Well, the year is almost over and it is time once again to take musical stock. As usual, it was a difficult year to narrow down. There were albums I wish I hadn’t had to cut from the list but, frankly, that’s the sign of a great musical year. 2012 offered very few disappointments and a number of welcome, left-field surprises.
50. AIMEE MANN – “Charmer”
“Charmer” finds Aimee Mann going further back into the synth-heavy sound she explored on her last album, ” @ # % & *! Smilers.” Her return to this glossy, somewhat upbeat sound makes a nice through-line back to her ’80s records with ‘Til Tuesday. These songs may have upbeat production, but don’t be fooled. Like most of Mann’s best work, “Charmer” is a collection of literate character studies concentrating on broken individuals trying very badly to mask their pain. It’s a dour package wrapped in a candy coating. And yet, Mann still shows the same dark wit she did 13 years ago when she scored “Magnolia.” In fact, most of her struggling, highly dysfunctional characters would still seem quite at home in a Paul Thomas Anderson film.
“Living a Lie” (featuring James Mercer)
49. TYVEK – “On Triple Beams”
Part of what makes lo-fi rock records thrilling is their sheer rawness. Tyvek, of Detroit, has made its fifth album, “On Triple Beams,” a raw, often spastic and anthemic 32-minute assault. The highlight and centerpiece of the collection is of course, “Wayne County Roads,” a bold, catchy tribute to the highways surrounding Detroit. Listening to this album, you can tell the band was trying to craft something that would make band members’ garage-rock and punk heroes proud while paying tribute to their home and the things they hold dear. Who knows if Little Richard has heard the stomping track named in his honor, or whether he would even like it for that matter, but one thing is for certain. It roars with the kind of fresh, kinetic energy most bands today would mix down to the point of oblivion. When listening to “On Triple Beams,” you feel like you are in the garage with Tyvek. It’s an experience more than an album.
“Wayne County Roads”
48. JIMMY CLIFF – “Rebirth”
Forty-five years after his debut and eight years since his last record, Jimmy Cliff returned with an old-school reggae album helmed by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong. Sure, the tattooed, mohawked punk may initially seem to be an odd, unlikely choice to produce a straightforward Jimmy Cliff record, but if you think it is weird, you’ve obviously never really closely listened to Rancid. There’s always been as much reggae in the band’s music as there has been punk. Listen to Armstrong’s own 2006 reggae effort, “A Poet’s Life,” and it makes even more sense. The paring results in a timeless collection of tunes. Cliff’s voice has not changed one bit. He still has a crisp, elastic range. He even covers his producer’s hit single, “Ruby Soho,” as well as the Clash’s classic, “Guns of Brixton.” “Rebirth” is a collection that should truly please Cliff’s fans, both old and new alike.
“World Upside Down”
“Guns of Brixton”
47. MAXIMO PARK – “The National Health”
In many ways, Maximo Park’s fourth album recalls their debut, “A Certain Trigger.” Stylistically, like that record, it bounces around from revved-up rockers to synth-driven numbers and soft ballads. The album lacks the meditative focus of their previous record, “Quicken The Heart,” but then again, to many, that album’s somewhat singular tone was wrongly seen as a weakness. In my mind, this is the band’s fourth major success in a row. Why they aren’t one of the most successful British bands on this side of the pond, I do not know. They deserve better promotion over here because they still remain an all-too-well-kept secret.
“Until the Earth Would Open”
“When I Was Wild (Full Version)”
“The National Health”
“Write This Down”
“Wolf Among Men”
“Hips and Lips”
46. BOBBY WOMACK – “The Bravest Man in the Universe”
Much like Jimmy Cliff’s “Rebirth,” Bobby Womack’s “The Bravest Man in the Universe” finds a legend being reinvented and revitalized with the assistance of a younger celebrity fan. Whereas Cliff worked with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, Womack finds an unlikely kinship with Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn. You’d think putting Womack’s weathered soul voice in front of pop-and-lock electronic beats might not work, but you’d be wrong. Womack sounds as fresh as ever. As odd a sonic mix as it may initially seem, throughout this tightly-wound 37-minute set this one-time friend of Sam Cooke sounds quite at home amid Albarn’s digital backdrops. “The Bravest Man in the Universe” proves that a fading legend can be greatly and deservedly brought back to the forefront with the right people in his corner.
“The Bravest Man in the Universe”
“Please Forgive My Heart”
“Dayglo Reflection” (featuring Lana Del Rey)
“If There Wasn’t Something There”
45. BAT FOR LASHES – “The Haunted Man”
Perhaps “The Haunted Man” by Bat for Lashes has gotten too much attention for its cover, showing principal Natasha Khan standing naked while carrying a naked man on her shoulders. For the record, everything is covered, and it’s quite an artistically striking image. What gets lost in the mix is that like the album’s two predecessors, it continues to showcase Khan as the next heir of Kate Bush’s legacy. Like Bush, Khan possesses a bold, ethereal, whimsical sense. This is an otherworldly record that will have you dancing one moment and getting lost in a piano ballad the next.
“All Your Gold”
44. BLOC PARTY – “Four” (Deluxe Edition)
Considering that a year ago Kele Okereke was off making electro records that verged on dub-step, it seems amazing that his band’s fourth record, (the aptly titled “Four”) is its most rocking, rollicking release to date. It harkens back to the angular sound of the band’s 2005 classic debut, “Silent Alarm,” and yet Bloc Party sounds more raw than ever. “Kettling” is a Tool-esque sludgy stomp with a guitar solo reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Siamese Dream.” “3×3″ has some death-metal growls, whereas “Day Four” finds the band exploring softer, more melodic material. The album is full of tape hiss, amp hums and random disconnected voices. The effect makes it obvious: These four musicians were put in a room and banged out this record. It’s brutal, immediate and fantastic.
“We Are Not Good People”
43. MOON HOOCH – “The Moon Hooch Album”
A left-field surprise, the trio Moon Hooch consists of two saxophone players and a drummer. Like the Bad Plus before them, the three tackle what is typically jazz terrain with a rock-like ferocity. Many of their songs don’t have proper names. Their song-titles are mostly numbers. The result is a very cool, edgy record born out of mathematical focus and rhythmic perfection.
42. LEE RANALDO – “Between the Times and the Tides”
This year, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon announced their separation after 28 years of marriage. This put their band’s future in doubt. The band’s other guitarist, Lee Ranaldo, calmed those fears a little with his excellent album, “Between the Times and the Tides.” With SY drummer Steve Shelley by his side, Ranaldo created a record reminiscent of his best work with the band while, at the same time, more accessible. “Off The Wall,” with its highly catchy chorus, should have provided Ranaldo with a crossover radio hit. At this point, it is still hard to tell if we will ever get another Sonic Youth record. In the meantime, it is nice to know that at least half the band is still intact.
“Off The Wall”
“Walking on a Dream”
“Xtina as I Knew Her”
“Lost (Plain T Nice)”
“Tomorrow Never Comes”
41. JJ DOOM – “Key to the Kuffs”
British-born, Brooklyn-raised Daniel Dumile (a.k.a. Doom) found himself trapped in England with visa issues after a European tour a couple years back. He managed to make the most of it by continuing to collaborate with others remotely or by finding more local talent, much of which you would never expect to find on a hip-hop record. “Key to the Kuffs” is Doom’s collaboration with rapper and producer Jneiro Jarel and, as Doom collabs go, it’s one of his more interesting and edgy works. Beats skitter with a trip-hop vibe, which means Doom must be really taking in the local flavor. Damon Albarn and Portishead’s Beth Gibbons drop by to sing (or shout) some hooks. The result ends up being both trippy and cerebral. Throughout the set, Doom remains his larger-than-life, cartoon-y self, dropping the most cryptic verses you are likely to hear this side of the Wu-Tang.
40. KATE HAVNEVIK – “You”
Norway’s Kate Havnevik finally delivered a follow-up to her fantastic 2007 album, “Melankton,” with “You.” This record continues experimenting with the same sort of electro-warmth as its predecessor and, in the process, finds pop heaven. “Halo,” the main single, has been floating around since 2009, but three years later it still sounds as fresh as ever. It is one of the many songs here you will find yourself listening to on a constant, repeated loop. Havnevik possesses one of the most welcoming and soothing voices recording music today. Her records are as cutting edge as they are disarming.
“Mouth 2 Mouth”
“Tears in Rain”
39. SMASHING PUMPKINS – “Oceania”
I’ll be honest. I was not excited for “Oceania” to be released. After Billy Corgan resurrected the Pumpkins’ moniker and delivered the lackluster “Zeitgeist,” I’d given up hope that he’d ever return to making records like “Siamese Dream” or “Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness.” Boy, was I thrilled to be proven wrong! “Oceania” is a stunning collection that will hold its own next to the classic Pumpkins albums. At times, it rocks. At times, it envelops you with warm atmospheric effects. In short, Corgan and his cohorts have made a Pumpkins record in the tradition of the band’s classics. It’s their best record since the majestic and sadly underrated “Adore.”
38. THE WALLFLOWERS – “Glad All Over”
I can’t imagine it would be easy to be Jakob Dylan. Being a legend’s son has its disadvantages. Mostly, I don’t feel like he gets recognized for his own strengths. If Jakob wasn’t Bob’s son, he’d probably get the respect he deserves. “Glad All Over” is the sharpest, tightest set his band, the Wallflowers has delivered since “(Breach.)” It stands well next to that album as well as the mega-blockbuster, “Bringing Down the Horse.” Are people paying any attention? Maybe not. But they should. The Clash’s Mick Jones guests on two tracks – 0ne of which, “Misfits and Lovers,” may be the best song the Wallflowers have ever recorded.
“Misfits and Lovers” (featuring Mick Jones)
“First One in the Car”
“It Won’t Be Long (Till We’re Not Wrong Anymore)”
“One Set of Wings”
“Reboot the Mission” (featuring Mick Jones)
37. JAPANDROIDS – “Celebration Rock”
This Vancouver-based drummer and guitarist duo follow up their debut with an effective, infectious collection called “Celebration Rock.” Again, they approach everything with hard-hitting force. This is a loud, raucous record. But unlike their debut, “Post Nothing,” “Celebration Rock” backs up its power with a more melodic backbone. This eight-song set delivers solid gems filled with tales of rapidly fading adolescent nostalgia. It’s the perfect rock record for a summer night on the beach.
“The House That Heaven Built”
36. METZ – “Metz”
Noise-rock has returned to Sub-Pop records. Yes, the label that brought you Nirvana’s “Bleach” back in 1989 delivers another chaotic, dissonant classic. Clocking in at just under a half-hour, Metz’s self-titled debut is like sonic whiplash. This trio is brutal. This record is obviously influenced by Steve Albini’s work from the last 25 years. If you are looking for hooks, this isn’t the album for you. If you are looking for a blunt and powerful slice of sound, you’ve hit your mark.
“Knife in the Water”
35. REDD KROSS – “Researching the Blues”
Redd Kross started out as a teenage punk band in the ’80s and has matured into a top notch power-pop band. “Researching the Blues” is the band’s first record in 15 years. That, on its own, seems remarkable, considering how fresh and alive the McDonald brothers sound. “Stay Away from Downtown,” in particular, sounds like the kind of ace, stadium-ready rock anthem you’ll want to blast on repeat until someone tells you to stop. Some bands never get old. Some bands keep their edges and get finer as time goes by. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 15 years for a follow-up.
“Stay Away from Downtown”
“Researching the Blues”
34. MICHAEL KIWANUKA – “Home Again”
Michael Kiwanuka is a Ugandan-British soul and folk singer steeped in a classic tradition, recalling everyone from Bill Withers to Van Morrison. His songs are soft and beautiful, often flirting with a jazzy, gospel-like tinge. The majority of “Home Again” was helmed by Paul Butler from the Bees (or “A Band of Bees,” as they are known in the U.S.) and he gives Kiwanuka a wonderfully dusty sounding backdrop. This is among the earthiest of soul records, filled with flutes and string sections. The bass and drums sound like they are next to you. When Kiwanuka strums his guitar, you can tell the mic is right there. This is a remarkable debut record. It’s also a record that’s impossible to date.
“Tell Me a Tale”
“I’m Getting Ready”
“I Won’t Lie”
33. OF MONSTERS AND MEN – “My Head Is an Animal”
Iceland has given the world many edgy, incredible artists. It is, after all, the home of Bjork and Sigur Ros. The beautiful country’s latest export to make a splash is the band Of Monsters and Men. While the band doesn’t have the edginess of the previously mentioned acts, it does have a folky, anthemic lift. Co-vocalists Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar ‘Raggi’ Pórhallsson come off like an Icelandic answer to the Canadian band Stars with their male-female call-and-response delivery. The softer, quieter numbers are quite lush and the upbeat numbers, like the main single, “Little Talks,” are bright and bouncy. It took me a while to realize this album’s greatness. It seems, at first, somewhat innocuous, but it sinks itself deep inside of your consciousness. The third or fourth time listening to “Love Love Love,” I realized this was something quite amazing.
“Love Love Love”
“King and Lionheart”
32. ROCKET JUICE & THE MOON – “Rocket Juice & the Moon”
Rocket Juice & the Moon is a supergroup formed by Damon Albarn (of Blur and Gorillaz) with Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Fela Kuti’s drummer, Tony Allen. Allen and Albarn previously worked together on the side project The Good, The Bad and the Queen, but Flea is a new and interesting addition to the mix. The end result is a collection of funky, pseudo-Afrobeat jams. Allen and Flea were meant to work together and Flea, in particular, is able to flex some bass muscles the Chili Peppers no longer seem to allow him to use. This is a wild disc. Most of the tracks are instrumentals with a few guests showing up to add a vocal or two. Of the vocal highlights, Albarn delivers a hypnotic performance on “Poison,” while guest Erykah Badu brings forth the funk in “Hey Shooter.” All-together, this is a supergroup that actually delivers.
“Hey Shooter” (featuring Erykah Badu, Thundercat and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble)
“There” (featuring Chieck Tidiane Seck)
31. MARGOT & THE NUCLEAR SO AND SO’S – “Rot Gut Domestic”
What is that on the cover of Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s’ latest album, “Rot Gut Domestic”? Some sort of sad mule? The grainy quality of the picture and the slightness of the animal fit the album perfectly. It showcases the band at its most unruly and unhinged. The amps are turned up higher than usual and the sound is more fractured and wounded, as well. There’s a sad beauty in the opening track, “Disease and Tobacco Free,” while on “Shannon,” leader Richard Edwards is seemingly singing to an ex-lover who jilted him, threatening, “I’m going to go get drunk, Shannon.” All together, this is a wonderfully down and mopey album that even at its darkest moments somehow still maintains a playful core.
“Disease and Tobacco Free”
“Books About Trains”
“Ludlow Junk Hustle”
30. P!NK – “The Truth About Love”
P!nk is one of the best and most talented pop stars we have. She’s found the balance of popularity and edge and firmly knows who she is and what she wants to say. She is nobody’s puppet. “The Truth About Love” is a sparkling pop record, but P!nk’s personality shines throughout. Her sarcasm and wit match her considerable vocal abilities. Plus, even though many of the usual radio production aces are present here, it feels like P!nk’s material is given more leeway to rock. She may be a pop star, but she comes through with a brash rock energy. Highlights include the single “Blow Me (One Last Kiss),” which musically slightly recalls Modest Mouse’s “Float On” with a key change, and the bright and amazing “True Love,” which features Lily Rose Cooper (whom you might remember as Lily Allen.) “The Truth About Love” may be 2012′s greatest pop moment.
“True Love” (Featuring Lily Rose Cooper)
“Blow Me (One Last Kiss)”
“Are We All We Are”
“The Truth About Love”
29. NADA SURF – “The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy”
The members of Nada Surf are unlikely survivors who, in spite of being dropped by a major label, have continued on, delivering a slew of consistently well-respected indie-rock classics. The band’s seventh album, “The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy,” continues its string of stellar records. It’s also Nada Surf’s peppiest record since 1998′s “The Proximity Effect.” In recent years, the trio of Matthew Caws, Daniel Lorca and Ira Elliot found dreamy, mid-tempo bliss on albums like “Let Go,” “The Weight Is a Gift” and “Lucky.” They’d gotten to the point where they’d perfected the formula. What makes this album stand out is that it rocks out pretty consistently, with only a couple downbeat tracks. It’s like a jolt awake from a band I’m happy to say is still making great records.
“When I Was Young”
“No Snow on the Mountain”
“Clear Eyes Clouded Mind”
“Waiting for Something”
28. BEST COAST – “THE ONLY PLACE”
For its second album, “The Only Place,” the lo-fi duo Best Coast made an unusual decision when it picked Jon Brion as a producer. Brion is known for more orchestral fare by the likes of Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann. He ended up being a good choice, although, as one would predict, “The Only Place” has a much cleaner sound than the band’s debut, “Crazy For You.” Bethany Cosentino’s lyrics are slightly better this time around, but they still sound like a teenager’s journal entries. But, as was the case on their debut, her somewhat simplistic lyrical approach is absolutely perfect for her band’s songs, so it ultimately does not matter. The crisper production allows us to hear her voice more out in front and it’s an impressive natural instrument. This collection has its upbeat moments, but it finds a nice home mostly in retro, ’50s-esque rockabilly ballad territory.
“Why I Cry”
“No One Like You”
“How They Want Me to Be”
“Let’s Go Home”
“Up All Night”
27. SOUNDGARDEN – “King Animal” (Deluxe Edition)
Yes! After a 16-year break, the members of Soundgarden have returned with the band completely intact and rocking as hard as ever. Chris Cornell is back where he should be, fronting one of the best Seattle grunge bands, and Kim Thayil still can make his guitar really roar. The most amazing thing about “King Animal” is that it essentially picks up exactly where the band left off on “Down on the Upside.” This album could’ve come out in 1998 or 1999. Nothing about it screams 2012. Muscular workouts like “Non-State Actor” and “Been Away Too Long” would be huge hits if radio still played rock music. Let’s hope this reunion sticks and that there is more to come.
“A Thousand Days Before”
“Been Away Too Long”
26. MIKE DOUGHTY – “The Flip Is Another Honey”
Mike Doughty essentially spent 2012 figuratively cleaning out his closets. He issued a book, “The Book of Drugs,” chronicling his addictions as well as his unsatisfactory years fronting Soul Coughing. He also issued a stellar live album, “The Question Jar Show.” Thirdly, he released, “The Flip Is Another Honey,” which is kind of a covers record. I usually don’t put covers records on these lists but, like Mark Ronson’s “Version” a few years back, this collection pretty radically reinvents the source material. Yeah, sure, Doughty delivers a pretty straight-forward cover of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” but what he does to Denver’s “Sunshine” is more akin to what a rapper would do with a sample. He takes Denver’s voice and tweaks it over a trippy beat and raps over it, beat-poetry style. He tackles “Tightrope” by the Stone Roses in much the same way, only borrowing the hook and building a completely new track. He turns “Send in the Clowns” into a sad instrumental solo guitar lament. He breathes life into Doveman’s strangely haunting “Boy + Angel.” The most inventive moment is when he somehow combines Cheap Trick’s “Reach Out” and Josh Wink’s “Higher State of Consciousness.” With “The Flip Is Another Honey,” Doughty raises the bar for cover records in general. This album is just as essential as any one of his collections of originals.
“Send in the Clowns”
“Boy + Angel”
“Reach Out/Higher State of Consciousness.”
25. THE WALKMEN – “Heaven”
The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser used to caterwaul with the best of them. He used to shout every song like his life depended on it. That all changed with the band’s last album, “Lisbon.” As a result of the shift, that album was rather sleepy and forgettable. On “Heaven,” the group members thankfully regain their footing but, again, Leithauser has decided to keep the shouting to a minimum. It all works out because his new focus on lower-level vocal delivery has added new colors into the mix. The Walkmen can now be more folky or play freely with jangle-pop. The instruments still sound like they have been recorded in a giant cathedral, although this is the band’s brightest-sounding album to date. Dare I say, this album sounds happy? It doesn’t sound haunted like their records of the past. It’s a solid set with the band settling into new elements of their sound.
“Love Is Luck”
“Song For Leigh”
24. P.O.S. – “We Don’t Even Live Here”
P.O.S. is one of the most refreshing voices in hip-hop. Born Stefon Alexander, he began his musical career fronting the hardcore punk group Building Better Bombs before setting into experimental hip-hop. The Minneapolis native fuses a punk energy with his considerable lyrical skill. Never one to be put into a box, his records are always eclectic and compelling. “We Don’t Even Live Here” is under 40 minutes, but he has a lot to say. On the non-radio-friendly titled single, “F*** Your Stuff,” he rallies against our consumerist culture while shouting out to Wikileaks and name-checking the late Christopher Hitchens. That’s how P.O.S. is. He delivers hip-hop in a militant Fugazi-like framework – educated, bold, angry and ground-breaking. Unfortunately, during the release week of “We Don’t Even Live Here,” P.O.S. announced he had to cancel his tour because he is in need of a kidney transplant. Get well soon, Stef!
“F*** Your Stuff”
“How We Land”
“All Of It”
23. A.C. NEWMAN – “Shut Down the Streets”
A.C. Newman is best known as the leader of the power-pop collective, the New Pornographers. On his third solo album, he has made a very wise decision by having his co-vocalist in that group, Neko Case, sing backup throughout the set. This makes “Shut Down the Streets” sound that much more like a New Pornographers record. As usual, Newman is on top of his game. The standout track is “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns,” a bouncy yet cryptic, hand-clap-ready masterpiece. Then there’s the reflective and airy album opener, “I’m Not Talking,” and the Shins-esque “You Could Get Lost Out Here.” It all adds up to a record that should win Newman new fans while pleasing his old ones.
“Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns”
“I’m Not Talking”
“You Could Get Lost Out Here”
“Do Your Own Time”
“They Should Have Shut Down the Streets”
22. TAME IMPALA – “Lonerism”
Kevin Parker, who leads Perth, Australia’s Tame Impala, is a genius at manipulating sounds. The group’s latest record, “Lonerism,” sounds like the work of a madman left alone in a room with his machines. It’s the kind of record you need to hear on a large set of speakers to fully appreciate. With a voice similar to Peter Moren of Peter Bjorn and John, Parker creates psychedelic excellence. Just imagine if a post-punk Brian Wilson at his peak got the chance to jam with Stereolab and you might begin to understand how this record sounds.
“Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”
“Be Above It”
“Why Won’t They Talk To Me?”
21. TY SEGALL AND WHITE FENCE – “Hair” / TY SEGALL BAND – “Slaughterhouse” / TY SEGALL – “Twins”
Nothing about Ty Segall’s garage rock screams that he’s from Laguna Beach, Calif. His music is more gloriously murky than sunny. Segall is apparently trying to flood the market with his work. In 2012, he released three albums. His album with the band White Fence sounds like a lost gem from the original Nuggets era. It could have been made in 1968. His album under the name, “Ty Segall Band,” entitled “Slaughterhouse,” is a messy work-up filled with deathly screams and feedback squalls. Finally, “Twins” is a more up-to-date fusion of sounds popularized in both the ’60s and the ’90s. Of the three, “Twins” possesses the cleanest production. Segall has, no doubt, proven he’s prolific. He has another couple of records supposedly coming out at the end of January. If you’ve never heard of him before, you should check out his music. He’s the new enigmatic face of garage-punk.
Favorite Tracks: “Hair”
“(I Can’t) Get Around You”
Favorite Tracks: “Slaughterhouse“
“I Bought My Eyes”
“The Bag I’m In”
Favorite Tracks: “Twins”
“Thank God for Sinners”
“You’re The Doctor”
“Inside Your Heart”
20. CAT POWER – “Sun”
Should I say that “Sun” is Chan Marshall’s happiest Cat Power record? I think I will. It’s also one of her best. It couldn’t be more different that her last collection of originals, “The Greatest,” six years ago. Where that record found Marshall working within a retro-soul motif, this one finds her experimenting with modern production, subtle electronics and (if you can believe it) Auto-Tune. You shouldn’t let the concept of Auto-Tune here scare you away. Her use of it in the background of “3,6,9″ is merely for decoration and not distracting at all. (I say that as someone who hates Auto-Tune, by the way.) “Sun” is a well-rounded, well-produced chill-out record. It was one of 2012′s most welcome surprises.
“3, 6, 9″
19. FOUR TET – “Pink”
Kieran Hebden (a.k.a. Four Tet) is a master innovator when it comes to IDM and ambient electronica. That’s partly why he’s such an in-demand remixer. (He has famously worked with everyone from Radiohead to Beth Orton.) “Pink” is his latest collection of original works and, like his last record, “There Is Love in You,” it finds him going deeper and deeper into the technoscape. There are still jazzy elements that should please fans of earlier records like “Rounds” and “Everything Ecstatic,” but, for the most part, these are highly electric, synthesized workouts. One of the only hints of the past is the swaying beat to the disc’s opener, “Locked.” Elsewhere, the 11-minute, ambient “Peace on Earth” would make an excellent soundtrack for meditation. The collection, on the whole, shows the latest progression of one of electronic music’s most forward-thinking minds.
“Peace on Earth”
18. GARBAGE – “Not Your Kind of People” (Deluxe Edition)
In 2012, Garbage abandoned the major label system and released its fifth album, “Not Your Kind Of People,” on its own. It didn’t miss a beat and hasn’t lost a step. If you think about it, Garbage’s sound is the exact sonic meeting point between the grunge of the early ’90s and the electronic boom of the late ’90s. Shirley Manson is still as cool as ever and continues to control the room on singles, “Big Bright World” and “Blood for Poppies.” This also is the band’s most produced record. It is full of endless layers of sounds and small details. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that the other three members besides Manson are seasoned studio pros. Butch Vig and company coat this disc in a fine, shiny sheen. If you get this album, make sure you get the deluxe edition with three extra tracks. “Bright Tonight” should’ve been a single and not a bonus cut.
“Big Bright World”
“Bright Tonight” (Deluxe Edition)
“Blood for Poppies”
“Not Your Kind of People”
“Show Me” (Deluxe Edition)
17. MASTA ACE/DOOM: MA_DOOM – “Son of Yvonne”
For those of you paying attention, this is Doom’s second appearance in this top 50. Here is his collaboration with Masta Ace. This album is Ace’s autobiographical take on his rise in the hip-hop world as well as a touching tribute to his mother. Ace goes from scratching up him mom’s old records to dodging opportunistic groupies within a couple of songs, but here’s a man who has never forgotten his roots. It is evident that he is grateful to his mom for all her sacrifices. Doom’s production here is tight and classic, keeping with the record’s old-school feeling. Again, if you are easily offended, this record may not be for you. But if you love the classic, New York ’90s-era hip-hop, this is an album you should definitely hear.
“Son of Yvonne”
“Nineteen Seventy Something”
“Me and My Gang”
“I Did It”
16. GREEN DAY – ” ¡Uno!” / ” ¡Dos!” / ” ¡Tré!”
Ty Segall wasn’t the only person to release three albums in 2012. Guided by Voices did, too, as did a band you may have heard of called Green Day. The original plan was to drop the first part of Green Day’s trilogy in September, the second in November and the third in January 2013. After Billie Joe Armstrong had an onstage meltdown at the “I Heart Radio” festival and went to rehab for undisclosed reasons, the band postponed its tour and the third installment was moved up to December. I’m going on record to say that as an old-school Green Day fan, I love these albums. Sure, the Internet is full of people saying that they are no longer “punk” and they’ve become too much of a pop band. To those people, I say, go back and re-listen to “Dookie” and “Kerplunk.” They were never all that punk-y. They were always a hard-edged power-pop group, never refusing a good hook. Yes, Billie Joe’s lyrics are now more love-centered and full of less angst, but every band should be allowed to grow and expand. The 37 tracks here pay tribute to the band’s past and find them widening their scope. Like any Green Day album, there are recycled ideas and tunes that come dangerously close to sounding like songs you already know. “Brutal Love” (on ” ¡Tré!”), for instance, sounds like a tribute take on Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.” Nevertheless, 37 songs from any band in one year is an impressive feat. People complaining that they don’t sound the way they used to need to accept that, post-”American Idiot,” they are a very different band with loftier goals. The fact remains that the 17-year old version of me that loved “Dookie” would’ve gone nuts hearing “Let Yourself Go.” Sadly, releasing these albums in such close proximity to each other isn’t an optimum way to get the most single promotion. Each one of the three discs has at least five songs that are single-ready. “Lazy Bones,” for instance is one of the group’s best songs to date.
Favorite Tracks: ” ¡Uno!”
“Let Yourself Go”
“Kill the DJ”
Favorite Tracks: ” ¡Dos!”
Favorite Tracks: ” ¡Tré!”
15. DEFTONES – “Koi No Yokan”
If you ever liked the Deftones, you’ll really enjoy their latest, “Koi No Yokan.” The band’s sludgy alt-metal formula hasn’t changed much, but its main asset has always been Chino Moreno’s soaring voice. He likes to play it cool and sing dissonant melodies from time to time, but he is armed with a natural gift. Put him next to a chugging guitar line and the formula is set. “Gauze,” for instance, has an amazing, throttling riff with Moreno taking a sudden left-turn into a rousing chorus.
14. FLYING LOTUS – “Until the Quiet Comes”
Like his Warp label-mate, Prefuse 73, Flying Lotus blurs the lines between instrumental hip-hop and glitch-tronica. “Until the Quiet Comes” delivers tracks that are soulful slow-burners next to other tracks that aren’t afraid to be quirky and strange. Most of these cuts only clock in at around a minute or two, but that just creates an environment of ever-changing variety. Along the way, high-profile guests like Erykah Badu and Thom Yorke drop in. It all makes for a compelling, genre-defining classic.
“Electric Candyman” (featuring Thom Yorke)
“Getting There” (featuring Niki Randa)
“See Through to U” (featuring Erykah Badu)
“Putty Boy Strut”
13. KID KOALA – “12 Bit Blues”
Kid Koala has delivered what is probably the world’s first turntablist blues album, taking blues riffs and scratching them against matching vocalists. Koala painstakingly made this record with analog equipment to maintain an authentic feel, and the slowed down voices tend to give the material an otherworldly quality. In the process, as unlikely as it sounds, with “12 Bit Blues” Kid Koala has somehow reinvented the blues and shown that the genre’s parameters can still be expanded.
“4 Bit Blues”
“3 Bit Blues”
“8 Bit Blues (Chicago to LA to NY)”
“1 Bit Blues (10,000 Miles)”
“10 Bit Blues”
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”
I am going to state the obvious. Fiona Apple needs to release albums more often. The fact that “The Idler Wheel…” is only her fourth album in 16 years means that her cult status has grown with each prolonged release gap. In many ways, this is probably the closest Apple has ever come to making a jazz album. These compositions have an off-kilter swing. She swirls around the piano on “Daredevil,” “Left Alone” and “Jonathan,” and even invites her sister, Maude Maggart, to sing harmony with her on the uncharacteristically upbeat “Hot Knife.” This is a strange, moody record. But like most of Apple’s work, it pays off with repeated listens. I’m sure the record executives wish that she’d record a few singles for the radio, but by going her own way and setting her own course, she has made something much better. It’s almost as if she’s found a happy medium between Elliott Smith’s “XO” and Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out.” Fiona Apple is one of a kind and, with this record, her legend rightfully continues to grow.
“Anything We Want”
“Every Single Night”
11. DINOSAUR JR. – “I Bet on the Sky”
I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. The members of Dinosaur Jr. are at a career peak. It seems like too few people are paying attention, though, and that’s a tragedy. Their last album, “Farm,” topped this list in 2009, and “I Bet on the Sky” finds them even looser. “Almost Fare,” “Watch the Corners” and “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know” were all meant to be played in regular rotation on rock radio. But radio, for the most part, sadly doesn’t pay attention to bands like Dinosaur Jr. anymore. Had they released “Beyond,” “Farm” and “I Bet on the Sky” all in a row 20 years ago, they’d be getting the respect they deserve. In any case, since they reconvened their original line-up, they’ve done nothing but strike gold.
“Watch the Corners”
“Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know”
“I Know It Oh So Well”
“See It on Your Side”
10. JESCA HOOP – “The House That Jack Built”
Jesca Hoop once worked for Tom Waits’ family as a nanny to his children. What a magical minder of children she must have been. Her music is full of off-kilter whimsy. Her characters are mysterious and she has a knack for crafting songs with her own, unique brand of ramshackle allure. “Born To” blasts off like a world-weary anthem. It’s a welcome to her universe, if you will, while “Pack Animal” is a glorious take on loneliness and self-reflection. “Ode to Banksy” pays tribute to the enigmatic street artist, while the “Lysistrata”-referencing “Peacemaker,” is full of enough steamy eroticism to stop just about anyone from even thinking about picking up a weapon. It all adds up to the best album of Hoop’s career. She is someone to watch.
“When I’m Asleep”
“Dig This Record”
9. SHARON VAN ETTEN – “Tramp”
Sharon Van Etten broke through in a big way in 2012 with her third album, “Tramp.” It’s easy to see why. With her literate, concentrated take on heartbreak and disappointment, her songs are jam-packed with sincerity and emotion. Her distinctive vocal tone makes her sound like a feminine answer to “Bends”-era Thom Yorke. When she tackles slow-building songs like “Leonard,” “Serpents” and “All I Can,” she draws in her listeners until she reaches her apex. She is a singer-songwriter with a considerable and admirable set of skills.
“All I Can”
8. NAS – “Life Is Good” (Deluxe Edition)
No matter what Nas does, “Illmatic” will always loom over him. It may not be fair, but it is the case. When you drop that kind of genre-defining record, it can be a hard standard to set for yourself. What people may not know is that 2012′s “Life Is Good” may very well be Nas’ best record since that landmark debut. Yes, it should probably be a darker record, considering his autobiographical rhymes about his divorce from Kelis. But Nas is an adult who approaches the topic of his dissolved union with a mournful optimism. The man who once rapped on a track with the chorus, “Life’s a b**** and then you die,” now worries about if he’s a good father to his teenage daughter. There’s a mark of honest maturity to “Life Is Good.” It’s authentic and real. When Nas repeats the album title near the end of the Amy Winehouse-assisted, “Cherry Wine,” you can’t help but think of Winehouse’s own life sadly cut short. “Life Is Good” shows a remarkable shift in Nas’ work. At a time when he could be bitter, he is thankful for what has and what he has experienced. (Take note: Get the deluxe edition of this album with the bonus tracks. They truly add to the set.)
“Cherry Wine” (featuring Amy Winehouse)
“Roses” (Deluxe Edition)
“Nasty” (Deluxe Edition)
“Reach Out” (featuring Mary J. Blige)
“Loco-Motive” (featuring Large Professor)
7. SCOUT – “All Those Relays”
I would bet you don’t know Scout, but you should. Singer-songwriter Ashen Keilyn has the makings of a star and this band should please just about anyone looking for smart, female-led indie rock. By her side, Keilyn has Steve Schiltz, who may be familiar to music fans as the leader of the bands Longwave and Hurricane Bells. His presence is felt in the orchestration. These songs, while led firmly by Keilyn, share the same sensibility found on Longwave’s records. The truth is the members of Scout have been making records together since 1996 and Schiltz’s membership in the band pre-dates the forming of Longwave. Why this band didn’t initially explode into the popular realm in the ’90s is a mystery. One thing’s for certain: “All Those Relays” is an arresting record that should result in some rightful historical revisionism. By all accounts, this album should be a career-changer. “So Close,” “Under Attack” and “Some Things Never Change” are hits waiting to happen.
“Some Things Never Change”
“Please Excuse Me”
“Best for Last”
6. …AND YOU WILL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF DEAD – “Lost Songs” (Deluxe Limited Edition)
“Trail of Dead” made it into my top 10 last year with its last album, “Tao of the Dead.” “Lost Songs” plays very much like a harder-edged sequel to that record. Again, they are not as scary as their moniker might have you believe. Conrad Keely and Jason Reece have been making music together for more than a decade and a half now, and they know what parts of their formula work. They’ve got it down to a science. As was the case with “Tao of the Dead,” the deluxe edition of “Lost Songs” comes with two versions of the album. One disc has spaces between the songs and the other has them nicely segued together. In addition, the disc booklet with the deluxe edition is nearly 180 pages long. The whole package is quite impressive.
“Time and Again”
“Mountain Battle Song”
5. NORAH JONES – “Little Broken Hearts”
“Come Away With Me” may have sold an astounding number of copies, but “Little Broken Hearts” is, by far, Norah Jones’ best and most fascinating record to date. In fact, as an artist she has grown exponentially with each release since that mammoth breakthrough. After working so well last year with Danger Mouse on his album, “Rome,” Jones has teamed up with him again for her own record. The album is more guitar-driven and less piano-centric than a lot of the fans of her older work would expect. But together, the two of them craft a collection of atmospheric, semi-gothic, woozily funky pieces. The softer sections are haunting, putting Jones’ honey-sweet vocals to work. “Miriam,” for instance, is a murder ballad aimed towards a woman on the wrong side of a love triangle, while “Say Goodbye,” with its aerodynamic lift, laments a relationship gone wrong. True to its title, this is a collection of well-studied break-up songs. Some protagonists end up in better places than others, but jilted heartbreak has rarely been this enchanting. Not only does this collection stand well in Jones’ growing catalogue, but it is also some of Danger Mouse’s best work and would play well next to his records with Gnarles Barkley and Broken Bells. “Little Broken Hearts” is dark and twisted at times, but so is heartbreak. You just have to try to find the beauty in the sadness. Jones definitely has found beauty and redefined her image for the better.
“Little Broken Hearts”
4. SKELETON KEY – “Gravity Is the Enemy”
“Gravity Is the Enemy” is only Skeleton Key’s third full length album. The band’s major label debut, “Fantastic Spikes Through Balloon,” came out in 1997 on Capitol. The set was up for a Grammy for its packaging, but soon after, Skeleton Key was dropped. In 2002, the band signed to Mike Patton’s Ipecac label and released the even better “Obtanium.” A decade later, this Brooklyn, N.Y., band finds itself signed to a German vinyl-centric label called Arctic Rodeo, releasing its best and most-focused record. In the U.S., the best way to get “Gravity Is the Enemy” is through digital retailers, but it is a record you should definitely hear. The only core member throughout the band’s career has been leader Erik Sanko. Skeleton Key’s signature sound is a happy middle ground between Primus-like quirkiness and Foo Fighters-esque stadium shakers. What sets Skeleton Key apart is the fact that, in addition to a regular drummer, it has another percussionist banging on pots and pans and basically just about anything he can find. The fact that the band’s sound has remained remarkably intact despite the revolving door of personnel is a testament to Sanko’s vision. I actually saw Skeleton Key live back in 1995 when the band opened up for They Might Be Giants in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The band’s performance blew me away. When I listen to “Little Monster,” “Museum Glass” or the new album’s title track, I know immediately that this is the same band. It’s better late than never, but with “Gravity Is the Enemy,” Skeleton Key has created its masterpiece.
“Gravity Is the Enemy”
“Human Pin Cushion”
3. MACKLEMORE & RYAN LEWIS – “The Heist”
Seattle-based rapper Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis did the impossible this year. Without the backing of a major label, they managed to debut their album, “The Heist,” at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200. Perhaps this says a lot about the music industry, in general, and the once great major label system’s declining level of clout, but it also speaks volumes about a grass-roots, Internet-based approach to reaching fans. It’s evident from the start that these two stand out. Macklemore’s flow brings to mind underground greats like Atmosphere and Aesop Rock and, judging from his words on the standout track, “Jimmy Iovine,” (a track named after the chairman of Interscope Records) he has no plans on even attempting to fit into the major-label market. Elsewhere, Macklemore raps joyously about bargain-hunting on the single “Thrift Shop” and gives the perspective of a wayward alcoholic looking for hope on “Neon Cathedral.” But the track that is likely to get people’s attention is “Same Love,” a song that denounces homophobia in our culture and in hip-hop in general. Macklemore tells a moving story about growing up with a gay uncle and expresses support for gay marriage. Welcome to the new indie hip-hop. With “The Heist,” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have easily proven themselves to be outspoken leaders, pushing the genre ahead in a post-Kanye world.
“Thrift Shop” (featuring Wanz)
“Same Love” (featuring Mary Lambert)
“Thin Line” (featuring Buffalo Madonna)
“Jimmy Iovine” (featuring Ab-Soul)
“Make the Money”
“Neon Cathedral” (featuring Allen Stone)
2. FRANK OCEAN – “channel ORANGE”
Only time will tell is Frank Ocean’s “channel ORANGE” will stack up against the masterpieces of the soul greats. People have been comparing the singer to the likes of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and even Otis Redding. I don’t know whether I am quite ready to go that far yet, but I can say that “channel ORANGE” is the best and most moving modern R&B record to be released in the last decade. Ocean combines older sounding instrumentation with modern touches. His voice is a multi-octave force. On “Thinkin Bout You,” he suddenly rallies into the stratosphere. On “Forrest Gump,” he targets the title character with an unlikely Motown-esque love-ballad. “Bad Religion” finds Ocean using a taxi as means for confession and then finds his confessions soundly rejected by the driver. “Pyramids” is an extended, club-ready, electro-funk jam, while “Sweet Life” shows off a seductive bachelor-pad groove. The songs on “channel ORANGE,” borrow from the past while forging ahead to the future. This album works and astounds because it doesn’t fit a formula. Ocean has his own, unique take. He’s not interchangeable with anyone else. He’s carving his own path. Honestly, I hope this album does hold up and get passed down from generation to generation. In a world where the pop charts have become recyclable, this is most definitely a record worth keeping.
“Thinkin Bout You”
1. REGINA SPEKTOR – “What We Saw from the Cheap Seats”
Given the high quality of output this year, “What We Saw from the Cheap Seats” may be seen by some as an anti-climactic pick for the best album of 2012. It only clocks in at 37 minutes and it finds Spektor continuing the work she has done on her previous albums. The thing is, here, she has perfected her craft. She brilliantly re-casts museums as prisons for timeless masterpieces on “All The Rowboats,” artfully compares politicians to strippers on “Ballad of a Politician,” breaks her listeners’ hearts on the break-up ballad, “How,” and ends with a brief Wes Anderson-soundtrack-ready, guitar-strummed reverie, “Jessica.” Spektor has a unique way of fusing words with melody. On “How,” when she sings to a soon-to-be ex, “You are a guest here, now,” the soul-crushing pain is felt. The idea of holding someone close and having that person ripped away suddenly and being reduced to a “guest” is painful for anyone who has ever experienced a broken heart. On “Ballad of a Politician,” when she suddenly raises her voice and powerfully declares, “I am not a number, not a name,” you are ready to follow her into a protest rally. At its core, “What We Saw from the Cheap Seats” is a deceptively straightforward singer-songwriter record. Upon repeated listens, if you are open to it, it will plant itself deep into your soul and beautifully haunt your dreams. Spektor has been attempting this kind of subtle masterpiece to some extent since her earliest self-released albums. Here, she has resoundingly achieved her goal.
“All the Rowboats”
“Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me)”
“Ballad of a Politician”
“Small Town Moon”
2012 has ended with a bang and left us with more classic recordings. Happy holidays and let us hope for the best next year!