In the Shadow of the Impending (Mayan) Apocalypse (Pt. 3): Best Albums of 2012

(Or, how I got through my neurosis about the end of the world with the aid of my headphones)


best of albums 3.

(Also, in case you missed them, click here for (a) the best tracks of 2012 or (b) best shows/moments of 2012.  Now back to the regularly scheduled program…)

I started writing this a couple of days ago and yesterday afternoon I learned of the passing of Ravi Shankar, the world famous musician that introduced the sitar and Indian devotional music to the Beatles and the world. As I reflected on his passing, I thought about how so many of the artists I adore and are featured in this year-end reflection were influenced in part by the music that Ravi brought to our attention. Bear with me for a second, the connection isn’t direct; none of the musicians discussed herein necessarily incorporated sitar or Indian musical traditions into their work (though certainly some drew from non-Western music). Just, take a second and go back in time with me to the late 60s. Imagine yourself in 1967 putting on B-side of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and hearing the opening notes of Harrison’s “Within You Without You” emanating from your stereo speakers. Before a single word is uttered, a sitar introduces the song’s existential ruminations on love. What a strange and unfamiliar yet beautiful sound? In blending, incorporating, pushing, and exploring the spaces were Anglophone popular music had (t)heretofore not ventured, the four boys from Liverpool, England, were introducing generations (courtesy of Ravi Shankar) to the infinite permutations towards which music could evolve. It is exactly this sort of creativity, genre-defying, and experimental work that has always impressed and moved me. (The same could be said for the work of Philip Glass whose influence can be readily seen in the remix record compiled by Beck featuring many of today’s most innovative electronic/dance artists, discussed further below. At times, it is hard to distinguish between the style of the original and the remix.) The foregoing isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate “traditional” forms as well. But, the ability to fluidly move between innovation, reinvention, and convention makes me marvel at the power of artists, musicians, and composers; more importantly, it is what keeps me coming back for more. Without too much more of a lengthy intro, I’ll just make some final passing observations.

  • Unlike years past, no single record captured my head and heart totally. Instead, a handful of excellent records all found themselves as the soundtrack to my year. Personally, I thought this was a great year for music, but then again I tend to enjoy various styles of music.
  • The number of quality albums across diverse genres and the resurgence of old forms (e.g., R&B, Soul, Folk) pleased me to no end. Of course, I have a soft spot for certain styles more than others (which my lists betray), but I spent more time away from “Rock” and more time in realms nestled between genres.
  • I loved both the refinement of electronic modes of production and the resurgence of pure, unadulterated, non-studio enhanced stripped-down songs and albums across all styles. The power of real instruments and voices is always what captures the rawest and purest emotions.
  • In a genre too often dominated by men, the ladies of indie/rock, Neo-/folk, electronica, dance, and R&B put out some of the best recordings of the year.
  • Unlike my “best tracks of 2012”, the albums I found myself revisiting contained many different emotional and thematic tones. Although there are many records that contain a comical, joyous, up-beat and playful quality, a number of these albums also tackle more weighty and heavy emotional, personal, and political themes from dealing with profound personal loss to losing direction to social inequalities (socio-economic and legal). But, running throughout each is the overwhelming sense of hope and possibility.
  • In these records there is: complicated beauty, unbridled joy, southing soul, witty wordplay, mesmerizing grooves, furious creativity, heart wrenching loss, and unapologetic honesty. A couple of records made me cry a whole lot (good and powerful tears): Passion Pit’s Gossamer, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love”, Perfume Genius’ Put Your Back N 2 It, and How to Dress Well’s Total Loss.
  • As always, I regret not spending more time with certain records. Okay, No more distractions.

Favorite Albums of 2012

(Click on each title to listen via Spotify or the “tier” playlist header.
Click on the (+ more) for previous write-ups.)

Tier 1 – Records That Inspired, Touched, Impressed, and Soothed (#s 1-20)

  • crockJapandroids – Celebration Rock(Indie/Punk Rock): This Vancouver duo makes loud and infectious anthemic indie-punk rock that brings the adolescent in this aging hipster to the fore. Their songs exude a youthful devil-may care abandon and optimism tinged with subtle dose of nostalgia for simpler times. Remember what it was like not to second guess every thought and pump your firsts into the air? Turn this on and up!!! (+ more)
  • KellyHogan-ILikeToKeepMyselfInPainKelly Hogan – I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (Americana, Standards, Bluesy Rock): Kelly’s latest record reminds me of “the why” and “the when” of when I feel in love with music: a young boy moved by grace and beauty. Breathing life into songs composed for her bourbon and blues soul-drenched voice by some of the best songwriters in the business (e.g., Stephin Merritt, Robyn Hitchcock, Andrew Bird, Jon Langford, M.Ward, Robbie Fulks, and herself), this record travels across old popular American musical genres and contemporary indie rock with a fresh and fulsome feel. I could listen to Kelly Hogan sing the ingredients of a Campbell’s soup label. She has a voice that singes, soothes, and inspires all at once. Wedged in the spaces between jazz standards, Americana, blues and indie pop, this is one of the more perfectly tuned and orchestrated collection of songs you’ll hear in a long time. (+ more)
  • channelORANGEFrank Ocean – channelORANGE (deconstructed R&B & Neo-Soul): The only thing the Grammy’s got right this year is acknowledging the brilliance of Frank Ocean’s debut record. Capable of ripping through classic Soul and R&B with the skill of a Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye, Ocean also takes apart songs to their barest parts and tells culturally critical anecdotes of socio-economic differences with tongue-in-check wordplay and unapologetic candor. Unlike many other popular R&B artists out there, he doesn’t need superfluous dance beats or studio effects to catch your attention, instead he relies on carefully, densely packed yet tense songs to impress. A brilliant chill ride. (+ more)
  • omam_albumOf Monsters and Men – My Head Is An Animal (Baroque Indie Pop/Neo-Folk): Next to the Japandroids record, I might have listened to this more than any other. Why? Aside from it being the kind of music the 8 year old me would have relished, it is a joyous collection of upbeat, melodic and musically rich songs filled with stories of animals (anthropomorphic or allegorical?), distant locales, and a wide-eyed embrace of a raucous Where the Wild Things Are fervor. Blaring horns, dueling and complimentary male-female vocals, frenetic choruses, all out multi-instrumental jams, this record has enough life and sunshine to power through long winters days and nights. (+ more)
  • FJM_FEAR_FUN_COVER1Father John Misty – Fear Fun (Neo-Folk, Americana): Former Fleet Foxes drummer, Joshua Tillman, was a revelation for me this year, especially for one who never quite liked his former band. For an aficionado of marginalia and referential writing, Fear Fun is bottomless of wellspring of associations and inspirations rooted in an anachronistic kaleidoscope of 50s/60s Americana imagery and literature. If this sounds like some bizarre “trip”, trust me it only gets stranger the further you dig below the surface; it’s like the Kubrick adaption of Nabokov’s Lolita. Definitely for fans of old school Americana, Bluegrass and 60s Folk. (+ more)
  • Beach-House-BloomBeach House – Bloom (Indie Rock/Dream Pop):  Let this record wash over you like a pleasant daydream with its undulating, layered electronic rhythms and Victoria Legrand’s dream world evoking vocals. With Bloom, the Baltimore duo might have made the perfect dream pop record to date. Or, at the very least, it’s been a joy to get lost in their head space. (+ more)
  • heistMacklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist (Hip Hop/Rap):  Difficult to summarize all that Seattle’s Macklemore is doing on this record because he can be polemicist, joker, soul-searching, preacher, and penitent all at the same time. If you think Hip-Hop has to be about consumerism, gangs, posturing, or dissing, then you need to listen to this refreshing bit of social and self critique done with unyielding passion for life, self-empowerment and faith in the ability to overcome obstacles both personal and political. (+ more)
  • ole-773-Cat-Power-SunCat Power – Sun(Multi-Layered Indie Rock):  Following from the above (and in the vein of Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp), a hard-edged, biting, mature and multi-faceted record that sees Chan Marshall eschewing what has worked for her in the past for a whole new range of hues and tones. I relish how bold, brash, and adventurous the sounds and juxtapositions of styles are on this record and I adore the willingness to press beyond and without. This may take repeated listens but it will reward the patient listener. (+ more)
  • bobby_womack_the_bravest_man_in_the_universeBobby Womack – The Bravest Man In the Universe (Soul + Downtempo): If you listen to one record or artist you’ve not heard of before, please let it be Bobby because this is just a beautiful exploration of soul fused with stripped-down downtempo and bass production that will soothe your soul. Musical genius Damon Albarn (of Blur and Gorillaz) has found a way to foreground Bobby’s plaintive vocals while producing intoxicating (yet subtle) rhythms. If you heard and liked Gil Scott-Heron’s album I’m New Here, then check this out. (+ more)
  • alt-j2Alt-J – An Awesome Wave (Indie Rock): Far and away the most arresting blend of rock and electronica to date. Listen for the massive bass drops, the choir boy harmonies, the odd fusion of sounds, and the cleverly deconstruction and reincorporation of song elements from these Cambridge boys who evoke another English band from a college town. (Hint: early Radiohead. Yes, I recognize that this is a bold comparison but give it a listen.) (+ more)
  • How-To-Dress-Well-Total-LossHow to Dress Well – Total Loss (deconstructed R&B, downtempo): A barebones R&B record with MJ dance sensibility and a deeply introspective reflection on connection or missed connections in our modern age.   Tom Krell (akak How to Dress Well) has produced that rare collection of deeply personal, haunting, chilling and gorgeous all at once.  The sultry under-the-radar dim light/late night dance record of the year; this year’s Weeknd.  (+ more)
  • SVE_tramprecord2Sharon Van Etten – Tramp & Sean Rowe – The Salesman and the Shark (Neo-Folk): Sharon and Sean offer a reminder that amazing songwriting, raw storytelling, and traditional song structures can wedge their way into our consciousness with their unabashed and utter honesty. Two of the most stunningly heartfelt and piercing records of the past year. This is a beautifully painful and painfully beautiful. (+ moreSVE) (+ moreSR)
  • Grimes-Visions-608x608Grimes – Visions & Purity Ring – Shrines (Electronic Indie-Dance):Grimes and Purity Ring are both Canadian (though opposite ends of the country) and working in the ever expanding sphere of Art-Electronica (the electronic counterpart of 60s/70s Art/Prog Rock) where as Grimes goes for the highs, Purity Ring explores the lows, yet both mesmerize and hypnotize with an ability even Biggie would appreciate. This is what should be on the speakers at dance clubs. (+ moreG) (+ morePR)
  • kendrick-lamar-good-kid-maad-cityKendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. City (Hip Hop/Rap): Compton’s newest MC might be giving Jay-Z and Kanye notice that it’s time to relinquish the “throne” they claimed a year ago. Certainly, Kendrick has found the recipe for making sultry and captivating beats without resorting to over-produced Diplo-laced sound effects. (This despite the fact that Dr. Dre, aka Mr. meticulous, produced this record.) Now everybody serenade the new faith of Kendrick Lamar, King Kendrick Lamar… It might not be hubris but telling it like it is.
  • AshakesAlabama Shakes – Boys and Girls (Southern Roots/Blues Rock):Southern blues folk rock at some of its finest with one of the most captivating vocal performances (by Brittany Howard) this side of the Atlantic. (+ more)
  • Various Artists – Rework_Philip Glass Remixed (Minimalism + IDM/Dance): For those who love contemporary dance and electronic music and are unfamiliar with Philip Glass, this is a must listen. Glass and the Minimalists had such a profound effect on popular dance and electronic music, yet it’s not often acknowledged. Consider yourself on notice. Or, you should just listen because this is a beautiful reinterpretation of one of the 20th Century’s most important composers and innovators. (+ more)
  • Godspeed_You!_Black_Emperor_-_Allelujah!_Don't_Bend!_Ascend!Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (Instrumental/Epic Rock): Arguably one of the best GSYBE records to date from the initial listen. Why so low? It takes a while to really take in the epic nature and intricacies of what this Montreal collective of superbly talented musicians do. I’m sure it will play with greater regularity than other higher listed albums in the weeks (and years?) to come.
  • Chromatics-Kill-For-LoveChromatics – Kill for Love (Neo-New Wave, Shoegazer, Indie Rock): An overwhelming sumptuous collection of melodically dark synth and guitar tracks that will soothe you to either trance or sleep (is there a difference?). I love getting lost too and with this record while working; the perfect soundtrack for focused efficiency or gyrating grooves, depends on your mood. (+ more)

Tier 2 – Brilliant but Quirky (sort of like my taste…) (#s 21-35)

  • Patrick Watson – Adventures in Your Own Backyard (Multi-Instrumental, Soundscape, Indie Rock): Lush delicate collection of filmic multi-instrumental masterpieces. Think Andrew Bird meets early Calexico and Explosions in the Sky, but with a pop sensibility. (+ more)
  • Dum Dum Girls – End of Daze (Dream Pop/Indie Rock): Wait. A five song EP? Yes. It is a near perfect blend of up-tempo indie rock, dreamy Goth dance, New Wave pop, and Shoegazer soundscape.
  • Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory (Indie Punk): A loud and brash post-punk and pop punk foray from Cleveland. The opening four tracks are masterful and jaw dropping. Produced by Steve Albini, this has some distinct hints of In Utero laced throughout, for the Nirvana fans.
  • Robert Glasper Experiment – Black Radio (Neo Soul, Jazz Fusion): A transmission from the late 70s heyday of Soul and Jazz fusion with amazing contribution from Neo Soul staples (Erykah Badu, Musiq Soulchild, Bilal) and Hip Hop youngbloods (Lupe Fiasco). A true gem of groove for a year end reverie. (+ more)
  • Lost in the Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs (Neo-Folk): Haunting neo folk reflection on life and personal loss with an epic, sprawling quality. (+ more)
  • Brooklyn Rider – Seven Steps: Contemporary Classical musicians with a distinctly modernist feel. (+ more)
  • Adam Arcuragi – Like a fire that consumes all before it . . . (Neo-Folk): An immensely talented singer and songwriter making blues infused folk rock with a hint of gospel that will soothe your soul and get your feet stomping.
  • Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself(baroque indie rock): I think he just gets better and tighter with each record. Definitely the most lyrically biting and contemplative to date. Barnyard hoe downs. Caribbean percussion and rhythms. Old world waltzes. Is there anything Andrew Bird can’t do? We should probably send him to negotiate peace accords. He’d definitely get the crowd up in whistles.
  • Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It (lo-fi, Baroque Indie Rock): Another impressively tender stripped down contemplation of daily life. Mike Hadreas relies on simple piano chords and his falsettos to produce an operatic and blood chilling effect. Reminds me of Youth Lagoon’s Year in Hibernation with a more introspective and dark interior. (+ more)
  • Andy Stott – Luxury Problems (downtempo, ambient + bass): People refer to Stott’s music as “dance”. I guess if you were a tree-sloth. Kidding aside, this is just an amazing combination of deep bass grooves with some angelic vocals perfect for your late evening reveries. (Four Tet’s There is Love in You meets Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, for the Ambient/IDM geeks.) Or, if you want to impress your friends, a very chill and luscious backdrop.
  • Love on a Real Train – s/t: Joachim Cooder brings some of his very talented friends together to weave this amazing collection of rhythms from various musical traditions fused with electronic undercurrents. For fans of 80s Paul Simon or Afro Celt Soundsystem. (+ more)
  • Nora Jones – Broken Little Hearts: Biggest surprise of the year was how much I really liked this record. Danger Mouse is the perfect foil for Nora’s brilliant voice. “She’s 22” chills with its dagger-like lyrics and simplicity.
  • : I think Regina is vastly underappreciated as both a lyricist and composer. She can weave together ragtime, fin de siècle waltzes, and big band into a pleasant pastiche of pop melodies, while telling comical and poignant tales. Definitely a record that requires repeated listens.
  • : Say what you will about the at-times questionable actions, lyrics, and antics of the LA outfit known as Odd Future, they are an ingeniously clever collective of wordsmiths and beatmakers. Although I often question their choice of vocabulary, I do believe they are engaging in a sort of meta-commentary about the use of language in hip-hop culture. As for the music, it feels like the sort of straight flow and rhythms of mid 90s with less of a focus on “radio or club friendly” and more concerned with lyrical vérité. This is hip-hop for the weirdoes and the outsiders; it’s about time. So instead of critiquing and b-ing, being mad as f-k, just admit not only are we talented, we’re rad as f-k. Boys make a good point. (+ more)
  • Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror (Thrash Dream Rock): 60s Doo Wop meets Lo-Fi Punk? Yeah, it’s an odd but perfect mix. Should be the soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic adventure tale of a roller derby like hunger games? (I’ve neither read the book nor seen the movie but relying on the kindness of strangers’ summaries.)

Tier 3 – Solid records worth multiple turns or spins (#s 36-50)

…and because I don’t like leaving folks out of the party

Other Things I Also Really Enjoyed

from Newer Artists…

from Veterans and Stalwarts…

Gosh, I’m sure I left something or someone out. Urgh. Oh well, I’ll try better in 2013.

In the interim, I hope everyone enjoys gearing up and preparing for or simply surviving the Holidays and the New Year.

If you tire of carols, Yule-tide sing-a-longs, or “Auld Lang Syne” I’d definitely recommend listening to some of the folks above.

Peace and love in the year to come!


p.s. Please post your favorite records in the comments section and share!

p.p.s. As always, I encourage you to not merely stream but purchase the records of or support (i.e., attend concerts, buy merch) the artists you like. I prefer the following sites: Insound, eMusic, or directly from the labels (they will send you added goodies, karma, and Indie-Cred/love).

p.p.p.s. All grammatical mistakes and misspellings are intentional, unless they are oversights, in which case blame the editor.

Where’d he go?

out to sea

3 thoughts on “In the Shadow of the Impending (Mayan) Apocalypse (Pt. 3): Best Albums of 2012

    • Thanks! It’s fun to spend a couple of days just listening back through everything you really loved and remembering the associations (and lots of great music is an added bonus). Glad you are enjoying the mix.

  1. Pingback: R&B: What Happened To the Music? – Plain Truth 39 « chocolatecoveredliesdotcom

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