The Artists of the Year: 2012 Edition

The 2012 artists of the year span urgent political punk and hip-hop challenging the establishment whether political or economic to the rise of a new generation of pop divas and forward-looking indie and R&B.

 

25

Ty Segall

There were only two artists that managed to crank out three worthy LP’s in the span of 2012. One was the newly-reformed “classic lineup” of Guided By Voices, the other was garage/punk upstart Ty Segall who’s been not-so-quietly toiling away at his craft for years and managed to explode this year. In that fist-fight it doesn’t matter what way you spin it, Ty Segall comes out on top. Ty Segall and White Fence’s collaborative LP Hair, the Ty Segall Band’s Slaughterhouse, and Ty Segall’s own Twins all rank among 2012’s finest releases with Segall at the center kicking up a frenzied storm of dust. It didn’t matter whether he was entertaining his psychedelic impulses, giving in to Black Sabbath worship, touring relentlessly, or just exorcising his frustrated demons, he was a joy to listen to and a wonder to behold this year. All of his work seemed to culminate in a performance on Letterman the night before the election where he and his band savaged their way through “You’re the Doctor” off of his most recent release this year, Hair. In that moment, everything seemed to come together and he had no problem announcing himself as someone to be feared, respected, and admired. One thing’s for sure, if he keeps this pace and you get in his way, you’re going to get destroyed. I’m not even sure the sky’s an appropriate measure of limit for Segall right now, his future’s been blown wide open by an unbelievable year. Here’s to hoping he can duplicated in the years to come. Steven Spoerl

 

24

Chromatics

Johnny Jewel is rapidly becoming some sort of dark disco, dandified Pied Piper leading his ever growing army of sharp lookin’ waif ‘n’ stray disciples off into the electric night. In 2012 the cult of Double J probably picked up a boat load of new recruits. Following on from his lauded contributions to 2011’s Drive soundtrack came his own sparse ‘n’ spectral ‘On the lam in glam’ cinematic project, Symmetry. Just two months later Jewel dusted off his Chromatics’ cap and finally released the five-years-in-the-making electro-noir colossus Kill for Love. A 17-track midnight run perfect for a moonlit flit in your favourite satin scorpion jacket. With the forthcoming After Dark II compilation ready to soundtrack the Mayan apocalypse and Glass Candy’s eternally awaited Body Work waiting to kick your zombie ass in early 2013 two things are for sure, one Jewel’s gonna need a sit down and a power nap and two, he’s gonna need a bigger boat. Matt James

 

23

Wadada Leo Smith

To the shortlist of socially aware artworks that’ll outlive us all — Picasso’s Guernica, Roth’s American Pastoral, Kushner’s Angels in America — add Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers, a four-disc jazz/classical Civil Rights tribute that Smith composed over the last 30 years, but only recently finished and recorded for Cuneiform Records. (This year he also released Ancestors, a duet album with percussionist Louis Moholo-Moholo, on TUM.) For the past 40-plus years, Smith has trumpeted and led ensembles with a prolific host of jazz notables, but Freedom has brought him new prominence and acclaim. Rightly so. Energetically played, perfectly recorded, abstract yet accessible, and provocatively titled (“Buzzsaw: The Myth of a Free Press” riffs on a journalism exposé), Freedom takes in all of America, suggesting how the key figures and ideas of the Movement still speak our national story. Josh Langhoff

 

22

Pepe Deluxé

Theirs is an unlikely success story, but despite releasing an album every four years or so since the late ’90s, Pepe Deluxé finally hit its stride in 2012. Queen of the Wave proved to be a spiritual successor to Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk, between its absurd videos, the disparate remixes on its three singles, and the 64-page full-color hard cover book that accompanies the Deluxé edition (complete with a bonus disk of original material that doubles its length as well as Top Trumps cards and coffee coasters). To audiophiles with a sense of whimsy, Queen of the Wave is the ultimate package. But then, after putting six years of effort into this album, the band turned around and gave all the profits to a charity effort to clean the polluted Baltic Sea. Where to go next? Cue the reluctant porn star hero Ron Jeremy, who promised to bankroll their next album in exchange for an original EP, assured of its prospective quality by what he learned of the band in 2012. What he saw was the world Pepe Deluxé’s music creates. Unlike so many flash-in-the-pan, fad genre meme-sicians who depend on shrouding themselves in mystery to make up for a lack of vision and content, Pepe creates a world in rich detail, tapping into not only the sound but the spirit of progress and experimentation that made psychedelic rock such a generation-defining movement, but go so far as to leave listeners a map to navigate their journey into the thoughtfully arranged unknown. In their world, humans realize their potential, their desire to fly, to astral project, to overcome evil, to love against odds, to be excellent to each another, and to care about tomorrow. Alan Ranta

 

21

Anathema

For me, Anathema’s Weather Systems is a spiritual experience; nowhere else have I heard such a powerful, beautiful, and utterly emotional blend of vocals, lyrics, melodies, and instrumentation; each element speaks volumes about love, loss, and life, and even after dozens of listens, it’s still absolutely astounding. I’m not ashamed to admit that Weather Systems is the only album that’s ever brought me to tears. Every second of Weather Systems is damn near perfect. From the fiercely arpeggiated “Untouchable Part 1” to the heavenly intricacy of “The Gathering of the Clouds”, from the serene optimism of “Lightning Song” to the dynamic duality of “The Storm Before the Calm”, and from the lusciously orchestrated “The Lost Child” to the devastating finality of “Internal Landscapes”, Weather Systems expresses our most fragile, personal fears and feelings expertly. Not only is it Anathema’s best work, but in its own unique way, it’s the greatest album I’ve ever heard.

To put it simply, “The Gathering of the Clouds” (from Anathema’s latest masterpiece, Weather Systems) is a work of genius. The piece begins with thunder and rapidly played guitar arpeggios, which connect the song to both the album’s title and the previous two tracks. From there, vocalists Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas belt out different melodies that combine in an extremely complex and magnificent way. As the song progresses, the increasing orchestral intensity adds even more emotion and weight to the experience. The lyrical connection to the group’s previous LP is also pretty brilliant. All in all, it’s an affective, gripping, beautiful, and uplifting gem. Jordan Blum

20 – 16

20

Neil Young (and Crazy Horse)

I wonder if Neil Young sat down and made a 2102 to-do list last January or thereabouts. If he did, did it include Americana, an appropriately strange assortment of folk traditionals (from “Gallows Pole” to Guthrie) revved up and run through the Crazy Horse grinder? Did it include Psychedelic Pill, the Horse’s sprawling if occasionally meandering victory lapse through analog-powered Ragged Glory terrain, setting records for Shakey’s lengthiest studio album (Pill) and song (“Driftin’ Back”) of all time? What about Waging Heavy Peace, Young’s first (and likely last) memoir? And Pono, the songwriter’s own forthcoming digital music-download service? And resurrecting Crazy Horse for a raucous first tour in nearly a decade? And prepping the release of an accompanying live record set for release in 2013? God knows if Neil Young believes in the Mayan apocalypse, but he’s been living up this year as if it’s his last. Zach Schonfeld

 

19

Grizzly Bear

Over the course of their first three albums, Grizzly Bear steadily established a reputation as one of the most accomplished and appealing acts in modern indie rock. After the much lauded Veckatimest, with its ubiquitous single “Two Weeks”, the band could have put themselves on cruise control and released an album’s worth of easily digestible choir-boy sing-a-longs. But instead, they gave us Shields, their most raw, urgent and challenging work to date. While the lead single, “Yet Again”, is a triumphant anthem that will appeal to fans of their more accessible material, songs like “Sleeping Ute” and “Sun in Your Eyes” merge their characteristically gorgeous melodies with ambling prog-rock song structures and free-jazz rhythmic excursions. In addition to their musical output, the band was also the subject of a thought-provoking New York magazine profile in which they address the financial insecurity that plagues even the most successful indie artists in today’s eroding musical marketplace. Robert Alford

 

18

Baroness

After years of generating a good critical buzz and building up a sizeable fanbase among the metal crowd, Baroness had always hinted at broadening their sound to encompass indie rock and hard rock just as much as metal, and on their ambitious third album they finally got the guts to dive in head first and not care what the metal crowd had to say. The end result is the wonderfully conceived Yellow & Green, which shows astonishing musical growth and maturity, actually achieved the kind of crossover success people knew they had in them, and better yet, never for a second made it feel like the core sound of their music was ever compromised. A horrific bus crash in the summer left the band severely injured, especially frontman John Baizley. However, even in the wake of the accident, despite touring plans being put on hold indefinitely, Baroness remains optimistic. With Metallica’s management fully behind them and a major label deal inevitable, this band is primed for even bigger things after a year of well-earned highs and devastating lows. Adrien Begrand

 

17

Japandroids

Japandroids is, to put it simply, a band that understands its priorities. Three years after their debut, with desperate fans chomping at the bit, they didn’t take any left turns or pretentious creative indulgences. They didn’t hire a host of backup singers or fight with each other for creative control. Instead, they came back to their fans with a distillation of what they understood to make them great, and produced a better album because of it. Beauty, of course, has its costs, and in the end the band’s purist attitude threatens to destroy it. After all, the only alternative is a similar expression of different emotions, emotions that it doesn’t seem that the band is very well versed in. Like true musicians, however, the moment is what matters and bless them for it. Celebration Rock is a work of clear-minded vision, a vaulting and glorious expression with staying power much steadier than the band itself. Colin Small

 

16

Jack White

This is the Jack White we’ve been waiting patiently for ever since the White Stripes imploded in 2007. It’s not like White went away, of course. He was front and center with the Raconteurs and sitting in back on the drums in Dead Weather. He’s taken the time to star in a film about guitarists (It Might Get Loud), and started the famously idiosyncratic Third Man Records, which releases music on 7″ vinyl in extremely limited editions and not much else. But the Jack White we all knew from the White Stripes showed back up in 2012 with Blunderbuss, his first solo album. Blunderbuss is a record that recalls White’s most famous band without being beholden to it, and its singles (“Love Interruption”, “Sixteen Saltines”, “I’m Shakin'”) show off the album’s wide range of styles. The release of Blunderbuss also gave White the chance to let his vaudevillian huckster persona shine. He introduced the Rolling Record Store at Austin’s SXSW festival, selling records out of a truck. He showed up on The Colbert Report and parodied Colbert’s often-awkward interviews with musicians. Heck, he even opened the year with an appearance on History Channel’s American Pickers, looking to buy a taxidermied elephant head from hosts Mike and Frank. 2012 has been a great year for White, and an even better one for his fans. Chris Conaton

15 – 11

15

Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer wasn’t the first artist to use Kickstarter to raise money for an album, but she shattered fundraising records on that site and started a new public discussion about the efficacy of the independent model. Palmer has rewritten the rule book for artists on the rise, pioneering a business model centered on self. She’s a one-woman wrecking ball of self-promotion, engaging anyone who tweets @amandapalmer, creating an endless feedback loop of online contact that in turn wins her a bigger fanbase. That she has so efficiently commoditized herself is one thing, but that she used her Kickstarter money to fund Theatre Is Evil, the boldest, glitteriest rock album to come out in years, ensures that the future of crowd sourced musical patronage, and of Palmer herself, is incredibly bright. Adam Finley

 

14

Lana Del Ray

We love the ephemerality of pop culture. We love the distance music affords, we love not being able to understand it, or to identify with it. We’ve run in circles plastering and replastering copies of copies of copies like a giant Warholian printmaking machine. We set out expectations high because the carnage after the fall is more delightful. And we poised ourselves, with claws out, waiting for Lana Del Rey to break forth. She captured our hearts and minds with one song, “Video Games”. And we turned on her at the first few notes of Born to Die. Imitator, fake, vapid, beautiful, full of money, we cried. But she would not leave. She stayed printed on our public consciousness. We could not critique her away; we could not find any direct criticism of her music that was not directly tied to her looks, her fashion, and her projection of what she wanted to be, what she wanted us to see.

It’s no small feat in 2012 for an awkward 25-year-old to dominate headlines in a year when the Shins, Grizzly Bear, Aesop Rock, Justin Bieber, Mumford and Sons, Christina Aguilera, Rihanna, and No Doubt released new albums. She deserves our applause; she deserves our accolades. She can’t be deciphered and it drives us batshit crazy that we can’t easily explain (away) her ascent. We’re not done with Lana Del Rey until she says so. And that’s by her design, not ours. Scott Elingburg

 

13

Cloud Nothings

Dylan Baldi’s bubbly sideways emo garnered this project’s self-titled debut a fair bit of attention, but none of that perfectly pleasant indie pop prepared for the transformation that yielded 2012’s game-changing Attack on Memory. The upgrade from bedroom trifle to full-on band complete, this year’s Cloud Nothings model busted out in a big way, opening for ’90s revivalists like Silversun Pickups and selling out gigs in their own right. Though trace elements of the Promise Ring and Grant Hart’s Hüsker Dü remain, Attack on Memory jarred from the start with the opening slowcore creep of “No Future / No Past”, full of ominous whirls and sullen moans. Pairing “Wasted Days”, a nine-minute punk-psych freakout, with jangle-punk ditty “Fall In” should feel like a much more jerky juxtaposition than it does. In a year when Green Day tossed out three excessively regressive chum platters, it was refreshing that meaningful punk rock like this mattered more. Gary Suarez

 

12

Killer Mike

Killer Mike’s skills as a rapper have never been questioned. Everyone knows he’s a fantastic MC; loose, relentless, illimitable… But his position in hip-hop has proved tough to define. A one-time OutKast protégé, this ATLien’s jagged edges meant he never quite fit in with Big Boi and Andre 3000’s progressive leanings, nor did he sound comfortable in his own skin over three editions of his I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind series — an epic project that covered everything from coke rap and Lex Luger-like building crumblers, to soulful sex anthems.

While Pledge had some incredible moments, this lack of focus seemed to underline a common hip-hop tale: that great rappers don’t always make great albums. But in 2012 Mike finally put a classic under his belt with R.A.P. Music, an unyielding, politically-charge attack that hawked back to Ice Cube in his pomp. Produced entirely by New York underground king El-P, who’s battering East Coast beats provided the perfect foil for Mike’s wrath, the unlikely duo instantly entered the discussion of all-time great producer-rapper combinations. And to round out an amazing year in the career of Michael Render, he also appeared on “Tougher Colder”, a stand-out track on El-P’s own solo album Cancer 4 Cure. Dean Van Nguyen

 

11

Carly Rae Jepsen

The Canadian Idol vet will likely appear in many 2012 year-in-review stories in an unfairly limited way. “Call Me Maybe”, a contender for 2012’s best pop song, is a rare single that satisfies your sweet tooth on first listen, but also wears well enough to hold up to ubiquity. Yet with every fan tribute video, every adorable performance on late night TV, every parody, the song became all too interchangeable with Jepsen herself in the press and among listeners, prematurely damning her to one-hit-wonder status.

This conflation has arguably contributed to middling sales for Kiss, a pop album so undeniably -— even unnecessarily —- strong that “Call Me Maybe” wouldn’t even be the obvious lead single had it not been released first. Jepsen and her collaborators took obvious pains to make this collection of disarmingly innocent-sounding tunes about temptation and poor impulse control a no-filler affair (slightly marred by two less-than-great duets for which Jepsen is notably not credited as songwriter). The modest commercial performance of Kiss shouldn’t diminish Jepsen’s most curious accomplishment — at a time when many so-called poptimists decry the album as an outdated concept that privileges rock acts, this quintessentially pop artist was so determined not to hang her musical year on one great song that she ended up making a full-length on which nearly every track counts. David Bloom

10 – 6

10

Death Grips

There was some scratching of heads when Death Grips signed to major label Epic earlier in the year. Here was a decidedly underground, experimental and political hip-hop group that caused a frisson of excitement at live shows which was realised in the incendiary Exmilitary mixtape album, given away free by the band. Like all good things in music, it didn’t take long for the major labels to come sniffing and almost as quickly as they had appeared seemingly out of nowhere, Death Grips duly signed to Epic. This was always going to be an interesting marriage and so it turned out, albeit much shorter than anyone expected. Following the release of their first ‘official’ album their second No Love Deep Web was announced and slated for an October release. In the intervening period the group posted tracks from said album via their official online channels, most notably YouTube, before leaking the entire album for download in October. Epic didn’t take this well and subsequently booted them of the label, almost as quickly as A&M dropped the Sex Pistols all those years back. It’s suggested that Death Grips leaked the album because they were pissed that Epic pushed the release back to 2013. Or was this more of a political statement by Death Grips, purposefully signing to a major in order to publically highlight the continual outmoded working practices of the record industry? Who knows, but Death Grips are my band of the year for willfully sticking it to the man and highlighting the struggle that remains between artists and the ownership of their music and the major labels intractable business model which seeks total control and subordination of artists. Oh, the album is brilliant by the way! Jez Collins

 

9

Grimes

Claire Boucher has, in the recent past: attempted to sail the Mississippi from Minneapolis to New Orleans on a homemade houseboat replete with a cargo of several chickens and 20 pounds of potatoes; dropped a novelty single as a member of “supergroup” L$D, also featuring the possibly-ironic rapper Kreayshawn; designed and sold molded plastic jewelry in the shape of the external female genitalia, called “Pussy Rings”; oh, and released one of the most thrilling, inventive records of the year in Visions. Boucher, known to her ever-expanding fanbase as Grimes, hails from Montréal by way of Vancouver, but she might as well be the first emissary from a distant, relentlessly endearing galaxy. Grimes makes electro-pop at once buoyant and dark, danceable and lurching with unease, nodding to both Mariah Carey and Skinny Puppy. In other words, she’s the perfect emblem for our genre-busting, all-consuming, media-obsessive culture, pulling influences and touchstones from a mind-boggling array of disparate sources. But on Visions, the results of this Frankenstein tinkering become so smooth, so inviting, as to seem inevitable after the first spin of the disc. If Grimes represents the borderless future of independent pop music, we’re in good hands. Corey Beasley

 

8

Bruce Springsteen

2012 didn’t get off to the best start. The global financial crisis was still kicking around and notions of impending doom throughout the year didn’t leave many, ahem, reasons to believe. Enter the great blue-collar superhero, as if right on cue. The Boss had suffered himself in recent years, most notably with the death of E Street band fixture Clarence Clemons. But in March he released his 17th studio album, Wrecking Ball, and still finds himself on the road today. Springsteen chose not to sit back and critically analyse the problems plaguing the modern world. Instead, he stands up proudly and floors the obstacles with roundhouse kicks. Wrecking Ball wasn’t necessarily a return to form, but it was a reminder: after “Hope” became one of the more over-used terms of 2008, the very word is not a clichéd and topical term. Springsteen’s odes to the world around him on Wrecking Ball, such as the rousing “We Take Care of Our Own” and “We Are Alive” proves that the world he sees is one worth fighting for. Joshua Kloke

 

7

Taylor Swift

There’s a disconnect between the way the general hipster/serious music fan audience dismisses Taylor Swift’s music as teenpop-fluff for little girls and the way some of us critics approach her as one of the most interesting and rewarding pop singer/songwriters, whose albums are important events. With each album the latter group grows while the former seems to crow louder, heightened by her pop moves and transition into a Celebrity. The future is likely to keep moving people in her direction, as with each LP she’s growing her music in scope, depth and sound, while having fun trying out different things. Her 2012 album Red again shows that will continue; isn’t it just a matter of time before Pitchfork treats her as reverently as they do Beyoncé? Her music keeps evolving as she gets even better at articulating the varied emotions surrounding the gaps between childhood and adulthood, excitement and disappointment, love and hate, freedom and confusion. Dave Heaton

 

6

El-P

El-P has always been a champion of the underground, but for most of his Def Jux reign he also felt very adamantly opposed to being loved by anyone who wasn’t as alienated with the mainstream as he was. After a five-year break from solo LPs and typically sparse guest work, El-P burst out of his bubble with two of hip-hop’s strongest albums of the year and easily the two most sonically exciting. He improved greatly as a rapper on his solo album, Cancer 4 Cure, tilting his paranoia-ridden hardcore New York rhymes towards rowdy comedy, most obviously on lead single “The Full Retard”, where even his production feels more like a throwback to the heyday of LL Cool J and KRS-One than the alien rap that made him famous.

Cancer 4 Cure would be a great enough accomplishment for most, but his shocking pairing with Atlanta’s ghetto proselytizer Killer Mike proved to be even more jaw dropping. By marrying his various tool sets to that of Atlanta’s groove-heavy standards and Mike’s menacing politics and Ice Cube revivalism, the pair created the most dangerous hip-hop album since the Bomb Squad’s heyday. Whether it was the three beat “Don’t Die”, throwing molotovs at the social institution of government on “Reagan” or simply throwing words at the mic for the glory of sound on “Go!”, El-P was in perfect lockstep with Mike from beginning to end, crafting an album that felt every bit as natural as Cube’s turn to the east coast for his seminal screed AmeriKKKaz Most Wanted. El-P might make listeners wait an awfully long time to hear what’s been going on in his head, but when he explodes with creativity like he did in 2012, it’s impossible to hate him for taking his time. David Amidon

5 – 1

5

Swans

Swans frontman Michael Gira, known for making some of the most terrifying music ever heard by human ears, had the candid moment of his career in a sentence so small it’s easy to miss. While describing the demo version of “Lunacy”, the insomnia-inducing opening track of Swans’ two hour masterpiece The Seer, he notes, “I imagine in its final version it will be fairly grandiose, even pretty, if I can use that word.” Gira’s involvement in the folk project Angels of Light has allowed him some beauty in the traditionally understood sense of the word, but even that has its limits. “Reeling the Liars In”, one of the Angels of Light-inspired tracks from Swans’ 2010 comeback LP My Father Will Guide Me a Rope Up to the Sky, though kinda pretty, talked of burning liars and peeling off their skin. Gira’s wise act of self-deprecation is as close as someone can get to making light the music of Swans, which reached its undulating apex in The Seer.

As far as experimental rock albums go, it’s unparalleled; though primordial in its methods — riffs and beats are repeated ad nauseaum, all the while single notes drag on and on, forming punishing drones — it’s rewarding in its richness and sophistication. Gira’s forays into folk music are exactly what Swans 2.0 needed to blossom from their harsh, post-punk roots into something greater than anyone could have imagined. Pair that up with the phenomenal musicians that make up Swans alongside several memorable guest spots and you have a collective making the finest rock and roll in 2012. It’s the kind of stuff that gets under your skin, into your bloodstream, and into the deepest recesses of your brain: hauntingly powerful, and impossible to shake off. Brice Ezell

 

4

Fiona Apple

Let’s be honest most people in pop are frickin’ morons. They’re not “Artists”. They’re bean counters, chancers, puppets, rugrats, thieves or just bloody idiots. Love her or loathe her (and you should love her), Fiona Apple is an Artist. Like Prince, Joni or Bowie. They do what they want when they want to…and they’re also a little bit loopy. In 2012 Fiona Apple released an album (reassuringly bloody ‘n’ brilliant) with a typically “Fuck you” title and scrappy, hand-drawn sleeve after a SEVEN YEAR wait. She then got busted by the law and tossed into jail wearing what appeared to be a clown costume before entering into a surreal public spat with her jailor. She also made a video with a giant octopus. They don’t make people like Apple anymore. She was born out of time, “Miscast in a play, born in the wrong era”. For this we must be eternally grateful. Our popworld is a brighter, better place with gonzo geniuses like Fiona Apple. Vote Artist. Vote Madness. Vote Apple. Matt James

 

3

Kendrick Lamar

It’s a little ridiculous to call someone the “savior” of this or that form of music, knowing that there’ll just be a new one next year but it’s hard to avoid that phrase when reading about Kendrick Lamar. You can’t blame writers for getting excited about him though, after three highly-lauded independent releases and successful debuts from the rest of his Black Hippy crew. The Compton native further stoked excitement for his major label debut by spending much of the year with a stream of releases including “The Recipe”, “Westside, Right on Time”, and “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. During this time, he became an increasingly hot commodity, lending Dre some much needed credibility, collaborating with Lady Gaga and dropping hints about an album with J. Cole. Finally, in November, Lamar lived up to the hype with good kid m.A.A.d city, an album stunning in both its ambition and execution. The record debuted at #2 on Billboard and secured him a spot in pantheon of great Southern California rappers alongside Tupac, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. Success hasn’t seemed to have gone to his head, as can be witnessed by his response to a highly publicized Twitter diss from fellow rapper Shyne. While fellow Californians Game and Schoolboy Q lept to his defense, Lamar refused to engage, saying “it’s his opinion. One opinion can’t stop what the world thinks.” When you’ve had a year as good as his, it’s easy to let your music do the talking. John Tryneski

 

2

Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean is my Artist of the Year, but not so much for channelORANGE — excessively floaty and disengaged for my tastes, even the thrilling “Pyramids” — but for the way he connected with so many people this year before the album even dropped. It was all so perfectly 2012: a TextEdit post on a Tumblr account, a beautifully ambiguous narrative about falling in love with a man, posted on July 4; truly the stuff pop culture dreams are made of. (NOW we understood why those writhing drugged-up models in “Novacane” didn’t interest him one bit….) That this was considered such a brave statement says so much more about society than about Christopher Breaux himself. But watching him sing “Thinking About You”‘s gorgeous falsetto hook on “Saturday Night Live,” and realizing that my teenage kids and I all sang along with him at the same moment, seems like a pretty goddamned important moment in 2012. Matt Cibula

 

1

Pussy Riot

To say that Pussy Riot is the quintessential example of a band you’ve heard of but haven’t heard would be the grossest of understatements, considering that the Russian anarcho-punk collective has more members (11, at least according to Wikipedia) than songs (seven) and that they’ve garnered more headlines on The Huffington Post than it has tracks on iTunes — which wouldn’t be very hard because that number is zero. Yet with the detainment of three members after an ambush performance of “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Drive Putin Away” in front of the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February, Pussy Riot became a political cause known the world over, a protest-art act now iconic for its day-glo outfits and balaclava ski masks. Musically, they sound exactly like what you’d expect them to sound like, just even lower-fi and more rudimentary than riot grrrl was, though that’s probably as good as you get on re-dubbed YouTube videos. But it almost feels like judging Pussy Riot for its musicianship is like fiddling while Rome burns when they’ve given ultimate proof of the power of punk as a political statement, taking what was often happening in the underground in theory to a bigger stage with bigger stakes than ever. Arnold Pan

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