As it so happens, today is the day we make it halfway through this wonderful list of my Top 50 Albums of 2012. In case you missed the first two parts, here’s #50-41, and here’s #40-31. So what can I tell you about this next set of 10 albums? Well, this collection features a bit of psychedelia, some indie pop, healthy slices of retro-sounding synth pop, some quieter balladry, and two punk inspired records that were produced by Steve Albini. Can you guess what they are before clicking through the jump (or scrolling down) to see them revealed? It can be a challenge, but I believe you can pull it off. Or just look below. These are some great records that if you haven’t heard them, you need to be checking them out as fast as possible. What are you waiting for? Let’s get started!
30. Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance
It’s easy to classify Lotus Plaza in the same psych rock genre that also holds Deerhunter and Atlas Sound, primarily because those projects stem from the same mind. But Lockett Pundt, who uses the Lotus Plaza moniker, takes us on a different journey than the work he’s done elsewhere. After a rather poor debut with 2009’s The Floodlight Collective, Spooky Action at a Distance sees him finding his footing and bringing a laser-like focus to what’s ultimately a bunch of songs about loneliness and laziness. Well, the lazy part might not be true – it’s just a one word replacement for staying home in bed depressed, copious amounts of drug use, and a general dislike of social interaction. These are some of the main themes discussed on this album, and it’d be tough to get through if the melodies weren’t so compelling and the vocals so obscured by reverb. Even when you can’t tell the words being sung, the guitars drip with emotion, and in the case of a song like “Monoliths,” also go bigger and bolder than ever before. Drug-addled misfits need anthems sometimes too.
29. The Shins – Port of Morrow
After the rather so-so Wincing the Night Away in 2007, I was all but ready to give up on The Shins. James Mercer fired the cool guys in the band, and then proceeded to abandon the project altogether in favor of his Danger Mouse collaboration Broken Bells. Still, part of me longed for the days of Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow, the pinnacle of the band just before Garden State made them the band that will “change your life.” Port of Morrow isn’t quite like any other Shins album, but you wouldn’t mistake it for any other band. It feels like a record out of time and step with popular trends, instead playing to a more classic AM gold sound while also playfully skipping around in genres that extend beyond folk and sugary pop-rock. Mostly though this is a collection of songs that are impeccably produced, remarkably detailed and extremely well-written. Maybe it was the time away, but The Shins feel vital again, and that can only be a good thing going forward.
28. Frankie Rose – Interstellar
The world has been and continues to be unfair to Frankie Rose. I know there are plenty of people out there that love her and love the music she makes, part of me suspects they’re not the most vocal or social fans in the world. Case in point, Interstellar received mostly stellar reviews from critics, the kind that would place you on a year-end list, yet it’s wound up on very few, most likely because it was forgotten. I saw Frankie Rose perform about a month after the album was released, and only about 50 people showed up to cheer her on at a free show. What I’m saying is, people need to get on board with her and continue to pay attention to her, because she’s doing great things. Interstellar is a great collection of synth-pop, New Wave and dream pop songs that are equal parts fun, catchy and beautiful. Of the many projects she’s been a part of and the many albums she’s released solo or with a band, this is the one that’s the truest and speaks best to her character. To continue to ignore or forget about such excellence is tantamount to rejection, and that’s the last thing Rose deserves.
27. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
If anybody can remember what Cloud Nothings sounded like in 2011 when they released their self-titled album, it’s almost hilarious to think about how much has changed since then. They’ve moved from a pop-punk solo project of Dylan Baldi to a full-on punk band that seems angrier and hungrier than ever before. Attack on Memory was the catalyst to all this, and it snapped plenty of people out of an apparent stupor to realize that rock and roll, complete with its heavy guitars, was back in vogue for 2012. Certainly some credit belongs to Steve Albini and his no frills production work, the sort of thing he’s done a thousand times before but that seemed to benefit Cloud Nothings more than most. Intense tracks like “No Future/No Past” and “Wasted Days” sound so impassioned, and Baldi’s voice gets so shredded it’s amazing he’s able to perform live night after night without blowing it out. My absolute favorite memory of the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival was Cloud Nothings performing in the rain to a crowd that simply didn’t care how wet they got. Even when the speakers blew out and only the on-stage monitors were operational, they kept going, on a mission to prove themselves and the power of rock and roll. While my faith in it has never wavered, that intense shot in the arm was a fantastic reminder of its greatness.
26. Twin Shadow – Confess
George Lewis Jr. wrote and recorded almost everything you hear on Confess by himself, and in many ways that speaks to the power of the auteur. But if he is putting on that hat and playing his role, it’s the one of a bad boy through and through. At his core he’s evil and should be shunned from society and general decency, yet he continues to operate without hindrance and others do not heed his warnings. He is the ruthless lothario that women fall in love with even though he is incapable of loving them back. How much of this is acting and how much is true to life is up for debate, but there’s no debating how great this record is. It profoundly expands upon 2010’s Forget while pushing personality and synth-pop structures to appalling new heights. If these songs were lower in quality, it’d be easy to reject them as experiments in egotism. Because they’re so catchy and compelling at each and every turn, you can’t help but want more even as that little voice in the back of your brain says it’s not a good idea. Every song is a single, and every vocal stretches in unimaginable ways. Part of me wonders if this album would have been even better had Lewis attempted to play the hero rather than the villain. Part of me is also glad we’ll never have to find out.
25. Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man
Ryan McGinley’s cover art for The Haunted Man has gotten quite a bit of attention, primarily because it features Natasha Khan standing fully nude with an equally unclothed man draped over her shoulders covering up all the naughty bits. Gawk if you must, but the point of it isn’t to be provocative or sexy, but instead illustrate a great point about the music on the record itself. You can say that Khan’s approach is more “stripped down” this time because there’s far less going on instrumentally here than on her previous two albums, but the main point has more to do with the lives and relationships we have with others, and how we allow them to weigh on our spirits. No amount of clothing can cover up this baggage we all carry, and the goal is to learn how to live with those demons and make the burden lighter. Sobering, spare, beautiful and remarkably catchy, these songs are a guide to finding freedom in the mundane and connecting with people on levels much deeper than physical ones. Nothing else released this year hits those notes in quite the same way.
24. Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It
When looking at the criminally underrated albums of 2012, next to Frankie Rose you’re likely to find Perfume Genius’ Put Your Back N 2 It. Overlooking this album makes some degree of sense, because even though there’s a single and a music video to support it, pretty much everything about it is distinctly anti-commercial. All the songs are sparsely constructed, using either piano, acoustic guitar or synths, and they’re all essentially quiet ballads or meditations on heartbreaking topics like physical and mental abuse, drug addiction and sexual trauma. Yet instead of wallowing in a pit of despair, Mike Hadreas chooses to try a more understanding and empathetic approach. He offers a shoulder to cry on and words of encouragement and love when they’re needed most. Few people have dared to make an album so brave, honest and topical, and that’s a big reason why Put Your Back N 2 It is such a success. If you’ve yet to hear it, do yourself a favor and give it a close listen. Hopefully it’ll be a memorable one.
23. Screaming Females – Ugly
Steve Albini strikes again. Yes, after producing the also-great Attack on Memory record by Cloud Nothings this year (see #27 above), he also worked on this Screaming Females record Ugly. In truth, both records seem like close cousins to one another in that they have heavy duty punk rock riffage and singers that like to blow out their voices. At the head of Screaming Females is in fact a screaming female named Marissa Paternoster, and she basically spends the entire record kicking ass and taking names. The sheer tonnage of rock that is the 7.5 minute “Doom 84” is the most impressive thing about this album, but tracks like “It All Means Nothing,” “Leave It All Up to Me” and “Tell Me No” don’t fail to charge in and grab you by the throat either. One of the best things about Ugly is how many times you can go back to it and find a different track to love and focus on. To me, this album is the band’s most kinetic and fierce record to date, and a signal that they’re ready for the spotlight. May it shine brightly upon them going forward.
22. Purity Ring – Shrines
Of the 10 artists I chose to be part of my “Class of 2012“, Purity Ring was probably the one I felt most comfortable about naming. They leaked a few songs in late 2011 to help build some buzz for a debut album, and it worked like a charm. Their mixture of hip hop beats and female vocals bears some similarity in concept to Sleigh Bells, but with no guitars and a lot more vocal effects. Between that and a dynamic live show that included lanterns and a bass drum that lit up along with the beats, Purity Ring are definitely one of the most interesting acts to come along in 2012. Thanks to tracks like “Belispeak,” “Lofticries” and “Fineshrine,” they were able to suck plenty of people in, and the rest of the record was just as great. How they’re going to keep this up for future records without transforming their style is going to be interesting to see (and hear), but I for one am looking forward to whatever is coming next based on the great success at the start.
21. Passion Pit – Gossamer
Did you know that Passion Pit frontman Michael Angelakos had a mental disorder the first time you heard the band’s 2009 debut album Manners? I knew nothing of his issues until their second long player Gossamer was set for release earlier this year and he did a bunch of interviews discussing what it was like being bipolar. That’s not exactly an upbeat conversation to be having when there’s a pop record to promote, but then again the closer you listen to the lyrics of these songs the more you realize how personal and dark they are. Songs like “I’ll Be Alright” and “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy” address issues like depression and suicidal thoughts with positive-sounding melodies, which in turn can make you hope that Angelakos really does find balance and happiness and will be alright. Recently many people dealing with bipolar and other mental disorders have come forward to say that Gossamer and Angelakos’ open-hearted discussions about his own struggles have helped them to cope. So not only is this record a great collection of pop songs, but it’s moving beyond that to help others. All things considered, that’s pretty amazing.
TOMORROW: THE TOP 50 ALBUMS LIST CONTINUES WITH #20-11!