From country to hip-hop, Madonna to Minaj — even one recently resurrected 1990s band we’d almost forgotten about — these are the top 15 albums that you should check out this year. Let us know what you think in the comments below, or holler at us on Twitter at @TIMECulture.
1. Lana Del Rey, Born to Die
Internet phenom/object of scorn Lana Del Rey is about to release her debut album, which means that you’ll be seeing a lot of her over the next few months (there’s still a possibility that she’ll evaporate into obscurity, but based on her recently announced modeling contract and upcoming SNL gig, that seems increasingly unlikely). Given her blasé singles “Blue Jeans,” “Video Games” and the album’s title track, Born to Die looks to be replete with love ballads so low in energy that it’s a wonder Del Rey can get through them without nodding off.
2. Air, Le Voyage Dans La Lune
In the U.S., Air is still best known for its work on the Virgin Suicides soundtrack and the single “Sexy Boy,” which appeared in teen movie 10 Things I Hate About You. But the sleepy-voiced French electro-lounge duo have seven albums to their name and a hearty following in their home country. Le Voyage Dans La Lune (translation: The Voyage to the Moon) is inspired by Georges Melies’ 1902 French silent film about, well, a trip to the moon. The result is a languid, spacey album filled with experimental sounds and ethereal vocals perfectly designed to accompany you on that interstellar trip you’ll probably never take. Check out the song “Seven Stars,” which features Beach House’s Victoria Legrand. (Bonus points to the band for having the good luck to release its album at a time when Martin Scorsese’s Hugo — which prominently features A Trip to the Moon — is featuring in many an Oscar conversation.)
3. Dr. Dog, Be the Void
The Philly-based band always delivers a reliable mix of catchy indie rock songs with guitar-driven melodies heavily influenced by 1960s pop. Based on single “The Old Black Hole,” Dr. Dog’s new album Be the Void promises to be just that. With a gritty, unfinished feel it’ll be the perfect soundtrack for impoverished twentysomethings whose idea of “dressing up” is to reach for a new pair of Chuck Taylors.
4. Of Montreal, Paralytic Stalks
The Athens, Ga. band love to dabble promiscuously with musical genre. On efforts like 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? and last year’s False Priest, elements of rock, pop, psychedelia, dance and new wave can all be found. I haven’t heard Paralytic Stalks yet so I can’t tell you what frontman Kevin Barns and his band have concocted this time. The only glimpse Of Montreal has offered so far is the leaked song “Dour Percentage,” a throwback to 1970s soft rock.
5. Paul McCartney, Kisses on the Bottom
The former Beatle’s new album will feature covers of songs that he loved as a young boy. McCartney has done something similar before, with his 1988 album Снова в СССР (or Back in the USSR), but while that album featured early rock ‘n’ roll hits, Kisses on the Bottom will reportedly contain old Tin Pan Alley numbers. There will be at least one original composition, “My Valentine.”
6. Nicki Minaj, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded
Nicki Minaj spits out rhymes with more venom and vitriol than Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Jay-Z combined. But on her debut album, last year’s Pink Friday, she toned down her act, going for a poppier, more radio friendly vibe that helped her broaden her fan base. Minaj’s much anticipated follow-up has been kept tightly under wraps, but from the few snippets that have appeared online — and the fact that it’s named after her aggressive hip-hop alter-ego Roman Zolanksi — this might be the album when Minaj stops batting her eyelashes and goes in for the kill.
(warning: contains explicit lyrics)
7. Tennis, Young and Old
For their sophomore album, Denver husband-and-wife duo Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley added a third band member, drummer James Barone, and recorded a collection of songs that are — how do I put this? — really fun. On Young and Old, Tennis delivers a breezy, whimsical take on 1950s and 60s girl group pop, accentuated with fuzzy guitar riffs and Moore’s tender, feminine vocals. It’s is an easy-going album, but on songs like “Origins,” the group turns up the volume and starts downright rocking. I can’t wait to listen to this album when winter finally turns to spring.
8. Sleigh Bells, Reign of Terror
On Sleigh Bells’ 2010 album Treats, the Brooklyn duo showed off a rock-based sound that somehow managed to be both ear-splittingly loud and sweetly hushed at the same time. As a result, the band got a lot of attention from music blogs and magazines and cultivated an enthusiastic cult following. Reign of Terror is expected to be similar, combining heavy metal riffs, pep rally chants, video game beats and dreamy vocals to create a distorted, messy sound that no teenager’s parents will enjoy.
9. The Shins, Point of Morrow
The band that took indie rock mainstream (and changed Natalie Portman’s Garden State character’s life) is back with its first album in five years. The Shins have a knack for combining danceable melodies with bittersweet lyrics into songs that feel simultaneously grand and intimate. Or at least, that’s what they used to do. Let’s see how frontman James Mercer’s Danger Mouse-produced side project, Broken Bells, has influenced the band’s sound.
10. Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself
Andrew Bird is a musician’s musician. The classically trained multi-instrumentalist writes delightful pop songs disguised as beautiful violin and whistle-laden ballads. Not much has been reported about his follow up to 2009’s Noble Beast, although rumor has it that Bird will include some songs from the Norman soundtrack that he scored.
11. Justin Townes Earle, Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
The son of Steve Earle and namesake of Townes Van Zandt has done his country music forefathers proud with his previous efforts, including 2010’s stand-out Harlem River Blues. His fourth studio album leans away from traditional country and more toward Memphis soul, with a little folk and Americana thrown in for good measure. If every celebrity’s offspring were this talented, we’d have no problem with nepotism.
12. Madonna, Luv
Madonna has a new album coming out this year. It’ll be a sparse collection of harp-driven indie folk — just kidding, it’s going to be poppy. From the sound of the leaked track “Gimme All Your Luvin,” (featuring M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj) Madge’s still untitled album will contain infectious dance anthems certain to be overplayed on Top 40 radio.
13. Kanye West & Jay-Z, G.O.O.D. Music
14. Mazzy Star, Untitled
Last fall, 1990s dream-pop band Mazzy Star surprised everyone by releasing two new songs — the group’s first output in nearly 15 years — and announcing that a full album was on the way in 2012. “Common Burn” and “Lay Myself Down” were lazy, hazy tunes full of plucked guitars, slow harmonica and singer Hope Sandoval’s spacey vocals; in other words, they sounded exactly like Mazzy Star’s original work. We can’t wait to hear more.
15. Taylor Swift, Untitled
Taylor Swift writes all of her own songs, which explains the outpouring of adolescent angst in tracks like “You Belong With Me” and “Teardrops on My Guitar.” (Don’t worry, Taylor—we’ve all been there). Swift has said that parts of her forthcoming album will be about “moving on.” Guys? Our favorite country pop singer may finally be growing up.
LIST: The All-TIME 100 Songs