"Visions" For a good stretch of 2012, I was unable to listen to anything but "Visions," the full-length debut from Montreal's Claire Boucher. Effortlessly hooky, deeply weird, vaguely goth, and rosy with a sprightly spirit of possibility, "Visions" (especially transcendent confections like "Oblivion") gives me hope for the youngsters, and an interplanetary jogging soundtrack.
"Oshin" Part-time Beach Fossil Z. Cole Smith's full-length outing as DIIV announces him as an indie-pop force to be reckoned with. The current nu-gaze wave may be on the verge of crashing, but "Oshin" has a forever feel to it — '80s post-punk, '90s shoegaze, and '00s dream-pop come together in a luminous (if often unintelligible) hybrid.
"Held" In the clubs this year, much more happened in the shadows than in the spotlight, and mysterious young Manchester producer Holy Other was among the most interesting things going bump in the night. Ghostly voices drift down haunted hallways, and his beats are like knocks on a door you're too scared to answer.
"Luxury Problems" On his third album, another rising Manchurian producer, Andy Stott, continues to extract the dark matter from dub techno, but this time, his sub-basement bass and knuckly beats churn beneath the delicate filigrees of Alison Skidmore's voice, which Stott clips into stray phonemes and breaths.
"Channel Orange" Much has been made of the significance of "Channel Orange" as a bold personal statement from the young singer and Odd Future cohort Frank Ocean, but its gold star isn't just for bravery. Ocean is also a restless explorer, and "Channel Orange" is among the year's most ambitious, musically rich offerings.
"Devotion" UK singer Jessie Ware has spent the past couple of years popping up everywhere — appearing on tracks with Sampha, SBTRKT, Katy B, and Joker, and making her own deep impression with smoldering singles like "Running" (masterfully remixed this year by the young brothers of Disclosure). "Devotion" is as solid as it is tender; a debut shot through with longing and promise.
"First of a Living Breed" You can get a sense of Homeboy Sandman's knack for clever flips in the title of his fourth LP, and you can feel it in the unparalleled flow he sets loose on each track. "Not Really" is the most devastatingly gentle smackdown of everything that's wrong with the bling-driven rap on the radio. Spoils are fine; skills are way better.
FIRST AID KIT
"The Lion's Roar" If death itself ever went on tour, First Aid Kit would make a great opening act. Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg write stark, spectral folk songs that chill your spine and rattle your ribs, and their tight harmonies wrap around each other like the cords of a hangman's rope.
"JIAOLONG" Canadian multi-talent Dan Snaith adds another name to his moniker stash on this more dancefloor-oriented selection, concocted while he was stuck with DJ gigs on tour. No rookie mix, "JIAOLONG" showcases Snaith's expert control over his sonics, as well as his willingness to abandon that control altogether.
"Dark York" Frankly put, us gayfolk don't often see ourselves reflected in the chrome of hip-hop, except as an occasional punch line or backhanded catchphrase (thanks again, Cam'ron). That's no reason in itself to dig queer NYC rapper Le1f's debut, but its a context that only makes its many triumphs more electric. Rap's always been raw; Le1f upgrades it to fierce.
"Top Ten Hits of the End of the World" Sisters (and ex-locals) Taraka & Nimai Larson created a faux-compilation of 10 made-up bands (complete with photos) who all perished in an invented apocalypse. A flight of fancy like this could easily cross into real-disaster territory, but precious pop gems emerge from the smoldering waste. A sublime sham.