Is it us or was 2012 the year of streaming music? It seems like most everyone we know is now listening to music — new music, old music, super-obscure music, pop bubble gum, the latest releases, old-school hip-hop, brutal metal, avant classical, out jazz, indie flavor-of-the-day, guilty pleasures, and almost everything else — on Spotify, Pandora or Rdio or some other streaming service. (Trent Reznor is supposed to launch yet another music-streaming site early next year, this one with supposedly new ways of helping listeners navigate the overwhelming volume of music that's available.) Except for those music-giant holdouts who haven't yet permitted the licensing of their choicest songs — Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Kinks, um, Bob Seger — it's all basically out there. That means that music fans, especially the older kind who like new music but never quite learned to embrace the outlaw thrill of file-sharing, can get a taste of what 2012 sounds like without all of those so-2008 encumbrances like MP3 players or hard drives or, god forbid, CDs. In some ways the near-limitlessness of streaming music has served to reinforce whatever genre bubble many of us were already stuck in. Many of us have listened to more new music in 2012 than in years. And so when it came time to assemble our list of music-you-should-have-heard 2012, this year was maybe a little easier. But at the same time, the flood of good new releases forces us to steer clear of making any definitive or comprehensive statement about the nature of music in 2012. Our list, as you can see, is pretty skewed toward indie rock and metal. That's where our preferences lie. Jazz, hip-hop, country, classical and a million other subgenres go mostly overlooked here. But the ether flows with more new music — in all those genres — than you could probably listen to in a lifetime. If you've never heard of these titles, check out something that might be unexpected. If this music leaves you scratching your head, questioning our good taste, let us know what struck your ears as awesome this year.
Half Way Home
Angel in name, angel in face and voice, Olsen's 11-track debut of bedeviled, half-sane freak-folk numbers deals in celebrities, proximities and inexactitudes. Her voice is a Hawaiian yodel, or a saw, or a bottleneck guitar. An album that feels at homein a cramped, dark closet. Joanna Newsom fans will be pleased. — Michael Hamad
Band of Horses
Every Band of Horses album seems to draw directly from a handful of their heroes. This time around there is a distinct Neil Young, Byrds, Crosby, Stills & Nash influence. They've always been indie-rock-meets-Americana, but gone is the over-production and frivolousness of the last album. This time they let the songwriting speak for itself, and it works. — Chip McCabe
Willis Earl Beals
An untutored and slightly unstable outsider-art vibe comes through on the debut by Willis Earl Beals, a former motel night clerk who made scrappy DIY recordings. It starts with a spooky, metallic, lullaby, like a damaged music box. Groaning, raw gospel blues follow, with crude percussion. Soulful, half-spoken, bleak poetry depicting apocalyptic visions, ghosts and androids is half-intoned against bare strings. It could be a field recording from an asylum, but it's captivating. — John Adamian
The Money Store
Plenty of bands want to be menacing. But few artists successfully frighten anyone. Death Grips are actually kind of scary. This is glitchy hip-hop, fused with sprays of noise, a dusting of witch house, ingrown American grime, tweaker crunk, whatever. This is primal sonic violence, or maybe it's futuristic. Hard to say. Either way, the grating, chopped-up, blown-out, chest-thumping, siren-emulating, circuitry-frying loops and patterns almost induce heart palpitations, or stomach sickness. It feels like it might be bad for you — physically, spiritually, emotionally, socially — but that, the sense of unease, is also part of its appeal. — J.A.
Swing Lo Magellan
The latest album by Dirty Projectors is as good as anything they've ever done, and far more approachable. Which is good: David Longstreth's impressionistic musical language gets pretty out there sometimes. Here, his idiosyncratic melodies and richly allegorical lyrics are given room to breathe. Not that the music's any simpler — you can get lost trying to figure out chord progressions on any of Swing Lo's 12 tracks. You just don't get trampled by them. — M.H.
Bob Dylan and his cowboy band keep churning ahead with new songs topped with Dylan's signature gravelly 2000s-era voice, including a 13 minute + epic about the Titanic and a tribute to John Lennon. — Mike Sembos
Justin Townes Earl
Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
Timeless Woody Guthrie-inspired rootsy songs from a modern-day troubadour whose popularity continues to grow in the area. Make sure to catch his live show next time he's in town. He's the real deal. — Mike Sembos
Close the Distance
Former Mayday Parade vocal powerhouse Jason Lancaster's lungs are in tip-top shape, as evidenced by his latest performance with band Go Radio. This is smart, energetic alternative pop rock/punk at its very best. — Alison Geisler
Father John Misty
J. Tillman used to be in Fleet Foxes, but he quit and started this solo project. We think it was a good call on his part. Lush instrumentation, introspective lyrics and plenty of sweet harmonies make this record stand out. — M.S.
Released as a prelude to the band's upcoming 2013 full-length Pedestrian Verse, this EP features four tracks that didn't quite make the cut for the album and one that did, title track "State Hospital." Singer/lyricist Scott Hutchison cuts straight to the grief bone in some way or another. — A.G.
Guided By Voices
Class Clown Spots a UFO / Let's Go Eat the Factory / The Bears for Lunch
(Guided By Voices)
The most prolific band of our generation is back together with its original lineup, led by frontman Robert Pollard. So far in 2012, it's released three full-length albums. By the time this makes it into print there will probably be another one. All three have that authentic, classic GBV sound. — M.S.
Take drone-inspired aural expanses and match them up with grisly black metal-styled vocals and you have the unsettling yet breath-taking project known as Horseback. Half Blood is meditative and contemplative if the apocalypse is what you are into contemplating and meditating about. This is the best '70s Krautrock you've ever heard on the worst acid trip known to man. — C.M.
The Russian Wilds
From epic arena rock to quiet acoustic interludes to a bevy of prog and international influences, no band is more of a wild mélange of sounds than Howlin' Rain. Their newest rock masterpiece is possibly their best to date. This band doesn't just write "songs." They write "movements" pieced together to resemble the best of all that rock n' roll is capable of accomplishing. — C.M.
good kid, m.A.A.d city
(Interscope / Aftermath / Top Dawg)
Compton's Kendrick Lamar, a 25-year-old hip-hop artist, traces the trajectory of an inner-city life through a cinematic lens. But a movie's only as good as its cinematography, and there's not one flubbed shot on good kid; Take "Backseat Freestyle," the youngster as wannabe rapper, finding confidence in natural ability and libido as he climbs the shoulders of neighborhood legends and ghosts. There's a reckoning coming. — M.H.
America's sleazy dance-pop glitter queen reminds us that there's fun to be had while stumbling around not giving a fuck. Empowerment and bird-flipping commingle with hands-in-the-air club anthems, a possible unintended side-effect of mainstream Girl Power in her formative years. — A.G.
Sonic rewards lurk in every layered El-P beat on the sixth album from Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, who gets political ("Reagan," "War on Drugs"), religious ("Ghetto Gospel") and downright scary good ("Southern Fried"). "So fresh, so clean, rolling down the street so slow, so sweet," he raps on "Southern Fried," "Like a cup of codeine. Smoking on that Irene / With a sweet country girl named Irene / I lean, Feeling irie, I be / Strapped to the motherfucking T, so please don't try me." A master at the top of his game. — M.H.
Self-titled debut album from Colorado's the Lumineers launches their brand of acoustic, folky, gang-shouty pop straight into our hearts. The single "Ho Hey" is entirely unignorable with its sing-along feel, romantic sentiment and stompy rhythms. — A.G.
The Music Tapes
Childish, dreamy, imaginative, lo-fi songs by Julian Kloster of Neutral Milk Hotel (he played the saw on In An Aeroplane Over the Sea). The final track "Takeshi and Elijah" brought down the house at the Shubert when the band opened for Jeff Mangum earlier this year. — M.S.
The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy
Nada Surf's songs have bold emotional candor. But they're not sappy or whiny. This band makes buoyant power pop with just enough mature sadness — a compressed aphoristic midlife wistfulness — to keep the fizz in check. Nada Surf is the rare pop band that could be called wise. — J.A.
Honor Found In Decay
Without pretense you can stake the claim that Neurosis is one of the most important bands in metal history and they proved why once again with Honor Found In Decay. Every Neurosis album sounds like a journey through time and space, and this journey is one of their most potent and exhilarating. — C.M.
Shut Down the Streets
This is the third solo album from New Pornographers songwriting whiz AC Newman. There's a poetry and tender yearning to these songs that doesn't necessarily give itself over to easy meaning upon the first (or fifteenth) listen. Check out the use of flute, trumpet and clarinet lines to dance in counterpoint to the vocal melodies. — J.A.
Channel Orange, 25-year-old Frank Ocean's major label debut, gathers a hundred openings and expertly strings them together into a virtuosic R&B movie, with interstitial dialogue, sound effects and brief instrumentals. Sexual energy crackles on cuts like "Thinkin Bout You," in the Rhodes piano-tinkle of "Sweet Life" and on the album's through-composed centerpiece, the nearly 10-minute-long "Pyramids." Unfolding in fits and starts, Channel Orange's appeal, in part, is how unexpected it all seemed a year ago, and how inevitable it now sounds. — M.H.
Of Monsters and Men
My Head is an Animal
Iceland's latest five-piece, hyper melodic indie rock band fails to disappoint with its debut studio effort My Head is an Animal. There are enough velcro hooks and la-la-las to keep this record on your turntable for years to come. — A.G.
Plants and Animals
The End of That
These classic-rock-tinged jams from this Canadian trio have oomph and juice while retaining a sense of humor and real artistry to the lyrics. They've moved past the punk and grunge rejection of rock's excess back to a more aloof place where one can enjoy the big pleasures without exactly buying into all the pretense. Bits of hippie soul and bleary glam show up along the way. — J.A.
English ginger singer-songwriter with the voice of an angel bounces around a few genres on his debut major-label full-length. Plenty of acoustic guitar and heartfelt admissions of love and heartache, with a few heavy subjects for flavor. — A.G.
Royal Thunder is the perfect blend of the soulful, passionate and beautiful with the dark and the mysterious. Drawing from doom/sludge metal and stoner rock, their sound is a riff-lover's utopia for sure, completed by some of the best and most powerful female vocals found anywhere in the rock world. — C.M.
The world — all its multitudes and isolated corners — as heard through a flanger pedal. The second album by Aussie Kevin Parker and company could have flitted down the retro-minded channels dug out on their debut. But this one's saved by the production — a mix of super-processed Beach Boy harmonies and brazen sloppiness (the looped drumstick-flub in the woozy "Mind Mischief," for example). Just enough riffage and weird, altered blues to keep things grounded amid the wash. — M.H.
The 1970's hard rock revival within the metal world saw its kings return to the throne this year. Sweden's Witchcraft takes all the best parts of Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, Pentagram and Deep Purple, tosses them in a blender and churns out some of the best blues-infested stoner rock this side of the Nixon administration. — C.M.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Psychedelic Pill / Americana
Neil Young & Crazy Horse schooled Bridgeport residents a couple weeks ago playing these new songs mixed in with his classics. They fit right in. The band is just as inspired and fuzzed-out as ever. — M.S.
Briarwood, Deluxe Edition
There's a lot of asphalt, tire rubber, booze, motel stationary, pills, flames, crumpled cash, devils, self-destruction, bad love, dreams, angels, Jesus, deceit, and redemption in the music of James Jackson Toth, who performs under the name of Wooden Wand. He has a combustible outlaw swagger and a death-addled sulphuric style. — J.A.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times