I've done some calculating, and I've listened to around 150 albums this year. Here's the top 20%, and three EPs I couldn't leave out.
25. Plug: Back in Time [Ninja Tune]
The most apt description (which is yet far from apt) is a trancey drum & bass, but like any electronic musician worth his salt, Luke Vibert resists definition, even as electronica fans continue to define a ludicrous argosy of subgenres, apparently driven by the need to neatly classify every new species they encounter. A hidebound opponent of architectonic endeavors myself, I'm content simply to lose myself in this densely packed whirlwind of frenetic beats, tempo shifts, eccentric samples, ridiculous cacology, and the bleeps, buzzes, and birrs of far too many instruments to count.
24. Patti Smith: Banga [Columbia]
Beginning with a sympathetic reinterpretation of a letter of Amerigo Vespucci and concluding with a lovely rendition of Neil Young's environmentalist classic, Banga bleeds with the excessive mystical language and fanciful imagery which so few songwriters can borrow from without sounding silly or pretentious. Highbrow allusions abound, with the song titles alone paying homage to Andrei Tarkovsky, Maria Schneider, Mikhail Bulgakov, Seneca, and Constantine via Pierro Della Francesca. While this is normally the type of album I can't stand, Patti Smith delivers her musings with heartfelt sincerity and embraces the déclassé punk rock simplicity that has always proved the perfect vehicle for her poetry.
23. Killer Mike: R.A.P Music [Williams Street]
This breakthrough album by a lingering presence in the booming ATL rap scene is desultory, Killer Mike apparently unable to decide whether he likes his R.A.P. served gansta/braggadocio or conscious/political style. Not that these two elements can’t smoothly be brought together, but Mike's capriciousness results in a album inconsistent both in style (which is welcome) and quality (which isn’t). As R.A.P. Music begins with a few decent songs severely deficient in both hooks and depth, the first great beat comes late: the old school funk backing up the goofy old school narrative of “Jojo’s Chillin.” This segues into a darker view of the 80’s with Killer Mike attacking the the drug war, and the prison industrial complex, and celebrating Regan's death. From here on, the beats just get more memorable, the hooks catchier, the lyrics sharper, up until the killer troika at the end. First, a love-hate relationship with the ATL. Next, a coming-of-age story and tribute to his grandad that also confesses his debt to Tupac and William Golding. Lastly, the title track itself, which lays claim to the entire legacy of Rebellious African People music.
22. s/s/s: Beak & Claw EP [Anticon]
As I have no great fondness for the symphonic treacle of Sufjan Stevens or the post-rock hip-hop of Son Lux, it's native Chicagoan and oddball rapper Serengeti that both drew me to this bizarre little collab and rendered it one of the year's most surprising pleasures. Beautiful and strangely compelling, Beak & Claw nevertheless benefits from an often auto-tuned Sufjan and the barely discernible hooks of Son Lux. Serengeti's rapping is predictably great, drawing on the life of the self-consciously artsy bourgeois which along with a willingness to experiment may yet be the only thing these artists have in common.
21. Saigon: The Greatest Story Never Told Chapter Two: Bread and Circuses [Suburban Noize]
While it lacks both the expert beats and grandeur of its excellent predecessor, Saigon's sophomore album (although if we're counting mixtapes he has already graduated a long time ago) adds a new layer of sophistication and expands its ambit beyond the conscience outrage of his debut. Taking the role of executive producer, Just Blaze only directly produces the first track, the triumphant "Plant the Seed (What U Paid For)." Distinguishing between Rap and Real, paying tribute to the black martyrs who were "Blown Away," and sensitively tackling the scabrous issue of a "Relafriendship," Saigon rarely dishes out duff rhymes or slips into the sermonic.