In 2012, I easily listened to more new music than I have in the past 3 or 4 years combined, due in large part to my writing music reviews for Mockingbird (although not as many as I would have liked—curse you grad school!) as well as my newfound Spotify addiction. The variety and scope of my listening this year made creating this list somewhat difficult, but I’ve been able to narrow down my list and I’m thrilled to share it with you. Of course, a number of my choices have found their way onto lists across the internet, but there are a few on my list that I haven’t seen with any regularity on other year-end lists. This year, most of the albums I’ll highlight are the ones that stuck with me throughout the whole year and that I played over and over. In that respect, these really are my favorite albums of the year. Here’s to hoping that you might find something fresh and exciting to listen to as we embark on a new year.
If you had told me at the beginning of this year that The Killers would have been making any appearance on my year-end list, I most likely would have laughed in your face. Yet, on Battle Born, the band crafts solid song after solid song, and I found myself restarting the album time and time again. Sure, there were other albums I listened to this year that were more creative than Battle Born, but this album stuck in my mind like those didn’t. While the Tom Petty and Springsteen influences are still obvious over the course of the album, the band seems to finally have their own vision, using those influences as a starting point, rather than a blueprint, for their own music. The Killers still know how to create catchy music, as “Runaways” and the title track show, but the most growth on Battle Born comes from the band’s management of the slower songs like “The Way it Was” and “Be Still.” Throughout all of the songs on Battle Born, there is a relentless optimism that pairs wonderfully with the band’s anthemic rock, and ultimately makes Battle Born one of the better rock albums this year.
Best Songs: “Runaways,” “A Matter of Time,” “Battle Born”
After a five year hiatus, James Mercer and The Shins returned with Port of Morrow, an album that balances light and dark tones seamlessly throughout its running time, creating a varied and realistic picture of life and its struggles. Community and love are extolled on songs like “Simple Song” and “It’s Only Life,” while Mercer considers heartbreak on tracks like “For a Fool” and “40 Mark Strasse.” Musically, the band sounds invigorated, and songs like “The Rifle’s Spiral” and “No Way Down” resound with an energy that was missing from The Shin’s last release, Wincing the Night Away. Likewise, Mercer’s lyrics on Port of Morrow largely eschew the abstract nature of those on Wincing the Night Away, which gives this album more relatability and emotional impact, proving that Mercer and company still have stories to tell and music to make.
Best Songs: “Simple Song,” “It’s Only Life,” “No Way Down,” “40 Mark Strasse”
While certainly not as rowdy or hard-hitting as his work with the Hold Steady, Craig Finn succeeds in delivering another high quality set of songs on his inaugural solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes. Whether he is telling the story of love lost (“Rented Room,” “Balcony”), musing about friends with problems (“Jackson,” “Terrified Eyes”), or dealing with weighty spiritual themes (“Western Pier,” Honolulu Blues”), Finn never deviates from his tried and true honesty. There is a lived-in quality to Finn’s lyrics and music that is hard to find in today’s world, where vulnerability is often seen as a sign of weakness. Ultimately, Clear Heart Full Eyes is an album about growing old, becoming comfortable with yourself, and finding redemption in unlikely places.
Best Songs: “No Future,” “Jackson,” “Honolulu Blues,” “Balcony”
7. Theatre is Evil – Amanda Palmer
Part maniac punk energy, part tender piano ballads, Theatre is Evil is a genre-twisting, impeccably sequenced whirlwind of musical intensity. Anchoring this constant musical and thematic shifting (look no further than the heart-rending “The Bed Song”transitioning into the peppy “Massachusetts Avenue”) is Palmer’s voice, leaping from hushed, high tones to full-bodied punk yelps, occasionally within the same song. On “Lost,”Palmer sounds like Regina Spektor, quirky lyrics and music abounding, while on piano-driven songs like “Bottomfeeder”and “The Bed Song”she exhibits an emotional and vocal range akin to Fiona Apple (more on her later). That these slow burning tracks are effectively juxtaposed next to romps like “Want It Back”and “Olly Olly Oxen Free,” vocally and musically recalling various incarnations of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, only stands as a testament to the album’s success in keeping my attention through a varied and exciting track listing. While perhaps not the most meaningful musical experience of this year, Theatre is Evil is certainly one of the most enjoyable.
Best Songs: “The Bed Song,” “Melody Dean,” “Lost”
Unlike Manners, Passion Pit’s previous album, Gossamer is an emotionally draining experience, fueled by lead singer Michael Angelakos’ struggles with mental illness. Fractured and intense, Gossamer’s music matches Angelakos’ lyrics, mapping the mood swings and vagaries of his depression as the album tells his story. “I’ll Be Alright” stands out as a perfect example of the album’s shifting tones, its dark lyrics juxtaposed against the light tone of the song’s spastic background vocals and frenetic drumming. Gossamer marks an evolution in the band’s sound, as several of the tracks dial back the quick tempo of Manners and allow Angelakos to abandon the falsetto that occupied almost all of Manners’ music, giving the band a more dynamic range than on their first album. But more than all of this, Gossamer is one of this year’s highlights because of the journey Angelakos takes us on which ultimately end in a beautiful moment of grace on the album’s final track, “Where We Belong.”
Best Songs: “I’ll Be Alright,” “Constant Conversations,” “Love Is Greed”
If for no other reason, Some Nights deserves to be on my list because, since its release in February, it has been a constant presence in my music listening lineup. The band’s infectious blend of pop and indie rock captured my attention this year, along with the attention of the radio due to their monstrous single, “We Are Young,” a dramatic ode to youth and lost love. While not quite as strong as the band’s first album, Aim and Ignite, fun.’s sophomore effort continues to evoke the epic and anthemic nature of the music of Queen and various other arena rock bands, abounding with big hooks and soaring vocals. Much like Mumford and Sons, fun., while definitely more cynical lyrically than the British folk band, is bringing sincerity and real emotion back to pop radio, and we are all the beneficiaries.
Best Songs: “Some Nights,” “Why Am I The One,” “All Alright”
4. Handwritten – The Gaslight Anthem
Without a new album from The Hold Steady this year (although I did get to see them put on an incredible show in July), I had to find my rock and roll fix somewhere else. Enter The Gaslight Anthem and their new album Handwritten, a tight, focused, and smart album that hits all the right notes. Handwritten strikes a remarkable balance between nostalgia and contemporaneity, as the band builds upon the foundation of rock and roll bands that have come before them, without simply copying the sounds of the past. The album bursts out of the gates with “45,” a rip-roaring, straight up rocker that begins an exuberant five song run unmatched by any other album this year. The Gaslight Anthem’s music retains a hopeful, meaningful edge, but tempers that enthusiasm with a well-worn experience, creating a collection of songs on Handwritten that can proclaim hope and peace in the midst of this tough world.
Best Songs: “45,” “Handwritten,” “Here Comes My Man,” “Biloxi Parish”
3. Transcendental Youth – The Mountain Goats
Last year, The Mountain Goats topped my year end list with All Eternals Deck, a poignant, powerful assemblage of songs that championed acceptance of pain and doubt as the first step toward recovery. While Transcendental Youth won’t be at the apex of my list this year, it is still one heck of an album, containing plenty of John Darnielle’s fantastic lyrics. Musically, the album incorporates horns and brass throughout its running time, continuing the new exploration of sonic textures that started on All Eternals Deck, and some of the songs on Transcendental Youth are among the catchiest the band has ever recorded. The upbeat music doesn’t disguise Darnielle’s exploration of the darker areas of life on songs like “Cry for Judas” and “Harlem Roulette,” yet his searching and abstract lyrics ultimately push through the darkness, finding sparks of life in unlikely places. An excellent follow up to my favorite album of last year, Transcendental Youth is a balm for the broken-hearted, suggesting that healing often begins with an admission of the problem.
Best Songs: “Cry for Judas,” “Until I am Whole,” “Counterfeit Florida Plates,” “Transcendental Youth”
2. The Idler Wheel… – Fiona Apple
Without a doubt, Fiona Apple’s voice shines on The Idler Wheel, meshing perfectly with the scattered percussion and piano that populates the musical backdrop of the album. Her voice rises and falls, twisting and turning through pain and rage, before blossoming into unexpected tenderness. As morose as some of these songs are, The Idler Wheel remains musically enchanting throughout, due to its inventive percussion, Apple’s ever-shifting vocals, and her gift for lyrical imagery. While the album may seem sparse on first listen, careful listening reveals layers of sound that add up to make each song a powerful experience, especially the album’s closing track and my favorite song of the year, “Hot Knife.” Every song on The Idler Wheel can stand on its own merits and Apple has truly created one of the year’s most accomplished and consistent albums.
Best Songs: “Daredevil,” “Werewolf,” “Periphery,” “Hot Knife” (seriously, go listen to “Hot Knife” now)
1. good kid: m.A.A.d city – Kendrick Lamar
There are many reasons I could give for selecting Kendrick Lamar’s major-label debut as my favorite album from 2012 (impeccable production, great hooks, excellent guest spots, etc.), but only focusing on those reasons would be selling this album short. For, at its heart, good kid, m.A.A.d city is a story of sin, death, grace, and redemption, with Lamar using his experiences growing up in Compton to craft a remarkable artistic statement about issues like drugs, gang violence, and poverty without ever coming across as overtly political. In fact, I would argue that Lamar suggests that the root, and therefore the solution, of these problems is spiritual, closing the album’s climatic track “Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst” with some of the album’s characters praying to Jesus for salvation. Unexpected and powerful, this moment is grounded in a messy and painful reality, certainly one that I can’t talk about with any accuracy, and it speaks with authority into the world that Lamar has created. In my opinion, Kendrick Lamar has not only made the best album of the year, but also the most redemptive, capturing an image of relentless grace that finds its way into the darkness and leaves it a little brighter.
Best Songs: “Money Trees,” “m.A.A.d city,” “Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst,” “Real”