These are my top albums from 2012. There are obviously a few styles and genres that I happen to listen to more than others. This is all my individual opinion from just over 100 albums and EPs that I heard this year. Enjoy!
Lust for Youth, Growing Seeds; Polica, Give You the Ghost; Craft Spells – Gallery; Bats for Lashes – The Haunted Man; Bob Dylan – Tempest; Dirty Projectors – Swing Low Magellan; Atrium Carceri – Reliquia; Grimes – Visions; Anberlin – Vital; Laurel Halo – Quarantine; The Walkmen – Heaven
25. Allo Darlin’ – Europe
Allo Darlin’ has a knack for writing snappy hooks and rhythms, but singer Elizabeth Price is what makes Europe so special. The album is about travel in terms of time, location, and shifting relations within our lives. On the low-key “Tallulah” she paints a image of reuniting with an old acquaintance now living a different life (“And I wonder if you would wanna go there with me/When I’m finished over here/If you’re not finished with me”). The group embellishes worldly, small-scale hopes and social problems with bright pop tunes. Price pairs every blunt lyric (“Feel like the world is ending and I’m with you and I don’t care”) with a clever quip (“We could be polar bears/And I would hunt you to the end” might be the cleverest). The honesty of it all is very affecting. There’s a place for twee when it’s done this well.
24. Grizzly Bear – Shields
I tried and tried, but I could never take anything away from Veckatimest. It was pleasant background music, but there was so much empty space that my mind kept slipping through the cracks. Shields is just as ghostly and challenging, but it’s also more richly textured than its predecessor. Every member of the band gets their fair share of the production and they’re all immensely talented, making the challenge presented by the lyrics more bearable to take on. It’s still tough to take away anything more than brief snippets of images and ideas – the title is a perfect description of the defensiveness with which the music withholds its meaning. At one point Edward Droste is murmuring “Take it all in stride/Speak don’t confide”, on the final track he’s presenting a metaphor (walking blindly down an endless path) without an application. I’m as baffled as ever by this group, but as a work of art there’s no denying that Shields is a well worth the work that it demands to unlock.
23. Actress – R.I.P.
The latest, 15-track entry in British electronic musician Darren Cunningham’s discography is as splintered and fragmented as an album as each of its individual songs. Every moment of Cunningham’s minimal, electronic style shows signs of its intricate, laborious design, but it glides by smoothly and there’s a wealth of great moments beneath the noise. “IWAAD” conceals a hip hop beat beneath the fuzz and the soothing, keyboard driven “Jardin” steals the show.
22. School of Seven Bells - Ghostory
SVIIB’s third album does everything right, combining sharp, crisp drum and synth beats with dreamy shoegaze. Alejandra Deheza’s vocals are terrific, pushing songs like “Lafaye” and the soaring “When You Sing” to impressive heights. It’s a joy to listen to the group’s remaining comfortably inhabit their own signature niche.
21. Robert Hood – Motor: Nighttime World 3
Though it’s seventy minutes long, Robert Hood’s latest electronic outing is as accessible as it is bold and elegant. The subject (as with Parts 1 and 2, which I haven’t heard) is Detroit, and Nighttime World 2 departs from the economic wasteland narrative to depict a bustling late-night cityscape. “Motor City” is all gusto, “Black Technician” fidgets and sputters through eleven captivating minutes, and the chattering “The Wheel” keeps the album flowing with minimalism and restraint. “Slow Motion Katrina”, meanwhile, makes a smooth, graceful rhythm out of an endlessly repeating police siren. Hood is aware of his surroundings, but on Nighttime World 3 he takes an artful approach to reworking their problems, highlighting the progress imbedded in the modern, post-industrial landscapes.
20. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
The rawness of The Idler Wheel…shows itself through the self-awareness evident in so many of Apple’s lyrics. Her latest work since 2005, The Idler Wheel…is as self-loathing as ever, but it’s a mature, multifaceted look at dealing with the burn of heartbreak and the gazing eye of the public that beseeched her from such a young age. Backed only by piano and shuffling drums, Apple remarks on her early fame in “Periphery” by following up “Go to the periphery/Have them celebrate your name” with “But not with me”. On “Regret”, she’s even more blunt and critical, crooning “That’s how you got free/You got rid of me.” Part of the effect is to show that despite her celebrity, Apple’s real problems are the same as anyone else’s – she’s just able to express them with biting articulateness.
19. The Sea and Cake – Runner
The Chicago-based The Sea and Cake have produced so many catchy, easygoing albums that Runner at first glazes by as yet another solid entry in their reliable (if rarely breathtaking) discography. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface here, however, as Prekop and co. push the electronics more than ever. “Harps”, “On and On”, and “The Invitations” are particularly impressive, but each track is a gem. It’s possibly their best pop album yet.
18. Purity Ring – Shrines
Canadian duo Megan James and Corin Roddick’s debut LP arrives with an incredible degree of force and direction. Megan James’ processed, ethereal vocals perfectly match the choppy drumming and fragmented synths. “Fineshrine”, “Belispeak”, “Ungirthed”, and “Obedear” are all brilliant singles, but as an album Shrines holds together. Purity Ring seems to have stumbled onto a perfect set of tools to give their songs a unified, sleek sound. Keep an eye on them.
17. Jack White – Blunderbuss
A year after the White Stripes quit while they were still in top form, Jack White delivers a solo album demonstrating that his half of the group, at least, still has plenty of energy and creativity. The biting Blunderbuss can hold its own against the works of the full group. The lumbering guitar lines are as striking as ever, and White shows he has plenty of lyrical prowess on his own. The title of “Freedom at 21” turns out to be a clever feint, as the song ends up a caustic (and ironic) cry against advancements of the last century (“She don’t care what kind of wounds she’s inflicting on me/she don’t care what color bruises that she’s leaving on me/’cause she’s got freedom in the 21st century”). White’s narrators are reaching for the stars and following their passions, but obstacles always stand in their way. The sharp songwriting has a defiant tone, but the lyrics shift the energy – Blunderbuss is ultimately more about a defiance of failure and regret.
16. Beach House – Bloom
Bloom is the work of mature artists who know that they’ve found a winning formula. Bloom eschews many of the clever hooks of Teen Dream (my #1 for 2010) in favor of casting crisp, enveloping atmospheres. As a sustained body of work, it’s immersive, impressively withdrawn, and lyrically insightful. The Hours depicts a crash between anticipation, time, and conflicted emotions, and Lazuli is pure poetry. The toning-down of the of the nifty nuances and beats that made Teen Dream so much fun, though, does alarm me, as I can see a Beach House that pushes further into this direction turning into a group that’s a lot more fun to like than they are to actually listen to. For now, though, this will more than suffice.
15. Grouper – Violet Replacement
Ambient artist Liz Harris’s solo act returns for her most ambitious and difficult work to date. Harris has spent her career as Grouper drawing alternately warm and menacing textures out of white noise, a style that made her a perfect fit for a concert in April at the Guggenheim Museum. Violet Replacement consists of two cavernous pieces — one 37 minutes long, the other over 50 — that build to create haunting and enrapturing environments. It’s a beautiful album, but if the idea of two massive songs sounds intimidating, check out her more track-focused, equally brilliant 2008 record Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill.
14. Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes
Steven Ellison’s latest experimental electronic outing flows beautifully, integrating guest vocal performances seamlessly into its vibrant soundscapes. Each track works with a few motifs that wouldn’t normally belong together (“Electric Candyman” intertwines synths, jazz improv, and Thom Yorke), but Ellison somehow makes it work. Few artists can take such a blatantly experimental approach and have the final result remain so accessible. Though abstract, the sound is always almost pleasant and warm – Until the Quiet Comes resembles the state of waking up from a good dream and wanting to close your eyes and enter back into it.
13. Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror
Forty minutes of fierce jabs and bludgeoning chords, Reign of Terror packs enough punch to live up to its title. Its tempting to dismiss the album – Miller and Krauss make it look too easy – but it’s intricate, sharply written, and catchy. They’re at their best when they underline the bludgeoning guitar lines with equally compelling electronic melodies, like on “Born to Lose” or “End of the Line”. The heavy production is a perfect fit fir Krauss’ vocal approach, channeling the same teenage angst Jenny Lewis infused into Rilo Kiley’s The Execution of All things through the thunderous music. A surprising (and upbeat) clarity emerges as she follows “No one loves you/Up above/No one hears you/No one sees you” with a simple “Well it’s the end of the line/So goodbye.” It’s this clash between Miller and Krauss’ approaches that makes Reign of Terror so majestic.
12. Scott Walker – Bish Bosch
I’m not going to pretend to know anything about Scott Walker’s 40+ year music career. This was my starting point. And what a starting point it is. Only Swans managed to create an album this menacing and disconcerting. The humongous, dissonant orchestration throughout the 22-minute “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” churns like a never-ending nightmare of a disaster. In a good way. Walker’s utterly distinct vocals are operatic, veering from venomous insults and to cries of fatalistic paranoia. On the closing track, a twisted holiday anthem, Walker repeats “Nobody waited for the fire” as Christmas bells add to the composition. Bish Bosch is an awing spectacle of unhindered expression and experimentalism.
11. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
Bird’s latest album stands up with the best works of his eccentric career. It’s consistently great and also quite varied, drawing from all of his earlier works and executing each throwback and new excursion beautifully. “Near Death Experience Experience” recalls his witticisms from Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005), “Eyeoneye” condenses his talents into a captivating indie rock single that remains true to his roots, and “Lusitania” reminds us that his whistling is as impressive as his vocabulary. Each track is a highlight, although the most awing of all are the “Desperation Breeds…” and “Hole in the Floor”, which integrate sweeping violin solos into shape-shifting atmospheres.
10. Flashbulb Fires – Gasconader
This understated, seven-track album boasts a tasteful array of strong melodies and late-night electronics. Singer Patrick McGuire carries the album with a unique, exasperated croon – he sounds positively fazed by the music, which helps hint at multilayered lyrics that are often misleading on the surface. “Holy War, Bitter Prophets” encrypts a sincere message of reconciliation within the framework of a fanatic trying to bring a lover “into the honest light” before “the rapture”. Highlight “Cult Life” is similarly ironic, as McGuire laments “Why can’t we leave this group behind/What would we ever do without cult life?” The voice of Gasconader is reaching out from under the pressures that bury it (“I’ve got arms that are reaching for the sky” shouts McGuire defiantly) for catharsis and freedom.
9. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?
This New York City-based bluegrass group has churned out one terrific album after another since they formed in 2006, but Who’s Feeling Young Now? is their first release to completely transcend the genre. Several tracks (the upbeat “This Girl,” “Don’t Get Married Without Me”) delve into familiar territory with satisfying results, while others venture into new, more edgy ground. Opener “Movement and Location” carries a hint of menace while an instrumental cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A” adds a shade of abstraction. Frontman Chris Thile steals the show with wildly varied vocal performances that carry the album through its many shifts in tone.
8. Wildlife Control – Wildlife Control
I mostly dismissed alternative rock group Wildlife Control’s self-titled debut when I originally reviewed it, but it’s really grown on me since then. It’s a deceptively brilliant and immensely pleasing indie pop album. Lead single “Analog or Digital” feels straight out of the nineties, and in a good way. In the album’s best moments, “Darkness” and “Disguise” drift halfway through from their catchy synth-beats into breezy jazz piano solos. Alternately clever, unpresumptuous and appealing, I hope this album catches on. The band has a lot of potential.
7. Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE
If there’s anything that music listeners can unite around this year, it’s the undeniable majesty of Channel ORANGE. The central contrast of the 10-minute “Pyramid” (projecting royalty onto a prostitute he’s fallen for) shows the hope and youth of Ocean’s narrators. The exquisite “Thinkin Bout You” is similarly heartfelt look back at first love, and the revelation (as stated by Ocean) that his first lover in his life was male adds to a feeling of self-discovery. Ocean comes across as an observer looking out on a world of opportunity, full of passion and unable to channel it into a tangible, single thread. The seventeen tracks of Channel ORANGE are overwhelming at first, but Ocean’s incredible voice, combined with the perfect synth beats and outside flourishes on its R&B roots, make a rich and satisfying experience.
6. Passion Pit – Gossamer
I never listened to “Sleepyhead”-era Passion Pit because I didn’t think that a group called Passion Pit could be any good, but Gossamer put me in my place. The lyrics are as dynamic and observational about the tough economic times as Wrecking Ball, though the elaborate production that adorns Michael Angelakos’ vocals inhabits the more jubilant end of the emotional spectrum. The bluntness of the distance between the yearning and often despairing lyrics and the pop-coated instrumentation lends a lot of power to the music. Rarely is an album this catchy also this insightful.
5. Lower Dens – Nootropics
The Baltimore-based group’s sophomore album dives straight into an eerie, late-night groove and spends the remaining duration digging deeper and deeper within it for richly rewarding results. Withdrawn, ghostly synths and percussion carve out a sublime atmosphere that puts singer Jana Hunter in the forefront. Her strong vocals are often indecipherable but always powerful, especially on the gorgeous “Nova Anthem” and the riveting centerpiece “Brains.” Nootropics glides by the first time you hear it, but a myriad of great tunes is buried within its focused sonic palette.
4. The Soft Moon – Zeros
Zeros sets off with a menacing, disjointed groove full of hammering synths that recall Joy Divisions’ “Isolation” and ends with a distorted repeat of the first track played in reverse. There isn’t a wasted moment on the San Francisco-based band’s third album – every track builds and builds until it cuts off suddenly. Listen to this album if you miss early-era Interpol. Every track is a vigorous, brilliant highlight for any post-punk fan.
3. The xx – Coexist
The xx’s wonderfully measured second outing deals with the clash between loneliness and intimacy with eloquence and grace. “Angels” is a boldly straightforward love song, and it’s one of the most affecting moments of the year. “Chained” builds tension masterfully that is releases only in small doses within the confines of the song’s minimal groove. The journey of the album is in the harmonies between Sim and Croft that represent two sides of conflict when they first appear in “Chained” but finally find an introspective sort of peace in “Our Song”. More sharply focused that its predecessor, it’s the most gorgeous album I heard all year.
2. Swans – The Seer
The second album from the recent reformation of brutally dark ’80s legends is a marvel of craftsmanship. Driven by heavy drums and disquieting lyrics, it’s not an album for all tastes. For starters, the lyrics are desolate, even by Swans’ standards (“Are you there?” is followed distantly by “In the blood of the swans/as the sun fucks the dawn”). Nearly two hours long, The Seer bursts with power and never drags for a moment. “93 Ave. Blues” is five minutes of terrifying dissonance while the epic “A Piece of the Sky” builds from the scattered sounds of fire into a twisted anthem. The only break from the madness is the delicate “Song for a Warrior”, sung by Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Swans frontman Michal Gira claimed that The Seer ultimately took “30 years to make.” It was worth the wait.
1. Chromatics – Kill For Love
Chromatics’ second album with its current lineup expands on the sparse electronic palate of 2007’s Night Drive to deliver ninety minutes of dreamy mood music. Opening boldly with a hazy reworking of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” (titled “Into the Black” here), Kill for Love starts with a series of knockout pop tunes in the style of Italian disco before settling into splintered ambience and sustained passages of near silence. Ruth Radelet is a great singer, and her performance makes the pulsating title track and crystalline “At Your Door” catchy and vaguely sexy. Though the style shows signs of influence in New Order and other electronic artists, the album is also bravely looking forward, employing Auto-tune on guitarist Adam Miller’s vocals for artistic effect (not as a crutch) and maintaining a cinematic tone that points to postmodern media convergence. None of this is new, but Kill for Love delivers an accomplished and essential collage of styles that looks forward and backwards effortlessly. Kill for Love is full of great moments, but the sum of its accumulated parts is the real reward. By the time the album drifts through the 14-minute closing instrumental “No Escape”, the overall effect is deeply cathartic.