22. Cody ChesnuTT, “Landing On A Hundred”
R&B singer Cody ChesnuTT’s first album in a decade has a lush, sophisticated sound calling back to the high production values of classic records by Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye. ChesnuTT’s arrangements are full of strings, horns, and assorted instrumentation, but he’s got the restraint to use them mainly as accents, so no element ever gets in the way of his rich, beautiful singing voice.
21. Baroness, “Yellow and Green”
Baroness are one of the most ambitious bands in contemporary metal, to the point that their music often strays outside the boundaries of the genre. This double album showcases the full breadth of their sound, with acoustic harmonies existing side by side with dynamic, dense rockers that would’ve made for great radio fodder back in the glory days of Modern Rock.
20. Of Monsters And Men, “My Head Is an Animal”
The Icelandic six-piece Of Monsters and Men’s debut technically came out in 2011, but found its audience in America this year. They’re an odd, hyper-theatrical bunch with a taste for bombast and old-timey instrumentation. At their best, they sound like a stage musical performed in the style of Arcade Fire, which seems strange in print, but surprisingly natural in practice.
19. Exitmusic, “Passage”
Exitmusic covers a lot of the same ground as the more famous duo Beach House, but they’re a lot more emotionally direct, with singer Aleksa Palladino projecting a wounded romanticism at odds with the chilly tones of their music. They do well with spacey atmosphere, but they’re at their best when they build up a huge wall of sound that matches the scale of Palladino’s yearning voice, as on the standout track “The Night.”
18. The Lumineers, “The Lumineers”
The Lumineers have enjoyed a lot of success in 2012 — their single “Ho Hey” has sold over a million copies — but their album of ragged folk-rock tunes is still getting passed around like a secret among their fans. The record is perfect for listeners who wish Mumford & Sons were less glossy, or that Wilco still wrote a lot of sad alt-country numbers. It’s even better if you’re looking for some songs that pair very well with a beer and a whiskey shot.
17. Roc Marciano, “Reloaded”
New York hip-hop veteran Roc Marciano is not a flashy rapper, but he’s a brilliant lyricist with an instinct for telling stories in vivid detail. Reloaded unfolds slowly over the course of an hour, with Marciano sketching out grim character studies over stoned, woozy tracks.
16. Melody’s Echo Chamber, “Melody’s Echo Chamber”
French musician Melody Perchot’s first album as Melody’s Echo Chamber draws heavily on elements of ’60s psychedelia and French pop, but the music doesn’t have the hollow feeling of nostalgia. Perchot’s tunes, produced with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, update familiar sounds with modern tones and plenty of deliberately rough edges, resulting in a record that feels like it exists in at least three different eras at once.
15. Mouse on Mars, “Parastrophics”
The German electronic duo Mouse on Mars made up for a lengthy hiatus this year by releasing two very good albums. Parastrophics, the first of the two, could be their masterpiece. They’ve always had a way of making their electronic sounds feel tangible, but that’s pushed to an extreme in this collection of abstracted pop, with each beat and keyboard part feeling like a physical object moving, bouncing, bending, and colliding on the track.
14. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Kiss”
Carly Rae Jepsen’s single “Call Me Maybe” may be one of the year’s most inescapable pop hits, but her album, Kiss, has been mostly under the radar and has sold only a modest number of copies so far. This is a shame, as Jepsen’s record is a cheerful, love-struck delight, and opening track “Tiny Little Bows” manages to be even more catchy and joyful than “Call Me Maybe.”
13. Dexys, “One Day I’m Going to Soar”
Dexys, the band formerly known as Dexys Midnight Runners, released their first album in 27 years in 2012. Though they’re known almost entirely for their 1982 smash “Come on Eileen” in the U.S., the group have a substantial cult following in their native U.K. and a reputation for Fugazi-like integrity and stylistic experimentation. One Day I’m Going to Soar is recognizable as a Dexys record — lead singer Kevin Rowland has an extremely distinct singing voice — but it’s different enough from their ’80s work to merit the slight name change. The album is slick and smooth, but Rowland’s lyrics deal with issues of sex, love, aging, and mental health in terms that are often startlingly frank. It’s also charming and witty, so even the darkest confessions are softened by a quip or a wink.
12. Of Montreal, “Paralytic Stalks”
Paralytic Stalks may be the weirdest, most over-the-top record in the Of Montreal catalog, which is really saying something, since the group have totally cornered the market on cerebral, hyperactive psychedelic funk over the past six years. The album has some truly gorgeous melodies and is full of brilliant musical ideas, but it’s very demanding on both a structural and emotional level. The lyrics go to some very dark places, and at times the record feels like getting tossed into the deep end of a mind that’s rapid cycling through some heavy mood swings. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a fascinating and rewarding piece of work.
11. Girls Aloud, “Ten”
Girls Aloud are superstars in the U.K., but are basically unknown in North America. This is kind of a tragedy, really — they’re one of the most exciting pop acts of the past decade, and their catalog is full of supercharged tunes with wonderfully absurd lyrics. (One of their biggest hits hinges on the line “we’re gift-wrapped kitty cats.”) Ten is their latest greatest-hits collection, and it stands as the perfect primer for Americans who missed all of this the first time around.
10. Hospitality, “Hospitality”
The Brooklyn trio Hospitality belong to a rich tradition of thoughtful, melodic indie-pop, but they’re not all wispy and twee. The band’s best cuts, like “Friends of Friends” and “Eighth Avenue,” balance a Belle & Sebastian–like approach to lyrics and melody with guitar parts that echo bands like Television and Sonic Youth at their most epic.
9. Jessie Ware, “Devotion”
Jessie Ware has a surprisingly subtle voice for a modern R&B singer. Though most of her peers are still going in hard for Mariah/Whitney-style melisma, Ware is sultry and sophisticated, like a millennial version of Sade. She’s done very well for herself in her native England and has scored rave reviews from online critics, but so far hasn’t been pushed to R&B and pop fans in the American market. It’s only a matter of time, though.
8. The Smashing Pumpkins, “Oceania”
While most of Billy Corgan’s alt-rock peers have spent the past few years playing nothing but their hits on endless reunion tours, he’s been steadily producing a huge volume of new material with mixed results. People often mock the fact that the Smashing Pumpkins are now just Corgan and a handful of new recruits, but this dynamic is actually a big part of why Oceania is his best and most vital record since the mid-’90s. The current members all grew up as fans of the band, and their enthusiasm for the classic Pumpkins sound has pushed Corgan back toward his core strengths after years of going against his best instincts in the name of artistic growth. The songs are great — “Panopticon” and “Pale Horse” are among the best songs they have ever done — but the biggest thrill is just in hearing this band reconnect with exactly what made them so compelling in the first place.
7. Big K.R.I.T., “4eva N A Day”
Southern rapper and producer Big K.R.I.T. released a lot of music in 2012 — an album, a mixtape, an EP, collaborations with various other emcees — but his 4eva N A Day mixtape stands out as his best work in an absurdly fertile year. K.R.I.T.’s best trick is in finding a way to borrow influences from all over the map while emphasizing his roots in Southern rap. The title track nails this balance, and sounds a little like Kanye West producing a U.G.K. record.
6. El-P, “Cancer 4 Cure”
El-P has been a fixture of the New York rap underground for over a decade, but he truly came into his own in 2012, both as the producer of Killer Mike’s exceptional album R.A.P. Music and as a rapper on his third solo album, Cancer 4 Cure. His verses are great through the whole record, but the main attraction is his production, which flips harsh noise and shards of beats into some of the most bluntly aggressive music released by anyone this year.
5. THEESatisfaction, “awE naturalE”
Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White’s music as THEESatisfaction sidesteps easy classification — every time it seems like they’ve settled on rap, poetry, or R&B, they switch it up or move on to another idea. Most of their songs clock in around two minutes, so awE naturalE has the vibe of an Erykah Badu record but with the attention span of The Ramones.
4. Electric Six, “Absolute Pleasure”
Electric Six fell off the radar of mainstream culture after scoring two wonderfully bizarre novelty hits, “Gay Bar” and “Danger! High Voltage,” nearly a decade ago, but they’ve never stopped working. In the years since, they’ve built up a loyal cult by putting out a new album every year and touring relentlessly. Absolute Pleasure, their first live album, is a great introduction to the band’s unique blend of hard rock, disco grooves, and biting satire. Even if you’ve got all of their studio albums, this thing is essential if just for singer Dick Valentine’s sardonic stage banter and absurd ad libs.
3. Chairlift, “Something”
Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek sings as though she could be the offspring of The Cure’s Robert Smith and Kate Bush, and writes songs that are as arty as they are ultra-catchy. Something, the band’s second album and first as a duo, is one of the year’s most crushed-out albums, full of songs that exalt in the rush of infatuation and the thrill of throwing yourself into new experiences.
2. Tame Impala, “Lonerism”
Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker’s voice bears an uncanny resemblance to that of John Lennon, but his music comes closer to the warmer, groovier sensibility of solo Paul McCartney. Even if a lot of Lonerism sounds like a fantasy of a mid-’70s Lennon/McCartney collaboration, Parker’s biggest achievement here is crafting songs so catchy and dynamic that you’ll get sucked in regardless of whether or not you have a preexisting love for the titans of psychedelic rock.
1. The Mynabirds, “Generals”
It’s actually aggravating to think of how many people would love The Mynabirds but simply haven’t had a chance to discover them due to the fact that they’re signed to a small label with only a modest promotional budget. Singer and songwriter Laura Burhenn has one of the strongest voices in contemporary pop music — she could certainly hold her own against the likes of Adele and Florence Welch — and is an even better songwriter, with a gift for tackling nuanced ideas about love, spirituality, and politics in elegantly composed and instantly appealing tunes. Generals, her band’s second album, is especially amazing in that Burhenn sings mainly about issues of citizenship and responsibility without seeming like a drag.