Truth be told, it wasn’t necessarily the most interesting year for music. When pop historians look back at the year that was 2012, I daresay they won’t peg it as a terrific year for the long-term legacy of great albums (of which there were several, but none that captured the world’s attention); flash-in-the-pan, left-field successes like “Gangnam Style” and “Call Me Maybe” ruled our collective consciousness in 2012. (And, really, can we be blamed? How ridiculously catchy are those songs?)
Nevertheless, the long-form album is far from dead; and, as obsessive folks like me are wont to do around this time of year, here’s a list of the artists that excelled in the digital age.
12. Animal Joy, Shearwater
What’s interesting to note about Shearwater’s latest is not its artistic ambition. There’s plenty of it, mind you, particularly with ex-Okkervil River sideman Jonathan Meiburg steering the ship, but plenty of ink has been spilt in the past over Shearwater’s predilection towards epics and opuses. No, what’s interesting about Animal Joy is how immediate it is; Shearwater is often a very meticulous band, building a dense, layered bed of sound from the ground up, ever-pushing towards a gradual emotional climax, but their newest album storms out of the gate and never stops. Opener “Animal Life” remains the most enthralling track one of the year, a beautifully melodic, thrillingly propulsive indie-rock stomper with a “Wild Wild Life” chaser, and the record never lets up from there. (full review)
11. Let’s Go Eat the Factory, Guided By Voices
This year, Robert Pollard reformed the “classic line-up” of his indie-rock mainstays Guided By Voices, a boon to any indie kid who slept most of the ’90s away with Bee Thousand softly playing on their boombox; and, true to ridiculously prolific Pollard form, they came back hard, dropping three albums over the course of the year. They’re all worth your time, of course, and conventional wisdom states that each one improves on the last; for my money, however, nothing was quite as exciting as GBV’s first fired shot of 2012, a flinty, fractured collection straight outta 1995, with all the left-field concepts and 30-minute song snippets that implies. It’s wildly imperfect, which, paradoxically, makes it a perfect Guided By Voices record. (full review)
10. My Head is An Animal, Of Monsters and Men
Propelled to only-semi-unlikely chart success on the back of their raucous late-2011 single “Little Talks”, Of Monsters and Men almost sounded, at first blush, like one of those bands that probably only have one song that awesome. (Cheers, Gotye.) What a delightful surprise, then, My Head is An Animal turned out to be — a big-hearted, ambitious indie record straight outta 2007. The vast, galloping expanse of Arcade Fire is a good point of comparison, but there’s a lot to sink your teeth into here: vast, cavernous duets, easy emotional catharsis, the sort of thing that the indie world largely abandoned after the synths took over. (full review)
9. What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, Regina Spektor
Fans of Regina Spektor have something of an uphill climb explaining their obsession to a listening public that often finds her too precious, too self-consciously quirky, too goofy for their highly refined tastes; that’s understandable, to a degree, but one need only look to Regina’s latest to unlock the myriad pleasures of the prized Soviet songstress. Cheap Seats is one of Regina’s most attractive records to date, finding the songwriter/pianist at her most coy, heartbreaking, and fun. (full review)
8. Good Kid, m.a.a.d. City, Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar, Pitchfork’s list-topper this year, had a good chance of clawing his way to the top of this particular list — his major-label debut is a full-fledged concept album the likes of which The Roots seduce me with every two years or so, and it breathes the same immediacy, nimble-tongued artistry, and insidious, party-rocking head-noddery (it’s a word) that hip-hop may not have seen since Ready to Die. But we can’t blame a stagnant music industry on failing to introduce Kendrick to the people at large, nor can we blame the internet, that living, breathing entity that has championed the young rapper right up to the rafters. Nope, I’m gonna blame myself for avoiding Good Kid, m.a.a.d. city — but it’s a testament to the album itself that it takes, like, two songs to get hooked, maximum. Sorry to be tardy to the party.
7. Babel, Mumford & Sons
I participated in a Facebook exchange with an old friend this year, wherein we pondered the nature of a music industry that embraced Mumford & Sons with open arms and has ignored The Avett Brothers for a decade. This year, the stars aligned to pit Mumfords against Avetts in a bloody, folksy, hirsute free-for-all by seeing new albums released by both bands in the span of a scant two weeks. The Avetts record, The Carpenter, yielded a legitimate radio hit for the rough-and-tumble band in “Live or Die”; the Mumfords record more or less conquered the world. My buddy and I of course lorded our superior taste over all comers; we knew who the real kings of family folk-rock were, and the rest of the world could have their U2-with-banjos.
But a funny thing happened since September: Babel started to seep into my consciousness. Marcus Mumford’s heart-on-sleeve poetry isn’t Pulitzer-worthy, but it’s universal. And when the Mumfords breathe life into their coffeehouse tunes, they become the single most earnest rock band in a world that has embraced irony wholesale. Sure, dude can’t stop singing about his heart — Mumford & Sons drinking game: take a swig every time there’s a mention of “heart” or “soul” — but aren’t we all inherently concerned about our own emotional upheaval? And, more to the point, when our hearts swell up in pride or sorrow, doesn’t it basically sound like that glorious horn line in “I Will Wait”? Folk-rock dominated in 2012, and The Avett Brothers have been a longtime favorite of mine, but you win this one, Mumford & Sons. (full review)
6. Celebration Rock, Japandroids
The best rock n’ roll coming-out party since The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America? Perhaps. Like that band’s Craig Finn, Japandroids vocalist Brian King has a limited voice, and a fistful of barnstorming rockers that fit it so snugly that the limitations are meaningless. Celebration Rock is energetic and nervy, and proof positive that simply loving music can make you uniquely suited to create it.
5. Kaleidoscope Dream, Miguel
Though the vast majority of r&b ink was spilled over Frank Ocean’s literal coming-out party, genre connoisseurs also thrilled to Miguel this year, an alternative soul record lovingly crafted for the types of people that listen to Prince and Van Hunt albums. It’s a whirlwind trip through popular music of all stripes, Miguel playing the seductive soul man over tracks that run the gamut from slinky bedroom funk to colorful psychedelic pop. “Adorn” is the showstopper, a playful, lusty Marvin Gaye throwback that sandwiches Miguel’s loving come-ons between layers of three-chord “Sexual Healing”-via-“Human Nature” majesty; but it’s telling that it’s difficult to bat an eye when the singer appends a brief cover of the Zombies classic “Time of the Season” to the end of one of his own compositions. Miguel’s songs are transcendent enough that it doesn’t really sound out of place. (full review)
4. The Idler Wheel…, Fiona Apple
As some years (four, to be precise) do, 2012 brought us another Fiona Apple album. What’s so different about The Idler Wheel that makes it one of the year’s absolute essentials? Not that much, and quite frankly, that’s what makes it so terrific. Mind you, each record in Fiona Apple’s small discography has its own unique artistic identity, but they’re all tied together by Fiona’s scathing way with a turn of phrase and her insistence on creating art on her own terms; The Idler Wheel is a great deal more minimalist (and, at times, more harrowing) than anything else in her ouvre, but it’s still unmistakably Fiona, and, by extension, inarguably great. If you don’t think “Hot Knife” is the most fantastic thing you’ve ever heard, I simply don’t know what to tell you.
3. Stay, Jim’s Big Ego
We’ve been big champions of Jim’s Big Ego on this site; when I saw the band in a small Philly-area coffee shop earlier in the year, they played to the audience, even unplugging their instruments and performing next to delighted fans during their encore. It speaks volumes to their aesthetic; there’s a universality to what JBE do, and if titular ego Jim Infantino has a way with words and a catchy tune that you don’t, the sentiments and observations are agreeable and recognizable. Stay is the culmination of everything JBE have done in the last 15 years or so — folksy humor with a sprinkling of the novel, spindly white-boy funk, and some of the most glorious three-part harmonies ever put to wax. Jim’s Big Ego has spent most of their career flying under the radar, but devotees will recognize Stay as one of the most lovingly put-together records of the year, one of the most tuneful albums possibly ever, and, most importantly, yet another potent conversion tool in JBE’s vast arsenal. (full review)
2. Some Nights, fun.
In the wake of Fun’s almost ludicrous overnight success, it’s become difficult to remember what Some Nights felt like on first listen. Sure, I was predisposed to like it, having loved frontman Nate Ruess’ work in defunct power-pop outfit The Format and Fun’s first, hit-free album; still, Some Nights struck me as a vibrant and resonant pop record long before “We Are Young” and “Some Nights” wore out their considerable welcome. Fortunately, while the hits have played themselves out and then some, Some Nights retains many of the tricks up its sleeve, wedging earworm-y pop insta-classics like “Why Am I the One” and “All Alone” into its intricate, freewheeling mosaic. And when the hype dies down, I’ll take “Some Nights” back, and its larger-than-life Queen-via-“Cecilia” chorus. (full review)
1. Sorry to Bother You, The Coup
And victorious stood Fun, champions of 2012… that is, until Boots Riley got the band back together, rallied Kickstarter, and released another Coup album. Hip-hop has progressed beyond meat-and-potatoes beats and rhymes since its inception, and Sorry to Bother You stands as a thrilling reminder that the genre’s evolution is far from complete; it’s a dance record, a P.E.-worthy political statement, and the best indie-rock album of the year, all rolled up into one glorious, cacophonous party. (full review)
Of course, there’s more. These are the year’s 12 standouts, but elsewhere in 2012: Easy Star All-Stars put their indelible reggae stamp on a Michael Jackson classic with Easy Star’s Thrillah; Bruce Springsteen delivered a soulful and textured album-length rumination on the financial crisis with Wrecking Ball; Frank Ocean mounted one of the most ambitious and heartfelt r&b platters in recent memory with Channel Orange; Ne-Yo continued to be the best soul-pop-dance floor-filler on the charts with R.E.D.; and The Shins reminded us why we all missed their swooning, melodic brand of indie pop with Port of Morrow.