If 2012 so far is light on undisputed classics, it’s heavy on really solid albums – at least one good-to-great record has dropped every week since January. It’ll be interesting to see what the second half has in store, but for now, let’s have a look at some of the better records to drop thus far.
In which ATLien Killer Mike steamrolls the competition, and proves why he deserves to be mentioned with the best; it’s a fabulous showing from an industry vet, his newfound partnership with El-P providing Mike with some of his most pulverizing tracks today. Mostly, it’s an exquisite display of skill, a lyrical clinic that places Mike’s forceful cadence and dynamite flow up against any of his peers to crown him the winner.
In which M. Ward reminds us that playing second fiddle to Zooey Deschanel is only one of his many hats. Ward’s collection of ambling, lo-fi folk sounds a little more mysterious and backwoods this time around, but what really sets it apart are the singer-songwriter’s many production flourishes, spiking the punch with eerie rockabilly and amiable country-rock.
In which Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout toss the Bee Thousand incarnation of their band in the DeLorean, gun it to 88, and shoot back to ’94 for the length of a sweetly nostalgic, hook-plumped, vintage GBV platter. The breadth of the band’s inspiration knows no bounds; their first comeback record contains throwbacks to their heyday and new stylistic detours, but their legendary style remains intact, and lurking underneath the lo-fi surface are like 90 of the best pop melodies of the year.
In which Drew realizes that he’s stacked two indie darlings mounting comebacks back-to-back, and struggles to come up with a blurb for the second installment, settling instead for simply saying that the grand return of The Shins did not disappoint.
In which Jonathan Meiburg’s penchant for extra-large concepts and densely-knotted imagery gets pared back a bit, and Shearwater rocks out for a spell; urgent, melodic, and impeccably sung, Animal Joy sounds like a pirate ship rocketing down the rapids at 100mph, a bit less highbrow and literary than Meiburg’s previous pursuits, but no less emotionally accessible. The title track just might be album opener of the year.
In which one of pop’s most idiosyncratic and engaging vocalists re-emerges to double down after an LP that was light on both attributes. Regina’s 2009 record Far wasn’t a bad album by anyone’s standards, but What We Saw From the Cheap Seats re-instates the distinctive vocal tics, piano-pop-plus-808 production of her breakthrough, Begin to Hope. It doesn’t hurt that it’s as good a set of songs as Spektor’s ever released, lyrically dexterous and emotionally direct.
In which purveyors of fleetingly-popular indie-rock song (the propulsive and admittedly addictive “Little Talks”) prove that they have the mettle to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the genre’s stars; the six-person collective’s Into the Woods EP flirted with greatness last year, but My Head is An Animal torpedoes the listener back to the genre’s mid-2000s heyday, channeling the best parts of Arcade Fire and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros (larger-than-life choruses, point-counterpoint coed vocals, vast soundscapes achieved through unconventional instrumentation) with half the pretense and double the bombast.
3. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel
In which one of our most coveted artists takes seven years off, and proves almost effortlessly why she deserves every drop of her acclaim. Backing away from the (comparatively) glossy production of Extraordinary Machine, Apple’s substance edges out her style while still putting boatloads of both on display; the pared-down piano-and-percussion approach throws her content into stark relief, and Apple’s got content to spare here, her knack for extended metaphor only fortifying her devastating savagery. One of the year’s stone classics.
In which UnPop’s catchiest and most sincere satirists craft their best record since the turn of the century, a hooky and understated platter that vacillates wildly from genuinely earnest to screamingly hilarious, while somehow never severing the invisible thread that ties all the songs together. Jim’s Big Ego remain the best band that you’re not listening to.
In which ex-Format singer Nate Ruess’s latest project remains the best band you most likely are listening to, and their sophomore set mines hooks to spare once you finally get tired of the world-dominating “We Are Young”. Some Nights isn’t merely an excellent pop record (although it is that), it’s a free-wheeling tumble through pop music’s history, encompassing an elaborate homage to “Cecilia”, the multi-tracked pomp of mid-period Queen, modern-day flourishes of AutoTune and hip-hop beats, and everything in between. It’s a durable record that merges emotional honesty with seemingly endless pop appeal – the closest thing 2012 has to an Adele, if you will – and at halftime, it looks like the year’s MVP.