At last, my list of favorite albums of 2012. This was an odd year for me and music. I listened to a ton of new music, but this blog languished as I spent time learning to play guitar and just listening to music. It was not hard to identify what my favorite albums were, but ranking them was not easy — and singling one out as my #1 favorite was nearly impossible. But, it turns out that I just needed a method and that solved my dilemma. In retrospect, my #1 makes total sense to me now.
By listening to all my 2012 songs randomly and rating each one, I was able to rank all 86 albums I purchased this year. I then added a second value for how many times I listened to the album this year — this arguably provides an unfair benefit for albums released earlier in the year, but I wonder whether the song rating process benefits newer songs more.
In any case here’s my top 30 and honorable mentions, following by my complete list.
#1 : Laura Gibson – La Grande
A hauntingly beautiful album by soft-voiced alt-folk singer-songwriter Laura Gibson. I love everything about every moment of this album, from the drum-driven title track that opens it to the elegiac finale, Feather Lungs. Gibson may be the voice who inspired NPR Music to start the now wildly successful Tiny Desk Concerts series (basically to showcase understated musicians who need an intimate setting to showcase their work), but there is huge depth here and as she assures us in Lion/Lamb that “I am not a lamb/I am a lion.” Truly a masterpiece.
La Grande official video:
Feather Lungs live on KEXP (Seattle):
#2: Bowerbirds – The Clearing
Another album that was just strong from start to finish. Alt-folk with chamber folk tendencies, this North Carolina band produced an album of wonderfully complex songs with multiple layers. A great example is the opening track, Tuck the Darkness In, which exhibits one of my favorite song characteristics: starts quiet, gets loud.
Tuck the Darkness In official video:
Brave World live:
#3: First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
The best Americana album of the year just happens to have been produced by a pair of 20-something sisters from the suburbs of Stockholm, Sweden. This work by Johanna and Klara Söderberg fits just like an old shoe, instantly comfortable and essentially timeless. It’s fitting that in Emmylou, they name-check two great Americana couples: Johnny & June Carter Cash and Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris.
The Lion’s Roar live on the streets of Paris:
Emmylou official video:
#4: Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
A great album in the long list of great moving-on-from-a-breakup albums. This one has the interesting twist of being co-produced by Edwards and her new significant other Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. The going and coming emotions of this album may be best summed up by Soft Place to Land and Sidecar.
Soft Place to Land live on CBC:
Sidecar live in a park:
#5: The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter
Can “country music for people who don’t like country music” be officially defined as a musical genre? Much like my reaction to First Aid Kit, I liked this album immediately and never stopped liking it. Fun music that just entertains. Oddly, I had the opposite reaction to the very similar Mumford & Sons, which left me cold even though it was widely acclaimed — go figure.
Live and Die official video:
#6: Regina Spektor – What We Saw From The Cheap Seats
Really breathtaking piano-based pop of the lyrically rich variety. I was totally captivated by this album, with its many emotional high points — I even forgive the misstep that is Oh Marcello (Russian-American singer adopts really bad Italian accent for one song). Highlights for me were Firewood and How, plus the brilliant two and a half minute The Party.
Firewood song only:
#7: Glen Hansard – Rhythm And Repose
Proof that I’m capable of warming to a male singer-songwriter. This album of guitar-based folk-pop quietly smolders with emotion. It sounds like he and Marketa Irglova will be reuniting (musically though not romantically) for another Swell Season album soon. It seems clear to me from these songs that he’s found his muse in Marketa — almost every song he sings seems like it’s about her.
High Hope official video:
#8: Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
Hypertalented multi-instrumentalist delivers another album of complex and interesting folk-rock. Like Bowerbirds, Bird proves that fascinating and multilayered music can also be thoroughly enjoyable — it’s art and it’s entertainment. Danse Caribe is a great example: Bird plays his amped violin in multiple ways in the same song and the whole thing just rocks.
Danse Caribe live on KCRW:
#9: Of Monsters And Men – My Head Is An Animal
Ultra accessible power pop from Iceland that made a big splash in 2012. Good timesy sound, singalong choruses, male-female vocalists, hooks a-plenty — lots here to like. I knew this band had made it big with their debut album when I saw they were playing a feature about the band on a bank of TVs at a Best Buy I was walking through.
Little Talks live:
#10: Patrick Watson – Adventures In Your Own Backyard
Like Andrew Bird, a talented musician produces a wonderfully complex album of intricate folk-rock. Each song appears to be carefully crafted, following its own course at its own pace to its own conclusion. This is far from a solo album — Watson’s impossibly high voice anchors things, but he’s got a strong band backing him too.
Into Giants live:
#11: Beth Orton – Sugaring Season
A late release that managed to make it way up the list, thankfully. Orton has said she nearly gave up on music after her last album, but I’m glad to see she’s sticking with it. I love her trio of earlier albums, Trailer Park, Central Reservation, and Daybreaker, but this one may have topped those. Quiet reflective music that deepens with each listen.
Something More Beautiful official video:
#12: Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Yes, the title is a little annoying, but like Regina Spektor’s, this album is impossible to ignore or forget. Like Jesca Hoop way down at #55, Apple is clearly serving a demanding muse (one that asks her to wear a rubber octopus on her head, if the video below is any indication), but the results here are more accessible while just as uncompromising.
Every Single Night official video:
#13: A Fine Frenzy – Pines
An ambitious indie pop concept album about a tree contemplating its future from Alison Sudol, aka A Fine Frenzy. I think there are moments when her reach exceeds her grasp, but overall this is an excellent album that really demands a complete listen without interruption or distraction.
Now is the Start official video:
#14: Lost In The Trees – A Church That Fits Our Needs
I’m a little sad to see this fall to #14, frankly. A brilliant tribute to band leader Ari Picker’s mother that’s got more emotional depth than a carton of albums. Chamber folk at its best — pushing musical boundaries and always challenging their listeners. How many bands out there boast two cellists?
This Dead Bird is Beautiful live:
#15: Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
This album is a milestone for Van Etten, who proves she’s more than a confessional solo artist, but is capable fronting a fully fledged rock band. Her songs lose none of their emotional depth, but now pack a sonic punch. I can’t wait to see where her continued transformation takes her.
All I Can live:
#16: The Mynabirds – Generals
The most outspokenly political album that I was aware of this year. Laura Burhenn, fresh from touring as the keyboardist for Bright Eyes, produces a feminist manifesto that rocks.
#17: The Shins – Port Of Morrow
I’m struggling to find words for this one. Simple and highly effective pop-rock that doesn’t blow you away with its brilliance, but just entertains. Clearly, there’s craftsmanship underneath, but this album for me is all about accessibility — just sit back and enjoy.
The Rifle’s Spiral official video:
#18: Anais Mitchell – Young Man In America
If the Mynabirds had the most outspoken political album, this one may be the most understated political album. Mitchell subtly tells stories that mostly focus on the joys and sorrows of rural life. Folk with a quiet message.
Young Man In America live with good sound, bad video (hey, it’s radio):
#19: Ingrid Michaelson – Human Again
The nice thing about a January release is that it’s possible to rediscover it many times throughout the year. This is wonderful indie pop (or as “indie” as you get with an album that was featured at Whole Foods) with a vulnerable core — a more accessible version of Fiona Apple (but maybe the comparison is unfair to both of them).
Blood Brothers live on Conan:
#20: The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
During a two-decade career, mostly as a solo artist by more recently as a band (but always under the Mountain Goats name), John Darnielle has created absorbing stories of people in the shadows, sung with a fierce urgency and intense empathy that is breathtaking. The opening line of the first song here, a tribute to Amy Winehouse titled Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1, pretty much sums up this album: “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive.”
Harlem Roulette explained and performed live in Brooklyn:
#21: Eleni Mandell – I Can See The Future
Another longtime singer-songwriter who just keeps at it, recording this album while pregnant with twins. There are softer edges here than her previous albums — she’s still a great songwriter, but maybe a little more content. After loving Eleni Mandell for years, I was very grateful to be able to see her live this year in a solo show at Passim in Harvard Square.
Magic Summertime official video (with a so Eleni ending):
#22: Admiral Fallow – Tree Bursts in Snow
A Scottish power pop band that I’ve grown to love. After their 2011 debut, Boots Met My Face, they avoid any sophomore slump with a strong followup. Has a lot in common with Of Monsters and Men and The New Pornographers — lots of instruments involved (including flute and clarinet) and catchy as you could ever want.
Isn’t This World Enough?? live:
#23: Tennis – Young & Old
I was pretty shocked to see this album show up so high in my rankings, but the numbers don’t lie. And it makes total sense. Though I’d forgotten about this album, another listen showed me what I like so much about it: female lead vocalist, catchy pop hooks, jangly/fuzzy guitars — they are a carbon copy of Velocity Girl, a late-90s band that I loved until they disappeared after three great albums.
It All Feels the Same live on David Letterman:
#24: Tyler Lyle – The Golden Age & The Silver Girl
Enjoyable acoustic folk that just works for me. This one came out of the blue, but he earned his spot with a debut album that rose above the thousands of other young singer songwriters out there.
Love is Not Enough official video:
#25: David Wax Museum – Knock Knock Get Up
A fun and catchy album of folk pop with a bit of a Mexican accent tossed in. Leaders David Wax and Suz Slezak put together an unusual sound that nonetheless works really well. Schedule conflicts have stymied my efforts to see this Boston-based band live, though I hope that changes in 2013.
Harder Before It Gets Easier live:
#26: Jenny Owen Youngs – An Unwavering Band of Light
You’ve gotta love this woman’s attitude — engaging and charismatic, plus she creates music that absolutely rocks. Every time I played this album, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I just can’t figure out why she isn’t hugely popular — maybe in 10 years, with another half dozen albums under her belt, she’ll be in Eleni Mandell/Mountain Goats/Aimee Mann territory of survivor who just never hit it big.
Pirates song only:
#27: Gaby Moreno – Postales
I love how Moreno defies genre, wandering around ballads, rock, R&B, and jazz. Interestingly, the LA-based Guatemalan singer songwriter seems to be singing more in Spanish as her music career develops. In last year’s Illustrated Songs, she sang mostly in English. Here, every song is in Spanish. Amazing voice.
Valle de Magnolias song only:
#28: Bhi Bhiman – Bhiman
A wonderful discovery whom I’ll be watching closely from now on. Mix witty lyrics with a beautiful wide-ranged voice and you get an astounding singer-songwriter. On Guttersnipe, I always marvel at how he stretches the line in the chorus about “I’m well on my way to feeeeeeeeeeling fine.”
Guttersnipe official video:
#29: fun. – Some Nights
Maybe my indie cred takes a little hit with this one, but it was impossible not to enjoy this album. Much more than just the megahit We Are Young, this one just did everything right.
All Alone live:
#30: Aimee Mann – Charmer
Another survivor who keeps on producing solid music year after year. Master of bitingly witty lyrics with an ear for a catchy melody, this is great stuff. There’s even a duet with James Mercer of The Shins (Living a Lie).
Charmer official video:
Lots of interesting albums fell short of my cut-off at 30, but many of them are still worthy of attention.
- Chairlift – Something (#32)
Retro-80s synth pop that I enjoyed a lot. Thanks to my niece who saw them at live SXSW and urged me to stick with them.
- Hospitality – Hospitality (#33)
Like Tennis, a hyper-poppy female-fronted band that I liked a lot, though I’d love to see them delve deeper emotionally. Still, a strong debut.
- Grizzly Bear – Shields (#36)
This is one I may find myself shaking my head about later — should have ended up higher on the list. Grizzly Bear made a lot of top-10 lists and it is clearly a quality album of complex prog-rock, but it’s a “grower” that’s still growing on me.
- Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls (#37)
This may simply be a case of a few too many slow ballads that drew their score down, but when they turn up the heat there’s no one better. I like this band a lot and they deserve all the acclaim they’ve gotten.
- Girlyman – Supernova (#39)
A band that I like a lot that seems to make albums that I like less and less with each release. Their wonderful mix of folky/countrified close harmony is lots of fun, but maybe they feel stuck in a rut to me.
- The Lumineers – The Lumineers (#41)
Sorry to see this one drop so far, but it was probably squeezed out a bit by the Avett Brothers in the “good timesy countryish” category. This seems like a very fun band to see live.
- Sylvie Lewis – It’s All True (#42)
She may be the poster child of the disadvantages faced by later releases. This album came out in June, but I didn’t stumble upon it until November. Even though I loved it, she drifted down the list to 42. A charming singer-songwriter who’s definitely one to watch.
- Kishi Bashi – 151a (#48)
Really thrilling experimental pop by a wildly creative violinist/vocalist who’s got a bright future ahead of him.
- Jesca Hoop – The House That Jack Built (#55)
Jesca Hoop is one of those artists who I just know will one day produce an album that will knock all of our socks off. So far, she’s produced three very original albums that boast tons of creative fireworks and an admirable desire to push the envelope, but her masterpiece still awaits.
- Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (#57)
This is a case of an album that was brilliant at times, but had some songs that I just found tiresome — “hit and miss” gets penalized pretty badly by my system. But the creative energy of this group is something to behold. Unto Caesar, with its off-the-wall lyrics that eventually cause the backup singers to start questioning (“Uh, that didn’t make any sense, what you just said.”), was one of my favorite songs of the year.
- Heartless Bastards – Arrow (#86)
Here it is everyone: officially my least favorite album of 2012. The thing is, this is a pretty good album that I actually enjoy, but maybe my ranking method (rating random songs) just doesn’t do justice to something like this: low-key (but still loud) songs that work much better when played in album format. Erika Wennerstrom’s beyond-languid voice is probably not my cup of tea, but this album deserved better than dead last.
The complete list
- Laura Gibson – La Grande
- Bowerbirds – The Clearing
- First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
- Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
- The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter
- Regina Spektor – What We Saw From The Cheap Seats
- Glen Hansard – Rhythm And Repose
- Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
- Of Monsters And Men – My Head Is An Animal
- Patrick Watson – Adventures In Your Own Backyard
- Beth Orton – Sugaring Season
- Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
- A Fine Frenzy -Pines
- Lost In The Trees -A Church That Fits Our Needs
- Sharon Van Etten -Tramp
- The Mynabirds -Generals
- The Shins – Port Of Morrow
- Anais Mitchell – Young Man In America
- Ingrid Michaelson – Human Again
- The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
- Eleni Mandell – I Can See The Future
- Admiral Fallow – Tree Bursts in Snow
- Tennis – Young & Old
- Tyler Lyle – The Golden Age & The Silver Girl
- David Wax Museum – Knock Knock Get Up
- Jenny Owen Youngs – An Unwavering Band of Light
- Gaby Moreno – Postales
- Bhi Bhiman – Bhiman
- Fun. – Some Nights
- Aimee Mann – Charmer
- Beach House – Bloom
- Chairlift – Something
- Hospitality – Hospitality
- Brandi Carlile – Bear Creek
- Bright Moments – Natives
- Grizzly Bear – Shields
- Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
- Cat Power – Sun
- Girlyman – Supernova
- Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
- The Lumineers – The Lumineers
- Sylvie Lewis – It’s All True
- Great Lake Swimmers – New Wild Everywhere
- Sea Of Bees – Orangefarben
- Donald Fagen – Sunken Condos
- The Little Willies – For The Good Times
- Damien Jurado – Maraqopa
- Kishi Bashi – 151a
- Azure Ray – As Above So Below
- M. Ward – A Wasteland Companion
- Craig Finn – Clear Heart Full Eyes
- Lambchop – Mr. M
- Carolina Chocolate Drops – Leaving Eden
- Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream
- Jesca Hoop – The House That Jack Built
- The Walkmen – Heaven
- Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
- John Mayer – Born And Raised
- Shearwater – Animal Joy
- Andrew Bird – Hands of Glory
- Sigur Rós – Valtari
- Lana Del Rey – Born To Die
- Bill Fay – Life Is People
- Frankie Rose – Interstellar
- Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light
- The xx – Coexist
- Poliça – Give You The Ghost
- David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant
- Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?
- Norah Jones – Little Broken Hearts
- Best Coast – The Only Place
- Julia Holter – Ekstasis
- La Sera – Sees The Light
- Mumford & Sons – Babel
- Woods – Bend Beyond
- The Casket Girls – Sleepwalking
- Antony & The Johnsons – Cut The World
- J.D. McPherson – Signs & Signifiers
- Esperanza Spalding – Radio Music Society
- Ondatrópica – Ondatrópica
- Bob Dylan – Tempest
- Animal Collective – Centipede Hz
- Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros – Here
- Cate Le Bon – Cyrk
- Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral
- Heartless Bastards – Arrow