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Whitney Phaneuf's Top Ten Albums of 2012

From Ava Luna to Social Studies, our critics recommend the best music of the year.

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Ava Luna, Ice Level.

Not since TV on the Radio has a band attempted such musical transmutation. Ava Luna is at once soul, post-punk, funk, pop, and doo-wop — and yet its debut album, Ice Level, doesn't sound like a confused effort. As opposed to some of the band's Brooklyn contemporaries, Ava Luna doesn't give you the sense that its members picked up their instruments after they decided it would be cool to be in a band. The seven-piece doesn't waste a note: The three women harmonize in their catchy girl-group vocals, and, along with the four men, use discord as a device for tension and release. (Infinite Best Recordings)

Allo Darlin', Europe.

Listening to Allo Darlin' transports me to the past: the way my cheeks used to flush when I talked to boys, a detached gaze in a photo where I attempted to look cool, running into the doors of a New York City subway car just before they closed and the train left the station. Europe is an album of wistful, sweeping pop songs in the vein of Belle and Sebastian, but whereas those lads want to be clever, Allo Darlin' drives straight from the heart, the direct result of Elizabeth Morris' songwriting that is simultaneously smart and sincere. This is an album about what it feels like to be lost and young, remarkably made by artists still in their youth. (Slumberland Records)

Social Studies, Developer.

It took San Francisco's Social Studies six years, many lineup changes, and a near breakup to arrive at its current sound, but it was time well spent. On its sophomore album, Developer, the band includes a lot of dream-pop's trademarks — throaty female vocals, sweeping melodies, and droning synths — but also unexpected guitar solos and rock percussion. With skilled producer Eli Crews (tUnE-yArDs) at the helm, the multi-instrumental chaos is controlled and structured into ten airtight songs. While single "Terracur" first pulled me in, the entire album is mesmerizing from start to finish. (Antenna Farm)

Chromatics, Kill for Love.

As intoxicating as liquor or lust, Kill for Love gets you high, takes you low, and — when you're hungover and foggy-brained — makes you want to do it all over again. It opens with a slowed-down, electronically enhanced cover of Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)," setting the tone for an ambitious synth-pop album that doesn't sound like all the rest. It really kicks off with the title track and its distinct drumbeat, similar to the one heard on New Order's first album, Movement, but softer and with more static and fuzz. That beat is the steady pulse of the sixteen tracks on Kill for Love, paired perfectly with restrained melody, sharp guitar riffs, and Ruth Radelet and Adam Miller's breathy cries of longing. (Italians Do It Better)

Death Grips, NO LOVE DEEP WEB.

Death Grips combines hardcore percussion and hip-hop hype in an often unappealing sound that's all its own. In a time when most hip-hop artists have taken on Top 40 bubblegum beats, glitchy bass drops, and chopped-and-chilled stutters à la "cloud rap," the Sacramento outfit bombs the listener with heavy punk drumming that lands on frantic, screamed rhymes. On its third album and second release this year, NO LOVE DEEP WEB, Death Grips is at its most raucous and rebellious, the raw energy of its live show captured in every track to the point of exhaustion for both the trio and the listener. It's tiring, but worth it. (self-released)

The Soft Moon, Zeros.

No matter how derivative they are, dramatic, brooding, synth-driven songs suck me in. Despite drawing from a mix of usual suspects — Suicide, Joy Division, Bauhaus — Oakland's The Soft Moon has pop music in its bones, which makes it a hell of a lot more fun, even if its sophomore release tries to sound like it was recorded in hell. Title track "Zeros," "Remember the Future," and "Lost Years" could move the dance floor at a retro Eighties party, a Berlin disco, or a megaclub if given the up-tempo, electro remix treatment. (Captured Tracks)

The Mallard, Yes on Blood.

The Bay Area garage movement has earned itself some haters, in part because it's the local rock scene with the most international acclaim. Set aside your prejudices for San Francisco's The Mallard, whose timeless style sounds like something you might find on a dusty record bought at a thrift store for a quarter. Its debut album, Yes on Blood, has the rawness of punk, as much grunge as it does garage, and the simple melodies of Nineties-era Kill Rock Stars indie rock, complete with deadpan female vocals. Give it a few listens and call it punk if it makes you feel any better about indulging in it. (Castle Face Records)

Bear in Heaven, I Love You, It's Cool.

The worst thing that can be said about Bear in Heaven's third album, I Love You, It's Cool, is that its prog-pop songs all blend together. But when it sounds this good, who cares? I Love You, It's Cool is simultaneously ambient — with spaced-out synths and buzzy guitars providing soothing background noise — and permeating, invading the space between your headphones with catchy hooks and textual beats. It's far more subtle than a zombie attack, but in 44 quick minutes, I Love You, It's Cool will eat your brain. (Hometapes)

Nas, Life Is Good.

Even after weathering a very public divorce, Nas knows his Life Is Good. And yet he hasn't forgotten his roots in New York City's boroughs or the hip-hop he was raised on. His eleventh studio album doesn't deviate from the formula: His rhymes take center stage, and the music — buoyed by piano, keyboards, strings, and boom-bap kicks and snares — is simply a tool to further highlight his poetry. Few artists can get away with such resistance to change, but few MCs can match the flow Nas has spent twenty-plus years perfecting. (Def Jam)

Dark Dark Dark, Who Needs Who.

Chamber-folk lends itself to being baroque and, in turn, overly sentimental and flowery. On its previous releases, Dark Dark Dark sounded like it was broke, sad, and standing alone holding a bouquet of wilted wildflowers; on its third album, Who Needs Who, those flowers are dead and gone. The Minneapolis quintet almost broke up mid-tour when its founding members — singer Nona Marie Invie and banjo player Marshall LaCount — ended their romantic relationship. It changed the band, and for the better: Invie's songwriting became simple and stark in the aftermath of heartbreak. Who Needs Who still has Dark Dark Dark's Eastern-European-orchestra-meets-New-Orleans-jazz sound, but it's more deliberate and delicate, as if, in the wake of loss, the band realized what really mattered. (Supply & Demand Music)

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