My Favorite Albums of 2012 – Part 1
After over a month of trying to narrow down and rank my favorite albums of 2012 to a “Top 10 List,” I decided it would be better to just talk about all the albums that really stuck on me.
The albums in question, when burned to CD fill exactly 12 discs. Beyond the correlation with the months of the year and the number 12 in the year, this seemed like a fitting amount. Two 6-CD magazines for your car? Perhaps enough for you to find at least 5 new ones to love?
… On with the list!
Aimee Mann – “Charmer”
This aptly titled album is probably the most accessible thing Aimee has done since Til’ Tuesday. It doesn’t have the weight of “Magnolia” to push it, but stands up well on its own merits.
The songs are truly all great and it’s one of the more upbeat ones on this list. “Soon Enough” is probably the closest to sounding like a lost “Magnolia” track. “Charmer” and “Labrador” are of the catchy single variety. I think “Charmer’s” hook is the catchier or the two, while “Labrador” has great, anthem-like sing-along lyrics. Then, as if to tease me further in trying to compare this album with The Shins’ “Port of Morrow,” James Mercer shows up for a great duet on “Living a Lie.” I have a picture in my head of them meeting on the set of Portlandia (both appeared as guests in season 2) and deciding to do a track together. “Barfly,” another standout track again shows off incredible production on a song that most people would feel the need to play in a minor key throughout. Here it comes in sparingly, accompanied by a lead guitar straight out of The Beatles’ “Something.” The final track is the brief, catchy “Red Flag Diver” which sets up the album repeat back into “Charmer” nicely. You could hear the album three times in two hours – and may not want to take it out even then.
When I was considering writing a top 10, this album was deadlocked with The Shins’ “Port of Morrow.” I think “Port of Morrow” may be on top from the aspect of an album you can put on repeat all day and never tire of, but it’s close. “Charmer” has an extra trick up it’s sleeve, however, in the form of three of the best music videos of 2012. I made a YouTube playlist of “Charmer” music videos (plus a fourth you’ll want to watch after the third…)
Allo Darlin’ – “Europe”
Allo Darlin’ still ventures into the love-it-or-hate-it territory of twee music on “Europe,” but the majority is straight-up jangle-pop. In terms of other bands, there are songs that could be confused as Frente!’s singer Angie Hart with Johnny Marr on guitar. (Allo Darlin’s Elizabeth Morris is like Hart, after all, Australian.) It also gives me a little reminder of Belle and Sebastian or Stereolab’s more accessible stuff. Impressively, you’re more likely to enjoy it on your first play than either of those bands releases.
“Capricornia” and “Europe” are the standout tracks here, but only because they do the best job of portraying the overall vibe found on many other tracks including “Wonderland,” “The Letter” and “Still Young.” “Some People Say” and “My Sweet Friend” cleverly blends twee ukuleles with a more-produced sound, including some pedal steel. “Northern Lights” again hearkens back to 80’s jangle-pop pushing the tempo for the albums briefest song at just over three minutes. “Tallulah” is of the vocals-over-ukulele twee variety, but after six tracks avoiding it this simple, stripped-down track is magically welcome. As this song was my introduction to the album, I was hesitant to give it a shot worried it would just be more of the same. It’s not, and it keeps “Tallulah” special – sort of like the way “Labour of Love” fit in with Frente!’s “Marvin the Album.” It’s the album’s one true twee ballad rather than the overall rule of the project.
Amanda Palmer – “Theatre is Evil”
The product of the most successful album Kickstarter, Amanda Palmer’s epic “Theatre is Evil” is an epic masterpiece. It would be such a different story if the album had turned out badly, or if the negative reaction to her bringing local musicians onstage as a free backup band could diminish the project itself. The whole album (92 minutes long!) is $1 from her official web site. This is how you make an album in 2012, ladies and gentlemen.
With a cast of accompanying musicians as the cleverly titled “Grand Theft Orchestra,” the album opens in earnest with “Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen)” an almost maudlin dirge of filtered vocals, walls of guitars building toward the penultimate lyric “I don’t want to go to California, I don’t want to die.” This said, the paradoxically Pat Benatar stylings of “The Killing Type” hits you with the first of many best shots including “Do It With a Rockstar,” “Want it Back,” “Bottomfeeder,” “The Bed Song,” “Melody Dean,” “Berlin,” and “Olly Olly Oxen Free.”
And yes, I realize that’s almost every track. They all have something to recommend them. The $1 version of the album has 15 songs proper, plus 4 “b-sides.” Pulling apart each track to discern the lyrics, marvel at how a single song can switch between synth cheese and 70’s stadium rock, or take in the clever lyrics on songs like “Berlin.” Palmer is the James Cameron of rock – the exceptional creative force that can make a $1.2 million album worth it.
Note: I’ve embedded the censored version of the “Want It Back” video in case you’re watching at work. The uncensored (translation: her nipples are included) version is also up on YouTube.
Cat Power – “Sun”
With “Sun,” Cat Power has created a hypnotic album blending several genres from the last thirty years. There’s a touch of Eurythmics, a hint of Hooverphonic and walls of vocal harmonies always pressed right up front. The production manages to keep the electronic instruments away from sounding sterile or organic. The result is endlessly listenable – whether you’re concentrating on it in the foreground or letting it rest in the background at work.
The opening three tracks, “Cherokee,” “Sun,” and “Ruin” blend together so well it’s become hard for me to listen to them separately. All three are minor-key songs with plenty of propulsion to keep them well away from downer territory. “Ruin’s” abrupt ending leads into the first surprise, “3,6,9” a stripped-back track oozing with a lust. (“Silent Machine” has a bit of that as well.) Tension continues to build in “Human Being” which makes promises and threats in single statements. “You have a right to… You’re a human being” is both a fact and a challenge – as if asking what you’re waiting for. The theme returns on the epic “Nothin’ But Time,” assuring and challenging at once – that “It’s up to you to be a superhero” and “You’ve got nothing but time.” The final track “Peace and Love” is a fitting climax, dripping with menace and a propulsive tempo. It may as well be titled “Peace and Love… Or Else.” Great stuff!
Divine Fits – “A Thing Called Divine Fits”
This is one of those albums that didn’t really win me over the first time through. It has a little bit of a bi-polarity between the two bands that make up this “supergroup,” Spoon and Wolf Parade. Like The Raconteurs before it, Divine Fits essentially finds its way after a confusing detour well into Spoon territory with “Flaggin a Ride” and “Would That Not Be Nice,” songs that would have fit right into Spoon’s 2007 album “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga.” It’s all the more obnoxious as the track order for these songs puts them at 2 and 4 – as if the album is purposefully vacillating between what you’d expect from Spoon and what you would not.
It’s on the second listen – or maybe after a refresher of what Spoon is actually like that you realize it’s really just the lead singer swaps that are throwing you off. Yes, the Britt Daniel tracks tend to have more nifty percussion and the Dan Boeckner tracks have more distorted guitars – but by “The Salton Sea” the transformation into a single band is mostly complete.
Britt Daniel’s voice is so distinctive it’s hard not to pull his songs out, (particularly “Flaggin a Ride,” “Would That Not Be Nice” and “Shivers”) but the sum of these parts on the album is the better for both vocalists and the songwriting. The album is more consistently great than anything Spoon has released – a mixed blessing, meaning there are fewer “singles” but also no obvious “filler” songs. The dueling vocalists sometimes come with their own styles, but it seems like the album is better for it – as if the whole affair is a friendly competition.
continue to Part 2