• Lil Wayne, 'Tha Carter IV' (Young Money/Cash Money)

    Lil Wayne, 'Tha Carter IV' (Young Money/Cash Money)

    Some great artists burst in and burn out. Rappers, especially, struggle to sustain relevance, let alone greatness. What happened this year with Watch the Throne, the conversation-corralling collaboration between Kanye West, 34, and Jay-Z, 41, isn't just an anomaly -- it's a frog storm. Lil Wayne is not yet 29 and has been recording professionally almost exactly as long as West. But he is now, officially, on the other side of greatness.The run that began in 2004 with the start of his Tha Carter album series, surged in 2006 and 2007, and wrapped sometime near the end of 2009 (before he served an eight-month prison sentence), was among the most prolific, fascinating, and rewarding in rap history.

  • TV on the Radio, 'Nine Types of Light' (Interscope)

    TV on the Radio, 'Nine Types of Light' (Interscope)

    TV on the Radio have been many things in the decade since they first dive-bombed New York City's outer boroughs. Arty a cappella reductionists on 2003's Young Liars EP; sky-bound funk-slop visionaries on 2004's still-epic Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes; tenacious, politically ravaged anthemists on 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain; and most recently, a manic pixie dance band on 2008's Dear Science. Throughout, their songs have been marked by lead singer Tunde Adebimpe's to-the-heavens demon howl, producer/multi-instrumentalist Dave Sitek's searing gospel-funk hoedowns, and an ineffable sense of drama -- theirs is a sound that is meaningful but shaded, aggressive but delicate. It can burn as quickly as it can fade away.

  • Lykke Li, 'Wounded Rhymes' (LL/Atlantic)

    Lykke Li, 'Wounded Rhymes' (LL/Atlantic)

    When the Swedish pop ingenue Lykke Li first arrived in 2007 at all of 21, she was an adorable little thing, singing and shimmying with gumption. Her debut album, 2008's Youth Novels, was as resolute and irrepressible as the best of her compatriots -- Robyn, Nina Persson, Jens Lekman, even ABBA. And she enchanted a few notables along the way, including the rapper Drake, who sampled her "Little Bit" for an arresting mixtape deep cut. But there was a chill in the music -- sax skronks, woozy keyboards, Kewpie-ish voice lurching to the brink of sadness -- that her co-conspirator Bjorn Yttling helped install to keep things from ever getting too cute. Three years and one broken heart later and that chill is hitting bone.

  • 101213-nicki-minaj.jpg

    Rookie of the Year: Nicki Minaj

    "I represent my entire generation," a female vocal careens from Studio A at Daddy's House, the dingy midtown Manhattan recording mecca owned by Sean "Diddy" Combs. When the studio door opens, there is Nicki Minaj, wearing a cotton-candy-colored fright wig. She is surprisingly short -- Kewpie-ish, even -- in jeans, a T-shirt, and brown riding boots, mouthing along to every word of her new song, "Fly." Two cameramen, a boom operator, a recording engineer, her publicist, and her hype man and closest confidant, simply known as S.B., surround her. She is smiling, but not happy. "Do you mind if we tape this?" she asks, immediately after I ask the same exact thing. Our conversation is being filmed. Of course it is. Because Nicki Minaj is the most beguiling female rapper since Missy Elliott and the most exciting new artist of the year.

  • Vado, 'Slime Flu' (E1)

    Vado, 'Slime Flu' (E1)

    Vado is a disciple of fellow Harlemite and eloquent asshole Cam'ron. But unlike his mentor, Vado lacks silk or slyness. He's all about brusqueness, from his halting "Huuunh" ad-libs to his churlish, aggressive voice -- an exclamation point to Cam's sneaky ellipses. But Slime Flu has its charms, acting as an energetic reminder of insider-y, turn-of-the-century New York hip-hop long gone: sample-laden, ignorant, and wealth-obsessed. "My pockets so big / Parade, I'm on the float, throwing knots to most kids," he raps on "Bullets & Gun Smoke." How magnanimous.

  • Neil Young, 'Le Noise' (Reprise)

    Neil Young, 'Le Noise' (Reprise)

    "When will I learn how to give back?" Neil Young asks on "Rumblin'." It's the last song on this brief, solitary, claustrophobic album, and might seem like a strange moment of self-recrimination for such a storied artist. But Le Noise, produced by Daniel Lanois and recorded solo with a reverb-swathed electric guitar, is all about doubt and desperation, and Young is never better than when he's unsure of himself. On his best work since 2000's Silver & Gold, he still can be laughably earnest, but then, these gothic blues make creeping mortality a pressing concern, and that's no laughing matter.

  • 100910-kid-cudi.jpg

    Kid Cudi: How He Made It in America

    He's a uniquely gifted rapper who's scored a left-field hit, forgiving fans, and a coveted co-sign from Kanye West. So why does Kid Cudi appear to be sabotaging his own success? [Magazine Excerpt] Kid Cudi twirls a neon-red, Darth Maul--style, double-bladed lightsaber skyward, and then catches it, mid-spin. "I need this on tour, so when motherfuckers run up, I can just be, like, 'Breach!'?" He twists his head around and shoots me a devilish look. Dressed this August afternoon as casually as one can be wearing black leather pants and a gold Jesus piece pendant, Cudi, 26, is hanging at home, a sparse, high-ceiling loft in Manhattan's tony TriBeCa neighborhood. But the reference to defending himself is not quite a joke. Last December, onstage in Vancouver, Cudi picked up a wallet, thrown from the crowd, that he claimed had struck him square in the face.

  • The Walkmen, 'Lisbon' (Fat Possum)

    The Walkmen, 'Lisbon' (Fat Possum)

    For years, this New York City quintet has been a raging beast of regret and anger, sloshing through their 20s, spilling bourbon on their shoes. Their best-known song, 2003's "The Rat," is an eruptive blast of bile, hybridizing punk fury with barroom caterwauling; it put a little distance between the sleeker sounds of so many of their turn-of-the-century New York peers. But they've calmed as they've aged, embracing a slower sadness and a stellar brass section that illuminates frontman Hamilton Leithauser's rip-cord howl.

  • Department of Eagles, 'Archive 2003–2006' (American Dust)

    Grizzly Bear's Daniel Rossen has been making time for side project Department of Eagles (his first proper band) since 2000, working with NYU buddy Fred Nicolaus to craft shifty, sometimes goofy baroque pop adorned with electronic textures. So this compilation-hushed, self-serious, at times achingly beautiful-reveals a vulnerable underbelly. It's not an essential set, but there's enough here (take the gallant "Grand Army Plaza" for a stroll or seven) to tide you over till the Veckatimest crew sets sail again. BUY: Amazon

  • Big Boi, 'Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty' (Def Jam)

    For years, André "3000" Benjamin has been valorized as OutKast's engine, its creative heartbeat, its auteur, and its soul. But Dre is nowhere to be found these days. So his partner did what he had to do: disprove conventional wisdom. From the first moments of the intro, "Feel Me," the whistles, wah-wah guitar, and liquefying talk box announce a uniformity of purpose-funk is the game and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton is not playing. Aided by producers Organized Noize and Mr. DJ, Sir Lucious Left Foot is a monster of an album. This isn't exactly a solo debut-that was the flip side of OutKast's 2003 double LP, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. But even more than that multiplatinum slab of funk, there is an enveloping heaviness here. You sink into the bass, as if drowning in a pulsating pool of quicksand, spiraling deeper toward the bottom end.

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