#10: Death Grips – The Money Store
Sacramento trio Death Grips caused quite a ruckus this year as hip hop’s most refreshing and necessary punks. Between their signing and subsequent un-signing from a major label, they released two albums in 2012, one of them being The Money Store, the only album I heard all year that made me feel so confused, so crazed, so…alive.
While there’s no doubt every album on this list provided some fantastic musical offering, The Money Store delivered a mind-pummeling experience, a rush of cerebral and bloodied technicality, in a way only Death Grips knows how to produce — with visceral hooks, raw production, and paralyzing atmospherics. It dunks you head first into a washing machine in the midst of its spin cycle, potentially boggling the mind on first listen, but The Money Store itself will be the very thing to remind you a few listens later that you are indeed still breathing. — David Fisch
Listen: “I’ve Seen Footage”
#9: Lovedrug – Wild Blood
I fell in love with Lovedrug back in 2004 when the group released their debut album, Pretend You’re Alive, and I’ve spent every year since waiting for the Ohio quartet to put out something I would love as much as that album. This year they did just that with their fourth full-length effort, Wild Blood. Sure, the albums and EPs the indie rockers have released in the interim have been good; they just hadn’t registered with me in quite the same way as that debut. In an effort to understand why Wild Blood had such an impact on me, I went back and listened to Pretend You’re Alive and realized it really sounds nothing like Wild Blood. The then-grungy guitars now ring out clearly, and frontman Michael Shepard’s formerly dark, distorted vocals now sound (dare I say?) uplifting.
It’s these vocals that have always been the big draw for me when it comes to Lovedrug, and Shepard has never sounded better than he does on Wild Blood. Forget the superb songwriting on the album. Shepard injects a passionate yearning and primal, undeniable sexiness into each line in such a way that he could — pardon the cliché — sing the phone book and I would be enthralled. With Wild Blood the band has hit their stride musically, completing the journey from dark art rock band to the architects of the best modern rock album of the year. — Kristin Houser
Listen: “Wild Blood”
#8: Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
A number of Brooklyn’s indie heavyweights returned with albums this year (Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective both made this list), but a career best from Dirty Projectors was a most pleasant surprise. “Gun Has No Trigger” was early warning that the band had found a new and more direct songwriting style, but the real pleasure here was hearing how they melded that craft with the eccentricity that has always been their hallmark (most evident on the goofy and loveable “Unto Caesar”).
“About To Die” has emerged on repeat listens as an absolute gem in the band’s canon, and “Impregnable Question” is as lush as a goose down comforter. Swing Lo Magellan was a textbook example of how to find a larger audience while retaining a sharp creative focus and a real beating human heart under the surface. Its high placing on the list indicates just how well that balance resonated with us here at LA Music Blog. — Jay Chirinos
Listen: “Gun Has No Trigger”
#7: Of Monsters and Men – My Head Is An Animal
This year, six-piece Of Monsters and Men brought the musically deep and versatile album My Head Is An Animal to American shores (a version of the album was released in their native Iceland in 2011). Discovered when they won a battle of the bands, the group uses a variety of conventional and unconventional instruments (including an accordion and trumpet) on this, their debut album, to convey a dreamlike journey through folk-style music.
I particularly connect to this album’s wide range of music tempos, including slower, more melodic songs as well as bouncy, percussion-driven tracks. From their trumpeting single “Little Talks,” which explores themes of insanity and loneliness, to the softer track “Slow and Steady” on which co-vocalist/guitarist Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir sings of peaceful solidarity, Of Monsters and Men’s My Head Is An Animal spans a range of tones, and its lilting melodies will bring out the daydreamer in anyone. — Twila Grissom
Listen: “Little Talks”
#6: Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and
Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Most of the world probably remembers Fiona from her “Criminal” days — a sexy young girl laying on a shag green carpet and lounging in a bath tub with a bunch of sweaty hippies — but surprisingly, she never enjoyed the commercial success she had on her first album, Tidal. Whether it’s instilling in my generation some semblance of respect for jazz vocals and arrangements or cultivating the stripped-down, lo-fi approach she has been building on since Extraordinary Machine, Fiona Apple is and always has been about 15 minutes ahead of everyone else. The Idler Wheel… is the product of a diverse musical career coming to fruition, and whether or not Fiona enjoys the success she had with Tidal, after this year, she mostly certainly won’t only be remembered for one or two songs anymore. — Richie Valentine
Listen: “Every Single Night”
#5: Passion Pit – Gossamer
Passion Pit’s sophomore album, Gossamer, portrays the inner struggle of lead singer/songwriter Michael Angelakos and is so personal that listening to it at times feels like reading his journal. Gossamer unapologetically reveals Angelakos’ deepest, darkest secrets, peeling back the complex layers of emotional turmoil that mainly stem from grappling with his mood disorder. These dark and downright haunting lyrics are juxtaposed with Passion Pit’s squiggle-wiggle synth beats and Angelakos’ unfaltering falsetto.
While experiencing Angelakos’ self-proclaimed “expansive” autobiographical album, one cannot help but sympathize with the artist. Honestly, at some level it is easy to relate to the comprehensive story of Angelakos’ tumultuous life. We all have our faults, our insecurities, our ups-and-downs, and our unbridled desire to be loved. With Gossamer, Passion Pit took their own advice from the track on their stunning EP Chunk of Change. They “Live to Tell the Tale.” — Sarah Bellman
Listen: “Take a Walk”
#4: fun. – Some Nights
Some Nights propelled beloved indie act fun. — a super-group of sorts comprised of members that have been in the game for years — from playing small-town venues to selling out multiple nights at The Wiltern in Los Angeles, playing in the background of everything from national commercials to Glee, and performing on Saturday Night Live. The album marries energetic, theatrical rock and polished indie pop, resulting in a genre-shattering effort that is as fun as it is refreshing.
Whether you’re listening to the hip-hop infused “All Alone,” the anthemic “Carry On,” or the breakout hit “We Are Young,” every song on Some Nights is a testament to this band’s innovation and creativity. With unpredictable melodies, changing rhythms, and Nate Reuss’ Queen-esque vocals, fun. proves that talented, experienced musicians have a place in Top 40 radio. The bar has been raised. — Mary Bonney
Listen: “Carry On”
#3: Ellie Goulding – Halcyon
Back in the spring, I was listening to KIIS-FM while driving home from a gig at 1 AM when “Lights” came on the radio. I texted my friend Sarah on the East Coast — the biggest Ellie Goulding fan I knew and the person who turned me on to the British popstress — to ask what she thought about her little-known obsession appearing on American pop radio. The next morning I got my response: an elated “it’s about time.”
Ellie Goulding couldn’t have deliberately planned her ascension into the American pop consciousness with greater success, and yet it happened much by chance. Released in May 2011, “Lights” was a sleeper hit climbing the Billboard Hot 100 for nearly a year, only peaking at #2 back in August 2012. With the release of her second American single, “Starry Eyed,” the buzz surrounding Ellie Goulding reached a significant din just in time for the release of the album that landed her the #3 position on our Albums of the Year list, October’s Halcyon.
Halcyon was preceded by lead single “Anything Could Happen,” which utilized dance production and vocal effects, but set to a mid-tempo of only 103 beats per minute. The single is indicative of much of the album. Spaced-out, reverb-heavy vocals lend an ethereal quality to Goulding’s lyrics, and in the tradition of most pop artists this era, Goulding wrote and recorded with a handful of producers, including Jim Eliot, Starsmith, Billboard, Justin Parker, MONSTA, and Mike Spencer. The results of this approach can sometimes be mixed (as with albums like Gaga’s Born This Way in which the songs range in style and vibe); however, Halcyon has a cohesive, epic feel, proving that Goulding understands herself and her sound. It is the fully realized vision of an artist on the rise. Confident, exciting, unique. — John Flanagan
Listen: “Anything Could Happen”
#2: Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city
You wouldn’t have been faulted for making the assumption that Kendrick Lamar was a fantastic lyricist just based on his prior work — including 2011′s Section.80 mixtape — but this year’s major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, solidified the notion in more ways than one. The Compton-based hip-hopper created one of few albums this year that expertly married concept with sound, weaving overarching themes and elemental wordplay with equally impressive beats and guest spots to create a lengthy and hard-hitting balancing act, a characteristic that’s key to any production of Dr. Dre’s and to classic hip hop in general. Lamar delves into his conscience to deliver the most interpretive record of the year and fully resurrects a genre that had once been thought to have seen its last days. It doesn’t take much to realize by the album’s close that good kid, m.A.A.d. city easily belongs in the pantheon of the greatest hip-hop records ever released. — David Fisch
Listen: “Swimming Pools (Drank)“
#1: Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
Upon finding out that Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE had secured the #1 spot on our Albums of the Year list, my fellow LAmb writer Jay Chirinos remarked that “it kind of had to be Frank Ocean, didn’t it? It’s just been his year across the board,” and this album’s place at the top of our list truly did seem inevitable.
When an artist chooses to make a potentially career derailing revelation a week before the release of his debut album — the revelation in this case being Ocean’s bisexuality — one of two assumptions are made: 1) it’s a risky publicity stunt intended to draw attention to a subpar release (though Ocean himself noted the absurdity of this mindset in a recent interview with GQ: “Some people said, ‘He’s saying he fell in love with a guy for hype.’ As if that’s the best hype you can get in hip-hop or black music.”) or 2) the artist knows they’re releasing an album that’s so undeniably brilliant, no amount of backlash for his personal life will be able to eclipse its excellence.
In that same interview, Ocean goes on to confirm the latter, saying, “I knew that if I was going to say what I said, it had to be in concert with one of the most brilliant pieces of art that has come out in my generation. And that’s what I did.” Indeed, if channel ORANGE had been anything other than what it is –- a near perfect R&B/neo-soul album incorporating unconventional song structures, seemingly disparate styles, and wide-ranging themes – Frank Ocean could have easily become an artist known more for what he is rather than who he is. And who exactly is Frank Ocean? Just one of the most talented artists the R&B genre has ever seen, and with channel ORANGE, he’s just getting started. — Kristin Houser