Best Albums Of 2012
Well it’s that time of the year again, folks, where I spew my opinion all over the blogosphere on what I believe were the best new album releases of the year. My opinion changed so much over the course of 11 or so months that I really had to work at it to come up with my favorites, in order. The top half of the year was simply loaded with great albums, the bottom half just as much. It was a year where the old guard (Weller, Jackson, Folds, Spiritualized, etc) released some fantastic albums and were up against some new kids on the block (Tame Impala, Django Django, etc) who released amazingly creative records. Still, all in all…absolutely a fantastic year, even though there were tons of releases I didn’t get the chance to hear..yet. I’ll get caught up and they can be added to 2013’s “best rediscoveries’, or something like that. Also, right now I’m thinking that I should have rated the Hot Chip album a little higher. Oh well. But these are the ones that I bought and listened to the most. Let me also qualify my choices by telling you that I have not yet heard the albums from The Walkmen, Passion Pit, Jason Lytle or Of Montreal. I’ve heard the first 2 of these are pretty good, the others a little sub par. Hope 2013 turns out just as good. Love to see new releases from the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and Super Furry Animals next time out. There’s my top 3 for 2013 right there! Last thought: This list won’t look like any other list you find on the web or in any other music publication. My lists haven’t reflected popular tastes for at least a decade, probably longer, and to me that’s a good thing. There will be a few, but I’d wager less than 20% of the below choices, at best.
As always, tell me what I left off.
#1. Tame Impala, Lonerism: This late addition (released early/mid October) shocked the hell out of me. I didn’t think anything was going to be amazing enough to overtake Spiritualized, but I have to give credit where credit is due, don’t I? And these Australians have most definitely made the best album of the year, in my opinion. Firstly, I have to thank my bud Dave, who tipped me off to their debut album a couple of months back, even if he thinks this one ain’t as good as the last one. If not for him I wouldn’t have been aware of these guys until I read about them topping the polls of other lists. So, thanks Dave. I have always been a fan of bands that merge classic rock elements with modern technology (Primal Scream, Boo Radleys, Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Olivia Tremor Control, etc) and Tame Impala somehow manages to do this, credibly and without just aping their influences. This is a psychedelic record in the truest sense, but the songs…my God, the songs…are just incredible! Channeling John Lennon/George Harrison and the Beatles overall sound circa Rain but never sounding like revivalists, Lonerism is a modern wonder. Finding a new band or album like this only happens every 3 or so years. Is it as groundbreaking as OK Computer, Screamadelica, Giant Steps, Deserter’s Songs and Jesus Of Cool? Probably not, but this is an album that will rise in the best overall album polls for years and years to come. Guaranteed.
#2. Django Django, Django Django: I’m going to be honest here. I downloaded the album sometime way back in February, when it was released in Europe. For some reason it was delayed here in North America until October. So I listened to the album a number of times, was slightly impressed and moved on to other things. I also started this list way back in September and have been ‘updating’ it constantly since, and Django Django started life as my #12 pick. Then I started listening more and more until I couldn’t get it out of my stereo. It has grown on me so much that it, like Tame Impala, bumped Spiritualized down yet another notch in the polls. This is by far the strangest album of the year, but it’s also the most compelling. Hints of Beta Band, Super Furry Animals, and a very strong undercurrent of early-mid ’60’s folk music. I also hear a little Hot Chip in here as well. This band throws everything in the mix, but these influences are never distracting because the songs are just so damn catchy. This one’s a grower, worth your time. Fantastic.
#3. Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light: Jason Pierce, main spaceman here, has been trying for years to match the sonic wonder that was/remains Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. As its title suggests, that album was full of otherworldly musical explorations, a Velvet’s-like combination of soft/hard songs with the spaciness of early ‘70’s Pink Floyd. Kind of like a drug addled Wish You Were Here. But it worked because the songs were just so damn good. The subsequent albums leading up to Sweet Heart Sweet Light were decent efforts but it seemed like Pierce was merely treading water. They all sounded fairly similar to Ladies…, but not nearly as creative. Plus, the song quality dipped considerably. Fast forward to early 2012 and this album. While it’s a tad too early to tell if this one will have the impact of Ladies…, the one thing I can tell say with some certainty is that this is the best thing he’s done since Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. The Velvet Underground references are everywhere on this album (the title of the record, lead single Hey Jane, etc), but that’s not a bad thing. This set is still brooding, but Pierce sounds re-energized here, penning some of his most accessible, yet still wildly creative, songs to date. If you wrote him off, well, it’s now time to get back on the wagon.
#4. Here We Go Magic, A Different Ship: Every year I come across a new album that blows my doors off, and this was one of 3 that did in 2012. I can’t remember why I picked this up, but I did and it made me very happy. On a different day it could have made my #1 slot this year. It’s also one of those rare recordings that has a great flow and never dips in quality, not…even…once. It’s the most unique and varied sounding album of the year, too; jerky art pop, slow burners, new wave jams and pure pop experimentation sit comfortably next to each other here. It all works, and the production by industry giant Nigel Godrich ties it all together.
#5. Grizzly Bear, Shields: Entering my chart at #5 for such a late entry is fairly rare. It usually takes a few months, but as I got this in October it makes the feat pretty impressive. The Grizzlys take their sound to a less sophisticated and fussy place, which is no bad thing. Less chamber pop, more My Morning Jacket meets Radiohead, with a little Arcade Fire thrown in the mix. Amazing players, and the dude’s voice (sorry, they’re still a little anonymous to me yet and I’m too lazy to look it up) is great. A fantastic effort.
#6. Air, Le Voyage Dans La Lune: I know a lot of folks didn’t cotton to this one, but I did. An electronic prog rock space lounge album of the highest order. It’s gorgeous, pure and simple. Air have always been the masters of mood, and they excel in creating one here. Guest vocalist Victoria Legrand, from Beach House) steals the show here on the amazing Seven Stars. This is a soundtrack album to a 100+ year old silent sci-fi film, yes, but it also stands on it’s own two feet as the next great entry in the AIR cannon.
#7. Ben Folds Five, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind: What a welcome return this is! Although Folds solo albums were good, I have to admit, even as a big fan, that they were rarely spectacular. The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner remains my favorite BFF album. It’s a remarkable record, very creative and…ahem…a mature release for the self proclaimed Hero of the Sissies. Folds solo stuff always seemed (to my ears anyway) to be lacking something, an edge maybe? Yes, that’s it, and that edge just happened to be the ‘other 2 guys’. This record proves that the ‘other two’ were a very important part of the whole, especially the bass playing of Robert Sledge. It may be a cliche to say, but this album is a combination, or culmination, of everything that made these guys so special to begin with. A summing up, if you will, and a fantastic treat.
#8. RUSH, Clockwork Angels: It’s heartening to see an old favorite that you wrote off nearly 30 years ago as having their best days behind them release an album so terrific that it reignites your passion for the band. Clockwork Angels is that album. It has echoes of Rush’s ‘70’s albums yet sounds like a modern album. Yes, it’s a ‘concept’ record about a bleak, steampunk world ruled by someone named the Watchmaker, but that’s secondary to the great songs this band wrote and recorded here. The best since Moving Pictures, by a mile. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you gotta give it up for the world’s largest cult band!
#9. Beach House, Bloom: Another surprise. The ‘80’s revival continues, but with enough modern twists and turns to make it seem so very original. And Legrand’s voice is an amazing instrument. She makes everything sound so surreal and so sexy, and so mysterious. Otherworldly music for nostalgics who hate nostalgia.
#10. PIL, This Is Pil: Ok, Mr. Lydon, I forgive you. I forgive you for the Pistol’s cash in reunion. I forgive you for the butter adverts. I forgive you for your reality TV show stints. I forgive you for the next 3 sell-out moves you are bound to make, because this album is a fantastic return to form. It’s comforting to know that Lydon is still there and, more importantly, still weird. This is a strong set of songs with maybe 2 clunkers, which gives it an easy 8/10.
#11. Paul Weller, Sonik Kicks: I don’t need to remind any of you what I think of Weller. He’s a genius, and like his contemporary Lydon (see above), it’s quite comforting to know he’s still around and not just regurgitating past glories. He’s restless and wildly experimental nowadays, and sometimes he hits it and sometimes not. But, thankfully on this one he hits it almost every time. The fact that he is so familiar keeps this one from rating higher in the poll, but if Sonik Kicks was released by a new band I have no doubt it’d end up in the Top 5, at least.
12. Madness, Oui Oui, Si Si, Ja Ja, Da Da: Wonderful cover by Peter Blake, eh? Ok, so it didn’t turn out as fantastic as The Liberty Of Norton Folgate, but that’s like saying Abbey Road didn’t turn out as good as The White Album. The Liberty Of…was always going to be impossible to follow up, but Madness have managed to only miss the mark by a smidgeon here. This one has a little more of the trademark ska element (My Girl 2, etc), and while it is not as emotionally affecting as the last one it is indeed more fun. Thank God for Madness. Still great, still relevant.
#13. Joe Jackson, The Duke: I like Joe Jackson for a number of reasons. I dig that he’s restless and that he has never been content to stay within a particular genre. I dig that he doesn’t give a shit what the critics and/or the fans think about it. I dig he’s made some of the finest albums of my lifetime (Look Sharp, Night and Day, Jumpin’ Jive, and Rain). I like the fact he’s cranky. I particularly like the fact he’s released another excellent album like The Duke. He could have done what he did with Jumpin’ Jive (faithfully recreate the songs), but he did not. He reinterpreted these standards this time around, made them his own, and the album sounds strangely contemporary and nostalgic at the same time. As a matter of fact, it’s brilliant. It still sounds like him, but re-energized and, dare I say it? Happy.
#14. Japandroids, Celebration Rock: And the winner for best pure rock and roll album goes to…these guys. Nothing amazingly original, just good, fast, sleazy rock and roll done the right way. Every year features an album like this, and for 2012 these guys win hands down.
#15. Moon Duo, Circles: Another shockingly good album that wears its influences in a modern way, but in this case it’s Krautrock (Neu and Stereolab), and even some late period Jesus and Mary Chain as well. They remind me of Suicide, too, with the droning cheap Casio/drum machine I assume they’re using, and that’s no bad thing as Suicide’s a great band. This band is apparently just a side-project for Ripley Johnson (Wooden Shjips is his other band), but it certainly doesn’t sound like an afterthought. It’s been described as ‘Satan in go=go boots’, which is fairly apt. Or badass ambient music, if you’d prefer.
#16. Men Without Hats, Love In The Age Of War: “I’ve got a 2-dollar bill and a fire…down beeloow”.Best line of any song all year, for sure. Yeah, this one was a surprise. Men without hats have always sounded nostalgic, even when they released their synth pop debut, Rhythm Of Youth, way back in 1982. Listening to them always felt like watching one of those old sci-fi movies from the late 1920’s/1930’s. I get the same feeling listening to the new album, Love in The Age Of War. It sounds like the album they wanted to make after the success of ROY, but didn’t, or couldn’t. The same circular synthesizer patterns are all over the place here, Ivan Doroschuk’s singular vocal yelps are still intact (although he now looks a little too much like Andrew what’s-his-name from The Sisters Of Mercy), and the production is crisp and spot-on; in other words it’s business as usual. The difference being that this time, the first since the undervalued Pop Goes The World, the guy has written some really great pop tunes. The album won’t set the charts ablaze, nor will it win over any new converts. But they have managed to win back one old fan: moi. It’s the most fun album you’ll hear all year. If it helps, then just pretend it’s 1983 all over again.
#17. Hot Chip, In Our Heads: The best dance album of 2012 no doubt, and yet another that owes a huge debt to the 1980’s. The sounds they take are from bands like Soft Cell, early Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, and Yello, but like the best they use these vintage sounds for color. It’s taken me a while to get into Hot Chip, but this album may start a beautiful back catalog relationship. The songs are fun, sometimes goofy and, surprisingly, heartfelt and sincere.
#18. M Ward, A Wasteland Companion: Not as good as his last 2, but way better than a majority of the new wave of singer/songwriters out there today. If you’re new to Ward don’t start here. Try a little Post War first, his absolute best, then feel free to give this one a listen. If you’re familiar with ward, then by all means pick this one up. A solid effort.
#19. Pet Shop Boys, Elysium: A couple of almost embarrassing missteps threaten the overall goodness of this newest effort by PSB, but thankfully the rest of the tunes are there, and fine by anyone’s standards. No need to go into what this sounds like, do I?
#20. Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself : The only violin player on my list this year! This is an unassuming and pleasant album, and when I heard that this dude’s released 9 albums since about 1996 I was kind of blown away. Allmusic puts him in the “pop rock/Classical” category and lists some of his styles as “symphonic, retro swing (that’s a new one!), and adult alternative. What that all means is that they guy doesn’t sound like anyone you’ve ever heard before. His sound is unique, but strange enough and inventive enough to keep things interesting.
#21. Orbital, Wonky: I didn’t have high hopes for this one, and I am glad I kept them low ‘case this would have been a disappointment compared to their past glories. It is a fine return to form, but nothing more. If you’re a fan then you’ll like it. But if you’re new you’re better off with some of their earlier stuff.
#22. The FIXX, Beautiful Friction: Yet another ’80’s comeback! Haven’t really given this a really good listen yet, but I got it for cheap (free!) and I plan on listening a little harder in the next few weeks. Great cover, and glad to see they’re still around. Update: ok, I should have rated this much higher. This Is a fantastic album! It dOes and it doesn’t sound like ’80’s Fixx; the music is modern and!gasp! Sounds totally relevant to these ears. I’ll be surprised if this gets much attention, but it damn well should.
#23. Clinic, Free Reign: These guys from Liverpool have been around forever, apparently. I don’t remember hearing about them much until recently, but some consistently good reviews piqued my interest and I picked up this new one. I was pleasantly surprised to say the least. It’s a freak out, full of processed beats, echoey guitars, and top tunes. Nine long tracks of psychedelic wonder, and I can’t help thinking that it sounds like the record Primal Scream wanted to make after XTRMNTR, rather than the pretty decent but not earth shattering Evil Heat. I would recommend this to anyone with even a passing interest in electronica or psychedlia.
#24. Toy, Toy: Stupid ass name aside (I mean, really? TOY?) I would say that this is probably the second best alternative debut album of the year (1st being Django Django). If easy comparisons are your thing then let’s throw a few out there: Krautrock (especially the rhythms of NEU!) in addition to some similarities with The Horrors. I can think of worse bands to take inspiration from, though. It’s really good, but not five star classic good. What is worthy of 5 stars, however, is the album closer, the almost 10 minute Kopter, a psychedelic jam that feels like it’s half its real length.
#25. Graham Parker and the Rumour, Three Chords Good: Even though I haven’t heard this one yet I’m gonna put it on the list as a few folks whom I respect greatly have told me that it’s a real winner of an album and I know I’m gonna love it. One of those rare reunion albums that actually works and harkens back to the artists glory days, so they say, in this case the amazingly underrated Squeezing Out Sparks but a little more ‘mature’ sounding, from what I’ve heard. I’m looking forward to hearing this one!
#25 1/2: Blur, Parklive: A very late addition, as I just won and just received this, along with the accompanying DVD of the concert, and boy is it wonderful! Not sure if this should have gone under reissues, as it really is a comp, but what the hell, I’ll put it here. Damon is in fine voice throughout and the track listing is a fantastic representation of their career. Not much for live albums, but this one’s a keeper!
Mark Lanegan Band: Blues Funeral : I really dug this album when it came out, but after many listens it loses it’s appeal. Lanegan’s gravel road of a voice sounds comical after a while, like he’s trying too hard to sound evil. Oh well.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Aufheben: BJM are interesting and irritating at the same time. The release a great album like Their Satanic Majesties Second Request and then ruin it all by putting out the dog crap that was My Bloody Underground. Hit and miss doesn’t even scratch the surface when you’re talking about their discography. This newest one, Aufheben, is a little bit of both. The giddy ‘60’s psychedelia is gone, replaced by disjointed Berlin-era Bowie type compositions. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t. This is a decent BJM record, just not a magnificent one. Start with Take It To The Man, Strung Out In Heaven or the above Satanic Majesties…
Next up: Top 10 Rediscoveries of 2012!!