Best Albums of 2012

It’s New Year’s Eve, so it’s time once again for the Craven Hermit to wax philosophical about his ten favourite new albums from 2012.

Yeasayer – Fragrant Blood

yeasayerThis Brooklynite combo returned in 2012 with a new album of genre-twisting music. It’s not quite electronic, not quite dance, not quite rock, and nearly impossible to digest in one sitting. From the stuttering rhythms and processed vocals of “Longevity” to the crystalline paranoia of “Reagan’s Skeleton”, there’s a melodic surprise around every corner. “Devil and the Deed” even sounds like Kraftwerk reinterpreted by LCD Soundsystem. My favourite track, “Henrietta”, begins as a glitchy modern R&B number before inexplicably taking a hard left turn into wistful synth pop. Fragrant Blood’s multi-textured musical collages may not grab the listener immediately, but the tunes reveal themselves with time.

Of Monsters and Men – My Head Is An Animal

ofmonstersandmenIt is truly hard to believe that My Head Is An Animal is a debut album. This recently formed Icelandic quintet bring quality songwriting and great performances to every track. The album was released in their native country last year, but it was a worldwide distribution deal with Universal that brought these troubadours to the world in 2012. Storming folk-pop numbers like “Little Talks” and “Mountain Sound” are deftly balanced by slower-burning songs like “Dirty Paws”, “King and Lionheart”, and “Your Bones”. Melodic motion seems to come to this group as naturally as breathing, and their not-so-secret weapon is the way the lead male and female vocals are perfect foils for each other. Of Monsters and Men often draw comparisons to Arcade Fire for the anthemic, life-affirming build-up and cathartic release of their songs, but the overall spirit here is more whimsical and indie-folk than Montreal’s favourite sons and daughters.

Alt-J – An Awesome Wave

alt-jThis new UK combo had an excellent year, capped off by winning the Mercury Music Prize and appearing all over the planet on Best Of 2012 lists. Their music welds the schizophrenic laptop sounds of Thom Yorke’s solo projects to a wide range of twisted pop and folk songs. “Breezeblocks” is so nerdy that you can practically hear the quadratic equations, while songs like “Matilda” and “Taro / Handmade” are undeniably pretty. By mining virtually every corner of guitar rock history for melodic inspiration, An Awesome Wave coalesces into something completely original. That said, this album isn’t for everyone. Some folks will (justifiably) be put off by Joe Newman’s occasional vocal affectations, and some songs feel a little too collegiate for their own good. But this is likely one of the bravest releases of 2012, and the band is overflowing with genre-bursting ideas.

Tame Impala – Lonerism

tameimpalaThe latest album from Australia’s Kevin Parker and friends wears its UK psychedelic and prog-rock influences on its sleeve like badges of honour. At times Lonerism sounds like the Flaming Lips revisiting Sgt. Pepper’s or Revolver. On “Music To Walk Home By”, the synths would make And Then There Were Three era Tony Banks blush. Standout track “Elephant” superimposes glam-rock stomp onto Pompeii-era Pink Floyd, then cleverly lacquers the works with modern studio accoutrements. Yet instead of sounding derivative, Lonerism achieves the rare feat of sounding like an homage to past greats. It’s perhaps the most soothing and uplifting album about heartache, isolation and misanthropy to be released this year.

Fun. – Some Nights

funIf this album hadn’t broken out into the mainstream, critics everywhere would be heralding the fearless harmonies and huge choruses of Some Nights. But with the title track and “We Are Young” making appearances in myriad pop culture media outlets (Top 40 radio, television, movies, advertising) the secret is out. The band shouldn’t have to apologize for marrying Queen’s bombastic melodies to Jeff Lynne’s precise songcraft. While predecessors like Jellyfish never quite hit critical mass in the 1990s with largely the same formula, maybe the world was finally ready for this trio’s brand of exuberance in 2012. Time will tell whether Some Nights has a limited shelf life, but it’s heaps of fun for now.

The Temper Trap – The Temper Trap

tempertrapThe second, eponymous album from Australia’s the Temper Trap can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a synth-pop record or double-down on guitar-driven Coldplay anthems. But with songs this strong, a little bit of stylistic variety actually works in the band’s favour. The pitch-perfect vocals of Dougy Mandagi gives the album continuity, allowing boisterous pop tunes like “Need Your Love” to sit comfortably along side slow-burning ballads like album-closer “Leaving Heartbreak Hotel”. “London’s Burning” aspires to be a Bloc Party style dance-punk anthem but withers in desperate need of a hookier chorus. It’s a rare misstep on an impressive sophomore effort that is otherwise solid from beginning to end.

Jack White – Blunderbuss

jackwhiteIn 2012, Jack White finally decided to release an album under his own moniker. Calling this a “solo” album seems a little disingenuous, considering that almost twenty musicians contributed to the recordings. However, White took on all the songwriting and producing duties for this project so he evidently felt it was time to slap his name on the marquee. Blunderbuss is a mesmerizing rummage sale of White’s musical touchstones. From the Stax soul grooves of “Missing Pieces” to the raw electricity of “Sixteen Saltines”, the classic rock duet “Love Interruption”, and the epic piano-driven “Weep Themselves to Sleep”, White follows his muse wherever it leads.

Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits

divinefitsWe weren’t quite sure what to expect when Spoon guitarist and vocalist Britt Daniel, New Bomb Turks drummer Sam Brown, and erstwhile Handsome Furs bandleader Dan Boeckner announced that they were working on a new venture. The final result happily turned out to be greater than the sum of its parts. A Thing Called Divine Fits is sleek, modern, athletic synth-rock with an undeniable groove. Songs like “My Love is Real” and “The Salton Sea” are stripped-down masterworks of melody and rhythm. “Would That Not Be Nice” plays with new wave textures and slap-back vocals, while the visceral “Flaggin a Ride” wouldn’t sound out of place on any of Spoon’s excellent records. If this is the sound of three musicians learning to bounce ideas off each other, there’s no telling how great their next record could be.

Japandroids – Celebration Rock

japandroidsThis Canadian duo was short-listed for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize, and with good reason. They are the torchbearers for restless rock & roll, driven by volume and intensity and, yes, celebratory tunes. Celebration Rock is basically a ’68 Camaro in musical form – it may not be particularly agile in the corners, and there aren’t any creature comforts, but holy hell is the straight-line acceleration ever fun. The black & white cover art neatly mirrors the duo’s all-or-nothing, foot-to-the-floor approach to anthemic songwriting and raucous rhythms. Occasionally shambolic and perpetually in motion, this is the glorious noise of youth.

2012 was an odd year in rock music. I can think of many good records that were marred by flaws that kept them out of my top ten. Truth be told, even a few of the records in my top ten have some significant shortcomings. But for me, one completely flawless album stood out as the best thing I heard in 2012:

Shearwater – Animal Joy

shearwaterAustin-based Shearwater released its first record for new label Sub Pop in February. Animal Joy builds organically on the slow-burning beauty of critically acclaimed previous releases like Palo Santo and Rook. If anything, the new record takes languid, emotional rock to even higher summits. Jonathan Meiburg’s operatic voice and Thor Harris’ stomping drums drive the melodic opening track “Animal Life”. The upbeat “Breaking the Yearlings” and “Immaculate” are based around sleek and sinewy rhythms, while “Dread Sovereign” slows things down to an earthy groove. The brooding intensity of “Insolence” recalls the widescreen grandeur of Peter Gabriel’s third and fourth solo albums. Shearwater saves the best for last, closing the album with five-minute epic “Star of the Age”. To me, the lyric is about the metaphorical hope wrapped up in looking to the stars for inspiration, even while the world around you crumbles. It’s a sentiment some of us can surely relate to as we bid farewell to 2012.

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