10. John Talabot, ƒIN
New Order decamped to Ibiza in the late ’80s to record the groundbreaking Technique and gulp lots of drugs and not exactly in that order. They tilled that ground, and apparently the Iberian dance scene is once again fertile, as evidenced by John Talabot’s moody, home-grown techno.
9. Purity Ring, Shrines
Though Shrines was recorded in the cloud, the tight interplay between Megan James’s clever vocal melodies and Corin Roddick’s intricate production couldn’t feel more intimate. Maybe it’s a little bit dream-pop, maybe it’s a little EDM. At the end it’s just its own thing, with a stripped-down sensibility, a wicked sense of humor, and a fearless approach to trying new things.
8. The xx, Coexist
The xx reinvented their trademark introspective sound for their sophomore effort. Not that it’s any less introspective, but now it carries a lot more punch. Perhaps it was because they were finally old enough to get into clubs, but the evidence of something new afoot was clear leading up to Coexist, with member Jamie xx’s inventive 2011 single “Far Nearer” and his BBC Essential Mix from September—itself required listening and included below.
7. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange
Of all the praise that’s been heaped on Frank Ocean this year—and it’s all deserved—to me he’s at his most impressive when he turns the simplest of melodies into an epic burner, as on “Crack Rock,” which could have been a throwaway. Yet he finds a way to make something you can’t stop humming out of nothing at all. He does the same thing with “Thinkin Bout You,” which was one of the best songs of the year. It really works.
6. Nicolas Jaar, Don’t Break My Love
This downbeat, off-kilter collection of jazzy experimental songs from Nicolas Jaar’s Clown & Sunset label arrives as a playable prism—and an apparently very breakable one, at that. So let’s be clear: This is arty. Both the music and its vehicle are fragile, and the title plays off that. In addition, I sprained my ankle listening to this album while running in September. So it’s a very effective concept.
5. Animal Collective, Centipede Hz
After the roaring success of the band’s 2009 single “My Girls,” Animal Collective was a band to be watched, one whose follow-up album could never live up to the hype. Centipede Hz sweeps those expectations aside, taking the music in an entirely new, more experimental direction. In some ways it’s a throwback to the band’s avant-garde roots, but deep in every track is a pop sensibility that pulls it all together.
They certainly didn’t disappoint in disappointing all those fans—or they didn’t seem to, anyway. Perhaps my experience is isolated. I have no way to verify. I promise the album lives up to the hype; maybe it did.
4. Grimes, Visions
Claire Boucher’s unique blend of vocals and electronics is difficult to get through, because each week a different song becomes a new favorite. Then you just listen to that song on repeat, never managing to make your way to the next track. Even now, at the end of the year, picking “Circumambient” as the track to hear is a complete guess—it’s just my favorite right now. Ask me next week, and maybe I’ll have moved on. Or maybe I’ll still be here, listening to “Circumambient.”
3. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city
Alternating between the beautiful and horrifying in his memories of growing up in Compton, Lamar’s tight, brooding raps are interspersed with dialogue and voiceover that build stories. Good kid, m.A.A.d city is a concept album with an actual narrative—that’s an achievement in any genre. At the close, he emerges from a past of drugs, murder, and loss with the radio-friendly finale, “Compton”—featuring, of course, Dr. Dre—to deliver his message to the mainstream. Meta meta meta.
2. Ryan Hemsworth, Kitsch Genius EP and Last Words EP
Despite not even releasing a long-player this year—this pair of EPs will have to suffice—Ryan Hemsworth turned in an extensive body of work during 2012. Whether an original track or a masterful remix (that often outdid the song it was remixing), every couple of weeks in 2012 it seemed like he was showing up with something new that stopped us in our tracks every time.
Album of the Year: Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream
There is a sonic threshold few artists cross in any year. Where the music and its hold on the listener intertwine and transport you, taking over your senses. It’s nothing to do with technical savvy or lyrical genius or born-and-bred talent—it’s everything to do with soul. Either they’ve got it or they don’t. And if they don’t, they should listen to more soul music. Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream is the nectar for what ails you. Expansive, unexpected song-craft anchors his glorious vocal melodies. To call him the greatest vocalist of the moment is hyperbole. Unless that moment happens to be deep into any of the tracks on the album of the year.