Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best Albums of 2012

If you cannot tell, I really struggled with this one this year. Time was the primary factor. As evidenced by my complete inability to hit double digits on blog posts this year. And this particular entry writes itself in good years.

And that's factor 2 - This was not 2009 when the world was bursting with amazing music. Nor was it even last year, which wasn't the be-all-end-all of groundbreaking music, but there were some albums that were really just on the floor amazing.

That's not to say there wasn't some good stuff out there this year. I'm just not sure there was anything transcendent. Also, I'm going to skip the honorable mentions entirely as, on reflection, they weren't really in the running for my top 10 (Apologies to The Ting Tings, who came the closest).

Also, as always, this list is subject to what I managed to hear. I seek out a lot of new music, but then end-of-year lists come out and I see I missed some things. Japandroids and Kendrick Lamar for instance. Last year, I missed M83 and shame on me for that. I listened to Hurry Up We're Dreaming nonstop since I caught up. Also, as always, I link to a second opinion because, as LeVar Burton might say, you don't have to take my word for it.

10) Green Day - ¡Uno!/¡Dos!/¡TrĂ©!
Second Opinion: The Associated Press

Right, so... this is actually three albums. But do you, right now, really consider Use Your Illusion I/II to be two albums these days? If so, you might be taking this all too seriously. If anything, Green Day was probably trying to give you digestible chunks rather than nearly three hours of music in one sitting. And each does have its distinct sound. Right now, my favorite is ¡Dos! with the kind of rancor that Green Day makes effortlessly these days. What's remarkable here, to me, is that these albums, on the surface (or if considered separately) would seem like an old band going through the motions. Instead... good lord it's three damned albums! And due to being recorded at the same time, they show off tremendously diverse ability despite not making the latest rock opera. I also cannot think of any band that was putting out music before my freshman year of high school that could do this right now. So... three solid albums, together, by these guys, this year... that's something.

9) The Dandy Warhols - This Machine
Second Opinion: Allmusic

I don't know why people don't like The Dandy Warhols. They've been frighteningly consistent for years and, unlike Green Day's version of not-going-through-the-motions, the Dandys are still experimenting around. This album showcased the many layers of sound they always bring. The loudest lullaby in the world "Rest Your Head" was the track that first got me, but then it was the bit of fun self-reflection in "Enjoy Yourself." Finally, it was the album closing tandem of "Don't Shoot She Cried" and "Slide." And I didn't even name the singles on the album, which are good. Maybe it's that the Dandys actually prefer you to listen to their albums, rather than just go for the cheap "this shit rocks!" appeal. You get back more than what you put into The Dandy Warhols and this album is no different. Would that more critics would try.

8) Dan Deacon - America
Second Opinion: A/V Club

And then there's this guy. A classical musician in a techno disguise. Or just completely making music on a different plane. This is challenging music that requires multiple listens, but, again, the reward is so, so high. Deacon paints the country through sound and embraces its beauty while thrashing at his issues with our more perfect union or whatever we have right now. And it's gorgeous. In "USA III: Rail" he, of course captures the train, but he captures the scene with it. "Crash Jam" would fit nicely on 2009's Bromst, which remains a modern classic as far as I'm concerned. A bold, loud album that I wish we could have every year.

7) Purity Ring - Shrines
Second Opinion: NME

How can a band do so much with, seemingly, so little? It would be easy to toss Purity Ring in with the xx or some other band like that, but it seems like there's even more going on here. Megan James' voice is reminiscent of Splashdown's Melissa Kaplan (which, incidentally, is a band you need to go and get all of their catalog from the late 1990s, love it all and hope we can form a grassroots movement to get that band back together. They deserve the shot that was stolen from them.) The sonic aura here is also Splashdown-esque with some twists. Lyrics discussing the twisting and ripping of body parts (not in a metal way, silly) capture the drama of the emotions songs discuss and leave us wanting more. This band could be the next Portishead for all I know. And by that, I mean making music that is complex, a wee bit dark and has no era to tie it down creatively.

6) The Shins - Port of Morrow
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

One of the year's most immediately listenable albums, The Shins, can clearly carry on through any lineup changes you throw at them. Hell, they might even thrive on them. From the get-go, this is solid stuff. Honestly, "The Rifle's Sprial" is the kind of standout song that deserves more credit in our non-radio-dependent world. The album does lose some steam, I think, by the time we get to "40 Mark Strasse." And that's not to say the ride isn't going well when you get there and beyond. This is a disc that kept jumping back on to my playlist all year long and with good reason.

5) The Avett Brothers - The Carpenter
Second Opinion: American Songwriter

Mumford & Sons get all the press. Meanwhile, the boys from Concord, NC just keep making honest music that, at least to me, is much more genuine than the band with the publicity and platinum plaques. "Down with the Shine" gets right at it. This is the sound. This is what you wanted when you bought some other band that sounds like these guys, but you didn't go to the source. Good enough. This album could be faulted for lacking the pop hooks that Mumford parlays into adoration. The Avetts may not need that when they have albums upon albums of great songs. This one is no different and I'll take Seth Avett's folksy-but-rich vocals any day.

4) Palomar - Sense & Antisense
Second opinion: I can't find one. Which sucks. Because more people should hear this.

I know, I know. Palomar has become that indie band that I caught on to at the right age (early 20s) in the right place (New York) and have followed dutifully ever since. That said, I did the same with Matt Pond PA and would honestly tell you that I haven't loved everything they have put out. Or I could say the same about Tangiers. The reason Palomar, and not some other bands, keep popping up here is because the music is flipping great. When I ranked All Things Forests on a blog of mine that doesn't exist anymore (it was called MySpace), I wondered if this band would hit such lofty heights again. They come awfully close here. "Wouldn't Release You" captures everything the ladies (and man, on drums) have done so well for many years, down to the mournful guitar theme. Then... they just rock it all out starting on "Infinite Variation," a song that would be right at home on any early 2000 indie album but with a heavy dose of maturity. If "All Things Forests" contained themes of a band that had flirted with getting big and maybe just missing, this one has the sound of a band comfortable with where its landed and focusing on, well, the challenges of being grown ups. "But tell me, will we look back and wish we were still free?" asks lead singer Rachel Warren in "Infinite Variation," noting that "we got here, we can get back." Yeah, relationships, they're work. Apparently, too much in "Hooray for Tuesday," a gorgeous song that I hope no one ever writes about me. But, it's moments like "Park Lights" that underscore everything good about this band: good hooks, good music and good lyrics.

3) Grace Potter & The Nocturnals - The Lion, The Beast, The Beat
Second Opinion: The New York Times

So many people told me I had to listen to this. So I did. If you were one of the many pushing this on to my playlist, thank you. Apparently, none of those people are music critics, which, with a handful of exceptions, seem to have gone out of their way to have something bad to say about this album. I cannot figure it out. Some people love the lyrics, others hate them. Some love how the band is rocking out under the tutelage of Dan Auerbach, Others find it cloying. How about that this album just does what I want a freaking rock record to do. The title track might be one of the songs of the year. But, from there, the disc is straightforward rock that we don't often get these days and, honestly, this could be the gateway drug for even more ambitious tunes from the group. And it sports the year's best album cover, hands down. After listening to this over and over, my main thought is let's get these guys away from half of The Black Keys... and get them with the action half of The White Stripes. I'm not sure my body is ready to handle that collaboration. Speaking of...

2) Jack White - Blunderbuss
Second Opinion: Rolling Stone

Any album with Jack White on it is like a Tarantino movie: it can only be so bad. The worst it can be is probably better than what most ever do. The title track here is just... no one can do this song, right? Also like Tarantino? Jack White makes music like a guy who enjoys music. The man has his demons, to be sure, and he tackles some of them on songs like "Love/Interruption." But then there's "Weep Themselves to Sleep," a classic Jack White blues piano jam that rocks harder than almost any guitar song you could muster. Except maybe "Sixteen Saltines," which does lend hope that when The White Stripes get back together (they have to, right?) there is plenty of material waiting. Until then, I can take solace in songs like "Hypocritical Kiss" that prove over and over again that Jack White is a rare talent. I'm already waiting for what he does next, but with Blunderbuss, I have something to keep me sated until it hits shelves.

1) Dum Dum Girls - End of Daze EP
Second Opinion: Pitchfork

I really wrestled with this. And then, I said "screw it." Because who cares if the best thing I heard all year was only 18 minutes long? Give me an amazing 18 minutes (spanning five songs) any day. Say all you want of Phil Spector-style and whatnot. I'm going to go out on a limb here and, if I'm wrong, I'm wrong. Sometimes, a band puts something out that's a harbinger. The Beatles had Revolver. Radiohead had The Bends. I'm going to be stunned if whatever The Dum Dum Girls do next is not jaw-dropping in an epic kind of way. Let's go through this EP. "Mine Tonight" starts off simply enough and explodes into layers of sound that... is that bliss I'm feeling? In a song about dreaming of death? This is followed up by "I Got Nothing," which is another strong contender for song of the year - a poppy rock song with just enough psychedelia to make things even sweeter. This is followed by a standout cover of Strawberry Switchblade's "Trees and Flowers" that stuns at both its most minimal and its most complex. This is simple music made complex but still accessible to nearly any set of ears. And then, they blow you away. "Lord Knows" is the kind of song that, if on, say, a Jack White album, is the stuff of legend. And there's no reason it shouldn't be here, because, at least in this moment, it's in equally capable hands. "Lord Knows" is a tale of hurting those we love the most and everything about the song captures everything about doing just that. The pain, but the... complete realize that we just are the folks we are and, for some of us, that means hurting the ones we love. The closer, "Season in Hell," almost feels like a pick-me-up, asking "Doesn't dawn look divine?" If this is the dawn of amazing things to come, let the sun shine in, even if it helps us see all that needs repair.