I’m going to take a page from Dres’ book here and say firstly that I’m ditching the long intro, except to reiterate that this is a favorites list, not me pretentiously claiming to somehow know better than you or whoever what the “best” album of 2012 is. If you’d like to subscribe to a playlist full of these albums and my top EPs, however (also embedded at the bottom of the post), click here.
A shortlist of my runner-ups were: Tame Impala, Michael Kiwanuka, Andrew Bird, Sharon Van Etten, Cat Power, Tallest Man on Earth, Divine Fits, Dr. John, Titus Andronicus, and Keaton Henson (who I didn’t post because technically it came out in 2011 in the UK).
My favorites from The Year of the Forgotten Apocalypse are as follows, in reverse order:
25. Mac DeMarco – 2
Clocking in at number 25 is Mac DeMarco, the Canadian musician who, among others on this list I’m sure, is younger than me. It’s like cheering for college athletes; I never know what to do. Do I idolize you? Do I look up to you? Do I ask you if you’ve finished all of your homework? And yet, at 22, DeMarco has released an album that shows an impressive voice, both literally in his vocals and also in his lyrics. If you want more, you can check out the recent post I wrote on DeMarco here.
24. Wild Nothing – Nocturne
Some of you might look at this pick and say, “but, Kari, you couldn’t possibly understand why people liked Real Estate’s album last year. Isn’t this pretty much the same?” And I would say to you, “don’t talk to me.” The sound is similar. It’s a brand of synth-washed, mellow indie that wouldn’t be my favorite album of the year, but deserves a spot on this list because it’s very pleasing to listen to. That’s the best word I can use to describe it. Plus, Jack Tatum’s voice and his effort to make the sound more layered than the rest of his peers is, in my opinion, what makes it great.
23. Chromatics – Kill for Love
I wrote a 5 Word Review of this album earlier in the year, which, in case you missed it, was: Fantastic if you liked Drive. The album, though, does transcend beyond those measly seven syllables into something that sounds just as great through headphones in a dark bedroom as it does cruising down the freeway on a sunny day. It’s both a dream-like trance and a swaying dance, and yes, I do realize that rhymed.
22. Lord Huron – Lonesome Dreams
This album was one I caught late; I had heard Lord Huron’s EP and some released singles before as he was making his way through the LA concert venues, but I had never paid attention beyond reading his name over and over. That should have been the first signal that this guy had something worth listening to. While the album surely isn’t the most impressive or original thing on this list, I was pleasantly surprised by the folk-rock turn that Huron took on this album. It immediately rings similar to My Morning Jacket or the like, but hey, sometimes being familiar isn’t a bad thing. It makes it seem like you’ve been around for a while, and deserve to be. And I think Lord Huron does.
21. Father John Misty – Fear Fun
After shedding the drummer duties in Fleet Foxes, Josh Tillman released a new solo album under the moniker Father John Misty, and with it came a batch of earnest, well-crafted and at-times hilarious songs. With his personality, clear talent and radiating presence, it’s a wonder how this bright side of a born frontman took so long to break free. I realize he’s been releasing music for a while under the name J. Tillman, but this album was a breath of fresh air, like Tillman finally found his identity. And his identity’s name sounds like a Catholic shaman.
20. Stars – The North
“Hold on When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It” (phew) made Dres’ top songs of 2012, and for good reason. I love songs that change tempos and progressions as they go along, and that one has one of the best verse-riff-to-chorus-swell I’ve ever heard. But more than that, Stars has again crafted an album full of both catchy but often dark, heartbreaking songs that I want to hug. It might not be as fantastic as Set Yourself on Fire, but it’s pretty damn good.
19. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
In my opinion, there are only two words to describe First Aid Kit: hauntingly beautiful. The Scandanavian sisters’ vocal harmonies are incredible. They’re sirens with the voices of those long past, possessing the ability to harness the creaky guitars of decades-old folk and manipulate it into something totally modern and original. I can’t wait to hear more from them.
18. Purity Ring – Shrines
In the same way First Aid Kit seems to blend decades, Purity Ring excels at sounding both retro and futuristic. They apply start-stop drum machines you might hear in retro hip hop songs with robotic vocals and dreamy synths to make something all their own, and also something incredibly compelling. Word on the street says they’re heavily involved in the production of Danny Brown’s next album, which, given the precedent set by Phantogram’s involvement on Big Boi’s album, has me very, very excited for next year.
17. Grizzly Bear – Shields
I wrote about “Yet Again” here earlier, but as a whole, Shields again brings a multitude of multi-layered tracks and textures to the table. Like Animal Collective, they demand the listener to sit up and pay attention more often than not, and to great reward. While I may not love a track on Shields as much as I still love “Two Weeks,” it’s a solid album.
16. Allah-Las – Allah-Las
Allah-Las win the coveted, made-up-right-now “Portugal. The Man” award for making me think that the band was actually from the 1960s or 70s, when, in fact, their album came out this year. Tame Impala did this too, but Allah-Las stuck with me more. Channeling The Kinks like nobody’s business, Allah-Las sound like they’re performing at Woodstock to a swaying crowd of followers. And I’m sure they wish they were.
15. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
Here’s the first time on this list where I’ll reiterate the fact that this is a favorites list, and not a best of. I’m fully on board with the fact that this album, in its entirety, is a masterfully-crafted concept and piece of rap canon. I use the word canon because I do think it’s a very good album that deserves a spot on the shelf along with other achievements in rap: Kendrick has immense talent both lyrically and musically and shows a diversity to him that is impressive at all, but especially in a debut. The reason it’s number 15 and not higher is merely personal genre taste. I know that this is a good album, but I didn’t have it on repeat as much as I did the below fourteen. So, for that, it rests here.
14. The Lumineers – The Lumineers
Back in my high school days, I may have kicked The Lumineers to the curb once they “got big,” but just because these folk heroes now grace the radio and commercials have found success doesn’t make me balk at them anymore. I’m glad The Lumineers have found a wider audience, because this album deserves it. It’s no longer about the song I found that I want to treasure, it’s giving these guys credit for making a catchy, musically sound album with the right kind of appeal: the kind that gets crowds stomping their feet and clapping their hands and remembering that music from the heart is the best kind.
13. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser…
Oh, Fiona Apple. I may never love you as much as I loved that video of yours with Zach Galifinakis, but I sure did love some songs on this album. “Every Single Night” is the one most people focused on, but for me it was “Anything We Want,” which to me felt like the perfect mix of Apple’s random nonsense lyrics and heartfelt earnestness, backed by a totally unique percussion track that I immediately fell for. The friends who know what I listen to know that I’m a sucker for interesting percussion, and that song was a game over for me. It’s her best work in a while, and she didn’t even need a bearded comedian to help her.
12. Passion Pit – Gossamer
Pitchfork ran a really engrossing feature on Michael Angelakos around the time Gossamer came out which I highly recommend reading if you have the time. It’s an incredible glimpse into the very fragile mind of the band’s frontman and all the issues he’s struggled with both mentally and personally in the last few years. Manners was one of my favorite albums of 2009; I can tell you exactly where I was when I first heard “Sleepyhead.” Gossamer takes that sound that broke Passion Pit out three years ago and elevates it to a deep, emotional place in Angelakos’ mind. It’s catchy and heartbreaking. Like Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” at times you wonder if you should really be smiling and bobbing your head. For a band that had an explosive debut and had nowhere to go but down, they raised the bar to another level.
11. The Shins – Port Of Morrow
The Shins are one of the most influential bands in my own personal life, and no, not just because Natalie Portman listened to them. The Shins have been making music that hits home with me for over a decade now, and the fact that they can still crank out material that I believe deserves to be toward the top of this not for nostalgic reasons, but based on quality, is incredible. Mercer is one of the most talented songwriters around, and I will never grow tired of his sweet, sweet voice.
10. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
Frank Ocean is one talented guy. His voice is incredible, and while it made #1 on a lot of lists, and I believe it deserves to for some reasons, I needed to be in a certain mood to listen to it. With that said, both “Thinkin Bout You” and “Bad Religion” are amazing songs. I am a sucker, and I mean a sucker, for some male falsetto (dear Justin Timberlake, where have you been? I’m serious). Frank Ocean floats through his album with amazing grace for a debut artist. He knows what he’s doing, he’s doing it well, and he’s just cool as hell.
9. Jack White – Blunderbuss
Nothing like a transition from the mostly-mellow Mercer into Jack White, who I’ve decided is a mixture of an old, Southern blues guitarist and the Tazmanian Devil. I also wrote a 5 word review of Blunderbuss earlier this year, which simply said: Jack White is a god. That’s not untrue. His show in LA was one of the best I’ve ever seen, definitely of that year. He shows a true controlled chaos on stage, with the ability to conduct his large band with grace and at the same time sweat all over the floor and knock over the drum kit. This is the closest thing White’s done sonically to The White Stripes, so it fills a special place in my heart, at least temporarily. Plus, “Sixteen Saltines” IS rock.
8. Of Monsters and Men – My Head is an Animal
Though technically My Head is an Animal came out in the UK in 2011, the US release was not identical, and I like the added songs, so for that reason I’m bending my normal rule, and allowing it to make the 2012 list. Like The Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men brings crowds together to sing loudly and earnestly; the same brand of foot-stomping folk rock that shot Mumford & Sons skyward. They have one thing Mumford doesn’t have, though: female vocals. I’m a big fan of both goy/girl vocals and choruses with alternating vocals, and to me, it’s no contest that “Mountain Sound” is the best song on the album. You’ll be shout-singing along to the chorus in no time.
7. Cold Specks – I Predict a Graceful Expulsion
It’s a great feat when a band or singer is able to make songs from their bedroom sound like they deserve a grander audience. Al Spx does that with ease. Her most earnest, personal songs demand a stage. She sings with such beautiful conviction that you’d have no idea that she’s just a modest young kid who likes trashy TV just like the rest of us. We were able to do a wonderful interview with Al last year at the Troubadour, which you can find here. It’s a powerful debut album from a singer with room to grow, though I hope she still holds onto the feeling that she’s singing pages from a diary somewhere in a dark London basement. Be sure to check out “Blank Maps” and “Winter Solstice.”
6. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Celebration Rock is just that: it’s a triumphant cornucopia (new band name) of pure rock and roll, and I couldn’t stop listening to this record. “Younger Us” was the single we all heard a while ago that turned a bunch of heads, but “The House that Heaven Built” is the true star of this album. Maybe because it recalls the genre of music I most listened to in my teenage years, but this album makes me wish I was in high school, living like there’s no tomorrow, flying down dark streets in my friend’s car with the bright stars of suburbia overhead.
5. Beach House – Bloom
When people first started talking about Beach House, before Teen Dream came out, I was quick to scoff. They were slow. They were boring. They were whatever. Then Teen Dream came out, and I don’t know if it was timing, or an extreme maturation from the idiot I was in 2009, but I love me some Beach House. They aren’t slow, they’re melodic and emotional. They aren’t boring, they’re deliberate. They aren’t whatever! It was a big realization for me. Victoria Legrand’s voice reminds me of a more chilled-out, modern day Nico. Like Nico if she, say, I don’t know… hung out at a beach house a bunch. Bloom was no exception to the above facts. They grew their sound while still staying true to themselves, which is the hardest feat a sophomore album can accomplish. Don’t overlook Beach House.
4. Kishi Bashi – 151a
Kishi Bashi was not an artist I was expecting to find in my top five when the year began, but then again, he wasn’t someone I was expecting to find at all. With pretty much just himself, strings and a loop machine, he builds technically complicated compositions out of thin air. Much like Father John Misty, Kishi Bashi was performing and touring with a popular band, Of Montreal, before breaking off. Echoing the likes of Andrew Bird but with an impressive vocal and tonal range, Kishi Bashi was destined to shine on his own. “Manchester, “Bright Whites,” and “I Am the Antichrist to You” are my favorites.
3. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
Although our other blog poster, Ryan, posts about as frequently as I floss, I can tell you with certainty that his top album of the year is this one. Mostly because he told me his top 1-10 were all Dirty Projectors. While I won’t dive into one of Ryan’s lectures about how they’re “changing the paradigm of music,” I will agree that this is one of the best albums of the year. It’s musically challenging and at the same time very easy to listen to. They’re a band that was initially very off-putting to me, and some of this album definitely was upon first listen, too, but at the end of the day I appreciate those songs for what they’re accomplishing, while listening to the more traditionally-arranged songs like “Impregnable Question” on repeat. Some think David Longstreth can’t sing, or sings terribly, but I’ve grown to find his voice very earnest — a word I’d also use to describe this wonderful album.
2. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Anyone that followed this blog or my Spotify activity last year knows how much I fell for Alabama Shakes and frontwoman Brittany Howard. Their full length album was a treat after loving their EP so much, especially because I found “Be Mine,” my favorite song off the album. I wrote a review of it earlier this year, which you can see here, wherein I said the end of “Be Mine” reminded me of some bit of Sam Cooke’s Live From the Harlem Square Club, which is not an easy accomplishment. Howard’s voice is a wonder. Coming off another great single on the Silver Linings Playbook soundtrack, I can’t wait to see what they do next.
1. Alt-J (∆) – An Awesome Wave
The number one spot belongs to Alt-J, or ∆ for the literal interpretation. Unlike last year’s choice, which was a second album by an artist I already loved, Alt-J caught me by surprise this year. They snuck up behind everyone with their debut, crafting an impressively eclectic group of songs that still all felt like they belonged under one banner. I was lucky enough to see them at The Echo in LA earlier last year, and they were still playing like a band who hadn’t realized how much people liked them. They had some people trash them, and some people herald them as the next Radiohead, but one thing’s for certain: people are talking. From my perspective, it’s all great things. It’s an album that’s great from beginning to end, never gets old, never gets repetitive, and is like nothing else I heard this year.
Click below for a Spotify playlist of all the albums; it’s in correct order if you sort by “added.” Alt-J should be at the top.