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10. Melissa Etheridge, ‘Fearless Love’
Hearing the musician return to her zenith and kill songs with raging burn was a rush like no other. She blows the spiraling top off the title track, spilling desperation into a Kings of Leon-like arena rock tune, and sticks it to her home state on the rip-roaring fireball “Miss California.” She doesn’t always bite down hard, though: Her narrative about family and illusions on “Gently We Row” is as beautiful as her own fearless love.
9. Elton John and Leon Russell, ‘The Union’
Two music greats got together and created, well, more greatness. Theirs is a “Union,” but so much more: a rare act of appreciation – the album came to be because of John’s fandom for Russell, a soul veteran – deeply felt in their exchanges about war, morality and expensive shoes. It crosses genres, from gospel (“Hey Ahab”) to piano rock (“Monkey Suit”), with hat-tips to the ’70s era that both were born out of. Oh, and did we mention that it’s John’s best album in, like, forever?
8. Vampire Weekend, ‘Contra’
The shameless sophomore album from the indie hipsters came out earlier in the year, so by now, in this breakneck music industry, it should be long forgotten. Had it not been for how the N.Y. quartet expertly merges classical components with dainty pop melodies, making feathers of harmony that ease their way in, it would’ve been. But the airiness of Ezra Koenig’s voice floated to the clouds and the songs were some of the most smiley sounds to fall on ears.
7. Sia, ‘We Are Born’
The singing Aussie, especially known for bummed-out numbers that hurt like hell, danced her way out of down with this jiggy shake-up splashed in rainbow colors. A nod to her adoration for the ’80s era, even covering – and one-upping – Madonna’s “Oh Father,” Sia’s messages of optimism and survival were also intrinsically hers despite dollops of toy pianos, chimes and child chirps (see standouts “The Fight” and “Never Gonna Leave Me”). A new Sia was born, indeed, and cooler. Than. Ever.
6. Taylor Swift, ‘Speak Now’
No one hates Taylor Swift as much as they might say they do. It’s why the Southern sugarplum’s as big as she is, something her third album – as she expands past her limited pop-by-numbers palette – strongly justifies. Love is, as expected from a boy-crazy 21-year-old, what brings out the best in her songwriting (which, here, she exercises in full) with “Back to December” and “The Story of Us,” all about the tickles and tortures of relationships that Swift’s so good at exposing. Speak now, later, whenever – just keep doing it, Taylor.
5. Janelle Monae, ‘The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III)’
Retro and funk collide in this wonderfully conceived canon of Janelle Monae’s futuristic world, a mind-blowing saga stretched over 70 crazy minutes. Taking off from 2007’s debut EP about a robot-led land, it turns the Kansas-born ingenue’s easy “soul” tag on its head, spins it around, and makes musical gumbo out of it. What a mess you’d think, what with all the influences (from James Brown to Michael Jackson, and then pastoral folk and crazy theatrics), but it’s uniquely spellbinding – like nothing, and everything, before it.
4. Arcade Fire, ‘The Suburbs’
Never one to disappoint, the Montreal supergroup tempered their tiptoe-to-takeoff bombast, stepping back from bloated epics to deliver this resonating rock opus. Impressive again is how transcendent their sound is, especially with the majestic “Sprawl II” and lines like, “Let’s go for a drive and see the town tonight/There’s nothing to do but I don’t mind when I’m with you.” It plays out like the fleeting years of life – except in life, you can’t go back. “The Suburbs” at least takes you there.
3. Kanye West, ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’
Hated like few others, the rapper’s narcissism often gets in the way of his crafty, boundary-breaking work. This time, it was the reason for it, as he probed his own reckless psyche for a thrilling, demented, self-deprecating, even vulnerable genre buster that stretched hip-hop beyond its roots and into classic rock (uh-huh: That’s an Elton piano solo on “All of the Lights,” which boasts an impressive guest list) and electro-dance of extreme grandeur. Songs are big as his ego, but just try turning away.
2. Jonsi, ‘Go’
Hope got a new name this year: Jonsi Birgisson, lead singer of Iceland’s Sigur Ros who, for the first time, went solo. Going at it alone, with support from his boyfriend Alex Somers and conductor Nico Muhly, proved revolutionary as he gave the vox behind some of the most soulful classic-rock restored life – working his soaring instrument into kaleidoscopic bursts of orchestral whimsicality. From the ecstatic “Animal Arithmetic” to the consuming swell of “Grow Till Tall,” Jonsi was the sun, singing.
1. Robyn, ‘Body Talk’
Her body talked, but did you listen? The irresistible (and overlooked) Robin Miriam Carlsson – flooding the club scene with her genius trilogy, which culminated in a 15-track masterpiece of shoulda-been-hits – wised-up a genre that’s otherwise become insipidly dumb. “Dancing on My Own” was moving in every sense, and the hearty “Hang With Me” and “Call Your Girlfriend” only confirmed what a refreshing, distinct diva of dance-pop this delicious Swede is. Innovative, transparent, entrancing, geeky and adorable – Robyn’s a firecracker that just kept popping.