Happy New Year, gentle readers!
I don’t care what the fogies or hipsters say: 2012 was a great year for music. Music never dies and if you put the time and effort in, there is greatness to be had and discovered. Although this list has quite a few returning favorites, there are also some breakout hits, new artists, and other nuggets of excellence in my Top 10 this year. As I usually disclaim, my Top 10 and subsequent Honorable Mentions are chosen with all of the following criteria in mind: personal faves (cuz this is my blog and fuck you), critical reception, public opinion, and overall badassery. I love all genres equally, so I like to have a list that is representative and eclectic, while still abiding by my ignorant, yet justified creed that Country music is just something that dumb people have imagined in their tiny little brains.
Awkward transition. Enough already, right? Here we go:
10: Walk the Moon – Walk the Moon
Based in Cincinnati, Ohio, this four-some Pop Rock outfit is definitely an up-and-comer. Their melodies are infectious, sometimes sugary, but never wavering in attitude. It’s dance-rock at its finest – a definite party starter. The band also gets bonus points for pulling out tunes like Bowie’s “Lets Dance” and Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal” live. Their shows are visual representations of everything the album showcases: vibrant riffs, larger-than-life sing-along choruses, and energy to the max. They may be young, but with a successful follow-up, they could very well become the next Killers. I wouldn’t count them out for a second.
Hear Here: Anna Sun, Jenny, I Can Lift A Car
9. Screaming Females – Ugly
Screaming Females leading lady Marissa Paternoster means business. She’s the band’s only screaming female, in fact, screeching and shredding her band through angsty punk and hard rock cuts album after album. Paternoster even made SPIN’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time – no surprise to anyone who’s seen the band’s live show. Ugly is their fifth official effort and is all the proof one needs to recognize these guys as a cohesive rock powerhouse. Though earlier albums are rawer and messier, Ugly shows growth without losing edge. Take a bite, bang your head, scream along.
Hear Here: It All Means Nothing, Doom 84, Extinction
8. The Killers – Battle Born
Battle Born is the album The Killers have been waiting to make their entire career. Having started with Hot Fuss, a youthful romp through New Wave and Pop, the band then traversed through Springsteen-esque rock, steel drums, saxophones and more, eventually landing to the Battle Born era of huge Arena Rock songs, bolstered by Flowers’ booming vocals. It’s a slow burn, but those that put in the effort are rewarded with an album that just feels huge, undoubtedly able to fill the large scale arenas and venues that The Killers always wished they would play. In a world where Kings and Keys grow up and gain traction while losing….something…The Killers have grown and matured without ever sacrificing artistic integrity. This album may not land on many top lists from this year, but it should.
Hear Here: Flesh and Bone, Runaways, Battle Born
7. Emeli Sandé – Our Version of Events
Emili Sandé is somewhat of an Ellie Goulding-type story. America will catch up later, rather than sooner and that’s a shame. Sandé has played in both the Opening and Closing ceremonies at the London Olympics. She’s written songs for Rihanna, Leona Lewis, Cheryl Cole, Tinie Tempah, and more. The Scottish singer’s album peaked at number one in the UK shortly after its February release. After all this and countless television appearances, she’s still yet to make a huge “Lights”-like explosion across the pond. Regardless, Our Version of Events is one of the best R&B albums in recent years. Her voice is powerful, packed with the emotion of her own music and lyrics (the singer states that she never wanted to be an artist who performed other people’s music). Though a “new” artist, she sounds wise beyond her 25 years.
Hear Here: Heaven, My Kind of Love, Breaking the Law
6. Tame Impala – Lonerism
Every couple of years an album is released that sounds like it was found hidden in a time capsule buried in the 60’s, yearning for the present day to come to its senses and discover it. Welcome to Lonerism, an album that sounds so intimately connected with the zeitgeist of the past after canoodling with the sounds of The Beatles, The Who, and Pink Floyd, and more. Hell, it even sounds like Floyd members played on this record. Its influences ooze throughout every song, with the support of modern song structures and arrangements, psychedelic keys and synths, and undulating tempos. It zigs and zags throughout its 52-minute trip, dipping into the past and the present, simultaneously. It’s a divine, near-perfect listen. If you missed this one in 2012, you missed out.
Hear Here: Apocalypse Dreams, Endors Toi, Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
5. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
Cloud Nothings are a great tale of Indie Rock awesomeness. Originally starting as a solo project in the basement of singer Dylan Baldi’s parents house, Baldi recorded in GarageBand and posted on MySpace under several different fake band names. Cloud Nothings was one of them. A couple years, three band members, and one record deal later, Cloud Nothings released Attack on Memory, the third official release, on Carpark Records. It’s everything you’d want from a true indie band: An authentic garage feel, dark and desperate lyrics and themes, and relentless energy as the album unapologetically stomps through a meager 34-minute run. You’ll play it once and immediately spin it again. Though youthful, short and sweet, the album is just as calculated, precise and determined. Look no further than “Wasted Days” – a track about not living up to your own potential and expectations. When Baldi screams “I thought I would be more than this” at the end of the nine-minute rager, you’ll get the chills.
Hear Here: Wasted Days, No Future/No Past, Separation
4. Jack White – Blunderbuss
Hasn’t everyone drank the Jack White Kool-Aid by now? Make no mistake, White is a sensational song-writer, musician, and rock star. In fact, he’s one of the few true rock stars we have left. With Blunderbuss, White finally settles into his solo groove with a polished collection of tracks that he wrote, recorded, and produced entirely by himself. He’s one of the few Jack-of-all-trades the industry has left and Blunderbuss goes to show exactly what White is still capable of: White Stripes-esque rockers like “Sixteen Saltines,” slower introspective tracks like “Love Interruption,” and the ever-so-slight twang of the title track. The best part about Blunderbuss? The confirmation that if he can’t scratch an itch with The Dead Weather or The Raconteurs, he’ll set out on his own. There’s seemingly no stopping him and no limit to what the man can do. And only good can come from a restless spirit like White.
Hear Here: Sixteen Saltines, Trash Tongue Talker, Weep Themselves to Sleep
3. Garbage – Not Your Kind of People
Free from the oppressive rule of a major label, Garbage is currently making some of the best music of their career. Impressive, though it’s not like they weren’t around the block before (Butch Vig, anyone?). Releasing this album under their own StunVolume, Not Your Kind of People feels like Garbage circa the 90’s: the production is slick (as always), the drums are mean, and Shirley Manson’s lyrics are dark, foreboding, and real, forging a bond with its audience. And those guitars on “Blood for Poppies”? What’s not to love? A lot of bands calm down by the fifth or sixth album, unplugging their guitars for quieter fare. Garbage are not those kind of people. They’re not afraid to make a balls-out, heavy and electrified track like “Battle in Me,” and I fucking love them for it. These four are a group of seasoned, under-appreciated professionals and Not Your Kind of People deserved way more fanfare, way more critical praise, and way more time in the spotlight than it was given this year. I won’t make that mistake here.
Hear Here: Automatic Systematic Habit, Battle in Me, Beloved Freak
2. Santigold – Master of My Make-Believe
If Santigold (née Santi White, Santogold) releases an album, you put it on your top albums list. Plain and simple. No other artist is doing what she’s doing on the music scene right now, nor doing it with such grandiose artistry. Master of My Make-Believe picks up right where her debut left off, with beautiful arrangements and funky beats (thanks in part to a slew of producers including Switch, Diplo, Nick Zinner, Greg Kurstin, and more). She’s quite possibly the most eclectic artist of late as well, masterfully blending rock, pop, hip-hop, funk, and more into her own genreless concoction. Whether listening to the fierce, bouncy single “Go!” (featuring Karen O), the airy, lulling “Disparate Youth” or the bass-bumping “Look at These Hoes,” there is no mistake that you’re listening to a Santigold record, no matter how diverse the sound or message. It’s the glory of being caught off-guard; of strapping in and letting her take you for a ride from beginning to end. It’s always a breath of fresh air.
Hear Here: Disparate Youth, Go!, The Keepers
1. 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
When Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel released back in June, I had a pretty good idea that the album would land in my Top 3 this year. As the months went by, I couldn’t shake or match that excitement. I praised it left and right in conversation, at live shows and here on the blog. What Apple accomplished tops anything else she’s ever done: it’s musically complex and puzzling, it’s terrifyingly honest, it’s dark. It’s everything we’ve ever come to love about Fiona Apple and her music, magnified. The album’s arrangements zig when you think they will zag. On first listen, the melodies are hard to grasp, yet they wash over you, leaving listeners with nothing to do but accept them and cling to them. Apple shows maturity here, both in her songwriting and her demeanor. She accepts her life as is without trying to make excuses. She’s come a long way from her “Criminal” days, and The Idler Wheel is Exhibit A, B, and C. Though it feels somewhat unsettling to listen to at times, it’s a sigh of relief that artists are still making music this interesting and this real.
Hear Here: Left Alone, Jonathan, Daredevil
Honorable Mentions: If I wasn’t such a lazy blogger, I’d expand this list to a Top 20. Here are some honorable mentions that I loved this year, but fell slightly short of the Top 10:
Mika – The Origin of Love
Of Monsters and Men – My Head is an Animal
Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Bruno Mars – Unorthodox Jukebox
Nada Surf – The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy
Muse – The Second Law
Chairlift – Something
Green Day – Uno!