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TBTS Top Albums of 2012 So Far, End of Summer edition

September 4, 2012

With another summer and another Labor Day weekend behind us, I’d like to use this space once again to discuss some of my favorite albums of the year so far. Here’s a Spotify playlist with highlights from both my spring list and this “end of summer” rundown of top 2012 albums.

My spring list offered the following albums:

Chromatics, Kill for Love

School of Seven Bells, Ghostory

Dirty Three, Toward the Low Sun

Dr. John, Locked Down

Tindersticks, The Something Rain

John Talabot, fIN

Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball

Alex Winston, King Con

 To those eight fine albums, which are all continuing to provide me with some great listening pleasure, I would add a dozen excellent releases that have caught my ear this spring and summer. The list and brief notes on each album are after the jump.

Beach House, Bloom

Their prior offerings haven’t done much for me, but today’s Beach House really stands out among both herds it runs with—the “boy girl duos” and the “shoegaze revival bands.” Excellent songwriting and singing and some of the prettiest, most emotive guitar textures of the year.

Beachwood Sparks, The Tarnished Gold

Delicate and sparkling cosmic Americana on this welcome return after the Sparks’ long absence. Moments such as the instrumental breakdown in album opener “Forget the Song” are almost impossibly lovely. Immaculate stuff.

El-P, Cancer for Cure and Killer Mike, R.A.P. Music

Easily the year’s most thrilling rap offerings, simultaneously visceral and cerebral, both produced by the masterful El-P. Killer Mike and El-P are both wry, caustic, righteously angry vocal presences, and these albums’ lyrical and sonic artistry provides welcome respite from the empty, unsatisfying dance/rap hybrids that dominate the pop charts. As Mike himself says on “Big Beast,” “I don’t make dance music, this is R-A-P, opposite of that sucka shit they play on TV.” Best of all, to go with their ambition, both albums deliver solidly entertaining and engaging listening experiences.

Jessie Ware, Devotion

After her high-profile guest spots on SBTRKT’s well-received 2011 album, Jessie Ware delivers the most beautiful and soulful pop music I’ve heard in many moons on her debut album, Devotion. Jessie’s vocal chops rival those of the ubiquitous Adele, and Devotion far outpaces anything by Adele or other soul revivalists because of its forward-looking sonic elements. Unlike most of the soul revival albums, the instrumentation and production on Devotion are not  merely bland backdrops for the singer’s all-consuming, overwhelming vocal presence. For all these reasons (Jessie’s magnificent vocals AND the sonic freshness), “Taking in Water” gets my vote right now for the most beautiful song of 2012.

The Mark Lanegan Band, Blues Funeral

The most exciting thing I’ve heard from Lanegan since the last Screaming Trees record more than 15 years ago. One of this record’s primary strengths is its variety. One minute you could be hearing what sounds like an outtake from Lanegan’s sessions with the heavy, choogling Queens of the Stone Age, followed quickly by a meditative, bluesy dirge reminiscent of his early 90s solo records, followed by electronic textures clearly influenced by his 2009 work with the Soulsavers.

Neneh Cherry & The Thing, The Cherry Thing

Blasting, swaggering, borderline violent soul/jazz from semi-dormant icon Neneh Cherry and Scandinavian free-jazz trio The Thing. If bleating, squalling saxophones and machine-gun drums aren’t your thing, then you may find yourself reaching for the skip button midway through most of these tracks. But The Thing’s assault adds new dimensions of intensity and raw power to these outstanding songs (mostly covers), so I say just go with it if you can. Eventually, their particular brand of chaos may become, at times, the only sound that makes sense.

Sigur Ros, Valtari

Frankly, I haven’t even listened to Valtari all that much. I haven’t “needed” it yet. But when I do need it, and I’m sure that day will come, this new dose of Sigur Ros holiness will provide solace, comfort, and uplift. Because that’s what this continually majestic band and their albums always do for me.

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, Trouble

A fun slab of melodic electronic dance music with a refreshing focus on composition and songcraft. Trouble may not deliver the big bangers that get everybody on the floor at the height of the party, but it’s perfect for the first hour of the party when everything’s still gearing up. Said another way, this also sounds great on headphones as an actual listening experience—its appeal isn’t just based on the “big dumb fun” factor.

Yeasayer, Fragrant World

Another unexpected turn from Yeasayer, this time toward left-field R&B, blue-eyed soul, and beat-driven indie-pop. This is a great path for Yeasayer following the world-music overtones and 80s synth textures of their first and second records, respectively. I think Fragrant World might age even better than their first two offerings.

Matthew Dear, Beams  

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this record just yet, but I know I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since it started streaming on two weeks ago and was released by Ghostly last week. I think the comparisons to Bowie’s Eno era are apt. Longtime fans of Dear’s electronic work may not appreciate his recent turns toward rock and pop, but count me in for this album’s great marriages of several strains of modern, vital music.

Father John Misty, Fear Fun

I wrote hundreds of words on this guy and his album a few weeks ago. All I’ll add here is that J. Tillman’s departure from Fleet Foxes and his adoption of the Father John Misty persona are among the best things to happen in music this year.

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