Where “best” = albums that were not only significant from a critical standpoint, but that I actually, truly, really listened to. A lot.

10. Jay-Z, American Gangster

You’re completely, utterly surprised, right? Believe it or not, this spot was the hardest. It was almost Devendra Banhart, Kanye West, Beirut… At first, American Gangster was completely underwhelming. Refusing to give up on Hova, I listened again, then I listened again. By the third or fourth time around, I was re-enamored, and American Gangster hasn’t left my ears for more than a day over the past two to three weeks. Though I was one of five people who legitimately liked Kingdom Come, the wide consensus was that it was hardly worth the exhumation from retirement (though he clearly wasn’t aiming to be what he was before it, but I digress). As far as going back to his roots, American Gangster is the album everyone expected when he snarled on the Black Album‘s “Encore,” “when I come back like Jordan, wearin’ the 4-5 / it ain’t to play games wit’ you / it’s to aim at you, probably maim you.” With Kingdom Come, he aimed at himself. With American Gangster, he’s aiming at everyone — from audiences (“Ignorant Shit”), to Al Sharpton (“Say Hello”), to the economy. Lyrically, he’s as full of venom and swagger as he was on the Black Album, and he returns to his roots aesthetically with old soul samples. Jay-Z is back – and for now, rap is still better with him around.

Favorite tracks:
“No Hook” (download)
“Say Hello” (download)

9. Panda Bear, Person Pitch

The album sure to make the most lists for this year, and with solid reason. A gorgeous mix of modern psych-pop meets Beach Boys inspired chamber pop, it’s an album that’s hard to hate. Optimistic, earnest and honest, Person Pitch is the close friend you don’t fight with because you understand each other to the point where there’s no reason to.

Favorite tracks:
“Take Pills” (download)
“Bros” (download)

8. Dirty Projectors, Rise Above

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Rise Above is the aesthetic cousin to Destroyer’s Rubies (and the idealistic cousin to Howard Roark, but that’s another point for another time and another blog), and guess what was at the top of my list last year. Likely the only reason I didn’t overplay it this year is because I discovered it late, just a few days before I saw them perform live. After that, I’ve listened to it consistently. It’s not quite as accessible as Rubies is, but it gains serious points for the concept (Black Flag’s Damaged, reimagined). Rise Above is not for everyone, but for some it’s a revelation .

Favorite tracks:
“Depression” (download)
“Rise Above” (download)

7. Black Moth Super Rainbow, Dandelion Gum

Hazy, gauzy, reverb-drenched eletro-psych-pop that almost guarantees a good mood with names like “Rollerdisco” and “Lollipopsichord.” It’s not a joke, but this is a band that doesn’t seem to take themselves too seriously. It’s this attitude behind the music that helps it stand out among similar albums. If Black Moth Super Rainbow are the hippies of today, the thought of running away with them in a van in still tempting.

Favorite tracks:
“Forever Heavy” (download)
“Sun Lips” (download)

6. Leyode, Fascinating Tininess…

I hate to pit Leyode and Black Moth Super Rainbow against each other – they’re both electro-psych-pop albums, but with completely different moods. Where Black Moth Super Rainbow has a sun-drenched feel to it, Leyode is more exotic (one of the members, Yusuke Hama, has classical training and according to All Music, learned to compose by fiddling with French New Wave films). Fascinating Tininess… gets the one-up on Dandelion Gum only because I’ve listened to it ever so slightly more often.

Favorite tracks:
“Irene” (download)
“Hassami (Feat. Savath y Savalas)” (download)

5. Yeasayer, All Hour Cymbals

Of the bands being compared to Fleetwood Mac this year (and there were a couple), Yeasayer is the band that modernizes them without blatantly ripping them off (though the singer’s snarl in “Sunrise” sounds eerily close to Buckingham’s). Combining world music with current styles of psych, rock, folk, pop, etc., Yeasayer is a mash-up of a band. No one seems to be able to describe them as being similar to just one band, it’s always Fleetwood Mac meets Animal Collective meets Genesis meets Akron/Family meets… you get the idea. But All Hour Cymbals doesn’t feel piece-meal, mimicking, uninspired or unoriginal – on the contrary, it feels vibrant, new, powerful and ingenious.

Favorite tracks:
“2080” (download)
“Sunrise” (download)

4. Feist, The Reminder

Let’s face it – there was just no denying this woman this year. Something as sweet yet sassy as “1, 2, 3, 4” could’ve only been rejected by those lacking pulses and hearts. Feist manages to be open yet still mysterious, loving but still strong, and fickle yet still serious, all on one album. She was indie rock’s woman of the year, and she earned every accolade. Here’s to the prom queens that actually deserve the crown.

Favorite tracks:
“My Moon, My Man” (download)
“The Limit To Your Love” (download)

3. Two Gallants, Two Gallants

As a critic, I should never say this – but as a journalist, I must. There is absolutely no way for me to be entirely objective when it comes to reviewing Two Gallants. Two Gallants are the band that got me through the last 5 years of my life. They are the last hint at my most formative years, likely my last “favorite band,” the last musical act that I will get childish about for years to come (why are such seeds of broad enthusiasm only planted during our youth?). That said, I reserve the right to comment upon their artistic output, and I shall continue to do so. If you’re uncomfortable with this, pretend this is In Rainbows, and skip to number two.
There is much significance behind Two Gallants choosing this, their third release, as their self-titled album. These are fight songs – songs of betrayal, anger, loneliness, bitterness, regret, defiance. None of that is new territory for the San Franciscan duo, who’ve made their trade on all of those emotions. What is new is the sound. Two Gallants is more restrained, slower, quieter than either of the albums that precede it. They haven’t given up, but they sound a bit more defeated. This is also their first album that’s entirely sung from the first person. In the past, Stephens often favored a more literary, storyteller approach.
It makes sense. It’s been a rough couple years for Two Gallants, not the least of which includes the famous incident at a Houston show where a renegade cop shut them down, overly harsh reviews and reviewers, and audiences that are still bigger in Europe than in their home country. Two Gallants are weary. You can hear it in their recent interviews. You can hear it in this album.
While they may have lost some of their bite, they’ve held onto their talent for capturing so acutely the life and ways of the wanderers – those of us who are constantly looking for something, though we may not always be entirely certain of what it is. We’ll know it when we find it, just like we know – almost instantly – who else has it. You can’t fault them for getting tired, it’s just a part of the lifestyle.

Favorite tracks:
“Despite What You’ve Been Told” (download)
“My Baby Gone” (download)

2. St. Vincent, Marry Me

The greatest thing about St. Vincent is her ability to experiment without alienating her listeners. There’s noting conventional about Marry Me, and at the same time, there’s nothing about it that’s difficult to reach. She’s not so ahead of us that we’re left in the dust scratching our heads, and she’s not so behind us that we’re left to criticize what could’ve been if she’d only been truer to herself. Marry Me isn’t necessarily the kind of album that will grab you immediately, it’s the kind of album with a quiet charm that you’ll find yourself listening to more and more out of its pleasantries and quirks. Much like Feist, she’s found the perfect middle ground of being warm but strong, feisty yet endearing, clever and playful. Nothing about this feels exaggerated or downplayed – it’s just right.

Favorite tracks:
“Marry Me” (download)
“What Me Worry” (download)

1. Patrick Cleandenim, Baby Comes Home

Perhaps the greatest asset that Patrick Cleandenim has is that so few people are doing what he’s doing anymore. What is he doing, exactly? He’s playing updated standards type of music, nodding back to days of big bands and swing and other early forms of jazz and pop. Sure, there are a few who do this – Jens Lenkman, for example, who you’ll likely find of plenty of this year’s top lists. Where Cleandenim exceeds his contemporaries, however, is his ability to do it without sounding gimmicky or gaudy. Too many artists who tread into this territory end up feeling insincere or over the top, like they thought “let’s try something new!” and one-offed it, bleeding perky pop song into perky pop song. Baby Comes Home has a very natural feel to it, as though there is no other way he knows how to make music. It has, well, everything. It’s sensual, flirty, relaxing, engaging, confident, glamorous, humble, sentimental, bitter – name an emotion, and it’s probably in here somewhere. It also has “Days Without Rain,” which is easily my favorite song of the year, a song I could (and often do) listen to for days and never tire of. A sumptuous plea for a lover’s return, he’s seductive, cheerful, commanding and pleading, all in the course of four minutes and 42 seconds. It’s the strings, the high-hat, the piano, each part so artfully played. There is no moment in a song this year that tops the moments where Cleandenim cries, “won’t you come home in the morning / before our love beings to dry the rain” (though that second bit changes throughout the song). Ultimately, though, what made this album so sure in its #1 placement is that this is the album that had me the most excited about music this year, the album that I made everyone listen to, the album that I came back to month after month. While Baby Comes Home is not as grand on an influential scale as something like In Rainbows, it deserves its accolades, too – and I’m more than pleased to give them.

Favorite tracks:
“Days Without Rain” (download)
“Hollywood” (download)