1: Watch the Throne – Jay-Z & Kanye West
At once catchy and upbeat enough to play at a party and complex and nuanced enough to warrant 50 listens, Watch the Throne is the ultimate collaboration between rap’s titans. The album seamlessly weaves high and low, with samples from the likes of Otis Redding and Will Ferrell’s Blades of Glory. While “Gotta Have It” is the clear standout, “Otis,” “Who Gon Stop Me,” “Murder to Excellence,” and, really, every single track, is artfully crafted and goes so far beyond satisfactory. These men could have put twelve tracks of shit together and it would have sold, and, instead, they gave us this piece of solid gold.
2: Dye it Blonde – Smith Westerns
They’re not T. Rex and Cullen Omori certainly isn’t David Bowie, but it really doesn’t matter. Smith Westerns are simple, and they’re simply good. Dye it Blonde is much glossier than their debut, and the band’s glam elements fully overtake their garage roots, for better or worse. “Imagine Part 3” and “Weekend” were the perfect, mindless bursts of sound in the spring. The songs are pure guitar and drums, thrilling and brief looks into something, sort of like if The Strokes cared a little more about any form of music that came before them and a little less about sincere attempts to seem jaded and disaffected.
3: Drive – Cliff Martinez
Maybe there are only a few real heartbreakers on the album, but when was the last time anyone got this excited about a movie soundtrack? The sappiest croonings of “I do nothing but think of you,” are somehow legitimized by obnoxious synthesizers, and fit perfectly alongside images of car chases and murders. While the blatant ’80s nostalgia isn’t entirely sincere, these songs completely made the movie and can still stand alone.
4: Sleep Talk – Shannon and the Clams
Shannon Shaw is the anti-Adele. You can get all mad and bossy with Adele, but, really, “Someone Like You” is still going to make you feel terrible in the end. Shannon takes you somewhere else; her huge voice captures ’60s girl pop, and her crisp and brassy vocals get brought back down to earth by fuzzy and frantic garage rock. Plus, her songs aren’t only about boys; you can still feel sad about that dude while listening to songs about ghosts, cults, and birthday parties, too.
5: Bon Iver – Bon Iver
Perfect for those chilly winter nights, Bon Iver’s second album does not disappoint in providing its usual meditative music, replete with soft, echoing lyrics and gentle instrumentals. Full of sincere and blissful self-realization, Justin Vernon accepts his shortcomings and relative insignificance—in “Holocene,” he calmly sings, “At once I knew I was not magnificent”—ushering in a sort of modesty that was absent in the earlier album For Emma, Forever Ago.