Best Music of 2012

Top 50 Albums of 2012

on December 14, 2012, 1:00am
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annual report albums e1355108850421 Top 50 Albums of 2012

Alas, our 2012 Annual Report has come to an end. Over two long, grueling weeks, we’ve shared this year’s top stories, photos, videos, and songs, in addition to our picks for artist, band, rookie, and festival of the year. It ain’t over until several of you argue about your favorite albums, so that’s where today fits into the picture. Below you’ll see 50 of our favorite albums, all ranked and argued for your pleasure. Some you might have heard, others maybe not so much, but either way, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to let you listen and experience each album for yourself. Consider it our holiday gift, and in return, feel free to send us those tin cans of sugar cookies or Garrett’s popcorn or, hell, even a mogwai — something like that.

One more thing: Stay tuned next week as we still have a few stocking stuffers left in our year-end extravaganza. We’re calling them “leftovers,” and c’mon, who doesn’t love those?
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nas life is good Top 50 Albums of 2012

50. Nas – Life Is Good

Contrasting the hard-knocks of the past with the joys of the present isn’t a new thing in rap, but with Life is good, Nas takes full advantage of the concept by presenting the divide both lyrically and musically. As he navigates the space between “the hood that birthed me” and his current tenure as “The Don”, the album traces the chronology on the production end, with beats that pull from stripped ‘80s R&B (“Reach Out”), Illmatic-style boom-thwap (“Loco-Motive“, which actually features Large Professor), and wholly contemporary Watch the Throne-levels of opulence (“No Introduction”). And not only does the time-warping make the album play like a career-spanning greatest-hits collection, much of it would fit right in on an actual one. -Mike Madden

Buy: Amazon | Insound
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flying lotus until the quiet comes e1342620571552 Top 50 Albums of 2012

49. Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes

Quiet may be the most ill-fitting adjective to describe FlyLo’s triumphant follow-up. Albeit subdued by comparison to 2010’s sprawling Cosmogramma, the album sharpens an already heightened sensibility for glitchy beats and salient samples. The collaborations roam, giving the album an abysmal depth of creativity that expands with each listen, from Thom Yorke to notable Brainfeeder collaborators Thundercat and the late jazz pianist Austin Peralta. FlyLo’s latest marks a pivotal moment in the orgiastic marriage of hip-hop, electronica, psychedelia, and even shoegaze, where, at the end of the day, reason and rhyme become very much intertwined. -Paula Mejia

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48. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

“But without songs, we’re lost / And life is pointless, harsh, and long,” David Longstreth croons on the final track. He bids his listeners farewell with the type of sentiment that means a lot to the music scholars subscribing to the avant-garde intricacies of the former Yale student and his ever-changing tribe for nearly a decade. The band has tried on many hats over the years, and Longstreth told Pitchfork that 2009’s Bitte Orca was about the idea of songs, while the contents of Swing Lo “are just songs.” When Longstreth starts to fade into his previous habit of using words for their beauty rather than their meaning on “Unto Caesar”, fellow band member Amber Coffman adorably interrupts, “Uh, that doesn’t make any sense, what you said.” The coupling of words that actually make sense with the band’s most accessible arrangements to date made this a record for fans old and new. -Amanda Koellner

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47. Bob Mould – Silver Age

Although the title Silver Age befits the remarkable endurance of Bob Mould’s career, the record could have just as easily been called Iron Age. Mould comes to his tenth solo album armed and armored to the teeth, fighting his way through 38 minutes of return-to-form power-pop that fumes with aggression. And yet even when caught in his orbit of testosterone and steel-nerved chords, Mould never loses his sense of introspection. On “The Descent”, seemingly about his time in Hüsker Dü, he skirts the easy route of skewering his former bandmates and turns his anger inward for some healthy remorse and self-analysis: “I didn’t want to play the song / That gave people so much hope / I turned my back and turned away / Here’s the rope that made me choke.” In a year marked by several triumphs for rock, some catchy punk nostalgia would have been enough. But Bob Mould opted for growth. -Dan Caffrey

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codeorangekids.cover 1 Top 50 Albums of 2012

46. Code Orange Kids – Love Is Love // Return to Dust

No, they are actually kids, all under 20, and when Reba Meyers hits your face with “I have never felt as empty as I feel today” in her black-metal screech on the opening track, you’ll be jealous of their youth. Under the engineering tutelage of Kurt Ballou of Converge (more on them later), Code Orange Kids forge an album that’s enigmatic, topographically diverse, and heavy as shit. One minute it holds you up with progressive hardcore like 108 or Burn and the next it’s rubbing shoe-gaze post-rock salve on the wound. The psycho-personal lyrics of Jamie Morgan and bloody-knuckle aggression are what make this precocious debut an essential hardcore LP, but the dynamic map of the album is what makes it essential on any rockist’s shelf. -Jeremy D. Larson

Buy: Amazon
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allo darlin Top 50 Albums of 2012

45. Allo Darlin’ – Europe

Sure, 2012 saw genres from R&B to hardcore offering landmark releases seeking real change, both musically and beyond. Europe, in contrast, seems almost equally rebellious in its lack of cool, with the band comfortably demonstrating an unabashed love for the twee palette regardless of current musical trends. Europe proves irresistible to any with the slightest inclination toward twee, and the lasting impression is a reminder that the day-to-day emotional experiences of life are not necessarily rendered trivial by larger global issues. Who knows, in the face of this year’s numerous “Death of Indie” thinkpieces, a built-in commercial ceiling and realistic impression of artistic life could soon make niche-dwelling bands like Allo Darlin’ the face of independent music once again. -Philip Cosores

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joey badass 1999 Top 50 Albums of 2012

44. Joey Bada$$ – 1999

Hailing from Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School, it was easy to miss 17-year-old Joey Badda$$ amid the several other wunderkinds the rap world spat out in 2012. Yet the aptly titled 1999 was in a class all its own. JB immerses himself in ’90s style, taking beats that sound like they were picked up off the floor during the Reasonable Doubt sessions and injects them with a present vitality. His grand accomplishment is never sounding hokey or overly reverent. On “Waves”, he bewails, “I know niggas who trash rapping / Worried ‘bout the trending fashions rather than ascendin’ passion.” 1999 is truly an impressive feat for someone barely old enough to buy cigarettes. -Bryant Kitching

Download: 1999
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 Top 50 Albums of 2012

43. The Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania

After toiling in band overturn and lackluster singles for a few years, The Smashing Pumpkins did the impossible. Of Oceania, Billy Corgan recently told Rolling Stone that, “It’s really just turned a key that many people said could never be turned again.” He’s right. Zeitgeist’s forced rawk is replaced by a group of songs that breathe above keyboards just as often as they skitter along guitar chords and thudding rhythms. Corgan embraced Pumpkins v3.5, and as a result reinstilled faith in a band that many gave up on years ago. The ghosts of Siamese Dream-era Pumpkins still appear on “Inkless” and cherubian “Quasar”, but better yet are the synth-driven “Wildflower” and multi-layered title track. Their best since Adore – maybe even Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. -Justin Gerber

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themenopenyourheart Top 50 Albums of 2012

42. The Men – Open Your Heart

The Men’s Open Your Heart deals in dreams. Some are brought on by fever, such as the swirling intensity within “Ex-Dreams”. Some plead with near-hopeless abandon, as the yearning title track represents. Emotions get emoted, people don’t care if they get played on the radio, and somewhere along the way rock ‘n’ roll lives to see another day. There’s an energy permeating the record that can only be defined by drums, bass, guitar, and vocals; the coalescing of those elements display a band raging and weeping on album number three. Between furious play (“Turn It Around”) and gradual builds (“Oscillation”), The Men figured out how to turn those dreams into a reality we sometimes fear to experience. Or maybe already have. -Justin Gerber

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 Top 50 Albums of 2012

41. Tame Impala – Lonerism

Through surges of synthesizers and warped delay-pedal mastery, the concept of solitude never comes off as a self-pitying identifier. It’s a declaration and an ultimate acceptance of the self, those who embrace lonerism and the complexities that accompany it. The reincarnated alter ego of John Lennon, mastermind Kevin Parker’s distant vocals conceptualize a lucid tapestry of psychedelic pop that spans decades, retaining a stark intimacy of a collective unconsciousness, comprised of wandering souls channeling their doomsday dreams into audible delights. Lonerism’s ultimate majesty lies in unpredictable arcs. You drift along the wave itself, coasting with the bubbling “Music to Talk Home By” to the space-age dream of “She Just Won’t Believe Me”. As the album crests and recedes into the ambiance of “Sun’s Coming Up”, hidden complexities wash up along the shore, propelled by a crash so gentle you almost don’t feel it submerge you entirely. -Paula Mejia

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40. Grizzly Bear – Shields

For their third effort, Ed Droste, Daniel Rossen, Chris Taylor, and Christopher Bear got volatile. Nothing quite matched the sugary bliss of 2009’s “Two Weeks”, but what Shields lacks in radio-friendliness it makes up for in ball-grabbing moments of grandeur. The record touches on everything from psych-rock to OK Computer-esque sonic booms (listen to the last minute of “Yet Again” for a prime example of the latter) and captures an inner struggle between the fear of being alone and a need for solitude. Grizzly Bear have always been a collaborative entity, but never has Rossen’s herky-jerky picking style synched up so beautifully with Bear’s jazz-indebted percussion as it does on “Sleeping Ute” or on triumphant closer “Sun in Your Eyes”. Not often does chaos sound that sweet. -Bryant Kitching

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39. Crystal Castles – (III)

“Discourage affection,” Alice Glass scathingly shouts on “Sad Eyes”. Yet (III) overwhelms with intimate intensity, pummeling the gut with a scattershot punk mentality that, oddly enough, feels pretty good. It’s dark, disparaging stuff — some of this year’s bleakest — but it never feels macabre. Echoing past greats like Depeche Mode, New Order, and even Nine Inch Nails, Glass and Ethan Kath tinker their sound just enough to vacuum the imperfections of (II) and recycle the pulsating energy that made their 2008 self-titled debut so enthralling. Whether it’s the cyclone of terror within “Plague”, the devilish angst of “Wrath of God”, the sugar high of “Violent Youth”, or the transcendental baths of “Child I Will Hurt You”, the album’s manic enough to always sound engaging and, most importantly, intriguing. -Michael Roffman

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beaksecond Top 50 Albums of 2012

38. Beak – >>

On the other side of the digital music revolution is Beak>, the standard-bearers of ur-krautrock for the 21st century. Their analog, organic, one-take compositions on > > recall Can on quaaludes –or Neu! on acid — all with a focus on rhythm and mood over melody and hooks. The sizzurp synths and selective drumming of Portishead’s Goeff Barrow often sound like they were recorded with just some contact mics in a practice room somewhere, especially the muzaky “Egg Man”. But they turn it up for teethier rock jams in “Wulfstan II” and “Kidney”, all while vocals are mumbled underneath suggesting more texture than actual lyrics. The album is a tribute to the old form of three audiophiles bouncing ideas off each other with their musicianship being the only thing that stitches it together. -Jeremy D. Larson

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henryclaypeople 25 1500 rgb e13400758975421 Top 50 Albums of 2012

37. The Henry Clay People – Twenty-Five for the Rest of Our Lives

A 29-year-old who sings about being 25 and sounds like he’s 16, Joey Siara of The Henry Clay People proves that hindsight has to be well-timed. Anyone trying to capture early- to mid-twenties turmoil when they’re of that age often sounds shrill and dramatic, where as those who wait until they’re in their twilight years tend to come off as weary and nostalgic. But Siara and company get it just right by knowing the difference between being bored and being boring; the hooks are in brother Andy Siara’s solos, not his chords, and Joey keeps his lyrics caffeinated despite their wisdom. “I still feel too young to ever do what I’m told / Our blood runs hot but our heart beats cold / And our stubborn heads never let shit go / Even when we know we should / And we know we should.” Let’s hope Forty-Five for the Rest of Our Lives is this smart. And fun. -Dan Caffrey

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future pluto Top 50 Albums of 2012

36. Future – Pluto

Atlanta rapper Future lives in an alternate universe where rappers took Lil Wayne’s assertion of Martian origins as the beginning of a trend, one which Future takes to its logical conclusion by placing his own origins at the farthest reaches of the solar system. But Pluto doesn’t sound otherworldly, instead it forms a canvas of pop-rap and chart R&B of the past 10 years, splicing Timbaland, T-Pain, and T.I.; future Funkadelic, Auto-Tune Chi, and Trap Muzik trap music. Pluto uses its loose framework to tie together a mixtape’s worth of genre musings, and the album format to force himself to render each musical cul-de-sac in photographic detail. -Chris Bosman

Buy: Amazon 
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Artwork 260x260 Top 50 Albums of 2012

35. Tig Notaro – Live!

Pneumonia, a hospitalizing intestinal bacteria, a romantic breakup, the death of her mother, cancer in both breasts—it all happened to Tig Notaro in four months. As a comedian, she knew she had to return to the stage and tell jokes. But how do you do that? How do you entertain people under these circumstances? She set her current material aside and started writing about those four months of hell. Then, when she went onstage at L.A.’s Largo, she let it all out. The recording of this intensely personal set would later be released as Live.

Despite the dark subject matter, despite all the shit that was happening to her, Notaro never lost her humility or humor. She makes the audience laugh about her cancer and teases them when they get emotional at the darkness of it all. Live is optimistically heartbreaking. That Notaro can smile and laugh her way through it is a display of utter strength, one which transcends comedy. -Jon Hadusek

Buy: iTunes
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cohenoldideas Top 50 Albums of 2012

34. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

It’s comforting to know that at 77 Leonard Cohen can still turn out an album as accomplished as this. It dissects his familiar themes of sex, mortality, and redemption, and one where words are squarely set to music, rather than the reverse: so perhaps no surprises there, then. As if it were possible, his voice has gotten even lower and his perpetually poetic lyrics fold with self-deprecation, as in “the lazy bastard living in a suit” and a recognition of his own failings (“I had to be people I hated / I had to be no one at all”). If Cohen is to finally hang up his hat and live out his days without the stress of writing songs or touring, then Old Ideas is a fitting testimony to a legend. -Tony Hardy

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 Top 50 Albums of 2012

33. Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror

Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss push the volume and vim past 11 on their Treats follow-up, Reign of Terror. But there’s a new balance in the mix, as Krauss’ vocals no longer sit behind that wall of distortion shredding out from Miller’s guitar. The product of closer collaboration between the pair, their respective assets become dual centerpieces. This allows them to manage what few can: a second album that moves forward while still maintaining the band’s essence. That essence, a brash now-ness of noisy pop gall and defiantly roared disenchantment, is essential for Sleigh Bells, and for 2012. Being able to bottle both the us and the Us rarely comes as such raucous delight. Those Keds on the cover weren’t bloodied by “a cocaine nosebleed or a busted lip”; it was from kicking the sophomore slump square in the jaw, and pushing off into 2013. Hold on to those laces. -Ben Kaye

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catpowersun e1340035806740 Top 50 Albums of 2012

32. Cat Power – Sun

Cat Power is no stranger to trouble. And though Chan Marshall’s records have often been seeped in it, Sun conveys a sense of rejuvenation — as if sprinting away from a checkered past. But as always, Marshall’s storm lurks in the periphery. The beauty is how successfully it captures the mania we’re all capable of in just one minute of a day. Shifting from happy, to sad, to haunting, to jarring in mere instances, it’s a journey to the end of chaotic production. Yet, somehow, it always feels vaguely uplifting — Marshall’s soulful voice backed by a smoky version of itself. Taking nods from Beth Orton, salsa, gospel, and just about everywhere sounds are made, Sun is kaleidoscopic, jaunty, and content with its own confusion. It sounds like nothing else. Marshall asks herself, “Whose side are you on?” It’s clear that she has no answer herself. She’s OK with that too. -Drew Litowitz

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tnght ep Top 50 Albums of 2012

31. TNGHT – TNGHT EP

The biggest problem with the Lex Luger vein of bombastic Southern rap production is that the countless producers who have adopted it are lazy with it, doing little more than whipping up two bars of melody and drums and leaving “loop” on for three minutes. Not TNGHT. Solo, Montreal’s Lunice and Glasgow’s Hudson Mohawke have embraced innumerable electronic subgenres, all of which have required strong senses of expanding and contracting to make work. On this five-song, 15-minute EP, the two fuse their respective skillsets with that familiar Third Coast repetition and blare, resulting in beats that not only knock by themselves but have also already meshed well with rappers like XV (“Bugg’n”) and Busta Rhymes (“Goooo”). If this is what rap’s next revolution is going to sound like, you won’t be hearing too many complaints about it. -Mike Madden

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scott walker bish bosch Top 50 Albums of 2012

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

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how to dress well total loss Top 50 Albums of 2012

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

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purity ring shrines1 Top 50 Albums of 2012

28. Purity Ring – Shrines

By my count, there are 120 mentions of corporeal imagery over the 38 minutes, 13 seconds of Purity Ring’s debut, Shrines. That’s 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, could’ve 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 – they’re no surprise from a man who referenced Justin Timberlake, Clams Casino, and Holy Ghost in one breath. Amid an R&B resurgence, it’s 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 duo’s debut sends pop into the future while keeping it tethered to their flesh, crimsoned and torn as it is. -Ben Kaye

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metz cover1 Top 50 Albums of 2012

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

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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 album’s title is intentional — after all, it can be construed “wish you were here” or “wish you were dead.” Who’s to say, really?

Listening to WIXIW, it’s impossible not to pick up on the traces of a lingering, unresolved desire that threads itself underneath the stitching of synthesizers and Andrew’s oscillating swoons and mutters, with tales of broken lovers and a ghostly ambience much like what made Interpol’s 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 that’s the truth. -Paula Mejia

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el pc4c Top 50 Albums of 2012

25. El-P – Cancer for Cure

2012 would’ve been a success for El-P even if the production on Killer Mike’s 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 Meline’s first LP since 2007, is 49 minutes of the dense, Phillip K. Dick-via-KRS-One avant-bap he’s been known for since his Company Flow days, but it’s 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 El’s brand of political prolixity. “I don’t give a fraction or fractal of fucks,” he goes at one point, but he’s lying – hard, meticulous work went into this thing, and it shows. -Mike Madden

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24. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

Election years bring out extremes; if you’re a big fan of shouted racism or unrealistic good intentions, 2012 was your time to shine. That political fervor fueled a return from everyone’s 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 Helicopter’s 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

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ty segall slaughterhouse Top 50 Albums of 2012

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, you’ve 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 don’t spend the time to cut out a screamed “I don’t know what we’re 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 (that’s grimey plus fuzzy, for those playing at home) gurgle of “Wave Goodbye” or the rip-roaring “Tell Me What’s Inside You’re 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

Stream: Slaughterhouse

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spiritualized huh cover Top 50 Albums of 2012

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 2008’s Songs in A&E, he suffered through pneumonia. Before this year’s 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

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chromatics kill for love e1332774449443 Top 50 Albums of 2012

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

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a thing called the divine fits Top 50 Albums of 2012

20. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits

Sharp guitars bounce between Spoon’s Britt Daniel’s irresistible howl as he tells us, “She waited for me like ice cream” on A Thing Called Divine Fits’ sugary tenth track. The song feels like the album cover’s plump red cherry sitting atop an 11-song sundae of collaborative goodness.

While Daniel effortlessly shines on “Flaggin’ A Ride”, “Would That Not be Nice”, and “Civilian Stripes”, it’s former Wolf Parade frontman Dan Boeckner who elevates the Fits, both on the record and in concert, as he sings and strums with a sense of urgency — specifically on “Baby Get Worse” or “For Your Heart”.

The two are joined by The New Bomb Turks’ Sam Brown on drums and Alex Fischel on keys – the adventitious result of Daniel’s request to join forces with Boeckner. Daniel’s return to Spoon is imminent, but he’s since promised that this project will remain a “real band,” and we’ll gladly wait like ice cream for more of this thing called Divine Fits. -Amanda Koellner

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 Top 50 Albums of 2012

19. Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man

The stark cover shot of a nude Natasha Khan carrying a naked, seemingly lifeless man on her shoulders, his limbs artfully preserving her modesty, sets up the unlikely expectation of a new minimalism in her music. Unlikely because of the band’s track record for lushly layered soundscapes, and the fantastical imagery that is bedfellow for Khan’s Bat for Lashes persona. Her core fans should not be worried that Khan has opted for the fully stripped away on The Haunted Man.

The textural density is still present in the music. but it’s more distilled and refined, even in “Laura”, where the perils of celebrity require no more dressing than a piano, delicate orchestration, and cry-out vocal clarity. There is still drama aplenty in Khan’s voice, swooping, soaring, dispensing belief while a certain worldly wisdom shows a distinct development from the otherworldliness of her past work. The Haunted Man is blessed with inspirational melodies, simply vocalized or embellished with imaginative orchestration, intense rhythms, and unexpected bridges. Its sense of theater demands your attention and richly rewards it. There may be no seismic shift in style, yet, to return to that cover image, Natasha Khan’s strength is that her music reveals all. -Tony Hardy

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miguel kaleidoscope dream cover 1 Top 50 Albums of 2012

18. Miguel – Kaleidoscopic Dream

Claps abound in pop music today. The ear garnish is so common that we forget it used to be kind of cheesy, but Miguel restores our faith on his scintillating second full-length album. The slow clap heard on the luscious “The Thrill” is enough to bring a tear to one’s private eyes. And like Hall & Oates, Miguel worships two things: rich girls (“Let my love adorn you,” he entreats) and soul music. Also like Hall & Oates, he’s better off sticking with the latter. In the ‘80s, Hall & Oates used soul to interpret new wave, and similarly, Miguel applies soul to electronic/R&B music. Synthetic or not, this divine foundation draws us – and the palms of our hands – closer with every beat.

The bass lines on Dream manifest as background for Miguel’s multiplicity of personalities, from supernatural predator (“Don’t Look Back”) to pleading prey (“Use Me”). The deep tones bolster all the instrumental and emotional risks that take place. Synths shift beneath vocals that spew angelic falsetto and dirty-talk tutorials at the same time. Achieved is a sound that’s staccato, yet lush, which matches his emotional tenor. It’s more mature than simply “hot” and “cold” — it’s “passionate” and (as a consequence) “afraid.” The closer, “Candles in the Sun”, dithers about bureaucracy and government aid – an R&B folk song that’s both brooding and self-aware. It sounds like Liz Phair called shotgun in Miguel’s Little Red Corvette. That image is emblematic of Miguel’s work and portrays the spectrum of musical possibilities he sees in his riveting kaleidoscope dream. -Sarah Grant

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grimes visions albumartwork Top 50 Albums of 2012

17. Grimes – Visions

Grimes is the funnest act of 2012. Whether she’s selling “pussy rings” on Tumblr, singing to herself at the varsity football game, or just charming the clothes off an audience with fem-glam insanity, it’s easy to see why Claire Boucher is the artist this generation deserves. Grimes is less refined, more street-savvy, and embodies a DIY entrepreneurial spirit which more mainstream acts wish they could exploit. Visions sights Grimes stepping into the spotlight, like a robotic Kate Bush on a steady diet of Adderall and dusty Nintendo cartridges. This musical ADHD makes the album one of the least predictable listens in recent memory.

Tracks like “Genesis”, “Oblivion”, and “Circumambient” start at point A and end at points unknown. But listeners find solace by clinging to the soft, sweet harmony of their blissful tour guide’s looped vocals that echo off the periphery and simultaneously transform into coy, synthesized confessions and cries for help with lyrics like “I need someone now / To look into my eyes and tell me / Girl you know you’ve got to watch your health.” I challenge anyone to sit through this album and not smile. Or, if feeling so bold, position yourself in the center of five streaming laptops and play the day’s top ten YouTube videos simultaneously; I promise, one experience will be a cathartic mish-mash of youthful girliness and poppy heartthrob, while the other is just a bunch of lame webcam videos. -Dan Pfleegor

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deathgripslpcover Top 50 Albums of 2012

16. Death Grips – The Money Store

“The whole concept was to piss and shit and cum into this thing.” Death Grips drummer and beatmaker Zach Hill’s comment to The Stool Pigeon perfectly sums up The Money Store, a raw smear of punk hip-hop that sounds drenched in the bodily fluids of its creators. Whereas many great rap albums are man vs. nature or man vs. man, chronicling a protagonist’s war with a menacing urban environment, The Money Store is mostly man vs. himself, pin-balling inside the veins, tubes, and plagued skull of vocalist Stefan Burnett a.k.a. MC Ride. The inward retreat makes room for plenty of horrifying surreal imagery.

These are stream-of-consciousness spews, not well-honed narratives. “Bangin’ bones on Roland / Jungle rottin’ / Chicken skeletal system bombin’ / Unidentified genre abductor.” “I got this pregnant snake / Stay surrounded by long hairs / A plethora of maniacs and spiral stairs.” This is the stuff nightmares are made of, made all the more nightmarish by the barrage of junk percussion and junkie electronica that backs every track. No posturing, no bragging, no self-aggrandizing. You won’t remember these lyrics after first hearing the album. Hell, you probably won’t remember what any individual song sounds like right away, save for maybe “Ive Seen Footage”. But The Money Store will leave you feeling energized, assaulted, and, whether you like it or not, soaked. -Dan Caffrey

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 Top 50 Albums of 2012

15. Matthew E. White – Big Inner

There’s a printed score for Big Inner. Matthew E. White has it — he could sell it to Hal Leonard if he wants and then high school jazz bands could play “Brazos” for their Holiday Pops concert. And unlike Beck, you get to hear his Spacebomb band play the thing. White takes the Stax Records concept of a house band, the campfire crackle of his high-baritone, Randy Newman arrangements with poppy horns, and a little lift from Jimmy Cliff and packs the whole thing into seven tracks of soul and folk and jazz.

“The goal of each Spacebomb record is to translate someone’s very personal music into something bigger than they can make it on their own,” White said earlier in the year. The orchestration doesn’t get much bigger than the rollicking “Big Love”, but the soul of the record crests at “Will You Love Me”, when the trumpets swell and everything is golden. The soft-spoken tracks amount to something huge, ambitious, warm, and it definitely isn’t just a “beginner” record, contrary to what it sounds like. -Jeremy D. Larson

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john talabot fin Top 50 Albums of 2012

14. John Talabot – ƒIN

The Barcelona producer carved out this year’s most sleek and impressive electronic album, utilizing carnal rhythms and primitive melodies to manufacture something modern and advanced. As he told Brightest Young Things: “I’m not really a musician, so I use the visual part more than the ear.”

No shit: The Pional-featuring “Destiny” floats through Polynesian raves; “Oro y Sangre” plunges through melted frames of ’80s horror; “Estiu” is the sound of an old IBM knocking at your door; and “H.O.R.S.E” coasts through Turks and Caicos.

Unlike, say, Daniel Lopatin, Talabot focuses less on innovation or raw sounds and more on marrying layers of hooks. Repetition is key for Talabot, who’s not reliant on climbs and drops but rather a deep, internal focus at pivoting timbre and tone. A self-proclaimed perfectionist and an avid cinephile, Talabot works best within his means, and that’s more than enough to keep us in an enviable, dazed stupor. -Michael Roffman

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13. Angel Haze – Reservation EP

Like the remarkable debut of Frank Ocean, the Reservation EP by 21-year-old Angel Haze is an emotional narrative about the challenges of growing into a prosperous individual despite the struggles and undue expectations placed on 21st century adolescents. Unlike many of her fellow hip-hop princesses, Haze is more concerned with understanding the complexities of her childhood and confronting the difficulties of developing positive ties than worrying about faux eyelashes and Twitter beefs.

Not only has the New York-transplant almost perfected her ability to develop and deliver a razor sharp rhyme scheme and triple time flow, tracks like “This is Me” and “Hot Like Fire” hint at a singer with the pipes to accomplish a Rihanna-like cross-over into the pop realm. For challengers of Haze, she answers with “Supreme” and “Werkin’ Girls”: “Money and my money is the only shit I’m after / You can cut the fake shit / I’m not the mother fuckin actor / I’m on top of my green like a mother fucking tractor / You niggas you bout to be bitches you bitches bout to be casper.” Haze is bound to keep it trill, whether that be as a foul mouthed bitch or that timid next door neighbor. -Derek Staples

Download: Reservation EP
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 Top 50 Albums of 2012

12. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp

Nine months after the release her third album, it’s easier to hear why Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp is a rare gift of an album. It’s easier to realize that Van Etten’s strength is her conventionalism — her no-nonsense mastery of pop melancholy and rock and roll triumph. There’s a careful, almost retro dedication to constructing and sequencing a convincing, affecting narrative throughout Tramp. The record’s 12 songs wrap and tangle around each other, either clashing or easing into one another.

Most songwriters could take a lesson from Van Etten’s nuance. On Tramp, the lines between and conflict and resolution, between self-blame and toxic resentment, are never clear. If fingers are being pointed, it’s never clear where, or towards whom, they’re pointing. Love means disappointment, self-abuse means cleansing, sometimes in the same line. “You’re the reason why I moved to the city / And you’re why I need to leave,” she sings in “Give Out”.  It’s a much-needed reminder that falling in love and falling apart isn’t always neat and tidy, and that being with someone is always scary and beautiful. -Jon Bernstein

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lambchop jpg 300x300 crop smart q85 Top 50 Albums of 2012

11. Lambchop – Mr. M

I’ll come right out and say it: The New York Mets’ mascot creeps me out. Something about a man with an inanimate object for a head that’s always smiling at me, probably. Sure, Mr. Met’s a family-friendly fellow out on the sunny infield, but could you imagine those wide, plastic eyes staring at you from an equipment locker at night? Switch up the context a little, and suddenly all that old-timey, Technicolor, quintessentially American charm gets a whole lot darker.

All the same can be said of Mr. M, which Kurt Wagner originally intended to share the same name as our lace-faced friend until the Mets organization enforced their copyright privileges on baseball’s version of Pennywise the clown. From its first moments, which feature a few seconds of orchestration and grand piano that could score a Jimmy Stewart film until Wagner’s fragile voice enters ever-so-softly with an F-bomb right off the bat, Mr. M presents a twisted take on your granddaddy’s Americana. Lambchop’s endlessly warm and dense arrangements are all jarred into mysterious reflections by the more-bitter-than-sweet nothings of Wagner, who constantly sounds too drunk to keep his balance, but not enough – never enough – to spill on his formal attire. -Steven Arroyo

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 Top 50 Albums of 2012

10. Action Bronson – Blue Chips

In the case of Queens-born MC Action Bronson, his Blue Chips mixtape is far more responsible for his rise to fame than his 2011 debut LP, Dr. Lecter. At the most basic level, it’s the production of the equally hungry Party Supplies, who lends Bronson the vintage beats and samples (everyone from The Flamingos to Aaron Neville to the documentary Hookers at the Point) that makes Bronson’s oddball boasts and little love notes to food pop better than a honey glaze on a rack of pork.

But there’s something more to the collection of 17 tracks, a sense of crucial importance and a certain vibe that Bronson is so much more than he seems to be without putting on bothersome or distracting airs. Lines like “I fuck good and make big Cs like a mango” come off sounding fun and goofy without falling into the pitfall of being hokey gimmicks, while he displays a mix of confidence and self-deprecation with “Foul living like Paterno and Sandusky / I’ve been husky / Motherfuckers couldn’t touch me”; both achievements should be celebrated for their uncommonality and depth. But what really sets this mixtape apart is how it finds a way to sound fresh and progressive, thanks in part to the aforementioned attributes and guest spots from the likes of Kool A.D. and Roc Marciano, while also sounding like it could’ve easily been forged in the more dangerous and exciting NYC of the late to mid ’90s.

Some rappers treat mixtapes like halfhearted pieces filled with B-sides and rehashed remixes, Bronson showed that with a little work and a whole lot of wackiness, a mixtape could be a WWE title contender. -Chris Coplan

Download: Blue Chips
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converge1 Top 50 Albums of 2012

9. Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind

Converge answer the long-standing riddle: “Yes, you can slay a hell-dragon with a flaming broadsword and wear a studded jean vest on a skateboard at the same damn time.” The complex structure of thrash, metal, hardcore, math, fire, pain, spit, and knives that make Converge a singular entity 22 years-on still towers over the aggressive music landscape. Their “more is mayhem is better” aesthetic is fully polished on All We Love We Leave Behind – an album that’s like eating the jewel case to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness for breakfast to make the rest of your day seem joyful and serene in comparison.

Kurt Ballou’s production on the album mirrors the tumult of their live show, and his guitar work ramps up the metal riffs with more confidence and connection than in any of their previous albums, including their most-metal Axe To Fall. The Dimebag meets Entombed guitar work on “Sadness Comes Home” and the song’s proggy inner workings on the track offer black hue that may engender side-glances and devil-horns alike. It’s all mashed in here from the absolutely brutal “Tresspessas” that for two minutes hails the heaviest double-bass thrash screaming from all corners of the world, to the absolutely gorgeous “Coral Blue”, the closest thing to a ballad you’ll find within a mile. Standout “Glacial Pace” builds to an all-too-short climax that will have anyone with a faint interest in loud music screaming “AHHHH! GLACIAL PACE!”

And anyway, after the album body-rocks you for a heart-rending 37 minutes, the question that rings in your head isn’t “how best should we classify Converge?” The regret and sorrow of a life devoted to music and hardcore and metal has left Jacob Bannon looking at the scene in the rearview mirror. He spoke in an interview earlier this year: “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve worked on mending the things I can, while being conscious of the things I can’t repair.” The sorrow, regret, and resolve hewn into these songs are enough to rip open the hearts of any hardened music fan whatever camp you happen to side in. -Jeremy D. Larson

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japandroidssophlp e1333124902179 Top 50 Albums of 2012

8. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

There’s always a sound of summer, a certain voice blasting out of every car stereo as you fly through the dark with your windows down. When we got the press release of “The House That Heaven Built”, the first single off Japandroids’ sophomore release Celebration Rock, it was immediately clear what that sound for 2012 would be.

The high moments are a stronger jolt than coffee (see “The House…” and Brian King’s charging guitar on “The Nights of Wine and Roses”); the lows take you to the bottom of the bottle (the protagonist’s plaintive cries for more innocent times on “Younger Us”). Celebration Rock is packed with fist-pumpers for late nights and long mornings after. Anthemic and reveling in its own bad behavior (“Don’t we have anything to live for? / Well of course we do / but until it comes true / we’re drinking”), the album is disenfranchisement and fresh heartbreak set to a garage rock sing-along chorus.

The best part? It holds up long after summer ends. At a spare 35 minutes, the album screams through its eight tracks with such ferocity that the power of rock compels you to hit “repeat.” Japandroids’ live show only augments the effect; after an extensive tour, many fans remember not only the sounds but the sweaty mosh pits of summer.

It holds up too because we have a powerful nostalgia for punk and garage rock nowadays, the sounds many of us grew up on it. We had many records that sounded the way it felt to be a teenager, but so far there’s only one that sounds the way it feels to be twenty-something and slightly drunk; our souls wounded in a way that makes us so utterly fearless “we yell like hell to the heavens.” Japandroids met us where we were and brought the soundtrack. -Megan Ritt

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beach house bloom1 Top 50 Albums of 2012

7. Beach House – Bloom

The album closes with the hypnotic “Irene”– and this Irene is a bit of a trickster. After the song ends, Bloom keeps you in its clutches for 10 minutes of complete silence waiting for the hidden track — the final key to this curious, critically acclaimed album. Irene doesn’t care about our time, which is a little rude since, as Victoria Legrand sings, we “hardly know her”.

Bloom invokes how precious time is mysteriously wasted, passes, or evaporates, especially on the spectral single, “Lazuli”. Its playful name is actually a revered rock – lapis lazuli – a turquoise stone mined by ancient civilizations. Cleopatra crushed lapis for her blue eye shadow. The same stuff embellishes the interior of the Taj Mahal. When Legrand sings, “Wander eyes, ocean high,” her regal love is both encompassing and exquisite, like the lapis lazuli. She carries her love with the devotion of a relic, and with the pride of a queen. The song is about how the weight of our emotions increase — and increasingly mystify — overtime.

Intentionally or not, “Lazuli” and the other songs on Bloom conjure the ideas and work of Sylvia Plath. The ’50s poet was endlessly intrigued — and plagued — by the emotional weight of addiction, time, fathers, and connected them all to the ancient world — a sphere that either offered her wisdom beyond her years, or perhaps, just a dusty corner to put them in for a while. In terms of poetry, both Legrand and Plath extol simple rhymes in language that is sparse yet vivid. “Wild” makes clear the effect of a father who comes home “seeing double.” But Legrand explores this pain more abstractly on “On The Sea” as the “Daughter of unconscious faith” where “Shadows bend and suddenly / The world becomes / And swallows me in.”

Piano chords wash over the song in emphatic rivulets. The lushness is incongruent with Legrand’s lost direction. Yet, her vocal hangs on tightly. It sounds like the world is swallowing her, but Legrand is diving into the joyous cacophony head-first. -Sarah Grant

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killer mike rap music Top 50 Albums of 2012

6. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music

Killer Mike has never been one for beating around the bush, but on R.A.P. Music, he just stomps all over it. Press play, and the very first thing you’ll instantly hear is a blast beat and Mike’s unmistakable bark of “HARD” hitting simultaneously like two blows to both sides of the head. In less than three seconds, we have three more blasts, and “…core G shit, homie, I don’t play around.” That’s just the first bar, and if you’re not sure whether or not he plays around by now, you’d better just get out of his way. The name is Mike, the occupation is killing the competition, and the album is repping for Rebellious African People.

Mike has a million bones to pick on R.A.P. including Barack Obama, crooked cops, commercially motivated rappers — but he’s out to take down ambivalence above all. His opinions aren’t going to sit with everyone, but he’ll be damned if he doesn’t get straight to the point every time. There’s no blind “fuck the system” hubris — on “Reagan”, he specifically calls out Reaganomics for enabling profiting off prisoners, “giving drug offenders time in double digits.” There are no empty “best rapper alive” boasts — he goes one further, placing his name alongside Robert Johnson, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Outkast, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and 11 others of comparable greatness on the title track. “I don’t make dance music, this is R.A.P. / Opposite of that sucker shit they play on TV,” he proclaims to close out the last verse on opener “Big Beast”. Finally, with a buddy at his back in producer El-P and a shit to give, Killer Mike has a classic to show for his many years of success just outside of rap’s focal point. -Steven Arroyo

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 Top 50 Albums of 2012

5. Swans – The Seer

Swans frontman Michael Gira has traded in overwhelming, pummeling, visceral material for over three decades. With such a storied history, it’s hard to imagine an album that accumulates the entirety of that experience, like a cartoon snowball rolled down a mountain, collecting layer after layer of snow until it’s the size of a house. But The Seer accomplishes that titanic feat, a two-hour album that swarms around listeners like a colony of fire ants.

In an interview with Impose Magazine, Gira explained the all-encompassing urge to produce: “I just started getting involved in every possible way with putting every bit of emotional, intellectual and financial energy into this album and doing the best I could possibly do using the vocabulary that I have accrued over the years.” That overwhelming sense, that hunger to devour every attention and energy in sight, isn’t just on Gira’s end either. Hammered dulcimer and clarinet have never sounded this redolent of evil. The drone of “A Piece of Sky” adds voices from Gira’s past to the mix, Akron/Family and Jarboe clustering vocally in the midst of the hive.

The only sort of conclusion Gira can offer in “The Apostate” is the half-dour offering “we are blessed…fuck bliss.” Ecstasy in the truest sense, an overpowering emotion, a mystic trance… The Seer becomes reality as the tracks wash over you, rubbing you raw, revealing something deep at the center of the world. -Adam Kivel

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cloudnothings Top 50 Albums of 2012

4. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory

Most child actors don’t age gracefully. Their faces get weird, they get into drugs, their dramatic skills go to shit. They have the misfortune of growing up in the public eye, their wide-eyed talent and charisma often devolving into awkwardness and squandered potential for millions to see.

Dylan Baldi isn’t an actor. He doesn’t have millions of fans (yet). But if Attack On Memory tells us anything, it’s that the 20-year-old frontman of Cloud Nothings, a band who, save for live performances, only became an actual band with this third album, just might be music’s answer to Ron Howard.

The first thing most people notice about the record is that it’s dark. And it is, almost immediately in fact, the isolated piano plunks and pot-boiling distortion of “Not Future / No Past” worlds apart from anything off Baldi’s first two albums of jangly adolescent pop. But lyrically, his issues and angst haven’t so much changed as they’ve expanded. He’s still got women problems, but finds himself attracted to emotionally abusive relationships instead of unrequited ones. On closer “Cut You”, we even discover that he’s often the one doing the abusing. With “Stay Useless”, the teenage boredom of his earlier material gives way to the beginnings of 20-something existential dread.

But that’s all part of growing up. Your anxieties get bigger, yet you learn to deal with them, even if it means snarling every word and turning up your amp until it explodes. “Getting tired of living ’til I die,” Baldi screams on marathon track “Wasted Days”. Kid, you ain’t seen nothing yet. -Dan Caffrey

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kendrick lamar good kid cover Top 50 Albums of 2012

3. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city

“You always think that everybody live like you do, because you locked in the neighborhood, you don’t see no way else,” Kendrick Lamar told Spin this past October. He’s not alone because at some point in life, everyone finds themselves in a bubble. What’s important, however, is how one escapes and where they go when they’re free. This change defines someone. It carves their soul out, bridging the gap between ignorance and awareness. For someone like Lamar, who grew up in the gangland of Compton, it took a plea from his father and a childhood of memories. He continued: “I saw the same things over and over. A lot of my homeboys goin’ to jail. Not, like, in and out. Sentences. And dyin’ — it was a constant. It was a gift from God to be able to recognize that.”

Whether graced by The Man Upstairs or the Devil Downhill, Lamar survived to become one of today’s sharpest songwriters and wisest prophets with good kid, m.A.A.d city. Not since Kanye West’s The College Dropout has a hip-hop album sounded so omniscient, succinct, and real. In a little over an hour, Lamar’s “short film” (as he refers to it on the album cover) boils down five seasons of The Wire and half a dozen Spike Lee joints. He ruminates over lust (“Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter”), excess (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”), ego (“Backseat Freestyle”), influence (“The Art of Peer Pressure”), violence ( “m.A.A.d city”), hubris (“Money Trees”), and regret (“Poetic Justice”). He does it with such finesse that this aural cinematic journey never feels like a pedantic tall tale, or a regurgitation of something John Singleton captured two decades back. It’s something completely fresh.

While Dr. Dre plays the sage mentor in the revelatory closing anthem “Compton”, and it’s a big moment for Lamar (both plotting- and career-wise), the young rapper really strikes gold two tracks back with the 12-minute opus “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”. It’s a prophetic sermon, one laced with the fervent religious tones that Lamar exudes in real life, but one that’s so heartfelt, elegiac, and dense that it takes multiple reads and listens to truly walk away baptized. He laments, “Money, pussy, and greed was my next crave / Whatever it is, know it’s my next grave,” and concludes: “The truth will set you free, so to me be completely honest.” The quasi-meta realization is that Lamar’s been preaching the truth for the past hour, and as the following track emphasizes, he’s as real as it comes. That’s thrilling for us, divine for the genre, and terrifying for Dre. -Michael Roffman

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2. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…

Fiona Apple writes songs at her own pace: not when her record label prods her, not when she needs money. It’s about her mood and whether she feels like writing. “…I’ll finish something and then two years will go by where I don’t touch the piano,” she told Billboard. “I might think of a song and then be like, ‘I don’t care if I forget it. I don’t want to do that shit. I’m not writing a song.’”

That explains her lengthy hiatuses between albums. After releasing 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, Apple withdrew herself from the music industry. She stayed at home, did housework (which she prioritizes above songwriting), and let her compositions ferment over time. Her label, Epic Records, repeatedly inquired about a new album but respected her independent work ethic. Apple would finally break her silence in June with the release of the epically titled The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.

Apple’s never shied from exposing her inner most thoughts, but on The Idler Wheel…, she takes apart her brain like a some self-obsessed psychologist. Why do I do the things I do? Why do I think the things I think? How do I feel? Why do I feel this way? She might be too self-aware—borderline insane. On “Every Single Night”, she pleas: “I just want to feel everything.” Can one think too much and become numb to raw emotion? As listeners, we ponder such questions. Fiona is asking them of herself.

The Idler Wheel… is a sparse piece of neurotic introspection. Even the instrumentation quivers nervously. Her piano playing—once powerful and structured—clangs obtusely; her vocals have become lean and shrill. The stripped song arrangements recall lo-fi home recordings, as Apple implores the use of natural sound (the yelps of children on “Werewolf”, the factory sounds on “Jonathan”) and DIY percussion (shoes scraping pavement on “Periphery”). It’s her bleakest and most idiosyncratic record to date.

It’s been an eventful year for Apple, one that saw her busted for possession and once again the subject of tabloid pseudo-journalism. But such incidents fade from public knowledge. The Idler Wheel… won’t fade. It’s a striking document of a woman looking inward and trying to make sense of what she sees. These are the best songs she’s ever written. -Jon Hadusek

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frank ocean channel orange2 Top 50 Albums of 2012

1. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE

“I like the anonymity directors can have about their films,” Frank Ocean told The New York Times ahead of channel ORANGE’s release. “Even though it’s my voice, I’m a storyteller.” The publication of 2012’s most famous Tumblr post, in which Ocean wrote of a relationship he once had with someone of his own gender, seemed to suggest that his debut album, less than a week away at the time, would be a startlingly introspective one; if he could be so open in a blog entry, just imagine what would show up in his art. Instead, ORANGE turned out to be balanced by both first-person narratives and tales of a rotating ensemble cast, and while these songs might not have pointed morals, between-the-lines readings are required to get the most of them.

Whether it’s the addict of “Crack Rock”, the decadent and depraved “Super Rich Kids”, or the groupie of “Monks”, Ocean finds much of his inspiration in societal outliers. “Whoever you are, wherever you are. . I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike,” he wrote in that Tumblr post, and that mindset shows up all over the place here. All of these characters are lost in one respect or another, and Ocean tends to point the way toward a resolution. “How’s the gutter doing?” he asks the subject of “Crack Rock”, but it’s not so much a taunt as a way of pointing out where the fiend is and that he needs to get out. Many of these songs are, at least implicitly, about the hope that has to come with adversity, a subject everyone should be reacquainted with from time to time.

Of course, those stories wouldn’t unfold so neatly if Ocean didn’t have such control over the other elements of his sound. The release of the virtuosic “Pyramids” a month and a half before the album itself proved him capable of just about anything; through its 10 minutes, the song seems to be changing tempo and shape constantly, with approximately four billion hooks germinating along the way. The rest of channel ORANGE isn’t as adventurous, but much of it is just as potent, if not more so. Opener “Thinkin Bout You”, for one, is a string-draped, utterly serene-sounding thing that shows off Ocean’s voice as among the most versatile we have, transitioning unflinchingly from a casual croon during the verses to a feathery falsetto at the chorus. “Bad Religion” is built around a bare organ progression, and Ocean takes full advantage of the space between chords by somehow rendering that voice both conversational and devastatingly heartfelt. Three brief interludes show up between the album’s “Start” and “End”, and they seem to exist solely so that’s it’s possible to catch a breath or two between the full-length songs.

Soon after Ocean released last year’s Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape, he became emblematic of the unfortunately named “hipster R&B” movement also associated with guys like The Weeknd. Part of channel ORANGE’s greatness is that it refuses to be pigeonholed with such a label; hell, it’s only loosely R&B, period.  There’s no reason to think this album won’t hold up as well as antecedents like Voodoo, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, or Confessions, and much of that has to do with how it, like those albums, doesn’t sound trendy in the slightest. This certainly isn’t timeless music, but it isn’t linked all that closely to any kind of modern zeitgeist either, even if those Xanax-munching “Super Rich Kids” might be. Ultimately, channel Orange succeeds thanks equally to its humanity, hooks, compassion, and musical character. Those are four things we can always use more of. -Mike Madden

Buy: Amazon 
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1. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
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5. Swans – The Seer
6. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
7. Beach House – Bloom
8. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
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10. Action Bronson – Blue Chips
11. Lambchop – Mr. M
12. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
13. Angel Haze – Reservation EP
14. John Talabot – ƒin
15. Matthew E. White – Big Inner
16. Death Grips – The Money Store
17. Grimes – Visions
18. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
19. Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man
20. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits
21. Chromatics – Kill for Love
22. Spiritualized – Sweet Heart, Sweet Light
23. Ty Segall – Slaughterhouse
24. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
25. El-P – Cancer For Cure
26. Liars – WIXIW
27. METZ – METZ
28. Purity Ring – Shrines
29. How to Dress Well – Total Loss
30. Scott Walker – Bish Bosch
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32. Cat Power – Sun
33. Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror
34. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
35. Tig Notaro – Live!
36. Future – Pluto
37. The Henry Clay People – Twenty-Five for the Rest of Our Lives
38. Beak – >>
39. Crystal Castles – (III)
40. Grizzly Bear – Shields
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42. The Men – Open Your Heart
43. The Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania
44. Joey Bada$$ – 1999
45. Allo Darlin’ – Europe
46. Code Orange Kids – Love Is Love // Return to Dust
47. Bob Mould – Silver Age
48. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
49. Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes
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