Favorite Albums of 2012
Here you have it: my 11 favorite albums of the year, presented alphabetically. After that, a bunch of albums that I loved almost as much as these 11, followed by another group whose minor flaws caused me to love them only slightly less.
Yes, I really did listen to enough music this year that there’s more albums I heard that don’t appear than those that do. And that is not, in any way, meant to be a boast — in fact, I think it’s a pretty silly thing to do. But I love trying to expose myself to the full spectrum of the music people are making every day, and seeing what sticks, so I’ll probably continue to do so.
Anaïs Mitchell | Young Man In America
As silly as my reason is, I have to admit to a bias, or at least a sort of favoritism, when it comes to Anaïs Mitchell. Our connection ends at the fact that we both attended Middlebury College, but her approach to songwriting feels akin to something I love about the spirit of Middlebury’s approach to academia. Her songs, and their relationship with folk tradition, are heady but organic, intellectual but still soulful, reverent of history but not anti-modern.
I’ve been following her career for years, hoping she’d begin to get the attention she’s received this year in the wake of this beautiful, deserving record. With her ability to take a scholarly approach to old fashioned musical forms & idioms and imbue them with personal insight and unique character, each song speaks unequivocally to the present moment — even when their events ostensibly take place in a bygone time. Add to that the newfound ease and confidence apparent in her already interesting voice, as well as a stunning arranging and recording job, and you have Young Man In America, a folk record for the ages.
>>>Check out: “Young Man In America”, “Ships”, “Shepherd”, “Venus”, “Annemarie”
Baroness | Yellow & Green
The way I see it, metal is one of the last great sites for pure experimentalism in guitar-based music — as indie abandons its pretenses and forges ever popward (not complaining), the fertile independent metal scene plays host to drone, noise, psych, progressive time signatures, extreme repetition and the like. In other words, all the qualities that reside farther than ever from the “rock mainstream,” if such a thing can even be said to exist anymore.
These qualities all draw me to the genre, but hard as I try to be a “legit” metal listener, the more pop-leaning, less experimental albums that the genre produces are still the ones I get the most excited about (see: Mastodon’s The Hunter in my top 20 last year). This isn’t to say that hints of those experimental qualities aren’t present in Yellow & Green, the sprawling third LP by Savannah quartet Baroness; they’re just smuggled into some of the most propulsive, viscerally satisfying pop songs penned by any band this year. Anchored by John Baizley’s versatile yowl and all four musicians’ impressive chops, the album’s sonically diverse 18 tracks nail that coveted combination of sufficiently heavy and addictively catchy, a sweet spot to which so many people doing loud things with guitars aspire.
>>>Check out: “Board Up The House”, “Eula”, “Take My Bones Away”, “March to the Sea”, “Green Theme”
Grizzly Bear | Shields
One of the many appealing qualities of Grizzly Bear’s breakthrough 2006 album Yellow House is that the record seems to fully embody the spirit of the titular, creaky Cape Cod house where it was recorded. The songs are hermetic and often spooky, and their considerable beauty has a sort of dusty domesticity to it. 2009 follow-up Veckatimest took a first peek out the front door and viewed the world in all its psychedelic splendor, like Dorothy arriving in Oz. Shields, their third record as this particular foursome and a continuation of their incredible hot streak, strides boldly out of the front door, locks its eyes on the horizon and never looks back.
Because this is Grizzly Bear, the ensuing journey is staggeringly beautiful, but, because this is Grizzly Bear, it’s not all flowery meadows and puffy white clouds. At times the songs are reminiscent of the wide-open plains and mountains of a Cormac McCarthy landscape, the music made wavery by the heat. Occasionally, as on the singles (“Sleeping Ute” and “Yet Again”), things get more tempestuous, Chris Bear’s thunderstorm drums and Daniel Rossen’s lightning-bolt strikes of guitar conjuring up a mighty squall. These two modes come together on jaw-dropping closer “Sun In Your Eyes,” which vacillates between some desert-weary lyrics crooned by Rossen over spare piano (“by the look on your face / the burden’s on your back / and the sun is in your eyes”), and an all-out maelstrom of drums, horns, piano, bass, and choral harmonies. It sounds like the conclusion of an epic journey because it is.
>>>Check out: “Yet Again”, “Sun In Your Eyes”, “Gun-Shy”, “Sleeping Ute”, “Half Gate”
Jessie Ware | Devotion
Jessie Ware entered my field of vision on future-pop dance cuts like SBTRKT’s “Right Thing To Do” and Joker’s monstrous “The Vision (Let Me Breathe)”, so you’ll understand why I was surprised that Devotion, her debut, distills so many elements of classic R&B. That said, it also sounds wonderfully of-the-moment, folding bass music into pop structures like fellow Brits Jamie Woon and Katy B did last year, but with an even defter touch. Striking that balance is a rare feat, and it serves an emerging star like Ware (or the next artist on this list) quite well — bury yourself too deep in of-the-moment sounds, and you’re guaranteed to seem dated in the near future, like movies that overuse CGI, or all those turn-of-the-millenium pop and rap songs that reference beepers and pagers. (OK, “Bug-A-Boo” hasn’t aged a day.)
Holing up as she did with a very small group of collaborators (Dave Okumu, Julio Bashmore, and Kid Harpoon), Ware’s debut is sonically consistent while still displaying ample range — “Sweet Talk”, a winningly timeless track, is followed by “110%”, the most current-sounding one of the bunch. That same sense of range carries over to her vocals, which function wonderfully as both a seductive coo and an Adele-style belt — often, as with “Running”, on the same song. All of it is shot through with a palpable sense of longing just strong enough to make you want to keep returning to the lovely little world she’s constructed on this marvelous introduction.
>>>Check out: “Running”, “Still Love Me”, “Wildest Moments”, “Sweet Talk”, “Night Light”
Kendrick Lamar | good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Let’s be real: my decision to keep my top 11 unranked is due to my ambivalence about slots 2 through 11 — not any doubt about who belongs at #1. Ask me to pick my #1 song, and if I give you an answer, know that it’ll change in two weeks — but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this here is the most magnificent record of 2012.
Many have accused fans of this album of being “tokenistic” rap listeners who exclusively laud albums like good kid, m.A.A.d. city, which conform to certain notions of “album-ness” that have more typically been the domain of rock music, ever since the Beatles did their thing. (Alas, it’s hard for me to dispel this accusation, seeing as this is the only rap album in my top 11, but trust me — I am not that type of fan.) There’s some truth to that argument — different genres aspire to different goals, and it’s problematic to compare them to each other using the same criteria for evaluation — but that doesn’t make it any less exciting when a record as thematically and narratively coherent, musically ambitious, and downright thought-provoking as good kid, m.A.A.d. city comes along.
It’s a stunningly vivid Portrait of the Artist as a Young Everyman growing up in Compton, that Everyman being Mr. Lamar, his persona on this proper debut being one of the most compelling, thoughtful, empathetic protagonists hip-hop has seen in a great long while. And has anyone mentioned that this guy rapped circles around pretty much anyone else who held a mic in 2012? His style is a breathtaking fusion of purist technical fireworks and heart-in-throat emoting achieved by twisting his vocal cords in every possible manner; he spits until he’s gasping for breath, he lets his voice squeak and crack, he bellows, grunts, croons, and nearly whispers. He weaves it all together with interstitial “skits” that I still don’t want to fast-forward, which is more than I can say for 95% of skits. Oh, and the music sounds really, really, really good. Ladies and gentlemen, King Kendrick Lamar.
>>>Check out: “Backseat Freestyle”, “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, “Money Trees”, “Sing About Me / I’m Dying of Thirst”, “Swimming Pools (Drank)”
Matthew Dear | Beams
I was already a big fan of Matthew Dear’s Black City, but the guy completely exploded my perception of his music when I saw him live nearly a year ago. His studio creations sound like the work of an exacting craftsman, but on stage he becomes a brooding shapeshifter, playing at the role of the mysterious, preening, pompadoured frontman in a way that makes the line between sincerity and arch theatricality indistinguishable. All the while, assisted by a limber backing band and a small army of effects pedals, he transformed Black City‘s brittle, sludgy compositions into sexy, polyrhythmic, mutating funk grooves. I was hooked.
Dear shifts shapes again on Black City follow-up Beams, moving subtly away from that album’s darker timbres and teasing out some of the prettier textures he hinted at on Black City closer “Gem” — but he certainly doesn’t move too far in the direction of the beatific. All over this record, Dear smears the synths, bends his vocals into odd shapes, and loads the percussion up with strange clicks and squelches, turning would-be straightforward electronic pop into something murkier, funkier — something more closely resembling the bleary, battered portrait that adorns the album’s cover. He’s in pursuit of that weird-sexy aesthetic that his live shows capture so effortlessly, and as such, he channels some of our most beloved purveyors of weird-sexy — Hot Chip, Talking Heads, Bowie — while still creating work that wouldn’t be mistaken for anybody else’s.
>>>Check out: “Her Fantasy”, “Temptation”, “Earthforms”, “Do the Right Thing”, “Headcage”
Miguel | Kaleidoscope Dream
It’s silly to compare Miguel and Frank Ocean just because they’re both R&B singers who struck out down the independent-auteur trail this year, but I often found myself doing so — mostly because Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream offers much of what I find lacking in channel ORANGE. Namely, it doesn’t take itself so eye-rollingly seriously all the time! (One bit of proof: the goofy studio banter bookending the ridiculous “Pussy Is Mine.”) Just compare the way Miguel hammed it up in his amazing performances on Fallon and Letterman to Ocean’s soooooooooper serious “arty” renditions of “Thinkin Bout You” and “Pyramids” on Saturday Night Live. (Why did he go play that video game at the end of the song? Why?!) Also, sorry, can’t help myself, Miguel’s a much more talented singer, like come on! (This is no faint praise, either.)
Lest this merely seem like a vehicle to express my problems with Ocean’s album (I don’t hate it, after all — it’s down there in Tier 2 of my favorites), let me clarify: I’m trying to say that I find Miguel’s playfulness incredibly refreshing. Changes in R&B’s creative methods and potential fanbase were a hotly debated topic in 2012, and it was exciting to see proof that an artist like Miguel could create an exploratory, insular, individualistic work without trying to pass it off as the most emotionally weighty thing in the universe. These are pop songs (mind-bendingly excellent ones at that), and the emotions contained within them are easy to slip in and out of for three or four minutes at a time. While I’ve got your attention, peep the roll this guy gets on for the first five tracks of this record. That kind of run doesn’t happen every day.
>>>Check out: “Use Me”, “Adorn”, “Do You…”, “Kaleidoscope Dream”, “How Many Drinks?”
Spiritualized | Sweet Heart Sweet Light
The timing of Sweet Heart Sweet Light could not have been better. In late 2011, beginning with Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space (which I might now call my favorite record in existence), I launched into a serious Spiritualized frenzy, voraciously consuming every one of Jason Pierce’s creations, the band rocketing past Radiohead and even Wilco on my Last.fm “Top Artists” chart. My fervor might have begun to abate, were this record’s mid-April release not so perfectly timed. But I didn’t know whether to expect a half-baked disappointment like 2003’s Amazing Grace, or a late-period gem like 2008’s Songs in A&E. Sweet Heart Sweet Light falls definitively in the latter camp; in fact, it’s even better than the very fine Songs in A&E.
Front-and-center are a handful of bold, six-minute-plus epics that jump out as the most exciting material Pierce has recorded since the Ladies and Gentlemen session 15 years ago. The production on these beasts ranges from immaculately conventional (“So Long You Pretty Thing” revels in classic rock splendor with a “Hey Jude”-esque extended coda) to downright bizarre (note the way the drums’ extremely low place in the mix on “Get What You Deserve” lends the song a sort of floating-cloud feeling). The shorter, more traditional songs sandwiched in between each of these epics may not be as thrilling, but thanks to this record’s excellent production, they sound no less lovely. We really shouldn’t be surprised by now, but it’s clear that heartbreak, illness, and struggle have only provided more fuel for Pierce’s fire.
>>>Check out: “Hey Jane”, “Get What You Deserve”, “So Long You Pretty Thing”, “Headin’ for the Top Now”, “Too Late”
Susanne Sundfør | The Silicone Veil
Building a relationship with an album over the course of months or years is a special thing indeed, but one thing that keeps me listening to so many new LPs is the pursuit of that first-kiss-flutter sensation when you hear something great for the first time — and this year, no album knocked me flat on my ass on first listen like The Silicone Veil. (Note to self: the aisles of Fairway’s very crowded produce section are not the best place to stand still and droolingly appreciate an album that is blowing your mind for the first time.)
Flashy, bombastic records like this often fade in glory after that first listen or three, but I kept returning to The Silicone Veil, and it kept rewarding me. Sundfør’s mix of conventional rock styling, classical instrumentation, and electronic flourishes is fresh, and her songwriting impeccable, but the real jewel here is her voice. That voice! She might not aim for subtlety too often, and she might not mangle her vocal instrument to such fascinating emotional ends as Fiona did this year on The Idler Wheel…, but the sheer musical thrill of the peaks Sundfør hits on song after song feel as much like a twist of the knife in the guts as anything Ms. Apple (or anyone else) put to tape this year.
>>>Check out: “White Foxes”, “Diamonds”, “Among Us”, “The Silicone Veil”, “Can You Feel the Thunder”
Swans | The Seer
I’m not in the habit of going to concerts alone, and seeing Gira and co. all by my lonesome was a pretty intense way to get more accustomed to the experience. Making my way to Swans’ show at Bowery Ballroom shortly after the release of The Seer, I felt like a soldier heading to war. If war was an emotionally transcendent experience with none of the troublesome negative psychological after-effects. What would I even have said to a friend after being pummeled by Swans’ holy destruction for seven songs lasting nearly three hours? Probably just exchanged blank stares, nodded heads, and parted ways.
Such is the nature of the world-swallowing music Swans are in the business of making at this point in their lifespan. The Seer seeks to summarize all of the angles that mastermind Michael Gira has taken in attempting to achieve transcendence over the course of his career, mashing them together and sequencing them in a seemingly arbitrary way that is actually perfectly suited to their chaos. So over the course of two hours, we have a long passage of a fire crackling here, sheets-of-rain hammer dulcimer drone there, ethereal ballads, gates-of-hell ceremonial rituals, glockenspiel-aided post-rock, demon-possessed yelping, and tribal drums. It’s violent at times, but Gira just wants to help you see the light. The question is whether that light will leave you blind, or seeing clearer than ever, or both.
>>>Check out (these five tracks account for about 75% of the album so I guess this is a bit silly): “A Piece of the Sky”, “The Apostate”, “Mother of the World”, “Avatar”, “The Seer”
Tame Impala | Lonerism
The sophomore-album-narrative seemed clear as day for Kevin Parker in the months leading up to Lonerism’s release. With the extra attention, studio expertise, and money to throw around following the success of Tame Impala’s glimmering 2010 debut, Innerspeaker, why not follow the path increasingly beloved of indie musicians in the post-“sellout” age? Go bigger, crisper, more widescreen, more pop. In interviews, Parker said himself that he was indulging every impulse for sugary pop flourishes that he resisted when recording Innerspeaker. And the album’s advance singles seemed to confirm this prognosis: “Apocalypse Dreams” and (especially) “Elephant” are direct, sharply-written treats that aim straight for the sweet tooth.
In actuality, while you could make the argument that Lonerism is the more “pop” Tame Impala record, this is pop as heard in an aural funhouse, in a decidedly altered mental state. It’s a slice of psychedelia that lives up to that label not just as a familiar set of woozy sonic signifiers, but in both content and form. Song structures fold in on themselves like Escher creations, banks of harmonized vocals beam in from outer space, and even the ever-reliable rhythm section just won’t sit still. Observe how seriously wooly the record gets in its back half: “Keep On Lying” jams onward while a heavily affected recording of a group of revelers mounts in volume, and “Sun’s Coming Up (Lambingtons)” closes the album with nearly three minutes of musique concrète fluctuations. Major kudos to Mr. Parker for finding success on the basis of a project so delightfully weird.
>>>Check out: “Mind Mischief”, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”, “Apocalypse Dreams”, “Elephant”, “Be Above It”
Action Bronson & Party Supplies – Blue Chips
Aesop Rock – Skelethon
Andy Stott – Luxury Problems
Animal Collective – Centipede Hz
Beach House – Bloom
Big K.R.I.T. – Live from the Underground
Bill Fay – Life is People
Brian Eno – Lux
Burial – Kindred EP
Chairlift – Something
Dan Deacon – America / Wish Book, Volume 1
Daniel Rossen – Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP
Daughn Gibson – All Hell
Dirty Projectors – Swing Low Magellan
Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits
El-P – Cancer 4 Cure
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
Gary Clark, Jr. – Blak & Blu
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Heartless Bastards – Arrow
Hot Chip – In Our Heads
How to destroy angels_ – An omen_ EP
How to Dress Well – Total Loss
Hundred Waters – Hundred Waters
Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Joey Bada$$ – 1999
John Talabot – ƒin
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Mac DeMarco – 2
Melody’s Echo Chamber – Melody’s Echo Chamber
Merchandise – Children of Desire
Nas – Life is Good
Niki & the Dove – Instinct
Pinkunoizu – Free Time!
Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
Shearwater – Animal Life
Twin Shadow – Confess
Zammuto – Zammuto
Angel Haze – Reservation
Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man
Beat Connection – The Palace Garden
Beth Orton – Sugaring Season
Big Boi – Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors
Brother Ali – Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color
Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
Caspian – Waking Season
Chromatics – Kill for Love
Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
The Congos, Sun Araw & M. Geddes Gengras – FRKWYS Vol. 9: Icon Give Thank
Debo Band – Debo Band
DIIV – Oshin
Dr. John – Locked Down
Fang Island – Major
Father John Misty – Fear Fun
The Flaming Lips – The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends
Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
Future – Pluto
GOAT – World Music
Heems – Nehru Jackets
Here We Go Magic – A Different Ship
Horseback – Half Blood
Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t
Killa Kyleon & Mouse On Tha Track – Welcome to the Fish Fry
King Tuff – King Tuff
Koen Holtkamp – Liquid Light Forms
Lambchop – Mr. M
Lord Huron – Lonesome Dreams
Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral
The Men – Open Your Heart
Menomena – Moms
Meyhem Lauren – Respect the Fly Shit
Moonface & Siinai – Heartbreaking Bravery
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pull
Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded “EP Version” (This is what I like to call the rap-centric first third of this album; no amount of pop apologism could get me to venture into the excruciatingly bland wasteland that stretches from tracks 8 through 18 of this album more than once.)
Passion Pit – Gossamer
Peaking Lights – Lucifer
Purity Ring – Shrines
Rudi Zygadlo – Tragicomedies
RZA & Friends – The Man With the Iron Fists [Soundtrack]
School of Seven Bells – Ghostory
The Shins – Port of Morrow
Sinkane – Mars EP
Sun Airway – Soft Fall
Sun Kil Moon – Among the Leaves
T.I. – Fuck Da City Up
The Tallest Man On Earth – There’s No Leaving Now
Titus Andronicus – Local Business
Torche – Harmonicraft
Ty Segall – Twins
Usher – Looking 4 Myself
The Walkmen – Heaven
Woods – Bend Beyond