Music News

Backbeat writers look back on national favorites from 2013

It's always baffling to us when we hear somebody bemoan the fact that there's no music being released these days that's worth listening to. There's actually quite a bit, if you ask us. Guess it sort of depends on your perspective — or at least how much time you have on your hands to make your way through the deluge. That's the thing: Most folks just don't have a surplus of time to seek out new sounds. Fortunately, we spent the past year sorting through static in search of music that moves us. And you know what? We found plenty. Here's a rundown of the albums that blew our hair back in 2013. If you're already dialed in, consider this a refresher. If not, consider this a shopping list (or Spotify list) of things to check out over the holiday.

A$AP Rocky, Long.Live.A$AP (RCA). Some have criticized Long.Live.A$AP for being too commercially focused, but considering A$AP Rocky's easy-to-consume lyrics and his dependence on great production, the album was the perfect release to elevate him from underground treasure to rap superstar. The beats are outstanding, Rocky's flow is as nice as ever, and the album's got something for everyone. — Noah Hubbell

Devendra Banhart, Mala (Nonesuch). It's possible that the best way to forget about the subzero temperatures in December is to pop this in and just pretend that you're sipping a mai tai on a tropical island. "Your Fine Petting Duck" and "Mi Negrita" are especially well suited to the task. But if mellow dance tracks aren't your cup of tea, there's still sure to be something for you on Mala, an incredibly diverse record that solidifies Banhart's reputation for producing bizarre pop with roots across the globe. — Ashley Rogers

The Baptist Generals, Jackleg Devotional to the Heart (Sub Pop). Nearly a decade after the Baptist Generals released the wonderfully idiosyncratic No Silver/No Gold, the Denton, Texas, six-piece returned with Jackleg Devotional to the Heart, which found the act, fronted by the brilliant songwriter Chris Flemmons, exploring different sonic territory, with some of the songs verging on experimental. Jackleg is a magnificent collection throughout. — Jon Solomon

The Black Dahlia Murder, Everblack (Metal Blade). Everblack proves that the Black Dahlia Murder has not plateaued in its creativity, boasting drastically more imaginative leads and solos than 2011's Ritual. — Brad Lopez

Black Joe Lewis, Electric Slave (Vagrant Records). Austin garage-rock-bluesman Black Joe Lewis strips things back on Electric Slave, letting the raunchy guitar effects stand front and center to create a really modern sound based on traditional influences. The funk-soul-garage-punk hybrid is super-infectious. — Leslie Simon

Terence Blanchard, Magnetic (Blue Note). Sure, Terence Blanchard can swing with the best of them, but the trumpeter also has no problem pushing boundaries, which is what he's done on Magnetic. While he's been running his trumpet through electronic effects for a number of years, that sound hasn't appeared on a recording until the release of this audacious disc. — JS

Boards of Canada, Tomorrow's Harvest (Warp Records). Tomorrow's Harvest sounds like an epitaph for the current era of human civilization. From the desolate album art to the tone of much of the music contained within, the album evokes a post-apocalypse characterized not by violence, but by isolation and a complete collapse of the human social experiment begun 10,000 years ago. — Tom Murphy

David Bowie, The Next Day (Columbia). The Next Day isn't an act of total reinvention; that much would be impossible for an artist with the track record of David Bowie. Even so, the new release from the legendary artist shows that he's still capable of innovation. The production is clean, the lyrics are well-edited, and the entire album does Bowie's genius justice. — A.H. Goldstein

Charles Bradley, Victim of Love (Daptone). Having spent many years as a James Brown impersonator, Charles Bradley clearly has an affinity for the Godfather of Soul. And though there are still hints of Brown in Bradley's delivery, on Victim of Love, the singer seems equally at home doing his own thing. Whereas his last effort, No Time for Dreaming, was about dealing with darkness, Victim finds Bradley buoyantly embracing the light. — JS

Danny Brown, Old (Fool's Gold). Old is a chronological journey through the rap of the last ten years, moving from the old Danny Brown that his hard-core fans love through an incredible turn mid-album to a raucous and futuristic hybrid of dance and hip-hop cultures. The tales Brown tells are poetic and affecting, even when covering something as ostensibly humdrum as buying bread. — NH

Bill Callahan, Dream River (Drag City). Bill Callahan's career has arced from his early days of lo-fi tape hiss to today's embodiment of national folk laureate. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Dream River, where Callahan's plaintive baritone makes the most impact with the fewest instrumental flourishes. — Mark Sanders

Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti-). It's been a long four years for Neko Case fans as they waited for the release of The Worse Things Get, her sixth full-length studio album. Case drew on some darkness for this one: Both of her parents died in the years preceding its release. She's nonchalant when she talks about it in interviews, but there's audible pain on this record, just as there is on her others. "Night Still Comes" and "Local Girl" are classic Neko Case, but check out "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu" for a taste of something more sparse and eerie. — AR

Cayucas, Bigfoot (Secretly Canadian). Cayucas's brand of sun-drenched SoCal beach pop quickly drew a fan base of modern-day Parrotheads, complete with Hawaiian shirts. With a sound like Beck mixed with Paul Simon, the echoey vocals and simple lyrics create an album full of total earworms, with catchy drumbeats to match. — LS

Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap (Self-released). Chance the Rapper is one of music's most ebullient characters, and every ounce of that contagious personality comes across on Acid Rap. Once you move beyond Chance's one-of-a-kind vocal style, what's left is boundless energy, effortless sensuality, and one of the sharpest wits in music. — NH

Charles Lloyd/Jason Moran, Hagar's Song (ECM). Pianist Jason Moran has been part of Charles Lloyd's quartet since 2008 and has appeared on three albums with the saxophonist in that time. On Hagar's Song, the two continue to work incredibly well together, whether they're swinging through Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo" or offering a more pensive take on the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." — JS

CocoRosie, Tales of a Grass Widow (Transisor Inc.). Operating outside the conventional aesthetics of popular music, on Tales of a Grass Widow, CocoRosie once again delivers music dense with ideas but handled with creative grace and balance. Part hip-hop — down to masterful beatboxing, indiscernible from electronic percussion — part quirky opera, part outsider pop, it's a playful tour de force of imagination. — TM

Deafheaven, Sunbather (Deathwish Inc.). The members of Deafheaven are master musical jugglers. Sunbather features epic, nine-minute musical suites like "Dream House" and mixes the blackest black metal with the most indulgent emotional complaints on songs like "The Pecan Tree." The album fuses rage and sadness, aggression and vulnerability. None of these combinations should work, but Deafheaven fuses them seamlessly on this brilliant record. — AG

Dr. Dog, B-Room (Anti-). Dr. Dog takes influences from the '60s and '70s and combines them with its own brand of upbeat indie Americana. Funky, clean Motown rhythms abound on "Distant Light" and "Long Way Down," while singer-bassist Toby Leaman's raspy, soulful vocals break your heart in "Too Weak to Ramble." The production is clean and simple, and the sound a slight departure from the band's noisier past. — LS

Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 (Columbia). The latest installment in Bob Dylan's bootleg series helps reframe one of the artist's most criticized and least understood records. Alternate takes and unreleased tunes from the Self Portrait sessions show an artist taking bold creative steps, not a burned-out rock star looking to abandon his audience. — AG

Earl Sweatshirt, Doris (Columbia). Earl's return to the rap game made Doris one of the most anticipated albums of the year, and it shows in the dreading, anxiety-ridden lyrics. The lack of risks taken by Earl is disappointing, but a few remarkable tracks combined with his consistent lyricism make Doris one of the best albums of the year, regardless. — NH

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (Universal Music Group). Jangly guitars, lyrics that sound like gospel, and hints of '60s psychedelia all combine on the Magnetic Zeros' most recent album to create a sound like summer personified. On their third full-length, the band delivers music that ranges from epic big-band grandeur to stripped-down tunes with just the reverent and clear voice of lead singer Alex Ebert. It all works together like the soundtrack to a modern tent revival. — LS

Flaming Lips, The Terror (Warner Bros.). It would be understandable if the Flaming Lips had rested on their laurels when making The Terror. Instead, the band has written its most sonically daring album to date. Dark, challenging and evocatively abstract, the songs here capture a sense of existential isolation in a struggle with a Pandora's box of personal demons once thought vanquished. — TM

Foxygen, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic (Jagjaguwar). These guys came at just the right time to help us all recover from the loss of Lou Reed. There is snark galore, black humor and echoes of the Velvet Underground throughout 21st Century Ambassadors. The album title itself is what Foxygen is about: a bit pretentious, overly confident, and sarcastic as hell. — MS

Eleanor Friedberger, Personal Record (Merge). Since Fiery Furnaces went on hiatus in 2011, Eleanor Friedberger has been recording her solo work, and this second full-length album is full of perfect quirky pop arrangements and her signature dry narrative voice. The album's '70s Laurel Canyon folk sound really makes her lyrics sound even weirder. — LS

Erik Friedlander, Claws & Wings (Skipstone). Cellist Erik Friedlander has collaborated with forward-thinking musicians like John Zorn and Laurie Anderson, but he's also released some excellent solo albums, including the recently released Claws & Wings, an especially poignant collection that was inspired by the death of his wife. Friedlander recruited longtime collaborators Sylvie Courvoisier and Ikue Mori for a stunning effort. — JS

Fuzz, Fuzz (In the Red Records). The name explains the sound here perfectly. This loud, powerful proto-metal trio hoped to maintain drummer Ty Segall's anonymity with its self-titled debut album, but it didn't work, because Segall sings for Fuzz, too. The guitar is king here, though, as Charles Moothart creates sonic walls of noise, with crunchy solos shooting right through it all. — LS

Ghost B.C., Infestissumam (Universal Republic). Of all the metal releases this year, Infestissumam was the most publicized. Metal fans could not get away from the banner ads for this album, which, as it turns out, would be a perfect release if not for the dragging, seven-minute-and-thirty-second-long "Guleh — Zombie Queen." — BL

Ben Goldberg, Unfold Ordinary Mind (BAG Production Records). It was clear from his work in the New Klezmer Trio during the mid-'90s that Ben Goldberg was a hell of a clarinetist. Since then, he's released some fine solo albums, but Unfold Ordinary Mind is superb, thanks in part to some excellent compositions by Goldberg, as well as some brilliant playing by guitarist Nels Cline and tenor players Ellery Eskelin and Rob Sudduth. — JS

The Growlers, Hung at Heart (Everloving Inc.). What the hell ever happened to psychedelic garage rock? Hung at Heart proves it never really went away. There are elements of tiki-fied camp here, but they're hardly ironic. On this album, the band is clearly serious in its approach to re-creating 1960s surf sounds — with a truckload of amps in tow. — MS

Haim, Days Are Gone (Columbia). A sister act born from roots in a childhood family band, Haim borrows from Fleetwood Mac-inspired harmony rock, Prince-like pop and '90s R&B to create a sound that is entirely irresistible — and all fun. The buzz that surrounds the act is well deserved, because as much as you might want to laugh it off, you won't be able to turn Days Are Gone down. — Samantha Alviani

The Head and the Heart, Let's Be Still (Sub Pop). The Head and the Heart set out a tough opening act with its self-titled debut in 2011. But sophomore album Let's Be Still picks up on the cues from that record and pushes them further, going deeper than the Beatles echoes and bright pop foundations. Indeed, these thirteen tracks hint at even greater achievements to come. — AG

Tim Hecker, Virgins (Kranky). Reminiscent of Laraaji but with piano, Tim Hecker stretches out a bit from his usual processed organic sounds and synthesizers on Virgins . There's a greater clarity than there was on his (inspired) previous album, Ravedeath, 1972, giving him the ability to articulate a sense of emotional depth as well as space. — TM

Incendiary, Cost of Living (Closed Casket Activities). Long Island is hosting a revival in East Coast hardcore, and Incendiary's Cost of Living represents all the grit and street ethic of the best NYHC bands from decades past. — BL

Jason Isbell, Southeastern (Southeastern Records). Nobody these days sings about redemption, homesickness or cancer as well as Jason Isbell. On Southeastern, he makes his case as one of America's best singer-songwriters, in alt-country or any other genre. He's been through enough muck for a lifetime of songs, and has enough humility to break your goddamn heart. — MS

Jagwar Ma, Howlin' (Mom & Pop Music). Howlin' may have been one of the year's best dance releases, one with a fairly simple goal: to deliver pure, unadulterated music for making you dance. It's mostly exuberant pop music with a wash of psychedelia, and although the tracks have little relation to each other, musically they all share the ability to keep listeners moving without trying. — SA

Jesu, Every Day I Get Closer to the Light From Which I Came (Shellshock). Justin K. Broadrick firmly establishes himself as a masterful composer of expansive soundscapes across this album, reliably delivering the most sublimely heavy music anyone is making today. With the title track, he also proves that he can write deeply affecting piano and string arrangements that stir the heart and imagination. — TM

Joe Lovano Us Five, Cross Culture (Blue Note). While Joe Lovano has recorded and performed in many different formats, Us Five, which includes two drummers and bassist Esperanza Spalding, is probably his most adventurous group. And Cross Culture, which finds Lovano and company exploring the concept of music as a universal language, is the group's most courageous work to date. — JS

Valerie June, Pushin' Against a Stone (Concord). On Pushin' Against a Stone, Tennessee-born songstress Valerie June encompasses the soul and gospel of her Southern roots, owning a sound that feels inherently nostalgic even when a more unexpected sheen of Appalachian and bluegrass influences sweeps over her electric vocals, stark acoustics, country ballads, and tracks laced with slide guitar. — SA

King Khan and the Shrines, Idle No More (Merge). Berlin's psych-R&B act King Khan somehow manages to mix political lyrics regarding Canadian Aboriginal rights with garage rock that sounds like it's from a future invented in the '60s. Filled with pomp and grandeur, the Shrines' Idle No More features a horn section that adds a compelling exclamation point, taking you to an entirely different universe, one where James Brown and Brian Jones are king. — LS

Kneebody, The Line (Concord). For more than a decade, Kneebody has been defying genres with a shape-shifting sound that straddles jazz, funk and rock. The Line, the band's first release on the mini-major imprint Concord, is exceptionally ambitious in scope while also being the best-sounding disc the quintet has released. Kneebody is in fabulous form here. — JS

Kylesa, Ultraviolet (Season of Mist). On Ultraviolet, Kylesa perfectly synthesizes psychedelic, sludgy metal and ethereal rock without compromising the core virtues of either. Fortunately, this is not a crossover effort, and the sinuous brutality and imaginative riffing that have always made this band fascinating finds no short shrift. Soothing, bracing and expansive. — TM

Local Natives, Hummingbird (French Kiss). With the release of Hummingbird, Local Natives has grown into its sound, which is decidedly ominous, and absent an earlier false brightness. The album is absolutely lovely, lush with expressive harmonies and overwhelming swells of rhythm that contrast with a newfound art of subtlety. — SA

Locust, You'll Be Safe Forever (Editions Mego). This album would work wonderfully as a soundtrack to a Wim Wenders film, while a stripped-down version would work equally well as a haunted IDM album. Mark Van Hoen channels his genius for sequenced atmosphere and texture into darkly luminous fragments with immersive environmental electronic compositions, driven by big beats and culturally ambiguous vocal samples. — TM

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Gamak (ACT). Over the past fifteen years, virtuosic saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has penned some elaborate compositions that fuse elements of Eastern Indian music with jazz, but Gamak might be his most cerebral and visceral effort yet. With guitar wizard David Fiuczynski on board, Mahanthappa's quartet traverses heavy sonic terrain here, especially on the heated opener, "Waiting Is Forbidden," and the fiery "Copernicus." — JS

Man Man, On Oni Pond (Anti-). Man Man took its avant-garde rock-and-roll-in-a-trashcan sound, smoothed it out, sexed it up, and spit out its most accessible album by far. "Head On" is so damn gorgeous and its lyrics are so touching — and the acoustic "Sparks" has a '50s pop thing going on that is so pure and moving, you won't miss the cacophony. — LS

Mac Miller, Watching Movies With the Sound Off (Rostrum Records). Watching Movies With the Sound Off is certainly a departure from the bubblegum Mac Miller that most listeners are accustomed to. It's a step back commercially, but a leap forward artistically. Never has Mac been as ambitious and confessional as he is here, while leaving room for some invigorating singles. — NH

Misery Signals, Absent Light (Basick). Absent Light is another release that may cause hipster metal fans to roll their eyes. Regardless, the album is solid and meets or exceeds every expectation. Haters gonna hate. — BL

Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady (Bad Boy). Janelle Monáe's legitimacy as the weirdest R&B/rock singer working today is confirmed when you hear Erykah Badu (!) and Prince (!!) singing on the album's first two songs. While those artists are still relevant, Monáe is clearly establishing herself here as a compelling voice for a new generation. — MS

My Bloody Valentine, mbv (m b v). My Bloody Valentine cannily sculpted and sequenced this album — recorded at different times since 1991's Loveless — so that it reflected the band's present. The propulsive rhythms, whorls of melting guitar sound and ghostly vocals suggest the band's musical future while embracing its past. — TM

The Neighbourhood, I Love You (Columbia). The true impact of I Love You, like that of any great album, is gradual. Beyond the catchy chorus of the radio success "Sweater Weather," the Neighbourhood's debut record offers hidden gems for the careful listener. Songs like "Staying Up" and "Float" reveal a band with an impressive skill for pure mood and complex use of musical layers. — AG

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away (Bad Seed Ltd.). While Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds' last effort, 2008's Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, was a grinding guitar-driven rock album, Push the Sky Away is quite the opposite in a lot of ways. It's a much quieter and, well, more beautiful effort, one in which Cave's exquisite lyrics and vocals are front and center. — JS

Of Montreal, Lousy With Sylvianbriar (Polyvinyl). Going back to its psych-pop roots, Of Montreal inspired a sigh of relief for fans of that earlier sound with this record. Mastermind Kevin Barnes stated that the album was influenced by the Flying Burrito Brothers, Neil Young and the Grateful Dead, and that much is evident from the dreamy, '60s-rock-sounding songs. Unlike past efforts where Barnes played everything, Sylvianbriar was recorded live with a full band, resulting in a full, cohesive and hauntingly gorgeous sound. — LS

Aaron Parks, Arborescence (ECM). On the excellent 2008 release Invisible Cinema, pianist Aaron Parks proved that he had outstanding chops as well as a talent for penning compelling tunes. On his much more subdued solo album, Arborescence, Parks shows himself in a warmer and more ethereal world, one that feels more introspective. — JS

Pop. 1280, Imps of Perversion (Sacred Bones). Taking the punk concept of negating what came before it a step further, this album dispenses with melodic guitar for something more like barely controlled spikes of tone. What synth there is eschews prettier tones in favor of a raw, Suicide-esque menace. Imps is intense and aggressive without a tough-guy stance. — TM

Porcelain Raft, Permanent Signal (Secretly Canadian). Like a long-lost Mercury Rev record, the latest album from Porcelain Raft has layers of richly evocative, dreamlike atmospheres. The songs here attain great emotional heights due to Mauro Remiddi's plaintive falsetto. Melancholic in tone, Permanent Signal conveys a powerful sense of life held in suspension but yearning to move forward. — TM

Portugal. the Man, Evil Friends (Atlantic). This experimental Portland-by-way-of-Alaska band released Evil Friends, one of the slickest-sounding indie-rock albums in recent memory, courtesy of famed producer Danger Mouse. "Creep in a T-Shirt" mixes synth-driven beats with attitude-filled lyrics, while "Holy Roller" takes you to church with its background vocals. The band even tosses in a little hip-hop for good measure. — LS

Chris Potter, The Sirens (ECM). Inspired by Homer's Odyssey, saxophonist Chris Potter set out to write a composition related to different episodes of the book. While there are stunning yet subtle moments here that jell particularly well with ECM's aesthetic, tunes like "Stranger at the Gate" show what a powerful improviser Potter is. — JS

Queens of the Stone Age, ...Like Clockwork (Matador). Featured guests certainly don't hurt ...Like Clockwork, the first full-length release from Queens of the Stone Age in nearly six years. But appearances by Dave Grohl and Trent Reznor aren't the highlight of this record. That would be frontman Josh Homme's fine return to the fuzz tones and rock structures that made the band great in the first place. — AG

Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio 2 (Blue Note). Pianist Robert Glasper has long had one foot in jazz and the other in hip-hop and R&B, so it's a no-brainer that he would continue what he started on last year's Black Radio, a release that included a number of guest vocalists. This time around, he recruited heavy hitters Common, Faith Evans, Lupe Fiasco, Brandy and Jill Scott. — JS

Rhye, Woman (Universal Republic). Confession: Woman earns accolades largely because of its first tracks, "Open" and "The Fall." Singer Mike Milosh shamelessly embodies a Sade vibe that has been updated for 2013. His colleague, Danish multi-instrumentalist Robin Hannibal, does minimalist electronics like no other. — MS

Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels (Fool's Gold). Fresh off their critically acclaimed collaboration R.A.P. Music, Killer Mike and El-P unite again behind the powerful production of the latter — this time featuring his rapping, as well. Run the Jewels is hard-hitting and exciting, both because of the MCs' surprisingly compatible fast rapping and because of El-P's always potent and underappreciated soundscaping. — NH

Shai Hulud, Reach Beyond the Sun (Metal Blade). Shai Hulud combines the ethic of hardcore with intricate guitar work and intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics delivered expertly by Chad Gilbert, who returned after two albums away. Shai Hulud does not write bad songs. All hail Galactus. — BL

Skeletonwitch, Serpents Unleashed (Prosthetic Records). Metal fans should always be skeptical of bands and albums that are hyped this much in the press, but Serpents Unleashed justifies the attention as one of the must-hear blackened-thrash albums of this decade. — BL

Skinny Puppy, Weapon (Metropolis Records). Synching the simplicity of its work for Remission with the sound-design approach of its side projects, Skinny Puppy crafted its strongest effort since 1992's Last Rites. Taking aim at the current international climate of fear and violence, the act poses important questions rather than providing pat answers. — TM

Vince Staples, Stolen Youth (Blacksmith, A.G.). Though Vince Staples may be best known as the rapper pressured out of Odd Future, he stakes his claim as perhaps the best MC of the bunch on Stolen Youth. Featuring surprisingly great production from a pseudonymed Mac Miller (aka Larry Fisherman), Vince is poetic and vividly descriptive while remaining as raw as he first appeared on Earl's "Epar." — NH

Marnie Stern, The Chronicles of Marnia (Kill Rock Stars). Marnie Stern's finger-tapping guitar-playing style creates a frenetic sound here that makes for extremely boisterous jangle rock. This album is a little more drawn-in than her work in the past, with longtime drummer Zach Hill having to dedicate himself full-time to Death Grips, but this just allows Stern's vocals to come through even more. With precision, her vocal lines fly around her fretwork like a butterfly, resulting in a unique and upbeat sound. — LS

The Stranger, Watching Dead Empires in Decay (Modern Love). One of the most unsettling albums ever recorded that could fall under the umbrella of "ambient," this latest from James Leyland Kirby is an essay — composed as a short story in sound — on the folly of modern humanity's technocratic hubris. It is beautiful and enigmatic, like artifacts from Göbekli Tepe. — TM

Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience (RCA). At this point in his career, JT didn't need to make an album this good to prove his worthiness as Michael Jackson's heir apparent (sorry, Usher). But he did, and he clearly had fun in the process. While most R&B artists sing endlessly about bedding whomever, Timberlake takes the high road here, preaching the virtues of commitment. — MS

Frank Turner, Tape Deck Heart (Interscope). There's an overwhelming pathos in Frank Turner's confessions, an earnestness that makes lyrics about self-immolation charming. Somehow, the lyrical bleakness on Tape Deck Heart never manages to weigh down the record. That's all thanks to the sheer rhythmic and melodic charm of Turner, who treats even the bluest words as opportunities to let his audience in on a little secret. — AG

William Tyler, Impossible Truth (Merge). 1. Take 100 bong hits. 2. Go to the mountains. 3. Contemplate everything while listening to Impossible Truth. When you return, reflect on the genius of this young guitarist. Heavily layered and reminiscent of both early Americana and Indian sitar music, this instrumental album is the only one you need for your next vision quest. — MS

The Underachievers, Indigoism (Self-released). Rarely has heady, esoteric rap been as easy to listen to as it is on Indigoism. Production from the Entreproducers is invigorating and perfectly echoes the mystical atmosphere the Underachievers effectively build. MCs AK and Issa Gold are completely in sync as they muse on auras, metaphorical space shuttles and the nature of evil. — NH

Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City (XL Recordings). Modern Vampires of the City does what Vampire Weekend's first two records couldn't do: It mixes studio polish and heartfelt emotion in a way that feels new, and the privileged Columbia grads come off as profound musicians and poets. There's little in the way of slickness here. The record shows real poetry and true depth. — AG

Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Daze (Matador). Kurt Vile brought back his brand of nostalgic, road-tripping rock on this album. He says that he made a mixtape for his production crew to get them in the right mindset for making this record; he wanted to invoke "loose/good vibes." With yawning, breezy guitar licks and lyrics like "chillin' on a pillowy cloud," Vile totally nailed that one. — AR

Washed Out, Paracosm (Sub Pop). Like his friend Chaz Bundick of Toro Y Moi, Washed Out's Ernest Greene reinterpreted the best sound ideas from synth-pop bands of the past to inform his latest work. Greene fully embraces the sense of wonder and emotional expansiveness of that era and imbued it with modern sensibilities. — TM

Wax Idols, Discipline & Desire (Slumberland Records). Heather Fedewa once played in the garage-rock-inflected Bare Wires. But her project Wax Idols and this album, especially, prove that she had greater sonic ambitions. A brooding but propulsive collection of dark post-punk, akin to the Chameleons and Siouxsie & the Banshees, Discipline & Desire crackles with defiant energy and a sense of conviction. — TM

Wayne Shorter Quartet, Without a Net (Blue Note). On his albums over the last decade, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who turned eighty this year, has shown that he's still a vital force in jazz, both as a performer and a composer. The daring live disc Without a Net finds Shorter and his long-running quartet in superior form as they run through six new original compositions as well as fresh renderings of older songs like "Orbits" and "Plaza Real." — JS

Weekend Nachos, Still (Relapse). Still would be a grindcore/punk gem even if it was released the first week of January. Fans who were kicked in the teeth by this album are still recovering from its release last month. — BL

Kanye West, Yeezus (Def Jam). As abrasive and polarizing as Kanye West himself, Yeezus has been praised and criticized relentlessly since its release before finally settling as the consensus rap album of the year. A far cry from the soulful and thoughtful Kanye we were introduced to originally, Yeezus seeks to frustrate its listeners to the degree that Kanye has been frustrated by his hate-love relationship with America. — NH

White Denim, Corsicana Lemonade (Downtown). Southern psych-rock never sounded so good. White Denim has created its best album yet. Heavier on the Southern than the psych this go-around, Corsicana Lemonade lets singer James Petralli shine as he belts in true soulful R&B style. Of course, the guitar is still front and center, with guitarist Austin Jenkins screaming out melodic riffs and creating all kinds of general mayhem. — LS

Widowspeak, The Swamps (Captured Tracks). Singer Molly Hamilton undoubtedly evokes the hazy, ghostly draw of bands like Mazzy Star, a sound that forms the solid base of Widowspeak's preceding albums. The Swamps, however, was inspired by the band's Southern touring routes, and it seems that Widowspeak found the perfect home in the Delta blues and swamp landscapes of its muse. — SA

Winds of Plague, Resistance (Century Media). Most metal reviewers won't even consider an album from this band in their top twenty, let alone top ten, because it is politically correct for metal fans to hate Winds of Plague. Ultimately, Resistance compares to the intensity of the act's 2008 debut and loses the jock factor found in its last release. — BL

Chelsea Wolfe, Pain Is Beauty (Sargent House). Equally embracing acoustic and electronic elements while crafting these deeply haunting and evocative songs, Chelsea Wolfe brings together neo-folk with the brooding menace of late-era Swans. Her voice has a stirring resonance to it that, when coupled with the music, sounds a bit like Julee Cruise fronting an adventurous black-metal band. — TM

YC the Cynic, GNK (Self-released). If there was any question that hip-hop could still produce cohesive, high-minded albums, GNK is a convincing response, meditating on the nature of man with regard to racism, unlimited power and more. YC may be a cynic, but he's an engaging one, and although his album is easy to listen to, it's difficult, but rewarding, to digest. — NH

Yo La Tengo, Fade (Matador). Yo La Tengo shows it hasn't forgotten the power of brevity and simplicity on Fade. The album is a mere ten tracks, which is short by the band's standards. The music itself is dynamic and straightforward, a quality that comes, in no small part, from producer John McEntire. That starkness can be heard in compelling tunes like "Ohm" and "Two Trains." — AG

Frank Zappa, Road Tapes, Venue #2 (Vaulternative Records). The second installment of the Road Tapes series is a live treat for any fan of Frank Zappa's band lineup from the early '70s. That band included the impressive keyboard work of George Duke, as well as the dizzying vibe-playing of Ruth Underwood and the impossibly dense drum lines of Ralph Humphrey. — AG

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