30. Scott Walker – Bish Bosch
The word “ambitious” gets thrown around aplenty, but Scott Walker’s Bisch Bosch couldn’t be described as anything else. Well, that’s not exactly true: It could also be aptly summarized as poetic, theatrical, whimsical, odd, and just about anything one can mutter in anxiety. It’s an exercise in endurance and a puzzle for those that would rather digest their music than consume it. For Christ’s sake, there’s a track about dwarfism over 21 minutes long that’s titled SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter), and at one point, Walker even sings over flatulence.
Yet for all the packaged oddities, there’s an overwhelming attention to detail, and to a caliber that hardly surfaces in the industry these days. Certainly nothing sounded like Bisch Bosch all year, and while that’s never an indication of what makes or breaks an album, it’s a telling fact that’s paramount to Walker’s rich, diverse career. His music palette is a black hole that swallows everything in its path. Stop resisting and just dissolve. -Michael Roffman
29. How to Dress Well – Total Loss
“You can call it R&B-influenced because of the way I sing, and that’s fine I grew up around my mom, who was singing Smokey Robinson, Janet Jackson, and Michael Jackson in the house since I was an infant. But the first song on the record is a William Basinski homage, and the third song is a Steve Reich homage. To me, that doesn’t quite line up with me being anyone’s favorite R&B artist.” How to Dress Well’s Tom Krell told Pitchfork that earlier this year. And his point is essential to the experience of listening to Total Loss, Krell’s most fleshed out record yet.
It’s an album that draws on R&B melodies and cloudy minimalism, not as an homage to the genres it appears to emulate, but in order to capture painful nostalgia and loss through a precise, mournful aesthetic. Krell sings about his youth, his revolving door of friends and family, and sets the muddled thoughts to tape. A Janet Jackson melody, for instance, then becomes a distant memory, not mere allusion. Krell produces sounds that perfectly capture our current state of musical affairs: our collective ability to impressionistically draw from all over the map to create a statement wholly anew. -Drew Litowitz
28. Purity Ring – Shrines
By my count, there are 120 mentions of corporeal imagery over the 38 minutes, 13 seconds of Purity Rings debut, Shrines. Thats over three body parts per minute, not counting evocative invocations like the crawling animals will seek all things warm, all things moist. Nearly all these references are gory and racking, but Megan James makes them bleed emotion. Many of the words, if screamed properly, couldve been post-hardcore emo lyrics; James fragile sweetness keeps them from such pathos, revealing the romantic spirit inside the mangled frame.
Keeping James obtuse lyrics afloat in their wicked dream is a confident Corin Roddick with his glitchy sweeps of electronic beats. Comparisons are frequently made to The Knife and Burial, but Roddick is clearly an R&B and hip-hop fan. The pounding sub-bass, skittering percussion, synths that seem to float away more than fade – theyre no surprise from a man who referenced Justin Timberlake, Clams Casino, and Holy Ghost in one breath. Amid an R&B resurgence, its only fitting that such sounds would slide into pop music alongside the already not-so-subtly-inserted electronic production. A perfect correspondence between elemental poetics and technological auras, this duos debut sends pop into the future while keeping it tethered to their flesh, crimsoned and torn as it is. -Ben Kaye
27. METZ – METZ
The Canadian lads, known for their raucous live show that utilizes waves of sound so thick they practically knock you down and steal your wallet, worked diligently to infuse a level of grace and professional sheen while integrating certain post-production nuances. The resulting LP is succinct, varied, and so much more than three guys screaming and slamming on instruments.
“Wasted” emphasizes cohesion and mass appeal with its gnarly guitar dissonance and surprisingly catchy chorus chant, all without forgoing the primal, borderline spooky aesthetic so lovingly associated with the forebears of punk and noise. But for pure punk transcendence, “Headache” and its scorched Earth approach to instrumentation and melodies is as destructive and malevolent as it is a force for communal bonding and spirited pit-stompin’. So while anyone can make racket, throw in a punk sneer, and call it noise, few up-and-comers imbue it with the sharp wit and deep hooks like METZ. -Chris Coplan
26. Liars – WIXIW
Marked by cycles of reinvention, Australian-American trio Liars — once formerly known as the reeling post-punk band with concept albums about witches — may have struck truth with a newfound electronic sensibility, uncannily conducive to their abstract storytelling. The three have channeled a sort of seer-like clairvoyance with their latest WIXIW. Pronounced wish you, frontman Angus Andrew has explained in interviews that the ambiguity of the albums title is intentional — after all, it can be construed wish you were here or wish you were dead. Whos to say, really?
Listening to WIXIW, its impossible not to pick up on the traces of a lingering, unresolved desire that threads itself underneath the stitching of synthesizers and Andrews oscillating swoons and mutters, with tales of broken lovers and a ghostly ambience much like what made Interpols Turn on the Bright Lights so hauntingly resonant. All Interpol comparisons aside, the remarkable omniscience of the album, from the ominous Octagon nestles itself beside disco-injected numbers such as Brats with a sound that undoubtedly belongs to Liars. And thats the truth. -Paula Mejia
25. El-P – Cancer for Cure
2012 wouldve been a success for El-P even if the production on Killer Mikes R.A.P. Music, which he handled entirely, had been the only material he released. That he also dropped his best solo album just a week after Mike’s record came out made it a career year. Cancer for Cure, Jamie Melines first LP since 2007, is 49 minutes of the dense, Phillip K. Dick-via-KRS-One avant-bap hes been known for since his Company Flow days, but its tighter and more coherent than anything else in his catalog.
The beats are so immersive that they form a world unto themselves as soon as Bill Burroughs finishes his epigram on opener Request Denied; the extended instrumental passages are just as addictive as the hooks (seriously, those last two minutes of Drones Over Bklyn? Jesus); and the verses are delivered with a sense of humor that rarely comes with Els brand of political prolixity. I dont give a fraction or fractal of fucks, he goes at one point, but hes lying hard, meticulous work went into this thing, and it shows. -Mike Madden
24. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Election years bring out extremes; if youre a big fan of shouted racism or unrealistic good intentions, 2012 was your time to shine. That political fervor fueled a return from everyones favorite Canadian post-rock collective, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, as well. They challenged listeners to think outside of the norms in developing their grandiose cinematic rise-and-fall years ago, and now that the world needs another challenge, they deliver masses of threatening rumble.
The constant dread cable-knit through pieces like The Helicopters Sing threaten to tear the world apart, but even that catharsis is denied. We Drift Like Worried Fire could easily have scored the insomniac nights just knowing that your preferred candidate would fall short. Godspeed You! Black Emperor are encouraging you to ascend to the task of breaking through yourself rather than offering an easy fix or bending to external pressures. -Adam Kivel
23. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse
Ty Segall almost shot himself in the foot this year by putting together three LPs in 12 months. With anybody else, one would have to cobble together a solid disc from the pieces; with Segall, youve got three candidates for this list. The best of the bunch was the barn — no, farm-burning Slaughterhouse, the kind of record where the urgency of rampaging garage rock insists that you dont spend the time to cut out a screamed I dont know what were doing!
But while any jerk with a guitar could shout something funny in between garage rock tunes, no one can pull off giddy pop destruction quite like the gruzzy (thats grimey plus fuzzy, for those playing at home) gurgle of Wave Goodbye or the rip-roaring Tell Me Whats Inside Youre Heart. Segall is running in increasingly large concentric circles like some sort of leaking cold fusion Energizer bunny, the de facto ambassador for the increasingly prominent San Fransisco garage scene. -Adam Kivel
22. Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light
J. Spaceman, who in a very sobering reality is Jason Pierce, has been through some tough shit over the past decade. During 2008s Songs in A&E, he suffered through pneumonia. Before this years Sweet Heart Sweet Light, it was liver disease. Despite it all, or maybe because of it, Pierce has emerged as victor in his quest for great chamber pop.
The songs are as bountiful as they are beautiful in their various forms. Opener Hey Jane yanks wallflowers up by their suspenders and into a place where only dance exists. Album closer So Long You Pretty Thing has Pierce comforting the listener even as he pleads for help from a spiritual source. In between are the sad laments set to swoon (Too Late, Freedom), and epic songs drenched in fuzz (Get What You Deserve, Heading for the Top). Altogether, just another triumph of the human spirit. No big deal. –Justin Gerber
21. Chromatics – Kill for Love
Chromatics were full of bold statements this year. For one, they released a 77-minute minimalist, synth-rock record that rarely crested glacial tempos. To make things even harder on themselves, they started it all off with a Neil Young cover. As in, the first song on their album is a re-envisioned take on a song by one of the greatest living songwriters. And not just any Neil Young song, but “Hey Hey, My My”, the epic, proto-grunge downer that opened one of Young’s own boldest artistic statements, 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps. On paper, it reads like industry suicide. I mean, you just don’t do something like that. Neil Young wouldn’t even do something like that.
But somehow, Chromatics weren’t too big for their britches. They turned Young’s desperate cry for rock ‘n’roll salvation into a mournful synth-swirl of doom and gloom. The attention-grabbing opener swapped fired-up amps and howled vocals for warm synthesizers and drugged-up, sexy vocals. Moreover it set the scene perfectly for their real statement: a double-record of longing, deception, heartbreak, pill-swallowing, and, obviously, love-crossed murder. “Everybody’s got a secret to hide,” Ruth Radelet coolly states on the record’s title track. She then confesses to having swallowed a lot of drugs and murdering somebody. What follows is a record as cohesive and fluid as they come, one which never attempts more than to coast through a drug-induced daze of heartwarming/-breaking, synth-washed, doe-eyed, synthetic dreams. It’s as sexy as it is depressing. -Drew Litowitz
Stream: Kill for Love