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Favorite Albums in 2012
As always, a disclaimer: I don’t claim these are the best albums of 2012, or even that they’re my favorite albums released in 2012. I heard a very small fraction of albums released in 2012, and I hope to discover more in future years! But these are the ones that I found myself returning to most frequently this year.
I’m linking to recordings of the songs on YouTube—official music videos where possible—because as much as I like writing about music (sometimes), I certainly don’t think I can do all these songs justice with my words alone. But I hope I’ll entice you to spend a few minutes checking some of them out if you haven’t heard them, and if you like what you hear, I hope you’ll throw down some cash somewhere and buy ’em. I don’t get any money if you do.
Liars - Wixiw
I didn’t have much of an idea what to expect from this album but I’d heard that Liars were an unpredictable band. Wixiw satisfied my expectations by thwarting them at every turn, lurching from the warm and inviting wash of synths that open the album in “The Exact Colour of Doubt” straight into the paranoid, oppressive atmospherics of “Octagon”. That tendency to surprise continues throughout the album: there’s the title track’s skittering, edgy pulsations fading out a third of the way through and then bursting forth with renewed fervor, all the way up to another hairpin turn from “Who is the Hunter” to the angry fuzz of the penultimate track “Brats”.
Those contradictions manifest in other ways, too. Wixiw is extremely heavy on synthesized instruments and artificial sounds, but it never feels cold or robotic. It continually finds ways to surprise me but I never feel it’s trying to be off-putting or difficult, and it always feels of a piece. I don’t understand the lyrics except for snatches of phrases here and there but it doesn’t diminish the emotional impact.
I’ve started appreciating a strong melody, and that may be the place that Wixiw falls down a bit, but I suspect it’s intentional. The hairpin turns lend a fragmentedness to the music that extends to the vocals as well; there aren’t a lot of strong melodies here, but there are a lot of what sound like pieces of them. That Wixiw takes those pieces and others and fashions them into a cohesive whole is just one of the remarkable things about it.
Here’s a live set on KEXP with several songs from Wixiw: “Octagon”, “No. 1 Against the Rush”, “The Exact Colour of Doubt”, “Brats”. Very interesting to see these songs performed live; they’re extremely faithful to the album versions, which in my experience is rare in live performance of heavily electronic music.
John K. Samson - Provincial
John K. Samson is the lead singer of the Weakerthans, whom I’ve always found to be wildly uneven: each of their three albums I’ve heard contains flashes of brilliance amid a fair amount of stuff I’d call “serviceable.” But Samson’s lyricism is unimpeachable when he’s on his game, and I think his ratio is far better on Provincial than on any of the Weakerthans albums. Even relative throwaways like “Cruise Night” and “Stop Error” are catchy and well-written enough to keep my attention. And while a “consistent” album is often just one where there are no standouts strong enough to make the others seem dim in comparison, Provincial has what is in my opinion one of the best songs of the year as its second track. So it’s a testament to the album as a whole that I never just stop listening right after that.
The almost-bookends “Highway 1 East” and “Highway 1 West,” in addition to being great songs—the former a placid, gorgeous bagatelle over a swell of horns, the latter a bombastic ode to being stranded in the middle of nowhere—help wrap Provincial up and make it a complete package, as does the subtle narrative thread running through the straightforward slacker rocker “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” and the somber, quietly tragic “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San”. But not to overstate its coherence, this is mostly just a collection of great songs by a master lyricist. So many great lyrical moments in these tunes: “just another door that won’t open for me anymore” in “Heart of the Continent”; the heartbreaking repetition of “what will I do now?” that wraps up “Grace General” and the finality of the “don’t write to me anymore” that does the same for “Letter…”; the “city some cheap EQ / with the mids pushed up / in the one long note of wheat” in “Highway 1 West.” If only Samson didn’t insist on saying “again” so it rhymes with “pain”, I might have been convinced to push this album up even higher in this list.
Menomena - Moms
To be honest, I thought Menomena might not last after their roster got slashed by a third early this year, but Moms reaffirmed my belief in the band as well as finally forcing me to get to the point where I can tell the damn band members apart. With that new understanding came an awareness that I generally like Justin Harris’s songs a lot more. Moms sees Harris and Danny Seim trading songs, and whereas Seim had one of my favorite tracks, “Tithe,” on their last album Mines, this time I think the standouts are all Harris’s; indeed, there’s not a song he sings here that I don’t like. My personal favorites are the prickly, frustrated rantings of “Pique” and “Heavy Is as Heavy Does”: one agitated, one seething.
That’s not to say I think Seim’s songs are expendable here. “Capsule” is a fine bit of anguish about a mom who died when he was young and is now “living better in a time capsule”, and “One Horse” is a rather beautiful closer (aside from the expendable coda) about I have no idea what. Whatever it means for someone to be a “one horse town”. Indeed, Seim tends toward the more abstract and evocative in comparison to Harris’s straightforwardness: there’s not much ambiguous about “heavy are the branches / hanging from my fucked up family tree.”
Philip Larkin famously wrote “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”, and Menomena stick pretty religiously to that theme in their lyrics. Many of them seem like exorcism of some lingering demons springing from Harris’s mom’s helicopter parenting or Seim’s mom’s death, but the two do an admirable job of balancing on the knife edge between unsympathetic self-pity and unrelenting pathos. The lyrics, though heavy, are sprinkled with humor and poking fun at themselves: Harris’s “N-n-now I’m a failure / Cursed with male genitalia” and “Now I’m getting used to getting used by you” in “Pique” and Seim’s “Hail Mary / You’re conveniently buried this evening” that kicks off “Baton.” This is Menomena, this mix between the sublimated and the ridiculous.
Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music
Before this year, my only exposure to Killer Mike was his execrable guest verse on the awful “Snappin’ and Trappin’” on OutKast’s incredibly overrated Stankonia, a track that could not cause me to hit the skip button fast enough whenever it came on—and after “Ms. Jackson”, no less! The nerve!
Anyway, my point is that I was totally ready to hate the shit out of this album when the good things I was hearing about it reached critical mass and I gritted my teeth and bought it because I am an open minded individual committed to ignoring my preconceived notions if they get in the way of my finding the best music. As you can see, it paid off: R.A.P. Music is great, and also the angriest album to crack my top 10 in a year chock full of angry music. But every ounce of Michael Render’s wrath feels earned, righteous even, and it’s impossible to say enough good things about how El-P’s production fits the tropes of Southern rap while giving it a shot of his own thunderous fury.
It takes like 5 seconds of R.A.P. Music for “Big Beast” to explode out of the gates and make it absolutely clear that you’re in for some hard shit, and though the pace (kind of necessarily) slows a bit after that so you can take a breather, that vicious energy comes up again in the middle of the album on the authority-crushing centerpieces “Reagan” and “Don’t Die.” The former sports a chilling El-P beat over which Mike spits three verses rigid with cold fury against rappers complicit in his people’s debasement and the crooked power structures erected by you-know-whom; the latter unleashes that fury against the crooked cops who are one manifestation of those structures. I don’t know if these are the best tracks on here but to me, they’re the most potent and effective expressions of its overall mood.
Still, it’s not fair to call this album just a spittle-flecked paroxysm of rage and overlook the very different tone of its last two songs, which lend a complexity and depth to everything else on the album. “William Burke Sherwood” is a touching ode to Mike’s grandfather and a hard look at his own Circumstances in which he compares them to Lord of the Flies. Every word of it rings true, as does the final and title track, a passionate defense of music as Killer Mike’s salvation over a transcendent El-P beat. The end result is an intense, passionate album that I couldn’t believe would become one of my favorites of the year until it happened. To me, R.A.P. Music saved Killer Mike in more ways than one.
Field Music, Plumb
Another newcomer to my year-end list, Field Music are also probably about as different from the previous entry as it’s possible to be: mannered Brits doing stately, intricate and well-orchestrated chamber pop. Jenn thinks they sound like Queen, and they do, a bit, but of course they lack Freddie Mercury (and the singer is emphatically not trying to be Freddie Mercury) and even without that big difference they’re more “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” than “We Are The Champions”. But there are also touches of the Beatles—indeed, the singer does sound somewhat like Paul McCartney—and Pink Floyd here; the gamut of what British pop music I’m aware of, really.
Which is not to say that Plumb isn’t its own animal. Its songs are catchy and hooky without being obnoxious earworms, and twisty enough to reward repeated listening. They’re mostly short, but flow together so well that parts of the album have a medley feel at times. Indeed, I have trouble picking out obvious strong points because it’s so consistently, breezily enjoyable I haven’t felt the need to leap across the room (this is a fantastic making-breakfast album) to see what song’s playing at the time. “Choosing Sides” has a fantastic line, though.
Bottom line: I can see someone being lukewarm or indifferent to Plumb, maybe. It’s not groundbreaking, it doesn’t rock hard, it won’t change your life. But I can’t imagine anyone disliking it. I said the same thing about the New Pornographers until I met Jenn, but Jenn likes Plumb, or at least doesn’t dislike it. My brother likes it. My mom would almost certainly like it. Hell, my grandma probably wouldn’t complain if I threw it on. And there’s always space on my year-end list for music that’s agreeable.
Shearwater, Animal Joy
I hesitated for a second just now, thinking about whether I should rightly let Animal Joy displace my #4. In the end, as you see, I did not, and so let’s just get out of the way up front that the main reason is probably the boring, uninspired closing track, “Star of the Age.” Honestly I usually skip it. Nothing chaps my ass like a weak closing track, it turns out. But let’s talk about the rest of Animal Joy.
It’s impossible to talk about Shearwater without mentioning lead singer Jonathan Meiburg’s voice, so let’s get that out of the way too. Goddamn the man has some pipes. Equally effective whether crooning or bellowing, holding notes full measures longer than lesser singers would, smooth and full, almost operatic, it’s a voice on whose strength a band could easily coast with mediocre songs. Fortunately, Shearwater do no such thing; Animal Joy nails it whether it’s rocking (“Immaculate”, “Breaking the Yearlings”) or pondering (“Insolence”, “Run the Banner Down”). The beginning of “Pushing the River” sounds to me like nothing so much as Radiohead, with its distinctive, urgent drum track and spiky guitar arpeggi, but Meiburg’s vocals push it to a more muscular, confrontational place than Thom Yorke tends to go.
My first exposure to Shearwater was their more meditative, difficult 2008 album Rook, which I enjoyed but didn’t offer quite the simply cathartic pleasures Animal Joy does. I expect to enjoy Rook’s subtler approach more if I go back to it, now that the blunt instrument of Animal Joy has more forcibly acquainted me with Shearwater’s M.O. At heart, it’s just a straight up rock album, accessible and pretty straightforward. But Shearwater give it a fierce, graceful spin of their own, and I think it’s a fantastic introduction to the band.
Frank Ocean, Channel Orange
As far as I’m concerned, Channel Orange delivers on all the promise Frank Ocean showed on last year’s free mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. That album had its moments but was quite uneven; Channel Orange is a bit, too, but the strength of the whole is such that the weaker bits can be forgiven: mere transitions as the album hops from strength to strength.
There’s the massive “Pyramids”, of course. I like to call it “prog-R&B” just because it amuses the shit out of me, but it really does combine some of the best parts of both: the sprawling musical scope and conceptual mysticism of prog-rock coupled with R&B’s devotion to melody and vocal prowess. There’s the stark, striking, nearly a cappella “Bad Religion”, of course: would I have come to appreciate its raw, tormented brilliance on my own had my friend Will not shut me in a car and played it for me six times in a row while passionately advocating for its singlehanded justification of 2012 pop music? I like to think so. There’s Andre 3000’s unimpeachable guest verse on “Pink Matter”. Of course.
Besides these nearly uncontested pleasures, though, there’s the seamless blend of dead-eyed ennui and emotional tension on “Super Rich Kids”, with its steady piano thump and guest verse from Earl Sweatshirt that almost makes me want to look past head provocateur Tyler’s childish antics and give these Odd Future kids another look. There’s the skeptical examination of drugs—which enable overwhelming affluence in “Lost” even as they tear down the two protagonists of “Crack Rock”—and sympathetic but unsentimental portraits of troubled women in the dreamy “Pilot Jones” and “Monks”. And behind it all, there’s Frank Ocean, of the golden voice, songwriter to the rich and famous, following through.
the Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth
2008 was my Year of the Mountain Goats, where I somewhat uncharacteristically ignored almost all new music and instead took a swan dive into tMG’s gargantuan back catalog. None of their output since then has left me quite as enraptured as I was that year, though I don’t know whether this is because of some fundamental stylistic shift or just because I haven’t been drinking from the firehose like in 2008.
Transcendental Youth feels to me like the most Mountain Goats-y new Mountain Goats release since that year, and probably the best and most consistent. I can see any of “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”, “Cry for Judas” and “The Diaz Brothers” becoming concert shoutalong favorites like “No Children” or “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton”; “Brothers” in particular is the first piano-based and guitar-free Mountain Goats song that I feel comfortable calling a “barnburner” for its eighth-note stomp and impassioned defiant-to-the-bitter-end lyric. Classic Mountain Goats, top to bottom, and while I’m at it, “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” is a fine addition (also piano-based) to the list of John Darnielle songs about tweakers, “one whole life recorded / in disappearing ink” a gut punch of a penultimate stanza. I think the weakest tracks here are “Harlem Roulette” and “Counterfeit Florida Plates,” but neither are bad, and the excellent sequencing is such that they’re no more than minor roadbumps.
The downcast middle section, like an embedded mini-Get Lonely, would be where the album dragged if its three songs weren’t all so fine, each with a different and compelling twist to the arrangement or production. “White Cedar” brings in the horns to lend some gorgeousness and pathos to its “I don’t have to be afraid / I don’t want to be afraid”—spoken by a protagonist who surely has every reason to—and what is perhaps this album’s mission statement: “You can’t tell me what my spirit tells me isn’t true, can you?” It’s followed by “Until I Am Whole,” perhaps the emotional low point, and then “Night Light,” where Darnielle, a man somewhat famously stingy with overdubs, apparently just handed it off to his producer and said “Go crazy.” One of its sweeping ambient guitar tracks reminds me, unbelievably, of Sigur Rós’s (), a striking wash of sound over which to hear a man who used to record into a boombox. And then “The Diaz Brothers” brings us out of the slump.
There are places where the vaunted horn section just adds some extra flavor to what would otherwise be a fine Mountain Goats track, as in “Cry for Judas.” But Transcendental Youth’s closer and title track would be a much different and more earthly thing without the swell of the horns lifting it. With each successive album since Tallahassee, where the Mountain Goats put away the boombox once and for all, I’ve enjoyed seeing them get more and more comfortable with lush production while still remaining judicious with overdubs. This is just another incremental step in that evolution, but still I continue to be surprised at where the steps land and excited to see where they’re taking us next.
Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city
I don’t think it took more than one full track to give me an inkling that this would be my favorite rap album of 2012. “Sherane (a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter)” starts out like it could be a straightforward horny teenager sex jam reminiscence, but with a peculiarly dark and foreboding beat, hardly sexy at all. Despite that beat, its abrupt twist ending caught me wholly off guard. It’s a clear signal that this is an album not afraid to take some risks in the interest of telling a compelling story. I’m not linking many tracks because most of them, while great, are even better in the context of the album. More than probably anything else on this list, this is an album that needs to listened to straight through for the full effect.
A good story alone is not enough to warrant repeated listens, but Kendrick Lamar’s rapping is also extremely sick: a pleasure to listen to even when you know the plot; more a running commentary on the main narrative (told mostly through skits that somehow never get tiresome) than additional exposition. He employs a wide variety of styles, all equally well, and the beats and subject matter both shift in tandem too. The album exemplifies having it both ways. Lamar gets to rap irresponsible don’t-give-a-fuck teenager lines like “my mind is living on cloud nine and this nine is never on vacation” (from “Backseat Freestyle”, probably not coincidentally both the most fun and least “responsible” track you’ll find here) while reflecting on his previous mindset as “K-Dot”. But he also convincingly disavows that mindset (as well as showing us its consequences) in the alternately pensive and desperate “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”, where he raps from the perspectives of two other people “damaged by the system” before hitting us with his own worries. Its second half is a hamster-wheel panic about the trapped, self-destructive and cyclical nature of gang life. It totals twelve and a half riveting minutes, lyrically and stylistically a virtuoso performance.
Both the rap albums on my list this year end with salvation of sorts; maybe I’m just a sucker for that kind of thing. good kid’s salvation feels hard-earned, hard-learned. The triumphant closer is probably my least favorite thing here—I find Lamar much more compelling elsewhere and I suspect I prefer sparse beats to lush ones like “Compton”’s—but I don’t hold it against him to want an end-run with some rap game luminaries. good kid, m.A.A.d city is an achievement worth some fanfare.
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
How much of my flabbergastedness at this album was due to my sleeping on Fiona Apple’s previous work? We’ll never know, but it was a revelation to me. I think the only other songs of hers I’d heard were her Big Singles, but I’d put just about any song on The Idler Wheel… up against any of them.
Anyway, what about this album is so good? What some people say is “difficult” about it sounds to me like everything that rewards repeated listenings: creative use of dissonance; unconventional vocal styles; wordy, clever and harrowing lyrics from Apple; sparse arrangements—usually just piano and percussion—that allow me to appreciate all the aforementioned without piling unnecessary shit atop them. And I think I’ve gotten every single one of these ten songs stuck in my head at some point. So I don’t know about “difficult.”
I just… Look, I’m listening to “Regret” right now. It’s buried at track 8, deservedly. Probably one of my least favorites on the album. But still. Still! Those thudding piano chords behind the verses, so thick and sludgy like little else you’d find in pop music. The way the vocals slide so gradually from the gentleness of “Remember how we argued on the concept of regret?” to the inimitable roar of “Now I ran out of white dove feathers / To soak up the hot piss that comes through your mouth / Every time you address me,” via the pained “Remember when I asked you, ‘Why are you so mean?’” That percussion, with a click like a deadbolt slamming shut. One of the worst songs and it’s still great.
The songs on here are just good: strikingly diverse despite the limited palette, glimmering with just about every emotion it’s possible to feel, as deeply as it’s possible to feel them. Catchy. None too long or too short, much as you might want some of them to go on longer. It’s an album not a single second of which bores me, and the one I found myself going back to most often this year.