Frank Ocean, Channel Orange.
"I like the anonymity that directors can have about their films. Even though it's my voice, I'm a storyteller," Frank Ocean told The New York Times in July, just before the release of his debut, Channel Orange. The album features Ocean telling the stories of many — from the super-rich kids of LA to the lone crackhead in the South — staying away from mainstream hip-hop and R&B stereotypes that demand that the artist be the figurative focal point. His brand of mellow, sunny R&B delivers the lyrics as conversational and easy; but Ocean's narratives, laid out with directorial care, are quietly forceful. (Def Jam)
Beach House, Bloom.
In May of 2012, dream-pop duo Beach House turned down a lucrative offer to have its new album, Bloom, hit the shelves of a Starbucks near you as a featured in-store CD. It refused to be defined, the band insisted, as easy listening. On Bloom, Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand's fourth collaboration since Beach House formed in 2006, sounds vaster, with more ethereal textures, heavier crashes, richer organs, and fewer breathy backing tracks washing out Legrand's booming Stevie Nicks-esque exhalations. In effect, Bloom is a Beach House album that sounds like a palpably more distilled Beach House. Far from easy listening, it's more like what dream pop's fever dreams might sound like. (Sub Pop)
Mykki Blanco, Cosmic Angel: Illuminati Prince/ss.
I'm the mothafuckin' rookie of the year, spits rapper Mykki Blanco on the loopy club hit "Wavvy," with the bravado typical of hip-hop. The only thing is, Blanco is absolutely atypical of her genre. A self-described "acid punk rapper," Blanco — aka Michael David Quattlebaum Jr. — is hip-hop dosed heavily with drag performance art. Much has been made of Blanco's gender-bending sensibilities, but with the release of her first fifteen-track mixtape, Cosmic Angel: Illuminati Prince/ss, the rapper's scratchy, irreverent rhymes will pull you further into the darkest netherworlds of the night — showing that her craft extends far beyond performance. (UNO)
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.
Since 1996, when the dangerously sultry nineteen-year-old contralto Fiona Apple released her debut album, Tidal, the themes in her music have stayed reassuringly consistent: She nakedly bares her soul, in all of its ugliness, betrayal, and hurt. Yet this year's The Idler Wheel ... distinctly reflects the passage of time: Apple's lyrics are inflected more than ever with the complex spiralings of adult neuroses. Every single night's a fight with my brain, she purrs, less lamenting and more subtly amused. As such, her masterfully quivery voice, backed by her signature jaunty piano, refuses to be weighed down by its subject matter; she's too wily of a woman for that. (Epic Records)
Dustin Wong, Dreams Say, View Create, Shadow Leads.
Watching Dustin Wong live is enrapturing. Wong, a shy and unassuming presence alone on stage, delicately strums countless elaborate tinny guitar parts before gradually looping them together to create music that is, at its height, almost orchestral-sounding in its depth. A one-man band made possible through looping devices is hardly novel these days, but what sets Wong apart — evident in Dreams Say, View Create, Shadow Leads — is how he layers his notes in a slowly building, almost mathematical way to create a sound that gradually envelops you. It's psychedelic, to be sure, but only in that it inspires a certain hushed introspection. (Thrill Jockey)
David Byrne & St. Vincent, Love This Giant.
There are a lot of horns on Love This Giant. "There's something funny about it," said the famously peculiar Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, in an interview with Rolling Stone. "Horns are aping the human voice, but when you end up playing with horns, you end up aping the horns." Her collaboration with David Byrne was an idiosyncratic match made in heaven, but was in some ways a musically puzzling pairing to imagine. Tearing Clark away from her signature screaming guitar riffs and replacing them with horns was, actually, a pretty funny idea (note: it was her own). The result is Clark showing a heretofore unseen versatility, while Byrne strays pleasantly little. Together, they delight. (4AD)
Doseone, G Is for Deep.
Genres all come down to useless label-sticking at some point, but Oakland indie rapper Doseone, aka Adam Drucker, is perhaps one of the slipperiest artists to pigeonhole. Known for his high-pitched, rapidfire spitting of semi-melodic, often absurd, rhymes, Drucker has delighted fans by muddling definitions of hip-hop for more than fifteen years. His first album since 2007, G Is for Deep is nearly unrecognizable; it's more synth pop than hip-hop, and more earnest than avant-garde. "The Dose I am now is maybe not the Dose you originally got into," he told the Express. At this point, having any expectations at all would be total folly. (Anticon)
Shlohmo, Vacation EP.
Of the huge crop of SoundCloud-uploading, Twitter-savvy, Hype Machine-favorited remixers making a name for themselves online, Shlohmo was by far my favorite of 2012. Known for taking darker R&B tracks and imparting a softened, stoned, almost underwater quality to them in his electronic renderings, ex-Bay Area resident Shlohmo is definitely making a name for himself. Though his three-track EP Vacation might not be very substantial in length, he shows that his signature sound — which he's been developing since 2011's Bad Vibes, when he first strayed from synth-heavy tracks toward more ambient leanings — is not simply a cloak for remixing. Look for a full album in early 2013. (Friends of Friends)
Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan.
David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors is a notorious "musical overachiever": 2009's much-exalted Bitte Orca was a reflection of his esoteric obsessions with bouncy polyrhythms and elaborately dotted, almost mathematical, harmonies. In comparison, Swing Lo Magellan is a mostly carefree album about the joys of falling in love. Longstreth's arrangements are still complex, but when accompanied by vocalists Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle (the third crooner, Amber Deradoorian, is no longer with the band), they are far less stringent. While Swing Lo Magellan may not hit the same euphoric highs as Bitte Orca, the album is exceedingly pleasant. (Domino)
In all honesty, I can't listen to this album anymore. I listened the shit out of Visions in 2012 — hence why it belongs on this list — and as a consequence, listening to it now falls somewhere between overwhelming and unpleasant. Canadian Claire Boucher's second album under the moniker Grimes is pop-drenched industrial dance music; it's part of a new wave of dystopic cyborg pop that kneels, somewhat fatuously, at the altar of goth. Boucher's voice, a bubblegum-sweet girlish croon, is layered over droney beats that stealthily lure you in, song after song. Though her music is rarely lyrically inspiring, the atmosphere she creates is incredibly addictive. Consider yourself warned. (4AD)