We're constantly told that the music industry is in shambles — and that might be true, but how to explain the past exceptional year in music? Here are the top albums of the year as chosen by Canadian Press music writer Nick Patch, as well as the best songs not included on those records.
1. Kendrick Lamar — "Good Kid, m.A.A.d City"
Sometimes it's tempting to sit back and just listen to the way the words unspool from this preternaturally talented Compton rapper's lips — in double or triple time, in expertly varied cadences, in complex knots so tight it seems they're tied by a grizzled fisherman. So yes, the 25-year-old has crafted more bars than Alcatraz, but it's the focused perspective he brings to his major-label debut (which followed the excellent-if-bloated indie release "Section.80") that's truly captivating. With uncommon self-awareness and candour, Lamar documents a precarious upbringing of close calls, moral compromise and inescapable violence perpetrated by men in uniform (whether gang colours or the police's bullet-proof vests) over deceptively intricate beats that splay out as generously as early Outkast. Lamar accomplishes what stymies so many other well-intentioned conscious rappers who wind up sounding preachy: he observes, he documents, but he never claims to do so from a distance.
2. Miguel — "Kaleidoscope Dream"
For a brief time, this L.A. crooner seemed poised to become another misunderstood industry casualty. His 2010 debut was brimming with promise but was also scattershot in a way that suggested label-mandated demographic-targeting. Unsurprisingly, it disappointed commercially. But Miguel, apparently, never doubted himself — how else to explain this sultry, audacious second album? Ignoring many inescapable tropes of modern R&B (booming hip hop beats, guestlists longer than the royal wedding), Miguel's lithe vocal gymnastics and risque sexual provocations recall a lofty lineage including R. Kelly, Prince and Marvin Gaye (particularly on the bubble-buoyant stunner "Adorn"). But he's no mere retro-soul fetishist either, using incandescent flashes of electric guitar, submerged keyboards and hazy drums — everything shrouded in a narcotic stupor — to craft a mesmerizing, entirely cohesive pop record that sounds like little else on the charts. And after watching Miguel giddily stalk, strut and strip across a smokey Toronto stage recently, it's clear the 27-year-old has located his niche, and not a moment too soon.
3. Frank Ocean — "Channel Orange"
If there's a quality that unites the three talents heading up this list, it's an earnest, insatiable ambition that is, almost by design, impossible to realize. Ocean, if anything, seems energized by the impossible challenge on this expansive, brightly lit avant-R&B tribute to love and Los Angeles. His instrumentation daringly stark, the 25-year-old writes a series of beguilingly ambiguous character sketches — of cocaine-huffing latchkey kids ("Super Rich Kids"), of a Cleopatra-styled stripper with a deadbeat boyfriend ("Pyramids") and, fleetingly, of himself ("Bad Religion," for one, which finds a distraught Ocean opening up to a cab driver). Even with a carefully considered production (the best signpost might be a half-speed Stevie Wonder) and Ocean's cashmere-soft voice, the record's length and deliberate pace can be rather daunting — and that's somehow part of its charm. Like his adopted home of L.A., "Channel Orange" unfurls in an endless, sun-dappled sprawl, overwhelming but packed with possibility.
4. Tame Impala — "Lonerism"
On their sophomore album, this Australian quartet swapped the fuzz-toned guitar of their debut for swirling keyboard reverie, a melodic collage of sounds old and new that's almost pretty enough to hang in a gallery. The cheerfully smeared analog keys, jazzy drumming and carefully deployed torrents of guitar noise create a beautiful racket of underwater sunshine pop, but the record's emotional core comes in the form of Kevin Parker's plaintive words — simple statements of loneliness, anxiety and distance. Of course, the alien nature of "Lonerism" is part of what makes it so thrillingly special.
5. Japandroids — "Celebration Rock"
Sure, the eight songs on this record all sound more or less the same, as did the eight songs on the Vancouver duo's 2009 debut, "Post-Nothing." And the two albums sound pretty similar to one another too — lyrics blurted with a last-night-on-Earth urgency, guitars and drums delivered with a flamethrower's spray. If the records aren't identical twin brothers, they're Frasier and Niles Crane. But there's certainly evidence of growth here in the tighter production, performances more tousled than messy and more rewarding songwriting, headlined by the rousing "The House that Heaven Built." And had anyone tired of Japandroids' frantic fireworks, anyway?
Honourable mentions: Schoolboy Q, "Habits and Contradictions"; Killer Mike, "R.A.P. Music"; Godspeed You! Black Emperor, "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!"; Metz, "Metz"; Azealia Banks, "212"
1. Usher — "Climax"
It was a year in which many fused R&B and electronic with gloriously glum results, but absolutely nothing touched this pristine pop pearl. His falsetto spiralling toward the heavens, Usher sings with sorrowful frustration about a long relationship that's surrendered to inertia — or as he sighs, "Don't wanna give in so we both gave up" — while Diplo's breathtaking production lends the track a rain-slick sheen. The whole thing is so persuasively despondent it can leave you yearning for a heartbreak in which to wallow.
2. Grimes — "Oblivion"
The highlight of the Vancouver-born, Montreal-based 24-year-old's stellar "Visions," this piece of pop hypnosis perfectly encapsulates the unique appeal of the artist otherwise known as Claire Boucher: it's playful, menacing, propulsive, thoughtful, icy and warm, all at the same time. Here, Boucher's wispy vocals float like a spectre over a knotty web of synth grooves. And as she continuously coos "see you on a dark night," it's clear her intentions are hazy even on her most jubilantly accessible track.
3. The Shins — "Simple Song"
After five years away (and it felt like longer given the pebble-ripple effect of 2007's unjustly ignored "Wincing the Night Away"), James Mercer's wizards of winsome returned with the excellent "Port of Morrow" and this blast-of-cool-air power-pop delight. Really, it's packed full of so many brightly wrapped sweet flourishes, it's like a pop pinata: cascades of glossy guitars, chiming keys, a chorus of reverb-soaked vocal harmonies and — if all that wasn't enough — perfectly wistful lyrics. In typical Shins fashion, the whole thing only seems straightforward.
4. Future — "Turn On the Lights"
Over the course of his absorbing (if wildly uneven) fever dream of a debut, "Pluto," this Atlanta MC established himself as an Auto-Tuned alien who inventively warped pervasive rap trends yet somehow wound up utterly pop — like a knuckleballer whose each fluttering pitch landed right down the middle. But it's his less conventional tunes that were most impossible to forget — chiefly this trilling search for love, on which Future's a sad robot warbling tenderly over thumping 808s and synths that sound like they're crying. Future is often fascinating, but rarely this moving.
5. Chairlift — "I Belong in Your Arms"
A shimmering ballad that's as unapologetically moony-eyed as its title would suggest, no hint of irony (especially impressive since this duo is from Brooklyn). With singer/songwriter Caroline Polachek's honeyed vocals, synths that are summer-swim refreshing and a propulsive beat worthy of Hall & Oates, this sounds like a long-overlooked '80s classic that should have spent the past three decades being butchered by overeager karaoke participants. Well, at least Chairlift has given us a silver lining for Hollywood's inevitable flood of John Hughes remakes.
Bonus: Carly Rae Jepsen — "Call Me Maybe"
As this demure disco-pop bon-bon ascended from a state of mere widespread popularity to inescapable global ubiquity, an unfortunate thing happened: the cheery tune became so pervasive it became difficult to appreciate. Jepsen's folk tune-turned-synth pop marvel soundtracked high-school proms, root canals, schleps through the mall, the Grey Cup halftime show — basically everything we did, to the point where queuing it up on an iPod felt sadly redundant (just remove your earbuds and you're bound to hear it soon enough). And yet, if we've come to take the chart-topping hit for granted, in a few years its brilliance — the strings as light as lemon meringue, Jepsen's perky crooning and that merry-go-round chorus so stubbornly catchy you'd need high-concentration bleach to scrub it from your brain — should be impossible to deny.