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50 Best Albums of 2012

Frank Ocean reimagined R&B; Dylan drenched us in blood; pop-punk vets, disco orchestras and Scottish oddballs made an election year bearable.

50 best albums 2012

Frank Ocean reimagined R&B; Bob Dylan drenched us in blood; pop-punk vets, disco orchestras and Scottish oddballs made an election year bearable.

 

Contributors: Jon Dolan, David Fricke, Andy Greene, Will Hermes, Christian Hoard, Jody Rosen, Rob Sheffield, Rob Tannenbaum, Simon Vozick-Levinson

40

Escort, ‘Escort’

Disco never died. It was just hiding out in Brooklyn, where this 17-piece club orchestra crafted its debut set of glitter-caked grooves. In a year when we lost such giants of the genre as Donna Summer and Robin Gibb, there is something reassuring about how faithfully tunes like "Cocaine Blues" and "Starlight" channel the sleek, sexy sound of Studio 54 at its peak, down to the last high-hat and brass flourish. "A knife, a fork, a bottle and a cork/That's the way we spell New York," vocalist Adeline Michèle sings. Up-all-night civic pride rarely sounds so fun.

39

Passion Pit, ‘Gossamer’

No one does soulful Eighties-style synth-cheese better than Michael Angelakos. Passion Pit’s second record is shinier, busier and even more hysterically earnest than their debut: Angelakos’ falsetto ricochets like laser light, chipper gals coo smoke-machine choruses amid hot electronics and cool string arrangements. Yet the pop spectacle is haunted by disaster – economic (“Take a Walk”), romantic (“I’ll Be Alright”) or both (“Love Is Greed”) – culminating in a boffo suicide meditation. It’s high-end dance rock as John Updike might have it.

38

Titus Andronicus, ‘Local Business’

These Jersey boys might be America’s most desperately ambitious, righteously exciting punk-rock flamethrowers. On “My Eating Disorder,” Patrick Stickles sings, “Screaming and convulsing, now I’m gonna spit it out”; the “it” in question (other than his lunch) is an album of brawling street-rock songs with titles like “Titus Andronicus vs. the Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO).” With as much love for Thin Lizzy as Black Flag, and wielding a tireless underdog howl, Stickles proves just how much mileage you can still get out of suburban self-disgust.

37

Justin Townes Earle, ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now’

The son of country-rock renegade Steve Earle has grown into a songwriter to rival his dad. His fourth LP is his strongest yet, a set of love-scarred folk-blues travelogues delivered with exactingly shaky phrasing and an undertow of Stax-Volt horns. “Down on the Lower East Side” gets New York-jazzy, and “Won’t Be the Last Time” is honky-tonk weepy. Earle’s bloodline follows him everywhere, and guides him, too; as he declares in the record’s first line: “I hear my father on the radio singing, ‘Take me home again.'”

36

Bobby Womack, ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’

At age 68, the guy who wrote the Rolling Stones’ first Number One hit (“It’s All Over Now”) teams up with Blur‘s Damon Albarn and producer Richard Russell for a deeply soulful, startlingly modern R&B set. Like Russell’s 2010 collaboration with Gil Scott-Heron, Bravest Man is mainly about magnified vocal grain and electronic rhythms, and the arrangements never fail to dazzle: The first bars of the title track, just Womack’s warm-leather voice and a cello, may be the most striking album opener of the year.

35

Grizzly Bear, ‘Shields’

The Brooklyn avant-pop crew’s fourth album is its most muscular to date, driven more than ever by drummer Christopher Bear’s innate swing. Yet, from the electric-vs.-acoustic-guitar schizophrenia of “Sleeping Ute” to the Gil Evans jazziness of “Sun in Your Eyes,” Grizzly Bear still flash some gorgeously intricate arranging. Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen have grown into one of indie rock’s most sophisticated songwriting teams, melding idiosyncratic approaches to texture and tune into a subtly mind-blowing whole. And those vocal harmonies still kill.

34

Alabama Shakes, ‘Boys & Girls’

Fronted by ex-mail carrier Brittany Howard – a slow-boil belter shaped by punk and roots rock as much as the Stax-Volt/Muscle Shoals sound she so mightily channels – the Alabama-based Shakes sprang from Southern soul’s cradle. Their debut is a set of lean, hooky originals about the big stuff: love (“Be Mine”), death (“On Your Way”), human struggle (“Hold On”) and getting crunk (“Goin’ to the Party”). It earned them a fan base that includes Robert Plant and My Morning Jacket, and it suggests that even greater things lie ahead.

33

Grimes, ‘Visions’

Canadian electro-high-priestess Claire Boucher did more than anyone this year to stoke the hot romance between R&B and dream pop. A one-woman Kraftwerk who performs with an arsenal of machines and a couple of booty dancers, she’s a true stylistic omnivore, and her breakthrough set uses EDM extremism, medieval chants, sugar-crusted melodies and her own sky-high voice to rethink pop music. See the irresistible Far East chipmunk chants on “Genesis,” or “Skin,” which suggests Florence Welch savoring a postcoital bong.

32

Hospitality, ‘Hospitality’

Indie-pop cuteness this severely catchy doesn’t come around too often. Kansas City refugee Amber Papini works out her killer fake-English accent on noise-guitar nods like “Eighth Avenue” and pert strummers like “Betty Wang.” The Brooklynites also throw cool genre curveballs such as the twerp-disco groove on “Friends of Friends.” It all makes for a great album about being young and hip and directionless in 2012 New York City – kind of like Lena Dunham’s Girls by way of the best old Belle and Sebastian and Cat Power records.

31

Taylor Swift, ‘Red’

Pop star, country diva, puppy lover, scorned woman, flirt, gossip, sweetheart, brat, poet – Swift contains multitudes, and they're all on display on her big, bustling fourth album. The Max Martin/Shellback-helmed pop moves are headline-grabbers. But Red is not a departure, it's a deepening and accentuating of Swift's natural gifts for storytelling and irrefutable hooks. And the sound expands her musical reach from slick Nashville pop rock ("All Too Well") to wintry British mope pop ("The Last Time," with Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody) and beyond.

30

Azealia Banks, ‘1991’

Twenty-one-year-old Banks’ debut EP was 2012’s great appetite-whetter: a four-track-long amuse-bouche that left fans of the vaunted next-big-thing Harlem rapper panting for more. (A full-length LP is due early next year.) Banks packs an album’s worth of fun into 15 minutes: dissing, boasting and talking very dirty in English and, uh, French (“Ce soir with your bitch, café au lait”); reclaiming the word “cunt”; touting her “Bambi style” and “Rapunzel style,” all over beats that are as feisty, and as irrepressible, as the woman herself.

29

Dave Matthews Band, ‘Away From the World’

DMB‘s sixth straight record to debut at Number One reunited the group with its Nineties producer Steve Lillywhite; the album’s political entreaties made for some of 2012’s best GOTV rock. But there’s also a stormy introspection to these tricky, rolling jams. “Rooftop” is a drunken, vengeful breakup fantasy; on “The Riff,” quiet romantic desperation gets run through Boyd Tinsley’s jabbing violin lines; and when Matthews sings, “That’s not a star, that’s a satellite,” on “Drunken Soldier,” it’s clear he’s standing under an angry sky.

28

Beach House, ‘Bloom’

How did Jay-Z and Beyoncé‘s favorite indie-pop duo top their 2010 breakthrough, Teen Dream? By coming up with an even prettier vision of synth-y, Eighties-steeped romanticism. Languid lead singer Victoria Legrand has some dark stuff on her mind – mortality and ruin keep bubbling to the surface of the Baltimore act’s fourth LP (“Can’t keep hanging on . . . to what is dead and gone,” she sings on “Myth”). But you’d hardly know it from the blissful way she lets her voice blend with the softly bobbing organ chords and arpeggiated guitars.

27

Gary Clark Jr., ‘Blak and Blu’

The major-label debut by the 28-year-old Austin bluesman lives up to his head-turning 2011 EP and then some. Clark plays to the Chicago-Texas blues tradition and even covers Jimi Hendrix‘s “Third Stone From the Sun.” But he’s no simple throwback. “The Life” and the title track have modern R&B flow; “Travis County” is punkish roots rock, “Glitter Ain’t Gold” matches Duane Allman slide with a glam-metal undertow. Best of all, Clark’s brain-frying guitar solos are more about noise nuance and phrasing than speed-trial note-spitting.

26

Django Django, ‘Django Django’

The Edinburgh art-school debutantes of Django Django use electronics to make strange new rock & roll shapes. See “Firewater,” which sinks an acoustic folk-blues jam into a dub-reverb fish tank, or the single “Default,” which digitally stutters the chorus of a British Invasion tribute. Drummer-producer David Maclean (younger brother of John Maclean, of the late, like-minded Beta Band) is the MVP, building trippy tracks around indelible grooves. Sometimes they involve coconut shells (“Love’s Dart”). But they always involve sly pop smarts.

25

Donald Fagen, ‘Sunken Condos’

With Steely Dan, and on his solo albums, Fagen makes beautiful music about loathsome men. “Slinky Thing,” “The New Breed” and “Miss Marlene” add to his succession of songs, going back to “Hey Nineteen,” that explore the plight of baby boomers dating barely legal girls. The music is deceitfully lush, a snazzy cascade of rock, R&B and swing, with production as costly as a Santa Monica beach house. Fagen embodies these doomed schlubs with his slouchy, sideways singing, the essence of New York wisenheimer attitude.

24

G.O.O.D. Music, ‘Cruel Summer’

The dozen taut, tough songs on this hit compilation from the G.O.O.D. Music collective offer an unprecedented pleasure: a chilled-out Kanye West, making music just for fun. There’s a backyard-barbecue vibe here, with West and friends like 2 Chainz, Ghostface Killah and Jay-Z trading boasts over sprightly beats. As usual, it’s Kanye’s show; he rhymes about Kim Kardashian and George Tenet, and even delves into biblical scholarship: “Did Moses not part the water with the cane?/Did strippers not make an ark when I made it rain?”

23

Divine Fits, ‘A Thing Called Divine Fits’

Featuring Spoon’s Britt Daniel and Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner, this is the rare super-group that is more than the sum of its promising parts. Daniel’s jaggedly tuneful pop merges with Boeckner’s rock classicism for a nervy chemical reaction on songs like the scuzzed-up synth-pop “My Love Is Real” and the neo-garage rock stomp “Would That Not Be Nice.” But the secret weapon might be drummer Sam Brown, formerly of Ohio punks New Bomb Turks, who bashes and swings with wrecking-ball force. Let’s hope this isn’t a one-time thing.

22

Bonnie Raitt, ‘Slipstream’

As young stars like Adele and Katy Perry cover her songs, Raitt continues what she’s been doing, more or less, for 40-plus years: Pick a bunch of smart, tender tunes by great writers (Slipstream includes a pair by Bob Dylan), add one or two of her own, and sing them in a soulful ache, dotted by her casual slideguitar punctuations. Adele praised Raitt’s “stunning voice,” and if you want to hear proof, pay attention to the ballads “You Can’t Fail Me Now” and “Not ’Cause I Wanted To,” where heartache falls as softly as snow.

21

Cloud Nothings, ‘Attack on Memory’

“I thought I would be more than this!” snarls Cleveland’s Dylan Baldi on “Wasted Days,” before diving into a five-minute psych-punk-dub jam that builds into the year’s most stunning crescendo of self-loathing. Sounding like a scrawnier Kurt Cobain (with help from soundman Steve Albini), Baldi ups his game from scrappy post-hardcore twerp to indie-rock force of nature over 33 minutes that never let up: Drums pummel, guitars chew scenery, and Baldi’s scream makes old-school aggro-depression feel like new-school joy.

20

Killer Mike, ‘R.A.P. Music’

Ten-plus years into his career, Outkast colleague Killer Mike stepped up to headline status with a bare-knuckled, politicized Southern-rap record produced by New York sci-fi dystopian El-P. Two thirtysomethings who share a keen sense of paranoid-lefty outrage and hip-hop history, they update Eighties polemics for a new era. “I’m a public enemy because I’m cold lampin’/And I don’t give a fuck about a party in the Hamptons,” Mike brays on “Don’t Die.” Which doesn’t mean the dude don’t party – just that when he does, the past haunts him hard.

19

Band of Horses, ‘Mirage Rock’

Working with Seventies-rock veteran Glyn Johns, Ben Bridwell and crew nail a time-warp classicism. They conjure the embroidered-blue-jean countryrock of the Eagles (whose first LPs were helmed by Johns) and spike it with punk noise and a 21st-century bloodshot optimism. “A Little Biblical” is a close-harmonized hookfest determined to stay sober enough to make something positive happen. But during the CSNY-meets-Crazy Horse schizophrenia of “Dumpster World,” they decide to hell with it – let’s just empty the jails and “bust out the drugs.”

18

Nas, ‘Life Is Good’

Every time Nas puts out a new record, someone says it’s his “best since Illmatic.” This one actually might deserve that title. Cut in the wake of his divorce from Kelis, his 10th album is honest in a way that’s rare for hip-hop – from “Bye Baby,” where Nas struggles to make sense of the failed relationship, to “Daughters,” where he confronts his parenting lapses. Always a master storyteller, he leavens these personal moments with plenty of richly detailed street drama, delivered over soul-flavored hard-knock beats that are like comfort food for East Coast rap heads.

17

John Mayer, ‘Born and Raised’

“I don’t want a world of broken things,” Mayer sings on his fifth album. Steeped in California country rock and Seventies sensitivity, Born and Raised has its share of soft, soothing attempts to make us all whole again (“Love Is a Verb”). But the dude with the Benetton soul and the David Duke dick made more news by addressing his own spotty past and busted-up sense of self: “It sucks to be honest and it hurts to be real,” he sings over tender, Claptonian guitar on “Shadow Days.” It’s a shot at redemption that’s as on target as anything he’s done.

16

Cat Power, ‘Sun’

The idea of the brilliantly morose Chan Marshall making a dance-rock record is almost absurd. Yet the groove-powered Sun is a perfect fit, channeling the spangled gloom of the Eighties post-punk and synth pop that Marshall grew up with, through chilly electronic color washes and pencil-neck drum-machine rhythms (imagine a femme Joy Division). When she sings “Your world is just beginning” with Iggy Pop on the Bowie-esque epic “Nothin But Time,” it’s clear the woman is steeling herself for some twists and turns – in her life and her music.

15

Dr. John, ‘Locked Down’

In New Orleans, death is often mourned with a joyful second-line parade of music and dancing. Dr. John used Locked Down to celebrate his beloved Crescent City, which was nearly killed by rightwing neglect after Hurricane Katrina. In a piqued growl, he sings about drugs, poverty, “gold diggers [and] money wasters.” With production and corrugated guitar by Black Keys mastermind Dan Auerbach, the 72-year-old mixes rock, funk and even Afrobeat to describe a soggy wasteland where honest men have equal fear of the KKK and the CIA.

14

Best Coast, ‘The Only Place’

Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino is still besotted with the glorious sulk of Sixties girl-group pop and the awesomeness of California living (“Why would you live anywhere else?” she wonders on the surf-rock title track). But with L.A. producer/pop historian Jon Brion on board, the tales of boredom, touchy friendships and shaky relationships on her second record open up and brighten up – half of them even break the three-minute mark. And with less reverb-y guitar haze to hide behind, her voice comes into its own as one of indie rock’s mightiest.

13

Leonard Cohen, ‘Old Ideas’

At 78 years old, the dapper Canadian sage came back to whisper his heavier-than-ever poetry about sex and spirituality, complete with bedroom scenes like “I’m naked and I’m filthy/And there’s sweat upon my brow.” As a man who never really sounded young he was well into his thirties when he dropped his classic debut album in 1967 – Cohen adapts to this uncharted age with a lifetime’s worth of grace and wit. Best lines: “I dreamed about you, baby, you were wearin’ half your dress/I know you have to hate me, but could you hate me less?”

12

Jimmy Cliff, ‘Rebirth’

Jamaica’s original pre-Marley pop star came back full force in 2012 with a warm, wondrous album that plays like a guided tour of the island’s musical past, as well as Cliff’s own. There’s ska, rock steady, roots reggae, a revelatory cover of the Clash‘s “Guns of Brixton” delivered in Cliff’s trademark soulful tenor, grittier but still lovely more than 40 years after his debut. The chorus of “Reggae Music,” an autobiographical account of his early career, sums it all up: “Reggae music making me feel good/Reggae music making me feel all right now.”

11

Mumford & Sons, ‘Babel’

The biggest little string band on the planet followed the surprise pop success of 2010’s Sigh No More with a bigger, bolder set of folk revival jams. Babel is an arena-size strumfest, pumping barn-raising choruses into the U2 stratosphere. Marcus Mumford rains down Bible-thumping doom like a Puritan divine, giving his evocations of love, guilt and longing an epic sense of historical weight and moral drama: “The pull on my flesh was just too strong,” he sings on the fallen-soul’s lament “Broken Crown.” His bone-deep sincerity is pretty strong, too.

10

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, ‘Psychedelic Pill’

Appearing alongside his memoir and the history-lesson covers set Americana, this is as inspiringly strange as anything he’s done. It opens with the 27-minute “Driftin’ Back,” a free-associating timeline that morphs from coffeehouse folk to charred Crazy Horse jam. Feedback and flashbacks, sentimental and not, flow between inspired moments of old-coot humor (“Gonna get me a hip-hop haircut!”), all peaking with the 16-minute “Walk Like a Giant,” a doo-wop noise-metal Sixties lament that goes out stomping. Like a giant, indeed.

9

Japandroids, ‘Celebration Rock’

Two punk-rock dudes from Vancouver bang out a classic of lion-hearted, red-blooded guitar blasts, barreling out of the gate with the manic chant they fire off in “The Nights of Wine and Roses”: “Don’t we have anything to live for?/Well, of course we do!” Japandroids’ second album roars like the lost Replacements record between Tim and Pleased to Meet Me, except with any hint of self-defeating indie neurosis kicked to the curb – instead, singer-guitarist Brian King and singer-drummer David Prowse go for pure tonight-we-ride bravado.

8

Green Day, ‘¡Uno!’

Green Day took a vacation from sweeping rock operas and spent 2012 banging out hot, hook-mad punk rock like it was 1994 all over again. The first installment in their ¡Uno!¡Dos!-¡Tré! album trilogy flails and bashes and rants like a spiky dervish – from the Clash-disco of “Kill the DJ” to the mod-Who blood rush of “Carpe Diem.” Billie Joe Armstrong blitzes past his 40th birthday without losing the bullshit-calling rage that keeps a man young, cranky and always on the lookout for girls who think “Won’t you be my bloody valentine?” is a cool pickup line.

7

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, ‘Here’

Does sandal-wearing late-Sixties revivalism seem a little hokey in 2012? Well, that’s exactly what makes the 10-member troupe of L.A. neo-hippies’ second LP such an achievement. They’re not just convincing, they’re musically on fire, spooling out tuneful hymns like they’re passing out free joints in the parking lot at a Dead show. Frontman Alex Ebert sings earnestly about love and spirituality, letting his mind wander pleasantly over the band’s homespun harmonies and easy-going folk-psych instrumentation. There’s gospel country, spaced-out chorales and back-to-the-land jamming; it’s a cosmic campfire singalong, broadcasting live from a magical place where the Age of Aquarius never ended and every Jesus beard in the house is completely unironic.

6

Kendrick Lamar, ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’

The year’s most talked-about major-label rap debut turns out to be worth all the hype. An immersive concept album about growing up on Compton’s gang-scarred streets, good kid, m.A.A.d city is packed with vivid stories painted in complex moral shades. Lamar’s rhyme schemes are intricate, his confidence infinite (“I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower/So I can fuck the world for 72 hours,” he raps on “Backseat Freestyle”). No wonder Dr. Dre gave him a record deal: The West Coast hasn’t seen such a dazzling street poet in a generation.

5

Fiona Apple, ‘The Idler Wheel Is Wiser . . .’

The year’s most exquisite musical tantrum is also the most thrilling record of Apple‘s 15-year career. Her voice is all over the place – heaving, squealing, mewling and growling; the multitracked “Hot Knife” suggests an all-female gospel quartet in heat, and the full-body animal hollers in “Regret” (singing about “hot piss”) are downright frightening. The music – stripped-down and entirely acoustic – is rangy, strange and gorgeous. It’s a record that makes the simple act of being alive sound as scary and out of control as it too often is.

New Bob Dylan Album - Tempest - Set For September Release on Columbia Records. (PRNewsFoto/Columbia Records)

4

Bob Dylan, ‘Tempest’

Dylan‘s 35th album is typical of his astonishing late-career rejuvenation: teeming with wit and history, marinated in a couple centuries of folk and pop music, from Celtic waltzes to doo-wop balladry. Tempest is soaked in something else, too: blood. The body count is astronomical, from the epic title track’s retelling of the Titanic disaster to the dulcet “Soon After Midnight,” where Dylan sings of a rival lover: “I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.” Fifty years after his debut, he’s still rock’s greatest bard – and its most fearsome badass.

3

Jack White, ‘Blunderbuss’

White‘s solo debut is our first chance ever to hear him truly cut loose, unencumbered by anyone or anything other than his forked imagination. A down-home freakout recorded with a killer band in his adopted hometown of Nashville, Blunderbuss bursts with mutated Memphis soul (“Love Interruption”), crunk-Kiss swag (“Sixteen Saltines”) and hippie jazz folk (“Take Me With You When You Go”). The recently divorced White uses his self-made soapbox to shout about the wages of love – and every hypocritical kiss on the record hits like a hammer.

2

Frank Ocean, ‘Channel Orange’

Ocean made headlines because of his sexuality, but he made history with this music. The 25-year-old singer’s second album is the most exciting R&B breakthrough in recent memory; Ocean evokes L.A. decadence (“Super Rich Kids”), his stripper girlfriend (the nine-minute “Pyramids”) and crushing out on a guy (“Bad Religion”) over plush, dark-tinted grooves that update Stevie and Marvin for the post-Drake era. His brags about his “great gray matter” aren’t just geek-chic bluster: Channel Orange unfurls new mysteries with every listen.

1

Bruce Springsteen, ‘Wrecking Ball’

Bruce Springsteen‘s 17th album is rock’s most pointed response to the Great Recession: a song suite explicitly for the 99 percent, as largehearted, and as righteously wrathful, as any album he’s made. Wrecking Ball rages at corporate oligarchy and economic injustice. “Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bill/It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill,” he bellows in “Shackled and Drawn.”

It’s Springsteen’s most walloping and adventurous release in decades. He and producer Ron Aniello merge the sweep, heft and rumble of the classic E Street sound with modern flourishes: mariachi horns, electronica grace notes and, in the gospel-flavored “Rocky Ground,” a rapped verse nearly as stirring as Springsteen’s chorus courtesy of Michelle Moore, a previously unknown backing vocalist. In places, the master salutes his protégés: “Death to My Hometown” winks at the Dropkick Murphys, with pennywhistles piping over a burly Celtic reel; the title track, an ode to the late Giants Stadium and an F.U. to Father Time, wails like Arcade Fire.

But Springsteen’s vision is his alone, and its scope – musically, politically, morally – is vast. In “We Are Alive,” Springsteen’s “we” includes striking 19th-century railroad workers, 1960s civil rights martyrs and Mexican migrants. Then there’s the capacious, whiplashing “We Take Care of Our Own,” an infuriated protest about the failure of America’s social compact, and the campaign theme for the newly re-elected president. “There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home,” Springsteen laments. But ultimately, Wrecking Ball holds out hope: that, someday, “the promise, from sea to shining sea” will be kept.

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