10. Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dream
When making a “sexy” record, it’s hard to create something that isn’t perceived as comical – few artists have the ability to produce acclaimed recordings while still being romantic and seductive – Al Green is the first artist that comes to mind, D’Angelo is another. Now entering an elite class of soul musicians is Miguel, who on his second full length Kaleidoscope Dream, put together a collection of songs not only fitting for the club, but also songs that will get your heart thumping and your mind dreaming about romancing a lover. From the opening hiccups of “Adorn” to the beautifully written album-ending ballad “Candles In The Sun,” Miguel’s seductive croon will sweep you off your feet, and make you hungry to go out and find yourself a sexy lil partner to love yourself. Kaleidoscope Dream is an instant pop classic that falls somewhere between baby-makin-under-the-sheets-music and just plain old fun urban soul classics — something that we haven’t heard from in this genre in quite some time.
9. Sera Cahoone – Deer Creek Canyon
The Littleton, Colorado native and daughter of a dynamite salesman, Sera Cahoone has made one of the most admirable (and overlooked) folk records of 2012. Combining indie rock, country & western and twangy folk, Deer Creek Canyon goes beyond what your average “folk” album usually accomplishes — and the beauty of it all, is that it doesn’t feel like a conscious decision on Cahoone’s part to extend herself like she does, it comes off as completely natural. This is the sound of someone who not only has a unique voice and a unique gift for song writing but is also someone who knows how to effortlessly shine light on all of her influences throughout the years – you’ll hear some Cat Power, some Buck Owens, some Emmy Lou, some Parsons, some Bon Iver thoughout the record. Deer Creek Canyon is everything you want from a folk record – it’s a light summer breeze, it’s the crackle of a fire place on a cold winter day, it’s what it feels like when you dip your toes in a mountain stream, it’s what sweet corn tastes like in the middle of July.
8. Actress – R.I.P.
It’s hard to describe the music Darren Cunningham creates as “dance music,” because over his career he has continually tried to defy each and every norm associated with a typical EDM record. It goes without saying, the new wave of electronic music invading our ear drums day-in and day-out is predictable, unchallenging, factory-produced garbage. So when guys like Cunningham, who records under the name Actress, release a record like R.I.P. where there were no big build ups and there are no big bass drops, but still somehow manages to captivate your attention just as well as any other techno record around, it’s hard for me not to get a little excited. Cunningham once said ”I want to make cool, classical stuff for a modern generation,” and R.I.P. is just that, it’s a record that sets this unique mood unlike anything else released in 2012. It’s a brilliantly constructed concept album full of thoughtful experiments of sound & electronics. If you’re looking for some electronic “bangers,” turn away…this record is the fog before the sun rises. It’s that haze between techno, ambient and experimentation that’s so very much needed in the music world today.
Key Track: “Jardin”
7. Swans – The Seer
The Seer, the Swans latest LP, was by far the most challenging record for me in 2012. The dark pulsing instrumentation and haunting lyrics create an ambience that is, at times, a lot to take in, especially when the record time comes in at 120 minutes. Frontman Michael Gira describesThe Seer as something that took ”30 years to make. It’s the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined. But it’s unfinished, like the songs themselves. It’s one frame in a reel. The frames blur, blend and will eventually fade.” And when the album finally does fade, and you’ve experienced all the highs and lows of the record, it is one of the most gratifying musical experiences you’ll have with a record.
6. Chromatics – Kill For Love
(Italians Do It Better)
Maybe not on a mainstream level, but music geeks everywhere were pretty fuckin’ stoked when word surfaced that Chromatics where making their first album since 2007′s widely loved Night Drive. The synthy, haunting, reverb drenched pop group has a way of transcending conventional musical compositions. Their ambition feels like they’re not only trying to make music that is exclusively their own sound, but they are also making music which reminds us that when your perception or your mood or your instruments are shifted, even slightly, something you once knew can become something completely new and original. From the starting notes, (Kill For Love opens with a foggy-cloaked version of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)”) to the dark and impassioned tour-de-force that closes the final 20 minutes of the record, you remember what it’s like to have responsive and emotionally engaging music that stands alone with its ingenuity, without ever making things too complicated or confusing.
5. Hooray For The Riff Raff – Look Out Mama
(Born To Win Records)
Oh man, don’t you just love those voices? Those sage-like ones you can just lay there and listen to every breath of, believe every word from — those voices that have ability to not only hit you right there in the chest, but have the ability to go right through you and travel like a spirt into another home where another desperate ear depends on it for calm and resolve — those voices that dance with you, and cry with you, and grow with you and are always there for you like a best friend or an older sister. Those voices that “can lead you to the promise land” and shake your bones like a voodoo masterpiece. Alynda Lee Segarra, front woman of the band Hooray For the Riff Raff, has one of those timeless voices to me. Her delicately wandering backing band perfectly compliments her nomadic and vagrant ascetic, setting you on delightful Americana musical excursion from California campfires to the dimly lit streets of their native New Orleans.
4. Acid Pauli – Mst
(Clown & Sunset)
The most complete record of the year comes from Acid Pauli, an electronic musician who released his latest album Mst on Clown & Sunset (Nicolas Jaar’s record label). If you decide to take this ride through tunnels of puddled jazz samples and tasteful layers of cross-rhythm beats, you’ll at times think you’re in fact listening to a new Nicolas Jaar record. But on repeat listens, you’ll understand that this record sits beautifully on its own, that it has a distinct Acid Pauli “sound,” and it carries (like Jaar) its own level of seriousness that makes this electronic record surprisingly “human.” This is an ability fewer & fewer electronic musicians seem to have these days. What I love so much about this record is how it floats through so many familiar sound-spaces — down-tempo reggae, quieted pianos, big beat techno, chamber music, cinematic vocal samples, cool jazz — that when put together with Pauli’s licensed touch, you’re left with a completely newly discovered gem. This record is like a buried treasure, filled with peculiar ideas and unorthodox noises, but when added up, it’s a marvelous gold mine with enough riches to last you a lifetime.
3. Nils Frahm – Felt
Nils Frahm, a solo pianist who tinkers with unique recording styles, has been my discovery of the year and someone I know I will have a life-long relationship with. I was really at a loss for words when trying to describe his work to a co-worker the other day and I’m at a loss for words now – so I’ll just let Luke Slater’s write up at Drowned In Sound do the work for me, because really, it’s a perfect description of the sound and intricate beauty that exists inside his album Felt:
Felt is a body of music so intimate and hushed you can practically hear the microphones breathing. Put together in late night sessions at his home studio, this third release from German modern classical impresario Nils Frahm has floor boards creaking and errant noises rustling in the gaps between his delicately poised chords, Frahm’s breathing faintly audible as his ghostly piano tinkering plays out. If autumn has so far been generous to neo-classical junkies with albums from the likes of droned string symphony experimenters A Winged Victory For The Sullen, then Felt is perhaps the season’s most enticing gift yet: a cryptic weave of indelible sounds and silences; an emotional juggernaut.
If you’re looking for beautiful music to help inspire necessary thought and administer purpose in quaint moments, look no further than Nils Frahm’s Felt. It may be quiet and subtle, but sometimes it’s the faint dew on the spider web or the hushed whisper of the wind that can be the most exhilarating experiences.
Stream Here: Felt
Key Track: “Familiar”
2. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city
After listening to good kid, m.A.A.d. city for the first time, it became very clear that this Lamar guy was operating on a supremely different level than every other clown currently taking a stab at the hip hop game. His lyrics punch your soul with precession rather than drift away like a lost cloud — his rhymes are always on beat rather than obnoxiously scattered – his confession-like flow is alluring and comes off as if your hearing a journal being verbally illustrated by inner workings of an emotional artist’s mind — it’s truly a masterpiece. Even better though is the music backing Lamar’s voice, all of which is filled with a unique brand of spaced out West Coast G-funk that floats around you like a lost musical spirit from a futuristic Compton tribe. I know this will sound cliche, but what makes this record so fuckin’ great is, it’s not that dramatically different from most of the hip hop you’ve heard before, but at the same time, it’s also not like anything you’ve ever heard before either. On a day to day level, hip hop can be very theatrical and wildly entertaining to consume – but it’s quite rare when a rapper like Lamar comes along that crafts hip hop that is not only comfortable and fun to consume on a commercial level, but it is also presented intensely with such diligence, inovation and pride — Missy Elliot once did this, Outkast once did this and now Lamar is doing it.
1. Alt-J (∆) – An Awesome Wave
I usually find myself becoming obsessed with a band’s back story, as I find it helps me better appreciate their music and see it for something more than what appears on the surface. But when it came to Alt-J, I didn’t go searching for something more meaningful, I don’t care who the lead singer is, I don’t care where they’re from or how the band formed or where they recorded their album – the music simply spoke for itself. Its funky blend of electronic arrangements, quirky vocals, catchy hooks & bizarre lyrical content gives this record an unprecedented feel to it, almost as if it’s from the creative mind of another musical species. Forget the comparisons to Radiohead (the only comparison that’s worthy is that both groups are innovators), this band is on their own path, paving their own way you know numerous bands are going to try and follow down. But nothing should ever try to sound like Alt-J, because when a band like Alt-J comes along and constructs exciting and peculiar tunes that are unparalleled by anything else in the music world, it can’t and shouldn’t be recreated. What’s so exciting about Alt-J is that they have found a way to become solitary and incomparable in a time when everything just feels like it blends together without ever truly standing out on its own – and for Alt-J, not only is that an accomplishment on it’s own, but it’s that very idea that makes any great band attractive in the first place. Once you feel the valuable power in this prized recording, you’ll hopefully understand why An Awesome Wave is not only best record of 2012, but one of the best records of the modern era of music.