Best Albums of 2012
I’m always absorbed in music. There are innumerable ways to experience art in sound, so of course it’s impossible to quantify the quality of an album – although sites like AOTY are helpful as a general guide. This list is mostly personal preference, but with an ear to recommend both popular and obscure (mostly rock and jazz) albums to other music lovers. I have more to share about that, but let’s get to the list(s) first…
Andrew Bird – Break it Yourself (Alternative, March) This is the year that Bird’s music finally hit me. “Danse Caribe” & “Give It Away”
Chilly Gonzales – Solo Piano II (Piano, August) The most creative pop pianist I’ve heard in years. “Kenaston” & “Train of Thought”
David’s Lyre – Picture of Our Youth (Alternative, February) “These Trees” & “Only Words”
Fiona Apple* – The Idler Wheel (Alternative, June) “Werewolf” & “Every Single Night”
Muse – The 2nd Law (Rock, September) “Animals” & “Madness”
Rufus Wainwright – Out of the Game (Alternative, April) “Jericho” & “Out of the Game”
Top new discoveries (for me)
- Django Django [self-titled] (Psychedelic Rock, January)
- Father John Misty – Fear Fun (Folk Rock, April)
- Frank Ocean* – Channel Orange (R&B, July)
- fun. – Some Nights (Pop Rock, February)
- Gregory Porter – Be Good (Jazz, February)
- Jacques Schwartz-Bart Quartet – The Art of Dreaming (Jazz, March) This is a great new conceptual album in the traditional style, and the kind of album to take in during a special moment.
- Jessie Ware* – Devotion (R&B, August)
- Kendrick Lamar* – good kid, m.A.A.d city (Hip Hop, October)
- Kimbra – Vows (Pop Soul Jazz? May) From New Zealand, she was featured in Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
- Max Richter – Recomposed Vivaldi – The Four Seasons (Neoclassical, October)
- Menahan Street Band – The Crossing (Soul Instrumental, October) Collaboration of backup musicians for Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones, The Budos Band, and more.
- Pilotpriest – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Electronic, June) Best 99-cent 26-track album I purchased this year.
- Rodriguez – Searching for Sugarman (Soundtrack) (Folk Rock, July) Amazing film about a forgotten musician from the 70s. These are selections from the albums he released in his heyday.
- Silversun Pickups – Neck of the Woods (Prog Rock, May)
- Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil – Cloud Atlas: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Film Score, October) A film partially based around its namesake sextet; the music holds the film together remarkably. See also my review of the film.
Nostalgia (90s and earlier)
- Bobby Womack* – The Bravest Man In the Universe (Soul, June) Comeback album (produced by Damon Albarn of Gorillaz) from 60s soul legend.
- Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream (Blues, April)
- Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball (Folk Rock, March)
- Dave Matthews Band – Away From the World (Alternative, September)
- Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day (Rock, November) 2007 concert film and 2-disc live album, reviewed here.
- Lisa Marie Presley – Storm & Grace (Blues, May) Finally, a producer (T-Bone Burnett) has allowed her voice to shine.
- No Doubt – Push and Shove (Pop Rock, September)
- Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now? (Bluegrass, February) The next project from Chris Thile of Nickel Creek.
- Robert Cray – Nothin But Love (Blues, August)
- Sigur Rós – Valtari (Ambient, May) Their “mystery film experiment” of music videos from the album is fantastic.
- Soundgarden – King Animal (Rock, November)
- Toadies – Play.Rock.Music. (Rock, July)
2012 was the 20th anniversary of the following albums, to name a few: Rage Against the Machine, Automatic for the People, The Chronic, Little Earthquakes, Check Your Head, Core, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, Vulgar Display of Power, Blind Melon, Grave Dancers Union, Broken/Fixed, and Singles (soundtrack).
Slippery (honorable mention)
- Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls (Blues Rock, April)
- Amadou & Mariam – Folila (French/English Mali, April)
- Anaïs Mitchell – Young Man in America (Folk, February) Like Joanna Newsom, sans harp.
- Antony and the Johnsons – Cut the World (Chamber Pop) I was never particularly drawn to Antony Hegarty’s previous work, but you can really feel the intensity of his music and voice on this live album.
- Bettye LaVette – Thankful N’ Thoughtful (Blues, September) She’s been making records for 50 years.
- Cassandra Wilson – Another Country (Jazz Vocal, June)
- David Guetta – Nothing But the Beat 2.0 (Dance Pop, September)
- Ellie Goulding – Halcyon (Electropop, October)
- Elsiane – Mechanics of Emotion (Hybrid Electronica? April) 2007 album is top knotch. Haven’t had a chance to listen to this as much, but the musicianship and production is pristine.
- Esperanza Spalding – Radio Music Society (Vocal Jazz Funk, March)
- Gary Clark, Jr. – Blak and Blue (Blues Rock, October) Clearly influenced by Hendrix.
- Hot Fiction – Apply Within (Alt. Blues Rock, October)
- Hugh Masekela – Jabulani (South African Wedding/Afro-Jazz, January)
- Jesca Hoop – The House That Jack Built (Indie Folk, June)
- John Talabot – Fin (Deep House, February)
- JuJu & Jordash – Techno Primitivism (Ambient, September) Instrumental comparison to NIN and Pink Floyd + extra spice.
- Kelly Hogan – I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (Country, June) She tours with Neko Case.
- Linkin Park – Living Things (Hard Rock, June) It lacks the cohesiveness I’m looking for in an album, but there are several standout tracks, like “Tinfoil”/”Powerless” and “Burn It Down.”
- Lord Huron – Lonesome Dreams (Psychedelic Folk, October) Like Madness in Miniature, I may enjoy the album art more than the music for this one.
- Melissa James – Day Dawns (Blues Jazz Soul, June)
- Mr. Gnome – Madness in Miniature (Garage Rock) Released in late-October 2011, I couldn’t resist sharing their visual art here.
- P!nk – The Truth About Love (Pop, September)
- Quantic & Alice Russell with The Combo Bárbaro – Look Around the Corner (Soul, April)
- Raúl Lara y Sus Soneros – Cubano Soy (Salsa, August)
- Ryan Shaw – Real Love (Soul, May) This guy has a voice that can kill.
- Santigold – Master of My Make-Believe (Electropop, April) Often compared to M.I.A.
- Teen Daze – All of Us, Together (Chillwave, June) They released two albums this year. This is another one with a great album cover.
- The Roots – Undun (Hip-Hop, December 2011)
- Twin Shadow – Confess (Indie 80s, July)
I’m lucky to have a job where I can listen to my headphones and hear two, three, or even four albums by the end of the day. With a free wifi connection and unlimited streaming through MOG (for $10/mo, similar to Spotify), it’s amazing how much music one has access to these days. Even so, no music service has a complete collection, so you may notice a few great albums missing from this list that I never got around to (like the new one from the Chromatics or Andy Stott) or from genres that I’m just not into. I’ve listened to all the albums on this list at least two or three times, and the ones on “Top 6” at least seven or eight times.
My primary criterion is the album’s cohesiveness as a whole. Most of these do not have standout singles – see my Best Songs of 2012 for those. I haven’t had a chance to pay attention to the lyrics for a lot of these albums; most of my judgment is based on the sound of the vocals – not the meaning of the words, which usually comes later for me.
Also of note: I’m generally not including anything released in November or December this year. I need an album to settle and gel before I can give it a fair assessment. And I do realize that my categorization here is flawed, but it felt right to me!
* On a lot of Top Album lists worldwide.