Top 10 Albums of 2012

Because there aren’t enough of these lists available online, and because I don’t have anything like final papers or websites to finish, I compiled a list of my favorite albums of 2012.

So here they are, it’s a pretty eclectic mix. Some were chosen because I absolutely love listening to them, others were chosen for the overall quality and importance. However, if I just didn’t enjoy the album then I left it off despite the importance, looking at you channel ORANGE.

I had removed my reference to Aaron Bumgarner’s inferior top ten list, but I will bring it back after reading his comments. His list is over on his blog.

Even though his list is obviously not as good, and I somehow have interfered with his time honored tradition of awarding the “Bummies” in September (no idea the logic there), you should read his just to compare.

Lets get started.

10. Coexist – the xx

Many of you would place the highly anticipated follow-up to a British band’s 2009 debut album on this list, but most people would be referring to Babel by Mumford and Sons.

This follow-up to the xx’s excellent self-titled debut album struggles to live up to the expectation of the first. While a solid album, one that could only be made by this group of three musicians, it becomes boring at times.

What is amazing about the first album is that they constantly skirt on the edge of monotony, but the percussion of Jamie xx and the sparse guitar and bass keep things moving at the perfect pace throughout. This album, tends to fall over that line sometimes.

However, this is still a great album made by a great band. They have made better and they will make something better in the future, but this is certainly something great to listen to until the day comes.

Best Song: “Chained”

9. Gravity – Lecrae

Fans of Reach Records and the 116 Clique may argue that Trip Lee’s The Good Life was the better album from this crew this year. I disagree, but I can see where someone might think that.

This album is chosen for cultural significance as much as its quality. When released, it was the top seller on iTunes. It features a collaboration with “secular” rapper and frequent contributor to The Roots, Big K.R.I.T, and production from some big names in the industry. Despite the secular feel to some of it, Lecrae never backs down from his straight-forward, truth-telling lyricism. Songs such as “Walk With Me”, “Falling Down”, “Power Trip”, and “Violence” are far cries from the days of “ridin with my top down listenin to this Jesus Muzik”.

Lovers of rap may be able get over the lyrics and just enjoy the quality of this album, but they can’t get away from the message. With little weak spots (“Higher”) and great collaborations with his Reach Records partners, Gravity is the second best Hip-Hop album of the year.

Best Song: “Fallin Down(feat. Swoope and Trip Lee)”

8. Good kid, M.a.a.d city – Kendrick Lamar

Following up Lecrae comes the best Hip-Hop album of the year. Kendrick Lamar, a man who has publicly supported Lecrae’s music, put out this highly anticipated album to incredible critical acclaim. Receiving ratings reserved only for the greatest rap albums ever, garnering a rare XXL rating from XXL magazine, I knew I had to listen to Lamar’s album.

It is a concept album, through and through, in which the now 25 year old rapper takes us through the life of a 17 year-old Kendrick Lamar. The Compton rapper begins the album with a confession of faith that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lecrae album. He continues, song after song, to hang out with friends, making bad decision after bad decision. Songs are interspersed with voicemails from his parents scolding him. It’s like a movie, I don’t want to ruin anything for you by telling you what happens. Since it is so linear, it is hard to pick the best song from the album.

Lamar doesn’t skirt around explicit discussions of his behavior or obscene language, so don’t get the idea that this is safe for kids or something. Which leads to some problems with the album.

My main problem is that I couldn’t really figure out what Lamar’s perspective was. Is he an acknowledged sinner asking for forgiveness? Or a teenager basking in the glories of his bad behavior? That may be the genius of this album, that it stands alone as a piece of art, ready to be pulled apart and dissected. I honestly can’t say that I listen to this over and over again, but I don’t watch long, complicated movies over and over again either. While I listen to Lecrae’s album often, it is Lamar’s that is the most significant Hip-Hop album of the year.

Best Song -Listen to the whole album or don’t listen to it at all. I feel like individual songs are too out of context to be singled out.

7. Boys & Girls – Alabama Shakes

Let’s switch gears from our two Hip-Hop albums to this gem of an album. Alabama Shakes formed in 2009, playing what is defined as “roots rock”. I can’t define roots rock, but I can listen to this album and know exactly what it is. Lead singer Brittany Howard, with a voice reminiscent of Janis Joplin, howls over groovy bass lines in an album that is a foot-stomping good time. This is an album I had heard about, but I had failed to listen to until recently. I’m mad that I’ve been missing out.

I love music that take you to a place or time period just with the music. Boys & Girls takes you to the American South in the 60s and 70s. Sounding like it was recorded in their garage (and if you know me, you know that’s a good thing), Howard comes unhinged at times and the album is better when she does. This makes you want to jump out of your chair and dance. I’ve got a feeling this group is going to be making great music for a long time.

Best Song -“Hold On”

6. Blunderbuss – Jack White

Jack White’s first solo album was just about what fans would expect from him: great.

White, who actually has worked with Alabama Shakes, came to fame as the guitarist and front man for The White Stripes. Although he was obviously the creative force of The White Stripes, it seems that the solo album allows him to explore all of his musical eccentricities to their fullest extent.

Some songs, such as “Sixteen Saltines” wouldn’t sound out of place on Elephant while “Freedom At 21” and “Love Interruption” would only fit on Blunderbuss. As with all of Jack White’s music, parts of this album sound like music from 1940 being made with today’s technology. White could probably release an album of Son House and Robert Johnson covers and everyone would just assume they were songs he had written. Mixing his signature Detroit rock and blues with elements of country Blunderbuss is a solid album from one of the greatest artists in our time.

Keith Richards says in the recent Rolling Stones documentary “Crossfire Hurricane” that “Midnight Rambler” was the only Rolling Stones song that no one else could have written besides he and Mick Jagger. While that may be an exaggeration, I think the opposite applies to White. I don’t know of anyone living that could write the songs that White does.

Somehow, White is very famous despite all of his eccentricities that would make his music seem inaccessible. Whether you love him or hate him, he is an incredibly unique artist in a world of cookie cutter rock stars.

5. Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now – Justin Townes Earle

If you haven’t been listening to Justin Townes Earle, repent of your sins and start now. The son of well-known musician and songwriter Steve Earle, Justin began touring with his father as a teenager. Not only did he inherit musical ability from his dad, but also terrible drug habits and alcoholism. Now in his early 30s, those days are behind him, but the pain felt in his early years remains in his songs.

Earle is one of the finest songwriters alive today, writing incredibly honest and open songs about his life. Earle can’t seem to escape the problems caused by his father (“Mama’s Eyes” off of Midnight at the Movies is a great example of this and one of my all-time favorite songs), and his songs throughout his career have ached of a deep sadness. This is not to suggest that this album is a complete downer, songs like “Memphis in the Rain” and “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea” have an upbeat feel to them.

Earle mixes country, blues, and folk into his music. It’s the closest thing to country music that I listen to, so if you hate country you should at least give it a try.

I love quality music, I really appreciate great musicianship, but more than anything I listen to music for well-written lyrics. Justin Townes Earle’s music has all of these qualities. I get the feeling that his songs come straight from his diaries, as each album seems like a different chapter in his life. The best song on the album “Movin’ On” discusses his relationship with his parents again and he sings that he is “tryin to move on”. For his personal sake, I hope he can. For his music’s sake, I hope he continues to write about it the whole way through.

Best Song – “Movin’ On”

4. Heaven – The Walkmen

The Walkmen is, without a doubt,  the best band that I have seen live in front of the Fred Jones Art Museum at OU for free (and the only one). Heaven is the latest effort from indie rock veterans.

I love this album because you can sense the growth that the band has made as artists in their decade of existence. These songs are introspective without being self-defeating. They are fun, without being silly.

“We Can’t Be Beat” begins the album with a slow building song that ends with lead singer Hamilton Leithauser wailing over the signature guitar sounds of the Walkmen.

“Love is Luck” continues right where that song leaves off and the entire album just has a great feel about it. That may not be great musical analysis, but this is just an overall good album. This is the first Walkmen album without some serious missteps in it, (Lisbon has only a few however). The members of the band have grown up and made some seriously good music.

Leithauser has a unique voice that might turn some off, and his almost bored delivery in some songs is reminiscent of Julian Casablancas of the Strokes. But like Casablancas, it is when Leithauser lets go and becomes unhinged that he excels. Heaven is actually a little short on these type of songs, but “Heartbreaker” features a little bit of that old passion.

Best Song – “Heartbreaker”

3. My Head is an Animal – Of Monsters and Men

This debut album of an Icelandic folk band that sings about monsters, mountains, and mythical beings became a surprise hit this year. This was the soundtrack to my summer. A strong offering from start to finish, My Head is an Animal is chock full of great songs.

The album name comes from the second line in “Dirty Paws” and it tells you everything you need to know about the lyrics of this album. Coming from the isolated country of Iceland, lead singers Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson (gosh, I love Icelandic names) sing songs about the things around them. I mean, I assume there are monsters in Iceland, right?

“Little Talks” has been everywhere, but don’t rule out the rest of the album. “King and Lionheart”, “Six Weeks” and “Mountain Sound” are all excellent songs. Using instruments ranging from glockenspiel to trumpet to guitar, the music is as unique as the lyrics. Maybe the best thing about this album is the feeling you get while listening to it. It’s like being in a fairy tale, and you know you’ve always wanted to feel like that.

Best Song – “King and Lionheart”

2. Give Us Rest Or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys]) – David Crowder Band

This may come as a surprise to those of you who know that I don’t usually enjoy Contemporary Christian music, but it shouldn’t be surprising if you have heard this album.

What other band would use these elements in one album: Bluegrass, Rock, Gregorian Chants, a cover of a Kris Kristofferson song, and traditional church hymns, all set to the liturgy of a Requiem Mass? Only the breathtaking musicians of the David Crowder Band would even attempt something like this, and they pull it off expertly.

The final album of this incredible band had high expectations for fans that have followed the group for the previous six full-length albums. A Collision is, without a doubt, their best album previous to Give Us Rest, and I didn’t know how a new record could compare. Coming off of their dance infused Church Music album, Give Us Rest returned to the roots of what made them popular, but it didn’t take a step back. What makes DC*B so incredible is their constant progress in a genre so marked by staleness. Give Us Rest is the magnum opus of a group known for doing things uniquely and on a grand scale.

These Baptist boys from Waco, TX stayed as true as possible to the order of a Requiem Mass, even including Catholic prayers, but that doesn’t mean they forgot where they came from either. The album ends as perfectly as any final offering of any band could, with five traditional church hymns that these guys likely grew up singing in church. For long time fans of the David Crowder Band, this album is a must. Likewise, if you have never heard a DC*B album, or even if you hate Christian music, I don’t think you could come away from this album unimpressed with the ability and grand scale of the album.

Best Song – “Oh Great God, Give Us Rest”

1. Locked Down – Dr. John

In a musical year full of surprise new artists releasing surprisingly great albums, perhaps its fitting that a 72 year-old blues man who started making music in the 1950s put out the best album this year.

Any biography of Dr. John I could give you wouldn’t do the man justice, you are going to have the learn about him yourself. Despite his vast musical experience, by most accounts his music has become stagnant over the last few years.

Enter Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys (full disclosure: my favorite band), who produced and played guitar on the album. This combination couldn’t have been better. Also helping on the album were a host of top musicians, complimenting Dr. John’s signature keyboard work.

Locked Down makes me feel like I should be committing a crime in 1940. Or it might make you think you are hunkered down in a small, dingy, smoky New Orleans VooDoo shop. You don’t smile when you listen to this, you put on a sinister face and you nod your head.

“Locked Down” starts everything off right, like the rest of the album, with a decidedly old school feel complimented by something that lets you know that it is still, somehow, 2012.

Dr. John’s voice is sinister, creepy, accusatory and at times even tender. This album has New Orleans coursing through it in every song. “Revolution” has big horns making you want to get up and move, keeping your stank face the whole time, of course. Speaking like a true Cajun on songs like “Kingdom of Izzness”, Dr. John discusses subject matter that only a Cajun could understand. “Eleggua” is a funky, absolutely unintelligible song about a VooDoo god. The sinister Dr. John is turned up to 11 on that song, I swear he is singing in Creole or Cajun because he says nothing close to an English word the whole song.

However, that is the last taste you get of the creepy, sinister Dr. John on the album. It finishes with “My Children, My Angels” and “God’s Sure Good”, the latter a gospel inspired hymn about God’s provision throughout his life. This is a man who has spent plenty of time on the seedier side of life, he gave up guitar at 21 after losing a part of his finger to a gunshot. However, he praises God for being so good to him and saving his soul, when it was “all I had to sell”.

I would say something about an old dog learning new tricks, but I don’t think that’s what has happened here. I think, with the help of Dan Auerbach and others, Dr. John has just rediscovered what made him great to begin with. Without this album, I likely would have only heard of Dr. John in passing, but with  Locked Down he has created a new generation of fans.

Best Song- “Revolution”

Honorable Mentions: Babel – Mumford and Sons, The Good Life – Trip Lee, Rhythm and Repose – Glen Hansard, Giants – Ivy Mike, Blak and Blu – Gary Clark Jr.

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