Lana Del Rey, ‘Born to Die’
She was all anyone could talk about in the beginning of the year, but for all the wrong reasons: Lana Del Rey’s two performances on “Saturday Night Live,” of singles “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans,” were awkward and off-key. Her first album on a major label, though, is a complete triumph that no one has yet eclipsed – a hypnotic pop concoction that felt like a Quentin Tarantino film, exploring love and fame with cynicism and sadness. Call her fake like it matters, but there’s no arguing the genius of “Born to Die.”
Emeli Sande, ‘Our Version of Events’
Her voice could fight world wars – it’s that strong. But even though the artist formally known as Adele (she changed her name for obvious reasons) has the instrument, her mixed-bag material is still very much artist-in-the-making. The songs that do work atone the ones that don’t: “Heaven” is a soaring dance anthem, “Suitcase” is a brutal love song that could’ve come from Tracy Chapman and the retro-soul single “Next to Me” really shows off them pipes. Emeli Sande is one to watch.
Santigold, ‘Master of My Make-Believe’
Santigold has the hooks, hope and hoes on this long-awaited album, a state-of-the-world address that reminds us that “our house is burning down” and that girls can have just as much swagger as the guys (see: “Look at These Hoes”). “Disparate Youth” is a Portishead-sounding daydream, and “The Riot’s Gone,” produced by hit-maker Greg Kurstin, works as a political or personal statement. Listen up.
First Aid Kit, ‘The Lion’s Roar’
If Robyn taught us anything, it’s that the Swedes are a special breed. But that’s not the only reason sister duo Johanna and Klara Soederberg make such a roar with the follow-up to their 2010 debut: Like the country legends they sing about on “Emmylou,” this Americana album has what it takes to go down in history. With lingering melodies and harmonies wrapped so tightly they could only be sung by siblings, First Aid Kit is a neo-folk phenomenon.
Frank Ocean, ‘channel ORANGE’
The hip-hop prodigy accomplished something even more extraordinary this year than coming out: a debut that takes the genre back to the Lauryn Hill days of poeticism. His best work is “Lost,” “Bad Religion” and “Forrest Gump,” but singling out any tracks almost does the album a disservice – the whole thing works so well together. An exploration of social issues, his relationships (with all types) and the effects of fame, “channel ORANGE” shows Ocean to be one of the most refreshing voices of our time.
Bonnie Raitt, ‘Slipstream’
After taking a seven-year hiatus, it’s good to have Bonnie back. “Slipstream” doesn’t just reaffirm her as the rock goddess she is, but goes a step further and establishes that the world just isn’t the same without her brand of soul-blues. From the slide guitar solos, which she’s noted for, to the slow ache of “Not Cause I Wanted To,” one of the best ballads you’ll hear this year, Raitt gives us something to talk about.
Rufus Wainwright, ‘Out of the Game’
You know that expression go big or go home? Well, Rufus Wainwright definitely isn’t having the home part. His grand L.A.-pop album taps into music mogul Mark Ronson for a front-to-back stunner with walloping orchestration, soulful lady singers and some of his slyest songwriting. His dig at modern-day pop stars – the title track – is a highlight, but so is his sentimental “Sometimes You Need,” a sweet meditation on the hopefulness found in “a movie star’s eyes.” Everything about “Out of the Game” is just as magical.
Kathleen Edwards, ‘Voyageur’
The ballads hurt the most on the alt-country Canadian’s heartbreak-fueled fourth album: “A Soft Place to Land” and “House Full of Empty Rooms” are vivid takes on her broken relationship. When she kicks things up on “Change the Sheets,” even the surging sound can’t hide her glum state. The best part? That Justin Vernon produced it – and not just because he’s Bon Iver, but because he’s Edwards’ new man, taking on the best breakup album of the year. Her album. Now that’s love.