I recently shared with you my list for my top 20 favorite songs of 2012 and I’m now pleased to share write-ups for my top 10 favorite albums of the year. Before I get to those, here are albums 20 to 11 on my list, with one song accompanying each album.
20. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Psychedelic Pill (“Psychedelic Pill”)
19. Divine Fits: A Thing Called Divine Fits (“Would That Not Be Nice”)
18. Dave Matthews Band: Away From the World (“Belly Belly Nice”)
17. Jack White: Blunderbuss (“Sixteen Saltines”)
16. Smashing Pumpkins: Oceania (“The Celestials”)
15. Sleigh Bells: Reign of Terror (“Comeback Kid”)
14. The Killers: Battle Born (“Runaways”)
13. John Mayer: Born and Raised (“A Face to Call Home”)
12. Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d city (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”)
11. Chromatics: Kill For Love (“Kill For Love”)
Here they are, my 10 favorite albums of 2012.
There’s no question the five guys in Hot Chip are insanely talented. They’re constantly trading instruments during their live show, weaving tremendous tunes through electronic innovation and danceable funkiness. On In Our Heads, their immensely fun fifth album, the Brits led by Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard pick up where they left off with 2010’s One Life Stand. There’s the driving “How Do You Do,” the 80’s-synth pulse of “Don’t Deny Your Heart,” the dance floor jam of “Night And Day,” the longing depth of “Look At Where We Are” and “Now There Is Nothing.” In Our Heads finds its highest inspiration in two songs checking it at over seven minutes. The harshly intense “Flutes” is an opus with a ferocity sometimes bordering on insane (“Nothing’s making sense in my brain”). It has no shortage of different sounds (synths, bass, frickin’ marimbas!), essentially encapsulating everything great about Hot Chip in one song. And the penultimate “Let Me Be Him” is a joyous builder with enough hey-ohhhs to last all of 2012. Throw in bird sound effects and beautiful coos from Taylor during the dénouement and you’ve got a brilliant cap to a fantastic record.
9. Japandroids: Celebration Rock
Celebration Rock should have never happened. Brian King and David Prowse’s two-piece Vancouver garage punk outfit Japandroids made their first album, Post-Nothing, as a way to kiss off their lack of success before going their separate ways. Then a funny thing happened: They got indie-huge, stayed together, toured and made Celebration Rock. And the results are nothing short of exhilarating. It’s hard to know if the guys in Japandroids are great musicians. King doesn’t sing so much as he shouts and his guitar playing is far from technical. But, man, do they ever get after it, and the songs on Celebration Rock are just about that: yelling like hell to the heavens on “The Nights of Wine and Roses,” loving with legendary fire on “Continuous Thunder,” colliding hearts on “Fire’s Highway,” feeling a blitzkrieg love with a Roman candle kiss on “Adrenaline Nightshift” and telling ‘em all to go to hell on “The House That Heaven Built.” These are songs about living each day, and night, like it’s your last and not one part of this album feels ironic. “Remember that night when you were already in bed / Said ‘fuck it,’ got up and drank with me instead?” King screams on “Younger Us.” For a band that came so close to dying, few albums in recent years have been as full of life as Celebration Rock.
8. Two Door Cinema Club: Beacon
So Beacon has friggin’ terrible cover art. Comically bad. However, that shouldn’t deter you from diving deep into the sophomore offering from Northern Irish pop rock favorite sons Two Door Cinema Club. Their debut, Tourist History, probably has a few better songs than Beacon, but there’s a sense of polish, maturity and songwriting development evident here. Whereas Tourist History had songs with grating choruses like “Do You Want It All” and “This Is The Life,” that has been sonically cleansed from Beacon, replaced with better tracks like winding opener “Next Year,” dance-beat charged “Handshake,” and hard-rocking “Wake Up.” There are touches of math-rock influence throughout the album including on tracks like “Pyramid.” Lead singer Alex Trimble has grown significantly as a vocalist, his work best displayed on Beacon’s more tender moments like “The World Is Watching (With Valentina)” and “Settle.” Trimble and his mates hit their height on their best track to date, lead single “Sleep Alone.” At times sleepy and thoughtful, and at times swift and alive, “Sleep Alone” showcases everything great about Two Door Cinema Club. It’s got their signature mechanized drum beats, about a zillion different melodic guitar licks and a general sense of sadness in the lyrics amongst the giddiness of the sound. “And I may go / To places I have never been to / Just to find / The deepest desires in my mind,” Trimble sings. Two Door has all the makings of a pop band with tremendous appeal and staying power. Now if they could just find someone to make half-way decent cover art, they’d have no issues at all.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Tame Impala is that when I listen to their songs, I can close my eyes and imagine I’m listening to long-lost John Lennon demos from 1967. That’s because lead singer Kevin Parker has a voice nearly identical to Lennon and these Australians have crafted a sound capturing the best of psychedelic rock. Their second full-length, Lonerism, is a far more complete effort than their debut, Innerspeaker. With it, Tame Impala created a record following a loose theme evoked by its title. Parker’s subject is a man down on himself, isolated from humanity, questioning everything. “I just don’t know where the hell I belong,” he moans on the rollicking “Mind Mischief.” The album is littered with these kinds of sentiments; hell, one song is even called “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” Lonerism sees the band branching out a bit from its acid-induced influences and that’s best displayed on the bone-crushing “Elephant,” a Black Sabbath-inspired destroyer. I’ve got two favorites here: the lush, spacey “Music To Walk Home By,” which ends in a maelstrom of gorgeous descending guitar riffs; and the enigmatic and trippy “Apocalypse Dreams.” Seemingly on the brink of collapse for its near-six minute duration, it features some heavy piano, distorted Parker drones and a dramatic ending befitting the centerpiece of this terrific album. “Will I ever get there? / Does it even matter? Do I really need it there?” Lonerism doesn’t provide the answers. But with music this good, do you really want to know?
R&B isn’t a genre I’ve paid much attention to these last few years, but the hype surrounding Frank Ocean’s debut was something I couldn’t ignore. Perhaps the only non-insane member of Odd Future, Ocean’s songwriting chops are on full display on the expansive channel ORANGE. It’s a lengthy one, with over an hour of material and 17 tracks, but Ocean’s soulful, spirited touch makes it an engaging listen throughout. Slow jams like “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You,” “Sierra Leone,” “Pink Matter” and “Pilot Jones” showcase his range. “Bad Religion” is essentially a ballad, and takes on new meaning after Ocean’s courageous revelation this year. My favorite cut is “Sweet Life,” bursting at the seams with soul and recalling the likes of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Ocean croons from his heart about having it all, but not really having what matters. “My TV ain’t HD,” he laments, “That’s too real.” The most memorable track, however, is probably the near-10 minute wonder “Pyramids,” an ultimately forlorn tale told in several disparate parts, the first detailing Cleopatra and cheetahs on the loose over a club beat, the second slowing to a synthesized dirge and Ocean pining for an, umm, lady of the night? It ends with an uncredited guitar solo from John Mayer, who appears several times on the album. Ocean, unbelievably, just turned 25. Here’s hoping channel ORANGE could just be a scratch on the surface of what’s to come.
Early in my teen years, I discovered something we call classic rock. The Shins’ Port of Morrow, the first album for frontman James Mercer’s outfit in five years, is a brilliant collection both 13-year-old me and 26-year-old me can adore. It’s difficult to categorize the music here as anything but a throwback to the classic rock era. Both in terms of sound and subject matter, listening to Port of Morrow reminds me of listening to Styx and Steve Miller Band songs from the ‘70s on WBLM, Portland’s legendary classic rock station. At the same time, the feeling in Mercer’s words and guitar work hit me right where I was earlier this year when this album came out. While the prospect of an album reminiscent of those bands might not sound enticing, trust me, Mercer is more in tune with Alex Chilton than Glenn Frey here. There’s the wistful sing-along “It’s Only Life” that sees Mercer’s subject trying to find common ground with someone having a tough time; the smooth rocker “No Way Down” that grooves along with great bass and drumming; the Billy Joel-inspired ditty “Fall of ‘82” that’s practically a nostalgia volcano; and the haunting acoustic tones of “September.” Penultimate track “40 Mark Strasse” is a shape-shifter, starting similarly to “September” but eventually morphing into a rocker complete with a creepy keyboard solo. But to me, nothing on the album can match the feeling, vigor and excitement of “Simple Song,” one of my favorite rock songs in years. From the opening organ notes to the final crashing exclamations, Mercer unfolds a love anthem with charging guitar lines that give me chills every time I hear them. “Good thing there’s nothing else in our lives so critical / As this little hole,” he falsettos at the end of each chorus. My favorite lyrics of 2012 come in the final couplet: “Love’s such a delicate thing that we do, with nothing to prove / Which I never knew.” My teen years are long since gone. But Port of Morrow gives me a taste of them with each listen.
It’s hard to listen to Grizzly Bear and not be slightly intimidated. When Veckatimest came out three years ago, I was struck by its refined excellence, but also by a clear air of pretentiousness, like I would need a graduate degree and an affection for Bordeaux to fully appreciate it. This year’s Shields maintains some of that sense but aims higher for imagination. Here’s a band with intelligence, confidence, gravitas and ingenuity, ready to try new things but also keep their general aesthetic in tact. Daniel Rossen and Ed Droste are the driving creative forces, with producer/bassist Chris Taylor and drummer Chris Bear adding their distinctive touches. Rossen’s songs are typically guitar-based and often rocking, like tremendous opener “Sleeping Ute” and the crashing “What’s Wrong.” Droste’s more dramatic, sweepingly earnest sensibilities come out on songs like the aching “The Hunt” and the orchestral “Half Gate.” The best moments on Shields are ones where Rossen and Droste’s powers are shared, with two standouts in particular. “Speak In Rounds” is breathtakingly powerful, building throughout the first two verses on Droste’s quivers with Rossen’s forceful acoustic strumming adding to the suspense. Then it explodes as Rossen takes over for the choruses. The band does a beautiful job painting a picture with their sounds without overdoing it. Later on, “A Simple Answer” represents easily the most fun Grizzly Bear song I’ve heard, for at least its first four minutes. While Rossen pounds away at a bouncy piano line, the choruses are augmented by something that sounds an awful lot like a calliope, which completely fits the tenor of the song. Then, two-thirds through, everything grinds to a halt, with Droste commandeering the song with the best voice in indie rock. Droste has the lead on Shields’ best track “Yet Again,” another sweeping, full-sounding tune with his signature amazing vocals and guitar work that reminds me of Neil Young for reasons that escape me. “Take it all in stride,” the band harmonizes. “Speak, don’t confide / We barely have a case.” After Shields, Grizzly Bear have more than a good case they’re amongst the elite indie acts on Earth.
Last year I wrote that M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was an attempt to synthesize dreams into musical form. This year, the album that comes closest to that effort is Bloom, the gorgeous, gauzy, woozy gem of a fourth album from Baltimore duo Beach House. Their last album, Teen Dream, helped them reach indie big-time, but Bloom is a more complete attempt at refining what should be their signature sound. Between Victoria Legrand’s swooning, languid vocals and synthesizer work and Alex Scally’s deeply melodic guitars, Beach House has one of the more unique sounds out there. Bloom starts off with a Murderer’s Row of three spectacularly crafted dream pop marvels, easily the best opening stretch of any album this year. These songs conjure the start of spring, which also happened to be when Bloom was released. Listening to “Myth,” “Wild” and “Lazuli” back-to-back-to-back should come with a Surgeon General’s warning they may lull you into a soft daze. It makes sense the first words Legrand sings on “Myth” are “drifting in and out.” “Myth” is a mid-tempo thriller, complete with massive vocal breaks and huge guitars. “Wild” picks up the pace ever so slightly, with mechanized drums providing a basis over which Legrand and Scally do their ethereal best. Legrand’s delicate handling of this song’s vocals, especially during the choruses, is breathtaking. “Lazuli,” however, is Beach House’s best accomplishment to date. Its scope is astounding, with two separate movements highlighting a tale of longing, comparing love to a precious, blue stone. “Like no other you can’t be replaced,” Legrand sings over and over as the song beautifully builds to a conclusion, “There’s nothing like lapis lazuli.” I can’t tell you how many times I hit the repeat button on that one this spring. The rest of Bloom may not be as incredible as those first three songs, but there’s more than enough to love: the soft arpeggios and keyboards of “Other People,” the deep, forceful charge of “The Hours,” the energy of “New Year.” On the final two tracks, Legrand and Scally reach new depths, with the piano-driven and fantastically melancholy “On the Sea” and the soft building closer “Irene.” As the latter gains steam, Legrand sings constantly about a “strange paradise.” It might not be strange, but it’s hard to describe Bloom as anything but a dreamy, sonic paradise.
I fell hard for Nocturne, Jack Tatum’s second album as Wild Nothing, over the summer and fall months is because it draws influence from just about every corner of the indie world I presently enjoy. At the same time, Tatum wraps every track in his signature airy vocals and 80s-inspired, dream-poppy energy. According to trusty Wikipedia, a “nocturne” is a musical composition inspired by the night. Without a doubt, Nocturne has a nocturnal feel from beginning to end. The album Opener “Shadow” is lifted high by string arrangements, a lively bass line and the first of many beautiful melodies heard on Nocturne. “I’ll go with if you ask me to / But we wouldn’t get too far / Two strangers in the dark,” Tatum sings as his vocals get lost in watery guitars. Later comes the title track, which was my favorite song of 2012. It hit me while listening to “Nocturne” in November this was the one. It’s not because it’s some brilliant exposition on love and life (the song ends with Tatum singing “You can have me / You can have me” over and over). It’s because that opening drum kick and main descending riff, the one that repeats at the beginning and after the verses, will always remind me of all the things that happened in my life this year. And that’s what good music should do, right? It helps that the song’s bass, drums and general feel are tremendous. That leads to the haunting “Through the Grass,” a song with an Animal Collective-style name that also doesn’t stray too far from that band’s aesthetic. “Only Heather,” the best love song on Nocturne, is rife with jangly, Real Estate-like guitars and weaves a beautiful narrative about that the only girl who “can make me feel this way,” whatever that feeling way be. “This Chain Won’t Break” and “Disappear Always” hit on their general retro efforts, with the latter in particular strongly evoking Britpop sensibilities. They lead into “Paradise,” Nocturne’s dance floor standout. “Paradise” would not seem out of place on recent albums by Cut Copy, with Tatum’s vocals sounding like Cut Copy’s Dan Whitford and by extension the monotone Brits that littered the synthpop landscape of yesteryear. But “Paradise” is Tatum’s own creation and I love how much fun this song gets after the breakdown. Nocturne ends on more wonderfully-crafted dreamy synth beauties, closing with “Rheya,” a hazy jam about a girl you can’t forget no matter how hard you try. Nocturne’s brilliance lies in its effortlessness. While this isn’t the most unique territory for any band in 2012, Tatum commands the dream pop rhealm with ease and comfort, making Nocturne one of the more enjoyable indie albums in years.
A few years back, an unknown singer named Michael Angelakos wrote a few songs for his then-girlfriend, recorded them and gave them to her as a Valentine’s Day present. Fast forward to 2012 and Angelakos is the leader of one of the biggest indie acts in the world, going from playing basement parties in Allston and Cambridge to filling Madison Square Garden. As I’ve watched Passion Pit grow from a regional act to regularly having their music appear in TV shows and commercials, I often wonder how exactly it happened. But there’s no reason here to overthink it. Angelakos makes absolutely incredible music and that’s why his band caught on so much, and will hopefully continue to grow. Passion Pit’s debut Manners was my favorite album of 2009 and to say I was anticipating great things from a follow-up would be an understatement. Following up a strong debut is one of the hardest tricks to pull in music. Some bands like Vampire Weekend and Sleigh Bells were up to the task, while others like the xx and Best Coast were not in recent years. It only took one listen to Gossamer to allay any fears about where Passion Pit would fall on this. On Gossamer, Passion Pit expands on the electronic and synthy pop range of Manners, reaching new, often-delirious heights. Interestingly enough, the song I like least on Gossamer is “Take a Walk,” the album’s first song and lead single. It’s not to say I don’t like the song, but the lyrics beat you over the head with the story of an immigrant trying to make it in America and the choruses are less than inspired. The album truly gets going with the second track, “I’ll Be Alright,” a dance pop sensation that contains the bleeps and bloops so prevalent on Manners. It’s also the first nod lyrically to the internal strife surrounding Angelakos’ life made public this year. When he sings the title over and over, you want to believe him, but the maelstrom of sounds makes that impossible. Next is the bouncy, undeniably fun “Carried Away,” the most energetic track on Gossamer, recalling the enjoyment of “Little Secrets.” The most unique song on the album is the fourth track, the smooth, R&B jam “Constant Conversations.” It takes a moment to realize this is actually Passion Pit, given the measured pacing. But this is Angelakos at his deepest core, his most revelatory. “I’m just a mess with a name and a price / And now I’m drunker than before they / Told me drinking doesn’t make me nice.” From here the album keep building: the frantic “Mirrored Sea,” containing some of the album’s better backing samples; the sad longing of “On My Way,” where Angelakos name-checks his now-girlfriend Christina, who’s been through a lot with Michael; “Love is Greed” has some of those signature backing chorus vocals heard throughout Passion Pit’s debut. They lead into my favorite song on Gossamer, the triumphant, gigantic “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy.” This song soars from beginning to end, with Angelakos singing once again about his mental state (“I’m sorry I couldn’t be there / I was tied to a rocking chair”) with the chorus focused on the problems of a relationship (“How am I the only one who sees us fight?” and “It’s not fair / But I’m the only one who seems to care”). It feels like an anthem, but a personal one at the same time. Massive closer “Where We Belong” erupts a few minutes into the proceedings, providing a wonderful end to a gorgeous record. Reading the harrowing details about Angelakos’ personal demons makes it clear Passion Pit may not be around forever. No matter what happens, Passion Pit’s work to date will always hold a special place within me, with Gossamer their titanic achievement.