This year I made a Top 15 List instead of a Top 10 list, a decision I stand by because of the sheer volume of great music this year. Not only that, the Top 5 was crowded by the same big guns across so many people’s year end lists. As a result, the 6-15 for most people are a lot more interesting than the top five. For example, it’s impossible to ignore Frank Ocean, but it would also be a shame for me to not mention Neneh Cherry and The Thing. So 15 it is. It was a really great year in music for me, best I can remember since 2007 and 2001 before that. And there are so many that I had to leave off that I’m considering making a second wild card list, because there were about a dozen amazing records that weren’t favorites but were just weird or interesting or thought-provoking in ways the music listed here is not. Dan Deacon, Dirty Projectors, Converge, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Death Grips, Miguel, on and on. But here are my favorites.
15. Taylor Swift – Red
Good things come in all packages, and discounting Taylor Swift because she’s a major label pop star is sad and cynical if you ask me. I always liked Taylor Swift’s songs here and there, but the second I first played her latest it grabbed me and I listened to it another three or four times in a row. That is a sign of a great pop album.
Song: State of Grace
14. Bob Mould – Silver Age
I first heard a song from Bob Mould’s latest release online in a video of him playing on Letterman, and he just destroyed it. The entire set of songs is big, fast, fun guitar rock.
Song: The Descent
13. Bloc Party – Four
Bloc Party doesn’t get the attention it deserves, I suspect, because it’s fairly conventional guitar rock, and among the masses is kind of overlooked because it’s conventional guitar rock is a little twisted. They’re in kind of a blind spot between U2 and TV on the Radio. But I listen to A Weekend in the City all the time; it’s one of my favorites. And just when I thought maybe I hit my limit, Four comes out and it’s great. After kind of a weird previous release, it’s a return to guitar rock with big catchy hooks and unique vocals.
12. Titus Andronicus – Local Business
I love this band as much for its ambitions as I do for its execution of them. The Monitor was one of my favorites of 2010, an epic civil war concept album told in garage rock. Their new release Local Business has moved a little more toward their 80s bar band tendencies, but I love it anyway (I just skip over “Food Fight”). They have this crazy working class punk sound, but it carries these wordy, six, seven, eight-minute anthems.
Song: In a Big City
11. Fun. – Some Nights
I don’t know why, but I never would have thought that Nate Ruess was going to be more than that guy from that Phoenix emo band The Format. But his talent for consistent pop hooks is relentless, and Fun. has taken the drum machine, hand clap sound of Ruess’ previous band and elevated it to this monstrous, tear-jerking arena rock. It gushes with sadness and triumph. Its shameless, unabashed sentiment turns some people off, but those people are jerks.
Song: Some Nights
10. Neneh Cherry & The Thing – The Cherry Thing
Speaking of surprise comebacks, I haven’t even thought of the name Neneh Cherry since she was wearing padded bras, sucking beer through straws. But Greg Kot was all about this record by Cherry and a Swedish-Norwegian free jazz band, so I gave it a listen and wow what a smoky, chaotic sound. The only thing I can think of to compare it to is Morphine, with that tortured saxophone leading the instrumentation. And the second to last song is a seven-minute version of The Stooges Dirt. It’s a completely unique sound, like hot lava.
9. The Helio Sequence – Negotiations
There was a strange phenomenon in 2012 of bands that had great records in 2007 coming out with something new. Since 2007 is one of my favorite years in music I can remember, that made it a pretty exciting year. And Helio Sequence didn’t let down, with another shimmery mix of anthems and folky ballads. Helio Sequence is just two people, but they make a really big sound, really driven by the drummer, which is probably why I like them so much.
Song: Downward Spiral
8. Mount Eerie – Ocean Roar/Clear Moon
Phil Elverum gets two spots on the list because when you make two good ones in a year you can be on the list twice. That said, Ocean Roar is my favorite of the two. I don’t think either one is quite as good as Wind’s Poem, but Elverum has two kinds of sound that I like, grinding and relentless noise, and soft wispy poetry, and together the releases have lots of both. I don’t think I could dislike anything he puts out.
Song: Engel Der Luft (Popol Vuh), Through the Trees, Pt. 2
7. Calexico – Algiers
Full disclosure, Calexico is my favorite band so they would make the list any year they had a release. But I think Algiers is the best thing they have put out since Feast of Wire. They notably recorded this is New Orleans as opposed to the usual home studio in Tucson. I don’t really hear a difference though; to me it sounds like classic Calexico, wide array of influences, full, rich sound and catchy songs all with a southwestern undercurrent.
6. Swans – The Seer
Holy shit, Swans, The Seer. This should be my number one. We’re entering that range. It took me some time to come around to this one, because it is a monstrous, unforgiving, epic record. Listening to The Seer is like listening to the end of the world. In fact, it is so deep and layered and overpowering, that it took me multiple tries before I got through it. But once I did, I haven’t started it without finishing it. The build up and the persistent vision, running throughout nearly two hours, is not something you get in many records.
Song: What else? The 32-minute-long centerpiece, The Seer
5. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
Man, there’s not much else to say in praise of Frank Ocean that hasn’t been said a hundred times and is totally true. The story behind the record certainly helps, and it’s refreshing to have a voice in hip-hop that isn’t afraid to cut against stereotype. It’s a really beautiful record.
Song: Bad Religion
4. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Killer Mike says rap music is his religion, and this is a kind-of-retro but completely fresh tribute to it. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Killer Mike made a rap album with the best elements of the entire history of the genre. I like that it has a lot of heart and conscience, but it’s still not afraid to be angry. I’ve been wanting to hear a rap song saying “I’m glad Reagan’s dead” my whole life and I never knew it. El-P’s beats are incredible, but Killer Mike’s verses are like jumper cables.
Song: R.A.P. Music
3. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
I mentioned with Red, I listened to it three times in a row the first time I heard it. With Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory, I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it fewer than three times in a row. It helps that it’s a ripping, 33-minute, 8-song set, but I basically always want to be listening to Attack on Memory. It’s fast and heavy, but it’s not afraid to draw out a song or drone on at times. The opening song, for example, is a sluggish and wailing introduction, followed by Wasted Days, which has a Ramones machine-gun pace, but rages on for nine minutes, it’s bratty, furious chorus cycles back angrier and angrier. All that, and it’s extremely catchy.
Song: Wasted Days
2. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
Every Fiona Apple record, as rare as they are, reveals a bit more about what it’s like inside Fiona Apple’s head. It is highly emotional, very fun, and a little scary. Apple’s musical styles run far and wide, and The Idler Wheel throws them all together to the point of near schizophrenia. In Werewolf, the final 40 seconds of low, echoing piano is countered by barely audible sounds of children playing. She has so many influences, but it also sounds like she’s never heard any other music ever made. But the thing I really like about it are the lyrics. It has the kind of lines that get stuck in your head, not the melodies but the words themselves, rolling over in your head over and over until you realize their full emotional weight. Which, again, is a lot like what must go on inside Fiona Apple’s head all the time.
1. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
With so much weighty music on the list this year, it feels a little frivolous to have a fist-pumping, sing-along rock record as my favorite. But one of my favorite types of music is guitar rock that sounds triumphant, but carries tragic lyrics. Celebration Rock is like The Hold Steady’s Stay Positive, in that right down to the name, you could easily be tricked into thinking you’re listening to feel-good music. Another drum-driven, two-man band, they make an incredible amount of noise. One criticism of this music I’ve heard is that it plays mostly to middle-aged men’s senses of rock nostalgia. Fair enough, but the reason it’s my favorite record of the year, is that even after countless listens, starting it up for another time it still has the same punch as when I first heard it.
Song: The House That Heaven Built