mxdwn’s Top 40 Albums of 2012
In what will come to be known as the year of revealing, for music and world news alike, there is no question that 2012 had surprises around every corner. There have been an unprecedented number of standout albums this year and a frighteningly large amount of disappointments as well. Some bands reformed, some bands split up, and a record number of debut bands came racing out of the gates. The Superbowl XLVI halftime show featuring Madonna, LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, MIA, and Cee Lo Green demonstrated the power of pop music by setting the record for the most watched TV event of all time (118 million). Let’s not forget that it was a year of sorrow for fans, family, and friends of musical legends Whitney Houston, who died at the untimely age of 48, Donna Summer, 63, and Doc Watson, who left us at 89, and then the very recent loss of the musical giants Dave Brubeck and Ravi Shankar. While 2012 had its ups and downs, we would like to reflect on all of the amazing music that was released over the last year. Here are our 2012 Albums of the Year:
40. Starring – ABCDEFG-HIJKLMNOP-QRSTUV-WXYZ
A revelation out of Brooklyn. Thoroughly wild and fun album that reels in every direction, but maintains a garage-y feel even in the midst of intensely inventive musicianship.
39. Lavender Diamond – Incorruptible Heart
Becky Stark’s pipes shine as she croons and belts her way through heartache and growth. Plus, the band does arena rock just as smoothly as piano ballads and folk tunes.
38. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE is a debut album that most artists dream of making. It contains all the elements of a masterpiece; a controversial release, catchy melodies and haunting lyrics sung ever so eloquently.
37. Extra Life – Dream Seeds
Sadly, the band has since broken up, but Extra Life belted their strange and unforgettable swan song in Dream Seeds, a world-in-miniature concept album unspooling like a great lost short story from Edgar Allan Poe. Singer Charlie Looker croons like a medieval priest about an old American town with unspeakable secrets, with the story climaxing in a brilliant Poltergeist-style visitation from the spirit realm.
36. Horse Feathers – Cynic’s New Year
Putting a working-class spin on orchestral folk, Horse Feathers weave yarns amid swelling cascades of strings and poignantly plucked banjos. Cynic’s New Year is sweet, down-home folk that, perhaps ironically, won’t leave you feeling at all cynical.
35. The Big Sleep – Nature Experiments
This trio from New York came through after a four-year break with another stellar album of crunchy alt rock and dreamy shoegaze. Still probably the most underrated band on the indie circuit, The Big Sleep are one of the most exciting live bands today.
34. Redd Kross – Researching the Blues
This is the album for people who love distorted guitars, driving drums and punchy alternative rock songs. Researching the Blues is a statement; Redd Kross is back.
33. Patrick Watson – Adventures in Your Own Backyard
The title says it all. Through crafty songwriting, excellent production and an ethereal affectivity, this album will summon your inner explorer to set out, once again, on the ole dusty trail and gasp at the glory of our creation.
32. Carina Round – Tigermending
Frequent Puscifer collaborator Carina Round’s Tigermending is the kind of pop music that should be dominating the mainstream airwaves. Like the greatest stars of the ’80s, Round takes numerous genres and wields them like a master painter would render so much paint.
31. A Place to Bury Strangers – Worship
The tinnitus-inducing doom-pop trio remove all traces of humanity from their third album. Worship sounds like machines playing Joy Division at the far end of an airplane hangar, and feels like it’s full of the distant yet pervasive dread of zombie hordes on the move.
30. The Darkness – Hot Cakes
In a rousing return to form, The Darkness goes all-out bombastic once again in Hot Cakes, a spryly consistent, feel-good choreography of explosions not achieved since Permission to Land. From the instant-classic breakup song, “She Just a Girl, Eddy,” to the igneous adrenaline rush of “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us,” Justin Hawkins and company prove, once again, the boys are most certainly back in town.
29. The xx – Coexist
The xx members Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim share the spotlight lyrically on sophomore album Coexist, harmonizing together and exchanging words of a rocky and intense romantic relationship amidst sparse and simple beats, produced by Jamie xx.
28. Virgin Forest – Easy Way Out
In an era of glossy, whiz–bang club fodder, Virgin Forest cuts right to the quick with Easy Way Out, an album at turns lonely, cynical and even romantic, but never, ever insincere. Singer Scott Stapleton’s concise, from-the-gut lyrics are unfazed and thoughtful, and the band summons an aura of understated, less-is-more beauty alive with tasteful solos and stark atmospherics.
27. Scott Kelly, Steve Von Till, Wino – Songs of Townes Van Zandt
Two members of doom metallers Neurosis and Scott “Wino” Weinrich each take a stab at songs from the canon of the legendary Townes Van Zandt with stellar results. Each track is a refreshingly simple outsider take on Van Zandt’s country classics.
26. Heartless Bastards – Arrow
While Arrow doesn’t exude quite as much of an americana feel as the Heartless Bastards’ 2009 album The Mountain, it shows the band completely owning and honing its blues-rock sound. Powerful, arresting vocals from frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom couple with steel guitars, crashing solo crescendoes, and meandering bass lines in a series of rambling, rocking road songs worthy of the wild, wild west.
25. Twin Shadow – Confess
From the get go, the sincerity of Twin Shadow’s Confess can be overwhelming. The treasure trove of resurrected synthwave rhythms found on Confess is reason enough to make this an Album of the Year, but as if that weren’t enough, both the Morrissey-esque vocals and the passionate lyrics of George Lewis JR. complement the entirety of Confess flawlessly. They were definitely mining for a specific sound here, and what they found is a true gem.
24. Dntel – Aimlessness
Laptop maestro Dntel, a.k.a. Jimmy Tamborello, has no doubt one-upped the chillwave game with Aimlessness, a lovely, whooshing aural collage of ricocheting synths and ebb-and-flow ambiance. If for whatever reason you’ve lost all your Sade records and you’re due for some emergency relaxation, Dntel’s Aimlessness has an almost pharmaceutical power in lowering your blood pressure.
23. Santigold – Master of My Make-Believe
The perfect soundtrack for the Instagram generation. Santigold’s collection of mellowed-out electro-reggae fusion brims with riot poetry – but under that sun-kissed filter, it’s hard to feel anything but chilled out.
22. Anywhere – Anywhere
Anywhere’s self-titled is perhaps akin to The Mars Volta, just with a much more controlled dose of psychedelia. The result as that of a tamed beast; it’s still incorruptibly wild, yet has the common decency to not shit on your floor.
21. David Byrne and St. Vincent – Love This Giant
In a combination tantamount to the perfection of chocolate and peanut butter, David Byrne and St. Vincent—a.k.a. Annie Clark—cleave and mix together perfectly in Love this Giant, an often genius tapestry of bright arrangements, gleeful genre defiance and humorous people watching.
20. The Brian Jonestown Massacre – Aufheben
Anton Newcombe has always known how to turn the solitary shake of a tambourine into a vehement force, but Aufheben takes this knack for minimalistic precision to a whole new level. Overflowing—even dripping—with rich instrumental texture, this album is both transcendental and hypnotic. It’s a mantra for the mystics.
19. Howlin’ Rain – The Russian Wilds
Filled with effective uses of prime classic rock power moves in a nuanced way, main man Ethan Miller here brings some new faces to the proceedings, and Rick Rubin on the boards to boot. “Phantom In The Valley” plays like a classic seventies AOR track, before igniting a spicy interlude.
18. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
Spritely Sharon Van Etten catches you off guard with her third album Tramp. Van Etten strikes a perfect balance of the singer-songwriter, pop and indie varieties (think Fiona Apple’s early work) without swaying too far in any direction that makes those genres often seem middle-of-the-road and boring. Opting more for mysterious and less for soothing, Tramp finds Van Etten hinting at deep oceans of sadness and regret, but manages to do so without wallowing in it. There’s something haunting and enrapturing about the approach.
17. Cat Power – Sun
Sun is both strikingly new and familiar. Blending electronica and indie-folk, Cat Power takes the beautiful compositions of her previous albums and infuses them with danceable hooks and slick synths, weaving layers of vocal harmonies, piano, guitar, and synth together in lush tapestries. “Ruin” features a bright piano melody above edgy, driving percussion as Cat Power circumnavigates the globe in a single snappy stanza. This is, strangely enough, Cat Power you can dance to.
16. Drop the Lime - Enter the Night
Drop the Lime, the man behind the nightmarish sounds coming from Brooklyn’s Trouble and Bass Records, released his debut album in 2012, causing thousands of fans of the typically hard, dark, and fast electronic dance music label to simultaneously drop their jaws and turn up their speakers. Unlike his employees at Trouble and Bass who have used mostly out-of-the-box music production software, such as The Captain, AC Slater, and Acid Jacks to name but a few, Drop the Lime produced original songs in the style of everything from rockabilly to blues to punk and beyond – all with live instruments and his very own vocals throughout the course of this serendipitous album.
15. Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror
For their second album Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller of Sleigh Bells collaborated more directly and cooked up the sexiest retro guitar dance party this side of the Atlantic. Miller leads on the axe attack while Krauss shouts and coos each line like she was transported directly from a ’60s girl group.
14. Taken By Trees – Other Worlds
The aptly titled Other Worlds transports listeners to the sunny beaches of Hawaii on this tropical album that successfully ducks and dodges the normal trappings of music best listened to with a Piña Colada in hand. Much like her previous release, Victoria Bergsman soaks up the environment and lets it take the steering wheel. If you need an album that will warm you up while you are toughing through a relentless winter, look no further. This one’s a keeper.
13. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
Transcendental Youth tracks several young characters’ explorations, struggles, and triumphs. John Darnielle treats his youth with delicate respect as his honest voice showcases his storytelling skills. The songs are less wild then earlier Goats projects, but still poignant as ever. Not to mention, the horn section kicks ass.
12. Jack White – Blunderbuss
The hip (eponymous) poor boy himself has released an album worthy of his full moniker. Blunderbuss sees Jack White attempt to reconcile with his demons in thirteen masterful tracks, one of which happens to be the R&B classic “I’m Shakin’.” The adaptation is White through and through, yet it is original material and genre-leaping songs that make Blunderbuss a true tour de force.
11. Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral
It appears the former Screaming Trees frontman hocked his acoustic and bought back his old equipment. Blues Funeral finds the raspy-voiced Washingtonian returning to grunge form, but only somewhat. There is plenty of forward-facing experimentation present as well, showing Lanegan has more to prove, but also that he belongs in the same category of emotional songwriters of yesterday and today. Nick Drake for the new millennium.
10. Husky – Forever So
Just barely making it to a 2012 release due to a global re-issue by record label Sub Pop, Husky’s Forever So is arguably the strongest debut efforts of the year. Their secret? It’s in the details. The array of subtle manipulations, effects, and distortions throughout the album sculpt each song into an elaborate landscape of enchanting imagery. This is not an easy task when making downtempo music that is more likened to a lounge than a stadium venue. With superb sound engineering, attention to detail, and wrapping all of their songs in plenty of TLC, Husky has triumphed 2012’s shoegaze and folk in the name of Australia. Let’s hope similar artists catch on soon and follow suit.
9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Switching skillfully between chaotic (”Mladic”, “We Drift Like Worried Fire”) and restrained (”Their Helicopter Sings”, “Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable”) moods, the music holds steady throughout, with the former shining like blast of uber-heroic rock adventure and the latter giving reprieve from those endeavors. With two tracks boasting twenty minute run-times, a lot of care and control are taken to make sure the music stays engaging and enthralling, without becoming ponderous. To their credit, Godspeed You! Black Emperor have taken that care, and show throughout that they are completely in control of their musical arsenal.
8. Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes
Even before his humble beginnings at Low End Theory, LA’s weekly underground beat experimenter, Flying Lotus, has endeavored to give birth to music that is anything but ordinary. With Until the Quiet Comes, he gives life to a whole new soundscape of songs that stand out amongst the saturation of standardized genre cut-and-paste music, including every individual noise used to delicately glue together this masterpiece. Here, FlyLo challenges both conventional and contemporary composition while producing music that makes the pop sensibility of many modern releases re-evaluate itself. When analyzed up close, it’s beauty will remain elusive, however, take a step back, relax, and give yourself time to soak it all in. Only then will you know Until the Quiet Comes.
7. A Fine Frenzy – PINES
“Hey, do you hear, do you hear that sound?/ It’s the sound of the lost gone found/ It’s the sound of the mute gone loud/ It’s the sound of the new start,” Alison Sudol croons on PINES, and right she is. And that thing once lost is a simple, naturalistic sound that has been buried beneath boastful waves of over-indulgence. So let’s just get right down to it. PINES is one of the paramount folk albums of 2012. With somber and emotive vocals, on-point production, and deliberate songwriting that diminishes the standard ABABCB structure until it’s blushing from shame, this album has all the characteristics of a classic.
Sudol understands a truth that every true master of folk has before her, that some of music’s most affecting moments come with great simplicity. Whether it be seen passages where a kick drum and snare hold down the beat better than a full kit ever could, that subtle static that rings true, through the silence, or when a minimal piano hook adds an infinite vibrancy to an already powerful, mood-driven passage, A Fine Frenzy reminds us that less is often more.
6. TEEN – In Limbo
TEEN’s In Limbo is the most auspicious debut of the year. Three sisters Teeny, Lizzie and Katherine Lieberson are joined by long-time friend Jane Herships. The combination of the group’s collective talents renders a decidedly retro take on ’60s girl pop, psych rock and garage rock. The songs from In Limbo each feature artistic decisions that major producers would have tried to curtail or soften the edge of. Swirling flashes of synth stabs, drone-y backing melodies, odd little ad libbed embellishments and mounting crescendoes all abound here.
The real secret is that foursome elects to drone, rock, emote, croon and bop through each number with the maximum of harmonies from the four singers. Teeny Lieberson leads the vocal array while the other three dart in, around and on top of her’s. “Come Back” shows the harmonies in full swing and “Electric” artfully places them amidst psych rock nuance. It doesn’t need to be revolutionary stylistically, but TEEN’s approach to music gets it right by removing the pretensions and irony from their delivery. They’re not concerned with sounding “hip” or cool, they just go for what they love and try to make it excellent.
5. Ken Stringfellow – Danzig in the Moonlight
Don’t let the lighthearted pun fool you. Ken Stringfellow’s Danzig in the Moonlight is a lasting, hefty 14-track opus, where each sample is moon-rock dense with minerals of wily genre-skipping, erudite wordplay and more than a handful of singer–songwriter barbs on what’s wrong with the world. At turns supernal bossa nova (”Superwise”), worn-in folk (”You’re the Gold”) and even Fender-jangling Bond music (”Drop Your Pride”)—and there’s far more where that came from—Ken fitfully weaves disparate strands like some alchemical spider compelled by an ecstatic vision, and the result is a rainbow web of light-and-dark struggle, some much-needed spans of levity and an always lightsome and often acidic flare with lyrics.
In “Shittalkers,” one of Danzig’s high-altitude peaks, Ken bristles with Wainright-style candidness—be it Loudon or Rufus, take your pick—throwing down the proverbial gauntlet against all his trendy, “here today, gone tomorrow” supporters. Confessional and clever, especially in his direct address to offenders as “unlicensed dog-walkers,” Ken vents his funny, self-righteous disgust over slicing guitar wails and an insistent drum–piano chorus. All told, Danzig’s nutrient-dense entries, witty turns of phrase and kaleidoscopic span make for not only one of Ken’s most definitive statements as a solo artist, but one of the great albums of 2012.
4. Devin Townsend Project – Epicloud
A musician with an enormous bag of tricks, Devin Townsend has always been his own worst enemy. Throughout his long career, his tendency to bury his songs in layers of orchestration obscured his songwriting and prevented him from producing a masterpiece. On Epicloud, he finally manages to mesh his formidable talents into one cohesive and accessible work. He still offers elements of various genres – gospel, country, coffee-house acoustic, arena rock, and of course metal — sometimes all in one song, but the difference is that songwriting takes precedent. Epicloud demands repeat listens, and with each listen, there is appreciation for key touches. The moment the band kicks in on “True North” is one of the most striking on any album released this year. Additional vocals provided by Anneke Van Giersbergen make songs like “Save Our Now” and “Grace” pop with melody. The overall mood of Epicloud is positive and even happy. It’s impossible not to feel life is affirmed during the huge chorus of “Hold On.” Townsend isn’t known for a consistent sound from release to release, but if the excellence in songwriting carries forth, he could wind up back on this list soon enough.
3. Between The Buried And Me – The Parallax II: Future Sequence
Between The Buried and Me wowed us last year with their stunning The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues, their first release for the all-around awesome label Metal Blade Records. Incredibly, their follow-up The Parallax II: Future Sequence doubles down on where part I succeeded, and explosively improves upon the results. The five-piece from North Carolina has insanely and brilliantly mastered their instruments and song craft. Not since the early days of Mr. Bungle has a band so deftly and effortlessly mutated genres without losing the flow or melodic ebb-and-tide of a song. Unlike Bungle, BTBAM still leans heavily on their metal foundation, but after just a few short minutes of any song here, it’s profoundly evident these boys have vision beyond many of their peers. Like many modern genres, heavy metal normally has “rules” that most fans expect and demand of the scene. Many bands perpetrate these these stagnations without courage. Between the Buried and Me clearly never got the memo, and redefines and obliterates metal to make it challenging, exciting and thought provoking.
Opener “Goodbye to Everything” is an angelic, short ballad. “Lay Your Ghosts to Rest” mutates mid way from death metal screams to beautiful pop-style melodies on top of half-step airy chords. On the crunchier side “Extremophile Elite” features riffs shredding in three different directions before making an abrupt right-turn into a xylophone solo. Elsewhere, “Telos” goes on full-on nuts with a lush jazz breakdown that would shame The Mars Volta before driving through an enrapturing clean vocal segment. There’s even a track that could arguably be considered surf metal in “Bloom,” a roller coaster ride of pianos, wood block percussion and scales. If you’re looking for how metal music could hold something for you–or even if you’re a diehard fan of the genre–this and Devin Townsend Project’s Epicloud are the albums to listen to in 2012. Never in recent times has metal seemed to have such a bright future ahead. Not in a long time has it been this fun to bang your head.
2. Black Moth Super Rainbow – Cobra Juicy
Listen to “Windshield Smasher” and “Gangs in the Garden” on the quirky quintet Black Moth Super Rainbow’s album Cobra Juicy, and you’ll hear why this incredibly strange band deserves attention. Grainy guitar riffs pound over percussion, complementing vocalist Tobacco’s hazy, inscrutable crooning on “Windshield Smasher,” in an energizing opening track. “Gangs in the Garden,” marking the album’s halfway point, features slick, heavy synths pulsing with a beat ripe for a dance floor as Tobacco growls through his signature vocoder.
These two tracks exemplify what Black Moth Super Rainbow does best—blending melodic pop sensibilities with psychedelic and heavy electronica. For a band that’s always retained an aura of mystery, creating enigmatic and dark, abstruse music (and not to mention how the band’s members perform behind masks and sport monikers like Tobacco and Seven Fields of Aphelion), Cobra Juicy is surprisingly accessible. On “Spray Paint,” the lyrics are almost intelligible: you can hear Tobacco sing “I can’t be without you,” through the murky soundscape. And while it’s hazy and inscrutable as ever, “Spray Paint” has a romantic air.
All this is to say that Black Moth Super Rainbow takes a half-step out of its odd little shell on Cobra Juicy, daring to infuse some of its befuddling, muddled sound with something somewhat clearer, adding a dash of pop to its strange, strange brew.
1. Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre is Evil
There’s no more appropriate a winner of mxdwn’s annual Album of the Year list. Palmer’s exploits have been well documented, from her endless Twitter fan-building all the way through recording several test projects—the 8in8 project with Ben Folds, her husband Neil Gaiman and Damian from OK Go, her Radiohead cover EP and her Australian album Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under—Palmer has earned her name, fame and reputation. Not surprisingly, after such diligent work Palmer made headlines with the largest Kickstarter for music thus far in history reaching an impressive 1.3 million in pledges. The crowd-funding effort was all in support of this very album, Theatre is Evil. It’s easy to see why she built towards this moment. The album is her finest work to date, and easily 2012’s strongest collection of songs.
The proof is in the quality of the song ideas. “Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen)” starts the effort off with epic piano lines and slowly emoted lyrics. “The Killing Type” allows her personality to unfurl and allow her new band The Grand Theft Orchestra to show off their chops and natural chemistry. On the lively side, “Do It With a Rockstar” and “Want It Back” shows her true vision for this album, reaching out to triumphant rock, dance and pop styles that she’s only previously dabbled in. Palmer also allows herself some stripped down moments, baring her soul while stabbing out piano chords on “The Bed Song” and “Trout Heart Replica.” But it’s the most playful and melodic moments that help make this album the very best of 2012. “Massachusetts Avenue” and sour 2012 Song of the Year “Bottomfeeder” are enigmatic, surprising you with each passing second with their complexity, wit and fun. No less than we’ve come to expect from an artist that playfully dubs herself Amanda “Fucking” Palmer: she puts all of herself into everything she does.
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