The best (and worst) music of 2012: Steve Smith's picks

Jason Lescalleet packaged a squelchy magnum opus in a punk-rock riddle with a Depeche Mode punch line

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  • Jason Lescalleet, Songs About Nothing

  • Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Motion Sickness of Time Travel

  • Swans, The Seer

  • Michael Formanek, Small Places

  • Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music

  • Punch Brothers, Who's Feeling Young Now?

  • Digital Natives, Parted by the Say

  • David Virelles, Continuum

  • fun., Some Nights

  • Black Eagle Child, Go Around, Again

Jason Lescalleet, Songs About Nothing

The best albums

1
Jason Lescalleet, Songs About Nothing

Jason Lescalleet, Songs About Nothing (Erstwhile)

Electroacoustic improv’s foremost tape-loop tangler crammed his double-CD magnum opus with squelchy electronics, half-heard melodies, Kraftwerk krunk and a rumbling 43-minute tone poem, packaged in a punk-rock riddle and sealed with a Depeche Mode punch line.

2
Motion Sickness of Time Travel

Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Motion Sickness of Time Travel (Spectrum Spools)

Georgia synth siren Rachel Evans built her rep with more than a dozen cassettes and LPs of airy drone-pop reverie; this two-disc set showed that she could cast her spells at symphonic length.

 Download on iTunes    Download on Amazon

3
Swans, The Seer

Swans, The Seer (Young God)

Another double-album epic, The Seer, found Michael Gira, his rejuvenated Swans and a clutch of guests waxing elemental, with tender moments offering respite among cataclysmic barrages and incantatory chants.

 Download on iTunes    Download on Amazon

4
Michael Formanek, Small Places

Michael Formanek, Small Places (ECM)

Delivering a second LP with a fine-tuned quartet featuring acerbic saxophonist Tim Berne, protean pianist Craig Taborn and fluid drummer Gerald Cleaver, bassist Formanek wrote to his collaborators’ considerable strengths, with brainy, hearty and unpredictable results.

 Download on iTunes    Download on Amazon

5
Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music

Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music (Williams Street)

This seasoned Atlanta rapper delivered the hardest, sharpest LP of his career with El-P behind the boards, spitting with an authoritative flow and political savvy over rapid-fire blasts and slinky, seductive grooves alike.

 Download on iTunes    Download on Amazon

6
Punch Brothers, Who's Feeling Young Now?

Punch Brothers, Who’s Feeling Young Now? (Nonesuch)

Mandolin genius Chris Thile and his Bowery boys plied crafty riffs, earworm melodies and candid lyrics to fashion a fresh wrinkle in the newgrass tradition—call it “hi, lonesome” music.

 Download on iTunes    Download on Amazon

7
Digital Natives, Parted by the Say

Digital Natives, Parted by the Say (Housecraft)

Previously known as Xiphiidae, sound artist Jeffry Astin returned from a brief hiatus with a flood of new releases as Digital Natives, slashing and mashing queasy ’70s soft-rock, funk and inspirational tracks into mesmerizing found-art collages.

8
David Virelles, Continuum

David Virelles, Continuum (Pi Recordings)

The young Cuban-American pianist, already an MVP sideman to iconoclastic leaders like Henry Threadgill and Steve Coleman, offered an ambitious, assured debut album, saturated with poise, proficiency and duende.

 Download on iTunes    Download on Amazon

9
fun.

fun., Some Nights (Fueled by Ramen)

Ornate, flamboyant and unusually coherent, the sophomore disc by this New York trio fused postpunk spirit, hip-hop gloss and Queen-style harmonizing into a smash-hit apotheosis of youthful ambition and giddy pop excess

 Download on iTunes    Download on Amazon

10
Black Eagle Child, Go Around, Again

Black Eagle Child, Go Around, Again (Under the Spire)

Prolific Milwaukee guitarist and cassette-label honcho Michael Jantz found joy in repetition with this disc of proggy folk—or is it folksy prog? Either way, I listened to no album more for sheer pleasure in 2012.

 Download on iTunes    Download on Amazon


The worst

The singer tried to stay relevant. Photograph: Diana Sonis

Chris Brown

Like my colleague Sophie Harris, I was appalled by this already-tarnished singer's thuggish antics—the hideous tattoo; the petulant tantrums; the terrorist costume; the Twitter battle and retreat—but also by a music industry seemingly ready to fawn and forget.



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