With thousands of new albums released each year, it's not easy to narrow down a list to just the top 10, but that's what CL's music critics have done. Each writer submitted a Top 10 list along with a defense of his or her No. 1 selection. Not surprisingly, no two top albums are the same, though we've got some overlap. Kendrick Lamar appears on three lists — making his phenomenal Good Kid, MAAD City CL's overall choice for album of the year. A number of other artists made repeat appearances — Frank Ocean, Fiona Apple, Alabama Shakes, Swans, Killer Mike, Ariel Pink, Baroness, Horseback, Schoolboy Q, Matthew E. White, Joey Bada$$, Nas, Mount Eerie and Charlotte's Bo White. Below are each writers' No. 1 picks and beaucoup honorable mentions.
Gary Clark Jr. -- Blak and Blu
Gary Clark Jr. could have simply followed the path fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughn set out before him, but 28-year-old Austin guitarist Clark blazes his own trail here. Clark stirs up a range of emotions through his fuzzed-out guitar riffs as much as with his lyrics. Blak and Blu bounces between classic rock, slow-rolling blues, heart-wrenching soul and upbeat R&B while his guitar work keeps it neatly tied together. Just when you think you have Clark figured out, with his Black Keys-meets-Lenny Kravitz-meets-Smokey Robinson style, he ends the album with a classic, acoustic-blues foot-tapper that conjures up the spirit of Robert Johnson.
2- Avett Brothers – The Carpenter
3- Joshua James - From the Top of Willamette Mountain
4- Half Moon Run – Dark Eyes
5- Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror
6- Andy the Doorbum – The Man Killed the Bird
7- Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel
8- Baroness – Yellow and Green
9- Alabama Shakes – Boy and Girl
10- Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Big Moon Ritual
Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
Song for song, Channel Orange is not just the best album of any genre in 2012, but it's a grower that gets exponentially better with each listen. For one thing, Frank Ocean is a classic storyteller; he hasn't forgotten that spinning a good yarn is the most important aspect of pop songcraft. As for innovation and experimentation, he pushes the boundaries of contemporary R&B and hip-hop throughout, but not with a heavy hand; he takes the complex arrangements and unpredictable melodies of songs such as "Sweet Life" in new directions — and yet keeps it all warm and soulful — at a time when pop continues to crash in on itself, and nostalgia wrapped in post-modern packaging is often seen as innovative when it's not. Finally, Ocean knows what time it is: It's 2012, and on Channel Orange he deals with topics important to listeners in the here and now, from the continued toll that drug addiction takes to the awkwardness of love and romance in the 21st century. It doesn't hurt that Ocean promptly came out after the album's release, making the clearly gay-centric lyrics to "Bad Religion," "Pink Matter" and "Forrest Gump" resonate all the better to a generation for whom homosexuality is no longer an aberration, but just one more texture in the ongoing painting that is humanity.
2- Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel...
In which the unpredictable singer/songwriter finally turns in absolute perfection; Apple's arrangements and obsessive attention to detail pay off in spades.
3- Schoolboy Q - Habits & Contradictions
Props to fellow Black Hippy Kendrick Lamar, but for my money, Q is the Top Dawg stoner rapper of 2012.
4- Flying Lotus - Until the Quiet Comes
The prog/psychedelic/soul/jazz/hip-hop experiment really gels here for Steven Ellison, the great nephew of the late jazz power couple John and Alice Coltrane.
5- Bo White con la Orquesta Seleccionada - Same Deal / New Patrones
A leading light on Charlotte's experimental music scene (Calabi Yau, Yardwork), White's exploration of the essence of the style of Mexican folk song known as the narcocorrido (drug ballad) goes beyond mere tribute by infusing jazz, folk and Latin textures into an avant-indie-rock narrative that's at once highly adventurous and infectiously accessible.
6- Ana Tijoux - La Bala
It was a tough choice between this record by Chilean singer/rapper Ana Tijoux and two others on my list of 2012 Spanish-language faves: Guatemalan blues belter Gaby Moreno's Postales and Mexican singer/songwriter Carla Morrison's Déjenme Llorar. But the rich string arrangements and powerful songs on La Bala make for the best orchestrated rap ever.
7- Alabama Shakes - Boys and Girls
Muscle Shoals-style Southern rock 'n' soul lives! – as indie rock.
8- The Coup - Sorry to Bother You
In which the longtime Marxist rapper goes groovy '80s new wave. Boots Riley is all about keeping Public Enemy-style protest alive and well, and I'm all about supporting his effort.
9- Amadou & Mariam - Folila
Bringing Santigold and members of TV on the Radio and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs into their Malian mix, A&M expand Afropop's boundaries yet again.
10- Kellie Pickler - 100 Proof
Marty Stuart may have released the most reverent country record of the year and Taylor Swift the most pop country, but Albemarle native Kellie Picker released the most country country album of 2012, and that's the way I like it.
The other 15:
Django Django - Django Django
Carla Morrison - Dejenme Llorar
Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, MAAD City
Cloud Nothings - Attack on Memory
Marty Stuart - Nashville Vol. 1: Tear The Woodpile Down
Gaby Moreno – Postales
Bob Dylan - Tempest
Grimes - Visions
Ka - Grief Pedigree
Spiritualized, Sweet Heart, Sweet Light
Japandroids - Celebration Rock
Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Here
Andrew Bird - Hands Of Glory
Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again
Wild Nothing - Nocturne
I don't know about you, but I am about as sick as I can be of this "nostalgia music" thing. How many albums emulating '80s pop do we really need? I say only one. And that one is Wild Nothing's Nocturne. I don't care what style you'd call Jack Tatum's music, but it seems like everything he comes up with sounds good. A little synthy, a little shoegazey, this record is full of earworm hooks and lyrics that are simple without being simplistic. Maybe it's not ground-breaking, but I bet you'll still be spinning this record this time next year. I know I will.
2- Beach House - Bloom
3- Kishi Bashi - 151a
4- Shovels & Rope - O' Be Joyful
5- TEEN - In Limbo
6- David Byrne & St. Vincent - Love This Giant
7- Ariel Pink - Mature Themes
8- Pearl & the Beard - Killing the Darlings
9- Kaki King - Glow
10- Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo MagellanCorbie Hill
Mount Eerie - Ocean Roar
Such a fascinating and personal record. I love the ebb and flow between the textured Kraut/metal-ish instrumental washes and the delicate little micro-songs, and I keep finding new things to latch onto and explore. With so many Mount Eerie records this year, it's kinda hard to pick just one as a favorite - but this is the one that has me. I still listen to it several times a week.
2- Baroness - Yellow & Green
3- Earth - Angels of Darkness Demons of Light II
4- Horseback - Half Blood
5- Nicholas Szczepanik - We Make Life Sad - such masterful drones!
6- Locrian - The Clearing/The Final Epoch
7- Temperance League - Temperance League
8- Screaming Females - Ugly
9- Grohg - Culture of Petty Thieves EP
10- J Kutchma & the Five Fifths – PastoralJordan Lawrence
The Men - Open Your Heart
"Turn it Around," the hard-driving rock 'n' roll juggernaut that begins Open Your Heart, hinges on a repeated dare: "I want to see you write a love song/ I want to see you go down/ I want to see it when you look so fine/ I want to see it when you turn it around." It's a call for versatility, one The Men fulfill with the album that follows. The title track is an urgent and accessible classic rock come-on with earnest intentions. Contrast it with "Animal," a feral mutation of '50s pop with snarling vocals and girl-group backers who serve as fodder for the singer's sex-crazed persona. Move on to "Oscillation," a bass-driven post-punk build where riffs ricochet through seven minutes of all-consuming catharsis. It's not always cohesive, but Open Your Heart proves The Men to be ambitious and capable in a way that outstrips the majority of their peers. Challenge completed.
2- Ty Segall Band - Slaughterhouse
3- White Lung - Sorry
4- Mount Eerie - Clear Moon
5- Pig Destroyer - Book Burner
6- Swans - The Seer
7- Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music
8- Matthew E. White - Big Inner
9- Xiu Xiu - Always
10- Horseback - Half BloodMike McCray
Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, MAAD City
This may be the first album I've heard since I became an adult that made me legitimately think I'll share this with my kids when they're old enough. This album was a seamless story with songs I feel like I could hear 20 years from now and light up as I rap along to every word. Packaged like a short film, it was current, autobiographical, and sonically in step with what we'd grown to love from Kendrick Lamar as an indie act, despite it being his mainstream debut. It proved that radio could embrace genuine lyricism and that the West Coast, once again, has something to say.
2- Joey Bada$$ - 1999
3- Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dreams
4- Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
5- Nas - Life Is Good
6- Schoolboy Q - Habits & Contradictions
7- Childish Gambino - Royalty
8- Big K.R.I.T. - 4Eva N A Day
9- Freddie Gibbs - Baby Face Killa
10- (tie) G.O.O.D. Music - Cruel Summer/2 Chainz - Based On A T.R.U. StoryPat Moran
Crystal Castles - III
"Oppression is a theme," says Crystal Castles' Alice Glass, describing the electro-shock duo's latest LP III. "The world is a dystopia where ... corruption prevails." It's hard to dispute her when 2012's travails include inequality, bigotry and environmental meltdown. III focuses on conflict, but the in-your-face chip-tune terrorism of earlier efforts has been abandoned, and softening the band's signature sound actually sharpens its impact. Raging at the dying light, Crystal Castles turn dread into compassion on III. On "Kerosene," Glass coos sweetly through a wall of electro-plasm: "I'll protect you from all the things I've seen." God knows Crystal Castles are miserable, but now the stress and sorrow are tempered with the promise of healing.
2- Café Tacuba - El Objecto Antes Llamado Disco
3- Spottiswoode & His Enemies - Wild Goosechase Expedition
4- Astro - Astro
5- Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Mature Themes
6- Santigold - Master of My Make-Believe
7- Carolina Chocolate Drops - Leaving Eden
8- Otis Taylor - Otis Taylor's Contraband
9- (tie) Future - Pluto; Air - Le Voyage Dans la Lune
10- (tie) Dr. John - Locked Down; Chromatics - Kill For Love
Honorable mentions: John Cale: Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood; Bat for Lashes: The Haunted Man; Monophonics: In Your Brain; Scott Walker: Bish BoschJohn Schacht
Sonoi - Tropics of Holland
In an era when pop songs celebrate sonic over-indulgence by having every available nook and cranny slathered with synthesizers, multi-tracked vocals and processed beats, this trio's knack for allowing breathing space between effects and the effected singles its music out. Judicious contrasts wind up highlighting all elements, and in that Sonoi aesthetically resembles fellow Chicagoans Jim O'Rourke and Califone. Whirring loops and needlepoint guitar lines juxtapose on "Lucite Umbrella." The driving Television guitar riff in "Cotton" gets dressed in swatches of feedback. Discreet shades of background noise color the feathery piano-and-acoustic guitar folk of "Little Russian." Even straight-ahead tracks like the Pavement-flavored "Micro Coliseum" or jazzy "Wyatting" have their edges manipulated almost imperceptibly. These tracks offer instructive proof that magic happens in negative space.
2- Giant Giant Sand - Tucson: A Country Rock Opera
3- Bo White - Same Deal, New Patrones
4- Andre Williams & the Sadies - Night & Day
5- Matthew E. White - Big Inner
6- Dirty Three - Toward the Low Sun
7- Various Artists - Aimer Et Perdre —To Love and To Lose Songs (1917-1934)
8- The Whammies - The Whammies Play the Music of Steve Lacy
9- Andrew Bird - Break It Yourself
10- Eleni Mandell - I Can See the Future
Honorable mentions — Antlers/Undersea (EP), Jimmy Cliff/Rebirth, Takka Takka/A.M. Landscapes, JKutchma & the Five-Fifths/Pastoral , Carpet of Horses/It's Only Light, Alabama Shakes/Boys & Girls, Lee Fields/Faithful Man, Screaming Females/Ugly, Bob Mould/Silver Age, King Mez/ My Everlasting Zeal, Temperance League/Temperance League, Calexico/Algiers, Sun Kil Moon/ Among the Leaves, Jon Porras/Black Mesa, Ravi Coltrane/Spirit Fiction, Yardwork/Slamdunk, Gabriel & the Hounds/Kiss Full of Teeth, Kelan Philip Cohran & Hypnotic Brass Ensemble /Kelan Philip Cohran & Hypnotic Brass EnsembleSamir Shukla
Swans - Seer
There's beauty in dark, pummeling music. Swans relay this beauty in epic compositions as well as shorter songs on this two-disc set. Patience is a virtue when listening to Swans, where frontman Michael Gira conducts the merry men into composing beautiful noise. The 32-minute title track contorts sounds, moods, chants and layers of music into a study — well, more of a dive into the recesses and emotions of the mind. Seer is a culmination of nearly three decades of Gira's work exploring haunting music, laden with chanting vocals, precise repetition, and both thunderous electric and subtle acoustic guitars that are elevated by eclectic percussion. This is an intense record from an essential band.
2- Soundgardern – King Animal
3- Bob Mould – The Silver Age
4- Avett Brothers – The Carpenter
5- Mark Lanegan – Blues Funeral
6- Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania
7- Punch Brothers – Who's Feeling Young Now?
8- Norah Jones – Little Broken Hearts
9- Japandroids – Celebration Rock
10- Madness - Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da DaEmiene Wright
Reks - Straight, No Chaser
Like its title suggests, Straight, No Chaser is Reks at his most direct, most honest and personal. Statik Selektah's Premier-inspired beats support but never overtake Reks' clear-eyed rhymes on parenthood, politics, and life, delivered with his sharpest flows yet. The rapper of "Grey Hairs" is making hip-hop for adults: relatable, real, not preachy but by its very maturity a challenge to the status quo of ratchet excess flooding the airwaves.
2- Nas - Life is Good
3- Ab-Soul - Control System
4- Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City
5- Chance the Rapper - 10 Day (mixtape)
6- Joey Bada$$ - 1999
7- Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music
8- Brother Ali - Mourning In America and Dreaming In Color
9- Lupe Fiasco - Food and Liquor II
10- RZA - The Man with the Iron Fists (Soundtrack)