The Seer - Swans
The music on The Seer is far more sophisticated than the Swans recordings of the early-'80s, when the band was about brutal noise and confrontation at the expense of all else. Michael Gira has refined his songwriting and expanded his thematic concerns throughout his long career, most notably with his Angels of Light project. But the dark drama and punishing intensity are still integral to the band's vision. The Seer is a sinister, droning masterpiece.
'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! - Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Certain artists inspire devotion, and GY!BE have had a devout following since their 1997 debut. 'Allelujah! is their first new record since 2002 (Yanqui U.X.O.); a record comprised of two relatively long compositions and two shorter works that have been part of the collective's live repertoire. (The Guardian published a statement from the group coincident with the release of 'Allelujah!, providing some genuinely moving sentiments about the group's ambitions.) If you're unfamiliar with GY!BE, the ideal introduction is "The Dead Flag Blues," the legendary first track from the group's debut record. There's simply no better encapsulation of the what Godspeed You! Black Emperor is about. Follow that with the 'Allelujah! track "Their Helicopters' Sing" for further evidence of the visceral beauty of this group's music.
The Sun - Cat Power
Chan Marshall's career has had distinct musical phases that aren't always appreciated by the same audience; her stark, guitar-based recordings from the '90s often go unappreciated by those who favor her Southern soul influenced work. As a fan of her entire catalog, I'd like to think that The Sun represents yet another break/innovation. The soulful horn section has been replaced with warm synthesizers and electronic beats. There isn't much precedent for this type of production in Marshall's work, though it may have some superficial similarities with her guest spot on Handsome Boy Modelling School's 2004 record. The appeal of any Cat Power album is Marshall's voice, and it's invigorating to hear her sing with such directness on The Sun.
Four - Bloc Party
Bloc Party have always excelled at combining the best elements of late-90s Blur and Radiohead with intense post-punk angularity. Those expected strengths are very much on display on the band's fourth record, but, really, nothing could have prepared me for the monster riffs of "Coliseum."
Cancer4Cure - El-P
The music of El-P is so idiosyncratic and distinctly his own that it's almost instantly identifiable. Forever at the margins of whatever can be considered "mainstream" hip-hop, El-P has consistently crafted innovative and intriguing music that reveals a profound appreciation for classic sampling. C4C is unquestionably one of El-P's finest records; a wild melange of samples and sounds that is, strangely, the most focused he has ever sounded.
Key to the Kuffs - JJ DOOM
You can pair MF DOOM with just about anyone and the results will, at the very least, be interesting. But his recent collaboration with MC/producer Jneiro Jarel is considerably more than a curio. Key to the Kuffs isn't a perfect record; and it suffers by comparison to Madvillainy, DOOM's beloved 2004 collaboration with Madlib. (To be fair, every recording suffers by comparison with Madvillainy.) Taken on a track-by-track basis, this is some of the best work DOOM has done in years. "Guv'nor" is almost certainly the standout, with its woozy production and lyrics that range far wider than DOOM's typical concerns.
awE naturalE - THEESatisfaction
I first heard TheeSatisfaction as guest artists on one my favorite records of 2011, Black Up by Shabazz Palaces. awE naturalE is the Seattle duo's debut full-length, and it easily exceeds all expectations in its seductive beauty and the seemingly effortless interplay between the singer (Cat) and the emcee (Stas).
Don't Be a Stranger - Mark Eitzel
My appreciation for this record may, to some extent, be tinged with nostalgia for the magisterial dolorousness of classic American Music Club. (Along with Red House Painters, A.M.C. were the demigods of slow-core.) But, taken on its own terms, Don't Be a Stranger is a beautifully crafted record that makes the most of Eitzel's unique voice and songcraft.
Between the Times and the Tides - Lee Ranaldo
As guitarist and co-founder of the band Sonic Youth, Lee Ranaldo's legacy as a rock innovator is secure. But, like his band-mates Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, he has pursued various solo projects throughout has career. While the numerous side projects by Gordon and Moore are still pretty recognizable as Sonic Youth recordings (to the extent that Sonic Youth can be said to have a recognizable template), Ranaldo is pursuing musical ideas far afield of his full-time gig. From the darkly pulsing opening track, "Waiting on a Dream," to the gentle lyricism of "Stranded,"Between the Times and the Tides is a beautiful record that displays Ranaldo's maturation as a songwriter.
Mature Themes - Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
Mature Themes is as strange as Ariel Pink himself. You just need to accept that Pink is working on another level, and the more time you spend with his songs, the more resonant they become. (Though I'm not sure there's any way to make sense of the almost unbelievably odd "Schnitzel Boogie.") Mature Themes isn't all experimentation and obfuscation; "Only in My Dreams" is as direct and charming a pop song as you could ask for, and the album's closer, "Baby," is a surprisingly soulful cover that just may be my favorite track of the year.
2012 featured new music from some of my longtime favorites: Deerhoof (Breakup Song), Sun Kil Moon (Among the Leaves), Spiritualized (Sweet Heart, Sweet Light), Nas (Life Is Good), Mount Eerie (Clear Moon), and a late-entry from Big Boi (Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors). There were also a handful of newcomers who made an indelible impression: Frank Ocean (Channel Orange), Death Grips (The Money Store), and the surprisingly divisive pop singer Lana Del Rey (Born to Die). Say what you will about Del Rey's debut album, her single "Video Games" is an evocative song that feels emblematic of its moment in time, an impression that is only enhanced by its accompanying video.