Watch+Listen: A Baker’s Dozen Favorite Albums Of 2012

by Kevin on December 15, 2012

I mentioned in an earlier article that this year I more actively sought out new music, doing my best to keep up with artists I already respected, new records from those I might have missed, and new acts worthy of attention. Even with Spotify, Rdio, YouTube, Grooveshark, and whatever else you might use to discover new music, it’s impossible to keep up with everything, and the year-end lists will almost always feature a handful of albums you hadn’t heard yet. So if you haven’t heard it, how do you know how the records you have heard compare?

That’s just one of the reasons I stopped ranking my year-end lists a few years ago. The most important reason is that I just don’t want to; in many cases we’re talking apples and oranges, like the hardcore psych-rock of Ty Segall below vs. the spacey dream-pop of Beach House. I couldn’t tell you which one I prefer in any kind of definitive way, except to say that some days Segall is way more effective than Beach House could ever hope to be (and vice versa).

Anyway, here’s a few albums I enjoyed this year, enough to call them my favorites. And if your favorite album didn’t make this list, stay tuned for a playlist that pulls together the rest of my favorites as I wrap up my year-end hullabaloo.

Beach House

I listened to Bloom a lot during the year, knowing it would ultimately end up on my list, trying to get at what makes it so compelling. The more I poked and prodded and tried to have my “Eureka” moment, the more it eluded me. And I’m being willfully obtuse: spend six or so months with this one and you’re not going to be entirely sure what planet you’re on, let alone which is the best song. “Myth” and “New Year” are soundtrack to magical parties that have been winding down since the beginning of time; “Lazuli” and “Troublemaker” are more straightforward in the sense that they only propel you to planets in our own solar system. Beach House has always excelled at building dreamscapes, and after seemingly perfecting this on 2010’s Teen Dream, the duo have transcended those worlds and begun building in the stratosphere. Even when a song like “Wild” has traditional structures and some discernible melodies, it never quite goes where you expect, as if it isn’t quite tethered to our reality—and the same is quite true of Beach House themselves.

Dirty Projectors
Swing Lo Magellan

I was never sold on Bitte Orca, the 2009 album that I guess you could call Dirty Projectors’ breakthrough, because I found it a bit too wishy-washy. The album had a lot of ideas, but it was hard to tell which ideas were genuine and which sounded like frontman Dave Longstreth trying to be weird for weirdness’ sake. But on their follow-up, Swing Lo Magellan, Longstreth’s mutant R&B and avant-garde pop experiments really work, resulting in a more coherent whole than the abstract noodling of Orca. The organic percussion and classic-sounding hooks of songs like “About To Die” and “Gun Has No Trigger” are genuinely enjoyable, and I no longer get the sense that the band is using their idiosyncrasy to keep listeners at arm’s length. There’s certainly still a lot of weirdness, like the almost tuneless guitars of “Maybe That Was It,” but genuinely charming pop songs like “Dance For You” and “The Socialites” make for a much more rewarding experience. And now I have to revisit Orca to hopefully hear what I’ve been missing all this time.

Fiona Apple
The Idler Wheel…

The only thing that impressed me more than Fiona Apple’s raw, confessional fourth album, was the overwhelmingly positive public and critical reaction to it. 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, an album made very much from the same stuff as The Idler Wheel, was essentially panned, and while it’s unlikely that’s the main reason for the seven-year lag between albums, it’s a very probable factor. Still, The Idler Wheel is a much more mature and thoughtful album than Machine, and Apple’s witty and insightful wordplay in songs like “Periphery” and “Werewolf” is matched only by her talent as a musician. When she unleashes on a song like “Daredevil,” it’s hard not to be blown away, and the intimacy of the singer becomes an inseparable part of the song itself. The Idler Wheel is a breathless, beautifully strange album that gets at the heart of what truly powerful music can do.

The Fresh & Onlys
Long Slow Dance

On Long Slow Dance, San Francisco’s The Fresh & Onlys continue building their sound and experimenting, bringing in elements of old school pop, twang, and new wave pastiche. Each song seems to exist as its own singular element—songs like “Presence Of Mind” and “Fire Alarm” don’t have a lot in common on the surface—but it’s the band’s ability to stitch these songs together into a stunning record that makes these songs work so well. Curiosities pop up in unexpected places, like the throwback guitar solo on “20 Days & 20 Nights” or “Fire Alarm”‘s dramatic synth line, that gives Long Slow Dance a feeling of timelessness, an air of nostalgia that all great records strive for.

Grizzly Bear

I considered 2009’s Veckatimest to be among my top 10 of the last decade, so I had really high hopes for Shields. Daniel Rossen and Edward Droste each bring a distinct voice to their music, woven together by Chris Taylor and Christopher Bear to create one of the most dynamic and profound bands working today. Shields is a worthy follow-up to Veckatimest, both expanding Grizzly Bear’s baroque leanings and honing them into something tighter and more focused. The album is full of surprises, from the bombastic opener “Sleeping Ute,” to the intimate warmth of “Half Gate,” to the richly textured “Yet Again.” The songs wind and bend, fitting melodies and dramatic shifts into songs that already seem far too dense. How well Shields works is all the more surprising when you consider the lack of an affable takeaway song like Veckatimest’s “Two Weeks,” trading in pop singles for labyrinthine passageways that threaten to leave you behind if you take a wrong turn. Grizzly Bear’s sound is one they do extremely well,

Celebration Rock

Few albums this year match Celebration Rock for sheer energy. The album opens and closes with fireworks, bookending explosive songs about growing up, staying young, drinking, fighting, loving, and, well, celebrating—unlikely anthems that just feel perfectly natural. It also needs to be played loud, from the fiery opener “The Nights Of Wine And Roses” to the wistful grand finale “Continuous Thunder.”Celebration Rock asks questions like “Remember that night you were already in bed, said fuck it, got up to drink with me instead?” and “If I had all of the answers and you had the body you wanted, would we love with a legendary fire?” in earnest; in fact, earnestness is what propels Japandroids to heights their guitar-and-drums-punk-pop-duo contemporaries can only dream of. Their sincerity is palpable, and makes you long for the same restless nights and endless days they sing about. And, like the youth they’re living and yet already pining for, the album is all too short, but what a ride it is.

The Men
Open Your Heart

Open Your Heart is hard to describe. It bounces from straight-ahead punk to long, droning instrumentals, to ragged country-rock. “Turn It Around” is reminiscent of early Foo Fighters; “Animal” is more Unsane-meets-Meat Puppets. “Country Song” is, of course, not the country song (that would be the acoustic rambler “Candy”), but rather sounds like Ride road-tripping through the desert. It’s not what you might call “accessible.” But once you solve the puzzle, so to speak, Open Your Heart is an incredible record. Its success comes not from how varied and obscure its reference points are, but rather how those tossed together references somehow adhere into an unlikely whole. Like Celebration Rock, it’s a record with a particular mood, one that’s messy and irreverent, stirring its influences together (check out the Buzzcocks riff on the title track below) to create something unique and highly volatile.

Perfume Genius
Put Your Back N 2 It

Perhaps my biggest surprise this year came from Seattle’s Mike Hadreas, a.k.a. Perfume Genius, whose sophomore album Put Your Back N 2 It turned out to be one of the most affecting and raw albums of the year. Learning, Hadreas’ 2010 debut, somehow wasn’t on my radar, but if it had, I wouldn’t have been quite so surprised. Put Your Back N 2 It builds on Learning’s stripped down and loosely orchestrated confessional lo-fi, building haunting and honest arrangements around a piano, barely-there percussion, and Hadreas’ fragile, often ethereal vocals. Put Your Back N 2 It is all about tension, with songs like “Normal Song” and the gorgeous “Hood” (video below, potentially NSFW) setting up conflicts and melodies without resolving them. This helps underscore the complex and difficult themes Hadreas’ addresses—abuse, sexual identity, depression and suicide—but might also put off some listeners looking for the light at the end of these dark tunnels. But no matter how dark things get, there is beauty in the album’s warm arrangements and simple structures, and I can’t recommend this one enough.

Titus Andronicus
Local Business

So begins Local Business: “OK, I think by now we’ve established everything is inherently worthless, and there’s nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose.” Local Business takes on death and decay, eating disorders, sexual angst, and the general absurdity of everything and everyone—not bad for a New Jersey band named by Shakespeare with a penchant for Sprinsgteenian anthems, eh? Where 2010’s The Monitor was a heady concept album about The Civil War that closes with a 14 minute song about a naval battle, Local Business is more grounded. A lot more grounded. The history lesson has turned introspective, the problems immediate, and for every expression of pain and defeat there’s a hearty “I’m not gonna cry” right around the corner. Local Business isn’t a depressed album or a happy one, it’s both, something confused and darkly hopeful about the life, the universe, and everything. And it’s one of the best things you’ll hear all year.

Ty Segall Band

Slaughterhouse begins and ends with walls of horrible noise: guitar squall and distortion so immense you’d be forgiven for doubting there was anything tuneful about the entire album. But as Ty Segall takes you on a tour through psychedelic rock, blistering hardcore, Nuggets-era garage and throaty screams, the layers begin to fall away, and something remarkable appears. Well, maybe it’s not that poetic, but it does fucking rock. Segall was busy this year: since January he released a collaborative album with the band White Fence, Hair, and Twins, a solo album filled with the same kind of fiery psych-rock you find on Slaughterhouse. The amped up noise on tracks like “I Bought My Eyes” and “Tell Me What’s Inside Your Heart” is informed by more than just hardcore; just listen to a song like The Sonics’ “Strychnine” or The 13th Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” and you’ll hear the same jagged riffs and manic energy that’s all over Segall’s work. The more I listened to Slaughterhouse the more it sucked me into Segall’s world, a place I’m always happy to spend an afternoon.

Bend Beyond

Woods are Brooklyn natives, but as their fifth(!) album, Bend Beyond, demonstrates, they make the kind of dusty, ramshackle folk-rock far more at home on lost highways under open skies. The songs wander but never go far, always being pulled by some invisible strings the band uses to stay on track. After the Crazy Horse-style jam of the opening title track, it would have been easy for Woods to get lost off on some tangent, but “Cali In A Cup” (below) makes a hard left and the band brings it back home. The melancholy songs like “It Ain’t Easy” act as counterweights to the Yardbirds stomp of a song like “Find Them Empty,” and Jeremy Earl’s high vocals occasionally give the band an otherworldly sound. Like The Fresh & Onlys, Woods are one of the lesser known bands on this list, but Bend Beyond stacks up alongside the best of the year and hopefully gives Woods their much deserved break.

The xx

The xx’s 2009 debut, xx, was lauded by a number of magazines and blogs as one of the best of the year, championing their use of negative space and minimalism to create a record that was at once both immediate and mysterious. The band’s sophomore album, Coexist, was dismissed by a lot of those same sources as using too much negative space and minimalism—in effect, for sounding too much like The xx. But to dismiss Coexist is to ignore the preciseness of its compositions and its small, revelatory moments: the steel drums in “Reunion”; the sudden guitar in “Chained”; the melancholy grooves of “Swept Away.” To paraphrase Mozart in Amadeus, “There are only as many notes as are necessary.” One can bemoan that Coexist doesn’t offer more or embrace what’s there as a complete whole, one where Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim play off each other around Jamie’s beats to create beautiful microcosms that reveal more with each listen.

Fragrant World

In retrospect, Yeasayer’s 2010 album Odd Blood was transitional. At the time it seemed like a significant departure from the more organic, psychedelic sounds of 2007’s All Hour Cymbals, coating the hooks with high-gloss disco and dance-pop. But right from Fragrant World’s opening track, “Fingers Never Bleed,” I understood how Yeasayer had been evolving for the last five years. Fragrant World might not have any tracks that are as insanely catchy as “O.N.E.” or as head-trippy as “2080,” but it does take the best parts of both of those first records and crafts them into a (mostly) seamless expression of danceable art-rock with experimental flourishes. The kooky robot voices that marred parts of Odd Blood have been reined in, and the jubilant worldbeat of Cymbals finds a home alongside synthesizers and mechanical percussion. Still, the songs are catchy, with songs like “Longevity,” “Henrietta,” and “Reagan’s Skeleton” among the most arresting the band has ever done.

The Black Keys
El Camino

El Camino came out last December, which means it’s been out for just over a year, but that’s terrible timing for the band. Critics generally wrap up their year-end lists in late November, giving anything that comes out after Thanksgiving a disadvantage. This is why London Calling topped Rolling Stone’s album list in 1980 and sometimes winds up on “Best Of The 80s” lists, despite being released in mid-December, 1979. So when year-end lists are being compiled, December records are generally left off those lists as well, because they didn’t come out that calendar year. All this is just a rambling preface to say that El Camino is such an outstanding album that it would be a shame not to include it here. The Black Keys play bluesy garage-rock (or is that garagey blues-rock?) with such an innate sense of the roots and blood of the music that it sometimes feels like they’ve been dug up out of some time capsule buried 40 years ago. There’s no glitz or glamour, no pretense or preciousness, there’s just the music, as loud and dirty and brilliant as you’ve ever heard. Turns out one of the best albums of the year is one of the best albums of last year. Go figure.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

John December 15, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Extraordinary Machine was hardly panned. Fans of Fiona were pretty much split between the Jon Brion bootleg version (which is very easy to find) and the official version. But overall, the official version received mostly excellent reviews. It had an 84 on Metacritic.


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