Top Albums of 2012 (So Far…)

This year in music reminds me of the 2011 NBA Draft.  There hasn’t been any stand out stars in the releases thus far, but there are a lot of quality albums on the cusp of greatness. Last year, I had no doubt about what albums would make my top five for the mid-year list, but this time around, I moved albums up and down the list indecisively for days, finally settling on the order below.  My point: there could be a lot of shuffling when the real list comes out in December.  Before getting into 20 albums that you shouldn’t miss out on, here are six honorable mentions that could easily end up being this year’s Jeremy Lin.

Honerable Mention:

Death Grips “The Money Store”

Lambchop “Mr. M”

Mind Spiders “Meltdown”

Pop. 1280 “The Horror”

Ty Segall & White Fence “Hair”

Yellow Ostrich “Strange Land”

20. Moonface

“with Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery”

[Jagjaguwar; 2012]

On the past two albums, Spencer Krug assured us right up front that this whole Moonface thing was just a side project. The titles alone are blunt statements of what kind of music experimentation he was embarking on  (“marimba and shit drums” and “Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hope”) and the songs on both albums focused primarily on his dream journals. It wasn’t meant to be taken serious, not with his more prominent bands Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown waiting in the wings. But by the looks of his latest release “with Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery,” this whole Moonface thing may not be such a gag after all.

His experimental path is still found in the title (Siinai are a kraut-rock band from Finland), but the post colon insert “Heartbreaking Bravery” is very telling. On this outing, Moonface has officially awaken from his two album hibernation and is now singing about life in real time.  As a result, the album is easily his most personal release to date (material from other bands included).  The songs speak of facing heartbreak and dealing with old age.  Krug sounds like a broken man as he hangs up his dirty laundry for all of us to see. Siinai provide the perfect backing to this project, their sprawling expanse of prog-rock accentuating each of Krug’s admissions.  Despite the indefinite hiatus of Wolf Parade and the fact that there hasn’t been a Sunset Rubdown album in three years, Moonface’s latest album is reassurance that Krug will continue releasing his distinctive brand of rock music, breaking his own mold, one album at a time.

“Quickfire, I Tried”:

19. Pilgrim

“Misery Wizard”

[Metal Blade/Poison Tongue; 2012]

I liked Pilgrim before even hearing one note of their music. Something about discovering them felt predestined. First off, there was the album title – “Misery Wizard.”  Nothing is cooler than a wizard, especially if said wizard specializes in the trade of misery.  Secondly, I heard the bad ass names of the band members – Count Elric the Soothsayer, the Wizard, and Krolg Splinterfist, Slayer of Man. Then there was the album cover – a morbid medieval painting with a wizard standing over a miserable assembly of deformities: a crab/worm woman, a saggy-titted burn victim with tentacles for arms, a two headed premi-baby without limbs – all of them standing/sitting/lying in what resembles a ghostly amniotic fluid while the devil looks on from the background.

Then, of course, I heard the music, and I myself bowed down to the Misery Wizard, the band’s morose dirges weighing down on me like a yoke of agony.  The guitars crash upon you with one assiduous riff at a time, persistent waves of magical voodoo that refuse to let you reach the stern and distant shore.   The drums pummel you like an aging George Foreman, slow yet overpowering with each potent blow.  And when the vocals do occasionally make an appearance, they only further that feeling of desperation, a muffled cry lost within the sludge.

The highlight of the album for me is “Quest” because the band toys with the listener, giving glimpses that they may just let-up on their persistent attack.  After 4-grueling minutes of muddy madness, the band provides a moment of hope.  For two minutes the band displays an upbeat, heroic pomp.  Eventually the double guitar lead kicks in, a final bastion of hope, only foreshadowing the wall of muddy noise just up ahead.  “Quest” provides a reminder that there is no such thing as hope in a world of impending doom.

“Quest”: 

18. Lee Ranaldo

“Between the Times and the Tides”

[Matador; 2012]

I would consider Lee Ranaldo an innovator on the guitar, from his work with Glenn Branca’s guitar sextet in the early 80s to his work with jazz drummer William Hooker. “Between the Times and Tides” captures glimpses as to what guitarists influenced and shaped him as a musician at a young age.  Songs like “Angles,” “Shouts,” and “Tomorrow Never Comes” are masked in a fog of Jefferson Airplane/Jimi Hendrix psychedelia, floating around the notes like a cloud of freshly puffed pot smoke.

But his biggest influence has to be Neil Young. Songs like “Hammer Blows” and “Stranded” offer up the sentimentality and fragility of “After the Gold Rush” era Young, and full band blowouts like “Fire Island (Phases)” and “Waiting On A Dream” are pure Crazy Horse pandemonium. The songs are loose and spacious, allowing wiggle room for each musician to explore and make their own.  This could be due in part to the procedure by which “Between the Times and Tides” was created.  For this album, Ranaldo turned to his close friends to back him: guitar minimalist Alan Licht, fellow SY member Steve Shelley, bassist Irwin Merken, experimental keyboardist Jim O’Rourke, and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline. In the liner notes Ranaldo gushes about how his acoustic songs soon transformed into an entirely different beast: “Songs can go a million ways. Thanks to some friends who stopped by to play and sing, this group of songs went to some wonderful places.” The best part is that we get to also visit these “wonderful places.”

“Fire Island (Phases)”:

17. High On Fire

“De Vermis Mysteriis”

[E1; 2012]

When I first got High On Fire’s “De Vermis Mysteriis,” I couldn’t get into it. On the surface, I could tell it was a great album – brutal drums, original guitar riffs, and trippy lyrics – but it just didn’t click with me.  Maybe after listening to their last release “Snakes For the Divine” on a seemingly endless loop for the past two years, it had no chance of measuring up.  Then, last weekend, as I was compiling this list (that didn’t at the time contain this album), I got a phone call from fellow BDWPS.com contributor SongsSuck asking me if I’d like to go hiking next weekend in Colorado.  With our last hiking trip being several years ago, I was quick to respond “Yes!”

Giddy with excitement, I got off the phone and realized there was one problem: I’m not in hiking shape. I had a week to prepare, and no idea where to begin. I needed a solution – High On Fire’s “De Vermis Mysteriis.”  With my iPod in tow, I went to the gym and approached a stair climber machine. I pushed play, and I began climbing…and climbing…and climbing.  I climbed for 52 minutes straight without realizing it, and for the first time in months, I didn’t feel the pain in my hip or notice the burning in my thighs.  I was in the zone – the “De Vermis Mysteriis” zone.  The pummeling drums setting the pace to my upward march, the dirty wall of guitars blinding out all the pain in my body, Matt Pike’s gravelly shouts providing my war cry.  This is a special album for special moments. Choose wisely.

(Note to reader: This album may have placed higher, but I felt with such a recent discovery of its brilliance to be reserved in my placement.)

Bloody Knuckles:

16. Andrew Bird

“Break It Yourself”

[Bella Union/Mom & Pop; 2012]

For the past few years, Andrew Bird took a break from touring and opted to spend time on his farm in Western Illinois. On “Break It Yourself,” it seems that in this self-inflicted seclusion Andrew Bird has discovered himself.  On past albums Bird has been on a mission to prove to us that he is talented, whether it be his virtuoso on the violin, his ability to write lyrics that require the use of a dictionary, or his insistence that whistling is a highly respected instrument.

On “Break It Yourself,” Bird has finally gotten beyond his need to impress us and created an album that is relaxed and self-assured.  No longer are tracks constrained by sheen production. Instead, the instruments and vocals are allowed space to breath within the barn in which the album was recorded.  Instead of trying to surprise us with his ability to genre-bend, Bird allows his songs to remain on his front porch, a folky blend of acoustic guitars and fiddles. The lyrics focus on a theme of memories and the role they play in our lives, a mix of self-introspection and questioning of the value systems in the society beyond the safe confines of Bird’s country abode. In “Break It Yourself,” Bird has finally found himself, and through this discovery, the listener is allowed the opportunity visit where Bird feels most peaceful – at home.

“Danse Carribe”:

15. Torche

“Harmonicraft”

[Volcom; 2012]

At first glance, the cover to Torche’s latest release “Harmonicraft” may come off as a joke. For a band that has been labeled over the years as any combination of the words stoner-sludge-doom-metal, the first image that comes to mind for a cover probably wouldn’t be friendly horned creatures frolicking in clouds (that rain candy) under pink skies while shooting rainbows out of their mouths at purple dragons.  It may be the silliest cover in 2012 thus far, but it also may be the most fitting.

The music on “Harmonicraft” is still the finely crafted metal synonymous with Torche, even with the departure of guitarist Juan Montoya, but I doubt you’d expect the positive energy found within each ferocious guitar riff. On each adrenaline fueled track harmonious melodies shoot out from amidst the unruly guitars, adding a colorful palette to the dark world of metal.  Rick Smith’s drums pound away, an upbeat force that could move pink mountains.  Torche refuses to dwell on one killer riff for too long. Many of the tracks on the 38-minute album end under the two-minute mark, little morsels of sweetness raining down upon the listener in a torrential downpour.  And despite all the strange twists and turns that the music may take, the band has arranged them in a way that feels like one, succinct, epic journey through the heavens on the “Harmonicraft.”

“Kicking”:

14. Action Bronson

“Blue Chips”

[Fool’s Gold/Reebok Classics; 2012]

George Constanza once vented that he, “Flew too close to the sun on wings of pastrami.” This was in response to how his idea to combine sex and eating didn’t pan out.  I’d like to believe that if George Constanza ever did get out of that jail in Latham, Massachusetts, he’d be a fan of  fellow New Yorker Action Bronson and his lyrical blend of vulgarity and delicacy.  On “Blue Chips,” Bronson can take a song about prostitution and somehow mix in a reference to a French dough known as “Pâte à Choux.” But don’t for one second think that Bronson’s constant references to food are a gimmick in the way the Fat Boys once rhymed about an all you can eat buffet.  In the same way 50 Cent relies on his experiences on the streets of New York, Bronson often turns to the knowledge he gained from his years as a gourmet chef.

As funny as I find his ability to blend in lines about brisket and salami, his rhymes aren’t simply reading off a menu. Comparisons to Ghostface Killah are unavoidable with Bronson’s similar vocal styling and his focus on Ghostface’s favorite ingredients – hookers and drugs. Musically, producer Party Favors brings in the same flavor to be found on a Ghostface album, the sample heavy mix of 70s and 80s soul, funk, and classic rock.  But don’t for one second think that Action Bronson is a cheap knock-off; he’s the Popeye’s chicken to Ghostface’s KFC – same crispy crunch, but with a little different flavor.

“Ron Simmons”:

13. Perfume Genius

“Put Your Back N 2 It”

[Matador; 2012]

 “Put Your Back N 2 It,” the second release from Seattle’s Perfume Genius, is an album that should bear a warning sticker that reads: May cause one to roll into the fetal position and weep uncontrollably. The songs all step into dark territory, whether it be child molestation, prostitution, discrimination toward homosexuals, or suicide.  If you are a person who likes to listen closely to lyrics, grab a box (or two) of tissues prior to pushing play.   And even if you think you can ignore the painful narratives on “Put Your Back N 2 It” and just relax to the calming music, Mike Hadreas’ morose piano and lingering production will squash your intentions. This is not an album to wash dishes to – it’s an album to cleanse your soul to (no gloves necessary). On his last album, Hadreas went the lo-fi route which supported the fragile theme of the album, but on “Put Your Back N 2 It,” he’s provided a fully fleshed out album that is as thick and consuming as the lyrics Hadreas sings in his falsetto voice.

I’ve been asked before why I like to listen to “depressing” music like Perfume Genius. I’ve never known how to respond to this question because it does seem like a masochistic act to make the conscious decision to make yourself sad (or sadder).  But listening to “Put Your Back N 2 It” has helped me reach an answer: it’s a reminder that despite everything, you’re still alive.

“Dark Parts”:

12. Cloud Nothings

“Attack on Memory”

[Carpark; 2012]

There was a time when I was all in with Cloud Nothings, a music project created by Dylan Baldi, a college student in Cleveland who started making songs in his parent’s basement as a hobby. Then, of course, came his first formal album, a self-titled affair that left me questioning whether he should have ever left the confines of his parent’s storm shelter. The album was the opposite of everything I loved about his early releases, glazed in a sheen and stripped of any sense of spontaneity.

Then along came legendary producer Steve Albini, picking up Baldi and his band by their boot-straps and shaking them like a child does when trying to wake his dead hamster. And suddenly, there was life within this fading band once again. I can just imagine Albini slapping Baldi on the face and yelling something along the lines of “If you’re going to whine, be angry about it!”  because that’s just what they’ve done.  Like Fonzie making the transition from a nonspeaking part on “Happy Days” to becoming the king of attitude, Baldi has made an about-face. His attitude boils-over within each track, no longer a wallflower, but now a weed-wacker taking aim at any petunia in his garden of sorrow.

In the past, Cloud Nothings were a band of instant gratification, jumping straight into the upbeat celebration, but no longer. The first track “No Future/No Past” is a slow burner, constantly building up the furor into one enormous, torturous explosion of anguish.  The anger continues on “Wasted Days,” but the upbeat tempo of former Cloud Nothing songs has returned. Albini understood he couldn’t erase all that gained Cloud Nothings so much notoriety early on, and this is evident on songs like “Fall In,” “Stay Useless,” and “Our Plans.”  Each of these songs could easily find a place amongst those on prior albums, but even on these nods to the past, the sound of the songs burst out the speaker instead of hiding behind a fog of tape-hiss. Albini understands that a great melody is a great melody – no reason to mask it with nonsense.  For Cloud Nothings, it took a no nonsense man to guide their sound to the promise land.

“Wasted Days”: 

11. Islands

“A Sleep & A Forgetting”

[Anti; 2012]

Nick “Diamonds” Thorburn is one busy man. Over the past five years he has released three Island’s albums, a solo album, an album with Honus Honus of Man Man under the moniker Mister Heavenly, and an album with Jim Guthrie as Human Highway.  Each foray presents a different side of Thorburn – the derisive, the detached, and the damaged. Yet, within each, you never feel like you are really getting to know the real Thorburn nor do you get a sense of a musical genre that he truly feels comfortable within.  Mister Heavenly is Captain Beefheart fun and Human Highway is a folky excursion, but they both come off as about as sincere as a Michael Bay movie. The same can be said for his past Islands albums, all taking on differing styles (tropical, prog-rock, and electronic) yet never really having a soul.

But with “A Sleep & Forgetting,” Thorburn has not only found the perfect palette for his songwriting in the classic 50s and 60s garage pop rock, he’s also found his own voice as a songwriter. Instead of putting up a wall of guitar hooks to hide behind, he steps out into the light to present the most personal and heartbreaking album he’s ever been involved with.  The songs are no longer an exercise in genre-bending, rather they are straight-forward and honest without an ounce of sardonic pretense.  The result is a confessional album of heartbreak and loss.  The album was written in response to a recent break-up, resulting in Thorburn locking himself up for weeks with a piano, writing his best album to date all the while. Through difficult times, he has found the heart of his music and left his bells and whistles to gather dust. As a result, Thorburn’s emotional loss is our musical gain.

“In A Dream (It Seemed Real)”: 

10. Black Breath

“Sentenced to Life”

[Southern Lord; 2012]

Earlier this year Corrosion of Conformity released their self-titled album, the first time since 1985 that the original members were back together, returning to their roots of punk-metal anthems.  I enjoyed this album and was surprised by how much spunk the dudes still had.  Then I heard Black Breath’s “Sentenced to Life,” and in an instant COC’s once violent return quickly turned charming.

On “Sentenced to Life,” Black Breath have constructed a sadistic assault that barrels forth without stopping for 30 straight frenzied minutes.  It is a hardcore-thrash-punk-metal-hybrid machine aimed at destruction.  It is a runaway train bent on raising a little hell along the way. Hardcore has never sounded so sinister, so indomitable, so brooding.  While many modern metal bands have aimed their sites on recapturing the past, Black Breath have opened a new door.  Sure, there are the bloody paw prints from beasts like Slayer and Motorhead all over “Sentenced to Life,” but Black Breath are in no mood to reminisce.

“Endless Corpse”: 

9. The Men

“Open Your Heart”

[Sacred Bones; 2012]

When I think instrumental music, I think dramatic build-ups, soft interludes, and an emotional response ranging from elation to disappointment. Five of The Men’s 10 tracks on “Open Your Heart” are instrumentals, but I wouldn’t use any of the descriptions just laid out to describe these vocal-less songs. Instead, I’d use descriptors such as “ballsy,” “boisterous”, and “bad ass”.  This isn’t the musical fare fit for “Friday Night Lights,” rather “Friday Night Fights.” The band probably wouldn’t even consider these tracks as instrumentals in the same way Grateful Dead never called their 20-minute pot-fueled guitar solos instrumentals.

The album often reminds me of Broken Social Scene minus the experimentation. The Men aren’t trying to create anything new here. This is Allman Brothers, King Crimson, The Replacements, The Modern Lovers, and AC/DC – all rolled up into one. It’s a patchwork of rock and roll’s finest sounds, all meshed together into one monster of a rock album. It may jump from one rock tangent to the next with each song, yet the band has found a way to make each section work seamlessly with the next. It is a lesson in rock and roll history, all growled out through the snarling guitars of The Men.  One listen to popular radio and one would think that rock is dead, but like a musical Dr. Frankenstein, The Men have found a way to inject life back into a genre which truly needs a jolt of soul and sincerity.

“Cube”:

8. Mirel Wagner

“Mirel Wagner”

[Friendly Fire; 2012]

Mirel Wagner’s work on her self-titled album could easily sit alongside recordings by artists from the 1930s.  In her lyrics you’ll find dark imagery reminiscent of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and “Gloomy Sunday,” yet her narrative tales take on a more gothic approach. On “Red” she sings of a love affair with the devil who will “Eat your flesh/ and spit out the seeds.”  Fittingly, Wagner’s “No Death” revisits the themes of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” a man refusing to leave the side of his dead lover.

In her patient finger-picking and strumming you’ll hear remnants of Dock Boggs steady banjo pluck.  Mirel’s guitar swirls are hypnotic, laying out the foggy back-drop to her characters’ damned predicament.  On “Joe,” as she sings from the perspective of a drowned victim, the guitar picking is constant and comes in currents, slowly pushing her voice forward like a piece of driftwood. And on “The Road,” the guitars softly ring out like a deathly waltz, the perfect eerie music to the tale of a dead man’s, un-wedded wife.

And within Mirel’s voice you’ll hear the soulfulness of Robert Johnson’s delta blues.  Like an old blues singer, Mirel’s vocals are sleepy, pained, yet prurient, all at the same time.  Her voice may go off-key at times or slightly crack amidst a terrifying whisper, but these “flaws” only propel her gypsy tale-spinning. Even though her songs are all conveyed through various narrators, it is clear within her stirring voice that there is a personal pain propelling her stories and this agony is the core of what makes this album such a compelling listen.

“No Death”: 

7. Killer Mike

“R.A.P. Music”

[Williams Street; 2012]

Over his ten-year career that began via collaborations with Outkast, Killer Mike has always approached his lyrics with a vicious drive that is fueled by both passion and intellect (a style he describes as “elegance in the form of a black elephant”), but on “R.A.P. Music” his diatribes take on an even more menacing shape.   Mike has found that secret ingredient in the form of producer El-P.  On this full-length collaboration, the duo combine their talents to create an album that is packed with emotional hills and valleys that will take you through the landscape of rap music over the past three decades, ranging from 80s street rap on “JoJo’s Chillin,” gangsta rap on “Anywhere But Here,” and the intimidating persona of NWA/Public Enemy, cop sirens and all.

“R.A.P. Music” has an underline theme throughout of education being the true savior for those struggling to make it day-to-day. On the heart crushing “Willie Burke Sherwood” Mike makes this point blatantly clear as he recounts his childhood: “I convinced myself it was better for me / To be Jack in ‘The Lord of the Flies’/ So book got read, books I read / Cause I’m addicted to literature.”  Glimpses of this literary influence are seen throughout. On “Big Beast” he shouts, “We the readers of the books and the leaders of the crooks” and on “Anywhere But Here” he gives a shout out to, of all people, poet Langston Hughes and his poem “Dream Deferred” when he says, “So you ask what happens to a dream deferred, Langston / Well it kill its self.”

It may not be hip to rap about dead poets and allegorical pieces of literature, but herein lies the core of what Killer Mike means when he speaks of how he can change a life with his rhymes – he sees how edification affected his life and is now trying to pass that awareness along to his listeners. Mike has been in the rap game for a while, and instead of simply using “R.A.P. Music” as another chance to cash in, he values the opportunity to pour his wisdom into his listeners’ ears. A dream deferred may kill its self, but “R.A.P. Music” is evidence of what happens when a dream is fully realized.

“Reagan”:

6. Lotus Plaza

“Spooky Action at a Distance”

[Kranky; 2012]

If 2011’s documentary “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” taught us anything, it was the breakthrough that George was the soul of The Beatles. He may not have gotten the hype or attention over the years, but he was a solid base, a lightening rod, inspiring the others to approach their songwriting and lives with conviction and spirit. Despite his importance, he often got forgotten in the bedlam of Beatlemania.  The same can be said for Lockett Pundt and his role in the band Deerhunter. While Bradford Cox is the unpredictable, gawky front man who always has something to say, Pundt remains a mystery, a virtual unknown, standing in the shadow of his amps, plucking away at his guitar robotically.

Pundt’s second solo album as Lotus Plaza is proof that Pundt is more than just part of a backing band. In his album “Spooky Action at a Distance” he proves in his dreamy collection of songs that he is, in fact, the essence of Deerhunter. Other than the rambunctious “White Galactic One,” the majority of the album remains planted in a shoegazey daze of loops and twinkling guitars.  Pundt creates wide open spaces that echo and stretch out, reaching far distances long after he’s plucked them out of his guitar.  This spaced out feel does not hinder the album whatsoever; “Spooky Action at a Distance” is the musical equivalent of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Starry Night.”  While Cox has always pushed the envelope like Andy Warhol, Pundt let’s his guitar do his talking, each strum of the guitar another glorious brush stroke, layer after layer of complexity reverberated into the darkness.  All of the songs, the sounds, and lyrics, much like the stars in the famous painting, blend together in one giant mystical swirl of magnificence that will leave you mesmerized in euphoric awe.

“White Galactic One”: 

5. THEESatisfaction

“awE naturalE”

[Sub-Pop; 2012]

I could go on and on about how with their debut full-length album “awE naturalE” THEESatisfaction have brought back the soulful, early 90s hip-hop stylings of De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest, or I could write a paragraph comparing their neo-soul vocal harmonies to that of Erykah Badu or Jill Scott, but I’m going to avoid this predictable approach. Yes, all that I just said is true, but “awE naturalE” is so much more than just a rehash of what’s been done before.

Instead, I will discuss how they have created an album of music that is far outside expectations. THEESatisfaction refuse to follow the norms. You’ll be hard pressed to find a track that follows the familiar song structure of verse/chorus/verse, and often songs will start and stop at whimsy.  There are definitely jazz/soul/r&b influences here, but you’re just as likely to notice their modern takes on electronica or their ability to make an unnatural sample grow on you and become, well, awe naturale. Their lyrics are reminiscent of a mid-90s poetry slam sessions, yet they don’t reek of pretension.  Don’t get me wrong, they have no fear about taking on some heady subject matter (afro-centrism, feminism, socialism), but they counter it with humor and a dash of charm.

The true gift of THEESatisfaction is the way that Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White are able to make their voices work together, Iron’s often singing in her soulful style and Harris rapping in a deadpan voice that comes off as conversational.  Despite their ability to discuss controversial topics, their voices will calm you and make you realize that no matter what the subject, there’s no reason to be angry.  The final track “Naturale” says it best: “Queens of the stoned age/ Empresses of time/ Feel our energy floating through your mind.”

“Earthseed”: 

4. Zammuto

“Zammuto”

[Temporary Residence; 2012]

After contemplating a retirement from music after the break up of The Books, Nick Zammuto decided to give it one more go around with a solo album of sorts, one last chance to see if there was any undiscovered galaxies still out there to be traversed.  While the album is still grounded in synths and thumping beats that made up The Book’s sound, the reliance on the fragility of live instruments is clear from the get go.  The result is an album of electronic prog rock – a series of songs that are melodic by nature yet marinated in a savory mix of bleeps and modernized synth swoops.

In an interview, Zammuto hinted that the album is set up to follow the stages of grief, and if this is the case, album opener “Yay” is surely a song of shock and denial. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anything quite like it (and it might just shock you).  Although an album that takes you through the grieving process sounds extremely depressing (think Eels “Electro-Shock Blues”), “Zammuto” is an album with a message of moving on, best seen on album closer “Full Fading.”  The synths are gone, the booming beats resting, the robot turned off. It’s just Zammato and a choir of guitars.  The small electronic twitches are only glimpses of his past, and for the first time, Zammuto resembles Radiohead more than The Chemical Brothers. It is a song of acceptance, a final goodbye to the The Book’s library of samples, and one final guiding light of hope for the future of his new musical journey.

“Yay”: 

3. Beach House

“Bloom”

[Sub Pop/Bella Union; 2012]

Recently, Beach House has been in the news with the controversy surrounding Volkswagon’s use of a song in a recent commercial that is a cheap knock-off of Beach House’s “Take Care.”  VW has denied any intentional copying and said in a statement, “ Most important to us was to find a track which [tells] the story of the daughter’s … evolving relationship with her father, and we believe we have achieved this…” Even in their lies, VW has gotten in wrong.

Beach House is not the backdrop for the story of a father and daughter; their music is purely a maternal experience, especially on their latest release “Bloom.” Victoria Legrand’s motherly voice remains the serene, calming alto that will lull you to sleep and wrap you in a blanket of reverb.  Alex Scally’s finger-picking only furthers the dream time lullaby.  Do not expect anything new with “Bloom”; instead they’ve remained the reliable loving force that have been there for us throughout the past decade.  While the songs can be blissful in spirit, they can also make you nostalgic and mournful for the days of yore.  Like the fog of memory that it conjures up, “Bloom” is an album of smoky splendor.  Instead of trying to go a new direction on their new album, Beach House have chosen to hone their home cooked craft, mastering a recipe that never disappoints: sweet melodies, creamy synths, and warm atmospheres. It’s the type of album that will leave you saying, “There’s no place like ‘Bloom’.”

“Lazuli”:

2. Pallbearer

“Sorrow and Extinction”

[Southern Lord; 2012]

Is it too early to deem this the year of doom? Or did the Mayans predict this musical movement as well?  For whatever reason, I find myself entrenched in music deemed as doom, whether it be doom-metal, doom-folk, or doom-rap.  If The Undertaker (and the Mayans) were correct in their assumption that “The end is near,” I doubt anyone would have suspected the demise of mankind would sound so bad ass. While other doom metal outfits like Alderaban, Conan, and Pilgrim have released seminal doom albums in 2012, Pallbearer reigns supreme with their cataclyEpic release “Sorrow and Extinction.”  This collection of five songs goes beyond just merely being an incredible doom metal album; it bridges the gap between all sub-genres, resulting in an album that is as much metal as it is prog, classic rock, and psychedelia.

For being an album of plodding songs (as is the norm in the doom genre) you never quite feel the same sense of impending doom as you may with a Candlemass or a Saint Vitus.    These songs, as dark and gloomy as they may appear, veil a sense of determination and resilience. Yes, there are dark clouds on the horizon, but instead of wallowing in fear, Pallbearer spit into the wind in an act of defiance with riffs that, while weighed down by the heavy rain, burst out the speakers like an audio-blender mix of piss and vinegar. Brett Campbell’s vocals ring out like a reincarnated Ozzy with the spirit of the almighty Thor injecting his soul with enough fortification to withstand the impending lightning. The world may end in 2012, but Pallbearer’s “Sorrow and Extinction” is a reminder that we won’t go down without a fight.

“Devoid of Redemption”: 

1. Spiritualized

“Sweet Heart Sweet Light”

[Fat Possum; 2012]

Facing death can sure change a person. Take Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce who spent the better part of last year battling a degenerative liver disease, undergoing experimental chemotherapy treatments over a stretch of eight months.  While masked in a drug-addled haze from treatments, Pierce wrote the songs that make up “Sweet Heart Sweet Light,” an album that deals with themes of pain, regret, and most prominently, death.  The past few albums by Spiritualized have meandered between psychedelic and garage rock, and lyrically they never ventured into the territory of the profound. At their core, they were fun, simple, rock albums.  “Sweet Heart Sweet Light” is not fun, and it certainly isn’t simple. There’s no meandering here; the album remains grounded on the solid boulder of anthemic, ornately orchestrated gospel music (although Pierce’s “gospel” is not nearly as uplifting as Joel Olsteen).  Instead, Pierce is candid, realistic, and often tragically morose.

Musically, the album’s mood is overall celebratory, bounding pianos throughout, strings pouring out from each nook and cranny, and heavenly choirs singing praises.  Amidst this glorious parade of cheer sits Pierce’s voice – a sleepy, aching baritone, mumbling out lyrics that contradict the merriment in the foreground.  The dichotomy of these two elements, paired with Pierce’s lyrics of desperation, results in an album that can create a multitude of emotions and reactions.  Like those radiation treatments, “Sweet Heart Sweet Light” will shock your system, and I believe it’s Pierce’s hope, that in his pain, the listener can find a new beginning.

 “Too Late”:

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4 Comments

Filed under Top Albums Lists

4 responses to “Top Albums of 2012 (So Far…)

  1. I guess you’ll be hearing a bit about why this was included and that kept out – any such worthwhile list would. I think this is a good list in that it gives me some more to check out and listen to (just about half of it)

  2. Philip

    Nice list, I need to check some of those out!

  3. Kharma

    Great list. Perfect, as I’m looking for new music. I’ll be checking many out in the next few days! Great post!

  4. Killer Mike

    Thank u for the words in your review of rap music. I will be checking out some others from the list also.

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