Top Picks

Our music critics review the best of the year gone by

Lists, lists, everywhere. Every publication on planet Earth is publishing best-of lists at this time of year—and we're no different.

We've asked some of our resident music writers about their favorite albums of 2012, and here's what they gave us. Another round of writers will weigh in next week.

Gene Armstrong

(in alphabetical order)

Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Epic)

Not as thorny as When the Pawn ... or as elaborately orchestrated as Extraordinary Machine, this album shows Apple to be as challenging as ever, but in a stripped-down setting: It's mostly just her voice and piano, accompanied by percussionist Charley Drayton. Her latest songs are funny, sexy, depressing, creepy and brilliant.

David Byrne and St. Vincent, Love This Giant (4AD/Todo Mundo)

An inspired collaboration. Two purveyors of nonconformist pop-rock create angular melodies and jarring rhythms that make sense and are unexpectedly easy on the ears, thanks to including elements of Afrobeat, New Orleans-style horns and even minimalist classical music. It all works beautifully.

Gary Clark Jr., Blak and Blu (Warner Bros.)

On his major-label debut, this hotshot blues-rock singer and guitarist from Austin, Texas, stretches out. It's a triumphant breakthrough, demonstrating his versatility: straight-ahead rock, '60s-style R&B rave-ups, psychedelic and British invasion-style electric blues, a little Hendrix here, a little Prince there.

Kathleen Edwards: Voyageur (Zoe/Rounder)

This album by this Canadian country-folk singer leans toward her rockier side. Every song, though, sounds like an instant favorite on an alternative-folk hit parade in an ideal world, part of the credit for which must go to Edwards' co-producer, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver).

Donald Fagen, Sunken Condos (Reprise)

In the absence of a new album by Steely Dan, this will do nicely. Fagen fuses his slinky voice (nostalgia in a bottle) to forge a late-night blend of midtempo jazz, blues and pop. This album's high-sheen lacquer proves that "slick" in music need not always have negative connotations.

Garbage, Not Your Kind of People (Stunvolume)

One of the great mainstream pop-rock bands of the 1990s returned with its first album in seven years, and the pleasant surprise was that it's as good as the music of Garbage's heyday—all bright digital surfaces, rippling analog brawn and Shirley Manson, one of the best femme-fatale frontwomen in rock.

Kendrick Lamar, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (Top Dawg/Aftermath/lnterscope)

Produced by Dr. Dre, Compton, Calif.'s Lamar is easily the most inventive MC to emerge in years. One can hear elements of rap's past—G-funk, old-school, Native Tongues—but the soundscape is fresh and dynamic, with off-kilter pop and rock infusing Lamar's intricate internal rhymes about his struggle to transcend his environment.

Beth Orton, Sugaring Season (ANTI-)

The beguiling English singer-songwriter, now on her sixth album, continues to mix a classic British folk sound with electric instruments and world-music touches. The results are uniformly hypnotic and melodically inviting. And Orton sings more soulfully than ever, occasionally forgoing her trademark breathiness.

Sinkane, Mars (DFA)

The third album by the Sudan-born, Ohio-based multi-instrumentalist Ahmed Gallab (who has toured as a drummer for Caribou and of Montreal) is intense, rewarding and endlessly fascinating: Shimmering washes of synthesizer go up against African rhythms, 1960s-style jazz-funk and shoegaze head trips.

Scott Walker, Bish Bosch (4AD)

In his first studio album in six years, the avant-garde British singer and obscure genius gives us his trademark cabaret art-rock, with a cryptic sci-fi undercurrent. This recording is warmer and more inviting than predecessors Tilt (1995) and The Drift (2006), even on the nightmarish 21-minute track "SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)."

Casey Dewey

(in order of preference)

Swans, The Seer (Young God)

Michael Gira and company carved out a dense and atmospheric double-album, a concept album of uncertainty and impending doom. This is the perfect album in a year of doomsday-prepping and other on-the-brink hysterics.

Chromatics, Kill for Love (Italians Do It Better)

This late-night trek across rain-soaked streets starts with a cover of Neil Young's "Into the Black" and—on the iTunes, version, at least—ends with a 14-minute track called "No Escape." Between the two are shimmering tales full of regret, missed opportunities and lost love.

Death Grips, The Money Store (Epic)

MC Ride's cadence sounds like an auctioneer barking orders across drummer Zach Hill's battle-zone beats. Punk as fuck, and noisy as hell.

Chrome Canyon, Elemental Themes (Stones Throw)

Synthesizer noodling at its finest. Used to be, you'd meekly throw on a Tangerine Dream or Vangelis album, water your plants, scratch your bearded chin and ponder the universe. Chrome Canyon's debut is letting you know it's OK to do that again without shame.

Lumerians, Transmissions From Telos Vol. IV (Permanent)

The band is a mystery. They might be a five-piece Bay Area group that specialize in epic Krautrock-influenced instrumentals, or they might be the hooded denizens of the bombed-out Los Angeles in The Omega Man, who discovered instruments, amps and smoke machines lying around. Either way, you're going on a journey into another dimension.

Pop. 1280, The Horror (Sacred Bones)

Aptly named after a spectacular Jim Thompson potboiler, Pop. 1280 is a no-nonsense band from Brooklyn, bursting at the seams with a sci-fi punk noir aesthetic I haven't heard since the glory days of Six Finger Satellite or Cop Shoot Cop. The Horror takes no prisoners and knows where the bodies are buried.

Dead Can Dance, Anastasis (PIAS America)

A surprising and welcome return to the glorious wooden throne of Frilly Shirt Goth World Folk. It's hard to believe it's been 16 years since their last album, but they've managed to pull off a fine comeback. Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry's voices are still the main attraction, and they haven't faded one bit. I suppose that happens when you live in a magical realm.

Thee Oh Sees, Putrifiers II (In the Red)

John Dwyer is a motherfucker of a guitar player. It's as if he's holding a séance while he's playing, unleashing the ghosts of rock 'n' roll's past through a decrepit transistor amp.

Scott Walker, Bish Bosch (4AD)

Your grandmother's favorite melancholy crooner has been born again—hard. I don't know the exact moment when I fell in love with this album. It was either Walker singing about burning his teeth with kitchen matches or the flatulent noises signifying a body's death in "Corps De Blah." Or maybe it was his praising of a castrated Ronald Reagan. A scary, demanding album.

Maserati, Maserati VII (Temporary Residence Ltd.)

Yes, the climactic, soaring instrumental formula of bands like Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky is getting a little tired, but Maserati is the cream of the crop, and I invite them to stay a little longer. They're also in on the joke—a song title here is "Abracadabracab," a tongue-in-cheek hat tip to Genesis.

Jarret Keene

Best Local Metal: It was a total tossup between two Tucson hesher gangs—sludge sultans Godhunter and metalcore marauders Scorned Embrace. The former unleashed Wolves, a five-track beast on local label Acid Reflux that rattled my spine from the opening track, "(Stop Being) Sheep," and never relented. The latter pulverized my eardrums with the devastating Enclosures, which should've landed these guys at the very top of the Hot Topic T-shirt wall. Metalheads now know that this desert town is full of shredders.

Best Local Prog: Who the hell listens to heavy prog-rock anymore? I do, thanks to Tucson's Sinphonics, whose Ghost Note Anthems haunted my disc changer all year long, with no way for me to exorcise these cool, jazz-inflected grunge tunes from my head. "Vertigo" is a high point, a swirling rush of layered guitar chords that explodes into riff-crazed miasma, with singer/guitarist Andrew Rivas' intense voice soaring triumphantly—first melodically, then growlingly—above it all. The 'Phonics don't fall down, either, when penning catchy Police-grade prog-pop like the infectious "Ditta Lotta." Diverse, impressive musicianship.

Best Local Hip-Hop Mixtape: Please check out the The T.U.C. Mixtape: Tucson Underground Cares compilation, boasting 20 tracks from various word-slingers. Proceeds from the sale of the comp benefit Open Inn, supporting homeless and at-risk youth and their families in Arizona. But that's frosting on this sonic cake; this album doesn't contain a single wack track. Marvel at how expertly The Natives Are Restless sample John Prine's "Saddle in the Rain" to fashion "Not a Hobby," a manifesto for DJs, with a punchy horn section, cowboy-saloon piano and a funky groove.

Best Post-Rock: Canadian instrumental chamber-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor unveiled its first new masterpiece in 10 years, 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! It's a horrifyingly beautiful work of art that gets better, and scarier, with every listen. The album's core track is the 20-minute "Mladic," essentially the apocalyptic fervor of Revelations put to music. The violins have never sounded eerier; the guitars have never lunged with such metallic aggression. GY!BE made the Mayan end-times seem like a distinct possibility.

Best Goth-Soul: This category is ridiculous, but how else to describe the uncanny music of Al Spx, a pseudonym for a female Canadian singer-songwriter in London whose band is called Cold Specks? The Southern-doom ballads in I Predict a Graceful Expulsion are unlike anything else—though there are touchstones: Nina Simone, Nick Cave. "We fell from a dying tree," Spx sings on "Winter Solstice." "I have my God to give me my ghost." When the song builds into a din like the beating of a mad creator's heart, you'll see why Specks deserve their own firmament.

Best Indie-Rock: The Walkmen marched forward this year with an album, Heaven, even more divine than their previous disc (2010's Lisbon). Singer Hamilton Leithauser's tenor has developed into an indelibly emotional instrument and is the focus here. Whether acknowledging the vagaries of desire ("Love Is Luck") or singing a lullaby to his infant daughter ("Song for Leigh"), Leithauser consistently eschews crass sentimentality in favor of elegant romanticism. You don't have to be a dad to bask in this celestial effort.

Best Folk-Pop: Gerard Love's band Teenage Fanclub is adored for its stomping power-pop approach. With his band Lightships and its debut, Electric Cables, Love dials down the volume and cranks up the flute, glockenspiel and other assorted pastoral tones. The result is a collection of bittersweet tunes offering everything from a Velvet Underground morning of "The Warmth of the Sun" to the psychedelic blur of "Sweetness in Her Spark."

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