1. The National, "Trouble Will Find Me" (4 A.D.)
Few artists make melancholy as elegant as Matt Berninger. He is one majestically sad dude -- in a different way than, say, Morrissey -- and you can almost feel yourself physically sinking down in it with him as you spin the Brooklyn band's sixth record. The lyrics are nakedly honest and the Dessner and Devendorf brothers wrap the music around his moody baritone like a warm blanket. The band's finest moment yet.
2. Kanye West, "Yeezus"
Among the last words we heard from the great Lou Reed were his thoughts on this album: "No one's near doing what he's doing," he wrote, "it's not even on the same planet." Can't argue with Lou. Unlike his epic "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," this is more of a mad burst, with crazy Ye twisted up over whatever latest slight came his way. "A monster about to come alive again," he warns in the opening track, "Soon as I pull up and park the Benz." He's never been this tribal and monstrous -- the lyrics are ugly at times -- and the music is spiked with volcanic synth eruptions, sad piano lines, barking dogs, the ruggedness of Chief Keef, the somber beauty of Nina Simone and Bon Iver. You never know what's coming around the bend, or the Benz.
3. Savages, "Silence Yourself" (Matador)
It's late in the game to make a great art-punk album, but that didn't stop Savages, an all-female British quartet that lives up to its billing with a dark, churning sound that takes me back to early '80s WRCT -- Patti Smith, Gang of Four, Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, et al -- while injecting all new fury.
4. Kurt Vile, "Wakin' on a Pretty Daze" (Matador)
"Making music is easy ... watch me," Kurt Vile drawls on "Was All Talk," the third track of this "Pretty Daze." The Philly rocker makes it sound that way at least, engulfing the listener in a smoke-ring fog of gorgeous flowing guitars, organ and Velvet-y stoned-out vocals about his day-dreamy state of mind. He is in no hurry to get anywhere, letting these long, lo-fi songs swirl around at their leisure. Mellow slacker rock at its prettiest.
5. Arctic Monkeys, "AM" (Domino)
"You sit and try sometimes but you just can't figure out what went wrong," Alex Turner sings, "Then out of nowhere somebody comes and hits you with an ... Ooh la la la la." Eight years after breaking out as the Next Big British Thing and fresh from an odd stoner-rock turn, the Monkeys strike back with a new confidence and swagger on this fifth album. Psych-rock, blues-rock, metal, soul, R&B ... they all flow through the Monkeys' filter, no better than on "R U Mine?" which sounds like David Bowie meets the Black Keys.
6. Vampire Weekend, "Modern Vampires of the City" (XL Recordings)
Ezra Koenig and company are a little twee for me -- you know, harpsichords and all -- but you can't help but admire the pop craft. The boys are in post-collegiate mode on this third album, obsessing over faith and death ("There's a headstone right in front of you/And everyone I know") and fragile relationships. There's a lot to chew on lyrically, if you so desire, or you can just groove to sweet pop that still takes a cue from Paul Simon.
7. Lorde, "Pure Heroine"
There was no avoiding "Royals" in 2013, and that wasn't such a bad thing. The infectious song, an attack on pop's status quo, is a masterstroke of minimalism showcasing one of the boldest new voices of the year. There's more where that came from -- like "Tennis"! Throughout her debut, the pop sensation from New Zealand displays a maturity, craft and world-weariness well beyond her 17 years. She's the anti-pop star singing sleepily on "Team, "I'm kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air, so there ..."
8. David Bowie, "The Next Day"
The 14-track album leaps out of the box with a title track that's a hard, angular rocker a la "Scary Monsters." "Here I am, not quite dying!" he sings, as if we didn't already know from the urgency of his voice -- one that's still strong, beautiful and harrowing. "The Next Day," secretly recorded over two years with Tony Visconti and a cast of familiar Bowie characters, evokes past glories while bristling with new life and tension. His typically abstract lyrics drip with violence and their share of mortal dread.
9. Valerie June, "Pushin' Against a Stone" (Concord)
This artist from Memphis is one of those old souls who sings what she calls "organic moonshine roots music," bringing to mind Eartha Kitt. She's in perfect hands with producers Kenny Augunas and Dan Auerbach (of the Black Keys), who give her blend of Southern gospel and Appalachian folk a timeless feel while adding spots of greasy blues-rock.
10. Deafheaven, "Sunbather" (Deathwish)
If you happen to be in the market for that one perfect black metal/screamo/post-rock crossover project (that won't require you to wear upside-down crosses) look no further. The San Francisco band's second, which has inflamed black metal purists on many levels, is part heaven, part hell with the gorgeous compositions (think Explosions in the Sky) topped by deathly shrieking vocals. Not for everyone, but if you give this a chance, it's a dream-like hour-long journey into extreme beauty and chaos.