12. How To Dress Well Total Loss
On his second full-length, Tom Krell stripped back the layers of grey noise and reverb that shrouded his debut Love Remains and uncovered a crystalline voice as pure and soulful as Frank Ocean or Miguel, making the similarly stoned- (stunned-?) sounding Weeknd come across like a poor relation.
11. Andy Stott Luxury Problems
Having already given electronic music a fresh coat of black paint with his two 2011 LPs (We Stay Together and Passed Me By), Mancunian producer Stott added light and shade by incorporating vocals and a wider variety of dancefloor-indebted rhythms into his industrial dub techno. Those vocals came courtesy of Alison Skidmore, who taught the teenage Stott piano; one would imagine she’s very proud.
10. The Walkmen Heaven
For LP number five the Walkmen shifted down a gear and cruised smoothly into a new phase of their career. Gone were the windswept guitars and whirlwind drums of punked-up early singles like “The Rat”, replaced with lyrics about family and hints of country and folk in the breezy arrangements. Those comparisons to Dylan and the Band finally made explicit, Heaven was as close to a classic rock album as we got in 2012.
09. Grizzly Bear Shields
Although they have long been heralded as “the new Radiohead”, on their fourth album Grizzly Bear often bore a more obvious resemblance to Thom Yorke’s one time contemporary Jeff Buckley, particularly on opener “Sleeping Ute”. Add a touch of Van Morrison-style cosmic jazz-folk and Bowie-esque coke-rock to their ornate (and occasionally bombastic) chamber pop for the quartet’s strongest offering yet.
08. John Talabot Fin
Spanish producer Talabot followed up a string of hyped singles with a debut collection tailor-made, for the most part, for that awkward moment when you’re too wasted to keep dancing but still too high to hit the chill-out lounge. Some accused Talabot of dumbing down his sound for the mainstream, but there’s nothing stupid about this record; finely detailed and packed with subtle twists, Fin was this year’s most immersive clubland transmission.
07. Grimes Visions
Claire Boucher loves making music as much as she loves listening to it; anyone who saw her bouncing around behind her keyboard at her live shows or read her Twitter – where she often posts into the early hours about songs she’s just heard (or written) – knows it, and that genuine boundless enthusiasm is obvious all over her brilliant breakthrough album Visions. Weaving influences as diverse as Aphex Twin, K-pop (pre-“Gangnam Style”), Cocteau Twins and Mariah Carey into lo-fi electro-pop symphonies, Boucher had crossover potential in spades; that a song like “Oblivion” didn’t chart the world over is unfathomable.
06. Japandroids Celebration Rock
Vancouver duo Brian King and David Prowse can lay claim to the title of 2012’s most improved band. Whilst their debut album, Post Nothing, was a scrappy affair that sounded like a pair of friends yet to master their instruments, its follow-up was an accomplished affair, full of fist-pumping blue-collar rock in the Springsteen/ Replacements mould and heavy on legitimate red-blooded anthems. Kudos, too, for refusing to give in to “second album syndrome” – whining about the pressures and problems caused by constant touring -preferring instead to celebrate the upsides (parties, girls etc) of being rock stars.
05. El-P Cancer 4 Cure
M.C. and producer Jaime Meline enjoyed one hell of a renaissance in 2012: first he took his influential ’90s crew Company Flow on a hugely successful reunion tour, then in the space of a fortnight dropped two of the best hip hop albums of the last decade, Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music (which he produced in its entirety) and his first solo long-player in half a decade, Cancer For Cure. Harking back to the bleak post-apocalyptic soundscapes he created for Co. Flow and Cannibal Ox all those years ago, and yet still sounding as futuristic as they did then, C4C brought the brutality back to rap; even in a year when Swans had a new record out, El Producto hit harder than just about anything else.
04. Dirty Projectors Swing Lo Magellan
If Dave Longstreth and his merry band’s reputation as arty intellectuals preceded them, album number five Swing Lo Magellan may have surprised a few people; for whilst it had its share of tricky time signatures and multi-layered arrangements, they were used to convey the group’s most direct and affecting set of songs to date. Centred around themes of discovery (personal and historical), love and longing and the celebration of life itself, Magellan shook off the “conceptual” shackles of previous efforts and allowed Dirty Projectors to do what they do best: fly free, and fly high.
03. Chromatics Kill For Love
Anyone wondering what was keeping Johnny Jewel so quiet these last few years got their answer in March: hot on the heels of Symmetry’s Drive-inspired Themes For An Imaginary Film (released last Xmas), the long-awaited follow-up to 2007’s Night Drive offered an hour and a half of new music from his Chromatics project, who then went on to release enough bonus material – alternative versions, new songs – to constitute at least another full album. Ironically, Kill For Love‘s sheer size was – for me, at least – its only fault: keener self-editing (especially in regard to the ambient interludes) would likely have resulted in the 10/10 perfect pop album of the year. As it is, too much of a good thing really wasn’t all that bad.
02. The Men Open Your Heart
For ten of the last twelve months, I was certain this album would be the one occupying the top spot on this list; the Brooklyn band’s third album in as many years was a flab-free set that encompassed pretty much every variant of post-Beatles guitar-based music from the last five decades – rock, pop, country, punk, metal and psychedelia – and made it sound as contemporary and as vital as anything we heard in 2012. With no big background story or USP to fall back on, these guys just plugged in and rocked out, and they did it a whole lot better than anyone else.
01. Kendrick Lamar Good Kid M.A.A.D. City
Unlike many, I didn’t fall in love with Kendrick Lamar’s major label debut right away: on first listen I was impressed, sure, but also a little confused and seriously overwhelmed. It’s no wonder this sprawling, massively ambitious record was subtitled A Short Film By Kendrick Lamar; over beats crafted by Pharrell, Hit-Boi, Just Blaze and Drake’s producer Noah “40” Shebib, the 25 year-old recounted (true?) tales of his formative years in Compton with the excessive, visionary flair of a movie maker like Scorsese or Tarantino. Repeat exposure, however, brought all the outstanding individual elements – Lamar’s brilliant wordplay, his voice and mannerisms, his persona (a unique blend of wannabe gangsta, gentleman playa and amiable nerd), the alternately elegant and banging production – together to stunning effect. Quite possibly the most out-there commercial hit rap album (it went gold in the States within two months) ever, GKMC actually feels like an important cultural event; more importantly, it sounds like a work of genius.