Top 20 albums of 2012

For me, 2012 was essentially a year for good old fashioned rock and roll.  At least when it comes to albums.  There was a lot of great electronica, folk, and hip-hop–some of which is represented here and a bunch more will be on my list of songs.  But as far as complete records go, rock pretty much rules the roost.  If you’ve got your heart on a sleeve and a guitar in hand, chances are I liked your record most.

I settled on 20 albums for this list because these are the ones I can recommend wholeheartedly.  But really, the top 11 are a class above the rest, and #1 is miles ahead of anything else.

As always, this is a subjective project. This is a list of the records I liked this year. Nothing more. Hope you enjoy some of them as much as I do.

20. Mark Knopfler – Privateering

A double album from one of my all-time favorite artists. There are too many bluesy numbers that don’t really work for me to be able to fully endorse it. But still, out of 25 songs, you’re going to get a ton of fantastic guitar-playing and Knopfler’s voice is one of the rare ones that has been able to age really well. Pick your favorite 13 songs from the bunch, and you’ll have a very solid record.

Highlights: Yon Two Crows, Hill Farmer’s Blues (Unmixed 2-Track), Haul Away, Radio City Serenade, Seattle

19. GrimesVisions

It’s DIY electronica with dreamy pop movements and vocals that sound like they are being sung through a wormhole from Alpha Centauri.  I held out on this one for a long time because most of the reviews RIYLed a bunch of artists that I don’t like that much (Mariah Carey, The Knife, Kylie Minogue, Lykke Li, etc.).  But the key thing is that Grimes somehow takes all the good bits and pieces and mash them together into something that goes beyond its references.  All of the slickness in those artists is obliterated in a sort of Cubist re-imagination of genres.  I can’t really say why it works, but it does.

Highlights: Genesis, Oblivion, Vowels = Space and Time, Nightmusic

18. LuceroWomen and Work

As they get further and further from their punk roots, the quality slowly declines. Still, despite the extra sheen, they’ve got more than a few good tracks on here.  “It May Be Too Late” is the sort of boozy ballad that this band is made for.

Highlights: It May Be Too Late, When I Was Young, Who You Waiting On?

17. Sufjan StevensSilver and Gold, volume 6 (Gloria)

The other four Sufjan Christmas records didn’t do a lot for me, but this one (roughly circa Illinois) unsurprisingly is my favorite of the bunch. It has a couple lovely originals, most notably “Lumberjack Christmas/No One Can Save You From Christmases Past” – which has Sufjan at his sprightly best.  Strangely, “Silent Night” (one of my favorite Christmas songs) is the only song on here I don’t like.  It’s just a bit too precious. The closer, however, is a rousing and warm take on “Auld Lang Syne” that stands on the right side of the fey line.

Highlights: Lumberjack Christmas /No One Can Save You From Christmases Past, The Midnight Clear, Barcarola (You Must Be A Christmas Tree), Auld Lang Syne

16. Of Monsters and MenMy Head is an Animal

Dark, weird, Icelandic musical romps with big horns and an energetic choruses. The quiet bits call to mind a dark, moonlight night and tender touches of fingertips.  And then the loud part comes in and you realize that you’re surrounded by some sort of Icelandic forest band, ready to melt back into the night when the quiet parts return.

The star here is, of course, “Little Talks” which is one of the songs of the year.  But while the rest of the album can’t come close to matching it, there are plenty of other nice little tracks.

Highlights: Little Talks, Dirty Paws, King and Lionheart

15. Olafur ArnauldsLiving Room Songs

Songs composed and performed in a living room, made quickly and then immediately performed. It’s a gimmick, to be sure, but a gimmick that manages to work brilliantly. The self-imposed limitations of environment and composition allow for a deep sense of intimacy and introspection.

What are at heart incredibly simple movements expand outward like crystal formations–moving at a glacial pace but taking on the most unexpected of hues. Most of these songs are built around an incredibly basic progression. But the intrinsic solitude is enlivened by the delicate infrastructure of the strings. Together, they combine to suggest the frisson of doubt at the core of our daily routines: is this really all there is, to trace these steps over and over? But rather than casting a dark shade with that question, they invite you to see the depth of possibility in even the very simple.

Highlights: Near Light, Ágúst, This Place is a Shelter

14. Love On A Real Train & Joachim CooderLove on a Real Train

An interesting idea for an album: Cooder sent out a bunch of backing tracks (loosely imagined as the soundtrack to an imaginary movie) to his friends and asked them to mess around with them and contribute vocals. It makes for a very collaborative record with a lot of variance but a basic unity at the core.

The tracks mix together glitchy electronics, gentle strings, dulcet vocals, and just a hint of what seem to be Asian (?) tonal influences. This finds its finest form in “Strike Up Your Matches” with a Tahitian choir sample, some delightfully off-kilter percussion, and an otherworldly vocal performance from Matt Costa.

Some of the best tracks here are mostly wordless. Petra Haden doesn’t sing on her two songs so much as she turns her voice into another instrument. On “Shinkansen,” Jon Hassell takes a bunch of tape loops and strings them together to form something genuinely weird and wonderful. I have no idea why it works so well, but somehow it does.

Highlights: Strike Up Your MatchesShinkansen, Space Shells

13. Sigur RósValtari

There’s nothing really all that new here, but try to imagine what it would sound like in the counterfactual world where Sigur Rós didn’t already exist. It would be a revelation. Jonsi’s voice is as weird and compelling as ever, and the peaks and valleys remain magical and ethereal. These songs don’t grab you with tremendous force, but with devoted attention you can find yourself getting lost in them. The build and release in “Varúð,” for example, is the aural equivalent of what it must be like to ride on a rainbow.

The final three tracks are mostly instrumental, but nevertheless are among the strongest on the record. I particularly recommend “Fjögur Píanó” for some of the prettiest piano music you’ll hear this year.

Highlights: Varúð, Fjögur Píanó, Varðeldur, Ekki Múkk

12. MetricSynthetica

It sounds like a Metric album. No bad songs, and most of them are pretty good. What else needs to be said?

Highlights: Breathing Underwater, Clone, Nothing But Time

11. Vanessa PetersThe Burn, The Truth, The Lies

It has a little bit less of the grandeur that some of her other work had displayed. But in its place is just a wonderful summer record, full of jangly guitars and choruses that are just begging to be hummed. Once you dig in a bit, you start to realize that it’s actually a bit darker than you’d first sensed. But after a few more listens, the fundamental optimism takes back over and you start to hear the stories about loss and doubt as part of a broader narrative about the importance of connections.

It’s the sort of record that would slot perfectly into a road trip, right in between an old Gram Parsons record and a new Aimee Mann one. Which is to say: it doesn’t really sound like the music of 2012, but neither does it sound old or dated. There’s a sort of timelessness to these sort of songs–I can imagine that I would have loved this record as a kid, but can just as easily picture myself sitting in a rocking chair listening to “No Decision,” content at a life well-lived.

Highlights: The Sting, Copilot, The State I’m Living In, No Decision

10. Beach HouseBloom

It’s never really made sense to me that I didn’t like Beach House. Lo-fi, sun-dappled, dream-pop. Just a hint of a shoegaze aesthetic, with surprisingly dense textures. What in the world is there for me not to like? But for some reason, it just never clicked.

Well, fortunately, the cognitive dissonance can now end. Because Bloom is great, in all the ways that people have been telling me that the other Beach House records were great. It’s lush and beautiful and it sounds like every Ronettes song smushed together and then played in a special living room concert just for me.

Highlights: The Hours, Other People, New Year, Myth

9. HammockDeparture Songs

Nineteen mostly-instrumental songs, most of which are over six minutes long…this is not a record to be easily digested. Hammock has been one of my favorite drone-ambient artists for a long time. With this record, however, they have officially jumped from that category squarely into ‘post-rock.’ Which is to say: this album sounds BIG.

The defining feature of Hammock used to be the sense of aching loneliness. The quiet solitude of horizons that stretch beyond sight. The slow, almost-imperceptible breathing of the universe. With this record, they have taken the same basic core elements, but given them purpose and infused them with a new energy. In a sense, their previous records were ruminations on entropy, while this record feels like the active force of life which struggles against the dying light.

It could so easily have all gone wrong. There was so much beauty in the sparseness. And while the desperate vitality of life is a noble subject, it also lends itself very easily to overindulgence. But I’m incredibly glad they took the risk, because the result is something moving beyond words.

Highlights: Frailty (For the Dearly Departed),  Together Alone, (Leaving) The House Where We Grew Up, We Could Die Chasing This Feeling, Pathos, Mute Angels

8. First-Aid KitThe Lion’s Roar

How do these two Swedish girls so perfectly capture the spirit of Americana? It’s a marvel.

The absolute standout track is “Emmylou” which is a tribute to some of the country partnerships of old: “I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June, if you’ll be my Graham and my Johnny, too.” It’s an ode to love, companionship, partnership, and a long history of music. The vocals remind me a lot of The Innocence Mission – with that haunting, shimmery catch in their voices. On that chorus my heart just melts to a puddle. And the slide guitars!

Elsewhere, the opening track “The Lion’s Roar” has some absolutely perfect vocal harmonies and the closer “King of the World” is a great stomping conclusion, with Ring of Fire horns and a Conor Oberst interlude. And yes, it all works together perfectly. “This Old Routine” has a great slide guitar bridge, and that wonderful feel of an end-of-the-night ballad. And “I Found a Way” reminds me of the dark tracks you’d find buried on an old Neko Case album.

This is, very simply, a self-possessed and flat-out beautiful record.

Highlights: EmmylouKing of the World, The Lion’s Roar, I Found a Way, This Old Routine

7. School of Seven BellsGhostory

This is the breakthrough album that School of Seven Bells have been presaging for quite a while. As always, this band is defined by the interplay between Alejandra Deheza’s silken voice and Benjamin Curtis’ dream-soaked synth soundscapes. In the past, that formula has been somewhat undone by the tendency to overplay the drone component. On this record, however, they find a much more secure balance.

The strange thing is that, on an album that is so clearly built out of artificial textures, all the imagery that comes to mind comes from nature. It is elemental in the classic sense: fire, water, earth, and wind.

Opener “The Night” is fire: albeit a cold-burning version. Earth is the two closing numbers: “White Wind” and “When You Sing” which move with the slow but implacable certainty of continental plates. Water is “Lafaye” which scatters like raindrops on a windowpane. And wind is in two tracks at the center of the record. First there is “Reappear,” where Deheza’s vocals wrap themselves around the music – shielding the delicate breaths from the rattling winds outside. It’s the eye of the storm, settled in the middle of the record, a vantage point from which the rest of the album takes shape. And “Show Me Love,” which immediately follows, is its refraction. If the former is the quiet interior of a raging storm, then the latter is the deathly quiet outside once the storm has passed.

When you combine all these elements, the result is the album’s greatest triumph: “Scavenger,” which is the best song they have made to date. The synth explosions circle around like an ion storm, but seem to be tightly wound together in some kind of intricate lace. Meanwhile, Deheza voice is like liquid darkness, dancing and weaving through the coils.

Highlights: ScavengerThe Night, Reappear, Show Me Love

6. Passion PitGossamer

This is a great record in large part because it doesn’t try to be anything more than it is. There is no one song with the huge hook to get all the hipsters bobbing their heads, no chorus that tries too hard to impress. It’s just 45 minutes of music that delivers perfectly on the promise of the album title. If ever there were gossamer music, it’s here.

The best example is “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy” which grows on me with every listen. It follows a pretty traditional song structure (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus) but they just do it so darn well that you couldn’t possibly care. I’m a huge fan of musical transitions, and there is no more basic form of that phenomenon than the shift from verse to chorus and back. And this song is pretty much a textbook example of how to do it right. The verses stamp along at a stately pace, the choruses come in like a ton of bricks and just when the sweetness of the chorus risk overwhelming you they come back with the august longing of the verse. Rinse and repeat. It’s stupidly simple, but it takes a special kind of genius to stick the landing.

Elsewhere, “Constant Conversations” is the much slowed down version of the same effect, where they get a chance to show off the vocal harmonies. “Cry Like a Ghost” charts a middle course, with a slightly woozy blend of candy and buzzing synths. “Hideaway” is the quintessential case of a song that could strike you as a knockoff of themselves if you wanted to be ungenerous, but if you turn a slightly friendly ear to it will reveal itself as a pure pop gem.

Highlights: It’s Not My Fault, I’m HappyCry Like a Ghost, Constant Conversations, I’ll Be Alright

5. Bruce SpringsteenWrecking Ball

The Boss is still very much The Boss. I had some doubts after his disappointing Working on a Dream, but those concerns have been completely wiped away. Wrecking Ball is right there in the conversation for his best work since the mid-80s.

The best songs shine like jewels. At the front of the list is “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which has actually been kicking around for a decade at this point, but finally gets the studio treatment here. And it’s a tour de force. You get basically the entire Springsteen mythos here: trains, lost souls, community, redemption, and a killer saxophone solo from the Big Man (one of his very last, sadly). And the fact that the mode of reference (trains!) is almost anachronistic these days is actually part of the point. It’s a call to remember what is great in our past, not to say that we can go back, but to caution us about what it means to move forward.

You get the same kind of sentiment (phrased in a different way) on “Wrecking Ball.” Sung from the perspective of the old Giants stadium, waiting to be knocked down, it strikes a tone of defiance, resolution, and acceptance. It’s a great metaphor, because you get the sense that this is really a song about Bruce himself, and the ever-present fact of age. All things must pass, and he knows it, but that doesn’t mean there is no honor in standing astride of time shouting no. If the end must come, he says, let me face it proudly and make the very best of what is left to me.

Sure, there are a couple goofy tracks on this record. And no, it doesn’t all work perfectly. But when it does work, the heights it scales are glorious.

Highlights: Land of Hope and Dreams, Wrecking Ball, We Are Alive, Rocky Ground, Death to My Hometown, We Take Care of Our Own

4. Gaslight AnthemHandwritten

It’s called Handwritten, and you get the sense that this appeal to authenticity is not just an affective thing with them. In lyrics, style, attitude, and every other way imaginable, these guys want to communicate the importance of doing things the right way.

That means a lot of things. It means a commitment to the true spirit of rock and roll. It means believing that anthems of love and passion really do contain within them the possibility of becoming something more. That redemption is rare but real, and all the more precious because of its rarity. That the coolest kid around is the one who can dare to be earnest.

The highlight of the record is “Howl.” This seems to be a deliberate attempt to return to “Thunder Road.” There’s a girl whose dress waves, a guy with a car offering to take her away. But it’s pitched toward the future, to a Mary who said ‘no’ to the first offer. She stuck around, went to school, and made a life for herself. And now our hero sends out a final missive: you know where you can find me, and all those plans I made might still have some life in them. It works because it’s audacious, it works because it feels REAL, and it works because Fallon absolutely sticks his lines.  The rest of the album can’t quite match it, but it provides the core around which everything else works.

Highlights: HowlMae, Handwritten, Here Comes My Man, 45

3. Jason Isbell – Live from Alabama

Okay, there’s something kind of absurd about calling a live album one of my favorites of the year. But I don’t care. This record is just that good.

A good live album should give you something new. By that standard Live from Alabama is a glorious success. In quite a few cases, these live performances have now become the definitive version for me.

In its original form “Outfit” felt like a letter being put to song. Now, Isbell’s voice is expansive, the accent is set free, and the guitar sings. You can feel the longing in the father’s voice, the hope for his son, and the deep concern. It’s a mixture of paternal love, of warning, of concern that his son will surpass him, and of soaring hope…that his son will surpass him. And better than pretty much any song out there, it conveys what the South means to those who love it: a deep passion, tinged with a sense of humor about how badly they want to escape sometimes.

The best song on the album is “Danko/Manuel” – another Truckers-era song that has always been good but is now transcendent. I always felt like the aspirations of this song exceeded its capacity to tell the story. The homage to Danko and Manuel seemed a little bit untethered, the ghost of an idea rather than the manifestation. I see now that this was wrong. The lack of detail in the story is precisely the point. It’s simply the architecture for the sound – for those ethereal horns, for Isbell’s croon on the chorus, for the insistent drums. It’s a song about what it means to sing and play – and the impossibility of making it about anything more specific is precisely the point.

Highlights: Danko/Manuel, Outfit, Dress Blues, Decoration Day, Goddamn Lonely Love

2. Allo Darlin’ – Europe

Absolutely pitch-perfect jangle pop. There is no artifice; just the simple joy of being alive in a world with such beautiful music. “You haven’t felt this way since 1998” they sing on the title track, and that’s exactly right.  This is the greatest record that Sarah Records never got a chance to give us.  Or, alternatively, this is the record I have desperately been hoping that Camera Obscura might produce.  But more than anything else, it’s music to fall in love to.

Highlights: CapricorniaNorthern Lights, Europe, The Letter, Neil Armstrong

1. JapandroidsCelebration Rock

Perfection doesn’t always have to mean flawless, or transcendental. It doesn’t have to mean chiseled with the precision of Michelangelo’s David. There are moments of perfection that you get from imperfect situations. This record is perfect in the same way that stepping into a brisk night feels perfect after being trapped in a stuffy room. Or the way that a first kiss is perfect, even if you don’t end up spending your life with that person.

The first time I heard this record, I knew within the first 20 seconds of the first track (the stomping/shouting explosion that is “The Nights of Wine and Roses”) that this was going to be a contender for album of the year. And things only continue upward from there. “Fire’s Highway” is a thunderbolt of a song. It cuts through the ether and sets fire where it connects. And, long after the initial strike, the reverberations rumble around you.

If Celebration Rock is a perfect piece of rock and roll, then the tip of the spear which drives this point home is “The House That Heaven Built.” Addressed to a departed love, it combines the dense imagery of a walk through the remnants of a civilization with the most explosively straightforward, plaintive, and heart-wrenching chorus I can ever remember hearing:

When they love you (and they will)
Tell ‘em all they’ll love in my shadow
And if they try to slow you down
Tell ‘em all to go to hell

And the sound of it all. Oh god, the sound. This song taps into every conceivable reservoir of rock and roll power you can imagine. The drums are insistent, marching along with implacable resolve. There is a single stomping beat that drives everything forward faster and faster. And then there is a backbeat, the clashing of cymbals, and the ever-rising sense of explosive potential.  This is a song to build empires around.

It seems almost beside the point to call this the best record of the year (though it certainly is). Celebration Rock simply brushes past the need for analysis or comparison. Just listen to it. You’ll be happy you did.

Highlights: The House That Heaven Built.  Also: the whole damn thing. Seriously, go buy this record right now.

Honorable Mentions:

Amanda Mair – Amanda Mair. Scandinavian indie-pop, singer-songwriter fare. Lacking the one standout song that would have put it on the list.

Palomar – Sense and Antisense. I hoped for so much more out of this album, but I have to say that it simply feels like the unwanted B-sides from their last (fantastic) record. Which is still good enough to get an honorable mention, but not the barn-burner I was hoping for.

Chromatics – Kill for Love. Too much atmosphere – not enough pop. But still: the atmosphere is well done and the glimpses of pop are great, too. This is a wonderfully constructed record.  See also: Crystal Castles – (III). 

Lana Del Ray – Born to Die. A third of the album is good, a third is mediocre, and a third is terrible. Knock out the useless tracks and you’d have a pretty nice record.

Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city.  I haven’t quite decided how much I actually like this album.  But it’s undeniably great.  Check back with me in six months to see whether I’m still listening to it.

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2 Responses to Top 20 albums of 2012

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