1. The Lumineers – The Lumineers
I had no expectations for this album the first time that I heard it. It was a warm July evening and I had just opened the window next to my bed and laid down with a book—probably wending my way through the same passage in Proust for the umpteenth time. Knowing what little headway I would make with my French buddy, I had also put on music. I had found the band on Spotify, through a friend whose music taste I admire. The opening song was folksy and warm and I figured: why not?
Indeed…why not. Forty minutes later I had purchased the album through Amazon’s .mp3 store and I was already on a second listen. I listened to the album on the train to work the next day and on the way back home eight hours later. I listened to it—seemingly nonstop—the entire week. I listened to it a long, traffic-ridden drive to Boston three times in a row. I sat in bumper-to-bumper on the Mass Pike, banging my left hand on the outside of the driver’s door to the insidious military snare of “Submarines” and ho-heying my way into hoarseness on the album’s—nay, the year’s—most infectious sing-along.
Most of the Lumineers-oriented discussion in the past year has focused on the silly idea of the group as some sort of stylized American response to Mumford & Sons. The American/British distinction in folk music, of course, while once not such a stupid way of organization, has devolved into complicated and multi-faceted one in which there are no clear ‘sides’ or nation-directed tendencies. As I argued in a Popmatters article a few months ago, talking about Americana artists as a) American and b) rural and/or lower-class is a simplistic and—simply put—ignorant way of approaching the subject.
Any person viewing the Lumineers as the saviors of Americana music as we know it is no more than a lowbrow visionary. The Lumineers are, instead, the most recent wave in the storm surge of interest in modern folk music. They’re riding the same tide as Mumford, not pulling against it. But despite how little I like the Mumford comparison, I still find it useful. After all, if there is a way to read them in relation to Mumford, it is as bar-playing, raspy-voiced demo tapers to an expert, arena-rock polish project that has more in common, at the end of the day, with Boston than with Bob Dylan.
Of course, I’m slipping into exactly those distinctions that I ultimately find problematic. So I’ll get to my point: the takeaway here is that the Lumineers have crafted an album that I want to defend. I don’t want it to have to do anything other than be itself. I don’t need any backstory and I don’t need any enlightened discussion about their place in the folk world. It doesn’t need to save American Americana music. This is an album that touches on the glory of a roots-rock record like Music from Big Pink, in the way that it manages to live in its own weird little world, apart from the strife and struggle of the rest of us and yet (and yet!) intimately connected at the same time.
This album is luminous, heartfelt, and down-to-earth. I haven’t met anyone who has expressed indifference to it. Most people, I think, will find themselves easily ensnared pretty by its emotional patterning: when the kick drum gallops into gear on “Flowers In Your Hair,” the song will have won you over; when the pace quickens in “Slow It Down,” your pulse will as well; when Wesley Schultz crows to you about meeting him in Chinatown on “Ho Hey”…well, you’ll wish that you had. That other guy that you’re “not right for”? F—k him. After all, it was the Lumineers—hands down—who delivered my favorite album of the year.
*Key tracks: “Flowers In Your Hair,” “Submarines,” “Ho Hey,” “Slow It Down,” “Stubborn Love,” and “Charlie Boy”
Listen to the full playlist below!
Listen to the full playlist below!
2. Passion Pit – Gossamer
No one made a better pop album this year than Passion Pit. This list, of course, is supposed to be my ‘favorite’ albums—not the ‘best’ albums or the ‘greatest’ albums or the ‘most-critically-lauded-that-I-should-feel-some-pressure-to-include-on-my-list’ albums (though there’s some of that on here). But I feel, pretty strongly, that there was no more iconic statement in the world of pop music this year than Passion Pit’s sophomore album.
That entire statement, I realize, is rather dependent on how one defines a good pop album. Some people prefer to think of it as being in easily digestible form—as in that stridently stupid Carly Rae Jepsen mode of pop music—with a big hook latched to three chords and lyrics so dumb that they make my fifth-grade collection of poetry look like Shakespeare. (Side note: as to why “Call Me Maybe” is being nominated as the single of year (or at least included on the list) for so many writers/publications is a mystery to me; yes, it’s ‘catchy,’ but since when did ‘catchy-ness’ outweigh all other factors in judicious critical evaluation? I’m baffled!) Passion Pit—meaning mostly the songwriter behind the group, Michael Angelakos—aims, obviously, for a different aesthetic.
When it became public this year that Angelakos suffers from bipolar disorder, which has led him to a suicide attempts and several hospitalizations, his music was transformed for many listeners. Like so many other artists before him, Angelakos became a clear example of someone with an enormously tormented psyche who makes enormously tormented and, luckily, talented art. In my review of the album from this past summer, I made the ungainly comparison of Gossamer to what I termed a “reverse atomic fireball,” trying desperately to play off the category of bubblegum pop to make a candy-related point. Part of my sily point was that no one bothers to make candy like that—why would they? What would be the point of constructing something that started sweet, but became more painful the longer you ‘enjoyed’ it?
Usually, this couching of darkness within cotton-candy lightness is a mark of masterful technique; we step back from the artwork and admire the deft construction—“Look how sad that song really was! How fun it sounds on the outside!” But it’s different with Angelakos. The inner kernel of sadness is not an act. And while the alcoholism, domestic violence, and economic troubles aren’t so easy to stomach, the hardest parts are hearing Angelakos wrestle with love—what it is and whether he is capable of it. These sad, dark musings are encapsulated by Angelakos in “Love Is Greed” when he sings, “Love is not a veil to hide your voice / All this talk of love just turns to noise.” This is the great duality of love for Angelakos: he cannot help but question the emotion and how it works, but, in doing so, it falls apart.
I like to think of Gossamer’s challenge as a balancing act between analysis and enjoyment. Applying it to pop music, if we were to approach pop without doing any analytic work whatsoever, we might as well listen to anything and be happy. But enjoyment is active as well as passive. We don’t buzz through albums like lawnmowers; we take our time, we journey back to Track 1 and through and back again. We create a relationship. There is a deep beauty in separating the wheat from the chaff. There is also a great sadness in realizing that there’s no chaff left to sort and our hands our empty. Thanks to Angelakos et al, pop music hasn’t have that problem in 2012.
*Key tracks: “Carried Away,” “Constant Conversations,” “Cry Like A Ghost,” “Love Is Greed,” and “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy”
3. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
Did we expect a happy album? Obviously not—nor did I really want one. This is an album full of unhappy people dealing with unhappy things, most often dealing with mental illness. While the album is a far cry from 2002’s incomparably depressing Tallahassee, which chronicled a marriage in freefall, it is no walk in the proverbial park. That said, there is some real enjoyment to be found here. For instance, although Darnielle’s insightful songs often radiate their own brilliance without much instrumental help, it is the bouncy arrangements that provide some of the stellar moments, ultimately setting this album apart from others in his catalogue. Buoyed by Matthew E. White’s snazzy horn charts (“Cry For Judas,” “Transcendental Youth”) and drummer Jon Wurster’s tasteful backbone (“Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1,” “Counterfeit Florida Plates”), this is the most dynamic Mountain Goats album yet.
Indeed, more than any other album, Transcendental Youth (almost) feels like the work of a band. All Eternals Deck seemed to be moving in this direction, but it still felt constrained; it still felt like the “In-all-but-name Darnielle Solo Project” and, as such, sometimes seemed a little careless in terms of how his wonderful compositions were placed to music. This album is different, decisions made with some real musical panache. Several moments stand out here, including the rising and falling horns on “White Cedar,” also with its perfectly punctuating snare hits, “Harlem Roulette” with its galloping bass line, and, maybe best of all, the rim clicking at the start of “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1.”
But the highlight of the album, of course, remains Darnielle’s inimitable lyrical gems, couched in these darkest of narratives. In “Harlem Roulette,” which details the final hours of R&B great Frankie Lymon, Darnielle observes, “The loneliest people in the whole wide world / are the ones you will never see again.” On “Amy aka Spent Gladiator,” penned in the wake of Amy Winehouse’s death, Darnielle leads off the album with the saddest pair of directives, whose respective subordinate clauses almost make one shudder with their ultimate similarity: “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive. / Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away.” Do a decidedly not stupid thing and pick up a Mountain Goats album. It doesn’t have to be this album, but this one is as good as any as a good place to start.
*Key tracks: “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1,” “Lakeside View Apartments Suite,” “Harlem Roulette,” “White Cedar,” “The Diaz Brothers,” and “Counterfeit Florida Plates.”
4. Titus Andronicus – Local Business
This New Jersey punk band’s sophomore album, The Monitor, was one of the boldest and strangest musical adventures I had ever encountered. We can always draw the line from the personal to the political, but the line in the opposite direction is usually a bit fuzzier. However, over more than an hour of painstakingly concocted punk rock, the group did just that, connecting the dots between the Civil War and the troubles of young people in modern New Jersey. That album’s follow-up, Local Business, manages to be significantly more direct—both in theme and duration—than The Monitor. (Though it would be hard, I admit, not to be.) At a breezy 49 minutes, it comes in at more than a quarter of an hour shorter and packs the emotional wallop that The Monitor aimed for, but sometimes fell short of.
This record, unlike the former, is unabashedly personal. That’s one reason I like it more; even though it is punk rock, I will take catharsis over complaint, any day of the week. The two mega-songs of the album, “My Eating Disorder” and “Tried To Quit Smoking,” point openly to the kind of personal mental anguish that makes this album a great listen, possibly a better one than The Monitor.
At the center of the album is Stickles’s pair of songs about his eating disorder—“Food Fight!” and “My Eating Disorder.” Taken together, the songs confront Stickles’s struggles with food with unflinching honesty, directness, and verbosity, familiar traits from this New Jersey native. “Mom—it will take more / than a spoonful of sugar for me to swallow my pride this time,” howls Stickles in “My Eating Disorder,” lines clever not only for the neat metaphor, but for their broader acknowledgment of how ideas of ‘consumption’ are inescapable, everything. Just like food.
*Key tracks: “Ecce Homo,” “Still Life With Hot Deuce On Silver Platter,” “Food Fight!,” “My Eating Disorder,” “In A Big City,” and “(I Am The) Electric Man”
5. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
It will be a long time before people can focus on this album as a work standing on its own. In the current media landscape, Ocean is being celebrated as a hero for having jumpstarted a conversation about sexuality and homophobia in the world of African-American music, after he posted an open letter on Tumblr talking about how he first fell in love with a man when he was 19. While the resulting positive conversation and the shifting sexual landscape is wonderful, this music should not be forgotten: the album is a watershed moment in the history of modern popular music. Period.
It’s too early, of course, to call anything a modern masterpiece, but I’m disposed to do so with Ocean’s debut album. Keep in mind that this is all coming from someone usually so averse to the worlds of pop, hip-hop, rap, and R&B, that I often have trouble recognizing the song titles on the Billboard charts. This album, despite all my predilections, grabbed me by the collar and dragged me through it. Dominated by polished productions and shiny, warm melodies, I am still in awe of it.
I am reminded of Dave Eggers’s introduction to Infinite Jest, of which he said, “[it] is like a spaceship with no recognizable components, no rivets or bolts, no entry points, no way to take it apart. It is very shiny, and it has no discernible flaws.” channel ORANGE is the spaceship. It is shiny and unbelievable and strange. There are flaws, of course, but they feel purposeful and powerful in their flaw-ness. As much as I want to describe parts of this album to you, I know that I wouldn’t do it justice. I won’t do it—just give it a listen.
*Key tracks: “Thinkin Bout You,” “Super Rich Kids,” “Pyramids,” “Lost,” “Bad Religion,” and “Forrest Gump”
6. Jukebox the Ghost – Safe Travels
Jukebox the Ghost is a hard band to dislike. Whoever turns their nose up at this band has a black heart, indeed. They just sound like they’re having so much fun. Of course, you only need to skim the track listing to know that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in Jukebox world. And sure, there are some ‘serious’ songs; Jukebox tackles the issues old age and death on “Dead” (obviously) and “Adulthood” (somewhat inanely) as well as the pressing issue of “ghosts” (are ghosts ‘serious’?) on “Ghosts in Empty Houses” and “Don’t Let Me Fall Behind.”
But despite these overtures towards maturity and severity, Jukebox’s latest album is mostly just bursting with poppy energy. Like .fun, Jukebox is a group that really, really, really understands the value of a well-placed orchestral swell or guitar lick. Jukebox often demonstrates that tasteful ear through the intricate movement back and forth between Ben Thornewill’s piano/keyboards and Tommy Siegel’s guitar, which, on certain songs, creates such a dynamic fabric that it’s hard to imagine that there are only two instruments behind it. See the highlight “Say When,” the chorus of which represents pop song-craft in a nutshell.
*Key tracks: “Somebody,” “Oh, Emily,” “Don’t Let Me Fall Behind,” “Adulthood,” “Ghosts In Empty Houses,” and “Everybody Knows”
7. Admiral Fallow – Tree Bursts In Snow
Playing second fiddle in the Scottish indie scene only to Frightened Rabbit, Admiral Fallow has crafted a polished, profound album on their second outing. Although there is nothing here to rival the bang and crackle of “Squealing Pigs,” the first four songs on Tree Bursts In Snow manage a depth of sonic detail that I never could have predicted given the solid (but sometimes surface) nature of their first album. The terrific opener, “Tree Bursts,” features traded vocals between lead singer Louis Abbott and flautist/pianist Sarah Hayes, with a background of intricately-layered piano, guitar, clarinet, flute, and xylophone. The three tracks that follow inveigle with similarly developed ideas.
If there is any frustration about the album, it’s Abbott’s often oblique lyrics and inscrutable references (“tree bursts in snow”?), which come into full focus on the latter half of the album, which shies away from the complex arrangements of the opening tracks. It is harder to connect with the downright confusing “Burn” and the strange “Brother.” Other than that, Admiral Fallow has charted an admirable course for its future work.
*Key tracks: “Tree Bursts,” “The Paper Trench,” “Guest of the Government,” “Beetle in the Box,” and “Isn’t This World Enough??”
8. Gotye – Making Mirrors
At this point in the year, you must have already heard Gotye’s famous tune. You’ve probably heard it once or twice. Ten times. A thousand. A million times. You’re probably sick of it. Griped about it. You’ve probably even complained about the countless YouTube covers and imitators and spin-offs and satires. You probably hate Gotye at this point. You probably wish the Australian wonderboy would rent an SUV, drive to the Outback, and play his music to the wilderness out there. End of that story, right? The sad thing is that you probably haven’t listened to the rest of that album, which, indeed, encased your nightmare of a hit single. (None of this, by the way, should convince you that I think “Somebody That I Used To Know” is a bad song; in fact, it is one of my favorite from this year.)
So, beaten to death by the swift lash of Top 40 radio, people have barely gotten to know Gotye. The truth of the matter, however, is that the rest of his album, Making Mirrors, is a wonderful journey through the world of pop music, touching on Peter Gabriel, retro-soul, and George Michael, among other influences. Many critics found his extreme variance in style dissatisfying, but Gotye’s exercise in pop wizardry ultimately ends up being more than mere showmanship; it is an adventure in pop experimentation—a journey into Gotye’s mind that starts with “What if…?” and ends with a batch of fun, wacky, and rewarding tunes.
*Key tracks: “Somebody That I Used To Know,” “Eyes Wide Open,” “Smoke And Mirrors,” “I Feel Better,” “State Of The Art,” and “Save Me”
9. 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
This is a difficult album. You ought to know that going in. But even though it takes time and some patience, the rewards are there. Apple’s voice is the centerpiece here; it jumps and dances and leaps and cracks and bends and sometimes seems to even snap. It is an instrument in its own right and Apple treats it like one, thick with all the tension you might imagine in a piano string. Sometimes I find myself jumpy after listening to these tracks. This is not easy listening. This is Fiona Apple and she demands to be taken seriously.
At the other end of this album’s triumph is Apple’s wordplay, which traffics more in sound than meaning. More than anyone else working in music—short of rappers, of course—Apple is willing to sacrifice sense for flow. See this lyric in Jonathan: “Just tolerate my little fist / tugging on your forest chest.” Read that in your head, read it out loud, and then listen to Apple sing it—hear how she luxuriates in those words? With her help, so can you.
*Key tracks: “Every Single Night,” “Daredevil,” “Jonathan,” and “Left Alone”
10. Brandi Carlile – Bear Creek
I overlooked Carlile until hearing the first track on Bear Creek; truthfully, I was drawn in by that weird, wolfish harmony. But on repeated listens, it was Carlile’s homespun tunes that brought me back time and again; she is a remarkably gifted songwriter, moving effortlessly from bluesy ragers like “Raise Hell” to soft and sweet numbers like “100.” Carlile is one of those genre-bending musicians, swaying back and forth from pop to country to blues and then back through again.
Listening to this album, I notice that it is the choruses that always get me. This woman—say what you will about the quality of her guitar-playing or her lyrics—can craft a godly chorus, whether it is wordless (“Save Part Of Yourself”), hokey (“Keep Your Heart Young”), comforting (“I’ll Still Be There”), or even vaguely threatening (“Raise Hell”). These are the sections of her songs that hit home like a freight train. You’ll be singing along in no time.
*Key tracks: “Hard Way Home,” “Raise Hell,” “Save Part Of Yourself,” “Keep Your Heart Young,” “100,” “I’ll Still Be Here,” and “Heart’s Content”
11. John K. Samson – Provincial
In my life, anyway, Samson had a banner year. In February, I discovered the Weakerthans, Samson’s band, with whom I quickly fell in love, not least because of Samson’s erudite and clever lyrics. Shortly thereafter, I chanced upon Samson’s solo record Provincial. While I treasure several Weakerthans songs above all other Samson compositions (even those on this album), I hold all the tunes here in high regard. Samson’s mini-portraits of characters in his native Winnipeg are, by turns, withering, sympathetic, lovely, warm, and sad, sad, sad. Not convinced? How about Samson’s description of a brief thunderstorm in “Heart of the Continent”: “Inky bruises punched into the sky by bolts of light / and then leak across the body of tonight, / while rain and thunder drop and roll, / then stop short of a storm, / leave the air stuck with this waiting to be born.” Are you racing to YouTube? (What are you waiting for?)
12. Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
Switching gears from 2010’s Harlem River Blues, Nothing’s Gonna Change trades a light Memphis sound for a full-bore Memphis sound, digging deep with the horn charts. I will be the first to admit that this album falls short of its predecessor, but, even so, is still filled with some stellar tunes. The closing track “Movin’ On,” in particular, is powerful, evoking the lonely life of the road and addressing those buried emotions in Earle’s family life.
*Key tracks: “Am I That Lonely Tonight?,” “Baby’s Got A Bad Idea,” “Unfortunately, Anna,” and “Movin’ On”
Honorable Mentions: Songs and/or albums that I loved but fell short in one way or another
* American Aquarium – Burn.Flicker.Die
While I love hard-driving Southern rock more than most people, lead singer and songwriter B.J. Barham indulges himself a little too much on this album for my liking—note that the chorus at the end of “Jacksonville” (“And if I make it out alive / I’ll call, you know I will”) takes two full minutes to clear out of town.
* Tramped By Turtles – Stars and Satellites
As strong and as unique as this album is at the beginning, those positive signs fade after the fifth track to become just another bluegrass album—one which is good, but not great.
* fun. – Some Nights
You saw this one coming. Fun. fills a niche in the pop/rock world that no one really knew existed—a mash-up of hip-hop production with Queen-size arrangements and a voice (that of Nate Ruess) that could enchant Broadway crowds. As for the album, there are few that I know possessing such high highs and such low lows. My advice? Listen to the first six tracks and be wary of those that follow.
* Alabama Shakes – “Hold On”
There are some rip-roaring tracks on this album, but this one is the stand out. Here’s to hoping Brittany Howard can distill that precise energy and bottle it into every song.
* Old Crow Medicine Show – “Carry Me Back”
If you put this Old Crow song in the ring with almost anything else on this list, “Carry Me Back” would tear it to pieces. In terms of sheer vivacity and breakneck energy, nothing is a match for this walloping number about a dying soldier in the Civil War.
* Langhorne Slim – “The Way We Move”
This song feels ancient—it feels like a lost gem from the 1940s…or ’50s…or…I don’t know, some other era when I imagine all people sounded like this: passionate, proud, and having a rollicking good time.
Minor Obsessions: Songs and albums that I fixated on for a few weeks…but then moved on.
* Sun Kil Moon – Among The Leaves
Mark Kozelek’s fourth album of original material under the Sun Kil Moon moniker is his weakest thus far. It is also his funniest, warmest, and most human album in Kozelek’s entire catalogue. (With the possible exception of his AC/DC covers album What’s Next To The Moon.) Case in point is the title of the third track: “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man.” ’Nuff said?
* Field Report – Field Report
Field Report, composed of Chris Porterfield, former bandmate of Justin Vernon yadda yadda yadda… we’ve all heard the shtick before. The truth, sad though it makes me, is that Porterson’s debut is not nearly so compelling as that of his famous buddy. There are examples of true brilliance—“Fergus Falls” and “Taking Alcatraz” are both compelling and beautiful tunes—but there is still some work to be done yet.
* Malcolm Holcombe – Down The River
Maybe you hate barebones folk music…but you should listen to just one track. You might fall in love with his voice—he sounds like an alcoholic Baptist preacher. Or something like that, anyway.
* Kasey Musgraves – “Merry Go Round”
There was a brief blog post on Slate about Musgraves earlier this fall, which pegged her as the next big thing in country. I second that. “Merry Go Round” is social criticism like you’ve never heard and, to top it all, comes straight out of Nashville, the slick country capital of the universe.