The best music of 2012
Every year, The A.V. Club invites its music writers to pick their favorite albums of the past 12 months, dispersing 100 points over a maximum of 20 albums, awarding no more than 15 points to a single album. We then tally up those points and arrive at our annual best-of list. (In the event two albums tie for points, the album with the greater number of votes wins. If they also have the same number of votes, it remains a tie.)
While this year’s top pick was a clear winner, there was also some divergence in opinion: Out of 12 ballots, writers assigned their highest points to 43 different records. The writers’ ballots are also available for perusal, so check those out and let us know what we missed out on or what you agree with. Either way, enjoy the list and find a new record or two to fall in love with.
24. (tie) Pilot To Gunner, Guilty Guilty (13 points, one vote)
New York band Pilot To Gunner released one of the best independent rock records of the decade in 2004, Get Saved, then promptly toured itself to death. After a long layoff and search for a label, it finally re-emerged this year with Guilty Guilty, a de facto posthumous album that makes a strong case for a Pilot To Gunner revival. Recorded once again with J. Robbins (Yeasayer, Against Me!, Murder By Death), Guilty Guilty is another intoxicating collection of rock songs indebted to punk and post-hardcore (including Robbins’ old band, Jawbox) but catchy enough to fit on a bill with Foo Fighters. If this is the last chapter for a band that went sadly unheralded, it’s a good one.
24. (tie) Dion, Tank Full Of Blues (13 points, one vote)
In his later years, Dion has found moderate success playing authentically rendered blues covers, even earning a Grammy nomination in 2006. It’s a perfectly comfortable (if not particularly exciting) way for an aging rocker to wind down his career, but Tank Full Of Blues proves Dion’s creative fire still burns bright. Within a basic power trio, he blazes through a set of rousing originals, exhibiting inspired songwriting and remarkable guitar work. From grease-slick riffs to jagged solos, Dion jams like he’s in a bar basement earning his dinner money. The album’s biggest accomplishment, however, is making classic blues feel contemporary and relevant.
23. Bob Dylan, Tempest (13 points, two votes)
Fifteen years ago, with Time Out Of Mind, Bob Dylan proved that he could be creatively viable in his old age, and ever since he’s been in a good groove, returning every few years with another album full of sprawling ballads and bluesy rockers, delivered in his ever-deepening rasp. Tempest is one of the liveliest of this terrific recent run, emphasizing the pleasures of twangy guitar jams alongside Dylan’s usual rumpled prophetic rambles. In this context, Dylan’s meandering treatises on the many great storms of America’s past become just another instrument in the mix, moaning softly but insistently.
22. Cat Power, Sun (13 points, three votes)
For Sun, the first Cat Power album in nearly a decade with any kind of rough edges, Chan Marshall ditched her backing Dirty Delta Blues band to record almost entirely alone on her own dime. The result is yet another reinvention from a songwriter who’s had her share, a beat-heavy rejection of both the broken-doll balefulness of her early work and the cozy blues of her soft period. Marshall is no longer consoling herself; she’s taking herself and others to task, chiding them for their ignorance and vanity. “A hundred thousand hits on the Internet/ But that don’t mean a shit,” she scuffs on the deceptively titled closer “Peace And Love.” If there’s any love in that track, it’s the tough kind.
21. Sun Kil Moon, Among The Leaves (14 points, two votes)
Although Mark Kozelek is well known for his Neil Young-esque electric guitar freakouts, his recent work with Sun Kil Moon has been stripped down and subdued. That trend continues on the autumnal Among The Leaves: Most songs putter forward on the strength of expertly plucked nylon-string guitar and Kozelek’s wrinkled, knowing voice. Still, these minimal numbers are rich and lively (the folky “Red Poison” and “Elaine” are particularly affecting), and Among The Leaves’ lyrics temper his usual Eeyore outlook with wry observations about road life (the description of his fans in “Sunshine In Chicago” is dryly funny) and aging.
18. (tie) The Walkmen, Heaven (15 points, one vote)
Over the course of a dozen years, The Walkmen have gone from wandering souls searching for catharsis in spiky reverb to gentle dads whose understanding of the softer side is even more striking than their ability to rock. It’s been a three-album trail into Heaven—with two nearly perfect albums before it in You & Me and Lisbon—and its sweetness is as surprising as it is profound.
18. (tie) Future Of The Left, The Plot Against Common Sense (15 points, one vote)
Future Of The Left is the nastiest, snarliest band on the planet that also happens to make incredibly catchy music. Hidden behind a wall of profanity and distorted bass are some of the funniest, earwormiest rock songs in recent memory, from the synth-assisted “Polymers Are Forever” to the trust-fund jam “Sorry Dad, I Was Late For The Riots.” Dive into the snarl, and some real humor—and some real anger—awaits.
18. (tie) Field Music, Plumb (15 points, one vote)
At once more compact and more ambitious than 2010’s unwieldy (but often awesome) Measure, Field Music’s fourth LP, Plumb, zips through 15 songs in 36 minutes, though a lot of those songs are brief fragments linking one finely honed art-rock exercise to the next. The Brewis brothers continue their competing infatuations with XTC-style guitar-pop and Genesis-style prog—evident not just in a sound that’s both catchy and experimental, but in lyrics that seek to covey the rhythms of life in an English city. Plumb moves from rhythmic clatter to moments of striking loveliness that seek to alleviate the steady pressures of everyday living.
17. The Men, Open Your Heart (16 points, two votes)
It’s a little too easy to view The Men’s Open Your Heart as the mere sum of its influences. Homages abound throughout the album, all of them reaching back to hallowed punk and indie heroes of the age of huge guitars: Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers, The Replacements, Dinosaur Jr., Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth. But amid the pastiche is a celebration of what makes that era of music so vital—and why it remains so. Eschewing the rigid, precious, antiseptic sounds of post-millennial indie rock, Open Your Heart does exactly as its title promises: It cracks open long-ossified veneers with hooks, riffs, screams, drones, chants, and unhinged twang. And then it spackles everything together with slovenly distortion and joyous desperation. That said, there’s nothing sneering or condescending about The Men’s alternately vicious and tender songs; rather than trying to change anyone else’s mind, the band is simply disgorging the warm, messy contents of its own.
16. Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas (18 points, two votes)
Leonard Cohen’s first album in eight years is titled Old Ideas, but it’s by no means another one of those death-fetishizing, career-twilight albums. Cohen has become a wizened poet, but he isn’t ready to leave the physical realm behind; for one thing, he’s still getting laid, even if the sex isn’t as good as it used to be. In a gravelly croak that tracks mud over even his prettiest pastoral arrangements—he’s finally outgrown those cheapo synthesizers—Cohen cracks wise with the satisfaction of a stubborn old man who’s learned that promising to change your ways doesn’t mean actually having to.
15. Rush, Clockwork Angels (18 points, three votes)
“I can’t stop thinking big,” sings bassist Geddy Lee on “Caravan,” the opening track of Rush’s Clockwork Angels. Written by drummer-lyricist Neil Peart, the sentiment is a telling one. Although written from the vantage of Clockwork’s main character—a young man in a steampunk world reaching toward his destiny—the line may as well be Rush’s lament as well as its rallying cry. The group’s cerebral bend and uncompromising complexity has made it, in its own words, “the world’s biggest cult band.” Clockwork does nothing but flex every strength that makes Rush so enduring: As the hero’s journey of Peart’s protagonist unfolds, epic battles of celestial forces take place. But it’s the internal, human struggle of philosophies—pet Peart issues like free will vs. fate, individuality vs. the common good—that drive the disc’s emotional narrative. It doesn’t hurt that the music is some of Rush’s best in ages, a lush yet sinewy layering of prog intricacy and classic songcraft that’s every inch the equal of its concepts.
14. Grizzly Bear, Shields (19 points, two votes)
Following the enormous arrangements of 2009’s Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear ratchets the energy up yet another notch, but in intriguingly intelligent ways. While Shields delivers some of the most vigorous rock of the band’s career, it’s packed into abstract, complex compositions that take a little time to unravel. Though the record’s delicate hooks and layered melodies occasionally prove elusive, they are never lost, and the contrast of tumult and tranquility provides a riveting dynamic the band never quite achieved through orchestration alone. Shields is a puzzle of pop deconstructionism in which examining the pieces is as enjoyable as seeing the overall picture.
13. Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream (20 points, two votes)
Miguel’s sophomore album is laden with classic reference points—Marvin Gaye and Prince are the two more common touchstones—but its sonic flourishes ground it firmly in R&B’s current creative renaissance, placing Miguel in the same conversation as Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, even though Kaleidoscope Dream is speaking a slightly different language than those artists. While Kaleidoscope Dream does make occasional forays into the weird, Miguel is a songwriter much more in the classic tradition than his more boundary-pushing contemporaries, and his silky-smooth voice and gift for gorgeous harmony contribute to the album’s sexy, inviting vibe. Lead single “Adorn” was one of the best radio hits of the year, and it offers only a fraction of Kaleidoscope Dream’s sensual delights.
12. Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits (20 points, three votes)
It’s entirely unsurprising that an album by a band featuring Spoon’s Britt Daniel and Handsome Furs’ Dan Boeckner contains snappy pop songs (the Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga-reminiscent “Flaggin’ A Ride” or dive-bar-jukebox bruiser “Would That Not Be Nice”) and tunes flush with keyboards (brittle new-wave gem “The Salton Sea” and the ghostly indie-pop of “My Love Is Real”). But Divine Fits’ debut transcends its members’ origins by combining retro flourishes (’80s-inspired synth quirkiness, classic-rock muscle, sweaty soul) with moments of swaggering piano and intricate lyrics about the agony and ecstasy of love. In the end, it’s one of the year’s most refreshing albums.
11. Kendrick Lamar, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City (23 points, four votes)
Too often over the last decade hip-hop has been presented as a false choice between commercial hedonists like 50 Cent or moralistic alternatives like Lupe Fiasco, but Kendrick Lamar embodies the vast gray area in between. A prodigal rapper with complicated opinions on every subject, Lamar disavows the violence of his beloved native Compton on his ambitious debut for Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint, but also challenges listeners who might idealize him as a guiltless conscious-rap flower child. “If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me?” he raps. “If I mentioned all of my skeletons, would you jump in the seat? / Would you say my intelligence now is great relief?”
10. P.O.S., We Don’t Even Live Here (25 points, two votes)
The three previous, excellent full-length releases by P.O.S. have been defined by their intense, restless energy and informed by the Minneapolis rapper’s punk-rock background. But with his fourth, We Don’t Even Live Here, he adds a new element to the mix: dance music. These are not the dubstep breaks and EDM flourishes that have infiltrated so much hip-hop and pop music in the last few years; rather, We Don’t Even Live Here uses harsh synths and aggressive, industrial-leaning beats to foster a dark yet danceable energy that plays well with P.O.S.’ previously established hardcore leanings. It makes for an album that’s a lot of fun while not being remotely frivolous: P.O.S.’ rhymes continue to be fittingly antagonistic for a man whose initials stand for Pissed Off Stef, but they’re more in the spirit of gleeful anarchy than humorless scolding, particularly on album standouts like the glitchy title track and the outstanding “Fuck Your Stuff.” A handful a guests both expected (P.O.S.’ comrades from Doomtree and Marijuana Deathsquads) and not (Boys Noize and especially Justin Vernon’s gorgeous contribution to “Where We Land”) contribute to a stunningly confident yet unaffected take on living outside the norm, where things can be a lot more scary, but also a lot more fun.
8. (tie) Titus Andronicus, Local Business (25 points, three votes)
After the heavy Civil War imagery of 2010’s dense The Monitor, it makes sense that Titus Andronicus would scale back on Local Business. Where The Monitor had a small army of contributors, Local Business uses only five, and the previous album’s spoken-word interludes have disappeared. But the New Jersey band hasn’t toned down: Local Business remains as anxious, angry, and sardonic as Titus’ previous work. In case anyone had any doubts, frontman Patrick Stickles opens the album with the line “I think by now we’ve established everything is inherently worthless / And there’s nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose.” Thesis statements don’t come more forthright, but wrapped up in a catchy song like “Ecce Homo” (which translates to “Behold the man,” what Pontius Pilate said when he presented Jesus to a hostile crowd), it feels more like an expression of freedom than resignation. That’s the specialty of Titus Andronicus: cynicism made cathartic. This is, after all, the band that turned “You’ll always be a loser!” into the sing-along of 2010 (in “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future”). Local Business doesn’t scale the same heights as its predecessor, but it works just as well on a smaller scale.
8. (tie) Bob Mould, Silver Age (25 points, three votes)
Bob Mould intended to start a new life at the beginning of the millennium, one that didn’t involve the guitar rock he pioneered as a member of Hüsker Dü and Sugar. But even when he went electronic on 2002’s Modulate, he couldn’t completely shake his signature sound. Since 2005, he’s steadily returned to that, but Silver Age marks his first top-to-bottom guitar-rock album since 1998’s tellingly titled The Last Dog And Pony Show. Ably backed by drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk, The Mountain Goats) and bassist Jason Narducy (Verbow), Mould plays with renewed vigor, making this return to form less a desperate appeal to wayward fans than a joyful celebration of making peace with his past. As he sings on “The Descent”—which could’ve appeared on Sugar’s Copper Blue—“I didn’t want to play the song / That gave people so much hope / I turned my back and turned away / Here’s the rope that made me choke.” He later sings, “God, I hope it’s not too late,” but Silver Age answers the question for him: When the songs are this good, it’s never too late.
7. Swans, The Seer (26 points, three votes)
Swans had been all but buried by the end of the millennium, after leader Michael Gira reconstituted his mercurial noise-rock ensemble into the hushed, eerily folky Angels Of Light. But 2010 saw Swans come roaring back with the excellent My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, a triumphant comeback by any measure. Gira did the seemingly impossible and topped it, however, with The Seer. Picking up where My Father leaves off, The Seer launches Gira’s droning crescendos, tribal symphonics, and apocalyptic ecstasy into an even higher plane of existence. Blues, folk, jazz, noise, and the pulsing echoes of 20th-century minimalism seep through the album’s dark sprawl; guest vocals from Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, and Karen O add dimension and chilling harmonics to Gira’s ominous liturgy. By the end the disc’s centerpiece, the half-hour-plus title track, psyches have been dissolved and realities have been reduced to rubble. And then The Seer just keeps on going.
6. Jack White, Blunderbuss (28 points, four votes)
Jack White took steps away from the White Stripes even before the band reached a definitive end in 2011 after attempting to record a seventh album. And while the albums White made with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather have much to recommend them, they don’t sound like they had White’s full attention during recording. Fans hoping he’d capture the old fire breathed a sigh of relief with the appearance of Blunderbuss. White’s first proper solo outing is filled with propulsive tracks and tender touches reminiscent of the Stripes’ work but with an identity all its own. There’s reflection and regret in the lyrics, but the songs are the sound of someone intent on moving forward.
5. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel… (32 points, three votes)
The business of making music has always appeared to be somewhat of a struggle for the reclusive, resolutely weird Fiona Apple; but the actual act of creating songs seems like a compulsion for the singer-songwriter. Apple’s fourth (and much-delayed) full-length, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, is an extraordinarily intimate album, full of audible exhales, raw-edged vocals, and percussive accents tapped out by Apple’s own restless hands, which become even more striking when experienced from within the cocoon of headphones. And Apple’s lyrics are more idiosyncratic and full-bodied than ever, as focused on her own faults and motivations as on those of others—epitomized in the standout tracks “Werewolf” and “Valentine”—but also displaying an unexpected playfulness, even lightheartedness, on closing tracks “Anything We Want” and “Hot Knife.” The Idler Wheel… couldn’t have been made by anyone other than Apple, whose extreme comfort with being uncomfortable—publicly, awkwardly, beautifully so—has created an album that’s stridently personal yet universal, unabashedly odd yet strangely lovable.
4. Sharon Van Etten, Tramp (32 points, four votes)
Tramp is exactly what the world should’ve expected from Sharon Van Etten: On her third album, the already-strong singer-songwriter took her weepy gorgeousness to bolder, better places. That’s not a slight on either Epic or Because I Was In Love, because both are terrific. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of growth, both sonically and from a songwriting perspective. There’s subtlety in the country keener “Kevin’s” and a newfound boldness in the unstoppable “Leonard.” But it’s “Give Out” that takes the top prize, a nervous, beautiful strummer that needs little more than Van Etten’s voice and guitar to create something huge. It should be noted that she had some great assists: Aaron Dessner of The National produced the album out of his home studio, and guests include members of Wye Oak, The Walkmen, and Beirut. She could’ve done it on her own, sure, but maybe not this well.
3. Cloud Nothings, Attack On Memory (49 points, five votes)
Given that Cloud Nothings are from Cleveland, they’re more than familiar with the Rust Belt’s gradual slide into a mass of abandoned buildings and weathered old men. It also means they’re deliberate, loyal, and committed—after all, to be young, in a band, and to stay in Cleveland rather than fleeing to Chicago or New York is an act of pure intent. It’s a commitment to a scene, a sound, and a lifestyle. Attack On Memory is Cloud Nothings’ love letter to the grit and grime of the Midwest and to the sense of helplessness that can easily eat up anyone who chooses to stay there. Tracks like “No Future/No Past” and “Stay Useless” are noise-rock opuses not only inspired by the band’s struggles but also imbued with its essence. As frontman Dylan Baldi sings on “Wasted Days,” “I thought I would be more than this.” Like other Cleveland rockers before them—Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, Rocket From The Tombs—Cloud Nothings are up against the wall in terms of what they want to do as a band and what’s possible for them, and, goddammit, they’re frustrated. Add to that the torment of being an artistic twentysomething and some excellent drumming, and it’s a classic record.
2. Japandroids, Celebration Rock (61 points, seven votes)
One of the year’s best albums is also one of the most aptly named. A go-for-broke rowdiness permeates Celebration Rock’s eight tracks, rife with joy, frustration, and the knowledge that the good times won’t last forever. The album’s thesis statement comes moments into opener “The Nights Of Wine And Roses”: “Long lit up tonight and still drinking / Don’t we have anything to live for? / Well of course we do / But ’til they come true, we’re drinking.” Celebration Rock owes its boisterousness to the album’s troubled genesis and Japandroids’ unlikely longevity. The band never intended to last this long; its 2009 album, Post-Nothing, was originally meant to be released posthumously, but a growing buzz kept the group going. When it was time to write a follow-up, guitarist-vocalist Brian King and drummer-vocalist David Prowse faced fierce writers’ block, eventually decamping to Nashville for six weeks to hash out the album. Even that only produced six of Celebration Rock’s eight songs; “Younger Us” was released as a single in 2010, and “For The Love Of Ivy” is a cover of The Gun Club. But it doesn’t feel undercooked or otherwise lacking, and the album’s brevity reflects its theme. During live performances, King often cites Japandroids as proof that any idiot can start a band and advises anyone who’s considering it to start one immediately. Unsurprisingly, Celebration Rock often feels like a call to arms. As King sings in the appropriately titled “Adrenaline Nightshift,” “When the plunder of poets, thunder of a punk’s guitar / Beat life into my body sulking drunk at the back of the bar.” With Celebration Rock’s propulsive, hook-laden songs, he and Prowse seem intent to do the same for someone else.
1. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange (74 points, nine votes)
It’s been a momentous year for Frank Ocean: a heart-stopping TV debut on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon that couldn’t help but go viral; dropping off of a tour with Coldplay; being covered by Afghan Whigs; the revelation of an other-than-straight sexuality. The world’s fixation on the R&B wunderkind, though, has neither overshadowed nor diminished Channel Orange, the singer-songwriter-producer’s debut full-length. The orchestral swell that launches “Thinkin Bout You” signals majesty to come: Against a backdrop of halo-lit ambience and deceptive compositional complexity, Ocean weaves multilayered, falsetto-ventilated narratives that crisscross quirk and cleverness with yawing wells of emotion and confession. The neo-soul slink of “Sweet Life” belies its left-field lyrical delights; the 10-minute, electro-funk opus “Pyramids,” recalls Prince’s “Automatic” in its sprawl and ambition. But it’s “Bad Religion” that’s rightly grabbed the most attention. A tender requiem for an unrequited love suffused in operatic strings and churchy organ, it’s not only Channel Orange’s standout track—it’s staggering proof that Ocean’s sumptuous, sly yet earnest reimagining of R&B has only begun.