Action Bronson Blue Chips
You might remember Action Bronson making an appearance on last year’s list with his Dr. Lechter album. Despite the lower ranking, Blue Chips as a whole is even better than what Bronson has shown before. Between his deft wordplay and some outstanding, gritty production from Party Supplies, Blue Chips is a winner.
Dr. John Locked Down
Produced by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Locked Down finds Dr. John at his most consistent in some time and he appears to be reinvigorated by the experience. While not the most obvious, it’s a very sensible pairing, and the results are well worth a listen.
Taken By Trees Other Worlds
The solo project of former Concretes singer Victoria Bergsman, Other Worlds was influenced by her time in Hawaii, and you can feel that sentiment immediately. A cinematic and serene album, Bergsman’s hushed vocals are understated yet impactful.
Deftones Koi No Yokan
Believe it or not, Deftones did not in fact die off at the end of the early 2000′s new metal craze. While the choice may seem a little out of left-field, Koi No Yokan may be their best album next to their ground breaking White Pony. The traditional wall of sound is still in place with lead vocalist’s Chino Moreno’s voice piercing through for dramatic effect, but growing older and mature seems to have suited these guys quite well– it’s not just loudness for the sake of loud, there’s a point to it all.
Captain Murphy Duality
You can’t fault Steven Ellison (better known as Flying Lotus) for not wanting to put his name on this project originally. Captain Murphy is in a similar vein to the Madlib/Quasimoto duality, in that Flying Lotus’ knack for improvisation and pop culture sensibilities channel a muse that’s equal parts off kilter and hypnotically captivating. If you’re really brave, you can experience Duality in all of its glory from the official website– just be forewarned that it’s as trippy (and NSFW) as the music would lead you to believe.
Poliça Give You the Ghost
One of the more interesting groups of 2012, Poliça was founded by former Gayngs members Ryan Olson and Channy Leaneagh. The result is a highly infectious blend of electronica and R&B that makes for an engaging debut. This is certainly a band to watch out for in the near future.
Django Django Django Django
This Mercury Award-nominated album is definitely a lot of fun, especially for fans of Hot Chip and The Beta Band. They definitely have a makings of a band that’s an album or two away from the big time.
Matthew Dear Dreams
Despite using the same dense layers you’ve come to expect from Matthew Dear, Dreams, perhaps as its title would indicate, feels much lighter on its feet. There’s a slickness to the production that wasn’t there before, and it brings out some texture that livens up Dear’s unique vocal style.
Divine Fits A Thing Called Divine Fits
It’s almost impossible for supergroups to live up to their hype, and while the Divine Fits didn’t completely avoid that trap, they show a great deal of promise assuming they stick together. Comprised of Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner, Spoon’s Britt Daniel, Sam Brown of the New Bomb Turks, as well as Alex Fischel on keyboard, there’s plenty of talent to go around, and both vocalists prove to have a serious handle on the material, as shown on “My Love Is Real” and “Would That Not Be Nice”.
JJ Doom Key to the Kuffs
Key to the Kuffs was the result of DOOM being stuck in London after being refused entry back into the United States, and the results are about what you would expect. Jneieo Jarel provide some intricate backdrops as DOOM inserts everything from British slang to surprisingly coherent (for DOOM anyway) story lines.
Plan B ill Manors
Written as a soundtrack to the critically acclaimed movie of the same name, ill Manors is very large in scope and mostly succeeds. Ben Drew really nails it on the opening title track, perfectly addressing the problems of the inner city without ever coming off as too preachy or biased.
Ta-ku 50 Days for Dilla, vols. 1 & 2
It’s hard enough dedicating 50 tracks to a legend within a one year span, nevermind the inescapable aura of J Dilla, who seems to have influenced more mixtapes after death than during his life. There’s nothing trite or absurd about this entry however, as Ta-ku more than holds his own throughout both volumes– a highly entertaining listen.
Beach House Bloom
Even with it being arguably the worst Beach House album, Bloom is still impressive in its grace and beauty. Anchored by strong singles, especially the opening “Myth,” Bloom‘s biggest faults lie mainly in its flat production. It’s a tall order to follow in the footsteps of their previous work, and it’s clear that Bloom is a stepping stone– but it’s a very enjoyable one nonetheless.
Cat Power Sun
Chan Marshall’s ninth studio release is her most consistent in quite some time, and is a highly enjoyable, yet slightly gritty listen, culminating in the near 11-minute “Nothin’ But Time”. Both fans and newcomers alike will find something to like with this one.
Islands A Sleep and a Forgetting
Islands have always appeared on the brink of something great, and the immensely intimate nature of A Sleep and a Forgetting easily makes this release the band’s best yet. Largely written as the result of a nasty break up, Nick Thorburn’s writing has never been stronger, and hopefully that focus can carry over to their next release.
Lost in the Trees A Church That Fits Our Needs
There wasn’t a more heartbreakingly gorgeous album to come out in 2012 than this sophomore release. Dealing in large part with the suicide of frontman Ari Picker’s mother, there is a cinematic element to A Church… that makes it all the more moving and engaging.
Nas Life is Good
Hate if you want to, but it looks like Nas is back in top form with Life is Good. Despite its length, Life is Good never strays too far off course, and Nas even manages to keep the self-serving at a minimum. Unsurprisingly, there are quite a bit of references to his divorce with R&B singer Kelis, but this isn’t a break-up album by any means. Instead, it sounds like the narratives from a more mature, reflective Nas, which is as refreshing as it is enjoyable.
Lotus Plaza Spooky Action at a Distance
The side project of Deerhunter’s Lockett Pundt, Spooky Action at a Distance doesn’t tread a whole lot of new ground but continues on in the same vein as Deerhunter’s last release, Halcyon Digest, albeit in a more straightforward setting. There aren’t too many frills here, just the core of what makes most of their fanbase tick.
Twin Shadow Confess
Twin Shadow definitely wore his Prince influences on his sleeve with his follow up to the brilliant Forget. It’s not as inherently convincing as his debut, but there’s a lot to really like about Confess. The slick “Golden Light” and “Five Seconds” set the tone, and George Lewis Jr.’s confidence thrives in what would otherwise be a schmaltzy affair for a lesser artist.
Matthew E. White Big Inner
The genius of Big Inner takes time to be discovered, as Matthew E. White appears to be the master of the understatement. Dark yet incredibly witty, White’s a profound artist and it will be interesting to see how he continues to progress with his follow-up releases.
Even the most dedicated Liars fan never knows what to expect from album to album, and there perhaps has been no greater challenge than W|X|W, where the tension mercilessly builds before finally erupting in the grimy “Brats.” Up until that point, it’s all moody atmospheric rock where the emphasis is on sonic textures rather than anything to get down to. Fortunately, for most Liars fans, they understand the value of patience– it’s well rewarded here.
Lupe Fiasco Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1
Preachy? Yes. Over the top? Of course. In truth, no one should want it any other way, while 2012 marked the unfortunate rise of one Chicago-native Chief Keef, Lupe Fiasco is the dark knight over Chicago hip-hop, going out of his way to try to save the day, even if that means overstating his message. There’s nothing subtle about “Bitch Bad” or the chorus line to “Audubon Ballroom,” but then again, when was the last time you’ve heard a subtle gangsta rap album either? You have to take the yin with the yang, and that’s why Food & Liquor II is such a critical album.
Ty Segall Band Slaughterhouse
In a nutshell, Ty Segall is a throwback artist, and a damn good one at that. Slaughterhouse could have just as easily been recorded in a Detroit basement in the 1970′s, with its primal screams and incessantly energetic drums, but it’s not retro for the sake of being retro. Slaughterhouse is a truly authentic experience that makes even the most jaded individual want to don their leather jacket.
Miguel Kaleidoscope Dream
While R. Kelly goes back to being trapped in the closet, Miguel seems to be more than happy to carry the torch in creating awkward yet seductive R&B music. Kaleidoscope Dream has some of the best hooks you’ll hear in 2012, led by the opening “Adorn” and the infectious “Do You…”, this is a true pop gem.
Alabama Shakes Boys & Girls
Somehow able to not only withstand but flourish amongst all the hype, Boys & Girls is a very solid debut from a band that is essentially still finding its footing. By now everyone has heard “Hold On,” but the stronger songs come from the rootsy “Hang Loose” and the sentimental title track, which does a beautiful job of highlighting Brittany Howard’s vocal ability.
Cody ChesnuTT Landing on a Hundred
Surprisingly, it’s been a decade since Cody ChesnuTT initially burst onto the scene with The Headphone Masterpiece and very little was heard from him since that time. It looks as though his time away was well spent, as Landing on a Hundred is his best work by quite a large margin. With its throwback sound and ChesnuTT’s patented heart-on-a-sleeve lyrics, he can do everything from inspire you to make you smile.
The Walkmen Heaven
This venerable band has built quite the library of solid releases by now, and with Heaven, perhaps the only distinguishing factor (which is important) is its incredibly intimate sound. Hamilton Leithauser has definitely made strides as a vocalist and it shows here as the sparse arrangements leave little room for error. It’s a beautiful record, one that will even bring aboard some new fans.
Chromatics Kill For Love
Look no further than their cover of Neil Young’s “Into the Black” to see why everyone has been raving about this album. Where most bands would embarrass themselves tripping along the building tension of the song, Chromatics embrace it and modernize it in very impressive fashion. The rest of the album lives up to that same promise as Kill For Love is a very striking and poised album through and through, and one of the most memorable of the year.
The Men Open Your Heart
Assuming that Open Your Heart is the platform on which The Men will be continuing their career, you can bet this band will be very, very big in a few years. Much more palatable than their first two albums, Open Your Heart sounds as though it was created by deranged grandchildren of The Rolling Stones– and that is meant in the best possible fashion. The rollicking guitars, the slick hooks that stick to your ribs, they even hit all the right notes on the twangy rock songs. All in all, Open Your Heart is a lot of fun, and it’ll be interesting to see where The Men go from here.
The xx Coexist
No, Coexist doesn’t live up to the staggering self-titled debut. Yes, the themes of love-loss are still as present here as it was on the debut, but that doesn’t make Coexist a disappointment, or even a bad album for that matter. Instead, it’s a band feeling out its next steps, with some very impressive results to show for, especially on tracks such as “Swept Away” and, the larger than life, “Missing.”
Damien Jurado Maraqopa
Damien Jurado has been making music since the mid-nineties, but here, returning to work again with producer Richard Swift, Jurado is as relevant and appealing as ever. Maraqopa is full of beautiful allegory and a dense sound that fits his vocals like a glove– it’s easily among his best work.
Lambchop Mr. M
Lambchop has spent most of their career being all over the place, so in that sense it’s a bit shocking to see them completely settle down into the lounge-folk groove of Mr. M. Frontman Kurt Wagner’s lamenting vocals are lifted by a frequently ornate backdrop of everything from strings to a delicate piano and guitar, crafting thoughtful, soul-stirring songs that are bittersweet in every sense of the word.
Smart and highly witty lyrics combined with a summery backdrop make for one of the more fun albums of 2012, and positions Hospitality as being a rightful heir to Belle & Sebastian. The Brooklyn-based band displays a great deal of maturity and Amber Papini’s sweet vocals never wears out its welcome.
Visions will be forever unfairly judged only because of how big the album got so early on in the year– it’s still a great album, and there still hasn’t been much else that sounds like it but most people had heard the album on repeat many times through before the summer even rolled around. That being said, the effervescent dance pop that she produces is something special, and Visions is more than worthy of being her mainstream breakthrough.
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
Any review of Fiona Apple’s latest album can be summed up by simply saying ‘Thank God Fiona’s back.” Not only is she back, but she’s back with a vengeance, an edge that hasn’t been there since her earliest work. Instead of openly flipping off any man who comes her way, however, she’s far more clever as shown on “Werewolf.” Yes, this is a wiser Fiona, who now knows that “Nothing’s wrong with a song that ends in a minor key,” but she’s more than happy to tell you to kiss off anyway.
Grizzly Bear Shields
After the breakthrough Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear, somewhat surprisingly seemed to move forward by going backwards. When you listen to Shields, there is a lot of Yellow House that comes through. What makes this album more than a simple retread though is how much the band has all grown as musicians– these are very intricate and complex tracks for the most part, and the guys make it all look effortless.
Jessie Ware Devotion
If it weren’t for Adele and Florence Welch, you’d probably hear a lot more open mainstream praise for Jessie Ware– she’s certainly worth it. As Devotion proves, Ware not only has the vocal chops, but also the presence and soul that most identify with the other two British female vocalists. Where she truly shines are on the more R&B-influenced ballads, such as “Wildest Moments,” it’s there that you can see a future star.
Joey Bada$$ 1999
With each listen 1999 becomes more and more impressive, especially when you consider it is coming from a 17-year old kid. Joey Bada$$ and the rest of the Pro.Era crew are fierce storytellers that not only know how to rhyme, but paint a picture with their lyrics. Partner that with an uncanny appreciation for golden age hip-hop and like-sounding productions, and you have a timeless mixtape from one of the most promising hip-hop artists.
Dirty Projectors Swing Lo Magellan
After the impressively abstract Bitte Orca, it was almost off-putting to see Dirty Projectors play it so straight on Swing Lo Magellan. Once the dust settles however, the nuanced writing and more folk-focus is an intriguing and refreshing approach, even if it means hearing far less from Amber Coffman.
El-P Cancer for Cure
It’s difficult separating Cancer for Cure from R.A.P. Music since both were produced by El-P and have a similar apocalyptic aesthetic. The difference between the two being that while Killer Mike’s no holds barred lyrics are more of a throwback, El-P continues on operating about five years ahead of the game. Cancer for Cure is a bit on the long side, but it’s a wonderfully dark album.
Killer Mike R.A.P. Music
He’s come a really long way from “The Whole World” and “A.D.I.D.A.S.” R.A.P. Music gets back to the core of what rap music really is all about– an anti-establishment, gritty observation of the underprivileged worldview. No track captures that sentiment more than ”Reagan,” which is one of the more political rap tracks you’ll hear from an artist not named Dead Prez. Taken as a whole, R.A.P. Music should be regarded as an instant classic.
Spiritualized Sweet Light, Sweet Heart
Only Jason Pierce (aka J. Spaceman) would be able to pull off releasing a nine-minute opus and have the audacity to call it a single this day and age and still have enough in the tank to surround it with a collection of 10 other songs that are close to the same length. It’s all a bit overwhelming first time through, but with repeated listens the world of Sweet Light, Sweet Heart becomes increasingly approachable and enjoyable.
Andrew Bird Break It Yourself
Chicago-native Andrew Bird continues his accomplished career with the outstanding Break It Yourself, which easily stands as one of the best albums he’s ever released. There’s an attempt to try some new things on Break It Yourself, which is largely appreciated, and on top of that all of his risks pay off in full– a terrific album.
Death Grips The Money Store
Death Grips may have thoroughly pissed off their record label but The Money Store is a monumental album that is quite unlike anything else released this year. A hearty combination of punk, noise and rap, Death Grips will do anything in the crusade to help you free your mind. At its best, the results are anthemic (“I’ve Seen Footage”), but while the album is challenging, the rewards are endless.
Japandroids Celebration Rock
It helps when you have the song of the year in your back pocket (“The House that Heaven Built”), but even so Celebration Rock elevates Japandroids’ game to the kind of pure unadulterated arena rock that most bands spend their whole lives perfecting. It’s fun, it’s loud, and, most importantly, it has staying power. There isn’t much more you could ask for, so enjoy it!
Flying Lotus Until the Quiet Comes
Obviously, 2012 was a big year for Steven Ellison. Even though Captain Murphy is the big news item for right now, you cannot deny the impeccable Until the Quiet Comes, which completely embraces the free jazz influences that occasionally appeared on the equally terrific Cosmogramma. You can truly hear the influence of his great-aunt and uncle, Alice and John Coltrane, in the very nuanced instrumentation and the incredible sense of space.
Tame Impala Lonerism
Amazingly, Tame Impala’s sophomore release is leaps and bounds better than their first, and it’s addition by subtraction in a lot of ways. Yes, it’s still largely psychedelic rock, but it’s a much more straightforward brand than what was shown in its predecessor, giving frontman Kevin Parker more room to explore his own voice and allow the band to push the envelope in ways that didn’t seem possible up until now. Lonerism is a tantalizing listen where you can constantly find new sounds to pick out and enjoy repeatedly.
alt-J (∆) An Awesome Wave
Although alt-J is a good number of albums away from being even in the same ballpark as the band itself, An Awesome Wave is the first album since Radiohead that made me change the way I listen to music. There’s an ethereal element to their sound that is unlike anything around in music right now, and they seem just as comfortable creating an intimate moment as they are in simply rocking out. Yes, alt-J’s debut lives up to its name– it’s An Awesome Wave indeed.
Frank Ocean channel ORANGE
There has been no higher profile release than Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE, and for good reason– it’s the crown jewel of the Odd Future movement. Yes, you can point to Ocean’s coming out as being a large source for interest as well, but in all honesty that’s just a sliver of what makes channel ORANGE so compelling. It’s clear that Ocean’s a perfectionist, as even with its completely personal, almost diary-like flow, there is absolutely nothing wasted and nothing added without reason. It’s a fantastic album, and any other year it would be an easy pick for number one.
Kendrick Lamar good kid, m.A.A.d city
There is quite simply no album that can hold a candle to what Kendrick Lamar accomplished with his release. The storytelling is superb, brutally honest yet never languishes despite its length. No, good kid, m.A.A.d city is the type of experience that most albums can only hope to be, with Dr. Dre being the perfect navigator setting the course. Ten years from now Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city will be thought of in the same way this generation talks about Nas’ Illmatic.