This post is cross-posted at Higher Ed Music Critics. Check it out!
This year I managed to pull together 20 records I liked enough to endorse for our annual Higher Ed Music Critics Best Of... countdown. This is impressive for me because I usually sit around five records in these sorts of things. This is for a variety of reasons, but primarily because I just don't tend to listen to a lot of new music during the year. Maybe Austin is changing that. Maybe it's just that I work for myself now and feel like I have the time to seek out new music. I think it may also have something to do with decided not to buy physical media unless it's in the form of a vinyl record... and most of the time that means new releases.
Whatever the cause, 2012 had some good records... not a lot of great records, but lots of good. These are my favourites, in reverse order.
20. Japandroids // Celebration Rock
Did you hear this band? All shoe-gazy and post-emo and noise-rock? It reminds me of everything I loved about late-90s emo and early-90s shoe-gaze. It's like Slowdive as a punk rock band. I was so pleasantly filled with joy by this record and was not expecting to be.
19. Bloc Party // Four
It took me a long time to pick up this record at Waterloo. But I finally did. I would consider myself a Bloc Party fan, overall, but have lapsed in the past couple of records they've released. Four is interesting. Some tracks are quintessential Bloc Party and everything we love about the band. Others, however are just weird. Ridiculously huge and distorted electronic bass drums, strange meter changes, and crazy punk-like guitar riffs. These tracks break up the rest of the record, almost to usher in a new act. It's an experience to listen to, for sure, and just a bit of a sign that the boys take their art seriously.
18. Ellie Goulding // Halcyon
Tracks from Halcyon continue to pop up in movie trailers, remix compilations, soundtracks... Ellie Goulding has a haunting voice that feels more like instrumentation than anything else. The lyrical content of the album is smartly written with hooks that are striking, but not out of place, in a mostly electronic record. Moody and fun, put this record on while you're working or driving around in the rain.
17. 2:54 // 2:54
I found this record because of my buddy Ron Bronson. 2:54's self-titled offering is moody and level, serving as a great soundtrack to work to. The instrumental and electronic layering on this album provides a nice ebb and flow, propelling the record forward without boring the listener. That said, I found it best suited as a background track. It lacks any real melodic hooks and most likely will not stick in your head.
16. Stars // The North
I walked past this record for months at the store, never picking it up because I thought the cover art looked too trendy. Later, I found out these Canadians had a ton of work under their belts and upon listening to the record, found it to be catchy, fun, and interesting. The North covers a wide range of styles and feels, at times, disjointed. But the overall effect is a collection of engaging sing-alongs.
15. The Lumineers // The Lumineers
I'll admit it. I didn't want to buy this record when we were at the record store. I was afraid it was going to be an over-hyped, "people-with-no-taste-like-it" record because, like others have said, "Ho Hey" was everywhere on the radio (Austin kind of does that). But my wife wanted it, so we picked it up. The first listen through, I wasn't that impressed. It was better than I had thought. But then we kept listening to the album. And it kept growing on me. The intricacies of making a perfect, yet simple record like this began to show through. For the most part the songwriting is solid – few phrases come across as trite, and many are downright clever. And the musicality is great. Definitely a record worth more than its single.
14. Great Lake Swimmers // New Wild Everywhere
I saw this record on a list someplace and decided to give it a try. I was surprised to have heard a few of the tracks, including the title track. It's a great, chill, acoustic-y record with traces of Celtic folk. It's a solid record with great instrumentation, catchy choruses, and great vibe. Some tracks can be a little grating, and in my head I connect it with Reel Big Fish... but overall this is a solid record.
13. Jack White // Blunderbuss
I heard from a few amateur critics that this record was basically a White Stripes album. They must have never listened to the White Stripes because Blunderbuss doesn't sound anything like a White Stripes record. To start, Jack put together two different bands to play on this record and to alternate on tour with the sole purpose of having the tracks sound different all the time. The album – specifically on tracks like "Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy" – is far more piano-driven than anything the Stripes ever put out. The melodies are much pop-ier in melodic sensibility. Many tracks less saturated in guitar fuzz that you'd come to expect from Jack White. With his past three projects being extremely guitar heavy bands, Blunderbuss feels as though Jack has been set free creatively and do the record he's always wanted to do for himself. There are huge country overtones to the music, impeccable production, and all-over, scatter-shot tracks. I think the issue with those confused critics is a case of mistaken identity. The band (The White Stripes) didn't make the man (Jack White). Jack's style is all over The White Stripes because he specifically created it that way. It stands to reason that his other projects would sound like a logical progression of the Jack White sound.
12. Radical Face // Always Gold EP
My good friend Mallory recommended Radical Face to me after I heard it playing in her coffee shop. I lucked out in being able to put this EP on my 2012 list as it's the only thing he released this year. Radical Face, in general, has a great neo-folk sound with impeccable lyrical writing and great instrumental layering. This EP is engaging and leaves you ready for a new full release.
11. fun. // Some Nights
The first single choice of "We Are Young" is one of the worst travesties of this year. It's a horrible song with an annoyingly catchy but off-putting melody and pales to almost any other track on the record. That being said, the title track is a nearly perfect blend of what fun. should be and be writing. The one major criticism of the recording that I have is the nonsensical use of vocoders/autotune. Some Nights is no Aim and Ignite but I think fun. deserves all of the award nominations they have received.
10. Justin Townes Earle // Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
Harlem River Blues is brilliant and amazing while Nothing's Gonna... is great and nice to listen to. The songs, in general, are less compelling melody-wise... a bit more tame for this genre and JTE himself. One good point is that the songs on this record sound a lot less like Ryan Adams copies than those on Harlem River Blues, which may be part of my reason for feeling it didn't live up to the previous effort. I still love Justin Townes Earle and his voice, and I'll keep listening to this record into the new year.
9. The Wallflowers // Glad All Over
I picked up Rebel, Sweetheart, The Wallflowers' last effort, back when it released and thought it was just okay. I'm a fairly big fan of Jakob Dylan as a singer and songwriter, however and was très impressed with his solo records. Glad All Over sounds and feels like Dylan smashed up his solo recordings' sensitivity and new-classic folk melodic nature with the rock and strong hooks of Breach or Bringing Down the Horse. In a lot of ways, I feel Glad All Over is better crafted as a full album than their seminal work. The being said, the two tracks co-written with Mick Jones should have been left to another — and different — full-length record not under the Wallflowers label. They feel somewhat out of place with the rest of the record. Or, in other words, I could tell when those songs came up without any help... and for me, that's an issue.
8. Kathleen Edwards // Voyageur
What can be said about Kathleen Edwards? She consistently crafts solid songs that stick in you head and get to your heart. I consider myself an Edwards fan, but didn't pick up the Voyageur record until the second half of this year. I was really glad that I did. It's as solid as ever and extremely enjoyable.
7. Passion Pit // Gossamer
I was primed to not like this record. Why? First off, Passion Pit's label only released a vinyl + audio CD version of this album with no digital download included. That audio CD drove the price up by almost $10 and immediately made me not want to purchase the album. Instead, I listened on Spotify and found it to be a much more enjoyable record overall than Passion Pit's debut. The songs are much more melodious and there is far less reliance on odd and jarring synth sounds throughout the record. It's a solid effort despite the sales misstep.
6. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals // The Lion The Beast The Beat
If Grace Potter's last records can be considered alt.country, The Lion The Beast The Beat shows that she has a heart pumping blood of rock n roll. This record is downright rowdy and incredibly fun to listen to. Each track rocks harder than the last and Grace shows what she's really made of: grit, noise, and catchy hooks.
5. RAC // Chapter One
RAC (Remix Artist Collective) released their first original single this year and followed it up with an official collection of their best remixes from the past few years. Chapter One is a great progression of remixes from a group of guys who eschew the stereotypical guise of club anthems and craft new musical arrangements for some of the best songs out there. This collection features remixes of songs by Foster the People, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Lana Del Rey, The Shins, and tons more. Check it out for reals.
4. A Boy & His Kite // A Boy & His Kite
I found A Boy & His Kite late this year, again, through Ron Bronson. Listening through the record it's hard to believe that all of the instrumentation, vocals and production were done by one guy in Colorado. It's remarkable, really. The quality of the recording alone sounds mildy gritty in a refined, "he knows what he's doing" sort of way. Then there are the songs. Lyrically intelligent and beautiful with hooks that don't annoy you. Hints of Sunny Day Real Estate and Fionn Regan come through in the vocal treatments while the music goes from stripped down synths to full-on orchestral instrumentation incorporating moving guitar lines reminiscent of a prettier Death Cab for Cutie in their earlier days... or perhaps closer to Saxon Shore. This is an album that gets me excited for music in ways I rarely get. It's a certain feeling I used to get when finding a new great album in college. This record has that something in spades.
3. Further Seems Forever // Penny Black
FSF is back. With Chris Carrabba fronting the band again after an 11-year gap (and two other front men), Further's Penny Black returns to form bringing intelligence and sophistication that only comes from life experience. Carrabba brings his decade of touring and writing for Dashboard Confessional back to the always-engaging quirkiness of the old band with explosive results. Penny Black has a great single in "So Cold" and benefits from hard-hitting tracks progressing the record along. My only quibble is that the record seems full-bore until the last track which drops so drastically and suddenly that it seems nearly out-of-place. I longed for variance in song dynamics in the ways The Moon is Down captured with tracks like "Snowbirds and Townies" and "Monachetti" ... but I didn't get it. Still, I'm happy to have FSF back in my life.
2. Paper Route // The Peace of Wild Things
This year's release from Paper Route is an honest, brutal, and brilliant piece of writing. JT Daly is at the top of his form, bringing his signature pop stylings and impeccable vocals to songs that come from the dark parts of recent experiences. Though some few lyrics come across as trite on their own, when combined with the musicality and narrative flow of each track, this record becomes a near-perfect pop album with crazy cool anthems and stick-in-your-head for days hooks.
1. Of Monsters and Men // My Head is an Animal
Another band and record my wife liked and got me into. And what an astounding piece of music it is. Every song tells a story and every story is weird. At times Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir's vocals get on my nerves (and she's gonna ruin her voice, man...), but it's so crucial to the overall sound of the band. The album is near-perfect, in my opinion and deserves the recognition it has been receiving this year.
Every year it seems like I find a few records after the cutoff. So here are a couple of late-finds for me that I also love.