15 Underrated 2012 Records

Last year ended up being an extremely difficult one to condense into an Albums of the Year format, partly because it seemed like a year stacked with 8s — great records that didn’t necessarily seem destined for classic status.  I heard about 60 albums and was able to winnow them down to 40 for my usual Amazon buffoonery, but I couldn’t begin to rank records as disparate as Swing Lo Magellan and good kid, m.A.A.d. city.  I could have just devoted an entire post to 2012 wunderkind Ty Segall, but Douglas Martin already did that.  Let me just say that the three (!) 2012 records that bore his name were probably the most fun.

If you follow music with any seriousness (haw, haw), you know that a lot of great albums came out this year.  I loved most of the albums on that list, especially those by Frank Ocean, Fiona Apple, Tame Impala, Japandroids, Grimes, Beach House, Grizzly Bear, Chromatics, Sharon Van Etten, Cat Power, and the two I already mentioned above.  What I’ve chosen to compile below, then, is a list of records that you might have missed last year and that I hope you’ll check out in some form or fashion.  If there’s another unifying trait, it’s that most of these albums (with the exception of Killer Mike and El-P) probably wouldn’t end up on a party mix — they’re probably best enjoyed loudly on a dark highway drive alone.

Lower Dens – Nootropics [Ribbon]

I’ve been following front-woman Jana Hunter since her (insanely good) second solo album came out in 2007.  I hoped that her band’s second album would be their breakthrough, but it didn’t really turn up on any December lists.  Lower Dens share a home base and a certain languorous beauty with Beach House, but to my ears they sound more Berlin than Baltimore.

Cate Le Bon – CYRK [The Control Group]

Welsh Le Bon sounds like Nico with a bigger range.  She writes incredibly sturdy simple melodies and perfectly gloomy and textured music.  The song above was my favorite this year.

John Maus – A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material [Ribbon]

This compilation of dark electro-pop was better than his pal Ariel Pink’s proper album AND that Bon Iver pablum from 2011.

Matthew E. White – Big Inner [Spacebomb]

This is soft rock and I like it.  I can’t really explain it, but maybe you like M. Ward or Randy Newman or Harry Nilsson?  Try this.

Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance [kranky]

One of my favorite music writers wrote about why he listened to this album a lot in 2012.  I’ll defer to him.

Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music [Williams Street]

I included the video above because it is insane and awesome, but the real gem of this album is the anti-Reagan screed.  This record is joyful.

Frankie Rose – Interstellar [Slumberland]

Rose found new galactic territory to mine in this new century’s bad-ass rock girl groove.

Trembling Bells featuring Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – The Marble Downs [Honest Jon’s]

As always, Will Oldham released an insane amount of music in 2012, including a pretty ingenious EP of self-covers that includes this bonkers version of his most famous song.  This collaboration with Glaswegian band Trembling Bells sounds like a booze-soaked break-up pretty early in the twelve-step process.

Xiu Xiu – Always [Polyvinyl]

Do not be fooled by the inclusive optimism of lead-off single above.  This record is dark.  There is a song called “I Luv Abortion” that I skip 99% of the time.

Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t [Secretly Canadian]

Most of this record is a big bummer in the all-relationships-are-doomed vein.  Lekman lets just enough light in to make the whole thing listenable.

Mirel Wagner – s/t [Friendly Fire]

Remember when Devendra Banhart was weird without being silly?  That’s what Mirel Wagner does.  Oh, you missed that whole “freak folk” thing?  Well, then Mirel Wagner writes spooky acoustic ballads.

El-P – Cancer 4 Cure [Fat Possum]

The first time I heard this album I was trying to follow someone on a hectic highway in a city I don’t know.  The music fit.

Grass Widow – Internal Logic [HLR]

I cannot resist an all-girl post-punk band.

Mount Eerie – Clear Moon [P.W. Elverum & Sun]

Mount Eerie released two albums in 2012.  Both include well-produced noise that muffles Phil Elverum softly singing about being small in the universe.  More, please!

Four Tet – Pink [Text]

This is a digital-only compilation of the vinyl-only singles that Kieran Hebden has been putting out lately.  It combines the jazzier electronic music of his early work with the dancefloor-oriented stuff that showed up on 2010’s There is Love in You.

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