1. Frank Ocean's Channel Orange
Frank Ocean's major-label debut represents "the most exciting R&B breakthrough in recent memory," said Rolling Stone. The soulful 25-year-old singer-songwriter specializes in "plush, dark-tinted grooves" that update Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye for the era of moody rappers like Drake, but he's very much "his own man, a distinctive voice with no real analogue" elsewhere in pop. The L.A.-based, New Orleans–raised performer broke a hip-hop taboo this July when he declared, on Tumblr, that he once experienced unrequited love for another man. But his bravery on that point matters less than his remarkable music, said Mike Powell in Spin. "Channel Orange feels like one long, moonlit, air-conditioned ride." Only twice does the tempo "get above a crawl." Yet despite the "loose, emptied-out glamour" of his story-songs, the air of detachment in his voice comes across not as numbness but "as exceptional wisdom and repose." It's the perfect delivery for these harrowing tales about vice, loss, and the difficulty of love — told, yes, using both gender pronouns.
2. Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city
Another 25-year-old from L.A., Kendrick Lamar managed with his own major-label debut to "resurrect and reinvent West Coast hip-hop," said Ken Capobianco in The Boston Globe. A protégé of Dr. Dre, this Compton rapper "leaves the nihilism" of his forerunners behind and instead "spins tales of everyday life" that are rich in telling details. The whole album traces out a single story — about a teenager's innocence eroding under the pressures of poverty, gangs, and drugs, said Mike Madden at Consequence of Sound. As the album "wades through a myriad of sounds," Lamar displays such "virtuosic control" of his "impossibly elastic voice" that all feels part of the whole. All in all, it's a "masterful" performance.
3. Fiona Apple's The Idler Wheel…
Given the rambling, 23-word full title of Fiona Apple's latest, you might be surprised to hear that it's her "most focused, refined" album since her 1996 debut, said Randall Roberts in the Los Angeles Times. The ever-inventive, exuberantly confessional singer and pianist has "perfected her craft." Across these 10 tracks, you can hear musical influences ranging from Fats Waller and Tin Pan Alley to Nina Simone, but she's also learned to build songs both "delicate enough to be beautiful" and "sturdy enough" to support her potent voice. If you're "a fan of the human spirit in all its wildly dramatic and emotionally ravaged glory," this is must listening.
4. Japandroids' Celebration Rock
"If Celebration Rock were much longer than 35 minutes, it might actually be exhausting," said Ian Cohen at Pitchfork. The second album from a couple of 30-year-olds from Vancouver, it's "a rock record for the ages," a barrage of drums, guitar, shouted choruses, and live-for-the-moment lyrics that "treat every day like the last day of school." That intensity will be familiar to fans of the band's 2009 debut, and yet this effort manages to "completely dwarf its impressive predecessor," thanks to sheer songwriting craft. And while Celebration Rock is "undoubtedly a fun record," there's ample emotional ballast on its "near-perfect Side B"as it builds to its climax — on "The House That Heaven Built."
5. Bob Dylan's Tempest
There's "no place for tears or sentimentality" on Bob Dylan's latest, said Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune. Throughout this "long, craggy album," the "masterful" 71-year-old storyteller surveys the wreckage of a world gone mad and resigns himself to it. Dylan's voice is now a cross between a growl and "a tubercular wheeze," but it suits these rueful songs. Not everything is bleak. The swinging "Duquesne Whistle" sounds like a "vaudeville-style tune" played to fill the dance floor in a roadside gin joint. The record closes with "two slow-moving dirges," but that voice — "murderous, mischievous, and tender, sometimes all at once" — will keep you rapt.