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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

35

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.

34

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.

33

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.

32

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.

31

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.

30

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.

29

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.

28

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.