Hot Chip, In Our Heads, (Domino Recording Co). Hot Chip has been producing perfectly executed modern pop since its first album in 2004. In Our Heads, the group's fifth full-length release, is one of the feel-good albums of the year. It's also an immaculate, hedonistic celebration of dance music that isn't afraid of exploring human feeling. — Alviani

Japandroids, Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl Records). If Japandroids had only written one song as exhilaratingly uplifting as "The Nights of Wine and Roses," this would be a noteworthy album. But each song here is an electrifying reminder of the potential power of rock and roll to excite and inspire when infused with intelligent lyrics and raw enthusiasm. — Murphy

Joey Bada$$, 1999 (Self-released). The music of Joey Bada$$ recalls a simpler time in hip-hop, one that the rapper isn't old enough to personally remember. This unassuming badass has the emotional maturity and thoughtfulness of a much more seasoned vet. Anchored by the viral hit "Survival Tactics," 1999 is a model for how to keep lyrical integrity and still stay musical. — Noah Hubbell

John Abercrombie Quartet, Within a Song (ECM). Albums by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman helped shaped guitarist John Abercrombie's musical focus as a teenager during the early '60s. With the brilliant tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano on board, the John Abercrombie Quartet pays homage to those recordings with stunning versions of the artists' songs, as well as a few originals. — Solomon

Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music (Williams Street). Killer Mike showcases both street savvy and political prowess as he rhymes over El-P's dystopian beats. The surprising part might have been how perfectly the pair melded styles. "Reagan" should be required listening for high-school history classes. Definitely one of the strongest hip-hop records of the year. — Rodgers

Knife Party, Rage Valley (Warner Music UK). Rob Swire and Gareth McGrillen are no strangers to dance music: Outside of their Knife Party persona, the two perform under the Pendulum moniker. On Rage Valley, the Aussie dubsteppers bring a powerhouse of bass infused with catchy hooks that have pushed their sound into the national limelight. — Chester

Kreayshawn, Somethin' 'Bout Kreay (Columbia). Though Kreayshawn's bratty Oakland vibe presents itself much better live, it was nice to hear the rookie in the context of a complete album. "Go Hard (La La La)" had that bounce beat, but "Gucci Gucci" remained the most intellectually and pop-culturally stimulating single. From Twitter to the trap, Kreayshawn made her authenticity known. — Davies

Kendrick Lamar, Good Kid, m.A.A.d City (Aftermath). To match the hype that Kendrick Lamar has generated since his full-length debut, Section.80, with his first major-label album, Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, would have been remarkable enough, but the new material far surpasses the old in terms of listenability, lyrical complexity and sincerity. Come for the "Swimming Pools," stay for the "m.A.A.d City." — Hubbell

Greg Laswell, Landline (Vanguard Records). With 2010's Take a Bow, Greg Laswell proved that he could still write captivating pop songs without misery. In contrast, the lushly produced Landline shows that Laswell vividly remembers what it's like to be miserable, but with the perspective of someone who's no longer controlled by it. This is an emotionally wide-open and gently cathartic album. — Murphy

Lee Fields & the Expressions, Faithful Man (Truth & Soul). Lee Fields has made a lot of records over the past forty years, but none of them have sounded like this. Backed by a tight band and producers who've worked with Adele and Jay-Z, Fields unleashes a barrage of goose-bump-inducing soul and R&B. The wisdom of age gives his words added bittersweet power. — Rodgers

Liars, WIXIW (Mute). Few bands are as dedicated to reinvention with each offering as Liars. Like 154 if Aphex Twin were the inspiration instead of Can, this album evolves in tone, atmosphere, texture, pacing and rhythm with each song. Simultaneously the band's most accessible and most adventurous record to date. — Murphy

Mayday, Take Me to Your Leader (Strange Music). With a fusion of rock and hip-hop, these Strange Music signees bring some much-needed originality to the rap game. With assistance from Tech N9ne, Dead Prez and Murs, Mayday bangs out hard guitar riffs with anti-government rhymes that would make the ears of Public Enemy fans perk up. Leader is a great listen for those who like hard beats and timely lyrics. — Valenzuela

MNDR, Feed Me Diamonds (Ultra). Feed Me Diamonds is a synth-lover's wet dream, oozing love and sex in ways comparable only to a modernized, female-fronted Soft Cell. "Faster Horses" pummels you with layered magic, while the title track highlights singer Amanda Warner's penchant for historical lyricism. This is how smart electro-pop sounds in 2012. — Lamz

Napalm Death, Utilitarian (Century Media Records). Utilitarian offers a reliably savage take on today's social ills without waxing topical. For this album, Napalm uses electronics extensively to create a sense of menace, as well as a "grindcore sax attack," courtesy of John Zorn, on "Everyday Pox." This is blistering industrial post-punk from the godfathers of grindcore. — Murphy

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