The second set of my favorite albums from 2012 is a good musical microcosm of my overall tastes this year. The ten albums that follow, ranking from #40 to #31, showcase a mixed bag of indie rock, mainstream alternative, a massive pop band, a splash of country, and a bit of jazz as well. I have grown to listen to new music without as much predetermined judgment based on genre as I did in my younger years, and it has led to a greater appreciation for a large number of different artists.
40. Gotye — Making Mirrors
Released January 31, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
It was virtually impossible to escape Gotye‘s massive hit “Somebody That I Used To Know” this year as its 2011 chart reign in Oceania and Europe made its way stateside. In contrast, the album from which it was released, Making Mirrors, has experienced a relatively quiet chart life here, thanks in part to the lack of a successful follow-up single. This does not hint at the quality of the record, however, merely its commercial viability. Many of the tracks, including “Know,” hearken back to ’70s and ’80s pop and “world” artists, most prominently Sting and Peter Gabriel. Gotye also takes a few sonic risks, diving into grungy rock, vocoders, and bizarre themes like music technology and the death of a family pet. It’s a wonder that these multiple elements coexist on one album, but the result is eclectic and engaging.
39. Best Coast — The Only Place
Released May 15, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
After loving the breezy, summery sound of the lead single and title track from Best Coast‘s sophomore album, The Only Place, I was disappointed to stream the album (via NPR’s First Listen series) and find that the song immediately following it on the album, “Why I Cry,” had an extremely similar sonic template. Then it hit me: while “The Only Place” opened the album in a light, carefree, and joyful mood, “Why I Cry” was a good precursor to the moodiness that followed on the rest of the album. Bethany Cosentino and company are deceiving in that all of their songs have a sun-washed, cheerful sound, but below that layer are lyrics that tell stories of sadness (most plainly the aforementioned “Cry,” but essentially the rest of the album), defiance of others’ wishes and criticisms (“How They Want Me To Be,” “Better Girl”), and romantic longing (“No One Like You,” “Up All Night”), revealing that perhaps everything isn’t roses and sunshine on the California coast from which the band resides.
38. One Direction — Up All Night
Released March 13, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
I clearly remember giving this album a first listen upon its March release: I had listened to the southern blues/rock of Alabama Shakes’s debut (which appears later in this list) just before, noting the strong contrast that would come from the tween/boyband pop of Up All Night. My only knowledge to One Direction had been from hearing “What Makes You Beautiful” the previous fall as it blew up in the UK and enjoying it, knowing that Kelly Clarkson had a co-write on the album, and that their fanbase overseas had grown to massive proportions. Though the latter point had me doubting the appeal, I was very surprised to find the album a great collection of pop songs, and I think it began my reemergence into legitimately enjoying pop music. In addition to “Beautiful,” Up All Night includes such pop hits as “Tell Me A Lie” (the aforementioned Kelly Clarkson co-write), “One Thing,” and “Stole My Heart” (one of two songs co-written by Jamie Scott, who appears later on this chart as part of Graffiti6). It’s one of those albums that you don’t want to like because it’s way out of your demographic, but you unapologetically love it because it’s just plain good.
37. Yuna — Yuna
Released April 24, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
I was introduced to Yuna when she was selected as the opening act for Graffiti6’s first US headline tour this summer (which, despite a free show in Detroit, I sadly missed). Though she has released a few EPs and albums in her native Malaysia in the past four years, this self-titled set is her first album-length release in the United States. Yuna has a sound that fits well with the typical coffeehouse/singer-songwriter style, incorporating elements of folk, R&B, and electronic music on tracks like “Favourite Thing” and the Pharrell-produced single “Live Your Life.” Despite its more adventurous tracks, over time I found myself most impressed with the lyrics and harmonies of “Decorate,” in which Yuna waits and hopes for a former lover to return, “decorat[ing] my house with things you love just in case you show up.” The album combines the light, indie sound of the coffeehouse with the more fully-produced, urban elements of the big city; while choosing to focus on one lane may be beneficial for her in the future, this first taste in the US gives new listeners the best of both worlds.
36. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals — The Lion The Beast The Beat
Released June 12, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
With song titles like “Turntable” and “Timekeeper,” it feels somewhat apparent that the latest album from Grace Potter & The Nocturnals has a classic rock sound. However, the band pulls from a mixed bag of genres that are incorporated throughout the album, including pop, country, funk, and dance, creating a more experimental (and dare I say, interesting) sound. The confident, electric feel of the band’s rock roots lays a strong foundation, keeping the array of sonic elements from becoming too distracting or disconnected, and Potter’s powerful delivery keeps the lyrics from being buried underneath; quite oppositely, they often soar atop the instrumental arrangement. As a result of the free use of multiple genres on the record, several songs are single-worthy to varying radio formats: lead single “Never Go Back” fit the playlists of adult album alternative and hot adult contemporary playlists simultaneously, while “Stars” has the potential for success on pop and country radio alike and several songs would be appropriate choices for additional Triple A radio singles.
35. Esperanza Spalding — Radio Music Society
Released March 20, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
As a student jazz musician who admittedly does not listen to a lot of jazz music, I found my curiosity extremely piqued by the concept surrounding Esperanza Spalding‘s latest album, Radio Music Society. The rather ambitious goal of the album, related solely by name to 2010’s more traditional Chamber Music Society, was to open the doors to jazz music for pop audiences largely unfamiliar with the genre, something that fit my listening history fairly well. While I am not entirely convinced that the goal, albeit lofty, was achieved, Spalding recorded a very solid adult contemporary-tinged jazz album that the adventurous pop listener would likely enjoy. In addition to breezy, horn-punctuated selections like “Cinnamon Tree” and love letter to Portland “City Of Roses,” some of the most engaging tracks come from her versions of Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It” and Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species.” Standout track and most-likely-to-succeed single “Radio Song” is a picturesque example of every radio listener (or, in the more modern and realistic case, blog reader) finding joy in discovering a new song for the first time and singing as if they know the lyrics before they’ve ever heard them. Perhaps Radio Music failed to become the gateway for jazz to re-enter the mainstream that it had attempted to become, but with any luck, it has laid the groundwork for such a revival in the years to come.
34. Walk The Moon — Walk The Moon
Released June 19, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
Slowly but surely, Cincinnati’s Walk The Moon has been building a following since the release of single “Anna Sun” in late 2010 (if I may brag for a moment, I happened to discover it early, in March 2011), from their self-released debut i want! i want!. After signing to RCA Records, they released their self-titled, major-label debut in June, featuring new recordings of songs from the debut album as well as a few new songs. Much like sonic allies Foster The People, their debut single has gradually grown to large proportions, reaching the top tiers of rock radio charts and even receiving a minor push to pop radio late in the year. In addition, the album contains a similar mixture of frenetic, quirky energy with as many neon-glow colors as those regularly painted on their faces live and in music videos. Searing guitars, upbeat percussion, and thoughtful lyrics complete a package that makes them a promising mainstay at rock radio, and even beyond, in the future.
33. Carrie Underwood — Blown Away
Released May 1, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
Carrie Underwood‘s Blown Away positions her further away from the sound of traditional country, with a trajectory that aims more toward contemporary country with elements of the pop music that delivered her biggest hit in “Before He Cheats.” Country-themed instrumentals and settings are still present, as is the slight twang in Underwood’s vocal delivery, but the addition of major pop songwriters including Ryan Tedder and “Mutt” Lange makes for a much more pop-produced collection than her previous works. This glossy production shimmers over everything from power ballad “See You Again” to light country midtempo “Nobody Ever Told You” and sunny “One Way Ticket.” In addition to the themes of death and broken relationships that appear on numerous occasions, the album features not one, but two murder ballads back-to-back (one focused on an abusive father, the other on an adulterer), creating a dark feel despite the oft-bright production of pop fare. Much like fellow American Idol Kelly Clarkson, Underwood is confident about branching out of her widely-considered home genre to experiment with other musical styles, managing to feel completely in her own element while doing so.
32. Electric Guest — Mondo
Released April 24, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
Los Angeles-based duo Electric Guest released its debut album, Mondo, in April with production help from Danger Mouse, following his year-long friendship with singer Asa Taccone. The album’s title suggests the presence of a wall of sound, something not uncommon for the indie rock genre in which the band is situated. However, the result is something quite different. The influence of Danger Mouse provides nuanced vocal effects, synths, and hand-clapping rhythms, while Taccone’s voice, often slipping into falsetto, sits coolly atop the soundscape for a product that feels brooding, yet driven. The upbeat “This Head I Hold” is a highlight with its swaying rhythms and twinkling piano, but on the opposite end, “Troubleman” manages to be interesting despite its length of nearly nine minutes, as its tempo and instrumentation build and expand throughout the recording. Mondo manages to be both dance-friendly and dark in the span of thirty-eight minutes, with an energy that begs for additional collaboration between producer and performer in the future.
31. fun. — Some Nights
Released February 14, 2012 | BUY: Amazon MP3 / iTunes | STREAM: Rdio / Spotify
New York City’s fun. was the Little Band That Could in 2012, forming as a combination of broken/breaking bands The Format, Anathallo, and Steel Train in 2009 but reaching massive levels of mainstream success in the past year with sophomore album Some Nights. After lead single “We Are Young” grew to astronomical proportions after a cover on Glee (the first instance of the series “breaking” a new band with a cover) and a Chevrolet commercial aired during the Super Bowl, the trio immediately destroyed all chances of receiving the dreaded title of “one-hit wonder” by scoring another number-one hit in the album’s title track before receiving six GRAMMY nominations earlier this month. In utilizing producer Jeff Bhasker, the band sought to replicate the sound of Kanye West’s 2010 success My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but with the theatrically passionate, Queen-inspired delivery of lead singer Nate Ruess. This results in an album with an indie pop-rock sound that dabbles in strings, hip-hop beats, and Auto-Tune, but manages to sound honest and convincing in its lyricism and emotion. Beyond the hit singles, the group’s pro-LGBT alliances show in “It Gets Better” and “One Foot,” while the intro to “Some Nights” and standard-edition closer “Stars” address uncertainties in dealing with the band members’ new-found fame. Even despite the band’s meteoric rise, the emotional delivery and human lyricism displayed throughout the album keep the ride “fun” for everyone involved, band members and fans alike, which should lead to a long and healthy career.
Stay tuned for the thirty albums that remain as the best of 2012. Want to chime in? Comment below or send me a tweet on Twitter.