11. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel
One of the most vital voices in American pop music resurfaced in dramatic fashion this year, first performing at South by Southwest (in what was by turns affecting and harrowing) and then releasing this, her first record in nearly a decade. The Idler Wheel is full of Apples trademark wordplay, complemented by a wealth of dazzling soundscapes.
12. First Aid Kit, 'The Lions Roar'
The Soderberg sisters Johanna and Klara made some of the years sweetest sounds on this, the duos sophomore album. Laced with melancholy, shuffling folk rhythms and using the sisters sparkling harmonies for maximum impact, its impossible to deny this Lions considerable charms.
13. Aimee Mann, 'Charmer'
One of a handful of singer-songwriters intensely admired by her peers and critics alike, Aimee Mann offered up her peppiest collection of tunes in a long while. Thats not to say everythings sunny and swell Manns forte is acidic introspection but the melodies at work here practically feel like a top-down drive along the Pacific Coast Highway.
14. Dr. John, 'Locked Down'
Skeptics scoffed at this late-career masterpiece from the New Orleans eminence, dismissing it as little more than a Black Keys album featuring Dr. John. While its true that the Black Keys Dan Auerbach did produce the LP, and theres plenty of gritty garage atmosphere to go around, the man also known as Mac Rebennack brings the voodoo throughout like only he can.
15. Brandi Carlile, 'Bear Creek'
A powerful return to form for the lauded troubadour, Brandi Carlile went back to basics for her fourth studio effort. Recorded at the remote studio that gave the album its name, Carlile rips through up-tempo ditties (Hard Way Home) and ends the record with an exquisite left turn (Just Kids). Through it all, its evident her songcraft is growing more formidable by the year.
16. Mindy Smith, self-titled
Another fearsomely talented singer-songwriter about whom the public in general is oblivious, Smiths eponymous record, her fourth overall, is full of terrific songs beautifully performed. Like so many skilled artists cruising below the radar for whatever reasons, hers is a sound not easily defined, but that doesnt make her work any less rewarding.
17. Norah Jones, 'Little Broken Hearts'
A decade past Come Away with Me, the North Texas-raised pianist and songstress has wandered far afield from the breezy jazz-pop that won her a shelf full of Grammys. Now, shes playing the part of a woman scorned, working with producer Danger Mouse to build songs both brooding and biting.
18. Lyle Lovett, 'Release Me'
The Houston native bade farewell to his major label home of 30 years with this collection demonstrating his unswerving consistency and unerring taste. Guests (k.d. lang, Kat Edmonson) dropped by, but mostly, Release Me showcases Lovett at his finest: singing wry, sharply observed tunes given life by a killer assemblage of top-shelf musicians.
19. Jessie Ware, 'Devotion'
Listen to Devotion blindfolded, and youd swear youd just been catapulted back to the mid-80s. Ware, a pop-soul songbird whose pipes previously elevated the work of electronic artist SBTRKT, smolders her way through this sophisticated, sleek debut that often feels like a future-shock version of Adele, even as it recalls the stylish pop and R&B of the Reagan era.
20. John Fullbright, 'From the Ground Up'
That Oklahoma native John Fullbright is all of 23 years old is downright terrifying when you consider the songs hes already got under his belt. Wise far beyond his years, Fullbrights plain-spoken, bluntly performed music feels instantly familiar. While folk has gotten renewed attention in recent years, this record pulls directly from the lineage of the genres icons and positions Fullbright to join their ranks.