could have been a rushed shadow of its predecessor, but it's the opposite: a considered, sustained thrill-burst of a record, which contains some of the most intelligent pop lyrics since the Pet Shop Boys in their prime, and also shows a complete - but, alas, rare - understanding of the importance of good tunes. The year's best British record.
The Arcade Fire, Funeral (Rough Trade)
You must know you've done something right when David Bowie proclaims himself your biggest fan. The Arcade Fire, a Canadian seven-piece, gained their coveted patron with the release of this, their debut album, an extraordinarily mature record which, like Stevens's Illinoise, is novelistic in its lyrical scope and manages the difficult feat of sounding profound but not pretentious. There is an obvious musical debt to Bowie, in its ingenious synthesis of rock'n'roll and Brecht and Weill-style cabaret, but there is a powerful emotional content missing from most rock albums, informed by the deaths of several of the band's family members during its recording. Art imitates life to stunning effect.
Beck, Guero (Polydor)
The prolific Californian songwriter Beck has had a difficult time in the past few years persuading his fans that they don't really want to hear him make the same album over and over again. His bestselling Odelay (1996) was followed by another three records that sound nothing like each other. They didn't sell half as well, which is possibly why he has returned to the winning combination of hip-hop beats, exhaustingly catchy pop tunes and random funny noises that made Odelay a modern classic. Guero is instant sunshine, an album that plasters your face with a big grin every time you play it.
The Raveonettes, "Love in a Trashcan" (Columbia)
The Danish duo share their love of Sixties pop on this gloriously radio-friendly track, with echoey drums by the Velvet Underground legend Moe Tucker.
Wolf Parade, "Modern World" (Sub Pop)
This haunting acoustic ballad is one reason why Wolf Parade, Montreal-based friends of the Arcade Fire, are the band to watch in 2006.
British Sea Power, "Victorian Ice" (Rough Trade)
The highlight of BSP's 2005 album Open Season was this delicate, heart-ticklingly melodious folk-pop song, from a band for whom the vagaries of fashion mean nothing.
Gwen Stefani, "Hollaback Girl" (Polydor)
The former No Doubt singer's best single to date is a nonsensical cheerleader chant that thunders along like a space-age version of Queen's "We Will Rock You".
Caribou, "Yeti" (The Leaf Label)
Its violent clash of clattery drums, electronic noises and dry, Brian Eno-like vocals could have made this track by one-man band Dan Snaith insufferable; instead, it's addictive.