6. Various Artists, "The Hunger Games Soundtrack: Songs from District 12 and Beyond": From Taylor Swift and the Civil Wars to Miranda Lambert's Pistol Annies, this collection of songs made for the blockbuster film captured the bleakness of the novel better than the movie. In an album of highlight after highlight, the Secret Sisters' simple and beautiful "Tomorrow Will Be Kinder" was at the apex.
7. Killer Mike, "R.A.P. Music": Killer Mike has been under the radar in the rap world for years — and it's too bad this great didn't elevate his profile in the mainstream, because it's better than 82.4 percent of what's out there today (and yes, that's my scientific survey). He mixes rap braggadocio with biting, thought-provoking social commentary.
8. Elle Varner, "Perfectly Imperfect": Can we get a "Refill" of Varner for 2013? Besides her seductive hit, Varner's album showed that she's one of music's bright new talents with songs that ranged sensuous bedroom workouts to dramatic love ballads.
9. The Robert Glasper Experiment, "Black Radio": They say you can't really criticize something if you don't have a solution to fix it. Well, with "Black Radio," the jazz pianist offered his take on how the often stagnant medium could be improved — and it was dreamy.
10. Nas, "Life Is Good": Actually, Mesfin, it's been a while since Nas released an album that lived up to his arguable title as rap's greatest MC. But he delivered this year with an album that was a throwback to the beats that dominated hip-hop when New York was king of the rap game, and of course, Nas' rhymes.
Chris Talbott's picks:
1. Cloud Nothings, "Attack on Memory": Blame most of the entries on this list on a conversation I had last year with Jeff Tweedy, who said one of the ways to stay in love with music was to seek out new, young acts. Ohio's Cloud Nothings punched me in the solar plexus with this unrepentant blast of rock that tackles BIG THEMES while musically careening down a steep, car-lined street on an out-of-control skateboard.
2. Natural Child, "For The Love of The Game" and "Hard in Heaven": Mining an era that seems to have been purposely forgotten by today's young rockers, this bluesy rock trio from Nashville was on a groove so tight this year that it released two albums. It's a tossup which one's better, so we're not choosing. Both show they could be Nashville's next breakthrough band.
3. Kendrick Lamar, "good kid, m.A.A.d. city": Displaying the limitless ambition of a young RZA or Kanye West, this much-anticipated, Dr. Dre-sanctified release is a cinematic concept album stuffed full of examples of the Los Angeles rapper's versatility, creativity and willingness to take chances most other rappers would blanche at.
4. Jack White, "Blunderbuss": We've been waiting a long time to hear what White would sound like without the filter of his many, many bandmates. "Blunderbuss," a little bit whimsical, a little bit menacing, offered all the things we'd hoped we'd find, plus a few surprises.
5. Alabama Shakes, "Boys & Girls": This debut album from the Alabama rock quartet heralds the arrival of a major talent in singer Brittany Howard, but she's not the only star here. Her bandmates craft simple but compelling, soulful music that combines with Howard's voice to make some of the most uplifting rock we've heard in years.
6. Frank Ocean, "channel ORANGE": The Tweedy Effect really kicked in last year when I heard Ocean's mix tape "nostalgia/ULTRA," probably the best album of 2011. While "channel ORANGE" is disappointingly restrained musically, like "nostalgia/Ultra" it is a triumphant example as a social document that's both fearless and insightful yet still entertaining enough to reach popular audiences.
7. Turbo Fruits, "Butter": Sometimes you just want to bob your head along to mindless songs about parties and girls and fighting and motorcycles, and the third album from these rising rockers on Kings of Leon's record label helps prove EDM hasn't killed off rock 'n' roll. Far from it.