10 Best Albums of 2012
The onslaught of Best Albums of 2012 lists is upon us, and we here at Diffuser.fm charge willfully and gleefully into the critical fray. Like all indie rock fans, we live for year-end lists, and looking over 2012's best albums, we were reminded what a terrific 12 months it's been for music. From synth-pop and psych-rock to David Lynch-inspired torch songs and class-conscious, hyper-intelligent R&B, the year of the supposed apocalypse brought plenty of choice listening.
We're still waiting to see how you, the reader, rates this year's offerings -- our Diffuser.fm Music Awards are in full swing, and voting runs through Jan. 15 -- but in the meantime, these are our picks for the 10 Best Albums of 2012.
Dark and romantic -- but in a sunny, neo-psychedelic sort of way -- 'Long Slow Dance' is the tidiest, most tuneful effort yet from these Bay Area garage rockers. Moving away from the fuzzy punch of past albums, leader Tim Cohen uses gently lapping waves of acoustic guitar, shimmering electric leads, Cure-worthy synths, xylophones, horns and other sonic fineries to express the ache in his heart. Think Bunnymen on the beach, singing campfire songs for doomed lovers everywhere.
Even more than on their beloved 2009 debut, absence is presence on the xx's 'Coexist,' whether in the troubled synths and distant guitars of ‘Try,’ the trembling steel drum of ‘Reunion’ or the shuffled beats and tiptoed strings of ‘Tides.’ With a deft touch and a prodigal streak, the Mercury Prize winners have mastered their own distinctive sound -- one that's as gleaming as it dark, as heavy as it is light.
This year certainly didn't start off rosy for Lana Del Rey, who (barely) survived a disastrous 'Saturday Night Live' flub and its immense backlash -- only to then have to deal with questions of authenticity as she tried to skirt the line between pop superstardom and hipster cool. Lost in all the headlines was the fact that her debut album, 'Born to Die,' was actually quite excellent, with her ’60s-pin-up-torch-singer-goes-gangster persona colorfully coming to life on such international hits as 'Blue Jeans' and 'Summertime Sadness.'
‘Lonerism’ would still be a blast to listen to if the only thing going for it was the barrage of authentic stoner noises and, “Whoa, man, he really does sound just like John Lennon!” appeal -- which it has in spades. But it wouldn’t stand up as stout without frontman Kevin Parker’s touch for restoring antique melodies and bringing a certain loosely rolled, chemically knackered songwriting back from the dead. Parker has an uncanny, double-jointed ability to create music that incorporates past influences without simply recreating or updating them from the vantage point of the future.
Forward-looking yet undeniably rooted in the past, 'Kill for Love' is a modern classic of futurist revisionism -- an album that predicts an era when noirish disco, electronica, retro rock, post-punk and dream-pop can co-inhabit the same song without making it feel forced. The main plot point here is that the Chromatics aim for a tender update of early-'80s electro, with silky synths thrown in to negate any attempts to "date" their music or place it in a particular period of time. On 'Kill for Love,' the future -- and the past -- is now.
- 5What is it that makes David Byrne and St. Vincent (née Annie Clark), who are each so representative of their generation of American rock music, work so well together? 'Love This Giant' is a brass-filled and brassy collaboration that’s the synthesis of two singular talents. Although they've had different life experiences, they make a timeless and novel strain of baroque pop — all tubas and reeds and paranoia and maybe, just maybe, a wee bit of hope.
After dropping two albums of underground lo-fi indie pop, Cloud Nothings' mastermind Dylan Baldi emerged in 2012 from his parents' suburban Cleveland basement with a bona fide backing band and an out-of-left-field contender for Album of the Year honors. The Steve Albini-engineered 'Attack on Memory' is eight tracks and just 33 minutes of true revelation, with Baldi taking the first-generation-emo blueprint and catchy hooks of his past and darkening the tone considerably -- without ditching any of the Midwestern earnestness that attracted people to Cloud Nothings to begin with.
This year, while lots of cool kids went '90s schlubby, George Lewis Jr. kicked it '80s slick. Not that you'd expect anything else. As on his debut, 'Forget,' the Brooklyn synth-popster combines Prince pizazz and Depeche mope with drums and keys pulled straight from your favorite New Wave hits. Tap a cowboy boot to 'The One,' a tune whose sound and message -- you gotta have faith -- ought to spur a George Michael revival.
‘Channel Orange’ isn't perfect, but it’s a promising and consistently rewarding document from a brilliant artist whose best is yet to come. With luck, it's also a much-needed wake up call to mainstream R&B, a genre in desperate need of a revival. Even more so than his mixtape debut, ‘Nostalgia, Ultra,' ‘Channel Orange’ is a dense album, as coy as its creator, and its demands multiple spins before its subtle and sophisticated threads begin to unravel.
Neither Debbie Gibson nor Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam made a sci-fi mall-pop record this year, and thanks to Canadian wonder girl Claire Boucher, neither had to. 'Visions,' Boucher's third full-length under the Grimes banner, is all ethereal, wordless vocals and avant-bubblegum bounce. "Being myself makes me feel like I can't touch the ground," Boucher sings at one point. "Here on the earth makes me feel like I can't get the sound." Rather than stay here and sulk, this lovesick electro-pixie blasts off into the sweet unknown.