buzz’s best bands of 2012: Tame Impala, Frank Ocean, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Kendrick Lamar, Ty Segall, Fiona Apple, Jack White, Passion Pit, Alabama Shakes, Japandroids, Cloud Nothings and CU band Grandkids. Illustration by Tyler Schmidt.

10. Cloud Nothings’
Attack On Memory

After first hearing a Cloud Nothings song a year or so ago on some obscure MTV program, I wrote them off as just another white noise, lo-fi band. Fast forward to summer 2012. As I made my commute to and from my minimum-wage summer job, songs from Attack on Memory began to consume the radio stations I frequented and I absolutely fell in love with the release and the band.

Attack on Memory is noticeably darker than older Cloud Nothings albums. A majority of the songs play like an expansive jam-band session with rough, gritty vocals and ominous guitar licks. This is a departure from the spunky, pop-esque sound present in past albums and is what drew me in to give the band a second chance. For fans of the lo-fi genre, Attack on Memory encompasses some of the highest variety of songs I’ve heard on an album of the genre in some time. Dark, downbeat cuts; an instrumental; the second single, “Stay Useless”, which stays true to the band’s previous peppy sound; and an all-around incredible composition effort make the album worth coming back to for me. Cloud Nothings is headed in an exciting new direction with Attack on Memory and I don’t believe they’ve been given enough credit for it.

-Evan Hughes

9. Passion Pit’s
Gossamer

If there’s one thing I took away from Passion Pit’s second album, “Gossamer,” it’s that they have no idea what a sophomore slump is. Filled with synth heavy beats right out of the gate in songs like “I’ll Be Alright,” the indie-pop boys from Boston set up their second full-length album for great success. While many artists struggle to find a balance between taking risks and maintaing whatever it is that made them great, Passion Pit does this effortlessly. “Gossamer” is filled with the catchy beats we’ve grown to anticipate from the group, yet its lyrical content digs even deeper than its predecessor, “Manners.” While lead singer Michael Angelakos struggled with mental illness that greatly hindered his personal life during “Gossamer’s” production, it added to the depth of an album whose poppy and energetic sound could be brushed off as superficial. The contrast in lyrical content, which addressed everything from a family dealing with the financial crisis to Angelakos’ own substance abuse problems, with Passion Pit’s fresh sound, even further cement the group as a great musical force. And while Angelakos also brings back his identifiable falsetto on tracks like “Hideaway,” he also experiments with his lower register on a majority of the album, which is new and refreshing for listeners. “Gossamer” proves itself not only worthy of being in our top 10, but an album that will satisfy both old and new fans alike.

Erika Harwood

8. Jack White’s
Blunderbuss

After spending over a decade redefining a signature bluesy-garage rock with The White Stripes (and two other highly-successful side projects, for that matter), it wasn’t uncommon to express a bit of uneasiness toward the announcement of Jack White’s first solo outing. Armed only with his still relatively newborn Nashville label and a newfound interest in the southern soul of folk, skeptics questioned whether a mere White Stripes clone was in the works. When White released “Love Interruption” in January, everyone shut up and listened.

From the first single alone, White established the entirety of Blunderbuss as a previously unexplored musical terrain becoming both catchy and familiar in its grace. With the boomingly primitive percussion of “Sixteen Saltines” representing the only garage-rock tinged influence that the former White Stripes frontman allows on the record, the artist trades the minimalism of one guitar and a drum kit for somber ballads and playful piano jams abound that run amok with impeccable lyricism that’s only gotten better with age. “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” showcases a less-characteristically aggressive White in exchange for a lighthearted tone that strikes deep within the album’s often hypnotic constitutions. The album’s titular track serves as the record’s crowning achievement as a southern-twanged swan song of a past Jack White transforming into the musician standing today who now crafts – be it blissful blues, heartache, or good ol’ fashion rock n’ roll – something truly different.

Blunderbuss reminds us why Jack White still remains one of the most prolific rock stars of a generation, and why he isn’t giving up that title anytime soon.

Austin Gomez

7. Fiona Apple’s
The Idler Wheel…

Fiona Apple has always been a bit of an enigma in the music industry. Her erratic psyche has caused her to rarely tour, cancel shows at the last minute and refuse press junkets. She is the opposite of prolific; counting The Idler Wheel, Fiona has released two albums in the past thirteen years—so when she releases a record, people take notice.

Though she rose to prominence in the 90’s after labels tried to repeat the commercial success of Alanis Morisette, Fiona Apple has transcended the tropes of the stereotypical Lilith Fair artist, making records full of schizophrenic rhythms and painfully honest lyrics rich in existential thought and metaphor, all while artists like Alanis Morisette play to the MTV crowd and Sarah McLaughlin saves puppies with cheesy piano ballads.

The Idler Wheel is Fiona at her finest. It is a tense, beautiful, anxiety-inducing effort in self-expression from a damaged woman with a history of mental instability. Fiona writes about looking for love as an introvert (“Left Alone”), her own self-purporting anxiety (“Every Single Night”), and likening a passionate love affair to “the genesis of rhythm” (“Hot Butter”), all with incredibly emotive effect.

While Fiona’s lyrical prowess is not something to take lightly, the best parts of The Idler Wheel are the performances and production: head-spinning rhythms drive “Periphery” in a multitude of directions, each more interesting and unexpected than the last, and “Every Single Night” evolves from delicate piano playing and quiet vocals into guttural chants that sound like a Native American séance. The rhythmic interplays and unhampered vocal takes throughout The Idler Wheel create a perfect portrait of Fiona’s frenzied mental state, making the album one of the most personal and sincere records of the year.

– Dan Durley

6. Ty Segall’s
Twins

The throne of the garage-punk king was left vacant at the beginning of this year, but that seat has since been claimed by California-native Ty Segall. How? He reached out and (fucking) took it. In Twins, his third full-length release this year, Segall plays rock and roll – something so simple it begs the question why no one thought to do it before.

He’s no newcomer to the scene, but Ty’s latest work proves more hooky and accessible than ever before. The heavy, fuzzed-out guitar tones that lingered in the background on his first Drag City release, 2011’s Goodbye Bread, now take center stage on tracks like “Ghost” or the album’s flawless opener “Thank God For Sinners.” All the while, Segall lyrically strings together the loose plot of a concept album, taking on ideas more melancholy than he has in the past, mirroring the slower, heavier feel that the instrumentals on Twins emote.

To say that Segall has lost any of his youthfulness in this album would be incorrect though. Take tracks like “You’re the Doctor” as an example of the frolicking, signature guitar solos and bratty vocal style still present his music, which maintains 60s garage jangle.

Maddie Rehayem

5. Grizzly Bear’s Shields
I will admit the first time I heard the lead single off Shields, the wandering psychedelic ballad “Sleeping Ute,” I was completely turned off. Despite giving the track listen after listen, day after day, I worried endlessly that the album would be a numbing tirade of lofty guitars washing over a sea of cliché, escapist one-liners like “but I can’t help myself!” Thank God for the impeccably catchy “Yet Again.” As a longtime fan of Grizzly Bear, I knew I would listen and appreciate Shields, but I don’t think I fully comprehended the mass enjoyment the record would offer until I first heard “Yet Again.” The track meticulously blends both the artistry I’ve come to respect the band for, with the pop sensibility that has kept me coming back. And as a microcosm of Shields itself, tracks like “Yet Again,” or the groovy, R&B-tinged “Gun-shy” underscore what I think might be this record’s greatest trait of all: its accessibility. Accessibility has been a big word in the way I’ve thought about and approached music this past year, and Shields nails precisely the juxtaposition of loyalty-to-roots and new-fan-appeal that ultimately determine a record’s commercial success. Incredibly, I’ve been able to share Shields’ guitar psych-pop with friends I never thought I’d see listening to Grizzly Bear (and for hours on end, at that). If that isn’t a testament to the magnitude of talent behind Shields, I don’t know what is.
—Tyler Durgan

4. Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid m.A.A.d. City
Prior to the release of his debut album, I can’t state how difficult it was for Kendrick Lamar to live up to the hype he faced. Before his first commercial release, he had the entire West Coast co-signing him, a legendary rapper and producer almost exclusively working with him, and two independent projects that had already raised the bar for the rap genre. And while every rapper calls his debut album a classic, “K. Dot” was actually right. Good Kid m.A.A.d. City is a powerful narrative of the upbringing of a Compton native who battles on a daily basis to maintain his core values in a corrupt, deprived society. Lamar discusses nearly every temptation of growing up in Compton: sex, drugs, alcohol, violence and gang affiliation, in a storyline that spans about 24 hours, depending on interpretation. Almost two months after the release, I still have trouble piecing together the story because I immediately become engulfed in the individual tracks. The catchy hook of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” alongside the chill beat makes the track stand out immediately. “Backseat Freestyle,” following the skit perfectly, is the great ride-along track with high energy and entertaining lyrics. While “Poetic Justice” is a slow-ball pitch for heartbreak Drake, Lamar provides two comparable verses over the soothing Janet Jackson sample. Even two of the album’s singles, “The Recipe” and “Swimming Pools,” are individually great tracks, though they don’t stand out like the core of the album. This is one of the most impressive attributes of the LP; Lamar successfully previewed his music for promotion without taking anything away. With the increasing popularity of ignorant, degrading releases in 2012, Lamar’s debut album is the Reasonable Doubt, College Dropout, Illmatic or Ready to Die of 2012. Good Kid m.A.A.d. City should be considered the blueprint for the next generation of debut albums.
—Mitesh Bhatt

3. The Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan
The only criticism that seems to stick to The Dirty Projectors is that of their alleged pretense. Since you can’t attack their ridiculously intricate harmonies, one-of-a-kind guitar lines or innovative songwriting, you can rip on them for covering an entire Black Flag album by memory. But with Swing Lo Magellan, The Dirty Projectors took a step toward accessibility. From the moment the vocal harmonies kick in on “Offspring Are Blank,” listeners are greeted with 43 minutes of the unending experimentation and beauty we’ve come to expect from David Longstreth and his band mates, but with a newfound catchiness. Longstreth himself said that on this album, the band is no longer hiding behind an “obtuse conceptual frame,” further encouraging it to be embraced by a wider audience.

If you didn’t really get their appeal before, Swing Lo Magellan is the perfect album to introduce yourself to the Dirty Projectors.

But that’s not to say that the album is straightforward or poppy in the conventional sense. Bent chords introduce “See What She Seeing,” a ballad about wanting someone to love, underpinning a theme we’ve heard since the dawn of time with instrumentation and arrangements that sound like they were made by aliens. The entire album is an incredible tour-de-force where The Dirty Projectors show the world how to craft a set of universally relatable songs that retain a singular, inimitable artistry.
—Evan Lyman

2. Tame Impala’s Lonerism
It’s been a busy year for Tame Impala. This Australian psychedelic outfit has blown my mind all year, first with the release of their single “Elephant,” then at their performance at Lollapalooza. But the first time I really sat down and listened to their sophomore album Lonerism, I was blown away.

The album itself speaks to an experience rather than any sort of rhyme or reason.

It carries itself adrift on a tide of neo-psychedelia before crashing back down into those familiar bass lines and vocal riffs that Innerspeaker had.

It’s not hard to see how the album did so well for itself in the charts; it really does turn a page for the psychedelic scene and certainly for Tame Impala’s discography.

Lonerism vibes with me very differently than Tame Impala’s past releases do. I’d listen to any of it while driving around in the summer with the windows down, but Lonerism is more of an unconscious experience; as you’re hitting unknown speeds on those back roads, there’s only ever the road, the steering wheel, the wind whipping in the windows and Tame Impala there to guide you.
—Tyler Allyn Davis

1. Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange
An open challenge for all music aficionados out there: Keep Channel Orange away from the top of your “best albums of 2012” list. Not too easy, is it? Frank Ocean made a name for himself in 2011 and followed up with one of the most unforgettable years a musician has had in recent memory. “The Odd Future” crooner earned his newfound popularity and superstar status through honesty, self-reflection and of course, his show-stopping voice. Following his surprising and utterly fearless open letter admitting his previous love for another man, he had everyone waiting for his debut album, and he certainly did not disappoint. The way Ocean serenades his listeners with his refreshingly soulful voice, while also delving into his most personal and intimate feelings makes Channel Orange one of the absolute classics of the generation. Ocean’s success from within the studio, translated into two performances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and at the 2012 MTV VMAs, which both solidified him as one of America’s new icons, not only in music, but in pop culture. Ocean took on the fading genre of R&B and made it his own with Channel Orange. He doesn’t just make good music; he makes important music. If there is any one moment from the album that completely justifies its No. 1 spot, it’s the awe-inspiring, chill-creating, goose bump-giving note that Ocean hits toward the end of “Bad Religion.” This is an album that will be talked about for years to come and will be looked back on as the debut of an R&B legend.
—Joey Figueroa