Here's a look at the 10 CDs from the past year that are virtually guaranteed to impress friends, relatives and potential lovers. You don't even have to listen to them — just put them in your collection and memorize what's written below.
At My Age: He helped define British punk and new wave, writing or producing classic tracks for Elvis Costello, The Pretenders and himself. Now 58, Nick Lowe has aged gracefully. On recent albums, Lowe has turned to a more intimate sound, incorporating touches of country and vintage soul. At My Age journeys from hope to sorrow to depravity.
We'll Never Turn Back: Mavis Staples, who helped provide the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, breathes new life and meaning into that era's freedom songs on We'll Never Turn Back. Producer Ry Cooder shows his knack for melding the old with the new and makes wise use of original Freedom Singers along with South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga: Spoon surfaced from the musical free-for-all of Austin, Texas, in the mid-'90s, and has continued to distinguish itself among the indie-pop-rock bands of the world today. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is loose and playful, with a bit of a '60s soul vibe.
In Our Nature: Jose Gonzalez is trilingual: Spanish by way of his Argentinean father and Swedish from his homeland, but he sings in English. It all combines for a voice reminiscent of Jose Feliciano. Gonzalez's music has a touch of Feliciano, too, courtesy of his classical guitar training. Gonzalez likes to expose the primitive aspects of human beings in his songs; hence the title, In Our Nature.
Back to Black: Forget Page Six and Perez Hilton; this is one of the best albums of the year. But isn't it derivative? Yes, in a good way, with the charm of '50s and '60s girl groups emboldened by hip-hop sass, and backed by a classic Motown soul sound. Amy Winehouse makes it all her own with her inimitable cockney contralto.
Country Ghetto: Redneck-funk? Yeah, that's the sound of Country Ghetto from JJ Grey & MOFRO. Grey sings firsthand of growing up proud and poor in the Southern swamplands. The music is genuine and rootsy, but contemporary at the same time. It won't turn up on too many other Top 10 lists, so take a note of it now.
In Rainbows: Radiohead made headlines in September by offering In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-like download from its website. The media were abuzz about this new distribution model, the value of recorded music and the waning relevance of the record industry. The album itself was all but overlooked, but Radiohead has never sounded better.
West: Recent changes in Lucinda Williams' life, including her mother's death and the end of a tumultuous relationship, stoked her creativity and gave her the grist for a personal album. Given the subject matter, there's a lot of pain and struggle on West, but in the end, she finds a sense of renewal.
Sky Blue Sky: Did the hype machine surrounding Wilco's previous CDs leave you scratching your head? Try Sky Blue Sky, on which the band has reinvented itself through the addition of multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone and guitarist Nels Cline. Cline's lead guitar solos, especially, give the band an accessible new aesthetic. Plus, Jeff Tweedy's lyrics have become more open and direct — and as a result more vulnerable.
Live at Massey Hall 1971: Live at Massey Hall 1971 gives an intimate documentary of a 25-year-old Neil Young alone on stage with a guitar, a piano and a batch of songs that have stood the test of time. The first few chords of songs such as "Helpless" and "Ohio" elicit applause, but "Old Man" is unassumingly introduced as a new song. Later in the set, "The Needle and the Damage Done" is performed just months after the deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.