1. Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly”: I’ve heard this called Kendrick’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” and, admittedly, as a middle-aged white male, this is not MY “Songs in the Key of Life.” But this is a pure musical adventure, the kind that makes you shake your head and wonder, “How did he do this?” The craft is breathtaking, bursting with so many ideas and juxtapositions, something different is happening practically every 10 or 20 seconds. In lieu of hip-pop songs and bangers, we get a musical palette rich and relentless, big on free jazz but with a mix of heavy beats, Prince-ly funk and soul, and a splash of what sounds like Steely Dan (the middle-aged white male connection!). Over top, Kendrick wrestles the demons of fame, love, sex, depression, expectations and the state of blackness. There’s so much to take in, a book could be written about this album. I’m not the one to do it.
2. Eric Church, “Mr. Misunderstood”: Surprise albums aren’t just for Beyonce and Prince ... and Wilco. The heartland rocker and Nashville outsider dropped one in November that tones down the bombast of last year’s hit “The Outsiders.” Church and company just let it rip, crossing boundaries into gospel, soul, hard rock, swamp rock, etc. The playing dazzles and the lyrics are frequently devastating, whether it’s Church singing about the weird kid in the title track, the heartbroken sods in “Round Here” and “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” or what he learned from his son in “Three Year Old.” It’s nothing groundbreaking -- just an unhyped gift of great songs.
3. Sufjan Stevens, “Carrie & Lowell”: The faded cover photo of his late mother and stepfather illustrates the collection of fractured memories to be found inside. This is a quietly harrowing work from the singer-songwriter channeling his grief into a beautiful and dreamy mosaic of their troubled, mostly estranged relationship. He solidified the album for Pittsburghers with a brilliant show at Heinz Hall in which he performed it in its entirety.
4. Hop Along, “Painted Shut”: I won’t argue with Adele being the best singer going, but I’ll take Frances Quinlan, who keeps you on edge wondering what her voice is going to do next. It’s not one for “The Voice” or anything remotely like that. It’s a lethal weapon the Philly freak-folk-singer-turned-indie-rocker unleashes on this second band album and Saddle Creek debut produced by John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, the Hold Steady). Hop Along keeps the electricity turned up and Quinlan scratches out a compelling cast of characters, from the waitress in the waffle house to the witness at the door to portraits of two mysterious old musicians, but it’s the untamed vocals, from whisper to cracking howl, that keeps it hopping.
5. Courtney Barnett, “Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit”: What if Liz Phair had a baby? In Australia? Bouncing from stripped-down garage to moody and squalling indie-rock, Barnett’s debut album reboots that world-weary, deadpan vibe, working magic with mundane details. “Depreston,” a song about hipsters house hunting in the suburbs, turns into a bracing meditation on mortality. In “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY),” a night of insomnia has the cracks in the ceiling making her imagine “my love line seems intertwined with death.” The single, “Pedestrian at Best” -- “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you!” -- is a giddy existential crisis with monsters riffs out of the Sonics or the Cynics.
6. Sleater-Kinney, “No Cities to Love”: After a decade off, it was so good to hear the riot ladies again, it didn’t even have to be that good. Oh, but it was! The angular riffs, stabbing guitars, punk-force beats, darting vocals of Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein … all present and delivered with the same lurching abandon.
7. Kurt Vile, “B’lieve I’m Going Down”: It sounds like Vile did this one sitting down, like he is on the cover. It’s a languid, mostly melancholy-sounding piece best enjoyed looking out the window at the rain or late at night with headphones in a smoky room. As always, he draws on Dylan/Petty/Lou Reed, but it comes out as pure Kurt Vile, sounding more relaxed (and maybe a little more surreal) than ever in his own skin.
8. Tame Impala, “Currents”: The fuzz guitars are phased out for synths, which, to some fans, might feel like going backwards, but the dreamy psychedelia is intact on the third album from the Australian band. It’s Kevin Parker dealing with a break-up, in grand musical fashion, with hints of Motown and Flaming Lips.
9. Ryan Adams, “1989”: If this had come out before the Taylor Swift album, could we have guessed that the songs were actually written by a 25-year-old pop diva? “Haters gonna hate” may have been a tip-off, but otherwise, this would have passed as another really good Ryan Adams record. Knowing it’s a Taylor Swift tribute album adds a layer of gender and generational complexity to each song. He fully occupies the 13 tracks, turning many of the smiles upside-down and infusing it with the emotional wallop of a more seasoned artist.
10. Carousel, “2113”: Some up-and-coming bands aim to get heavier with each record. With the addition of Philly-based guitarist Matt Goldsborough, a member of '70s metal pioneers Pentagram, Pittsburgh’s Carousel backs off the sludge for a sizzling twin-guitar, hard rock attack with a touch of Southern boogie. More than suitable for fans of Thin Lizzy, Aerosmith and Kiss.