1. Grimes – Visions (4AD).
Grimes has been caught wondering aloud why she gets pegged as an infantile naif: and yet on the 90-second track that opens this, her international pop breakthrough, Clare Boucher comes off like a wide-eyed, helium-voiced anime heroine. Yes, her voice is a mix of an '80s pop moppet and a new age flake. And yes, her fashion choices, her videos, her interviews and her on-stage banter are, more often than not, insipid.
So perhaps Visions' greatest strength is that we're able to look past all that and discover a dense, layered masterpiece that, like, say, Bjork, stems from a pop history alien to preachers of punk orthodoxy: Grimes (the artist, as opposed to what may have been Boucher's personal experience) was born of Kraftwerk and Nina Hagen, grew up on Madonna and Mary J. Blige, and attended more than a few Vancouver raves and Montreal loft parties before holing up in her bedroom and blacking out the windows to imagine the dreamscapes heard here.
It's the polar opposite of what the CanRock curmudgeons tell us Canada sounds like, and yet it is clearly the sound of a lonely Canadian winter spent fantasizing of escape, of connection, of sunshine, of reimagining the self—both metaphorically and, in the case of Grimes's voice, the physical form as well. Grimes is all about transformation, not unlike Prince in his prime; like that artist, she is a solitary studio entity buried in beats, role play and libidinous exorcism.
Visions is not just the best album of 2012; it's also the best album that sounds like 2012, of aiming to find beauty in chaos, of forging an uncertain future, of navigating digital landscapes, of communication beyond words. Oh yeah--and of Canadian artists continuing to take over the world, one landmark album at a time. (This blurb originally appeared on Exclaim, where Visions was also their #1 pop album of the year. Check out the rest of their list here. I also wrote about Grimes in my pre-Polaris prize deliberations here.)
2. Leonard Cohen – Old Ways (Columbia). The master is in his finest form; his second comeback is in full swing, and not just on stage. In a recording career spanning almost half a century, this is easily one of Cohen’s best three albums, in terms of his vocals, his songwriting and his arrangements. Enough said. (My original review here. My extensive timeline for Exclaim is here.)
3. Santigold – Master of My Make-Believe (Warner). Plenty of artists claim to draw influence from all genres and all corners of the world, but few--if any--manage to transform it into pop songs the way Santigold does. Reggae, dancehall, West African grooves, '80s prog pop ala Peter Gabriel, British electronics, American hip-hop, Bollywood melodies, even the dreaded dubstep of the post-Skrillex era: Santigold pens powerful pop songs to make sense of it all. And there's no half-stepping here, no lame genre tourism, no overshadowing collaborators: she owns this record. It's the sound of an assured artist with an elastic voice, an insatiable artistic appetite and--rarer still--a sense of dynamics that allows for poignant ballads (the timeless "The Riot's Gone"), rock anthems ("The Keepers"), mid-tempo marimba pop ("This Isn't Our Parade") and strobe-light techno tracks ("Big Mouth"). Chameleons ranging from David Bowie to Lady Gaga are surely green with envy. And if Santigold is as smart as she sounds here, she won't return Madonna's calls. (This blurb originally appeared on Exclaim, where Santigold was #5 on their "groove" list. Check out the rest of their list here.)
4. Japandroids – Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl). This celebration is like an Irish wake: revelling in glory days long past at a party to end all parties. Japandroids rhapsodize about “younger us” while making rock music better than we ever remember it being. It’s a geezer rock album by 30-year-olds that’s louder, harder and more exhilarating than any young pup came up with in 2012. Bonus round: this indie Vancouver duo were named Spin magazine’s band of the year. (My pre-Polaris thoughts on Japandroids are here.)
5. Bill Fay – Life is People (Dead Oceans). Bill Fay, a long-forgotten never-was who hasn't put out a proper album in almost 40 years, has suddenly coughed up 12 deeply profound, moving, classic songs full of wonder and enlightenment and acute observation, which he has literally spent a lifetime crafting. He recorded quickly with a young producer who knew how to marry Fay's '70s British singer/songwriter vibe with occasional modern moody psychedelia on arrangements that place his lyrics in haunting, evocative soundscapes and lush, gospel-tinged folk. If you had no idea who Bill Fay was before hearing this album—I certainly didn't—you'll be thankful he waited this long to release an album this good, and rejoice in the fact that he's still alive to get his due. (I also wrote about Bill Fay for Exclaim's year-end, where he was #8 on their roots list.)
6. Corb Lund – Cabin Fever (New West). Whether he’s goofing off, telling yarns or getting his heart broken, Lund never wastes a single word. His band of Hurtin’ Albertans—the newest of which has now been in the group for 11 years—has never sounded better, and Lund’s melodies soar, whether it’s a ballad or a barn-burner. Lund rarely slouches, but he's at his finest here. Cabin Fever is Lund’s seventh album—it’s a lucky one. (I wrote about Corb Lund for Maclean's here; Cabin Fever was #1 on Exclaim's roots list, where this blurb originally appeared.)
7. Divine Fits – This is Divine Fits (Merge). Two of the only men in rock’n’roll with a convincing howl, Spoon’s Britt Daniel and Handsome Furs’ Dan Boeckner, unite for a best-of-both-bands project where their minimalist tendencies and melodic sense complement each other perfectly, sounding like a ’70s German band transplanted to a 1981 British post-punk party: Neu! wave, if you will. This is not a side project. This is a real band. This is Divine Fits.
8. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (Sony). Frank Ocean may one day prove to be the game-changer many think he is, and The Weeknd spent 2012 repackaging his triumphs of 2011—but that left Miguel with the most purely pleasurable and progressive R&B album of the year: lush, dreamlike psych pop like Prince at his paisley best, neither retro nor avant-garde, just libidinous aural dopamine, borrowing from the best and yet entirely original.
9. Snowblink – Inner Classics (Arts and Crafts). The most underrated Canadian record of the year is this quiet gem from a Toronto duo, one of whom was raised in California and clearly pines for the hazy, golden glow of that state’s coastline, which is conjured expertly in every guitar and vocal texture here. It improves with each listen, as both the songs and the experimental layers underneath illuminate themselves slowly.
10. Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, m.A.A.d. city (Interscope). Listening to Lamar makes it crystal clear why he rules supreme over every so-called hip-hop innovator of the last 10 years: he has the sonic innovation and pop hooks of Kanye West without the jackassery; he’s an expert storyteller who shames Drake’s narcissism; he’s a script-flipping role-player with a voice equally charismatic and elastic like Nicki Minaj, minus the nonsensical blabber; he comes from a life of crime like Jay-Z but actually sounds like he’s learned lessons from it. This is everything Take Care wanted to be but didn’t come close to achieving.
11. KonKoma – s/t (Soundway). Two Ghanaian legends with a red-hot London rhythm section give collectors of rare ’70s African funk some new music to get excited about for a change.
13. Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur (Maple). Right from her first album, we all knew that Edwards was the kind of songwriter who would only get better and better with age and experience; Voyageur marked major new territory for her, grabbing the attention of much more than just the roots rock crowd, and, with “House Full of Empty Rooms,” writing one of the best divorce songs since ABBA’s “Knowing Me Knowing You,” while “Soft Place to Land” is the perfect summation of a rebound relationship. (I wrote about Voyageur in my pre-Polaris deliberations here.)
14. Dva – Hu (Indiescope). This literally Bohemian duo—as in, they’re from Bohemia, in the Czech Republic—are part bossa nova, part birdsong, music that could score a spaghetti Western set in Sweden. On the rare occasion when they throw a straightforward beat underneath them, they sound like early Lykke Li. On other occasions, they sound like an unplugged Deerhoof and Patrick Watson backing up Czech avant-garde icon Iva Bittova.
15. Metric – Synthetica (Metric Music). U2 has been trying to recapture the glory of Achtung Baby for 20 years. Metric finally did it for them. The soaring melodies, the anthemic songs, the epic scope inside a five-minute song, the Edge-influenced guitars that bleed into synth textures, the slightly clever platitudes and one-liners that straddle the line between profound and pointless. Haines is writing about lives in stasis, lives once full of promise now facing defeat and monotony: “Is this my life? Breathing underwater?” The power of songs and the power of girls are two apparently ancient concepts to the idealistic narrator of “Dreams So Real,” who resigns herself to singing: “I’ll shut up and carry on / a scream becomes a yawn.”
16. Cadence Weapon – Hope in Dirt City (Upper Class). Opening track “Get On Down” begins with a blistering verse that suggests Montreal-via-Edmonton MC Rollie Pemberton is out to prove something, toying with meter and internal rhymes, and references to Cessna, Telsa, Stephin Fetchit, disinfectant and Roy Orbison, over what sounds like a bastardized Bollywood funk beat, courtesy of Doldrums. That gives you only some idea of what’s to come, which includes skronky sax, icy electro an almost-show-stealing Buck 65 cameo and plenty of narrative role-playing. (I wrote about Cadence Weapon in my pre-Polaris deliberations here.)
17. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (Domino). What would happen if Bjork and the McGarrigle sisters fronted Led Zeppelin? I had honestly never wondered before hearing this, the first album I’ve thoroughly enjoyed by this always admirably adventurous band who finally unite their heart, head and groin.
18. Dr. John – Locked Down (Nonesuch). Every year some geezer teams up with a young hotshot and attempts to make a comeback record. Few succeed. This one soars. Produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, this is the funkiest, trippiest recording Dr. John has been involved with in about 40 years, full of bold, bottom-heavy horn sections, jazzy bass, gospel backing vocals and African percussion—and of course Auerbach’s searing guitar and a snarling Dr. John behind various vintage organs and synths.
19. Bahamas – Bar Chords (Brushfire). Even though M. Ward put out a fabulous record this year, the smoothest, swoony, soul-soothing songwriter and guitar hero was Afie Jurvanen, who finally stepped out of the sideman shadow and brought his subtle charms to the big time. Though Jurvanen is a much better singer than Leonard Cohen, he too likes to use female backing vocals as an essential texture on these soulful songs, while the Weakerthans’ Jason Tait paints minimalist percussive pictures underneath.
20. Menahan Street Band – The Crossing (Daptone). This Daptone funk band needs a movie to score. Preferably one about a down-on-his-luck hero struggling to get his life back together in a formerly great American city, finding reasons to swagger despite perpetually grey skies on the horizon.
Willis Earl Beal – Acousmatic Sorcery (XL). You know that crazy young war vet who bikes around the neighbourhood late at night singing out loud while listening to Tom Waits and Cat Power and Daniel Johnston on his Walkman? That guy made one of the most intriguing arrivals of 2012. Apparently he’s embarrassed the label chose to release this, a collection of home recordings, as his debut album, but even the slightest bit of polish could negate this record’s infinite charms.
Cat Power – Sun (Matador). Rarely does an artist come back from a nervous breakdown with the most focused and accessible album of their career, but the power of Sun is that singer/songwriter Chan Marshall sounds fearless: playing every instrument (very well, especially drums), embracing a new-found confidence, writing a tarantella for the four-on-the-floor dance floor, writing a 10-minute self-help epic that doubles as a musical tribute to David Bowie’s "Heroes." Sad sack begone: let the Sun shine in.
Neneh Cherry and The Thing – The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound). This pop singer is the daughter of a jazz legend, so we shouldn’t be surprised that she shows serious chops here, reinventing punk, jazz and hip-hop classics with an equally aggressive and subtle skronky trio. Together, they’re daring and dreamy.
Jason Collett – Reckon (Arts and Crafts). Neither Nick Lowe nor Ron Sexsmith released records this year, so Collett stepped up with tiny, perfect pop songs that achieve maximum impact in minimal time.
Daphni – Jiaolong (Merge). When Dan Snaith took breaks from making intricately layered psychedelic dance music as Caribou, he banged out one track a day as Daphni in time for a DJ set later that night. The immediacy paid off: these tracks sound tactile; you can practically hear him applying the layers and twiddling the analog synths, and as a result it’s the most human-sounding EDM in a year full of commercial cock-rock takeover in the same genre. (I interviewed Snaith about this for Maclean's here.)
Debo Band – s/t (Next Ambiance). Two Ethiopian-Americans from Boston are joined by nine other musicians who bring eclectic influences into the group, including klezmer, European brass bands, R&B and psychedelic guitar. Were they intending to be entirely faithful to tradition, they wouldn’t include sousaphone, accordion and electric violin; those elements immediately set it apart from the source material, and yet there’s not a whiff of grafting incongruous elements together.
First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar (Wichita). Swedish sisters barely out of their teens, this duo is the rare European country folk act who betters the North Americans at their own game. This is neither child’s play nor role play: this is as strong as anything from Laurel Canyon in the ’70s, with subtle psychedelic touches and songs that their sworn hero Emmylou Harris would be proud to sing.
Flying Lotus - Until the Quiet Comes (Warp). There were two albums in 2012 that were equally confounding and compelling: one, Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch, is something I’m not sure I ever want to endure in one sitting ever again. The other, this Flying Lotus album, dances around my headphones like extraterrestrial jazz and opens my ears to untold possibilities. Every other record on this list plays by a certain set of easily understood rules; Flying Lotus sounds revelatory and new every time.
Guano Padano – 2 (Ipecac). Ennio Morricone is alive and well. He really is, actually, and well into his 90s, but this instrumental Italian trio takes lessons from the master of spaghetti western soundtracks for a sprawling, haunting, rollicking rumpus through reimagined landscapes that give our own Sadies a run for their Rickenbackers.
Zaki Ibrahim – Every Opposite (Motif). Sci-fi soul filed between Sade and Santigold, made by this Canadian now based in her father’s homeland of South Africa, and tapping into that country’s progressive dance scene. This gets better with every listen: who knows, in a couple of weeks this might vault into my top 10 retroactively.
The Magic – Ragged Gold (Half Machine). Thank god for crashed hard drives. Losing the first version of their debut album, Guelph band The Magic started fresh and made an astounding entrance with this collection of slick, syncopated ’80s soul that pays homage to Hall & Oates and Michael Jackson without descending down mountains of cheese.
AC Newman – Shut Down the Streets (Last Gang). One of modern pop’s greatest tunesmiths chills out with some pastoral folk-pop with psychedelic, space-age touches: flutes and acoustic guitars with bubbling Moog synths in the background ornament yet another set of timeless melodies.
Plug – Back on Time (Ninja Tune). Drum’n’bass music sounded dated mere years after its late-’90s heyday, so either enough time has passed that it now sounds refreshingly retro, or Luke Vibert—who has a number of recording aliases, Plug being one—was always considerably ahead of his peers. In 2011 he unearthed this material, made between 1995 and 1998, on long-lost DAT tapes and released it early this year. Turns out his cast-offs still sound fantastic.
Rocket Juice and the Moon – s/t (Honest Jon’s). Can a rhythm section make a record? If that rhythm section is Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, then yes, yes it can. With Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn at the helm and a slew of West African MCs and singers on the mic (as well as Erykah Badu), this record’s obscurity, even among world music followers or Albarn acolytes, remains the year’s biggest mystery to me.
Sagot – Piano Mal (Simone). Gainsbourg meets Godspeed on this debut by this drummer-turned-pianist, which is the seedy franco lounge lizard record you never knew you needed in your life.
Tindersticks – The Something Rain (Constellation). For those autumnal nights when you feel too drunk, too lecherous and too ashamed to do anything but stare out your rainy window and imagine yourself to be way more suave than you can ever actually hope to be.
Yukon Blonde – Tiger Talk (Dine Alone). Remember when Tom Petty was young and hungry and wrote killer songs? No, me neither, it was so long ago. This Kamloops, B.C., band writes summer rock songs with rich harmonies, chiming guitars and huge hooks that hit it out of the park almost every single time. This is the new classic rock.
The Weeknd – Trilogy (Universal). These three albums debuted as free downloads over the course of (oh-so-long-ago) 2011; now slightly remixed (no more obvious samples) and beefed up, they’re making a major label debut and introducing Toronto’s mysterious Abel Tesfaye to a much wider audience, who will hopefully realize that he’s far more fascinating than either Frank Ocean, with whose dark, searing take on modern R&B he shares many similarities, or Drake, who brought him to the world’s attention.
In the late ’70s, this Cameroonian Renaissance man dove headfirst into electronic music, mixing Moog synths and thumb pianos while programming polyrhythmic African beats into primitive drum machines, creating sounds that owed as much to German experimental Krautrock and French pop as it did West African music. It’s strange, welcoming, innocent, and often (intentionally) hilarious.
Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995 (Pheromone). Okay, I’m a bit biased on this one.