1. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?
This year’s top record might be a surprise, unless you’ve actually heard Who’s Feeling Young Now?. Punch Brothers‘ third (technically fourth if you count Chris Thile‘s How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, which also featured the band) album mostly left what the critics called “progressive bluegrass” in favor of something pretty close to indie folk.
After mixing genres like bluegrass and classical on their first albums, Who’s Feeling Young Now? focuses more on songwriting. Thile and the rest of the band still pluck and bow at virtuoso levels, but this time it’s more about how the instruments work together — often in the background — instead of the heavily layered bluegrass.
There’s also a great deal of instrumental manipulation. The violin on “Hundred Dollars” is about as far from the fiddle as you can get, and I’m still baffled how they managed to so perfectly cover Radiohead‘s “Kid A” with mandolin, acoustic guitar, violin, double bass and banjo.
And what better way to celebrate our album of the year than by seeing them live on New Year’s Eve? Tonight, Punch Brothers finish off their three-night run at Bowery Ballroom in New York, and I couldn’t be more excited.
2. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
The best thing about Japandroids isn’t their music. Don’t get me wrong, Brian King and David Prowse are incredible musicians, but what really got me about their debut Post-Nothing and still gets me on Celebration Rock is the feeling that comes with it.
Most albums have perfectly planned highs and lows, but Celebration Rock is all highs, and better for it. It’s an unrelenting tornado of youth, energy, sing-along shouts and distortion that borders on perfect. It’s heart-racing, fist-pumping rock that never stops and never wears out.
In his review of “The House That Heaven Built,” Pat Hosken of Astro Cannon said, “Anthem is too soft a word.” It definitely is, but I can’t think of a better one. Celebration Rock is an anthem. And it’s changing rock music entirely.
10. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
The Mountain Goats have been pumping out albums lately. Four albums in the last five years is no small feat, especially when they’re this brilliant. Somehow, even with the birth of his first child, John Darnielle managed to follow up last year’s All Eternals Deck with another new release this year.
And Transcendental Youth isn’t just a by-the-numbers Mountain Goats album — although they could definitely make those forever and I’d be totally happy. Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster teamed up with Matthew E. White, whose horn arrangements added another shade of life to the already-great songs.
Even paired with the range of the whole Mountain Goats catalog at their live shows, the Transcendental Youth songs stand out as some of the strongest. “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1,” written for Amy Winehouse, and “Harlem Roulette” are already fan favorites. The title track gleams like something from the big-band jazz era, and “The Diaz Brothers” might be the catchiest Mountain Goats song ever.
There are always fans wishing Darnielle would go back to his lo-fi tape recorder — which he sort of satisfied with the “Night Light” demo — but the Mountain Goats are in top form on Transcendental Youth.
Posted in Album Reviews, Music Reviews
Tagged Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1, Cry for Judas, Harlem Roulette, John Darnielle, Jon Wurster, Matthew E. White, Merge, Night Light, Peter Hughes, SoundCloud, The Diaz Brothers, The Mountain Goats, Top 20 of 2012, Transcendental Youth
15. Bob Dylan – Tempest
There’s a reason people still listen to Bob Dylan. It’s not to remember the greatness that once was; it’s all about what he still has to offer.
Dylan is unquestionably one of the greatest songwriters to ever live. Sure, he’s faltered a few times in the course of 35 albums, but he’s been on a late-career hot streak with brilliant albums like Modern Times and Time Out of Mind. Tempest might even stand above those modern masterpieces.
Most musicians don’t ever come close to 35 albums — and you almost always wish they don’t. But none of them are Bob Dylan.
16. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
Sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg first came to our attention with a YouTube cover of “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” by Fleet Foxes, sung in the woods of their native Sweden. It was wonderful, but it wouldn’t last, right?
Wrong. Now, two albums and an EP later, First Aid Kit aren’t going anywhere. Their sophomore LP, The Lion’s Roar, proves that the Söderberg sisters aren’t just a flash-in-the-pan Internet sensation; they’re the real deal.
The Lion’s Roar features contributions from James Felice (The Felice Brothers) and all three members of Bright Eyes — Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott — but the sisters are at their best on their own. The album’s first single, “Emmylou,” is their best yet and definitely one of the year’s finest.
Posted in Album Reviews, Music Reviews
Tagged Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst, Emmylou, First Aid Kit, James Felice, Johanna Söderberg, Klara Söderberg, Mike Mogis, Nate Walcott, SoundCloud, The Lion's Roar, Top 20 of 2012
17. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
Miguel’s sophomore LP is undoubtedly a pop album, but the L.A. singer strays away from the pop formula in one major way. Kaleidoscope Dream isn’t about how many high-profile producers or guest verses he could cram into one album, it’s about Miguel.
Miguel, whose full name is Miguel Pimentel, is much more than a voice — but what an incredible voice he is! He wrote and produced both “Candles in the Sun” and the inescapable hit “Adorn” completely solo, in addition to co-writing all the others and co-producing most of them.
It’s about time the mainstream was this good.