I don’t know why you should devote 10 minutes to my list instead of the million other year-end lists on the Internet. How about this? Here are all the things I like:
Hype; the 70s, the 90s; pop, folk, pop-folk, hip-hop; good melodies, poetic lyrics, grooves that change; sad songs, story songs, political songs; songs about tragedy, songs about family, songs about sex, songs about Jesus; songs by women, songs by black men, songs by gay men, songs by old men; not drugs.
If you like those things you’ll like this list. If not, look at the other million lists.
Here are my favorite albums of the year:
I didn’t latch onto many 2012 albums, though I listened to dozens. I have no idea if these were the best records of the year, but they were the ones I listened to the most:
9. Daniel Rossen – Silent Hour / Golden Mile EP
One of the interesting things about the late ‘00s has been watching indie weirdos learn their way back into an older way of writing songs—artists in the “New, Weird America” discovering the much better songcraft of the ol’ regular America. Joanna Newsom did that with great results in Have One On Me, and now Daniel Rossen’s taken a time machine back to the LA canyons in the 70s and taken songwriting lessons from Judee Sill and Neil Young. This EP’s just a postcard, but it points to great things to come. Beautiful, easy listening; I had it on repeat all year.
8. Derek Webb -ctrl
My excitement about this album has waned a bit since I wrote a glowing review of it in August. Webb’s main goal on ctrl is to tell a story, and with a gun to my head I have to admit the story he tells is vague, derivative, and a bit too neat – like if OK Computer ended with a conversion to Christianity. Maybe Webb would benefit from the Anaïs Mitchell masterclass I’ll talk about later (seriously, he would). Lyrically ctrl doesn’t match the sermonizing of Mockingbird and She Must and Shall Go Free.
Even with that criticism this is one of the coolest, weirdest things I’ve heard in awhile, and it quaked me right down to my boots. Webb and his producer Josh Moore are reaching for something deep and important here; they doesn’t quite grasp it, but it’s still an excellent album.
7. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
Don’t let anyone trick you into thinking this is the year’s best album. It has five unbelievable songs (‘Pyramids’, ‘Thinkin Bout You’, ‘Super Rich Kids’, ‘Sweet Life’, ‘Bad Religion’), and they’re worth getting excited about—hooky, smart, pretty R&B songs that tell stories and make statements. That two of those songs are explicitly queer makes channel ORANGE a really interesting cultural landmark to boot.
But I hit “Skip” a lot when listening to the whole album. channel ORANGE had me excited about five great singles, not one great album. Let’s save the hype for the masterpiece he’ll hopefully make next year.
6. Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas
In 2012, Iris DeMent made Christian faith sound really hard. Derek Webb made it sound really scary. And for me, in 2012, faith was both. Leonard Cohen’s record, of all things, offered some moments of comfort, and a lot of tears. It’s not just about faith—it’s also about death and sex and all the usual Leonard Cohen things. But all of it felt like church for me on mornings when I couldn’t get up to go to a real church. That subterranean growl, those gospel singers–kinda felt like going home.
Also, ‘Different Sides’ is the sexiest song I’ve ever heard a 70 year-old sing about religious schism.
5. Killer Mike -R.A.P. Music
Listening to this album is like a 40-minute car ride with a driver who is incredibly smart, pretty full of himself, and completely intimidating. It’s not exactly fun, you’re tempted to cry “Bullshit” every once in awhile, but you still learn a TON. El-P’s beats are incredible, and Killer Mike’s a virtuoso. Super-smart, super-political, super-fun, super-violent. ‘Reagan’ alone will give you plenty to talk about, but this whole album’s beautiful, from start to finish.
4. Iris DeMent -Sing the Delta
“I stopped in the church to pray / It was the middle of the day / And I don’t even know if I believe in God”
Iris DeMent is back, and she’s still writing down arguments she has with herself about Jesus and then belting them out over her country-gospel piano like she’s in the middle of a big tent revival. Each of these twelve songs is a poem—about faith and doubt, about life and death, or just about reading too many books. If you believe, but doubt; or if you don’t believe, but question: listen to this album. If you, like Iris, grew up someplace like Arkansas and moved someplace like Los Angeles: listen to this album. And I guess if you like Southern gothic kitsch and Coen brothers movies, listen to this album.
(And incidentally, if you wanted to like DeMent’s previous albums but couldn’t get past that piercing soprano, give her another try now—the sixteen years since My Life have made her a slightly less-piercing alto, and she’s a bit easier to listen to now.)
3. Kendrick Lamar -Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City
This album has some flaws: It’s too long. The skits, which take about five listens to sweeten, start to get old after ten listens. Its singles aren’t that single-y. And the whole hour and ten minutes of it is chill, and serious.
But it’s such a cool way to do an autobiography, and it’s brimming with poetry, and it has a positive message. How could I resist an album that begins and ends with the sinner’s prayer?! If there’s a spiritual/moral takeaway from this album, though, it’s not the formulaic rapper-remorse of “I’m a sinner / and I’m probably gonna sin again / Lord forgive me” (‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’); not the conversion story near its end (Maya Angelou cameo?!); not the anti-drugs and -alcohol moralizing; not the family-love that anchors the album in the form of (adorable, hilarious) voicemails from Kendrick’s parents. Rather, it’s the album’s empathy. Kendrick is telling the story of “black and brown kids from Compton” because he loves them, and nowhere is that more powerful than in the unforgettable second verse of ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’. Good Kid is not the year’s best album, but it might be its most compassionate.
2. Fiona Apple -The Idler Wheel…
Everybody has a few of those weird, beloved albums in their collection that took ten listens to really start to like—albums that play by their own rules and have to be taken on their own terms, but feel utterly essential once you enter into their universe. Upsetting, comforting, or entertaining (or in this album’s case, all three), they’re yours and only yours.
It’s pretty rare, though, to find one of those albums in front of the register at a Starbucks. After a very weird career, Fiona Apple may have perfected her craft on this very weird album, and it got a ton of attention and made a ton of money. It’s pretty dang solipsistic, but even that ends up seeming generous–this album spoke to almost every twentysomething I know, even the cranky ones who hate everything. It’s a cool, rare thing: what feels like a cult classic just might turn out to be a plain ol’ classic.
1. Anaïs Mitchell - Young Man in America
I don’t know anyone who listened to Young Man in America and didn’t immediately want to talk about it. Mitchell’s tackling really big ideas, but through the small lens of relatable yet unforgettable characters—a woman who defines herself in the eyes of the guys she dates (‘Tailor’), a husband who works too hard (‘The Shepherd’), a son who can’t escape his father’s shadow (‘He Did’). It’s political but personal, important but accessible. It’s a record out of its time, but it’s a masterclass in songwriting—every melody hits its mark, every lyric is the right one. And for what it’s worth, I think it’s awesomely feminist for a woman to make a record primarily about straight white men. Most of the people I know who fell in love with this record were straight white men, which I think means she’s doing something right.
With 2010’s also-great Hadestown, I’m obviously excited about Anaïs—she’s at the top of her craft. Fellow songwriters… we’re gonna be playing catch-up for a long time.
Here are other albums I liked:
Bill Fay - Life Is People, Bobby Conn – Macaroni, Bowerbirds - The Clearing, The Coup – Sorry to Bother You, Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan, Menomena - Moms, The Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth, The Tallest Man on Earth - There’s No Leaving Now, Todd Snider - Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
Here are albums I tried and tried to like but did not like:
Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man, Cat Power – Sun, Grimes – Visions, Julia Holter - Ekstasis, Lambchop - Mr. M, Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dreams, THEESatisfaction - awE naturalE
Here are two albums I was conflicted about:
Grizzly Bear - Shields
When Veckatimest came out in 2009, I thought, “Man, I want to hear a whole album that sounds like ‘Southern Point’.” Shields is that album, and you know what? Maybe I didn’t want that as much as I thought I did.
I do like the album: they’ve changed their palette in very slight ways (more single-voice melodies / fewer harmonies; more—a lot more—of that one lively strumming pattern from Daniel Rossen) which is interesting if you’re already invested in Grizzly Bear (and I am). But unlike, say, Anaïs Mitchell, I wouldn’t force Shields on anyone. Unless you’re a fanboy like me, download ‘Yet Again’ and ‘Sun In Your Eyes’ and skip the rest.
Perfume Genius – Put Ur Back N 2 It
Man, I want to hate Perfume Genius. Full disclosure: this is partially because I feel threatened by the presence of another skinny gay dude who chokes out traumatizing songs at a piano, especially when he’s way more popular than me. Also, I think I had good reason to dislike his debut, Learning. That album wouldn’t know a melody if it was hit in the face by one, and for all its kinky detail I didn’t find its storytelling interesting. So you slept with your high school teacher: that doesn’t necessarily make for a good song.
But after listening to Put UR Back N 2 It for a year, I guess I do like it. It’s a very flawed but beautiful album that reminds me a lot of Lisa Germano’s Lullaby For Liquid Pig, another fringe-y album about struggling through incredibly hard things and finding beauty in the midst of it. Plus, I think it’s fascinating that he’s cited The Innocence Mission as an influence. The only people I know who love that beautiful band are evangelical Christians. Who’d have thought that their highest-profile follower (besides Sufjan) would be a guy who hires gay porn stars to be in his music videos?
Also, ‘All Waters’ makes me cry, every time.
That’s it. If I ever get around to it I’ll post my list of favorite songs. It’s much longer! People in 2012 are much better at writing good songs than they are at making good albums!