Between the release of Faitheist, HCH’s most ambitious interfaith food packaging event, our blogathon, and the interfaith conference call set up by the SSA and IFYC, it was a pretty big year for NPS. Now that the year is out, it’s time to reflect on what made 2012 significant to us: the music. (Don’t forget to check out Vlad’s, Walker’s, and Stephen’s!)
When I was around 12 years old, I began a tradition that brought each year to a close. To conclude the year, I’d write a list of my favorite songs and albums released that year. When I got to college, I became the A&E editor of the school paper, and I got to do it for publication. Even after I graduated, I continued the tradition—sure enough, you can find overly exhaustive and hugely self-indulgent lists here on NonProphet Status from 2009 and 2010.
But then life got much busier. I kept listening to a lot of music—I spend at least half of my waking hours doing so—but I had less time to search out new artists and albums, and even less to put together a list of my favorites. But as I wrote in a soundtrack song list for Faitheist that I put together recently for Largehearted Boy, music is one of the ways I most readily find meaning.
This year has been one of the most challenging and exciting of my life, and I’ve relied on good music more than ever before. So, along with the other NPS writers, I decided to indulge in my tradition this year during a day I had off from work. (Don’t ask me about the state of my email inbox, please.) Below, a few of my favorites from the year.
1. John Grant, Pale Green Ghosts
Technically this is cheating, as Pale Green Ghosts won’t be released until March 2013. But I couldn’t leave it off the list, because it’s the best thing I listened to all year. Like his last album, the stunning Queen of Denmark (one of my all-time favorite records, which I unfortunately discovered exactly one week after publishing my list of favorite albums of 2010), Grant’s forthcoming release is a rich, complex, and unexpectedly charismatic set of songs that exemplify a man unafraid to forge new ground and open up old wounds. For his second solo album, Grant diversifies—ably demonstrating that, even after the jawdropping scope of Queen of Denmark, he still had some new tricks up his sleeve. His ability to marry dark humor with visceral emotion is unparalleled, and his voice is an international treasure. Grant is a once-in-a-generation songwriter, and the last song on the album just might be his masterpiece. Don’t miss this exquisitely heartbreaking and hilarious album when it is released later this year.
2. Lana Del Rey, Born to Die / Paradise
Music blogs and gossip websites were consumed for much of 2012 by a single inescapable question: “Is Lana Del Rey for real?” I frequently found myself asking the same question, but for different reasons. In my eyes, the rabid and often ugly inquisition concerning her authenticity missed the point; many a performer has changed his or her name, or written and sung about imagined experiences. “Authentic” or not, a more interesting question is whether a musician creates work that is compelling, convincing, and challenging. In 2012, no album was more rapturous, lush, languorous, and consuming than Born to Die and its appendix EP, Paradise. Questions will continue to swirl around Del Rey—especially regarding whether the way she sometimes plays with unquestionably problematic gender conventions is an intentional effort to subvert them, or just poorly conceived shock-bait—but, for now, her music is impossible to deny.
3. The Weeknd, Trilogy
A compilation of three previously released mixtapes (updated for this release and paired with a few new tracks), Trilogy is overflowing with haunting chronicles of consumption and regret. That these songs were originally given away for free says nothing about their quality; in fact, it suggests that there is much more to come from this relative newcomer. This stunning collection of cautionary tales about love gone wrong and the dark side of overindulgence could easily have become navel-gazing overkill—but, upon listening, you’ll be hard pressed to not revel in his stuttering, soulful despair.
4. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange
When Ocean came out this year, I wondered if his revelation would eclipse his artistic output. Would the focus shift entirely to this brave and important act, and would people be unable to focus on his music? When Channel Orange was released, such concerns were erased. Quite simply, this album speaks for itself. Ocean is an earnest and evocative storyteller, and on this album his poetic songwriting is matched by a gorgeous, flexible vocal range and a diverse array of sounds that leap across music genres. Some tracks are undeniably slick and forward-thinking; others are raw and classically soulful. This transcendent debut is more assured than many a musical veteran’s, and he’ll be one to watch for years to come.
5. Ellie Goulding, Halcyon
For much of this album, Goulding collaborates with Jim Eliot, who previously contributed to Will Young’s equally evocative Echoes. Though “Lights,” a song she released several years ago that became a massive radio hit in the U.S. in 2012, is bubbly and light, much of Halcyon is sumptuous, dark, and brooding. But it’s far from a buzzkill. Experimental and multifaceted, this is an album that twists and turns—tying the listener into knots that, even hours after listening, are difficult to untie.
6. The Tallest Man on Earth, There’s No Leaving Now
Tender and spare, There’s No Leaving Now is less of an emotional steamroller than his last—and, while it doesn’t hit as hard as The Wild Hunt, there is much to love here. Kristian Matsson’s voice is an incredible instrument, and his music and lyrics are wistful and packed with longing. Give this album several listens to let it sink in, and you’ll find yourself sinking along with Matsson.
7. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city
After an impossibly hyped mixtape, Kendrick Lamar emerges with grit and conviction on good kid, m.A.A.d city, and he doesn’t hold back. Packed with clever and honest commentary offered over dazzling, crisp production, this album turns hip-hop tropes on their head and reveals a flawed man with great intentions, surprising empathy, and a sense of humor. A landmark debut.
8. Garbage, Not Your Kind of People
The long-awaited return of Garbage finds them sounding as urgent as ever. Taking the hard edge of Bleed Like Me, the calculated perfection of beautifulgarbage, the anthemic electrorock of Version 2.0, and the signature sound of their debut, they mash these sounds together to create what may be their most cohesive album yet. Unlike a certain album from another popular band from the 90s that staged a return this year, Not Your Kind of People doesn’t sound like an aging group pandering to recent shifts in popular music. They stick to doing what they do best, and it works to great effect. They might have counted on nostalgia to drum up interest for a new album after years of silence, but this veering, punchy, thrilling rush of an album demonstrates why didn’t need to.
9. Nada Surf, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy
“Consistent” is one of those words that is often not meant as a compliment. Particularly when used to describe a musician’s catalog—more often than not, what someone is really saying when they use the word “consistent” is that a musician’s output is predictable and perhaps even boring. But Nada Surf is consistent in the best possible way, delivering a new album of pop-rock as solid, shimmering, and anthemic as any other they’ve released. If only every band was so, y’know, consistent.
10. Jessie Ware, Devotion
Listening to Devotion, one hears a splash of Sade and a dash of Aaliyah. But even the homages to other artists (it’s hard to listen to her cover of “What You Won’t Do For Love” from the album’s deluxe edition and not think of Aaliyah’s early hit “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number,” which famously incorporated lyrics from the song) feel consummately original. Confident, collected, contagious, and cool—Devotion sounds like a classic.
11. Rye Rye, Go! Pop! Bang!
M.I.A.’s protege more than holds her own on her long-delayed debut full length, delivering huge beats, quick-witted rhymes, and an irrepressible personality. From the first track to the last, this is a party that rarely misses a beat.
12. Tame Impala, Lonerism
Buzzy, fuzzy, and a bit scuzzy… Tame Impala’s stomping rock surprises by sounding so damn lovely. This is an album of layers, perfect for summer getaways and late nights in an empty apartment.
13. Azealia Banks, Fantasea / 1991
A mixtape and EP that easily surpass many artists’ full-fledged releases. If these are a taste of what’s to come with her debut full-length album, out this year, then get ready for a genre-shattering smash.
14. Marina and the Diamonds, Electra Heart
Whether it was Marina herself, or her label, or her public relations folks… Somewhere along the way, someone constructed a narrative that tried to pass this album off as a concept record where Marina is inhabiting a character, ironically performing as a sad rich girl in order to explore the questions of morality such stories raise. But this record isn’t really about that character; media narrative aside, Electra Heart is permeated by a sense of loss in two respects. Fundamentally, it’s a break-up record—but there’s also a sense that Marina let go of some of what made her debut album so charming and creative in order to descend into the intimacy of rejection and the escapism of faux superficiality it can inspire. But Electra Heart is ultimately saved by its massive pop hooks, its quiet moments of introspection, and Marina’s quirky personality, which no amount of conceptual posturing could hide.
15. Donkeyboy, Silver Moon
Silver Moon is entirely entertaining; equal parts light and dark, it is a gorgeously realized collection of progressive pop.
Bonus: Nicki Minaj, (the first half of) Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded
Though the second half of the album suffers under the weight of its maker’s desire to be the world’s biggest popstar, the talented rapper that upstaged everyone with her mixtapes and guest features reemerges with a fire in her belly on the first half of this album (as well as its rerelease, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded – The Re-Up). I don’t hate the serviceable power-pop that follows, but a part of me wishes she would leave that to others and stick to what she does best: delivering wicked, wild, and utterly wacky spitfire rhymes that reveal no greater ambition than the hat trick of delivering a barbed flow with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek.
After the jump, some very worthy honorable mentions…
Angel Haze, Classick
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel…
Avett Brothers, The Carpenter
Elijah Blake, Bijoux 22
Bright Light Bright Light, Make Me Believe In Hope
Brandi Carlile, Bear Creak
Cursive, I Am Gemini
Sky Ferreira, Ghost
Grizzly Bear, Shields
Norah Jones, Little Broken Hearts
Kitty Pryde, Haha, I’m Sorry
Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe
Sufjan Stevens, Silver & Gold
Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light
Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man in the Universe