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Top 12 of 2012 Countdown + 2012 Favorites Playlist

January 8, 2013

Back again with some year-end notes on my favorite music of 2012, along with a fancy embedded Spotify playlist below. Despite the tags above, I don’t claim that this is the “best” music of the year, or that the thousands of 2012 albums not included here should be avoided because they’re not as “good.” Frankly, most claims that this or that pop culture product is worthless and should be avoided at all costs, while other ephemeral products should be embraced as high art, strike me as dubious and shallow at best, snotty and sanctimonious at worst.

Sure, some critical viewpoints are more informed and credible and fun to read than others. And many pop culture products that give every indication of being cynical, purely commercial, and/or incompetent pieces of hackery deserve thoughtful assessment, especially if discussions about potentially damaging social or political effects seem warranted. But ultimately, why not just read/watch/listen to what gives you joy, try to focus positive energy on that stuff instead of spitting salty opinion loogies every chance you get, and leave other folks in peace to do the same?

But enough of that. The new music I liked in 2012 is after the jump.

My Top 12 Albums of 2012

12. Yeasayer — Fragrant World
As I wrote in September, Fragrant World is 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.

11. Submotion Orchestra — Fragments
What I wrote in 2011 about Submotion Orchestra’s debut album, Finest Hour, also applies to this excellent sophomore effort. This band makes stunningly elegant music filled with busy and engaging beats, sensual and haunting horns, and Ruby Wood’s soulful vocals. This album’s “Snow,” “Thinking,” and “Falling” are all among my favorites of the year, and the only real misstep is when a nondescript and ultimately distracting rap vocal from Rider Shafiq robs Ruby Wood of the microphone on “Times Strange.”

10. Grasscut — Unearth
This is moving, cinematic electro-pop, both painstakingly detailed and sweepingly expansive. The first four tracks are all pristine, “Lights” is fun and far less annoying than the Kmart (?!?) commercial jingle that borrowed from it, and “We Fold Ourselves” is among my two or three favorite songs of the year. Simply, it’s four minutes of pop perfection that boasts opera samples, glitchy beats, finger-picked guitar, one exultant crescendo after another, and an eminently lyrical tale of romance, nostalgia, and lost connections to places once called home.

9. Dr. John — Locked Down
As I wrote in April, there’s no sense struggling with descriptors here. Just listen to the fumous funk of “Eleggua” (and the whole damn album, really) and just be grateful that this bad mofo is not only still with us, but also, at age 71, still has a swagger that puts the young’uns to shame.

8. School of Seven Bells — Ghostory
Pretty radically different from their earlier stuff, which I also love. There’s less guitar presence and more atmospheric melancholy on Ghostory as compared to 2010’s Disconnect from Desire. It works so well that parts of this album remind me of the mighty ocean-current desperation of the Cure’s Disintegration. Still, tracks such as “Lafaye” and “The Night” add some volume and a nice propulsive element to the mix.

7. John Talabot — fIN
This is salt-breeze-and-lapping-waves Balearic dance at its finest. Not a dud here, but for me, tracks with a slightly harder edge such as “When the Past Was Present” really stand out. Beach sand is hot and gritty, after all.

6. Tift Merritt — Traveling Alone
Albums lower on my “Top 12” list contained individual tracks that I loved more than anything on Traveling Alone. However, Tift Merritt comes in high on my list because her album is just so damn consistent. Her country-tinged torch aesthetic has never sounded better, and everything here is elegantly written and played and sung with overwhelming heart.

5. Bruce Springsteen — Wrecking Ball
There are moments on Wrecking Ball when I feel like I’m hearing every major strain of “quintessentially American music” all at once. “Shackled and Drawn” is a good example—sounding like a synthesis of protest folk, Delta blues, and old-time mountain music, all strained through a modern arena-rock production aesthetic. “Rocky Ground” even adds hip-hop to that mix while maintaining most of the other elements. To this listener, there’s precisely one man in the country who’s both qualified to write and record such comprehensive American music and good enough to pull it off. They don’t call him the Boss for nothing.

4. Jessie Ware — Devotion
After her high-profile guest spots on SBTRKT’s well-received 2011 album, Jessie Ware delivers some of 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 does more for me than albums 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.

3. El-P — Cancer 4 Cure
Simultaneously visceral and cerebral lyrics, masterful beatmaking, and musically accomplished production on both his own album and Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, which I also loved. Amazingly, as great as Cancer 4 Cure is, some of the live performance clips I’ve seen this year (from late night TV appearances and various webcast appearances) are just as compelling if not more so. El-P wears many hats, but damned if he’s not an excellent musician above all else. In no way does he just press “Play” and start rhyming.

2. Alex Winston — King Con
This album is delightful and enchanting beyond words. It stayed with me all year and actually became even more appealing and compelling as the year went on. Winston’s voice is like no other — a timeless variation, with hints of old-time country or mountain music, on the “little girl voice” thing that seems to be everywhere right now. To my ears at least, Alex’s vocal presence is no mere trend-surfing affectation. And, simply, I just found King Con to be pretty much the warmest, catchiest, and most skillfully written and executed collection of unique pop songs of the year.

1. Father John Misty — Fear Fun
Fear Fun stands out for me because of Josh Tillman’s great singing, his alternately tender and scathingly funny lyrics, the tight but breezy instrumentation, and the warm Jonathan Wilson production. Josh Tillman/FJM stands out above all other artists this year because my encounter with his words and music has been one of a handful of recent experiences that have changed how I see and think, or at least how I WANT to see and think, about the world and my place in it. If you’re interested in reading more along those lines, I wrote a piece in August about all that stuff.

And finally, here’s a playlist I’ve “curated,” in that the track order is intentional, based on these albums and other songs/artists I liked in 2012. As much as I love Spotify, it let me down a little here because three tracks that I wanted (Jessie Ware, Submotion Orchestra, and Dirty Three) weren’t available, so my full track list is below the embedded playlist. I gave this playlist a title (a possibly pretentious habit held over from my days of making mix tapes and CDs), “Words Put in the Wind,” taken from a Killer Mike lyric in the track “R.A.P. Music.” Hope you enjoy!

Words Put in the Wind, Part 1
(artist — song — album)
1. Dr. John — Eleggua — Locked Down
2. Killer Mike — R.A.P. Music — R.A.P. Music
3. El-P — Works Every Time — Cancer 4 Cure
4. Crystal Castles — Affection — III
5. The Chromatics — Kill For Love — Kill For Love
6. Miguel — The Thrill — Kaleidoscope Dream
7. Frank Ocean — Thinkin Bout You — Channel Orange
8. Jessie Ware — Night Light — Devotion
9. Submotion Orchestra — Thinking — Fragments
10. Tindersticks — This Fire of Autumn — The Something Rain
11. The Sea and Cake — Harps — Runner
12. Bat for Lashes — All Your Gold — The Haunted Man
13. Alex Winston — Guts — King Con
14. Tift Merritt — Small Talk Relations — Traveling Alone
15. Beachwood Sparks — Forget the Song — The Tarnished Gold
16. First Aid Kit — Emmylou — The Lion’s Roar
17. Calexico — Epic — Algiers
18. Lord Huron — In the Wind — Lonesome Dreams
19. Grizzly Bear — Half Gate — Shields
20. Grasscut — We Fold Ourselves — Unearth

Words Put in the Wind, Part 2
1. Yppah — R. Mullen — Eighty One
2. Beach House — Myth — Bloom
3. School of Seven Bells — The Night — Ghostory
4. Errors — White Infinity — New Relics
5. Yeasayer — Henrietta — Fragrant World
6. Hot Chip — Don’t Deny Your Heart — In Our Heads
7. John Talabot — When the Past Was Present — fIN
8. Matthew Dear — Her Fantasy — Beams
9. The Mark Lanegan Band — Quiver Syndrome — Blues Funeral
10. Dirty Three — That Was Was — Toward the Low Sun
11. Tame Impala — Mind Mischief — Lonerism
12. Woods — Size Meets the Sound — Bend Beyond
13. Other Lives — Take Us Alive — Mind the Gap EP
14. Lavender Diamond — Dragonfly — Incorruptible Heart
15. Father John Misty — O I Long to Feel Your Arms Around Me — Fear Fun
16. The Murder of Crows — Midday Waltz — Impefecta EP
17. Bruce Springsteen — Land of Hope and Dreams — Wrecking Ball
18. Bill Fay — Never Ending Happening — Life is People

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