So once again, the year has drawn to a close and another insanely good batch of art has been released. Vinyl sales have gone up and as usual, CD sales have gone down with digital downloads just kind of normalizing. The music industry’s change seems to be slowing down somewhat: concerts are still big money, merchandise is everywhere, hardly anyone buys CDs, the diehards (like myself) need the vinyl edition of everything, and Taylor Swift can dependably shift a million units like its nothing.
What can now be said is that, due to the overwhelming flood of music on a local and national scale, pretty much every niche genre of music is now covered. Pop-style thrash metal? Demented folk? Electronic noise? All covered. Music itself has blossomed so much in every direction that just about everything has been tried…and still, I am surprised almost every day with a new angle, a new twist on those 12 notes that offer infinite possibilities.
With that said, here are my top picks for 2012. These are the albums that I find myself wanting to listen to over and over again. After all, how good is an album REALLY if you listen to it, decide that it’s great, but then have no desire to ever listen to it again? These are albums that I think about endlessly, that play in my head, that lift me up and put me in zones that do not exist in the physical realm on this earth.
Here are my Top 40 albums of 2012
40.) Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action from a Distance
39.) Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
38.) The Men – Open Your Heart
37.) Killer Mike – R.A.P Music
36.) Miguel – Kaleidoscopic Dream
35.) Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits
34.) Metz (self-titled)
33.) King Tuff (self-titled)
32.) High on Fire – De Vermis Mysteriis
31.) Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania
30.) Swans – The Seer
29.) El-P – Cancer for Cure
28.) Father John Misty – Fear Fun
27.) Wild Nothing – Nocturne
26.) Godspeed! You Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
25.) Chromatics – Kill for Love
24.) Crocodiles – Endless Flowers
22.) Spiritualized – Sweet Heart, Sweet Light
21.) Metric – Synthetica
Baroness came onto my radar with their last album, Blue. That album was metal with a different twist, a more melodic spine running through the thrash and the fury. It had beautiful moments interwoven and you could tell that this was a metal band that was on the cusp of transcending their genre. Yellow & Green is the sound of that transcendence, a double album full of haunting moods, galloping energy and emotion that you can taste. They have learned that a song can be heavy without having to crank up the amps to 11 through skillful songwriting. And when those amps ARE turned up to 11, the impact is that much greater.
Many people know the story about Carly Rae, her Justin Beiber connection and how her single “Call Me, Maybe” slowly crawled through every part of our culture, going all the way up to the Whitehouse with its catchiness. What many people don’t know is just how damn good the rest of her album is. Sure, this is pop, there is no getting around it, but Carly and her team of writers/producers have made a set of songs that are unique, inventive, and pummel you with one memorable hook after the next. It is what pop should be and if all of Carly’s Billboard peers were on her level, radio wouldn’t be such a bad thing anymore.
18.) Menomena – Moms
The last album from Menomena, Mines, was a mostly low-key affair with a few rockers thrown in. It had a stripped down sound, bare and raw. So what a surprise it was to hear a totally different band show up on their new record, Moms. The songwriting has taken a huge leap with lots of daring structures and melodies that move the songs along like butter. It’s catchy, dense, and incredibly rewarding.
17.) The Cribs – In the Belly of the Brazen Bull
The Cribs is a band that deserves a lot more attention than what they get. When they first came out, they received a bunch of hype and press but over the years, people have become more and more disinterested. The problem is, they have been getting better and better. They are a band that, unfortunately, fell right into the internet trap of “hot today, forgotten tomorrow” where new bands and artists are more hyped than anyone else.
See, if this record came out from a new band, it would have been plastered all over the front of Pitchfork, Stereogum, Spin, and the rest of them. Case in point: Metz and The Men (who are both on this list) received gigantic pushes from the aforementioned sites and their music isn’t that far off from The Cribs. But The Cribs have made something that not only features jagged guitars and scream-singing vocals, but also features a brilliant suite of interlocked songs for the second half of the album.
It’s a sweeping piece of work that you wouldn’t expect from a band like this. Most post-punk bands don’t have the patience or motivation to rise above raw energy but The Cribs were able to not only top themselves at their own game, but show that they are capable of much more than what is expected of them.
With Section 80 (Kendrick Lamar‘s last album), Kendrick showed that not only can he rap his ass off, but he has a good ear for beats and knows how to structure an album. His follow up, good kid, m.A.A.d city, took it a step further and ended up being the best rap album of 2012.
Although there are some misfires when it comes to production (“Backseat Freestyle” and “Poetic Justice“, I’m looking at you) most of it is fresh, thumping, hypnotic, and invigorating. Kendrick is able to keep the album flowing like water from start to finish, placing you in his mindset while still able to have fun and not take everything so seriously.
All in all, this is a rap album that will be viewed as a classic along the lines of Illmatic. Kendrick Lamar is going to have a hard time trying to top this.
15.) Dum Dum Girls – End of Daze
End of Daze features Dum Dum Girls‘ most emotional work to date. Their previous album, Only in Dreams, had its moments but overall, was more about the sound and the style with just enough heart for listeners to chew on. This EP, however, throws the heart right in your face so hard that you have no choice but to open up and share the experience.
Bold choices are made when it comes to song structure and the lyrics cut through like diamond-edged poetry. This is an album that would be just as powerful with lead singer Dee Dee‘s voice and nothing else. It’s a shame that it is only 5 songs long because a whole album of this would be amazing but, like all great EPs, it leaves you wanting for more.
Beach House had quite the triumphant breakthrough with their 2010 masterpiece Teen Dream, to the point that one of its songs was even sampled for Kendrick Lamar‘s album. They were able to perfect their swirly mix of delicate guitars and synths and blast it through the speakers like a technicolor projector.
On Bloom, they take it even a step further by trying to cut out the fat from their songs and dotting the landscape with some unexpected arpeggios. The confidence is finally at the forefront and they now have ultimate control over their sound and message. It’s a melancholy world that packs a surprising amount of energy and works beautifully.
Japandroids is a band that practically exists to soundtrack our lives and adventures. Their name might as well be synonymous with youthful energy since each song is a cannonball of adolescent fist-pumping and living tonight like you will be dead in the morning.
Celebration Rock is exactly what it sounds like: something to cheer along with, an audible friend that dares you to be free. The hooks and guitars are bigger than life although the songs seem to argue that their is NOTHING that is bigger than life. Arena rock has been reborn and it’s not hard to imagine a sea of thousands chanting along to this for years to come.
How weird can you get while being somewhat accessible? Swing Lo Magellan is the answer to that question. As in typical Dirty Projectors fashion, it is completely off the wall and unexpected. But this time, they are unafraid in giving the listeners what they want and with a new focus on classic songwriting, they have made their most accessible record to date.
Don’t let this sound like we’re talking about Maroon 5 here: there are still plenty of electronic glitches, angry fuzz guitars, and trippy effects that will make your mind cave in.
One of my favorite finds of this year was Diiv, a blissed-out (albeit darkened) vision of beach pop. This is a guitar heavy album but it used guitars not to bludgeon the listeners to death, but to craft melodic lines that interlock and complement one another. Each song has a strong underlying drive layered with mood and reverb-soaked hooks to spare.
Hot Chip have finally perfected their eclectic mix of humor, love, yearning, and dance with their finest record, In Our Heads. This is the album that Hot Chip has been building towards their entire career with all of the notes in their rightful places. Lengthy songs fly by in an instant because you are too busy bobbing your head and taking in the words and the sounds. Heavy stacks of synthesizers build the mountain that fuels the happiest dance party you will find on any 2012 record.
Who would have thought that Adam Lambert, an American Idol alum, would turn out to be one of the best commercial singers dabbling in heavy electronic pop? This is hands down the best straight-forward pop album of 2012. Adam of course brings his show-stopping pipes to the ballads but spices up many of the songs with an edgy, playful attitude.
On top of that, his producers stay away from the cheese that weighs down Billboard and sticks with sounds and rhythms that you would usually find on a Chemical Brothers album. Synths cut and slice like broken knives with the bass coming in for cleanup while the song topics jump around from sex, to drugs, love, loss, and confusion.
Overall, this is a well-balanced treat from someone who finally feels comfortable being in command and in control.
For all of the internet chatter about the music industry comments from this band (if you missed it, they explained how, even with being a big indie band, half of them don’t have insurance and live in tiny apartments), it could be easy to miss Shields if it were not such an amazing album. Grizzly Bear turn into a rock band (or at least, as rock as they can get) and tear through this album with a bite and rigor you would normally find on a punk record.
“Sleeping Ute” is a jaw-dropping opener, sling-shotting layers upon layers of melodies and harmonies at you like a grenade launcher and the band do not stop there. They mix ambient tracks to slow down the mood and add dynamics, only to rocket out and explode. This is a meticulous, well-thought out album that still manages to feel raw and improvisational, a rare feat.
Bear in Heaven have opted to go all in with their latest album I Love You, It’s Cool and threw all of their ambitions on the table. What could have easily ended up as a mess actually came out to be a tightly controlled but dense and heavy album. They have taken their sound a huge leap forward without sacrificing anything that made them unique.
Innerspeaker, Tame Impala‘s last album, was a hefty slice of 1960’s style psychedelia with plenty of phased guitars and fuzz tones to spare. I was an immediate fan (being a 60’s fanatic and whatnot) and was curious as to where Tame Impala would go from there.
Turns out, they (or should I say ‘he’, since lead band member Kevin Parker played all of the instruments minus a few exceptions) decided to dive further down the tripped out rabbit hole they have dug for themselves. The great thing about Tame Impala‘s music is the ability to feel trippy, dreamy, melodic and abstract all at once. It is completely unpredictable but with a thread tying it all together. It sounds like a dream come to life, but filtered through a cranked up amplifier.
Wow, what an album. Passion Pit‘s latest album which, similar to Tame Impala was recorded almost solely by leader Michael Angelakos, is a devastating account of depression and loneliness set to the most upbeat productions you could possibly imagine. This dynamic push and pull between the sugary highs of the synthesizers and the bottom-of-the-bottle lows of the lyrical content give this album a strange impact that is absolutely gripping.
You feel empathy and yet, can’t help but dance to the undeniably solid melodies. This is a very personal kind of synth-pop that could easily be played at a club or dance party, as long as the people didn’t listen to closely to the buzz-blowing lyrics. But sometimes, that’s just what we need.
Chairlift, now refined to a duo, made a quantum leap with their latest album Something. They dabble in just about every genre and tone but sticking mainly with 80’s inspired new wave with some very modern twists. Electronics, post-punk, even blues-y folk ballads crop up around this twisted, very textural landscape. They also have a penchant for unleashing completely ‘WTF’ sounds and phrases that make you wonder how they created it.
The instant you hear the opening title track, you realize that you are in for a totally different ride. Harmonies galore with sculpted soundscapes mixed with distant guitars, all with a lush overcoat. Frankie‘s voice is amazing and provides a sweet, clear presence that can also double as a transmitter for existential sadness. This is THE quintessential night-drive record of 2012.
Since Embryonic, the last studio double-album from the Flaming Lips, the band has charted its own path through the music industry by doing simply whatever they feel like doing on that given day. Gummy skulls, gummy fetuses, REAL human skulls can be purchased, each with a USB drive inside containing new songs. They also started on a course of collaboration with the likes of Neon Indian and Yoko Ono, releasing limited edition and hard to find EPs with 4 songs each on them. All of these EPs were fantastic but many people wondered if they would ever get a proper chance to listen to them.
Enter Heady Fwends. Originally released as a vinyl-only goodie that could only be found on Record Store Day back in April, this release got a proper album release so that everyone could hear the weirdness provided by the Flaming Lips along with special guests ranging from Ke$ha to Chris Martin of Coldplay fame. As with most compilations, one would expect this release to be extremely hit or miss depending on which artists you liked. Oh, how we were all wrong to think that.
Heady Fwends sounds amazingly cohesive but more importantly, these songs do not feel like throwaway afterthoughts from the involved guests. Perhaps it was the enthusiasm of the band, or maybe it was simply a chance to do something weird and different, but everyone brings their A-game. And the songs are amazing. Highlights include slow-burning tracks made with Bon Iver and Erykah Badu to the “Is David Bowie Dying?” song that was recorded with Neon Indian.
Many heralded Merriweather Post Pavillion, the last album from Animal Collective, as not only the best album of 2009 but one of the best albums of the decade and even, of all time. That is quite a lot of pressure to live up to when trying to follow up an album of such magnitude. Somehow, Animal Collective managed to live up to the hype and even surpass it in some ways.
While it may not be quite the milestone that Merriweather was, it is still quite an accomplishment. Animal Collective sidestepped more of the Beach Boys-influenced pop trappings and dove more into the realm of garage rock, or at least, Animal Collective‘s twisted version of garage rock. It sounds like a band collaborating together in a dusty basement for months, hashing out their wall of sound with all hands on deck.
What makes Centipede Hz so surprising is how energetic the whole thing is. It has a relentless pace, is unabashedly complicated and stuffed to the brim with ideas. But it all works thanks to the undeniable catchiness that they are able to comfortably imbue into even the weirdest of sounds. It is experimental and extravagant but insanely accomplished. It is another mountain peak for Animal Collective to try and top again. And I have faith that they will.
Ariel Pink – Mature Themes
Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Here We Go Magic – A Different Ship
Jeff the Brotherhood – Hypnotic Nights
Liars – WIXIW
Santigold – Master of my make believe
The Darkness – Hot Cakes
The Killers – Battle Born
The Walkmen – Heaven
Ty Segall – Slaughterhouse
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