Arbitrary though they may be to some, we love lists. It’s in our human nature to rank and itemize the things in our lives that are important to us, music being chief among them. It’s somewhat ironic really, where for eleven months out of the year music is taken in subjectively, simply enjoyed for the sake of enjoyment and then, boom. It’s December and we rank everything. I even had to try to stop myself from ranking my favorite cheeses the other day (I failed, and my list will be available on my cheese blog off-shoot). The granddaddy of them all, however, is the top fifty albums of the year.
Each blog has a different way of doing things when it comes to their year-end lists, but at Tactile Tracks we try to be as democratic as possible. Given that we all write for this blog for a reason, a common thread in musical tastes, no matter which different directions they fray into. Therefore, each of our personal preferences are taken into account fully and equally while selecting the site’s overall top fifty. We have spreadsheets; we try to sway each other; we have a good time with it. It’s all very boring to the reader as to how we arrive at our top fifty, but very important to us.
We like to include a bit of the background into the ins and outs of our list, so here are some interesting things we found while constructing it. Out of our eleven staff members participating, and with 205 records in total, there wasn’t a single record unanimously nominated in the top fifty. However, our number one record of the year was placed in the top three seven times, which ultimately gave it the nod. Our number thirteen and twenty-three records were some of the most agreed-upon records, but not consistently highly ranked enough to boost their spots on the final list. There were three records that individual staff members ranked in their personal top three, but didn’t make the list due to not getting the backing from the rest of the staff.
Before we completely lose your interest, we’ll move on to the top fifty. Enjoy a sample track from each record and at the end of the page you can find our Spotify playlist for the (mostly) entire top fifty.
If there was an award on our site for scariest record of the year, De Vermis Mysteriis would be a shoe-in. Every time I listen to the brutal record, I wind up with new bruises. There is hardly an album around that combines cerebral technicality, almost of mathematical proficiency, and punishing physicality than the Matt Pike-led Oakland metal outfit’s sixth full-length offering.
Pike, formerly wading through the sludge of his former band, Sleep, leads a relentless charge of high-speed, high-volume, high-everything metal that never drops below a 9.73 on the intensity scale that I just made up. Though the band usually operates at maximum capacity, speed-wise, songs like “Madness Of An Architect” and “Samsara” show that Pike still has it in him to space things out and allow the heaviness the band consistently embodies breathe a little bit. It is the dynamic between the multiple styles of High On Fire that keeps records like De Vermis Mysteriis constantly enthralling.
[Warp / Luckyme]
Rarely has a debut EP made waves like TNGHT’s self-titled affair has. Playing part 8-bit video game score, part bombastic club-ready anthems, and part trap music primer, TNGHT is something of an anomaly. Comprised of two production upstart masterminds in Lunice and Hudson Mohawke, the Montreal/Glasgow duo has set the dance community ablaze with incredibly high energy sets along with their acclaimed EP.
The record comes with a fierce simplicity, big bass hits stacked atop one another in a way that will have your body girating in ways you never thought imaginable. The only problem–something that can hardly be called a problem at all–with TNGHT is its brief stay in our speakers; at five tracks and fifteen minutes, the record comes and goes before it feels like we have gotten enough. “Higher Ground” and “Goooo” mix soul sample vocals atop speaker-rattling bass while “Easy Easy” replaces the subtlety of those two tracks with in-your-face electronics coming through like a malfunctioning mainframe.
One of the most impressive things about King Tuff’s self-titled sophomore album is the fact that these guys just obviously don’t care. Singer/songwriter Kyle Thomas pulls of the scumbag role to perfection on tracks like “Bad Thing,” and though the band has a keen ear for melody, delivering memorable hooks throughout the record, they do well to pull them off like they landed on them by accident. In the genre of garage rock, where there are no shortage of scumbags, and no shortage of hook-driven fuzz anthems, there’s hardly been a record with both key factors at play in such close harmony.
The record plays out in the traditionally short burst that garage rock is so acquainted with, but King Tuff feels fully realized and fleshed-out. In fact, given the subtle production value and King Tuff’s actually very honed-in playing, the record is one of the brightest spots in a genre filled with bright spots these days. As Thomas screams “And skulls to crack!” on “Anthem,” the record’s opener, it’s hard not to get hooked.
There is something about DIIV’s debut record, Oshin, that feels like the New York City band is broadcasting this music to us from some sort of alternate past; from the very start of “(Druun),” the record carries some of the most wonderful traits of eighties post-punk, yet feels wholly current. The record sounds like what a foggy drive looks like, the guitars crisp yet subdued, and the vocals coming from another plane of existence altogether.
Interlaced with lengthy, gorgeous guitar interludes, Oshin’s song arc is consistent and enchanting. Every track swells and breathes as the quartet fronted by Zachary Cole Smith, guitarist of another foggy band in Beach Fossils, play together with a confidence and melodic sense well beyong their years as a band. On tracks like “How Long Have You Known” and “Human,” serpentine, worldly guitars wrap around one another as Smith coolly delivers distant vocal melodies that make the whole record feel like a blissful dream.
The aughts will likely be remembered as the decade of hazy, guitar-driven indie pop. We can just go ahead and accept this now, embrace it, and enjoy the music as it comes. It just so happens that Wild Nothing’s Nocturne, the second record Blacksburg, Virginia native Jack Tatum has released, falls into the realm of hazy, guitar-driven indie pop, but few records so far this decade have done it as well as he has.
The notes drip effortlessly from Tatum, puddling up in crystalline song form, giving Nocturne a very relaxed, yet focused feel. The attention that Tatum had garnered from his largely bedroom-engineered debut, Gemini, allowed him to take his lush sound to a studio, bolstering his sublime songwriting with higher fidelity sound. Tracks like “Nocturne” and “Only Heather” are perfect examples of what Tatum is capable of; where Gemini showed a uniquely adept songwriting mind, Nocturne’s pristine quality allows that mind to deliver its messages crystal-clear.
[4AD / Arbutus]
Punk in ethos, pop star in style, there’s not many people out there like Grimes. Rather than Claire Boucher’s dynamic personality facets working against one another on Visions, they actually serve to form together and be presented as a unified front. It doesn’t seem like something like “Oblivion” would work; Boucher sings “See you on a dark night” over an industrial bassline, but in a playful way that seems to counteract the mysterious and dark air created in the track’s atmosphere. Instead of feeling disjointed, the track, and the record as a whole, play out like a celebration of individuality, as cohesive as something so free of bounds can be.
The seemingly hodge-podge array of influences on display on Visions actually work as one for Grimes; her sense of melody and using her voice in unique ways to achieve those melodies, whether cooing her way through “Colour Of Moonlight (Anitochus)” or putting on her best diva face for “Genesis,” she seems to be completely in control–at the helm of her choatic plunge into pop music. She makes a strong case for the new era of female pop stars. In representing what is considered left-field in the world of pop, she firmly forges her own path to stardom.
All We Love We Leave Behind
All We Love We Leave Behind is the kind of record that would be the auditory equivalent of a really good horror movie–one of those where you watch through the spaces between your fingers, unable to look away but also unable to fully accept what is taking place in front of you. When listening to Converge pound out brutalizing songs like “Aimless Arrow” and “Trespasses,” the natural response might be to cower in fear, but there is something inherently captivating about each punishing note, pulling you in with each listen though you just know only carnage can come of it.
The record is another in a long line for Converge, constantly balancing the line between metal and hardcore, at many times both, and perhaps the Boston band’s strongest output since 2001′s Jane Doe. Though the BPMs for All We Love We Leave Behind pretty much constantly hovers in the “insanely fast” range, the record sees Converge dial in slower-paced sections like the refrains of “A Glacial Pace” and “Sadness Comes Home.” Those moments typically give way quickly to even harder and faster heights than before, illuminating the better side of the band.
Though named after a time in which the type of hip-hop that Joey Bada$$ was making wasn’t as vitally important to the overall landscape of hip-hop as 1999 is in 2012, the Brooklyn teenager has penned a mixtape that captures the essence of what hip-hop was meant to be. Long before pop-radio dominated the airwaves, when Bada$$ was remarkably (I’ll never get over how young this kid was when he recorded what will surely live to be considered a stone-cold classic) four years old, there was still hope for hip-hop in 1999. Thanks to artists like Joey Bada$$, there is hope again.
The mixtape samples beats from all of Bada$$’ favorite producers, from MF DOOM to Madlib, while bringing a youthful flare and talent to the game. As the leader of the Brooklyn-based Progressive Era crew of hip-hop upstarts, Bada$$ uses his unique approach to showcase the boom-bap styles and thought-provoking lyricism that once dominated the world of hip-hop. A Progressive Era showcase of sorts, with Bada$$ in the leading role, songs like “Survival Tactics” and “FromdaTomb$” feature Capital STEEZ and Chuck Strangers, respectively, showing the world that youth hasn’t been completely corrupted by radio rap.
One of the biggest tidbits of music-related news of the year, for me, was that Titus Andronicus’ frontman Patrick Stickles had shaved his glorious beard off. Years of Pabst Blue Ribbon residue, spit, gallons of sweat, probably some dried blood (his or not), all gone through the drain of some hotel sink, in my mind taking with it the essence of the band. Luckily, beards–however awesome Stickles’ happened to be–do not make the band. It’s what’s inside the beard that makes the band: the PBR, the spit, the sweat; yes, the blood. Titus Andronicus’ third full-length LP, Local Business is as good an indication as any of that.
Stickles’ beard wasn’t the only loss Titus Andronicus experienced between 2010′s The Monitor and Local Business, however. Longtime bandmember Amy Klein also departed the band, leaving many diehards to lament the fate of the New Jersey working class heroes. As if Titus Andronicus literally was answering those worries directly, they immediately established their same old American rallying cries all throughout Local Business, and delivered them with the same sprawling punk epic approach as before on tracks like “My Eating Disorder” and “Tried To Quit Smoking.” Klein and the beard may be gone, but it seems nothing can strip Titus Andronicus from their role of representing the filth-covered American cross-section.
Crystal Castles III
[Fiction / Polydor]
For a band who is as renowned for their live show as Crystal Castles–the duo of Alice Glass and Ethan Kath are one of the most celebrated live acts touring today, with punk-rock energy combined with infectious and danceable propulsion–you wouldn’t think that they would put so much focus into their records. However, here we are, with the New York electropunk outfit’s third album (all self-titled, much to my iTunes library’s chagrin), and that raw energy that the band is able to capture at live performances is only growing more prominent on record, while the band is actually maturing, and putting forth their best work yet. Crystal Castles is a balanced attack of the punch-you-in-your-face attack of old and a new, more subdued side to their songwriting, making it their most intriguing record to date.
As if to prove the fact that this is a different Crystal Castles than we have ever seen before, there are some geniunely profound glimmers of pop songwriting prowess, and the most enchanting moments of the album are when that side of the band seems to be waging war against the grit; album opener “Plague” sees Glass howling atop waves of synthesizers that she seems to be struggling to stay afloat on, while “Wrath Of God” plays out like an apocalyptic prom slow-dance. It may sound like a band trying to find their identity, but really Crystal Castles is firmly confident in who they are and in showing their multifaceted nature on Crystal Castles III, the band offers up their best album yet.
It’s somewhat ironic that the accessibility and inevitable success are actually oftentimes factors in turning fans away from a band; it’s an unfair twist of fate for many bands where fans who once would do anything to have their music heard now turn their noses up to the fact that too many people have heard it. There is something to be said about the fact that when something feels like a secret or wholly your own, it holds a special quality that cannot be reached once the secret is out. Well, Passion Pit fans, the secret is out.
The Boston-based outfit packed their debut LP, Manners, to the brim with hooks and shimmer synthesizers, making them the perfect object for the backlash described above. They made music the masses could enjoy; the masses enjoyed; the indie world shunned them (for the most part.) With their second record, they have proven that they are here to stay, and are much more multi-faceted than many of the naysayers had previously thought. The hooks are just as abundant on Gossamer, as are the shimmering synths—this is a band deeply focused on creating music that will speak to the world—but the record’s lyrics have taken on a darker, more introspective face. The combination of unmistakably catchy productions on songs like “Constant Conversations” and “Cry Like A Ghost” have the deeply troubled musings of Michael Angelakos at the center, exploring his bipolarism and its effect on those around him. Such topics have never been touched upon in pop music with such a positive backdrop; Gossamer can be taken as a cry for help at the center of a party, or a cry of hope at the center of despair.
Chan Marshall isn’t one to stay in one place too long, sonically. Over the course of her career, she has shifted from syrupy folk music to dabbling in smoky jazz, leaving fans with her voice being the only symbol of familiarity to be found within her music. With Sun, her ninth album as Cat Power, Marshall dresses her voice with her most adventurous and lavish accompaniment to date, a move that could potentially alienate long-time fans. Her experimentation pays dividends, however; Sun serves as not only her most fearless album to date, but one of her strongest.
Sun sees Marshall maneuver her way through many styles, from R&B and straight blues of “Silent Machine” to more dance-oriented tracks like “Cherokee” and “Ruin.” It’s remarkable the way these tracks seem to contradict one another stylistically, yet through the universality of Marshall’s voice, they work together to form a singular sound. The nearly eleven-minute “Nothin’ But Time” is Cat Power at her best; the patience of her earlier work is fully on display as the track weaves in and out of styles, showing just how far she has come.
Spanish producer John Talabot didn’t do exactly what he wanted with ƒIN; he has tried to cultivate an air of anonymity with the persona, and the record has established him as a prominent figure in the music world; he didn’t set out to create strictly a “house” record, and he is now at the forefront of the genre. One thing he did do right, however, was create a record that serves as a full, enriching listening experience that has seemed to be a lost art in the single-driven dance community.
ƒIN also accomplishes the rare task in electronic music of teetering the line between the intriguingly artful and the undeniably danceable. Fellow Spaniard Pional lends his vocals to propulsive dance tracks “Destiny” and “So We Will Be Now…,” giving the record the dynamic of pop propulsion, while straight-up house cuts “Last Land” and “Depak Ine” take ƒIN through the strobe-lit clubbing underworld. It makes for a well-rounded and adventurous listen, and one of the crowning achievements in dance music today.
There isn’t a record more triumphantly optimistic than Swans’ The Seer. Being the band’s second studio album after a fourteen-year hiatus, it would have been easy for Michael Gira and company to turn in a record that fans expect of them, to stay in their comfort zone. Swans just isn’t that kind of band, though, and with their twelfth studio album, the New York legends once again take the opportunity to reinvent themselves and push their sound to the absolute limits.
At an astounding two hours, The Seer is an accomplishment in that not only is it interesting for such a long span of time, the record is absolutely captivating, and scarily so. The record plays out like a twisted snakecharmer’s whistle; by the end of the thirty minute title track, you will be completely in a trance, almost a part of the music as it engulfs you. Gira’s chant-like vocals seem to be luring you into the violence that swirls beneath the angular guitars; there is never too much peace to be found within a Swans record, and it’s important to remember that while waking from the trance of The Seer.
Cancer For Cure
Few figures in hip-hop can boast the claim of being as uniquely distinct an emcee and producer like New York’s El-P can. From the very start of his career with Company Flow, he has established himself as being in a league of his own; the futuristic, sci-fi infused hip-hop he has made for the better part of two decades is practically in a universe of its own, and his latest solo record sees El-P take on the form of a more traditional hip-hop approach with his distinctly alien approach, like one of his adored Philip K. Dick replicants.
His first record under new label Fat Possum, Cancer For Cure tackles many of the darkest themes of El-P’s career. He stated that the record deals with loss and the longing to live, and not only is that reflected in his wildly verbose lyrics, but also in the fearless production. The record plays like a unified concept with a definitive arc, each track bleeding into the next and feeding off of one another. In delving into this world of darkness with Cancer For Cure, he allows the listener to experience it with a keen closeness; “The Full Retard” and “Drones Over BKLYN” play out like a post-apocalyptic digital takeover from the view of a bomb shelter.
The Money Store
Amid all of the drama surrounding Death Grips’ year, the major label signing, astounding debut album, self-releasing their second album under said major label’s nose, slapping an erect penis on its cover, airing personal emails from, again, said major label, being dropped by, yes, said major label, the one thing that seems to go forgotten is the fact that they did release an astounding debut record. The Money Store comes on the heels of their acclaimed Ex-Military mixtape, where the band first showed the world their blend of punk-level anger atop alternative hip-hop beats, all done at a frenetic clip leaving the listener feeling somewhat abused by the end of it.
The only difference on The Money Store is the budget with which the band of Zach Hill, MC Ride and Flatlander had to work with. Though a major label release, all of the attitudes and ideals that put Death Grips on the map are present. Flatlander’s production combined with Hill’s terrifyingly brutal drumming gives MC Ride the darkest, most tortured landscape to roam, as he shouts short bursts of words like “I stay noided, stimulation overload, account for it / Desensitized by the mass amounts of shit” on “I’ve Seen Footage.” The Money Store is just one of those records where you feel violated by it by the end, but you can’t help but thank it.
How To Dress Well
[Acéphale / Weird World]
“Blue-eyed soul” has a new face. With How To Dress Well’s debut LP, Love Remains, Tom Krell established a new school of R&B in which bedroom reflection and experimental production were just as paramount as provocative rhythms and the sensuality that has pervaded the genre for so long. The darkness of his music and overall mood of the record is what people attached themselves to so easily; simply put: How To Dress Well connects to something within anyone willing to let it. With Total Loss, Krell further establishes that connection by opening his own self up to the listener more, showing even deeper cuts that can be mended only with the help of others.
Album opener, “When I Was In Trouble,” is the perfect example of Krell’s shedding of the skin; he pens a short, loving thank you to those who have been there for him through hard times, specifically his mother. It’s a fitting way to open the record, as the entireity of Total Loss is an extended thank you to his personal support system. The striking thing about Krell is the way he can make such a personal reflection feel so universal, in only the way that some of the genre’s brightest stars have been able to. In delivering his songs with such profound emotion and melodic expertise, How To Dress Well allows everyone to join in on his struggle.
If there was ever a band that can get away with taking a ten-year hiatus, announcing a small tour with no promise of new material, and releasing a new record on the first night of said tour with no announcement, simply allowing it to blend in with the rest of their merch on the table, it’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The Montreal octet has made a name for themselves in shrouding their volcanic instrumentals with somewhat of a mysterious lore, and the circumstances surrounding their latest record, ’Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! are no different.
The record itself, however, is different. Godspeed, typically, has built their songs around the concept of joy in the dark atmospheres the band creates; songs like “Moya” are uplifting to the point of being overwhelming. With ’Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, we see a band that almost refuses to work itself out of that darkness. “Mladic” plows through Middle Eastern scales at a frightening intensity, finally releasing the tension not with joy, but with anger. It somehow serves to provide a bit of hope to the listener, however; there is something about Godspeed’s music that makes us see what might not be there, to find hope where there is none.
Though mostly a collection of seven inch singles released at various stages before the album’s release, and whether or not it was intended to play out this way, Pink feels just as cohesive as any other Four Tet record. Once the familiar sounds of “Locked” trickle through the speakers, it’s easy to remember that even a completely incohesive Four Tet record is still likely to be among the best electronic music produced at the time.
Pink continues plodding along the path that Keiran Hebden has forged of late with There Is Love In You and the various mixes put out in the past couple of years, consistently relentless, percussive dance music driven along four-on-the-floor rhythms. As is the norm for Four Tet, the instrumentation is intricately laced with the rhythm, giving the listener the feeling of the entire production working as a living, breathing being alongside them. It’s easy to attach yourself to a wistful synthesizer and ride it to the cosmos while listening to “Jupiters” or “Pinnacles.”
Over, the years, what qualifies as Animal Collective music is pretty much constantly morphing. From the band’s humble beginnings of Panda Bear and Avey Tare manipulating acoustic guitar strums and outside ambiance to the more recent incarnation of the band on Merriweather Post Pavilion, the two joined by Geologist as three figures hunched over piles of electronics crafting some of the most innovative dance music in recent memory, Animal Collective has always reached the same uniquely singular voice by drastically different means from record to record.
With their newest full-length LP, Centipede Hz, the band is a quartet for the first time in a long time, once again rejoined by Deakin. The record sees the band assuming the most traditional structure to date, looking like a bona fide rock band on stage with Tare handling keyboards and the majority of the vocals while Panda Bear pounds out the syncopated rhythms on drums and Deakin dances around like a madman on the guitar, all anchored with Geologist’s futuristic electronic tinkerings. As a result of the members’ more defined roles, Centipede Hz has a live feel like never before on an Animal Collective record. The album crawls along like a living, breathing organism, but with songs like “Today’s Supernatural” and the dialed-in electronics of “Monkey Riches,” they once again prove it’s a beast like none other.
Dan Snaith has been at the forefront of the electronic music scene for the better part of a decade, now. Whether under his original Manitoba moniker, or more recently as Caribou, he has been constantly defining his own limitations within the genre, which increasingly seem to be nonexistent. As if his music wasn’t already prominent enough in the dance world, he has decided to assume the name Daphni as an outlet for his more straightforward dance affairs. His debut record under that name, Jiaolong, far exceeds the concept of being a straightforward dance affair, but it’s about as close as Dan Snaith will ever come.
The record toes the line between world-influenced mayhem and dance floor abandon, with tracks like “Ye Ye” constantly shifting between the two, even on the smaller, song-level scale. It’s remarkable that Snaith can produce a record like 2010’s Swim, completely shift gears with Jiaolong, and have each, though wildly different, be received with such high critical praise. The record further proves Snaith’s place at the apex of today’s electronic music world while simultaneously exploring new realms of it.
[True Panther Sounds]
Though the duo of Jesse Cohen and Eric Emm have been releasing remixes under the name Tanlines for years, it wasn’t until they released their debut full-length LP, Mixed Emotions, that they really came into their own. Blending pop, dance, rock and even R&B, Mixed Emotions is an accomplishment in each genre it touches down upon.
The record is consistently catchy; “All Of Me” and “Not The Same” travel along slinky basslines and rolling, bright synthesizers, while Emm delivers memorable melodies throughout. Album closer, “Nonesuch,” serves to tie the record together with slow-burning theatrics and electrifying emotions, making good on the record’s title by allowing the high-energy dance numbers to sit alongside the more reserved side of the band in comfort; the juxtaposition of the two gives Mixed Emotions a fuller scope and sound.
Just when you think you’ve got Liars figured out, they turn around and do something completely unexpected, causing you to question whatever sensible place you’d landed on for the band. They came into the world with They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top, an angular, insane take on post-punk combined with modern electronic ideals. Just when we thought they had fully settled into a groove came Liars and Sisterworld, a bit of a tamer side of Liars that made us wonder if they’d grown out of their noisy roots. They seem to not be done experimenting, however. Their latest record, WIXIW, throws away practically everything they’ve come to be known by and shows they’ve still got what it takes to define their sound.
The record is a largely electronic affair; noisy guitars flutter in and out of the mix, giving WIXIW the sound of a punk classic being digitally replicated with a few glitches of the original escaping into the air. It makes for a dizzying listening experience, as it is so hard to pin down a specific identity within it. Songs like “No. 1 Against The Rush” and “Brats” dazzle with both Aphex Twin-level programming and punk gusto to make for one of the most uniquely enriching listening experiences of the year.
The Walkmen are about as unlikely a candidate for being a household name, and though they aren’t quite there yet, it’s remarkable just how close they are. There is something undeniable about their sound; the rustic, truly American sound of their beer-soaked tales, the timeless and familiar quality of Hamilton Leithauser’s voice, or just the beauty to be found within their simple melodies. No, they’re not a household name, and they probably never will be, but with Heaven, they once again prove relevance in those households that have previously embraced them, and probably infiltrated quite a few more as well.
The album was recorded in a studio nestled in the woods of Seattle, giving Heaven a more natural aroma than the cigarette smoke-filled recordings of their past. It seems the band has matured a lot over the years; songs like “The Love You Love” and “Heartbreaker” combine the energy that long-time fans of the band have come to know them by with a patience that can certainly be explained by serene moments the band surely found in those Seattle woods.
I wasn’t ready for Clear Soul Forces. I wandered downstairs at the tiny Highland Ballroom in Atlanta for their first showcase at this year’s A3C Hip-Hop Festival, following the loose plan I had set up based on artists I had briefly checked out prior to the event, or names I recognized, the typical unprepared adventure through a festival schedule. What I got was the best show I had seen all year. Four emcees, relentlessly bouncing around on the tiny stage, passing microphones back and forth to bolster the poor sound of the venue; it was completely electrifying. The next day at their bigger Detroit showcase, even when I thought I was ready for them, I still wasn’t.
It’s because you can’t really prepare yourself for an artist like Clear Soul Forces. Nothing in today’s music is set up to leave us prepared for a group so dynamic in the hip-hop world, that they stand on a pedestal completely their own. Though it’s their debut full-length record, released without label support, Detroit Revolution(s) far exceeds the group’s relatively short lifespan playing music with one another. The interplay between emcees Ilajide, Noveliss, E-Fav, and L.A.Z. is completely effortless on songs like “Get No Better” and “Keep It Movin’,” leaving the listener to constantly wonder at what point during the group’s debut there will be a low point. Spoiler: there’s not.
No one saw Yellow & Green coming. No record this year had a more polarizing effect on its fanbase, as the metal community went at each other’s throats over Baroness’ move to implement screaming vocals less and approach their music with a subtlety not found on any of their brutal records to date. Really, no one’s wrong here. The record isn’t the straightforward sludgy greatness that we have come to know and love Baroness by, but as it stands, Yellow & Green is an amazing accomplishment in rock music.
Spread out over the ambitious course of a double album, Yellow & Green sees Baroness explore deeper thematic realms as well as the sonic dynamics that have never been heard on one of their records, dark explorations of societal downfalls as well as personal ones, themes that any metal-head can appreciate. There are still plenty of wonderful sonic moments for those metal aficionados, from the progressive plodding of “Eula” to the anthemic “Take My Bones Away.”
Ty Segall Band
[In The Red]
I’m pretty sure Ty Segall sleeps with his guitar. He must, to allow himself the full amount of time typically wasted by rising from bed to write a song, considering the amount of output he has produced in his short career—this is assuming the man sleeps at all, of course. His second of three full-length records put out this year, one a solo affair and one with White Fence, Slaughterhouse is easily the most delightfully brutal. A step back in the direction of his earlier, fuzz-driven forays into garage rock that he had stepped away from with last year’s Goodbye Bread, Segall has once again let his guitar wail and mind to wander.
The very first notes of Slaughterhouse–“notes” used loosely to describe the massive wall of feedback he creates to lead into the record—indicate that we are in for a much more destructive affair. The record’s thirty-eight minutes fly by in a blur of shrieks and pulverizing guitars, Segall leading his band through his most potent garage-geared record to date. It’s one of those records that is completely transportative; the extended, aptly-titled album closer “Fuzz War” invokes images of a blood-and-oil-stained garage as Segall bashes his Fender Jaguar into the hood of his car to close the record off.
The xx’s Coexist came as perhaps the most anticipated record of the year, fans’ expectations built to mammoth heights in the three years since the band’s debut xx. Producer Jamie xx helped elevate that hype with a masterful collaborative remix album with the legendary Gil Scott-Heron, taking his “Take Care Of U” beat to the airwaves with Drake, and helming one of the year’s most incendiary BBC Essential Mixes. The experience that he has gained in his production has not gone to waste; that much is clear from the very start of Coexist.
Album opener, “Angels,” sounds like the first breath of winter, the realization kicking in that autumn was far too short as soon as a fog emits from your mouth. There is a tangible delicacy to The xx’s music that the band has always taken care to uphold, whether it be through Jamie’s subtle, sparse production, or Oliver Sim’s and Romy Croft’s whispered vocals. Though Coexist bares a lot of the same elements of their debut, it never feels like a retread; the subtle flourishes of light that break through their typically bleak outlook show that this is a band that is looking to the future.
Few things in this world are universal. Find something that is met with widespread acclaim, and there will be millions of naysayers out there. The closest thing I can find in today’s musical landscape to universal acceptance is that Jessie Ware’s buttery voice is that of a true pop diva. Her debut album, Devotion skirts the lines between pop and R&B, funk and electronic, all weaved together in a tightly-knit package by her consistently stunning vocal performances, making the record one of the most important in pop music today.
It seems that before one infectious melody has even run its course, another comes piling on top of it, all delivered with a confidence that far exceeds Jessie Ware’s solo experience as of yet. “Wildest Moments” sees the British singer display patience throughout the verses, holding back the song’s true shining moment until the last possible second, delivering on the coolly laid-out verses and hook. Much of Devotion’s allure comes from that patience; Ware has a keen understanding of building a sort of tension with her smooth, Sade-influenced vocals before truly letting them soar.
With Baltimore duo, Beach House’s, fourth full-length record, the band continues to grow as a force in pop music; singer Victoria Legrand’s syrupy voice delivers the band’s most memorable lines yet, while Alex Scally, already the adept instrumentalist and producer at providing the band’s lush dreamscapes, provides the most haunting and simultaneously shimmeringly gorgeous backdrops to date. Bloom sees a natural progression of the band’s work, which has gone from a comfortable bedroom aesthetic to full-bodied and fit for the growing venues the band books.
Bloom is both their most concise and most adventurous work to date, with Legrand’s focused attention to melodic details pervading the entire record, seemingly grounding Scally’s wistful accompaniment. In this regard, with the contrasting elements constantly working together, Bloom is Beach House’s most coherent work to date. The band writing dreamy pop in their Baltimore bedrooms has certainly grown up.
Much like The Men’s Leave Home the year prior, METZ’s self-titled debut came like an unexpected whirlwind of post-hardcore fury, all flying fists and rollicking guitars. Every year, it seems, there is a record that comes out of nowhere and completely floors me with sheer intensity, and this year, METZ is it.
Roughly five years in the making, the Toronto trio has been perfecting this record, testing the songs in tiny clubs, learning the art of taking their punishing sound from the stage to studio. It’s not every day that a record carries so much weight; typically the live sound that was so immense in the clubs doesn’t fare as well as this when laying it onto wax. On the contrary, METZ makes the most of its studio treatment. Songs like “Headache” and “Nausea” invoke exactly what their names imply in the most glorious of ways; Alex Edkins’ guitars sound like pterodactyls shrieking as they try to burst through the speakers while the rhythm section of Chris Slorach and Hayden Menzies sound like heavyweight fighters duking it out for volume. The winner: us.
Following his breakout year in which his two mini-albums, We Stay Together and Passed Me By earned him heaps of critical praise, Andy Stott returns with his third full-length album, Luxury Problems, a record that for the most part rejects the ideals present on the two that garnered that praise. As a result, Stott establishes the fact that he can excel at not only the deep and throbbing ambient techno of those two records, but also the minimalistic ambient approach on Luxury Problems.
The entire record is bolstered by the looped vocal samples of his childhood piano teacher, Alison Skidmore. Stott chops up her vocals in a way that they are surely hardly recognizable from the tracks she sent him, leaving the record to feel distant yet physically present and oppressive, even. Tracks like “Numb” and “Lost And Found” sound as if a techno opera is taking place deep down a subway tunnel, unattainable yet wholly tangible.
Bend Beyond is easily the most focused and pop-oriented record in a long line of focused and pop-oriented indie folk records by the Brooklyn band, Woods. The record sees the band stretch its sound out further into both the realms of experimentation and pop songcraft, giving Bend Beyond the feel of simultaneously their most adventurous and their most easily accessible record to date. Simply put, there is something for everyone here. “Cali In A Cup” is a pop purist’s dream, while the extended sections of “Bend Beyond” and “Find Them Empty” call to mind psychedelic rock’s finest acid-fueled journeys.
The band’s songwriting team of Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere display a keenness for late sixties melodic revelry and the type of sentimentality and introspection found on today’s brightest records within the music world, giving Bend Beyond the unmistakable feeling of being utterly timeless. With Earl’s delicate falsetto as their vessel, the outwardly-reaching melodies of songs like “It Ain’t Easy” have the feeling of being completely fragile and personal while seeking universality on their listeners.
Based on no research whatsoever, I can confidently say that Alt-J is the greatest band named after a keyboard shortcut of all time (before you rapidly scroll to find the comments box, Cut Copy doesn’t count.) Pigeonholing them into the (albeit massive) world of keyboard shortcut-influenced bands would be a disservice, however. The British quartet has had a massive year, bringing home the coveted Mercury Prize for their dynamic debut record, booked some of the biggest festivals worldwide, and began a high-profile headlining tour.
An Awesome Wave is a record that seems like it wouldn’t work on paper. A combination of all the band’s stylistic influences from folk and pop to hip-hop and electronic, the record would fall apart at the seams if performed with anything less than the confidence and gusto with which Alt-J tackle the task. Not only do the various elements sit side by side as they guide a track in a certain direction, they interact and play off of one another throughout. On tracks like “Breezeblocks” and “Fitzpleasure” are held together by Joe Newman’s unique and shape-shifting vocal deliveries, giving listeners the feeling that Alt-J can do just about anything, and well. They can.
The songs of Purity Ring occupy a terrifying space. The Alberta duo, comprised of Megan James and Corin Roddick, create lush, hip-hop infused soundscapes that are filled to the brim with nightmarish imagery. The way that James softly sings songs like “Lofticries” and “Belispeak,” with such a hushed innocence, tales of disembodiment and Tim Burton-level fantasy, makes the line between lullaby and horror practically indefinable.
Purity Ring was borne, somewhat incidentally, out of the ashes of Gobble Gobble, now the solo project of Cecil Frena known as Born Gold. Roddick had a beat that needed vocals, a new avenue for the band which saw Roddick’s heavy R&B and hip-hop influences heavily in the forefront for the first time. James laid down a vocal to the track, which eventually became Purity Ring’s first single, “Ungirthed.” Though their debut record, Shrines, occupies much of the same sonic space as that first single, there is a feeling that each song has its own identity; the record plays out like a beast growing and thriving, much like those held within the songs’ lyrics.
Sweet Heart Sweet Light
[Double Six / Fat Possum]
It just doesn’t make sense that Jason Pierce could still be making music this good. You would think that somewhere along the span of his thirty years playing music, whether with Spacemen 3 or Spiritualized, that he would slow down, falter, run out of ideas, something. Thankfully, and also mind-bogglingly, he has not. Sweet Heart Sweet Light picks up right where Songs In A And E left off, which picked up right where Amazing Grace left off, and so on. If there was ever a symbol of stoic consistency, going against the grain of whatever anyone else is doing, it’s J. Spaceman, and Spiritualized bears that torch.
Spiritualized build upon repetitious phrases and tightly-wound instrumentation to lift the listener off the ground in sort of a meditative state; it’s easy to get lost among the multiple voices swirling around one another saying “Sweet heart, sweet light” on “Hey Jane,” the album’s title becoming a mantra for the types of travels through space that fans of the band should be familiar with at this point. Whereas a lot of artists find themselves getting stuck in the same places, Spiritualized excel in the space they have created, finding tiny avenues out to expand their sound farther into the cosmos while keeping it completely under control and something that long-time listeners can immediately relate to.
Attack On Memory
The band that we are introduced to with Cloud Nothings’ third studio album opener, “No Future/No Past” is a completely different beast than anything the band has presented itself as being up until this point. Dark, propulsive and jaw-droppingly good, the band has grown leaps and bounds from the rather cut-and-dry power pop of their first two records. “Wasted Days” is a bona fide punk rock epic, nearing the nine-minute mark of consistently battering force.
The Cleveland, Ohio quartet has established themselves as a different breed of band with Attack On Memory; with the help of producer Steve Albini, the electric energy of the band’s live show was now caught on record, manifested in the group’s songwriting, taking the focus from the hook-oriented sound of their past and instead placing it on impact and intensity.
Continuing to surprise us, The Men have followed up their post-hardcore masterpiece with a bit more an accessible affair in Open Your Heart. The band shows once again why they are one of the most important acts in rock music today, shifting their style from the brutal and unsatisfied sound of Leave Home to that of a band more comfortable in their current identity. The impressive thing about The Men is that they wear both hats so well.
The Men effortlessly make their way from the surf-punk leanings of “Open Your Heart” to a bit of country swing of “Country Song” and “Oscillation.” Somehow, despite the wildly differing styles present on Open Your Heart it’s The Men’s most cohesive record to date. The toned-back nature allows for more the explosive outbursts that dominated Leave Home to have a greater impact on the listener.
Former Fleet Foxes drummer Joshua Tillman has obviously had enough of playing it straight. For his entire career, whether as a solo folk troubadour or the background player with Fleet Foxes, he has kept his music within a rational bubble of comfort, but something has seemingly snapped inside of him and he has emerged from the experience with a new persona, Father John Misty, and a new outlook on what he wants to accomplish with his music. We were all slightly freaked out at first, but once we heard Fear Fun, we thanked whatever hallucinatory-experience-gone-awry has produced this change of heart within Tillman.
The record sees Tillman step outside of himself and become completely engulfed in his persona as Father John Misty, allowing fiction and humor to interject themselves into his country-rock exploits. “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” sees Misty explore a sexual encounter in a graveyard being a much more proper way to celebrate a life than a funeral, while “Writing A Novel” hilariously breaks down a psychedelic experience—perhaps the very one that turned Tillman into Father John Misty.
Swing Lo Magellan
There is hardly anything more confusing on this earth than a Dirty Projectors show. Each time I have seen them in concert I cannot for the life of me wrap my head around how David Longstreth’s slinky guitar lines, seemingly played with a virtuosic carefree randomness, could meld with Amber Coffman’s and his vocals and syncopated rhythms to create something completely mind-blowing. Alas, it happens. Dirty Projectors have basically everything against them in achieving accessibility, but with Swing Lo Magellan, they once again prove they can pretty much do whatever they want and we will absolutely love it.
It is perhaps Dirty Projectors’ lack of adherence to anything we regard as “normal” or “familiar” in their music that makes them such a standout act in today’s musical landscape. Longstreth’s songs wrap themselves around a hard-to-pin down rhythm before exploding into a thousand pieces of light, each separate instrument or voice seemingly tumbling away from one another in a way that is uniquely cohesive and unified on tracks “Gun Has No Trigger” and “Impregnable Question.” I don’t want it to seem that Swing Lo Magellan is impossible to find an entry point for the casual listener, because that’s not true. The record has some of the band’s most redeemable pop qualities while also retaining their artful sense that diehards have come to expect from them.
[Third Man / XL / Columbia]
Look up the word “journeyman” in the dictionary, and you won’t see a picture of Jack White. You’ll see words, whatever purpose those serve, especially in the context where a simple picture of the Detroit musical icon would do. If there ever was a musical journeyman, Jack White is it, dipping his toes in just about every musical genre or venture he could possibly find.
With his debut solo record, Blunderbuss, White’s Third Man label is in full swing, pioneering the second wave of the vinyl revolution, every musical project he touches has garnered pretty much widespread critical acclaim. Perhaps his living in Nashville for so long has brought the country side out of White, but Blunderbuss is an entirely different record for the guy formerly melding blues and garage with a punk-rocker’s tenacity, while still sounding like a Jack White record. He should be comfortable, but the record is still the unmistakable sound of a man never pleased to rest on his laurels. He continues to push himself to new heights, pull his music in all different directions, and the southern gospel Sunday feel of songs like “Sixteen Saltines” and “Love Interruption” prove that again and again.
Official music video for Jack White’s “Sixteen Saltines”
George Lewis, Jr. had already established himself as a harbinger of new-wave sensibilities moving forward in the twenty-first century with Twin Shadow’s 2010 debut record, Forget. There is a glistening sheen to his music, covering up the dark and seemingly anti-love introspections present in his lyrics, giving lovers something to dance to and those left on the fringes of the dance floor something to grin to themselves about. Confess is the natural continuation of that, expanding further on Lewis’ thoughts on love and his newfound need to separate infatuation with fame and something more profound.
Not only is Confess thematically grander in scale, it is a sonic expansion on the lo-fi sound of Twin Shadow’s first record. From start to finish, each song is single-worthy, giving the record a cohesive feel where every song is essential listening. Lewis seems to have honed in on his sense of delivering memorable melodies; from the brooding “Golden Light” to lost eighties prom gem closer “Be Mine Tonight,” melodies will stick with the listener far after the album has run its course.
Official music video for Twin Shadow’s “Five Seconds”
In the world of southern hip-hop, there has never really been a figure like Killer Mike or a record like R.A.P. Music. Part politically-driven spokesman for the cheated, underrepresented majority and part twangy down-south bringer of the boom, Killer Mike has a lot to get off his chest and only the course of a record to do so. The way that Mike delivers lines as potently rich in angst and frustration unites the different realms of the hip-hop community; listeners can feed off of his raw energy or delve into what he’s saying for both a speaker-banging and enlightening experience. Thanks to the El-P handling production duties on the entirety of the record, R.A.P. Music plays like an angry, claustrophobic manifesto for how hip-hop should be, in their eyes.
As a southerner, I am biologically inclined to eat up Killer Mike’s Atlanta drawl, the huge, bombastic beats and ferocity with which he delivers his political tirades. I am helpless. What speaks to R.A.P. Music’s true merits is the universality of it; though I am helpless, others are not, and the record resonates with the entire hip-hop community. Mike has taken on a role of figurehead for those who don’t have the voice and position he does to speak out against the government and that’s something that has really caught hold of listeners the nation over. “Reagan” is the most daring exploitation of governmental wrong-doing in what hip-hop knowledge I hold in my brain, and the fearlessness with which Mike says, “I leave you with four words: I’m glad Reagan dead,” is powerfully brutal.
Official music video for Killer Mike’s “Big Beast (feat. T.I., Bun-B, Trouble & El-P)”
Stephen Ellison started his career out in the margins, so it’s only natural for each album to progressively see the Los Angeles producer known as Flying Lotus stretch further out, trying to push the limits as much as the music world will allow. Until The Quiet Comes, his fourth full-length record, is Flying Lotus’ grandest artistic statement to date, and also the farthest he has ever reached into the cosmos for something to grasp to. The record is unlike anything being done at this time, which is to see, it’s completely Flying Lotus.
Until The Quiet Comes is a perfect example of bringing astral ideals to concrete ideals such as music, or perhaps the other way around. The record plays like a space suite, geared to maximize a psychedelic experience or serve as the soundtrack to a literal journey in space. Interestingly, the record feels more organic than anything Flying Lotus has put out before, connecting it to something physical in a way that Ellison’s computer-based projects have never done. Tracks like “See Thru 2 U” and “DMT Song” incorporate a supporting cast of Ellison’s closest collaborators to give the album the feel of human influence in his typically otherworldly music.
Official music video for Flying Lotus’ “Tiny Tortures”
Kill For Love
[Italians Do It Better]
Apparently there is a Italian province in the middle of Portland, Oregon; this is the only explanation for how this quartet could be producing Italo-disco-tinged music at such a high level, effortlessly blending electro and shoegaze with those European ideals to create something wholly their own. That, or someone is messing with their Wikipedia entry constantly, and they really are Italian.
The record is the group’s most ambitious yet, the production core of Adam Miller and Johnny Jewel expanding on the sound that gained them notoriety with Night Drive, having come a long way from their noisy punk-leanings of old. At an expansive seventy-seven minutes, Kill For Love explores the use of space within their music and the effects that pacing has in the context of a record. It never suffers for its long length like many albums of its kind, however. Instead of feeling redundant, Chromatics only open the listener up to more subtleties along the way, Ruth Radelet’s woozy vocals floating atop like a ghostly guide through the European dance underworld.
Official music video for Chromatics’ “Lady”
With Japandroids’ second full-length record, the Toronto rockers once again prove that balls-to-the-wall rock and roll music can make the world go ‘round. It’s sort of refreshing in the maximalist digital age for a record like Celebration Rock to exist, and really it’s something that music world needs to stay balanced and remember that, as a society, before we became beat-obsessed and dance music completed its Clear Channel takeover, we used to love the shit out of some guitars.
Brian King and David Prowse never forgot that, evidently. Using just drums, walls of guitars and shout-along choruses, Japandroids have penned one of the most moving and, as the name suggests, celebratory records of the year. Songs like “Continuous Thunder” and “The House That Heaven Built” get the blood boiling and the fists pumping, proving he band’s songwriting prowess as well as their keen ability to deliver in intensity. A rockist’s dream album, Celebration Rock came at just the right time to remind us that rock and roll doesn’t need saving, it’s us that needs saving.
Official music video for Japandroids’ “The House That Heaven Built”
Grizzly Bear is a band that, since even before forming as the quartet they are today in the mid-2000s, consistently redefines who they are. Starting primarily as Ed Droste’s solo project, the sound has gone from impressionistic bedroom folk to chorus-level vocal presence atop blown-out instrumentation. Shields, the band’s latest full-length on Warp Records, is somewhere in between. The vocal flourishes and constant harmonic expressions of Veckatimest have given way to a more singular reading of the band, allowing the introspective lyrics to retain a bit of their impact as a solitary voice.
It’s not to say the band has completely rejected the concepts that a lot of people know them for; Shields is still lush and immense, but it’s more thematically so than anything. While feeling at times like the work of the individual songwriter, whether it be Droste or Daniel Rossen, the record still feels wholly like Grizzly Bear, as much as anything the ever-shifting sound of the band has ever felt. Songs like “Yet Again” and “Sleeping Ute” show the many phases of the band all wrapped up into one, as unified a front as the band has ever displayed.
Official music video for Grizzly Bear’s “Yet Again”
With the twenty-first century psychedelic revival that we’re seeing, bands like MGMT, The Black Angels, and Deerhunter are constantly battling for the spot at the resurgence’s apex. Each band embodies something different about the essence of what made the original psychedelic explosion so exciting and, in turn, creates the same excitement within listeners today. With Tame Impala’s Lonerism, psychedelic rock has perhaps its strongest statement to date, a key record that has the Australian outfit led by Kevin Parker poised to stand at its forefront.
For many, Lonerism is a continuation of the unique and intricate sound Tame Impala cultivated with their debut record, Innerspeaker, but their follow-up sees the band breaking even more new ground. Parker handles all of the instrumentation and writing of the record, giving it a much more unified vision; the songs play out like a kaleidoscope barreling its way into Parker’s mind, turning his ideas around in colorful patterns and bright bursts. Songs range from the cerebrally locomotive (“Elephant”) to the downright gorgeous (“Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”), all played through a sixties time-warp filter that give the record the right to claim both the past and present as its home.
Official music video for Tame Impala’s “Elephant”
Leave it to Kendrick Lamar, the emcee being lauded as the next Tupac, next Biggie, next everyone, to use his major label debut to do exactly what no one expected of him. good kid, m.A.A.d city is a record that somehow fits within the scheme of the industry while completely shunning any ideals typically prevalent in it, representing his Black Hippy mates in a way that accomplishes the goals the label had set out for the record without ever adhering to their demands. Bolstered by a star-studded cast of guest emcees and producers as well as Kendrick’s stunning lyrical prowess and storytelling ability plays out in a way that the listener connects to every character they meet along the way, from the troubles of finding their way as youths in the inner city to finding retribution in family and faith.
The record is a sprawling account of teenaged Kendrick, centered around the effects that living in Compton had on himself and those around him, a concept that allows him to use good kid, m.A.A.d city to explore all types of hip-hop, from the street-glorifying “Backseat Freestyle,” a song where really only Kendrick can make lines like “I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower so I can fuck the world for seventy-two hours” sound thought-provoking in their context, to the highly meditative and powerful “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst.” In this regard, the record is a massive accomplishment not only for him, but for hip-hop as a whole. Rarely before has a record carried so much conceptual weight while strutting in the face of the mainstream.
Official music video for Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)”
For our album of the year, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange unsurprisingly outshone all of the other tremendous music released. For various reasons, whether the record just provided the perfect summer soundtrack, it seemed to define the year and the direction of today’s music, or simply because of the distinctly undeniable artistry behind it, Channel Orange resonated with our entire staff.
There is something incredibly human about the record, the way Ocean delivers his lyrics with various levels of seriousness and aloofness shows the complex nature of his troubled stories and is something that is easily relatable amongst many types of listeners, which is part of what gives Channel Orange its vast appeal. Coming as a solar flare in the dark ages of R&B music, the record shows that production on these records can be subtle and crisp all at once, illuminating the passion that has for so long been the saving grace of the genre. If there’s one thing that Ocean has, it’s passion, and he has it in droves throughout this record.
Aside from the fact that Ocean has breathed new life into a genre desperate for some humanity, Channel Orange is simply a fantastic record on its own. Each listen bares a new set of favorites, whether it’s the slow-burning “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” and “Bad Religion” or the upbeat affairs such as “Lost” and “Sweet Life,” there is something there for everyone. “Pyramids” takes on the impossible task of serving as the centerpiece to a high-profile release as a nearly ten-minute funk epic, gloriously conquering it. Everything about Channel Orange screams triumph, in fact.
Official music video for Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You”
Below you can check out our Spotify playlist for the top fifty albums of 2012.