Well, it took a bit longer than expected (losing your job in November and having a baby in January will disrupt the blog-writing process a bit), but Given and Taken in Ink's list for best albums of 2012 is finally here.
This year, a handful of bands came out of nowhere and blew me away. I knew right away that breakout albums from Drew Smith and The Rest would stand among the best releases of the year. They are joined by 28 other great albums, by artists well-known and obscure. I'm pleased that GTI's 2012 list is a nice balance of new artists with established veterans like Grizzly Bear, the Walkmen, Ben Folds Five, and the Tallest Man on Earth. Too often albums from artists who have been around for a while are criminally overlooked. (Speaking of, in case you weren't aware, 2012 saw new albums from Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Neil Young. They aren't listed below, but I thought it was worth mentioning.)
Anyway, without further yapping, here's Given and Taken in Ink's Best Albums of 2012:
Japandroids have gotten a lot (a LOT) of love this year, and I'm happy for them. I can't say I love Celebration Rock as much as the rest of the critical press, but it's definitely a high-octane, full-throttle, other-fast-car-metaphor rock album, and "The House That Heaven Built" never gets old.
Alex Brown Church has been recording under the name Sea Wolf for five years and three full-length albums now, and Old World Romance feels like his most fully-realized work yet. That's actually somewhat surprising, as allegedly Church ditched the band for most of Romance in order to write and play these songs himself. That singularity of vision naturally leads Romance to a much more unified sound than that of its predecessor, White Water, White Bloom. While I'd have preferred a more varied and urgent sound, Church appears to have been pushing for something more subdued and intimate. And, indeed, some of Sea Wolf's strongest songs appear here - "Old Friend" in particular.
A lot has been written about Alabama Shakes. What started out as just a couple high school friends getting together to write some tunes, who then decided to be a cover band for a while, quickly turned into an overnight success story. Musically, Boys & Girls leaves the same impression that Kings of Leon's debut did (and I mean that as a compliment - let's not forget that before it became cool to hate on KoL, everybody dug Youth and Young Manhood). There's a rawness and honesty to these songs that is refreshing and even inspiring. Makes me want to call up some of my old buddies: "Yes, I know we haven't spoken in 15 years, but dude, let's make a record!" Now if only I knew someone who could sing like Brittany Howard...
The best compliment I think I can pay to Porcelain Raft is this: I don't normally listen to music like this, and yet Strange Weekend is a record that I want to keep playing. I think it's because underneath all the shoegaze effects are tunes that remind me of the weird/interesting stuff you'd sometimes get in the 90s alternative scene. I'm sure that doesn't make any sense, but "Shapeless & Gone" is a good example. (Try to listen underneath all the shimmer and you can hear it, I swear...) I think the difference for me, the reason why I dig Strange Weekend but can't be bothered with a lot of stuff that sounds like it, is that these songs actually have real instruments at their core. Sure, they're buried by lots of pretty atmospheric effects, but beneath all of that is often an acoustic guitar. As a result, Porcelain Raft's Mauro Remiddi has crafted an album that is dreamy and ephemeral without being aimless.
First Aid Kit is comprised of Johanna and Klara Söderberg, two Swedish sisters who first made waves back in 2008 with a YouTube video cover of Fleet Foxes' "Tiger Mountain Peasant," which quickly racked up 1 million views (it's now almost 3.5 million). Fleet Foxes is the most obvious reference point for The Lion's Roar, albeit with female vocals. The duo's love of classic Americana could not be any clearer, though, than in their own words: "I'll be your Emmylou, and I'll be your June/ If you'll be my Gram and my Johnny, too." It's the most lighthearted moment on a record that tends toward a darker, elegiac mood - a somewhat surprising feat for two women so young (ages 21 and 19 at the time of the album's release).
Given the beard, one might expect Matthew E. White to sound a bit more like Iron & Wine or Bon Iver. And while those comparisons could be made, if only for the hushed vocals, White is much more influenced by jazz, soul, and gospel than his bearded indie folk peers. As a leader for the jazz band Fight the Big Bull, White brings something different to the table. It's why trumpets appear in "Gone Away" (a song that, in the hands of another artist, would simply be missing them) and just about every other track. And it's what makes Big Inner such a unique and rewarding record to hear.
Races was one of those bands I featured often at GTI, mostly in our monthly/seasonal playlists, but for some reason I never gave the album a proper review. It's an oversight on my part and shouldn't reflect at all on the band, because Year of the Witch is a very good album. Album opener "Year of the Child" is dark and yet somehow still charming, with its male/female vocal harmonies. For a while I couldn't get past it; I'd just repeat that song every time I tried to listen to the album. But there's a lot to love afterward, particularly "Lies," "Big Broom," and "Song of Birds." Year of the Witch is a breakup album, but rather than dwelling in the throes of that breakup, it seems to focus more on the aftermath, with learning to live alone again.
As I wrote in GTI's review of Catacomb Party, Fierce Creatures is a band that is easily capable of writing a simple pop song but is never content to settle for one. Listening to the album is an unpredictable and fun experience, as the band continually shifts among various genres and styles. Balancing its wilder moments ("Babbity Abbot," lead single "Catacomb Party") with laid-back shoegaze ("Ask for Lightning") and dream pop ("Magical Disappearing Acts"), it's an ambitious record that manages to never become overwhelming.
I think the original GTI review said it best: Conveyor's self-titled debut album defies categorization. If teaser single "Mane" led you to believe the band was just a bouncy indie pop act, be prepared to see your assumptions completely upended. The members of Conveyor are like indie pop mad scientists, with songs whose structures ignore traditional conventions and meander down wholly unexpected paths. "Homes" is a not-unusual three minutes long, but dedicates over two of those minutes to atmospheric instrumentals before the vocals emerge. "Short Hair" is built upon (mostly) only one repeating lyric, but is catchy enough to still get stuck in your head. "Right Sleep" begins as an indie folk ditty, deconstructs itself into an extended interlude of harmonized vocals, and finally morphs into something that sounds almost like a completely different song. Still, Conveyor has a knack for writing catchy melodies, as demonstrated in "Mane" (previously written about here) and "Woolgatherer." The latter mixes guitars, synths, and percussion with electronic blips and whorls, all underneath pretty vocal harmonies that at times recall the Beach Boys. The ooh-ooh-oohs in "Mukraker" soar to uplifting heights, but because this is a Conveyor song, the band almost threatens to blow it all up and go in a different direction. It's just a feint, though, as the song closes with horns that mimic the original vocal melody. Conveyor have pulled off an impressive feat in making unpredictability so darn pretty.
Aspiring Nashville singer/songwriter Anderson East flew out to L.A. to record a country album, then returned home to Nashville and wrote another album's-worth of songs that sounded like they were recorded in L.A. After realizing that these two records fit well together, East made a bold decision and decided to make his debut a double album. Sonically diverse, Flowers of the Broken Hearted is an impressive debut from a young musician who already seems to be a master of his craft. And if you missed it before, be sure to check out East's exclusive interview with GTI.
The Gaslight Anthem has developed a well-deserved reputation for big, earnest rock songs, a tradition they continue to follow on Handwritten. "45" is the hit single here, and one of the band's catchiest songs in a catalog full of anthems that get stuck in your brain and won't ever go away. But it's the Gaslight Anthem's ballads that really show off their ability to craft great, heartstring-tugging pop songs. Handwritten closes with a pair of them, "Mae" and "National Anthem," the latter of which you can listen to for just 90 seconds below. (Sorry, that's what happens when you get signed to a big corporate record label.)
I'll admit, I hadn't heard of Montreal-based Patrick Watson until I saw him open for Andrew Bird in May 2012. But what I heard was just stunning, and I strongly urge you catch his live show if you have the chance. With his combination of soaring, Buckley-esque falsetto and an orchestra's worth of instruments, Watson has crafted an ambitious, lovely record that feels somehow both elaborate and intimate. It's a graceful set of songs that are perhaps best heard through headphones (rather than, say, the car), with all the tragedy of Antony and the Johnsons and the charm of Beirut. Adventures is actually Watson's third record, and hopefully it's the one that earns him the attention he so clearly deserves.
All signs pointed to a different sophomore album from Joe Pug. After he re-arranged a few songs from his mostly acoustic debut EP Nation of Heat, fleshing them out and adding full band backing for their appearances on follow-up LP Messenger, one might have expected a continuation of that trend on The Great Despiser. Indeed, Pug doesn't ditch the band for the new album, but for the most part it's there for support but doesn't get in the way of the man or his voice. Instead, Pug settles down for a quieter, more reflective collection of songs. Pug isn't making grand declarations, as he did on previous records. Instead, his songwriting has grown more abstract as his attention turns to the often overlooked everyday struggles of men and women. Pug has always been a fascinating storyteller, but he seems less interested in examining his own role in these stories. Less "I," more "you." That makes sense if you've seen Pug live. With plenty of crowd banter and moments when he'll sing completely away from the mic, his shows can feel like an intimate community gathering. And while that energy doesn't always translate to the studio, Pug still shows the power to transfix his audience, such as in the captivating "Hymn #76," a song that is easily one of the best of the year.
The rise of Strand of Oaks' Timothy Showalter has been fascinating to watch. After exorcizing the wreck of his past on Leave Ruin and redefining what folk music could sound like on Pope Killdragon, Showalter has graduated to rock star for his third album, Dark Shores. It's a bigger, more diverse, more universal album than anything he's done before. Strand of Oaks is still dark and brooding, but there are moments of brightness, too, such as in "Little Wishes" and the roots-rock "Satellite Moon." Still, my favorite side of Showalter's songwriting is the soul-crushing variety, and Dark Shores does not disappoint in that arena. "Maureen's" could be a tale of love-gone-wrong in a post-apocalyptic future, while Showalter opines "Everyone I know will either move away or die" in "Diamond Drill." Still, album-closer "Sleeping Pills" admits that "every day is better than the last," suggesting that maybe there's something positive on the horizon for the talented songwriter.
Matt Pryor continues to pursue a successful solo career while also serving as lead singer and songwriter for the Get Up Kids, the New Amsterdams, and the kid-friendly Terrible Twos. (Oh, and if that wasn't enough, he's also in a new band, Lasorda.) As I wrote in GTI's review of May Day, "Matt Pryor has always been a master of writing sincere and empathetic stories about the brokenhearted and unhappy. That hasn't changed on May Day, but now there seems to be a spring in his step, a sense of hope that maybe better days are on the horizon."
Lord Huron's full-length debut contains arguably my favorite song of the year, "Time to Run." (I haven't given it enough thought yet to say whether that's conclusively true, but I'm sure it'll be up there when I do.) Steeped in internationally-flavored Americana, Lonesome Dreams is something of a concept album, mirrored in its cover image of a cowboy navigating the desert alone.
I actually had a tough time getting into Blunderbuss, unlike most of Jack White's bands' material. I think it contains some of his best songwriting, but lacks some of the punch of the White Stripes, Raconteurs, and Dead Weather. That's a fairly standard pattern for band-leader-turned-solo-
AC Newman is quite possibly one of the best pop songwriters of our generation, although it's been mostly channeled into the jittery, frenetic indie pop of the New Pornographers. But Newman has increasingly stretched his singer/songwriter wings with each solo release. Occasionally he returns to classic New Pornographers territory ("Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns"), with backup vocals from the transcendent Neko Case along for the ride. Still, Newman's great feat here is how he can take a determined step away from his comfort zone and yet completely nail it.
I fucking love this record, but I fully recognize that a band like Mummy Short Arms can be polarizing. Some people will be turned off by James Allen's vocals; at first glance they appeared to be the half-crazed ramblings of a drunk man. And with no less than two tracks entitled "Whiskey Avalanche," that latter descriptor might be spot-on. But something about these songs just makes them so captivating. Maybe it's Allen's out-of-the-ordinary vocal delivery, or the moody acoustic/electric mix reminiscent of the best 90s alt-rock bands. Either way, this is some badass shit right here.
I've lost track of virtuoso mandolinist Chris Thile since his former band, Nickel Creek, called it quits in 2007. Apparently he's been busy since then, releasing a steady stream of solo records and collaborations, but more recently seems to have a found a stable home in Punch Brothers. And while I can't speak to Thile's musical journey between 2007 and 2012, Who's Feeling Young Now sounds like a natural progression from Nickel Creek's final album, Why Should the Fire Die, by continuing to employ traditional bluegrass instruments while stretching and subverting the boundaries of that genre. Put another way, Who's Feeling Young Now is a bluegrass album for people who wouldn't normally listen to bluegrass. It's got the listenability of pop music and the complexity of indie rock, pulling in enough disparate influences to create something that truly defies categorization.
Father John Misty is the alter-ego of J. Tillman, former drummer for folk-rock superstars Fleet Foxes. After leaving the band, Tillman allegedly took a van full of mushrooms and drove from Seattle down to Laurel Canyon to write a novel. Fear Fun plays out like a journal of that trip. It's adventurous and engaging, as Tillman sings about Canadian shamans, pokes fun at Hollywood, and generally seems to have had a great time. There's a classic quality to the sound - a little Roy Orbison, a little Gordon Lightfoot - mixed with Tillman's witty, dark humor. (E.g. "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings," like much of the record, plays around with themes of sex and death.)
Andrew Bird burst onto the scene in 2007 with Armchair Apocrypha, despite having recorded music since at least 1995. Everyone got excited about the quirky musician for his virtuoso violin-playing, whistling (yes, whistling), and captivating live performances. My wife (prior to the point when we started dating) went to one of his shows and said it was one of the best performances she'd ever seen. And then the guy almost completely dropped off the map. Oh, he released critically-acclaimed albums in Noble Beast (2009) and this year's Break It Yourself, but the buzz was gone. And, people, that is fucking ridiculous. Break It Yourself is possibly his most accessible album to date, but it's like the guy is old news! This is a crime, and everyone in the music-reviewing business should be ashamed. (We're going to just conveniently ignore that Given and Taken in Ink never reviewed the album, either...)
Ben Folds Five released an album in 2012. Just let that sink in for a moment. Ben Folds Five, whose last album was released in 1999, put out an album in 2012. That just feels great to write. And, in many ways, it sounds like they never took a 13-year hiatus. The Sound of the Life of the Mind sounds very much like the album Ben Folds Five might have recorded in, oh, 2002 (when one might have expected a follow-up to Reinhold Messner). I am too often so excited to simply be talking about a new Ben Folds Five record that I almost forget to mention that it's also a great Ben Folds Five record.
What happens when you take the fucking coolest two guys in rock music - Britt Daniel (Spoon) and Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs) - and let them make a record together? You get the fucking coolest record of the year, that's what. Yeah, something about this album just makes me want to drop some f-bombs. Maybe it's all the swagger. Either way, I dig it.
Everything about Nothing's Gonna Change suggests that it was an intensely personal album for Justin Townes Earle. It's apparent in the earnest, honest lyrics about his family (ruminations on his father, Steve Earle; conversations with his mother), the often-husky vocal delivery, and the fusion of his tradition country/blues sound with Memphis soul he grew up with. All of that can be alienating to fans who were hoping for another Harlem River Blues (and, indeed, Earle both heard and responded to that complaint). But those fans are doing themselves a disservice. By casting off the burdens of his past and shattering the racial boundaries that tend to divide music's genres, Earle crafted one of the most socially-important records of the year.
When The Rest released the double a-side single for "Always On My Mind" / "The Last Day" in 2011, I was impressed but in no way prepared for the album they would eventually release in 2012. As I wrote in my review, the album is so much more versatile than I ever expected. Nearly lost to a hard drive failure, the band rescued Seesaw with the help of a company that normally recovers aircraft "black box" data. It was because of that history that Seesaw was GTI's most highly anticipated album of 2012, but it was the strength of the songs themselves that placed it among the year's best.
There was a span of time where I thought Heaven might eventually be GTI's top-ranked album of the year. Maybe it's because I was about to become a father, and Heaven was around for the entirety of my wife's pregnancy, but I absolutely identified with an album that advocates love, maturity, and family. It opens with a song about discarding the naive dreams of youth for the beauty of life's (real) imperfections ("We Can't Be Beat"), and carries that theme throughout the record.
Back over a year ago, when the Tallest Man on Earth released a non-album single "Weather of a Killing Kind," I remarked that, "Some songs fade blissfully into the background, beautiful in the way they can meld themselves into your environment and almost escape attention. And then there are songs that demand that you stop whatever you're doing and take notice." There's No Leaving Now contains both. Songs like opener "To Just Grow Away" can sneak up on you, unassumingly, until suddenly it's your new favorite song. And then there are the ballads, like the title track and "On Every Page," both heartbreakingly frank and immediate.
Grizzly Bear is a band that perhaps needs no introduction (::cough::), and whose 2012 release Shields absolutely deserves to be among the highest ranked albums of the year. Still, with everything I said at the top of this post about diversity, you may be wondering why I bothered to include a band like Grizzly Bear at all, especially this highly. The thing is, Shields really is just that good, and you should definitely give it a shot if you haven't already. Listening straight through is a journey that can be complex and dense, and then open up to moments of beautiful levity. It's an album that captures the joy of exploration and discovery, if that makes any sense, and rewards the listener with new revelations each new listening.
Drew Smith gained a measure of fame when he "outsourced" the video for one of his songs to India. Director Asha Sarella, in a stroke of brilliance, paired smiling Bollywood dancers with the sorrowful vocals of Smith's "Smoke and Mirrors." The video rocketed up the YouTube charts, spent a day on the front page of reddit, and earned Smith a feature in the New York Times. It also gained him a pretty positive review/interview on Given and Taken in Ink, in which I described his sophomore album as "one of the finest surprises to emerge in a very long time." I absolutely stand by that assertion. There's something just so heartbreaking about The Secret Languages, whether it be the piano waltz "Box Me Up," the tragic "Bang Bang," or the anguish in the aforementioned "Smoke and Mirrors." The Secret Languages was not only the most captivating discovery of 2012, but also my personal favorite album of the year.
Here's the abbreviated list:
30. Japandroids - Celebration Rock
29. Sea Wolf - Old World Romance
28. Alabama Shakes - Boys and Girls
27. Porcelain Raft - Strange Weekend
26. First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar
25. Matthew E. White - Big Inner
24. Races - Year of the Witch
23. Fierce Creatures - Catacomb Party
22. Conveyor - self-titled
21. Anderson East - Flowers of the Broken Hearted
20. The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten
19. Patrick Watson - Adventures in Your Own Backyard
18. Joe Pug - The Great Despiser
17. Strand of Oaks - Dark Shores
16. Matt Pryor - May Day
15. Lord Huron - Lonesome Dreams
14. Jack White - Blunderbuss
13. AC Newman - Shut Down the Streets
12. Mummy Short Arms - Old Jack's Windowless Playhouse
11. Punch Brothers - Who's Feeling Young Now?
10. Father John Misty - Fear Fun
9. Andrew Bird - Break It Yourself
8. Ben Folds Five - The Sound of the Life of the Mind
7. Divine Fits - A Things Called Divine Fits
6. Justin Townes Earle - Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
5. The Rest - Seesaw
4. The Walkmen - Heaven
3. The Tallest Man on Earth - There's No Leaving Now
2. Grizzly Bear - Shields
1. Drew Smith - The Secret Languages
Check back soon for our Best EPs of 2012 list!