1) Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
2) Baths – Cerulean
On his earlier albums, Flying Lotus proved that he was the most talented disciple of Madlib. On Cosmogramma Lotus comes into his own, blending his own sophisticated sampling with elegant live strings and jazzy bass to create a powerful, celestial music that can't be mistaken for the work of anyone else. Baths' Cerulean is just as distinctive as Cosmogramma, and is arguably more impressive considering that it is his debut. The combination of Dilla's dusty future-soul and Grizzly Bear's moody choir music is as unlikely as it is gorgeous.
3) Big Boi – Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty
It's debatable whether Big Boi really needed to step out of the shadow of Andre 3000, since hip hop fans have long considered both to be among the most talented MCs of their generation. But Sir Lucious Left Foot is just as adventurous, energetic, and infectious as any of OutKast's group albums, and arguably more consistent and coherent. Each individual track is stuffed with more ideas than most entire albums can boast, yet they are all polished, refined, and catchy enough to be Top 40 hits. The complex productions are a perfect match for Big Boi's vivid, mind-bending rhymes, which shift from battle raps to sexual boasting to politics without missing a beat.
4) Zach Hill – Face Tat
5) Deerhunter – Halycon Digest
On the surface, Zach Hill's energetic noise and Deerhunter's gauzy bedroom rock have little in common. But the avant-garde Face Tat relies as heavily on immediacy and catchiness as the poppy Halycon Digest does on atmosphere and tonality, and both albums utilize a ridiculously high amount of reverb. The two discs are also united by being extremely consistent even as they find their creators branching out into new territory.
6) LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
James Murphy and co. lose points for owing such a heavy debt to the music of the past. The treated, sun-scorched guitars come from Bowie's Berlin period, the polyrhythms from Talking Heads, the metallic keyboards from Gary Newman, and the whole apocalyptic party vibe from Prince's 1999. But on This is Happening, LCD Soundsystem sound like peers of their influences rather than imitators.
7) Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
The first two Gorillaz albums felt like sketchy vanity projects for Damon Albarn and friends, with occasional moments of inspiration stranded in a sea of demo-quality Britpop and half-baked genre hybrids. Plastic Beach, on the other hand, is a full-fledged album, one that doesn't sacrifice the "group's" adventurous, eclectic spirit for consistency and coherence. Mos Def, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack, and the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music all sound equally at home in Albarn's crafty pop productions.
8) Strong Arm Steady – In Search of Stoney Jackson
This year, Madlib released an album-a-month series called Madlib Medicine Show, showcasing his interest in everything from reggae to bossa nova to jazz. But Madlib's greatest guise is hip hop producer, and his album-length beat work for veteran Los Angeles crew Strong Arm Steady provided the most impressive look at his skills this year. SAS' rapping is best described as "adequate," and they are honestly indistinguishable from most of the album's many guest stars. But it doesn't really matter, because a flashier group of MCs would only get in the way of Madlib's dense, soulful, endlessly inventive work behind the boards.
9) Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
10) Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Pop music's biggest overreachers make good. The Age of Adz and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy could both use a little tightening up – the former could afford to drop a few flute trills or drum machine disruptions here and there, and the latter would be better with half as many guest verses, and both albums are simply too long. But the overabundance of ambition serves to push both Sufjan Stevens and Kanye West into more daring territory than they've gone into in the past, with West finally unifying the various strands of his work and Stevens sounding more like a deranged mad scientist than a wussy troubadour. Not everything works on either of these albums, but their most striking moments wouldn't be possible if they weren't risking colossal failure at every turn.