The Best Music of 2012

Action Bronson

Blue Chips mixtape

Though the portly redheaded—well, red-bearded—rapper Action Bronson ended the year collaborating with big-name producer the Alchemist on November’s Rare Chandeliers, it was his March mixtape with lesser-known beatmaker Party Supplies that made 2012 the year of Bronsolini. Bronson’s style will forever draw Ghostface Killah comparisons for his heightened, breathless delivery, but Blue Chips gave people something else to talk about: how Bronson and Party Supplies culled the tape’s wide variety of samples from YouTube, and how that approach somehow resulted in one of the year’s most soulful and consistent hip-hop releases. A former chef as given to foodie allusions as he is to sketchy attitudes toward women, Bronson isn’t one of the most clever rappers in the game, but he’s so much fun to listen to—and Blue Chips so light on its feet in keeping up with him—that it doesn’t make much difference. (Nick Huinker)

Oren Ambarchi

Audience of One (Touch)

In a year that saw the hyper-prolific Australian musician Oren Ambarchi release 10 solo or collaborative recordings, Audience of One stands out as both the most accessible and the most wide-ranging. Its four tracks consist of an ambient love song featuring Warm Ghost vocalist Paul Duncan, a half-hour long percussion-and-strings-heavy improv, a gentle drone and vocal piece, and an Ace Frehley cover. Unlike some of Ambarchi’s other work, nothing on the album comes off as particularly difficult or esoteric, and in fact the entire thing is lovely. (Eric Dawson)


All We Love We Leave Behind (Epitaph)

Calling the veteran Massachusetts band Converge hardcore seems inadequate at this point—like Black Flag and Bad Brains before them, Converge has long since outgrown the rigid formal boundaries of the style. The band’s magnificent, goosebumps-raising eighth album is soul music for metal fans, heavy music for middle age, a profound and emotionally wrecking blast of barely contained chaos that captures all the thrill and anxiety of being alive. Guitarist Kurt Ballou, already one of the most expressive players in extreme music, proves once again that he’s equally valuable as a producer; Jacob Bannon’s wounded howl is shrouded inside Ballou’s instantly recognizable barbed-wire riffs, and ferocious, career-defining performances from bassist Nate Newton and drummer Ben Kellor are pushed to the forefront. A landmark album that’s every bit the match of 2001’s Jane Doe. (Matthew Everett)

Death Grips

The Money Store (Epic)

The free-download album with the big dick on the cover tended to eclipse its more official 2012 predecessor, but the former couldn’t equal the latter’s combo of raw-throated Philip-K.-Dick–meets-street-hustler rhymes and agitated future-hop production. (Lee Gardner)


Koi No Yokan (Reprise)

Deftones have always been cursed for poor timing, arriving as they did during the peak of nu-metal, one of pop music’s most despicable sub-genres. But all Deftones share with Korn is a ZIP code, a fact that’s never been more apparent than on the sprawling Koi No Yokan, which pushes Chino Moreno’s tortured, sensual moans over expansive, engulfing melodrama, teetering on a delicate line between shoegaze, hip-hop, and prog. If this is nu-metal, then I guess nu-metal no longer sucks. (Ryan Reed)

The Feldman Soloists

Morton Feldman: Crippled Symmetry: at June in Buffalo (Frozen Reeds)

Recordings of Morton Feldman’s music tend toward the pristine, but not this newly issued 2000 live performance of an extended chamber work by the longtime collaborators it was written for. Rarely has Feldman’s music sounded so alive, so vital, or so transparent in its workings and strange beauty. (L.G.)


World Music (Rocket)

Sometimes everything comes together just right, as it does on the debut album from Swedish musical collective Goat. The mysterious band’s WTF? approach encompasses krautrock, folk, psychedelia, Afrobeat, garage rock, and funk and soul—think of Popol Vuh and an all-star lineup from the Cambodian Rocks compilation performing James Brown covers—with sufficient intelligence and joy to erase any questions of cultural tourism. The best party of the year, assembled with such accomplishment that it makes you wonder why nobody ever thought of it before. (M.E.)

Gunn-Truscinski Duo

Ocean Parkway (Three-Lobed)

It was a great year for post-Fahey guitar recordings (see also: Daniel Bachman, Chris Forysth, etc.), but no others equaled Ocean Parkway’s omnivorous mix of roots synthesis, rock romp, and psych expansiveness. (L.G.)

Here We Go Magic

A Different Ship (Secretly Canadian)

A Different Ship, Here We Go Magic’s mesmerizing sophomore album, is the very definition of a grower. Luke Temple’s songs unfold slowly—very slowly—with his high, haunting tenor floating above interweaving rhythms and miles and miles of guitar drone. Meanwhile, producer-engineer Nigel Godrich (famous for his status as Radiohead’s unofficial sixth member) bathes every available space in eerie, alien warmth. But what may seem like dreamy disconnect rewards patience: Pound for pound, this is some of the year’s most purely beautiful pop music, if you can sit still long enough to notice it. (R.R.)

Killer Mike

R.A.P. Music (Williams Street Records)

In a recent Wax Poetics interview, Michael Render talks about growing up listening to “belligerent gangster rap and avant-garde and what is considered positive hip-hop.” That’s a pretty good description for what can be found on his album R.A.P. Music. The production, by El-P, is rooted in old-school beats but awash in avant-electronic touches that are forward-thinking but not fashionable, while Mike raps (generally) about social and political ills. Nowhere is this formula more effective than in “Reagan,” his damning indictment of Reagan, the CIA, police, drug dealers, prison labor, Clinton, Obama, bling rappers, himself, and many others for poisoning our communities and failing generations of children. (E.D.)

Kendrick Lamar

good kid, m.A.A.d city (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)

Surely 25-year-old Kendrick Lamar didn’t craft this exquisitely layered, wise, funny, and heartbreaking album to lure back those hip-hop dilettantes who gave up on gangsta thrills, but this should do it. GKMC is a novelistic account of urban teenage life and perils that astonishes with its depth and wit as well as its bangin’ beats and Lamar’s Lil Wayne impression. (L.G.)


Honor Found in Decay (Neurot)

Neurosis is a law unto itself at this point. Lumping the unhurried passions and rustic atmospherics of its 10th album in with metal makes little sense. But putting something this intense, this sweeping and crushingly powerful in spots in with plain old rock music doesn’t either. The best Neurosis album of the year, then, and another career peak. (L.G.)


Sorrow and Extinction (Profound Lore)

In a year full of epic doom (Evoken, Loss, Bereft) and doomy classic/retro metal (Witch Mountain, Castle), Arkansas quartet Pallbearer still managed to stand out. The band’s overwhelming debut absolutely crushes—five long, slow, supremely heavy songs marked by exquisitely crafted and elegant riffs, Brett Campbell’s majestically forlorn vocals, and a shaded emotional palette that allows a few scattered rays of triumph to shine through the foreboding din. (M.E.)

Smashing Pumpkins

Oceania (EMI)

So what if Billy Corgan is an egomaniacal tool? When he’s on his A-game—like on this year’s stunning Oceania—he remains one of rock music’s most transportive, emotionally gut-wrenching songwriters. An album-within-an-album as part of the ongoing song series Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, Oceania is home to Corgan’s finest material since the very late ’90s, cranking up the psychedelic guitar solos, punching up the production values, and honing in on the snarled melodic resonance at the heart of classics like Siamese Dream. (R.R.)

The Swans

The Seer (Young God)

Michael Gira clinches Swans’ comeback—and the band’s legacy—with this sweeping opus that’s part psychedelic stomp and part trance-like rite and, as wide as it ranges, never sounds like anyone but them. The most overwhelming recording of the year, in all senses. (L.G.)

John Talabot

Fin (Permanent Vacation)

The undercurrent of melancholy running through Spanish producer John Talabot’s first full-length album makes the buoyant, pumping crescendos that much more uplifting. Classic headphone house music, suited as much for private emotional reveries as for dance-floor bliss-outs, but best listened to loud to fully appreciate its richly detailed and immaculate textures. (M.E.)

Tame Impala

Lonerism (Modular Recordings)

I somehow missed out on this Australian outfit’s more inward-looking debut, but that made their breakthrough follow-up that much more of a sweet shock to the system. Lonerism is an endlessly convincing psychedelic gumball, reveling in 21st-century studio savvy but trading musically on the spirit of the ’60s and ’70s. An obvious and unusually justified reference point is late Beatles, both superficially (the vocal tics of frontman and potential future Lennon impersonator Kevin Parker) and on deeper levels, from the tangible creative vibe to thoughtful arrangements brought to life by Jay Watson’s drumming. These sensibilities all shine despite—and even because of—the band’s wild-eyed sonics, which draw from across the psychedelic and even prog-rock spectrum, with fuzzed-out guitars, candy-sweet synths alternating between “flutter” and “soar,” and deceptively loose song structures that make sense only once they’ve crested. It’s lush, impeccable, and somehow one of 2012’s most accessible albums. (N.H.)

Sharon Van Etten

Tramp (Jagjaguwar)

In truth, nothing distinguishes singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten’s breakthrough from any other contempo indie siren product except that every little touch is perfect—the astringent but not stingy production from the National’s Aaron Dessner; the songs’ heartache and rue, universal enough to apply broadly and specific enough to stick; and, most of all, Van Etten’s sinuous melodies and carrier-wave voice. Perfect. (L.G.)

Scott Walker

Bish Bosch (4AD)

No question that Scott Walker demands a lot from the listener, and you might have to meet him more than halfway when engaging with Bish Bosch. Opera, art song, an epic poem with a score by hell’s own house band—all come to mind during Bish Bosch’s 75 minutes, but there’s really no precedent for the kind of music Walker has made here, except his own on previous albums. Not as pretentious or stuffy as you might think, there’s plenty of humor and flights of musical majesty interwoven with the frequently violent narratives and predominately dark tone. It’s certainly not for everybody, and I doubt many of us would want to live in a world where this kind of music was. (E.D.)

Yung Life

Yung Life (self-released)

On Yung Life’s self-titled LP, the Knoxville band finally nails the sound they’ve been building to: an immaculate evocation of the synth-y, shimmering 1980s pop that leaped off early John Hughes soundtracks. That the young band’s members were all born well into the grunge era makes simple mimicry an easy charge to level, especially considering their precision in executing every fill and flourish you’d expect from the narrow wilderness between New Order and the Police. (Though the band produced the record themselves, local audio god Seva’s mastering job would seem to deserve nearly as much credit.) But if nostalgia is really as central to this aesthetic as it seems to be, the only conceivable substitute is the sort of hooks that live with you forever after one listen, and Yung Life’s 10 tracks (particularly standouts like “Isn’t This,” “90’s Dreams,” and “Breaker”) are dripping with them. On repeat in my car all summer, this sounded like the local record to beat for 2012. Closing out the year I can’t think of anything, local or otherwise, I ended up liking more. (N.H.)

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