Better late than never, here are my top 50 albums for 2012, in reverse order. A great year for music, I found myself listening to a wider variety of sounds and even found a couple of mainstream albums on my list! As I did last year, I used a formula that gives up to 30 points for creativity, 20 for chops (musical ability), head bobbing (melody), and overall feel, plus 10 for lyrics.
#50: The Tragically Hip, Now For Plan A
The strongest outing in a recent years from Canada’s favorite band. Gordon Downie’s voice is still somewhat of an acquired taste (I acquired the taste back in the ‘80s so I’m good), but he uses it here to good effect, pushing into his lower range effectively on the title track (with help from Sarah Harmer). The lyrics as always are intriguing and literate, and the band has never sounded tighter, especially the lock-step rhythm section of Gord Sinclair and Johnny Fay.
#49: Tanlines, Mixed Emotions
One of a number of artists on this list (include Lissy Trullie and Astro) whose hearts are firmly in the ‘80s, Tanlines’ debut is warm and tuneful, making strong use of electronics and percussion to create a deep and rhythmic sound.
#48: Chairlift, Something
The second album from the Brooklyn-based duo of Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly is an eclectic stew with a lot of heart, partly due to very careful and smart musical choices and partly due to Polachek’s breathy and expressive voice. Listen to the first couple of tracks and you may think this is typical electronica, but listen to more (and multiple times) and you’ll hear a much wider range of sounds and feelings flowing out of shifting combinations of electronics, guitar and bass.
#47: Heartless Bastards, Arrow
Cue up this album and it’s like 35 years of musical history never happened. Its heart is firmly in the first half of the 1970s. Think of it as a tour: from the Led Zepplin III of “Low Low Low” to the Neil Young of “The Arrow Killed the Beast” to the glam-era Bowie of “Got to Have Rock and Roll.” And thank God for that. It means rock ‘n’ roll isn’t dead, for much as I like the range of music available these days, it’s still totally awesome to hear a band take guitar, bass and drums and grind out some kick-ass garage rock.
#46: Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra, Theater Is Evil
The former Dresden Dolls singer/piano player/cabaret provocateur brings her punk and theatrical sensibilities to this collection of well crafted art rock, with a full band crashing along in over-the-top mode on most songs. Entertaining and dramatic with an underlying sense of pathos.
#45: Jukebox the Ghost, Safe Travels
Great indie pop from this Brooklyn-based threesome who produce a much bigger sound than their numbers would suggest. They write spectacularly catchy pop songs with great hooks (e.g. “Oh Emily” or the beautiful ballad “Dead”), executed with a straightforward mix of keyboards, guitars and percussion, augmented on this release by strings, accordion, and a wide variety of additional instruments.
#44: Anais Mitchell, Young Man in America
I saw Anais Mitchell open for Bon Iver in Boston
last summer, and was reasonably impressed (from what I could hear as the crowd, typically, talked over much of her set), but then my neighbor (who plays with Josh Ritter, one of my favorite singer-songwriters) mentioned that he and Josh were both blown away by her record, so I had to pick it up. They were right! A fantastic collection of moody, lyrical folk.
#43: Corner Laughers, Poppy Seeds
Sun-drenched California pop filled with sweet melodies and gorgeous hooks on this debut album. They make ukulele sound cool and melodic!
#42: First Aid Kit, The Lion’s Roar
Another export from Scandinavia, this duo of sisters (like fellow Swede Kristian Mattson, aka The Tallest Man on Earth) writes exquisite melodic folk-rock that manages to sound completely fresh and yet as though they travelled in time from the early-1970s. Their voices weave together like, well, family and their sound is almost achingly sincere.
#41: Sea of Bees, Orangefarben
One of the most heartfelt and heartbreaking voices I’ve heard in a long time. Julie Ann Bee is one of those “do everything yourself” musicians, and unlike many, she has the chops to pull it off. A meditation on her first girlfriend after coming out – a relationship that ended due to the strains of her life on the road – it’s a hard to define mix of folk and rock that really gets under your skin.
A strong and unified collection of songs about love with clever lyrics (“No one’s born an asshole – it takes a lot of hard work – and God know I work my ass off to be a jerk”) and good hooks. Lekman’s voice isn’t strong, but, in a great example of turning a weakness into a strength, it perfectly suits the material, with his understated flatness adding slightly ironic feel to these tunes.
#39: Lianne La Havas, Is Your Love Big Enough?
This fully realized debut album from the multi-ethnic Brit highlights her gorgeous, soulful voice over a backdrop of neo-soul, R&B and folky accompaniments. Expect to hear much more from her!
#38: Silversun Pickups, Neck of the Woods
A band that probably gets lumped into the alternative rock category (a category rendered completely useless by Creed) but which is so much more. Juicy slabs of guitar, strong rhythm, an almost orchetral feel, and a phenomenal sense of dynamics and drama.
Disco lives! Melodic 1970s-flavored dance music with great horn breaks, funky guitars and a solid backbeat.
#36: Sharon Van Etten, Tramp
A masterpiece of introspective folky-blues, songs building with sensuous rhythm and Van Etten’s understated, wary voice to often emotional compelling climaxes.
#35: Mumford & Sons, Babel
Proving that their best-selling debut wasn’t a fluke, England’s bass-drum stomping, rapid strumming, slamgrass band roars back with another collection of beautifully crafted songs driven by strong musicianship and passionate vocals.
#34: Lissy Trullie, Lissy Trullie
One of several excellent synth-pop albums out this year that recall the ‘80s in all its glory (why is it that we remain in love with the music of our college years?), this debut album is by turns dramatic, frantic, fun, and sexy.
#33: Trampled By Turtles, Stars and Satellites
This band would make my list based on the name alone! Opening with the two delicately slow, sweet songs (“Midnight on the Interstate” with its delicately picked banjo and perfect imagery, and the solemn, stately “Alone”) before the band cuts loose with its trademarked blend of rapidly plucked banjo, fiddle and mandolin. The mix of slow and fast continues throughout, executed with great skill – and a lot of fun!
The fourth release from the duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally is another sweet slice of chiming, dreamy pop with ringing slide guitars, chintzy keyboards, and Legrand’s sumptuous and androgynous voice. They add small tweaks (more percussion, an increase in tempos, and a still dreamy but generally more expansive sound) that help move them into slightly newer sonic territory.
#31: Sarah Jaffe, The Body Wins
Sometimes her voice is a cold crystal, cutting like ice, but Jaffe is equally capable of rock ‘n’ roll urgency or soulful pleading. The extraordinary instrument of her voice, and the way she adapts it perfectly to express each song is the delicious core of this moody, moving and inventive album.
The second solo album from the leader of now defunct critical faves (and commercially unsuccessful) Granddaddy is a quiet mix of intriguing lo-fi tunes, ranging from mournful country (“Hangtown”) to upbeat acoustic rock (“Get Up and Go”). Definitely an album that reveals its gems slowly.
#29: Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light
Soulful, expressive and melodic, with lyrics that combine sweet melancholy with hopefulness (perhaps a result of leader Jason Pierce’s health problems) and with less self-indulgence than some Spiritualized albums. Gospel and soul elements weave with psychedelic touches throughout, and the mix of Pierce’s aching world-weary voice and sweet, strong female backing vocals is one of the hallmarks of the sound.
#28: Alabama Shakes, Girls and Boys
One of those bands that sounds like they’ve been playing together forever, not just for three years, partly because their sound is so timeless and partly because they’ve got serious chops. While a lot of the attention has gone to vocalist Brittany Howard’s pipes, the rest of the band has got game, too. They crank out bluesy Southern rock ‘n’ roll that will have you swaying on your feet.
#27: Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur
Another strong and melodious offering from this singer-songwriter, featuring strong songwriting and a more complex, dreamy sound courtesy of producer Justin Vernon (Bon Iver). It tracks the break-up of one relationship and the start of another, allowing for the lovely juxtaposition of regretful songs like “Chameleon/Comedian” (“You’re a chameleon and I hide behind the songs that I write”) with joyous numbers like “Sidecar.”
#26: Imperial Teen, Feel the Sound
These guys have been at it for awhile and continue to produce great pop rock. The key to the band’s sound is the interplay between the voices, two women and two men. They create an expansive range of vocal styles, with an emphasis on harmonies. Although it’s mostly sunny pop, they sometimes take the music in unexpected directions.
#25: Lost in the Trees, A Church That Fits Our Needs
An album inspired by the suicide of songwriter Ari Picker’s mother, this could have been an incredibly depressing work. Instead, it’s sad but hopeful and aching with memory, lush and expansive chamber pop (with a relatively simple palette) with lovely falsetto and perhaps the most moving and yet simplest tribute one could make to a parent gone early: “Because you breathed, I breathe.”
#24: Purity Ring, Shrines
My favorite electronic release this year, this Canadian duo produces dreamy, majestic and yet very human electronic pop that swells and echoes.
#23: Grizzly Bear, Shields
Experimental and unique (but never self-indulgent), Grizzly Bear mixes acoustic and electronic instruments beautifully on their fourth full-length album. The harmonies are slightly less frequent but still there, and the tunes are quite melodic and catchy.
#22: David Byrne and St. Vincent, Love This Giant
The collaboration of two of the most curious, eclectic and imaginative artists as, as you might expect, a fascinating, slightly off-kilter collection of rhythmic, Latin-tinged tunes often driven by horns.
#21: Fanfarlo, Rooms Filled With Light
The second album from the London-based band is thoughtful, inventive and highly listenable. What makes Fanfarlo’s sound so unique is the wide range of instruments – violins glockenspiel, mandolin, acoustic guitar, saxophone, piano, organ, even the musical saw! – and the care taken with the arrangements. This is not “throw everything but the kitchen sink at it” baroque pop, but carefully crafted music where the instrumental choices serve the song, rather than the other way around.
Chilean synth-pop complete with ‘80s-style electronic drums, as if China Crisis, OMD and Thompson Twins were lost in the Andes. What more do you need to know? I have no idea what they’re singing but it sure sounds like they’re having fun.
#19: Jack White, Blunderbuss
The electric guitar has rarely (in recent memory) sounded as good as in this set of classic rock ‘n’ roll collection of sweaty crunchy punk-country-blues.
#18: Jason Collett, Reckon
This exceptional Canadian singer-songwriter produced perhaps the most sharply observed album about America (and his home country) in 2012. In that way, it’s a complement to Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball, quiet and contemplative where that album is loud and anthemic. Collett’s world-weary voice wraps around songs by turn sad, bitter and mournful. And there’s a surprising range of instrumentation and creativity in this collection.
#17: Japandroids, Celebration Rock
Starting and ending with the sound of fireworks, this album simply kicks ass. It’s raw, heavy, high-energy punk with a spectacularly full sound for a duo. Drummer David Prowse thrashes away like Keith Moon (and thumps the bass drum like John Bonham). Brian King dishes out whatever the song needs: distorted chiming, rapid strumming, crunchy riffs, feedback. They both sing, with one taking the song lead and both usually jumping in on the simple, shouted choruses. There are elements of emo, hardcore, Springsteen, Clash – you name it – in their voices. But the volume and distortion can’t distract from the fact that they’re actually writing melodic pop. They’ve just chosen to execute it with frantic, hardcore energy, feedback and a “right to the edge of chaos” approach.
The masters of orchestral, ethereal pop return with another album of expansive and majestic music sung mostly in Icelandic but occasionally in their made-up Hopelandic. This is music with a sacred core: you can imagine listening in a church, a robed choir rising to provide wordless, ethereal backing to the wistful vocals.
In which Chan Marshall drops her piano-based confessionals for dance music confessionals, and doesn’t miss a step.
#14: Lord Huron, Lonesome Dreams
A shimmering debut, lonely voices swooping over the prairie, updated and modernized Americana that reminds me, strangely perhaps, of early-80s band Big Country in their embrace of big open spaces (minus the e-bowed electric guitar).
#13: Of Monsters and Men, My Head Is an Animal
I’m not often blown away by an album, especially on first listen, but My Head Is an Animal (from yet another Icelandic export) popped my cork instantly. Joyous, melodic, authentic, sprawling, uplifting and just plain fun, this is a fantastic debut.
#12: Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Talking about following your own muse! On her first album in seven years, Fiona Apple 1) once again wins the goofy album title of the year (her second award following the 90-odd words of When the Pawn… in 1999), and 2) proves that she is an extraordinary songwriting machine, producing exquisitely crafted pop songs that draw from the full range of the American canon and yet are somehow unique in how her voice darts and twists around her confessional lyrics.
#11: Said the Whale, Little Mountain
A slow burner from one of my favorite Canadian indie bands, this album didn’t grab me at first, but repeated listens converted me wholeheartedly. While using a basic indie rock palette, there’s a lot going on here – suddenly instrumental breaks and time signature changes – that are executed beautifully. The songs themselves, as on previous Said the Whale albums, feature beautiful lyrics, often placed firmly in their native western Canada.
I haven’t bought a Springsteen album since The Seeger Sessions, just because I’ve always preferred the quiet, folkier albums to his anthemic works. But I kept seeing positive reviews of this album, decided to give it a listen and was suitably blown away by this ode to post-recession America. Uplifting but realistic and gritty, never overly sentimental or condescending, and driven by a pastiche of old-time rock ‘n’ roll, Americana, Celtic, gospel and even the occasional hip-hop flavoring, it’s vintage Springsteen. The ringing chimes of “Born to Run” even make an appearance!
#9: Of Montreal, Paralytic Stalks
You’d expect psychedelia on an album with this title (and songs like “Gelid Ascent,” “Malefic Dowery” and “Exorcismic Breeding Knife”) and it is a psychedelic head-bender of an album with long multi-part tracks and plenty of wild passages, but it’s also very soulful, albeit in a twisted way, soul/R&B tunes decorated with odd touches – a dreamy flute run or a background vocal that wanders off in a strange direction.
#8: Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself
Andrew Bird manages to be unique in a completely organic way. Odd elements just come together naturally: his use of violin as main instrument; the variety of sounds he produces from it from delicate plucking to mandolin-like strumming to bird-like runs and trills (often in the same tune using loops); his expressive, yearning voice; his dense, hyper-literate lyrics; the underlying and subdued rhythm that accompanies almost every song; and last, but most definitely not least, his masterly whistling. As with a lot of the music I like, I’m not even quite sure how to describe it – “alternative folk” perhaps – but then who cares? Music this interesting doesn’t need to be slotted and categorized.
A driving slice of melodic synth-pop (although plenty of guitar as well) with Emily Haines’ voice floating above it all. Like the ‘80s never went away!
#6: Bats for Lashes, Haunted Man
Gorgeous, shimmery, and (as the title would suggest) quite haunting, Natasha Khan has produced a beautiful moving work of symphonic electronic baroque pop.
#5: Alt-J, An Awesome Wave
It’s hard to describe this British indie band’s music: this (their debut album) bubbles over with different ideas and influences, sounds and thoughts. Songs break down into oddly harmonized vocal breaks. The vocals and lyrics are often dramatic, confessional and highly poetic. The result is gorgeous, coherent, intriguing, dramatic, and always interesting, if requiring repeated listenings to really get how good it is.
#4: The Tallest Man on Earth, There’s No Leaving Now
Another gem of joyous acoustic songs from Kristian Matsson with a slightly expanded palette including low-key electric guitar flourishes, keyboards and even occasional drums and bass, plus his always intriguing lyrics.
#3: Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan
Pitch-perfect songwriting produced with gorgeous harmonies reminiscent of ‘60s girl groups and the Beach Boys, all backed by eclectic arrangements, this is an exquisite album of indie pop.
I could do without the goofy period in the band’s name, but there’s no full stop here, just exquisite pop music, absolutely boiling over with inventiveness and paeans to almost every era of pop music, from Freddy Mercury to Kanye West. Hard to believe it’s only a three-piece band! Warning, however: this album is infested with ear worms!
#1: Regina Spektor, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats
Figuring out where Regina Spektor is going to take a song is like trying to follow a house fly: her voice bobs and weaves, twitches, chirps, lifts and drops, floats and hangs. Her choices on piano can be equally surprising. And yet when she’s finished, you can’t imagine that she could have done it differently. That’s an incredible talent: to make music so idiosyncratic sound not pretentious or artificial, but completely natural. Her quirky (what’s a word beyond quirky? Quirky to the nth power?) talents are on full and rapturous display on this album.