My Favorite Music of 2012 (So Far)

About the only thing you can rely on me to blog about these days is my annual favorite music post. But for the first time, this post has been in danger–not due to my laziness, but because of my pocketbook.

As anyone reading this knows, 2012 was not the kindest of years to me or my family. Being out of work for one third of the year, I wasn’t in a position to buy new music for most of the second half of 2012. Though I caught up on a number of releases once I had a few paychecks behind me, there’s still a long list of music that I just haven’t been able to pick up yet. I eventually broke down and made a sizable Amazon order (some for physical copies, some digital) since I no longer have my beloved Newbury Comics to visit in person. I haven’t actually made it to a proper record store since moving to San Diego, which is fairly shameful.

So all apologies to those artists I haven’t purchased discs from yet: Amanda Palmer, Scott Walker, Best Coast, Bruno Mars, David Byrne & St. Vincent, Bob Mould, and many others. I’ll get to you as soon as I can. I hope you can live with the disappointment of not being on Steve Danuser’s year-end list.

Anyway, please consider this posting a regretfully abridged version of my true musical favorites. As usual, I use the Cold Stone Creamery rating system to divide up my selections. Perhaps I’ll make a follow-up post early in 2013 to tack on a few more titles. Until then, these are the discs I’ve been turning to time and again over 2012–a year my soul was in need of music more than ever before.

> > Like It < <

Paul Banks – Banks – When an iconic voice from a familiar band makes a solo record, there is a dangerous line to be trod; it risks coming off as a watered-down version of what the band delivers, or it feels like a desperate attempt to be different. But on Banks, the vocalist of Interpol manages to walk unique ground without, for the most part, falling back on the familiar formula of his band. If there had never been an Interpol, this would still be a really good record worth buying.

Rufus Wainwright – Out of the Game – Wainwright is undoubtedly the greatest cabaret singer of his generation… not that there are a lot of cabaret singers on the scene these days. His voice has never faltered, though I confess his last album–All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, a tribute to his mother–didn’t resonate with me. I was glad to see Rufus return to form with a fun, sprawling record, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of his soaring Want One.

Tracey Thorn – Tinsel and Lights – It’s unusual for a Christmas album to make my year-end list, but Tracey Thorn’s voice is so gorgeous and enrapturing that I’d probably put a recording of her reading the phone book on my annual list. But in all seriousness, this tasteful mix of originals and covers is a wonderful collection that is playable throughout the year.

The Shins – Port of Morrow – It may sound like a backhanded compliment to say that the Shins are one of alternative music’s most reliable bands, but I don’t mean it in a negative way. When you buy one of their albums, you know you’re going to get quirky, well-crafted pop songs that you can hum along to, with the occasional hook or catchy line that flirts with brilliance. The songs become warm and familiar, if not totally memorable, but that’s okay–even without a deeper connection, it is nonetheless satisfying.

The Chieftains – Voice of Ages – This venerable Celtic group has made a ton of albums, most of which over the last decade or two have featured swarms of contemporary guest stars of various musical genres. Voice of Ages is no exception, with appearances by Bon Iver, The Civil Wars, The Decemberists, The Low Anthem, Punch Brothers, and many more. Most of the 15 tracks blend the folksy influences of the modern artists with the genuine stuff of the Chieftains. Lovely, and well worth listening to.

The Lumineers – The Lumineers – The influence of folk upon popular music has been extremely visible in recent years, to the point where a backlash may be rising among the too-hip-for-this crowd. But that doesn’t stop the Lumineers from delivering a delightful collection of songs that tip their hat to a folk influence while still feeling fresh and modern.

Norah Jones – Little Broken Hearts – Ms. Jones has always had a lovely voice, but it’s this collaboration with producer extraordinaire Danger Mouse that takes those talented pipes to another level entirely. Little Broken Hearts has a pulpy, film noire quality that comes off like vintage cool meets post-modern pop. It’s one of those records where, if you didn’t know the artist, you’d struggle to guess whether it was made today or 40 years ago. And that’s pretty damn cool if you ask me.

> > Love It < <

Dead Can Dance – Anastasis – Brooding, pretentious, and lovely, Dead Can Dance has always been greater than the sum of its two principal–and very talented–parts. After a long absence, Perry and Gerrard return with a sound that has aged well; Anastasis plugs seamlessly into the band’s esteemed catalog while still sounding like a record made in 2012. Fans didn’t hesitate to buy it, but this album deserves a fresh look from a broader audience.

Garbage – Not Your Kind of People – If you look at my CD library, you’d find that Garbage occupies a not-insignificant amount of shelf space. Having collected their many singles and rare compilations, they were one of my favorite bands of the late 90s/early 2000s. They’ve come back in 2012 without missing a step, and though others have copied the mix of confidence, sexiness, and catchy hooks, I’ll take the original any day.

Aimee Mann – Charmer – In a year when I had to be conscious of spending money, buying a new Aimee Mann record is a no-brainer. Mann’s records are deliciously crafted, blending soaring choruses with razor-sharp lyrics. Never a note or nuance wasted. Charmer is the kind of album that makes you want to become a musician while simultaneously making you realize you could never be this good.

Light Asylum – Light Asylum – If you’ve ever listened to Ministry’s mid-80s masterpiece Twitch and found yourself wondering what a true follow-up would have sounded like, then let Light Asylum answer the question for you. This is dark, aggressive dance pop with throbbing industrial undertones. It eschews slick production in favor of gritty immediacy–it feels like the kind of record a couple of musicians could make in their garage, and that’s a big part of the charm.

Beth Orton – Sugaring Season – Another old favorite returning after a lengthy absence, Orton’s voice remains warm and distinctive while adding new layers of wisdom and experience. Though I miss the electronic experiments she undertook earlier in her career, the instrumentation on this record is interesting and varied.

Beach House – Bloom – Delivering a sound that is shimmering and warm, this band is aptly named. Bloom washes over you like waves crashing against the shore–that’s not just a metaphor; if you close your eyes as you listen, you can almost feel it.

Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again – This wonderful blend of jazz, funk, folk, and soul sounds as if it could have been recorded in the 60s or 70s–that is to say, the cool parts of the 60s and 70s, not the kitchy parts. The instrumentation is great, but Kiwanuka’s voice is the real star here; he could give a young Stevie Wonder a run for his money.

> > Gotta Have It < <

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die – Just to get this out of the way, let’s be clear: Lana Del Rey is a character, a deliberately sculpted facade. This obvious fact–coupled with a shaky live performance on SNL–caused the lovely Ms. Grant to receive her share of backlash, but such theatrics fall well within the bounds of pop music tradition. I c0uld care less about the phenomenon; what wins me over about Lana Del Rey is how brilliantly constructed her music is. The catchy hooks and sharp production blend seamlessly with a Nancy Sinatra-like playfulness. On the surface the lyrics may seem obvious or even trite, but there is a brilliance to them that takes a while to fully appreciate. Del Rey juxtaposes hip-hop stereotypes with lines cribbed from Nabokov. She paints a dreamy, gloomy, disenchanted view of life, all delivered with the hint of a wry smile. Born to Die has been followed up by a series of singles and the Paradise EP, all well worth seeking out. As long as she can find new characters to play, I think Lana will be around for a long time.

The xx – Coexist – Trippy, sexy, cold, and romantic, the xx deliver a sophomore LP that lives up to all the promise of their first. The band has no fear of stretching out their grooves, filling their songs with achingly quiet moments that are every bit as captivating as the louder ones. It feels like this entire record could play out upon silken sheets in a breezy bedroom, an intimate affair that you just can’t walk away from. Shadowy yet warm, mysterious yet familiar. A really great record.

Crystal Castles – III – Of all the albums on my 2012 list, Crystal Castles delivers the most unadulterated audio assault. With a different production style, this might be nothing more than a charming, catchy dance record. But when cranked up to appropriate volume, its overwhelming distortion and pulsing grooves not only melt your eardrums, but threaten to warp reality itself. I’m not exaggerating; driving home late one night, free of any intoxicants in my bloodstream, I blasted this collection of songs and I thought the car was being bent by a black hole. A gorgeous record full of dangerous beats–listen with caution.

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar – It’s hard to understand how country music evolved from Patsy Cline and Hank Williams to what gets played on the radio these days, but if popular country sounded more like First Aid Kit, I’d be wearing cowboy boots and a big ol’ belt buckle. This band captures the charm and songwriting acumen of a young Dolly Parton, delivering simple, soaring tunes that make your feet tap and your heart yearn for quieter days. To dismiss this record as retro is to miss out on something modern and beautiful. It’s a sweeping, lovely collection of well-written songs that deserves to be played on any radio station, whether you call it country, pop, or alternative.

Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas – “I love to speak with Leonard. He’s a sportsman and a shepherd. He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” He also happens to be a bona fide musical treasure, and Old Ideas is, in my opinion, his best album since I’m Your Man. Nothing else need be said.

Silversun Pickups – Neck of the Woods – I must admit that on first listen I missed the early Smashing Pumpkins-like wash of guitars that so dominated their last record, Swoon, but the Pickups soon won me over with the slightly different direction taken by Neck of the Woods. While experimenting with some new sounds and textures–including one track with a bassline that recalls Peter Hook of New Order–the strength of the band’s songwriting hasn’t changed. This is indie rock at its finest.

Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man – The naked image of singer/songwriter Natasha Khan on the album cover is an apt metaphor for The Haunted Man, as well as a stark contrast to it. The picture is raw and unretouched, much like the openness and directness of the songs, yet the music is anything but black and white. Sometimes direct, sometimes swirling and ephemeral, this is a record that is obscure enough to be interesting but catchy and danceable enough to be accessible. There is a refreshing simplicity that keeps the music honest, and I’m already rabidly awaiting Khan’s next effort.

Mumford & Sons – Babel – When a band starts out small and obscure only to find themselves seemingly everywhere at once, there is a risk that their core fanbase will be alienated by mass appeal. And so it is with Mumford & Sons, whose last album began as an alterna-folk darling only to sell millions while being played in every tavern and frat house across the U.S. Their follow-up, Babel, is a rollicking collection that happens to be radio friendly in the extreme. Though the snotty former record-store clerk within me is tempted to turn my nose up at such success, the music lover in me wins out–the songs here, which range from catchy foot-stompers to introspective examinations of love and faith, are just too damn good to be a snob about. This band deserves every bit of attention and success they get.

Mark Eitzel – Don’t Be a Stranger – If the music world were fair and just, Mark Eitzel would routinely be mentioned in the same breath as Michael Stipe, and American Music Club would have made as much money as R.E.M. But life isn’t fair, and Eitzel has arguably done a much to sabotage his 0wn career as help it. His songs can be awkwardly named, prone to goofiness, and perhaps too numerous; yet they can be startlingly beautiful, deeply moving, and sharply personal. Perhaps the problem is that you never know which Eitzel you’re going to get… then again, that’s part of his charm. In any case, following a near-fatal heart attack, Mark Eitzel has delivered one of his most tightly crafted and meticulously produced solo albums of his career. This is an excellent record of great songs that deserves to be heard.

Cat Power – Sun – Early Cat Power records resonate with a ghostly sparseness that parallels the troubled personal life of their creator, Chan Marshall, whose sidewinding career has at times caused her to walk away from songwriting and performing altogether. But whatever Marshall’s current mental state, there is no trace of fragility on Sun. It is a booming, in-your-face affair that demands the attention of the listener. The songs remain firmly in the alternative camp while borrowing the lyrical cadence of hip-hop, a boldness perhaps fostered by her forays into soul music for her covers album The Greatest. After seeing Cat Power’s influence on so many artists, it’s great to have her back again, more vibrant than ever.

Paul Buchanan – Mid Air – It’s been said that while the Velvet Underground didn’t sell a lot of records, everyone who bought one started their own band. You could likely say much the same about Scottish band the Blue Nile, with the additional footnote that those who were already in bands probably covered one of their songs. The pace at which the Blue Nile has released music is notoriously slow, and singer Paul Buchanan is as much to blame as any other factor. When it seemed that his band had finally stalled out, Buchanan released a solo album of brief, almost fragmented songs… or, some might argue, fragments of songs, with most barely reaching two minutes in length, featuring breathlessly spare arrangements relying almost exclusively on whispered vocals and soft piano. To me, this is a strength rather than a weakness. The songs on Mid Air are the perfect distillation of what makes the Blue Nile great, and the spareness allows your own mind to fill in the musical gaps. This is one of the most touching records I’ve ever heard.

The Ting Tings – Sounds from Nowheresville – It’s rare that I use the word “sassy” to describe anything, but that’s the adjective that pops into my head when I think of the Ting Tings. Everything about Nowheresville is bold and brazen; it’s loud, aggressive, incessantly catchy, and imminently likable. There’s something for everyone here, as the band dips into No Doubt-like pop ska on one number before flying into 80s synth-pop on another, only to sprinkle bits of hip-hop into the next. When I’ve needed an album to yank me out of the dumps–and that’s happened plenty of times in 2012–the Ting Tings never let me down. My record of the year.

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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

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