Unbelievably, we’ve already reached the halfway point of 2012. And as I’ve done every year since 2008 , I’m marking the midway point by looking back at my favorite albums from the past six months: a list that’s as wide-ranging as it is, I’m sure, thoroughly incomprehensive.
Because looking at my list now, I’m already realized there are probably some discs I’ve forgotten to include, either because there’s been a glut of really good ones released this year or because I’m terrible at my job. But such is the beauty of mid-year lists: They give you plenty of excuses to go back and discover things that may have slipped through the cracks. And I’d invite you all to help me by pointing out your favorites in the comments below.
As always, I get a bit long-winded. But, for the first time in four years, I didn’t use this space to complain about my fantasy baseball team, a fact which I am incredibly proud of. So without any further ado, and with six months in the books, here’s a look at my favorite albums of 2012: fist-pumping rockers, politically bent hip-hop missives and even unlikely mainstream successes, all of which made for my soundtrack of the year (so far). And if the first half of 2012 has been this good, well, let’s just say I can’t wait for the second.
Beach House, Bloom: Sure, it’s basically a carbon copy of their 2010 Teen Dream album, but, hey, that one was pretty great too. More proof that wistful, wondrous indie pop never truly goes out of style.
Jack White, Blunderbuss: His first solo album is a tad uneven, but in its best moments — the weirdo workout of “Sixteen Saltines,” the sumptuous subtlety of “Love Interruption,” the overwrought dramatics of “Weep Themselves to Sleep” — it proves both timeless and completely, totally anachronistic — sort of like White himself.
Meek Mill, Dreamchasers 2: It’s too long, but aren’t all mixtapes too long? And on songs like “Amen,” “Real” and “A1 Everything,” Mill manages to separate himself from nearly all his competition and rise above most of the mixtape circuit in the process.
The Smashing Pumpkins, Oceania: Welcome back, William Corgan. Oceania is not only the best Pumpkins album in more than a decade, it’s the perfect synthesis of everything that made the band great in the first place: namely, Corgan’s steadfast refusal to play by the rules. The songs are long, the solos plentiful and the sentiments as sarcastic as ever. The Pumpkins have never really fit in anywhere, and now, they seem to delight in that fact.
The Walkmen, Heaven: Seventh studio album from NYC lifers finds them just as boozy and woozy as ever, but, for the first time, they’re beginning to show their age. To that end, there are sweet sentiments on display here, celebrations of fidelity and friendship, welcome explorations of paternal responsibility. Of course, they still sound young, and the music here is among the best of their career.
The Top 10
10. Rick Ross, Rich Forever: Like all of Rozay’s best stuff, his Rich Forever mixtape is big, burly and sorta block-headed, full of massive, lurching beats and downright “Scarface-ian” accounts of drug-running, shoot-outs and all manner of gilded excesses. Though, in a testament to both his skill and his largesse, Ross is never dwarfed by any of it, and on tracks like “Yella Diamonds,” “Triple Beam Dreams” (featuring Nas) and “Stay Schemin’,” he sounds bigger and meaner than ever before. There’s no shortage of big-name producers and guests on tap either — my favorite may be reigning MTV News fantasy football champ Shaheem Reid — which makes this quite the appetizer for his upcoming God Forgives, I Don’t album. Though, tellingly, it never sounds like it’s settling for second billing. Because neither would Ross.
9. Father John Misty, Fear Fun: Former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman may also be one of the best writers working, and on this, his first album under the Father John moniker, he spins a dozen bitingly clever tales of California Canyon characters — doped-up novelists, daughters of faded comedians, deceased lotharios, supremely depressed funeral dates (played by Aubrey Plaza) — and bathes his songs in that same canyon sheen, all ringing guitars, hazy choruses and spliffed-out vocal harmonies. Of course, in stark contrast to the beatific, beatnik sentiments that came to define Laurel Canyon in the ’60s, he’s also a bit of a fatalist, and when you hear lines like “Try not to think so much about/ The truly staggering amount/ Of oil that it takes to make a record,” you’re not sure if you’re supposed to laugh or cry. Probably both.
8. MewithoutYou, Ten Stories: Part conceptual piece (it’s about a circus-train accident in Montana), part further deconstruction of MWY’s post-hardcore past, Ten Stories finds the Philly stalwarts growing both as musicians and storytellers, striking expressive balances between sheer volume and voluminous silence, raw-throated shouting and tender, gilded singing. It’s a truly impressive transformation, and on songs like “Aubergine” and “Cardiff Giant,” you feel the band settling in to the next phase of their career. And to that end, there’s a graceful level of content throughout but, as has always been the case with them, a livewire tension lurking just beneath the surface. Oh, and Hayley Williams is on here too, just in case you need another reason to listen.
7. Fun., Some Nights: It’s kind of like a great Queen album, only if A Night at the Opera was produced by a dude who hung out with Kanye, and Freddie Mercury was recast as a slightly less flamboyant everydude. Of course, it also kind of sounds like Simon and Garfunkel, only with some Auto-Tune, or anything from the better part of the Fueled by Ramen back catalog, but with Janelle Monáe on a hook. Yes, the year’s most unexpected success is also perhaps the year’s most un-categorizable album, but because of that, Some Nights is also the rare thing that reveals more and more with each listen. And listen to it you should, because if you only know these guys from “We Are Young,” let me be the first to tell you that their signature hit is probably only the third or fourth best song on the whole record. And that fact alone makes it my favorite discovery of 2012.
6. Alabama Shakes, Boys & Girls: A few years back, Brittany Howard delivered mail in her hometown of Athens, Alabama (population 21,897), a career unbecoming of someone with a voice as voluminous and velvety as hers. So she started a band, which included a house painter and a handyman, and the rest is history. Of course, the Shakes’ out-of-nowhere success owes as much to Howard’s prodigious pipes as it does her band’s proudly blue-collar background, and Boys & Girls is them at their no-frills, no-chaser best, an album full of soul and sass and even a little sex — the kind of thing that can only come from an out of the way place like Athens, from a band that has paid its dues and just wants to play until the sun comes up. Because they don’t have to go to work in the morning.
5. Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory: Cleveland’s Dylan Baldi takes his bedroom project into the big wide world, realizes things suck even more out here. Full of frazzled guitars, doomy drumming and Baldi’s phlegmy yowl and aided by Steve Albini’s notoriously surly production, Attack on Memory is a vivid, visceral listen — the kind of album that only needs to be eight songs long, mostly because, if it were any longer, it’d collapse under the sheer weight of its emotional outpouring. C-Town hasn’t sounded this pissy since LeBron took his talents to South Beach.
4. Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light: In the liner notes, Jason Pierce (a.k.a. J.Spaceman) advises the listener to “play loud and drive fast,” a notion that would have seemed impossible at any other point during his drug-addled two-decade career. But on the surging “Hey Jane” or the speedy “I Am What I Am,” you get the sense that he’s truly going for pedal-to-the-floor greatness, a breakneck abandon that only comes from, well, coming so close to death . Of course, serving as speed bumps along the way are Pierce’s usual vices: booze and powders, wayward girls with rock-and-roll names, an eternal back-and-forth with the Big Man upstairs and the conflict between aiming for the horizon while remaining empirically stuck in place. All this makesSweet Heart his most compelling album since his dope (and heart-)sick heyday of 15 years ago. This is an album of constant motion, even if sometimes he’s merely shuffling his feet; call it Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Running in Place.
3. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel … : At this point in her 15-year (anti-)career, it seems Fiona Apple only makes albums for Fiona Apple. How else can one explain The Idler Wheel … , her first full-length in seven years (and her second with a lengthy title that practically invited ridicule)? It is avowedly anti-commercial, its songs skeletal — often little more than a piano and stray percussive strokes — its sentiments searing, and yet, it is also fantastically compelling, an album overflowing with overwrought emotions and naked explorations of Apple’s desires and destructive tendencies. Here she plumbs the depths, breaks down walls and leaves the edges as un-sanded as ever. You hear every stray breath and sumptuous room tone, and as such, The Idler Wheel … is a terrifically tense ride. It’s scary good, and, come to think of it, kind of scary, too, and most definitely worth the wait.
2. Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music: “I don’t give a f— about a mother—-in’ Forbes list/ Far as I’m concerned, that’s a mother—-in whore’s list.” So says ATL vet Killer Mike on this, his snarling, seething sixth studio album, and you can probably guess who he’s gunning for . But the ‘Yes and Jays of the world aren’t his only targets here: Mike also jabs at dirty cops, crooked politicians, the corrupt music biz and a bankrupt culture that values excess over enlightenment (certainly this is the only album that sizes up the competition as “advertisements for agony and pain”). Backed by airtight, acrid production from El-P, R.A.P. Music is revolutionary stuff, recalling the fearlessness of earlier albums like Fear of a Black Planet or Straight Outta Compton, and while it’s certainly not going to earn Mike an invite to Diddy’s Hampton hideaway (or the White House), you get the feeling that’s precisely the point.
1. Japandroids, Celebration Rock: It’s already being compared to everything from the Who’s Who’s Next and Springsteen’s Born to Run to Nirvana’s Nevermind and the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells (all in the space of a single paragraph), but what makes Celebration Rock so great to me is that it isn’t any of those albums — because it never was intended to be. There are no aspirations of artifice, no goals of grandeur. Instead, it is simply 35 minutes of blistering, blitzkrieg rock, of thundering drums and thrashing chords, all played with embolism-inducing intensity by a pair of blue-collar dudes from Vancouver who probably can’t believe any of this is happening to them.
And yet, there is a mighty sense of purpose to all of it, an unbridled spirit of rebellion and invincibility born from playing hard and fast and free. You can feel it in songs like “Younger Us” and “The House That Heaven Built,” which imbue the everyday with the epic, the sheer overload of “whoa-oh-oh” choruses, meant to be sung very loud, very late, and very drunk, or, shoot, the fact that they called the thing Celebration Rock. “This record is about being on the move and liking being on the move,” singer/guitarist Brian King told me last month , and I think he’s right: This is an album that just keeps moving and doesn’t stop to catch its breath — mostly because Japandroids won’t let it.
What did we miss? Share your picks for the best albums of 2012 (so far) in the comments below!