Top 10 Albums of 2012
Frank Ocean - Channel Orange An obvious pick? Perhaps, but this album was simply mind-blowing. Ocean stretched R&B to its limit, and made one of the most diverse, emotionally engaging records of the year. From the light funk of "Sweet Life," to the ambitious prog-rock of "Pyramids," to the wrenching heartbreak of "Forrest Gump," there was nowhere Ocean wasn't willing to go. Ocean has already made a masterpiece, and there's no telling what he'll do in the future. What a time to be alive.
Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball It's amazing how consistent Springsteen's late period has been, with every album since The Rising being brilliant in one way or another. This is probably the angriest album the Boss has ever made, as he rails against the corrupt businessman that caused our economy to collapse. He never sounds more enraged than on "Death To My Hometown," where he threatens to "send the robber barons straight to hell." With the mighty E Street Band by his side, he shouldn't have any trouble doing just that.
Jack White - Blunderbuss Any fear that the breakup of the White Stripes would create a void in the blues-punk world was instantly quelled when this brilliant album was released. From the rage of "Sixteen Saltines," to the elegant orchestration of the title track, this album was ambitious as anything White has made, and makes it seem very likely that he will continue to give us mindblowing albums for years to come.
Nada Surf - The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy These power-poppers have been putting out brilliant albums for years without getting a great deal of credit for it. They continued their winning streak with this record, which rivals past masterpieces like 2003's Let Go and 2005's The Weight Is A Gift. Every song here is a winner, but none soar as high as the anthemic "When I Was Young," in which frontman Matthew Caws reflects on all that life has taught him. While the song was written by a man in his mid-40s, anyone of any age who has ever felt stunned at just how much they've grown up can relate to it.
John Mayer - Born And Raised I'm sure I'll take some flak for this one. Look, I know liking John Mayer isn't "cool," and his tendency to make an ass of himself in the press doesn't help, but a great album is a great album, and this one is brilliant throughout. Mayer trades in his usual blues for folk and it suits him well. From th gentle, Beatle-esque "Love Is A Verb," to the reflective single "Shadow Days," Mayer is the best he's ever been here. He seems to no longer care about commercial success, and he comes out for the better. His best work may well be ahead of him.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood - The Magic Door/Big Moon Ritual (tie) With the Black Crowes temporarily on hiatus, Robinson's new band released two albums, and both were excellent. The first release, Big Moon Ritual, is a set of epic hippie jam sessions, with no track under 7 minutes. The standout is "Rosalee," whose chant of "is the air gettin' thinner/are we gettin' high?" will be recited by stoners for decades to come. The follow-up The Magic Door is equally ambitious, but more blues-based, as it begins with a rollicking cover of the classic "Let's Go Let's Go Let's Go." Only time will tell if the Crowes get back together, but for the time being, Robinson has something wonderful going on with his new outfit.
M. Ward - A Wasteland Companion Lots of people know M. Ward as Zooey Deschanel's sidekick in She & Him, but anyone familiar with the bulk of his work knows that his solo records contain his best material. This album was no exception. Ward's country-folk is warm and inviting, and has a timeless quality to it. The best moment is on "I Get Ideas," a charmingly pastoral number that gives off a joyous 1930s vibe. You could say Ward is living in the past, but with tunes this good, who wouldn't want to?
A Fine Frenzy - Pines On her third album, simger-songwriter Alison Sudol gets more ambitious than she ever has before, with many songs topping 6 minutes. The album is a concept album about a tree who is granted freewill. There are poppier moments like the cheery "Sailingsong," or the celebratory "It's Alive," along with darker, pessimistic numbers like "Sadseasong," and "Riversong." The end result is a beautiful, challenging album that takes multiple listens to reveal all its mysteries.
Bob Dylan - Tempest There's only so much you can say about Bob Dylan a this point; he's one of the best there's ever been, and at the age of 71, he's still got it. His latest album is as sprawling as anything he's done before, and features some his most interesting choices. Whether commemorating the Titanic on the title rack, or paying tribute to John Lennon on "Roll on John," Dylan's muse is ever-present, and he doesn't appear to be slowing down one bit. Here's to hoping he's still churning out gold when he's 80.
The Cult - Choice of Weapon One of the most underrated bands ever, The Cult released their best album in years in 2012, with big riffs and a memorable chorus that recall their 80s heyday. Particularly notable is opener "Honey From A Knife," with its refrain of "We got the drugs/we got the drugs/we got the drugs/drugs in here." Frankly with tunes this good, you hardly need the drugs! But hey, I'm not one to judge.