Monday, March 18, 2013

The Best Albums of 2012

I love listening to music, and although this year, I limited my list to 85 albums, it doesn’t mean there weren’t more candidates for the list.  Any of them are really good, depending on what kind of music you like, and the fact that the same list is shared by a 77-year-old folk-rock icon and a Icelandic indie pop band releasing their first album speaks volumes about the world of music today.  I have  numbered and described the top 50 and listed the others as “Honorable Mention.”

My annual qualifier is that my tastes tend to run toward alternative rock, R&B/soul, indie rock, and inventive pop music, so if you are a fan of Classical, Country, Death Metal, or Rap, you will probably be disappointed with this list.  I also tend to like music that is up-front, rather than hidden by layers of production. 

The numbering is somewhat random, because on any given day, I might want to hear one album ahead of any other, and each of the “Honorable Mention” albums could easily have made the top 50.  With that said, here is my list in ascending order:

50.    Morning Parade, “Morning Parade”
This is the debut album of a a five-piece, English, alternative rock band with excellent modern rock sensibilities and highly enjoyable songs including “Headlights,” “Us & Ourselves,” and “Under the Stars.”

49.    Sun Kil Moon, “Among the Leaves”
The eighth album by this band, fronted by singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek, is an acoustic beauty featuring Kozelek’s outstanding lyrics and expressive singing.  Songs include the title song, “Sunshine In Chicago,” and the humorously named “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man.”

48.    Best Coast, “The Only Place”
Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno are Best Coast, and their brand of modern surf pop is an enjoyable romp that harkens to the 60s beach bands—fuzzy production techniques and all.  The group’s second album includes “The Only Place,” “Up All Night,” and “Why I Cry.”  

47.    Sharon Van Etten, “Tramp”
This Brooklyn-based artist is her own breed of singer-songwriter, capable of quiet elegance in one song followed by a rock-infringed powerhouse on the next.  Add to that her lovely but raspy voice and the production of The National’s Aaron Desner, and the result is an outstanding set of songs including “Serpents,” “Leonard,” and “We Are Fine.”

46.    Graffiti6, “Colours”
Essentially the work of British artist Jamie Scott, this infectious set of pop/soul songs is the first full album by Graffiti6, and it definitely bears repeated listening.  Songs include “Stare Into the Sun,” “Free,” and “Over You.”

45.    Field Music, “Plumb”
If you’ve read my past reviews, you’ll know that Field Music usually winds up on this list.  If you’ve listened to them, you’ll understand why I love their inventive style of rock, which defies classification.  This, their fourth album, features “Start the Day Right,” “A New Town,” and the brief but beautiful a capella tune, “How Many More Times?”

44.    Alt-J, “An Awesome Wave”
The first full studio album by this English quartet is just wonderfully different from most of what you’re likely to hear on the radio.  What jumps out at you is the excellent musicianship combined with the offbeat vocals.  Songs include “Breezeblocks,” “Dissolve Me,” and “Fitzpleasure.”

43.    Esperanza Spalding, “Radio Music Society”
After winning the Grammy for best new artist, Spaulding followed it up with this beautiful vocal jazz album that demonstrates her many talents.  Songs include “Cinnamon Tree,” “Black Gold,” and “I Can’t Help It.”

42.    Paul Buchanan, “Mid Air”
I admit to playing the Blue Nile’s “Hats” many times in the late 80s and early 90s for its superb use of multi-layered, synthesized music and the haunting vocals of Paul Buchanan.  Although he was never able to duplicate the excellence of that sonic masterpiece, his music has continued to amaze me.  This is his first solo album and it reminds me why I liked the Blue Nile so much.  Songs include “Mid Air,” “Buy a Motor Car,” and “God Is Laughing.”

41.    Loudon Wainwright III, “Older Than My Old Man Now”
On his 22nd album, the patriarch of the musical Wainwright clan explores what it’s like to get older.  In doing so, he’s created an immensely humorous and entertaining set of songs that include “The Here & the Now,” “My Meds,” and “I Remember Sex.”

40.    Silversun Pickups, “Neck of the Woods”
On their fourth studio album, the Los Angeles-based quartet shows why they are one of the most interesting alt-rock bands recording today.  Their songs have a driving beat and a lively grasp of what it takes to construct a good song, such as “Make Believe,” “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings),” and “The Pit.”

39.    Walk the Moon, “Walk the Moon”
This is the second album (first on a major label) by a Cincinnati-based quartet that creates an exuberant sound that will have you up and dancing, or at least tapping your feet.  Songs include “Anna Sun,” “Tightrope,” and “Shiver Shiver.”

38.    Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band, “One of My Kind”
Conor Oberst has recorded under his own name and as Bright Eyes.  Here, he has assembled a 5-person backup band called The Mystic Valley Band, and the result is a slightly more rock-oriented effort than his previous albums.  As always, Oberst’s songs are intelligent and thoughtful, and his unique voice adds texture to original songs like “Gentleman’s Pact,” and “Normal,” as well as covers like “Corina, Corina” and “Kodachrome.”

37.    John Boutté, “All About Everything”
New Orleans-based John Boutté is an American original.  Here, on his tenth album, he uses his sweet, emotional voice to deliver what may be the best set of songs of his career, including “These Blue Days,” “The Grass Is Greener,” and a bluesy version of the Leonard Cohen classic, “Hallelujah.”

36.    Imagine Dragons, “Night Visions”
A true modern rock band, this Las Vegas-based quartet combines excellent songwriting, outstanding musicianship, and wall-of-sound production techniques to construct songs that build from the beginning to the end.  This is their first studio album with songs that include “Radioactive,” “It’s Time,” and “On Top of the World.”

35.    Muse, “The 2nd Law”
While unlike anything Muse has done before, this, their sixth album, is a concept album about the residents of a planet who need to find somewhere else to live.  As usual, their totally enveloping sound is evident from start to finish on songs like “Madness,” “Survival,” and “Liquid State.”

34.    We Are Serenades, “Criminal Heaven”
This debut album from a Swedish duo uses modern production techniques to create a beautiful, almost symphonic sounding set of songs that includes “Birds,” “Daydreaming,” and “Walking Home.”

33.    Passion Pit, “Gossamer”
This Cambridge Mass-based band met at Berklee School of Music and debuted in 2009 with the excellent “Manners.”  This, their second effort, is even better and combines a variety of styles into a highly listenable album that includes “Take a Walk,” “Carried Away,” and “Hideaway.”

32.    The Lumineers, “The Lumineers”
If you haven’t heard the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey,” maybe you slept through this year, or you don’t listen to much new music.  Otherwise, you understand the infectiousness of their refrain, “I belong with you, you belong with me, in my sweet heart.”  The band’s debut album combines bluegrass with simple lyrics and Neyla Pekarek’s cello and includes “Flowers In Your Hair,” “Ho Hey,” and “Stubborn Love.”

31.    Laetitia Sadier, “Silencio”
The French lead singer of Stereolab released this, her second solo effort, which combines her rich, beautiful vocals with inventive musicianship that makes you take notice of each song, including “Silent Spot,” “Between Earth and Heaven,” and “Fragment pour le future de l’homme.”

30.    Joe Bonamassa, “Driving Towards the Daylight”
Joe Bonamassa is one of the best guitarists to ever record an album, and he’s a good vocalist too.  If you don’t believe me, you can ask people like Eric Clapton, Gregg Allman, and Rick Derringer, who have all played with him and marvel at his skills.  On this, his tenth studio album, the 35-year-old Bonamassa continues to wow anyone who listens to songs like “Dislocated Boy,” “A Place in My Heart,” and “Too Much Ain’t Enough Love.”

29.    The Magnetic Fields, “Love at the Bottom of the Sea”
Stephin Merritt, the creative force behind the Magnetic Fields, is a musical genius similar to David Byrne, and each of the band’s 11 albums demonstrates that genius.  This is no exception, as demonstrated by songs like “Andrew in Drag,” “Infatuation (With Your Gyration),” and “I Don’t Like Your Tone.”

28.    Alicia Keys “Girl on Fire”
It’s easy to take Alicia Keys for granted.  After all, her debut album, “Songs in A Minor,” was as breathtakingly beautiful as her face.  Now, with her fifth album, Keys (nee Alicia Cook) has released another group of listenable, well-written and well-produced songs including “Brand New Me,” “Girl on Fire,” and “Fire We Make.”

27.    Go Kart Mozart, “On the Hot Dog Streets”
If you’ve know Springsteen’s songs (specifically “Blided By the Light”), you’ll recognize this band’s name.  That’s particularly funny because this band is fronted by a British artist known simply as Lawrence.  This is their third album and it is a series of well-recorded, satirical, post-punk songs that include “Lawrence Takes Over,” “Mickie Made the Most ,” and “White Stilettos In the Sand.”

26.    Ingrid Michaelson, “Human Again”
On her fifth album, Ingrid Michaelson continues to establish herself as one of the best singer-songwriters recording today.  Her lyrics are thoughtful, her tunes are lovely, and her voice is expressive.  Songs include “Fire,” “I’m Through,” and “How We Love.”

25.    The xx, “Coexist”
This is a very talented English band operating at the top of its craft and deserving of the critical acclaim that both of its albums have received.  Their songs are steeped in mood and ambience that tend to transpose you to another place.  If you haven’t heard them, do yourself a favor and buy songs like “Angels,” “Chained,” and “Sunset.”

24.    Dr. John, “Locked Down”
At 73, Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack, Jr. (aka Dr. John) may have released his best and most personal album ever, and one that is definitely worth listening to.  It’s great to hear this master, New Orleans bluesman perform songs as well-written as “Locked Down,” “Revolution,” and “My Children, My Angels.”

23.    Cat Power, “Sun”
Atlanta-based Chan Marshall (who performs as Cat Power) is well-known for the uniquely moody approach she has taken throughout her nine previous albums.  That’s what makes this album such a major and welcome departure.  I wouldn’t call these dance tunes, but you could certainly dance to them, and that’s very unusual with regard to her music.  Songs include “Cherokee,” “Manhattan,” and “Silent Machine.”

22.    Frank Ocean, “Channel ORANGE”
Some of the songs on this, Ocean’s second album are outstanding, while others seem to benefit too much from Auto-Tune technology.  It’s too early to say if this New Orleans-based soul singer-songwriter will reach his full potential or fade into the woodwork, but he shows considerable promise in a genre that cries out for new stars.  Songs include “Thinkin Bout You,” “Sweet Life,” and “Forrest Gump.”

21.    Meiko, “The Bright Side”
In the pantheon of American singer-songwriters, Meiko is starting to carve out a niche with her sexily breathy vocals and use of a variety of instruments.  Hailing from Georgia and one quarter Japanese-American (hence the name), she combines styles and syncopations to fill her second album with songs like “Stuck On You,” “Leave the Lights On,” and “Good Looking Loser.”

20.    Bruce Springsteen, “Wrecking Ball”
On his 17th studio album, the boss has conjured up a group of songs with rousing tunes but lyrics that reflect the trials of the working class.  This is one of the best albums of Springsteen’s recent years—one which combines his familiar, gravelly voice with a wide range of instruments including some Irish fiddle.   Songs include “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Death to My Hometown,” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” and “American Land.”

19.    Kat Edmonson, “Way Down Low”
This, her second album, was funded through a Kickstarter campaign, and it shows off the immense talent of this singer-songwriter.  Her clear, quirky voice works beautifully with the offbeat tunes, rhythms, and lyrics that she writes.  If you like acoustic music and haven’t heard Kat Edmonson, I suggest you give this album a listen.

18.    Ladyhawke, “Anxiety”
Phillipa "Pip" Brown is from New Zealand, suffers from Asperger syndrome, and has recorded under the name, Ladyhawke since leaving the band Two Lane Blacktop.  Her style is straight-ahead rock, seemingly descended from the likes of Pat Benatar and Joan Jett.  Like those musicians, Ladyhawke makes excellent music that deserves to be heard.  Songs include “Girl Like Me,” “Black White & Blue,” and “Cellophane.”

17.    Regina Spektor, “What We Saw from the Cheap Seats”
This sixth album by the Moscow-born, New York resident may not be so groundbreaking as her earlier work, but how many times can one person break new ground?  Personally, I love her witty, intelligent songs and these are no exception, including “Don't Leave Me (Ne me quitte pas),” “How,” “All the Rowboats,” and “The Party.”

16.    Green Day, “¡Uno!” “¡Dos!” and “¡Tré!”
This is actually three albums that Green Day released in 2012.  In doing so, they went away from the “rock opera” approach of the last few albums while still putting together a worthy set of songs that includes “Let Yourself Go,” “Stray Heart,” and “The Forgotten.”  Even if the songs weren’t as good as they are, the band deserves recognition for being so ambitious in this age of seemingly lazy musicians.

15.    Matt & Kim, “Lightning”
Matt Johnson (vocals/keyboards) and Kim Schifino (drums) from Brooklyn have recorded four albums, but this is by far their best.  Their voices are clear, their harmonies are superb, and their songs have an infectiousness that is missing from most modern pop music.  Sings include “Let’s Go,” “It’s Alright,” and “Tonight.”

14.    P!nk, “The Truth About Love”
I just love listening to P!nk.  That’s the recording name of Alecia Beth Moore of Doylestown, PA.  Six albums into her career, she continues to combine great music with intelligent lyrics that challenge her listeners to be the best they can be.  She is consistently one of America’s best recording artists, and that consistency is reflected in songs like “Blow Me (One Last Kiss),” “Try,” and “Just Give Me a Reason.”

13.    Dirty Projectors, “Swing Lo Magellan”
It’s surprising to think that Dirty Projectors has already released seven albums, none more powerful than 2009’s “Bitte Orca,” but this is a worthy follow-up to that effort.  Their inventive music and harmonious vocals combine perfectly with their unique production techniques to create a style all their own.   Songs include “Gun Has No Trigger,” “Swing Lo Magellan,” and “The Socialites.”

12.    Jimmy Cliff, “Rebirth”
Seeing and hearing Jimmy Cliff in the 1972 film “The Harder They Come” was a revelation that introduced most of the world to Reggae music and catapulted Cliff into stardom.  40 years later, Cliff released this album, appropriately called “Rebirth,” and showed us that he’s still at the top of his game.  Songs include “One More,” “Reggae Music,” and the Clash classic, “Guns of Brixton.”

11.    Of Monsters and Men, “My Head Is An Animal”
This debut album from an Icelandic indie band is one of the year’s most infectious set of songs, combining pop tunes and vocals with music that draws you in and continues to build to its rollicking conclusion.  This is the kind of album that makes me remember while I like music so much.  Songs include “Mountain Sound,” “Love Love Love,” and the international sensation known as “Little Talks.”

10.    Rebecca Ferguson, “Heaven”
The runner-up in the 2010 season of the British “X Factor” competition, Ferguson’s first album demonstrates the clarity and elegance that occasionally distinguishes British soul music.  In doing so, the Liverpool native displays both power and subtlety in a way that shows what’s often missing from the overproduced music that passes for R&B these days.  Songs include “Fairytale (Let Me Live My Life This Way),” “Teach Me How to Be Loved,” and “Nothing’s Real But Love.”

9.      Jack White, “Blunderbuss”
Jack White continues to build on his already expansive career.  Through his work with the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and the Dead Weather, as well as his many side projects, he has already established himself as the modern poet laureate of rock.  This is technically his first complete solo album and it shows an artist that continues to grow and experiment with new styles, usually with great success.  Songs include “Missing Pieces,” “I’m Shakin’,” “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep,” and “Love Interruption.”

8.      Fun, “Some Nights”
For years, I’ve been raving about a band called the Format.  So when Nate Ruess of that band broke off and founded Fun with with Andrew Dost of Anathallo and Jack Antonoff of Steel Train, I had great hopes.  But I never expected the immense popularity and commercial success that Fun has achieved.  Of course, there are good reasons for that success, including “Some Nights,” “We Are Young,” and “Why Am I the One.”

7.      Elizaveta, “Beatrix Runs”
Elizaveta Igorevna Khripounova was raised in New York and Moscow.  Her three, full-length, studio albums combine her operatic voice, outstanding songwriting skills, and avant-garde arrangements into a wonderfully unique sound.  This, her third album, includes “Meant,” “Armies of Your Heart,” and “Goodbye Song.”

6.      The Wombats, “The Wombats Proudly Present... This Modern Glitch”
This band is comprised of two Liverpudlians and one Norwegian, and together, they have recorded two albums of inventive, state-of-the-art music that combines interesting melodies, enjoyable lyrics, and hard-driving rock rhythms.  If I didn’t know better, I’d have trouble placing their sound in a particular decade, but the lyrics give them away in songs like “Our Perfect Disease,” “Jump Into the Fog,” and “1996.”

5.      Emeli Sandé, “Our Version of Events”
A songwriter from Scotland whose songs have been recorded by a number of well-known artists, the very talented, 25-year-old Emeli Sandé released her own album in 2012, and what a beauty it is.  It’s hard to classify her music, which draws on R&B, disco, pop, and rock, but whatever you call her, it’s clear from songs like “Heaven,” “Next to Me,” and “River” that she’s one of the most talented young artists on the scene today.

4.      Alex Clare, “The Lateness of the Hour”
With a voice that combines rock and blues and an edgy songwriting style, London-based Alex Clare shows on his first album why he is the real thing.  Each song on this collection demonstrates a style that is simultaneously timeless and immediate…almost like Adele in a man’s body.  Check out songs like “Treading Water,” “Too Close,” and “Caroline.”

3.      Two Door Cinema Club, “Beacon”
Hailing from Northern Ireland, Two Door Cinema Club released its second album this year, and what a beauty it is.  An outstanding example of modern rock at its best, this album has it all—driving drums and bass, clear and emotive vocals, hummable tunes with great changes, and the great production of Jacknife Lee, who has also worked with U2, R.E.M., and Snow Patrol.  Songs include “Next Year,” “Sun,” “Sleep Alone,” and “The World Is Watching.”

2.      Alabama Shakes, “Boys and Girls”
This band’s debut album shows off the incredible talents of lead singer/guitarist Brittany Howard, who may be the best female blues-rock vocalist since Janis Joplin.  Her level of commitment to each song rivals that of Joplin and the rest of the band is better than Big Brother & the Holding Company ever were.  Every time I listen to songs like “Hold On,” “You Ain’t Alone,” or “Be Mine,” I find additional nuances in Howard’s remarkable voice.  Don’t miss this album.

1.      Leonard Cohen, “Old Ideas”
You might say that Leonard Cohen was a late bloomer; he was already 33 when his first album, the classic “Songs of Leonard Cohen,” was released.  And you can’t really call him prolific, having released only 11 studio albums in the 44 years since then.  But he has always been brilliant—testing the boundaries of songwriting in ways that few others have dared to try.  As his voice has aged, his singing has gained a depth that was not always apparent in his earlier work.  So it was not a complete surprise that at 77, he would release such a masterpiece, but these ten songs say more about life and love than most poets convey in a lifetime.  That’s why “Old Ideas” is 2012’s best album.

The following are all excellent albums that deserve Honorable Mention (alphabetically by artist):

  • Andrew Bird, “Break It Yourself”
  • Ani DiFranco, “Which Side Are You On?”
  • B.o.B., “Strange Clouds”
  • Ben Kweller, “Go Fly a Kite”
  • Benjamin Gibbard, “Former Lives”
  • Bloc Party, “Four”
  • Bob Dylan, “Tempest”
  • Brad, “United We Stand”
  • The Cribs, “In the Belly of the Brazen Bull”
  • Dar Williams, “In the Time of Gods”
  • Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, “Here”
  • Father John Misty, “Fear Fun”
  • The Gaslight Anthem, “Handwritten”
  • Gossip, “A Joyful Noise”
  • Grimes, “Visions”
  • Jason Mraz, “Love Is a Four Letter Word”
  • Jesse Thomas, “War Dancer”
  • John Mayer, “Born and Raised”
  • Judith Owen, “Some Kind of Comfort”
  • The Killers, “Battle Born”
  • Lacuna Coil, “Dark Adrenaline”
  • The Mars Volta, “Noctourniquet”
  • Melanie Fiona, “The MF Life”
  • Michael Kiwanuka, “Home Again”
  • My Darkest Days, “Sick and Twisted Affair”
  • Nneka, “Soul is Heavy”
  • Norah Jones, “Little Broken Hearts”
  • Scissor Sisters, “Magic Hour”
  • Shinedown, “Amaryllis”
  • Sleigh Bells, “Reign of Terror”
  • Snow Patrol, “Fallen Empires”
  • The Vaccines, “Come of Age”
  • White Rabbits, “Milk Famous”

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