There is no shortage of lists. That is clear. So I’m not presenting my own personal tally of the best music of 2012 with the presumption that my set is appreciably better than the similar tally constructed by anyone else. But I was charged with creating it to add some data points to the Spectrum Culture Best Albums of 2012 feature, so why not share? In actuality, I was required to make a Top 20 list, but I’ll admit that the rankings get pretty shaky–almost approaching the arbitrary–in the second ten. This grouping, however, I feel pretty solid about. Well, for now. Ask me again in a month, and it could all get jumble. For now, though. For now…
1. Father John Misty, Fear Fun — Joshua Tillman is probably best known for his stint as the drummer of Fleet Foxes, but he had an admirable solo career before that gig. He revives it in exemplary fashion under the moniker Father John Misty, musically tracing his own journey of personal discovery to southern California. It feels like a spry, clever rediscovered artifact from the heyday on nineteen-seventies singer-songwriters, and yet is entirely current at the same time. If pressed, I might say that other albums from 2012 were better, but none was so immediately and enduringly irresistible to me.
2. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do — Fiona Apple isn’t prolific by even the most generous definition of the word: Idler Wheel is the fourth album in over fifteen years and her first full-length release since 2005’s magnificent Extraordinary Machine. With results like this, who cares about the pace? It’s another expertly inventive collection of emotionally devastating, wonderfully warped torch songs. That voices of hers gets more and more piercing and majestic.
3. Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light — One of two albums I wrote on at length for the Spectrum Culture piece, the latest from Jason Pierce is a sonically colossal beast of expansive guitar buzz. Tinged throughout with scathing ironies in the lyrics and engrossing hooks, the album earns its bold courting of comparisons with the Velvet Underground. Were it not established sacrilege to suggest anything other than Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space as Spiritualized’s pinnacle, I might have something else to add here.
4. Kelly Hogan, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain — Eleven years after her last prior solo effort, Kelly Hogan delivers a tremendous collection built around songs written expressly for her by a bevy of modern masters of the form, including Stephin Merritt, M. Ward, Andrew Bird and, delivering the title cut, Robyn Hitchcock. Bearing an unmistakable country flavor, befitting her notable status as a beloved member of Neko Case’s backing band, the album is alive with the effort bend and caress of Hogan’s warm, rich vocals.
5. Jack White, Blunderbuss — Surely the most restless major musical figure of the past ten years–the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather and countless additional side projects–Jack White finally follows his wanderlust to a full-length release that bears his name alone, and it’s as wooly, feverish and thunderous as anyone could have hoped. White keeps working the muscles that rock ‘n’ roll forgot it had.
6. Beach House, Bloom — I also expended extra words on this release for Spectrum. It may not be a strikingly unique as earlier Beach House efforts, but the move to songs that are a little less ethereally–that hit harder–is a welcome development as far as I’m concerned. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally remain deeply fascinating collaborators, making music that is endlessly exquisite.
7. Passion Pit, Gossamer — The sophomore effort from Passion Pit contains a dizzying parade of pop songs, all buoyant keyboard lines and chewy hooks. I’m less confident about the shelf life of this one than any other release among my ten, but I can’t deny that nearly every track sounds like it should be coming out of the transistor radio nestled into the sand of Heaven’s beach.
8. Bob Mould, Silver Age — That tattered old sleeve, still so full of tricks. Bob Mould delivers his best solo effort in years–maybe since he first went out on his own with 1989’s Workbook–by melding the best of all his previous derivations with a special emphasis on the muscular tunefulness that was the calling card of his band Sugar. He’s been uncommonly at peace with retrospection in recent years, penning a memoir and performing Copper Blue in its entirety at live shows. Silver Age shows how that nostalgia can actually help an artist move forward.
9. The Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth — There are only so many ways to effuse over John Darnielle’s nearly peerless songwriting skills, and I can’t come up with a fresh description to illuminate the crafty treasures found within the latest release from the Mountain Goats. Luckily, Darnielle shows no sign that he’s ever going to exhaust his talent for finding new and inspired ways to assemble the bits and pieces of the English language.
10. Grimes, Visions — The third album from Claire Boucher is spottier than its various raves from this year would indicate, but the peaks are so stunning (“Oblivion” comes to mind, and then takes root there forever) that rounding up on the lesser songs is wholly understandable. Maybe more than any other artist this year, Grimes stirs up intense excitement over what she might deliver next.