After nearly two weeks of Best of 2012 mania, we've finally arrived at the proverbial grandaddy of them all—XLR8R's picks for the top 20 releases of the year. Yesterday's selections, which included #40-21 in this category, already compiled a whole lot of quality material, but in our minds, the releases listed below are the absolute cream of the crop. Even better, we've invited the artists behind each of our picks to chime in with a few thoughts about their music, giving us a small peek behind the curtain at what went into some of the year's best music.
(Just to reiterate, we considered a release to be anything with two or more original tracks on it. That means albums, EPs, and certain 12"s were all in the running; we also elected to include mix albums and reissues in this category.)
20. Gerry Read
"I made this album well fast. See if you can hear my dog sampled in it." - Gerry Read
19. Mike Huckaby
The Tresor EP
"I am very happy that this EP has been well received by so many DJs. It was a long time coming to release an EP on Tresor, so the opportunity manifested itself [at the perfect time]. I pulled out all the tricks I knew in the book to make sure that every track was recorded, mixed down, and mastered very well. I've learned a lot of production tips over the past few years, but the most significant thing I have learned is how to mix obtrusively. I [also] tried to record a well-balanced EP with tracks that could be played on any floor inside [Berlin's] Tresor club.
'The Upstairs Lounge' is a good track that can work in any house or techno DJ set, and I think it will stand the test of time. I'm kinda torn between my favorite track on this EP being 'The Tresor Track' or 'The Upstairs Lounge.'" - Mike Huckaby
Just to Feel Anything
"Emeralds' music has always been in a state of flux or evolution. Our fans who have followed us the longest tend to understand this best because they know that we have historically and intentionally changed our formula on every album that's been released, especially since Solar Bridge. To me, a backlash was to be expected, but also welcome since a lot of people really started hearing our music in 2010 with the release of Does It Look Like I'm Here?. It seems there's always going to be people who try to defame artists based on an expectation from past work. We aren't too concerned with the negativity, as we've always known what we're doing and where our music is ultimately headed. We are a band that is constantly in a state of transition as we synthesize our influences into new expressions of will, which we hope will trickle down to inspire a new generation of artists. There are some big changes in the works right now, but everyone is going to have to wait for that announcement next year." - Steve Hauschildt of Emeralds
16. Andy Stott
"It's been pretty amazing to see how well the album has been received. I had no idea how this would pan out after working with Alison [Skidmore] on these tracks. Looking back over the past year and what was going on around this album, it was a pretty difficult process. Working nine to five, having a heavily pregnant partner, and all of that on top of trying to take another step forward in the releases that the label and I were putting together. To me, this album is pretty special. I'm reminded of so many important things through this period and I want to say a huge thanks for everyone getting on the album and giving it all the support it's had—it's been a really nice surprise and has just topped off a crazy year." - Andy Stott
"I am quite proud how this one turned out. I felt like it was cohesive, as the entire EP came together in under a month and the general sound design/engineering/themes remained consistent. Whereas my previous EP, ?lpha, was spread over the course of six months and didn't have a theme going in. Part of the sound-design consistency was the use of a very small modular synth (3U) that I had built only a couple of weeks earlier. All the basslines were designed using it. At first, I didn't even have proper ADSRs, so all I could do was these slow, droney basslines, which you can hear in 'Surfeit' and 'Depth Charge.' It was also the first time that I didn't sit on the music for a long period of time before it went off for mastering, which is for the best, as I usually quickly start thinking my songs are shit and want to radically change them or just throw them out. Overthinking is usually my worst enemy." - Nautiluss
"This album almost didn't happen. All the tracks on it were made just as music to play in my DJ sets—they were intended to work in a club first and foremost. It wasn't until I sat down one day and collected all the tracks together that I thought about releasing them together as an album. I was shocked that they seemed as coherent as they did and flattered by how they've been received and taken on a life for themselves outside of the space I made them for." - Dan Snaith (a.k.a. Daphni a.k.a. Caribou)
13. Holy Other
"Held began as Liquid Love (after Zygmunt Bauman's book of the same title). After a brief discussion with Robin (Tri Angle Records), I realised that the accidental explicit euphemism would probably be taken at face value by everyone other than me, and totally spoil my
actual intention. I didn't want this to be a record about fucking. Plus, as a title, it also was admittedly more suited to some unsubtle '90s house record about fucking." - Holy Other
12. Todd Terje
It's the Arps EP
"This little project was a result of me wanting to justify my purchase of a ARP2600, which cost a bit on the second-hand market. My rule was to use no samples, only sounds generated from this machine such as kicks, snares, hats, basslines, melodies, etc. It's funny to see the reaction to 'Inspector Norse' when I play it out, and it makes me laugh and think, 'Yeah, you girls don't know just how nerdy this song really is.' Nerds one, jocks nil." - Todd Terje
Kill for Love
(Italians Do It Better)
Order of Noise
"Doing the record has been the most invigorating, exciting, rewarding/terrifying, exhausting, upsetting process I've ever attempted. It forced me to develop at a rate that felt completely unsustainable for the majority of the time I was writing and left me feeling ruined and empty. But I gained more than I could have hoped for from managing to complete it. I surpassed everything I've done before, and was given the ability to pursue my ideas with greater confidence. The fact that the general reception was so positive was the icing on the cake. When your creations are given to the public, they no longer belong solely to you, so I'm immensely gratified that a lot of people seem to enjoy this record as much as I do. I haven't sat down and listened to the record since, but it's kind of sunk into my bones now. It's comforting enough to know that now the music and the process involved in making it will always be present in my work." - Vessel
9. Levon Vincent
"All I can say is that I was deeply grateful to Fabric for approaching me. Personally, it felt as though I was receiving some validation publicly after many years of DJing for rooms of only five people, or working in shops selling records to bigger DJs and hoping one day for the opportunity to show my own personal perspective on the music. It was a very thrilling process to record it—I put much emphasis on sound quality. I spent a lot of time experimenting with formats and recording methods, and in the end, I was very pleased with the result. It's one of the best moments of my career, as well as a personal highlight in my lifetime." - Levon Vincent
8. Jacques Greene
"This record was the first time I felt like I did 'club tracks' in a way. [I was] trying out some simpler, stripped-down sections. Since they had that kind of feel to them, I sent them to a few DJs, and Martyn got back saying he really liked them. In the end, I'm happy he released it, because he is one of those few people who is as nice as their music and work are good. We spoke for a while about me doing a record on 3024 in the past, and this all fell into place naturally, from the writing of the tracks to its release."
- Jacques Greene
Change in a Dynamic Environment
"The EPs were inspired by early-'90s hardcore and jungle tracks that often journeyed through wildy contrasting sections within their arrangement. Any of the early releases on XL, Moving Shadow, or Reinforced might have a freaky vocal sample intro, then a big piano breakdown, switching into a dark drop with just drums and bass, [with] pads and melodies closing out the track.
Even though technology of the average '90s bedroom studio seems ancient by today's standards, the ambition for many of these releases was incredible, a complete emotional journey. In under six minutes, you might get experience panic, happiness, rowdiness, and lush vibes from a single track, and that style of arrangement doesn't happen that often in underground dance music. We just tend to get a good hook going and jam it out for six minutes. If anything, it's the chart-friendly, electrocomplexicorestep vocal-pop tracks that seem to use that maximalist ideal.
After immersing myself again in those old records, I wanted tracks like 'Motion the Dance' to start minimal [and] have a big, uplifting melody that gradually morphed into something sinister. In 'Breathe,' there's a really overemphasised crescendo that takes it from being a low-key roller into (hopefully) something grander and more reflective.
That fact that there's a 4/4 kick under most of the [tracks] wasn't the main concern or objective when getting ideas together. I wanted them to be full to the brim but still functional; in the old tradition of those early hardcore tracks, they could be mixed together differently by various DJ's and used as tools to build a narrative in a DJ set."
6. Barker & Baumecker
"The amount of amazing music released this year has been an inspiration to us, and with that in mind, it's a huge honor to be featured in this list. Our warmest thanks to everyone who supported us, bought our releases, and came to our shows. You make it possible for us to continue, and we are excited for what the next adventures will bring."
- Barker & Baumecker
Mala in Cuba
"The most challenging part of making the record was keeping my objectivity. After my experience in Cuba, I came home with so much information and energy. I made so much music—I was so deep into creation—that when I stopped to look around, I realized I was totally lost. I had no idea what anything was. This is when you have to take time away to allow yourself to reset. Going back to it with a fresh ear and mind often makes huge difference." - Mala
4. Four Tet
"I'm really struggling to write anything about this... just don't know what to say about the music these days that doesn't seem to get in the way of it somehow. I'm so happy that people seem to be really getting into the stuff I've been putting out recently and I like that people are just getting into it in their own way and I'm getting it out there in a more simple way through my own label." - Four Tet
2. Simian Mobile Disco
"When we made Unpatterns, we wanted to make a record that we could play as DJs but that incorporated more of the warm, late-night, psychedelic feel we love. We also got obsessed with ideas of patterns and repetition and trying to create something that seemed complicated, purely from the interaction of very simple elements. We didn't want any traditional song structures, so we steered away from collaborating with vocalists, but instead enjoyed playing with sampled voices and the intensity that the repetition of a simple emotional statement can give. Overall, we're proud of the album and glad it was well received. It feels like an honest snapshot of our musical process."
- Simian Mobile Disco
1. John Talabot
"I'm really impressed how ƒIN is getting so much attention. I made it two years ago now, [during a time when I was not] in the best personal situation, [dealing with] with some struggles and too much obsession. Being able to finish the album, work with Pional, play live shows, traveling on tours, playing with The xx, it's some kind of dream that I could have never imagined, and I feel in some way that ƒIN is partially responsible. When I was finishing the album, I never saw the commercial part of it. I thought that people wouldn't like it too much because it was too different from my stuff on the previous EPs, and I wasn't sure that they were going to enjoy it. At the same time, I was trying to do some more pop songs, mixing them with more abstract stuff on the album, and I wasn't sure that the combination was going to work. My mind was full of doubts and insecurities. Last December, I had a really bad personal matter, [something] really traumatic; the album and its release were the only sure things going on in my life at that point, so in some way, ƒIN and all the people enjoying it rescued me from the worst moment in my life, and turned this year into one of the best years of my life. In some ways, ƒIN became a new beginning." - John Talabot
XLR8R's Best of 2012 coverage will continue throughout the week, so check back each day for additional year-end round-ups. In the meantime, don't forget to take a look at the other Best of 2012 pieces we've posted already:
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Top Downloads
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Podcasts
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Features
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Videos
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Labels
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Hi, Doctor Nick!
XLR8R's Best of 2012: New Artists
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Overrated Releases
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Underwhelming Releases
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Tracks, Part One
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Tracks, Part Two
XLR8R's Best of 2012: Releases, Part One