10. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
This is the album that has (somewhat) saved Kanye from punchline status. To say he’s wacky is an understatement, but when he puts out material as finely crafted and boundary-pushing as this, all is forgiven. The roster of artists here is endless, from Rihanna to Jay-Z to Justin Vernon, and every song is tricked out with precise layers and characteristic swagger. Above all, though, there is an openness here that reminds us that Kanye – diamond teeth, jackassery and all – can be endearing, too.
Best Songs: the all-star casting on “All Of The Lights,” powerful closer “Lost In The World.”
9. Stars - The Five Ghosts
Stars scales back the overindulgence of their previous album, In Our Bedroom After the War, and to great effect. What remains is a dark, pained beauty and songs of careful composition, but this time, they’re not bogged down in extraneous layers. As always, Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan play together with charm and intimacy, creating an album that builds on their strengths while still retaining the sensibilities that made listeners fall in love.
Best Songs: Millan’s crystal-clear vocals on “Winter Beauty,” the sparkly disco of “We Don’t Want Your Body.”
8. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles II
Beautiful and dense with a pop sensibility at its core, the latest self-titled album from Canada’s electronica sensation Crystal Castles is stunningly listenable. For all the ambient noise, there are also many songs that could be singles, ready for the dance floor. Moreso, their sound is their own; it’s not quite electronica, not quite pop, but a perfect blend of indie greatness.
Best Songs: sparkling “Not In Love,” the fanged shredding of “Doe Deer.”
7. Lil Wayne – I Am Not A Human Being
This disc was clearly just a placeholder while Weezy languished in Rikers, but it has its charm (that is, if you find a track called “Gonorrhea” charming). Syrupy-slow and absolutely distinctive, Lil Wayne’s rhymes are hard to reckon with. There’s way too much of Young Money protégé Drake here, but when Weezy has the reins himself, he’s crude, weird, and absolutely awesome.
Best Songs: simmering, radio-ready “Right Above It,” the title-track’s throbbing electronica.
6. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
I probably will never fall as deeply in love with an Arcade Fire album as much as I did with their debut, Funeral, but The Suburbs is a classy, expansive entry into their critically-adored catalog. Win Butler and Co. have an innate feel for the sound and scope of a song, and under their care, this is heartfelt release. Like U2 before them, these tracks are made to be blasted to the rafters of stadiums – not bad for a Canadian indie band.
Best Songs: coiled shimmer of energy “Ready To Start,” the soaring strings of “Half Light II (No Celebration).”
5. Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse – Dark Night Of The Soul
The loss of Mark Linkous (the foundation of Sparklehorse) earlier this year was jarring; there was a stunning beauty and clarity to Sparklehorse’s work, spearheaded by Linkous’ oftentimes surreal, wrenchingly poetic lyrics. This collaboration with Danger Mouse was his last, and it’s an enduring legacy. With assists from artists as diverse as Iggy Pop, James Mercer (The Shins), and The Flaming Lips, Dark Night Of The Soul is stunningly cohesive, lovingly assembled, and a testament to an amazing artist.
Best Songs: cosmically swirling “Revenge” (feat. The Flaming Lips), the album’s stormy title-cut.
4. Matt & Kim – Sidewalks
Tortured poetry set to song has its place, but the songs on Matt & Kim’s latest – jubilant, three-minute bursts of singalong pop – force you to ditch the gloom. Even boasting richer, cleaner production and arrangements, this Brooklyn duo has lost none of their essential goodwill, crafting songs that hit your heart but also make you want to dance.
Best Songs: amazingly cheery opener “Block After Block,” ineffable single “Cameras.”
3. Taylor Swift – Speak Now
I’m not taking sides on the Taylor Swift/Kanye debacle, since both released great albums this year. Of course, Swift is at the opposite end of the spectrum with shimmery pop gems that make tweens and adults swoon, but what both artists have in common is the hearts-open honesty that makes them relatable. Whether Swift is crashing weddings, calling out exes and “Mean” critics, or remembering lost love, it’s all-too familiar and incredibly catchy.
Best Songs: mature first single “Mine,” rock-y kiss-off “Better Than Revenge.”
2. Band Of Horses – Infinite Arms
Their debut is Band of Horses’ all-time best, but the latest entry into their warm, soaring, Southern-tinged oeuvre is another good one. It’s hard to fault them for not evolving their sound when it’s solidly signature – lovely with just enough sentiment and some moments that still rock.
Best Songs: the chunky riff of opener “Factory,” slow-burning single “Laredo.”
1. Eminem – Recovery
Call it a comeback if you will, but this disc is unabashedly amazing: it’s honest and raw, packed with the mindblowing rhymes that Eminem has been spitting out since the ‘90s. While his past few releases were stagnated by drug addiction, Recovery blooms forth from that wreckage with all the furious energy we’ve come to expect from Marshall Mathers.
Best Songs: throbbing powerhouse cut “No Love,” the mature, evocative “25 To Life.”