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EW’s Top 12 Albums of 2012

The ongoing proliferation and fragmentation of music production, especially nonlabel productions, makes choosing the top 12 albums of 2012 an impossible and foolish task — but here at EW, we’re OK with attempting the impossible and playing the fool sometimes. And as far as last-minute gifting goes, there aren’t many things as easy to give as music — it’s affordable and ubiquitous, whether it’s a download, CD or vinyl. To make it even easier, we’ve singled out each album’s hot tracks, because what’s more fun than making and giving a mix tape?

 

Kendrick Lamar

good kid, m.A.A.d city

If you haven’t heard of Kendrick Lamar, you should probably drop what you’re doing and queue up a tune from his autobiographic sophomore studio album, good kid, m.A.A.d city. Lamar is the artist all your favorite hip-hop artists are listening to, and his album plays out like a powerful, beat-heavy biopic. Start with “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” and let the album unfold in order, closing with “Compton.” Lamar who points to Tupac Shakur as his greatest musical influence writes smart and poignant songs, drawing on his upbringing in Compton, eloquently singing or dropping lyrics like “Everybody gonna respect the shooter/ But the one in front of the gun lives forever,” (“Money Trees”). “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is a moody, boozy, party-ready gem, accompanied by an equally atmospheric music video.

track: “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”

— Alex Notman

 

 

Soul Asylum

Delayed Reaction

Reared in an ’80s Minneapolis scene that also bred Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, Soul Asylum has been plying its gritty pop-punk-rock for three decades running, and Delayed Reaction is a wizened amuse-bouche that samples the band’s considerable range, moving from high-octane pop (“Gravity,” “The Juice”) and alt-country (“By the Way”) to unshakeable melodic gems (“Into the Light,” “Take Manhattan”).

track: “Into the Light (Breaking Horses)”

— Rick Levin

 

Sinéad O’Connor

How About I Be Me (and You Be You)

Sinéad O’Connor is that rare pure thing: an unreconstructed rebel and courageous artist possessing oodles of talent and a golden throat. At 45, having survived a nearly mythic rise and fall, O’Connor has produced her finest work: not only the comeback of the year but perhaps 2012’s best album, a tour-de-force containing at least three certifiable classics in “Reason with Me,” “Old Lady” and “The Wolf Is Getting Married.”

track: “The Wolf is Getting Married”

— Rick Levin

 

Lindi Ortega

Cigarettes & Truckstops

Having cut her teeth for a decade-plus in the Toronto indie scene, Lindi Ortega relocated to Nashville and cut Cigarettes & Truckstops with producer Colin Linden, who has worked with Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and The Band, among others. Talk about a match made in country music heaven: Linden captures the crystalline perfection of Ortega’s voice, which is redolent of such greats as Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, with a dark edge that is all her own.

track: “Demons Don’t Get Me Down”

— Rick Levin

 

Twin Shadow

Confess

Perfect for your friend who watched “Drive” as much for the synth-pop soundtrack as for Ryan Gosling’s piercing baby blues. George Lewis Jr.’s second album has a distinct ’80s power dance feel, with sharp lyrics, infectious beats and shredding guitars. As Stefon of Saturday Night Live fame would say, “It’s got everything.”

track: “You Call Me On”

— Jackie Varriano

 

Grimes

Visions

Claire Boucher, a pint-sized (and occasionally eyebrow-less) electronic princess who uses the stage name Grimes, is Canada’s best musical export since Alanis. Her album “Visions” is a falsetto-ridden romp through a world filled with loops and layers, perfect for someone with a fondness for cotton candy and technology. Slightly lisped lyrics make it virtually impossible not to sing along.

track: “Oblivion”

— Jackie Varriano

 

Regina Spektor

What We Saw from the Cheap Seats

Not just for your adorkable friend, the gift of Russian-born pixie Regina Spektor’s latest album is a gift full of stunning sentimentalism. Good for giving rainy days a sun-filled injection, Spektor’s thoughtful lyrics will charm even the cynics. With the must-have song “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas),” why not learn a foreign language phrase while doing a happy dance?

track: “Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas)”

— Jackie Varriano

 

Mountain Goats

Transcendental Youth

John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats is not known for range; there is a sameness to his rhythmic-guitar playing and vocal melodies. But it’s always been about his words: shocking, personal, utterly unique and spit with venom. Prior to 2012 the Mountain Goats’ formula had grown a bit stale, but with his latest release Transcendental Youth, Darnielle has reignited the fire in his belly, reminding us he’s one of the best songwriters of his generation.

track: “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” (a tribute to Amy Winehouse)

— William Kennedy

 

 

Perfume Genius

Put Your Back N 2 It

Don’t let the terrible title scare you; Mike Hadreas aka Perfume Genius’ latest release is a beautiful and gentle gem of a record. Based almost entirely around Hadreas’ sparse piano playing and feminine voice, the songs are sad, soulful and entrancing: sucking the air out of the room and absorbing your attention like only good music can. I was underwhelmed with Perfume Genius’ earlier records, but Put Your Back N 2 It and its textural indie-rock-torch-ballads rank tops with me this year.

track: “Hood”

— William Kennedy

 

Alabama Shakes

Boys & Girls

These days with so many aloof, wispy-voiced, guitar-strumming, bearded troupe bands, it’s nice to listen to something that really makes you feel something. That’s how I felt the first time I heard the voice of Brittany Howard, lead singer of the Athens, Ala., band Alabama Shakes. Part-Janis Joplin, part-Aretha Franklin and part-Amy Winehouse, Howard’s voice leads the band’s soulful, riff-heavy, tightly written freshman rock album with earth-shattering power, emotion and grit. The record swings from inspirational ballads (“I Found You,” “Hold On”) to languid melodies (“Boys & Girls”) to the deliciously bitter (“Heartbreak”) with ease and grace.

track: “Hold On”

— Alex Notman

 

Fergus and Geronimo

Funky was the State of Affairs

Like Holy Modal Rounders to the hippies, or Pavement to alt-rockers in the ’90s, Fergus and Geronimo poke fun at the social mores of the hipster generation, mixing ironic “I buy vinyl” genre tourism with tongue-in-cheek songwriting. But unlike the more overtly juvenile Ween, Fergus and Geronimo made a really great record in addition to the jokes. Expect techno-pop, ’60s garage-rock, punk, jazzy saxophone squawk and a trippy sampled voice interlude from “Heather Strange,” a “23-year-old human earthling”: “Really I’m just looking for a man whose cerebral capabilities haven’t been fried by LCD screens yet.”

track: “No Parties”

— William Kennedy

 

Fiona Apple

The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Not only is this my favorite album of 2012, it’s the best album Fiona Apple has ever ripped from her heart. The Idler Wheel feels bold, wise and liberated, in spite of, or perhaps because of, her continued struggles with anxiety and depression, and at times, it’s as if you can hear white-hot sparks firing off in her brain. Apple’s robust classical voice is better than ever, her piano laughs and weeps, accompanied by celestas, bouzoukis, marimbas, koras and a “truck stomper” (basically, someone stomping around on the hood of her brother’s truck). The use of timpani drums on the track “Hot Knife” adds booming big-band texture to playful and sharp lyrics: “If I’m butter, then he’s a hot knife.” No one combines humor and bitterness like Apple, especially on “Every Single Night,” when she wails “I just made a meal for us both to choke on. Every single night’s a fight with my brain.” Keep up the good fight, Fiona.

track: “Hot Knife”

— Alex Notman