20. Cat Power

Cat Power’s ninth studio album is filled with unexpected studio flourishes—overdubs, synthesizers, electronic beats—and yet retains all the lyric edge and raw, minor-key emotion that distinguish the best of her work. Sun has moments as introspective as anything in Chan Marshall’s catalog, notably the hangover ruminations of “3,6,9” or the understated rage of “Always on My Own,” but the most illuminating cuts are those in which Chan Marshall gets out of her own head and turns her eyes to the world around her. Especially notable are “Ruin,” a Latin-tinged reflection on the state of the world (“Bitching, complaining, when some people ain’t got shit to eat… What are we doing?/We’re sitting on a ruin”) and the long, beautiful shimmer of “Nothin’ But Time,” a duet with Iggy Pop addressed to all the lonely kids sitting in solitude their rooms (“You’ve got your own voice so sing/ You’ve got two hands, let’s go and make anything/ We all got rules we all have to break/We all have to make those mistakes”). It is tribute to Marshall’s artistry that a more objective lyrical perspective only furthers the sense that all of her work is self-documentation; Sun is a lush, mature collection of genre-busting contemporary songs from an artist whose control of her instrument grows with each record. – Raymond Owen

19. Japandroids
Celebration Rock

Right or wrong, rock music is a presumed province of the young—or at least the young at heart. By that rationale, Vancouver’s Japandroids are the youngest adults on the scene right now, reminiscing about lost youth even as they drunkenly stumble through it. They may potentially be destined to burn out in a blaze of adolescent glory, like so many reckless spirits before them, but whatever their future holds it seems inevitable, even at this early stage, that their music will live on via successive generations left to discover the healing powers of rock music the same way Brian King and David Prowse absorbed the fiery aesthetics and furious zeal of post-hardcore philosophy, indie-slacker ethos, and emo self-actualization. It’s all right there in the title of Celebration Rock and its commitment to and implementation of a righteously unpretentious methodology. For these guys the celebration is not a means to an end but the destination itself—consequences can wait until tomorrow, by which time emotional scars and physical batteries will have healed and recharged and it’s possible to do it all over again, and with just that much more passion. It’s an idealized existence, one perfect for such a base genre as post-nothing guitar rock, and one we all dream of sustaining well beyond our adolescence. But King and Prowse know that these halcyon days, these nights of wine and roses, come laced with broken hearts, missed opportunities, and hard truths. Considering this kind of learned perspective, it’ll be interesting to watch these guys grow and mature, perhaps even, in the distant future, confront inevitabilities such as aging and death. But no matter: With Celebration Rock, Japandroids have achieved immortality. – Jordan Cronk

18. The Men
Open Your Heart
[Sacred Bones]

Open Your Heart offers a pounding session of low-fi garage rockers bordering on punk stirred together with therapeutic waves of psychedelia. The play order encourages a kind of clench-release, starting with the driving retro rock of “Turn It Around.” The thrashy energy and frantic pace hits like the Kinks on speed, while the solo kicks off with a guitar tone stolen from the Guess Who. The song’s second solo sets up an instrumental breakdown whose tom punches set up the heavier punk slap of the second track, “Animal.”

After the manic energy of these two tracks, The Men break the pace to explore their trippy side. The contrast with the opening tracks is staggering. It’s not just the tempo change; it’s an aesthetic shift that creates a huge feeling of release. “Country Song” sounds like More-era Pink Floyd jamming with Jerry Garcia. Sun-glared steel guitar filtered through heat shimmers of tremolo fill out this desert-bleached psychedelic jam. Repetitive and slow, it folds in layers of lethargic haze.

Tapped into a bipolar mindset, it doesn’t take Open Your Heart long to reset into a higher energy orbit. With peaks that channel the raw emotion and desperate need of the Replacements and happy hippy side trips, the flow of the album creates a reciprocating rhythm that intensifies the cathartic feel of the music. Like a sharp inhale paired with an extended exhale, there’s a natural balance. – Jester Goldman

17. Burial
Kindred EP

Kindred‘s opening track of the same name sputters to life amidst an ethereal haze before settling into a steady beat that will be familiar to longtime fans. It’s difficult to tell if it’s more apparent now or if I’m only beginning to notice it, but this beat sounds uncannily like the steady, rattling rhythm of a subway train, an especially apt given the unavoidably urban quality of Burial’s music. More than virtually any other artist, Burial seems to capture contemporary urban loneliness, and the subway car is one of the stages on which this drama plays out: dozens of individuals travel together toward their own isolated destinations, a simultaneity of proximity and distance. The second track is called, of course, “Loner.” But Burial has always balanced the throbbing, pulsing ache of modern life with the yearning for transcendence. His music is not most immediately “for” the club, but it functions as sort of an x-ray of the emotional life of the clubgoing experience, all the hope and desire to elevate beyond one’s body and temporal existence. The haunted diva cries that populate his sonic universe, disembodied voices liberated from club tunes on wax and made to sound like guardian angels of urban dissatisfaction, reach ever towards that “something else” on the other side of dull monotony, as do the dizzying, room-spinning synths of “Loner.” “Ashtray Wasp” closes the record in a swirl so beautiful, quite nearly symphonic in its drama and heft, it makes completely clear Burial’s aims: internalizing the most psychically painful aspects of modern life and spitting them back out redeemed. That the backbone of this process is so often the mechanical click-clacking of a repetitive beat suggests a strange, uplifting kind of hope for modernity. – Trevor Link

16. Kishi Bashi
(Joyful Noise Recordings)

2012 was a big year for K Ishibashi; he went from touring member from Of Montreal to rising star solo artist whose debut LP 151a has earned him his own international tour and a heaping helping of well-deserved critical acclaim. Performing under the more symmetrical moniker of Kishi Bashi, the immensely talented violinist – whose live shows also consist of beat boxing and complex strata of loops – offers up a gorgeous album that both haunts and stirs the soul.

Ishibashi tips his hat to the creative process with the majestic “Manchester,” which starts as a tender ode to emoting through the written word and sprawls out into blissful rejoicing at the wonder of feeling alive. Complete with a music video literally depicting over 50 common idioms, “Bright Whites” is an folksy romp that uses falsetto vocal layers to great effect while the lyrics “You and me at the edge of the world/ With a pretty secret smile for me to see, for me to see” have broken into the mainstream thanks to the song’s inclusion in a Windows ad. “It All Began With a Burst” utilizes vocal chirps to conjure a Passion Pit-esque playfulness, while “I Am the Antichrist to You” features Ishibashi’s voice at its most tender and sublime. With the combination of well-crafted and inspirational songwriting and evocative instrumentation, 151a (which corresponds to a Japanese term for “live every day as if it were your last”) can make even the most misanthropic Grinch’s heart grow three sizes. – Josh Goller

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