The Best New Artists of 2012

The best new artists of 2012 have remade R&B for the new century, pushed eclectic art-rock in new directions, and kept indie rock and hip-hop strong.

 

30

Allah-Las

Plenty of today’s artists indie and major label alike make a name for themselves by mining the past. Yet few do so with such aplomb and painstaking accuracy as the Allah-Las, a Californian ensemble dedicated to a special sort of sensitive and sublime surf pop rooted in the Left Coast’s weird old days. The sun-soaked production of their self-titled debut for Innovative Leisure recalls a 1960s ideal that has been parodied so much that such a sincere attempt as this to reclaim it resonates so much. With enough tambourines to make a Byrds fan blush, their authentically breezy folk rock tunes harken back to the days of the Turtles while reminding us why the Jesus and Mary Chain so gleefully plagiarized from this period. Yet the unavoidable retrospective awareness of darker times in the counterculture adds an unintentionally murky filter, making cuts like “Sandy” a tad unpleasant, which incidentally is part of the fun. Gary Suarez

 

29

Oniunu

Onuinu is Dorian Duvall, a Cleveland native and Portland transplant whose debut album, Mirror Gazer blends huge dance beats with spacey electronics and fuzzed-out guitars. What sets Onuinu apart from the rest of the art-damaged electro pack is his ability to craft joyous, shout-along hooks that meld power pop heft with soulful R&B swagger. Songs like “Always Awkward”, “Happy Home” and “Mirror Gazer” burst with energy that is both captivating and undeniably fun. There are echoes of old-school hip-hop, Thriller-era Michael Jackson, Euro-house and glo-fi; and it all adds up to a highly original sound that Duvall calls simply “disco-hop”. For years, Onuinu has been a fixture on the dance floors of Portland’s warehouse district, and with Mirror Gazer, Duvall brings his crowd moving disco-hop soundscapes to an ever widening audience. Robert Alford

 

28

Space Ghost Purrp

SpaceGhostPurpp, aka Floridian Marquise Rolle, is another nihilistic anti-hero for our post-Wu Tang times, and a fascinating one at that. At first he comes off as black-hearted, hateful and sex-obsessed; actually that impression never changes, though his penchant for self-mythology and observational paranoia increases to an impressive level. He has a surprisingly understated throwback style, sometimes seeming like a mystic Schooly D, others like a perverse, bizarre-world Bad Boy Records act. (There’s a heavy dose of Ultramagnetic in here, too.) That all of his twisted visions are set against a musical horror-movie and sci-fi backdrop, with plentiful blips, bleeps and screams, makes this all the more intoxicating. Dave Heaton

 

27

Melody’s Echo Chamber

Under the paving stones, the beach! Yes, if you ever fancied une soirée dans Paris ’68 daydreamin’ through Montmartre and toastin’ a goblet of the green fairy (y’know absinthe), well just drop the needle on a copy of Melody Prochet’s debut LP… et voila! Produced by Tame Impala’s ‘Genius in Residence’ Kevin Parker it’s a perfect Molotov cocktail of chic Gallic cool, nouvelle vague, la liberte, blurr’d hallucinogenics, art, flowers, wine, acid and passionate kisses… with a soupçon of impending bloody revolution. Throughout Prochet’s kaleidoscopic, swoonsome vocal flickers hypnotically through a vivid miasma of colourful bangs, clatters, rolls, flutters and wows to deliriously disorientating effect. Just think Francoise Hardy fronting Stereolab. One of 2012’s most divinely unexpected pleasures now sparkin’ a word of mouth forest fire that could burn well into 2013. Matt James

 

26

RiFF RaFF

Despite the stigma associated with trying to make a career in reality television, there are a few individuals who have graduated from the format into respectable careers. American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson became an Academy Award-winning actress. Real World cast member Sean Duffy is now a Congressman. In 2012, we could add to these achievers the man born Jody Christian but known as RiFF RaFF aka Jody Highroller aka Rap Game Dr. Huxtable and many other aliases. Emerging in 2009 for a two-episode stint on MTV’s From G’s to Gents, RiFF RaFF has spent the past few years parlaying that initial exposure through a canny use of corporate brands (literally tattooed on his body), a dedicated form of Internet performance art that involves multiple identities, and above all bona fide rap skills. After a flirtation with SODMG in 2011, he’s now set to make millions via a reported five-year deal with Diplo’s Mad Decent. Label affiliation aside, it is his tireless creativity and endless stream of singles and videos that have made him the most entertaining rapper of the past year. Though many of his memorable verses have been on collaborative tracks with Action Bronson, Harry Fraud, Three Loco, Lil Debbie, and Kitty Pryde, among others, RiFF RaFF is unique in that he is a master parodist/practitioner, every bit as skilled in comedy as he is in lyrical flow. To watch him being interviewed or to try to parse his lyrics — an inspired mixture of non sequiturs and left-field pop culture references — is to be privy to a sort of entertainer presumably tailor made for the Internet age. Though while it seems like RiFF RaFF was everywhere in 2012, even that overexposure is a sleight of hand. After all, the millions of viewers contributing YouTube hits have not yet gotten a glimpse of the man behind the character. These days, when online anonymity seems impossible, that in itself is a stroke of genius. Thomas Britt

25 – 21

25

Kishi Bashi

K Ishibashi isn’t a new artist in the strictest sense. He was a founding member of a new wave indie band called Jupiter One, which started in 2003 and is still active today. However, in 2011, he split his name into Kishi Bashi and started taking his solo looping violin show on the road, landing gigs with Regina Spektor, Sondre Lerche, and of Montreal. After successfully gaining funding via Kickstarter, he released his solo debut 151a on Joyful Noise, which landed him on NPR’s radar for a Tiny Desk Concert. 151a is lush, whimsical, and romantic, with a subtle undercurrent of debauchery. He’s been known to throw in some beat boxing and play a hip-hop fueled track called “Just the Tip” live, his processed looping positioning him as a less aggressive, higher fidelity version of tUnE-yArDs. Yet, for how far he could take his sound into crazy-town, as he is prone to do live, 151a shows a remarkable amount of restraint, particularly compared to his arguable hip-hop and orchestral pop contemporaries. Rather than clubbing you to death with weirdness, the album comes off ethereal, thoroughly ecstatic yet somewhat out of reach, like silk sheets caught in a breeze softly brushing against your fingertips. Alan Ranta

 

24

Hundred Waters

Gainesville, Florida’s Hundred Waters blur the boundaries between the organic and the electric with their ornate and unchained compositions. Languid guitars and rapturous strings merge with spiraling electronics, off-kilter beats and singer Nicole Miglis’s stately soprano. Over the course of the year, Hundred Waters has shared the stage with like-minded indie-classical chanteuse Julia Holter, as well as more electronically oriented noise-smiths such as Diplo, Skrillex and Grimes. And their self-titled debut is one of the most ambitious and technically accomplished pop records of the year. Robert Alford

 

23

Ondatrópica

That man Will Holland again! This time he has teamed up with Bogota band leader Mario Galeano of Frente Cumbiero fame to form Ondatrópica. Joining Holland and Galeano are the cream of Colombian musicians — Fruko, Anibal Velásquez, Michi Sarmiento, Alfredito Linares, Pedro Ramayá Beltran, Markitos Mikolta, and Wilson Viveros — this really is an equivalent to the fabled Buena Vista Social Club. Like them, Ondatrópica seek to bring to a wider audience the incredibly diverse and rich heritage of Colombian music but with a slight variation. Ondatrópica infuse the music with new interpretations merging old and modern styles.

Their debut release was recorded live in the legendary Discos Fuertes studio in Medellin using analogue recording techniques which ensures the startling mix of cumbia and traditional coastal sounds, salsa, bossa nova, jazz, funk, hip-hop, Afrobeat, electro and dub just oozes out of the speakers. The album received almost unanimous critical praise and was followed by a series of live events that further burnished their reputation. Allied to a smart online presence and campaign, 2013 will see Ondatrópica reaching bigger audiences bringing a surge of interest to the wonderful music of Colombia and pushing Ondatrópica to the forefront of this revival. Get on them before they go Buena Vista! Jez Collins

 

Photo: Shawn Brackbill

22

Debo Band

The backstory behind Debo Band makes the neo-Ethopian-pop collective one of the more fascinating acts around, new or otherwise. Second-generation Ethiopean emigrants, ethnomusicologist Danny Mekonnen and singer Bruck Tesfaye conceived of Debo Band to do more than relive the ’60s-’70s “Golden Age” of Ethiopian pop, but to forge new hybrid traditions of their own making — after all, the eponymous debut was produced by a member of Gogol Bordello at a studio where Battles recorded and released by Sub Pop. The 11-piece Boston collective conveys much more than a rote admiration of music from a bygone time and place, instead creating a niche all its own on an impressive and ingenious first effort. It’s like Debo Band is closing a transcultural feedback loop with its music, as free jazz, R&B, and funk that influenced Ethiopean pop in the first place are now brought back into the mix in their more contemporary incarnations, along with hints of klezmer and art music. Debo Band can’t help but be appreciated for its loving glance to the past, yet the real reason the group stands out here and now is for a lively, thoroughly current sound that promises even more for the future. Arnold Pan

 

21

Advance Base

Owen Ashworth enjoyed a decade of indie accolades as the driving force behind Casiotone for the Painfully, but his return to music under the name Advance Base has seriously upped the ante for lyrical storytelling and musical minimalism. Trading in his Casiotone for a Rhodes and bringing on a female vocalist, Ashworth treated us this year to A Shut-In’s Prayer, a series of unflinching portraits of that liminal space between youth and adulthood which is often ham handed by less talented artists. A Shut-In’s Prayer was one of the finest albums of 2012, and it sets the stage for Ashworth to have a long and successful run as Advance Base. Adam Finley

20 -16

20

DIIV

Before the first note of Oshin was even recorded, DIIV had a stellar recipe for success. First, the members are from the perpetual band-generating capital of the U.S. known as Brooklyn. Secondly, the lineup consists of members of other stellar bands (Colby Hewitt — formerly of Smith Westerns, Zachary Cole Smith has played with Beach Fossils). And finally, they are signed to the fast-growing Captured Tracks label. But DIIV’s talents reach far beyond their “lucky break” pedigree. The band’s shoegaze-style mix of watery guitars and poppy vocals take listeners back to the “college rock” era of the ’80s, where listeners had to do a lot more legwork to track down such a sound. Take a listen to “How Long Have You Known?” and you can almost smell the must of the dark recesses of a college library. Sean McCarthy

 

19

Goat

Sweden has a long tradition of bands specializing in the hard rock and proto-metal of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and 2012 yielded a bumper crop of fantastic old-school music. Nothing, though, was anywhere near as quirky and contagious as an obscure band from the north part of the country that came along with an absolute jaw-dropper of a debut album in the summer that became a startling word-of-mouth success. “Have you heard this band?” was the impassioned line that echoed in record stores and the internet, as people tried to put into words just what was so special about Goat. In a nutshell: a bunch of anonymous Swedes playing repetitive krautrock jams accentuated with African chants and percussion, as well as the kind of searing lead guitar that would make Ron Asheton smile if he was still alive. Gimmicky? Oh, hell yes, but then again, rock music is great when there’s a good gimmick, and Goat has a brilliant one. If Goat are unable to top this album — here’s hoping they do — at least we had that fantastic period in 2012 when we writers did our best to convince our friends and readers to hear this amazing, obscure record. Adrien Begrand

 

18

Wild Nothing

When Jack Tatum began releasing music under the Wild Nothing banner, he was a 21-year-old college student living in Blacksburg, Virginia, recording primarily to his laptop. Wild Nothing’s debut album Gemini was a charmingly scruffy set of gauzy, dream pop tunes that gave little warning of the remarkable evolution that occurs on this year’s Nocturne. That record is an inviting, endlessly infectious album that has quietly eclipsed highly anticipated sophomore releases from big-ticket bands like xx and Twin Shadow. A nearly flawless set of shimmering, hook-heavy songs, Nocturne sounds like the lost soundtrack to a grainy home movie of someone’s summer vacation, circa 1987. Tatum’s musical touchstones are obvious (tracks like “Midnight Song” and “The Blue Dress” sound more like the Cure than anything the Cure has released in at least 20 years), yet he never sounds beholden to his influences, the mark of a truly skilled composer. In recent months Wild Nothing opened for Beach House and released a video featuring A-list actress Michelle Williams. As the band concludes its first world tour as headliners, anticipation for the follow-up to the still brand new Nocturne has already begun to build. Daniel Tebo

 

17

Carly Rae Jepsen

If you like to claim that there wasn’t at least one moment throughout all of 2012 that you didn’t come across Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” by accident and didn’t say to yourself, “Oh, this is great,” then you are a lying like a rug. The pop star broke through after not even being good enough to win Canadian Idol with the song of the summer this year and then even managed to follow that up with the unthinkable: She landed another hit with “Good Time”, her Owl City collaboration that packs as much sugar as a high school vending machine. The most fantastically ironic part of it all is that she’s nowhere near the way she looks or sounds in age. Sure, her appearance suggests the singer is gearing up for a college cheerleading competition, and yeah, that voice is as innocent as a character on Sesame Street (sans Elmo, of course), but there’s no denying the unadulterated amount of gloss that bleeds its way into every bit of her musical output. There will forever be a place for that in this world, and for as much as you may want to think you despise “Call Me Maybe” after the 5,000th time you heard it, there’s still one thing you simply can’t deny: Carly Rae Jepsen sure knows how to get your attention. The fun part now will be watching to see if she can keep it. Colin McGuire

 

16

Divine Fits

So, supergroups almost never work. We try to like them, and there are plenty of strong reviews for projects like Monsters of Folk and Broken Bells, but are we still listening to very much of the music? Does anything feel essential? This is what makes the Divine Fits project so satisfying. Equal parts Dan Boeckner (of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs) and Britt Daniel (of Spoon), with a dash of New Bomb Turks’ Sam Brown thrown in the mix, the album feels like something we will be listening to deep into 2013. While neither Boeckner nor Daniel try anything particularly novel, if you like any of their previous work, this will sound familiar and enjoyable. Daniel’s contributions include Spoon-worthy “Flaggin’ a Ride” (echoing singles like “I Turn My Camera On”) and “The Salton Sea” (echoing album cuts like “The Ghost of You Lingers”); Boeckner’s contributions are perhaps even better, including lead single “My Love is Real” and album highlight “Baby Get Worse.” Matt Paproth

15 – 11

15

Julia Holter

These days, there’s as strong a movement of adventurous, art-minded women songwriters as ever, with Julia Holter finding her place alongside the likes of Grimes, Julianna Barwick, and Yamantaka//Sonic Titan in the vanguard. Of this cohort, the L.A.-based Holter might not only be the most mercurial artist of the bunch, but also the most artistically rigorous. For sure, Holter can hash it out with the best of ’em when it comes to music theory and composition — she’s a grad of CalArts — but what wins the case for her is a whimsical tone that gets to the heart of the human dimension of her high-concept art-music. So while it’s her formidable skills for putting classical instrumentation into dialogue with state-of-the-art electronics that grab your attention on her breakout work Ekstasis, what holds it is a poppy undertone to the music that’s irrepressible, most often bubbling up in her melodically true vocals. Holter shows that avant-garde music might take a little more effort to penetrate, but at their core, experimental forms are meant to get at new kinds of experiences that are all too human. Arnold Pan

 

Photo: Emma Garr

14

Father John Misty

It may be cheating to call Father John Misty new, since J. Tillman — the man behind the moniker — has been putting out solo records for years (and he drummed for some band called Fleet Foxes). But with the change of name came a re-invention of writing and sonic palate for Tillman, and the shift was charming, darkly funny, and downright miraculous. Turning away from the bleak folk of his solo records, Father John Misty comes off as both earnestly heartbroken and a hilarious send-up of the folk troubadour and artist. When he admits “pretty soon I’ll be breaking things like Howard Hughes” or bemoaning his clichéd decision to write a novel, you see him poking at the notions of the tortured artist, and he does it by taking us through all kinds of genres, from barroom-country-blues to seething dream-pop, to tack-piano rags. With his new name, Tillman really did become a new artist, one that refashioned his sweet, melancholy voice into something more charming, and somehow more intimate even as it hides behind jokes. The details are right on, the compositions ornate but never overdone, and the songs themselves — despite their black humor — do have heart at the middle of them, for the history of music, for the struggle to create. Father John Misty may carry the name of a false prophet, but through all his lies and deflections, he accidentally speaks a truth, and sweetly. Matthew Fiander

 

13

Purity Ring

If you’ve have an ear to the ground and an eye to the blogs since late last year, then you can’t have missed the hype building around Canadian electro/dream-pop act Purity Ring. Of course, hype only works if you can convert it to genuine acclaim, but with the release of their much anticipated debut Shrines, they’ve proven that they are more than capable of delivering on that early promise. With sonic echos of the Knife and Robyn swirling around them, they inhabit a beautifully conflicted musical landscape that feels joyous, ethereal and unnerving all at once. There have been many bands trying to capture the musical zeitgeist of 2012, but few have got the balance so right, as when Corrin Roddick’s shimmering electronic ambiance interweaves with Morgan James seductive and ghostly vocals. Their music blurs and buzzes with wondrous, glossy, danceable melodies, whilst beautifully dark lyrics (part nursery rhyme, part nightmare) unfold to reveal this duo’s deep and unfathomable centre. Tom Fenwick

 

12

THEESatisfaction

We may have first heard Catherine Harris-White and Stasia Irons singing in the background of Shabazz Palace’s excellent Black Up, but when they gave their own soulful, eccentric twist on hip-hop as THEESatisfaction, they drew their own line in the sand, separating themselves with a les chunked-up, more smooth and funky version of soul-cum-rap on awE naturalE. It’s an album that seems content to establish an idea, repeat it a few times, and then move on. But what first presents as A.D.D. or musical schizophrenia becomes, over listens, a careful patchwork of traditions. The rolling pianos and sweet melodies of “Existinct” shifts quickly into the thumping, tensed-up funk roll of spoken-word rap “Deeper”, which shifts into the neo-soul, electro-twisted horns of “Sweat” and so on. THEESatisfaction is a duo that presents sounds you know but turns them ever so subtly — with an electronic tweak, or a clever turn in the beat, or their uncannily smooth shifts between raps and singing — into something that exists on its own plain. New artists sometimes are so intent on paving their own path, they ignore tradition. THEESatisfaction is savvy and confident enough to reshape those traditions into their own sound. And that use of tradition, and re-imagining of it, is what makes the duo so original. Matthew Fiander

 

11

Angel Haze

As a self-proclaimed iconoclast, Angel Haze isn’t exactly all that unique in the rap world. Coming into the blogosphere early this year with her clap-driven “New York”, she stated her opposition to the industry without really showing it. In fact, poo-pooing the state of hip-hop and stating confidently that she was going to “change the game” is par for the course. Luckily, however, Haze showed rather than told her worth. With tracks like “Werkin Girls” and “Cleaning Out My Closet” she showed, first of all, that she is an extremely confident lyricist. Unlike a lot of rappers that are eager to prove their lyrical prowess, her self-evident talent speaks for itself, leaving the audience all the more impressed. More importantly, she has a gift for the empathetic and modest thematic presentation, approaching anything from women’s issues to her own childhood rape memories with the same even handed, yet extremely passionate voice. Colin Small

10 – 6

10

METZ

Proof that “CMJ buzz” still exists in 2012, Canada’s Metz were almost universally declared the victors of the festival, with blog love and raving fans raining down like drops of sweat at the band’s furious live sets. Metz makes a type of rock music pushed to the sidelines of the indie world of late: loud, aggressive, and unapologetically scummy. The trio’s self-titled debut reigns in the chaos of its live shows, honing its tracks down to razor sharp shivs of raw power. But Metz doesn’t merely turn things up and bash away at its instruments like your first high-school punk band. These are well-crafted songs, tuneful and dissonant, moments of harmony giving way to explosive drums and scorching riffs. This is a band to lead the charge in reclaiming indie rock for the scuzzballs. Who are we taking it back from? I won’t name names, but let’s just say these dudes won’t be putting out a Christmas box set anytime soon. Corey Beasley

 

9

Lianne La Havas

Lianne La Havas is as hot a prospect right now as any. Coming from the UK, one of most prominent nations guilty of devouring young pop hopefuls through various reality TV competitions, it’s pleasing to know that true talent can still be uncovered and showcased in the correct way. Signed to Warner Bros, the 23-year-old Londoner dropped her debut album, Is Your Love Big Enough?, last summer. Striking up a song-writing partnership with Matt Hales (who releases records under the monikor Aqualung), La Havas’s agile guitar playing and sweet vocals carried a set of songs that displayed her own stylish fusion of pop, soul and folk. Like most great artists, La Havas hasn’t arrived fully formed. The record perhaps has a few too many washy ballads cluttering its second half. But she’s a precocious talent, with musicianship matched only by her star quality. Dean Van Nguyen

 

8

Icky Blossoms

While it may not be anything new to merge disco beats and synth pop textures to the alt-rock realm, Omaha’s Icky Blossoms do it with such panache that they can’t help but be viewed as something special. The eclecticism the trio showcases on their eponymous debut, both in terms of musicality and emotional stimulus, is striking, each disparate facet handled with remarkable deftness for such a young band. Whether inducing trances with the deadpan sacrilege of “Sex to the Devil” or the even grimier sex romp of “Babes”, lighting the match on the incendiary punk ravings of “I Am” and the “Burn Rubber” or toning it down for a little nihilistic pathos on “Cycles” and “Stark Weather”, the Icky Blossoms ooze confidence, not being the least bit shaky in any realm. Part of the appeal also lies in the fact they straddle that line between the sincere and the saturnine. In a realm where pure irony has become the pervasive mood, Icky Blossoms stand apart for throwing that paradigm into question. Cole Waterman

 

7

Charli XCX

Twenty-year-old Charlotte Aitchison has been making idiosyncratic dance pop singles since 2008, but her career began in earnest in late 2011 with history’s greatest post-apocalyptic love song “Nuclear Seasons” and the slightly chillier follow-up “Stay Away”. In 2012, Charli XCX continued her streak, becoming one of the year’s most intriguing pop artists without even putting out an album. Instead, she staked her rep on live appearances (including a prime opening spot for Coldplay) and a smart release strategy that played to the strengths of each bundle of songs. The only music she released for sale was the You’re the One EP (in various international incarnations), which banked on the safe-bet combo of the months-old “Nuclear Seasons” and the similarly dramatic title track. She otherwise let the freebies flow steadily, releasing the atypically light “Valentine” and “I’ll Never Know” as self-contained downloads, a batch of new songs and remixes mostly in her established goth-pop vein on the Heartbreaks and Earthquakes mixtape, and yet more new songs and remixes with a slight R&B bent on the Super Ultra mixtape. Considering the general quality of this deluge, it’s practically a footnote that she co-wrote Icona Pop’s bulldozing “I Love It”, the most fun you could have this summer under three minutes. David Bloom

 

6

Django Django

British quartet Django Django’s entry into the U.S. music scene began with blatant buzz from this year’s SXSW and airplay on KCRW, KEXP and WFUV’s “The Alternate Side”. Confident songs such as “Hail Bop” and “Default” from the self-titled debut also provided an impressive introduction to the band. With an art rock aesthetic (the group met at an Edinburgh art school) that still embraces pop structures, their danceable tunes feature vocal harmonies chugging over an electronic backbone. They seem to add in hand claps and plenty of hand percussion just for fun. A full listen to the album finds an airy instrumental simply called “Introduction” for the first track and a wide variety of stylistic methods throughout, from the jaunty approach in “Life’s a Beach” to the cultural references in “Zumm Zumm” and “Skies Over Cairo”. Django Django is undaunted by conventions of any sort, refreshing and irresistible at the same time. Jane Jansen Seymour

5 – 1

5

Kendrick Lamar

To those of us for which hip-hop is a bit of a dalliance, such as me, Kendrick Lamar was a completely unknown quality — until he dropped good kid, m.A.A.d city this past October, that is. I suspect the same sentiment is true for most casual music listeners, as it just seemed that Lamar came out of nowhere as an independent recording artist to one being on a major label (Interscope), never mind the fact that the first single from the deluxe edition (“The Recipe”) dropped in April. The jump to the majors turned out to be a blockbuster move for its author considering that his sophomore album debuted in the No. 2 slot on the US Billboard 200 chart and peaked at No. 16 in the more conservative UK. And, oh, the rewards to be had for those willing to come along for the ride with this seemingly unknown quantity. On the record, Lamar is so honest, so raw, so willing to acknowledge that he has flaws — and that he’s willing to turn to God to better his life. Not only is that, in itself, a rare quality in the world of hip-hop, it makes Lamar an artist to look up to, even when you’re following him throughout whatever dark holes that he finds himself in. To deliver an album that is as near perfect as good kid, m.A.A.d city is a feat in and of itself, and to anyone who like pure music that is unflinching in its singular vision of how life is lived, projects or no, Lamar is the real deal that enthusiastic observers such as I will be keeping a finger on well into 2013. Clearly, he is one of the best new artists to grace the pop culture playing field this year, even though he may have come in rather late to the game by dropping his noteworthy, filler-free record just only weeks ago, in late October, and seemingly out of the ether at that. Zachary Houle

 

4

Grimes

2012’s Visions may’ve been Claire Boucher’s third symphony but it was the first one to really send Grimes to the frontline. An uncategorizable (Electronica? Hip-pop? Classical? World? Er, Enya on Ketamine?) piece of musical sorcery recorded in true Merlin-style during a three-week, matchsticks on the eyes, Colonel Kurtz worthy “Where IS my Mind?” lockdown in her basement it pretty much beguiled anyone who discovered it. Since its release back in chilly January Grimes’ legend has snowballed via her heroic, yet often lovably scrappy, live shows, the Jimmy Fallon hijack, the yarn of the “Velvet Glove Cast in Iron”, the “Phone Sex” collaboration and er, her line of “Pussy Rings”. It’s perhaps no surprise then she recently nuked a European tour citing exhaustion. Grimes’ — and Visions’ — strongest card is not only a contrary defiance to avoid definition but a desire to remain refreshingly unpredictable. Doubtful even Boucher herself knows what happens next. Unpredictability? Adventure? Darn it might just catch on. Matt James

 

3

Alt-J

It’s a shoe-in to pick British art-rock band ∆ (Alt-J) as a best new artist for 2012. Their debut album An Awesome Wave peaked at #13 on the UK charts, and took home the country’s prestigious Mercury Prize. Yet, their success was far more substantial than mere hype. In fact, many critics did their best to derail the band, with their album drawing middling and even negative reviews from such notable publications as Pitchfork, Mojo, and the A.V. Club. Despite this, the uncommon vocal timbre and cinematic lyrics of Joe Newman resonated with audiences who fondly remember films like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Léon: The Professional, while the quartet’s schizophrenic instrumentals sifted through trip-hop, electronic-rock, and indie-pop influences linked together by acoustic folk guitar picking, a cappella vocals, and piano interludes. They sounded at once familiar and experimental, their melodies infectious and songwriting sweet yet honest, a compliment to fellow Mercury nominees Django Django, and natural successor to the lineage of Radiohead, but without all the years of expectations and emotional baggage. Alt-J felt like a fresh start. It also helped that the videos for “Breezeblocks” and “Something Good” rank among the most inspired and compelling examples the medium has ever produced. Alan Ranta

 

2

Jessie Ware

What happened to R&B? There was always a quirky sense of humour and seductive, often times subtle, form of sexuality in its roots, and deep down most artists preached respect, love and class. That quickly started to slide into raunchy territory during the ’90s when shock-value explicitness and tired pop-production techniques reigned supreme. And with Sade only releasing one album every nine years, you had to search high and low for some true forms of R&B that would keep the genre fresh and moving. Enter Jessie Ware, the anti-R&B star. Making soft footprints with each subsequent track released from her stellar debut album Devotion, Ware doesn’t go for the flash and trash found in throwaway tracks like Simone Battle’s “He Likes Boys”, or Rihanna’s ludicrous farce “Birthday Cake” with former/newly reunited boyfriend/abuser/best-friend Chris Brown.

No. Ware is the epitome of what traditional classy R&B music used to be. However, unlike predecessors Sade and Whitney, Ware is moving the direction of R&B by nudging it gently and respectfully into a new terrain. The bouncy and often times darkly laden production choices on Devotion don’t completely acquiesce to the traditional R&B tropes. Its fluidity between deep bass registers and electronic thumbprints suggest a real passion in Ware’s musical direction honouring the genre while simultaneously moving it forward and away from the pop tartlets that have domineered it for far too long. Arguably, Ware hasn’t had the banner year that would make her a household name, however, her unmitigated class, powerful voice that never over emphasizes or overshadows the song itself, is a beautiful start to an artist’s career whose longevity will certainly outlast so many others. She’s a refreshing change of pace and an invigorating reawakening to a genre that had all but died in the last decade. Enio Chiola

 

1

Frank Ocean

Last year, Frank Ocean made some waves with his critically acclaimed mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA., his membership in the often-controversial Odd Future collective, and his guest appearances on Watch the Throne. Then came his July performance of “Bad Religion” on Jimmy Fallon, his incredibly personal open letter about his sexuality, and, of course, the tremendous achievement of his debut album, channel ORANGE. Frank Ocean didn’t just have what might be the biggest 2012 of any debut artist — he instantly established himself as a fixture in the R&B pantheon. On autobiographical tracks like “Bad Religion” and “Thinkin Bout You”, Ocean bares his soul and his heart, all while singing circles around just about everybody on the radio. Is there anybody more on top of the game right now than Frank? Billy Hepfinger

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