TOP 25 ALBUMS OF 2012

HONORABLE MENTION:

PALLBEARER/ SORROW AND EXTINCTION

SCHOOLBOY Q/ HABITS AND CONTRADICTIONS

AESOP ROCK/ SKELETHON

ANDY STOTT/ LUXURY PROBLEMS

EL-P/ CANCER FOR CURE

THE WALKMEN/ HEAVEN

SLEIGH BELLS/ REIGN OF TERROR

HOT CHIP/ IN OUR HEADS

MOUNT EERIE/ CLEAR MOON

CLOUD NOTHINGS/ ATTACK ON MEMORY

#25 Bat For Lashes/ The Haunted Man

The follow-up to Natasha Khan’s game-changing 2009 release Two Suns doesn’t feature anything as immediately dazzling as “Glass” or “Daniel” were on that record. However, the two standout tracks here are certainly as pretty as anything she has ever written. “Marilyn” uses a well-constructed beat that keeps things interesting beneath a powerful vocal as it shifts and evolves. The sweet, stripped-down piano melody on “Laura” is even more spectacular, as Khan begs a close friend to make changes in her life before she destroys herself, offering the re-assuring line “Laura, you’re more than a superstar.”  In between there are highs and lows, ranging from the intriguing beat and playful synth riff on “Oh Yeah” and the gorgeous violin on”Winter Fields” to some overly dramatic and sensationalized tracks in between that miss the mark a bit, but don’t detract from the overall tone of The Haunted Man. On the whole, this is another strong effort from Khan.

#24 Perfume Genius/ Put Your Back Into It

You had to be in a certain kind of mood to fully appreciate Perfume Genius and his distinct taste for the melancholy. This was certainly not an album to put on in 2012 for those times when you were down in the dumps; it might have pushed you over into full blown depression.  Still, this collection of songs, driven almost entirely by simple piano and acoustic guitar melodies drenched in the unique reverb of music produced in a bedroom, creates an undeniable mood of extreme trauma. The themes are widespread, ranging from singer Mike Hadreas’ struggles with his homosexuality in a world where he doesn’t feel accepted, into even darker imagery of incest, prostitution and drug addiction. Taken at face value, it’s really an ode to all things horrible in this world, but it is executed with such precision and beauty that it becomes a revealing and strangely enjoyable listen. Hadreas prefers not to build into a crescendos but to end his songs suddenly and with restraint. There is a lot to revisit here, from the escalating, catchy piano riff on “Dark Parts”, the subtle falsetto on “All Waters” to the airy and hypnotic standout “Floating Spit.”

#23 Dirty Projectors/ Swing Lo Magellan

Perhaps the polar opposite to aforementioned Perfume Genius in terms of tone, Swing Lo Magellan is the Dirty Projectors’ most accessible, bright and enjoyable record to date, and was the perfect album to turn on in 2012 to cheer up the mood. Opener “Offspring Are Blank” alternates between the chill coos of a female backing vocal and a heavy guitar and drum chorus that turns it into a full blown rock track, and the ironically cheery “About To Die” follows that one with a complex swagger most reminiscent of the band’s early work. Musical acumen has never been a shortcoming for these guys, and highlight “Gun Has No Trigger” demonstrates their ability to balance lead singer Dave Longstreh’s unique vocals with innovative rhythms. There’s a lovely, carefree folk moment on the title track, while Longstreh’s falsetto combined with female harmonies on “Inpregnable Question” surely ranks among their prettiest work to date. There’s even some playful trade-off between male and female vocals on the enjoyable “Just From Chevron” and “Unto Caesar.” This doesn’t have nearly the complexity or eccentricity of 2009’s Bitte Orca, but might be more approachable overall.

#22 The Shins/ Port of Marrow

After Natalie Portman famously touted “New Slang” in 2004’s Garden State following the release of the highly regarded Chutes Too Narrow a year earlier, it could have been argued that The Shins were among the most important baroque pop artists of the first half of the last decade. The more scattered Wincing The Night Away in 2007 seemed to indicate that the band’s best days might be behind them, but five years later, Port of Morrow appears to signal a return to form. Lead singer James Mercer is the band’s heart and soul, and returns with some new faces behind him, but delivers focused music both reminiscent of The Shins of old as well as representative of new ideas. “Simple Song” is pure power pop at its finest, with an onslaught of guitar across its punching verse that meets a piano bridge that serves as a perfect segway into the chorus as Mercer sings “I know that things can really get rough/ When you go it alone.” The speedy rhythm of “Bait and Switch” recalls earlier songs like “Fighting In A Sack”, while the nostalgic “Fall of ’82” is an easy-going number that benefits from the trumpet lines that lay beneath the surface. Making an even greater impact are the soft, whispery “September”,  bittersweet standout “40 Mark Strasse”, where Mercer strains gorgeously to hit a high octave across the chorus, as well as the politically-driven, bleeding heart classic rock nod “No Way Down” and its ode to the redistribution of income. On the latter, Mercer concludes with nonchalant sarcasm, “Apologies to the sick and the young/ Get used to the dust in your lungs.”

#21 Jessie Ware/ Devotion

homepage_large.ed0b398bU.K. vocal sensation Jessie Ware blends a unique style of old school R & B and new school trip hop beats on her debut album Devotion. Vocally, Ware lands somewhere between the sensuality of Sade and the raw power of Beyonce, and combines this with dark lounge beats that elevate these songs and give them life, energy and individuality and prevent Devotion from sounding like, heaven forbid, a Toni Braxton album. The darkly subtle beats of the title track set the mood early, and although there are some dance-floor ready bangers here (“Still Love Me” and “No To Love”), the album’s finest moments come when it is most subdued. Notable moments include the bittersweet sweet pop melody of highlight “Wildest Moments”, the punchy synth running underneath “Runnin”, the addictive, slightly off key electronic keyboard chords on “Sweet Talk”, and the gorgeously hypnotic delivery on “110%”, complete with an deep electronic snyth line that pops in and out beneath the up-tempo drum syncopations. “110%” is a truly memorable and exciting track, but Ware manages to top it in terms of of pure beauty with the painfully beautiful penultimate track that follows, “Taking In Water.” Here she is at her most emotional and vulnerable vocally yet delivers her most impressive performance on the album, and a carefully placed vocal sample adds extra power over the verses.

#20 Fiona Apple/ The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of the Screw

This is an ambitious, gutsy comeback effort from one of Indie Rock’s originals, raw-to-the bone with its honest lyricism and stripped-down musical arrangements. On Apple’s first studio release since 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, she seems to have reinvented herself a bit, leaning heavily upon bluesy piano to create a spacious album practically devoid of traditional percussion elements and with nary a guitar to be heard. The unsettling growls of her voice as she demands “Look at me now!” on “Daredevil” and especially as she separates from any attempt to sing along with the chorus melody on “Regret” are both incredibly effective at establishing the mood of inner turmoil that the album sets to create right off the back, as she sings “Every single night’s a fight/With my brain” on the opening track. Centerpiece “Werewolf” stands out here a bit in terms of musical structure as well as lyricism, building steadily into a finale backed with the playful screams of children on the playground as Apple sends it off unapologetically with the metaphoric line, “Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.” There’s exciting innovations on songs like “Left Alone”, which alternates between scat singing verses above its doo-wop piano riff and a strained, high octave, vibrating vocal on the chorus. Additionally, a capella closer “Hot Knife” builds a tribal vibe with its repetitious chants and the layered echo of its backing vocal track.

#19 Crystal Castles/ III

homepage_large.6295a0b2The third record from electro-goth outfit Crystal Castles may not provide quite the sheer quantity of standout tracks as its predecessor did, but it may be the most focused effort yet from the band. III is the shortest record to date from Crystal Castles, and the most straightforward. Gone are the noisy experimental interlude tracks that created a bit of a chaotic flow on the first two albums, and in their place is an album that feels more one within itself and communicates an ominous tone throughout. Opening track “Plague” establishes a darkness and urgency that resonates throughout the album with its discordant synth and shifts between atmospheric vocals and shrieks of “I am afraid” from charismatic lead singer Alice Glass. The album’s strongest stretch occurs shortly thereafter, beginning with hard changes between ghostly synth, pounding drum beats and distant vocals on dungeon banger “Wrath of God” and continues into the more lovely, but still unsettling “Affection”, which benefits from its unorthodox percussion beat and desperate vocal. Speaking of beats, “Pale Flesh” might be the most complex time signature that the band has ever constructed, complete with a vocal from Glass that is drenched in reverb, and is frantic in nature, while the strobe-light ready house anthem “Sad Eyes” and its pulsating electronic drum and slightly off-tune synth riff is probably the best single thing here. While true to the overall tone, there’s a bit of a lag on the album’s back half until “Mercenary” and its bizarre minor violin chord that switches in and out of time, while closer “Child I Will Hurt” you certainly ranks among the prettier tracks Crystal Castles have put together, as it lingers as a lullaby.

#18 Baroness/ Yellow & Green

This sprawling double album tones down the typical metal influences that Baroness usually relies upon and instead plays like an ode to 1990s alternative rock over its immensely enjoyable and accessible 75-minute length. After a lovely opening introduction, the first disc begins with “Take My Bones Away”, which hits like it has been fired out of a cannon with its thunderous percussion and snarling lead vocal. The album moves along in a solid manner with “March to the Sea” and “Little Things”, which are both fairly straightforward but set the much rockier tone early on. “Back Where I Belong” benefits from its unique time signature and scaling guitar melody, while the more ominous “Cocanium” owes much to the grunge paths traveled by Alice In Chains and Stone Temple Pilots. Yellow and Green is most impressive for its solidarity and consistency across so many individual tracks, but if there is one moment that stands above the rest, it is most certainly “Eula”, which closes the first disc with authority, building from its initially brooding atmosphere into a full onslaught of pounding percussion, soaring lead guitar lines and anthemic vocals. The second disc starts with a bang, as “Board Up The House” provides perhaps the best pure rock moment here and does so with a thrilling level of attention to detail in regard to the timing and shifts of its remarkably layered arrangements. There are some impressive contrasts on the back half as well, as “Foolsong” and “Collapse” add a minor key element to the musical tone, while the lovely instrumental “Stretchmarker” proves that the band can still be gloriously optimistic and “The Line Between” rocks hard as the proper sendoff track.  Taken as a whole, this is a stunning achievement for Baroness, and to my ear, a massive uptick from their prior work especially in terms of consistency.

#17 Death Grips/ The Money Store

It would be difficult to assemble any Best of 2012 list without giving at least some attention to this debut from the genre-defying Death Grips of Sacramento. The Money Store is an exciting, eye-opening combination of angry, noisy, high-energy and often shocking music. Its buzzing, popping, screeching electronic elements serve as a microcosm for its widespread creativity. Its closest musical relative might be rap, but it seems way too far-reaching to be simplified as such. Opener “Get Got” combines lightning-quick, deeply toned vocals thick with reverb above an electric guitar loop and a barrage of noise rock elements. The swirling loop and unintelligible vocal jabs of “The Fever” follows before we even get a chance to assess what we are hearing, or more importantly, where on earth it came from. Later, the aptly titled “System Blower” is about the most massive thing I’ve ever heard, and it succeeds purely on the thumping buzz of its industrial baseline and gains traction from lead shouter MC Ride’s ability to change in and out of tempos above the chaotic madness. Surrounding that track is the is the scattering swarm of bees percussion and offbeat vocal delivery on the perplexing “Double Helix”, followed by one of the most memorable loops on the album combined with panic-stricken vocals on the unsettling “The Cage.”  About the only structurally familiar song here is”I’ve Seen Footage”, with its catchy synthesized guitar riff and foot-stomping beat that evokes old school rap like “Funky Cold Medina”, and despite seeming out of place as perhaps the only remotely accessible moment, still stands as a sure highlight. The album ends on an arguably even stronger note, as “Hacker” combines its fluttering beat and robotic synth into a no-holds-barred, aggressive tale of thievery that offers the immediately repeatable chorus of “I’m in your area!” At worst, the presence of Death Grips in the musical spectrum of 2012 provided a much-needed respite from the mundane. At best, it contributed something other-wordly.

#16 Trust/ Trst

The debut studio album from Toronto natives Trust created an electro-goth vibe that turned out much better than it should have across its entire length. There’s a unique quality to the sound of their music that saves them from falling into the trap of simply becoming an imitator of bands like Crystal Castles, and instead establishes them as a band with a certain individuality to offer. Lead singer Robert Alfons has a deep voice that drips with grime and sludge on some of the album’s most affecting tracks, such as darkly lit opener “Shoom.” Around the 2:30 minute mark, Alfons delivers a ghostly groan before the beat kicks in full blast again and he murmurs “Why push away me/ It could push away life.” That song, along with the utterly hopeless “The Last Dregs” certainly qualifies for dungeon music, but not everything is nearly so dreary, however, as the dance floor ready “Dressed For Space” remains serious in tone but does so with a sturdy beat that would fit right in on a New Order record. There’s true diversity here as well, demonstrated on more atmospheric slow-burners like “Candy Walls” and genuinely pretty electronica like “Heaven.” The catchy, high-pitched synth and gunshot blast percussion on “Chrissy E” combines with lifted vocals and gives the album another dance floor ready single to hang its hat on, but it’s closer “Sulk” that is really worth sticking around for. A gorgeous, fuzzed out opening synth chord steadily picks up additional elements, including clap-drum percussion and Alfons’ eerily distant but oddly comforting vocal to create the most emotional moment here. It’s a song that puts together everything this band is capable of. “Sulk” is so good, it actually leaves you wanting more, which is saying something after nearly an hour of dark electronica that somehow never seems to sound old, uninteresting or repetitive.

#15 Tame Impala/ Lonerism

There’s a component to the high quality production on Lonerism that elevates the album above what anything in this genre should be capable of. Musically, Tame Impala’s psychedelic sound can be best be described as a blend between Of Montreal and The Beatles, but there’s richness and depth across the album’s twelve solid tracks that transcends what should be limited expectations. Standout track “Apocalypse Dreams” is bursting with complex textures, as a pounding piano riff and steady bass line shift into slower tempo sections of dreamy, hallucinogenic beauty, and then back into a soaring orchestral coda. Even without the psyched out, fuzzy effects, the songs here, especially tracks like “Music To Walk Home By” and “Why Won’t They Talk To Me” succeed on pure melody, while the seething brightness of the delirious “Mind Mischief” is enough to make you squint. Then there’s “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”, which opens with a rolling hip hop beat that maintains a funky bass line beneath the washed out vocals, creating an enticing yet carefree vibe that is a huge highlight. “Elephant” plunks along with a massive throttle of overwhelming bass and circus-like electronic keyboard synths as lead singer Kevin Parker does his best John Lennon impression, while cascading percussion in the midsection of penultimate track “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” holds together its psyched-out synth and urgent vocal delivery of such a mouth full of a chorus line. To conclude, Lonerism again harkens back to its influences, as a simple, stripped down piano melody sans reverb ushers in “Sun’s Coming Up”, which instead of effects, relies solely on its masterfully scaled melody and pitch-perfect vocal, proving Tame Impala’s versatility and attention to detail on this huge step forward from their debut.

#14 Purity Ring/ Shrines

The debut album from Manitoba natives Purity Ring manages to straddle a fine line as it combines ghostly electronic effects and macabre lyrical imagery with immediately catchy melodies. The comparisons to artists like The Knife and Burial will be there, and with good reason, but the music itself on Shrines is so much more direct than anything those entities would ever attempt, and intentionally so, as influences aside, Purity Ring isn’t trying to sound like anyone besides themselves. Lead vocalist Megan James, at 24 years old, is captivating on tracks like “Fireshrine”, as her delicate, girlish soprano utters terrifying, grotesque lines like “Get a little closer let fold/ Cut open my sternum and pull/ My little ribs around you” as if she is out for a Sunday stroll chewing bubble gum. “Ungirthed” was one of the first singles released last year that built anticipation for this release, and it succeeds on record with its nicely syncopated electronic beats, complete with robotic horns, tinny percussion and of course that jabbing vocal sample of a ghost that sounds like it is somewhere in between trying to escape and being born, culminating in an addictive melody through the chorus. A young band is allowed a misstep as it attempts to throw together an album from a string of well-recieved singles, so I’ll give them a mulligan for “Grandloves”, a decidedly middling track that serves only to break the album’s momentum in its midsection. Luckily, there’s plenty of material in the back half that regains it. “Belispeak” might be the most interesting thing here, sung from the perspective of an ill, terrified child by James’ heavily processed vocal and backed with deep foreboding synths and a memorable vocal loop that serves to help carry the beat. “Saltkin” heads a completely different direction with its more atmospheric, relaxing vibe that slows the tempo down a bit, but builds slowly and effectively into a surprising highlight. On the whole, Shrines doesn’t offer the depth or establish quite the complexities of tone that Silent Shout or Untrue did, but it’s arguably a more immediately engaging listen than either.

#13 Spiritualized/ Sweet Heart Sweet Light

On Jason Pierce’s last record, 2008’s Songs in A & E, the lead singer of Spiritualized constructed a well-conceived concept album that dripped with fear, regret and the sounds of death. Pierce had been gravely ill, and that strong collection of 19 songs moved quickly from one track to the next, in stark contrast to the band’s previous crescendo-driven work. It was a fantastic effort, but the circumstances surrounding it and the thematic material it covered aren’t the sorts of things that most people would want to rehash, so four years later, Pierce is back with an album that sounds much more similar to albums like his 1997 masterpiece Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. Over half the songs here are over six minutes in length, and the band again utilizes symphonic arrangements, creating songs like that are epic in both structure and sound, and are almost unanimously optimistic and bright. We get an old school rock jam right off the bat with “Hey Jane”, which opens with a powerful guitar riff and a repeated melody that suddenly drops out and picks back up with a heavy, spaced out bass line. “Get What You Deserve” showcases the band’s penchant for using horns in their music, as the fairly straightforward melody continues to accrue musical accompaniment until it is almost too pretty to bear. Even the shorter tracks demonstrate a remarkable feel for arrangement, as the bittersweet ballad “Too Late” explodes with gorgeous violin strings over its chorus, and the triumphant “Little Girl” rolls along with its piano, violin and horn combination. Spiritualized saves the best for last, as the lovely “Life Is A Problem” picks where opening instrumental track “Huh” left off, but as gentle and comforting as that song is, it’s really just a setup for closer “So Long You Pretty Thing,” which is probably the band’s most genuinely pretty song to date. A soft piano melody picks up folky guitar plucks early, then a steady violin joins in, then explodes about halfway through into an amazing crescendo that picks up horns and goes on for minutes before fading out, yet still ends too quickly.

#12 Frank Ocean/ Channel Orange

The hype surrounding vocal sensation Frank Ocean is well-deserved, but what really separates Channel Orange from your typical R&B album is its production quality. A violin line opens the subdued “Thinkin About You” before crisp syncopated beats combine into an immediately engaging and personal song that showcases Ocean alternating between his typical alto and a falsetto at least two octaves higher through the chorus in a startling demonstration of range. There’s a jazzy lounge vibe throughout that adds a new dimension to the genre, even on darker drug tales like “Crack Rock”, but especially on airy standout “Sweet Life”, which carries itself effortlessly with a subtle bass line and a fantastic piano riff that gives way to dramatic orchestration through its chorus. Ocean sings “Why see the world/ When you got the beach?” in one of several thematic takes on the silver spoon, well-off lifestyle that he never knew growing up. Another more obvious example is “Super Rich Kids”, with its repetitive motown piano note that steadily builds and alternates between Ocean’s spoken word tale and lifted chorus. This is a loaded, diverse album, and although it could be argued that it may be a few tracks overlong (“Pilot Jones” and “Pink Matter” seem to slow the momentum a bit), the highlights still come in droves. The spectacularly epic “Pyramids” lasts over nine minutes, beginning with a dance club groove backed with a fuzzy synth riff that evolves into a wound-down lounge vibe, all the while taking a trip through time to an ancient Egyptian brothel. In contrast, the upbeat, bouncey “Lost” is decidedly of the present, while the revealing church organ-driven “Bad Religion” emotes as much as any single thing I’ve heard this year. Channel Orange is a sweeping, powerful record that delivers upon its grandiose ambitions.

#11 Port St. Willow/ Holiday

The debut from Nick Principe requires patience to appreciate fully, but with repeated listens its subtleties become apparent and mesmerizing, as Principe creates a gorgeously relaxed atmosphere that relies heavily on his pitch-perfect falsetto. A battle drum opens the first proper track “Hollow” and combines with Principe’s warm, lush vocal, and doesn’t so much build to a crescendo as it creates a mood. “Amawalk” follows with its slowed-to-a-crawl tempo and layers of electronic keyboard, slowly building into a purely blissful moment when Principe’s falsetto gives way to a barrage of horns. There are moments here that seem to bring the album’s momentum to a near stop, but the effective use of horns is what really gives Holiday a boost over its back half. “Tourist” is by far the most complex track here, as a scattered beat holds together distorted organ chords that evolve into what sounds like an oboe, which extends on a single note. The french horn on “North” is even more dominating of that song’s identity, and the sound of wind that opens on the beautiful closer “Consumed” adds and element of chilliness as the album seems to finish with bleak, utter hopelessness. But then, the coda picks up with a perfectly placed guitar line that shifts the tone completely and seems to provide a moment of optimism, as if all of this horrible, depressing shit has happened, but we made it through, and everything is going to be alright. It’s certainly more effective to take in Holiday in its entirety than to break it down into its individual tracks, and doing so reveals an artist who wanted to communicate his incredibly dreary mood for one reason or another, and did it with remarkable attention to detail.

#10 Japandroids/ Celebration Rock

On their aptly titled sophomore album, Japandroids refined and perfected their punk-rock style and what resulted was THE summer album of 2012 and one of the most fun records to come out in recent memory. While their 2009 debut Post-Nothing had its moments of high energy combined with catchy melodies, Celebration Rock is a massive improvement, an absolute assault of relentless action and throttling guitar work across its flawless 35 minute length.

A noticeable new tactic is employed here by the band to consistently effective results, as they gauge the listener’s interest by teasing us and winding songs down prematurely to the point where they could believably be finished, knowing we’d be disappointed if they really were. As if to say, “okay, we’ll keep playing for a bit longer since it seems like you want more”, these moments of pause are followed by a rush of energy as guitar and percussion kicks back in and leaves us smiling. The most glorious example comes on standout track “Younger Us,” as its deliciously catchy chorus comes to a full stop around the 2:30 mark only to explode back to the forefront. “Fire’s Highway” slows and comes to a near stop before another insanely catchy melody re-appears to carry the song to the finish line. The thunderous percussion and celebratory call and response chorus of “Oh Yeah! Alright!” on “Evil’s Sway” makes for one of the most purely awesome rock moments here, complete with a western Americana lead guitar riff.

A rollicking cover version of The Gun Club’s “For The Love of Ivy” works remarkably well in the album’s midsection; it’s a true punk tribute complete with pounding percussion, wailing vocals and might just be the most intense thing here. It’s easy to imagine the mosh pit that results when they play this live. The band shows its depth on “The House That Heaven Built”, which bursts with rich musical texture and confident lyrics, and is the kind of song that shows how much they’ve grown musically since their debut. This isn’t overly complicated music, and it is often amazing how much mileage the band gets out of the one-two-one-two drumming backbone that permeates most of these songs, but it’s been awhile since a rock record has succeeded this well at establishing and maintaining such energy over its entire length. From the opening riff of “The Nights of Wine and Roses” to the comparatively restrained but well placed closer “Continuous Thunder”, there’s hardly a single second to catch your breath.

#9 Swans/ The Seer

This sprawling double album from aging rockers Swans is so massive and broad that it borders on unapproachable. Challenging, serious and apocalyptic to its core, The Seer is not for the faint of heart, and to simply call it dark would be vastly understating the situation. There are moments of immediacy here, from the terrifying opening guitar riff of “Lunacy” to the industrial grind of “Mother of the World”, but on the whole, this is an album that asks a lot of its listener and depends heavily upon often drawn out build and release structures.

The crescendos range from impressive to utterly devastating, but in many cases take an inordinate amount of time to get there. The title track, for example, at a whopping 32 minutes in length, begins with ominous bagpipes before slowly evolving into a sea of structural complexity; whether the listener is willing to devote full attention for the final breakdown around the 28 minute mark is another matter entirely for a song that goes on for longer than the entire Sleigh Bells debut album did. Still, when given the attention it deserves, there is a lot to like and more than that, to appreciate about The Seer. The raw, hollow acoustic guitar  notes that ring out to permeate the shorter track “The Daughter Takes The Water” are unsettling and beautiful all at once, while the battle march slow grind and spoken word vocals of “The Seer Returns” create a downright frightening vibe.

If I’m forced to pick a favorite moment over the nearly two hours of music here, I’d probably be split between two. The ominous church bells that ring out through the steady build of “Avatar” create perhaps the strongest stand alone track here (and at under 10 minutes no less), while the rollicking final crescendo of the much longer closer “The Apostate” provides an absolute assault on the senses. It could be argued that there is a lot of filler in order to arrive at moments like these, but it isn’t without purpose, and on the whole the jarring moments are impactful enough to outweigh the often frustrating journey, and make this album well worth its considerable time investment.

#8 John Talabot/ Fin

In somewhat of a surprise, out-of-left field release, Spanish producer John Talabot delivered what should probably be considered the best electronic record since The Field’s From Here We Go Sublime. Talabot relies on steadily building loops that build energy in a restrained, confident manner, and most of Fin‘s 11 tracks should find a happy home on dance club DJ playlists from Barcelona to San Francisco. It is a testament to its consistency and immediacy that such an early release (February) was able to stick around in 2012 and remain relevant without ever wearing itself out. Certainly, Fin filled a much-needed void for this genre.

At over seven minutes in length, Opener “Depak Ine” serves as the longest track here and demonstrates Talabot’s acumen for electronic arrangement right off the bat. Beginning with an eerie disco beat and a haunting vocal loop, the track slowly picks up jabs of synth before it switches completely into a major key through the send-off, all the while maintaining its steady beat that never tries to do too much. Madrid staple Pional lends the only vocals here and makes a couple of noteworthy appearances on what are probably the album’s two strongest tracks. “Destiny” is a thrilling moment early on, as gentle synths blend together with his lifted, distant voice and combine with a warm, rich concentration of intense percussion and chime beats. It’s also is a perfect example of Talbot’s ability to straddle the invisible line between dance music that could be either considered dark or ideal for an upbeat beach bonfire party. On the less accessible but even more spectacular closing track, “So Will Be Now”, Pional’s vocal loop slowly picks up additional elements of trip-hoppy snap and cymbal percussion beneath its soothing, robotic house synth groove. More than anything else here, we see Talabot at the peak of his abilities pertaining to restraint and arrangement.

In between the album’s only mistake, the tone-upsetting “Journey” featuring Ehki of Delorean, there’s plenty more to like, and much of it is easy to miss on the first several listens. From the samba beats and vocal loops on “Missing You” to the melancholic violin sample on “Last Land” and relaxing lounge groove of “Estiu”, the sum of each of Fin‘s valuable parts become evident. However, it is the powerful final stretch that really puts the icing on the cake as the beach vibe retreats and a darker cloud sets in. “When The Past Was Present” is a focused, immensely textured dance track that showcases a gorgeously fuzzy, sped-up electronic melody that pushes itself to the limit and creates an air of uneasiness that is the perfect lead in to the penultimate number, “H.O.R.S.E.” The most spacious and ambient moment here, it builds with an ominous air for two and a half minutes before kicking in with a heavy drum beat and a pulsating minor chord that is at once heart-stopping and hopelessly foreboding, and is one of Fin’s strongest single moments. Taken as a whole, this is an impressive accomplishment and stylistic shift for this artist, who has spent most of his musical career spinning other people’s records as a DJ. It is even more impressive than its individual tracks, sure to already be finding airplay on a dance floor near you, would suggest on their own.

#7 Chromatics/ Kill For Love

This highly ambitious effort succeeds, more than anything else, from its ability to establish and extend its consistent mood and tone across its 17 track, 77 minute length. When I saw Chromatics live at Pitchfork Music Festival in July, lead singer Ruth Radelet came off about exactly as I expected her to. Her gentle, haunting voice was a commanding presence, but her expressionless face could almost be described as sad, and she seemed withdrawn and disconnected, which ironically fit perfectly with the music she was singing. It’s probably a fair bet that she never smiles. While Chromatics draw from a variety of influences on Kill For Love, including 80s new wave and modern synth-driven electronica, the serious tone of their music is decidedly nocturnal. This didn’t exactly work at an outdoor venue with the sun shining, but when taken in as a whole on record, it resonates as intense and expansive.

A cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” retitled “Into The Black” gets the album started on a strong note, and some respect should be given to the band for having the balls to begin an album of this scope with a cover track and to pull it off with such a unique sense of style. There are bits of brightness early on as the title track drips with propulsive, hazy synth, while “Back From The Grave” showcases a catchy, repetitive guitar line. This is about as accessible as the album gets before diving into more experimental territory, and the band was wise to structure it this way considering its challenging length. But things really begin to take off with “Lady”, which patiently builds for two full minutes before the pulsating beat kicks in and communicates a steady sense of uncertainty, loneliness and despair.

The slow burn of the remarkably tense “These Streets Will Never Look The Same” is a standout here, and is a rare example of using vocal harmonization and autotune technology to manipulate a male vocal to a positive effect. After that, the album turns darker yet with the ambient, unsettling “Broken Mirrors”, and benefits massively as the tone evolves and the paranoia builds on “Candy.” There are times when the album just bleeds with heartache. The waves wash over instrumental link “Dust to Dust ” and lead into the utterly hopeless ballad “Birds of Paradise.” The instrumental tracks here are used with remarkably effective placement, creating texture with precision around its centerpieces. None are more devastating than the spaced-out, laser beam synth of “There’s a Light Out on the Horizon”, which closes with an ambiguous but heartbreaking voice message. An album this intense deserves a proper send off, and it gets one with “The River.” A minor chord strikes out on a piano, repeats and gains additional elements as the song progresses and Radelet croons with hypnotic effortlessness in one of the many extremely strong moments here.

#6 Grimes/ Visions

If there was one artist that took the indie world by storm in 2012 while simultaneously polarizing it to smithereens, then that artist would have to be Claire Boucher, who hails from Montreal under her stage name Grimes. Her first two records flew largely under the radar, but expectations were high for this album following the release of the “Oblivion” single last fall. That song, with its bouncy, jabbing synths combined with whispery, high pitched girlish vocals, was an immediate attention grabber. Boucher’s speedy but nonchalant delivery of lines like “But when you’re really by yourself it’s hard to find someone to hold your hand” was a breath of fresh air into the often corny electropop genre.

However, Visions is much too diverse and far-reaching an album to be labeled simply as electropop, and to attempt to place her music into any specific genre is a difficult task indeed. There are moments of darkness that draw influence from bands like Ladytron and the witch house trend, such as the aptly titled, synth driven “Nightmusic,” and the nocturnal beauty of “Colour of Moonlight”, while the gorgeous melodies on “Vowels=Space and Time” and the pure bubble gum pop of opener “Infinite Love Without Fulfillment” could pass for more accessible Top 40 music. There’s even an ambient moment halfway through with the well executed “Visiting Statue.” Throughout Visions, we see Boucher’s electronic experimentation spread its broad wings, from the robotic jam “Circumambient” to the more atmospheric textures on highlight “Genesis.” However, Grimes’ most valuable instrument may actually be her voice, which hangs just below surface level, often in a rich falsetto as she stretches the limits of the musical scale. While it’s often heavily draped in reverb, the only time her voice is truly manipulated comes on the fairly forgettable “Eight.” The girlish charm that results from her vocal style might come off as annoying to some, but when taken in combination with the entire range she shows over these songs, it really equates to a pretty stunning vocal performance that resonates as sweet and sugar-coated. Listen as she switches between a commanding baritone and glass-cracking falsetto octave escalations on the fantastic “Be A Body” and pretend to be unconvinced.

Grimes has admitted that her ideas tend to run wild without much thought towards organization, saying “Basically I’m really impressionable and have no sense of consistency in anything I do.” However, her acumen for arrangement is never more apparent than on standout penultimate track “Skin”, which utilizes an enormous amount of spaciousness to create an remarkably intimate and powerful sendoff that showcases her very best vocal as well. It is that range of ideas and the fearless execution of those ideas that put Grimes in a league of her own in the age of post-electropop. Wait, did I just invent a genre?

#5 Godspeed You! Black Emperor/ Allelujah! Don’t Bend, Ascend!

After a ten year hiatus, enigmatic Canadian orchestral collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor shocked the music world this fall with the sudden release of a new record. Following  2002’s Yanqui U.X.O and 2000’s Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To The Heavens, the sprawling double album that has remained the band’s career topping achievement over the past decade, Don’t Bend, Ascend! takes a different approach in terms of structure. Whereas the latter album consisted of a series of movements, with songs that meandered in and out of one another to create a symphonic effect over its punishing 87-minute length, this time around the delivery is more straightforward and uniform. Simply put, what we have here is two unique and wholly individual 20-minute songs surrounded by two interlinking 6 minute drones. This is as about as concise as this band is capable of being, yet it is also an essential addition to their catalog, and might be the perfect introduction for those not familiar with their prior work.

While the two proper tracks here have been live staples for the band for years, they take on new formalities on record. Opener “Mladic” (formerly known as “Albanian”) enters new musical territory even for these battle tested and highly skilled musicians, expanding from a suspenseful and understated Middle Eastern guitar line and building into an ominous cloud of what can only be described as industrial metal. This is an extremely dark song that slowly builds tension throughout its midsection before it releases into a somewhat triumphant, contrasting crescendo. I can recall watching the band open with this song, which I had never heard before, while headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival back in July, and being astonished by their perfection of the crescendo rock style as we know it. (On an additional note, had the song they closed with at that concert, the as of yet unreleased “Behemoth”, been included on this record, it almost certainly would have pushed it into album of the year and decade status. It’s that good).

After the well-placed, fuzzy transition track “Their Helicopters Sing”, there’s “We Drift Like Worried Fire”, which touches on the other end of the Godspeed spectrum, delivering steadily building joy and beauty that is in stark contrast to “Mladic.” Over its first ten minutes, the song evolves slowly, beginning with a simple guitar line and picking up additional violin elements one by one until all of a sudden, it becomes a sprawling masterpiece of a song. By the midway point, guitar lines are soaring high into the heavens, and at just about the point when we probably can no longer take it, the track suddenly shifts and takes a brief pause. But the band powers on, and the song gains an unsettling edge that is the perfect set up for its eventual release. There’s such a massive combination of musical wonder going on here that words alone begin to do it an injustice, but suffice to say that all bets are off once the pounding percussion and soaring electric guitar give way into a folk violin solo through the coda. Bands like Mono and Explosions In The Sky have made a career out of taking cues from this band and trying to improve upon their ideas, and have done so with positive results, but it’s refreshing to be reminded once again after such a long wait that no one has quite the ear for this type of thing as Godspeed does.

#4 Flying Lotus/ Until The Quiet Comes

Remember that perfect, impeccably produced stretch of songs on Steven Ellison’s most recent album Cosmogramma that began with “Zodiac Shit” and ended with the Thom Yorke assisted “The World Laughs With You”? Well, imagine that sort of intricacy and attention to detail spread over the course of an entire album, and what you are left with is the masterpiece that is Until The Quiet Comes. From the opening drum beat and heavenly chime notes of the gorgeous, engaging “All In” through the subtle let down of closer “Dream To Me”, Ellison has created an album that plays like a symphony. Compared to Cosmogramma, which succeeded with its exciting production innovations and in-your-face aggressiveness, the collectively subdued beauty and appreciation for melody on Until The Quiet Comes is somewhat of a surprise as a follow up. The opening track skips along into Niki Randa’s lifted vocals on “Getting There” before we really have an opportunity to take inventory of what is happening, and this is possibly the album’s greatest strength: Ellison has become a master at creating short, well-thought out songs that blend together quickly and effectively, often before we have had enough of them. To the untrained ear, some may perceive this tactic to result in songs that are a bit slight at best and unfinished at worst. On the contrary, I view it as brilliant and encompassing, while maintaining an effortless quality that separates it from his prior work.

There’s plenty going on underneath the skin here as the album picks up a jazzy, hip-hop tone on tracks like “Heave(n)” and the more ambient “Tiny Tortures”, while the spacious “All The Secrets” and massive “Sultan’s Request” enter new territory for the artist with their unique, fuzzy synth sounds. Totally out of place here but still great fun is the hilarious “Putty Boy Strut”, which might be the catchiest thing Ellison has ever put together. Perhaps the best song integration of all comes at the album’s center, as the delicious lounge vibe of the title track evolves in a single beat into the gorgeously tripped out “DMT Song,” a hypnotic ode to the hallucinogen of the same name. Even at just over a minute in length, you will have difficulty getting this melody out of your brain. The best Flying Lotus songs always consist of some type of mid-song tempo shift, and standout “The Nightcaller” is no exception, beginning with buzzing, robotic synth and spooky dance beats that shift halfway through into a swanky jazz groove.

The album takes a decidedly darker turn after that, and while I’m probably partial to Thom Yorke’s aforementioned Cosmogramma contribution “The World Laughs With You”, that track almost could have been mistaken as a Radiohead song circa Amnesiac. This time, Yorke’s vocals on the dark, subdued “Electric Candyman” merely add texture to a track that is distinctly Flying Lotus. Guest vocalists have a heavy impact here, and surprisingly Erykah Badyu’s contribution earlier on “See Thru To U” is trumped by Randa and Laura Darlington respectively as the album nears its conclusion. The ominous “Hunger” builds with uncertainty and sadness, and then shifts into an atmospheric vocal section backed by electronic organ, violin and bass notes in one of the very finest moments here. Darlington, whose contributions are always noteworthy on Ellison’s albums, gives her best to date here on the astonishingly pretty “Phantasm”, which gains complexity from a fluttering percussion underbelly that adds an unsettling element to her haunting vocals. And even after all of that, penultimate track  “me Yesterday/ Corded” probably tops them all, beginning with a distorted, haphazard organ and distant vocals before exploding into an amazing coda that manages to convey optimism and carry a bittersweet tone all in one swoop. It is Ellison’s prettiest and most uplifting song to date, and a perfect microcosm for this highly anticipated release.

#3 Beach House/ Bloom

One could make the argument that no band in recent memory achieved as significant an improvement in musical quality as Beach House did between their self-titled debut in 2006 and 2010’s stunningly gorgeous Teen Dream. Given that reality, hopes were sky high for Bloom if the band’s previous trajectory was to be any indication of its future potential. And while it appears the band may finally be approaching its creative ceiling, in 2012 they picked up right where they left off, delivering a record every bit the equal of their 2010 masterpiece, even if the lingering awe from that work renders this one a bit less initially powerful in comparison.

It’s an odd thing to conclude that a band’s prior greatness can actually detract from the quality of it current work, but that seems to be what has happened here or we might very well have had this record at #1. Had Bloom been released before Teen Dream, we likely would hold this album in highest esteem as the band’s breakthrough and career game changer instead of that one. As it stands, Bloom actually begins on a sharper, stronger note than Teen Dream did through its first four tracks. While that album was more of a musical journey with songs that played off of one another perfectly to create an indescribable atmosphere, this one is best viewed as a pure collection of rock solid, harmonic, gorgeous tunes. Opener “Myth” might be just the prettiest single thing they’ve ever written, and it makes you shake your head in disbelief that Beach House is able to continue to create melodies like this one without breaking into any new musical ground. Simply put, this is what the band’s best music sounds like, and they want to keep making more of it by just doing what they do rather than trying to outsmart themselves. A gloriously repetitive keyboard loop stretches itself behind lead singer Victoria LeGrand’s gorgeous vocal, but the real magic happens in the final thirty seconds when a synthesized violin takes over and leads us into the coda before the song stops suddenly and leaves us hypnotized. Other familiar sounding melodies soar with their vast, textured arrangements, including the chiming beauty of “Other People” and the airy dream pop vocals of “Lazuli,” which evokes memories of Cocteau Twins. There’s a more ominous sound to slow building tracks like “Wild” and “Wishes”, while penultimate track “On the Sea” uses a similar tactic as the last album did, slowing things down for a moment to let Victoria Legrand’s one-of-a-kind vocals do their thing.

And that brings us to the closer “Irene,” another fantastic send-off that succeeds with its patience and release as much as it does from its lovely melody. There’s a point in the song where that melody stops and a single note is repeated over and over for what seems like an eternity before the guitar and organ lines gently re-engage us and the song surges along into its coda as LeGrand sings in falsetto, “It’s a strange paradise.” If Beach House has made any improvement musically from their last effort, it might just be that intangible quality of lushness. Very pretty stuff, this, if you’re into that kind of thing.

#2 Grizzly Bear/ Shields

I for one was in the camp that believed after Grizzly Bear’s last album Veckatemist took the indie scene by storm in 2009 that the band had reached its full potential. Sure, this was a group of young, highly talented musicians that was improving with every album and with every live performance, but just how far could they go with their admittedly complex arrangements but relatively safe, rustic chamber pop style? Color me incorrect, as the remarkably polished and harmonic Shields betters Veckatemist on nearly every conceivable level.

For starters, forget about the band’s usual tendency to draw the listener in slowly. The first three proper tracks here begin on a note unlike one that we have ever heard from Grizzly Bear or practically anyone else for that matter. Opener “Sleeping Ute” is an immediate grabber with its interesting time signature and layered guitar lines that alternate between twangy acoustic leads and explosive riffs, eventually shifting into a soft coda as Daniel Rossen laments “And I can’t help myself.” There’s an urgency on the more familiar sounding “Speak In Rounds” that separates it from the band’s earlier work, as it rolls along with stomping drums and more acoustic guitar twang. This is an open-road driving tune to end all driving tunes. And what more can be said about “Yet Again”, arguably the most impressive track here? Ed Droste has clearly refined his vocal technique, as he utilizes a rich falsetto not unlike that of notable fan and tour mate Thom Yorke. The song builds and releases with its addictive melody throughout a relatively simple structure, but the band takes it up a notch in a shocking final minute of screeching distortion that lies in heavy contrast to what came before it.

There’s a crispness to the production quality here that renders otherwise ordinary ballads like the Droste-led “The Hunt” and Rossen’s “What’s Wrong” heart aching and beautiful, while the motown piano and upbeat grooves on “A Simple Answer” and “Gun Shy” enter completely new territory for the band and end up working out perfectly.  The former starts powerfully and eventually breaks down into a soft coda while the latter moves steadily and more subtly along with whispering background vocals. To top it all off, one could argue that Shields concludes even stronger than it begins. The remorseful “Half Gate” is a bruiser, building from a melodic verses into a thunderous chorus complete with cello, incredible harmony, and explosive drum bursts from Chris Bear, who really shines and stands out on this record in a way that he hasn’t before.

And it’s all just a setup for the epic closer “Sun Is In Your Eyes”, which is constantly shifting between its soft piano verse into a triumphant chorus complete with horns and more fantastic percussion from the band’s namesake. There is a moment around the six minute mark after the song slows down when the electric guitar surges back to the forefront that is just magnificent, and the many changes in texture that this song undergoes over its spellbinding seven minutes best exemplify the additional complexities in overall composition that went into making this album that are apparent across its entirety. There are no holes whatsoever here, and there isn’t a single moment on the entire album that doesn’t succeed in its purpose, as Shields delivers massively to complement what was already an impressive catalog from these guys. Surely this is as good as they can get right? Here’s hoping they’ll prove me wrong once again at some point in the future.

#1 Kendrick Lamar/ Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City

homepage_large.25b1eddaWhen Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy two years ago, he elevated the rap genre to a new level after what seemed to mostly be, Outkast notwithstanding, a lost decade of creativity following the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. in the late 90’s. What made that album great was that an artist, so familiar to his fans by that point in his career, put forth a fearless effort that dripped with honesty and escalated ambition, and it seemed to fill a void in the hip hop world. With Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, the much less familiar Compton native Kendrick Lamar has made an album just as original and unique, but even more personal, and frankly, of indisputably higher overall quality. This is the very best rap record since at least 1995, at once a reinvigorated tribute to the great West Coast rap days of yore and an autobiographical concept album. It is so captivating that to even classify it as merely a rap record seems to sell it short.

Much will be made of the presumably authentic voice recordings that link the album’s 12 tracks together and help to tell its story (and if they aren’t authentic, the rawness of their production is practically even more impressive anyway). On first listen, these may seem to break up the flow and continuity a bit, but as we dive deeper and deeper, it becomes apparent how integral they are to the album’s core. These messages range from the comical, such as Lamar’s mother scolding him for making her late for an appointment at the county building while his father raves about Domino’s Pizza in the background, to more serious perspectives from his parents about what makes a real man, how to learn from his mistakes, and how to avoid violence and make a difference in his community. Lamar utilizes a vocal trick throughout that has recently been popularized by the likes of Nicki Minaj, using a variety of different sounding voices over the course of this album. However, it’s a more effective trick here than Minaj tends to be, as he uses it to establish context rather than to merely create shock and multiple personalities.

But Lamar isn’t restrained to simply rapping, as there are moments here where he carries melody brilliantly on tracks that straddle the line between rap and R&B, and arguably lean towards the latter over the album’s jazzy, downtempo mood. The production is remarkable early on with highlight “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” as Lamar alternates between a melodic chorus of “I am a sinner/ Probably gonna sin again/ Lord forgive me/ For things I don’t understand” and an off-time signature rap verse. Well placed samples of Beach House’s “Silver Soul” on the sensational “Money Trees” and Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” on “Poetic Justice” are arranged brilliantly and with an eye towards innovation. Later, a perfectly placed violin sample and addictively catchy chorus on the massive “Swimming Pools (Drank)” tells a tale of peer pressure and lessons learned from heavy experimentation with narcotics. This is much more introspective than your average drug-related rap song, as Lamar uses a hallucinogenic vocal and has an actual conversation with himself about the danger he is entering, and then switches back to rapping in triple time.

For a rapper from Compton, this record doesn’t scream gangster rap. There are moments of tough guy bravado on tracks like “Backseat Freestyle”, where Lamar delivers the fantastic lyric “All my life I want money and power/ Respect my mind or die from lead shower” over a creeping, hard-hitting industrial beat, but this album is far too serious to rely on these types of themes entirely. “M.A.A.D. City” is perhaps the song that west coast rap has been waiting for since 2Pac left us. Lamar’s voice reaches an affective, high pitched paranoia underneath a spooky beat before MC Eiht enters the picture and the track suddenly shifts into an enormous violin line and heavy bass that do the old school west coast rap genre proud while maintaining a sense of originality. And as if that were not enough, the album probably reaches its emotional peak on the 12 minute “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, a two part denouement that takes a hard look towards the legacy that our protagonist desires to leave before taking a more investigative look into the present and the changes that need to be made in his life before that legacy can be fully realized. This is heavy material, but so utterly enjoyable in its entirety. Surely, what comes before has to pretty incredible, for when Dr. Dre finally makes his lyrical appearance on the triumphant closing track “Compton”, it almost feels like a letdown in comparison. In a complete shocker, a 5 foot 6, 25 year-old rapper came out of nowhere and made the Album of the Year in 2012, and this is the first time I have awarded this honor to a rap album since 1993 and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The 36 Chambers. Who saw that coming?

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