Our 40 Favorite Albums of 2012

We’d never declare what the best music of the year is. Above all forms of art, music is perhaps the most subjective (other than comedy). So on Friday, we’ll be on our high-horses to tell you exactly what the BEST TV shows of the year were. Today though, enjoy a list of our 40 favorite albums from this year. (You can find a Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page with a song from each album, if you’re weird and don’t care about spoilers.)

40. Mount Eerie — Clear Moon

Clear Moon - album cover

The first of a Phil Elverum diptych in 2012 (in company with Ocean Roar), Moon finds the prolific auteur at his most accessible in years. Going relatively light on the dronier elements of his sound, Elverum makes ample use of his acoustic guitar to craft melodies both dark and dusty. His ability to conjure a musical sense of isolation and wilderness remains second to none, and the intensity of those feelings evoked by this album have lingered with us throughout the year. -Bryan

39. The Men — Open Your Heart


If you so desired, you could sit around and pluck out specific influences on The Men’s sophomore album. A little Sonic Youth here, a little Dinosaur Jr there. But the songs on Open Your Heart sound distinctly like The Men, and no one else. The garage rock magnum opus travels a wide spectrum of where guitar, drum, bass, and a huge heaping of distortion can get you. The result is an incredibly diverse 10-songs that somehow sound inseparable. Oh, and loud. Really, really loud. Pump up your speakers and hold on to your face. -Giovanni

38. The Antlers — Undersea EP


The Antler’s 2012 release was shrouded in quite a bit of mystery. It wasn’t clear if it was an LP, EP, or experimental collage of ocean recordings fed through guitars. But in the end, Undersea was exactly what the name implied; a 4-song recording that sounds as if it was found in the depths of the sea. Right as the dreamy opening guitar of “Drift Dive” kick in, you can feel yourself slipping below the waves watching sunlight shine through the surface. If you close your eyes, you’re sure to feel bubbles crawling up your skin. -Giovanni

37. WHY? — Mumps, etc.


Yoni Wolf continues to write lyrics unlike anyone else in music, but his choruses could use some work. Mumps boasts some of the most devilishly playful and interesting verses of 2012, but too often they derail upon arrival at another unimaginative or tired refrain. Wolf’s penchant for a wink and a coy smile still dance arm-in-arm with the bleakness brought on by his images of death and illness. That intriguing interplay makes WHY? a consistent favorite — here’s hoping they can put the whole package together next time. -Bryan

36. Sharon Van Etten — Tramp


You’d be hard pressed to find an album this year as deeply personal as Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp. Each song sounds like a confession, as if she’s opening up about her life for the first time directly to each listener. They also sound completely fearless, stripping away all vulnerability, holding nothing back. Hushed croons like “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city / You’re why I’ll need to leave” are so emotionally commanding that it feels rude to speak while listening to Tramp; it’s Van Etten’s time to talk. -Giovanni

35. Death Grips — NO LOVE DEEP WEB

death grips

In hindsight, anything less than a penis would have been patronizing us. Because really, Death Grips’ music is a lot like the male genital organ. It’s off-putting to many, even ugly, but there’s an undeniable, raw beauty beneath the abrasive exterior. Death Grips didn’t need to give us a second album this year, but these guys are seizing every day thrown at them right now, fucking anyone who gets in their way. That means you, Epic Records. -Drew 

34. Japandroids — Celebration Rock


There’s something about anthemic rock that’s incredibly satisfying. Even when it’s cheesy, big guitars and “woah-oh’s” can often feel life affirming. Japandroids make other anthem rockers look like complete amateurs. No matter how epic your riffs are, Japandroids are better. No matter how loudly you shout, Japandroids shout louder. And no matter what you produce, there’s a high probability that it won’t come close to touching any of the 8 songs on Celebration Rock. It’s a lifetime of Independence Days, skies filled with fists and fireworks as far as the eye can see. -Giovanni

33. Big Boi — Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors


It may not be as good as Sir Luscious Left Foot, but it’s at least as interesting. While the concept of OutKast becomes increasingly dated, Big Boi continues to push himself into new ground musically. Here he enlists electro-pop artists Phantogram and Little Dragon (among a slew of other guests) to create a fully-fledged futuristic sound to compliment his always-excellent flow. Though some songs fall flat (did we really need Wavves?), it’s encouraging to find the seasoned Big Boi still restless, unappeased, and trying new things. -Bryan

32. David Byrne and St. Vincent — Love This Giant


What sounded like it could be brilliant (and we therefore worried would be a huge letdown), ended up being neither. Though far from the genre-stretching pieces of strangeness that have defined both artists in the past, Giant finds the pair of eccentrics nonetheless crafting a pop portrait both achingly listenable and slightly askew. Blanketed in canned percussion and well-arranged horns, the two singers don’t always stretch themselves, but are constantly having fun. Not convinced? David Byrne sings about appetizers. -Bryan

31. Hot Chip — In Our Heads


Sometimes you just want to dance. Other times, you want to pour your deepest feelings out on the floor for everyone to see. For years, Hot Chip struggled with this duality, bouncing between fun dance tracks and croony ballads. But with In Our Heads, their best album since 2006’s The Warning, the electro-pop group have finally created an album that fuses their two strengths into one big, emotional dance party. “How do you do it,” they sing, “Make me want to live again?” I’m not sure, but please don’t make it stop. –Giovanni

30. Sun Kil Moon — Among The Leaves


Mark Kozelek’s fifth album as Sun Kil Moon finds him embracing a sense of sprawl. Trusty nylon-string guitar in tow, Kozelek once again sings lyrics that are immediate and observational, chronicling small individual moments that never feel overly crafted. His charm lies in the way those words come off as conversational, allowing the listener to follow his scattered thoughts across the album’s seventeen tracks. -Bryan

29. Zammuto — Zammuto


While half the fun of The Books stemmed from the anxiousness of what was to come next, Nick Zammuto’s debut was a flat-out id-engager. Jumping playfully from the fractured propulsion of “Yay” to the wistful “Idiom Wind” to the sheer pop delight of “To Late To Topologize,” Zammuto once again threw the kitchen sink at us. This time, though, it felt more like a tour through Willy Wonka’s factory. So many delights, you can’t wait to see what comes next. -Drew

28. Dr. Dog — Be The Void


For a band that has struggled in some people’s eyes to define themselves as more than just another indie band, Dr. Dog has proved resilient in producing music that doesn’t aspire to originality so much as just a damn good time. The high points on their latest slice of quasi-blues/folk/rock/whatever resound with the greatest moments in their back catalogue, as their continued devotion to multi-part vocal harmonies continues to pay huge dividends. The slow build and huge release of “Get Away” mark it as one of the best songs of the year. -Bryan

27. Spiritualized — Sweet Heart, Sweet Light


After 1997’s space rock epic Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, Spiritualized spent over a decade creating albums that were significantly less massive. But after touring in celebration of their masterpieces’s 10 year-anniversary, J Spaceman and company decided to pump up the grandiosity once again for Sweet Heart Sweet Light. Mixing boisterous distortion, soulful gospel choirs, and J Spaceman’s incredibly personal lyrics, Spiritualized have once again found the perfect formula to launch their music up and above the stars, onto a spirit quest in space. -Giovanni

26. The Walkmen — Heaven


If The Walkmen were a fantasy football player, they would be Tony Gonzalez: uniformly excellent every year, but easy to let slip on your board because that excellence has become such a given, it’s almost become boring. But like Gonzalez, The Walkmen are in the midst of one of their best years, and Heaven sounds almost eerily aware of that. The songs are celebratory, the highlights too numerous to pick out any one standout, and the lyrics see a man who once relished in isolating himself during the long winter months clearing the frost off the windowpanes, as if finally seeing the world for all it has to offer. At a concert earlier this year, singer Hamilton Leithauser declared “we’re going to be playing our greatest hits tonight,” and the band proceeded to play the entirety of Heaven. It wasn’t just a boast. The entire album is a victory lap for the most reliable act around. -Drew

25. Father John Misty — Fear Fun


Listening to the sometimes-clever, usually-cheeky, and always-confident lyrics that populate Fear Fun, it’s hard to imagine J. Tillman ever willingly sitting behind a drum set and singing harmonies. The folkie’s decision to abandon the peripheral role in Fleet Foxes to retake central stage may seem bold, but on this debut under his new moniker, his delivery makes it clear — this was a release that he needed. Chock-full of understated instrumental flourishes to compliment Tillman’s unique lyrical voice, the album goes down easy — coasting by on a familiar sound that endures for a reason. -Bryan

24. Screaming Females — Ugly


New Jersey may be known as America’s joke to many, but the east coast state has a valuable export; punk rock. New Brunswick is home to a bevy of great rock acts, and Screaming Females are the state’s most valuable export. If you want to test the validity of the statement, look no further than Ugly, the band’s most recent, balls-to-the-wall record. Not only does it contain some of 2012’s most memorable guitar riffs, but it’s also got hooks that will stay stuck in your skull well beyond December 31st. And if you manage to get one out, there’s 13 more just waiting to crawl in your ear. -Giovanni

23. Miguel — Kaleidoscope Dream


Miguel can be best summed up by the chorus of “How Many Drinks?,” where he earnestly asks, “How many drinks would it take you to leave with me? You look good, and I got money but I don’t want to waste my time.” Miguel is one of the only artists around who can claim to have any woman in the world and make it sound so convincing that even the most jaded of us would have to concede that he’s the real deal. It’s more than just swagger though. Kaleidoscope Dream is a lush, fully-realized record, with a handful of radio singles- “Use Me,” “Do You?”, and of course “Adorn”- that would make him the biggest pop star in the world right now, if only the term “radio single” was more definable. -Drew

22. Cody ChestnuTT — Landing on a Hundred


The once almost-famous crooner burst back onto the scene (or at least a few Spotify banner ads) with a technicolor blast of modern soul that harkened back to the masters of old. What he may have lost in definable quirk is paved over with the full-bodied gloss of a backing band and big-studio treatment that these soaring songs receive. Hopefully it doesn’t take another decade to hear where ChesnuTT heads next. -Bryan

21. Hospitality — Hospitality


There was no shortage of great new acts in 2012, many of which had a great deal of hype fueling their debut records. But Hospitality seemingly came out of nowhere. The Brooklyn indie group dropped their self-titled debut back in January with little fanfare to herald it in. But the sophisticated little record had quite a bit of staying power, gaining popularity through the year. And the slow-grow is deserved. The album is an iron tight collection of pop rock songs filled with infectious melodies and refined compositions that only get better on repeated listens. Simple, subtle, and polished to a perfect sheen. -Giovanni

20. Dum Dum Girls — End of Daze EP


Whenever year-end list time comes, I always hear the question “Do EPs count?” pop up at least once. Well, when you have one as substantial as Dum Dum Girls’ End of Daze EP, the answer is undoubtedly yes. Not a single second of the EP’s 18 minute runtime is wasted. The 5 shoegazey rock songs are packed tight like like an atomic bomb bursting with perfect melodies that demand repeated listens. That’s a huge advantage to its brevity; there’s almost always time to squeeze in another go-around. Combine that with such compact, catchy songwriting and you’ve got one of 2012’s most repayable releases. -Giovanni

19. Passion Pit — Gossamer


“You should go if you want to, I’ll be all right,” Michael Angelakos assures his lover early on Passion Pit’s second album, which avoided the sophomore slump- which this band, admittedly, seemed primed for- by discovering a deeper emotional spectrum than their fine 2009 debut album, and in the process, besting it. Angelakos is writing songs with an on-the-sleeves honesty that’s rare for this genre, and his impervious falsetto sounds all the more confident for it. The irresistible hooks are still there, and the trio of “I’ll Be All Right,” “Carried Away,” and “Constant Conversations” makes for the best one-two-three punch of the year. Even when the song structures begin to get a bit too familiar in the second half- how could they really top what came before it?- you won’t find a happier sad album all year. -Drew

18. of Montreal — Paralytic Stalks


Paralytic Stalks is an incredibly enigmatic record that polarized critics. Some argued that Kevin Barnes’ latest collection of pop songs is completely overbloated, going way over-the-top, even by of Montreal standards. There’s truth to that critique, but that’s what makes it such a brilliant experience. Barnes channels all of his neuroses into a glorious pop mess. In essence, it’s an audio representation of a mental breakdown, coupling cute hooks with raw shouts and moments of uncontrolled noise. It’s simultaneously fun and terrifying, a beautifully personal, unhinged dive into one man’s troubled psyche. -Giovanni

17. Animal Collective — Centipede Hz.


In the three years that passed since their blog-conquering opus Merriweather Post Pavillion, the members of Animal Collective dealt with writer’s block and a delayed solo release (Panda), a divorce that resulted in one of the most painful breakup albums in recent memory (Avey), and a controversial trip to Mali (Deakin). The follow-up, Centipede Hz., is their “alien” record, but I didn’t find it the least bit alienating. Tracks like “Today’s Supernatural” and “Applesauce” pack melodies on top of melodies before the Collective brings it back to earth for the sublime closing duo of “Pulleys” and “Amanita.” If Merriweather channeled the beauty and wonder of 2000’s Spirit Their Gone Spirit They’ve Vanished into an adult realm, Centipede attempts a similar reimagining of 2001’s Danse Manatee, digging for musical clarity through an abrasive surface with more focus than that album. It’s not the Collective’s best album, but after all they’ve been through the past few years, it sure sounds like their most cathartic. -Drew

16. Jens Lekman — I Know What Love Isn’t


One of the best in the ever-growing heap of the cloyingly-termed “breakup records,” (ed: seriously, right after I just used that? -Drew) Jens’s latest is also probably the only entry in that canon to make effective use of a jazz flute. Ever an artist of contradictions, the Swedish Stephin Merritt disciple effectively portrays both personal and cosmic heartbreak with his unusual blend of borderline-embarrassing earnestness and sardonic wit. Though his simplified musical palette makes us yearn for the pitch-perfect sample collages of yore, this feels like his most cohesive album for its thematic unity and restraint. –Bryan

15. Death Grips — The Money Store


I had this as my fifth favorite album of the year and I already feel like I’m underrating it. The Money Store is simply like nothing else out there, a Skip’s Scramble of internet samples, thunderous drums, and MC Ride simultaneously threatening the shit out of you and openly inviting you to be his best friend. You don’t have to understand a lick of what’s going on to get lost in JAMS (I have to capitalize that for this record) like “Get Got,” “Hustle Bones,” “I’ve Seen Footage,” and “Bitch Please.” What genre do we put this under anyway? Hip-hop? Punk? Experimental rock? Who gives a fuck? Why are you trying to put it in a box? Just listen to whatever the hell this is and live in it for an hour. AYE AYE! -Drew

14. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti — Mature Themes


Ariel Pink kindly went out of his way in 2009 to give us the instant classic Before Today, but Mature Themes is more indicative of him as a whole. It’s like a trip through Ariel’s brain, complete with wacky detours (“Kinski Assassin,” “Schnitzel Boogie”) and lost 80’s A.M. classics (“Mature Themes,” “Only In My Dreams,”), before ending with a perfect cover of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s schmaltzy “Baby.” For an album called Mature Themes, there are only occasional stops in its goofiness, but it’s a constant reminder that Ariel Pink is a mad genius who could write an infectious hook about most anything if he feels like it. And he’s going to give us another classic album, whenever he feels like it. -Drew

13. Ramona Falls — Prophet


Ex-Menomena multi-instrumentalist Brent Knopf’s sophomore album under the Ramona Falls moniker attempts to fine-tune the intricate cut-and-paste style he introduced to his former band’s process. Though the Knopf-centric songs on Menomena albums were typically keyboard-heavy, his new project refuses to limit itself instrumentally. Knopf’s wobbly high-pitched voice provides a touch of vulnerability to the often grand and expansive music. The lasting effect is powerful, like listening to an unsure protagonist trying to fight his way out of a storm. -Bryan

12. Killer Mike — R.A.P. Music


Sure, plenty of rappers could outflow Killer Mike. But few could tell a story as well as him. R.A.P. Music reinforces that claim offering the finest tales the Southern rapper has to offer. On “Reagan,” Mike spills out a government conspiracy theory that’s equal parts engrossing and insane. And right before that, he lays down a hilarious airport security misadventure in “Jojo’s Chillin.” Yet everything fits together perfectly, linked by Killer Mike’s assertive, stylish persona. That, and extraordinary beats by El-P, the producer with the Midas touch. –Giovanni

11. The Tallest Man on Earth — There’s No Leaving Now


In slowing the struck-by-lightning fervor which energized his first two albums, Sweden’s Kristian Matsson took his time to craft this long exhale of a record. His most serene batch of songs, the album may mark a more mellow artist but it’s one still possessed by a wild-eyed longing. His signature strummed-til-death acoustic guitar is joined by a fragile set-up of other instruments that mirror the artist’s slow building of a literal home. As he cautiously settles into a marriage — and by extension, an adult life — he expresses the same eternal hope and worry that make his distinctively shaky voice so penetrable. People grow up and grow old, but some feelings never leave. -Bryan

10. Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!


The recently reunited Godspeed You! Black Emperor pulled a Radiohead this year in a big way. Out of nowhere, the band announced that not only had they recorded new material, but that it was already being sold at shows in the form of a brand new LP. Of course, it’s always safe to be skeptical when reunion runs result in new music (*cough*Smashing Pumpkins*cough*), but Godspeed weren’t playing around. Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is a tremendous album that’s every bit as powerful and relevant as ever. If one had to choose a single album that best represented the sum of human struggle, these gigantic compositions would undoubtedly be a top contender. -Giovanni

9. Purity Ring — Shrines


Shrines is one of only five albums this year that all three of us had on our list- and I think that speaks to the record’s universal appeal. The whole thing is so darned-likable that it would be easier to overlook shoddy songwriting, but Shrines delivers one gem after another. Just when we were getting tired of new electronica duos popping up every week, one of them had to go and write perfect songs like “Fineshrine” and “Lofticries” and make us pay attention all over again. -Drew

8. El-P — Cure 4 Cancer


Just listen to how this thing sounds. In a year full of production achievements, from Miguel to Death Grips to Tame Impala, Jaime Meline schools them all and makes it sound easy. He remains an interesting and insightful lyricist, but honestly, this album could have been an instrumental and retained about ninety percent of its effectiveness. But hey, then you’d miss out on guest rapper Danny Brown, spitting some of his most Danny Brownian lines yet, such as “Inspector Gadget with the ratchet/ Bitch won a beauty pageant, bought herself a rabbit/ But not a furry bunny bitch I’m all about these moneys.” And who’d want that? -Drew

7. Menomena — Moms


The loss of a core member seems only to have bolstered the Portland band’s spirit and focus. Paring down a lineup of three songwriter/vocalists to only two allows for the record’s dynamic push/pull propulsion, as Justin Harris and Danny Seim alternate tracks in a seemingly never-ending effort to one-up each other. The former’s brazen, anthemic howl sounds more assured than ever, and his bandmate’s duskier rasp makes for a refreshing counterbalance. Their sincerely offbeat sense of humor is just the cherry on top of these many invigorating bursts of joy and anguish, as they sound, for the first time in years, not just exciting but excited. -Bryan

6. Frank Ocean — channel Orange


Strip away the amazing letter that Frank Ocean wrote prior to channel Orange‘s release (which was him coming out, everyone decided). Strip away his affiliation with Odd Future. Strip away everything except the music left on channel Orange and you’re left with “Thinkin Bout You,” “Bad Religion,” “Sweet Life,” “Pyramids,” and “Super Rich Kids,” all contenders for song of the year and all deserving of the same sentence. Not every track is a home run, and there are a few early sequencing problems. But the dude’s got an amazing voice, and if he continues to write- whether it be songs, letters, novels- that carry the poignancy and maturity of his best work this year, we’re looking at maybe the voice of this generation. A masterful debut that promises more greatness ahead, no matter what Mr. Ocean decides to do next. -Drew

5. Swans — The Seer


The term “apocolyptic music” always gets tagged on to any album that’s big and dark. But for once, the term actually applies. Swans’ 2-hour magnum opus, The Seer, is a massive record that towers above the world with walls of distortion casting a black shadow over mankind. Ear shattering, Earth shattering; Michael Gira doesn’t give a fuck about you, but you will give a fuck about Michael Gira. -Giovanni

4. Tame Impala — Lonerism


I think we needed an album like Lonerism to come along. When asked by people what it sounds like, the best description I can give is “it kind of sounds like a lost psychedelic-era Beatles record.” Seriously, when was the last time you could say anything like that and actually mean it? In an era dominated by hip-hop, r&b and electronic music, some of it good, some of it not, Lonerism is a singular statement, a real, honest-to-god rock record, dripping acidic reverb throughout and delivering melodies in songs like “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” and “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” that make the verses just as memorable as the choruses. Think of it as Australia’s apology for Jet. -Drew

3. The Dirty Projectors — Swing Lo Magellan


For a band whose career consists of a re-imagined Black Flag album, a concept album starring Don Henley, and several records worth of material tagged as (the seemingly oxymoronic) “avant pop,” the Dirty Projectors emerged this year with a shockingly normal effort. Though perhaps only by comparison, Magellan embraces a casual compositional style and more ear-catching melodies that lend the album an inviting warmth without sacrificing the band’s idiosyncrasies. Every aspect of the ensemble’s sound — Dave Longstreth’s spindly guitar lines, the female vocalists’ signature wails, and a fine-tuned rhythm section — works in harmony with a newfound looseness. The assorted bits of spontaneous band member chatter that crop up throughout the mix underline their latest welcome development — for all the band’s oddity and pretentiousness, they’re more human than ever. -Bryan

2. Fiona Apple — The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Chords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do


On her first album in seven years, Apple skidded into some preconceptions — she once again boasted an unorthodoxly lengthy album title (though still 67 words short of her record) — but steered out of them with a collection of songs bold in their simplicity. In the process of recording without whiz producer Jon Brion for the first time since her debut (if you choose, like me, to only acknowledge the demos of her prior album), Apple somehow emerged even further intensified in both her tenderness and ferocity. Heart-on-her-sleeve bellow fully intact, Apple finds her often-direct lyrics enhanced by the bare-bones musical backdrop — the frayed edges of her psyche and its myriad obsessions laid barer than ever as a result. By turns vivid, lovely, and a little bit strange, the album charts the destructive course outlined in its opening song, “Every Single Night” — the musical soundtrack to a woman’s bout with her very own brain. -Bryan

1. Kendrick Lamar — good kid, m.A.A.d. City


Kendrick Lamar came out of nowhere. Who could have predicted that the relatively unknown west coast rapper would suddenly unleash a jaw-dropping album that would cement him as one of rap’s finest MC’s? Looking back on it, there were definite hints, but nothing could have prepared the world for good kid, m.A.A.d city. The pseudo-concept album chronicles life in the streets of Compton, meditating on ideas of family, faith, class struggle and much more with astounding clarity and inhuman flow. When Kendrick proclaims himself to be “King Kendrick Lamar” on the album’s final track, it’s not an obnoxious boast. It’s just fact. -Giovanni


5 responses to “Our 40 Favorite Albums of 2012

  1. I like Death Grips as much as… some people but to include two of their releases and omit Visions by Grimes is bothersome to me. Otherwise, I could see it.

    • Just keep in mind that we’re only three people, and some omissions may be due to basic human limitations of how much music three people can listen to in one year. We finalized this list about a week and a half ago, and I’ve listened to the Grimes album for the first time since then- think it’s very good. As for the 2 Death Grips albums, if an artist is confident enough to release two full albums in such a short span, I think they should both get their own due process as separate releases. We (okay, I, the Death Grips fan) deemed them both good enough to make the cut. Oh, and thanks for commenting. We love comments.

      • I will say that I have listened to Visions a number of times since its release. While I do think it’s good, I’m not as huge on it as most. I think she has some really great ideas, but they don’t always feel fully formed. There’s a few tracks where things really come together, but otherwise I find it to be a solid blueprint for what will probably be a really great next album. That’s why she didn’t end up on my own list.

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