I decided to scrap my earlier idea of featuring only the albums I feel are truly “great” in this post.  I basically figured that there was so much good music out this year, it would probably be desirable to do a whole top 25 list.  These 25 are selected from the 44 newly-released albums I heard over the course of the year.  The first four are knockouts and instant classics, the creme de la creme.  Numbers 5 through 13 are also “great” albums in my opinion.  However, all 25 albums here are worth your time and money.  I own 17 of them already, and I hope to add the remainder to my collection as well.

1)  Ty Segall – Twins

The newest of the three albums Ty Segall released this year, Twins is in my opinion the best and is arguably his first masterpiece.  Without a single dud to be found in its track-list, Twins is a garage-punk knockout.  It’s got awesomely scuzzy guitar work, catchy songs, and vocals that shift between Segall’s trademark snarl and his falsetto, but also a bit of diversity to the music.  As a result, this album (along with several of the others below) did a lot to get me excited this year about the present and future of rock ‘n’ roll.

Sample track:  “Thank God for Sinners”

2)  Japandroids – Celebration Rock

A lot of outlets are listing this as one of their top albums of the year, and for good reason.  This album has a big, Earth-shaking sound.  It begins and ends with the sound of fireworks.  It contains 8 songs, all of them catchy, celebratory punk anthems with soaring pop-rock choruses.  With one guy on guitar and vocals, another guy on drums, and a band name that is misleading and terrible, Japandroids have created a dynamite rock ‘n’ roll album which I think hits the emotional highs and lows of being in your 20s, in the process proving that rockers can evoke emotions without playing whiny “emo.”  I almost don’t want to say too much about this album if you haven’t heard it yet, because I don’t want to spoil it.  “A House That Heaven Built” is the big single, but there isn’t a bad track on the album.  It’s a must-hear.

Sample track:  “Adrenaline Nightshift”

3)  Screaming Females – Ugly

As with the Japandroids album above, I almost don’t want to say too much about Ugly because I think its music speaks for itself.  Suffice it to say that Screaming Females are a band from New Brunswick, New Jersey, that Chris and I saw live in March.  A couple of months later, they released a new album called Ugly, and it’s a masterpiece.  Although they came up as more of a punk band, here the Screaming Females have produced an expert fusion of punk and metal.  The songwriting is impeccable, and there isn’t a bad track on album.  Either you’ll love singer-guitarist Marissa Paternoster’s voice or you’ll hate it, but if you love it, you’re going to love this album.  All I can say is that when I hear the beginning of opening track “It All Means Nothing,” I feel like it’s 1991 and I’m hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time.  Which is to say, Ugly feels like something special.

Sample track:  “Expire”

4)  Tame Impala – Lonerism

I played this one for you guys in the car last week, and hopefully you thought it was as awesome as I did.  I encourage you to listen again on your own.  Basically, with this Australian band, you should believe the hype; their music really is that good.  Somewhere online I saw someone say that Lonerism is basically a distillation of everything that’s good about psychedelic rock, and I personally agree with that statement.  I’ve listened to this album, front to back, again and again and it still wows me.  Although the two singles, the driving “Elephant” and lonely “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” are obvious highlights, most of the tracks feature dreamy vocals, gorgeous melodies, and a tasty arrangement of synthesizers and guitars, and do so quite impressively.  The music really benefits a lot from the busy live drumming, as well, which figures prominently on the woozy “Mind Mischief.”  Ultimately, when the worst criticism leveled at an album is that it’s a Beatles ripoff (and even that is probably mostly because frontman Kevin Parker’s voice is a dead ringer for John Lennon’s), you know you’ve got a jaw-droppingly great psychedelic rock album on your hands.

Sample track:  “Apocalypse Dreams”

5)  Thee Oh Sees – Putrifiers II

I know I’ve already shown you a bunch of music by this San Francisco band, but I really cannot emphasize enough how much I like this prolific band and especially this album, which seems to cover a lot of different styles and do it all rather well.  The fuzzy, upbeat “Hang a Picture” and the brisk, eerie “Lupine Dominus” are among the coolest songs I’ve heard this year.  But just to demonstrate that these guys can do cool things at a slower tempo as well, I’m presenting as a sample the creepy “Will We Be Scared?”  It starts out sounding like “zombie prom night,” eventually hits upon a strangely pretty falsetto chorus, and ambles towards the end with frontman John Dwyer’s sinister flute outro.

Sample track:  “Will We Be Scared?”

6)  Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

Chris introduced me to this album when we driving back to New Jersey for Thanksgiving break.  I liked it the first time I heard it, but the second time I listened to it (about a week later) I began to appreciate it a lot more.  Swing Lo Magellan consists of a series of beautiful songs which aren’t trying to being arty for the sake of it.  My number one rule is that if it sounds good, it is good… and this sounds great.  The songs on this album sound simple even when they’re complicated, and their melodies stick with you even though the band isn’t creating a wall of sound.  If it seems that I’m struggling to describe this album, it’s because I am.  All I can say is that I really love this music, and that I think the female backing vocalists’ sweet harmonies complement frontman David Longstreth’s voice perfectly.  If you ask me about the various individual tracks, I’ll gush about those too.

Sample track:  “Dance for You”

7)  The Fresh & Onlys – Long Slow Dance

The Fresh & Onlys hail from the same San Francisco garage rock scene that’s home to Thee Oh Sees, Sic Alps, and Ty Segall, but this year they shifted their sound in a big way for their excellent third album, Long Slow Dance.  Switching labels, singer Tim Cohen and the rest of the band got out of the garage and created a slickly produced collection of romantic indie-pop-rock songs.  There’s nothing pretentious about it; it’s just beautiful music.  Highly recommended.

Sample track:  “Dream Girls”

8)  Goat – World Music

Here’s another great psychedelic rock album from 2012.  This is the recording debut of Goat, a band from Sweden with a hilarious and possibly bogus backstory.  Even if they aren’t really from a voodoo-haven speck on the map in the Swedish wastelands, the Goatman & company are still awesome because their African-influenced music is so entirely unlike anything else I’ve ever heard.  Sure, there are individual elements I can pick out as sounding like this or that, but as a whole package this album is quite unique and pretty magical.  You’ve got to hear it.

Sample track:  “Goathead”

9)  Sic Alps – Sic Alps

Another one of the best albums produced by the San Francisco garage-rock scene in 2012 was the self-titled third album from Mike Donovan and his Sic Alps.  For this record, Sic Alps moved out of the garage and recorded in an actual studio for the first time, and the move paid great dividends.  With the addition of strings to its staccato guitar, “Glyphs,” ends up somewhere between the Beatles’ “Glass Onion” and “I Am the Walrus.”  Meanwhile, a lot of the other music here recalls the Kinks’ late-’60s output.  “God Bless Her, I Miss Her,” “Moviehead,” “Wake Up, It’s Over II,” and “Polka Vat,” among others, actually have rather catchy melodies that stick with you more than you’ll initially realize.

Sample track:  “God Bless Her, I Miss Her”

10)  The Men – Open Your Heart

Part of what makes Open Your Heart such a cool rock album is how all over the map it is.  The Men cover a broad range of styles, although overall their preferences clearly skew towards punk.  Several of the tracks are entirely or primarily instrumental, but if anything those tracks are the most mesmerizing (especially “Oscillation”).  Of the songs with vocals, the opening one-two punch of “Turn It Around” and “Animal” are fun, turn-it-up rock ‘n’ roll, while the title track and “Ex-Dreams” add a little bit of emotional twinge to their revved-up punk.  And “Candy,” slotted in the middle of the album, sounds like it could have been on Sticky Fingers alongside “Dead Flowers.”  One thing about this album that struck me as unusual is that the mixing is a little unusual; on some tracks, the vocals are lower in the mix than is typical, as in shoegaze music (but what shoegaze band has ever applied that effect to a hardcore-punk type of song like “Animal”?), and on “Candy,” the lead guitar is noticeably lower in the mix than usual.  Kind of a cool bit of experimentation.

Sample track:  “Ex-Dreams”

11) Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral

Fans of Mark Lanegan’s work with the Screaming Trees and his largely acoustic early solo work (like, you know, me) could be forgiven for viewing the addition of electronics to his sound with some skepticism.  But this is not a bid by Lanegan to insert himself into the mainstream sounds that all the kids are listening to these days; instead, the electronic musicians that Lanegan draws upon for inspiration are his own old favorites:  Kraftwerk and New Order.  The electronics on Blues Funeral make the album sound like it was recorded 15 years ago in the Portishead era, not in the 2012 Skrillex era.  But I don’t want to sound like I’m preoccupied with the electronic influences here, because their presence (or lack thereof) isn’t what makes this a great record.  Instead, it’s the awesome songs and their sweeping, dark sound and effect, primarily established by Lanegan’s always-amazing, whiskey-soaked, world-weary vocals.  This is the third non-Trees album of Lanegan’s that I’ve purchased, and it might be my favorite.

Sample track:  “Harborview Hospital”

12) Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits

This is the first album by a band which could be termed an “indie rock supergroup.”  Spoon frontman Britt Daniel and Dan Boeckner, who’s performed in the Wolf Parade and the Handsome Furs, split singing and songwriting duties, a la Elliott Smith and Neil Gust in Heatmiser (among other examples).  I guess it’s surprising that I like this as much as I do, since I don’t listen to any of these guys’ original bands (and although I’ve only tried a few tracks, I’ve never cared much for Spoon).  But as Divine Fits, they’ve grabbed their guitars and keyboards and created a very cool album of well-written pop-rock songs with a sound straight out of the late ’70s and early ’80s.  These songs fit neatly within the category of New Wave music, and it’s kind of refreshing to hear younger bands created music like this in 2012.  There’s no doubt in my mind that “Would That Not Be Nice,” “My Love Is Real,” and “Like Ice Cream,” among others, could have been radio hits 30 years ago.

Sample track:  “Baby Get Worse”

13) Django Django  Django Django

At first I was hesitant to give Django Django a shot, because I thought it was going to be off-putting avant-garde music.  As it turns out, it’s a genre-bending exercise in electro-psych-rock, and a weird one at that.  But the secret to this album’s greatness isn’t its unique sound (although there is that); it’s this band’s superior songwriting skill.  I read an internet comment somewhere describing Django Django’s sound as a fusion of Kraftwerk and the Beach Boys, and strangely enough that’s pretty close to the mark.

Sample track:  “WOR”

14) Norah Jones – Little Broken Hearts

If you had told me a year ago that one of my favorite albums of 2012 would be by Norah Jones, I never would have believed you.  When I was growing up, my dad loved playing her music in the car, and I would always wince when he put it on because I found her easy-listening/coffee-shop-jazz style interminably boring.  (I never had a problem with her smoky voice, though that was always my mom’s reason for demanding that my dad put something else on.)  Anyway, this spring, my dad mentioned that he’d bought the new Norah Jones album and that he didn’t like it.  My interest was piqued, as I remembered that she had worked with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, the great Gnarls Barkley production mastermind, on the new album.  Remember that album he put out with Daniele Luppi last year, Rome, which was supposed to be the culmination of his long-developing “spaghetti western” production style?  I would argue that Little Broken Hearts is the actual culmination of that process.  Jones and Burton have created a great set of songs here, all of which are a pleasure to listen to.  And just as Jones’ vocals made “Black,” “Problem Queen,” and “Season’s Trees” the highlights on Rome, so too are her vocals perfect for telling this album’s story of a relationship’s implosion.  The narrative culminates in the creepy “Miriam,” in which the protagonist murders “the other woman.”

Sample track:  “4 Broken Hearts”

15) Titus Andronicus – Local Business

Chris and I saw Titus Andronicus live at the Stone Pony in March, and they were great; moreover, I listened to their 2010 masterpiece, The Monitor, time and again this year.  So needless to say, I hotly anticipated the release of their third album, Local Business, in late October.  Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed, although I probably shouldn’t have been expecting them to replicate The Monitor.  The thing about Local Business is that while I like it a lot, only three songs — “In a Big City,” “In a Small Body,” and “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape…” — rank among the band’s best work.  “The Electric Man” is a great novelty song.  And the rest is pretty good, but not great.  “Ecce Homo” and “Still Life with Hot Deuce on Silver Platter” are fun despite (or maybe because of) their lyrical complexities, but stray a little too close to pop-punk for my taste.  And for all the attention it’s received, “My Eating Disorder” just doesn’t have the staying power of the epics on Titus’ previous albums, in my opinion (I usually skip it).  But just because this isn’t a Great Record doesn’t mean it’s not worth buying; it’s been in heavy rotation in my car over the past couple months for sure.

Sample track:  “Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape with the Flood of Detritus”

16)  Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse

Slaughterhouse was the second of this year’s three Ty Segall albums and the inaugural release from the official Ty Segall Band.  It’s the heaviest, loudest, and most abrasive of the three, and while it’s lots of fun to listen to and likely has more staying power than Hair, it’s a bit spottier than Twins.  Its best songs, including but not limited to “I Bought My Eyes,” “Wave Goodbye,” and “Tell Me What’s Inside Your Heart,” stand as some of Segall’s best music, but a few other songs fall short of the same quality.  And the ten-minute noise experiment tacked on the end, “Fuzz War,” is as obnoxious and dumb an addition as “Spread Eagle Beagle” at the end of the Melvins’ Houdini — or, to pick a less obscure example for comparison, “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me” at the end of Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy.  But like Vitalogy, this is still a very good album overall despite its final track.

Sample track:  “Tell Me What’s Inside Your Heart”

17)  Mind Spiders Meltdown

Mind Spiders are a six-piece garage-punk band from Texas, and their second album, Meltdown, is an unsung highlight of 2012 rock.  They play fun little songs that rock hard and sound pretty much as great on record as they would live.  It’s uncomplicated but but exceptional at the same time, because Mind Spiders mastermind Mark Ryan has a talent for writing uncommonly catchy melodies that sets his band apart from many of their peers.  And so Meltdown succeeds because it sticks to its successful formula:  four-on-the-floor punky power-pop played with distorted guitars, keyboards that progress over the course of the album from ’60s-style organ to modern synthesizers, the power of two drummers playing in tandem, and weird double-tracked vocals that often seem to be talking about spiders.

Sample track:  “Fall in Line”

18) Royal Headache – Royal Headache

I’m really excited about the promise exhibited by this Australian band on their self-titled debut album.  Their sound is a unique one, though it’s hard to believe no one’s ever tried it before since it’s such a cool idea.  Basically, they play songs that typically sound like classic ’70s punk, except the vocals are straight out of ’60s soul.  Yes, it’s soul-punk, a combination of genres which seems calculated to appeal precisely to me; and the lead singer, who goes by the amusing nickname “Shogun,” truly has a wonderfully soulful voice.  The album is less than a half-hour long, and there are a number of weaker tracks that prevent me from designating this as a great album.  But on their best songs, Royal Headache sounds awesome.  I’m really looking forward to their next release, because I think these guys will make at least one great album in their career.

Sample track:  “Never Again”

19) Jack White – Blunderbuss

I slept on Blunderbuss, Jack White’s first solo album, until months after its release, partly because I didn’t think too highly of singles “Sixteen Saltines” and “Freedom at 21.”  When the White Stripes broke up, we joked that thereafter we could only hear Jack White play with better drumming; and while Meg White’s drumming is not missed, the two aforementioned songs for a long time struck me as middling White Stripes leftovers.  Needless to say, I’m glad I eventually gave the whole album a chance, because most of it doesn’t sound like those two songs at all (and both of those have grown on me, anyway).  This album is even more instrumentally diverse than Get Behind Me Satan.  There’s a whole lot of piano on this record, and occasionally there are strings and clarinets.  The title track is a country song (and a better one than “Little Ghost,” too).  The playing on “Hypocritical Kiss” is wonderful.  And “Weep Themselves to Sleep” is a tour de force.  Not everything here works, and a couple of clunkers towards the end make the album drag a bit.  But just as with a Raconteurs album (and probably to a greater extent in this case), it’s cool to hear White making music with a broader palette of sounds than the guitar-and-drums basics of the White Stripes’ discography.  The more I listen to this album, the more I dig it.

Sample track:  “Weep Themselves to Sleep”

20) Alabama Shakes – Boys and Girls

Blues-rock has long been a genre defined by white rockers honoring, taking, and building upon the music of black bluesmen.  It’s ironic, then, that the Alabama Shakes stick out as an atypical blues-rock band because their singer is black — and a black woman, no less.  Brittany Howard’s soulful vocal performance often evokes Al Green, while the rest of the band (who seem to have some pretty great chops) often evoke rootsy groups like Creedence.  In a year during which the outlook for mainstream rock looked dismayingly bleak, the debut Alabama Shakes album was one of the few bright spots.  Its timeless music can appeal to both me and my dad, both to the general public and to record collectors, both to Grammy voters and to Jack White (for whom the Shakes opened this year).  And that’s pretty cool.

Sample track:  “Hang Loose”

21)  The Soft Pack – Strapped

For Strapped, their second album, this San Diego garage-rock band filled out their sound with keyboards, saxophones, and horns; the move paid big dividends.  In love with the sound, I put this album in pretty heavy rotation in my car once it was released this fall.  The first 7 of its 12 tracks are all top-notch material, as the Soft Pack show their talent for writing terrific fast songs on “Saratoga,” “Second Look,” “They Say” (my personal favorite), “Chinatown,” and “Ray’s Mistake” while also mixing it up a little with the midtempo “Tallboy” and “Bobby Brown.”  (In “Bobby Brown,” which I featured as a Song of the Week in October, the band does a great job of using keys to approximate the sound of ’80s groups like the Time and throws in a killer sax solo for good measure; and the organ and sax transform “Tallboy,” a mildly clever sad song, into something beautiful.)  The eighth track, a funky instrumental called “Oxford Ave,” is cool, but I don’t find myself returning to it as much.  And the last four tracks are mostly pretty unmemorable, unfortunately.  Strapped is a good album, but a front-loaded one.

Sample track:  “Tallboy”

22)  Ty Segall & White Fence – Hair

The first of the three Ty Segall albums released this year was Hair, a collaboration with a guy named Tim Presley who performs under the pseudonym “White Fence.”  It makes for a very interesting 30 minutes of music, full of fun slices of psychedelia veering back and forth between loud and soft, wild and sweet.  Presley plays lead guitar and bass, while Segall drums and plays rhythm guitar.  There’s some great music here, but in my opinion the punk freakout that is Slaughterhouse and the master stroke that is Twins overshadow Hair just a tad and are the more vital two additions to Segall’s discography of the astonishing three superb ones made in 2012.

Sample track:  “Tongues”

23)  Soundgarden King Animal

In November, the world finally got to hear the comeback album by my favorite band of the ’90s (which during high school was my favorite band, period), a couple of years after they reunited to tour and record together for the first time in about 15 years.  If I were to rank the Soundgarden canon, I probably would put this one above Screaming Life/Fopp, Ultramega OK, and Loud Love, but below Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, and Down on the Upside (although it’s hard to choose between them!).  If I were ranking comeback albums by ’90s grunge/alt-rock bands, this is easily the best — it’s no contest.  Unlike Alice in Chains, Jane’s Addiction, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Stone Temple Pilots, to name a few, Soundgarden has succeeded in creating an album that is worthy of being included in your collection alongside the CDs from their original run.  They do this by writing songs that actually sound like Soundgarden songs, and not mediocre imitations or leftovers from Audioslave etc.  Overall, I think the album sounds pretty natural as a follow-up to “Down on the Upside,” moving back from that album’s cleaner sound a bit and moving back towards Soundgarden’s specific brand of grunge-metal established on earlier albums like Superunknown.  Kim Thayil’s distinctive guitar work, Middle Eastern inflections and all, still sounds good.  Matt Cameron’s drumming has been kept sharp by his years in Pearl Jam.  All four members of the band contribute to the songwriting, and there are weird time signature shifts aplenty.  Anyway, here are some highlights:  “Bones of Birds” sounds like “Blow Up the Outside World” crossed with the AiC song “Dirt.”  Album-closer “Rowing” is pretty unlike anything else in their catalog, with the Negro-spiritual-meets-drumbeat-from-“When the Levee Breaks” intro; it kind of reminds me of how the Screaming Trees closed their final album with a version of “Gospel Plow.”  And for my money the best four tracks on the album are all in a row:  “Non-State Actor,” “By Crooked Steps,” “A Thousand Days Before,” and “Blood on the Valley Floor.”  The album’s drawbacks are that Chris Cornell’s voice, while still excellent, isn’t quite what it used to be, and that something about the production doesn’t sound quite right.  But still, it really cannot be said enough how cool it is to have new Soundgarden songs to sort through.

Sample track:  “By Crooked Steps”

24)  Cloud Nothings Attack on Memory

I wavered back and forth on whether to include this angsty album in these year-reviewing highlights.  Attack on Memory received pretty much universal acclaim from music critics, who like to hold it up alongside the Japandroids’ record as evidence that 2012 did indeed produce some great guitar rock.  However, where on Celebration Rock I think highly of 8 out of 8 tracks, on Attack on Memory I only really like 3 out of 8.  So why, then, is this album in my top 25?  Well, I really, really like those three tracks:  the slow-building “No Future/No Past,” punk epic “Wasted Days,” and instrumental “Separation.”  Together, they would make a knockout EP.  The rest of the album sounds more like mid-’90s emo-leaning pop-punk (think Sunny Day Real Estate, not Fall Out Boy or whatever has received the “emo” tag more recently), and that’s basically not my cup of tea (although I can maybe see a song like “Stay Useless” becoming a guilty pleasure).  Nevertheless, I’m recommending you check out at least the three tracks I listed above, and especially “Wasted Days,” which despite its ’90s influences strikes me as a very 2012 kind of song.  If the Cloud Nothings write more songs like these three for their next album, I’ll likely have a higher opinion of it.

Sample track:  “Wasted Days”

25)  The Vaccines – The Vaccines Come of Age

This album is pretty much standard-issue 21st century British guitar pop-rock, and that’s okay in my book.  The album is a fun listen, although it has a couple of tracks I skip every time (chiefly “Ghost Town”).  I really like the uptempo slacker-anthem singles, “No Hope” and “Teenage Icon,” as well as the sort of “Telstar”-evoking love song “I Always Knew” and Britpop-done-right “Aftershave Ocean.”  The lead guitarist gets points, too, for the Duane Eddy-esque descending guitar lines in “Weirdo” and the slide guitar in my favorite track, “All in Vain.”  Unfortunately, not all of the songs are as good, and the album as a whole is weaker and less memorable than their first.  It’s still worth adding to your collection, though.

Sample track:  “No Hope”

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