20. Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra, “Theatre Is Evil”
Amanda Palmer is quite the character. She doesn’t shave. She looks like the lead singer of a 90s grunge band. She’s diverse, her bisexuality not withstanding. She has tons of ideas. Tons.
Her influences are pretty clear if not by reading her bio than by listening to her music, where you can hear anything from Glam Rock to Brit Pop to New Wave to a million other genres that have been name dropped in you favorite hipster blog. Surprisingly, she’s very proficient at all of them and has so many good ideas displayed on just this record that it’s fucking criminal.
Her third release has album of the year contender written all over it save for some poor execution on a few songs (and, well questionable ideas — Palmer seems to get the best of herself on occasion, but any 70 minute record has filler.)
19. Kendrick Lamar, “Good Kid, m.A.A.d city”
I don’t know if anyone’s list is complete without an appearance from Kendrick Lamar’s latest LP. Actually, I don’t know if I’ve seen a list this year that doesn’t mention K dot’s major label debut.
First of all, the production on this record is flat out incredible. People are so hung up on the tired story (a rapper is a good kid in a bad neighborhood? where have I heard this story before?) that they’re forgetting the crown jewel on this record may be the production and how good Lamar is at flowing over just about anything.
That’s not to take anything away from Lamar’s lyrics, which are, as on point as they’ve ever been. It’s more to say, there’s no way Kendrick could tell me the bad neighborhood story in a different way than his predecessors of the past 30+ years. I don’t care if this is autobiographical. I just care if it’s good music. And it passes the test.
18. Jessie Ware, “Devotion”
There’s nothing more that I hate than where R&B has turned in the past few years. Overrun with electro pop beats and tired musicians who can’t sing, can’t write, can’t suck a dick for a good producer, or can’t do any of the above I find it hard to enjoy any music in my favorite genre of music.
Naturally, you can imagine my intrigue when I saw the British R&B beauty, Jessie Ware, receiving crazy good reviews from very credible indie publications. The production, while very synth based still manages to keep a very organic experience, something a lot of current day R&B lacks. Coupled with Ware’s vocals, the music comes off very Sade. Very Goapele. Very much a sound I didn’t think was possible for a record so blatantly entrenched in synths.
17. Animal Collective, “Centipede Hz.”
A lot of the criticism behind the new Animal Collective album seems centered around the lack of build up on a lot of these tracks. It’s something the latest Beach House LP does so well and a niche’ of the Collectives’ best tracks (see: Winter’s Love, Brothersport, The Purple Bottle.)
Now, yeah, this aspect of their music coincides with some of their best songs. Build-ups are great. Animal Collective ones are fantastic. But if I listened to Animal Collective strictly for the next build up track to jerk my ears off to, I’d be lying. I’m looking for those classic Animal Collective drums. That feeling that as I scroll through my iPod any track can take me on a psychedelic ride uncanny to this universe and naturally achieved via ingestion of hallucinogens. And still, with “Centipede Hz.,” Animal Collective hasn’t lost it. If anything, they’ve proven they’ve got a longer term as the conductors on this train than FDR. It’s a record they should be proud of, because it’s everything I could want from one of their LPs.
16. David Byrne & St. Vincent, “Love This Giant”
I don’t have much to say about this record except THEM HORNS. THEMMMMMMM HORNS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Okay, but seriously I’m infatuated with all the horns on this thing. Goddamn.
“Love This Giant,” sees Annie Clark & David Bryne, a marriage made in what could only be called musical heaven, throw their styles completely out the window for a brass band of trumpets, saxophones, trombones, etc.
With major collaborations, come major expectations and while some have found this record disappointing. the criticisms have also sounded incessantly petty. Pitting two musicians, or any set of musicians for a star level collaboration leads expectations to the brim, but when the huge complaint is that there aren’t enough tracks with both vocalists singing back & forth to one another, I have to question the critics. Complain about the instrumentation. Complain about how this feels like multiple solo albums piled in one. Complain about how one musicians style overbears the other. Don’t tell me both vocalists aren’t featured enough. Please. That’s grasping for straws at its finest.
15. Liars, “WIXIW”
Recently when the Liars release new albums it’s not out of the question to think album of the year, or is this their best one yet? They’re a band that grows their sound as well as anyone, and “WIXIW,” is the next proper progression.
The band is ever-shifting in their styles, but what remains constant is how tense every record feels. Explorative and atmospheric define a lot of the sounds found on “WIXIW,” as the Liars tackle an early 00s Radiohead sound, their first electronic based effort.
14. Woods, “Bend Beyond”
I’ve been critical of Woods since first getting into them a few years ago. They’ve always had a questionable ear for melody, which is something a lot of music I enjoy tends to possess. Not to mention I absolutely despise the voice of their lead singer. That high pitched falsetto of a vocal is about as bad as listening to Emmitt Smith give football analysis on ESPN. And it doesn’t get better over time….or grow on you. It just sucks. Always.
On “Bend Beyond,” Woods has at least fixed one problem, which has in turn made the other more bearable. The melodies here, from the folk tracks to the more psychedelic ones, to the power pop and freak folk ones are all marvelous. Some of the catchiest and more varied production of the year. By default, the vocals, while still noticeably bad on some songs, are at least tolerable.
13. Goat, “World Music”
If you dig deep enough, you’ll see it was me that suggested Goat’s “World Music,” to theneedledrop.com’s Anthony Fantano on Twitter a few months ago (sort of.) He was one of the only reviewers to give it a sub par review, but even he was impressed with the way Goat was able to seam together worldbeat and psychedelia into one sound.
The band has created this illusion that 70s band that looked like Cream, smelled like hell and played African hand drums were commonplace before David Bryne made African hand drums cool. But fusing genres together was never supposed to be this easy. What makes Goat’s “World Music,” so interesting is that the pairing sounds natural, bringing one to wonder why world beat and psychedelia haven’t been fused before.
12. Tame Impala, “Lonerism,”
There’s a thin line between love and hate and overwhelming potential usually categorizes that line. Take Tame Impala’s critically acclaimed, but wildly inconsistent “Innerspeaker.” The type of neo-psychedelic record that has misfires that are 30 foot suicide drop worthy, but still contain one or two bangers that you’ve been playing for the last year.
Needless to say, “Lonerism,” reaches that potential…and while many will be turned off by me calling them a low level Beatles rip, I wonder how anyone can get over the lead singer’s Lennon-esque vocals and not call these guys a 2nd rate Beatles band? As evidenced by my ranking, there’s nothing wrong with being a 2nd rate GOAT band if you do it well.
11. Fawn, “Coastlines,”
Making pop music is tough these days. Probably tougher than it ever has been. It’s not enough to be catchy. Strong lyrics. Fantastic chord progression. No, these days you have to be inventive to receive any kind of recognition, but how can anyone be inventive in a genre that has frequented our airwaves for the better half of the last century?
Fawn is a band that’s been lauded all year by critics for releasing what appears to be the most average pop album of the year. They have all the checkoffs for 2012 pop music. That 90s sound? Check. Multiple vocalists? Check. Some oohs and ahhs? Check. Some songs about love? Check, check, check.
And yet they’re here, representing one of my favorite albums. Why? Well, I’ve yet to put that into words myself….besides that I keep playing this album over and over and over and I’m never sick of it. Something like that Veronica Falls LP last year…except this isn’t as good.
10. Lil Ugly Mane, “Mista Thug Isolation”
When an unknown to the public artist named Lil’ Ugly Mane, was releasing a mixtape fully produced by in-demand producer Shawn Kemp, the gossip behind Lil’ Ugly Mane’s identity became more important than the music itself. Luckily, once Lil’ Ugly Mane was revealed to be Shawn Kemp people started recognizing Kemp’s ability as an emcee.
We know the Lil’ Ugly Mane is Shawn Kemp. We also know that Lil’ Ugly Mane is a semi sociopathic motherfucker. He doesn’t give a shit about anything. He calls everyone a bitch. He’s lugubrious. A self-proclaimed maniac drug dealer. He likes Slick Rick. You can’t make this stuff up.
And yet the persona Kemp has created is the perfect protagonist for the chaotic production. Bad things are going on. Hoes are on the loose. And Lil’ Ugly Mane is doing nothing to help the community. It’s hilarious, actually.
9. Waka Flocka Flame, “Salute Me Or Shoot Me 4: BANNED FROM AMERICA”
I’m not sure if there’s much to say about Waka that hasn’t been written. He’s the “first punk-rap,” artist. He admittedly doesn’t make lyrical music. In fact, he tells you if that’s what you’re looking for, “don’t fuck with me” on numerous interviews. And still, we get this — another slab of genius from a man whose career is synonymous more with genius than intelligence.
Looking at those terms, let’s get one thing straight. Genius is not synonymous with traditional intelligence. James Brown was a seventh grade drop out. Benjamin Franklin dropped out at age 10. Waka Flocka made it to college. Enough said.
Of course, if you don’t rock with this kind of music, I respect it. To not respect what Waka’s doing on this mix tape (which is leaps and bounds better than the LP he dropped this year) though…well, I can’t understand.
8. Porcelain Raft, “Strange Weekend”
Indie fans love making back stories about what lyrics, songs, or even full length albums mean. This is what the artist was going through. This is what the artist meant. This is why they feel this way. We know good and well that we have no idea where motivation is without word from the artist themselves, but it’s nice to feel like we do. It’s nice to “know,” more about something that we love. To think that Bon Iver was in emotional despair, in a cabin, lost in the woods, recording “For Emma, Forever Ago,” just adds so much more depth to that album. There’s about as much made about the back story as there is about the music itself.
Porcelain Raft’s “Strange Weekend,” has the most inter galactic back story of all time made up by the writers that constantly make shit up in my head. Lone musician Mauro Remiddi was shot up to a frigid cavern on the Moon by Aliens. With no signs of life and food/air that will last for 30 days, Remiddi spends his last days recording music. Armed with acoustic guitar, keyboard and laptop he records what likely will float around the Milky Way for ages. Only to be discovered in 1500 years later as an ancient human artifact.
So, yeah, none of this ever happened…but Mauro Remiddi is good at conveying that sound over 35 minutes.
7. Chairlift, “Something”
The 80s dance/90s R&B/synth-pop/new wave fusion that is Charlift’s second album absolutely blew me away back in January and it’s no mistake that it’s in my top ten records for the year.
This album is just bubbling at its tip in potential 80s club hits and melodramatic storytelling. This is the type of shit that made Janet Jackson and Madonna famous, and luckily, Chairlift’s vocalist may be just as talented, going from full falsettos to whispers with ease.
6. The Antlers, “Undersea EP”
“Hospice,” may turn out to be The Antlers magnum opus, but it’s “Undersea,” that is their most important release. While “Hospice,” maintained an unparalleled ability to squeeze emotions out (aka it was a sad ass concept album) it was a flash in the pan type of record. One with a recipe a band could replicate for albums, but never duplicate in quality.
It explains the lukewarm response to “Burst Apart,” which exposed The Antlers flat production and coupled it with a record not nearly as emotive or moving as “Hospice.”
“Burst Apart,” showed that re-creating the same album doesn’t lead to success. Luckily, The Antlers have decided to change gears with “Undersea,” being the next logical step. Just from a musical standpoint, this is the most mature record they’ve ever created. The most engaging. The instrumentals here, which can’t be said for any of their other releases, stand alone without vocals.
This isn’t to say the record is sucked dry of the emotive lyrics we’ve come to expect. The Antlers will give us lyrics. It’s the lyrics with some impressive production that leaves me excited for the next Antlers LP.
5. Beach House, “Bloom”
I’ve long been unimpressed with Beach House. Critics flip over these breezy production and strong lyrics and yes, they make beautiful records. However, they have never been able to translate aesthetics into good music. Truth be told, their albums are never worth a second or third listen. Truth be told, they’re your neighborhood bimbo — beautiful and boring.
The name of their latest album, “Bloom,” is telling as a lot of the songs start off small in stature only to become these Broadway-esque Dream Pop productions with full conductor, string arrangements, horns, percussion, etc. etc. Beach House fool around with the most melodic sounds of their career and these grandiose productions from start to finish make this easily their best album.
4. Icky Blossoms, “Icky Blossoms”
Icky Blossoms is a dance pop/electronic/shoegaze band based in Omaha. Blossoms’ debut record has the distinction of being produced by David Sitek, TV On The Radio guitarist and producer
The Sitek connection is key here, because I’m infatuated with the production. Sitek does a bang up job of leveling out dance-y synth pop music with distortion, allowing the music to be a not-so-clean cut club record.
What does your imperfect club record sound like? It wreaks of alcohol stained shirts, cigarette breath, amphetamines and sex, which is probably a short summary of your club experiences (or your twenties) rolled into one.
3. Cloud Nothings, “Attack On Memory”
I don’t think anyone expected the jump in progression that Cloud Nothings has displayed on their third proper full-length. Dylan Baldi has blown it up. Literally. Cloud Nothings is a different band registering elements of lo-fi, energetic post-hardcore, grunge and noise rock. They’re more energetic. They’re incredibly apathetic. They’re fucking angry. And they’re a lot better.
From head to toe — the drumming is phenomenal, the solos are better, the vocals are better — every amp has been turned up like Club Liv is hosting a 2 Chainz concert. Cloud Nothings have just decided to give us more with each release and when more includes an album like this not even Dana Brody could complain. The tone/melody is so much heavier and though these are very obscene adjectives to describe the music, there’s really no other way to say how much this band has evolved in less than a year.
2. Grimes, “Visions”
I’ve done my fair share of raving about Grimes, “Visions” LP and in just about any other year this is the clear cut album of the year. Grimes is a dream pop artist in the vein of Cocteau Twins, that has utilized gothic undertones and an overdose in synth pop to make her music both incredibly accessible and fucking bad ass (see: Genesis.)
For major Dream Pop fans, Grimes will come off as pleasantly familiar yet refreshingly novel. Her music utilizes a lot of simple and altered synths, and vocally she switches in and out of falsetto and cold, breathy vocals. The vocals maintain the atmosphere and range from chipmunk high to blatant gibberish. Grimes is great with psychedelic atmosphere making music that stacks up with early Verve, The Cure and the aforementioned Cocteau Twins.
She is an incredible craftswoman and is great at balancing what is ethereal and what is pop. She’s done this so well in fact that she’s received nationwide acclaim by crafting a record that is topping many Best Of… lists. She’s doing television performances. She’s making waves with major internet sensations like Kreayshawn and Narduwar.
While this is common fanfare for many bands, this isn’t common for a Dream Pop artist. It’s not out of the question to say this is the most popular Dream Pop record to drop since the days of Mazzy Star. It also is fair to say that Grimes is the most important Dream Pop artist since her idols, the Cocteau Twins.
1. Fiona Apple, “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw & Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do”
Just tolerate my little fist tugging on your forest chest/
I don’t want to talk about, I don’t want to talk about anything
There isn’t enough that I can say about Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… I mean, I feel as though I’m doing a disservice by giving some mumbo jumbo summary that doesn’t detail the different cadences and endeavors that Apple suggests on the canvases laced on this record. There’s so much to say, and so few words to say it in, leaving me questioning why I’ve spent this past paragraph saying near nothing of substance.
So many of these songs are worth more than a simple summary and though occasionally that’s a testament to the type of music this is (singer-songwriter love records), for this record, it’s a testament to the quality of tracks. The internal wounds mounted on Valentine, for example (“I’ve made my peace, I’m dead, I’m done/I watched you live to have my fun”) are about as straightforward of a hell unrequited love can be. That despite age telling us that stressing over unrequited love was stupid as a teenager, we still feel these emotions into our 20s, 30s and beyond.
“Every single night’s a fight, with my brain”
What’s great is that for every track there tends to be an internal battle within the album leading to Apple contradicting herself, much like love & people often do. While Valentine is about unrequited love, Left Alone is for the person that feels unworthy of love all together. It suggests that while Apple wants love, she pushes it away when it’s ready for her. It’s a stark contrast between two songs, but Apple has the enviable talent to do so many angles so well.
Though Fiona has no qualms of making her music almost exclusively love songs, the listener never feels overwhelmed or bored. Every line, tone, and ounce of melody has been crafted so meticulously that even the slightest overdose would ruin the formula, leaving it whiny or bland. And through the 42 minutes of the LP, Apple never stumbles. Not even once. She’s in total control and rarely have I heard an album that projected ideas so well in execution.
The production is absolutely top notch focusing on piano melodies and simple percussion. Many will talk about the stripped down style, but the music has never sounded fuller to me which is a validation of how great Apple’s contralto is and how well the palettes painted suit her strokes of internal despair.
I could go on and on about this LP, but I’ll leave it at this: I’ve probably listened to nearly 700 albums from 2007-2012, if not more, and Apple has crafted what could easily be the best album in that time span. If you don’t listen to anything in 2012, and by god you’re missing out on a lot of good music, take the time and listen to this.