10. Adele, 21 // Lady Gaga, Born This Way
Because it’s my list, that’s why. Gaga may not be the best pop princess doing it right now (spoiler alert – Beyonce), but Born This Way does compound on her zany promise, and if it doesn’t reach the dizzying pop heights of The Fame Monster, it’s certainly every bit as flamboyantly giddy as we expected it to be. Adele’s another pop princess, but she’s achieving her success by dressing her songs down rather than up, by putting the focus on her monstrously soulful voice, and by venturing far enough outside of Amy Winehouse territory to carve her own niche. “Rolling in the Deep” is the most unstoppable single I’ve heard in quite some time, and while her album’s a bit too ballad-heavy for my liking, when she tackles a barn-burner like “Set Fire to the Rain”, she’s frighteningly powerful.
9. The Lonely Island, Turtleneck & Chain
Novelty, jokey, blah blah etc. The simple fact is this: we already knew that The Lonely Island were capable of sterling pop parodies, but with Turtleneck & Chain, they prove both adept constructors of the very pop they lampoon AND extremely cunning at exposing its absurdities. Of course “I Just Had Sex” is a silly literalization of every rapper eager to brag about sexual conquest as though it’s a grand feat, but it’s also deeply catchy and timely. Of course “The Creep” tackles pop music’s obsession with creating the new dance-floor sensation (certainly a not-so-subtle riff on Soulja Boy and the Dougie), but when the DJ plays it, the rubbernecked motions spread like wildfire. With Turtleneck & Chain, The Lonely Island have made the chasm between musical comedy and comedic music a little bit smaller, and I for one hope they keep the hilarious earworms coming.
8. Eddie Vedder, Ukelele Songs
Because I’m a fanboy, that’s why. Although I’m not so sure – the wife is no Pearl Jam apologist, but she’s a sucker for this intoxicating, moonlit record full of solo uke performances. It’s nice to see that, between this and the Into the Wild soundtrack, Eddie isn’t even considering a solo career that equals Pearl Jam Redux, instead making strides towards being rock’s premier revisionist traditionalist. Nice, also, that he has excellent taste in collaborators – Cat Power sounds great, and Glen Hansard’s rich brogue can melt me like a stick of butter.
7. Atmosphere, The Family Sign
If it’s not as exemplary (or as memorably-titled) as Atmosphere’s last record, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, it’s certainly every bit as moody and moving as emcee/vocalist Slug has the potential to be. Conceptual and abstract in some spots (the haunting “Became”), brash and earnest in others (“The Last to Say”), and, in still others, capable of moments of staggering emotional transcendence (“Something So”), Atmosphere continue to pump out excellent music. It’s just another really solid Atmosphere LP – always a cause to celebrate.
6. The Weeknd, House of Balloons
I’m less concerned with the well-publicized mysterious backstory of revisionist r&b-man and Drake buddy Abel Tesfaye; more to the point, his digital mixtape, House of Balloons, is literally one of the best free things you could possibly get your hands on this year. It’s the inevitable clash of indie pop and neo-soul, functioning almost perfectly as both, a delirious, mystical house party thrown by TV on the Radio and R. Kelly. It doesn’t hurt that Tesfaye may have the tastiest croon to grace a slow jam in a long, long time; it also doesn’t hurt that it’s free, and as such, you shouldn’t need to take my recommendation, because House of Balloons should’ve been on your iPod the second the Internet began turtleheading.
5. TV on the Radio, Nine Types of Light
Speaking of TVotR, Tunde, Kyp, and the boys are back for another go-round; they’ve been gaining critical and commercial legs by spending the better part of this decade releasing a series of albums, each one eclipsing the last in quality, that could conservatively be described as “quite well-recieved”. After their last record, Dear Science,, managed to find a spot between the thoughtful and the dance-able so sweet that only Prince has ever spent time in there, expectations were high; if Nine Types of Light didn’t live up, it wasn’t anybody’s fault but ours. No matter, of course, because Nine Types is a dizzying, fast-forward tour of every reason people like this band, and an awfully compelling case for legitimate commercial success to boot. These guys are your new Radiohead – take heed.
4. Beyonce, 4
I’ve spouted off about just why Beyonce’s fourth is so fabulous in these pages before – suffice it to say that I’ve adored Lady B ever since she left those pesky gals in Gemini’s Twin behind and claimed the spotlight as her own. 4 is just B doing B, as she has since that first solo record, but every time I think she’s exhausted every trick up her sleeve, she drops another slab of pop r&b brilliance into my lap. I’m not sure if she’s a mad genius, or just has a keen ear for an excellent collaborator, but either way, this is her fourth solid-gold platter, and I’ll buy the next one on the first day of release too.
3. Random Axe, Random Axe
A rap record with an almost absurd level of replay value, emcees Guilty Simpson and Sean Price and emcee/producer Black Milk have made an album every bit as tight and as gratifying as its pedigree would suggest. Guilty and Sean P kill it on the mic, and this is one of Black Milk’s best set of beats – his marriage of head-nodding funk to musical and instrumental sophistication is as sturdy as ever here, and everybody sounds like they’re in their glory. No frills, this one – just beats and rhymes, and in this instance, that’s more than good enough.
2. Frank Ocean, Nostalgia,ultra.
As the spearhead of underground rap crew Odd Future, Tyler the Creator may have gotten more publicity than the rest of his collective combined. And Tyler rhymes well, sure, but this year’s Goblin was just a little too, well, rape-y for me. I’m much more interested in OF’s resident crooner, Frank Ocean, who posted this free digital mixtape to his Tumblr a few months back – an album is in the works, of course, but Ocean is a soul-man to watch – able to croon like the best of them, yes, but clearly a musical obsessive bent on making music on his own terms: entertaining, yes, and with endless replay value, but often haunted, introverted, seedy, and, above all, ceaselessly melodic. Ocean sounds just as great singing over an MGMT track as he does over an Eagles instrumental – “American Divorce” weaves a tortured love song into the fabric of “Hotel California”, and yup, it’s flawless – and that, friends, is the mark of a musical visionary, reverent of the past, but squarely focused on the future.
1. Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Another album I’ve gushed at length about – was there any doubt about my #1? One track into the Minnesota native’s second proper record, it already sounds essential, an album you’ve been listening to and cherishing for years. The nostalgia is literally instant; the music unassailable, an extension of the folkie’s tidal-wave-producing For Emma, Forever Ago sound, but with the ship pointed in an inventive new direction. Beauty personified, ripe with deep emotional heft, and grown folks’ music for the ages. In eight years, mark my words, we’ll be revisiting this one on best-of-DECADE lists.