The 50 Best Albums of 2012

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20. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
John Darnielle  and his Mountain Goats have frequently been at their best while capturing characters in dark situations, usually struggling to get through. Darnielle’s direct lyrics can pinpoint an emotion without limiting the utility of sharing that experience. On Transcendental Youth, the band takes us through a series of trials, flickering a light in a pursuit of something more. The album offers plenty of splendid moments, and Darnielle continues to show the strength of concreteness in his writing. His characters think in specific, idiosyncratic ways that allows lines like “I hide down in my corner because I like my corner” to be sources of character development rather than glib comments. Darnielle grounds his songs to keep them memorable and offer entryways back into something that continually seeks the transcendence its title suggests.—Justin Cober-Lake

19. Rufus Wainwright – Out of the Game
Few people twist the opposing aesthetics of lush and stark with the dexterity of Rufus Wainwright, the chanteuse with the steady aim on broken hearts and sumptuous agony. On Out of the Game, Wainwright does not disappoint: whirling string sections and a chorus of women exhale grief behind the brash songwriter who knows no shade of blue that eludes him. Using a Biblical metaphor as centerpiece, “Jericho” illustrates the tug of what one hopes versus how it shall always be; Wainwright’s voice is pensive against the brass blasts and slightly faltering rhythms. And all the album’s gear-shifting provides as much engagement as the full-frontal emotionalism. With a gentle accordion wheeze, Game concludes with the realization that churches run out of candles, banks won’t give you what you need and in the end, all there is is the echo of your own broken heart. World-weary, it makes failure holy and survival a refuge that sustains. In the end, if that’s all there is, he tenderly suggests that shall be plenty.—Holly Gleason

18. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
Kendrick Lamar’s debut LP opens with a prayer—“Lord God, I come to you a sinner and I humbly repent for my sins,” begins “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter”—and his personal quest for redemption bleeds into the next track (the not-so-piously titled “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”) as he reminds us that “I am a sinner who’s probably gonna sin again.” Lamar’s bleak candor is highlighted by voicemail messages from his family members that are expertly woven into the album’s narrative. His father teaches him the true definition of responsibility; his mother pleads with him to return her car and later, towards the end of “Real,” delivers what feels like the album’s mission statement: “When you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement.”—Bonnie Stiernberg

17. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
Andrew Bird follows the same definition of “quirky” that people use for Wes Anderson movies — his interests are idiosyncratic, to be sure, but somehow the definition feels too overreaching, like using Instagram and “hipster” in the same breath. His seventh solo album, Break It Yourself, will likely set itself up for those dreaded descriptors, from the titles onward. There are references to Greek mythology, to horrible international tragedies. There’s a fake palindrome (how meta!). There is, per usual, quite a fair amount of whistling. It is, however, a bit more reserved than the earlier Birds. Long gone are the rapturous flourishes of “Fake Palindromes” and even further the weird but awesome swing revival phase in which he participated as a Squirrel Nut Zipper. What we’re left with is a guy, with a violin, an embouchure of pure steel, and a set of sweet, gentle jams that will come to you with good intentions. Break It Yourself greets its listener like a friend-turned-lover making the first move: sitting on opposite ends of the couch, inching closer and putting its arm around you and by the end, you’re curled up together, sleepy but overall content.—Lindsaey Eanet

16. Tame Impala – Lonerism
Midway through “Nothing That Has Happened So Far,” a bulldozer of sublime psychedelia on Tame Impala’s sophomore LP, a mysterious voice emerges from the swirl: “You’re thinking about everything, aren’t you?” it asks, bathed in fuzz, as drums tumble wildly and electric guitars shiver with flange. “I know it’s crazy—just don’t think of it like that / Nothing has to mean anything.” Lonerism expertly balances heady textures with effortless melodicism. “Apocalypse Dreams” is a capital-E Epic, a modern psychedelic odyssey that grows catchier and stranger the longer it plays; “Be Above It” builds from a chanted vocal loop and primal drum pulse into a carnival of giddy hooks and flange. The show-stopping “Music to Walk Home By” sounds like The Flaming Lips re-scoring Magical Mystery Tour, stoned out of their gourds. Saying nothing rarely sounds this profound.—Ryan Reed

15. Jack White – Blunderbuss
It’s a good thing the White Stripes broke up. If they hadn’t, we’d still be suffering through overblown, overrated albums from a band that hit its peak sometime between 2004 and 2006. Instead, we get Jack White left to his own devices. This is a good thing. In addition to various side projects, opening a brick and mortar record store in Nashville, releasing music from the likes of Ted Leo, Nobunny, Flat Duo Jets, Davila 666, Tyvek—the list goes on for days, really—this year, he delivered the long-awaited solo debut Blunderbuss.It starts off with “Missing Pieces,” a jaunty, familiar tune that Stripes fans will warm to easily. Ditto for its follow-up, “Sixteen Saltines,” all echoing, distorted guitar riffs and White singing in a falsetto like he’s still fronting that duo with the color-coded attire. It’s not all a nostalgia trip, though. For instance, the schizophrenic, impossible-to-pin-down percussion of “Freedom at 21” is enough to make a sane man lose his patience. Which, of course, is countered immediately by the imminently listenable, gentle and melodic “Love Interruption” next, its acoustic guitar leaving the confused listener spinning and doubting himself, like when you lose your keys and feel positively insane. At the end of the day, White’s still an enigma, and so is Blunderbuss, its mysteries unfolding in odd ways when you least expect it. Kind of like White’s career, come to think of it.—Austin L. Ray

14. The Walkmen – Heaven
For a decade now, The Walkmen have cultivated a distinct mix of jangly post-punk guitars, deep bass lines, echoing drums, vintage instrumentation and Hamilton Leithauser’s drawn-out, earnest vocals. Produced by Phil Ek, Heaven is fuller and grander, but the band’s biggest evolution is reflected in the lyrics. The opening track, “We Can’t Be Beat,” marks a shift in tone to a more optimistic disposition—a shift that coincides with The Walkmen’s 10th anniversary of their debut album. This is an established band. The guys grew up. They started families; all five members are now parents. This isn’t the 20-something Leithauser who wailed about his increasing alienation on “The Rat,” or who whined at the unfairness of life and gave up hope because others were winning. On Heaven, he reaches a conclusion. A series of cascading notes from a single guitar establish a reflective scene, and one minute and 15 seconds into “Line by Line,” Leithauser reveals he knows how the whole thing ends. “The wicked all will die” and “the honest man survives.” The Walkmen find some peace. By the end of the album, The Walkmen let disappointment seep back into the music—as if the optimism established in the opener’s grand gesture couldn’t last for 13 tracks. But Heaven is a testament to The Walkmen’s triumph. After a decade, disappointment no longer possesses the power to defeat them.—Sarah A. McCarty

13. The Shins – Port of Morrow
A lot has certainly changed for The Shins in the five years since the band’s last release. Frontman James Mercer sent the band through a full lineup change before putting The Shins on hiatus, choosing to focus on Broken Bells, his collaboration with Danger Mouse. Obviously, Port of Morrow came with a lot of hype and expectation. But right from the start, it feels like a Shins record, though with an incredible freshness to it. Mercer has admitted that working with Danger Mouse on Broken Bells alleviated his fears about working with producers, and it’s pretty clear, even from a first listen, that the songwriter allowed for production to take a better seat on the new album. However, the production doesn’t feel overbearing or intrusive. In that sense, it’s a lot like the treatment on Chutes Too Narrow. The songs sound amazing while still retaining a very intimate, organic quality that makes them so powerful. The Shins’ pop sensibilities and Mercer’s stunning way with words shine brighter on this album than ever before.—Wyndham Wyeth

12. El-P – Cancer 4 Cure
Since Def Jux closed its doors, El-P has been lounging with a different crew lately, bumping bodies with a new generation of slackjaw internet-rappers. But he hasn’t changed, really. Cancer For Cure is a shirked, claustrophobic, paranoid clutter of rhyming conspiracy theories. It’s Def Jux to the bones, flexing brash, noisy, error-message beats, heavy on beefy, tough-guy rhymes and almost entirely void of pleb-pleasing hooks. The rappers, as usual, sound like they’re having a blast pulverizing through chaos. There was something mystical about El-P’s reawakening and subsequent return to the fold, like he’d arrive swollen with new angst, anxieties, and stories—but nah, this feels right at home, aligned with environment and eschewing any pacing or tension for a full-blown physical assault condensed into a single, brutal act. You’ll hear cyberpunk futurism, evildoer cackle, reckless, antiestablishment ethos on Cancer for Cure, but mainly you’ll just hear a lot of chaos—the sort of gritty, tech-savvy cynicism that’s been missing from underground rap in recent years.—Luke Winkie

11. The Men – Open Your Heart
It’s easy to up the ante in intensity again and again for a band like The Men, who made a name for themselves bashing out brutal garage-punk in 2011 with Leave Home. But their best album to date came from songwriters Mark Perro and Nick Chiericozzi taking a step back with this year’s excellent Open Your Heart. We still see the band killing it with fuzzed-out, MC5-inspired riffage, but Open Your Heart shows incredibly sharpened songwriting chops with a super-catchy title track, the country-flavored “Candy” and thunderous opener “Turn It Around.” And if the band’s recent live shows, which mostly showcase new material, are any indication, we’ve got another great album right around the corner.—Tyler Kane

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