Top Ten Albums of 2012
Jordan's Top Ten Albums of 2012
This has been a very good year for music, which is a thing I will probably say in every music list I ever write. I found ranking the albums from 2012 much more difficult than I did last year, in part because there were more very good albums than great ones, and in part because so many of the albums on this list did something so right, it was hard to see them anywhere but near the top. They can't all be winners, though, and even with three honorable mentions, a lot of deserving albums failed to make my list. So let's get to looking at some of the best albums of 2012.

Honorable Mentions:

Allo Darlin', Europe

Essential Songs: "Capricornia," "Europe," "Still Young"

There is nothing all that complicated about Europe. At its base, it is ten pop songs about the things pop songs are usually about: romance, pining for lost loved ones, and other pop songs. It is not a particularly ambitious album, nor is it going to change the face of music for years to come. It's simply a more streamlined album than the group's debut, with lusher instrumentation and more assured songwriting. There were better albums in 2012 (hence its place at the bottom of the top, if you will), but there were few as suffused with as much carefree joy, even in its most somber moments. When lead singer Elizabeth Morris sings, "this is life, this is living," on the album's title track, it isn't hard to get caught up in the sentiment. When it comes to year end lists, we can all tend to get a bit caught up in pretension and calling out "important" albums (I am sure the rest of this list will be guilty of that from time to time), but it is essential not to forget that there is still greatness in pop music.Europe is the best pop album of 2012, a reminder that sometimes all it takes to make good music is a catchy melody, sweetly simple lyrics, and a commitment to writing a solid pop song.

Beach House, Bloom

Essential Songs: "Lazuli," "Wishes," On the Sea"

Of all the bands that have spent the last few years attempting to reconstruct the sonic landscape of the mid-"˜80s, Beach House has emerged as the most distinctive and, ultimately, the most artistically successful. At its best, Bloom is an alluring mixture of delicate vocals (by Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally), intricate guitars, and well deployed synthesizers. The band excels at consistency far more than at unpredictability, but when they build and sustain a mood as ethereal as this, its hard to complain too much. Bloom may be the group's most fully formed vision yet, an exploration of a struggle for order and for a place to belong in a world so often besieged by chaos and loneliness. Amid melodies so tightly structured as to be near hermetically sealed, the lyrics indicate a yearning for as much control outside the studio as the band exhibits within it. For now, though, the duo's fragile harmonies have flowered fully, and at its best, Bloom is a thing to behold.

The Coup, Sorry To Bother You

Essential Songs: "My Murder, My Love," "You Are Not a Riot (An RSVP from David Siquiros to Andy Warhol)," "Violet"

Sorry To Bother You is, sonically at least, a callback to the early days of hip hop, mixing genres and tonal shifts like few since the days of The Sugarhill Gang. This lends the album a sense of care-free fun that makes it one of the most worthwhile hip hop releases of the year; songs like "The Magic Clap" and the kazoo-powered "Your Parents Cocaine" are among the most fun songs of 2012. Yet beneath the musically inventive fun are serious message from a group well-used to getting political. The Coup are unabashed Marxists dedicated to spreading their message of equality and espousing constant adherence to their self-proclaimed role as the moral compass of the hip hop world. On first listen, the album is catchy, inventive, and sonically varied enough to be one of the most entertaining and replay friendly releases of the year, but each track is also densely packed with ideas, verging from speedy screeds (like on "Gods of Science") to fiery calls to action ("You Are Not a Riot (An RSVP from David Siquiros to Andy Warhol)"). Whether you agree with the ideas or not (and I'm going to venture that most listeners are somewhere to the right of frontman Boots Riley), it's a marvel to behold, and Sorry To Bother You is the invigorating product of a man whose songwriting range spans from the orchestral (the beautiful "Violet") to fuzz-driven ravers ("The Magic Clap"), to the downright anthemic ("This Year"). The album has a sweeping, nigh-cinematic scope, a mordant wit, and a message that is, at worst, thought-rpovoking. Boots Riley may take his ideas seriously, but he also knows how to throw one hell of a party.

10. Freelance Whales, Diluvia

Essential Songs: "Follow Through," "Dig Into Waves," "Winter Seeds"

Diluvia has layers that reveal themselves over time; its less a grower than an album that expands over time into a full sonic landscape, its intricacies unspooling into something richer only once you've lived with it for a while. The album's title is apt (diluvia is the rock material deposited by glaciers), and it presages a record that is dreamy in the best way. The longer song times allow each melody to find itself over time, so that contemplative moments like "Winter Seeds" feel lived in rather than rushed off. Ultimately, Freelance Whales have created a brand of synth-folk all their own, fit for late night journeys, fitting as the band has "the rations to go anywhere." In a year full of auspicious debuts (several other albums on this list are actually first outings for the bands), Freelance Whales' sophomore album may be 2012's best arrival: an album about journeys through space, time, and feeling that feels like its coming from a band that has finally arrived.


9. The Lumineers, The Lumineers

Essential Songs: "Dead Sea," "Ho Hey," "Stubborn Love"

Almost every review of The Lumineers stunning self-titled debut contained at least a passing reference to the current giants of folk, Mumford and Sons. The comparison isn't completely off base, but there's something distinctly American about The Lumineers that sets them apart, and lends them a vitality that was lacking in Mumford's sophomore album Babel. The band has an instinct for flourishes, a shout here or a stomp there that takes their poetic earnestness to the next level. The album's best-known song, "Ho Hey," is a perfect example of the way the group can build a celebratory vibe into an achingly romantic song that keeps it from going too far into schmaltz, sacrificing none of the pathos but transforming the song into a catchy powerhouse. There's a mournful undercurrent to many of the songs on the album (perhaps never stronger than on "Slow it Down"), but the band is so adept at juggling its various emotional touchstones that mournful nostalgia can transform gracefully into upbeat transcendence, as it does on album highlight "Stubborn Love." The Lumineers wear their hearts on their sleeves, but naked emotion was never dressed better in 2012 than over the course of their debut.

8. Alabama Shakes, Boys and Girls

Essential Songs: "Hold On," "I Found You," "You Ain't Alone"

Alabama Shakes give me something I didn't even know I'd been missing until I first heard Boys & Girls: swamp rock with soul. To call their sound CCR by way of Otis Redding, with more than a dash of Aretha Franklin is a high compliment, but it still doesn't do justice to the unique fusion the band has created. Brittany Howard is a revelation, a powerhouse voice that commands the center of a band full of great talents, from Heath Fogg's slippery guitar picks to Zac Cockrell's earthy bass and Steve Johnson's perfectly punctuated drums. Alabama Shakes functions as a unit so well, it can be hard to isolate each component from the others, to the point where the group sounds as if they were born to play together. But Howard's voice, sultry when it needs to be and blow-down-the-doors strong when the material calls for it, is the perfect front to the band, to the point where it often sounds like the band is creating an entirely new genre built around her vocals. At its heights (which are frequent), Boys & Girls sounds like nothing that has come before it: loose, raucous, animated and completely immersive.

7. Of Monsters and Men, My Head is an Animal

Essential Songs: "Sloom," "Little Talks," "Lakehouse"

Of Monsters and Men have been a big deal in Iceland for a few years now, but they exploded on our shores this year with the release of their (wonderfully) re-sequenced debut, My Head is an Animal. The group polishes their indie folk sound to a sheen, and builds quiet melodies into cacophonies of joy over the course of their best songs. Of Monsters and Men is one of many groups at the moment who have discovered the potential power of combining male and female lead vocalists, and here they feed off each other while creating new perfect compliments. Of Monsters and Men combine the epic-folk song construction of Mumford and Sons with the bombast of their countrymen Sigur Ros, for a sound that combines delicate vocal harmonies with soaring choruses. The album's standout single "Little Talks" is emblematic of the group at its best, with a thundering opening, quietly personal verses, and a chorus that goes for broke. The last few years have seen the rise of a new folk subgenre that combines the genre's earnestness with a newfound bombast; My Head is an Animal is 2012's best entry therein, an emotionally powerful album with a wide sonic range and a sense of discovery that is a joy to behold.

6. The Menzingers, On the Impossible Past

Essential Songs: "The Obituaries," "Gates," "Casey"

This year has been full of mid-twenties anxiety and a yearning for years gone by, and On the Impossible Past channels all of that regret, nostalgia, and desire into a pain-fueled punk opus. "The Obituaries" comes pre-packaged with a punk refrain for the ages, in the screamed admission, "I will fuck this up, I fucking know it," while "Gates" highlights the group's burned-before romanticism in a darkly funny, wistfully sad tale of a boy falling in love with a waitress. They carve their names into the cliffs, as young lovers are wont to do, but fully recognize they do so "just to read them when you get old enough to know that happiness is just a moment." The whole album plays out like the long emotional hangover for ill-spent years, mistakes made and even reveled in, and ultimately, the hard-won wisdom that comes from learning things the hard way. The late-album winner "Casey" is soaked in nostalgia for a time when making bad decisions was normal and even encouraged, highlighted by the chorus, which admits, "Me and Casey, we used to get drunk before we did the dishes, oh every evening, me and Casey, we used to get high and listen to our boredom, "˜cause it was so much easier, "˜cause it was so much easier than dealing with everything." Throughout On the Impossible Past, The Menzingers are "dealing with everything," and while its clear it hurts, its also clear their better for the pain they've endured and for the way they have been dragged, kicking and screaming, into a kind of adulthood.

5. 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

Essential Songs: "Jonathan," "Left Alone," "Werewolf"

When Fiona Apple deigns to record an album (The Idler Wheel"¦ is her first in seven years), it seems more because purging her emotions has become an imperative, almost like, as she sings on "Every Single Night," the album's opening track, "these ideas of mine, percolate the mind, trickle down the spine, swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze." Calling the ten tracks here a "blaze" is hardly hyperbolic, as Apple goes from guttural growls to primal howls, often disregarding how appealing she sounds in favor of going straight for the emotional gut punch. The album is intensely personal, full of confessions, admissions, and cutting self-analysis, but also full of the kind of evocative, yet blunt, lyrical poetry that has become emblematic of Apple's work. The artist seems to be balancing her tendencies toward hermetic introspection with her desire for companionship and acceptance ("How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?" as she puts it on "Left alone"), and trying to find the equilibrium between self-destruction and self-actualization, telling one of her conquests, "you're like the captain of a capsized ship, but I like watching you live." Ultimately, The Idler Wheel"¦ cultivates a tossed off, improvisational feel that recalls great jazz, as Apple accentuates her voice and piano with naturalistic percussion like the sound of doors opening and closing, or the sound of Apple banging on a tin can. This makes the album slightly jarring on first listen, but it grows into an organic part of the sound, enveloping you into what seems like an open session where anything can, and probably will, happen. The Idler Wheel is the sound of Fiona Apple baring her soul: beautiful, blunt, painful, healing, and ultimately revealing.

4. Japandroids, Celebration Rock

Essential Songs: "The Nights of Wine and Roses," "Younger Us," "The House That Heaven Built"

The entirety of Japandroids career to date exists as something of a perennial "what if." The band released two EPs and decided to call it quits, with plans to self-release their debut album, Post-Nothing and then walk away. Instead, they met a record executive, released the album to great acclaim, toured on it for two years and then settled down for six weeks to write what would become Celebration Rock. The album is rife with a carpe diem mentality, seemingly reveling in the joys of youth and success, but also always looking toward an uncertain future. The album feels like it is memorializing the group's current highs for posterity, even as it is celebrating the extreme excitement that goes along with their success. This sort of nostalgia-for-the-present suffuses the album and gives it a vitality that a lot of "we're young and dumb, and ain't that adorable" albums lack; Japandroids are young, dumb, and loving it, but they're also wiser than they were before they hit it big. That is never more apparent than on album highlight "Younger Us," on which the group reminisces, "Remember that night you were already in bed, said "˜fuck it' got up to drink with me instead?" The song is a perfect balance between the album's dual themes of enjoying life in the moment ("give me that naked new skin rush") and of looking ahead to more long-term happiness ("give me that "˜you and me to the grave' trust"). "The House That Heaven Built," the album's penultimate song and climax, has a chorus that encapsulates the message of the album and the band's entire career to date: "When they love you (and they will), tell "˜em all they'll love in my shadow, and if they try to slow you down (slow you down), tell "˜em all to go to hell." Nothing is slowing Japandroids down yet, and they are answering their "what if" second chance by giving it everything they've got. Its an energizing, catchy-as-hell, old school rock and roll ride, and one you'll want to revisit time and time again, like a great drinking buddy you know will stick around for breakfast in the morning.

3. Anais Mitchell, Young Man in America

Essential Songs: "Dyin' Day," "He Did," "Ships"

In a year full of what I have decided to call "epic folk," Anais Mitchell's subtle opus was the best traditional folk album by a mile. Imbued throughout with a rural austerity, this is an album about the classic folk topics: Farmers and Shepherds, dark times in a dark land, struggling to make ends meet, and looking for a more satisfying life. Young Man in America is a panoramic look across a rustic wasteland of our own making, which recalls at its best influences as disparate as Faulkner and McCarthy, but which manages even at its bleakest to recall the beauty and awe that this country has in abundance. "Your daddy didn't leave a will, he left a shovel and a hole to fill," Mitchell sings on "He Did," and the album is replete with turns of phrase that put even that to shame. Young Man in America is like a great short story collection; each of its tales is tied thematically, yet each is also given room to breathe. Some, like "Shepherd," have all the thematic depth and character development of any piece of fiction you will read this year; others, like the quiet tragedy of "Coming Down," hit the emotions so well, the story becomes largely a side-note. The album isn't all downtrodden despair, either. The album's centerpiece, "Venus," is an upbeat salvation song, a giddy charmer that will leave your feet tapping and put a smile on your face. On Young Man in America, Anais Mitchell has cemented herself as a world-class storyteller, a beautiful voice with a powerful, cuttingly insightful mind backing it up, an old fashioned storyteller with a modern sensibility, and the glorious ability to create classic folk music with a modern message and a timeless sheen.

2. The Vaccines, Come of Age

Essential Songs: "Teenage Icon," "Aftershave Ocean," "I Wish I Was a Girl"

The Vaccines cleanly side-stepped the dreaded sophomore slump by doing something completely different with their second album, Come of Age. Lyrically, the album is all about being a self-centered person in your mid-twenties, slowly realizing that at some point, you will be forced to grow up. Sonically, though, the album is a mixture of genres that is refreshing, and often downright exciting. Early album tracks like "I Always Knew" have a surf-rock vibe that hearkens back to great "˜60s pop, but the album varies its style as it goes, from the garage rock of "Ghost Town," to the Oasis homage "Aftershave Ocean," and even takes time for a glam rock meditation in "I Wish I Was A Girl." The album is far from a retro pastiche, though, and more a strong argument for The Vaccines vitality. Their first album was a solid collection of pop-punk songs that could easily have turned them into a "one-and-done" sensation; Come of Age indicates the group has a lot more up their sleeves than they were able to display on their debut. The album is a showcase of a band entering its prime, a tour through various genres, each of which the group ably adapts to their core sound, and a lyrical step forward from their first outing. In short, Come of Age is a perfect second album: a bold step forward from a group who has its best years ahead, and is just starting to figure out how far they'll be able to go.

1. Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light

Essential Songs: "Hey Jane," "I Am What I Am," "So Long You Pretty Thing"

Sweet Heart Sweet Light is nothing less than a love letter to life from a man who knows full well what the alternative looks like. Jason Pierce spent much of the time he was writing and recording the album under the effects of various drugs (including chemotherapy) while undergoing treatment for a degenerative liver disease. Pierce is a man with a strong cynical streak, an outlook described best when he sings, "sometimes I wish that I was dead, "˜cause only the living can feel the pain" on the George Harrison-esque "Little Girl." Pierce is no stranger to the darker aspects of life and the dark side of the human condition, and while the reality of existence always haunts the edges of the album, it never defeats the hopefulness at its core. More than anything else, Sweet Heart Sweet Light is the work of a man who is damn happy to be alive; he's not naïve enough to think the world is always a great place, but he's happy to be a part of living anyway, and his constant affirmations have a transformative effect on listeners as well.

Its hard to walk away from the album without feeling better about yourself and happier just to be alive; a mean feat for any hour of music to accomplish. Pierce isn't a religious man, but the album is suffused with spiritual yearning (as Pierce has described it in interviews, "When I sing, "˜Help me, Jesus,' you know I'm not asking for help fixing the fucking car"), a desire for redemption and ultimate meaning that Pierce seems to have found not in the heavens, but in his daily life. Whether he is imparting darkly hopeful advice as he does on "Too Late," a balladic lullaby on which he sings, "This is dedicated baby, what more can I say? Won't love you more than I love you today, won't love you less but I've made my mistakes, stay away from love dear if that's what it takes," lamenting his own agency on "Freedom," or talking about learning to love himself for his flaws on "I Am What I Am," Pierce is a man who has found order in chaos and peace in a violent world.

The album closes with its most hopeful refrain, as Pierce duets with his daughter on the epic "Son Long You Pretty Thing," singing over and over, "So long you pretty thing, God save your little soul, the music that you played so hard ain't on your radio, and all your dreams of diamond rings, and all that rock "˜n' roll can bring you, sail on, so long." It's about as hopeful as Pierce can get, but there's a joy there that belies any inherent melancholy, a pleasure to be alive in the face of the sadness of living. Sweet Heart Sweet Light is contemplative, blithely philosophical, cynical without becoming depressive, and ultimately hopefully life affirming. It's a beautiful album, an emotional rollercoaster that can be harrowing at times but always leaves you feeling better than when it began. It's the most beautiful, wonderful, strange, and triumphant album of 2012, and one I imagine will hold a place close to my heart for quite some time.

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