Top 50 Albums of 2012 | Brett Berliner

 best2012 sqThe only way to describe 2012’s best release is 35 minutes of pure, unadulterated fun.

 

  1. Japandroids | Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)
    The only way to describe 2012’s best release is 35 minutes of pure, unadulterated fun. It’s almost impossible to believe that such a big sound came from just two guys, but Japandroids have brought headbanging back to the alternative scene. Celebration Rock is absolutely the ideal length, as it flows perfectly and is the rare album that can be played over and over again and never gets old.
  2. Grizzly Bear | Shields (Warp)
    Grizzly Bear has yet to make anything resembling a bad album, and Shields is their best by a wide margin. The earlier releases were at times bogged down with an overabundance of similar tracks and themes. This time out, however, they’ve avoided falling into that trap, streamlining their sound into a more accessible place and creating a true classic.
  3. Killer Mike | R.A.P. Music (Williams Street)
    I always enjoyed Killer Mike’s work. He’s made some memorable and downright incredible songs, but his knock has always been the same: he has consistently failed to put together a complete album. I enjoyed Pl3dge greatly, but R.A.P. Music is on a completely different level. It’s powerful revelation from start to finish, with barely a note or lyric out of place. The difference is most certainly the guidance of producer extraordinaire El-P, who keeps Mike on track and succinct, giving us a hip-hop album that will stand the test of time.
  4. Frank Ocean | Channel Orange (Def Jam)
    This is definitely the highest I have ever had an R&B album on my year-end list. It’s hard to believe that something so mature, visionary, and classic could come out of something as childish, immature, and chaotic as Odd Future. Not that I don’t enjoy Odd Future, but it’s a totally different feeling than what you get out of Channel Orange. Frank Ocean’s voice was never in question, but it’s shocking how effortlessly he carries every track. He is one of the first mainstream R&B singers to tell stories this layered and creative, and overall, this is something in 20 years we will be looking back as a landmark, genre-defining work.
  5. Tame Imapala | Lonerism (Modular Fontana)
    Let’s get past it: Whether you think Kevin Parker sounds like Lennon or McCartney, or Lonerism sounds like The Beatles or Wings, this album is fantastic. It feels like a dream, simple and spacey without meandering, and can be passed around because it appeals to so many different types of music fans.
  6. Twin Shadow | Confess (4ad)
    I’ve had trouble describing to my friends why I like this album, but as soon as I put it on, there’s no need to explain. Twin Shadow has created a sound that’s somehow comforting and brand new at the same time. It’s versed very deeply in the ’80s, but it is completely a 2012, release as well. It is probably 2012’s most infectious release, as every riff and chorus sticks with you long after you’ve turned it off. You’ll catch yourself singing every track, but just an FYI—no, you don’t have his voice. Not even close.
  7. Kendrick Lamar | Good Kid: M.A.A.D City (Aftermath)
    Sometimes albums with a lot of hype end up deserving it. I wasn’t as excited as many about this album, because while I enjoyed Lamar’s previous works, I didn’t love them as much. This is, without a doubt, a step up, a 2012 version of The Chronic. The lyrics are absolutely outstanding and the entire attitude of the album stands out in a crowded hip-hop scene.
  8. Hot Chip | In Our Heads (Domino)
    I wasn’t a huge fan of One Life Stand, but In Our Heads provided the most catchy, dance-y electro-pop out there. The only real problem with this album is that it’s incredibly infectious and will seep into your brain and take over—so listen at your own risk.
  9. Jack White | Blunderbuss (Third Man/Columbia)
    I’ve always loved every one of Jack White’s projects; between White Stripes, Dead Weather, and Raconteurs, we’ve gotten a lot of really good music out of him. It wasn’t until I listened to all of Blunderbuss that I realized why it was worthy of being labeled as the first Jack White solo album. It’s not so much that he stepped outside of his comfort zone, but rather, he assumed complete control and put out something that thematically and musically I believe is the most composed of any of his work.
  10. Ty Segall | Twins (101 Distribution)
    Ty Segall had the best 2012 of any musician in my mind, and as a result, I hope he receives a bigger profile. Unfortunately, most of his best work isn’t available on Spotify or in your local music shop, but among internet music fans, he’s a legend. Twins was my favorite Segall release in 2012; it’s a little heavier than his other albums but a little more accessible, too. If you enjoy garage rock at all, it comes highly recommended.
  11. Cloud Nothings | Attack on Memory (Carpark)
    I’ve rarely seen a band take such a step up in less than a year. 364 days after their self-titled release, this is a bomb dropped against the music industry. It sounds like something that would be at home on Sub Pop in 1992, yet when you ask which band they remind you of the most, it’s hard to pick. It’s almost an exhausting 33 minutes every time in a good way, as tracks like “Wasted Days” put you through the wringer every time.
  12. Grimes | Visions (4ad)
    The depth of this record is not immediately obvious until you get into the meaning of songs like “Oblivion,” the cutest and catchiest song about sexual assault ever. It’s a unique approach to really uncomfortable and disturbing subject matter. The production on this album is outstanding, and Grimes’ voice is unique but beautiful, but it’s still really a difficult album to recommend. Still, even though it’s not the most accessible album of the year, it is one of the best and definitely worth the effort.
  13. Bloc Party | Four (Frenchkiss)
    This album actually frustrates me to have to put it so low. At its highest points, like “Octopus,” “3X3,” “Coliseum,” and “Team A,” it’s at worst a return to form, and at best an awesome new direction for the band. However, there are just a few skippable tracks, where Bloc Party gets too into lighter fare. It not only doesn’t really work, but it stands out against their heaviest songs and kind of makes some sections of the album jarring. Still, there’s too much good stuff on here to not recognize.
  14. Beach House | Bloom (Sub Pop)
    Although I (along with many others) loved Teen Dream, many listeners criticized the album, calling it a bit too spacey. I argued that was part of the charm, but I digress. Bloom does not elicit the same comments in any way. It still sounds like a dream, but it’s darker and more in focus. Without a doubt, it’s Beach House’s best work, and leaves me very excited to see which direction they take next.
  15. Purity Ring | Shrines (4ad)
    I was very surprised when I sat down with this album, because it came out of nowhere. It really worked for me, though, as it encompassed an ambient, atmospheric electronic album. What sets it apart from the crowd are the lyrics and stories the band tells. They’re very dark and intelligent, and since the production is so good, it’s easy to miss. I didn’t catch them until a few listens, but once I did, Shrines connected with me on another level.
  16. Ty Segall Band | Slaughterhouse (In the Red)
    Yep, more Ty Segall. This was his only major label release this year. Oddly enough, I feel like it was his least accessible, as songs like “Fuzz War” will not be easy to use to rope in new listeners. However, this is definitely some of the year’s best garage rock, and anyone who is a fan at all will eat this up.
  17. Dirty Projectors | Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)
    Just like Bitte Orca, this album was very divisive; however, it was for the opposite reason. Swing Lo Magellan is the most accessible Dirty Projectors album, and for some, the only one that’s listenable. However, for many, the band has lost much of their unique style. My opinion lies somewhere in between. I really enjoyed this record, but I don’t think it’s their best work. However, it’s still clever and unique enough for me to enjoy.
  18. Hospitality | s/t (Merge)
    I found this to be one of 2012’s most infectious records. It’s got a definite pop bent, but with its own style that keeps it from being more than just a “good pop album.” The band has a really unique sound and proves that to create a great album in this day and age, you don’t need to be epic.
  19. Delta Spirit | s/t (Rounder)
    I really liked this album, but unfortunately, it falls trap to one of my musical pet peeves. All of the best songs are placed at the beginning and end of the album. Although the middle of the album isn’t bad, it just doesn’t stand up. Some of their best tracks (such as “Empty House” and “Money Saves”) are contained within this album, but due to it losing its place, it’s not their best album overall. However, it’s still very, very good, and the strong tracks make it worth a listen.
  20. Ty Segall & White Fence | Hair (Drag City)
    OK, I promise: This is the last Ty Segall album on this list, only because he only had three. This is a collaboration album with White Fence, and it really shows, similar to Love This Giant. Although every track is awesome, there is so much packed in that it can be exhausting, as opposed to Segall’s other works. However, it’s still done so well that you can’t turn it off or skip a moment.
  21. Godspeed You! Black Emperor | Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (Constellation)
    By this album’s sound, it’s obvious this is not exactly new work. In fact, most of these songs are 10 years old or more, but have only been played in concert. As a result, it sounds much like the band’s output from the early 2000s. For me, it isn’t a bad thing, because I have been clamoring for a new release from these guys. For others, it might be disappointing, but I’ll take what I can get from GY!BE.
  22. El-P | Cancer for Cure (Fat Possum)
    El-P is my runner-up for musician of the year. Besides producing Killer Mike’s awesome album, he took it upon himself to make his solo album one of the best of the year. It’s easy to forget he’s more than just a great producer, but he continually proves with every track that he’s one of today’s best lyricists, as well. Hopefully some people who loved his verse on R.A.P. Music on “Butane” will find their way over here.
  23. Metric | Synthetica (Mom & Pop)
    Metric finally put together a complete album! I was so happy to get into this record, because at their best, the band writes some of the most catchy, cool, and sexy rock music out there, but too often, they lose the plot midway through their records. This time, it built to a truly awesome finish and it stands out as one of my favorite “brain off” albums in a long time. It’s really, really good stuff, definitely their best.
  24. The Shins | Port of Morrow (Columbia)
    I think this is The Shins’ most even album, if not their absolute best. It proves that James Mercer is still growing as an artist, as sound-wise, it lays somewhere in between Wincing the Night Away and his work with Danger Mouse in Broken Bells. However, I was pretty impressed when they pulled out some new stops on songs like “No Way Down,” something I wouldn’t have expected from them before.
  25. Cat Power | Sun (Matador)
    If you’re currently a Cat Power fan, this album is going to shock you and you may not like it. Chan Marshall forgoes her acoustic guitar (and long hair!) for an electronic sound, and the results are awesome. Sun is no less powerful than albums like Jukebox; it’s just a different type of powerful. This album isn’t quite as emotional as some of her previous works, but it’s a lot catchier, and for once, a radical departure that works.
  26. The Men | Open Your Heart (Sacred Bones)
    The first few times I went through this record, it left my head spinning, as it is definitely one of 2012’s most varied and nuanced records. It sounds initially like a straight-up rocker, but by the end of the album, it’s gone in some pretty interesting directions, forming The Men’s “sound.” Refreshingly, it seems like the band has no real boundaries when it comes to style.
  27. Sleigh Bells | Reign of Terror (Mom & Pop)
    I was a huge fan of Sleigh Bells’ previous release, Treats, and Reign of Terror really improves on that in many ways. It’s a lot tighter and more mature, and the songs build to a head much more traditionally, unlike many songs on Treats, which felt at times raw and unpolished. Both albums have such a different feel that it’s exciting to see what comes next.
  28. Nas | Life Is Good (Def Jam)
    Rebounding is a pretty common place for Nas, as he’s been given several death sentences in his career. For some reason, hip-hop fans are always counting him down and out after some of his weaker releases, such as his last one, 2008’s Untitled. Life Is Good proves that a focused Nas is always going to come back strong, as he has so many times in the past. The production here is not as strong as some of his classic albums, but lyrically, Nas is almost as good as ever, making this a worthy addition to his catalog.
  29. Crystal Castles | III (Casablanca)
    I hate reading interviews by artists before I hear an album. After I have listened to the album, it’s a different story, as it can provide a different perspective, or explain vague lyrics. I was honestly a little disappointed when I read Crystal Castles discussing that III would be much more focused and dark than their previous work. They definitely weren’t lying, but a large part of me misses the chaos of their first two releases. This is much darker and more haunting, but I do miss Alice’s screeches. I think they absolutely succeeded in their attempt, but III is not as much fun as a result.
  30. Animal Collective | Centipede Hz (Domino)
    It was going to be impossible to follow up Merriweather Post Pavilion, as it was a truly astonishing album. So I feel really bad for Centipede Hz—there’s nothing wrong with it, and likely, in 10 years, we will be looking back much more fondly than today. It’s a good listen, and one of Animal Collective’s most accessible and consistent albums.
  31. 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 (Epic)
    I wasn’t entirely familiar with Fiona Apple until I picked up this album, but now I am a huge fan. I had more than a passing interest, but her voice and overall sound on The Idler Wheel… was so strong that I went back and dug through her catalog. In my opinion, her style lends itself perfectly to this all-acoustic album. It’s sad without being overwhelming, and empowering without being cheesy.
  32. Tanlines | Mixed Emotions (True Panther Sounds)
    Kind of a funny story about this album: I started listening to it on Spotify because of the cover, which is ridiculous and overdramatic. However, once I turned it on, I couldn’t stop listening. It’s incredibly catchy with a very appealing, unique sound. I’ve found it works great with a group of friends with diverse music taste.
  33. Chromatics | Kill for Love (Italians Do Better)
    I’ve heard a lot of different adjectives to describe this album, some that I have no idea what they are (seriously.) I don’t consider myself someone who can separate out some of the terms, so instead of trying to say “shoegaze” or “post-punk,” I am just going to say that this album is awesome. You know my major pet peeves (it’s a little long, and the best tracks are at the beginning), but tracks like “Kill for Love” are some of this year’s best.
  34. The Walkmen | Heaven (Fat Possum)
    It would be hard to follow up The Walkmen’s last release, the outstanding Lisbon, but they’ve done quite nicely here. It’s not a major departure from any of their previous work, but it fits nicely in their catalogue as another successful attempt.
  35. Passion Pit | Gossamer (Columbia)
    It’s hard for me at times to separate out personal drama when listening albums, and knowing lead singer Michael Angelakos’ personal troubles, it kind of puts a black cloud on Gossamer. It’s darker than their previous work, but still incredibly catchy, and lyrically, they’ve taken another step.
  36. Django Django | s/t (Ribbon Music)
    I love finding albums whose sound can’t be easily described. Django Django’s debut is definitely of that nature, with multiple elements of many genres peppered in throughout the record. A little off the beaten path, but worth the trip.
  37. Swans | The Seer (Young God)
    You ever turn off an album midway through a first listen, put it away for months, and rediscover it? I got distracted listening to The Seer and it just wasn’t hitting me. It was odd and too intense, and I felt like I had stumbled on to a group of monks at work. When I came back to it after hearing of its critical acclaim, it was like a switch had been flipped. There is nothing else out there that sounds remotely like The Swans, and it’s an incredibly powerful and layered work. It’s not for everyone, and it’s not for every day, but it really is an amazing work of art.
  38. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti | Mature Themes (4ad)
    This is a hard album to recommend, as I think people looking to get into Ariel Pink should start with the more accessible Before Today. But to anyone who is already a fan, this is a really good album, sounding straight out of the 1970s with an added boost of creativity.
  39. Big Boi | Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors (Def Jam)
    Unfortunately, this might win my “most disappointing of 2012” award. It’s not a bad album at all—indeed, it’s one of the year’s better hip-hop albums. But considering how excellent 2010’s Sir Lucious Left Foot was, and the multitude of awesome guests (like A$AP Rocky, Ludacris, Theophilus London, and Phantogram), I expected something similar. Its quality isn’t quite up that far, as there are many skippable tracks. I don’t skip anything on Sir Lucious Left Foot, and although nothing stands out as bad or a failure, it doesn’t have as cohesive as a sound and the quality just isn’t as good.
  40. The xx | Coexist (Young Turks)
    While xx was certainly minimalist and sparse, Coexist takes that to another level. I think it’s really good and creative and its own work by a large margin, but overall, it has been in semi-steady rotation instead of intense, focused rotation like its predecessor. I appreciate the direction they’ve gone in, and I feel how much of themselves they’ve poured into this album. However, while it is a solid record, it’s just not quite on that level.
  41. The Dig | Midnight Flowers (Buffalo Jump)
    Perhaps 2012’s most overlooked record. The Dig is, in my opinion, actually not groundbreaking or new. The sound is definitely an NY indie rock one, as you can hear a little bit of lots of those bands (such as Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Vampire Weekend). However, what Midnight Flowers does, it does excellently. There aren’t any missteps or bad songs; it fits together perfectly and is a really nice, self-contained listen. You can tell who their influences are; hopefully, the band will continue to grow into their own sound.
  42. Father John Misty | Fear Fun (Sub Pop)
    I wouldn’t have expected this to come from a former member of the Fleet Foxes. Their sound is certainly there, but it’s just there in pockets between much darker lyrics and found. “Folk” still probably describes this album, but only in a broad sense, as there’s a lot going on here. It can be a tough listen, but Father John Misty (J Tillman’s alter ego) did a nice job.
  43. St. Vincent & David Byrne | Love This Giant (4ad/Todo Mundo)
    I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed by this record. It’s really good, and the brass and horns that drive Love This Giant are a nice touch. However, St. Vincent and David Byrne are two of my favorite musicians, so I think my expectations were a bit high. It’s a really good record, but I don’t think I would listen to it over any Talking Heads or St. Vincent album at any time.
  44. Gary Clark Jr. | Blak & Blu (Warner Bros.)
    What an awesome Blues-infused rock record. Clark is one of those rare musicians who can sing just as well as he can play guitar, and his solos, choruses, and heavy riffs just prove that. It’s easy to lump him in with an artist like Ben Harper, but he deserves to be mentioned on his own. Unfortunately, Blak & Blu is quite long and could stand to lose a song or two to help it flow a little better. However, in a testament to Clark, there isn’t an obvious choice of song to cut.
  45. Bat for Lashes | The Haunted Man (Capitol)
    I’ve always found Bat for Lashes interesting: Natasha Khan’s voice is really pretty and she always has good production. The Haunted Man is her most lauded and critically acclaimed work, but I just think it’s more of the same: another good album that will be in my rotation for a long time.
  46. Saigon | The Greatest Story Never Told Chapter 2: Bread and Circuses (Suburban Noize)
    I think most people only know Saigon from his appearances on Entourage, but that’s a shame because he is actually a very, very talented MC. He has a gift for telling a story like few others, and his subject matter is shockingly mature and composed, for the most part. Although Chapter 2 isn’t as good as the original, it still contains a number of great tracks and is one of the year’s best hip-hop albums.
  47. Sharon Van Etten | Tramp (Jagjaguwar)
    You can tell this record was produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, because in some places, it’s absolutely as hauntingly beautiful as High Violet. For the most part, Tramp is a really solid work, as Van Etten’s voice is superb and consistently on point. At times, though, it kind of loses its way, especially near the end.
  48. Two Door Cinema Club | Beacon (Glass Note)
    I like Tourist History a lot more, as it’s catchier and lighter, but Beacon is still along the same lines: a light indie-rock album that can be put on in any situation and enjoyed.
  49. Santigold | Master of My Make-Believe (Atlantic)
    Hard to believe it was only four years since Santigold; I think I enjoyed that record so much that it seemed even longer. This was a nice breath of fresh air, another R&B-influenced indie rock album.
  50. The Features | Wilderness (BMG)
    I thought this was a nice, overlooked record. I heard absolutely nothing about it, and when I picked it up, I was pleasantly surprised. I absolutely love Matt Pelham’s voice, and it lends itself nicely to some really good songs. | Brett Berliner

 

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