1. Frank Ocean — Channel ORANGE
Channel ORANGE is more than a collection of songs. It is an experience, a story about a crack addict in Arkansas, a stripper namedCleopatra, a rich kid raised my maids, a monk in a mosh pit and a man coping with his religion and sexuality trying to find genuineness in love and life. Through this well-crafted debut album, Ocean has proved himself to be one of the best musical artists out there not only through his incredible vocal work but also from his ability to create a universe. Ocean’s heart-stopping falsettos perfectly suit the imaginative lyrics that are as emotional as they are catchy. Ultimately, Channel ORANGE is the clearest projection of Ocean’s mind, one that is as sagacious as it is humble.
2. Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid M.A.A.D. City
Kendrick Lamar is 2012’s hero of rap, with radio-listeners asking where he came from and savvy hip-hop/rap listeners wondering what took so long. After mixtapes and albums (or mixtapes that sound like albums, such as “Section.80”), Lamar doesn’t have a rapper persona, just himself and his story. But his acidic coming-of-age in Compton spills forth on Good Kid, M.A.A.d City, and, layered with his samples, beats, poetry and persona, his album both glides and pierces with quiet distinction. With the tears of Lupe Fiasco and the poetry of Nas, Lamar adds more than any combination of comparisons can hope to assemble. Lamar illustrates the power that rapping used to and can still have — a power that one didn’t realize was missing until one listens to him.
3. Beach House – Bloom
“I hate it when bands change between records,” says Alex Scally, one half of dream-pop duo Beach House. The Baltimore-based band’s latest album Bloom stays true to this statement. With an atmospheric sound created by fuzzy guitar riffs and an almost haunting resonant bass, Bloom is loyal to the sound that wowed listeners on 2010’s Teen Dream. What has changed, though, is the versatility of the duo. Front woman Victoria Legrand and guitarist Scally have taken the simplistic rhythms they are famous for and made them sparkle. Their ability to move seamlessly between synth-heavy single “Myth” and emotional piano ballad “On the Sea” is indicative of not only indie pop’s wide range but also of Beach House’s ability to truly bloom.
4. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel
The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, is the official title of Fiona Apple’s first studio album in seven years. Just like the title, the album is long, meticulous and in many respects a product of poetic and powerful ingenuity. Behind its somber chords, prideful vocals and delicate ornamentation lies an open-heart revelation of temptation both past and present. Though Apple explores the well-paved paths of loneliness, romance and sex, her artistic instinct meanders ever so slightly to produce a product that, though universal, feels tailored and increasingly relatable. A river of insecurities, Apple embodies the monumental deficiency of being human in a box wrapped with the golden and righteous hue of melody that for short while makes the pains of life not a matter of shame but of inherent and tolerable truth.
5. Grizzly Bear – Shields
Grizzly Bear has done it again. By “it,” I mean created a symphonic symbiosis together with their fourth studio album, Shields. Following the acclaim they garnered for 2009’s Veckatimest, their latest release is generally less catchy (besides the track “Yet Again”). But it retains the textural quality that has become a staple of the band’s sound. “What’s Wrong” features jazzy drumming on the part of Christopher Bear, an organ that feels dream-poppy and Daniel Rossen’s soft, haunting vocals. Somehow, the band configures this kind of layering in a way in which every sound complements each other. And the band’s harmonies — they’re like butter. This record furthers their journey along the path to otherworldly feats of indie rock.
6. Tame Impala – Lonerism
Do not listen to Lonerism on your Macbook’s weak speakers. It will be like viewing a Van Gogh through a screen door. No, you need some headphones — or even better, some car speakers, so Tame Impala can soundtrack your modern-day magical mystery tour. On the second album from Kevin Parker’s psych throwback band Tame Impala, released in October, John Lennon is present in the vocals, Led Zeppelin in the riffs and Pink Floyd in the trippy wordplay. But no band has combined those elements as effectively as these Australian phenoms. Lonerism is heavy on reverb, fat bass tones and wobbly synths. Listen to it a few times so the swirling nuances can wash over you. When it sinks in, it doesn’t leave.
7. Aesop Rock – Skelethon
Look no further than San Francisco’s Aesop Rock for some of the best hip-hop of 2012. His July release, Skelethon, showed us introverted Aesop spitting rhymes so fast you’d think his narratives would get tangled in the process. But Rock’s no rookie; he’s a master artist, the storyteller par excellence. What sets Skelethon apart from the rest of rap? Simple: Aesop Rock is a fabulous fabulist, expressing his isolation and alienation in multilayered stories. Aesop’s fables’ morals aren’t neatly laid out, however. Most hip-hop spoon feeds you its message in easily digestible lyrics. Not Aesop. He induced us to say “Grace” and then fed us “greasy grimy gopher guts.” Skelethon, it turns out, is the rib-sticking meal we needed in 2012.
8. Grimes – Visions
Grimes is known as the bizarre alien song-child who has managed to sneak K-pop, goth, ambient and ‘90s hip-hop into this year’s most talked-about pop album, Visions. Produced entirely on GarageBand, the final album sounds impressively dense and finessed, with layer upon layer of Grimes’ uniquely modern mix of Cocteau Twins-inspired siren vocals and what she calls “NIN + Jigglypuff.” With 2012 being the most remix-heavy year in music to date, it is seemingly impossible to distinguish what separates creativity from a mish-mash overload, but Grimes has clearly found the balance between pop hooks and downright weirdness. Visions makes the list this year because what other artist could make you think medieval hymns robot-edition are the hippest new sound?
9. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory
January is a month of new beginnings. But screw the new year and screw your weight-loss goals — the most important new thing this January was Cloud Nothings’ sophomore album Attack On Memory. Cloud Nothings brought the hardcore angst with this aggressively ambitious release. With production credentials going to punk rock legend Steve Albini, Attack On Memory earned its spot as one of the best albums of this year for packing quality pop-punk into eight of the most tightly produced rock songs of 2012. No note is wasted, and every one of Dylan Baldi’s screams vibrates with repressed rage. The entire album is a standout in the era of dime-a-dozen indie rock. Attack on memory? Of course. We won’t forget this album anytime soon.
10. The Vaccines – Come of Age
In a musical landscape marred by synthesizers and a general lack of quality songwriting, The Vaccines are a blessing in the form of bold guitars and insightful lyrics. A revival of a forgotten punk-rock flair and the passion of youth, which has long lain dormant in contemporary music, Come of Age puts the impudence back in our minds and the romance back in our hearts. As such, the album is naturally a top pick from 2012. It is difficult to remember the last time a band stormed so confidently onto the scene and spoke directly to youth culture. The infectious energy and candid charisma on the record are unparalleled by any other rock LP released in the last year.
Contact the Daily Cal arts staff at [email protected].