Best Albums of 2012: The One Man Army

2010 | 2011

Best Tracks of 2012 playlist on Spotify:

The Process

“Let’s sing to be happy, to feel things, to communicate, be heard
We sing out to protest, and to project, and to harmonize with birds
Whether it’s your birthday, or your dying day
It’s a celebration too
Rejoice to use your voice, and give wings to any your choice”

– Jason Mraz – “Everything is Sound”

The process used to begin before the sun, before you or any human being should be allowed to function.

I’d wake up a few times per week at 4:00 a.m. to get ready for work. Since I would have no contact to most of the outside world or my laptop until after lunch, I had to make sure my iPod was charged and synced. If this were a Tuesday, I’d load up on any and every appealing new album I could find.

Whenever I complain about my 160Gb iPod getting full, people respond with the classic, “Do you really listen to all of it?” Almost 40 days worth of music in my pocket? It gets heard, for I am blessed with a dream schedule as a music listener.

I’d stroll into work and immediately have three hours of listening time via iHome. Out of boredom or workload, I take a break, pick back up around the 10:30 a.m. block, lollygag for an hour and finish the last hour and a half strong. That’s more than five hours of music (five to eight albums) each work day.

Factor in the car, the shower, then my daily powwow with Spotify, which could go on for three hours. I could listen to my entire iPod straight in a little more than 100 days with that routine.

But things have changed. I have a new job, normal human being hours, and the music-listening implications must have been hidden in the benefits package. Five days a week, I have the potential for eight-straight hours of iPod intimacy. Now, in a professional environment, social interaction is imperative, so I don’t go overboard with the headphones. But I could go coast-to-coast, 40-hours of zoning out per week, if I so choose.

Like an athlete who tirelessly practices his craft, this is both my worldly escape and quest of deluded glory. The only advantage you may have over me is a specialty of genre or artist; I do consult some of you in that regard for rapid analysis. But as far as a one-stop source for musical comprehension – not limited to audible aesthetics – I want to be that guy.

I track every album I listen to on a spreadsheet. It extends for miles.
I track every album I listen to on a spreadsheet. It extends for miles.

For those of you who demean my taste in music or lack thereof, I think you are missing the point. I make an effort to see it all as an allusion to this increasingly divided and diverse planet.

Music is a reflection of the artists and their experiences, so though you might not agree with a song they write, it’s a look at another view on life. Music is the great unifier. If I can understand where we all come from, perhaps I can better understand myself.

Uni-Verse. One-Song.

Every year, I mention how daunting this process this process can be as I continually unearth material that remains buried on the non-playing queue. But as 2012 – the best year in music I can remember – comes to a close, I am at peace with what I have accomplished. Ninety percent of my favorite bands released albums this year, but it was the unknowns and unfamiliars who left me fulfilled.

Though I will do my best to mention every record worth hearing (there are loads more than 10) I now present the albums I thought elicited something more than just “good music.” Lists need to be digestible for the reader, so narrowing it all down became increasingly difficult as each week passed. We get lost in songs with empty calories and indulge, but there’s a heart behind every song and this group shared theirs best.

10. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…

Defining Track –

When compiling this list, the usual route is to find the most modern or progressive sound, and there can be many definitions for those qualities. Fiona Apple’s “The Idler Wheel…” is the antithesis of all that, primal in both instrumentals and vocals. But, goodness, the lyics.

“’Cause my breast’s gonna bust open
The rib is the shell and the heart is a yolk
I just made a meal for us both to choke on.”

-Every Single Night

Yummy. Expect to hear more lyrics you could never possibly think of that both disgust and speak to you. All throughout the album, she’s heartbroken, which is commonplace in songwriting and us all.

“But I ran out of white doves’ feathers
To soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth
Every time you address me.”


Then there are Apple’s erratic vocals, which are just as raw as they are gorgeous. Though unconventional, you can feel the heartache and discomfort through her patch of vulnerability. “Left Alone” is unequaled in this regard.

Apple said in an interview that she doesn’t listen to any new music, which, if true, creates an unfathomable disconnect, with no reference points, on today’s trends. More importantly, it shows the innate ability we have to create masterful works of art through song. We just have to feel it.

9. Usher – Looking 4 Myself

Defining Track –

For the past couple years, something special was brewing, tugging, begging.

Ever since Confessions in 2004, Usher has flamed out with a few releases, but kept afloat with outlying singles, namely “DJ Got Us Falling in Love,” “More” and “Without You” (his collaboration with David Guetta).

Those songs were pure energy and dance-floor essentials. The other songs he produced were raunchy love ballads that lacked substance. Taking the ingredients from the aforementioned juiced-up jams, Usher found himself in Looking 4 Myself.

These revolutionized elctro-pop beats avoid the “Dub-Step” tag and put Ush on his own plane in the dance/ hip-hop/ pop genre. The first two singles, “Climax” and “Scream” illustrate the drastic dimensions of the album. “Climax” creates a somber mood about a broken relationship with honey-sweet vocals, while Scream exudes sex and an insane rush of adrenaline.

In between, you have tracks such as “I Care for U,” “Lemme See,” and “Lessons of the Lover,” with synth-pads driving the R&B eroticism (let’s face it, this is a bedroom album) while keeping it all familiar for the Usher fans. “Numb” is on the radio right now and it’s hardly a standout.

At the end of the album, “Euphoria” subtlety sneaks in and drops with the force of an nuclear bomb. It is by far the most aptly named and vibrant dance song of the year. It’s posted above, so give it a whirl.

A great part about 2012 was how some bands retweaked their sound and found one that fit them perfectly (Papa Roach, Lifehouse for example) and Usher just ran away with it. It’s not as personal as Confessions, but it definitely rivals it.

8. Beach House – Bloom

Defining Track –

There’s a game on Xbox Live Arcade game called “Boom Boom Rocket” that involves hitting notes of classical music remixes at a certain time to make fireworks detonate, similar to the style of Guitar Hero.

The difference in this game is that your accuracy dictates how big the explosion is. And when you reach the game’s equivalent of Star Power, the burst of colors and musical accompaniment creates a magical display:

Boom Boom Rocket gameplay.

Those audible and visual aesthetics are the closest descriptions of “Bloom” that I can think of. Its surface is glossy and dreamy, suspending the listener in a cloud of distilled elation. It’s a sit-back-and-drift album.

“Somebody’s tried, nobody made you
It’s not what you stole, it’s what they gave you”
-On the Sea

It’s not the strongest album lyrically, but little pocket stuffers like that keep it humble. Lead singer Victoria Legrand’s voice can get lost in the 60-minute escape, but it’s necessary to hold all the pieces together.

This is coming from a relatively new Beach House listener, but listening to the older albums is like playing “Boom Boom Rocket” without Star Power. “Bloom” blossoms.

7. Jack White – Blunderbuss

Defining Track –

From all of Jack White’s incarnations, be that the White Stripes, the Raconteurs or the Dead Weather, we never had a sense of who this man was.

You should know his music by now: straightforward yet unpredictable blues-rock. But a divorce in 2011 altered his creative tone. At least, that’s what the album hints at.

If he isn’t in pain, he wants to be. Several tracks have a self-masochistic tone to them but it could be the release valve for whatever ails him.

“Missing Pieces” starts the album with a sort of depressing song about having someone rob you of your pride, innocence, love, etc. “Love Interruption” lays out so many miserable scenarios, it’s almost comical: “I want love to: murder my own mother, take her off to somewhere, like hell, or up above.”

It’s not though.

“The stones in the sky never worry
They don’t have to hurry, they move in their own way
But I have to choose what to do
How to act, what to think, how to talk, what to say”
-On and On and On

It is odd that a man shrouded in mystery would be this candid about his inner dialogue. Ironically, out of all the albums on this list, this one seems the most forthcoming and in least need of explanation.

It took some time to sift through the lyrics for the ones that “said it all,” but honestly, any could have worked. Jack White is warlock when concocting innovative music and this was just a natural progression.

Jack White is an enigma. In any capacity, this is about as good of an inside look as we’re going to get.

Yet he’s still hip enough to make a hilarious appearance on Portlandia:

6. Linkin Park – LIVING THINGS

Defining track –

Linkin Park is one of the most innovative bands in the world. So in LIVING THINGS, their fifth album, why did they regress?

LP has gone through a seismic shift since the days of Hybrid Theory and Meteora. Instead of the nu-metal rage that made them such a transcendent commodity, the band has evolved into something much more suited for the progressive pallet.

LIVING THINGS is at first glance an amalgamation of every album they have ever done – incendiary rapping, vengeful screams and harmonious use of the six members’ multi-leveled talent. That is to say, this is not nearly their best album but rather a greatest hits-type release meant to bring everyone together.

Collectively, the members of Linkin Park listen to more diverse music than most other bands. Check it. And they take their fans and music writing process very seriously, which is why, after the masterpiece that was A Thousand Suns, they could scale back and get to something more familiar.

“I’ve seen that frustration
Been crossed and lost and told “No”
And I’ve come back unshaken
Let down and lived and let go”

To open the album, Mike Shinoda comes out blazing on “LOST IN THE ECHO” and Chester Bennington belts the deep-seeded chorus, just like old times. There are those fast, energy-driven rock/rap/electronic beats we’re all accustomed to from LP, but there is a musical Easter egg in each song that throws conventionalism to the wayside.

“CASTLE OF GLASS” may be the most unique track on the album, a true landmark, with Shinoda continuing his earthy vocal contributions, this time accompanied by Bennington in spectacular unison. It’s a chilling but forceful message about our relation to war: “’Cause I’m only a crack in this castle of glass, hardly anything else I need to be.”

“SKIN TO BONE” appears as an electro-charged folk song while Bennington’s vorpal evisceration in “LIES GREED MISERY” is just insane. “VICTIMIZED” packs in as much TNT as one sub 2-minute song can, followed immediately by the delicate spirit-lifter “ROADS UNTRAVELED.”

For a band capable of doing anything musically, the multi-layered structure of ATS is sorely missed. But Linkin Park again proves that they are light-years ahead in whatever they are doing, as it defies classification. Their sound took a step back this year, yes, but that’s to get everyone back on the same page.

Now that we’re all here, we’ll be first-hand witnesses at whatever uncharted territory they claim next.

5. Grizzly Bear – Shields

Defining track –

Isolated at their 100-plus degree recording studio in the middle of Texas last summer – with no air conditioning – Grizzly Bear thought it would be the perfect place to reunite and end its six-month hiatus.

Recovered from the extensive touring of their previous album, “Veckatimest,” the band found the spontaneous song-writing process rather difficult. Out of 12 songs recorded, only two made it to the new album.

They ended up going back to where they recorded their second album, vocalist Ed Droste’s grandmother’s house in Cape Cod. Spending nights by the fire, the individual members began to gel, collaborating and refining their sound.

Shields was born after two months in isolation, a less dreamy and more rugged album than Grizzly Bear’s previous work. They admitted that some lyrics in the past merely filled up space, with no meaning behind them. But they were a bigger part of this album’s process as was the more intimate emotional quality.

“Come help me on
To let lie what’s done
In some great beyond
You’re still there, still as you were”
-Half Gate

“Sleeping Ute” and “Yet Again,” the carryovers from the first recording session, also happen to be the standouts using a layered, blues/rock style. “Speak in Rounds” skits all over the place where “Half Gate” takes five and a half minutes to slowly build and build only to stop just as the song reaches its climax.

As complicated as some of this album sounds, it was nothing more than a group of guys jamming, communicating and creating. Music in its purest form.

4. Big Boi – Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors

Defining track –

Big Boi calls it “Frankenfunk”, an monstrous concoction of any and all kinds of sounds and influences. In Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, it can be seen either as a convoluted mess or a rainbow coalition of brilliance.

In this laboratory creation, using hip-hop as the heart, Big Boi stitches together the most diverse and engaging collection of hooks of the year. He enlists the help of a wide range of artists: TI, Little Dragon, Kid Cudi, Ludacris, Wavves, B.o.B, A$AP Rocky, Kelly Rowland and some indie band named Phantogram. Every person who listens to this album is a sleeper Phantogram fan.

The only way to really grasp the complete musical biology is to immerse yourself one track at a time.

If you’re looking for something to get started, “She Hates Me” feat. Kid Cudi exemplifies the more emotional tones on the album, with the two rapping and crooning: “She hates me, I know it for sure. But I’mma make her love me, I’mma make her love me again.” It’s desperate but admirable.

Big Boi then gets an assist from (but is not overshadowed by) TI and Ludacris to praise the ATL on “In the A.” Out of all the refrains on this album, the alternative rock band Wavves’ contribution in “Shoes for Running” ingrains itself immediately, especially when the children’s chorus chimes in. Then there are those multiple songs with Phantogram, which, as promised, you will love.

Even without Oukast and the eclectic Andre 3000, now of Gillette-spokesman status, Big Boi continues his alchemic experiments with positive results. Maybe the ingredients aren’t new, but the way they are assembled further blurs the line of “genre.” Eventually, that word should be eradicated from our vocabulary.

It’s OK, Frankenfunk. We’ll leave the torches and pitchforks at home.

3. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE

Defining track –

It wasn’t until reading Frank Ocean’s “thank you’s” that Channel Orange started to become whole.

Originally set to be released with the album, Ocean released the note on his Tumblr ahead of schedule, confessing his sexuality. It’s an anguishing yet poetic recount of a friend – a man – he could not have. It’s worth a read if only for it’s beautiful imagery.

I mentioned in the prologue that music is a way to get a sense of different cultures and viewpoints. This album is a microcosm of that ideal. Ocean has his own diagram of  society, finding nooks about drugs, relationships and wealth revolving around his masterful oration of each storyline. He draws inspiration from little crevices of human interaction that it doesn’t necessarily fill an artistc void, but you wonder how you got along without it in the first place.

“You’ve had a landscaper and a house keeper since you were born
The starshine always kept you warm
So why see the world, when you got the beach”
-Sweet Life

There are songs and albums so good, that it goes beyond hype into the realm of truth. I’m sure you’ve already heard tons about this album, and it lives up to most of it.

But, even for great narrators, a fitting ambiance is essential. Channel Orange goes everywhere musically, from the sweet and pitch-perfect “Thinkn Bout You” to the jazzy “Sweet Life.” His creation of these worlds, musically and vocally, is a true novelty.

If I had a song of the year nomination, it would be “Pyramids” – 10 minutes of refined magic that interweaves multiple stories using the same Cleopatra/Pyramid motif. Musically, it ranges from stealthy drawls to pulsing electro-beats. A true masterclass.

Channel Orange is an hour of infinite possibilities. As a songwriter, Frank Ocean could not have made any clearer: Listen to this.

2. John Mayer – Born and Raised

Defining track –

In the end, it doesn’t matter what the perceptions are. In reality, a man was robbed of what he lives to do, an unspeakable curse for someone who uses his talents as an emotional release.

John Mayer suffered a granuloma on his vocal chords last year and surgery caused him to delay the recording of Born and Raised. It has since returned and he has cancelled his 2012 tour and all live performances, indefinitely. He went through long periods alone with his own thoughts, unable to speak. He resorted to Tumblr to reach his fans, but it must have been torture.

The public perception of the man is well documented, and yes, he has made some poor choices. But even in a society noted for second chances, we continuously ooze cynicism from our rusty pores. Telling people to listen to this album has been astoundingly difficult. When someone you don’t like errs, what’s the acceptable road to redemption?

Taking an introspective look at his life and his work after Battle Studies, Mayer assumes the lonely role of the reflective cowboy in Born and Raised and tries to put his rugged past behind him. As hard as it is for people to admit, this is the next All-American album, on par with some of the work from Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, etc. Those were merely influences and should not act as a comparison of sound, but of esteem. This is a different time and the American standards have changed. In a way, his flaws make him a perfect advocate for this ideal.

The lead single, “Shadow Days”, was the perfect precursor to the album, vowing to leave the irresponsible and irreparable behavior behind. Other than the harmonica-driven “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey,” Mayer doesn’t look back on that phase. His sound evolved into an all-too fitting cowboy tone with progressive folk, southern rock, and Americana ingredients.

In the search for the album that says it all, Born and Raised comes as close as anything this year. With enlightening lessons from “Age of Worry,” “If I Ever Get Around to Living,” and the title track, you begin to wonder how much Mayer has lost on this quest for notoriety.

“I still have dreams, they’re not the same
They don’t fly as high as they used  to
I saw my friend, he’s in my head
And he said, ‘You don’t remember me,  do you?'”
-Born and Raised

I went back and listened to Continuum, widely considered his greatest work, but this album far surpasses it. Continuum is the quintessential heart-break album, where as Born and Raised is the blueprint of human acceptance and understanding. There isn’t anyone who couldn’t benefit from listening.

What has become of Mayer and his inability to sing in recent years is beyond tragic considering his apparent understanding of his own faults and willing to redefine himself from the rubble.

Even through the worst of it, he had a heart. It’s looking a bit clearer these days.

1. The xx – Coexist

Defining track –

While every other artist tried to enhance their sound with more beats, more layers, more vocals, The xx stripped themselves bare.

Compared to most albums on this list, Coexist is relatively tame, thriving on subtle beats, simple chord progression and very little tone deviation. It was a bold move and it made all the difference.

Beginning with the stunning performance on “Angels,” the album descends into a gorgeous narrative about the simple theme of love, but the vast complexities that go with it. Madley Croft and Oliver Sim delicately intertwine as the male and female voices of a relationship with collapsing foundations.

Because of the minimalist production of the album, the intimacy and tragic nature of the album play out as if you were their firsthand witness. It creates a tension through its entirety, with each “character” standing on glass, fragile enough to shatter any second.

“When I see you again
And I’m greeted as a friend,
It is understood
That we did all we could.”

The album’s name comes from the Croft’s analysis of how oil and water don’t mix, yet they contently coexist. She referred it to the band’s three members and how this whole process is only possible when they are all together.

That’s a perplexing evaluation, even for us on the outside. We often think of failing relationships in terms of oil and water, separate and incompatible entities. But it’s not like they destroy or alter one another. Between them there is no love or hatred.

It seems like only a consolation, but the remainder may be the best outcome: Peace.


Best Pure Pop-
Justin Bieber – Believe
The boy has come of age and I’m not ashamed that I deleted 311 from my iPod to make room for him. He has matured in the proper way and has yet to be tainted but this horrific industry. So many quality songs. I believe in Justin Bieb … GAHH, I’VE GOT THE FEVER!
-Maroon 5 made a compelling run. “One More Night” has 18,000 calories per serving.

Best Pure Rock/ Metal
Three Days Grace – Transit of Venus
Just as the last grains of hope were falling from my rock-music hourglass, out comes the Canadian quartet redefining themselves while preserving the industry. Rock bands take note: texture, articulate and experiment. The results are amazing.
-Papa Roach, I’m so proud of you for coming around.

Best Pure Hip-Hop/ Rap
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city
If you have a problem with my placement of this album, blame yourself. Also, Nas’ “Life is Good” was amazing. Take your pick.

Best Pure Alternative
Electric Guest – Mondo
By the time I had rated most of these songs on my iPod, I had a 4.25-star average. It caught my attention. Love the mix of retro pop and the 9-minute beast, “Troubleman.”
-Chairlift, I will not forget you.

Best Pure Country
Aaron Lewis – The Road
Some guys just do it right. The lead singer from Staind makes it acceptable for the manly men to engage in easy-living listening.

Best Pure Folk
Delta Rae – Carry the Fire
I bought this album. That’s weird because they are a new band and they didn’t quite make the above list. I only buy the BEST OF THE BEST. But I have a soft spot for adorable and sentimental folk bands. They make me think about the good old days.

Editor’s Choice
Julien-K – We’re Here With You
There was just no place to fit this album, but it was a personal favorite. Take industrial/electronic rock and add some light-gothic elements and that’s essentailly Julien-K. Not earth-shattering, but they are a unique departure from conventional rock and dance music. On the Best of 2012, you must here “Palm Springs Reset.”

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