The Top 10 Pleasant Surprise Albums of 2012

PopMatters Staff
Cat Power

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

The antithesis of the most disappointing albums of the year, the list calls attention to the records that had no business impressing us as much as they did. How dare they sweep in with low expectations or no expectations, slipping in between releases by more acclaimed bands and artists whom we knew would give us great records, and charm the pants off of us? These pleasant surprises are a nice mix of records from established artists pulling out every bag of tricks they had with monumental payoffs as well as unsung acts that epitomize the idea of a surprise. Some of them may not make the best of the year lists, but all of them deserve recognition for doing a fine job of getting us to hit that repeat button on our iPhones over and over and over... Enio Chiola


Artist: Mouse on Mars

Album: Parastrophics

Label: Monkeytown


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Mouse on Mars

At this point in their careers, nothing the German duo Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma does should surprise any of their fans. Since their 1994 debut Vulvaland, they have produced ten full-length records of peculiar IDM, none exactly alike another...or much else in existence, for that matter. And yet, to return after a six-year hiatus with an album like Parastrophics is remarkable -- a deliriously joyful album that confounds and astounds like the best moments from their nearly two decade long career. Perfectly at home on Monkeytown Records, Parastrophics threads the needle through the contemporary electronic scene and vibrates those myriad genres into a singular whole, made abstract by its sheer variety yet coherent by its distinctly whimsical perspective on dub, drum and bass, disco, acid, and so much more. Case in point, "Chordblocker, Cinnamon Toasted" sees the German duo take it down to a bit of deconstructed trap music, oddly yet aptly peaking with Hawaiian guitars and whistling, seemingly addressing the boundaries of genre distinction from the outside looking in. Yet, for all its mania, the album flows from start to finish, its evolving textures and sound palette clashes smoothed over by an overarching vision, its experimental aural assault tempered by a playful genius that will belong to the ages. Alan Ranta


Artist: Masta Ace & MF DOOM

Album: MA DOOM: Son of Yvonne

Label: M3


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Masta Ace & MF DOOM
MA: Son of Yvonne

This album has no right being as good as it is. When Masta Ace stumbled upon MF DOOM's Special Herbs instrumental series and decided they should be used for the umpteenth time, hip-hop collectively rolled its eyes and sighed. By now everybody and their mother had rapped over these beats, and to be honest we were growing tired of them. But then something amazing happened: the album turned out to not only be good, but pretty damn amazing. Ace breathes new life into these tried-and-true instrumentals, and the simple, but effective concept (the album is an homage to Ace's mother and his childhood in general) turns out to be a magical nostalgia-filled tour through one man's past. Adam Maylone


Artist: Neil Young & Crazy Horse

Album: Psychedelic Pill

Label: Reprise


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Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Psychedelic Pill

Every fan knows by now to approach a new Neil Young album with caution. Occasional brilliant flourishes get paired with dry, self-indulgent LPs. It’s expected. And why not? Young has given us enough music to last three lifetimes. But returning to the fold with his longtime band Crazy Horse can definitely tip the scale from “curious” to “committed”. Americana, Young & Crazy Horse's collection of electrified folk tunes, was a just a warm-up for the superb Psychedelic Pill. If Americana was a wine and cheese appetizer, Psychedelic Pill is a plate full of steak and potatoes. It contains every fine-tuned brick of the Neil Young & Crazy Horse foundation: anthemic guitar noise, epic song runtimes, and Young’s vigilant lyrical observations. Nothing on Psychedelic Pill, even at its massive 85-minute runtime, feels extraneous. From the Zen-drone experience of “Driftin’ Back” to the classic stomp of “Born In Ontario”, Neil Young & Crazy Horse squeeze more mileage out of two guitars, bass, and drums than a dozen rock bands half their age. Even when he's reflective, Young still looks forward, eager to press on. And, at age 67, he’s determined to not fade away -- a simple feat when you create an LP of this scale. Walk like a giant, indeed. Scott Elingburg


Artist: Light Asylum

Album: Light Asylum

Label: Mexican Summer


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Light Asylum
Light Asylum

In my original review for Light Asylum's self-titled debut, a good-but-not-glowing 6 out of 10, I noted that the album worked better taken in small pieces of a few tracks at a time rather than as a collective whole. But while I would still say this is true, and in many ways I still stand by my original critique, Light Asylum grew to be one of my absolute favorites of the year, due in large part to the heavy replayability value that’s a natural result of the record’s structure. Because this is better taken in smaller pieces, and each of these small pieces is unbelievably catchy and intriguing, you’ll find yourself listening to different segments of the album quite often. The duo of Bruno Coviello and vocalist extraordinaire Shannon Funchess are no strangers to powerful “darkwave” synth music, as evidenced by their 2011 In Tension EP, and this debut only solidifies their prime stance in the ever-growing Brooklyn music scene. Though Light Asylum is still better as a collection of similarly excellent singles rather than as a cohesive album, it’s how well the former is done that makes it the most pleasant of surprises. Brice Ezell


Artist: Ja Rule




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Ja Rule

Eight years after his last hit, on his own tiny label that only releases mixtapes and Ja Rule albums, it’s fair to say nobody expected greatness from the incarcerated Queens rapper. As they teach you to say in job interview seminars, Ja Rule turns his weaknesses into strengths, crafting a first-rate emo-rap album with producer 7 Aurelius. The rapper spends the album hating his own fame and wondering what constitutes real life (a “Bohemian Rhapsody” sample was denied.) Sometimes he slurs his bark beyond comprehension, giving the whole thing a desperate and confused feel, especially when he starts praying in the middle of his sex jams (for reasons unknown, he also shouts out that wack Nine Days song, “Story of a Girl”.) But things still cut through the murk: the hook singers’ clear voices, the producer’s vivid production touches, and especially Ja Rule’s love of syncopation, making his syllables snap even when he seems to lose his tether to reality. Josh Langhoff

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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