15. Charli XCXTrue Romance (IAMSOUND)

At 22, Charli XCX is one of those Millennial types who grew up in a decade of Skip-Its, AIM and Justin Timberlake with frosted tips. As such, her debut LP, True Romance, is sopping with elbow-thrusting percussion and drooling, blind-love lyrics. But in a year when ’90s nostalgia began to feel like a dusty bowl of hard candy, Charli XCX managed to revamp the pop sounds of yore with twee-synths and lounge-singer-with-pink-hair vocals. She even made a Backstreet Boys cover sound new. -LP
 


14. FKA TwigsEP2 (Young Turks)

The shadowy singles of Gloucestershire singer Tahliah Barnett, formerly known as Twigs, and now called FKA Twigs, are lyrically as minimalistic as they are in production. The EP, with production help from production from Arca (née Alejandro Ghersi), a young rising producers who also worked on Yeezus, shimmers with an eager want for closeness. It’s all an exercise in restraint—four songs, a few words and tightly produced backing tracks—that shames indulgent maximalists. -LH
 


13. KelelaCut 4 Me (Fade To Mind)

I make everyone listen to Cut 4 Me in the car at night with the windows rolled down, because how else are you supposed to drive now that this mixtape exists? It’s brooding, but with touches of glittery, mouth-watering synths that beg to soundtrack something. Undeniably, Cut 4 Me wouldn’t be what it is without its near-flawless production. Kingdom does echoey drops and shrugging percussion; Nguzunguzu does crashes of synths in stereo; Bok Bok is subdued and flitting, even sampling a chirping bird. So, there’s that; but then there’s also Kelela, whose voice sounds like it was doused in creamy cupcake icing and swirled around in the mouth some kind of celestial being. One without the other wouldn’t work, but there’s enough stunning collaboration here to get you down the twistiest of night roads. – LP
 


12. Julianna BarwickNepenthe (Dead Oceans)

A good way to do an album of icy, expansive swoon-tunes is to make sure there’s some kind of thematic strain flowing through it. Julianna Barwick did this with Nepenthe. I originally said that the album is constructed in such a way as to make each shift in sound barely noticeable. And I still stand behind that, but after listening to this album till my ears hurt, I’ve also come to realize it’s exactly these slight shifts that make Nepenthe impressive. Take “Labyrinthine,” for instance. If you scan through the track, it’ll sound like several different choral songs mashed jarringly into one, like you’re switching from radio station to radio station. But if you listen to the song normally, you’ll get lost in its gentle waviness, not even registering how disparate its parts are. Barwick is like a magician, except instead of a quarter, she’s pulling warm symphonies and lush vocal harmonies out from behind your ear. -LP
 


11. Run The Jewels (Killer Mike + El-P)Run The Jewels (Fool’s Gold)

It’s hard to talk about Run The Jewels without talking about why Killer Mike and El-P are such a good pair. Like merlot and steak, cereal and milk, Dr. Pepper and beer, the two have a complementary relationship that’s hard to find. And (like Dr. Pepper and beer) they’re on a plane all their own, seemingly existing outside the world of contemporary hip-hop, and seemingly free of any anxiety about that at all. Because Killer Mike and El-P don’t need anyone—they’ve got each other. On Run The Jewels, the duo offers up a heaping platter of “fuck all y’all” with a smattering of “listen to how good we sound,” topped off with a secret best friend handshake. El’s at the top of his production game here, favoring slashy stabs and scattered vibrations while Mike raps like he’s thrusting dead slugs out of his mouth. -LP
 


10. Blood OrangeCupid Deluxe (Domino)


Devonte Hynes can’t stand still. From his indie dance-punk days in Test Icicles to Lightspeed Champion’s ruminative pop, and up through his latest Blood Orange incarnation, this cat is an ever-evolving, walking zeitgeist. I’m afraid his inner jazz-hands musical lover might never be understood by his predominantly irony-injected fanbase. But he’s veering that way anyway via a Prince-ly route on this album. Smooth, subtle grooves dominate, high-pitched crooning is the singing style most of the time, pianos are tinkled, and keys and beats drop ’80s-synthy when needed—most noises made by him and couched in a vague analog haze. In his recent live act, Hynes seems itching to have a larger stage to work with, though the odd quirks in his individual talents probably mean that all that writing/producing he does for huge-name pals (Florence And The Machine, Solange, Sky Ferreria, Chemical Brothers) might be the closest he gets to a wider profile. From the fun he seems to be having on Cupid Deluxe, I don’t think that’ll keep him up at night. –ED
 


9. Danny BrownOld (Fool’s Gold)

It seems like it should be really difficult to make an album of party bangers that covers topics like halfway houses, being too fucked up to talk to your kids, and getting jumped by junkies for a loaf of Wonder Bread, but Danny Brown makes it look easy. Maybe that’s because Brown does things like fit together Double-Dutch beats with dizzying horror-filled basslines (“Wonderbread”), get vulnerable with boom-bap (“Lonely”) and rap so fast he sounds like he just opened his mouth and pressed down on his throat till words came out (“Kush Coma”). Brown has this gnawing flow that’s like pulling a hair out of your mouth, but its anxious rushing means the threat of missing something is always there. Though he sounds like a pubescent teen sometimes, D-Brown is more seasoned than you think he is, and Old has him hitting his finest point yet. -LP
 


8. SamphaDual [EP] (Young Turks)

On his second EP for Young Turks, Sampha moved away from the vocal-free electronic processing of 2010’s Sundanza and took a new, less sharply curved route. Dual is a seamless six-track collection of minimal R&B glued together by Sampha’s just-barely-rough croon and synths and keys that dance around each other, but never really touch, like a geometric asymptote of sound. Don’t believe me? Just listen to “Without,” a clanking sunburst of EKG synths, and tell me you didn’t have trouble talking for at least a minute after because your brain was still trying to work out exactly what just happened. -LP
 


7. Daft PunkRandom Access Memories (Columbia)

Daft Punk is the a true veni, vidi, vici success this year. And where the duo goes, everyone follower. They could have taken the safe road and created some trendy dubstep jams with a series of insufferable wobbles and “here comes the drop!” moments, but Daft Punk does not pander; Daft Punk is nothing if not a risk-taker. RAM is a disco album, and a fabulous one at that. The production, the duo’s obvious forte, is impeccable, the inclusion of Nile Rodgers and music’s Man Of The Year Pharell is impenetrable. So I’m not sure how many times it needs to be said, but this record is bulletproof. -LH
 


6. Vampire WeekendModern Vampires Of The City (XL)

Maybe it’s because they dropped the cheery yet somewhat superficial prep-pep sound that made them the most buzzed-about artist of 2007 and turned inward to create songs that connect on more base level, but it’s one of the year’s strongest albums lyrically, and that penetrates Modern Vampires Of The City right through it deeper cuts: Hannah Hunt is a wistful look at the time-rich and and “Hudson” is a sobering funeral dirge. If it’s prowess seemed lost on you at initial release, just see CMJ Charts: Modern Vampires Of The City was No. 1 for the year at college radio. -LH
 


5. Majical CloudzImpersonator (Matador)

You know when you accidentally see something really intimate happening in public, and you feel like you should look away, but you can’t? When I saw Majical Cloudz play live this fall, I think the guy next to me started crying, but it was no big thing, ‘cause I was on the verge too. Bald-headed frontman Devon Welsh was wearing a white tee tucked into his pants, clenching his fists, sometimes doubling over as he clawed his way through a dense set of Impersonator cuts. It was like watching sonic self-flagellation. The album itself is like this: a decidedly personal record that, if it doesn’t make your tear ducts tingle, will make you a masochist for Welsh’s crisp, self-referential baritone and Matthew Otto’s morosely sparkling beats. On the album’s title track, when Welsh sings, “I’m a liar, I say I make music,” I actually believe he’s a liar, even as I’m wound up in precisely the thing he says he doesn’t do. Now that’s some impressive hypnotism. -LP
 


4. Nick Cave And The Bad SeedsPush The Sky Away (Bad Seed Ltd.)

Creep-rock svengali Nick Cave put Grinderman on hold, much to my chagrin, for another record with The Bad Seeds. But Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds hit more than they miss, and they knocked this one out of the park. It’s a ghostly album laden equally with creep-tastic songs that spelled like Britney Spears tracks (“We Know Who U R”) and the ambitiously intimidating apocalypse-pretty-soon (“Jubilee Street,” “Higgs-Boson Blues”). -LH
 


3. DisclosureSettle (PMR)

When a fire starts to burn it’s tough to put that motherfucker out and Disclosure has done just that with its debut, Settle. So, with the help of a slew of collaborators, the brothers Lawrence stood to piss off audiences by fake-mixing live and well, not really give a shit what you think. And why should they? Where many artists struggle to include more than a handful of solid album songs, Disclosure has produced 13 spotless tracks (14 if you include the intro). Settle is a complete album in every sense: thumping ’90s throwback jams segue into U.K. garage balladry and sunrise dance tracks. -LH
 


2. Chance the RapperAcid Rap (Self-Released)

To some, Chance The Rapper is just a wordy nerd who put his wordiness atop decked-out beats and managed to explode all over the blog circuit’s face, but there’s more than heavy hype and a big vocab at play here. With Acid Rap, Chance managed to take a fairly uninhabitable space in the rap game (that of scared guy who finds solace in hippie hallucinogens) and turn it into the ground floor for an endlessly listenable narrative of life in Chicago’s desolate South Side, drug-subdued existential crises, plus girl problems, Twitter problems, and the general anxiety of a young kid trying to fit into a pair of pants far too big for him. His incessant yapping and yalping might be grating if it weren’t so superhumanly woven into a chunky milkshake of pun-addled wordplay, amped-up alliteration and mouthy numbness. Every line is an intellectual puzzle, except when it’s a hormonal joke, and that’s endearing as heck. And can we talk about that crippling 20 seconds of silence in the middle of “Pusha Man”? See?—this kid’s got us trying to talk about silence. – LP
 


1. PhosphorescentMuchacho (Dead Oceans)

The caged-in barely human muchacho behind “Song For Zula,” looping violins wailing, has created the bullet through the heart of the year. And it’s only the beginning of an album of that yearns to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The (sometimes-autobiographical) album traces our title muchacho through each tumult as he tumbles in the dark. But he is not a sad-sack country crooner; the record’s, with its orchestral inclusions are fine as a full-bodied wine that sends tendrils of warmth though the veins on cold and lonely night. Although I want nothing more than to offer him a a hand, this Muchacho stands firmly on his own two feet. -LH