Time marches on. Happy Holidays, everybody.
25. Bob Dylan – Tempest
“Duquesne Whistle” is the best song of 2012 that I laughed at upon first listen. The opening bars sound like some fogeyish variety-hour bullshit, but then the snare kicks in and the song picks up with two-chord electric guitar accents, and it’s clear that Bob is continuing his streak of post-millennial knockout albums. He could never sing, so his shot voice isn’t an issue, and his lyrics carry as much weight as they ever have: “It’s soon after midnight, and my day has just begun.” Just a gorgeous album.
24. High On Fire – De Vermis Mysteriis
Middle-aged fat guys making metal sound like the grizzled warrior that it is.
23. Glen Hansard – Rhythm And Repose
This album isn’t as good as I wanted it to be, but that’s alright. It basically means that it isn’t as good as both Swell Season albums, but those albums didn’t have “High Hope” or “The Storm, It’s Coming” either, so all is forgiven.
22. Pig Destroyer – Book Burner
Pig Destroyer: putting every wannabe macabre “poet” to shame since 1997.
21. Swans – The Seer
I don’t see the classic album that everyone else does, but it’s impossible to deny that this album is a huge musical achievement.
20. Taylor Swift – Red
Another Taylor Swift album, another few months of neckbeards and pop-punk warriors saying her music is shit and deriding her for the amount of men she dates. Actually listen to Red and you’ll find that, as usual, it’s overlong but filled to the brim with goodness. Working with songwriters again means that there’s a little bit of pandering to the current pop climate here, but none of it feels cheap like the way it does when lesser artists do it. Her conviction and spirit are still present, especially in the songs that she wrote by herself. Thematically and lyrically, the album seems a little bit shallower than Speak Now, but there are great leaps and bounds present musically. Listen to the gradual layering of “State of Grace,” which houses one of her best choruses, and the extended bridge of “All Too Well” with its drums reminiscent of something by Florence and the Machine (who have some of the most dynamic drum parts in music). In fact, the drums on this album are great throughout, along with pretty much every other instrument on an album full of songs that morph and shift and end up as something different than what they started out as. I challenge you to find that in another pop star that’s reached her level of superstardom.
19. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
The queen returns and melts my heart all over again. This album was a balm to me after the harsh disappointment of Regina Spektor’s awful release this year.
18. The Tallest Man On Earth – There’s No Leaving Now
I guess one day Kristian Matsson will run out of ways to make the acoustic guitar sound like the most vital and fresh instrument ever made, but it doesn’t seem like it will happen any time soon.
17. John K. Samson – Provincial
I listened to this album when it first came out and was basically disappointed that it wasn’t a new Weakerthans album. When I revisited it later in the year, I discovered a profoundly tender record that has songs good enough to stand with the best of Samson’s band’s. ”The Last And” is so evocative in its imagery that it almost makes me as sad as the story of Virtute. Almost.
16. Mount Eerie – Ocean Roar
Probably the most exciting album I listened to this year. Phil Elverum can do things with folk music that will make your hair stand on end.
15. Murder By Death - Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon
Murder By Death have never really received the credit that they deserve. Their music is poured straight onto wax from a flask, scratchy and bitter and pulsing with life. Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon is a campfire album, not in a bullshit sing-a-long way, but in that it seems specifically constructed to be played outside on the banks of a river, the audience standing in the water and illuminated, just barely, by the firelight.
14. Craig Finn – Clear Heart Full Eyes
According to Craig Finn, this album was his quest to prove that he’s a genuine songwriter, not just the guy from The Hold Steady who talks over rock music, and there are some fantastic songs here. There has always been a supreme tenderness in Finn’s lyrics, and it’s even clearer on this album, with his voice so prominent in the mix. “Apollo Baby” and “Western Pier” hit highs that most acoustic songs aren’t capable of touching. There is a beautiful stasis to his singing that might be lulling were his words not so full of the sort of precision and wisdom that almost make you want to believe in God.
13. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
Another throwback from Andrew Bird, in which he wrings even more great music out of times long past. This album feels more quaint than his previous releases, less often resorting to modern flourishes. It makes for a more confident record. The companion EP Hands Of Glory is not to be missed either.
12. Gaza – No Absolutes In Human Suffering
Richard M. Nixon had a phrase he liked to use in lieu of “brass tacks”: “nut-cutting.” Gaza is a band that is all about nut-cutting. They have probably the lowest tolerance for bullshit of any active band right now. Their music is pure truth, the way it should be told: deafening, suffocating, and so fucking invasive that it can’t possibly be ignored.
11. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
This brought back all the same feelings I got the first times I listened to Godspeed’s other albums, and that’s all I could ask of it, given that those were some of the most powerful moments of my life. Their music finds its home in revolutions, in muzzle flashes, in tank treads, but also in abandoned munitions factories and the grass that sprouts through their concrete.
10. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
I haven’t been so entranced by an album in quite a while. By the time I reached the end of “Compton,” I felt like I’d just finished a great novel. A landmark of storytelling.
9. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten
I really hated American Slang, so it took me quite a while to get around to listening to this album. I almost didn’t even bother, but I’m glad that I did. Everything that I came to love about this band when I heard The ’59 Sound is back and then some. I wish that I could say more about this album and why it merits such a high spot on the list, but really it’s just that every song is infinitely listenable and the album as a whole never seems to get old.
8. Two Gallants – The Bloom And The Blight
“Halcyon Days” is one of the most ridiculously fucking good openers that I’ve ever heard, but it says something about this album that my favorite song is “Willie,” a short and sweet Americana song that ekes a lot of emotion out of lyrics that don’t really say much. There is a cadence to the song – and the album as a whole – that compels you to listen more closely, and at a louder volume.
7. mewithoutYou – Ten Stories
I think a lot about just how hard it is to be somebody in the world we’ve made for ourselves, how hard it’s always been to be somebody. If you want to create, somebody’s already created all that you could dream up. If you want a better job, somebody’s already taken the position. The band signed posters to go along with the deluxe edition of this album, each member writing a short, unique message. On mine, Aaron wrote, “Because of who you are.” I’d be full of shit if I said I knew exactly what he meant when he wrote it. But I think I know now who I am, and who I am is nobody. It’s exactly who I should be. He’s been saying it for years – “You’re not you, you’re everyone else,” “I do not exist, only You exist” (which is a religious line, sure, but like most of mewithoutYou’s material it can be interpreted irreligiously as pointing out the worthlessness of self in the face of loving others), “the ‘I’ is an unintelligible lie” – but now I actually hear him. If I sometimes wonder if everything I know about the world is untrue, then I suppose I’ve also got to wonder why that has to be a bad thing, and when I’ll open my eyes to see it.
6. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
What you find in Transcendental Youth aren’t answers to any big questions, but instead questions to a bunch of answers that never meant anything before but now seem exceedingly important, like what happens to lonely people when you never see them again? And what do you see in the stars if you let the dots connect themselves? These things – some of them – are things you perhaps never wanted to know, or feel like you shouldn’t know. It all seems like too much for one mind – for your mind – weighed down already by things you tell yourself are trivial but that also never let you rest. As the horns and drums and piano fade away, you think, maybe, that you know some things that you didn’t set out to know, but you know them, and anything is better than the ceaseless thinking and wondering that make up your days, even if it is just the knowledge of what it means to be hurt, and what it means to be healed.
5. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
There is something about this album that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s full, top to bottom, of amazing songs, but that doesn’t explain why I feel so full of affection for the world and its people when I listen to it. This year, at times, has seemed particularly dark for America. The worst of its citizens were the loudest, spewing hate and lies with no regard for others. I guess that’s how it’s always been. This album, without trying to make any sweeping social or political statements, makes me feel like it doesn’t have to be that way, like things could change. Ocean says that people are afraid of things that don’t merit fear, and even though this album is really just a journey to find love, it also feels like the first blow landed on the body of hate that sometimes blots out the world’s all-too-dim light.
4. Titus Andronicus - Local Business
Okay, I want to tell you guys a story. Titus Andronicus played at Fest 11 this year, and we were positioned to the side of the stage in a fairly unpopulated area. I was, of course, rocking out because one of my favorite bands was on the stage (the same stage on which Bomb the Music Industry!, Laura Stevenson and the Cans, and Andrew Jackson Jihad had just played, and on which Frank Turner would play immediately following Titus, so you can imagine my excitement), doing the typical things one does at shows – screaming along, pumping my fist, banging my head. And there were these two guys to my left who were dressed – I am not kidding – in jeans, pea coats, and scarves, even though this was on a hot night in Gainesville fucking Florida, in a tiny, smoke-filled venue. They were just standing there, not moving any part of their bodies to the music, and at one point I saw them pointing at me and laughing and generally being smug, probably during “A More Perfect Union” when the crowd and I were at our most hectic.
Let me tell you, I’ve never seen two people pose harder than them. I’m sure they hated Local Business, and would probably tell you they have reservations about the band’s other two albums as well, because one can’t be seen unabashedly enjoying something or else they might actually reveal something genuine about themselves! If Patrick Stickles is a Jesus-figure in the indie world, then those two guys and their ilk are the pharisees, the “whited sepulchers,” outwardly coifed but inwardly rotting. People like them are the reason that this is such a fucking good album. The Monitor’s anthems become Local Business’s anti-anthems – “I’m going insane!”, “Food fight!”, “Hot deuce!”, “I am the electric man,” et al. Those songs don’t mean shit, but it doesn’t matter. Because nothing matters.
Rock perpetually on.
3. Ghost Mice - All We Got Is Each Other
Ghost Mice continue the grand tradition of folk punk, and we as listeners come one step closer to discerning why we actually like this genre of music in which nobody can really sing and where subtle language is given two middle fingers. Or maybe we’re already there: maybe it’s because of all the things we could point to as negatives. Life is an out-of-tune, blunt mess, and we expect impossible, hidden depths from people and are disappointed when they can’t offer them. Sometimes it’s nice to hear simple, naked honesty, even when all that honesty can offer is pain.
2. Patrick Wolf – Sundark and Riverlight
I didn’t expect this album of re-imaginings to be as good as it is, but I’ve got to kick myself for not having faith in Patrick. These songs are a testament to his indomitable spirit as an artist, each one more gorgeous than the last, and in a few cases, they’re better than the originals.
1. The Menzingers – On The Impossible Past
This is the Great American Album, and it should be placed in a vault so that when we inevitably fuck up and kill ourselves off, someone 10,000 years from now will pick up this album and feel what I feel when I hear it, which is a heartache so deep that I can almost listen to it throbbing, and they’ll wonder what America was like when this album was made, and they’ll know that nostalgia is just a cruel longing for something impossible to reach, yet they won’t want to stop searching for it.