Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Best Albums of 2012

"I'm not a number! I'm a free man!" - The Prisoner

In years past, I've always numbered my best albums list. After all, what is a Top 10 list with out ten nicely numbered items? However, this year I've struggled to put them in a nice tidy order. It's almost like asking me to pick my favorite child (okay, I don't actually have any children but I do have lots and lots of nephews...).  Following NPR's lead, I'm going alphabetically by artist this year.  So, without further ado, here are my ten favorite albums of the year:

Alabama Shakes: Boys and Girls
If there's one song I've listened to more than any other this year, it's "Hold On" by the Shakes. It's a chills-inspiring track that runs in my head even when I don't have it on. And they're 12 other equally compelling tunes on their debut album. It's the classic soul quality of "Hold On" and "You Ain't Alone" that originally attracted me to the band. However, they don't want to be pigeon holed. "Retro soul is not what we’re going for, though it's understandable why people say it," says their lead singer, Brittany Howard. "We take inspiration from that, but we all understand Black Sabbath, too." (They also do a mean Led Zeppelin.)

Allah-Las: Allah-Las
I regret getting rid of my turntable, because of albums like this that seem made for vinyl. Certainly, Allah-Las' touchstones--the Animals, the Byrds, the Stones, etc.--originate from an era where music came at the end of a needle, rather than as a string of ones and zeroes. Still, you'll feel the warmth of their sound even on an MP3.

Antibalas: Antibalas
What do you get when you mix in 2 sax players, a trombonist, a trumpeter, an organist, 2 guitarists, a bass player, and several percussionists and vocalists? In Antibalas' case, you get a funky, joyful noise. Their song, "Dirty Money," could be the unofficial theme song of the 99%. And, you can dance to it!

Django Django: Django Django
Django Django's music is so smart that it makes critics bend over backwards to find a clever way to describe it. They sound "like the Ventures jamming with Hot Chip" says All Music Guide. They're "like The White Stripes taken hold of by Franz Ferdinand," writes BBC Music. No, they're what would happen "if the Beach Boys wrote the score for a spaghetti western set in a 50s vision of the future," opines The Observer. My own strained metaphor would be arcade game music as written by Brian Wilson, which is to say bouncingly electronic, but with great hooks and harmonies.

Hospitality: Hospitality
Twee music oftentimes gets a bad rap. It's sicky sweet, dainty, and affected, according to the overly cool, depressive types who denigrate it. Hospitality's music is twee in the best possible sense of the word. Their melodies are eager to please and all their stories all seem to have happy endings. This may be the most consistently good album of the year.

Lower Dens: Nootropics
Lower Dens seems to be slowly turning into Joy Division before my very ears. On their second album, there's a sense of gloom in the air. They are more reliant on synths and electronics than they have been in the past, their rhythm section is as tight as a drum, and their lead singer conveys an eerie sort of charisma. Even some of the song titles (e.g. "Propagation") sound like they could have been penned by Ian Curtis. Joy Division's career was cut woefully short, so let's hope Lower Dens keeps putting out great records for years to come.

Nude Beach: II
All of the "angry young men" from the '80s--Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Joe Jackson, et al..--are a bit long in the tooth these days, so it's time to dig the new breed. Brooklyn's Nude Beach has the musical chops, the pitch-perfect songwriting skills, and the attitude to carry the angry young flag for a new generation.

Jessica Pratt: Jessica Pratt
Tim Presley (of the band White Fence) was so taken by Jessica Pratt that he started his own record label so that he could release her album. It's easy to see why, as Pratt's debut is one of the prettiest things I've heard this year.  Presley describes her music as sounding like "Stevie Nicks singing over David Crosby demos" and he is not wrong.

Pond: Beard, Wives, Denim

Tame Impala: Lonerism
Why settle for one modern Australian psych masterpiece when you can have two? Pond and Tame Impala have overlapping membership. Perhaps Tame Impala is more "mature" (hard to not make this sound like an insult--but it's not) while Pond has more of a "youthful exuberance." Regardless, they tap the same veins of '60s psychedelia and '70s glam to wondrous effect.

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