Gold Needles in the Pop-Rock Haystack

The best end-to-end albums from a single-driven year

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 impression (the sunshine-soul title track featuring Akon).

Thom Yorke
The Eraser (XL)

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Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3
Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3
The Shins
The Shins

Thom Yorke's seduction technique with Radiohead is now and 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 cryptic enigmas that stir the heart and brain.

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