Unlike 2011, 2012 turned out to be an amazingly diverse and quality year for albums. There are albums I thought for sure that were going to be on this list that fell just short ( Jens Lekman, Sigur Ros, Leonard Cohen, Bob Mould… yeah, I had to cut Bob Mould. BOB MOULD!). Sitting down an creating these lists is not easy, and tough decisions had to be made.
I’ll regret this never. Got it? Good.
List under the cut…
20. Godspeed You! Black Emperor ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
The decade long wait from GYBE’s last album was well worth the wait, as the Montreal post-rock collective return with an exquisite longplayer. The four songs that make up the album are ambitious, unique, and extraordinary. From the chugging sections of “Mladic” that descend into feedback and drum fills of amazing skill to the drones and loops of “Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable”, it’s a fascinating, experimental album of instrumental wonder.
Key tracks: all four of them, including “Their Helicopters’ Sing” and “We Drift Like Worried Fire”.
19. Hot Chip In Our Heads
The British electronic band released their most cohesive album in 2012, creating a bold movement maker with less obscuring of intent. A buoyant followup to 2010’s somewhat depressing One Life’s Stand. the band is in top musical form, and create an album that is ultimately musical prozac. Also, it is fantastic music to clean house to. Singles “Night & Day” and “Flutes” both shimmer, and album closer “Always Been Your Love” trips over sweet beats and optimism.
Key tracks: 80s inspired “Always Been Your Love”; the lovely “Flutes”; the click and clack and hand claps of “How Do You Do?”
18. Killer Mike R.A.P. Music
Hip hop continues to grow and mature as it goes into its thirties, and Killer Mike, an Outkast friend who owns a barber shop, returns to record with an unflinching look at life. As he spews ferocious rhymes over synth drum and bass beats provided by legendary producer/performer El-P (who also released an awesome record this year), Killer Mike refuses to pull his punches, slamming the beatification of Ronald Reagan by the American populace, condemning policies that are meant to keep the poor impoverished, and finally creating a secular hip hop hymn, where the love of the genre and music in general just drips from every word Killer Mike says. This is jazz, this is funk, this is soul, this is gospel indeed.
Key tracks: the brutal take down of Saint Ronnie “Reagan”; the ferocious defense of hip hop “R.A.P. Music”; the church organs under “Southern Fried”; the old school sounds of “JoJo’s Chillin'”
17. The Lumineers The Lumineers
The folk revival spawned by Mumford and Sons has brought some good songs, but few really incredible albums. The New Jersey natives in the Lumineers have done their best to reverse that trend, producing the incredibly sweet single “Ho Hey” and an album that matches it. The album ranges from Dylanesque folk to Fairport Convention ambition, and there is never a misstep musically.
Key tracks: massive single “Ho Hey”; the simple and lovely “Morning Song”; the gentle and elegant “Slow it Down”
16. Sharon Van Etten Tramp
The sweet-voiced Van Etten and her spacey folk tinged music wow with an astonishing rootless roots record. Melodies are sad, lyrics are frustrated and furious, and the guys from Beruit and the National who aided her on this album pull focus on her voice, a light but sad tone seeping through the sugar. The musical lovechild of Jeff Buckley and Sandy Denny, van Etten’s third album is also her best.
Key tracks: the bitter “Give Out”; the waltz “Leonard”; fantastic rock single “Serpent”; the sad reflection of “Joke or a Lie”
15. Of Monsters and Men My Head is an Animal
Nordic folk and sweet boy-girl harmonies shine on the Icelandic band’s début album, buoyed by songwriting and walls of sound. And a love of sing-song “heys”, which are on more than one track of this album. Now the best-selling Icelandic album in North America ( Bjork and Sigur Ros really take some patience as much as we all love them), they temper their inherent Scandinavian weirdness with an unerring sensibility for pop melodies. It’s no accident this album has done so phenomenally well here.
Key tracks: the inescapable and delightful “Little Talks”; the acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies of “Dirty Paws”; the folkish rave up of “Mountain Sound”; the eerie chimes and drones of “Love Love Love”
14. Kimbra Vows
She is the girl on that amazing yet overplayed Gotye song, but her own album shows a musical diversity that is astonishing and a voice that is elastic and unique. Jazzy, poppy, and EDM-y, it all collides on songs that zig when they should zag. Well matched with Gotye’s 2011 album Making Mirrors (or better yet, his 2006 album Like Drawing Blood), it sounds fresh in a landscape of watered down R&B and fluffy pop songs.
Key tracks: the drum beats of “Settle Down”; the figure eight intro and rich funk of “Come Into My Head”; the 80s synths and shiny happy pop of “Warrior”; the bang along piano and odd rhythms of “Wandering Limbs”
13. fun. Some Nights
The only out-and-out mainstream pop record on the list, fun. took the over the top orchestral pop stylings of Queen and updated them for the new millennia, creating memorable hooks and sing along choruses that would make Freddie proud. fun.’s record lives up to the band’s moniker.
Key tracks: the mega hit “We are Young”, featuring Janelle Monae and an undeniable chorus; the Simon and Garfunkel cribbing “Some Nights”; the machine gun drums and speedy guitars of “It Gets Better”; the circus on acid feel of “One Foot”
12. Divine Fits A Thing Called Divine Fits
Divine Fits is what happens when Britt Daniel from Spoon and Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade and the late Handsome Furs have a weekend off. Because they are cooler than all us mere peons. They go and start a band and make awesome indie rock and make me feel inadequate as a human being. Yet, this album is just too good to hate. Damn them, the gifted bastards.
Key tracks: the Duran Duran keyboards of “The Salton Sea”; the pretty “Shivers”; the tinny opening of “Neopolitans” that descend into guitars and drums to match; the maracas and fuzz of “Would That Not Be Nice”
11. Fiona Apple The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Ever Do
She be crazy. But she can play, she can sing, and she can write a song. But yeah, she be crazy. I like crazy chicks with pianos.
Key tracks: the hypnotic and unforgettable vocal play on “Hot Knife”; the sad and sweet of “Valentine”; the ferocious piano playing that still swims in subtle tones on “Werewolf”; the vocal hiccups and twinkly piano of “Every Single Night”
10. Cold Specks I Predict A Graceful Expulsion
The exquisite voice of Al Spx, both soulful and weary, plays over the album’s acoustic guitars, punk rock chords played at hymn-like pace, and pianos, creating a haunting, dark world matched by the sheer beauty of the melodies and that incredible voice. Drenched in gospel, matched with gothic overtones, and wholly beautiful, there is nothing else like it in the world, and they’re from Toronto.
Key tracks: the near perfect blasphemic lament “Blank Maps”; the Toronto hymn “When the City Lights Dim”; the beautiful hope of “Holland”; the gradual speed up to quiet hellfire of “Elephant’s Head”
9. Beach House Bloom
Beach House’s ability to write pretty pop melodies has never been in doubt, but to sustain it as an electropop duo over four albums of increasing quality is pretty phenomenal. Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand’s boy-girl harmonies still shine, and while the album is not as hooky as 2010’s Teen Dream, the elegant melodies and dream like atmosphere give comfort and warmth on this cold winter’s day. They are wonderful, and this album is a further step into indie superstardom.
Key tracks: Sweet ambience of “Myth”; the electroscales of “Lazuli”; the retropop of “New Year”; the churchy organs of “Troublemaker”
8. Kendrick Lamar good kid, m.A.A.d city
Compton native Lamar goes old school, but he also creates an intimate portrait of a young man raised on gangsta rap in the 1990s and the impact of the glorified violence and drug culture propelled by the stars of the genre. Over the course of the album Lamar speaks truth to power, using different voices, internal dialogue tricks, and awesome beats. A compelling record that continues to enchant me.
Key tracks: my 21st favourite song of the year, the cautionary tale “Swimming Pools (Drank)”; the Janet Jackson sampling Drake collaboration “Poetic Justice”; the Dr. Dre featuring “Compton”; the seventies soul vibe under the profanity riddled “The Art of Peer Pressure”
7. Sinead O’Connor How About I Be Me (And You Be You)
Patience is a virtue, I tell myself, especially when dealing with mercurial artists like O’Connor. Years of mediocre records and deeply troubling personal behaviour makes being a fan tough. But when she released this incredible and very personal album, I was elated. It’s not an easy album to sit through as a woman with a history of depression and abuse. But as always, O’Connor manages to give comfort in the face of extremely troubled times. I’m glad to see her back in top form.
Key tracks: the glorious “The Wolf is Getting Married”; the sad “I Had A Baby”; the honest “Queen of Denmark”; the harmony drenched “4th and Vine”
6. Tame Impala Lonerism
Psychedelic rock remains one of my favourite genres of music, and Aussie band Tame Impala are the current leaders of the style. Authentic and rich in its sounds, I wonder what would have happened if I had more time with it (it was released in October, and I’ve only listened to it through a handful of times). It also speaks to the depth of the songwriting and the talent of lead Impala Kevin Parker that it scores this high and I’m still wrestling with its placement. If I had another week, it might be top five.
Damn talented Aussie boys.
Key tracks: blast of 60s lead single “Elephant”; the trippy “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”; the buoyant drums and piano of “Apocalypse Dreams”; the bluseier rifts of “Mind Mischief”
5. Grizzly Bear Shields
I’ve always been “meh” about Grizzly Bear, even if I think Veckatimest is a fine record in many ways. But the band does keep improving, and I fell deeply in love with this record upon first listen. Gorgeous vocal harmonies pepper experimental psychedelic folk indie rock, and the songs quietly imbue themselves into your psyche. Grizzly Bear has made me a believer.
Key tracks: the lovely melody of “Gun-Shy”; the poppier “A Simple Answer”; the beautiful album closer “Sun in Your Eyes”; the guitars in opener “Sleeping Ute”
4. the xx Coexist
The xx’s début album was a phenomenon of sorts- it won the Mercury Prize over artists like Paul Weller, Biffy Clyro, and Mumford and Sons. The follow-up exceeds that record’s quality, mixing electronic sounds with indie guitars. Haunting, deeply affecting, and exquisitely lovely.
Key tracks: the gorgeous love song “Angels”; the minimalism of “Missing”; the harmonies and give and take in “Chained”; the thudding “Sunset”
3. Neneh Cherry and the Thing The Cherry Thing
Neneh Cherry blew my mind in 1989 with “Buffalo Stance”, and then she disappeared off my radar. Returning in fine voice, she teamed up with the Swedish jazz trio the Thing to cover punk rock and hip hop tracks. An astonishing mix of influences makes for one of the best jazz albums in years, and saxophonist Mats Gustaffsson is an amazing talent. An album to blow your mind.
Key tracks: Stooges cover “Dirt”; Madvillain/MF Doom cover “Accordion” which completely transforms the song to something wholly special; the Don Cherry penned “Golden Heart”; a wrenching cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”
2. Japandroids Celebration Rock
There has not been a more joyous listening experience I have had all year than the Vancouver duo’s second album. It sores above the dim and dull with ferocious guitars and drums, but it’s not like it’s all happy in Mudville. The last half the album wades into aging introspection, but even then, it still completely RAWKS! It is my current “Boost your mood” album. Nearly flawless. But not quite flawless enough, see, because…
Key tracks: the cover of the Gun Club’s”For the Love of Ivy”; the spirited “Fire’s Highway”; the guitar spunk of “Younger Us”; the sheer brilliance of “The House that Heaven Built”
1. Frank Ocean channel ORANGE
… Someone had to top them by making the single greatest pure hip hop soul album in about a decade. Frank Ocean made a splash this summer by being completely authentic despite hiding his identity. What he has done could not have been easy, seeing hip hop’s ingrained homophobia is still very much an issue. But he didn’t blink, and the unnamed he that he laments over on this album makes me ache for him. It’s an album about unrequited love. And it’s beautiful.
Key tracks: the lament “Thinkin Bout You”; the surprising “Pink Matter”; “White”, which is best thing John Mayer has been a part of ever; the fish out of water track “Sweet Life”; the absolutely brutal “Crack Rock”; the hymn “Bad Religion”, which is just too perfect for words.