Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Year-End Report: Looking Back at 2012 - Top 50 Albums 50-41

My look back at the past year resumes with my Top 50 Albums of 2012. I will be counting them down ten at a time and will include a stream of my favorite track from each via Spotify. This first ten finds several of my old favorites releasing their best albums in a long time. This section ended up being a lot more chill and relaxed than the subsequent ones. It’s amazing that these are so far back in the countdown, because as I was writing about them, I was remembering some significant memories attached to the tunes found below. If you aren't already familiar, get ready to discover some new favorites that may be associated with your own (hopefully positive) memories.

50.Title Fight - Floral Green

Having moved by to northeastern Pennsylvania, the hardest hit I have taken is the lack of music. Anyone from the area will tell you that going out to see live music means seeing a classic rock cover band in a dive bar, not exactly my scene. Every once in a while, a band will emerge that does the area proud. Title Fight from Kingston, PA released an impeccable slab of post-hardcore with their latest, Floral Green, which has brought them accolades on the national level. Unfortunately, this recognition means they aren't playing their NEPA home anymore. But knowing that a band from here was able to craft punk anthems like “Secret Society” and open for Quicksand, gives one hometown pride.

49. The Cast of Cheers - Family

Despite the goofy name, The Cast of Cheers has produced one of the most carefully calculated indie pop records with Family. The start-stop riffs and jittery rhythms are enough to please math rocks fans and the inspired songwriting will draw in anyone that can appreciate a good hook. Family is much more immediately pleasing than the Irish band's debut, Chariot, without losing any of the vigor. “Animal” is an exuberant track that shows just how they combine complicated elements to create something you need to continually revisit.

48. Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again

In 2011, I heard the single “Home Again” by British R&B/soul singer Michael Kiwanuka and I was infatuated with the smooth and timeless sound it possessed. It came at a time where I was obsessively listened to the greats such as Jerry Butler, Otis Redding, and Terry Callier. Along came Kiwanuka and the eureka moment where I realized there are still artists writing music in that same vein and doing so with the equivalent passion and skill. “Bones” sounds like a lost Motown tune and “I’m Getting Ready” has a pensive style that seems impossible to be coming from such a young singer. There may not be much diversity among the tracks, but with such poignant delivery and solid writing, it’s hard to notice.

47. Here We Go Magic - A Different Ship

A Different Ship is the album I think most of us were waiting for Here We Go Magic to release. Producer Nigel Godrich, often referred to as the “sixth member” of Radiohead, does a masterful job of accenting the quality of these tracks. As I mentioned when I first posted about the album, there is an underlying Radiohead influence that contributes to the aesthetic without overwhelming their own style on tracks like the shimmering “Over the Ocean”. The single “How Do I Know” is a fantastic example of how Luke Temple’s songwriting often recalls the brilliant simplicity of classic rock.

46. The Walkmen - Heaven

I feel like The Walkmen get a bad rap every time they release a record. Not quirky enough for the hipsters and too hip for the garage rockers, they can never get the recognition they deserve. The truth is that they are just a rock band, plain and simple. I think there are so few pure rock bands that we forget what one even sounds like. The band doesn't have any gimmicks, unless you count insanely tight songwriting as a gimmick. They take a little piece from the highlights of your record collection and assemble them to make something with a modern tint. Take a bit of Dylan’s contemplative murmur add The Velvet Underground’s art rock guitar licks and top it off with some Springsteen’s ostentatious flair and you’ll have an idea where they are coming from. The impassioned transformations that take place in “We Can’t Be Beat“ are some of the more gripping moments of 2012.

45. The Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth

John Darnielle is quite the wordsmith, even sparking fans to petition for him to be appointed United States Poet Laureate. It was a fitting campaign as he has been writing about the American landscape for quite some time and few do it better than him. His distinctive voice and unique perspective continues to generate indie folk masterpieces. Far from the acoustic boombox recordings that made The Mountain Goats cult favorites, Transcendental Youth continues the transition into lusher arrangements without losing the project’s initial charm. This dark but spirited collection is Darnielle’s finest offering since 2005’s The Sunset Tree.

44. Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls

Boy, did I get this one right! I have been obsessively writing about Alabama Shakes since their inception when they were known simply as The Shakes. The band, led by the powerful vocals and muddy guitar licks of Brittany Howard, has taken the world by storm with their impressive retro-rock blues tunes. On the strength of songs like “Hold On” and “You Ain't Alone”, they have quickly built a reputation as one of the more important up-and-coming groups that are looking to the past for inspiration. It makes me even more thankful that I made the last minute decision to see them live a while back, because they have been selling out much bigger venues ever since.

43. Sharon Van Etten - Tramp

For Tramp, Sharon Van Etten employed a band to flesh out her sound. The record was produced by the National's Aaron Dessner, who does a fantastic job of framing Etten’s voice around the richer instrumentation. Few songs in 2012 were as guilty as “Give Out” for sending unending chills down my spine. Her vulnerable and deeply affecting voice is the only one that could carry the tales of uncertainty found within the record’s grooves.

42. Hallelujah the Hills - No One Knows What Happens Next

It amazes me that Hallelujah the Hills eludes more national praise. No One Knows What Happens Next is where the band has really honed their sound. They utilize varied instrumentation and intrinsic songwriting to create songs as strong as any of the big name indie artists without many of indulgent moments that those bands fall prey to. Ryan Walsh has become one of my favorite lyricists that can construct introspective narratives without becoming trite on songs like “Hungry Ghost Extraordinaire” and “Call Off Your Horses” The latter has one of the more moving choruses from last year and the call-to-arms lyrics get my blood pumping every time it kicks in. Basically, I’m rehashing what I said earlier last year, but I still feel just as strongly about this record now as I did then.

41. Dr. Dog - Be the Void

Dr. Dog uses their heavy pop tendencies to their advantage and has become one of the most consistent bands in indie rock. The underlying Beatles influence that they are known for is still there, but they fiddle with their sound just enough so it doesn't get stale from album to album. The darker vibe of Shame, Shame continues here with the songwriting becoming slightly rawer and more sonically adventurous. Standout “Warrior Man” plays like a warped David Bowie track while allowing the band’s wry humor to shine through a bit. Right from the first time heard the lethargic stomp of opener “Lonesome”, it was evident that they weren't going to let down their ever-growing fanbase.

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