The 50 Best Albums of 2012
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Paste’s Best of 2012 series continues through Dec. 31 and is made possible by our friends at Tretorn.
With Thanksgiving in our rearview mirror and very few albums left on the release calendar, it’s time to look back at the best of 2012 in music. We asked 32 different staff members and music writers for their favorite albums this year. They voted for 345 different LPs—representing just a fraction of the recorded music released since Jan. 1—and we’ve narrowed it down to the 50 best. Of course, everyone’s list looks different, and ours will look different than your own. The purpose of lists like these is simply to serve as a tool for discovery and discussion. Listen to some tracks you haven’t heard, and let us know your favorites from 2012 in the comments section below.
Here are the 50 Best Albums of 2012:
50. Grimes – Visions
Grimes’ Visions might be the Canadian artist’s third LP, but the album was no doubt her breakout as an emerging artist. The LP showed her sound refined after Geidi Primes and Halfaxa with looped, warping vocals, twisting synths and sequenced beats. With its constantly shifting tonal landscapes and non-standard structures, it’s the kind of music that’s exceptionally hard to peg on paper, but that never stops Visions’ tracks from looping in your head long after it spins to a close.—Tyler Kane
49. Kelly Hogan – I Like To Keep Myself In Pain
Kelly Hogan released her first record in more than a decade and did so with a dream team of backing musicians, including soul pioneers Booker T and James Gadson, Gabe Roth of the Dap-Kings and Hogan’s close friend and collaborator Scott Ligon of NRBQ. With songs written specifically for Hogan by friends and contemporaries such as Vic Chesnutt, Andrew Bird, Stephen Merritt, M. Ward and Robyn Hitchcock, it’s the perfect vehicle for this skilled interpreter and her deeply expressive voice. As always, musical omnivore Hogan dips her paintbrush in a variety of stylistic colors, whether carefully exploring subtle shades of a particular hue, or swirling them all together in an earthy, Hammond B3-swathed blend of country, soul, torch songs and classic pop. I Like to Keep Myself in Pain is a passionate, yet refined record, the culmination of all the years Hogan has spent quietly honing her craft, snug in the shadows of her more well-known peers. There’s a reason these respected artists have always called on Hogan—listen to this album and you’ll understand why.—Steve LaBate
48. Lord Huron – Lonesome Dreams
It’s no secret to anyone who hummed along to Lord Huron’s first two EPs that their seductiveness is deeply rooted in ripe and verdant polyrhythms. But strip away the hypnotic percussion, and lush melodies will have you drifting away on tropical breezes. On Lonesome Dreams, Lord Huron’s first full-length, lead songwriter Benji Schneider has made yet another batch of truly addictive of songs by spicing his jangly folk sensibility with lyrics of yearning and longing. It’s the perfect winter album for anyone who’s been saving up their vacation days and frequent flyer miles.—Jay Sweet
47. Baroness – Yellow and Green
The members of Baroness have always mixed in a little indie rock with their occasionally sludgy brand of prog metal. And they’ve always peppered their albums with pretty little classical- and folk-anchored tunes. But they’ve never pulled off either with the focus and sense of purpose they do on their latest. Nor have they ever sounded so eclectic, polished or mindful. In some ways, Yellow & Green could be seen as Baroness’ Black Album. While it won’t likely end up the crossover mega-hit Metallica churned out in 1991, the record finds Baroness following in the footsteps of its forebears in that the band is concentrating on proper singing and songwriting more than ever before. The album casts off the shackles of expectation while simultaneously taking a measured step in the direction of accessibility. But even with the slightly poppier feel and all the new sounds creeping in, there remains a welcome aggression to Baroness’ sound. Their mathy riffs and signature dual lead guitars still weave their way throughout; veins pumping with the same vital ichor that’s kept the band alive for nearly a decade. But there’s more depth this time—an orchestrated thoughtfulness that didn’t come through as intensely on the band’s previous efforts.—Steve LaBate
46. Damien Jurado – Maraqopa
Damien Jurado wasn’t kidding when he told fans that his new release was going to be unlike anything they’d heard from him before. Fifteen years and 10 albums into his career, the Seattle singer-songwriter seems to have found his ideal collaborator in producer Richard Swift, who worked with Jurado on 2010’s excellent Saint Bartlett. Where once there was stripped down folk, country and pop rock, Swift has helped Jurado flesh out his sound with breezy bossa nova (“This Time Next Year”), a spooky children’s choir (“Life Away From the Garden”) and some ’70s organ work (“So On, Nevada”). Jurado’s smooth-like-butter voice, acoustic guitar and world-weary dissatisfaction remain at the album’s center, supplemented by everything from seriously funky shredding on “Nothing Is the News” to seasick Spector psych on “Reel to Reel.” If this all sounds a little schizophrenic, never fear; Maraqopa’s experimentations aren’t those of a young musician set loose in a studio full of new toys. Rather, with this newest release, Jurado demonstrates that, at this late date in his career, he may just be hitting his stride.—Rachel Bailey
45. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?
If vocalist/mandolinist Chris Thile and his merry band of prog-grass virtuosos decided to record an album crammed with foot-stompin’ breakneck noodling, I’d be first in line to carry their cases to the studio and re-string their gear. But on the band’s third and unquestionably finest album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, the multi-talented quintet wisely continue doing what they do best: crafting off-kilter, classically-tinged pop songs that sound like absolutely no other band on the planet. Though every individual member clearly has the ability to rip into a tasty, long-winded solo at any given moment, Punch Brothers consistently choose the higher path—each instrument plays off its neighbor, Gabe Witcher’s radiant violin charging sparks off Noam Pikelny’s fluid banjo pokes. Every track is a small wonder of some sort as Punch Brothers cover a lot of stylistic ground in a short span—their eerily faithful interpretation of Radiohead’s electronic masterpiece “Kid A” proves their tastes are as eclectic as their fingers. And with the album’s heart-racing opener, “Movement and Location,” a brief summary can hardly encompass its power. They may have just crafted a masterpiece of their own.—Ryan Reed
44. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
A lot has happened in dramatic, instrumental-heavy rock in the 10 years since Godspeed You! Black Emperor released its last album, Yanqui U.X.O. to prepare the world for the band’s latest album. The time-tested tracks not only showcase the band doing what they do best in notoriously long, dramatic, panic-inducing instrumentals but are also startling reminders on why the band was so vital to the post-rock movement to begin with. Opener “Mladic” shows the band’s commanding hold on the dynamics that have defined the genre, but that’s just the start. It’s an unsettling, abrasive 20-something minutes defined by an opening of some sort of sick formula of dissonant notes and rhythms. We’re only relieved when the band comes crashing together toward the song’s halfway point for a Middle East-leaning gang riff that’s cathartic at least, and its defining, seven-note conclusion make the whole thing immediately rewarding. We get some relief on the flip side of the album in “We Drift Like Worried Fire,” a more linearly paced, building track compared to its counterpart. Here we see the band building, er, ascending on a melody that introduces the song before launching into a triumphant mess of tremolo-picked guitar and strings. It’s tense, it’s beautiful, it’s bleak, it takes the listener from point A to point B while leaving it up to us what the point of the ride is to begin with. Godspeed You! Black Emperor is back, if only for this album and the reunion shows that surrounded it, and it’s all we could ask for after a decade’s wait.—Tyler Kane
43. Stars – The North
Recreating the formula that sparked 2005’s Set Yourself on Fire, Canadian indie-rock band Stars has once again put its heart in the hands of love, heartbreak, drugs and producer Tony Hoffer. The North offers the same sense of depth and darkness that first propelled the five-piece into the limelight, but with an increased sense of awareness and age. The band has grown. The music has evolved. But the message of feeling alive despite all odds is more apparent than ever. Stars is a thinking man’s band, leading the listener down a winding road of mystic, self-medicated stories and melodies. The beauty of the band lies in the enchanting prowess of singer Amy Millan, whose call-and-answer vocals on “Do You Want To Die Together” are complimented by her falsetto-like voice on “Through The Mines.” Together, Campbell and Millan offer two distinct and breathtaking styles that combine to make a single work of art. Nothing seems rushed or misplaced. And just like releases that precede it, The North offers yet another glimpse into the minds of a band that challenges the barriers of genre and songwriting. Strip away the music and there will still be a song.—Joe Williams
42. Bettye LaVette – Thankful N’ Thoughtful
Bettye LaVette’s voice, sanded raw and consumed by emotion, is a powerful witness: strong, down and above all, real. Those attributes infuse Thankful N’ Thoughtful with a truth in being, a delivery rendered from experience that declares “I know” just by the way she squares up to the songs. Again drawing on a canon of known rock and pop songs—including Dylan, Tom Waits, Sly & the Family Stone, The Pogues and Neil Young—LaVette deepens their meaning with a slow-burn commitment to the lyrical nuance and the emotional resonance in the melodies. Just when we’re sure we know these songs, the gasoline-washed alto shows us how subtle the depths actually are. In a world where celebrities are famous for nothing and obsessions are driven by conspicuous consumption, LaVette is an anomaly. She’s done her time on the non-Motown side of Detroit, toured in Broadway’s Bubbling Brown Sugar and survived a fistful of stillborn deals; what would destroy most only made the worldly vocalist more resolved. She has the Midas throat: something that takes what we know and makes it more. On Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” a threadbare rock chestnut if ever there was one, it’s a lament more than a whine, a declaration of ennui that somehow keeps its dignity. Indeed, tackling Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken,” the song of the wages of time becomes a sassy rejoinder about not getting down. This is a proud woman who’ll call it as it is, yet refuses to lose heart, hope or happiness in the face of the storm. Thankful N’ thoughtful, indeed.—Holly Gleason
41. Of Monsters And Men – My Head is an Animal
Formed in Reykjavík in 2009 out of the remnants of individual members’ former solo projects, Of Monsters and Men has been a local favorite in their home country since winning a nationwide battle of the bands—Músiktilraunir—in 2010. And the band is at its best when all six instrumental and singing voices are heard. On the LP, Nanna Bryndís and Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson’s harmonies and alternating vocal leads shine in tunes like opener “Dirty Paws” and “Mountain Sound.” The instrumentation, which also features melodica, glockenspiel, accordion and horn flourishes (as exemplified in “Little Talks” and the outro/reprise of “Lakehouse”) keep the band from genre pigeonholes. And the band members’ excitement—the unbridled joy of just playing together—that’s felt on each up-tempo song is simply contagious.—Hilary Saunders