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20 Overlooked, Underrated and Under-the-Radar Albums from 2012

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Molly Nilsson 'History'

Molly Nilsson 'History'
Dark Skies Association
OK, technically History came out in December of 2011, but given that by December album-of-the-year lists are long since stitched up, Molly Nilsson's fourth record feels very much like a 2012 record. The album shows Nilsson going ever deeper into her trademarked sound: sombre, plodding synth-pop sung in a deep, dour voice, captured in fuggy lo-fidelity. Of course, Nilsson uses this dark, dreary sound to paint pop-songs bright and brilliant; with her sense of simple melody engaging, and her lyrics adept at saying so much within the framework of verse and chorus. As its title suggests, History is a study in old wounds, both cultural and personal; the decay of the keyboards and the frayed edges of the tape sound the sonic equivalents to the withering of the flesh.

The Music Tapes 'Mary's Voice'

The Music Tapes 'Mary's Voice'
Merge
Given the 15-year-long obsession with Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, you'd think that an album closely related in sound, spirit, and membership to that magnum opus would be heralded from on rooftops, celebrated if only due to its proximity to legend. Yet, Mary's Voice, the latest LP from the Music Tapes, is all those things, and yet seemed to cause barely a ripple upon its September release. The long-running project from former Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster, it shares the lo-fi fuzz and storybook whimsy and circus calliope of the classic Elephant 6 sound, with Koster's hoarse voice making him sound like a pained carnival barker. In truth, it sounds almost eerily like NMH acolytes Jordaan Mason and the Horse Museum, but even that's a total recommendation.

Night Moves 'Colored Emotions'

Night Moves 'Colored Emotions'
Domino
After Night Moves signed to Domino —the largest and most successful true indie in the world— it seemed like their debut LP, Colored Emotions would be more likely to be overhyped than overlooked. Yet, as much as the band seemed bound for, at least, some kinda Local Natives-style crossover, Colored Emotions feels, to me, as if it's cruisin' along under the radar. The Minneapolis-based trio play a brand of soulful country rock dowsed in reverb; making them feel like both acolytes of Bob Seger and My Morning Jacket's 'Grain Silo Sound.' Where it gets interesting (to me, at least), is in how much frontman John Pelant sounds like another shadowy, sometimes-maligned (former?) Domino figure, Benjy Ferree. This LP is nowhere near as got as Ferree's overlooked masterpiece Come Back To the Five and Dime Bobby Dee Bobby Dee, but that it summons the comparison is telling.

Nina Nielsen 'Love and Terror in the Wilderness'

Nina Nielsen 'Love and Terror in the Wilderness'
Biophon
Love and Terror in the Wilderness is an apt title for the debut album for Nina Nielsen, a half-Canadian/half-Norwegian songstress who splits her time between Toronto and Olso. Her stark, stripped-down, atmospheric folksongs create the sense of being in a desolate landscape; that simultaneous feeling of enraptured beauty and uneasy fear, the vastness and emptiness before your eyes summoning both a sense of wonder and of terror. Neilsen's voice is whispery to the point of being conspiratorial, and the recordings are bathed in a thick haze of echo that give a tangible sense of environment to the songs; as if she's playing in the bowels of a cave by the sea. The effect is similar to English slowcore types Movietone, who recorded their hushed The Sand and the Stars LP on the beach, but bleaker, blacker, and even more bare-bones.

Princeton 'Remembrance of Things To Come'

Princeton 'Remembrance of Things to Come'
Hit City U.S.A.
After the 2010 breakout of Princeton sister-act Kisses, it seemed that the second LP for the Los Angeleno pop outfit could stir up some of that same crossover buzz. Especially given that, after 2009's wonky, slightly-twee Cocoon of Love, the glossy, discofied sounds of Remembrance of Things To Come checks in closer to Kisses. After suffering persistent, often dismissive comparisons to Vampire Weekend on their debut, on Remembrance of Things to Come they show themselves as more-than-worthy peers. Kicking off with the vibrant title-track, the album rolls out with all manner of dynamic, orchestral, wordy, wordly indie-pop. Listening, it's hard to shake the feeling Princeton should be far larger than they are.

Ryan Power 'I Don't Want To Die'

Ryan Power 'I Don't Want to Die'
NNA Tapes
Ryan Power is a studio nerd from Vermont whose herky-jerky, complex synth-pop is steeped in the smooth sounds of Steely Dan, Aztec Camera, and the Aluminum Group. Yet, I Don't Want To Die is far too strange, too singular, too genuinely odd an album to be just some work of studio smarts. The album is a sustained lyrical study in two interrelated themes —procreation and mortality— that's both funny and terrifying, Power staring into the void with a wry smirk. "We can't deny/we're all going to die," he carols on "You Wanna Seltzer," "evil demons/can't stop spreading little semen"; before he sticks on the last work like a CD skipping, fixated on the fluid that both propagates and brings down the species.

Sea Pinks 'Freak Waves'

Sea Pinks 'Freak Waves'
CF
Even when Sea Pinks were making one of 2011's best albums, they were causing barely a ripple of attention in a blogosphere oversaturated with jangly, beachy guitar-pop bands. So, it was hardly surprising that Neil Brogan's third Sea Pinks LP remained a strictly under-the-radar proposition; the band still only, barely known as a side-project of Northern Irish gloom rockers Girls Names. And yet, Brogan is on a stunning run of pop-song songwriting; turning out three full-lengths and one 'Demos & Outtakes' record in the space of three years, all loaded with brilliant jangle and vibrant melody half-obscured by slacker lethargy. There's nothing quite as earwormy as "Peripheral Vision," but "Lake Superior" into "Pattern Recognition" is an impressive one-two on opening.

The Townhouses 'Diaspora'

The Townhouses 'Diaspora'
Yes Please
With his tinkling tuned percussion and clinking digitalia, Melburnian mood-maker Leigh Hannah summons the pseudo-pastoral electronica of turn-of-the-millennium Four Tet and Nobukazu Takemura, Ambient Works-era Aphex Twin, and Björk's music-box obsessions. Hannah's study of Indonesian gamelan music speaks of his globally-minded music and personal wanderlust; and the themes on (the free-to-download) Diaspora —his second Townhouses album— are an extension of a life in transit. Working with guest vocalists from home (Guerre, Rainbow Chan) and abroad (Italian soft-pop stylist Giorgio Tuma) Hannah's ambient blips-and-chimes are fashioned into pop-songs conversant in the to-and-fro of immigration and expatriation, of those seeking new lives on foreign shores.

Tujiko Noriko + Takemura Nobukazu 'East Facing Balcony'

Tujiko Noriko + Takemura Nobukazu 'East Facing Balcony'
Happenings
Tujiko Noriko and Nobukazu Takemura were two of the 'glitch' era's most vital voices: she summoning shimmering, swooning pop-songs from fried digital noise, he employing electronic arrhythmia with the elegance of chamber music. Together, their aesthetics fit almost too perfectly: Takemura's first longplayer in a decade finding him staging a suite of stately compositions Tujiko can explore with her playful, beautiful singing. It's, at times, a reminder of the artists at the peak of their powers: opener "Kirei" finds wave after wave of Tujiko vocals washing over an arrangement of harp, horns, guitars, and MIDI that reminds of Takemura's twin 1999 soundtracks to Issey Miyake fashion shows. For him, East Facing Balcony is a welcome return from the wilderness; for Tujiko, it's another chapter in one of modern music's most underrated discographies.

Two Wings 'Love's Spring'

Two Wings 'Love's Spring'
Tin Angel
Two Wings founder Ben Reynolds used to play in Scottish folk-rock electrifiers Trembling Bells, and their a decent yardstick for Two Wings: both in the way they summon standard-bearers of the sound —Pentangle, Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band— whilst infusing it with their own idiosyncratic strangeness. Here, much of that comes in the voice of Hanna Tuulikki, former leader of freak-folk types Nalle, whose unusual, mercurial register (Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush are the constant comparisons) sits strangely against Reynolds' dapper croon and the soulful pipes of third vocalist, Lucy Duncombe. Their three voices couldn't be more different, and the contrast makes for an easy feeling mirrored in the fact they lace their folk-rock with Nashville pedal-steel, Muscle Shoals horns, and psychedelic freak-outs.
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