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Another year of excessive album consumption has come and gone, and in its wake we are left with the question – what was the best? Are the records we devoured still as excellent as we thought they were? We’ll have to wait until the Best-of-the-2010′s decade list to judge what records stand the test of time, but for now, these 12 albums from the alternative sector have given us the greatest return on investment in 2012.
12) Brian Eno – “Lux”
The father of ambient music made a triumphant return in 2012 with his first solo record in seven years, and what a sight it is. Where other works of Eno’s have worked towards creating a specific sense of place (“On Land”), or just generally creating a cloud-like atmosphere (“Music for Airports,” “Discreet Music”), “Lux” manages to conjure up a sound that feels more ambiguous than ever, without sacrificing its luscious, colorful sound.
11) Dan Deacon– “America”
Maryland’s garage-house composer extraordinaire finally got to stretch his chops in a literal way with the ambitiously titled “America.” As always the rewards of his work don’t fully reveal themselves on the first listen. Stacked with a four-part suite as diverse as the geography it’s based on, “America” proves that blasts of distortion and symphonic string movements have someone in common.
10) Mount Eerie– “Clear Moon”
The former of Phil Elverum’s double album combo, “Clear Moon” continues Elverum’s exercises in transcribing locations into sound with the help of his child-like voice. Unsure synthesizers whirl about, causing feelings of doom before moments of light pierce through the melancholy haze with beauty. Rarely has the line between the terrifying and the serene been so blurred.
9) Lambchop– “Mr. M”
Kurt Wagner and company are certainly not new kids on the block, yet their latest release shows a temperament that feels like a breath of fresh air in an increasingly polarized folk scene. More of an exercise in good taste than a country album, “Mr. M” displays the wealth of character apparent in Wagner’s voice and mixes styles from every corner of folk music into a shade that is undeniably Lambchop.
8) Toy- “Toy”
Toy’s debut album is a thrill simply for accomplishing exactly what it sets out to do. Waves of mellotron coat the album in a sheen that echoes decades of rock history that came before, but the songs maintain a garagey punch and never abandon great hooks and motoring beats. Throw a drawling British lad on top of all that, and you’ve got a classic sound that still feels new.
7) Swans– “The Seer”
One of 2012′s most surprising and exiting releases also happened to be one of the year’s most horrifying. Michael Gira has been reinterpreting his vision of Swans since the 1980′s, but not until “The Seer” have all the pieces of his voice fit together in a way that’s both brutally haunting and still kind of fun. Somehow fitting Karen O and Akron/Family into an album that seemingly plunges its sounds from the pits of hell itself (not to mention what’s possibly the most creative use of bagpipes of all time), “The Seer” is a rebirth not only for Gira, but for music that isn’t afraid to twist its joys out of the listener.
6) Flying Lotus– “Until the Quiet Comes”
On “Until the Quiet Comes,” L.A.’s master of mystique scales back the frenetic jubilance of 2010′s “Cosmogramma” to embrace a more trip-hop friendly style, Still, FlyLo somehow finds a way to fit in his most bass-heavy banger yet (“Sultan’s Request”). If this is the sound of dreams, then sleeping has never felt so exhilarating.
5) METZ– “METZ”
Opening your career with a track like “Headache” is a testament to the limitless energy of kids these days. The blistering drums and nonstop shouting of lead singer Alex Edkins pumps “METZ” with an energy akin to the sound of a steel train being derailed from its tracks.
4) Death Grips– “The Money Store”
2012 saw Death Grips storming in to not only redefine the meaning of music based in fear, but to flip hip-hop on its head entirely. The guerilla style sampling matched against MC Ride’s bludgeoning vocals and Zach Hill’s nonstop drumming makes for a whirlwind of creative energy that can only bash its head against the wall to get its message out.
3) Dirty Projectors– “Swing Lo Magellan”
After the critical praise adorned 2009′s magnificent and bizarre “Bitte Orca,” a modestly pleasant follow-up actually seemed like the most unexpected choice Dave Longstreth & friends could have made. Yet, the greatest testament to this ambitious posse of Brooklynites is that when fancy tricks and adornments are brushed away, their songs still have staying power. Conveying a sense of innocence as honest as a light breeze, “Swing Lo Magellan” is a great record that makes no fuss about how great it is.
2) Ty Segall Band- “Slaughterhouse”
Ty Segall’s slow rise to the summit of the lo-fi garage scene was fun to watch, but “Slaughterhouse” is the record that embodies everything he has come to represent in gloriously chaotic fashion. The gnarly riffs are aplenty and the journeys into distortion are deliciously indulgent, but the sound of Ty Segall playing his songs with a band that feeds off his energy is one that manages to make everything feel like 1970 all over again.
1) Tame Impala- “Lonerism”
Tame Impala’s debut, “Innerspeaker,” was nothing short of a stoner’s playground. Conjuring the sounds of late ’60s psychedelic rock and the intonations of John Lennon’s voice, “Innerspeaker” was a wonderfully accurate record that begged the question of how Tame Impala would proceed from this precedent. It turned out that not changing much was the best possible decision. Though Tame Impala’s basic sound remained the same, “Lonerism” manages to improve upon their debut in almost every way. The hooks are more pronounced and frequent, the musicianship is still grand but less flashy, and the songs are built more around their ecstatic choruses. The quality of the songwriting is so consistent that it feels like a cheat to call their music retroactively fetishizing. Rather, with “Lonerism,” they carry on the tradition of those before them into the 21st century, writing heady pop songs for a generation of headphone-adorning outcasts, with a sound the size of the sun.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Sam Goldner at Samuel.firstname.lastname@example.org.