This is not a comprehensive list. I haven't even heard all the albums released this year. These are my personal picks.
Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur
Produced by Justin Vernon, Voyageur is 12 tracks of beautiful alt-country-rock. I have never heard a collection of songs relate with such balance to the nature of the personal relationship – aside from perhaps Saint Cohen’s, of course. Lines like: “Everybody’s talking ‘bout how they know me and you / Well I can be cruel, and so can you”, on the luxurious “Pink Champagne”, or the line – from my favourite song released this year, “House Full of Empty Rooms”: “You don’t talk to me / Not the way that you used to / Maybe I don’t listen / In a way that makes you think I do”, show a delicate rationality of thought I have not heard in much – if any – modern music.
Voyageur has its upbeat numbers too. Thematically the album is juxtaposed from track to track with fast and slow songs; the slow with imagery surrounding the loss of a relationship, and the upbeat with imagery surrounding the hope of building a new one. Justin Vernon’s production, and Kathleen Edward’s voice, lift the album above the plethora of musical releases this year, but it is the beauty, understanding and sadness inherent in the lyrics that make this album something special.
Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Like Kathleen Edwards, Ocean’s lyrics immediately raise him above the mediocrity. There is the obvious, and the deceivingly simple lyrics of the haunting “Thinking ‘bout You,” for example. Ocean calls things how he sees them too, on songs like “Crack Rock“: “fuckin’ pig get shot / 300 men will search for me / my brother get [shot] / & don’t no one hear the sound.”
The music Ocean creates is as diverse and it is precise. With the interludes throughout the album, we are better shown the underlying themes of the album –disparity of wealth and absence of honest feeling. The album is mid-tempo R&B of the highest order. The refrain in “Pyramids” (video below) is the best sound I have heard this year in music.
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Tame Impala – Lonerism
Absolute sonic delight. Following on from the excellent Innerspeaker, Tame Impala remain the most elaborate, classy – and, ultimately, the best purveyors of psychedelic prog-rock working today. If you liked Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett days, you will love this. If you like ornate drum-led majesty, you’ll love this. In fact, I can’t recommend them enough: whether you’re running, walking, driving, or sitting on a bus, this album beats its way into your subconscious and, quite fantastically, fixes your perspective to a more positive pattern of thought.
Again, Tame Impala’s lyrics ensure they have substance behind their undoubted style. The first track, “Be Above It”, is a perfect example – so many times lately I have popped my earphones in, went straight for this song, and whatever mood I was in, it instantly draws me out of myself: “I'll just close my eyes / and make so that all these things don't affect me now /I know that I gotta be above it now.” Wonderful stuff.
The Men – Open Your Heart
This album somehow manage to sound like it was released 40 years ago, and yet remain both relevant and fresh in 2012. If I was to choose only one song that I was able to hear live this year, it would be the title track, “Open Your Heart.” The song is a riotous, vibrant, heavy beast. And, unsurprisingly, lyrically it is as simple and effective as anything you will hear this year. The chorus peaks with: “There are no mirrors here / Do what you want be who you want to be,” – those lines, in a bouncing crowd, screamed, backed by heavy guitar riffs – pure escapist bliss (video below).
The title song on one hand isn’t indicative of the album of a whole – in that Open Your Heart is also cleverly punctuated by moments of acoustic, country-ish mellow-ness – but on the other hand, it’s quality of delivery and sincerity of sentiment is representative of a simply wonderful rock album.
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Chimes of Freedom – The Songs of Bob Dylan (honouring 50 years of Amnesty International)
Technically not a new release in the same way that the albums above are – and I was torn between this and Dirty Three’s near-perfect Toward the Low Sun – but in the end, how could I not include it?
The collection isn’t perfect – like My Chemical Romance’s “Desolation Row” is pretty awful, and there are some odd absences – “To Ramona” and “It’s alright Ma (I’m only Bleeding)” for example – but 95% of what you get, over four discs, is pure music gold.
Even, or rather – particularly – if you want to know what
all the fuss is about regarding Bob Dylan, but can’t get past his singing style (many can’t), this is the album for you. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” by Cage the Elephant is one of the best covers you’ll ever hear of that song. Sinead O’Connor breathes new life into an otherwise dismissible song from Dylan’s religious phase in “Property of Jesus,” and Dave Matthews Band do a superb “All Along the Watchtower.” Chimes of Freedom is, in simple terms, a wide variety of current artists singing many of the best songs ever written, over four discs. What else needs to be said?
The Weeknd – Trilogy
If the three albums in this bafflingly sexy, crude and chilling collection weren't all released last year, this would be at the top of my list. Abel Tesfaye is finally gaining recognition on a world-wide scale. At 22 years old, he and Frank Ocean are setting a new standard of ‘pop’ (as in the synthy-R&B-dub-step pop that is prevalent today). He self-released, wrote, produced and is now performing the 3 albums he released in 2011, and the songs manage to be sincere, relatable, and sexy as hell – god his voice… – he sings about drugs, emotional vacancy and sexism (and sex). But despite the content sounding typical, Tesfaye is not only likeable – he seems like a genuine, intelligent man. Listen to “Wicked Games” (video below)(the original, not the recent 'mild' Jools Holland version). It is fucking incredible.
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Other excellent releases:
Purity Ring – Shrines;
Grimes – Visions;
Chromatics – Kill For Love;
Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory;
Dirty Three – Toward the Low Sun;
Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas;
Alabama Shakes – Boys and Girls;
Dan Deacon – America;
Dry The River – Shallow Bed
And here is a playlist of my favourite songs of the year