Before we get started here, yes, we realize this is a somewhat unusual list, in that it completely eschews no fewer than three of the year's most talked-about and generally drooled-over releases. We promise, though, that there was nothing cynical or purposely contrarian happening here—just an honest to goodness case of some human beings having ever so slightly different taste in things than other human beings. At this time of year, it's easy to forget such a thing is even possible. Anyway, these are the records we loved the most over the past 12 months, the records that renewed our faith in things, comforted us, made us think about what music is capable of—we bet a lot of them had the same effect on you, and we hope we can convince you to give it another shot with those that didn't. For a Spotify playlist of key tracks from our favorite albums, click here.
20. Saint Etienne — Word and Music by Saint Etienne
Can a bubblegum record be grown-up? Apparently. The eighth studio album by London’s Saint Etienne makes a case that on-repeat pop worship, message board song obsessing, and fluttering stomach butterflies ahead of a big show can persist several decades beyond your tweens. Sarah Cracknell’s voice is top-class as ever, providing the vital, weary grit that offsets this set of sugar-snap fluff.
19. The Fresh & Onlys — Long Slow Dance
The latest album from Tim Cohen and his garage rock posse reads like a love letter pleading for one more chance at romantic bliss. He’s messed up a lot, he knows it. He’s sorry. The album’s revved-up guitars tell us love conquers all, but its gothic underpinnings hint at doom. However the story may end, putting his feelings out there is a small but brave gesture for our unassuming hero, or anybody really. Its 11 tracks is this year's equivalent of a boom box being held outside a bedroom window.
Key Track: “Foolish Person”
18. Titus Andronicus — Local Business
“Ok, I think by now we've established everything is inherently worthless/And there's nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose,” says the kid who suddenly no longer sounds like Springsteen fighting to make sense of the American narrative, but instead a 20-something fighting to make sense of himself. The result is anthemic, as Titus Andronicus can only be, but not necessarily celebratory. Its cathartic comfort comes from the realization we’re all sort of fucked up.
Key Track: “Ecce Homo”
17. The Babies — Our House on the Hill
City kids go to the country and discover America is big, beautiful and ugly. The album may have come into fruition in Brooklyn and L.A., but it sees Kevin Morby and Cassie Ramone play out a Paul and Linda McCartney dynamic, minus the matrimony, dropping their default garage rock into scenes of Southern gospel towns and the outlawed West in addition their Brooklyn backyards, reminding us that rickety rock songs and simple folk ballads are capable of saying big things.
Key Track: “That Boy”
16. Japandroids — Celebration Rock
There wasn't a whole lot of anthemic rock music making headlines this year (though I think in some ways country-leaning bands like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers have awkwardly picked up that torch?), but Japandroids got fists pumping everywhere with the aptly titled Celebration Rock, an album that, like much of the best Hold Steady material, carries a hefty sense of nostalgia but is also somehow all about living in the moment. Lines like, "Remember that night you were already in bed/Said 'fuck it,' got up to drink with me instead" wouldn't be so rousing if they didn't also carry the possibility that in remembering, you'd be inspired to relive it.
Key Track: "Younger Us"
15. Terry Malts — Killing Time
Terry Malts, the punk-drunk spin-off of San Francisco outfit Magic Bullets, bottle Buzzcock-like hooks via the Slumberland tradition, perfecting the art of the drums-bass-guitar blood rush, all while never losing sight of what really matters in life: not a whole lot. They’re not trying to pull a fast one here with coded lyrics or deeper meanings. "Where Is the Weekend?" really is a song about being excited for the weekend. It’s an album built upon the American Dream of having nothing to do. There's not a whole lot not to like.
Key Track: “Tumble Down”
14. Death Grips — The Money Store
For punk rock provocation, it’s hard to beat Death Grips' second 2012 record. NO LOVE DEEP WEB was released for free on the Internet against Epic Records’ wishes, a short, angry dick emblazoned on its cover as extra fuck you. But their first, The Money Store, better balanced the unhinged Sacramento band’s ominous rapping and corroded digital nausea with bursts of party-starting, beer-blast hard rock. (Scorpion-stung, drowning, the dollar signs fade from the frog’s glazed eye…)
Key Track: "I've Seen Footage"
13. Dirty Projectors — Swing Lo Magellan
It always feels a little bit cheap when you assert that a band's least "challenging" album is its best, like a tacit admission that would weren't up for whatever noble challenge they'd put forth previously. But with Dirty Projectors and Swing Lo Magellan, it's hard to see it any other way. It's Dave Longstreth's most accessible batch of songs yet, each of them driven by strong melodies and harmonies that are unpredictable but not jarring the way they have been in the past. They'll still surprise you from time to time, but it's just like in baseball: a curveball isn't effective unless you have a fastball to set it up.
Key Track: "Just From Chevron"
12. Divine Fits — A Thing Called Divine Fits
At surface, a band with both Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner as singers might seem a little redundant. An impeccably cool, gravel-voiced rocker on leave. And another one. But there are subtle, complementary differences. Boeckner’s bleeding heart and throbbing, minimal synths in song-to-song call and response with Daniel’s devastating, emotive guitar lines and whiff of inscrutability. It's so much better than a backstage cocktails idea dutifully executed.
Key Track: "Shivers"
11. Chromatics — Kill For Love
Johnny Jewel was born to soundtrack Ryan Gosling’s romantically mute thug in Drive. His music’s soft, yearning disco lines are perfect complement to a muscle car rounding a highway corner on a cliff-front at midnight, rat-eyes focused only on the headlights and the radio, love and murder mingling in mind. Smarting from that perfect moment thwarted, Jewel released two vestigial film scores this year. The discarded one he actually intended for it, and this perfected pop album echo.
Key Track: "Kill For Love"
10. Lotus Plaza — Spooky Action at a Distance
Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt tends to shy away from the spotlight—a noticeable trait if you’ve ever seen the band live. It comes as no surprise, then, that his sophomore solo album is a modest statement compared to the naked throbbing hearts put on the line by the likes of Mr. Ocean and Ms. Apple this year, but with bittersweet melodies loosely flowing through gray-scale haze, they push and pull at all the right places. His love songs may be indirect, but his heart is in them, making for an album that’s obviously good and sneakily great.
Key Track: “Remember Our Days”
9. Cate Le Bon — CYRK
Le Bon is witty, elegant, (mostly) sad and sounds an awful lot like Nico. She’s able to slyly poke fun at the super serious—like a Wes Anderson muse in heavy eyeliner, reinterpreting the tragic archetype for the 2010s. On CYRK she displays a restlessness with polite folk-pop, knotting it with threads of psychedelia until it borders on ugly, then gracefully unwinding it. The delicateness of her voice on lines like, “On the worst day of his life, he'd still love more things than I like” is what makes the album so gorgeous, but also secretly subverted.
Key Track: “Ploughing Out, Part 1 & 2”
8. Swans — The Seer
Its two hours marked by finally finished pieces from over 30 years in post-punk, Swans' The Seer has the intimidating aura of a masterpiece. It is dark and brutal, but its scope is big enough to find space for cameos from Karen O., Low, and Akron/Family. It allows for changes in texture and tone that keep you from numbing. Where Scott Walker’s latest exposed the insular distance of a true recluse, Michael Gira’s End Times come with passing gusts of the unexpected warmth collaboration and community bring.
Key Track: "Song for a Warrior"
7. Grizzly Bear — Shields
Like their New York City neighbors Dirty Projectors and, to a lesser extent The Walkmen, Grizzly Bear have come to stand in near direct opposition to dominant trends in indie rock, both locally and nationally. On their fourth album, Shields, they grew even more committed to ambitious arrangements and composition, each element shining individually and then even brighter as part of the whole. Things swirl and swell with a fluidity that detractors get hung up on, as if it dulls whatever emotional impact the songs might otherwise possess. They're wrong, though: that effortless fluidity draws you in, relaxes you, and then, if you're willing to stick it out, slowly reveals the album's core concerns of loneliness and sense of uncertainty that's alternately crippling and freeing.
Key Track: "Yet Again"
6. The Men — Open Your Heart
Trailing the popularity of Fucked Up, Iceage and the other white-knuckled punk bands of 2011, Brooklyn’s The Men showed something almost resembling chivalry, riding the year in on a white horse of goodwill and positivity. Over the course of 10 tracks, they knock you down but then pick you right back up, with the album’s tight-fisted center counterbalanced by woozy shoegaze, an instrumental torrent, an alt-country ballad, and more than a few alt-rock surges. An album urging “Open Your Heart” risks triteness and banality. What we get instead is a loose translation of what it means to be punk in 2012, punctuated by a reverent nod to “Teen Age Riot” and the neighborhood forefathers who made it possible. Brooklyn isn’t dead yet; neither is punk. This album is all the proof you need.
Key Track: “Candy”
5. Hospitality — Hospitality
It feels like this album's been in our lives forever. Recorded almost two years ago and released in the first few weeks of this past January, the NYC trio's debut full-length also features new versions of songs that had been around since as far back as 2008. Ironically, of all the albums on this list, it probably requires the shortest amount of time to grow on you. The self-titled 10-song collection is obviously indebted to Belle and Sebastian and other twee-leaning pop groups of the past few decades, but there's an added sense of theatricality—in Amber Papini's vocals, certainly, but also in the arrangements—that ultimately makes it so uniquely satisfying.
Key Track:: "Betty Wang"
4. Julia Holter — Ekstasis
Lo-fi, in its current laptop-assisted ubiquity, has an unfortunate tendency to sabotage truly talented singers, make them sound cruddier than they could. As heavily as she layers herself in GarageBand stacks, as willfully as she blurs the edges of her own talent, L.A.’s Julia Holter could easily have met that fate. But the compositional skill of her second record climbs straight past. She Xeroxes herself into a weirdly floral serenity, makes pleasing indie-pop into an ornate puzzle. Crucially, Ekstasis is lofty. It’s more plausible emerging from the mists of Delphi than showing up on somebody’s Tumblr at 2 A.M.
Key Track: "In the Same Room"
3. Father John Misty — Fear Fun
After releasing seven albums under his own name between 2004 and 2010 and playing drums in Fleet Foxes for a few years before leaving the band in January of this year, Joshua Tillman underwent something of an artistic makeover and released his first album under the name Father John Misty. Listening to opener "Funtimes in Babylon," it doesn't seem like much of a departure from what he was doing with Fleet Foxes: it's immaculate in every conceivable way, from the sparklingly clean production and smoothed-out playing to his refreshingly commanding vocals. From there, though, things take a left turn. He relocated from Seattle to Laurel Canyon (in a van with a bunch of mushrooms, the story goes) and started writing a novel. The songs that came along with it capture the region's drugged out, borderline culty vibe in a way that it never has been before: with striking clarity and a sense of humor, not to mention a woefully underrated ear for melody and a southerner's knack for storytelling.
Key Track: "I'm Writing a Novel"
2. Lambchop — Mr. M
The beautiful gentility of Kurt Wagner’s 11th Lambchop album is far too strange to easily slip into Nashville traditions of Americana or alt-country. Wagner’s deep, soft voice finds a singularity somewhere between soul music sincerity and showy glam rock tremble. His band’s sound is complicated towards an incredibly modest end, its many moving pieces having a quiet contest, piling up to hum together just barely below his whisper. There’s a stillness here that seems totally out of step with the busy, buzzy trends of the day. “I don’t know what the fuck they talk about”, might be a disinterested first-line hand wave towards the Twitterverse, or the entire world outside his kitchen window. It takes a few listens to get what the fuck he’s on about, too. But the skewed poetry engages even when its specificity turns surreal. Once acclimated, you can live in these songs quite comfortably, shelf your canned goods in them, warm your hands by their stove.
Key Track: "Buttons"
1. Allo Darlin - Europe
In June of 2010, Allo Darlin released their self-titled debut full-length, a collection of relentlessly catchy indie-pop songs that were packed full of allusions to a very particular set of cultural signifiers: Polaroid cameras, Weezer, Woody Allen, Paul Simon and so on. It was all inarguably twee, and in the hands of a songwriter any less gifted than the uke-toting Elizabeth Morris, it would have sunk under the weight of its own cleverness. But between all those references were glimpses of Morris as a keen observer and, more interestingly, as something of a level-headed romantic, someone who loves all the right records and movies but also knows that real life is rarely as simple or as sloppy as what happens on the screen or between the grooves.
On Europe, we see the continuing refinement of Morris's songwriting. The pop culture references are still there (The Go-Betweens, Toots and the Maytals, the Silver Jews and Riot Grrl, for those keeping score at home), but they're implemented in a way that feels less like a gimmick or a crutch and more like an actual, viable way one might interact with the world. It's a more subdued record than their debut, but it's no less memorable for it; in fact, it's the album's slowest and most stripped-down song that stands out the most. "Tallulah" (named after the Go-Betweens album) is in some ways the quintessential Allo Darlin song, about missed opportunities and the hope one feels that it will still work out when life lets up enough to let it. It also bravely expresses concern about some of the more troubling aspects of getting older, as Morris sings, "I'm wondering if I've already met all the people that'll mean something/And I'm wondering if I've already heard all the songs that'll mean something." For those of us who find the second prospect even more upsetting than the first, well, Allo Darlin bought us another year, and we couldn't be more grateful.