The 20 best albums of 2012 so far

Our round-up of the best records released this winter sees a new class emerging.

As the year hurtles forward, we wanted to offer a brief round of applause to the 20 best records released so far. And what a season it’s been! From the exquisite melodies of Julia Holter and Nite Jewel to the masterful sonics of Demdike Stare and Kindness 2012 is shaping up to be a vintage year. This has been, in many ways, a generation-defining three months – it’s noticeable the number of radical artists who emerged within a startlingly close stretch of time, linked by a sense of innate adventurousness and songcraft, often working solo and off the London-Brooklyn drag, are now making good on early promise and releasing already classic albums.

Of course, there are several releases that stuck out outside of that formula – compilations like Pinch’s Fabric 61 and Shangaan Shake, and the reissues of Black Rain and Porter Ricks that speak to something of the moment, and that we simply love too much to ignore. Please dig in, let us know what you think, and get involved in this terrific moment for music.

  1. Julia Holter – ‘Ekstasis’ [RVNG Intl.]
    One of the most adventurous musicians of recent years, Julia Holter’s Ekstasis is simply the best album released in an age. It’s radical, uncompromising music that sounds as natural as breathing, music that doesn’t sound like anything else that makes you want to hear every song ever written. Julia Holter makes music in LA, and she has a vast continent at her back, but she is staring right out to sea. [CRJ]
  2. SpaceghostPurrp – ‘God Of Black’ [self-release]
    Rapper-producer SpaceGhostPurrp emerged last year as one of the more interesting of rap’s new wave with boggy, black-hearted works of Miami bass fiction, but it’s this album of cloudy, dense R&B that marks him out, not least for his ability to balance real life struggle with fantastical figurations. Now signed to 4AD, his radical take on funk and rap will hopefully reach a wider audience, but until then, get on this extraordinary, humane, bracingly adventurous artist now. [CRJ]
  3. Nite Jewel – ‘One Second Of Love’ [Secretly Canadian]
    Ramona Gonzalez aka Nite Jewel’s third album is an exercise is crystal clear production, a radical shift from her previous soft-focus sound. As the album progresses, Gonzalez’s familiarly wistful song-writing style – and previously hidden vocal strength – shine through. No I Don’t lets the dreamy weirdness back in for the best of both worlds. [JS]
  4. Various Artists – ‘Shangaan Shake’ [Honest Jons]
    Forget this is a remix album; these are sixteen of the most vital and inventive compositions out there of any kind. Kicking off with Mark Ernestus’ spindly rework, taking in MMM’s jittery house, DJ Rashad & DJ Spinn’s measured gallop, Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir’s warm and perky party starter, Hype Williams woozy re-imagining, both of Actress’ bristling cuts, and plenty more playful and clever rework magic between all those. Of course it’s also an excellent reminder of just how good the source material is. ‘Shangaan Shake’ is a strong reminder of how many bright and forward thinking minds music has going for it right now. [TEE]
  5. Grimes – ‘Visions’ [4AD]
    Third album of electronic-R&B-pop from the lovely Grimes. As Youtube has demonstrated, Oblivion’s addictively catchy vocal and perfectly wielded synth lines are irresistible. The whole album is a shifting balance between the ethereal voice and and the weightier sounds of hardware – check the delicately moreish Visiting Statue and the surprisingly Enya-like Symphonia. [JS]
  6. John Talabot – ‘Fin’ [Permanent Vacation]
    Barcelona producer John Talabot’s ‘ƒin’ is incredibly clever. Capable of stirring up spirits with its balmy, uplifting melodies that radiate a wrapped up and shimmering glow, the whole album is also tinged with sadness, in quite an unexplainable way. It perfectly captures the ‘bittersweet’ feeling, which begs you to ponder and leaves you aching for more. It is a thrillingly sensational ride with a kind of stillness placed just right, and that’s perhaps where the mystery, beauty, and attraction of ‘ƒin’ lie. [KKYC]
  7. Ital – ‘Hive Mind’ Planet Mu
    ‘Hive Mind’ is a dense and multi-layered web. Every sound on their has probably been thought through carefully, chosen because it says something about how human beings live in an increasingly digital and machine-reliant age. But it’s also physical, jolts your body into movement with an intense pull. It’s that ability to balance mind and body so well that makes ‘Hive Mind’ so magnetic. [TEE]
  8. Main Attrakionz – ’808s And Dark Grapes’ [Type]
    Not strictly released for the first time this year, but repressed by the ever-reliably interesting Type. It’s an album at once earthy and starry-eyed, light sparkling beats trickle and sway, while the Oakland duo woozily rhyme in a laid-back way that nevertheless cuts deep and true. Undeniably beautiful, both in its dense textures and emotional dexterity, it shows rap’s rich underground healthily on the rise. [TEE]
  9. Blondes – ‘Blondes’ [RVNG Intl.]
    No one can hit transcendence on the head quite like Blondes. Over eight jams they wrap their pulsing analogue sprawls around your brain and refuse to let go. All but two of these tracks have been released as pairs as 12“s before, but its testament to how strong and unique Blondes vision is that all these releases mesh together so well. This is a debut album incredibly exciting for where this band might go next, and in the here and now it’s a heady blend guaranteed to send anyone skywards. [TEE]
  10. Porter Ricks – ‘Biokinetics’ [Type]
    Reissue of atmospheric dub techno album from 1996, originally released on Mark Ernestus’s Chain Reaction label. It’s dub techno with palpable tension – as the album goes on, the rhythms become more intricate, unstable and unsettling. A totally engrossing listen with a real sense of power behind it. [JS]
  11. Tanlines – ‘Mixed Emotions’ [True Panther Sounds]
    Tanlines’ energy and wit were thrilling across their early singles. But it’s this album that’s really made me fall for them, because it’s a record that deals in the real life of its standout song. ‘Mixed Emotions’ is a sharp, poppy album for people who want music to surprise them and speak to them and songs that use fingerclicks and make the world seem a little bigger and kinder. [CRJ]
  12. Horrid Red – ‘Celestial Joy’ [Terrible]
    While there have been enough post-punk referencing albums released in the last decade, few are as melodic, fresh, impressionistic and batty as ‘Celestial Joy’. A band of west coast American lo-fi punks, it features camp-y faux German vocals, abounding optimism and an innocent sense of the joy of creation rare in modern music. Plus, A++ coverart. [CRJ]
  13. Pinch – ‘Fabriclive 61’ [Fabric]
    Pinch’s mix for the Fabriclive series doesn’t mess around. He’s straight in at the deep and dark end with Distal’s Venom (Part 2) and from then on the weight doesn’t really let up. Granted Swims sounds a touch antiquated being released on a mix CD now, but generally the selection is interesting, drawing on the murky in-betweens of techno house and dubstep he so deftly weaves together in his own productions. A skilled, well-blended outing for the shadowy end of the dance-floor. [TEE]
  14. Black Rain – ‘Now I’m Just A Number: Soundtracks 1994-95’ Blackest Ever Black
    London label Blackest Ever Black are renowned for their dark, bleak, and highly immersive releases that emphasise on moods, atmosphere, the dooms and glooms over the physicality of sounds. Their seventh release, delivered by New York’s Black Rain – a 90s industrial outfit formed by Stuart Argabright and Shinichi Shimokawa – is no exception. It’s a spine-chilling and ominous hellscape that is saturated with washes of suffocating, decaying textures and tension so irrefutably unhinged and almost apocalyptic it is a world of darkness and horror of its own. [KKYC]
  15. The Caretaker – ‘Patience (After Sebald)’ [History Always Favours The Winners]
    The Caretaker aka James Kirby made this album out of the out-of-copyright Franz Schubert piece ‘Winterreise’ for filmmaker Grant Gee. This unique album is a dark and broody collection of songs made from layers of drawn out vocals and piano, covered in hiss and atmospherics. It’s haunting, otherworldly, nostalgic and fragile. [JS]
  16. d’Eon – ‘Music For Keyboards Vol. 1’ [self-released]
    Montreal’s d’Eon, who co-released the exceptional ‘Darkbloom’ EP with Grimes last year, achieves a dreamy, mesmerising effect with his set of sublime and beautifully harmonical tracks in ‘Music for Keyboards Vol. 1’. Despite the abundance of sonic layers, a softness prevails: hiding behind those syrupy keyboards notes, which are occasionally grand and delicate, while at times bright, gelatinous and bold, are a kind of overpowering emotional intimacy, which is able to move and strike deeply. The idea of making an album out of charming keyboards notes might be simple, but the results are tremendous and supreme. [KKYC]
  17. Carter Tutti Void – ‘Transverse’ [Mute]
    Last year’s live performance from Nik Void of Factory Floor and Chris and Cosey. Five extended tracks, varying from the bass-heavy drive and drone of V3 to the driving machine bleakness of V4. Hypnotic and engrossing, there’s a driving funk in there somewhere amongst the encroaching machines. [JS]
  18. Demdike Stare – ‘Elemental’ [Modern Love]
    ‘Elemental’ may come across as a spooky, desperately menacing and suspenseful record on first listen. Yet if you listen carefully, its array of the wide-ranging sounds will unveil its abstract, daunting guise to expose a world of Demdike Stare-morphed obscure archival music, field/industrial recordings and dubstep, bass, ambient and techno. From slowly tumbling sub-bass to skipping, staggering percussion; sparse and darkened pools of pulsating clatter to static, exquisite ambient noises; demented hisses and snares to the swells and moans of unsettling synth notes; it is an immensely interesting and majestic trip that should appeal to anyone who appreciates the many different terrain of sound. [KKYC]
  19. Kindness – ‘World You Need A Change Of Mind’ [Female Energy/Polydor]
    Adam Bainbridge’s take on the expressionist disco funk and brainy theory of the early 80s is probably the best sounding record of the list – masterfully produced by Phillippe Zdar of Cassius, the lushness of sound as well as the artful simplicity of his melodies and emotional message make this one of the year’s finest records. [CRJ]
  20. Lana Del Rey – ‘Born To Die’ [Interscope]
    While there’s a lot about Lana Del Rey that seem a a little “posters on a self-obsessed first-year philosophy student’s room” (romantic melancholy! Nabokov! Road trips across America!) underneath the over-obvious lyrics is a wonderful, weird and startlingly personal pop album. Stuffed with odd details (biographical and musical) this is a surprisingly devastating record, and one whose success must be applauded. [CRJ]

Listen to all of these as a Spotify playlist

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