To those of us for which hip-hop is a bit of a dalliance, such as me, Kendrick Lamar was a completely unknown quality—until he dropped good kid, m.A.A.d city this past October, that is. I suspect the same sentiment is true for most casual music listeners, as it just seemed that Lamar came out of nowhere as an independent recording artist to one being on a major label (Interscope), never mind the fact that the first single from the deluxe edition (“The Recipe”) dropped in April. The jump to the majors turned out to be a blockbuster move for its author considering that his sophomore album debuted in the No. 2 slot on the US Billboard 200 chart and peaked at No. 16 in the more conservative UK. And, oh, the rewards to be had for those willing to come along for the ride with this seemingly unknown quantity. On the record, Lamar is so honest, so raw, so willing to acknowledge that he has flaws—and that he’s willing to turn to God to better his life. Not only is that, in itself, a rare quality in the world of hip-hop, it makes Lamar an artist to look up to, even when you’re following him throughout whatever dark holes that he finds himself in. To deliver an album that is as near perfect as good kid, m.A.A.d city is a feat in and of itself, and to anyone who like pure music that is unflinching in its singular vision of how life is lived, projects or no, Lamar is the real deal that enthusiastic observers such as I will be keeping a finger on well into 2013. Clearly, he is one of the best new artists to grace the pop culture playing field this year, even though he may have come in rather late to the game by dropping his noteworthy, filler-free record just only weeks ago, in late October, and seemingly out of the ether at that. Zachary Houle
2012’s Visions may’ve been Claire Boucher’s third symphony but it was the first one to really send Grimes to the frontline. An uncategorizable (Electronica? Hip-pop? Classical? World? Er, Enya on Ketamine?) piece of musical sorcery recorded in true Merlin-style during a three-week, matchsticks on the eyes, Colonel Kurtz worthy “Where IS my Mind?” lockdown in her basement it pretty much beguiled anyone who discovered it. Since its release back in chilly January Grimes’ legend has snowballed via her heroic, yet often lovably scrappy, live shows, the Jimmy Fallon hijack, the yarn of the “Velvet Glove Cast in Iron”, the “Phone Sex” collaboration and er, her line of “Pussy Rings”. It’s perhaps no surprise then she recently nuked a European tour citing exhaustion. Grimes’—and Visions’ —strongest card is not only a contrary defiance to avoid definition but a desire to remain refreshingly unpredictable. Doubtful even Boucher herself knows what happens next. Unpredictability? Adventure? Darn it might just catch on. Matt James
It’s a shoe-in to pick British art-rock band ∆ (Alt-J) as a best new artist for 2012. Their debut album An Awesome Wave peaked at #13 on the UK charts, and took home the country’s prestigious Mercury Prize. Yet, their success was far more substantial than mere hype. In fact, many critics did their best to derail the band, with their album drawing middling and even negative reviews from such notable publications as Pitchfork, Mojo, and the A.V. Club. Despite this, the uncommon vocal timbre and cinematic lyrics of Joe Newman resonated with audiences who fondly remember films like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Léon: The Professional, while the quartet’s schizophrenic instrumentals sifted through trip-hop, electronic-rock, and indie-pop influences linked together by acoustic folk guitar picking, a cappella vocals, and piano interludes. They sounded at once familiar and experimental, their melodies infectious and songwriting sweet yet honest, a compliment to fellow Mercury nominees Django Django, and natural successor to the lineage of Radiohead, but without all the years of expectations and emotional baggage. Alt-J felt like a fresh start. It also helped that the videos for “Breezeblocks” and “Something Good” rank among the most inspired and compelling examples the medium has ever produced. Alan Ranta
What happened to R&B? There was always a quirky sense of humour and seductive, often times subtle, form of sexuality in its roots, and deep down most artists preached respect, love and class. That quickly started to slide into raunchy territory during the ‘90s when shock-value explicitness and tired pop-production techniques reigned supreme. And with Sade only releasing one album every nine years, you had to search high and low for some true forms of R&B that would keep the genre fresh and moving. Enter Jessie Ware, the anti-R&B star. Making soft footprints with each subsequent track released from her stellar debut album Devotion, Ware doesn’t go for the flash and trash found in throwaway tracks like Simone Battle’s “He Likes Boys”, or Rihanna’s ludicrous farce “Birthday Cake” with former/newly reunited boyfriend/abuser/best-friend Chris Brown.
No. Ware is the epitome of what traditional classy R&B music used to be. However, unlike predecessors Sade and Whitney, Ware is moving the direction of R&B by nudging it gently and respectfully into a new terrain. The bouncy and often times darkly laden production choices on Devotion don’t completely acquiesce to the traditional R&B tropes. Its fluidity between deep bass registers and electronic thumbprints suggest a real passion in Ware’s musical direction honouring the genre while simultaneously moving it forward and away from the pop tartlets that have domineered it for far too long. Arguably, Ware hasn’t had the banner year that would make her a household name, however, her unmitigated class, powerful voice that never over emphasizes or overshadows the song itself, is a beautiful start to an artist’s career whose longevity will certainly outlast so many others. She’s a refreshing change of pace and an invigorating reawakening to a genre that had all but died in the last decade. Enio Chiola
Last year, Frank Ocean made some waves with his critically acclaimed mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA., his membership in the often-controversial Odd Future collective, and his guest appearances on Watch the Throne. Then came his July performance of “Bad Religion” on Jimmy Fallon, his incredibly personal open letter about his sexuality, and, of course, the tremendous achievement of his debut album, channel ORANGE. Frank Ocean didn’t just have what might be the biggest 2012 of any debut artist—he instantly established himself as a fixture in the R&B pantheon. On autobiographical tracks like “Bad Religion” and “Thinkin Bout You”, Ocean bares his soul and his heart, all while singing circles around just about everybody on the radio. Is there anybody more on top of the game right now than Frank? Billy Hepfinger