Phish, Joy (Jemp). Phish made a triumphant return to live performance in 2009, but the noodle maestros also distinguished the year by dropping a new platter of respectable aquatic ditties, including the dorsal-swaying "Backwards Down the Number Line" and the floating, acoustic-tinged title track. Now if the guys could just figure out how to save the whales... — Hutchinson

Chris Potter, Ultrahang (ArtistShare). While tenor player Chris Potter can swing with the best of them with his big, bold, Sonny Rollins-esque tone, Ultrahang finds the saxophonist exploring more angular, groove-based tunes à la Kneebody. Potter is in damn fine form, and guitarist Adam Rogers and keyboardist Craig Taborn also display some heavy playing on this outing. — Solomon

Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II (Iceal). Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II is a sequel to a fourteen-year-old album that sounds like a fourteen-year-old album. But that's what makes it great: It's hip-hop for people who love '90s hip-hop. Let's hope it isn't a last call to a bygone decade. — Klosowski

Jay Reatard, Watch Me Fall (Matador). Last year's singles collection proved that Reatard could squeeze a hook or two into those minute-long punches in the face, and this year's proper debut is accessible enough that he might be paving a path to mainstream success. Or, you know, pissing off his bandmates so much that they quit, because you cannot be a reasonable punk-rocker. — Maletsky

Rock Plaza Central, At the Moment of Our Most Needing (Paper Bag). Although not as strong of an overarching narrative as its previous record, Are We Not Horses?, At the Moment... still relies heavily on narrative to push forward through its ups and downs. And while the name might suggest 'rock' as the genre, this record is far from it, which is a good thing. — Klosowski

Rodrigo y Gabriela, 11:11 (RubyWorks). The rumor mill had it that after its self-titled U.S. debut, Rodrigo y Gabriela's sophomore effort would take the duo back to its roots in thrash metal. That didn't happen, and R&G ended up sticking to its formula of flamenco-infused, hyper-fast acoustic guitar shredding for 11:11 — but with a formula like that, why mess around? — Otte

Rome, Flowers From Exile (Cop International). Lush yet heady, this album combines the romanticism of neo-folk with the rustic nostalgia of dark Americana and blends in elements of slowcore bands like Low and Red House Painters. The martial rhythms are not militaristic so much as reminders of life's ephemeral nature. — Murphy

John Scofield, Piety Street (Emarcy/PGD). Showcasing his lauded ability to slip deftly between jazz , blues and other genres, here John Scofield ventures into gospel. With help from some talented New Orleans musicians including George Porter Jr. (bass), the renowned guitarist reinvents several soulful standards, including a fine "Motherless Child," and throws a few of his own on the pile. — Hutchinson

Slaraffenland, We're on Your Side (Hometapes). This Danish quintet is just as innovative on record as in its insanely great live shows. And since most of Slaraffenland's members, who are each multi-instrumentalists, have been friends since childhood, there's a joyous and playful cohesiveness to their songs. There are elements of the familiar, but the group always manages to overpower them with something unique. — Solomon

Sonic Youth, The Eternal (Matador). At it for nearly three decades, Sonic Youth has released its share of first-rate albums, but The Eternal verges on greatness. Dynamic, bold, innovative and aggressive, this recording captures much of the band's visceral stage energy. It might just be Sonic's finest album in the past twenty years or so. — Solomon

Sunn O))), Monoliths and Dimensions (Southern Lord). Horns, strings and choirs bring some color to this bone-rattling duo's walls of feedback, while Attila Csihar's sub-Lugosi croak keeps things properly medieval. Certainly the hooded ones' least "metal" album to date, but also their most satisfying. — Smith

Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer (Jagjaguwar). After the occasionally exhausting Random Spirit Lover, Spencer Krug reins in his more baroque tendencies just a bit here to remind us that he was one of the best songwriters of the decade, an unfailingly evocative lyricist whose arrangements can go from spastic to majestic and back again with perfect grace. — Smith

Thao Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down, Know Better, Learn Faster (Kill Rock Stars). A marked thematic emphasis on the fallout of a bad breakup doesn't bog down Know Better, Learn Faster. Instead, Thao Nguyen uses the theme as an effective platform for her syncopated rhythms, her dynamic finger-picking styles and her plaintive vocals. Indeed, it's a breakup album that inspires foot-tapping and smiles. — Goldstein

Tom Waits, Glitter & Doom Live (Anti). Although he doesn't tour much, Tom Waits is still a hell of a showman, whether he's belting out tunes with his sandpaper-gruff pipes or delivering his hilarious banter between songs. It's all on display, in all its mad glory, on these live tracks recorded on last year's tour. — Solomon

White Rabbits, It's Frightening (TBD Records). Putting percussion at the forefront of their sound, the members of White Rabbits take the formula for indie pop and reinvent it without overtly borrowing from a great band of yesteryear. Instead, this collection of vital, brilliantly realized songs has made these guys a great band of the present. — Murphy

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