Mesfin Fekadu’s picks:
Nas, “Life is Good”: “I am a graphic classic song composer,” Nas raps on the intro to his latest album. And he's right. You may disagree, but Nas is the best rapper alive, and with “Life is Good,” he’s got the year’s top album, regardless of genre.
Of Monsters and Men, “My Head Is an Animal”: The Icelandic fivesome have melodies that are eerie, jamming, groovy and overall epic.
Elle Varner, “Perfectly Imperfect”: Her raspy and powerful voice, over crisp production, easily gives Elle Varner R&B’s best offering of 2012.
Lianne La Havas, “Is Your Love Big Enough?”: Lianne La Havas’ honesty pierces on the tracks on her debut album, and it makes the collection of songs both heavy and beautiful.
Frank Ocean, “channel ORANGE”: Frank is fresh. Enough said.
Miguel, “Kaleidoscope Dream”: It’s a bit shocking – though more exciting – to see the Grammys acknowledge Miguel’s multi-talents with five nominations. They got it right.
Emeli Sande, “Our Version of Events”: The debut album from this Scottish import commands your attention, thanks to Emeli Sande’s strong pipes jelled with R&B and pop sounds.
Kendrick Lamar, “good kid m.A.A.d city”: The major label debut from Dr. Dre’s protégé is dope for its clever rhymes and soulful skits. He’s going places.
Mumford & Sons, “Babel”: Mumford & Sons continue to hark on love and life on “Babel,” and it sounds masterful with its rock harmonies that are both rugged and calming.
Shiny Toy Guns, “III”: The year’s best dance and electronic-based album isn’t on Top 40 radio. Now dance.
Nekesa Mumbi Moody’s picks:
Emeli Sande, “Our Version of Events”: Sande’s forceful, soulful voice is enough of a lure, but coupled with the most poetic, beautiful lyrics and melodies of the year, Sande’s debut album was a brilliant work that was shamefully overlooked by the Recording Academy for Grammy contention in 2013.
Taylor Swift, “Red”: This time around, Jake Gyllenhaal is most likely the reason for Swift’s ire in songs like the wickedly vengeful “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” as well as poignant, heartbreaking songs like “I Almost Do” or “All Too Well.”
Frank Ocean, “channel ORANGE”: Ocean’s grand statement about his sexuality seemed to overshadow the real reason why he was one of music’s most important figures – his impressive talent.
Esperanza Spalding, “Radio Music Society”: The 2011 Best New Artist winner delivered her most accessible album to date, melding her jazz roots with R&B for an enchanting album.
Alabama Shakes, “Boys & Girls”: Brittany Howard’s vocals slay on every track – though her voice has been described as Joplin-esque, she’s quickly proving that she's a force all her own.
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 film captured the bleakness of the novel better than the movie.
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 didn’t elevate his profile in the mainstream.
Elle Varner, “Perfectly Imperfect”: Besides her seductive hit, Varner’s album showed that she’s one of music’s bright new talents.
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.
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.
Chris Talbott's picks:
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.
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 trio from Nashville was on a groove so tight this year that it released two albums.
Kendrick Lamar, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city”: This much-anticipated, Dr. Dre-sanctified release is a cinematic concept album stuffed full of examples of the rapper's creativity and willingness to take chances most other rappers would blanche at.
Jack White, “Blunderbuss”: We’ve been waiting to hear what White would sound like without the filter of his many bandmates. “Blunderbuss,” a little bit whimsical, a bit menacing, offered all the things we’d hoped, plus a few surprises.
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.
Frank Ocean, “channel ORANGE”: While “channel ORANGE” is restrained musically, it is a triumphant example as a social document that’s fearless and insightful.
Turbo Fruits, “Butter”: Sometimes you just want to bob your head along to mindless songs about parties and girls and fighting and motorcycles.
King Tuff, “King Tuff”: Twenty-five years after its start, Sub Pop is still unearthing bands you need to hear.
Japandroids, “Celebration Rock”: This Vancouver, British Columbia, two-piece’s album is exactly what its title describes – grand, anthemic songs about the great moments in life.
Trampled By Turtles, “Stars and Satellites”: This string band has been on the rise for years, and its sixth album adds a layer of artistry only hinted at in previous work.