For those who like lists:
#1 - Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs - Trouble
#2 - Max Richter - Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons
#3 - VCMG - SSSS
#4 - Niki & the Dove - Instinct
#5 - John Tejada - The Predicting Machine
#6 - Fennesz - AUN - The Beginning And End Of All Things
#7 - Lindstrom - Smallhans
#8 - Hidden Orchestra - Archipelago
#9 - Brownout - Oozy
#10 - Bat for Lashes - The Haunted Man
#11 - Tame Impala - Lonerism
#12 - Trust - Trst
#13 - Two Door Cinema Club - Beacon
#14 - Air - Le Voyage dans la Lune
#15 - Pet Shop Boys - Elysium
#16 - Quantic featuring Alice Russell - Look Around The Corner
#17 - Marbert Rocel - Small Hours
#18 - Incognito - Surreal
#19 - School of Seven Bells - Ghostory
#20 - Chairlift - Something
For those who haven't heard of some of these artists and want to know what to expect:
#1 – Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs – "Trouble"
TEED is Orlando Higginbottom and Trouble is his debut album. This is the album I always wished Junior Boys would make – an upbeat, dizzying, swinging, euphoric party of a record, as if the flawless dance production was over-compensating for all the self-doubt and deprecation apparent in the lyrics. Other comparables would be the latest Friendly Fires album, but with more of a club (especially 2-step / UK Garage) influence. Standout tracks are too many to list but start at the beginning – the first 6 tracks are incredible – and get to the end because most of the rest is amazing too. This makes my desert island albums list.
#2 – Max Richter – "Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons"
The latest in Decca's Recomposed series, British composer Richter's entry is a big departure. Instead of remixing an existing recording (as Matthew Herbert and others have done), Richter completely rearranged Vivaldi's overplayed composition and then recorded it with the Britten Sinfonia and solo violinist Daniel Hope. The result is breathtaking and modern, respectful and challenging, beautiful throughout. This is will be loved by fans of widely divergent music, from contemporary orchestral masters like Philip Glass to the atmospheric minded epic indie rock of Sigur Ros.
#3 – VCMG – "Ssss"
Vince Clarke and Martin Gore hadn't worked together since Vince quit Depeche Mode after their first album, back in 1981. This reunion is not the synthpop flashback you might expect, but rather a masterpiece of dark instrumental techno. I had high expectations, tempered by fears of disappointment, but this is an album to get lost in. The textures and tones are both surprising and familiar, innovatively playing with the genre without rehashing it. Amazing. Try singles "Spock", "Single Blip", "Aftermaths" or non-singles "Flux", "Windup Robot", or "Zaat".
#4 – Niki & The Dove – "Instinct"
Niki & The Dove is a trio of Swedes making wonderful synthpop. Imagine if you could cross the voices of Stevie Nicks with Kate Bush, the adventurous production of early Kate Bush records with the modernism of contemporary Scandinavians Fever Ray and Little Dragon. Recommended tracks: "Mother Protect", "Tomorrow", "The Drummer", and "DJ Ease My Mind".
#5 – John Tejada – "The Predicting Machine"
Even better than his last one ("Parabolas"), Tejada's second full length on Kompakt is a tour-de-force of upbeat atmospheric analog techno. Classic Orbital fans (first three albums) will enjoy the second half in particular. I love "A Familiar Mood", "Stabilizer", "Glaringly Happy", and the perfectly-named ambient number, "Winter Skies".
#6 – Fennesz – "AUN – The Beginning and End of All Things"
A soundtrack from Austria's Christian Fennesz, again partnering up with my favourite musician, Ryuichi Sakamoto, though this time not under the Fennesz Sakamoto handle. The genre is ambient glitch, but from Fennesz' unique perspective as a guitarist. Highlights include "Aware", "Haru", and "Nemuru".
#7 – Lindstrom – "Smallhans"
Norway's Hans-Peter Lindstrom always impresses, but this year he gave us two full length albums. After the heavy Todd Rundgren prog-rock influence of "Six Cups of Rebel", I was delighted when he announced he would return to mining the rich seam of space disco for "Smallhans". Giorgio Moroder-style arpeggios chatter amongst driving mid-tempo disco beats and spacey effects galore. It's near-perfect, everything you could wish for in a Lindstrom album. Every track is recommended (there are only 6).
#8 – Hidden Orchestra – "Archipelago"
The sophomoric album from Edinburgh's jazz collective, "Archipelago", expands further upon the sound of their breathtaking 2010 album, "Night Walks". Take everything you love best about jazz-sampling trip hop, and then do it with all-original, live playing, but produced as if it was sampled from a hundred amazing records, and you might have an idea of the sound. This is for fans of the Cinematic Orchestra and Lalo Schifrin soundtracks. Check out "Flight", "Vorka", "Reminder", "Seven Hunters", and "Fourth Wall".
#9 – Brownout – "Oozy"
Outstanding Latin funk from Austin's Brownout, "Oozy" is a hard-hitting blast of horns, guitar and drums, with perfectly-suited vocals. Dub and Cuban influences inform James Brown-style funk. I need to see this band live. Standout tracks are "Flaximus", "I Won't Lie", "Meter Beater" and the title track.
#10 – Bat For Lashes – "The Haunted Man"
London's Natasha Kahn delivers a huge third record, also showing a big influence from early Kate Bush. It's her haunting, soaring, emotional vocals that really sell the songs, although the production is top-notch too. Make sure you hear "All Your Gold", "Oh Yeah", "Marilyn", "Rest Your Head" and the title track.
#11 – Tame Impala – "Lonerism"
If you have a psychedelic itch asking for a contemporary scratch, this is the album to do it! Australia's Kevin Parker and company deliver great songs with way out there production. As he said "It's like Britney Spears singing with The Flaming Lips," but I'd also compare this to Animal Collective and MGMT. As if that gives you any idea what this sounds like. I'm glad he's moved beyond the obvious Beatles and Stones influence of "Innerspeaker". Check out "Endors Toi", "Apocalypse Dreams", "Mind Mischief" and "Why Won't They Talk To Me?"
#12 – Trust – "TRST"
This is the album I wish I'd had the guts to produce for Cat Man And The Cat Clan (Rodney Serson, are you out there?). Toronto's Robert Alfons and Maya Postepski (of Austra fame) are here making grim, raunchy, mid-tempo, industrial-influenced synthpop. Robert's deep, alien-sounding vocals are bizarre but accessible and affecting. I was initially put off of this record by its terrible cover but have since grown to love its awfulness. Standouts include "Shoom", "Bulbform", "Gloryhole", "This Ready Flesh" and "F.T.F."
#13 – Two Door Cinema Club – "Beacon"
Ireland's Two Door Cinema Club dazzle with their second album, a return to the post-punk-dance-influenced indie rock sound of "Tourist History". Although the drums are disco, and there are synths, this is definitely a guitar-driven rock-pop record, with nods throughout to New Order. Recommended tracks: "Next Year", "Wake Up", "Sleep Alone", "Settle", "Spring", and the title track.
#14 – Air – "Le Voyage Dans La Lune"
Air returns for another Moon Safari, joining bands like Cinematic Orchestra and Pet Shop Boys in providing a contemporary soundtrack to a classic silent film, in this case Georges Méliès' 1902 opus which is considered to be the first science fiction film. With more prog rock influence than most Air albums, this is mostly instrumental, save for a lovely cameo from Beach House's Victoria Legrand on "Seven Stars". Other highlights include "Astronomic Club", "Parade", and "Sonic Armada".
#15 – Pet Shop Boys – "Elysium"
Chris and Neil are back with a return to the more atmospheric, mellow synthpop of their all-time best album, "Behaviour", though not as effectively as that 1990 masterpiece. When it works, it's breathtaking, like the ode to aging (one of several on the record), "Invisible". They've obviously been listening to some Kompakt. Second single, "Leaving", is fantastic, addressing death and grief face-on, somehow finding peace and comfort without taking away from the impact of loss. Elsewhere, there are returns to their trademark biting wit and irony, with tracks like "Your Early Stuff" or "Ego Music".
#16 – Quantic featuring Alice Russell with the Combo Barbaro – "Look Around The Corner"
If Will Holland is involved, it will be good at minimum, with a decent chance of being great. This is even more true when he works with the wonderful Alice Russell. Beyond that, the re-pairing with his Combo Barbaro (they last collaborated on my #1 album of 2009, "Tradition In Transition") makes this a "sure thing" for any record buyer. The sound here is Latin-influenced R&B and it's outstanding. Favourite tracks are "Here Again", "Magdalena", "I'll Keep A Light In My Window", "Une Tarde en Mariquita", and "I'd Cry".
#17 – Marbert Rocel – "Small Hours"
Leipzig's Marbert Rocel make German pop house music, perfectly suited for their label, Compost. Compost is one of those labels you can trust for taste and quality, having put only one bad release that I can think of (which is unfortunately the worst album I have ever paid money for). I bought "Small Hours" just based on the label's track record and was delighted – it's Compost's best album since last year's "Phreek Party" by Phreek Plus One. Best tracks: "Whether The Night", "Lax Sax", "Wait For My Raccoon", "Little Things", and the title track.
#18 – Incognito – "Surreal"
It should be no surprise that the best disco album came from honest-to-goodness disco players from the late '70's. Bluey and the rest of his UK-based collective have put out excellent acid jazz, disco, funk and R&B over the last 30+ years, and "Surreal", their 15th studio album, continues their streak of great releases. Highlights include "The Less You Know", "Ain't It Time", "Rivers On The Sun", "To Be With You", and "Thoughtful Fantasies".
#19 – School of Seven Bells – "Ghostory"
New York's School of SVIIB is now down to a duo, after the departure of Claudia following their outstanding second record, "Disconnect From Desire". "Ghostory" doesn't quite live up to that high-water mark but is still a very strong record. SVIIB continue their evolution of reverb-drenched shoegaze indie dance rock, with Alejandra Deheza's detached vocal delivery effective over Ben Curtis' My Bloody Valentine-influenced guitars and dancey beats. I recommend "The Night", "Lafaye", "Low Times", "Reappear", and "Scavenger".
#20 – Chairlift – "Something"
Another duo from New York, Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly make cheeky indie electro-pop that is fresh and unique. Much of the credit goes to Caroline's quirky vocal delivery, alternating between overly earnest and detached deadpan. Plus, she is hilarious, and once you've seen the videos or live footage, it's hard not to see it in your mind whenever you hear these songs. Highlights include "Take It Out On Me", "Amanaemonesia", "Turning", and the gorgeous and uplifting "I Belong In Your Arms".
That's it for the top 20. Near misses: Terranova, Lone, David Byrne & St. Vincent, Nickodemus, The Orb featuring Lee Scratch Perry, Ulrich Schnauss and Mark Peters, Bill Laswell, SCSI-9, Bear in Heaven, and DJ Food. Great reissues in 2012 included the amazing Disco Recharge series (especially the Change and Voyage albums), Blur's 21, the Roxy Music box set, and Al Kent's Disco Demands. What a great year for music!