2012 turned out to be a pretty great year in music. I think all three of us would agree the offerings in 2012 were deep in really good albums, without many albums rising to the level of true greatness. That being said, I think I would rather have a pool of 60-80 really good albums come out in a year than 9-10 great albums. Around here, we like variety, and we certainly got it this year. There was a surprisingly surge of good hip-hop released in the second half of the year (Killer Mike, Nas, Meek Mill). There was the long-awaited return of all-timer female singer songwriter types (Fiona Apple, Cat Power, Regina Spektor). And there were also several much-anticipated sophomore wide releases (Sleigh Bells, Tame Impala, Beach House, Twin Shadow). All in all, there may not have been a lot of perfect albums this year, but it was still a great year in music. Enjoy the top 20.
20. Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror
While the bookends may be nothing to call home about, the album as a whole is stuffed full of enough grade A music that it makes Reign of Terror very worth your while, even if it isn’t as tasty as Treats. Most tracks exhibit that blood-in-your-mouth/cum-on-your-pants attitude that fans of Sleigh Bells will eat up, and make me personally want to punch somebody in the back of the head (I mean that in a good way).
19. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
There is a genuineness found in these European folksters not present in many of these types of acts trying to cross the pond, perfectly exemplified on The Lion’s Roar. The title track, as well as “Emmylou”, is Americana folk at its finest. It’s just too bad that actual Americans are being usurped in their own game.
18. David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant
After the first two or three listens, I began to realize this album was growing on me faster than an bamboo shoot in a Chinese torture chamber. This collaboration of two artistically poppy musical geniuses’ that both love dramatic and detailed lyrics paired with dramatic and detailed backing music to accompany them, delivered a home run if not exactly a grand slam. (Note: this may be my least favorite album cover of all time. Just makes me queasy when I look at it.)
17. Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes
Flying Lotus flew under the radar with his latest release, Until the Quiet Comes, which wasn’t nearly as immediate as his critically-acclaimed breakthrough, Cosmogramma, but no less rewarding. Steven Ellison, the man that is Flying Lotus, said he pictured Until the Quiet Comes as a “record for kids to dream” imagining it as sort of the “experience of being an innocent in a world you don’t understand.” This explanation helps capture how visceral and dream-like this album really is.
16. Ab-soul – Control System
Rappers don’t necessarily have “directors” in the studio so much as a bunch of lackeys telling them how awesome they are. This makes it so much more impressive Ab-Soul was able to squeeze out the emotion he did on Control System. The creativity is burgeoning throughout the entire album, but there is a sense of control to hold it all in place that is rare in the hip-hop community today.
15. Chromatics – Kill For Love
The Chromatics took a chance and it paid off while covering Neil Young’s “Into the Black” to open Kill for Love. Leaving a personal stamp on a classic song and then parlaying that into some of the most satisfying electro-pop of the year. Come to check out the cover, and then stay for every last drop of goodness The Chromatics have to offer.
14. Father John Misty – Fear Fun
Joshua Tillman, also known as Father John Misty, released our favorite folk album of the year in Fear Fun, a meditation on love, spirituality, and the perils and pleasures of Hollywood. The former Fleet Fox may write within the same genre of his former band, but delivers an album that is undoubtedly his own.
13. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
The Alabama Shakes made a real splash this year, and there is real reason for it. Their lead singer Brittany Howard embodies that “It” factor, mixing true vocal and guitar talent with tangible passion dripping out of every word. It doesn’t hurt that these songs reek of American rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia, like watching Sandlot or drinking a Caprisun or playing in the sandbox.
12. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Suffice it to say, we are in love with Channel Orange, and Frank Ocean himself, who comes off as a wonderfully mix of Stevie Wonder, Prince, and which is interesting since I was only luke-warm on his debut mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA. There were a lot of new talents to emerge in 2012, but Ocean taking his solo show on the road was most refreshing.
11. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, M.A.A.D. City
The most well-known Black Hippie continued his assault on establishing himself as a force in the rap game. Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was a smashing success, with its varied but cohesive production, and judicious use of guests. Hopefully, Lamar continues with his razor-sharp focus, and creates in himself a viable challenger to Kanye as the king of the alt-rap game.
10. Daughn Gibson – All Hell
Talk about coming out of nowhere. Only Daughn Gibson’s parents and a few close friends even knew his name before All Hell changed the game and put a legitimate stamp on what an interesting and progressive country album can look like. EMA was my breakout darling last year, and Gibson fills those shoes nicely for 2012.
9. Cat Power – Sun
The almost solely-electronic nature of Sun was a shocking departure from anything else in Chan Marshall’s catalog, and brings the adjective “delightful” to mind. You can laud every album in Marshall’s storied career with praises, but the fact that “delightful” came to mind, shows that she will never cease to surprise us.
8. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
With recent efforts, Dirty Projectors remained on the cusp of combining Dave Longstreth’s virtuousic way with words and guitar with smart, simple pop sensibilities. On Swing Lo Magellan, the Dirty Projectors finally made a brilliantly simple but brilliantly unique pop record, filled with sweeping ballads, grand stories, Beatlesy three-part harmonies, and their classic Afro-pop sound.
7. Grimes – Visions
Grimes serenades her beautiful high pitched, slightly lisped voice over pure synth goodness on Visions. This album manages to be bubbly and bright, while somehow being dark and mysterious at the same time. Grimes is the rare pop star that has somehow been birthed out of a non-traditional womb, and we all hope she keeps up her iconoclastic ways.
6. Twin Shadow – Confess
If Twin Shadow’s 2010 album Forget can be described as a dream-like introduction to a promising new artist, then Confess takes those dreams to a fantastical and unpredictable new highs. See, dreams are much less controlled than waking fantasies, and George Lewis Jr. is completely in control of every lyrical theme, soaring synth, and hard-hitting kick drum on Confess.
5. Tame Impala – Lonerism
Tame Impala continues to float us on down the wavy psychedelic-pop river that their music seems to create for its listener. With his main source of inspiration for this particular album being Todd Rundgren’s 1973 effort A Wizard, a True Star, lead man Kevin Parker finds ways to mellow out a bit more with Lonerism, but without losing his edge.
4. Menomena – Moms
Usually starting with something simple, like a sparse beat or heavy guitar riff or simple piano piece, each track on Moms evolves into something you feel you built with the band. Whether it be the killer flute towards the end of “Capsule”, the looping chorus at the end of “Pique” or the electronic interludes of “Tantalus”, every track is produced to near perfection.
3. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
Fiona Apple returned from her extended hiatus with a bang this year, releasing what we believe to be her best album yet. At first I thought it may be a little too simple and safe, but after extended listenings, it is apparent that The Idler Wheel is the richest and most self-assured work Apple has released to date. Hopefully we can get another Apple album in <5 years.
2. Jack White – Blunderbuss
While none of us had Blunderbuss at the very front of our personal lists, it was near enough the top on all of them to be the runaway consensus number one overall. No doubt White’s best full album since his White Stripes days, Blunderbuss brings the variety and mind-searing, blues-based orchestrations that was just what the doctor ordered. The album that just right Americana mix of hearty country, raw emotion blues, Stonesy freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll, and even a dash of show tunes. When it comes to the majesty of ye ole’ guitar, someone is going to have to bring their A-game to dethrone the king.
1. El-P – Cancer 4 Cure
It is unreal how much my original tepid response to El-P’s latest has changed since my first listen. After a period of thinking Cancer 4 Cure was just okay, I joined my blog-mates and after a few extra listens changed my whole perspective on sh*t. With ultra-dense production and interesting, albeit sometimes nonsensical, lyrics, El-P has put himself firmly in the lead for most interesting hip-hop voice going forward.
Wes: Andrew Bird – Break it Yourself
Andrew Bird is still singing about near death experiences and catastrophes with the help of the nearest thesaurus, and he is still combining his usual instrument ingredients, but Break It Yourself in many ways feels like a new kind of record for Bird. The intricacies of Break It Yourself are no doubt what make it so fun to dive into, as it doesn’t have the dynamic pop songs of past albums, but there is a level of complexity in the melodies, harmonies, and song structures themselves that make Break It Yourself more rewarding with each listen.
Todd: Liars – WIXIW
Liars are a band that love to build a sense of anarchy and terror in their music, and WIXIW (pronounced “wish you”) is no exception. The New York band continues to hold a special place in Todd’s heart, WIXIW’s world of madness did anything but disappoint.
Austin: Lost in the Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs
When we released our mid-year Top Ten Albums list, I had not even heard A Church That Fits Our Needs. In fact, I had never even heard of Lost in the Trees period. Thankfully, commenter Winston tipped me off to Ari Picker and company, and pushed A Church That Fits Our Needs up near the top of my personal list of best albums of 2012. The orchestrated folk that LitT bring to the table is beyond reproach.
More 2012 End-of-Year Coverage: