1. BEST ALBUM
In Rainbows, Radiohead
The only thing deader than rock is the album, so what does that make a rock album? Radiohead’s In Rainbows is the best answer anyone had all year. The word playful has never been used to describe this band, but it’s apt for In Rainbows. The first three songs set the tone—the quirky beats of “15 Step” followed by the spirited guitar riffing of “Bodysnatchers” followed by the romantic lushness of “Nude”—with Thom Yorke singing his dark heart out on each one. As a complete, fully realized album, In Rainbows had no serious rival this year.
2. BEST SINGLE
Has there ever been a more unlikely summer anthem than “Umbrella”? And it’s not just that the lyrics revolve around, you know, rain. There’s the most unsummery drone of electronics that harks back to warped eighties British synth-pop, topped off by Rihanna’s deliberately flat vocals. And then there’s the hook, which made just the last two syllables of a three-syllable word instantly recognizable. But that’s what pop genius is all about: making the avant-garde irresistible.
3. NEW INDIE HYBRID
Smart lyrics, artfully repetitive grooves, major stage presence, bad haircuts: LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, and Spoon merged music’s nerdy and fabulous sides, often to stunning effect, in 2007. Of course, they all came from very different places. LCD’s James Murphy polished his arch but loving revival of unselfconsciously ecstatic dance beats with Sound of Silver; Britt Daniel, playing engineer, pared Spoon’s already austere sound down to awesomely minimal grooves with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga; and Arcade Fire, led by the gawky Win Butler, pushed its trademark blend of epic melancholy and wide-eyed hope to the most dizzying heights yet.
4. BEST TOSSED-OFF ALBUM
American Gangster, Jay-Z
Jay-Z used to claim he really wanted to be a conscious rapper, but the audience demanded gangster. If last year’s Kingdom Come proved that, actually, he doesn’t have much of substance to say, this year’s American Gangster shows why that doesn’t matter. Recorded quickly after an early screening of the movie, loaded with classic seventies soul and eighties hip-hop samples, the album sounds like he could have made it in his sleep. For a rapper who’s always traded on effortless cool, that may be the ultimate compliment.
5. OPEN-SOURCE RAPPER
By disseminating an endless stream of new music via mix tapes and Internet leaks—and reportedly recording up to eight songs a day in his Miami apartment—Lil’ Wayne proved it’s possible to dominate an entire genre without actually releasing anything. On Da Drought 3, he owned hot beats by everyone from Beyoncé to Robin Thicke, while his own tracks sounded not quite finished, yet thrilling. A new persona takes shape, one more common in rock: the existential stoner poet.