10. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, ‘Mosquito’
Karen O howls on “Sacrilege” as the sound revs with electric fury and the divine intervention of a gospel choir. “Buried Alive” features rap persona Dr. Octagon in what sounds like overhead music for an S&M dungeon. The title track is really about a mosquito. “He’ll suck your blood,” sings Karen O, even buzzing like one of them bugs. The album’s raucous absurdity is a complete mess. And what a glorious mess it is.
9. Jessie Ware, ‘Devotion’
It was “Wildest Moments” that had everyone talking about the remarkable cords, classy style and Sade-like smoothness of Jessie Ware. She was the ’90s of the new millennium. A minty breath in a room full of stale stench. And her debut is full of “moments”: The funk-soul “Running” struts, “If You’re Never Gonna Move” grooves and “Taking in Water,” for her gay brother, inspires.
8. Holly Williams, ‘The Highway’
With her sinewy drawl and doleful suitcase of songs, Holly Williams – from the Hank lineage – has become Nashville’s unsung hero. Rooted in the American sound that marked her previous release, “The Highway” brims with the undressed, reflective and often-heavyhearted songwriting of Williams’ career. The acoustic “Waiting on June,” an achingly beautiful true tale of her grandparents’ long life together (the wedding, the babies, their deaths), will wreck you.
7. James Blake, ‘Overgrown’
An electro hypnosis, James Blake’s “Overgrown” is so quietly staged it permeates the subconscious first, unfurling its layers over time. With graceful simplicity and the allure of his otherworldly – and sometimes even sexy (the sensational “Life Round Here” will tingle you) – baritone, this work is a breathtaking spectacle where songs subtly loop, morph and swell into sonic splendor.
6. Vampire Weekend, ‘Modern Vampires of the City’
The dainty gents of Vampire Weekend know a good hook. “Diane Young” is delirious, drum-punched pop with wonky pitch-shifting, crunching and fizzing; it makes for one of the most infectious moments in music this year. They get into your head with the wistfulness of the horn-y, Celtic-kissed “Unbelievers,” Paul Simon-ed “Everlasting Arms” and eerie “Hudson.” Much credit to Ezra Koenig for that voice. It’s heaven.
5. The National, ‘Trouble Will Find Me’
The Cincinnati quintet’s reliably strong catalog of melancholic mellowness got another noble release with “Trouble Will Find Me,” the understated sixth LP from a band as modest as their sound. The staggering opening trifecta – “Don’t Swallow the Cap” stands out most – is graceful and emphatic, with Matt Berninger’s achy Bono-like baritone taking center stage. But the closers are just as stunning, especially the conjured dream state of tenderhearted coda “Hard to Find.”
4. Tegan and Sara, ‘Heartthrob’
Pop music doesn’t get much better than … Tegan and Sara’s latest? Stripping the grittiness of the sisters’ indie-rock-and-sometimes-folky sound for something more ’90s-boom-box-made was a bold move – and a move that notches the best album of their career. The songwriting still aches (see “How Come You Don’t Want Me”), the harmonies still intoxicate (“Now I’m All Messed Up” comes to a beautiful yin-yang close) … and the new sound – produced by pop go-to Greg Kurstin – throbs with heart.
3. Kacey Musgraves, ‘Same Trailer Different Park’
On “Merry Go ‘Round,” Kacey Musgraves admitted something few in country music ever do: small-town life kind of sucks. Then came “Follow Your Arrow,” about staying true to yourself – even if you’re gay, and even if you like getting high. The rest of her major-label debut is equally unconventional, fresh-spirited and ballsy: The deceiving lullaby sparsity of “It Is What It Is” almost masks the suggestion of casual sex, and “Blowin’ Smoke” is a witty portrayal of a dead-end waitressing job. “I’m out here going broke,” she laments. Not for long.
2. Daft Punk, ‘Random Access Memories’
Nothing about Daft Punk’s disco-dipped futuristic fantasia is obvious, but then again, Daft Punk hasn’t just always gone outside the box musically – they’ve evaded the box altogether. They’re on the outer edge again with “Random Access Memories,” an already-ubiquitous game changer for the “One More Time” duo. This is a dazzling bravura of ambitious head trips, from the magic of “Contact” and “Instant Crush” to “Get Lucky” and its vintage feel-good vibes.
1. Patty Griffin, ‘American Kid’
The profoundness of Patty Griffin goes back to her 1996 debut, but now – nearly 20 years later – this new pinnacle surely aligns her with other singer-songwriter greats like Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell. That’s because her thematic LP “American Kid,” inspired by her father’s death, is an American classic. It’s an elegy so viscerally and spiritually powerful – marked by poignancy, razor-sharp storytelling and a voice as rich as they come – that this enlightened work is Patty Griffin’s golden ticket to the pantheon of music legends.