The Best Albums of 2012 (So Far), Selected by Bonnie Stiernberg – Assistant Editor
1. Diamond Rugs – Diamond Rugs
My love of this record has kind of become a running joke in the office at this point, but I don’t care. Is the debut from this supergroup (made up of Deer Tick’s John McCauley and Robbie Crowell, the Black Lips’ Ian St. Pe, Dead Confederate’s Hardy Morris, Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin and Six Finger Satellite’s Bryan Dufresne) high art? No way. It is, however, sweaty and unpolished with just the right amount of self-awareness—everything a great rock record should be. Whether it’s the horns on “Call Girl Blues” or St. Pe’s laissez-faire delivery on “Hightail,” there’s a certain devil-may-care vibe that permeates the album, and it’s infectious. So come at me, coworkers! This one’s staying on repeat for the foreseeable future.
2. Rufus Wainwright – Out of the Game
Usually when an artist “goes pop,” it’s considered a bad thing, but Rufus Wainwright’s collaboration with producer Mark Ronson is his best work to date. Musically, it’s clear he’s drawing inspiration from greats like Billy Joel (the title track) and Queen (“Welcome to the Ball”), but lyrically it’s much more personal. The gorgeous “Montauk” is a song for his infant daughter, and the understated “Candles” pays tribute to his late mother. Best of luck trying to maintain a dry eye during either track.
3. Howler – America Give Up
It is embarrassing how many times I’ve listened to “Back of Your Neck” since this album came out in January. That’s not to say liking the song is anything to be ashamed of—in fact, it’s got a killer guitar hook and a perfect surf beat that make it one of the year’s finest. But the sheer number of plays on this thing suggest something bordering on obsession. It’s best, I’ve found, not to fight it; instead, follow the album’s titular command and surrender to its addictive grooves.
4. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
Not all of us make Zooey Deschanel money, so when it rains, we don’t have Siri to get us tomato soup delivered. Instead, we trot out this record whenever it’s dark and gloomy outside. There’s something about these Swedish sisters’ beautiful country harmonies that make this entire album (especially the one-two punch of “The Lion’s Roar” and “Emmylou”) the sonic equivalent to a warm blanket or, yes, a bowl of soup. Whether you’re feeling under the weather or the forecast’s just bumming you out, these cozy tracks are exactly what the doctor ordered.
5. Nick Waterhouse – Time’s All Gone
If you don’t know anything about Nick Waterhouse, you might be inclined to double-check the release date on this one. Everything about it—from Waterhouse’s ‘50s rhythm and blues-inspired howl to his sharp suit and Buddy Holly specs on the cover—brings to mind a bygone era. Fans of early Ray Charles will dig the female back-up singers and lively horn arrangements.
6. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
On Tramp, Sharon Van Etten teamed up with the likes of The National’s Aaron Dessner, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Beirut’s Zach Condon for her best effort yet. She delivers hyper-personal lyrics that, while they could very well be ripped from the pages of her diary, still resonate with anyone who’s ever felt unsure of themselves.
7. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Frontwoman Brittany Howard is equal parts Janis Joplin and Robert Plant, and though she can wail with the best of them, some of the finest moments on the Alabama Shakes’ debut occur when she dials it back and reveals an understated soulfulness beyond her years. The title track is the best example of this, as Howard subtly moans my favorite lyric of the year: ”’Why’ is an awful lot of question.”
8. The Shins – Port of Morrow
These aren’t the same Shins who changed Natalie Portman’s life, but line-up changes don’t hinder Port of Morrow in the slightest. James Mercer and company prove they can still put out undeniable indie-pop hooks with songs like “The Rifle’s Spiral” and “Simple Song.” On the latter, Mercer sings, “I know that things can really get rough when you go it alone,” and thankfully, he’s found some excellent new collaborators (including Joe Plummer and Janet Weiss) to ensure he doesn’t have to.
9. The Walkmen – Heaven
There was a brief period last year when, for reasons I won’t go into and through absolutely no fault of their own, I thought The Walkmen were ruined for me. Then they came back with Heaven, and all my stupid personal hang-ups were instantly erased. Heaven’s cool sophistication is impossible to ignore. Tracks like “Love is Luck,” “Heartbreaker” and the anthemic “We Can’t Be Beat” make this a record that not only demands repeat listens but also inspires me to revisit the stellar back catalog of one of my old favorite groups.
10. 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
I thought I had a pretty good idea of what my top 10 would be last week, but then Fiona Apple had to disrupt everything by releasing this phenomenal album. I panicked and slipped it in at number 10 because I haven’t had a chance to spend as much time with it as I’d like to yet, but it’ll no doubt be ranked much higher by year’s end.