1. Bobby Womack The Bravest Man in the Universe (XL) Ballads for a broken world from a soul treasure who’s seen it all. Womack slides his weathered rasp over ornamented electronics and Damon Albarn’s dainty piano in this stunning return.
2. Kendrick Lamar good kid, m.A.A.d. city (Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope) Dre’s protégé drops his major-label bow, an epic ’hood narrative riding on his peculiar flow and spoke-sung melodies. Twenty years later, Compton reclaims its hip-hop crown.
3. THEESatisfaction awE naturalE (Sub Pop) Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White tweak R&B with spoken word, loops and asymmetrical harmonies. Their cosmic swirl clocks in at barely half an hour, but it’s endlessly funky.
4. Frank Ocean channel ORANGE (Def Jam) Yeah, I’m a sucker for this one like everybody else. Ocean’s rapidly expanding ego may be off-putting, but there’s no denying the guy’s gift on postmodern soul like “Super Rich Kids” and “Crack Rock.” Ocean should be a screenwriter; he writes better story threads than half of Hollywood.
5. Swans The Seer (Young God) Lunging waltzes and tattered lullabies coalesce into a devastating din that lasts nearly two hours. Brutal but exhilarating. Thank God Michael Gira got the band back together.
6. Ultraísta Ultraísta (Temporary Residence) Nigel Godrich and Joey Waronker of Atoms for Peace have stumbled onto something special with singer Laura Bettinson, whose soothing mantras spiral over a sleek and entrancing blend of electronics and krautrock grooves with traces of an Afrobeat fetish. Who needs Thom Yorke?
7. Matthew E. White Big Inner (Hometapes/Spacebomb) The unassuming Virginia rookie exudes ’70s songwriter cool on a quietly powerful debut. It doesn’t hurt that he’s working with a lush palette—choir, strings, horns and everything. Those broad strokes are a perfect foil for White’s baritone mumble.
8. Neneh Cherry & The Thing The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound) Don Cherry’s stepdaughter gives us something to remember her by besides “Buffalo Stance.” Hooking up with malleable Scandinavian trio the Thing was a smart move, but it’s the batshit crazy repertoire—including MF Doom and Suicide—that puts this over the top.
9. Dirty Projectors Swing Lo Magellan (Domino) It’s as if David Longstreth went out of his way to avoid having his music labeled angular. Of course it still is, but this zigzagging set is the closest he’s gotten to comfort food, scaling down arrangements and dialing back the acidity of those piercing three-part harmonies.
10. Sharon Van Etten Tramp (Jagjaguwar) The words often sting in Van Etten’s pastoral pop songs, but it’s a good hurt, tempered by her velvety delivery. Her lyrics stay with you, like a wistful postcard from a friend.
Erin Osmon, associate Music editor
1. Tame Impala Lonerism (Modular) Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker is such a studio obsessive that he mixed Lonerism twice. Two times. However, you’d never guess that based on this seemingly effortless take on psychedelic nostalgia. Lyrically, it’s an ode to the lonesomeness that comes with relentless touring, but its involved-yet-subtle sonic construction provides nothing but good cheer.
2. Sharon Van Etten Tramp (Jagjaguwar) The indie siren’s knack for penning song after song of ethereal “screw you” is uncanny. I’m not sure how much longer she can get away with such overt, dark sentimentalism, but Nick Cave just picked her up for a tour, which is sort of the ultimate compliment.
3. Bat for Lashes The Haunted Man (Capitol) There will never be another Kate Bush. And while so many contemporary musicians scramble for the comparison, Natasha Khan is one of the few who’s deserved it. Her bizarre, bone-chilling song craft is a slow burn. But once it catches, believe me, you’re a goner.
4. Swans The Seer (Young God) Gira is probably the only person who could persuade Mimi Parker of Low to chant the word lunacy for a full minute in a song, and then get away with placing that beautifully maddening track as the opener of a record. Like most of the Swans catalog, The Seer is not an easy listen. But its razor-sharp texturing and epic stature certainly make it one of the most compelling of this year.
5. Merchandise Children of Desire (Katorga Works) Merchandise is a product of Tampa, Florida’s DIY punk scene (yes, that’s a thing) but sounds nothing like it. The three-piece instead draws from a broad range of influences without outright aping any of them. Children of Desire at first seems like a terrific, goth-tinged postpunk record. But a closer listen reveals thatthere’s so much more going on.
6. Frank Ocean channel ORANGE (Def Jam) Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli said it best in my interview with him: “People make records like he’s made once every ten years or something like that, where someone just kind of gets lightning in a bottle.”
7. Spiritualized Sweet Heart Sweet Light (Fat Possum) Jason Pierce belongs in the unlikely category of Grim Reaper–eluding musicians who manage to survive years of heavy drug abuse, clean up and rebound with some of their best work. Sweet Heart Sweet Light is no Ladies and Gentlemen…, but it’s certainly a triumphant return from J. Spaceman.
8. Santigold Master of My Make-Believe (Downtown/Atlantic) That a 36-year-old former punk-band frontwoman is a pop star gives me hope for mass-music culture. Especially when that woman has an enchanting set of pipes and knows how to use them to steer such odd-yet-infectious reggae-, dub- and new wave–infused dance tracks.
9. Sun Kil Moon Among the Leaves (Caldo Verde) Mark Kozelek is a master storyteller. Among the Leaves continues the tradition by showcasing the indie-folk master’s witty, self-deprecating insights on aging, love and loss in tandem with tender acoustic guitar compositions.
10. Deerhoof Breakup Song (Polyvinyl) I hated this record when I first heard it. It’s frenetic, heavy on screeching electronics and unlike anything the eccentric four-piece has ever released. Which is exactly the reason I now love this record.