Happy New Year, readers! Thank you so much for chasing a link (or simply stumbling) onto my first proper End-of-Year list: I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I fretted over writing it in a vaguely articulate manner. As with the 2011 reassessments, I’ve listed below my ten favourite albums of 2012, each accompanied by my two cents regarding why each one is such a banging listen.
In addition, following my Album of the Year, I’ve drawn up two smaller lists for Honourable Mentions (because the process was pretty painstaking this year), and records which I sadly didn’t have time for in their year of release. I thought they’d spice up an otherwise relatively vanilla listing system, and give more scope about what I was digging in 2012. For now, onto the main event!
My Top Ten Albums of 2012
As musicians, they’re as tight as can be, but Django Django still manage to spool a loose and colourful sound which is as upbeat and bouncy as their funky moniker suggests. The group’s eponymous debut projects tried-and-tested elements through a thrilling Technicolor prism, with psychedelic flavours offset by hugely catchy hooks, ranging from Hail Bop’s feelgood swagger to the tropical touches of Life’s A Beach. Perhaps it could have been trimmed by a song or two (Zumm Zumm is all good fun, but three minutes would have been plenty!), but Django Django’s debut is a promising and laudable first step.
Standout Hail Bop
Grizzly Bear’s music has always been layered, both in sound and tone: it takes several listens to unearth each keynote and lyrical twist alike. But on Shields, the snarl beneath their sweetness was fully realised at last. For perhaps the first time, Grizzly Bear could be mistaken for being a straightforward rock band in places, yet Shields never loses sight of its intrinsic beauty. Sleeping Ute snarls with turbulent percussion and abrasive guitars, but settles into a soft reverie; Yet Again tumbles through anxious harmonies and a squalling climax; and the grandiose bursts of Sun In Your Eyes are never overwrought. The result was among the most captivating releases of the year, filled with tension, but always hinting towards catharsis. “Never coming back”? On this evidence, I hope that’s not the case.
Standout Yet Again
From The White Stripes (RIP) to Another Way To Die, Jack White has always been an enchanting and intriguing individual, almost cartoonish in his larger-than-life mannerisms. One music publication has compared him to Willy Wonka, and I’d be inclined to agree with that metaphor in relation to his first solo album, which takes the listener on a tour of the mechanics behind his gleefully unhinged façade. There’s still performativity here in spades, but this is White’s most personal record yet. He may have mastered the power to entertain like few others, as evident on the funky shuffle of Missing Pieces and the blues guitar acrobatics which still go down a storm, but listening to the likes of Blunderbuss and On And On And On, it’s clear that there is a bloodied heart beating behind that lavish storytelling.
Standout Love Interruption
Bat For Lashes
The Haunted Man
Before The Haunted Man, I’d never really looked into the music of Natasha Khan and Bat For Lashes, aside from hearing the occasional single. But taking a punt on this one definitely paid off: Khan’s third is dramatic art-pop smart enough to restrain itself when it counts. It’s also a decidedly British album: however you interpret the contents (who is the man in question, and just what is haunting him specifically?), Khan paints a striking picture of a rural landscape tinted with the otherworldly. Marilyn and Horses Of The Sun marry synths with opera; the bravura Lilies is awash with imagery of milk and raindrops; and centrepiece Laura commands great power with minimal tools.
I was very apprehensive approaching The xx’s second album: their first is such a perfectly formed piece that I was worried that a follow-up would risk feeling tacked-on: a failed attempt to rebottle the quiet lightning of their impeccable first. Thankfully, while Coexist isn’t quite as perfect as xx, it’s still a remarkable record, and the three-piece have held tight onto the magic which made them such a success. The guitars glimmer a little brighter than before, the gentle bass runs are more prominent and the dub beats more experimental, but the intertwining vocals of Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim still command the same power that they did in 2009. The result is a confessional, nocturnal listen, more fluid and sophisticated than its predecessor, but equally human in its sentiments.
I really don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to enthuse about Beach House before it stops being annoying and just becomes tragic. I think one more indulgence will tide me over for the next year, so here we go. The Baltimore duo’s fourth album might not have been particularly adventurous in terms of breaking fresh ground, but the subtle changes brought to the table this time around made Bloom distinctive in their catalogue. It’s an album which glitters throughout, achingly sad and yet strangely uplifting in its own way. The songwriting is consistently strong, but what really makes Bloom tick are its tiny moments of transcendence: the guitar melody which arrives halfway through Other People, the vocal pirouettes in New Year’s chorus, the dreamy piano ascension which is released one minute into Irene: the list goes on. It’s a meticulous but magnificent listening experience which keeps on giving.
I’d also like to add that this album houses my personal favourite song of the past twelve months, in the form of Wild. Wherever I am listening to this song, my mood is lifted no matter how I’m feeling. Simple, shimmering and exultant.
Like I’m sure a lot of people did, I only became aware of Tame Impala after hearing Elephant repeatedly on the radio. The strutting riffs were stamped into my head through repetition, and after reading a few positive reviews, I thought it might be worth checking out the single’s parent album. After just one listen in full, I was hooked: this album is incredible. Pretty much entirely put together by Kevin Parker, it tackles a rather miserable topic lyrically, but it stirs its moodiness into a melting pot of joyous noise. Boasting some of the most upbeat and irresistible music of the year, gilded with a ’60s gloss, Lonerism swerves from cosmic jams (Endors Toi) to freakouts (Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control), but keeps everything in check with exuberance and catchy hooks in spades, while Parker’s nasal croon never becomes indulgently whiny. Instead, Lonerism is bags of fun, eye-opening, and surprisingly poignant when taken as a whole.
Standout Why Won’t They Talk To Me?
The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Fiona Apple didn’t blow all her audacity in that twenty-three-word album title: her first album in seven years was even bolder in its choice of aesthetic. Most often only supported by stark, spidery piano melodies and drum machines, Apple lets her voice take centre-stage, as it should. The result is forty-three minutes of raw emotional potency, detailing cracked relationships, monstrous creatures and fractured histories. Apple’s vocals are a tour de force: shaky, explosive and ripped straight from the lungs, she’s an evocative figurehead, something which is amplified over such unpolished production. Every wound is made relevant, every message heard loud and clear. I haven’t heard anything quite like this before or since, and The Idler Wheel… deserves to see Apple as a more widely-recognised talent in the singer-songwriter world.
An Awesome Wave
For a band whose single releases have become so successful individually, it’s miraculous to hear how wholesome Alt-J‘s first album sounds altogether. The opening notes of Intro signal darkness falling, and with the arrival of a clattering drumbeat, An Awesome Wave instantly whisks the listener away. Ignore those who are still sneering “smart-arse”, because Alt-J reaffirm faith in the belief that indie and pop music still hold the power to pull some wonderful and wacky new shapes. I covered most of this in my full-blown album lowdown (catch it elsewhere on this blog) back in April, and I still stand by my original judgement eight months on. An Awesome Wave is as headrushingly good as its title suggests. Every individual piece fits the puzzle perfectly, even when there are leaps in style and formation between tracks. To cap it off, after playing it at least thirty times over, it never fails to enthrall me every time, from start to finish. Easily the debut of the year, and the indie success story of the decade so far.
Standout Dissolve Me
Album Of The Year
From April until about October, I thought I had Alt-J pegged as my winners for 2012. Then Fiona Apple‘s The Idler Wheel… took over in my estimation, at least until I heard Tame Impala‘s Lonerism a few weeks later. However, after a final assessment, I’ve realised that the album which I have returned to most this year – and which I have ENJOYED the most – was the third album by Claire Boucher’s Grimes project. I’d like to think that this constant agonising is an indication of how good a year 2012 has been for the music industry, and to be fair, the top four albums in this list are all as strong and vital as each other. But if there can only be one winner, it has to be Visions.
The creative process was tortuous, and the resulting album could all too easily have ended up as a bloated, self-indulgent mess. Instead, by some miracle, Visions is a lean, winning piece of work. It’s a strange mixture of dream-pop, dubstep, electronic experimentalism, and even sci-fi. Boucher is far from a virtuoso, but the rougher edges of Visions only cement its charms further. It’s something of a cracked gem, and I quite like calling it a cyberpunk album: it sounds desolate and hypermodern, but it’s also brimming with invention, with looming arrangements lifted by Boucher’s pixie-like presence. The songs themselves are both fun and troubled in equal measure: the spooked Be A Body utilises a glorious falsetto leap; Circumambient makes the dancefloor sound deadly; and Genesis skates wonderfully close to joyous synth perfection. If this is what our dystopian future is going to sound like, then count me in.
They didn’t quite make the cut this year, but here are the next five albums which just missed out on places in my top ten. Listed in order of merit:
- David Byrne & St. Vincent: Love This Giant
- Hot Chip: In Our Heads
- DIIV: Oshin
- The Staves: Dead & Born & Grown
- Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball
Five That Got Away
And finally, here are five albums which slipped through my fingers this year, due to money / time / consciousness constraints. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch up with each of these in the next few months, and some of them may appear in next year’s amended list. This list doesn’t feature ALL of the albums of 2012 that I regret missing, but of that (significantly longer) list, these are the ones I most wanted to catch:
- Cat Power: Sun
- Flying Lotus: Until The Quiet Comes
- Four Tet: Pink
- Jessie Ware: Devotion
- Sigur Rós: Valtari
And that’s just about it for music 2012! Thank you very much for reading, I really appreciate your time and consideration. Do get your own opinions or criticisms in if you’d care to, I’d love to hear them. For now, happy listening, and Happy New Year!