1. Frank Ocean—Channel Orange
The 25-year-old New Orleans native turned the homophobic hip-hop world on its head when he posted an open letter to his Tumblr account back on July 4 describing his first great love—with a man. And buzz was initially soft on the sultry R&B crooner due to his association with the demented alt hip-hop collective OFWGKTA. But Ocean’s debut album, Channel Orange, a moody meditation on life, love, and loss in the City of Angels, managed to transcend sex, race, and genre. It’s an impassioned, tender, and grandiose R&B saga featuring heartbreaking ballads that touch on unrequited love (“Thinkin Bout You,” “Bad Religion”), religious symbolism (“Pyramids”), and much more. It deserves its rightful place alongside the best Prince and Stevie Wonder albums. A new classic.
2. Beach House—Bloom
Bloom, the fourth album from Baltimore-based indie-pop duo Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally, is a dense, ethereal work—like a gratifying voyage across a sonic dreamscape. Anthems slowly swell up ‘til they reach the heavens, before shattering into millions of lovely little pieces. In truth, it’s hard to describe exactly what Beach House accomplishes on this album. It’s like a pastiche of pleasurable moods punctuated by Legrand’s Nico-esque vocals that cut through the walls of sound like luscious daggers. You’ll notice new, subtle musical stylings each time you listen to this, one of the richest and aurally rewarding albums of the year.
3. Kendrick Lamar—Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City
Like Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth—or just Kendrick Lamar, as he’s known—is 25 and just coming into his own as an artist. After releasing four mixtapes and an independent album, the Compton native’s first studio album, good kid M.A.A.D. city, was released on fellow Comptonite Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label to near-universal acclaim. Lamar combines the lyrical dexterity and introspection of Tupac with the levity, catchiness, and quotables of Lil Wayne, over atmospheric beats courtesy of Dre and Co. It’s a despairing yet beauteous concept album about struggling to make ends meet on the streets of Compton that warrants repeat listens. And “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” could have very well been the new YOLO—if Lamar had decided to go the acronym route.
4. Tame Impala—Lonerism
Borrowing heavily from the Beatles—when they were heavily into acid—this Aussie quintet, spearheaded by singer-songwriter Kevin Parker, combines dreamy, neo-psychedelic melodies with superb lyrics expounding on isolationism and loneliness. Songs like “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” and “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” are sonically audacious, hypnotic tunes oft complemented by empyreal vocals, sing-along choruses, reverb-heavy guitar, and cymbal crashes. This is the sophomore album that MGMT wishes they’d made.
5. Fiona Apple—The Idler Wheel…
OK, the full name for the latest LP from tortured chanteuse Fiona Apple is this: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. Phew. It’s the singer-songwriter’s first album since 2005’s Grammy-nominated Extraordinary Machine, and the hiatus has done her a world of good. While The Idler Wheel is no easy listen, after a couple of spins, you’ll be rewarded with one of the more strange, avant-garde, and beguiling albums of the year. Shifting from frank, spare ballads to melancholy, jazzy ditties, Apple cements her status as one of the most singular songbirds of her generation.
6. Allo Darlin’—Europe
London-based indie-pop quartet Allo Darlin’ dials down the twee a bit for its sophomore effort, Europe—a melodious collection of toe-tappable anthems that’s pure aural bliss. Aussie singer Elizabeth Morris’s airy, accented vocals are perfectly complemented by light guitar strums and effortlessly sharp lyrics. This is the ideal album for leisurely drives through the countryside—or to serve as a lovely counterpoint to the drudgery of city life. Morris croons on the title track, “This is life. This is living.” Indeed.
7. Taylor Swift—Red
At just 23, country singer-songwriter Taylor Swift has become a full-blown pop star with her fourth studio album, Red. Allegedly inspired by her messy breakup with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s an uneven LP that nonetheless contains a diverse array of infectious tunes, from U2-esque rock ballads (“State of Grace”) to sing-along anthems (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”) to the pop-dubstep hybrid “I Knew You Were Trouble,” which is arguably the best pop song of the year.
8. Skrillex—Bangarang EP
Speaking of dubstep, few DJs had a bigger year than Skrillex. The 24-year-old Los Angeles native with the trademark lopsided hairdo caused a stir when he won three Grammy awards in February. Just two months prior to that, rap maestro Kanye West tweeted his ringing endorsement of Skrillex’s Bangarang EP, which was later released as a physical album in January. The seven-track mini-album is a searing genre-bending blend of house, dubstep bass wobbles, and electro-stomp clangers that is thrilling, madcap fun. While it all goes down better in a live setting, replete with awe-inspiring visual accompaniment, you haven’t really heard anything like this before.
9. Alabama Shakes—Boys & Girls
This four-piece band from Athens, Ala., deftly fused garage and blues-rock on its debut album, Boys & Girls. Buoyed by rockabilly guitars and lead singer Brittany Howard’s Joplin-like vocals, Alabama Shakes provide a fresh, energetic take on an old-school Americana sound. You’ll shake and groove to this collection of soulful, rhythmic ditties that deservedly received three Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist.
Grimes is the stage name of 24-year-old experimental electronic artist Claire Boucher. The Canadian’s singular synthpop-meets-electronic-meets-industrial sound is reminiscent of Björk, with a touch of Cocteau Twins and, vocally, a pinch of K-Pop. Her first studio album, Visions, was recorded entirely on Apple’s GarageBand program over the course of three weeks in Boucher’s cramped apartment. The result is a quixotic, inventive, and most of all addictive album that’s just a damn good time.
11. Passion Pit—Gossamer
I had my doubts about the sophomore album from Passion Pit, a danceable synthpop quintet from Cambridge, Mass., but Gossamer is a huge leap forward from a maturation standpoint. The trite—albeit addictive—electro ditties on its debut, Manners, have been replaced by angry, powerful anthems about unemployment, disillusionment, and social, economic, and political anxieties that plague many Millennials. It’s a call to arms disguised as mercurial dance-pop and goes down very, very smoothly.
12. The Menzingers—On the Impossible Past
Because of its punk and alt-rock stylings, the third album from these natives of Scranton, Pa., went criminally overlooked. On the Impossible Past will transport you back to your halcyon, angsty teenage years. It’s fast, raw, and thrillingly alive.