Best Albums 2005 (16-20)

20.  Robbie Fulks — Georgia Hard

Fulks is the sort of comedian who jokes so heartlessly that his sudden demands for sympathy are jarring if not off-putting. But his strongest album earns both its laughs (“Countrier Than Thou” calls out cowboy presidents and Shaniaphobes) and its tears (“If They Could Only See Me Now” stoically suffers the perils of heartlessness). And “It’s Always Raining Somewhere” and “Goodbye Cruel Girl” wish the worst to nasty women with winning panache. Like literary baseball fans, literary country fans are often sentimentalists, preferring mythos to the nuts and bolts of the stuff. Cold bastard that he is, Fulks is in it for the sheer craft, and for fifteen cuts here, he convinces me that mechanics, not magic, is what elicits laughs and tears alike.

19. Franz Ferdinand — You Could Have It So Much Better

Feigning fame is what Brits do best, so naturally once these thin white archdukes had caught the public eye (or its peripheral vision), their dancey art-punk inflated to power- pop of a wattage more befitting their new profile. Like most rock and rollers, though more so, they aren’t as “evil” as they front, though their posturing is funnier than most, and, since they speak power-pop as a second language, they avoid the clichés that are the chief appeal to so many of the genre’s natives. For that show of sympathy, there are slow ones, one of which tells a Fiery Furnace to get dressed (in a nice way). And “You’re the Reason I’m Leaving” is supposedly about Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

18. Four Tet — Everything Ecstatic

It’s hardly Kieran Hebden’s fault that his fans dubbed him a progenitor of “folktronica,” a label that rightly chafes him. Then again, Rounds wafted enough precious and childish moments to beguile just the sort of fans who consider “folktronica” is a compliment. This marginally less lauded follow-up wasn’t “darker” really, just tougher rhythmically, more insistently drum ‘n’ bass. Marginally more difficult than Rounds, which is a good thing, but more pop than most of the brow-furrowing competition, which is a better.

17. Thione Seck — Orientation

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: grand lion of Senegalese music journeys to Egypt to explore the affinities between the two cultures’ music and faiths. Seck has always been griot culture’s answer to Levi Stubbs, with bombast overcompensating for his lack of sweetness, but if you’re competing with Youssou, you’d want to distinguish yourself somehow. His fusion is stiffer than the master’s, less pop, and yet more wide-ranging, bringing in more Indian and Euro elements as well. Anyway, who are you to turn up my nose at the second best Cairo-Dakar fusion of the decade (ever?)? Who am I?

16. Blackalicious — The Craft

Their least rated disc is their most consistent. Nia emitted too intense a whiff of the second-hand incense; Blazing Arrow was one of those major-label bows that tries too hard, and it just goes on forever. This may lack a gobsmacking Gift of Gab showcase like “Paragraph President” or “Chemical Calisthenics,” but it also lacks Ben Harper and Zach Against the Machine, and the live instrumentation isn’t wasted. (George Clinton probably is, but he does his part as well.) When it comes to pure hip-hop heart, Gab is second only to his buddy Lyrics Born, and with Chief Xcel doing his bit to uplift the music, the duo make their return to the underground sound nothing like a retreat.

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