25 Band of Skulls – Sweet Sour
Admittedly, I was a pretty big Band of Skulls fan before I heard Sweet Sour; I’d let people know about them, heralding “Death By Diamonds and Pearls” as the new revitalizing rock anthem. And I guess it’s a sad fact, but anger is really a prerequisite for making effective new rock music. The Skulls retain this on Sweet Sour, and in cases of songs approaching the five or six-minute range, it’s important that no portion of the song seems extraneous. Ok the pieces are there, let’s party.
24 The Walkmen – Heaven
I could see “complacence” being a description of the new Walkmen album, and that’s funny, because that’s already how a lot of people, including me at one time, thought of them. One thing you always get this band though is great taste, or class. Whatever you want to call it, it’s the little things — the hat that sounds like a maraca on the back beat of every other bar in “We Can’t Be Beat,” the spot-on, theoretically boundary-pushing background vocals. Sometimes I think Coldplay is the perfect band for coffee shops. That’s usually when I’m forgetting about The Walkmen.
23 Beak> – > >
Wielding the tension of Actress, Beak> deliver a more quantifiably positive, opaque experience that combines lo-fi drum machine and manipulated blips in balanced style. In doing this, they seem perfectly in step with the times. On 2009’s self-titled debut they favored melody over beat, so > > affirms their idea of the artistic project as reinvention of self, with its minimalistic evasion of chords a disciplined statement in and of itself, of which the listener is the beneficiary.
22 Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky
Want proof that Lou Barlow is garnering respect within the band these days? “Recognition,” which comes on the heels of the mediocre “What Was That.” It’s Barlow’s tune, and the band’s blossoming of chops is pushed ahead scarily to Bad Brains territory, forming a guitar-drum statement of utmost artistic elocution a la great ones like Jimi Hendrix and Iron Maiden. What do you do if you are to age to 50 and try to be cool? Get damn good at your instruments. Seasoned rock production by Ethan Kath helps the affair too.
21 The Hives – Lex Hives
Here’s an interesting artist to which to compare The Hives: Pat Benatar. The Hives sound like they’re fans of hers, and for all the refreshing rock-and-rolling carefree aspects of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” Sweden’s own do her one better, but only in the department of being a man — cranking up the volume and also the intensity. Neither entity would ever sport a mohawk, I doubt, but neither would any punk band want to face them in a battle of the bands, even were it judged by Joey Ramone himself.
20 Dope Head – Plaid Palm Trees
This dude is a Detroit rapper and raps with quite the dirty mouth. It’s the atmosphere of it though that sold me, from the hazy, nauseous organs to the “bruiser” kick drum on centerpiece “Mirrors.” If music is about making an artistic statement, Dope Head’s stuff is about as concentrated as it gets.
19 Deep Time – Deep Time
Glee is the operative word for describing this Austin, TX duo. Formerly known as Yellow Fever, Deep Time features vocalist Jennifer Moore who strongly invokes Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki. They definitely comes across more at peace though, and make up for the lack of abrasion with buttery synths that fill in the crevices and tight pop brevity in all its due respect to the busy listener. Deep Time nailed the demand for a quick, simple melody this year, a refreshing wheat ale to the wasabi-drenched Deerhoof.
18 The Men – Open Your Heart
Although I think it’s somewhat of an overvalued critique, you do hear a lot about certain bands being “overhyped.” The Men seem like just the opposite for multiple reasons — you could imagine them, with their sound, stepping into an arena disguised as the Foo Fighters, rocking out a set to an audience full of believers that they were the Foo Fighters playing all new songs. A visceral achievement, very much like a low-profile, classier Buckcherry.
17 Sun Kil Moon – Among the Leaves
Sometimes music unavoidably gets equated to competition, or in particular to sports, and with Sun Kil Moon, if you don’t hate him, he’s your team, so it’s not so much liking him as it is rooting for him. You have to buy him. With Among the Leaves, this pays dividends, as the songs are refreshingly short and varied. Mark Kozelek seems like he’d be a great socialite, never overstaying his welcome.
16 Ceremony – Zoo
Ross Farrar of Ceremony sounds almost exactly like Angus Andrew of Liars, but that’s not his fault. The band’s sound is almost exactly like Chairs Missing-era Wire, and that is their fault, but if you’re into emulation, Wire’s not a bad place to start, especially if you’re an ornery bloke. What I like most about Ceremony is the directness of meaning in the lyrics, not hidden.
15 Mac Demarco – 2
Mac Demarco is labelled a “weirdo” in iTunes’ blurb on 2, which I think is kind of puzzling. His music is really no weirder than Beach House’s; if anything it’s less weird, being devoid of the cathartic screams of orgasma. 2012 needed a pop album like 2 — it should stack up nicely as time unfolds next to classics like Fleet Foxes and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and it has the skill of succeeding in spite of its own normalcy. Hey iTunes, it’s called a muse.
14 Mission of Burma – Unsound
Sometimes it’s the offspring and not the progenitors that get all the credit in rock: particularly, Minor Threat and Fugazi getting famous while Mission of Burma wallowed in intermediacy. This probably helped the latter to sit back and crank out the jams with less of a heavy head, though, and Unsound is their funnest album in a while. And they could have learned from Fugazi, too, specifically the album In on the Kill Taker from ’93, which brings a looser, cockier Ian MacKaye to the mic, possibly informing M.O.B.’s exploratory juvenility.
13 Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance
It’s all about song craft with Lotus Plaza. Lockett Pundt’s voice is hazier and more sedative than Bradford Cox’s, which errs on the side of emotive vibration. The difference is that with Pundt it’s more a case of enjoyment, and the music comes across more as a session of celebration and coming together. And the songs are beautifully quilted, with pieces breathing into each other like a colony of muse. Sonically Spooky Action is very similar to Deerhunter’s album Microcastle.
12 Grizzly Bear – Shields
If Shields doesn’t quite match the gravity of Yellow House or Veckatimest, it’s still an intriguing listen because the skill of the band members is manifold. Each is able to contribute to the compelling tension by exercising restraint, and with rare exceptions, none of them ever hog the show. They’re still one of the best bands out there, managing to improve upon Crosby Stills and Nash with a folky innocence that integrates cutting-edge production.
11 Game – Jesus Piece
Sometimes it takes a few albums into a zealously hyped emcee’s career for him to truly hone his skills in the studio. The reason is simple: at the onset, he’s afraid of being too good, so he makes himself into a pedestrian self-cheerleader for his first couple efforts. Game even offered F.I.V.E. (Fear is Victory’s Evolution) as a potential title for the album. And I guess a lot of successful rappers do get shot. Now, with Jesus Piece, which, if it isn’t his best performance yet, it’s right up there, the effortless lyrical skill rife with metaphor and references to the greats, along with the work of DJ Khaled, who actually knows how to craft and propel sounds that are alive, balanced nicely by the fact that no one expects this album to be any good.
10 Actress – R.I.P.
Of the five electronica albums on this list, R.I.P. is probably the most relaxing. I can put it on during a cloudy mid-afternoon, and if company comes over, I can leave it on, and it’s fine, or if no one comes, I’ll probably notice more about the music itself, like how it taps into the melodic grandeur of Emeralds, and always seems to be making a tense statement, the hands of the musicians, while soothing, ever firmly fixed on the friction wheel.
9 Ikonika – I Make Lists EP
On the first couple tracks of this generous 30-plus-minute EP, Sara Abdel-Hamid seems hell bent on proving to us that she’s not making a sequel to 2010’s classic Contact, Love, Want, Have. The synths splay in all directions like crazy club compulsion. So it’s when she settles in — on “Catch Vibes” and “Cold Soaking” — that we really get a sense of how effortless this all is for her, with her ability to soar above her peers while barely batting an eyelash, crafting a glacial wall of percussion-synth interplay that somehow always finds lockstep with the present day.
8 Sepalcure – Eternally Yrs. EP
When a great segment of music like this comes around (which is approximately the length of Is This It?), each time it hits you, it transcends you, or transcends, in and of itself, however you want to look at it, and keeps everything indescribably fresh. The most compelling intricate electronica of the year.
7 Lower Dens – Nootropics
Beach House, who are from Baltimore as are Lower Dens, once had as the description of their music on their myspace page: “Narcotic spaghetti!” Little did they know, they were actually talking about co-Baltimore-native chums to emerge later. It seems like Jana Hunter has one of those voices that transcends just about every known conception of limitation — like time (her timbre has an old classic macabre feel), space (the vibrations almost do you in), and even soul uniformity, if you will, in that, like the rapper K-OS at his best moments, she comes across as not just one person but multiple, ensuring the effect she wields of unimpeachable authenticity.
6 Estelle – All of Me
From flowing to singing, the delight provided by Estelle on All of Me harks back to the age-old idea of great music being both refreshing and familiar at the same time. The thing is, often when this is done it’s with pop, many R&B acts of today relying too heavily on technological sound devices and formula. All of Me plays like a Dionne Farris updated culturally and boosted by a white-hot light of genuine inspiration. The hooks are catchy, the messages clear, and the songs breezy and soothing.
5 Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
I guess it makes about as much sense to have a blog and post a year-end best albums list in the first place as it does to comment on authentic urban rap music as a suburban white dude. Anyway, from where I’m sitting, Game is still a more skilled lyricist than Killer Mike, so it’s a testament to just HOW MUCH better the beats are, acoustically auspicious and texturally varied, on R.A.P. Music, that I ranked it so highly. Also Killer Mike simply willing his way to greatness on one of the best southern rap albums since Hell Hath No Fury. Sasha Frere-Jones proclaimed in 2009 that hip-hop was dead (what could possibly follow the Doom track “Cellz”), and precarious as that statement is, damned but it does sound different now, even Black Milk’s 2010 release Album of the Year, which just seemed meaner and more disillusioned than its predecessor Tronic. Give Killer Mike credit for nailing this newly quickened and concentrated street abandon on “Untitled,” reminding us that, while uniting, the best hip-hop is ultimately the emcee’s statement of survival, and a means thereof, when it seems like everyone else is hell bent on stopping this survival.
4 Julia Holter – Ekstasis
Really all music should be abstract; I get a cringing feeling when I hear “concrete” music, because this basically equates to music that is overplayed on the radio, probably because it follows a formula. Not that Billy Joel is necessarily a bad musician; he’s just pretty reined-in, if you will. Julia Holter isn’t, and she takes the prevalent abstractness of today’s music and turns it on its side, crafting intricate songs that are impressive in their own structural, melodic right of score, and which, as a result, can get by on individual sounds of the everyday, since they’re placed with such care.
3 White Rabbits – Milk Famous
Despite the obvious comparisons to The Strokes and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, I’m going to point to a different musical entity altogether — Oval’s 94 Diskont. This was a key electronica album in the ’90’s, and White Rabbits seem inspired by their stupefying ability to sustain orchestral meshing elements that eschew genre (although one of the genres being toyed with in Oval probably hasn’t even been invented yet). For White Rabbits, it comes to a head on the best song on the album, closer “I Had it Coming,” on which the song doesn’t so much feature as get invaded by synth blips out of the woodwork, flooding the scene in a way we never imagined.
2 Mount Eerie – Ocean Roar
And now for my favorite kind of music — epic arena rock! Wait, this is Mount Eerie? Yup, and I don’t even fully understand it yet myself, but I just got my ass kicked by Ocean Roar in a way that has caused a glacial breaking of tectonics in my cerebral cortex triggering a troublesome warming of the Northwest Pacific coast and a rising of the tides, not to mention the stakes of rock music. I’m sorry Mr. Elverum, I’ll never fall asleep in geology class again. You have the floor. Clear Moon, a little more electronic, is no slouch either.
1 John Talabot – fIN
It’s a funny thing about axons. It’s a funny thing about dendrites. I still don’t know what they are, and I’ve taken like three college psychology courses. The reason is simple, I can just listen to John Talabot. If music didn’t exist, I’d have to go to the store for some axon supplements, go to the doctor to check my dendrite suppleness level, and maybe the mass of my myelin sheath in certain parts, boy would that be a drag. I thank him in particular for “El Oeste,” a direction that’s harder to represent musically than it would seem. fIN is really like a shot in the arm in many ways: it comes in casually with some nature sounds, and the proceeds to blend 11 songs together that are tight, seamlessly danceable, and even-keeled, with no gratuitous showmanship. Underlying the whole project is a deep feel of overall love for music and its enjoyment. Nothing about his chops is the best, but in this way, the reason he’s great is that he’s the best at being on your side.