1) Grimes – Visions
My single most important criterium is quantity of quality. From first to last, does each song challenge me? grow on me? sound great? Grimes’ album was that rare masterpiece we all live to discover: we get hooked on a fantastic single or two; then we check out the album—woah, a few more great songs, but the rest of the album is only ok; then you find yourself three months later contemplating if the one song you thought was the worst on the album is actually the best. Hats off to you, Claire. Your style is appreciated and will be in my queue forever.
2) Beach House – Bloom
With subjective rankings, often we have personal reasons for rating something higher or lower. This year, Bloom is overloaded with personal moments that admittedly puts it higher than others.
See, I share a lot of music with my lovely wife, Rena. Most of the time it’s a miss, but once in a while I hit a bullseye that becomes something fun to share with her. In the past, Animal Collective, Passion Pit, Grizzly Bear, and Real Estate were major successes. (Sadly, Grimes is not!) Well, this year Beach House was the hit, which I parlayed into an introduction to her first music festival, Pitchfork in July 2012. Beach House was tremendous closing out a fine summer Saturday, a day we’ll soon not forget.
The duo’s impact didn’t stop there. During their tour, they stopped in Milwaukee to play at The Pabst the weekend of our one-year anniversary, and promptly blew our minds. One of the better shows I’ve seen.
So what about Bloom itself, beyond just seeing it live? It’s a style all its own, and it doesn’t deviate from it. So if you like the style, you’ll love the album. If you struggle to get past the first song, everything else will be difficult. For me personally, it’s great summer music.
3) Luke Abbott – Modern Driveway
Luke is my little gem. I found him via a Four Tet remix in 2010. Kieren covered Holkham Drones in a two-hour DJ set. The sound was so unique I had to find out the source. After much research, I discovered Luke. This year saw him release two separate EPs, one in summer and one in winter. Frankly, the winter EP was only average. But summer’s effort, Modern Driveway, was my second most-played album this year. Five songs to play anywhere, anytime. I always feel good about tomorrow when I’m done listening.
4) Grizzly Bear – Shields
Not as good as Yellow House nor Vecktamist. I see a lot of Modest Mouse in them—the history, not the sound. The gritty, folksy, honest, unpolished sound that made their first work so real is slowly giving way to nicer studios and evolving musical ambitions, resulting in music that is well done but missing heart. But it’s fun and well crafted, and guldarnit, I play it loud every time.
5) Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action At A Distance
Late entrant. Deerhunter’s Lockett Pundt sure does do simple, strong bedroom rock well. Spooky rose up my list as I realized how much I love Deerhunter’s sound. Retrospectively, I don’t praise Halcyon Digest enough. This album is the closest thing to Deerhunter’s sound, and included heartfelt personal anguish. This one is filed under “I didn’t realize I liked it this much until I thought about it.”
6) Matthew Dear – Beams
I’m a Matthew Dear apologist. Why can’t I find more Matthew Dear fans? Beams did not get a lot of pump, both by press or peers, but I loved it. A few of my favorite dance tracks lead the charge—if you haven’t given “Her Fantasy” or “Headcase” a good strong listen to on a Friday night before you’re about to meet friends, you’re missing out.
7) Tame Impala – Lonerism
Alright, I get it.
8) Lower Dens – Nootropics
Man I love these guys. “Brains” is one of the best singles of the year. They could have risen higher, but quality really drops after “Propagation”. All good stuff, but to go from the perfection of the first four tracks to the average display in the last six was disappointing.
9) Mac DeMarco – 2
Weird and fun.
Couldn’t even make it to number 10. I’m proving a point: this was a disappointing year in music for me. I look back at years past—like the best-music-year-ever 2010—and scratch my head why I couldn’t find as many diverse works of art this year. Frankly, only the top three albums on this list will stay in my roation long-term. Everything else is just average and I’ll revisit in a couple years.
Another way to phrase it: I like to collect vinyl records, but I make it a point to only buy albums that I hold in high regard and wish to play 30 years from now with my kids. Grimes, Beach House, and Luke Abbott were the only albums this year I plan to purchase. Everything else is relegated to MP3 consumption.
It’s striking to me how many bands, with past music I adored, produced clunkers this year:
- Animal Collective (so, so bad)
- Blondes (Touched EP made my top 5 in 2010, think about that! Terrible LP follow up)
- Lower Dens (could have been better)
- Matthew Dear (could have been better)
- Grizzly Bear (could have been better)
- Nada Surf (meh)
- Bear In Heaven (lost what made them great)
- AIR (not AIR like)
- Of Montreal (nothing catchy)
- Sleigh Bells (not as good)
- Andrew Bird (forgot about it)
- The Shins (commercial music)
- Sigur Ros (boring)
- Sun Kil Moon (good, not great)
- Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti (great singles, always too much wink wink nudge nudge; very frustrating music)
- The xx (also boring)
- Ben Folds Five (he should stop)
- Tame Impala (I honestly think Innerspeaker was much better)
- Crystal Castles (they keep getting weirder)
I’m sure there are others I missed, which proves the point further.
And the biggy… Four Tet! I appreciate Kieren Hebden’s adaptation the most. He moves with what interests him. So Pink gets a pass because this year he was simply more interested in making club music. But boy what a letdown. Let me be clear: Four Tet is my favorite musician of all time. The shear amount of beautiful music he makes is staggering. It’s remarkable how he can make music as uplifting and positive as Bob Marley without using lyrics. So any year with a Four Tet album is a good year. But Pink is easily his worst effort to date.
Before I part ways, there are several musicians I would like to give a hat tip to. They produced great music, but simply did not resonate with me, so did not make my list.
- Frank Ocean
- Jack White
- Godspeed You! Black Emperor
- Kendrick Lamar
- Sharon Van Etten
- Norah Jones
- Fiona Apple
I’m looking forward to 2013.