Thursday, December 20, 2012

Erik's Top 25 Albums of 2012

So if you were to contextualize this year, it would be average to above average (the last 10 years best to worst on an album scale would be: 2007, 2009, 2005, 2011, 2012, 2010, 2006, 2008, 2003, 2004, in my opinion of course). There were some slumps and some highs, but generally speaking it was a good year. Unlike last year, there wasn’t a certifiable classic like Kaputt, but there were some excellent time and place albums, and some great grower albums that are going to get better with time. For honorable mention albums 50-25, click here. Without further ado, here’s my top 25:

Stream this mix for tracks from albums 25-10:

25. The Men - Open Your Heart

This was a solid year for the return of rock’s potential in the indie world after a few years of synth-driven feel-goodery. The Men were one of the bands leading the charge (though true honors need to be given to Ty Segall who was unrelenting with not only the quantity but the quality of his albums). Open Your Heart threw everything at the wall, from long, jammy Krautrock, to country, to quick-hit fuck-yeah rock and roll. It could be a bit disjointed, but the one thruline on the album was that you always got a sense that it was just a bunch of dudes having fun playing music that rocked.

24. Julia Holter - Ekstasis

On the opposite end of the spectrum from the glut of wrecking ball rock albums, there appeared a few solo female artists pushing the boundaries of the previous years’ electro-pop albums into a more ethereal, experimental realm. Julia Holter, Holly Herndon, Frankie Rose to a lesser extent, and Grimes to an even lesser extent, really delved into soundscapes and textures in electronic music. Julia Holter accomplished this style in the most artful, thoughtful, and beautiful way on Ekstasis. What I love most about this album is you can be as active or passive with it as you’d like; if you’re listening actively, you can follow the rich theatricality of her songs, or if you want to simply let the sounds wash over you, you will still get plenty out of it.

23. King Tuff - King Tuff

Back to the rock. 2012 was also a year of beat-you-over-the-head nostalgia. Maybe it’s me getting older, but bands nowadays are starting to show reference points that I had as a teenager. PAWS and Japandroids probably exemplified it best, but the bratty whine and charismatic care-free garage pop on King Tuff really brought out the inner 17 year old in me. There were few albums made this year that I’d want to flip on on a summer day and crack open some beers with friends to than King Tuff.

22. A.C. Newman - Shut Down The Streets

I’ve referred to The New Pornographers as our generations Fleetwood Mac before; and that would make Carl Newman Lindsey Buckingham. The comparison isn’t too far off. Shut Down The Streets is full of excellent hooks and melodies on wonderfully written, mature songs. It’s also one of those albums where you’re blown away by a few songs that you continually go back to; but then you give the album another listen and you find an entirely different song that you love that you’d previously skipped over. It also helps that Neko Case pops in from time to time to take already-great songs to another level.

21. Dinosaur Jr. - I Bet On Sky

It’s funny, if you go back and look at all the best-of lists for years when Dinosaur Jr. has released an album, they’re always there (they also tend to release albums on great music years, the last of which being in 2007 and 2009, respectively). And every year that album has seemed to fly under the radar, as if it’s just expected that they’re going to release a great record. This year was no exception. J Mascis once again delivers a set of well-crafted, wounded melodies punctuated with expansive solos that tear the walls down. This album feels professional; a group of grown ups that are still in the game, showing the younger generation how it’s done.

20. Campfires - Mystery Scapes

This album almost feels lazy because of how effortlessly great it is. Everything about Campfires feels effortless, in fact: the output (he had 2-3 albums this year), the format (send him a few bucks, he’ll send you a tape), and the mere fact that all of his songs are brilliantly written and then obscured by so much clang and hiss that they’re almost unrecognizable as pop songs. But pop songs they are. Fantastically written pop songs. This album is best enjoyed cranked up to 11.

19. Moon Duo - Circles

The same criticisms that can be levied at Moon Duo’s Circles are also it’s greatest assets. The songs sound similar, the songs themselves are repetitive, etc. Sure, but through repetition and slight variances in song structure it makes A) Getting lost in the album incredibly easy and B) Picking up on subtle changes in guitar tone, melody, and rhythms that much more rewarding. Much like the Julia Holter album, this album can be enjoyed on multiple levels for both active and passive listeners. 

18. El-P - Cancer4Cure

No hip-hop producer had a better year than El-P. Between Killer Mike’s brilliant R.A.P. Music and his solo project Cancer4Cure, two of the top 5 hip-hop albums of the year, his bizarre brand of glitchy electro became fully realized. Lyrically dense, sonically adventurous and constantly engaging, this gem of an album is full of individual jams that come together to be larger as a whole. The features are generally strong from some of the best rappers in the game right now. And, though it clocks in at ~50 mins, it doesn’t feel like a moment is superfluous.

17. Divine Fits - A Thing Called Divine Fits

Does Britt Daniel have the best voice in rock? It could definitely be argued. While this album keeps Britt’s winning streak alive (which started in the early 2000s and never stopped), I find myself liking Dan Boeckner’s songs almost as much. There’s a casual cool about everything these guys do. A Thing Called Divine Fits has excellent ballads, great mid-tempo tracks, and then upbeat rock haymakers like “What Gets You Alone,” all perfectly sequenced to always keep you guessing and entertained throughout.

16. Melody's Echo Chamber - Melody's Echo Chamber

This has been a great year for Kevin Parker. Obviously, Tame Impala came in with a lot of buzz and Lonerism delivered pretty spectacularly, but his best work this year was Melody’s Echo Chamber. Teaming up with Melody Prochet and producing psychedelic dream pop, it really brought out a different, more synth-driven and ethereal side of his work. The sounds on this thing are fantastic; drums, keys, guitars, everything is sounding great. Melody’s melodies (sorry) and her voice really play nicely with even the more stark sounds that Parker is bringing here. Overall this thing is an ambitious exercise in what both psychedelic and pop music can be.

15. White Rabbits - Milk Famous

Much like Spoon and Divine Fits, White Rabbits operate in an atmosphere of cool. But unlike Spoon (whom White Rabbits are often accused of artlessly replicating), White Rabbits bombard the listener with an entire palette of sonics and studio experimentation that the typically stripped-down and reserved Spoon wouldn’t think of. The result is an endlessly surprising experimental rock record loaded with excellent melodies, clever production choices, and outstanding musicianship.

14. The Babies - Our House On The Hill

It could because of how disappointing I found their debut album, and how much of a vast improvement Our House On The Hill is, but The Babies were the best surprise this year. Aside from some of the weaker songs at the hands of Cassie Ramone, the Kevin Morby tracks really shine. Starting with “Alligator,” which may be the best opening track of the year, the tone is set that you’re going to be hit with an excellent collection of garage-influenced pop tunes. The songs take turns in unexpected directions, always for the better. Just great songwriting instincts on this thing.

13. Hospitality - Hospitality

I'm a sucker for this kind of music: jangly, Camera Obscura/Belle & Sebastian-esque jangle pop. The songwriting is clever, and cultivates the same Columbia undergrad, buttoned-up aesthetic as Vampire Weekend's debut. While all of these elements aren't especially original on their own, the combination coupled with Amber Papini's unique voice and unique songwriting point of view make this an altogether breezy, enjoyably listen.

12. Nude Beach - II

Listening to Nude Beach is like taking a heartland rock history course. All of the touchstones and easily identifiable reference points from that era are honed, and then filtered through a modern garage rock aesthetic. You get your Petty, your Springsteen, even some Replacements. The songs are perfectly crafted with awesome songwriting, great melodies, harmonies, and energy. This album, much like Hospitality and a couple others on this list, isn't necessarily essential in the grand scheme of music, but it's one of those albums that I'll continually go back to because it's just what I like listening to.

11. Perfume Genius - Put Your Back N 2 It

Unlike the last 2 albums on this list, Perfume Genius' Put Your Back N 2 It is not something I go back to often. It's bleak, emotionally dense, haunting, and more than any of those things, beautiful. It's not an easy album to listen to, but it may be one of the most rewarding listerns of this year. Mike Hadreas brings a Seven Swans-era Sufjan level of sincerity and vunerability to his songwriting that few songwriters this year could rival. If you were so inclined, you could see this album as a triumph in gay songwriting in a year where LGBT rights came to the forefront of public dialogue. The album, while universally relatable to anyone dealing with love or loss, can be seen as essential to the particular brand of conflicted emotions dealt with every day by (specifically young) gay men.

Stream this mix for tracks from albums 10-1:

10. Japandroids - Celebration Rock

In my comment in the spreadsheet, I made the note that “rock and roll is bigger than us all and make us all better people.” This album goes beyond the nostalgia of rock and roll’s history to speak to the power of music, and particularly how music defines our youth, on a primal level. The music is obvious in the best way; every chord progression feels like the first power chord you ever played on a guitar, and the loudness of the album feels like being at the first concert you ever attended. The lyrics are uplifting, not only recalling moments in your life, but reminding you of how you’ve overcome one thing or another (heartbreak, feelings of insignificance, lack of direction, etc). Celebration Rock feels like it sticks a bike pump into your heart and expands the size of it, leaving you feeling empowered, invincible, and overwhelmed by all the love you’ve ever felt in your life.

9. Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE

I wish this album hadn’t been ascribed so much significance. Not that it isn’t deserving, but with all of the off-stage hype, celebrity, sexual orientation, collaboration, conversation, you name it, it’s hard to give channel ORANGE a fair and unbaised listen. As with any hyped album, the good in it is inflated by its lovers and the bad is inflated by its detractors. For me, the highs are incredibly high, and the lows are just average, making this album an incredible accomplishment in pop music in the vein of Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions era reimagined. The vocals and production are top-notch, the kind of stuff you’d expect from the modern era of studio musicians. The songwriting is smart, calling out the bullshit of what our culture values; what you wouldn’t expect from the modern music industry. Aside from some obvious turns and some general editing issues (I personally feel like you could lose “Pyramids” for a much leaner, stronger album) channel ORANGE is the most accomplished pop album of the year, and should be treated as such.

8. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan

While Bitte Orca (probably my favorite album of the past decade) was nearly impenetrable and altogether rewarding, Swing Lo shows that Dirty Projectors can be both challenging and accessible at the same time. Some of the tracks on here are classic DP, with incredibly bizarre guitar, vocal tricks and David Longstreth’s warped vocals; others take the band into stripped down, powerful jams in their simplicity. Overall, their sound is more tangible, while still proving that they’re functioning on a different plane as everybody else.

7. Chris Cohen - Overgrown Path

Captured Tracks introduced two of the best left-field, consistently listenable albums from this year, between Overgrown Path and my number 5 album. I didn’t see this one coming, and it was an incredibly welcome surprise. This album is full of mellow songs with impeccable craftsmanship and sequencing. Nothing on this album is going to challenge you, and that’s the point. It’s an album in which to immerse yourself, finding comfort in not only Cohen’s lovely voice and uncommon melodies, but his dulcet guitar tones, pacing, and lush instrumentation.

6. Sonny & The Sunsets - Longtime Companion

I will always have a soft spot for breakup records. Longtime Companion exists in a weird space occupied by the likes of 1970-1975 Bob Dylan (New Morning-Blood on the Tracks), bringing a classic confessional  blues approach to songwriting to a modern take on old country music. The orchestration manages to be warming despite its minimalism, with flutes and strings popping up at the just right time, giving the album an altogether full sound. Sonny’s songwriting is wounded and endearing without being too on the nose. The album is brilliant in its restraint; it shows you enough to truly engage with the sound and subject matter without resorting to gimmick; a true accomplishment.

5. Mac DeMarco - 2

Like Chris Cohen’s Overgrown Path, Mac DeMarco’s 2 is a Captured Tracks release, and easily one of the most listenable albums of the year. With twangy, bizarre guitar lines constantly rolling throughout, the album is reminiscent of Real Estate, without the glossy perfectionism. The songwriting extrapolates meaning from the mundane, allowing DeMarco’s reassuring voice to guide you through his thoughts of cigarettes, boredom, love, and loneliness. What I love about the album most is DeMarco’s almost Jonathan Richman-level sense of humor; the ability to laugh at life and laugh at pain is a rare commodity, and DeMarco has the ability in abundance.

4. Beach House - Bloom

I’ve always thought Beach House’s sound has been misunderstood. While their name and album titles suggest a bright, sunny atmosphere, their execution evokes shutting out the cold decay of the world and wrapping yourself in the comfort and love you feel in your own home; much like you would with a good book. Victoria Legrand’s voice is as smoky, sultry, inflected with longing, and calming as it always has been, and the synths and guitars are hazy yet shining like headlights cutting through fog. Bloom is a beautiful album to lose yourself in; with no sound out of place, creating an immaculate tapestry of atmospheric pop music.

3. Foxygen - Take The Kids Off Broadway

Foxygen goes through more ideas in 36 minutes than most bands fathom across a decade’s worth of albums. Take The Kids Off Broadway is a schizophrenic, meticulously disjointed masterpiece that cherry picks the highlights from 60s and 70s giants like the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, T. Rex, etc., etc. and brings it into a modern, lo-fi bedroom context a la earlier Ariel Pink. This year saw a lot of bands looking to the past, and classic rock in particular (as you’ve seen with my list) for easily identifiable touchstones; but no band reimagined the past as well as Foxygen. 

2. Woods - Bend Beyond

Every year there seem to be two camps of albums: albums that warrant merit and admiration, and albums that are endlessly listenable. Last year, Destroyer’s Kaputt managed to be both. This year, there was a definite chasm between the two. Woods’ Bend Beyond was the album I wanted to listen to more than anything. A lean half hour of psychedelic pop songs full of flawless melodies, excellent jams, and not a wasted moment, the album is playable in almost any situation. The songs carry an added weight because of the passing of Jeremy Earl’s father, which informs a lot of the more heartbreaking moments on the album (I’ve teared up to “It Ain’t Easy” on multiple occasions). In all, the album is a triumph in editing and song craftsmanship.

1. Death Grips - The Money Store

While Woods is my go-to listening favorite of this year, I think the most significant album that challenged me and blew me away by its inventiveness was The Money Store. Contextually, I think this album spoke to something larger in terms of underclass anger, the systematic stripping of rights from our citizens, how we view commercialism, etc. If the #Occupy movement was an album, this would be it. But as with all subjugated people, a certain resourcefulness grows therefrom. On The Money Store, Grips took a true survivalist mentality to making a record: ripping samples off of YouTube videos, found sounds, and putting it all together with old instruments on old machinery. The drumming on the album is unbelievable, the lyrics dark and disturbing, the energy almost terrifying. Yet somehow, The Money Store figures out a way to be a pop album in a way. Tracks like “Hacker” and “I’ve Seen Footage” would seem appropriate in both a dance club or a mosh pit.

The Money Store takes punk, rap, and electronic to their logical next steps. It’s forward-thinking while being rooted in contemporary struggles, intricate while also primal, and a true experience to listen to. If you can sit through this album without feeling anything, whether it be anger, catharsis, or some sort of morbid joy, you may want to get your pulse checked.

Thanks for reading. I'll see you all next year. Follow us on Facebook here.


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