The 50 Best Albums of 2012

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40. Todd Snider – Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Chock full of songs about crooked bankers, the pleasures of recreational drugs and the evils of organized religion, Todd Snider’s reputation as America’s favorite alt-folk shit disturber remains firmly intact with the release of his newest album Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables. There’s nothing easy or relaxing about any of the songs on here. Guns, backstabbing, betrayal and dreams left in the dust spew like shrapnel from Snider’s loose cannon approach to telling a story. The opening track, ‘In the Beginning,’ which argues that from the very start of civilization, religion has been the tool that the rich have used to control the poor, is typical of Snider’s perspective. Even when situations seem to turn out right in his songs, there’s always an implied threat around the corner. For instance, the deceptively gentle lullaby for “Precious Little Miracles” with its lovely vintage Hoagy Carmichael-style acoustic melody may lull listeners into a sense of calm at first, but listen carefully and lyrics such as “so, your school is a joke and you’ll always be poor and your pleas to the rich won’t be heard anymore/is that what you crazy kids are so upset for?” could be enough to set anyone’s day on edge. Add to that the sloppy, Keith Richards-style just-out-of-bed guitar riffs that Snider so obviously loves and uses to great effect on songs like the acerbic “New York Banker,” and Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables may just be a serious contender for the album with the worst attitude of 2012. Thanks Todd!—Douglas Heselgrave

39. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
Leonard Cohen’s newest collection is—hands down—his best studio album since I’m Your Man came out in 1988. A self-described “manual for living with defeat,” Old Ideas is a Leviticus and Deuteronomy of suggestions of atonement for carnal error and misplaced faith that puts to rest any idea that Cohen has mellowed with age. Though his “days may be few” as he sings on “Darkness”—the closest thing to a radio-friendly hit that Old Ideas has to offer—Cohen proves that he’s not ready to go down yet as he delves into each of these new songs with a ferocity and focus that has been missing in his work in recent years. The imagery, situations and gravelly voiced assessments of love, life and moral frailty which inform songs such as “Amen” and “Show Me the Place” prove that he’s still at the top of his game as he tirelessly exhumes relics from the wastelands of the human heart and soul that most of us would rather forget or lack the nerve to explore in the first place. Old Ideas isn’t likely to win Cohen any new fans. It’s too intense, too raw—the skin has been flayed right off the bones of each of these songs—for it to attract the easy listening crowd and too musically subdued for the average rock fan. But for his old fans and those new listeners with a sympathetic turn of mind, Old Ideas builds on the promise of his recent world tours and return to the limelight with his strongest, most unified album in decades. To follow Cohen through these songs as he shadows the thousand points of light he senses emerging from the darkness is as exhilarating and profound an experience as one will likely ever have with popular music.—Douglas Heselgrave

38. Dr. John – Locked Down
To live and breathe in the sketchiest part of the Quarter…to hustle and flow, to let go…to get saved and find a funky kind of salvation… It is the life and witness of one Malcolm Rebennack, a New Orleans hipster who did his apprenticeship as Professor Longhair’s wingman, lurking and prowling, eventually emerging as the gris-gris and gumbo swamp soulmaster Dr. John. Teaming with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who brought atmospherics, buzzy guitars and quicksand grooves that pull you in, this is 21st century mojo essentialized. Indeed, Max Weissenfeldt on drums, Leon Michele on keyboards, Nick Moyshon on electric and upright bass and Brian Olive on guitar bring a creative foment to John’s ripped dispatches from the street. Even tiny details evoke a slightly worn steaminess. An old-fashioned Victrola snippet melts into the sauntering swagger of “Big Shot,” a lurching bit of bravado and proposition, d’amour and badda bing. Sanctification isn’t always about the bells and whistles. The ride-out is a four-song climax. Moving from languid call-out of an underminer in “You Lie” that descends into a rolling horn pivot and vocal incantation to what almost sounds like speaking in tongues over a largely instrumental interlude (“Ellegua”) that’s blaxploitation flutes and ghetto-steppin’ churn, the Fender Rhodes keyboard signature of “My Children, My Angels” offers explanation, apology and elevation from a man to his own tribute. That triumph is capped with a barnyard guitar flourish that releases into “God Sure Is Good,” a wash of loose-gripped gospel witness. A sweeping confession of sanctification, embrace and glory, this is deliverance personified.—Holly Gleason

37. Shovels & Rope – O Be Joyful
Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are notable singer/songwriters in their own right. Hearst released 2010’s Are You Ready To Die EP through Filter US Recordings, and landed one of its songs—the brash “Hell’s Bells”—on the True Blood soundtrack. But together, as Shovels & Rope, Hearst and Trent share a remarkable chemistry. Her Wanda Jackson wail is so brassy and compelling, it’s hard to imagine a complementary foil, but she finds it in Trent, whose more tempered vocal adds some stability without dampening the impact.—Bryan C. Reed

36. Cat Power – Sun
What do you do when your honest attempts to find a larger audience prove commercially and creatively fruitless? If you’re Chan Marshall, you dig in. You retrench yourself in your eccentricities and make a record that is both deeply weird and immensely engaging, that walks the impossibly fine line between hippie-dippie nonsense and poignant pop profundity. Sun harks back to her earliest albums, when she made odd, retreating pop songs and could barely make it through a live set without running off the stage. But there’s a greater confidence in these songs, not just in the stiff backbone of beats running through the album but in the way she just says fuck it, lights some incense, and pulls on her oversized wolf-howling-at-the moon t-shirt. When she was playing the role of sleepy soul singer in the late 2000s, it was easy to forget that there was a mountain-child in there somewhere. Marshall puts that right at the forefront of Sun. Ultimately, this is the type of release that dispels preconceived labels. There’s something about even the flaws on this thing—the way Marshall lets it all hang loose, the way she continually tries to express a sentiment she can’t quite put into words—that’s absolutely fascinating in its humanity and compassion. She’s sitting in her ruins, crafting wonderfully strange objects from the rubble.—Stephen M. Deusner

35. King Tuff – King Tuff
“There’s nothin’ better than alone and stoned,” Kyle Thomas sings on the second song of his self-titled sophomore album. “Listenin’ to music on your headphones,” he continues the line, and it might as well be the modus operandi of his Sub Pop debut as King Tuff. Used to be, the man with a penchant for glammed-out, lo-fi pop perfection played his should-be hits for a select few; now, Thomas has a legit producer and a much-bigger set of songs to show for his efforts. The results, especially when they give equal time to his natural charm and knob-twiddler Bobby Harlow’s clearly natural talent (“Keep On Movin’”), are nothing short of spectacular. Moreover, there’s a sense of wing-spreading throughout this record, which is no small feat for the ADD-afflicted Thomas, who moonlights in a myriad of bands, from the also-Sub-Pop-affilliated Happy Birthday, to the folk-influenced Feathers and the metal-by-way-of-J-Mascis’-drumming Witch. On King Tuff, anthemic, Weezer-esque rock (“Bad Thing”) happily cohabitates with rollicking country jams (“Baby Just Break”) as if all these styles should just hang out on the regular. Thing is, the world would be a whole lot better if they did.—Austin L. Ray

34. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory
It’s hard to avoid reading too much into a record cover when its name is proudly proclaiming an Attack on Memory. It also helps that the 2012 version of Cloud Nothings sounds a lot less like 2011. What was once bittersweet and charmingly affected is now atonal, strung-out and stuck in a dour mood. Downward-spiral guitars, roomy drums, a voice summoned from the depths of Dylan Baldi’s core. Naturally he booked the omnipresent Steve Albini to work behind the boards, essentially the perfect person to snag the ragged noise the band was aiming. Cloud Nothings do an impeccable job of capturing the wounded honesty of this music. The wavering boy-girl harmony on “Fall In,” the nine-minute guitar-freakout “Wasted Days,” the murky horrors pinging through “No Future/No Past”—it’s Weezer, it’s The Dismemberment Plan, it’s the freakin’ Get-Up Kids—the best of these sounds, their edges sharpened and packed into eight songs. Long before “alt-rock” became an unfortunate punchline. The obvious highlight is “Stay Useless” a crackling eruption of hooks. Verse-chorus-verse, an interpretive lyric, a perfect, endlessly repeatable bridge—it’d be an anthem if it had any chance of charting. Baldi simply wrote some rawer tracks, grabbed a legendary producer and played his heart out.—Luke Winkie

33. Howler – America Give Up
Howler just wants to have fun. Forget about all the comparisons to The Strokes or the hype-factor that NME and various music blogs have perpetuated. They’re just down to have a good time—or at least with song titles like “Free Drunk” and “Beach Sluts,” it seems like that’s what they want us to think. The album opens with “Beach Sluts,” a delightful little tune that goes back and forth between some really chill verses that reminded me of songs off Surfer Blood’s 2011 EP and an unexpected high-octane punk-pop chorus that seemingly comes from nowhere. Howler saves the real gems for later on in the album though. “Told You Once” and “Back Of Your Neck” feel like instant singles In particular, “Back Of Your Neck” features a falsetto hook so memorable and confident that it might as well have been taken right out of an Arcade Fire song. Most of the songs on America Give Up come from the same litter of layered guitars, scraggly vocals and fuzzy mixes—and for the most part, Howler really makes the sound likable again.—Luke Larsen

32. Woods – Bend Beyond
On the Brooklyn folk outfit’s seventh offering in the last seven years, songwriter Jeremy Earl offers what could be a summation of Woods’ career thus far, singing “ain’t it hard to say that it ain’t easy, looking for different ways to make things stay the same.” The song, “It Ain’t Easy,” may be a solemn reflection on a lost friend, but this line reminds listeners that the subtle polishing of Woods’ sound, the slight diversions into unchartered territory, and the band’s ability to write four or five songs on a yearly basis that will sweep them off of their feet is not necessarily playing it safe. Yes, Woods is slowly disproving the idea that change and growth are the same thing. Where Bend Beyond is most successful is revealed in the album’s final two numbers. You can take away Woods’ undeniable chops and the trademark textures created by tape-effects wizard G. Lucas Crane, and Earl could still effectively elate listeners with the immediate infectiousness of a song like “Impossible Sky.” And, quickly moving from images of technicolor sunsets and evocations of the possibilities of youth, Earl closes on the haunting “Something Surreal,” where his unwavering, wordless falsetto brings the listener back to earth; the songs together run the gamut of human emotion in about five minutes. It’s a brief culmination of practice making perfect, with Earl and his band showing why they make a new album every year—because more and more often they are getting it right.—Philip Cosores

31. The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter
Frenzied finger-picking, dueling croons and high drama set to free-spirited pop progressions: these are the components that go into defining any given record by the Avett Brothers, who continue to strike a balance between traditional country sensibilities and the rock and roll of tomorrow with The Carpenter. It provides a return to rudimentary Avett songwriting, in that the most striking moments on the record are born from playful banjo-guitar banter and confessions revealed in 4/4 time. It’s the band’s penchant for playing with contrast—between light and dark, comedy and tragedy, hard and soft, fast and slow—and their ease with switching gears between the romps and soliloquies that shines on The Carpenter, perhaps stronger than on any of their previous releases. And as monumental as I And Love And You was for the them, a return to their roots for the Avett Brothers only reinforces what we already knew: a banjo lick and a boot-stomp can go a long way, and to move forward you need to take a step back, sometimes, and remember where you came from.—Hilary Hughes