Recently, we published our list of 2012’s copious musical turkeys, and it provoked much debate and outcry. We stand by our choices – well, for the most part: admittedly, the Jessie Ware album is growing on us, and maybe we were a little hard on Brendan Benson (although we still don’t get why he’d release his album on the same day as ex-bandmate Jack White). That said, if we’re going to take down, we must also build up and offer a correlative. That’s why we’ve compiled a definitive list of the records you probably didn’t hear this year – the most underrated, overlooked releases to date that you should probably check out and support. And yes, scanning the results, okay, maybe 2012 wasn’t as bad for music as we thought – one just had to go to the margins to find the real quality. So without further ado, and in no particular order…
Liars – WIXIW
Liars turned their entire sound around on this hypnotic, haunting effort. Eschewing guitars for electronics, they shattered all previous paradigms, with deeply personal lyrics and strange, compelling sounds (check out the video above for “No.1 Against The Rush” for proof). To us, it sounds like a masterpiece on the level of, say, Kid A – but what do we know?
Heavy Blanket – Heavy Blanket
Who needs a Dinosaur Jr. reunion when you’ve got Heavy Blanket? On this perfectly realized album, J. Mascis eschews vocals and just shreds with emotional abandon over (ahem) heavy, Sabbathesque sludge. Forget “overlooked” or “underrated” – this might be the album of the year.
Lindstrøm – Smalhans
This Scandanavian electronic-music shapeshifter can’t catch a break. His previous album, Six Cups of Rebel, was considered too weird by club kids; his latest, Smalhans, was considered too accessible by tastemakers. The truth? Inventive space-disco grooves that will rock a dancefloor, regardless.
120 Days – II
The year’s best dance music/rock hybrid – maybe one of the best ever. Featuring production, not coincidentally, by Lindstrøm. Of course, the band broke up soon after.
Mark Lanegan – Blues Funeral
One of America’s greatest singers proved he’s no grunge relic on his seventh solo album since leaving the Screaming Trees. Blues Funeral lived up to its title, eschewing obvious guitars for moody synths, authentically ominous atmosphere, and above all killer songwriting. It’s the best thing Lanegan’s ever done – why didn’t anyone care?
Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind
Metal and its hardcore hybrids are more hyped than ever. So why didn’t the masses embrace this epic, powerful work by one of the genre’s longstanding great bands? This is the sound of pure commitment, capturing the grinding interplay of a band that’s been together for over two decades. Astonishing.
Afterhours – Padania
One of the hugest rock bands in Italy, but you probably haven’t heard them in America unless you caught their early set at All Tomorrow’s Parties’ I’ll Be Your Mirror fest in Manhattan this year. You’re missing out – Padania is the sound of a band that’s not afraid to radically retool itself. Think Radiohead meets Beefheart, or beyond – this says “beautiful mindfuck” in any language.
Neurosis – Honor Found In Decay
Again, when it comes to metal, the new cats get the hype and hipster love, while doom progenitors like Neurosis should be as big as Metallica. Epic, huge, challenging, innovative, played with heart and subversion – fuck metal, fuck hardcore, fuck genres, this is what great rock music sounds like.
The Evens – The Odds
This album wasn’t exactly overlooked. However, most notice of it discussed the fact that it is ex-Fugazi leader Ian MacKaye’s most “mature” work, jazzed that an eminence grise was still rocking. In fact, the music is just excellent: it’s one of the most nuanced, evocative works in MacKaye and partner Amy Farina’s discography – as punk as ever, but more dimensional and dynamic, even if the volume is lower.
Sigur Rós – Valtari
Once critical darlings, the Icelandic post-rockers were barely noticed with this, their sixth album. In fact, it’s a return to the epic soundscape glory of their best work – abstract, yet pulsing with feeling.
Clinic – Free Reign
True to its title, on this album the longstanding English experimental rock outfit let their freak flag rein. Sprawling psychedelic journeys, free jazz, wandering rhythms – yup, the sounds here didn’t fit anyone’s idea of convention, but we’re better for it.
Lilacs & Champagne – Lilacs & Champagne
Two of the members of Grails came together for this alluring, strange, magical release. Twisted electronics and textures came together for one of 2012’s most unforgettable, unclassifiable musical journeys. Frankly, we prefer it to Grails!
Natural Child – Hard In Heaven
Proof that all music that comes out of Nashville isn’t just shit new country, these longhaired rockers (and JEFF The Brotherhood compadres) kicked out the tweaked neo-classic-rock jams with altered-punk panache.
Seahawks – Aquadisco
Hugely overlooked. This easygoing drift into the Balearic depths is dripping in a humble exuberance. Yes, the title isn’t very subtle, as each track fits into a predetermined mold, but there’s a crisp ‘70s-prog edge to the whole album. It’s like Jean-Luc Ponty went to Ibiza for a holiday and never came back.
Vessel – Order of Noise
Ok, so maybe this album isn’t technically underrated – Resident Advisor gave it a 4.5 out of 5 – but given all of this talk about the new generation of electronic music fans, this should be the new required listening. Order of Noise takes the expansive techno framework of Berlin’s infamous Berghain and injects it with a jolt of Bristolian innovation. This album proves deep listening, covering everything from the highest ethereal peaks to the darkest raw noise.
Magic Mountain High – The Schnitzel Box Vol. 1
There’s no doubt that each of these entities can start the party in their own right, but somehow the combination of Move D and Juju & Jordash didn’t quite hit the spot for a lot of people. In terms of Move D’s other collaborations, this EP isn’t quite as epically cerebral as his work with Benjamin Brunn, but this work can still be marked as a piece of analog gold.
John Tejada – The Predicting Machine
The L.A.-based Tejada remains an outlier to techno’s mainstream; as the genre blows up around him, he stands on the sidelines making excellent music under the radar. His second album for Kompakt didn’t change the game; in fact, quite the opposite – it seemed to almost work too well. Tejada’s gift for emotive, bright melodies almost felt too polished at times, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great album. The Predicting Machine delivers based on execution alone, fitting a variety of situations that show why the marriage of Tejada and Kompakt is a match made in heaven.
Domo Genesis and The Alchemist – No Idols
Domo is permanently in the shadow of his more flamboyant Odd Future brethren, but he may well be the best rapper of the bunch. Beats from a heavyweight like The Alchemist only heighten his flow.
Skyzoo – A Dream Deferred
A release date deferred meant that this album got lost in the massive outpouring of high profile hip-hop records that comes in the last quarter of every year. Still, it’s evidence that Skyzoo still remains one of NY’s strongest lyricists, especially over strong grooves courtesy of Black Milk and 9th Wonder.
Pusha T – What Dreams Are Made Of
We guess the guys at G.O.O.D. were too busy selling Big Sean to thirteen-year-olds to bother pushing an absolutely killer mixtape from the best rapper on their roster.
Joey Bada$$ – 1999
A high school senior from Brooklyn distills the best of mid ‘90s New York rap into one of the year’s best releases. Okay, maybe it wasn’t that overrated or overlooked, but this shit is so good it should be #1.
Flatbush Zombies – D.R.U.G.S.
It’s psychedelic horror-movie rap about waffles and bath salts. What more could you possibly want?
Heems – Wild Water Kingdom
No more Mr. Nice Guy from one-third of Das Racist, Heems drops the mellow stoner shit and goes for the throat here.
Whatever Brains – Whatever Brains
North Carolina’s Whatever Brains makes snotty appear smart, ironic seem heartfelt, and caffeinated punk rock seem anything but revolutionary. That’s a compliment, by the way.
Marijuana Deathsquads – Tamper, Disable, Destroy
The rumor is that Ryan Olson, elusive Krang of the Minneapolis music scene, recorded his friends (rappers like P.O.S.) doing the dumbest freestyles they could come up with, which he then wedded to his rainy, louche productions (which you may have heard before, on Poliça’s much-ballyhooed Give Up the Ghost, or on P.O.S.’ newest record We Don’t Even Live Here). The result is a mixtape of LP proportions, and a peek into the future of… something. We don’t what exactly, but we’re psyched.
VCMG – Ssss
If Ssss had come out in 2005, when hip producers were reviving the punishment of stiff electro riffs and exploring the bombed-out terrain of the darkest Detroit techno, it might have seemed like old pop stars bandwagon-jumping, and probably been as flimsy as you’d expect. In 2012, it feels like that rarest of side projects, two famous dudes exploring a sound they love for the hell of it, regardless of its commercial potential, with an intensity to match.
If you ignore the numbers, and take their outline as a guarantee… then what’s the problem? In short, Depeche Mode co-founders threw away nostalgia and made one of the best, most starkly propulsive dance-music efforts of the year.
Fontanelle, Vitamin F
A psych-jazz record released by a respected avant-metal label, Southern Lord, which features guest contributions from the extreme sound sages of Sunn O))) and Wolves in the Throne Room. Pay special attention to the languorous closer “Reassimilate”.
Hoax, 3rd EP
“Think of someone you love/They’re probably taking a shit.” Western Massachussetts’ Hoax are dangerous like how it used to be, when a bruise from a basement show wasn’t surprising, but guaranteed: if you’re in the front when the band performs, you very well may be punched hard in your face by the blood-raging singer. But Hoax’s music isn’t just a rehash, either, despite how easy their influences would be to name. A group of young punks is doing something exciting and (mostly) their own in the year 2012, and that should be enough. ‘Kay?
The New Lines – Witches’ Milk
For fans of a certain type of popular garage rock, The New Lines offer something unique: a solid sonic theory, evident throughout this cassette from exactly one year ago. For anyone tired of being disappointed by the words “gauzy pop rock,” this – a precisely arranged tangent of harpsichord kerchief waves, art-school dialect, and flute brain massage – is for you.