Whenever I take a break from listening to Massive Attack (so… much… trip-hop…), I find myself wanting to listen to new music, and hey, look at this: albums are coming out this year! Like every year! But this year had something that past years didn’t for me: I actually used Spotify regularly, rather than just on occasion. I wouldn’t describe myself as a music afficianado in any capacity: I have my weak points (full disclosure: I kinda like Coldplay). Now, however, I have listened to a great deal more albums within the year of their release than I ever have before, and so I feel far more confident that this list is a an arguably “good” list… or at least something that I can back-up when someone starts heckling. So heckle away, you hecklers. I’m ready.
Also, you may notice that my music taste is somewhat far ranging which will make this list not terribly cohesive for any one particular genre. Consider yourself warned. And there’s a senior-superlative-style flair to the Top Ten, which is more fun than useful.
THE HONORABLE MENTIONS (in no particular order!)
Artist: Grizzly Bear
Genre(s): alternative rock, psychedelic rock, etc.
Artist: Jack White
Genre(s): rock, blues, country
Genre(s): electronic rock, new wave
THE TOP TEN (!)
Album: Celebration Rock
Genre(s): [celebration] rock, garage rock
Superlative: Most likely to save rock’n’roll
Japandroids are fast, loud, and brash, and “Celebration Rock” isolates what worked best from their debut album and knocks it out of the park. With fireworks bracketing eight airtight tracks, you begin to realize that maybe you don’t need all that fancy production to make great rock music. Maybe stripped down, raw, and bare is what rock really needs to be: take the first track, “The Night of Wine of Roses,” which sounds off with exploding fireworks and rising drums, which are swiftly followed by a full-fisted punch of gritty guitar that keeps the pressure on through “Fire’s Highway” and into the rest of the tracks. And at merely 35 minutes, it’s over quickly enough so that you aren’t worn down by the relentless intensity and energy they pour into it. It’s reflecting on the past and the sheer joy of being alive that permeate the album, and you can’t help but feeling that you too should be throwing your fist up and cheering.
Artist: Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Album: ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Genre(s): post-rock, ambient, etc.
Superlative: Most fitting album art
“With his arms outstretched, with his arms outstretched…ok? Can you see him? Can you get him?” Thus you enter into “Mladic,” the first of two 20-odd minute pieces of Godspeed’s new album, which are interspersed with two shorter droning, ambient tracks. This is truly the best that long-form post-rock has to offer, with moody, subtle builds and fiery pinnacles. Dynamism is was Godspeed does best, and “’Allelujah!” is awash with it, with a absolute plethora of instruments feeding off of one another, ascending, surging, soaring, (insert awe-inspiring gerund here), etc. The most remarkable thing about all this is that this album has been concocted 10 years after their previous studio effort, and thank goodness they’ve still got it. So go ahead: shut your eyes, don’t bend, and ascend.
Artist: Passion Pit
Genre(s): electropop, synthpop, etc.
Superlative: Stuck in my head the most album… ahem, often
“Gossamer” is the album I dreamed Passion Pit was capable of when I first heard “Manners” a few years ago. “Manners” was great, but it didn’t move smoothly from track to track, and although it had a few very good songs (“Little Secrets,” “Sleepyhead,” etc.), it didn’t fully grab me. But “Gossamer” fixes all that. It’s better, it’s slicker, and more experimental: it is Passion Pit working it at their very best. The triple-threat right at the beginning of “Take a Walk,” “I’ll Be Alright,” and “Carried Away” are absolutely irresistible, with other great tracks including “Mirrored Sea,” “Hideaway,” among others. The lyrics are crushingly depressing if you really pay attention, the antithesis of the hyper-bright instrumentation behind them, making the whole deal more impressive. But try to get “Take a Walk” out of your head once it’s in there. Just try. Good luck.
Album: Clockwork Angels
Genre(s): progressive rock, hard rock
Superlative: Best old man rock album
Face it kids: Rush may be thirty years past its prime, but no one told the band that when the boys threw together this album. Many older bands will just concoct another album just for the sake of another album, but not Rush, no sir. “Clockwork Angels,” as an album, is every bit as much of an over-the-top, pseudo-futuristic space opera as some of their most classic work (“2112” comes to mind). Here is where Geddy and the gang have finally come around full-circle, returning to their roots while incorporating some decidedly modern influences: e.g. the guitar parts at the beginning of “Headlong Flight” sound a heck of a lot like the Foo Fighters, for what’s it worth. The vast majority of the songs flow together, with call-backs to other parts of the album, the most obvious being “BU2B” and “BU2B2” being the 2 and 10 songs on the album, respectively. And at over an hour, it’s an awesome ride. So if you ever liked Rush, or need to listen to some top-notch hard rock done by the best, “Clockwork Angels” delivers.
Artist: John Talabot
Genre(s): electronic, house
Superlative: Most likely to convince me that house music is a real genre
This is point where I admit that I like runway music. Kind of a lot. It’s really catchy, OK? The best way to describe “Fin” is as organic house music, where many natural sound effects are incorporated into the tracks (give “Depak Ine” a spin and come back to me). There’s a solid mix of instrumental and vocal-part songs, with the longest at the beginning, the aforementioned “Depak Ine,” and smooth sailing through “Destiny,” with “El Oeste” being more a palate cleanser before the way darker “Oro y Sangre.” Talabot is a Spanish DJ with a penchant for kicking backbeats laced amongst airy synths and heaps of other instruments. The music is arguably simple, but it’s super catchy, so no faults there. For the full runway experience, check out “When The Past Was Present,” and get instantly launched into the late ‘80s.
Artist: The Shins
Album: Port of Morrow
Genre(s): alternative rock/pop
Superlative: Most consistently good band.
Admittedly, this album kind of snuck up on me: I really didn’t expect the Shins to be able to craft such a mighty fine construction as “Port of Morrow” after a five-year hiatus between studio albums, but I should have been able to predict this. The Shins are good. They continue to be good. This is a really good Shins album, if you’re into that sort of thing. All the songs are good. It’s just good. It’s really quite boring how good they are when you get right down to it: they’re consistent, they throw no curve balls, and if you want to kick back and enjoy a swell alt-rock album, well you can’t get much better than this. The fact that they named the single “Simple Song” only emphasizes it all, but if you want a real Zoolander-esque headbopper (“orange mocha frappuccinos!”), check out “Bait And Switch.”
Album: Sorrow and Extinction
Genre(s): doom metal
Superlative: Dude… the fuck was that? I need to listen to it again…
The best way to introduce Pallbearer is to list the five songs on “Sorrow and Extinction,” which are as follows: “Foreigner,” “Devoid of Redemption,” “The Legend,” “An Offering of Grief,” and “Given to the Grave.” Yup, it’s doom metal all right, and doom metal done ridiculously well, to the point that now I actually like doom metal. Yes it’s slow. Yes it’s heavy. Yes it sounds like a 45 rpm Metalllica song accidentally set to 33 and 1/3. But wow, when you’re in the mood for it, there’s absolutely nothing quite so epic. The opening bass line to “The Legend” never fails to make me (very slowly) rock my head back and forth, and “Given to the Grave” is the biggest closer you could ask for, complete with atmospheric choirs and ludicrously drawn out solos.
Album: Life Is Good
Genre(s): hip-hop, rap
Superlative: Keeping old-school hip-hop relevant and well-dressed.
Well they don’t make hip-hop like this anymore: Nas had to really dig for that old-style production, and it has paid off in spades. “Life Is Good” is an 80s/90s rap album done with modern flair, with great sample placement, tight lyrics, and some sweet cameos from Rick Ross (“Huh!”) in “Accident Murderers,” Amy Winehouse (RIP) in “Cherry Wine,” and others. Nas keeps a reflective tone throughout the album, turning it into a heady nostalgia trip. But what looms over “Life Is Good” the heaviest is his recent divorce, providing much of the lyrical background (not to mention the cover). “Bye Baby” is straight call-out, “You Wouldn’t Understand” gets his opinion across fast, and “Daughters” is about him becoming a father. Life has been rough, but despite everything, now life is good.
Album: Kill For Love
Genre(s): synthpop, ambient, electronic
Superlative: Best mental soundtrack
You don’t start an album with a cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” without setting a heavy precedent. And you don’t go ahead and just call it “Into the Black” without throwing some emphasis on the fact that there is some fucking dark shit going on here. My first introduction to Chromatics was in the movie “Drive,” and they do retro-styled synth-ambient-pop (or whatever) better than anyone else. Hell, there’s grainy vinyl-pop laced over the whole thing, as if they needed to make the depressed neo-noir/drama business even more obvious. “Kill for Love” is a beast of an album at over 90 minutes, but it’s not a double album in any way: this is a solid piece that moves from act to act with extreme ease. There are vocal parts for many of the songs, but the middle of the album is some of the dreamiest ambient music I’ve heard. However, there is always this sometimes-heavy, sometimes-subtle resounding pressure in the background. That said, there are more pop-oriented songs too, like “Kill for Love,” “The Page,” “Lady,” and “At Your Door.” It bounces between synth-pop and ambient up to the final piece, a 14+ minute edge-of-existence monster called “No Escape.” So if dark, dreamy ‘80s stuff that sounds like the “Drive” soundtrack is something you could get into, play this a few times. Chromatics don’t disappoint.
Artist: Frank Ocean
Album: Channel Orange
Genre(s): R&B, neo soul, hip-hop, etc.
Superlative: Quite frankly the smoothest, mellowest vocals… also +1 for Forrest Gump reference
I was afraid that this was going to be my best album of 2012… I was scared to admit it to myself. Really Dave? Frank Ocean is your No. 1? REALLY? Well… yup, “Channel Orange” is goddamn brilliant, so I don’t care anymore. OK fine, “Thinkin’ About You” is overplayed, but taken whole cloth, this is one of the finest soul albums out there. As Frank Ocean says in “Sweet Life,” the best song wasn’t the single. No sir, it wasn’t. But I can’t name the best song. “Super Rich Kids” is great stomp, “Crack Rock” has one the slickest organ and drum combos ever, and you simply cannot listen to “Lost” without at least tapping a toe. “Pyramids” exudes musical confidence at a nearly 10-minute, multi-part mini-opera smack in the middle of the album. The last 30 seconds of “Sweet Life” are so far in the pocket you cannot even see the bottom. “Forrest Gump” is super-simple, super-clean, mellow candle waver. Most of the songs flow together, and Frank Ocean isn’t shy about boosting the track count by having many brief interludes (“White” is particularly jazzy). So even I have to admit what the masses seemed to be saying all along: 2012 is the year of Frank Ocean. Damn.