The best new artists of 2012 have remade R&B for the new century, pushed eclectic art-rock in new directions, and kept indie rock and hip-hop strong.
Plenty of today’s artists indie and major label alike make a name for themselves by mining the past. Yet few do so with such aplomb and painstaking accuracy as the Allah-Las, a Californian ensemble dedicated to a special sort of sensitive and sublime surf pop rooted in the Left Coast’s weird old days. The sun-soaked production of their self-titled debut for Innovative Leisure recalls a 1960s ideal that has been parodied so much that such a sincere attempt as this to reclaim it resonates so much. With enough tambourines to make a Byrds fan blush, their authentically breezy folk rock tunes harken back to the days of the Turtles while reminding us why the Jesus and Mary Chain so gleefully plagiarized from this period. Yet the unavoidable retrospective awareness of darker times in the counterculture adds an unintentionally murky filter, making cuts like “Sandy” a tad unpleasant, which incidentally is part of the fun. Gary Suarez
Onuinu is Dorian Duvall, a Cleveland native and Portland transplant whose debut album, Mirror Gazer blends huge dance beats with spacey electronics and fuzzed-out guitars. What sets Onuinu apart from the rest of the art-damaged electro pack is his ability to craft joyous, shout-along hooks that meld power pop heft with soulful R&B swagger. Songs like “Always Awkward”, “Happy Home” and “Mirror Gazer” burst with energy that is both captivating and undeniably fun. There are echoes of old-school hip-hop, Thriller-era Michael Jackson, Euro-house and glo-fi; and it all adds up to a highly original sound that Duvall calls simply “disco-hop”. For years, Onuinu has been a fixture on the dance floors of Portland’s warehouse district, and with Mirror Gazer, Duvall brings his crowd moving disco-hop soundscapes to an ever widening audience. Robert Alford
28Space Ghost Purrp
SpaceGhostPurpp, aka Floridian Marquise Rolle, is another nihilistic anti-hero for our post-Wu Tang times, and a fascinating one at that. At first he comes off as black-hearted, hateful and sex-obsessed; actually that impression never changes, though his penchant for self-mythology and observational paranoia increases to an impressive level. He has a surprisingly understated throwback style, sometimes seeming like a mystic Schooly D, others like a perverse, bizarre-world Bad Boy Records act. (There’s a heavy dose of Ultramagnetic in here, too.) That all of his twisted visions are set against a musical horror-movie and sci-fi backdrop, with plentiful blips, bleeps and screams, makes this all the more intoxicating. Dave Heaton
27Melody’s Echo Chamber
Under the paving stones, the beach! Yes, if you ever fancied une soirée dans Paris ‘68 daydreamin’ through Montmartre and toastin’ a goblet of the green fairy (y’know absinthe), well just drop the needle on a copy of Melody Prochet’s debut LP… et voila! Produced by Tame Impala’s ‘Genius in Residence’ Kevin Parker it’s a perfect Molotov cocktail of chic Gallic cool, nouvelle vague, la liberte, blurr’d hallucinogenics, art, flowers, wine, acid and passionate kisses… with a soupçon of impending bloody revolution. Throughout Prochet’s kaleidoscopic, swoonsome vocal flickers hypnotically through a vivid miasma of colourful bangs, clatters, rolls, flutters and wows to deliriously disorientating effect. Just think Francoise Hardy fronting Stereolab. One of 2012’s most divinely unexpected pleasures now sparkin’ a word of mouth forest fire that could burn well into 2013. Matt James
Despite the stigma associated with trying to make a career in reality television, there are a few individuals who have graduated from the format into respectable careers. American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson became an Academy Award-winning actress. Real World cast member Sean Duffy is now a Congressman. In 2012, we could add to these achievers the man born Jody Christian but known as RiFF RaFF aka Jody Highroller aka Rap Game Dr. Huxtable and many other aliases. Emerging in 2009 for a two-episode stint on MTV’s From G’s to Gents, RiFF RaFF has spent the past few years parlaying that initial exposure through a canny use of corporate brands (literally tattooed on his body), a dedicated form of Internet performance art that involves multiple identities, and above all bona fide rap skills. After a flirtation with SODMG in 2011, he’s now set to make millions via a reported five-year deal with Diplo’s Mad Decent. Label affiliation aside, it is his tireless creativity and endless stream of singles and videos that have made him the most entertaining rapper of the past year. Though many of his memorable verses have been on collaborative tracks with Action Bronson, Harry Fraud, Three Loco, Lil Debbie, and Kitty Pryde, among others, RiFF RaFF is unique in that he is a master parodist/practitioner, every bit as skilled in comedy as he is in lyrical flow. To watch him being interviewed or to try to parse his lyrics—an inspired mixture of non sequiturs and left-field pop culture references—is to be privy to a sort of entertainer presumably tailor made for the Internet age. Though while it seems like RiFF RaFF was everywhere in 2012, even that overexposure is a sleight of hand. After all, the millions of viewers contributing YouTube hits have not yet gotten a glimpse of the man behind the character. These days, when online anonymity seems impossible, that in itself is a stroke of genius. Thomas Britt