In a generally descending order of excellence ...but they are all pretty excellent.
Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur: It is shocking to realize that almost a decade has passed since I first wrote about Edwards for No Depression, just prior to the U.S. release of her debut album Failer. While her subsequent albums delivered on her initial promise, there was a sense that she had settled into a stylistic comfort zone and risked reliably, if unsurprisingly, delivering a slight variation on that promise, year after year. Not that novelty is necessarily a quality, but daring to step outside the comfort zone, with winning results, is what made this my favorite album of the year. With Voyageur, Edwards managed to reorient her sound and style, drawing in new textures and tactics to expand and enrich her art.
Sharon Van Etten - Tramp: Although Tramp saw her provide some more muscular rock dynamics to her presentation, Van Etten sacrificed none of her masterful confessional skill.SVE has an almost mystifying way of drawing the listener into a circle of intimacy, with her beautifully controlled voice and the naked emotional pull of her lyrics. For added fun, check out the bonus EP she released of demos for the album.
Frank Ocean - Channel Orange: Although he dabbled with the spotlight as a member of hip-hop provocateurs Odd Future and as the hook singer on Jay-Z and Kanye West's collaboration "No Church In The Wild," none of that really mattered once he dropped this album, at once utterly contemporary and a throwback to the soulful feel of 70s era Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. That lofty comparison probably invites doubt, but listen to the voice and those songs with an open mind and you may become a believer.
Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel…: This was, in its own way, a great comeback record for Apple. But I still think the best bit of writing she did this year was her note to fans explaining that she was canceling an Australian tour so she could be home with her dying dog.
Cate Le Bon - Cyrk: Possessed of a fine, gentle voice, a honed facility with psych-folk guitar and an oddly skewed sense of the beauty and strangeness in the natural world. The two part album closer, "Ploughing Out," surges from tranquil rustic beauty to dense early Floydian freakout. And if that wasn't enough, Le Bon topped it all off with an equally fine five-track EP.
Beth Orton - Sugaring Season: Although she has dabbled in a netherworld between British folk and contemporary dance music, Sugaring Season represents Orton's deepest immersion in the otherworldly style of folk practiced in bygone days by the likes of Bert Jansch, Incredible String Band and Sandy Denny.
Patti Smith - Banga: Perhaps the exercise of penning her stirring memoir had the effect of plugging Smith back into her muse, or perhaps it's just a late career second wind. Nobody has any right to expect her to be making music this compelling, energetic and alive in 2013 -- she's given us more than a lifetime's worth of that already -- but I'm very grateful she is still her and still banging out records like Banga.
Metz - Metz: There are a lot, okay way too many, bands which take the idea of punk rock as a pose and a notion without ever really exhibiting the essence of what the music's all about. Metz isn't one of those bands. This is a live wire set of songs from a group that sounds like they don't even think about turning on their amps unless they believe their lives depend on it.
Efterklang - Piramida: Admittedly, I was initially drawn in by the backstoryof this Danish group's effort in making this record -- collecting weird sounds in a desolate, Russian mine on an abandoned island, and then manipulating and incorporating those sounds into Piramida. The result is an immaculately rendered song cycle that finds unlikely ground between the solipsistic pessimism of Joy Division, the mechanistic formalism of Kraftwerk and the transcendent pop sheen of a-Ha.
Georgia Anne Muldrow - Seeds: The Stones Throw label has mined a rich seam between jazz, soul and hip-hop and the label's anchor, producer and in-house genius Madlib has his ideal partner in Muldrow, a spirited and free-spirited vocalist who scats and coos over fuzzy, free-form, genre-defying musical collages.