Top 10 Albums of 2012 | Mike Rengel

best2012 sqThis isn’t meant to be a definitive “these were the best albums ever made this year full stop” list. Like I know what I’m talking about.

2012 finn

Besides, I tried my damnedest, but I am merely one man; I couldn’t hear every last record that came out this year, even if I were capable of sitting in supreme judgment of an inherently subjective medium such as music. This is simply a rundown of what took hold of me most in 2012, what I couldn’t put down, what kept compelling me to pick it back up if I could put it down. It’s what got the most plays, what I found most compelling, and what I dug, man.

N.B. As always, anyone who actually makes it to the end of this neverending wordfest is entitled to have me buy them a drink of his/her choice, to be redeemed at will.

Also, I’ve created a comprehensive playlist of my favorite songs of 2012 over on Spotify, containing songs from the albums in this article and way more beyond that. So fire up your music machines and venture forth! Top Tracks of 2012 Already—Spotify playlist


My 10 Favorite Albums of 2012

1. Kathleen Edwards | Voyageur (Zoe/Rounder)

Kathleen Edwards has long been a mainstay of heartfelt country-rock. But Voyageur represents a conscious effort to “step up her game,” with the end result a massively moving blend of singer-songwriter introspection, moody pop, and alt-country. Each track is a transitory, bittersweet attempt to glue back together a suddenly cracked heart. Producer and beardy godfather Justin Vernon drapes a soft-focus filter over the whole thing, and adds additional instrumental touches that give the record a feel of an Edwards/Bon Iver collaboration. Voyageur is redolent of lingering sorrow and glimmers with hope for the future.

2. Frank Ocean | Channel Orange (Def Jam)

Ocean is a headband-clad, unassuming savant; Channel Orange the embodiment of his approachable, yet shrouded persona, a fluidly sexual, beguiling, occasionally smirking, usually heart-on-sleeve serious record that tells you everything, but maybe not in a way you fully comprehend. It’s sprawling and mysterious, a sonically expansive heartbreak album drenched in engaging metaphor, but punctuated with sly humor, pop compactness, and a penchant for the odd rock guitar. Ocean’s voice is dynamic—sympathetic and damning—his lyrics wickedly intelligent, the kind that have you poring over them, imploring the gods for footnotes. Channel Orange is musically progressive and impeccably wrought, constantly code-switching between literate hip-hop and unguarded R&B with the skill, grace, and ease of a porpoise swimming in the winedark sea.

3. Nada Surf | The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk)

It can still feel a bit incredulous to contemplate Nada Surf’s second act, that the band that made their name in the mid-1990s with the semi-novelty alt-rock mainstay “Popular” has morphed, in the Aughts and beyond, into a formidable purveyor of acoustic indie rock and dynamic power-pop. With The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy, the group deftly traverses encroaching middle age and parenthood, nagging thoughts of mortality, and angst over the planet’s future, weaving it all into tight, energetic paragons of melodic economy. But it’s not unflinchingly dire: Matthew Caws’ lyrics balance navel-gazing and raucous celebration, the responsibilities of adulthood, and the realization that no matter how old you get, you’re not dead yet. Caws’ reedy voice is extra impassioned, making for a proper counterpart to some of Doug Gillard’s spikiest, most energetic guitar lines in years.

4. The Menzingers | On the Impossible Past (Epitaph)

The pride of Scranton, PA, championed by Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz, the Menzingers sound something you might get if you smooshed together the Gaslight Anthem, Alkaline Trio (including the booze/drugs content), that drinking-by-the-train-tracks leather-jacketed machine-shop kid at a farm town high school who’s also read every single book in the library, and proper, non-pop emo. Think old-school stuff, such as Rites of Spring or Sunny Day Real Estate. The group’s third LP, On the Impossible Past, is overflowing with literate (yet unpretentious) lyrics and unfettered emotion; they’re realistic, but also manage to build a captivating internal universe of characters, phrases, places, references, and themes—in the grand tradition of Springsteen or the Hold Steady, but with a melodic, hard-edged punk vérité.

5. Jens Lekman | I Know What Love Isn’t (Secretly Canadian)

See my full-length review from September 2012.

6. Craig Finn | Clear Heart Full Eyes (Vagrant)

The Hold Steady frontman’s solo debut is a departure from the populist, barroom rock of his day job. Its focus is on slower paces, acoustic guitars, and pedal steels, but all still delivered in his trademark talk-sing, and infused with a poetic mythos. This is the sound of ramshackle road trips, of living out of suitcases in temporary apartments, of confusing parties with people you just met and barely know, of questioning faith and coming to grips with dissolution. For all its heavy themes, Clear Heart is stocked with sardonic and dark humor, moments of astoundingly resolute hope, and a dive-bar Saturday night’s worth of fascinating characters.

7. Paul Buchanan | Mid Air (Newsroom)

The singer and principal architect behind the late, legendary Blue Nile is firmly of the “slow-food” school of songwriting: it’ll be ready when it’s ready. His process is deliberative, but the occasional results (this marks only his fifth LP in a 28-year span) are more often than not spellbinding. Mid Air consists almost wholly of hushed, two-minute-long piano/vocal meditations, sounding like an accidental intrusion into a private soul-searching session. Borne of gazing across Glasgow rooftops at 3 a.m., these songs find the extraordinary and universal in the mundane, and are all delivered in his inimitable, direct-from-the-soul voice. It’s intimate, gutting, affirming, and enough to crack the frost on even the most deeply winter-frozen heart.

8. Marillion | Sounds That Can’t Be Made (Intact)

Coming up with new tricks is an inherently dicey proposition, let alone when you’re a band on your 16th album. But this is a shark-like group, built to constantly seek out new avenues, lest they perish in the sea of repetition. Marillion are a musical Borg, assimilating each passing year’s musical distinctiveness into their own, while always retaining an amorphous, yet palpable “Marillion-ness” to even out the experimentation. Sounds That Can’t Be Made is adds sequenced beats, crunching metal guitars, new vocal tones, and noir soundtrack moments to more familiar bits of soaring guitar, symphonic keyboards, and “this could be a hit single” pop-rock. It’s an album of touching balladry, political epics, and metaphysical poetry, value-packed with unwavering drive and passion, of commercialism-be-damned, of following your muse and knowing that honesty will reflect in the sounds you do make.

9. Ben Folds Five | The Sound of the Life of the Mind (ImaVeePee/Sony)

I’m inherently distrustful of reunion tours/albums—the vast majority of the time, they come across as cynical, cash-grab, going-through-the-motions affairs. Hence my initial apprehension when I heard that Ben Folds was reforming the Five. Don’t mess with the soundtrack to my college years, man! It’s therefore a pleasure to report that The Sound of the Life of the Mind finds BFF back together for all the right reasons, having regrouped to finish off a few old songs for a compilation, and discovering that it felt really damn good. During their 12-year hiatus, they’ve lost none of the trademark rapport and in-sync interplay. Sound hits all the right spots, retaining enough killer three-part harmonies, fuzz bass, character sketches (the travails of the deceased Sinatra’s now-useless manager; a recurring, anchorless friend from the past; a marginalized, lashing-out songwriter), smartassery, and piano pounding to evoke their classic sound, while enhancing it all with a decade’s maturity. Folds turns in a thoughtful, appropriate set of songs, augmenting them with an additional collaboration with Nick Hornby (echoing Folds’ 2010 project with the author) and a gorgeous ballad written by the underrated Darren Jessee. With its occasional swirls of strings and Tin Pan Alley attention to pop songcraft, it’s not difficult to hear this LP as the logical evolution from where they left off in 1999, as Reinhold Messner’s irreverent and warmhearted big brother.

10. Wild Nothing | Nocturne (Captured Tracks)

Gauzy, ephemeral 1980s-style jangle pop of the highest order. It’s especially immersive on vinyl, where the format’s warmth accentuates the background layers of analog synths and tasteful string accompaniments; the elaborate, layered sleeve complements the summer daydream vibe. Nocturne swirls with the impressionistic wispiness of a dream, the concrete details of which begin to fade as soon as you wake, but whose effects linger with you the rest of the day.


Honorable Mentions/Bubbling Under

11. First Aid Kit | The Lion’s Roar (Redeye)

Two Swedish sisters channel lost ghosts of Nashville and American folk-rock—equal parts sun-drenched high summer and long, elegiac autumn shadows.

12. Best Coast | The Only Place (Mexican Summer)

See my full-length review from June 2012.

13. Friends | Manifest! (Fat Possum)

Spiky indie with a touch of girl group brashness. Kinda like a girl with a ’tude who has a sentimental side you feel privileged to be one of the few she shows it to. Three-minute singalong thrills, a great rhythm section, touches of sweetness, and a resounding take-no-crap demeanor.

14. Grimes | Visions (4AD/Arbutus)

Claire Boucher’s one-woman project is arty, punky, indie-electro that sounds like a junior high schooler’s Trapper Keeper looks: slightly beat up, covered in askew stickers and Bic scrawls. And just like that 7th grader, probably way more savvy than you give her credit for.

15. Cat Power | Sun (Matador)

Oft-beleaguered Chan Marshall returns with her first original music in six years, an album of fragile but demonstrative tribal-electronic-folk that’s a marked shift in direction from the country-tinged soul of 2006’s The Greatest. The music is heavy with struggles: addiction, longing, a sense of fleeing motion. But it’s also cautiously optimistic in places. Sun sounds as if it needed to be made, both as an affirmation and as a coping mechanism.

16. 2:54 | s/t (Fat Possum/Fiction)

A pair of young English sisters comes tantalizingly close to making the best lost All About Eve album they never made. Its alluringly gothic, reverb-laden haze is strewn with big, fat bass sounds and guitars like sheets of heavy rain. It’s the audio version of a contemplative, solitary walk along a craggy gray, mist-sprayed seaside.

17. Amanda Mair | s/t (Labrador)

See my full-length review from August 2012.

18. Chairlift | Something (Columbia)

Frenetic synth-pop and torch songs, anchored by Caroline Polachek’s expressive vocals—acrobatic and poised, often all within the course of the same four-minute tune.

19. Lemonade | Diver (True Panther)

Ten icy but inviting miniature soundtracks to unpublicized upstairs lounge dance nights.

20. Japandroids | Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)

Your fists, they will pump; your face, it will melt! Right off! Perhaps no record this year better personified the unbeatable sensations of the healing powers of musical community than this one. Shoutalong choruses hang loose with bludgeoning guitars and a more muscular rock sound than two guys have any right to make. It’s loud, it’s noisy, but it’s not noise. This is melodic, thunderously rock music as both vibrating catharsis and healing salve.

21. Jessie Ware | Devotion (PMR/Island)

Retro-futuristic R&B that answers the frequently unasked question of what might happen if the xx produced a Sade record. The initially chilly veneer and spartan instrumentation are tempered by Ware’s soulful voice and a warm undercurrent. It’s a big room with a good vibe, like sharing a bottle of red and a heart-to-heart at a cavernous wine bar on a winter’s night.

22. Ice Choir | Afar (Underwater Peoples)

Stop fiddling with your time machine, you don’t need it anymore! Well, as long as you only wanted to go back to 1986. The Ice Choir is a joyously classicist project, their first record a meticulously produced 1980s synth-pop treasure from Kurt Feldman (The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s drummer, who himself sounds like a forgotten John Hughes character). Afar is resplendent with painstakingly period-specific digital synthesizers; big, echoing drum machines; slinky fretless bass; and pastel pink, period-attuned cover art, to boot. The LP offers unrivalled devotion to a specific techno-lush aesthetic, alongside numerous melodic charms.

23. Rush | Clockwork Angels (Roadrunner)

After a couple of very good, yet increasingly same-y-sounding albums, Rush re-emerge as the proggy hard rock monster they were forged as. It rocks a fat one, it’ll get you air drumming till your arms fall off, and it’s a concept album about a free thinker navigating some kind of magic-laden steampunk world. Think 2112 with a wicked muscular sound, equal parts progressive metal and 1960s garage rock. This set represents the most focused and engaged these guys have sounded in decades.

24. The Twilight Sad | No One Can Ever Know (Fat Cat)

Their trademark buzzsaw shoegaze and thick Scottish brogues augmented through the prism of harsh, clattery, almost metallic post-punk. This is not Fun Music, but it’s intense and shot through with rivers of melody flowing beneath the harrowing cacophony.

25. Fiona Apple | The Idler Wheel… (Epic)

Fiona Apple has long been an artist as prickly as she is alluring, scrambling a gift for memorable melodies with tormented confessionals and a sense that she’ll only let you as close into her world as she’s comfortable with. Her music is like a cat that wanders over, sits in your lap, purrs as you pet it, and then suddenly bites your hand and darts off underneath the bed. It requires a specific talent to be worth putting up with that kind of nonsense. Apple has always had it, and with The Idler Wheel… she instills it in what’s possibly her finest album yet. Wheel is sparse, using little more than Charley Drayton’s percussion to complement Apple’s skeletal piano and ambulatory vocals. The arrangements are compellingly jazzy, with odd showtune and one-woman big-band detours, but the songs are mostly short and economical, which keeps the record from becoming overly obtuse. For once, Apple’s music feels less reflexively defensive, and more open to exploring the undercurrents of the soul that drive emotions, insecurities, phobias, and mental misfires.

26. Leonard Cohen | Old Ideas (Columbia)

Lenny returns! As per usual, he has one foot in oblivion’s abyss and the other in a lady’s bed. The title gives it away: This is very much a meditation on advancing age, on ordering one’s spiritual house, and the impermanence of things. But it’s also a celebration of the world’s inherently soulful richness, and how it often seems we’re more aware of it the less time we have left to appreciate it. Old Ideas has Cohen taking a step back from the almost spoken-word approach he favored for some years, instead returning to his trademark low-key talk-singing. This meshes well with the album’s bewitching jazz-noir-meets-singer-songwriter vibe, one that’s far more organic than some of his more synthetic latter-day efforts. All of this lends the songs the distinctiveness and class of a tailored suit and a genuine handshake. I hope I’m even half as stylish, humble, thoughtful, witty, and flat-out alive when I’m 78 years old.

27. Twin Shadow | Confess (4AD)

Darkly seductive, rhythmic, and melodic synth-rock for by and for aloof jerks and the (wo)men who love them. You’re going to love these songs, stewed long and deep in light sleaze and glamorous New Romantic midnight drama—even if you’re not as self-absorbed as the dude who inhabits them.

28. A.C. Newman | Shut Down the Streets (Matador)

In which the estimable Mr. Newman swallows whole a reference dictionary, Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood, and a sweater-vested AM radio 1970s singer-songwriter, to marvelous ends. Streets is occasionally arch, but also frequently tender, and always intelligent and clever. Acoustic strums and the bloops of analog synths get domestic with ingenious melodic turns of phrase that do nothing to tarnish his reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter. Mostly, here Newman reveals a heretofore concealed talent: singing about parental-age maturity without being boring or mawkish.


Albums I listened to quite a bit in 2012 but have surprisingly little to say about:

Now, Now | Threads (Trans-)

Tift Merritt | Traveling Alone (Yep Roc)

the xx | Coexist (Young Turks)

The Gaslight Anthem | Handwritten (Mercury)

Beach House | Bloom (Sub Pop)

Most righteous EPs, reissues, and compilations:

Dum Dum Girls | End of Daze EP (Sub Pop)

The Mary Onettes | Love Forever EP (Labrador)

Frightened Rabbit | State Hospital EP (Atlantic)

Peter Gabriel | So 25th Anniversary Edition (Real World)

Manic Street Preachers | Generation Terrorists 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Columbia)

R.E.M. | Document 25th Anniversary Edition (Capitol/I.R.S.)

The Weeknd | Trilogy (XO/Universal Republic)

The Blue Nile | A Walk Across the Rooftops / Hats (Virgin)

Elbow | Dead in the Boot (Fiction/Polydor)

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