We love this time of year, when music more or less takes a couple weeks off and we can all sit around and listen to our favorite records of the year and catch up on records we may have slept on––and yes!––rummage through countless lists of favorites for some gems. Here is our entry to the cacophony of rankings and year-ending music advice –– our favorite 60 albums of 2012; the albums we think you should spend the last few days of 2012 listening to.
60. PERFUME GENIUS –– Put Your Back N2 It
59. PORCELAIN RAFT –– Strange Weekend
58. AB SOUL –– Control System
57. HOT CHIP –– In Our Heads
56. ZAMMUTO –– Zammuto
55. METZ –– Metz
54. IAMAMIWHOAMI –– kin
53. POLIÇA –– Give You The Ghost
52. SWANS –– The Seer
51. CAT POWER –– Sun
50. JOHN TALABOT –– fin
49. LIARS –– WIXIW
48. CHAIRLIFT –– Something
47. ALT-J –– An Awesome Wave
46. THE SHINS –– Port of Morrow
45. PEAKING LIGHTS –– Lucifer
44. HOW TO DRESS WELL –– Total Loss
43. SCHOOLBOY Q –– Habits and Contradictions
42. TY SEGALL BAND –– Slaughterhouse
41. DR. DOG –– Be The Void
40. NAOMI PUNK –– The Feeling
39. ANIMAL COLLECTIVE –– Centipede Hz
38. DIVINE FITS –– A Thing Called Divine Fits
37. NIKI & THE DOVE –– Instinct
36. ALABAMA SHAKES –– Boys & Girls
35. DIIV –– Oshin
34. LOTUS PLAZA –– Spooky Action at a Distance
33. CLOUD NOTHINGS –– Attack on Memory
32. BOB DYLAN –– Tempest
31. MIGUEL –– Kaleidoscope Dream
30. BAT FOR LASHES –– The Haunted Man
29. FATHER JOHN MISTY –– Fear Fun
28. DAVID BYRNE & ST. VINCENT –– Love This Giant
27. THE MEN –– Open Your Heart
26. THEESATISFACTION –– awE naturalE
25. THE XX –– Coexist
24. SHARON VAN ETTEN –– Tramp
23. DEATH GRIPS –– The Money Store
22. TWIN SHADOW –– Confess
21. GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR –– ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
20. EL-P –– Cancer For Cure
Cancer For Cure opens with a sample of William S. Burroughs reading his 1961 novel, The Soft Machine, and I doubt there could be a more appropriate author for El Producto to invoke. Burroughs was one of the leaders of the Beatnik anti-establishment literary movement and known for his off-putting, shockingly innovative style that still offends thin-skinned audiences today. Much of the same could be said of the former Def Jux boss’s album, whose strident individualism I doubt will be any more easy to swallow fifty years down the road. This one’s certainly worth chewing on though, hard as it may be to digest.
“I am the son disgust entrusted with the undefined / And I can no longer contain whats under my disguise / I’ve always had the cancer for the cure / That’s what the fuck am I.” Cancer For Cure is a bitter pill for a music culture with a huge sweet tooth, a wake-up call and signal that rap’s so-called underground remains as fervent, vibrant and relevant as ever. –– Matt Conover
19. DIRTY PROJECTORS –– Swing Lo Magellan
A “minimalist” piece of art is, by nature, meant to be simple and low-key. The music of Dirty Projectors is anything but simple, and many of the songs on Swing Lo Magellan are as ambitious as any released this year. But somehow, Dave Longstreth and company crafted an album that maintains the intricate, impressive song structures and guitar pickings of previous Dirty Projectors albums while still managing to be understated and accessible.
Not every track on the record matches this “minimalist” description – standouts “Offspring Are Blank” and “Gun Has No Trigger” certainly show off their hypnotic percussion and the shape-shifting backup vocals of Amber Coffman. But the majority of Magellan has an acoustic, bare-bones subtlety to it. “Just From Chevron,” “Dance For You,” “Impregnable Question,” “Irresponsible Tune” and the title track all share a quiet beauty, with Coffman’s “oohs” and “ahhs” used as an added emotional weight rather than a form of percussion.
Bleeding throughout the entire album is a consistent feeling of pure joy, captured at its peak on Magellan‘s most affecting track, “About To Die.” Just watch the last 40 seconds of the music video and you’ll have a full understand of the Dirty Projectors approach to music. There are 20 or so random people crammed in the back of a crowded truck, playing violins, pianos, singing backup and just dancing along with a smile. “There is an answer, I haven’t found yet, but I’ll keep dancing ’till I do,” Longstreth sings on “Dance For You.” They’re simple words – from a complex, multidimensional and endlessly talented musician. –– Adam Offtizer
18. SPIRITUALIZED –– Sweet Heart Sweet Light
What to make of Jason Pierce? On Sweet Heart Sweet Light, the Spiritualized frontman’s bluesy voice accompanied by elaborate orchestras and a choir occupies a territory all it’s own. The album picks up where Pierce’s magnum opus, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, left off.
The music here is sprawling and grand while simultaneously intimate. The effect here isn’t exactly warm and fuzzy as Pierce’s lyrics on “Little Girl,” attest, “Sometimes I wish that I was dead/ Because only the living can feel the pain.” However, these songs aren’t somber lamentations either. The juxtaposition of the forlorn lyrics and the epic scale of the arrangements create a mini-masterpiece: gospel music for the end of the world. –– Raj Dayal
17. LOWER DENS –– Nootropics
Nootropics is a subtly expansive album. Some will find it to be a more restrained, perhaps less exciting, version of Lower Dens’ excellent debut, Twin Hands Movement. Yet I find it to be a bolder album is almost every respect. The arrangements are sonically cavernous, as the listener can put any one of the tracks on repeat and find wholly new areas of sound to explore. The song-centric approach of their debut is eschewed in favor of an album structure that stresses fluidity and escapism.
Jana Hunter has always had a penchant for the mystical and with Nootropics she has crafted an album that seamlessly blends her other-worldly mindset with the gripping songwriting that makes her so beloved. The album is a meditative experience interjected with edgy pop gems (“Brains,” “Lamb,” “Candy”). It may not be as rousing as its predecessor but it is not meant to be. For me, Nootropics was the the best album this year at achieving exactly what it set out to do. –– Drew Malmuth
16. KILLER MIKE –– R.A.P. Music
The one MC/one producer hip-hop album has a storied tradition. In some cases, the chemistry is off and the project is doomed from the beginning. But when the right balance is struck (Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Madvillain, RZA and Wu-Tang members) the artists can seamlessly compliment one another and a fully realized album can be born as a result. Somewhat unpredictably, Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music falls into the latter category.
El-P was able to morph his snarling, expansive underground hip-hop productions into something more fitting for Mike’s Atlanta drawl. The ferocity is still there, but the tracks have far more southern bounce than one would find on an El-P solo album. Over these pitch-perfect arrangements, Killer Mike is able to unleash his considerable lyrical talent without being dragged down by a mediocre beat. And when Mike gets going his lyrics are like a freight train. He backs up his bravado with deft (and hilarious) metaphors (“this is John Gotti paintin pictures like Dali/ this is Basquiat with a passion like Pac/ in a body like Biggie tellin stories like Ricky) and his wordplay is often excellent (see “Southern Fried”). Most importantly, his passion and charisma come through with every line and tracks like “Willie Burke Sherwood” are as honest as they are head-snapping.
R.A.P. Music is an explosive album. Further, it is a reminder of how gripping hip-hop can be when made by people who have a sincere love of their craft. –– DM
15. BEACH HOUSE –– Bloom
Like overt symbolism on an episode of Mad Men, Beach House might be showing its hand by naming its album Bloom. There’s really no more fitting description of what happens in their music – it sprawls out, growing in new directions, swirling and spiraling into different variations on the same, beautiful song. Opening track “Myth” follows the perfect formula established by Teen Dream‘s “Zebra,” taking a shimmering, haunting synth line and building on top of it, layer by layer – this time adding a heavier, more developed drum beat, all paired with the dreamy vocals of Victoria Legrand.
Some may say the album can get repetitive, as the songs blend and fade in and out of each other, but it’s an integral part of the appeal of a Beach House record. Like Devotion and Teen Dream before it, Bloom is a transporting experience, an album built to provide a singular feeling. There’s experimentation as well – “On The Sea” builds on top of a gorgeous piano riff, and 16-minute album closer “Irene” leaves five minutes of silence between its prologue and epilogue. But really, Beach House is building songs with the same template as they’ve used in the past, just with more maturity and punch. Nobody should be complaining. –– AO
14. JESSIE WARE –– Devotion
The anticipated debut album Devotion from London-based R&B singer Jessie Ware is a stunner. Ware gained notice from her backing vocals on last year’s self-titled album from enigmatic dubstep producer SBTRKT. Ware’s timeless single-malt smooth voice is sure to be compared to fellow UK singer Adele; however, the more apt comparison is Sade Adu.
While some of the music on Devotion could pass for a Prince B-side at the height of his powers, it’s not so much 80s revival as it is a look back from the future where dubstep and electronic experimentation seamlessly blend. Ware’s nuanced delivery masterfully sidesteps lyrics that would come across as cliché from a lesser singer. The most remarkable quality Ware displays is earnestness. When she coos, “Maybe in our wildest moments/ We can be the greatest, we can be the greatest,” it’s easy to believe. –– RD
13. JACK WHITE –– Blunderbuss
Jack White has said The White Stripes were just a cover band that played his songs. Still there always seemed to be a gloss of collaboration between him and Meg. On Blunderbuss, however, White takes center stage, as maestro and prima donna, sharing control with no one and the spotlight only sparingly.
Gone are the self-imposed limitations of his first band. White has loosened the strictures and brought in new voices, human and instrumental. Unlike Meg, these crackerjack musicians are able to follow wherever Jack leads. Blunderbuss, so effortless and confident, is a breakthrough for the tightly wound White. It radiates a sense of newfound liberation.
As much as I want to sing praises to Jack White’s expert musicianship (the sudden and ecstatic double-time interludes on “Trash Tongue Talker”) and inventive lyricism (for example, this verbal pretzel: “A romantic bust, a blunder turned explosive blunderbuss”), my admiration for Blunderbuss is rooted in sensation. Why overthink music this marvelous?
The album’s best tracks, such as “Hypocritical Kiss,” “On and On and On,” “Love Interruption,” and “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” demand that you stop, listen, and experience them. Hell, the entire album demands it. Blunderbuss is outstanding, White’s finest and most consistent work to date. –– Peter Tabakis
12. FLYING LOTUS –– Until The Quiet Comes
Steven Ellison, better known as Flying Lotus, continues his string of genre-defining music. While his previous album Cosmogramma showcased the outer limits of what a DJ/producer/electronic musician can accomplish, this new work is decidedly more accessible.
This is not to say that Until The Quiet Comes is a less ambitious record. On the contrary, the music is still a densely woven tapestry of influences ranging from jazz and blues to trip-hop. Flying Lotus simply allows for more space within the songs through his arrangements and timing. There is something disarmingly organic about these songs. They seem to rise and float in the ether. It’s as if FlyLo is a 21st Century Pied Piper summoning the basement DJs encased in headphones nodding like metronomes while thumbing through their classic jazz LPs. –– RD
11. THE WALKMEN –– Heaven
The postmodern punk outfit with the once smug front man Hamilton Leithauser, have eased into adulthood on their lustrous sixth album, Heaven. The Walkmen are taking a wide-angle view on this record, simultaneously looking back on their career as well as embracing the inevitable passage into adulthood.
Admittedly, some of their longtime fans who were able to get through a few breakups by listening to “The Rat” on repeat, may feel let down—even cheated. However, it’s important to note that not every band can age gracefully or adapt to the times they inhabit. The fact that the Walkmen have done both is a testament to their vitality. Ultimately, this record is about embracing the whole. On the opening track “We Can’t Be Beat,” Leithauser reveals, “Golden dreams, all lose their glow/ I don’t need perfection, I love the whole.” –– RD
10. DAN DEACON –– America
When I found out that Dan Deacon’s new album would be called America I was concerned. Deacon has been outspoken about his distaste for many things “American,” and so I assumed that after the more insular Bromst Dan’s newest release would be an even less joyful affair. I was wrong. America is not the manic explosion that was Spiderman of the Rings but neither it is a brooding rumination on the ills of capitalism. Instead, it is Deacon’s trademark distorted, synth-pop alongside USA, a soaring four-part celebration of America’s natural beauty. The first part of the album has its highlights (“True Thrush,” “Lots”) but it is really the latter half’s composition that defines America. Deacon is able to deftly combine his heavily modulated synth work with full orchestral arrangements. It’s a dangerous effort in theory, but in practice it results in some of the most emotionally epic moments of Deacon’s oeuvre. America is odd, ambitious, and wonderfully affecting. –– DM
09. PURITY RING –– Shrines
Shrines sounds like Megan James and Corin Roddick made it in their isolated mountainside shack just after the apocalypse, having forgotten for whatever reason most of the structures of most things except pop music’s relentless repetitive seductive pulse and how to work a wide variety of samplers. Megan forgot how to sing about being in love in the cool abstracted way pop divas do so instead she sang about love’s viscerality (“cut open my sternum and pull my little ribs around you,” “brew you a warm drink out of my tattered hulls,” “I’ll shuck all the light from my skin and I’ll hide it in you”); she sang about sickness and bodies and strange, horrifying psychedelic landscapes and Corin made her the strangest and most weirdly stunning music to go with it, all endless layers of synth sounds, sharded and tumbling here and sweeping there, vocal drones edited and chopped out of recognition, syncopated drum machine that cuts in places it shouldn’t make sense.
That’s not how it happened, obviously, but it’s all too easy to mythologize. It’s all too easy to see each song as its own little altar, its own little shrine to its own impartial quiet god. –– Genevieve Oliver
08. GRIMES –– Visions
On Visions, her third record as Grimes, the 24-year-old musical mad scientist Claire Boucher meticulously created an entire, heavily considered science-fiction universe in thirteen songs. Reluctant pop genius though she is – throw a rap verse on any of the record’s irresistible dance tracks (we suggest “Oblivion” or “Nightmusic”) and we wouldn’t be surprised to hear them on top 40 radio – what makes Visions so exhilarating, so excellent, and so (presumably, hopefully) lasting is Boucher’s effortless synthesis of the experimental and futuristic with the deeply human and personal.
Over crunching industrial beats, skittering drum machine, effects that sound like spaceship acceleration, and her own voice looped and layered until she sounds impossibly alien, Boucher sings in Diva Plavalaguna falsetto about unrequited love and fear of loneliness and desire for physicality. When she cries “So then, what am I?” in “Be A Body” she sounds like she’s realizing she’s a cyborg. That might explain the inevitability of her world dominance. –– GO
07. CHROMATICS –– Kill For Love
Kill for Love is a tome of an album. Like a sweeping russian novel, it seems to exhaust every possible idea before it feels that it has had its say. It’s an inadvisable album format for most musicians but Johnny Jewel seems to revel in a lack of brevity. His more recent, post-grimey punk era productions are at their best when they sprawl out and let their dreamy, swirling aesthetic envelop the listener completely and for extended periods of time. Kill for Love does just that, as the bands first album in five years delivers an hour and a half of gorgeous synth-pop soundscapes.
After Night Drive and Jewel’s work with Nicolas Winding Refn (whose film Drive is basically a visual Chromatics album) this is the kind of epic-in-scope album that Chromatics fans hoped the band would make. Dreamy synth washes ebb and flow, intermittently giving way to standout gems like the title track and “Lady.” It’s an album that goes to great lengths to establish its mood and sense of place. If one is willing to take the time, listening to Kill For Love is one of the most engrossing musical experiences of the year. –– DM
06. GRIZZLY BEAR –– Shields
For a band that has such an unmistakable sound it is no small feat to keep making music that is unpredictable. Shields restlessly shifts from driving guitars (“Sleeping Ute) to lush pop gems (“Yet Again,” “A Simple Answer”); followed by a jump from atmospheric and lovely harmonies (“The Hunt,” “Gun Shy”) to explosive, psychedelic epics (“Sun in Your Eyes”). It’s a testament to Grizzly Bear’s sense of tone and unique ear for harmony that this disparate swath of songs ends up feeling legitimately cohesive. It’s their strangest and most erratic release to date but in most ways it is similar to its predecessors. There are moments that drag but the majority is a stunning combination of intricate rock melodies and soaring vocal harmonies. That’s Grizzly Bear’s wheelhouse and I see no reason for them to ever leave it. –– DM
05. JAPANDROIDS –– Celebration Rock
With the sun setting behind the stage, the profiles Brian King and David Prowse glowed a celestial orange as they launched into “Fire’s Highway.” I remember being surprised when I heard that Japandroids consists of just two people, and even though I had heard Celebration Rock dozens of times when I caught the duo live, I was freshly taken aback by just how energetic and engaging two guys could be onstage. (One of my normally tepid friends launched himself into a crowdsurf upon hearing the opening notes of “House That Heaven Built”).
While they claim to be “waiting for a generation’s bonfire to begin,” it seems that they’re already out there, “on the wings of a western night,” joyfully stoking that blaze one forty minute set at a time. For our asked-to-do-more-with-less generation, could anything be more appropriate than a two-piece band writing maximalist songs that celebrate not the end, but that we keep going? –– MC
04. TAME IMPALA –– Lonerism
The barrage of revivalist sound continued this year, as young twenty-somethings flocked toward musical equipment that is fifty-years old. This trend has its pros and cons. It often makes for a warm, fuzzy sound that turns an otherwise boring song into something more palatable. However, this can lead to groups that are so intent on being “classic” that they lose any sense of individuality. Kevin Parker’s music is steeped in analog production and 60′s psychedelia, yet it has an immediacy to it that cuts through the languid guitar melodies. This sense of modernity springs from Parker’s songwriting. For a hazy, psychedelic record the arrangements are noticeably taut. Bouncy central melodies – ranging from the expansive “Apocalypse Dreams” to the incredibly infectious “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” – anchor tunes that would otherwise drift off into the abyss. Lonerism is rooted in the past but it is persistently fresh, making it one of the best revivalist efforts in recent memory. –– DM
03. KENDRICK LAMAR –– good kid, m.A.A.d city
It’s difficult to sum up the outpouring of affection that good kid m.A.A.d city has received in such a small space. Of course, one can point to the overwhelmingly positive critical reception and the commercial success of the album, but those typical signifiers of popular music achievement really don’t capture the furor that I’m talking about here. The small riot that broke out the night the album was released gets at it. Go to one of his shows, or put this album on in a room full of hip-heads, and you’ll witness the energy which shutdown that bit of LA on October 22.
Yes, Kendrick Lamar’s beat selection is impeccable, yes, he is one of the most technically proficient rappers out there, and yes, he vividly paints a portrait of a horrifying environment, but all of that has been done before. Critics begin to whisper, “classic” when speaking of good kid m.A.A.d city because it manages to feel convincingly like “human beings on record.” As our own Drew Malmuth said, it is the “moments of compassion that make [the album] stick pointedly in the back of your mind.” Lamar’s album portrays a person who has risen “from a dark place of violence,” transcended those who “just want to be famous” to become something of a Compton-born Buddha, an “angel on angel dust.” –– MC
02. FRANK OCEAN –– channel ORANGE
I’d like to think Frank Ocean is beaming right now. Last summer his debut album Channel Orange met a chorus of acclaim that would only disappoint Kanye West. And the chorus sings on – Channel Orange continues to get tongue baths from the Grammy committee and on year-end lists. Ocean’s poignant reveal that he was once in love with a man, along with the industry’s eye opening support, is a cherry atop an astounding 2012. Time to break out the bubbly, Frank!
Yeah, right. Corks may pop and hit posh walls on Channel Orange, but celebration is rarely the cause. Sadness, frustration, and disappointment shroud the album with a burden that demolishes stripper poles and humans alike. Yet Channel Orange also thrills (the first half of “Pyramids”) and transports (every second of “Bad Religion”) the listener with ease.
The miracle of Channel Orange is that it only appears effortless. A peek behind the stained curtain reveals a mess of moving parts. Dig through its complexity and discover a wellspring: the glory of Frank Ocean’s pure croon. Yes, this is exactly what all the fuss is about. –– PT
01. 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
“I just want to feel everything,” Fiona Apple sings at the start of her magnificent fourth album The Idler Wheel. Feeling is hardly in short supply here: The Idler Wheel crackles with what could be every known emotion. Apple notably (and mostly) spares her former lovers the worst of them, saving the strongest poison for herself. Even so, her signature petulance has dulled over the years and has been replaced with newfound grace, wisdom, and even joy.
As such, The Idler Wheel is a grownup album in the lineage of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, still a shamefully rare phenomenon in popular music (though recent works by artists such as Bon Iver, the National, and the Walkmen may constitute a comeback.) The depth of Apple’s themes, the scope and precision of her lyrics, the exquisite mastery she’s coaxed from her voice, all testify to her maturity, her adulthood.
Unlike the album that sits beneath it on this list, every note of The Idler Wheel, a masterwork of economy and sophistication, sounds and feels essential. Apple and co-producer Charley Drayton have simplified these ten songs, arguably the strongest of her career, to near-perfection.
However uncompromising its song structures and percussive instrumentation can seem at first, The Idler Wheel is never unwelcoming. Unencumbered by orchestral flourish, Apple’s melodies are free to ring with clarion force. Still, Fiona Apple, performer, remains the centerpiece of The Idler Wheel. Her auspicious debut sixteen years in the distance, she is now an undeniable, top-rank artist. Fiona Apple was well worth the wait. –– PT