Even with iTunes and Spotify and a slew of apps aimed at helping you find something worthwhile to listen to, a few great albums still may have passed you by this year. Or maybe you just couldn’t stop listening to “Call Me Maybe.” Either way, here are our picks for the best albums of 2012.
Guesting with Foo Fighters on the band’s Wasting Light album (and subsequent tour) inspired alternative-rock icon Bob Mould to get back to doing what he does best: crafting outrageously loud, fiercely melodic songs. Led by the growl of Mould’s guitar, Silver Age is a glorious return to his early 1990s work with Sugar, wringing every possible bit of sound out of the simple, three-piece setup.
Download: “Keep Believing”
Life is Good
(Def Jam, $16)
Very few rappers age gracefully. They get trapped in their past or tripped up trying to stay current. Life is Good is the blueprint for how it can, and should, be done. Almost two decades after his classic debut (1994’s Illmatic), Nas still delivers the most intricate and evocative verses out there, even if he’s now talking about fatherhood and his failed marriage to singer Kelis.
The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
The Idler Wheel … would probably merit inclusion even had it consisted solely of the album-closing “Hot Knife,” which sounds like Apple rescued it from some undiscovered Great American Songbook. Of course Apple, who is in the midst of one of pop’s most unexpectedly idiosyncratic career arcs, would stash the disc’s best track at the very end.
Download: “Hot Knife”
David Byrne & St. Vincent
Love This Giant
(4AD/Todo Mundo, $10)
Leave it to a pairing of New York’s old guard (former Talking Heads frontman Byrne) and its new (indie darling Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent) to come up with a surprising result: a spooky, horn-heavy impressionistic echo of the town they call home.
Download: “Dinner for Two”
(Young Turks, $8)
The English trio picks up where its 2009 debut left off with another midnight special. Coexist is stark and minimal but has a palpable heartbeat. It’s almost as if Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft are whispering their vocals directly into your ears — and saying what’s on your mind.
(Def Jam, $12)
Few R&B albums in recent memory have packed as much feeling into each song as Frank Ocean’s official debut, released after he made a name for himself on various online mix tapes and a high-profile appearance on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne. As Ocean switches between a soft purring baritone and a soaring falsetto, the emotion comes not from his excess but from his restraint.
Download: “Thinkin Bout You”
It’s easy to take Aimee Mann for granted. You shouldn’t. She’s been making smart, perfectly crafted records for 20 years, and Charmer is no exception. Mann is a master at hiding the bitter in the sweet, here wrapping her slightly cynical songs in a gauze of late-’70s synthesizers, making everything sound more upbeat than it actually is.
Gossamer so adeptly disguises singer Michael Angelakos’ demons behind cooing vocals and sugary keyboards that lines like “I’m so self-loathing it’s hard for me to see” take a long time to register. Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen said it best: It’s “an overwhelming album about being overwhelmed.”
Download: “I’ll Be Alright”
It’s stunning that two guys from Vancouver can make such an overpowering sound. The title of this album is exactly what it contains: rock at its purest, a celebration at its finest and everything else those two words could imply. Fitting that a year that saw the return of Bob Mould also got a release from a band ready to take his baton and run with it.
Download: “The House that Heaven Built”