This is it: my last-ever year-end BEST ALBUMS OF THE YEAR list I’ll ever write as Music Director for the Doobie. It’s been a great time. Before we delve into the best of 2012, let’s take a look back the my picks for the last three years of college. Obviously, AnCo’s Merriweather Post Pavilion was the album of 2009. Those were truly great times, musically and otherwise. We were living large. The next year, my sophomore year, was a little rough, but at least we were all given the gift of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I look back on the months surrounding that record’s release and smile. If I could make that the album of the year again, I probably would. If you haven’t done a revisit lately, I highly recommend it. It holds up. And then last year, 2011, my junior year, was nonstop good times, and Destroyer’s landmark disco reimagining Kaputt topped my best-of list.
So what’s this year looking like? What are the best albums of 2012? That’s a very tough question. The albums I enjoyed this year were not monsters but they were (are) incredible and solid works of art that I think will be with me (us) for a very long time. In fact, I think this year-end list might be the most small-scale I’ve ever compiled. I liked the Frank Ocean okay; the Kendrick Lamar is very good, although I don’t think I like OutKast enough to reallllly appreciate it the right way; I understand that Tame Impala is The Only Thing That Matters. Okay, okay. Maybe those are the Albums of the Year. But they’re not The Best. Complicating things even further, we had several beautiful singles on the radio this year that, on their own, ruled. You know what I’m talking about: “Call Me Maybe,” “Boyfriend,” “Starships.” Classics. But their respective full-lengths, while good (the Carly Rae Jepson album is chock full of great pop songs about going out with your girls after finally getting over your ex; the Justin Bieber album is full of hooks and the sort of slick production that sets its sights on Justin Timberlake’s career; the Nicki Minaj album is sort of disjointed but fantastic), are nowhere near best-of-the-year status.
Maybe I’m just getting jaded and lame in my old age. Maybe I’m writing too much off. Maybe, but I’m not. I’m listening to everything and I can tell you honestly that the following are The Ten Best Albums of 2012. What a year.
But first, Honorable Mentions: Dean Blunt & Inga Copeland: Black Is Beautiful (Hyperdub); Crystal Castles: (III)(Fiction/Polydor); 2 Chainz: Based On a T.R.U. Story (Def Jam); Daughn Gibson: All Hell (White Denim); Andy Stott:Luxury Problems (Modern Love)
10. G.O.O.D. Music: Cruel Summer (Def Jam)
Kanye always gets a spot on my lists, and although this album’s sum is certainly not as good as its parts, its part are world-stopping. Count the best ones on your fingers: “Mercy,” “Clique,” “The One,” “To the World,” “Don’t Like,” “Cold,” And (most of) the rest is highly notable as well. “The Morning,” “Higher,” and “New God Flow” are gorgeous examples of the modern day rap sound. That just leaves the Kid Cudi mistake “Creepers” and the totally forgettable “Bliss.” Oh, and the cheesy “Sin City,” which I actually kind of like. Not bad, not bad at all.
9. Lambchop: Mr. M (Merge)
Nashville, Tennessee’s Lambchop has been called “the most consistently brilliant and unique American group to emerge during the 1990s.” Well, I’d never listened to them before Mr. M, which is apparently their eleventh album. But brilliant they are. Mr. M is the sort of totally inviting record that sounds old, worn in, and relaxed upon first listen. The instrumentation has a slightly “alt-country” feel to it, though it’s more stately. I was playing this at home once and my mom asked, “Is this…really old?” Nope! Brand new! But I knew why she might think that. It’s soft, it’s got a lotta strings, some Burt Bacharach action; it’s almost lounge-y. The singer/bandleader, Kurt Wagner, adds a lot to the mood: he has this rounded, quasi-defeated voice that sounds like he’s leaning against the refrigerator as he’s singing, drinking beer between verses. And then his lyrics, too, are powerful yet opaque. When he sings, “the wine tasted like sunshine in a basement” in “Gone Tomorrow,” you understand exactly what he means, even though you really have no idea.
8. Sic Alps: Sic Alps (Drag City)
Sic Alps have been around for a while, making little noise songs and mic-and-amp-hiss pop for various sceney labels. This album though, their self-titled one, out on Chicago’s illustrious Drag City, elevates their sound to a completely higher level. Imagine if the Beatles were a noise band who practiced in a garage in San Francisco and you’d have a pretty good idea of how this sounds. It’s a short 30-minute rock n roll masterpiece with noise tendencies and tasteful flourishes of arty charm. That, and “See You On the Slopes” might win the award for best song title of the year.
7. Jens Lekman: I Know What Love Isn’t (Secretly Canadian)
The saddest breakup record I’ve heard in a long, long time. Heartbreaking. Jens, who is Swedish by the way, has clearly put a lot of thought into the subject. He once said: “I like breakup records that say, ‘It’s shit now, and it’s going to suck even worse, but we’re in this together.’” Indeed, the stern depictions of sadness and the highly plausible scenarios here are somehow also warm and comforting. From start to finish, I Know What Love Isn’t feels very much a solid whole, each song exploring slightly different aspects of romantic decline. “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder” highlights the mundane beginning of the end: “She asks you what’s wrong/ you say nothing/ it’s nothing.” In “She Just Don’t Want to Be With You Anymore,” he repeats the title over and over in this pretty and lilting way, making the statement sound like both a revelation and the most obvious thing in the world. Then, on “The World Moves On,” the album’s 6-minute centerpiece, Jens has figured it all out, singing, “And that’s what it’s like when you’ve had your heart broken/ the world just shrugs its shoulders and keeps going.” You have been hurt, Jens Lekman. You. Have. Been. Hurt.
6. The Shins: Port of Morrow (Columbia)
The first new material from the Shins in quite some time, Port of Morrow, thankfully, did not disappoint at all. Port of Morrow is a record marked by a startling and appreciated happiness and excitement. The first three (fantastic) Shins releases sounded upbeat, but all of that pop was disguising some very sad ideas. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and I don’t mean to say Port of Morrow is a major departure from the Shins we’ve come to know and love. But it is a positive and heartwarming progression. “Well this is just a simple song/ to say what you’ve done/ I told you about all those fears/ and away they did run/ you sure must be strong,” James Mercer sings on the 100% Shins-y “Simple Song.” That’s pure happiness, from a man very aware of the sadness he’s left behind.
5. King Tuff: King Tuff (Sub Pop)
Totally shredding punk rock riiiiiiiiifffffffs from Vermont’s King Tuff by way of Seattle’s Sub Pop Records. Like, this is such an addicting album. The first time I heard the first seconds of the opener “Anthem” blare out of my car stereo, windows down, at the beginning of the summer, I was hooked. Blustery chords, sorta shaky, blown-out drums, and then more rusty guitar tones. The slower ballads that pepper the album’s second half are also nothing to sneeze at. The most impressive is “Swamp of Love,” which sounds like some karaoke epic from another world: “Everything you do-oooo is always the sa-ameeeeee/ you’re lost in the words inside a your br-aaaaaain.” It’s King Tuff’s voice that pushes this all into can’t-stop-listening-to-it territory. It’s a whiney, pretty nasal sort of vintage sounding instrument that’s still wholly unique. His voice is impossible to duplicate and these songs are impossible not to sing a long with.
4. The Magnetic Fields: Love At the Bottom of the Sea (Merge)
Ah, where to begin with the Magnetic Fields. They are my all-time life-long favorite band; they are my Beatles. I’m certainly biased, but that doesn’t mean I’m not discerning. Love At the Bottom of the Sea could have been a little better. As it is though, it’s still terrific. First and foremost, it’s a refreshing return to the ‘Fields’s synth-based roots (the last three albums were entirely acoustic, believe it or not). Every single little synthesizer tone, every little vocal melody, every one of the dozens of hooks per minute hits some great sweet, sweet spot in the brain. And the lyrics––some of which took justifiable fire for trying a little to hard to be “funny”––are more often than not just pretty genius, reveling in their cheap rhymes and wordplay-with-a-capital-W. “We’re on the brink of something/ get me a drink a something/ quick/ between your outrageous remarks/ like the mating calls of sarcastic sharks,” goes one of the greater lines in “Quick!” The mating calls of sarcastic sharks! Maaaaaaan.
3. Mark Lanegan Band: Blues Funeral (4AD)
Woah this album is something else. Mark Lanegan, best known for his whiskey-soaked-down-and-out-neo-cowboy-Tom-Waits thing, blew every one out of the water with this one. It’s an electronic album but it still somehow evokes the barroom despair that is so much a part of Lanegan’s work. From the serrated, angry synth line and plodding drum sound that starts out “The Gravedigger’s Song,” it’s obvious that Lanegan is “going in a new direction.” It’s also obvious––and becomes downright revelatory as the album progresses––that that new direction is working out perfectly for him. “Bleeding Muddy Water,” anchored by only a drum machine beat and some atmospherics, is a terrifying blues song, Lanegan’s cigarettes-and-glass voice savoring and then spitting out every single word like he’s the saddest, alone-est bartender or eulogizer or ex-husband ever. Blues Funeral is an audacious mixture of styles that works far better than anyone could have thought.
2. Black Moth Super Rainbow: Cobra Juicy (Rad Cult)
Black Moth Super Rainbow are the original vibes. I got vivid memories of blasting their 2007 album, Dandelion Gum, from my friend’s VW Beetle at a late-August high school beach party just as the sun was going down. Or maybe that was just a dream. Maybe we were just stuck in traffic and the sun was too hot. Either way, Black Moth Super Rainbow are the original vibes. BMSR are a Pennsylvania-based band of weirdos who pride themselves on sticky aesthetics and using solely analog synthesizers and vocoders. All their albums are good, but this new one, Cobra Juicy, is the best thing they’ve ever done. The music still sounds like its being played on equipment that is gummed up with melted disgusting ice cream by people with sticky but bleeding fingers, and the vocals still sound like they’re being sung through microphones made out of black cotton candy––but there is one major yet subtle change: the songwriting.Cobra Juicy is all love songs. Deeply romantic love songs. “Your voice does this thing and your smile could wreck me,” from the epic “Psychic Love Damage,” is the most in-love lyric I’ve maybe ever heard. And its obscured sickly-sweet delivery only makes it that much more heart wrenching. The gorgeous line, “I can’t be without you/ fucked up when I’m livin’ without you/ used to color my whole day” echoes all over the closer “Spraypaint,” as its synth lines erode and evaporate into the thick, polluted air. Black Moth Super Rainbow have honed their craft––these songs feel truly crafted, in every sense––and released the best album of their career, a song set with subject matter as oddly sweet as their music’s always sounded.
1. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti: Mature Themes (4AD)
Haha! This is one of those records where you immediately get the hang of its song cycle, loving the song you’re listening to now but at the same time only looking forward to the one that’s coming next, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, etc. and then start the whole thing over again. Songs are over before you think they’ve ended, or else they go on for way longer than you remember; parts of songs are sampled from who knows what, or else parts of songs just sound eerily familiar. Ariel Pink has the totally chintzy aesthetic down like nobody’s business. But this was recorded in an expensive studio, which gives all of the material a very flattering sort of taped-together professionalism. There’s nothing on here as instantly classic as “Round & Round” from 2010’s Before Today, but, as a whole, Mature Themes is much cleaner and much catchier. Man, is this good. And it’s still totally weird!
Let’s see. A lot of other good things (besides just albums) happened this year, too. The best of the culture in 2012:
Song of the Year: Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”
Duh. What else would it possibly be. Song’s a force. Defined the year. Defined a generation? It’s fantastic pop. It will never sound bad.
Label of the Year: 4AD
4AD is the coolest ever. Since the early 1980s, the British label has been blessing/cursing the world with some of the hippest, darkest, gothest, coolest, and best music ever. They lost their way a little bit in the late 90s/early 2000s (who didn’t?) but over the past couple of years, 4AD has regained its frankly badass composure and re-mastered its taste. Two of their albums made it onto my Best of List (Ariel Pink’s Mature Themes and Mark Lanegan Band’s Blues Funeral), and their other major releases are sure to make their way onto other, bigger-deal lists, for sure. They struck gold with Grimes and Purity Ring. And when they signed Florida rapper Spaceghostpurrp it made complete sense. His debutMysterious Phonk: The Chronicles of Spaceghostpurrp, which 4AD released this summer, absolutely knocks. And also, avant-gardist Scott Walker just released (as in, like, today), his third album in 17 years called Bish Bosch, on none other than 4AD. I have not heard it yet, but so far reports are glowwwwing. 4AD 4EVR.
Concert of the Year: Lou Reed in Berlin
This was actually a great year for concerts for me. Obviously, CMJ in New York was the great, but that wasn’t really a concert as much as it was a whole several day perfect trip…so I’m not counting it here. Crystal Castles in Columbus was amazing. Purity Ring was really good, but something was a little off. Sasquatch! early in the summer was great too. But seeing Lou Reed, my all time favorite musician, live in Berlin in the pouring rain at the beginning of July was THE BEST. He was so crotchety, so bizarre. It was at an outdoor venue on the outskirts of Berlin called the Zitadel and I had no idea it was outdoors. It was pouring rain. But oh well! I got there a little late, and he was going right into “Heroin.” He did everything I could’ve hoped for: “I’m Waiting For the Man,” “Walk On the Wild Side,” “Sweet Jane,” a gorgeous, string-heavy “Street Hassle”… He did these classics and they were perfect, but Lou himself looked a little bored. It wasn’t until he tore into his new, terrible with-Metallica material that he really came alive. He was doing what looked like tai chi as he sung (or recited, or spoke) the lyrics to Lulu‘s “Brandenburg Gate.” He was loving these totally lifeless and self-serious songs! The fans weren’t at all! Also got probably the ugliest t-shirt I’ve ever seen in my life at the merch table.
Happy holidays, everyone!