The best albums of 2012
We laughed, we cried, we listened to a shit-ton of music this year. Given our varied tastes in music (Norah Jones! Psychedelic electro! Frank Ocean!) it was hard to pin down a definitive Top 5, so we at Death and Taxes composed our personal favorites of the year.
Here are our collective 25 favorite records of 2012, in no particular order.
Bat for Lashes: “The Haunted Man”
Natasha Khan arose from a deep cloud of writer’s block to emerge victorious with her strongest record to date. While “Two Suns” proved Khan to be capable of delivering a fully developed world within a record, “The Haunted Man” feels more focused on each individual song. Not one track fades into mediocrity as Khan finds her voice and brings it closer to your ears than ever before. What makes the record truly stand out though is the strength Khan exudes herself over each song, opening the door in the wall for the album’s troubled soul whether it be the party-damaged “Laura” or the destroyed man she drapes across her soldier on the album’s unforgettable cover art.
Clocking in with three songs and just under 30 minutes, Burial’s new EP did more for me than any electronic release in 2012. In just three songs the south London native remind me just how good dubstep could be. “Kindred” is a dark ride through 11 minutes of pure bliss. “Loner” is a more up-tempo track that has a Paul Kalkbrenner house vibe to it. “Ashtray Wasp” concludes the record and is a bit all over the place, taking you through a journey of emotions. While many people and publications will say that this is not a true album in that it is only three songs, remember that some of the greatest punk albums of all time also clocked in under 30 minutes.
Lambchop: “Mister M”
Rainy afternoon music never sounded so good. What makes this album work is the charmingly mush-mouthed put downs from frontman Kurt Wagner, who is helped by some of the singular best production of the year. It’s a stark yet warm listen, and grows much more familiar with each repeated listen. Not wholly unlike their earlier work, but not wholly like anything you’ve ever heard before.
Tame Impala: “Lonerism”
There has been no greater fusion of electronica and psychedelia in the last 10 years than Tame Impala’s 2012 LP “Lonerism.” It is perfect, and I don’t use that word lightly. All the parts fit. It’s a great sonic engine that proves Tame Impala is one of the best bands on the planet.
In her interview with Nardwar over the summer, Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes, described her music as “the future of music” then quickly corrected the pompousness of the description, saying “it’s futuristic music.” To describe “Visions” as the future doesn’t feel quite right since the album is the most NOW sounding album this year, playing like what science fiction writers from the ‘60s might imagine what we’d be listening to in the 21st century. Sound aesthetic aside, this record also keeps the ears busy just in its hooks alone as well which somehow find a middle ground between placid vocal waves and ‘90s pop diva melodies. With a killer record and an adorably magnetic personality, Grimes is the undisputed indie queen of 2012.
Brother Ali: “Mourning in America”
Brother Ali’s “Mourning In America” was something different in hip-hop this year—released on Minnesota label Rhymesayers it blended a throwback sound full of bouncy beats and horns with whip-smart lyrics and a cohesive political philosophy. “Mourning in America” is an underdog story—not a rags to diamond grills story, but one about living with integrity and love in your heart while struggling to raise kids on minimum wage. Listening to the record makes you want to step up and do better. All that in a record that’s endlessly listenable and actually fun.
Andrew Bird: “Break It Yourself”
I find it is impossible to be in a bad mood when listening to Andrew Bird. He sings sappy songs, whistles, and plays a violin in a manner that somehow does not come off pretentious. His recent album “Break it Yourself” has everything you would want in an Andrew Bird album. “Give it Away” is an awesome modern pop song. “Orpheo Looks Back” has an amazing violin segment that rivals his best. Sometimes you just want a good solid album, and that is what “Break it Yourself” brings to the table.
Norah Jones: “Little Broken Hearts”
This is, by far, the biggest surprise of the year and a giant left-turn for Norah’s career. Any artist could have released this collection of songs and have been heralded with album of the year, but the fact that it’s from the formerly “aww shucks” / dinner jazz Norah Jones only adds to the fact that this is an incredible album. It’s her “Sea Change”, her “Kid A” – and for my money the best album of the year.
Rone: “Tohu Bohu”
With “Tohu Bohu” Rone put himself squarely in the rarified electronic music atmosphere of ’90s electronic music geniuses like Underworld, Orbital, Chemical Brothers and The Orb. Rone’s track “Parade” is pure, sublime hubris. The whole album is one sustained ecstatic truth, to borrow a phrase from Werner Herzog. Like all those ecstatic moments, the song works precisely because its whole is so perfect that it resists deconstruction, just as two magnetic poles repel one another.
Frank Ocean: “Channel Orange”
“Channel Orange” was the quintessential “breakthrough” record of 2012. It broke through genres, making R&B popular again; it catapulted Ocean (the sensitive side of the Odd Future collective whose most visible appearance had been a cameo on Jay-Z and Kanye’s “Watch The Throne”) to fame and a Grammy nod, and became a vehicle for discussing Ocean’s fluid sexual identity, which shattered a taboo in the hip-hop and R&B world. Kudos, Frank.
Japandroids: “Celebration Rock”
Hard rock made an unexpected comeback in 2012, but not in the uniform faux garage movement that took place in the early ‘00s as the album’s best rock records like Cloud Nothings’ “Attack on Memory,” Metz’s debut and this winner from Japandroids have no common link other than a lot of raw guitar and an equal amount of raw energy. “Celebration Rock” remains the most moving of the bunch due to its limitless spirit. These are anthems from and for the soul that scream with nostalgia while looking positively towards the future.
Sam Willis: “Winterval”
Sam Willis is one half of the electronic duo Walls. And on his solo debut, he entombs the listener in neo-Vangelis warmth (circa Blade Runner), as though we are being dropped into the realm of Morpheus, the bringer of dreams. It’s a master class in elastic ambient techno, startling in all its beautiful melancholy. The stand-out track has to be “Foxglissandro,” one of the most momentous occasions of electronica in recent memory. Willis is in full command of melody and arrangements here. Nothing missing, nothing superfluous.
Matthew E. White: “Big Inner”
“Big Inner” wasn’t exactly an innovative record in that it didn’t employ some fancy new technology to make sounds you’d never heard before. That said, it definitely didn’t sound like anything else that came out in 2012. White’s gentle, almost whispered voice that seems to communicate, “Hey it’s a gorgeous Sunday and I’m just taking it easy” combines with expansive, sweeping arrangements of strings and horns for an unexpected, totally inviting sound.
Hot Chip: “In our Heads”
With a handful of amazing albums already on their belt, Hot Chip continued to impress in 2012 with their new album “In Our Heads.” The album never lets up with trumpet solos and eclectic electronic beats that the band is so famously known for. Pop infused bangers such as “Night and Day” and “Motion Sickness” remind of us classic Hot Chip, while “Look at Where We Are” offers a contrast in the form of a somber yet sweet love song—my favorite tune of the year.
Action Bronson: “Blue Chips”
I’d put this one once a month and forget, every time, how easy it went down. You can fault him for his Ghostface-style delivery but you can’t fault him for some of the most confident and laid back verses of the year. The fact that they’re all on one mixtape together only adds to this surprising package.
Beach House: “Bloom”
It’s difficult to make a record that essentially “sticks to the formula” and is still equally or in this case possibly more powerful than its predecessor. This has occurred somehow with “Bloom,” Beach House’s followup to the impossibly beautiful “Teen Dream.” On “Bloom” we’re pulled through the same dreamy fields but rather it being the hopes of teenager, it’s the fading memory of an adult. Victoria Legrand sings “Do you lie or let the ashes fly?” on “Myth” it’s a startling revelation. Over and over the album examines the concept of living in the past forever which is perfect fit for the lush atmospheres and melodies that further pull the listener backward. “Bloom” is great because it has the ability to challenge the listener while not being challenging itself.
Makeup & Vanity Set: “88:88″
The soundtrack to a short horror movie (“88:88″) shouldn’t be this good, this expansive sounding, and this accessible. This is what the Daft Punk soundtrack to “Tron” should have sounded like – and what every long, nighttime car ride sounds like. This is the sound of driving through downtown Los Angeles after dark. It might not be at the top of everyone’s list this year, but it’s one of the best driving albums of the decade. Car talk, you guys!
Wild Nothing: “Nocturne”
Sometimes you just want to put on something smooth that won’t mess with your ecosystem too much. When everything felt chaotic this year, you could turn on Wild Nothing’s “Nocturne” and immediately feel yourself calm down—but not get bored or depressed in the process. Lush textures of expensive-sounding guitars and keyboards give it a dreamy feel, with some choice hooks along the way. The perfect soundtrack for looking out a plane window on Xanax.
Minotaur Shock: “Orchard”
Minotaur Shock’s 2012 LP “Orchard” is one of the year’s truly unheralded efforts. It probably isn’t appearing on many best-of lists, but it should be. The man behind Minotaur Shock, David Edwards, sought to brew a number of musical styles together—everything from The Orb and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynce to Virgina Astley and Autechre—and it bloody worked! Be sure to check out the single “Janet,” which is a hypnotic and playful bit of psychedelic stew.
Death Grips: “The Money Store”
When Death Grips dropped what would have been their second album for Epic “No Love Deep Web” this past October, it earned them a boatload of press that no major label PR could ever dream of buying. It also got them promptly dropped from the label. The fact of the matter is though, there really wasn’t a need for all that hooplah since the band already had a masterpiece under their belt released just six months earlier. “The Money Store” is more than just an update of their “Exmilitary” mixtape – it’s the group at their most diverse and at the peak (so far) of their songwriting abilities. It’s controversial followup is definitely an excellent listen, but there’s nothing on “No Love” that motivates like “I’ve Seen Footage,” that annihilates like “Hustle Bones” or that amuses like “Hacker.” Now with three records under their belt, it’s hard not to think “what’s next” for the band, but while we’re still basking in 2012, lets give this one a few more spins before it disintegrates.
Most music critics aren’t likely to agree with me that Squarepusher’s 2012 effort, “Ufabulum,” was one of the year’s best. Whatever. Squarepusher created an equal parts dense and spacious record. An alchemy of electronica that sounds absolutely brilliant blasting out of quality speakers. And it’s one of his strongest albums in years. A return to form, so to speak.
Azari & III: “Azari & III”
Canadian group Azari & III’s North American self-titled debut album was everything modern electronic music needed this year. With their soul infused beats and mesmerizing vocals the group brought a darker side of house music back to the United States. With monster singles “Hungry for the Power,” “Into the Night,” “Manic,” and “Reckless with Your Love” the group has been a staple to my soundtrack this year. The Canadians brought disco back to an oversaturated electronic marketplace filled with mediocre big room house and trance.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis”The Heist”
This pick even surprises me. While I normally try to stray away from this type of frat-hop (Atmosphere, Sam Adams, ect.) this album does much much more than serve as a backdrop for the local house party. I mean, how many fraternity members watch “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” (The group’s only network televised appearance)? Breaking down the barriers of gay marriage and discussing substance abuse are just two of many themes on this album. “Neon Cathedral,” “Starting Over,” and “Wing$” were some of my favorites off their album. While this choice will not get me any indie blog points, I don’t really care; it is a really good album.
Instead of “Oshin,” DIIV should have called their 2012 debut “Oshit,” as in, Oshit, who is that? It would have been appropriate, as this is the question I heard asked most often when their record came streaming out of my iPod this year. It’s hard to say what makes your ears instantly perk up when “Oshin” comes on—it’s a pretty atmospheric, dreamy-guitar record without major hooks, but it definitely has a certain x-factor that made it one of the best-loved records of the year. Opener “(Drunn)” might be the most recognizable and compelling instrumental track since The xx’s “Intro.”
Sophia Knapp: “Into The Waves”
“Into The Waves” sounds like the sort of thing you’d expect to hear on an AM radio at the end of the universe. Where other indie albums have equated loudness with purpose, Sophia opts for a subtle, almost subdued delivery. As with everything else on this list, it’s a surprising listen that sounds unlike anything else you’re likely to hear this year, or for that matter, any other. Knapp is well worth checking out.