The Top 20 Songs of 2013

Hello readers of words and listeners of sounds! Here are my 20 favorite tracks from the year that was. The common thread running through them all is that I thought they were good. Enjoy! (full playlist at the bottom)

Prince

20. Prince – “Da Bourgeoisie”

On top of making us feel grateful for new Prince music, “Da Bourgeoisie” almost makes us believe that Sly Stone has finally made that triumphant comeback. On the juiciest riff of the year, the purple one teaches us that funk guitar is like a campfire – if you really want it to burn, you’ve gotta let it breathe.

Danny Brown

19. Danny Brown – “Dip”

Here’s a song about an MDMA bender, that sounds like an MDMA bender. A jittery, propulsive beat built on a distorted memory of Freak Nasty’s 1996 hit “Da Dip” sets the stage for the most addictive thing of all – Danny Brown’s tweaked-out yammer.

Jim James

18. Jim James – “A New Life”

On this sweet, triumphant ballad, Jim James doesn’t just sing the line “There’s more stardust when you’re near.” He pronounces the “t” in “stardust” with NPR-ready elocution. He believes in this stuff, and I’m right there with him.

   Action Bronson

17. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – “Pepe Lopez”

Pee Wee Herman will forever win the award for “Best ‘Tequila’ Appropriation.” But on this song, Action Bronson comes damn close.

Thundercat

16. Thundercat – “Oh Sheit It’s X”

2013 was a heck of a year for ecstasy songs apparently. This vivid, psychedelic synth-funk jam from bass virtuoso Thundercat is the blissed-out counterpoint to Danny Brown’s hyperactive horror story.

1 Train

15. A$AP Rocky (feat. Kendrick Lamar, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big K.R.I.T.) – “1 Train”

Crew songs in rap are like double albums in rock – they’re usually bloated and unfocused, but the ones that work are all-time classics. And this is an example of the latter – with so many creatively peaking emcees one-upping each other over a haunting, string-laced beat, you never want “1 Train” to stop rolling.

Robin Thicke

14. Robin Thicke (feat. Pharrell and T.I.) – “Blurred Lines”

Lifting its groove wholesale from Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” this juggernaut of a summer jam possessed just the right mix of sunny songcraft and dumb-ass confidence. Even though I heard it around 156,000 times this year, its “you know you want it” refrain always rang true.

Pistol Annies

13. Pistol Annies – “I Hope You’re The End Of My Story”

For anybody who’s ever been touched by a story like this.

Retrograde

12. James Blake – “Retrograde”

“Ignore everybody else/We’re alone now.” On a record full of bald romantic overtures, the chorus from “Retrograde” shimmers the brightest – as does its lilting melody, Blake’s catchiest yet.

Finnaticz

11. Finatticz – “Don’t Drop That (Thun Thun)”

And now for our next entry of Now That’s What I Call Songs About MDMA!: This insanely catchy slice of stripped-down ratchet, which tells us not to drop said drug while educating us on yet another slang term for it. With that chorus blasting, any other high would just seem redundant.

Kanye West

10. Kanye West – “Black Skinhead”

Seven notes, synth toms, hyperventilation, and the truth.

Chance The Rapper

9. Chance The Rapper – “Cocoa Butter Kisses”

When Chance talks about putting Visine in his eyes because his grandma wouldn’t hug him otherwise, this self-deprecating, nicotine-stained gospel singalong becomes the stuff of great storytelling.

Janelle Monae

8. Janelle Monae – “Dance Apocalyptic”

If Janelle Monae was on the Titanic, that sad-sack string quartet would’ve been jettisoned right quick, in favor some absurdly, deliriously addictive R&B.

Rhye

7. Rhye – “Open”

When delivered in the right way, few things are sexier than a plea. With “Open,” Rhye takes the opposite tact of, say, James Brown, but its languorous, whispered appeals feel just as deliciously desperate.

pusha_t_my_name_is_my_name

6. Pusha T – “Numbers On The Boards”

Push growls with the grizzled confidence of a junkyard dog, over a filthy-hot beat that sounds like a trash compacter on the fritz – giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “raw talent.”

Disclosure

5. Disclosure – “When A Fire Starts To Burn”

Take a snippet of molten-hot ranting from a guy who calls himself “The Hip Hop Preacher,” add a no-nonsense drum n’ bass groove, and you’ve got an eternal flame of a club jam.

M.I.A.

4. M.I.A. – “Come Walk With Me”

M.I.A. wrote the catchiest chorus of the year, and then pulverized it with an electronic air raid.

Drake

3. Drake – “Hold On, We’re Going Home”

The 1988 Marvin Gaye last call ballad that never was.

Kanye West

2. Kanye West – “Bound 2”

You’d think the last noise on Yeezus would be some kind of bloodcurdling scream. But it’s actually the reassuring coo of Brenda Lee’s voice, on a song that anchors a tempestuous album in the same way love anchors a man.

timthumb

1. Bill Callahan – “Small Plane”

Human flight is quite a feat, but Bill Callahan finds something else even more miraculous on this profound ode to love’s triumph over turbulence.

The Top 20 Albums of 2013

Dear readers,

Before we dive into yet another year-end rundown of music sounds that I deemed pleasurable, I wanted to say that this particular list was most likely influenced by events other than the physical media spinning on my Discman. This June, my wife and I realized a dream by moving to Maine, and the sudden proliferation of beauty and happiness made me more susceptible to messages about life being worthwhile and love being the most important thing. Am I seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, you ask? Well, I just jabbed a pen at my eye area to check, and nope! No glasses. So even though my retina is bleeding, if I had to pick one lyric I identify with from the albums on this list, it would be “I really am a lucky man.”

future20. Future – Future Presents F.B.G.: The Movie

Auto-Tune was invented to be a form of sonic retouching, a way to ensure pitch perfection for any vocalist. But if you’ve heard Cher’s “Believe,” or seen a cover of Vogue lately, you know that the more you hide flaws, the more you’re hiding signs of life. Which makes Future’s artistic identity all the more transgressive and intoxicating. The Atlanta rapper uses Auto-Tune not as a support system, but as a sparring partner, his voice rejecting its attempts to correct it, resulting in an entrancing, narcotic croak that frays and stutters like a YouTube video played over spotty Wi-Fi. So while FBG: The Movie suffers a bit from your typical rap crew mixtape bloat (it’s intended to be a showcase for Future’s Free Bands collective), it has Future delivering pretty much every chorus, sounding deliriously confident and dangerously vulnerable, all at the same time. Like last year’s Rick Ross tape Rich Forever, FBG: The Movie has so many classic, filthy-loud beats it almost feels unfair. But where Ross washed his kingpin tales in bright comic book colors, Future is a decidedly flawed superhero – a man masked in Auto-Tune, fighting for air.

The Electric Lady19. Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady

Sometimes an artist is too talented for their own good. They operate on a different plane than their audience, seeing things they couldn’t possibly see, and thereby creating things that are difficult for them to digest. Like sci-fi writer Frank Herbert, whose novel Dune is a breathtakingly intricate achievement of the human imagination, and also boring as shit. Then there’s sci-fi R&B singer Janelle Monae, whose artistic vision is painstakingly complete to a level of confusion. On her magnificent 2010 debut The ArchAndroid, the whole Blade Runner-ish concept didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it didn’t matter, thanks to stone cold grooves like “Tightrope.” It’s essentially more of the same on The Electric Lady, which means Monae gives us an album’s worth of monster jams (“Dance Apocalyptic” will make you do just that, for instance), but almost buries them in unnecessary world building. There’s enough greatness here to forgive these failed attempts at concept album transcendence, but here’s hoping her next record is all sandworm, and no sand.

Lousy With Sylvianbriar18. Of Montreal – Lousy With Sylvianbriar

If Kevin Barnes has made a bad record, I haven’t heard it. But it’s not for lack of trying. Over the course of a dozen albums, the driving creative force behind Of Montreal has taken his music in all kinds of questionable directions – he’s written the twee-est of bedroom folk songs, stacked harmonies like Phil Spector on acid, spilled his guts about a divorce over dance-pop beats, and then created a hedonistic alter ego to take that same approach into some seriously apeshit-sounding places. Lousy With Sylvianbriar represents his first major creative shift since that incredible divorce album (2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?) – convincingly appropriating 1970s country-rock vernacular, full of cheerful slide guitars, chiming mandolins and Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris-style duets. It should come as no surprise that it works; in fact, it’s the most focused collection of Barnes songs in years. Whether he’s burrowing in the pocket of a loose, Sticky Fingers-era Stones groove or cooing an Opry-ready ballad, Barnes sticks to the one thing that has been consistent throughout his crazy-ambitious career arc – dense, whimsical, unforgettable wordplay. Like this doozy: “The voice with the synapse that calls blood bats into action has now entered the tablelands.”

Push The Sky Away17. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

If anybody was worried that original guitarist and songwriter Mick Harvey’s exit from the Bad Seeds would be a death knell for Nick Cave’s most longstanding incarnation, the refrain from “Water’s Edge” should’ve quelled some nerves: “It’s the will of love/It’s the thrill of love/But the chill of love is comin’ down.” Lyrics don’t get much more Nick Cave-y than that, and Push The Sky Away, his 15th Bad Seeds record, is full of similar ruminations on romance and death and dark destinies coming to fruition by the seaside. It’s the band’s most beautiful work in this century, a collection of quietly ominous, pre-dawn ballads that are no less frightening for their prettiness. Perhaps Harvey could’ve convinced Cave to prune a lunkheaded line or two, or at least save them for Grinderman 3 (which is a thing that I’m just going to say is happening because IT NEEDS TO HAPPEN), especially the first couplet from the otherwise crushingly gorgeous “Mermaids.” But on the whole, this is a legacy-worthy installment, a deliciously restrained effort from a band that seemed due for an overreach.

Wakin On A Pretty Daze16. Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze

In my best of 2011 list, I tried to explain why Kurt Vile’s lackadaisical brand of folk-rock is so damn compelling. The best I could do was the old cliché that “not trying makes you cool” (which, really? come on, self). Luckily, I don’t have to attempt it again this year, because on the warm, rolling dream that is Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Vile delivers a line that pretty much nails it – “Feeling bad in the best way a man can.” These are songs with narrators in need – of love, vindication, succor, direction in life, etc. Yet instead of wallowing, they’re more likely to step out into the sunshine, make a wisecrack and coast on the reverberating, 12-string acoustic waves. Songs like “Pure Pain,” “Shame Chamber” and “Too Hard” aren’t titled ironically, yet they’re streaked with hope, and anchored by Vile’s singing, which never rises above an “everything’s gonna be OK” kind of murmur. He’s singing about feelings that sting like freezing rain, if only because they make pretty days that much prettier.

Yoko Ono15. Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band – Take Me To The Land Of Hell

Yoko Ono’s music has a pretty entrenched reputation as the ultimate in avant garde art student bullshit. And while she’s done plenty of that sort of thing – much of it with a man who remains universally thought of as a genius – her actual sonic identity is much more nuanced, marked by hyperactive new wave freakouts, strikingly fragile balladry, and nostalgic 1930s-style romps that make you wonder if she’s been a closet McCartney fan all these years. Her latest album with Plastic Ono Band (which includes son and bandleader Sean Lennon, as well as guests like Questlove, Nels Cline and the surviving Beastie Boys) is a worthy addition to a musical legacy both aggressively offbeat and quirkily traditional. Yes, there are the stereotypical Ono shriek-outs, which make tracks like the opening rock/poetry slam pastiche “Moonbeams” sound off-the-rails dangerous, but there are also meditations on true love that would fit snugly on Double Fantasy (“There’s No Goodbye Between Us”) and a cheeky, cabaret-style kiss-off to an ex that’s as charming as music got in 2013 (“Leaving Tim”). Now an octogenarian, Yoko sounds as feisty and invested as ever – so much so that a trip to hell now feels like one unforgettably whacked-out kind of party.

The Next Day14. David Bowie – The Next Day

If somebody put a gun to my head and demanded I point out a weakness of David Bowie in his prime (which for my money began with 1971’s Hunky Dory and ended with 1977’s Heroes), I’d probably single out his singing voice. In reality, Bowie’s reedy quaver had an enchantingly alien quality that fit all the interstellar/dystopian subject material quite snugly, but I wouldn’t call it beautiful, and hey, this guy’s about to kill me here. And that makes the distinctive pleasure of Bowie’s 21st century material downright ironic – and an argument in favor of the artist being something more than human, like that all-knowing glow-being from The Abyss or something. Because on records like 2002’s Heathen and this year’s surprise release The Next Day, David Bowie’s singing is the number one reason to pay attention – his timbre more resonant, his phrasing more nuanced, his 66-year-old vocal chords responsible for some of the most solemnly pretty noise in rock and roll. The Next Day treads some familiar terrain for Bowie fans – elegant, gothic rock songs about fame, the apocalypse and space dancing – but this time around, our messenger traverses it with a deep, knowing croon, and that makes all the difference. His message used to be “hang onto yourself,” but now that the ride is almost over, he’d rather we sit back, relax, and accept the inevitable with a smile.

Modern Vampires13. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City

Like Coldplay, Vampire Weekend is a band that invites an easy kind of hate – for starters, you’ve got the Graceland-aping trust fund ballads, upper crust New England hipster duds, and tween-friendly band name. But let’s pretend that their ’80s Afro-pop hooks weren’t discussed as if they were revolutionary, that they’re all children of Indianapolis schoolteachers, and that they’ve had a good band name this whole time (for the sake of this exercise, we’ll go with “Good Band Name”). And you’ve got a group that can craft a cheerful hook as effectively as anybody, who stuffed its first two albums with so many of them that it seemed unfair, and whose third release manages to work in some stunning mid-mid-life crisis poetry without skimping on the earworms. In this vacuum I’ve created, Modern Vampires Of The City (aka Good Band Name III) is a fantastic work of art, where singer/co-writer Ezra Koenig (aka Frank Stevens) tries to reconcile his faith in God, which is tough to do when he can’t even keep a relationship from falling apart during a cross-country trip. “Wisdom’s a gift/But you’d trade it for youth,” he sings during the lyrical encyclopedia that is “Step.” Considering how compelling his band has become since the days of “Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma,” I’m compelled to disagree.

Carcass12. Carcass – Surgical Steel

I suspect my relationship with death is like most Americans – it gives me a hazy, queasy feeling that I quickly distract myself from with the bounty of cheap food and endless entertainment at my disposal. So when an existential coward like me puts on a record like Surgical Steel, he feels a crazed, drooling kind of glee – here’s a group of middle-aged British guys who channel their death obsession into 52 minutes of relentless, chest cavity-collapsing thrash. This is Carcass’ first record since breaking up in 1996, and it’s (ironically) a stunning rebirth, with Jeff Walker’s mostly unintelligible, coked-up-harpy vocals doing god knows what kind of damage to his throat over Dan Wilding’s firebomb drumming, the guitar parts containing just enough catchy Iron Maiden interplay to make beautiful sense of the chaos. And when you listen closely enough to make out a line or two, chances are it’s worth the effort (e.g. “A working class hero is something to bleed.”). Metal has always been a refuge for the insecure, but discovering a Carcass with this much life in it makes me especially, screamingly grateful for every drop of blood I’ve got.

Pusha T11. Pusha T – My Name Is My Name

Even for a genre where boasting is like breathing, 2013 was an especially egomaniacal year in hip hop – whether it was thrillingly unstable, moody and defensive, reeking of flop sweat, or recorded while waiting for the yacht cable guy. But nobody explored the depths of their own awesomeness with the level of measured cool achieved by Pusha T, whose first official solo record completely delivers on the audacious yet matter-of-fact confidence of its title. It’s a feat even more impressive when you consider the pressure to perform – years into his solo career after the demise of Clipse, Pusha T had put out a mixtape and an EP, and landed some prominent guest verses, but hadn’t really proven he could carry a record. While hip hop is friendlier to its elder statesmen than it used to be, a bust from Push here would’ve been a killer. Not that he sounds concerned in the least over the raw industrial clatter of “Numbers On the Boards,” where he lays claim to “36 years of doin’ dirt like it’s Earth Day,” his gruff, laconic flow selling the hardest beat of the year, illustrating the grime and glory of the drug game in a way that’s both romantic and weathered from experience. Even with the murderer’s row of talent producing him (Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, The-Dream, etc.) and a top-form guest spot from the seemingly unstoppable Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T dominates with a steady hand, like the lone survivor in a deal gone wrong.

Matangi10. M.I.A. – Matangi

It’s always been tough to accept the plight of the wealthy celebrity – “heavy lies the crown” makes more sense when applied to presidents than, say, Super Bowl halftime show performers. But ever since making an indelible, kaleidoscopic imprint on the world of popular music with her 2007 album Kala, M.I.A. has been in active rebellion against the idea of being a pop star, and it has been as compelling as any artistic evolution this millennium. On Matangi, her fourth record, the English/Sri Lankan singer, rapper, songwriter and noise wrangler remains in distress about her position of influence, exhorting her listeners to both dance and revolt over squalls of mechanized drumming. And while no song avoids these thrilling, dissonant bursts, M.I.A. does gives those pop sensibilities more room to breathe than she did on her last record, 2011’s cold, tangled, underrated Maya. Sensibilities that are most evident on “Come Walk With Me,” which pairs a sunny, it-takes-two philosophy with an endlessly hummable chorus, giving us enough time to appreciate those incomparable summer jam chops before the sledgehammer drums shatter our reverie. The crown remains heavy, but M.I.A. has come up with a surefire way to deal with it – make sure her records are even heavier.

Muchacho9. Phosphorescent – Muchacho

Matthew Houck’s albums have always been delicate affairs, perfect for the emotional rollercoaster one goes through while nursing a hangover – confusion, regret, inexplicable elation, then regret again. So it’s quite fitting that his sixth album as Phosphorescent was inspired by a recent lonely, heartsick period in Mexico, where an exhausted Houck mourned the loss of his NYC studio (which had to be moved thanks to re-zoning) and the demise of a relationship. But this time around, the singer/songwriter is just as interested in the party that happens before the pity-party, resulting in the most robust production of his career – in between the fragile, spiritual beauty of the record’s sunrise/sunset bookends, Muchacho contains pedal-steel swathed country strolls, a ragged, swirling Neil Young-ish opus, and 1980s adult contemporary synths. Like all Phosphorescent records, it’s all threaded together by the distinctly earnest, about-to-crack nature of Houck’s voice, which can make a line like “I’ll fix myself up, to come and be with you” sound like the rawest, most solemn promise.

Blue Chips8. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Blue Chips 2

Apparently Action Bronson has been recording his major label debut for Atlantic Records. Here’s hoping they’re saving as much of the budget as possible for sample clearance. Because this mixtape, a sequel to last year’s stellar Blue Chips, contains what is possibly the most entertaining melange of looped pop hits this side of Paul’s Boutique – after Blue Chips 2, any record that doesn’t give Bronsolino at least one ironically applied oldie or ’80s smash to spit over will feel like a disappointment. Not to make BC2 sound like a gimmick, because it’s not. (It doesn’t work because it samples “Sledgehammer,” it works because it has Action Bronson opining, “Uhhh … fly shit … grown man shit” over a sample of “Sledgehammer.”) Like the first Blue Chips, this tape features plenty of RZA-like, scratchy soul loops to back up verses loaded with references to food, sex and 1990s athletes (Nick Van Exel, take a bow). But the whole thing is just more fun this time around, what with the snippets of Applebee’s commercials and beats born from “Tequila” and Tracy Chapman’s “Gimme One Reason.” Few rappers are feeling it like Action Bronson these days, and BC2 is the perfect platform for his magnificent, tongue-in-cheek shit talk.

Neko Case7. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case is sick and tired of your expectations. “If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?” she asks on “Night Still Comes,” one of many tracks on her stunning sixth album that discover freedom through fatalistic directness. The singer/songwriter has never sounded this fed up – with crummy parents, dumb-ass lovers and those pesky illustrated lampreys – and her scalding sarcasm turns the lovely, warm bath of a typical Case production into a complex, simmering stew. Gone are the love-as-tornado metaphors, replaced by the rallying cries of the defiantly heartbroken – “You didn’t know what a man was/Until I showed you,” she belts triumphantly over the sensational gallop of “Man.” All this vitriol does not change the fact that The Worse Things Get is a joy to listen to on the level of Case’s two previous masterworks (2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood and 2009’s Middle Cyclone). From ghostly a cappella breaks to burbling baritone-sax arrangements, quiet acoustic reflections to finger-wagging girl group choruses, this is as ambitious and assured as Case has ever sounded. On the record’s opening song, she asks herself if she’d rather be a king or a king’s pet. Hearing the absolute power she wields in the studio, you can guess which one she chooses.

Rhye6. Rhye – Woman

R&B is generally viewed as the sexiest genre of music, the go-to soundtrack for doing stuff on bearskin rugs by the fire and the like. And while there’s great R&B that embraces such corny clichés (see Kelly, R.), I think that for the most part, this stuff is at its most sensual when it’s about more than just sex. Enter Rhye, an L.A. duo whose immaculate quiet storm of a debut album is full of excellent pick-up lines, but delivers them with the sweetness and vulnerability of a heat-of-the-moment “I love you.” It’s the same delicate emotional balance that defined Sade at her peak – and listening to how Woman weaves blankets of synthesizers for lead singer Milosh to tuck us in with, there’s no doubt that Rhye is more than just influenced by the queen of slow-burning romance. This album is a tribute to her. So for those of us who find tenderness to be erotic, these guys were the smoothest operators of 2013.

Overgrown5. James Blake – Overgrown

When artists say they don’t really care about attention or awards, it’s usually a lie they’re not even trying that hard to sell. But on the title track of James Blake’s hypnotic second album, his pleas for constancy over frivolity are either totally sincere, or the product of a magnificent fibber: “I don’t wanna be a star/But a stone on the shore/A lone door frame in the wall/When everything’s overgrown.” I can’t help but take him at his word, because Overgrown itself is an argument for the beauty of things that last, a collection of simple mantras about what truly matters woven through a wintry forest of lulling, whispering electronica. Blake has created a consistently entrancing experience akin to his devastating 2011 debut, continuing to draw no lines between moments of transcendence and pain. But there’s a lot more of the former this time around, thanks to a handful of love songs that are as profoundly spartan as a blue collar engagement ring – “To the last/You and I,” he croons, leaving the flowery language to those who crave stardom above all.

Nothing Was The Same4. Drake – Nothing Was The Same

The most compelling thing about Drake is the way he has his cake and eats it too – crafting verses that are drenched in both bravado and insecurity, making references to his days as a child star while also saying he started from the bottom, making music that’s muted and moody, yet somehow perfectly calibrated for the pop charts. These dichotomies could be infuriating in lesser hands – and on lesser Drake albums – but on Nothing Was The Same, the artist’s vision is so thoroughly realized, his collective strengths, weaknesses, priorities and fears make for a story as seamless as its exquisitely sequenced tracks. If the arc of his tortured millionaire persona is a put-on, it’s a fantastically executed one, because on NWTS, the cognac-for-one romantic despair of Drake’s previous work evolves into a grander fear of the other shoe dropping. The more money he makes (which, according to his verse on “All Me,” is so much he’s forgotten the amount), the more he feels like it can’t last. So much of the record finds the rapper revisiting the fantasies of his 1990s childhood, creating a two-song sequence based on Wu-Tang Clan’s most magnanimous single, making Fresh Prince of Bel Air references, comparing his earning potential to Dan Marino’s in his prime. These would seem to be the only things this prodigy-turned-superstar can take comfort in, if it weren’t for all those sumptuous, late-night-neon grooves.

Yeezus3. Kanye West – Yeezus

A casual scan of a Kanye West lyric sheet or Twitter feed will make it clear that this is a man who loves fashion. So he’s probably familiar with Coco Chanel’s famous adage, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” For his album Yeezus, West looked in the mirror and removed almost everything, stripping his ornate production style down to the most visceral noises, accessorizing them only with his rampaging id, intense ego, and super-intense superego. If it’s not his best record, it’s certainly his most exhilarating, and shamelessly human. West, who co-produced Yeezus with an aging Snarf, uses his own gasps for breath as a percussion instrument and features a hysterical scream like it’s a guitar solo. He twists Justin Vernon’s lullaby tenor into something slimy and subterranean. When looking for a metaphor for his song about divorce, he goes with Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit.” It’s a flailing, agonizing, extraordinary experience from an artist whose refusal to be tagged and classified might come off awkwardly on talk shows, but burns bright as diamonds in his art.

Dream River2. Bill Callahan – Dream River

Two years after releasing an album called Apocalypse, Bill Callahan resurfaced in 2013 with the most life-affirming record of the year. Dream River begins with Callahan in full story-song cowboy mode, sitting alone in a hotel bar. But instead of brooding about stuff like how every flower turns to hay, he relishes in the simple joy of a three-word vocabulary (“Beer” and “thank you”), appreciating everyone in the room, just because they exist. From an artist who has tended to espouse a worldview where even the silver linings are tarnished, this is an unexpected, enlightening surprise, like encountering a Larry McMurtry character in a Cormac McCarthy novel. And just when you start to ask why, track two starts playing, and you realize he’s in love. “You looked like worldwide Armageddon while you slept,” Callahan sings in his rich, whiskey-barrel basso. “You looked so peaceful, you scared me.” Fear of losing one’s full happiness is right there in that voice. Fear, and awe, and gratitude. Dream River overflows with moments like these – a cycle of eight songs that represent a metaphysical moment of clarity. Bill Callahan might look at life as one arcing flight through the air, but he’s made an album about the times before you land in which you truly feel weightless.

Chance The Rapper1. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap

Smoking cigarettes doesn’t quite have the cultural cache that it used to – these days, kids need an especially potent sense of mischief, rebellion and self-loathing to get hooked. It’s this precise emotional cocktail that fuels Chance The Rapper on Acid Rap, where he gives a fascinating, charismatic performance that puts him on the short list of young artists who seem primed to leave their fingerprints all over the ’10s. The 20-year-old Chicagoan spent his formative years ingesting Kanye West’s college trilogy and Lil Wayne’s mixtape revolution, and he soaks his second tape in the balmy soul samples of the former, and the effortlessly hilarious, cough-addled wordplay of the latter. But Acid Rap is about way more than influences. Chance has his own fully formed persona here, a laughing-and-pointing playground pest whose vulnerability is clearly visible between all the “nyeah nyeah, nyeah-nyeah-nyeahs.” He litters his verses with a mischievous, nasal quack, which logic dictates should be annoying, but instead is as playful and essential as a Kanye “Haaah!” “Cigarettes, oh cigarettes/My mama think I stink/I got burn holes in my hoodies/All my homies think it’s dank,” Chance sings over the trembling church organ of “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” making fun of himself while making us root for him at the same time. I’m addicted, and not just because it makes me look cool.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Atoms For Peace – Amok; Danny Brown – Old; Cakes Da Killa – The Eulogy; Disclosure – Settle; The Flaming Lips – The Terror; Jim James – Regions Of Light And Sound Of God; Paul McCartney – New; Queens of the Stone Age – … Like Clockwork; Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels; Ty Segall – Sleeper; She & Him – Volume Three; Skeletonwitch – Serpents Unleashed; Shugo Tokumaru – In Focus?; Tree – Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out; Waxahatchee – Cerulean Salt

Top 20 Tracks of 2011

It’s funny that in a year where we received a deluxe reissue of Nevermind, so few traditional rock bands truly mattered. Sixteen of 20 spots on this list belong to a solo artist, all of whom contributed to 2011’s varied and ambitious musical landscape (and one of whom sang about Solo cups).

20. Eddie Vedder – “Sleeping By Myself”

As much as I loved Pearl Jam in 1992, boy was it easy to make fun of Eddie Vedder’s hysterical mumbles. But this Ukulele Songs standout showcases a voice that’s aged well, embodying the sweet ache of unrequited love without a hint of histrionics.

19. Lykke Li – “I Follow Rivers”

Love has been compared to pretty much everything in Mother Nature. But on “I Follow Rivers,” Lykke Li manages to breathe life into another water metaphor. When she sings “You’re my river running high/Running deep, run wild,” over a murk of B3 organ and clanky synth toms, it’s the sound of someone trusting a potentially dangerous current, because to do so is to be alive.

18. Tech N9ne – “He’s A Mental Giant”

It was a year of wasted potential for Tech N9ne. All 6s and 7s had some highlights, but was overlong. His buzzsaw of a guest spot was wasted on Lil Wayne’s underwhelming Tha Carter IV. But this track’s rumbling swagger cut through the clutter as well as anything in 2011, positioning this brilliant, tongue-twisting MC as the brainiac superhero we need to protect us from whatever the Black Eyed Peas plan to do next.

17. Beyoncé – “1+1”

Few artists have captured feelings of dumbstruck yearning like Sam Cooke did with “Wonderful World.” Which makes this Cooke-inspired, octave-leaping gem of a ballad all the more impressive. Our problems might be bigger these days, but one math problem still trumps them all.

16. Tom Waits – “Get Lost”

Tom Waits is old enough to be a grandpa, but he steps into the shoes of a sexy young hood on “Get Lost,” tossing off exquisitely penned pleas for elopement with a trembling, psycho-Elvis warble. Toss in that filthy blues groove, and you’re reaching for the passenger door.

15. Nick Lowe – “Stoplight Roses”

This song nails that moment when you know you’ve fucked up a beautiful thing, and for good this time. Utilizing a killer metaphor for something that will never last, “Stoplight Roses” goes out to everyone who didn’t miss their water until the well ran dry.

14. Beastie Boys – “Make Some Noise”

It’s been a long time since we heard a single like this from the Beasties, a hooky slab of fuzzbox funk and freewheeling rhymes that’s just messy enough to be dangerous.

13. Bill Callahan – “America!”

On this stilted blues-folk epic, Bill Callahan shows love for his homeland by attempting to soothe its damaged psyche, with comedy and drama, self-loathing and bruised patriotism. When he bellows, “Everyone’s allowed a past/They don’t care to mention,” you best remove your hat, out of respect.

12. Coldplay – “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall”

This is the perfect title for a Coldplay song. A phrase so brazenly gag-inducing, you end up respecting the sensitive-guy cojones required to actually use it. Then there’s the insistent kick drum, that beautiful Jonny Buckland guitar hook, and lyrics about the power of music to transport. Sure, you might’ve just puked, but wouldn’t you know it, you feel better.

11. Dominique Young Unique – “Gangster Whips”

Few rappers these days have the energy of this 19-year-old Tampa MC, who makes it indubitably clear that she’s the shit, and that those who disagree can go take one. On “Gangster Whips,” DYU gets all thug romantic over a tremendous, orchestra-hit-heavy beat – sorry T.I., but this is swagger at its best.

10. Heidecker & Wood – “Christmas Suite”

Nothing laid to tape in 2011 was funnier than Starting From Nowhere, the subtly ridiculous yacht-rock album from Adult Swim vets Tim Heidecker and Davin Wood. And “Christmas Suite” is Nowhere’s coup de grace – eight minutes of proselytizing about the importance of “the children.”

9. Brad Paisley – “Toothbrush”

The sweetest love song of the year might’ve looked like a reach on paper (as well as an ad for Reach). But this romance-via-dental-hygiene country shuffle is irresistible, thanks to Brad Paisley’s economy with words, those bouncy guitar licks, and a twist in the third verse that’ll get your waterworks flowing.

8. Beyonce – “Countdown”

This is a jam that grabs you by the ears and doesn’t let go. Beyoncé sings her guts out about her hubby (whom she grinds up on whilst in his boo coupe) and their baby to come, making for a cut that’s simultaneously wholesome and narcotic, 3-2-1 Contact chorus and all.

7. Kurt Vile – “Baby’s Arms”

If you’ve ever loved someone to a borderline sociopathic level, this hazy folk masterpiece is your soundtrack. “I get sick of just about everyone,” Kurt Vile admits, positioning the warmth of his love’s embrace as not only a comfort, but a refuge.

6. Jay-Z & Kanye West – “Otis”

The “golden age” of rap music ended around the same time sampling laws started to be enforced. And this exhilarating single would have us believe that’s no coincidence. Over a brilliant interpolation of “Try A Little Tenderness,” Jay and ‘Ye have the time of their lives.

5. Toby Keith – “Red Solo Cup”

We all know Toby Keith the jingoistic rabble-rouser, but he’s actually more of a goofball Parrothead. And “Red Solo Cup” is more clever by half than anything Jimmy Buffett ever did. An ode to everyone’s favorite keg party drinking vessel, this back porch singalong is catchy, unpretentious, and – when Keith confesses that the cup is his friend – downright hilarious.

4. Nas – “Nasty”

The knock against Nas is that he’s inconsistent. But damn, do his flashes of brilliance burn bright. “Nasty” has no chorus, no guests, and no mainstream ambitions. It’s just Nas, spitting three glorious, amphetamine verses over a skeletal breakbeat. When he lists the places he’s stashed his cash, it’s clear he’s worth every penny.

3. James Blake – “The Wilhelm Scream”

The Wilhelm Scream is a stock 1950s sound effect that’s appeared in countless Hollywood battle scenes, from Star Wars to Captain America. And it’s an ingenious title for James Blake’s icy cover of his father’s song “Where To Turn.” “All that I know is/I’m falling,” Blake sings, describing those moments when we feel like stunt men – silent, non-descript, and floating in space.

2. Nicki Minaj – “Super Bass”

It was no contest – this was the song of summer 2011. With masterfully syncopated verses from one of the most creative rappers around, soaring, shiny synth hooks, and an infectious onomatopoeia (“boom-ba doop boop, boom-ba doom boop, yeah!”), the louder you crank “Super Bass,” the more your worries fade.

1. Adele – “Rolling In The Deep”

“You had my heart inside of your hand/And you played it to the beat,” lamented 2011’s biggest rock star. It’s a great line, but what made “Rolling In The Deep” such a triumph was its organic groove – that thumping bass drum pulse belying all those lyrics about betrayal, making us stronger with every downbeat.

Top 20 Albums of 2011

Please read my words about these music records that I listened to and thought were good.

20. TV On The Radio – Nine Types Of Light

After a pair of masterfully ambitious rock productions made them critical darlings, these hyper-creative Brooklynites shipped their operation to California at the turn of the decade. And while it’s easy to give too much credit to the city where a recording was made, Nine Types Of Light sure does sound like TVOTR’s “L.A. album.” Overtly catchy melodies are the order of the day, with bright, relatively sparse production backing up Tunde Adebimpe’s newfound romanticism. As a result, we get some of the most unexpected, and memorable, love songs of the year. “You’re the only one I’ll ever love” isn’t exactly a tattoo-worthy lyric, but coming from a guy who used to sing about werewolf coupling, its sincerity is shocking.

19. Nick Lowe – The Old Magic

Rock musicians typically don’t know how to age. The first time they see a shock of grey in their styled-to-look-mussed-up hair, they either double down on their denial and make music that proves they “still got it,” or go off the “reinvent myself” deep end. Which just adds to the pure pleasure of listening to Nick Lowe in the 21st century. With The Old Magic, the 62-year-old pub rock/new wave legend gives us his third straight offering of gently smirking tunes about loving, losing, and getting older all the while. It’s beautifully written material from an artist who’s comfortable in his own wrinkled skin, and a production that keeps its genre jumping to a minimum – relying mostly on soft vocal jazz arrangements and sprightly Buddy Holly shuffles to support Lowe’s curious, cooing voice. Because when you’ve got metaphors for failed love that are as wonderful as “Stoplight Roses,” you don’t need much else.

18. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto

If you already hated Coldplay, their fifth album wasn’t gonna change your mind. But as somebody who has always been a sucker for the band’s sweeping choruses and earnest “love is nice” aesthetic, Mylo Xyloto had me digging in my heels as a fan. For the first time since its melancholy debut, Coldplay has a defined goal here – marry their arena-baiting elements with those of modern pop and R&B. And with the help of uber-producer Brian Eno, they get the concoction just right, foregoing the usual piano balladry for shimmering synthesizers and throwing a bigger spotlight on Jonny Buckland’s dynamic guitar playing. “Princess of China,” a duet with Rihanna, is a microcosm of this mini-evolution, aiming for Billboard charts, festival stages and crowded dance floors, without ignoring its polarizing, sensitive-guy roots.

17. Pistol Annies – Hell On Heels

Here’s what Carrie Underwood couldn’t quite pull off with that car-upholstery-vandalism song. Hell On Heels is the debut album from Pistol Annies, a country supergroup comprised of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. Like Underwood’s hit, this is chart-baiting female empowerment country, but the comparisons end there. Yes, these ladies are sick of male bullshit, but they go deeper than petty revenge fantasies (although those crop up here and there, most entertainingly on the killer title track). With little more than guitar, fiddle and pedal steel to guide them, the Annies sing about shotgun weddings, pill addicted tour hounds, embarrassing family squabbles and various trailers of tears. The vocals are as plain and true as the tunes; all three members have the kind of friendly, Dolly Parton drawl that lends a sickly sweetness to lines like “I’ve been thinking about setting my house on fire.”

16. Feist – Metals

It appears that Leslie Feist got just as tired of that iPod commercial as we did. Her third record is titled appropriately, if only because it’s an emotional palette of dark and darker greys. How decidedly un-twee are we talking? “What does sadness see?/The mirror has a mirror in its teeth/That’s what sadness sees,” the vocalist shares over the sullen acoustic chords of “Comfort Me.” Then, right when you’re starting to wonder if this is poignant or insufferable, a big “la-la-la” chorus kicks in, and you’re won over, whether you felt like moping around or not. This is what’s so compelling about Metals – there are hooks-a-plenty here, but they’re weighted down so elegantly, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of a lake, feeling strangely at home.

15. Mastodon – The Hunter

The conceptual insanity of Mastodon’s first three records – a water, earth and sky cycle with story lines that I dare you to try and follow – was a big part of their appeal. No metal band has provided better fodder for nerd arguments (“Who’s more powerful, Cysquatch or Megalodon?”). But The Hunter finds the band in a different place. They’ve moved on from the soul-searching grandiosity of Crack The Skye, content to hunker down and just make thunderous rock music. They’re still on their zoology jones, singing about owls and octopi, snakes and swamp creatures, but The Hunter‘s purpose is quintessentially human – to get the party started. When the post-apocalyptic aliens arrive to analyze our civilization, this record will explain why things that made us feel good were described as “kick-ass.”

14. Drake – Take Care

Drake’s 2010 debut Thank Me Later was remarkable for its mix of monster rap hooks and confessional booth R&B. For his follow-up, the 25-year-old has put all his eggs in the latter basket, revealing himself as the antithesis of “throw your hands in the air, and wave ’em like you just don’t care.” Take Care is a long, sumptuous gaze in the mirror, with the artist rapping and singing in equal measure over soft beds of synths. It’s a perilous road for any pop star to take, but Drake manages to come off honest, acknowledging his ego and the tax bracket that boosts it, while struggling to find a meaningful relationship with anybody beyond his trusted crew. “We live in a generation of not being in love,” he theorizes on “Doing It Wrong,” a gorgeous bit of quiet storm R&B. Then all the melodrama gets punctuated by a lyrical harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder, and Take Care’s beautiful contradiction is driven home – this is self-centered music that treats its listeners with class.

13. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs

The King of Limbs is a short piece of work by Radiohead standards, which was seen as a disappointment by some. I see it as a sign of the band’s maturity. This is a magnificently dense recording, a world of lurching synths and frantic polyrhythms that unfold like a strange, binary orchid – but only after multiple listens. If it went on for an hour, it would wear down the most devout listener, much like the second half of Hail to the Thief. Plus, the band rewards us by ending the record with a pair of immediately accessible tunes – the gorgeously eerie piano ballad “Give Up the Ghost” and the lite electronica boogie of “Separator.” The only problem I have with TKOL is that it doesn’t feel like a momentous occasion, the band having painted cold, beautiful landscapes like this before. It’s an ingeniously layered production of eight well-written songs, something that could only disappoint a Radiohead fan.

12. Beyoncé – 4

Were it not for an uncharacteristically awkward guest appearance from Kanye West, 4 would be the perfect Beyoncé record, a fantastically sung, finely tuned exploration of love’s ups and downs. Her vocals have never been better, relying less on Mariah acrobatics and more on emotional shading, turning treacle like “Best Thing I Never Had” into a quality pop ballad. All the singles are excellent, from the Sam Cooke-riffing ballad “1+1” to the hyper-charged family values jam “Countdown.” And the deep cuts present varied interpretations of popular R&B, from the unrequited belting of “I Care” to the breezy, ’80s Whitney groove of “Love On Top.” All of them work except for “Party,” a half-finished-sounding summer jam that relies way too much on Kanye’s worst couplet ever: “You a bad girl and your friend’s bad too/We got the swag sauce, we’re drippin’ Swagu.” Luckily, the rest of 4 is so indelible, you can just hum one of its choruses and pretend that you didn’t just hear an endorsement for the most disgusting thing in the grocery store.

11. The Cars – Move Like This

When a game-changing classic rock band decides to get back together these days, it’s to make bank on a tour, where they play their most famous record front to back and avoid new material like the plague. So when The Cars reunited in 2010, it was refreshing, and more than a bit ballsy, that they jumped right into the studio. Of course, it’s easier to respect a choice when the results are so great. Move Like This opens with “Blue Tip,” which picks up where the band left off, fusing synthesizer earworms with rock guitars and Ocasek sing-speak to create an off-kilter pop chestnut. “It’s Late” and “Sad Song” show that they haven’t forgotten the “Drive” ballad formula either. You could call it a time capsule, but these lovingly crafted synth-pop songs just happen to fit snugly in today’s ’80s-obsessed musical landscape. Move Like This should make us reassess our rock dinosaurs – shouldn’t they still have the urge to create? Isn’t that the least we should expect from them? Which means the next time Roger Waters or The Police ask you to drop $150 to see them trot out the oldies, it’s OK to say, “No, I deserve more from you guys.”

10. The Weeknd – House Of Balloons

Band names are by no means crucial to an artist’s success (Radiohead’s a pretty awful one when you think about it). But Canadian singer Abel Tesfaye has come up with a moniker that adds even more depth to the codeine-addled bump n’ grind R&B that’s his stock in trade. On his debut mixtape as The Weeknd, Tesfaye paints explicit pictures of twisted Friday and Saturday nights, with hazy melodies and underwater drum machines to remind us that every bout of wee-hour debauchery has its aftermath. “You wanna be high for this,” Tesfaye assures us on the opening cut. Don’t trust him, though. House Of Balloons is enough of an altered state on its own. A party album for the id with arrangements that swoon like the morning after, this is a gateway drug to one of the most compelling new artists of 2011.

9. Lil B – I’m Gay (I’m Happy)

Upon hearing that Lil B was releasing an album called I’m Gay, you had to wonder if he was setting himself up for the same backlash that Sasha Baron Cohen experienced with Bruno. Would this attempt at exposing homophobia be seen as kind of homophobic itself? One listen to the record puts those concerns to rest. A concept album it’s not – the title isn’t mentioned lyrically. But it does fit Lil B’s “love everything, make cheddar” philosophy, which he elucidates in simple, straightforward couplets (e.g. “Karma is real/And you gotta love it”). There’s plenty of materialism here, but it’s tinged with a sense of gratitude. Not to mention songs like “Open Thunder Eternal Slumber,” which pleads for fair pay for plumbers. The sample choices line up perfectly with this P.M. Dawn-meets-Cash Money aesthetic – interpolated soul ballads keep things grounded, and the Spirited Away-sampling cut “Gon Be Okay” beautifully overdoses on positivity. As an antidote to hate-fueled rap, I’m Gay (I’m Happy) doesn’t just do its title justice – it transcends it.

8. Shugo Tokumaru – Port Entropy

It was a banner year for Beach Boys lovers, thanks to the revelatory Smile Sessions box set and a Brian Wilson album of Disney covers (although I admit I haven’t been brave enough to listen to the latter. Sounds like it could be OK, but I fear a tire fire). Then there was Shugo Tokumaru’s Port Entropy, a ingenious and eccentric slab of sunshine pop that’s a direct descendant of Wilson’s and Van Dyke Parks’ most famous creations. Melodies runneth over here, from the children’s choir mantra of “Tracking Elevator” to the psychedelic chorus of “Lahaha,” but Port Entropy would be just a nice record if it weren’t for its arrangements. Each cut has its own distinct personality, with the Japanese multi-instrumentalist digging through his toy trunk for a seemingly endless mix of interesting combinations. “Lahaha” is a magnificently twisted concoction of glockenspiel and flute; “Linne” a piano and trumpet ballad; “Malerina” a pizzicato reggae jam. So if The Smile Sessions has you thinking that they just don’t make records like they used to, Port Entropy is here to prove you wrong. You crusty old coot.

7. Big K.R.I.T. – Return Of 4Eva

When rappers try to give themselves their own colorful mythology, they’re playing with fire. For every Wu-Tang, there are a dozen Nastradamuses. Which makes Big K.R.I.T.’s debut mixtape all the more remarkable. With a name that stands for “King Remembered In Time” and an album title that he describes as a “movement” on its opening track, the Mississippi artist sets the bar sky high before he even gets his first 16 bars off. But Return Of 4Eva’s dreamy, Organized Noize-esque production and measured, introspective lyrics deserve such luxurious boasts. Whether he’s baiting naysayers on “Dreaming,” reminiscing about career struggles on the gorgeous “American Rapstar,” or describing the frightening allure of drug dealing on “Lions & Lambs,” there’s a hard-earned knowledge in K.R.I.T.’s voice that makes them all different paragraphs from the same essay. By the time you get to the record’s heartbreaking tour de force, “Another Naive Individual Glorifying Greed and Encouraging Racism,” the movement’s got you whole.

6. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

Even though the ’90s are far behind us, in 2011, the term “slacker” still dredges up visions of flannel and limp bangs. But before the record companies and film studios started telling us how cool slackers were, slackers were actually kind of cool. The way Bob Dylan lazily dropped those “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cue cards, it seemed like the guy could’ve given a shit, and didn’t we love him all the more for it? It’s this image that comes to mind when I listen to Kurt Vile’s deceptively ramshackle Smoke Ring For My Halo. The man delivers every lyric of these stoner folk songs in a gentle mumble – from the sarcastic “Society Is My Friend” to the romantic “Baby’s Arms.” But instead of coming off like some half-assed bedroom album, SRFMH creates a compelling headspace. Vile’s slacker vocal stylings are likely a put-on; the guy could probably hit all the notes if he wanted to. But I say bring on the posturing – there’s something captivating about this singer who sounds like he doesn’t care if anybody hears him, who just wants to get some things off his chest and then go to bed. Something strangely and indisputably cool.

5. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

There was good reason to anticipate the release of PJ Harvey’s eighth album this year, a conceptual work about her homeland and the wars it fought during its centuries as a world superpower. Harvey’s last notable work was 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, another album about a specific place, New York City. But if you pardon the pun, Let England Shake blows Stories out of the water. This isn’t a collection of protest songs, or an allegory for specific conflicts in the modern world. It’s a record that gets right into the trenches, and the heads, of British troops throughout history. The language is harrowing, with descriptions of body parts hanging from trees sitting alongside strident patriotic cries, streaking them with regret. And while the music is understandably subdued, with Harvey’s signature dark chord changes leading the way, there’s also beauty to be appreciated, with the singer’s voice rising above the somber acoustics and digital ephemera of “England,” telling us about “the country that I love.” By the time you get to the gut-wrenching Gallipoli singalong “The Colour of the Earth,” the history lesson’s over. But the feeling lingers.

4. Tom Waits – Bad As Me

Yes, Tom Waits is avant garde. His voice is a hyper-expressive growl. His fusion of raw Chicago blues and garbage can-bashing performance art is jaw-droppingly creative. Now that we’re getting close to the 30-year anniversary of Swordfishtrombones, the record that changed it all, it’s awfully easy to forget that before he became the bizarre, trend-bucking artiste, Waits was a loungey singer/songwriter, releasing piano-heavy, Edward Hopper paintings of records throughout the ’70s. Bad As Me, his 19th record, keeps the bar high in terms of legacy-worthy freakiness – especially the whacked-out boogie of “Get Lost,” which is Waits as psycho Elvis impersonator – but it also reminds us of the sensitive hotel bar crooner of old. “Kiss Me” is a crackling, “let’s spice up the marriage” time capsule of a ballad, a quiet, achingly sexy left turn after the screwy, anti-soulmate blues of the title track. And then there’s “New Year’s Eve,” which closes things with a gorgeous, drunken bout of nostalgia. When Waits breaks into “Auld Lang Syne,” you’re reminded of another old standard he knocked out of the park in 1976, “Waltzing Matilda.” Right then and there, it’s the best of both worlds.

3. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch the Throne

In a year marked by politicians explaining why the rich should get richer, we got an album from two of the most talented beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. And when you consider that on Watch The Throne, Jay-Z & Kanye West reach some spine-tingling heights on the backs of some crazy-expensive samples, this makes for a quintessentially American success story in 2011. Sure, it’s probably unfair that West might be the only producer out there with the clout to license “Try A Little Tenderness,” but there’s no use whining about it, because he also happens to be the best person for the job. The resulting cut, “Otis,” is a magnificent swash of braggadocio that boldly reframes Redding’s theme – in the place of a tender lover making life “easier to bear,” we now have obscene wealth. Both MCs egg each other on, resulting in some propulsive egomania (e.g. “Welcome to Havana/Smoking cubanos with Castro in cabanas”). It’s the precise formula we hoped for with this pairing – huge, luxurious productions, and a palpable sense of one-upsmanship on the microphone. The best example of it might be the RZA co-production “New Day,” which finds Jay and ‘Ye pleading with their hypothetical future children over a haunting beat that runs Nina Simone through AutoTune (!!!). It’s not a track by track masterpiece a la My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but on Watch The Throne, these superstars spread the wealth so generously, trickle-down economics almost starts to make sense.

2. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

If PJ Harvey made the war movie of the year, then Bill Callahan made the western. On Apocalypse, his third solo effort under his own name instead of Smog, the singer-songwriter tells tales of cowboys sympathizing with their cattle, marriages dissolving in the dust of the prairie, and panoramic vistas that enchant the minds of men. But a traditional country album it’s not – meditative folk is Callahan’s bag, with arrangements that act as delicate foundations for his beautiful, mournful baritone. It’s circular, entrancing stuff, a cowboy Astral Weeks, an attempt to document how small our country can make us feel, and how proud. “It takes a strong/Breaks a strong mind,” Callahan sings about the American wilderness. “And anything less makes me feel like I’m wasting my time.” He could be singing about his own record.

1. James Blake – James Blake

The cover of James Blake’s debut album is a nice bit of synesthesia – a portrait of the artist soaked in icy blue undertones, his face blurred to the point where he’s looking at you from two different places at once. It’s the perfect visual interpretation of Blake’s voice on this record, a silky, soul-inflected alien in a purely electronic world. On “The Wilhelm Scream,” it’s rich and full, dancing lightly over atmospheric synths; on “Lindesfarne I,” it’s distorted and chilling, comparing hope to kestrels through washes of pitch correction. Blake pines for happiness throughout, over distant, subterranean electronics that belie his optimism. It’s a Sade album for a Terminator future, where a singer clearly has soul, and the machines try to strip it from him every step of the way.

Honorable Mentions: Bon Iver – Bon Iver; Heidecker & Wood – Starting From NowhereLykke Li – Wounded Rhymes; My Morning Jacket – Circuital; Wilco, The Whole Love; Wolves In The Throne Room – Celestial Lineage; Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs

What’s in my Discman, March 2011

James Blake – James Blake (2011)

The cover of James Blake’s debut album is a nice bit of synesthesia – a portrait of the artist soaked in icy blue undertones, his face blurred to the point where he’s looking at you from two different places at once. It’s the perfect visual interpretation of Blake’s voice on this record, a silky, soul-inflected alien in a purely electronic world. On “The Wilhelm Scream,” it’s rich and full, dancing lightly over atmospheric synths; on “Lindesfarne I,” it’s distorted and chilling, comparing hope to kestrels through washes of pitch correction. Blake pines for happiness throughout, over distant, subterranean electronics that belie his optimism. It’s a Sade album for a Terminator future, where a singer clearly has soul, and the machines try to strip it from him every step of the way.

ZZ Top – Eliminator (1983)

The trio of Gibbons, Hill and Beard were always thinly veiled rip-off artists, but they tended to be damn good at it, fusing John Lee Hooker’s riffs and attitudes with the kind of classic rock hooks that fit snugly on the Dazed and Confused soundtrack. On Eliminator, those mainstream tendencies completely took over, and it was a blessing. By polishing up their guitar sounds and throwing some love songs into the mix, ZZ Top found the balance they needed to make a great record. Instead of sounding like a guy who’s bullshitting his buddies, a la “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide,” Billy Gibbons sounds sincere in his appreciation of legs, suits and TV dinners, letting his guitar do the bragging with one indelible riff after another – “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Got Me Under Pressure” and “Sharp Dressed Man” is one of the strongest opening sequences in ’80s rock.

Das Racist – Shut Up, Dude (2010)

The second mixtape Das Racist released last year, Sit Down, Man, was a Discman constant for me, along with the Wallpaper remix of their corporate homogenization novelty song “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” Now that I’ve circled back and picked up their debut mix Shut Up, Dude, it’s crystallized in my brain – few things are more fun these days than listening to these guys. The lyrics might be delivered with a stoner’s irreverence, but they’re meticulously packaged blasts of verbal candy, delightfully off-kilter (“We can eat gruyere as if we care/We can eat Roquefort, or we can kick it like Rockport”) and rich in pop culture (references include Saved By the Bell, Tim Meadows, The Land Before Time, Look Who’s Talking Now and Jake Gyllenhaal). And given that it’s a mixtape, Das Racist can rap over anything, whether it’s a choice Madlib beat or a hyped-up slice of Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out.” The result is mischievous, way smart and party ready, and a reminder of how much fun rap is when it doesn’t have to worry about intellectual property law.