10 December 2012
Articles | News

List: Albums Of The Year

2012's greatest hits. In our opinion. Don't like them? Don't care. Write a blog about it.

Words Jeremy Allen, Jessica Crowe, Alex Denney, Rory Gibb, Phil Hebblethwaite, Emily Mackay, James Papademetrie, Tom Quickfall, Cian Traynor, Luke Turner

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Here it is then, our 2012 offering to the great list-making gods in the sky. Our 50 favourite albums of the year, handily collected under one URL, in reverse numerical order. A mess? At least we’re not making you click through 50 pages. Deep breath…

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Gently swinging, vintage pop deeply influenced by church upbringing + musicianship and arrangements far beyond what we’ve come to expect from singer-songwriter albums + massive beard = great score on Pitchfork for Matthew E. White’s debut album Big Inner [50] + instant record deal with Domino.
New Zealand’s Lawrence Arabia does a fine line in pop songs that are well-crafted, clever and extremely wry. Third album The Sparrow [49] was an attempt at something more grandiose, and it worked, offering his songs a broader palette of emotions and making them feel less like punchlines.
If music being distributed digitally has eroded the flamboyance of pop’s performers, then no-one told Montreal’s Jef Barbara. Like some out-of-time androgynous ladybot from the Planet Sexy, Jef had one foot in the ’80s and the other kicking towards the future. Contamination [48] was one of 2012’s best-kept secrets; it may yet achieve cult classic status.
The idea of electronic music albums made by PhD students rings clanging alarm bells, but by cleverly using the human voice in particular, San Francisco-based Holly Herndon created an album, Movement [47], that was abstract but warm — fun, even — and, at 35 minutes, exactly the right length.
Jam City’s Classical Curves [46] was a discomfiting trip through the uncanny valley, the term used in synthetic design to describe why the CGI Tin Tin creeped everyone the fuck out. Producer Jack Latham employed an arsenal of sounds that were just a tiny bit off — jolting, Art of Noise-esque percussion, sickly-synthetic textures, passages that lingered way past their bedtime — to make a sci-fi dystopia of our wirelessly-connected present.
Angel Haze’s Reservation mixtape [45] had more than its fair share of reflective-bordering-pedestrian moments — and given her troubled past, the NYC-based rapper had more to reflect on than most — but it also had ‘New York’ and ‘Werkin’ Girls’, a pair of whiplash cuts that left us in no doubt we were listening to a Next Big Thing here.
Hard rock, noise, thrash, metal: all can be found in the noxious exhalations of Seattle’s Black Breath. They’ve been notable since their debut EP in 2008, but it was thunderous second album Sentenced To Life [44] that saw them hit a truly punishing stride. Easily the most bodacious LP on this list.
The effortlessness with which Gemma Ray’s Island Fire [43] skipped through its smart, fresh retro-pop made you wonder why so many would-be eyelinered ’60s noirists tit it up so badly on a daily basis. A healthy dose of dry wit and era-inappropriate touches like those delish Sparks covers ensure that, even when she was ooh-oohing among strings on a song called ‘Runaway’, it never got old.
Swapping tweeny-bop indie for grown-up ambience, Good Don’t Sleep [42] was a risky step from Egyptian Hip Hop. It worked, though, for the most part: the Manchester band wore some sophisticated influences quite amazingly well at times; at others, they settled for ‘interesting’ textures for fear of appearing callow. They’ll learn to connect better than this, but EHH came on leaps and bounds here.
Motor: Nighttime World 3 [41] was an astonishing love-letter to veteran producer Robert Hood’s home city of Detroit; all luminescent synth smears and acid-flecked melodies that cut through the mix like razor-wire. In a two-decade career defined by illustrious highs, it was a pleasure to note that the album might just have been the Motor City man’s masterpiece.
Ty Segall And White Fence’s Hair [40] was, put simply, the sound of two songwriters at the top of their game sparking beautifully together; Tim Presley’s Barrett-era Floyd vibes meshing effortlessly with the playful, Lennon-in-an-odd-mood side of Segall’s muse.
Ryan Olson of Gayngs fame joined forces with singer Channy Leaneagh to record one of the year’s more interesting full-lengths as Poliça. Give You The Ghost [39] applied liberal autotune to Leaneagh’s spaced-out vocals throughout, adding a disembodied air to proceedings, while Olson’s ghostly productions were groove-led and synth-heavy.
Cloud Nothings’ whipsmart pop-punk took a turn for the stroppy with Attack On Memory [38], which muddied the waters of Dylan Baldi’s hitherto blissful way with a tune by way of a discordant set that somehow avoided being an angsty pain in the ass.
On Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! [37], the soundtrack to Armegeddon was ushered in by recently reawoken post rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor. An elegiac and ominous return, fans weren’t disappointed as GY!BE weaved their way through a mesmerising set that proved they’d lost none of their signature, murky brilliance.
The towering success of London-based Japanese psych rockers Bo Ningen’s second album, Line The Wall [36], which was in a whole different league to their debut, came down to this: they work hard. Extremely hard. And therein lies the lesson.
Chromatics’ Johnny Jewel may have lost out on the soundtrack gig for Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s über-slick pulp noir of 2011, but Kill For Love [35] more than made up for that disappointment. Listless Neil Young cover aside, this 90-minute virtual score set an eerie, beautiful tone perfect for those 3am moments where the city’s noise shrinks to an ambient siren song.
It was another stellar year for Lone, aka producer Matt Cutler, who spread his glittery synth work over catchy house and juke on Galaxy Garden [34]. Cutler demonstrated a maturity of approach, dropping several shimmering melodies per track as arrangements mutated and swelled below them. A beautiful collaboration with vocalist Anneka showed depth, while two tracks with Machinedrum proved Cutler’s star is most definitely rising.
Just at the point where the whole world was harried sick of hearing about the silly bint, Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die [33] came along like a string-soaked cold compress to the brain; soothing, sultry and smart. The songs, all that mattered in the end, were beautiful enough to make you overlook the fact that one was ACTUALLY CALLED ‘Lolita’.
Kevin Parker’s Tame Impala project returned with Lonerism [32], an ambitious psychedelic suite that built on the strong foundation its predecessor had lain. Expanding on the riff-rock of Innerspeaker, the album was anchored by driving rhythms and phased guitars, while Parker’s own breezy vocal floated off into the haze.
Darren Hayman used the Essex witch trials of 1645 as the subject matter on The Violence [31], the final instalment in his trilogy of LPs devoted to the area. Steeped in woozy, folkish pop, the record offered pertinent contemporary comment on scapegoating and fear in times of turmoil.
In some respects, John Talabot was this year’s Nicolas Jaar, crafting languorous, low-BPM house that landed just the right side of coffee-table on fIN [30], his debut for Permanent Vacation. Though a shade less maverick than Jaar’s full-length from last year, the record impressed by dint of its impressive scope, basking in a pre-dawn glow that must have soothed many an aching jaw in 2012’s wee small hours.
Who’d have thought wacky ‘look ma, I painted eyeballs on me tits’ folk free spirit Beth Jeans Houghton would finally come good? But come good she did with her Hooves Of Destiny and Yours Truly, Cellphane Nose [29]; a collection of sparkling, witty, rambunctious and clattering psych-pop.
Whether or not she did stay up doing speed until she could see through time, the breadth of emotion on GrimesVisions [28] was as dizzying as its omnivorous magpieing of styles, from the sweet defiance of ‘Oblivion’ to the demonic sexiness of ‘Eight’ and the flooring, bleak beauty of ‘Know The Way’. Queen of the world, and mad as a box of frogs.
Gris-gris man Dr John returned in 2012 with his best album in years, helped by some shrewd production from The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. Locked Down [27] transported the good doctor back to the banks of the bayou, echoing the voodoo funk of those early Night Tripper releases with grooves that were delectably live and loose.
1999 [26] was the mixtape debut from Joey Bada$$, a wildly talented, 17-year-old Brooklyn MC obsessed with hip hop’s golden era. The album wafted in like a cool breeze on a New York summer’s day, with classic beats from MF DOOM, Madlib and Lord Finesse among others — but original cuts from Joey’s Pro Era crew held their own even in such esteemed company.
A double-LP tribute to late Throbbing Gristle member Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson, X-TG’s Desertshore / The Final Report [25] revisited Nico’s avant garde classic with help from some auspicious guests — Marc Almond, Antony Hegarty and Sasha Grey among them — on the first disc, while the second platter’s abidingly threatening machine pulse very nearly stole back the ‘industrial’ moniker from the black-clad rent-a-mob that followed in the genre trailblazers’ wake.
It’s not like Calexico had been in a bad place, but Algiers in New Orleans brought out a fresh creativity in Joey Burns and John Convertino that had lain dormant for a while. While a change of geography didn’t much alter the Calexico sound on Algiers [24], gorgeous melodies flowed effortlessly and Burns’ voice was at times heartbreaking.
There was much excitement about Vince Clarke making music with his former Depeche Mode bandmate Martin Gore again, albeit over the internet. Tracks for VCMG’s pulsating, club-bound techno album, SSSS [23], were built in piecemeal fashion, making its consistency all the more remarkable. Clarke also claimed he’d never listened to all-out techno before, or attempted to produce it. A very happy accident.
Mixing the slower, gentler feel of early recordings with the throttling crunch of late, Thee Oh Sees’ ever-shifting strain of psych rock sounded as fresh as ever on Putrifiers II [22], their sixth album in three years.
On RIP [21], Actress aka Darren Cunningham drew on Paradise Lost and surrealist techniques to summon a set whose lofty abstractedness must have wrongfooted a few who enjoyed Splazsh. Nonetheless, there was a crystalline quality to these ambient sound-sculptures that made all the opaque mystical chatter worthwhile.
Unsurprisingly, Bish Bosch [20] offered no succour for fans of Scott-era Scott Walker, but instead added beyond creepy, scatological wordplay to the already nightmarish soundworlds explored on Tilt and The Drift. What a queer old buzzard he is.
On paper, “Brooklyn singer-songwriter” doesn’t fill you with anticipation, yet Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp [19] was a triumph. Songs like ‘Give Out’, ‘Serpents’ and ‘Magic Chords’ combined a weary, detached delivery with melody lines both unique and wholly natural, as if they’d been around for centuries.
Dread lay right at the heart of Dean Blunt and Inga Copelands Black Is Beautiful [18], its brain bloated on a junk diet of cheap ecstasy, YouTube rips and early grime — a remarkable stew that sat somewhere in the pit of your stomach.
A discombobulating listen, Laurel Halo’s Quarantine [17] didn’t exactly bedevil you with bangers, but instead terrified with subtlety, leaving the listener equally disquieted and soothed with its hisses, washes, clicks, and deadpan vocals, a bit like the ghost of a dead child asking you if you wanted to play dollies down the phone with the dial-up modem on.
Cat Power’s well-publicised relationship woes and European tour cancellation threatened to steal her thunder completely in 2012, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Sun [16] was a bold and sonically adventurous exorcism of the the Atlanta songwriter’s ever-nagging demons. A class act, no less.
It took elder statesman of the scene Traxman to turn in the first great footwork album for Planet Mu, who have been leading importers of this very local Chicagoan music to Britain. Traxman works at a furious rate, and with enormous skill. Laughing in the face of the clearance industry, recognisable samples are woven into the productions on Da Mind Of Traxman [15], then fucked with to create rough ghetto music that’s crushing but also intensely soulful.
Tyson’s Die On The Dancefloor [14] was a ripped collection of synth-pop bangers in the hi-NRG tradition of Sylvester, lent raw, soulful edge by the West London diva’s full-blooded falsetto. It was lithe and fruity as fuck, despite its author’s bizarre claims about his impressive ‘vag count’ when we spoke with him in April.
Swing Lo Magellan [13] felt like a real breath of fresh air from Dave Longstreth and his Dirty Projectors. Warmer and folksier than previous efforts, it sounded a bit like the album sleeve looked, i.e. like a PhD graduate learning to integrate himself with the ‘normal’ community by not talking like a twat.
Sub Pop’s sprung some real surprises on us lately, not least by moving into dark and brooding hip hop last year with local Seattle boy Shabazz Palaces. The latest shock, Canadian noise rockers Metz, slathered every kind of aural filth they could muster onto their self-titled debut [12], which was both defiantly tone-deaf and thrillingly dynamic.
Throbbing Gristle’s Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti brought Nik Colk Void of Factory Floor into the fold for a new project, Carter Tutti Void. Recorded as a live venture at London’s Roundhouse, Transverse [11] saw the three come together to create a panting, living creature that revelled in distortion and murky, industrial beats. Electrifying stuff.
Kevin Parker’s Tame Impala may end up taking plaudits above Melody’s Echo Chamber’s self-titled debut [10] elsewhere this year, but it was Melody Prochet’s record — abetted by Parker’s stunning production — which was the more realised. Indeed, the pair hooked up around the time the album was made, which could account for some of its seductive sparkle.
Both a love letter to hip hop and a bruising critique of America, Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music [9] achieved coherence by using only one producer, El-P, and was the best officially released rap album from the South since Waka Flocka’s 2010 debut Flockaveli.
Time and again, we threw ourselves under the clattering, psychedelic hooves of Goat, the evil Swedish bastards whose juju space rock on World Music [8] never strayed too far into the mystic, keeping raw and sexy on the likes of ‘Run To Your Mama’.
Give Picasso two felt tips and a canvas, and he’d make you a masterpiece. So it was with Daphni’s Jiaolong [7], a stark tour de force of analogue house that fashioned clubland epics from the most basic of building blocks, proving that Caribou man Dan Snaith could bring his auteur’s touch to even the most functional of fare.
Ty Segall squeezed out three albums in 2012, all of them varying degrees of slamming — but Slaughterhouse [6] was the pick of the litter. Rocking like an unholy triumvirate of The Stooges, Black Sabbath and Nirvana, Segall wrung his brains out on this record: and frankly, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Julia Holter’s a tricky one to pin. On her breakthrough, Ekstasis [5], there was a pinch of Grimes’ wanton Enya-lust, perhaps, and a spritz of Joanna Newsom’s formal daring — but Holter’s quirks felt more integrated than either of those artists, and she brought a spellbinding, magic-realist touch to her music that marked her out as a special talent indeed.
Kendrick Lamar was hailed by hip hop’s old guard as the most important rapper to come along in donkey’s years, but debut good kid, MAAd city [4] proved he wasn’t one for tooting his own trumpet. His rhymes had an unflashy, chameleonic quality that bore close listening, but it was Kendrick’s narrative gifts that really sealed the deal — especially on the elegiac ‘Sing About Me I’m Dying Of Thirst’, where he offers up a heartfelt prayer for his crime-stricken hometown of Compton.
Okay, so he looked like a bit of a grotter, but Canadian goofball Mac DeMarco came good — really good — on 2 [3], a wonky, wonderful record lit up by Mac’s low-rent lyricism and oddly evocative guitar tone; something in the manner of a cruise-ship Mark Knopfler and way more expressive than your typical Captured Tracks fodder. Better, the songs revealed hidden depths of longing each time you smacked the play button: which we did repeatedly, like the dogs that we are.
Like an off pint of milk suddenly announcing it’s fit for drinking again, most band reunions are to be treated with a maximum of suspicion. But noise healers Swans were a special case, and Michael Gira has described The Seer [2] as the culmination of his life’s work. It was no idle boast, either: the runtime alone on his band’s twelfth album to date suggested reinforcements on your underpants were very much in order. What followed was a soul-quaking, two-hour trial by flames that Milton himself would twitch an eyelid in terror at. For those brave enough to follow where Swans led, there was comfort in the fact.
Channel Orange [1] confirmed what many of us had been secretly hoping all along: that Frank Ocean was a pop star of rare, unalloyed genius. Reinventing the socially conscious R&B of the early 1970s for the information age, Ocean shows us the rotten edifice of contemporary American life through every kind of lens, from small-time dealers hitting the big time to crooked cops, crackheads and super rich kids numbing themselves to the banality of their existence with “crappy grams” of coke. ‘Forrest Gump’ and ‘Bad Religion’ speak movingly to Ocean’s unrequited love for that guy off Tumblr, but he wrote tenderly about women, too: especially on the head-smackingly ambitious ‘Pyramids’, which mourns the degradation of black women in US culture via an extended allegory about Cleopatra’s shacking up with the invading Roman forces. That the music was unhurried, purposeful, steeped in history but unimpeachably modern — coaxing quietly stellar turns out of Earl Sweatshirt and Andre 3000 — was only the icing on a cake we’re still digesting five months on. Channel Orange’s real pleasure lay in hearing a true storyteller reminding us that, whether you’re a have or a have-not, nothing less than your soul is at stake.

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