ALL HELL, Daughn Gibson (White Denim). Possessing a deep baritone in the Lee Hazlewood mode and a gift for storytelling, Gibson was signed to Sub Pop on the strength of this enchanting debut. Using just a microphone, a sampler and a crate of dusty country and gospel records, he gnaws on the bones of the Grand Ole Opry and creates his own sub-genre in the process.
ANIMAL HUSBANDRY, Human Teenager (Spectrum Spools). Unfairly lumped in with the lazy excretions of fops-du-jour like Ariel Pink, the distressed pop and synthesised haze of this Brooklyn duo is much more vital and interesting. From the almost straightforward ear candy of Permanent Skin to the ominous acid of Whites (In General), this is A-grade bent gear.
BOYS AND GIRLS, Alabama Shakes (Rough Trade). This would be your standard meat-and-potatoes southern rock if it weren’t for explosive frontwoman Brittany Howard, who combines garage-band grit with gospel fire for an unflashy yet searing set. Although not every track is as potent as the definitive note-to-self Hold On, there is enough promise to make it a contender for debut of the year.
DOUG JEREBINE IS JESSE HARPER, Doug Jerebine (Drag City). These 1969 demos, recorded in London, provided material for the first three albums of the Human Instinct and almost secured Kiwi guitar hero Jerebine a major American contract. Finally given an authorised release after decades of bootlegging, they prove to be the great lost psych-rock classic of legend.
ELECTRIC HAWAII, Opossom (Dark Summer/CRS). Fruity exotica, swirling psychedelia and cool jazz meet in the thundering pop songs of former Mint Chick Kody Nielson. Bic Runga, indispensable in Opossom’s live show, contributes vocally, but this album is really a showcase for the range, multi- instrumental virtuosity and occasional brazen thievery of the solo Nielson.
GOOD KID, M.A.A.D CITY, Kendrick Lamar (Interscope). 2012 was a banner year for quality hip-hop, with sturdy releases from Killer Mike, El-P, Action Bronson and KA and the more sophisticated R&B leanings of Frank Ocean, yet 25-year-old Compton native Lamar stole the show. In years to come, this will be one of the few recent rap albums to be afforded classic status.
HOME BREW, Home Brew (Young, Gifted & Broke). There is mischief in the way these local MCs play up the stereotype of the welfare-dependent stoner-slacker, but there is also morality in rhymes that confront Kiwi macho culture, youth suicide and the economic gap, all to a funky bassline and horn-laced accompaniment.
HOPE AND WIRE, The Eastern (RPM). Their banjo-and-fiddle-fuelled sound is marinated in Americana, but the stories these Lyttelton troubadours have to tell on this justifiable double-album are convincingly their own, from punk-folk stompers like Turn It Around and Gone to the post-quake ruminations of State Houses by the River and the breathtaking title track.
THE IDLER WHEEL IS WISER THAN THE DRIVER OF THE SCREW AND WHIPPING CORDS WILL SERVE YOU MORE THAN ROPES WILL EVER DO, Fiona Apple (Epic). Time hasn’t tamed Apple. She still chews up and spits out her rhymes – usually aimed at an ex-lover – while accompanying herself with a daringly dissonant piano. But with the rhythmically inventive Charley Drayton as her foil, her combination of show-tune, art song and Epistrophy has never sounded more thrilling.
LIVING IN HELL, Heart Attack Alley (Voodoo Rhythm). A fine antidote to the lightweight, dress-up Americana that seems to have become inexplicably acceptable around these parts, this distinguished Auckland blues trio aren’t doing it for show. Passion, economy, great songs and sterling performances abound throughout this immaculately produced 13-tracker that is best enjoyed in its red vinyl incarnation.
LONERISM, Tame Impala (Modular). Their debut was stacked with instantaneous ear worms, but Lonerism requires a little more patience, for even greater reward. The psychedelic touchstones and heavy influences are still present, but there’s a maturity in the songwriting and the even more spacious sonics that suggest Perth’s finest are only just warming up.
THE LOST TAPES, Can (Mute). Can are one of the very few groups to justify the “massively influential” tag and their legacy hasn’t been too diluted with endless reissues and compilations. Most often breathtakingly enthralling, at other times unapologetically testing, this triple-album set informs on their work processes, and is no less essential for permitting some indulgence.
MALA IN CUBA, Mala (Brownswood). The mesmerising fusion of South London deep bass vibes with Cuba’s rich musical lineage may be unlikely, but it works sensationally. Gilles Peterson plays matchmaker, with Roberto Fonseca’s crack band bringing the musical muscle to fuel Mala’s explorations into refined offshore dubstep.
ONDATROPICA, Ondatrópica (Soundway). As the great musical melting pot of South America, Colombia should be known for more than just cumbia. Expat Brit Will “Quantic” Holland and accomplished local Mario Galeano do their bit to rectify that with this vibrant and vivacious double album featuring over 40 virtuoso musicians playing old and new rhythms and giving it their all.
ONE DAY I’M GOING TO SOAR, Dexys (BMG). With Auckland’s Madeleine Hyland as his foil, Kevin Rowland has manufactured a most unlikely career revival with this album. On this jaw-dropping return, the older, wiser Rowland has exorcised most of his irritating mannerisms, without letting up on the unflinching veracity and infectious musical enthusiasm.
REGGAE MUSIC AGAIN, Busy Signal (VP). The clue is in the title, as reggae’s most versatile vocalist focuses his gaze on roots and culture subjects, over weighty one-drop rhythms. With strong 70s vibes and just a twist of modernity, this is the perfect release to big up Jamaica’s 50 years of independence celebrations.
SING THE DELTA, Iris DeMent (Flariella). There may be no artist living today who could claim to have been shaped by the same forces that created the Carter Family – that moment in history has passed – but if anyone comes close it is DeMent. Rustic and real, both churchy and deeply humanist, her first collection of new songs in 16 years is country music the pioneers would have recognised.
THE SPARROW, Lawrence Arabia (Honorary Bedouin). Since he emerged as Lawrence Arabia six years ago, Christchurch’s James Milne has scattered his talents across a variety of sub-genres. But for this set he concentrates on a stately chamber pop, in which strings and horns weave gorgeous counterpoint around his light voice, wry lyrics and winsome melodies.
SWING LO MAGELLAN, Dirty Projectors (Domino). David Longstreth, the organising intelligence behind these New York City-based art-popsters, can’t resist occasionally taking his music apart before our ears to show us how cleverly it is put together. Still, for most of Dirty Projectors’ latest album, deconstructionist theory takes a back seat to startlingly beautiful, oddly sincere songs.
TOY LOVE, Toy Love (Real Groovy). Taken straight from the master tapes, the three singles (and B-sides) Toy Love released during their 611 days together – on vinyl again for the first time in decades – are a reminder of what is lacking from so many bands today. Terrific tunes, crackling energy and a sense of humour. The assorted demos that make up the remainder of this two-disc set are inspired, too. Equally essential: the newly issued Pull Down the Shades DVD.