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11. Lady Gaga, ‘Born This Way’
Music masterpiece? Not quite. But the Lady of the dance-pop pantheon sure knows how to do brain-raping hooks – you got me, “Edge of Glory” – and indulgent throwbacks to ’80s schlock. For goodness sake, she sings about “Hair” and makes it sound like a serious call-for-acceptance. The self-empowerment positivity of this big monster is easy to embrace, and so are the songs: stadium ballad “You and I,” grunge-rock “Bad Kids” and the uplifting “Highway Unicorn.” No poker face here. Just Gaga through and through.
10. Dolly Parton, ‘Better Day’
Like a big hug from the country super-legend herself, “Better Day” wasn’t just one of the best albums of the year – it was the most encouraging. “In the Meantime,” a joy-on-steroids rollick, has Dolly dishing wisdom, her attitude as infectious as the music – her best in years. Same goes for the sweetness of “Together You and I” and an ode to her roots, “Country is as Country Does,” delivered with a dose of her humorous snap. Even with a heavy heart on “I Just Might,” the down-home diva looked on the bright side. Now that’s something to admire.
9. Augustana, ‘Augustana’
Meet Augustana, new and improved. With claim-to-fame “Boston” behind them, the San Diego guys go from Coldplay to Springsteenian. And it pays off. Whatever their brand of pop-rock lacks in originality, they make up for in choruses you crave as an early morning wake-up. Motivational upper “Shot in the Dark” bests, but sensitive-guy folk ditty “Borrowed Time” and love sick slow-rocker “Steal Your Heart” are proof that a change does, indeed, do you good.
8. Beyonce, ‘4’
Crazy in love wasn’t how most people felt about Bey’s slow-to-grow fourth album. But so what: This is the diva’s masterwork, where Mrs. Jay-Z had nothing to prove… but proved everything. “4” features refined ballads, from the restrained sweetness of “I Miss You” to the legacy anthem “I Was Here”; the throwback “Love on Top,” with its Mariah vocal tics; and the funky-cool “Countdown” for her “boof.” Few songs are immediate, but that’s the thing: This is Queen Bey standing her ground and securing her crown.
7. Katy B, ‘On a Mission’
Dubstep was reborn through Katy B’s brilliantly refreshing debut, a throbbing set of underground dance primed for all-night partying. She had sass, sex and single-worthy songs – a trifecta that should’ve put her at the top of pop. With the genius of “Easy Please Me,” a cheeky kiss-off to mankind, and the thumping garage sound of “Broken Record,” the British import’s mission is inevitably possible.
6. Lykke Li, ‘Wounded Rhymes’
Sweden’s Lykki Li sings of sadness like she’s been put through the wringer, but there’s still a very charming wink in the casual girl-group tropes of her second album. Essentially a testament to innocence lost, established immediately with the deceivingly upbeat “Youth Knows No Pain,” the indie-pop dream girl decided to live it up (“Love Out of Lust”), have sex (“Get Some”) and suck up her brokenhearted blues (“Sadness is a Blessing”). Her pain was my pleasure.
5. Bon Iver, ‘Bon Iver’
Just how beautiful are Bon Iver’s earthy tunes? Let’s put it this way: an f-bomb never sounded prettier. “Holocene” is the centerpiece of frontman Justin Vernon’s melodically moving masterpiece of escapism, an album that takes us outside of ourselves and into the many states – both literally and figuratively – that the log-cabin crooner paints with his singularly evocative voice. From the sincerity he casts to the Phil Collins outro he manages to pull off, it wasn’t about making sense – it was about making emotions.
4. Miranda Lambert, ‘Four the Record’
The fastest girl in town, as Lambert calls herself on her latest in a series of on-par albums, is also one of the most talented. After opening with outcast anthem “All Kinds of Kinds,” the country badass plays on diversity throughout with her most expansive-sounding disc to date: bluegrass influences that first track, but then she goes cow-punk on “Mama’s Broken Heart” and, with “Fine Tune,” tinkers with Auto-Tune. She’s also good at turning on the tear ducts with “Oklahoma Sky.” One of a kind? You betcha.
3. Florence + the Machine, ‘Ceremonials’
Bigger is better in the case of Florence Welch, who wields her powerhouse pipes into competition-crushing glory on her second CD, a trip to enlightenment that sits in your soul. No album but this one, this year, had the intensity of rousing theatrics cutting through it like a tornado whipping up everything in its path. “Shake It Out” is a breathtaking exorcism; “Leave My Body,” an orgasmic release. And ballad “Never Let Me Go” rips through the very water she sings of. Oh, Flo – such a size queen.
2. Matraca Berg, ‘The Dreaming Fields’
By the strength of her from-the-heart songwriting alone, it’s no wonder she’s been one of the most sought-after Nashville tunesmiths for big-deal country stars. On her first album in 14 years, the criminally underrated prodigy – think Eva Cassidy and Emmylou Harris – continues to affirm she has what it takes to be one. The title track is a nostalgic eulogy of long-gone land, both hopeful and heartbreaking. “Racing the Angels,” about an afterlife reunion, and the homesick coda are just as wistfully tearjerking.
1. Adele, ’21’
The boy that broke Adele’s heart? At least he was good for one thing: This album, a timeless classic fueled by the fire of that relationship’s demise. Regret and fury are all piped into the remarkably performed songs – the wonderful weepie “Someone Like You,” especially – on the singer’s sophomore CD, fully rooted in retro-soul and soap-opera melodrama. “Rumour Has It” and “Rolling in the Deep” show how saucy she can be when she’s not all sad (and for much of the album, she is). Nothing studio-tricky about her or that voice, Adele sings her heart out – and captures ours.