11. 21, Adele
It’s been a mixed bag for Adele fans this year. On one hand, her album 21, along with superhit “Rolling in the Deep,” was released. But then actually seeing the British import in concert this year was difficult as she struggled with health issues. Regardless, 21 upgraded Adele to genuine superstar, and it’s a great album in its own right. She continues to belt out her soulful lyrics and redefine what is typical and expected of female pop stars these days.
10. The King is Dead, The Decemberists
If even just for the song “June Hymn,” I think this album deserves to be on this year’s list. And the album’s other songs hold up well, too. Longtime Decemberists fans may not hold this album in high regard, mainly because of the deviation from the band’s topical style, but I’m not one to punish a band for expanding on its sound. The simplistic beauty and always incredible lyrics from the Decemberists give this album a place on my list.
9. Nostalgia, Ultra, Frank Ocean
I was listening to another album on this list, Watch the Throne, and the first song, “No Church in the Wild,” featured Frank Ocean, and even though it had so many talented artists, Ocean’s part really stood out. Nostalgia, Ultra really surprised me with both its creative sampling (my favorite being “American Wedding” sampling The Eagles’ “Hotel California”) and his songwriting, specifically on the track “Novacane.”
8. Ceremonials, Florence + The Machine
I feel like I might have been too harsh in my original review of Florence + The Machine’s most recent album, Ceremonials. It’s big and powerful. And it contrasts its dark and moody side with swelling, bright music. This album really grew on me, and it ended up being one of those albums I couldn’t quit listening to.
7. Take Care, Drake
Drake, despite his success, fame, fortune, confidence and good looks, still found time to feel sorry for himself. The mark of a good artist, however, is taking that celebrity angst and turning it into something both relatable and beautiful. It’s rare when an artist can break into Top-40 airspace being this emotional and sincere, but Drake thrives in that environment.
6. Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Justin Vernon and company have proved that they have a starting power with their self-titled second album. It’s intimate and inviting. And then it feels so huge at times, and so full of discovery that you just want to put the album on repeat and listen to it over and over again.
5. Past Life Martyred Saints, EMA
Erika M. Anderson’s Past Life Martyred Saints is another album that was a great debut for a great artist who has made this strangely minimalistic, dark and beautiful album. While the album threatens to crumble under its own self-seriousness sometimes, it never really does.
4. Hurry up, We’re Dreaming, M83
If you haven’t listened to the French synth-pop band M83, you’re doing yourself a disservice. One of the best-sounding bands around, the bright, but often-dreamy synthetics complement the wonderful textures, detail and large sweeping aspects of the album. M83 managed to present a diversity of sounds and textures in a coherent manner, and in doing so put together one of the best albums of the year.
3. Strange Mercy, St. Vincent
Intellectual and stimulating, Annie Clark’s Strange Mercy requires that you pay attention, to grab hold of every detail, because she makes every detail important. The album threatens to overwhelm and sometimes drown the listener, but never does. What it is, is gorgeous and huge — a worthwhile endeavor for anyone who listens.
2. Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes
What an album. I’ve listened to this album probably more than any other on this list, except for my No. 1 pick. It’s so sincere and catchy in ways that never feel cheap or overdone. The title track, “Helplessness Blues,” just begs to be listened to over and over again. Thematically different and more introspective than Fleet Foxes’ previous work, it shines incredibly bright.
1. Watch the Throne, Kanye West and Jay-Z
Jay-Z and Kanye made one of the best rap songs in years with the track “Otis,” sampling of course the always-soulful Otis Redding. “Who Gon Stop Me” features huge beats, contrasting with the singing of Frank Ocean on “No Church in the Wilds” and “Sweet Baby Jesus.” The album’s only weakness is it often struggles with consistency and cohesiveness. But the talents brought to the table cover any problems with a nearly inexhaustible amount of swagger, which is tempered with Kanye’s occasional unhappiness with the things that have happened in his life. “And I’ll never let him ever hit the telethon / I mean even if people dyin’ and the world ends / See, I just want him to have an easy life, not like Yeezy life / Just want him to be someone people like / Don’t want him to be hated, all the time judged / Don’t be like your daddy that would never budge,” Kanye raps on the track “New Day.” Kanye shows a deep undercurrent of regret about his life that underscores the swelling braggadocio that Watch the Throne champions.