Best Albums of 2012

December 14, 2012

So it’s that time of year again, the time everyone rolls out their top picks and I’m starting with my top 10 overall best album list. I’ll follow this up with my top 10 Metal Albums, top 10 Hip Hop and R&B Albums, and Top 25 Songs lists over the next month. By January or early in that month I’ll have the top 10 Comics/Graphic Novels as well as (once I’ve had a chance to see as many of them as I can as they are slowly released in prep for award season) top 10 Films. Thanks for reading and fell free to comment with your own picks!

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10) Beach House – Bloom

Like a bubble bath with a glass of cognac after a hard day, Beach House music is a warm, sensory soothing full immersion. Chill-wave  dream pop, synth music that is the best de-stress record of the year. Looking at my i-tunes play counts I see that I didn’t play another record anywhere near as often as I did Bloom. Of course, it’s at the number 10 spot so I’m not saying that it is the absolute best album of the year, just that it serves a particular function very well and apparently I needed to chill out quite often this year. Most of these tracks soak together and thus this works best as a one-piece deal (much like the next pick, but that’s the only thing these two albums share in common). There are a few stand-outs, notably the opening track “Myth,” which has the best lyrics of the batch and which sonically sets the scene for everything which follows. “Other People” bubbles up as a stand out in that the hooks and melodies come together terrifically and actually make for a sure-fire pop single. All in all, this is an arty relaxation session that edged out all other such competition, notably the almost-there album by Frankie Rose.

pxdx

9) Pig Destroyer – Book Burner

In direct contrast to the previous pick, Pig Destroyer unleashed a ferocity unchecked by anything else approaching “music.” A five year gap between albums has not slowed down this VA based grindcore band; though with age lead singer J.R. Hayes ear-shredding vocals might sound a little less ferocious and range pushing (perhaps the reason for a few guest-vocal spots?) as they were when they were so harrowingly employed on the debut album Prowler in the Yard, but that is only a matter of minor degrees in that he can still scream more jarringly yet oddly melodically than anyone else in the business. Grindcore is a form of music which pushes the boundaries of punk and metal to make something most folks would call “noise,” and most grindcore bands sound just as such. Pig Destroyer elevates the genre to a dark art, making quick, ferocious meditations on sanity and society that bury stellar guitar riffs under a mountain of rapid-fire drums and vocal howls. Throw in a scene solidifying dialogue sample here and there, organize all things under the banner of theme, this time around about book-based truth claims burnt altogether,and you have the best possible introduction to the band that you could ask for or another satisfying chapter in the discography for the long-time fans.

Nada Surf

8) Nada Surf – The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy

This was the first great record I heard all year long. while wading through the crap the first month or so of the year offered after the end of year lists last year were complete; nothing popped new and good for my ear-buds until I heard this one. Nada Surf are an inde pop/rock band of some caliber, always a bit underground since their one-hit wonder status of “Popular” in the mid-nineties (which sounds like nothing else they’ve ever recorded). They’ve released a series of earnest (in a good way) and literate (also in a good way) post-collegiate soft-to-mid rock with hooky choruses. I think this is their best album yet and there are a load of stand out tracks, especially “No Snow on the Mountain,” and “Waiting for Something.” This is a perfect growing up, ending your twenties and entering your thirties rumination record for anyone who came of age in the era of college radio.

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7) Dwight Yoakam – 3 Pears

The best country album of the year, unquestionably–but I may be biased. That’s because most country artists fail to make worthwhile country music whereas Dwight always delivers. Perhaps I just am not a “country” fan, but I love the classic artists like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, etc.,. as well as a slew of superb alt-country border edgers, but it’s only in the folks like Dwight  Lyle, Steve Earle, and such that I hear genuine song craft  folky intelligence  and pop-infused catchiness that works as authentic country music and that doesn’t insult the senses or the intelligence. Dwight has never made a bad record, and this may very well be his  best overall album since his debut, though he’s certainly had a history of perfect singles and songs in the meantime. This is a snapshot album of everything Dwight and his band does best — ready for country radio singles like “Take Hold of My Hand” and “Waterfall” that could also play on the right rock, pop, or college radio station; a rip roaring cover of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” which roars and rocks harder than anything he’s ever done; beautiful mid-range ballads like “Nothing But Love” and “A Heart Like Mine; tear-jerkers sung soulfully and excellently like “It’s Never Alright” and “Long Way to Go,” and the perfect John Lennon pop tribute title track. A fun, musical homage and display to all great Yoakam influences and the absolute best country music made in 2012.

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6) Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid m.A.A.d. City

Lamar is the best young rapper working in 2012. His potential is enormous. He plays with cliches and stereotypes but invokes uniqueness onto them. As such he is faulty in some sense and there are a lot of factors that kept me from wanting to include this record on my list, but in the end I just couldn’t avoid it. As a solid, cohesive statement this album simply does not fail as a whole, though pieces of it may a bit on their own.

First off, Lamar is a great rapper and all of the promise he showed on last year’s minor-label Section 80 comes to the big screen in a big way here on this concept album about growing up in the mean streets of Compton. This is all couched in narrative, opening in prayer and bringing that back near the end in the ghetto baptism “Sing For Me/Dying of Thirst.” But in between there are peer-pressure induced violent actions, hormonal gropings, over-indulgence and consumption–yet all with analytical eyes for detail which sociologically and spiritually break down the events and provides a warning to those who might follow suit. There’s the infamous backseat freestyle which is obviously mysognistic if not taken with a grain of salt and stepped back from to be seen as a recreation of a young dude with something to prove through an early rap.

The production from Dre, Pharell, and the rest all glosses artfully the work of a creative, interesting young artists who cetainly has faults but is also certainly aware of those faults–where he will go from here is the question. Will he fall into a cycle of the stereotypes and cliches  he toyed with and tried to attack with insight here, or will he find a way of rising above those cliches and steroteyps to make art withhis talent that is something from another place entirely?

The-Gaslight-Anthem-Handwritten2

5) The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten

This is a rather cheesy record in many aspects. It is not a bold, new statement, no matter what the pre-release hype might have promised. It is also in many ways not as good as the last few Gaslight records. But despite all that, it is excellent rock and roll. No one really makes rock and roll so straight-forward, romantic, fun, and unpretentiously as Gaslight does anymore. I had personally hyped up this album for myself so much so that after the first few spins it slipped down my list of faves for awhile, but over the past couple of months it has really grown on me. The lead off “45” single is solid, but “Muholland Drive” is fantastic. Many might find D”Mae” too much, but it hits the sweet spot that older Gaslight classics like “Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts” did so well. As always, this band channels the timeless ethos of pure rock and roll’s finest elements and delivers them with a punk twist.

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4) Patterson Hood – Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance

So yeah, no new DBT album this year but we did get last minute live solo albums from Mike Cooley and ex-trucker Jason Isbell, and this–another excellent Patterson Hood solo album. Heat Lightning chronicles the downward spiral Hood had in his younger years as his first band and his first marriage both imploded, several friends and family members died, and he was generally down and out. Yet this is far from a depression only affair. Much of this is couched in hindsight and you get glimpses of the settled family-man and great band leader that he is now. You get pretty ballads with the likes of Kelly Hogan (“Come Back Little Star”) and general meditations on life, growing up and old, finding your way, knowing yourself and your place in history and the cosmos. This is an album born out of a scrapped auto-biography and it works as such but it works as excellent music as well. A really solid album, and all in all his best solo work yet.

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3) Bob Dylan – Tempest

I raved about this upon its release and I stay with that initial assessment. Another in a run of latter-day Dylan classics, following the thread established by Time Out of Mind and maintained with every release since. This one catches you right out of the gate on first spin and even the 13 minute Titanic reminiscence doesn’t get weighed down by its scope or length. Some great slow ones, some great fast ones, some solid blues throughout. Good stories sung in a ragged yet worth hearing voice.

Bruce-Springsteen-Wrecking-Ball

2) Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball

As he is  my favorite musician, I have to be careful in ranking albums by Mr. Sprinsgeen and company. I want to make sure my love for his career doesn’t: a) cause me to over-evaluate the latest record out of love for the artist or conversely, (b) unfairly castigate the latest record in comparison to the artists previous high-points  When it came to the last major Springsteen record, Working on a Dream, I didn’t even place it on my album recap in 2010. Since, it’s grown on me enormously and if doing that year’s list over again, I would rank it highly. So here, with Wrecking Ball–immediate reception for me was pretty high. Higher than the last 2 or 3 records. I gave it some time, it subsided a bit, fluctuated up and down the best-of picks, and now almost a year after its release it settles in decisively as the number 2 album of the year. It does this because it is a great record, a timely and relevant record, and a catchy one as well—just short of classic in the perfect sense, but close enough. 

“We Take Care of Our Own” is a perfect scene-setting 2012 Springsteen kick-off single, a song to remind America what it should but has failed too often to do. It is a call to camaraderie and care couched in catchy, take it how you want to but remember the true meaning experience. “Rocky Ground” finds Springsteen toying with hip hop as much as he’s apt too in a public release (I remember rumors of a shelved Hip-Hop influenced Springsteen record in the mid-nineties). It’s a great gospel-hip hop rock fusion track of church and state, spirit and flesh, hope and change.”Death to My Hometown” is a raging, Irish fueled protest song that invokes the unfortunate timelessness of oppression and classicism.All over, Springsteen is singing to a divided America, an America where rich devours poor and poor are fed up. He ties this in populist rage and protest, linking it to irish, hispanic, african-american, and all other past struggles for equality. The first studio release of the concert staple “Land of Hope and Dreams” thus never sounded so timely and good. “We are Alive” ties the dreams of past workers for a better life to todays and delivers a promise on their behalf. The title track is the studio version of last year’s excellent live football stadium anthem. All in all, the best E-Street band record one could hope for 5 decades in.

ORANGE

1 )Frank Ocean  – Channel Orange

So back when I did the review of this album, I raved about it but I was somewhat tempered in some regards as well, especially toward its first half. I also made the claim that it may not be the best R&B album since D’Angelo’s Voodoo but that it is the most creative. Now I revoke the tempered aspect for the first half, and I remove that qualification–Channel Orange is indeed the best (as well as most creative) mainstream R&B album since Voodoo. This album has done nothing but grow on me and where I saw “rich kid blues” before I now since a well rounded series of personality vignettes, a whole host of emotional ennui observations plaintively observed and annotated across the widest spectrum of imaginable people. There’s really not a verbal clunker to be found either–an odd turn of phrase here or there that really only grows on you as you absorb the overall work at hand.

Channel Orange is really a record of beauty.From the lush soundscape of “Real Life” to the harrowing yet poppy drug mule escapade of “Lost,” and the ballad of unquestionable beauty in the form of taxi cab confession that is “Bad Religion,” complete with an intertwining cohesive narrative skit framework throughout to bind it all together. Not to mention a solid, great singing voice by Mr. Ocean to deliver it all. The centerpiece of the record is “Pyramid,” which re-envisions Cleopatra in a modern day Vegas club. For almost 10 minutes, Ocean works his voice around a hypnotic and positively repetitive beat which changes pace and texture in exciting measures. The talk that spiralled out when this was released may have often concerned Ocean’s personal sexuality reveal, but sexual orientation is far from the most important and unique factor this artist has going for him even if it is interesting that a mainstream hip-hop influenced R&B singer (and member of the same musical consortium as homophobic lyrical spinner Tyler the Creator) is so comfortably “out.”

I try to get my best-of lists out as soon as is possible while giving myself enough time in the year to hear and contemplate all possible releases,including last minute ones,  but I did notice this year’s Rolling Stone top picks as I was compiling my own list. My top 5 has been locked in for about 2 or 3 months, and most of the top 10 as a whole was fairly certain for the past month. I always knew this would be the number one record granted that no other surprise upset came along–RS gave this one the number 2 spot and awarded Springsteen the top honor. I wanted Springsteen to be number 1 in that as my favorite artist I wanted his latest album to be a classic number 1 album–for me though, my choices flip-flopped RS’ picks. Here we have the case of legendary artist making solid work versus an upstart new artist delivering a classic right out of the gate (well, on the heels of a phenomenal free mixtape from last year)–the freshness and newness of Frank Ocean just (barely) edged out the solid expectations I got from the Boss.

 

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3 Responses to “Best Albums of 2012”

  1. […] PxDx also made my overall “10 Best Albums of 2012″ list with their latest effort. You can read why here. […]

  2. […] Kendrick Lamar came in at number 5 on my overall “Best Albums of 2012″ post. Read it her… […]

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