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The kindred spirits of the year’s top album releases

“Ambition’’ by Wale (above) will appeal to fans of “Watch the Throne’’ by Jay-Z and Kanye West.

Chad Batka for The New York Times

“Ambition’’ by Wale (above) will appeal to fans of “Watch the Throne’’ by Jay-Z and Kanye West.

Between Amazon, Pandora, Spotify, and the storm of music service options currently brewing in the cloud, it’s never been easier to find new music. Then again, it’s never been easier to get bogged down in the endlessness of the supply. If you played it safe this year and stuck to 2011’s top releases, you may have missed some real gems. Below, find our critics’ picks for can’t-miss complements to the year’s biggest albums. — MICHAEL BRODEUR

IF YOU LIKED: Jay-Z & Kanye West, “Watch the Throne’’

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YOU SHOULD HEAR: Wale, “Ambition’’

Like Jay and Kanye, DC-based rapper Wale spends most of his second album finding clever ways of exalting his own greatness over appropriately grandiose production. Shallow though it may be (it is), both albums succeed based on their respective authors’ unshakable confidence; in Wale’s case, that means strutting over the snapping drum rolls of “Don’t Hold Your Applause’’ (dropping Kanye-isms like “I’m winning obese’’) and producer Diplo’s punchy dance beat on “Slight Work’’ with Big Sean. He comes to perform at the Worcester Palladium on Jan. 28. — MARTÍN CABALLERO

IF YOU LIKED: Lil Wayne, ‘‘Tha Carter IV’’

YOU SHOULD HEAR: Pusha T, ‘‘Fear of God II: Let Us Pray’’

Listeners saw a slightly more self-aware side of Lil Wayne on his last album, recorded after serving time in jail for weapons possession. Pusha T, best known as one-half of the Pharrell Williams- produced group Clipse, showcases his own personal evolution on this album, grappling with questions of faith and morality at times, but, like Weezy, he doesn’t do it quietly. A roster of guest stars (Kanye West, 50 Cent, Rick Ross and Odd Future’s Tyler the Creator among them) and aggressive production fuel Pusha’s impressive performance. — M.C.

IF YOU LIKED: Lady Antebellum, ‘‘Own the Night’’

YOU SHOULD HEAR: The Civil Wars, ‘‘Barton Hollow’’

If you love the close boy-girl harmonies of the multiplatinum trio you might enjoy going a little farther down a country road with the more austere Civil Wars. The duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White take a dustier approach from the glossy Lady A, singing with a back-porch intimacy that is flecked with folk, blues, and classic country on heartbreaker ballads like ‘‘Poison &Wine’’ and their debut album’s noir-ish title track, ‘‘Barton Hollow.’’ — SARAH RODMAN

IF YOU LIKED: Miranda Lambert, ‘‘Four the Record’’

YOU SHOULD HEAR: Hayes Carll, ‘‘KMAGYOYO (& Other American Stories)’’

Like Lambert’s ‘‘Four the Record’’ — except without the platinum sales — Carll’s latest album on Lost Highway was a perfect mishmash of old and newcountry. You hear fellow Texan Kris Kristofferson’s lonesome blues in a ballad like ‘‘Chances Are,’’ and Carll tipped his hat to great country duos like Conway and Loretta with ‘‘Another Like You’’ (albeit the language was a lot saltier). Meanwhile, the chugging drive of ‘‘KMAGYOYO’’ brought to mind Bob Dylan’s ‘‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’’ But even when Carll was all over the map, you still wanted to follow him on his journey. — JAMES REED

IF YOU LIKED: Beyoncé, ‘‘4’’

YOU SHOULD HEAR: Lykke Li, ‘‘Wounded Rhymes’’

More like a bookend rather than a counterpart, Lykke Li’s ‘‘Wounded Rhymes’’ shared something important with Beyoncé’s ‘‘4’’: Both albums were all about matters of the heart and united in spirit, if not sonic palettes. And like the American R&B singer, Lykke Li, a Swedish singer- songwriter popular in indierock circles, possesses a voice that can sound tough one song (‘‘Get Some’’) and incredibly tender the next (‘‘I Know Places’’). I’d be surprised if Beyoncé and Lykke Li weren’t mutual fans of the other’s respective album this year. — J.R.

IF YOU LIKED: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, ‘‘S/T’’; Beady Eye, ‘‘Different Gear, Still Speeding’’

YOU SHOULD HEAR: Viva Brother ‘‘Famous First Words’’

Two new albums from Oasis’s filial pugilists arrived this year. The first, from Liam Gallagher’s Beady Eye was as plodding and predictable as Noel’s was gorgeously anthemic. Every year a newUKband arrives lauded as heirs to the throne, and the closest in 2011 was Viva Brother. Their debut, and lead single in particular ‘‘Darling Buds of May’’, displayed everything you’d expect from hungry young Brit upstarts: swaggering bravado, effortlessly melodic hooks, and perhaps most importantly, a band decked out in brilliant rain jackets. — LUKE O’NEIL

IF YOU LIKED: Cut Copy, ‘‘Zonoscope’’

YOU SHOULD HEAR: Digitalism, ‘‘I Love You, Dude’’

The much buzzed-about Australian outfit spent the past fewyears as the gateway drug of choice for indie rockers transitioning to the dance clubs, but their latest, while still top-notch, veered off into curiously quirky ’80s retro detours that tempered theBPMs. This year’s record from the German electro duo Digitalism laid down indie club bangers top to bottom—from disco-house to raved-up bass explosions—all while maintaining a Cut Copylike sense of melody. — L.O.

IF YOU LIKED: Rise Against, ‘‘Endgame’’ ; Blink-182, ‘‘Neighborhoods’’

YOU SHOULD HEAR: The Story So Far, ‘‘Under Soil and Dirt’’

This was a great year for pop punk, with releases from venerable old acts like Blink-182, and politically-conscious populist heroes Rise Against. This style of music, however—melodramatically yearning, fast-paced, and explosive—is usually a young man’s game. California’s The Story So Far continued in the tradition of the elder statesmen here, reaching back into the punk past to pull a page from their forebears’ playbook, all the while infusing the music with the undeniable urgency of youth. — L.O.

IF YOU LIKED: Foo Fighters, ‘‘Wasting Light’’

YOU SHOULD HEAR: Yuck, ‘‘Yuck’’

Guitars: If you like ’embig and burly, the Foo Fighters did you right this year with ‘‘Wasting Light’’—an album that unabashedly dipped its goblet in the fountain of its members’ youth. This affinity for girthy BigMuff distortion and melodies that charge through the speakers is alive and well in the work of the young Londoners of Yuck. Its self-titled debut was a wallop of classic indie-rock, bursting with girthy guitars and aggressively catchy melodies. Tinnitus never felt so fresh. — MICHAEL BRODEUR

IF YOU LIKED: Bon Iver, ‘‘S/T’’

YOU SHOULD HEAR: Julian Lynch, ‘‘Terra’’

Singer-songwriter Justin Vernon’s self-titled sophomore release as Bon Iver was a breakthrough — albeit a gentle one. Despite its ambitious instrumentation and compositional complexity, it felt airy, light, effortless. NewJersey-based songwriter Julian Lynch showed off an equally expansive palette on his third album, ‘‘Terra,’’ moving between silken instrumental meditations (‘‘Water Wheel One’’), medicated slo-mo psych (‘‘Clay Horses’’), and American pop with an easterly breeze (‘‘Terra’’). But more impressive than Lynch’s curiosity, creativity, and versatility is the control he wields over all three. — M.B.

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