Considering it’s already been December 21 in several continents for a few hours — and we’re all still here — let’s continue with our list, as planned. In less than a fortnight 2012 will be little more than a memory for most. As the persistent optimists of the world compile their half-baked lists of New Year’s resolutions for another year on the third rock from the sun, many treasure this transitional period of time as one for reflecting on the most seminal moments that shaped the last 12 months as a whole.
For EARMILK every year is defined by the music it brings. Subsisting on a healthy diet of music, music and more music, we find no better way to reflect on the past year than by celebrating, dissecting, critiquing and scrutinizing some of the standout releases gifted to us throughout 2012.
We cap off this year with our Top 50 Albums of 2012 having tirelessly scoured three main genres – hip-hop, electronic and indie – for what we felt best represents our eclectic tastes with regards to production, lyricism (where applicable) and plain likeability. These are not necessarily the most popular albums, nor the most successful albums, but the albums that we found to be great representatives of their genre and iconic in their own right.
We hope this year’s list will spark lively discussions and debates about the music that supplied the soundtrack to yet another eventful year.
Many a weightless anthem floated out of the balloon-bunch that was Beach House‘s fourth LP. For all its dreamy translucence, Bloom finally hit home on our pleasure centers this year, pinching Teen Dream‘s pop sensibilities ever tighter into an unbreakable chain of meticulously sculpted songs. While Teen Dream might have seen the Baltimore duo beginning to clear the haze of their first two records, Bloom is all payoff. Hook after hook surges on the backs of Alex Scally’s deceptively simple instrumentation and Victoria Legrand’s full, rounded vocals. The parts might be familiar, but they’ve finally been combined into a whole that’s satisfying enough to count as Beach House’s best work to date. — Sasha
Bear In Heaven
#24. I Love You, It’s Cool
Bear In Heaven’s first album Red Bloom of the Moon was edgy, fuzzy, synthetic, and more unrelatable than anything else. The band spent some time, refined their work, and took a tremendous step forward with their second LP Beast Rest for Mouth. Yet, as with its predecessor, Beast Rest for Mouth was a bit too flushed for the greater audience. Their most recent work, I Love You, It’s Cool, resolved that issue, and is not only the best produced of the three, but it is better overall in almost every way. The band patched the holes from their previous works, upgraded their studio IQ, and took two years to release what is in our minds one of the best indie rock records of the past few years. I Love You, It’s Cool is Bear In Heaven at their finest— an album no one should miss. — Ronnie
#23. Until The Quiet Comes
2012 was an important year for Steven Ellison. If you’ve followed his career at all, you’ll have heard him say several times that he’s wanted to pursue hip-hop, as far as he hasn’t been able to do it through his experimental-electronic masterpieces. And this year, as we saw with Captain Murphy, he emerged from behind the soundboards with all the hilarious bodaciousness we thought he would arrive with. And his album — the one that speaks more to his skill as a sorcerer of sonic landscapes or a conductor of universe-altering talent (Erykah Badu, Thom Yorke, Thundercat and Niki Randa in his arsenal) — yes, that one was quite a feat. He relinquished Until The Quiet Comes which became much more than the sum of its parts on behalf of its visuals, which among the most spectacular of the year, thanks to maestros like Khalil Joseph and Cyriak Harris. We felt the spiritual pull of this seminal album and are readily positioning ourselves for the next. — Liz
Releasing their third studio album in four years but backed by over eight years of production and live performances (and we do mean “performance”; if you haven’t seen them live, Crystal Castles, fronted by the lovely Alice Glass, are energetic and captivating beyond belief) have continued to dominate as one of the leading experimental electronic groups in the world. With this release (another self-titled outing), we experience Alice’s vocals more than we have previously, as they play a major role throughout the album over what feels like a refined Ethan Kath and the signature Crystal Castles sound. Quickly listening back on the previous two albums it might be easy to pass this off as just another release from a band that’s got their sound patented, but it takes something special, especially for artists like this, to keep fans interested, and in the attempt to make new ones, which the Toronto group has made a lot of this year. — Kev G.
#21. Control System
Every time I go to write about this album I’m faced with the same unsurmountable questions. Does Ab-Soul really believe in different planes of consciousness or did he merely elect to brand the Sparks Notes version of Terence McKenna’s Food of the Gods? Would Digi+Phonics and MixedByAli’s beats stand up on anything but digital stereo? Is it okay to smoke this much dope? Is TDE just another “trend”? Then there are the intricate details, such as: Should the first couple bars of the second verse on “Soulo Ho3” come so close to layering? Shit. I guess any work that provokes this kind of thought does its job. — Peter
Message To Bears
#20. Folding Leaves
Message to Bears is the creation of Jerome Alexander, a solo, multi-instrumentalist who combines the ethereal beauty of his electronic soundscapes and haunting acoustic guitar scales. Folding Leaves sticks to the themes of acoustic, ambient sounds, but now Alexander has added precise vocal arrangements that are so vivid and angelic. The harmonized vocals add this brand new dimension to his music that really soothes your soul when listening. Ambient music has always been a very wide open genre, but artists like Message to Bears are putting a greater emphasis on stringed instruments now more then ever. Alexander continues to show his true talent when it comes to compositions and because of this, he sits high up on our year end list. — Eric
#19. The Devil Within
After being signed by EMI Records to pen song lyrics for a variety of different pop artists, Andrea Wasse and Jason Smith (otherwise known as Space) became a pretty tight-knit team. Their bonding eventually would lead to the formation of Digital Daggers, a trip-hop styled alternative band whose sound is dark and ominous. Their debut LP is The Devil Within and shows veteran song-crafting with a very eerie punchline. The mixture of influences on this album are pretty clear, as the duo creates this electronic landscape similar to what Massive Attack might have been going for but they also generate some alternative textures similar to something like Nine Inch Nails in their heyday. Digital Daggers really have something here and the combination just flat out works. — Eric
If YouTube hadn’t been invented I’m not sure I’d believe in Roc Marciano. That is, that he even exists. Any five-fingered primate could tweet what he tweets – yet at the same time, no five-fingered primate could write “i can’t wait to kill you” with such certitude. But then, I’ve never heard of a rapper composing a five-part organ soundtrack lead-in to a previously released record only to call it “part two.” If Marciano writes poems, he produces bangers. If he produces operas, he spits jive. And if you have any idea what I’m talking about, you’re not likely to decode Reloaded either. — Peter
#17. Pacific Standard Time
By dragging disco into the light, Poolside — the combined output of L.A. popcrafters Filip Nikolic and Jeffrey Paradise — concocted a summer that lasted well into the greyer months. On Pacific Standard Time, nu-disco basslines pulse against early EDM chirps and stoic, offhand vocals. But for a record that was assembled casually, with one foot in the California waters, Poolside’s debut maintains an attention to texture that’s hard to come by even in records put together far away from the ocean. On breezy cuts like “Harvest Moon” and “Why You Wanna,” we can almost imagine that the arrangements emerged autonomously, without thought, like waves striping the sand. More than just leisure, Pacific Standard Time encapsulates the sensation of finally forgetting yourself in the rays of a setting summer sun. — Sasha
#16. Black Radio
Hearing Glasper addressing his bandmates as “Brother Rob” or “Brother Chris”, you realize scarcely anything escapes Black Radio without being reverential. It’s difficult to speak in hyperbole or extol the piece without worrying that everything falls short as underwhelming descriptors. Glasper is a roiling mad genius in every crevice of this work. You have the majestic vocals of Erykah Badu curled within meditative Chris Dave drumkit orchestrations on “Afro Blue”. You have the unshakable melody of “Black Radio”, with Mos Def keeping an entrancing pulse. You’d be hard pressed to escape the depth of Lupe Fiasco’s discourse on “Always Shine”. We know how short our attention span for music is these days — close to nothing. But this isn’t Internet music. Whatever a musical tapestry is, it manages to be beyond that. Whatever a profoundly well-made, real, modern day album looks like, this must be it. — Liz
#15. Habits & Contradictions
With three solid releases from several members of LA-based supergroup Black Hippy, it wouldn’t be a stretch to crown 2012 as the “year of Black Hippy.” Arguably the four-man collective’s most menacing wordsmith, ScHoolBoy Q made quite the splash at the top of the year with his sophomore indie release, Habits & Contradictions. Boasting a sound in a similar vein to fellow Black Hippy cohort Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80, Habits & Contradictions finds the footballer-turned-rapper parlaying a unique brand of introspective drug-influenced cloud-rap (“My Hatin’ Joint” and “Oxy Music”) mixed with the occasional hard-hitting radio-friendly cut (“Hands On the Wheel). Brimming with a balanced mix of catchy hook-driven tracks and vivid drug and violence imagery, Habits & Contradictions offers a candid glimpse into the mind of ScHoolboy Q while positioning Q out of the ever present shadow of Black Hippy’s de facto leader Kendrick Lamar. — Adrian
#14. Kaleidoscope Dream
Miguel has had quite a buzz surrounding his career ever since he came onto the scene around 2004. Some were quick to write him off, labeling him as “commercial” when he continued to dabble in underground scenes. It had a lot to do with a lack of love for R&B. But when you consider the rise of The Weeknd, Frank Ocean and Jessie Ware, also had to do with underestimating how greatly Miguel would prove naysayers wrong. On Kaleidoscope Dream, we realize Miguel was aware of all this — the album a testament to his reinvention. Using amazing vocal talents, he presents his standard R&B vibes but goes much further by mixing in hip-hop, funk, and rock, along with elements from acoustic jam sessions. Raw vocal talent aside, what this album brings to the table is what all other R&B albums don’t: it’s appealing to the masses while giving the underground scene much to love — something that didn’t happen with All I Want Is You. Whether you are a fan of amazing songwriting, uninhibited love ballads, or experimental beats, Kaleidoscope Dream has it. — Montrey
#13. Young & Old
Making a living off of those 60’s surf pop gems, Tennis has really generated a cult following. Young & Old explores some new sounds but still sticks to the wistfulness that made their debut record so incredibly catchy and flat out pretty. Moore’s vocals continue to be the stand out but the instruments that flow around the lyrics have improved with more beating drums and surfer guitar patterns. I love feeling like I am in 1960’s Hollywood when I hear their music and the beach driven sound is just so warm and inviting that I can’t help but keep my stereo blasting. Pop bliss right here! — Eric
#12. Salton Sea
Tomas Barfod knows how to make tracks that can make even the most stoic listener feel something – while still retaining a danceable beat. Salton Sea, released May 22 on Friends of Friends, is a strong representative of the flavor of 2012, music that can feel as purely human as anything you’ve ever encountered despite, or maybe because of, its electronic, beat-driven nature (after all, it’s boundless) and accessible structure. Just because you’re making club-friendly music doesn’t mean you need to switch off your heart, and Barfod’s album includes tracks ranging from ambient cinematic tracks like “Aether” to poppy, vocalist-focused tracks like “November Skies” with Nina Kinert. Make sure you check out the remix EPs too – Jerome LOL and Sepalcure‘s takes on “November Skies” are just stellar. — Alyce
Grizzly Bear is an indie rock band that surely needs no introduction as they have become indie gods over the course of their four-album career. Although Grizzly Bear has kept their sound relatively the same, the band has definitely ventured into somewhat more experimental waters. The music on this record has its folk-inspired lyrics, of course, but the experimental guitar rocking really takes this album on a ride. It’s difficult to really compare this record to Veckatimest, as the styles are very different, but in the end, Shields is a much more genuine record that uses the band’s instrumental strengths much more. — Eric
Submotion Orchestra is one of those rare bands that only come along maybe once in a lifetime. It’s not so much their unique style but as a sense of just how they combine so many different elements of music into one, cohesive project. On the band’s sophomore record, they have once again created something very soulful and transcendental by fusing together genres such as jazz, dubstep, and R&B. Ruby Wood continues to be the shining star here for her elegant vocal delivery, but the band just continues to blossom here as well, making this record a very strong candidate for album of the year. — Eric
#9. Strange Love
Released October 22 on Montreal label Infinite Machine, Bucharest-born Liar‘s Strange Love might have been one of the most under-hyped electronic albums of the year. It can be difficult for relatively new labels to make a name for themselves, particularly in the dance/electronic community, where certain well-established labels (particularly European ones) get all the love, but for those in the know, Infinite Machine is a few steps past most of us into the future with their dark, complex, genre-melding artist curation. Strange Love is an infinitely sultry, textured album that tells the story of a taboo romance, from the peaks of ecstasy to revenge fantasies to mourning, through Liar’s unique blend of garage, house, dubstep, and techno. — Alyce
#8. An Awesome Wave
Every now and again, you are bound to find an artist or band who is able to lay out something that sounds brand new and genuinely original. ∆, otherwise known as Alt-J, are one of those few bands who are able to create something so unique that it’s like a brand new breath of ultra fresh air. The band’s sound is very experimental, using lots of pop inspiration but combining elements of folk, electronic, and a very eclectic taste of complex alternative buzz. The band does an amazing job of combining these complicated instrumental structures with some more traditional guitar sections and very subtle song lyrics and in the end, this combination has brought this record directly towards the top of our year end list. — Eric
From start to finish, R.I.P. is a voyage from dreamy, beatless concepts to more ubiquitous and familiar minimalist structure. The album is a testament to the talent of Actress, and builds on his star-studded portfolio of thoughtful and unique production. Actress once again casts himself against the status quo of electronic music, transcending the abyss of forward-thinking sound and traditional production. R.I.P. pushes a unique and unparalleled style of sound that seems almost nostalgic at a level of music production that has seemingly never existed in electronic music. Given his dying approach and progressive vision, listeners are cast into a world of unconscious rhythmic movement while drifting in and out of the astral music journey created within R.I.P. — Matt Rauch
While its predecessor Innerspeaker was largely a no-frills rock record, Tame Impala’s latest album Lonerism steps out from the confines typically expected of a psychedelic band and blends into a world of pop-rock with demanding ease. The project, written and recorded by Kevin Parker, is seemingly demonstrative of a switch in artistic vision, hiding the fact that this record is simply its predecessor with better variety and more depth. It explores the same isolating concepts that made us fall in love with Tame Impala in the first place, but does so with an exuberance that the first record lacked. More bubbly, less fuzzy, and just as perfectly psychedelic as ever before, Tame Impala’s Lonerism is the type of progressive product fans yearn for but rarely receive. — Ronnie
#5. R.A.P. Music
Killer Mike‘s R.A.P Music is the kind of album that can get a person riled up. That’s obvious. It’s adroitly profound but not esoteric. It’s scathing and political, but it’s not mean — just honest. It’s impactful beyond El-P‘s impressive production work, in both audio delivery and lyrical content. But if you didn’t like it, we have to wonder: “Why?” So you didn’t smile at the start of “Big Beast”? Did you by the second verse of “Go”? Do you not care for hip-hop that details vital social commentary? Maybe you’re overburdened by the YOLO era and can’t be bothered by important hip-hop? Do you just hate saucy, big ass beats? In the words of Mike, “This is jazz, this is funk / This is soul, this is gospel / This is sanctified sick, this is player Pentecostal / This is church BBQ / Amen pulpit / What my people need and the opposite of bullshit.” If that’s the case: maybe you just prefer bullshit? — Liz
Every time I play John Talabot‘s fin, released February 14 on Permanent Vacation, I expect to be sick of it by now (given the ephemerality of my tastes, and I guess most of our tastes these days, I’m never optimistic about anything’s power to stick), and I have yet to be proven right. My favorites from this LP still give my heart a little incomparable jolt. Talabot’s music taps into something that’s difficult to describe but dives far deeper than surface level, something tender and vulnerable and optimistic. Tracks that I can blast in my room and take it all in, but that are equally enjoyable on the dancefloor – and I still flip out and feel overly empathetic towards any DJ who plays them. And I don’t feel like myself if a Talabot track doesn’t make it into every set I play. Perfect, emotional balearic house – if you don’t dig it, you might not have a heart. — Alyce
#3. Channel Orange
It’s not that we didn’t want to write a Top Album of 2012 blurb on Frank Ocean or his baby juggernaut, Channel Orange. It’s that we all know there is nothing left to say. All opinions on the subject have been leveled. All praises and critiques uttered. In fact, because the album is so inherently simple, any and all diatribes were rendered useless from the start. Yet here we are. It must be nice to be Frank right now. To put out there not only every bright idea you have ever conjured up but every awkward angle you’ve ever fallen victim to – and with no assurance that anyone would like any of it – leave it exposed for public consumption, only to find everyone in the stands, lauding it with pom poms in the air. — Liz
Sigur Ros has long been one of the greatest bands in the world since their debut record in 1997. Since then, the band has released some of the most exquisite albums that the atmospheric post-rock genre has ever heard. Valtari is a continuation of this beautiful journey through melody and the band has once again rediscovered how to send your mind on a beautiful and complex adventure. Through atmospheric background, epic instrumentals, and some expertly crafted melodies, Valtari is a shoe-in for one of 2012’s best albums. — Eric
#1. good kid, m.A.A.d. city
I have listened to good kid m.A.A.d. city at least 40 times and I am still drowning in the narrative complexity of Kendrick’s magnum opus. It’s the kind of work that graduate English students fantasize about parsing in a contemporary lit class. At its core, the album is a heartrending account of how individuals must cope with all the contradictions of reality while resisting the urge to simply accept futility: what is a person to do when every support system is also likely a destructive caustic force in that individual’s life? good kid m.A.A.d. city is a complex album because it has to be; because there is already too much to say by the time you’ve heard Kendrick inhale his first breath.
The scope of the good kid m.A.A.d. city is daunting. Despite the compact geographic confines of the album –most of the album seems to occur on Rosecrans, a central street in Compton –we get disoriented in concentric narratives that alternate among autobiographical, hypothetical, central, and interstitial. There are disjointed dialogues both between and within specific tracks as the story of his night out in Compton develops. Kendrick occasionally alternates his timber and character by the verse in way that feels both schizophrenic –driven insane by circumstance –but also sympathetically omniscient. In essence, Kendrick methodically outlines chaos by distilling the inconsistencies and absurdities of living as an honest individual in a marginalized community.
Consequently, contradictions saturate every stratum of the album as deliberately frustrating structural devices: K dot refuses to associate with either the Crips or Bloods but ultimately becomes the target of both. On “Sing about me” he emphatically says “I’ll never fade away; I’ll never fade away” just has as the master volume becomes inaudible. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” immediately precedes “Sing About Me/ Dying of Thirst” These are the inescapable paradoxes that characterize his imprisoned reality and he makes them as “really real” as possible.
At the heart of the album are case studies of what happens as individuals unwittingly internalize the contradictions of their environment. And what Kendrick discovers is that to embody these contradictions is necessarily tragic. This is why it is no surprise that we hear a handful of elegiac tracks that eulogize both hypothetical and real characters throughout the album, as each becomes a casualty of their environment –Dave, Keisha’s sister, and Kendrick’s uncle among them. In memorializing them however, Kendrick ultimately mourns not for these individuals, but for everyone. For Compton. For the gangs. For the police. For his friends, For his soul.
You might feel lost by the end of his story. It’s a lot like watching Pulp Fiction for the first time –with decontextualized vignettes that all elucidate a central story, you can’t really understand the story until you’ve seen every scene, probably multiple times. But that’s the point. You’re supposed to feel lost, because that is the nearest you will ever be to empathizing sufficiently with Kendrick and each of his incarnations by the album’s conclusion.
At the end of “Dying of Thirst” Kendrick quotes his wizened, tired mom: “What if today was the rapture, and you completely tarnished / the truth will set you free so to me be completely honest.” That hypothetical has never been more pressing than right now. December has been a dark month and the need for honesty has never felt more urgent or tangible. good kid m.A.A.d. city is truly heartbreaking, and that’s because its a rarely optimistic story that is much less fictional than you want to believe. — Matt