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The 75 Best Albums of 2012

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

Artist: My Jerusalem

Album: Preachers

Label: The End


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My Jerusalem

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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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

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'

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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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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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

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

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