1. Kendrick Lamar — good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Not since 50 Cent’s Dr. Dre-backed Get Rich or Die Tryin’ has a rap debut caused such a commotion. Now, nine years later, another of Dre’s protégés has released a classic album. Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city is a neurotic, head-nodding, bass-thumping, gut-wrenching memoir of Lamar’s life, in which he manages to simultaneously narrate his life growing up in Compton. GKMC weaves tales of sex, violence, friendship and death together to create a 21st-century West Coast masterpiece.
Songs like “Backseat Freestyle,” “m.A.A.d City” and “Compton” pack a full clip of California flavor while “Real,” “The Art of Peer Pressure” and “Money Trees” tell introspective stories. The production is cohesive, the guests placed perfectly, but above all, GKMC is the first of many classic albums for Lamar. So hip-hop world, watch out: Kendrick Lamar is here to stay.
2. Frank Ocean — Channel Orange
Ocean has fashioned a record that requires effort for understanding — a record that doesn’t get assigned as background noise to energize a teenager’s party (hence the unvarnished production of its tracks to highlight his lyrical artistry).
And there is a great deal to highlight on Channel Orange. Ocean understands that quality lyricism and sentiment aren’t born from sugarcoated, Shakespearean poetry transformed into song. The essence of each track is derived from reality — Ocean’s reality, of substance over form. Anything, from his early life to love life, is fair game.
In Ocean’s Los Angeles life, “the maids come around too much, parents ain’t around enough.” Any other modern R&B artist would gloat about how he has the cash flow for a maid, and she’s so fine from behind.
This is the Frank Ocean difference.
3. Beach House — Bloom
Beach House is no stranger to success. The Baltimore duo got its first taste of indie fame after releasing Teen Dream in 2010, a sweet and hazy collection of songs that gently lulled its listeners and drew in a fan base. Now, two years later, Bloom is just as sweet — it’s a soft, potent cultivation of everything Beach House for which it has already been known.
Like former hits “Norway” and “Take Care,” tracks like “Myth” and “Lazuli” are just as quietly powerful, deeply personal and haunting: Victoria Legrand’s rich, smoky vocals rise and fall over hazy guitar chords and keyboard keys, creating a tender, dreamlike world of oohs, ahhs and instrumentals.
The album is darker and more refined than anything the band has created in the past — it isn’t a reproduction of classic Beach House sounds and vibes, but living proof that the duo itself has bloomed.
4. Grimes — Visions
It’s tempting to call Visions “pop” — the album, the fourth release from electro-artist Grimes, packs enough sugary falsetto vocals and dance beats to fuel a Forever 21 playlist for days. But stamping this kind of label on the album would just be too simple: Visions is a beautifully complicated creature that thrives on intricacy and confusion, constantly twisting and convoluting what seems like straight-forward sounds into something more obscure.
Quiet melodies are mashed with other melodies, and beats are layered on top of other beats. Vocals are looped, layered and manipulated further, appearing both bold and translucent in any given moment. The end result is more fascinating and murky than mainstream dance or electronic pop — Visions is a fleeting ghost that fades and flitters away before anyone can fully latch onto it.
5. the xx — Coexist
“Space can actually be a band’s most valuable instrument” is essentially the overarching theme of the xx’s second album, Coexist. Furthering its minimalist pursuit of “Basic Space,” this London trio crafted a beautiful and subtle collection of songs in 2012 that might have been too slight to catch the ears of an in-your-face, dubstep generation.
Though these songs undeniably progress at a deliberate pace, Coexist’s most breathtaking moments are a result of the band’s increasingly pause-laden style. The four-second gap in sound that occurs before the crescendo of guitar, drums and vocals at the halfway point of “Missing,” for example, feels like the heart-dropping sensation of a free-falling thrill ride.
While it lacks the pop sensibility of the group’s 2009 debut, Coexist is a heartbreaking and powerful sophomore effort that deserves repeated listening.
6. Tame Impala — Lonerism
Despite hailing from the beachy isolation of Australia and naming their latest LP Lonerism, the psychedelic rockers of Tame Impala are less alone than ever. While the group seems to have experienced a popularity boom since its October album release, Tame Impala is a band that doesn’t let fame get to its heads.
In fact, not much has changed since their 2010 LP Innerspeaker. Both records are filled with the same wavy reverberations, washed over with distortion and filters, Kevin Parker’s Lennon-esque vocals echoing throughout. The boys have even stayed true to their pre-LP roots: “Elephant,” the first single off Lonerism, was written around the time they created their first EP, and evokes a classic rock sound that’s more Black Sabbath than Beatles.
It’s hard not to love Lonerism. Perhaps the biggest difference between this album and its predecessor is that now you’ll have more people to listen to it with.
7. Dirty Projectors — Swing Lo Magellan
If the term “math rock” was ever cool, the Dirty Projectors certainly made it so. Their music is immensely complex — Gregorian-esque chants carry over palpitating drums and guitar twangs, sometimes in the seven-measure scale, which so many artists fear.
What makes Swing Lo Magellan so incredible, however, isn’t the showy complexity with which it can play, but the beauty the band brings upon its seemingly numerical sound. While math may make the general populous anxious and irritable, the Dirty Projectors make their complicated sound so soothing that it could literally be played for sleeping babies.
Whether it calms the audience with strumming guitars (as on the track “Swing Lo Magellan”) or with hopping guitar plucks (as on “The Socialites”), the six-piece band certainly assures that complex can be “simply beautiful.” Math doesn’t even seem so scary anymore.
8. Grizzly Bear — Shields
It feels like Grizzly Bear has always been around, making a pretty good album every couple of years, touring the festival circuit and slowly fading into indie-band oblivion. Their fourth album, Shields, though, has lasting power.
An intoxicating blend of distorted guitars, wavering harmonies and orchestral arrangements, the record is the band’s best to date. Take your pick — each song brings something to the table. There’s lead single and standout “Yet Again,” with its light-as-air vocals and locked in groove, “Gun-Shy,” laced with muted organs and heavy bass, the Black Keys-sounding “Sleeping Ute” or the battalion drum roll and drifting guitar of “Half Gate.”
Shields is Grizzly Bear at its finest, firing on all cylinders and sounding as wild and primal as the animal itself.
9. Purity Ring — Shrines
Purity Ring is a witch house band making ethereal music. Or maybe they’re a gothic band that makes electronic music? Or maybe they’re a ‘future pop’ band that drinks too much sizzurp? This is getting confusing.
Purity Ring’s music avoids preexisting labels and its debut album, Shrines, is a fascinating collection of morose lyrics, drum-machine snares and an atmosphere evocative of Halloween all year round. It’s not quite music you can dance to, but it has too much energy and bone-chilling originality to be relegated to the background.
The dark and stormy sounds of Shrines are the perfect soundtrack for your next underground dungeon party, and are an integral part of a slowed-down, drugged out trend that is all but guaranteed to explode in 2013. Shrines is dark but not depressing, macabre but not heavy-handed, and is the first phenomenal album from a band with a bright (dark?) future.
9. fun. — Some Nights
After many months of promotion, fun. began shining in the spotlight of relevancy as “We Are Young” soared into the Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 spot. Though indie rock groups frequently have their 15 minutes of fame, the addition of “Some Nights” into the Top 40 was enough to make a short-attention-spanned generation of music listeners embrace the NYC trio’s second studio album, Some Nights.
The multi-layered harmony of its mostly up-tempo tracks is reminiscent of a ’90s pop tune with a heavy chorus, and the unparalleled tone of Nate Ruess’s powerhouse tenor is sure to make higher-octave artists like Adam Levine and Gary LeVox quake in their boots.
The record is sure to provoke many campfire sing-alongs with its “hakuna matata” aura — seeking no worries and great fun — by no coincidence.