Remember that band that your friend was in for a couple years in early high school? They practiced in that guy’s garage every Thursday, and played at the school talent show a couple of times, and they were always talking about when they were going into the studio to record their demo and how they were booking a tour for spring break or maybe summer or maybe next year, and the guitar player (his name was either Kurt or Dustin, you can’t remember) had really long hair and claimed he slept with his “ax,” and yet somehow you only ever heard them play the same four songs they seemed to have written years ago. They were nice enough guys (even when they were drunk, which was most of the time), but you had a sneaking suspicion that their career prospects in the music industry were not, shall we say, particularly auspicious.

In my most recent review, of Raekwon’s Unexpected Victory, I called the Chef “probably the most gangsta rapper in the history of gangsta rap.” I still stand by that statement, but if we refine our focus from “history of gangsta rap” to “group of the ten most influential rappers in hip-hop today,” we can apply the statement to Rick Ross and throw the “probably” into the Atlantic Ocean strapped to a pair of concrete blocks. Rich Forever, the most significant hip-hop release of 2012 so far (sorry, T.I.), reaffirms Rozay’s status as the master of the street album and sets the bar ridiculously high for any subsequent “pre-album” mixtapes from other rappers.

In 2011, after years of hard work on the mixtape circuit building a devoted underground following, an XXL Freshman releases his debut studio album with the co-sign of one of the greatest MC’s of all time. Not only does the album receive overwhelmingly positive reviews, it’s better than the release earlier in the year from aforementioned legendary MC. And despite the many notable debut albums to drop this year, this description can only be applied to one rookie. No, not J. Cole. It’s (surprise!) the pride of Gadsden, Alabama: Michael Wayne Atha AKA Yelawolf.

Tom Waits has the kind of voice that might scare the hell out of you if you hear him shouting outside at 3 am under your window, but that’s just part of his towering talent and dark charm. Bad As Me (ANTI-Records) is more than an album; it’s an all-engrossing psychological event.

So many of my fond memories contain Justice: racing around dark rural streets with “We Are Your Friends” blasting, drunken impromptu dance parties to “D.A.N.C.E.,” “Tthhee Ppaarrttyy” singalongs on dancefloors. † was a revolutionary album in mainstream electro-house and will sit on my harddrive till Christ himself returns.

The key word for the new album, Ceremonials, from Florence + The Machine is “anthemic.” This is true in almost every aspect of this disc. Producer Paul Epworth, fresh off creating hits for Adele’s “21” earlier this year, is back at it for Florence and he holds nothing back for these tracks. The album begins with “Only If For A Night” which soars to great heights with its chours and layered backing vocals. Next is the first single from the album, “Shake It Off,” which seems to begin a bit muddled with the an accompanyment of an organ but then breaks into something that would fit into a gospel record with a full choir.

Björk, perhaps the most sophisticated of musical banshees, returns this fall with Biophilia, her latest album since 2007’s Volta. The gimmick for Biophilia is that it’s billed as the world’s first iPad “app album,” meaning that you can buy a matching app for each song on the album. But that’s not all: Björk has promised installations, orange afros and special performances with musical instruments built in her tiny chamber of dreams. These include a gamelan and celesta portmanteau called a Gameleste, as well as a gravitational pendulum harp, and a badass tesla coil bass machine.

Quebecois singer Coeur De Pirate, aka Beatrice Martin, just came out with a quality acoustic cover of The Weeknd’s song “Wicked Games.” It’s a refreshing contrast to the more rock-heavy sound we typically asosciate with The Weeknd – Martin gives it a rawer, bare-bones feel. It’s engaging enough that you end up surprised she only uses a piano as her entire accompaniment – honestly, it sounds like a Casio or, at best, a tinny standup. The track also represents one of her few English language songs; for the most part she sings in French. “Brutal Hearts,” a collaboration with Bedouin Soundclash released last year, was her first venture in English.

Tha Carter brand name has evolved into one of the most bulletproof in rap. Three-plus years, two forgettable albums and one eight-month prison sentence after the release of Tha Carter III, anticipation surrounding Lil’ Wayne’s fourth installation in the series rivals that of any other release in 2011. Tha Carter put Wayne on the map. C2 made him a superstar. And C3 solidified his place as “the best rapper alive” when it dropped. Does C4 see Weezy return to his 2008 Marshawn Lynch-type “beast mode” production?

Marc Ronson & The Business International’s 2010 LP, Record Collection, largely flew under the mainstream music biz’s radar. This is a shame and a surprise – to begin with, Ronson was the mastermind behind Amy Winehouse’s success with Back To Black. He’s also an objectively top-notch producer. You can see his influence on Winehouse when you compare her raw, unrefined footage to what came out of the studio: she wrote the music and the lyrics, but many argue that he was just as responsible for the retro-soul Amy Winehouse “sound” so many people fell in love with.

Lenny Kravitz has always composed outside the box. In 1993, his third studio album asked “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” and listeners largely did: it became his first Top 20 album on the United States Billboard 200. On Black and White America, Kravitz’s ninth studio release (Roadrunner/Atlantic), his skill for mashing styles has been honed to the degree where you can’t tell exactly when within a song the transition happens; you just know the coupling’s happened. And no matter what direction he goes in, you’re usually going to get the best and most authentic parts of what any given style has to offer.

The whole world is wondering (or should be wondering): “What’s coming out of Rio?” A better question might be, “what hasn’t been coming out of Rio?” While the city – Brazil’s second largest, after Sao Paulo – does not possess the deep, immediate Afro-Brazilian musical roots one more often associates with Bahia, its music is unmistakably grounded in those same Afro-Portuguese strains that define the country’s musical DNA. I could spend a lifetime talking about Bahian genres – really, they’re more like the genres of Brazil itself due to the infusion of African strains in its music – but today let’s focus on Rio as of late. Axe, maracatu, and candomble will have to wait for their own AudioCred spotlight.