Honorable mention goes to the following - 1 of which didn't come out this year but was still a worthy album:
Crash Test Dummies - "Oooh la la"
Eve 6 - "Speak in code"
Scissor Sisters - "Magic Hour"
No Doubt - push and shove
For each, click the album title to read the full review - and without further ado:
10.Kesha - Warrior
Some might question this one even showing up on the list at all. With the implicit reminder that I'm not writing this for those people, it's worth saying this was a tough call. The reason it ended up here is that even for what Kesha is, and what kind of music she puts out, she at least has shown an initiative most don't with this kind of thing. From co-writing credits on every song on the disc, to writing songs for others on top of her own work - she is at least showing she cares enough to add that level of control to her work. Love it or hate it, that's a kind of integrity not every artist peddling this sort of music can lay claim to. And the fact that the whole disc is a fine slice of bratty, guilty pleasure electro-pop doesn't hurt either.
9.Cranberries - Roses
Another of many 90's-heyday acts that returned after a long absence, the Cranberries put out a disc full of songs that reminds us why we loved them in the first place. Gone is the backpedaling that made "Bury The Hatchet" mostly a bore, missing are the screeching polemics that made "To the faithful departed" equally hard to sit through. What is here is the soft-edged, lilting folk-pop they made their name with - even as it sounds a bit dated, it's hard to dislike such elegantly crafted tunes.
8.Adam Lambert - Trespassing
One of many in the "Idol runners-up that do better than the winners" category (while winner Kris Allen quickly ended up in the where are they now bin) - Lambert is occasionally too breathy and is prone to vocal histrionics (another reviewer once referred to him as "klaxon-voiced"), but a gorgeous set of pipes does peek out from the maelstrom often enough to make this an appealing listen, and he does pop with more sophistication than most.
7.Lit "The view from the bottom"
This disc wins in a similar way to others on this list - it forms a cohesive album with defined start , middle, and ending - and serves as a welcome return for a band too long absent from the scene. And they manage to blend the party-hearty rock crunch they're known for with some more sobering moments that don't come across as mawkish or cheesy - not easy for a band who doesn't usually dip their toes into such material, but they pull it off well.
6.Owl City - "The midsummer station"
Adam Young takes this, his 3rd major label, as a chance to break the mold a bit. His lyrics are still coated with sugar-sweet metaphors, some groan-inducing puns ("You have the right to remain right here with me") but the hyper-nature focus is dialed back a fair deal to let a more basic pop sensibility reign. It ranges from ruminations-on-the-price-of-fame ("Dementia") to the more upbeat "Good Time" with an assist from pop ingenue of-the-moment Carly Rae Jepsen - and more still. Breaking away from the strictly electronic constructs helps too - sure, the synth sounds are here still, but there is a bit more organic sound to balance things out a bit more than his first 2 discs could muster.
5.Pink - The truth about love
Thoughtful, angry, happy, vulnerable, all of the above and more, wrapped up in a polished pop package. But Pink is no puppet - she is a self-assured, confident woman who knows how to bend pop to suit her whim. Whether that whim is catchy kiss-off numbers "Blow me (one last kiss)" or vulnerable ballads ("Beam Me Up") she manages to pull off each with a sense that a piece of HER actually is shining through all the gloss - and that's a feat far too few pop artists pull off well these days.
4.Linkin Park - "Living Things"
How does a late-90's-peaking nu-metal standard bearer stay relevant long after the genre that brought them has long since hit its popular nadir? A 50/50 combo - recognizing what their strengths are, but finding a way to play to them while still recognizing changing tastes in music in general. This is not the moody, more cerebral piece that "A 1,000 Suns" was, but it's definitely not all an exercise in dull-headed fist-pumping "Brostep" - there are more thoughtful moments to be had - and these, along with the band's continued commitment to keep taking chances, keeps them interesting when many more like them have long since fallen off the map.
3.Garbage - "Not your Kind of people"
Garbage is a band whose genesis is sometimes written about as "3 studio rats looking for a singer." Whatever you may take from that, they have definitely evolved over the years into something that transcends such a simplistic label. With album #5, they beat a triumphant return to making and performing music after a 7-year hiatus. The album has an experienced, lived-in quality that feels like welcoming old friends home after a long absence. All that, and boasts one of the most achingly beautiful tracks of any album on this list - album closer "Beloved Freak" is one of (possibly the) best songs they've ever done.
2.Pet Shop Boys - Elysium
Over their career the boys have tried on many hats - from the pop of the 80's, to the dancier thumps of the late 90's, to the guitar-spiked introspection of the early 2000's, right through the "pop about-face" they pulled with 2009's "Yes" - many flavors indeed. Few would have thought they'd choose the Andrew Dawson hat - he of Kanye West-producing fame. It sounds like a match made in hell on paper, but on disc, it sounds amazing. It emerges as a beat-oriented quasi-sequel to 1990's "Behaviour" - a balance of more introspective tracks and some dancefloor fillers, with a light hip-hop touch baked in beneath the pop sensibility the 'Boys are so well known for.
1.Assemblage 23 - Bruise
This entry is that all-too-rare album [these days anyways] that isn't just a collection of songs - it is a cycle, with a defined ramp-up, a powerful and engaging mid-section, and an appropriately quiet, reflective ending. Each track is a thundering crash of sturm und drang - but still coated with a glossy pop sheen. Lyrically, Shear mixes the hopeful and uplifting right alongside the bleak and despairing. This equality makes it an album never too sad, never too giddy, feeling at all times "just right". All this combines to create a fine piece of work and places it here at the top.