1. Nicole Willis & the Soul Investigators, Keep Reachin' Up. Amy Winehouse got the tabloid headlines and the Grammy nomination - deservedly so, on both counts. Sharon Jones is finally getting her props. But in the retro-soul sweepstakes, that leaves Nicole Willis out in the cold - in, of all places, Finland. The Brooklyn-born vet found her groove with a 12-piece Helsinki backup band on Keep Reachin' Up, a Euro-American '60s R&B revamping that oozes with ardent affection for classic soul and doesn't settle for mere nostalgia.
2. Plastiscines, LP1. Not to be confused with Plastic Little, the dirty-minded Philadelphia rap crew who are equally worthy in a very different way, Plastiscines are the fetching French femmes who seem to be unaware that people from their Jerry Lewis- and Serge Gainsbourg-loving country aren't supposed to know how to rock. The Plastiscines specialize in propulsive three-minute rock songs that wouldn't exist if Blondie and the Strokes didn't. Watch them show the boys who's boss on their "Loser" video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkexlb0UtIU.
3. Los Straitjackets, Rock en Español, Vol. 1. This record is as much fun as any released in 2007. The Mexican wrestling-mask-wearing Straitjackets are a surf-rock instrumental band who usually keep their mouths shut. Here, they hand the microphones to East L.A. legend Little Willie G., pompadoured dance-band leader Big Sandy, and Los Lobos guitarist Cesar Rosas, who produced. And the concept is brilliant, if you can keep it straight. The album is full of cuts like "El Microscopico Bikini," a cover of Larry Williams' "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" - the delirious riff-rocker made famous by the Beatles - that was recorded in 1964 with new lyrics by Mexican rockers Los Apson. Got that? Now get this.
4. Soulja Boy Tell Em, "Crank That." The man born DeAndre Way is a minimalist genius along the lines of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Or at least an Internet marketing genius after the manner of Lonelygirl15. All it took was a bare-bones beat, a super-simple hypnotic synth line, and a crudely chanted vocal. Match that with a YouTube instructional video to act out dance moves that are either sheerly nonsensical or secretly pornographic, depending on whom you believe, and presto, the viral pop phenomenon of the year made sure that everybody knew his name - which, in case you missed it, is written all over his oversized sunglasses.
5. Rob Sheffield, Love Is a Mix Tape. So many would-be Nick Hornbys attempt to make money on lite lit by targeting everyone for whom love of music and love of another human being (or lack of same) are hopelessly intertwined. Sheffield, a Rolling Stone columnist, rises above because he's such a pithy, pop-wise critic and because his book has real-life heft: It's about his romance with fellow critic and wife Renee Crist, who died at 31 of a pulmonary embolism in 1997. Chapters begin with real-life cassette-tape playlists that range from Pavement to Prince to the Pooh Sticks, and Sheffield is never the slightest bit mawkish. The most heartbreaking thing I read all summer.
6. Tabu Ley Rochereau, The Voice of Lightness: Congolese Classics 1961-1977. This superb African pop compilation on the Stern's Africa label from the Congolese king of soukous is an incomparably melodious double-disc collection. Tabu Ley, the 67-year-old vocalist who was known as the Sinatra of Africa in his prime, is an effortlessly elegant singer whose nice and rough voice satisfyingly intertwines with the hypnotic guitars of fleet-fingered wizards such as Dr. Nico Kasanda and Manuaku Waku. World-music reissue of the year.
7. Nina Simone. The regal soul singer whose daughter, billed only as Simone, will release her debut in February, died in 2003. But I kept hearing her in unexpected places. Canadian chanteuse Feist included "Sea Lion Woman," a traditional song associated with Simone, on The Reminder. Brother Ali, the albino Minnesota rapper whose The Undisputed Truth was an underappreciated gem, used Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn" as the inspiration for "Uncle Sam Goddamn." And Simone sneaked up on me in The Golden Door, director Emanuele Crialese's Italian immigrant saga, in which "Feeling Good" and "Sinnerman" are used to dazzling effect.
8. Tracey Thorn, Out of the Woods. I reviewed this album back when it was released in March, so I don't feel so bad about completely forgetting about it the rest of the year. The singer for the Brit duo Everything But the Girl - best known for its 1994 hit "Missing" - is a divinely expressive vocalist. Out of the Woods, her first solo album in two decades, works its melancholy electro-jazz-folk groove with contemplative grace.
9. Lori McKenna, Unglamorous. Thanks to the good graces of Faith Hill, who recorded several of her songs and brought her on Oprah, and Faith's husband, Tim McGraw, who co-produced this major-label debut, Lori McKenna got a shot at attracting a wider audience this year. Those who listened caught a country-folk songwriter akin to Patty Griffin who is as attuned to the vicissitudes of married life as you might expect from a songwriter who's the mother of five children.
10. Wussy, Left For Dead. Will Chuck Cleaver ever get his just due? Here's hoping so. The Cincinnati songwriter with the piercing Neil Youngish voice may not name his bands in the hopes of mass appeal - he previously fronted the Ass Ponys - but he sure can write darkly funny, rough-around-the-edges, slightly droney indie rock songs. Better still, he's found a partner in Lisa Walker, who writes and sings them just as well as he does, and who steps up as the star of this sterling sophomore follow-up to 2005's Funeral Dress. This still isn't available on iTunes, so hunt it down at www.wussymusic.com.
Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at http://go.philly.com/inthemix.