50 Under 30

good kid, m.A.A.d city

Kendrick Lamar
Hip-hop debuts don't come much more "highly anticipated" than Kendrick Lamar's. A series of killer mixtapes displayed his talent for thought-provoking street lyrics delivered with an attention-grabbing flow, and then there was his membership in the Black Hippy crew with his brethren Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, and Jay Rock all issuing solo releases that pleased the "true hip-hop" set, setting the stage for a massive fourth and final. Top it off with a pre-release "XXL Magazine" cover that he shared with his label boss and all-around legend Dr. Dre, and the "biggest debut since Illmatic" stuff starts to flow, but Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City would be a milestone even without the back-story, offering cool and compelling lyrics, great guests (Drake, Dr. Dre, and MC Eiht) and attractive production (from Pharrell, Just Blaze, Tabu, and others). Here, Kendrick is living his life like status and cash were extra credit. It is what makes this kid so "good" as he navigates his "mad" city (Compton) with experience and wisdom beyond his years (25). He's shamelessly bold about the allure of the trap, contrasting the sickness of his city with the universal feeling of getting homesick, and carrying a Springsteen-sized love for the home team. Course, in his gang-ruled city, N.W.A. "was" the home team, but as the truly beautiful, steeped-in-soul, biographic key track "The Art of Peer Pressure" finds a reluctant young Kendrick and his friends feeding off the life-force of Young Jeezy's debut album, it's something Clash, Public Enemy, and all other rebel music fans can relate to. Still, when he realizes that hero Jeezy must have risen above the game -- because the real playas are damned and never show their faces -- it spawns a kind of elevated gangsta rap that's as pimp-connectable as the most vicious Eazy-E, and yet poignant enough to blow the dust off any cracked soul. Equally heavy is the cautionary tale of drank dubbed "Swimming Pools," yet that highlight is as hooky and hallucinatory as most Houston drank anthems, and breaks off into one of the chilling, cassette-quality interludes that connect the album, adding to the documentary or eavesdropping quality of it all. Soul children will experience déjà vu when "Poetic Justice" slides by with its Janet Jackson sample -- sounding like it came off his Aunt's VHS copy of the movie it's named after -- while the closing "Compton" is an anthem sure to make the Game jealous, featuring Dre in beast mode, acting pre-Chronic and pre-Death Row. This journey through the concrete jungle of Compton is worth taking because of the artistic richness within, plus the attraction of a whip-smart rapper flying high during his rookie season. Any hesitation about the horror of it all is quickly wiped away by Kendrick's mix of true talk, open heart, open mind, and extended hand. Add it all up and even without the hype, this one is still potent and smart enough to rise to the top of the pile.

Unorthodox Jukebox

Bruno Mars
Bruno Mars has said that Unorthodox Jukebox represents his freedom, and it lives up to its title as Mars moves through genres and eras, veering mostly into retro soul. The follow-up to his Grammy-winning 2010 debut Doo-Wops & Hooligans opens with the '80s pop-influenced "Young Girls" and lead single "Locked Out of Heaven." "I got a body full of liquor with a cocaine kicker and I'm feeling like I'm 30 feet tall," Mars indulges on "Gorilla," an animalistic sex jam. "Natalie" and "Money Make Her Smile," about a gold-digger and stripper respectively, follow in that gritty tone, while the retro-disco "Treasure" paired with "Moonshine" play out like a cinematic love story.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Bangarang

Skrillex
Nominated for five Grammy Awards, shortlisted for the prestigious BBC Sound of 2012 poll, and courted by everyone from Chicago producer Kaskade to metal icons Korn, former From First to Last frontman Sonny Moore's transition from post-hardcore vocalist to dubstep producer couldn't have realistically gone any smoother. However, despite his unprecedented success, there's still a question as to whether he can apply his now trademark, demonic, wobble bass drops and thumping syncopated beats to a whole album. Named after the battle cry of the lost boys in Steven Spielberg's "Hook", his fourth consecutive EP Bangarang (also his first Top 40 entry in both the U.K. and U.S.) suggests he'll have to be on his game on the forthcoming full-length Voltage if he's to avoid an Emperor's New Clothes scenario. While the bombastic Wall of Sound displayed on 2010's Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites initially provided a unique take on the U.K. dubstep genre, Skrillex's lack of progression means there's a distinct sense of déjà vu among its seven tracks, particularly on the relentless, scattershot bleeps, chopped-up vocal hooks, and repetitive loops of opener "Right In" and the rap-metal fusion of "Kyoto." Even when he does think outside the box -- as on "Right on Time," a percussive, hard house collaboration with 12th Planet and Kill the Noise which eventually builds into a feverish slice of happy hardcore, and "The Devil's Den," a chaotic hook-up with Wolfgang Gartner which takes in everything from old-school rave to ska to techno -- the results are more headache-inducing than thrilling. There are a few more encouraging signs, such as the Doors-featuring "Breakin' a Sweat," which combines proggy guitar hooks, psychedelic organ chords, and Jim Morrison samples with a snarling, Prodigy-esque vocal and a filthy slab of dub bass to produce one of the year's most unexpectedly successful partnerships, and the multi-layered trance of closer "Summit," given an ethereal sheen thanks to Ellie Goulding's lilting tones, both of which suggest Skrillex should utilize his melodic leanings more often. But overall, Bangarang is a disappointingly formulaic affair which hints for the first time that the wheels may soon slowly begin to fall off.

+

Ed Sheeran
+ is the debut studio album by English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, released on 9 September 2011 by Asylum Records and Atlantic Records. The album marks Sheeran's commercial breakthrough, having previously released five EPs independently. Jake Gosling produced the majority of the album, with additional production by American hip hop producer No I.D.. Upon release, + debuted atop of the UK Albums Chart with first-week sales exceeding 102,000 copies The album performed well on the US Billboard 200, peaking at number 5, selling 42,000 copies. The album is the highest debut for a British artist's first studio album in the US since Susan Boyle's I Dreamed a Dream.
Media interest surrounding + was fuelled significantly by its two preceding singles—"The A Team" and "You Need Me, I Don't Need You"—which peaked at number one and number four on the UK Singles Chart respectively. "Lego House" was released on 11 November 2011 as the album's third single and emulated the chart success of its predecessors, peaking at number five in the UK. Three further singles were released throughout the year; "Drunk", "Small Bump" and "Give Me Love", all of which charted within the top 25 of the UK Singles Chart. It was met with generally mixed reviews from music critics.

~ Provided by Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%2B_(album)) under Creative Commons Attribution CC-BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode)

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

Same Trailer Different Park

Kacey Musgraves
Kacey Musgraves could easily be contemporary country's next big thing. She's a sharp, detailed songwriter with a little bit of an edge, and while it's tempting to think of her as another coming of Taylor Swift, say, she's got the kind of relaxed sureness about what she's doing as a songwriter and performer that puts her closer to a Miranda Lambert. On her first nationally distributed album, Same Trailer Different Park, she definitely sounds more on the Lambert side of things, with a sparse, airy sound that lets her lyrics shine, and she'd as soon use a banjo in her arrangements as a snarling Stratocaster. From her debut single, the marvelous "Merry Go 'Round" (which is included here as the third track), Musgraves showed an intelligent, careful writing style that is as pointed as it is poignant, and even though the song seems to skewer small-town country life, it does it without malice or agenda, and is really more just telling it true than anything else, a trait that ought to be treasured in Nashville but usually isn't. Nashville wants one to tell it true as long as that telling conforms to the template, which Musgraves isn't likely to do. "Merry Go 'Round" might be the best song here, but there are others that are nearly as good, like the lilting, wise opener, "Silver Lining," the implausible "Dandelion" (one wonders how she manages to make such a winning song out of such a metaphor, but she does), and the gutsy (and again, wise) "Follow Your Arrow," all of which feature clear-eyed observations, unintrusive but appropriate arrangements, and a certain flair for telling it like it is and making it sound like bedrock, obvious wisdom. Musgraves has a sense of humor, too, and all of these traits add up to make Same Trailer Different Park more than a collection of songs just aiming for the country charts.

Steve Leggett, Rovi

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

Revolution

Miranda Lambert
While Miranda Lambert’s first two albums spun tales of kerosene fires, bar fights, and firearmed vengeance, Revolution finds the Texan taking some degree of comfort in her relationship with Blake Shelton, whose influence helps govern the album’s mellow moments. Lambert has never played by anyone’s rules, but she has carved out her own set of principles over the course of a four-year career. Accordingly, Revolution offers a strong, cohesive take on what has quickly become the “Lambert sound”: a blend of lilting ballads and loud, fire-breathing anthems (many of which owe as much to rock as country). She’s also more comfortable with the slower songs this time around, and “Dead Flowers” is perhaps her strongest vocal performance to date.

Andrew Leahey, Rovi

Take Care (Deluxe)

Drake

Iconic EP

Icona Pop
Collecting six of Icona Pop's early tracks into a six-song EP, Iconic leads off with the duo's most winning song to date, the hit single "I Love It." Aino Jawo and Caroline Hjelt's half-sung, half-shouted vocals and revved-up synths make the song inescapably catchy, and this devil-may-care feel informs "Ready for the Weekend" and "Top Rated," both of which combine the transcendent highs of EDM with the pleasures of a three-minute pop song. The duo's quieter side isn't quite as compelling as their hedonism, although "Manners" -- which was sampled and sped up by Chiddy Bang on his track "Mind Your Manners" -- boasts a hook that's nearly as memorable as Icona Pop's more uptempo work. "Sun Goes Down" may be the weakest track here, but its mix of chopped and screwed rap and melodramatic Europop (courtesy of collaborators St. Lucia and the Knocks) is still pretty interesting. Released in anticipation of the duo's full-length debut, Iconic gives a good idea of where Icona Pop have been and where they're headed.

Heather Phares, Rovi

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

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

Perfectly Imperfect

Elle Varner
As an NYU graduate and the daughter of music veterans, Elle Varner and her Perfectly Imperfect debut often outpaces her producers, Pop & Oak (known for Big Sean's "Marvin & Chardonnay" and Nicki Minaj's "Right by My Side"). The beats are slick enough—"Refill" opens with a fiddle, while "Only Want to Give It to You" lifts the drum beat from Biz Markie's "Make the Music With Your Mouth, Biz." But Varner's lyrics are unusually vivid, and her voice is memorably rough and grainy, yet expressive. "You're intoxicating my mind/ Feel like a conversational lush," she sings on "Refill," while on "So Fly" she talks about feeling inadequate about her body, singing, "I can't help being depressed when I look down at my chest." Varner's a promising songwriter, and with luck, Perfectly Imperfect is the first building block for a career worthy of her talent.

Mosi Reeves, Google Play

King Of Conflict

The Virginmarys
King of Conflict is the debut album from British rock outfit The Virginmarys. While forming in 2006, the band did not ink their first record deal till 2012, spending their early years touring with the likes of Feeder, Eagles of Death Metal and Skunk Anansie. Produced by Toby Jepson (Little Angels, Gun), the album sees the band deliver a blast of classic rock, inspired by the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Who and Nirvana., Rovi

Radio Music Society

Esperanza Spalding
Breakout jazz star Esperanza Spalding has crafted a mainstream neo-soul record that retains both her uncontainable positive energy and her complex bop harmonies. The bassist/vocalist/songwriter uses Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder as artistic touchstones and there's a groovy '70s vibe to the set, as if Anita Baker let her freak flag fly at Laura Nyro's "Stoned Soul Picnic." The pop guests include Q-Tip, Lalah Hathaway and Algebra (lead vocals on the pride anthem "Black Gold"), while the jazz genius of Joe Lovano, Jack DeJohnette, African guitar sensation Lionel Loueke and others further uplift the set. Spalding tackles tough social issues on "Land of the Free" and "Vague Suspicions," and yet the entire album feels like a summer day (American Music Program, the seriously tight group Spalding played with as a kid, even appears on a few tracks).

Nick Dedina, Google Play

Pluto 3D

Future
An Atlanta rapper with ties to OutKast, Future is a true ATLien, mumbling his way through infectious hooks and frequently drenching his vocals in Auto-Tune, not to correct the pitch but to further muddle and murk his delivery. It was the perfect complement for YC's snarky vocals on his hit "Racks," and it made for an excellent centerpiece for "Tony Montana," Future's own mixtape hit that, landing on his official debut here, still sounds like a draggy and dark David Banner cut made with both the syrup sippers and the goth kids in mind. In other words, the man is either "niche" or "limited" depending on your viewpoint, but this scattershot yet uniquely attractive debut does an excellent job of swaying listeners toward "niche" by keeping the guest list purposeful and the production varied. Good luck defining yourself on any track R. Kelly is going to declare his comeback, and yet Future's grand rollout goes from an everyday intro into Kellsville within two tracks, although "Parachute" ("because I am going down on ya") is a true highlight and there's little reason to ease fans into an album that's like a T-Pain-ish circus at half tempo. T.I. and Juicy J offer worthy catch phrases and better choruses on their cuts before the chilled and biographical "Truth Gonna Hurt You" appears like halftime, conveniently splitting the album as the pattern begins again. Breaking up the hooky solo numbers on part two are great Drake, Trae tha Truth, and Snoop Dogg features, and by the end of it all, Future comes off as a memorable name in spite of his narrow style. Pluto is fat and redundant, but it delivers whenever you desire that purple and woozy, Cudi-meets-Khalifa flavor. [In late 2012, Sony BMG reissued the rapper's debut album as Pluto 3D with three new tracks and two remixes.]

David Jeffries, Rovi

Overgrown

James Blake
With his 2011 debut full-length, dubstep-via-fractured R&B producer James Blake delivered on the promise of his earlier singles while at the same time overhauling his sound, moving away somewhat from the sample-heavy dubstep of those tracks to a sparser atmosphere. The album focused more on Blake's equally haunted piano and vocal lines, submerged elements of implied rhythms, dubstep's subsonic bass resonance, and ghostly samples to create a picture of restraint and contained emotional upheaval. The album felt not so much like the calm before the storm, but like silently watching a hurricane slowly and soundlessly move closer from the distance. Sophomore album Overgrown offers a similar feeling, but Blake approaches the songs here with even more restraint and a subtly deconstructed take on pop. Subtlety is perhaps Blake's greatest attribute on Overgrown, with what could even be the album's heaviest moments blurring into a pleasantly melancholy whole through deft production choices. Take for instance "Take a Fall for Me," a partially rhythm-less track featuring Wu-Tang's RZA in an extended set of rhymes over a looping sample of static and processed backing vocals, and samples that recall Tricky's earliest work. The jagged edges of a track like this could render it awkward with more obvious production, but Blake's touch pushes even RZA's toughest verses into a rainy, lamenting place. The skeletal piano of the debut returns on tracks like "DLM" or the gorgeous album-closer "Our Love Comes Back," which has the faintest hints of Chet Baker's springtime loneliness buried in Blake's mumbling blue-eyed R&B vocals. Brian Eno even shows up to collaborate on the sputtering rhythms of "Digital Lion," perhaps the most hyperactive track here, though only in relative terms. Somewhere between the vacant echoes of dub and trip-hop, dubstep's sample-slicing production, and the contained heartbreak of a singer/songwriter playing piano to himself in an empty room, Blake has crafted Overgrown. It's understated to the point of invisibility at times, with Blake subtracting even himself from the songs, allowing the lead vocals or hooks to be consumed by the song at large. Though the stormy textures and somber reflections are pretty specific to a particular mood, Overgrown finds and fits that mood perfectly. While it might take listeners a few spins to find the right head space for the album, once they get there, it's an easy place to get lost in.

Fred Thomas, Rovi

Finally Rich

Chief Keef
Chief Keef, Chicago's reigning street rap star, first came of age via a string of popular YouTube videos where he flatly sputtered heartless incantations about death and profit. On his debut album, the 17-year-old remains an inarticulate, mush-mouthed mess of a rapper, but when he sticks to the confines of this narrow skill set the results can be magnificent. His main trick entails hammering away at a single stunted cadence for the duration of a song as if to burn it into listeners' brains. The malicious breakout "I Don't Like" resonates for this very reason, and follow-ups like "Love Sosa" and "Hate Bein' Sober" stretch the same formula to more melodic ends. When Keef stumbles, he stumbles hard, and his lyrical limitations are especially apparent in the presence of elder guests like 50 Cent and Young Jeezy. But maybe it's unfair to measure his success by the standards of past generations; the new rap language is nearly an indecipherable one.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Home Again

Michael Kiwanuka

Basic Instinct

Ciara
On her fourth album, Ciara works extensively with Terius “The-Dream” Nash and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, the duo who collaborated on four of Fantasy Ride's best tracks. Unsurprisingly, the move fosters the singer’s most consistent and unified release. For the most part, Nash and Stewart alter their ever-present sound just enough to avoid repeating themselves, albeit while incorporating some of their telltale sonic imprints -- the dive-bombing synths, the subtle background-vocal chirps, the unrivaled sonic opulence. They cover each base with great accuracy; there’s a bombastic intro, a sleazy club track, some playful pop, and a ballad with a feather-light touch among them. The euphoric “Speechless” is the best of the seven Nash/Stewart productions, working a kind of regal slow-motion glide with synthetic horns and trunk-shaking bottom as Ciara’s voice hovers in a love-struck daze. A few songs touch upon characteristics from Ciara’s first two albums without being complete retreads; the Infinity-produced “Yeah I Know,” for instance, enters like a low-profile update of “Goodies” -- Ciara is half confrontational, half flirtatious -- but incorporates a twisting, glitzed-out chorus. “Turn It Up,” featuring Usher, improves upon Ciara’s other attempts at aggressive dance-pop. It’s one of the few effective Euro-flavored club numbers to be fronted by an R&B artist. Altogether, this is one of 2010’s finest pop-R&B albums -- Ciara's best yet.

Andy Kellman, Rovi

LONG.LIVE.A$AP

A$AP Rocky
Harlem-born and blog-bred, ASAP Rocky first made a name for himself with the ethereal and hyper-referential YouTube favorites "Peso" and "Purple Haze." For "F--kin' Problems," the breakout radio hit from his major label debut Long. Live. ASAP., he mostly abandons this aesthetic—and the mic, handing it to more radio-ready guests Drake, 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar to complement a more upbeat and playful sound. So it's something of a relief to hear that the bulk of the album tends to retain the fog of his early work. Rocky is a competent rapper at best—a slithery midpoint between present-day Drake and early Three 6 Mafia—and isn't particularly present as a personality or songwriter, but he can still sound downright glorious when he sinks into the right bed of feathered and fuzzy production.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

Anything In Return

Toro Y Moi
Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick isn’t the kind of guy who likes to repeat himself from release to release. His debut album, Causers of This, was murky, subtle chillwave, the follow-up, Underneath the Pine, was a much brighter affair that sounded equal parts space age bachelor pad music (à la Stereolab) and late-night disco. He followed that up with Freaking Out, a bubbling, funky EP, and then 2013’s Anything in Return, where he mostly casts aside the guitars that populated Underneath the Pine and sticks closer to a sleek and subdued Chill&B sound that sounds like a sadder version of Freaking Out. All the songs are dipped in shimmering layers of synths with the uptempo tracks underpinned by gently bouncing drums, the ballads with stuttering beats that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Miguel album. Though the arrangements are the most complex and carefully built he’s done yet, Bundick’s vocals are more out front than ever and filled with a newfound high level of passion that gives each song a strong emotional heartbeat. Despite the occasional diversion like the super sweet love song “Cake” or the percolating “Studies,” the album is a quietly melancholy late-night experience that unspools slowly and smoothly like a brilliant quiet storm mix tape. The first time through the album, it almost seems too quiet and too smooth, but repeated listens reveal the album’s strength and power. It’s almost a daring step for Bundick to take, as expanding his sound by making it brighter and simpler may have led to some mainstream success. Instead, his retreat into more complex and restrained sounds makes for a richer and more rewarding listening experience. That’s not to say that there aren’t any tracks that stand out and sound like singles; “Say That” has insistent rhythms and chopped up vocal samples that are sharply hooky, “Never Matter” has an almost Prince-ly strut that is infectious, and “Rose Quartz” is a softly pretty R&B ballad with some great falsetto. Bundick’s genius on Anything in Return is that he blends these poppy moments into the overall fabric of the album and the whole thing holds together in a tightly wound, perfectly constructed ball of sound and songcraft. It may not be the most immediately exciting album of his career, but it is the most impressive and affecting.

Tim Sendra, Rovi

Goldenheart

Dawn Richard

Settle

Disclosure

Modern Vampires of the City

Vampire Weekend
Following the success of their sophomore album, Contra, Vampire Weekend released their highly anticipated third full-length, entitled Modern Vampires of the City. The record had been kept tightly under wraps since writing began in late 2011, and the four-piece discreetly hit the studio with producer Ariel Rechtshaid (We Are Scientists, Plain White T's, Usher) in their native New York. Lead single "Diane Young" illustrates the group in full flow, interjecting a rasping bassline and trashy drums to their crisp indie rock sound.

Scott Kerr, Rovi

Silence Yourself

Savages
Silence Yourself is the highly anticipated debut record from London four-piece Savages. The all-female act caused a clamor for their signature from the major labels after a spout of raucous live shows and a sold-out 7" on their own Pop Noire label. They maintained their independence on Pop Noire and partnered with Matador Records for this release. They recorded the album at Fish Factory, London, with producers Johnny Hostile -- who produced their debut 7" single "Flying to Berlin" -- and Rodaidh McDonald (the xx, Adele, the Horrors).

Scott Kerr, Rovi

The Only Place

Best Coast
For their second album, The Only Place, California duo Best Coast hired Jon Brion as producer. Right away it's clear that the fuzzily lo-fi noise pop sound of their debut, Crazy for You, was a thing of the past, and the band was looking to smooth things out quite noticeably. Hiring Brion to produce a noise pop record is like asking Rothko to paint your mailbox. What he and the band have done is replace the simplistic drone of the distorted guitars with a more layered, much janglier sound, added tons of space to the arrangements, and made sure each song gets the sonic approach it needs instead of the set-it-up-and-record-it style of Crazy. The result is an album that has a classic pop/rock sound that anyone who's heard an R.E.M. or Beach Boys or Springsteen record will instantly identify with and understand. It may disappoint anyone who wanted Crazy for You, Pt. 2, but the band didn't make this record for those people. On a sonic level alone, the record works very well. Bethany Cosentino reliably writes super-catchy melodies and sings them winningly, Bobb Bruno does a fine job filling in the songs with hooky guitar lines, and Brion adds the little touches that have made his name as a producer. The uptempo songs have a light bounce that will have people bopping along, the ballads have fully realized arrangements that sound dreamy as can be, and the whole record has a warmth that was missing from anything the band did before. The problem lies with Cosentino's awful lyrics. What seemed cute and only a little awkward in the past is now extremely clunky and slightly ridiculous. That her lyrics are shallow isn't such a big deal -- it didn't ruin Crazy -- but the real problem is that this time they are gratingly personal to the point of being like diary entries (as on "My Life" with the lines "My mom was right/I don't wanna die/I wanna live my life") or smug (on her title-track ode to California that includes the deathless rhyme "We've got the ocean, we've got the babes/We've got the sun, we've got the waves") or just plain boring and/or embarrassing (most everywhere else). Instead of making Crazy for You, Pt. 2, she's made Crazy for Me, Me, Me. When lyrics are so endlessly, inwardly directed as they are on The Only Place, there needs to be some spark of something interesting cooking in there, or the result will be an album that looks like a delicious cake but tastes like sawdust and chalk when you bite into it. Give the group credit for taking a step forward from Crazy for You: the album sounds great, full of catchy and well-crafted songs. Too bad it all falls apart so drastically when you factor in Cosentino's disastrous lyrics.

Rovi

Blak And Blu (Deluxe Version)

Gary Clark Jr.
Gary Clark, Jr. has been hailed by a number of critics as "the New Hendrix," which seems to be the fate of any guitarist who combines blues and rock styles at a considerable volume (particularly if they cover "Third Stone from the Sun"). While that's a blurb that may look good in Clark's press kit, it rather misses the point; Clark isn't a visionary, game-changing artist like Hendrix, but instead he's a canny singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist who has learned from the past and present, fusing them into a style that's distinctive and exciting if not necessarily revolutionary. Warner Bros. is also pitching Blak and Blu as Clark's "groundbreaking debut album," when in fact it's just his major-label debut, with four indie releases preceding it, making the confidence and ambition of this set a bit less remarkable. But if Gary Clark, Jr. isn't likely to change the way we look at rock & roll or rewrite the aesthetic of the electric guitar, he "is" one of the most interesting talents to come out of the contemporary blues scene in quite some time. On Blak and Blu, most of Clark's tunes are solidly rooted in the blues, but he's also folded in hearty servings of hard rock, funk, retro-soul, and even a dash of hip-hop, and the way he lets the flavors mix is a big part of what makes this album work so well. There's an undertow of Northern Soul on the dance-friendly opener "Ain't Messin' Round," "Travis County" is a no-frills rocker that recalls the Stones in fifth gear, "The Life" finds Clark moving back and forth between singing and rapping in a streetwise tale of drug addiction, "Numb" recalls the punk blues attack of the Black Keys and the White Stripes in its fuzzed-out blast, and the title cut samples both Gil Scott-Heron and Albert King as Clark melds conscious themes with blues backdrops. While the typical modern-day guitar hero goes out of his way to throw his dexterity in your face at every turn, here Clark shows off a tougher and more primal style, and though his chops are certainly good, he keep his solos concise and his attack muscular throughout. And if his songwriting is a bit uneven, he has an inarguable talent with both lyrics and melodies, and he's a good-to-great singer, sounding soulful and honest on every cut. Blak and Blu's production (by Rob Cavallo and Mike Elizondo in collaboration with Clark) is too polished and processed for its own good, but if this album isn't likely to change your life, it will make an hour of it a lot more interesting, and there's no arguing that Gary Clark, Jr. is a talent strong enough to match his record company's hype.

Sing To the Moon

Laura Mvula
After scoring big with the single 'She,' Laura Mvula was anointed as the next hyped young British soul singer. Pleasingly, her debut album fulfills that promise. Sing To The Moon is a canny listen that merges together a sterling range of influences: 'Like The Morning Dew' and 'I Don't Know What The Weather Will Be' flirt with psychedelic jazz while 'Green Garden' dips into a Nina Simone-style soul-clap gospel zone. Crucially, this colorful sonic gumbo is gelled together by Mvula's expressive and controlled vocal performance. Modern soul meets vintage style.


David Craig, Google Play

We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic

Foxygen
With their album-length 2012 EP Take the Kids Off Broadway, backwards-looking concept rockers Foxygen arrived with so many classic rock reference points you could have made a bingo card out of the various nods to various heroes contained in their still somehow undeniably hooky songs. Proper full-length We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic is even more stuffed full of familiar sound cues and convincing '60s and '70s pop star mimicry, this time with heightened production from Richard Swift taking the album out of the lo-fi realm, and more personal lyrics adding some character to the artifice. Picking apart the blatant, intentional references to different classic songs that cycle verse-to-verse throughout the album is a fun game for record collector types; from the nod to the intro of Sgt. Pepper's on album-opener "In the Darkness" to the bold-faced Dylanisms (and less overt but equally strong Al Stewart-isms) of the incredible, big city lament "No Destruction." Bowie, Lou Reed, all eras of Mick Jagger, specific doo wop songs, and even moments of the Band; no oldies are safe from Foxygen's pure-hearted appropriation. Their reconstructive surgery of various influences is an interesting approach for a band made up of kids in their early twenties circa 2013, but it isn't the entire formula for what makes this record so great. Lots of bands before Foxygen have dealt with quick changes and sonic patchworks of older influences, but few have managed to craft songs as moving and catchy as these. The thick accents and psychedelic swirl of "San Francisco" walk the line of being patronizingly nostalgic until the hook-heavy chorus comes in, distant guest vocals from Jessie Baylin and Sarah Versprille answering singer Sam France's "I left my love in San Francisco" with refrains of "That's okay, I was bored anyway" and "That's okay, I was born in L.A." This one move disarms any cloying elements of the song and reminds the listener that Foxygen are in complete songwriting control, not just throwing back-dated pop culture references at the wall and hoping something sticks. In their earliest days, Of Montreal had a similar knack for updating their favorite records with their own personalities, as did many artists of the Elephant 6 collective, but WAT21CAOPAM is more tuned in, clear-headed, and full of intent than any of Foxygen's more immediate predecessors. It's a gorgeous and non-stop convergence of ideas, some borrowed, some original, some refurbished, and some outright stolen. In the end, however, the album's coherence comes in its incredible architecture of all these ideas, and the way the band sells them with everything they've got, taking what could be incredibly obtuse music back into the realm of pop from which it was born., Rovi

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

Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg
As far as debut albums go, this eponymous release is a surprisingly accomplished effort from the Nottingham-born teenager Jake Bugg. Although he stares out from the album cover like a younger, long-lost cousin of the View or the Enemy, while those U.K. indie acts found their nourishment on a diet of the Jam, Oasis, and the Strokes, Bugg found time to explore pre-Beatles music from the likes of Buddy Holly and Richie Valens. These influences -- combined with a folk sensibility and moments of delicate acoustic fingerpicking that betray a love for Bob Dylan and Donovan -- make for an accessible, pop-focused record that doesn’t attempt to chase innovation. Much of the material here was co-written, produced, and mixed by Snow Patrol and Reindeer Section collaborator Iain Archer. When Bugg and Archer combine on “Taste It” and “Trouble Town” -- two of the album’s stronger, more raucous tracks -- it’s as if you’re hearing what the La’s would have sounded like if John Power had been their dominant force, as opposed to Lee Mavers. It’s the intro to “Taste It” in particular that apes “Feelin’” -- the Liverpudlians’ final single -- while “Trouble Town” comes across as a rewrite of their cautionary “Doledrum” with its skiffle-fueled tales of unemployment benefits and missed payments. The comparatively positive and sprightly opener “Lightning Bolt” didn’t do Bugg any harm when it was featured just prior to the BBC’s live coverage of Usain Bolt’s Olympic 100m victory and was heard by a U.K. audience of 20 million people. Built around a three-chord shuffle and a bridge that Noel Gallagher would be proud of, it’s another example of a Bugg/Archer gem. While it’s the analog-sounding upbeat tracks such as these that impress, it’s the mid-paced, digitally polished ballads and resultant formulaic pacing that underwhelm. It’s safe to say that those searching for experimental music should most definitely look elsewhere. “Broken” -- co-written with former Longpigs frontman Crispin Hunt -- takes Bugg into broad, “X-Factor does indie” territory, while “Country Song” tiptoes between James Blunt’s vocal quirks and John Denver’s suffocating pleasantry. Inoffensive and clean-cut as they are, both tracks signify a mid-album lull and sit awkwardly on a record that is littered with overt drug references and imagery from the street. To his credit, Bugg's too young by far to be a drug bore, and when he takes “a pill or maybe two” in “Seen It All” or is “high on a hash pipe of good intent” in “Simple as This,” it feels like social documentation rather than a misguided attempt at glamorizing their use. Elsewhere, Clifton -- the south Nottingham village that Bugg calls home -- gets what is possibly its first mention in song on the irresistible, Hollies-inspired “Two Fingers.” All in all, though Bugg’s debut may not share the wordy precociousness of Conor Oberst’s formative steps or the political astuteness of Willy Mason on Where the Humans Eat, it’s his sheer earnestness and rare gift for writing simple, hook-filled tunes that ultimately charm the listener.

James Wilkinson, Rovi

Own Side Now

Caitlin Rose
As is so often the case with American artists whose appeal isn't exactly straight down the middle, Caitlin Rose was initially more successful overseas than in her homeland. But it's not as tragic a tale as it might sound, since "initially" refers only to the period of time during which her entire output consisted of her debut EP, Dead Flowers. The arrival of the young singer/songwriter's first full-length release, Own Side Now, represents a chance for Rose's sound to find wider acceptance stateside. Don't be misled by the stylish image on the front cover, which might lead you to conclude that Rose is some sort of Zooey Deschanel-esque ingénue peddling overly precious goods; the Nashville native needs no M. Ward to fill in the artistic gaps for her. Rose's own songwriting gifts are on ample display throughout Own Side Now, with lyrics that show a knack for poetic turns and artful understatement in equal measure -- a combination too seldom found in young songwriters' work -- and humble but hummable melodies that make the most of her grounding in both alt-country and pop. Interestingly, while most of the album mines a gently twangy Americana feel, one of the most overtly country-ish moments comes with a cover of the Stevie Nicks-penned Fleetwood Mac track "That's Alright." As it turns out, Rose's lissome croon carries the tune with more élan than the original version, so maybe she's got something to say to the classic-rock crowd too.

Bay Badnesss

Popcaan, Tommy Lee

Sunbather

Deafheaven

Only A Mountain

Jason Castro
Jason Castro's third studio album, 2013's Only a Mountain, is the singer's second contemporary Christian-themed release and builds nicely upon 2010's Who I Am. Previous to these releases, Castro worked in the realm of secular pop/rock with his 2008 self-titled debut. That release, coming off Castro's run on "American Idol", delivered a pleasant, somewhat hippy-dippy sound that moved from strummy ukulele cuts to more strident alt-rock tunes. Who I Am quickly followed that same year, and worked overall to reveal the dreadlocked singer to be a deeper, more thoughtful artist than his time on "AmIdol" might have shown. In that spirit, Only a Mountain showcases how much Castro has grown, especially as a vocalist. Tracks like "If It's Love" and the slow-burn ballad "Stay This Way" display Castro's more mature vocal sound, one that falls somewhere between the yearning gravity of OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder and the hushed intensity of Ed Sheeran. These are dynamic piano- and guitar-driven productions that slough off some of his more cherubic tendencies in favor of an adult contemporary soulfulness. It also doesn't hurt that Castro, who married in 2010 and had a daughter in 2011, gets co-writing credit on every song on Only a Mountain. The result is that Only a Mountain is a solid album that leaves you with the impression that Castro is more directly in command of his life, his career, and his music.

Matt Collar, Rovi

Somebody to Love

Jack Beats

Stories Don't End

Dawes
Stories Don't End, the third outing from breezy Los Angeles-based retro-rockers Dawes, takes its name from a line in author Joan Didion's 1984 wartime novel "Democracy". It's an enigmatic phrase to be sure, but it certainly applies to the group's penchant for crafting highly literate slabs of smooth, West Coast Americana out of the highway wreckage left behind by artists like the Eagles, the Little River Band, Poco, Jackson Browne, and Gram Parsons. Less overtly Laurel Canyon-centric than 2011's Nothing Is Wrong, due in some part to the East Coast Blue Ridge Mountain locale in which it was birthed, the album keeps the band's classic rock underpinnings intact, yielding a fresh catch of smooth and soulful, largely midtempo offerings that focus on substance over style, relying primarily on the strength of the tasteful, measured arrangements and bandleader Taylor Goldsmith's easy voice and crafty wordplay. Stories Don't End barely registers upon the first spin (it's easy pop for the millennial generation), but if given the time to percolate, it produces a damn fine cup of coffee. This adherence to familiar singer/songwriter tropes is best exemplified on tracks like the rolling "From a Window Seat (Rivers and Freeways)," which echoes Midlake's "Roscoe," the Ben Folds-esque "Just My Luck," and the lovely, mid-record ballad "Something in Common," the latter of which frames Goldsmith's tale of hope and heartache in the reassuring glow of vibrato guitar, simple kick and snare, and a melody that sounds like it floated out of the studio sessions for Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years.

James Christopher Monger, Rovi

Backatown

Trombone Shorty

Black & White

Royal Tailor
Royal Tailor summon the best parts of contemporary pop and hip-hop on Black & White, one of the most danceable Christian debuts in years. Funneling the influences of everyone from Maroon 5 to Jay Sean to Bruno Mars, the group's infectious pop results in one of the decade's most contemporary and well-produced albums. The group's rise caught the attention of fellow CCM artists Leeland, who introduced the band to their management at Provident Label Group. One reason RT gained notice is because of their success at sounding relevant. Where rank-and-file Christian artists have fallen flat in attempts to reach out to contemporary culture, Royal Tailor thrive with their blend of urban grooves and a penetrating yet not preachy message of morality. Lead single "Hold Me Together" introduces the band's warmth and catchy hooks, but listeners are in for a real treat as the rest of the album bounces with energy. The first notes of leadoff track "Death of Me" reveal a depth of talent that makes one think that they might not even realize how good they are. "Control" is where the guys really hit the floor, so to speak, with Tauren Wells' vocals referencing hits by Kesha, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry. Set to a Timbaland-like beat, the song creatively challenges the immorality encouraged by those songs with simple counter-messages such as "No teenage dream could ever be worth your soul." It's a clever way of sharing their message, and it's as vibrant and fresh as anything to come out of the Christian scene in years. Guitarist DJ Cox, bassist Blake Hubbard, and drummer Jarrod Ingram are superb in the rhythm section. The album doesn't disappoint, giving listeners plenty of reasons to keep this one on repeat.

Jared Johnson, Rovi

For Now I Am Winter

Ólafur Arnalds

Wondrous Bughouse

Youth Lagoon
Trevor Powers -- aka Youth Lagoon -- releases his second studio album, Wondrous Bughouse, following his critically acclaimed 2011 debut The Year of Hibernation. This sophomore record retains Powers' rich blend of Americana and electronic music, while lyrically tackling abstract themes such as the metaphysical universe and the spiritual world vs. the physical., Rovi

The Silver Violin

Nicola Benedetti

Abandon

Pharmakon

Impersonator

Majical Cloudz

Acoustic

Balance and Composure