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The 50 Best Albums of 2012

November 26, 2012  |  11:58am
The 50 Best Albums of 2012

With Thanksgiving in our rearview mirror and very few albums left on the release calendar, it’s time to look back at 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 January 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.


30. David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant
Love This Giant really doesn’t sound much at all like any of the work that either Annie Clark and David Byrne has done in the past; in fact, it’s so easily separated from their previous discographies that their distinctive voices are often the only recognizable signposts. Generally, the songs here are more simply built than the thickly layered, deeply textural intensity of the St. Vincent albums, with none of the pan-global quirkiness of Byrne’s solo work. Instead, we get little touches like the distorted didgeridoo drone on “Ice Age” (which, really, could have been either party’s contribution) that find the two communicating their shared sensibilities. Meanwhile the bulk of the album blooms from weird digital constructions and half-decayed samples, oddly arranged horn blasts and orchestrations, and a percussive sensibility that seems relentlessly dedicated to avoiding traditional rhythms at all costs. It is, in other words, a deeply weird and deeply lovely record.—Jason Ferguson


29. Killer Mike – R.A.P Music
“A no concession policy remains in force,” thunders a familiar voice on “Reagan.” As the right wing in American politics continues to lionize the 40th president, one Atlanta firebrand and avowed 99 percenter is steaming: Killer Mike. R.A.P. Music finds Mike on the offensive, taking an axe to the banks, the beltway and the history books. Like Occupy Wall Street, the movement that spawned more than a few signs reading some variation of “Ronald Reagan sucks balls,” R.A.P. Music is a synthesis of the confusion and rancid despair pervading every vacated storefront and foreclosed home in every corner of today’s economically bleeding America. Shoring up that ire is weirdo extraordinaire El-P, who elevates R.A.P. Music to a feral weapon of protest with beats that smoke like ether. The album is all go and no show: Southern-strategizing New York rap flush with the semblances of Cali groups like N.W.A. and Above the Law. El-P’s synths could score a spy movie; his drums are vicious enough to call forth the image of an elephant stampede; his drums hurt like last month’s jobs report. While the producer’s recent Cancer4Cure was funkier than funky, R.A.P. Music is more brutal than brutal. It used to be that Mike’s strangely lopsided catalog kept the prodigal talent out of Hottest MCs contention. Here, he crosses the qualification threshold. Even putting aside his berserk, imagination-defying technical skill—he stays deep enough in the pocket to get lost there—there’s not a wasted breath on R.A.P. Music.—M.T. Richards


28. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits
The band may feature two of the most charismatic indie-rock frontmen working today—namely, Britt Daniel of Spoon and Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs, along with New Bomb Turks drummer Sam Brown—but “supergroup” isn’t a word they really like. Divine Fits aren’t a one-and-done act like Zwan, or an outlet for egos like Blind Faith, or a retirement community like the Traveling Wilburys. They’re just a couple of guys who like each other’s music and enjoy hanging out and making music together. “Civilian Stripes” may be the heart of A Thing Called Divine Fits. It’s a short song, but powerful. “You can do what you want when the curtain drops and you get tired,” Boeckner near-pleads over an insistent acoustic strum. “Early in the night you went walking in your new civilian stripes.” He doesn’t sound accusatory or damning; instead he comes across as resigned yet newly determined. What gives Divine Fits its spark—what makes it more than a mere supergroup—is the pair’s enlistment in rock and roll not as lifestyle but as life. Starting a band doesn’t mean simply settling in as a “precious recording act,” as Daniel puts it; it means writing and touring and hanging out. It means, to twist a phrase from “Civilian Stripes,” living the unquiet life.—Stephen M. Deusner


27. John K. Samson – Provincial
It’s hard to say exactly why John K. Samson isn’t an instantly recognizable name, why this solo album has to be promoted as “John K. Samson of The Weakerthans.” Maybe part of it is that he’s just so darn Canadian. Samson takes pride in his homeland, but not the type of pride that makes him the Canadian equivalent of Toby Keith. He’s never shied away from the darkened corners and messy characters inhabiting his land. He’s just as generous with geographical references on Provincial; perhaps even more so, since this album was inspired by roads in Samson’s home province of Manitoba. Provincial is fully formed, not unlike a Weakerthans albums, and with some different collaborators to add some new textures, especially chamber arrangements. But no matter the instruments behind him, it’s the stories and images that stick. He doesn’t paint vague feelings with pastel watercolors. He revels in the details, placing you in front of the “gleaming knife display” at the Army surplus store, standing before an unresponsive automatic door (“just another door that won’t open for me anymore”). Samson gives stage time to seemingly mundane moments. Lightning doesn’t flash. It tattoos the sky: “Inky bruises punched into the sky by bolts of light, and then leak across the body of tonight.” Brick, drywall, billboards and other typically blurry, drive-by images come sharply into focus before Samson zooms out and sums up the entire “Heart of the Continent” backdrop in two words: “crumpled dark.” These roads and highways, these unflinching looks at despair bubbling just underneath the surface: It’s all proof that Samson loves his country not in spite of its brokenness, but because of it.—Joel Oliphant

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26. Bob Dylan – Tempest
Tempest is one of the most cohesive, musically and lyrically intense records Bob Dylan has put together in years. The songs take the listener on a dark ramble through the back roads of American popular music. Each melody is weighed down with memory, reminding the listener of real and imagined pasts, old struggles, hinting that there’s a world rapidly slipping through our fingers, if it’s not already long gone. It’s easy to hear the echoes of Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson and ancient Childe ballads from another fallen empire running through Tempest. But, these snatches of melody weren’t conjured to provide light entertainments or exercises in nostalgia. They’re imbued with intimations of mortality, backward glances and all different kinds of summing up. Dylan’s voice sounds more ragged than ever, yet it remains an astounding instrument that can communicate subtle shifts of emotion. There is a kind of perverse joy in every note Dylan sings as he delightfully croons and mangles his way through the lyrics of each of these songs. What he may have lost in range, he more than makes up for with the nimble, winking playfulness that dances underneath the wheezy, rusty bellows his voice has become. What’s amazing is that after making music for more than half a century, Dylan’s still engaged or has engaged again in creating personal, biting, irreplaceable music. Tempest is one hell of a fiery concoction, a swirling inferno of love gone wrong that always holds out the possibility of redemption coming between falling from the saddle and hitting the ground. There aren’t many records like this one, and if you give it time and it catches you, you’ll probably still be listening to it when the deal goes down and your own ship comes in.—Douglas Heselgrave


25. Grizzly Bear – Shields
These songs are labyrinths. Ethereal, harmonic, beautiful—but labyrinths nonetheless. Gorgeous and frayed, the wandering begins with “Sleeping Ute,” an opener with the waking dream feeling of an all-nighter meeting sunrise, with Edward Droste singing off-kilter and mythic riddles of “those countless empty days left me dizzy when I woke,” amongst the slither and slurp of Daniel Rossen’s guitar. By virtue of its beauty, Veckatimest became a part of its listeners lives. Shields has a similar opportunity to be integrated, but there’s something straining in its seriousness. Though at time reaching heavenly heights, Shields is, as the name suggests, a heavy, protected album, stuffy with an ennui particular to the young and gifted. It’s evidence that Grizzly Bear may be one of the great bands of their generation—if only they’d smile a little more. Or maybe, it might be said, that their sadness is our signature.—Drake Baer


24. Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
Personal struggles with addiction and troubles with the law, not to mention the connection of his folk-royalty father, Steve Earle, have meant that Earle the Younger, gifted as he is, has always had a specific narrative attached to him and his music. He lays it all down for us less than a minute into the album, and beautifully, amid gentle, echo-y electric picking and mournful horns that wind around his words like the Carolina coast he references. The gentle, plaintive beauty of the first track makes the mood whiplash of the next track, the driving sax-and-keys boogie of “Baby’s Got A Bad Idea,” all the more jarring. Again, Earle recounts his flaws and uses the “I wish I were a better man” line, but this time it’s about a woman, and his longing and frustration seems to grow with every growl and wail and admission he watches her while she sleeps. Nothing’s Gonna Change… is ultimately the kind of album you can curl up into, let the warm tones surround you and rest easy in a way that makes you feel like, “damn, everything feels right about now.” At the risk of sounding like a jerk, Earle’s album title is true. Nothing will change the way we feel about him: he will forever be tied to his father, his mythos, his demons, but above all, his ability to make really wonderful music. Nothing will change how we feel about him, and in his case, that’s a good thing.—Lindsay Eanet


23. Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t
Jens Lekman’s third album begins with a short overture titled “Every Little Hair Knows Your Name,” a scene-setting instrumental that lets you know right away that this is going to be his easy listening album. The piano plunks out a simple, melancholy melody; the strings swell bittersweetly; the guitar strums gently. It sounds like the culmination of his career, a record marking his arrival at a sound we knew he would get to eventually. The record sounds crisp, expensive even, but it never sounds slick or soulless. Instead, Lekman treats easy listening like a stray puppy. The world doesn’t want it anymore, but that just makes him love it all the more. Thematicallly, the stunted romanticism of easy listening fits his songwriting to a vintage T. Few lyricists have so successfully located the intersection between droll and devastated and clever and poignant, but Lekman has pinpointed it exactly. On the album’s best song, Lekman considers the stakes of his sadness: “A broken heart is not the end of the world, ‘cause the end of the world is bigger than love.” It’s supposed to be comforting, reassuring, the lyrical equivalent of a cup of hot tea, but it’s clear even Lekman himself doesn’t quite believe it. And that’s what makes him so relatable and charming: He may not know exactly what love is, but on I Know What Love Isn’t, he sure as hell gives himself over to all of love’s most ridiculous dreams.—Stephen M. Deusner


22. Hospitality – Hospitality
Hospitality’s self-titled debut is crammed to the brim with hooks: Amber Papini sings in a cutesy, faux-British lilt, almost as if she’s projecting these songs to herself in a hair brush while bouncing merrily in front of her bedroom mirror. And the music (conjured largely by bassist Brian Betancourt and multi-instrumentalist Nathan Michel) is simultaneously atmospheric and muscular, with superb, bottom-heavy production from Shane Stoneback (Vampire Weekend, Sleigh Bells) that gives the songs a beefy ’70s feel, in the mode of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Papini’s semi-autobiographical lyrics sprout in foggy clusters of detail—depicting the ironic disconnect of New York City’s overstuffed metropolis, where lonely, disillusioned souls wander aimlessly through mobs of faces, making plenty of social appearances but never true connections. There’s also plenty of heart in Papini’s vividly drawn world—New York seems to be an emotional and cultural roller-coaster that leads to an eventual dead-end, but Papini’s characters are magnetically drawn to this utopian mirage, just as the singer was in real life.—Ryan Reed


21. The Lumineers – The Lumineers
The Lumineers’ debut record is instantly gratifying—and not in the hasty, shallow way often found in pre-fab pop songs. While some records take days or months to properly digest, there’s an instant connection here, and that camaraderie is evident both onstage and on the record. Neyla Pekarek’s graceful strings, the steady roll of Jeremiah Fraites’ on the drums, and the charming twang of lead singer Wesley Schultz generate a sense of warmth and candor that the recent folk revival has been missing. The rustic trio marries uplifting jubilee and poetic earnestness with ease. The foot stomping single “Ho Hey” builds momentum with a tambourine and carries the melody with spirited chants and hand claps, a track so cheerful and exhilarating, it seems built for a live stage. The album is overflowing with upbeat, Americana gems, but the real power here is found in the more somber tunes. Schultz and Fraites formed the band after Fraites’ younger brother and Schultz’s best friend died of a drug overdose at a young age. The pair picked up the pieces, forged a friendship through their mutual loss, and later found Pekarek and the formula for The Lumineers. They found a way to channel those more dark and vulnerable moments in the heartfelt highlights of their debut record.—Alexandra Fletcher

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