NPR Music's 50 Favorite Albums Of 2012

Dec 9, 2012
Originally published on May 11, 2017 9:35 am

This is how we sum up 2012: beats, harmonies, struggles, breakdowns, recoveries, party starters, raw-voiced rallying cries, song suites, storytellers, pop experimenters, never-more-devastating septuagenarian poet-crooners, never-more-devastating 285-year-old oratorios, epic statements, perfect miniatures, instant classics, hard-won achievements and explosions of joy. The albums we loved in 2012 — presented here in alphabetical order — spanned genres and borders, and each one got its hooks into us. We hope you find something here that does the same for you.

Explore the list below and download a complete, printable version here.

Advisory: Some of the songs on this page contain profanity.

NPR Music's 50 Favorite Albums Of 2012


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


"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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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