Best of 2012: Top 50 Albums

channel ORANGE (Explicit Version)

Frank Ocean
Coming on the heels of 2011's heralded Tumblr-only freebie effort Nostalgia Ultra, Frank Ocean's proper debut Channel Orange firmly establishes the singer/songwriter as one of music's most unique storytellers. His tales tend toward the hyper-personal and are so steeped in naive optimism—even in the face of tragedy and defeat—that they could easily be read as either deeply moving or incredibly cheesy. At their best, they're both. Frank and producer Malay blend and wear their musical influences proudly, finding a sonic middle ground between vintage Stevie Wonder and recent N.E.R.D. Unfortunately, they tend to favor the formlessness of the latter, as Frank's meandering narratives about drug dealers and users and Los Angeles brats gone wild supersede his concern for traditional hook writing and song structure. But, by the album's second half, this ceases to be a weakness. Late cuts like the taxicab catharsis of "Bad Religion" and "Pink Matter," an epic duet with Outkast's Andre 3000 that invokes the human life cycle and Dragonball Z, operate with such naked honesty that they transcend the need for form.

-- – Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Coexist

the xx
For all the talk that The xx's second album would be more influenced by the beat-driven remix and production work that band member Jamie Smith has done since 2009's self-titled debut, Coexist sticks largely to the UK indie-electronic trio's already well-established strength: restraint. As ever, The xx mine a vein of minimalism in which the smallest moves make massive impacts: a sliding, single-string guitar lead or bobbing bass line; the inviting space in-between Smith's spare but kinetic beats; the sensual tension between Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim's gently tug-of-warring vocals. There are fresh elements here—the wavering steel drums and muffled, clacking beat of "Reunion," the resounding piano chords on "Swept Away"—and maybe some new confidence to Croft and Sim's singing—but for the most part Coexist doubles down and further distills The xx's singularly subtle allure.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Kaleidoscope Dream

Miguel
Elements of Miguel's second album started to reach the public around the time "Lotus Flower Bomb," the singer's collaboration with Wale, began to overstay its welcome on mainstream urban radio. From late February 2012 through that April, Miguel released a trio of free three-song EPs dubbed Art Dealer Chic. Altogether, the material was funkier and weirder than that of All I Want Is You. The high points eclipsed that album's singles, and some out-there moments confirmed that the freaky and daring qualities of "Teach Me" were not simply dabblings. Kaleidoscope Dream includes some of the ADC songs in varying form, as well as the six songs from the July and September album-preview EPs. The small quantity of new material makes Kaleidoscope Dream anticlimactic for some. For them, the trade-off is that they heard the majority of 2012's most pleasurable pop-R&B album digital Advent calendar style. It leads with "Adorn," the singer's second solo number one R&B/Hip-Hop single; there's some atmospheric, mechanical/organic likeness to Marvin Gaye's 1982 ballad "Sexual Healing," but it trades lust for soul-bearing affection and carries some of the era's sweetest backgrounds and a knockout falsetto howl over probing but unobtrusive bass. That song and most of the others stay true to the album's title and maintain an illusory atmosphere. This sense is intensified by some unexpected touches, like an interlude where Miguel softly croons part of the Zombies' "Time of the Season" over synthesizer goo, and the hovering title track, which incorporates the bassline from Labi Siffre's "I Got The" (in a manner heavier than Eminem's "My Name Is") and some "Strawberry Letter 23"-like guitar swirls. There are instances where the lyrical content edges too close to "artsy" teenage erotic poetry, but no song is without an attractive quality, whether it's a heavenly melody, a riveting rhythm, or a boggling production nuance. The set is cunningly sequenced, too. The loose "Where's the Fun in Forever" -- atmospheric yet mostly drums and bass, with some cool and casual background vocals from Alicia Keys -- melts into ADC highlight "Arch & Point," which is something like a skeletal power pop number slowed to a seductively squalid prowl. In its new context, the back half of that combination sounds fresh. Miguel is listed first in the songwriting credits of each song, and he's involved with much of the production, but he gets valuable support from earlier associates Salaam Remi and Happy Perez, as well as the likes of Warren "Oak" Felder, Andrew "Pop" Wansel, Steve "Ace" Mostyn, and J*Davey's Brook D'Leau, whose baleful keyboards on the closing "Candles in the Rain" flirt with evil.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Fiona Apple
Right from the poetic but inconveniently long title, Fiona Apple's first album after a seven-year hiatus announces that, whatever has happened in those years, Apple remains a willfully defiant and singularly fascinating artist. One noticeable change is in her voice: always a supple, impressive instrument, it has taken on a smoother, smokier tone with age. Apple works with drummer and multi-instrumentalist Charley Drayton, but their arrangements are pleasingly open and sparse, allowing Apple's voice—cracking, howling, always coming back to a deceptively calm tone—to do the heavy emotional lifting, of which it's more than capable. The album's title references subtle mechanical devices meant to mend and maintain, and its songs reflect the slow struggles and sustaining joys of finding those things—whether personal connection or individual strength—that keep us going in our own lives.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Visions

Grimes
Grimes' voice on Visions will get stuck in your head. Not just her agile melodies or her pop-smart lyrics—although those will, too—but that strange, elfin voice. Or voices, really, since electro-pop artist Claire Boucher frequently loops and layers herself into harmonious polyphony. This makes her solo songs surprisingly roomy and active, her main register—a high voice that often strays into baby-ish twee—playing against thumping beats, spacey synths and less modulated vocals without cluttering up the frequency range. It's a captivating sound, but it would be academic without such supremely catchy pop tunes as back-to-back pair "Genesis," with its koto-like synth lines and ecstatic chorus, and "Oblivion," which displaces girl group harmonies and handclaps for a dark, stalking taunt.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

Boys & Girls

Alabama Shakes
A low-key 2011 EP put Alabama Shakes on the map, but it was the buzz about the band's live shows—a hurricane of stomping, shabby-chic Southern soul led by firecracker vocalist Brittany Howard—that made Boys & Girls among the most anticipated debuts of 2012. The opening single, "Hold On," lives up to all the breathless hype; the Stax-studied howler seems heir apparent to The Black Keys' broad appeal. Of course, even though that gale force opener is a tough act to follow, the band's straight-laced guitar hooks and strutting backbeats are a rock-solid underpinning for Howard's rambunctious vocal tear (check out also-ran singles like "I Found You" and "I Ain't the Same"). So while Boys & Girls is an excellent initiation for the young band, it also seems to infer that the best is still to come.

Nate Cavalieri, Google Play

Black Radio

Robert Glasper Experiment

Until The Quiet Comes

Flying Lotus
Flying Lotus' fourth, dream-like album starts off slowly, meandering through a series of instrumentals that sound like tossed-off beat loops. A long-awaited duet with Erykah Badu, "See Thru to U," underwhelms as Badu relegates herself to using a gauzy, indistinct voice. Then an amazing thing happens when bassist Thundercat appears for the druggy "DMT Song": Until the Quiet Comes sharpens into focus. The album's second half is as brilliant as anything the producer has done, as he scores one banger after another, from Thom Yorke's golem-like spotlight on "Electric Candyman" to the lovely and balletic "Phantasm" and "me Yesterday//Corded." While that bumpy first half can't be forgotten, Until the Quiet Comes ultimately demonstrates that Flying Lotus remains a force to be reckoned with.

Mosi Reeves, Google Play

Trilogy

The Weeknd
In 2011, Abel Tesfaye, aka the Weeknd, released three free mixtapes, House of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence. Trilogy compiles them with remastered sound and adds three new songs. Tesfaye expresses unapologetically sordid feelings about drugs, partying, drugs, bad girls, drugs, strippers, drugs, good girls gone bad, and drugs -- all of which serve an identical purpose and get the same level of consideration. There are points throughout these works where Tesfaye is distinctively gripping, supplying deadly hooks and somehow singing for his life despite the cold blood flowing through his veins. When this package was released, he was gaining mainstream momentum with appearances on Drake's "Crew Love" and Wiz Khalifa's "Remember You." His potential is as obvious as his lyrics are toxic.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

The Bravest Man In The Universe

Bobby Womack
Veteran soul musician Bobby Womack releases The Bravest Man in the Universe, which marks his first solo album in almost a decade. Having struggled through drug addiction and great tragedy, Womack has written some of the greatest R&B songs, such as “Across 110th Street” and “Woman’s Gotta Have It”, and was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. Womack has since worked with Gorillaz and Mos Def, which has influenced the contemporary sound found on this record. Womack’s raspy soulful vocals are given a fresh sound here, including synths and drum machines, produced by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) and Richard Russell (Gil Scott-Heron)., Rovi

Life Is Good

Nas
Nas' gift and his curse has always been an abundance of ideas. Like every effort since his masterpiece debut Illmatic, Life Is Good—his tenth album—suffers from a violent lack of focus and an abundance of ideas that only occasionally gel thematically or sonically. The political intermingles sloppily with the personal and hard breakbeats get buried under the clutter of symphony orchestras. It's only when his producers give him some breathing room, stripping hip-hop down to its barest elements of little more than just a loop and a rhyme, on tracks like "Loco-Motive" and "Reach Out," that Nas is able to approach the glory of his early work. When he does, the flashes of brilliance still shine brightly, through artful turns of phrase like "sinister n**gas snicker through yellow teeth/ alcohol aging my n**gas faster than felonies."

-- Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Based On A T.R.U. Story

2 Chainz
Based on a T.R.U. Story comes at the peak of an unprecedented second career act. Atlanta's 2 Chainz, formerly known as Tity Boy, stumbled around the rap industry for more than a decade prior—as a Ludacris sidekick and a member of the under-appreciated duo Playaz Circle—before making a sudden and steep rise to ubiquity by way of freebie mixtapes. His solo debut is a work of distilled arrogance from a rapper with a very specific skill set. The story is a familiar one: drug dealer turns rapper, raps about the money and women that come from both, and the message is delivered mostly through smirkingly simplistic puns and an exasperated flow that burrows itself into listeners' brains via blunt repetition. But while 2 Chainz's rhyme style is firmly defined, he's yet to find similar footing sonically. Instead, Based on a T.R.U. Story jumps erratically around established post-millennial rap production tropes—from the quiet storm spaciness of Drake to the aggressive trap romps of Rick Ross.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Yellow & Green

Baroness
Apparently, just one primary color was no longer enough to cover the volume of ideas produced by Atlanta, Georgia's Baroness for its third long-playing release, and thus the 2012 follow-up to 2007's Red Album and 2009's Blue Record has become an 18-song double set named Yellow & Green. The irony is there's no obvious cohesive theme or musical direction particular to either color (Green might be a shade more morose, if at all), as each contains an equally schizophrenic array of musical touchstones, too eclectic to easily categorize. In fact, the biggest headline about this release pertains to something else entirely, and that is Baroness' not entirely unexpected evolution into something other than a heavy metal band; one focused on expanding its arsenal of sounds and moods while embracing big choruses and more commercial songwriting tricks targeting maximum immediacy. "March to the Sea," for example, boasts a new wave pulse and singing harmonies à la Big Country, while "Little Things" borrows something from the Cure (and "Sea Lungs" from U2!); the melancholy country of "Green Theme" owes more to the Band than Black Sabbath or anything metallic, for that matter, while the gothic folk of "Twinkler" takes a left-hand path approach to Fleet Foxes' wistful vocal choir; and perhaps most telling, a few cuts like "Cocainium" and "Back Where I Belong" feature keyboards more prominently than guitars. When those six-strings do get plugged in and their Marshalls properly cranked for songs like misleadingly heavy opener "Take My Bones Away," the Thin Lizzy-praising "Board Up the House," or the thunder pop nugget "The Line Between," it's not like they've been stripped of all their cojones and distortion (and these had already been toned down for the Blue Record), but the higher melodic quotient puts them squarely into the hard rock category, at most. And while one can't help but respect Baroness' general bravura and overwhelming success rate on these songs, the band inevitably falls flat on its face now and then, including a second-half stretch spanning the sleepy "Foolsong," the snoring drones of "Collapse," and the New Order horror show "Psalms Alive" (which admittedly, does come alive near the end). In sum: Yellow & Green undertakes such a massive creative leap that only time will tell whether it goes down as a triumph or a blunder. In fairness to Baroness' heavy metal fan constituency, all this experimentation has almost nothing in common with the band's initial, Isis-inspired post-metal EPs; but between the steady maturation displayed by those ensuing color-coded works and the quantity of songs here, both undeniably infectious and innovative, many more fans are bound to embark on the Georgians' strange, strange ride. Chances are, it will get even stranger from here on out.

Eduardo Rivadavia, Rovi

Locked Down

Dr. John
Between 1968 and 1972, New Orleans-cum-L.A. session musician Mac Rebennack transformed himself into Dr. John, The Nite Tripper. He recorded a series of albums for Atlantic, most importantly Gris-Gris, but also Babylon, Remedies, and The Sun, Moon, & Herbs; they seamlessly wove a heady, swampy brew of voodoo ritual, funk, and R&B, psychedelic rock, and Creole roots music. The Black Keys' guitarist Dan Auerbach admitted upon meeting Rebennack that he wanted to produce a Dr. John album and to revisit the Nite Tripper's musical terrain on record. The pair worked in Auerbach's Nashville studio with a group of younger players to explore the rawer, spookier elements in Dr. John's music. Locked Down is "not" an attempt to re-create Gris-Gris, which remains his classic; it -- and the other three records -- resembled nothing that existed before. Auerbach and Dr. John wanted to make a modern recording that drew on the spontaneous, more organic feel of those records; they succeeded in spades. Locked Down isn't quite swampy, but it is humid, even steamy. Its grooves are tight but raw and immediate. Its lyrics and music are charged with spiritual energy, carnal desire, and righteous indignation. It melds primal rock, careening R&B, and electric blues in an irresistible, downright nasty brew. The fingerpopping horn chart that announces "Revolution," is underscored by a fat baritone sax, an urgent, shake-your-ass bassline, and pulsing guitars. Drum breaks are constant in accompanying Rebennack's screed against corruption, "religious" hatred, and violence, which degrade humanity. His Wurlitzer solo is brief yet searing. "Ice Age"'s guitar, drum, and percussion vamp are deadly infectious. Rebennack's voice growls about collusion between the CIA and KKK and the end of an era, as the McCrary Sisters complement the vocals with an R&B chorus line in affirmation. His organ drones and wheezes to complete the picture, yet turns the last line into possibility: "If you ain't iced/you got the breath of life within."The electric piano on "Getaway" sets up a funktastic, bluesed-out swing. The guitars and Nick Movshon's hyper bassline drive it urgently with clusters of surf-like chords, reverb, and effects, completed by a roiling, over-the rails Auerbach solo. "Eleggua" is pure spaced-out Nite Tripper, a cosmic funky butt strut; its chanted mystical prayers come from the world of flesh "and" spirit; it's populated by slippery, watery guitars, wailing B-3, broken snare beats, and even a flute. That feel is underscored in the nocturnal shift and shimmer of "My Children, My Angels," driven by Rebennack's Rhodes, guitars, and a skittering snare. It's greasy yet somehow in synch with this love letter from a repentant father to his kids. Rebennack and Auerbach send it off, appropriately enough, with rock & roll gospel in "God's Sure Good" and a joyous chorus from the McCrary's behind-the-lyric's gratitude, highlighted by a swelling B-3 and backbone-slipping grit. No matter which era or what record you prefer, as an album, Locked Down stands with Rebennack's best.

Thom Jurek, Rovi

Mumps, Etc.

Why?
Returning to the brighter, bolder strokes of 2008's much-beloved Alopecia after its relatively somber sibling record (and follow-up), Eskimo Snow, the fifth album from Yoni Wolf and company is their most assured work to date; the sharpest expression of an aesthetic that remains undeniably, wholly their own. It's also probably their most balanced offering, with equal weight given to emotional heft, melodic sweetness, Wolf's deft, rap-like lyricism, and the band's richly colorful arrangements. Mumps, Etc. doesn't entirely break new ground in any of those areas, except perhaps the latter -- beyond the now-familiar layers of keyboards and mallet percussion, they called in orchestral musicians and a choir to further flesh out the album's sonics. Indeed, pretty much everything here could easily have fit on Alopecia. In other words, you can expect reams of Wolf's witty, diaristic verse, peppered with wry quotables and frequently dazzling internal rhymes, set against lovely, unpredictable backdrops full of instrumental ear-candy -- this time out, they're positively sumptuous, with an abundance of harps, marimbas, strings, flutes, and female harmonies, plus a bit more boom-bap in the percussion department. As for Wolf, he's in top form throughout. Riffing on malady and disease (per the album's title; both mental and physical); death and aging (he is, after all, "pushing past thirty"); life's absurd detritus (from "G4 motherboards with '90s porn in their cache" to "the angular Etruscan tchotchke mom-mom got me at the Met gift shop"); a bit of sex, and his music career (as well as the prospect of retirement -- he envisions himself, like your mom, smoking weed and listening to "that Garrison Keilor"), he is, by turns, bleak, sardonic, bemused, and humbly, philosophically hopeful. He also lays out his (typically downbeat) themes in a series of atypically straightforward chorus hooks: "I am not okay, boys." "I'll never shirk this first-world curse: a steady hurt and a sturdy purse." "I know with no uncertainty/that I'm uncertain and I don't know." That last is from "Kevin's Cancer," one of several lyrics wherein Wolf grapples with religion more directly than he has in the past -- a natural enough topic for the mortality-obsessed son of a rabbi, though interestingly, there are nearly as many Christian references here as Jewish ones. Opener "Jonathan's Hope" finds him addressing the Lord directly: "Will you spell out love in the lashes life serves up/or am I just a red bump in the rash of cash worship?" He also comes up with a handful of excellent new epithets for himself: "the blundering braggart," "the doctor of ramble and world scramble." Sure, you could call it solipsistic -- a word that's crying out for a labyrinthine Yoni rhyme, if ever there was one -- if self-deprecatingly so -- but Wolf is as honest and, in a greater sense, as generous a songwriter as we have, and Mumps, Etc. may be his finest gift yet.

K. Ross Hoffman, Rovi

La Bala

Ana Tijoux
Ana Tijoux's 2010 U.S. debut album, 1977, instantly established the politically aware Chilean artist as the leading female MC on the Latin alternative scene. On La Bala ("The Bullet"), she focuses on socially conscious themes and her ever-expanding vocal range. Collaborations with erudite Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler, Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Curumin and others balance orchestral arrangements with soul grooves. At times, all this threatens to overwhelm Tijoux's lyrical strengths. But as the plain spoken track "Shock" makes clear, she remains honest, and her assured delivery makes the messages impossible to ignore.

Judy Cantor-Navas, Google Play

Cancer 4 Cure

El-P
Displeasure is El-P's speciality. Ever since his days with '90s indie-rap pioneers Company Flow, the rapper/producer has used his platform to rally against the ills of society. He's mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore. With Cancer 4 Cure, his third solo album, he continues to refine Public Enemy's wall of noise model for the digital era, immaculately stacking a seemingly endless supply of distorted samples, synth wheezes and violent drum stabs. They shift and shatter quickly, while El's sardonic and single-minded raps shout down global conspiracies in strings of apocalyptic images. None of this is new ground for the rapper; in fact, he's mostly treading the same circles he always has. But at least he's doing so with a righteous stomp.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Our Version Of Events

Emeli Sandé
Emerging from an impressive lot of UK singer-songwriters like Adele, Jessie J, Florence + The Machine and Ellie Goulding, Emeli Sandé is a dynamo with storytelling skills as powerful as her vocals. On her debut, Sandé's soulful pop is polished to perfection. The repentant trip-hop anthem "Heaven" opens with a haunting whirlwind unlike the rest of the ballad-heavy album. Lead single "Next to Me" celebrates good men, while "Daddy" is a foreboding addiction tale and "Breaking the Law" declares unconditional love.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

R.A.P. Music

Killer Mike
Steeped in tradition but always looking for a better tomorrow, rapper Killer Mike already had an incredibly strong discography before R.A.P. Music landed, but here he hits harder than any of his fans could have hoped. The album was released by the "Adult Swim"-associated label Williams Street and was produced by the dirty beatmaker and underground favorite El-P, and even if these bullet points are interesting and exciting, they are not the reason this is a vital piece of work. El-P plays a major part, as his funky, murky work has obviously inspired the stone-cold Killer -- and the shout-out that begins "Jojo's Chillin'" sounds like pure pride in his producer -- but those initials stand for "Rebellious African People Music", and Mike seeks to honor "every music that's been born on this continent from a group of people that were brought here in chains." Heavy words, and yet Mike delivers, not by giving a genre history lesson or delivering a linear concept album, but by joining a cause that stretches from Ellington to Nas, where pride isn't squandered and the struggles of your ancestors are always respected. As such, old friends T.I. and Bun B are brought back (remember the "Re-Akshon" remix from 2003?) for the opening monster dubbed "Big Beast" ("we some money hungry wolves and we're down to eat the rich") while "Go!" worships the West Coast and its legacy, all while kicking off with a startling sample that will welcome old-school heads. "Reagan" is pure politics, rallying against the President's legacy, while "Anywhere But Here" loves rolling through Atlanta and Harlem, but the memories there are the extreme definition of bittersweet as Mike relays the sights passing by the window (that's where I grew up, that's where Sean Bell got shot). While the strange, winding siren of "Untitled" is classic, prime El-P, for the rapper, the track is a new, insightful, intelligent high point, plus the first time (John) Gotti and (Salvador) Dali have been rhymed successfully. That last bit can't be stressed enough, and while R.A.P. Music is filled with all the heartbreak, pain, anger, and earnestness praised above, it's also an incredibly fly and fun record, filled with that prime MC/producer chemistry while striking that perfect balance of persuasive and powerful. Revolutionary stuff and absolutely no fluff, R.A.P. Music is outstanding.

Psychedelic Pill

Neil Young And Crazy Horse

Soul Is Heavy

Nneka
Cementing her status as Nigeria's most successful musician since Fela Kuti, Soul Is Heavy is the third album from politically conscious soul vocalist Nneka. Further developing her unique blend of R&B, reggae, hip-hop, and Afro-beat, the follow-up to 2008's No Longer at Ease includes collaborations with Mercury Music Prize-winner Ms. Dynamite ("Sleep") and Roots MC Black Thought ("God Knows Why").

Jon O'Brien, Rovi

Ondatrópica

Ondatrópica

TNGHT

TNGHT
The first release from Quebec's Lunice and Glasgow's Hudson Mohawke leans a little more toward the former's solo output than that of the latter. That comes down to the EP's lack of bloody-minded, overloaded garishness. The five cuts lower the boom with varying temperaments, from the zig-zag synthesizer and stomped bleachers of "Gooo" to the shattering glass, demented slide whistles, and rallying grunts of "Easy Easy." It's too developed, too rich with energizing rhythms and thrilling little fillips, to be considered a glorified beat tape. At 16 minutes, it's just about the ideal length, as 40 or more minutes of the stuff might be just a bit excessive.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

The Lion's Roar

First Aid Kit
Swedish band First Aid Kit, consisting of prodigious sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, make haunted but hopeful folk music steeped in the twang of Americana. Having previously covered contemporaries Fleet Foxes, the twentysomething siblings' second studio effort, The Lion's Roar, finds them teaming up with Bright Eyes'/Saddle Creek's in-house producer, Mike Mogis, who fleshes out their close harmonies and fills in their acoustic guitars with warm, full-band accompaniments. The result is an album that quickly establishes their promising place in the modern indie folk landscape.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

The Bridge

Aeges
Featuring members of Pelican, 16 and Undertow, indie metal supergroup Aeges covers ground from shoegazing ambient instrumentation, straight-edge hardcore and sludge metal. But their resulting album isn't necessarily any one of those things. Though in no short supply of roost-ruling bass lines and sawing guitars, the heavily distorted debut from these underground luminaries is actually brimming with pop sensibility, featuring sing-along choruses and catchy hooks that get heavy in all the right places.

More a nod to the dingy basement where grunge and alt-metal diverged in the '90s, The Bridge is built over a wall of sound that crosses from pummeling tracks like album opener "Wrong" into the upbeat "My Medicine," before entering the threatening delta of "Southern Comfort." And that's only the first three songs. Mood-shifting and genre-defying, with gorgeous vocal melodies to top it all off, this first offering from the four members of Aeges not only exercises their prowess but sets the bar exceptionally high.

Jen Guyre, Google Play

Trap Back

Gucci Mane

Children Of Exodus

Bambú Station

Vows (Deluxe Version)

Kimbra
Echoing the experimental nature of recent collaborator Gotye, whose number one single "Somebody That I Used to Know" she stole the show on, New Zealand songstress Kimbra's debut album, Vows, is a schizophrenic affair that is almost impossible to pigeonhole. Effortlessly flitting from bubblegum pop starlet on the playful old-skool beats and '60s doo wop vocals of "Cameo Lover" to avant-garde banshee on the melancholic music box-inspired closer, "The Build Up," Kimbra's chameleon-like tendencies ensure that predictability is certainly never an issue on any one of its 12 genre-hopping tracks. Occasionally, this "cover all bases" approach lacks focus, but for the most part, Kimbra's invention is a marvel to behold, as her enchanting and swooping jazz-pop tones glide across a veritable feast of sounds, from the hypnotic double basslines and '30s show tune harmonies of "Good Intent"; to the plinky piano hooks and rhythmic R&B grooves of opener "Settle Down"; while a beautifully gothic take on "Plain Gold Ring" is one of the rare instances of a Nina Simone cover matching the original. It will be interesting to see if she decides to pursue a more streamlined direction in the future, but by threading its widely eclectic range of influences together in such an impressively cohesive manner, Vows suggests she might never need to.

Sweet Jamaica

Mr. Vegas

Olgamikks

Robag Wruhme

Silfra

Hilary Hahn

ƒIN

John Talabot

Break It Yourself

Andrew Bird
After a long string of lush, intricately plotted collections of classically minded indie pop, crafty violinist, minutia-loving songwriter and peerless whistler Andrew Bird offers up Break It Yourself, an intricately plotted collection of classically minded indie pop that eschews the meticulous studio refinement of Armchair Apocrypha and Noble Beast. Recorded mostly live at his studio barn in Western Illinois, Bird, drummer/percussionist Martin Dosh, and guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker have crafted a sunny, unpredictable set of tunes that reflects the pastoral Mississippi river valley that birthed them. Meandering and soulful, the album relies on the usual pizzicato loops, orchestral flourishes, and oddball subject matter that's preoccupied Bird since 2003's Weather Systems, but for the first time since his Bowl of Fire days, it feels less like a one-man band. Stand-out cuts like "Orpheo Looks Back", "Eyeoneye," and "Danse Caribe," the latter of which manages to balance elements of Americana, Celtic, and calypso without coming off as contrived or fractured, display an artist in the kind of relaxed, creative state that can only come from putting one's feet up on their own desk after a rigorous bout of touring, which in Bird's case was about five years. This new-found "band" feel also makes itself known on more exploratory tracks like opener "Desperation Breeds" and the eight minute "Hole in the Ocean Floor," songs that despite their art rock lengths, remain engaging and immediate throughout. On first spin, Break It Yourself may sound like a typical outing, but repeated listens unveil an assembly of songs that are as verdant and mercurial as they are rooted in the Bird tradition.

James Christopher Monger, Rovi

I Love You, It's Cool

Bear In Heaven
Months in advance of the release of I Love You, It's Cool, Brooklyn trio Bear in Heaven posted streaming audio of the new album in its entirety on their website. The catch was that they slowed the audio significantly, stretching the songs into a continuous 247 hour file, their upbeat synthy pop songs sounding more like the icy ambient drones of Gas or Tim Hecker when played 400,000-percent slower. The stream came off more tongue-in-cheek when the band released a conjoining video mockumentary absurdly positing that they played the entire three-month track live. In one sense, transforming their album into an experimental wash is nothing more than a jokey publicity stunt, but in another, it might suggest the band is taking a look backwards. I Love You, It's Cool (when played at full speed) is a non-stop showering of hard-edged synths, fuzzy drums, and suave vocals. It's a crisp pop record made less sterile by a barrage of noisy sounds and tight productions, like the angsty kid brother of Phoenix who would rather make art films than go to the club or maybe a noisier, less controlled foil to the lush melancholia of Beach House. This is a logical progression from their 2009 breakthrough album Beast Rest Forth Mouth, but before that album, Bear in Heaven's sound jumped around hyperactively from Eno-following rock to murky sample-based experimentalism. Their 2007 album, Red Bloom of the Boom, included long passages of ambient wash, not terrifically unlike the lurching sounds of ILY, IC slowed dramatically. Those moments of genre-hopping and sonic wandering are completely absent here. The production is huge and without flaws, showcasing the band's big beats and armies of synths in loud colors. "The Reflection of You" is among the catchier songs on the album, bandleader Jon Philpot's smooth vocals high in the mix and crooning seductively over layers of distorted bass and melodic electro textures. It's one of the more clear-headed tracks, as the production gets dreamier as the album goes on. By "Sinful Nature," the band is submerged completely in their swirling sound, dunking the' 90s soft psychedelic guitar rock influence of Jane's Addiction or Gish-era Smashing Pumpkins under syncopated walls of sawtooth synthesizer patterns. Tracks like "World of Freakout" and "Space Remains" flirt with the same kind of theatrical indie bombast as contemporaries like M83 or MGMT. I Love You, It's Cool is a steamrolling album, and with that hyper-vivid flow of stimuli, songs become samey and disengaging after a while. The only breather comes in the downtempo hippy groove of album-closer "Sweetness & Sickness." While the band has grown since their beginnings, it's not hard to think they might miss their salad days of less precise Krautrock jamming and infusing the experimental with the pristine. Their breed of futuristic pop is more polished than ever, and loses some of its edge with that increased emulsion.

Fred Thomas, Rovi

Tempest

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan's latest album Tempest achieves something rather unique: it's simultaneously an easy and challenging listen. The album is constructed from the same listenable mix of rock, country-folk, blues and Tin Pan Alley pop that defines his output since the renaissance-commencing Time Out of Mind. This time around, however, Dylan sculpts this mix into a somber, open-ended backdrop for some of the most epic, as well as darkest, storytelling he's tackled in decades. Five cuts extend over seven minutes, with the all-verse-no-chorus title track (a sinking-ship tale stained in gore and misery) falling just shy of 14. Closing out Tempest is "Roll on John," a tribute to fellow '60s icon John Lennon. That said, the tune's imagery and metaphor is ambiguous enough to conclude that Dylan is meditating upon his own mortality as well.

Justin Farrar, Google Play

Total Loss

How To Dress Well
On his second How to Dress Well album Total Loss, Tom Krell abandons much of the murky mystery of his debut, Love Remains, undescoring the R&B roots of his music. "When I Was in Trouble" introduces Krell's new aesthetic, bathing his falsetto vocals -- now freed of the static and distortion that cloaked them on his debut -- in electronics that manage to be gloomy and glowing at the same time; on "Struggle," reverb surrounds his voice like a halo. Letting his more-or-less naked vocal stand out so clearly offers an entirely different kind of vulnerability than the one he displayed on Love Remains, but How to Dress Well still works best when Krell favors the more ethereal side of his music, blurring together his influences into something unique. He does this especially well on the fittingly frosty "Cold Nites," which grows from clacking typewriters into a surprisingly epic lament; "Say My Name or Say Whatever," with its dreamy spoken word passages and blurry synths, is one of the more logical progressions from Love Remains' mystique. Similarly, "Running Back"'s mix of church-like reverb and a beat-full of pops and sighs finds a happy medium between Krell's debut and his new approach, while "Ocean Floor for Everything" feels like a more literal, lower-pitched Balam Acab track. Ultimately, Total Loss reflects a trade-off of one type of emotional expression for another, and the change from the ghostly intimacy of Krell's debut to this clearer, more overt music makes for a prettier, more polished set of songs that are a little less strikingly original than what came before them. Considering how divisive Love Remains' intentional sonic flaws were, if listeners can hear How to Dress Well better on Total Loss, then that counts for something.

Heather Phares, Rovi

Gravity

Lecrae
Dropping "I've seen more trials than Cochrane" within the first minute of his 2012 album helps solidify Lecrae's reputation as just about the coolest dude in Christian hip-hop, but Gravity doesn't stop there. This crossover-minded effort follows two conceptual efforts (2010's Rehab and 2011's Rehab: The Overdose) and the rapper sounds rejuvenated by the idea, vamping like Jay-Z before launching into an infectious and alive title track, and ready to confront rappers who front ("You ain't shootin'/Ain't killin', Ain't doin'") on the grinding, Southern-flavored highlight "Fakin'." For fans of mainstream hip-hop, "Mayday" is a must have with underground don Big K.R.I.T. and "American Idol" season ten contestant Ashthon Jones joining Lecrae on this DJ Khalil-produced slice of buttery soul, but stick around for "Confessions" and hip-hop's love of bling is brought down by a difficult yet compelling number where the rapper lays out his Christian-based argument in the unexpected, brittle style of a beatnik poet or Saul Williams on "Def Poetry Jam". Best of all, he makes all these genre experiments and jumps in style sound effortless and natural, all as the Lord's word is reinforced by stories of personal experience, both moving and devastating. No doubt, Gravity is a success, and while Rehab is the more rewarding album in the end, this one is more persuasive and immediate, making it an easy entry point into this gifted artist's discography.

David Jeffries, Rovi

Home Again

Michael Kiwanuka

My Head Is An Animal

Of Monsters And Men
The performance that launched Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men in the States was an intimate, acoustic living room session recorded in late 2010 for (Reykjavik sister-city) Seattle's KEXP. Their full-length debut, My Head Is an Animal, similarly begins with just acoustic guitar and male/female vocal harmonies, but it quickly opens up into anthemic upsweep and choral shouts worthy of Arcade Fire, as the six-piece band expands from indie folk to booming chamber pop. There is odd instrumentation (accordion, melodica, glockenspiel), lively percussion and background vocals, and subtle effects of studio space; this is an album that announces Of Monsters and Men as a vastly bigger, and more ambitious, beast.

Eric Grandy, Google Play