This year commemorates 2012’s best music albums, ranging music that consist of pop, rock, rap, hip-hop, and electronic: Here are my top 45 of 2012:
Pop rock group fun. sure had a lot of fun this year: Their lead single, “We Are Young (feat. Janelle Monáe)” won listeners over, staying on the Top 10 for months, after it was featured in a few commercials and advertisements; their second single and title track to their sophmore album, Some Nights, also captivated and inspired music listeners, which led to millions of YouTube views, as well as hundreds of covers; and they were recently nominated for multiple Grammys, including Album of the Year and Best New Artist. This, of course, isn’t the first of the indie pop trio: Starting out small in their beginnings, they were known at first as The Format. Their debut, Interventions + Lullabies, and follow-up, Dog Problems, didn’t chart, but received general acclaim from indie music critics. After a while, in 2008, they changed their name to fun. and released Aim and Ignite, which also got attention from critics, but not music listeners. Finally, they got their big breakthrough this year, with Some Nights, an emphatic, energetic, and endlessly vibrant spectacle of mainstream pop culture. Fun.’s eclectic members include lead singer Nate Reuss, with his eccentric and whimsical voice, and instrumentalists Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost. Some Nights may not be the Mona Lisa of mainstream pop rock or even incorporate exceptional material, but thankfully, “Some Nights” and “We are Young” stand out among the rest and epitomize the brilliance that is the band, fun.
The great thing about alternative rock is that when there’s a young, talented artist, who can sing, be nominated for Song of the Year at the 2013 Grammys, tour with Taylor Swift, and make the Queen of England smile, you’ve got a great new addition to the music industry. Fortunately, that young, talented artist happens to be British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who surprised many with his debut, +. Despite lacking the good-looking-young-guy-singer persona, Sheeran’s serene acoustics and catchy voice nevertheless make him overall appealing. Despite mixed reviews from critics for +‘s weak lyrics, varying likability of the songs, and conforming with more mainstream rock, Sheeran possesses such powerful qualities, both personally and musically, that it’s hard to even try to agree with the critics. Songs, such as “The A Team” and “Give Me Love,” which both happen to be the first and last track of +, help contrast the different styles and rhythms Sheeran offers us listeners, as well as the themes of love, heartbreak, and pain. This results in a spellbinding and chillingly beautiful distribution of alternative rock and helps Sheeran reach most of his potential.
You may not know the names of the people who produce rap music or even really care. But one artist in the music industry should definitely be reckoned with: Brooklyn electronic hip hop producer El-P. He released his fourth record, Cancer for Cure, this year and he’s worked with other critically-acclaimed rappers, such as Killer Mike, Danny Brown, and Das Racist. He’s basically a Renaissance man of producing hip hop, rap, and electronic music. Cancer for Cure doesn’t have much background or real story, but El-P’s smooth and slick mixing and funk-influenced beats is almost enough carry the album by itself. It features Interpol vocalist Paul Banks, Mr. Muthaf***’n eXquire, Danny Brown, Killer Mike, Despot, and The Unicorns frontman Nick Diamonds. The eclectic list of guest convey’s El-P’s rich diversity and unique collaborations, which pretty much makes him an incredibly talented artist.
Who says 90s punk rock is gone? Newfound post-punk group Metz released their bold self-titled debut this year and it definitely resonates Nirvana, The Pixies, and Queens of the Stone Age (in a modern sense). With that in mind, Metz’s fearless and brash sound provokes such loudness and volume that it’s hard not to listen to. Rock tunes, such as the first two jams, “Headache” and “Get Off,” provide listeners with another intake of post-punk rock music that only comes and goes nowadays.
DIIV is another great addition into the indie rock genre of music with their debut Oshin. Providing a chillwave and dreamy sound, a structured song set, and a somewhat hypnotic feel, DIIV does a fantastic job of making great music, albeit some songs were repetitive.
Who ever thought Beyoncé would be the only Knowles to perform music? Luckily, her younger, less-R&B-more-indie sister Solange had released two albums in previous years. But fortunately, she got her big breakthrough in hip-hop indie music when she produced and sung on True, a 7-song EP consisting of R&B and 70s funk influenced jams, including her charismatic, dreamlike ballad, “Losing You.” She may not have her sister’s voice — albeit her voice is pretty good — Solange is equipped with such evocative qualities and aesthetic abilities that take her on a whole new level of indie pop and R&B music.
English singer-songwriter Natasha Khan, also known as Bat for Lashes, released her third album The Haunted Man this year. Artistically complex and vivid, her voice compelling as ever, Bat for Lashes’ third record is driven by a hopeful sound and a powerful NSFW (Not Safe For Work) album cover, depicting a nude Natasha carrying another nude man. She has trascended into a more down-to-earth artist, which is what makes The Haunted Man so beautiful and elegant.
29. Fantasea – Azealia Banks (self-released)
21-year-old Azealia Banks had small and unfortunate beginnings when starting her rap career. Being dropped by labels at age 18 and rejected by several other ones, Banks made a breakthrough last year in her jovial dance tune, “212.” Not only was it considered one of 2011’s best new songs, but it defined Banks’ new image as a up-and-coming female hip hop star. This year, the Harlem-based rapper released Fantasea, a sleazy and funky compilation of short and brilliantly sampled tunes that talk about fashion, pandemonium, rise to fame, and seduction. Even though Banks has been compared to other famous pop/rap star Nicki Minaj, Banks’ fast-paced spits and rhymes overcomes Minaj’s consistent rapping about “being the best” and mediocre pop songs. Banks also released another similar mixtape this year, 1991, a 4-song EP that includes hit song “212.”
28. Centipede Hz – Animal Collective (Domino)
The long-awaited Animal Collective record arrived this year, after 3 years since the experimental electronica group’s release of the critically acclaimed Merriweather Post Pavillion. Animal Collective’s new album, Centipede Hz (pronounced hertz), signified a few differences from its awesome predecessor. It welcomed back band member Deakin, who had not taken part in the recording and touring of Merriweather. The music is stylized differently in Centipede Hz, adding more heavily experimental and trippy jingles, such as the loud and explosive, “Today’s Supernatural,” and the eccentric “Applesauce.” Somehow, Animal Collective’s expansion on artistic themes and music has both improved and worsened the reaction of fans and critics, who garnered mixed to positive reviews from the album. However, it’s good to know Animal Collective is still at work and creating hyperactive jams.
27. Reservation – Angel Haze (True Panther / Noizy Cricket!! / Biz 3)
Looks like Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks aren’t the only female rappers in the running to be the best. 20-year-old Angel Haze helped defy the rap industry with her bold debut mixtape Reservation. Not only does it include a fantastic compilation of funky and endearing beats, but it also helps demonstrate Haze’s fantastic lyricism and expression of being misjudged, beaten down, and brought to the ground. It’s a classic underdog story with just a hint of diva-influenced hip-hop. Reservation includes sure hits, such as the groundbreaking “Werkin’ Girls,” the Gil-Scott-Heron-sampled “New York,” the sensually slow “CHI (Need to Know),” and the lyrically fast-paced “Realest.” Haze also released a cover EP, Classick, that features incredible covers, such as Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad,” Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet,” and Missy Elliott’s “Gossip Folks.”
26. Fear Fun – Father John Misty (Sub Pop)
Former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman has released a few solo albums in the past few years, but this year, he went under the mysterious pseudonym Father John Misty. His catchy and tireless voice and unique production brighten up his alter ego’s debut Fear Fun. One song after the other become consistently impressive, ranging from acoustic croons (“Funtimes in Babylon,” “Nancy from Now On”), nostalgic Sunset-Strip rock songs (“Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”) and lyrically outlandish tunes (“I’m Writing a Novel”). Though it may seem that Father John Misty’s output of alternative indie rock is both pleasant and peaceful, most of his lyrics revolve around unusual and depressing topics: utter heartbreak, rejection, acid trips, deception, and hopelessness. This can be considered, from a listener’s viewpoint, a somewhat artistic representation of internal, personal reflection; others may find it a compilation of unpleasant and jaundiced noise, whaling about the detrimental darkness within ourselves. Whether or not these perspectives matter, Fear Fun is an ambitious debut from Josh Tillman’s solo career and exhibits an incredible depth of experience, probably from being with Fleet Foxes. Even so, there should be a lot more to look forward to from Father John Misty.
25. TNGHT – TNGHT (Warp)
Trap music, the mix between electronic-dub and hip-hop, has really grown this year. This year’s greatest trap music duo is probably the inseparable TNGHT, comprised of producers Lunice and Hudson Mohawke. Even though their self-titled debut EP was released before TNGHT’s live performance of their remix of Kanye West’s “Cold,” it still defined a powerful moment in the music industry. Poppy, loud, noisy, and fearless, TNGHT is an excessively funky record, compiled of hits such as the vibrant, although repetitive, “Higher Ground” and the chill “Bugg’n.”
24. Put Your Back N 2 It – Perfume Genius
Seattle-based artist Mike Hadreas is known professionally as Perfume Genius. Although his pseudonym doesn’t provoke or incite any significance, his music does. This year, the 30-something indie pop artist released Put Your Back N 2 It, a melancholic representation on life, loss, and elegant artistry. With hits such as the short but endearing “Hood,” Perfume Genius has not only provided much more eloquent material since his 2010 debut Learning, but he has effortlessly lead listeners into his own world.
23. (III) – Crystal Castles (Casablanca)
As loud and dark as they are, experimental electronic duo Crystal Castles emotionalizes the complexity of oppression, suffocation, and tension with (III), an innovative and provocative record. It sustains the same feel as its predecessors, Crystal Castles and (II), respectively, but it is brought on by an enormous weight of funky electronic and crystallized beats that guide Crystal Castles to a whole new level of music. (III) produces great music, such as the vivacious and dramatic “Wrath of God,” the groovy and woozy “Kerosene,” and the surprisingly gentle “Child I Will Hurt You” (some irony in that).
22. Reign of Terror – Sleigh Bells (Mom + Pop Music)
Coming back from their infectious and booming debut Treats in 2010, electro noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells released a more modified and much softer follow-up, Reign of Terror. Though Sleigh Bells still produce the same lovable noisiness that won fans and critics over in Treats, Reign of Terror is an ambitious effort, despite toning it down a bit. But the new reduced volume level may be a good thing for non-Sleigh Bells fans, who aren’t quite acquired or adjusted to their loud music. Nevertheless, Reign of Terror contains some breathtaking material, such as the Slash-like rock jam “Born to Lose,” the twinkly “Leader of the Pack,” and the underdog hit “Comeback Kid.” With the help of vocalist Alexis Krauss’ fantastic singing and producer Derek E. Miller’s vibrant beats, Reign of Terror continues to the streak of Sleigh Bells’ musical triumph.
21. The OF Tape, Vol. 2 – Odd Future (Odd Future Records)
One of the most recognized and controversial underground rap groups, Odd Future, is a collective of genius albeit lyrically violent and nihilistic hip hop artists. They first achieved critical recognition and commercial success from the acclaimed and criticized Tyler, the Creator, who released his debut mixtape Bastard in 2010. As underground recognition grew, so did the recognition of other Odd Future members, such as Earl Sweatshirt, Hodgy Beats, Left Brain, and the almighty Frank Ocean. This year, Odd Future’s official debut The OF Tape, Vol. 2, is more of a team effort, as Tyler has been considered the most recognized out of the rest of the group’s unique members. The insane record comprises of lazy, hazy, and laid-back music, each Odd Future member rapping about toilet humor, dangerous relationships, depression, and predominantly, pop culture. Aside from the group’s tendency to allude to rape, drugs, and murder, Odd Future’s most powerful moment comes in the 10-minute album closer, “Oldie,” which features every single member and a mention of those that aren’t. It pretty much summarizes their successful use of collaboration, compatibility, and lyrical brilliance, which makes Odd Future one of LA’s biggest and most devoted hip-hop posse.
20. The Idler Wheel… – Fiona Apple (Epic)
It’s been a while since we’ve last heard from the mysterious and enigmatic Fiona Apple. Her last album, 2005’s Extraordinary Machine
, was released 7 years ago (can you believe it’s been that long since 2005?). But since then, Apple has been able to focus on the emotional and lyrical sustainability in her music, in which she has defined in this year’s The Idler Wheel…
. The album’s title is actually an entire poem, hence the three dots. This, of course, isn’t Apple’s first attempt at utilizing poetry into her music (1999’s When the Pawn…). The 35-year-old singer definitely deserves to be praised on her quiet determination and complex songwriting for The Idler Wheel
, especially after a 7-year hiatus. Not many music artists who have been gone that long get back to the top of the music scene that fast, which is saying something about Apple’s aesthetic abilities and gifted musical strengths. The Idler Wheel
features ten songs that are mostly piano-driven, lyrically dramatic, and sung by Apple’s vulnerable contralto. It’s dramatized as one long journey of self-awareness, internal conflict, catharsis, and troubled romance. All those elements can be heard in classic hits, such as the stand-out album opener “Every Single Night,” the edgy “Daredevil,” and the truthful love ballad “Werwolf.”
19. Visions – Grimes (4AD)
24-year-old Canadian artist Claire Boucher, known professionally as Grimes, probably didn’t expect to see her enchanting album, Visions, become so successful in the indie music scene this past year. Releasing two albums in 2010, Geidi Primes and Halfaxa, Grimes began her career with some, if not any, recognition — that is, until she released this year’s Visions, an extraordinarily diverse and idiosyncratic record, composed of indie dream pop, electronic, hip hop, noise rock, and even medieval music. Grimes has rightfully earned success and interest in the music scene after the release of Visions, particularly for her unique taste in music production and her tiny but emphatic falsetto. It’s hard to believe that Grimes recorded Visions only within a three-week period AND she recorded it all on Garageband, an unusual software to use as a professional indie music artist. Even so, the production is flawless and shows Grimes’ confidence and determination in unorthodox production and mixing. From Visions‘ slightly scary yet intriguing album artwork to Grimes’ crazy appearance (she dyes her hair frequently, dresses flamboyantly, and occasionally performs with a eye in the center of her forehead), Visions is a modern musical masterpiece, effectively bringing together different types of music and combining it with breathy vocals. Two of Visions‘ hard-hitters, “Genesis” and “Oblivion” are both reasons why to listen to Visions. Both tunes are uniquely and similar different, “Genesis” being brought on by a calm electronica beat and Grimes’ unwavering voice, followed by “Oblivion,” a jubilant, funky electro-jam layered over by Grimes’ high falsetto. Grimes has been able to successfully distribute a true piece of artistry in the music industry and hopefully will become more famous by the minute, if not ever.
18. Swing Lo Magellan – Dirty Projectors (Domino)
I’m pretty confident that Dirty Projectors are one of the most creative, inspirational, and eclectic music groups I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. After the Brooklyn indie rock band released their previous record Bitte Orca, which received praise among critics and listeners, they released one of this summer’s best hit albums Swing Lo Magellan. While I admit this album is a teeny bit overrated, Swing Lo Magellan is an aesthetic venture into indie rock music, prompted by Dirty Projecters’ enthusiastic songwriting and an emotionally satisfying vibe. Equppied with rock anthems (“Offsprings Are Blank), dramatic hymns (“About to Die”), and love ballads (“Dance for You”). Filled with strong guitar riffs, sung with enchanting vocals, and written beautifully, Swing Lo Magellan is Dirty Projectors’ most creative and cathartic effort since Bitte Orca. It once again proves that bands who work the hardest, like Dirty Projectors, are the most maintainable.
17. Kaleidoscope Dream – Miguel (ByStorm Entertainment/RCA Records)
If you’ve ever listened to soul-pop singer The-Dream or The Weeknd, you should probably be listening to R&B-soul singer Miguel. His outstanding falsetto overlaps Kaleidoscope Dream, an evocative and unconventional Prince-esque record. It displays a hypnotic mood, dizzying vocals, and funky rhythm, with Miguel singing of lust and seduction. “Adorn,” the first track off the album, is an extreme highlight of Kaleidoscope Dream, given its impeccable allure, which probably explains why it’s nominated for Song of the Year in this year’s Grammys. The evocative and dreamy “Do You…” is another highlight in Kaleidescope Dream. Miguel is bound to progress within the next year and hopefully live up to the standard of the aforementioned famous soul-pop singers.
16. Life is Good – Nas (Def Jam Records)
Rapper Nas has finally gotten back into the game of hip hop and rap music. After the release of his disappointing self-titled album in 2008 and his surprise collaboration with Damian Marley, Nas is once again back to old roots with this year’s Life is Good. Although Nas’ lyrics display genius, brilliance, and candid tales of growing up, Nas has been able to evolve much more on this new record, a long but worthwhile compilation of rowdy raps, self-realizations, and insight on the nature of his own trouble life. The album artwork reveals a reflective and somewhat melancholic Nas holding the green wedding dress of rapper and then-wife Kelis. Metaphorical and perceptive, we can tell that Nas has finally come to a self-acceptance of his past actions and misdemeanors, while still expressing some hope for change in the future, hence the new record being called Life is Good. In Life is Good, Nas dives right back into his old, beloved origins, rapping about the economy (“No Introduction”), justice (“Accidental Murders”), New York (“A Queens Story”) and gettin’ money (“The Don,” “Nasty”). But Nas has also been able to develop something that he hadn’t done since his most acclaimed record to date, 2002’s God’s Son: Nas resonates themes about his own life, while making a hopeful note about his future. The story-telling anthem, “Daughters,” is probably the best example for this, as Nas rhymes about his experience with his own daughter, wanting a better life for her, and hoping that other troubled men with daughters want the same for their own. Nas has irrevocably found his space and momentum, which has been long overdue for fans of the 39-year-old hip hop artist.
15. Sweet Heart Sweet Light – Spiritualized (Double Six)
After the release of their sixth album in 2008, Songs in A&E, post-punk psychedelic pop rock group Spiritualized impressed us again with this year, Sweet Heart Sweet Light. The band’s new album composes of a delightful mood, strong vocal array, and long, sometimes endless, songs that talk about religion, love, God, marriage, depression, and happiness. Working for two years on the album, frontman Jason Pierce wanted to embrace the same music they conveyed in 1997 on their, so far, most acclaimed album Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space. It had won critics over and came to a close finish for best album of 1997 with another more popular alternative rock band, Radiohead, with their fantastic album OK Computer. Incorporating poppy tunes with gospel undertones, as well as a thrash of psychedelic whirlwind, Sweet Heart and Sweet Light is both a jovial and melancholic compilation of wondrous music. Interestingly, most songs, such as the merry “Hey Jane” and the pleasant “Little Girl,” do embody a lot of complexity and intricacy. In this case, the songs are lyrically heartbreaking and overlay the album’s opposing endearing music. For example, despite “Hey Jane”‘s lovable infectiousness, its 10-minute video became controversial for its violent content; the same goes for the lyrical content of “Little Girl” (“Sometimes I wish that I was dead/Cause only the living can feel the pain”). This, in fact, causes Spiritualized to break free of the unwieldy contrast between happiness and sorrow and somehow integrated both to compile their music, in a beautiful and engaging way. Sweet Heart Sweet Light also includes a variety of tunes, including piano-driven lullabies (“Too Late,” “Mary”), 8-minute long rock jingles (“Hey Jane,” “Headin’ for the Top Now”) and likable acoustic-influenced slow jams (“Life is a Problem,” “So Long You Pretty Thing.”)
14. Confess – Twin Shadow (4AD)
Since his 2010 debut album, Forget, a lot has been going for George Lewis Jr., known for his stage name Twin Shadow. Riding alongside the indie music scene, Twin Shadow has performed at Coachella, remixed Lady Gaga and Neon Indian, and produced, written, and sung in this year’s Confess. While Forget focused on the past (ironically), Confess focuses on the present, thematically, but its 80s and 90s music inspired vibe still signifies some nostalgia. Even so, Twin Shadow’s new record is a set of steadily built songs, ranging from electronic to alternative rock to pop. Lewis’ forte in singing, songwriting, and producing is undeniably underestimated, considering his lack of mainstream appeal. But, other than that, critics and indie music fans love him, for his passionate crooning, his cultural relevance, and his albums’ symbolic resonance. Confess includes magnificent tracks, such as the chilling opener, “Golden Light,” the nostalgic and heart-racing “Five Seconds,” and the drumline jam “Patient.”
13. Gossamer – Passion Pit (Columbia)
Ever since their music skyrocketed into the music industry, starting with their infectious and catchy jingles “Little Secrets” and “Sleepyhead,” accompanied by the excellent debut Manners, electro-pop group Passion Pit have taken a long, troubled journey. After the release of Manners, Passion Pit’s follow-up, Gossamer, took three years in the making, and even after Gossamer was released, Passion Pit canceled several live performances and shows (with the exception of being a musical guest on SNL). Nevertheless, as overwhelming as it was in the making, Gossamer actually goes on talking about being overwhelmed by everything — depression, money, relationships, alcohol, mental illness, and people. Despite its disquieting thematic material, Gossamer is a cheery, delightful, and irresistibly melodious record, proving once again that Passion Pit has what it takes to be a potentially amazing music group. Every song tells a different story and a different tune, especially in Gossamer’s first four tracks: the foot-stomping album opener, “Take a Walk,” talks about finding hope in the real-life economic crisis; the hyperactive and poppy jingle, “I’ll Be Alright,” is a story of self-loathing and alienation; the singable, “Carried Away,” is literally about getting carried way with every problem in life; and the beautiful and enchanting, “Constant Conversations,” is a love ballad about drunken mess-ups and broken relationships. You can see why Passion Pit has so much to offer. Not only do they brighten the idea of sadness with the sound of happiness, but they juxtapose the problems we have in our own lives and the happy moments we have with ourselves and others in our life. Led by lead singer Michael Angeloakos’ mesmerizing falsetto, Gossamer is possibly Passion Pit’s most mature and culturally relevant record to date and hopefully, Passion Pit will try their best to keep it together for the time being.
12. Shrines – Purity Ring (4AD)
Canadian electronic duo Purity Ring has already been compared to acclaimed electro-noise duo The Knife and has already gained a protégé named Kate Boy. But aside from Purity Ring’s alleged derivation, the duo has exceled in producing and releasing their very own debut, Shrines. Loaded with atmospheric vocals, dream pop, and funk-electronica, Shrines is an enlightening and nonchalant record that brings the listener into a hypnotic trance. But Shrines was not merely created for the sole purpose of desperately reaching success and appeal; it was made slowly and gradually, as its wondrous lead singles “Loftcries,” “Belispeak,” and “Ungirthed” had been recorded and released over a year ago. While it may seem that Purity Ring’s slow uprising to recognition was a senseless idea in the first place, the electronic duo have already obtained so many skillful abilities that it doesn’t really matter when it gets released. Vocalist Megan James and producer Corin Roddick already have the intrigue of Crystal Castles and Cut Copy, the artistic capabilities of Caribou, and collaborative attitude to succeed in a music career.
11. Port of Morrow – The Shins (Aural Apothecary/Columbia)
Five years since their release of the moody Wincing the Night Away, The Shins have shifted in and out of their spectacular aesthetic form. Singer Jeremy Mercer, whose voice immaculately lifts from a moderate tenor to a shrieking falsetto, had taken a break from the indie rock group. He produced and sung alongside Danger Mouse as the duo Broken Bells, did backup vocals for Modest Mouse, and even acted in an SXSW independent film. Fortunately, Mercer got back together with The Shins, only to evolve even more, musically, thematically, and vocally. Their celebratory reconciliation helped create their long-awaited record, Port of Morrow. It not only provides listeners with Mercers’ newly equipped sense of musical styles, including an integration of pop, folk, and alternative rock, but Port of Morrow reintroduces the Shins’ majestic aesthetic capabilities and effervescent catchiness that we haven’t seen since their fantastic 2003 album, Chutes Too Narrow. The Shins’ new record contains a cluster of Beach Boys-type pop songs, love ballads, and plain song titles with a surprising thrash of tuneful rock. The amazing single, “Simple Song,” is such a song.
10. The Money Store – Death Grips (Epic)
Bold and brash, Death Grips is one of this year’s most ridiculously aggressive music groups. From their incomprehensible lyrics to lead singer MC Ride’s booming shrieks to producer/drummer Zach Hill’s deafening bass-heavy beats, Death Grips have brought the mixture of noise rap and experimental electronic to light in the music industry. After receiving acclaim for their underground debut mixtape, Exmilitary, Death Grips have molded and meshed together their fantastic follow-up, The Money Store. Engaging, vociferous, and defiant, The Money Store is both a musical tour de force and lively listening experience. It’s not indicative of anything specific at all, but Death Grips try not to focus on that it. Instead, The Money Store is somewhat of a Pulp Fiction-type record — an irrefutably far-fetched yet enigmatic depiction at the oddity of life and death. Providing controversial artwork (an anime-drawn androgynous masochist with “Death Grips” carved into his/her chest on the leash of a smoking female sadist) is one of Death Grips’ aesthetic abilities as visual and music artists. The punk rap band also offer several craze-induced tunes, including the vibrant, night-life jam “I’ve Seen Footage,” the roaring “Hustle Bones,” and the drum-slamming album closer “Hacker.” Death Grips’ material may be thematically extraneous, but even in one listen, you’ll see why they are currently one of the most innovative, inventive, and abnormal bands in this era of music.
9. Mature Themes – Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti (4AD)
Not much had been going on for Los Angeles-born crooner Ariel Pink, until he reached success with his 70s-inspired groove “Round and Round,” with the accompaniment of his 2010 masterpiece Before Today. Most of that album signified society’s problems and disasters with retro-themed music, along with Pink’s colorful persona and bizarre antics. Confident and daring, Pink had performed both Before Today and this year’s Mature Themes with his awesome backing band, Haunted Graffiti, hence the name Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. Unlike Before Today, Mature Themes does happen to be a much more mature and evolved effort, as well as mixing both vintage 80s disco and modern-day electronic rock. Mature Themes still achieves the same nostalgic feel that Before Today had, but looks onto the future, with an unwavering and captivating production and collection of diverse tracks brought on by Pink’s unpredictable voice and Haunted Graffiti’s intriguing instrumentals. Mature Themes‘ highlights include “Baby,” the achy and beautiful cover of Donnie and Joe Emerson; “Only in My Dreams,” a twinkly and optimistic jingle; “Kinski Assassin,” the bizarre yet hilarious album opener; and “Pink Slime,” a Flock of Seagulls-ish electronic jam. Although Mature Themes comes off as dreamy, gaudy, and baffling all in one, Ariel Pink isn’t an ordinary artist, doesn’t perform like an ordinary artist, or interview like an ordinary artist. Sporting a pink wig and mextrosexual clothing, Ariel Pink becomes this idiosyncratic enigma of the music scene and a character of his own when it comes to recording, performing, or being interviewed. Unlike Pink, the members of Haunted Graffiti dress normally and provide no real personal qualities, other than their incredible music making. With that in mind, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Grafitti is the “It” band — a collective comprised of seemingly incompatible musicians who surprisingly perform and record music well.
8. R.A.P. Music – Killer Mike (William Street Records)
In an interview with Pitchfork Media, Atlanta rapper Killer Mike repeated the fantastically rhymed lyrics from his aggressive hit “Big Beast,” but this time, described each line solely and fluently, through its meaning and relevance to his own life and to society. It’s amazing to see such intellect and expression from the 37-year-old hip hop artist, marking him as both a vigorous rapper and critical thinker. After releasing five albums within the last nine years, Killer Mike has finally found his muse with the El-P produced R.A.P. Music. While reverberating Southern hip hop, Killer Mike raps and rhymes on R.A.P. Music over thunderous electro-induced hip hop, as well. Featuring guests Bun B, T.I., Scar, and Emily Panic, Killer Mike’s collaboration with rapper/producer El-P is the most prevalent and dominant in R.A.P. Music. The engaging record brings up the topics of political relevance and racial tension (the antagonistic anthem “Reagan”), committing reckless crimes (“Big Beast” and the funky “Don’t Die”), and self-pride (the evocative “Southern Fried”). Through R.A.P. Music, Killer Mike demonstrates complex storytelling with genius and indicative rapping, as well as an appealing production by El-P.
7. Until the Quiet Comes – Flying Lotus (Warp)
Despite his recently revealed alter ago as Captain Murphy, 29-year-old Steven Ellison is two different types of people: he is both his real self (Steven Ellison) and Flying Lotus, two very distinctive characters and personas that can almost become split personalities. In interviews, he’s himself: a quiet yet insightful young guy who explains his reasoning and understanding on the universe and how it correlates with electro-hip hop music. Performing live in concert and recording in the studio, he’s Flying Lotus: an energetic, optimistic, and tireless artist who continues to keep people intrigued and captivated. After his acclaimed 2010 psychedelic record Cosmogramma
, Flying Lotus has bloomed and blossomed into a more visionary artist, which he has shown on this year’s Until the Quiet Comes
. Providing a uniquely choreographed and symbolic trailer for the anticipated album, Until the Quiet Comes
expresses the wondrous and provocative reality of life, death, misfortune, and faith. Featuring Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Thundercat, Erykah Badu, Niki Randa, and Laura Darlington, Until The Quiet Comes
is also a highly intimate and hypnotic collection of short songs, composed of jazz, hip-hop, and blippy electronica. Although it does not come off as loud or intrepid as Cosmogramma
, it still helps Flying Lotus soar to great heights and evolve as a producer and music maestro.
6. Coexist – The xx (Young Turks)
Coming back from their phenomenal self-titled debut in 2009, the mysteriously named and serene indie rock group, the xx, have done a lot of work on creating and expanding their songwriting capabilities and aesthetic abilities. Already proving that they are one of today’s best bands, the xx contain an interesting and quiet determination from each member, which includes producer Jamie Smith, with his trippy dub-induced beats, and lead singers Oliver Sim and Romy Croft, with their compatible vocal chemistry. The xx’s debut consisted of dark motifs, such as night, loneliness, betrayal, separation, and claustrophobia. But on their new amazing follow-up, Coexist
, brings those themes into a lighter mood and cohesive environment. Coexist
is an angelic composition of dreamy lullabies, dramatic guitar riffs, and newfound electronic. But Coexist
alone doesn’t exactly live up to the artistic or creative standard of its predecessor. However, it
does remind us why we love the xx so much, as they exhibit a much more minimal production, intimate singing, and riveting lyrics. Almost like their own song, “Islands,” listening to Coexist
feels like being alone on a island, using the nature and air as a sort of outlet for grief and loneliness. Similarly, its production has a somewhat beach-y vibe, but with a dramatic effect as well. That whrring and dreamy guitar can be found on every track, including the light-hearted love ballad “Angels,” the breathtaking, albeit slightly offbeat, “Chained,” the spellbinding “Fiction,” and the slow and sensual “Missing.” The xx are definitely in the zone, but let’s hope that it won’t become a comfort zone. Even so, Coexist
is an infectious and impressive follow-up to the xx’s debut.
5. Lonerism – Tame Impala (Modular Fontana)
As I’ve mentioned before in my review on Lonerism, psychedelic rock band Tame Impala have improved drastically since their underrated debut Innerspeaker in 2010. Lonerism is a marvelous, timely, and tirelessly energetic record filled with dream-like rock songs, layered by songster Kevin Parker’s infatuating voice. Parker sings about the past, rejection, hope, and the album’s most dominant theme, isolation. Those themes tie into Lonerism‘s emblematic album artwork, which depicts a vintage image (taken by Parker) of a metal gate separating the viewer from the Jardin du Luxemborg in Paris. Lonerism takes the feel of loneliness and alienation and separates the viewer from reality, which juxtaposes the nature of life and its meaning. Tame Impala integrates that idea into a series of entertaining classic-vinyl type tunes, including the 6-minute psychedelic trance “Apocalypse Dreams,” the space-sounding “Why Don’t They Talk to Me?,” the hopeful and sensational “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” the electro-induced “Elephant,” and the piano-driven album closer, “Sun’s Coming Up.”
4. Shields – Grizzly Bear (Warp)
“Dreamed a long day/Just wandering free/Though I’m far gone/You sleep nearer to me” was the first chillingly sung verse uttered by singer/guitarist Daniel Rossen on “Sleeping Ute,” the album opener to Grizzly Bear’s Shields. Immediately, Grizzly Bear has set the tone for the intricately detailed record: a melancholic yet hopeful journey of self-discovery, internal conflict, and troubled romance. Not only is this one of Grizzly Bear’s greatest efforts in music and songwriting, but it succeeds its fantastic 2009 predecessor Veckatimest (which features the popular “Two Weeks”) and triumphs through its rigorous layout, emotional resonance, and determined potential. Though, the Brooklyn indie rock group began working on Shields through a lengthy spiritual and reflective journey. After the release and touring of Veckatimest, the four Grizzly Bear members took a six-month hiatus from band-related activities. Once they were ready, they formed again to record their fourth, then-untitled, record, starting in Marfa, Texas. However, only two tracks from Shields, “Sleeping Ute” and “Yet Again,” were recorded there and surprisingly, those songs are considered the best out of the record. The rest was recorded in Cape Cod, where the indie collective stayed for the remainder of their production. Shields has been described as Grizzly Bear’s most collaborative effort, with Daniel Rossen noting that “[our] band’s aim was to write and make music that is as collaborative as possible, so that we have a product that we all feel a sense of authorship over as a collective.” Indeed, Shields is not only their most collaborative, but most expansive and culturally relevant at this time in the indie music scene.
3. Bloom – Beach House (Sub Pop Records)
You know a band’s doing well when they’ve released four critically acclaimed albums, consecutively. Indie dream pop duo Beach House are such a band. They started with their self-titled debut in 2006, which led to its 2008 follow-up, Devotion, to its even-better successor, Teen Dream, in 2010 to this year’s incredible Bloom. Not only has Beach House’s grand success with fans and critics been beneficial for their career, but it signifies that they have a few unique and remarkable qualities that only few are able to obtain. It’s the amount of consistency, as well as expanding culturally, musically, vocally, and on songwriting. That key caliber continues to be seen in Beach House’s vibe, with songstress Victoria Legrand’s low hum and guitarist/keyboardist Alex Scully’s sensational musical skills. Though Bloom is not as great nor as big in creativity as Teen Dream, Bloom is a lovely dreamscape of a record — a stunning display of electro-pop and indie rock, brought by lyrics that croon about affection, maturity, and optimistic hope for the future. Such tunes include the evocative and stand-out opener “Myth,” the dreamy, keyboard-driven “Lazuli,” the chillwave “Other People,” the beautiful and instantly catchy “Wishes,” and the epic, 16-minute closer “Irene.” Although Bloom would be a good album to sleep to, as Beach House is known for producing such slow and hazy music, it’s still a captivating and wondrous addition to Beach House’s portfolio of spectacular records.
2. good kid, m.a.a.d city – Kendrick Lamar (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
When Kendrick Lamar released his debut Section.80 last year, he rapped like every other rapper, provided sick beats like other rappers, and rhymed about relationships, religion, and the dangers of drugs and alcohol (like most rappers). In this year’s good kid, m.a.a.d. city, it elaborates on Kendrick even more than expected. Retelling the story of his childhood life in Compton, his relationship with his estranged parents, and other miscellaneous tales, Kendrick Lamar has transformed himself from a young, amateur rapper into a soul-searching hip hop artist, whose rapping abilities and lyricism are far better than the pain and suffering he describes in his music. And for once, we as listeners gain interest and insight from Lamar’s impeccable verses and various samples. Through the words and beats of good kid, m.a.a.d city, Kendrick recalls hanging out with dangerous gang members, having a relationship with a girl named Sherane, and a deprived childhood, while reflecting on his own actions and wrongdoings and hoping people will listen and understand his anguish. Luckily, people have gained a better sense of Kendrick’s life and responding with sympathy and empathy. After listening to his prayer-turned-story-telling opening track, “Sherane aka Master Splinter’s Daughter,” Kendrick takes on a long, worthwhile journey about his pseudo-arrogant side (the outlandish “Backstreet Freestyle”), his romantic and honest persona (the Drake-featured “Poetic Justice”), and his insightful yet regretful conscience (the psychological warfare slow jam “Swimming Pools (Drank)”). Kendrick’s display of emotion and complexity within himself makes him a noble and sensitive artist that hip-hop has only succeeded in doing with certain artists, such as Eminem, Nas, Jay-Z, Mos Def, and Kanye West. Thankfully, Kendrick Lamar has enough commercial recognition and critical success to attain that standard as well.
1. Channel Orange– Frank Ocean (Def Jam Records)
A few weeks before the release of Frank Ocean’s debut studio album, Channel Orange, Ocean wrote on his Tumblr that his first love was with a man. Immediately overwhelmed by the media’s intake on this information, Ocean defied the rap and hip-hop music industry, as it’s known for its expressions of homophobia. Despite all the attention, which included both support and criticism, Ocean’s display of pride and joy throughly expresses exactly who he is, which flawlessly transitioned into this year’s breakout hit Channel Orange. Just as Frank Ocean had expressed with his newfound bisexuality, he captivated listeners with his epic and candid opus Channel Orange, a mesmerizing masterpiece of pop, hip/hop, R&B, and music in general. It’s almost too hard to describe, considering how amazing and intuitive Frank has been made Channel Orange out to be. Frank’s beautiful falsetto sets the tone of the innovative record, beginning with his ambient intro “Start,” which transitions into one of his most aesthetic and endearing tunes: “Thinkin Bout You,” a wondrous love ballad that distributes Frank’s voice as a powerful integral to Channel Orange. The awesome album continues with songs that invoke unrequited love (“Think Bout You,” “Forrest Gump”), the glamour life of wealthy Los Angeles socialites (“Sweet Life,” “Super Rich Kids” featuring fellow Odd Future artist Earl Sweatshirt), beautiful lullabies (“Sierra Lione”), trippy trances (“Pilot Jones,” “Crack Rock,” “Lost”), religious realizations (“Bad Religion”) and intricate romance (“Monks,” “Pink Matter”). It’s not until about halfway into Channel Orange do we see Ocean evolve even more: the 10-minute epic “Pyramids” ranges from the fixation on a girl considered “Queen Cleopatra,” to a pimp falling his love with one of his clients. Despite its obsessive metaphorical allusion, “Pyramids” is a huge highlight on Channel Orange, being that it’s a provocative and intimate ballad that extends endlessly. Frank Ocean has already earned so much success and acclaim in life, yet as an artist and person, he’s quiet, indecisive, and vulnerable. But being as it may, those qualities actually help him achieve that great status of an artist, making him one fantastic wunderkind and Channel Orange an instant classic.
Thanks for reading the top 45 albums of the year! Now, we wait for 2013’s new and exciting plethora of music.