The 50 Best Albums of 2012

As the year comes to a close, we look back at the full-length projects that defined it.

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Complex Original

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2012 was the year that the music industry put its foot down. Although pirating music hasn't been stopped completely, the open spigot of the last decade tightened in the wake of the fall of Megaupload and other popular file sharing sites. And yet, there was seemingly more music to consume than ever before. As soon as you had warmed up to one project, there was another to digest.

Artists throwing out mixtapes in between albums—Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa—found their albums undercut by the need to keep a buzz sustained, but with official label releases meaning less each day, spreading content thin doesn't necessarily marginalize overall impact. At the same time, we learned that a market for long-winded, thought-out albums still exists. Nas and Frank Ocean released projects heavy on presentation and concept to massive critical acclaim.

2012 was a great year for music across the board. This is a fact that's made less arguable as the Internet allows listeners to find the niche that fits them best during each successive year. The biggest records of the year managed to bridge across niches, appealing to a cross-section of fan bases and even, occasionally, selling some copies.

From the return of Fiona Apple to the arrival of Chief Keef, these are The 50 Best Albums of 2012.

RELATED: 25 Rap Albums From the Past Decade That Deserve Classic Status


RELATED: The 50 Best Albums of 2016


Related: The Best Albums of 2017

50. Mac Miller, Macadelic

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49. Norah Jones, Little Broken Hearts

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Label: Blue Note
Released: April 25

For the past decade, Norah Jones has been a ubiquitous and inoffensive presence in music. She sold a gazillion records after her debut album won a bunch of Grammys, and her soft, sultry stylings were something you could tolerate in certain settings (hungover at your girl's place, for instance). Of course "inoffensive" and "tolerate" aren't ringing endorsements for music. Which is where Danger Mouse comes in.

Danger's done a lot of big things in his career: he's made the greatest mashup record of all time, he's made James Mercer of the Shins funky, and he's made Cee-Lo about 10 boatloads of money. But his greatest feat may be making Norah Jones sound mean.

Broken Little Hearts is, as the title would suggest, a break-up record, but it's not a "woe is me, teardrops in my beer bottle" break-up record. "Miriam" is a searing open letter (word to Mashonda) to her ex's new flame; "She's 22," a put-your-business-in-the-streets salvo toward said ex. Underpinning it all is Danger Mouse's trademark Beatlesque thump. The music is pretty without being cute, which sums up Jones' steez on the record as a whole. Don't mess with Ms. Jones. -Jack Erwin

48. Roc Marciano, Reloaded

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Label: Decon
Released: November 13

Roc Marciano's been around since the late '90s, but it took his 2010 debut album Marcberg for us to properly gauge his talent. In 2012, he followed it up with Reloaded, an album overloaded with quotable lyrics, ridiculous flows, and sample-heavy production. It garnered remarkable reviews in both underground rap and indie/hipster circles, winning over fans with drumless loops and unique rhythms layered beneath some of the flyest and wittiest raps of the year.

The Alchemist lent his talents to two tracks, the dark and majestic "Flash Gordon" and the hard-hitting "Pistolier," and Q-Tip also assisted on the ultra-smooth "Thread Count." But Roc was the star of the show, rhyming circles around his contemporaries, and solidifying himself as a producer that's not to be slept on.

Peep "76," "Deeper," or "Peru," and tell us that there's another rapper out there with a stronger pimp-hand behind the mic and the boards. We dare you. Dude is a problem, and even though he's already in his mid-30s, Reloaded only leads us to believe that Roc Marciano has plenty more left in the clip. -Daniel Isenberg

47. Mr. Vegas, Sweet Jamaica

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Label: MV Music
Released: May 29

Mr. Vegas's self-produced double album looks back at reggae's glorious past and paves a way forward into its future—depending on which disc you start with.

Disc No. 2 gives us the Vegas we already know and love with dancehall blasters like "Certain Law" and "Bruk It Down," which Nicki Minaj rates as her favorite reggae jam of the moment. (And wouldn't we all love to see Nicki bruk it down?) But the first disc—a celebration Jamaica's 50th year of independence—features classics of Jamaica's musical heritage delivered with a contemporary twist: Desmond Dekker's "Israelites" becomes "Gimme A Light" and so on. (The tastefully chosen guest list includes Luciano, Nadine Sutherland, Shaggy, and Josey Wales.)

Vegas shows another side of his vocal talents as he reinterprets the work of Toots & The Maytals, Desmond Dekker, and Jimmy Cliff. These are not cover versions, more like heartfelt homages. -Rob Kenner

46. Michael Kiwanuka, Home Again

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Label: Polydor
Released: March 12

Artists like Michael Kiwanuka seem to exist in another place and time. His proper debut, Home Again, could pass for something dug out of a crate of vinyl at your local record store. It's dusty and indebted to the finest artists of the '60s and '70s.

The British soul-man was clearly raised on all the staples of yesteryear, from Bill Withers to Van Morrison. While some might want to pass this off as retro-pandering, these's more to Home Again than a kid with a love for the greats. He's a talented songwriter with one hell of a voice. -Andrew Martin

45. Game, Jesus Piece

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Label: DGC, Polydor, Interscope
Released: December 11

Five albums deep into his career, it wouldn't be surprising if Game began retreating to familiar tropes and ideas. Instead, he sounds reinvigorated on his first concept album (a term that's used rather loosely). The album is often criticized for its expansive guest list (there's only one solo Game song) but what does it matter when rappers like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, 2 Chainz, and others all contribute hot verses while Jamie Foxx, Elijah Blake, and K. Roosevelt bring the soul.

Meanwhile, the production is on point and Game is compelling when rapping about trying to balance the life as a thug who still believes in God. However, the songs aren't heavy-handed and definitely not preachy. Game works the religious theme into his rhymes effortlessly. Whereas on previous efforts, his occasional church, Bible, and Jesus references went unnoticed, here they add a common thread to the album. -Insanul Ahmed

44. Twin Shadow, Confess

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Label: 4AD
Released: July 10

While his debut, Forget, was a stunning look into the past, George Lewis Jr. opts to focus on the present for his sophomore album as Twin Shadow. In particular, Confess was heavily inspired by his motorcycle trips throughout the country. Those journeys clearly led to some heavy introspection regarding his life and friendships, like on standout single "Five Seconds."

Just as important as the lyrics, though, is the instrumentation. Lewis' vocals on Confess are his strongest to date, and they perfectly complement his '80s-indebted musical style that touches on new wave, R&B, and Brit-pop. -AM

43. BJ The Chicago Kid, Pineapple Now-Laters

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Label: M.A.F.E. Music
Released: February 21

Without question, BJ The Chicago Kid's Pineapple Now-Laters was one of the most slept-on releases of the year. To be fair to the listening public, the album did drop in February, which likely caused most folks to forget about it by the year's end. But by doing so, they've discredited one of the finest modern R&B/soul efforts of 2012.

Additionally, how can anyone forget about Kendrick Lamar's show-stopping performance on "His Pain II"? It's no wonder that BJ went on to ink a deal with longtime R&B/soul powerhouse Motown over the summer. -AM

42. Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan

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Label: Domino
Released: July 10

The machinery of Dave Longstreth's strained warble-shout, supported by the golden harmonies of Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle, has been reconfigured. "Offspring Are Blank," the opener of Dirty Projector's Swing Lo Magellan, announces the change. The coos of Longstreth, Coffman, and Dekle—Deradoorian was not involved in this LP—mingle as equals before a buzzsaw of a guitar butts in. Then Longstreth's shouting. Nasty guitars and the frontman's laffy-taffy melisma are the dominant force. (Except when they aren't, but the inconsistency reinforces the loosened-tie approach.)

If the band was once an expression of will, a showcase for the possibility of human voices under extreme control, things are now coming unhinged. Longstreth hasn't caterwauled like he does on "Gun Has No Trigger" since The Glad Fact. Beats form the backbone of many of the songs, rather than the voices of the band's women. Makes sense that they'd strike out in a different direction, as Bitte Orca was the sound Longstreth had been fine tuning since the New Attitude EP made perfectly crystal. Swing Lo Magellan is the pretty shards after everything breaks. —Ross Scarano

41. Captain Murphy, Duality

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Label: N/A
Released: November 29

Flying Lotus channeled Madlib's Quasimoto project to become the pitch-fucked Captain Murphy on Duality, the free mixtape he released in November. Or maybe he just dropped some great acid. Or maybe the responsibility rests, not with Lord Quas, but with 'Lib's MF Doom collaboration, Madvillainy.

At any rate, the influences coursing through Duality have been better examined elsewhere—let's just dig into the record. If you can't listen to it—still the best way to experience something this trippy and scatterbrained—a simile will have to suffice. (It's what a rapper would do, after all.)

It's like FlyLo took a bunch of unmarked VHS tapes—some porn, some Cronenberg, some Verhoeven, some Jodorowsky—and started feeding them into the TV from Videodrome until the sounds of the New Flesh oozed from the speakers. If you're not picking up on these references, Duality might leave you cold, too.

The record wants to become a cult object, meaning it needs a language not everyone can speak. You've got to be able to process the old rap samples (do you recognize that De La Soul beat?), FlyLo's demanding hip-hop compositions, and a whole bunch of movie allusions. If all else fails, take more drugs. —RS

40. Death Grips, The Money Store

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Label: Epic
Released: April 24

Ah, one of the most polarizing acts of 2012. To those who love Death Grips, a lot of the appeal has to do with the idea of Death Grips just as much as the music of Death Grips. They're a rap group with a punk mentality and a big middle finger for the mainstream.

Things got complicated when they signed with a major label then sabotaged their own deal with an added "fuck you" in the form of an erect penis on the cover of their second album, which they leaked themselves. But their major label debut, The Money Store, captures that reckless aesthetic that forced its way into the conversation and stands as one of the most interesting hip-hop albums of the year. -Jacob Moore

39. Titus Andronicus, Local Business

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Label: XL
Released: October 22

"Okay, I think by now we've e-stab-lished/Ev-ery-thing is inherently worthless/There's nothing in the universe/With any kind of objective purpose." The key syllable in the opening lines of New Jersey punk quintet Titus Andronicus' third proper album is "stab," as it does well to describe just the method with which every piss-and-vinegar flavored truism the band comes up with gets used: With scathing, bloody, take-no-prisoners force. After all, how does a band follow a sophomore album like The Monitor, 2010's kinda-concept-album that revolved around the Civil War?

The answer adoring critics and fans were given was more or less a return to the band's roots, where ambition to do something cohesive and grand in scale was followed with an album of far less deliberate songwriting, and more deliberate projection of an ethos that sounds as much like "Go team!" as it does "Fuck us, fuck you, and fuck the tastemaking blogs we all rode in on."

Nothing in the band's repertoire vacillates so wildly between childish punk belligerence and old-soul weariness, and that's saying something, or rather, screaming it: Despondent nihilism has never been this much fun. -Foster Kamer

38. Joey Bada$$, 1999

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37. Tame Impala, Lonerism

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Label: Modular
Released: October 5

You can't talk about Tame Impala without mentioning the word "psychedelic," so let's first get that out of the way. Yes, Tame Impala makes psychedlic music. On their second album, though, the Australian rockers embrace a canvas of warm melodies and focused songwriting that shatters the stereotypical notion of a meandering acid trip of audible self-indulgence.

"Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" is an irresistible slice of pop, and while that concise lead single may be the point of entry, the rest opens up like a splash after the dive, giving way to one of the most sonically harmonious albums of the year.

The problem with psychedelic music may be that it seems to be endlessly aiming for something that it can never quite reach. With Lonerism, it sounds like Tame Impala got exactly what they were going for. -JM

36. Lil Durk, I'm Still a Hitta

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35. Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory

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Label: Carpark
Released: January 24

After two albums as the brain behind Cloud Nothings, frontman Dylan Baldi decided to branch out. He went into the studio to record Attack on Memory with his live bandmates and had them play and write songs with him. He also linked with acclaimed producer Steve Albini (he's done it all). The result? A damn near complete left-turn by Baldi and company.

While there are moments of power-pop on here—specifically too-catchy-for-its-own-good lead single "Stay Useless"—the majority of Attack on Memory is raw and, at times, crushing. On "Our Plans," Baldi sounds like he's about to lose his voice amid jangly guitar lines and pummelled drums while "Wasted Days" transforms into a distorted, sprawling freak out. Where can they go from here? -AM

34. Ratking, Wiki93

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Label: Hot Charity, XL
Released: November 6

Wiki made his mark earlier this year with his raw and aggressive song/video for "Wikispeaks." He was shockingly nice, and the production banged like a beat you might have heard on an episode of Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito's underground radio show during the mid-'90s.

Wiki's buzz caught fire, and his 1993 project was heavily praised. XL Recordings signed him and his band RATKING, and they re-released 1993 as Wiki93 after re-working the production a bit and re-recording the lyrics.

Wiki93 was the world's proper introduction to Ratking, a New York hip-hop group with a punk element that has a knack for making hard-hitting, lyrically-inclined rap records. It was like the spirit of the Beastie Boys intersecting with the sound of the Diplomats, embodied throughout seven, severing songs, all featuring Wiki catching mad wreck on the mic. Super ill. -DI

33. Jessie Ware, Devotion

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32. Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music

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Label: Williams Street, Grand Hustle, Adult Swim
Released: May 15

Killer Mike has made a career out of rapping with pugnacious acridity. Political pitbull rap. On his sixth solo project, R.A.P. Music, the 37-year-old ATLien jumps in the DeLorean with Brooklyn producer El-P for a twelve-track, high speed chase back to 1988.

R.A.P. Music is a militant throwback record teeming with new school bounce, Straight Outta Compton meets Live From The Underground. The sheer lyrical ferocity, bureaucratic bars, and infectious energy that have defined Mike's career are all ever-present throughout the project, except this time it's a lot more fun.

From his pointed diatribe on the American presidency ("Reagan") to his candid ode to his family on "Willie Burke Sherwood," Mike's growth and versatility as an MC truly shines through.

El-P provides Mike with a vast array of instrumentals, each powerful enough to stand-out without smothering Mike's lyrical abilities. The unlikely pair appear to be a match made in hip-hop heaven, pushing each other's abilities to the sonic limit, with the end product being a delicate balance of social consciousness and fervent Southern soul. -Daniel Troisi

31. Japandroids, Celebration Rock

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Label: Polyvinyl
Released: June 5

Imagine you and your friends on a bar crawl. You hit bar after bar until finally you stumble into an unfamiliar bar because hey, they sell alcohol. But as soon as you walk in one thing becomes abundantly clear: This bar never has, and never will, play rap music. In fact, it's obvious that this bar only plays '70s rock a.k.a. "white people music." Japandroids is what that bar plays when it wants to be "modern" and "hip."

Here's the thing, even if you don't like the songs right away, they will wear you down because the album lives up to its title. It's really a celebration, although one more focused on the smaller victories that only come around every so often. All of the songs sound like of like, "YEAH! WE'RE YOUNG! AND WE'RE HANGING OUT! LET'S ALL GET DRUNK!" Fuck it, why not? -IA

30. Dom Kennedy, Yellow Album

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29. Purity Ring, Shrines

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Label: 4AD, Last Gang
Released: July 24

The buzz surrounding Montreal's Purity Ring began swirling in 2011 with the release of two killer singles, "Ungirthed" and "Belispeak." They would eventually land on this past April's Shrines, the duo's debut album.

What's most thrilling about the record is its aesthetic, and it's one that finds a middle ground between cloudy production with a thick low-end and swoon-worthy dream-pop. Frontwoman Megan James doesn't command your attention with her vocals or lyrics. Rather, she complements Corin Roddick's layered beats with a tender sweetness.

It makes for a truly engaging listen, and one that begs for repeated spins to fully digest everything coming it offers. -AM

28. Chief Keef, Finally Rich

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Label: Glory Boys Entertainment, Interscope
Released: December 18

In 2011, Chief Keef had no national profile. Even Chicago hip-hop blogs were in the dark. By the end of 2012, he's behind one of hip-hop's most anticipated debuts. While its reputation might suffer in the short-term—the record compiles tracks that have been bubbling throughout the year, mixed in with some new material—it's difficult to imagine 2012 without thinking of Chief Keef's Finally Rich.

The record sparked countless discussions and controversies, and at the same time, is a strong document of a major emerging talent's strengths. The songs are catchy, the beats are hard, and the mentality of a teenage kid who rapped his way from the literal bottom creates a strong case for empathy.

He's the most hated street rapper in years, and one of hip-hop's most promising stars. And despite a few major star cameos, the record is more or less the Keef and Young Chop show, a truly consistent major label debut that, defying all expectations, lived up to the hype and then some. -DD

27. The xx, coexist

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Label: Young Turks
Released: September 5

Following up their debut album must have been an intimidating task for The xx. They came out of the gates as one of the most critically appreciated indie acts, and in one album they so effortlessly established a trademark sound of deadpan, minimalist, metallic style that flirted with this unique dynamic of the boy-girl vocal formula and a blend of organic and electronic elements. Whether they stuck to the script or switched it up, it seemed like their sophomore album couldn't possibly live up to the expectations inflated by their first. But it did.

Coexist doesn't stray far from the overall vibe that we got from the debut, but it's smarter, more mature, and Jamie xx's growth as a producer gives this project an electronic subtlety that was lacking previously. This album was far from a let-down, and the best thing about it may be that although it's not as immediate as their first, it gets better with each listen. -JM

26. Big Sean, Detroit

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Label: Warp, LuckyMe
Released: July 23

Production duo TNGHT emerged this year seemingly out of nowhere with an eardrum-shattering sound that commanded everybody's attention. Hudson Mohawke, who earned a production credit for his work on G.O.O.D. Music's smash hit "Mercy," and Lunice, whose resume boasts remixes for the likes of Diplo and The xx, developed an organic partnership that has since yielded the frantic and chaotic collection of instrumentals that comprise their self-titled debut EP. The project is 16 minutes of massive beats that even the most fearless of rappers would think twice about approaching. Yup, it slaps that hard.

From hard 808s to neck-snapping snares and head-scratching samples, the pair kicked in the front door with their initial offering. In theory, the sounds used shouldn't add up to anything close that makes sense, but Hudson Mohawke and Lunice have the type of chemistry that ultimately produce some seriously volatile material. -JP

24. G.O.O.D. Music, Cruel Summer

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Label: G.O.O.D. Music, Def Jam
Released: September 14

G.O.O.D. Music's compilation Cruel Summer dropped only a couple of days before fall began, but the collective dominated the summer with the smash hit posse cut "Mercy," Pusha T and Kanye West's "New God Flow," Kanye's swaggerific solo cut "Cold," and the Hov-assisted single "Clique" with Yeezy and Big Sean. By the time we got the whole album, the major highlights from it were already on repeat.

The album had plenty more heat following those releases. A high-potent verse from Ghostface Killah, whose "Mighty Healthy" beat and chorus was sampled on "New God Flow," was added to the album version. His Wu-Tang partner-in-rhyme Raekwon appeared on "The Morning," another reggae-infused posse jam with a hard, hip-hop tone that also featured Common, Pusha T, 2 Chainz, and CyHi Tha Prince. 'Ye teamed up with R. Kelly for the lead song on the LP, "To The World" to similar effect.

Bottom line, this was an album packed with hit songs, crazy collaborations, and star-studded remixes featuring both new and veteran talent behind the mic and the boards. If anything, it was just too cold for the season it was released in. -DI

23. Bat for Lashes, The Haunted Man

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Label: Parlophone
Released: October 12

Natasha Khan called Radiohead's Thom Yorke long before writing this album, and asked, "What do you do when you feel like you're going to die because you can't write anything?" He told her to draw which led Khan, or Bat For Lashes, to take a life-drawing and a children's illustration course. Soon enough, she was able to write The Haunted Man, her third album. Her take on dream-pop and folk stories culminated into one of the best albums of the year.

Maybe it's the cover art but Khan's ability to strip herself of everything and formulate raw, emotional tracks like "Winter Fields" and "Laura" make you doubt that she had writer's block in the first place. Khan is able to take listeners away to a nostalgic, hopeful place filled with orchestral beauty and enchanting lyrics. -Lauren Nostro

22. Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe

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Label: Roc Nation, Downtown, Atlantic UK
Released: April 24

If anybody was stressing the possbility of a sophomore slump, it would have to be Santi White, whose seminal 2008 debut came out of nowhere to become a critical and fan favorite. She took her sweet time with the follow-up—four years to be exact—but the wait was well worth it. These 11 impeccable tracks have only gotten better with age.

Santi has this uncanny way of sounding like a rapper, a punk rocker, a dub poet, and that smart-mouthed girl on the playground all at once. And while the musical backdrops sound like the coolest party ever, she manages to slip in sly social commentary without sounding like she's got a big mouth: "We're the keepers, while we sleep in America/Our house is burning down."

If for some reason, you've slept on this essential release, then go ahead and wake up. One listen should make a believer out of you. -RK

21. Mac Demarco, 2

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Label: Captured Tracks
Released: October 16

At first glance, Mac Demarco seems like a case of indie rock irony overload. For one, the album is called 2, a tried and true indie nod to Led Zeppelin and the bloated rock of the '70s that punk rebelled against. Then there's the album cover: Mac in a wooded setting with his guitar strapped up to his nipples offering a peace sign and sporting a too-earnest-to-possibly-be-earnest shit-eating grin. And the tunes themselves feature Demarco's flanged out lead guitar so heavily that—again, on first listen—they practically beg to be called jokes. But then it turns out the whole thing is really super-legitimately weird and beautiful and you have to take the whole enterprise seriously.

Try this on for a musical formula: take a few Jimmy Buffet happy hour riffs, mix in some Steely Dan-style noodle funk, douse the whole thing some heavy Big Star brooding, make sure the finished product actually sounds nothing like any of the aforementioned groups, and you get an idea of the Mac Demarco experience. Songs that begin with hippy dippy guitar lines veer off in strange directions once the verses begin and vice versa. The lyrics are jaunty tales of meth cooking and odes to off-brand cigarettes.

The whole thing ends with "Together" a sweetly mellow acoustic number punctuated by Demarco declaiming "togeeeeeeeether" in an unpolished but tuneful falsetto. After about eight of these, there's an audible whistle, Demarco himself perhaps saying, "Fuck, I can't believe I'm actually trying this shit, and fuck, I'm actually kinda-sorta pulling it off." Whatever it is (and clearly we're still wrapping our head around it), it's true, and good. -JE

20. Ab-Soul, Control System

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Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Released: May 11

Earlier this year we made an analogy comparing TDE to the Oklahoma City Thunder and compared Durant to Kendrick, Westbrook to Schoolboy, and Harden to Ab-Soul. That was before Harden got traded and became a franchise player for the Rockets, but we're sticking to our original comparison.

Ab-Soul isn't quite there yet, but on Control System it's quite obvious he's on his way. Soul is on a quest to be both vicious and pensive. He chooses his words carefully (Kendrick and Schoolboy don't call him the human dictionary for nothing) and delivers them passionately. And there's more depth to message than the average rapper. Ultimately what sets Soul apart from his Black Hippy counterparts is the way he weaves politics into his raps. "Dear Barack," he raps, "I know you just a puppet but I'm giving you props/You lying to the public like it ain't nothing/And I just love it, I hope it don't stop."

Soul often sounds like he's on the verge of going into a long-winded conspiracy theory, but luckily, he never quite does. Instead, he just goes off on the mic. Something he best summarizes spitting, "Just imagine if Einstein got high and sipped juice/Broke rules, got pussy, beat up rookies on Pro Tools." Okay, it wouldn't sound exactly like this. But it wouldn't be far off either. -IA

19. Crystal Castles, (III)

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Label: Casablanca, Republic, Fiction
Released: November 8

We know what to expect from Crystal Castles at this point. The best thing about (III) is that they don't surprise us. Ethan Kath's transfixed instrumentals? Check. Alice Glass' indiscernible lyrics? Check.

A new album from this duo is like another installment in a tried-and-true horror film franchise. The thrills are familiar, the scares are predictable, and yet, we still jump out of seats at the same point every time.

Crystal Castles gives the listener what they want, but there's always the sense that they're committed to their own consistent vision. Sometimes fully meeting expectations is better than surpassing them. -EB

18. Action Bronson & Party Supplies, Blue Chips

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17. Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream

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Label: RCA
Released: September 25

Like the R&B singer he is, Miguel sings about love as if it's the only thing that matters. Like the great R&B singer he is, Miguel sings about love and convinces you it's the only thing that matters. Our time alive, time best spent in love (and, of course, fucking), is sweet because it's finite, he explains over the course of Kaleidoscope Dream.

As the album works to a shivering climax, he wonders, "Where's the fun in forever?" There isn't any. It's only a high because it's bookended by lows. Sex needs culmination. The world is full of certainty in the form of moments of pleasure, how good it feels to be touched here, or kissed there. There must be a specific number of drinks to send people home with each other, where clothes are dispensed with to get folks closer. There most be something a woman can say to a man, a sentence, to make him believe he's the one, if only for a little while.

Another certainty: This album is great, nothing but polished gems of pop-savvy R&B that accumulate with a purpose. People will be happy while this music's around them, and they'll miss it when it's away. -RS

16. Rihanna, Unapologetic

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Label: SRP, Def Jam
Released: November 19

Unapologetic may go down as Rihanna's classic. It's her first album to land at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and the atmosphere surrounding its release is even more important than its commercial performance.

The first half of the album pleases with tracks like "Fresh Off The Runway" and debut single, "Diamonds," but we know Rihanna can make a hit—that's the easy part. It's her choice of lyrics that finally allow listeners to relate to the superstar on an intensely personal level. After a feature from Future on "Loveeeeeee Song" and a winning take on Ginwune's "Pony" with "Jump," she nails two ballads, the first being "What Now" and the second being the best record on the album, "Stay.

For someone like Rihanna, whose personal life is consistently put on full blast, "Stay" is the perfect answer to any questions fans may have about her emotional rollercoaster of a year. Speaking of which, Unapologetic squashes any doubt that Rihanna is back with Chris Brown, and the pair find themselves celebrating in the most appropriate way on the perfect duet, "Nobodies Business." -LN

15. Ty Dolla $ign, Beach House

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Label: Atlantic
Released: October 1

Songs for the ladies that don't seem to respect the ladies: Beach House is an immaculately-produced, fantastically-sung, and exceedingly well-written project that finds talented auteur Ty Dolla $ign fashioning a singular, cohesive sound and completely owning that lane. With the help of his D.R.U.G.S. production crew, the singer established himself as an unexpected R&B threat in a year with healthy competition.

His music might not have the most positive outlook on gender relations, but his songwriting skills are impossible to deny, and he has a funny, charismatic persona. From the surreal "My Cabana" to the hooky statement of purpose on "Another One," Beach House is one of the year's most promising opening volleys. -DD

14. Meek Mill, Dreamchasers 2

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13. Beach House, Bloom

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Label: Sub Pop
Released: May 15

At the forefront of the modern dream-pop landscape stands Baltimore's Beach House. As a duo, they are now four albums deep, which might lead you to believe that their approach has grown stale over time. Actually, it's quite the opposite. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally's sound has only strengthened and become more beautifully honed since their self-titled debut dropped in 2006.

Proving that point is this year's Bloom, a stunning exercise in lush guitars, enrapturing vocals, and hypnotic percussion. While they are successful at venturing into different territory on tracks like "On the Sea," Beach House truly brings it home on heartbreaking single "Myth" and grown-up anthem "Other People." -AM

12. Nas, Life Is Good

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Label: Def Jam
Released: July 13

The best gifts are always surprises. That's not to say no one believed Nas could deliver an album as focused and bountiful as Life is Good, it's just that no one expected him to deliver such a project on his 13th go-around. But unlike his previous three albums, which dealt with external issues, this project had the Queensbridge native looking inward: towards his failed marriage, his daughter wildin' out on Twitter, and a rap game in the midst of a massive sea change.

The result is an album wherein Nas dusts off the faculties of his past to deliver an emotionally honest look at what it's like to be Nas in 2012. Despite all the hardships, shortcomings, and mockery from fans and rappers alike, we learn that not only can Nas still rap better than most, but his life is pretty damn good. Surprise, surprise. —Damien Scott

11. Grimes, Visions

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Label: Arbutus
Released: January 31

Grimes never really aimed to be the "next big thing." The fact that she stumbled into this position in indie music makes her presence all the more enjoyable. On Visions, the Canandian producer/singer finds herself striking the perfect balance between the weird, challenging stuff she naturally gravitates toward and the charming, catchy pop that won over so many new fans in 2012. It's an odd niche that finds gothic tendencies meeting dance parties, and it's a beautiful thing that is only a glimpse of what's to come from the less sunny side of pop. -JM

10. El-P, Cancer 4 Cure

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Label: Fat Possum
Released: May 22

When El-P announced that Def Jux would be going on hiatus, the news wasn't just sad for fans of the label, but fans of the underground, as well. Finally, the era where independent labels could thrive had come, but Def Jux, a pioneer, was sadly closing up shop. Meanwhile, despite the bad news, El-P was poised for a brilliant resurgence, which began with his work producing Killer Mike's latest release, R.A.P. Music.

Although, sonically, Cancer 4 Cure has little in common with El-P's previous efforts, it's obvious that no one else on Earth but El-P could have made this record. The lyrical highlights come from story telling tracks like "Tougher Colder Killer," "For My Upstairs Neighbor," and "Works Every Time." El-P remains as dark and as consumed with fear and loathing as ever. -IA

9. Future, Pluto

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Label: Epic
Released: April 17

Playing into hip-hop's ever-popular obsession with outer space, Future shocked fans with the success of his debut, Pluto. His bravado is on full display throughout every track, their addictive hooks, and unconventional beats. Records like "Turn On The Lights" and "Neva End" show how he's able to master love songs and ballads, but he also succeeds on heavier, street tracks "Tony Montana" and "Same Damn Time." A strong reliance on Auto-Tune means that sometimes his voice sounds harsh, and other times, paranoid. Future's ability to create a distinct mood and a personality with nothing more than vocals should be commended. -LN

8. Wiz Khalifa, Taylor Allderdice

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7. Ka, Grief Pedigree

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Label: Iron Works
Released: February 13

Grown man rap. It might've sounded like a backhanded compliment a few years ago, but 2012 is a different landscape. Four years into a recession that hasn't receded for a lot of people, plus the usual compliment of people killing and people dying, maybe it's time for some grown folks rap. If it is—and here's saying it is—then Grief Pedigree is what it sounds like.

Originally a member of the beloved (albeit by few) late '90s backpacker group Natural Elements, Ka laid low for much of the blinged-out first decade of the 21st Century before re-emerging in 2008 with his debut solo album, Iron Works. Four years in the making, Grief Pedigree has the feel of a hood classic in the truest sense of the word—if such a thing even exists in 2012.

The album is a one-man show, nearly from beginning to end. Ka produced every track and the LP features exactly one guest appearance, from Roc Marciano (Ka even directed self-produced videos for each of GP's 11 tracks). The sound is familiar: chilled out sample-heavy beats that recall the mid-'90s heyday of NYC rap.

Perhaps the raps are, too: down and dirty understated intellectual chronicles of real life in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of the lands that Michael Bloomberg's New York renaissance forgot. But the overall aspect—a real man, talking about real things that can't be summed up in a hashtag—is fresh for 2012. -JE

6. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel...

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Label: Epic
Released: June 18

Fiona Apple's The Idler Wheel... is not a fun album to listen to, but it's a reminder that music is more than just pure entertainment. In an environment so focused on gratification and superficiality, Fiona put together a body of work that cuts right to the core. It's an album constructed like muscles wrapped around bones—like a fleshy, complicated, and very human mass which has a fragility only matched by its strength. The Idler Wheel... is not be one of the most pleasurable albums of the year, in the traditional sense, and that's what makes it one of the most impactful. -JM

5. Schoolboy Q, Habits & Contradictions

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Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Released: January 14

What makes Habits & Contradictions so fun is that it's so unpredictable. On the one hand, it's easy to look at Schoolboy and see him as the rascal of Black Hippy. Unlike Ab-Soul and Kendrick, Schoolboy is more of a straight-up gangster who joined a gang, sold drugs, and went to jail. But then again, his name is Schoolboy for a reason (growing up he wore glasses and was a good student before gangbanging), and he still comes off as left-field.

When he raps, everything is over enunciated. It's as if Q can't make it through a sentence without sounding aggregated, overjoyed, and just slightly off. Meanwhile, his songs are diverse and offer more range than you'd expect. He can be fun and charming on "Hands On The Wheel" and "There He Go" but then come off sounding like a crazy-eyed killer on "Oxy Music" and "Raymond 1969" before being thoughtful and emotional on "Sacrilegious" and "Blessed."

Kendrick is obviously the breakout star of 2012, but don't be surprised if people are saying the same about Schoolboy in 2013. -IA

4. Lana Del Rey, Born to Die

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Label: Polydor, Stranger, Interscope
Released: January 12

Melodramatic melodies and haunting, self-deprecating lyrics fill Lana Del Rey's debut album, Born to Die. She perfected her "lolita in the hood" and "gangster Nancy Sinatra" styles into one of the most beautifully numbing albums of the year.

With acclaim came hate, but to say that the dramatic production on the album is overwhelming misses her point. Lana made hearts cringe with "National Anthem" and nailed the hot weather blues on "Summertime Sadness." Combined with her visuals, Del Rey became a pop goddess on Born to Die.

Upon its re-release, Paradise, she added "Ride" to the collection, possibly her greatest work, a perfect weave of loneliness, daddy issues, and vulnerability, or simply put, a phenomenal pop ballad. -LN

3. Rick Ross, Rich Forever

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2. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange

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Label: Def Jam
Released: July 10

We'll never have to know how the world might've continued to react to Frank Ocean's moving admission about his first relationship if Channel Orange hadn't been as special as it is. If the album hadn't been as lush and inviting, if it hadn't been written and sung with the same candor as his letter.

We'll never have to know, but we shouldn't forget how good the day he made his post to Tumblr felt. On the East Coast, I woke up and saw the story unfolding on Twitter. A quote from Sean Fennessey flashed in my head, from his piece on Drake's "Look What You've Done": "It feels good when the biggest cultural thing in your life keeps moving forward." That morning, I felt good.

Then we all heard Channel Orange. The opening established the conceit, TV stations flicking past in the form of songs. This loose device—you can forget it's happening within a few tracks—provides an excuse for the multiplicity of narratives that are Ocean's specialty. The vivid scenes imagined in "Sierra Leone," "Super Rich Kids," "Pilot Jones," "Pyramids," "Bad Religion" (truly, I could continue, but you could always just consult the tracklist; every song makes an impression) make for a real kaleidoscope of an album.

Each spin reveals a new detail. Like how "Super Rich Kids" nods to Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up" with the party chatter barely heard beneath the music. The polyvocal TV device also allows for a variety of listeners to enter the project. It's possible to hear this album as mainstream R&B escaping the confines of heteronormativity. But if you aren't ready for that (hopefully you will be some day), just imagine a female character singing "Bad Religion." Ocean doesn't force you to hear his album one way or another.

Though the strands don't create a cohesive narrative like Kendrick Lamar did with his album, Ocean's stories fit together thematically. The glow of Channel Orange conducts the listener to a place where relationships and loss, longing for what can't last, or, in fact, might never come to pass, take center stage.

The listener is glued to the record, but that's where the TV analogy breaks down. Being glued to the TV suggests a passiveness, babysitting via electronic device. Channel Orange, though it flickers and mesmerizes, is something you actively fall for. You're in love. -RS

1. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city

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Label: Top Dawg Entertainment, Aftermath, Interscope
Released: October 22

All hail King Kendrick Lamar. With his major label debut album, the artist formerly known as K-Dot crafted a concept album that was quickly hailed as a classic and catapulted Lamar straight into the upper echelon of rap.

The record works on so many levels. For one, Kendrick is a wicked rapper, bar for bar as good as any GOAT contender in their prime. His incredible control can't be overstated—songs like "m.A.A.d city" and "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" show off his pin-point precision while songs like "Swimming Pools (Drank)" and "Backseat Freestyle" boast his diversity of delivery and cadence.

Meanwhile, the production is subtle and subdued, often aiming for an atmospheric feel rather than an amped-up vibe. In fact, it's the one area where Kendrick doesn't get enough credit. When talking to the album's producers, it's obvious that Lamar had a much greater hand in the overall sound of the album beyond just picking beats.

What also makes the record so great is how it encapsulates a moment in time in the mid-Aughts. Kendrick's real life friends and family provide amusing skits that play between the songs, helping to build the narrative and make the record more immersive.

Clearly, Kendrick was able to internalize his upbringing but he also knows that the journey is more important than the destination. Throughout the album Kendrick is on a variety of quests; trying to fuck Sherane, on his way to a house robbery, plotting revenge after the death of his friend. But ultimately, what Kendrick is trying to reach is adulthood. He's trying to avoid the pitfalls of gangs, drugs, and everything else that brings down so many in the concrete jungle of Compton in order to find his voice as an artist. He isn't quite gangsta, he isn't quite conscious. He doesn't always partake in the chaos around him, but he doesn't pass judgement, either. The only thing more impressive than his mic skills is his worldview.

Who knows what the future holds for Lamar? Just know that for now, well, what's that Jeezy line again? "Last time I checked, I was the man on these streets." -IA

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