The Top 20 Albums of 2016

You don’t need to read another rundown of all the things that made 2016 the absolute worst. We know what happened. So let’s seal ourselves off in a pop culture vacuum and focus on what an incredible year this was for music. I think it’s the best since 2000 – the year of Stankonia, Kid A and a Democrat somehow not becoming president even though more people voted for him. Oh shit. Sorry about that. Calm blue ocean, people. Just read on.

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20. Black Mountain – IV

If you thought rock bands were done generating fresh sounds from old ingredients, here’s some cause for optimism. This Vancouver quintet is certainly a student of 1970s and ’80s rock tropes, but the elements they fuse together on IV felt distinct in 2016. Sabbathy pentatonics make way for undulating synth patches cribbed from Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The melodies are imbued with the downcast posture and shattered beauty of Pornography-era Cure, but sung with the lithe dual-vocalist force of peak Fleetwood Mac. When these considerable influences melt together in the telling of an epic alien invasion or a graveside love affair, you have something that can only be described as Black Mountain.

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19. Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there,” sang Bob Dylan in the late 1990s, while in the midst of a heart-related health scare. Gone was the artist’s typical literary remove, leaving behind an authentic beauty that he’s rarely matched. A similar sense of clear-eyed acceptance is present on what we now know as Leonard Cohen’s final LP. Released a few weeks before his death, You Want It Darker is a spare, haunting treatise on the pitfalls of faith, with the artist staring eternity in the eye and giving it a knowing wink over soft beds of synths and the occasional choir. It’s familiar territory for the writer of “Story of Isaac” and “Waiting for the Miracle” and “Hallelujah” – one last crack at the god that never wrote him backHe may not have won the war, but this final battle is all his.

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18. Angel Olsen – My Woman

Angel Olsen’s third album is a plugged-in collection of rough-hewn folk songs that are resigned to love’s failure. “Heartache ends, and begins again,” she sings. But in this resignation, she finds freedom. My Woman is an ecosystem of love and pain, the evaporation of the former resulting in the thunderstorms of the latter. After the crackling chemistry of “Shut Up Kiss Me,” “Not Gonna Kill Me” captures that frightening moment when you realize loving someone gives them the power to hurt you. Then, in a torrential catharsis, “Woman” unleashes that hurt, clearing the way for the cycle to begin again. Like Roger Sterling once said, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” By admitting defeat from the beginning, you’re free to just enjoy the ride.

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17. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition

With a guest verse on one of the year’s most irresistible dance songs and a weekly slot performing the theme song to ABC’s family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, Danny Brown seemed on a path to being one of the cuddlier MCs of 2016. Then Atrocity Exhibition came out, and we were reminded he was fire incarnate. Inspired by a Joy Division song that was inspired by a J.G. Ballard novel set in an insane asylum, Brown’s fourth album is unrelentingly bleak, a musty hotel room with blankets on the windows and powder residue on the cable guide laminate. Fans of his club-friendly fare won’t find any refuge in the lyric sheet. But they don’t have to. Brown’s acrobatic flow is so effortless, his lung capacity seemingly bottomless, it’s impossible to avoid getting swept up in its energy.

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16. Case/Lang/Veirs – Case/Lang/Veirs

When k.d. lang wanted to realize a decades-long dream of creating her version of the roots rock supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, she shot an email to two of her favorite songwriters, Neko Case and Laura Veirs. Within a half-hour, it was a done deal. But Case/Lang/Veirs feels like anything but a one-off experiment. Whether it’s one of Case’s sweeping country gallops, some pitch-perfect vocal jazz from lang or a plaintive folk singalong from Veirs, the production has the same, perfectly lived-in feel. Plus, the shifting spotlight feels natural, because these artists share an uncanny ability to depict the joys and jealousies of long-term relationships. “The hungry fools who rule the world can’t catch us / Surely they can’t ruin everything,” sings Veirs on one of her several standout contributions. When I looked at my wife sleeping next to me on Election Night, I knew for a fact that she was right.

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15. Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

Kanye West’s seventh album is by far his messiest. It’s also his most forthcoming. For months leading up to its release, West was wracked by indecision and completely transparent about it, asking for our opinion on the title, tweeting out pics of yet another altered track list. This clear lack of direction had an obvious impact on The Life of Pablo, muddying its themes and splintering all its potential narratives. What’s amazing is that West uses the disarray to his advantage. Listening to this album is like pinballing through the maze of his mind – absurd ego and existential malaise, blue sky gospel and hamfisted sex rap, concerned fathers and bad friends. “Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” he challenges. I certainly can’t name one that could make an album as magnificently conflicted as this.

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14. Ka – Honor Killed the Samurai

Few things convey strength better then staying calm as a samurai in the face of adversity. Like Charles Bronson, vengeful yet stone-faced, in Once Upon A Time In The West. Or Barack Obama, never losing his cool in the face of obstructionist hate. Or the Brooklyn firefighter and underground rapper Ka, who dives deep into the warring psychologies of street life while never once raising his voice. Over candlelit soul samples that would make any Wu-Tang member salivate, Ka delivers every line in a steady, conspiratorial whisper – even the ones about the tragically paradoxical advice of his loving parents. “Mommy told me be a good boy / Need you alive, please survive, you my hood joy / Pops told me stay strapped son / You need the shotty, be a body or catch one.”

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13. Beyoncé – Lemonade

Thirteen years ago, Beyoncé released her debut solo single – an exhilarating song about how love made you feel crazy. This year, on her stunning emotional arc of a concept album, the artist wrestles with the consequences of that overwhelming emotion, how it can be taken for granted and betrayed. “What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy? … I’d rather be crazy,” she sings over the airy island rhythm of “Hold Up,” refusing to suffer in silence about her cheating husband. Gorgeously curated and thoughtfully sequenced, Lemonade is more nuanced than your typical breakup album. The artist doesn’t limit herself to syrupy ballads to convey her pain. She burns with righteous anger, eulogizes her sense of security, then blazes a path to forgiveness and, ultimately, empowerment. By the end, Beyoncé has transcended being crazy in love. She’s never sounded more powerful.

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12. Masta Ace – The Falling Season

A great storyteller finds humanity in the mundane. Like a math class, or a bus ride, or a conversation with your mother about what high school you should go to. These are moments that Masta Ace writes about on The Falling Season, an utterly absorbing, 23-track hip-hopera about the rapper’s years at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn. The 48-year-old MC is on top of his game throughout, his couplets shading in characters and pushing the plot forward with ease. The skits are skillfully written and performed, especially a monologue by self-described “Italian tough guy” Fats that gets interrupted in a sweetly humorous way. Ace has been polishing his skills as an underground rap raconteur since 1990, and you hear all of those years on this record, his words infused with hard-won wisdom, his flow steady and reassuring. In 2016, he was my favorite teacher.

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11. The Monkees – Good Times!

On Good Times!, the surviving members of The Monkees celebrate their 50th anniversary by doing what they do best – exuberantly harmonizing over impeccably produced sunshine pop. Along with producer Adam Schlesinger and an impressive array of guest songwriters, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith lovingly recreate that warm, jangly 1966 pop sound that proved they were more than a bunch of boob-tube Beatles. Schlesinger does an excellent job mixing his authentically retro-sounding sessions with unreleased vintage recordings of Davy Jones (who died of a heart attack in 2012) and old Dolenz pal Harry Nilsson. And while Dolenz handles most of the singing with admirable verve, it’s a joy to hear Nesmith, who sings with grace and transparency on two excellent ballads. At 73 years old, the green-hatted one remains a woefully underrated craftsman.

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10. Jamila Woods – HEAVN

Chance the Rapper had a massive 2016, his relentlessly positive Coloring Book mixtape resonating big time with a traumatized American populace. But to me, Chance’s frequent collaborator Jamila Woods was the one doing the lord’s work this year, radiating strength and self-worth in a society that is hell-bent on destroying it. HEAVN is one beautifully constructed ode after another – to resilience in the face of police brutality, to Lake Michigan, to her name – over gentle, rolling grooves that feel like they were warmed up on a windowsill. The Chicago native is a meditative singer along the lines of Erykah Badu, her voice a balm, exuding serene confidence without ever pretending there isn’t a reason to be afraid.

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9. Kvelertak – Nattesferd

A bearded warrior broods on a mountainside, his loyal space owl by his side, the moon a lingering witness in the early morning sky. One of the highest compliments you can give Kvelertak’s third album is it that its songs perfectly suit its objectively awesome album art. Nattesferd is extreme metal party music that grabs you by your filthy black t-shirt and demands you pay attention. It’s a group of focused Norwegian musicians worshipping the art of the riff as if Odin decreed it to be so. Chugging, triumphant arena rock, exhilarating 1000 mph thrash, reflective minor-chord balladry, sinister doom – it’s all here, and it’s all unbelievably catchy. Vocalist Erlend Hjelvik screeches like a possessed space owl all over everything, which could be a sticking point for some. To me, it’s downright painterly.

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8. Anderson Paak – Malibu

Throughout his sprawling second album, Anderson Paak intersperses interview clips of professional surfers, who discuss the dangers and sensory thrills of their sport. It’s an appropriate motif for the artist, who treats Malibu like one 62-minute wave, created when the current of 2016 hip hop meets the undertow of 1976 soul. And I’ll be damned if he ever loses his balance. Paak is an R&B singer first, but his masterful syncopation and raspy tone are more reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar than any crooner. He’s just as comfortable on an Isley Brothers jones as he is trading verses with Schoolboy Q. One of the surfers says it best: “I enjoy some of the old, and I enjoy the new, and if I can find a balance between it, that’s where I find my satisfaction.”

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7. Solange – A Seat at the Table

In a year that tried its hardest to crush our spirits, Solange Knowles made an album of crisply focused R&B that felt like the eye of a hurricane. Seat at the Table had been gestating for years, but it doesn’t sound remotely fussed over. The artist favors a less-is-more production aesthetic, putting kick, snare and keyboards together in ways that evaporate tension. She sprinkles in a series of compelling conversational interludes to accentuate the informal vibe, while deepening the record’s theme of irrepressible black pride. Whether she’s admitting to weariness, bristling at cultural appropriation, or explaining all the reasons she has to be mad, Solange does so with preternatural calm and emotional insight, like the moment of clarity that comes after a long, productive cry.

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6. David Bowie – Blackstar

David Bowie wasn’t one to sugarcoat. His most universally accessible work was about alienation and mortality. So it’s hard to imagine a more perfect coda to his career than Blackstar, released two days before his passing in January. Bowie sings of his impending demise with wit and honesty, over sumptuous, adventurous production. He casts a cadre of New York jazz musicians as his Titanic orchestra. And they wail furiously, until the pair of stunning ballads that close the record. The last song is called “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” its sweetly bending harmonica a direct callback to the Low track “A New Career in a New Town.” It’s one more glance over the shoulder before he ends his transmission to us all, leaving no doubt he gave us everything he could.

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5. Rihanna – Anti

Rihanna didn’t call her eighth album Anti as some sort of faux-punk Avril Lavigne pose. This is a truly remarkable example of a massive pop star pushing back hard against weighty commercial expectations. Her favored production style is a shadowy electronic murk – faint bass lines rumble under jittery drum machines and the whispered rumor of a keyboard. “Woo” is straight-up label-head-baiting, dissonant art rock, all squealing guitars and Auto-Tune howls. And it works, as does everything here, because of Rihanna’s voice, the beating heart of these compellingly cold environments. She’s always been an underrated vocalist, but on Anti, she’s living the notes, inhabiting the melodies. And it’s 100% why a risky late-album shift to straightforward R&B feels like a spine-tingling coup instead of a money grab. “Higher” is the best of the four excellent ballads that end the album – a raw, drunken plea with a great lyric about being too heartbroken to write great lyrics. When her voice frays on the chorus, I’ve been known to cry.

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4. William Tyler – Modern Country

There’s something about the way William Tyler plays guitar that makes you feel like everything’s gonna be OK. So this year, Modern Country was an absolute blessing. It’s an album of transportive, richly reverberating instrumentals, the kind of music that gets played in the background but refuses to stay there. Tyler is a Nashville native, and his bluegrass chops shine through in the gorgeous way he clusters notes together. His production instincts are open, warm, and never rushed, like a stroll in the country with someone you love. And his tone is pure honeysuckle. Lyrics would ruin this.

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3. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It From Here … Thank You For Your Service

The day after Donald Trump got elected on a wave of fake nostalgia, A Tribe Called Quest returned after 18 years to give us the real shit. On We Got It From Here, the group accomplishes the difficult task of appeasing nostalgic fans, and mourning one of its members, while never pandering to anyone. It’s full of the warm Rhodes chords, spacious jazz-fusion loops and glorious vocal syncopation of classic Tribe. But rapper/producer/visionary Q-Tip leads his crew down some fruitful new avenues as well, including an embrace of guitar sounds that encompasses distorted Jack White atmospherics and Can’s cold funk. Even more amazing is how great these MCs sound, with Tip and the late Phife Dawg effortlessly trading couplets like old times, and former hype man Jarobi delivering some of the year’s most purely enjoyable bars from out of nowhere. “It’s time to go left and not right / Gotta get it together forever,” rap Tip and Phife together on the instant-classic opener. Even on November 9, it made me feel hopeful.

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2. Kamaiyah – A Good Night in the Ghetto

In 1992, Ice Cube illustrated how rough most days were in Compton by painting a vivid picture of a good one. Kamaiyah’s debut mixtape extends Cube’s party into the evening, with a collection of pristine, lowrider gangsta shit about how much better champagne tastes when you’ve been broke all your life. The Oakland MC is the definition of charisma on the mic, her flow easygoing, her rhymes both celebratory and reflective. “I shine so hard that you can’t ignore it,” she raps over the rubbery synth bass and vintage high-register keyboard runs of “Out the Bottle,” and it’s a goddamn fact. No album in 2016 was stacked with more hooks than A Good Night in the Ghetto, and Kamaiyah fills them with laid-back swagger that comes naturally to her, like a sigh of relief on payday. She’s like the protagonist on the cover – arms raised with a bag of chips in one hand and a bottle of Hennessy in the other, triumphant in her newfound belief that life is good.

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1. Frank Ocean – Blonde

Frank Ocean took a long time recording his follow up to 2012’s magnificent channelORANGE. And it seems like most of those four years were spent deconstructing. More often than not, Blonde is as stripped down as a folk song. Keyboards are abandoned. Guitars are stranded. His peerless voice goes unsupported as it seeks salvation through loneliness, attempting to transcend the temptations and limitations of fame. It’s passionate, therapeutic and heartbreaking all at once. On some level, Ocean must feel a connection with the haunted geniuses he references on Blonde – Elliott Smith, Karen Carpenter, Nirvana. That must be scary for him. But instead of burying that feeling and trying to recreate the work that made him famous, he has channeled it into something new, and complicated, and compelling in its flaws. Anything means more when he’s singing it. And here, he’s singing for his soul.

Honorable Mentions: 2 Chainz – Daniel Son Necklace Don; Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid; Against Me! – Shape Shift With Me; ANOHNI – Hopelessness; The Avalanches – Wildflower; James Blake – The Colour In Anything; Bloodiest – Bloodiest; Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree; De La Soul – And the Anonymous Nobody; Drake – Views; Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression; Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows; Kendrick Lamar – Untitled. Unmastered.; M.I.A. – AIM; Noname – Telefone; Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool; Isaiah Rashad – The Sun’s Tirade; Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth; Survive – RR7349; Swet Shop Boys – Cashmere; Vektor – Terminal Redux; Young Thug – No, My Name Is Jeffery; Young Thug – Slime Season 3

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

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In the election year of 1992, Leonard Cohen wrote a song with this brilliantly subtle dig: “Democracy is coming / To the U.S.A.” Outraged by an imperialist nation that ignores its poor, yet buoyed by a beautiful, irrational hope, “Democracy” was gorgeously personal political commentary. By the end of the seven-minute track, Cohen is striking a chord with all Americans who love their country in spite of it all:

I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
that time cannot decay,
I’m junk but I’m still holding up
this little wild bouquet:
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

It’s probably just a coincidence, but 24 years later, Cohen has once again tapped into the mood of a nation that is on the cusp of sending a Clinton to the White House. You Want it Darker, the singer/songwriter’s 14th studio album, has dropped in our laps a few weeks before election day, and it’s a spare, haunting treatise on regret and betrayal that should act as a cautionary tale for anyone on the fence about voting. The 82-year-old continues to be uncannily good at comparing fraying love affairs to crises of faith. Inevitably, his narrators end up alone, muttering to themselves, and clutching a glass of wine – the only difference is whether it’s consecrated or not.

Musically, Darker is more meditative and mournful, closer to Cohen’s synth-goth classics of the 1980s then the wry, ramshackle folk and blues of albums like 2014’s Popular Problems. Producer Adam Cohen relies on muted beds of keyboards and ominous choral harmonies, lighting just enough candles to show his father the way to the altar. Lovely wrinkles pop up here and there – like the spirited, Kate Bush-esque violin on “Steer the Way” – but conceptually and tonally, this is the most consistent group of songs that Leonard Cohen has put out since he hit retirement age.

And good Christ, does he make the most of it. Cohen’s voice seems to get deeper by the decade; on Darker his deadpan croon sounds like a old bass clarinet – very deep and dependably cracked. He sounds like a man who has lived long enough to be played for a sucker 100 times, a worshipper who’s gotten used to being taken for granted by his deity. “You want it darker/We kill the flame,” he whispers over the gentle choral tides of the title track. Like he’s done so many times before, Cohen uncovers the seductive, dangerous pull of fundamentalist submission, being able to have your reality decided for you, to be told you’re right and good and that others are wrong and evil. With Donald Trump one step away from the White House, it should be mandatory listening.

Speaking of Trump, I’ve gotta believe he was somewhere in Cohen’s head when he wrote “It Seemed the Better Way,” a spine-tingling slow-build ballad that’s the record’s most harrowing moment. It could be written from the perspective of someone who’s saying “at least he’s not Hillary” on Facebook right now, standing in toxic rubble during year two of a Trump presidency:

Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way
Sounded like the truth
But it’s not the truth today

You Want it Darker might only be a political album in context. But by taking one of the best artists to ever write about the pitfalls of faith and giving him one last crack at the god that never wrote him back, this record has the angry, weary energy of a nation that is sick and tired of being lied to. It’s easy to get depressed these days, but when I hear Leonard Cohen creating relevant, bewitching works of art in his ninth decade on Earth, I think about what humanity is capable of, and how incredibly resilient we can be. Fuck it. Democracy is coming.

The Top 20 Albums of 2012

Beyond being the year that Randy Newman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2012 was a hell of a good year for music. But what year isn’t, honestly? Oh yeah. 2002. Screw you, 2002.

front20. Action Bronson – Blue Chips

If Mario Batali could spit like Ghostface Killah (and was obsessed with hookers), you’d have the makings of Blue Chips, Action Bronson’s grimy, propulsive, breakthrough mixtape. Weaving through flurries of beats like the nimblest of driving range employees – often within the space of one track – this former chef paints disparate pictures of high-end gastronomy and sordid city streets. But whether he’s talking about drizzling vinaigrette on rosemary bread or a prostitute pissing in a fountain, Bronson does it with imagination, his flow loose and in the pocket, his nasal voice touched with post-bong-hit grit.

Santigold_-_Master_of_My_Make-Believe19. Santigold – Master Of My Make-Believe

If you had trouble distinguishing Santigold from M.I.A. before Master Of My Make-Believe, then you were in for a heap of trouble. Because while in the grand scheme of things, the album finds Santigold evolving the ska-tronica sound of her pre-copyright-lawsuit debut Santogold in intriguing new ways, it does sound a hell of a lot like that other funky lady. Full of stuttering rhythms, compressed electronic grooves, and lotsa shit talk, MOMMB toes the same fault lines that Maya did – between dance music and hip hop, punk and pop, bliss and rebellion. All of this is a good thing in my book, because Santigold does this whole swagger thing so well, whether it’s over the ominous kabuki funk of “Go!” or the murky dub of “Pirates in the Water.” The fact that we have two artists exploring this twisted pop terrain? To me, that’s something to celebrate.

Rize_of_the_Fenix18. Tenacious D – Rize Of The Fenix

All the backstory you need for Tenacious D’s first non-soundtrack album since 2001 lies in its opening, self-titled song. In which the f-bomb-toting classic rock satirists mourn their failed movie (Tenacious D And The Pick Of Destiny, which was a disappointment, yes), ponder the excruciating tattoo removals their fans must be suffering through, and eventually decide that a hit song could get them back on top. And while Jack Black and Kyle Gass didn’t achieve that elusive “one hit” on Rize Of The Fenixthey proved that they still got it on both levels – comedically, as a pair of melodramatic doofuses who love making fun of rock almost as much as rock itself; and musically, as two strong vocalists who write hard rock sing-alongs with the best of ’em, and get dudes like Dave Grohl to propel them heavenward. Fenix isn’t as generous as that 2001 debut, faltering on all of its skits and a song about the Death Star. But it’s got several of the best rock songs of 2012, especially the hilariously earnest “Roadie” – where else can you get chills while hearing someone sing, “I don’t want you roadie/I want KG’s chode!”

Nas_-_Life_is_Good17. Nas – Life Is Good

When something negative happens to an artist we love, and it results in them making some of the best music they’ve put out in years, it usually puts us in an awkward place. Are we thankful for that near death experience/loss of a loved one/messy break-up? Would we gladly have our heroes miserable so long as they keep delivering the goods? But when listening to Life Is Good, 2012’s prime example of career rejuvenation born from sadness, that conflict isn’t there. On top of featuring Nas’ most focused performance in years, one that gives us a unfiltered look into his state of mind after his divorce from Kelis, the artist’s 11th album leaves us feeling nourished instead of hopeless, its title a celebration of honesty over irony. Over one warm, immaculate beat after another (especially those provided by No I.D.), Nas wonders how good of a father he’s been, waxes nostalgic about his childhood in Queens, admits he’s been rich longer than he was poor, and directly addresses his ex-wife in verses full of regret, respect, and love. It’s tempting to call this the Blood On the Tracks of rap, but it’s really a much different animal – a work that respects the past no matter how tumultuous it might’ve been, foregoing bitterness in favor of a battle-scarred kind of hope.

Sleigh_Bells_-_Reign_of_Terror_cover16. Sleigh Bells – Reign Of Terror

It’s rare for an album cover to give you a precise idea of what the music inside might sound like, but that’s exactly what a bloody pair of Keds does on the front of Reign of Terror, a record full of simple sentiments delivered in punishingly loud ways. Sleigh Bells doesn’t reinvent the formula of its 2010 debut, Treats – huge-ass drum machine beats, Derek Miller’s huger-ass stadium riffs, Alexis Krauss’ cooing vocals – but it does buff the edges a bit in the name of atmosphere. The chorus of “Born to Lose” might deliver bass drum hits with an AK-47, but it’s part of a carefully constructed assault of sounds that support Krauss’ suicide-baiting vocals. Whereas Treats could sound like two people battling over the volume dial, its follow-up is more cohesive – with hooks as sticky as these, and sentiments as endearingly straightforward (e.g. “I’ve got a crush on you”), Reign of Terror stays in your head, even after your ears have stopped ringing.

Swing_Lo_Magellan15. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

With 2009’s Bitte Orca, Dirty Projectors became indie darlings, thanks to a mix of angular riffs, wonky vocals and one especially lovely, Nico-biting ballad. But originality isn’t a synonym for quality, and as time passes and its sheen wears off, Bitte Orca’s flights of fancy tend to grate just a bit. But I doubt the same will be said of Swing Lo Magellan. Scaling back the dynamics and acrobatics of its predecessor, Dave Longstreth is in greater command of his talent here, building quieter, more pastoral templates to house his Geddy Lee-ish tenor. But this isn’t a McCartney/Ram kinda deal. Whether it’s a swirling pastiche of string plucks and drum machines or an out-of-leftfield horn section, Magellan is a rich, imaginative affair. It just doesn’t feel the need to declare itself in bold strokes. And thank god for it. Because while Dirty Projectors is far from done experimenting, it proves here that sometimes, a calculated move to the center can be revolutionary.

TySegallBandSlaughterhouse14. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse

There’s an art to fucking shit up. To making such an unholy racket that a portion of the population wouldn’t even classify it as music. In 2012, nobody perfected this art like Ty Segall. Slaughterhouse, the California dynamo’s second of three albums released this year (yes, you read that right), is the most off the rails of the lot, a seething onslaught of haymaker riffage, squalls of feedback and often-unintelligible screams. And thanks to Segall’s songwriting chops, weakness for British Invasion melodies, and palpable, youthful energy, it’s a freshly culled test tube of undiluted adrenaline unlike anything else I heard this year – except for those other Segall records, of course (see below). If for no other reason, the album matters because it reminds us that few things get the blood pumping like a talented artist beating the hell out of his instruments and vocal chords. You could call it the art of fucking shit up. Or you could just call it rock.

Bob_Dylan_-_Tempest13. Bob Dylan – Tempest

When Bob Dylan visited Woody Guthrie in the hospital, the latter was in his early 50s, and rapidly deteriorating from Huntington’s disease. Now that Dylan is 71 and still releasing music as textured, immediate and Americana-laden as Tempest, his debt to Guthrie is as clear as ever, and his presence as a going concern a rare gift to all of us. If we’d lost him after Time Out of Mind, one of the most brilliant ruminations on age and sickness in rock history, we’d consider ourselves lucky. Yet here he is, 15 years later, laying down haunted blues grooves and crystalline country love songs, singing about trains and the Titanic and John Lennon with wit and mystery. Roll on, Bob.

Miguel-Kaleidoscope_Dream12. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream

Anytime an R&B artist releases a single that sounds like Marvin Gaye, or an album that isn’t heavily influenced by hip hop, it’s hard not to just pigeonhole them as throwbacks, slap a tag like “neo-soul” on them, and call it a day. Miguel does both of these things on his second album, Kaleidoscope Dream, but if anything, he’s looking to the future. Over production that nods to the dark, narcotic atmospheres of The Weeknd and the warmer instrumentation of Erykah Badu’s Amerykah albums, the singer delivers wry plays on words, romantic come-ons and spiritual rallying cries with creativity and conviction. Yes, his gorgeous single “Adorn” is indebted to “Sexual Healing,” but Miguel is reminiscent of Gaye on a deeper level here. Like the legend, he never sounds like he’s trying too hard; his lithe performance goes light on trills, sounding just as comfortable, believable and sexual no matter the context. Which makes Kaleidoscope Dream an album for contemplation, babymaking, and partying, depending on your mood.

Screaming_Female's_Ugly_album_cover11. Screaming Females – Ugly

With a remake of Total Recall, the reunion of Soundgarden and [insert questionable decision here] happening in 2012, it can’t be denied that 1990s nostalgia is something we’ll all have to deal with for a while. And instead of going down retread lane, I suggest listening to Screaming Females’ fifth album. Ugly is a molten-hot shitkicker of a rock record that hearkens back to Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, with walls of guitars thicker than a bank safe and vocals that tremble and snarl. (The fact that Marissa Paternoster is solely responsible for said vocals and guitars is a testament to her genius.) But Ugly is much more than some rock and roll time capsule; after delivering one indelible riff after another, and treating us to late-record masterpieces like the epochal “Doom 84,” Screaming Females distinguishes itself as one of the gutsiest bands of the here and now.

homepage_large.60b385d010. Matthew E. White – Big Inner

After reading about Matthew E. White’s borderline-insane obsession with Randy Newman (he tracked him down at home so he could personally hand him demos), I had to hear his debut album, sure it couldn’t live up to the high standards set by my own Newman fanaticism. But impressively, Big Inner did that and more – this is a gentle, intoxicating bear hug of an album, one that pairs richly layered, Newman-esque arrangements with White’s deep, casual vocal stylings, on songs about drinking hot toddies, not having to rush love, and the friend we have in Jesus. Jumping from tender meditations to stone-cold soul grooves, while never making you feel like you have to move from your spot by the fireplace, White is something much more than a guy with great influences. He’s got a sound and a vision all his own, one that could inspire a whole new generation of hero worship.

kendrick-lamar-good-kid-maad-city-cover9. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city

On the first single of his major label debut, Kendrick Lamar raps about being alone in his childhood bedroom, nursing a shot and dreaming of adoring fans. One voice in his head tells him that he should dive in a swimming pool full of liquor. Another says that he’s noxious and on the wrong path. It’s a compelling, heartbreaking metaphysical struggle, and only one kind of conflict that arises on good kid, m.A.A.d city, the rapper’s concept album about growing up with all the cards stacked against you. He falls in love, gives in to peer pressure, almost gets arrested and watches his friend commit murder, all while ignoring the voicemails from his mother (who isn’t worried about him, she just wants the car so she can leave the house). Words spill from Lamar’s mouth in a flow that’s second nature; every time he spits 16, it sounds like he could go for 160. Which makes his incisive personal and sociological observations all the more powerful, woven through laid-back loops that belie his Compton roots.

LeonardCohenOldIdeas8. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

With both this album and Tempest making my list, I guess my secret is out – I’ve got a thing for grizzled septuagenarians. When they complain about the cold, it makes me so, so hot … Anyways, where was I? Oh yeah. Old Ideas is really good. Even though Leonard Cohen’s resurgence on the road and in the studio has more to do with money than the need to create, the 78-year-old is still the best in the game when it comes to writing songs about religion from the perspective of a sinner. “Amen” is an elegant, seven-minute blasphemy shuffle that we can now turn to for solace after hearing the 11 billionth “Hallelujah” cover. And “Show Me the Place” casts Jesus as a slave to his father, humanizing him more than any Christmas pageant ever could. Couple this caliber of writing with producer Ed Sanders’ subtle country & western touches and some solemn female backup singers, and you’ve got Cohen’s best work in 20 years.

Chromatics_-_Kill_for_Love7. Chromatics – Kill For Love

It’s easy to think of the 1980s as a wasteland of synthesizers and gated reverb. But it was also a time period where those elements were used to create beautiful, otherworldly sonic experiences, supporting organic instruments instead of merely replacing them. And it’s these kinds of arrangements that Chromatics simply nail on Kill For Love. This is a band that understands the potential of synths to create expansive frameworks, making listeners feel like they’re in a sonic Monument Valley, horizons all around. Taking cures from The Cure’s artful melancholy and Everything But the Girl’s introspective techno, Kill For Love is generous when building these landscapes. The eight-minute opus “These Streets Will Never Look the Same” takes a subdued “Eye of the Tiger” loop and transforms it into a breathtaking alternate universe, narrated by an Auto-Tune skewed voice repeating the line “The screen stayed flashing in my mind.” Full of shameless melodrama and cinematic production (it comes as no surprise that band member Johnny Jewel had a hand in two songs on the Drive soundtrack), Kill For Love is stuck in an ’80s haze. May their DeLorean never work again.

6. Rick Ross – Rich Forever (2012)

With details about Mitt Romney’s Swiss bank accounts clogging the news cycle, 2012 seemed like a bad time for Rick Ross to drop a mixtape that told us how great it is to have a fuckton of dough. But while practically every track on Rich Forever is concerned with materialistic one-upsmanship (in bed, Ross must count Benzes and Bugattis instead of sheep), it’s redundant in all the right ways, developing Ross’s drug kingpin character into something delightfully cartoonish, and featuring an unbelievable string of monster beats and instant-classic choruses that made me recalibrate my expectations of a mixtape. While Rich Forever is loaded with guests – most notably an in-top-form Nas on the standout “Triple Beam Dreams” – Ross is never outshone, painting ridiculous Robin Leach panoramas with irresistible panache, coming up with another dozen brilliant ways to say he’s rich on every cut (my current favorite: “Gotta run your credit just to bring my name up”). His steady baritone is the only thing about Rich Forever that follows a less-is-more aesthetic, providing a perfect counterpoint to all the tremendous, towering beats.

Jack_White_Blunderbuss_cover5. Jack White – Blunderbuss

I love that Jack White is a rock star. There’s just something beautiful about a mild-mannered guy who looks like an Edward Scissorhands stunt double making music that hipsters can listen to with their parents. And what finely crafted music it is. Blunderbuss is far from his first non-White Stripes album, but it is his first solo album, and a hell of a good argument against him ever forming another side project. Sounding more vibrant, organic and fully formed than anything since Icky Thump, the album hits a variety of Americana sweet spots, from the slinky soul of “Love Interruption” to the airy country of the title track and a seriously swinging cover of Little Willie John’s “i’m Shakin’.” Plus, White’s uncanny ability to turn mundane dude problems into poetry remains as sharp as ever. “Smile on her face/She does what she damn well please,” he bemoans on “Freedom At 21,” admitting defeat, yet sounding just a little bit like he enjoys it. It’s theater for sure, but like any rock star worth his salt, Jack White still has me believing every word.

fantasea-azealia-banks_3204. Azealia Banks – Fantasea

I am a big Nicki Minaj fan. But I can’t help but wish my first exposure to her wasn’t Pink Friday, but one of the world-beating mixtapes that put her on the map. Her official releases are packed with great singles, but their reliance on chart-baiting dance-pop minimizes her talents. Lucky for me, I can take solace that I’m with Azealia Banks at the ground floor, before she inevitably rockets into the hip hop stratosphere. Comparisons to Minaj on her debut mixtape Fantasea are inevitable, what with her rapid-fire flow, cocksure attitude and club-ready beats. But the differences are crucial – there’s nothing cartoonish about Banks; she’s not one to scream for attention, and her music follows suit. Fantasea is 19 tracks of quick-pulsed, subterranean dance music, with very few hooks to be found. Banks is the hook here, her brilliantly syncopated rhymes proving that the human voice can be the ultimate percussion instrument.

homepage_large.755e37bd3. Ty Segall – Twins

Ty Segall’s second entry on this list came out after he’d already blown our minds with Slaughterhouse, not to mention Hair, his album with White Fence. Twins is certainly proof of a prolific artist at work, somebody whose writing and recording processes must be as intense and immediate as the high-octane garage rock that is his stock in trade. And amazingly, it’s the best of the three. I mentioned Segall’s affinity for British Invasion melodies above, and he lets them shine through more than ever before on Twins, which, when coupled with his Lennon-esque tenor, inspires visions of The Beatles honing their chops in the dive clubs of Munich. Where Slaughterhouse took its name to heart in its sonic approach, Twins isn’t out to bludgeon, keeping its hooks relatively pristine, whether they’re part of the hyperactive hard rock of “You’re the Doctor” or the incredibly catchy ballad that closes the album, “There Is No Tomorrow.” If this kid finally takes a break, it’s safe to say he deserves it.

Vets_large2. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music

On his sixth album, Killer Mike makes it absolutely clear that he thinks real rap music is “the opposite of bullshit.” So by his own definition, R.A.P. Music is as real as it gets, a masterpiece of the form from a true gangsta scholar who never sounds like he’s full of it – whether he’s threatening Atlanta tourists, proselytizing about his art form, or dancing on Ronald Reagan’s grave. Unless by “it,” you mean a booming voice, mastery of language, political incisiveness, and an exhilarating sense of swagger. Nobody on earth can give a middle finger to the man like Killer Mike, and here he delivers them like a man possessed, slaying every hard, thumping beat that’s thrown his way, making you feel bad for every guest rapper, and damn good to be alive.

Channel_ORANGE1. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE

After a long night reviewing at show at Darien Lake this past summer, I decided to take the back roads home. Once I escaped the hell that is that parking lot and entered the wooded regions of Route 62, I put on Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE for the first time. As the highway wound through farm country with open skies above, I was swept away by the starry-eyed romantic plea of “Thinking About You.” Then I reached the outer ring of suburbs, while being treated to  a pair of brilliant deconstructions of rich people problems – the breezy, Stevie Wonder-ish “Sweet Life” and the “Bennie And The Jets”-biting “Super Rich Kids.” As Buffalo’s troubled East Side neighborhoods loomed, the golden age hip hop beat of “Crack Rock” provided a spoonful of sugar for a frank take on what happens to addicts. And as I got closer to home, where my wife was waiting up for me, I heard the slinky Isley Brothers lick of “Forrest Gump,” and reveled in how she was running through my mind.

Homorable mentions (in alphabetical order): The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio; Beach House – Bloom; Himanshu – Nehru Jackets; Japandroids – Celebration Rock; Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded; Various Artists – Kanye West Presents Good Music: Cruel Summer