It has become de rigueur to add a caveat to any year-end Top 10 albums list – something akin to, “Now, this isn’t necessarily the best of the year; these are only my favorites of the year.”
This as a pre-emptive strike against those who would criticize one’s list, in the same way that one might, after trying a new recipe, serve his cheddar biscuits with a side of, “Now, keep in mind that this is my first time making these…”
You’ll find no such caveats here. These are the best albums of 2012.
That I listened to.
Because that’s the real disclaimer, isn’t it?
I didn’t listen to every album released in 2012 any more than I responded to every Facebook invite in 2012. There wasn’t time, especially when one notes that, after buying Cat Power’s new album, Sun, I dropped into the rabbit hole of one of her old albums (You Are Free) and subsequently spent two weeks listening to “Good Woman” every day. Or that 2012 was the year I discovered the War On Drugs. And the majesty of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on vinyl. Not to mention that I still had to get in the requisite number of listens of “State Of Love And Trust.”
So, really, it’s not that my list is bounded by my taste, because my taste is flawless, of course – I mean, I own an M.C. Escher print, so obviously I know everything about art. My list, like the Theory of Relativity, is bounded by time.
Just like your capacity to read this, which means that I probably ought to get to it.
The Honorable Mentions
Gaslight Anthem, Handwritten
Bad Books, II
The Big Pink, Future This
Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits
If 2012 had been 1994 and I had been limited to $20 in disposable income for the year, each of these albums might have become an all-time favorite.
Gaslight Anthem recovered from a third-album stinker with the hard-charging, get-to-the-point-already Handwritten.
In his effort to put to shame the work ethic of every other living rocker (or roller), Manchester Orchestra lead man Andy Hull spearheaded the release of a second excellent album by Bad Books, his side project with Kevin Devine.
Metric exceeded my expectations by not making Synthetica a career-killing shitbox. (Hello, back-handed compliments!)
As for the Big Pink: if you’ve never heard of them, good news; most everyone else hasn’t either. If there were any justice in the world, the band’s second album would have changed that. But alas, Kim Kardashian is famous and no one has yet pistol-whipped Grover Norquist.
And Divine Fits: well, they were conceived (Immaculately, I presume) by Spoon frontman Britt Daniel (whom I usually find wildly overrated) and Wolf Parade founding member Dan Boeckner (whom I usually find wildly underrated). Their first album takes all the best of both Conceivers’ bands, stirs them with a hint of synthesizer, and creates a musical pot pie so good it may soon be featured on the menu at Sebastien Le Pouviere’s Winds of Deliciousness.
And that’s just the honorable mentions. How much hyberbole can be left?
(Note: click on an artist’s name to be taken to the Amazon page where you could, theoretically, buy the album discussed.)
10. Perfume Genius, Put Your Back N 2 It
“Take Me Home”
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Winner: worst album title in five years.
Mr. Genius (Mike Hadreas) recovered from his titular misstep, however, with an album that people who write about music would surely call “spare,” “fragile,” and “haunting.” I don’t know that I want to traffic in those words because when I add this next part – which is that Hadreas is gay – your homophobic ass won’t listen to it.
It doesn’t matter that Perfume Genius is gay, I guess, except that A) any anti-gay human who doesn’t believe that homosexual love is real should be forced to listen to PYBN2I and try to subsequently remain unconvinced and B) PYBN2I, which is written by a gay man, is significantly less gay than every Bon Iver album, all of which were written by a straight man.
9. Cat Power – Sun
There are two things you should do before reading my thoughts about Cat Power’s long-awaited fourth album.
1. Listen to “Good Woman,” from 2003’s You Are Free.
2. Watch this video of Cat Power (Chan Marshall) poking fun of her own reputation as a fragile, stage-frightened flower.
The latter is important to my opinion of Cat Power because after watching Ms. Marshall shit the proverbial bed onstage at the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona in 2008, I wrote off a musician whose album The Greatest probably singlehandedly got me through the winter of 2007.
That wasn’t very nice. Or necessary. Some musicians are meant for the stage (Gogol Bordello) and some are meant for the studio (not Gogol Bordello).
Sun is, as anyone who wrote about it this year will tell you overandoverandover, tinged with a hint of electronica that, I guess, turns off Cat Power “purists” who apparently want Ms. Marshall to stagflate harder than the Japanese economy in the oughts.
Don’t listen to those assholes, at least not if they’re not singing the praises of Sun, because Sun will make you believe in the good parts of mankind again.
8. Crystal Castles – (III)
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Some people hate to be asked who their favorite musician is because they don’t have souls and, thus, don’t have an answer. I don’t like to be asked who my favorite musician is because I have too many answers, especially if I’ve had a few Old Fashioneds and have some time to think about something important:
Shouldn’t I be along for the ride of nearly everything my favorite musicians do?
For example, what if I made the case that Pearl Jam was my favorite band? But then had to add that, well, even though people will try to pretend that Binaural is some kind of artistic feat, it’s really not, and, well, Vitalogy is pretty hard to listen to at various points.
Would that mean that I don’t like Pearl Jam as much as I claim? Or is it good that Pearl Jam is pushing me to places I don’t like to go?
I’m not sure. What I am sure of is this:
Another year, another Crystal Castles album, another Crystal Castles album on my top 10 list.
I’m not saying Crystal Castles is my favorite band. But they haven’t done anything to prevent that from being the case.
7. fun. – Some Nights
When I lived in Phoenix in 2005, I got to know a band called The Format whose song “The First Single (Cause A Scene)” still never fails to paint a smile on my face. The album that contains that song (Interventions & Lullabies) is a fine enough piece of work, which is a lot more than I can say for the follow-up (Dog Problems). The Format’s slump continued when the band, well, disbanded and lead singer Nate Ruess formed the obnoxiously uncapitalized and equally-obnoxiously overpunctuated fun. (<- Should there have been two periods?)
fun.’s first album was not very good, which I thought tragic because I’d long been rooting for Ruess to succeed, even if he had started claiming that his band was “from Brooklyn.” (There are few things as irritating as claiming a new home because you think it’s cooler. I’m looking at you, White Rabbits. You’re from Columbia, Missouri. Not Brooklyn. And who the fuck cares about being from Brooklyn now? What is this, 2004?)
I won’t bore you with an analysis of Some Nights; that has been done, and done better, in other places. Simply put: it’s accessible, it’s entertaining, it’s ffffffffff…inally what Ruess promised with that first song I heard so long ago.
6. Japandroids – Celebration Rock Record
“The House That Heaven Built”
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If you’re not regularly reading Steven Hyden’s writing about music for Grantland, is your computer’s browser broken?
Hyden wrote this pretty excellent piece about The Japandroids in June. Yeah, OK, it sounds a little like “Steven Hyden” might be a pseudonym for Chuck Klosterman, circa 2002, but when you work through the obfuscatory* language, you’ll find some great points about the Japandroids specifically and rock music generally.
*Not a real word.
I’ve now seen the Japandroids three times in vivo. I’m not quite as sold as most on the band’s live show. It’s good, but the truth is that – unless you’re Local H (who also put out a fine [political] record in 2012) – there’s only so much you can do with two people.
Howfuckingever, Celebration Rock Record remains better than all but five albums of 2012. So the band is obviously doing something right.
5. Silversun Pickups – Neck Of The Woods
“Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)”
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I have to make you promise something.
Don’t tell anyone from the Silversun Pickups what I’m about to tell you.
Which is that the Smashing Pumpkins might have taken the shot on Fort Sumter, but the Silversun Pickups won the war.
How’s that for esoteric?
When the Silversun Pickups hit the musical landscape in the early 2000s, comparisons to Corgan & Co. came quickly and often, because lead singer Brian Aubert has a voice that recalls Corgan’s and because Fuzzy Guitars.
The comparisons aren’t wrong, but making them might soon be, because the Silversun Pickups could very well be better than the Smashing Pumpkins.
Let’s examine the record books:
Smashing Pumpkins: 1 capital-G Great album (Siamese Dream), two very interesting and mostly-good albums (Gish, Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness), one sort-of interesting album (Adore), one album that’s way better than it should be (Machina) and two albums that are trash. (Zeitgeist, and this year’s Oceania, whose first lyric on the entire album is “God, right on. Krishna, right on.” Give me a fucking break, Billy.)
Silversun Pickups: 3 lowercase-G great albums (Swoon, Carnavas, Neck Of The Woods)
What’s important here is that the Silversun Pickups have only released three albums. If I had analyzed the Smashing Pumpkins after three releases, I would have been ready to ordain them Impossible To Fail.
Which is why I don’t want you to tell the Silversun Pickups how great they are.
LET’S NOT FUCK THIS UP, GUYS.
4. alt-J – An Awesome Wave
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Runner-up: worst album title in the past five years.
Here’s a window into the shallow, fickle place that is my brain. After a first listen to A Totally Rad Wave, Bro, I saw written in some place or another that alt-J was (GASP) “adult contemporary.”
I slammed shut my computer and immediately questioned what I’d heard from alt-J, which sounded like what would happen if Awol Nation gang-banged that weird chick who calls herself tUnE-yArDs and the resultant child got hold of the now-decommissioned space shuttle Endeavour, picked up the dude from Space Hog, drove it all to the nearest habitable planet, and started a new genre of music called Stellar Rock. (Stellarock, if you prefer.)
In other words, it didn’t take me long to recover and re-open my computer. Because if this is Adult Contemporary, then I need to listen to more Adult Contemporary.
3. Purity Ring – Shrines
It’s September, 2011. I’m standing inside a tent at FYF Fest in downtown Los Angeles, sweating and watching a tiny young woman produce what I’m sure is the future of music. The next day, I scour the Internet for an album. I am unsuccessful. But then, hope:
This song, called “Belispeak.”
Eventually, I learn that that’s it, as far as Purity Ring is concerned. At least, that will be it until the band releases an album in 2012.
It is my most anticipated release of the year.
It does not disappoint.
Yeah, it couldn’t be more saccharine and yeah, it ain’t exactly Dylan and yeah, bands like this have a way of disappearing and yeah, whatever, fuck it, if you put this on your headphones on the subway and you don’t feel at least 24% better about EVERYTHING, well, there’s no hope for you, son.
2. Grimes – Visions
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IF you are the sort of person who takes music advice from writer types like myself and IF you check out the music on this list and IF you happen to listen to the music on this list in order, THEN you will probably notice some similarities between Numbers Two and Three. Specifically, that they sound similar, in that they both feature female vocalists and trippy accompaniment.
While a relatively easy comparison, it is not an invalid one, at least not where I’m concerned. There are distinct differences (Grimes is, potentially, a bit more polished; Purity Ring is, potentially, a bit more carefree), but the two artists are more similar than different.
So why should you have both in your collection?
Well, because IF you believe me, and IF you accept that I’m vaguely correct, and IF you believe in IF/THEN statements, THEN Purity Ring is great.
And IF that’s the case, THEN Grimes is even better. And why wouldn’t you want Even Better in your collection?
1. Trust – TRST
Before I get into a discussion of the sheer, breathtaking genius that is Trust’s debut album, a note about geography:
No fewer than five (FIVE!) of the bands on this list of ten are from Canada.
(Trust, Purity Ring, Grimes, Japandroids, Crystal Castles)
This would be reasonable if Canada’s population was even remotely equitable with the population of the United States. But it is not. Thirty-four million people live in Canada. Which means that, with 1/9th the population, Canada was responsible for more of the best music of 2012 than the United States. (alt-J is British.)
Let’s get it together, America!
Back to Robert Alfons and Maya Potespski, AKA Trust (or, sometimes, Tr_st).
An important question:
Do you want to feel like you are wearing a black trenchcoat over a tuxedo while also wearing sunglasses even though it’s night and you are on your way to the most absurd and entertaining party you’ll ever have been to and you’re in a foreign city and there are puddles but the glamorous kind not the gross kind and there will be girls (or guys) at this party who will change the way you see the opposite (or same sex) and you’ve had just the right amount to drink or smoke or snort but not too much and there are cars going by but they’re all black and it feels like you’re in a music video not least because your hair looks amazing and your pants look amazing and you look amazing and OK you’re at the entrance of the club and this is the best night of your life?
The answer is yes, goddammit. Yes you do.
Which is why you should listen to “Sulk.”
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And buy this album.
And go see Trust if they ever come to your town.
And listen to me when I tell you that Trust put out the best album of 2012.
(Of those I listened to.)
For more from Paul…