I’ve written for Drawer B for 14 years, and so it stands to reason that this is my 14th year-end list of albums (unless I slacked off one or two times). You’ll undoubtedly disagree with several of my choices, as these are not necessarily the “best” records of the year- just the ones I preferred to listen to the most, which is how I always approach these pompous lists. I only commented on the Top 10, but the embedded player has my Top 23 (two of my favorites were not available for streaming, including Chromatics’ Kill for Love and The Men’s Open Your Heart, which ended up being #17, rounding out a more logical Top 25).
1. 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 (Epic)
Fiona Apple is no run of the mill singer/songwriter. No Lilith Fair leftover. She never fit in with that tribe, anyway. The awkwardness and anti-social tendencies of her public persona translate brilliantly into idiosyncratic vignettes of scorn, longing, rage, desperation, and regret, typifying the myth that you probably don’t ever want to meet your idols. And her experimentation with dissonance against a backdrop of beautifully crafted ballads and eccentric pop makes her album even more fearless in the face of constant major label pressure for “hits.” Despite the angst on the surface, Apple sounds resigned to her fate as the one left behind, and it’s as heartbreaking to listen to as it is utterly addictive. She’s never sounded more in control of knowing she’s not in control at all. This is her masterpiece.
2. Japandroids, Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)
There was no finer album in 2012 to turn up as loud as possible with the windows rolled down that brilliantly captured that feeling of being angry, confused, and 22. Speed up some of Tom Petty’s best rockers, angst up the vocals, and play with wild and reckless abandon and you can almost catch a glimpse of the magnetism that makes Celebration Rock so appealing. This album is a non-stop onslaught of anthemic hooks that rock with so much gusto it actually lives up to its name.
3. Chromatics, Kill for Love (Italians Do It Better)
I love everything about this band. The cover art. The font choice. The icy, retro synth production. The coolly detached vocals. The sparse arrangements. The futuristic ennui. Everything. Chromatics don’t reinvent the wheel here, but their brand of vintage analog new wave is a paean to the underbelly of 1980’s cosmopolitan decay. The sleekly perfected aesthetic aside, Chromatics also know how to compose pop songs, despite burying them underneath layers of reverb and fractured guitar lines. The meticulousness sounds labored and calculated, but I find myself helplessly drawn to its claustrophobic aura again and again.
4. Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE (Def Jam)
I love this album as much for the production as I do the songs. The samples, the asides, the little flourishes all add up to create an aurally challenging piece of art. Ocean’s got a choice weapon with that falsetto, which places him in a very exclusive club – up there with Thom Yorke and D’Angelo. But channel ORANGE is to be revered not only because of its grand statement of intent and successful execution but also because Ocean’s vision is uniquely his own. His acutely aware cultural references, his hyper-sensitive point of view, and his understanding of the world as he sees it all reveal glimpses of a young genius ahead of his time, who can flat-out sing.
5. Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe (Atlantic)
Certainly, this album is not as instantly memorable as her debut, but upon further listening, it reveals Santigold might be in it for the long haul. The instant pop gems that flowed out of her debut just made things seem like her career might die from flash-in-the-pan syndrome. Master of My Make-Believe calls bullshit on that noise, proving that Santigold isn’t just the face/voice for a group of producers. “Disparate Youth” alone is easily one of the best-crafted pop songs of the year, cleverly mixing dub, reggae, and atmospheric pop. She’s filled with bravado, but there’s substance to back it all up. Every single song on this album is catchy, even if it’s not overtly so. She’s a chameleon musically, but the ease with which she genre-hops sounds effortless. She’s inverted the idea of what being a pop star means by focusing on the details instead of casting as wide a net as possible.
6. Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory (Car Park)
Notorious now for its recording as much as its content (due to Steve Albini’s bored detachment at Electrical Audio), Cloud Nothings turned the jangly, introverted scuzzpop of its debut into a thinking man’s version of emo with a healthy dose of Slint and Nirvana. The rawness of the vocals, specifically the imperfections, take some of these songs to levels you just can’t fake. And Albini’s signature bass heavy production augments Cloud Nothings’ angrier, fiercer attack. The eight-minute epic “Wasted Days” perfectly exemplifies this album’s tension, rage, and dynamic interplay.
7. Crystal Castles, III (Casablanca)
Crystal Castles’ III is the soundtrack for your dystopian nightmare. Describing the duo’s strain of electro as “dark” seems misleadingly understated. It’s a danceable horror show. Alice Glass’ (best rock star name in the business) manic vocals both subvert and penetrate the pulsing wall of beats and icicle synths. This band revels in the ugliness of sound, but the overall effect is less shrill than on the previous two albums. It would be hard work listening to this band were it not for the immediacy of its throbbing undercurrent. On the surface the sputtering, disjointed effects seem soulless, but take away the deliberate sonic red herrings and Crystal Castles is simply a pop band writing beautiful pop songs.
8. Friends, Manifest! (Fat Possum)
Friends come off like NYC hipsters (a terrible word, but what else is there?) accidentally hitting the “record” button on a bunch of basement party jams until you realize – after having played the album five times in a row – that, perhaps, this was all created with a bit more thought. The blasé disco funk is infectious. “I’m His Girl” is a Top 40 hit in some alternate (getting it right) universe. The music can feel clique-ish, standoff-ish; you can just sense that you aren’t cool enough to get the inside references. But the hooks are a bit more entreating, and there are hooks aplenty. If this band doesn’t implode from the weight of too many neon half-shirts and an overabundance of ironic mustaches, it may just make a great record some day.
9. Holograms, Holograms (Captured Tracks)
Stockholm’s Holograms confronts the nihilism of punk with an excess of reverb and vocal histrionics. Where this band might seem like just another descendent of Joy Division’s wiry dirge-obsessed clan of disciples (à la Iceage), there’s more going on than a perfunctory listen might reveal. Yes, the music is a mishmash of PIL-style post-punk, new wave and early Cure, but there’s real emotion and raw energy beneath the cold, dead-heart cityscape image.
10. Lana Del Rey, Born to Die (Interscope)
Live by the blog, die by the blog. Lana Del Rey had a quantifiably shitty year by image standards. After reaching ridiculous levels of hype with a handful of mysterious and sexually charged singles in 2011, Lana Del Rey finally unveiled her debut album last January to a collective overcorrection of mehs. Reviews were all over the place, but any press is good press, except when you tank on SNL. I think she was overly criticized for not living up to impossible expectations. Born to Die is filled with lustful, woeful ballads that may be panderingly peppered with cliched hip-hopisms, trendy electronic glosses, and carefully calculated beats, but that doesn’t make the songs any less good. I like the sultry tone of her voice. And her lips. Fuck the press. This is a good album. And extra points for being crazy enough to maybe be dating Axl Rose.