This list represents a good cross-section of my personal favorites that wound up on mixtapes throughout the year, but is in no way comprehensive.
THEESatisfaction - "awE naturalE"
A real sleeper hit in my collection. This disc of funk/soul/hip-hop in the style of late-'90s divas like Lauryn Hill didn't quite click with me right away, until I saw the live version at LouFest in August. Since then, the funky, freaky and utterly wild girl-power anthems (and just plain silliness) of this record have won me over. Leave your face at the door, turn off your swag.
Bat for Lashes - "The Haunted Man"
Let's ignore, for just a moment, the album cover of a nude Natasha Khan with a nude man draped over her. Just for a moment, let's focus on the simplified playing and deep lyrics that serve to illustrate the real talent behind the entire breadth of BfL's work. It's seductive and honest, brutal and pretty and one of the most danceable records BfL has ever put out and, yes, OK it has the most interesting cover of an album this year.
Frank Ocean - "Channel Orange"
The only "out" member of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, Frank Ocean had stood out before by being the only member of that group focused on tuneful crooning and not brutal ICP-style slaughterhouse rap. Ocean's simple beats and over-reaching falsetto remind me of Prince's best most sparse work, which is never a bad thing. Nowhere more than on the 9-plus-minute "Pyramids" -- the best example of setup/payoff on the record.
Japandroids - "Celebration Rock"
When your album starts with the sound of fireworks and then your drums come in with a beat that matches the fireworks' tempo and the song builds up and crashes down and makes the listener want to jump around the room and break things with the pure joy of it and that song ISN'T the best song on your album, you have made a near-masterpiece. This is Japandroids' "Born To Run" - a fiery kiss-off and a blissful last kiss at the same time.
EL-P - "Cancer essay writer 4 Cure"
A lot of artists were focusing on cleaning up and making themselves pretty this year. EL-P grimed it up, glitched it out and dropped banging tracks like "Drones Over BKLYN" "Sign Here" and "True Story." The tracks sputter and splat around like elephants trying to paint with a beatbox and the rhymes deliver, with scattered moments of beauty sprinkled throughout, so it's not all doom-and-gloom.
Aesop Rock - "Skelethon"
On the same label, produced by the same maniac as El-P (actually, it is El-P on some of them) Ace F-in Rock turned in a record utterly different in scope and sound. ARock's always been an oddball, but on this platter of tight funk-influenced cuts, he actually approaches pop sensibility only to spit in its eye by dropping his MC Escher/Mad Lib lyrics. As great as that is, it's a damn shame as this record is as close to a true follow-up to 2003's career-defining "Bazooka Tooth" as one can hope for.
Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra - "Theatre Is Evil"
The album that launched a thousand blogs about "Where did the money go?" and righteous incriminations about paying touring artists is great for raising those questions, but it's also, y'know, a goddamned great record on its own. Palmer takes the lessons learned from a lifetime of being a road-trained musician and creates an almost-literal tower of song. From the first track (not the intro, "Smile (Pictures or It Didn't Happen)") to the last, the record is a yelping, rocking, '80s-worshipping, piano-destroying, jump-around-your-house-singing-every-lyric-at-the-top-of-your-lungs good time. So full of life at some points ("Do It With a Rockstar," "Massachusetts Avenue," "Melody Dean") and so direly depressed at others ("The Bed Song," "Grown Man Cry") it seems as though Palmer is truly alive here, warts-and-all, and that's a good thing.
The Mountain Goats - "Transcendental Youth"
John Darnielle managed to write one of the best songs about Amy Winehouse that wasn't particularly about Amy Winehouse. It's also one of the best singles of the year, on an album where every track could be a #1 hit in a more literate and hip universe. As it is, "Diaz Brothers," "Night Light," "Counterfiet Florida Plates" and the aforementioned "Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1" will join the Mountain Goats catalog, which is already filled with witty, brutally honest songs with just enough jangle and pop to keep them from dragging into depressing territory. Even Darnielle's chronicle of Frankie Lymons' last days manages to churn up a simple truth of life: "Even awful dreams are good dreams / if you're doing it right."
Screaming Females - "Ugly"
Standing firmly at the corner of punk and whatever-it-is-that-L7-was, this record sounds like the best album the Geraldine Fibbers never put out. Equal parts Distillers' Brodie Dale vocals and Heart's Nancy Wilson guitar, with dashes of classic punk and metal just to show you they can. Screaming Females may beg and borrow the various elements of their sound from bands that came before, but that only adds to their appeal -- it's all familiar, but the arrangements are different, the sound is modern and the ride is uniquely theirs. Try not singing along to "Rotten Apple" and "Tell Me No" ... it's hard to resist.
IAMDYNAMITE - "Supermegafantastic"
Two guys by the name of Chris from Detroit making explosive pop-rock. Sounds great, right? Well, it is better than great. These two troublemakers have made quite possibly the single best record this year from top to bottom. The blow-out guitar and crushing drums team up in jump-start, punk-tinged rock that makes for endless loops of repeat listens. "Where Will We Go" kicks off in fine fashion, all syncopated tongue-tied and blustery braggadocio, "Riot in the Neon Light" has a mariachi-tinged breakdown, "Hey Girl" simmers and burns like the best indie-pop and "Stereo" churns deep and southern-fried like Queens of the Stone Age. The fact that these two men make all these sounds with just drums, guitar and the occasional trumpet is truly a thing to behold.
Los Campesinos! - "Hello Sadness"
Metric - "Synthetica"
Matt & Kim - "Lightning"
Dum Dum Girls - "End of Daze"
Cat Power - "Sun"
Fiona Apple - "The Idler Wheel…"