It may be only the end of July, but 2012 has already seen the release of so many fantastic albums that we thought it would be helpful to put together 20 of the records from this year that have blown us away. Lists like these can be tough, though, in that they don’t have the luxury or remove of hindsight, but relying on gut reactions is in no way a bad thing, either. So, without further ado, here are some artists who have made this year such an incredibly enjoyable one for us so far, and who remind us why we continue to love what we do as music journalists. So, while it was a tough tossup between One Direction and Fiona Apple, Kenny Chesney’s Welcome to the Fishbowl and Jack White’s Blunderbuss, here’s what we came up with:
Anais Mitchell: Young Man in America
Anaïs Mitchell’s less then ten years into her career as a folk singer/songwriter, but she’s already released four albums that not only validate her as an excellent musician but demonstrate her singular ability at writing some of the most compelling and thought-provoking folk music being made right now. After the masterpiece that was 2010’s Hadestown, many worried that the follow-up would pale in comparison, but with the release of Young Man In America, Mitchell silenced those fears. There are still strong concept album elements to this record, but that doesn’t weigh down the record at all. The fact that she remains an underdog in the pop/folk world has now hit a critical imbalance, because the quality of her work and her tenacious loyalty to her craft deserve so much more.
Tracks: “Wilderland / Young Man in America,” “Coming Down,” “Shepherd”
Band Of Skulls: Sweet Sour
Although there is a flow to Sweet Sour that patterns that of the Band of Skulls’ 2009 debut, Baby Darling Doll Face Honey, it’s that similar element that displays the versatility of their sound and the complexity of their writing. "Lay My Head Down" turns ears for its soft foundation that is equally romantic as it is provocative, while "Bruises" and "Wanderluster" create anthemic rock that still sounds stripped down despite its more melodic vocals and harmonies. While The Black Keys have gone big production, Band of Skulls still keep the fuzz as the backbone, as catchy riffs and thumping drums prevail.
Tracks: “Bruises,” “Sweet Sour”
Beach House: Bloom
While many may claim that Beach House’s fourth album Bloom is too similar in sound to their last offering Teen Dream, what they’re missing is a band that has fully embraced an aesthetic that is wholly theirs, in a way that so many of their contemporaries are grasping for a distinctive style among the throngs of shoegaze and dream-pop adherents. These ten songs are brooding, mystical, visceral and utterly relatable, in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily think at first listen. Legrand and Scally have also learned how to make pop songs that could at one point in their life double as Fleetwood Mac tracks. These are undeniably infectious tracks, but they’re never saccharine or vapid. This also is the culmination of what they’ve been working toward over the last decade, and it’s exciting to hear how confident they are in their artistry.
Tracks: “Myth,” “Lazuli,” “Troublemaker”
This album may be the major-label debut from the Brooklyn-based duo Chairlift, but it thankfully avoids the usual trappings that come with a larger budget and easier access to producers and co-writers. Sure, these songs are at times big, brash, full-voiced and weighty, but there’s not that cloying sheen to them that stick to so many other artists that open up their work to the major label’s usual suspects. Instead, producer Dan Carey captures the enchanting quality of Caroline Polachek’s voice and highlights the arrangement wizardry of Patrick Wembley. While their debut was already an enjoyable ride, this is a huge step forward for the band, and they’ve raised the bar considerably. It’s one of the best pop records of the year that you won’t come away from feeling like you’ve listened to pop, because Chairlift got it right with these eleven songs.
Tracks: “I Belong In Your Arms,” “Amanaemonesia,” “Met Before”
Father John Misty: Fear Fun
J Tillman, Josh Tillman, Father John Misty– all monikers for the ex-Fleet Foxes drummer who left the band recently to focus on his solo output, which has come as a pretty steady stream since 2004. His first album as Father John Misty, Fear Fun, is an incredibly solid and thought-provoking record. With a strong 1970’s Laurel Canyon backdrop for the songs, Tillman shows he’s just as worthy as his Fleet Foxes bandmates at crafting compelling and engaging folk-rock songs, and if this debut is any indication, he still has a lot of tricks up his sleeves for us.
Tracks: “I’m Writing a Novel,” “Nancy From Now On”
Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
While Fiona Apple’s new album title seems demure when taken next to her sophomore record’s ninety word long name (When the Pawn…), there’s nothing demure about The Idler Wheel. In fact, this is Apple at her most raw and open. These ten songs showcase the same type of emotional volatility that has typified her work since 1996’s Tidal, but rather than be squarely mired in angst, these songs are nuanced, at points quite subtle and overall they strike so many chords that it’s a fairly exhausting listen. Even so, it’s a wildly rewarding album, and while it may be anti-pop and anti-folk in a lot of ways, there’s still plenty of melodies on this album that will get firmly attached to your brain.
Tracks: “Hot Knife,” “Anything We Want,” “Every Single Night”
First Aid Kit: The Lion’s Roar
Sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg join the pantheon of Laura Marling, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, Marcus Mumford and others who are 25 or under and already re-shaping the face of folk/rock music, and really the industry is so much the better for it. While it may make you question your own life choices when you realize that the girls of First Aid Kit have already released two brilliant records and they’re only 19 and 22, don’t get discouraged– just put The Lion’s Roar back on again and drown out those sorrows. The Söderberg girls delivered in the January cold an album that is so well-crafted and carries such depth that it unfolds again and again upon repeated listenings. The Swedish duo write wistful, 60’s tinged autumnal Americana better than pretty much anyone out there right now, but what’s so intriguing is how these songs don’t sound derivative; rather, they’re definitely vital and still firmly planted in 2012, which is a balancing act that’s very difficult to achieve. These girls have talent in spades, and the maturity they already display with The Lion’s Roar is mind-blowing.
Tracks: “Emmylou,” “This Old Routine,” “The Lion’s Roar”
San Francisco-based electro-pop trio Geographer’s new album Myth offers ten songs that are delightfully whimsical, thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining. In general they’re on the more dance-y, upbeat side of things, but what many don’t realize is how versatile this band is, in that they’re able to deconstruct and reshape their songs into fascinating acoustic versions. Frontman Mike Deni’s baritone is rich and has a pleasant shape, perfectly complementing the sonorous cello and kinetic synth/keyboard lines. This band may be young, but they put on an amazing live show, either unplugged or full-on rock, and this album shows their ability to bolster their strengths and deliver some incredibly well-crafted songs.
Tracks: “Life of Crime,” “Kaleidoscope”
Claire Boucher, known to most as Grimes, has been releasing pretty obscure electronica work for the last few years, but it wasn’t until Visions came out this February that she learned how to embrace her pop leanings and integrate it with her ability at crafting thought-provoking, intriguing and atypical song structures. What resulted is a record that is both obscure and familiar, heartfelt and detached and overall just really, really fun to listen to. It’s in no way vapid, but it’s also not heart-on-sleeve, overwrought intelligentsia music. And, even though Visions is accessible and infectious, it in no way pegs Boucher to this type of music, so don’t be surprised when she takes a total 180 turn and changes direction. She may be only 24, but she’s shown that she’s full of ideas, and with the confidence that will come from creating such a forceful and compelling work of art, Boucher’s laying the groundwork for a really fantastic career.
Tracks: “Genesis,” “Oblivion,” “Be A Body”
Jack White: Blunderbuss
On this solo debut, Jack White exceeds expectations by creating something that is equally rock, raunchy, eclectic and hot to trot Nashville. Rock, blues, country and you-name-that genre dominate Blunderbuss, along with robust piano playing and scorching guitar. The predominant theme of Blunderbuss suggests a world of hurt beneath the surface of positive vibes, but like a Johnny Cash album, Blunderbuss sounds timeless already. Scary to think Jack White will be making albums into his 80s… just wait until he hits his well-traveled old man blues phase.
Tracks: “Love Interruption," "Sixteen Saltines"
Kathleen Edwards: Voyageur
Kathleen Edwards has been a mainstay on the Canadian folk scene for a decade at this point, but her recent romantic connection with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has been about all that folks are now interested in, which is really a shame, because Edwards’ fourth album is a true standout tour-de-force. Sure, Vernon is at the co-producer helm, but rather than fully indulge his penchant for whimsical grandeur, Edwards is able to pull out the best parts of his music to infuse her ten songs with a maturity and solemnity that fit the lyrics to the songs. These are heart-breaking works, too, with songs like “House Full of Empty Rooms” showcasing some of the most tender and vulnerable moments we’ve seen from the singer-songwriter yet.
Tracks: “Change the Sheets,” “Empty Threat,” “House Full of Empty Rooms”
Patti Smith: Banga
Smith’s first release of new material in eight years ironically shows how well she’s matured. Accompanied by her long-time touring band, Banga‘s arrangements are precise and effective, providing a fitting backdrop for Smith’s spoken and sung lyrics. In place of the now-or-never quality of her earlier work, Smith’s voice has grown richer and more expressive while the overall tone of the album is quieter and more reflective, creating songs that are both evocative and personal. Even her album closing rendition of Neil Young’s "After The Gold Rush" sounds purely original, and matched with the glorious opener "Amerigo," they make Banga a complete album with bookends and no filler.
Tracks: “Amerigo,” “Banga,” “After The Gold Rush”
Rufus Wainwright: Out of the Game
Call him over the top, call him excessive or even arrogant, but one cannot fault Rufus Wainwright for not trying hard enough and delivering with musical aplomb. The difference with Out Of The Game, however, is that he’s provided a cohesive work that exemplifies his talents, for the most part excises his overindulgence, highlights his sharp wit and exceptional musical skill. And then add Mark Ronson into the mix, who has also risen to the challenge, and while he relies a bit on his own studio tricks, by bringing in his keen pop/soul sensibility with the skill of band players The Dap-Kings, Ronson demonstrates how perfectly suited he is for the project. It’s an alchemical, enchanting collaboration, and even if this is a one-off performance for either of them, Out Of The Game will remain a worthy contender for their respective bests.
Tracks: “Out of the Game,” “Jericho,” “Perfect Man”
Ryan Monroe: A Painting of a Painting on Fire
As J Tillman stepped out from behind the kit to awe us with Father John Misty, Band of Horses’ Ryan Monroe has proven his know-how around a recording studio equally well. Written over the course of the last couple years in between tours, Monroe reflects early Paul McCartney solo material along with the bombast of Supertramp and ELO into a diverse offering where each song is built around art-rock, pop, classical and prog amongst many genres. Although many of the compositions make you scratch your head thinking "where have I heard this before," sometimes that’s exactly what makes an album a winner from the get-go: familiarity and delicacy.
Tracks: “Any Way, Shape or Deformity,” “Turning Over Leaves”
Screaming Females: Ugly
Led by the lyrics/vocal theatrics and guitar wizardry from front female, Marissa Paternoster, Screaming Females continue to make some of the heaviest music on the scene today. There was much made about the group working with Steve Albini for this release, but on the production side not much has changed. The group has stuck to their successful formula, making the production/engineering talk secondary to the killer tunes. From the thrash stylings of “Tell Me No” to the radio-ready riff fest “Leave It All Up To Me” and pop flair of “Help Me” and “Expire,” Paternoster’s exuberant guitar lines have us gawking again.
Tracks: “Help Me,” “Tell Me No”
Sharon Van Etten: Tramp
Sharon Van Etten’s third album, and the most fully realized of any her projects thus far, is by no means a wildly enjoyable listening experience. These songs deal in the world of emotional scars, isolation, desperation and vulnerability, but where that could become self-pitying and overwrought, Van Etten hits a perfect balance on Tramp where she employs strong melodies and emotive singing with these melancholic beauties. So, while it may not be exactly “enjoyable,” this album is a forceful and important addition to the singer-songwriter canon, and if you’re not paying attention to Sharon Van Etten yet, then you’re really missing out. Very few people are writing songs about hurting and healing with such aplomb and openness, and Tramp shows what an amazing career Sharon is building and deserves to have.
Tracks: “Serpents,” “Magic Chords”
Shearwater: Animal Joy
No album Shearwater has delivered since springing from the rib of Okkervil River at the dawn of the 20th century says more to their uncanny ability to craft macro-sized music for such micro sized environs than their seventh full-length endeavor, Animal Joy. A big proud sound dominates Animal Joy as front-man Jonathan Meiburg sings with bravado atop a dark melodic sound that’s favored by other career artists like The National and The Walkmen. From the tribal and intense "Breaking the Yearlings" to the revved up rock of "Immaculate," Animal Joy is as fun as it is thought-provoking and spiritual.
Tracks: “Animal Life,” “Immaculate”
Simone Felice: Simone Felice
Simone Felice’s first true solo work upon departing from The Felice Brothers consists of ten vivid tales recounting people in places not just obscured by shadows. Like a Bon Iver record, Felice’s work is layered with a ghostly and mystical aura, buffeted by a hushed and hallowed atmosphere. The drama inherent in the material itself is amplified by the spot-on instrumentation and the tracks are as compelling as well-wrought short stories.
Tracks: “New York Times,” “You & I Belong”
Smashing Pumpkins: Oceania
Just when we were ready to write Billy Corgan off the way of Gavin Rossdale or Art Alexakis, the Zero Man regroups and re-ignites the ever evolving project known as Smashing Pumpkins. Their seventh studio album Oceania is an album within an album and part of their 44 song work in-progress Teargarden by Kaleidyscope. With looping rhythms, delicate power ballads, nine minute songs, Oceania feels fresh, inspired and rocking amidst a scene where musicianship has taken a back seat to the dreaded "h" word that so dominates our Coachella/Pitchfork culture.
Tracks: “Quasar,” “The Celestials”
Tanlines: Mixed Emotions
Tanlines, comprised of guitar/vocalist Eric Emm and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Jesse Cohen, has a winsome live act, with a nice balance between witty banter and heartfelt performances, but this often doesn’t translate onto record for many acts. Tanlines, however, bucks that trend, and on Mixed Emotions they’ve delivered eleven songs that really stand above the fold and impress. They may be young as a band, but the tracks are fully developed, weighty and masterfully executed. They wear a lot of hats with each of their songs, but it never feels frenetic or amateur.
Tracks: “All of Me,” “Not The Same,” “Nonesuch”