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The 50 Best Alternative Music Albums of 2012

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20. Chromatics 'Kill for Love'

After five years in the wilderness, Johnny Jewel —the production mastermind behind Chromatics, Glass Candy, Desire, Farah et al— came back with a 16-song, 78-minute vengeance. Of course, Jewel wasn't exactly in the wilderness: the past half-decade offering all manner of freely-released files, killer 12-inches, fame-makin' work on Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive, and the debut of instrumental project Symmetry. But for fans who'd spent years in wait, Kill for Love played like a comeback. The double-LP sprawls far beyond the icy Italo disco Chromatics're known for, surveying vast swathes of soundtrackism, noise, ghostly electro-pop, and unabashed rock mythology. It's an opus of blessed excess; a long, strange trip welcoming back a singular studio talent.
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19. Collarbones 'Die Young'

Australian duo Collarbones began life as a cross-country collaboration between two teenage miscreants —Sydney's Marcus Whale and Adelaide's Travis Cook— who met online and made 2011's Iconography before ever being in the same city. Where their debut was a feeling-out process, Die Young is just feelin' it: a set of warped pop-songs (like "Hypothermia," their collaboration with Sydney drone-R&B warbler Guerre) that feel sweetly perverse. Whale and Cook are conversant in the language of clubs —rave's ecstatic peaks, New Jack Swing's glad stabs, dubstep's agitated sprays, witch-house's pitch-shifted dread— but prefer talking in tongues; garbling their straight source sounds 'til they come out warped in some strange, sincere take on young angst.

18. d'Eon 'LP'

Best known, prior to this year, as being the other dude on the flipside to that Grimes 12-inch, Canadian conceptualist, keyboard-enthusiast, crooner, and kook Chris d'Eon defiantly makes his own name with the banally-titled LP. This LP is a double-album discussion on the place of old-school theology in the online era; an inquisition as to the absence of the biblical bringer-of-information, Gabriel, in the age of information. Across twinkling keys, cosmic New Jack Swing, and random assaults with jungle breakbeats, d'Eon sings —in his Genesis croon— about religion's place in a digitized world. In a dystopia painted in ersatz synths and blips, the surveillance state has replaced the need for an omniscient God, and technology itself has become the dominant religion.More »

17. Tops 'Tender Opposites'

Montréal outfit Tops make with the same kind of washed-out, post-Ariel Pink pop as Puro Instinct; the soft-rock of '70s AM radio run through a lo-fi filter that smothers such sunny sounds in audio smog. But that tape sheen isn't wedded to Tops' identity: the quartet would sound just as good in pristine, hi-fi clarity. Largely because of their brilliantly-penned melodies, which set Tops apart from their peers. "VII Babies" is the pick: all synth squelch, smashed drums, wash guitar, flute trills, ref whistles, and silly-good chorus (variations on "baby, I love you") in service of pop-song pure. "Diamond Look" pushes things further, showing a band that isn't out to merely ape the moves of late-'70s Fleetwood Mac, but to author a rock mythology, via verse and chorus, of their very own.

16. Chad Valley 'Young Hunger'

Chad Valley totally nails his synth-pop shtick on Young Hunger, which is an A-grade work of recreationist production nerdery, whilst also being an incredibly personal, genuine emotional study of that eternal pop-song trope: boys and girls. To invite a plurality of views into the album's emotional conversation, Hugo Manuel (the Jonquil-fronting Englishman who rolls as Chad V) invites along a host of guest vocalists to play sparring paramours and contrasting voices; with Twin Shadow, Active Child, Glasser, and El Perro del Mar amongst the guests. El Perro is all over "Evening Surrender," a smouldering slow-jam where the boy/girl back-and-forth stokes a mood heaving with both sexuality and sadness.
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15. Niki and the Dove 'Instinct'

Those who'd fallen for Niki and the Dove's swooning synth-pop may've initially felt short-changed by the duo's debut, which is 3/4s previously-released cuts. But any qualms are instantly erased on Instinct's first spin, in which the past-hits add up across an album absolutely loaded with memorable melodies, dramatic turns, and pop-song excess. The 'bubblegum Knife' reputation they earned, early, still stands, but the peaks of the set are immense; "Under the Bridges" ridiculously epic, "The Drummer" fluorescent stadium tribalism, "Tomorrow" even daring to have the phrase "like a virgin" waved proudly in the middle of its chorus. Malin Dahlström doesn't come across as Madonna acolyte, more disciple of Kate Bush, and Instinct lives up to Bush's lofty expectations of pop as artform.More »

14. Chairlift 'Something'

"Just leave alone the Geminis," Caroline Polacheck snarls mid-"Amanaemonesia"; effectively bidding adieu to former Chairlift cohort Aaron Pfenning —who departed in 2010 to be Rewards— and hailing the creative partnership between her and astrological twin Patrick Wimberly. The first single from their second LP consecrated Chairlift's new nature as a duo; bunkered in a studio together, "dangerously surrounded." That insularity has proved hugely beneficial; the dilettantish dabblings of their debut, 2008's Does You Inspire You, ditched for a singular, far-superior sound of sleek synth-pop. Here, Polachek is the clear star, and Chairlift are all the better for it.
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13. Sophia Knapp 'Into the Waves'

Taking leave from snarling psych-rockers Cliffie Swan (née Lights), Brooklyn songstress Sophia Knapp transcends her past with a sterling suite of sweetly-orchestrated songs. Painting with chiming pianos, multi-tracked vocals, whirring optigans, a few stings of disco strings, and the masculine vocal foil of beau Bill Callahan, Into the Waves tips its hat to the sunbaked Laurel Canyon sound and Fleetwood Mac's coked-out excess. But it's no piece of pastichey recreationism: Knapp takes cues from the golden era of singer-songwriters so as to illuminate her own songs. Here, she spins stories with kind, warm-hearted poetry; the LP a scattered collection of melancholy anecdotes, scribbled journals, and postcards from sunny places.More »

12. Cat Power 'Sun'

Chan Marshall may've ended up making Sun in Paris with French-house don Philippe Zdar, but the LP began with Marshall alone in the studio. Classic Cat Power albums —1998's Moon Pix, 2000's The Covers Record, 2003's You Are Free— were driven by Marshall's amazing muse; which was stifled on 2006's The Greatest and 2008's Jukebox, tepid bar-band records that propped Marshall up in front of blues-rock backing. Sun is Cat Power revitalized; Marshall taking charge of a set pursuing essential truths (there's songs called "Real Life" and "Human Being") over a set whose touches of funk-bass, drum-machine, and autotune only speak to the greater themes. It's no synth-pop sell-out, but pop music etched with profundity, alive with vitality, unafraid of idiosyncrasy, and filled with spirit. Shine on, Chan.More »

11. Bat for Lashes 'The Haunted Man'

Joanna Newsom's best songs are those named after women; and, on The Haunted Man, Bat for Lashes follows suit. On a bigger, bolder, more dramatic and commanding follow-up to 2009's wishy-washy Two Suns, Natasha Khan turns in inspired twin studies of the 'lost' party-girl; on both personal ("Laura") and cultural ("Marilyn") levels. Where previous Bat for Lashes albums found lyrics and arrangements that tended towards the cosmic and vague, The Haunted Man is an album of pointed sentiments and precise arrangements; beginning with the astonishing opener "Lilies," in which symphonic orchestral heft is summoned to represent a gathering thunderstorm. Khan's songs have an intense nostalgic quality —fleeing into the daydreams of childhood, or the fantasies of adolescence— and, here, the wild emotions of youth are met with music that matches their fevered tenor.

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