The Top 30 Albums of 2012

When putting together a list of a year’s top albums, I start by thinking about what albums I wanted to hear time and time again throughout the year. Anything that grabs and keeps my attention such that I’m constantly putting it on repeat is pretty good. In 2012, the only problem with this methodology was that there were precious few albums that maintained much interest. I gave a handful of anticipated albums some time to grow on me over several listens, but few did. Even though not many albums really spoke to me in 2012, there were a lot of efforts that were nice enough; maybe they had a few standout tracks or were solid but not spectacular throughout, but most of the albums I heard this year didn’t have a whole lot to hang their hat on.

So as I sat down to pick out the best of the year, I had two problems: could I really find something worthwhile of a relatively high ranking when there were so many albums that “felt like” the 28th or 29th best album of the year? And with so many albums that graded out similarly (#15 on my list is probably closer to #50 than it is to #1), how do I pick which ones to include and then how do you order them?

If I were truly being all-inclusive of the 2012 releases, the top spot would probably go to Goldfrapp’s The Singles. It was really the first time I gave any attention to Goldfrapp and within weeks it inspired me to go out and buy a couple of their albums. However, as the title suggests, it’s essentially a greatest hits collection, and those types of compilations generally aren’t eligible for the rankings.

After much hemming, hawing, ordering and reordering, I’ve come to this list… at least for the time being. I’m unsure about most of it, but for as down as I’ve been on new music in 2012, it’s not a bad collection of albums. They’re all worth a listen, as are some honorable mentions, including the new albums from Django Django and Titus Andronicus (probably #31 and 32), stylish albums from Chromatics and Moon Duo, easy listens from The Tallest Man on Earth, Kishi Bashi and Belle and Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson, and several albums I’ve only recently started to listen to (including Swans, John Talabot and the Future of the Left, to name just a few). Setting those folks aside, here’s my top 30 albums of the year (subject to change next week or so):

30. Hospitality – Hospitality
A surprise pick for me, Hospitality didn’t make the list until the very last shuffle. An album that was in my library all year, but often glossed over. In the end, it made the cut because of the sheer number of good songs like “The Birthday” and “Friends of Friends”.
29. Grizzly Bear – Shields
When Grizzly Bear does something I like, I tend to like it a lot. In this case, that’s “Sleeping Ute” and “A Simple Plan”. Not many albums on this list can match those two singles. Unfortunately, when they aren’t great (more often than not), I’m usually unimpressed. Small bonus points for having some of the better cover art of 2012.
28. The Shins – Port of Morrow
Sometimes you can keep doing the same thing and it continues to work well. But sometimes staying in the same place means you fall behind. Hey Shins, you’re slipping, but “Bait and Switch” and “No Way Down” fit alongside your best work.
27. Of Monsters and Men – My Head is an Animal
This year’s “it” nu-folk band with songs of real honest feeling, joining forefathers Mumford and Sons and the Head and the Heart. They’ve all had short shelf lives for me, but I guess I have space for one each year. Like their predecessors, they’ve released a consistent album, but check out “Dirty Paws” and “Little Talks”.
26. Crystal Castles – (iii)
Stark and harsh, this is a confrontational album. One moment you’re thrashing about with the beat, the next, you’re stepping back for a moment where the world slows down and you can take stock of the way the world has changed. I appreciate the latter while preferring the former, as in “Plague” and “Sad Eyes”.
25. Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light
Spiritualized was actually one of the last albums I picked to make the list. Choosing from a pool of so many candidates, this was one of two albums that made it based on having the strongest high points (“So Long You Pretty Thing” and “Hey Jane”). What separates this from Grizzly Bear is a stronger supporting cast.
24. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
Every time the First Aid Kit album would play through while I was puttering around my apartment this year, I would be surprised by how much I appreciated this album. “Emmylou” is a fine track that gets plenty of acclaim, but I’m partial to “King of the World”
23. Purity Ring – Shrines
Something tells me that rappers, mixtapes and mashups will all be sampling Purity Ring for the next few years. You could lay nearly anything over the beats on this album and make it sound good. Just listen to “Fineshrine” or “Lofticries” and you’ll see what I mean. That’s not to take anything away from Megan James’ vocals, which are fine, but the accompaniment makes the album for me.
22. John Cale – Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood
In a year when Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, Bobby Womack and a few other older guys put out records that got a lot of love, I’m a little surprised by how little attention John Cale has gotten. Maybe he’s been crowded out, maybe it was the late release date, who knows? It’s a solid album though. Don’t miss Prince Danger Mouse collaboration “I Wanna Talk 2 U” and “Nookie Wood”.
21. Taken By Trees – Other Worlds
Inspired by Hawaii, Other Worlds is an easy, breezy album that’ll make you want to kick back under warm, sunny skies with an umbrella drink. Ah, if only we all had Hawaii’s weather! One listen to “Dreams” and “Pacific Blue” and you’ll be gone to the islands in your mind.
20. Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
I’m generally not much for the singer/songwriter types, but at the start of the year, that’s where much the best music I heard was coming from. That was weird. Had there been more competition at the time, maybe I don’t notice Kathleen Edwards, but with tracks like “Change the Sheets” and “Mint”, I think this album would have bubbled its way into my consciousness.
19. Cat Power – Sun
When the first track you hear from an album is the best it has to offer, it can set you up for disappointment, even if it’s solid otherwise. “Silent Machine” was that track with me for Sun, but “Manhattan” isn’t actually too far behind.
18. Dan Deacon – America
Dan Deacon has proven he can be successful by making a lot of noise, and he does it again on “Lots”. A little bit of restraint as a counterpoint for “USA III: Rail” shows he can paint a picture just as well with a lighter touch of sound
17. Chicane – Thousand Mile Stare
For most of the year, Chicane was in my top ten. It’s possible that this album should still be up there, but I’m don’t listen to much (any?) trance music, so it’s hard to evaluate. Will I still want to listen to this in six months? Who knows? But it’s also something I enjoyed quite a bit this year. “Playing Fields” fits in nicely alongside the Goldfrapp I liked so much this year and “Windbreaks” doesn’t sound too generically club-ish.
16. Regina Spektor – What We Saw From the Cheap Seats
Regina Spektor is another artist I’ve long been aware of, but never listened to until this year. She’s certainly a bit quirky and unusual, but with that comes a genuineness and honesty that’s refreshing. I think it’s what I love about her. All she needs is a piano to make a great song like “Small Town Moon”, but she’ll throw in horn sections to great effect, as in “Don’t Leave Me [Ne Me Quitte Pas]”.
15. Firewater – International Orange!
One album inspired by a trip to Hawaii, another one inspired by a trip to Turkey. Wherever you go, there’s your inspiration. Thanks to Josh for the tip on these guys, he’s a longtime fan. “A Little Revolution” is great and how could you not like anything with the title, “The Monkey Song”?
14. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
Everything about this album is a little unexpected for me. From the sound of “Offspring are Blank” to its very presence on this list. The Dirty Projectors weren’t on the radar for consideration when I first started shuffling names around for this list a month ago. I wasn’t a big fan of their last album and only gave the new one a cursory listen over the summer. After another look, I found it was a pretty good album and was surprised at first that they would make the list, then that they would end up so high. “Gun Has No Trigger” nicely highlights some of the group’s strengths.
13. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
I’m something of a sucker for post-rock and Godspeed You! Black Emperor delivers the goods. Two six and a half minute “interludes” alternate with a pair of twenty minute compositions that dominate the album. If you’re looking for catchy hooks, look somewhere else. If you’re looking for thunder, look right here.
12. Chrome Canyon – Elemental Themes
Oh man, I’m so idiosyncratic. This album could easily be the soundtrack to some low budget, B-grade sci-fi movie or video game. It’s bold and stylish in a way that some people might find gaudy, but I admire the way it goes boldly into its space. Listen to “Memories of a Scientist” and you can hear hints of what might happen if the Doobie Brothers (from their “What A Fool Believes” era) were the ones making that soundtrack. Otherwise, “Generations” is a pretty representative track.
11. Ceremony – Zoo
If you’ve been following the 366TAS project, you probably know that I like lots of songs that build and develop over a relatively long time. Ceremony is having none of that. They get into a song, rock hard and get out. “Quarantine” and “Adult” are both great and are both about 3:07.
10. Frankie Rose – Interstellar
I had some hesitation about putting Frankie Rose this high, simply because there are no real standout tracks on the album. Although it’s hard to point to specific highlights, the album is tight, consistent and more than the sum of its parts. The title track works well as an opener and “The Fall” is an elegant way to tie up the album. “Pair of Wings” is probably the one track that jumped out at me after a few listens, but it’s best in the context of the album.
9. Hot Chip – In Our Heads
Here’s the one album that grew on me the most over the course of the year. After all the LCD Soundsystem comparisons and crossover fans I had heard about, initial expectations for these guys were sky high. They couldn’t deliver instantly, but first “Let Me Be Him” caught my attention, then “Always Been Your Love”. Eventually “Flutes” and the rest followed suit, propelling this album higher on my list than I initially thought possible.
8. Grimes – Visions
Coming into the list season, there were a few albums I expected to see plastered all over top ten lists. This wasn’t one of them, but perhaps it should have been because Grimes has been getting lots of love from all corners this year. There’s a little something for everybody in tracks like “Genesis”, “Oblivion” and “Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U)”
7. Ricardo Donoso – Assimilating the Shadow
On the flipside, I’m pretty sure this is a record that only about two people have heard. It’s another idiosyncratic pick that’s full of bleeps and bloops. Probably not most people’s cup of tea, but I really like it. Was shocked to see it in another top ten list right before I wrote this blurb. Settle in some evening to enjoy “Reflection & Rotation”, “The Bow and Lyre” and “Equivalence of the Thirteen”.
6. Goat – World Music
I tend to be somewhat conservative in my listmaking, preferring to go with albums that I’ve heard more over albums I’ve heard less. World Music into my rotation about a month ago when I first heard “Det som aldrig förändras / Diarabi”, but it was love at first listen. If I were making this list next month, this album might be a few spots higher. Don’t miss the creatively titled “Goathead” or “Goatman”.
5. Baroness – Yellow and Green
After so much synth-pop, ambient sound and dance music, guitar rock dominates the top of my list. Nothing on the list may exemplify the description more than Baroness, whose double album Yellow and Green works the angle in a couple of different styles. From the Yellow half, “Take My Bones Away” is a classic metal anthem. Meanwhile the “Green Theme” hints at a more post-rock type of sound that extends through the Green disc. “The Line Between” is a favorite too.
4. Metric – Synthetica
An accessible rock record with plenty of tracks that sound like alternative radio hits (see: “Youth Without Youth” and “Synthetica”) kept this album in heavy rotation for me all year. After last year’s disastrous Loutallica experiment, Lou Reed makes a better collaborative choice here, guesting on “The Wanderlust”.
3. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
Andrew Bird may be a genre unto himself because nobody else makes albums that sound like Andrew Bird. As for me, I love his five-types-of-violin and whistling style, so I’ll let him get away with doing the same thing from album to album. The deluxe edition includes his second LP of the year, Hands of Glory which is great too. “Eyeoneye” is destined to become one of those songs whose title everyone gets wrong while “Danse Caribe” and “Orpheo Looks Back” show off some of Bird’s versatility within his niche.
2. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory
More of a number 1B than a number two, Attack on Memory was high on my list all year. It’s an album that gives voice to all the doubts that rage in the back of your head about life, the universe and everything. From the droning intensity of “Wasted Days” to the resigned acknowledgment of “Stay Useless” and the overall lament from “No Sentiment”, this is an album that will let you rage out all of your worries so that you can enjoy its flipside, the number 1A album of the year…
1. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
There was no more appropriately titled album in 2012 than Celebration Rock. Beginning and ending with fireworks might have been gimmicky in other contexts, but given this album’s full-throated, 100 miles-an-hour embrace of the pursuit of happiness, it feels more like a bookending of exclamation points. There’s something intrinsic to the opening of “The Nights of Wine and Roses” that made me turn up the volume every single time I heard it. With the likes of “Adrenaline Nightshift” and the critical darling, “The House that Heaven Built”, there’s no reason to slow down from start to finish, and ending that reveals that you never left the celebration of the fireworks.

So that’s it! I’m sure I’ll change my mind about several of these picks and rankings within a week or two, but the point of these lists isn’t necessarily to be definitive or to be right, but rather to share music that we liked this year and to discover other great albums that we may have missed. Hopefully, you’ve found a few things here that’ll pique your interest. I know I’ve found some new stuff on other lists. Oh, and you may have noticed Spotify links to all the albums on the list. Here’s a Spotify playlist of all thirty for your listening pleasure:

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3 Responses to The Top 30 Albums of 2012

  1. James says:

    It’s commendable to come up with 30 albums, let alone a standard Top Ten. Even with the sheer volume of music that was released this year, it seemed more of a year of standout singles than albums. Still, I agree with a few of your selections such as Andrew Bird or Metric, while others like Dirty Projectors, First Aid Kit or The Shins, I thought should have been higher. The few other albums that would make my Top Ten stand mainly on various singles, except for Beach House (where we have our disagreements) & the superb classical album by MacArthur genius Alisa Weilerstein’s Elgar & Carter Cello Concertos. Miguel’s Adorn could be argued for the single of the year that’s not Call Me Maybe or Some Nights. Then there’s Jack White’s Sixteen Saltines and Alabama Shakes’ Hold On to round out the list. Purity Ring’s Fineshrine and Icona Pop’s I Love It are close misses that can’t elevate the rest of their respective albums.

    • Captain Easychord says:

      Agreed about the singles… there were lots of great tracks from albums that didn’t make the list here… “Pyramids” (Frank Ocean), “Would That Not Be Nice” (Divine Fits), “I Belong in Your Arms” (Chairlift), “I’ve Seen Footage” (Death Grips), “The Guillotine” (The Coup), “Bright Whites” (honorable mention, Kishi Bashi), and “Who?” (David Byrne & St. Vincent), just to name a handful…

  2. Captain Easychord says:

    … and yeah, just like last year, I wanted to make some changes to this list within the first week of the new year… this time, the adds would be The Men (my favorite discovery from other lists so far), Tame Impala (which I came around on a bit) and Moon Duo (previously an honorable mention)… if I had to take three albums out to make room, one would be Crystal Castles, which seems increasingly like a shallow, inconsistent album… the other two might be john cale and taken by trees… both of ’em went on sale right after I posted this list, but instead of buying them, I went with all three albums new to the list (and a few others)… I’m not changing the post or the “official list”, but you’ll notice those changes and some ordering ones too in the Spotify playlist…

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