As has been the case in recent years, there was a lot of fine music being made in 2012. New technologies have not only changed the accessibility of music, they also seem to have inspired a venerable geyser of creativity and experimentation. Some big names forged exciting new directions for themselves, while others far less heralded blazed trails in uncharted territory. I hardly consider this list to be absolute, but based on what I heard this year, these are the 15 albums that stood out to me:
15) Cloud Nothings, Attack On Memory – In one of the most schizophrenic albums of the year, Cloud Nothings segue from the sprawling gothic instrumental coda of “Wasted Days” to the tight radio-friendly punk jam “Fall In”. And that’s just the end of the third track. They pull it off, though, largely because they cultivate the same pleasant angst in their sound in every song.
Essential Listening: “Fall In”, “Wasted Days”
14) Beach House, Bloom – In some ways, the name “Beach House” is very fitting for this Baltimore duo. The guitars often use tinny, chasmy surf-rock timbres, and Victoria Legrand’s haunting vocals sound as if they’re processed through a seashell. Bloom nestles those sounds within an ominous orchestra of synths and neo-funk grooves, which probably sounds a lot like a weekend getaway on a Baltimore beach.
Essential Listening: “Myth”, “New Year”
13) Japandroids, Celebration Rock – The duo known as Japandroids have the kind of hearts-on-their-sleeves moxie that has defined punk over the past decade, but unlike many of their contemporaries, they have the chops to back up that gusto. Celebration Rock is also wisely neither glossy nor overproduced, and at only 8 tracks spanning 35 minutes, it’s just the right dosage of adrenaline.
Essential Listening: “The House That Heaven Built”, “Adrenaline Nightshift”
12) J.D. McPherson, Signs and Signifiers – Retro-phile acts have been in vogue of late, but few have sounds as faithful to their roots as J.D. McPherson. The vintage recording quality makes Signs sound like an actual Chuck Berry record – which is a testament to both McPherson’s admiration and knowledge of such early rock ‘n’ roll records – but there’s plenty of personality to give the album the sense of uniqueness it needs.
Essential Listening: “North Side Gal”, “A Gentle Awakening”
11) David Byrne & St. Vincent, Love This Giant – Neither of these respective giants has been all that closely associated with horns on any of their previous recordings. While this makes the predominant use of brass band here somewhat strange, that doesn’t detract from the vibes created by some of the best rock horn writing in recent memory. And really, would you expect anything other than weird in any permutation from this tandem?
Essential Listening: “Who”, “The Forest Awakes”
10) Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits – Although the lead single from this super-group fronted by Spoon’s Britt Daniel sounds a lot like, well, Spoon (and is also fabulous), the remainder of Thing is actually a significant departure from that band’s stripped-down rock sound. The collective members of Divine Fits bring enough of their respective sounds together to form a nicely melded alloy, and they prove to be one of the few super-groups that would work as a band if they were nobodies.
Essential Listening: “Would That Not Be Nice”, “The Salton Sea”
9) Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE – Frank Ocean built up a fair amount of notoriety with guest spots on last year’s Watch the Throne, and he cashed that in big-time on his debut solo release. Ocean’s smooth voice makes it easy to be distracted from ORANGE’s nuanced production, but repeated listenings reveal that this is much more than a solid R&B album.
Essential Listening: “Pyramids”, “Lost”
8) Gary Clark, Jr., Blak and Blu – Much like Ocean, the reputation that preceded Clark made it easy to forget that this was his major label debut. Also like Ocean, he wildly surpassed even the lofty expectations he built for himself with this effort. Clark has tremendous talents with both his voice and his axe, and Blak and Blu transcends his home genre of blues by exploring R&B (“Blak and Blu”), rock (“Ain’t Messin ‘Round”), and everything in between.
Essential Listening: “Bright Lights”, “Third Stone From The Sun/If You Love Me Like You Say”
7) Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel… – Compared to 2004’s Extraordinary Machine, Wheel is a shocking departure from the direction Apple seemed to be building for herself. Granted, 8 years tends to remove any sort of momentum. But while Machine is often densely orchestrated and vivacious (for Apple, anyway), her latest release is almost entirely acoustic and wholly introverted. No matter – the jazz trio instrumentation used throughout generates a lot of spontaneous energy in its own right, and Apple’s voice has seemingly as many distinct timbres as a full orchestra.
Essential Listening: “Hot Knife”, “Jonathan”
6) Jack White, Blunderbuss – It seems odd that this is White’s first official solo album, as every project he’s undertaken has been driven by his virtually endless supply of creative ambition. In that regard, there isn’t a lot that distinguishes Blunderbuss from much of White’s already lengthy canon, and it’s far more refined than some of his bands’ recent efforts. Not that that’s a bad thing – Blunderbuss is an incredibly rewarding pure rock record, and like the best Jack White projects, it still rewards avid fans with subtle sprinklings of Beatles-esque studio tweaks and manipulations.
Essential Listening: “I’m Shakin’”, “Take Me With You When You Go”
5) Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man in the Universe – Admittedly, I had not heard of Womack until he was featured on a few tracks from Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach, but Universe serves as a remarkable refresher course. Womack’s clipped-wing crooning is on fine display here, and he simultaneously brings gravity and optimism to each track. Not surprisingly, Gorillaz frontman (and the music industry’s “kid who appears in every yearbook picture”) Damon Albarn co-produces Universe, and his trademark ominous grooves are a wonderful complement to Womack’s vocal talents.
Essential Listening: “Dayglo Reflection”, “The Bravest Man in the Universe”
4) Damon Albarn, Dr. Dee – No album released by any entity from the realm of Pop Culture this year stood out as much as Damon Albarn’s latest foray into theatrical music, as Dee sounds much more like des Prez more than De La Soul. Inspired by the success of 2007’s Monkey: A Journey to the West, Albarn composed the music for another opera, which was recently produced in England. This one profiles and reflects on the life of John Dee, who was an alchemist and advisor for Elizabeth I. Though that sounds incredibly obscure, the album released publicly works much better on its own than the collection released for Monkey. The songs themselves straddle a seemingly disparate gap between Renaissance music (many of the instruments are actual period instruments), British folk music, and modern alternative, but they do so with surprising dexterity.
Essential Listening: “The Moon Exalted”, “9 Point Star”
3) Field Music, Plumb – With this largely unheralded masterpiece, Field Music exhibit two traits that are rarely seen in tandem in music: adventurousness and brevity. Plumb clocks in at 35 minutes, no song breaks the 4-minute barrier, and a majority of the tracks are under 3 minutes. And while many hover around 2 minutes, they all are capable of standing alone. In spite of this conciseness, each song explores a vast and wonderful sound world, and taken as a whole they create a nice balance between abstract sonic expression and infectious hooks with driving grooves. It’s like a bowl of rice in which breathtaking poetry has been transcribed onto each individual grain.
Essential Listening: “A New Town”, “Who’ll Pay The Bills”
2) Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball – Few artists have the longevity that the Boss has shown throughout his illustrious career, but even fewer continue to stay this fresh this far into their twilight. With Springsteen’s recent successes, it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to call Wrecking Ball a renaissance. It is, however, an incredibly listenable album that grows sweeter with each replay, and there’s a spontaneous energy throughout that surpasses all logical expectations for anyone this far into their career. Ball seems very much like an album a band would make in their twenties. There’s still a refined world-weary perspective in its lyrics and conception, but this bitter pill is lathered in bacon grease and syrup.
Essential Listening: “Shackled And Drawn”, “American Land”
1) The Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio – No album I’ve listened to this year has had grander ambitions than Black Radio. Consequently, none has been able to come close to reaching the heights achieved by Glasper’s mainstream breakthrough. Glasper cut his teeth as a jazz pianist in bands led by the likes of Roy Hargrove, Terence Blanchard and Christian McBride, but as Radio proves, his Rolodex is likely as impressive and diverse as anyone’s in the industry. This masterpiece boasts a seamless blend of modern jazz, hip-hop and R&B, proving that bold experimentation and some creative cross-breeding can add vitality to all three genres. And while others have attempted similar fusion projects, Glasper’s shines because it manages to stay genuine to every style it incorporates. Glasper is likely the first artist to appear on the cover of Downbeat with an album to prominently feature auto-tune; let’s hope he’s not the last.
Essential Listening: “Why Do We Try”, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”