favorite albums of 2012

10. Pet Shop Boys – Elysium

Coming off the poppy and peppy Yes, it is expected that the Boys would go a bit more somber on their new one. The expectation is correct. Elysium is Behaviour, Part 2. The feel of Behaviour was looking back with bittersweet notions while Elysium is looking at the now and realizing the years gone by. Yes, these Boys are old and when they aren’t poking fun, they are quite profound. There are songs here beautiful and sublime. Unfortunately, the album has one, if not two, of their worst songs. Both make fun of the music industry. “Your Early Stuff” is in the voice of someone younger looking at PSB’s career while in the middle of this collection is the horrible “Ego Music” which slams the likes of Kanye. Unfortunately, both are missing the ironic tongue-in-cheek that say, “How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously,” has. The good news is the further from the center you get, the better the songs. “Invisible” is an honest look at being too old to go out, “Memory of the Future” is a yearning love song, “Leaving” is a stunning break up song, and “Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin” is their best swan song since “Jealousy” and the only song that doesn’t look at the now. It’s an earnest homage to a lost friend. Even with its missteps, Elysium is Pet Shop Boys throughout and includes songs that no PSB fan should be without.

Favorite songs: “Leaving,” “Invisible,” “Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin”

9. Jack White – Blunderbuss

I’m about to compare Jack White to Paul McCartney, but hear me out. Both are men of immense talent who started in popular bands and then continued to drown themselves in the group dynamic even though everyone knew who was the creative genius. Unlike McCartney, White decided to wait much longer to finally release an album featuring his name even if his name isn’t on the album cover. The first single, “Love Interruption,” seems to be an obvious break from The White Stripes: two voices, guitar, keyboard and no drums. It’s a great transition. Not only for his career, but the album as well. The first three songs are scorching in their blues fire, but then the music moves to his love of country and folk yet the songs still have a rock/blues feel. The only problem here is White seems to be on autopilot. He can knock out this kind of music in his sleep — which he probably does — so even though Blunderbuss is enjoyable while listening some songs don’t stick and there are no big White Stripe hooks. Yet even with his lackadaisical approach, he turns in an extremely entertaining collection of music.

Favorite songs: “Sixteen Saltines,” “Love Interruption,” “I’m Shakin'”

8. Scissor Sisters – Magic Hour

Yes, the Sisters are still doing that thing they do, but are still a fun band if not as relevant. Fame is definitely fickle but even while their fans are dwindle down to its base, the band continues to work hard to entertain. Magic Hour is basically a continuation of Night Work where house beats, synths and sex are the norm, but with a playful mood. “Let’s Have a Kiki” may have started the gay community pulling out their plugs after months of nonstop plays, but it’s still great fun even as it rides that fine line into novelty song. “…Kiki” bumps right into the best song on the album. “Shady Love” is a marvelous piece of tongue-in-where-ever hip-hop, trance naughtiness. Azealia Banks, whose own fantastic EP dropped this year, helps with the kink. It’s the Sisters at the best: full of drunken and stoned club attitude. The album kicks off with “Baby Come Home” which is an instantly likable, old-school R&B ditty about pining for your lover who is out partying. Happens to us all, right? And this may be why the Sisters fame has dwindled. Their songs speak to the fantasy of life and not the reality. It’s fun to live fantasy for a while, but we all have to face real life again. Perhaps the next album will be have more of the progressive feel of their debut and less of the frivolity of the party scene.

Favorite songs: “Baby Come Home,” “Keep Your Shoes On,” “Shady Love”

7. Stars – The North

I hope Canada is proud of Stars. They have constantly produced quality work yet have remained underground since the turn of the millennium. Their sixth album, The North, is the closest they have come to matching the irresistible yearning beauty of Set Yourself On Fire. The North comes to us like a rainbow after a devastating thunderstorm. Here the band is feeling the positive energy of a good life: thankful, loving and gracious. Even songs like the title track while full of regret try to find the positivity in the situation. “Sleep is my friend and my rival,” Torquil Campbell sings as a man trying to come to grips with his decisions. A few of the songs here are about songs as if the band is trying to preach the power of music to the uninitiated. “Hold on When You Get Love and Let Go When You Get It” warns that the love in music is not the love of real life and tries to inspire the listen to better themselves: “Take the weakest thing in you/And then beat the bastards with it.” And this isn’t the only violence music either. You can imagine what “A Song Is a Weapon” is about and “Do You Want to Die Together?” is the most rocking song they’ve done. Yes, their view of happiness is twisted, but it’s certainly more Addams family than Manson family.

Favorite songs: “The Theory of Relativity,” “Hold on When You Get Love and Let Go When You Get It,” “A Song Is a Weapon”

6. Air – Le voyage dans la lune

Using tricks old and new, Air has delivered their most fun album in years in this expanded score for the 14-minute 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. It’s at once etherial and playful much like the film itself. In most versions (physical copy, iTunes) you get a copy of the film with Air’s score. Once seen, it is obvious how they were inspired by this classic and how their work pays off. If it wasn’t for the 100+ years difference in the creation of the two, you’d feel they were meant to be together. The score is filled with different moods as any good score should do and — in retrospect — this pairing truly is natural. The band does have a knack for writing beautiful melancholy melodies and arrangements, but this time the music that dominates are the powerful themes of “Parade” and “Sonic Armada.” The real reason this is such a winning collection is that no matter where you are in the track listing, you are embraced by the strong arc of traveling. This is a score of movement needed due to the short-run time of the film and to infuse the listener with a sense of gallivanting even if they aren’t on a voyage.

Favorite songs: “Astronomic Club,” “Parade,” “Sonic Armada”

5. Gossip – A Joyful Noise

As A Joyful Noise kicks off, the slinky and sexual bass line of “Melody Emergency” will completely throw those who have become fans of their full-blown guitar pop attack. Here is a fun, teasing Gossip. This time around they’ve added elements from 90’s dance especially euro-pop yet their explosive sound remains. Give credit to Beth Ditto’s huge vocals. She bellows and swaggers through songs like the R&B “Perfect World” and the peppy synth sounds of “Move in the Right Direction.” The best songs here are also the sassiest. “Get a Job” tells a dead-beat party girl just that: “It was adorable when you were in your twenties/Not so cute anymore now that you’re pushing thirty/You better get a job.” Then there is the Lisa Steinsfield-esque “Get Lost” with its bouncy 90’s British pop piano chords and enough directness to shame anyone for treating her badly. This updated 90’s pop sound comes from Brian Higgins who is one half of Xenomania. They’ve been producing hit UK music all through the 2000’s including Pet Shop Boys’ outstanding Yes. This sound works for Gossip because of Beth’s huge personality. After a couple of listens, an understanding of the album title becomes apparent.

Favorite songs: “Perfect World,” “Get a Job,” “Move In the Right Direction,” “Get Lost”

4. The Presets – Pacifica

You’ve just released an album that won Australia’s equivalent of the Grammy’s Album of the Year and are the first electronic band to ever do so. What do you do next? You take four years off. Who needs that kind of pressure? Thankfully, Pacifica is worth the wait. Julian and Kim are still working out their demons through trance punk dance pop and this time around they’ve seem to have spent some time in the Outback with their Aboriginal brothers. Many of the songs are tribal with a militant beat like “Ghosts” which finds Julian reliving his hedonistic youth and trying to learn from it: “Cocaine, song and women and wine/Memories blur and they make me shudder.” This theme of learning from mistakes and attempting to overcome disappointment run throughout especially “Fail Epic” and the extremely intense “Youth in Trouble.” It even laces through their most 80’s-sounding song. “Promises” is the tune you would have expected from them earlier in their career since they claim the likes of Eurythmics as their musical heroes. And like Eurythmics, The Presets can take a stereotypically shallow music style and give it weight. There is a lot of heavy stuff happening in Pacifica, but you won’t mind too much. You’ll be too busy dancing in your own private rave.

Favorite songs: “Youth in Trouble,” “Promises,” “Fall,” “Fast Seconds”

3. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Pretty sure Epic Records finally got tired of fighting Fiona. From news articles, it seems they pressured her into re-recording her last one to mixed results, so this time she recorded one in private and then presented it to them. Thankfully, they were either tired or finally heard the marvel of her messy baroque style. Either way here is Fiona Apple laid bare. Trying to describe the album is like trying to describe the taste of strawberries. It’s that strange. And that good. Throughout, there are sounds you just don’t hear on a major release. It seems as if she and her drummer went on a religious quest to find the noises in their heads. Still, Fiona’s songwriting is strong. They are still based in pop, too. Somehow the crazy arrangements lie together with the melody in a co-mingling of musical coitus. Songs like “Every Single Night,” “Jonathan,” and “Periphery” stick in the head like a fairy tale story: magical, strange and unbelievable. Unbelievable because it’s still hard to believe her label would green light the release. The entire affair ends in the cacophony of everything that has happened before. “Hot Knife” is part tribal dance, part renaissance fair joy and part army of Fiona. “I’m a hot knife and he’s a pat of butter,” she cries over and over again until it’s just Fiona until an abrupt end. That is appropriate. The Idler Wheel… is Fiona. Love her or hate her, she is doing her own thing and she is doing it well.

Favorite songs: “Every Single Night,” “Daredevil,” “Jonathan,” “Periphery”

2. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself

While there is nothing really new here, Break It Yourself is Andrew’s best collection of music in a while. Gone are the self-indulgent lyrical puns to be replaced by some of Bird’s most biting relationship exploration. Instead of over-the-top hurt though, he spends many songs trying to figure out the reasons behind the hurtful actions. Songs like the beautiful “Lazy Projector” use movie analogies to query why he’s even going through a breakup especially since the projector is a “forgetting, embellishing, lying machine.” Even the title of the album is a slam as he tells the other person how cold and manipulating they are in “Eyeoneye,” “No one can break your heart/So you break it yourself.” Thankfully, all this soul searching is set to some of Bird’s best melodies in a few years especially the life-affirming “Near Death Experience Experience.” Set to a bouncy violin plucking, the song explores how fragile are the ones who claim to be strong and how celebratory anyone can be when surviving a life-changing scenario. When he gets to the “And we’ll dance like cancer survivors,” the relief is palpable and will elicit singing along. Bird has been a touch self-indulgent of late and Break It Yourself gives the chance to hear him put aside the intellectualism and record an album that feels.

Favorite songs: “Give It Away,” “Eyeoneye,” “Near Death Experience Experience,” “Orpheo Looks Back”

1. Aimee Mann – Charmer

The best Aimee Mann album? It certainly is up there with I’m With Stupid and Bachelor #2 (from which several Magnolia songs were lifted.) What makes this so great is the fact that she hasn’t hit these heights in 12 years — infinity in the fickle music industry. The approach here was more melodic than the past few albums’ conceptual nature with the songs have a biting quality which she is known for and that her music has been missing. This is Aimee getting back to her pop roots. Every catchy melody and every lyrical jab are made for the pleasure of the ear. Plus her skewering of human relationships has made a welcome return: “Disappeared:” “I guess I had a free ride/But now I join the queue/Of people dead to you,” “Soon Enough:” “Cause what’s more fun/Than other people’s hell,” “Living a Lie:” “No one bears a grudge/Like a boy genius/Just past his prime, “Gamma Ray:” “And one thing leads to another/And none of it’s good.” Of course, none of this would mean anything without Aimee’s earworm melodies. There is so much here that is instantly accessible and worthy of repeat listenings, and while the arrangements broker no new ground, Charmers revels in what has become Aimee’s signature sound. It’s been 12 years since she topped this list and it’s great to have her back.

Favorite songs: “Disappeared,” “Crazytown,” “Soon Enough,” “Gumby,” “Gamma Ray”

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