Dirty Projectors
Swing Lo Magellan

After becoming both the critics and the people’s champs with ’09s Bitte Orca, the Dirty Projectors had carte blanche to go in nearly any direction. And with a catalog that includes a concept record about Don Henley and a recreation of Black Flag’s seminal Rise Above from memory, the band could have truly landed anywhere. Or they could have buckled under the pressure. On Swing Lo Magellan, they doubled-down on the elements that make them great: the intertwining female harmonies, the siren-like lead vocals of Dave Longstreth, and music that dips into R&B, folk, hip-hop, orchestral pop and West African guitar stylings. Clever without being self-conscious, challenging without being obtuse, Swing Lo Magellan further shows that Dirty Projectors are worthy of the hype. DSH

The Fresh & Onlys
Long Slow Dance
Mexican Summer

No one would accuse The Fresh & Onlys of being complacent when it comes to their sound. Each release—four albums and several EPs since 2008—has seen the band evolve sonically. Yet the San Franciscan group seems to have really found its groove with Long Slow Dance, effortlessly gliding from one track to another atop dreamy melodies. From the oddly upbeat heartbreak of “20 Days and 20 Night” to the devil-may carelessness of “Fire Alarm,” the album conjures sun-drenched fields, solitary deserts, and even the odd ’80s prom scene. This is a record that encourages you to settle in and enjoy the journey The Fresh & Onlys have made. JR

Cloud Nothings
Attack on Memory

This band is fierce, and more than once I’ve seen concertgoers literally alarmed by Dylan Baldi’s throat-shredding release. No surprise then that Cloud Nothings’ Attack on Memory is the most persistently cathartic record I’ve heard since emo went pop. It had me screaming along all year. So, if you are, like me, sick of The Shins, disgusted by Avetts and their new folk sons, and ready to smash every record bearing a Ben, a Colin, a Justin, or any trace of Sufjan, I recommend Cloud Nothings to firm up the flaccid regions of your music-appreciation apparatus. MS

A Place to Bury Strangers
Dead Oceans

A Place to Bury Strangers constructed another wall of sound in its cathedral of dark melodic noise with Worship, the Brooklyn trio’s third full-length album. Death by Audio effects pedals, crafted by vocalist/guitarist Oliver Ackerman, provide the band’s trademark fuzzy distortion and textured sounds in tracks like “Revenge” and “Leaving Tomorrow.” Yet there’s plenty of soul in the music too, albeit of the tortured and brooding variety, especially with the vocals more front and center on tracks like the gothic “Alone” and the dreamily melancholic “Fear.” As such, it is the depth of feeling as much as the cacophonous facade that makes Worship so enthralling. JR

Frank Ocean
Channel Orange
Def Jam

Late Beatles, mid-80s Prince, Radiohead in 2000, Kanye West (let’s debate when)—it’s very rare, but occasionally the arcs of commerce and artistic integrity intersect and a musician simultaneously ascends to both startling popularity and arresting brilliance. Holy shit did Francis Ocean get there fast! Like those influential artists before him, he almost enabled his extracurricular activities to steal the spotlight, but 10 or even 20 years from now, that’ll all be a sociological footnote, and his achievements on Channel Orange—as deeply personal as it is universal, as topical as it is timeless—will be undiminished. MS


After several previous attempts, Claire Boucher (a.k.a. Grimes) came into her own this past year with Visions, her debut for 4AD. A mix of Tinkerbell electronics, Björkian otherworldliness, and grooves mined from the same gemstone bed as “Genius of Love,” the record presented the Canadian singer as a pop maestro. Tracks like “Oblivion” and “Skin” seemed inherently insular, but proved to work in a live setting too, blossoming into splendorous moments full of color. It was the eccentricities of Grimes’ breakthrough that distinguished it, though, and made Visions the perfect soundtrack for dreaming of electric sheep. SS

The Walkmen
Fat Possum

After years of harnessing wild static, feral reverb and drum explosions into upside-down pyramids of sound, The Walkmen decided to flip right side up. Heaven is more sleek from the top down—more so than even You & Me—and it seems like the band deliberately let this one flow like molten metal. They’ve been a grown-up band from the start—they were just a little older and farther out than their peers—and while Heaven doesn’t seem like an endgame for Walkmen, it surely marks an end of a decade since their first releases. I’ve followed them from the beginning, but I still can’t wait to see what’s coming. MPO

Private Airplane

Connections’ debut album, Private Airplane, appears to have been pre-released exclusively to those on the Ohio internet, meaning, the polished pop gems on Private Airplane were probably only on the radar of those in Central Ohio and in the know. (Obviously, The Agit Reader was among them as our associate editor, Kevin Elliott, sings in the band.) That may change in the new year, but Private Airplane is not of 2012 or 2013 (or December, or last week, or that one shitty day you would have had if it weren’t for this album), but timeless. Most songs crafted today with the original recipe of guitar, bass, drums and vocals are affected disasters worthy of an apocalyptic flush, but Private Airplane hugs the transcendence theory. EM

Children of Desire
Katorga Works

For years, the mysterious boys of Merchandise were flying under the radar in an almost unheard of internet-proof popularity where house shows, hardcore ethos, and noise-over-substance were the norm. Children of Desire is a stroke in exchanging those impenetrabilities for pop ascension. Though the trio remain unorthodox—some songs expand into crystalline 10-minute clouds of static and chords—they push all the softest buttons and come up with a version of sweeping romanticism brought on by boredom and complacency, not want for acceptance by a bigger audience. Under mechanical vamps on Moz, huge shoegazing guitars, whoosh and jangle—not to mention hooks that reel towards infinity—they still mope and hide from daylight. This is a perfect example of how to make a pop record with smoke and mirrors, while knowing deep at heart that they’re a band as genuinely aching as they come. KJE

The Seer
Young God

Swans are a veritable institution in the musical world, albeit one constantly evolving and changing like a living, breathing creature. They’ve produced one stunning composition after another, no matter their line-up. So yes, maybe I had this record on a bit of a pedestal before even listening to it, but in all honesty, The Seer surpassed any and all expectations. Michael Gira makes music that can simultaneously crush your soul and make you want to live through it to see the remnants scattered about. The album is a wholly theatrical, all-encompassing experience, from the caustic (“93 Ave. B Blues”) to the sentimental (“Song for a Warrior”). It’s a culmination of sorts, and while it pays homage to the band’s past 30 years of music, it also provides a tantalizing look into the future. I will drink this Kool-Aid over and over, gladly. JF