This list will add nothing to the playlists of dedicated music listeners who paid attention during the course of 2012. That said, this month of June provides probably the last legitimate moment to pay respects to the best music of that year and advise anyone in need of good new music to start here before moving on to the best new and yet-to-be-released music of 2013.
5. Foreign Fields – Anywhere But Where I Am [Independent]
This album beat The xx’s Coexist, Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music and Grizzly Bear’s Shields in a dead heat. Foreign Fields need the publicity, and in any given year the top five albums are only a hair’s breadth apart; even number five is excellent. If you don’t like quiet, sparse stuff with breathy harmonies, echoing pianos, drifting synths and a pervading sense of isolation and sadness, skip this. Their blurb reads: ‘Recorded in an abandoned office building in the dead of Wisconsin winter.’ If that sounds like something you’d sink into, do.
4. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp [Jagjaguwar]
Released in January, Tramp tempted me to call ‘album of the year’ within a month. Van Etten is a dark, melodic songwriter with a knack for getting under your skin. Her versatile arrangements and delivery set her apart, especially with the coming to fruition of her gripping, off-kilter harmonies. Singing along is listening to your voice disappear into eight others (all hers) doing uncomfortable, unexpectedly pleasant things. Underneath it all – and most importantly – she is a mesmeric songwriter, powerfully honest lyricist, has raw guts to spare, and Tramp is her finest work.
3. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE [Def Jam]
Ocean’s rise to fame has been atypical and telling. He was recognised from the start as an unusually talented, odd man out in Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (birthing place of Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, the Creator among others), he was taken under the wing of Jay-Z and Beyoncé (among others) when they happened to play his first mixtape in their limousine, and he was able with his debut to do what he pleased. His tremendously warped lyricism and modern R&B sensibilities have led to a concept album of the highest order, sporting some of the year’s finest songs. This is brilliant, groundbreaking, modern R&B (not made by odd white men).
2. Tame Impala – Lonerism [Modular]
Tame Impala’s first album, Innerspeaker, wasn’t perfect. It’s the truth. Kevin Parker’s first ‘70s-psychedelia trip had missteps, albeit with shining moments of brilliance interspersed. By comparison, Lonerism is perfect. Synths have made a notable appearance, but this album deals with the same sounds as the last. What’s changed is simply Parker’s talent as a songwriter and cohesiveness as an artist. All these songs – every one – are excellent, and they fit together like a third-eye painting. Who knows what he’ll do next; this seems like an apex.
1. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city [TDE/Aftermath/Interscope]
Not since Mos Def’s The Ecstatic has a hip hop album reigned over all music in a given year. I’d recommend good kid, m.A.A.d city to anybody. An album this good – a work of unselfconscious honesty, stunning poetic lyricism and phenomenal production – is good beyond taste. On good kid, Lamar reveals what came before he was the rising star of Compton. There is always the question of the unreliable narrator but Lamar gives no reason to distrust him. There’s no glory here. He flirts with alcoholism, sexual desire, gang violence and robbery, neglects his family and watches his friend die in a botched drive-by shooting – every song is a powerfully euphoric point-of-view insight. good kid is a short, tremendous work of autobiography.