The Killers – Battle Born
Like my #1 album of 2010 — Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs — The Killers landed in my top spot by way of pure heart and foolish emotions. This is an album for where I am right now, at this moment, in my life. Gorillaz made the “best” album of 2010, but they didn’t reach into my soul, my being. Here, The Killers — and by “The Killers” I mean Brandon Flowers, another 31-year old — have made one of their best records. Gone is the sleaze and youthful energy of Hot Fuss. This is the perfection of what they have been aiming for since Sam’s Town: a collection of great American songs about love, loss, change and the Wild West. Whereas Sam’s Town sounded like a bunch of boys trying to capture a sound, Battle Born sounds confident, mature and entirely authentic. Each song is stadium ready (“Runaways,” “Flesh And Bone,” “Miss Atomic Bomb,” “Battle Born”). Each song has a hook and melody as catchy as any gem off Hot Fuss (“The Way It Was,” “A Matter of Time,” “From Here On Out”). It’s not as drama-club goofy as Sam’s Town, but it is as earnest (“Be Still”). They’re still biting The Boss, but instead of sounding like a cheap rip-off, now it sounds like a respectful nod. There is not a single song I skip; in fact, I relish the arrival of each successive song. I haven’t felt this way about an album at all this year. The standout track for me — and again, we’re sensing a trend here — is the absolute heartbreaker, “Here With Me.” Upon first listen, the first time I heard the chorus, I just started crying. It was so unexpected and surprising that I had to laugh. But it hit me so hard and uncovered a couple emotions that I haven’t quite got under control yet. And isn’t that what the best music can do? Elicit an emotional response, some memory, some scene, a glimpse to a time you either forgot or tried to bury. This entire album does that for me (though not as powerfully and intensely as “Here With Me”). In some silly way, I wonder if it’s just life’s path and growing up. Even though Brandon Flowers is a rich, married Mormon with kids, he’s writing songs that somehow hit his fellow 31 Clubber square in the soul (incidentally, just like Win Butler of Arcade Fire). And he’s been doing it since 2004. If their output continues to be this good, I look forward to aging with this band.
Frank Ocean – channel orange
This was supposed to be my #1 album of 2012. Then The Killers came along and reminded me why I love them so much. Sorry Frank. Overall, this may be a better “album” — by which I mean a better overall narrative and listening experience. But it didn’t hit me as hard in the right spots as The Killers. On that note, the spots: my heart and soul. This impossibly smooth album is pained, heartfelt, earnest and real. A little too real. Exactly what I want in my music. It’s not cold, distant and drugged out like The Weeknd, or overproduced and drugs/pussy/party dancefloor bait like Miguel. This shit is real. Frank injects such a deep, soulful and human element to these tracks that it’s almost emo-R&B. Surely his coming out didn’t hurt him; it only endeared him more to me. What a brave move, calculated or not. “Thinkin’ Bout You,” “Forrest Gump,” and the landmark “Bad Religion” provide enough lyrical content to back up his famous letter to his first love. Funked up numbers like “Monks” and “Sweet Life” have earworms so catchy that I unexpectedly burst into humming at random times throughout the day. Even a forty-second throwaway interlude “Fertilizer” is awesome. But it’s that mega, gigantor, EPIC AS A MUFUKKAH 10-minute “Pyramids” that cements his genius.
Muse – The 2nd Law
In all honesty, this almost didn’t make it into the top 5. Why? Well, I think it was a case of premature ejaculation, if you will. When I first heard it, I went bonkers. Each song was so shockingly unique and catchy, it was like they had figured out all the right formulas and wrote an album of perfect prog-pop-rock. The ideal rock album for the iTunes playlist world we live in. Then I got kind of bored. Each song is so good it could potentially be a single, but the danger is that the experience of listening to the entire album suffers for that. Why listen to all 12 songs when I can skip around the narrative to the gems that get me off right away? Whereas we went on a journey on the previous albums, The 2nd Law is chock-full of heavy hitters. So it sat unloved for a while. Then I dusted it off and gave it another go. And it still blows me away. Slamming dubstep bursts on “Follow Me,” “Unsustainable,” and blissful love tune, “Madness” are infectious. That Olympic song isn’t as terrible when presented in this narrative; its ridiculousness simply bookended by songs that are equally, if not more, outlandish. Perfect example: “Panic Station.” What the fuck is this?! Prince? MJ? Stevie Wonder? Queen? All of these and more. It’s quite possibly their stupidest song ever, but it kicks so much ass I don’t even care. We hated “Supermassive Black Hole” when that came out (“Waaaaah, it doesn’t sound like Muse!!!!!!!!” D:), yet now it’s classic. This is still one of my least-favorite Muse albums (tie between this and their debut), but it’s still Muse. And their worst output is still better than most other bands’ bests.
Metric – Synthetica
Fast paced alt-pop sung by one of my favorite female vocalists around today. It’s sleek, stylish and sexy, with just the amount of heavy to keep it from being too-precious indie alternative. This is not as stadium-anthem-heavy as their prior album, Fantasies, but manages to be so tight and focused you want to sing along as if you were in a giant arena. Lead single “Youth Without Youth” reminds me of a nice blend of Muse’s “Uprising” and Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People”… it’s got “that beat,” if you know what I’m talking about. “Speed the Collapse” and “Synthetica” are driving guitar-blasts perfect for high speeds in your car. “Clone” and “Lost Kitten” will please those aforementioned precious indie fans. Lou Reed even pops his grizzled head in for a few lines on “The Wanderlust.” This is a darker endeavor, more innocence lost since the years of Fantasies. I think I like it better.
Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man
Boy, my first-listen of this album was at the wrong time. I hated it at first, but oh Natasha Khan, you know how to get me. I should never have doubted you. Yes, it is not as exciting and visceral as Two Suns. Yes, it most certainly is not as mystical, dark and spooky as Fur and Gold. This is a sparse, introspective affair. I’ll liken it to her Vespertine, as opposed to the Post and Homogenic of her previous two releases. It took awhile, but it’s a grower. “All Your Gold,” “Horses of the Sun,” and “Oh Yeah” will sate old fans of her beat-heavy bangers. While the rest of you introspective sad-sacks will revel in everything else. The clear standout for me is the title track, which starts simple, tosses in a scary men’s choir, and then absolutely erupts into the most glorious low-end rumble-bass of all time. And then the horns kick in. Pass me a cigarette, please! Seriously: I sit in my car and queue this song *just* to FEEL that sensation. It’s like my molecules are being liberated into the heavens. Utter bliss.
Lana Del Rey – Born To Die
You know the buzz. You know the backlash. You read my defense. You have your own opinion. She’s polarizing, that is certain. But forget for a second the plastic-surgery barbie doll and all the headlines. Listen to the songs. They are catchy. as. fuck. With her mix of glamorous diva majesty and modern hip-hop sampling, LDR and her team of writers crafted a collection of such lush, sensual, beat-heavy tracks. Some songs are sweeping; some are perfect for head nodding (“Carmen,” “Born To Die,” “Video Games,” “Dark Paradise”). “Blue Jeans” is the clear standout. Others are more upbeat. “National Anthem,” “Off To The Races,” “Summertime Sadness” and “Diet Mountain Dew” remind me of Poe: danceable, poppy and playful. Haters gon’ hate, but I still love this sexy little Frankenstein.
Of Monsters And Men – My Head Is An Animal
Forget all this “Mumford-from-Iceland” bullshit. You know who they remind me of? Arcade Fire, circa 2005. Gigantic singalongs. Kitchen-sink instrumentation. Overearnest folksiness. Lots of “hey”s and “ho”s. This album is quite perfect, even if some songs might sound kind of similar. I’ll take this over Mumford or the Lumineers ANY DAY. Maybe it’s the female vocalist. Maybe it’s the harmonies. Or maybe it’s because they just sound so natural, happy and together. This is some feel good shit right here. “Little Talks” will be the song they’re going to be known for for eternity, but “King and Lionheart,” “Dirty Paws,” and “Six Weeks” are so much better. If you’re on the fence, go see them live. It’ll be one of the happiest nights of your life. There’s just such a joy to this group. It’s infectious.
The Black Keys – El Camino
“This was released in 2011! How can it be best of 2012?!?!” Well, the Grammys can do it, so fuck you. This album was, in fact, released almost exactly one year ago: December 6, 2011. How can I get to know an album in less than a month to include it on a best of list? Exactly. This album blew the fuck up in 2012, mainly on the backs of perfect booty-jam “Lonely Boy”( and its amazing video) and ubiquitous movie-trailer soundtrack, “Gold On The Ceiling.” Thank Christ for Danger Mouse, who transformed their too-gritty-for-my-tastes garage sound into a tighter, more polished animal. And boy does that help. The riffs here are delicious. And yet, it’s the quiet kid in the corner, “Little Black Submarines,” that packs the biggest punch. After some contemplative acoustic yearning, the track explodes with the biggest riffage this side of Zeppelin. Whoo-doggy did I get a lot of exercise with my kitchen-guitar (see: broom) and Guitar Hero miming. On a record chock-full of huge rock and roll songs, it’s this sleeper epic that kicked my ass hardest.
Silversun Pickups – Neck of the Woods
Opening with the jarring “Skin Graph,” which sounds like something the teen son of the Engineers from Prometheus would have listened to, Silversun return with an album that’s not as good as Swoon but still much better than the sloppy Carnavas. Things get digital here (the dance-y “The Pit”), more sinister (“Simmer”), more introspective (“Here We Are”). The orchestra from Swoon has since been fired. Things aren’t as grand and sweeping anymore. It its place is a computer. Now they seem to be bunkering down, focusing (“Gun-Shy Sunshine,” a fantastic title). The crappy fixer-upper house on the cover of the CD is a good clue to their current state. It’s not a bad set, but there’s nothing that swept me off my feet quite like on Swoon. It’s colder on this album. More uncomfortable. They still rock the fuck out (my favorites “Mean Spirits,” “Dots and Dashes (Enough Already)” and “Out of Breath”), and for that I’m grateful. Full album here.
No Doubt – Push And Shove
I know, I know: I’m surprised this is on the list too. Not because I’m a lying snob who is too good for our friends in No Doubt. No. I LOVE No Doubt. I’m surprised because this album is not that great. It’s good. But it’s not what you’d expect after a decade of silence. Here’s the deal: half of the songs are fucking awesome. These are the “No Doubt” songs like “Settle Down,” “Looking Hot,” “Sparkle” and “Heaven.” They have the classic ND sound. They are upbeat and quirky. Then you have the other half, which to me sound like Gwen’s solo shit… the saccharine ballads, the boring straightforward adult pop sons. Snoooooooooze. They are perfectly OK songs, but for a decade-in-the-making No Doubt comeback record? LAZY. The centerpiece of the album is the title track, which the band called their “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I didn’t get it at first. Did they think they were that good? No, I think they meant it in terms of stylistic tone shifts. You got the bouncy reggae-ska verses…and then all of a sudden, you’re hit with a churning back-and-forth wave on the chorus. The so called “push and shove.” It’s one of my favorite songs of the year. For that reason alone, the album deserves to be here. But since the rest of the songs range from “pretty awesome” to “okay” I consider it justifiable to include one of the most iconic American bands, and one of my all-time favorites, on this pithy meaningless list.
Stars – The North
Indie synth-pop. My cup of tea. They’ve been around, but this is my first real experience with Stars. And I loved it. The melodies are catchy. The beats are catchy. The boy-girl intervox are catchy. Why didn’t I get into them sooner?! If you close your eyes and think really hard, you could transport yourself back to the 80s. If the 80s had better production… It’s dream-pop of the most enjoyable order. “The Theory of Relativity” and “A Song is a Weapon” are my clear standouts. This album is not going to change my life anytime soon, but you may catch me swaying my head with a serene smile on my face, enjoying the simplicity of a perfectly fine pop album.
The Shins – Port Of Morrow
Of all the albums to fall down my chart this year, The Shins took the biggest tumble. If you asked me back in March, I’d have told you they’d be in the top 5 by year-end. I guess things changed. Overall, the album is good. But the standouts stood out and the rest fell to the wayside. Still, on the strength of one of their best tracks (“Simple Song”) and a handful of other new iPod staples (“Rifle’s Spiral,”It’s Only Life,” “40 Mark Strasse”). It’s a surprisingly sad and emotional album, the darkness hidden behind their brand of playful indie. But it’s those emotional tracks that stayed with me and for that I really like this album.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – Here
Happy happy, joy joy. Albums like this make me want to move to California. Find a beach, a tanned honey in a bikini with long tangled hair, and just live life in the sun. It’s a short set, just 9 songs long. But these little ditties put a good ol’ fire under my feet. Get up and dance like a hippie. “Man On Fire” has smooth and lush harmonies that erupt into a barnburner. “That’s What’s Up” is a glorious ode to love. My standout is “Dear Believer,” a mid-tempo finger-snapper that swells up into rich harmonic chorus that gives me such tingles I get emotional. Something about this song. Ah, such warm feelings. Everything here warms you up and makes you smile. It’s just so refreshing and simple.
Ellie Goulding – Halcyon
If you’d have told me that the girl who wrote Lights (the album) would go on to write this album in a year’s time, I would have scoffed. She made a light-year jump from the cute, sometimes folksy, sometimes playful little scamp on her debut to this fierce beast on her sophomore effort, much like Florence’s jump from Lungs to Ceremonials. The dubstep is in full swing here, but so are other electronic soundscapes and atmospheres. It’s a gorgeous affair that I’m still trying to comprehend. Pop gem radio single “Anything Could Happen” took a while to get me, but I love it now. However it’s the gigantic bomb-drop duo of “Figure 8” and “Holding On” that really get me. These songs are massive (say it with an English accent… yes, like that. THAT kind of mas-sive…). It’s like she’s put me into a giant inflatable ball and dropped me out of space. The drop alone on “Holding On” is worth the price of admission. I have a feeling this album will end up with me far after 2012 and half the other albums on this list. We’re just not there yet. Full album here.
alt-J – An Awesome Wave
Man, these freaks make some beautiful music. Radiohead x Battles x Hot Chip. I was hooked with “Fitzpleasure,” the wackiest shit I heard in 2012. One iTunes user commented that it sounded like Adam Sandler, and by gum, it kinda does. But once you get past that initial gigglefest, the sheer creativity of the instrumentation and the poetry of the gobbledygook lyrics engulf you. It’s cerebral and nerdy, but funky and fucking awesome too. Of the friends I introduced to the CD, most are in love with it. And yet we still can’t really explain why. It’s so different. So unlike anything we’ve heard. If you want a new challenge, make it this. Try “Tessellate,” “Dissolve Me,” “Matilda,” “Breezeblocks” or “Bloodflood.” If you like it, enjoy that feeling of discovery.
1. Gary Clark Jr – Blak and Blu
God save me for putting this guitar god in the same company as the two younguns below. It’s just that I was not completely grabbed by his stunning debut. Not yet. Maybe I will be later. Lazy excuse? Maybe. But it’s just too dense, too awesome. Opening track “Ain’t Messin’ Around” is one of my favorite songs of the year. Guitar-wank monstrosity “Numb” gets deep into my bones. “Travis County” is such pure old school rock and roll it makes my balls hurt. Seriously, this album kicks ass and it should, by all accounts, be up there in the Top 15. I just don’t feel it completely yet. And that’s really important. But if you want the BEST rock and roll album of the year — and by that, I mean to include real rhythm and blues, real riffs, rockabilly, whateverthefuck, pure awesomeness — then you better pick this album up. I need more time to fully appreciate it. Maybe it’s too much awesome for me to comprehend… puny mortal that I am.
2. Justin Bieber – Believe
Oh yeah, you better believe it. Hate all you want, mufukkahs, but Justin Bieber (and his producers…) is a talented little shit. Based on the strength of his three singles alone (“Boyfriend,” “As Long As You Love Me,” and “Beauty and a Beat”), the kid deserves a lot of credit. The Grammy’s unfairly snubbed him, which I don’t really get. These songs are great. People said it was his bid at maturity, like when Timberlake went from ‘N Sync to his solo career. However, I think it’s more like the jump from ‘N Sync’s No Strings Attached — youthful and immature pop — to ‘N Sync’s Pop — their first real bid at maturity, that still didn’t feel as mature as they wanted it to be. Does that make sense? Whatever. Maybe his next album will be that “real” jump to JT’s solo level of artistic credibility. Remember, people laughed at ‘N Sync and Justin too. “Pop suck! Limp Bizkit forever!!!!” We’ll see if Biebs can prove all the haters wrong.
3. Taylor Swift – Red
This girl is unstoppable. I don’t even own the album yet and somehow I already know half of it. She’s a juggernaut. Just accept it. I have. I may not have put her up there with the rest of the cool kids, but she wins in the end: I’ll be humming her damn songs for the next couple decades.