This is it, friends! This long journey to my Top 10 albums of 2012 has finally come to an end. I’d like to thank you for taking this trip with me and for reading the site all year long (like I know you did). Above all, I’d like to thank the artists, because without them and the music they so lovingly create this site wouldn’t exist. I feel privileged to get to hear all sorts of music nearly 365 days a year, and being able to write about it too is just icing on the cake. The ten albums and artits I’ve featured below made some of the most brilliant records I’ve heard over the last 12 months, and I’m happy to say that at some point in time I spent months absorbing the excellence that radiates from these releases. I also like to think that the ten albums below do a great job of covering the scope of breadth of music overall in 2012. There’s something for everyone here, and I swear I didn’t plan it that way. I hope you enjoy what’s presented below, and if you’re so inclined please give each one of these albums a thorough listen through at least once. I hope that you’ll hear the positively amazing things I did in each one of them. If you’re still catching up on the previous entries in this Top 50 Albums series, please follow these links for more:
And now, without further ado, here are my Top 10 Albums of 2012!
10. Grizzly Bear – Shields
With each new album, I think that this will be the one where Grizzly Bear stumbles. I’m not rooting against them, mind you – I just think that there’s no way they’ll be able to continually top themselves. In 2009 I thought there was no way they could ever top Veckatimest, yet here we are in 2012 with an album that does just that. Shields steps back from the internal pop combustion engine of their last record and instead ventures out into a much vaster wasteland of pastoral emptiness through which they truly flourish. You won’t find hit singles like “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait for the Others” here, though “Yet Again” comes on pretty strong as a single. But somehow Grizzly Bear have been able to take their arrangements and flesh them out even further with more complex dynamics than ever. Songs like “Speak in Rounds” and “A Simple Answer” soar skywards in places where you might otherwise expect the band to remain complacent. This isn’t so much a radical sonic shift for the band so much as it is a refining of what’s already there, bolstered by a fair amount of confidence and braggadocio. That doesn’t show up at all in the lyrics, but you can essentially hear it in some of the melodies. Dark and depressing as many of these songs might be, the final 12 minute punch of “Half Gate” and “Sun in Your Eyes” to close out the record make for beautiful bursts of sunlight and seem to point the way forwards for Grizzly Bear. Yet again (pun intended) my expectations are so high I don’t believe these guys will be able to do any better next time. If there’s any band that can break through that imaginary glass ceiling of excellence, it’s Grizzly Bear.
9. Beach House – Bloom
Place Beach House in the same stratosphere as Grizzly Bear, a band that has progressed to the point where you think they’ve hit the limits of their particular sound, but somehow still find a way to improve with each subsequent release. While the band’s last album Teen Dream hinted at something larger and more anthemic, Bloom actually fully takes us there, with melodies and choruses that soar skywards, but not before sufficiently building to those crescendos first. It is a front-loaded record, with the big tracks like “Myth,” “Wild” and “Lazuli” making for some strikingly memorable moments, before quieter bits like “Troublemaker” and “On the Sea” wash over you in a very graceful and emotional manner. No matter where you wind up in this record though, the instrumentals are jaw-droppingly beautiful (especially when you compare them to the band’s first couple albums), Victoria Legrand’s vocals soar or maintain calm as needed, and the lyrics exhibit stoicism and careful songcraft. “What comes after this momentary bliss?” Legrand asks on “Myth.” That line works well as a description of the entire album, making the listening experience a brief blip in time you simply don’t want to end.
8. Chromatics – Kill For Love
Drive, the film starring Ryan Gosling and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, was my favorite movie of 2011. Instrumental to the film is its soundtrack, featuring glossy electronica pieces and synth-pop tracks from the likes of Chromatics and Desire, both projects of Johnny Jewel who is head of the Italians Do It Better record label. While Cliff Martinez was the main person responsible for the soundtrack, it could be argued that Chromatics’ Kill For Love is Jewel’s 90 minute extension of the mood and themes of that film. It is the ideal album to be listening to when behind the wheel, in particular whiel cruising the neon-lit streets of a city by yourself in the middle of the night. I’ve done it several times this year and can’t recommend the experience more. The buildings and pavement become characters of their own, and all the other vehicles and people you see can’t understand what that’s like. But beyond that, purely focused on the music, not only is this album strikingly cohesive and emotionally compelling from start to finish, but there are quite a few worthy singles across its duration as well. The title track is the obvious choice and one of my favorite songs of 2012, but beyond that there’s the sobering cover of Neil Young’s “Into the Black,” the pulsating dance groove of “Lady,” and the robotic depression of “These Streets Will Never Look the Same” to stick with you long after the sun has risen and you’re out of your vehicle. It might not make for a great group listen or party music, but what it lacks in social skills it makes up for by speaking to the darkest recesses of our souls, whispering that if the love of our life were in mortal danger, we’d probably do whatever is necessary to protect him or her from harm – even if that means killing another person.
7. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
It begins and ends with fireworks. That alone tells you everything there is to know about Celebration Rock, a depth charge of an album that is absolutely as its title suggests. The duo of Brian King and David Prowse throw it all out at you, leaving absolutely nothing to spare. It’s a powerful sound to come out of a single guitar and drum set, and that’s part of what makes an album like this so appealing and gives the impression of purity – all killer, no filler. For eight tracks and 35 minutes that’s certainly the case, as every chord, every “woah-oh” and “oh yeah!,” is done in the service of the greater message Japandroids are trying to push forwards: get busy living, or get busy dying. If you’re not ready to “yell like hell to the heavens,” or experience “no high like this,” then this probably isn’t the record for you. Put this on during a party to get everyone’s energy up, or go see Japandroids live to find out that they created this record with live performance in mind. When everyone around you is jumping up and down and screaming the words of every song back at the band with as much ferocity as they’re putting out in the opposite direction, it becomes an instantly memorable moment that could well change your life. No other album I’ve heard this year has as much enthusiasm, intensity, inspiration and kicks as much ass as Celebration Rock does. Every time it ends I walk away feeling great and wishing it were longer. That’s the number one rule of showmanship: always leave the audience wanting more. In that respect, Japandroids themselves have a lot to celebrate.
6. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
Do you know how many times in the last few years I”ve heard rappers being called things like “the next great voice in hip hop” and “a brilliant artist that’s going to take over the world”? Too many to count. Can I remember any of the names that came with those superlative statements? No I cannot. So you can understand my hesitation when word got to me that Kendrick Lamar is being called a protege of Dr. Dre and the savior of West Coast hip hop. When he performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival this past summer, I went and watched part of his set just to see what all the fuss was about, and walked away about 20 minutes in because I wasn’t very impressed and needed to be at another stage. Later I found out Lady Gaga was watching his set from the side of the stage, essentially giving her stamp of approval to Lamar. When fall comes around and good kid, m.A.A.d city arrives, the reviews were spectacular and I decided that maybe I hadn’t given the guy a fair shake. For the record, I do despise hip hop live shows, because the hype men brought in to amp up the crowd are usually annoying, and there’s not much going on visually, unless you count some guys walking around the stage waving white towels in the air like a helicopter. Anyways, after listening to his record, I was completely blown away. For once, the hype and the labels affixed to this guy were actually true. He’s a genuine talent and the record is incredible from start to finish.
It largely tells the story of a young kid fresh out of high school that’s tempted by the drugs, guns and gangs on the streets, yet is able to stay away from such dangers by holding onto family and religion. Of course there are plenty of hard-fought battles and people getting gunned down in the street, but this record is about so much more than that. Lamar proves himself a chameleon by taking on multiple verses with different effects applied to his voice, and it makes tracks like “Backseat Freestyle” and the 12-minute opus “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” sound like they’re packed with anonymous guest rappers. You discover something as innocuous as a Beach House sample on “Money Trees” and realize one of the goals of this album is to blur genre lines and get creative with compositions. Beats generated by everyone from Pharrell to Hit-Boy, Just Blaze and the good Dr. Dre himself are strikingly impactful, though Lamar does all of the heavy lifting himself. Guest spots from notables like Drake and Jay Rock are fine, but Lamar really keeps to himself and that’s half the fun of this record. When Dre does show up for a guest spot on the final track “Compton,” so many incredible things have already gone down that it comes off as tacked on either as a favor to his friend and mentor Dre or just as an added selling point. It’s a welcome addition, but perhaps the most pointless thing about what’s otherwise as near a perfect hip hop record. While they’re not in any real direct competition with one another, Kanye West might be wise to watch his back, because we might have a new king of hip hop on our hands.
5. Grimes – Visions
When coming up with my “Class of 2012“, the first name I wanted for that list was Grimes. Her 2011 wasn’t particularly impactful, but news of her signing to 4AD and preparing to release an album unlike anything she’d done previously gave me a really, really good feeling. It’s no wonder then that she became the most blogged about artist of 2012. A large part of that had to do with her album Visions, which came out very early in the year and was followed by what could only be described as an endless tour that took Claire Boucher around the world and back multiple times. I saw her perform four times this year, and each set was strikingly different than any of the other ones. The first time she was immaculately great. The second time she had lost her voice, there were sound problems, and she had to end the set after 30 minutes of trying desperately to make it work. Months later she’d start having backup dancers and friends helping her out on stage. She also got better at piecing her songs together using looping, which in turn made her seem much more like a legitimate pop star. For the record, she’s always been a legit pop star, just your average music fan walking up and watching her perform might not have believed that in March or April. So while the Grimes live show has been an evolutionary process, Visions arrived fully formed. That’s truly saying something too, considering Boucher has no real musical background, is self-trained in the instruments and equipment she uses, and defines what it means to be DIY by writing and producing all of her own tracks. And oh my, what incredible tracks they are. So many people will point you directly to the singles of “Genesis” and “Oblivion,” both of which are two of the finest tracks 2012 has to offer. But there’s so much more you absolutely can’t miss, including “Circumambient,” “Be A Body,” “Vowels = Space and Time” and “Nightmusic.” Really thinking about it, there’s not a bad track on this record.
What makes this album so incredible is how distinctive and innovative it is. Pop 2.0 is the way I prefer to describe it, because it certainly doesn’t sound like any of the pop 1.0 you’ll hear on the radio today. Only on a Grimes record will you hear vocals that go from normal to a Mariah Carey level of falsetto to a completely overprocessed robot. While you won’t be able to understand or comprehend most of the lyrics, there’s a definite playfulness and optimism that runs through most of the tracks, even as they’re more likely dealing with darker and more disturbing topics. The beats are unique compositions in that they’re often formed from home grown samples with keyboards and synths added for good measure. You’re never quite sure what direction a track is going to go in, and that’s a great thing. Perhaps the main reason Grimes is one of the most forward-thinking and brilliant artists of the year is because she shows us the line between human and computer, then proceeds to blur it. She’s half woman, half machine – the equivalent of a musical terminator, obliterating our preconceptions about what pop music is supposed to be. And moving beyond Visions, Boucher has proudly displayed her own unique personality and sense of style. While many artists might be happy to overshare details about their lives, few are willing to take the everyday risks and venture down the strange avenues that Boucher seems all to comfortable with. Never have I gotten the feeling she was being disingenuous or less than honest about who she is, what goes into making her music, and how she feels about other people and things. She feels like a breath of fresh air outlier in a music scene filled with cardboard personalities and careful marketing strategies. I think that’s why so many people are drawn to her and her music. With any luck, a record like Visions is only the beginning, both for Grimes and the next level of pop music.
4. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Sometimes music can make the greatest of statements without saying anything at all. That’s largely what the post-rock genre is built on, pure emotion derived from beautiful, wordless sounds. In the case of a band like Sigur Ros, sometimes the vocals can behave like another instrument altogether and add to the feelings being generated. When talking about Godspeed You! Black Emperor however, the only words they ever use are pre-recorded audio samples from speeches, movies and similar sources. Of course for their new album Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, they only use a single, spare piece of dialogue, and the rest is left up to what your imagination can conjure. The record is broken down into four total tracks, two 6.5 minute drone pieces and two 20 minute suites that compliment one another. Opener “Mladic” has been bouncing around the band’s set lists since before their 2002 hiatus, and was also known as “Albanian.” For this album, they tighten up the arrangement in such a way that it offers some incredible ebbs and flows, build ups to crescendos that are loud and intense and very much earned. It’s one of the most guitar-centric heavy tracks they’ve ever done, and they do it in such a way that it’s tough to envision any other band making something so dynamic and measured. “We Drift Like Worried Fire” is positively placid by comparison, and in fact shows off the band’s tender and minimalist side. Starting with precious few notes on a guitar, the track accrues more and more elements to create a lush stew of infinitely measurable beauty. At that point in time, about 10 minutes in, a peak is hit and there’s a sudden explosion of joyous emotion and sonic glory that is just about enough to restore your faith in humanity whether you lost it or not. The whole world suddenly fades away so you can be fully present in that moment because it is a knockout punch.
As for the two other, shorter tracks, they take a very different tact, serving as both buffers between the larger material and moments to meditate on them as well. Overall this album is a 53 minute journey that requires patience, and open mind and a willingness to listen from start to finish. The trip itself might seem challenging to many, but for those that surrender to the music, the rewards are almost infinite. This is a record that speaks to the power of humanity, and binds together the good and the bad, the loud and the quiet, the passion and the anger, and the happy and the sad. You’ll be mourning one moment and celebrating the next. But isn’t that how our own lives go on a daily basis? It can’t all be sunshine, rainbows and lollipops. The depths this band is able to reach and the recesses of the soul it speaks to are simply remarkable, something that few others have been able to accomplish. There are no other bands that quite sound like GY!BE, and Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is a perfect reminder of that. It may have taken them 10 years to get around to it, but the wait was absolutely worth it. Hopefully we won’t have to wait that long again to hear their next record.
3. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
2012 will forever be remembered as the year that Frank Ocean carried the weight of the R&B genre upon his back. I’ll openly admit that I’ve listened to very few R&B records over the last decade, and I think that has less to do with an inability to relate/enjoy the style of music and more to do with overall quality of the material being released. You can’t quite say R&B was dying, but it certainly is in a sad state of affairs when R. Kelly shows up with another installment of his Trapped in the Closet series. Yet thanks to the immeasurable brilliance of a song like “Thinkin Bout You,” which I heard in late 2011, I felt confident enough to place Ocean as a member of my “Class of 2012,” anticipating that his full album follow-up to the Nostalgia, Ultra. mixtape would certainly make some waves (pun intended). But oh boy, I wasn’t expecting it to garner near universal praise and the sort of attention that earns one a side stage headlining slot at Lollapalooza and an Album of the Year Grammy nomination. What a pleasant surprise to see what a success Ocean has become, and it’s all thanks to the absolutely stunning brilliance of Channel Orange. What can I say about this record that hasn’t already been said? This record has a little bit of everything, and that’s in part what makes it so powerful and amazing. Let me give you some examples. Tracks like “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids” are about what people do and how they behave when they have too much money. The suggestion is that not ever having to work for anything breeds laziness and contempt for others. Yet both tracks are playful and breezy in their vibes, using charm and humor to keep their underlying points relatively clandestine.
But there is also a deadly serious side to this record too, and it comes on the second half with tracks like “Crack Rock” and “Bad Religion.” The former song is about a crack addict, as you might suspect, and seeing the world through his tired and desperate eyes. Shunned by society, the addict doesn’t care what others think, he only wants to know where his next score is coming from. The latter track is about a severe crisis of faith and the questioning of a belief in a higher power. The character Ocean describes is sobbing in the back of a cab in search for any deity to provide him solace, but the only person willing to lend an ear it seems is the cab driver. The closer you listen to these songs and pay heed to their lyrics, the more you realize the genuine emotion that Ocean is putting into each and every word. His voice quivers when he says something horrifying, exudes passion when talking about love, feels arrogant when dealing with too much money, and is tear-stained when dangling from the end of a desperation rope. The singing range is as incredible as the words, subject matter and composition, which when you put it all together, makes for one of the finest albums of 2012. Part of me likes to think that Ocean not only saved R&B but music in general, because there are things happening on Channel Orange that can be applied to any number of genres by people finding this album as a blueprint for inspiration. The man’s fierce independence and self-confidence may have played a main role in drawing this masterpiece out of him, but it’s his continued study of the world and the lives of others that serves as the true spark of such insightfulness and incredulity. The rest of us can only hope to see things from that same perspective.
2. Tame Impala – Lonerism
I can’t listen to Lonerism anymore. It’s become a problem for me. As in, an addiction problem. Once I start, I can’t stop, and once I do stop, the songs bounce around in my head until I start up again. It creates a never-ending cycle of want based purely on songcraft. Few records have affected me in such a crippling way. Yet I’m endlessly happy that this record tortures my psyche until it hurts. When you listen to as much music as I do, no matter how great it is inevitably you begin to appreciate tracks and records from a disconnected perspective. You know exactly what excellent music sounds like, and are often able to judge the quality of something based on a few simple run-throughs. Additionally, there’s always something else in the pipeline pulling your attention and focus onwards, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it means that next thing is amazing too. For every one album I listen to, there’s a hundred more out there I may never hear that could be the greatest thing since sliced bread. The goal is to absorb as much as possible so you miss as little as possible. So when I’m in the middle of another record, no matter how good or bad it is, and a voice in the back of my head tells me that I need to hear Lonerism again, you know it means the best kind of trouble. Some weeks it was the only thing I wanted to listen to, everything else be damned. And the thing about it is, I don’t have a focus track. Sure, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” earned a Top 5 spot on my favorite songs of 2012, but that was more based on being forced to choose one and deciding that an official single would make the most sense/be easiest to access. Every song on this album has been trapped inside my head at one point or another, and it’s like they take turns based on the day. One morning I wake up and “Apocalypse Dreams” is waiting for me, and the next it’s “Keep on Lying” or “Mind Mischief” or something else. However it goes, just scratching the itch by playing the song often doesn’t help and sometimes makes it worse. Going back and re-listening to a bunch of stuff from earlier this year for list-making purposes has helped greatly in calming my attachmen to the album down a bit, but I suspect it will come roaring back with a vengeance in 2013.
So outside of telling you that Lonerism is addictive, let me do my best to explain to you why. You could say it starts and ends with Kevin Parker. He is the one man force behind Tame Impala, and has a few guys that play with him in concert. So everything you hear on the album was recorded and mixed (twice, no less) by Parker himself, save for some light co-producing flourishes by Dave Fridmann. The vast number of instruments used and the complexity of the arrangements across the 52 minutes are immensely impressive, to the point where you can listen to the same song several times and find little quirks and unique qualities that didn’t seem to be there the times before. As if the swirling psych-pop melodies and dynamic hooks weren’t enough to keep you coming back in the first place, those additional layers give added depth and legitimacy to what might otherwise amount to a collection of superficially shiny songs. Another one of my absolute favorite things about Lonerism is the precious imbalance between the upbeat nature of how the songs sound versus the relatively isolationist and downtrodden lyrics. In case the album title and cover photo taken from behind the bars of a fence weren’t good enough indicators for you, this is a record about feeling like an outcast from the rest of the world. What you’ve got to wonder though is whether this sense of disconnection from normal society is the result of rejection, or getting lost inside your own head. “I don’t need them and they don’t need me,” Parker sings on the self-fulfilling prophecy that is “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?”. It’s unlikely the feeling is mutual though, as I’m sure between this album and 2010’s Innerspeaker the guy’s not starving for people that want to be his friend. Sometimes you just need to cut yourself off from the world and deny yourself human interaction to actually find the connections you’re looking for. I know that when I’m home alone and listening to this record on headphones I absolutely feel connected with the voice singing in my ear. Judging by the near fanatical praise this record has gotten this year, it seems like everyone else feels that connection too.
1. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
The title is a mouthful to say, but Fiona Apple has never been a concise or simple person. She radiates humanity and the human experience, oftentimes magnifying some of the ugliest and most difficult parts because we refuse to acknowledge or engage with them. We all have our dark sides and nights where we fight with our brains. Some of us have more of them than others, like Fiona who deals with it every single night. Many would argue that she’s practically a poster child for mental instability in music, and perhaps that’s part of the reason why why she’s only released four albums in the last 16 years. Each has been a unique reflection and portrait of herself during the time period it was released. Now older and wiser than before, The Idler Wheel… is at once her most eclectic yet stable album to date. Her music has moved from a painfully isolated and disconnected state to something incredibly forceful and physical in nature. You can hear it in each note, thrust out into the world like a sonic punch to the gut. For this record she tossed out the many elements and instruments used across 2005’s Extraordinary Machine to instead break every track down to its essentials: percussion, piano and vocals. Let’s start with the percussion. I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me there wasn’t a single snare hit on the entire album. Almost anything rhythmic was recorded using elements other than a drum kit. “Periphery” features the shuffle of feet across a cement sidewalk. “Anything We Want” plays around with pots, pans and glasses in the kitchen. “Daredevil”‘s rhythm sounds like it came from somebody slapping hands against clothed thighs. And while a track like “Werewolf” has no real percussion, towards the end it does incorporate the sound of children at a playground, which is both eerie and emotionally straining at the same time if you’re taking the lyrics into consideration. But it’s all these found sound and non-traditional means of composition that add to the delicate balance this record seeks to and succeeds in creating. The piano practically feels plain by comparison, but it is Fiona’s instrument of choice and she is able to convey quite a bit via the complexity of a song like “Jonathan” or the playfulness of “Hot Knife.”
Yet the primary reason The Idler Wheel… becomes elevated above all previous Fiona Apple records and earns the coveted Album of the Year trophy is her voice. The stripped down compositions place particular emphasis on her vocals, and she wrings every last bit of emotion out of the words as they flow out of her mouth. You can hear her trembling in fear for her own sanity on “Every Single Night.” She throws a temper tantrum on “Daredevil,” the strain in her throat as she yells, “Look at! / Look at! / Look at me!” when the spotlight is shining elsewhere. On “Regret,” her anger goes nuclear as she rips into a former lover with acidic lines like, “I ran out of white doves’ feathers / To soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me.” Of course she’s got a much wider range than just anger and fear. “Just tolerate my little fists tugging on your forest chest,” she teases coyly on “Jonathan.” And as studies show you can tell if somebody’s smiling over a phone conversation, that same effect happens on “Left Alone” when she proudly proclaims, “I don’t cry when I’m sad anymore.” It’s Fiona’s version of turning something negative like the end of a relationship into something positive like building a callus over her heart. That also speaks to a larger theme of the album too, which involves leaving the past behind and finding true stability in your life. Fiona has never sounded better or more in control than she does on this record, and her ability to find freedom and happiness while facing some serious challenges should provide inspiration for anyone that’s struggling with their own set of issues. Don’t give up. Hope is not lost. Life gets better. And then we can do anything we want.