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. In the end, though, what really happens is so many great acts get hidden in plain view, lost among a constant flood of new bands, new releases, and selective buzz doled out here to point us in the right direction. But maybe it’s best to drown, to get overwhelmed and then, when the flood recedes in the year’s end, see what sticks. Maybe buzz doesn’t matter as much as what outlasts our constantly turning attention, what keeps it while the tastemakers snap their fingers to turn our heads to the next next-best-thing. These ten albums are all excellent, the kind of music worth celebrating this year and coming back to for years to come. They may not have got their due, at least not yet, but these acts all gave us some great music in 2012 and, if they somehow slipped through the cracks for you, they’re a great place to start when you look back on what you might have missed this year. In a year with no clear-cut future classics or stand-out record, these hidden gems, even if they didn’t get some big promo push or get the big review, are exactly what made 2012 a great music year anyway. These are our favorite overlooked albums of the year, so check them out, enjoy, and maybe let us know what else you think got overlooked this year. Viva la underdog! Matthew Fiander
One thing is for sure: Social Studies is a smart band. Developer pulls a clever trick, because it sounds gauzy, airy, full of opaque textures and space. But under all that atmosphere, these songs are built on lean, crystal-clear parts—the jagged guitars on “Delicate Hands”, the steady rhythm section and haunting organ of “Developer”, the clean keys that brighten up the overcast “Still Life”. This combination of meticulous layering with clearly defined parts, combined with deep, catchy hooks, stick-in-your-head melodies, and not to mention the rangy, powerful vocals of lead singer Natalia Rogovin makes this album both one of the unsung pop records and one of the subtler but more bracing records of the year. It’s both an energetic and mature set from a band that has just begun to shine. My advice: get in on Social Studies now, on the ground floor.
Minnesota hip-hop collective Doomtree saw their biggest release this year in P.O.S.‘s We Don’t Even Live Here, but fellow Midwestern rapper Mike Mictlan gave us an equally impressive and surprising set on SNAXXX, an album he released for free late in the year. Mictlan, who also stole the show on Doomtree’s group album, last year’s No Kings, continues to prove he’s one of the most fired-up voices in underground rap. He recalls Ice Cube’s strident hunger on his early solo records, spitting opposite the cooler Greg Grease against “parmesan cheesy rappers” and “subculture products”, among other conceits on “WZRD SCIENCE”, or recalling late-‘80s bangers on the clean beats but thorny raps of “Scottie Pippen”. The whole of SNAXXX reimagines earlier rap tropes—those ‘80s sounds, boom-rap in the ‘90s, etc.—but meshes them with fresh flourishes of electronic music (see “Creeper Status”) and a modern, unique, and charming eccentricity. This is a varied set of tracks, from the cool, blippy “SKYE!” to the dramatic banging of “Give It to Mikey”, SNAXXX will catch you off guard with each new beat. But it’s Mictlan’s intricate yet muscled-up raps that will win the day for you. Following his work on No Kings, it’s pretty clear Mictlan is on his damn grind, and there’s more than one Doomtree member with a great record in 2012.
Sexy But Not Happy
With the ubiquity of home-recorded music and home-recording music computer programs, lo-fi music is alive and well, though we seem to overlook the best purveyors of those grainy sounds. Museum Mouth is one of those unsung greats, and Sexy But Not Happy is a great rock record that challenges the limitations of basic recording. Despite the lo-fi hum that coats the record, the band is not content to hide behind the tape hiss as a fundamental aesthetic. Instead, they bounce from the moody skronk of “For Mom” to the punky bounce of single “Blood Mountain” to the narcotic, blessed-out pop of “I Was a Teenage Paladin”. The album has an undeniable pop zeal, but it’s also surprisingly subtle in its layers and mature. This is pop music not content simply knock a few chords out into a program, scuff ‘em up, and put ‘em out into the world. Sexy But Not Happy is proof that lo-fi doesn’t mean lazy, and that a great band—like Museum Mouth—can do with a half-hour record what most rock bands can’t do in a career. You don’t have to sift through the fuzz on this one to find the hooks, they’re right up front, they’ll catch you off guard, and they are top-to-bottom fantastic.
All right, so Nadler isn’t all that overlooked these days, especially in the wake of her excellent eponymous 2011 album. The Sister, though, was a bit overshadowed by that album and, as a self-defined “companion album”, feels inextricably linked. But The Sister, though it may be more of a grower than its predecessor, is worth coming to on its own merits. Nadler stretches out here haunting folk-cum-dream-pop tunes into new territory here, from the synthy, clattering “Constantine” to the guitar squall of “Your Heart is a Twisted Vine”. Even songs that feel in Nadler’s wheelhouse, like “The Wrecking Ball Company”, reveal themselves over time to be faint sunbursts, glimmers of dim light that cut through the usual shadows of her work. The Sister finds Nadler’s narrators scraping and clawing their way—hauntingly, carefully—up from the darkness. And, unsurprisingly, Nadler’s beautiful voice conveys these bittersweet tales with striking restraint and resonance. We’ve come to know Nadler over the past couple years, and how good she can be, and The Sister is not the Nadler record to overlook. Go back and take a listen and you’ll hear why.
I’m Not Alone
Florida’s Flashlights, on I’m Not Alone, immediately remind you of whatever your favorite ‘90s rock band was. They’ve got the lean fury of Superchunk or Archers of Loaf or insert-the-band-that-comes-to-mind, and in that way fall into a nice tradition with their own catchy rock tunes. But here’s the thing: they are not merely dealing in ‘90s nostalgia or revivalism. Flashlights is a vibrant new rock band, and though I’m Not Alone clocks in under 25 minutes, it covers a whole lot of ground. The slicing riffs and sweet, bleating melodies of opener “Choking” is a perfect introduction to the band, as catchy as it is furiously noisy. Other songs like “Mel Has a Problem” or “It’s Raining” are really maudlin pop songs in disguise, hiding a rainy-day bittersweet feel behind walls of buzzing power chords. The band can power through rock songs as well as anyone, though they can also break open into epic, slow-building guitar theatrics on closer “Shane Swenson”. Flashlights may sound, at first listen, like exactly what you think of with the term “indie rock”, but make no mistake, they establish their own voice quickly and charmingly on I’m Not Alone, and in doing so gave us a record worth going to find, spending some time with, and falling in love with. The way you did with those other bands way back then, when they were new too.