While majors rushed to sign bloodless knockoffs of their top-selling acts, the best shit in 2005 was being released just slightly off the beaten path (Kelly Clarkson excepted). Thanks to Internet and word-of-mouth buzz, upstarts like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah can become instant stars, and a left-field hero like Sufjan Stevens can sell more than 100,000 copies of his album on his own indie label before conventional media outlets know how to spell his name. But I'm most thrilled by the fact that half of this year's 10 best albums were created by female artists, and that half of the top 10 are Canadian.
1 SUFJAN STEVENS Illinois (Asthmatic Kitty) Stevens builds his Illinois on the shoulders of fallible characters, real and imagined: a childhood sweetheart consumed by cancer, the alcoholic's son who grows up to become a murderous clown, Carl Sandburg as a ghost in a dream, Superman, an itinerant stepmother. The result is a phenomenal psychological geography, buoyed on the off-kilter arrangements of a Charlie Brown symphony. His songs are beautiful for their lackadaisical rambling, but it's the fact that even the most innocent word Stevens sings rings like a celestial prophecy that makes this ambitious and potentially unwieldy experiment soar.
2 SLEATER-KINNEY The Woods (Sub Pop) Like a feral Charlie's Angels, Portland's finest power trio hunker down in a swamp, grow fangs and claws and unleash a thunderous caterwaul of a disc, driven by psyched-out guitar squalls and the awesome wallop of Janet Weiss 's drums. Political allegory, strychnine-laced love ballads and the finest cowbell riff this side of Will Ferrell. What more can a girl ask for?
3 OKKERVIL RIVER Black Sheep Boy (Jagjaguwar) Modern-day Grimm Brother Will Sheff starts with a simple prodigal son archetype and unravels it to explore the evil that lurks in even the most innocuous places. His characters - mothers who betray daughters, spurned lovers who lust for blood, exiled drifters - stalk across a backdrop of heartland rock ripped by swaths of jagged, primal guitars, escaping through Sheff's bone-crumbling, unholy howl. Chillingly good.
4 FINAL FANTASY Has A Good Home (Blocks Recording Club) Armed with only a violin, a percussion-savvy engineer and a staggering gift for crafting lyrical myths for the video-game era, Owen Pallett unfurls urgent mini-symphonies that are as intellectually charged as they are aurally engaging. This recording may not have half the emotional power of Final Fantasy live, but it's impossible not to get totally swept up in the beautifully mercurial swirl of Pallett's clear choirboy vocals and precise, soaring arrangements.
5 WOLF PARADE Apologies To The Queen Mary (Sub Pop) Fuck the buzz, just revel in this midway sideshow of wheezing keyboards, roller-coaster percussion and spastic bumper-car guitars. Wolf Parade's anthems of alienation balance precariously on the crackling tension between Spencer Krug 's panicked madman yelp and Dan Boeckner 's mangled punk Lothario snarl, finding an implosive, wiry beauty in their desperate, breathless melodies. Factor in love songs that smash every maudlin cliché to oblivion and they just might make you believe in anything.
6 MARY GAUTHIER Mercy Now (Lost Highway) Ain't nobody who does the anguished, bitter sting of heartbreak better than country renegade Gauthier. She may have quit drinking, but the raw, vivid narratives on Mercy Now unfold like battered barstool confessionals from deep in the bowels of the heartland, where boozy queens with smeared lipstick, doomed love affairs and dead misfit cowpokes come to life through her ragged drawl. Classic country catharsis.
7 FEMBOTS The City (Paper Bag) Paved-over slums, west-end warfare, construction-site flowers and the ghosts of head shops past: scene stalwarts dig deep into the darkest corners of their hometown's forgotten history and excavate Toronto's secret heart. From the Waitsian waltzes in typewriter time to the ramshackle rootsy singalongs, this civic love letter in song is a true revelation.
8 MARTHA WAINWRIGHT (MapleMusic) Martha Wainwright can tell you her entire life story in the way she delivers a single line. "Poetry is no place for a heart that's a whore," she hiccups at the beginning of Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, letting the words somersault over each other like a spontaneous explosion of a secret she's been keeping for years. Her elastic warble, her masterful interpretation of everything from cabaret jazz to New Romantic pop to baroque folk, her stark guitar assault - all of these mark her as the real Wainwright star. Bloody motherfucking awesome.
9 BETTYE LaVETTE I've Got My Own Hell To Raise (Anti-/Epitaph) Motor City soul survivor escapes from the gruelling festival circuit to record a righteous, raunchy collection of stripped-down covers. Lucinda Williams and Sinéad O'Connor may not be your typical R&B songwriters, but filtered through LaVette's wicked hell-or-high-water bellow, their tunes are transformed into nasty, bloodied, no-bullshit scorchers.
10 LAURA VEIRS Year Of Meteors (Nonesuch) Casting the intricacies of human relations in metaphors of rock and stars, the Seattle ex-punk crafts an album of icy, sparkling precision. Electronic anemones and shimmering cascades of viola explode over top of crunchy guitars and Veirs's charmingly unfettered vocals in songs as stark and stunning as a Pacific Northwest mountain range.