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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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List Number: 10

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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List Number: 8

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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List Number: 8

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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List Number: 7

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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List Number: 6

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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