Top Albums of 2012: Part 1 of 2

11/27/2012

I’ve never been a music critic but I listen to music and I like having an opinion. So when I heard tell that music had people who write reviews and make lists just like movies do, I immediately decided I wanted a piece of that action (kind of like Steven King does with movies). So for the second year in a row, I present my incredibly subjective, not-at-all comprehensive list of the top albums of the year.

10. The Flaming Lips – The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends

What from a distance seems like little more than another instance of the Flaming Lips celebrating their strange fame with crazy, drug-induced trifles, almost immediately reveals itself to be much more. If the apocalyptically awful (but in a good way?) opening Ke$ha track doesn’t do anything for you, its two followups Ashes in the Air (which gets Justin Vernon to dutifully echo the line “but they had robot dogs” in his trademark unflinching sincere falsetto) and Helping the Retarded to Know God (which harnesses the messianic croon of Edward Sharpe’s Alex Ebert for one of the most sincere religious songs Wayne Coyne has ever written, despite the title) pick up right where the masterful Embryonic left off — with the Lips straining to create fantasy worlds that are ever more graphic and concrete, while simultaneously being even more outlandish.

So while the myriad of sweeps week cameos stinks of record store day stunting (which by the way is exactly what this album is) the overall message of clinging to childlike friendship in a world quickly fading into an apocalyptic wasteland, makes them feel like an artistic necessity. Even Ke$ha contributes, because what better way to paint a really vivid picture of the world in ashes than reminding us Ke$ha exists? Fwends doesn’t have the consistency of a great Lips record (see the part where it’s not #1 on this list) but it is the much-desired continuation of that 2010’s-era Lips grittiness Embryonic ushered in. With a more official followup, The Terror, coming early in 2013, I don’t imagine Fwends will ever be more than a blip on the band’s legacy — alongside 24 hour songs and albums meant to be played on 4 different players at once. Still, in that closing track — Imagine lyrics, Chris Martin and all — I couldn’t help but tear up, specifically at Martin’s exclamation, “I love the Flaming Lips!” Never mind that it was the Flaming Lips who wrote it.

9. Tame Impala – Lonerism

I’m just gonna say it: there isn’t enough psychadelic rock these days. Listen to Enders Toi, the second track in Tame Impala’s sophomore effort, and tell me you don’t agree. Like drug rock’s heyday in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the tracks on Lonerism are either hypnotically enchanting or catchy as hell (when they’re not both). It’s the latter category that first grabbed me, alongside that feeling that I was hearing some lost Beatles record (which isn’t helped by the fact that Kevin Parker sounds JUST LIKE John Lennon. It’s not uncanny. It’s terrifying). But it’s the former tracks that have the true staying power: The Apocalypse Dreams, the Keep on Lyings, the Nothing that has Happeneds which seem to belong to a lost era where the tensile strength of rock music was being tested just for kicks. That said, I expect to see Music to Walk Home By, Feels Like We Only Go Backwards, and Mind Mischief in a slew of indie movies over the next few years. The ball is now in your court Fox Searchlight.

8. Beach House – Bloom

So, until I listened to this album I’d never heard of Beach House. Is that bad? Apparently they’re popular, and apparently it’s for good reason because I really loved this record. There’s not a single track that reaches out and grabs you. They all just kind of exist and linger and slowly develop into something profound. It’s a bold move in today’s hook-heavy music scene. Even I (yes I, the gold standard for listening to other people’s music!) have a tendency to hit next when music doesn’t grab me immediately and outright tell me why it’s awesome. And yet how quickly does the cleverness and predictability that breeds that immediate recognition fade into dull familiarity? Bloom is a record about lasting things (yes, I got that quote from an interview), about natural things, about things that are difficult to nail down and define. So don’t be fooled by the pretty sounds. This isn’t a band trying and failing to reach pop perfection. It’s a band that has arrived, but in a far better place.

7. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

You might not think it after 8 consecutive tracks of unironic, go-for-broke anthems to enduring youth, but there’s a precarious balance to Celebration Rock. If the album didn’t channel the undiscerning delirium of concert madness every noise-flooded second, then lyrics like, “Hearts terrain is never a prairie /  but you weren’t wary / when you took my hand / in the cold pissing rain / dressed to the nines / arm in arm with me tonight / singin outlaw yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah,” might come off more knockoff late 90’s emo than indie critical darling. Yet while it’s rare to find a great album that sounds better the more blown your speakers are, it’s not unheard of. This isn’t one to meditate over. It’s a quick shot of heroin youth; an emotional wet dream you’re supposed to feel a little embarrassed when you wake up from. In the moment it really is sweet, and it perfectly recaptures that feeling everyone who was ever a teenager knows all too well: that the world is ours if we just shake violently enough, scream loud enough, or rock hard enough.

6. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

I’ve been an outspoken Mountain Goats fan for a couple years now, and there’s always a warm feeling that accompanies the first great record a band releases since you started rooting for them. I was plenty happy with All Eternals Deck a year ago. Just see my top 10 from that year for proof of that. But there’s something really exceptional about Transcendental Youth (I think John Darnielle’s best since Sunset Tree) and even after several dozen listens I still can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it’s the way a band that was the voice of my secret antisocial side suddenly feels like the voice of my entire generation. Or maybe it’s not so much a change in the band as a change in myself and the people around me; the way I’ve seen my friends and classmates transform from confident, driven college students into lost adults who can relate more to Darnielle’s misfit protagonists. Either way, the entire album is great but the first four tracks particularly sparkle, culminating with the musical and literary masterpiece that is Harlem Roulette, which should go down as one of Darnielle’s greatest achievements.

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