#1 - the CLOUD NOTHINGS – Attack On Memory (Carpark) - Attack on Memory is a forceful big guitar indie rock album that expertly merges oversized pop hooks with punk rock intensity.
Cloud Nothings site
VIDEO: "Fall In"
VIDEO: "Stay Useless"
VIDEO: "Stay Useless" live at Pitchfork Music Festival 2012
VIDEO: 4 songs live at KEXP
#2 - NADA SURF - the Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy (Barsuk Records) For album number seven Nada Surf don't alter their pop formula - they just refine it and inject some extra energy.
Everything I love about Nada Surf is here: ringing guitars, wonderfully catchy hooks, compelling lyrics, and Matthew Caws's charismatic vocals. But the band hit a bit of a rut on the last few albums and the songs sounded a bit too samey. This time the songwriting is a bit more distinctive and the songs sound fresh and more dynamic, which is enough to make this my favorite album by them and one of the records I've played the most this year.
Nada Surf site
VIDEO: "Waiting For Something"
VIDEO: "Jules and Jim"
VIDEO: "Teenage Dreams" live acoustic
#3 SHOES - Ignition (Black Vinyl Records) - The power pop legends return with their first album in 18 years - loaded with the superior hooks and harmonies you'd expect.
Ignition is instantly recognizable as a new Shoes album. Their signature harmonies, concise songwriting and tight, no-frills musicianship are all here. John Murphy, Jeff Murphy, and Gary Klebe have always been expert song craftsmen, and their ability to perfectly nail just the right performance song after song is unrivaled. But there's a spark in the band this time that makes the songs sound absolutely effortless. And this is probably the best sounding Shoes album ever. As always, the album has their traditional diplomatic songwriting/lead vocal splits, but one of the most dynamic songs on the album, the Stonesy "Hot Mess", is a rarity in that all 3 share writing credit. This isn't a great album because it's great that they're still doing it, it's a great album because the songs are top notch, the playing and production are fresh, and the band has an urgency they haven't had since the early 80's.
VIDEO: "I'm On You"
HEAR: "Hot Mess"
HEAR: "Head vs Heart"
#4 - CHUCK PROPHET - Temple Beautiful (Yep Roc) Chuck's 12th album features a wonderful collection of songs about San Francisco that reminds me of a roots-rock Ray Davies meets Alejandro Escovedo.
For over 20 years the former Green on Red guitarist has been making solid albums filled with slightly gritty barroom rock and twangy roots pop. He's a top-notch songwriter with a gift for lyrical imagery and the ability to create moods with seemingly little effort. For this album he turns the focus on his hometown and it's lesser known history and characters. Chuck tells his stories in talk-sing style reminiscent of Lou Reed (but with Lou's harsh edges toned down) or sung like a more relaxed Springsteen. He co-wrote and played on my favorite Alejandro Escovedo album, Real Animal, which is good reference point for the style that comes through on Temple Beautiful. I'd also compare the new record to 70's era Kinks or the straight out Tom Petty rockers. Along with being a standout songwriter and frontman, when he lets loose on the guitar he absolutely smokes. Chuck Prophett has been a reliable artist for so long it can be easy to take him for granted, but this album pushes on his strengths just enough to remind me of how special he is and how he deserves to be heard by a larger audience.
Chuck Prophett's site
VIDEO: "Whate Night, Big City"
VIDEO: tour San Francisco with Chuck
#5 - LEE RANALDO - Between The Times & The Tides (Matador) - Ranaldo is more straight-ahead rock/pop focused on his first post Sonic Youth solo album, but there's still enough guitar experimentation and sonic twists that it's obvious where he came from.
Much has been made about how "conventional" this album is, especially since most of Lee's extra curricular projects have been more challenging boundary pushers. But the shift here doesn't seem so out-of-nowhere when compared to his contributions scattered throughout the Sonic Youth catalog. The new album is a natural progression of songs like "Eric's Trip" & "Hey Joni" from Daydream Nation, or even the music of "In the Kingdom #19" on 1986's EVOL. "Walkin Blue" from Sonic Youth's last album, 2009's the Eternal, could easily fit into this set without changing anything. Lee brought in a host of friends to help him out, including Wilco's Nels Cline, Sonic Youth drummers Steve Shelley and Bob Bert, free jazz guitarist Alan Licht, and John Medeski of Medeski Martin and Wood. He knows how to write great hooks and is smart enough to write within his limited vocal range. Between The Times & The Tides is an album full of riffs that keep popping into my head and it's an album that I keep coming back to.
Lee Ranaldo's page at Sonic Youth.com
VIDEO: "Off the Wall"
VIDEO: "Xtina As I Knew Her" live
#6 - DAVID MYHR - Soundshine (Strong Melody Productions) The solo debut from the former Merrymaker is filled with bright, summery power pop with ringing guitars and insanely catchy melodies.
This is pure, uncut power pop - rich with infectious choruses and gorgeous harmonies. David Myhr fronted Swedish pop greats the Merrymakers, and for his solo debut he doesn't deviate far from the sound that made his previous band so revered among pop nerds like myself. David's songs are confident and his delivery sounds effortless as he touches on many of the gold standard pop references: Paul McCartney, ELO, Jellyfish, 60's pop singles, bubblegum. He even brings in smatterings of handclaps, la-la-la's, and some very fun "Got to get You Into My Life" styled horns. The record is produced very cleanly, but not slick - there's a warmth to every song that's missing from many more recent power pop albums. While the style is retro in origin, David's upbeat performance makes the songs pop out with fresh and timeless energy that's made this one of my go-to records in 2012.
David Myhr's site
VIDEO: "Got You Where He Wanted"
VIDEO: "Looking For a Life"
New music from Bob Mould had become less essential to me over the past decade, so I've been cautious when approaching his new releases. I'm not sure if he's out to prove something, but he hasn't made a record this exciting in over 25 years. The album is a relentless attack of oversized hooks, fast tempos, and loud guitars. Mould returns to the trio format that's worked so well for him, this time with Jason Narducy on bass and Superchunk's Jon Wurster behind the drum kit. There's not much variety in style or sonics - the band rips through the 10 songs with everything pushed into the red resulting an almost punishing wall of sound. As with most of Bob's best songs, no matter how much noise you put on top, his incredible songwriting always shines though.
Bob Mould's site
VIDEO: "the Descent"
VIDEO: "Keep Believing" on Conan
#8 - the dB's - Falling Off the Sky (Bar None) - My pop heroes return with the original lineup for the first time in 30 years and make a record tight enough to sound as if they've been together all along.
This is the fifth dB's album, coming 25 years after 1987's underrated the Sound of Music. And it's the first with the original Stamey/Holsapple/Rigby/Holder line-up since 1982's Repercussion. This is not a reunion of a band trying to pick up where they left off and recreate their glory days. It's a culmination of everything the individual members have done since they parted ways, yet it still sounds like a cohesive record. The jangley guitars are there and the hooks are plentiful. The songs are more straight forward this round, not as quirky the original Stamey era dB's, but far from sticking to any formula. They're more upbeat than Holsapple and Stamey's last venture together, 2009's Here and Now. Individually the dB's are great talents, but together they pull together their strengths for something truly special.
the dB's site
VIDEO: "That Time Is Gone" live at SXSW
#9 - FIRST AID KIT - The Lion's Roar (Wichita) - Country rock in the Gram Parsons tradition from 2 Swedish sisters with hauntingly beautiful harmonies.
This year's best Americana album comes from the suburbs of Stockholm. For their second album the Soderberg sisters went to Omaha to record with Bright Eyes' Mike Mogis, expanding the sparse folk of their debut to a full band without losing any of the intimacy. The economical instrumentation beautifully compliments the sisters' tight harmonies, adding little bits of pedal steel, accordion, and dulcimer in hust the right places without ever being gratuitous. There's a melancholia in their ethereal voices and lyrics thought could run the risk of being a downer, but the performances are stirring and there are enough upbeat flourishes in the arrangements to give the record and oddly uplifting feel.
First Aid Kite site
VIDEO: "Emmylou" - this might be the song I played more than any other in 2012
VIDEO: "Emmylou" live on Conan
VIDEO: "the Lion's Roar"
#10 - JIMMY CLIFF - Rebirth (UMe) Jimmy Cliff sounds absolutely rejuvenated on this vibrant and highly enjoyable album of classic sounding rocksteady ska while still being vital for 2012.
The reggae legend returns after a 7 year absence reengaged with the help of Rancid's Tim Armstrong, who produces and plays guitar. The album features economical arrangements recorded using vintage equipment, which gives it the feel of a classic Studio One production. Most of the album is tailor made for skanking: upbeat reggae, ska, and rocksteady with crisp drumrolls, bouncing keyboards, and lively horns. Cliff's voice is in great form and the politically charged lyrics are as relevant as anything he's done. This latest Jimmy Cliff album is more than just another addition to the discography of a respected legacy act, it's a relevant statement and an essential piece to his catalog.
Jimmy Cliff's website
VIDEO: "One More" live on Letterman
VIDEO: the Rebirth album EPK
#11 - DWIGHT YOAKAM - 3 Pears (Warner Bros) Dwight tones down his Bakersfield side and stretches out even more than normal for his best album since 1993's This Time.
Dwight has never been one to stick with a formula, but on his first new album of original material in 7 years he is fearless in pulling references from 50 years of pop and country, resulting in the type of record that only he could pull off. He covers Merseybeat pop, 60's AM radio soul, soft ballads, bar-room rockers, and his trademark honky-tonk effortlessly and ends up with a diverse collection of songs that flows perfectly. And while Dwight reaches into the past for inspiration, he's made one of the most forward thinking country albums of the past few years.
VIDEO: "Waterfall" live at the Live Room
VIDEO: "3 Pears" live on Jimmy Kimmel
VIDEO: "A Heart Like Mine" on Letterman
#12 - the WELL WISHERS – Dreaming of the West Coast (Well Wishers) - Rousing power pop from the Bay area that works the same territory as Velvet Crush, Material Issue, Sloan and the Posies.
Jeff Shelton is one of power pop's more reliable songwiters/frontmen, and on the 6th album from Well Wishers he's stepped up his game for an absolutely wonderful pop album. This is textbook powerpop with crunching guitars, big choruses, head bopping rhythms, and an embarrassment of riches in the melody department. Some times the best powerpop albums are the hardest to describe - they just work on every level and it's hard to call out exactly what pushes it to the front of the pack. This is one of those records. The songs work across the whole album and each one of them is my favorite until the next one starts.
Few artists can create a menacing mood as convincingly as Lanegan, but this time along with the brooding blues dirges he excels at he widens his palette with post-punk synths and electronic drums, which makes the album infinitely more interesting than anything's he done previously. Whether it's the slow burners, the pounding rockers, or the groove heavy electronic numbers there's a sinister tone throughout that pulls everything together. Individually the songs stand up, but the record definitely works better as a whole albums where it can slowly unfold and twist and turn. Lyrically the album can get a bit heavy handed, reaching for as many ways to describe death, sorrow, and pain as possible, But they work so well with the music I was able to set that aside the same way I still enjoy the Doors despite Morisson's often ridiculously over-the-top poetry. For me this album delivers on the feeling I always hope for in a Nick Cave record but never quite get.
VIDEO: "the Gravedigger's Song"
VIDEO: the 4AD Sessions - 4 songs from the album recorded
#14 - MICHAEL KIWANUKA - Home Again (Polydor UK/Interscope) - Stunningly strong debut from a British soul singer with a rootsy 70's soul and folk hybrid.
Michael Kiwanuka's debut sounds like a lost classic from 1972, rich in warm and relaxed grooves and wistful melodies. The album sounds like something from a veteran performer with a lifetime of experience to pull from, but the London based singer-songwriter is only 25 years old. As a soul singer he can be compared to Bill Withers and Otis Redding, but he's much more than just another talented neo-soul performer. His music also recalls the work of Tim Buckly, Van Morrison, Randy Newman, and James Taylor without ever directly referencing any of those artists. His songs are complimented by the vintage sounding organic production from Paul Butler of the Bees, who is no stranger to convincingly recreating sounds of days gone by.
#15 - DJANGO DJANGO - Django Django (Because UK) Debut album from a Scotish quartet armed with a diverse collection of innovative art pop songs big on catchy hooks and toe-tapping melodies.
The band is led by drummer David Maclean, which explains why the whole album is so percussive. The songs are driven by herky jerky rhythms and filled with sputtering synths, sharp guitar bursts and pristine harmonies. There's an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink element that brings in bits of surf, soul, prog, Bo Diddley, synthpop, Franz Ferdinand, Ennio Morricone, Eastern drones, Wendy Carlos, Krautrock, etc etc. Most of the time it works to great effect ("Default" was one of my favorite and most played songs of 2012), and even when they don't quite hit the mark they're always still interesting and worth hearing.
Django Django site
VIDEO: "Hail Bop"
#16 - LA SERA - Sees the Light (Hardly Art) - The 2nd album from Vivian Girls bassist Katy Goodman is a rush of charming indie pop melodies pushed to the next level by her captivating honey sweet vocals.
Katy Goodman writes punchy verse/chorus/verse pop songs with the charm of classic 60's girl groups. Although the instrumentation is pretty basic, the record sounds full and has the feel of an indie-rock take on Phil Spector. The sugary melodies fall somewhere between 60's radio pop and the jangly guitar pop of the C86 bands. At times the record sounds like a stronger She & Him or an American take on the first Primitives album. Katy is a talented songwriter equally comfortable with punky toe-tappers as she is with the slow and mid-tempo numbers, and the record is perfectly balanced with each.
La Sera's page at Hardly Art
VIDEO: "Real Boy/Drive On"
VIDEO: "Please Be My Third Eye"
#17 - DISAPPEARS - Pre Language (Kranky) The Chicago band's third album features guitar heavy post-punk built around a Krautrock-like repetition punctuated with bursts of distorted freakouts.
The album is a moody dark affair loaded with hypnotic drones, icy guitars, and a vocal growl in the style of Mark E Smith. This is their first album with Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley sitting behind the drum kit. On each song the band locks in on a groove and rides it, layering on edgy guitar and the calm-cool intensity of Joy Division.
#18 - CROCODILES - Endless Flowers (Frenchkiss) The San Diego band's third album is psychedelic shoegazer pop in the tradition of Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine.
Crocodiles take somewhat sunny, upbeat pop songs and then bury them under loads of fuzzy guitars, droning organs, reverb, and a metronomic rhythm section. It's hard not to compare them to the Jesus and Mary Chain, but there are also traces of Spaceman 3, Echo & the Bunnymen, My Bloddy Valentine, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club in their songs. I can't claim that the band does much original, but it's been a while since I've heard a band do the wall-of-noise psychedelic pop as well as they do. In the hands of a lesser band these songs would have been mired in noise and not much fun. Crocodiles have the cool atmospherics down, but they also have a knack for a catchy hook which makes the whole thing quite enjoyable.
Crocodile's FaceBook page
VIDEO: "Endless Flowers" - this video would have been right at home in the second hour of 120 Minutes in the late 80's
#19 - BAT FOR LASHES - the Haunted Man (Capitol) The haunted Man is a meticulously crafted album with just the right balance of dreamy Kate Bush-like pop and electronic experimentation.
For her third album, Natasha Khan is more focused and has stripped away some of the excesses of her previous two records. The album goes from sparse piano ballads and electronica to lavish arrangements with orchestration, held together by an ethereal atmosphere and the dramatic melancholia that has become one of her trademarks. Kate Bush is the obvious reference in both voice and style, but with electronic experimentation that recalls Radiohead's Kid A. At times the production is so clinical it takes away some of the intimacy of the songs, but overall this is Bat For Lashes most ambitious and rewarding album yet.
Bat for Lashes site
VIDEO: "All Your Gold" - one of my favorite songs of 2012
VIDEO: "Laura" on Later with Jools Holland
#20 - KELLY HOGAN - I Like To Keep Myself In Pain (Anti) On her first solo album in a decade, Kelly effortlessly shifts between traditional country, Americana pop, Adult Contemporary, and songs that sound like they could be standards from several generations earlier.
Kelly is a masterful interpreter of songs from top notch songwriters in the grand tradition of the country vocal greats of the 60's. She works in a wide palette of styles, all of which seem to be a natural fit for her stunning voice. For this album she gets songs from Robyn Hitchcock, John Wesley Harding, Robbie Fulks, Andrew Bird, Jon Langford, M. Ward, and more. The album is never flashy and flows quite smoothly for an album that genre jumps so freely - a mournful torch song one minute, a 60's girls group toe tapper the next. Kelly's voice is prominently up front where it belongs, but she's backed by an impressive band that includes Booker T. Jones, James Gadson (Bill Withers), and Gabe Roth. Kelly has backed up artists as diverse as Jakob Dylan, Mavis Staples, the Waco Brothers, The Minus 5, and Drive-By Truckers and might be best known as a member of Neko Case's band, but with this album it's going to be hard to think of her anything but a significant frontwoman.
VIDEO: 3 songs from the album performed live as part of NPR's Tiny Desk Series
RICHARD HAWLEY - Standing At the Sky's Edge - For his 7th album Hawley significantly steps out of his comfort zone with a more urgent batch of songs with the guitars up front and the most aggressive riffing he's ever done on his own records. The album is layered with atmospheric psychedelia, which adds a whole new dimension to Hawely's top notch songwriting and guitar playing. [ Richard's site ]
the SHINS - Port of Morrow - James Mercer refines his pop formula and widens the pop references just a smidge. This might be his strongest and most distinctive batch of songs yet. [ band site ]
REDD KROSS - Researching the Blues - Classic Neurotica Redd Kross lineup returns after 15 years away and picks up right where they left off. This is the comeback record any Redd Kross could hope for - energetic glammy power-pop songs with crazy catchy melodies, big harmonies, and a grand sense of fun. [ band site ]
BEST COAST – the Only Place - 2nd album from the California duo offers more summery ear candy with jangley guitars and Bethany Cosentino's gorgeous voice, which reminds me of Neko Case. This time the band's lo-fi edges are cleaned up by producer Jon Brion. [ band site ]
DIVINE FITS - A Thing Called Divine Fits - Spoon's Britt Daniel teams up with Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade) and Sam Brown (New Bomb Turks) for an album of solid new wave indie rock. [ band site ]
SAINT ETIENNE - Words and Music by Saint Etienne - The band's first album in 7 years is a Europop love letter to the enthusiasm of being a music fan [ band site ]
CHICHA LIBRE – Canibalismo - This is one of most wonderfully weird records I've heard in the last few years. The Brooklyn band plays an updated version of Chicha (a dancable Peruvian hybrid of surf and psychedelia from the 60's and 70's), incorporating vintage synthesizers, looping mellotrons, twangy guitars, cumbia rhythms, and exotica atmospherics. You can hear bits of Martin Denny, Serge Gainsbourg, Mano Chau, Henry Mancini, and Messer Chups, yet they really sound like no one else. [ band site ]
JD McPHERSON - Signs & Signifiers - The Oklahoma native masters vintage rock and roll and R&B swing on his debut album. Although the sound is authentic in recreating a byegone era, the songs and performances are sincere enough to avoid feeling kitchy or forced. [ JD's site ]
JEFF THE BROTHERHOOD - Hypnotic Nights - Jeff the Brotherhood play a weird hybrid of big dumb stoner rock and infectious Weezer-like pop. The band locks in on an insanely catchy hook and bludgeons you with it with the help of plodding drums and fuzzy guitars. [ band site ]