AFI, Decemberunderground (Interscope): Unlike many of their dark-punk peers, AFI managed to slick up their sound without losing their bat-cave-and-fishnets cachet on Decemberunderground. Chalk this up to undeniable pop sensibilities and the band's knack for hooks whether they're crafting screamo speedballs ("Kill Caustic"), space-age synth-pop ("The Missing Frame") or tundra-chilled gothic landscapes indebted to The Cure and The Damned ("Summer Shudder").
The Blood Brothers, Young Machetes (V2): The Blood Brothers' slobbering, shrill, twin-vocal assault and nuclear-bomb riffs frequently feel plucked out of a Stephen King horror movie. But on Machetes, the Seattle band's Dali-esque abstract imagery and unhinged mania coalesce into shockingly linear pop songs. "Linear pop" is a relative term, though, as the band's post-punk/no-wave/hardcore hysteria remains very much intact: "We Ride Skeletal Lightning" lurches like a zombie jonesing for brains, while "Spit Shine Your Black Clouds" is a danceable conclusion to PiL's shuddering death-disco.
CSS, Cansei de Ser Sexy (Sub Pop): With Le Tigre on hiatus, the Brazilian sextet CSS stepped up for booty-dancers, staunch feminists and electro-pop fanatics everywhere with their high-energy debut. "Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above" begs to be blared during a Jazzercise class for hipsters, "Artbitch" sounds like a deconstructed Yeah Yeah Yeahs song stitched back together with diagonal big-beats, and the bubble-bath-synth groover "Fuckoff Is Not the Only Thing You Have to Show" resembles Ladytron trash-talking with Cyndi Lauper.
Def Leppard, Yeah! (Island): Critically maligned arena-rockers Def Leppard sure sound like they have something to prove on their fantastic covers record, Yeah!. And who can blame them? They've always drawn inspiration from seminal U.K. glam and metal bands, but can't seem to escape being seen as poof-rock hacks. Which is too bad, since their faithful (but not derivative) renditions of classic cuts from Bowie, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Sweet, ELO, and even The Kinks in the form of a gorgeous, copper-burnished "Waterloo Sunset" more than cement their musical talent.
Nelly Furtado, Loose (Geffen): Furtado, who's notorious for being a hit-or-miss performer live, is perhaps the year's biggest example of how studio gloss and the right production team can revive (and reinvent) an artist's career and create Top 40 gold in the process. Loose is the most consistent and innovative pop-diva disc of the year, from the Latin flair of "No Hay Igual," to the digi-funk body-rocker "Maneater," and, of course, the playful '80s glitter all over the Timbaland-featuring synth-swerve "Promiscuous."
Hellogoodbye, Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs! (Drive-Thru): Few modern emo/punk/whatever whippersnappers capture the essence of the decade when keyboards ruled the world largely because their view of the 1980s comes secondhand via VH1 or retro-radio hours. However, an exception to this rule can be made for the young Cali quartet Hellogoodbye, which displays serious synth-smarts (and a mean vocoder!) on Zombies!, an exuberant collection of punk-pop that nods to New Order, blink-182, and '80s Top 40 radio hits.
Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3, Olé! Tarantula (Yep Roc): The absent-minded professor of Nuggets-style psychedelic garage rock continues his creative resurgence with Tarantula, a kaleidoscopic album of melodic gems drenched in harmony and surrealistic imagery. Recorded in conjunction with the Venus 3 a.k.a. Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin of R.E.M./The Minus 5 and featuring a track co-written by XTC major-domo Andy Partridge ("'Cause It's Love [Saint Parallelogram]"), the album trades in fizzy fuzz-jangle that more often than not belies lyrical melancholy. "N.Y. Doll" is a somber remembrance of the late New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane, while Hitchcock wrote the effervescent pop burst "Underground Sun" for a late friend.
Muse, Black Holes and Revelations (Reprise): Muse traded in pretentious prog bombast long before it became trendy on its first three albums and creates the Platonic ideal of the form on Revelations with "Knights of Cydonia," a galloping, apocalyptic single gnarled with doom-metal riffs and robots-in-space vocals. But the supercharged U.K. trio wisely expands its worldview to include sci-fi funk, stompy goth and even Rufus Wainwright-esque balladry on Revelations, the band's poppiest and most emotionally affecting outing yet. Just try to avoid shedding a tear during the longing "Starlight," in which glassy piano intertwines with diffracted synths, and vocalist Matt Bellamy croons "I just wanted to hold you in my arms" like an anguished astronaut about to be lost forever in space.
The Shins, Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop): Physical copies of The Shins' third album aren't in stores yet, although its presence on any number of file-sharing services means that, more or less, it may as well have already been released. More sedate and less accessible than the band's first two discs, Wincing is an album for those outgrowing twentysomething-borne uncertainty and settling into careers, relationships and (gasp!) maturity. Nevertheless, the Flaming Lips-esque psych-dreamscape "Sea Legs" displays sonic adventurousness, and the wistful relationship-analysis "Turn on Me" has a hollow nostalgia reminiscent of R.E.M.'s early mysticism.
Gwen Stefani, The Sweet Escape (Interscope): Save for the yodel-tastic "Wind It Up" and a Pharrell-featuring game of "disco-Tetris" called "Yummy," the No Doubt vocalist wisely chooses to focus on songcraft instead of flamboyance on her second solo effort. This makes her staunch girl power all the more effective, whether she's channeling Madonna's Like a Prayer-era balladry ("Early Winter"), embracing her inner goth ("Wonderful Life") or doing her best Sheena Easton impersonation (the sunshine-soul title track featuring Akon).
Thom Yorke, The Eraser (XL): Thom Yorke's seduction technique with Radiohead has always revolved around mystery so it's no surprise that The Eraser, his solo debut, also explores misty vistas. Although built on a foundation of repetition and detailed sonic atmosphere (fragmented electronica loops, stuttering beat-blips and skeletal piano), Eraser derives its power from Yorke's feathery falsetto. He croons half-formed phrases and whispered slogans like an otherworldly siren, creating an eerily romantic song cycle full of enigmas that stir the heart and brain.