Our countdown concludes with the ten albums ROTI deems most worthy for the year 2012.
Thanks again to all those who have helped assemble this list with their collective wisdom and keen ears.
Our Spotify playlist has been completed with the addition of sample tracks from these great records. Enjoy!
Enjoy this final installment with our best Christmas wishes!
10. Passion Pit, Gossamer
Emerson College student Michael Angelakos did something really smart when he decided to form a band, building upon the buzz of a dorm-room recording he’d made for a girlfriend: he linked up with a bunch of crack musicians from the Berklee School of Music. The resulting 2009 album Manners caught a lot of ears, but with Gossamer, Passion Pit’s project seems much more fully realized, and this is a collection of songs that are both poignant and catchy. “Take A Walk” is a great example — a hook infectious enough to sell D’reets Tacos, but with lyrics that reflect sorrowfully on the economic apocalypse. Angelakos’ songs skillfully juxtapose troubled tales with head-nodding melodies, and tracks like “Carried Away” and “Mirrored Sea” exploit this formula while also sounding distinct and unique. “Hideaway,” a classic pop hit that somehow manages to be a deep cut on this single-ready indie record, is probably the highlight of the entire album. All in all, Gossamer is a bittersweet gem from a clan of skilled musicians led by an inspired songwriter.
9. Jessie Ware, Devotion
For those of you who haven’t heard this magnificent record, I mourn the fact that it’s vanished from Spotify, although Jessie Ware has stated it shall return soon. Devotion is a soulful wonder from an incredible new talent, 11 exciting songs that blend modern beats with Sade-inspired vocals. “Running” is my jam — Ware unveils her gorgeous melodies over a thumping soundtrack with SUPER tasty background vocals sliding in to enhance the experience. “Still Love Me” has a sound that seems to synthesize the best of soulful dance music over the past three decades, sending funky harmonies scampering over chunky synth-bass. The ability to balance rhythm and sensuality is this record’s greatest achievement — for further evidence, check out the killer “Night Light” and the stunning, mournful “Taking In Water.” Ware’s voice always sounds amazing and she also has one of my favorite Twitter avatars. More than enough reason to rank her outstanding record firmly within the top 10.
8. Purity Ring, Shrines
It’s been a whirlwind of success for Megan James and Corin Tucker, who spun Purity Ring off another band called Gobble Gobble two years ago and delivered Shrines in April. It’s keyed by “Fineshrine,” the second cut off the record, which firmly establishes the band’s winning template of catchy electronic pop coupled with James’ winning lead vocals. Tucker’s instrumental wizardry keeps the songs moving in compelling directions and he constantly adds delightful flourishes to the mix. “Lofticries” is another favorite of mine, with a dope synth beat and a clutch chorus. But the album arguably peaks with “Grandloves,” which shows Tucker skillfully pairing James’ quirky, digitally-processed vocal with key samples from Young Magic’s “You With Air”; by mixing fresh thoughts with found gems, it’s a perfect demonstration of what makes Shrines a great record.
7. Tame Impala, Lonerism
Put on “Elephant” and crank up the volume and you’ll get the idea right away. Lonerism is a tremendous rock album of the sort we’ve loved for decades. Drawing on everything from 60s psychedelic rock to 90s garage rock revival, Australia’s Tame Impala build upon their superb 2010 record InnerSpeaker with this outstanding collection of slightly warped jams. “Music To Walk Home By” is a particularly jaw-dropping specimen, a twisty-turny creation that bubbles along on a steady rhythm while hazy vocals and tweaked-out guitars fade in and out. “Apocalyse Dreams” is an excellent song that showcases frontman Kevin Parker’s superb voice with some nasty instrumental backing — most of it laid down by Parker as well. Tame Impala do an outstanding job of balancing pop sensibility with mind-bending arrangements, which keeps this album both highly listenable and highly interesting. Without question, it’s one of the very best “rock” albums of the year.
6. Twin Shadow, Confess
On several occasions since I first heard it, I’ve awoken in the morning with songs from Confess circling in my head. Whether this indicates the deep power of this record or some barely-repressed crush I may harbor on George Lewis Jr., I’m not sure. Probably both. But Confess, self-produced by Lewis as part of his Twin Shadow project, is a work of synthpop genius either way. “I Don’t Care” is so good, it transcends genre, blending classic new wave passion with hints of twentytweens chillwave weirdness. It doesn’t even seem right to lump Twin Shadow in with bedroom-pop masters Washed Out and Toro y Moi, because as much as I like those artists, the quality and depth of Lewis’ vocals blows them out of the water in terms of emotional impact. “Golden Light” is a marvelous number with intense verses and a massive hook that would make even a freshly heartbroken listener pump a fist while a single tear rolls down their cheek. Also not to be missed is the video for “Five Seconds,” inspired by Lewis’ novel about “a motorcycle gang in the future…it’s about friendship, in a way; two black motorcyclists who are fighting the good fight.” SOLD.
5. Alt-J, An Awesome Wave
One of the most unique, and potentially polarizing albums of the year. Half the people I know who have heard this album have celebrated it instantly; the other half have wondered what all the fuss is about. Personally, I listened to An Awesome Wave more often than almost any other record this year. And at least some critics agree, since this record was awarded the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize. Five years in the making, this album runs the gamut from medieval motet to EDM bassdrop, sometimes in one song (“Fitzpleasure”). “Taro” is on my short list of best songs of the year, winding through acoustic folk-rock, harmonic symphonic pop, with a Bhangra beat thrown in for good measure. “Breezeblocks” flies out of the speaker, with its charming, shambling initial rhythm transforming into a skittering electronic beat and back again. And the almost anachronistic “Interlude 1″ is a silly great a cappella flight of fancy. An Awesome Wave is all over the place, but the combination of styles and sounds simply works.
4. Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
Two years on, the Odd Future Wolf Gang hip-hop posse seems to have been kinda overhyped, with the glaring exception of the New Orleanian singer tacked on to their crew almost as an afterthought. Frank Ocean blew minds in 2011 with his hook for “No Church in the Wild” — hands down the best part of Watch The Throne – and his intriguing EP Nostalgia, Ultra. But even with all that advance acclaim, channel ORANGE shattered expectations. “Thinkin’ Bout You” is a R&B masterpiece, straight up, with a falsetto hook that could melt steel. With producer Malay usually riding shotgun, Ocean blasts through one genius track after another. “Super Rich Kids” is as devastating a takedown of nouveau riche society as Steely Dan ever uttered, with the mysterious Earl Sweatshirt dropping in for an appearance. “Pyramids” is a titanic, ten-minute masterjam that MJ would have been proud to have released. “Sweet Life” feels like the next iteration of the R&B tradition that runs from Stevie Wonder to D’Angelo. And “Pink Matter” features a superlative verse from Andre 3000, whose style feels more vital than ever. channel ORANGE is the best R&B record of the year and — as with the next three records on this countdown — while may not have made the #1 slot on my overall list, I certainly wouldn’t object if it tops yours.
3. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d. city
“Everybody gon’ respect the shooter, but the one in front of the gun lives forever.” Seems we’ve been waiting for this album for 15 years. On this incredible record, Kendrick Lamar successfully blends and integrates the Compton rap that defined the 90s with the more introspective, soul-searching Outkast records that have aged far better. Through what he refers to on the cover as “a short film,” he takes the listener on a journey through the South LA lifestyle, not flinching from the appeal of the street life, but also laying out its perils and karmic drawdown in stark terms. Interstitial segments where Kendrick’s mom pleads with him to bring back her minivan are perhaps the only example in history where recordings of a nagging mother actually make her seem like a pretty cool lady. Breakout single “Swimming Pools (Drank)” manages to build a stunning hip-hop song around the perils of alcoholism, and Kendrick channels psychic pain in the amazing “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe.” In 2012, when the old “fuck bitches, get money” ethos that West Coast hip hop was built on seems even less relevant than mafioso rap, Kendrick Lamar has managed to engage with that tradition in a way that’s intelligent, insightful, and still thoroughly enjoyable. This is the best hip-hop record of the year.
2. Japandroids, Celebration Rock
The greatness of Celebration Rock is simple — eight songs, all killer, no filler. An exhilarating listen of punk-inflected rock music that is built around three pillars — power chords, explosive drumming, and massive hooks. The Canadian band that was on the verge of breaking up before Pitchfork took up their flag get hearts racing with every big chorus and every thrilling chord progression. Evoking nostalgia, epic nights of celebration and big dreams, it taps into some primal rock emotion that few contemporary bands have tapped with such unmitigated success. There’s no record I put on as often in 2012, and with as little hesitation, as Celebration Rock. Its appeal is immediately apparent and long-lasting. The best straight-ahead rock record of the year.
1. Grimes, Visions
Of all the great records in 2012, Visions is the one that sounded most like the future. A monumental achievement primarily by one person — Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, produced and recorded this album essentially alone in her apartment using the mass-produced Apple software program Garage Band. Its mesmerizing electronic loops and haunting vocal tracks can be both enervating and energizing, depending on what level you engage with them. The highlight of the album is the song “Oblivion,” which is a harrowing narrative of assault that also wouldn’t sound out of place as the soundtrack to a nighttime car chase in a Michael Mann film. Balancing intense, personal lyrics with engaging beats is a difficult feat that Grimes pulls off time and again.
Tracks like “Genesis” are intriguing and hypnotic, beginning as hazy reveries, then hardening into subtly mighty hooks. Best of all, the record works as a seamless whole, figuratively pulling you into Grimes’ darkened apartment for a listening session of a record that appeared from a time machine visiting from 2050, a glimpse into a dystopian future. In a year when tons of great musicians are recording albums on their own, Visions rises above them all, with a depth of sound and engagement that would seemingly take a small army of music wizards to craft. This odd, personal little record is, for my money, the very best of 2012.