Slinky R&B, passionate rock anthems and punk energy: These were just of the few propellants that fueled some of the year’s top musical firepower, while in a poptart surprise, Taylor Swift channeled more breakup songs into her first adult, noncountry album.
1. Frank Ocean, "Channel Orange" » Maybe some people will check out Ocean’s debut album simply because of his announcement — unusual for an R&B musician — that he was involved in a same-sex relationship. But the real reason music lovers should listen to the album is the slinky, subtle, ambient and supremely confident R&B that Ocean, at the tender age of 24, has created. You can set aside issues as gender and sexual orientation when love is described in such intimate, emotional terms. Ocean is obviously influenced by hip-hop, but the real revelations are how he takes traditional R&B and adds literate, hyperverbal lyrics and unconventional, but beguiling, arrangements. His music indicates the golden age of R&B wasn’t over in the 1970s, but is happening again right now.
2. Japandroids, "Celebration Rock" » The second album from this Canadian guitar-and-drum duo trumps similar duos Black Keys and White Stripes by unleashing such passionate anthems with a musical voice that believes irony and subtlety are the enemies. "The House That Heaven Built" is the most gut-punching rock single of the year, with its unforgettable chorus, "When they love you, and they will / Tell them all they’ll love in my shadow / And if they try to slow you down /Tell them all to go to hell."
3. The Gaslight Anthem, "Handwritten" » The New Jersey punk-influenced quartet has been approved by Jersey’s favorite son Bruce Springsteen, but the band shares more in common with the spirit and energy of The Replacements and The Clash. There’s no denying that The Gaslight Anthem is hungry and demanding to be heard — and this band actually has something to say.
4. Muse, "2nd Law" » The stunning new album from Matthew Bellamy and his comrades in the British rock band Muse is often bombastic but refreshingly ambitious, with symphonic orchestrations sharing space with EDM inspirations (not to mention deliciously decorative guitar riffs). Thanks to them for challenging, and rewarding, us.
5. Little Big Town, "Tornado" » The best country album of the year comes from this quartet whose sublime four-part harmonies have made them the most consistently enjoyable vocalists in Nashville. "Pontoon" and "Sober" were two of the year’s best country slices, especially the slightly dissonant "Pontoon," which showed that LBT isn’t cookie-cutter.
6. Kendrick Lamar, "good kid, m.A.A.d city" » The Compton-based hip-hop artist mentored by Dr. Dre surpassed all expectations with this album that revived the West Coast rap scene single-handedly. The concept of a "good kid" in a "mad city" is articulated thoughtfully and boldly. On the album’s "Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe," Lamar raps: "Look inside of my soul and you can find gold."
7. Various Artists, "Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International" » This new four-CD collection, of mostly new recorded covers of Dylan songs, is a consistently surprising set that’s nothing short of attention-arresting. That’s thanks to top-shelf performers, ranging in age from Miley Cyrus, 19, to Pete Seeger, 92. In all, the collection underscores that Dylan’s music is forever young and forever relevant.
8. Jack White, "Blunderbuss" » It’s an interesting question to see who Jack White wants to be on his debut solo album. The answer? He wants to be everything. And what’s astounding is how well he does in trying to reach that goal, with a swampy mix that never loses its melodic rock appeal.
9. Alisa Weilerstein, "Elgar and Carter — Cello Concertos" » The best young cellist in the world comes off a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant to record resonant and dynamic interpretations of these concertos. Rarely do classical albums become "events" when released, but this one deserved it.
10. Taylor Swift, "Red" » On her first adult album (and fourth album), Swift declares her independence from country music and pivots toward undeniably melodic dance songs such as "I Knew You Were Trouble" and "22." Other songs square straight into top-40, pop-rock territory. Swift’s sense of who she is imbues the album with energy and personality.
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