There was some scratching of heads when Death Grips signed to major label Epic earlier in the year. Here was a decidedly underground, experimental and political hip-hop group that caused a frisson of excitement at live shows which was realised in the incendiary Exmilitary mixtape album, given away free by the band. Like all good things in music, it didn’t take long for the major labels to come sniffing and almost as quickly as they had appeared seemingly out of nowhere, Death Grips duly signed to Epic. This was always going to be an interesting marriage and so it turned out, albeit much shorter than anyone expected. Following the release of their first ‘official’ album their second No Love Deep Web was announced and slated for an October release. In the intervening period the group posted tracks from said album via their official online channels, most notably YouTube, before leaking the entire album for download in October. Epic didn’t take this well and subsequently booted them of the label, almost as quickly as A&M dropped the Sex Pistols all those years back. It’s suggested that Death Grips leaked the album because they were pissed that Epic pushed the release back to 2013. Or was this more of a political statement by Death Grips, purposefully signing to a major in order to publically highlight the continual outmoded working practices of the record industry? Who knows, but Death Grips are my band of the year for willfully sticking it to the man and highlighting the struggle that remains between artists and the ownership of their music and the major labels intractable business model which seeks total control and subordination of artists. Oh, the album is brilliant by the way! Jez Collins
Claire Boucher has, in the recent past: attempted to sail the Mississippi from Minneapolis to New Orleans on a homemade houseboat replete with a cargo of several chickens and 20 pounds of potatoes; dropped a novelty single as a member of “supergroup” L$D, also featuring the possibly-ironic rapper Kreayshawn; designed and sold molded plastic jewelry in the shape of the external female genitalia, called “Pussy Rings”; oh, and released one of the most thrilling, inventive records of the year in Visions. Boucher, known to her ever-expanding fanbase as Grimes, hails from Montréal by way of Vancouver, but she might as well be the first emissary from a distant, relentlessly endearing galaxy. Grimes makes electro-pop at once buoyant and dark, danceable and lurching with unease, nodding to both Mariah Carey and Skinny Puppy. In other words, she’s the perfect emblem for our genre-busting, all-consuming, media-obsessive culture, pulling influences and touchstones from a mind-boggling array of disparate sources. But on Visions, the results of this Frankenstein tinkering become so smooth, so inviting, as to seem inevitable after the first spin of the disc. If Grimes represents the borderless future of independent pop music, we’re in good hands. Corey Beasley
2012 didn’t get off to the best start. The global financial crisis was still kicking around and notions of impending doom throughout the year didn’t leave many, ahem, reasons to believe. Enter the great blue-collar superhero, as if right on cue. The Boss had suffered himself in recent years, most notably with the death of E Street band fixture Clarence Clemons. But in March he released his 17th studio album, Wrecking Ball, and still finds himself on the road today. Springsteen chose not to sit back and critically analyse the problems plaguing the modern world. Instead, he stands up proudly and floors the obstacles with roundhouse kicks. Wrecking Ball wasn’t necessarily a return to form, but it was a reminder: after “Hope” became one of the more over-used terms of 2008, the very word is not a clichéd and topical term. Springsteen’s odes to the world around him on Wrecking Ball, such as the rousing “We Take Care of Our Own” and “We Are Alive” proves that the world he sees is one worth fighting for. Joshua Kloke
There’s a disconnect between the way the general hipster/serious music fan audience dismisses Taylor Swift’s music as teenpop-fluff for little girls and the way some of us critics approach her as one of the most interesting and rewarding pop singer/songwriters, whose albums are important events. With each album the latter group grows while the former seems to crow louder, heightened by her pop moves and transition into a Celebrity. The future is likely to keep moving people in her direction, as with each LP she’s growing her music in scope, depth and sound, while having fun trying out different things. Her 2012 album Red again shows that will continue; isn’t it just a matter of time before Pitchfork treats her as reverently as they do Beyoncé? Her music keeps evolving as she gets even better at articulating the varied emotions surrounding the gaps between childhood and adulthood, excitement and disappointment, love and hate, freedom and confusion. Dave Heaton
El-P has always been a champion of the underground, but for most of his Def Jux reign he also felt very adamantly opposed to being loved by anyone who wasn’t as alienated with the mainstream as he was. After a five-year break from solo LPs and typically sparse guest work, El-P burst out of his bubble with two of hip-hop’s strongest albums of the year and easily the two most sonically exciting. He improved greatly as a rapper on his solo album, Cancer 4 Cure, tilting his paranoia-ridden hardcore New York rhymes towards rowdy comedy, most obviously on lead single “The Full Retard”, where even his production feels more like a throwback to the heyday of LL Cool J and KRS-One than the alien rap that made him famous.
Cancer 4 Cure would be a great enough accomplishment for most, but his shocking pairing with Atlanta’s ghetto proselytizer Killer Mike proved to be even more jaw dropping. By marrying his various tool sets to that of Atlanta’s groove-heavy standards and Mike’s menacing politics and Ice Cube revivalism, the pair created the most dangerous hip-hop album since the Bomb Squad’s heyday. Whether it was the three beat “Don’t Die”, throwing molotovs at the social institution of government on “Reagan” or simply throwing words at the mic for the glory of sound on “Go!”, El-P was in perfect lockstep with Mike from beginning to end, crafting an album that felt every bit as natural as Cube’s turn to the east coast for his seminal screed AmeriKKKaz Most Wanted. El-P might make listeners wait an awfully long time to hear what’s been going on in his head, but when he explodes with creativity like he did in 2012, it’s impossible to hate him for taking his time. David Amidon