To be honest, 2011 kind of kicked 2012’s ass in music. If music was a football team, I’d say this was a rebuilding year. We got a couple of promising rookie releases (Grimes, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean), a few veterans continued to contribute admirably (Beach House, Grizzly Bear, Big Boi), and a smattering of impressive performances came from some undervalued, shall we say, late-round picks (Foxygen, Opossom, Melody’s Echo Chamber). A lot of talent here, for sure, but there’s some work to be done.
That said, there’s a lot to be proud of in what was accomplished this year, and there was a lot to learn. For example, that indie snobs were really just waiting for a female pop starlet they could unabashedly, unironically enjoy, as long as the beat sounds appropriately D.I.Y. Or that hip hop has completely lost any sense of common identity, as splintered as ever between sub-genres and local scenes– and as a result we’re seeing some of the boldest, most creative releases in rap to date. Psychedelic rock has all but consumed and surpassed the garage craze. And did I mention women absolutely killing it this year? Do you know how many albums in my top ten do not prominently feature a female vocalist? Four. And the leader of the list, #1, had a hell of a comeback album, surprising even those of us whose expectations couldn’t have been higher.
(Top five below, the rest after the jump. You can listen to the list on Spotify as well – notable albums included on this list that are not available on Spotify include releases from Action Bronson, Azealia Banks, Black Bananas, Flatbush ZOMBiES, and more)
1. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
When Fiona Apple released Extraordinary Machine in 2005, it was following years of delays and controversy, stemming from the apparent dispute over the commercial appeal of the record. After a number of re-recordings, when it was finally released, the end product was something so unique, so magical, that the consensus was that Apple had won, giving us an album that was brave and apparently uninhibited. I know a few fans were disappointed that some songs had been changed from leaked, earlier versions of the recording, but if you had never heard those rougher drafts, you would have no reason to doubt Apple was presenting her best possible work in Extraordinary Machine, artistically and aurally.
When I listen to The Idler Wheel…, I am in awe of what we were missing in Extraordinary Machine. Not to say that Extraordinary Machine wasn’t terrific or experimental – but compared to my favorite album of 2012, the production seems extraordinarily confining. There’s no question that The Idler Wheel… is Apple’s bravest work to date – here, she has never been more raw, no noticeable effects on her vocals, alone on most songs with her piano and simple percussion. Her songs are beautiful and heartbreaking, her lyrics both cryptic and intimate. This album is nothing short of superb, and in many ways it towers above the remaining, incredible albums on this list.
2. Grimes – Visions
This was my most anticipated release of 2012, and it was everything I hoped it to be. Grimes is a truly innovative artist, and in a time when every contemporary trend is a revival of a bypassed era, of a heralded independent movement in music, it is truly refreshing to see an artist attempting to lead one of her own. In interviews, Grimes hesitates to admit any sort of influential role or leadership concerning her music, but it would be foolish to overlook the role played by the hype surrounding Grimes, in opening the door for other young female vocalists making music, who loved Mariah Carey when they were growing up but would prefer to entertain dirty hipsters in crowded basements than stand in line for American Idol tryouts. Not to say Claire Boucher is a likely candidate for American Idol, but rather that her success has opened the door for band-less, pop-leaning singers to pursue hipper, more independent paths to achieve exposure and success.
So, the first thing about Visions is that it is exciting, inspiring, and new – but it’s also a collection of amazing songs. Beautiful, glittering synths, soft sweet melodies, thumping hip hop beats. Extremely danceable melancholy. This was most likely my most listened to album of the year.
3. La Sera – Sees The Light
I never expected this record from Kickball Katy. I had already fallen in love with fellow Vivian Girl Cassie Ramone’s “side-project” (if that ugly term is appropriate), The Babies, and I never expected La Sera could similarly steal my heart. But it happened, and then some. Album opener “Love That’s Gone” lures you in with gorgeous, reverb-laden chords, a slow and steady beat, a surfer’s ballad. Continuing down the tracklist, with song titles such as “Break My Heart”, “It’s Over Now”, and “I’m Alone”, the inspiration of the record is all but transparent – but surprisingly, the spirit of the album is hopeful and comforting, resilient and powerful, making this one of the most empowering break-up records I’ve ever heard. To top it off, Sees The Light is home to the most impressive song-writing I’ve heard from Katy Goodman. This is the record that surprised me most in 2012, and is definitely this year’s most underrated album. As for the second most underrated album…
4. Chairlift – Something
As I mentioned in my Top Songs list, I wasn’t a big fan of Chairlift’s 2008 debut, Does You Inspire You, so I didn’t expect much from Something. A few friends convinced me to give it a listen, and I couldn’t believe how much the band had evolved. On Does You Inspire You, the band’s lack of identity was distracting, and the songs almost seemed incomplete. Perhaps more focused after trimming down from a three-piece to a duo, and after a few more years of playing music together, Chairlift emerged in 2012 with a masterful piece of modern pop music. Songs are carefully layered in samples and synths, a lot of electronic drums, and warm basslines. Caroline Polachek has a beautiful voice, and it has grown considerably since their debut, in character and control. I’d compare this release to last year’s sophomore effort from The Smith Westerns, another band that came into their own with their second release. In 2012, Chairlift found their identity and released one of the most compelling works of the year.
5. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
Swing Lo Magellan may be Dirty Projectors’ most accessible album to date. 2009’s Bitte Orca was a breakthrough album of sorts, pushing David Longstreth’s experiment into the realm of mainstream relevancy, after positive attention from The New York Times and the like. On Swing Lo Magellan, Longstreth delves further away from the experimental, opting for a series of mostly straightforward, albeit intricate, pop songs. Well, maybe not compared to say, Best Coast, but for the Dirty Projectors, this album is a more complete step in a new direction, moving further from where Bitte Orca began. Maybe it’s because I’m a man of pop sensibilities myself, but I’d say this is a welcome adjustment, and I’ve never had this much enthusiasm from a Dirty Projectors release. Longstreth is an actual musical genius – if you get the opportunity to see them perform live, please take it, and you’ll be in awe – and he’s a musician whose evolution is constant and positive, with every Dirty Projectors release. An amazingly talented band at their finest.
6. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
7. Diplo – Express Yourself EP
8. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
9. Hospitality – (self-titled)
10. Foxygen – Take The Kids Off Broadway
11. Opossom – Electric Hawaii
12. Mac Demarco – 2
13. Poolside – Pacific Standard Time
14. Melody’s Echo Chamber – (self-titled)
15. Chad Valley – Young Hunger
16. Crystal Castles – III
17. Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror
18. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse
19. Frankie Rose – Interstellar
20. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
21. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Blue Chips
22. Allah-Las – (self-titled)
23. The Babies – Our House on the Hill
24. Paws – Cokefloat!
25. Ski Beatz – Ski Beatz 24 Hour Karate School Presents Twilight Zone
26. Tame Impala – Lonerism
27. How To Dress Well – Total Loss
28. The Memories – (self-titled)
29. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
30. Rick Ross – God Forgives, I Don’t
31. Terry Malts – Killing Time
32. Slugabed – Time Team
33. Shintaro Sakamoto – How To Live With a Phantom
34. Tennis – Young & Old
35. Beach House – Bloom
36. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes
37. Sweet Valley – Eternal Champ
38. Grizzly Bear – Shields
39. Kindness – World, You Need A Change of Mind
40. Trinidad James – Don’t Be S.A.F.E.
41. Ice Choir – Afar
42. Solange – True
43. Elton John vs. Pnau – Good Morning To The Night
44. Big Boi – Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors
45.TNGHT – (self-titled)
46.Freddie Gibbs – Baby Face Killa
47. Elle Varner – Perfectly Imperfect
48. Azealia Banks – Fantasea
49. Black Bananas – Rad Times Xpress IV
50. Here We Go Magic – A Different Ship
Flatbush Zombies – D.R.U.G.S.
Fresh & Onlys – Long Slow Dance
iamiwhoami – Kin
Nas – Life is Good
Preditah – Gears of Grime
Vitalic – Rave Age
Rusko – Songs
RiFF RAFF – Birth of An Icon
Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Staygold – Rain On Our Parade