It’s that time again – time to look back on all the great albums released this past year. 2012 has been filled with fantastic albums, and as a result, I’ve come up with a doozy of a list. You’ll find a variety of genres here ranging from rap to folk to metal to punk. No matter what type of music you enjoy (minus country) you’ll find something on here that you’ve either already been enjoying or music you should be enjoying. Whatever the case, enjoy!
The Amazing “Gentle Stream”
Bison B.C. “Lovelessness”
Crystal Castles “(III)”
The Evens “The Odds”
Lambchop “Mr. M”
Mind Spiders “Meltdown”
Pilgrim “Misery Wizard”
Lee Renaldo “Between the Times & the Tides”
Twin Shadow “Confess”
40. 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.
39. Two Gallants
The Bloom and the Blight
Two Gallants have always gotten a bad rap from the critics. They are often pigeon-holed as some type of Americana cover band or even worse, a gimmicky mix of punk, folk, and country. This distinction is often a result of Adam Stephen’s finger-picking style and the band’s narrative lyrics, telling stories of outlaws, runaway slaves, and heartbreak. Another possible reason for the negativity aimed at the band is the fact that on past albums they’ve failed to capture the chaotic spirit of their live shows (one of the best live bands out there today).
On The Bloom and the Blight the band has finally produced an album that is teeming with the frenetic energy and frustration presented on the stage. Stephen’s voice is raw and emotive, wailing out each melody with purpose, unhindered by the occasional crack of voice or off-key holler. Bloom and the Blight also is the best representation of Tyson Vogel’s untamed drumming. In concert, Vogel is a major part of the band’s music, a real-life Animal going wild upon his toms, but on past albums his drum work has taken a back seat. With the latest album, Vogel’s drums take on an almost epic proportion, and in combination with Stephen’s intricate guitar work, the band occasionally ventures into prog-rock territories. With The Bloom and the Blight, it looks like the Wild West is still wide open for these two outlaws.
38. Perfume Genius
Put Your Back N 2 It
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.
[Stranded Rekords; 2012]
At first glance, the band GOAT comes off as a gimmick. Claiming to be from the small Swedish town Korpilombolo, a town said to be steeped in voodoo traditions, the band/ancestors say their goal is to pass down their town’s psychedelic ritual music. The mostly anonymous band that takes to the stage in masks call their concerts “a harvesting of souls” and say their latest album, World Music is just that: music that encompasses the world.
If their mythology turns out to be false, we can take comfort in knowing that their goal to make a musical quilt of world sounds was a truthful claim (and a successful one as well). On World Music the band takes sounds ranging from Fela Kuti, Jefferson Airplane, Sun Araw, and Black Sabbath and brings them all together into one magnificent, psychedelic séance. Bongos and distorted guitars play nice together as a choir of female voices shout out unintelligible mantras that are more The Supremes than Heaven’s Gate. There are no boundaries for GOAT, wandering from folk rock to stoner metal with ease, and if their biography turns out to be false, the overall idea of the band remains true – a collective of anonymous friends creating music that welcomes all walks of life into their cozy little community.
“Let It Bleed”:
36. Father John Misty
I vividly remember watching Fleet Foxes perform on “Saturday Night Live” several years ago and thinking during their performance, “Damn, the drummer has a better voice than Robin Pecknold!” Little did I know that the drummer, Josh Tillman, had been writing and recording his own music for several years already. This year he returned to his solo work under the moniker Father John Misty. If you’re expecting music that is an off-shoot from Fleet Foxes, you’ll be greatly disappointed.
Instead, on the self-titled album, Tillman takes the listener on a freaky, often hilarious trip through the streets of Hollywood where this would be shaman can be found either running “down the road, pants down to [his] knees” or digging up graves in the cemetery with “Adderall and weed in [his] veins.” Lyrics this humorous and unpredictable are most commonly found in the music of artists like Dan Bejar or John Darnielle, both with their uniquely strange vocal stylings. Yet Tillman doesn’t let the beauty of his voice hold him back from singing about such strange topics as “the truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record” or telling stories of when “John the Baptist took Jesus Christ Down to the river on a Friday night; they talked about Mary like a couple of boys.” While he could have simply used his association with Fleet Foxes as a jumping off pointing, Tillman approached his new project with reckless abandon, chronicling his drug-addled move to California with a frank honesty that, although strange, is much more entertaining than, say, songs about mountains and strawberries.
“I’m Writing a Novel”:
35. 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 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 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.
“Please Don’t Go Away”:
34. The Tallest Man On Earth
There’s No Leaving Here
[Dead Oceans; 2012]
There’s no doubt that There’s No Leaving Here is The Tallest Man On Earth’s most produced album. Songs feature layers of guitars, drum loops are more prominent, unlikely instruments like clarinets and pianos make appearances, and Kristian Mattsen’s voice has never sounded cleaner. Yet, despite all that has changed, There’s No Leaving Here really doesn’t sound that different than what’s been done before. Mattsen’s unique voice still has that old man river rasp to it; the songs are still soliloquy on the beauty of nature; the guitars still resonate as if they are being played in the apartment next door. While some people may be turned off by Mattsen’s refinement of his one time scrappy recording process, one can’t blame him for taking his songs and giving them the attention they deserve.
While I must admit I prefer the more rustic Tallest Man On Earth, There’s No Leaving Here is filled with songs just as memorable and thought provoking as anything recorded prior. Songs like “Little Brother” and the title track are some of Mattsen’s most personal and revealing tracks to date, and “Bright Latterns” chorus of “Damn you always treat me like a stranger, mountain” will have you cursing mountains by the second verse. If you worry that Mattsen’s reliance on production value may cause a disconnect, don’t worry. With Tallest Man On Earth, you’ll never feel like a stranger.
33. Animal Collective
Yes, Centipede HZ is a noisy, chaotic, mess of erratic beats and incomprehensible, over-lapped samples. Yes, the album is a non-stop-sugar-rush-claustrophobic exercise in plowing over the listener. And yes, experiencing this album via headphones will probably send you into convulsions. But should any of these qualities come as a surprise? Maybe their last few albums have leaned closer to melodic territories, but AC have always been and always will be a band that aims to displease.
The big difference with Centipede Hz is the new direction the band has taken their noise palette. While older albums like Hollinndagain or Here Comes the Indian sounded like noisy séances captured from some secluded forest, Centipede HZ takes the drum circle to the city. The tribal drums and acoustic instruments have been replaced by garbled synths and vocals that sound like they are being transmitted from a UFO miles above the skyline. Another difference on this album in comparison to their past works of uncomfortable experimentations is that it still meanders towards their more recent penchant for actual melodies – they just aren’t going to make it easy for you, burying vocals beneath layers of futuristic blips and samples. If you’re willing to start digging, you’ll be happy with the gems you unearth.
32. Joey Bada$$
[Cinematic/Creative Control; 2012]
1991 0r 1995 would have probably been more apt titles for an album that finds shelter in the sounds of the early to mid-90s, but 1999 will suffice. While most critics continue to laud Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D. city for his biographical look toward his past, I take more joy in listening to Joey Bada$$ and his appreciation of the hip-hop that fueled his youth. You won’t hear any radio friendly hooks about swimming pools full of liquor; instead Joey Bada$$ makes each track pop with his lyricism taking center stage. You won’t find any big name guest stars like Drake and Dr. Dre; instead Joey Bada$$ turns to his close friends from within his New Era crew. And you won’t hear beats and tracks that feature auto-tune or any dub-step meanderings; instead Joey Bada$$ relies on the sampling tradition of the 90s, taking classic funk and soul riffs and reinvigorating them with his mix of jumpy beats and his ability to spit lyrics with ease. While legends like Nas are lauding Kendrick Lamar as the next big thing, Joey Bada$$ pays respect to the groundwork Nas laid down decades ago. In terms of 90s hip-hop, this hypothetical East Coast/West Coast battle isn’t even close.
31. Cat Power
I thought Cat Power’s Chan Marshall was done. It’s been six years since her smokey, big band affair The Greatest, and with that release it felt like she’d explored all angles for her music. The covers album that came out a couple years later seemed like stale rehashes in what had been done before. Then in 2012 Marshall made her triumphant return with Sun, an album that reinvigorates her sound with modern beats and adventurous arrangements. Amidst these modern twists, Marshall also hearkens back to the sounds of her seminal album, Moon Pix.
The combination of her piano driven style and the unpredictable drum tracks help convey Cat Power as an elder statesmen looking back on her life and still searching for answers to the same questions she asked two decades ago. It’s not a rehash of themes, rather pondering life’s questions from a new point of view. This album presents the sad truth that even if we could talk to our younger self like 40-year-old Marshall does on Sun, we still wouldn’t have answers.
30. High On Fire
De Vermis Mysteriis
How is Matt Pike not a household name? His influence over the past two decades is unparalleled; whether it be his seminal work with doom metal legends Sleep, his short-lived psychedelic metal project Kalas, or his vicious output over the past ten years with the ferocious High On Fire. With De Vermis Mysteriis, the legend continues.
On past High On Fire albums they’ve worked with a who’s who of record producers (Steve Albini, Jack Endino, Greg Fidelman) and De Vermis Mysteriis is no exception with Kurt Ballou, the frontman of Converge, taking the helm. Never before has High On Fire’s drums been so pummeling, a signature element to any great Converge album. Even though this is undeniably a High On Fire album, Ballou’s influence has helped evolve the band’s sound into a more hard-hitting direction. Yet, even amidst this sea of brutal change, Pike conjures up his days of Sleep with the slow burners like “Samsara, “King of Days,” and “Warhorn.” As violent and downright filthy as De Vermis Mysteriis may get at times, it may be the doomiest Matt Pike album in years.
29. Dinosaur Jr.
I Bet On Sky
Last week a friend and I had a conversation about aging rock stars. We came to the consensus that at age 50 musicians magically lose their talent for creating great albums. This year alone we saw legends like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Soundgarden, and The Rolling Stones release mediocre albums. While artists like Neil Young, Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, and Wire can be commended for their efforts in the twilight of their lives, even their releases pale in comparison to the work created in their hey-day. My friend and I spent much of the night trying to figure out an artist still creating fantastic music and we finally came upon one shining beacon of hope for those of us getting up there in age – Dinosaur Jr.
J. Mascis turned 47 several weeks ago and Lou Barlow is 46, yet you wouldn’t know their geriatic leanings based off their latest release I Bet On Sky. While other bands have made reunion tours and released milquetoast albums to coincide, Dinosaur Jr. is on their third straight phenomenal album since Lou and Mascis reunited in 2007. With I Bet On Sky the band can be heard experimenting a bit with their tried and true formula. A touch of piano here, and dash of synth here, and the result is Dinosaur Jr. sounding happier than ever. They may not be 50 just yet, but I Bet On Sky is reassurance that these guys are likely to avoid the muse-less affliction that comes with reaching the half-century point.
28. Dan Deacon
This past year we witnessed one of the most divisive elections to take place in the 21st century with Republicans looking toward the values of the past and the Democrats looking toward the ideals of the future. In Dan Deacon’s latest opus America, this same clash of views can be found in his blend of classic orchestration and in your face futuristic electronic blips and hisses. But this dichotomy of sound goes beyond the political landscape – it forces these two beasts to face off – an audio battle royale where the grand American landscape goes nine rounds with the technological progress that dares to spit into the wind. It’s Cowboys vs. Indians, North vs. South, Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant, all wrapped into one ambitiously, epic album.
While his past two albums were often spastic, confusing splatters of frenzied racket like a musical Jackson Pollock, America shows Deacon softening his approach, allowing songs to traverse the hills and valleys of his American landscape. On America Deacon has found the pop song buried beneath the electronic swoops of clamor and dusted it off. Don’t worry – it is all still loud, lively, and in your face – but instead of making noise palettes, he’s created legitimate pop songs.
“USA I: Is A Monster”:
27. Bat For Lashes
The Haunted Man
In the past, Natasha Khan’s emotionally epic music has been about the journey, taking her listeners on an adventure, looking for some unknown treasure tucked away deep within the orchestrated swells of her music. The Haunted Man, on the other hand, is an album of looking back on a failed adventure with Khan licking her wounds. No longer is she lost amidst the synths and violins – she stands alone, out in the open, prepared for the cold nights ahead.
The album’s stripped back, more introspective approach may be a result of the difficult break-up Khan endured prior to starting Haunted Man. But Khan doesn’t spend the entirety of the album wallowing in pain. Instead, she takes on a redemptive persona, singing lines like “Now I’m saved” and “I’m in bloom.” While the journeys on her past albums have been grandiose to say the least, Haunted Man is Khan taking a break from her journey to look back on where she’s been and dropping some baggage that has been weighing her down.
All We Love We Leave Behind
Often when I listen to Converge, I find myself wondering what the band’s songwriting process must consist of. There’s no doubt that it has to be a collaborative effort. I just can’t imagine frontman Kurt Ballou coming into a session with a song idea and saying something along the lines of “Okay, and in this part I imagine the drums being ballistic and making no sense and yet somehow working with the break-neck speed guitar riff. Got it?” No, there is a reason Converge are still creating intricate hardcore-metal madness after two decades of working together.
Amidst the carnage, it’s almost as if each member knows exactly where they belong, filling in the holes with caustic cymbal crashes or the guttural yelps that seem to reach out desperately from the depths of Ballou’s heart. While the insanity on All We Love We Leave Behind comes at you in a constant, unrelenting downpour, the band is still able to surprise you with bolt after bolt of anger-laced-lightening. Prepare to be struck.
“Sadness Comes Home”:
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.”
24. Titus Andronicus
On first listen, Local Business may seem like a letdown in comparison to the last two releases by Titus Andronicus. You won’t find the Civil War imagery of The Monitor or the spacious atmosphere of The Airing of Grievances. This is Titus Andronicus at their most straightforward. One may be apt to label Local Business as simply a good punk rock album, and I suppose they’d be right. Then again, a closer look reveals that Local Business contains some of the band’s best songwriting to date. What it lacks in motifs and symbolism it makes up for with the finely crafted songs, a patchwork of two-minute punk rock anthems all tied together into songs that run from five to ten minutes.
“My Eating Disorder” may be the best song the band has ever released, an eight-minute, epic journey through the dark recesses of singer Patrick Stickle’s personal struggles. While past albums have been lauded for Stickle’s ability to paint a tapestry of metaphor, Local Business shows him shoveling away the flowery language to reveal the darker, uglier side that he endures. On the song he sings “I know the world’s a scary place–that’s why I hide behind a hairy face,” but in support of Local Business, Stickle can now be seen with a shaven face. And really, who needs metaphor when you have catharsis?
“My Eating Disorder”:
23. Godspeed You! Black Emperor
‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
How to best enjoy Godspeed You! Black Emperor – First, purchase Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! if you foolishly haven’t already done so. Then, turn your TV onto a news station (CNN, Fox News, CSPAN, etc). Put the TV on mute and play the latest album from Canadian post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Turn the volume up on the album as loud as you can handle without covering your ears. Now sit back and watch as the repetitive chilling chamber music eerily fits alongside images of political infighting, violence around the world, and celebrity glorification. This is the way I imagine the openly anti-government band would want you to experience their music.
In a year with a fiscal cliff, school/movie theater shootings, and a heated presidential campaign, it’s almost as if the band returned from the ashes right on cue to capture the unrest going on with their neighbors to the south. As always with GYBE, lyrics aren’t necessary with music that is so spacious, so unsettling that you can’t help but leave the listening experience changed. Maybe our government would actually accomplish something if we pulled a “Clockwork Orange” and locked up the senate and house in a room blaring GYBE. At the very least, they’d get to hear some damn good music.
“Their Helicopters’ Sing”:
22. 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.
21. Cloud Nothings
Attack On Memory
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 with Attack On Memory. 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.