What a taxing endeavor it was to pen this list. How many revisions I went through, how many times I swapped entries, mixed up the order, and felt a twinge of anxious guilt for certain omissions I can’t even begin to say.
That it was this difficult to finalize a list of 2012’s best albums is itself something of a good problem. Such a struggle is a testament to the sheer number of this year’s great releases, proving once again that in this era of MP3s and piecemeal downloading, the album format yet remains. Perhaps what made the year such a standout was the juxtaposition of alt. rock luminaries and indie rock upstarts. Artists thought defunct or artistically decrepit surged back with quality records that stand beside anything from their heydays, while newcomers injected some fresh sounds into the indie rock terrain.
With that introduction out of the way (which was probably largely skipped over anyway), onto the meat of this piece — my take on the 12 greatest albums of the year, with an extra one to grow on for 2013, ‘cause why not?
13. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion — Meat and Bone (Boombox / Mom + Pop): From the hallucinatory fever dreams of Howlin’ Wolf, the Blues Explosion breaks its eight-year hibernation and roars back with a bellow. The hallmarks of the trio’s ramshackle strain of Beefheartian blues remain — the sex and grime, the carnage and carnality, the stink and the scuzz, the black humor and the chaos belying virtuoso musicianship. Spencer himself is still a man possessed, his lusts as virulent and contagious as rabies. He spews them like a demented preacher spreading the gospel of voodoo blues. In a time where the Black Keys are bonafide rock stars and Jack White releases his much-lauded solo debut, it’s appropriate the Blues Explosion returns to show the youngens to whom their debt is owed.
12. The Casket Girls—Sleepwalking (Graveface): Imagine a soundtrack to a horror film directed by Sofia Coppola and you’ll get an idea of the Casket Girls. These ten songs of hazy, dead slow dream pop (or nightmare pop) are a perfect marriage of the unsettling and the endearing. The anachronistic soundscapes conceived by Black Moth Super Rainbow’s Ryan Graveface create a surrealistic aura on their own, but the haunted house vibe is cemented by the harmony vocals of sisters Elsa and Phaedra Greene, singing with detached eeriness like child poltergeists haunting the record’s grooves. Whether defying Death himself in the titular track, recalling the stopping by of a motherly ghost in “The Visitor” or teasing some suggestive homicidal impulses in “I’ve Got a Secret,” the album is wholly chilling and intriguing in a way that compels you to return for repeated spins.
11. Passion Pit — Gossamer (Columbia): An aural sugar buzz that could turn your ears diabetic. Yet beneath the layered synth pop and dance beats, the songs of Gossamer alternate between somber or uplifting introspection and Springsteen-style social commentary focusing on issues as weighty as economic disparity and immigration. “Take a Walk” was the one that garnered the most attention, but the brightest gems are the silky R&B groove “Constant Conversations” and the anthemic “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy,” with its sing-along/call-to-arms chorus addressing class divisions and resolve amid adversity. The latter should have been the hit of 2012 that was fun.’s overwrought “We Are Young.”
10. The Killers — Battle Born (Island): This is the one I expect to garner the greatest amount of guffaws. Naysayers be damned, this is a fine record. Following the bland disappointment of Day & Age, the Las Vegas quartet show they still have it in them while expanding their patented new-wave-meets-guitar-rock sound. Battle Born is practically a concept album on youthful nostalgia, illustrating the point that once you reach adulthood, it’s all downhill. The songs are grandiose and befit a stadium setting rather than the dance clubs the band cut its teeth in. And yet in the midst of the bombast, they still zero in for the intimate, heartrending “Be Still,” a down tempo number decidedly unlike anything the Killers released before. Still, they’ve lost none of their cheekiness, with leader Brandon Flowers still straddling that line between sincere and the ridiculous (see the chorus of “Here With Me”).
9. Leonard Cohen — Old Ideas (Columbia): Not truly an indie album, or even a rock record, but still… Reckoning with mortality in the sincerest and most mature fashion has long been Cohen’s forte, but he’s never done so with quite the stamp of finality as he has with Old Ideas. Where bitterness, acrimony, regret and a longing for hope defined his earlier records, here Cohen displays a transcendent level of acceptance and, dare I say it, optimism. “Going Home” finds Cohen stating his new resolve in the most direct terms, while in the hymnal “Show Me the Place” he relinquishes his solitude for the aid of others and spiritual direction. Still, the old bard hasn’t grown soft, as depicted in the sinister yet wry “Darkness.” Even if the disc was a 40-minute loop of “Darkness,” it would still deserve a spot on this list. While Cohen’s age-defying fantastic health means this might not be his last album, if it ends up being so, it will serve as a fitting epitaph.
8. Murder By Death — Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon (Bloodshot): The purveyors of noir Americana have produced yet another musical masterpiece with literary leanings. With the richness of their songwriting and exploration of different musical forms — country, folk, alt. rock, blues — it’s baffling how little credit Murder By Death gets. Similarly, it’s impressive how they’ve been able to maintain a sound so uniquely theirs without getting bland. Adding multi-instrumentalist Scott Brackett (Okkervil River) serves to paint more color to their canvas, his accordion, banjo, trumpet, among others, fitting well with singer Adam Turla’s baritone and Sarah Bailett’s cello. Lyrically, the band doesn’t veer too far from their standard fare of hard drinking and harder living, but why mess with something that is handled so effectively? Songs of a man coming to lament the passing of his enemy amid a drunken funeral (“I Came Around”), a seductive ghost beckoning her lover to a watery grave (“Lost River”) and a sweeping bonfire ballad of indefinable love (“Ghost Fields”) are gems on their own, but taken in context, they prove Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon is one of the most criminally overlooked albums of 2012.
7. Soulsavers — The Light the Dead See (Mute): The duo of Rich Machin and Ian Glover had an uphill battle with this one in finding a replacement for Mark Lanegan, the vocalist of their last two records. Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan steps up to the mic in Lanegan’s stead, just about equaling him in world-weariness and a longing for redemption by trekking through a valley of depredations. In a sense, the record could be a unified, linear concept piece, featuring Gahan’s protagonist starting in the ditches and evolving to a stage of enlightenment. Whether yearning for the sun to set on a wretched day (“The Longest Day”), waxing nostalgic (“I Can’t Stay”) or attaining the self-awareness needed to leave a noxious past behind, Gahan evokes pathos without crossing into maudlin territory. Rather ironically considering Gahan’s presence, the album sees Machin and Glover tone down their electronica proclivities for more organic instrumentation, though their deft skill at mixing and producing results in a heavily layered and moody final product.
6. Of Monsters and Men — My Head is an Animal (Universal): Bands with a banjo or some tenuous link to being “folk” are en vogue right now, but for my money, Iceland’s Of Monsters and Men are the wheat among the chaff. They have a sense of authenticity and naturalness about them, and are therefore void of the pretension and trying-too-hard syndrome plaguing some of their peers. Theirs is a more complex and varied sound, in part due to having two singers of opposite sex, a facet which lends itself to some interesting duets. Beyond that, they’re able to shift from a grand, orchestral sound as seen in “Dirty Paws,” to jaunty, infectious pop of “Little Talks” to somber moments of aching fragility on the intimate “Slow and Steady” and “Love Love Love.”
5. Cat Power — Sun (Matador): Can Chan Marshall do any wrong? After the minimalist structures of her early years, the last few albums under the Cat Power moniker have seen Marshall gracefully sidestep into different genres and pull them off not just convincingly, but with the aplomb to indicate she’d been bound to inherit such distinct styles. That said, she’s never made quite as a big a leap as with Sun, a record on which she fuses her husky voice with drum machines, synths and multi-tracked harmonies. The studio itself serves as an instrument for Marshall as she dallies with pop, rock and light-industrial. Her principle instrument, though, remains her vocal cords; she knows how to manipulate them in such a way that they can shift her singing from caustic to taunting to playful to reassuring. The abrasive swagger of “Peace and Love” finds Marshall pontificating on the alienation of modern life in microcosmic detail, essentially rapping amid a serrated guitar riff and military-march drum blasts; it’s quite the pleasantly jarring experience to hear Marshall so confident and acerbic. “Nothin But Time,” on the other hand, couldn’t be any more consoling, sweet and simple without being saccharine. And with Iggy Pop joining Marshall in her recitation that “you ain’t got nothin’ but time / And it ain’t got nothin’ on you,” you’re left with one of the most affecting cameos in recent history.
4. Mark Lanegan Band — Blues Funeral (4AD): Who would’ve thought marrying electronica to blues — with a little disco thrown in — would be a successful endeavor? Mark Lanegan, that’s who, for he pulls off such a gambit with panache on his seventh solo LP. After eight years of being a singer for hire across the musical spectrum, Lanegan returns to his own thing, bringing with him the spoils he claimed on his travels. His rich and cavernous baritone is, as always, the eye of the hurricane around which the musical storm churns. The sultry “Bleeding Muddy Water” is what a collaboration between Son House and Massive Attack might sound like. “The Gravedigger’s Song” throbs with paranoia, the tension mounting until a detonation seems all but necessary. When Lanegan sings, “With piranha teeth / I’ve been dreaming of you,” it is in the ear of the beholder whether this is a come-on or a threat. There are a couple of flat-out rockers, playing to Queens of the Stone Age fans and to show Lanegan can still let loose when the notion strikes him, but the most evocative numbers remain the subtler cuts like “Gray Goes Black” and “Harborview Hospital,” shining a black light on the songwriter’s shadowy persona. If there’s one lesson to be learned from this record, it’s that Lanegan can master whatever style he attempts, that his voice can function just as well with an acoustic guitar as it can with walls of synthesizers and drum machine loops. Take a listen to “Ode to Sad Disco,” by far the quirkiest tune here, for proof.
3. Icky Blossoms — Icky Blossoms (Saddle Creek): Fuzzed-out punk frenzy meets post-modern disco beats; that pretty much sums up the Blossoms. Might seem a bit gimmicky, but the Omaha, Neb., trio makes it work. This debut is pure dirty, raw rock debauchery. Try to listen to this album and not envision a dank club, its attendees crammed together, all sweaty in the stagnant air as the seductive vamp of “Sex to the Devil” or the stalker air of “Babes” blares from the stage. It’s not all bluster, though. “Heat Lightning” is actually tender, singer Sarah Bohling presenting herself as vulnerable instead of the predatory vibe she puts forth for most of the album. There’s no finer display of the band’s songwriting chops than “Stark Weather,” a song that gets the listener to sympathize with a historical love-struck spree killer as his crimes are related in detail. In this cut, the empathy for doomed romance rises to the surface, while the horrible actions of Charles Starkweather fall by the wayside in the listener’s mind. That’s no small feat, but it is a testament to the Icky Blossoms’ ability to find the beauty amid the ugliness, or humanity in the depraved.
2. The Gaslight Anthem — Handwritten (Mercury): On the New Jersey quartet’s fourth release, leader Brian Fallon contends with the sad reality of aging and memories of youth that are rapidly fading into nostalgia. The faces of lost loves, a sense of faded glory, the sight of a landmark that only evokes melancholia rather than fond reminiscence and the dilemma of how much of yourself you can truly reveal to another all have their say here. That said, not everything is so dour; there’s the optimistic anticipation of the title track, the fact that music will remain as a balm on your inner wounds in “45,” and the self-confidence oozing swagger of “Biloxi Parish.” This ambivalence of attitudes replicates the gamut of emotions that comes hand-in-hand with growing older, but not necessarily growing up. On a final note, if Handwritten supports my contention that if there’s an inheritor to the Replacements’ mantle, it’s the Gaslight Anthem, maybe not in their obvious sound, but surely in their spirit. And ending an album of electric rock numbers with the achingly pensive ballad “National Anthem” is surely taken from the ‘Mats’ playbook, harkening to their wrapping of Tim with “Here Comes a Regular.”
1. My Jerusalem — Preachers (The End): Don’t let their name fool you; the closest My Jerusalem comes to religious matters is the brimstone stink and fiery devilry that saturates Preachers, their sophomore album. The raucous title track itself inverts religious motifs, making the fervent minister at its fore preaching not salvation but damnation and the hedonism that one might as well indulge in when hell awaits. From there, the album takes the listener on a tour through a Southern Gothic swampland that could hail from the recesses of Harry Crews or Williams Faulkner’s imagination. Frontman Jeff Klein personifies the various occupants of this world, themselves more prey to the most animalistic of urges. “Born in the Belly” sees Klein foaming at the mouth with rage, a suitable cacophony backing him, while tunes like the codependent love ditty “Shatter Together,” the brooding “Devoe”, and the country waltz of “Chameleon” tone things down for more reflective insights. If you’re experiencing a dark night of the soul, Preachers is the album to serve as your guide to the other side.
Honorable mentions: RNDM — Acts, Leigh Marble — Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows, Joseph Arthur — Redemption City, Bob Dylan — Tempest, The Hounds Below — You Light Me Up in the Dark, Sleigh Bells — Reign of Terror, Soundgarden — King Animal, METZ — METZ