The 75 Best Albums of 2012

Artist: My Jerusalem

Album: Preachers

Label: The End

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My Jerusalem
Preachers

The songs of Preachers sound to bubble up as a miasma from a swamp. Southern Gothic to a T, with all the pathos, depravity, dread and redemption that implies, the record is a dispatch from the squalor of emotional wreckage. Holding court in this landscape is the id of singer Jeff Klein, howling of being, but an animal in a well on the title track, though elsewhere his primal self takes the form of a raging beast caught in a bear trap (“Born in the Belly”) or an old dog languidly giving in to fate (“Between Space”). The unexpected, but welcomed, shifts to tunes of optimism or playfulness go to balance the profane with the sacred, and show that even the ugliest moments of experience still allow beauty to break through. For a night spent soul searching, grappling with existential dread as you evaluate your failures and successes, there is scarcely a better record in 2012 that could serve as your musical roadmap. Cole Waterman

 

Artist: Santigold

Album: Master of My Make-Believe

Label: Atlantic

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Santigold
Master of My Make-Believe

From the first lurching strains of opener “Go” to the skittering, surreal groove of closer “Big Mouth”, Santigold’s sophomore record Master of My Make-Believe holds the listener’s head under the shimmering, hypnotic waters of its multi-faceted pop ingenuity and keeps us there, kicking and flailing, until we have neither the desire nor the ability to fight back any further. Like many other truly great pop records of the last decade (Robyn’s Body Talk, Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die, Annie’s Anniemal), Master of My Make-Believe waltzes through a seemingly endless hall of genres, gesturing here and there at will, making the various influences available to the artist seem easily accessible, just one possibility among millions. But of course, distilling one’s influences into something as streamlined and effective as Master of My Make-Believe is anything but easy. The style and restraint shown here mark Santigold as one of America’s best contemporary pop artists and Master of My Make-Believe as one of the year’s best. Ben Olson

 

Artist: The Tallest Man on Earth

Album: There’s No Leaving Now

Label: Dead Oceans

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The Tallest Man on Earth
There’s No Leaving Now

Kristian Matsson (aka the Tallest Man on Earth) conjures up the spirits of Greenwich Village-era Bob Dylan. With his ramshackle voice, high and lonesome acoustic fingerpicking, and folky anthems, there’s little denying the influence that the folkies have had on him. However, the music still must stand on its own, and Matsson has consistently delivered over the course of his three-album career. With this past year’s There’s No Leaving Now, Matsson holed up in his Swedish home and slowed things down, choosing to explore and refine his previously frenetic pace of recording. The result is a more nuanced and sturdy foundation to the music, one where the songs, like the pulsing “1904” or the reflective “Criminals”, are given space to flesh out, expand, and become fully realized. This album feels more mature and confident, as if Matsson has pushed aside the Dylan comparisons and gained the complete trust in his own sound and the confidence with which to follow his own voice. He’s moving forward and developing his own contributions to the folk canon. This album may be the break he needs to reach a wider audience. Jeff Strowe

 

Artist: The Congos / Sun Araw / M. Geddes Gengras

Album: Icon Give Thank

Label: Rvng Intl.

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The Congos / Sun Araw / M. Geddes Gengras
Icon Give Thank

RVNG INTL’s FRKWYS series is an attempt to bridge the generation gap between the old and new vanguard, pairing younger artists with more established (though still relatively obscure names). The collaboration between Jamaican group the Congos, whose Heart of the Congos is perhaps the best dub album of all time, and Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras of the hypnagogic set is not only the most high profile release yet, it’s also the most successful. The thought of two white dudes — with beard and moustache in tow respectively — travelling to a third world nation to record a quick one-off smacks of exploitation, but the music speaks a different story in which all players are equal partners. The project was made in the spirit of community one witnesses on Icon Eye, the documentary on the recording process that has been included with the release. Indeed, the swirl of elements at times threaten to drown the Congos out of the equation with production value, but there is just enough restraint to give the project a properly alluringly disorienting feel, like positive vibes transmitted from an alien watch tower. The collaboration is reverent not only to the kind of bold experimentation producer Lee “Scratch” Perry undertook during the sessions for Heart of the Congos (updated with an ear for the 30-plus years of psychedelia that followed), but also the spiritualism that defines the Congos’s Rastafarian worldview. Timothy Gabriele

 

Artist: Purity Ring

Album: Shrines

Label: 4AD

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Purity Ring
Shrines

Following a string of stellar digital singles, Purity Ring properly debuts with Shrines, an album that sees the young band already deeply entrenched within a singular aesthetic. Megan James’s girlish vocals evoke a plaintive unease, when Corin Roddick isn’t busy chopping and shifting her syllables into rhythmic devices. Roddick’s production, owing more than a little to the trap craze permeating hip-hop and club music this year, lurches seasick along a path set by snare clicks and ceaselessly pulsating synths. The music itself, while varied in tone and pitch, mostly explores the same sliver of sonic space throughout the record’s runtime. Where other bands might run out of ideas within such self-imposed limitations, Purity Ring uses that cohesiveness to its advantage. Shrines is a strange creature. This is mood music, yes, but it’s also an indelible pop record, full of transportive melodies and swaths of drama. Corey Beasley

 

Artist: Lianne La Havas

Album: Is Your Love Big Enough?

Label: Nonesuch

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Lianne La Havas
Is Your Love Big Enough?

A finalist for the 2012 Mercury Prize, Lianna La Havas’ Is Your Love Big Enough? may have been the most mature breakthrough album of the year. Sure, the British songstress is a meek 23 years of age, but if there’s one thing that runs like an undercurrent through the 12 songs that make up this impressive major label debut, it’s the singer’s sense of thoughtful, love-striken tales that sound decades older than the lady writing them. “Age”, for instance, is a wonderfully fun solo waltz through the nature of an age-inappropriate romance, while “No Room For Doubt” personifies the passion that comes with the more appealing side of puppy love. “Lost & Found”, meanwhile, is one of the most heartbroken tracks on record this year, and “Forget” takes a shot at pop prominence while celebrating the age-old practice of telling someone to piss off. Ahhh, but here we are again, talking about age. It’s an element of La Havas and Is Your Love Big Enough? that is practically impossible to discount. Why is that? Someone this young and naive shouldn’t sound this old and experienced. Lianne La Havas pulls if off, though, and the result sounds like the beginning to a career that should see her into the years she’s already so good at singing about. Colin McGuire

 

Artist: Allo Darlin’

Album: Europe

Label: Slumberland / Fortuna Pop

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Allo Darlin’
Europe

There is a constant, captivating push and pull between hope and disillusionment going on during Europe. It’s captivating because of the disarming way Elizabeth Morris phrases things, which when combined with melodic pop-rock has a way of taking you right there with her. And for the way the songs link the experiences of one person to those of us all, and to global happenings like the economic crises. The connection we have to home, the way we deal with hard times, the roads we took and didn’t take; Allo Darlin’ packages universal feelings in a smart and exceedingly touching way, within songs that build an atmosphere of nervous anticipation and joyous relief. They wear their favorite records and their hearts on their sleeve, and they’re one and the same. In Europe they’ve made a record that gets close to your heart with the same proximity the Go-Betweens’ Tallulah has to theirs. Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Goat

Album: World Music

Label: Rocket Recordings

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Goat
World Music

Arriving with a bewitchingly fabled back-story of voodoo lore and shamanistic enchantments, Swedish mind-bending act Goat matched the twisted tale of its birth with an album that was fittingly warped and spellbinding. World Music was a psychedelic marvel, a fantastically tripped-out collection of fuzzy, acid-soaked guitar, trance-inducing grooves, wah-wah, reverb, grubby disco and crashing dins. It dragged in everything from Congotronic rumblings, jazz, funk, space rock, Krautrock, folk, Haiti percussion, proto-punk and Asian keyboard frenzies — and then wrapped that around garage rock and lysergic blues. World Music reeked of vintage ’70s adventurousness, and most importantly, authenticity. Spliff and rum fumes, squalls of raw riffs, throbbing and lolloping bass, picked notes, squealing solos, indie-pop harmonies and droning wig-outs, it was all there in World Music‘s scrappy bursts of eccentric noise. While it’s easy to mark a band as psychedelic, Goat tapped into the descriptor’s darkest heart, and World Music is aptly demented and free-spirited. Craig Hayes

 

Artist: Rush

Album: Clockwork Angels

Label: Roadrunner

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Rush
Clockwork Angels

“I can’t stop thinking big,” says the protagonist of Clockwork Angels. The same can be said of Rush, because after 44 years and 19 studio albums Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart keep pushing themselves. A full-blown concept album centering on a coming of age story amidst a steampunk landscape, its plot is engaging, and the songs prove to be even more vibrant than 2007’s excellent Snakes and Arrows. However, what’s most fascinating about Clockwork Angels is how the sequencing of the album reflects various stages of Rush’s career: from heavy, blues rock riffs (“BU2B”), sly little nods to the past (the “Bastille Day” reference in “Headlong Flight”), the complexity of 2112 and Hemispheres (“Clockwork Angels”), right to the disciplined melody-oriented songwriting of the band’s late career (“The Wreckers”, “The Garden”). With lyrics by Peart that not only tell a story but also feel like his own reflections on his own life, it’s a beautiful, impassioned late career masterwork that deserves to rank alongside Rush’s greatest albums. Adrien Begrand

 

Artist: Passion Pit

Album: Gossamer

Label: Columbia

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Passion Pit
Gossamer

The title of Passion Pit’s sophomore album speaks volumes about the contents, a thinly veiled peak into the psyche of singer/songwriter Michael Angelokos. He singularly wrote and produced the new collection, with lyrics that provide a direct connection to his life since the 2010 breakthrough debut, Manners. When the single “Take a Walk” was released last spring, the recognizable swagger of Passion Pit’s indie electro pop was evident, however the subject of economic collapse alludes to more than money. Right after Gossamer‘s release in July, the group had to cancel tour dates so Angelokos could continue treatment for bi-polar disorder. Yet the songs are full of optimism, from the exultant synths of “I’ll Be Alright” to soaring, uplifting choruses in “On My Way” and “Hideaway”. By fall, Angelokos was back on stage in front of millions on Saturday Night Live with big plans for 2013: a tour that includes Madison Square Garden and a wedding date as well. Jane Jansen Seymour

65 – 56

Artist: Krallice

Album: Years Past Matter

Label: self-released

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Krallice
Years Past Matter

Last year, Krallice released Diotima, a nearly 70-minute opus that demanded repeated listens and intense time investment. For an album that dense, most bands would let such a release settle in for at least two years. But Krallice doesn’t seem to be interested in following such conventional thinking, because a little more than a year later, they gave us Years Past Matter, a slightly shorter album, but just as dense and brutal. The 16-minute closer “Iiiiiiiiiiii” (not to be confused with “Iiiiiiiii) comes on so fast and ferocious that for Krallice beginners, it will likely overwhelm. So, what’s to keep people coming back? Aside from the incredible musicianship (most notably drummer Lev Weinstein), it comes down to the simple joy of discovery within each of the ten minute-plus tracks. Like a complex video game, or a difficult section of a challenging novel, Years Past Matter is an antidote for the Twitterverse. Buck up, dig in, concentrate, and be rewarded. Sean McCarthy

 

Artist: Ty Segall

Album: Twins

Label: Drag City

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Ty Segall
Twins

In an age when constant communication has become the norm, Ty Segall has risen to the challenge. His consistent recorded output might have some onlookers assuming that the San Francisco-based garage rocker has a desperate need for attention and/or to stay relevant. Yet the truth is, Segall’s seemingly bottomless pit of recorded material is located in a place indistinguishable to the casual onlooker. Segall doesn’t strive for greatness; his is a celebrity that is attained simply by doing his job, and doing it well and often. Seriously, how do you stop Segall? Or better yet, will he ever hit his peak? Goodbye Bread, his last Drag City release maintained a songwriting maturity that hinted at said peak. Twins makes quick work of that notion, with tangibly well-crafted noisy-pop that dips its toes into numerous genres. I’d like to assume that Twins will be his best work, but I know I’ll soon be proved wrong. Joshua Kloke

 

Artist: Islands

Album: A Sleep & A Forgetting

Label: Anti-

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Islands
A Sleep & A Forgetting

With A Sleep & A Forgetting, Islands’ Nick Thorburn added to the rich tradition of breakup albums in grand fashion. Thorburn’s fourth album as Islands was such an outstanding collection of confessional songwriting because it paid equal mind to both sides of that description. With wit, passion, and not a little humility, Thorburn chronicled the fallout of his divorce and all the feelings such an event entails. And the music was ace, a sharply-produced mix of indie-pop styles with an intimate, small-club vibe. In showing that emotional turmoil and memorable choruses are not mutually exclusive, Thorburn put himself in the ranks of forbearers such as Morrissey and Lloyd Cole. John Bergstrom

 

Artist: Debo Band

Album: Debo Band

Label: Next Ambiance/Sub Pop

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Debo Band
Debo Band

This 11-member collective from Boston could probably just get away with performing Ethiopian art music with a slight update. After all, legends like Mulatu Astatke and Mahmoud Ahmed have already blazed a trail that many American bands are happy to follow. However, Debo Band is not content to follow anyone else’s path, plunging happily into the wilderness without a backward glance. Over the course of an hour, they turn Ethiopian signifiers (Bruck Tesfaye’s old-school vocals, a lovely horn section led by Danny Makonnen’s saxophone) into tense rock puzzlers (“Habesha”), big band jazz numbers (“Tenesh Kelbe Lay”), droney excursions (“Ambassel”), and goofy-footed heartbreaking pop (“DC Flower”). They’ve got accordions, they’ve got electric violins, they’ve got sousaphones… and they know how to use them. “Ney Ney Weleba” is an absolute steamroller, with big heavy hooks, a stunner of a Brendon Wood guitar solo, and a free jazz raveup that brings some real heat into the discourse. Matt Cibula

 

Artist: Alt-J

Album: An Awesome Wave

Label: Canvasback

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Alt-J
An Awesome Wave

Alt-J have the best record of 2012, one of the most praised records of the year, even if they never quite meant for things to happen this way. With the Mercury Prize already in hand for the UK’s best record, the foursome who first met at Leeds University, crafted an album full of hooks that were equal parts unsettling and unstoppable. It was a pop record, to be sure, but an intensely modern one, intentionally angular and unexpectedly warm. Even its most approachable single, “Breezeblocks” featured signature lines about cannibalism and a video depicting the murder and drowning of a lovely young woman, held down with concrete weights, or, as the band explained, “breezeblocks”, British slang for these construction materials turned murder weapon. They were comfortable being approachable and weird in the same moment. Drawing comparisons to Radiohead, perhaps a reflection of just how difficult their sound was to place and categorize, Alt-J embraced being a band that everyone was bound to hear about in 2012 even if they never intended to be so self-consciously popular. Geoff Nelson

 

Artist: The Gaslight Anthem

Album: Handwritten

Label: Mercury

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The Gaslight Anthem
Handwritten

With Handwritten, Brian Fallon and company have produced a document chronicling the diffidence that comes with reaching adulthood, but not feeling all that grown up. Such self-doubt naturally leads one on a nostalgic, maybe even masochistic, trip through the memories of youth, and that dichotomy of the bliss and the pain is depicted in a most visceral sense throughout the record. The punk ferocity and soulful passion, always what’s set the New Jersey quartet apart from the pack, is again put to good use facilitating the emotional ambivalence. What strengthens the record is the diversity of scenarios in the songs, each connecting on a deeply personal, yet simultaneously universal, manner. The solace afforded by favorite albums in “45”, the gender-swapping break-up of “Here Comes My Man”, the idealistic vow in the title track, the inability to move beyond the ruins of a crumbled relationship in “Mulholland Drive” and the acoustic paean to a former love who doesn’t seem all that former in closer “National Anthem” are all case studies in struggling to find your place when you’re unable to let go of the past. Cole Waterman

 

Artist: Redd Kross

Album: Researching the Blues

Label: Merge

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Redd Kross
Researching the Blues

When you start a band before you can drive a car, as Jeff and Steve McDonald did with Redd Kross, you can get away with taking 15 (!) years off and still making one of your best albums in an already-rewarding discography before you turn 50. Such is the case with Researching the Blues, one of the year’s best, most unexpected surprises (even if the tunes were recorded a few years back and are only seeing the light of day now), and the first Redd Kross album since 1997’s Show World. The opening one-two-three punch of the title track, song-of-the-year contender “Stay Away From Downtown” and “Uglier” hit harder than offerings from most bands half Redd Kross’ age, and midtempo charmers like “Dracula’s Daughters”, “One of the Good Ones” and “Winter Blues” are power pop nonpareil, overflowing with effortless hooks accumulated over the past decade-plus. Hopefully there’s plenty more where Researching the Blues came from, and soon. Stephen Haag

 

Artist: Sleigh Bells

Album: Reign of Terror

Label: Mom + Pop

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Sleigh Bells
Reign of Terror

Reign of Terror sets itself off with “True Shred Guitar”, a buzzed-out get-psyched call, and more or less exactly what you’d expect after the first Sleigh Bells album, Treats, exploded in 2010. But while Terror does offer more of the same in the sense that if you loved “Tell ‘Em” and swooned over “Rill Rill”, then you have to hear “Demons” and re-swoon over “End of the Line”, the album also offers greater modulation for this still-young pop-noise band (they’re too catchy for “noise” to get first-billing). Instant classics like “Comeback Kid” and “Crush” combine the band’s signature loudness with cheerleader chants and Alexis Krauss’s dreamier-than-ever vocals, and the album even becomes downright languorous final third, hinting at a sense of loss and melancholy from principle songwriter Derek Miller. Treats was so concisely perfect it could have easily been a one-and-done wonder, like so much of the pop music it distorts. Reign of Terror makes the case that the Sleigh Bells formula itself may be more disortable and durable than we thought. Jesse Hassenger

 

Artist: Dirty Projectors

Album: Swing Lo Magellan

Label: Domino

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Dirty Projectors
Swing Lo Magellan

Dirty Projectors just might be the most divisive band in contemporary indie music. Dave Longstreth’s love-it-or-hate-it singing voice undulates from a dulcet croon to a hysterical yelp, often in the course of a single bar of music. And he blends seemingly incongruous influences — ’90s R&B inflection, ‘70s rock arrangements, math-rock time signatures and West African guitars — with the reckless abandon of a musical mad scientist. Over the course of the past decade, Longstreth has channeled these multifaceted sonic proclivities into a series of increasingly accessible incarnations, all under the banner of Dirty Projectors, though the players and the palette of sounds have rotated and evolved throughout. Swing Lo Magellan marks the apex of this progression, embracing classic song form while still indulging Longstreth’s trademark eccentricity. The album retains the most captivating elements from 2009’s Bitte Orca, from the sublime female harmonies and rollicking guitar blasts of opener “Offspring Are Blank” to the languid acoustic balladry of the title track. And on songs like the infectious single “Gun Has No Trigger” and the delightfully haphazard “Unto Caesar”, Longstreth and his band display a looser and less calculated approach to their craft than we have seen up to this point. Robert Alford

 

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Album: Wrecking Ball

Label: Columbia

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Bruce Springsteen
Wrecking Ball

Fear sells and divisiveness reaps dividends. In a presidential election year that choked on bile about parasitism and entitlement, we withstood an onslaught of cues to view our neighbors with suspicion, to sleep with one eye open and one finger on the trigger. What gets lost in that ulcer-inducing mess is that most of us are just working hard, doing the best we can to get by. Wrecking Ball has its share of anger at “fat cats”, drainers, and exploiters (looking up instead of down the economic ladder for evil); in fact, it’s the angriest Springsteen record in years. More importantly, it’s also one of his most inclusive, with Springsteen reaching back to his populist roots, the ones he watered in Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie lyrics. It’s a simple message: we’re in this together and we should never forget the nose-to-the-grindstone ethos and simple charity that informs “We take care of our own”. That Springsteen needs to shout it at the heavens only shows just how much that message is needed. Andrew Gilstrap

55 – 46

Artist: Wadada Leo Smith

Album: Ten Freedom Summers

Label: Cuneiform

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Wadada Leo Smith
Ten Freedom Summers

Four discs, four and a half voluminous hours of instrumental jazz and chamber music, all tackling aspects of the Civil Rights Movement in various abstract ways. If you haven’t heard Ten Freedom Summers, it might sound like homework, especially given unwieldy song titles like “Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, 1964”. If you have heard it, though, you’ll know that Smith’s masterwork is anything but a chore. Play any one of these 19 songs and you’re confronted or seduced by gorgeous sound combinations. Ensembles break apart and re-form into audacious musical shapes that you’ll remember like landmarks, even when the music’s off. Smith’s trumpet savors meditative dissonance along with strings and harp; his Golden Quartet or Quintet, sometimes featuring two drummers, races through passages of wild improvisation. The whole thing is impressive, yes, but also spellbinding, like the book you read for school that alters how you think about everything. Josh Langhoff

 

Artist: BBU

Album: bell hooks

Label: Mad Decent

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BBU
bell hooks

In a year filled with great politically conscious rap, BBU brings something special to the table. While Killer Mike has his righteous anger, El-P is the master of dense, paranoid soundscapes and Kendrick Lamar trades conflicted personal narratives, these Chicagoans incorporate all of those elements into their music while still sounding like they’re having fun. On their second mixtape, bell hooks, MCs Illikt, Epic and Jason Perez sound like a bunch of radicalized kids in a candy store, cracking jokes, throwing lyrical bombs and name checking everyone from Bad Brains to NWA. It’s a breathtakingly assured outing, brimming with potential that will, sadly, exist mostly within the realm of possibility, what with BBU’s recently-announced their breakup. During one sketch on the mixtape their manager rhetorically asks the group, “do you guys want to be like, rap stars”, to which Jason Perez replies, “not really”. It’s hard to fault them for living by their principles, but you can’t help but selfishly wish that they’re career ambitions were as limitless as their musical and political ones. John Tryneski

 

Artist: John Talabot

Album: ƒIN

Label: Permanent Vacation

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John Talabot
ƒIN

Several years and numerous aliases have passed since Barcelona based DJ and producer John Talabot first began his work on the club scene. He has emerged from that time with an acute understanding that many of his predecessors have failed to grasp; when you make an album full of dance music, you have to be deferent to your medium, but balance those demands with the realities of a full length record. So it’s testament to the originality and freshness of fIN, that after its arrival in the heart of winter, it ignited a spark which still glows brightly nearly a year later. It works because it holds all of the vitality and creative ingenuity of a breakthrough recording, but is constructed with the skill of a master craftsman. Echos of his Balearic forebears pulsate through the glistening, sun-dappled electronica and fuse with ominous, hypnotic beats and shadowy glitches. Culminating in a patchwork of brilliant sound which pulls away like a low tide, only to crash over you in waves, serving to become more invigorating and revelatory on each listen. Tom Fenwick

 

Artist: How to Dress Well

Album: Total Loss

Label: Acéphale / Weird World

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How to Dress Well
Total Loss

If 2010’s Love Remains was all promise, Total Loss is the delivery. Best served in one sitting — preferably under moonlight – it’s a quietly devastating, poetic, delicate, tear-soaked mini-masterpiece. Lush, rich and fragrant it’s one of the year’s classiest dishes. Unashamedly romantic and built to console the lonely, sweep lovers off their feet and salvage a highway of car crash hearts. Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours rebooted for the 25th century with Tom Krell’s aching falsetto draped over phantom piano, slick R&B beats, oh and strings, lots of strings. One could even imagine Total Loss as some clandestine treasure unearthed from the pint-sized prancin’ purple pervert of pop Prince’s infamous “Vault”. Perhaps recorded at his mid-’80s peak, his lost ‘heartbreak and 808s’ album. A witching hour of weeping angels, poetry, perfume, candles, finger clickin’, spinnin’ stilettos… and one enormo-sized bed, obviously. Matt James

 

Artist: Todd Snider

Album: Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables

Label: Aimless

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Todd Snider
Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables

You may have heard that Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball was “a fierce rallying cry on behalf of the 99 percent“. Well, that may be so. But, for my money, little about that bloated spectacle felt much like the on-the-ground reality of a cratered middle class amid the great recession. Todd Snider’s record, on the other hand — a shambling mess of folksy drawls, scratchy melodies, tossed off performances, and deeply insightful tales about Americans in trouble — felt just right. Always a keen observer of human foibles, and a whipsmart chronicler of ordinary people in all their glorious complexity, Snider is at his razor-sharp best on this, his ninth studio record. From the menacing “In the Beginning” (with its Napoleon-quoting lament that “we still need religion to keep us from killing the rich”) through the evisceration of “New York Bankers” (refrain: “good things happen to bad people”) down to the hilarious, cutting study of the cultural consequences of entrenched income inequality on “Precious Little Miracles” (“So your school is a joke, and you’ll always be poor, and your pleas to the rich have been heard and ignored: Is that what all you crazy kids are so upset for?”), this is socially conscious music at its most entertaining, at its most affecting. Stuart Henderson

 

Artist: Paul Weller

Album: Sonik Kicks

Label: Yep Roc

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Paul Weller
Sonik Kicks

Appropriating Krautrock elements has been the go-to method for a few up-and-coming bands in recent years, but a minimal amount have managed to put those bits to as thriling use as Paul Weller on Sonik Kicks. Thankfully, Weller has not entirely disowned his Modness; throwbacks such as the swirling “The Attic” and the swaggering “That Dangerous Age” are too refined to feel like mere retreads. They rank just as highly as more outre Sonik Kicks moments such as the dub pastiche “Study in Blue”. After wowing critics and listeners with 2008’s 22 Dreams and 2010’s Wake Up the Nation, Weller could have easily gotten away with playing it safe. Thankfully, he chose instead to continue honoring longtime listeners while also treading new ground. Even if Weller’s restlessness is not your thing, the Style Council-esque closer “Be Happy Children” is worth sticking through the whole release. Maria Schurr

 

Artist: Iris DeMent

Album: Sing the Delta

Label: Flariella

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Iris DeMent
Sing the Delta

It’s been 16 years since Iris DeMent’s last album of original material. In the interim there was a collection of old gospel songs called Lifeline (did you hear her singing “Leaning on Everlasting Arms” at the end of True Grit?), a wedding to folksinger Greg Brown, and a celebrated collaboration with John Prine, but not much else to speak of. Whether driven by writer’s block or something else, this was a lengthy stretch of relative silence from an artist whose first three albums (released in the early 1990s) seemed to signal a major songwriting talent. Thankfully, DeMent has returned to her craft, and the result is the best record of her career. Piano driven country songs about faith, family, memory, and the way that place (in her case the Arkansas delta) can tattoo something indelible upon us, Sing the Delta is an album of spiritual (if ambiguously, ambivalently Christian) music that speaks to us all, no matter where we’re from. Stuart Henderson

 

Artist: Lambchop

Album: Mr. M

Label: Merge

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Lambchop
Mr. M

For a band as plodding as Lambchop, they sure know how to pack a punch. Still going strong after nearly 20 years, Kurt Wagner and Co. start with the basics: slowly strummed guitars, lilting piano notes, and drum brushstrokes, add Wagner’s baroque voice to tell oddball tales of the ordinary and then turn the whole affair into a startling cacophony of wonder. Songs may begin with a whisper but before too long, things are ratcheted up and listeners are jamming along, in sync with the pulsing thrum but also finely attuned to Wagner’s offbeat poetry. On this year’s Mr. M, Wagner rambles on about searching for cooking recipes, slurs his shady behavior, and observes with passing interest the shifty drifters that make up the world around us. You never know whether marvel at Wagner’s penchant for detail or simply take them with a grain of salt. But that’s what makes Lambchop so entertaining. Here, the band doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but instead simply adds to their incredible body of work. Jeff Strowe

 

Artist: Ryan Bingham

Album: Tomorrowland

Label: Axster Bingham

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Ryan Bingham
Tomorrowland

Ryan Bingham’s opening track says all you need to know about the Texas-native’s first self-produced album. The gruff vocals cry out again and again, repeatedly refusing to “beg for bread and mop the floor”. “Beg for Broken Legs” chronicles Bingham’s general frustrations with the accepted norm, and the rest of the album follows suit. Bingham is in full-on rock mode here. Hard-hitting, direct lyrics match the singer’s elevated vocal range on tracks like “Guess Who’s Knockin'”, “Heart of Rhythm”, and “The Road I’m On” — all of which focus on the dissatisfaction (childhood, love, and travel) of a songwriter who’s still “paying up these god damn dues”. Much of the record’s “B” side is made up of more muted musings on the subject, but tracks like “Rising of the Ghetto” are just as potent as their louder brethren. Bingham’s disappointment on Tomorrowland reflects the nation’s — he’s sick of accepting less than he deserves, and he’s not going to take it anymore. Ben Travers

 

Artist: Julia Holter

Album: Ekstasis

Label: RVNG Intl.

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Julia Holter
Ekstasis

If the grey-scale drones and overcast palette of last year’s Tragedy exemplified the budding compositional ambition and attention to detail of rising experimentalist Julia Holter, then Ekstasis, the Los Angeles native’s staggering sophomore album, betrays an even greater sense of harmony between the classical strains of the conservatory and the malleable potential of the avant-pop underground. Still awash in the layered keyboard sustain and enveloping aural textures of her debut, Ekstasis finds Holter’s music nonetheless expanding outward, alight with a sonic radiance not unlike that of a Spring morning’s first ray of sunlight, nurturing a once-nascent melodicism even as it seems to inevitably evaporate in the surrounding atmosphere. Ekstasis, then, moves as if by intuition, the inertia of Holter’s compositions cresting in hypnotic patterns, outlining a suite-like structure while galvanizing a thematic undercurrent which Holter constructs via lyrics both personal and philosophical. This is music for the mind that emanates from the soul, residing in a uniquely disorienting middle distance, as enticingly tangible as it is fleeting. Jordan Cronk



45 – 36

Artist: Bob Mould

Album: Silver Age

Label: Merge

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Bob Mould
Silver Age

Despite its title, Silver Age is no late-career victory lap for the former Hüsker Dü and Sugar frontman. Instead, this is his most infection and volatile set in years. Backed (perfectly) by the propulsive drumming of Jon Wurster, Mould blasts through these songs with his crunching guitars and edgy vocals, shrugging off the young, ineffectual rocker on the title track, or revisiting his own brash youth on “The Descent”. The album looks back at the past as a long, hard-won lesson, and Mould acquits himself as an elder-statesman of rock without ever preaching. No, instead he gives us the sweet melody, the slicing hook and, though he claims that, in his past, “I didn’t want to play the song that gave people so much hope,” that is exactly what he does here ten times over. It’s no small feat for a guy who’s been wowing us for decades to surprise us again, but he did no Silver Age not by reinventing a formula, but by tightening it up into a potent coil, and reminding us just how strong and malleable — and downright beautiful — his punishing power-pop can be. Matt Fiander

 

Artist: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra

Album: Theatre is Evil

Label: 8ft

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Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra
Theatre Is Evil

Amanda Palmer owned this year. She became a Kickstarter millionaire and held her title as the unofficial queen of Twitter, but by far her biggest achievement was the release of Theatre Is Evil with the Grand Theft Orchestra. Theatre Is Evil is big and bold, a shotgun blast of unabashedly fun rock, a tangle of pure electric energy. Dramatic, hilarious, and earnest by turns, the album not only shows off Palmer’s pop chops, but also her ability to craft a song at any tempo which stays with you like a glittery tapeworm. Palmer has released many good albums since the early 2000s, but with Theatre Is Evil she didn’t just top her best releases to date. She did it with room to spare. Adam Finley

 

Artist: METZ

Album: METZ

Label: Sub Pop

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METZ
METZ

Shining brightly like a Molotov cocktail at the moment of impact, this Toronto noise rock trio’s incendiary debut had my attention from the opening bombast of “Headache”. Informed by both the Jesus Lizard and the Jesus and Mary Chain, METZ aren’t here so much to revolutionize garage rock as to revitalize it. Primitive and discordant, this self-titled debut isn’t some rehashed mishmash; rather, it’s the next logical genetic step forward for angular, abrasive rock. Militant yet dangerously nihilistic, “Wasted” is a jackbooted kick in the teeth, an explosive demonstration of howling humanity and ignorant sonics. If Toronto has thugs, this ought to serve as their anthem. Hard-charger “Wet Blanket” turns the old fashioned Twist into a something more spastic and like a seizure. Alex Edkins might look like the jittery I.T. guy from your office, but in fact he’s the latest righteously furious frontman in the tradition of Steve Albini, yowling and yelping inscrutably over his perverse riffs. Gary Suarez

 

Artist: Flying Lotus

Album: Until the Quiet Comes

Label: Warp

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Flying Lotus
Until the Quiet Comes

Until the Quiet Comes unfolds with a measured sense of purpose, each song dissolving seamlessly into the next like the swirling back eddies of a single flowing current. Although it may be Flying Lotus’s most approachable work to date, this album retains the distinct sense of tension and juxtaposition, and the unpredictable approach to structure that Steven Ellison has always brought to his meticulous electronic compositions. Here, he blends dense and cavernous rhythms with glistening, chiming keys and surging swaths of electronic noise to create a vividly textured tapestry of sound that never fails to both challenge and engage. Two of popular music’s most singular vocalists show up to lend their talents in Thom Yorke and Erykah Badu. But rather than foreground their presence, Ellison blurs and bends their voices to merge with their surroundings, as just another stroke of color upon the surface of his sonic canvass. For Ellison arranges every sample, sequence and voice on the record with the careful precision of a visual artist, so that each individual element is both inseparable and indistinguishable from the work as a whole. Robert Alford

 

Artist: Quantic and Alice Russell

Album: Look Around the Corner

Label: Tru Thoughts

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Quantic and Alice Russell
Look Around the Corner

Having upped sticks and moved from England to Colombia, musician and producer Will Holland aka Quantic, assembled a crack team of virtuoso musicians steeped in cumbia and champeta. Welding this to the incredible retro blues, soul and jazz voice of fellow Brit Alice Russell, Quantic has captured the zeitgeist of music in the 21st century with the album Look Around the Corner. More than ever before musicians are collaborating, sharing, experimenting and making music free of geographical or cultural boundaries and this is all encapsulated on this stunning album. Taking classic sounds and arrangements and creating something new, this album is chock-full of killer soul with “Look Around the Corner”, boogaloo with “Boogaloo 33”, and cumbia with “Road to Islay”. This is an authentically vintage, yet utterly modern, album that will be enjoyed by audiences from London to New York to Cali. Jez Collins

 

Artist: The Men

Album: Open Your Heart

Label: Sacred Bones

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The Men
Open Your Heart

The Men is a particularly apt name for a band that’s becoming a flag-bearer for big-boy rock ‘n’ roll. In a year when raw, bare-bones rock statements were plenty and plenty good, few — if any — matched Open Your Heart in depth and breadth, as it runs the full gamut of the genre’s most tried-and-true stylings. Open Your Heart offers pretty much everything you’re looking for from a black-and-blue rock record, from Fucked Up-like post-hardcore body blows (“Animal”) to lovesick Buzzcocks-y power-punk (“Open Your Heart”) to swaggering street-smart art-noise à la Sonic Youth (“Oscillation”). And that’s not even mentioning any number of tracks reminiscent of the Replacements, especially on the bar-rock ditty “Candy”, thick with punch-drunk melodies and careening vocals. But what makes Open Your Heart a listen to go back to is that no matter how familiar the idiom, none of it comes off derivative, thanks to the young Brooklyn quartet’s unbridled intensity and improvisational flair. If Open Your Heart is any indication, the Men’s intuitive approach to instinct-driven rock ‘n’ roll gives ’em a chance to be as original as the acts whose footsteps in which they’re following. Arnold Pan

 

Artist: Of Monsters and Men

Album: My Head Is an Animal

Label: Universal

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Of Monsters and Men
My Head Is an Animal

This Icelandic band’s ebullience is pervasive and contagious, with an unbridled energy that translates incredibly well from a live setting to this album (a slightly reworked version from 2011’s release in Iceland). With six official members, Of Monsters and Men don’t just outnumber Mumford & Sons, but they also surpass Marcus with two lead singers, one of each gender. Ragnar Þórhallsson offers a more mellow register in harmony with the soprano of Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir. Her voice propels the sing-along songs and once “King and Lionheart” and “Little Talks” got inside my head, I couldn’t help but shout “hey!”, even when that wasn’t the next lyric. These powerful choruses are on an album alongside excellent mellow songs like “Slow and Steady” or the ‘la-la’ lullaby “Yellow Light” which tempers and varies this debut. But one thing remains constant; even these quieter tunes have choruses that motion for listeners to join the wild rumpus. Sachyn Mital

 

Artist: David Byrne and St. Vincent

Album: Love This Giant

Label: 4AD/Todo Mundo

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David Byrne and St. Vincent
Love This Giant

Although Byrne and Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) may come at music from a generational divide, they share many commonalities. Favoring offbeat, jittery arrangements and writing with an astute realization of the mundane, this pairing isn’t as surprising on record as it may have initially appeared. What began as a series of collaborations in 2009 for the Dark Was the Night benefit turned into a full-blown whammy of an album in 2012 with the release of Love This Giant.The two artists exchanged compositions via email and were met in the studio and on the subsequent tour by a massive and invigorating horn section that emboldens the album’s shadowy and fragmented lyrical content. From the opening track’s questioning in “Who” to the joyously upbeat middle section through the final plaintive tones of “Outside of Space & Time”, it’s a well-crafted and nuanced album that gets more exciting with each subsequent listen. Jeff Strowe

 

Artist: Miguel

Album: Kaleidoscope Dream

Label: RCA

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Miguel
Kaleidoscope Dream

Kaleidoscope Dream could easily be used as a sort of cheat sheet of where R&B has gone in the past 50 years. The opening “Adorn” will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, but simply can’t be dismissed as a rip-off. “Do you…” and “The Thrill” bring to mind the steaminess of Prince’s funkiest and dirtiest ’80s work. And for future-looking “Use Me” sounds like something straight out of a Blade Runner’s playlist in 2032. But Kaleidoscope Dream is far more than a hodgepodge history lesson. “How Many Drinks?” and “Pussy Is Mine” take routine “nightclub conquest” scenarios and twist them into pained self-doubt confessionals. No 12-minute epics. No excessive supporting guests, Kaleidoscope Dream is a supremely confident effort by an artist who only a few years ago was almost labelless. 2012 gave us instant classics by Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar and Killer Mike. With Kaleidoscope Dream, Miguel has submitted his own masterwork to an already landmark year for hip-hop and R&B. Sean McCarthy

 

Artist: Nas

Album: Life Is Good

Label: Def Jam

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Nas
Life Is Good

As he says, Nas must have half-naked pictures of God or something. Eleven albums in, he remains a spectacular rapper, albeit one who doesn’t need to make a spectacle of himself. Whether discussing his divorce, fatherhood, plans to topple investment banks, or summers on smash, Nas has honed his complex rhyme schemes for maximum ease of communication. He taunts young pipsqueaks who kill people accidentally; he sympathizes with a middle aged doctor contemplating uxoricide while performing surgery. He shouts out Kelis and makes their story interesting, even if you haven’t been following along. He hates when people write him hostile texts — who doesn’t? The guy’s turned into a wealthy charmer, and his producers’ opulent beats back him up, peaking with the orchestral banger “A Queens Story” but rarely flagging. In fact — do my ears deceive me? — Life Is Good might be a better album than his revered debut. At least, I’d rather listen to it. Josh Langhoff

35 – 26

Artist: El-P

Album: Cancer 4 Cure

Label: Fat Possum

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El-P
Cancer 4 Cure

Any performer with Oscar ambitions should “never go full retard”, warns Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus in 2008’s Tropic Thunder. Prestige culture was the target, but outcry from disability activists was the response, leading to pickets and memes before reemerging as lead single “The Full Retard” of El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure. Here the context is hip-hop, but the disdain for acclaim-grubbing remains the same. The indefatigable rap iconoclast’s fourth solo outing pulls a bait-and-switch on year-end canonization by turning talking points — the police state (“Drones Over Bklyn”), institutional oppression (“Stay Down”) — into occasions for stream-of-consciousness spoonerisms and scattered venom. What glimpses there are of lyrical coherence reveal ethical ambivalence, as on “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mum’s the Word)’s” tale of overheard abuse: “If you kill him, I won’t tell,” he urges. Powered by the rapper/producer’s signature deep-space funk breaks, Cancer 4 Cure is the album that refused to vote in an election year: frustrated, skeptical, and hilariously morbid, but with little use for empty liberal pieties. Benjamin Aspray

 

Artist: The Toure-Raichel Collective

Album: The Tel Aviv Session

Label: Cumbancha

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The Touré-Raichel Collective
The Tel Aviv Session

“Transcendent brilliance” is not too strong a phrase to describe this album-length collaboration between Malian guitar maestro Vieux Farka Touré and Israeli keyboardist/pop star Idan Raichel. The album is the fruit of a spontaneous jam session held in Israel in which the musicians sat down to swap musical ideas, with the results betraying a rare but profound responsiveness to one another’s work, and a refreshing willingness to set aside ego in favor of musical purity. Touré sets aside his electric guitar for these sessions, and the relevation — one of them — is that his snaky, sinuous melodies are just as much at home on an unplugged instrument. Songs like album opener “Azawade” find their rhythm right off the bat, quickly settling into hypnotic grooves that provide the musicians ample room to improvise and explore. This is, simply put, one of the best Afro-pop collaborations you are likely to hear since Touré’s father Ali sat down with Ry Cooder to record Talking Tuimbuktu back in 1994. Yes, it’s that good. David Maine

 

Artist: Bat for Lashes

Album: The Haunted Man

Label: Capitol/Parlophone

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Bat for Lashes
The Haunted Man

“Haunted” is right. If you’re the subject of a song on Natasha Khan’s third album as Bat for Lashes, chances are there’s some considerable damage in your past, whether it’s unrequited love, the isolation of fame, or shell shock. With all of this baggage, The Haunted Man could have easily been an album-length-wallow, but Khan instead crafted a song cycle about struggle. From the stately opener “Lilies”, on which she declares, “Thank God I’m alive!”, these songs offer salvation through love and optimism. Where you see a wall, she sees a door.

Khan also ups her already considerable compositional game. For an artist who’s often praised for her moody atmosphere, she’s also exceptionally attuned to percussion arrangements, and The Haunted Man lays off the thick orchestration to reveal even more rhythmic complexity than usual. In addition to isolated feats of syncopation like the twitchy guitar picking and drum programming on “All Your Gold”, she subtly weaves marching rhythms throughout until they appear overtly on the title track, accompanying a male choir. Khan has cited her grandfather’s return from war as a key influence on the album’s themes, and she masterfully gets the fallout of war across without tipping her hand lyrically. It’s smart touches like this, combined with Khan’s continued flare for dramatic flourishes, that help make The Haunted Man her richest release. David Bloom

 

Artist: Esperanza Spalding

Album: Radio Music Society

Label: Heads Up

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Esperanza Spalding
Radio Music Society

Radio Music Society is Esperanza Spalding’s fourth recording and the flip-side Chamber Music Society. So it ought to be a pop album designed for radio play—right? It may have ripping hooks and huge bed of soulful grooves, but Spalding, at her core, remains a jazz musician. So, the opener, “Radio Song”, may be built around an irresistible chorus and a very hip two-note vocal hook at the start, but then there’s the long middle section with a charging brass figure that sets up a “vocalese” break followed by a swinging tenor sax solo. Tack on a long, modern-jazz piano solo on the end for good and you’ve got… not kind of radio hit at all. But, of course, that’s why Spalding is terrific. She’s not Adele or even Macy Gray. She has made an ambitious jazz record that creatively uses soul forms to grab our ears. You can call it whatever you want, but you’ll want to listen. Will Layman

 

Artist: Hot Chip

Album: In Our Heads

Label: Domino

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Hot Chip
In Our Heads

It’s been incredibly rewarding to watch the streak Hot Chip have been riding since their sophomore LP The Warning in 2006. Coming on Strong, their 2004 debut, wasn’t bad by any means, but if someone had told me that band would be responsible for In Our Heads, I’d have laughed in their face. But Hot Chip aren’t a band to settle in to the comforts their genre provides them. Although there are infectious choruses and unforgettable synths throughout In Our Heads, it’s by no means an electro album that’s all surface. The mature, philosophical nature of the band’s music that started to flourish on 2010’s One Life Stand is exemplified at its highest form on this record. One moment, they’ll have you ready for the dancefloor (“Night and Day” is easily Hot Chip’s best single to date), the next they’ll have you meditating on the meaning of love and life itself (“Look at Where We Are” and “I Have Always Been Your Love”). In Our Heads is the kind of album that demonstrates why Hot Chip are going to be remembered for the years to come, and it’s also refined summation of the group’s MO to date. Hot Chip are consistently life-affirming in their ability to highlight the joys of the human experience, all to the sound of some of the best electronic dance music around. In Our Heads is not only the definitive Hot Chip recording, it’s also one of 2012’s best works. Brice Ezell

 

Artist: Robert Glasper Experiment

Album: Black Radio

Label: Blue Note

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Robert Glasper Experiment
Black Radio

Black Radio is not a reflection of what is currently spinning on urban radio stations, but a rich, multi-layered portrait of progressive R&B and hip-hop through the prism of jazz. It’s the antidote to an “overabundance of mediocrity”, to borrow a phrase from Angelika Beener’s incisive foreword. Led by pianist Robert Glasper, Black Radio offers a sophisticated yet accessible rumination on how black music traditions have always birthed new vanguards in popular music, from jazz to funk to hip-hop. Bassist Derrick Hodge, multi-instrumentalist Casey Benjamin, and drummer Chris Dave are the engine of Glasper’s radio dial while Erykah Badu, Meshell Ndegeocello, Bilal, and Musiq Soulchild are among the dozen guest artists who join the “experiment”. Amidst Glasper’s original compositions like “Always Shine” (a co-write with Lupe Fiasco) and “Gonna Be Alright (F.T.B.)” (a collaboration with Ledisi), he tours a range of material, from Bowie to Sade to Nirvana. His experiment succeeds. To best experience Black Radio, all you need are “your ears and your soul”. Christian John Wikane

 

Artist: Death Grips

Album: The Money Store

Label: Epic

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Death Grips
The Money Store

Death Grips are the real deal, and it’s becoming increasingly hard to discern that in the age of limitless self-doubt, auto-critique, and instant backlash, but it’s the truth. Death Grips are certainty an anomaly, the exception proving the rule. Theirs is a music where anger and negation are simulated at every level, throughout the entire package, rage as contagious pathology (“I got the fever”). MC Ride’s barking hoarse voice is the obvious entry point, a pitiless stream of raw aggression spewing forth the most beautiful pornography of disgust and vitriol, his lyrics an imaginary language daubed in sanguinary hues of Burroughs and De Sade for the street set. On The Money Store, Ride breaks into gated communities, hacks bank accounts (“I know the first three numbers/ I’m in”), and slips the gun to your lips and appreciates the phallic symbolism, but Death Grips move beyond shock value into the most pure transgression of late capitalist values as demon intruders.

Their “System Blower” not only melts speakers, but upends the status quo in a manner where the paucity of resources — lo-fi as Anarachist Cookbook homemade terrorism like their power noise predecessors — acts less as stage relish than fetishistic attention to detail. Of course, it wouldn’t work if the sonics themselves didn’t also leave your eardrums feeling slightly violated. Zach Hill’s wonky, disjointed percussive gait makes the entire crushing industrial ensemble feel like a miswired, circuit-bent machine from the island of misfit terminator drones. Andy Morrin’s programming only compliments this, running on the textural grit of 20 years of scorched earth electronics and incorporating everything from the epileptic seizures of footwerk to the ‘Nuum fueled vocal science of chopped female voices that actually sound like terrorized caged birds. The Money Store is a psycho-delic horrorshow on the surface alone, but with one with unexpected (and somewhat unseemly) depth and resonance for those willing to plunge in for multiple visits. After a ka-jillion spins, this is still a thrilling release. Timothy Gabriele

 

Artist: Andy Stott

Album: Luxury Problems

Label: Modern Love

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Andy Stott
Luxury Problems

Manchester producer Andy Stott has spent the better part of the last half decade burrowing a small niche for himself amidst a splintering dub techno landscape, his expertly fashioned fortress of isolation and cavernous atmosphere having, up to now, felt about as unwelcoming to human harmonization as one could imagine. But with Luxury Problems Stott has reconciled his unstable machinery with a mounting sense of mortality in a way that feels not only unique, but inevitable. Coming after last year’s bleak double bill of Passed Me By and We Stay Together, Luxury Problems can sound comparatively plush and inviting, as Alison Skidmore’s vocals emanate naturally from the fabric of Stott’s air-tight productions, a swarming conflation of digital noise, 4/4 beat science, and dub atmospherics. In a year where spiritual contemporaries such as Raime, Demdike Stare, Shackleton, and even Burial released benchmark work, it was Stott who stood tallest amid the ruins, his scorched-earth triumph a new rite-of-passage for anything electronic-leaning that dares arrive in its wake. Jordan Cronk

 

Artist: Father John Misty

Album: Fear Fun

Label: Sub Pop

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Father John Misty
Fear Fun

Even for an alt-country record, Father John Misty had a sense that this might be a bit of commercial enterprise. Singing “look out Hollywood, here I come” as the last line on the first song of his Sub Pop debut, Fear Fun, Misty channels a series of broken Western dreams, an old American trope, moving them to the nation’s far Western boundary, placing them delicately in a washed out and fucked up Los Angeles. All the same themes work, death in Hollywood isn’t just a metaphor; it’s as American as F. Scott Fitzgerald. And so Misty, nee Joshua Tillman, traffics in all these broken, Western dreams, shreds of religiosity creeping in at the corners. The album’s lead single, “Hollywood Cemetery Sings”, opens with the line, “Jesus Christ, girl, what are people gonna think?” The exasperation isn’t for show with Tillman discussing the disjoints between commerce, religion, and the new American West, which like the Old one, turned into a damn ghost town. Geoff Nelson

 

Artist: Dr. John

Album: Locked Down

Label: Nonesuch

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Dr. John
Locked Down

It’s tempting to label this a comeback album for the 72-year-old Dr. John, but one look at his post 2000 output shows a staggering number of quality releases. Instead this is yet another album that reaffirms Dr. John’s position in music history. Locked Down does feature one interesting quirk though as the album is essentially produced by Dan Auerbach (of Black Keys fame), who seamlessly blends the old school aesthetics of John’s New Orleans R&B (or “Voodoo” as John calls it) with the Black Keys signature new school meets old school style of fuzzed out blues. The final result feels so natural that you can’t help but wonder why these two didn’t meet up sooner. In today’s world of “here today, gone tomorrow” artist, it’s almost inconceivable that a man who began his career in the ’50s would be making albums that not only equal, but possibly surpass his early classics, but Dr. John has done just that. Proving once and for all that age ain’t nothing but a number. Adam Maylone

25 – 16

Artist: Galactic

Album: Carnivale Electricos

Label: Anti-

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Galactic
Carnivale Electricos

The New Orleans funk and jam kingpins have delivered again on a disc that crackles with energy and sonic flavor. Many jambands struggle to capture their live energy in the studio, but Galactic cracked the code on 2010’s Ya-Ka-May by utilizing a variety of guests to add fresh vibes and creative sparks. This formula is used successfully again here, with a theme that focuses on the Mardis Gras festivities that fuel much of what Galactic is all about. Highlights include the charged dance groove of “Hey Na Na”, ever soulful vocals from Cyrille Neville on “Out in the Street”, the 40-piece KIPP Renaissance High School Marching Band adding to the stomp of “Karate” and dueling raps from Mannie Fresh and Mystikal on “Move Fast”. Drummer Stanton Moore, aka “the redneck gangster”, is the ringleader and the band’s sound gels around his tight funky beats like a well-oiled groove machine. But this isn’t just retro funk… Galactic are masters at mixing their old school influences with fresh cutting edge sounds. Greg Schwartz

 

Artist: The Mountain Goats

Album: Transcendental Youth

Label: Merge

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The Mountain Goats
Transcendental Youth

John Darnielle has always been one of indie rock’s most celebrated songwriters, and for good reason: he could do albums based off Tarot cards, explore spirituality through songs whose titles were bible verses, and collaborate with Aesop Rock and Kaki King pretty much whenever he felt inclined. Yet as brilliant as Darnielle’s songs were, the Mountain Goats never reached the mass appeal of some of his indie rock contemporaries — until now. Transcendental Youth is the band’s biggest, brassiest album to date, occasionally approaching a Broadway level of grandiosity and exuberance, but all still carefully reigned in by Darnielle’s precise words and tight arrangements, leaving the stripped down arrangements of Life of the World to Come far behind in the dust. Such a noted change in the group’s tone would be met with cries of “sell out!” in some circles, yet the Goats’ secret lies in the fact that they make it look so easy. A brisk mood piece like “Night Light” can stand next to optimistic piano-pounding crime tales like “The Diaz Brothers” without a second of hesitation. They could still do moments of powerful straightforward honesty (“Until I am Whole”), but when things end together with the jazzy strut of the album’s title track, it’s obvious that after two decades of making music, Darnielle & the Goats are just getting started … Evan Sawdey

 

Artist: Taylor Swift

Album: Red

Label: Big Machine

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Taylor Swift
Red

Red feels designed to outdo others at their own game, to demonstrate Taylor Swift can do U2/Coldplay arena anthems, teenpop radio songs, Rilo-Kiley like LA alt-rock, Mazzy Star-like daydreams, cutesy pop like they play in Target commercials — plus keep perfecting her own brand of songwriting, with its romantic balladry, snarky kiss-offs to exes and introspective growing-up songs. Red is ambitious but doesn’t seem it, which is her M.O. It’s a thematically unified album about the next phases of growing-up, about failed attempts at love and the pleasure and pain within them. For all its dance-club moments and infatuation peaks, it might be her most downbeat LP yet. One of its chief goals is depicting the “sad beautiful tragic” nature of young love. For all her romantic dreams, she seems awfully skeptical, about love, life, other people and careers in music. Where the last two albums ended with big generational anthems, this one ends with a quiet hope for renewal, to “begin again”. Dave Heaton

 

Artist: The Avett Brothers

Album: The Carpenter

Label: American

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The Avett Brothers
The Carpenter

In the ’00s, the Avett Brothers attracted a passionate cult audience with their raw, barroom take on Americana. With The Carpenter, the band’s second major label album and second with producer Rick Rubin, the last traces of those scuzzy early days have been scrubbed away. Fortunately for the band and their fans, the Avett Brothers have gradually blossomed into great songwriters and savvy arrangers, and The Carpenter puts their talents on full display. Songs like the banjo-driven “Live and Die” and “Pretty Girl From Michigan”, with its bouncy electric guitar leads, are instantly catchy. But the heartfelt lyrics of the album’s quieter moments, particularly “February Seven” and “A Father’s First Spring”, take a bit longer to appreciate. Even the more unusual musical ideas, like the subtle brass choir in “Down With the Shine” and the full-on rock arrangement of the unfairly maligned “Paul Newman Vs. the Demons”, work well here. This is an album that shows a band confident in their ability to develop their craft without falling back on their tried-and-true tricks. Chris Conaton

 

Artist: The Maccabees

Album: Given to the Wild

Label: Fiction

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The Maccabees
Given to the Wild

Modern rock bands tend to have a problem when it comes to aiming for grandiosity. Wary of the meat-and-potatoes classic rock clichés (and possibly limited by their own level of technique), oftentimes their dreams of soul-stirring majesty are realized as formless bluster, more pale sketches paired with vague sentiments than fully-realized vistas. If Coldplay is one of the chief perpetrators of this sort of stadium-sized blandness, Brighton, England’s Maccabees are here to undercut them by redeeming it. The quintet’s third album Given to the Wild takes them further away from their early incarnation as a third-division indie rock ensemble stylistically indebted to the Futureheads, and finds them continuing down a populist art-rock furrow they started plowing on their previous LP Wall of Arms (2009). Given to the Wild is essentially Coldplay done right: its floating atmospheric sections are grounded by a corporeal (and nimble) rhythm section that’s always ready to bound forward at an opportune moment, and rest of the band is never subordinated to focus attention on Chris Martin-soundalike Orlando Weeks’ chaste sighs. Tracks such as “Child” and “Heave” strive to ascend to lofty realms, and their successful quests to attain entrance are invigorating in a way that the more demure of the modern rock lighter-igniter crop would do best to learn from. AJ Ramirez

 

Artist: Spiritualized

Album: Sweet Heart Sweet Light

Label: Fat Possum/Double Six

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Spiritualized
Sweet Heart Sweet Light

Spiritualized maestro Jason Pierce cites middle-period records by artists like Captain Beefheart and Iggy Pop as inspiration for Sweet Heart Sweet Light, his follow-up to 2008’s Songs in A & E. This manifests not so much as a big shift in sound as in an underlying lyrical concept of getting older and wiser. With additional distance from the sickness that fueled Songs in A & E, Sweet Heart Sweet Light confronts what life has in store once youth has passed us by. Framed at the beginning by “Hey Jane”, a nine-minute cautionary tale of living fast and dying young, and at the end by “So Long You Pretty Thing”, a prayer for getting right with God, the album asks a lot of questions about the relationship of the here to the hereafter. Ultimately emphasizing that you can’t take it with you, Sweet Heart Sweet Light is singular within Pierce’s already accomplished discography. It’s a moral tale born from surviving early years of joyless indiscretions. Thomas Britt

 

Artist: Grizzly Bear

Album: Shields

Label: Warp

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Grizzly Bear
Shields

If there are any lingering doubts as to whether Grizzly Bear is the greatest American band currently recording, they should be laid to rest once and for all by Shields, the band’s irrefutably gorgeous third album. The band’s 2009 breakthrough Veckatamist may have had catchier tunes but the both the complexity of the arrangements and the level of musicianship on Shields are positively awe-inspiring. Over the years Grizzly Bear have evolved into a band in the truest sense of the word, with each member absolutely essential the group’s ever-broadening sonic palate. The lyrics might be a bit cold and world-weary here yet the performances are full of boundless energy and innovation. From the ominous opener “Sleeping Ute” through the towering finale of “Sun is in Your Eyes”, the band explores everything from classic rock to jazz to pastoral folk, often within the confines of the same song. The album concludes with the line “So bright, so long / I’m never coming back”. I’m sure I’m not the only one praying that this isn’t the case. Daniel Tebo

 

Artist: Cloud Nothings

Album: Attack on Memory

Label: Carpark

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Cloud Nothings
Attack on Memory

Attack on Memory, what an album title. That’s exactly what Cloud Nothings’ third album will feel like to anyone who grew up on the rough-edged emo and garage rock that constituted indie music from the early ’90s through roughly Trail of Dead’s Source Tags & Codes. Teaming with Steve Albini, this formerly middling foursome somehow cranked out an album that defies expectation. It opens with a pair of tracks, “No Future / No Past” and “Wasted Days”, that instantly bring to mind the former’s multi-tiered epics, but they turn out to be red herrings. The rest of the album is essentially an update on the punk attitudes of guys like Kurt Cobain and Lou Barlow. “I need time to stay useless / I need time to stop moving / I need time,” rings single “Stay Useless”, while “Cut You” ends the album with a balancing act of the dirge and the pop with simplistic, whining verses from Dylan Baldi that quickly shifts into pop excellence and back again. At a curt eight tracks and barely over a half hour, Attack on Memory is so brief and full of energy that it ends up on repeat over and over, constantly reminding me that I was young once, and I was never quite sure what that meant until it was probably too late. But this was the sort of music that made for a less awkward time, and unlike the current popular form of this malaise like Wavves and Real Estate, there’s a hardened edge of catharsis that would lure just about any child of the ’90s. This is about as purely nostalgic as new music can get. David Amidon

 

Artist: Pepe Deluxé

Album: Queen of the Wave

Label: Asthmatic Kitty

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Pepe Deluxé
Queen of the Wave

The soul-nourishing abundance of Queen of the Wave took a lot of people by surprise in 2012. A concept album based on the psychically channeled Atlantis writings of Frederick S. Oliver from the late 1800s, the fourth full-length by Finnish neo-psychedelists Pepe Deluxé utilized over 60 talented musicians from across the world and a plethora of vintage, arcane technology, from an aether modulator and chromatic gusli to the Great Stalacpipe Organ (a.k.a. the world’s largest instrument). Sure, their ingredients look impressive on paper, but this surrealistic lark is even tastier when heard in its genre-hopping, whirlwind context. Thoughtfully assembled for a wink and a prayer with all the proceeds going to clean the Baltic Sea, this visionary work demonstrates immeasurable depth in its dynamic range and thematic exploration. It would be a compliment to exploratory thrift-store epics like Since I Left You and Thunder, Lightning, Strike if it wasn’t for the fact that every sound on the boundlessly creative Queen of the Wave was painstakingly researched and designed to seem like the crate-dug samples from which the Avalanches and Go! Team manufactured their material. Through its melody, narrative, instrumentation, emotional resonance, and charitable disposition, Queen of the Wave generates a myriad of reasons for audiences to care, incessantly flooding listeners with exquisite quirks that tickle the senses and ignite the imagination. This is one for the ages. Alan Ranta

 

Artist: Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Album: ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

Label: Constellation

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor
‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

For a band whose every album felt something like a monument of intent and ideological purity, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s quiet recession from the public eye following the release of 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O. seemed uncharacteristically weak-willed, as if they’d left something unfinished or, worse yet, resigned themselves to the very injustices they’d fought so hard to combat. That is what makes ‘Allelujah, Godspeed’s first album in ten years, not only so welcome, but so vital. The two 20-minute behemoths which anchor the record may have originated from the waning days of the band’s first run, but here, in recorded form, they sound refreshingly urgent, the album’s unexpected release coinciding with the run up to the U.S. Presidential election in pointed fashion, a brush of synchronicity impossible to read as coincidental. The contrasting drone suites, meanwhile, lend an appropriate gravity amidst such heart-stopping pyrotechnics, reconfirming this mysterious collective as saviors of a stagnant scene. ‘Allelujah indeed. Jordan Cronk

15 – 6

Artist: Baroness

Album: Yellow & Green

Label: Relapse

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Baroness
Yellow & Green

The double album is a hallowed form in the halls of progressive rock, a genre that Georgia-based Baroness show a surprising mastery of on Yellow & Green, a 75-minute, two-LP opus that’s almost hard to believe is the product of a band only on their third studio release. Though some have complained about Baroness’ shift from prog-inflected sludge to a rock sonic with a much wider range—on Yellow and Green, they go anywhere from outlaw country to ‘90’s indie to Floyd-esque prog — the huge risks taken on this album pay off incredible dividends. Double albums are notorious for excess, and even when they’re good (see: Ayreon), it’s quite difficult to take them in one sitting. The strength of Yellow & Green, aside from the incredible songwriting within, is that it never feels like a chore to listen to, and despite the clear tonal shifts between each half, the entire thing flows together with a cohesion that no other record of its kind has for a long time. Metal’s expanding inclusivity has taken many forms in 2012, but in terms of maturity, none came close to what Baroness has done here. They may no longer be a “metal” band in the conservative sense of the term, but they couldn’t have made a rock LP as richly conceived as this one without having first began as they did. The Baroness on Yellow & Green couldn’t have existed without the sludgy Baroness many have grown to love. Brice Ezell

 

Artist: Jack White

Album: Blunderbuss

Label: Third Man/Columbia

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Jack White
Blunderbuss

It’s accepted that albums released under an artist’s own name are more confessional and revealing, often so much so that the artist loses his or her mythical stature. After 15 years and a variety of bands, White made the leap to recording under his own name with Blunderbuss, a raw-nerve record that merges blues, country, rock and folk in combinations that demonstrate why White has outlasted so many of his late ’90s guitar-rock contemporaries. The singles alone are proof. The intimate “Love Interruption” caught even ardent fans off guard, while “Sixteen Saltines” and “Freedom at 21” position White as one of the only true rock stars we have left. On Blunderbuss, White does deal with serious personal issues: his divorce, the dissolution of the White Stripes, self doubt, loss, and all manners of weighty emotional stress. But it doesn’t kill the mythical Jack White, as many predicted. It only makes him stronger. Adam Finley

 

Artist: The Walkmen

Album: Heaven

Label: Fat Possum

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The Walkmen
Heaven

The Walkmen’s seventh full-length studio effort proves that the label “daddy rock” shouldn’t be used only as an insult. Heaven is a collection of mature, emotionally resonant rock songs about the pleasures and perils of adulthood. Tunes like “We Can’t Be Beat” and “Heaven” show the comforts that come with settling down, whereas “The Witch” and “Dreamboat” depict the adult world with more cynicism. This intriguing ambiguity is to be expected from a band who once wrote songs with titles like “Woe Is Me” and “Everybody Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone”. Even frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s ode to his daughter “Song for Leigh” is imbued with some darkness, conveying the emotional strain of parenting with the line, “I sing myself sick about you.” Indeed, the Walkmen depict heaven as an ideal we are continually moving towards, yet perhaps never fully reaching. The group sure has come close on this latest record, though. Jacob Adams

 

Artist: Carolina Chocolate Drops

Album: Leaving Eden

Label: Nonesuch

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Carolina Chocolate Drops
Leaving Eden

Their style may be referred to as old-timey, but the passion, talent and creativity of the Grammy Award winning Carolina Chocolate Drops burns brightly on their fifth album. Under the thoughtful touch of renowned alt-country musician/producer Buddy Miller, Leaving Eden pops and sizzles crisply from start to finish. Traditional ditties and new compositions were rolled into a distinct whole that respects the past while commanding the attention of the present. Where the jug sound on the Cousin Emmy bluegrass standard “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?” takes it back to 1940 Kentucky via drum & bass, this sound turns to scratching/beat boxing on the swagger laden original tune “Country Girl”. Yet, while it was not a grave-robbing exhibition of tradition, it’s not a careless fusion clawing aimlessly at relevancy either. It’s not exactly Alan Lomax carpools with Rick Ruben so much as it passes them by in their own 1921 Oldsmobile flatbed truck on their way to Beverly Hills. With their live reputation preceding them, Leaving Eden is a memento of a historically aware band living band in and of the moment. Alan Ranta

 

Artist: Grimes

Album: Visions

Label: 4AD

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Grimes
Visions

The Internet has facilitated rummaging through the historical and cultural vaults like no other technology before it. In the 21st century, musicians have had an unfortunate tendency to respond to such unfettered accessibility to pop culture’s detritus by performing simple grab-and-paste appropriations or outright pastiche, manifesting a sort of exhibitionist curatism that says more about their tastes than what they are actually trying to do with the wares available to them. Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes, does more than that. Though there are recognizable reference points for what she is doing (one apt summary I’ve heard of her music is “Cranes with a laptop”) and where she is drawing from (a crude shorthand description of the GarageBand software auteur’s music I often offer to the unconverted is “Cocteau Twins meets Mariah Carey”), Boucher filters her myriad influences — ‘80s 4AD dream pop, ‘90s mainstream R&B, avant-electronica, East Asian traditions — wholly through her own transformative sensibility, one prone to emphasize one strand of inspiration here and another there for added variance and nuance. Yet what is really responsible for Visions becoming one of the most buzzed-about releases of 2012 is the winsome, almost hypnotic timbre of her girlish voice in all of its effects-manipulated permutations, and her preternatural gift for arrangements and hooks. Astoundingly catchy, occasionally haunting, and frequently brilliant, Visions is top-rate art and pop in equal measure, and deserves to be talked about for years to come. AJ Ramirez

 

Artist: Chromatics

Album: Kill for Love

Label: Italians Do It Better

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Chromatics
Kill for Love

Johnny Jewel doesn’t do things by half. Arriving microseconds after his 36-track Symmetry project, Chromatics’ darkly divine Kill for Love took the stage like some futurist-romantic Shakespearian yarn of love, death and everything inbetween. A tragedy written in neon lights, lipstick, tears and rain. Even more so than their 2007 album this was the Night Drive. From the elegaic rewiring of Neil Young’s “Hey, Hey, My, My” to the ethereal, misty 15-minute outro “No Escape”, Kill for Love paints a cinematic lost highway trailing femme fatale Ruth Radelet through the bright lights ‘n’ big city way over yonder to the darkness on the edge of town. Our doe-eyed dark passenger’s hopes ‘n’ dreams (“Back from the Grave”, “Kill for Love”) slowly dissolve into the rear view mirror to be replaced by emptiness and melancholia (“Dust to Dust”, “The River”). Sounds like a downer f’sure but Kill for Love is one electrifying, cathartic, unforgettable trip. Buy the ticket, take the ride. Matt James

 

Artist: Kendrick Lamar

Album: good kid, m.A.A.d. city

Label: Interscope

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Kendrick Lamar
good kid, m.A.A.d. city

Videogame voice actor and headphones mannequin Dr. Dre could be seen clinging to 25-year-old Kendrick Lamar on a variety of magazine covers and promotional photos this year, and it doesn’t take much time with the younger rapper’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city to see why. Dre, long the face of Compton despite his deep history of finding himself outshone by collaborators and protégés alike, sees in Lamar what the rest of the rap world does, too: not just the future of West Coast hip-hop but the future of rap, period. In good kid, m.A.A.d. city, Lamar has created a dense, cohesive, emotionally exhausting — and, above all, impossibly addictive — masterpiece of form, flow, and feeling. The rapper weaves his fictionalized life story, replete with chameleonic vocal turns and rotating characters, into a testament to both his ambition and, crucially, his humility. The hooks slice, the all-star production team never blinks, and Lamar leaves his listeners at once winded and utterly revitalized. Corey Beasley

 

Artist: Jessie Ware

Album: Devotion

Label: Island

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Jessie Ware
Devotion

Devotion begins not with a bang, but with a whimper. Fluttering electronic bird-chirps quiver over hard-edged bass syncopation as Jessie Ware begins to sing: “Used to be so close to me / Everything happens so easily / Life with you is like a dream / Without you there’s no way to be / Need your devotion.” Everything you need to know about Jessie Ware’s incomparable and spectacular debut album is encapsulated in the sound, melodies and lyrics of that first track, “Devotion”. The track is a jarring portrait of a confident woman questioning her internal struggles but with fierce determination and unwavering love. Moving straight into, probably the best track on the album, “Wildest Moments” tears through a conflicting love affair, and by the time that infectious and heart-wrenching chorus begins where she sings: “Baby in our wildest moments / We could be the greatest, we could be the greatest / Baby in our wildest moments / We could be the worst of all”, you’re hooked. This woman has packed more conflicting, nuanced complexities into the first two tracks of her album that many artists don’t succeed in doing in their entire careers. But for all its beautiful marrying between R&B and electronica, Devotion, much less Jessie Ware, isn’t the saviour of R&B, she’s the beacon of light leading the way for all other artists to follow. Enio Chiola

 

Artist: Tame Impala

Album: Lonerism

Label: Modular Recordings

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Tame Impala
Lonerism

“I know that I’ve gotta be above it now/I know that I can’t let them bring me down,” harps Kevin Parker to open Lonerism. This mantra sticks like glue throughout the winding psych-rock masterpiece. 2012 has seen many of Parker’s peers use the studio as a means to simply indulge their creative fantasies, with largely half-assed results. Parker however, walks boldly and follows his creative vision. In doing so, he not only set the bar high for expansive psych, he creates (And subsequently explores) an entirely new sonic language. Textured to the point that every listen yields new results, Tame Impala has done what others wouldn’t consider attempting. Refusing to have his vision put into a comfortable little box, Parker challenges listeners. Though the 12 tracks on Lonerism are never weird just for the sake of being so, they will take listeners on a ride. Lonerism is majestic in scope and reminds us how to still be in awe of a record. Joshua Kloke

 

Artist: Killer Mike

Album: R.A.P. Music

Label: Williams Street

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Killer Mike
R.A.P. Music

In teaming up with producer El-P, Killer Mike — a rapper long due for a coming out party — finally made the classic record everyone thought he could. He comes with the “hardcore G shit” he spits about in the album’s opening lines, but more important than that, Killer Mike brings a lot of heart here. Through all the bile spit here at dirty cops (“Don’t Die”), Reaganomics (“Reagan”) and even the self-destructive nature of hip-hop culture itself (“Reagan” again), Mike gives off a lot of experience here. If there’s a fine line between persona and personality in rap, Mike walks it well here and steers us towards honesty and a passion that cuts through his cynicism about politics or paranoia about power structures. In the end, as the closing songs on the record tell us, R.A.P. Music is “ghetto gospel”, an ode to the music that came before it, music that honors its heritage — both in hip-hop and in the black community — by trying to inspire and critique in the same way. It helps that El-P frames Mike’s raps in some futuristic mash-up of Southern rap and soul music. There were more high profile rap records, and records given credit for being high-concept (ahem, Kendrick Lamar), but in 2012 Killer Mike delivered the truest set of R.A.P. Music, not to mention the best. Matthew Fiander

5 – 1

Artist: Swans

Album: The Seer

Label: Young God

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Swans
The Seer

Before the release of The Seer, Swans frontman Michael Gira spoke of the album as being 30 years in the making. While it was unquestionably a culmination of his past endeavors, brought to bear in a vanquishing fashion, it was also a monstrously visceral image of the future. The album’s lengthy emotional trawls through darkness and luminescence were undeniably forward-thinking, gracefully arranged, and aggressively delivered, with Gira and co constructing edifices of vibrancy, sound and color — their foundations set deep in fertile, doom-laden soil. The Seer pummeled, stroked and nurtured, dripping with ecstatic catharsis like no other album from 2012, its thick hallucinogenic and physical tension released in palpable purgative doses throughout the album’s two-hour journey. Reveling in trepidatious rapture, The Seer celebrated life, death, chaos and fear as potently as in the Swans’ very best work. Through it all, the “lunacy, lunacy, lunacy…” was overwhelming resonant. Craig Hayes

 

Artist: Beach House

Album: Bloom

Label: Sub Pop

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Beach House
Bloom

It’s presumptuous but not farfetched to predict that 2013 will be the year of Beach House. Just like the Arcade Fire two years ago — best album Grammy, sold out world tours, deluxe album reissue — Beach House seems poised for mainstream success. Bloom, the Baltimore duo’s fourth LP, sold more than 40,000 copies the first week it was released, and for good reason. The album has all the hallmarks of a pop masterpiece: simple arrangements, hummable melodies, universal lyrics and the right amount of edge to appeal to a range of musical tastes. Bloom‘s success can also be attributed to timing: the album came out just as a new wave of dream pop artists seemed to be reaching their height in popularity. At its core, Beach House’s music owes much to dream pop progenitors like Cocteau Twins and Mazzy Star, though without the noise and disaffection of those bands’ work. The pretty, ethereal, slow-tempo songs that make up the bulk of Bloom, carried by Victoria Lagrand’s smoky voice, seem both evocative of the past and embracing of the future. It’s a formula that’s bound to earn Beach House new fans and even more acclaim in the days ahead. Michael Kabran

 

Artist: Fiona Apple

Album: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Label: Epic

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Fiona Apple
The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Fiona Apple has seemingly become the “Terrence Malick of Pop”. She takes bloody ages to do anything and when it arrives you’re often initially baffled. Cryptic curios written in tongues and riddled with riddles. Beautiful, poetic but spiked with sadness and so meticulously engraved you know every teeny detail is carved for a reason. But what does it all mean and er, which way is up? So you persevere. Days come, nights go, heads are scratched and slowly this most curious thing starts to breathe, show its colours, reveal its secrets. This Apple doesn’t dilute for no one; you gotta get off your fat ass and go up the mountain yourself to see these wonders. Stripped of the fanciful studio trinkets of Extraordinary Machine, Idler ultimately cuts both ways and like its reassuringly unique creator proves simultaneously intimate, distant, childlike, ancient, funny, saddening, maddening, yet vibrantly life-affirming. Folks, Apple’s Wheel is for the long road. Matt James

 

Artist: Japandroids

Album: Celebration Rock

Label: Polyvinyl

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Japandroids
Celebration Rock

Japandroids grow up on Celebration Rock. While they have haven’t tempered their rambunctious, hot-and-bothered sound too much — if at all — Japandroids’ point-of-view virtually matures over the course of its urgent sophomore effort. On Celebration Rock, the duo of singer/guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse proves that you can imbibe heedlessly like there’s no tomorrow at the same time you’re playing the house-party existentialist. So while loud, primal, excessive songs like “The Nights of Wine and Roses” and “Fire’s Highway” give you the idea that Celebration Rock isn’t just about hedonism, but an exercise in hedonism, there’s something deeper to Japandroids’ vivid vignettes than just empties and hangovers. The album captures how present tense turns into the past before Japandroids’ very eyes, their carpe diem indulgences becoming memories in real-time as the yearning strains of King’s vocals tell their tall tales. Nowhere is the sense that Japandroids are running against time — and out of time — so poignant and bittersweet as on “Younger Us”, as King frantically howls, “Gimme that you and me in a grave trust / Gimme younger us,” as if he’s desperately hanging on to something that’s slipping from his grasp. Celebration Rock is a testament to living for the moment because Japandroids know those days are numbered. Arnold Pan

 

Artist: Frank Ocean

Album: channel ORANGE

Label: Def Jam

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Frank Ocean
channel ORANGE

This is going to be a bad pun, and I certainly don’t mean to make light of the situation, but Channel Orange was one big coming out party for Frank Ocean as an artist on a number of fronts. His announcement on Tumblr that he had unrequited feelings for another man just a week or so ahead of this album’s release (which, in turn, was moved up a week from the date it was supposed to be released — say what you will if you’re cynical) was an act of gravitas. As an African-American artist who openly expressed that he had same-sex leanings, he was a pioneer, a real trailblazer. Being black and working in the hip-hop industry — one that is often well known for its expressions of homophobia — isn’t easy, so that move to out himself alone would have crowned him Artist of the Year in most critics’ books. All of this, however, would obscure and overshadow the fact that the album itself was a brilliant amalgam of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. From the soulful “Thinkin’ Bout You” to the piano vamps of “Super Rich Kids” to the grandeur of the 10-minute long centerpiece “Pyramids”, Channel Orange would have been an exception album by any artist, regardless of its maker’s sexual leanings. It’s hard to listen to the record without thinking of the impact Ocean’s announcement that he was bisexual had on rocking a particular community of musicians, let alone listeners, which may be, in a sense, a tad bit unfortunate, but forget all that. Just get lost in the warm vibes of this R&B masterpiece, and let the music do the talking instead. Zachary Houle

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