10. Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo
Druggy like the Stooges, artfully distorted like Dinosaur Jr., and obsessing about the Man like Lou Reed, Kurt Vile is Philly’s stoner-rock prodigy, a prophet of damaged beauty and DMT-cigarette epiphanies. ”When it’s looking dark,” he drones, ”punch the future in the face.” Dude, that’s an awesome way to greet 2012.
Best track: ”Baby’s Arms”
9. Pistol Annies, Hell on Heels
Finally, an answer to that old saw: Where have all the rebel gals gone? In an era ruled by sweet country-pop ladies, Miranda Lambert, ?Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe proudly set a bad example, drinking 10,000 beers, burning through their exes’ credit cards, and throwing the trailer-park party of the year.
Best track: ”Hell on Heels”
8. My Morning Jacket, Circuital
Revolutionizing the sound of Southern rock, these Kentucky boys bliss out on psych noodling, Stax horns, and…satanic black metal. (Well, there’s one song about that, though musically it borrows from an obscure Thai pop cut found on a Siamese soul compilation.) What the band ends up with is an adventurous classic-rock opus that’s already a classic itself.
Best track: ”First Light”
7. Demi Lovato, Unbroken
A poignant statement from an ex?Disney princess? I’m as surprised as you are. But Demi Lovato’s always been the edgy one, a closet metalhead who spent time in rehab, and when she’s not out-Rihanna-ing the club girls on fierce bangers like ”All Night Long,” she’s delivering raw confessionals about self-cutting and abuse. It’s a brave album. So if the mean girls don’t like it, tough.
Best track: ”All Night Long”
6. Frank Ocean, Nostalgia, Ultra
Forget Drake and Kanye: When it comes to hip-hop dudes who pride themselves on singing, Frank Ocean has the edge. Having penned songs for Justin Bieber, he knows how to work a pop hook (check his take on Coldplay’s ”Strawberry Swing”), but it’s his flair for the oddball (astronaut love songs!) and the curveball (a ”Hotel California” sample?) that makes him thrilling. The Eagles in an R&B song: Glenn Frey never sounded so cool.
?Best track: ”Novacane”
5. Florence + the Machine, Ceremonials
Weird girls need a rock hero of their own, and from her bloodcurdling howls to her thundering vampire-hippie gospel, Florence is the one ?to beat. A big believer in ?Red Sea-parting melodrama, she’s got the orchestral grandeur to pull it off. ?Of course, it helps that she attacks the harp as if she were wielding an ax.
Best track: ”Breaking Down”
4. Bon Iver, Bon Iver?
If ever there was a reason ?to embrace soft rock unironically, this is it. Saxophones? Got ’em. A Peter Cetera-esque closer? It’s here. ?But so is Justin Vernon’s disarmingly heartfelt songwriting. Expanding from his debut’s log-cabin folk into the big, bright world outside, his passion for gentle synth jams comes through so clearly, he makes Auto-Tune sound sincere.
Best track: ”Holocene”
3. Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes
Sweden makes its pop songs like it makes its women: adored worldwide. (Or so we’ve gleaned from ABBA, IKEA, and beer commercials.) So it’s about time the U.S. embraced this Stockholm wunderkind, whose haunting album — a frosty Euro-electro twist on American girl groups — should be a global phenomenon. With enough doomed romance to make the Shangri-Las cry, Lykke Li captures the sadness of unrequited love with two words that need no translation: shoo-wop, shoo-wah.
Best track: ”I Follow Rivers”
2. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
Blessed with epic harmonies (and equally epic beards), these Seattleites recall folk legends from the golden age of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But their soaring acoustic hymns speak directly to this generation, asking the questions that keep millennials up at night: How can I have a more meaningful life than my parents? Should I be looking out for someone besides myself? Is it time for the flute solo to make a comeback? Dismissing boomers who raised their kids to believe they’re all unique, singer Robin Pecknold decides that he’d rather be ”a functioning cog in some great machinery/Serving something beyond me.” What that something is, he doesn’t say. But being part ?of a band that makes such beautiful music? That’s a pretty good start.
?Best track: ”Helplessness Blues”
1. Adele, 21
Pity Adele’s ex-boyfriend. This year, we all got over him together, thanks to this powerhouse retro-soul breakthrough, which made us feel the pain of Adele’s split from her first real love — right down to what it felt like to hear that he married another woman. The best revenge? The album sold 13 million copies internationally and resonated for everyone who’d ever gotten dumped. Channeling Northern soul, Motown, and ’70s piano ballads, even having her way with an alt-rock band (on a gorgeous cover of the Cure’s ”Lovesong”), the 23-year-old songstress was the great uniter of 2011. She was beloved as much by wonky record-collectors as she was by your mom, who probably heard her music at Starbucks and felt emotions that you don’t want to know about. Often backed by little more than a piano, Adele’s enormous voice, which coos and wails and sometimes cracks, makes the album so wrenching that even Saturday Night Live recognized it as a universal trigger for ladies looking for a good cry: In one sketch, Kristen Wiig played ”Someone Like You” to help her mourn the tragic death of her parakeet. Funny, yes, but also true: This is music with so much heart, it hurts. And at a time when digitally tweaked vocals are everywhere, 21 features a rare thing: a singer who can seriously sing, belting out love songs inspired by another time on an album that ?feels genuinely timeless.
Best track: ”Rolling in the Deep”