Top 50 Albums of 2012

It’s been a great year for music. Every time list season comes round, even some of the most music-culture-immersed music journos seem to want to tell us that it’s been another disappointing year. I’ve been looking back on it and I simply can’t figure out how I spared the time to fall in love with so many records, and there are dozens I feel awful for having left off a top 50… one way I’m dealing with the overspill is by siphoning off my top 10 EPs, all of which are as deserving as a placement as the albums. As ever, there’s heaps of stuff I missed, so drop me a comment and let me know my most howling errors. :)

See also: 50 tracks of 2012.

Top 10 EPs of 2012

1. Burial – Kindred (dubstep, progressive house) [stream]

2. Fatima Al Qadiri – Desert Strike (postmodern video-game influenced bass)
[check out my review of this on Wears The Trousers / stream]

3. TNGHT – TNGHT (trap, wonky) [stream]

4. Angel Haze – Reservation EP (hip-hop – full-length mixtape released as an “EP”) [stream/download free]

5. Joyce Manor – Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired (pop punk, emo, lo-fi) [stream]

6. Solange – True (pop, R&B, chillwave) [key track: Losing You]

7. Kitty Pryde – haha I’m sorry (teenage white girl cloud rap) [stream/download free]

8. Rape Revenge – Paper Cage (powerviolence, feminist hardcore) [stream/download free]

9. Azealia Banks – 1991 (hip-hop) [stream]

10. Kilo Kish – Homeschool (jazzy, laid-back hip-hop) [stream/download free]

Top 50 Albums of 2012

50. Kelan Philip Cohran & The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble – Kelan Philip Cohran & The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
(psychedelic jazz) Key track: Stateville
Psych-jazz compositions, usually in weird time signatures, for a brass ensemble and percussionist.

49. Hanne Hukkelberg – Featherbrain
(experimental, found sounds, art pop) Key track: My Devils

48. Aesop Rock – Skelethon
(abstract hip-hop) Key track: Racing Stripes
I’ll admit I’ve no idea what Aesop Rock is going on about on Skelethon half the time, and anyone who tells you they do is lying – but it’s rewarding when I do get to grips with the songs, especially because the stuff he’s rapping about is so unusual. The simpler songs are the most enjoyable, including one about him being an obnoxious kid and not eating his vegetables (‘Grace’), and one about stupid haircuts, featuring a Kimya Dawson cameo (‘Racing Stripes’). But his outlandishly cryptic moments are fascinating too.

47. DJ Rashad – Teklife Volume 1: Welcome to the Chi
(footwork/juke) Key track: CCP

46. Nedry – In A Dim Light
(dubstep, post-rock) Key track: Post Six
[review at No Ripcord]

45. Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Blue Chips
(East coast hip-hop) 
Key track: Steve Wynn
Download this for free here. This is outlandish, sloppy, and offensive, but I couldn’t stop listening to it. I really dig Party Supplies’ sample-heavy production and Action Bronson, chef-turned-rapper, is compulsively replayable.

44. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
(R&B, soul) Key track: Use Me

43. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
(indie-rock, indie-folk) Key track: Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1

42. Rolo Tomassi – Astraea
(post-hardcore, shoegaze, mathcore) Key track: Empiresk
[review in The Mic]

41. THEESatisfaction – awE naturalE
(jazzy hip-hop, soul) Key track: QueenS

40. Loma Prieta – IV
(screamo, post-hardcore) Key track: Fly By Night
The best record this year to listen to on headphones while walking across campus all misanthropic (other than maybe aforementioned Rape Revenge EP)

39. Andy Stott – Luxury Problems
(dub techno) Key track: Numb

38. Pelt – Effigy
(acoustic drone) Key track: Wings of Dirt
Thanks to The Liminal’s excellent end-of-year list, where this was #1.

37. Anaïs Mitchell – Young Man In America
(folk) Key track: He Did

36. Tanlines – Mixed Emotions
(indie pop, Afro-pop) Key track: Real Life

35. Allo Darlin’ – Europe
(indie pop) Key track: Capricornia
It was a joy to play a couple of shows with Allo Darlin’ this year, what a fantastic band. Earlier in the year I wrote this article about Elizabeth Morris’ use of intertextuality.

34. Grouper – Violet Replacement Part 2
(ambient, hypnagogic music) Key track: (sample)
This contains one track, and its title is an instruction: ‘Sleep’.

33. White Lung – Sorry
(post-hardcore, punk) Key track: Glue

32. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse
(garage rock, punk, noise rock) Key track: Wave Goodbye

31. Farrah Abraham – My Teenage Dream Ended
(outsider pop, brostep) Key track: On My Own
I wrote an article about this album for No Ripcord, reconsidering it as outsider art; in short, I argue that it got such a negative reaction because it was so expressive, and people were expressing it to be more faceless pop.

30. Talk Less, Say More – England Without Rain
(art pop, indie pop) Key track: Sky Over Everything
I reviewed this album for No Ripcord back in March, and felt absolutely honoured to be one of the first people to write about such a brilliant obscure gem, one which I had a feeling would swiftly gain much more recognition. Sadly, that didn’t really happen, but perhaps you derive a similar pleasure from being one of the few people in on excellent undiscovered music, in which case you can still download the record for free.

29. Nude on Sand – Nude on Sand
(freeform folk, improvisation) Key track: Bring It Back
Nude on Sand is a side-project of Jenny Hval’s, who made my favourite record of 2011, Viscera. She takes the improvisational qualities of that record even further here, again pushing the limits of vocal performance, this time accompanied by Håvard Volden on second acoustic guitar. I’d have liked more original material here (she recycles the lyrics of the title track of Viscera not once but twice!), but it’s done with such improvisational gusto that it’s well worth checking out this record too.

28. Grimes – Visions
(synthpop) Key track: Oblivion

27. Neneh Cherry & The Thing – The Cherry Thing
(free jazz, soul) Key track: Dream Baby Dream
[review at No Ripcord]

26. Ava Luna – Ice Level
(progressive R&B, soul, post-punk) Key track: Ice Level
A really fun record, reminiscent of the soul-reappropriation of bands like The Make-Up and Dirty Projectors. Ava Luna’s approach is scrappier than either party, which arguably makes them even more endearing. I’m expecting them to break out and create something even more satisfying soonish, their time is ripe.

25. Hildur Guðnadóttir – Leyfðu Ljósinu
(experimental, drone, minimalism) Key track: (n/a, here’s a live video)
A long drone composition for cello, vocals, and electronics, performed live, entirely by Guðnadóttir. It occupies a liminal, wordless space, shifting imperceptibly. The way it develops is understated but highly dramatic – I didn’t get it at first, but stick with it, it’s much more than the hazy ambience it initially appears to be.

24. Mount Eerie – Clear Moon/Ocean Roar
(atmospheric post-rock, drone, indie-folk) Key track: Through the Trees Pt. 2 / Pale Lights

23. Holly Herndon – Movement
(experimental electronic, tech house) Key track: Movement
Along with a couple of records further along this list, (Julia Holter and Laurel Halo), Movement is evidence of experimental electronic artists playing with themes of alienation and increasing technological integration, by emphasising tensions between digital electronic music and the human voice. Similar ideas date back to Kraftwerk and Laurie Anderson, but in my opinion there’s a growing level of sophistication in “cyborg” music, dealt with most experimentally by Holly Herndon.

22. How to Dress Well – Total Loss
(progressive R&B, soul, ambient pop) Key track: & It Was U
I listened to this recently on a sunny winter day, watching lots of birds skating over the frozen lake as the sun glared off it. OK, maybe whatever I’d been listening to would have sounded amazing, but I really felt like Total Loss began to click into place at that moment. I didn’t expect to like this for some reason but it really is wonderful.

21. Soap&Skin – Narrow
(experimental, electronic, art pop) Key track: Wonder
A very brief album nonetheless full of wide-ranging ideas and experiments, from quiet piano ballads to industrial freakouts.

20. Waxahatchee – American Weekend
(sadcore, lo-fi, indie-folk) Key track: Bathtub
Imagine early Mountain Goats but with intense melancholy rather than intricate storytelling or rousing motivationals. Katie Crutchfield delivers as many potent one-liners as The Mountain Goats, and her record is purposefully difficult to listen to in one go without sobbing fitfully.

19. Cat Power – Sun
(art pop, electronic) Key track: Cherokee

18. Julia Holter – Ekstasis
(electronic, art pop, ambient pop) Key track: Moni, Mon Amie

17. Jessica Pratt – Jessica Pratt
(folk) Key track: Night Faces
I’m completely entranced by this. Perhaps because I only just discovered it, in amidst lots of internet-age boundary pushing music – this album could have come out over 40 years ago, easily. Pratt’s sense of melody is what makes this; it just sounds so lovely, so comforting, that it took me over 5 listens to begin to pay attention to the lyrics (very understated, but not without their idiosyncratic charms).

16. Death Grips – The Money Store
(punk, hip-hop, industrial) Key track: Hacker

15. Frank Ocean – ChannelORANGE
(progressive RnB, soul) Key track: Bad Religion

14. Panopticon – Kentucky
(anarchist black metal, bluegrass) Key track: Bodies Under the Falls
Yep, black metal and bluegrass. It completely transcends any gimmickry the concept might suggests. It’s a fascinating work of American pastoral music, in the tradition of pro-union protest music. Some of the money Austin Lunn made from the record was donated to the organisation Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a working-class, anti-capitalist, anti-discrimination community organisation, which it helps to see as the political centre of Lunn’s album.

13. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
(indie rock, post-punk, emo) Key track: Younger Us

12. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory 
(emo, post-hardcore, indie rock) Key track: Stay Useless

11. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
(emotional art pop) Key track: Every Single Night

10. Sharon van Etten – Tramp
(indie rock) Key track: Leonard

9. Sidsel Endresen & Stian Westerhus – Didymoi Dreams
(avant-garde, vocal improvisation) Key track: The Rustle of a Long Black Skirt
I love how alien this record sounds, an effect created mostly by Sidsel Endresen’s otherworldly vocal improvisation. She does things with her voice I didn’t think possible, singing in a semi-improvised language – I’d compare it to Sigur Rós’ “Hopelandic”, but it’s characterised by wild leaps in tones, often sounding more like sputtering and gurgling, sometimes even inhuman, rather than language. She plays off Stian Westerhus’ guitar parts brilliantly. Both performers really stretch the boundaries of what they can do, Endresen’s vocals and Westerhus’ guitar and array of pedals, but it’s never gratuitous experimentation; rather, both musicians want to carve emotional niches you’ve never really experienced in music before. There’s an intentional awkwardness, a sense of anxiety pervading the record that might well make it maddening to listen to at times, but often thrilling and beautiful. The most unique thing I heard this year.

8. Swearin’ – Swearin’
(pop punk, indie rock, emo) Key track: Just
This is quite simply a solid pop punk release, that only came out on a tiny label otherwise it would have been all over the place. The songs are so catchy, so full of excellent lyrics, and they will make you feel teenage again in the best possible way. I think this is the record I’ll listen to again in ten years and remember vividly the house I’m living in and the stuff I went through in 2012. The songs are simple, but not that simple, and they mean a lot to me. Download it (donations encouraged) here.

7. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
(Southern hip-hop, conscious hip-hop) Key track: Reagan
[from No Ripcord’s top 50 albums of 2012]: “The merging of El-P’s futuristic production with Killer Mike’s hardcore Southern-rap delivery is an original and potentially important moment in underground hip-hop. El-P released his (also great) solo record Cancer 4 Cure simultaneously, and whereas El-P’s lyrics are oblique and disorientating, Mike boasts the virtue of directness. His pummelling delivery is incisive at every turn – especially when he gets fiercely political, such as his scathing attack on 80s conservatism on ‘Reagan’, and the inequality of inner-city America on ‘Anywhere But Here’. Cerebral hip-hop records generally tend to obfuscate and require a lot of work from the listener, but Killer Mike manages to be intellectual with a visceral bluntness – and he closes his record with a convincing affirmation of the spiritual and social potential of rap.”

6. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
(indie-pop, chamber pop) Key track: Unto Caesar
[review at No Ripcord]

5. Hop Along – Get Disowned
(emo, indie-rock, experimental) Key track: Tibetan Pop Stars
The first thing that sticks out about Hop Along is Frances Quinlan’s voice – I could listen to her all day; the way she leaps around, delivers choice phrases with fascinating unconventionality, and is so purely emotive at every turn. But her songwriting totally justifies her vocal acrobatics: at first, her lyrics seem random, disorientating, they still look daft typed out – and yeah, they’re largely stream-of-consciousness, but there’s a strong emotional undercurrent to the imagery and vocabulary of every song. Most charming is ‘Kids on the Boardwalk’, as Quinlan reminisces about preteen crushes and cartoonish sexual awakenings – before making a left turn, ending up with “I want truth and beauty / I want to love something simply”, the most direct her lyrics get. And that’s exactly how your brain comes up with these profound aphorisms, the links aren’t all that clear. It’s refreshing to hear a songwriter internalising the actual thought processes of emotional revelations and reconciling them with songwriting constructedness, especially in such a personal way.
And even though she emulates stream-of-consciousness, it’s very relistenable, mostly because there’s so much variety on the record. Like Joan of Arc, Hop Along reject conventional song structures, and are interested in rock songs that mirror nonlinear mental logic; while for Hop Along this is mostly reflected in Quinlan’s vocal melodies (their greatest strength), there’s a lot of instrumental innovation too – I particularly love the stop-start string arrangements of ‘No Good Al Joad’, and the hoe-down ‘Sally II’; and they perhaps make the more conventional rock songs even more satisfying: ‘Tibetan Pop Stars’, ‘Young and Happy’, and the stunning closer ‘Get Disowned’ are simply brilliant emo songs.
Hop Along make me nostalgic and sad and then elated and confused. They’re wonderful.

4. Scott Walker – Bish Bosch
(postmodern, avant-garde, standup comedy?, experimental opera?!) Key track: Epizootics!
I’m currently writing something rather lengthy about this album. My attraction to it stems from the ways in which Walker subverts listener response, merges high and low art, goes out on a limb with various instrumental effects. It’s an excellent example of postmodern art in that it disruptively juxtaposes things like ancient myths and fart jokes, an unnecessarily wide vocabulary and puerile insults, clinical scientific study and artistic audacity. I think most reviewers found it difficult to express what they enjoyed about it beyond its pure weirdness (but effective weirdness!), but I think there are some more interesting questions going on in the record, for sure.

3. Swans – The Seer
(drone, art-rock, almost everything else) Key track: Mother of the World
[from Impact’s top 10 albums of 2012]: “Since the early 80s, Swans have been a fiercely autonomous entity in rock music, their brutal minimalism exemplifying form mirroring content, music as violence. Although their approach has grown steadily more sophisticated and surprising, their prerogative has always been the physical, rather than intellectual, power of music – and their latest album, The Seer, pushes further, as a sense of utopianism emerges from their grooves and drones.

The Seer is touted as the culmination of Swans’ career, their gestalt. Delving through their back catalogue and tracing their aesthetic development is fascinating in itself, but The Seer looms above this long series of formative experiments, a focal point in a dense web of musical genres. But all form and structure is carved back, leaving only the sonic forces that blast you right in the solar plexus. There is an intentional overspill, pushing the boundaries of the recording studio. And this time round, implicit in that disorientating heaviness, is the theme of transcendence. Face up to the two-hour challenge it presents and you’ll see that every second pulls you towards Swans’ ultimate goal: “ecstasy”.”

2. Laurel Halo – Quarantine
(artsy experimental electronic) Key track: Thaw
[review in The Mic]: “Nobody has ever made an album like Quarantine before. Laurel Halo approaches sound like a sculptor, labouring over every angle, as if the entire song is one nonlinear moment, until it hangs, one suspended entity, a fusion of human and digital. There are almost no beats or percussion on the record because it is so ambivalent, so cerebral; it’s a far cry from dance music, in spite of her previous work’s hazy reimaginings of IDM and techno. The purpose is to create and sustain a very specific and abstract mental (cyber)space, to carve it out, to invite the listener to align themself with the tangent Halo is exploring.

Similarly to James Blake’s self-titled debut, she organises sounds around her prominent vocal lines, but unlike Blake, she leaves her voice raw and exposed, fully baring every flaw and nuance. On ‘Years’ it is painfully direct: “You’re mad cause I will not leave you alone” – but what a bizarre, deliberately uncatchy melody. The piercing effects on ‘Carcass’ twist the knife deeper. Yet closer ‘Light & Space’ is immaculately produced, spine-tinglingly gorgeous.

The record is full of contradictions: it’s spacious and impressionistic at the same time as being tense and claustrophobic. It’s lush and dreamlike but haunting, wilfully discomforting. It calls to mind at once sci-fi and sentimentality. It’s straight from the bottom of uncanny valley. But it’s so unprecedented that I’m no closer to adequately describing it. Suffice to say Quarantine is fascinatingly daring, and it will do things that music has never done for you before.”

1. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
(West coast hip-hop loose concept album) Key track: The Art of Peer Pressure
[from No Ripcord’s top 50 albums of 2012]: “The sheer scope of good kid, m.A.A.d city indicates that Kendrick Lamar has set out, on his debut album, to create a classic hip-hop record – and has instantly succeeded. His self-critical analysis of everything about growing up on the streets of Compton covers so many themes it’s impossible to summarise; there’s such a vast range of production styles, registers, and social commentaries that the fact that Lamar’s overall narrative holds it together is nothing short of masterful. He deals with alcoholism (‘Swimming Pools’), racial profiling (‘good kid’), gang violence (‘m.A.A.d city’), and ultimately salvation (‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’) – with time to spare to simply show off his flow (‘Backseat Freestyle’). This is music at its most immersive, confessional, and emotionally complex.”

About decemberembers

I've noticed that all of my music-obsessed friends have completely different approaches to music in the digital age, and I'm writing this blog as an attempt to raise questions about what you experience when listening to music. It's also partly a response to a majority of music journalism which, stylistically and ethically, I find problematic. I'm trying to avoid being prescriptive and will encourage open-mindedness. :)
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