The Top 25 Albums of 2012

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The Top 25 Albums of 2012

While lists are inherently subjective and not to be taken too seriously, they can still help us distill the thousands and thousands of records released in 2012 into a few meritorious of further attention. Weeping Elvis polled its editors, as well as its nationwide pool of critics, contributors, musicians and music geeks to pull together this list of the year’s best albums.

You’ll likely find some favorites, some surprises, and some unknown gems on this list. Rock, soul, Americana, hip-hop, indie, grunge, folk — it’s all here. As we prepare to unwrap the gift of the year ahead to see what the rock world has in store for us, we’d like to take the opportunity to recall the musical gifts that came our way in 2012. So remember, rock, and repeat…

 

Raveonettes

25. The Raveonettes Observator
How the hell does Sune Rose Wagner remain so prolific? If he’s ever suffered writer’s block, it must have been confined to sparse moments in time, as the incredibly voluminous Danish-born songwriter seems to churn out pop gems at an unparalleled rate. Beauty is not a small part of what the band does, with Wagner’s pleasingly simple and intuitive hooks supplemented by Sharin Foo’s steadily reassuring rhythm. These are moments where you lose yourself in wander and lust, moments where it appears that her loveliness is giving you those Beach Boys-styled excitations and vibrations. Theirs’ remains a warm and sunny sedation that transports listeners to California highways that lead to endless beaches perpetually preserved by Kodachrome, Polaroids, and now, Instagram filters.  The ever-present layer of cloudy dissonance — whether aural or lyrical — sets up a dichotomy between beauty and pain, one where polar opposites attract repeatedly and with varied results.     — Behrnsie

 

Rush

24. RushClockwork Angels
Since their five-year hiatus ended in the early 2000s, Rush fans had been longing for the band to return to the meandering prog-rock compositions of their early days. They haven’t. But they did do something this year that they’ve never done — release a concept album. Sure, the musicianship is great; by now that comes as little surprise. But what makes this probably their most satisfying effort in 20 years is the quality of the songs, as they follow a hero’s journey across a dystopian steampunk society (the story was novelized later in the year).  From the propulsive hard rock of “Seven Cities of Gold’ and “Headlong Flight” to the gorgeous atmospherics of the acoustic-based “Halo Effect” and “The Garden” this ranks among the most confident works from this supremely talented band.     —  Sir Duke

 

CloudNothings 23. Cloud NothingsAttack On Memory

Dylan Baldi might be the coolest cat to emerge from Cleveland since Paul Newman. His band, Cloud Nothings, took a sludgier tack with Attack On Memory, an album title that referenced their new approach. The result is evolutionary, as Baldi consciously sought to showcase each musician’s strengths rather than forming a game plan blind to these assets. Recorded with rock guru Steve Albini – Baldi callowly accused the prolific musician/recording engineer/producer of being pre-occupied with social Scrabble during recording – it retains elements of their low-fi sensibility but adds a grandiosity rarely associated with that term. After all, how many low-fi albums feature epic jams like that preoccupying “Wasted Days?” Plus, “Stay Useless” might be one of the year’s best songs. There’s a wonderfully youthful nihilism ever-present, hinting at the genius and horror of youth itself. What they may lack in perspective about the benefits of Albini’s laissez-faire approach, however, is balanced out with raw emotion and energetic passion. Put another way: Attack on Memory is rock and roll of a particularly memorable vintage.     — Behrnsie

 

Soundgarden22. SoundgardenKing Animal

It’s like they never left us. One would never know that it’s been 15 years since we last had new tunes from Soundgarden. Everything we loved and love about them is in here: monster guitar riffs, a wall of rock sound that will smash you in the face even through ear buds and vocals from one of rock’s great singers that are just as fresh as when we first heard them. Is it a classic in the vein of Badmotorfinger and Superunknown? Well, maybe not but listening to it even back to back with these earlier efforts will prove extremely gratifying to those who have craved new material from one of the 90s more important bands.     — CLEM

 

Grimes 21. GrimesVisions

Visions is a cohesive work of modernized and goth-inflected electronica that made many critics’ “Best of 2012″ lists, becoming one of those mid-level indie successes that spawns a passionate fan base. Claire Boucher‘s layered vocals emerge from a heavy use of reverb and delay and bring about an intoxicating, dreamlike state. Out-of-body experiences may be common, in which one watches themselves glide effortlessly through a futuristic roller skating rink shrouded by alternately opaque and translucent predawn fog. Or, maybe, dancing in a European discoteque where ecstasy and exotic women flit and float about rhythmically, languidly and purposefully.  Ms. Boucher’s earnest, wondrous and child-like ability to dart about emotionally, responding to whatever stimuli are in situ, makes for a tremendous listening experience.  Rather than embracing the tangible and immediate, it floats through a foggy dream of industrial-inflected beats and wispy pop vocals that are often cinematic and occasionally heavenly.     — Behrnsie

 

TheShins20. The ShinsPort Of Morrow

After about five years off and the dismissal of every band member not named James Mercer, The Shins returned in 2012 with a new album. So, at this point, it can be said that Mercer pretty much is The Shins. Sometimes this “band” can seem a bit precious, but this time their trademark mix of jangle guitars, clever lyrics and harmonies evoked a more mature sensibility akin to The Kinks‘ “Well Respected Man” ethos (as opposed to following the indie rock rule book).  Perhaps that’s due in part to the evolution in the production with a brighter quality that compliments the songwriting and seems to fit where the band is at, this being their fourth album. The vocals are more forward in the mix, no doubt in part to producer Rich Costey (Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, Apples in Stereo, Audioslave) who added the perfect polish to Mercer’s consummate melodies.     — Pat Ferrise

 

TheWalkmen18. (Tie) The WalkmenHeaven

Heaven, The Walkmen’s sixth studio album of original material over their ten years together, finds the band taking a more lilting, contemplative approach than their hard-charging nature of their earlier material.  The youthful NYC /Philly swagger is gone, and lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s voice has a more solemn, mellow timbre than the throaty urgency of previous releases, and the carnival-like musical arrangements are more Kurt Weil than Kurt Vile. This is the sound of a band growing up, but not growing tired.   — Huey

 

FatherJohnMisty18. (Tie) Father John MistyFear Fun

Fear Fun, the new release from indie rocker Josh Tillman under his new moniker Father John Misty, is a literate and hallucinogenic folk-infused trip through a gothic American dreamscape that seems at once familiar and foreign. Combining the wistful gloom country of vintage Mark Kozelek with the harmonic accessibility the Laurel Canyon sound (as well as a touch of Chris Isaak), this record will burrow its way into your subconscious with hummable melodies and incisive wit…with the added bonus of the most heinous album cover of all time. (Appropriately for their co-existence on our list, The Walkmen and Father John Misty are slated to tour together later this month).    —  Huey

 

CatPower

17. Cat PowerSun

On her ninth studio album, songstress Chan Marshall explores densely layered electronica and pop soundscapes, with more upbeat rhythms than we’ve become accustomed to on her recent releases. At several points, it’s downright danceable. This is a record with thick textures and diverse influences — on the single “Ruin,” she even explores Latin syncopation and musical (not to mention lyrical) phrasing. She has clearly absorbed a range of influences, from hip-hop to EDM to world beats, and incorporated it into a lush, churning, urgent and mature departure point.  —  Huey

 

KendrickLamar16. Kendrick Lamar — Good Kid m.A.A.d. City

Dr. Dre‘s latest protege has unleashed a work that will certainly contribute to the evolution of  rap and hip-hop. A reasonably linear story line intersperses the wild ride Kendrick Lamar takes us on, and the (expected) exploration of urban life does not simply retrace the footsteps of his predecessors, but also searches for the meaning of it all within the chaos of the ‘hood. The beats and sounds are groundbreaking, with realistic dialogue interludes often turning comedic. If listeners take the complete ride through Lamar’s “city” there is even the chance to literally save one’s soul.     — CLEM

 

BobbyWomack15. Bobby Womack — The Bravest Man In The Universe

The legendary R&B musician — now in the early stages of Alzheimer’s — finally released his first new material since 1994, a headlining effort that continued his collaboration with Blur/Gorrillaz‘ frontman, Damon Albarn. Albarn’s production influence is evident, and serves to modernize the atmospherics surrounding the unmistakably tortured soul emerging from Womack’s larynx. While his legendary voice may not always be quite as powerful as in his hard-charging youth, it remains a force of nature. Despite a somewhat odd and overtly affected pairing with Lana Del Rey on the track “Dayglo Reflection,” the album stands out strongly as a fresh and contemporary statement. This is in no small part due to the spatially expansive techniques used by Albarn, which align well with the sounds that young R&B guns like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean have incorporated into their compositions.     — Behrnsie

 

JustinTownesEarle14. Justin Townes EarleNothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me

The blood and experience of some of the greatest singer/songwriters of our time flows thru the veins and into the music of one of our current truly unique artists. Namesake Townes Van Zandt and father Steve Earle should be proud of how JTE is carrying on their torch, and you have to believe that Woody Guthrie and The Man in Black are smiling as well in the heavenly studio upstairs. The “outlaw” singer songwriter style is certainly present but Earle takes that and mixes it with heartfelt lyrics brought out of a life rough lived and allows us an insight to a “life roller coaster” that is currently at the top of it’s form. There is a feeling of modern Americana evoked by the mostly acoustic instrumentation, a melange of traditional and alt country, country, swing and  intelligence. The singing reaches out and touches the listener in unexpected ways, and JTE’s sneakily amazing guitar work creates an unbelievable amount of sound for one person. This record takes him another step towards the greatness of his forefathers, and one can only wait with great expectation of what the coming years will bring.     — CLEM

 

TheXX13. The xxCoexist

The xx’s debut record stormed through the consciousness of the music-loving public like a derecho, coming into renown fast and furiously, and leaving behind a languid sense of loss and destruction in its wake. In a good way. This presented a unique set of problems for a band seeking to follow up that brilliance with a work that retains a foot in recognizable terrain while striding forward into previously uncharted territory. They needed to challenge stasis while not inexorably altering its lauded features. Coexist appears to have accomplished that feat, remaining cognizant of their debut’s melancholic lament and reflection while moving forward into the arms of the next lover. It’s a sweeter aftertaste, and one that signals a willingness to move forward and leave the past’s baggage…in the past. Some predicted that their career could take on a path parallel to that traversed in the 80s by their fellow countrymen, The Smiths, but while their debut may have plumbed depths, their follow-up has shown that they refuse to make eternal gloom their motif.     — Behrnsie

 

NeilYoung12. Neil YoungPsychedelic Pill

Neil Young’s first effort with Crazy Horse in nine years was … not this one. It was summer’s Americana, the head-scratching, uneven collection of amped-up folk standards. Call it the warm-up act. In Young’s typically audacious fashion, the band followed it up just five months later with this 87-minute disc of originals. Sure, there are the trite, sing-songy, throwaway tracks that Young hasn’t been able to leave off his recent albums, but the real gems here are the sprawling, down-tempo, fuzz rock opuses— the whopping 27-minute opener “Driftin’ Back” and two 16-minute tracks, “Walk Like a Giant” and “Ramada Inn.” Dynamic, emotional and featuring some of Young’s best guitar playing, they make this the Horse’s strongest release since Ragged Glory.  —  Sir Duke

 

MumfordAndSons

11. Mumford and SonsBabel

Marcus Mumford and his English gang took the music world by storm in 2010 with their inaugural effort, Sigh No More. Obligatory touring and major festival appearances ensued, and audiences soon began to be treated with tunes that became a part of what we now know as Babel. The music world waited with bated breath to see what their sophomore effort would bring, expectations held high. But no one expected sales of 600,000 units in its first week of release and entrance into the Billboard 200 Chart at #1. Now the debate rages on. “More of the same,” cry many, but a deeper examination will reveal the addition of greater musical and lyrical depth to the style and instrumentation that many fell in love with two years previous. Others of us heard that step forward and their progression as a band as we are again given acoustic — even Appalachian — sounds and the driving “four on the floor” intensity and excellent musicianship we loved,  now wrapped around new, beautiful and exciting songs. Let the haters hate and the ambivalent continue to debate… the rest of us will be enjoying the incredible effort that is Babel.     — CLEM

 

SharonVanEtten10. Sharon Van EttenTramp

Listening to Tramp, there’s a sense that Sharon Van Etten might be the nicest artist out there, but with a not-so-latent darkness as well. Hers is an exposed vulnerability, in that vein Liz Phair tapped with Exile in Guyville, but with hints of Throwing Muses and P.J. Harvey present (particularly with regard to her songs in three). There’s a lot of emotional food for thought, starting with the album’s title. It’s sustenance with a sweeter aftertaste than Phair’s incredible acidity, but presented just as nakedly. The suburban Jersey girl sings about moving to the city. She sings about that excitement and love and electricity we universally want to feel, particularly during our coming of age. That breath on your neck. That whisper in your ear. That moment where you know that life is…happening. It’s a series of hauntingly beautiful moments that comprise a hauntingly beautiful record. “Serpents” takes a slightly different musical approach — she almost left if off the album — but ultimately its wailing, catharsis-less discontent deserves consideration as one of 2012’s best singles.     — Behrnsie

 

Diiv9. DIIVOshin

The first time listening to Oshin felt like being on a high-speed train, traveling at night with best friends. Maybe that sense of motion comes from the album’s urgent percussion, ensconced in moody arrangements and propelling each song forward into the next. And perhaps those “friends” are more like favorite bands as DIIV is evocative at times of artists that include The Cure and Joy Division. Zachary Cole is the guy behind the band, originally named Dive after the Nirvana song, but perhaps it might have been more apt for the Brooklyn four-piece to take their name from 90’s shoegazers Slowdive, as Oshin seems to fit within the dreamscape guitar mold. Regardless, Cole has created a beautiful, shimmering landscape of his own, complete with lush instrumentation and sophisticated melodies. Even with a sense of familiarity, Oshin offers unexpected turns that include reverb soaked guitars which carry  much of the album, allowing muted vocals to act more like shadows, poking through to punctuate the mood. The result is a compelling debut which makes you feel like you’ve been transported to some atmospheric place — distant and foreign, shining and dark and all together satisfying.  — Pat Ferrise

 

FrankOcean8. Frank OceanChannel Orange

“Who the hell is Frank Ocean?” is likely to hit the Grammy-night “twitterverse” much like “Who are these hippies?” (referring to Arcade Fire) and “Who is this Bunny Bear?” (Bon Iver) when Frank Ocean’s name is (likely) called a few times during 2013’s Grammy Awards. Ocean’s masterwork of modern/neo soul is in no way hip-hop masquerading as soul, but in fact the real deal. As with any groundbreaking work, Channel Orange truly takes to it to the next level and sets a high bar that will weed out the wannabees and posers. The strength is in Ocean’s mesmerizing vocals,  fantastic songwriting that speaks to the modern love and loss experience, and simply terrific production. While Ocean has been known to music insiders for a couple of years as someone who was about to break big, 2012 was the year he entered the consciousness. One has to believe that this is the album Al Green and Marvin Gaye would want to make if their prime was with us today.     — CLEM

 

BobMould7. Bob Mould Silver Age

Bob Mould really is amazing. In the 80’s he pioneered his own brand of innovative melodic punk with the legendary threesome Hüsker Dü. In the 90’s he re-branded himself with another power trio, Sugar, and delivered Copper Blue, one of the most acclaimed albums of the decade. If not the godfather of punk, he’s at least a great uncle, so with that said it was particularly satisfying to see him acknowledged by Dave Grohl as an inspiration. Mould toured with Foo Fighters in the past few years, (including DJing before their set and playing a song or two on stage), guested on their last album, and he also served as the focus of an LA concert last fall featuring an all-star band paying tribute to his incredible songwriting catalog. To top all of that off, he released this new album featuring his signature style: crunchy guitars, powerful lyrics and undeniably kick ass songs.  Four decades in, Mould continues to prove how he’s become one of rock’s great elder statesmen.     — Pat Ferrise

 

BeachHouse6. Beach HouseBloom

Dreamy. There, we said it. It’s perhaps an overly used word to describe this band, but it’s also an appropriate one, so why not just say it?  On their second full-length album, they created a sophisticated, atmospheric collection that feels like a soothing, mind bending voyage. Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand’s androgynously layered vocals are perhaps the signature of the Baltimore sound that Beach House has created, and which has recently (and successfully) been aped by bands-on the-rise like Lower Dens. They offer the listener a respite not unlike that of David Bowie and Nico (and at times, The Smiths), but are perhaps most aligned with (the first five minutes of) the hazy drug-induced trippiness of antecedents like The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” set alongside minimalist contemporary guitar inflections and tonal qualities resembling The xx.  Their performance of “Myth” on Letterman could be considered one of this year’s musical highlights.      — Pat Ferrise / Behrnsie

 

AlabamaShakes5. Alabama ShakesBoys and Girls

In 1989, the headquarters of Stax Records was torn down and turned into a parking lot. In 2012, the Alabama Shakes sifted through the rubble and built a musical shrine to the label with their majestic roots-soul debut Boys and Girls. Rising sui generis from the red clay of Athens, Alabama and absent major label hype, the Shakes oozed soulful purity. The thick, sultry grooves of hits like “Hold On,” “You Ain’t Alone,” and the title track are reverential without being overly referential. The inevitable comparisons of singer Brittany Howard to Janis Joplin and Otis Redding (and the band to Booker T & the MGs) are so for a reason—one listen to a hip-shaker like “Be Mine” and you’re instantly transported back in time. But The Shakes are no mere retro act; they are charting authentic new musical territory in a modern musical era desperately in need of it.      — Huey

 

TameImpala4. Tame ImpalaLonerism

Australia’s Tame Impala are Kevin Parker, Dom Simper and Jay Watson, with Parker often credited as the guiding force behind their self-described “hypno-groove melodic rock music.” On their second release, they’ve road-mapped a gorgeous psychedelic journey comprised of songs which draw inspiration from Syd Barrett and John Lennon. Although informed by retro icons, their music never apes their heroes. “Apocalypse Dreams”  personifies the dreamy, hooky quality of  their well conceptualized beautiful, trippy, and sun bathed ride.     — Pat Ferrise

 

AltJ3. alt-JAn Awesome Wave

The vocals are the thing…well actually everything is the thing on this unique and completely genre melding debut effort from across the pond. American critics and music fans began to take notice after it took home Britain’s Mercury Prize (the British Album of the Year prize). Their debut mixes indie pop, electronica, art rock and trip-hop sounds with some of the most interesting solo and harmony vocals of this year (or any year for that matter). You might do it a disservice if you try to define it too much — it’s probably better to listen to it straight through. If you merely listening to an individual track, it will in no way give you the full scope of this intriguing and beautifully enigmatic work.     — CLEM

 

JackWhite2. Jack WhiteBlunderbuss

Jack White‘s  solo debut, released on his own Third Man Records label, continues his career-long exploration of and expansion upon the American blues idiom. Building upon the sonic foundation of his White Stripes/Raconteurs catalog, he seamlessly co-mingles his own Detroit DNA with that of his Mississippi forbears like Son House and Charlie Patton — while seamlessly mingling in punk sensibility and Appalachian twang. This musical melting pot is most masterfully on display on thump-alongs like “Weep Themselves to Sleep,” “Freedom At 21,” and the Little Willie John cover “I’m Shakin’.” Not since the British Invasion has a white musician so skillfully channeled the dark spirituality of Delta blues into inventive new musical territory. However, unlike almost every white blues musician ever (we’re talking to you, Kenny Wayne Shepherd!), he is able to continually pay homage without being merely derivative. In an era of indie rock that is far too dependent on irony and Casio-tone to propel the faintest of melodies, his muscular stomp of authenticity is not only a welcome relief, it the one musical map worth trusting.     — Huey

 

Japandroids1. Japandroids — Celebration Rock

Just when you thought that guitar rock was going the way of Gotye, along come Vancouver’s Japandroids to restore your faith in the innocent exuberance of the endangered Rock-n-Roll genre. With fist-pumping riffs, literate lyrics about youthful overindulgence, and chant-along “woah-oh-oh-oh-oh” backing vocals, this is the best Car Rock record to come out since you got your first driver’s license… no matter when that was. Sounding like they would fit well on a bill of The Replacements, Against Me! and The Hold Steady, this hard working duo has become known for propulsive, anthemic live shows that leave audiences sweat-soaked and calling out for more. So tune in, turn it up, and prepare to “Turn some restless nights to restless years!”   — Huey

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