A few days ago I posted the first 20 in my Top 40 Albums of 2012 (check it out here). The first half of the list is always easier to compile than the final 20. With this, the top half of the list, I find myself swapping albums from one spot to the next, trying to refine my list to the perfect order. Of course, this “perfect order” is never truly found. On one day I’d much rather listen to my number 17 than my number 5 and vice versa. I can promise you, all of these albums are fantastic. In order to come up with a definitive order, I took into account the overall significance of an album, not just which has the best collection of songs, but which is the perfect album – the themes, the order of the songs, the cultural significance. Within those parameters, I had no doubt what would be the number one album of 2012. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
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.
If you don’t pay attention, you’ll love “Teen Dream” because of Victoria Legrand’s smoky voice. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll quickly be singing along to the dreamy melodies of each memorable Beach House song. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll like this album simply because it’s tranquil and tender. Wake up. There’s no time to rest with Alex Scally on the guitar. You may not have noticed him at first with such a powerful voice up front taking charge, but take one look in the background – there! Behind the organ! Do you hear that eerie character sneaking in and out of the mix? Do you feel his energy floating around the room, bouncing from wall to wall, possessing your speakers and taking these already incredible songs to a euphoric level? Once you’ve spotted Scally, you’ll no longer be able to listen to “Teen Dream” without noticing his spirit. He’s the friendly ghost of the album, and he only makes “Teen Dream” a more welcoming place to sit and enjoy for a spell.
9. Crystal Castles
[Fiction/Last Gang/Universal Motown; 2010]
The Crystal Castles last release was about as confusing as releasing two self-titled albums in succession (which they did). Half of the songs were chilled-out dance songs, while the other half was comprised of Nintendo sampled scream-o freak-outs. It was a great album, if not in part due to this unpredictability, but it also seemed like the band was still trying to figure out exactly who they are. With their 2010 release, it’s obvious that they’ve figured it out. The Nintendo gimmick has been dropped and in its place is an electro-dance album that is melodic and chaotic at the same time. While most music of this genre is usually feel-good, Crystal Castles emanate frightening synths, produce a menacing beast within the beats, and hide an alienated, distant scream within the vocals of Alice Glass. As a result, this is an album of loss, disorder, and fear, all balled up into one focused dance album that aims to destroy all ravers in its path. Who needs ecstasy when you’ve got anarchy?
8. High On Fire
“Snakes for the Divine”
[E1 Music; 2010]
I must be honest, I have not been a metal fan for long. SongsSuck has been turning me onto all forms of metal over the past five years, but it’s been a slow, methodical process. Last year, after becoming obsessed with Slayer, the iron doors flew open and a newfound love for the genre was born. Being such a new budding metal fan, I can’t claim to have the best ear for what’s a great riff, or what’s a great solo. I’m just learning the differences between black metal, stoner metal, and doom metal. Really, it’s all quite confusing and new to me. Despite my utter metal ignorance, I do know one thing: “Snakes for the Divine” is a fucking incredible album. Unlike other albums on this list, I can’t pinpoint exactly what makes it so viciously thrilling. Maybe it’s the over-flowing amount of turbulent riffs. Maybe it’s Matt Pikes barking bellow from the depths below. Maybe it’s Greg Fidelman’s production. Whatever it is, this is an album to be reckoned with. The strangest part for me is that I always thought metal was “angry” by nature, but listening to “Snakes for the Divine” does the opposite, awakening my spirit, refreshing my energy, and igniting the flames of fortitude. Simply put: “Snakes for the Divine” makes me happy.
7. No Age
“Everything In Between”
No Age have always been noisy, but there is something different going on with “Everything in Between” that took me a while to figure out. Instead of the all-out art-punk wave of distortion that past albums have prominently featured, “Everything in Between” is as stripped down as you can get while still being abrasive. It shows the band taking a mature step toward using their biggest strength sparingly to leave the listener yearning for even more earaches. While they once splattered the overdrive and feedback haphazardly, they’ve now figured out how to access their palette and use these shades of sound when necessary. With the walls of noise torn down, the band’s masterful songwriting is left out naked for all to see, and as a result, “Everything in Between” is their most revealing album yet. Once bare and exposed, Dean Spunt sings of heartache, betrayal, depression, and addiction. I used to just like No Age because they wrote kick-ass two-man punk songs that split my ears; now I love them because they’re writing pop songs that cut straight to the heart.
I used to hate Deerhunter. Let me rephrase that; I used to hate the critics adoration of Deerhunter. Maybe it was a case of raging against something I didn’t understand. What I’d heard of “Cryptograms” was spacey, aimless stuff that floated around lethargically, much like a jellyfish. Basically, it bored me to shreds. A year later “Microcastle” came out and the critical acclaim continued for the band, so I decided I had to get down to the bottom of this whole Deerhunter phenomenon. I still found much of it to be pointless meandering, but then one day something happened: “Nothing Ever Happened” to be exact. Out of nowhere, a song arrived that, unlike the other Cnidarianstuff, had a backbone, had a beat, had a purpose. Fortunately for me, their 2010 release “Haclyon Digest” is comprised mostly of this same goal-oriented music. Don’t worry old-school Deerhunter fans; even with a backbone, the music is still frail as ever. The listless sound has been replaced by depressing lyrics like “No one cares for me, I keep no company” from “Helicopter”. Rest assured Graham Cox, I didn’t used to care for you or want to keep company with your music, but I’ve now officially joined the army of Deerhunter lemmings. Let us all rejoice our miserable demise!
5. Owen Pallett
[Domino Records; 2010]
Of all the albums I reviewed in 2010, Owen Pallett’s “Heartland” received the highest score of a 9. Here’s what I wrote: “ ‘Heartland’ is a gargantuan effort, an album produced on such a grand scale that I can’t imagine how Domino Records could fund such a monumental display. Every song is oozing with a sweeping string section, a verbose collection of horns blasting out triumph and turmoil in the same breath, and the concerto percussion group rattling away with thundering snare rolls that blend naturally with the drum machine hidden behind the timpani. The once unassuming one-man band has created a monster that D&D fans could only imagine.
Songs like ‘E is for Estranged’ and ‘Flare Gun’ are the type of orchestral fare you might hear in a Meryl Streep film, while offerings like ‘Red Sun #5’ and ‘The Great Elsewhere’ show Pallett meshing the prim with the in-proper as synths and pulsating rhythms bleed into the strings, a symbolic sound that fits with the storyline of the album. It feels as if the future is looming in the shadows, waiting to pounce upon the chaste and steal away its innocence.”
4. Titus Andronicus
[XL Recordings; 2010]
Earlier this year, I wrote what I consider one of my best pieces in my review of Titus Andronicus’s “The Monitor”. Here are some parts I culled from it: “One of the only New Jersey bands that truly fits the Bruce Springsteen mold is Titus Andronicus. Not only are their songs every-man anthems, but their constant references to the Garden State are pure Bruce. They play a wide range of styles yet define them within their own rustic parameters, another Bruce trait. And although it’s no Clarence, Titus even throw in some saxophone for good measure. Chirst, on the opening track, singer Ian Graetzer makes an allusion to the Springsteen classic ‘Born to Run’ singing ‘Tramps like us, baby we were born to die!’ and later he admits ‘I’ve destroyed everything that wouldn’t make me more like Bruce Springsteen.’
This is not a concept album, rather a concoction composed of pop-culture and history, resulting in a multi-layered, dizzying narrative. This album is like T.S. Elliot’s ‘Wasteland’ if he had written the entire poem on bar napkins while a drunken local played ‘Nebraska’ on the jukebox. The entire concept is a bit weird and pretentiously over-reaching, yet it all melds together magically, creating a world where ‘our forefathers’ and ‘a keggar on a Friday night’ can live side by side. The album does run a bit long, yet you can’t hold back a muse that was definitely born to run.”
3. Fang Island
[Sargent House; 2010]
Fang Island’s self-titled release made the number one spot on my “Best Summer Albums of 2010” and it didn’t just make it because it was “summer-y”. No, this is an album as complex as Battles “Mirrored” yet as goofy and immature as Andrew WK’s “I Get Wet”. Here’s what I had to say about it this past summer: “The opening track to Fang Island’s self-titled album features the sound of fireworks popping, reminding me of when my dad used to take us out on the 4th of July in his fishing boat to watch the display over Spirit Lake. ‘Dream of Dreams’ multi-layered, Queen-like chant brings me back to the year ‘Wayne’s World’ came out and how whenever the song ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ came on the radio my brothers and I felt compelled to re-enact the famous car scene. ‘Davey Crockett’ has a swirling synth/guitar line that conjures up memories of watching ‘Reading Rainbow’ with my brother Alex and laughing our asses off at the strange synth outro, and then commencing to imitate it the remainder of the day. ‘Careful Crossers’ punk rock anthem reminds me of the summers my friends and I would make trips up to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to see punk bands sweat it out at the now closed Pomp Room. ‘Daisy’ and its organ heavy backing track transports me to the summer I worked the late shift at a gas station and listened to Bob Dylan’s organ-heavy ‘Blonde On Blonde’ while selling cigarettes to meth addicts. ‘The Illinois’ is filled with guitar solos that almost seem stolen straight from classic video games, pulling my consciousness back to the days when, after a long day at the swimming pool, my friends and I would ride our bikes to the video store to rent the latest Nintendo game. Simply put: Fang Island makes me feel like a kid again. And isn’t that what summer is all about?”
“King of the Beach”
[Fat Possum; 2010]
If you haven’t noticed yet, both my top 40 albums list and top 100 songs list are riddled with pop-punk. I guess you could say I’m a sucker for a catchy little punk song. So what makes Wavves “King of the Beach” better than 2010 releases by others pop-punk greats like Male Bonding, Superchunk, Cloud Nothings, and Ty Segall? Well, “King of the Beach” is more than just a collection of memorable 2-minute songs. On the surface, you may place the pop-punk label on this album with its front-loaded first three animated anthems. Although the fun is briefly interrupted by the “Pet Sounds”-esque “When Will You Come” the album quickly returns to the skate park for a couple more adrenaline fueled melodies. Then, mid-way through the entire album, the real turn toward the strange occurs. “Baseball Cards” and “Mickey Mouse” are filled with expanding atmospheres reminiscent of Panda Bear’s “Person Pitch”. “Convertible Balloon” and “Linus Spacehead” are adventurous pop songs held within the same strange world found in Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets”. But Wavves are at their best when all of these various sounds come together like they do on “Green Eyes”. On the song, Nathan Williams sings “My own friends hate me, but I don’t give a shit.” And really, why would you give a shit when you can write songs that seem so simple but are truly complex masterpieces that don’t fit within one specific genre; not even pop-punk.
1. Arcade Fire
With the economy the way it has been this past year, you would think it’d be pretty tough to be an American these days, but somehow we continue to survive. Maybe it’s our steady diet of fast food, or maybe its our ability to distract ourselves with reality television and celebrity gossip. Whatever the cause of America’s resilience, it seems nothing can keep us from our daily, zombie-like trudge through life. It really is pretty easy to get through adversity with the American model of excess equals happiness…but then there are those moments, sitting in traffic, dazing off into the horizon of billboards – those moments of self-awareness. Questions arise: how did I get here? Where has the time gone? When I did I get old? What happened to my dreams?
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re either fooling yourself or listening to Bill O’Reilly on your commute home. On “The Suburbs” Arcade Fire have created a grandiose collection of songs that explore the modern man and the world of distractions we’ve created to forget the reality of what we’ve all become. Throughout the album, motifs continually rise to the surface, whether it be kids, cars, letters, darkness vs. light, or of course the suburbs that have erased our memories (and street names for that matter). The album is one long drive through suburbia, searching for that childhood home that has now been buried under “dead shopping malls (that) rise like mountains”. You would think with 16 tracks all focused on the same overlying idea, “The Suburbs” would get about as monotonous as a real drive through suburbia, but following the Bruce Springsteen model, each song shows the same theme through a different lens, creating a well-rounded study on the perils of the American Dream. In the end, we are all lost in the sprawl “searching every corner of the Earth” for that home we lost so long ago.
Just like every other year end list I’ve done for 2010, I decided to up the anty with my top tracks list by taking it from 50 to 100 songs. I know…I know…it may seem like a bit much. I can explain. Every year I compile my best songs list while making the 18 hour, cross-country drive to my parent’s house for the holidays. As I drive, I explore my i-Pod for the year’s stand-out songs and jot down titles into a notebook when I feel one is worthy of the list (not the safest driving method, I understand). By trip’s end this year, my list totaled 114. I had a lot of fat to trim, and as I reached the 100 mark, it became more and more difficult to cut great song after great song. As a result, I’ve doubled my workload, but I don’t mind. These tracks have meant a lot to me this past year – the least I can do is give them the recognition they deserve.
PS I Love You
What better way to start a 2010 list than with a song titled “2012″? Okay, it doesn’t make much sense, but I couldn’t help but squeeze this song on as the caboose to the list.
99. “Who Fingered Rock n’ Roll”
Back in the mid-90s Cornershop scored a hit with “Brimful of Asha”, a groovy track saturated with sitar and lyrics about using bosoms as pillows. Unbeknownst to me, Cornershop survived the 90s and are still kicking out strange middle-eastern versions of the theme to “Wonder Years”. And they do ask a great question: who did finger rock n’ roll? My bets on Richard Marx.
Its nice to see Damien still thriving in the music world. His 2010 “Saint Bartlett” shows him taking his sound back to the sparse environs of “Ghost of David”, but the stand out song of the album, “Arkansas”, is probably the most produced. In the tradition of love songs to states, Jurado focuses his break-up with Arkansas. It doesn’t necessarily have the double meaning found in a “Georgia On My Mind”, but then again, I did once date a girl named Rhode Island.
97. “I Don’t Believe You”
“I Don’t Believe You” is one of the only songs on The Thermals 2010 release “Personal Life” that features distorted power chords and – SHOCKER – it’s the best song on the album. A lesson in not straying from what works.
96. “Thank You For Your Love”
Antony and the Johnsons
A few months ago a fellow BDWPS contributer, PtheStudP, asked me if I’d purchased the new Antony and the Johnsons. I replied by saying, “Nah, I think I’m kinda done with Antony and his voice.” He of course berated me and called me a fool. His verbal beating forced me to give The Johnsons one more chance, and I was quickly humbled by my disrespect. Antony and the Johnsons – I want to thank you for your music.
95. “Racer X”
The Japandroids covering the Big Black song “Racer X”? YES PLEASE!
94. “What To Say”
2010 was a rough year for Born Ruffians with their disappointing release “Say It”. Amidst the sloppy collection of songs, “What To Say” is a stand-out due to its memorable melody and its discussion of the age old inability to talk to women. Is it sad that a 32 year old man still relates to this teenage dilemma?
93. “Ain’t No Grave”
Would it be wrong of me to accuse Rick Ruben of manipulating Johnny Cash near the end of his life? I understand that Ruben’s production helped give Cash a rebirth in the music world, but now that Cash has died, more and more music keeps coming out from their sessions together, and it seems lik 90% of the tunes are about dying. I’m just saying… Despite the discomfort associated with listening to the ghost of Johnny sing on the 2010 release “American Recordings VI”, I can’t deny what an excellent song “Ain’t No Grave” turned out to be with its layers of dragging chains, spooky organs, and creaking piano keys. “Ain’t No Grave” is more evidence that Rick Ruben, manipulator or not, can make a good song great.
92. “38 Souls”
Although I loved the music of 2010, I have to admit that the year was truly defined for me by Pavement. I spent most of my life scoffing at the suggestion of Pavement, but this year I opened up to the possibility that they may actually be good, and damn it, they were! As a result, I spent a large portion of the year searching for the modern equivalent of Pavement. I thought Bottomless Pit could fill that void, but I found that they are influenced by more than just Pavement. For example, on “38 Souls”, a song about capturing souls, the band is able to conjure the ghosts of the 90s, channeling the sounds of Jawbox, Sebadoh, and even Dinosaur Jr. Now if they could just capture the soul of Stephen Malkmus.
91. “One Polaroid a Day”
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
This song stood out to me simply because it shows Ted Leo trying something new. Instead of his usual falsetto rantings, this is a slow groove with Leo exploring his lower register. He’s no Isaac Hayes, but the change of pace was welcomed in 2010.
Doesn’t Beck sound happy on this song? That’s the sound of a man escaping the clutches of Danger Mouse. Rejoice!
89. “Be Yourself”
I’ve always thought that Fleet Foxes sound a lot like CSNY, so it’s probably fitting that the best song on the tribute album to Graham Nash be by Robin Pecknold.
88. “Jail La La”
Dum Dum Girls
Only the Dum Dum Girls could make being “covered in shit” sound adorable.
87. “In Every Direction”
If I were to make a year end list for video games (which I have no right attempting), I would put “Red Dead Redemption” at the top due to its never ending landscape that I wasted hours of my life exploring. My favorite part of the game’s storyline though is when you first enter into Mexico – the game shifts from its annoying harmonica music to an actual soundtrack of Jose Gonzalez’s “Far Away”. A month after passing the game, I purchased Junip’s 2010 release “Fields”, and everytime I listened to it, Jose’s voice would bring back the image of John Marston entering Mexico where there is nothing but desolation “in every direction”.
86. “General Patton”
When your nickname is General Patton, you better have a song that lives up to Patton’s legacy, and Big Boi steps up to the challenge with this song, an operetic-orchestral chaos that is more fit for Darth Vader than Patton. It’s possibly the only song that will have you nodding your head to the chants of a concert choir.
85. “Heartbeat Song”
When I posted my list of the “Best Summer Albums of 2010″, my friend Tim emailed me, pointing out that I once made fun of him for liking The Futureheads. I was forced to admit defeat writing, “Yeah, that’s because I’m a pretentious douche”. Not even a pretentious douche can deny the melody of “Heartbeat Song”.
84. “Angry World”
Neil Young was a bit misleading with he called his new album “Le Noise” a folk metal album. Lyrics about the plight of polar bears and bison aren’t necessarily the most metal of subject matter. If only the album had more songs like “Angry World”, matching the wave of distortion with lyrics that delve into the darker side of the human psyche. I’d like to believe “Angry World” presents what it may have sounded like if Neil had joined Black Sabbath when Ozzy left.
83. “Roman Candles”
I present to you the Seven Dwarves of indie rock! ”Roman Candles” is a reminder that whistling was fun before Andrew Bird came along.
82. “July Flame”
Most depressing 4th of July song ever.
I don’t necessarily love this song. It’s more of an addiction to the disorientation felt while listening to the sickly guitars. Not even Robitussin can save you from the nausea of “Norway”.
Yeasayer’s “Odd Blood” pissed me off. When did they become a dance band? Unfortunately, “ONE” made it very difficult to hate them for long. I would be lying if I said I’ve never danced to this song while cooking pork chops with a plum-ginger sauce. I’m straight, I SWEAR.
79. “Early Warnings”
Love is All
What if John Lennon woke up and didn’t fall out of bed, rather knocked his head on a bookshelf? What if instead of dragging a comb across his hair he almost choked on his toothbrush? Yes my friends, we’ve discovered the anti-thesis to The Beatles “A Day in the Life”.
The actual city of Odessa, Texas is not nearly as fun as this song would suggest.
77. “Kids On the Run”
Tallest Man on Earth
With “Kids On the Run”, Kristian Matsson ditches his acoustic guitar for a piano, and surprisingly it’s the best song on the album. It could be due in part to the poignant lyrics that reveal a story of two scorned lovers, still running away from their past like children. Basically, it’s “Born To Run” except in this version Wendy is trying to escape Bruce and his velvet rims.
76. “Fuck You”
Cee Lo Green
Yesterday I was riding in the car with my mom when this song came on the radio. Even though I’m a grown man, I still felt uncomfortable as the chorus arrived, knowing the YouTube sensation lyrics of “Fuck You!” were just ahead. Then, just when it arrived, the lyrics “Forget you!” came out the speakers as my mom sang along. I took comfort in knowing my mom was oblivious to the actual lyrics, and it made me realize this song is great, with or without the cursing (although I’ll take the cursing version if I must choose).