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Top 50 Albums of 2012

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10. Frida Hyvönen 'To the Soul'

Frida Hyvönen 'To the Soul'
RMV Grammofon
Few singer-songwriters are as daring as Frida Hyvönen, the statuesque Swede who authors candid confessionals and lacerating self-appraisals. For all her fondness for pop-song poses and big choruses, Hyvönen would never use some classic songwriting trope. Instead, her lyrics have a casual, conversational feel; story-songs whose terrifyingly-true tales are filled with turns-of-phrase that songwriters just never say. To the Soul proves a worthy successor to 2008's mighty Silence Is Wild, using its anecdotes to mount a profound chronicle of growing old; of travels, travails, and marriage. It crests with a three-song suite —"Farmor, "Picking Apples," "Hands"— that explores family and the succession of generations with astonishing depth of sentiment.
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9. Beach House 'Bloom'

Beach House 'Bloom'
Sub Pop
Beloved Baltimore duo Beach House are, quietly, going about a remarkable career. From their 2006 debut to 2012's Bloom, Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand have made a progression of four LPs getting both bigger and better. Yet, they're not really getting bigger; Beach House have yet to employ an orchestra, horns, or gratuitous multi-tracking. Instead, they've stuck true to their two-piece roots —and not budged from the Beach House sound— and built around organ chords, shimmering guitars, and simple, uncluttered percussion. But on Bloom they manage to make their stripped-down set-up sound huge: bookends "Myth" and "Irene" both crest at towering peaks, giving the LP the feeling of an event. Or, at least, a record that lives up to expectations.

8. AU 'Both Lights'

Au 'Both Lights'
Hometapes
On their underrated 2008 LP Verbs, Portland collective AU came at the 'ecstatic jam band' vibe of prime Animal Collective with a fierceness: all frenetic energy, compositional complexity, and full-throated hollering. Their third LP, Both Lights, pushes those extremes; their experimental moments more out, their tempos more manic, their scores more dizzying, their joy more joyous. Whilst there's droning interludes and mournful crooning, what take flight are those moments —like single "Solid Gold"— of mania; where Dana Valatka's dizzying percussion, guest horn honk from Colin Stetson, and delirious Conlon Nancarrow-styled piano figures explode in utter delirium. Both Lights is a work of radical composition that doubles as a rollicking knees-up.
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7. Julia Holter 'Ekstasis'

Julia Holter 'Ekstasis'
Rvng. Intl.
Julia Holter has been making impressive, way-under-the-radar records for years; from the chirpy Eating the Stars in 2007 though high-concept LPs like the sound-art foley-as-story devotion of Cookbook and the Hippolytus-myth-retelling of Tragedy. But with Ekstasis, Holter finally rises from those shadows, her latest LP instantly bathed in the world's love; hailed from hither to yon for both its intellectual rigor and its emotional heft. Holter builds shape-shifting symphonies out of sinuous keyboard squiggles, with bright melodies and abstract noise floating across an ever-changing, always-uneasy landscape. It's challenging terrain to cross, but Holter holds your hand the whole while; her beautiful voice forever a bright beacon of reassuring sweetness.

6. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti 'Mature Themes'

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti 'Mature Themes'
4AD
"I wish I was taller than 5 foot 4," the terrifyingly-tiny Ariel Pink sings, on the title-track of his latest LP, Mature Themes. Los Angeleno's lo-fi hero has never been one for confessionalism —preferring myth-making to truth-telling— but, with his newfound sense of maturity, now even Ariel Rosenberg's stature-related jokes hold hard truths; "Mature Themes" about the laundry-list of, um, 'shortcomings' he lugs, as baggage, into any new relationship. The evolution of Rosenberg from outsider-art shut-in to indie music's man of the people has been slow and sometimes painful, but Mature Themes serves as an official coming-out party, with nary an ounce of tape-hiss on a setful of pop hits. Just as the songs have slowly grown clearer, so, too, have our perceptions of the man making them.

5. Animal Collective 'Centipede Hz'

Animal Collective 'Centipede Hz'
Domino
After the decade-defining success of Merriweather Post Pavilion —such an instant classic it immediately entered the indie canonAnimal Collective's fervently awaited tenth album was always going to disappoint some. Blessedly, Centipede Hz comes across as the work of a band completely disinterested in the expectations of others; the album a more ragged, noisier, more glitch-riddled take on their tribalist electronic jam-band-ism. Though the album is filled with a yearning for nature (escapes to caves and everglades; the line "I'm going hiking! Are you coming hiking?"; a devotional to organic produce) the album is obsessed with radio and its frequencies, to the point where these naturalist almost yearn to merge with technology, a near-Cronenbergian sentiment embodied in the bio-mechanical title.

4. Dirty Projectors 'Swing Lo Magellan'

Dirty Projectors 'Swing Lo Magellan'
Domino
Dirty Projectors albums have long tended towards the kooky and conceptual: 2005's The Getty Address and 2010's Björk collaboration Mount Wittenberg Orca narrative works of avant-garde composition, 2007's Rise Above wearing the infamous gimmick of recreating a Black Flag LP "from memory." As much as it may sound like 2009's breakout Bitte Orca, the seventh Dirty Projectors record is a break from the conceits of the past. Swing Lo Magellan is Dave Longstreth's most sincere work: "Impregnable Question" a Beatlesy piano ballad; "The Socialites" an Amber Coffman-sung lament for the alienation of upward mobility; "Dance For You" Longstreth's take on life-as-entertainer. It's a personal, populist turn as inspiring as any of his previous intellectual games.

3. How to Dress Well 'Total Loss'

How to Dress Well 'Total Loss'
Acéphale
The first noble truth of Buddhism holds that all life is sorrowful; that to exist is to experience constant sense of less. Tom Krell's second How to Dress Well LP, Total Loss, is alive to this idea: that loss and, thus, death, is the central theme of life. The album finds Krell —in the middle of working on a philosophy doctorate, no less— cataloguing his loss across a set of dreamy, drifting, ephemeral, elusive R&B, in which his layered-on vocals swim through endless waves of echo; a thick, cloudy, cottony sound streak with tears. Krell was charged with being 'hipster R&B' on his 2010 debut, but Total Loss shows him as a uniquely sensitive, sincere artist; his music no stylized pastiche, but profound expression of his fathomless grief.

2. Purity Ring 'Shrines'

Purity Ring 'Shrines'
4AD
Purity Ring's demented jams jack the hydraulic lurch of R&B production for perverted, demented ends; authoring a futurist furor that has —The Knife aside— few precedents. The ex-Edmonton electro duo make a kind of bubblegum witch-house, in which thudding bass and boinging synths convey bright melodies with horrorshow dread, and Megan James' sweet voice is cut-up, pitch-adjusted, disrupted, molested. James lyrical oeuvre deals wholly in the bodily, the creepy-yet-catchy "Fineshrine" luring listeners into an album-long study —all sockets and skulls, fluids and flesh— of evocative viscera. "Cut open my sternum and pull/my little ribs around you," James coos, and Shrines nestles deep in the blood and guts. It's the sound of sheer terror, coming to a club near you.

1. Grimes 'Visions'

Grimes 'Visions'
4AD
Claire Boucher once dubbed her music 'post-internet' —the product of the filesharing era's musical overload— but her Grimes jams are better dubbed 'post-genre'; a newly-minted, new-millennial sound fashioned from squeaking new-age synths, rattling programming, odd fragments of noise, and cascading waves of voice. The LP staunchly avoids familiar pop-song tropes; Visions' killer singles "Genesis" and "Oblivion" having no obvious emotional reading; sounding at once joyous, melancholy, mystical, distant, and intimate. These aren't dancefloor-fillers or sad ballads, aren't songs made with a functional purpose; they're unlikely artistic artifacts fashioned in a distinctive style, made with no reverence for the past, but only thoughts for the future.
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