2012’s Overlooked Albums

The end of the year is usually my favorite time in music, because I’m a big sucker for end-of-year lists and various other “year in review” pieces. But this year I may have officially gotten tired of year-end lists, or at least ones that are focus-grouped by websites or magazines in an attempt to rank the “best” albums.

What stood out to me this year a lot is just how samey all of these lists are — the same names are at the top of just about every list (Fiona Apple, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar), and the sites that ranked 50 albums are generally just shuffling around the same music into different places. The main reason an artist makes it onto a year-end list is not because their album was good, but because it was “important.” And certain artists who don’t fit into the broader conversation on music in 2012 get shut out entirely. (I’m guilty of this as well, which is maybe why I’m writing this.)

I’ve always thought the best purpose for a year-end list was to maybe introduce people to music they might have missed, or make people reconsider an album they may have underrated after listening to it just a couple of times. The lists this year were, for the most part, one obvious name after another, with the year-end list being more of an exercise in branding and a coronation for the same hyped-up artists we’ve heard too much about this year already. Like, do you really need to see Japandroids on every top 50 list to get the idea that Celebration Rock was a good album?

With this in mind, I thought it’d be fun to just list some albums I liked this year that I haven’t seen on any year-end list. I’ll go alphabetically:

Dead Sara – Dead Sara

Why it was good: Loud, unpretentious guitar-driven rock songs with memorable hooks and an extremely talented lead singer in Emily Armstrong. Dead Sara was a breath of fresh air in many ways for me because it didn’t sound as fussed over as so much of the indie stuff that passes for rock these days.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: I already hinted at it in the last paragraph: Dead Sara isn’t indie enough, and they also didn’t have enough mainstream success to potentially be noticed by a less snooty magazine like Rolling Stone. There’s not really a place on year-end lists for just a fun rock album, unless it gets some wider narrative attached to it (like Japandroids did — they were the indie saviors of guitar rock or something).

Evans the Death – Evans the Death

Why it was good: Similar to Dead Sara, Evans the Death was a relentlessly hooky pop-punk album with surprisingly witty, self-deprecating lyrics from singer Katherine Whitaker. This band has some more indie influences, adding some noise and shoegaze to their bright sound.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Not “important” enough. They’re also not breaking tons of new ground with their sound and they don’t fit into any of the biggest indie trends of 2012. But not every worthwhile album needs to fit into what the mags and websites are pushing onto everyone.

The Evens – The Odds

Why it was good: Punk legend Ian Mackaye and his wife Amy Farina’s third album had perfect harmonies, acoustic arrangements, and more energy than their previous efforts. It also had typically smart, politically-minded lyrics that made it a perfect example of how punk doesn’t always need tons of noise and sloppiness to be effective.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: It was made by old people. The focus of most sites is to try to attach themselves to up-and-coming artists, which results in talents like Mackaye being tossed aside for hipper acts. The Evens also have to operate in the shadow of Fugazi, which is too bad — they’re a completely different band that make better music than the young whippersnappers of today.

Grass Widow – Internal Logic

Why it was good: For a few albums now, Grass Widow have been pursuing a completely unique sound, with ghostly three-part female harmonies and bouncy post-punk guitars and bass-lines. Internal Logic has stronger songwriting than their previous releases, resulting in their most consistent effort so far.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Too self-contained. Sounding like nobody else can sometimes be a bad thing, and in the case of Grass Widow it causes them to be ignored for artists that fit into more superficial trends that are being hyped up by the music press.

Is/Is – III

Why it was good: The Minnesota band’s first full-length combined shoegaze, stoner rock, and various other psychedelic genres into a cohesive package with high-quality songwriting. This was a unique, heavy album that had a wide range of sounds that were all executed really well.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: All the reasons for Grass Widow also apply here, but Is/Is also represent another kind of band left off these lists: the hard-working locals who haven’t made it onto the national scene. In this case, the album just didn’t reach enough ears, but it was better than most of the crap that did.

Jessica Bailiff – At the Down-turned Jagged Rim of the Sky

Why it was good: Bailiff’s sixth album was some of the best shoegaze-influenced music I heard this year. This album had songs that were haunting but also weirdly addictive, and as a whole it seemed to form its own little world.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Bailiff likely lacks a certain amount of “star power” that these lists are looking for. She does her own thing and her introspective music isn’t really trying to grab the attention of anyone. Nonetheless, this album will appeal to fans of shoegaze and quality singer-songwriters.

No Joy – Negaverse EP

Why it was good: Building on their excellent 2010 album Ghost Blonde, No Joy quietly released this EP, which featured more of their familiar shoegaze/noise rock sound with vocals buried deep in the mix. Negaverse had some more moments of exploration than their full length, and in general it’s just a sound that I really like.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Combination of EP length, obscurity, and being overshadowed by bands like Dum Dum Girls and Best Coast that have more of a style and girl-group sensibilities in the noise-pop department.

Tindersticks – The Something Rain

Why it was good: The veteran band’s ninth album had great lounge-jazz-pop arrangements and Stuart Staple’s low, soulful vocals. But it’s mostly on here for the first track, “Chocolate”, which was one of my favorite songs of the year —  it’s a 9-minute spoken-word day-in-the-life tale that has a genuine twist ending.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Any band putting out their ninth album is highly unlikely to make it to one of these lists — in the eyes of the media, their time has passed and it’s time to focus on new groups. Tindersticks have mostly been replaced by The National, who pillaged much of their sound but gave it more of a sad-boy indie sensibility.

White Lung – Sorry

Why it was good: This was one of the most furious and energetic punk albums I heard this year, with 10 hardcore-influenced songs over 19 minutes fronted by singer Mish Way’s various feministy rants. Sorry obviously recalls some old Riot Grrrl bands, but also adds in some grunge influence.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: This is a tough one. My guess is either the short running time, the fact that it’s female-fronted, or maybe the music press just has bad taste.

Favorite Albums of 2012

After another year of listening and reflection, 2011 has held up as one of my favorite music years, mostly because a ton of my favorite active artists put out new albums that surpassed expectations. Albums by PJ Harvey, Björk, Kate Bush, Wild Flag, and St. Vincent all would rank highly on my favorite albums of the decade so far. Add in great albums by some new artists like EMA and it was a year that had tons of music that I still listen to on the reg (youth slang for “regularly”).

So admittedly, 2012 had a tough act to follow, especially because none of the aforementioned artists were going to put out new music. But even given those excuses, I found 2012 to be a pretty dismal year. The few albums I was looking forward to at the beginning of the year almost all fell flat for me. Jack White went full-blown Rolling Stone dad rock on Blunderbuss. The xx’s second album was a snoozer. St. Vincent’s collaboration with David Byrne gave her some good moments, but was mostly marred by Byrne’s old-man ramblings about television. And I also just got plain sick of a lot of artists I had liked before (Beach House, Bat For Lashes, etc).

The good news is, these artists all falling flat on their face with mediocre outings opened the door for some new faces to earn a spot among my favorite albums of the year — a coveted achievement for any artist, given that a place on it usually leads to a significant boost in record sales dubbed “The Noise Made By People Bump” by the music industry. This list represents my favorites based solely on my personal taste and isn’t intended to be any sort of objective ranking (not that any such thing exists, but figured I’d clarify). These are the albums I thought were great in a year that mostly wasn’t.

10. Hospitality – Hospitality

Hospitality formed in 2008, but didn’t release their debut album until early this year. Fortunately, it was worth the wait: Hospitality is a very fully-formed debut of charming indie pop from the New Yorkers, fronted by Amber Papini’s quirky vocals and instrumental work that is more creative and punchy than most allegedly “twee” music. But what really separates this album is its lyrics, which tell realistic stories of life in New York and post-college angst, especially on songs like “Liberal Arts” and “Eighth Avenue.”

9. Goat – World Music

Not much is known about Swedish band Goat: they don’t give interviews and have members that have mostly remained anonymous, even in an era where artists are seemingly constantly tweeting and oversharing things. That may have been why I was so taken with their debut, which lives up to its title by patching together elements of seemingly all kinds of rock music, but does it in a way that is impressively cohesive and also has a mysterious, enigmatic quality. With songs veering from the scuzzy psychedelic riffing of “Goathead” to the funky and almost-pop “Let it Bleed”, I never knew what this band was going to do from one song to the next, which made World Music one of the most surprisingly entertaining albums of the year.

8. Lower Dens – Nootropics

The music of Lower Dens is usually described with adjectives that I associate with boring music: it’s “atmospheric,” “complex,” and “understated.” All of those are fitting, but Nootropics  is also full of creative energy that keeps it from being a drag, with the band’s swirling noise combining with pulsating rhythms to create a product that sounds like no other band out there. And of course there’s Jana Hunter’s voice, a unique instrument of its own that gives every song a haunting, woozy feel. This was one of my favorite albums to just get lost in this year.

7. Cate Le Bon – Cyrk

Cate Le Bon’s second album was released in mid-January, and I feel like it was barely discussed, then completely fell off the map as the rest of the year’s releases rolled in. Which is too bad, because Cyrk is an overlooked gem of an album, a unique singer-songwriter effort with just the right amount of experimentation. Le Bon’s sound perfectly balances folk and indie rock elements, and Cyrk has a quirkiness that doesn’t feel forced and a level of mystery that allows it to hold up to repeated listens.

6. Screaming Females – Ugly

For their fifth album, hard-working New Jersey power trio Screaming Females decided to take things up a notch, enlisting Steve Albini to engineer and dialing Marissa Paternoster’s guitar-hero swagger to seemingly the highest possible level. The result is their best album yet: Ugly has more memorable guitar riffs than pretty much all the other albums this year combined, as Paternoster takes cues from indie rock legends, classic rock gods, and heavy metal titans while also singing with more authority than ever before. It’s an album that lives up to its title by serving as an antidote to prettified so-called rock bands that make “beautiful music.”

5. Nü Sensae – Sundowning

One of my favorite storylines of 2012 was how many great rock albums came out of Canada — I enjoyed albums by White Lung, Japandroids, Metz, and others, while mostly being indifferent to American and British rock. But the Canadian band that made the most noise was Nü Sensae, whose third album Sundowning was the most intense and primal rock album I heard this year. The band added a guitar player to their lineup before recording the album, which added some riffs to go along with singer Andrea Lukic’s crazed screaming vocals that she alternates with sinister whispering. I like rock albums that sound pissed-off and are a bit scary, and Sundowning fits that bill perfectly — it’s a good soundtrack for when you want to punch things.

4. Jessie Ware – Devotion

Jessie Ware is an unlikely pop star — she previously served as a backup singer on an American tour and was hoping to pursue a career in journalism before getting a chance to record a solo debut. On Devotion, she shows that she’s an incredibly talented vocalist who also has a skill that some other singers could learn from: restraint. Ware’s vocals are capable of big theatrics, but she spends most of the album singing in more sultry, hushed tones while backed by sophisticated pop arrangements and silky smooth production. When she does decide to start belting — like on “Wildest Moments” — she makes it count. For whatever reason, Ware didn’t seem to make much headway on the charts in England or America, but this album is still a reminder of how great pop music can be in the right hands.

3. Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance

As the guitarist for Deerhunter, Lockett Pundt has spent most of the last few years in the shadow of outspoken frontman Bradford Cox. On Spooky Action at a Distance, Pundt takes a big step out with a cohesive and individual collection of droney shoegaze jams in the model of previous Deerhunter highlight “Desire Lines.” Lockett’s ability to make epic songs while retaining an understated charm is prominent here, especially on longer songs like “Jet Out of the Tundra” and “Remember Our Days,” both of which combine his blissful guitar-work with Stereolab-like rhythms. I can’t say Spooky Action is particularly innovative, but it was some of my favorite pure ear-candy of the year.

2. Allo Darlin’ – Europe

One of my biggest issues with 2012’s music was how it felt like every hyped-up indie pop artist had some sort of gimmick: autotune, production effects, silly lyrics, noise — whatever superficial elements they could throw together that could get them noticed by Pitchfork and the rest of the blogging hype machine. I found a lot of this music incredibly alienating because it was so desperately trendy and calculated. That’s why Allo Darlin’s Europe was such a breath of fresh air — it’s an indie pop album that embraced the genre’s roots in genuine emotion and warmth instead of trying to be in the next iPod commercial. It also established Australian Elizabeth Morris as one of my favorite singer/songwriters. Her true-to-life lyrics, heartfelt singing, and the band’s jangly instrumentation made Europe impossible for me to resist.

1. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…

Of all my favorite established artists who released music this year, Fiona Apple was the only one who really delivered. I think it might be because she barely uses the internet or leaves her house, which is why The Idler Wheel… sounds so fresh and timeless. Like all of her albums since Tidal, it feels like an album only Fiona Apple could have made, and it doesn’t feel poisoned by all the outside pressures that made so much music lame in 2012. The Idler Wheel… also is the most authentic Fiona Apple album yet, reducing her sound to just acoustic instruments and some quirky found percussion while putting the focus on her outstanding voice and lyrics. The time lapse between her albums indicates an artist who pours herself into every effort, and that’s what really separated The Idler Wheel… for me this year — it’s the album that felt most important to the artist that made it.