The Best Albums of 2012 (So Far), Selected by Max Blau – Multimedia Editor
1. El-P – Cancer4Cure
While finishing Cancer4Cure revitalized El-P as an artist, the making of this record was anything but a walk in the park. Between the death of close friend and peer Camu Tao and shutting down his label Def Jux, the Brooklyn rapper/producer turned inward in order to gain clarity. These 12 songs loosely document his personal battles fought over the past five years, resulting in an album on par with anything El’s released in his 20-plus year career. But don’t take it from me; take a cue from his use of a Camu Tao sample in “The Full Retard” which brilliantly demands: “You should pump this shit like they do in the future.”
2. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Two summers ago, I first heard and became obsessed with Japandroids’ “Younger Us”—a fiery single that at first seemed without a proper home on a full-length album. The Vancouver-based duo of Brian King and David Prowse thankfully made the song a centerpiece on their dynamic sophomore LP Celebration Rock—a record that’s raw, earnest, brash, loud and life-affirming. Like on their debut Post-Nothing, Japandroids remain relentless from the get-go, infusing their pulsating anthems with epic sing-alongs as they shout out choruses that “yell like hell to the heavens.” The album is short, which isn’t surprising, but these eight songs are the best 35 minutes of rock ‘n’ roll to be released this year.
3. Father John Misty – Fear Fun
With Fear Fun, Father John Misty fleshed out his once-minimal sounds, combining his longstanding knack for songwriting as J. Tillman with a lushly arranged effort. Josh Tillman has inexplicably flown under the radars of music fans and critics alike, taking a backseat during the rise of the Fleet Foxes. His new record, however, is an early frontrunner for this year’s best folk album, more than justifying his initially puzzling decision to leave his former band.
4. Zammuto – Zammuto
When The Books called it quits, a part of the music lover inside of me died. As much I loved The Books, I was pretty hesitant about the prospects of a Books solo project forming immediately following the band’s indefinite hiatus. But my fears were quelled as Nick Zammuto’s new band and self-titled debut combine enough experimentation for longtime fans to be satisfied, while adopting a more direct and accessible approach. Zammuto is the best of both worlds, formidably kicking off the post-Books era with a sense of optimism.
5. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
After 15 years, a dozen studio albums and hundreds of shows and an endless creative pursuit of new musical ideas, Andrew Bird’s Break It Yourself is his most direct release to date. It took him a decade and a half to get to become comfortable with both collaboration and compositional simplicity, but these areas of creative progression continue to show Bird’s refusal to settle as a musician. Break It Yourself also ends a chapter in his illustrious career—it won’t be Andrew Bird’s last studio record, but it does mark a transition that will more likely find Bird fulfilling his “reckless curiosities” on his own terms. If this is Bird’s swan song, he’s left on a high note.
6. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
Produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner and joined by an all-star cast of indie-rock A-listers, Sharon Van Etten pulled out all the stops for Tramp. While her first two records hauntingly displayed her talents—draped in an ocean of heartbreak and lament—the Brooklyn singer/songwriter’s third album showcases her abilities without relying on a particular theme or emotion. Members of Beirut, The Walkmen, The National, Wye Oak, and Antony and the Johnsons surround her on Tramp, but there’s never a moment of hesitation about Van Etten shining front and center amongst her talented cohorts.
7. The Men – Open Your Heart
Everything about The Men is straightforward—their name, their music, their songwriting—and that’s a breath of fresh air when an inordinate number of bands are trying to make music larger than music itself. The foursome of Mark Perro, Nick Chiericozz, Chris Hansel and Rich Samis, exude their direct influences without sounding trite on their third record, Open Your Heart. As a result, there’s plenty of punk-rock ethos reminiscent of MC5 or Iggy Pop as well as some laidback country-rock jams.
8. Hospitality – Hospitality
Hospitality’s eponymous debut is an undeniable pop record. Every year, I find myself consumed by a record in this vein (last year it was Telekinesis’ 12 Desperate Straight Lines). Amber Papini’s infectious vocals and quirky, intelligent lyrics along with the band’s irresistible hooks make this an easy record to turn on and a difficult one to turn off.
9. Buxton – Nothing Here Seems Strange
Buxton has been around in various formations for eight years, releasing three albums over that time. It’s their third album and New West debut, Nothing Here Seems Strange, that marks a breakthrough for this rising Americana act, one with the ability to recall the likes of My Morning Jacket’s or the Avett Brothers’ earlier work. This Houston sextet’s time has come, and Nothing Here Seems Strange simply begs to be heard.
10. Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light
Throughout his career, Jason Pierce (also commonly known as J. Spaceman) has been above all things an enigmatic musician. As his cover art (featuring an octagon with the word “huh?” in it) shows, the space rocker often seems to be out of the loop. On Sweet Heart Sweet Light, Pierce has stated that his mindset was affected by meds taken for his liver disease, which led to him forgetting portions of the recording process. It seems like the details behind a Spiritualized record are almost always hazy, adding to Spaceman’s lore. Here, he’s created a sprawling pysch-pop work that’s both catchy and fragmented in healthy doses, coming together into a dynamic work of beauty.