The Year in Music: Animal Collective to World Funk

Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)

The addition of huge hooks and bass-heavy rhythms to the band's atmospheric trance was so natural it's a wonder they didn't arrive here sooner, although they might not have hit upon such a thrilling and timeless pop formula without the years of experimentation. Merriweather Post Pavilion provides a fitting cap to one of the decade's most surprising success stories. (Jonathan Lundeen)

Antony and the Johnsons, The Crying Light (Secretly Canadian)

Gay artists stereotypically revel in the artificial and ironic. The Crying Light, though, couldn't be more sincere. Throughout the record, the slow cabaret backing is used to evoke not urban sophistication but romantic guilelessness, while Antony's androgynous voice delivers throbbing love letters to birds and light, sun and dust. When he harmonizes with his own multi-tracked voice on "Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground" or lapses into wordless syllables on "Dust and Water," the singer sounds both like nothing on Earth and like a part of the landscape—queerly natural. (Noah Berlatsky)

Atlas Sound, Logos (Kranky)

Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox follows up the bedsit doodles of his last Atlas Sound solo release with a fully formed shoegaze pop album. The outgoing "Walkabout," featuring guest ringer Noah Lennox of Animal Collective, is the no-brainer single bait, but the more introspective tracks that highlight Cox' uncanny knack for whispery beauty and the nearly lost art of urgent jangle outstrip it. Brilliant and appealing, and knowing Cox, in six months there'll be another just like it. (Lee Gardner)

Baroness, Blue Record (Relapse)

Anyone who thought Mastodon had the whole "Southern sludge metal goes prog" thing wrapped up with Crack the Skye had another thing coming when Baroness released its second long-player in October. Blue Record picks up where Red Album left off and delves even deeper into King Crimson territory. Just a cursory listen as the instrumental "Ogeechee Hymnal" bleeds into the ferocious "A Horse Called Golgotha" reveals far more depth than most doubters are willing to grant metal. But the monster riffs and the fiery guitar solo on "Bullhead's Lament" prove where these guys' hearts lie. (J.L.)

Bright Shuttle, Cold Nice Gold (Laboratory Standard)

Obsessive guitar mechanics, nitpicking engineers at work, sculpting in time. Loyal to the (wordless) song, dedicated to the resonance, always searching for the right timbre. From the austere packaging, enigmatic song titles, analogue recording and most especially the confident, fine-tuned music, you really couldn't date this album, made by a local trio wholly unconcerned with the new/now/next thing, soberly indifferent to retro dilettantism. (Eric Dawson)

Mariah Carey, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel (Island)

Two decades into her career, and Mariah Carey is still somehow getting better. On Memoirs, she and songwriting partners The-Dream and Tricky Stewart lay down one shimmering, luxuriously hooky groove after another. The lyrics, too, are a delight, from the agonized wistfulness of "h.a.t.e.u." to the goofily hip patter of "More Than Just Friends." ("Steady fiendin' for you like them fries at McDonald's/I wanna be on those lips like gelato"—and yes, she makes the couplet rhyme.) I'm not sure how she improves on this for her next effort—though it's not like she hasn't surprised me before. (N.B.)

Nels Cline, Coward (Crypto-gramophone)

After dozens of outings as bandleader (Nels Cline Trio, Nels Cline Singers) and collaborator (Wilco, Geraldine Fibbers), the West Coast wizard finally got around to a solo-guitar album. And it's great. Like his career, it moves without obvious direction between jazz, rock, skronk, and folk, nodding toward his heroes (Steve Reich) and friends (Thurston Moore) but never sounding like anyone but Nels. (Jesse Fox Mayshark)

Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca (Domino)

Beautiful, shimmering, cerebral, slightly off-kilter pop that draws from contemporary R and B, jazz, chamber music, and African pop without ever sounding anything like any of that, or like much of anything else, either. Yale-educated bandleader Dave Longstreth is an idiosyncratic guitarist and an even more unusual songwriter/composer/arranger; crystal clear and hauntingly mysterious, Bitte Orca is like music from the future. (Matthew Everett)

The Flaming Lips, Embryonic (Warner Bros.)

The Flaming Lips bounced back in a big way this year and shattered expectations lowered by 2006's mediocre At War With the Mystics with this absolutely stunning late-period masterpiece. Wayne Coyne and his cohorts did more than simply return to their psychedelic roots, eschewing their recent upbeat pop leanings in favor of darker, more outré material. Free-jazz guitar solos, interstellar mathematical transmissions, and even cellular interference all found their place in Embryonic's world, giving us an unexpected late-career game-changer and one of the year's easiest albums to get completely lost in. (J.L.)

F--k Buttons, Tarot Sport (All Tomorrow's Parties)

What started out as a poppy instrumental mash-up of laptop noise and couch-dancing beats on the 2008 debut has come into its own on the duo's second album. Sheets of pulsing, squalling electronic sound form themselves into chords that resolve in some very ordinary but very gratifying ways over the bump and hustle of galumphing rhythms, even a few marches. In fact, whole stretches of Tarot Sport sound like a vintage rave re-imagined as a graduation ceremony, with the sounds of the last decade-and-a-half's repurposed spaces and dingy basements altered into unhurried, elegiac, piercingly lovely forms. (L.G.)

Gay Witch Abortion, Maverick (Learning Curve)

A fierce Minneapolis punk-metal duo whose riff-driven bursts of drums and guitar are more in control than they sound but exhilarating all the same. Not subtle, exactly—"Group Think" is two-plus minutes of ominous drone and sheep noises—but their hairpin change-ups make their songs as nimble as they are muscular. And the closing track, a grungy dirge, confirms an underlying suspicion: They can be pretty if they want to. (J.F.M.)

God Help the Girl, God Help the Girl (Matador)

Ironically or predictably, it took getting out from under the Belle and Sebastian brand for Stuart Murdoch to make the best Belle and Sebastian album of the decade. A soundtrack to a movie musical that may or may not ever appear, it's a collection of mostly female-sung tunes rooted in Murdoch's ongoing infatuation with shimmering '60s pop. It's not quite the girl-group album of his dreams or ours, but it's close enough. (J.F.M.)

Ina Unt Ina, All Sides of Ina (self-released)

Ina Unt Ina takes Le Tigre-derived lesbian feminist electro-pop and add on horny swagger, beats that could make Timbaland trip, and a wicked songwriting talent. "Sexy Bitch" is a snarlingly tough ode to the transformative power of hairdressers; "These Eyes" miraculously makes the Guess Who sound like they don't suck. Indeed, Ina Unt Ina seem like they could turn just about any dross into idiosyncratic perfection. When they ask at the album's opening, "What came first, Ina or the egg?" the obvious answer is that when you're sufficiently bad-ass, it doesn't much matter if you've been born or hatched. (N.B.)

Abner Jay, True Story of Abner Jay (Mississippi Records) and Bishop Perry Tillis, In Times Like These (Mississippi Records)

Hard to pick just one from Mississippi Records, where every release seems essential, but Jay and Tillis represent two distinct sides of the American folk-blues coin that is fading out with each significant loss of a musician. A tireless showman, one-man band Jay, who died in 1993, mixed minstrel and show tunes with his own laugh-to-keep-from-crying compositions such as "The Reason Young People Use Drugs" and "I'm So Depressed." Tillis had been playing gospel blues in relative obscurity in Alabama since the 1940s. Culled from 62 hours of cassettes Tillis recorded at home on his boom box, at times accompanying himself by playing a tape back on another boom box, the 14 raw gospel blues on In Times Like These showcase a voice that was haunted by angels until it was silenced in 2004. (E.D.)

Leyland Kirby, Sadly, the future is no longer what it was (History Always Favors the Winners)

A four-hour, six-LP/three-CD set of ambient music may seem excessive, until you realize this isn't exactly ambient music; the deceptively placating surface rewards active listening. Shedding his Caretaker moniker, Leyland Kirby draws liberally from the likes of Brian Eno, Morton Feldman, William Basinski, and British hauntology artists to create a sound that is alternately comforting and menacing, and at times somehow both. A requiem for what our lives could have been but never will. (E.D.)

KISS, Sonic Boom (KISS Records/Universal)

So what is it that makes an album by 60-year-old men clad in wigs, chains, studs, black spandex, and Kabuki makeup singing lower-than-lowest common denominator songs about the "size of my love" and doing the nasty all night long good rock 'n' roll? The answer is the fun factor. KISS's Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley know good and well that they're not creating high art. What we have here is a well-crafted piece of entertainment that delivers the patented KISS sound by numbers. (John Sewell)

Mastodon, Crack the Skye (Reprise)

Although the "concept" behind Crack the Skye is proof positive that pot muddles the brain and makes ridiculous ideas seem deep and meaningful, this album still smokes. (Sorry.) Mastodon has ditched the Cookie Monster growl in favor of smooth vocals and harmonies, but the music is still brutal and uncompromising. In the decade or so since its inception, the band has evolved into a maddeningly cohesive unit that produces sonic architecture that probably couldn't be explained through tablature. (J.S.)

Nite Jewel, Want You Back (Italians Do It Better)

Ramona Gonzalez's first album, Good Evening, made a ripple in early '09 as the most downbeat product yet of the hazy West Coast indie-disco clique. The distant beats suggested a party that everyone was too tired to go to. This follow-up EP (on the scene-defining Italians Do It Better label) is still dance music more by implication than execution, but it's not so afraid of its shadow. Its warm, woozy synth grooves are like a ketamine dream of Madonna. (J.F.M.)

Oneida, Rated O (Jagjaguwar)

Three discs and two hours of Oneida is pretty excessive, but there's never been anything subtle about these guys, now 12 years into a very consistent run. The good news is their marriage of psychedelic drone, Krautrock, and stoner punk benefits from time-stretching, and this epic recording may be as close as they come to replicating the intensity of their live performances. Repetition's in their music and they're never gonna lose it. (E.D.)

Jay Reatard, Watch Me Fall (Matador)

Memphis brat makes good on the power-pop album he's always seemed headed for. Still plenty loud and fast, but the hooks are hookier and the arrangements allow for acoustic guitars and some ba-ba-ba harmonies. He doesn't transcend the mods, rockers, and punks he draws on, but he does them proud. (And don't worry too much about him growing up on us—reports from the road, where his whole band quit on him in disgust, suggest there's plenty of terrible left in the enfant.) (J.F.M.)

Sunn O))), Monoliths and Dimensions (Southern Lord)

This one's a real journey, starting off in the same depths where Sunn O))) ended 2005's black-metal-inspired Black One (the murky, buzzing 17-minute "Aghartha") and slowly—always slowly—climbing toward cosmic bliss (the celestial "Alice," featuring horns, strings, and a gorgeous trombone solo by jazzman Julian Priester). (M.E.)

Henry Threadgill Zooid, This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 (Pi)

Jazz reedsman/composer Threadgill breaks a prolonged silence with his first studio album in nine years, and it was worth the wait. In his tuba-fueled band Zooid (rhymes with "fluid") everyone solos all the time, more or less, but Threadgill's discrete motifs and the players' preternatural sync results in a joyous, ever-shifting, ever-swinging whole. The leader sounds great on flute and alto, but guitarist Liberty Ellman's single-string runs and sly hummingbird chords make him the MVP. (L.G.)

Various artists, Psych Funk 101 (World Psychedelic)

There's no end to the steady release of retro funk and world music compilations, but there really isn't another quite like this one. You think it might be another endless-groove party record, then krautfunkers Staff Carpenborg and the Electric Corona come up with an off-kilter beat not even a German could dance to. This is followed by Ennio Morricone's the Group's avant-jazz/drone fantasia "Feedback," the most conspicuously arty track here. And somehow France gives up the hottest disco track, Eskaton's (probably) H.P. Lovecraft-inspired "Dagon," which begins with a five-minute horror movie soundtrack intro before settling in for five more minutes of funk. Weird stuff in any era. (E.D.)