List: The Best Albums of 2012

Strange pop gems, country dirges, sad songs, indie rock icons, punk treatises and megahit albums cross my desk throughout the year.

Most of them aren’t that good. Some are listenable. A few — very, very few — have stuck with us like good friends that we hang out with over and over.

I combed the stacks and stacks (and more stacks — you should see my desk) for the very best from 2012. These are the albums that touched me somehow, kept spinning in my CD player and continued to pipe through my headphones this year.

10. Lucero, “Women & Work”
Lucero is no longer at the crossroads of gritty punk and country strumming. Bandleader Ben Nichols and his mates have arrived at the intersection of old-style blues and Memphis rock. This album shows the entire band working together like a machine, and it’s no surprise as many of the band members are longtime session musicians. I could use a bit less of the sheen and more of the sense that Nichols could lose it at any time. Still, this album has a classic feel, as if the band set up in Sun Studios (they actually did so later, but not for this record) and laid the tracks down live. Good stuff.

9. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, “The Heist”
From “Ten Thousand Hours,” an earnest tune about pursuing your passions, to “Thrift Shop,” a goofy tune with a strangely grasping horn melody, this is the best rap album of 2012. Who’s Macklemore? And Ryan Lewis? Macklemore’s the guy you’ll hear dropping rhymes such as “they say it’s so refreshing to hear somebody on records/no guns, no drugs, no sex, just truth/the guns that’s America, the drugs are what they gave to us/and sex sells itself, don’t judge ’til it’s you.” They’re fantastic, but Lewis’ production, beats and melodies are what really pulls you into these tracks. Every beat and sample is tailored to fit the songs just right.

8. Green Day, “¡Uno!”
The first album in the radio punk band’s trilogy brings the band away from concept album and back toward basics: power chords, pop melodies, sing-along refrains and curse words. Not that I love it when rockers drop the f-bomb, but it signifies the “who cares?” attitude that’s in the best of Green Day’s music. (I mean, they did name an album “Dookie,” after all.) The album does everything from asking if soldiers are too young to die (“Carpe Diem”) to confessing love for a girl you just met (“Fell For You”). Now if we can just get the band back on the road.

7. Band of Horses,“Mirage Rock”
Southern-styled rock is still alive. Standing on solid grooves reminiscent of the Allman Brothers, rhythmic riffs Lynyrd Skynyrd would be proud of and harmonies like only Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Timothy B. Schmit can make, Band of Horses brings all its strengths. Part of the Seattle band’s timeless sound on this record comes from its own style, but a lot of it stems from working with Eagles and Eric Clapton producer Glyn Johns. “How to Live,” “A Little Biblical” and “Knock Knock” are all timeless grooves that bring me back to listening to “Their Greatest Hits” from the Eagles. Tracks such as “Slow Cruel Hands of Time” and “Long Vows” could sit right next to any guitar ballad from that early ’70s era.

6. Silversun Pickups, “Neck of the Woods”
I first heard of Silversun Pickups years ago when someone played “Lazy Eye” for me. I was pulled in, mesmerized by the dreamy nature of the tune as well as the frenetic, fuzzy guitar sound that built and built until it crashed and exploded in one final frenzy. That is how I feel, in general, about the band’s latest album, “Neck of the Woods.” “Skin Graph” pulls you into the world, and starts with a siren-like riff that sets the tone. “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)” and “Dots and Dashes (Enough Already)” continue to keep the energy up. By the time you get to “Out of Breath,” that’s about how you’ll feel as it draws to a fiery, explosive, energetic close.

5. Icky Blossoms, “Icky Blossoms”
Omaha’s own Icky Blossoms produced the dance record of the year, which starts with “Heat Lightning” and its line “keep on dancing if the lights keep flashing” and ends with the slow-burn jam “Perfect Vision” and lyrics about having “nothing to do but get high in the afternoon.” Therein is contained a dense, 42-minute dance session better than any pop song played at the club or dubstep DJ spinning records. It sits somewhere between pop and electronic dance music, a mix of psych guitar, infectious refrains and popping beats that will have you moving through to the end.

4. McCarthy Trenching, “Plays the Piano”
Recorded in Dan McCarthy’s living room, this album features McCarthy at his best: his weaving wordplay and touching sentiments. Standouts such as “The Ballad of Dorothy Lynch” and “29” have everything I want from amusing bits about salad dressing to Hank Williams references and piano playing that would stymie your grade-school piano teacher. In between original tracks, McCarthy plays old ragtime songs, which sounds strangely retro, but it’s refreshing in the way he takes something most people thought was dead and gone and performs a sort of musical CPR on it.

3. Jack White, “Blunderbuss”
The best two things Jack White has done in recent memory: He officially ended the White Stripes and released this group of songs, easily the best, hardest batch of jams he’s done since the White Stripes. “Sixteen Saltines” will have you wanting to crank the volume while “Love Interruption” will have you grooving to its somehow soulful vibe. If this is what’s to come, the White Stripes can stay apart.

2. The Mountain Goats, “Transcendental Youth”
“Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive,” sings John Darnielle on the opening line of this record. Though that’s a rock ‘n’ roll line if I’ve ever heard one, it’s more like what one person has to tell herself to get through the day. Other characters in the album, which loosely follows a group of people in Washington state, struggle with drugs, depression and dead-end jobs. With some empathy and cutting lyrics, Darnielle makes us root for these people or, at least, feel for them, especially with lines such as “Some people crash two or three times and then learn from their mistakes /We are the ones who don’t slow down at all/And there’s nobody there to catch us when we fall.”

1. Bruce Springsteen, “Wrecking Ball”
Somewhere in these songs of downtrodden messages, dirt-poor people and the dirt-under-fingernails working class is a message of hope. Many can identify with Springsteen on this one — he questions where we’re going and what we’re doing. Sure, there’s hope. But is hope enough. Though he’s no longer middle class, the Boss takes up the banner and runs with it. On “Wrecking Ball,” he indicts “greedy thieves,” questions whether America’s promise still goes “from sea to shining sea” and makes repeated references to fat and happy bankers. As dark as it all sounds, Springsteen remembers that the American people will take care of each other and that, somewhere, saints and sinners will be rewarded with a “land of hope and dreams.”

THE NEXT 15
Good albums all, these didn’t quite make the cut for the top 10. To round out the top 25, here we present the next best stuff (in alphabetical order) that deserves a listen.

» Alabama Shakes, “Boys & Girls”
» The Avett Brothers, “The Carpenter”
» Beach House, “Bloom”
» Conduits, “Conduits”
» First Aid Kit, “The Lion’s Roar”
» Gaslight Anthem, “Unwritten”
» Good Old War, “Come Back as Rain”
» Japandroids, “Celebration Rock”
» Jimmy Fallon, “Blow Your Pants Off”
» Jukebox the Ghost, “Safe Travels”
» The Mynabirds, “Generals”
» Norah Jones, “Little Broken Hearts”
» PUJOL, “United States of Being”
» The Shins, “Port of Morrow”
» Whipkey Three, “Two Truths”

Check out past year’s top 10 lists:
» Best of 2011
» Best of 2010
» Best of 2009

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  1. Pingback: “Plays the Piano” on best of 2012 lists | McCarthy Trenching