The Best Albums of 2012

Welcome to Pop Press International’s list of the best albums of 2012. There are a few things we have to confess to you before you read further. Let’s cut right to the chase. Probably 90% of you reading this already know, but just the same, Pop Press International is basically a one-man-project. So, when I prepared to put together my list of the year’s best albums, I really had no one to answer to. Still, I asked myself: should I attempt to objectively pick “good” albums or simply the albums I personally liked best? Since I believe that objectivity is scarcely more than delusion, I guess my answer was really in the question. Even at our most “objective,” we’re products of our psychological constructs and the environments to which we’ve grown accustomed. That said, I feel this list does a fair job of considering my biases and avoiding them… with the exception of my #1 album, which I hardly suspect I can find anyone to agree with me on. Alas, it was my favorite.

You should also know that this is the year we were born. There are some records that came out before we even started writing, and I don’t believe a single record on this list fits that bill. As we approach our first birthday, and as we cross into a new calendar year, I’d like to say that this has been an amazing year filled with new friends and wonderful music. I suspect you’ll be seeing a post soon expressing some thanks to those who have made this blog possible.

One more thing in case you don’t make it to the bottom of the list: at the end is an embedded player with one track from each of the listed albums for your listening enjoyment. Without further ado, Pop Press International’s list of the best albums of 2012:

20. The xx – Coexist

The xx’s sophomore album proves that the group is still in its groove, crafting airy, pulsing, minimalist electronic pop. Though The album didn’t quite explode or blow everyone out of the water as some might have hoped after a long wait between the UK group’s first and second efforts, it certainly delivered everything fans had come to love about the band. “Angels” took minimalist to a whole new level, and the second single, “Chained,” emerged as one of the album’s most memorable tracks. Now the band is faced with the difficult task of maintaining their consistency while evolving as they look to solidify their career. –BCP

19. Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance

Spooky Action… is the kind of album that can easily become a summer soundtrack. The expansive “Jet Out of the Tundra” and it’s memorable piano line are like watching a loved one bend down to tie their shoes under a bright blue sky and then run to catch up to you. “Eveningness” is driving, the feeling of being on your way. Then there’s the stunning “Remember Our Days,” an outcry for recall, with Pundt singing over swift guitar riffs, “if I don’t see you again/ I’m glad that you were my friend/ I’ll remember our days.” Doesn’t everyone just know that feeling? Spooky Action at a Distance is the kind of album you want to listen to while falling in love, which isn’t surprising at all considering how easy it is to fall in love with. –KN

18. Sun Airway – Soft Fall

Soft Fall is, at surface value, a sharp, atmospheric, and catchy album. Barthmus channels an array of his predecessors, ranging from Coldplay’s Chris Martin to Robert Smith of The Cure. Set aside all of that fuzzy texture and reverb–find that Barthmus never loses his pop sensibilities. As much as Soft Fall seems like a dance album, the sentiments are achingly melancholic. “I don’t want your trouble or your troubled mind,” and, “mostly I just feel lost,” Barthmus sings in “Wild Palms.” “I never hear you on the radio, I know, but I still feel you on my radio, I’m sure,” on “Black Noise.” Barthmus makes it clear this isn’t an album to be taken lightly. He’s right. Soft Fall is a tremendous artistic accomplishment. –KN

17. Wild Nothing – Nocturne

For anyone who doubted it was possible, Tatum’s second album is every bit as good as Gemini, probably better. Tatum’s new-wave brings us kids of the 80s back to memories deeply engrained in our consciousness, but somehow remains entirely present and fresh. I’m entranced to the very last track, “Rheya,” which reminds me of moonlight glinting on a gently undulating lake surface at midnight. When I excitedly relay these descriptions to my girlfriend as I write she shoots me a puzzled look. “I don’t know what that sounds like,” she says. Well, just listen. –BCP

16. Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE

Well, this is one we didn’t write about. I don’t know if the basic inner workings of running a small blog are readily apparent, but most of what we write about falls into two categories: 1) music we are out there actively discovering on our own; 2) small independent artists or their labels who are actively promoting to small outlets such as Pop Press International. As someone like Frank Ocean really falls into neither category, even a great album may not get written about. It didn’t stop us from listening to and loving it. Did you really miss us telling you it was good since you had the other three million magazines to do so? Well, here’s our chance. Ocean’s laid back mixture of R&B, hip-hop, and pop is a powerful statement that sounds like cruising underneath the L.A. lights at night. One of the best records of the year. The 16th best, in fact. –BCP

15. Hospitality – Hospitality

Hospitality’s self-titled debut album employs indie-pop sensibilities, infectious hooks, and dynamic rhythms to achieve a well rounded and convincing first effort.  Hospitality has been long anticipated in some regards, since the band formed in 2007 and has only released one EP prior to their 2012 full-length debut.  With its arrival, we have been given proof that good things come to those who wait. The best pop records don’t drag on, but rather leave the listener excited at their end.  At 10 songs and just over 30 minutes, the band makes their case without belaboring the point and leaves behind plenty to be excited about.  If you still want more, you can always put it on repeat, and we suspect you will. –BCP

14. Mount Eerie – Clear Moon

Clear Moon represents a difficult place to start for newcomers to the world of Phil Elverum, but its palatability should not inform its greatness. While the album is not as groundbreaking or exciting and fresh as earlier releases by Elverum, this is not its aim. Clear Moon is more deliberate, rich, and focused. It feels like an experienced artist working late in his career, recalling masters such as William Butler Yeats, who in many ways moved past the attentions of his readers, embarking into the unknown with his final work “A Vision.” Elverum, too, has moved beyond listeners from his earlier days, delving deeper than ever into the mystical unknown and doing so with great confidence, providing a pervasive sense of calm completeness with Clear Moon. –BCP

13. Melody’s Echo Chamber – Melody’s Echo Chamber

However weathered and world-weary lead singer Melody Prochet sounds (“Here I go again,” she trills on “Endless Shore”), it’s clear she hasn’t given up entirely on sweetness. In the stunning album opener “I’ll Follow You,” a dreamy, 60’s pop ballad, she pledges unwavering allegiance to a runaway lover. Album closer “Be Proud Of Your Kids,” a sentiment sweet enough in itself, samples a child speaking in French. In “Bisous Magique” she delivers the sickeningly cute line “fais-moi un bisous magique,” which translates to “give me a magic kiss,” as if she were the sole dweller in a naïve and whimsical world long forgotten by the rest of us. Melody’s Echo Chamber is ambitious, evocative, and hints at the greatness of which Prochet is capable–a triumphant debut album. –KN

12. Deep Time – Deep Time

Deep Time continues to release their unique brand of offbeat post punk, using melodies that sound familiar and simple and then tweaking them to incorporate choppy interludes and off-kilter harmonies. The difference isn’t only that this time they come approved by Weird War’s Ian Svenonius and the wonderful Hardly Art label, but als that the 9 songs on Deep Time are delivered with a force and focus we always knew the pair had in them. “Burn the old one down,” Moore sings unrepentantly on the shipwreck-themed “Gilligan.” If Deep Time has burned their past to the ground, they have risen triumphantly from the ashes with this record. –KN & –BCP

11. The Babies – Our House on the Hill

Our House on the Hill feels nostalgically familiar, blending guitar tones from late 90s staples like Pavement and contemporary indie-pop like Best Coast and the New Pornographers, wavering lyrically between superficial silliness and stoic seriousness to create one of our favorite albums of the year. The album embodies the essence of indie-rock, full of emotional depth and raw energy contained within economically efficient lyricism and tight pop songs. It’s an album I loved upon first listen, and that has only grown more true with each subsequent experience. –BCP

10. Taken By Trees – Other Worlds

Before its release, Taken by Trees’ new albumOther Worlds was dubbed an “impressionist poem for the Hawaiian Islands.” Rarely does an album so aptly live up to its descriptors, but that is precisely what Victoria Bergsman has created. This musically and lyrically conceptual work of art represents yet another outstanding album from the former Concretes frontwoman. Other Worlds’ cohesive nature and thematic unity present a forward-thinking brilliance that proves simultaneously soothing and addictive. It may well be the finest work we have seen from an already incredibly accomplished musician. –BCP

9. Memory Tapes – Grace/Confusion

Memory Tapes began as a bedroom pop project in a rural town, inadvertently stumbling into wide critical success with Hawk’s early tracks. However, consistently outstanding music such as this is no accident. Hawk is a genius, expertly wielding the electronic tools of our time to render music that is as unified and sublime as it is disparate and sprawling. Hawk has spoken about this delicate balance between allowing songs to shift dynamically while keeping them cohesive, commenting that it resulted in the title Grace/Confusion. My only confusion lies in how a collection of songs can so gracefully inspire so much pleasure for a listener like me. –BCP

8. Grizzly Bear – Shields

Okay, so this is one we didn’t write about, and I have no idea why. We should have. We’re morally remiss and should probably have our license to write about independent music taken away. Good thing they don’t exist. On Grizzly Bear’s fourth studio album, the group sharpens everything they’ve done in the past into daggers of richly-textured, noisy indie-rock interspersed with beautiful acoustics. Opener “Sleeping Ute” provides enough evidence to convince most that this record deserves to be in the top half of any year-end list, but Grizzly Bear goes ahead and gives us nine more anyway. A friend saw one of my status updates that read: “Bryan Parker is listening to Yet Again by Grizzly Bear” and misread it as “Bryan Parker is yet again listening to Grizzly Bear.” That about sums it up. –BCP

7. Deerhoof – Breakup Song

This is one that I just didn’t give enough credit to in the initial review. My take was overwhelmingly positive when it should have been glowing. It helps that one of my favorite tracks of the year comes at the end of the album. From the opening guitar tone of “Fête d’Adieu,” to the simple upbeat chorus to the entrancing refrain where Matsuzaki powerfully commands, “I declare the war over, anymore,” the track earns its place as my favorite on the album. A friend once suggested to me that the best way to combat war wasn’t to protest or engage in the raging and depressing, often fruitless debate; rather, the way to combat war is simply to create art that inspires joy. Either way, Deerhoof has its bases covered because they do both on Breakup Song. –BCP

6. Cat Power – Sun

I have absolutely no qualms about calling Cat Power’s new album exactly what it is: a masterpiece. Sun marks the first album of completely original material in more than half a decade from Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall. Marshall is an artist who wears her influences on her sleeve, which I deeply admire, and her extensive library of recorded covers carries enormous value. However, the vast array of covers left me wondering what original material might be playing out in her mind. Before her covers album Jukebox, we were given The Greatest, an album of original songs which relied heavily on the contributions of session musicians. As incredible as those musicians were/are and as quality as the songs were that emerged, it still felt like Marshall wasn’t tapped into her purest creative energy. Sun possesses an energy unheard since 2003′s You Are Free. When I saw her perform at an Austin City Limits taping in 2006, she had to restart her cover of “House of the Rising Sun” maybe two dozen times, once playing only a single note before abandoning the song. If it takes that kind of introverted, perfectionist persona to create an album like Sun, it’s worth the wait. When she finally delivers, Marshall proves herself as one of today’s most inventive and brilliant songwriters all over again. –BCP

5. Twin Shadow – Confess

The world of Twin Shadow seems to have expanded and narrowed simultaneously. Sonically, the album is substantial in ways I never would have expected, but some of the nuance and subtlety that made Twin Shadow so special seems to have been lost. It’s only natural. Nevertheless, Confess is a unique and masterful work, a small treasure to hold in one’s hands or to clasp around the neck and keep close to the heart. It’s the gleam in Lewis’ eye from atop his motorcycle, the one that let’s us know he intends on riding full-speed into the distance. But it’s okay—he’s taking us along for the ride. –KN

4. Beach House – Bloom

With Bloom, Baltimore’s Beach House has achieved the pinnacle of musical accomplishments. However, Bloom is not a divergent breakthrough from previous Beach House albums. Rather, it emerges as the perfect crescendo climax to the developing blueprint that the band has been unfurling for the past eight years, since their inception in 2004. Bloom is the most sonically mature, technically flawless, and ambitious album thus far, taking the fundamental elements on which Beach House has built their career and fine tuning them to perfection. Bloom shouldn’t come as a shock. Beach House has been working toward this for years. Each of their past efforts has garnered spots on top whatever (25, 50, 100) year-end lists. As perfect as Beach House’s new effort is, this honor shouldn’t come as a surprise. –BCP

3. Father John Misty – Fear Fun

Arranging these two three album proved difficult. About this one, I can say that I listened to Fear Fun more than any other album this year–a test of practicality which speaks to the record’s greatness as well as its sheer enjoyability. With Fear Fun, Josh Tillman has tapped into sounds and themes universal and classic, though perhaps not to everyone, certainly to the creative geniuses he channels, the greats–Cohen, Dylan, Lennon, Nilsson. More importantly, he manages to invoke these artists while maintaining his own unique voice. Fans of Fleet Foxes may pick up this record and be pleased and entertained, but will undoubtedly underestimate the true depth of the myriad layers ripe for dissection and musical appreciation. The twelve songs on Fear Fun are professed by Tillman to be drug-inspired, written during a stint holed up in Laurel Canyon after a particularly dim chapter of his life. More importantly, the songs draw on vivid and terrifying biblical imagery, span musical styles including folk, country, psychedelia, and glam rock. One of the year’s finest. –BCP

2. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo, Magellan

With Swing Lo Magellan, Dave Longstreth and Dirty Projectors have created a pitch-perfect, percussive masterpiece that perfectly toes the line between captivating experimentation and traditional pop music. If you do your Projectors homework, it won’t take long to find rampant claims that Swing Lo is the group’s most accessible album yet, expanding the trend that began with Bitte Orca. However, it’s important to say that it’s not as if Longstreth and co. have abandoned their challenging and inventive leanings altogether. Yes, they have created an album that will undoubtedly pull in listeners standing outside the circle, but they have also created an ever-surprising and odd work of art that always engages and offers some new nuance with each listen.Swing Lo Magellan is a sleek, tight experimental pop record that shifts brilliantly from strange string melodies to expansive major key harmonies. It is, without question, one of the best albums of the year. “There is an answer/ I haven’t found it/ But I will keep dancing until I do,” Longstreth sings on “Dance For You.” As it occurs, I’d argue that Dave Longstreth and Dirty Projectors may have found the answer, and it’s Swing Lo Magellan. –BCP

1. Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

What did you expect? I proudly claim the Mountain Goats as my favorite band. Sure, I could recognize that this record is absent from most year-end lists across the blogosphere and follow suit, but why? To minimize the subtle musical nuances, endlessly catchy hooks, unadulterated honesty, and brilliant songwriting is to unfairly and willfully exist in a state of denial. On Transcendental Youth, John Darnielle sounds more confident than ever. The album’s production continues the polished trend that began with Tallahassee, strengthened with We Shall All Be Healed, and solidified with The Sunset Tree. A brass section marks the most significant musical addition to Darnielle’s approach, but he doesn’t abuse it.Transcendental Youth, like albums before it, proves to be deeply conceptual—an album about all those dark, beautiful, horrifying, and memorable moments shared by those living on the boundary of society. Darnielle expertly paints visceral images impossible to shake, using only minimal snippets of lines built on quick melodic rhymes and turns of phrase. For a long time, I’ve tried to understand that some folks just can’t get behind the quirky pop of the Mountain Goats or Darnielle’s nasally (though often incredibly accurate) vocals, but records like Transcendental Youth obliterate any excuses. The Mountain Goats are one of independent music’s most important contributors, Darnielle one of its most vital songwriters. –BCP

Listen to one track from each of the year’s best albums. Tracks arranged in order of album rank. Thanks for reading, friends.

About author
Bryan Parker is a writer and photographer living and working in Austin, TX. He is the founder of blog Pop Press International and print journal True Sincerity and recently released his first book, a volume on Beat Happening in the 33 1/3 series.

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