EDIT (1:02 AM): I've added a playlist of select tracks from the list at the bottom so that you can sample the songs.
1. St. Vincent - Actor
There was potential on St. Vincent's debut, Marry Me. Actually, there was more than potential—it was a pretty damn solid album. I held certain songs, such as the title track, "The Apocalypse Song" and a few others in very high regard, which naturally led me to anticipate her follow-up even though I wasn't in love with the debut. Actor is the kind of leap forward that you hope for from most artists on their second album, but would be lucky to get. The album takes some of Marry Me's darker moments and builds an entire album around that vibe. Annie Clark's darkness isn't the dour kind, but one built on tension and unease while only tempting to cross the line in to creepy. It's an exquisitely arranged album where even the most tender details matter for the mood. Marry Me proved Clark's talents: her musical proficiency, a delicate expressive voice and a confident lyrical style that mixed wit with emotion, but Actor proves that she can deliver a full-length full of highlights.
2. The-Dream - Love vs. Money
Things start off pretty solidly with "Rockin' That Shit" to kick the album off. The Kanye and Mariah songs that follow right after are good as well, but they don't matter in the grand scheme of things. The album really begins with "Put It Down" and starts a terrific run that's as cohesive as any album in recent memory. There are obvious notes taken from the R. Kelly playbook, but it's only a blueprint for which The-Dream and his producers, Christopher "Tricky" Stewart and Los da Mystro build on. It's more homage than imitation. There are moments so grandiose and epic that it's hard to imagine them fitting in the Kels spectrum. Take for instance the run of "Take You Home To My Mama," "Love vs. Money Pts. 1 & 2" and "Fancy." It is the obvious centerpiece of the album and shows the full arc of a relationship in dramatic fashion. It's a risky move to put something so ambitious in the middle of what would otherwise be a makeout album, but it's a credit to The-Dream's vision that he was able to pull it off without disrupting the flow one bit. The bar has officially been raised for modern R&B.
3. The Juan MacLean - The Future Will Come
The Juan MacLean has always impressed, but with The Future Will Come, they went a little bit further with their synthpop leanings and made an arguably more danceable album than 2005's Less Than Human. There are a few epic occasions sprinkled throughout the album which keeps things special and the payoffs are usually pure ecstasy, specifically on the album closer "Happy House," which yes, is a house tune and will more than likely make you happy.
4. Maia Hirasawa - Though, I’m Just Me
Though she may bring up a lot of comparisons to Regina Spektor, I find Maia Hirasawa to be more unabashedly pop. There are delicate touches to be found in the music of both artists, but as with most Swedish musicians, the songs are melody driven and that's where Hirasawa stands apart. She makes gorgeous indie pop that is musically rich and aims for the heart. Some might describe songs like "And I Found This Boy" and "Mattias and Maia" as too cutesy, but when it's done this well, cute turns into an intoxicating weapon. Note: While this was released in Sweden in 2007, it finally got an American release this year.
5. Electrik Red - How To Be A Lady Vol. 1
On The-Dream's album, he sang about wanting to take a girl home to his mama. Electrik Red are the kind of girls you don't want your mom to meet. Sure, your mom could be proud of you for landing someone so hot, but rest assured that Electrik Red aren't interested in meeting her. With The-Dream handling songwriting duties along with his two trusty producers—Tricky and Los da Nystro doing fantastic work here again—R&B fans have been spoiled with another album that turns the conventions of the genre on its head. Electrik Red inject the kind of attitude and brash sexuality in their songs that most girl groups dare not even explore and to production that is as sleek as it is fun. Prince's Vanity 6 is the obvious comparison here considering how involved The-Dream is and is worth a listen for anyone who's curious as to what a modern-day version would sound like, specifically on "Friend Lover."
6. Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II
Sometimes I think this album is unfair. I mean, the nerve of Raekwon to deliver straight fire song after song and to not let up. It's just not right. The album's production shares a kindred spirit with some of The RZA's original productions, but it's not merely a retread, but paying respect to the original album's sound. The list of producers, which reads like a hip hop hall of fame, is unfair too: The Alchemist, J Dilla, Dr. Dre, Marley Marl, Erick Sermon and RZA himself. Ghostface manages to show up and steal the show a few times, but it's a testament to how great the album is that those aren't the only moments left in your head once it's all over. There's the ODB tribute, "Ason Jones." Method Man's verse on "New Wu." Dr. Dre delivering his best beat in years on the Busta Rhymes collaboration, "About Me." The Elton John sample on "Kiss The Ring" to close the album. Did I already mention the list of producers? Just plain unfair.
7. Das Pop - Das Pop
When you expect to hear something from Soulwax, you can't be faulted for assuming that it's going to be tailor-made for the dancefloor. But it's hard to find disappointment with this Belgian indie pop band's latest effort. Soulwax, who produced the album and are more known for their electronic remixes, are still pop artists at heart, so the pairing of the two makes sense. Das Pop contained some of the best, unheralded power pop choruses in '09. It's an endlessly catchy album that barely lets you breathe before another gem follows right after another one.
8. Ebony Bones - Bone of My Bones
There is personality aplenty all over the debut from this British post-punker (as if that album cover wasn't a giveaway). Songs like the nightmarish "I'm Ur Future X Wife" and "Don't Fart On My Heart" showcase an eclectic artist who you can't possibly imagine being boring. Her voice sounds commanding. The choruses often resemble a call-to-arms perfect to shout along with. Along with just pure weirdness and some experimental touches, you've got one of the more adrenaline-inducing albums of the year.
9. Mew - No More Stories / Are Told Today / I'm Sorry / They Washed Away // No More Stories / The World Is Grey / I'm Tired / Let's Wash Away
There is a sheen of haze that permeates all throughout No More Stories... and with that consistent mood brings one of the more satisfying experiences of the year. The shades of prog rock and dream pop give off a magical aura that's easy to get lost in, even if it's familiar territory. I've been skeptical of the Danish band in the past because I just couldn't connect with their music, but what they've done on their fifth album is create a thing of great beauty that's too hard to ignore.
10. Puffy AmiYumi - Bring It!
This is why Puffy is one of my favorite groups of all time. It's the consistency (they previously cracked my top 10 in 2007 with honeycreeper). I look at all my favorite artists with a critical eye—even I couldn't get behind Splurge save for a few songs, but cynicism is easily dismissed when the music is so enjoyable. This isn't a case of a fanboy gone mad—it's simply that Puffy have made another record that ranks as one of the best of the year. They've found a real niche this decade with a power pop sound, whereas their previous work was more diverse, but when you're on a streak like this, why stop? It's a Puffy album, so you know it's going to be ridiculously joyful. You know that their harmonies will meld with each other perfectly like milk and honey. The only thing that seems to change are the songwriters, but what never does is the youthful feeling that their music emits.
And the rest...
11. Royksopp - Junior
12. Brother Ali - Us
13. Mayer Hawthorne - A Strange Arrangement
14. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
15. Ceu - Vagarosa
16. Tanya Morgan - Brooklynati
17. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
18. Karen O & The Kids - Where The Wild Things Are Soundtrack
19. DOOM - Born Like This
20. Ryan Leslie - Ryan Leslie
21. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
22. Melanie Fiona - The Bridge
23. The Postmarks - Memoirs At The End Of The World
24. Florence + The Machine - Lungs
25. Mos Def - The Ecstatic
26. Music Go Music - Expressions
27. La Roux - La Roux
28. Amerie - In Love & War
29. Wale - Attention Deficit
30. Little Dragon - Machine Dreams
31. Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures
32. Atlas Sound - Logos
33. Fever Ray - Fever Ray
34. Kings of Convenience - Declaration of Dependence
35. Jay-Z - The Blueprint 3
36. Slaughterhouse - Slaughterhouse
37. Kissy Sell Out - Youth
38. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - The Pains of Being Pure At Heart
39. Method Man and Redman - Blackout 2
40. K-Os - Yes
41. Paramore - Brand New Eyes
42. Major Lazer - Guns Don't Kill People...Lazers Do
43. Speech Debelle - Speech Therapy
44. Tinted Windows - Tinted Windows
45. The Bird And The Bee - Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future
46. Clipse - Til' The Casket Drops
47. Air - Love 2
48. Late of the Pier - Black Fantasy Channel
49. Kelly Clarkson - All I Ever Wanted
50. Norah Jones - The Fall
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):
A Camp - Colonia
Anjulie - Anjulie
Asteroids Galaxy Tour - Fruit
Bat For Lashes - Two Suns
The Big Pink - A Brief History of Love
Busta Rhymes - Back On My B.S.
Chester French - Love The Future
Choir of Young Believers - This Is For The White In Your Eyes
Cold Cave-Love Comes Close
Dude 'N Nem - Tinted Incubators
Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeroes - Up From Below
Eminem - Relapse
Emmy The Great - First Love
Frankmusik - Complete Me
Bebel Gilberto - All In One
DJ Quik & Kurupt - Blaqkout
Howling Bells - Radio Wars
Allison Iraheta - Just Like You
Junior Boys - Begone Dull Care
Kinky Notti - Succumb
Adam Lambert - For Your Entertainment
Miranda Lambert - Revolution
Little Boots - Hands
Ida Maria - Fortress Round My Heart
Miike Snow - Miike Snow
Passion Pit - Manners
Pet Shop Boys - Yes
P.O.S. - Never Better
Priscilla Renea - Jukebox
Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions - Through The Devil Softly
Say Anything - Say Anything
The Sounds - Crossing The Rubicon
Jordin Sparks - Battlefield
Tegan and Sara - Sainthood
UGK - 4 Life