2012 albums of the year

Here's a list of my favourite albums of 2012, hope you enjoy it.
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Jack White - Blunderbuss

Blunderbuss Jack White

Free from the seeming constraints of a group, White really cuts loose on his debut solo album, switching casually from blues, folk, country, and rock with an effortless ease not seen since The White Album. Only Sixteen Saltines, a full out Seventies blues rocker in the mould of Blue Orchid is really reminiscent of The White Stripes.

There’s a vintage R&B cover, the 1960 Little Willie John classic I’m Shakin, the Pink Floyd style prog-rock of Missing Pieces and Take Me With You When You Go, the funky Trash Tongue Talker and the country soul of Blunderbuss.

White has always said that Bob Dylan was like a father to him and his influence is evident throughout. Blunderbuss sounds like his Blood On the Tracks, the heartbreak album after the breakup.

It’s hard not to draw parallels with bitter and bruised lyrics such as “I won’t let love disrupt, corrupt, or interrupt me anymore,” on Love Interruption or “When they tell you they just can’t live without you, they ain’t lying, they’ll take pieces of you, and they’ll stand above you, and walk away” on Missing Pieces.

White is backed by a mostly female group of talented Nashville-based musicians who provide glorious harmonies and flourishes throughout such as fiddle, mandolin, and pedal steel, allowing White to deviate from his usual rule book. Ruby Amanfu’s sultry, sexy co-vocals are a revelation providing a seductive counter to White’s abrasive lyrics.

Screaming Females - Ugly

Ugly Screaming Females

New Jersey trio Screaming Females returned with their fifth album Ugly, a beautiful blend of DIY indie-punk and fuzzy college rock. It’s arguably one of the best indie-rock albums of the past few decades giving the genre a much needed kick up the arse.

There are swarms of Dinosaur Jr. style guitar solos blending seamlessly with slabs of heavy riffs. Front-woman Marissa Paternoster must dream in solos because she throws them in so effortlessly, there are enough here to last most bands a lifetime. They swirl and unfold like waves around your ears.

The album was recorded by Steve Albini and as expected you get the raw excitement and energy of their live performance all captured perfectly. That means that it feels like it could all fall apart and break down at any second, keeping you gripped and firmly on the edge of your seat. Ultimately Ugly is brutal, explosive, raw and powerful so much so that you forget there’s just three of them.

A unique voice can make a big difference on a rock album transforming a good album into something magical, take Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins for example. Here Paternoster’s fiery howl sores, lifting a great album in to the exceptional bracket. It’s what makes them unique and differentiates them from the rest of the indie-rock crowd and they use it to great effect.

Album closer It’s Nice proves Screaming Females are much more than just screams and riffs, it offers the albums only ballad, with Paternoster’s vocals showcased over orchestral strings. Albums this fun and of such great quality don’t come around to often, sit back and enjoy.

Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel…

The Idler Wheel… Fiona Apple

A late addition to the list, Fiona Apple’s forth album and first in seven years is a revelation. The Idler Wheel or The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do to give it its full title is as you’d expect a challenging proposition. There are playground screams, chants and tribal drums, while even the piano often sounds dark and bleak.

The Idler Wheel… is packed with honest and passionate songs with such heart and intensity that they really resonate. The pain, hurt and anger just pours out and you feel it. Opener Every Single Night is as close to a pop single as you’re going to get from Apple. “Every single night’s a fight with my brain” she sings telling of the constant anxiety and overwhelming collision of feelings and noises in her head that won’t go away. Every single night is a fight against these feelings and thoughts that try to bring her down, feelings of depression and loneliness.

Left Alone is another standout beginning with pounding drums before a circular piano riff enters, Apple is brutally open and honest “How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?”. She takes the blame for failed relationships on Werewolf, “I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead, but I admit that I provided a full moon”. Towards the end of the second verse the playground noises screech in, it’s harrowing and stark but strangely fits, providing a daunting sense of chaos.

Hot Knife provides a change of pace with Apple chanting the same refrain “If I’m butter then he’s a hot knife” over a pulsing tribal drum beat, before a multi-tracked choir of Apple vocals enter. It’s refreshing, different and brilliant. Elsewhere Apple rages against rash fools who act recklessly and disregard love on the Periphery, she has no time for people who don’t appreciate commitment.

Her voice and words form the core of the album, both are exceptional. Apple finds different colours and tones for her voice in every song, from softly spoken to a full out blues howl and everything in between. Indeed it is the most varied instrument on an album made up of drum beats and piano. Ultimately The Idler Wheel… is truly exceptional and will leave you in awe to the extent that when it’s finished you’ll have the urge to play it again and again, a timeless classic.

Bad Books - II

Bad Books II Bad Books

While their self-titled debut was an excellent blend of 60’s pop and folk, it felt more like five Kevin Devine songs and five Andy Hull songs than a cohesive album. This years follow up is much more of a collaborative band effort, evident from the sharing of vocal duties within tracks, strong harmonies and delicate little guitar fills. Each brings something unique and fresh to the others songs making them stronger as a result. Bad Books have finally lived up to and exceeded their potential, proving that they are more than Manchester Orchestra with Kevin Devine or vice versa.

Single Forest Whitaker provides the albums catchiest hooks with its heavy pop undertone, featuring electronic drums, synths, and infectious whistling. The upbeat It Never Stops offers Beatles-esque pop perfection with a chorus refrain that will stick in your head for weeks, “I know, you know, I want to love you but I can’t let go, honey it never stops”. The guitars are cranked up on No Sides a fuzzy 90s style indie-pop anthem, while Devine provides the tender and beautiful Petite Mort and Ambivalent Peaks.

Pytor is the highlight, an unnerving love triangle tale of Russian Tsar Peter the Great, who upon discovering his wife Katherine is cheating on him cuts off her lover’s head and places it in a jar. The story is told in alternating verses from the perspectives of both the ruler (“I know you would gaze in his eyes forever, I’ve figured out just how to give that to you”) and then the head (“In the heat of the scuffle, nobody ever takes my eyes off of you”). The sparse single guitar and Andy Hull’s vocals are all you’ll hear, it’s deceptively simple but incredible and moving.

Likewise 42, a brisk plucky acoustic number gives Hull another chance to shine as he lets the guitar swirl quietly in the background while his delicate gruff vocals dominate the track (“When you’re with another man, inside another home, do you adapt to the walls?”). Devine joins in on the chorus and the harmonies are remarkable and unexpected.

David Byrne & St. Vincent - Love This Giant

Love This Giant David Byrne & St. Vincent

St. Vincent’s 2011 album Strange Mercy in hindsight definitely should have made it into last years top ten, unfortunately I didn’t hear it in time. This year she returned with a unique and challenging album, teaming up with legendary Talking Heads man David Byrne.

In an effort to push themselves far outside of their normal comfort zone the duo decided to challenge themselves by only using brass instruments, producer John Congleton added programmed percussion later. The result is a surprising triumph. It’s so far removed from what’s popular at present and so off-the-hook but despite everything stacked against it’s simply brilliant. It’s a brave move to attempt to make brass cool in 2012 but they manage it with relative ease.

It may seem an odd choice for a collaboration at first, but looking more closely into their background David Byrne and Annie Clark are a perfect match. Both art school dropouts with a taste for the avant-garde; both makers of enduring outsider music with a slight commercial bent. Indeed on an album that seems so harmonious and full-filled it’s impressive to learn learn that they created it largely online, meeting in the studio together only a handful of times during the album’s creation.

Opening track Who romps along with such a joyous infectious sexy groove you can’t help but sway along too. St Vincent’s voice sores while Bryne croons. Weekend In The Dust, with an 80s style chorus riff sounds more like Prince. St Vincent takes center stage on Ice Age, a reflective and delicate song that morphs into something experimental and complex with bustling drums pounding the track along. While I Am An Ape, with its compelling break beat and honking bassoons, is Byrne’s most magnificent contribution here, he bosses the track with a confident swagger.

Love This Giant is awkward and brave but ultimately a brilliant, fun and instant funky classic.

Right Away, Great Captain! - The Church of the Good Thief

The Church of the Good Thief Right Away, Great Captain!

Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra and Bad Books successfully concluded his trilogy of solo albums under the mocker Right Away, Great Captain! What began as an experiment to write a concept album has blossomed into an impressive and compelling body of work. Indeed the trilogy plays out more like a book of poetry than an album.

Hull first introduced the central character – a 17th century sailor who catches his wife in bed with his brother – in 2007’s The Bitter End. After his captain and mentor dies the sailor descends into a rage and The Church of the Good Thief concludes the story with the protagonist returning home after years at sea, murdering his brother, being arrested and ultimately sentenced to death. The majority of the album finds the sailor in the confines of his cell reflecting back on his life and his impending death.

The album is more muted in its scope and sparse than The Eventually Home and the melodies are less obvious, which given the subject matter makes perfect sense. Hull’s voice is the primary sound you hear, as he restricts himself to piano and guitar, it’s more like his final confession.

The album opens with highlight Blame, a gentle piano led ballad with gentle acoustic strums, despite the sailors intent to kill his wife, in the heat of the moment he kills his brother instead, ”The judge would ask why again, why was it him and not her?“. We Were Made Out of Lightning, a conversation between the sailor and the captain is one of the darkest songs on the record, as the captain explains to the sailor that his actions are his actions and he’ll be judged on his actions. It features nothing but a droning guitar accompanied by Hull’s reverb heavy vocals with Jesse Coppenbarger, from Colour Revolt providing the voice of the captain ”Now I keep it inside of me, hoping you one day will let me go, it’s the end, it’s nothing I ended“.

Barely Bit Me draws a parallel between a snake bite and sin, explaining how even though he was barely bitten and hardly feels it, the poison/sin is rushing through his body. The song comes crashing down at the end in walls of distorted guitars as Hull sings ”Mother, I noticed one of the men on the cross was allowed to come down“. As, like in the bible the sailor hopes to find some peace in repenting his sins. Indeed the sailor finally finds peace and a home, as tragic as it is, in death which is detailed in final track Memories From The End Part 2, ”Now I am shown the treacherous pains to become something old, redemption that’s freed the burden from me“. It’s bitter, dark and truly exceptional.

Matt Pryor - May Day

May Day Matt Pryor

Singer/songwriter of The Get Up Kids & The New Amsterdams returned with one of the surprises of the year. Matt’s solo albums depart heavily from the emo-indie rock of his day job, instead we get melancholy folk tunes. May Day is essentially a bare-bones acoustic record, the hooks and melodies however remain.

May Day was funded with the support of a Kickstarter campaign, and while it’s low on production values this only adds to its charm making it seem more real and personal like Matt is sat in the room playing the songs just to you.

Indeed the solely acoustic guitar and vocals numbers like Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down and Like a Professional, come off more like four-track recordings. These songs are so gentle and quiet that you can’t help but listen intently as they transfix you and blot out everything and everyone else around.

Other tracks are given more room and more of band feel with banjos, piano, and harmonica filling the space, but percussion is kept to a minimum throughout. There’s a gorgeous harmonica line on The Lies Are Keeping Me Here, while Your New Favourite, a piano led-ballad, successfully lets Matt stray into new territory.

Lyrically the album is impressive as well, Matt successfully pins reflective and sorrowful lyrics around catchy melodies. On Unhappy Is the Only Happy You’ll Ever Be for instance Matt sings ”The fence has finally fallen and the garden’s overgrown, I may still have the papers, but this house is not a home“.

It’s a surprisingly beautiful and honest album, May Day is an enjoyable listen and it’s testament to Matt’s songwriting abilities that it doesn’t have a single weak moment among its 12 tracks.

Brendan Benson - What Kind Of World

What Kind Of World Brendan Benson

Michigan-born Brendan Benson is perhaps most famous as a member of The Raconteurs alongside Jack White but unbeknownst to many he’s been churning out solo albums of pure indie-pop perfection since 1996. What Kind Of World, his fifth album, continues the trend.

Quite why his four previous solo albums of energetic, power pop have flown under most people’s radars is difficult to explain. Brendan even eludes to this himself on the opening title track, ”So looked over, so underrated“, you can’t help but think he has a point. Album highlight Bad For Me follows, a haunting 70s piano led ballad, more reminiscent of Elton John, shines with it sugary-sweet melody.

Indeed the album doesn’t suffer from a lack of variety, Benson switches it up with ballads, sitting comfortably next to fuzzy full out rockers. He slashes at power chords like a young Elvis Costello on the bouncy Happy Most of The Time. There’s even brass on the excellent No One Else But You.

Benson has always had a Beach Boys-esque gift for harmonising with himself and this is most evident on Light of Day. While Pretty Baby is the curveball of the album, an eerie twisted love song duetted by Benson and vocalist Ashley Monroe, it’s an intriguing stand out.

Brendan has always possessed a remarkable knack for melody, and explosive catchy choruses and What Kind of World is as expected packed full of them. What Brendan does best however, is take familiar radio-friendly pop music and twist it with a subtle hint of moodiness and his trademark introspective lyrics, cleverly injecting the pop sheen with an edge.

While What Kind of World probably doesn’t break much new ground, keeping more or less in the same confines of his previous releases, it’s arguably his most consistent collection of songs to date. It’s a concise and perfected statement of what he does and what makes him so great. While he continues to delight with such bittersweet indie-pop perfection should he change what has become a winning formula.

Band of Skulls - Sweet Sour

Sweet Sour Band of Skulls

The Southampton trio seemed to have timed the follow up to their 2009 debut perfectly now that The Black Keys have made blues-rock cool and acceptable. However while Baby Darling Doll Face Honey was loaded with anthemic sing-along singles designed for summer festivals, the band have broadened their horizons on the follow up, letting the songs brood and develop more.

The heavy riffs and catchy choruses are still evident on Sweet Sour, Bruises and The Devil Takes Care Of His Own, each providing slabs of concrete shattering riffage that QOTSA and Black Sabbath would be proud of. However, it’s on the slow-burning Navigate and Hometowns that the band really spread their creative wings providing the albums highlights.

The folky Navigate broods and builds slowly until it all breaks down to an airy and dream like mid-section. Emma Richardson takes the lead vocals proving a nice change of pace, giving the album more depth and direction.

Guitarist Russell Marsden and bassist Emma Richardson share lead vocals throughout as they did on their superb debut but here they intertwine with one another exceptionally well. They feed off each other’s unique power and energy, providing a smouldering, just below the surface, of sexual chemistry. Richardson provides superb harmonies that underpin the riffs notable on You Ain’t Pretty But You Got it Going On which has a 70s boogie vibe to it.

Ultimately Sweet Sour is an aggressive and dark record but at the same time extremely beautiful, it takes a few listens to fully appreciate but the pay off is more than rewarding.

Motion City Soundtrack - Go

Go Motion City Soundtrack

Its been nearly ten years since Motion City Soundtrack released their debut album I Am The Movie. Since then they’ve released three completely different but brilliant sounding albums, each one developing upon their unique blend of power-pop and pop-punk.

Go sees the band take off into a slightly different direction, the faster paced songs that were the hallmark of their last album are, for the most part, gone, and in their place are acoustic guitars and string sections. Despite this, you can still tell immediately that this album is by Motion City Soundtrack namely because Justin Pierre’s voice and melodies are so distinctive.

Circuits and Wires is the dark opener, and one of the heavier tracks on the album, perfectly bridging the gap between the previous album and this one. Singles True Romance and Timelines quickly follow, hammering home the melodies with infectious choruses built to stay lodge in your head for days.

Go is quite an oxymoron, on the one hand it contains some of the catchiest songs Motion City Soundtrack have ever recorded but on the other there’s some pretty dark and heavy lyrics on offer here. Most notably on Happy Anniversary, easily the darkest song they’ve ever written, which is about Justin’s grandmothers death. Likewise on Everyone Will Die Justin’s sings ”Everyone will die, and everyone will lose, so what you going to do with moments you have before it’s you?“.

Even these songs however are sugar coated with such sweet melodies and swirls of synths and keyboards that at first the dark undertones pass you by as you instinctively hum along. Lyrically the band has always been mature and intelligent, Hold Me Down from their second album demonstrating an early sign of this, now however they are touching on bigger issues of life and death. Go shows real growth for the band and hints at an interesting future.

Best of the rest

11. Willy Mason Carry On ▪ 12. Say Anything Anarchy, My Dear ▪ 13. Benjamin Gibbard Former Lives ▪ 14. Big Deal Lights Out ▪ 15. Feeder Generation Freakshow ▪ 16. Jens Lekman I Know What Love Isn't ▪ 17. Yellowcard Southern Air ▪ 18. Nada Surf The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy ▪ 19. Smashing Pumpkins Oceania ▪ 20. Soundgarden King Animal