Another year down, another year for great music, and another year that I throw together my Top Albums list about 6 weeks too late! If you like indie-rock, electronic, or singer-songwriters, 2012 was the year for you!
As always, I hope that with this list you find something you’re familiar with, something you haven’t heard of yet but dig, and something that completely turns your idea of “what is music” upside down on its head.
Along with supplying an mp3 with each album for you to download, I created a Spotify Playlist if you want to take (most) of the whole thing on the go. So without further ado, here were my Top 40 Albums of 2012:
情報デスクVIRTUAL // 札幌コンテンポラリー
As long-time readers know, I reserve the last spot on my Top Albums list for something I call the “Scott Walker Album of the Year” – an album that is so boundary pushing and out-there that it’s as much performance art as it is music. 2012 was interesting in that we actually did have a new record from Scott Walker, however, I never got around to listening to it before compiling this list (Tiny Mix Tapes seems to have crowned it their favorite of the year, and you can read the review here). So this year’s award goes to the multilingual 情報デスクVIRTUAL. Here’s an analogy for you folks: witch-house : dubstep :: vaporwave : chillwave – and nobody embodies the “ultra-chill” of vaporwave like 情報デスクVIRTUAL. Similar to how witch-house commandeered dark hieroglyphic symbols (re: triangles, upside crosses, etc…), vaporwave has used a mishmash of Japanese, Arabic, wingdings, and hashtags in their naming conventions. But don’t get turned off by the confusing jumble of track names, because this genre has some silky smooth, elevator-ready jams for your listening pleasure.
Moonface with Siinai // Heartbreaking Bravery
A year-end list wouldn’t be complete without at least one Spencer Krug mention. With the demise of Wolf Parade and the hiatus of Sunset Rubdown, Krug has been focusing his attention more on his solo-work under the moniker Moonface. With his latest record, he decided to ditch the marimba-heavy tunes of his past and opted instead to collab with the Finnish rock band Siinai. When you set the bar so high with stuff like Random Spirit Lover and Apologies to Queen Mary it’s no wonder people were disappointed with the feel of this record. Although it’s certainly disjoint at times (more of a standard record of tracks than a flowing concept album he’s known for), Heartbreaking Bravery is still a satisfying listen that highlights Krug’s talent as a songwriter and a musician.
Symmetry // Themes for an Imaginary Film
When this album broke on GorillavsBear late in 2011, everyone was eating it up like candy. I mean who wouldn’t love a 2+ hour continuous score that was allegedly scrapped for the movie Drive (ultimately that was a rumor – making the idea of someone constructing a fake movie score that much more intriguing of a concept). Ultimately, as more albums was released in 2k12, people cooled on this record, mostly because of the effort required to sit and listen to the whole damn thing (we live in an mp3 world after all), but regardless, if you have a spare 2 hours and some headphones, be prepared for your mind to be blown (my favorite part is around the 20 minute mark).
Holograms // S/T
My buddy and Albino Father singer/guitarist Matt Hoenes clued me in on these Swedish electro-punks who released an album on the famed Captured Tracks label this past summer. Contrary to the common held belief that Scandinavia is a modern-day utopia, there are poor people in that part of the world and nothing captures the depressed industrial side of the area like Holograms (the yelling of “DESOLATION // DESOLATION” in “ABC City” is an apt example of what I mean). Rambunctious for sure, however, this self/titled record is tempered by the electronic elements to make it listenable to non-diehard punk fans.
Peaking Lights // Lucifer in Dub
I didn’t particularly care for Lucifer, the much awaited follow-up to 936 by the Minneapolis psych-pop duo Peaking Lights. It just felt a little flat and was a little too Rastafarian for me. However, the dub remix record of Lucifer, with its minor tweaks, hit all the right chords with me – in fact, “Cosmick Dub” was one of my favorite tracks of the year!
Taken by Trees // Other Worlds
Only six albums in and we’ve already hit our second Swedish artist! I don’t hide my seemingly endless infatuation with everything Swedish (IKEA is my favorite restaurant). When it comes to music it never ceases to amaze me how many high quality acts come from a country with the population of roughly that of North Carolina. Taken by Trees’s Victorian Bergsman has certainly been around the block a couple of times (The Concretes for 10+ years, now on her 3rd solo album) but I never seem to get tired of listening to her smooth, nearly monotonic-vocals sung over interesting background melodies.
Swearin’ // S/T
I compose my top albums list just how I do my NCAA Tournament brackets: I order my list using my gut then make one single correction. If you didn’t do something like this you could be stuck making endless permutations and wasting half the year on making minute changes in ordering. Originally I had the Brooklyn-via-Birmingham indie-rockers Swearin’ out of the list (after all, this was a really strong year for indie-rock), however, the more I listened to their self-titled record, the more I found myself falling in love with the singing of front-woman Allison Crutchfield and the energy of the music. Probably if I had a few more weeks with the record, it would have jumped some more spots, but hey, I’m already a full six weeks late with this list already!
Actress // R.I.P.
The British electronic artist Actress does a great job of restoring order to chaotic environments. When you listen to the beginning of something like “Serpent” you can’t help to feel discomforted with the off-kiltered layers. Gradually though, with the introduction of a couple of bass and guitar lines, harmony is reached and head-nodding commences. Much of the album is composed in the same way: you don’t know the destination at the start of each track, but evidentially you get there. Sometimes the journey is as satisfying as the end-goal.
Daughn Gibson // All Hell
Country music has been pretty stagnant the past decade. I know some of my country music listening buddies probably wouldn’t agree with that statement – after all, a lot of enjoyable records have been released – but when it comes to inventiveness, nothing has quite gotten my attention since Bright Eyes jumped on the scene. Well Daughn Gibson is here to change that. Composing his melodies from samples and lo-fi recordings (some of which sound like they could have been B-sides for Youth Lagoon), Gibson has finally done to country what How To Dress Well did for R&B: provided a much needed 21st century update. No doubt this record isn’t perfect (some of the tracks, like “Tiffany Lou,” are tough to get through) but I certainly applaud the creative effort. If anything, I’m excited for the follow-up – something I can’t say I’ve said a lot when it comes to new country acts.
Phèdre // S/T
Home to one of my top three tracks of 2012 (re: “Aphrodite”), this self-titled record from Toronto’s Phèdre is overflowing with fun (reinforced by their weird, and typically NSFW video accompaniments). I seriously dare you to listen to “Aphrodite” or “In Decay” without having a youtube video of you dancing to it not appear. Taking the reins from John Maus when it comes to deeply sung bizarre pop-vocals over cheerful and energetic music, Phèdre seems to be just as adept when it comes to album-release timing as they are with their music. Great listen at just the right time!
Waxahatchee // American Weekend
I’ll admit, I was first intrigued when I heard about Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee project mostly because I was curious if the name was referring to the small Texas town (evidently, Waxahatchee is a popular Southern name, as this particular Waxahatchee is a nod to an Alabama creek). After doing a little Google-ing, I was even more intrigued when I heard that Katie is the sister to Swearin’s front-woman Allison Crutchfield – evidently music runs deep in their family’s blood. Apparently the very personal, simply composed American Weekend was recorded when Katie was snowed in at her parent’s house (hmm…where have I heard that before). Fortunately, this album doesn’t need a back story to succeed – it’s an all-around great listen for those who appreciate intimate records on cold mornings.
TNGHT // S/T
Metz // S/T
The second Toronto self-titled record on the list, albeit the “post-hardcore sludge-punk” of Metz is markedly different that the tunes of Phèdre! Again, great year for some indie-rock – probably could have made a separate list of just that. When it comes to listening, Metz is about as hard as I can handle (sorry metal fans, but there won’t be any of that on this list). Although everything is amped and noisy, somehow vocals cut through the quagmire and are intelligible – something you can’t really say about most loud noise/garage/punk rock. I pretty much listened to this record anytime my energy dipped in the day and I needed a quick pick-me-up. Like 5-hour energy without all the side-effects.
Tamaryn // Tender New Signs
Finally some shimmering guitars and reverb-heavy vocals! This San Francisco-via-New Zealand group Tamaryn fittingly released their debut on Mexican Summer (home to similar female-fronted dream-pop artists Puro Instinct and Best Coast). With Tender New Signs come nine washed-out tracks that are sure to soundtrack your laid-back coastal drive.
Pure Bathing Culture // S/T
Finally some twee-pop on the list! Coming from Portland, Oregon (where evidently they have played at pretty much every venue in the city twice over) Pure Bathing Culture has decided that the best way to counter the dreary, rainy local weather is to produce some of the most sunny care-free tunes of the year. Plus they make some good music videos and The Shins love them, so there is that…
Frank Ocean // Channel Orange
This smooth R&B album composed of straight R&B jammz (two ‘m’s, one ‘z’) was probably the album that suffered most from over-hype and “the corrupt indie machine”. It’s a great record, no doubt, (I mean, “Thinking About You” – come on, that’s gold Jerry!) but hardly as revolutionary as some writers would like to make it out to be. Still, Frank Ocean is by far the greatest thing to come out of the hyper-vulgur cluster-f of a group Odd Future, guaranteeing me to check out any of his stuff his has on the horizon.
Fiona Apple // The Idler Wheel…
… Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. This is by far my wife’s favorite album of the year, so hopefully she isn’t reading this year-end recap and scoff at this placing. The thing with Fiona Apple is you know that you are going to be getting an interestingly composed group of songs with poetic lyrics. Period. With that said, The Idler Wheel… seemed to suffer from having ridiculously amazing bookends (“Every Single Night”, “Hot Knife” ) that kind-of overshadowed the rest of the album – something you didn’t get with Extraordinary Machine where every track was just as strong as the last. I don’t know, maybe I’m just crazy (after all, I probably heard this album the most out of any one on the list since my wife played it all the time)…
Tame Impala // Lonerism
Probably the only album I could see myself jamming out to with the young adult version of my parents. Tame Impala is certainly a throwback to the psychedelic groove bands of the 70s that seem to inundate the classic/oldies FM radio stations and tracks like “Elephant” and “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” would have probably reached the top spot on Billboard if they weren’t forty years too late. Wish I had this record on vinyl to add to the “authentic nostalgia feel.”
Beach House // Bloom
This record’s ranking probably suffered a bit because I overplayed it like crazy and got a little tired of it. I mean, Jesus, “Myth” / “Wild” / “Lazuli” / “Other People” combo is probably the greatest thing released all year, how could you NOT listen to that on repeat a million times? The problem is, very rarely did I get to the latter half of the record. I do like how Beach House tried some new things on Bloom (keyboard arpeggios on “Lazuli” for example) yet still maintaining the general “Beach House” vibe that has been so successful for them. For those eight of you who haven’t heard Beach House before, check out Teen Dream before hitting up this album though.
Mirrorring // Foreign Body
You know I’m a sucker for darkly composed singer-songwriters, so this collab between Grouper and Tiny Vipers was a no-brainer for me to love! Certainly not a listen for everyone, Foreign Body is a headphone record where the melody (like from “Fell Sound”) and/or vocals (like from “Silent From Above”) gradually wash over you, cleansing your soul in the process. Mirrorring also win the awards for best album cover and best new band name for 2012.
Dum Dum Girls // End of Daze
Really thought I was going to be a trailblazer by including this record on my list, but evidently other people had similar ideas. This EP is waaaaaaaaay more introspective and slowed-down than stuff from like I Will Be (one listen to the crowd-pleasing ballad “Lord Knows” is enough to show that) and I like that – lord knows Dee Dee had quite the personal trauma over the past couple of years to deal with.
Father John Misty // Fear Fun
Former Fleet Foxes member J. Tillman developed a new project in 2k12 called Father John Misty. I’ll let him tell how it all got started: “I got into my van with enough mushrooms to choke a horse and started driving down the coast with nowhere to go. After a few weeks, I was writing a novel, which is where I finally found my narrative voice…. It was a while before that voice started manifesting in a musical way, but once I settled in the Laurel Canyon spider-shack where I’m living now, I spent months demoing all these weird-ass songs about weird-ass experiences almost in real-time, and kind of had this musical ‘Oh-there-I-am’ moment, identical to how I felt when I was writing the book.” Yep, that’s about what this album sounds like.
Mount Eerie // Clear Moon | Ocean Roar
Phil Elverum and myself are kindred souls. Both of us have deep appreciation of noisy atmospheric music. Both of us love the Pacific Northwest. And both love to karaoke to Lil’ Wayne songs. Elverum released two LPs in 2012 that really could have been taken as a double album, and gosh, I couldn’t separate the two. Like past Mount Eerie records, dissonance runs rampant throughout both these records, but Elverum’s sweet singing cuts through the noise to achieve some sort of harmony.
Crystal Castles // III
It seems like I’m one of the few bloggers to give love to this album. This dynamic duo of producer Ethan Kath and singer Alice Glass seems to not want to slow down anytime soon. Certainly the 8-bit-gone-insane feel of III is similar to past records, but it’s marked by some of their best singles released to date (re: “Affection”, “Wrath of God”) and I’ve been playing it pretty regularly over the past three months since its release.
Julia Holter // Ekstasis
Another female singer-songwriter cracks the list, but with Julia Holter you get a lot more than a woman with an acoustic guitar sitting on a stool. Holter’s a multi-instrumentalist and with Ekstasis you can certainly tell that. Synths and keyboards are everywhere, drum machines are prevalent, and is that a harpsichord on “Marienbad” (?!) Holter certainly knows how to keep you on your toes and provide you with fun little musical surprises around every corner.
Mac DeMarco // II
The indie answer to the popular guitar-centric pop-rock that used to fill Top 40 radio (re: “Jason Mraz”, “John Mayer” *cringe*), Mac DeMarco has found a niche and has exploited it to great success. His free roaming guitar-playing and his care-free style of singing certainly reminds me a bit of Real Estate, but there are certainly some funk beats thrown in there (“Cooking Up Something Good”) that makes it just groovy man. Overall, DeMarco is one of my favorite new discoveries of 2012.
Tim Hecker | Daniel Lopatin // Instrumental Tourist
A collaboration of two artists that charted high on my Top Albums of 2011 list (Hecker = 1, Lopatin = 7), it’s kind of obvious how I was going to react to this album. Certainly not for everyone – and a definite headphone listen — Instrumental Tourist is 12 tracks of deeply textured, lush-ly layered ambient soundscapes. The album title is very fitting for this LP: prepare to go on a 55 minute journey with this one.
Chairlift // Something
Here’s an electro-pop album that’ll please everyone, even the most discerning of hipsters with their arms crossed and all can’t help but to smile to this fun record. The always busy Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly somehow found some free time in 2012 to get together and spill out a synth-heavy, infectious record. I was late to the party with Something, but man am I glad that I got around to listening to it!
Kendrick Lamar // good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Dropping unquestionably the best rap album of the year (and, unfortunately, the only one on my year-end list), Kendrick Lamar had a great 2012. Signing to fellow Comptonite Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint: check. Reach the #2 spot on Billboard’s Weekly Top 200: check. Get the top spot from Pitchfork: check. Where Lamar excels in most is his ability to shift styles – every track seems to have a different flow to it – and he has a knack for picking out high-quality, hyper-original beats to rap over.
Chromatics // Kill for Love
Portland’s Chromatics have certainly evolved a lot over the past ten-or-so years they’ve been around (both in terms of line-up and music). With Kill for Love it looks like they have finally found some peace as this sounds like the most relaxed album they’ve produced (re: “Into the Black”, “Back from the Grave”). Soothing sounds are prevalent – even the fluttering, synth twinkles in “Kill for Love” aren’t grating – making this album a great Sunday morning listen.
RxRy // c.STRS
2012 was a bit of a sad year for me as it marked the dissolving of one of my favorite artists I have gotten a chance to “discover” since starting PT-Music. RxRy was a mystery – never revealing his identity and performing live very sparingly – however, the ambient music he created was anything but mysterious. I’ve always said that anytime I put on his record I could imagine myself floating through air, observing post-human landscapes of Earth in the year 8020. Not too many artists can transport you to imagination land as easily as RxRy. Unfortunately, RxRy (revealed at the end to be Matthew Sage) has called it quits but he has left us with his interstellar swan song in c.STRS and his entire discography for free to download from his website.
Tomas Barfod // Salton Sea
Although it’s home to the best song of 2012 (re: “November Skies”), Salton Sea is more than just an filler album with one good single. Dane Tomas Barfod is a drummer by training (the band WhoMadeWho) but a beatmaker by heart: from the electrifying opener of “D.S.O.Y.” to the Ratatat-like, warpy closer “Only Human” and everything in between is tailor-made for the dance floor. No doubt the strongest tracks are the ones featuring guest vocals (Swede Nina Kinert provides the soft, intoxicating vocals on “November Skies” and “Till We Die”; falsetto on “Don’t Understand” and “Broken Glass” are courtesy of WhoMadeWho vocalist Jeppe Kjellberg) but Barfod doesn’t use them as a mask for sub-par beats but rather as a nice compliment to whatever hypnotic dance track lies beneath (the beat to “Don’t Understand is very creepy back-alley, and Kjellberg’s monotonic crooning adds rather than detracts).
CHVRCHES // mp3s
I know, I know, Scotland’s electro-pop trio CHVRCHES only released a single and had a killer live set on BBC 1 – hardly enough to justify a mentioning, yet alone a ranking in the Top Albums list. But sometimes, something passes by you that you just know is something special. It happened when I first heard The xx play an unplugged set on Amsterdam Acoustics and it’s happening now with CHVRCHES. They are a special group and I can’t wait for what they have in store for 2013!
Holy Other // Held
I’m unsure if the witch-house genre was just a passing fad or if 2012 was just a mini-hiatus for the ultra-slomo beats that the occult-heavy groups are known for. One of the few torch-bearers last year was Manchester-born producer Holy Other, with Held, his debut LP, being released on the trendy Tri-Angle Records. As par-for-the-course when it comes to witch-house tracks, each song clocks in at 40-60 beats-per-minute, but the slow-down in speed really let’s you observe and appreciate everything that is happening. I find that when listening to Held my attention is more focused and I’m more attuned to every note – something you couldn’t get when listening to, say, Four Tet or Caribou where not just notes but layers wash over you with ease. Sometimes it’s nice to just stop and smell the roses…
Grimes // Visions
OK, I lied about Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange being the most over-hyped record of the year. This is DEFINITELY the most over-hyped record of the year which makes it incredibly impressive that Montréal native Grimes (née Claire Bucher) was able to pull out a remarkable album despite such unreasonably high expectations. Grimes is one of those artists that defy labeling: electro-pop (“Oblivion”), industrial-tinged pop (“Nightmusic”), twee-pop (“Vowels = Space and Time”), retro-pop (“Colour of Moonlight”). Maybe we should just call her new-pop as everything she does sounds so refreshingly original. Did I mention she had one of my favorite videos of the year?
Cloud Nothings // Attack on Memory
Felt that this album flew under the radar for most of the year. In a year of great indie-rock albums, this one reigned supreme for me. Heart-felt lyrics (I mean who can’t relate to “I need time to stop moving / I need time to stay useless” off of “Stay Useless”) cloaked in catchy, uptempo guitar rifts and driving drum lines: that’s the recipe for garage-rock success and Cloud Nothings has it down to a T. What’s a little bit different on Attack on Memory is how strong the “ballads” are. Choosing the piano intro-ed, slow-burning “No Future/No Past” as the opener was pretty balls-y, but it works in setting the “hopeless youth” mood that the rest of the record carries so strongly.
Raime // Quarter Turns Over a Living Line
A late addition onto the list (got the heads-up from the folks at Tiny Mix Tapes, whose review you should definitely check-out) and a definite “not for everyone.” Raime’s Quarter Turns Over a Living Line is like taking Holy Other’s Held slowing it down a little and squeezing any brightness out of it (a tough feat considering how slow and dark Held is already). This is an album you’ll be forced to listen to when machines have taken over and they blast industrial minimalism through the speakers at the factory where you’re working 18 hour shifts as slaves. Despite the dark and bleak mood the music conjures up, it is unquestionably mesmerizing. If you ever need to turn 38 minutes of your life into a blur, just run through the youtube playlist of the album and be amazed at the deep depths some people’s creativity lie.
Spiritualized // Sweet Heart Sweet Light
Spiritualized is probably my favorite band. I own all their albums and have a library of live recordings that would rival some Dead Heads out there. J. Spaceman can do no wrong with me. Dropping one ranking from what his prior album, Songs in A&E, charted (#2 in 2008), is more a testament on how much more music I listened to in 2012 than in 2008 and shouldn’t be seen as an sort of indication of a slip in quality: “Little Girl” might just be my favorite song he has ever produced. Sweet Heart Sweet Light is guaranteed to be one of those records I’ll be playing for my kids when I’m an old man, so yeah, check it out if you haven’t heard it yet.
John Talabot // ƒIN
Barcelona electronic producer John Talabot has been releasing a steady stream of excellent singles (“Sunshine”) and remixes (Glasser’s “Learn”) over the past couple of years, so it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that he knocked it out of the park with his debut LP ƒIN. A dance record (“Destiny”), background album, or a headphone trip (“El Oeste”, and the Animal Collective-esque “Journeys”) – really with ƒIN every time is a good time to listen through the whole thing. If this is just Talabot starting out, I can’t wait to hear what he has in store for the future.
Angel Olsen // Half Way Home
I’ve never hid the fact that I’m in love with Chicago-based singer-songwriter Angel Olsen. I bought her debut EP on both cassette and, later, vinyl from Bathetic Records and I’m pretty sure I was one of the first to pre-order Half Way Home. After I learned that she was a part of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s backing group the Cairo Gang, I went on a binge listen of everything BPB to see if I could hear her distinct voice on any tracks (best example is “Time to Be Clear” where her patented, apprehensive vibrato gets a solo). Halfway Home is eleven tracks of pure vocal bliss. Opening with “Acrobat” proved to be a good choice as that song is a great bridge from her acoustic-only Strange Cacti EP to the multi-instrumentation (mostly electric-guitar) of Half Way Home. Although Olsen has changed the make-up a little, the core of her voice is still the same and is just as intoxicating as always. What a great record!
OK, here’s a quick recap:
-情報デスクVIRTUAL // 札幌コンテンポラリー
-Moonface with Siinai // Heartbreaking Bravery
-Symmetry // Themes for an Imaginary Film
-Holograms // S/T
-Peaking Lights // Lucifer in Dub
-Taken By Trees // Other Worlds
-Swearin’ // Swearin’
-Actress // R.I.P.
-Daughn Gibson // All Hell
-Phedre // S/T
-Waxahatchee // American Weekend
-TNGHT // S/T
-Metz // S/T
-Tamaryn // Tender New Signs
-Pure Bathing Culture // S/T
-Frank Ocean // channel ORANGE
-Fiona Apple // The Idler Wheel
-Tame Impala // Lonerism
-Beach House // Bloom
-Mirrorring // Foreign Body
-Dum Dum Girls // End of Daze
-Father John Misty // Fear Fun
-Mount Eerie // Clear Moon | Ocean Roar
-Crystal Castles // III
-Julia Holter // Ekstasis
-Mac Demarco // 2
-Tim Hecker | Daniel Lopatin // Instrumental Tourist
-Chairlift // Something
-Kendrick Lamar // good kid, m.A.A.d. city
-Chromatics // Kill for Love
-RxRy // c.STRS
-Tomas Barfod // Salton Sea
-CHVRCHES // mp3s
-Holy Other // Held
-Grimes // Visions
-Cloud Nothings // Attack On Memory
-Raime // Quarter Turns Over a Living Line
-Spiritualized // Sweet Heart Sweat Light
-John Talabot // fin
-Angel Olsen // Half Way Home