The albums that made the first half of our year came at us from every direction (often, more than one at a time). We've collected our favorites into a handy little list that we're happy to share with you today. (There's plenty more mid-year coverage over here, including a list of our 50 favorite songs and a discussion of 2012's highlights at its midpoint.) If you're looking for a summer road trip album, a soundtrack to your hot summer nights or your dreams of winter, start here.
Ab-Soul, 'Control System'
Ab-Soul, one fourth of a loose group of Los Angeles rappers called Black Hippy, is following the lineage of rappers that give you your medicine with a spoonful of sugar. He has night terrors like Scarface, aspires to own the bookshelf of Andre 3000 and remembers when Ice Cube had a heart. On Control System, his second album, he administers a scathing critique of our handling of Amber Cole; mourns his girlfriend, who sings on this album but died this year, and builds a song over the words of Edward Mandell House, an advisor to Woodrow Wilson who compared social security to human chattel. To relay these stories, daydreams and early-morning ruminations, Ab has hit on a balance of snappy enjambed metaphors and run-on sentences rife with internal rhyme. Every listen uncovers a new idea. His nasal rasp, which sounds a little like he's rapping underwater, is not relaxed. But the production on Control System is. It's clean and bass-heavy where it needs to be, but mostly secondary. This is rap for readers. (Frannie Kelley)
Alabama Shakes, 'Boys & Girls'
Buzz had already grown to a deafening roar by the time Alabama Shakes' debut, Boys & Girls, dropped this April, but frontwoman Brittany Howard's fervent voice is more than capable of rising above the cacophony. Even the album's slower moments sizzle in Howard's hands, her vocal delivery conjuring old-soul emotions and effortlessly reaching back through the decades to solder together heartbroken blues, righteous soul, and irreverent rock 'n' roll. At the album's best, as on the standout singles, "Hold On" and "I Found You," it showcases the band moving forward as one tight, unflappable unit. That this is only their first full-length effort makes the accessible, personable blues-rock on Boys & Girls all the more enticing. (Andrea Swensson, The Current)
Berlin Philharmonic: 'St. Matthew Passion'
Stage director Peter Sellars doesn't play by the rules. The man who once set Antony and Cleopatra in a swimming pool has produced a semi-staged version of Bach's St. Matthew Passion (on two DVDs) that just might leave you a changed person after watching it. With a stripped down Berlin Philharmonic and a top-drawer cast of singers all led by Simon Rattle, Sellars has turned Bach's massive sacred monument into an intimate "ritual." He asked all soloists and choristers to memorize their parts in order to interact with each other like a community working out issues together. The performance by Mark Padmore as the evangelist is so evocative, so keenly aware of word-painting that it must stand as a career high for the British tenor. I can't imagine a recording that will ever top this in terms of humanizing so deeply the drama of Bach's soulful music. (Tom Huizenga)
Billy Hart, 'All Our Reasons'
"Imke's March [Instrumental]"
Some time ago, a group of iconoclastic jazz musicians decided to call up a drummer nearly twice their age for a gig. It was good, so there were more gigs. And the more gigs there were, the more everyone realized that it should be the now-septuagenarian master drummer who should be calling the shots. On this, the second studio recording of the Billy Hart quartet, said jazz master gets some breathing room to get a little weird and his quartet seems invested in floating along with him. The result is this record of untethered grace, all rumble and rumination. (Patrick Jarenwattananon)
Bobby Womack, 'The Bravest Man In The Universe'
"Please Forgive My Heart"
The Bobby Womack on The Bravest Man In The Universe isn't a giant stepping out of history into a corrupted future or a brittle relic being held together by the assistance of younger collaborators. Rather, he's the same Bobby as ever: idiosyncratic in the extreme (check the contribution from newbies Jessie Ware and Lana Del Rey alongside the spoken-word-from-beyond samples of Gil Scott-Heron and Sam Cooke), deeply personal, devotional (stripped down Old Testament blues next to a hip-hop-tinged warning aimed at money-hungry preachers), sensitive, regretful and current. The loud, unmistakable voice at the front of a trio that also includes producers/backing musicians Damon Albarn and Richard Russell, Womack slips so seamlessly into the sound of right now that it nearly makes you forget that he he was gone so long. (Jacob Ganz)
Death Grips, 'The Money Store'
"I've Seen Footage"
With an unmistakable MC Hammer-inspired backbeat, "I've Seen Footage" was released just days before the punk rap trio's new album, The Money Store, leaked. The single has everything one would want from a Death Grips' record — breathy retro beats, droning industrial synths, front man MC Ride's commanding vocals. The lyrics, at times a bit indecipherable, deal with becoming desensitized to the proliferation of images and videos on the internet — child soldiers, hit and runs, cops blowing civilian heads off — and the violence that is inevitably a part of that. Regardless, all the tracks encourage something between dancing and thrashing, but hopefully a combination of both. Death Grips canceled a planned summer tour in order to dive into a second album, so we'll just have to blast this (it's the only reasonable way to listen) until fall. (Martika Finch)
DJ Burn One, 'Where There's Smoke'
"Houston Old Head"
DJ Burn One's Where's the Smoke? can be listened to in one of two ways: as a stand-alone collection of atmospheric instrumental music, or as a Rosetta Stone for the underground Southern and Southern-inflected rap music of the past couple years. The Atlanta producer has raised the roof beam high over Nashville's Starlito, Harlem's A$AP Rocky, Huntsville, Ala.'s Jackie Chain and Gary, Ind.'s Freddie Gibbs. He's sold them leant-back synths, buzzy guitars and delicately laid bass lines. On "Houston Old Head," which Rocky picked up for his debut album, the clarinet is all trilled nostalgia and the ever-present, ever-more mechanized handclaps of party songs are aggressively crystalline. That Rocky chose this track, with its combination of organic and plastic sounds that seems to be Burn's forte, and rhymed wearily over it, speaks well of him. That Burn can distill his recent work for other musicians into a compilation of transporting muscle relaxants, reveals him as a Georgian weirdo with family ties to the Dungeon Family. (Frannie Kelley)
Dr. John, 'Locked Down'
With the help of producer Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and an accomplished group of studio musicians, Dr. John's Locked Down is one of the best albums of his lengthy career. A revisitation of the voodoo-funk of his previous classic records, Locked Down is filled with spectacularly syncopated grooves, head-nodding beats that rival any hip-hop release of the year and no shortage of memorable guitar playing, most of which is performed by Auerbach, who brings some of that Black Keys magic to songs like "Getaway" and "Revolution." On Locked Down, Auerbach aimed to draw out of Dr. John something we haven't heard in a long time. This isn't Disneyland-style New Orleans; this is the city filtered through vintage R&B and gritty funk, that spooky, swampy side of New Orleans music that drew so many to Dr. John early on. (Bruce Warren, WXPN)
Out of the many records showcasing female singers immersed in epic soundscapes released this year — from Sleigh Bells, Grimes or Now, Now — Exitmusic's Passage is simply the most transporting and haunting. Aleksa Palladino and Devon Church, the married couple behind Exitmusic, make intensely personal ruminations on frayed relationships, loneliness and despair. Still, there's a seductive romanticism to the anguished heartache. In songs like the title track or "The Night," guitars, pianos, synths and sparse beats messily intermingle; melodies flutter around the periphery like burning embers in the wind one moment, and erupt like a cyclone in the next. And yet all the cascading waterfalls of noise and feedback are but an emotional backdrop for Palladino's aching, alluring voice. Her nuanced vocal command allows her to go from breathy and quivering to full-throated and powerful, often within the same song. While Passage may be melodramatic and tortured, ultimately it's Exitmusic's soaring, dreamy beauty that will overtake you. (Mike Katzif)
fun., 'Some Nights'
What does the success of a record like Some Nights mean in 2012? That it's finally safe for rock bands to smile on stage again? That the sounds and rhythms once associated with hip-hop have so thoroughly metastasized through pop music that no one genre can claim exclusive domain over them? That young people with guitars can get as excited about their parents' copy of A Night at the Opera as they can about Nevermind or Loveless or "The Blue Album?" Maybe. But even without all the things that make fun. a conversation piece — the Glee cover, the band's outspokenness on gay rights, that ridiculous bit of punctuation — Some Nights would be remarkable for its sheer optimism. Rarely does an artist with such plaintive lyrics ("I feel so all alone," "Why am I the one always packing up my stuff?" and "Everyone I love is gonna leave me") manage to sound so consistently psyched. (Daoud Tyler-Ameen)
Jack White, 'Blunderbuss'
Blunderbuss is the sound of Jack White taking big chances. While making this, his first solo album, sometimes he'd enter the studio with great musicians and barely a set of chords, sometimes he'd wake in the middle of the night with an idea worth writing down, sometimes he'd do something as simple as adding a woman to an all-man band or vice versa. Despite the variety of sounds on this record, from the expected but nonetheless blistering guitar blasts on "Sixteen Saltines" to the cozy sounds of the title track to the stuttering "Freedom at 21" to the calming "On and On and On," this is an old school album, with a beginning, middle and end. Jack White is a classic rocker who never simply regurgitates classic rock. Blunderbuss is a true treat. (Bob Boilen)
Japandroids, 'Celebration Rock'
Celebration Rock is the sound of two guys who "yell like hell to the heavens" and who spend 35 wonderfully ramshackle, fireworks-packed minutes singing the praises of a life lived messily and to the fullest. In just eight songs, Japandroids' Brian King and David Prowse perfect a formula where brash, snarling punk meets the fist-in-the-air anthemics of Born to Run-era Springsteen and his modern-day equivalents in The Gaslight Anthem and Titus Andronicus. ("Let rip, but never let go," they shout in unison near the end of "Fire's Highway.") Fusing optimism and awesomeness in a stirring, beautiful ruckus, Celebration Rock keeps one hand on its heart, while clenching the other in a fist hurled heavenward. (Stephen Thompson)
Jeremy Denk, 'Ligeti/Beethoven'
"Ligeti: Piano Études: Book Two: XIII. L'escalier Du Diable"
This collection of Gyorgy Ligeti's impossibly dense, claustrophobically self-contained and ridiculously difficult studies for solo piano, paired alongside Beethoven's last piano sonata, the spacious and supremely ecstatic Piano Sonata No. 32, is a musical puzzle box that few other musicians could or would even dare consider. What makes the seemingly impossible a reality is Jeremy Denk's genius — his technical prowess, insight, wit and ardor have resulted in an album that people are going to be talking about for years to come. (Anastasia Tsioulcas)
Kelly Hogan, 'I Like to Keep Myself in Pain'
"Ways Of The World"
What's the number-one quality for a singer who's a cut above the rest? Not chops — the karaoke bars are full of belters. It's emotional intelligence: the ability to read a song's story as if you've lived it, thought it over, and realized that sharing it can make a difference to others. Kelly Hogan has buckets of those kind of smarts. A longtime indie-pop favorite best known for harmonizing with her friend Neko Case, Hogan has gone top shelf for her first solo effort in eleven years: she's gathered songs from her finest friends, including M. Ward, Robyn Hitchcock, Stephin Merritt, John Wesley Harding, The Handsome Family, Jon Langford and the late Vic Chesnutt; soaked them in country, soul and vintage arrangements and recorded them with an unmatchable band. The resulting set goes deep emotionally even as it shines as a lesson in what perfect pop can be. (Ann Powers)
Killer Mike, 'R.A.P. Music'
A major league collaboration from two guys who seemed destined to careers on junior varsity. The beats from El-P (whose own recent album, Cancer4Cure, is also very fine) grind like stuck gears. Killer Mike's rapping is relentless — the few features here are shocking not because the guests are big time (though they — Bun B and T.I. included — are), but because his absence is a jolt. Even when the rhymes are tender (which is, admittedly, rare), the music stays tense and tightly wound. It's the first album in which Killer Mike doesn't sound like he's trying to convince you he's the smartest guy in the room. Not that he needs to. When a guy is this on fire, there's nothing you can do but sit back, slack-jawed, and watch. (Jacob Ganz)
Leonard Cohen, 'Old Ideas'
The lyrics on Leonard Cohen's 12th studio album are deep and hilarious and elegant. That's a given: The guy's a poet and philosopher whose jokes are as good as his profundities. What makes this outing special is the music. The warm and varied arrangements that touch on country, jazz and blues feature Cohen's bandmates on his recent triumphant tours, as well as many old friends, including the producer and arranger Patrick Leonard, the guitarist Bob Metzger, and a portable choir that includes Jennifer Warnes, Sharon Robinson, Anjani Thomas and the Webb Sisters. The communal love surrounding Cohen's sepulchral growl lends warmth to his musings on the fundamental human stuff, from sexual desire (never fading) to mortality (ever approaching). "The heart beneath is teaching to the broken heart above," Cohen intones in the gorgeous "Come Healing." Cohen's heart moves everywhere, and we're so lucky it's still with us. (Ann Powers)
Mati Zundel, 'Amazonico Gravitante'
For some time now, Latin music critics have been decrying the state of Argentine rock. Once upon a time Buenos Aires was an epicenter of Rock En Espanol, but musicians seem to have gotten somewhat stuck in that era of 1990's glory. While I tend to agree with that assesment, I'd also argue that it's a misguided approach to viewing music: while fans cry over the frail body of Argentine rock they miss out on the fact that something huge — and very different — is happening. All across Latin America, DJs are experimenting with fantastic concoctions of electronica, folk and latin traditional styles. On the vanguard of that movement is the Argentine ZZK collective, which has produced some of the most exciting music I've heard in years. Mati Zundel hails from rural Argentina, from a town he has described as a mix of gauchos and lawyers. And it shows: his brilliant album, Amazonico Gravitante, fuses the deep haunting beats of the vast Argentine south, the slow winding cumbias of the tropics and European club beats. Zundel is truly a brilliant artist. Newcomers to Latin music should make him part of their basic education, and lovers of more classic Latin music need to give him a chance: if you spend too much time looking back at the great music of the past, you could miss out on a true musical genius standing right in front of you. (Jasmine Garsd)
Pallbearer, 'Sorrow and Extinction'
The Black Sabbath line is well trod. In fact, you could argue that all metallic paths fall from the mighty Sab. But Pallbearer has found the essence of that traditional doom metal sound and ultimately made it something more tangible and personal with Sorrow and Extinction. Strip away the twin-lead guitars and well-placed moments of feedback and there are genuine songs within, especially as Brett Campbell's beautifully belting voice cuts through railroad-tie-pounding riffs, slow and steady, reinforced by steel. (Lars Gotrich)
Patrick Watson, 'Adventures in Your Own Backyard'
"Words In the Fire"
The musical world of Patrick Watson is an imaginative place out of time, where eras overlap, genres blur and words evoke memories that feel like they're your own. Watson's method of chamber pop songwriting tends toward embellishment: his memorable melodies and vocal harmonies are fleshed out with wildly inventive arrangements and an idiosyncratic kitchen sink approach to instrumentation and percussion. That said, at the heart of Adventures In Your Own Backyard is a tender emotional core both of nostalgia and, in the case of "Words In The Fire," a lesson about finding peace living in the moment. Watson's dusky falsetto can whisper or fill the church rafters while singing about dreams, childhood and the newness of falling in love with subtle turns of phrase and evocative imagery. This lovely collection of songs and sentiments will linger and echo in your mind long after it's over. (Mike Katzif)
Sharon Van Etten, 'Tramp'
With each album, Sharon Van Etten is coming into sharper focus. It's evident in her choice of cover art, which has shifted from amorphous sketches to a simple black-and-white photo on her third release, this year's Tramp. But it's also apparent in her music. Since debuting with the largely-acoustic Because I Was In Love in 2009, Van Etten has plugged in and electrified the shadows within her own songs. Tramp is full of big pop moments, especially the gut-punching one-two of "Warsaw" and "Serpents," proving that Van Etten can excel with the increased volume. Even the softer "We Are Fine" — which details an anxiety attack with the help of Beirut's Zach Condon — shines amidst the darkness. Van Etten needn't worry. She's ready for her close-up. (Art Levy, KUT)
Spiritualized, 'Sweet Heart Sweet Light'
You'd think that after twice narrowly escaping death, Jason Pierce would have found God. Instead, he's rededicated his life to rock 'n' roll. Using the language of gospel, the music that gave birth to rock, the Spiritualized frontman makes strangely uplifting records about his own mortality. Sweet Heart Sweet Light may be his most divine yet. Suspended somewhere between a lullaby and a fever dream, Sweet Heart lays bare Pierce's fears and fearlessness, culminating in a tender duet with his 11-year-old daughter, Poppy, who co-wrote the album's final track. The record has everything we've come to expect from Spiritualized and its mind-altering performances: space-rock bliss, grandiose string flourishes, a rapturous choir. The stage is Pierce's pulpit; the free jazz freakouts are his fire and brimstone. He preaches to us an ecstatic truth, and we wait to be saved by this sonic communion. (Eleanor Kagan)
Usher, 'Looking For Myself'
In 2012, mainstream pop is all about busting through genre boundaries. What's remarkable about this eclectic seventh album by longtime R&B kingpin Usher is the singer's dedication to the root style of classic R&B. Working with trendy producers like Swedish House Mafia and Noah "40" Shebib, Usher expands his sonic palette; but he always goes back to the heart, the hips, the libido as he tells his tales of lovemaking and heartbreaking. Along the way, he nods to his elders and peers, from Michael Jackson and Prince to Beyonce and even his protege Justin Bieber. Basically, Usher's saying he can own it all when it comes to making hits. The self-assurance and mastery he displays make it hard to argue with him. (Ann Powers)
Vijay Iyer Trio, 'Accelerando'
"Little Pocket Size Demons"
It's human nature to convert a rhythm to a dance. And when you realize that you can dance to just about anything, the task of the rhythmists is creatively liberated — and frighteningly unbound. On Accelerando, a jazz piano trio avidly takes up that challenge. It parcels out dense swirls and thick beats over 11 tracks – particularly on six judiciously curated covers which, among other things, affirm this record's heritage. "[T]his album is in the lineage of American creative music based on dance rhythms," writes the pianist and composer Vijay Iyer. Thusly, up jumped the boogie. (Patrick Jarenwattananon)
Yva Las Vegass, 'I Was Born In a Place of Sunshine and the Smell of Ripe Mangoes'
Sometimes an album comes along and completely destroys my preconceived idea of what to expect from it. Yva Las Vegass' album is one of those. Judging from her short bio, she seemed to be an uncompromising street performer in Seattle with a colorful life history. The album cover has a definite punk aesthetic. I expected something loud, angular, uncompromising. But the music is simple: Las Vegass expertly strums and picks traditional rhythms from Venezuela (where she was born) underneath songs about crack whores, sex and even traditional Venezuelan work songs. There's no one else like her. (Felix Contreras)
The 2 Bears, 'Be Strong'
The members of U.K. pop group Hot Chip had a great first half of 2012. The band's new album, In Our Heads, might be its best yet. Sidemen Al Doyle and Felix Martin unveiled their side-project, New Build. And producer Joe Goddard teamed up with longtime friend and DJ Raf Rundell to pay tribute to their musical heroes as The 2 Bears. Be Strong is first and foremost a dance record, powered by Goddard's baffling ability to accessibly frame club culture within the pop continuum, but the duo also squeezes in praise for Hank Williams, The Congos and Throbbing Gristle. Rundell, known primarily for his Greco-Roman Soundsystem parties, has a surprisingly affecting voice, especially on the album's euphoric closer, "Church." Don't let the fact that the duo performs in bear suits fool you — you won't hear a more honest record this year. (Otis Hart)