2012 wasn’t a very flashy year for new music, but what it did spawn were well-wrought, thoughtful and multi-layered releases that balanced introspection with muscle, unafraid to maybe make a few missteps but unabashed in their verve for making good, solid music. Our 20 best records of the year encapsulate that idea, and prove to us just how much depth there was across the year’s best records. Some of our other favorites didn’t make this cut, either, further demonstrating the strength of this year’s offerings. Without further ado, however, we now celebrated Glide Magazine‘s ten years in making year-end lists– The Glide 20: Our Top Albums of 2012
(in alphabetical order)
alt- J – An Awesome Wave
Just when everybody seemed to one up and copy cat each other, 2012 brought an album that was altogether inventive and genre-defining from a bunch of youngsters. As winner of the 2012 Mercury Prize, alt-J’s name takes some explaining (it’s the Apple OSX keyboard shortcut to make the Greek letter “delta,” which mathematically symbolizes “change”– a concept significant to the band). Many will call An Awesome Wave the Kid A for a new generation, and it’s in many ways an apt interpretation. alt-J, synthesizing sounds of art-rock, electronica and pop have pieced together a glorious melange of rhythmic, harmonic complexities and show that indie rock has the capacity to grow in ways still unexpected.
Anais Mitchell – Young Man In America
2012 was a great year for Americana music in general, but on Anais Mitchell’s fourth studio album, she shows how different she is from the genre, and how revolutionary her songwriting really is. Where most female folk singer-songwriters on the scene rely on story-based, image-heavy acoustic music, Mitchell inserts a brawniness, surrealism and edge that is a welcome shift into the intersection of folk and prog-rock with Young Man in America. From the opening thunder of “Wilderland” to the animated ebullience of “Young Man In America,” and the hushed heartbreak of “Comin’ Down” and “Shepherd,” Mitchell has released a downright tour-de-force of a record, and reveals that she is capable of way more than we already thought she was– which was one of the best contemporary young singer-songwriters out there.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes
Vanguard artists like Todd Rundgren, David Bowie, 10cc, Roxy Music, etc. preferred to manipulate pop styles, splicing and dicing them, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti’s Mature Themes carries on the tradition of 70’s pop innovators, strip-mining bits and pieces from older forms of popular music and fashioning them into something entirely new and sonically clear. And like most classic recordings, Mature Themes needs to be heard all the way through at least once to make perfect sense. It’s a real tour-de-force in an already impressive discography.
Beach House – Bloom
There’s something simply alchemical about the mix of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally’s voice and instrumentation, just dripping with keyboards and off-kilter percussion, that sounds like something otherworldly and timeless. They’re ethereal without being flighty, brooding without being angsty, and the dark malice that may peak through certain songs is tempered with a smooth elegance that belies any rancor. Bloom is the fourth offering from this Baltimore-based band, and it is their tightest, most cohesive and forceful release yet.
Bob Mould – Silver Age
Silver Age is clear testimony to Mould’s continuing ability and vision. His marriage of hardcore’s ferocity with popular music’s appreciation for harmony and melody changed the course of indie rock in the ‘80s. With Silver Age, Bob Mould proves he is still a master of combining punk energy with pop passion, and that he’s lost none of his edge, thirty years on. More importantly, the recording serves as one of the more dynamic guitar records heard in a long time.
Chairlift – Something
Something, the sophomore release from this Brooklyn-based duo, is a bewitching collection of twelve songs that cross genres seamlessly, but maintain a general sense of suspense and slight anxiety, which sounds like a combination fit for a mental breakdown, but in fact, what Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly achieve is this magnificent balance that both intrigues the listener and layers the songs with depth– caverns and twists and turns fun to explore but that open up new meanings with every listen. While certain songs like “I Belong In Your Arms” and “Amanaemonesia” are immediate hits, some of the more subtle songs like “Wrong Opinion” and “Turning” have equal amount of intrigue and open up beautifully over time. It’s a hugely impressive effort for a sophomore release from this young band.
Dr. John – Locked Down
It was only a matter of time before Dr. John would start a comeback and shine amongst a younger generation of fans; after all, Bonnaroo was named after one of his songs. Enter the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach as producer, who takes Dr. John’s well-versed spiritual and cosmic flares and modernizes them atop is gritty, funky and soulful voice. In terms of old meeting new, it doesn’t get too much better than this one from the Night Tripper.
Father John Misty – Fear Fun
Ex-Fleet Foxes drummer J. Tillman released Fear Fun early in 2012 to relatively muted response, but over the course of the year love for this record has grown exponentially, and the band is now selling out larger and larger venues– and for good reason. His first album as Father John Misty, Fear Fun features a strong 1970’s Laurel Canyon backdrop for the songs, but he’s already made new classics out of Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” “Funtimes in Babylon” and “Only Son of the Ladiesman,” and has somewhat unexpectedly become a naturally charismatic frontman and soon-to-be career artist.
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. While some may prefer the polish and rock-tinged sound to her first two albums, Apple embraces a minimalist approach to the production of this record, which puts her voice and piano directly in the forefront. She shows her ability to craft jazz-infused rock songs, with intricate left-hand lines and emotion-heavy augmented chords, and all the while that beguiling alto of hers propels these songs forward and lodge them directly in the brain. Opener and first single “Every Single Night” shows the kind of experimental and progressive songwriting that she hit on with “Extraordinary Machine,” and it really does serve as a fitting entree into the record. While the tabloids and blogs may carry the sensationalism of Apple’s erratic and downright odd behavior, the music remains– and it’s truly exceptional.
First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
Who ever expected two girls aged 19 and 22 to write one of the best Americana albums of the year, if not the decade? Oh, and did we mention they’re also Swedish? Sisters Johanna and Klara Soderberg’s sophomore album, The Lion’s Roar, is an un-yieldingly masterful work, with luscious harmonies, beautiful orchestration and flawless production. At one moment, their voices may be raspy like Emmylou Harris, but in a second’s shift they’re honeyed and in sync like Simon & Garfunkel. These songs reveal a lyric depth, too, that is downright stunning for artists of any age. If you haven’t given a listen to First Aid Kit yet, you’re truly missing out on one of the most intriguing bands out there now.
Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Remember those 70’s Stevie Wonder albums that worked so well? Well., Frank Ocean took the best of those recordings and modernized them complete with intros, instrumental interludes and outros, becoming more than just a hip hop album. Between soulful vocals and satisfyingly punchy bass, Channel Orange appeals to all music listeners and minimizes vulgarities and guest appearance in favor of songs “Sweet Life” and “Lost” that will sound fresh even twenty years from now.
Jack White – Blunderbuss
On his 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.
Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Following up a celebrated debut in indie rock circles with aplomb can be a death sentence or a welcome to the club. Japandroids make it to the next rank of critical mainstays with this collection of stripped down and raw arrangements that never quiver or relent. They create addictive layers of garage rock sound with fuzz pedal, buzz and powerful melodies, giving us a minimalist flair in a scene of over-production.
Lee Ranaldo – Between The Times And The Tides
Playing with a dynamic group of musicians that includes Nels Cline, John Medeski and Alan Licht, Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo presents his first song-oriented studio album. Set to gorgeous soundscapes and musically reminiscent of mid-to-late 90s Sonic Youth, Ranaldo has molded something listenable yet still complicated and dense with a cleaner production value than what we’re used to from this alternative rock pioneer
The Mynabirds – GENERALS
Saddle Creek and member of the Conor Oberst-led collective of Midwestern indie/folk-rock artists, Laura Burhenn released her first album under the moniker The Mynabirds in 2009, with an album heavily influenced by the likes of Neil Young and Carole King. After a year of touring in Oberst’s band, Burhenn returns with GENERALS, the sophomore release as The Mynabirds, and quite frankly, she’s not only raised the bar she’s released one of the most potent, bewitching and exquisite albums of 2012. There’s a layer of Neko Case-esque reverb that Burhenn sings through, which suits her timbre perfectly and gives these songs more defined shape and a connection to country music. Singles “Generals” and “Body of Work” are foot-stomping, beguiling numbers that would make Jake White jealous, but also seek out the b-sides from this record, as “Fallen Doves” is one of the most beautifully delicate and well-wrought ballads of the year.
Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?
Instrumental prowess? Check. Sonically Daring? Check. Vibrant vocals and songwriting? Check. With bluegrass as their backbone, The Punch Brothers broaden their scope on their fourth album melding pop, progressive rock and jazz fusion into a stimulating modern form. Bandleader Chris Thile continues to up his game, making his post-Nickel Creek band increasingly relevant with “Hundred Dollars" and the title track. Just when the whole album seems that it couldn’t get more interesting, the penultimate track emerges– a resounding and fantastic cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A.”
Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
Sharon Van Etten’s third album, Tramp, comes out of an intense collaboration with The National’s Aaron Dessner, who recorded and produced the album with Van Etten between legs of her 2010 and 2011 tours. This might lend a slightly erratic sound or inconsistent quality to the album, but there’s nothing like that to be seen across these twelve songs. Instead, Van Etten makes good on the promise of her last two offerings and demonstrates her strong hand at songwriting. 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.
Shearwater – Animal Joy
Animal Joy relishes in its statement that “no strings or glockenspiels were touched during the making of this album." But, that doesn’t mean that the lush grandiosity of principle player Jonathan Meiburg’s songs are any less epic. He has an uncanny ability to craft micro-sized music that sound fit for macro-scale environments, singing with bravado atop a dark melodic sound of true cinematic grandeur, like that of 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.
Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania
Sure it’s not the Pumpkins best album and may not even be their second or maybe third best album, but we couldn’t help recognize it for its creative zeal in this indie soft age. Their seventh studio album Oceania is part of their 44-song work in-progress Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, but it stands on its own as well. With looping rhythms, delicate power ballads and nine minute songs, Oceania really kills it and, like his heroes in Rush, proves that Billy Corgan can still deliver, even for a new generation of fans.
Tame Impala – Lonerism
Although Kevin Parker’s voice sounds a whole lot like John Lennon, there’s no denying that his band Tame Impala is one of the few groups that has furthered the Beatles’ legacy of psychedelic-infused rock. While drums roar, sounds peak in and out, voices are multi-tracked into luscious harmonies, basses growl, keyboards peak and loops repeat, Tame Impala provides substance without the mindless meandering of other sonic voyagers.
30 Honorable Mentions
A.C. Newman, Shut Down The Streets
Aimee Mann, Charmer
Alabama Shakes, Boys & Girls
Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre Is Evil
Band of Horses, Infiniite Shadows
Band of Skulls, Mirage Rock
Bat For Lashes, The Haunted Man
Cat Power, Sun
Chris Robinson Brotherhood, The Magic Door/Big Moon Ritual
Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory
The Cult, Choice of Weapon
Diamond Rugs, Diamond Rugs
Dinosaur Jr., I Bet on Sky
Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan
Donald Fagen, Sunken Condos
Grizzly Bear, Shields
Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur
The Lumineers, The Lumineers
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The Heist
Patti Smith, Banga
Paul Weller, Sonik Kicks 26
Rufus Wainwright, Out of the Game
Ryan Monroe- A Painting of a Painting on Fire
Screaming Females, Ugly
Simone Felice, Simone Felice
Tanlines, Mixed Emotions
Twin Shadow, Confess