1. U2, How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope)
Sure, it's an old-fashioned idea: an album that's ready to take on the world, with big tunes and benevolent thoughts that add up to unironic anthems. Yet that ambition is fulfilled, triumphantly, by songs with durable melodies and genuine dramatic sweep, by the Edge's most aggressive and layered guitars, and by lyrics and vocals from Bono that never get so high-minded they forget to be human.
2. Youssou N'Dour, Egypt (Nonesuch)
Senegal's greatest singer, and West Africa's self-made cultural ambassador to the world, set aside the band style he perfected to work with an Egyptian string orchestra on an album of new devotional songs. The album is a statement of trans-Saharan African unity, a profession of Islamic faith and, most of all, a collection of humble, loving affirmations, with strings shadowing and fluttering around N'Dour's exquisite vocals.
3. Brian Wilson, Smile (Nonesuch)
If Brian Wilson had finished Smile 37 years ago, it would have been the milestone he intended it to be: an album-length pop symphony about America as myth and history. Even now, remade from scratch with new performances (and Wilson's more weathered voice), it's less risky but still a magnificent folly. Its musical and verbal free-associations hold together, full of whimsy and melancholy, with harmony to solve every dilemma.
4. Bjork, Medulla (Elektra)
Bjork wasn't the only one to make an album almost entirely of vocals in 2004; so did Tom Waits. But only Bjork could mingle Icelandic choirs, human beat boxes, eccentric male rockers and her own dynamic voice into songs that can be complex and otherworldly or devastatingly intimate.
5. Green Day, American Idiot (Reprise)
While most punk-poppers were whining in 2004, Green Day came up with a latter-day upgrade for the Who's Quadrophenia, in which another guy named Jimmy tries to survive a 21st-century world of trauma, drugs and media brainwashing. In songs that stay terse and tuneful, even when they extend to nine-minute suites, Green Day helps resurrect the rock opera with punk's own passionate impatience.
6. Juana Molina, Tres Cosas (Domino)
This whispery album is the latest invitation into the reveries of the Argentine songwriter Juana Molina. It's built from her acoustic guitar picking, her hushed voice, melodies with the simplicity of lullabies and rustling, rippling, melting synthesizer backdrops that fill the songs with mystery.
7. Kanye West, The College Dropout (Roc-a-Fella/Island Def Jam)
What Kanye West isn't -- a thug or a crunk party guy -- is nearly as important as what he is on his debut album. Shunning the pop-rap stereotypes, he's a thoughtful guy with a sense of responsibility, a sense of humor and enough genuine sympathy for underdogs to excuse his obsession with his own career. And he keeps the touch that made him a hit-making producer, brilliantly exploiting samples to make tracks burst with exuberance.
8. TV On The Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch and Go)
Sheer density defines this New York band: tracks overloaded with guitars and electronics and a tangle of references from electro to doo-wop, early Eno to Public Enemy. Amid the tremolo-strummed guitar drones and looped drumbeats, the voices hold on to yearning despite every grim portent.