Best Music of 2012

2012 was easily my most difficult year with regard to consuming new music. The obvious reason is it was the first year of my life that I was a parent for its entirety. Still, I managed to listen to a lot of quality new releases, and while my list is a little shorter than in past years, I feel pretty confident there's a lot of good stuff here.

I expanded this list from a top 10 to a top 50 in 2005, but it has dwindled in size ever since: to a top 40 from 2007-2008 and a top 33 from 2009-2011. This year, while I could have easily included 33 albums or more, I decided to cut it off where I felt the quality took a hit. While not as much a critical list as a nod to the music i really enjoyed in 2012, the records that just missed were solid, but not really worth recognizing, in my opinion. It turns out the cutoff was at a round number (30), but in the future, if it's 29 or 32, so be it.

30. Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur
With an honorable mention to Tift Merritt, who missed this year's list, this is my female alt-country album of the year.

29. Sharon Van Etten - Tramp
There are a lot of bands with significant contributions from women who rank much higher, but this ranks as my favorite album from a female solo artist this year.

28. Bloc Party - Four
While I certainly listen to a lot of older music from English artists, when it comes to modern stuff, not so much. This year, however, four U.K. bands—including these guys and three in the top ten—are represented on my list.

27. Damien Jurado - Maraqopa
Not exactly your average singer-songwriter, Jurado comes from a punk background and his songs, while occasionally dirge-like, sometimes find themselves meandering into brief, but meaningful, psychedelic guitar wankings kind of reminiscent of '70s British folk-rock.

26. Wild Nothing - Nocturne
This is the only album to make the list that wasn't featured in a Frequent Spins post this year. So, let's play the "name three bands they remind me of" game: Mojave 3, The Cure, Galaxie 500.

25. Sun Kil Moon - Among the Leaves
I'm no critic, and even if I were it wouldn't be my place to suggest what songs should or shouldn't have been included on an album. But, purely from a personal enjoyment standpoint, if this 74-minute album was edited down to my favorite 40 or so minutes, it might be top ten.

24. Carolina Chocolate Drops - Leaving Eden
I've been into old-timey music for longer than I've been obsessed with old-timey baseball players, but modern music heavily influenced by a 100+ year old genre isn't usually my thing. This three-piece string band, of course, is one of the exceptions.

23. Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn't
There's no "A Postcard to Nina" here, but this album actually lands one spot higher on my list than the album that contained that gem. However, Lekman is not even the highest ranking Swedish artist in this year's countdown.

22. Todd Snider - Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Singer-songwriter probably is less apt a description for Snider as for Jurado, but storyteller would probably fit the bill. Let's be clear, though. The stories are set to a rocking tone, and they're more than just a tad cynical as they delve into political and occasionally religious themes.

21. First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar
This Swedish duo of sisters certainly has some country influences, but considering the numerous comparisons to Fleet Foxes, indie folk is probably more like it.

20. Stars - The North
Canadian artists tend to be the second most highly represented in my lists, and this year is no exception. Five Canadian bands and solo artists are here in total, including Kathleen Edwards (already revealed), this outfit and three listed below.

19. The Shins - Port of Morrow
The Shins win the award for most inconsistent album of the year, one that was top ten material based on its best tracks—most notably "Simple Song" and "No Way Down"—but contains some borderline unlistenable stuff as well, particularly the album closing title track.

18. Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill
When I heard this album, it made me kind of regret my decision to pass on this year's Neil and the Horse tour. There's nothing lyrically tremendous here, but in his advanced years, Young seems to be making the statement that simple and direct is the way to go. Or, perhaps, he's just become less creative. Either way, this one definitely made up for the mediocre affair that was their early 2012 release, Americana.

17. Metric - Synthetica
Since I've previously tried and failed to get into this band, I should go back and give the rest of their catalog another shot I suppose. Recommendations anyone?

16. Shearwater - Animal Joy
The album opening "Animal Life" is definitely one of my favorite songs of 2012. Obviously, the rest of the album doesn't quite maintain those lofty standards, but it's clearly this band's best to date.

15. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan
One reviewer wrote about this album "...there are songs here that suggest the band has finally found the formula that finely balances its well-meaning musical intellectualism with actual pop songs." That pretty much sums it up.

14. Beach House - Bloom
There aren't really any killer songs here, just a beautifully cohesive set of tracks that, in the end, yield a "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" result.

13. Patterson Hood - Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance
Hood is still at his best when teaming with Mike Cooley to lead the Drive-By Truckers, but this ranks as his best solo effort, in my opinion.

12. A.C. Newman - Shut Down the Streets
The New Pornographers frontman beats out Neil Young and Metric for this year's highest ranking Canadian.

11. Craig Finn - Clear Heart Full Eyes
Of course, when it comes to storytelling, there is no one in modern music who tops the Hold Steady's lead singer. I'd probably rank this album behind every one in his main band's catalog, but that's more a testament to how great they are than anything else.

10. Of Monsters and Men - My Head is an Animal
An Icelandic band in the top ten? And it's not Sigur Rós? That's right. This indie-pop outfit, co-fronted by the male/female duo Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Þórhallsson, is one of six artists making their top ten debut this year.

9. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light
These indie-rock veterans who somehow combine VU-like minimalism with space-rocky soundscapes are one of three English bands in this year's top ten, with two more to come in the top five.

8. Dinosaur Jr. - I Bet on Sky
Since most of this band's best work pre-dates my year-end list making, it's only kind of surprising this is their first top ten entry. I should point out that, while I already called this the best of their three post-comeback albums, it's final standing just kept improving every time I listened to it.

7. Tame Impala - Lonerism
I don't know if there's ever been a year where American artists have barely made up 50% of my list. This year's breakdown: U.S. - 17, Canada - 5, England - 4, Sweden - 2, Iceland - 1, Australia - 1. Tame Impala makes it six different countries represented on this year's list. 

6. Passion Pit - Gossamer
I'm pretty sure it's quite unprecedented there are two Massachusetts bands in the top ten. (Obviously, Dinosaur Jr. is the other.) Following Manners' #10 ranking in 2009, Passion Pit joins a pair of artists below as two-time top ten finishers.

5. Andrew Bird - Break It Yourself
The album that turned me on to Bird was 2005's The Mysterious Production of Eggs. This is probably his best effort since that one, and it's his third record overall that lands in my top ten, with 2007's Armchair Apocrypha coming in between.

4. Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yim Yames - New Multitudes
I didn't count this as one of the six artists new to my top ten, as three of these four guys have made multiple appearances: Farrar as solo artist, with Son Volt (twice), and on his collaboration with Ben Gibbard; Parker as solo artist and with Varnaline (thrice); and Yames (aka Jim James) with My Morning Jacket and Monsters of Folk (with whom Johnson also played).

3. Saint Etienne - Words and Music by Saint Etienne
When I first heard 2006's Tales from Turnpike House, I thought it was Saint Etienne's debut. Needless to say, I was surprised to find out this English band had been crafting their very own brand of danceable indie-pop—or "...the disco-llision of '60s pop, '70s dance, and '90s club," according to one reviewer—since the early '90s. So, they're actually about the same age as I am, and apparently just as nostalgic, particularly on album-opener "Over the Border," as lead singer Sarah Cracknell reminisces about falling in love with, and because of, music in her younger days and wonders aloud, "...and when I was married, and when I had kids, would Marc Bolan still be so important?"

2. The Walkmen - Heaven
2012's highest ranking American artist is no stranger to my year-end list, but this is just their second time in the top ten, and the first since 2004's Bows & Arrows. I can't really say for certain these two albums have been that much better than the three that came between, just that they've resonated with me more. Although this one is a much happier affair than any of their previous output, I still find myself most drawn to the album-closing song of yearning, "Dreamboat."

1. Mumford & Sons - Babel
I don't know how many times I've said or written this before, but it's all too often I overlook an artist's commercial breakthrough only to jump on their bandwagon an album later. I dismissed 2009's Sigh No More after just a few listens, but was drawn in when their appearance at the 2011 Grammys made me wonder if that was a mistake.

My last two #1 albums have been records that meant a lot to me lyrically, in addition to being fantastic musically. That's kind of a funny coincidence, I suppose, or maybe meaningful songs added just enough to albums like Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues to make me think it was better than The Decemberists' The King is Dead.

Babel is a great album in its own right, but I honestly had to read reviews to realize the themes surrounding these songs are so spiritual. In hindsight, I suppose that should've been pretty obvious, not that it would have made a difference anyway. It's just that Mumford & Sons' particular brand of rowdy folk-rock is what made a huge impression on me, and it wasn't aided by anything their lyrics were saying to me.

That's both a testament to how good this album is and how mildly disappointing the year in music was for me. Either that or I'm beginning to learn my own answer to Sarah Cracknell's question.

Whether this is your first time here, or your thousand-and-first...Happy New Year and thanks for reading.

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