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.
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 flow 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, guest lists longer than the royal wedding), Miguel's lithe vocal gymnastics and risqué 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 smoky 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 analogue 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.
-- The Canadian Press