2. Radiohead — “Hail to the Thief.” The 1999 documentary “Meeting People Is Easy,” which followed the band on its tour supporting “OK Computer”, showed singer Thom Yorke pretty tweaked out from the pressures of making the greatest rock and roll album of his generation. Cynical of the music industry and wildly depressed, he led Radiohead down the dark road towards “Kid A,” an experimental follow-up made almost entirely without guitars or record label support. Both that quasi-electronic album and its sister “Amnesiac” (which was put together from tracks recorded during the “Kid A” sessions) were received with tremendous excitement, and Radiohead was hailed as the second coming of the Beatles.

This year they released their sixth album, returning to the rock and roll of “OK Computer” and even 1995’s “The Bends” without jeopardizing the evolution they have since undergone. There were (gasp!) even singles: the hypnotizing “Go to Sleep” and brilliant “There There,” one of the best rock singles in years, not to mention highlights like the group clapping in “We Suck Young Blood” and synthesizer-distorted guitars in “2+2=5.” Most importantly, Thom Yorke sounds, as he himself has said, better than he ever has; songs like the heartbreaking “I Will” (on which he is double tracked) and “Wolf at the Door” have melodies that rival the Beatles’. The album might not be as avant-garde as its two predecessors, but it nevertheless managed to surpass expectations by defying them.

3. Cat Power — “You Are Free.” Chan Marshall might be a weirdo with a bad pseudonym, but darn it if she isn’t a brilliant singer/songwriter. The tunes on the record, her fifth not counting a cover album, are all built around her smoky voice accompanied by a softly strummed guitar or simple piano riff. The best moments come when that foundation is built on. A drum machine gives “Free” a really likeable New-Wave sound, Eddie Vedder’s harmony makes the album’s closer “Evolution” (not Pearl Jam’s “Evolution”) its most affecting if not spookiest. Simple string arrangements make “Good Woman” and “Werewolf” into perhaps the saddest two songs on an album since Tom Waits’ “Saving All My Love for You” and “Ruby’s Arms.”

4. Grandaddy — “Sumday.” “I’m going home someday,” singer Jason Lytle sings in his eerie falsetto at the end of Grandaddy’s last album, the dreary “Sophtware Slump”. He wasn’t kidding: “Sumday” trades in lyrics about dying robots and futuristic wastelands for sunny choruses like “Now it’s on!” and “I’m OK with my decay.” The country-tinged melancholy of the band’s earlier stuff has been replaced with Flaming Lips-like psychedelia, which the band handles brilliantly. “Now It’s On,” the album’s opener, is more likeable than anything they’ve done yet, and was even in rotation on MTV2 for a while. It sets the upbeat tone for the album, which isn’t dragged down at all by the slower songs, which are all constructed around narratives that are more fanciful than tragic. In “The Saddest Vacant Lot in All the World,” for instance, Lytle moans, “She’s in the kitchen, crying on the oven / it seems she really loved him / and he’s so drunk he’s passed out in the Datsun / parked out in the hot sun.” Witty rhyming aside, “Sumday” boasts just as many great songs as their classic “Sophtware Slump,” even if it doesn’t hold together as well.

5. The Postal Service — “Give Up.” The story goes that Ben Gibbard (lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie) recorded songs on his acoustic guitar and synthesizer, mailed them to friend Jimmy Tamborello (aka Dntel), who put his signature electronic beats behind them, and the aptly-named Postal Service was born. The debut album, already beloved by frustrated teenagers and urbanites alike, sounds like the love child of Bjork and Elliott Smith. “Give Up” is carried by Gibbard’s songwriting: his lyrics are poetic and gripping, and his sad voice delivers them with the earnest poignancy of a preacher. The first two songs, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” and “Such Great Heights,” are so ridiculously good that, sadly, they cast a long shadow over the rest of the record. Indeed, songs in the middle of the album are bogged down by Tamborello’s over-involved percussion, which seem too reliant on electronic glitches. I can’t help but think what the recordings Gibbard originally sent to Tamborello sound like. Maybe next year–

What else might 2004 have in store for us? Nigel Godrich is producing the new Beta Band, Air, and Sparklehorse records, the Pixies are reuniting, and the Beastie Boys will have a new album. Will Elliott Smith’s final record see the light of day? Might Michael Jackson go to jail? Will Jay-Z come out of retirement? We’ll have to wait and see.