By Max Hill
Genre: Experimental, hip-hop | Tracks: “Hacker”, “Get Got”, “Deep Web”
It seems like Death Grips have been everywhere in 2012: they released their debut studio album The Money Store earlier this year to critical acclaim and, more recently, their sophomore effort No Love Deep Web was leaked months earlier than anticipated after a much-publicized falling out with their record label (be warned: the album artwork is very NSFW). Despite their divisive reputation, Death Grips’ music is what ultimately commands the most attention: combining hardcore hip-hop with elements of noise rock and electronic music, the band’s sound is immediate, powerful and hard to ignore. It’s not for everyone — many might be turned off by front man MC Ride’s expressive vocals and abstract lyrics — but for those who have yet to give Death Grips a try, this elusive trio is making music that sounds like nothing else around.
Genre: Indie rock, punk | Tracks: “Stay Useless”, “Should Have”, “Fall In”
Cloud Nothings aren’t, strictly speaking, new on the scene. The Cleveland, Ohio quartet have been making music since 2009, when the band consisted only of lead vocalist and guitarist Dylan Baldi recording instrumental tracks in his parent’s basement. However, this year the band is beginning to find a wider audience: having teamed up with Steve Albini, the famed producer behind such seminal albums as Nirvana’s In Utero and Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, Cloud Nothings shifted from the lo-fi power-pop of their first two albums to a rougher, harsher sound, borrowing from genres as diverse as post-hardcore, emo and Pixies-style college rock. Attack on Memory is still one of my top albums of 2012. It’s a fantastic and addictive LP that portrays a band evolving into its own sound without the typical growing pains.
Genre: Indie pop, electronic | Tracks: “Bright Whites”, “Manchester”, “Beat the Bright Out”
Kaoru Ishibashi has been in the music industry for years — he’s toured with of Montreal and Regina Spektor, and fronted Brooklyn synth rock outfit Jupiter One since 2003 — but he’s only been recording solo work under the pseudonym Kishi Bashi since 2011. When spinning his debut LP 151a, though, it’s hard to believe his project is so new — Ishibashi’s perfectly crafted psychedelic pop suggests an artist with at least a few albums under his belt. Spanning nine tracks written primarily for violin, 151a is a compulsively listenable record which proudly wears its influences on its sleeve (Andrew Bird, Owen Pallett and Animal Collective among them) while still managing to sound fresh and new. Peppered with occasional Japanese and exuberant melodies fully deserving of shower-sung renditions, Kaoru Ishibashi’s music is both full of childlike wonder and world-weary wisdom: although his songs often deal with the darker side of life, his optimism always shines though.
Genre: West Coast hip-hop | Tracks: “Good Kid”, “Backseat Freestyle”, “Real”
Coasting off of the popularity of his digital mix tape Section.80, Compton native and Dr. Dre understudy Kendrick Lamar has made big splashes with his most recent album, good kid, m.A.A.d city. A concept album about Kendrick’s adolescence and struggles with gang violence and substance abuse, GKMC is a deeply personal account of both Lamar’s own life experience and one that many young men from impoverished areas like Compton share. Lamar’s talents as a rapper have also improved over time: his talent for affecting his voice to portray different characters and expressing complicated emotion under the guise of typical hyperbolic boasts set Lamar apart in what’s become a very competitive time for up-and-coming rappers. Though hardcore hip-hop nerds might frown at GKMC’s more radio-friendly tracks, Lamar’s flow, artistry and perseverance have made him one of the most essential new rappers on the scene.
First Aid Kit
Genre: Folk | Tracks: “Emmylou”, “The Lion’s Roar”, “Blue”
Joanna and Klara Soderberg, Swedish sisters and songstresses better known as First Aid Kit, are unlike some of the other artists on this list: artists like Death Grips and Kishi Bashi strive to invent new ways to express themselves musically, while First Aid Kit takes a tried and true formula and does it better than nearly all of their contemporaries. The Lion’s Roar, their latest effort, is carried by the sister’s close-knit and hauntingly beautiful vocal melodies, as folky guitars and a capable but somewhat secondary backing band pluck away in the background. Critics have compared the Soderbergs to famous folkies and singer-songwriters, and I think of them as being in the same category as Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine and Joanna Newsom: artists whose soft harmonies and calming instrumentation make them extremely listenable while letting the vocals, and thereby the message, take the lead.