Top Albums

AUX's Top 25 Albums of 2012

by AUX staff

December 21, 2012

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So, that’s it, huh? 2012’s over, and aside from Psy’s breakout popularity, there were few tumultuous changes to the pop-music zeitgeist: Sex-obsessed R&B continued to dominate airwaves. Taylor Swift continues to churn out pleasures, which, for even the biggest skeptics, are becoming less and less guilty. Montreal continues its dominance, now crowned the new Brooklyn, thanks, in part, to the enduring cultural dominance of Arbutus Records.

Yet if 2012 has a lasting legacy, it’s this: It stretched the boundaries of genre, which partially explains the explosive growth of microgenres. Frank Ocean challenged the conventions of heteronormative R&B. Kendrick Lamar brought his razor-sharp literary prowess to the hip-hop LP. Mean Jeans, for their part, melded art-school aesthetic with high-school lyricism. It’s these records—and 22 others—that caught our collective ears, so without further ado, here, AUX’s 25 albums of 2012.

By: Marsha Casselman (MC), Josiah Hughes (JH), Chayne Japal (CJ), Tyler Munro (TM), Sam Sutherland (SS), Mark Teo (MT), Richard Trapunski (RT), Nicole Villeneuve (NV), and Aaron Zorgel (AZ)

25. Usher – Looking 4 Myself (RCA)

Relative newcomers in Frank Ocean, Miguel and How to Dress Well continued to dominate R&B headlines in 2012, but we haven’t forgotten about one of the genre’s mainstays. Looking 4 Myself was by no means a perfect album—or even on par with his 2004 classic, Confessions—but it proved that Usher, two decades into his career, isn’t running on creative fumes. Here, Ush dips into Rick Ross-featuring thuggery, intergalactic Pharrell-produced hip hop, and, quite predictably, dubstep, but Looking 4 Myself’s ultimate victory was its Diplo-produced, slow-simmering lead single, “Climax,” which was indisputably 2012’s sexiest song. And maybe even the year’s best, period. (MT)

24. The Men – Open Your Heart (Sacred Bones)

For much of the last decade, “indie rock” has often meant blog buzz, Brooklyn, skinny jeans, glockenspiels, and bedroom producers, but 2012 saw a refocused interest in indie rock that actually, you know, rocks. Bands like Japandroids, Cloud Nothings and METZ did a good job of evoking a time when raw passion and angst was measured in volume and distortion, but few records felt like as much of an effective throwback to the late ‘80s/early ‘90s American indie underground as the Men’s Open Your Heart. The band’s huge, effects-soaked guitar epics crib liberally from bands like Sonic Youth and Husker Du, the Replacements, and the Buzzcocks, but never feels like an imitation. It’s as much a representation of that era in sound as in spirit, a time when the egoless DIY ideals of hardcore still persisted. Without a lead singer or a primary songwriter, the album jumps from unhinged twang to pretty acoustic instrumentals to throat-shredding punk rock, but it all holds together through sheer intensity and hook-heavy songcraft. (RT)

23. Mac DeMarco – 2 (Captured Tracks)

Mac DeMarco’s a man of contrasts: On one hand, he’s a scabies-infected skid with a penchant for onstage anal penetration. On the other, he also released 2, one of the year’s most hyped LPs, via the ever-buzzy Captured Tracks. And those binaries are central to his warped, reverb-soaked yacht pop—after all, how many songwriters could pull off gorgeous, tender love songs to discount cigarettes (and with a straight face, at that)? And like that track—it’s called “Ode to Viceroy,” for those wondering—2’s collection of tracks is both slimy and elegant, refined yet unfocused, detached yet brazenly honest. This is Real Estate for scumbags. (MT)

22. David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant (4AD)

An unlikely collaboration from two wildly creative artists of wildly different eras, Love This Giant combines both St. Vincent and David Byrne’s most eccentric sounds into a surprisingly straightforward package. In theory, it’s an album that should be immediately jarring, with Byrne’s bellowing yelp and Annie Clark’s soft-sounding voice theoretically at odds with each other, but the two shredders use the contrast to their advantage, meshing their accomplished six-string acumen with an album that’s surprisingly brass based. The result is so complimentary that it comes off as a pure collaboration: two sounds coming together to make a third that’s wholly of its own devices. Love This Giant is almost too funky for its own good, grabbing you from the opening groove of “Who” and holds tight until the closing timbres of “Outside of Space & Time.” (TM)

21. Death Grips – The Money Store (Epic)

Once upon a time, before they were just an elaborate excuse to stare at veiny cocks on music blogs all day, Sacramento trio Death Grips were more of a force to be reckoned with than a mere publicity campaign. After dropping the excellent Ex-Military mixtape and signing with Epic Records, no one knew if they’d water down their apocalyptic doom raps. The Money Store, however, was proof that bands could stay edgy and subversive while working with the major label system. Of course, it was followed by wienergate, public email sharing, and the band ultimately getting dropped. But having the mainstream feel dangerous for a second was sure nice while it lasted. (JH)

20. Taylor Swift – Red (Big Machine)

If you don’t think an autobiographical country/rock/saccharine bedroom folk-pop record detailing the unravelling of a handful of well-publicized toxic relationships doesn’t sound like a winning combination, then you might be an emotionless Cylon.Taylor Swift has changed it up since 2010’s Speak Now, a record where she was the only credited songwriter, inviting a handful of co-writers to collaborate on Red; gargantuan producer Max Martin especially helped usher in this transformative pop makeover for Swift. From its country-fried ballads (“I Almost Do”) to it’s bouncy twee-pop offering (“Stay Stay Stay”), Red is expertly crafted, but what makes it interesting is the range of very genuine emotions we see Swift barrel through in just over an hour. From playfully aloof (“22″) to vitriolic (“I Knew You Were Trouble”), the lyrics paint a picture of a young woman who is totally mixed up and doesn’t mind talking about it. (AZ)

19. Propagandhi – Failed States (Epitaph)

Ditching the pop-metal elements that made their last two records so immediately accessible, Winnipeg thrash masters issued a dense, challenging piece of progressive heaviness with Failed States. Without the anthemic hooks of Potemkin City Limits and Supporting Caste to lean on, Propagandhi drove headfirst into the most aggressive aspects of their core sound, producing a set of songs that can go toe-to-toe with the Canuck metal icons they frequently cite as vital influences. Yes, it’s still funny when they have to play the songs from their early records that sound like NOFX alongside these screeching riff avalanches at their shows, but Failed States feels the full promise of the band’s slow evolution delivered. It sounds cold, it sounds like Winnipeg. It fucking rips. (SS)

18. Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind (Epitaph)

That Converge’s last two albums can be seen as partial blunders speaks to the unmatched precedent set by their early discography, but All We Love We Leave Behind isn’t just good under the genre’s constructs—it holds its own amongst the band’s best. If Axe to Fall sounded like it tried too hard, All We Love We Leave Behind almost like they didn’t have to, which says more about how natural and destructive it is than anything — as always, their technicality is unmatched. Songs like “Trespasses” whiz by with such relentlessness that it’s surprisingly easy not to notice just how much is happening, and more impressively, how coordinated and in tune it all sounds. Without the frills of their last album or the deliriousness of No Heroes, Converge have put out album fit for their reputation: aggressive, technical, and raw, all without seeming self-indulgent or trite. (TM)

17. Ellie Goulding – Halcyon (Polydor)

Halcyon feels like a harbinger of future pop music trends. Already an established name in her native U.K., Goulding’s breakout in the North American market came via a record that sounded less like a chart-topping British singer-songwriter and more like a dense M83-style sound collage. Mixing atmospheric electronic textures with a natural pop lean, Goulding succeeded in crafting an immediately catchy record that avoided the ruinous sheen of many of her contemporaries. Instead, songs like “Don’t Say a Word” and “Figure 8” are dark, slow-moving compositions that take their own route from point A to B, ignoring pop song structure without sacrificing the memorable hooks. (SS)

16. G.O.O.D. Music – Cruel Summer (G.O.O.D. Music)

Its success might have been hampered by delayed release dates and too many over-exposed singles, but Cruel Summer ended up being a pretty good LP. It could be considered Kanye West’s twisted Wu-Tang fantasy with its barrage of posse cuts and the Ghostface Killah and Raekwon guest spots back to back. Also, similar to the classic Wu albums, Cruel Summer successfully balances its huge cast so that all involved have a moment to showcase their talents. It’s Big Sean that makes the most of his time though, to introduce a series of very useful ass-prefixed words. (CJ)

15. The xx – Coexist (Young Turks)

Delivering on expectation is a daunting thing, and with the whole of the indie (and modern hip-hop production) world watching and waiting for The xx’s sophomore effort, they managed to do so with not only a redefining of their sound, but quiet grace and maturity. Both are characteristics that have defined the band since breaking when they were still just teens, and for Coexist, the band once again exceeds their years with minimal, soulful manipulation of gloomy pop, dance, and R&B sounds. Though more closely suited to a dark dance floor than airwaves, there are hooks here—great ones—that sneak up and sink in and stick around for a while. Which sounds about exactly right for them. (NV)

14. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse (In The Red)

Bay-area rocker Ty Segall is one of the most prolific songwriters in the land, putting out two other albums in 2012, but Slaughterhouse is the best choice for fans of fuzzed-out guitar noise. Whereas Segall has tested out a softer, clearer and more experimental side lately, this first album with his 4-piece touring band sees him go back to balls-to-the wall heavy garage punk. It’s bratty, as Segall puts it “evil”, and reverbed to all hell. With covers of Bo Diddly and Fred Neil, Mr. Segall knows his rock history—and he’s starting to make a dent in it himself. (MC)

13. Azealia Banks – 1991 (Interscope)

After “212” shut Tumblr down in late 2011, it was all eyes on Azealia. The beautiful, clever, young rapper from Harlem followed up with this EP, named after her year of birth, and a harder seapunk-referencing mixtape, Fantasea. On 1991, her production brilliantly referenced mid-90s deep house on which she delivered her catchy, undeniable flow. While Azealia Banks plays on passing trends, past and current, to add a playful element to her music, the work that she’s released this past year suggests that she ought to be around for a while. (CJ)

12. Actress – R.I.P. (Honest Jon’s)

Unlike his ambient contemporaries in Daniel Lopatin and Tim Hecker, Actress is transfixing for a single reason: the British producer is able to deconstruct genre without disowning it entirely. At that, R.I.P., Actress’s sophomore LP, has clear electro and hip-hop roots: ghostly house tracks collide with Eno-esque soundscapes, amorphous, distorted bass waves punch through chillout hip-hop production, and somehow—startlingly—it all works in harmony. The result: An arresting ambient LP that alternates between fascinating and familiar. (MT)

11. El-P – Cancer 4 Cure (Fat Possum)

Nothing is really underground anymore. Now, a guy like El-P is naturally as accessible as he’s ever been. But he’s still the severely underrated rapper with the knack for constructing the grittiest beats imagined and Cancer 4 Cure reminded us of that. This record along with his production on Killer Mike’s was the trade-off for El-P’s seminal label Definitive Jux going into hibernation. Not a bad deal. (Chayne Japal)

10. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream (ByStorm/RCA )

On Kaleidoscope Dream, Miguel blends analog and digital soundscapes, seeming to draw as much from psych-rock (“Where’s The Fun In Forever?”) as he does from conventions of modern R&B (“Adorn”). A masterful vocalist, Miguel has no trouble cutting through thickets of reverb while ad-libbing a falsetto run, or pushing his voice to a climactic breaking point. It’s easy to liken him to Prince, especially the album’s spacey production, but in his shining moments, Miguel sounds like Stevie Wonder, emoting an undeniable commitment to every single word. Miguel’s lyrics are sexually charged, but they’re not without a playful sense of humour. The flirtatious “Do You” (“I’m gonna do you like drugs tonight”), and the lewd-but-sweet improvised “Pussy Is Mine,” could never find a home on records by genre coevals Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. Impeccable and inventive songwriting is elevated by a multi-genre aural synthesis, to make Miguel’s Kaleidoscope Dream one of the most satisfying records you’ll hear all year. (AZ)

9. Mean Jeans – On Mars (Dirtnap)

Writing for a different publication in 2010, I named Blink-182’s goofy teen punk opus Dude Ranch the album of the year. Sure, normies would’ve called it for The Suburbs or whatever, but for some of us brainless fun is the highest art of all. Thanks to Mean Jeans, I can call 2012 for a current band. On Mars is a perfect pop-punk album, offering up just over half an hour of incredible party anthems. For something this melodic and well-written, it’s remarkable that they get away with such lobotomized lyrics about inner tubing, Capri-Suns, and Kraft Dinner. The question wasn’t whether or not to put on Mean Jeans, the question was how long I could listen to other albums before shutting them off and giving On Mars another spin. Some of us will be greasy, grinning shitheads forever, and this is our Arcade Fire. (JH)

8. Metz (Sub Pop)

Some have called Metz’s debut LP a disappointment, but don’t be fooled: it’s less a criticism of their songcraft, and more a testament to the deafening hype the trio built from their live shows. But Metz are no longer Toronto’s best-kept secret—their debut showcased a crushing, fat-free brand of noise rock equally indebted to the early Touch and Go discography and Nirvana’s Bleach. (It’s no coincidence both bands debuted on Sub Pop.) Best of all, Metz revealed the trio’s surprising melodic penchant—which, in a live setting, often got lost in the band’s towering walls of feedback—a solid indicator that along their fuzz-laden power, Metz has plenty of staying power, too. (MT)

7. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music (Williams Street Records)

While its title is officially and confusingly an acronym for Rebellious African People, R.A.P. Music is nonetheless a moniker indicative of the genre at its purest: paranoid, powerful, and, most importantly, really fucking great to listen to. Taking El-P’s left-of-centre synth-heavy production and cramming it somewhere between dirty south and boom-bap, R.A.P. Music benefits most from its consistency. Even with the odd guest star, the album comes off like a proper collaboration between two wildly creative friends, and there’s a real sense of pride and accomplishment when Killer Mike proclaims “this album was created entirely by Jamie and Mike” at the start of “JoJo’s Chillin.” The politics might be a bit much, especially on the tense and vitriolic “Reagan,” but those who can look past (or even appreciate) Killer Mike’s passion will find themselves entrenched halfway through one of the year’s best albums. (TM)

6. Japandroids – Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)

Aggressively nostalgic without feeling hack, Celebration Rock captures a lost teenage summer you probably never even had. In their propulsive sonics and direct lyrics, songs like “Younger Us” and “Fire’s Highway” are for 20-and-30-somethings what Springsteen’s early Jersey fables were to a generation before – a mystic, idealized vision of a different time and place, a perfect snapshot of a gut feeling more than any true memory. Recorded in their native Vancouver with the same engineer (the great Jesse Gander) as the comparatively minimal Post-Nothing, each song sounds like part of a larger whole while possessing its own distinct character, no small feat from a guitar-and-drums two-piece. Never play this quiet, ever. (SS)

5. White Lung – Sorry (Deranged)

(Ed. note: We came to know Mish because of her band. Now, she writes for us. She wasn’t part of the vote for this list, but when her band’s album ended up ranking high, we knew we had to make her write the blurb. Thanks, Mish. xoxo.)

Wow. #5? This is such an honor. I feel like Halle Berry. No, I feel like Stephanie Tanner when Uncle Jesse explained to her that being in the middle is the best part of anything. I would not have been able to do without Kanye West (thanks for breaking my heart, dick head), John Mayer (worst anal sex of my life) and, of course, my imaginary step-father, Bruce Jenner, who continues to inspire me day after day. This one’s for you, you old sea shell. (Mish Way)

4. Purity Ring – Shrines (Last Gang/4AD)

Remember when we all wondered if Purity Ring, Megan James and Corin Roddick’s post-Gobble Gobble project, would ever escape Cecil Frena’s (now Born Gold) considerable shadow? Neither do we. Because Shrines, led by its massive lead single “Ungirthed,” outshone James and Roddick’s previous work considerably, combining sugary dream pop, glitchy modern hip-hop, and wobbling dubstep into a hypnotic brew. But as immediately fascinating as Shrines was, its true value reveals itself after repeated listens: the juxtaposition of James’s obsession with the bizarre (as on the wonderfully twisted “Fineshrine”) and Roddick’s post-clubland production made Purity Ring’s debut a 2012 essential. (MT)

3. Grimes – Visions (4AD)

Visions caught the ear of critics around the world this year, putting Grimes and Canada’s weird side (and once again Montreal’s creative breeding ground) on the map. The odd-ball electro-pop princess’s third studio album is her most focused; sugary sweet vocals are looped and layered over catchy-yet-experimental beats rooted in dance, hip hop, and R&B, all made in the bedroom by hers truly. Visions represents the present, recalls the past—Enya, Madonna—and foresees the future of pop music: flawed, DIY, and real. (MC)

2. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city (Top Dawg/Aftermath)

Maybe the most remarkable thing about this endlessly remarkable record is that it produced two minor hit singles prior to its release – “Compton” and “Swimming Pools (Drank),” both of which fit snuggly into the compelling narrative that weaves good kid, m.A.A.d. city together. Lamar isn’t exactly short on accomplishments or praise these days, but this may be one of the most impressive things about what will undoubtedly be considered a classic of the decade – that you can pick it apart and put it back together for equally satisfying listening experiences. On their own, songs like “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Money Trees” are sublime, modern west coast hip hop cuts. They deftly meld the sound of Lamar’s local influences with a distinctly modern approach that somehow eschews current production trends and tropes, making them solid stand-alone songs for your party playlist or walk to work. But taken as a whole, good kid, m.A.A.d. city is exactly the “short film” that Lamar has subtitled it as, a compelling, fully-realized concept album that takes you on the mini van ride of your life. (SS)

1. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE (Def Jam)

Frank Ocean wrote the best album of 2012, but he also wrote the best Tumblr post. Some might tell you the latter actually supersedes the former, the 25-year-old singer’s graceful, poetic tale of unrequited (and same-sex) first love more significant than the record it inspired. No question, Ocean’s brave, achingly honest account is a major blow to the casual homophobia that has plagued hip hop and R&B for decades (including in his own group, Odd Future), but that hardly seems like the point. Instead, the male pronoun is incidental to the profound impact of heartbreak in general and the many forms it takes. channel ORANGE takes the same nuanced, widescreen approach to the universal themes of his genre. Over the course of an hour, Ocean rewrites the rules of R&B, adopting a variety of perspectives, voices, and genres, skipping from futuristic psychedelic prog-funk to throwback soul to slithery rhythm and blues, governed by only one rule: aesthetic beauty. In whatever he does, Frank Ocean defies easy categorization. But that’s fine. We get the feeling his final legacy is far from written. (RT)

This article originally appeared in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of AUX Magazine. Download and subscribe for free in the App Store.

Tags: Music, News, 2012 in review, actress, Azealia Banks, Converge, Death Grips, El-P, Ellie Goulding, Frank Ocean, G.O.O.D. Music, Japandroids, Kendrick Lamar, killer mike, mean jeans, METZ, Miguel, Propagandhi, purity ring, Ty Segall Band, usher, white lung

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