Friday, December 14, 2012

A Year in Review: The Best Music of 2012

A year ago this week, I watched my first set of dreams fade away before my eyes. I was a vocal performance major, working towards a degree (and hopefully a career) in the musical arts, and spending hours a week in practice rooms or rehearsal spaces, trying to make those options more viable. For my final exam, I entered my performance hearing jury--ostensibly the tool the faculty uses to decide whether or not students can remain in their program--and failed. But as I drove home (to the startlingly appropriate strains of M83's "Intro," no less), it didn't feel like an ending. A part of my heart was broken, aching for all the time I had wasted, but another part of me--a bigger part--was massively relieved. I had my whole life laid out before me, and for the first time in a long time, I felt like I could take any road I wanted to.

In a lot of ways, this year was my rebirth. I went back to school and redoubled my efforts, picking up an English major and rapidly wracking up resume builders. Since then, I've written for two global music publications and two online magazines based out of my hometown; I spent the summer interning at a business that was half marketing agency, half newspaper, gaining a ton of valuable skills along the way; I landed a job editing the Arts & Entertainment section of my school newspaper, managing my own small team and keeping my writing up along the way; and just this week, I was just offered yet another writing internship for my final semester. Furthermore, though I sometimes forget it, I am still a full-time student, building towards my double-major graduation this spring (I shifted my music degree to a generic B.A.), and trying to finish an entire English degree in just a year and a half.

For good reason, the soundtrack to all of this has been a strikingly memorable one, and cultivating this list has been an even more joyous (and joyously difficult) experience than is was last year. In many cases, I was surprised at how the order shook out: I was intrigued at what I left off and chose to include, and interested at which specific musical memories swam to the forefront of my mind as I worked through this extensive retrospective. For me, music has always been an emotional ballast, a means to remember and re-live the most important moments of my life. Unsurprisingly, then, serendipity and nostalgia played a big role in which albums won and which albums lost, so to speak. When a record comes along at just the right time, it melds with our memories, our loves, our friendships, and everything between, becoming immortal. In the following list, I discuss a few of those anecdotes, trying to tell my own story through the music that has, over the past 12 months, most clearly defined it. To steal a line from the 2011 version of myself, this list represents the 30 records that I "lived, loved, and listened to the most over the past year." Enjoy.

1. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball

More than ever before, my number one slot this year was a real battle, a struggle that played out between one of my all-time favorite idols and two bands who are eternally indebted to his canonical classics. At the end of the day though, when I look back on 2012 and think of the most definitive musical moments, my first listen to Bruce Springsteen’s seventeenth studio album (and his best in over two decades) is what swims to the forefront of my mind. Somebody once told me that, years down the line, you’ll be able to tell the best albums by how well you remember the day, the hour, the moment that you first heard them, and more than any other record released this year, Wrecking Ball infected me from the moment I pressed play. I remember the Sunday night when it leaked: staying up until 1:30 or 2 in the morning, letting the songs wash over me, discussing them with fellow fans online, and reveling in the fact that Springsteen had, quite likely, just made his best album in ages. I remember the scorching liveliness of “Easy Money,” the Irish rave-up that was “Death to My Hometown,” the mournful guitar solos that cut across desolate ballads like “Jack of All Trades” and “This Depression,” and the redemptive power the echoed through the long-awaited studio version of the title track. Most of all though, I remember sitting entranced as the gospel-infused grandeur of “Land of Hope and Dreams” washed over me. When the ghostly saxophone of the late Clarence Clemons burst through the texture halfway through, my eyes filled with tears. This is how music is supposed to make you feel, and throughout Springsteen’s great American protest album, he achieves that level of emotional transcendence time and time again: it would be a crime for me to call the result anything less than the album of the year. (Album review here, live review here)

Key tracks: “Death to My Hometown,” “Wrecking Ball,” “Land of Hope and Dreams”

2. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten
Handwritten, my most anticipated album of the year from the get-go, finally came into my life at the end of the hottest day of the hottest summer that I can remember. The timing could hardly have been more perfect: on Handwritten, Brian Fallon and company construct a invocation to classic rock ‘n’ roll and to the transformative power of music, a maze of tumultuous guitar tones (“45”), transplanted fifties girl group pop (“Here Comes My Man”), behemoth riffs (“Keepsake”), punk rock shout-alongs (“Howl”), and string-soaked Springsteenian balladry (the wistful “National Anthem”). In between, Fallon consistently positions himself as the throwback romantic, the guy who writes by the light of the moon (the title track) and watches, scorched, as his love vanishes into the mist on “Mulholland Drive” (even as guitarist Alex Rosamilia overwhelms the texture with a dizzying, skyscraping guitar part). Fallon has always been an expert at nostalgic references, spending the vast majority of 2008’s The ’59 Sound weaving the lyrics of his idols into his own work. Here, he stands on his own two feet a bit more, but the result is his most stunning collection of songs to date, a viscerally thrilling record that beats with the wild pulse of rock ‘n’ roll tradition and believes in no limits. From the moment that I heard the sweeping strains of “Mae” slice through the sweltering atmosphere on that first night, I knew that Handwritten was something special; I still do. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “Here Comes My Man,” “Keepsake,” “Mae”

3. The Killers – Battle Born

Perhaps my favorite thing about my top three albums this year is how inexorably linked and interchangeably excellent each of them are: all three explore similar musical territory and parse related thematic lines, but they are also thoroughly cohesive, grand without a lick of pretension, and alive with the nuanced and conflicted personalities of their creators. Furthermore, and perhaps coincidentally, my appreciation for each record springs from the album that comes before it on the list: where my adoration of Gaslight grew directly out of my love for the music of Bruce Springsteen, my realization of Battle Born’s true scope and perfection came immediately after my first experience with the Gaslight Anthem live show. Somewhere between Detroit and Kalamazoo, with the highway laid out ahead and the 1 a.m. darkness swirling around me, the songs on The Killers’ fourth proper full-length (and their first in four years) came alive. I never thought that Brandon Flowers and company would make a better album than 2006’s Sam’s Town, but on that late night drive, I felt my perception of that change before my eyes. Maybe it was the haunting desolation of “Flesh and Bone” that kicked things off, or perhaps the triumphant grandeur of “Runaways” as it flowed into album-highlight “The Way it Was.” I heard echoes of Hot Fuss on “Miss Atomic Bomb,” of ‘80s arena rock on “Here With Me,” and of pure Springsteenian longing on “A Matter of Time.” But no matter the impetus, by the time the album reached its one-two punch finale (the pulsing balladry of “Be Still” and the gloriously climactic title track), I found myself singing and shouting along, reveling in the power of the music, and feeling as infinite as the highway before me. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “The Way it Was,” “Miss Atomic Bomb,” “Battle Born”

4. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

If, during 2012, you had a party and Celebration Rock was not part of the soundtrack, then you did it wrong. As the title suggests, this quick, concise rock ‘n’ roll tour-de-force is a fist-pumping, adrenaline-fueled set of rockers that is almost impossible not to like. The genre is punk, but the scope falls closer to Springsteen’s Born to Run: eight tracks, no excess, no letdowns, just spacious and redemptive classic rock. Too few artists recognize the power of concision anymore. Back in the vinyl days, artists had about 25 minutes to work with per side...less if they wanted their music to play in the highest fidelity. As the CD (and then the digital release) came to prominence, running times expanded, tracklists got more bloated, and “filler material” became a daily piece of the lexicon for die hard music fans, but Celebration Rock takes us back to a time when this wasn’t the case. The album opens and closes with the sounds of fireworks, and between those two crackling bookends, there’s nothing but wall-to-wall guitars, vicious drum-fills, and spontaneous, shout-along melodies. “The Nights of Wine and Roses” roars out of the gate with reckless abandon (“Long lit up tonight and still drinking/Don't we have anything to live for?” singer Brian King asks at the album’s outset), while “Fire’s Highway” builds a carnivalesque atmosphere of boozy nostalgia, and “Evil’s Sway” lifts its chorus hook directly from Tom Petty’s summer-soaked “American Girl.” But it’s the album’s final two tracks that elevate it to classic status: “The House That Heaven Built” is the year’s most skyscraping anthem and “Continuous Thunder,” with its spiraling wall of guitars and King’s passionate delivery, its most emotional. As I drove home from a night out with friends and co-workers on one of the last nights of summer, the latter slashed through my car like the will of God: nothing has ever felt so sublimely climactic.

Key tracks: “Fire’s Highway,” “The House That Heaven Built,” “Continuous Thunder”

5. John Mayer – Born & Raised

Maybe it’s because one of his records (2003’s Heavier Things) was the first album that I ever bought with my own money, but I’ve always had a lot of appreciation for John Mayer that most of my friends and family members don’t seem to share. That respect counts for double on Born & Raised, which ties 2006’s blues-laden Continuum (one of the few records from the last decade that I think is unquestionably headed for classic status) as his most cohesive work yet. The album is also one of his best, turning away (mostly) from the pop and blues sounds that he’s mined on previous albums and moving instead towards sun-soaked California folk. And while that development might sound like a strange one for a guy who started out as a heartthrob teen pop star and became a blues-rock guitar God midway through the 2000s, the aptly titled opener, “Queen of California,” shows just how perfectly the transformation works. The song, complete with a sunny guitar solo, plays like ‘70s AM-radio gold, and sets the tone for the killer collection that follows. The folky aspects of the disk come to the forefront on album highlights like “Shadow Days” (complete with mournful pedal steel accents) and the campfire confessional title track, but Mayer litters the middle ground with splashes of Irish drinking song (“Age of Worry,” “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey”), bluesy throwbacks (“Something Like Olivia,” “Love is a Verb”), and star-crossed arena rock (“A Face to Call Home”). It’s Mayer’s most eclectic and mature work to date, and on my late summer night drives this year, few albums sounded better. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “Born and Raised,” “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967,” “A Face to Call Home”

6. Yellowcard – Southern Air

Of all the albums on this list, none of them are more personal to me than this one, and that fact alone gets Southern Air into the top ten. In my initial review, I called Southern Air a record “about family, about loss, about youth and how it fades away, and about striking out towards a new life-chapter,” and for me, it was the resplendent soundtrack to all of those things. As I near my college graduation, I can slowly feel the vestiges of my past life—of youth and its carelessness and euphoria—slipping away. At the end of this past summer, I had to say a lot of goodbyes. My girlfriend finished her own schooling and moved away to start a job, my parents began considering a cross-country transplantation, and the place where I had worked, waiting tables and putting on musical performances for three straight summers, a place where I had made so many friends and built so many fond memories, closed its doors indefinitely. As I drove away from home, it felt like a final page, like I was embarking towards a new life, and this album was my coda. The words felt like I had written them myself, from the tumultuous first track (“Bottoms up tonight, I drink to you and I/Because in the morning comes the rest of my life”) to the visceral emotion of the last (“The sun lays down inside the ocean, I’m right where I belong/ Feel the air, the salt on my skin, the future's coming on/And after living through these wild years and coming out alive/ I just wanna lay my head here, stop running for a while”). The one I will always come back to, though, is “Always Summer,” the album’s first single. There may have been “better” music this year, but every time I hear the song’s stunning refrain (“I left home but there’s one thing that I still know/It’s always summer in my heart and in my soul”), I know that no song defined me more in 2012. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “Always Summer,” “Here I Am Alive,” “Southern Air”

7. Taylor Swift – Red

Last December, when I ranked
Adele’s 21 as my 15th favorite record of the year, I marveled at the fact that I would have had to go all the way back to 1984 (Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.) to find a favorite album that was also the year’s best seller. 21 changed that, smashing records and becoming one of the most successful albums of the modern era in the process. From the looks of it, Taylor Swift is going to continue to the streak, and why shouldn’t she? Red is a tremendous album, a record that hits equal parts nostalgic heartbreak (song-of-the-year contender “All Too Well”) and pure pop bliss (surefire hit single “22”), and one that never overstays its welcome, even at 16 tracks and well over an hour of runtime. Swift sheds a good deal of her country influence here, opting for U2-style arena rock (“State of Grace”), dubstep-infused breakdowns (“I Knew You Were Trouble”), and euphoric dancefloor pop tunes (“Holy Ground,” “Starlight”). The pop starlet proves herself as an expert genre hopper throughout, but some of the most satisfying moments here are the most no-frills: “Treacherous” and “I Almost Do” are simplistic, rootsy ballads that adapt Taylor’s sonic bread-and-butter to a more mature landscape, while the Butch Walker-produced, Ed Sheeren-assisted duet of “Everything Has Changed” is just one of many late-album triumphs. Perhaps most impressively, album closer “Begin Again” sounds like vintage singer/songwriter fare: Taylor references James Taylor, but the song itself falls closer to the sound of ‘70s songstresses like Carole King and Joni Mitchell. If Red is any indication, Taylor could be the heir apparent to those legends, and few things would be more welcome in today’s pop music. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “All Too Well,” “Starlight,” “Begin Again”

8. The Tower and the Fool – How Long

As a music writer, I don’t find myself picking up that many promos nowadays. I prefer to govern my own listening and reviewing habits based on what attracts me most, and there’s nothing worse than taking a sub-par promo and still being obligated to listen to and review it. Every once in awhile though, a real gem falls into the promo pile and I can’t help but snatch it up. That’s what happened with How Long, an emotionally intense set of break-up songs (think Tunnel of Love or Blood on the Tracks) structured around gorgeous, sweeping Americana a la Counting Crows or Whiskeytown. Fragile beauty abounds throughout, from the escapist anthem “Broken” (We can still make believe/We're anyone we want with whatever we need/Well, tonight, I'll be Johnny/If you like, baby you be June”) to the swelling alt-country of “Valentines Day” ("Cause saying you've got a lot to do or see when you're still young/Means you're not happy where you are or with who you're with”). Clearly, frontman Alex Correia has had his heart broken a time or two, flawlessly conveying the hurt and longing of a relationship that dies too soon throughout each of How Long’s ten tracks. Whether he’s blasting through ringing choruses (the instant-classic opener “Dive Bar,” the B3-drenched “Die Alone”) or baring his soul on raw acoustic numbers (the haunting wistfulness of the title track, the quiet agony of “Who Does She Think She Is?”), it’s the universal human emotion of the proceedings that comes to the forefront. If you’re looking for the year’s saddest record, look no further. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “Broken,” “How Long,” “Valentine’s Day”

9. Matthew Mayfield – A Banquet for Ghosts
I spend a lot of time in the car. Between a long distance relationship, cross-state treks to concerts, and a hometown whose sprawl extends miles and miles, my Honda Civic and I spent many, many hours together during the months of 2012. And when it came to the reflective late night drives, there was no album that I reached for as often as Matthew Mayfield’s A Banquet for Ghosts. The former frontman for alt-rock band Moses Mayfield, Mayfield turns down the amps and slows down the tempos here, largely opting for rootsy, acoustic arrangements (see the slow-burn grandeur of “Ain’t Much More to Say,” which opens the album in perfectly understated fashion). Best of all is “Take What I Can Get,” which builds to a sublimely emotive conclusion, or maybe “Always Be You,” a gorgeously hesitant hymn to lovers reuniting after heartbreak, but you can’t go wrong here. Definitive moments rain down on each track, whether Mayfield is letting loose guttural cries at the end of “I Don’t Know You At All,” employing Coldplay-esque expansiveness on “Carry You,” building a haunting air of finality on the piano-based “Beautiful,” or serenading a loved one with a whispered lullaby on “Safe & Sound.” (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “Ain’t Much More to Say,” “Take What I Can Get,” “Always Be You”

10. Keane – Strangeland

Keane’s Strangeland, a shimmering set of throwback pop tunes, is the most outright nostalgic album of the year. Critics largely panned the album, criticizing the band for pilfering from their influences or for ditching the experimentalism of 2008’s hit-or-miss Perfect Symmetry in favor of more traditional territory, but I would argue that those critics missed the point. Strangeland is an entrancing journey back in time, to limitless days of youth, explosive eras of promise, and long nights where all the answers you needed were only a spin away on the radio dial. On “You Are Young,” singer Tom Chaplin belts out one of the most triumphant choruses of the year, surrounded by echoes of Joshua Tree-era U2; on the bouncy “On the Road,” he’s reminiscing about nights spent driving out into the middle of nowhere “to sing beneath the stars”; and on “Silenced by the Night” and “Sovereign Light Cafe,” you can almost see the widescreen illuminations of summertime carnival rides playing out before you, the yearning nostalgia for a different time and a different place washing through the arrangements like evening tide. Later, Darkness on the Edge of Town-era Springsteen drifts through the canvas on “Neon River,” a small-town operetta about a girl who escapes and a guy who gets left behind, the commandments he scrawled on the bowling alley wall fading and lost to the decay of time. From start to finish, Strangeland is a brilliant piece of work, and while its lyrical splendor, conflicted characters, and classic pop ideals might have gotten lost in translation for listeners eager to write-off Keane’s revealing and candid earnestness, there’s something transcendent and timeless here for those willing to give the record a chance. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “You Are Young,” “Sovereign Light Cafe,” “Neon River”

11. Motion City Soundtrack – Go

Motion City Soundtrack, a band I've always liked but never quite loved, made the best album of their career five years ago by going all-in on their prevalent pop-music sensibilities. The result, 2007's Even if it Kills Me was an insanely hooky and obsessively glossy album that, despite its catchiness, spent most of its runtime diving into personal themes, from break up to addiction. Go is along the same lines, structuring its themes of death and the brevity of everything around some of the strongest hooks the band has ever written, from a rousing celebration of entropy ("Circuits and Wires") to a dysfunctional love song ("True Romance"), from a nostalgic look back ("Timelines") to a swelling symphony of a pop song ("Everyone Will Die"). But where Go's first half is largely grounded in stellar melodic lines and wistful lyricisms, the second side goes directly for the jugular. See "The Worst is Yet to Come," a crashing rocker with darkness lurking just out of sight, or "Happy Anniversary," a harrowing farewell from a narrator who feels their body giving up on them.Very few bands are able to pull off this kind of delicate balance act, between the glowing and the gloom, between heartbreak and euphoria, between pop sheen and rock edge, but that dichotomy has long been the band's secret weapon. And when album closer "Floating Down the River" blasts off, with the same kind of vowed optimism that made "Even if it Kills Me" such a great song, that dichotomy, that balance of light and dark, has made Go one of the most emotional and triumphant listens of the year. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: "True Romance," "Timelines," "Everyone Will Die"

12. fun. – Some Nights

Back in 2009, when fun. dropped their fantastic debut album (Aim & Ignite, which still holds their best song in “The Gambler”), I would never have predicted the popularity explosion that they would go through in 2012. I remember playing that record in the late summer nights that preceded my first year of college, hearing those songs, feeling like I was in on some great secret that only a small internet community really understood. Fast forward to now, and these guys are, arguably, the biggest breakout band of the year, with two chart-topping and ubiquitous hit singles that everyone and their mother seem to love (“Some Nights” and “We Are Young,” both as good now as they were the first time I heard them) and Grammy Nominations for Record, Song, and Album of the Year. And leaving aside the constant radio play and plentiful late night TV show appearances, Some Nights is, at its core, just one hell of a pop album. It’s also an exceedingly eclectic one, moving from the Queen-esque theatricality of its intro track, to the uplifting acoustic anthem that is “Carry On,” all the way to “Stars,” the euphoric, Kanye West-inspired, auto-tune drenched finale. Watching these guys conquer the radio waves this year has been one of my proudest, most satisfying moments as a music fan, and it goes without saying that, come February, I’ll be rooting for them to pick up each and every Grammy Award for which they are nominated. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “Some Nights,” “Stars,” “Out on the Town”

13. Glen Hansard – Rhythm & Repose

Opening an album with a haunting, slow-burning ballad would be a risk for any songwriter. Thankfully, there are only a few people in the music industry today who can pull off the balance between emotional bombast and whispered fragility the way Glen Hansard can, and the introduction to his first full-length solo record (the aforementioned “You Will Become”) is one of the most magnetic musical moments of the year. The record that follows it is no less spectacular, flitting from the atmospheric longing of “Maybe Not Tonight” (complete with a George Harrison-esque slide guitar) to the chillingly emotive, vocally strained conclusion of album highlight “High Hope,” and encompassing a relationship’s bitter end (supposedly, the one Hansard shared with Once co-star—and Swell Season counterpart—Marketa Irglova) in just 43 minutes and 11 songs. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “Maybe Not Tonight,” “High Hope,” “Bird of Sorrow”

14. The Wallflowers – Glad All Over

After a seven year hiatus, The Wallflowers finally made their return to the business, hunkering down in “an old-school studio designed for live recording” and, in the words of producer Jay Joyce, making “a record the way people used to make records.” The result is a back to basics, no frills rock ‘n’ roll LP, a set of rough and real songs that range from Clash-style throwbacks (the funky “Reboot the Mission,” the loose and electric “Misfits and Lovers,” featuring former-Clash guitarist Mick Jones) to stomping Springsteenian bar-band jams (“It Won’t Be Long (Till We’re Not Wrong Anymore),” “Have Mercy on Him Now”). Sure, the album’s finest moments are the ones that see the band returning to the roots rock/alt-country territory that made them famous back in the day (the visceral and full-bodied “Love is a Country,” the classic and catchy “First One in the Car,” the lyrical, steel-guitar-laden “Constellation Blues”), but Glad All Over is an album that unfolds more and more with each listen. Everything here, from Jakob Dylan’s genetic knack for wordplay (he is, after all, the son of Bob Dylan), to Rami Jaffee’s ringing B3 organ, all the way to the roaring guitar interplay of Jones, Wallflowers guitarist Steve Mathis, and Jay Joyce, plays like an affectionate reminder of a simpler time. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “Misfits and Lovers,” “First One in the Car,” “Love is a Country”

15. Counting Crows – Underwater Sunshine

2012 was the return of the 90s, with long-awaited albums from the likes of Matchbox Twenty and The Wallflowers (both on this list), as well as new, “return-to-form” releases from Green Day, No Doubt, Soundgarden, Ben Folds Five, and The Smashing Pumpkins (all not on this list). In the midst of this nostalgic explosion, Counting Crows quietly released a cover album and their first record in four years. Some fans denounced the album, calling frontman Adam Duritz "too lazy"  or "too afraid" to write new songs;  others praised it, calling the finished product their second or third favorite record in the Counting Crows discography. In my eyes, it’s hard to fault Underwater Sunshine, which sees one of America’s greatest roots-rock bands mining the catalogs of 15 favorite artists and doing so with more cohesion than a cover album has any right to have. The band has rarely sounded so gleefully freewheeling, and the eclectic range of song choices here, from the classic (Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere”) to the contemporary (the entrancing “Like Teenage Gravity”), the acoustic (the lovely piano-accented “Start Again”) to the electric (the ringing build of “Untitled (Love Song)”), the claustrophobic (“Hospital”) to the wide-open (“Four White Stallions”) allow the band to cover more musical and emotional territory than they have in quite some time. Underwater Sunshine may be a set of remakes, but Adam Duritz and his band of seasoned veterans make these songs their own in such a way that it becomes, first and foremost, a terrific Counting Crows album. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “Untitled (Love Song),” “Start Again,” “Like Teenage Gravity”

16. Michael McDermott – Hit Me Back

Michael McDermott may have missed the boat on widespread success, but as long as he’s making albums as good as this one, he’s got my attention. Heralded once as the heir apparent to the likes of Springsteen and Dylan, McDermott fell victim to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle early on, tumbling off the mainstream map before he could make his mark. Since recovering from addiction, McDermott has turned to his music to lay his demons on the line, filling his albums with haunting paeans of regret and stirring anthems of resurrection. “Scars From Another Life,” the arena-scraping centerpiece cut from Hit Me Back fits both categories, building from a gorgeously repetitious piano arpeggiation into an uplifting affirmation of life and everything in it. “Ever After,” McDermott’s elegy for his late mother, is the album’s most bruising cut, while the hymn-like “Where the River Meets the Sea” served as her angelic funeral song. “Dreams About Trains” is appropriately atmospheric and disorienting, floating between nightmare and nostalgia, confusion and reverence without missing a step, while the splendid “The Silent Will Soon Be Singing” puts McDermott’s lyrics at the focal point of a striking acoustic arrangement. In my initial review of this record, I marveled at McDermott’s ability to tear down the walls between himself and his listeners: truth is, in today’s music business, almost no one cultivates that confessional atmosphere more fully than he does here. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: "Ever After," "Scars From Another Life," "The Silent Will Soon Be Singing"

17. Will Hoge – Modern American Protest Music
Looking back at the list I made last year, my biggest regret is not putting Will Hoge’s fantastic Number Seven in my top ten. And while Modern American Protest Music is not quite up to the level Hoge has reached on his full-lengths (the record is a seven-song, 28-minute EP), he still makes an argument for himself as one of my favorite songwriters out there. Where his full albums generally reflect personal concerns, from autobiographical narratives to break-up songs to nostalgic slices of Americana, his EPs (this one and 2004’s America EP) are his “issue” albums. Last time around, Hoge was speaking up as his nation barreled into another four years of Bush, lamenting sweeping political corruption and lambasting the losses and costs of pointless war; eight years later, it’s remarkable how little has changed. This time, Hoge enters the scene as America barrels into another four years of Obama, still mired in war (the mournful “Folded Flag,” the thinly-veiled fury of “When Do I Get to Come Home?”), vicious prejudice (“The Ballad of Trayvon Martin,” arguably the most potent rock song Hoge has ever recorded), and the self-righteous inhumanity of the anti-gay rights crowd (“I Don’t Believe”). The highlight is “Jesus Came to Tennessee,” a funny and insightful bluegrass stomp that sees the son of God paying Hoge a personal visit, but “Founding Fathers” gets the best line: “Democrats, Republicans, who’s to blame? It’s hard to tell,” Hoge sings during the searing opener. “Sometimes I think we’d be better off if they all just went to hell.” Preach it brother. (Live review here)

Key tracks: "Founding Fathers," "Jesus Came to Tennessee," "The Ballad of Trayvon Martin"

18. Rayland Baxter – Feathers & Fishhooks

It was a good year for Nashville, which saw their favorite daughter (Taylor Swift, the most successful country musician of all time) strike gold with her biggest and most critically acclaimed album yet, and launched The Civil Wars to unexpected stardom (the duo scored Grammy attention for 2011’s Barton Hallow). Only fitting then, that Rayland Baxter, a former Civil Wars opener, released one of the best folk albums of the year. Right from the humming opening track ("The Mtn Song"), Feathers & Fishhooks is an organic and resplendent debut, a conglomeration of cascading steel guitars, twangy banjos, softly-strummed acoustic, and booming bass. Within that pleasurable mix, we get introspective, road-trip-ready finger-pickers ("Dreamin'"), vaudeville-injected narratives ("Willy's Song"), yearning lullabies ("Hoot Owl"), and flowing Americana ("Good Friend"). And then there's "The Woman for Me," a love song so perfect and pure that it's almost hard to believe the guy who wrote it is only a twentysomething.

Key tracks: "The Woman for Me," "Dreamin'," "Hoot Owl"

19. Kathleen Edwards – Voyaguer
Perhaps it’s the painting of my home state on the cover, or maybe the presence of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon behind the boards, but right from my first listen to Voyaguer, the record felt friendly and familiar. Credit Kathleen Edwards' voice, a gorgeously lilting instrument with a strong emotional quotient, or Vernon's full-bodied and atmospheric production, which surrounds that voice with a lush array of strings, pianos, and acoustic guitars. Opener "Empty Threat" drives like Fleet Foxes, while a spread of haunting ballads ("A Soft Place to Land," "House Full of Empty Rooms," "Pink Champagne) offer plentiful evidence for Edwards' knack of conveying a sense of loss, loneliness, and fragility. Album highlight "Change the Sheets" trades that croon for a passionate belt, building everything around an Appalachian backing vocal melody, while closer "For the Record" is almost as good, bringing the album to its finale with a chiming electric guitar that makes the song sound like a piece of classic vinyl. For those who have missed out on the work of this Canadian singer/songwriter up to now, there's no better place to start.

Key tracks: "Change the Sheets," "House Full of Empty Rooms," "For the Record"

20. Robert Francis – Strangers in the First Place

The talents of singer/songwriter/guitarist Robert Francis effortlessly harken back to a simpler age, to the kind of folk-driven pop music that was thriving on the radio back in the 1960s, and throughout the lush and lyrical Strangers in a First Place, those talents are on full display. The gorgeous, lilting string arrangement on “The Closest Exit” carries Francis’s crisp and wistful imagery along with buoyant charm—all before a classic-rock-flavored guitar solo cuts across the texture. Francis, a virtuoso guitarist and disciple of former Red Hot Chili Peppers legend John Frusciante, could easily hide behind his skills on the instrument here, but what he does instead is almost inarguably more interesting. Indeed, Strangers is one of the most eclectic singer/songwriter records in recent memory, drifting from hook-heavy foot-tappers (“Eighteen”) to centerpiece hymns (“Star Crossed Memories”), to chilled-out California indie-pop (“Wild Thing”). Elsewhere, pieces of classic singer songwriter formulas crop up: “Perfectly Yours” is dominated by a yearning saxophone line (think Clarence Clemons on Springsteen’s “Secret Garden”), while the screeching harmonica in “Alibi” sounds like it was lifted directly from the Bob Dylan playbook. Best of all is “Dangerous Neighborhood,” the kind of cinematic finale that can only be fully appreciated by closing your eyes and letting the subtly layered arrangement wash over you.

Key tracks: "Eighteen," "Star Crossed Memories," "Dangerous Neighborhood"

21. Matchbox Twenty – North
I first heard North, Matchbox Twenty's first full-length album in a decade, on the last day in my hometown this past summer. Naturally, I was feeling in a state of transition, and when the elegant bombast of opening cut "Parade" came cascading out of my speakers, the music felt like an old friend and a welcome comfort. "When the slow parade went past/And it felt so good you knew it couldn't last/And all too soon the end was gonna come without a warning/And you'd have to just go home," frontman Rob Thomas sings at the outset, a nostalgic guitar burning behind him. The song sets the tone for North, which swings back and forth between fun, upbeat pop-rock ("She's So Mean," "How Long," "Radio") and the band's patent lovelorn balladry (the lovely "Overjoyed," which makes it seem as if the band has only been gone a day). Thomas lays down one of his best vocal performances to date (along with some of his best lyrics) on "Sleeping at the Wheel," a sweepingly melodic finale to the most eclectic album of the band's career. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: "Parade," "Overjoyed," "Sleeping at the Wheel"

22. Bob Dylan – Tempest

No one was surprised when Rolling Stone Magazine gave Tempest, Bob Dylan's blood-soaked 35th studio album, a glowing five star review. What was more surprising, once I actually got my hands on it, was how accessible and easy to like it really was. Dylan's post-millennial albums, aside from 2001's Love and Theft, have largely been derivative blues efforts, and while there's never been anything wrong with Dylan pursuing that kind of sound, I must admit that I haven't been exceedingly taken with most of it. Tempest has moments of blues rock, but is largely grounded in Dylan's folksy roots. The most obvious example is the title track, an epic, twisting narrative that charts the sinking of the Titanic in classic Dylan tradition (think "Desolation Row"). But moments like the elegiac "Long and Wasted Years," the classicist romance of "Soon After Midnight," and the Lennon eulogy of album closer "Roll On John," quite simply feel like they've come from a much younger version of their creator. For a guy who turned 71 this year (and who celebrated the 50th anniversary of his first release), Tempest is a shockingly vital and relevant musical statement. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks:
"Duquesne Whistle," "Long and Wasted Years," "Tempest"

23. Tyler Hilton – Forget the Storm

Back in 2004 or 2005, Tyler Hilton was one of the most promising young singer-songwriters around, a guy who seemed like he was on the cusp of fame. (Though it was difficult to envision whether he would go teen pop, rock 'n' roll, or country—all of which were viable options.) Just 21 years old at the time, the kid had landed a recurring role on a popular teen soap opera (One Tree Hill), achieved minor success with a pair of singles from his sophomore LP ("Glad" and "When it Comes"), and offered a brief but charismatic cameo as Elvis in the Oscar-nominated, Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. But record label disputes and a shift in leadership and direction (all at Warner Bros.) left his third album, Storms We Share, tied up on the shelf. Most of those songs saw the light of day on a pair of EPs in 2009 and 2010, but it wasn't until this past spring that Hilton finally delivered that long-awaited third album. The result, Forget the Storm, doesn't just choose one of Hilton's potential musical directions, though; it chooses all of them. We get scorching southern rock ("Ain't No Fooling Me"), should-have-been mainstream country hits ("Leave Him"), all-out pop ("Prince of Nothing Charming"), twangy folk ("You'll Ask For Me"), and some fantastic mix of them all ("I Belong"). But where most of Forget the Storm really could have brought Hilton into the mainstream fold, some of the best moments are the ones where he shows more edge: see the harmonic opener, "Kicking My Heels," or the sassy and sexy blues rock of "Loaded Gun"—then drop this guy back on your "artists to watch" list. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: "Kicking My Heels," "Loaded Gun," "I Belong"

24. Lovedrug – Wild Blood

Maybe it's the ringing, effects-laden guitar sound that permeates every song on this record, but Wild Blood caught me more completely off guard than almost any other album I heard this year. The best moments here are the ones that take full command of that anthemic, nostalgic sensibility, using it to create expansive, bleeding arrangements (look to "Great Divide" for a masterclass of musical atmosphere, or "We Were Owls," whose chiming and minimalistic guitar line is nothing short of entrancing). Elsewhere, the band drops the tempo and strips things down with "Girl," a sobering hymn to undying devotion. But for the most part, Wild Blood is a towering road trip record just begging to be played at maximum volume. Album cornerstones like the title track, "Pink Champagne," and "Your Country" burn with raucous intensity and classic rock 'n' roll spirit, while the towering grand finale that is "Anodyne," with a skyscraping bridge and a transcendent vocal delivery from frontman Michael Shepherd, puts most of this year's music to shame. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: "Girl," "The Great Divide," "Anodyne"

25. Go Radio – Close the Distance

Detractors will call Go Radio's sophomore full-length top heavy, repetitive, histrionic, or derivative, but this past fall, I formed an emotional connection with these songs that rendered each of those points moot. Sure, the album throws three of its best songs out as an opening, but what an opening that is. The propulsive "I Won't Lie" feels like a bonafide anthem, while "Baltimore" is a searing leaving song whose tearful bridge perfectly captures a last night in town--a last night with the person you love--even as a grand departure looms. "Collide" is the companion piece, a flawless shard of pop-rock meant to soundtrack that kind of departure: bittersweet, regretful, but also full of optimistic hope for the future. "Go to Hell," with its staccato piano chords and gleeful bombast, is a pure pop music kiss-off, while highlights like the title track and "Things I Don't See" build a sense of sun-soaked longing around the album's long-distance relationship themes. And while the album loses a bit of its tumultuous urgency as it barrels towards its conclusion (the band clusters most of their ballads in the second half), the autumnal build of "Hear Me Out" more than redeems any missteps, establishing Close the Distance as the kind of personal soundtrack album that becomes a scene classic or an all-time favorite five or ten years down the road. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: "Baltimore," "Collide," "Close the Distance"

26. Gary Clark Jr. – Blak and Blu

No one could possibly deny John Mayer's pyrotechnical electric guitar skills. Indeed, at best, the musician has always felt like the heir apparent to some of the all-time greats, from B.B. King to Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan to Robert Johnston. But Mayer has never leaned on his guitar skills, at least not on record, and this year's Born and Raised, as good as it is, is less grounded in solos or instrumental show-offs than ever before. Blak and Blu, the first full-length album from Texan blues-hand Gary Clark Jr., is essentially the album that Mayer's detractors have always wanted him to make: an all-out, pulse-pounding, blues-rock display with more than its fair share of face-melting guitar riffs. Throughout, Clark's smooth and sultry voice blends with his fuzzy guitar sound and his penchant for foot-tapping rhythms, turning Blak and Blu into an ultra-satisfying blend of classic blues ("Bright Lights"), pure Motown R&B ("Please Come Home") and throwback 50s/60s rock 'n' roll ("Travis County," which legitimately sounds like a lost Chuck Berry single). More than any album on this list, choosing favorite songs from Blak and Blu is a daunting task: the whole album flows perfectly, a wonderfully executed melange of unimpeachable charisma and sexy ambiance. And throughout, Clark somehow manages the impossible, writing songs that would be equally suited to the pop music golden age and to the radio waves of today.

Key tracks:
"Travis County," "The Life," "You Saved Me"

27. Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE

Speaking of R&B, Frank Ocean is one of the genre's most exciting and buzzed about new figures, and while his debut LP doesn't quite live up to the earth-shattering amounts of hype it has collected since its release this past summer (Spin and The A.V. Club already named Channel ORANGE the best album of the year, and Pitchfork could very well follow suit), there's still a lot to be respected about Ocean's eclectic, scattershot ambition. A few moments here miss the mark, and interludes and framing tracks drag the tracklist to an unnecessary 17 songs, but on the whole, Channel ORANGE is a solid and fascinating record, one that sweeps you up into its vortex and doesn't let you go until it crosses the finish line. On the album's purest R&B efforts ("Thinkin Bout You," "Sweet Life") Ocean's voice sounds smooth and angelic, while the ambitious centerpiece (the ten-minute, two-part "Pyramids") moves from electro-infused dance-club gold to entrancing slow jam, all the way to spacey guitar outro (courtesy of John Mayer himself). And those facets only make up a fraction of Channel ORANGE's sweep: "Super Rich Kids" pays tribute to Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets," "Lost" displays Ocean's knack for writing effortless pop songs, and "Bad Religion" surrounds the singer in an introspective mass of organ and balladic ambiance. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: "Pyramids," "Lost," "Bad Religion"

28. The Tallest Man On Earth - There's No Leaving Now

On his third LP, Swedish singer/songwriter Kristian Matsson mines pretty much the exact same territory he's always occupied, writing striking, crisp, and beautiful melodies—usually over the bed of Spartan acoustic arrangements—and delivering them with his wistful, Dylanesque voice. The formula suited Matsson especially well on 2010's The Wild Hunt, but while his latest isn't quite up to that level, there's still a lot to love about this specific disc. "Wind and Walls" alone makes the whole export worth it, a freewheelin' road trip anthem from a dedicated drifter, and arguably the best song Matsson has ever written. The rest of the record taps into that same kind of yearning nostalgia, from the dusky pedal steel strains of "Bright Lanterns" to the picking-up-where-we-left-off opening duo of "To Just Grow Away" and "Revelation Blues." The title track swaps Matsson's trademark guitar for a wonky piano, and the album's closer, "On Every Page," is less guttural troubadour hymn than pensive campfire confessional, but on the whole There's No Leaving Now champions the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality, and with a result this pleasant, that's a hard mantra to argue with. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: "To Just Grow Away," "Bright Lanterns," "Wind and Walls,"

29. The Fray – Scars & Stories

Call it a guilty pleasure if you want, but I've always been surprisingly taken with The Fray's anthemic brand of piano rock, and they've only gotten better each time out. Make no mistake, Scars & Stories is hardly a massive step forward for the band: we still get the string-laced piano ballads ("I Can Barely Say"), the driving, mid-tempo pop rock anthems ("Heartbeat"), and a few traces of rock 'n' roll edge ("Turn Me On"). But for whatever reason, I found myself coming back to this album a lot this year. "Heartbeat" may be something we've heard a million times before, but it's also one of the most addictive openers on any record this year; "I Can Barely Say" may be a slightly slowed-down re-write of last album's "Never Say Never," but Isaac Slade's passionate vocal performance is still hard to fault; and it might be hard for some to buy into The Fray as a convincing "rock" band, but "Turn on Me" has a surprisingly funky bassline. Elsewhere, the band does what they have always done, slinging U2-sized choruses (album-highlight "Munich"), deriving yearning urgency from universal human struggles ("1961"), and crafting spacious and uplifting numbers destined to serve as the coda for TV shows and films alike ("The Wind"). The Fray may be mainstream cannon fodder nowadays, but these songs aim for deeper and more interesting territory than most of their contemporaries risk, and I'd like to think there's a group of real artists trying to escape here: only time will tell. (Read full review here)

Key tracks: "Heartbeat," "The Wind," "Munich" 

30. The Rocket Summer – Life Will Write the Words

The most remarkable thing about The Rocket Summer has always been its one-man band mentality. The mastermind behind it all, Bryce Avary, plays all the instruments on his records, somehow managing to make all of those different tracks coalesce into something as cohesive and fully-formed as Life Will Write the Words. The sound here never wanders far from Avary's bread-and-butter pop-punk, but I can also sense Americana songwriting textures creeping in around the fringes. Maybe I'm just imagining that element--after all, the cover and the album title sound like they're meant for some heartland bluegrass or pop-country band--but I don't think so. Throughout this record, Avary spins myriad moments that feel as if they're destined for America's sunburnt highways, from the propulsive "Run Don't Stop" to the shapeshifting "200,000," all the way to the gleeful handclap aesthetic of "Circa '46." The feeling only becomes overt a couple of times—the magnetic twang of "Soldiers" and the cathedral-ready balladry of "Scrapbook" are the best examples—but throughout, the remarkably personal nature of Avary's storytelling recalls some of the greatest songwriters in the American tradition, from Springsteen to Petty. The hooks rarely soar into earworm territory, and Avary's ultra-compressed production could use some work, but Life Will Write the Words is the sound of a great songwriter maturing and emerging right before our eyes, and I frankly can't wait to see what's next.

Key tracks: "200,000," "Soldiers," "Scrapbook"

Honorable Mentions: Needless to say, with a year as stellar as this one, there were more than a few albums that narrowly missed my top 30, and even more (uncountably more) that I still haven't heard or that came into my life too late for me to give them the time they deserved. But all of these records supplied pieces, large or small, of my 2012 life soundtrack, so nearly every album with a track or two that I love, every album I reviewed, and every album that I still need to spend more time with is listed below. Call these 70 some albums the next part of my pseudo top 100.

Abandoned Pools - Sublime Currency
Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls
Adele - Skyfall - Single
All Time Low - Don't Panic
Anberlin - Vital
Anchor & Braille -
The Quiet Life
Anders Osbourne - Black Eye Galaxy
Band of Horses - Mirage Rock
Ben Folds Five - The Sound of the Life of the Mind
Bonnie Raitt - Slipstream
Boys Like Girls - Crazy World
Brandi Carlile - Bear Creek
Civil Twilight - Holy Weather
Cloud Nothings - Attack on Memory
The Compound - Say it Again Now
Craig Finn - Clear Heart, Full Eyes
Daytrader - Twelve Years
Dave Matthews Band - Away from the World
The Early November - In Currents
Fang Island - Major
First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar
The Forecast - Everybody Left
G.O.O.D. Music - Cruel Summer
Good Old War - Come Back As Rain
Goodnight Mr. Max - Sleepaway/Esto - Live at the Orpheum
Green Day - ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, and ¡Tre!
Greg Laswell - Landline
Grizzly Bear - Shields
Ingrid Michaelson - Human Again
Jason Mraz - Love is a Four Letter Word
The Jealous Sound - A Gentle Reminder
Jenny Owen Youngs - An Unwavering Band of Light 
Jens Lekman  - I Know What Love Isn't
Jim Ivins Band - Everything We Wanted
John Mayer - The Complete 2012 Performances Collection
Joshua Radin - Underwater
Kendrick Lamaar - Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City
Kris Allen - Thank You Camelia
Lucero - Women & Work
Luke Leighfield - New Season
The Lumineers - Self-Titled
Make Do And Mend - Everything You Ever Loved
Maroon 5 - Overexposed
Marty Stuart - Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down
The Menzingers - On the Impossible Past
Molotov Jive - STORM
Mumford & Sons - Babel
Muse - The 2nd Law
Nada Surf - The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy
Neon Trees - Picture Show
No Doubt - Push and Shove
Norah Jones - Little Broken Hearts
Of Monsters & Men - My Head is an Animal
Passion Pit - Gossamer
Phillip Phillips - The World From the Side of the Moon
Ryan Bingham - Tomorrowland
Safetysuit - These Times
Scars on 45 - Scars on 45
The Shins - Port of Morrow
Shovels & Rope - O' Be Joyful
Sleepy Turtles - Summer, Hither
The Smashing Pumpkins - Oceania
The Spill Canvas - Gestalt
Stars - The North
The Stray Birds - The Stray Birds
The Swellers - Running Out of Places to Go
Tame Impala - Lonerism
Titus Andronicus - Local Business
Train - California 37

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