My Top Albums of 2012

Hi ho, folks! The end of the year is approaching, and it’s time to roll out my “Best of” lists for the year! I decided to start with music this year, because my TV list is a giant mess. Seriously. If the TV list was a middle school book report, I’d give poor Ms. Kilgore a heart attack. She’d have to buy a hundred red pens to edit it for me! So enjoy the music list first!

As always, remember that this list is about complete albums and not individual songs. Yes, there may be songs from 2012 that I liked better than anything on this list… but, as a whole, the following ten albums are my favorite of the year!

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#10: Brian Eno – Lux

As I said in my Best Albums of 2010 piece, I’ve never been a fan of Eno’s pop music (aside from his work with Roxy Music, of course). His other works, like Ambient 1 and Discreet Music are two of my all-time favorite albums, period. I put Small Craft on a Milk Sea on my “Best of 2010” list, and am doing the same for this year’s Lux. I actually hesitated with this one, though. Where Ambient 1 and Discreet Music were groundbreaking albums, this one isn’t his best. It’s pretty good, technically speaking, but it just doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression. Having said that, mediocre Eno is better than 90% of the other crap out there, so he makes the list with this album, too!

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#9: Madness – Qui Qui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da

I’ve been a Madness fan since “Our House” hit the US charts back in 1982. I rushed out to buy the single, then bought every album and EP of theirs I could find. And while a lot of 80s bands are still releasing new albums of mediocre material, Madness never really went away, culturally speaking. I really dug 2005’s The Dangermen Sessions Vol. 1, but just didn’t warm up to 2009’s The Liberty of Norton Folgate. In fact, I deleted the album from my digital collection just a couple of weeks ago. Thankfully, Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da is a return to form. Whereas Liberty seemed like a love song that only invited Londoners to the party, this new disc is for everyone. It’s pretty solid – especially the opening tracks –  and is surely worth a listen on your part.

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#8: The Vaccines – Come of Age

I don’t know why, but I just love The Vaccines. Certainly they crank out catchy guitar-pop tunes with awesome hooks… but I think it’s their cheekiness that really sells me on them. The first time I heard “Post Break-Up Sex” I was almost in stitches; they did a pretty good job of capturing the… awkwardness one feels immediately after a break-up. So when heard that they had a new disc out, I rushed to find it… and it didn’t disappoint. Songs like “Aftershave Ocean” and “Teenage Icon” encapsulate everything I love about the band. They almost make me feel like a teenager all over again, but at the same time their often sarcastic lyrics make me appreciate being older.

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#7: Ladyhawke – Anxiety

Here’s something you might not know: I’m secretly married to Pip Brown! OK, that’s a joke, but I do have a pretty big crush on the New Zealander, more commonly known by her stage name “Ladyhawke”. And the crush comes from the fact that Brown writes, produces and performs all her music herself! I have a great admiration for anyone who can sing and play guitar, keyboards, bass and drums all by themselves, to say nothing of producing and directing the album art, too. At the end of the day, though, I just don’t like this album as much as her 2008 self-titled debut disc. Ladyhawke was some delicious synth-heavy pop, but Brown decided to go for a “rockier” edge with this disc. And it’s not bad, it’s just not what we’re used to. More than one reviewer on YouTube and music blogs wrote something like “A guitar solo in ‘Black White & Blue”? Uhhhh… WTF?” That about sums up my reaction, too. Here’s hoping she goes back to the synths with her next album!

 

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#6: Julia Holter – Ekstasis and Jessica Bailiff – At the Down-turned Jagged Rim of the Sky

I love both these albums and couldn’t decide between them! They’re broadly similar: a mix of Eno-like ambient noise heavily influenced by the style of 4AD and Kate Bush, Julianna Barwick and Stereolab. Holter is a classically-trained musician, and her music has a bit more melody than Bailiff’s, which trends toward noise and feedback. So here’s my take on it: when Holter is at her best, she’s better than Bailiff. “Moni Mon Amie” and “Goddess Eyes II” are better songs than anything Baliff has put out. But Ekstasis, like almost any Kate Bush or Bjork album, has a few “WTF?” clunkers on it, too. So while Bailiff’s songs generally aren’t as good as Holter’s, she’s put out a better overall disc. Keep in mind, however, that this isn’t just random pop music you throw on at a party. It’s slow, ethereal music for chilling out or falling asleep to.

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#5: Marsheaux – E-Bay Queen is Dead

OK, I know what you’re thinking: I’ve mentioned that Marsheaux is my new favorite band like… 15 times on this blog. So how come this album only gets to #5 on the list? Well, it’s because E-Bay Queen is Dead is an album of outtakes, demos, remixes and covers. Don’t get me wrong: there are some great tunes on this disc. “Inside” (an outtake from their upcoming album Inhale, and originally released on their website as “Thirteen/True”) is one of my all-time favorite songs by the band. According to Last.fm it’s my most-played song of the year with 135 plays. The same goes for another Inhale outtake, “Do You Feel ?”. I also love their covers of The Human League’s “Empire State Human” and OMD’s “She’s Leaving”. I also appreciate getting a nice copy of their cover of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face” (I’d previously ripped a copy off YouTube). But the rest of the disc will appeal mostly to existing Marsheaux fans. I could live without the “alternate version” of their cover of New Order’s “Regret”, and “Ghost/Hammer” (a mash-up of Marsheaux’s “Ghost” with Fotonovela’s “Hammer”) is just… interesting, I guess. “Fly Away” is just a snippet of a song they were working on that their label sent to the editor of Greek edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. She liked it, so the band edited it down to 27 seconds, changed the lyrics to just say “Cosmo Girl” at the end and called it “Cosmogirl”. Why we need both versions of the same song is a mystery. So while this album is slightly disjointed by design, and is made for folks who already know the band’s music, it’s still pretty good overall. If you’ve never heard of the band until now, start with 2009’s Lumineux Noir before listening to this.

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#4: Wild Nothing – Nocturne

Jack Tatum, the only permanent member of Wild Nothing, became a bona fide hit with indie music blogs with his debut album Gemini. As good as the album was, it was the lo-fi feel of the recording that gave it such authenticity. Tatum took a big risk with this disc, polishing up his sound and making the quality of the production front and center. The disc opens with “Shadow”, one of those songs that even the most tone-deaf would recognize has the potential to be a hit single. But while Wild Nothing isn’t revolutionary – Tatum isn’t doing anything a thousands other Brooklyn bands aren’t doing, I love the subtle touches. The string bits in “Shadow” that are an obvious nod to The Cure’s “How Beautiful You Are”, the early R.E.M. guitar jangle underneath the early Duran Duran guitar track on “Disappear Always”. As I say, it’s not “revolutionary”, but Tatum has a bright future ahead of himself. This guy can make some great music. Nocturne is proof.

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#3: Saint Etienne – Words and Music by Saint Etienne

Lord, I have such a soft spot for Saint Etienne. As I’ve explained elsewhere on this site, I’d heard them before, but they really didn’t “click” with me until I took a trip to London in 2000. There I explored the city with their then-new album Sound of Water on a portable CD player. On that misty day in London, I fell in love with the band like a schoolboy, my love consuming me, making me giddy and keeping me up at night. I’ve since tracked down every album, every “deluxe version” of their albums, every EP, every single, every one-off collaboration… as much as I could get my grubby hands on. And, a dozen years later, I still love it. I love them. When I heard that Words and Music was coming out, their first new album since 2005, I was on cloud nine. And, unlike a lot of albums you wait years and years for, this one didn’t disappoint. That’s because the band are just so… clever. They know they were London’s dance-pop darlings in the early 90s, and they know that another generation has grown up around them, that Saint Etienne is a band your older cousin listened to in college. But rather than look foolish by imitating the style of current acts (as Madonna tries to do, or Duran Duran did in Red Carpet Massacre), Saint Etienne embraces their old age, and actually does a better job of relating to teenagers than some current bands. Remember being a teenager and having that giddy anticipation before a big concert? “Tonight”, the first single off the disc, pays homage to that, and does so beautifully. “I’ve Got Your Music” is all about getting lost through headphones. Did you ever have a friend who had an amazing ability to always pick the perfect song for the occasion? “Record Doctor” is for him. It’s such a genius album in a pop culture kind of way. The best way I can think to describe it comes from a review of the album from The Guardian:

It’s as if Saint Etienne are guarding against the tendency of ardent, fortysomething music fans to cleave to a kind of combative nostalgia, the steadfast, sneering belief that your past automatically beats anyone’s present, that everything was better in your youth. Instead, Words and Music frequently sounds as dizzy with the joy of pop as Saint Etienne did 20 years ago, when their single ‘Join Our Club’ borrowed the Lovin’ Spoonful’s question: Do you believe in magic? Now, as then, their answer seems to be: of course.

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#2: The Raveonettes – Observator

The band that had the #1 album last year is back. To tell the truth, the difference between the #2 and #1 albums this year is razor-thin, and the main reason The Raveonettes “lost” out this year is because I didn’t want to repeat myself. It seems like everything the Danish Duo touch here lately turns to gold… and it’s not for nothing. Raven in the Grave was my favorite album last year by far, and Observator is nearly my favorite album this year. And between those two albums was Into the Night, one of the few EPs of recent years that I listened to over and over again. Folks, if you like The Raveonettes’ mixture of 50s pop meets The Jesus and Mary Chain, then you won’t be disappointed with this disc. Because, frankly, I can’t find a flaw with it… other than the fact that the running time is only 31:22. Let’s face it: Raven in the Grave was a pretty gloomy album, and with Observator the band lightened up a bit. You’ll still find “classic” Raveonettes tracks on this disc – I challenge you to listen to the jangly pop goodness of “She Owns the Streets” and not get it stuck in your head for a week! But the band decided to branch out with this disc, adding some odd touches (a modified piano for “Observations”, a drum machine on “Curse the Night”), and leaving others out (like drums on “Young and Cold”). The band almost drown themselves in a world of reverb and guitar fuzz, yet are smart enough to understand that such “gimmicks” aren’t enough on their own. And that’s where their solid songwriting takes over. The Raveonettes aren’t the only band to inherit the sound of The Jesus and Mary Chain, but they’re the first to perfect it.

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And the album of the year is… [drumroll]

#1: Beach House – Bloom

I spend so much time in the dark corners of the Internet searching for obscure European synthpop bands that I was floored to see that Bloom debuted at #7 on the Billboard album chart (yes, the main Billboard album chart, not the “Billboard Indie Albums” chart, or “Billboard Top 100 Albums By Baltimore Bands” chart, or “Billboard Hot 100 Albums Produced By Joe LaPorta” chart). Seriously… what’s with all the Billboard charts these days? Anyway, Bloom is, in a nutshell, a dream pop masterpiece. The album opens with “Myth”, a pretty guitar riff and a basic beat… but quickly builds layer after layer after layer of sound. I haven’t smoked weed in God knows how long, but if I were to smoke up and listen to this song it’d be one of those songs that starts like any other but one that you could soon find yourself lost in, and about halfway through you’d lean over to a friend and say something like “Dude… this is like,… incredible!”. Beach House’s songs have always been more like “pieces” than “songs”, as delicate as a butterfly, yet with a strong backbone, too. And I say that not as an indie music snob. It’s a considerable compliment. Their music is, as lead singer Victoria Legrand says in “Irene”, a “strange paradise”. And a beautiful one at that.

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Honorable Mentions

This is just a short list of some of the other albums from 2012 that I liked but that didn’t make the Top 10. I’m sure that I’m forgetting a few, so don’t send me emails if I’ve forgotten one!

Best Coast – The Only Place – I love their brand of happy, California jangle pop, but I want to see more from them on their next album.

Public Image Ltd. – This is PiL – Not their best effort, but some good tracks all the same. Plus, it’s nice to know that Lydon is still alive and kicking.

Keane – Strangeland – I loved Hopes and Fears, but am one of those people who really didn’t care for Under the Iron Sea or Perfect SymmetryStrangeland isn’t perfect, but it’s a step back to the band I once loved. Well, liked a lot, I guess.

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die – I like Lana Del Rey. I mean, I’m not going to join her fan club or anything, and if she’s a “one hit album wonder” I wouldn’t be totally surprised. But this was a pretty solid disc, and I’ve really enjoyed all the… discourse on the Internet about her. The girl made one album that didn’t sell, so she changed her persona and now she’s popular. Katy Perry did it, and no one cared, Lana Del Rey did it, and a million indie blogs were OUTRAGED. Go figure.

The Ting Tings – Sounds from Nowheresville – Yes, I like The Ting Tings. Sue me. But while this album shows an impressive range of styles, once wonders why they bother. R.E.M. could have made an album with Public Enemy, Barbra Streisand and Einsturzende Neubauten… but that doesn’t mean anyone would want to listen to it.

Soft Swells – Soft Swells – From a review: “This is an album that’s meant to be played in a moving car, with the windows rolled down and the promise of warm weather ahead. Be forward-thinking and start making your summer playlist now—and put Soft Swells at the very top”.

Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror – You know how you sometimes want to listen to something loud and obnoxious? Sleigh Bells has you covered.

Alpine – A is for Alpine – Easy, breezy Australian pop that sounds like it comes from Scandinavia. What’s not to love?

Beat Connection – The Palace Garden – How can you go wrong with a band named after an LCD Soundsystem song? This is happy synthpop that actually makes you want to go to the beach, rather than hide in a dark nightclub.

Dead Can Dance – Anastasis – Wow! What are the chances of having two albums in this list with “-stasis” in the name? This album is… fine. It’s the band’s first since 1996 and the first ever on a label that’s not 4AD. But it’s just… it’s just that Dead Can Dance’s music is no longer very… unique. That’s not a knock on them, really. The album is good. It’s just that you can buy music like this by the ton now thanks to the Internet. And Lisa Gerrard has done music for so many movies (40 by my reckoning) it’s like she never really went away, either.

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