Not a lot separates the top two albums on my best of 2012 list. I'm giving Jack White a slight edge on "Blunderbuss" over Frank Ocean's "channel ORANGE" due to having more concise songs. But if you email me and tell me Ocean had a better release, I probably won't put up much of a fight.
- Rob Carroll
1. Jack White, "Blunderbuss"
"Blunderbuss," the full-length solo debut album from Jack White, is just right and is the year's best full-length music release. It's not too flashy, weird, over-the-top, stripped-down or any other term that could be used to describe White's faults during his music career.
Instead, White appeals to fans of his past projects including The White Stripes and The Raconteurs. Trademarks from both those bands are evident on several of the tracks. The heavy-handed "Sixteen Saltines" is pure White Stripes material while "Missing Pieces" is a little lighter, leaning toward something from The Raconteurs catalog.
White uses "Blunderbuss," which he also produced and recorded on his own, to show off his superior musicianship. The distorted guitar on "Weep Themselves To Sleep" leads to what could be considered one of the best guitar solos recorded in the past 10 years. White sounds just as comfortable on the songs that are a little more stripped-down. "Love Interruption," the first single from "Blunderbuss," relies more on lyrics that complex guitar parts. It also proves White can be just as good writing lyrics as he can strumming a guitar.
For the most part, the songs on "Blunderbuss" swell at all the right parts as White builds up the tempos before letting listeners down softly.
2. Frank Ocean, “channel ORANGE”
Frank Ocean’s “channel ORANGE” is the perfect vessel to accentuate the singer’s smooth R&B style. During the release’s early songs, he could be accused of being a little too calm. Don’t think of it that way. Instead, consider the early part of the album as a slow build leading up to the payoff, much like that of a thriller-genre movie. Here, the payoff is “Super Rich Kids,” which coyly borrows the piano part of “Bennie And The Jets” and mixes it with Ocean singing his own lyrics and a few lyrics from the Mary J. Blige hit “Real Love.” Both are interesting choices to sample, but Ocean pulls it off making the songs seem so right together. The arrangements get even more complicated on the 10-minute track “Pyramids.” Ocean sounds effortless in his delivery over an uptempo dance beat for its first half before slowing things down for the song’s final act. His voice lends itself well to such dynamic music. Well-written lyrics also help out along the way.
3. Alabama Shakes, “Boys & Girls”
This album has soul. It’s a type of soul that appeals to fans of both Otis Redding and the Black Keys. The Alabama Shakes have modernized a classic sound to appeal to a younger audience while not going over the top in a way that it would turn away an older listener. “Boys & Girls,” intentionally or not, does a great job of toeing the line between young and old. “Hold On,” the album's lead-off song and first single, is built upon the sturdy foundation of a simple, yet hypnotic, guitar riff. The simple approach is carried throughout the album. But at no time does “Boys & Girls” seem uninteresting. The ultra-bluesy “Be Mine” is about as heartfelt as a song can get.
4. Japandroids, "Celebration Rock"
"Celebration Rock" from the Canadian duo Japandroids is some of the best garage rock to come along in recent years. Rolling drums, sing-along choruses and driving guitars combine for an explosive cocktail. The foot-stomper "The House That Heaven Built" does the best job of bringing it all together. The rest of the tracks aren't too far off either. "For The Love of Ivy" carries a punk influence while still keeping with the duo's measured minimalist approach.
5. Passion Pit, “Gossamer”
Lead singer and Passion Pit mastermind Michael Angelakos can be a bit of a perfectionist. That means trying out more music parts for one song than some bands do for an entire album. The result of this tedious process is “Gossamer.” These songs are heavy with keyboards and poppy beats. The opener, “Take A Walk,” marches along to a bouncy cadence of keyboards and drums. “Mirrored Sea” is a little more frantic with its pop beat. The poppiness is dialed down in other songs. This time out we get more of a look inside Angelakos’ head. “I’ll Be Alright” talks about his racing thoughts. “Carried Away” offers apologies and shows relationships aren’t always ideal. “Gossamer” is a perfectionist putting his imperfections on tape.
6. Kendrick Lamar, “good kid m.A.A.d. city”
Just when you thought the whole Compton-based rap album thing had been overdone, here comes Kendrick Lamar. The 25-year-old rapper offers a vivid snapshot of Compton on “good kid m.A.A.d. city” as told through his songs and even skits. Yes skits – the much-maligned rap album staple is actually used to further an album’s story instead of just being goofy intermissions between songs. Lamar has a smooth, almost effortless-sounding flow in his delivery that blends well with the polished beats on “good kid m.A.A.d. city.” Gritty street tales are unfolded with ease instead of being yelled through gruff vocals on songs such as “m.A.A.d city” and “Money Trees.” At the same time, this is in no way an over-produced rap album. While “good kid m.A.A.d. city” may be steeped in stories of violence, Lamar isn’t adverse to taking on other problems in his neighborhood. That includes the groggy hit “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “First you get a swimming pool full of liquor, then you dive in it,” Lamar sings during the hook. It’s a party song on the surface, but listen closer and you find Lamar struggling to stay away from the booze in the room and any demons that come with it. Not everything is as it seems on “good kid m.A.A.d. city.”
7. The Shins, “Port of Morrow”
“Port of Morrow,” The Shins' first album since 2007, also is the first album by the band since the departure of three founding members. Frontman James Mercer remains in the band’s lineup. The addition of the new band members just may have been what The Shins needed. While there still is that familiar mix of upbeat and downtrodden tracks, the slower material doesn’t bring the album down as it has in past releases. “Make me a drink strong enough to wash away this dishwater world they said was lemonade,” Mercer sings on “No Way Down,” one of the album’s better tracks. Other notable songs include “Bait and Switch” and “The Rifle’s Spiral.” Both have the indie rock band at its best. While there still are a couple of depression-inducing numbers on this one, they don’t seem to over-power the rest of the album. Instead, they serve as opportunities to catch your breath before the next upbeat freakout.
8. Fiona Apple, "The Idler Wheel ..."
The now 35-year-old Apple grows up on "The Idler Wheel..." but she is just as angry as ever. And while she may be known for playing, Apple uses her voice on this album almost as effectively as her ability on the keys. Just on the song "Every Single Night," Apple spits lyrics through gritted teeth, chants and even has moments where she almost sounds comforting. She is methodic as she paints vivid pictures of less-than-ideal personal relationships. Apple is cold and calculated on "The Idler Wheel ...," and she is also at her best after being on hiatus for nearly seven years.
9. Leonard Cohen, “Old Ideas”
The first album of new material in eight years from the now 78-year-old Leonard Cohen is solid from start to finish. Staying true to his form, Cohen delivers his lyrics as if they were the last to cross his lips. His deliberate delivery is done with the same rasp as it always has. “Old Ideas” is Cohen being Cohen. He just has a way with words, both in his writing and singing/talking that is unique to his own style. Cohen is haunting yet warm and sincere. While none of these songs are on par with “Hallelujah,” one of his greatest hits, they are up there with some of his best.
10. Mumford and Sons, “Babel”
On 2009’s “Sigh No More,” Mumford & Sons introduced its mix of rock, country and bluegrass to a wider audience. Its sound won over alt-rock crowds in the process and somehow made folk rock seem trendy again. But “Sigh No More” had its faults. The London-based quartet at times struggled to find its middle ground, giving way to highs that were too high and lows that were too low. Mumford & Sons does a better job with their dynamics on “Babel” as they peak in all the right places. The band is at its best on slow-building songs that burst into foot-stompers by their end. And there’s plenty of that on here with the title track and “Hopeless Wanderer” being the best to use the formula.
While a few other songs on “Babel” get the same treatment, the album is far from predictable. There’s plenty of slower, more drawn-out songs, including “Lover of Light” and “Lovers’ Eyes,” that serve as place holders until the band is ready to build its way back up to the next all out jam.
11. Best Coast, "The Only Place"
The sophomore effort from Best Coast is a collection of songs soaked in California sun. "The Only Place" begins with a burst of fun that continues throughout most of the album. Bethany Costentino even sounds like she's having a blast when singing about wiping tears from her face on "Why I Cry." Eventually the sun sets on the day as the album comes to a close with the slow-moving "Up All Night." Instead of Best Coast trying to be another Beach Boys wannabe, they pull off an album of angst-ridden surf pop with a more modern feel.
12. Andrew Bird, “Break It Yourself”
It’s difficult to listen to Andrew Bird’s sixth studio album and not be impressed with his talent as a multi-instrumentalist. But be warned, some of the tracks get a little tedious on this one. “Break it Yourself” clocks in at just over an hour. The more concise tracks are where Bird really nails it. Check out “Near Death Experience Experience” and “Eyeoneye.” Bird is an impressive musician who once again shows off his talent and musical knowledge (and whistling ability) on “Break it Yourself.” This one should be enjoyed by both classical music scholars and modern rock music fans.
13. Guided By Voices, “Let’s Go Eat the Factory”
“Let’s Go Eat the Factory” is rock band Guided By Voices’ first album with it’s “classic lineup” since 2004, and it really is worth the wait. Guided By Voices find ways to do a lot with very little on “Let’s Go Eat the Factory.” They adapt a minimalist effort on songs such as “Laundry and Lasers” and “The Unsinkable Fats Domino,” and it pays off. “Hang Mr. Kite” shows a a bit more depth as it adds a string arrangement to the band’s basic approach. Most of the songs on this one are kept relatively short. The short spurts only help the band’s sound have more impact.Guided By Voices has a track record of cranking out a new album almost every year as they did from 1987 to 2004. Considering the band had a bit of a layoff, one could only imagine how many unreleased songs these guys have saved up.
14. The Lumineers, "The Lumineers"
The success of Mumford and Sons has brought more attention to folk-rock acts in recent years. The Lumineers are near the top of that list thanks to the sweeping songs on their self-titled album. The Denver-based trio turns in a strong effort that also lightly touches on other genres including gospel and country. The fun in this album is listening for the next shift in the songs. A simple acoustic guitar number picks up thanks to pounding drums arriving near its end on "Flowers in Your Hair." A stirring string arrangement comes out of nowhere to make "Dead Sea" not seemed as stripped down. The Lumineers do a fine job tipping their caps to classic American sounds without sounding too outdated along the way.
15. Glen Hansard, “Rhythm and Repose”
Whether it’s with The Frames or The Swell Season, or even in the movie “Once,” Irish-born singer/songwriter Glen Hansard has a way of tugging at the strings of your heart. It’s his subtle vocal approach that helps set the mood on his first solo album, “Rhythm and Repose”. Hansard remains deliberate in the delivery of his lyrics, giving you time to contemplate each word. There’s a certain warmth to his style on the opener “You Will Become.” Hansard also isn’t afraid to let loose. On some songs, he uses his cozy approach to build comfort before wailing away. “I’m hanging on,” Hansard repeatedly cries out near the end of “Birds of Sorrow.” The lyric is believable since the same guy who let us know everything is going to be alright now sounds like he is barely getting by. “Rhythm and Repose” is a simple album in terms of music with the payoff coming in the form of excellent vocal dynamics.
16. Baroness, “Yellow & Green”
“Yellow & Green,” a double-album effort from Baroness, has the Georgia metal band slightly turning away from their heavy sound in exchange for something more melodic. The change has the band sounding more complete as musicians instead of a bunch of guys snarling over crunching guitar riffs. The “Yellow” portion of the album sets the stage for the band’s new sound. The first disc also includes the best songs in the “Yellow & Green” collection with “Sea Lungs” and “Take My Bones Away.” The latter is a melodic metal song that dips into prog rock. The “Green” portion of the album is a little more plodding. Together they make one of the more imaginative metal releases in recent years.
17. Cheap Girls, “Giant Orange”
"Giant Orange," the third album from Lansing, Mich.-based all-guy band Cheap Girls, is about as straight forward as a rock release can get. But the trio proves a simple album can still be a good album. The songs rock and come nicely packaged with carefully-crafted lyrics. “If you can’t swim you would be on the list to float around to make room for the next one,” Ian Graham sings on “If You Can’t Swim.” The earnest lyrics continue throughout as the band takes on a powerpop vibe on the songs “Pacer” and “Ruby.”
18. Craig Finn, “Clear Heart Full Eyes”
Craig Finn, frontman for The Hold Steady, steps out on his own with “Clear Heart Full Eyes." Here, Finn is more quiet and contemplative. He’s chill and calm, unlike his demeanor on most of The Hold Steady albums. While he often transforms into a jittery storyteller on stage with the The Hold Steady, his delivery on “Clear Heart Full Eyes” is a little more subdued. He still comes off as a guy who’s telling you stories from the stool next to you at the bar, but this time he’s a little more sedate during his narrations. “Pretty sure we’re all gonna die,” Finn repeats on the track, “No Future.” He delivers those lyrics with no real urgency. It works to his advantage as Finn is a great storyteller. His drawn-out delivery only lets you enjoy his narration a little more.
“Clear Heart Full Eyes” is a fine solo debut for Finn.
19. Santigold, “Master of My Make-Believe”
On “Master of My Make-Believe,” Santigold finds ways to be both chill and fierce at the same time. The second full-length from the Philadelphia-born performer is an exercise in keeping cool under pressure. The relaxed dub beats of “Disparate Youth” help soften the blow of Santigold’s explosive lyrics. “A life's worth fighting for” she repeats during the chorus of the song which calls for hope and understanding. Mesmerizing beats make it easy to get caught up in "Master of My Make-Believe."
20. Killer Mike, "R.A.P. Music"
Killer Mike goes hard out of the gates on "R.A.P. Music," hardly taking a moment to catch his breath during "Big Beast." He takes on dirty cops on "Don't Die." On "Reagan" he spits about economic struggle and frustrations about past presidents. Killer Mike has long been associated with fellow Atlanta act OutKast. "R.A.P. Music" features some of that familiar southern sound while also giving a nod to N.W.A. and other late 80s rap.
Honorable mentions: Beach House, "Bloom"; Sleigh Bells, “Reign of Terror"; Death Grips, "The Money Store"; Chiddy Bang, "Breakfast"; Lucero, “Women and Work”; Norah Jones, “Little Broken Hearts”; Silversun Pickups, “Neck of the Woods”; Gossip, “A Joyful Noise”; Morning Glory, “Poets Were My Heroes”; Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, “The Heist”; The Menzingers, "Of The Impossible Past."