#20 Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory [Carpark]
Release Date: January 24, 2012
What began as one slow, sad, slog of an album ended as one of the year’s best. Attack on Memory is a raw, rag tag of a rock album, but it’s good. Engineered by legendary producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies), the album is distinctively stripped down with lead singer Dylan Baldi’s vocals front and center. Outside of the opening track, the distinctively dark and moody “No Future/No Past,” the rest is pretty upbeat, offering up hints of punk, and late-eighties rock. It’s fun, it’s dark, angry and even a little trippy; but most of all it’s short, clocking in at just a hair over 30 minutes.
Select Cuts: Fall In, Stay Useless, Cut You
#19 Beach House:Bloom [Sub Pop]
Release Date: May 15, 2012
Positioning Bloom at #19 is probably a bit unfair. Standing on its own, Bloom is a magnificent piece of work. Grandiose, majestic, and composed of great songwriting, Bloom is the ideal go-to for the melancholically (is that a word?) inclined. Lead singer Victoria Legrand is once again in full command of her rich, husky tenor voice, and guitarist Alex Scally’s chord voicings shimmer. Through it all, it’s like one long dream sequence. So then what gives; why so low? The ranking is a reflection of the fact that Legrand and Scally offer nothing new here. Their breakthrough album Teen Dream offered up, what has become their signature dreamy, shimmering sound. What I had hoped for with their follow-up was a fresh take on the formula that worked for them before. Unfortunately that didn’t really happen, so Bloom gets taken down a few notches. But don’t let that stop you from giving it a listen; it’s a wonderful album.
Select Cuts: Myth, Lazuli, Other People
#18 Norah Jones: Little Broken Hearts [Blue Note]
Release Date: April 25, 2012
Payback’s a bitch…..so the saying goes. Nowhere is that more evident than on “Little Broken Hearts,” Norah Jones’ fifth full length release that was inspired by a recent breakup. The album is a collection of tracks that were put together with producer Brian Burton a.k.a Danger Mouse (Broken Bells, Gnarls Barkley), before and during the period in which the two also collaborated on 2011’s Rome. One listen to Little Broken Hearts is all it will take to notice Jones’ emotions. The album is often times dark, and yes, Jones is pissed. But it is her anger that gives the album a degree of depth previously unseen by the chanteuse. In the video for the first single from the album “Happy Pills”, Jones is seen as the jilted lover, plotting the death of her partner. On the song “Miriam,” perhaps the album’s best, Jones almost relishes the thought of bringing an end to “the other woman.” The music tracks the grand orchestral vision of Burton’s Rome, which mostly works. While there are a few lulls in the middle, “Little Broken Hearts” is a welcome addition to the Jones canon.
Select Cuts: Little Broken Hearts, Happy Pills, Miriam
#17 Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music [Williams Street, Grand Hustle, Adult Swim]
Release Date: May 15, 2012
I stopped keeping close tabs on the rap game a long time ago. I’m not sure if this change coincided at all with my discovery of Hendrix or Zeppelin. Or, if the change coincided with the demise of Yo’ MTV Raps (particularly Fab Five Freddie’s involvement; Ed Lover & Dr. Dre bugged the hell out of me, “Who’s the Man” notwithstanding). Nevertheless, I still listen to a lot of rap music, just not as much as I should, so it was a pleasant surprise when my friend Dave Jeromin recommended both R.A.P. Music and El-P’s Cancer for Cure. Originally I preferred the latter. Then I saw the video for the single “Big Beast,” (heavily inspired by the movie Drive) and I was sold. Initially it was the video that hooked me (hookers, zombies, a car chase, you name it), but then the song sunk in and it was all I needed. It’s loud, bombastic, features a coterie of characters (Bun B., T.I., and Trouble), and it is a lyrical tour de force that represents the very best of southern rap. At its core, R.A.P. Music is hard-core southern rap that paints on a pretty wide canvass. Killer Mike addresses everything from the dope game, to politics in the age of Reagan, and then turns the album into a southern rap revival; somehow it all works. El-P works wonders as the producer, as the album draws from both Killer Mike’s southern influences, as well as the sounds that represent El-P’s east coast background.
Select Cuts: Big Beast, Southern Fried, R.A.P. Music
#16 Bat for Lashes: The Haunted Man [Parlorphone]
Release Date: October 11, 2012
Bat for Lashes’ (Natasha Khan) The Haunted Man was an album that came courtesy of my good friend, and co-host of the “Bring Tha Noize” podcast, Scott Hoyer. Unfamiliar with any of her work, I was eager to give this one a try, and I was not disappointed. On this, Khan’s third studio album, we find what many have described as a more muted sound; less on the electronic beats and rhythms, thus providing a sparer production. There is a haunting, yet orchestral feel to the album, but it’s not overdone. Vocally, Khan evokes memories of art-rock singer Kate Bush, which just adds to the lushness of the sound. But don’t take The Haunted Man to be entirely awash in melancholy, there’s a few up-tempo tracks that recall some of Khan’s earlier work, sprinkled in just enough to make this one of the year’s best.
Select Cuts: Lilies, All Your Gold, A Wall
#15 Cat Power: Sun [Matador]
Release Date: August 29, 2012
After nearly twenty years as a recording artist and 9 full-length albums to date, Cat Power (Chan Marshall) has established herself as one of the industry’s most talented but enigmatic performers. Throughout her tumultuous career, she has found herself embroiled in all of the trappings of success: drugs, depression, eccentricity and disappointment. Yet Sun– Marshall’s first album of entirely original material since 2006’s The Greatest- is that album that comes along every so often for the talented and fortunate artist, at the right time. It’s that album that signifies somewhat of a rebirth. Needless to say, this was done purposefully, as the title “Sun” represents light, and a certain freshness that permeates throughout the album. Self-produced, the album stands apart from Marshall’s previous offerings. Looking for a more dynamic feel, Marshall introduces all sorts of drum beats, loops, synthesizers and other unique sounds to bring about this new direction. Both lyrically and tonally the album seems to deliver the message that Marshall is back, ever more bold, and- as she and pal Iggy Pop make clear- she’s got “Nothin’ but Time” to finish what she started.
Select Cuts: Cherokee; 3, 6, 9; Peace and Love
#14 Father John Misty: Fear Fun [Sub Pop]
Release Date: April 30, 2012
Joshua Tillman’s (Father John Misty is Tillman’s nom de guerre) 2012 release Fear Fun, is a throwback album of sorts. Incorporating the sounds of classic 70’s rock n’ roll, Fear Fun recalls the best moments of artists like Fleetwood Mac and Elton John; heck, I even hear a little of Lennon’s solo work here. Yet somehow the album doesn’t sound dated; probably a result of modern production. Or maybe, it’s just that Tillman wanted to make an album rooted in great storytelling, and filled with rich layers of sound that marry the old 70’s nostalgia with modern folk influences like Wilco and even the Fleet Foxes (the band with whom Tillman once toured). Regardless of intent, Fear Fun succeeds as an enjoyable listen.
Select Cuts: Fun Times in Babylon, Nancy from Now On, This is Sally Hatchet
#13 Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d. city [Interscope, Aftermath, Top Dawg]
Release Date: October 22, 2012
It’s not every day that a hip-hop artist releases something like good kid m.A.A.d. city (“GKMC”), yet somehow Compton’ California’s latest export, Kendrick Lamar, manages to do just that……..on his first try.* Showing wisdom, and a bit of musical genius well beyond his years, Lamar’s major label debut lives up to all the hype, as Lamar skillfully explores the themes that often accompany West-Coast rap: drugs, violence, misogyny, and poverty, just to name a few. But what is unique about GKMC, is how Lamar delivers these themes: in the form of a concept album that follows Lamar, as a teenage kid, as he travels throughout his world.
Lamar has been compared to a wide variety of artists such as Tupac (his idol), Dr. Dre, and Outkast. Personally, I think he sounds like a cross between Andre 3000 and Kanye, but I’m certainly no expert. What I do know is that GKMC stands alone as one of 2012’s most refreshing releases- rap or otherwise.
Select Cuts: Sherane, Swimming Pools (Drank), Compton, The Recipe
*His first album on a major label
#12 Frankie Rose: Interstellar [Slumberland]
Release Date: February 2012
Frankie Rose’s unmistakably titled debut Interstellar is yet another entry into the catalog of records that have comprised the 80’s nostalgia movement of the last 5-10 years. Yet describing Interstellar as nothing more than an 80’s rehash record would be misleading; there’s more here than meets the eye. Rather than dousing the songs with shimmery guitars and heavy synth, the approach here is often sparse. Sure, Rose’s vocals are washed over with delays, a heavy dose of reverb, and then doubled just for safe measure. But the sounds that invade Interstellar give Rose’s vocal melodies room to breathe, most notably on tracks like “Had We Had It” and “Moon on my Mind.” But the real beauty of Interstellar comes in the way of the more grandiose tracks like “Pair of Wings” that literally embody the ambition of Instellar; an album that not only attempts but also succeeds in taking the listener along on a journey across various musical soundscapes.
Select Cuts: Pair of Wings, Apples for the Sun, The Fall
#11 The Walkmen: Heaven [Fat Possum, Bella Union]
Release Date: May 29, 2012
Emerging out of the ashes of the post-punk revival of the early aughts, The Walkmen have since managed to forge a path as indie-rock mainstays. With Heaven– their 7th full-length album- the New York outfit head off into a slightly new direction with an Americana-styled record. Heaven probably won’t make anyone forget about Wilco’s Being There, but it is some of the most jangly music they’ve put together, perhaps ever. The spirit of the album is best embodied with songs like the opener “We Can’t Be Beat” that offer up a straight-forward rock n’ roll approach, with both acoustic and electric guitars played side by side. There are still some of their post-punk sensibilities at work here, especially on songs like “Love is Luck,” but otherwise Heaven is mostly an album full of new flavors.
Select Cuts: Love is Luck, Line by Line, Heaven
#10 Tame Impala: Lonerism [Modular Recordings]
Release Date: October 5, 2012
No one is making music like Tame Impala right now.* From the outset, Lonerism– rife with buzzing noises, quirks, and all sorts of psychedelic sounds- asserts itself as the bold, dynamic statement of a record that it was intended to be. Taken in its entirety, Lonerism harkens back to the halcyon days of rock n’ roll, when psychedelic rock was all the rage. Kevin Parker (the genius behind Tame Impala) uses the psychedelic template and turns it on its head, by incorporating elements of pop and all sorts of different rock varieties (even glam) in order to produce one of the most refreshing albums to emerge from the land “down under” (or anywhere for that matter) in quite some time.
*See #2 on the list
Select Cuts: Apocalypse Dreams, Music to Walk Home By, Mind Mischief
#9 Grizzly Bear: Shields [Warp]
Release Date: September 18, 2012
I have to admit I never really cared for Grizzly Bear. Heck, the only song I ever seemed to think much of was “Two Weeks” from Veckatimest. So it was with trepidation even cynicism- that I gave Shields, (their 3rd full-length album) a shot; boy was a I surprised. Not surprised that it was good, because there are plenty of albums out there that are good, but unappealing (to me). No, I was shocked at how much I liked what I heard. I’m sure some folks might think of Grizzly Bear as highfalutin hipster drivel, but the music here is rich and full of all sorts of influences. These young lads, hailing from the Capital of Hipsterville (NYC) have created something grand here: catchy (see “A Simple Answer”), but experimental, psychedelic rock, with little sprinkles of contemporary electronic music (see “Speak in Rounds”). Perhaps what I like most about Shields is that underneath all the sounds (electronic or analog) there’s a touch of soul in the vocals that gives the music yet another dimension.
Select Cuts: A Simple Answer, Yet Again, Speak in Rounds
#8 Twin Shadow: Confess [4AD]
Release Date: July 10, 2012
If you can imagine what Duran Duran might sound like if they released an album produced by Prince, then you have an idea of what Confess is all about. Twin Shadow (the nom de guerre of George W. Lewis) turns it up a notch here, building on the 80’s inspired pop/funk template of his debut Forget, by opting for a bigger, brighter, and yes happier sound. Lewis, who is also a very capable guitar player, spends some of his time shredding (“You Call Me On” and “Patient”), and some of it bouncing along (“The One”). At all times though, Lewis is singing about a longing for love, which is a theme that permeates throughout this sonically rich album.
Select Cuts: You Call Me On, Run My Heart, Be Mine Tonight, Beg for the Night
#7 Dr. John: Locked Down [Nonesuch]
Release Date: April 3, 2012
Dr. John (or Mac Rebennack if you prefer) is as synonymous with New Orleans as beignets or Mardi Gras. With a career spanning over 50 years and 20+ albums, Dr. John has achieved legendary status as a singer, songwriter, and pianist, playing music rooted in zydeco, R&B, jazz, soul and funk. His achievements were finally memorialized with his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2011. So it was only natural that I immediately delved into Locked Down, especially after discovering that Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach would be producing the album. Fortunately my eagerness was rewarded. Locked Down is fun, frolicking, boastful, introspective, and well crafted. Dr. John has writing credit on all of the songs, which is unsurprising as they draw from his diverse interests with hints of Afrobeat, soul, funk, rock and jazz. The brilliance of Locked Down is that Auerbach’s production gives it a nice gritty garage rock veneer, unseen in previous offerings.
Select Cuts: Locked Down, Revolution, Ice Age, Eleggua
#6 Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls [ATO]
Release Date: April 9, 2012
The worst thing you can say about Boys & Girls, the debut album from the Alabama Shakes, is that it’s a rehash of the classic 60’s southern soul that originated in places like Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and Memphis Tennessee. But that’s hardly surprising given the proximity of the band’s hometown (Athens, Alabama) to both Muscle Shoals (approx. 46 miles) and Memphis (approx. 200 miles) where Stax Records originated. Indeed, “Boys & Girls” is a concise collection of wonderfully crafted songs that reflect the band’s gritty but soulful influences.
Manning the vocals is the uniquely talented Brittany Howard. Armed with a big voice to match her stout frame, Howard’s voice is unique. Husky, throaty, if not androgynous, her voice has a timbre that is hers and hers alone. It is a style that is always passionate, as Howard draws upon her emotions in a way that most vocalists are unable to do. She’s aided by guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, and drummer Steve Johnson, who together, make up a sound that reflects a maturity beyond their years as musicians.
Ultimately, Boys & Girls is heavy on the classic soul. But characterizing it as a soul album alone is misleading; these kids still manage to rock it out (check out “Hang Loose” and “On Your Way”). In fact, the first time I heard the album, it made me wonder what the Black Keys might sound like with a female vocalist. Now I know why: the Black Keys recorded their last album Brothers at the Muscle Shoals studio.
Select Cuts: Rise to the Sun, I Found You, I Ain’t the Same, Be Mine, Heartbreaker, On Your Way
#5 Shearwater: Animal Joy [Sub Pop]
Release Date: February 28, 2012
Unbeknownst to me, Shearwater (a side project for members Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff, apart from their work with Okkervil River) has been making music for years. Indeed, Animal Joy is their seventh, and likely best effort to date. It’s a grand affair, dynamic in feel, with both slow brooding pieces and excitable up-tempo rockers.
Select Cuts: Animal Life, You as you Were, Insolence, Immaculate
#4 The Jezabels: Prisoner [Mom & Pop Music]
Release Date: April 3, 2012
It doesn’t take long to figure out what Australian indie-pop outfit The Jezabels are trying to do on their debut album Prisoner. Behind the sultry voice of lead singer Hayley Mary, The Jezabels have staked their ground as a group seeking to do big things. Indeed, Prisoner is rich in texture, offering a big sound, anthemic choruses, and a wall of guitars. It’s as if Tori Amos decided to collaborate with U2, and they brought in Phil Spector to run the boards. At times you’ll hear echoes of the 90s, and at others, hints of 80s new-wave (a la’ M83). But, if I have one complaint, it’s that the album lacks focus. Clocking in at just under an hour, Prisoner is a little long in the tooth. What’s more, the shimmery guitars alongside Mary’s vocals are front and center on every song, thus making the album sound less dynamic. Still, the highs greatly outweigh the lows, making Prisoner one of the year’s best thus far.
Select Cuts: Endless Summer, Trycolour, Rosebud, Horsehead
#3 Japandroids: Celebration Rock [Polyvinyl]
Release Date: June 5, 2012
For most of 2012, Celebration Rock was #1 on my list; and for good reason. It is the best expression of the energy and angst that defined a sound made famous by alternative rock (formerly college rock) progenitors like Husker Du, The Minutemen, Pixies and The Replacements (among others). Consisting of Brian King (guitar, vocals) and David Prowse (drums, vocals), this duo managed to unleash power and energy through hooky melodies and a guitar-driven sound, accompanied solely by drums; much like Local H and the White Stripes. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, Celebration Rock is loud, jarring, and abrupt. It starts out with a bang (well actually fireworks) and ends the same way. Sandwiched in-between are 8 well-written songs, without any low points.
Select Cuts: Fire’s Highway, Evil’s Sway, Adrenaline Nightshift, Continuous Thunder
#2 Melody’s Echo Chamber: Melody’s Echo Chamber [Fat Possum]
Release Date: May 11, 2012
Melody’s Echo Chamber is the eponymous debut of French twee-pop singer Melody Prochet, who collaborated with Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker to create this magnificent album. Parker’s fingerprints are all over this one, with psychedelic influence front and center, as noted by songs such as “Crystallized.” But the album isn’t merely a Tame Impala record with Prochet on vocals. Rather, it flourishes with Prochet’s dreamy, echo-laden vocals, along with all of the sensibilities that come with the vocalist’s French influence. Together, they’ve made an album that is painted on a canvass filled with all manner of colors. I don’t know, maybe it’s my guilty affection for Serge Gainsbourg, but I just loved this one, instantly. Check it out, it’s a great listen.
Select Cuts: I Follow You, Crystallized, Some Time Alone, Alone, Bisou Magique
#1 Frank Ocean: Channel Orange [Def Jam]
Release Date: July 10, 2012
“Why see the world, when you’ve got the beach”? – Frank Ocean; “Sweet Life”
As much as I loved some of the other albums on this list, I could not deny the brilliance of Channel Orange. Last year Ocean acknowledged that he once had feelings for a man. This deeply personal admission sent waves throughout the world of music; particularly within the community of Hip-Hop and R&B. Even Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons took note, going as far as to say that Ocean’s admission was “a big day for hip-hop.” Against this back drop comes Ocean’s highly anticipated debut-album; thankfully it did not disappoint. Conceptually, Channel Orange is quite abstract. While themes of love, life, regret, struggle, and privilege permeate throughout, they all coalesce around Ocean and his view of the world (particularly in his adopted home of California). As a singer, Ocean’s style alternates between falsetto, spoken word and a normal tenor; shifting between all three deftly. The production is first-rate with Ocean working alongside a mix of other producers such as Pharrell Williams. In its entirety, Channel Orange succeeds because it’s an album that sounds modern in its approach, while all the while drawing from traditional pop, R&B and soul influences. Should I feel like a sap for going along with the masses? Perhaps, but it’s hard to deny brilliance when you see it.
Select Cuts: Sweet Life, Pilot Jones, Super Rich Kids