There are just a few hours left in 2012, so let’s spend them arguing about our favorite music of the last year! Because that’s fun, right? It’s not? Well too bad, because here are my top ten albums of 2012:
10) Shintaro Sakamoto – How to Live with a Phantom
Apparently, if you’re in the know, this album is a big deal. Sakamoto has been a relatively big deal as the frontman of the Japanese group Yura Yura Teikoku, and this is his solo debut. But to me, he was just that Japanese artist that Christopher Owens liked. Admittedly, I’m jumping on the bandwagon late with this one, but I’m fine with that, because much like Owens’ own work, How to Live with a Phantom has an irresistible charm that draws you in no matter how you came across it. It’s nostalgic and simple, yet still very technically impressive, seeing as how Sakamoto plays every instrument on the record. Some may call How to Live with a Phantom basic or irrelevant, but in a year of turbulence in and out of the music industry, it’s nice to have an album this simply charming.
9) Jack White – Blunderbuss
Like many, I was devastated when The White Stripes broke up. Sure, they hadn’t released an album in years, but still, what would the world be like without their rock? Well, thankfully, Jack White has made sure that nothing changed. His first solo record is proof that he is the cornerstone of any project he’s working on, and that no matter what happens to his bands, he’ll always be here to steer the world of rock in the right direction. Some songs on Blunderbuss sound like White Stripes material, some sound like Raconteurs material, and some sound new. But they all sound like Jack White, and if the man can keep this much wind in his sails for this long, then I can hardly wait for what’s next.
8) Antony and the Johnsons – Cut the World
Whenever I go to listen to Cut the World, for time’s sake, I say that I’m going to skip the second track, “Future Feminism,” which is an eight-minute monologue by Antony concerning gender relations, feminism, and LGBT issues. But every time, when I hear his opening line “I’ve been thinking all day about the moon. Like, is it an accident that women menstruate once a month and that the moon comes once a month?” I’m roped in for the whole show. Because even if sometimes Antony’s ruminations seem out there, they are completely engrossing. And when he puts them into his beautifully composed songs, he creates something that is irresistible. His songs are extremely personal, yet it seems hard not to sympathize, even when presented with his most unique problems. Regardless of what you think of Antony’s opinions, it’s nearly impossible not to feel moved by them and the gorgeous music that surrounds them.
7) Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Most punk or hard rock or whatever the hell you want to call it comes from rebellion. Fight the system, fight the man, fight that kid who’s getting a little to close at a concert, fight whoever, right? But Japandroids have made a shot of rock that is all about celebration, and in a lot of ways it changes a game that hasn’t had change in decades. Their songs aren’t about fighting back because you feel disgruntled; they’re about fighting back because you feel happy. It’s not about rebelling against nothing; it’s about actually finding what makes you unhappy and rebelling against that. It’s about finding yourself, and if done correctly, by the time “The House that Heaven Built” kicks in, it’s about being able to tell those who slow you down to “go to hell!” and not be the bad guy. Or maybe it’s just about having some fun and raging with some friends. Either way, it’s a hell of an album.
6) Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes
Would you believe that this is a break up album? No? That’s what I thought. But, in fact, it is, as Ariel Pink wrote much of the songs after and about his break up with his long time girlfriend. How that resulted in a boogie about schnitzel is beyond me. But that’s what makes Ariel Pink great. Even after gaining indie fame after a decade of even relative obscurity, even after a bitter break up, he’s still unbelievably and unabashedly weird. Many artists would have followed his break out hit “Round and Round” with more of the same, but Pink instead took his music in just enough of a new direction to stay fresh and scare off anybody who would claim he’s a one hit wonder. Mature Themes is twentieth century postmodernism in album form, something that Thomas Pynchon would’ve written if he were an indie pop star. It’s got an identity, even if nobody can really nail down what that identity may be. Much like Pink, it just is.
5) Macklemore and Ryan Lewis– The Heist
I have a confession to make: I lost touch with rap in 2012. I don’t know what happened. One minute, I was with the best of them, following the rise and fall of Odd Future, loving Lil B and scoffing at those who didn’t get it. But then, all of the sudden, 2 Cahinz became popular, Kanye seemed to follow up one of the greatest rap albums of all time with abrasive schlock, and all of the post-ironic rappers seemed to get less “ironic” and more “post,” whatever that might entail.
That’s why I’m so thankful for The Heist. It proved to me that maybe rap wasn’t completely alien to me now. It showed me that the deeply personal masterpieces that dropped in 2010 and 2011 could still be followed up with material just as sincere. Macklemore has a skill like few others, putting his heart and soul into his lyrics and saying something because it’s worth being said. He treats his music like it should be treated: as art.
4) Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
One time I made my friend listen to “Offspring are Blank” and “The Impregnable Question,” and he refused to believe that the two songs were by the same band, let alone on the same album. His disbelief was pretty justified as the songs sound drastically different. Yet, somehow, when listening to Swing Lo Magellan in full, one never really has that thought. Every song just flows into one another, even though they sometimes sound drastically opposed. I would like to say this juxtaposition is thematic or is what makes the album great, but honestly this album’s greatness doesn’t really need that kind of justification. Musically, it is spot on even though it pushes the envelope at every turn it takes. It’s chords and rhythms don’t necessarily play by the rules, and they do it so well that listening to law-abiding music afterwards just feels bland. Although the songs should make you scratch your head, they are made with such skill that you just unabashedly enjoy them without thinking twice.
Oh, and in response to the question on “Unto Caesar:” “When should we bust into harmonies?” Just do it when you feel like it; it seems to have worked out so far.
3) Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man in the Universe
It seems that this year was the year of the comeback; older artists and bands we haven’t heard from in years released new material constantly. Some of these albums were good, some were surprising, and some were just plain disappointing. But none can match what Bobby Womack made with The Bravest Man in the Universe.
The album opens on Womack belting the titular line with little to no accompianment. Then the line is repeated by an automated female voice, and that duality is the heart of the record. There is a perfect mixture of soul and skill, Womack and Albarn, old and new. This dichotomy results in some of the most layered, intricate, catchy, and soulful songs of the year, and it proves that not only is Bobby Womack, or soul in general, still relevant, he may be more relevant than most of the other, newer artists combined.
2) Passion Pit – Gossamer
Part of me hesitates to give Gossamer praise. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s so good that I think it’s the bar that every pop record should try to reach. I dream of a world where something like Gossamer is commonplace. Where a song can be catchy and meaningful at the same time. Where singers can unironically mention socialists and taxes in pop songs and have it mean something. I dream that synthesizers will be regularly used this intricately, creating sonic layers, not just mindless MIDI string sections. I dream of being able to constantly dance to a song that makes me think or think about a song that makes me dance. I dream of a day when Gossamer is a blueprint, or even a banality in the world of pop. But for now, all I have is Gossamer, and that’s certainly a valuable condolence.
1) Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
channel ORANGE is so naturally good that sometimes I forget how revolutionary Frank Ocean’s announcement before its release was for the world of R&B and hip-hop. He’s such an amazing song writer that sometimes I forget that I haven’t lived the same experiences that he has. His lyrics are so smart that sometimes I forget how deeply moving his songs are. His songs are so moving that sometimes I forget that I just got intellectually schooled by his use of countless double and triple entendres. He draws the best out of his guests so naturally that sometimes I forget that it’s not commonplace to rap an entire verse with a single rhyme scheme and countless alliteration all while in character, as Earl does in “Super Rich Kids.” “Bad Religion” is so emotional that sometimes I forget it’s also kind of funny. “Forrest Gump” is so instantly nostalgic that sometimes I forget it was named after the movie and not the other way around. “Pyramids” is so naturally sprawling that sometimes I forget that it’s ten minutes long. And channel ORAGE is so unbelievably good and so instantly a timeless classic that one time I forgot it even came out this year and almost left it off this list. Thank God my memory kicked in.