MAGNET’s Top 25 Albums Of 2012

25. John K. Samson | Provincial (Anti-)
The subjects on the debut solo album by the frontman for Winnipeg’s the Weakerthans could double as source material for a compendium of hackneyed “You might be a Canadian if … ” jokes. John K. Samson writes about hockey, Icelandic sagas, the history of tuberculosis in Manitoba and the yawning stretches of tundra that revel in their obscure latitudes and geographical isolation. It takes a thousand tiny pickaxes to break through the emotional permafrost up there, and Samson arrives fully prepared for the task. With his laid-back lilt of a voice and the lessons learned from more than a decade spent in the parallel trenches of punk and folk rock, Samson aims squarely at his target audience of loners and library-science majors. He comes across as well-read, but not bookish; sentimental, but not overly precious. There’s actual thrills in Grand Theft Auto-playing grad-student anthem “When I Write My Master’s Thesis,” real pathos for the computer programmer in “Stop Error” and more than a little suspicion that “The Last And” is about star-crossed Simpsons characters Principal Skinner and Ms. Krabappel. Few songwriters have ever painted Samson’s corner of the world so smartly. —Matthew Fritch

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24. Nada Surf | The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy (Barsuk)
Arriving in January like an eyebrow-searing whoosh from a power-pop blast furnace, Nada Surf’s sixth album of originals is its most single-minded and succinct yet. Where 2008’s more experimental—and temperamental—Lucky got lost in its own head, The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy is an extrovert’s exercise in efficiency executed by a group (bolstered by former Guided By Voices guitarist Doug Gillard) that couldn’t be more locked in. Listen closely, and it would appear that bandleader Matthew Caws is pretty miffed about our sputtering planet and its inhabitants’ various environmental excesses. But even a scathing line like, “We signed up for extinction anyway, threw out our thinking caps and gave our minds away,” can’t kill the buzz at this pep rally. Rarely has an album with such a heavy conscience sounded so utterly weightless. When Caws sings, “I cannot believe the future’s happening to me,” on Stars’ breathless final track, he sounds more relieved than terrified. If the world’s gonna burn anyhow, we might as well dance on its ashes—and Nada Surf can be the house band. —Hobart Rowland

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23. Torche | Harmonicraft (Volcom)
Man, who doesn’t love going to the beach? The sun, sand, surf, overprocessed fattening food, glistening bodies, shark attacks, irresponsible behavior that usually involves picking your stumbling drunk buddy off some crying kid’s sand castle. It’s always a shit-ton of fun! The only thing that blows about the beach is the traditional musical selections of its denizens. If it’s not a Jeep Explorer-driving wingnut blasting the latest dance-floor crud straight outta the Czech Republic, it’s someone cranking a playlist seemingly comprised solely of David Lee Roth’s “Just A Gigolo” and Nickelback’s “Something In Your Mouth,” or the homeless dude on the boardwalk playing Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille” on a two-string banjo. What the beaches of the world need is something sunshine-y, yet possessing some amount of iron-clad testicular fortitude. Something that screams good times and partying, but also can get people raging and headbanging. Something with some fucking oomph! Torche is no stranger to writing songs with the chameleon-like ability to be showcased in basements, arenas and everything in between (especially where beer is being mainlined and a combo of Foo Fighters videos and Luis Buñuel films flicker in the background), and it just so happens that Harmonicraft highlights like “Letting Go,” “Kicking” and “Kiss Me Dudely” are the soundtrack to the most aggressive volleyball tournament this side of Bondi Beach. Pack up the cooler, gang! —Kevin Stewart-Panko

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22. Bruce Springsteen | Wrecking Ball (Columbia)
Call it a creative inevitability. But longtime social commentator Bruce Springsteen deftly follows his thematic sets damning the dark Bush years (Magic) and championing the ensuing Obama-campaign optimism (Working On A Dream) with this, a record firmly planted in the Occupy Wall Street here and now, where—as he snarls on faux-spiritual “Shackled And Drawn”—”Up on Bankers Hill the party’s goin’ strong/But down here below we’re shackled and drawn.” Indeed. But this time he taps into the zeitgeist via a righteously retro path—by boomeranging back to the classic protest songs he covered on his recent Pete Seeger tribute, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Which has always been the man’s greatest strength: assimilating classic genres, riffs, hooks and motifs, then spinning them into something completely new. Plus, he’s quite angry, which gives added oomph to flag-wavers and fist-shakers like war-veteran ode “We Take Care Of Our Own,” an every-man-for-himself “Easy Money,” gospel/hip-hop prayer “Rocky Ground,” somber unemployment dirge “Jack Of All Trades” and another traditional-sounding Irish jig, “Death To My Hometown.” Its plea for fat-cat justice—“Send the robber barons straight to hell … whose crimes have gone unpunished now, who walk the streets as free men now”—is followed by a boo-yah shotgun blast. Nothing in 2012 felt more timely or invigorating. —Tom Lanham

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21. Alabama Shakes | Boys & Girls (ATO)
Boys & Girls, the rather splendid debut by the hugely hyped Alabama Shakes, is the sound of a full-blown love affair with deep-fried Southern rock ‘n’ soul. It’s the sweat-drenched grooves of vintage Muscle Shoals. And Stax. And Hi Records. It’s Otis and Al Green and Willie Mitchell. It’s a record where the specters of Janis Joplin, “Proud Mary”-era Tina Turner and the brassy, ballsy Aretha of “Respect” loom especially large. It’s an album where the last four decades cease to exist, a self-contained world where tube amps crackle and hum, fingers slide audibly down Fender frets and snare drums crack just so. In short, it’s a record that treads that perilously fine line between pointless retro-revivalism, blatant pastiche and a genuine heartfelt love for a specific sound and era. But it’s one that the band pulls off with considerable aplomb, thanks to the obvious, unadulterated joy, enthusiasm and passion contained within. It’s a simple, uncomplicated pleasure (with a seismic, earth-shaking vocal performance by Brittany Howard) that should be enjoyed wholly within its own terms, an album that does exactly what it says on the tin. And sometimes, really, that’s all you need. Plus, with kudos from the likes of Booker T. Jones and Jack White, who knows where they’ll go next? —Neil Ferguson

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20. Redd Kross | Researching The Blues (Merge)
You were born in an age of mockery, which would be followed by a decade of irony. You were 11 years old when you played your first gig, opening for Black Flag. Your bass was bigger than you. You named your band after the crucifix masturbation scene in The Exorcist. Early on, you were fascinated by pop culture gone horribly wrong, and you wrote punky odes to Linda Blair, Mackenzie Phillips and Frosted Flakes. You covered Charlie Manson. “No metal sluts or punk-rock ruts” was your motto. You recorded six albums before calling it quits in 1997. A bunch of stuff happened, not the least of which was you adding bass to every song on the White Stripes’ Red Blood Cells. Fast forward to 2012: You release a new album. It’s not just one of the best albums of the year—it’s the best album of your career. The title track is Nuggets-worthy ’60s garage punk. “Uglier” has the greatest KISS chorus never made. “Dracula’s Daughter” is, without irony, one of the prettiest songs ever made. “Stay Away From Downtown” is the greatest power-pop song since Cheap met Trick. Your name is Steve McDonald, your band is called Redd Kross, and the album is Researching The Blues. —Jonathan Valania

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19. Grizzly Bear | Shields (Warp)
The dominant narrative in the flurry of press surrounding Shields is that it was far from an easy album to make. Grizzly Bear, one of the most compelling bands to emerge in the last decade, sloughed through its creation despite having every reason to labor confidently. The record’s immediate predecessors, Yellow House and Veckatimest, made fans of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Jay-Z, respectively, and nearly everyone, from the most stringent critics to late-night TV hosts, fawned unselfconsciously. But doubt and frustration colored early attempts at writing new music anyway. A once intimate connection was now not so giving, the time spent apart after touring on Veckatimest threatening to obfuscate inspiration rather than reveal it. Then, after a mostly failed attempt to begin again in Marfa, Texas, the four-piece returned to Cape Cod, Mass., where the band’s signature aesthetic—sullen yet rhythmic, awash in folk, rock, pop and jazz—had been best nurtured for years. And things started clicking. New methods of collaboration were explored. Confidence re-emerged, and with it a new batch of songs that collected all the best things about Grizzly Bear’s earlier work and enhanced them considerably. Woven into the songs’ fabric is the struggle of their creation: Like the humans that wrought them, they are beautiful, triumphant messes. And that struggle, necessary and important, is what sets Shields apart from most of what we heard this year. —Ryan Burleson

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18. Spiritualized | Sweet Heart Sweet Light (Fat Possum)
It’s no surprise that Sweet Heart Sweet Light is pure rock classicism. Ever since Spiritualized brilliantly reinvented everything from Pet Sounds to Pachelbel on 1997’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, spiritual center Jason Pierce has put his album budgets toward carbon-casting the rock classics of old. 2001’s Let It Come Down was a 115-session musician tribute to Phil Spector’s “wall of sound,” 2008’s Songs In A&E a series of Van Zandt pastorals dotted by the rare garage-rock nugget, and 2003’s Amazing Grace in-between a down and dirty breccia of the Stooges and its titular gospel hymns. So no, it’s not particularly surprising that Sweet Heart features a song called “Hey Jane,” and that it even sounds like a Lou Reed epic. Or that Pierce was bold enough, on “Mary,” to cop snatches of lyric, melody and name from an early Can cornerstone. It doesn’t surprise that much of the rest sounds somewhere between Bowie and the Beatles. And, coming from Pierce, it certainly doesn’t surprise just how many times Jesus, the radio and rock ‘n’ roll bear reverent mention. What does surprise—coming from Pierce, even—is just how well it all works. Better than it has in 15 years. Sweet Heart may be everything we expect from Spiritualized and a little bit more, but it’s one of the year’s biggest shocks by simple virtue of reaching for the classics on its own terms, and making it. In the age of the backward glance, Pierce proves it’s possible not just to reference, but to revive. —Jakob Dorof

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17. Jack White | Blunderbuss (Third Man/Columbia)
Strap on your bullshit detector, sift through the miasma of mythology surrounding Jack White, sit down with Blunderbuss, and you still won’t know the man any better. The facts are these: This is White’s first record as a solo artist, outside of the White Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather clans, and it’s his first since his divorce from folk thrush Karen Elson. The monochromatic album art suits White’s electric blues and his black-and-blue lyrics, but for all the sonic bombast of “Sixteen Saltines” or “Weep Themselves To Sleep,” and bitter pronouncements on songs like “Hypocritical Kiss,” it feels more like an exercise in pain and paranoia than an exorcism. That’s no knock on White; he and his studio hands construct such a reasonable facsimile of emotion that all you can do is admire the craftsmanship until you no longer care to speculate about how it might differ from whatever genuine emotions are hidden beneath the surface. “I won’t let love disrupt, corrupt or interrupt me,” White sings with Ruby Amanfu on “Love Interruption,” which savors the destructive qualities of transformation while barely putting up a fight. You don’t have to take his word for it: Blunderbuss, as a whole, is all the proof he needs. —M.J. Fine

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16. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti | Mature Themes (4AD)
To be sure, from a technical point of view, the differences between Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti 1.0 and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti 2.0 are night and day: the former all drugs, tape crackle, slathered greasepaint and mouth drums birthed in solo bedroom sessions; the latter ubiquitous half-cocked interview spew, studio budgets, semi-name producers and breathless fanboy anticipation. But look at what hasn’t changed. Is Ariel Rosenberg still receiving strong signals from the platonic, bizarre/Southland Tales-esque ideal of an ’80s AM-radio dynamo? He totally is. Does his songwriting remain capable of surprisingly tender nuances? It does. Is the guy still kookier than a cuckoo clock and twice as misanthropic? Hells yes. After 2010’s Before Today, Mature Themes is APHG 2.0’s second salvo, and it’s no less alien(ated)—or essential—than anything preceding it. Gross-outs explode into outsider anthems—I’m thinking particularly of “Symphony Of The Nymph,” which seems like it could be about a minor Thomas Pynchon character. Schnitzels get big-upped; moldy turntable prog is spun into insidious underdog gold again and again; everyone joins hands and wanders off into the drone wilderness. That slightness that seems to afflict Themes early on wanes, in a big way, after you’ve lived with it for a while, even if to admire Rosenberg isn’t necessarily to trust him. In this context, “I’m not real, and I won’t call you” stands out as a warning and a promise. —Raymond Cummings

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15. Sharon Van Etten | Tramp (Jagjaguwar)
Sharon Van Etten’s face fills the cover of Tramp border-to-border. And that makes perfect sense, because Van Etten’s third LP is packed to the gunwales not only with her formidable songwriting talent, but unfailingly confident performances. There’s nary a misstep on Tramp, which sounds like the album Van Etten’s been leading up to for a few years now: muscular, focused and commanding. The record has a fuller production sound than 2009’s Because I Was In Love or 2010’s Epic, but it’s one that never overwhelms her fine-sandpaper voice. And as usual, it’s that voice, the earned sound of its delivery, that sells these 12 songs about … about? … well, turns out that’s part of the wonder of the record. Van Etten’s lyrical style tends to the fragmentary, and some lines present only a well-chosen word, a phrase, a partial sentence. Too much of this sort of approach would have made Tramp sound tiresomely obscurantist, but the best songs, like “Give Out” and “Kevin’s,” sound more like a fragmentary private record of loss and discovery, pages from a torn but well-written journal you find in some unexpected space where they’d slipped years ago. And Van Etten is a smart enough writer to know that the right fragmentary details can sometimes lead listeners to keener, more personal reactions. On Tramp, the glass is half-full, but what a concentrated draught that glass provides. —Eric Waggoner

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14. OFF! | OFF! (Vice)
“Feelings are meant to be hurt!” There’s a reason this band’s name is scrawled in all caps followed by an exclamation point—and should be preceded by either “PISSED,” a certain four-letter bomb or both. Led by 57-year-old ex-Black Flag/Circle Jerks frontmaniac Keith Morris, OFF! is the hardcore elder statesmen you invite over to your house, assuming that age and maturity have chilled them the fuck out, only to find they’ve brought their amps, broken your furniture and puked on your rug. No time for polite introductions here, as most tracks clock in at less than 60 seconds of spit and snarl. These aren’t songs—they’re sermons, preaching on matters both grand (manipulation of the U.S. Constitution, warmongering, the end of civilization) and intimate (drugs, assholes). Not a single false note is struck, as Morris’ exhortations rise up from someplace deep, furious and urgent. “You pushed me in a corner/What did you expect?” he barks, while Dimitri Coats uncorks one relentless riff after the next. Loud. Fast. Rude. Think punk is dead? OFF!’s got news for you. —Richard Rys

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13. Justin Townes Earle | Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now (Bloodshot)
2012 was a fine year for brass sections, which helped bolster excellent new albums by the Mountain Goats and David Byrne & St. Vincent, among others, but some of the loveliest, most understated rock ‘n’ roll horn-playing came on this quiet gem, Justin Townes Earle’s fifth record in six years and his finest yet. The album’s mouthful of a title can’t quite decide whether it wants to be cocky or resigned and fatalistic, but these songs definitely tend toward the latter. Indeed, he could’ve just stuck with the title’s first three words, which become something of an implicit mantra—it’s in the rueful refrain of “Won’t Be The Last Time”; it’s the counsel he gives to a hard-up friend, vainly hoping for her life to improve, on “Unfortunately, Anna”; it’s the subtext to Earle’s repeatedly declared intentions to be “a better man.” Nothing’s gonna change—except love, of course, which can and probably will go sour. The horns, however, help keep things from getting all too forlorn—softening the hard edges of his broken-hearted blues, cushioning the blows and lending a warmth and looseness to the occasional up-tempo diversions: reckless rave-up “Baby’s Got A Bad Idea” and the sprightly, soul-soaked “Memphis In The Rain”—as much as the bleary-eyed ballads that make up the bulk of the album. —K. Ross Hoffman

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12. Baroness | Yellow & Green (Relapse)
Let’s pretend for a moment that 2012 was just another year in Baroness’ career, marked by superlative double release Yellow & Green—albums that made butt-hurt metal kids whine about how supposedly un-brutal the slower, softer moments were. Their skepticism spurred me to lift a cheek and blow a hot one in their direction. Yellow & Green packed some of the most magnificent, stirring music of the year. Songs were born somewhere between the Elysian Fields and dark, crumbling catacombs. “Take My Bones Away,” “March To The Sea,” “Board Up The House” and “The Line Between” provided the mighty, rousing howl of John Baizley and the galloping rhythms that put Baroness on the map. But the energy was different. There was a glow, an underlying solemnity and oracular feel to the music and lyrics. As it turned out, 2012 wasn’t just any old year for the quartet. The band almost died in a terrifying tour-bus accident, marking what could have been the end of Baroness’s ride on the color wheel. Unsurprisingly, Yellow & Green became that much more coveted among fans. It’s difficult to play “Back Where I Belong” and “Psalms Alive” without imagining the Grim Reaper singing along. Luckily, that bastard came up short, while fans’ fulfillment grew exponentially. —Jeanne Fury

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11. Bob Dylan | Tempest (Columbia)
The day we stop scratching our heads about the new Bob Dylan album is the day the terrorists win. Mercifully, this one’s no exception, and the questions abound: What does a “Duquesne Whistle” sound like? Why a song about John Lennon, and why now? Why does Leonardo DiCaprio appear in a 14-minute song about the sinking of the Titanic? How many razor blades must one man gargle before you call him a man who sings like this? How can anyone’s 36th album possibly be good, let alone great? The answers to your questions in the order they appear are as follows: It sounds like Charlie Sexton’s magic harp of guitar, Tempest’s secret weapon. There is no wrong time to write a song about John Lennon. Because he’s not singing about the Titanic; he’s singing about America. Eight. Because Bob Dylan is different than you and me. He’s stumbled on the side of 12 misty mountains. He’s walked down six crooked highways. He’s stepped in the middle of seven sad forests. He’s heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley. He’s heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter. And he vowed then and there, with God as his witness, that the same thing would never happen to him. —Jonathan Valania

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10. Sleigh Bells | Reign Of Terror (Mom + Pop)
Like getting smacked in the temple with a sneaker full of rock salt and thumbtacks. That’s how Sleigh Bells’ Reign Of Terror sounds on opening listen, all treble-register bleed and insistent high-end distorted guitar riffs. Then you listen again, and once more, and the subtler details emerge: Alexis Krauss’ feathery vocals, occasionally so light and airy they shouldn’t carry above the music, yet somehow do; the group handclaps of “Crush,” which might or might not be a dig at overblown stadium rock, and somehow come off funny and effective whichever the case might be; and the earnest heart that pervades the whole album, as on the cheekily titled “Leader Of The Pack” or the wistful “You Lost Me.” Reign Of Terror is a much less chaotic album than it appears, on first listen. You get the sense that Krauss and guitarist Derek Miller wanted the whole thing to feel a little unhinged, but Miller’s earnest production hand ties the record together in a way that’s not only effective but admirable, given that the LP sounds like genuinely pop-friendly experimental skronk. That’s a tough balance to achieve, and usually the attempt ends up sounding schizophrenic. Sleigh Bells pulled it off, though, and the result is one of the most interesting margin-walking albums of the year. —Eric Waggoner

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9. The db’s | Falling Off The Sky (Bar/None)
For those who championed the dB’s in the early 1980s, it may be tempting to play a game of what-if. What if the band had found a comfortable niche on an indie label with decent distribution? What if the classic lineup—nimble singer/songwriters Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey, plus the locked-in rhythm section of Gene Holder and Will Rigby—had managed to stick together instead of splintering into solo projects? We’ll never know, because Falling Off The Sky, their first release in 30 years, doesn’t pick up where they left off. Holsapple sums it up on “That Time Is Gone,” the garage-y opening track. Instead, the dB’s pull off something more difficult and rewarding by building on their decades-long relationships in a way that’s ultimately fresher and deeper than merely trying to recreate their former formula. The passing of time is both text and subtext on Stamey’s stately “Far Away And Long Ago” and “Before We Were Born,” and Holsapple addresses old rifts on the poppy “World To Cry” and the gently regretful “I Didn’t Mean To Say That.” Whether Falling Off The Sky turns out to be the band’s epilogue or the first chapter of a long-delayed sequel, it’s a privilege to hear it here and now. —M.J. Fine

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8. Flying Lotus | Until The Quiet Comes (Warp)
After releasing three albums to increasing acclaim, each a further refinement on a central motif of bustling-hive electronica full of hyperactive shifts and tunnel-maze twists, it was fair to wonder what Flying Lotus might do next. How to follow up dizzyingly complex, intricate and immersive 2010 album Cosmogramma, which can be viewed as something of a breakout for L.A. resident Steven Ellison? What more could he possibly add to the maximalist opus? The answer, it seems, is nothing; subtraction is the method of choice for Ellison’s Cosmogramma follow-up, the appropriately titled Until The Quiet Comes. The more relaxed pacing on Quiet lets FlyLo traipse through moody, murky, Burial-esque dubstep, spacious proto-fusion and ambient psych/lounge with ease. His vocal collaborators—Thom Yorke, Erykah Badu, Niki Randa—appear as specters, never lingering too long over Ellison’s instrumental architecture. This time around, Ellison seems no less focused on the details or the energy of his compositions. There’s still plenty going on between the stacked layers of percussion and melodic snippets, and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner carves plenty of active bass lines through the more open arrangements. But in this newfound restraint, FlyLo proves the minimalist maxim; in this case, less is so much more. —Bryan C. Reed

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7. Swans | The Seer (Young God)
While promoting triumphant 2010 return effort My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, Swans founder/frontman Michael Gira repeatedly expressed regret at his decision to trim the drone-laden introduction to the album’s mammoth-sized opening track, “No Words/No Thoughts,” down to four minutes, citing “contemptible cowardice” on his own part. Well, no one calls Michael Gira a coward twice, as it turns out—not even himself, as said cowardice was nowhere to be found on the band’s ensuing reunion tour (which saw Gira and Co. routinely open their shows with an extended 30-minute take on “No Words/No Thoughts”), nor was there any trace of it on that album’s follow-up, 2012’s two-hour, three-LP odyssey. From the striking ambience of “A Piece Of The Sky” to “Song For A Warrior” (a surprisingly apropos acoustic duet with Karen O), The Seer is rife with proof that the band is still very capable of pushing its sound into uncharted territory even some three decades into its career; though “Avatar” (blistering, guitars-to-high-heaven coda and all), along with the record’s half-hour molten monolith of a title track, do well to erase any and all doubt that this is the very same Swans as ever. —Möhammad Choudhery

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6. Japandroids | Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)
Earlier in 2012, a MAGNET review of Celebration Rock decried its unrelenting assault on tender ears, proclaiming that “Japandroids party too hard.” As if this were a bad thing. My advice? Ignore the tut-tutting wet blankets in the corner, arms crossed. If the bartender signals last call, take it as a challenge. Hit the accelerator. Surrender to your raging id. Hoist your beer and “yell like hell to the heavens.” For those of us on the other side of 40, dive-bar-drinking days largely behind us, Celebration Rock is both a call to arms and a reminder of the good old days (“Remember that night you were already in bed, said, ‘Fuck it,’ got up to drink with me instead?”). For a boozy younger generation, well, they finally get their own version of the Replacements. This is pure, unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll, with the guitars loud, drums crashing, choruses anthemic and more shouted “whoa-oh”s than a punk-rock music festival. So, don’t overthink it, OK? Let yourself get caught up in the revelry. And to borrow a line from “The House That Heaven Built,” “If they try to slow you down, tell ’em all to go to hell.” —Matt Ryan

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5. Cat Power | Sun (Matador)
Used to be that Cat Power was music for the melancholy. Not a source of cheer or even necessarily solace, but a more of a reflection. Albums like 1998’s Moon Pix and 2003’s You Are Free had stunning arrangements and haunting performances, but were stewed in sadness and deep, introverted depression. Beautiful stuff, unquestionably, but sometimes you had to work up the motivation to listen. No so with Sun. There’s a briskness to it, a life-affirming vigor: swift tempos, sharp playing, a bold use of Auto-Tune and samples (occasionally corny ones—see the stock-audio eagle screech on “Cherokee”). Nevertheless, these pop devices still serve the core concerns of singer/songwriter Chan Marshall. There is much pain in this album—hell, on the opening lyric, “Never knew pain like this/Everyone dies”—but here the motivation is not to dwell, but to overcome. There’s worldly reality check “Ruin,” a lively taxonomy of cities and countries to put into perspective the distinctly American “bitchin’, complainin’” of its refrain. There’s “Silent Machine,” a gnarly rocker about confronting Catholic guilt. And in case you missed the point, soaring 10-minute set piece “Nothin’ But Time” brings it home in a brilliant catharsis: “You wanna live, you wanna live.” On Sun, Cat Power has created a beacon of hope that everyone, downtrodden or not, can look to. —John Vettese

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4. Guided By Voices | Let’s Go Eat The Factory / Class Clown Spots A UFO / The Bears For Lunch (GBV Inc)
If Bob Pollard were an MLB pitcher (he did hurl a no-hitter in college), he’d be a Nolan Ryan-type anomaly—an aging, old-school fireballer still bringing the heat—rather than a Jamie Moyer-esque relic sneaking by on guile. Shaky analogy aside, how does one explain GBV striking out the side in 2012 with Let’s Go Eat The Factory, Class Clown Spots A UFO and The Bears For Lunch? Usually when groups reunite, they’ll maybe tack on a couple of rote new songs onto a collection of “greatest hits,” or create some lame LP that makes you wonder why they bothered. But Pollard and the classic/current lineup (bassist Greg Demos, drummer Kevin Fennell, guitarist Mitch Mitchell and guitarist/second songwriter Tobin Sprout) have surprisingly—or not, to those familiar with Pollard’s ever-present brilliance—spun a 2010-’11 feel-good tour into a fantastic second spurt of growth, with 61 tunes that rival (and occasionally surpass) the best stuff from their legendary earlier incarnation. With at least one record in the can for next year—April’s English Little League (look, it’s baseball again)—and likely more to follow, Pollard’s once again icing down his golden arm, ready to take the hill. Bet on more gems for the highlight reel. —Matt Hickey

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3. Beach House | Bloom (Sub Pop)
Beach houses aren’t thought of as paragons of timeliness. Timelessness, sure. Like an alarm set in reverse, every other year we are readily drugged by Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally into another counterclockwise reverie. Teen Dream captured MAGNET’s top honor in 2010, the duo’s third LP growing more lucid as it goes further under, its hazy, dazing visions the next morning looking as clear as day. And, oh, is it ever happening again: Transylvanian organs, chiffon yawns that transfer something far deeper than sleep, guitar arpeggios cutting swaths like harbor beacons through the nautical-by-nature fog. It’s telling that the most apt criticisms of Beach House—the endless drones, the undying, single-minded devotion to saturating a single shade of gray—are the very aspects its fans admire the most. But those critics also miss the more important details: how the minute changes in the band from album to album evoke the cumulative aging effects of the years broken down into hourglass minutes; how Legrand’s teengirl fantasies unfurled into womanly fears; how, without adding much of anything, Scally’s oscillating tones became shaken snow globes. More of the same, they say. We say: More of the same. —Noah Bonaparte Pais

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2. Ty Segall | Twins (Drag City) / Ty Segall Band | Slaughterhouse (In The Red) / Ty Segall & White Fence | Hair (Drag City)
Segallmania didn’t exactly captivate popular culture with a renewed fervor for garage rock (didn’t that already happen a decade ago with the White Stripes, Hives, et al?), but it wasn’t due to lack of effort. Ty Segall issued three albums in 2012: psychedelic freakout Hair, Stooges fuzz bomb Slaughterhouse and concise capstone Twins, which splits the stylistic difference between the first two. There are common threads throughout: a gift for textured guitar distortion, an infuriatingly adolescent obsession with horror-movie imagery and dopey acid-trip tropes, and—this is decidedly unsexy, but not to be discounted—king-size reverb from the drum kit. The most fascinating thing about the 26-year-old Segall, however, is to imagine what he’ll become: a durable firebrand in the vein of Jon Spencer, a spazzy punk like Jay Reatard, the Kurt Cobain of the San Francisco garage-rock scene. (NB: That the latter two musicians are deceased is not to suggest Segall’s life is in danger.) Forgive the fantasy-league predictions and pundit-speak, but when Segall puts it all together into a focused, well-edited package, we could be witness to a rare but long-awaited seismic shift in rock ‘n’ roll. —Matthew Fritch

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1. The Walkmen | Heaven (Fat Possum)
A decade ago, when the Walkmen released debut full-length Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, their peers were fellow New York City cooler-than-thou rockers like the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol. While the Walkmen’s star might not have ascended as quickly as those bands’, they have managed to outlast them in long-term relevance, and in a career that—in 2012—ascended to Heaven. The Walkmen sound is still distinct, a combination of Hamilton Leithauser’s passionate crooning and Paul Maroon’s trebly guitar lines, buoyed by Walter Martin’s swirling organ and the expert rhythm section of bassist Pete Bauer and drummer Matt Barrick. But Heaven is remarkable for its uniform brilliance. It contains its share of immediate, visceral and loud tracks, such as the chugging “Heartbreaker,” the unhinged “The Love You Love” and the trembling “Nightingales,” but it finds its heart in the ballads, from the lovely harmonies of “We Can’t Be Beat” to the ominous, insistent “Line By Line” to the rolling, swaying “Song For Leigh.” Back in 2002, the Walkmen proclaimed “We’ve Been Had.” Now, they’re singing “We Can’t Be Beat,” and this year, they’re right. —Steve Klinge

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12 Comments

  1. Gabo
    Posted December 7, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    nice list! good to see The Walkmen #1!

  2. farmertan
    Posted December 7, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    Great list. Seeing that Grimes is not on it and on every other list I’be seen so far. Always love Magnet.

  3. Steve
    Posted December 11, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Hate to say it, but this list really feels preordained and despairingly homogenous. But for the omission of Frank Ocean, in a blind taste test I wouldn’t know if this were Spin, Paste, Mojo, Uncut, NME, NPR, rinse and repeat. Not that I thought Channel Orange was great (daring does not a classic make), but if ever a list eulogized landfill indie, this one’s it.

  4. monkeytot
    Posted December 12, 2012 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    After 18 years, The Bears For Breakfast is the worthy successor to GBV’s masterpiece Bee Thousand!! One of thier bestest records!

  5. divineElectric
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    Jeanne Fury, adding ‘butt-hurt’ to one’s vocabulary is such a sad cry for cred.

  6. Tlombor
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Good list. I would have had Jeff The Brotherhood up there near the top.

  7. memphx
    Posted December 19, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Best album of the year is Father John Misty. Not even close. Didn’t even make the top 25?

  8. Sam Pinola
    Posted December 20, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    On open letter to the Staff at Magnet,

    I love your magazine. I stay with you even though as time has gone on your pages have drifted more and more into the land of beards and Dadcore. I know Unsane will never be on the cover and the Khyber Pass isn’t open anymore, but Magnet I am just not tough enough to switch to Decibel. What happened top your pages?
    3 of my favorite albums form 2012 made your best of list but your staff missed some great music this year. I have taken the time to try and make a stink about this.
    Here are the 12 albums that you missed in 2012:

    12.
    The Melvins – Bulls & Bees E.P.
    You could have downloaded this EP for free from the Melvins. If you didn’t, you could have picked up a limited edition 10”. If you missed both chances to get this I don’t know what to tell you except watch my postings for stuff like this or hope they issue this E.P. again. The opener, The War On Wisdom, is now one of my favorite songs that Buzzo has ever written. I know that one of the few problems with The Melvins is you never know what version of The Melvins you are getting. This is the King Buzzo/Dale Crover/Big Business version of The Melvins, the version that has made a string of albums that are consistently scaring your neighbors. The first time I played this EP a crown popped out of my mouth because it rocks so much. It’s just a bone shaking good time. I’d say more but it’s only an EP. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6ggvDpEvvc
    11.
    Mission of Burma – Unsound
    I’m going to borrow a phrase from my friend, Mission of Burma are the “Band behind the Band”. Unsound is proof that life is still moving forward for Mission of Burma who have made more consistently tight interesting albums since reforming than anyone expected. Semi-Pseudo Sort Of Plan ranks among the best tunes that have ever come out of Mission of Burma. Jagged guitar lines that cross just as jagged bass lines, and those 3 part harmonies. This is a band at the peak of their game, and I think they have a few more albums left in them. Every member of this band carries their own wait. I saw them on tour this past year. The turnout for the show was really disappointing and sparsely attended. I’d also swear that 80% of the people at that show are in local bands or have heavy ties to the local music community. You are missing out on something: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzkCV5gijsY

    10.
    Disappears – Pre Language
    Replicate, the first track off of Pre Language is deceptive Track. As you get sucked into a Kraut Rock groove and when you don’t expect it the song explodes. This is the 3rd album for Disappears and it was a tough sell for me personally. I didn’t care for their earlier work because I really thought it was boring like the way I find Interpol boring (and disappointing). I was curious when I read that Steve Shelly (Sonic Youth, Crucifucks) had joined Disappears as their new drummer. Well that tom-pounding veteran must have whipped the rest of Disappears into shape. Pre Language is a focused dark Post Punk album with an obvious nod to the explosive side of 80’s American Indie rock. That means squalls of guitar noise from time to time. The two guitar players manage to give each other plenty of room while the propulsive bass works its way right down the middle. Steve Shelly holds the whole thing together. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgANNJDFoME
    9.
    Vilipend – Inamorta
    Hello Canada. Thank you for sending us Vilipend on tour. I went to Kung-Fu Necktie in Philadelphia earlier this past summer to catch my favorite local band, Carved-Up. On the same show was Canada’s Vilipend. What an experience that was. If your band is talented I will watch you play. If you are really good I will buy your album. If your album floors me I will include it in my year end album list. Inamorta is a dark intense slab of hardcore. Vilipend are heavy on the mid-temp grooves. This is angry music, and it goes well with black coffee and driving before dawn. Inamorta takes no prisoners as the songs unfold. It’s only 8 songs long, but what a complete song cycle and accurate representation of the live show. The album closer, Meant To Be, has the year’s best guitar solo. It’s the kind of harmonized solo that is not usually found on a hardcore album. Talk about taste, they only let the solo last for 2 bars so it never gets tired. I have a feeling that this guy could shred for a while but has enough control to keep it tight. Inamorta is brutal and sad. This isn’t a feel good album but it is an excellent example of what heavy music can be when it stays smart and angry. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GegIXCi60io

    8.
    Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet On Sky
    I bet on Dinosaur Jr. In a parallel universe J. Mascis is revered by guitar nerds around the globe. It’s a universe where I Bet On Sky goes platinum and you can’t walk into a Guitar Center without hearing some kid trying to play Watch The Corners on an out of tune guitar while his parents just stand there smiling. 3 albums into a reunion of the original line-up, J. Murph and Lou are still giving me hope for middle age. I Bet On Sky is a little sadder at times than the previous albums, but that doesn’t mean that the hooks aren’t strong. Dinosaur Jr. get as close as I will ever come to liking a jam band. On I Know It So Well the band stretches out a little, the cowbell starts pounding and the wah-wah guitar is raging the whole time. It’s not “the Phish” but thank God for that fact. I don’t through this around lightly, but the guitars on I Bet On Sky cascade like mountain ranges full of gain and reverb from all of the majestic riffing. The interplay between the guitar and bass is just critical. The bass is just as distorted as the guitar and you can’t tell who is playing what chord. And thank you for letting Lou sing a little more on this album. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpsGcnLEZbk

    7.
    Corrosion of Conformity – s/t
    Go to shows, see live music and get knocked on your ass by a band that you kind of forgot about. Technocracy (which still spends plenty of time on my turntable) and Animosity are the albums that I think are timeless examples of Metal and Hardcore . . . Thrash if you will. Some of their 90’s output like Blind and Deliverance are swampy Metal classics too but I must be honest with you and tell you I have paid attention to them in a while ignoring their recent albums. Seeing them blow away 4 other bands this summer changed that. Here is another album I bought right at the show. This self-titled album was made by C.O.C. stripped down to a trio of Woody Weatherman, Reed Mullin and Mike Dean. When I saw them in Philadelphia they put all of the other bands to shame. 3 guys moving in and out of different tempos, hardcore one minute, straight up Sabbath the next without even trying and sometimes all within the same song. Mike Dean is an outstanding bass player, like a more fluid Geezer Butler. Serpentine bass lines highlight this album and the rhythm section makes all of the difference. C.O.C. understands that you need to temper the thrashy moments with a groove and here is an example of just that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBam9Hx_PSw

    6.
    Cancer Bats – Dead Set On Living
    Go to shows. Go to show if someone invites you, even if you don’t know the band. The Cancer Bats caught me off-guard as an opening band at a show I went to this year; they were not even the band we were there to see. They were the best band of the night so I bought their most recent album from their merch table. I asked the kid on the other side which album had the most songs from tonight’s set and I went home a copy of Dead Set On Living. See when I was watching them just kill it on stage; I kept thinking that the singer was an old Hardcore kid. No Opera-Hand for this guy. I was struck by the mixture of Sludge Metal, Hardcore and Southern Rock that I was getting assaulted by from a singer who just couldn’t stand still. Cancer Bats are another great Canadian band to show up on my radar this year. Dead Set On Living has something else going for it that is lacking in a lot of heavy music because it’s one of the most positive records I’ve heard in a while. It’s a cycle of songs about surviving, hope recovery and faith. This isn’t evident on your first spin but the title of the album should give you a hint. Also, the guitar player just kicks ass. He packs more pinched harmonics into his riffs than Tommy Victor in his prime. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6tJUlx51sw

    5.
    Ceremony – Zoo
    Ceremony used to play Hardcore. I had no idea. They were not on my radar, and I never heard any of their other albums before Zoo. Zoo isn’t Hardcore so I imagine that this album has derailed longtime fans but not me. (Subjective note: My idea of what Hardcore sounds like is different from what the kids right now are calling Hardcore. This gets pointed out to me on a regular basis.) At times Zoo sounds like East Bay Ray joined The Ruts. It’s been a long time since I have heard a band use reverb, chorus and tremolo on the guitar leads in such a frantic menacing way like the Dead Kennedys did. Bowie once said the “Rock ‘n Roll is such a bastard because it is always stealing from itself”, and Ceremony are robbing the tape reels of late 70’s England and Los Angeles. There is a certain tense authority on these tracks that is distinctively modern, so this isn’t a full throttle attempt at a retro school of 77’ album. Zoo is one of those albums that grew on me with each pass and when I looked back at what I was listening to this year, this album spent a lot of time playing. I also went out and found their earlier albums. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cg3ckPtlWFw
    4.
    Bob Mould – Silver Age
    I like new music, I really do and I look for it all of the time but man the old-heads can just surprise you sometimes. It’s hard to talk about Bob Mould like so many of the other artists that made my list this year because they all have been making music for such a long time that their songs has become part of my lexicon. When someone we adore makes an album we buy it and when they make something that does not suit or taste we forgive them and keep hoping for the “next” album. After the Bob’s “Moby” phase a lot of my friends lost interest. I tried to tell people about Life and Times when that came out and like the 2 post-electronic albums before that, no one was listening. Longtime fans having been turned off by a misunderstood electronic outing and time spent working on wrestling scripts. This alienated a lot of people. I understand your skepticism, and you haven’t lived with the Silver Age like other Bob Mould albums you have spent so much time with. You haven’t spent the night getting over a break-up playing Beaster or Candy Apple Grey all night. In time you will because the Silver Age is about getting over the gray hairs on your head, getting on with life has dealt you, remembering to crank up your amp and belt it out because you still can. Take a seat junior, this album is going to show you it’s time to step aside and let the man who laid the groundwork for your teenage rebellion stand up and show you just how you got here with that guitar and half-stack. Plaid shirts are back in style: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ieb_T9ylY4o

    3.
    The Evens – The Odds
    There has been a void in the music world, at least for me personally stemming from Fugazi mustarding out. Ever since the internet sawed the last leg off of the regional sound I have found myself waiting for the next seminal “DC” band to emerge. I had a lot of money ridding on The Evens and The Odds have worked in my favor. Stepping out of the shadow of your previous band is challenging for many artists. How do you progress forward and separate yourself from your previous efforts? You can’t unless you hit your audience with a left field techno album. If your name is Ian MacKaye no one will ever forget you were a member of Minor Threat and Fugazi. When you help shape the musical landscape not once but twice you legacy is hard to avoid. Like his former band mate Joe Lally who also found his stride on his 3rd album last year, The Evens have come into their own. I have been waiting for The Evens to make this album. The less people you have in your band the more weight you have to pull, and if you are not resorting to laptop trickery or mass layering in the studio the harder it gets to retain your live sound. One baritone guitar, one drum set and 2 powerful voices are not a lot to work with. This is all that they need. The kicker here is the singing and the call and response of the 2 voices. The male/female textures weave in and out like the fret work of MacKaye’s previous band. On The Odds, The Evens sound like a band, a full band, not a combo or some arty studio project but a band who can be tender one minute and fierce the next. It’s like a well thought out controlled sound with a backbone and there is nothing minimal about this combo. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6P13Y-sOOUU

    2.
    Jimmy Cliff – Rebirth
    Recorded live in a studio…. a novel concept right? If you are bothering to read this list then I’m preaching to the choir. This record sounds like Kinston in 1974. This record makes up for every Dance Hall/Electro-Dub headache that has passed itself off as Reggae for the last 20 years. Jimmy Cliff has once again made a timeless album. None of the dated trappings of modern Jamaican music happen on Rebirth. Don’t get me wrong Rebirth swings through many moods, Rocksteady, straight up Roots-Reggae, 60’s American Soul and Ska without ever sounding forced. I can’t go much farther without mentioning that Tim Armstrong co-wrote this record with Jimmy Cliff, and Armstrong was very careful to not stand in the spotlight. No thunder stolen here. (Okay I will admit that the 2 cover songs on the album, the sweet soulful version of Rancid’s Ruby SoHo and the powerful version of The Guns of Brixton by The Clash were probably Armstrong’s idea.) This album is the Reggae equivalent to Rick Rubin dusting off Johnny Cash and letting him do his thing. Strip away the modern elements that have ruined the genera and let the man show you why he is truly a legend. When was the last time an artist worked a television studio audience like this? Here is a clip of Jimmy Cliff owning the crowd on Letterman: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAGIG5gORtI
    1.
    Future of the Left – The Plot Against Common Sense
    Strong Words. I don’t usually comment on the words to songs. A lot of good songs can be ruined, flat out ruined by the lyrics. The Plot Against Common Sense is a brilliant but snarky self-examination of our own beliefs that will make you smile and think at the same time. All of this is delivered by a very snotty but catchy voice over a bed of distorted bass that drives right-angles against jagged guitar stabs on top of clockwork tight drumming. This band is unmistakably British, and yet so American at the same time. There is an obvious debt to the Buzzcocks, PiL and the first Killing Joke album but I would be willing to bet that this band also grew up on the Touch & Go catalog from the early 1990’s too. Abrasive, gritty and yet not lacking in a smart sense of humor makes The Plot Against Common Sense warrant repeated listening. This is the 3rd outing for the Future of the Left and they have filed down a few (not all) of the extra rough edges of the shadow of their former project, Mclusky. Give this a track a spin and then go get the album: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkCUREHnpyo.

    BONUS: Some kind person posted a high quality video of their entire Philadelphia Show from November: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvJtKEWeq70

  9. Posted December 21, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Magnet,
    Must be reading you too long! Had 7 of the the top 25 on my top 10 and loved the other 18!

    thanks to Sam Pinola for his list, have a bunch of his tips in 2012+ top hits.

  10. Posted December 25, 2012 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    No list ever reflects one’s taste perfectly, but I sure enjoy seeing some of the metal bands on here like Baroness and Torche. I like seeing Magnet spread its wings some more (and those are great albums). Love seeing Cat Power score in the top 5, and thank you for readjusting Magnet’s analysis of her song “Nothing But Time” from dud to brilliant. Because it is brilliant.

    The Boss’ album is great too. Which brings me to that reader comment about you drifting into Dadcore. That was a cheap shot. Because if that was true, you’d have listed Mould’s excellent “Silver Age”.

  11. Posted December 26, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Leaving out the Ben Folds Five. Ugh. Leaving out Bob Mould!? What the What!? Leaving Tom Waits…!? Now, that’s just wrong. Honorable mention…Diana Krall’s “Glad Rag Doll”!

  12. Thomas Ivey
    Posted January 1, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Really puzzled by this list. Subtitle of the magazine is “real music alternatives”, not sure where Dylan and Springsteen fit into that these days. Omission of the Tame Impala, Divine Fits and Grimes records are also as puzzling as Sleigh Bells in the top 10. Seriously? The dB’s in the top 10 looks like a nostalgia pick. My Top 10 from my year in review show FWIW: 10. Fiona Apple – “The Idler Wheel…”; 9. La Sera – “Sees The Light”; 8. The Raveonettes – “Observator”; 7. Melody’s Echo Chamber – self titled; 6. Dum Dum Girls – “End Of Daze” e.p.; 5. Divine Fits – “A Thing Called Divine Fits”; 4. Grimes – “Visions”; 3. Jack White – “Blunderbuss”; 2. Allah-Las – self titled; 1. Cat Power – “Sun”.

    best regards,

    Thomas Ivey
    “tom’s diner”
    WQFS 90.9 FM
    Guilford College Radio
    “your only alternative”

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