While everyone was buzzing about big releases from Frank Ocean, Fiona Apple, Mumford & Sons and Taylor Swift, you might have missed some must-listens. Here’s what you should know about, and why:
Grizzly Bear: “Shields” (Warp)
Yes, iTunes named Grizzly Bear’s “Shields” the best album of 2012. Yes, the critics adored it. And yes, it debuted in the Top 10.
But did it earn any Grammy nominations? No. Is it selling well? No. Have you heard it? Probably not.
And that needs to change.
“Shields” is a semimasterpiece that feels both old and new — and in the best ways possible. Anchored by the voices of Edward Droste and Daniel Rossen, this Brooklyn, N.Y.-based foursome has created a disc that is genre-defying and consistent throughout.
Aaron Freeman: “Marvelous Clouds” (Partisan Records)
Middle age and sobriety caused Aaron Freeman to split this year from Ween, the deliriously genre-defying cult duo he co-founded 25 years ago. To find his footing as a solo artist, the former Gene Ween’s first tentative step was to release “Marvelous Clouds,” a covers album featuring 13 songs by Rod McKuen, the 1960s poet and composer.
McKuen’s a crooner often dismissed as schlocky, but Freeman finds the earnest heart — and crushing heartbreak — in gentle ballads like “A Man Alone,” which could be the record’s theme song. The production on “Jean” and the title track are by turns lush and spare. Every track is suffused with a melancholy that draws comparisons to some of the best of Ween’s softer material, including the aching “Birthday Boy” and “I Don’t Want It.”
Ty Segall: “Twins” (Drag City)
Ty Segall may have been the busiest man in music this year, releasing three albums under different band alignments while producing and contributing to several more.
His solo record, “Twins,” is the best of the lot and shows why everyone is so excited about the 25-year-old garage rocker from San Francisco. He plays most of the instruments here on 12 tracks full of fuzzy goodness.
Segall sets the mood with album opener, “Thank God for Sinners,” an anthemic fist to the face that shows you right where his heart is. Other highlights include the shambolic “Ghost,” the relentless “They Told Me Too” and “Love Fuzz,” which has a self-explanatory title.
Anat Cohen: “Claroscuro” (Anzic)
Israeli-born Anat Cohen is doing her utmost to ensure that the clarinet no longer remains an overlooked instrument in modern jazz. On “Claroscuro” — a Spanish term referring to the play between light and dark in painting — Cohen offers a variety of tonal shades ranging from light buoyant tunes to dark intense multilayered pieces as she takes her listeners on a multicultural journey with stops in West Africa, New Orleans, Brazil and her present home, New York.
Cohen engages in intricate dialogues with another jazz clarinet virtuoso, Cuban-born Paquito D’Rivera, on four of the 11 tracks — ranging from the twisting, minor key “Nightmare,” Swing Era clarinetist Artie Shaw’s haunting theme, to the playful, danceable “Um A Zero” by the Brazilian choro master Pixinguinha.
Ana Tijoux: “La Bala” (Nacional Records)
Sometimes the most powerful sound is not a shout, but a whisper.
Chilean-French rapper Ana Tijoux proves the power of that phrase. This year she brought new life to hip-hop en español with her rich, intelligent and original album “La Bala.”
Tijoux captures attention with a complex delivery that is both soft and harsh, warm in tone, yet chilling. Her lyrics reflect the politics that have shaped her world: She grew up exiled in France, where her family fled to escape the Pinochet regime.
Musically, “La Bala” is a gorgeous, potent and smoothly produced mix of bass, orchestration, rock and soul.
On the title track, Tijoux details the shooting of a man: “That body without life was her son, stunned Maria falls to the floor, her deformed face turned into a cry that leaves only a hum meaning — assassin.”