You asked for it. You demanded it. You begged for it. And we took our sweet time delivering it, because things like this just can’t be rushed. After hours of head-scratching, Spotify-hunting, inter-office arguing, chair-throwing and case-making, we finally put together RELEVANT’s definitive list of which tunes made 2012 most memorable. We made some painful exclusions (we didn’t list anything with an “Explicit Lyrics” sticker. Sorry, Frank Ocean). And we included an artist or two that surprised even us. But, in the end, we have to admit, it’s a great snapshot of a very great year in music. And think, the experience of enjoying the whole list is about to be yours. Remember, if you disagree or passionately feel we left something out—well, our commenting section is made for just that kind of thing.
10. Young Oceans: Young Oceans
American worship music, by and large, falls into two camps. One is the U2 model of shimmering guitars and soaring vocals. The other is the folksy, Americana pluck of banjos and bongos. Then there’s Young Oceans, and their self-titled debut is a wild reinvention of the world. The guitars float instead of roar, quietly washing over you like a slow, irresistible wave of light, and the vocals lost in reverb still manage to sound rooted in earnest pleading for God’s presence. And that presence feels, in some ways, manifest in the beauty and honesty that Young Oceans create.
9. Mumford and Sons: Babel
Sigh No More began with a roaring apology: “I’m sorry!” This year’s record-smashing follow-up finds Marcus Mumford feeling a little surer of himself, even from the eponymous first track: “I know that time has numbered my days and I’ll go along with everything you say.” Nobody can blame him for feeling on surer ground now—his band has become the biggest in the world, and they used their global platform to release an album full of conviction and heart. Noticeably absent: any semblance of babbling.
8. Lecrae: Gravity
Well, this is embarrassing. Most of us have spent a lot of time making fun of Christian rap. It’s pretty easy, since most Christian rap out there exists in terrible youth pastor videos or squeaky-clean parodies of mainstream rap songs. And then, here comes Lecrae, whose rap is loudly, unabashedly Christian, but is also loudly, unabashedly good. Lecrae spearheaded Reach Records’ wild evolution from some niche hip-hop label to a true powerhouse of music in which faith flows organically from every line of every song. On the title track, Lecrae says he wants to go somewhere where there’s no gravity, and his career seems to have already escaped orbit.
7. Norah Jones: Little Broken Hearts
Yeah, that’s right. Norah Jones. Remember her? Starbucks’ poster girl? Well, it’s time to re-introduce yourself, because she quietly released one of the year’s most impressive feats. While Jones could likely make a comfortable living churning out annual collections of dinner jazz, she’s chosen instead to explore the bounds of just what sort of music her mesmerizing voice will lend itself to, and the result is this exhilarating adventure. It sounds like Sea Change-era Beck. It sounds like Danger Mouse. It sounds like the work of a restless artist who took all the right risks. “I know that you’re dying to come back,” she croons on the hip-shimmying stunner, “Say Goodbye.” Truer words were never spoken.
6. Tame Impala: Lonerism
These days, psychedelic rock is dumb. It sounds too forced, too retro, like whoever’s making it has something to prove by living out of the back of his Volkswagon van and making all his clothes out of hemp. So it’s saying something that Lonerism sounds psychedelic—all distorted and experimental—but never sounds like head impala Kevin Parker is creating psychedelia out of lack of anything better to do. Rather, Lonerism sounds like the result of a keen mind’s spirit of adventure. And it’s inviting you to come along.
5. Of Monsters and Men: My Head Is an Animal
Over the past decade, Iceland has established itself as the global epicenter for music of quiet power and haunting beauty. Björk and Sigur Rós are the easiest examples, but Múm and Lay Low also come to mind. And then this year’s example: Of Monsters and Men and this year’s My Head is an Animal. The music sounds like a product of a post-Arcade Fire world, but the soaring glories of Iceland’s lonely glories hang about even the danceable melodies of “Little Talks” and “Mountain Sounds.” They may call themselves monsters and men, but “angelic” is the word that comes to mind.
4. Alabama Shakes: Boys and Girls
Ladies and gentlemen, Brittany Howard. Not since Adele has a vocal powerhouse come along with as much spine-chilling power and grit as this woman, who can make you forget to breathe just by singing the word “Wait,” which hits like a cannonball in the middle of the band’s breakout hit, “Hold On.” This blues-y, rootsy music sounds like it was dug out of the earth. Howard’s voice sounds like it was sent down from the heavens.
3. The Lumineers: The Lumineers
“Keep your head up!” the Lumineers shout on their dazzling anthem “Stubborn Love,” and it was a needed sentiment for 2012. With other bands screaming toward the future, the Lumineers reached into the past, sounding (and looking) like they’d wandered off the set of Cold Mountain with their cheering “Ho Hey,” seeming like they should be leading campfire singalongs on the Oregon Trail. While everyone kept suggesting we get back to what makes America great this year, the Lumineers were the only ones who seemed to take that suggestion to heart.
2. Purity Ring: Shrines
It’s easy to describe Purity Ring: electronica swirls, vaguely hip-hop beats, lots of synth-y loops—the sort of thing that’s really hip with the kids these days. What sets Purity Ring apart is the spectacular one-two punch of Corin Roddick’s sublime melodies and Megan James’ genuinely spine-tingling lyrics. The eerie opacity of what she’s singing about make the lyrics sink not so much into your head as into your guts, where they’ll be swimming around for days.
1. Grizzly Bear: Shields
This year, Grizzly Bear-in-chief Ed Doste made a bit of a rumble on indie band blogs by tweeting his frustration at his band’s Grammy snub. The rant drew some comforting reassurance from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who tweeted back, “Don’t ever question what you’ve done, Ed.” Nor should he. Of all the albums released in 2012, Shields is the album that sounds most like 2012. It’s dense and unsettling—like a neurotic Beach Boys. More than almost any album of the year, it requires your utmost attention. And although it never seems to quite resolve, those willing to look beneath the outside sheen of uncertainty will be rewarded by a deluge of intricate, wondrous beauty. Your loss, Grammys.
Japandroids, Celebration Rock: The most honestly named album of 2012.
Chromatics, Kill for Love: “Rock and roll is here to stay,” sings Ruth Radelet on the opening track of Kill for Love. Chromatics are here to make sure of that.
Stepdad, Wildlife Pop: The musical equivalent of letting a kindergartner loose in a candy store.
Ellie Goulding, Halycon: You could spend your life trying to write a better pop song than “Anything Could Happen” and you’d die a failure.
The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter: The Avetts’ quest to keep bluegrass alive scores its biggest victory yet.
Sola-Mi, NEXUS: “Where are you just before you wake from a dream?” asks Latifah Phillips on “Mother Mother,” from the Derek Webb-penned concept album NEXUS. That song is the answer to its own question.
Jack White, Blunderbuss: Jack White’s new era as a single man gives one reason to believe his best days could still be ahead of him. And he was in the White Stripes.
Beach House, Bloom: We didn’t think there’d be a way for the Baltimore duo to get any prettier than their 2010 debut. We were wrong.
Matthew Perryman Jones, Land of the Living: Jones is a man out of time, sounding like a cross between Ernest Hemingway and Jeff Buckley. Fans of both, take note.
Passion Pit, Gossamer: “Take a Walk” was a big, gooey kiss to the mainstream, but the rest of the album is a testament to Michael Angelakos’ lyrical dexterity and pop prowess.