The forces of evil (Honey Boo Boo, the Mayans, Overly Attached Girlfriend) tried their darndest not to make it happen, but somehow, we’ve made it to the end of 2012.
Yes, the past 12 months have been rather grim, pop-culturally speaking, but when it came to music, 2012 was a banner year indeed. We had bold debuts, brave reinventions and bracing attacks on the status quo … and all of it helped. No matter how dark things got, there was always a song, a video, or an album waiting to lift us out of the murk. And there was definitely a lot of murk. So, as we look back on the year that was, here are my picks for the albums that helped lift me up. Rock, hip-hop and pop, they’re all represented here, and they all played their part in 2012.
So, without further ado, here’s my soundtrack to the year that was … the Best Albums of 2012.
20. Bruno Mars, Unorthodox Jukebox
Had it been released earlier in the year, Mars’ splendid sophomore disc undoubtedly would have cracked my Top 10. But who knows, maybe it’ll end up there next year; with songs as good as “Locked Out of Heaven,” “Gorilla” and “When I Was Your Man,” it’s a definite possibility.
19. Meek Mill, Dreamchasers 2
It’s too long, but aren’t all mixtapes too long? Regardless, on songs like “Real,” “A1 Everything” and (of course) “Amen,” Mill manages to separate himself from nearly all his competition and rise above most of the mixtape circuit in the process.
18. Alabama Shakes, Boys & Girls
From Athens, Alabama (population 21,897) to the Grammy stage, the Shakes’ out-of-nowhere success ranks as one of 2012’s most pleasant surprises. And they owe it all to their thoroughly killer debut, a no-frills, no-chaser listen that can only come from a place like Athens, and a band that has paid its dues and just wants to play until the sun comes up. Because, at long last, they don’t have to go to work in the morning.
17. Jack White, Blunderbuss
It’s not as immediately grabbing as the Stripes’ best, 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” — White’s solo debut proves both timeless and completely, totally anachronistic… sort of like the man himself.
16. Nas, Life Is Good
The debate may rage about where this one ranks in Nas’ voluminous discography (for the record, I put it behind Illmatic and ahead of Stillmatic), but there’s no arguing that, when he’s on, there’s no one better in the game than God’s Son. Life is, at times, his most confessional and brash album in years, but it’s also his most wounded album, too. “Bye Baby” says about all you need to know, and in a year when young bucks made their play for the big time, Nas reminded us all why he’s still considered the greatest.
15. 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/sappy/sanguine as ever. The Pumpkins have never really fit in anywhere, and now, they seem to delight in that fact.
14. Tame Impala, Lonerism
The wonderfully weird second album from equally odd Australian rockers Tame Impala, Lonerism is a head-spinning mix of found sounds, deep-fried psychedelia and even the occasional foray into pop. The drums and guitars still thunder and spiral, but there’s also an increased focus on songsmanship, which sort of makes this one even weirder, all things considered.
13. Grizzly Bear, Shields
No one is ever going to confuse Brooklyn’s leading purveyors of vocal harmonies and albums named after Massachusetts islands with, you know, Motorhead, but on their fourth studio album, Grizzly Bear show some muscle, embracing prog and, in places, psych, and expanding their already widescreen sonic palette. For the first time, there’s genuine emotion on display here, the kind you don’t feel comfortable discussing over a craft brew and a plate of kale.
12. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
On their first album in a decade, the Canadian post-rock stalwarts prove they haven’t lost a step, even if they do seem content to stand pat and admire what a truly wondrous mess we’ve made of things in their absence. Ominous, droning, and often downright terrifying, it’s uneasy listening for uneasy times, though, in its occasional moments of brightness, Allelujah seems determined to prove the old adage wrong: Man can exist on hope alone.
11. 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 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.
10. 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, this is one terrifically tense ride. It’s scary good, and, come to think of it, kind of scary, too, and most definitely worth the wait.
9. 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 makes Sweet 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.
8. 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.
7. Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream
On his second album, Miguel makes a play for the Mt. Rushmore of R&B, and he doesn’t aim to get there on mere loverman shtick alone. A sonically adventurous, thematically diverse album — one that feels comfortable borrowing equally from “Time of the Season” and “Ignition” — Kaleidoscope Dream never settles for the (supposed) limitations of the genre, and, as a result, only helps expand the walls of its confines. How else can you explain songs like “How Many Drinks?” “Don’t Look Back” or, of course, “Adorn,” the sex jam of 2012. He’s so adamant about not being pinned down that even the album’s most salacious moment, “P—y is Mine” is presented as a throwaway track. After this album’s slow-burning success, there’s no telling where Miguel will go next, but you can bet I’ll be listening … as will a whole lot of other folks who wrote off R&B years ago.
6. 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 Inauguration), you get the feeling that’s precisely the point.
5. Father John Misty, Fear Fun
Part shambling shaman, part somnambulant shyster, former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman also happens 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.
4. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange
Would this album have received the same amount of critical adulation had Ocean not prefaced its release by revealing his previous relationship with a man? Probably not, though that’s largely beside the point. Because, as is the case with all great art, Channel Orange is a work of many layers, one capable of being viewed through a multiple of lenses and one that only reveals more with each successive listen. It is, by turns, morose, celebratory, self-aggrandizing and self-effacing, and while, in most cases, those things would work against each other, on this album, they click in perfect harmony. This is a thoroughly conflicted portrait of a man, a time, and a tenuous place in life, and because of all that Channel Orange may also end up becoming something more: a truly classic album.
3. Taylor Swift, Red
It opens with Taylor declaring “this is the golden age of something good,” and, well, she wasn’t lying. On her terrific fourth studio album , Swift takes tremendous strides towards becoming a genuine artist, the kind equally adept at penning heartbreakers like “All Too Well” and kiss-offs like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” That she’s able to do all this with the glare of the media spotlight firmly centered on her is only more impressive. Regardless of what you may think of her or her myriad of relationships, there’s no denying her talents, all of which are on display this time out. The rare album that not only feels like a defiant declaration of an artist’s life and a well-crafted preview of things to come, Red will undoubtedly stand the test of time, and mark the point in her career where Taylor took the reins and just went for it. Get out while you still can, Harry .
2. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city
A bold update on the West Coast world so vividly portrayed by N.W.A and Dr. Dre two decades ago, good kid is a cautionary tale played out to cinematic largess. Because of that, it also brings to mind the work of directors like John Singleton or the Hughes Brothers … an endless stream of violent imagery, self-fulfilling prophecies, with the occasional bit of gallows humor mixed in for (supposed) levity. It never boils over, mostly because Lamar never allows it to, which only belies his gifts as a narrator: Real life is never so dramatic, even if things are getting increasingly surreal. A work of many layers and textures, a Mobius strip of a storyline and a likeable protagonist we all want to see succeed, you could see this thing up on the big screen. Though we’d probably have a hard time believing everything that plays out before our eyes.
1. Japandroids, Celebration Rock
It’s an album about “being on the move and liking it,” 35-minutes of blistering, blitzkrieg rock, thundering drums and thrashing chords, rousing sing-alongs and fist-pumping sentiments … all played embolism-inducing intensity by a pair of blue-collar dudes from Vancouver who probably can’t believe any of this is happening to them. Sure, Celebration Rock got 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 this album so great to me is that it isn’t any of those classics — because it never was intended to be. There are no aspirations of artifice, no goals of grandeur … but 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. It embodies everything that still makes rock and roll great, an invincible album of perpetual motion, one that seems determined to keep swinging, drinking and smoking long after we’ve all retired for the night.
What are your picks for the best albums of the year? Let us know in the comments below.