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Swans frontman Michael Gira, known for making some of the most terrifying music ever heard by human ears, had the candid moment of his career in a sentence so small it’s easy to miss. While describing the demo version of “Lunacy”, the insomnia-inducing opening track of Swans’ two hour masterpiece The Seer, he notes, “I imagine in its final version it will be fairly grandiose, even pretty, if I can use that word.” Gira’s involvement in the folk project Angels of Light has allowed him some beauty in the traditionally understood sense of the word, but even that has its limits. “Reeling the Liars In”, one of the Angels of Light-inspired tracks from Swans’ 2010 comeback LP My Father Will Guide Me a Rope Up to the Sky, though kinda pretty, talked of burning liars and peeling off their skin. Gira’s wise act of self-deprecation is as close as someone can get to making light the music of Swans, which reached its undulating apex in The Seer.

As far as experimental rock albums go, it’s unparalleled; though primordial in its methods—riffs and beats are repeated ad nauseaum, all the while single notes drag on and on, forming punishing drones—it’s rewarding in its richness and sophistication. Gira’s forays into folk music are exactly what Swans 2.0 needed to blossom from their harsh, post-punk roots into something greater than anyone could have imagined. Pair that up with the phenomenal musicians that make up Swans alongside several memorable guest spots and you have a collective making the finest rock and roll in 2012. It’s the kind of stuff that gets under your skin, into your bloodstream, and into the deepest recesses of your brain: hauntingly powerful, and impossible to shake off. Brice Ezell



Fiona Apple

Let’s be honest most people in pop are frickin’ morons. They’re not “Artists”. They’re bean counters, chancers, puppets, rugrats, thieves or just bloody idiots. Love her or loathe her (and you should love her), Fiona Apple is an Artist. Like Prince, Joni or Bowie. They do what they want when they want to…and they’re also a little bit loopy. In 2012 Fiona Apple released an album (reassuringly bloody ‘n’ brilliant) with a typically “Fuck you” title and scrappy, hand-drawn sleeve after a SEVEN YEAR wait. She then got busted by the law and tossed into jail wearing what appeared to be a clown costume before entering into a surreal public spat with her jailor. She also made a video with a giant octopus. They don’t make people like Apple anymore. She was born out of time, “Miscast in a play, born in the wrong era”. For this we must be eternally grateful. Our popworld is a brighter, better place with gonzo geniuses like Fiona Apple. Vote Artist. Vote Madness. Vote Apple. Matt James



Kendrick Lamar

It’s a little ridiculous to call someone the “savior” of this or that form of music, knowing that there’ll just be a new one next year but it’s hard to avoid that phrase when reading about Kendrick Lamar. You can’t blame writers for getting excited about him though, after three highly-lauded independent releases and successful debuts from the rest of his Black Hippy crew. The Compton native further stoked excitement for his major label debut by spending much of the year with a stream of releases including “The Recipe”, “Westside, Right on Time”, and “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. During this time, he became an increasingly hot commodity, lending Dre some much needed credibility, collaborating with Lady Gaga and dropping hints about an album with J. Cole. Finally, in November, Lamar lived up to the hype with good kid m.A.A.d city, an album stunning in both its ambition and execution. The record debuted at #2 on Billboard and secured him a spot in pantheon of great Southern California rappers alongside Tupac, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. Success hasn’t seemed to have gone to his head, as can be witnessed by his response to a highly publicized Twitter diss from fellow rapper Shyne. While fellow Californians Game and Schoolboy Q lept to his defense, Lamar refused to engage, saying “it’s his opinion. One opinion can’t stop what the world thinks.” When you’ve had a year as good as his, it’s easy to let your music do the talking. John Tryneski



Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean is my Artist of the Year, but not so much for channelORANGE—excessively floaty and disengaged for my tastes, even the thrilling “Pyramids”—but for the way he connected with so many people this year before the album even dropped. It was all so perfectly 2012: a TextEdit post on a Tumblr account, a beautifully ambiguous narrative about falling in love with a man, posted on July 4; truly the stuff pop culture dreams are made of. (NOW we understood why those writhing drugged-up models in “Novacane” didn’t interest him one bit….) That this was considered such a brave statement says so much more about society than about Christopher Breaux himself. But watching him sing “Thinking About You”‘s gorgeous falsetto hook on “Saturday Night Live,” and realizing that my teenage kids and I all sang along with him at the same moment, seems like a pretty goddamned important moment in 2012. Matt Cibula



Pussy Riot

To say that Pussy Riot is the quintessential example of a band you’ve heard of but haven’t heard would be the grossest of understatements, considering that the Russian anarcho-punk collective has more members (11, at least according to Wikipedia) than songs (seven) and that they’ve garnered more headlines on The Huffington Post than it has tracks on iTunes—which wouldn’t be very hard because that number is zero. Yet with the detainment of three members after an ambush performance of “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away” in front of the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February, Pussy Riot became a political cause known the world over, a protest-art act now iconic for its day-glo outfits and balaclava ski masks. Musically, they sound exactly like what you’d expect them to sound like, just even lower-fi and more rudimentary than riot grrrl was, though that’s probably as good as you get on re-dubbed YouTube videos. But it almost feels like judging Pussy Riot for its musicianship is like fiddling while Rome burns when they’ve given ultimate proof of the power of punk as a political statement, taking what was often happening in the underground in theory to a bigger stage with bigger stakes than ever. Arnold Pan

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