(in alphabetical order)
Arcade Fire, Reflektor (Merge)
The Grammy-winning Montreal-based band further explores ennui and alienation, as well as the quest for connection and redemption, in modern life. Frontman Win Butler and his crew subversively inject art-school tendencies and chilly disco grooves (echoes of late-model Roxy Music) into mainstream pop-rock. LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy helps with production. From the title track through the yearning to "scream and shout till we work it out" on "Afterlife," this two-disc set is engaging and cathartic.
Boards of Canada, Tomorrow's Harvest (Warp)
In a year of notable comebacks, the Scottish brother duo returns to form with their first full-length album in eight years, proving they still make some of the finest electronic music. They combine ambient soundscapes with occasional forays into dubstep, Krautrock and glitchy synth collages. Strange and beautiful.
David Bowie, The Next Day (Columbia)
Ten years after his last studio album, the legendary singer and pop icon re-emerges with one of his best albums in three decades. Although lead-off single "Where Are We Now?" is melancholy and focused on time passing, most of the rest of these tunes bristle with edgy rock energy and the artistic exploration of his late 1970s/early '80s period.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away (Bad Seed Ltd.)
Cave continues to be one of our great rock poets, having moved from post-punk noise through cabaret, blues, gospel, Goth and theatrical tangents into an avant-garde troubadour phase that allows him to indulge in spiritual searching and vivid storytelling. The songs here are simply amazing - from "Jubilee Street" and "Mermaids" to the epic "Higgs Boson Blues" and the eerily beautiful, organ-led title track.
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (Columbia)
If the massive, ubiquitous hit "Get Lucky" were the only good song here, this funky dance-rock album by the French electronic duo would still be among the best albums of the year. But the robotic pair—with the assistance of a crack team of sidemen—gave us perfect track after perfect track, including an homage to Giorgio Moroder and a guest appearance by Paul Williams. It's never too late to "Lose Yourself to Dance."
The Grahams, Riverman's Daughter (12 South)
Singer Alyssa Graham previously had released a couple of excellent jazz-folk recordings, but on this Americana-leaning album—inspired by their experiences traveling along the Mississippi River—she shares billing with husband and longtime collaborator Douglas, who twangs a mean guitar and sings elegant harmonies. In a just musical world, the title track would become a country-rock standard.
Haim, Days Are Gone (Columbia)
On their debut, the irresistible L.A.-based trio of 20-something sisters rummage through the history of late-20th century pop, essaying both Fleetwood Mac and '80s synth-pop in completely unironic fashion. Catchy single "The Wire" also incorporates a little glam-rock stomp, a la the Gary Glitter/T. Rex school.
Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle (Ribbon)
On her beguiling fourth album, the British folk-rock singer moves to California to channel Joni Mitchell and Sandy Denny. Influences such as raga, blues, SoCal pop, prog-rock and a touch of mellow-style Led Zep also find their way into these rich and haunting 16 songs.
Mazzy Star, Seasons of Your Day (Rhymes of an Hour)
It took dream pop duo David Roback and Hope Sandoval some 16 years to record together again after their last work, but the wait was worth it—from the opener "In the Kingdom," with its churchy organ, to the singles "Common Burn" and "Lay Myself Down" (released months ahead of the album), their hazy take on brooding psychedelic rock is a genre unto itself.
My Bloody Valentine, m b v (MBV)
We didn't hear much from guitarist Kevin Shields and his noise-rock compatriots in the years since the 1991 release of the album Loveless (one my all-time favorites), but this new recording is terrific: fascinating, mysterious songs with knotty, fuzzy guitar textures you can chew on, below which flow deceptively gentle bubble-gum pop melodies.
Best Metal Debut: Stoner-doom squad Demon Lung impressed everyone at Southwest Terror Fest back in October, causing Tucson metalheads to seek out the Las Vegas band's debut, The Hundredth Name, on Candlelight Records. Shanda Fredrick's cobweb-laced melodies and guitarist Phil Burns' pinch-harmonic riffs are unlike anything in heavy metal right now. Putting aside the Lung's haunting stage presence, you'll notice that every song here is epic, sprawling, psychedelic. Inhale at your own delightful risk.
Best Electronica Debut: Trent Reznor is a confusing and prolific animal, releasing two full-length discs this year—the first was Welcome Oblivion from How to Destroy Angels, a band Reznor formed with his wife, singer Mariqueen Maandig. The second was NIN's excellent Hesitation Marks, but the Angels have the edge, I say—especially if you consider Oblivion's enjoyable curveballs, like the acoustic-based instrumentation of "Ice Age" and the siren-smeared glitch-pop of "How Long?" Challenging yet deeply satisfying, which sums up Reznor's music nicely.
Best Grunge Comeback: Alice in Chains or Soundgarden? My heart says Chris Cornell and Co., but his reformed band's second single "Halfway There" is half-baked coffeeshop-folk. So I have to go with Alice's goofily titled The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, the group's second reunion album. "Stone" is solid hard-rock, with original drummer Sean Kinney laying down a T. Rex-heavy groove. "Voices," meanwhile, is mid-tempo magic, guitarist Jerry Cantrell and co-frontman William DuVall blending their, well, voices to dismally hallowed effect. Dino-riffic.
Best Classic Rock/Reanimated Dinosaur Act: Say what you want about the lackluster drum sound on Black Sabbath's 13, produced by Rick Rubin, who, yes, really should've gone back and re-recorded the kit Brad Wilk (Audioslave, Rage Against the Machine) was beating on. This is still a powerful re-debut—the first studio effort by Sabbath since 1995 and the band's first recording with original singer Ozzy Osbourne since the tacked-on tracks on '98's live album Reunion. Retro without being nostalgic, 13 cooks on every other level—killer riffs ("Loner"), literate lyrics ("God Is Dead?") and a dominating performance by bassist Geezer Butler.
Best Pop: Too bad about the twerking. Miley Cyrus' (proper) debut disc, Bangerz, makes Katy Perry and Lady Gaga and Britney Spears sound like a bunch of clueless hags. "Wrecking Ball" has a smashing hook. "We Can't Stop" is pure girls-gone-wack pleasure with a throb-stomping beat. And I'm sorry to break this to you, Little Hipster, but the maudlin, piano-based, symphonic strings-kissed ballad "Adore You" is a million times better than that wretched Killers/M83 collaboration you tried to convince me was listenable. Sure, Cyrus imitates the facial tics of Bill the Cat and the caboose-spasms of an epileptic stripper. But her pop instincts and aim are true.
Best Alt-Rock: Deftones frontman Chino Moreno isn't the most obvious singer I might've dreamed of pairing with members from now-defunct prog band Isis. Which is probably why their collaborative project Palms produced such a stunning eponymous debut this year. Guitarist Clifford Meyer is a soundscapist of the highest order, making me hear burning trees in the Hollywood Hills, their leaves crackling and burning, especially on apocalyptic cut "Future Warrior." And on the tundra-busting "Antarctic Handshake," you can feel the floes splintering, the shelves melting and collapsing. Moreno always claimed to be a Cure fan, and he proves it with Palms. Released on no less than the label run by Mike Patton (Faith No More, Fantomas).
Michael Petitti(favorites, in no particular order, and plus one)
Los Campesinos!, No Blues (Witchita/Turnstile)
Laced with vitriol, deeply referential, and ensconced in thrilling, moving polyrhythm, this Welsh band offers up another glorious collection. Check: the galloping starbursts of "Cemetery Gaits," wheezing bellows of "As Lucerne/The Low," and operatic ballad "Selling Rope (Swan Dive to Estuary)."
Various artists, I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America 1950-1990 (Light in the Attic)
For those whose knowledge of New Age music begins and ends with Yanni, this compilation serves as an aural feast of the tranquil, strange, and ambient sounds of America's flirtation with a personal, spiritual music. Check: Gail Laughton's shimmering "Pompeii 76 A.D.," the synthesizer washes on Iasos' "Formentera Sunset Clouds," and Alice Damon's resplendent hymn "Waterfall Winds."
Kanye West, Yeezus (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
West found inspiration in a Le Corbusier lamp—while his guru, Rick Rubin, located it in the minimalist beats of Suicide—resulting in a gruesome, wicked masterpiece of grandiose and splashy beats. Check: the neon nightmare of "New Slaves," ghoulish symphony of "Blood on the Leaves," and soul-smear of "Bound 2."
World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who is William Onyeabor? (Luaka Bop)
Here's a mind-blowing compilation of nine cosmic funk tunes from obscure Nigerian musician William Onyeabor. This is the sound of the future—groovy, layered—recorded in the late '70s through the mid '80s by a musician now reformed into an entrepreneur. Check: the swaying dancehall of "Atomic Bomb," call-and-response space-rock of "Heaven and Hell," and mirror ball glam of "Fantastic Man."
Meat Puppets, Rat Farm (Megaforce)
These desert sorcerers conjured up a spotless batch of muscular grunge-boogie and acid-melt country-rock, and too few people took notice. Check: the cowlicked crunch of "Rat Farm," psychedelic tremors of "Leave Your Head Alone," and road hustle of "Sometimes Blue."
Various artists, Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound (Numero Group)
Prince and the Time were the tip of the iceberg of a fertile soul and R&B scene in the Twin Cities during the '70s and '80s. The rest of the story is fleshed out by this incredible compilation. Check: the twinkling hustle of 94 East's "If You See Me," Mind & Matter's sparkly funk on "Sunshine Lady," the dance club futurism of Ronnie Robbins' "Contagious," and Andrè Cymone's skittering, sweaty "Somebody Said."
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City (XL)
Somebody told Vampire Weekend that joke isn't funny anymore, so, in rebuttal, they pushed it further. Auto-Tuned choruses and Afropop instrumentation collude to create a beguiling and bottomless album. Check: the halogen fog of "Ya Hey," bristling energy of "Unbelievers," and twisted pop of "Step."
VietNam, an A.merican D.ream (Mexican Summer)
Fusing synthetic and electric instrumentation under the banner of a concept album (with long, long songs) about malicious capitalism, end times Kumbayas, and personal redemption is a gamble— one that I found masterfully executed. Check: the smoky flamenco of "Kitchen Kongas," spanking catharsis of "No Use in Cryin'," and widescreen folk of "W.orld W.ar W.orries."
Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Daze (Matador)
The sleepiest Neil Young and Crazy Horse album never recorded. Vile's plaintive vocals are cushioned in gorgeously rendered electro-psych guitar solos that seem to (or do) go on forever. Check: the astral stairway of "Wakin on a Pretty Day," jittery bucolic shuffle of "Was All Talk," and prog-folk twang of "Goldtone."
Okkervil River, The Silver Gymnasium (ATO)
Semi-autobiographical '80s nostalgia soundtracked by lugubrious country waltzes, epic folk ballads, and synthesized pop jingles. Check: the rollicking sashay of "Down Down the Deep River," busted western of "Pink-Slips," and gently tugging "Black Nemo."
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories (Columbia)
I'd be remiss to ignore what sounded like the most expensive album of the year—and that's not accounting for its reported millions of dollars of production costs. Stately, dramatic Euro-dance music made by two French aliens and a multinational cast of cult stars; ingenious. Check: the bleeping easy listening of "Giorgio by Moroder," doleful pitch-shifts of "Instant Crush," and celestial barnburner "Contact."