Welcome back to my list of “The 12 Albums I Listened To The Most In 2012.” You might have been confused by Part One of this list, which talked a good deal about music without ever getting around to covering the twelve albums I listened to the most in 2012. Well, we’re getting to them today.
It took a bit longer to write this section, just because this sort of writing doesn’t come particularly naturally to me. I know that Pitchfork takes a lot of crap (go to Google, type “Pitchfork is”, then just watch what comes up) for the weird, pedantic reviews its members crank out, but its tough to write interesting pieces about music albums. It’s too easy to sound too harsh, it’s even easier to sound cloying, and after you’ve written two or three reviews almost everything sounds the same.
So I consciously tried to avoid that sort of writing as much as possible. I don’t have any idea whether these albums will be listed in the correct order of how much I actually listened to each of them, I only know that the order listed here seems right.
12. Of Monsters and Men My Head Is An Animal
If someone had told me that this album sounded like a folkier Stars record, I would’ve bought it the minute it came out.
Arcade Fire-esque “King and Lionheart” and brassy jam “Little Talks,” which I was surprised to find is a single. I don’t listen to the radio in Houston, because it’s horrendous, which is another whole discussion. I won’t get into it here.*
*Okay, fine, I will. Maybe I’m spoiled by growing up around Boston radio, but no place I’ve ever spent time has as bad a selection of radio stations as Houston. Houston is the fourth-biggest city in America, yet even when I lived in Kentucky outside of Lexington (the 62nd-largest city in America), I had more options than this.
Look at this list. There are more oldies stations than there are rock and top-40 stations combined. There are ten Gospel stations, seven Tejano stations, 4 Latin/International stations, and one rock station. One. Even if you really like that station (and I don’t particularly), it doesn’t leave you a lot of choices on the dial.
This is why I wasn’t terribly bent out of shape all those times my car radio got stolen.
11. Jack’s Mannequin People and Things
A perfectly solid follow-up, but I don’t think anything Andrew McMahon (formerly of Something Corporate) records will ever match The Glass Passenger, his first record after recovering from life-threatening lymphoblastic cancer. Still, if Passenger confronted his mortality, People and Things is a much looser, exuberant piece of songwriting. I might prefer his darker stuff, but it’s still nice to see McMahon’s recovered enough to have fun again. Cancer seems like a bummer.
Cheerful single “My Racing Thoughts,” along with the more anthemic piano-rock aims of “Casting Lines.”
10. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros Here
How much do these guys hate The Lumineers? They got here first, and those guys stole all their thunder, and all their commercial money. Of course, Sharpe’s band is much more playful, and their rootsy, gospel/folk sound feels more earned, if decidedly less accessible. That said, this album’s catchier and more immediate than something this deliberately obscure really has any right to be.
Low-key Springsteenesque album opener “Man on Fire,” late-sixties folk jam, “Fiya Wata.”
9. Jake Armerding Jake Armerding
Well, this album is much older than last year – Amerding released it in 2003, I just only started playing it after my dad shipped down his copy. It’s very unusual for me to make music discoveries through my parents at this point – my dad, for example, listens to a combination of sports talk radio and silence in his car, so he’s not normally a person I’d turn to in this regard. But Armerding had played a set at the family camp my parents visit in the summer, and they’d been enamored enough to pick up a CD.
Armerding makes most of his living as a string player behind acts like Josh Ritter and Nickel Creek, so the songs on his own release are elegantly trimmed with orchestration. The album’s got a gentle songwriter vibe to it, with a twinge of both country and folk (boy, there’s that word again), and a literary bent. The album’s opener revolves around the myth of Icarus, while the second track recalls Ithaca – the home of Odysseus, rather than the city in New York. But his songs are rarely cryptic, they’re plaintive rather than esoteric; sad, and full of old memories.
The bouncy, harmony-packed opener “Destiny’s Flight” and mournful recollection “You Took Me In.”
8. Andrew Osenga Leonard, the Lonely Astronaut
I’m a sucker for concept albums, and Osenga’s one of my favorite songwriters, so I was in the tank for this one from the get go. Apparently Osenga always wanted to write a whole album about a man who lives in space alone (why not?), and one day got up the gumption to start a Kickstarter so he could build a spaceship inside his recording studio to write and record the album in. Supporters got shirts that said “I Helped Send Andrew Osenga To Space,” and several of them came in to help him construct the Kubrickian-looking room he made the album in.
For a concept album, it’s unusually diverse, with songs connected more by theme than by sound. As the album progresses, it becomes less a story about a man living out in the nothingness, and more about looking back on a life with real uncertainty of whether you’ve lived it the way you were supposed to - with the heavy knowledge that the wisdom you gained does almost nothing for you now.
“Brushstroke” builds its story slowly through a thudding acoustic line and a doleful whistle, while “Firstborn Son” transitions gradually from quiet recollection to gravelly rocker.
7. Joe Pug The Great Despiser
I can’t recall exactly how I discovered Joe Pug – it might’ve been Noisetrade, or a local music blog, or just a recommendation off Derek Webb’s Twitter. Either way, I felt intrigued enough to buy the LP right off the bat, which is unusual for me. Usually I dance around the edges of new acts for a long stretch, relying on links to new songs or free downloads of their older albums until I’m invested. However, my iTunes is bare of any Joe Pug music other than this album (though it won’t be for too long), so it looks like I dove right in.
Pug’s a singer-songwriter, slow and steady, with folk and rock and Americana roots (wow, it turns out I really listened to a lot of folk music this year. I had not realized that until just now). While it’s not unheard of for an occasional track to pack in some wailing electric, like the dull howl of the title song, the album mostly tracks in quiet moments. If you’re someone like me (which fortunately you’re not, but still) who becomes entranced by the subtleties on a Damien Jurado or Jakob Dylan or Civil Wars record, the album’s worth checking out.
Pug hides a muffled bass line behind a simple acoustic pluck in the Americana-laden “Hymn #76,” before cranking up buzzing guitars on the bitter “Neither Do I Need A Witness.”
6. The Killers Battle Born
I like it when a band is coming back from an album viewed as a disappointment. Sure, sometimes they get concerned they’ve wandered too afield, and their next album is too careful, a cautious apology note. But sometimes the band gets their dander up and comes back out guns blazing. “Oh, you forgot about us? Well, wait until you hear this song! I cranked all the amps up to eleven and then ran them through other amps cranked to eleven and then I spent six days recording the electric parts while submerged underwater and screaming.” I like a band with some demons on their shoulders.
Brandon Flowers was clearly aware of the blowback from the band’s mildly experimental Day & Age, and Battle Born sounds like a return to form. Which means it sounds like someone went into the desert to record a bunch of Bruce Springsteen songs. Weirdly, I mean that as a huge compliment.
The first four songs Battle Born create their own amazing little mini-album. Try those first – particularly the Tom Pettyesque “Runaways.”
5. Matthew Perryman Jones Land of the Living
You’ve heard me shill for this guy on this site before, but this album’s different. Jones gathered the players he wanted for the record and retreated to a remote recording space, with songs but no direction. Ryan Booth shot a short piece out there with the band about the experience that’s worth checking out. Both Jones and his producer, Cason Cooley (who is coincidentally from Andrew Osenga’s old band, The Normals) were adamant about building the sound around the musicians and the environment. As Jones notes, it’s built around the idea that “we’re just gonna play, and see what the band comes up with.”
The result is a very unified sound, something assembled from end to end as one consistent piece. It’s been said too many times by people who like to complain about things how digital music has ruined the album experience, which is why I love it when an artist goes to extremes to fight back against the trend.*
*Y’know, as long as its not to the “you have to play these four CDs at the exact same time to experience the album correctly.”
Recommended: The elegiac “O Theo” and the Normals-ish “Waking The Dead” (seriously, those background vocals. It’s eerie).
4. fun. Some Nights
I was on Twitter during the Grammys and, man, do a lot of people hate fun.. I’m not sure if it’s their prevalence on the radio (there aren’t a lot of other pop-rock songs they’re playing these days, I’ve noticed*), or the unfortunate capitalization/punctuation situation with their name, but there’s a real bitterness there.
*The situation in rock is so bad right now that Fall Out Boy reunited and named their album Save Rock and Roll. Yes, America, things are so bad right now that Pete Wentz decided to come and rescue us.
I don’t get it. Fun. is… I don’t want to say it. They’re, y’know, enjoyable. Agreeable. A good time. You know what I mean.
The album’s excellent, and inventive from start to finish, so much so that the best song might actually be the bonus track (“Out On The Town”). It’s packed to the gills with hooks. It’s the sort of bright, fresh pop-rock record that’s both popular and good. Snark all you want, but that doesn’t happen often.
Recommended: The album’s singles (‘We Are Young,” “Some Nights,” “Carry On”) are all pretty indicative of the rest of the album’s contents, but the dancey “All Alone” and the harmony-laden tattoo drumming of “Out On The Town” also stand out.
3. John Mayer Born and Raised
Boy, speaking of things people hate! Mayer really may be a special case. He’s the only artist I can think of whose music has gotten markedly better while people’s opinion of him has correspondingly descended. Well, maybe Chris Brown.
It’s funny to remember what a huge presence on Twitter Mayer was five years ago. He had 4 million followers (a figure that, at the time, really meant something). Then after a disastrous interview where he talked about racism and past relationships in ill-advisedly open terms, Twitter destroyed him (“John Mayer said the n-word!”). He’s never recovered.
Not that he’s done a great job of rehabbing his image in the meantime (seriously, Hollywood men, if you want people to like you, don’t break up with Taylor Swift. It will not end well).
At least he keeps upping his game as a recording artist. Born and Raised may be his best, an album that proved a long time coming – it was delayed almost a year after Mayer developed growths on his vocal cords, a problem that also forced him to cancel his tour after the growths cropped up again. The time away seems to have done him good. Mayer noted that Born and Raised was “his most honest album,” which for Mayer, is really saying something. “Honesty” never seemed his problem nearly as much as “ego.”
What sticks out to me is how natural this record sounds. Mayer’s spent his whole career trying on hats – acoustic songwriter, rock singer, blues guitarist, jazz enthusiast – and it’s satisfying to see all of those things mesh together so neatly. Maybe he just stopped trying so hard.
The 70’s-era lite rock of “Queen of California,” bluesy jam “Something Like Olivia,” and the Harry Chapin storytelling of “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967” (a story told with such expressive detail I Googled “Walt Grace Submarine True Story.” Which is impressive, and also embarrassing for me).
2. David Ramirez Apologies
David Ramirez isn’t like other songwriters. It’s possible he owns a very healthy ego, but he couldn’t be less self-aggrandizing in his songwriting. His own verses seem to hold him in perpetual low esteem, a disheveled mess not much worthy of writing about. The album’s titled appropriately because Ramirez doesn’t seem to be in good standing with anyone, least of all himself. ‘Apologies are all I have to offer,’ he sighs on “Friends and Family.” ‘I wear them like jewelry, but I ain’t fooling no one.’
Most artists of Ramirez’s type, with his low growl and old country swagger, sound like imitations of realer men, but these songs sound thoroughly authentic. If Ramirez hasn’t gone through each of these moments a thousand times over, then he’s one hell of a liar. For all I know, that might be what he’s apologizing for.
“An Introduction” recalls a childhood search for God in churches with a bitter snarl (“it smelled like a hospital, but no one was getting cured.”), while “Stick Around” laments his inability to put down roots.
By the way, the video? Also shot by Ryan Booth. Small world.
1. Tyler Lyle The Golden Age & The Silver Girl
This album actually came out the year before, but I didn’t pick it up until the beginning of last year. Which makes me feel like a bad old friend, since Tyler had lived a few doors down the hall from me in college.
In my defense, I didn’t think of him as a musician at the time. Everyone on the hall had an acoustic guitar (which they all played constantly and at all hours), and I think I only saw Tyler plucking away at his maybe half a dozen times. If you’d asked me to rank the musicians on our hallway, I don’t know if he would’ve made the top 10.
Tyler’s interests seemed more diverse. Our conversations were spotted with philosophical musings and thoughtful, atypical takes on whatever the subject was at hand – from both of us.* He was the only person I could drag with me to see David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees, and the only person in the theater besides me who liked it.
*Okay, only from Tyler. I generally contributed nothing.
So when I heard from a friend that they were really enjoying the Tyler Lyle album, it made me sit up straight, because:
a. I didn’t know Tyler had an album (Tyler and I lost touch several years ago)
b. The person talking to me had never met Tyler, and had no idea who he was.
Now, there are a couple different standards for albums recorded by people you know.
Level One – Albums so bad that you have to tell your friend, so they can start to get a grip on reality.
This is a horror show. While it’s true that a real friend stabs you in the front, it’s also generally true that you don’t get to keep the friend later, and often you end up getting stabbed yourself. I’ve gotten some very honest feedback about my personality in these moments.
Level Two – Albums you pretend you haven’t heard yet so you don’t have to talk to your friend about them.
Hopefully, they aren’t too aggressive in chasing down your opinion. You can also pretend to have gone deaf, but that’s a very long con indeed, and I’ve never found it to be worth the trouble.
Level Three – Albums you encourage your friends about, because it’s clearly important to them.
Hey, maybe the album’s not great. Maybe it’s pretty lousy. But it looks like they’re having a lot of fun, and that’s what’s important, as long as they’re having fun a good distance away from you.
Level Four – Albums with legitimate good elements to them, where you feel the need to give constructive feedback, hoping to encourage them to better things.
This is a mistake. No one like constructive feedback. Even the “going deaf” strategy is stronger than this one.
Level Five – Albums that are surprisingly good, and you offer lots of compliments, because your expectations were so much lower.
Tread carefully. These people sense the careful way you couch your adulation. “It’s the best song I’ve heard all morning!”
Level Six – Albums so good that you keep complimenting them so your friend knows that you’re not just gassing them up because they’re your friend.
It usually takes six or seven tries before the friend realizes, “hey, this guy honestly really likes my record!” Try not to go past seven, though, because there’s a Single White Female line you’re gonna end up passing at some point.
Level Seven – Albums that become your favorite album, without qualifications.
I’d never reached this level before. But I honestly didn’t put this album at the top of this list because I used to know Tyler. Tyler’s record is good.
It was played on NPR’s “World Café” and recommended on “All Songs Considered.” He had songs that showed up on “Hart of Dixie” and “Private Practice.” It’s not just me.
This was the album I listened to the most this year by a landslide. This was the album I recommended to people the most. This is easily – easily – my favorite album of the year.
Lo-fi rocker “The Golden Age and the Silver Girl,” dreamlike ballad “Things Are Better,” and brass-packed reflective howl of “Love Is Not Enough.” Or just download the damn album.
This music video (which picks up as it goes) is also by an old friend of mine from college, Aaron Champion.