Photo by Tom Hines
10. Grizzly Bear: Shields [Warp]
With Shields, Grizzly Bear got outside of themselves and left behind the domestic comforts of Veckatimest-- where Droste sang, "Hope I’m ready, able to make my own good home" on "Ready, Able", and "Take all evening, I’ll just be cleaning" on "Foreground". But on Shields: "Plod ever onward across some tundra," Daniel Rossen sings on the rallying, clanky piano swing of "A Simple Answer". "The sky keeps staring at me/ Frozen in my tracks," Droste chants among the ambient warp of "Gun-Shy"; "Past the roaring shore. I have nothing left to hear," goes the tumultuous "Half Gate".
The arrangements here are thunderous and billowing, sparse and punishing, rarely polite. The effect is to set the record’s emotional landscape in a desolate, barren space, one where its central characters are either negotiating the physical distance between them and another far away, wondering whether they can cope, or the emotional disconnect with a face staring directly into theirs. That hopeless tundra you reach when you’re at the end of your tether, when you’ve argued into oblivion with no recollection of the original misgiving, and the only definite things that remain are the contrasts between elements: sky and earth, sun and wind. Shields is a magnificent record, where the lights are blazing, but nobody’s feeling very much at home. --Laura Snapes
Photo by Samantha Marble
09. Death Grips: The Money Store [Epic]
If there’s one moment that defines The Money Store, it’s the glitch 55 seconds into "System Blower": tennis pro Venus Williams screaming as she swings, looped and crusted with so much noise she’s barely recognizable as human. Like every sound on the album, it’s cramped and almost transcendently panicked. It doesn’t blend into its surroundings because there’s nowhere safe to blend. Instead, it breaks off abruptly, back into silence.
The Money Store is brutal, beautiful music. Most of the time it sounds like someone dropping a whole apartment’s worth of kitchenware down a staircase while screaming the word "fuck" while a block party outside suffers through routine air-raid sirens. In interviews, drummer Zach Hill and Stefan Burnett referenced body artists like Chris Burden, who in the early 1970s inched across a pile of glass on his bare stomach and voluntarily took a bullet in the shoulder-- an exploration of the threshold where physical extremity becomes spiritual epiphany. Listen to the album for two minutes and it sounds chaotic; listen to it for 20 and it becomes meditative, like the moment on a train ride when you stop seeing the landscape as a thousand discrete things flying by and start seeing it as a uniform blur. The 13 songs here are more than jock jams, they’re devotionals.
"We want our music to make people feel empowered, and that's where I could say it's like rap or punk," drummer Zach Hill told Pitchfork in April. But rap and hardcore fostered a sense of community; The Money Store doesn’t. Death Grips don't reach out and tell you that you belong. Whenever they speak, they make it clear that the psychic underworld of their music isn’t shared, but guardedly personal. For them, coincidence is more important than logic, and record-release dates have more to do with phases of the moon than the fluctuations of the market. This isn’t just punk as radical individuality, but mysticism.
If you’re not seduced by their conceptual framework, that’s fine. You can shout along with Burnett’s collage of abstract threats. You can geek out to Hill, whose grand trick as a drummer is to make his kit sound as though it’s physically running away from him. Or revel in Death Grips' future-primitive grooves, scavenged from YouTube, captured with iPhones and pushed to the point of ecstatic malfunction. For all the abstract talk, the music remains devastatingly concrete. --Mike Powell
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Photo by Vinna Laudico
08. Chromatics: Kill For Love [Italians Do It Better]
Dusk is the time to listen to Kill for Love. From the pensive, reverb-drowsy introductory rework of Neil Young’s "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" to the softly drifting "The River" and subsequent 14-minute coda that closes things, the album’s submerged in a particular nocturnal mood, made for low lights and lonely nights. "I just want you to come back, give us all something to do," sings vocalist Ruth Radelet in standout "Lady" amid a backdrop that yearns away, sounding utterly sapped. Singer Adam Miller gets more explicit still on the next track: "spend my life inside this room, disappear some more each day," his voice processed with vocoders and echoes until it sounds half-vanished itself. At times, it’s hard to imagine listening to Kill for Love with anyone else in the room, let alone an audience; the introspective fog is that thick, that absorbing.
Kill for Love isn’t the first time Chromatics worked this aesthetic; last album Night Drive explored the same themes, though not as cohesively, and it’s practically the trademark of leader Johnny Jewel’s label Italians Do It Better. But they got a massive, and massively lucky, signal boost with the success of last year’s Drive, a soundtrack disguised as a movie, that pretends to be about its love story and action pyrotechnics but is really about what plays while Ryan Gosling drives alone into the dark. Chromatics contributed a track, and Jewel composed an entire would-be soundtrack. It’s serendipitous, in a way; the film’s almost like a big-screen adaptation of the group, faithful enough to inspire those moved to venture deeper. --Katherine St. Asaph
Photo by Liz Flyntz
07. Beach House: Bloom [Sub Pop]
You can't blame Volkswagen for trying. Around the same time Beach House released their fourth album, the German carmaker used music suspiciously resembling the reverie-revering Baltimore duo's in a U.K. commercial. If nothing else, the resulting media flurry, in which the band's manager told The Wall Street Journal the commercial came after Beach House rejected multiple licensing offers, undercuts criticisms like that of Flying Lotus, who had tweeted that Bloom sounds just like countless other records. Since 2006's self-titled debut, Beach House have been patiently refining-- and expanding-- a singular, easily recognizable sound.
"Patiently" might be the operative word in explaining how Bloom became Beach House's first album to crack the top 10 on the Billboard 200 album chart while so many near-contemporaries have faded from view. The differences here are significant enough to reward longtime fans without alienating listeners who might be just tuning in after hearing older material sampled by G-Side or the Weeknd. Victoria Legrand's lethal contralto and gothic organ playing, Alex Scally's side-winding guitar lines and simple drum programming-- both remain, joined by live drums, and burnished again by past producer Chris Coady. And yet, where 2010's Teen Dream added Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac and other styles to the post-Mazzy Star haze, Bloom billows out even further. Plea for remembrance "The Hours" alone spans from Abbey Road-like layered vocals to stadium-indie guitar chug. Ghost-ship waltz "On the Sea" brandishes viola.
Legrand's lyrics are often overlooked, but their impressionistic, fill-in-the-blanks way of expressing deep feeling is too fundamentally characteristic of the group's appeal to discount. On Bloom, her subject is often the ineffable itself-- "Help me to name it," she repeats, referring to "momentary bliss," on intoxicating opener "Myth"-- along with the one-of-a-kind, the ephemeral, and the sublime. Whether conveyed through visual details or cryptic fragments, these words enhance the mood the meticulously constructed music creates, a mood Beach House have been too smart to spoil by spelling out entirely. --Marc Hogan
Beach House: "Myth" (via SoundCloud)
Photo by Erez Avissar
06. Grimes: Visions [4AD / Arbutus]
Cynics and traditionalists have it tough in today’s populist free-for-all. This year has lobbed a spectacular softball at them, though: a musically untrained young Canadian woman named Claire Boucher who creates bizarro synth-pop with user-friendly Apple software and claims to draw inspiration from anything and everything. She also sings and coos her (largely indecipherable) lyrics in a precious falsetto and dresses in a stylistically scatterbrained way that makes fashion editors drool. The Internet loves her. She’s often mentioned in the same breath as made-up terminology like seapunk and Tumblr aesthetic (though she doesn’t even maintain a personal Tumblr). She has the audacity to both produce and sing. She collaborates with white-girl rappers and makes jewelry that looks like female genitalia. She’s the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Get in your bunkers.
Meanwhile Visions, the hypnotic album Boucher released in January, sits in the corner snickering quietly to itself as one of the most optimistic pieces of music we’ve heard all year. It’s a triumphant meeting of human and computer, an album that blows the traditions of both pop and experimental music to pieces and glues them back together in gorgeous, entrancing ways. And for all of the dubious aesthetic trends that have been pinned on Grimes in some way or another, the album remains a singular, inimitable piece of art. No one else is making music that sounds like this, hyper-feminine experimental pop music that revels in a futuristic fantasy in a way that could inspire you to either dance all night or sit and meditate. Forget all of those things Grimes signifies for our future-- if you hopped in a time machine and played Visions for the music lovers of two, three generations ago, they’d probably be itching to get where we are right now. --Carrie Battan
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Photo by Samantha Marble
05. Swans: The Seer [Young God]
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the phrases "swan song" and "Swans song" signify the exact same thing: that the end is nigh. But on his second album since resuscitating his long-dormant band of pig-fuck pioneers in 2010, Michael Gira orchestrates nothing less than a funeral procession for the end of humanity.
The Seer is ugly, grueling, and punishing in a way that only Swans can be: the seismic shovel-loads of industrial-strength sludge and merciless percussive clatter heaped upon the 23-minute closer "The Apostate" and the 32-minute title track centerpiece rain down on you like the Biblical plague. But in the propulsive, heavy-Meddle bass throb of "Avatar" and blacksmith-molded psychedelia of "A Piece of the Sky," The Seer also evinces a magisterial grandeur and hypnotic allure, elevating Swans’ seedy, sewer-scraping depravity into an extravagant, cinematically scaled noise that effectively transforms the band into Bad Seeds You Black Emperor.
There are more pleasurable things you could do in the amount of time it takes to listen to the entirety of The Seer: enjoy a coastal drive from Los Angeles to San Diego; watch five DVRed episodes of "Modern Family" in a row; go for a massage and shvitz. But making it through to the other side is very much its own reward. By the time you’re subjected to the public-stoning skronk of the closing "93 Ave. B Blues," you’ll feel physically and emotionally exhausted-- but that sense of debasement is inversely related to just how relieved you’ll feel that you’re still breathing. --Stuart Berman
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Photo by Matthew Saville
04. Tame Impala: Lonerism [Modular]
Kevin Parker's first album as Tame Impala, Innerspeaker, featured a song called "Solitude Is Bliss"; the astounding follow-up, Lonerism, is an album-length treatise on the power of one. In a recent interview, Parker described the record as dealing with "The idea of being someone who doesn't feel part of the rest of the world", and that sense of confused alienation is what makes Lonerism head music in the most literal sense: when you're trapped in your own thoughts, where else is there to go?
So the endlessly repeated question "Why Won't They Talk to Me?" isn't so much answered as it is shrugged off: "I don't really care about it, anyway." Plenty of light pokes through the clouds and the hooks are everywhere-- "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards", for one, is an instant classic. But when that female voice pops in during the first third of the damaged epic "Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control", advising that "Nothing has to mean anything", you wonder: is this a conversation between two people, or is Kevin Parker simply talking to himself? This sense of complete immersion is the album's greatest gift. Lonerism allows you to lose yourself in the act of Parker losing himself inside the huge, dense, thicket of sound he's created. There's no question that Lonerism ransacks psychedelic pop's past. But it's not about where your influences come from but the places you go when you carry them with you. --Larry Fitzmaurice
Tame Impala: "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" (via SoundCloud)
Photo by Will Deitz
03. Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel ... [Epic]
Fiona Apple once said, "If you just made something, you should fucking feel like you've got nothing left in you." On The Idler Wheel, the singer practices what she's preached and then some, pushing her body into newfound territory that's emotionally exposed and raw. There's fist-clenching, face-contorting, chest-pounding soul; there's undiluted sexual frankness; there's empathy even for animalistic lovers-done-wrong. Apple's fourth album favors unhinged intensity and nuanced expression over refined pop appeal-- a stylistic shift you could have called with 2005's Extraordinary Machine, where she sang, "Please, please, please/ No more melodies/ They lack impact, they're petty." In some sense, Apple had to pare down these Songs of Herself to their rhythmic, acoustic essentials to maximize her own voice. "I know that I have intention," Fiona said in 2005, "but I don't know how to articulate it with instruments [beyond piano]." Not so any longer. Seven years later, this unexpected masterpiece is Apple's most profound statement.
A consistently self-reliant pop-sphere outsider, Fiona Apple is easy to obsess over because she embodies an entire set of principles for living. Her personal journey has always been inherent to her autobiographical records, like volumes in a series of books, chronicling her quest to learn strength against personal struggle, a superficial media, or the misguided music industry she knew was corrupting her. Idler Wheel's songs also present deep-running psychological demons. On "Valentine", she moves casually from dark propositions of cutting herself or crying over dinner to playfully loving rhymes. On "Jonathan" she calculates and calibrates but begs "don't make me explain." You can't just pull out material this brutal. It boils and bursts from somewhere deep.
And yet optimism is this record's primary theme, with a repeat lesson that we can always cull something positive from pain. "I don't cry when I'm sad anymore," she sings on centerpiece, "Left Alone", its feminist man-playing sing-song scat building to a climactic vocal performance, her voice like spinning helicopter blades capable of carrying you skyward or cutting you in half. Fearless in its embrace of solitude, this song distills what makes Apple such a powerful mediator of human emotion with the most quintessential Fiona lyric ever: "How can I ask anyone to love me? When all I do is beg to be left alone." Elsewhere, her verses ebb and flow with lines that are dense or direct. She'll still liken herself to "a neon zebra shaking rain off of her stripes" but she'll also say things so strikingly straight they feel like left-turns. "All that loving must have been lacking something/ If I got bored trying to figure you out," she sings on the disdainful "Periphery", honing her characteristic rage. "You let me down/ I don't even like you anymore at all."
Fiona has spent 16 years as a kind of patron saint of self-empowered poetry for those who've needed her most but on Idler Wheel she sounds more liberated from the cages of her past than ever. Now there's no question she sounds free. --Jenn Pelly
Photo by Kirstie Shanley
02. Frank Ocean: Channel Orange [Def Jam]
The eye of any storm is a place of almost zen-like calm. That’s the funny thing about the whirlwind of hype, headlines, and meaningful words that have encircled Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange since its July release: the record at the center of this tornado is impossibly serene, an epic that constantly shrugs off its own grandeur. It begins not with a swell of strings but the faint and distant sound of a Playstation booting up, as if to joke, in Ocean’s signature deadpan, "This is what an orchestra warming up sounded like in 2012." Its interstitials have the fuzzy, clipped, out-of-context quality of cell phone videos, and most of its songs begin and end with the abruptness of the YouTube tabs you closed before the end of the video because you got the point. There are moments when Ocean overshares in sighing falsetto, and then backtracks like he’s deleting a slightly-too-earnest tweet. (A beat after a confession of love: "No, I don't like you, I just thought you were cool enough to kick it.") All of which is to say that Channel Orange moves with the rhythm of right now, and will always sound like the way noise and music flowed in and out of our consciousnesses in 2012. But also: will always. Because it flows against the current of disposability, hyper-nowness, musical planned obsolescence. It has these gilded edges that you can already tell won’t tarnish. "Sweet Life," "Thinkin’ ‘Bout You," "Bad Religion," "Super Rich Kids," "Pyramids"-- they feel already not just like timeless classics, but like generation-affirming proof that timeless classics might still be a thing.
Channel Orange often seems funny, though you’re not entirely sure you could explain why; half of the record comes off like an inside joke Ocean's got with himself, a punchline whose explanation not even the most staggering Rap Genius could wrench out of the privacy of his grey matter. Still, zoom out a couple clicks and you can tell who the joke is on, which is a lot of people. The joke is on Def Jam, occasionally. The joke is on people clinging to the skeleton of an ever-changing industry like the rails on an upturned Titanic; there’s Ocean paddling serenely in the mild blue below, like, "The water’s fine!" The joke is on people who seem rich but aren’t; the people who pay for expensive news but don’t even watch it. And maybe most of all, the joke is on people who listened with their metal detectors out and noses to the ground, combing Channel Orange for clues and unexpected pronouns like gold watches at the beach. Did they finally realize, as soon as the sun was setting, that they wasted a really gorgeous day at the beach?
Frank Ocean found a way to selectively screenshot the stimulus that passes in front of us every day; out of the banalities of modern life-- Text Edit docs and Playstations and taxicab confessions, he made moments, characters, poetry. And like any good, timeless poem, Channel Orange feels both of its moment and above it. It speaks our language of distance and irony and ennui so that we will trust it when it whispers to us, in this kneecap-melting falsetto, that we’re not wrong to believe in something beyond. That was the disorienting genius of Frank Ocean in 2012, singing "Real Love" until the scare quotes fell off. In the Year of YOLO, mischievously, he was thinkin' 'bout forever. -- Lindsay Zoladz
Photo by Jeff Forney
01. Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d city [Interscope/Top Dawg]
Kendrick Lamar is the first to admit he comes on too strong. His 2011 album Section.80 was presented as a manifesto; its visionary follow-up, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, is subtitled "A Short Film By Kendrick Lamar." It's variously been described in even loftier terms: West Coast hip-hop incarnate, a morality play guided equally by Jeezy and Jesus, the most important major-label rap album in nearly a decade. It's all of those things, and after selling more than 500,000 copies in its first two months, it's safe to call it something more simple: a hit record.
Don't underestimate the importance of this last fact. Section.80 was an auspicious and promising album but it was hardly flawless. To improve, Lamar needed investments of talent, trust, and money. Without a broader belief in his vision, Kendrick doesn't repurpose his thrilling lyrical technique to vividly embody the characters who occupy these self-contained and heartfelt parables. Nor does he unify them through linear and non-linear narrative devices that turn good kid into an open-ended soundworld as vast as Compton itself but as detailed and intimate as a journal entry. And you don't assemble this roster of production and guest rappers without expecting a return on said investment: Just Blaze, Pharrell, Dr. Dre, and Hit-Boy create beats that serve as living environments, lush and warm when expressing joy in the experience of music and young lust, sinister and hard when penetrated by the gang violence and abuse of South Central L.A. that remains a constant in Kendrick's life.
The merger of multifaceted storytelling and exquisite music results in a tremendous payoff on "The Art of Peer Pressure", the 12-minute stunner "Sing About Me, I'm Dying Of Thirst", and "Real," ambitious numbers that likened good kid to similar art-rap opuses like Aquemini, Black On Both Sides, and, yes, Illmatic. But the overwhelming response assures its legend is still being crafted outside the controlled environment of critical opinion. Everything that made you second-guess its "classic" attribution is the result of earned ubiquity-- overuse of "ya bish," Lady Gaga demanding "her" version of "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" be heard, dozens of Soundcloud rappers butchering the "Backseat Freestyle" beat, frat parties misconstruing the entire point of "Swimming Pools (Drank)", the debates about whether "Compton" was even necessary as a closer. Those are the cost of doing business when you ascend to this level of The Slim Shady LP, Doggystyle, or Ready to Die, records that are eternal for both their artistic achievements and their constant presence in cars, radio playlists, parties, and discussions among people who may never set eyes upon a year-end list.
Towards the end of good kid, Kendrick's mother pleads with him to "tell your story to these black and brown kids of Compton...give back with your words of encouragement." The scope of this album goes far beyond Compton, but her words serve as a fitting coda for a song where Kendrick meditates on what makes him matter. good kid gives of itself. So while the achievement is Kendrick's, the music belongs to everyone: Whether it's other rappers, industry heads, or listeners hoping for redemption after being let down by the former two, everyone can leave good kid, m.A.A.d. city dreaming of something bigger. --Ian Cohen
Next: See our writers' individual Top 10s.