CDs of the year with Peter Conrad, Richard Cook, Dougal St
Schubert: Lieder with Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon) is a revelation. Familiar songs are made new in orchestrations by composers from Liszt to Britten; Claudio Abbado conducts, and Anne Sofie von Otter and Thomas Quasthoff are the singers, vying to frighten us in separate versions of "The Erl King" by Berlioz and Max Reger.
Bach's Goldberg Variations test the pianist's fingers and the listener's brain. On his new recording (ECM New Series), Andras Schiff passes the test triumphantly - and so do we, thanks in part to Schiff's witty and probing commentary in the booklet, which even contains a justly celebratory poem by Vikram Seth.
Renee Fleming: By Request (Decca) recycles some of the soprano's most lush, voluptuous performances, with the added bait of three new tracks. Best of these is a lyrical sermon from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, which contains moments of swooning, swooping exhilaration that will leave you light-headed. My request is for more of the same!
In The Russian Seasons (Nonesuch), the violinist Gidon Kremer and his band present an astringent epilogue to the vignettes that Tchaikovsky composed to mark the months of the year. In Alexander Raskatov's digest of the cycle, harvests audibly fail; for his part, Leonid Desyatnikov replaces Tchaikovsky's domestic politeness with rites that are ruder, rowdier but also - in their commemoration of fertility - more sacred.
Peter Bernstein + 3 - Heart's Content (Criss Cross)
Guitarist Bernstein pushes no envelopes, but in the company of a magnificent rhythm section - Brad Mehldau, Larry Grenadier, Bill Stewart - he makes a simple, one-day repertory record into something timeless and compelling. Line for line, this shows how the language of modern jazz still has an evergreen feel when the right people are doing the talking. A definitive New York record.
Terence Blanchard - Bounce (Blue Note)
Blanchard's Blue Note debut is scintillating. Without forsaking the basis of his own, impeccably cultivated trumpet-playing, he gets his accomplished band to set up deft electric backings and the occasional modish hip-hop beat, just to let you know he's aware of the world outside - and then resolutely tightens the frame, absorbing the detail into his own vision.
Kurt Elling - Man In the Air (Blue Note)
Even Jamie Cullum - who will be the turkey on many Christmas lists this year - admits that Elling is the model to which he and every other jazz singer aspires. A sober, beautifully performed recital of jazz themes with newly fitted lyrics, sung with breathtaking poise and skill. Along with Rene Marie's Live At Jazz Standard (Maxjazz), this puts down a marker that leaves most other jazz vocalists gasping.
Colin Steele - The Journey Home (Caber Music)
The best British jazz record of the year mixes trenchant delivery with the softness of countless lyrical asides in Steele's superlative trumpet session. Rarely has the vocabulary of post-bop gone native - via Steele's Scottish roots - so convincingly. The saxophonist Julian Arguelles and pianist Dave Milligan ice the cake with outstanding moments of their own.
Yerba Buena Stompers - New Orleans Favorites (Stomp Off)
Roots music done to a turn by the tireless John Gill, leading a gang of American revivalists through 22 chestnuts that sound as if they've only just fallen off jazz's family tree. Can you imagine a band playing "Tiger Rag" and doing it with such furious virtuosity that it sounds like the first performance of a new tune? Well, the whole record is like that.
Pop and Rock
Let's Make This Precious: the best of Dexys Midnight Runners (EMI)
We've all danced drunkenly to "Come On Eileen", but this majestic retrospective shows why the band that added post-punk grit to soul, as well as producing ballads of gentle beauty, deserves to be remembered for more than one track.
The Coral - Magic and Medicine (Deltasonic)
The precocious Merseyside rockers' second album disproved those cynics who dismissed them as mere pretenders following last year's debut, The Coral. The music is balanced between blues and swirling psychedelia; the lyrics reveal a wisdom beyond their years. A third album is due next year.
The Darkness - Permission to Land (Must Destroy/Atlantic)
Suffolk's biggest-ever rock act has achieved success satirising the heavy metal excesses of the 1980s. Specialising in ironic falsetto voices and tongue-in-cheek macho posturing ("Get Your Hands Off My Woman"), the group has proved popular on both sides of the Atlantic with heavy metal fans and urban sophisticates alike.
British Sea Power - The Decline of British Sea Power (Rough Trade)
British Sea Power are serious young men with a quirky approach; they quote Field Marshall Montgomery in their songs and list birdwatching and walking among their hobbies. On this, their first album, sombre backing vocals and delicate piano arrangements compete with discordant guitars. The group has been compared to Joy Division, but Suede seems a stronger influence.
The Strokes - Room on Fire (Rough Trade)
Swiss finishing schools and tycoon parents are not the usual path to rock'n'roll fame, but The Strokes's second album, like their 2001 debut, Is This It, doesn't contain a dud track. The group's polished musicianship consistently takes the tired format of guitar pop to interesting places, while paying faultless homage to New York's original New Wave.
The White Stripes - Elephant (XL)
The White Stripes record all their songs on an eight-track portable studio, resulting in a deceptively simple sound. From the pounding bass of the anthemic "7 Nation Army" to the thrashed-up version of Burt Bacharach's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself", Jack White, the creative force behind this unconventional combo, applies his stripped-down musical style to a variety of influences.
Orishas - Emigrante (EMI)
Blending traditional Afro-Cuban and salsa sounds with the attitude, energy and scathing social commentary of hip-hop, the second album from Orishas consolidates their status as spokespeople for the new Cuban generation. It won them a Latin Grammy and a nomination in the Source's hip-hop awards this year. Move over, Buena Vista Social Club, young Cuba has found its voice.
Rokia Traore - Bowmboi (Tama)
Traore draws upon the renowned musical traditions of her native Mali, but cites influences as diverse as Louis Armstrong and Tina Turner. Her feminist stance is as bold as her music. "The majority of women in Mali don't understand my lyrics or the direction I'm taking," she says. Beyonce Knowles could learn a thing or two about quality music with attitude from this feisty lady.
John Spiers and Jon Boden - Bellow (Fellside)
All credit to these two young musicians for creating such an unfashionable album. It's olde English folk, complete with accordion, fiddle and lusty references to pretty maids. But the pair perform with style, energy and humour. Listen to it as you watch the sun rise over a fen. Is this the start of a morris dancing revival?
Dizzee Rascal - Boy in Da Corner (XL)
Dizzee, aka 19-year-old east Londoner Dylan Mills, is the most original voice to emerge from the UK in years. His music confounds all established genres: it's dance but the mood is desolate, the beats are sparse and insistent, and the manic, squeaky vocals owe nothing to the macho preening of more conventional rappers. His lyrics describe life growing up on a council estate ("I'm a problem for Anthony Blair"). A deserving winner of this year's Mercury Music Prize.
Sean Paul - Dutty Rock (VP)
Sophisticated it ain't, but it'll get your Christmas party bumping. Sean Paul is bringing dance-hall reggae into the mainstream, along with some of the genre's typical features: scantily clad laydees, designer champers on tap, grinding bass lines and indecipherable, growling vocals. You can't listen to this and stay in your seat - get up and shake that thang.
Missy Elliott - This is Not a Test! (Elektra)
Missy Elliott rules the aggressive world of hip-hop with a surprisingly light hand. Her playfulness and imagination consistently prove her stronger than the gun-toting, gangster-rapping competition, which relies on easy stereotypes. Here she sounds focused and more than a little raunchy - she's even composed an ode to her dildo. But she hasn't lost her touch for dance-floor-churning bass lines. True girl power.
De La Soul - The Best of De La Soul (Rhino/Tommy Boy/Warner)
Considering that De La Soul won a comfortable place in the echelons of hip-hop royalty with Three Feet High and Rising, their debut album of 1989, they have had a bit of a rough career ride. They took hip-hop to a new audience, softening its gangster image with feel-good tunes and sprawling, imaginative lyrics. But being marketed as the flower-toting "hippies of hip-hop" never did their street cred any favours. This classic-packed selection charts the choppy course of their journey of self-discovery.