I have always listened to music, but the formal creation of a list of top albums for each year is relatively new, given my 28 years on this earth. I think it all began when I was in college, when I really started to listen to different types of music than I’ve ever listened to before, starting being aware of when music was coming out and where bands were playing and all that. Since then—we’ll say roughly 2004, give or take—I’ve done a best of list near the end of the year. As the years have progressed and the way we interact with one another has changed, so, too, has my list and its presentation. Now that I’ve got this blog, this is the 2nd Annual Top Albums list here, and I’m excited to display my top 25, with explanations and album covers and all sorts of fun. Enjoy reading and please do check out the music if any of it sounds interesting. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Or maybe you will. Maybe I shouldn’t make promises like this. Oh well…read on.
After an odd couple of albums since Brother, Sister, mewithoutYou returns to the form found on their first few albums with Ten Stories. The problem for me continues to be the repeat value, as the depth of the story telling here is beautiful, but difficult to sit down and listen to over and over again. Overall, though, a solid release from the band.
Bebo and I have gone back and forth of late. His early albums, especially Myself When I Am Real, are some of my favorite albums ever. There was a series of forgettable albums after that, but his BEC Records debut, a self-titled effort, brought me back. This one isn’t as good as that album, but it is still a solid effort from Mr. Norman.
This band is always solid and their albums are always a technical joy to listen to. I appreciate them so much, but much like mwY, I find this one difficult to come back to over and over again. I am ridiculously in awe of the skill here, though, which is why it makes the list.
This North Carolina band is pretty far out of my normal musical wheelhouse, but after having them recommend by so many friends, I decided to give one of their live albums a listen earlier this year. I was in awe of the harmonies and the storytelling present in the lyrics that I found myself liking it in spite of myself. This album probably would have been higher if I’d had more time to spend with it, so maybe it’ll come back around next year. Time will tell. But for now, suffice it to say, I’ll be watching this guys from now on.
The debut album from this duo from Emery is an interesting listen. Like Emery, it is a lot of fun, but after listening over and over, you begin to notice that the lyrics are pretty thoughtful and exact. Some people have tossed this aside as an uninspired side project, and others have called the last half of the album a worship album (a comparison I don’t get—these people clearly have no idea what the “worship music” category means), but it is clear from the outset that Matt & Toby care about the music they make, regardless of the medium. Would I have preferred an Emery acoustic album akin to the final tracks of last year’s excellent We Do What We Want? Probably, but I think this albums accomplishes a little of what that album would have, even if the focus here is more pop oriented.
Stand out tracks: “What Plays In My Head,” “Take Me Oh Lord In Thy Hands,” “Prodigal Sons and Daughters, “ and “The Last One”
I’ve been following this band for quite a while, as they are from Washington, DC, and they were starting off right around the time I was living up there. I remembered instantly liking their jazzy-pop, piano rock sound, and their newest effort sees the band realizing that they’ve found a working formula and sticking with it. It’s a fun record, and the variation of the vocalists between pianist Ben Thornewill and guitarist Tommy Siegel actually works quite well, as each as his own unique sound. This band doesn’t take much seriously, at least not on their records, and that shines through rather clearly here. If there is a major complaint it would be that the production of the drum tracks here is really poor, making it a difficult listen. If you can overcome that, then you’ll be in for a treat.
Stand out tracks: “Somebody,” “At Last,” “Say When” and “Adulthood”
I’ll admit that I listened to Yellowcard a lot more during their Ocean Avenue days, and they lost me during the period after that album when they put out a few duds. When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes had to be one of last year’s best album titles, but didn’t really stick with me. This time around, they managed to capture my attention quite a bit more, making a record that is classic Yellowcard. The violin is really rocking this time around, and even though the lyrics leave something to be desired in terms of originality, this is a band that has managed to keep a winning sound going, even through the years when the albums didn’t live up to the potential. This one should get them back on track.
Stand out tracks: “Awakening,” “Here I Am Alive,” “Ten” and “Southern Air”
I was late on the Mumford train, so I went back and listened to Sigh No More just before listening to the newest effort from this English quartet. Let’s be honest, I do enjoy a good banjo, and I really admire Marcus Mumford’s narrative style of songwriting. The man can write a lyric, that is for sure, and his croon is intensely original. But to be fair, the banjo seems to be running things on this album. While Sigh No More managed to mix the instrument in seamlessly, the banjo here is an overpowering source, to the point where all the songs start to run together simply because the tempos and rhythms seem to be dictated by that instrument. The songwriting and lyrics insist that this album is one of the top 20 of the year for me, but for my money, if you want a Mumford & Sons album, go backward and listen to Sigh No More.
Stand out tracks: “I Will Wait,” “Ghosts That We Knew,” and “Not With Haste”
This is, in my estimation, the most accessible album of the band’s career. Unlike some of the albums before this, the gravity of the subjects here seem to stand out, but it feels really genuine. Grizzly Bear is a band that creates expansive landscapes in their songs, and Shields allows the listener the opportunity to hear that coming through on every track. To top that, every member of the band sings here, giving each track a unique sound to it.
Stand out tracks: “Speak in Rounds,” “Gun Shy” and “Sun In Your Eyes”
In what has turned out to be the swan song for this South Carolina based band, it is interesting to listen to the album with that in mind. The album is thematic to a fault, with singer Zach Riner really taking this opportunity to look into the way we speak to each other and the vital nature of honesty. It is a statement, one that was sadly overlooked, leading to the demise of the band. Overall, the album is much more cohesive than their debut, as often is the case, even if it is a little short. It being more radio friendly certainly isn’t a problem. It is a shame that this band is no longer with us. They will be missed.
Stand out tracks: “Learn From the Night,” “Need it Today,” “We’re All Liars,” and “Best In Me”
I wish I’d listened to this album more, because every time I do, I really enjoy it. It manages to have an excellent rock-and-roll edge to it, all while remaining relevant in 2012. Brian Fallon’s delivery is unorthodox, but the man sure can write a song that somehow manages to be both catchy and though provoking at the same time. But for some reason, this one just didn’t grab onto me as much as others did, which is why it’s sitting so low on the list. Maybe it’ll be on some list of albums I should have listened to more and then rediscovered and realized its brilliance next year.
Stand out tracks: “Handwritten,” “Too Much Blood,” and “You Got Lucky”
As much as respected 2009’s Felt, it was just too far off in left field for me to really grab onto. That has not been the case nearly as much for The Quiet Life. Infusing a little more of Stephen Christian’s rock edge from Anberlin (more of them later), while still staying true to the sound that Felt established, it now stands as a very excellent mix of the two. Christian’s vocals sound great here, as he allows for the higher ranges to take over here, but not to the almost annoying extent that he did on the previous release. It’s a really lovely album that had no business coming out in July. I think this one will find a better footing in the coming months into 2013.
Stand out tracks: “Goes Without Saying,” “Know Then Know Now,” “Kodachrome” (this is one of the best songs of the year), and “Everybody Here Wants You”
Got to give these guys credit for sticking around after their record deal ran out, and for creating one of their best albums to date in the process. It’s very raw, leaving behind the sparkly cleanliness of their previous works, which works in the album’s favor in many ways. Unfortunately, for a worship band, the amount of songs here available for corporate worship are a little too few and far between, something that wasn’t as much the case on earlier efforts. Ironically, the non-corporate tunes provide for some of the albums best moments, so it is a bit of a conundrum. This isn’t as good as I Will Go or Beauty in the Broken, but it is close on the their heels.
Stand out tracks: “Natural Disaster,” “Burn For You,” “All I Want Is You,” and “Innocence and Other Things Lost”
I’m in the group of people that believe that MCS’s best album is Even If It Kills Me, which is a lot of the reason I like this album so much. Go has a lot of the elements of Even If It Kills Me that I like so much—especially in terms of relational transparency on the part of lead singer Justin Pierre—while retaining a certain amount of the charm that you expect from the band (and came back too much on 2010’s My Dinosaur Life for my tastes). What is lacking here is a sense of cohesiveness. A lot like Dinosaur Life, this feels more like a collection of songs than a complete album in many ways. Not all the time, but enough to push this record back a few notches.
Stand out tracks: “True Romance,” “Son of a Gun,” “The Coma Kid” and “Happy Anniversary” (should have closed the album out, in my opinion)
Now this is how you close out a career as a band! Is this album entirely too long? Absolutely. But do you have to admire the scope of it and that they managed to do this without too much in the way of fluff or add ons? Without a doubt. The DCB has always managed to create music that is unlike anything being done in the Christian music scene, and this effort is no different. I’ll be honest, I’ve only managed to listen to the entire thing maybe a half a dozen times or so, but the scope and magnitude of this ambitious project is unmistakable. DCB will be missed, but I’m already looking forward to what we’ll get from The Digital Age and Crowder’s solo material.
Stand out tracks: “Come Find Me,” “Let Me Feel You Shine,” “After All (Holy),” and “O Great Love of God” (this was really difficult for this album…so much music!)
On their third album, TAN have managed to create a rather large sounding album that is probably their most creative album to date. They have moved pretty far away from the more corporate worship sound of Over and Underneath, something that was signaled to us with 2010’s uneven The Light Meets The Dark, and comes full circle here. This time around, though, TAN have figured out how to mesh the creativity with honest representations of life from the band’s perspective. Mike Donehey is one of the better lyricists working today, as his words are honest and truthful. This album certainly should stand the test of time, as its message has gotten through many aspects of this year.
Stand out tracks: “Shadows,” “The Struggle,” “Losing,” “Don’t Stop the Madness,” and “Lamb of God”
My top 10 would indicate that 2012 was the year of the comeback for a lot of bands. Normally comebacks can spell trouble, as a band attempts to bring back some sort of lost magic that just doesn’t seem to work. It’s like going back to an ex; you know there was a reason you left the relationship in the first place, but something draws you back in. It was with a little apprehension that I sat down with In Currents for the first time, and after a few listens, I was sure something was missing. But the more I listened, the more I realized that this was a much more mature and thoughtful version of TEN, one that was changed by time. It doesn’t sound like The Room’s Too Cold because in many ways this is a different band. The addition of Bill Lugg as a full time member of the band makes all the difference, as he adds a whole new layer to the sound. This is a modern rock record, weighed against the expectations of what a TEN record used to be, and somehow it works out perfectly. Here’s hoping they stick around for more. I’d love to see where it goes from here.
Stand out tracks: “In Currents,” “Tell Me Why,” “Close to You,” “That’s Not Your Real Name” and “Call Off the Bells”
Trust me, nobody is more surprised to see this record crack the top ten than I am. As a staunch believer that country music is, by and large, not for me (and even many cases, a terrible excuse for music at all), this one came out of left field. Now, to be fair, this is hardly a country album, as it moves—rather seamlessly, in fact—from pop, to dance, to indie rock, to country twangs from one song to another. Shockingly, far from making this album seem mixed up and confused, it actually works to Swift’s advantage. She knows how to do each sub genre so well, you accept that this is her sound now, not even taking into account that this is the same girl who broke onto the scene with her acoustic guitar, singing sweet little country tunes that made the world fall in love with her. That, combined with her honest, poetic and often-clever lyrics make this a guilty pleasure. Or at least that’s what I’ll tell you. But honestly, it’s really quite good.
Stand out tracks: “State of Grace,” “All Too Well,” “Sad Tragic Beautiful,” “The Lucky One” and “Everything Has Changed” (yes, the singles do not do the album justice)
Even going back now, Suburba was not as good an album as I wanted it to be. The End Is Not the End is such a great record, making a concept album work in an age where nobody listens to full albums anymore, that it was inevitable that HoH would fall down at least a little. But save for a few songs, the follow up to TEINTE disappointed across the board. Then comes Cold Hard Want and all of a sudden it’s like Suburba never happened. This is the band that blew me away on The End and solidified themselves as one of my favorites. Cold Hard Want is not a concept album in the same vein, but like its predecessors, it is very much about a theme, with the focus this time around being on the troubles of our materialistic world. The tone is sharper here, more biting, and the songs cut straight to the throat. The amazing thing that HoH always does is managed to convey a persona through the lyrics, with lead singer Tim Skipper takes on the role of the party in question, leaving the listener to comment on the situation, rather than making the listener think or believe something. What is left is a fantastic album, and one that, in another year, might have held a top spot on this list.
Stand out tracks: “Out My Way,” “Remember the Empire,” “Comfort Trap,” “Touch This Light,” and “I Am A Symbol”
Another theme of this year has been band’s venturing out from record labels and, finding the restrictions gone, branching out their sounds. This is definitely the case with Circa Survive, who released this, their fourth album, independently back in August. If there is any indication of the direction that Circa is going here, you need look no further than the first track, the over 7-minute long “Birth of the Economic Hit Man.” While the band’s sound has not taken too many crazy turns, the freedom the band feels is the biggest hint that the band is without a label after being with Equal Vision and Atlantic for previous records. Anthony Green continues to mix off-the-wall vocal heights with a bizarre lyrical style (although this time he starts to add personal elements not seen as often on other albums), and the band’s signature sound continues to shine. The progression seen on Violent Waves is excellent, and it certainly stands as one of the best albums of 2012.
Stand out tracks: “Sharp Practice,” “Suitcase,” “The Lottery,” and “I’ll Find A Way”
Having already discussed the whole comeback band thing earlier (see: #9), it feels right that the idea should come back. This time around, though, the comeback is different. FSF has now released four albums with three different lead singers, with Penny Black having come full circle with Chris Carrabba, the original lead singer who recorded 2001’s The Moon Is Down. Although my preference has always been for Jason Gleason’s tenure with How To Start a Fire, I enjoyed Moon in hindsight (I started my relationship with FSF with Fire in 2003), but didn’t love it, so my adoration for Penny Black is actually surprising to me. But only a little. The lyrics are a little closer to Jon Bunch territory than previous FSF albums, but only in that they are a little more straight forward (this isn’t a detriment, necessarily, just an observation), but Carrabba’s chops are really quite good here, which makes the album the great success that it is. The reported production issues aren’t glaring to me as they have been to others, so the listen is solid from front to back. A welcome comeback for certain. Here’s hoping it lasts.
Stand out tracks: “Rescue Trained,” “Staring Down the Sun,” “On the Outside,” “Rusted Machines” and “Janie”
And we’re back to the tale of a band on a label now working independently. The Classic Crime used to be on Tooth & Nail during what I consider the label’s heyday (now I don’t think I could name one band still on the label, minus the aforementioned Anchor & Braille), so it is nice to see that TCC have managed to continue on. They’ve never been what you’d call financially successful, so the speed with which they raised money for Phoenix via their Kickstarter campaign is really quite incredible. On top of all that, the album is really fantastic. It’s a powerhouse of a concept album (once again, in an era where cohesive albums aren’t the norm), where all the songs fit the theme perfectly. Yet it’s so amazingly introspective, all the while not leaving the listener stranded with references they cannot understand. The metaphor is remarkable, adding to Matt McDonald’s stellar career as a songwriter. Someday I hope to see TCC live, if only to see the passion that is clearly a vital part of their music.
Stand out tracks: “You And Me Both,” “Beautiful Darkside,” “Heaven and Hell,” “The Precipice,” “Glass Houses” and “City of Orphans”
Of all the albums released this year, John Mayer’s recent release was one I knew going in I was going to enjoy. I just really had no idea how much I would like it. Suffice it to say, Born and Raised is a pretty major departure for Mayer. While there are elements of most of his albums thus far (save, maybe, for 2009’s Battle Studies), such as the acoustic stylings of Room for Squares, the pop sensibilities of Heavier Things and the jazz/blues elements of Continuum, in many ways, this album feels like something all its own. Part Americana, part country, part folk, all in all, the album simply feels like a reinvention for Mayer. None of these songs sounds like anything he’s done before, and this is definitely a good thing. Mayer may have never really released a bad album to date, but Born and Raised certainly stands up with Continuum—probably the best of his career so far—in terms of quality of songwriting. As he continues to work through his career, we can only hope he will reinvent himself over and over, especially since he is definitely good at doing so.
Stand out tracks: “Shadow Days,” “Born and Raised,” “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967,” and “A Face to Call Home” (one of my favorites of 2012)
I’ll be honest, this is the most shocking ranking for an album of the entire year. I’d heard Barcelona before, seeing them open for Mae several years ago and listened to and liked their debut album Absolutes, which featured an atmospheric sonic space in the vein of U2 and the like. But this album came out of nowhere. I only knew it came out because I happened to be looking online at bands in my iTunes playlist and came upon the release of Not Quite Yours by chance. To say that the sound took me by surprise would be an understatement. While slight elements of the old sound still exist, in a lot of ways the album is almost like a new band. It’s more of a rhythmic, drums & bass, Black Keys style now, with most of the atmosphere gone in favor of driving rhythms and grooves. The album seems to saunter its way through, never overstaying its welcome from one track to another, but covering exactly the ground you want each song to cover. The lyrics are straightforward, but incredibly honest, and Brian Fennell’s delivery is genuine and moving throughout. I can’t say I saw this album coming at all, but I am so very glad that I heard it.
Stand out tracks: “Slipping Away,” “Only Son,” “Slowly,” “Evermore,” and “Change”
While Barcelona was a surprise, I can’t say that this was at all. I went over this list quite a few times, trying to decide what exactly my #1 album was going to be. Honestly, any of the albums in my top 5 could be switched around quite a bit, with a preference based on a mood or a moment. But when it came down to it, it was Anberlin and it probably always was going to be. Six albums in and the Florida quintet is still taking chances with their music. 2010’s Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place was certainly a departure of sorts, so much so that many overlooked the album (wrongly, in my opinion) and their major label debut, 2008’s New Surrender is considered the weakest of the band’s career, so to say there was a lot riding on this album would be an understatement of sorts. The band seems to have taken the pressure in stride, as vocalist Stephen Christian has released two Anchor & Braille albums during the band’s major label time, and continues to tour extensively. As for Vital, it stands up with Cities, which many consider the best of the band’s career, as some of the band’s best work. It fuses together the electronic elements of Dark and returns to the edge of Anberlin’s earliest albums. And quite frankly, tracks 7-11 are probably the best sequence of songs on an album all year, while the tracks leading up to these serve to set the stage for the mood of the album going through. As for replayability, it is certainly one of the highest of the year. It wasn’t an easy call, but in the end, it definitely feels like the right one. Anberlin comes in on top again.
Stand out tracks: “Little Tyrants,” “Intentions,” “Desires,” “Type Three,” “Orpheum,” “Modern Age,” (probably my favorite song of 2012) and “God, Drugs and Sex”