Are these the 10 best albums of the year so far?

Pub date July 9, 2012

What vibrant musical times we’re living in! The year is halfway done, and we’re already up to our neck in more great albums than we know what to do with. Naturally, a list of 10 required a few sacrifices (apologies, in particular, to Fiona Apple, Burial, and Spiritualized), but here you have it: a handful of the most interesting, most forward-thinking, most compulsively listenable records of 2012 so far.

10. Mount Eerie: Clear Moon (P.W. Elverum & Sun)

Few musicians evoke the dank, misty Pacific Northwest as vividly as indie-rock auteur Phil Elverum. Consolidating his naturalistic folk, quasi-metal, and Twin Peaks-ambient impulses, Clear Moon is Elverum’s most succinct, eloquent statement since his days as the Microphones.

9. Daughn Gibson: All Hell (White Denim)

Just when you thought nobody was interested in kicking country music’s ass into the 21st century, along comes Daughn Gibson. Filtering lovelorn trucker ballads through James Blake’s glitch machine, with Gibson’s hearty baritone along for the ride, All Hell is one of the most quietly subversive albums in recent memory.

8. Julia Holter: Ekstasis (RVNG)

There’s a rhyme and reason to Julia Holter’s musical language, but it’s not linear. Her songs flow leisurely from one idea to the next, unraveling like a cloud of smoke instead of progressing like a staircase. Folding elements of indie-pop, classical minimalism, free jazz, and Indian raga into her postmodernist stew, Ekstasis is an impressive balancing act that never buckles under its own conceptual weight.

7. Actress: RIP (Honest Jons)

Fragmented, yet weirdly cohesive, RIP is British producer Actress’ most developed statement yet. Recalling Flying Lotus’ freewheeling space crusades, Autechre’s twitchy electronics, and Hype Williams’ anarchic fuzz, each of RIP’s 15 pocket symphonies create their own little world: some of them floaty and meandering, others driven and intent, all of them captivating in their balance between the familiar and the esoteric.

6. Laurel Halo: Quarantine (Hyperdub)

Much like Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica (2011), Quarantine is ideal soundtrack material for those late-night, marathon web-surfing sessions that seem to transcend time and space. Halo’s cold, glassy electronics are anchored by dry, straightforward vocals on an album that occupies a mysterious void between vocal pop and ambient electronica.

5. Lone: Galaxy Garden (R&S)

This is the Lone album we’ve been waiting for. The British laptop producer’s past efforts, while exquisitely lush, were inhibited by a sense of hollow simplicity; Galaxy Garden, his danciest effort yet, shows improvement on nearly every front, from generously layered percussion, to a nuanced, bittersweet take on melody and harmony. A gorgeous fulfillment of Lone’s hedonistic vision.

4. Chassol: X-Pianos (Tricatel)

Well, this is unusual: a sprawling, two-hour debut album from a French orchestra conductor who’s worked privately on his own compositions for decades. Harmonizing field recordings and spoken-word samples through a wide range of musical languages, from old-school classical to indie-pop-via-MIDI, X-Pianos isn’t a cohesive statement so much as a brilliant portfolio, waiting to be discovered, piece by piece.

3. THEESatisfaction: awE naturalE (Sub Pop)

Splitting the difference between progressive hip-hop and neo-soul, this Seattle duo’s breakthrough record zips through its 30-minute run-time with remarkable tenacity and economy. Bearing the exhilarating energy of J Dilla’s Donuts or Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Pt. 2, and shrewd lyricism that effortlessly balances the political, the personal, and the cosmic, awE naturalE feels urgently, confrontationally NOW.

2. Zammuto: Zammuto (Temporary Residence)

Former Books member Nick Zammuto’s solo debut impresses with its vitality and strength of purpose. Despite the heightened emphasis on conventional songwriting this time around, Zammuto strikes that divine balance between bewildering sound-collage and pop approachability that made the Books such an endearing project in the first place.

1. Field Music: Plumb (Memphis Industries)

Sometimes, a really solid pop album wins out. Less a song-cycle than a series of hooks, Field Music’s latest is the work of a band with a hundred wonderful ideas up its sleeve, and only 35 minutes to communicate them. Channeling the impulsive energy of Abbey Road’s second half with proggy dexterity, Plumb cements this vastly underrated British outfit as one of the most visionary songwriting duos around.