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PopMatters Picks: The Best Music of 2012

As our wide-ranging coverage of the year in music shows and the music itself proves, what the best and most compelling musical expressions of 2012 have in common is that they are the products of hard work and labors of love.

This was a year of new economic realities, as folks tried hard to work and worked hard when they did. It was also the year when diversity became destiny, when the grassroots and small donations held their own against the power brokers and big money. And while microtargeted demographics increasingly told the story, a little bit of idealism was always welcome, as those with something to lose stood up for what they believed in when it counted the most. That’s, obviously enough, a thumbnail sketch of how the 2012 U.S. presidential election shook out, but those lines could also sum up the last 12 months in music. In a year when transcendent, universally galvanizing musical statements may have been hard to find, it was the persistent, unyielding efforts of artists young and old, unsung and celebrated, that somehow added up to returns that were more varied and more robust than you would’ve anticipated, leading to an unexpected landslide of strong results across musical landscape.


What stood out the most in 2012 wasn’t some newfangled innovation, but old-fashioned, grind-it-out work ethic. Indeed, it’s hard to remember any year in recent memory when so many acts churned out not just one, but multiple albums of original music. No one was more prolific on this front than garage-rock dynamo Ty Segall, who released three full-lengths of new material without ever repeating himself—well, except for maybe Robert Pollard, who came up with two solo efforts and three more with a re-formed and reinvigorated Guided by Voices. Not too far behind in terms of productivity and ingenuity were aggro experimentalists Death Grips with two new titles—which may have been one too many for their (former) label—and reclusive indie stalwart Mount Eerie, who came in out of the cold with a sublime set of companion pieces.


And it wasn’t just underground groups who stayed busy, what with legends like Neil Young & Crazy Horse offering up a pair of albums and chart mainstays Green Day with their own trilogy. That’s not to mention that some of the year’s most acclaimed outings were cram-packed with enough material for multiple discs, be it Taylor Swift’s pop crossover or Baroness’ alt-metal epic, which may or may not have been a double album to begin with. Who knows, maybe all this labor might’ve inspired Fiona Apple to come out of hibernation at long last and Kevin Shields to promise that new My Bloody Valentine record two decades in the making before the year is out?


While a lot of work was accomplished through new business models with terms and conditions set by the artists themselves, just how the fruits of their labors would be appreciated and compensated were questions with answers as uncertain as the future of the music industry as we now know it. A prodigious amount of music was being created and distributed outside of normal networks, whether it was self-released on Bandcamp and Soundcloud, or as mixtapes being file-shared online, blurring the difference between piracy and promotion. Not satisfied with your standard one-album-every-two-years release schedule, Death Grips leaked their second album of 2012 in October with great relish, at the expense of a major label contract and potential legal repercussions.


Taking a web-enabled DIY business plan to new extremes, Amanda Palmer broke the Kickstarter bank by crowdsourcing nearly $1.2 million to record an album and tour behind it, though her good fortune came with its own consequences when controversy arose over whether she should remunerate fans offering to perform with her on stage. As Palmer went from being a worker bee to essentially a small business owner in an industry where the new economy has been gaining fast on an old, out-of-date system, the line between cold, hard commercial transactions and touchy-feely participatory culture had to be negotiated on the fly, with the guest players ultimately getting paid.


Yet as business-as-usual has become anything but, the new musical ecosystem has figured out its own ways to self-regulate: That’s how NPR summer intern Emily White unsuspectingly became the year-in-music’s biggest villain, boasting about accumulating a library of 11,000 songs while buying a mere 15 CDs of her own, only to be given an old-school music economics lesson by B-school lecturer David Lowery (yeah, of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker fame). As the task of monetizing the value of music has grown more difficult and confusing with evolving modes of delivery, from CDs to MP3s to Spotify streams to rips, so too have the relationships between artists and audiences become more complicated as the distinctions between economic exchange and fan experience get fuzzier and fuzzier.


More than most lines of work, though, music is a vocation in which determining the value and significance of one’s output can’t be fully accounted for by a price tag or sales revenue, which 2012’s most gripping music-related personal interest stories proved as those with everything at stake still took strong personal stands with broad social and political ramifications. Revealing that his first love was another man in a much-circulated blog post that went online in advance of releasing Channel Orange, Frank Ocean made himself vulnerable to a musical community often criticized for its homophobia, a poignant act of courage which was reciprocated with widespread support and appreciation, along with calls to re-examine the sexual and gender politics within the industry as a whole.


Against Me!‘s Tom Gabel underwent a very private transformation on the most public of terms, sharing his transgender identity with the musical world, then getting back on stage fronting the neo-punk combo as Laura Jane Grace shortly thereafter. Members of the Russian feminist-punk collective Pussy Riot literally put their freedom and livelihoods on the line with their vocal protests against the Putin regime, which led to two of their number being sent to work camps to serve out prison terms. While it’s a safe bet that few CNN viewers or HuffPo readers who’ve become acquainted with Pussy Riot have heard any of their songs—much less those of their first-generation forerunners like the Slits or anything riot grrrl—it’s the group’s identification with the culture and politics of punk that has broadcast and helped to amplify its message worldwide.


While not everyone was taking such strong, explicit stances, a sense of commitment to craft and the elbow grease it takes to perfect it seemed stronger than ever this year. Those qualities are the real equalizers here, the reasons why, say, veteran under-the-radar songwriter Will Johnson and prog perfectionists Anathema placed more prominently on our specialty lists than the usual suspects like Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear or buzzy sophomore acts such as the xx or Sleigh Bells. So maybe there wasn’t as high a peak in 2012 as other years, but there was certainly quality and quantity, depth and breadth to the year’s offerings, as our multitude of lists suggests. What we collectively chose as the best music of the year spoke to a great amount of diversity among genres, within genres—and even within the work of individual artists.


Some of the year’s most lauded albums were eccentric introspective performances, but you could be talking about Frank Ocean or Fiona Apple, Grimes or Kendrick Lamar. Is there much of generic difference between David Byrne and St. Vincent’s world music-influenced art-rock collaboration and Debo Band’s indie-minded tribute to Ethiopean-pop? And how would you describe Taylor Swift’s omnivorous pop hybrid Red, as teeny-bopper dance-pop or adult-alternative or something vaguely country? As our wide-ranging coverage of the year in music shows and the music itself proves, what the best and most compelling musical expressions of 2012 have in common is that they are the products of hard work and labors of love.—Arnold Pan


Edited and Produced by Arnold Pan and Sarah Zupko.

Tuesday, January 1 2013

The Best Hopes to Break Out in 2013

The year ahead looks to be an exciting one with the emergence of wealth of great new music waiting in the wings. Will Jessie Ware and Django Django be the toasts of 2013? Will 2013 be yet another banner year for forward-looking hip-hop and R&B? And let's not forget all the great new bands expected to break big in 2013.


The Artists Pick the Best of 2012, Part 3

PopMatters is giving the artists a chance to play critic, asking them to let us in on the albums, songs, musical moments, and whatever else struck their fancy in 2012.


Wednesday, December 26 2012

The Artists Pick the Best of 2012, Part 2

PopMatters is giving the artists a chance to play critic, asking them to let us in on the albums, songs, musical moments, and whatever else struck their fancy in 2012.


Tuesday, December 25 2012

The Artists Pick the Best of 2012, Part 1

PopMatters is giving the artists a chance to play critic, asking them to let us in on the albums, songs, musical moments, and whatever else struck their fancy in 2012.


Monday, December 24 2012

The Best Bluegrass of 2012

Any genre as historic as bluegrass will experience undulations in style and popularity, but we’re certainly at an unprecedented peak of interest, if not in traditional bluegrass music, at least in bluegrass-oriented sounds.


Sunday, December 23 2012

The 20 Best Re-Issues of 2012

This year's best reissues were forgotten favorites and unquestioned classics, some packed to the gills with obscure goodies and others with little more than what 'em great to begin with.


Thursday, December 20 2012

The Best Americana of 2012

Americana meant different things to different people this year, with revitalized legends and young traditionalists offering new visions of American music.


The Best R&B of 2012

R&B was as vibrant and diverse a genre as any in 2012, a year that saw the rise of breakout acts and the returns of old-school vets.


Wednesday, December 19 2012

The Best Music Books of 2012

This year's best books about music include thought-provoking reads on how music works, in-depth histories of the underground, and soul-searching autobiographies from legendary (and not-so-legendary) performers.


Caution: Now Entering a Headphone Zone - The Year in Atmospheric Music

However you define atmospheric music, the albums on this list make a powerfully impressionistic impression. Just don’t expect to find warmth or love in them.


Tuesday, December 18 2012

Ragnarök: 2012 Gloomy Awards

Every year a slew of great albums from the louder spheres are missed off end of year lists. Ragnarök's inaugural Gloomy Awards seeks to redress that imbalance.


The Best World Music of 2012

The end-of-the-year list! We think. We consider. We consider Ethiopians. We consider a lot of the world as well.


Monday, December 17 2012

The Top 10 Pleasant Surprise Albums of 2012

The antithesis of the most disappointing albums of the year, these records that had no business impressing us as much as they did.


The Most Disappointing Albums of 2012

Another year, another round of disappointments. While previous years may have been more obvious in their selections, this year’s list is fairly fortuitous, blending a variety of genres and artists.


Sunday, December 16 2012

The Best New Artists of 2012

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.


The Best Pop Singles of 2012

In 2012, people -- not just kids -- loved pop.


Friday, December 14 2012

The Best Noise-Rock of 2012

To paraphrase Frank Zappa, rock isn’t dead. It just smells funny.


Thursday, December 13 2012

The Artists of the Year: 2012 Edition

The 2012 artists of the year range from urgent political punk and hip-hop challenging the establishment -- whether political or economic -- to the rise of a new generation of pop divas and forward-looking indie and R&B.


Wednesday, December 12 2012

The Top 10 Overlooked Albums of 2012

With the long arm of the internet putting any and all music at our fingertips, it should make for a glut of bands getting their due attention. But what really happens is so many great acts get hidden in plain view.


The Best Jazz of 2012

Jazz today remains the music that stays alive through a remarkable alchemy. On this list, traditions that go back to the jazz roots co-exist with modern pop tunes, and the avant-garde edges of the music blend in fluid ease with tonal beauty.


Indie Love for Taylor Swift’s Hipster-Baiting ‘Red’

The indie community has long embraced the poppiest of popstars. So it’s hard to figure out why it took until 2012 for it to embrace Taylor Swift.


Tuesday, December 11 2012

The Best Hip-Hop of 2012

From riotous humor to sociopolitical commentary, hip-hop in 2012 gave us quality and variety.


Monday, December 10 2012

The Best Electronic Music of 2012

2012 was another year of innovation and diversity in electronic music, but with the same artist as last year at the top of the heap after all was said and done.


Sunday, December 9 2012

The 75 Best Albums of 2012

From forward looking hip-hop and R&B to deep explorations of traditional roots music... from psychedelic pop masterpieces to ruminations on the economy, family, aging and disfunction... from genre-busting electronic music and jazz to rockin' indie... 2012 was a great year for new music.


PopMatters Picks: The Best Songs of 2012 (streaming playlists)

We present handy Rdio and Spotify playlists of most of the tunes from our top 75 songs of the year for your listening pleasure.


Friday, December 7 2012

The Best Country Music of 2012

In 2012, you could be forgiven for being dismissive of the country music genre entirely -- to a point. For as long as country exists as a genre, there will be songwriters who are devoted to embodying their own vision of what “country” means, which sometimes means pushing the genre around.


Thursday, December 6 2012

The Best Metal of 2012

There's no doubt 2012 has been another great year for metal, with releases from veteran road dogs and fresh young bands alike providing endless roaring highs and churning, filth-ridden lows.


Wednesday, December 5 2012

The Best Indie-Pop of 2012

Writing about the best indie-pop seems inherently an individualized, personal experience -- but that is fitting for a type of music that on one level seems more person-oriented than mass-movement-oriented.


The Best Pop-Punk of 2012

If last year was a reminder that “pop-punk’s not dead”, then 2012 was a celebration of the vitality and diversity of the genre.


Tuesday, December 4 2012

The Best Progressive Rock (and Metal) of 2012

The albums you see below are a testament to the chameleonic nature of prog: Coldplay-esque stadium ballads, sludge metal, sample-heavy concept records, and classic-style prog all stand side by side.


The Best Canadian Albums of 2012

From extraordinary singer-songwriters to blistering punk, experimental electronica to shimmery pop, this list demonstrates something of the breadth of talent, and the range of possibilities being explored in Canadian music today.


Monday, December 3 2012

The Best Indie Rock of 2012

Here's a confession: It was hard to define what the term "indie rock" meant in 2012. But this list takes a shot by reemphasizing the "independent" in "indie rock".


Sunday, December 2 2012

The 75 Best Songs of 2012

From the triumphant dream pop of Grimes and the boundary-pushing R&B of Frank Ocean to the tough, frantic British hip-hop of Plan B and the chart-topping country pop of Taylor Swift, PopMatters counts down 2012's 75 best songs.


Introduction: The Year in Music, 2012

As our wide-ranging coverage of the year in music shows and the music itself proves, what the best and most compelling musical expressions of 2012 have in common is that they are the products of hard work and labors of love.


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