Top Ten Albums of 2012

In 2012, I easily listened to more new music than I have in the past […]

Carl L. / 12.27.12

Kendrick-Lamar-Good-Kid-Maad-CityIn 2012, I easily listened to more new music than I have in the past 3 or 4 years combined, due in large part to my writing music reviews for Mockingbird (although not as many as I would have liked—curse you grad school!) as well as my newfound Spotify addiction. The variety and scope of my listening this year made creating this list somewhat difficult, but I’ve been able to narrow down my list and I’m thrilled to share it with you. Of course, a number of my choices have found their way onto lists across the internet, but there are a few on my list that I haven’t seen with any regularity on other year-end lists. This year, most of the albums I’ll highlight are the ones that stuck with me throughout the whole year and that I played over and over. In that respect, these really are my favorite albums of the year. Here’s to hoping that you might find something fresh and exciting to listen to as we embark on a new year.

10. Battle Born – The Killers

If you had told me at the beginning of this year that The Killers would have been making any appearance on my year-end list, I most likely would have laughed in your face. Yet, on Battle Born, the band crafts solid song after solid song, and I found myself restarting the album time and time again. Sure, there were other albums I listened to this year that were more creative than Battle Born, but this album stuck in my mind like those didn’t. While the Tom Petty and Springsteen influences are still obvious over the course of the album, the band seems to finally have their own vision, using those influences as a starting point, rather than a blueprint, for their own music. The Killers still know how to create catchy music, as “Runaways” and the title track show, but the most growth on Battle Born comes from the band’s management of the slower songs like “The Way it Was” and “Be Still.” Throughout all of the songs on Battle Born, there is a relentless optimism that pairs wonderfully with the band’s anthemic rock, and ultimately makes Battle Born one of the better rock albums this year.

Best Songs: “Runaways,” “A Matter of Time,” “Battle Born”


9. Port of Morrow – The Shins

After a five year hiatus, James Mercer and The Shins returned with Port of Morrow, an album that balances light and dark tones seamlessly throughout its running time, creating a varied and realistic picture of life and its struggles. Community and love are extolled on songs like “Simple Song” and “It’s Only Life,” while Mercer considers heartbreak on tracks like “For a Fool” and “40 Mark Strasse.” Musically, the band sounds invigorated, and songs like “The Rifle’s Spiral” and “No Way Down” resound with an energy that was missing from The Shin’s last release, Wincing the Night Away. Likewise, Mercer’s lyrics on Port of Morrow largely eschew the abstract nature of those on Wincing the Night Away, which gives this album more relatability and emotional impact, proving that Mercer and company still have stories to tell and music to make.

Best Songs: “Simple Song,” “It’s Only Life,” “No Way Down,” “40 Mark Strasse”



8. Clear Heart Full Eyes – Craig Finn

While certainly not as rowdy or hard-hitting as his work with the Hold Steady, Craig Finn succeeds in delivering another high quality set of songs on his inaugural solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes. Whether he is telling the story of love lost (“Rented Room,” “Balcony”), musing about friends with problems (“Jackson,” “Terrified Eyes”), or dealing with weighty spiritual themes (“Western Pier,” Honolulu Blues”), Finn never deviates from his tried and true honesty. There is a lived-in quality to Finn’s lyrics and music that is hard to find in today’s world, where vulnerability is often seen as a sign of weakness. Ultimately, Clear Heart Full Eyes is an album about growing old, becoming comfortable with yourself, and finding redemption in unlikely places.

Best Songs: “No Future,” “Jackson,” “Honolulu Blues,” “Balcony”



7. Theatre is Evil – Amanda Palmer

Part maniac punk energy, part tender piano ballads, Theatre is Evil is a genre-twisting, impeccably sequenced whirlwind of musical intensity. Anchoring this constant musical and thematic shifting (look no further than the heart-rending “The Bed Song”transitioning into the peppy “Massachusetts Avenue”) is Palmer’s voice, leaping from hushed, high tones to full-bodied punk yelps, occasionally within the same song. On “Lost,”Palmer sounds like Regina Spektor, quirky lyrics and music abounding, while on piano-driven songs like “Bottomfeeder”and “The Bed Song”she exhibits an emotional and vocal range akin to Fiona Apple (more on her later). That these slow burning tracks are effectively juxtaposed next to romps like “Want It Back”and “Olly Olly Oxen Free,” vocally and musically recalling various incarnations of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, only stands as a testament to the album’s success in keeping my attention through a varied and exciting track listing. While perhaps not the most meaningful musical experience of this year, Theatre is Evil is certainly one of the most enjoyable.

Best Songs: “The Bed Song,” “Melody Dean,” “Lost”


6. Gossamer – Passion Pit

Unlike Manners, Passion Pit’s previous album, Gossamer is an emotionally draining experience, fueled by lead singer Michael Angelakos’ struggles with mental illness. Fractured and intense, Gossamer’s music matches Angelakos’ lyrics, mapping the mood swings and vagaries of his depression as the album tells his story. “I’ll Be Alright” stands out as a perfect example of the album’s shifting tones, its dark lyrics juxtaposed against the light tone of the song’s spastic background vocals and frenetic drumming. Gossamer marks an evolution in the band’s sound, as several of the tracks dial back the quick tempo of Manners and allow Angelakos to abandon the falsetto that occupied almost all of Manners’ music, giving the band a more dynamic range than on their first album. But more than all of this, Gossamer is one of this year’s highlights because of the journey Angelakos takes us on which ultimately end in a beautiful moment of grace on the album’s final track, “Where We Belong.”

Best Songs: “I’ll Be Alright,” “Constant Conversations,” “Love Is Greed”



5. Some Nights – fun. 

If for no other reason, Some Nights deserves to be on my list because, since its release in February, it has been a constant presence in my music listening lineup. The band’s infectious blend of pop and indie rock captured my attention this year, along with the attention of the radio due to their monstrous single, “We Are Young,” a dramatic ode to youth and lost love. While not quite as strong as the band’s first album, Aim and Ignite, fun.’s sophomore effort continues to evoke the epic and anthemic nature of the music of Queen and various other arena rock bands, abounding with big hooks and soaring vocals. Much like Mumford and Sons, fun., while definitely more cynical lyrically than the British folk band, is bringing sincerity and real emotion back to pop radio, and we are all the beneficiaries.

Best Songs: “Some Nights,” “Why Am I The One,” “All Alright”



4. Handwritten – The Gaslight Anthem

Without a new album from The Hold Steady this year (although I did get to see them put on an incredible show in July), I had to find my rock and roll fix somewhere else. Enter The Gaslight Anthem and their new album Handwritten, a tight, focused, and smart album that hits all the right notes. Handwritten strikes a remarkable balance between nostalgia and contemporaneity, as the band builds upon the foundation of rock and roll bands that have come before them, without simply copying the sounds of the past. The album bursts out of the gates with “45,” a rip-roaring, straight up rocker that begins an exuberant five song run unmatched by any other album this year. The Gaslight Anthem’s music retains a hopeful, meaningful edge, but tempers that enthusiasm with a well-worn experience, creating a collection of songs on Handwritten that can proclaim hope and peace in the midst of this tough world.

Best Songs: “45,” “Handwritten,” “Here Comes My Man,” “Biloxi Parish”



3. Transcendental Youth – The Mountain Goats

Last year, The Mountain Goats topped my year end list with All Eternals Deck, a poignant, powerful assemblage of songs that championed acceptance of pain and doubt as the first step toward recovery. While Transcendental Youth won’t be at the apex of my list this year, it is still one heck of an album, containing plenty of John Darnielle’s fantastic lyrics. Musically, the album incorporates horns and brass throughout its running time, continuing the new exploration of sonic textures that started on All Eternals Deck, and some of the songs on Transcendental Youth are among the catchiest the band has ever recorded.  The upbeat music doesn’t disguise Darnielle’s exploration of the darker areas of life on songs like “Cry for Judas” and “Harlem Roulette,” yet his searching and abstract lyrics ultimately push through the darkness, finding sparks of life in unlikely places. An excellent follow up to my favorite album of last year, Transcendental Youth is a balm for the broken-hearted, suggesting that healing often begins with an admission of the problem.

Best Songs: “Cry for Judas,” “Until I am Whole,” “Counterfeit Florida Plates,” “Transcendental Youth”



2. The Idler Wheel… – Fiona Apple

Without a doubt, Fiona Apple’s voice shines on The Idler Wheel, meshing perfectly with the scattered percussion and piano that populates the musical backdrop of the album. Her voice rises and falls, twisting and turning through pain and rage, before blossoming into unexpected tenderness. As morose as some of these songs are, The Idler Wheel remains musically enchanting throughout, due to its inventive percussion, Apple’s ever-shifting vocals, and her gift for lyrical imagery. While the album may seem sparse on first listen, careful listening reveals layers of sound that add up to make each song a powerful experience, especially the album’s closing track and my favorite song of the year, “Hot Knife.” Every song on The Idler Wheel can stand on its own merits and Apple has truly created one of the year’s most accomplished and consistent albums.

Best Songs: “Daredevil,” “Werewolf,” “Periphery,” “Hot Knife” (seriously, go listen to “Hot Knife” now)


1. good kid: m.A.A.d city – Kendrick Lamar

kendrick-lamar-good-kid-maad-city-producers-credits-494x278There are many reasons I could give for selecting Kendrick Lamar’s major-label debut as my favorite album from 2012 (impeccable production, great hooks, excellent guest spots, etc.), but only focusing on those reasons would be selling this album short. For, at its heart, good kid, m.A.A.d city is a story of sin, death, grace, and redemption, with Lamar using his experiences growing up in Compton to craft a remarkable artistic statement about issues like drugs, gang violence, and poverty without ever coming across as overtly political. In fact, I would argue that Lamar suggests that the root, and therefore the solution, of these problems is spiritual, closing the album’s climatic track “Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst” with some of the album’s characters praying to Jesus for salvation. Unexpected and powerful, this moment is grounded in a messy and painful reality, certainly one that I can’t talk about with any accuracy, and it speaks with authority into the world that Lamar has created. In my opinion, Kendrick Lamar has not only made the best album of the year, but also the most redemptive, capturing an image of relentless grace that finds its way into the darkness and leaves it a little brighter.

Best Songs: “Money Trees,” “m.A.A.d city,” “Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst,” “Real”


subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


8 responses to “Top Ten Albums of 2012”

  1. B.I.C says:

    So I am glad to know that you are a fellow The Hold Steady and The Gaslight Anthem fan. I was so psyched to see Handwritten on your list! I still need to hear the new Mountain Goats album. And I didn’t even know that Craig Finn had a solo album out…guess what I am about to buy?

    Anyways, the last couple of years I have been devoting myself to whole genres of music (last year was hip/hop and this year was gothic americana), so I am not as in tune with new releases. However, I always have my ears open for new projects by favorite bands. Then I have friends in the know to recommend others. As I was driving to my usual coffee shop I was thinking about what my favorite new albums were this year and this is what I have come up with thus far:

    5. Theory Hazit – Thr3e
    4. Thrice – Anthology (live album from my absolute favorite band who are now on hiatus)
    3. Wovenhand – The Laughing Stalk (new album by my favorite artist of gothic americana music)
    2. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten
    1. Propaganda – Excellent

    I have been hesitant to try The Killers album, but I may have to. It has shown up on many a respectable list! Thanks for some new ones to try out!

  2. I have been trying to think of my Top 10 for this year.

    Kendrick is in the top 10. Giving him one more listen through.

    Loved The Gaslight Anthem “Hand Written” Such a great record.

    I have Listened to Thrice’s Anthology a couple of times and can’t decide if I want to put it on my list. My friend’s went on that last tour with them O’Brother. Garden Window is a great listen if you haven’t checked it out.

    While Reading John Zahl’s “Grace in Addiction” I somehow stumbled upon Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “The Heist” Song worth checking out on that one is called “Starting Over” featuring Ben Bridwill of Band of Horses. Deals with a relapse he had. Amazing track that has stood out to me for the past month.

    I have been doing some Social Media work for a band called “Bad Books” They are comprised of Kevin Devine & Members of Manchester Orchestra. They released “II” in October. I want to put it on my top list but I’m not sure if that is tacky because I manage their Social Media Marketing but worth a listen. Top Tracks from that Album are “Forest Whitaker” “Pyotr” & “Friendly Advice”

    The top ten for 2012 is really hard for me this year!

    Do you think the Pedro the Lion Re-Masters Count?

    • B.I.C says:

      Pedro the Lion ALWAYS counts.

      Yeah, I went to see Thrice on this last tour in DFW and was astounded. Anthology is good, but admittedly it is more on my list because of their status in my tastes and because it may be the last product there put out there for a while (if not at all).

      Bad Books is a good band. I love Manchester Orchestra. I am looking forward to new material by them.

      I listened to Kendrick for the first time last night, but I need to give it a couple more spins because I didn’t think much of it. But I am kind of a purist when it comes to hip/hop and I like samples and good breaks and beats. Not many DJs out there that still do quality work outside of garageband and other computer programs.

      Listened to Battle Born today for the first time and I think it could grow on me. Haven’t gotten to The Mountain Goats yet…

  3. Mike says:

    I really need to get on The Gaslight Anthem, I’ve yet to hear anyone say anything negative about them. Actually, that statement is true of most of your list…except Passion Pit (who has earned a very high spot in my list), The Killers (who…did not) and Fun. (who also did not, but interestingly we have the same 3 favorite tracks).

    Good stuff. And I must say, if you told me when we were both still on Epinions that you’d ever make a top-10 list with no post-hardcore in sight, I wouldn’t believe you. How times have changed, consumingfiyah!

  4. James says:

    Great to see Kendrick at the number one spot. Amazing blend of the classic hip hop tropes of my youth with keen self awareness and observation of urbanity now. A tale of where our hopes for glory take us and the glee of sin. “I am a singer who’s probly gonna sin again / lord forgive me for things I don’t understand.” Indeed!

  5. Ben DeHart says:

    Thank you for this great list, Carl. Because you featured Craig Finn and the Gaslight Anthem, I would like to recommend Titus Andronicus’ “Local Business.” These Jersey boys keep on getting better.

  6. Hey everyone, thanks for the nice words! I’ve been internet-less for a few days, or else I would have already joined the conversation.

    B.I.C.: Thrice is also my favorite band of all time, and I haven’t got around to getting Anthology yet, but I see I need to change that based on your comment. I caught them this summer on their farewell tour and it was incredible: I will sorely miss them. If you’re interested, I posted a goodbye letter to them on my personal blog that details my relationship with them and their music.

    Andy: I also enjoyed the Macklemore and Ryan Lewis album, especially “Ten Thousand Hours.”

    Mike: Times certainly have changed! The fact that I plan on posting a “Best Hip Hop of 2012” on my personal blog should be evidence enough. Anyway, I just checked out your year-end video, and you’ve convinced me to give the Muse album a shot.

    Ben: I’m definitely a fan of Titus Andronicus, but Local Business didn’t quite do it for me like The Monitor did. With that being said, I love the track “(I Am The) Electric Man” from Local Business.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *