11) Fe-Mail Blixter Toad (Asphodel) The duo of Maja Ratkje and Hild Sofie Tafjord just gets better and better. This sprawling 2-CD set ranges freely from acoustic free improv to blistering power electronics with countless stops in between, keeping its focus on whimsy, radical dynamics, texture, and razor-sharp interplay, with no time for posturing.
12) Marisa Monte Universo ao Meu Redor (Metro Blue) The Brazilian singer collaborated with onetime Beastie Boys producer Mario Caldato on this highly personal take on the samba, and while there are plenty of electronic touches, the music is surprisingly gentle and warm without ever suggesting retro coziness. A mixture of originals—most cowritten with Monte’s Tribalistas cohorts Carlinhos Brown and Arnaldo Antunes—and old gems are treated with exquisite care and tenderness.
13) Neko Case Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti) Neko Case continues her advance, dissolving idiomatic mastery into a unified blend that’s all her own. Alt-country nothing: this is American music writ small, with room in the trunk for additional growth.
14) In the Country Losing Stones, Collecting Bones (Rune Grammofon) This Norwegian piano trio does it again, instilling slow-moving, deeply lyric originals with a coiled tension beneath the beauty. Guitarist Marc Ribot makes a pair of potent cameos and some surprisingly effective vocals show up a couple of times, but mouths-shut and on their own, In the Country continues to pack a masterfully restrained punch.
15) Billy Hart Quartet (HighNote) The veteran drummer surrounds himself with a killer band of multifarious young guns—saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson, and bassist Ben Street—and sounds as hungry, curious, and progressive as players half his age.
16) Susanna and Her Magical Orchestra Melody Mountain (Rune Grammofon) On its second album this sublime Norwegian duo—singer Susanna Karolina Wallumrod and keyboardist Morten Qvenild (of In the Country)—reinvent ten disparate tunes, from AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top” to Scott Walker’s “It’s Raining Today,” but bring a molasses-crawl and a stunning emotional focus to all of them.
17) Ghostface Killah Fishscale (Def Jam) The Wu’s best storyteller ruminates on the crack game of yore, piling on metaphors that leave your head reeling, using old-school soul samples that soothe it.
18) Joanna Newsom Ys (Drag City) I’m still digesting this epic, where just five, lyric-heavy pieces are set to typically gorgeous melodies and swathed in elegant orchestrations courtesy of Van Dyke Parks. Sometimes I think Newsom bit off more than she could chew—and some of her breathless squeaks drive me crazy—but most of the time she leaves me knocked out.
19) Lobi Traore Lobi Traore Band (Honest Jon’s) This Malian singer and guitarist has worked in the shadow of blues-flavored vets like Ali Farka Toure and Boubacar Traore for a long time, but he took a big step forward on this wonderfully raw, hard-driving electric band record, where deep polyrhythms and even deeper grooves offered a springboard for surprisingly slashing and acidic electric guitar solos.
20) Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra MTO Volume 1 (Sunnyside) Long-awaited debut from this New York trumpeter’s medium-sized band merges the workaday aesthetic of the swing-era territory band with an omnivorous repertoire (Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Cry Baby Cry”) and an attack that has no problem erasing boundaries between vintage Kansas City huzzah and downtown huh.