Stereo IQ's Top Albums of 2012

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If 2012 really does signify the apocalypse, let the record show that its musicians went out with a sonic boom. This year, we witnessed a myriad of emotions become fully catalyzed, from the disquieting forthcomingness of Fiona Apple to the heart-on-a-sleeve romanticism of The xx. Suffice to say, there was no shortage of artists willing to spill their guts for the sake of art — something always admirable. Here are our albums of the year, alphabetized for your convenience. Click on the DECODED link above each blurb to read annotations for a standout track from each LP. — Alex Koenig

Andrew BirdHands of Glory

DECODED: Andrew Bird — “When That Helicopter Comes”

Sure to be a point of contention, the “Top Album of the Year” is always a false idol, an editor’s fancy that hardly represents the breadth and depth of music, but a notable mile marker. That being said, I select Andrew Bird’s Hands of Glory as Album of the Year, a subtly furious foray into bluegrass, soul, and unabashed creativity that is as intoxicating as it is inaccessible. While sticking rigidly to the looping formula of Bird’s previous works, Hands of Glory stands firmly alone, venturing deeper into the woods than ever before, pulling out the nuggets of the past and future of Appalachia and daring to place them in front of the mainstream current. Andrew Bird will never win in airplay, album sales, hipster cred, or sheer marketability, but music is not about any of that. If we were to select an album and musician that embodied a genre and feeling, Bird is the natural choice; only the term “sinuous” seems to describe his reach. Hands of Glory is lyrically dominant, impossibly chasmic, and religiously devoted to itself, a mix that is refreshing among repeated waves of fuzz and sex. — Gavin Matthews

The BabiesOur House on the Hill

DECODED: The Babies — “Alligator”

2012 has seen a lot of albums go over the top. Too many to count, in fact. Whether it was in an attempt to forge a new genre or to dissolve a typecast, it seems like every musician tried to break new ground this year. Without getting too specific, the lesson learned from this is simple: less is more. The Babies' sophomore release, Our House On The Hill is a prime example of this approach, with the end result being a simple, smartly-crafted, lo-fi hook oriented masterpiece.

When Woods bassist Kevin Morby and Vivian Girls' guitarist Cassie Ramone teamed up to create The Babies, many were unsure of whether the group would be a novelty act or a lasting staple in the Brooklyn indie scene. Our House On The Hill seems to confirm the latter. The album has a chronological flow that synthesizes each part of every song to one long chronicle; a young adulthood filled with heartbreak, paranoia and dreams of seeing the country. Ergo, OHOTH acts as a sort of first-person narrative, blanketed with thoughtful, uninvolved chord progressions. Guitar solos and infectious leads are interspersed Slow Walker, Get Lost, and Mess Me Around, adding texture to the wall of power-chords. Catchy call-back vocals between Morby and Ramone convey sincere lyrics wielding years of experience. — John Dickinson

The Beach BoysThat’s Why God Made The Radio

DECODED: Beach Boys — “That’s Why God Made The Radio”

Who would have imagined that in 2012, The Beach Boys would not only still be kicking, but would be making great original music? That’s Why God Made The Radio is their first proper release in two decades, and after several decades of great critical acclaim with little commercial recognition they decided to return to the doo-wop inspired surf pop which made them successful in the first place. The whole album carries with it a baroque sixties vibe from start to finish that immediately recalls their classic album Pet Sounds, and their intent on reminding the 21st Century of their storied career is clear. When Brian Wilson sings “spreading love and sunshine to a whole new generation” on the eponymous lead single, they mean it. The album deservedly reached #3 on the Billboard 200 and showed that after fifty years together The Beach Boys' consistency continues to pay off with great music. — Ashley Chittock

Beach HouseBloom

DECODED: Beach House — “Lazuli”

If you were to flip Teen Dream on a record player and side two was Bloom, it would be hard to tell the difference as Beach House executes a smooth, flowing transition from one album to the next. However, the band chose an appropriate title to describe their progress as songwriters.

“What comes after this momentary bliss,” ponders Victoria Legrand, in an attempt to retain joy while still awaiting love’s resignation. “Wild” transcends the album by introducing remnants of a euphoric youth, disabled by a drunken father and stern mother. The album concludes with the elongated vowels heard in Legrands words as she sings “it’s a strange paradise” in “Irene,” further detaching the band from the repetitive heartache heard in Teen Dream.

Beach House have chosen to perfect their sound rather than attempt to recreate themselves. The band is what they have been from the very beginning: a duo fueled by dreamy synthesizers and hypnotizing percussions, led by Alex Scully’s trembling guitar and drums. Legrand’s keyboards continue to lead listeners into an elated trance, where that hazy moment between consciousness and sleep lingers for a little while longer. — Zaina Soueid

DeftonesKoi No Yokan

DECODED: Deftones — “Leathers”

The album title Koi No Yokan’s origin comes from the Japanese phrase “恋の予感” or “Premonition of Love”. With all the hard- hitting edginess of Diamond Eyes and the experimental, new wave feeling of White Pony, we have Koi No Yokan. Chino Moreno’s songwriting has matured and Deftones prove once again they can survive and prosper, even without longtime bassist Chi Cheng.

The slow guitar in “Entombed” is reminiscent of Diamond Eyes’ “Sextape” almost as though it were a sequel to it. Imagine what it would be like to feel different shades of colors, like the soothing, melancholy blues, or possibly the rough greens, or possibly even no feeling at all, as though there were a lack of color.

On “Poltergeist” we open up with some beautiful rhythmic claps and then we find Chino Moreno at a loss for words, opening up with “What can I say?” But a plea for this temptress to “Drive him wild.” He loves her to death, like she loves to play games, but he holds on knowing she’s crazy and no good. We all want to be driven wild, taken to another level. — Troy Womble

Dum Dum GirlsEnd of Daze EP

DECODED: Dum Dum Girls — “Lord Knows”

An enduring dream pop record requires no deconstruction because its gifts are immediate; it tickles your ears like a gorgeous girl whispering sweet nothings to you, and warms your heart like a gaze into the glimmering sunset. Dig deep into End of Daze, though, and you’ll uncover more layers of pathos with each listen – you may even learn a life lesson or two. “A profession’s not a cure,” sings Kristin Gundred (aka Dee Dee Dum) on Rimbaud-alluding EP closer “Season In Hell”. Given that Gundred recently dealt with an emotional nadir after the death of her mother, the lyric seems a wise sentiment from someone who quilted a blanket of artistic beauty using threads of despair. — Alex Koenig

Fiona AppleThe Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

DECODED: Fiona Apple — “Every Single Night”

Early in this album Fiona Apple shouts, “Look at me! I’m all the fishes in the sea!” and we can’t help but take notice. The sparsely-arranged Idler Wheel, which features just voice, piano and percussion, is a brave and sometimes difficult tour-de-force. But it’s her lyrical prowess that raises this album to “Best Of” status. She forges lines with internal swing (“My heart’s made of parts of all that surround me/ And that’s why the Devil just can’t get around me”) and plays virtuoso with language and metaphor (“The rib is the shell and the heart is the yolk/ And I just made a meal for us both to choke on). These songs are as confessional as any Apple has written. In hushed whispers and full-throated howls she explains why life is so difficult for her ― “The ants weigh more than the elephants” ― but she also serves up a reason for everyone to stop worrying ― “Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.” — Stephanie Conn

GrimesVisions

DECODED: Grimes — “Oblivion”

In the video for Visions' breakthrough anthem “Oblivion,” Grimes dances around a stadium wearing giant headphones while topless fans slap their bare chests and roar. With its low rotary synths and dark lyrics “I never walk about after, dark,” “someone could break your neck” was an underground hymn for the new anti-hero pop movement, with acts like Solange, Sky Ferraria and Kitty Pryde closing in on the female indie-pop front.

What’s unmistakeable in Grimes is her liveability, her contact list spanning from A$AP Rocky to Araabmuzik translates in the features she places in Visions; Boucher’s step-brother Jay Worthy who offers jarring hip-hop vocals in the ceasefire “Christmas Song” or the thumping drum slams from Majical Clouds' production on “Nightmusic.” “Visiting Statue” offers a cosmic sea of euphoric vocals from Boucher among the R&B hand-claps and dark guitar plucks which blends in such a listenable manner, the ‘bring it all home’ that orbits the short interval are what makes Grimes a standout among the many female electronica empresses in the 21st century. — Reuben Tasker

Grizzly BearShields

DECODED: Grizzly Bear — “Sleeping Ute”

Grizzly Bear have made a career captivating fans and first time listeners by displaying Ed Drostes simple, yet expressive lyrics, and Chris Bear’s ingenious use of percussions. The Brooklyn-based quartet had to first become reacquainted with one another’s mastery before divulging their thoughts and visions for the album, which was developed in a cabin in Cape Cod, much like Veckatimest.

“Sleeping Ute,” the opening track on Shields, uses scenic imagery of the Ute mountains of Colorado to convey the peaceful solitude and stillness that Droste seeks, and a contrast between longing and detachment.

“In the cradle of my unruly chest you belong,” Droste professes in “Speak in Rounds,” exemplifying the heartbreak, and unyielding romanticism of his capricious relationship. “Half Gate” reaffirms the melancholy as he sings “come let me on/ let me lie what’s done,” to reluctantly move forward from what he’s lost.

The emancipation from the underlying constant, his troubled relationship, comes through a swift, irreconcilable final blow stating, “I’m never coming back,” in “Sun In Your Eyes.” Shields effortlessly combines each verse of the ten-track album to depict real emotions that the listener is susceptible to, feeling each longing tinge in Droste’s voice. — Zaina Soueid

Tame ImpalaLonerism

DECODED — Tame Impala — “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”

Lonerism may be the most apt album title of 2012 – Tame Impala realize that if you want to extend your creative boundaries, you better do it your damn self. “He pulled the mirrors off his Cadillac / cause he doesn’t like it looking like he looks back,” sings frontman Kevin Parker on “Elephant,” signaling the band’s reinvigorated ambition. Here, you’ll see the Australian quintet unabashedly go toe-to-toe with their forefathers, and it isn’t blasphemous to say they hold up: the riff to “Mind Mischief” gives the best George Harrison licks a run for their money.

But in spite of having a song titled “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” Lonerism sonically proves to be much more than a stunning anachronism. From the effervescent synth in the bridge of “Music To Walk Home By” to the aquatic drone of reverb on album closer “Sun Coming Up,” we see a band adorn old psychedelic tropes with a novel electric feel. This is retro music with a futuristic vibe. Someday, denim jacket-donning hipsters will nod along to it in their flying cars. — Alex Koenig

Why?Mumps, Etc.

DECODED: Why? — “Sod in the Seed”

“Bitterness is unbecoming,” someone snooty once said. Why?’s Mumps, Etc. is able to embrace bitterness while then turning it on its head, churning out a hopeful, beautiful and fitful album that feels like one long rant against the negative forces of the world, refusing to take even one breath during the fight. The familiar tropes of WHY? — quirky melodies, pop hooks, and oddly specific lyrics—are plenty here, but Mumps, Etc. does more than what is required. Here Yoni Wolf and co-patriots have done what most bands spend an entire lifetime trying to do, what the biggest stars on the planet struggle to say in one song or whole album — communicate the heartbreak of loss, with originality and sincerity. Here it’s encompassed by a simple yet elegant, and oddly familiar, symbol: “OXOX on a Hallmark card”. — Matthew Schlissel

The xxCoexist

DECODED: The xx — “Angels”

Coming off of their Mercury Prize-winning debut and a massive world tour, the trio that is the xx faced high expectations for their sophomore album. With their sparse, echoing sound and intimate lyrics now reaching millions, the biggest question seemed to be where they would head next, and the answer was surprisingly simple: inward. The lyrics became even more intimate, with tracks like ‘'Sunset’‘ finding vocalists Oliver and Romy trading regrets and hurt feelings over a past love, ultimately crying out ’‘I always thought it was a shame/ That we have to play these games/ It felt like you really knew me/ Now it feels like you see through me.’‘ Whether or not they surpassed their debut is something for the listener to decide, but one thing is for certain: success did not change the power of their lyrics. — Eli Prysant