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50 Best Albums of 2012

Frank Ocean reimagined R&B; Dylan drenched us in blood; pop-punk vets, disco orchestras and Scottish oddballs made an election year bearable.

50 best albums 2012

Frank Ocean reimagined R&B; Bob Dylan drenched us in blood; pop-punk vets, disco orchestras and Scottish oddballs made an election year bearable.


Contributors: Jon Dolan, David Fricke, Andy Greene, Will Hermes, Christian Hoard, Jody Rosen, Rob Sheffield, Rob Tannenbaum, Simon Vozick-Levinson


Dirty Projectors, ‘Swing Lo Magellan’

This album takes its name from the Portuguese mariner who was the first to circumnavigate the Earth, and why not? David Longstreth stuffs a whole lot of musical exploration into his three-minute songs. While nominally more “pop” than 2009’s Bitte Orca, Swing Lo packs in wild twists and turns: power chords set against shifting meters; psychedelic dissonances that nod to Jimi Hendrix and Béla Bartók; loads of mind-bending harmony vocals. “I boogie down gargoyle streets,” croons Longstreth. It’s worth following him, wherever he goes.



Amadou and Mariam, ‘Folila’

In a sort of reverse Graceland, these African stars jump-started their pop fusions in the exotic environs of Brooklyn, where Malian guitar hero Amadou Bagayoko and his clarion-voiced wife, Mariam Doumbia, connected with local royalty like Santigold, Nick Zinner and the TV on the Radio clan. The ideas swirl and sparkle, but the trademark blend of West African vocals, groove and electric guitar is the musical sun around which all else revolves. Check Bagayoko and Zinner on “Dougou Badia,” which may permanently reshape your notion of a guitar jam.



The Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Oceania’

The most recent dispatch from whatever far-off planet Billy Corgan currently resides on is the finest slab of cosmic prog he’s thrown down since the Pumpkins‘ early-Nineties heyday. Songs like “The Celestials” and “Panopticon” are guitar-orgy labyrinths where nerd-herald melodies rise up like dragons. Krishna makes an appearance, and Corgan imagines the sun and the moon singing a song to each other. But ultimately his utopian vision can be summed up in one healing message: “I’ll kiss anyone tonight.”


Todd Snider, ‘Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables’

If the title doesn’t win you over, the lead track (“In the Beginning”) will: a creation myth that fingers religion as a brilliant dodge “to keep the poor from killing the rich.” One of the sharpest, funniest storytellers in rock, Snider keeps the indictments coming – see “New York Banker,” where an Arkansas schoolteacher is robbed of his pension – and never skimps on musicality, or humor. As he declares in the timely “Big Finish,” a sweetly ragged gospel-blues rocker, “It ain’t the despair that gets you, it’s the hope.”


Muse, ‘The 2nd Law’

In an era of diminished expectations, Muse make stadium-crushing songs that mix the legacies of Queen, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin and Radiohead while making almost every other current band seem tiny. The proudly pretentious British trio add bits of Skrillex-style dubstep to their sixth album, on which Matthew Bellamy howls about a modern-day dystopia of unsustainable societal growth and difficult girlfriends. And on “Madness” and the London Olympics theme, “Survival,” Muse even manage to compact the epic into a tight pop form.


Rick Ross, ‘Rich Forever’

Among the many ways in which Rick Ross lives large, you can add this: His mixtapes have better guest stars than other rappers' albums. Drake, Diddy, Pharrell, Kelly Rowland and a recharged Nas ride with Rawse, and with swirling, dense beats spurring the headliner's unmatched confidence, Rich Forever blows like a hurricane. It's not his first victory lap, and it won't be his last. "Get it straight off the boat, yeah, my life is a movie/Got a three-story mansion, big saltwater Jacuzzi," he announces. He's still inventing brash new ways to say, "Fuck you."


Garbage, ‘Not Your Kind of People’

We had no idea how much we’d missed Shirley Manson and her digital-grunge mates until they suddenly zoomed back into our lives. The first Garbage album since 2005 has everything that made us fall in love with them years ago: Manson vamps, sneers and tosses out sexily standoffish lyrics and big, gut-punch choruses, while the band works itself up to a frenzy of shimmering electronics and sleek, metronomic beats. But it wouldn’t be a Garbage album without drummer-producer Butch Vig running all of it through waves of majestic distortion.


fun., ‘Some Nights’

“Some nights I wish that my lips could build a castle,” Nate Ruess sings on fun.’s second record. And that’s pretty much what happened: The New York trio leverage world-beating pop success on Ruess’ Broadway-big pipes, bubblegum-Queen grandeur and an Eltonian sense that no sound is offlimits – from Kanye (“All Alright”) to synth punk (“It Gets Better”) to Modest Mouse (“Why Am I the One”). But this isn’t just a whiz-kid talent flex; Ruess’ emo sweetness and self-doubting humor make Some Nights a castle you could feel at home in.


Allo Darlin’, ‘Europe’

On their second album, Elizabeth Morris’ chiming, ukulele-rocking indie-pop crew, which began as a lark to cover Bruce Springsteen‘s “Atlantic City” for a tribute LP, stand tall beside forebears like Australia’s the Go-Betweens (who get a lyrical shout-out on “Tallulah”). It’s all sugar, hooks and tender ache. Whether Morris is singing about an adorable friend “in a riot grrrl band” or another who swears “a record is not just a record” because “records can hold memories,” she might just become your newest music-geek crush.


The Avett Brothers, ‘The Carpenter’

The Avetts are the best pop band in the alt-country corral. On their seventh album they complete an evolution from neo-bluegrass pickers to pure pop tune-crushers. The palette ranges from Nineties grunge to wintry front-porch lamentation to Beatles bounce, tied together by a sweet Southern-bro sentimentality. On the magnolia-scented waltz “A Father’s First Spring,” Scott Avett turns the cowboy-movie image of “blood on the floor” into an evocation of a daughter’s birth that’ll have you shedding a tear in your Sunday afternoon IPA.


Escort, ‘Escort’

Disco never died. It was just hiding out in Brooklyn, where this 17-piece club orchestra crafted its debut set of glitter-caked grooves. In a year when we lost such giants of the genre as Donna Summer and Robin Gibb, there is something reassuring about how faithfully tunes like "Cocaine Blues" and "Starlight" channel the sleek, sexy sound of Studio 54 at its peak, down to the last high-hat and brass flourish. "A knife, a fork, a bottle and a cork/That's the way we spell New York," vocalist Adeline Michèle sings. Up-all-night civic pride rarely sounds so fun.


Passion Pit, ‘Gossamer’

No one does soulful Eighties-style synth-cheese better than Michael Angelakos. Passion Pit’s second record is shinier, busier and even more hysterically earnest than their debut: Angelakos’ falsetto ricochets like laser light, chipper gals coo smoke-machine choruses amid hot electronics and cool string arrangements. Yet the pop spectacle is haunted by disaster – economic (“Take a Walk”), romantic (“I’ll Be Alright”) or both (“Love Is Greed”) – culminating in a boffo suicide meditation. It’s high-end dance rock as John Updike might have it.


Titus Andronicus, ‘Local Business’

These Jersey boys might be America’s most desperately ambitious, righteously exciting punk-rock flamethrowers. On “My Eating Disorder,” Patrick Stickles sings, “Screaming and convulsing, now I’m gonna spit it out”; the “it” in question (other than his lunch) is an album of brawling street-rock songs with titles like “Titus Andronicus vs. the Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO).” With as much love for Thin Lizzy as Black Flag, and wielding a tireless underdog howl, Stickles proves just how much mileage you can still get out of suburban self-disgust.


Justin Townes Earle, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now’

The son of country-rock renegade Steve Earle has grown into a songwriter to rival his dad. His fourth LP is his strongest yet, a set of love-scarred folk-blues travelogues delivered with exactingly shaky phrasing and an undertow of Stax-Volt horns. “Down on the Lower East Side” gets New York-jazzy, and “Won’t Be the Last Time” is honky-tonk weepy. Earle’s bloodline follows him everywhere, and guides him, too; as he declares in the record’s first line: “I hear my father on the radio singing, ‘Take me home again.'”


Bobby Womack, ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’

At age 68, the guy who wrote the Rolling Stones’ first Number One hit (“It’s All Over Now”) teams up with Blur‘s Damon Albarn and producer Richard Russell for a deeply soulful, startlingly modern R&B set. Like Russell’s 2010 collaboration with Gil Scott-Heron, Bravest Man is mainly about magnified vocal grain and electronic rhythms, and the arrangements never fail to dazzle: The first bars of the title track, just Womack’s warm-leather voice and a cello, may be the most striking album opener of the year.


Grizzly Bear, ‘Shields’

The Brooklyn avant-pop crew’s fourth album is its most muscular to date, driven more than ever by drummer Christopher Bear’s innate swing. Yet, from the electric-vs.-acoustic-guitar schizophrenia of “Sleeping Ute” to the Gil Evans jazziness of “Sun in Your Eyes,” Grizzly Bear still flash some gorgeously intricate arranging. Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen have grown into one of indie rock’s most sophisticated songwriting teams, melding idiosyncratic approaches to texture and tune into a subtly mind-blowing whole. And those vocal harmonies still kill.


Alabama Shakes, ‘Boys & Girls’

Fronted by ex-mail carrier Brittany Howard – a slow-boil belter shaped by punk and roots rock as much as the Stax-Volt/Muscle Shoals sound she so mightily channels – the Alabama-based Shakes sprang from Southern soul’s cradle. Their debut is a set of lean, hooky originals about the big stuff: love (“Be Mine”), death (“On Your Way”), human struggle (“Hold On”) and getting crunk (“Goin’ to the Party”). It earned them a fan base that includes Robert Plant and My Morning Jacket, and it suggests that even greater things lie ahead.


Grimes, ‘Visions’

Canadian electro-high-priestess Claire Boucher did more than anyone this year to stoke the hot romance between R&B and dream pop. A one-woman Kraftwerk who performs with an arsenal of machines and a couple of booty dancers, she’s a true stylistic omnivore, and her breakthrough set uses EDM extremism, medieval chants, sugar-crusted melodies and her own sky-high voice to rethink pop music. See the irresistible Far East chipmunk chants on “Genesis,” or “Skin,” which suggests Florence Welch savoring a postcoital bong.


Hospitality, ‘Hospitality’

Indie-pop cuteness this severely catchy doesn’t come around too often. Kansas City refugee Amber Papini works out her killer fake-English accent on noise-guitar nods like “Eighth Avenue” and pert strummers like “Betty Wang.” The Brooklynites also throw cool genre curveballs such as the twerp-disco groove on “Friends of Friends.” It all makes for a great album about being young and hip and directionless in 2012 New York City – kind of like Lena Dunham’s Girls by way of the best old Belle and Sebastian and Cat Power records.


Taylor Swift, ‘Red’

Pop star, country diva, puppy lover, scorned woman, flirt, gossip, sweetheart, brat, poet – Swift contains multitudes, and they're all on display on her big, bustling fourth album. The Max Martin/Shellback-helmed pop moves are headline-grabbers. But Red is not a departure, it's a deepening and accentuating of Swift's natural gifts for storytelling and irrefutable hooks. And the sound expands her musical reach from slick Nashville pop rock ("All Too Well") to wintry British mope pop ("The Last Time," with Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody) and beyond.


Azealia Banks, ‘1991’

Twenty-one-year-old Banks’ debut EP was 2012’s great appetite-whetter: a four-track-long amuse-bouche that left fans of the vaunted next-big-thing Harlem rapper panting for more. (A full-length LP is due early next year.) Banks packs an album’s worth of fun into 15 minutes: dissing, boasting and talking very dirty in English and, uh, French (“Ce soir with your bitch, café au lait”); reclaiming the word “cunt”; touting her “Bambi style” and “Rapunzel style,” all over beats that are as feisty, and as irrepressible, as the woman herself.


Dave Matthews Band, ‘Away From the World’

DMB‘s sixth straight record to debut at Number One reunited the group with its Nineties producer Steve Lillywhite; the album’s political entreaties made for some of 2012’s best GOTV rock. But there’s also a stormy introspection to these tricky, rolling jams. “Rooftop” is a drunken, vengeful breakup fantasy; on “The Riff,” quiet romantic desperation gets run through Boyd Tinsley’s jabbing violin lines; and when Matthews sings, “That’s not a star, that’s a satellite,” on “Drunken Soldier,” it’s clear he’s standing under an angry sky.


Beach House, ‘Bloom’

How did Jay-Z and Beyoncé‘s favorite indie-pop duo top their 2010 breakthrough, Teen Dream? By coming up with an even prettier vision of synth-y, Eighties-steeped romanticism. Languid lead singer Victoria Legrand has some dark stuff on her mind – mortality and ruin keep bubbling to the surface of the Baltimore act’s fourth LP (“Can’t keep hanging on . . . to what is dead and gone,” she sings on “Myth”). But you’d hardly know it from the blissful way she lets her voice blend with the softly bobbing organ chords and arpeggiated guitars.