Charli XCX, Sucker: A more-than-capable writer (see: Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”), the UK singer teamed up with indie auteurs like Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer—as well as pop hit makers like Stargate and Benny Blanco—for her new album of snarling, sugary pop. Matched with Charli’s trash-punk aesthetic the resulting work is guilty-pleasure pop that you can share on your Spotify feed without shame. (Out Dec 9.) Essential track: "Breaking Up"
E-40, Sharp on All 4 Corners: Corner 1 and 2: Bay Area veteran E-40, Earl Stevens, has been making records since 1990s, puling from a seemingly endless well of dextrous, playful verses. In recent years he’s taken to dropping albums in bunches: His 2012–13 releases came as two triologies (as in 6 full records). This time, E-40 releases a relatively modest pair of LPs, with another 2 due next year. Its first singles are pure adolescent glee: the booty-and-beer-pong party tune “Red Cup,” which features T-Pain, and its converse, the chilled out “Choices (Yup).” (Out Dec 9.) Essential track: "Choices (Yup)"
J. Cole, 2014 Forest Hills Drive: North Carolina MC-producer J. Cole picks up where Kanye West’s early pitched-up soul beats left off. He might not break new ground, but Cole is getting good at living within the aesthetic. His latest, named after the house he grew up in and later re-bought, tackles big ideas and heavy moments (earlier this year he released a track for Michael Brown). This record is sometimes somber, sometimes jubilant and always earnest. (Out Dec 9.) Essential track: “January 28th”
Nicki Minaj, The Pinkprint: On Beyoncé's “Flawless (remix),” Nicki came through with one of the fiercest verses of 2014: This website that streams the song on a loop is an essential bookmark. That, along with her track record of inconsistent full-lengths, has the pressure on for “The Pinkprint.” If advance singles are any indication, Nicki doesn't have any interest in toning down her wide-ranging approach, putting deeply personal tracks (“All Things Go”) alongside the raunchiest raps (“Anaconda”). (Out Dec 15.) Essential track: "Anaconda"
Wu Tang, A Better Tomorrow: As Wu-Tang’s leader, motivator and chief beat-maker, RZA’s best days are perhaps behind him (the album’s recording was littered with public dissent and squabbles). But there’s still too much talent in the room, and maybe a little nostalgia, to completely kill the Wu-Tang machine. The best moments are when RZA’s soul and R&B proclivities are toned down in favor of spare beats and raw wordplay. The fewer hooks the better, as on “Necklace,” which subs a snipped of film dialogue for a sung chorus. (Out now.) Essential track: "Necklace"