20. Ke$ha - Warrior
Downloads: "Supernatural", "Only Wanna Dance With You", "Dirty Love (feat. Iggy Pop)"
19. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals - The Lion the Beast the Beat
Downloads: "Turntable", "Keepsake", "Ragged Company (feat. Willie Nelson)"
18. Ametsub - All is Silence
Downloads: "Dimmur", "Rufouslow", "Precipice Drive"
17. Santigold - Master of My Make-Believe
Downloads: "This Isn't Our Parade", "Keepers", "Look at These Hoes"
16. Marina & the Diamonds - Electra Heart
Downloads: "Teen Idle", "Primadonna", "Living Dead"
15. Ellie Goulding - Halcyon
Downloads: "Halcyon", "Figure 8", "Only You"
14. Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas
Downloads: "Amen", "Darkness", "Show Me the Place"
13. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You more Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Downloads: "Valentine", "Werewolf", "Anything We Want"
12. P.O.S. - We Don't Even Live Here
Downloads: "All of It", "Wasted/Wanted", "Weird Friends"
11. Patrick Wolf - Sundark and Riverlight
Downloads: "London", "Vulture", "The Libertine"
10. Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur
There's a fine line between beautiful and sterile, and Kathleen Edwards manages to stay solidly in the former in this record by capturing senses of longing and resignation inside her twinkling acoustic guitar and sweeping sound effects. Edwards' voice sounds simultaneously and perfectly childish and mature as she examines love gone flat and and expectations dashed.
Downloads: "Pink Champagne", "Going to Hell", "Mint"
9. Aimee Mann - Charmer
There's something familiar about Aimee Mann that manages to never sound old or tired. She's like a cup of cocoa, warm and hospitable while reminding you of the cold dark world outside. Here, she applies her world-weary voice and wry lyrics to a new set of portraits, comparing a devoted love to a labrador retriever and insisting that "the whole vindictive bit" is getting old. It's a cutting and honest selection of morsels of advice that the world could and should heed better, from someone who's been there.
Downloads: "Red Flag Diver", "Crazytown", "Soon Enough"
8. Dragonette - Bodyparts
I understand why Dragonette isn't a huge hit band. Despite definitely being a dance pop act, something about their production doesn't scream radio hits, and prior to this their strong singles have been paired with some uneven albums. All along they seem to have almost stubbornly avoided pop trends, playing coy instead of sexy and borrowing more from the synthesizer than the 808. Bodyparts, their strongest effort so far, is unlikely to get them much more attention, but is a nonstop joyride, all self-aware bratty fun filled with positivity and allure. If there are no standout tracks, it's only because the album is so incredibly strong on its own.
Downloads: "Right Woman", "Live in This City", "My Legs"
7. Purity Ring - Shrines
As musical newcomers, Purity Ring made waves with their song "Fineshrine", which landed them a few spots on various song of the year lists - and rightfully show. Like the hit song, the album is an artfully-arranged series of unusual sounds and motions juxtaposed together to make beauty out of terrifying images. Megan James weaves grotesque poetry into gorgeous melodies over Corin Roddick's fascinating and creepy textures to make a truly engaging debut.
Downloads: "Fineshrine", "Belispeak", "Shuck"
6. Lana Del Rey - Born to Die (Paradise)
It's difficult to tell if Lana Del Rey is a storyteller looking in on players in her dioramas, or simply a character lost inside a play of her own creation. Either way, her songs are enchanting, reminding us that world-weariness comes not from apathy, but a desperate yearning for a promise of happiness that hasn't unveiled itself. All of Lana's songs are about searching, in men, in money, in alcohol and fame, for that light in the dark everyone says must exist, and while we may know that she has to find it in herself, that doesn't make her journey any less exhilarating.
Downloads: "Bel Air", "Video Games", "National Anthem"
5. Sam Sparro - Return to Paradise
Return to Paradise somehow manages to be a rock-solid pop album despite having no evident singles. Rather than shooting for obvious hooks or danceable beats, Sparro makes a pop record by tapping instead into the spirit of pop music, the effervescent, infectious sense of joy that makes you want to get up, dance, chat up a stranger and spend your life surrounded by positive energy. There's a sassy swagger to most of the tracks, a self-aware wryness to the lyrics and a definite uplifting message to be found at the core of the album. 'Hearts Like Us' is Lady Gaga's Born This Way record distilled into four pulsing, glorious minutes, while even the soppy ballads 'I Wish I Never Met You' and 'Shades of Grey' are craftily overdramatic lampoons of torch songs. Probably the most representative track off the record is 'We Could Fly', a song about capturing a magical moment and riding it, buffered by a pounding slap-bass and joyous brass. If alt rock is about 'art' and blues is about sorrow, pop music is about spontaneity and feeling everything at once.
Downloads: "We Could Fly", "Hearts Like Us", "Yellow-Orange Rays"
4. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
This album is not so much a series of songs as an hour-long texture. Tracks weave into each other, and Frank Ocean's voice doesn't find many hooks, floating around instead like a leaf in the wind. Occasionally he dips into truly sublime melodies, but as stunning as they are, they are fleeting - and possibly precious simply because they don't outlast their welcome. The opening lines to 'Thinking About You' and the delicate falsetto of 'Bad Religion' are perfect marriages of melody and lyrics, touching on that inexplicable moment of music that can't help but move someone to tears.
Downloads: "Bad Religion", "Pink Matter (feat. Andre 3000)", "Lost"
3. Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre is Evil
I came in prepared to hate this album. I hated Amanda Palmer's projects between this and Who Killed Amanda Palmer, and the idea of Amanda doing something inspired by '80's synth pop' set my teeth on edge. 'Want It Back' failed to charm me as a lead single and Amanda's internet presence got increasingly grating. So I was shocked when I listened to the record, out of order, and within the first minute of 'Bottomfeeder' realized I was in love again.
Theatre is Evil is not an album about theatre or malevolence. Instead, it's an album about life, death and missed opportunities. The record weaves a morbid tale of innocence lost, not snatched away, but eroded by the losses that pile up throughout one's life. 'Bottomfeeder' mourns the loss of someone who never really lived life to the fullest, and 'Do It With a Rockstar' implores someone to make a human connection rather than busy themselves with the conveniences of modern life; Amanda insists over and over that she isn't 'The Killing Type' in the song of the same name, and yet argues that merely by existing we force others to fall away for our continued life in 'Trout Heart Replica'. Perhaps most tragically, 'The Bed Song' chronicles the death of a relationship decades before the former lovers meet their final resting place. The end result is a record that begs the listener to get up in the morning and see the sun, because while Amanda's tales of guilt and regret are tragic, not all is lost - even a wasted life can serve as a cautionary tale. No other record in my collection so powerfully implores the listener to just live, no matter how they do that living, nor does it with such grace and complexity.
Downloads: "Bottomfeeder", "Grown Man Cry", "The Bed Song"
2. Cold Specks - I Predict a Graceful Expulsion
"It's been a strange year and it seems that I am stuck/but I predict a graceful expulsion." I am not a religious person and never have been, but I have found strength through this music, and this sentiment in particular. There's something to be said about believing that you will find serenity and grace even if you can't see it, even if you don't know how it will happen, even if you don't know where it will come from. Cold Specks has created an album about sadness and uncertainty and fear swallowed up by faith and hope. The negativity still sits in the belly, rumbling underneath everything, but Cold Specks' beautiful arrangements and sense of persistence keeps it from becoming the core.
Downloads: "Winter Solstice", "Elephant Head", "Blank Maps"
1. Adam Lambert - Trespassing
For a little context, this album leaked when I was in Kumasi, Ghana, shortly after President Obama announced his support for gay marriage. People in Ghana were pissed off, in a way that was difficult for me to comprehend because it wasn't their president, and the discourse surrounding me was highly homophobic and uncomfortable. I spent a good deal of time retreating into this record where Lambert was letting his queer flag fly, but even after coming back to the US I ended up listening to this record at least once a week.
Trespassing, much stronger than his debut For Your Entertainment, is an energetic dance-pop record and, in a musical landscape full of debauchery, still manages to be the best record of the year about having sloppy make-outs, taking off your clothes and getting wasted. "Kickin' In" is a catchy disco thumper and "Cuckoo" would be a surefire dance floor hit if it had been released as a lead single. "Runnin'" is a textbook example of how to successfully build a bridge to a final chorus and even soppy gay ballad "Outlaws of Love" is touching in its restraint and delicacy. Every track is at home on this album, making it a cohesive melting pot of delightful bombast.
Downloads: "Shady (feat. Nile Rodgers and Sam Sparro)", "Runnin'", "Outlaws of Love"