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Top Albums of the Year

February 23, 2013
 

Wes’s Favorite Albums of 2012 (30 of ’em!)

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Now that the dust has settled on those failed diets, unused gym memberships, and your abandoned shit novel idea, we can finally reminisce with a clear head and nostalgic heart on the year of music that was 2012. Young whippersnappers and old faithfuls brought the ruckus in oh-twelve, but in the end it will be remembered by one huge Grammy snub and a top ten filled with the rockingest women around.

30. Lord Huron | Lonesome Dreams

Lord Huron

Let’s just get it out of the way – yes, “Lonesome Dreams” is a total rip-off of Fleet Foxes and early My Morning Jacket. It’s another pastoral album infused with the ’70s rock of The Zombies. But I’ll be damned if I’m not a sucker for that musical recipe. It’s a great listen, with its western hooks and fuzzy rock. It won’t win any song writing awards (“Time to Run” is about as much sacharine optimism as I can handle) but it’s a nice exercise in where indie folk can go next.

29. Jack White | Blunderbuss

Jack White

Jack White is in unmistakably Jack White form on “Blunderbuss.” But it’s almost as if his sound is all growed up. Almost as if all of that old rockabilly music he’s been so influenced by is actually starting to bleed through more than ever. Even the tracks that tend to fly off the handle, like “Sixteen Saltines,” show noticeable restraint and polish. It’s a much more mature and conservative album than I expected from a recently emancipated solo Jack White — and that’s a great thing.

28. Chromatics | Kill for Love

Chromatics

Anyone familiar with Chromatics knows to expect expansive, cinematic, atmospheric aural landscapes – but what is unexpected is how efficient (well, as efficient as an hour and a half album can be) and cohesive “Kill for Love” is. (Um, also unexpected was this Neil Young cover of “Hey, Hey, My My,” renamed “Into the Black.”) This – this is an album. Spend some time inside of it.

27. Yeasayer | Fragrant World

Yeasayer

Brooklyn was well represented this year, with at least 3 or 4 bands and artists from Brooklyn having big years. “Fragrant World” is a turn towards the increasingly popular dance pop sound, but mix in some of the Dirty Projectors’ ’90s R&B influences. “Longevity” is butter. No – check that, it’s buttah!
(Extra points for the tongue-in-cheek music video.)

26. Shearwater | Animal Joy

Yeasayer

This is Shearwater wrapping up a gorgeous trio of naturalist-themed albums (Rook, The Golden Archipelago) on an incredibly powerful yet reserved note. Jonathan Meiburg’s falsetto reaches heights the erstwhile albums had only hinted at. All in all it’s an immensely satisfying conclusion to this trilogy and it’s a travesty more people aren’t dialed in to what Shearwater has accomplished these last few years.

25. The Shins | Port of Morrow

The Shins

So how is James Mercer going to fare without his usual backing Shins band? I wasn’t too thrilled with the prospect, but held out hope because of how spot on his Broken Bells project with Danger Mouse was. Mercer has shed his “indie rock” skin and has created an exciting, accessible, and rich album. He’s also entering into the Billy Joel/John Lennon realm of song writing; the one thing that could have spelled ruin for this album were the same, angsty lyrics that made “Chutes Too Narrow” so resonating. Maybe it’s because I’m into my 30’s, but “Simple Song” (see below) is down right triumphant with its expansive, airy bridges and surprising but pleasing chord changes. It’s a new kind of adult contemporary that is rightfully laughing at the petulance of the hipster movement.

24. Daniel Rossen | Silent Hour/Golden Mile

Daniel Rossen

Oh boy, an album/EP full of songs originally intended for Grizzly Bear’s followup to “Veckatimest.” That’s enough to land you a top 25 spot for sure. It’s the most “singer/songwritery” any Daniel Rossen project had ever been, with “Silent Song” being the grandest pop song on the album. It has a propulsion and personal ambition here that singles out what makes Rossen’s contributions to Grizzly Bear so substantial.

23. Calexico | Algiers

Calexico

Intending to record in Europe, Calexico had to settle for an area in New Orleans called Algiers. While “Algiers” the album has definite hints of cajun and zydeco flavoring and definite New Orleans influence, they never trade in their trademark Southwestern indie western rock. “No Te Vayas” is probably their most New Orleans latin/jazz kissed song, and the marriage of New Orleans culture and Calexico’s sound is intoxicating.

22. Leonard Cohen | Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen

Humor and spirituality aren’t really things often associated with a Leonard Cohen album (at least without a healthy dose of cynism). But what these two topics serve to do is mix with his usual musings on mortality, struggle, love, and loss to create a wizened acceptance of everything life doles out. It’s reassuring coming from one of music’s great experts on life, and his age and experience only enhance the message. In “Old Ideas,” Cohen creates a musical experience unlike anyone else (except maybe Bob Dylan (spoilers…)) – but the same could easily be said of any of his albums.

21. The Men | Open Your Heart

The Men

Brooklyn get represented again. So you like Japandroids. That’s great – I don’t entirely like them, but I appreciate the kind of gritty, grind-it-out, punk rock they’re trying to infuse with indie rock. So let’s set your Japandroids aside and I present to you a much better alternative: The Men’s “Open Your Heart.” It’s exciting, aggressive and visceral, but incredibly more dynamic than Japandroids’ “Celebration Rock,” bringing other sounds and genres to the mix, like Krautrock, country, Italian jazz, psychedelia, and lo-fi noise pop. Plus, they’re another band representing Brooklyn.

20. Perfume Genius | Put Your Back N 2 It

Perfume Genius

I never thought I’d like an overtly gay love song so much, let alone an entire album. But it goes to show that no matter what flavor you human experience comes in, art can boil it down to something universal to where everyone can share in the same heartbreak, the same devastation, the same yearning, and the same confessions.

19. DIIV | Oshin

DIIV

What? More Brooklyn!? 2011 featured a lot of exciting, emerging beach-inspired rock. DIIV takes that aesthetic and darkens it, creating a surfer rock that borders on the experimental and the atmospheric. But there are definitely some breezy parts of the album that come and go with a little too much ease, but they serve as more of a respite than a let down.

18. Air | Le Voyage Dans la Lune

Air

The wonderful coincidence of Air starting their career with a safari on the moon and 15 years later taking another voyage there is too good to leave off my list. Serving as a soundtrack/score to Georges Méliès’ 1912 sci-fi trailblazer of the same name, “Le Voyage Dans le Lune” creates as much a tribute to the entire sci-fi genrea as it does a visceral trip, track by track, to the heavens. Stand out track “Seven Stars” features Beach House’s Victoria Legrand on vocals, so now you really want to check it out, dontcha?

17. Flying Lotus | Until the Quiet Comes

Flying Lotus

It’s hard to write about this album. I mean, if you like DJ Shadow or Madlib, you’re going to love Flying Lotus and especially “Until the Quiet Comes.” But I guess that’s its greatest virtue. The tracks are compiled so meticulously and flow so fluidly into each other that the album feels like one long, aural painting; a sampler pop-cultural sound. And of course, any project that features Thom Yorke garners my attention, so check out the track below, “Electric Candyman.” Not the best on the album, but hey, Thom Yorke.

16. Father John Misty | Fear Fun

Father John Misty

Take the Nick Drake/Ryan Adams sensibilities of J. Tillman, run it through the Fleet Foxes gauntlet, and let it loose again, you’ve got the alt-folk, golden twang, summery tones of Father John Misty. Josh Tillman was always on the front end of the indie country rock sound, but that was a stripped down, bared-soul kind of rock that transplanted Rodriguez into a contemporary rock scene (and no, I had never even heard of Rodriguez until I saw “Searching for Sugarman” a couple months ago). Now his vocals are more Jonathan Meiburg and the compositions are more Devendra Banhart. And to watch him work a microphone and a crowd is to witness the most masculine form of boyish sexuality that indie rock can produce.

15. Andrew Bird | Break It Yourself/Hands of Glory

Andrew Bird - BreakAndrew Bird - Glory

“Break it Yourself” features Andrew Bird recording live in his studio barn in Western Illinois and is his most pastoral and austere album to date. “Hands of Glory” is even more ambitious in its authentic and rootsy approach – the album is recorded on one microphone, creating an album both anachronistic and intimate. At this point, an Andrew Bird album is a sure thing.


14. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti | Mature Themes

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

How weird is Ariel Pink? Watch the video – he’s a man out of time. Listen to the tunes – it’s a sound out of time. Take in the lyrics – they’re creepy and hilarious. They guy covers Donnie and Joe Emerson’s “Baby” from 1979 (and wears a shirt commemorating it in the video below). I’ve never encountered an artist like him. If his music wasn’t so earnest and authentic, it’d be a forgettable schtick. But he’s so sincere and the period pieces he creates represent the best from their respective eras. You sort of just have to listen to him to appreciate it. Nevertheless, it’s definite top 15 material.

13. 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

Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple has always been a smokey, sultry singer with a lyrical and musical depth to back up her mystique and acclaim. But what stands out about “The Idler Wheel…” is that it’s not an easy sell. There are no digestible singles or standout tunes concise in their marketability. That’s not to say the music is difficult or off-putting – actually the opposite is true. It’s apparent that so much craft and creativity was pummeled into every track. Apple’s signature fiery and jazzy angst is still present, but more focus seems to be on creating art versus creating something subversive. Consequently its brilliance sounds more deliberate and its challenges are easily (and welcomely) rewarded.


12. The Walkmen | Heaven

The Walkmen

In a just world, The Walkmen would be as big as Spoon or Grizzly Bear, because they’re that good. After “Heaven” I’m wondering what else it’s going to take. They accomplished so much with this album – they celebrate the 10th anniversary of their first album with songs about contentment, family, happiness, and optimism (all on an album called “Heaven”) without being boring or smug, and they recorded the anthem of 2012 with the title track, “Heaven.” Sometimes you just want to listen to something triumphant without being left feeling empty or guilty, and that happiness fits a usually philosophical Walkmen so well means that’s all too possible.


11. Dirty Projectors | Swing Lo Magellan

The Dirty Projectors

“Bitte Orca” was amazing and Angel Deradoorian was a big part of that. Faced with a 2012 release without her, David Longstreth and Amber Coffman to pick up where he left off with “Rise Above.” No problem. They turned their attention to song crafting and song writing, and created their most revelatory and punctuated album to date.

10. The xx | Coexist

The xx

The xx were already pretty stripped down in their electronic R&B hooks with their first self-titled album, but there’s a fine line between minimalism and sounding incomplete. “Coexist” walks that line even closer, and all that sparseness makes the prolonged percussive crashes and single reverberating guitar notes much more stark against all that emptiness. Other bands would be swallowed by the void created, but The xx are like Atreyu and Falkor who refuse to give into the Nothing. Any closer to the edge of minimalistic nothingness and The xx are in danger of being erased from existence, but for the time being enjoy the nocturnal, expansive, and sensual sound of silence that The xx have nailed.


9. David Byrne & St. Vincent | Love This Giant

David Byrne and St. Vincent

In an exciting way David Byrne and Annie Clark (St. Vincent) are at the same time observers and voices of the human condition, who make music equally as complicated and passionate. But no one has ever been accused of comparing their actual music. So what happens when they make an album? A finely orchestrated cacophony of brass. It’s not just their voices that harmonize, their lyrical cadences and even musical ethoi (it’s the plural of ethos – I didn’t know that, I had to look it up) bob and weave to compliment each other. And when you listen to the album and let the opening track, “Who,” wallop you over your Mumford & Sons-listening ear canals, you’ll exclaim along with Byrne “who’s this?!” because you’d have no idea who David Byrne or St. Vincent are. But if you don’t lack musical taste, you’ll listen and experience one of the best musical epiphanies of the year.


8. Tame Impala | Lonerism

Tame Impala

I wasn’t much a fan of “Innerspeak,” Tame Impala’s 2010 debut album. It was trying too hard to be the Beatles and a post-Beatles Lennon. It lacked the laid-back smoothness and confidence of McCartney. “Lonerism” is a much more chilled-out, “Revolver”-esque approach to that psychedelic rock sound. Think The Zombies meet Flaming Lips. So now when you listen, the Beatles references don’t immediately come to mind.

7. Bat for Lashes | The Haunted Man

Bat for Lashes

It wasn’t until recently that I heard the natural comparison of Natasha Khan (aka, Bat for Lashes) to Kate Bush. Looking back it seems stupidly obvious. But it helps explain why her balance of rawness and delicacy equates to so much power and charm. But without Khan’s ability to write an awesome hook, like in “All Your Gold” or “Rest Your Head,” that Kate Bush-ness could fall flat as simply new age noise. Instead she’s among an elite cadre of female musicians dominating music in 2012.

6. Cat Power | Sun

Cat Power

I was amazed to learn that Chan Marshall (aka, Cat Power) wrote and recorded “Sun” all by herself. She’s never really been an electric artist (I mean that literally), and it isn’t something that you would think could come so naturally to the retro-soul sensibilities of Marshall. But I guess I never gave her enough ass-kicking credit. Having this much creative and actual control over “Sun” let her put her voice front and center (and she sounds great!) while dialing back the production aesthetic to only the basics. It’s the epitome of “less is more” – the album feels like the usual thick lushness of a Cat Power album, but when you break it down it’s just an effective use of only what was needed.


5. Bob Dylan | Tempest

Bob Dylan

This is Bob Dylan’s best storytelling since “Blood on the Tracks.” Only him and Cohen have the storyteller’s ability to command your attention as rapturously as they do. The clumsy and forced “Tempest” and “Roll on John” tarnish the album, but come on – they guy’s got 40+ albums under his belt, give him a break. Plus he’s old (weird to see an old dude in the top 10). But he sounds like he’s enjoying himself immensely, and it’s been since “Time Out of Mind” that I think I’ve heard him like this. I can’t help but think/hope it’s because he’s genuinely encouraged and excited about the state of music today.

4. Beach House | Bloom

Beach House

“Bloom” is the best full-album experience of the year. It’s an album that needs to be listened to in full several times to be appreciated – not because the individual tracks aren’t incredible, but because Legrand and Scally put so much effort in crafting a cohesive narrative in album form, and succeed incredibly in doing so. “Myth” might be the most atmospheric and ethereal song of the year (not to mention its thematic companion, “Wishes”), and the best album opener since Sufjan Stevens’ “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois.”

3. Sharon Van Etten | Tramp

Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten sings from such a fascinating position in this album. It feels immediately intimate, but also reassuring and confident. She’s a more reassuring and wizened Elliott Smith, with a survivor’s voice and insight. And her voice has so much damn power for someone so demure. I’m in love with her and her vulnerable charisma. It almost feels voyeuristic. She does a bang-up job of surrounding herself with some of the most dynamic musicians out there, too: Matt Barrick (The Walkmen) on drums, Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak) on vocals on “Serpent” and Beirut’s Zach Condon vocals on “We Are Fine.”


2. Grimes | Visions

Grimes

I did not expect this. “Visions” dropped at the beginning of the year and easily stayed at the top of my 2012 playlist the whole year. It is dark beats in a room with no dance floor. It leaves you too light for its tribal four on the floor syncopation. How do those kinds of refined and machinated sounds come out of someone that looks as nubile as Claire Boucher? And that fragile, ghostly operatic falsetto?! How could that come from- well, OK, that one does make sense. Boucher is at her best, both live and on the album, when she’s playing DJ and making you dance. You can tell she feeds off of that. Rarely is dance music so cerebral and bewitching.



1. Grizzly Bear | Shields

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear are one of those bands whose biggest fans some of the biggest musicians out there. Jay-Z, Radiohead, Beach House, My Morning Jacket, Passion Pit – all big fans (they are Jonny Greenwood’s favorite band). And “Shields” plays like a Grizzly Bear greatest hits album. “Sleeping Ute” is the most effectively sonic use of acoustic guitars I’ve ever heard. “Yet Again” is the quintessential Grizzly Bear song – cerebral compositions at their most accessible, propelling harmonies meeting sonic guitar work, and glorious noise as a gentle outro. “Speak in Rounds” might be the the truest rock song on the album while managing to replace rock’s guitars with brass and woodwinds. “Shields” and “Visions” are what I’ll always remember 2012 for. (And let’s not forget to congratulate Daniel Rossen on making my list twice. Someone let him know for me.)





About the Author

Wesley Warren