There were no "OK Computers" or "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasies," but there were at least 10 good reasons to stray from the Top 40 or Classic Tracks formats and dig into this year's album releases.
1. Japandroids, "Celebration Rock": The album begins and ends with the popping of fireworks, and they rarely let up on the second album from the Vancouver garage-punk duo. "We yell like hell to the heavens!" is the spirit throughout this noisy celebration, which has the fuzzy, squalling, snarling guitar and drums cranked at full volume, and all passions burning hot. Whether you're 18 and burning with lust or 58 and can still tap into that feeling, this is one killer soundtrack.
2. Jack White, "Blunderbuss": The first Jack White solo album is one he couldn't have made with the late White Stripes or either of his spinoff bands, The Raconteurs or The Dead Weather. This is the guitar-slinger's chance to throw himself into a full-on, lash-out breakup album. It's also his chance to try on any musical cape he pleases, and in that regard "Blunderbuss" is a fun and turbulent ride through his favored styles of metallic blues, barrelhouse blues, rockabilly, psych-rock, folk-rock and old-timey country rock -- sometimes mashed up in the same song. It is frequently breathtaking without ever feeling too fussed over.
3. Tame Impala, "Lonerism": Kevin Parker describes the second full-length album from the Australian psych-rock group as being a combination of sugary and cosmic, "like Britney Spears singing with The Flaming Lips." Somehow, he doesn't realize that he sounds more like John Lennon, but that's OK. The dream-pop delights of "Lonerism," co-produced by David Fridmann. are a must-hear whether you're a fan of '60s psych or the more recent attempts to recapture it.
4. Rush, "Clockwork Angels": Billy Corgan recently told me, "Imagine if 'Farewell to Kings' came out today, the moustache hipster would go ape----. They would be a critic's darling today." Obviously, there's no time machine to fix that. But Rush fanatics (and they are the only Rush fans) can be proud that the latest Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees will see their band enter on a high note. This late-career 66-minute epic concept album about the nature of God and existence, good and evil and other Peart-ian things is a sweeping sonic roar that would frighten most bands half their age and twice their size.
5. Fiona Apple, "The Idler Wheel ...": Far from easy listening, "The Idler Wheel ..." is an album to grapple with -- a stripped-down affair that plays out almost like improvisational jazz, played mostly on piano and percussion. True to form, it's a full-on tantrum with emotions laid bare. It's not something you want to hear every day, but you can frame it on the wall as a work of art.
6. Frank Ocean, "Channel Orange": With a voice like this, it's hard to believe his first break in the music biz came as a ghostwriter. The first proper album from the 25-year-old singer, and sometime Odd Future member, leans on the tradition of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, right up through D'Angelo and Maxwell, with sensual grooves, silky vocals and idiosyncratic ways of storytelling.
7. Bruce Springsteen, "Wrecking Ball": Bruce Springsteen is at his best when things are at their very worst. So it's no surprise that he rose up once again with a soundtrack to prolonged recession. There was talk that his response to hard economic times might come in the form of a spare acoustic album a la "Nebraska." Instead, he and producer Ron Aniello piled on some E Street Band and all sorts of instrumentation. There's nothing in the delivery here that matches the anguish and intensity on a lot of the "Darkness" songs when he was howling mad. And it could have used more wreckage and less sheen, but, again, the Boss steps up and helps us find reason to believe.
8. Cloud Nothings, "Attack on Memory": Having come off of a tour with F----ed Up, Clevelander Dylan Baldi puts his gentler instincts aside and lets it rip on this urgent, raw-throated second album produced by Steve Albini. Depending on your frame of reference, you might think missing link between The Replacements and Dinosaur Jr. or heirs to Jawbreaker.
9. Bob Dylan, "Tempest": By now we know the voice -- one of the most brilliant, peculiar and iconic instruments on Earth -- is somewhat ravaged. But the fact that Dylan continues to create with such fervor and write so provocatively on his 35th album, at 71, is nothing short of a marvel, particularly in light of all the other geniuses who flamed out early. We can say with confidence that Dylan hasn't spilled this much blood on the page (or the tracks) in ages.
10. Anti-Flag, "The General Strike": Springsteen addressed the country's hard economic times in a heartfelt, hopeful, nuanced manner. On its ninth album, Pittsburgh's Anti-Flag, carrying the torch for early Clash, delivered the louder, faster, angrier version. There are no big policy statements, just rousing, thrashy anthems that tap into the energy of the Occupy movements and rail against apathy and the war on the working class.