Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Favorite Albums of 2012

Featuring: Gossip * Garbage * Keane * The Killers * Alanis Morissette *
Rebecca Ferguson * Paloma Faith * The Wallflowers * Matchbox Twenty *
Pet Shop Boys * Emeli Sandé * Mumford & Sons 
12 – The Killers / Battle Born

After a brief pit stop in solo-ville, Brandon Flowers reunited with his fellow bandmates for a fourth studio album. The Killers stick to the formula that’s worked best for them in the past: bombastic retro stadium rock with catchy, sing-along choruses balanced by lyrics that often elicit a sentimental ache. BATTLE BORN easily retains the band’s quintessential sound of previous efforts. Standouts: Opener “Flesh & Bone” and the closing title track.
11 – The Wallflowers / Glad All Over

The Wallflowers were another reunited band that re-emerged in 2012 after an extended hiatus. Jakob Dylan and company used their time away wisely, with GLAD ALL OVER offering a livelier, celebratory vibe that doesn’t detract from the band’s unabashedly rock & roll classicist roots. While the hooks are sturdy and the musical base solid and unpretentious, it’s Dylan’s meditative – sometimes solipsistic – lyrics and husky voice that anchor the effort. Standouts: The rollicking funk of "Reboot the Mission", the political leanings of "Love Is a Country", and "The Devil's Waltz".
10 – Pet Shop Boys / Elysium
It’s hard to believe that the duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have been making music as Pet Shop Boys for over three decades now (Read: Christ, how old am I?). ELYSIUM – the duo’s eleventh studio album – is a collection of primarily mid-tempo tunes that range from elegant dance-pop to sentimental ballads. Thankfully, the trademark PSB 80’s industrial sound is intact, even if its sharper edges have been softened in spots in favor of some wistful, orchestral moments. Standouts: The gorgeously melancholic “Leaving”, the thumping disco-pop monster “A Face Like That”, and the elegiac ‘ode to Regan-era excess “Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin".
9 – Emeli Sandé / Our Version of Events
Try this recipe: Take one cup Alicia Keys, one cup Beyonce, and two heaping tablespoons of Mariah Carey and blend together with generous helpings of mainstream pop, alternative-folk, and old-school R&B. Divide into fourteen equal tracks and let simmer in your eardrums for roughly 49 minutes. OUR VERSION OF EVENTS is an earnest, fully-realized debut album marked by a diverse musical styling yet held together by a cohesive thematic unity. It’s an impressive introduction to the arresting talent of Scottish songbird Emeli Sandé and whets the appetite for her sophomore effort. Standouts: "Heaven", the tribal rhythms of "Wonder", "Clown", and "Next To Me".
8 – Mumford & Sons / Babel
The UK’s nu-folk movement showed no signs of abatement in 2012, and its poster boys – London’s Mumford & Sons – easily avoided the dreaded sophomore slump with BABEL, their stellar follow-up to 2009’s acclaimed debut, SIGH NO MORE. Seamlessly fusing folk, bluegrass, and alternative rock into a rollicking, rootsy musical hybrid, the band wisely opts for a “more of the same” philosophy on their second album. All the usual instrumental suspects – banjo, mandolin, upright piano – are ever-present in the arrangements while the quartet of Marcus Mumford, "Country" Winston Marshall, Ben Lovett, and Ted Dwane join voices to provide the thickly-accented vocals chorus. Standouts: The rousing title track, the plaintive "Ghosts That We Knew", and Paul Simon cover "The Boxer".
7 – Matchbox Twenty / North
If there’s a prevalent theme to be found in last year’s musical landscape, it’s that much of the year played out like lost episodes of the now-defunct VH-1 show BANDS REUNITED. Case in point: Matchbox Twenty’s return with NORTH. Following a three-year hiatus that saw band frontman Rob Thomas step out with his own successful second solo album and tour, the Matchbox boys returned in fine form with this fourth studio that reinforces that no one writes smarter, purer pop songs than Thomas. The tracks here harken back to the band’s heyday, with slick muscular, radio-friendly melodies galore. Standouts: “Put Your Hands Up” and “English Town”.
6 – Alanis Morissette / havoc and bright lights
Canada’s First Lady of Anger and Angst, Alanis Morissette, made a welcome return to the music scene in 2012 with her eighth studio album, HAVOC AND BRIGHT LIGHTS; her first since 2008’s underappreciated FLAVORS OF ENTANGLEMENT. Time has been kind to Morissette who – arguably – offers up her finest collection of songs here since 1995’s juggernaut, JAGGED LITTLE PILL. Happily, Morissette hasn’t lost her angry edge but simply refined it into an even more effective musical weapon. If JAGGED LITTLE PILL was a rusty box cutter, HAVOC AND BRIGHT LIGHTS is a stainless steel razor. The blade of her words remains sharp and precise, her delivery more mature and controlled, the anger now bubbling underneath instead of unleashing in every chorus. The result: One of the most pop-accessible albums of her career. Standouts: “Edge of Evolution”, “Celebrity”, “Empathy”, and “Woman Down”.
5 – Rebecca Ferguson / Heaven

Channeling a young Aretha Franklin and Macy Gray, this enchanting soul chanteuse’s remarkable debut album magnificently melds contemporary R&B with 60s soul and Motown. With a husky voice and impressive range, Ferguson is easily the best female vocalist to swim across the pond since Adele. Who says good things don't come out of reality competition shows? Standouts: “Run Free”, “Backtrack”, and “Shoulder to Shoulder”.

4 – Garbage / Not Your Kind of People

And, yes, it’s yet another reunited band sliding into fourth place on my annual year-end “Best of…” list. This time it’s Shirley Manson and her fellow Garbage men back for a fifth spin around the turntable with their first studio album since 2005’s BLEED LIKE ME. The Scottish spitfire and her longtime cohort of cross-continental collaborators retain every bit of post-grunge authenticity that established them as one of the great alt-rock acts of the 90s. With the band’s propulsive guitar licks and Manson’s distorted vocals intact, NOT YOUR KIND OF PEOPLE offers up fifteen aggressive, psychedelic, seismic, overproduced tracks that kick, scratch, and claw their way into your consciousness, threatening to blow your eardrums out in the process. Standouts: The gut-crunching chords of “Battle in Me”, the dark sincerity of “I Hate Love”, and the seductive breathiness of “Sugar”.

3 – Paloma Faith / Fall to Grace

It was inevitable that there would be a likely successor to the late Amy Winehouse, and she arrived last year on U.S. shores in the form of Paloma Faith. Possessing all of the ballsy, bluesy, retro-cool swagger of Winehouse, Faith easily slides into the musical berth prematurely vacated by her fellow countrywoman. FALL TO GRACE is the London-born songbird’s thoroughly satisfying stateside debut that is at once evocative of Winehouse’s best work and yet thoroughly original. Produced by UK soul vet Nellee Hooper (of Soul II Soul fame), FALL TO GRACE allows Faith to fully flex her unique and distinctive voice that, at times, ranges from a luxuriantly soulful croon to a full-blown dramatic wail that could rival Florence + The Machine frontwoman Florence Welch. Standouts: The disco-inflected “Blood Sweat & Tears”, the painfully-controlled emotion of “Just Be”, the uplifting “Freedom”, and her faithful INXS cover “Never Tear Us Apart”.

2 – Keane / Strangeland

The brilliance of Keane’s sublime STRANGELAND is in the complexity of its utter pop simplicity. (Chew on it a bit…it’ll make sense.) The UK quartet’s fourth studio album is awash in gorgeous melodies (of both the uplifting and melancholy varieties), theatrically arching bridges, contemplative lyrics, and lead singer Tom Chaplin’s earnest, emotive vocals.  Each song is a progression of both melody and message – some swell to anthemic proportion while others carry the listener away into poignant sentimentalism. And while naysayers complained that the band doesn’t break any new ground here with these sixteen slices of adult alt-rock for the soul, this listener would argue that the accomplishment is found in the perfection of their particular brand of polished piano balladry and the cohesiveness of the set as a satisfying whole. Standouts: "Sovereign Light Café", “Disconnected”, “Run with Me”, and “Sea Fog”.

1 – Gossip / A Joyful Noise

Not to be confused with last year’s Dolly Parton-Queen Latifah flick of the same name, veteran idie dance-punk outfit Gossip’s fifth studio set lived up to its name in every joyful way. The Beth Ditto-led trio broke new ground with confidence here, wisely pairing with veteran UK producer Brian Higgins who has worked with both veteran dance acts (Kylie Minogue, Pet Shop Boys, Bananarama) as well as current chart-toppers (Girls Aloud, The Wanted, The Saturdays). The result is Gossip’s most accomplished album to date, a collection of impeccable dance-punk that allows the band to remain true to its headier punk-rock roots. As always, it’s Ditto’s distinctive vocals that shine through on each beat-laden track. Standouts: The inspirational “Move in the Right Direction”, “Perfect World”, and slow-burner “I Won’t Play”.

What were your favorite albums of 2012? And don't forget to find out which songs made my annual list of favorite singles.

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