1. Hiss Golden Messenger, Heart Like a Levee In a year when so much went wrong, North Carolinian M.C. Taylor’s down-home country/folk/blues blend provided needed relief, in the form of authentic lyrical sentiments and simple-yet-sophisticated compositions that recall The Band, Van Morrison and late-era Dylan.
2. Tim Hecker, Love Streams Scaling back the beautiful noise of previous projects, Vancouver’s ambient saint takes a more direct route to the heart, employing a choir and twisting another heady spine-tingler from their combined output.
3. Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution The Portland vocalist fuses jazz, folk and funk into something like lost late-’70s Joni Mitchell, with production from longtime Bowie cohort Tony Visconti.
4. Heron Oblivion, Heron Oblivion Ex-Comets on Fire/Howlin Rain leader Ethan Miller regroups with this fuzzed-out Fairport Convention time warp, with ex-Espers vocalist Meg Baird playing Sandy Denny.
5. LVL UP, Return to Love The New Yorkers’ Sub Pop debut draws direct lines to Built to Spill, Elephant 6 and (good) Weezer, stitched into a statement about the enduring power of quality guitar-rock.
6. Anderson .Paak, Malibu The SoCal soul man packs his production team with an underground hip-hop who’s who (Madlib, 9th Wonder, Hi-Tek), but it’s Paak’s smooth delivery and conscious lyrics that make it memorable.
7. Mugstar, Magnetic Seasons A rare double-album that doesn’t waste time, as the foursome oscillates between Kraut, psych and space, with nary a wrong turn.
8. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Ears Weaving together modular analog synthesizers, field recordings, woodwinds, her own vocals and more, Smith creates otherworldly sounds that provide welcome escape from this one.
9. Guided By Voices, Please Be Honest Playing every single note on this anthem-stacked return to his best-known project, indie-rock master Robert Pollard declares that he, alone, is Guided By Voices.
10. Mythic Sunship, Ouroboros Over the course of three dense 10-plus-minute tracks, four dudes from Denmark travel the psych-rock spaceways, without singing a word.
1. David Bowie, Blackstar This is not a grief vote. Bowie’s final album, made with some of the most talented players on the NYC jazz scene, was already one of his finest before he floated away to space.
2. Anderson.Paak, Malibu Paak’s engrossing second full-length covers so much musical and lyrical ground, he could be confused for a modern-day Stevie Wonder.
3. Beyoncé, Lemonade A scorned Bey turns anger to clarity and makes the most emboldened, riveting—and (bonus) adventurous—work of her career.
4. Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool Jonny Greenwood astounds with his nervy, Penderecki-esque strings and ominous atmospherics, juxtaposed and lubricated by Thom Yorke’s heart-on-sleeve (and still peerless) crooning.
5. Avalanches, Wildflower This carefully stitched reverie of samples and pop worship dodges comparisons to 2000’s Since I Left You.
6. Jenny Hval, Blood Bitch Another unflinching and arresting examination of what women endure—and how they transcend it—by the experimental/goth/pop Norwegian singer-songwriter.
7. Case/Lang/Veirs, Case/Lang/Veirs Stop with the supergroup talk. This natural, enrapturing collaboration plays to the strengths of vocal powerhouses and songsmiths Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs.
8. Blood Orange, Freetown Sound Like Beyoncé, Dev Hynes asserts his identity and creates a pop manifesto, albeit with more warmth and a proprietary aesthetic.
9. Haley Bonar, Impossible Dream A compulsory collection of fanciful power-pop by the perspective-blessed Minnesota singer-songwriter.
10. Prins Thomas, Principe Del Norte More Norwegian greatness unfurled, this time by the Lindstrøm collaborator/Todd Terje labelmate, whose ambient jams comforted a certain music writer during a rough November.
1. David Bowie, Blackstar Blackstar was an enigmatic, jazz-inflected meditation on life and death—and then, after Bowie unexpectedly died two days after the album’s release, it became a wrenching, deliberate musical goodbye.
2. Lydia Loveless, Real The Columbus-based musician smartly grapples with self-sabotage and self-doubt, using scruffy alt-country with a bar-band-shaped heart as a guide.
3. The Monkees, Good Times! Working with songwriters like Ben Gibbard, Rivers Cuomo and XTC’s Andy Partridge, The Monkees fashioned a spry, note-perfect modern update of their ’60s garage-jangle.
4. Cyndi Lauper, Detour On this collection of country standards, the quirk-pop icon veers effortlessly between torchy twang, swinging rockabilly, hollering ballads and lighthearted honky-tonk.
5. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker The legendary poet’s sparse last record—released weeks before his death—wisely highlights his world-weary baritone, on stunning lyrics that neatly encapsulate life’s vicissitudes.
6. Panic! At the Disco, Death of a Bachelor Brendon Urie & Co. unleash another stellar collection of Technicolor electro-rock and crooning pop overflowing with spicy flourishes (see: the big band swing of “Crazy=Genius” and B-52’s sample on “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time.”
7. Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings This sprawling double-album shows off Lambert’s range as an artist: Besides mainstream country, she touches on twanging honky-tonk, stripped-down folk and resonant alt-country.
8. Tegan and Sara, Love You to Death The sisters’ second foray into glossy electro-pop is more effortless than its first, 2013’s Heartthrob. The percolating “Boyfriend” and the slinky “U-turn” boast gleeful hooks and sparkling synthesizers that conjure the best of ’80s New Wave.
9. American Wrestlers, Goodbye Terrible Youth The St. Louis act’s second album injects carnival-esque keyboards into buzzy, distortion-dragged ’90s rock.
10. Grant-Lee Phillips, The Narrows Recorded in Nashville, this ornate solo album ruminates on place and distance through a historical lens, via gorgeous folk and alt-country tunes.