The Best Albums Of 2012

Posted December 22, 2012 in Music

A democratic end-of-year list is a tough thing to get right. You’re going to piss somebody off no matter what you do. With a team of music critics as vast and diverse as your friendly group of hacks here at Totally Stockholm, consensus is a rare outcome. In a year where the dominant narrative in music criticism seemed to be something along the lines of, “there is no dominant narrative!”, it was likely to be impossible. So that’s why we turned to the Wire, a mag of similar repute to our own, in the hope of finding a voting system that would fairly represent the ever-so-refined tastes of our golden-eared writers. Votes were solicited from the team, all seven of us, asking for an ordered list of everyone’s top ten albums of 2012. The top album received 10 points while the tenth album received one point. The deciding factor however, was how many lists an album appeared on. The winner appeared on almost 60% of the votes, winning out despite having less points than the runner up. If any two albums both appeared on the same amount of votes, the points were used to determine the outcome.

It was a slightly convoluted system but we wanted a fair and honest election. We believe we got it. You, undoubtedly, believe we got it all wrong. Feel free to tell us all about that in the comments. Anyway, here’s to our favourite records of 2012, you gave us much joy.

10. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory

Having made a lo-fi indie-pop splash with his first record, the impossibly young Dylan Baldi made the unlikely step-up to work with legendary engineer Steve Albini on the follow-up. Attack On Memory is, as you’d probably expect, a lot heavier, a lot more complex and generally just a lot better. Given the full fidelity and impact of Albini’s engineering, Baldi’s songs take on new weight and while his attempts at classic post-hardcore screaming are perhaps more endearing than impressive, the musical performances have really matured. It sounds like a bunch of bands from the 90s (and the 70s and the 80s) but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe Baldi will lead the 21st century hardcore revolution?

9. Mount Eerie – Clear Moon

The original lo-fi folk hermit, Phil Elverum was isolating himself in log cabins aeons before Justin Vernon ever glanced at Northern Exposure and grew his beard out. With Clear Moon, Elverum may have even trumped The Glow Pt. 2, long considered his finest hour. Altering typical sounds and emotions into a repetitive, drone-y and at times ambient affair, the record broadens his scope, mixing a delicately low vocal timbre against soft synth walls and foggy noisescapes. The otherworldly ‘House Shape’ was probably the first perfect song of 2012. The definition of a burner, the track builds at a slow, steady, foot-stomping pace as guitars and synthesisers swirl around the percussion. Then, layered, slightly distorted vocals drop into the mix and all becomes clear. Phil Elverum can convey more emotions in ninety seconds than others can over the course of a full album. This is music to keep you up at night. Go forth and feel!

8. Swans – The Seer

Two hours of excruciating physical pain, mental torture and delayed ecstasy doesn’t sound like it would make for one of the best albums of the year but then, Michael Gira seems to know a thing or two about the expression of pain. He knows about the duality of heaven and hell too, how the line between the two can become blurred. How too much of one is much like the other. The Seer takes the momentum, swagger and weight of every Swans release in the last 30 odd years and crams it into six glorious sides of wax. Gira and his band at their finest, wearing their age as a badge and revelling in the gritty, glorious experience of mature male physicality and sexuality. There’s a reason Gira is one of the few men who can get away with wearing a cowboy hat and it is embedded deep in every single song on this masterful album.

7. Merchandise – Children of Desire

The sound of punks going soft results in one of the best wimp-pop albums of the year – who’da thunk it? Featuring David Vassalotti of the excellent and sadly defunct Cult Ritual, Merchandise have built on their promising first LP and several 7″s and created a surprisingly cohesive amalgamation of early 90s weirdness from the UK (there’s distinct echoes of Bark Psychosis and Disco Inferno in tracks like ‘Become What You Are’ and ‘In Nightmare Room’), pyschedelia and noise, all smushed together and presided over by Carson Cox’s emotive vocals, which call to mind Ian Curtis and Morrissey, while still being distinctive enough to avoid being a third-rate emulation of them. More importantly, regardless of reference points, the songs are very strong in their own right, ‘Time’ surely being one of the best tunes of the year. Children of Desire is available as a free download from the fine Brooklyn-based Katorga Works label.

6. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

Having produced a string of highly conceptual, routinely arch and musically ornate works, Dave Longstreth was inevitably going to attract a lot of attention for producing an album that was just plain songwriting. What counts as “plain” for the Dirty Projectors would inevitably be hard to pin down and still more involving and nuanced than music by any but a handful of their contemporaries, such is Longstreth’s idiosyncrasy. An so Swing Lo Magellan proved: along with shedding the conceptual artifice, some of the DP’s more overt musical tricks like the Amber Coffman/Angel Deradoorian hocketing vocal interplay and Brian McOmber’s heavy rock drums are toned way back, while Dave’s fidgety ADHD guitar playing is also less prominent, if still underpinning some of the tunes. In their place are relatively simpler musical gestures: the cooing chordal vocal harmonies over a breakbeat on lead single ‘Gun Has No Trigger’, the title track’s John Wesley Harding tribute (they had covered two tracks from that album on their previous tour) to unmanicured but affecting lovesong ‘Impregnable Question’. That is not to say that the record was in anyway dumbed-down. As ‘About To Die’ and ‘Maybe That Was It’ proved, on this album Longstreth’s unique musical voice is still as mischievous as ever but also no less affecting in a more direct setting.

5. Ginnels – Crowns

We made an editorial decision way, way back that TD would avoid tokenism when critiquing Irish releases. There are no extra points for happening to live in the same postcode as the reviewer, no let-offs just because we know how much better a given collection of songs might sound live. Now, Ginnels’ Mark Chester isn’t actually Irish, but Crowns couldn’t be more of a Dublin 2012 album. Thanks to Popical Island our city’s lo-fi indie pop scene has been in overdrive for the past three years, creating a Sarah or K Records level of twee-pop output. As with those two indie label cornerstones, however, its self-sufficiency, its seeming insularity has rendered that output islanded from view.

Ginnels 2011 debut, a self-titled salvo of jangle and noise, featuring the transcendent Kirkby Lonsdale, set itself apart by taking the wistful songwriting of its sister bands but employing post-production techniques that put texture to the fore. It stood as reminder that just because music is made under a lo-fi aesthetic, does not mean it should eschew the studio altogether. 

Crowns puts the onus back on songcraft, taking the usual C86 and Dunedin sound reference points. Nobody needs a pure jangle-pop double album in 2012 though – the hooks are outstanding (It’s Not A Summer Without Your Love touches the anthemic highs of Kirkby Lonsdale, and Childish Lane Story is a callback to Hard To Explain-era Strokes), but it’s touches like the discordant reverb of Festival Walls or the arpeggiated synth outro of Wake Up Normal that exemplify a producer at work. Seriously – you’d find a vocal loop like the one that backbones Estendarm on one of The Field’s minimal masterpieces. The notion of ‘the producer’ has mutated in the past couple of years to a point in both commercial and underground dance and pop music where we talk about the person behind the laptop the way we now do football managers: the architects, the strategists, the auteur. Ginnels’ Crowns brings that conversation into the indie sphere, and its that victory, and not geographical concerns that place it so highly in our end-of-year list.

4. Animal Collective – Centipede Hz

Centipede Hz was put in a difficult position by being the “official follow-up” to an album whose popularity Animal Collective could never hope to match, Merriweather Post Pavilion. Wisely, instead of trying to meet those unrealistic expectations, AC did what they do best and ploughed their own wild furrow. Centipede Hz took conceptual influence from abstracted, imaginary intergalactic radio stations and the Cantina Band from The Return of the Jedi (well, supposedly) and created an overstuffed, chaotic and complicated record that pretty much only Animal Collective could have made. In more concrete terms, it was fuelled by a love of European prog-rock, Silver Apples, MPB and the situation of four old friends writing music together in their hometown of Baltimore again. At times heavy going but at times sublime, Centipede Hz especially took life when presented live at Vicar Street last November.

3. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city

Kendrick was what they call a safe bet. Having reached a huge audience with a pre-album mixtape, clicked with both the post-Odd Future Tumblr rap crowd and the ‘hip hop is dead’ lifers and exploded into general consciousness with the age-old, fail-safe method of carrying Dr. Dre on one of the year’s best songs, never mind debut singles, The Recipe. good kid, m.A.A.d city, or Good Kid, Mad City if you prefer, is a phenomenally ambitious record that weaves its concept — an innately nice guy trying to navigate the scyllas and charybdises of alcohol, gangs, sex, theft and violence that Compton throws up — imperceptibly into songs that would, and do, stand on their own if you split them out for radio. It’s a landmark in rap music, showing ‘ignorant’ and ‘conscious’ as a false dichotomy and staying uncompromising while still hooking the casual fan.

2. Grizzly Bear – Shields

There are certain unspoken musical variables that, when the timing is right, bind together to form a record that is truly special. Grizzly Bear took a well-wanted 6-month hiatus following relentless touring of 2009’s Veckatimest – an album that had more than just a few touches of mastery. Shields sees Grizzly Bear reach these noteworthy heights with a rawness and passionate energy that was missing on previous offerings. The songs are direct and in your face, the production is crisp and the delivery is full and cohesive. This is a band who are not afraid to push their creative boundaries and as a result find themselves at the top of their game.

1. Grimes – Visions

Wrapped in a winter coat and puffing clouds of breath, rainbow-dyed hair veering towards a greasy green – even through tour-grot, Grimes emergent star power was plain to see at her first trip to Dublin post-Visions at Forbidden Fruit this summer. An album this ubiquitous (and this influential on the hair-dye industry) always risks backlash, but Visions was lucky enough to have the safeguard of niche predecessors. You can’t buy authenticity like having Halifaxa in your back catalogue, an album excellent in its own right, but very much part of that North American vampy-girls-with-synths continuum.

Visions lack of apparent artifice is its major selling point. Much has been made of the helping hand of amphetamines in the process of creating this album – whether true or not, the emotional smudginess and soft psychedelia lends it a mid-pills potency, a feeling of those giddy snippets of connection with somebody you’ve just met in a queue for a gaff party bathroom.

On a musical level, were there better-crafted albums released this year? Of course. But this is pop music, and messy pop music at that; in a period of high-precision production it’s Visions flaws the keep bringing us back.

Honourable Mentions:

Chromatics – Kill For Love

Hitting the same emotional heights as our number 1, Johnny Jewel’s mastery of his craft is undisputed. Kill For Love is untouchable in its own right, but we’d like to see Jewel bring in new elements to the template now that he’s completed his own game on hard mode.

Ital – Hive Mind

The beefier of Daniel Martin-McCormick’s two releases this year, Hive Mind was an early highlight, exactly the kind of house record you’d expect somebody from such a distinguished punk/noise background. Clever subversion, but never contrarianism, makes this the perfect companion piece to Pete Swanson’s 2011 winner, Man With Potential.

Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Considering how removed Fiona Apple appeared to make herself from present day music scene (7 years since her last album and seemingly existing in an old-world, major-label existence) her return to the fray seemed to be executed fairly effortlessly, and the reception that she was granted seemed evidence of how singular a talent she is still considered. Aside from Apple’s typically fraught lyrical world and faintly jazz-tinted piano, The Idler Wheel… has a unity of purpose fuelled by the wonderful percussion of Charley Drayton. The music is for the most sparse and vital, offering just the right amount of sonic and musical variations on a basic theme to carry a whole album’s worth of heavy material.

Mumblin’ Deaf Ro – Dictionary Crimes

We described this record to its creator as “frontloaded with miserable hits”, which was as flippant a way of describing these brutal, beautiful songs about the stresses and strains of what it means to be a part of a family. Musically, Dictionary Crimes is more pared-back than Ro’s previous records, focused primarily on a twin acoustic guitar with sparse bass and rhythmic accompaniment. Said line-up ties in with a stricter lyrical focus dealing with at least partly autobiographical illnesses, deaths, worries and loves articulated with delicacy and honesty matched by very few songwriters.

Death Grips – The Money Store

Following the raw slab of malcontent that was Exmillitary, Death Grips emerged with the first of two ambitious releases. Flawless production, catchy hooks and MC Ride’s unfiltered, abrasive style made for the most obtuse and yet forward thinking hip-hop record of 2012.

Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It

Mike Hadreas’ debut record Learning offered tender but bruised vignettes depicting characters of a life left behind. His self-assured sophomore effort adds lush swells of instrumentation and augmented production to his simple but effective piano-driven chamber pop.

Meyhem Lauren – Respect The Fly Shit

“I ain’t bringing shit back, New York we never left.” Except he did, to go to SXSW, where he got a rake of Harry Fraud beats and features from Action Bronson, Heems and Riff Raff among others, on an alarmingly perfect, fun, loose mixtape.

Nicki Minaj – Roman Reloaded

Simultaneously an almost inexplicably weird record with circusy character swapping, a top level rapper bragging vehicle and a collection of pop tunes of true abandon.

Chris Cohen – Overgrown Path

This delightfully humble little record is a textbook grower, revealing its richness over repeated listenings. There’s a consistently loose and relaxed manner about Cohen’s playing that gives the album a general air of unhurriedness which draws the listener in again and again.

Goat – World Music

A joyous amalgamation of afrobeat, pitch perfect psychedelia, and Sabbath at their most stoned and mystic. The best party record of the year.

Tame Impala – Lonerism

Psychedelic Aussies break the “awkward second album” syndrome with aplomb. Think of it as bad pop in a good way. 

Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes

Brainfeeder Record’s very own Dr. Greenthumb offers a jazzy, beat heavy, lucid trip on his fourth LP, picking up some well known names along the way. 

Voices From The Lake – Voices From The Lake

Neel & Dozzy’s blend of atmosphere and subtle-yet-propulsive rhythm is unlike anything else in the techno universe this year.

Aine O’Dwyer – Music For Church Cleaners

Managing to sound relaxed and sacred at once is no easy feat. Church organs echo out, sounding beautiful in every way.

Container – LP

Rhode Island noise maker refines his damaged techno experiments into five hard-hitting slices of Drexciya-like electro madness.

Actress – RIP

UK producer Darren Cunningham’s angular and dynamic second album made a Splazsh in the electronic world, but his follow up is nothing short of visionary. A transcendent and immersive personal journey through desolate landscapes.

Laurel Halo – Quarantine

It makes sense that the odyssey in alienation that is Quarantine wouldn’t make top 10 in a consensus chart. Halo’s work is a piece of brute force that is not necessarily divisive, but requires either a strong disposition or some quick adaption to its queasy atmosphere.

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

Indicative of the re-embracing of cinematic scope the album format offers that resulted in some of the year’s best, Channel Orange is sprawling, progressive, and at times masterful. Gaining a popular vote as Album of the Year across other media is impressive given Ocean’s introspection here.

Jogging – Take Courage

Building on their excellent debut, Jogging deliver another forceful slab of complex and emotive shoutrock.

Jessie Ware – Devotion

As with Katy B before her, Jessie Ware is a bulwark to mainstream values for pop stars. Emphasizing song-craft doesn’t stop her from hitting diva mode on Wildest Moments, and its utilization of lessons from London crossover house make it the perfect mirror to chart pop.



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