This year was interesting. It had to follow in the wake of two HUGELY impressive years for music. 2010 saw the come-up of Florence + the Machine, Eminem’s return on Recovery, Ellie Goulding’s debut Bright Lights, and a personal favorite, Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s’ Buzzard. 2011 was arguably even more impressive with the release of Bright Eyes’ The People’s Key, Panic! at the Disco’s Vices & Virtues, Emmy the Great’s Virtue, and other great projects by Bad Meets Evil, Dev, Florence, Lights, Gotye, Childish Gambino and St. Vincent. 2012 has been another impressive year filled with original talent, catchy hooks and powerful songwriting. SO! I’m going to give a rundown of my personal favorite 10 albums that came out since January. Leeeeeetttt’s goooo!
10. The Hunger Games: Songs From District 12 & Beyond
Various Artists – March 20, 2012
I don’t closely follow compilations or soundtracks too often, but this one was too hard to pass up. It caught my attention (as with most) with the release of Safe & Sound by Taylor Swift and The Civil Wars. This song is remarkable, arguably Taylor’s most powerful song to date. Being that I am a moderate Hunger Games fan, I decided to check out the rest. This compilation is incredible, featuring performances from big names like Arcade Fire, Maroon 5, Kid Cudi and The Decemberists among lesser-known acts like The Secret Sisters, Neko Case and Jayme Dee who also deliver. This soundtrack has rock, folk, some country tinged tracks and pop, and is a great showcase of many artists’ more exceptional work. Abraham’s Daughter by Arcade Fire is a haunting, epic opener that sets the stage for the film. The Secret Sisters’ Tomorrow Will Be Kinder is a moving folky ballad. Just a Game by Birdy closes the album and vividly paints a picture of the kids’ plight in the film. It’s just a fantastic adventure the whole way through, honestly, one of the best movie soundtracks I have ever heard.
9. The Haunted Man
Bat For Lashes – October 12, 2012
For those both familiar and unfamiliar with Natasha Khan’s dreamlike soundscapes, this album will be a completely mesmerizing trip through the ether. It’s not for everyone–it blurs the boundaries between music and acid trip, and requires the right mindset to sit down and soak up all the sounds there are to hear. It doesn’t differ too much from her previous albums, Fur and Gold and Two Suns, but that’s good because there is no one else who can create the sound that this woman manages to. It’s beautiful, original, and introspective. There’s almost no instrument that isn’t included in some form on here; if you don’t believe me, check out the personnel on the album’s Wikipedia page. Listen to the woodwind arrangements on Winter Fields or the synthesizer on Lillies, or the choral background vocals on Oh Yeah and The Haunted Man. Most notable, however, might be the stripped down piano confessional Laura, the album’s first single. It’s beautifully honest and straightforward–a welcome departure from the album’s abstract, ethereal metaphors and mysteria. Overall, this album is a much needed break from the cut-and-paste pop formula, a deep, trippy, existential journey and a staple in my Fall 2012 playlist.
8. Welcome to: OUR HOUSE
Slaughterhouse – August 28, 2012
This is the sophomore album of rap quartet Slaughterhouse, and their debut on Eminem’s label, Shady Records. For the uninformed, Slaughterhouse consists of four pretty dope lyricists who have enjoyed moderate success in the hip hop underground. This breakthrough album pushes them into the mainstream with features from Eminem, Cee-Lo, Skylar Grey, B.o.B. and Busta Rhymes. Their usual darker, lyrical side shows through on plenty of songs: Our House, Coffin, Die, and Asylum. However, newer sides of the group are showcased in more club-geared tracks such as Place to Be, Throw It Away, Throw That, Walk of Shame, Park It Sideways and Frat House, as well as personal stories and emotional confessions in the form of Rescue Me, Goodbye and The Other Side. Basically, there’s a lot on the table here. All four of these dudes deliver impressive lyrical capabilities–leagues ahead of most of the stuff you’ll find on Vevo’s charts or local radio. In my opinion, this is the rap album of the year–which is a bold statement considering the competition from other buzzing records like Kendrick Lamar’s debut good kid, m.A.A.d city and GOOD Music’s Cruel Summer compilation.
Taylor Swift – October 22, 2012
I did a full review on this one when it came out a couple months ago. It’s good. Taylor never catches a break from the criticisms of her poppy, breakup-themed, tween anthems. However, I, a 20-year-old male college student enjoy this talented woman’s music for what it really is: honest, pure and personal. As a writer, she sticks to what she’s good at. And unless you’re living in an alternate dimension, you won’t often see Stephen King writing erotica, Ray Bradbury writing political dramas or Stephenie Meyer writing something good. So, here we are. Red is a matured, calmer and fresher version of past Swift offerings. Collaborations with Ed Sheeran and Gary Lightbody are stand-out tracks, along with the moving Begin Again, Sad Tragic Beautiful and I Almost Do. Actually, I love all of the songs, and they keep growing on me. I Knew You Were Trouble is definitely the most interesting Taylor Swift song ever recorded with it’s wub-infested chorus. It’s sickeningly catchy. I love it. The album is just an optimistic, feel-good experience from start-to-finish. It gives you hope when you’re at your lowest, and keeps you afloat when you’re doing well. #TeamTaylor #2012 #YOLO this album is great. Judge me.
6. Theatre is Evil
Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – September 11, 2012
Theatre is Evil is a drastic departure from the emo punk cabaret blood-letting tripe from Amanda Palmer’s Dresden Dolls days (which I love, too!). However, her newest offering, written over the past four years, is a progressive, mature and completely new side of her writing, vocal and musical prowess. It’s a breath of fresh air from her woe-is-me, Girl Anachronism past. Songs like Want It Back, Melody Dean, Massachusetts Ave and Do It With a Rockstar are extremely upbeat, but maintain the wit and sarcasm that Palmer is renowned for. There are also plenty of dark and interesting pieces here that often exceed 6 minutes in length (See Smile (Pictures or it Didn’t Happen), Berlin, Bottom Feeder and Trout Heart Replica). The latter of those mentioned is a prime example of her growth as a writer. It’s dark, sad, painful and business as usual but the writing is more vivid than ever here. I have to borrow a sizable chunk of this paragraph to dedicate to The Bed Song, which is quickly becoming my favorite of anything Palmer has ever written. The heart-wrenching story of lovers growing old and growing apart. The gentle, stripped down and spacious piano arrangement. This is one of the best songs of the year. Really, this whole album just has some of the best quotables. It’s a beautifully conceived piece of art.
5. Anarchy, My Dear
Say Anything – March 13, 2012
When I was rocking out to Baby Girl, I’m a Blur, in middle school, I never thought Say Anything would be one of the few of its contemporaries to stand the test of time in a rapidly-changing music scene. Indeed, hoards of Punk Goes _____ fodder have come and gone through the years, and I’m proud to say that Say Anything hasn’t seen an ounce of decline in quality, and has arguably grown into one of the most talented indie punk monsters on the scene, ever. Max Bemis’ ironic snark, catchy hooks and beautiful lyricism make this record undeniably, endlessly great. It seriously has some of the best replay value of any album I have heard in quite some time–there’s just so much to hear. His social commentaries and personal allegories are funny, fascinating, captivating and original. From the catchy, cute Say Anything, Overbiter and So Good, to the sassy, angsty Admit It Again, Sheep and Of Steel, to my personal favorites, the moving poetry of Peace Out and Anarchy, My Dear, this album just has it all. I can play it on shuffle all day nearly without even realizing that it’s repeated 3 or 4 times. It’s just that good.
4. Living Things
Linkin Park – June 20, 2012
Linkin Park has been to some pretty disappointing career lows in the past few years since they scrapped their formula in 2007’s Minutes to Midnight. That, coupled with 2010’s bizarre sound experiment A Thousand Suns weren’t… “bad,” they were just lacking something that seemed quintessential to the group. In 2012, we find the band seemingly picking up where Meteora left off, so to speak. The opener, Lost in the Echo is the closest thing to their signature sound that we’ve heard since 2003. And it’s impressive. It’s a big, rocking, angsty, rap-tinged, real fucking Linkin Park song. My adolescent self would have shit himself. Even today it’s one of my favorite songs of the year. The problem with putting the best track on an album at the beginning is that it sets the bar really high. Unfortunately, many of the songs fall just shy of the expectations that Lost in the Echo sets in place, but that’s okay, because these songs are all great. Mike goes in on Until it Breaks, Chester gives an earth-shattering performance on Victimized, and we see some beautiful lyrics and imagery in the emotional Powerless, Roads Untraveled, Castle of Glass and Skin to Bone. This album is deeply personal and deals with thoughts and feelings, alluding to its title, Living Things. Finally, they’re–I feel–back in their element, away from the weird political statements of 2007 and some shaky stylistic ground of 2010. It’s LP revisiting a familiar sound and modernizing it for a new decade of rock. And it works, really well.
3. What We Saw From the Cheap Seats
Regina Spektor – May 29, 2012
Let me get this out of the way right off the bat: Firewood, the fourth track off of this record, is among my favorite songs of all time, ever. I have a deep sentimental association with it in my personal life, but aside from that, it’s one of the most beautiful performances ever. Anyone with a heart (which, in theory, is everyone) should be moved by this song, especially if they’ve lost loved ones. I’ve yet to come out of a single listening of it without tears in my eyes. Moving on from that, this album is just what you’d expect from a Regina Spektor album: abstract, heartwarming, quirky, classy, smart and diverse. Her unique way with words never falters. Admittedly, it is one of her more accessible releases, but that does not equal inferior quality. She avoids some strange vocal quirks common in her older releases that may be foreign to the casual listener. But that’s okay. There’s a lot to love here. Don’t Leave Me (Ne me quitte pas), a revamped remake of a 2002 song, is upbeat, peppy and just adorable. How, in a similar vein as Firewood, is accompanied only by piano and tugs at the heartstrings with full force. I don’t know what to say–if you have been graced with the charm of Regina in the past, then you know what I mean. It’s a listening that leaves you breathless at the originality, the craft and the cleverness. Open is haunting. Small Town Moon is cute and quaint. Jessica is short and sweet. Ballad of a Politician and Oh Marcello exhibit her signature vocal breadth and engaging storytelling. Her ability to paint a picture with words and her musical talent make her one of the most important artists of our time. This album is proof of that.
Ellie Goulding – October 5, 2012
As complete bodies of work, few albums of 2012 have as consistent a stream of good-to-great songs as does Halcyon. The deluxe edition is 19 tracks long, and all of them are endlessly enjoyable. Aside from the occasional remix, I never find myself pressing skip. Every song on this big, powerful, ambitious collection is incredible and mind-blowing. Ellie’s cute, poppy 2010 debut garnered her worldwide recognition and success. In 2012, she finds herself branching out into darker, deeper realms of her vast electronic soundscape. And, for me, that’s an automatic improvement. Her lyrics frequently visit the subjects of lost love and recovery, a theme doubtlessly influenced by the end of a recent personal relationship. She was able to channel whatever energy this brought to her into a fantastic, adventurous work, brimming with big sounds and dreamy imagination. Figure 8 is amazing, one of the best songs of the year. It’s dark and loud, powerful and beautiful. JOY is another favorite, a gently building whisper that explodes into one of the most colorful, lively and captivating orchestral climaxes ever. Hanging On is sure to be a DJ favorite, with a thick wall of sound and a remix-ready refrain. Explosions is just that–a barrage of musical explosions over Ellie’s angelic, emotional voice box. I Know You Care and Dead in the Water are soft and gentle, giving room to breathe with soothing keys and somber lyrics. Halcyon stands at the #2 spot for me this year because the quality of the album is consistently great–there are no ups and downs, only ups. It’s addicting; every song leaves you excited for the next and there’s a wealth of artistry to appreciate here. It’s fresh, focused and flawless.
1. Some Nights
Fun. – February 21, 2012
In the wake of the indie sleeper-success, the perfect, flawless, Aim and Ignite from 2009, Fun. sought to wade into more mainstream territories with their sophomore effort. However, when I heard them open a show with We Are Young at a small venue in Kansas City during June of 2011, I never thought it would essentially become the hipster college anthem of the year in the following months. The level of fame that this album brought them alone is incredible, but the album shines as the best of 2012 due not to its success, but to its groundbreaking artistic merits and the bar it set for pop rock as a whole. Incidentally, the slightly-better debut album, for me, gave them an unrealistically high standard to live up to. I didn’t doubt them, though–that album showcased them as so flawless that I was convinced that there’s no way that these guys could do wrong. And I was right. On the whole, Some Nights satisfied nearly all of the criteria for perfection established by Aim and Ignite. And to say that it fell short would be unfair–it falls short by so narrow a margin that the difference is basically negligible. To put it simply: Fun. is one of the greatest bands of all time in my not-so-humble opinion. The sheer emotion that Nate Ruess pours into every word he utters is amazing. Carry On, Why Am I the One, All Alright and Out on the Town move me to near-tears every time. Some Nights and the preceding intro are so bittersweet and addictive. It Gets Better is therapeutic. All Alone and Stars, my two least favorite even manage to be 9.75/10, if I had to put a number on them. One Foot is angsty but complacent–I love that. The lyrics on this album are relatable, honest and real, their meanings conveyed with such a powerful and perfect choice of words. It’s unfathomably amazing to me. Underneath its poppy shell is a wealth of sadness, poignancy, uncertainty, fear and regret–however, these emotions are not without slivers of hope. I know that due to its fame, I’m sure a lot of kids my age have the same thing to say about this, but I shamelessly concede that this album is the soundtrack of my early 20’s. These songs are some of the realest that a college kid like me could hope to find. They have taken mainstream music into uncharted territories of greatness. They have inspired, helped and moved me in ways which very few other bodies of work ever could. I’ll look back on this era of my life and instantly associate it with songs from Some Nights. It’s a large defining factor of who I am as a person, and it’s destined to be one of the most memorable albums of my lifetime.
Strange Clouds – B.o.B.
The Lion’s Roar – First Aid Kit
VAVA VOOM – Bassnectar
Gordo Taqueria – The Cataracs
Born Villain – Marilyn Manson
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed it 🙂