Kanye West and Jay-Z, Watch the Throne (Def Jam). Kanye West and Jay-Z are rich motherfuckers, and no one, it seems, is more surprised by this than the two of them. On Watch the Throne, they tell a souped-up rags-to-riches story, rapping clever metaphors over chopped-up beats and samples. The two rap kingpins show off their versatile chemistry throughout the project, making it one of the most important releases of 2011. — Johnson

Kendrick Lamar, Section #80 (Top Dawg). Kendrick Lamar wowed nearly everyone in the rap world with his disciplined flow and militant lyrics on this summertime release. The J.Cole-produced "HiiiPoWeR" brought Lamar's movement to the forefront, and the album's first track, "Fuck Your Ethnicity," finds the MC coming out the gate swinging. This is not for the faint of heart: Kendrick Lamar speaks on the fucked-up state of society with poetic eloquence. — Johnson

Michael Kiwanuka, Tell Me a Tale EP Isle of Wight Sessions (Interscope). A torturous tease at a mere three songs, Michael Kiwanuka's Tell Me a Tale EP Isle of Wight Sessions is the most propitious release of the year. The young U.K.-based troubadour has been rightly compared to both Van Morrison and Bill Withers, and if the songs here are any indication, he's sure to earn instant favor on this side of the pond with his timeless brand of soul-infused folk. — Herrera

Lil Wayne, Tha Carter IV (Cash Money). Although not the best of Lil Wayne's Carter series, this fourth installment has metaphors that are as wacky as ever, and he diversifies his rap portfolio with the inclusion of an R&B track ("How to Love") and features from Andre 3000, Busta Rhymes, Tech N9ne, Nas and others. — Johnson

Machine Head, Unto the Locust (Roadrunner). Unto the Locust is one of the most consistently enjoyable mainstream-metal releases of the year. From the choral opening of "I Am Hell (Sonata in C#)" to the final refrain of "Who We Are," which fades into a peaceful violin passage played over a martial drumbeat, Locust is a very well-considered album, with plentiful moments of meticulous mayhem, fierce fretwork and awe-inspiring timekeeping. — Herrera

Mastodon, The Hunter (Reprise). Although not quite as enthralling as its trio of predecessors — Leviathan, Blood Mountain and Crack the SkyeThe Hunter is captivating in its own right. One of the Atlanta quartet's most commercial-friendly albums to date, it still packs one hell of a knockout punch with its chugging riffs and powerhouse drumming. — Herrera

Opeth, Heritage (Roadrunner). While it certainly doesn't happen to all purveyors of punishing brutality (see: Slayer/Anthrax, et al.), some heavier bands grow weary (bored?) of the confines of playing music that strictly bludgeons, so they dial back the devastation a few notches. Opeth, led by Mikael Åkerfeldt, did just that on Heritage and displays an impressive degree of depth and musicality in the process. — Herrera

Pharoahe Monch, W.A.R. (We Are Renegades) (Duckdown Records). Pharoahe Monch is a rapping beast, and he extended his touch to the masses with the release of W.A.R. (We Are Renegades). Pairing his deep, gravelly tone with lyrics crafted to incite said masses, Monch gets busy on tracks like "Assassin" and the revolutionary rallying cry "Let My People Go." Authentic, creative, demanding, W.A.R. will grab your attention and not let go. — Johnson

Pink Reason, Shit in the Garden (Siltbreeze). Although even more lo-fi and raw than early Sebadoh, these six songs bridge a wide range of sounds and textures. Despite his flouting sonic convention, there is a haunting catchiness and drive to Kevin Failure's brilliant songwriting. A diamond in the rough not wanting to be a diamond. — Murphy

Plaid, Scintilli (Warp Records). For Scintilli, Plaid mixes styles, moods and textures with the keen ear for subtlety you'd expect. But the IDM pioneers have also constructed songs that take their penchant for inventive rhythms and abstract melodies and push it into even more breathtakingly panoramic sonic realms. — Murphy

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Samdhi (ACT). While alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has long dabbled in fusing Eastern Indian music with jazz, he takes more of a jazz-rock approach on Samdhi, as well as incorporating electronics. Throughout the disc, Mahanthappa is in brilliant form, at times furiously burning through cuts ("Killer") while taking a more lyrical approach at others ("Ahhh"). His finest work to date. — Solomon

The Rapture, In the Grace of Your Love (DFA). Few bands can create a party and subsequently destroy it quite as quickly as the Rapture. The dance-punk enthusiasts recorded their third album as a return to DFA, and the label's influence shows itself in blistering stompers, unending rhythm and tortured vocals, all augmented by beats more creative than the last time the band tore up clubs, in 2006. — Whipple

Sonny Rollins, Road Show Vol. 2 (Emarcy). While the 22-minute-long "Sonnymoon for Two," which features a first-ever performance of Rollins and Ornette Coleman together, might be reason enough to get this disc, there are other cuts from Rollins's eightieth birthday concert that prove the tenorman is still in fine form and his tone beautifully robust. — Solomon

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