petak, 7. prosinca 2012.

NPR Music's 50 Favorite Albums Of 2012 itd.

NPR Music's 50 Favorite Albums of 2012.

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NPR Music's 50 Favorite Albums Of 2012

cover for Control System

Probably the least visible artist in the Los Angeles hip-hop quartet Black Hippy, Ab-Soul proves formidable in his own right with his second studio release, Control System. He is confident (comparing himself to Jay-Z in "Illuminate") yet vulnerable (in "Book of Soul" he raps about health struggles, the suicide of collaborator Alori Joh and fears of losing his mother and music). He mixes political criticism and emotions with raw honesty and lyricism over tight production, a staple of the Top Dawg Entertainment imprint. Control System is subtle and no easy listen, but the payoff is beyond worth it. In the widely quoted opener, "Soulo Ho3," Ab-Soul raps, "Said I was the underdog / Turns out I'm the secret weapon." Now, the secret is out. —Briana Younger

cover for Boys and Girls

In some ways, this debut album is a victory lap. By the time ATO Records released the full studio debut of Huntsvile's finest little bar band in April, a huge fan base had embraced Brittany Howard as the most exciting rock 'n' soul vocalist since Adele, and her boys have proven themselves on stages worldwide. The band's 2011 EP contains four of the best songs here, including the unquenchable anthem "Hold On," which made our list last year and really should have been Barack Obama's campaign song (sorry, Boss). But you know what? The other seven songs on Boys & Girls are irresistible, too, and it's all held up long past the rush of the band's overnight rise. Roll on, Alabama Shakes. You've only just begun. —Ann Powers

cover for Cello Concertos

There are two beautiful pairings here: the first of repertoire choices, the other of artists. Placing Edward Elgar's regal cello concerto with Elliott Carter's newly composed, fresh and opinionated music (recorded shortly before the composer's death in November at 103) was simply an inspired choice; each piece newly illuminates the other. And for conductor Daniel Barenboim (once married to the queen of the Elgar, the late cellist Jacqueline Du Pré) to record with soloist Alisa Weilerstein is a testament to the younger cellist's talents and old-soul sound. The filler, Bruch's Kol Nidrei, is acquitted nicely enough, but you'll turn to this album for the two big concertos. —Anastasia Tsioulcas

cover for An Awesome Wave
This record has sucked me into its trippy world like no other. Each pop/art/rock song here morphs from verse to chorus to bridge with deft precision. Rarely will 20 seconds go by before a tune unfolds with shifting arrangements, jolting starts and stops — solo voice to harmonies, solo instrument to full band — something we expect from prog-rock and rarely get with catchy pop music. The lyrics are the secret potion, though, dispensed in a way that feels cartoonish at times, film noir at other times. That exaggerated style creates a puzzle that unfolds with each listen, revealing bizarre stories and characters in phrases that are fresh and mysterious, funny and sometimes brutal. Listen over and over for lasting effect. —Bob Boilen

cover for Luxury Problems

When you think about dub music, it's natural to imagine bass-heavy instrumental reggae. The genre was born in Jamaica, after all. But that was 40 years ago, and the sounds that first shook the foundation of Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark Studios have migrated around the world. British producer Andy Stott hails from Manchester, what's believed to be the world's first industrial city, and he contorts the formula accordingly on Luxury Problems. Ganja is out as the main ingredient, replaced by gritty steam-powered machinery. It's mesmerizing, especially when Stott pairs his subwoofers with the angelic voice of Alison Skidmore. —Otis Hart

cover for Astro

Latin musicians are responsible for some great escapist music, but also some of the feistiest call-to-arms songs you've ever heard. These two extremes could be a metaphor for the experience of the Latin American people — perhaps we're so good at both styles because we often come from situations that demand such measures. Chilean band Astro is an example of the first category: When your brain is on fire from listening to the band's more politicized Chilean counterpart, Ana Tijoux, listening to Astro is like a vacation. The synth pop-heavy music and back-to-nature imagery on this album have earned Astro the nickname "Chile's MGMT." Snark all you want: There's not a single track on this record that I don't love; that hasn't gotten me antsy in my seat to dance. Or, as our classical-music writer Tom Huizenga said when he stopped me in the hallway after listening to the album: "It's friggin' amazing."Jasmine Garsd

cover for St. Matthew Passion

The music in Bach's three-hour-long St. Matthew Passion, filled with bittersweet suffering and hope, can stand on its own. But something extraordinary happens when you experience the work through the eyes of stage director Peter Sellars, who thinks of this semi-staged version (on two DVDs) not as theatre but instead as a "prayer" or "mediation." The choristers and soloists have memorized their parts, freeing them to interact with each other (and the audience), pulling you deep into the humanity of Bach's drama. Simon Rattle conducts a slimmed-down and sensitive Berlin Philharmonic and a terrific set of vocalists, chief among them Mark Padmore, who pours his heart out as the evangelist in a staggering performance. Bach's music, Sellars' conception and this moving performance will leave you trembling. —Tom Huizenga

cover for The Bravest Man In The Universe

We expect albums by elder statesmen to confront advancing age by wrestling it to a winded truce or by teasing, spraying and dressing it up as a specter of the past. The 68-year-old Bobby Womack's first album of original material in nearly two decades sounds like someone simply turned on the lights in a studio where the songwriter's been working undisturbed for years, incorporating new trends as he encounters them. The collaboration with British musicians Damon Albarn and Richard Russell bears many of the trademarks of a contemporary indie-friendly R&B album, and Womack's songs don't look backward so much as gently acknowledge that the guy has accumulated more heartache, regret, wiles and wisdom than anybody in the game. —Jacob Ganz

cover for Elegancia Tropical

You have to know this band's reputation as a Latin Alternative darling which mashed up Colombian cumbia and electronica on its first album, Blow Up, to really appreciate the subtle power of this follow-up. It's exactly like the first time you realized the slow dance is more passionate and enjoyable than any of the fast songs. This is a young band that seems to be doing all the right things, showing growth, maturity and depth without losing what has made it so much fun so far. I can't stop listening to this album. —Felix Contreras

cover for Seven Steps

Ah, Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131: the massive, mystical seven-movement culmination of a lifetime, the one that Beethoven himself is said to have called his favorite. What more could there possibly be to say here? Leave it to Brooklyn Rider to re-imagine the first movement with slides that evoke the idea of making effort, failing and striving again — the essence of what makes Beethoven human, and divine. Brooklyn Rider complements its take on Op. 131 with an improvised piece of its own ("Seven Steps") and Christopher Tignor's luminous "Together Into This Unknowable Night," but it's Beethoven who, as ever, reigns supreme. —Anastasia Tsioulcas

cover for El Objeto Antes Llmado Disco

This is a band that has never rested on its laurels — which is ironic, because if any Latin rock band gets to gloat, it's Café Tacvba. It's outlived all other rock en Español icons from the '90s, and its music is truly the soundtrack of an era. The new record is synth-heavy, with nods to Andean and Mexican folk melodies. Part of Café Tacvba's success can be attributed to the honesty with which it writes. No marketing ploys here: The new album does not contain much in the way of drugs, sex, romance or rock 'n' roll, but instead engages in earnest introspection about life, aging, loss and living in a country ridden by violence. The band has proved that it consistently evolves with each record, but one thing always remains the same — a desire to just keep making good music. —Jasmine Garsd

cover for Dejenme Llorar

Carla Morrison's ethereal voice seems to float like a beautiful mist. Others appear to have had similar experiences: Just look at her four Latin Grammy nominations (and two wins) this year. They speak volumes about the appeal of not only her voice, but also her songwriting on the fully realized Dejenme Llorar.Felix Contreras

cover for Sun

Sun is a triumph. In the six years since she released her previous batch of all-new songs (2006's The Greatest), Cat Power's Chan Marshall suffered a nervous breakdown, was crippled by debt and went bankrupt. She also trashed all the new songs she'd originally written for Sun after a friend told her they were too sad and familiar. With her life in turmoil, Marshall took time off, only to return with the biggest, most sonically adventurous album of her career. Marshall appropriately calls Sun her "rebirth," and it is. It's also the best record she's ever made. —Robin Hilton

cover for Landing On A Hundred
Cody ChesnuTT's second full-length album (and first since his breakthrough, The Headphone Masterpiece, 10 years ago) finds the singer slaying demons, finding stability, giving thanks and boldly reclaiming his place as a should-be soul star. If there's a single theme running through Landing on a Hundred, it's the embrace of audacity; not arrogance so much as boldness, ambition and self-belief as both a birthright and a way of life. Throughout the album, ChesnuTT locates his place on a continuum — standing on the shoulders of a continent, blessed by a mother's love — in the context of springy soul that throws back to Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder while still keeping its gaze fixed forward. —Stephen Thompson

cover for America
This "two-sided" album is at times minimal and at times excessive. One side is a suite of interconnected songs; the other side sounds closer to the frenetic dance-pop aesthetic we've come to know. The "U.S.A." suite, on side two, deals with geography, America's rails and more. It's very programatic — something I've never heard Dan Deacon tackle — and I love what he's done. There's melody and there's noise. At times, America (the country) is beautiful and sometimes it's kind of harsh and ugly. That's the beauty of the album, too, and Deacon's pop/electronic/21st-century classical sound is a perfect use of his fun, eclectic palette. —Bob Boilen

cover for No Love Deep Web
Portrayed as both genre-flipping pioneers and manic PR sensationalists, the Sacramento-based Death Grips are easily the most polarizing group of 2012. With their outstanding No Love Deep Web, Death Grips' Zach Hill, Andy Morin and MC Stefan Burnett have created a confounding and alluring soundtrack to modern urban living, influenced by hardcore rap, industrial, punk and droning, synth-filled electro-pop. The album's 13 tracks shine a light on the overwhelming fatigue of being young, creative and messed up in the big city. Burnett's searing lyrics also touch upon the feelings of constant paranoia, chest-puffing braggadocio with your bros (and foes), and social/financial inequality; he's furious at — yet perversely attracted to — the grimy, brave new world we've helped to create. It's a messy, dark, sexy and disturbing album that pushes boundaries and begs for repeated listens. —Saidah Blount

cover for Debo Band
This is one of the best finds of the year, bar none. The Boston-based Debo Band takes traditional Ethiopian sounds and scales to a new place with sousaphone, accordion, violin and electric guitar — a party where funk, soul and free jazz swirl together with the heady, sultry melodies and harmonies of Addis Ababa. (If you think the album's great, then you've got to catch Debo Band live — that's where the groove and sweat really kick in.) —Anastasia Tsioulcas

cover for Swing Lo Magellan
The postmodern grab bag of stylistic appropriations that frontman Dave Longstreth stuffs into Dirty Projectors songs is ... well, you could make a long list. But newer Dirty Projectors songs — for all their Zeppelin-esque power chords, or dub reggae beats, or electronic drum swishes, or vintage washes of folk-rock — have gotten really satisfying lately, as making taut pop tunes has risen in the priority queue. In this latest collection, the lady-voice harmonies and boom-boom-chiks hit their targets the first time, and plentiful leftover mysteries of "Huh?" or "Huh!" trigger repeat firings. —Patrick Jarenwattananon

cover for 3 Pears
It's easy to admire L.A.'s favorite hat act as a country conceptualist. He's been studying the architecture of the honky-tonk for 25 years, making pristine music for fighting and loving and crying in your cerveza. But this gorgeous return to form plays up another side of Yoakam. His tenderness and sense of play shine through on 3 Pears, in songs that touch on classic Motown and the songwriting of his inspiration, John Lennon. Working with Beck, Ashley Monroe of the Pistol Annies and a subdued Kid Rock may have inspired him to loosen up, but in smoky ballads like "It's Never All Right" and loping rockers like "Missing Heart," Yoakam roams right back into his own inimitable style and makes it brand-new again. —Ann Powers

cover for Passage
Aleksa Palladino and Devon Church, the married, Brooklyn-based duo behind Exitmusic, crib from the dark palette of ambient rock sounds made popular by earlier groups such as Portishead or The Jesus and Mary Chain. Though Passage strikes a familiar tone, nothing in 2012 sounded quite like it; it's a dark, sludgy beast of a record that broods and rumbles, full of anger and anguish and loneliness, before erupting in a squall of tortured release. It's mostly bleak and intensely emotional, but also beautiful. —Robin Hilton

cover for The Idler Wheel
"And then we can do anything we want," Fiona Apple clamors seductively on her first studio album in seven years, a never-less-than-startling show of painful revelation. She's talking seduction, but the boast also describes this music. A pan-rattling pas de deux with percussionist Charley Drayton, The Idler Wheel gives constantly mutating shape to ugly and glorious truths about shaky romance and irresistible sex, deep loneliness and the need for solitude, nervous narcissism and ego-fragmenting insecurity. Apple's voice, pushing forward in garrulous lyrics and that unmistakable groan, gains maturity in dialogue with Drayton's fearless, searching rhythms. This is what being human sounds like. —Ann Powers

cover for Until The Quiet Comes
The man behind the moniker, Steven Ellison, is used to donning a broad range of hats; he's a label head, producer, composer and (just recently) a rapper. What's consistent about Flying Lotus and his music is a willingness to follow inspiration into uncharted territory. His fourth album, Until the Quiet Comes, is, like its predecessors, a drop down a rabbit hole of moods, built with electronic instrumentation, hip-hop-inspired rhythms and jazzy tonal structures. But where past journeys often wandered toward brazen cacophony, this album is more restrained. The vibes channeled here are mellower (for the most part), and his collages sound more pared-down. The resulting work is instantly recognizable as Ellison's: a twisted narrative with surprising turns that feels familiar in its oddity. —Sami Yenigun

cover for Channel Orange
Frank Ocean's music is inscrutable and gossipy. channel ORANGE sounds like his life is an open book, but he's singing with his eyes closed and he's using a stage name. With affection, he stretches the accepted parameters of R&B songs and singing, shading his blissful notes with bitter tones and leavening his fantasies with accounts of mornings after. He's in good company as he walks those tightropes — joined in voice and guitar by Andre 3000 in "Pink Matter," the Crimson Tide cheerleaders in "Forrest Gump" and the delicate touch of collaborator Malay throughout. The album is brave and funky, and it satisfies a need we didn't know we had. —Frannie Kelley

cover for Some Nights

One of two tiny, goofily monikered crews of late-twenties/early-thirties dudes who made it big in 2012 by keeping the lyrical focus narrow (lost love, lost youth, lost weekends) and blowing out the ambition to stadium size. We'll get to Japandroids a little farther down this list, but first let us celebrate fun., which mixed soft rock with theater-camp sing-alongs, fife-and-drum beats and hip-hop production — and managed not only to avoid sounding stupid, but also to score a hit that dominated radio (and TV, and the Internet) for the first half of the year. The rest of the album doesn't let up on the weird ideas or flawless pop execution. All over Some Nights, Nate Ruess and crew sound like they're giving music one last shot before packing it in. "Ten years of this, I'm not sure if anybody understands," Ruess sings in "Some Nights," the band's second inescapable hit of the year. He can't say that anymore. —Jacob Ganz

cover for First Of A Living Breed
In the grand tradition of Stones Throw Records, Homebody Sandman has made an album of artful, hysterical, disobedient hip-hop that you can dance to. The songs on First of a Living Breed sound lighthearted, the production acting as a chaser for blunt indictments of injustice, hypocrisy, imprecise thinking. He's wordy, unconcerned with recent innovations in flow and, though his delivery resembles the tallest-man-in-the-room certainty of Guru, his point of view resembles Del's. The album's polite refusal to jump on any bandwagons and the winking humor of the Queens-born one-time law student are invigorating. Frannie Kelley

cover for Sing The Delta
What do people think about in the course of the everyday? Simple things, impossible things: family, death, God, the lifelong process of losing and finding ways home. Iris DeMent writes about these matters in plainspoken songs that are subtler and more universal than her wild Arkansas-bred intonations and old-timey piano may imply. For many, this was the Americana album of the year, but to hold it in that category belies the way the 51-year-old songwriter questions tradition even as she ceaselessly explores it. Call it roots music; I call it philosophy. —Ann Powers

cover for En Yay Sah

Bubu music can be traced back hundreds of years to Sierra Leone witchcraft ceremonies. Upbeat in tempo and circular in form, it makes it easy to envision patients sweating out the demons. Expat Ahmed Janka Nabay brought bubu to America in 2003 and has been cultivating a following ever since. Among his fans is David Byrne, who released Nabay's En Yay Sah on his Luaka Bop label this year. Nabay and a cadre of adventurous Brooklyn musicians update the technology behind the African folk music, but leave its spirit alone. The cross-cultural joy on display is palpable, and not a little suitable for perspiration. —Otis Hart

cover for Japandroids
Japandroids' two members, Brian King and David Prowse, have spent much of their careers at maximum volume — making big, heroically loud rock 'n' roll that bashes brashly and then bashes some more. But Celebration Rock is about more than celebration or rock; it's also about finding meaning and value in life lived loudly, even at its shortest and messiest. What could have seemed like mere sloganeering uplift ("Yell like hell to the heavens!" "Let rip, but never let go!") instead fits seamlessly into a wonderful, grandiose, eight-song paean to youth, vitality, volume, debauchery and joy. Celebration Rock may begin and end with the sound of fireworks, but in truth, they never stop. —Stephen Thompson

cover for Alone Together
It's easy to ignore a beat record. Two-minute loops without vocals that eschew beginnings, middles and ends can seem half-baked at first listen. But if you step back and absorb Karriem Riggins' Alone Together as an album instead of a collection of instrumental hip-hop tracks, you'll find very little repetition. Riggins — a professional jazz drummer turned producer who's worked with both Betty Carter and J Dilla — deftly arranges a mélange of vintage rhythms during this 53-minute journey, from lovers rock to Tropicalia, from West Coast jazz to G-funk, never staying in any one pocket long enough to lose steam. —Otis Hart

cover for good kid, M.A.D.D. city
Kendrick Lamar puts the lie to people who say they love to read but can't listen to rap. On his major-label debut, good kid M.A.A.D. city, his word choice, the construction of his images and the development of his plot is masterful. He deserves every comparison to Nas he's already received — and he might be owed one to William Carlos Williams. Dude is perspicacious: As he says in "Poetic Justice," "Making sure my punctuation curves, every letter hits true." But don't forget about the rich sound of the album, made mostly in the Top Dawg house he's been connected to for years but hyperaware of what's happening all over the place. His voice is distinctive and trustworthy and this album is fully engrossing. —Frannie Kelley

cover for R.A.P. Music
On R.A.P. Music, Killer Mike has crafted a 12-track dissertation on the pains and gospel of hip-hop that's as explosive on the first listen as it is exciting and heart-wrenching by the 50th. Mike's deft rapping is a masterclass in craft — the cadence and rhythm of his words bite as hard as their often confrontational messages. Introspective and ideological, Mike questions his role within his family, community and country. He decries stop-and-frisk practices while weaving echoes of Occupy Wall Street into "Reagan." In the hands of producer El-P (whose own Cancer 4 Cure was another standout this year), the sound of Mike's songs is visceral, as noises both alien and organic squelch, simmer and pop. This pair is lethal. —Eleanor Kagan

cover for Violin Concerto
We tend to marvel at the old stories of Brahms working closely with violinist Josef Joachim while composing his famed Violin Concerto in D. Perhaps one day, the same wonderment will be lavished on Esa-Pekka Salonen, who collaborated with violinist Leila Josefowicz to produce his own terrific Violin Concerto. Salonen's music is eclectic and transparent, brilliantly orchestrated and inspired by his heroes — Stravinsky, Lutoslawski and Debussy — yet solidly his own. He admits trying to "push the envelope" for both the orchestra and violinist, and the result is nuanced music with an extraordinary range of texture and rhythm, flawlessly performed by its dedicatee. The accompanying orchestral piece, "Nyx," with its shimmering, nocturnal special effects, is further evidence that Salonen the conductor may well be eclipsed by Salonen the composer. —Tom Huizenga

cover for Old Ideas
We don't receive the gift of a Leonard Cohen record often; there's been a dozen studio records in 45 years and nothing since 2004. So when I heard that a new record was coming in 2012, a voice deep inside said, "Oh, please be good, please be good." It didn't disappoint. If ever any singer/poet was going to shed wisdom on aging, it was always going to be Cohen. He's now in his late 70s, so we're not likely to have this experience too many more times, but for now, Old Ideas is a thoughtful slice of philosophy, well aged and sparingly told. —Bob Boilen

cover for By A Little Light
There are lots of pleasant records where jazz bands meet string sections. This one's beautiful. For one, it's not just any ensemble, but one featuring some of the contemporary classical rock stars in eighth blackbird and jazz musicians who have collaborated over years. There are also vocals, from the singer Grazyna Auguscik (she's from Poland, and you can hear it) and from composer Matt Ulery's own untrained voice. Ulery's compositional direction is that of a bassist who has long explored textures and structures beyond standard-practice swing. The result unfurls over two eminently listenable, unusually moving CDs' worth of music. —Patrick Jarenwattananon

cover for Dreamchasers 2

Meek Mill is vehement and breathless. He rhymes like he's got to get it all out before someone cuts him off. The details of his story and those he tells on Dreamchasers 2 might not be relatable for all teenagers, treadmill runners and frustrated 9-to-5ers, but the feelings he describes are. He sounds sweaty and stressed out, but his enunciation is conversational, his delivery familiar. Walking through the tense emotional space of Dreamchasers 2 (aggression, fear, loneliness, pride) with the Philadelphia rapper — and coming out the other side — is raucous release. —Frannie Kelley

cover for Kaleidoscope Dream
Hello, pleasure centers! The second studio album from this L.A. soul chemist emits plenty of pheromones — as you'd expect from a loveman devoted to the gospel of Prince — but there's much to enjoy here beyond the music's wetness. There's range; Miguel explores influences ranging from Burt Bacharach to R. Kelly to 1980s art rockers like Talk Talk. There's ambition, as the singer pushes his falsetto in rivalry with fellow R&B remakers Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. And there's the fascinating fun of hearing a true romantic wrestle with profane impulses. To tweak the Purple One: I think we know by the way he parks his car sideways that Miguel's going to last. —Ann Powers

cover for The Cherry Thing
A global pop star puts out her first album in more than a dozen years, with the rough-and-tumble free-jazz trio named after her stepfather, in Sweden. Oh, and there's baritone saxophone. The result is a sort of cosmic R&B, a mostly-covers record where the spirits of Iggy Pop, MF Doom and Ornette Coleman mix with a voice which does it all and a band which alternately flutters and steamrolls around it. It's more spontaneous than a typical Neneh Cherry record; more plotted and sensitive than what The Thing usually puts out. It captures the trances and freakouts of their shared musical legacy, all at once. —Patrick Jarenwattananon

cover for Threads
The Minneapolis trio Now, Now has mastered the art of magnification: It takes small moments and invests them with larger meaning. Even its shortest songs, like the 100-second "Dead Oaks," invariably feel complete. Heck, all three band members are in varying stages of tininess — they're like indie-pop nesting dolls — and yet their songs ring out confidently, like the work of the biggest little pop band in America. Whether as a whole or as a collection of sweet moments, Threads is utterly charming and disarming, as it chronicles lost, thwarted or otherwise wanted love without wasting a breath. —Stephen Thompson

cover for Sorrow And Extinction
Released in the early part of 2012, Sorrow and Extinction is one of the year's most enduring metal records, a strong debut that wallows in bleak and crushingly heavy doom. Pallbearer takes its cues from Black Sabbath and Candlemass, but does so with an attention to what others in its downtuned ilk often forgo for the kind of riffs that are plentiful here: genuine songwriting. Arm these gents with a pair of acoustic guitars and the conviction and ultimate hope of these songs would remain the same. —Lars Gotrich

Adventures In Your Own Backyard
Buzz bands come and go, but Patrick Watson has consistently made music in a space where "cool" need not exist, just beauty. His latest, Adventures in Your Own Backyard, contains cinematic, emotionally driven music that bleeds earnestness and artistry, with clever instrumentation, an atmospheric blend of sound and, above all, Watson's ethereal voice. His longtime, massively talented backing band crafts fully realized scores for each of the vignettes, whether spaghetti western, action chase scene or romantic remembrance of a transient night. Watson ties it together as the omniscient storyteller, and his talent is evident when these songs burst to life with melodies and arrangements that feel instantly familiar, reminding us that adventures such as these can be found at home, in our imaginations, with our favorite records on. —Eleanor Kagan

cover for The Truth About Love
Ke$ha's the It Girl, Taylor Swift is valedictorian and Rihanna rules pop's freak-dancing prom. But nobody does genre-defying Top 40 arena music with more soul than 33-year-old Alecia Moore. Pink's as well-rounded as showbiz pros get, adept at rock and R&B, serious relationship stuff and mindless partying, dumb jokes and genuine heartache. She can work with every hit-making Svengali in West Hollywood — from Max Martin to Greg Kurstin to Nate Ruess of fun. — and still sound like nobody else. The Truth About Love is a big party, with A-list guests (Eminem!) and a sound that sashays from T. Rex-style glam to Caribbean dance beats to that old neon New Wave sparkle. But don't worry about getting lost; the hostess knows your name, and she's gonna pull you in the corner at some point and make you feel right at home. —Ann Powers
cover for What We Saw From The Cheapseats

Regina Spektor is one of our best storytellers, with a musical spirit full of McCartney and classical training that empowers her music with drama and humor. She's got quirk: One song on What We Saw From the Cheap Seats is written from the point of view of a painting, and Spektor's voice can mimic a bass note on a synthesizer or a synth drum. The heart songs — like "How," a timeless tune about memory and loss — are so painful, relatable and simple. The range of emotions on this record keeps me coming back for a laugh or a cry. —Bob Boilen

cover for Harmonielehre
The music of John Adams is embedded in the musical DNA of both the San Francisco Symphony and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas: The SFS premiered Adams' sumptuous and sparkling "Harmonielehre," and Tilson Thomas commissioned the brilliant and buoyant "Short Ride." Here, they give vibrant, joy-filled performances of both of these works, captured in beautiful, clear and present sound. If you've gotten to know Adams only recently, perhaps through the Metropolitan Opera's recent staging of Nixon in China, this album is a perfect introduction to Adams' orchestral work. —Anastasia Tsioulcas

cover for Tramp
Despite its humble title, Tramp is the boldest, most confident record of Sharon Van Etten's short career. The Brooklyn-based singer, whose earlier records were quiet, spare and mostly acoustic, embraces driving rhythms and rumbling electric guitars here, with songs that build and soar epically. It's an emotionally potent record from a singer with one of the most beguiling voices to emerge in recent years. —Robin Hilton

cover for The Seer

It took 30 years of ravaging audiences and sacrificing his own body to the stage, but Michael Gira is finally connecting all the dots of his extreme and often confrontational career. Since reconvening his noise-rock band Swans in 2010, Gira has become less a musician and more a conductor, both pushing out and reining in the barbaric sublime, particularly on The Seer. Tempered by moments of genuine vulnerability, it's a two-hour barrage of earth-shaking terror that questions itself as much as it threads lyrical and musical themes from Gira's life's work. —Lars Gotrich

cover for Twins
No other artist in 2012 equalled the creative force (or output) of Ty Segall. The singer and multi-instrumentalist, originally from San Francisco, released three gritty, loud garage-rock records this year, finishing in October with his best of the bunch, Twins. It's a monster album, with explosive guitars, thrashing beats and shredded blasts of insanely catchy hooks and turns. Segall, who's just 24, plays in a half-dozen bands and has dropped more than a dozen records in the last four years alone. A lot of musicians would consider Twins the peak of their career. In the case of Ty Segall, it's thrilling to know he's just getting started. —Robin Hilton

cover for MTMTMK
Go to any major city in Africa and you'll likely see kids in Jay-Z T-shirts riding scooters through the open-air markets where women sell beadwork and millet cakes. Explore the urban landscapes elsewhere on the globe, and you'll find little Africas everywhere, full of schoolkids, taxi drivers and aspiring hip-hop stars. The Very Best, a duo based in London's multi-culti Hackney district, perfectly captures the sound of inheritance colliding with technology and, more specifically, of electronic dance music's hustle-bustle, gaining lightness and depth from the melodicism and rhythmic complexity of African traditions. Swedish producer Johan Hugo Karlberg brings the beats, and Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya does the storytelling, in English and his native Chewa. Guests from all over the diaspora — K'naan, Baaba Maal, Amadou & Mariam, and lesser-known bright lights like the rapper Mo Laudi and the singer Seye — feed the party. —Ann Powers

cover for Accelerando
It's human nature to convert a rhythm to a dance. And when you realize that you can dance to just about anything, the task of the rhythmists is creatively liberated — and frighteningly unbound. On Accelerando, a jazz piano trio avidly takes up that challenge. It parcels out dense swirls and thick beats over 11 tracks — particularly in six judiciously curated covers which, among other things, affirm this record's heritage. "[T]his album is in the lineage of American creative music based on dance rhythms," writes the pianist, bandleader and composer Vijay Iyer. Thusly, up jumped the boogie. —Patrick Jarenwattananon

cover for Ten Freedom Summers
There are ambitious works, and then there is trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's Ten Freedom Summers. Composed over the course of 34 years, these 19 pieces for jazz quartet and chamber ensemble commemorate the African-American experience, from the Dred Scott decision in 1857 through the turbulent 1950s and '60s and ending with Sept. 11, 2001. The tenor of the tribute fluctuates throughout between Smith's Golden Quartet and the Southwest Chamber Music players, but the sound is never less than widescreen. You won't find any vamp sessions or alternating solos in Smith's interpretation of jazz — like the history he's reprising, it only moves forward. —Otis Hart

cover for Be Strong
Out of all the albums that I played for friends this year, the one that received the most visceral, nostalgic, "OMG what is this? I love it!" response was The 2 Bears' Be Strong. A side project from Hot Chip's multi-talented Joe Goddard and Ministry of Sound host and DJ Raf Rundell, The 2 Bears focuses squarely on the fun that can be had at the club, with a major tip of the hat to the influence of the gay community in dance music. The duo also pays homage to the music that got them on the dancefloor themselves: Chicago house, Carribean melodies, rave bangers, Jamaican dancehall and '90s hands-in-the-air diva jams. Be Strong is a mix of tracks that's exuberant and celebratory yet well-versed in its history, inviting listeners to join its communal dance party. —Saidah Blount


Top 10 Classical Albums Of 2012

Pianist Jeremy Denk, whose album of Ligeti and Beethoven landed on our Top 10 Classical of 2012. 
Pianist Jeremy Denk, whose album of Ligeti and Beethoven landed on our Top 10 Classical of 2012.
Michael Wilson/courtesy of the artist
At first glance, our top picks for 2012 may seem to range far and wide, from a fresh take on an epic late Beethoven string quartet to cellist Maya Beiser playing spaciously layered new music by Michael Harrison. What unites this diverse bunch is a spirit of discovery — not just in new music that we'll return to again and again but in the artistic energy that animates each of these projects. This electricity flows through newly created works like Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto, but it also sparks music that has become second nature, such as Bach's St. Matthew Passion, released this year in a revolutionary production directed by Peter Sellars. These are recordings that stand apart as vivid and vital, challenging and incredibly exciting.

Top 10 Classical Of 2012

Cover for Elgar & Carter: Cello Concertos

Alisa Weilerstein: Elgar And Carter - Cello Concertos

It's the Elgar cello concerto that has drawn most of the attention for this recording, in which MacArthur "genius" cellist Alisa Weilerstein teams up with the Berlin Staatskapelle and superstar conductor Daniel Barenboim, whose late wife Jacqueline du Pre fairly owned this work. Inasmuch as Weilerstein draws out many brilliant and deeply felt currents in this early 20th-century concerto — one of the staples of the cello repertoire — it's the performance of centenarian-plus Elliott Carter's astringently jocular cello concerto that is arguably even more of a draw, at least among Carter fans. Released just weeks before Carter's death at age 103, this album packs some emotional punches that couldn't have been foreseen when it was recorded. (Even after he turned 100, Carter seemed destined for literal immortality.) But more than that, it's brimming with smart, beautiful and fully present performances. (AT)
Cover for Seven Steps

Brooklyn Rider: Seven Steps

The centerpiece of this album is Beethoven's massive, mysterious String Quartet No. 14 in C# minor, Op. 131. The young New York-based quartet Brooklyn Rider gives the music a very different spin, sliding from note to note sometimes in what some purists would call excessive portamenti. The players want to uncover the vocal aspects of Beethoven's music, presenting themselves as singers of a song. It's a bold step that pays off in the expansion of the music's legato lines, in what is a brand-new view of an often-heard piece. (TH)
Cover for Mission

Cecilia Bartoli: Mission

Cecilia Bartoli has a habit of digging up forgotten composers. Her latest bit of musical archaeology is the mysterious Agostino Steffani, whose bio reads like a spy novel (Bartoli's research has actually inspired a new thriller based on his life). In the late 16th century, Stefani multitasked as a political operative, priest and diplomat. He's not much more than a footnote in music history, but Bartoli is changing that with Mission, featuring performances rich in detail and wonderfully accompanied by the period orchestra I Barocchisti (and another wacky album cover). Stefani's opera arias — most have never before been recorded — range widely, from frothy delights to rapid-fire coloratura numbers to long-lined, lovesick laments. (TH)
Cover for Britten: War Requiem

Gianandrea Noseda/London Symphony Orchestra: Britten - War Requiem

You know how sometimes when you go to a live performance, it's so great and so vivid that you don't remember just the music, you recall the little details of the exact time and place — where exactly you sat, the temperature of the air, the smell of the space? That was my experience hearing the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, perform Britten's War Requiem last year at New York's Avery Fisher Hall: haunting, sobering, even shocking — and utterly gorgeous. Tenor Ian Bostridge and bass Simon Keenlyside's elucidation of the poetry by Wilfred Owen was just heartbreaking. It this recording the LSO and company made as they were touring the Britten equally memorable? Yes, yes, yes. (AT)
Cover for Vagn Holmboe: Chamber Symphonies

Jan Storgårds/Lapland Chamber Orchestra: Holmboe - Chamber Symphonies

In 1996, when Danish composer Vagn Holmboe died (at age 86) his music was practically unknown in this country. But the few adventurous listeners who followed the series of Holmboe symphony recordings released on the Swedish label BIS in the 1990s got to know a fascinating artist of great integrity and compositional prowess. Now the Danish label Dacapo has released energetic performances of his three chamber symphonies with Jan Storgårds leading the agile Lapland Chamber Orchestra. Holmboe's music can be austere with melancholy or buoyant with color, but is always expertly crafted. Think of these three solid chamber symphonies in terms of sleek mid-century modern Danish furniture: deceptively simple, even glamorous lines; smooth, a little aloof, yet very sturdy. (TH)
Cover for Ligeti/Beethoven

Jeremy Denk: Ligeti/Beethoven

Jeremy Denk is smart. Really smart. But that doesn't make him a dweeb at the piano. His performances of terrifyingly difficult music — like Ligeti's finger-crushing Etudes — seem as natural as the weather, but with a decidedly personal stamp. His curiosity and wit also surface in his writing for The New Yorker, NPR Music, Newsweek and the New York Times Book Review. (The MacArthur "genius" award seems like a future no-brainer.) This coupling of Beethoven's final, forward-looking sonata with Ligeti's Etudes is fascinating. (TH)
Cover for Salonen: Out of Nowhere - Violin Concerto; Nyx

Leila Josefowicz: Salonen - Violin Concerto

I love it when a new piece of music has the power to pull you in from its very first bars. Esa-Pekka Salonen's Violin Concerto, performed to perfection with Salonen conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and accompanying its dedicatee, MacArthur "genius" grant winner Leila Josefowicz, opens with darting violin figures and a glowing vibraphone setting an agitated tone for a violin nearly in constant motion. Salonen's eclectic soundworld brims with transparent colors, shifting rhythms and, in the third movement, arena rock-style drumming. (It's no doubt the first concerto to feature a duet between violin and high-hat.) The beautiful final movement, titled "Adieu," with its mysterious chords and long, lyrical violin lines, is Salonen's musical farewell to the 17 years he spent as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (TH)
Cover for Michael Harrison: Time Loops

Maya Beiser: Time Loops

Maya Beiser is a gifted, TED Talk-ing young cellist, unafraid to push her instrument in many genre-blurring directions. On her recent album Time Loops, she conjurs a chorus of cellos, looping herself electronically in a handful of fascinating compositions by Michael Harrison (with stops along the way for music by Arvo Pärt and Bach). "Just Ancient Loops," with its evocative drone and pizzicato opening, unfolds like a journey. The music, with its blend of East and West, soars in interlocking swirls of color, rests in a central chorale and builds steam to an ecstatic conclusion, sounding as if it had always been here. (TH)
Cover for Adams: Harmonielehre; Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony: Music Of John Adams

By this point, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have music by John Adams embedded in their DNA, as these dynamite performances proclaim. Adams once described the brilliant fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine (which shares this disc with the deeper, more sumptuous and substantial Harmonielehre) as a "cranked up high-velocity orchestral juggernaut." And it certainly feels that way — like you're churning and spinning at a million miles an hour, fueled by the insistent pulse of a woodblock. (AT)
Cover for Bach: St. Matthew Passion

Simon Rattle/Berlin Philharmonic: Bach - St. Matthew Passion

The way director Peter Sellars has semi-staged Bach's massive biblical story is subtle and ingenious, a beautifully intimate ritual. Choristers and soloists have memorized all of the music, allowing the musicians to interact with each other like a community working through issues, drawing forth the humanity of the drama. The evocative, aching performance by Mark Padmore as the Evangelist is a career high point for the British tenor. (The 2-DVD set is only available via the Berlin Philharmonic shop.) (TH)

Top 10 Jazz Albums Of 2012

The Vijay Iyer Trio is Marcus Gilmore (left, drums), Iyer (center, piano) and Stephan Crump (right, bass). 
The Vijay Iyer Trio is Marcus Gilmore (left, drums), Iyer (center, piano) and Stephan Crump (right, bass).
Jimmy Katz/Courtesy of the artist
For the better part of this year, I haven't been able to shake a certain phrase from the back of my mind. It was written by the pianist and composer Vijay Iyer in the liner notes to his brilliant trio album Accelerando: "[T]his album is in the lineage of American creative music based on dance rhythms."
It's one of the more precise descriptions I've encountered for my favorite jazz records, in this year or any. None of them sing the blues the same way. But deep down, they all feel how rhythm is fundamentally movement. They all represent the utmost levels of creativity. They all plug into the wisdom of a tradition which precedes them, and they all aim to build upon it.
Here, in alphabetical order, are my top ten albums in the great lineage of jazz and improvised music of 2012.

Top 10 Jazz Albums Of 2012

Cover for All Our Reasons

Billy Hart, 'All Our Reasons'

  • Album: All Our Reasons
  • Song: Imke's March [Instrumental]
Among the cooler things about learning to play jazz is that you can often call up your elders, and sometimes even your idols, and see if they will perform with you. That's what saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Ben Street and The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson did when they asked veteran drummer Billy Hart to sit with them. Now that it's officially Hart's band — it was a friendly takeover — and now that he's got a record deal, it turns out he's more modern than the modernists. On All Our Reasons, he gets a little breathing room to indulge all his percussive fancies and the rest of the band floats along for the ride. There's wisdom here: It seeps into every open space, and neat turn of phrase, and tapered ending, and unexpected fill. Occasionally, there's catharsis too.
Cover for Book of Mæ'bul (Another Kind of Sunrise)

Darius Jones Quartet, 'Book of Mae'bul'

  • Album: Book of Mæ'bul (Another Kind of Sunrise)
  • Song: Be Patient with Me
The first thing you notice about alto saxophonist Darius Jones is his tone, a presence so pungent and plangent you wonder how a thirty-something could have lived enough of the blues to possess it. (One answer: grow up as a black man in the American South, as Jones has.) But as this third volume in a loosely autobiographical trilogy demonstrates, he's got much more than just a searing sound. While his early reputation was based largely around his free improvising, Book of Mae'bul finds Jones plotting eight defined compositions for a new quartet. This is unfolding music, music whose long tones and dissonances sound naive at first and increasingly meaningful as they gnaw at you. One standout ballad is called "Be Patient With Me," good advice for something this potent.
Cover for By A Little Light

Matt Ulery, 'By A Little Light'

  • Album: By A Little Light
  • Song: Somebody Somewhere
I'm a sucker for the meeting of strings and snares, so bassist Matt Ulery's double album attacked my predispositions from the outset. There's a wide gulf, though, from "that's nice" to "heartrendingly beautiful," and Ulery bridges that gap handily. He's been exploring textures beyond bebop for years with his other bands. He's drawing from a deep talent pool in Chicago, whether the Polish vocalist Grazyna Auguscik, or members of the new-music ensemble eighth blackbird, or his regular rhythm sections. And it's obvious he's got big ears for small details. I once asked him about chamber jazz recordings which inspired him, but I'm starting to think even that's a bit reductive. Beautiful music is the more important category.
Cover for The Cherry Thing

Neneh Cherry & The Thing, 'The Cherry Thing'

  • Album: The Cherry Thing
  • Song: Cashback
This is a collaboration between someone who was rapping on hits in the late '80s and a Scandinavian free-jazz trio known for skronking into the front row. It's also a collaboration between the stepdaughter of cornet conquistador Don Cherry, who was born in Sweden, and the band which first assembled specifically to play Don Cherry tunes. Put that way, Neneh Cherry and The Thing have much more in common: a love of American traditions, an immersion in cross-cultural improvisation, a high degree of musicianship. They unite over an inspired program of mostly covers, invoking Suicide, MF Doom, even Don Cherry himself. It's a spontaneous side of Neneh Cherry, a relatively measured version of The Thing, a compromise which draws out convictions we didn't know we craved.
Cover for Suite Of The East

Omer Avital, 'Suite Of The East'

  • Album: Suite Of The East
  • Song: Suite Of The East
The new record from bassist Omer Avital is actually an older record. It was made in 2006, just after Avital put the finishing touches on a book of tunes influenced by an intensive three-year study of Middle Eastern and North African music. It was also recorded the day after his quintet finished a month-long residency at the New York club Smalls. So not only was he working from an inspired repertoire, seamlessly melding the Sephardic with the swinging; his band had learned the material down pat. As you might imagine, the resulting recording is suffused with the ecstatic playfulness of new mastery. If Avital has any more of that bottled mojo, let's hope it takes him fewer than six years to release it.
Cover for Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans

Ryan Truesdell, 'Centennial: Newly Discovered Works Of Gil Evans'

  • Album: Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans
  • Song: Punjab
Ryan Truesdell's debut album shows all the professions often contained in the job description of "musician." When Truesdell learned of the existence of previously unrecorded charts by Gil Evans — the luminary composer/arranger who looms large among any large jazz ensemble within the last 60 years — he became a historian, tracking them down in personal collections and archives around the country. Then he became a detective, trying to rebuild the unfinished or fragmented ones. And then he was a record producer in assembling musicians to document this stuff. (He had a lot of help from the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, where he's a copyist.) It all pays off: From the first downbeat, the results are as majestic and colorful as you would expect.
More information about The Gil Evans Centennial Project is available here.
Cover for Landscape Scripture

Scott Dubois, 'Landscape Scripture'

  • Album: Landscape Scripture
  • Song: Prairie Suite
The guitarist Scott DuBois has released three albums with his quartet since 2008. And for all three, he's chosen cover art where deserted outdoor scenes are engulfed in a haze or fog. It speaks to his compositional aesthetic: pastoral and often slow to develop, like an early morning mist beginning to dissipate. But these atmospheres aren't static. His rhythm section (Thomas Morgan, bass; Kresten Osgood, drums) ticks steadily along, like the passage of so many hours, and bass clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Gebhard Ullman builds his solos deliberately, the human toil not pictured in the landscapes. It's music you could zone out to pleasantly, but when the fog lifts, you'll want to be there for the vistas.
Cover for Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush

Theo Bleckmann, 'Hello Earth: The Music Of Kate Bush'

  • Album: Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush
  • Song: Running Up That Hill
Vocalist Theo Bleckmann possesses instincts to elevate any song to a different artistic plane. Here, he chooses Kate Bush songs, which have a quality of arty-otherness parallel to his own. So with four mostly jazz-trained musicians — drummer John Hollenbeck, a longtime collaborator, among them — Bleckmann re-hears and resculpts these tunes with humor and sensitivity. You won't hear much ding-ding-a-ling here, but the brains and guts in this stuff dovetails with the creative music tradition. And of course, it's finished by a squeaky-clean, precise delivery, a neutral palette for arrangements and an exquisite thing in itself.
cover art to Inheritance

Todd Marcus, 'Inheritance'

  • Album: Inheritance
  • Song: Wahsouli
Here's a record with a lot of hidden layers. On the surface, it's a fairly straight-ahead collection where Baltimore reedman Todd Marcus fronts a piano-bass-drums quartet (two different lineups, to be precise). But Marcus' horn of choice is the bass clarinet, with its distinctive dark hue, the first tip-off. His compositions are unusually but sensibly organized; his other working band is an 8-10 piece ensemble, so he knows something about arranging. And his paternal Egyptian heritage has led him into study of music from the Arabic world, which manifests in colorful pieces like "Wahsouli" or "Blues for Tahrir." It's distinct and studied, but merges into the modern mainstream. Inheritance, implying a personal grappling with history, is a fitting title.
Cover for Accelerando

Vijay Iyer Trio, 'Accelerando'

  • Album: Accelerando
  • Song: Little Pocket Size Demons
Quite possibly my favorite single thing on record this year is track seven, "Little Pocket Size Demons," on the Vijay Iyer Trio album Accelerando. It's a version of a Henry Threadgill composition which was lopsided and rumbling enough when it was originally scored for seven people; pared down for trio, it's relentless intensity from the gun. Mind you, this album is about more than raw power: Its originals breach new territory for the classic piano-bass-drums combination, and its unexpected covers (Michael Jackson, Flying Lotus, a Duke Ellington ballet, etc.) return dialogue with other goings-on in modern music. Still, I keep coming back to that seven-minute stretch, in search of the primal irregular head-nodding it encourages. How are they possibly making this work? Inevitably, I repeat the track to find out.

Top 10 Folk & Americana Albums Of 2012

The Stray Birds released one of the finest debuts of the year.
Courtesy of the artist
More than any year in recent memory, the folk and roots music of 2012 was focused on collective roots, elements of ancestry, the stories and events which unite us. The finest traditional albums released paid homage to Nova Scotia and Appalachia. The strongest singer-songwriter records told of the hard struggles of working class people — stories which haven't changed drastically from generation to generation, but continue to be provide hope and promise. And our favorite albums from new artists (The Stray Birds, The Lumineers) were full of universal coming-of-age themes: facing reality with determination, learning how to proceed with courage. This was not a year of navel-gazing, confessional songwriting. Folksingers in 2012, more often than not, were making music to highlight communities. Given that, if another wave of the folk revival has been swelling in recent years, 2012 may be remembered as a year when it crested.

Top 10 Folk & Americana Albums Of 2012

cover for Young Man In America

Anaïs Mitchell, 'Young Man In America'

The economy was on everyone's mind this year, Anais Mitchell's ode to the working class hit the zeitgeist. The story she tells across these eleven songs is about ordinary people struggling through uncertainty and love toward basic pleasures. They face the possibility their lives will never be as great as they dreamed, and seek to make peace with what they have. She sings about hard work ("Dying Day") and the tough choices whose ramifications will inform the rest of our lives ("Shepherd"). She sets the stage on the title track – a song of ambition and promise, the hopes of a generation crash head first into economic woes and the loneliness of reality. Yet, the disc never falls into the trap of feeling sorry for itself. From start to finish, it's an album about the strength of human dignity and its place in the oft-elusive American dream.
Cover for A Tear In The Eye Is A Wound In The Heart

Black Prairie, 'A Tear In The Eye Is A Wound In The Heart'

When Black Prairie burst on the scene with their debut in 2012, folks were pleasantly surprised that members of the Decemberists could really, legitimately, pick the heck out of traditional-style bluegrass. This year, they stretched their wings a little further to embrace all manner of the folk music which has influenced them for years. There are traces of everything from Simon &Garfunkel-style singer-songwriter tunes to accordion-thick Vaudeville instrumentals, folk-goth heartbreak songs and, sure, even some bluegrass...all exquisitely delivered.
cover for Leaving Eden

Carolina Chocolate Drops, 'Leaving Eden'

There are plenty of folk troubadours tackling old-school music in an attempt at nostalgia. They step into a character to keep a certain style alive. But, while they play-act their songs, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are embodying traditional music in a way that is remarkably current and relevant. There's nothing false or put-on about the way they deliver a song like "Read 'Em John." They would bring the same energy to a fully plugged-in pop version of the same; they simply recognized they were capable of delivering it compellingly using nothing more than their voices and clapping hands. This is folk music at its truest, most artful and unadulterated.
cover for Sing The Delta

Iris DeMent, 'Sing The Delta'

Iris DeMent has made a career of writing and singing songs about faith and pain and perspective. But, on Sing the Delta, she has once and for all climbed into the skin of her songs. These are not songsabout life in the Delta or stories about the sorts of people you might find in the Delta. This is the closest approximation to how the Delta itself might sing, if it had a human voice. It's intensely personal, real, and raw; at once profane and profound. Where a lesser artist might have felt inclined to make a musical study of Delta life, DeMent cuts to the chase and embodies the spirit of the Delta.
cover for Kin

Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell, 'Kin'

Modern music is hardly wanting for collaborations, but the meeting of talents between Americana darling Rodney Crowell and memoirist Mary Karr raised some eyebrows this year. After discovering they had grown up around the same time and place, Karr and Crowell decided to tackle their roots. Families are an endless source of strengths, flaws, baggage, hope, and support, and this disc portrays each with artful aplomb. Besides, they gathered some of the most gifted artists in the roots music world to lend their voices – Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, Vince Gill, Norah Jones, and more.
cover for Seinn

Mary Jane Lamond & Wendy MacIsaac, 'Seinn'

Similarly to the way the Carolina Chocolate Drops embody Appalachian traditional music, so do Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac tackle the traditional Gaelic music of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Their guitar-and-fiddle matchup is beautifully balanced, behind butter-smooth vocals and timeless melodies. The songs are evenly balanced between traditional folk songs and newly penned originals, but you'd be hard-pressed to tell which is which. Lamond and MacIsaac's fluid, sea-like delivery captures the spirit of the island through stories only music can tell.
cover for The Lumineers

The Lumineers, 'The Lumineers'

It seems, over the past several years, the Pacific Northwest has been churning out a solid scene-shaking band at a rate of one or two per year. But in 2012, the shiniest new star came from Denver in the form of The Lumineers. Carried on the strength of three voices and a collection of acoustic instruments, The Lumineers' music straddles the lines between folk and pop; modern rock and indie roots. Their sound isn't just a stylized portrayal of rainy city hipsters in suspenders, though. Sure, there's a beat to dance to, but there's also a raw authenticity in the lyrics which gives audiences something more substantial to hold tight.
cover for We Have Made A Spark

Rose Cousins, 'We Have Made A Spark'

Rose Cousins has won handfuls of Canadian Folk Music awards and other honors, and with good reason. She has a knack for singing the saddest song she can muster with the greatest hope. Her richly personal songs have been enthralling festival crowds for years, but she remains somewhat obscure in the States. Nonetheless, We Have Made a Spark is easily one of the finest records of the year. Thematically, it's about how much we need each other and how – from love to utter lonesomeness – we are embraced by our communities. Here she called on her community of Boston musicians (Mark Erelli, Rose Polenzani, Kris Delmhorst, others) to fill in behind her with lush emotion.
cover for The Stray Birds

The Stray Birds, 'The Stray Birds'

New bands seeking to make a lasting impression on a nationwide audience are often inclined to lay it all on the line from the get-go. Unleash the full throttle of your instrumental gifts through intense solos and voice-stretching vocal performances, and perhaps folks will have no option but to listen. There's more grace and artfulness, though, in exercising restraint, as The Stray Birds do beautifully on their self-titled debut. Clearly these are players with chops, songwriters with a fierce command of their craft. But they also seem to have a grip on when to lend a hand, and when to let the songs fly on their own. This record was certainly one of the finest debuts of the year from a band to watch.
Cover for There's No Leaving Now

The Tallest Man On Earth, 'There's No Leaving Now'

This was a great year for duos and full bands – music with thick and imaginative arrangements was pouring out of every nook and cranny. But, when it comes to straight-up singer-songwriter albums, Tallest Man on Earth delivered the finest in the field this year. His poetic, passionate lyrics stand beautifully on their own, backed by the sparsest accompaniment – here a flute, there a pedal steel, elsewhere a piano. Sometimes whispering a true tale is all it takes to cut through the din. Indeed, There's No Leaving Now, with all its silence and restraint, managed to resonate with audiences across the board.

 The Top 100 Listener Picks:
  1. Mumford & Sons, Babel
  2. Of Monsters And Men, My Head Is An Animal
  3. Alabama Shakes, Boys And Girls
  4. Jack White, Blunderbuss
  5. Grizzly Bear, Shields
  6. The Lumineers, The Lumineers
  7. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange
  8. Beach House, Bloom
  9. The xx, Coexist
  10. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel...
  11. fun., Some Nights
  12. The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter
  13. Japandroids, Celebration Rock
  14. Regina Spektor, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats
  15. Passion Pit, Gossamer
  16. Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself
  17. Cat Power, Sun
  18. The Shins, Port Of Morrow
  19. First Aid Kit, The Lion's Roar
  20. Tame Impala, Lonerism
  21. The Tallest Man On Earth, There's No Leaving Now
  22. Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan
  23. Alt-J, An Awesome Wave
  24. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
  25. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, M.A.A.D. city
  26. Gotye, Making Mirrors
  27. Grimes, Visions
  28. Lana Del Rey, Born To Die
  29. Kishi Bashi, 151a
  30. David Byrne & St. Vincent, Love This Giant
  31. Sharon Van Etten, Tramp
  32. Sigur Ros, Valtari
  33. Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas
  34. Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
  35. Father John Misty, Fear Fun
  36. Amanda Palmer, Theatre Is Evil
  37. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Here
  38. Norah Jones, Little Broken Hearts
  39. Purity Ring, Shrines
  40. Bob Dylan, Tempest
  41. The Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth
  42. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill
  43. Best Coast, The Only Place
  44. Santigold, Master Of My Make-Believe
  45. The Walkmen, Heaven
  46. Sleigh Bells, Reign Of Terror
  47. Cloud Nothings, Attack On Memory
  48. Bat For Lashes, The Haunted Man
  49. Band Of Horses, Mirage Rock
  50. M. Ward, A Wasteland Companion
  51. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
  52. Gary Clark, Jr. Blak & Blu
  53. Flying Lotus, Until The Quiet Comes
  54. Lord Huron, Lonesome Dreams
  55. Yeasayer, Fragrant World
  56. Now, Now, Threads
  57. Animal Collective, Centipede Hz
  58. Hot Chip, In Our Heads
  59. Django Django, Django Django
  60. Glen Hansard, Rhythm And Repose
  61. Ellie Goulding, Halcyon
  62. Dr. John, Locked Down
  63. Kimbra, Vows
  64. Rufus Wainwright, Out Of The Game
  65. Taylor Swift, Red
  66. Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits
  67. Patrick Watson, Adventures In Your Own Backyard
  68. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Americana
  69. Pink, The Truth About Love
  70. Aimee Mann, Charmer
  71. Bonnie Raitt, Slipstream
  72. Dinosaur Jr, I Bet On Sky
  73. Wild Nothing, Nocturne
  74. Spiritualized, Sweet Heart, Sweet Light
  75. Shovels & Rope, O' Be Joyful
  76. Chromatics, Kill For Love
  77. Stars, The North
  78. Calexico, Algiers
  79. Dan Deacon, America
  80. Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur
  81. Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man In The Universe
  82. Titus Andronicus, Local Business
  83. Death Grips, The Money Store
  84. The Magnetic Fields, Love At The Bottom Of The Sea
  85. Shearwater, Animal Joy
  86. Twin Shadow, Confess
  87. Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music
  88. Heartless Bastards, Arrow
  89. Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society
  90. Swans, The Seer
  91. Benjamin Gibbard, Former Lives
  92. Rodrigo y Gabriela, Area 52
  93. Lost In The Trees, A Church That Fits Our Needs
  94. Smashing Pumpkins, Oceania
  95. Perfume Genius, Put Your Back N 2 It
  96. Nas, Life Is Good
  97. Ty Segall, Twins
  98. DIIV, Oshin
  99. Patti Smith, Banga
  100. Dum Dum Girls, End Of Daze EP

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