The last thing the world needs is another Best Albums of the Year list, so we’re not doing one. Instead, we’ve chosen eight releases that embodied independent music’s prevailing sounds and ideas of 2012, and which hint at what’s to come. There may have been other records we liked more or were more popular, but here we’re giving a nod to the releases that best reflected the state of independent music, with all its messy questions, embroiling debates, and exciting directions. Even if you’re unfamiliar with some of these albums, in each you’ll find an interesting and unique reflection of 2012′s indie music zeitgeist.
Death Grips, NO LOVE DEEP WEB
Following your heart can be destructive. Just watch MC Ride during the end of the band’s interview with Pitchfork. That is not a man lifted of burden. It’s unlikely that the band thought there wouldn’t be any consequences for releasing NO LOVE DEEP WEB for free behind the backs of their (now former) major label, but all that was probably as far from their minds as the symbolic and political implications of their deed. The terms of the album’s distribution – that is, download it for free right now because we feel like it – were set by the band from within a system already viewed as old and withering, and the maelstrom that followed is one of the most important and contentious events the music industry saw this year.
TNGHT, TNGHT EP
The five trap-rap explosions bottled by Hudson Mohawke and Lunice for their self-titled EP soon became the talk of the hip-hop community, with budding luminaries like Danny Brown and Captain Murphy putting their flows in front of the rollicking, sweaty beats, and just praying their verses don’t get swallowed up. But it’s not just the underground they’ve lassoed; judging from this video, the pop charts may get branded with their white-hot tunes in the coming year.
Tame Impala, Lonerism
“There are all these kids who are growing up on Skrillex and all this digital music, what are they gonna think when they hear rock’n'roll?” Ty Segall may be glum about his genre’s prospects, but love may have blinded him to the reality: that rock can still capture the public’s imagination, which Tame Impala’s Lonerism has proved. The band may not be selling out stadiums, but the downy, deeply personal tones of their psyche-rock have fostered a contagious energy with their fans that, with time, should grow into that of a thousand champagne corks escaping bottles, or ten thousand hands clapping in unison in a muddy field.
Lil B, Based Freestyle mixtape
On streaming, Lower Dens’ Jana Hunter opined: “Music shouldn’t be free. It shouldn’t even be cheap. If you consume all the music you want all the time, compulsively, sweatily, you end up having a cheap relationship to the music you do listen to.” Lil B’s career is hinged – fairly precariously – on testing the limits of the quote’s concerns. This year, the rapper released a massive 848 song collection of songs for free, a deluge that ranged from totally unlistenable to prescient – certain tracks laid the groundwork for cloud rap’s ascent on the back of A$AP Rocky’s $3 million deal with Sony-owned Polo Grounds Music. By satisfying the demands of even the most ardent music pirate or BasedGod disciple in such an absurd fashion, he nourished a terrifying, fascinating possible future for all musicians, where free music doesn’t have to equal destitution (he makes five figures a show), but where the artist-listener bond becomes as tenuous as a Mediafire link.
Holly Herndon, Movement
For those of us not entrenched in the worlds of EDM, fine art, and musical theory, Holly Herndon’s Movement would prove one of the most provoking listens of the year. The album collects a series of big, challenging ideas, moulds them into big, challenging sounds and presents them gleefully as if to say “Well, how about this?” Scholarly, unsettling, yet never obstinate, it defies accusations of pretension by being one of the most personable collections of abstract digital music of the year, and consequently suggests ways in which bro-step EDM and experimental indie might play together over the coming years.
Chris Weisman, Maya Properties
If “prog bedroom pop” isn’t a thing yet, Chris Weisman created it with his overlooked 88-song opus, Maya Properties. This year saw a flood of homely bedroom pop music that balanced personal musings with hints of accessibility, but nobody tipped the scales as dramatically in both directions as Wiseman. His meticulously developed songwriting techniques germinated both casual observations and deep emotions into charming, affecting, distraught and joyous music. Some songs may sound more vital than others – on first listen, the chipmunked trend musings on “irish stuff” may seem tossed off, even puerile. But these, along with the many outright stunners, all contribute to the portrait of an artist that cuts to the root of a very popular genre, and reinvigorates it for those lucky enough to have encountered its pleasures.
Farrah Abraham, My Teenage Dream Ended
Teen Mom alumnus Farrah Abraham struck her career’s relatively hot iron extra hard by releasing her requisite autobiography with an accompanying independently released “soundtrack,” both of which reflect on her struggles with drugs, her father’s arrest, and the death of her (then-unborn) baby’s father. We were floored upon hearing its first single “On My Own” – her hyper-vulnerable lyrics are squeezed through dramatic, ugly autotune, and its opening melody sounds like a bored Aphex Twin’s throwaways. But the twisted peaks that My Teenage Dream Ended hits could only exist in Abraham’s mind, muddled by her ill-bought fame and a misguided attempt at Top 40 pop music. And it was this singular interpretation of that maligned section of music that made everyone so unsure on whether to dismiss it as sheer garbage or praise it as a gripping document of outsider art – a distinction only time will reveal.
Can you imagine “Oblivion” on a JC Penny ad? Probably not, but then again, if you’d asked someone four years ago if they could imagine Visions at all, you’d probably get the same incredulous response. We can’t tell if Claire Boucher is the future of popular music, indie music, fashion, feminism, or anything else that inhabits her art. But we know that her music lit a flash fire in hearts and minds across the world, a coup won with indistinct vocals, self-taught musical prowess, and abundance of really great, courageous ideas.