(feat. track – The Forecast – “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts” [spotify] from Everybody Left)
Tomorrow, I’ll unveil my #1 album of the year. In the meantime, here’s a whole lot of stuff that didn’t quite make my Top Ten Eleven, but still left a big impression in 2012.
I listened to less new music this past year than in any year I can remember, and yet at 34 albums, this year’s Best Of The Rest is the biggest I’ve done yet (arguably too big). I’m not sure how that works out; I suspect it’s because, in limiting my listening time, I mostly keyed in on the stuff I thought I would enjoy the most, for better or worse. Every album that made its way onto this list has merit and, on the right day, could have slipped into the final spot or two on what proved to be a unusually-hard-to-pin-down Top Ten.
Reviews I’ve written on any of these albums are noted. Spotify (or other streaming source) links have been included, where available.
All Time Low – Don’t Panic [spotify]
Are they ever going to live up to their potential? Probably not. But if the All Time Low we’ve got now isn’t the best one imaginable, well that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the one we have for what it is. Lay aside the lofty expectations set by Put Up Or Shut Up and So Wrong It’s Right (which is more flawed than you remember); tracks like “If These Sheets Were The States”, “So Long Soldier” and “For Baltimore” are packed with exuberance that’s matched only by their soaring harmonies. Don’t Panic isn’t perfect – it’s lacking a killer single, for one – but it’s the most consistently enjoyable collection All Time Low have pieced together in a long time.
Bob Mould – Silver Age [spotify]
Silver Age isn’t the “return to form” it’s been pegged as (that would be 2005’s exceptional Body Of Song), but it’s shot through with an electric energy that’s been missing on Mould’s last few albums – Bob sounds refreshed, revitalized, in the way that playing with new collaborators frequently seems to make him. It’s also not the near-flawless album some have been made it out to be (“Angels Rearrange” is prototypical Bob-by-numbers; lead track “Star Machine” is essentially a rewrite of the better “I Hate Alternative Rock”), but it’s the most substantive and adventurous one he’s crafted in quite some time. It doesn’t hurt that “Keep Believing” and (especially) “The Descent” rank among the best songs Mould has ever written – a bold statement considering his Bobness now has 20+ albums worth of material under his belt, but a true one nonetheless.
Carly Rae Jepsen – Kiss [spotify]
Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” was so massive in 2012 that it seemed to take on one-hit-wonder status before a second single had even been released, as though it was such a perfectly suited song for the category that Jepsen’s future (or lack of it) was preordained. I wasn’t as over-the-moon for Kiss as some other critics (for one, a number of its beats feel really dated to me, and not in a retro way), but it’s still a super solid (and super enjoyable) pop record, one that seems to have not received a fair chance.
Circa Survive – Violent Waves [spotify]
Violent Waves, bookended as it is by a pair of seven minute monsters, feels like a reaction to 2010’s more single-oriented Blue Sky Noise. Personally I preferred that album’s concise songwriting to Violent Waves’ spacier sonics, but the band is clearly adept at either style, and in the right mood, I connect to Violent Waves in a way that I wish I did with space metal and post-rock. Those genres, I appreciate; Violent Waves, I enjoy.
Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory [spotify]
Coming from an indie background rather than a “scene” one, Dylan Baldi’s grunge revivalisms have garnered him a heck of a lot more attention than that of bands like Basement and Balance & Composure. Which is not to say that attention is unmerited – tracks like the epic “Wasted Days” and scorching “Stay Useless” recapture the righteous spirit of the early 90s without feeling wholly derivative.
Dads – American Radass (This Is Important) [bandcamp]
Dads aren’t just a band, they’re a movement, or at least they seem to have become unwitting figureheads for one. Partly, credit their facility with in-jokes that seem to catch like wildfire (see: the week everyone on the Internet was suddenly talking about ‘Twinkle Daddies’) and a snarky, fuck-it sense of humor (see: song titles like “Grunt Work (The ’69 Sound)” and its follow-up, “Groin Twerk”) that belies their music’s ragged earnesty. But none of it would matter if American Radass’ combination of mathy leads, scruffy sonics and heart-on-sleeve lyrics weren’t so damned compelling.
Dave Melillo – Eskimo Kisses [free download]
Dave Melillo’s been dabbling in contemporary R&B for some time now, but Eskimo Kisses is the first time he’s fully committed himself to the sound, and while not every track here is a winner (what mixtape is?), the best here rank among the finest work he’s done. Melillo may not have roots in R&B, but he’s clearly no dilettante – there’s no irony in Eskimo Kisses, just a sincere love for the genre that shines through.
The Early November – In Currents [spotify]
Of the many bands to stage comebacks in 2012, The Early November managed it the best. The band may have spent the last six years on the shelf, but In Currents brings the sort of desperate intensity and world-weary passion you’d more likely expect from a band that had spent the decade actively slugging it out in the trenches. There’s no rest for the weary here, and no concession to age.
Enter Shikari – A Flash Flood Of Colour [spotify]
Enter Shikari’s chaotic mix of aggro agit-prop metalcore and spoonbending dubstep presaged both a generation of clue-deprived Risecore acts and the seemingly-overnight ascent of EDM to youth culture dominance; only three albums in and Enter Shikari already feel a bit like elder statesmen, though their politics remain strictly freshman year. A Flash Flood Of Color uses that flaw to its advantage – the reductionist sloganeering of frontman Rau Reynolds makes for a youthful burst of energy that fuels the band’s turbulent fire.
For The Foxes – The Revolution [spotify]
For The Foxes are, for my money, the band most likely to repeat fun.’s rise from out of the “scene” to the top of the pop charts. The Revolution trucks in the same sort of mainstream-indie that’s succeeded so well for acts like Neon Trees and Foster The People, with the radio-friendly hooks to match. This one was a near-miss for my Top 10; I suspect I’ll grow to regret that decision, partly because I really do love it, and partly because I’ll have missed an opportunity to look like a genius when they break big in a few years.
The Forecast – Everybody Left [spotify]
Sometimes a band is so consistently good at what they do that everyone stops paying attention. Which is a shame, because Everybody Left doesn’t just stack up with The Forecast’s back catalog; it’s a fair step better. It’s easily the most consistent outing of their career, with not a single skipper in the bunch, and its highs (“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts”; “Take Me Down”) rank among the most compellingly passionate tracks the band have released. There are a bevy of acts nowadays trucking in a mix of punk and Americana – The Forecast did it first, and they’re still doing it best.
Further Seems Forever – Penny Black [spotify]
It’s been an awful long time since Chris Carrabba helmed Further Seems Forever, and at times their reunion album feels more like Carrabba’s recent Dashboard Confessional output than anything FSF did in the post-Carrabba years. But if this isn’t the Further Seems Forever that you’ve come to know, the reunion still seems to have reinvigorated all involved – Penny Black is the best album either half have released in years.
G.O.O.D. Music – Cruel Summer [spotify]
Yes it’s uneven, yes some of these tracks are duds, yes some of the features and collabs should never have been released. Which is to say, this is a mixtape, just as it was advertised to be. A mixtape with a few absolutely essential Kanye tracks, including one that even managed to catch Big Sean at his best. Big Sean – who knew he even had a “best”? Really, if this album was just “Mercy” 16 times, it would have made this list; everything else is just gravy.
Happy Body Slow Brain – Sleepy EP [spotify]
Happy Body Slow Brain’s densely orchestrated, proggy debut LP, Dreams Of Water, didn’t really do it for me. Sleepy strips away much of the extraneous bullshit that bogged that album down; what remains is sweet and beautiful in its simplicity. And the positively sublime cover of Roland Orzabal’s “Maybe Our Days Are Numbered” that caps off the album (which, sadly, isn’t available on Spotify) might be my favorite track of 2012.
Japandroids – Celebration Rock [spotify]
To my mind, Japandroids split the difference between Husker Du and The Hold Steady; naturally, then, I half-love and half-hate them. Ultimately, though, Celebration Rock’s bristling mix of adrenaline and acceleration overcome the shortcomings in Japandroids’ rosy-tinted teen-steam confabulations.
Joyce Manor – Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired [spotify]
On Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired, Joyce Manor took the leap from raggedy-but-straightforward punk band to something entirely unclassifiable. With a brevity befitting Guided By Voices, Joyce Manor leap from Los Campesinos-style rave-ups to glitchy Casio-core to vaguely Anglican jangle-pop. The centerpiece, a giddy, near-unrecognizable rewrite of “Video Killed The Radio Star” perfectly captures the band’s tunefully sloppy, infectiously reckless gusto, if not their unpinnable sound.
Justin Bieber – Believe [spotify]
Let’s get this out of the way upfront: Believe isn’t a great album. It’s overlong, it turns shmaltzy in the middle, some of the beats feel rewarmed. But when it’s good, it’s great; “As Long As You Love Me” rates as my favorite pop radio hit of 2012, by a longshot. Bieber is a singles artist, and Believe is packed with them.
Kevin Devine – Matter Of Time: KD&DGB Live EP [spotify]
Matter Of Time isn’t really an EP; its nine tracks include a twelve minute-long number that incorporates three different songs, and the entire collection weighs in at a hefty 49 minutes. It’s not really live either; rather it was banged out in the studio with Devine’s touring band. The result is the perfect mix of sonic clarity and raw performance; it’s the best of both worlds, and the best Kevin Devine has ever sounded on record.
mewithoutYou – Ten Stories [spotify]
Ten Stories splits the difference between the folky mewithoutYou of It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright and the yelp-y post-hardcore of their earlier work, integrating them in a way that’s more seamless than would seem possible. The most fully-rounded mwY album to date is also one of their best.
Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream [spotify]
Miguel may have titled his album Kaleidoscope Dream, but while the record doesn’t shy away from the hazy experimentalist thread that seemed so integral to R&B in 2012, those modes never come at the expense of rock-solid songcraft. Kaleidoscope Dream is proof that you can make the game fun and exciting without throwing out the rulebook entirely.
Misser – Every Day I Tell Myself I’m Going To Be A Better Person [spotify]
This collaboration between This Time Next Year’s Brad Wiseman and Transit’s Tim Landers might have begun as a side project, but the resulting album is as compelling as anything its constituent parts have released on their own, blending their affinities for (in turn) pop-punk and late-90s emo into something that resembles a gruffer take on early Taking Back Sunday.
MOD SUN – Happy As Fuck EP [spotify]
The King of the New Hippys was a little quieter this year than usual, focusing on kingdom-building projects like the release of his first book and a collaborative record under the group name Gordon Bombay. But the titular song of the lone EP he released as Mod Sun is also his most contagious track to date, an irresistible burst of sunshine and spirit(s). (It also bears an uncanny similarity to Miguel’s “Do You…”; Mod got there first).
Moving Mountains – New Light EP [spotify]
New Light is comprised of acoustic rerecordings of previously released Moving Mountains songs, but it’s far from perfunctory. Each of the four tracks here is changed significantly from it’s original recording; a few feel wholly reinvented. Moving Mountains’ last full length, Waves, was the band’s most aggressive record; New Light flips that script, with lots of open air and warm strings. It’s not at all what I’d grown to expect from the band, and I think it’s my favorite recording of theirs to date.
As much as I loved Owl City’s 2009 album Ocean Eyes, I was equally disappointed by its follow-up, the uninspired, same-y All Things Bright And Beautiful. Fortunately, it seems Adam Young was too; The Midsummer Station finds him taking more chances with his sound, alternately cranking up the dance beats and the guitars. The resulting album is fresh and loose.
Pentimento – Pentimento [bandcamp]
Pentimento’s brand of pop-punk includes tinges of Brand New, Transit, Make Do And Mend, Hot Water Music, and surely plenty of others I’m forgetting. But if they’re not doing anything original on their first LP, Pentimento understand that what made their predecessors successful had as much to do with their songs as their sound. Pentimento is derivative; that it reflects the best parts of its influences makes it enjoyable nonetheless.
R. Kelly – Write Me Back [spotify]
R. Kelly’s retro-tinged Love Letter seemed to garner a lot more attention in 2011 than the sort-of sequel Write Me Back did last year, but for my money the latter is the better of the two.Looking more to the 80’s and 90’s for inspiration than its 60’s soul-oriented predecessor, Write Me Back shies away from R&B’s increasingly heavy indie/experimental influence, offering instead a master class on tuneful traditionalism. “Feelin’ Single” ranks among my favorite tracks of 2012.
The Rocket Summer – Life Will Write The Words [spotify]
Bryce Avary’s one-man band The Rocket Summer have been a personal favorite for a long time now, but while Life Will Write The Words fits comfortably into the band’s canon, the old dog has a few new tricks up its mixed-metaphoric sleeve. Avary’s vocals, in particular, have never sounded so mature and full as they do here; the resemblance to Andrew McMahon is uncanny at times. Meanwhile, the songwriting remains as strong as ever.
Set It Off – Cinematics [spotify]
At a time when straightforward, no-frills punk is in vogue, Cinematics calls back to the entertainingly over-the-top dramatics of early My Chemical Romance and Panic! At The Disco. I caught Set It Off live a few times in 2012; one of their sets at SXSW ranks among the best I saw all year. Frontman Cody Carson’s got the theater-kid act down; fortunately, he’s also got the pipes to match.
Sharks – No Gods [spotify]
I’m not sure why No Gods seemed to get lost in the shuffle this year, but Sharks’ profile (in the US at least) seems near-invisible. That’s a shame – Sharks might not be reinventing the wheel, but their brand of no-frills heartland power-pop has tuneful appeal for miles. Perhaps it’s the lack of a killer single to hook people in; I’m happy to settle for a full album’s worth of great songs instead.
Sparks The Rescue – Sparks The Rescue EP [spotify]
Sparks The Rescue returned to independence in 2012, and the EP they released is a flashback to the last time they were label-free, with some of their heaviest, most emotionally charged tracks to date. As someone who loved the band’s poppy, melodic side, the weighty EP took a little time to cotton to, but beneath its amped-up sonics lie songs as hooky and compelling as anything Sparks The Rescue have done, and in time, the release won me over.
This Providence – Brier EP [spotify]
After three years caught in label limbo, This Providence made their escape in 2012 and released their comeback EP, Brier. No one noticed. That’s unfortunate – Brier ’s retro rock-and-roll vibes might have been a new look for the notoriously chameleonic act, but the songwriting and hooks that undergird it all were as strong as ever. Undeservedly ignored.
Thrice – Anthology [spotify]
This career-spanning live double-disc is more than a document of Thrice’s farewell tour, it’s a lasting testament to an act whose mastery of dynamics and irrepressible passion translated beyond the studio confines. Thrice were long one of my favorite acts to see in concert; Anthology makes it clear why.
Title Fight – Floral Green [spotify]
It’s been obvious for a while that there was more going on with Title Fight than with your run-of-the-mill pop-punk band, but I don’t think anyone was expecting this. Floral Green’s mixture of 90’s proto-emo, ripping post-hardcore and tuneful shoegaze-y noise refines the formula from the band’s debut LP Shed, stripping away anything that felt extraneous the first time through. Floral Green is the sound of a band coming into its own.
With The Punches – Seams & Stitches [spotify]
Seams & Stitches’ speedy, scrappy take on Rufio-esque melodic skatepunk isn’t anything novel, but in a year in which so much of the pop-punk scene seemed to be writing subtle variations (imitations if you’re feeling less generous) on the same song (I love The Wonder Years as much as the next guy, but that doesn’t mean I need ten more of them), With The Punches get points for bucking the trend, and bonus points for doing what they do so well.