The top 50 (fifty!) albums of 2012 (part 1)

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This wound up being a very good year in music. You wouldn’t know it by looking at my paltry updates this year, but if I’d been able to shake free from my writers block/depression/recession/rut at some point in the last year, I would have Recommended many, many more CDs, mixtapes, EPs and singles than I did. Thankfully, I can report the writers block is starting to crumble.

Looking back on the year that’s been, I had no idea how I’m going to wrangle the list of albums I like down to a manageable 10 or 25 or some other sane number. I noticed a lot of the big music magazines do a top 50 and – dammit – there are a solid 50 albums worth listening to from 2012. Honestly.

But there’s something kind of arbitrary to me about doing a straight 50-to-1 countdown. How much better is the 47th best album than the 48th, really? The mind boggles. Honestly, how much better is the 25th best album than the 26th? The rankings, such as they are, don’t seem to matter as much until you get down to the top 10 or so.

So in thinking about all this arbitrary musical opinion wanking and how I should best show my own musical proclivities, I settled on the idea of tiers. This year, I did a top 50, but each group of 10 albums (until the top 10) is presented unranked, in alphabetical order. So rather than arguing over whether The Lumineers album is better than Hot Chip or whatever when they’re two spots away, we can just agree that all the albums in the fourth tier are not quite as good as all the albums in the third tier and so on.

Fifty freaking albums, you guys. Most of the magazines and websites that do this kind of thing have a group of reviewers splitting the task up. I skimped a bit on the details for the lower-ranked stuff but I provided a short description/comparison for each group and album, plus a YouTube link to a song from the album so you, gentle reader, can decide what you’d like to check out based on your own tastes. First three tiers today, top two tiers tomorrow.

FIFTH TIER

The 2 Bears – Be Strong: One of the guys from Hot Chip hooked up with another like-minded Brit-tronic dance groovester and made what can best be described as a Hot Chip album with more bass and positive messages. Listen to this if you want to dance around in leg warmers. Try “Bear Hug” out in the privacy of your home first.

Alex Clare – The Lateness of the Hour: “Too Close” was one of those singles that came out of nowhere to be featured in TV shows, advertisements, movie trailers, all sorts of stuff. I’ll admit, it was “So You Think You Can Dance” that got me interested in the British songwriter and dubstep dabbler. Though “Too Close” is an amazing track, Mr. Clare keeps the level of quality pretty steady across the rest of the album. Impressive stuff.

Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind: Hard-hitting percussive hardcore punk from one of the genre’s originators. Enjoy the frankly kind of cliched video for the excellent “Aimless Arrow.”

David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant: Lots of horns and quirky lyrics. If you like David Byrne but wished more of his songs had a nice female vocalist over them, this is the album you’ve been waiting for. Check out the video for “Who.”

Ellie Goulding – Halcyon: Ms. Goulding does a bit of a Lyyke Li meets Annie kind of thing on her sophomore album. I like it and I hope more of this kind of music hits American pop charts. “Anything Can Happen” is a deservedly big hit from the album.

Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE: The year’s second-best R&B album is certainly a triumph. It’s a genre-bending exploration of a young man’s musical genius and emotional struggles. But musically, it didn’t trip my trigger like it did most of the rest of the music critics in the world, apparently. I’m looking forward to a slightly more cohesive sophomore effort from Mr. Ocean, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t star-making moments on this album. “Lost” slinks back and forth on an addictive, seductive bassline. “Sweet Life” lives up to its first line, “The best song/wasn’t the single.” I’m an R&B fan who’s been in the desert lately with regards to top talent (or are Chris Brown and Rihanna your idea of good music?), so I’m glad to see Mr. Ocean taking the genre to new, exciting places.

Hot Water Music – Exister: Hot Water Music exists somewhere in the spectrum of post-hardcore that I’m frankly just becoming acquainted with. I have it on good authority these gents from Florida have been making great music for a while now, and this album brings a somewhat more mainstream music touch to the sometimes, well, hardcore elements of post-hardcore punk. This album reminds me of Husker Du in some ways, but I admit I’m not an expert on them either. Try “State of Grace.”

Jon Porras – Black Mesa: Ambient, drony music made by one dude with one guitar. This album is a good way to poke your toe into ambient/drone-style music. Check out “The Black Tide.”

Of Monsters And Men – My Head Is An Animal: “Little Talks” was rightly a monster single for the Icelandic version of Mumford and Sons (that’s not an insult, in fact this album is better than Mumford’s sophomore release, which showed disappointingly little sonic evolution) and the rest of the album is proper rollicking folk rock fun.

Menomena – Moms: Still can’t quite capture the magic of ATR Best of 2007 contender “Friend and Foe,” but this album is still a good showcase of why I like this band: good, clean, experimental indie rock. This is the first track on the album, “Plumage.”

FOURTH TIER
AC Newman – Shut Down The Streets: I’m a huge fan of Carl Newman’s Canada-tinged rock. He’s the heart and soul of one of my favorite groups, The New Pornographers, and each of his solo releases basically sounds like a New Pornographers album (only more cohesive). “Shut Down The Streets” continues in that tradition, but lacks the edge of some of his earlier work. I like “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns” as a prime example of the classic Newman style.

Ceremony – Zoo: This is a hardcore punk group in the midst of a sonic transformation. “Zoo” is the group’s first album for Matador Records, and apparently it’s much more straightforward punk than their earlier efforts. I like it. “Adult” is as good a track as any on the album.

Dr. John – Locked Down: I mistakenly forgot to list The Black Keys’ excellent “El Camino” in the 2011 best-of list, even though I listened to that album quite a bit this year. Dr. John’s triumphant 2012 release, “Locked Down,” is produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and it sounds a bit like a Black Keys release with Dr. John’s legendary Cajun growl over top. “Revolution” is a nice example of this dynamic.

Earth – Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 2: The year’s standout drone/experimental album, at least to these somewhat untrained ears. Earth is my go-to band when I want to zone out over sounds that might be coming from the center of the planet. If you’re interested, try “His Teeth Did Brightly Shine.”

Field Report – Field Report: I like Field Report way more than I like Bon Iver. There, I said it. Here they are performing “Fergus Falls” in a restroom. Enjoy.

Guided By Voices – Let’s Go Eat The Factory/Class Clown Spots A UFO/The Bears For Lunch: This is cheating, perhaps, but perhaps Robert Pollard should stop releasing so much music every year. He’s like a rock music vending machine and all the trinkets he dispenses are consistently interesting, even if they aren’t all “Game of Pricks”-level homeruns. That said, I couldn’t possibly put a hair’s breadth between these three releases (or his TWO solo releases this year, “Jack Sells the Cow” and “Mouseman Cloud”), so try them all.

Jeff The Brotherhood – Hypnotic Nights: They’re brothers, but neither is named Jeff. They do fun, crunchy power-pop/punk that evokes early Weezer. Try this boozy summer jam, “Sixpack.”

Lilacs & Champagne – Lilacs & Champagne: This is a couple of guys who do an intoxicating blend of electronic, hip-hop-style sampling and downbeat/chill. I admit I haven’t heard anything quite like it before, though it kinda sounds like Portishead at times, minus the ethereal female vocals. Check out the weird video for the funky track “Lilacs.”

Oh No – Ohnomite: Madlib’s brother, Oh No, isn’t quite as weird musically as Madlib is. But with each new Oh No release, he inches closer to the funk/jazz/hip-hop sonic mental asylum Madlib built with his bare hands. Ohnomite is a frenetic blending of that crazy style with some of the top talent in hip-hop, including Guilty Simpson, MF Doom, Roc Marciano and some welcome features by “haven’t seen you in a while” all-stars Ras Kass and Erick Sermon. “Real Serious” throbs and strums to set the tone of the album.

Swans – The Seer: I’m at a loss to describe this one. It’s dark, it’s dense, it’s almost overpowering (what is this, a description of coffee?). But between the waves of noise and foreboding, there are these spots of folksy lightness. There’s African rhythms, bagpipes, plenty of guitar and drum and gravelly vocals. There’s one 32-minute track and two more around 20 minutes a piece. This is not light listening. Get a good taste of what I’m talking about with the 9-minute “No Words No Thoughts.” It’s intense stuff.

THIRD TIER
Allah-Las – Allah-Las: Have you listened to literally every psychedelic beach bum track produced between 1961 and 1974 or so? Do you wish there was more of that kind of thing out there? Apparently so did this California-based band, and thank God/Allah/etc. they did something about it. The self-titled debut album will transport you to the nearest warm, sandy spot and leave you there. And when you’re ready to come home, you’ll go to the snack shack to ask if you can call a cab but what’s this? The newspaper says it’s *lowers sunglasses* 1967. Oh well. Listen to “Busman’s Holiday” and enjoy.

The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter: In a way, I prefer The Avett Brothers’ stuff back when they were less produced, less polished, more fuzzy and crunchy. But their new stuff is pretty great, too, and I’m very glad to see the little banjo band getting plenty of commercial attention as well as the standard critical acclaim. I mean hell, “Live and Die” was featured in a Gap commercial and I didn’t turn on them. That tells you something about their continued quality.

Grizzly Bear – Shields: It’s been interesting watching Grizzly Bear evolve, Pokemon-style, from album to album. “Yellow House” was this hazy, dreamy, Beach Boys-esque thing with ambient elements. “Veckatimest” added more instrumental elements, more polish, and sounded slightly more mainstream in its own way, while not lacking any of the ambition of the band’s earlier work. “Shields” takes another step out of the band’s almost minimalist roots into grander, louder and more intricately layered psychedelic pop-folk. “Yet Again” is a nice example of what I’m talking about.

Hospitality – Hospitality: Belle & Sebastian didn’t release an album this year, so here’s the closest thing I could find instead. Try “Friends of Friends.”

Hot Chip – In Our Heads: As most other bands (and the world itself) move forward in time, Hot Chip seems to be on an alternate timeline. Most of the time, “In Our Heads” sounds like a disco album recorded in 1976 by someone trying to imagine what dance music would sound like in 2012. No track exemplifies this better than “Night & Day” (with star-studded, incomprehensible video).

The Lumineers – The Lumineers: The goosebump-raising breakout hit of the album, “Ho Hey,” helped raise this Colorado band’s profile this year, but they aren’t one-trick ponies. If you like The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Lumineers fit right in that group not just in style, but quality.

The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth: Perhaps the most melodically upbeat album The Mountain Goats have produced covers some pretty strange and somewhat troubling territory lyrically. “Transcendental Youth” seems like a concept album about the mentally ill, with songs about homeless people who imagine they’re spies being targeted by the government and druggies occupying a ramshackle apartment, but as always, John Darnielle crafts lyrics that deal with his subject matter carefully, cleverly and often in devastating clarity. “Cry for Judas” is a, well, beautiful song (weirdly) about a teenager dabbling in satanism and the dark arts, though given the video, it seems more can be read into the lyrics than I originally thought.

Oddisee – People Hear What They See: Oddisee makes music like he’s J Dilla with a graduate degree. It’s deep, layered, nuanced hip-hop that still makes me nod my head. I think “People Hear What They See” is his best work so far in a career that’s full of heady, interesting music. Check out the Oddisee sample platter that is “Ready To Rock.”

Thee Oh Sees – Putrifiers II: If you don’t like “Lupine Dominus,” you probably won’t like this album or this band. The song is fantastic psychedelic punk.

The xx – Coexist: This is a great album/group to play on snowy nights, or on rainy nights, or on most nights. It’s night music and I’m a night kind of guy. Try “Angels,” preferably at night.

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