Sunday, April 1, 2012

Best Of The Year 2012: First Quarter Update

As we did last year, we're going to be doing quarterly updates. Every staff member will put out a top five list, allowing them to indicate their absolute favorite records of 2012. Additionally, it will be able to alert you of albums that you may not have heard of otherwise. This list does not only include albums that have been released as of March 31, as any album that we have heard so far this year is free to be included.  All the lists can be seen below the jump.

Casey Whitman

1. fun. - Some Nights
Out of the albums that I was most anticipating to date, Some Nights may be the only one that has lived up to my expectations. In fact, they may have exceeded those. Nate Ruess and the rest of the band have created another absolute masterpiece of a record, one that is almost certain to end up on my end of year list. The band is surging into the mainstream with "We Are Young," and has been in the top 15 of the Billboard charts since the album was released a little over a month ago. For once, a great band is getting the popularity that they deserve.

2. First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar
First Aid Kit is two Swedish sisters playing beautiful folk music. How much better can you get than that? Johanna and Klara Söderberg both have absolutely stunning voices, and their harmonies are otherworldly. The contagious "Emmylou" and Conor Oberst featuring "King Of The World" are surely song of the year candidates, and will be among the best that the folkosphere has to offer in 2012.

3. Now, Now - Threads
I've been in love with these girls (and guy) ever since I saw them live with Hellogoodbye and You, Me, And Everyone We Know back in early 2011. Vocalist Cacie Dalager's vocals are among the most ethereal you will hear this year, and Threads is a massive progression from the Neighbors EP, as the band sounds more like early Death Cab For Cutie than ever, which makes sense being that Chris Walla signed the band to his own label. It would be no surprise to see that tour combination later on this year, and if it does happen, Now, Now's popularity should skyrocket.

4. Cloud Nothings - Attack On Memory
Well, I certainly did not expect Attack On Memory to sound like this. The band's self titled record was a pretty forgettable lo-fi pop punk record from last year, as there was just no "oomph" behind any of the tracks. But producer Steve Albini (engineer of Nirvana's In Utero) assisted the band in creating a sound much closer to the post-hardcore or emo sounds of the 90's. Dylan Baldi's vocals finally have some effort in them, and Attack On Memory flourishes through them. Along with the tight instrumentals, Attack On Memory is worthy of all the early accolades it has been receiving.

5. Take One Car - It's Going To Be A Nice Day
It's Going To Be A Nice Day is probably the most technically magnificent album I've heard all year. Combining the poetic voice and lyrics of early mewithoutYou with the ambience of early Moving Mountains and the heavy post-metal guitars of O'Brother's heaviest moments, Take One Car has developed a unique style that could launch them to greatness within the post-hardcore and post-rock scenes. The fact that this band is pretty unknown just goes to show that you don't need a huge budget to make an powerfully layered album that can stand up to any other album out there in sound.

Honorable Mentions:
Elias - Fossils
The Forecast - Everybody Left

Hospitality - Hospitality
The Jealous Sound - A Gentle Reminder
Beach House - Bloom
Ernest Gonzales - Natural Traits
Jenny Owen Youngs - An Unwavering Band Of Light
Maps And Atlases - Beware And Be Greatful
Mickey Factz - Mickey MauSe

Eli Kleman

1. Loma Prieta - I.V.
While it was a somewhat early pick for album of the year, I.V. has stood the test of time (well, three months or so).  It's uncompromisingly heavy, passionate, and at times even beautiful.  Surely this is the band at the peak of their abilities. And, the move to Deathwish Records has ensured a most incredible production.  In terms of hardcore, there is no better album (yet) in 2012.  I'm optimistic that perhaps an album will come along even better than this.  However, they've got quite a fight ahead of them.

2. The Mars Volta - Noctourniquet
Okay, okay.  I'm a bit of a fan, but that aside, Noctourniquet is the best Volta release since 2005's stunning Frances the Mute.  Of course, it's really unlike anything else the band has done before.  It's crazy, ceative, catchy, ingenius, and at times bizarre, but Volta fans wouldn't want it any other way.

3. Narrows - Painted
Oh man have I not stopped listening to this album.  And really, I can't.  To put it simply, this is one of the best metalcore albums to have come out in years.  Yes, that's right, years.  Maybe it's the Botch influence or crushing atmosphere.  Or maybe, it's the fact that Painted has more fresh ideas than any other album in the genre from the past five years.  It reflects the heaviness of what fans have come to expect, with the stunning songwriting fans want.  A truly remarkable release.

4. Xerxes - Our Home Is A Deathbed
Pianos Become the Teeth and its peers had 2011, and so far it looks as if 2012 will belong to Xerxes.  Well, sort of.  While there are a couple of hardcore albums that have come out this year that are in fact a bit more enjoyable than Our Home Is A Deathbed, few can match the utter ferocity and passion.  Xerxes are a reletively new force on the scene, and if this bold album is any indicator, they have a bright future ahead of them.

5. Meshuggah - Koloss
Consider me a jaded metal fan, but it's a bit shocking that Swedish behemoth band, Meshuggah, has released an album as excellent as Koloss.  Afterall, the band has seen much better times, as 2008's obZen was a devisive affair that saw Meshuggah grasping at straws to remain relevant.  However, Koloss feels much the opposite; a fresh and rather ingenius outing that finds Meshuggah at the height of their creative powers.  No longer does it cling to down tuned chugs that drone into homogenaity, but instead, new ideas are everywhere to be found.  Koloss is a surprisingly refreshing listen from one of metal's most storied acts.

Sean Milo:

1. Julia Holter - Ekstasis
Julia Holter's music has that strange quality that makes her work come off as weird in the best kind of way. Ekstasis marks a departure for Holter from the ambient based textures of last year's Tragedy, drifting more towards dream pop tendencies. The bedroom lo-fi production of Ekstasis combined Holter's penchant for ancient Greek literature gives the album a really strange sort of feel. You know, that sort of strange feel.

2. Loma Prieta - I.V.

Today, the sub-30 minute hardcore punk album seems to be something that bands are drifting away from. The short bursts of energy displayed on albums such as Off Minor's classic The Heat Death of the Universe seem to start becoming a thing of the past. But San Francisco's Loma Prieta brings the concept back and makes it sound fresher than ever on their latest LP I.V.I.V. features the sort of frantic desperation that made albums such as Jane Doe such winners. As far as hardcore goes, I.V. is definitely a runner up for one of the most durable releases of this year.

3. Cloud Nothings - Attack on Memory
After having Attack on Memory for a few months, I completely forgot that Dylan Bardi ever wrote the catchy pop-punk tunes that made up Cloud Nothings' self titled debut. It just has such a developed sound that makes it sound like the band has been making the gloomy, angry punk of Attack on Memory for years. Although the poppiness of "Turning On" and "All The Time" is easily something the band could have gone on with forever and still do it just as good, Cloud Nothings' new direction displayed on Attack on Memory is most certainly welcome.

4. Perfume Genius - Put Your Back N 2 It
Put Your Back N 2 It is one of those albums that you listen to, and you just hear so much. Mike Hadreas' voice sounds like what Jonsi would sound like if he sang in a comprehensible language, the guitar based songs have a sort of late-era Elliott Smith texture to them, and all of the songs are generally sad, but hopeful at the same time, much like Frightened Rabbit. But after digging a little deeper, Put Your Back N 2 It becomes a depressing, haunting, and sometimes shocking listen. I won't go into the themes behind a lot of the music here, but once you get it, Put Your Back N 2 It is an album that isn't going to leave that corner in the back of your head.

5. Chairlift - Sometimes
Chairlift's debut album, Sometimes, opens up with "Sidewalk Safari", a song that conveys a story about running over an ex-boyfriend. Throughout the whole album, the dancey duo tells a brief and sometimes humorous story over the course of a few minutes, much like "Sidewalk Safari" or on "Guilty as Charged." But under Polachek's narratives is some of the catchiest pop music, most notably the romantic carelessness of "I Belong In Your Arms." Being one of the very few acts that try to replicate pop music of the 90's (and we all know there's more than enough of them) and actually succeeded, Chairlift has made some of the best tunes that this year has seen so far.

Honorable Mentions:
Of Montreal - Paralytic Stalks
Grimes - Visions
School of Seven Bells - Ghostory

Perry Maltese:

As only a moderate fan of The Menzingers’ previous work, I did not have high expectations for this album.  In fact, I was not even aware of its release until I saw it being praised on the B9 board after a leak surfaced prematurely on the web.  Luckily for me, On the Impossible Past is The Menzingers’ most immediate release yet, and after several listens I felt as if I had the whole thing memorized.  Sure, they toned down the punkier elements of their sound, but they made up for the loss in speed with an intimacy and warmth that struck me harder than anything off of their earlier albums.  As hard as it is to choose a favorite track from this, I would be doing an injustice by not mentioning “Gates,” which captures the feeling of nostalgia as effectively as any song that I have heard. 

2. Gypsy – Giant’s Despair
Do not sleep on this release.  Gypsy is another new 90s emo/punk revival band (think Title Fight, Basement, etc.) and they nail down the sound as well as anyone.  This is like Jawbreaker on steroids: the vocals, instrumental sections, and hooks all sound big, thanks to Will Yip’s production.  There are some really groovy guitar solos to be found on here as well, which differentiate Gypsy from other similar sounding bands.  I expect and hope that this album will have a lot of much deserved attention by the end of the year. 

Last year Spraynard put out what many consider to be a perfect (pop) punk release.  Funtitled was anthemic, lighthearted, and unquestionably enjoyable, but I knew that the band could top it.  Exton Square delivered in every sense of the word and improved upon every element that I liked from Funtitled.  Though not quite as cheery, this EP is cleaner and catchier, and holds much more lyrical importance for me.  I honestly could not pick a favorite track from this because each one is so flat-out awesome in its own regard.  Exton Square, so far, is a definite contender for my EP of the year.

4. Veils – Clarity
This is a nice surprise I stumbled upon very early in the year and still find myself coming back to over and over.  Clarity, is a five-track, female fronted post-hardcore/screamo EP that may at first appear to be dispensable when bigger bands like Pianos Become the Teeth and The Saddest Landscape are in play.  However, Veils have an aggression that most similar bands seem to be missing.  The vocals are vicious, the riffs are huge and memorable, and the EP has an interesting concept to boot.  And let’s be honest: British accents are really cool. 

5. The Sidekicks – Awkward Breeds
In an attempt to fend off the last bit of winter and ensure a smooth transition into spring, I’ve found myself listening to a lot of "feel good" music.  Awkward Breeds is just that: pleasant and upbeat 75% of the time, and charming and honest during the remaining 25%.  “Grace,” an ideal three-minute blend of pop punk and indie, will undoubtedly be one of my favorite songs to come out this year.  My only gripe with the album is its long length, as some tracks are clearly weaker than others and interrupt the flow of this otherwise great release. 

Honorable mentions:

Cerce/Leer – Split
Dartagnan – Breadwinner
Departures – Green Turns to Red, Then Turns to Gold
Night Owls – Dearly
Shambles – Shambles EP
Suburban Scum – Hanging By a Thread
Tightrope/Brutal Youth – Split
Vowel – All the Sad Songs

Jonny Hunter:

Poor old Pepe Deluxe have faced a fair few insults over Queen of the Wave. Some call it cheesy; others the musical equivalent of glitter masking dog shit. Thankfully, these people are either insecure, moronic or intensely sexually frustrated, so the rest of us can still enjoy what has to be one of the most indulgently bizarre albums ever conceived. On top of this, the production is stellar, the potential for nostalgia is huge, and the album varies all the way from hauntingly beautiful to explosively catchy. This is one of those albums that you’d be a bit of an idiot to not even listen to.
The monumental popularity of Kindred seemed predetermined by fate; it was bound to happen. With Burial’s steadily increasing popularity, all eyes were on him as he produced an EP that can best be described as tragically vulnerable. Dark and claustrophobic yet melancholic and sweet: the atmosphere in Kindred resonated with the millions of lost souls for whom blinking into a computer screen at 4am isn’t a one-off occurrence. The evidence of this is clear in all the poetic analogies produced by reviewers who usually keep their feet, and their writing, firmly attached to the ground.
3. Portico Quartet - Portico Quartet
Portico Quartet reach for much the same ground as Burial, although they draw most of their inspiration from jazz instead of dubstep. The tracks develop slowly - often refusing to show their hand until the very last minute - as horns wail soulfully in the background. It’s very introspective, enveloping stuff, and although your natural instinct is to gravitate towards the simple beauty of the minute-long piano interlude, the slow growing grace of the remainder is well worth the effort.
4. Thrupence - Voyager
Unrealistically smooth: this is music that doesn’t so much vibrate your eardrums as roll gently off them. As summer approaches faster than it should be, Voyager offers the perfect soundtrack for laying beneath the sun and doing absolutely nothing. Calm beats masked by liquid layers of ambiance; inspired vocal samples; inevitable Boards of Canada comparisons... there’s nothing better.
5. Yppah - Eighty One
IDM has evolved in this post-EDM infested world (hooray for initialisms!), it seems, and Yppah mixes so many wide-ranging styles that it’s hard to keep up. Hip-hop finds its way into the percussion, while trance and even breakcore introduce themselves sporadically throughout the album. It’s fast-paced but rarely overbearing as Eighty One swerves through deranged, vocal-led choruses and the steady, atmospheric progressions that Yppah initially built his name on. It also arrives at exactly the right time to make up for the so-so The Flashbulb album.

Kyle Spalding

1. Kurt Travis – Wha Happen?
In what is Kurt Travis’ first solo effort, the man finds great success in his originality and appealing charisma. Travis’ beautiful yet imperfect vocal presence is difficult to deny and the creative songwriting and atmosphere of the EP make for an overall pleasant and emotionally dynamic listen. My favorite release of the year so far.

2. TS & the Past Haunts – Gone and Goner
Gone and Goner is a unique release, falling somewhere within the confines of progressive-folky-indie rock. Travis Shettel makes his way back into the scene with this album, and, as always, he does not disappoint. The eclectic nature of Gone and Goner is a bit confusing at first, but ultimately greatly adds to the novelty of the release. The musicianship is fantastic and the record is artfully produced. A supremely interesting and thoroughly enjoyable LP.

3. Big Gigantic – Nocturnal 
Big Gigantic is a bit of an anomaly on this list as electronic music is infrequently mentioned here, Nocturnal is an interesting album featuring big, pleasing leads and crafty songwriting. I’m not fantastic at characterizing electronic music when it isn’t distinctly one genre, but the production of the record is superb. Anyone who can appreciate a well-constructed work of art will find something to appreciate here. A fun electronic release with great depth.

4. No Trigger – Tycoon
No Trigger, though well respected within the punk community for releases years ago, found their reputation seriously on the line with their comeback record on No Sleep. The group found for themselves a great sound, somewhere between familiar territory and uncharted waters. Though not groundbreaking, the album was unquestionably successful in crafting a new identity for the wayward band. A highly enjoyable listen with a relatively short shelf-life.

5. Every Time I Die – Ex-Lives
The southern punk outfit is back yet again with another stellar release. Ex-Lives is as intense as ever, pounding the listener with clever riffs and insane drumming. There is very little to complain about, as at this point ETID is a well-oiled machine, veterans of the genre who aren’t afraid to claim their title as kings. Unfortunately, the record does little to push the band’s boundaries and really offers nothing substantial that hasn’t already been released. A great record for fan-boys and an amusing listen for the rest.

Mat Fukano

1. Cursive - I Am Gemini
This album was something else. From the moment I started listening to it, maybe even from the moment I started looking at the album booklet, I was impressed. Stunned, even. From the less refined Cursive that I used to know, this was a remarkable change. It was a beautiful record, filled with all of the drama, excitement, sadness, and fury of revenge that anyone could ask for in a movie or book, much less a musical album. This is a delight, and a rewarding listen.

The beauty of this album was in the variety, the musical offering, and the brilliance with which so many different genres were blended. Two men filled with creative genius continually put out experimental instrumental records and never cease to impress, or make the listener marvel. An achievement all its own, Awake In The City is a wonderous lucid dream in MP3 format.

Easily the most down-to-earth post-rock on my top 5, that easily assigned quality isn't what put it as a contender for best record of the year so far. It's the fantastic layering, coupled with brilliant, lovable instrument tones and a solid dosage of post-metal influence that helps make this record. Inspiring chord experimentation and blending with articulate drum work work the flow without making it forceful, and spacious orchestration that really tops it off. A must-listen traditional post-rock record.

Take One Car did what Moving Mountains did for me so many years back with Pneuma, and that was releasing a vocal post-rock record that I could cherish. With a more noticeable influence from standard, non-instrumental music and an understanding in post-rock deep enough to mix the two without losing anything from either genre, It's Going To Be A Nice Day brings forth a lot of heavy material such as "Yet Another Voyage (Adrift)," and "In the Company Of Wolves," while not losing some of the tender softness provided by songs such as "The Oceansong", an important contrast that helps to balance perfectly. This band is definitely on the rise, and this album is a great piece of work.

Post-punk isn't normally something I would listen to, which is why I was astounded by how much I liked A Place To Bury Strangers' new EP. Onwards To The Wall was a point that converted me into a casual noise-rock listener (and looking at how I usually stick with post-rock, that's saying something). With enough 80's flare to satisfy any Cure fans out there, this is a really well written record that has a lot of likeable sounds and a ton of individualistic style.

Ali Welford

1. John Talabot - Fin
I'm not particularly well versed in the current house scene, but the debut LP from this Spanish producer has captured my imagination more than any other record so far this year. Fresh, consistent and surprisingly versatile, Fin should be enough to establish Talabot as a star beyond the realms of his own country and indeed as one of the frontrunners of the genre. I'll be disappointed if this is still my album of the year come December, but with summer just around the corner, I can't see it leaving my playlists any time soon.

2. Sharon Van Etten - Tramp
An essential for lovelorn miserablists everywhere, Sharon Van Etten's third album perfectly captures the woe that its maker endured whilst enduring a rough breakup and ensuing homelessness. It's credits read almost like a who's who of relevant names in modern indie, and while Van Etten isn't quite as revered as The National, Bon Iver or Beirut yet, it's easy to see why such heavyweights were eager to stamp their names on it. Immediate it is not, but given time to sink in, Tramp undoubtedly represents one of the year's most rewarding listens thus far.

3. First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar
The initial new album buzz has worn-off a bit with this one, but that shouldn't detract from what a fine achievement it is for the Swedish sisters. A clear step up from the relatively primitive campfire singalongs of their debut, this sophomore displays startlingly mature songwriting from such a young duo, and is rightly gaining them some of the mainstream attention that they deserve. Calling it a masterpiece would be a bridge to far, but that's not to say that they can't make one in the future.

4. Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball
Although he's enjoyed something of a post-millennium renaissance, even the most optimistic Springsteen fan would have struggled to envisage him releasing an album this good at such a late stage in his career. Brimming with confidence, anger and most importantly hunger, Wrecking Ball is a sensational return which not only proves that The Boss has still got it, but also his continued relevance in the modern world. Okay, it doesn't match up to A-grade classics like Born To RunDarkness On The Edge Of Town and Born In The USA, but it is quite possibly his best since that peak era.

5. Andrew Bird - Break It Yourself
If this had had a few more weeks to settle in, I'm pretty sure that it'd be higher up this list. Subtle, elegant and as aesthetically pleasing as ever, Break It Yourself builds on Bird's immensely satisfying back catalogue with the result being arguably his strongest and most consistent body of work yet. All of his records tend to be growers, so while this is only #5 here, it wouldn't surprise me at all if it ended up challenging for end of year honours - especially given that I've not fully grasped the second half yet.

Honourable Mentions:

Mark Lanegan - Blues Funeral
Black Taxi - We Don't Know Any Better

Blair Chopin

1. Fun.- Some Nights Aim and Ignite was a classic tribute to three of the most popular bands of all time in Queen, the Beach Boys and The Beatles. Just about every song had the energy of a hit Queen song, had the "relateable" lyrics of a hit Beatles song, and had the "fun" and fast paced instrumentation of a hit Beach Boys song. Aim and Ignite was of the utmost quality and essentially had no flaws besides the flaw that it was not "modern" enough for a mainstream and "radio" audience.

So, on Some Nights, fun. decided to create the modern version of Aim and Ignite and the results is one of the best mainstream albums we have heard in years. "Some Nights (Intro)," is a condensed and more haunting version of Aim and Ignite's "Be Calm," "Some Nights" is an even more energetic version of "Benson Hedges," "We Are Young," is the 2012 version of "All The Pretty Girls," "Carry On," is a little cheesy and more catchy version of "I Wanna Be The One," "It Gets Better," is an auto tuned and less epic of "At Least I'm Not As Sad (As I Used To Be,) "Why Am I The One?" is a bigger, faster, and stronger version of "Light A Roman Candle With Me," "All Alone" is the poor man's version of "Walking The Dog," "One Foot" is the sped up and ballsy version of "Walking The Dog," and "Stars" is the auto tuned and "night out on the town" version of "Take Your Time (Coming Home)."

Some Nights is an album that takes all of the best qualities of Aim and Ignite and modernizes them. Think of it as the auto tuned and arena rock version of The Beatles, the instrumentation of the Beach Boys being produced to perfection, and lyrics that Freddie Mercury would write if he knew the world wasn't so judgmental. The album is the 2012 version of Sgt Pepper's, the 2012 version of Pet Sounds, and a 2012 version of The Night At The OperaAim and Ignite was a classic album because it successfully paid tribute to the Beach Boys, Queen, and the Beatles, but Some Nights might end up being a classic album because it was the album where fun. became the 2012 version of the Beach Boys, Queen, and The Beatles.

2. Beach House - Bloom
When I look back at my favorite albums of 2011 it is easy to see that they all revolve around a theme of self discovery and "finding yourself." Destroyer's Kaputt was essentially all about "finding your place in America," Helplessness Blues was about finding your future by first forgetting your past, Strange Mercy was about defining your gender and your sexuality as something more than a simple cliche, and Knife Man was about finding a way to smile when the world won't stop beating you down. All of these albums were about finding your patriotism, finding your future through forgetting your past, finding your sexuality through experimenting and "finding out who you really are," and finding your reason to keep breathing through sarcastic social commentary. 2011 musically was a year of self discovery.

After self discovery usually comes either action or acceptance. You either take action to embrace your new found freedom and confidence, or you accept a low standard for yourself and you just decide to be apathetic and move on. Beach House discovered themselves on Teen Dream and successfully created an album that embraced all of their talents with 2012's Bloom. Every song on this album displays all of Beach House's talents perfectly: every song on this album is absolutely gorgeous musically, every song on Bloom is extremely catchy, and every song on Bloom has a chance to be one of the best indie songs of 2012.

2011 was a year of self discovery in music: it was a year where musicians tried to find their niches, it was a year where musicians tried to perfect past sounds, and it was a year where albums were almost more "experimental" than they were "excellent." Bloom is the perfect album for the year where people are going to have to act on what they have discovered about themselves: every riff is a reminder that we have to ACT and vote in this election, every beautiful chorus is a reminder that we need to go back to work and perfect the talent that we worked so hard to discover last year, and at the end of every song is a reminder that some people think the apocalypse might happen at the end of this year. I will totally be fine with an apocalypse, as long as I get to hear albums as good as Bloom in the afterlife.

3. Oberhofer Time Capsules II
The Internet era is weird because you can get famous without actually having a talent. The guy who thinks Dr. Dre was his knee surgeon is suddenly the guy making rap songs and new beats using something like Mixcraft, the Grandma who had a few funny racist jokes is suddenly a run away sensation on Twitter, and the woman who had a sex tape with a third rate rapper can get a reality show about her entire family! We live in a world where it is pointless to buy lottery tickets because you could get rich just by having a dog who has a bark that sounds like Morgan Freeman! In a world of recessions, unemployment, and general unhappiness it is quite ironic that happiness and riches could just be a click away. What we end up having is a brutal combination of hope, depression, and fascination.

So basically people are either inspired by this era, fascinated by it, or angry or depressed by it. Time Capsules II is a ten song "time capsule" that perfectly defines all three reactions to the "Internet era." It has songs that fascinate you, songs that depress you, songs that are angry, and songs that make you hopeful. It has songs that are hard rocking and almost sound metal, it has songs that are soft and sound like they should be on an album like Bloom, it has songs that are really atmospheric and sound like some b sides from one of Animal Collective's early albums, it has songs that are catchy enough to be on the radio and songs that are experimental, and it has songs that sound like "America" and songs that sound like anything but America. It is an album for anyone who has ever had hope that there video might make it big, anyone who has ever blocked the E! channel because they were so disgusted by the sheer sight of a Girl Next Door, it is an album for everyone who has wanted something they knew they couldn't have. It is an album of grunge, post rock, punk, electronica, and indie songs that give us hope and DESPAIR in a world of recessions, unemployment, and "one click" happiness.

4. Andrew Bird - Break It Yourself
Break It Yourself is a perfect combination of the songwriting and social commentary of Bright Eyes Cassadaga, the old school folky instrumentation of Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues, the versatility of Ryan Adams Gold, the "relateability" of some of the greatest pop albums ever, and the experimenting of some of the most bold albums of the past decade. It is amazing how Bird is able to combine all of these influences without the album ever sounding forced, cliche, or watered down. Break It Yourself is simply an album of "proof," because it proves that Bird is so talented that it impossible to tie him down to one genre, one comparison, or one sound.

5. First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar
Read every MD post in January!

Honorable Mentions:
Drew Smith: The Secret Languages
Silver Swans: Forever
La Sera: Sees The Light
Diagrams: Black Light
Cloud Nothings: Attack On Memory
Islands: A Sleep A Forgetting
The Shins: Port of Morrow
Pulled Apart By Horses: Tough Love
NO: Don't Worry, You'll Be Here Forever

Eric Sepanski:

1. Every Time I Die - Ex Lives
Growing up in the same desolate neighborhoods as ETID frontman Keith Buckley, I find myself consistently impressed with his unwavering resistance to existential burnout. Buffalo, NY is as cold and lonely of a place as the long touring road, yet Every Time I Die remain apparently unaffected. If anything, Buckley & co. have benefited from the grinding breach - the intense fire and brimstone cynicism that go into every ETID album are wholly apparent on Ex Lives. Buckley's deranged wit and penchant for charming prose burn brighter than ever throughout Ex Lives, with backing instrumentation that screams of a band unwilling to slow down. It may be true that all good things end, but at least Every Time I Die understand the importance of prolonging that inevitability - crack open a cold one and guzzle it down to Ex Lives.

2. Cheap Girls - Giant Orange

Cheap Girls have always been the band that you can't help but feel for. With two phenomenal records already under their belt, partially squelched from years and years of year-round touring, they've done a lot to establish themselves as either unsung heroes or saddest men standing. Giant Orange is a different sound from Cheap Girls though - it's the sunnier side of jaded past efforts, asserting the notion that the Michigan trio might have found a path worth treading. With some production assistance from Against Me!'s Tom Gabel, Giant Orange sees Cheap Girls soaring higher and higher but staying grounded as ever. Applaud the effort, appreciate the modesty, and love the band - Cheap Girls do Cheap Girls like nobody else can.

3. Anthony Green - Beautiful Things
Death, taxes, and enchanting music from Anthony Green just might be life's three absolutes. Beautiful Things, the follow up to 2008 debut Avalon, does virtually nothing to disappoint the Circa Survive frontman's eager listeners. In a musical scene where solo albums more often than not turn into forgettable footnotes, Green shows that raw talent and a love for all things music can translate into something truly beautiful. Beautiful Things lives fully up to its name, with Green's inimitable vocals soaring high above the record's more grounded, slow-jam accessibility. It is a lesson in consistency and practiced talent, presenting listeners with that much more to love from an already laudable career.

4. Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny - Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose
…Speaking of quirky, did I mention a Miss Beth Jeans Houghton? Schooled in the art of out-dated time signatures and glockenspiel solos, Houghton and her backing from the Hooves of Destiny know a thing or two about creating some truly oddball music. It's all in good fun though, with Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose coming together as a collection of multi-layered hipster jams, small doses of pretension included. Unorthodox song textures and brass ensembles prance their way along the less-traveled path, with the unwavering force of Houghton's honeyed vocals standing front and center. Despite a slight disconnect that plagues parts of the record, Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose presents enough memorable singles and singular moments to establish itself as one of 2012's finest early listens.

5. Salad Days - Quiet As Its Kept
Kyle Bogue has a knack for clever hooks and quirky soundscapes. Quiet As Its Kept, his first release under the moniker Salad Days, comes complete with sonic eccentricities aplenty, merging anything from fatalistic piano interludes to pop-punk wonder-tracks to form one of 2012's finest early offerings. Presenting listeners with a glimpse into Bogue's unconventional musical mind, Quiet As Its Kept is a fantastic end result to its many months of intermittent bedroom recording. Fall in love with perfectly-executed duet 'Let Down' or sigh along to closer 'Another Decembered Saturday' - either/or affords a fitting soundtrack for this existential rouse we call life.

Matt French:

1. Sigh - In Somniphobia
No one can ever accuse Sigh of lacking innovation, that much is sure, but what of this album? Well, it is absolutely fucking nuts. Refusing to ever sit still, and utilizing congas, accordion, flutes, theremin, etc., Sigh create a sound unlike anything you're going to hear all year. From the tastefully bluesy number (yep, lounge-metal) "Amnesia", to the demented circus that is "Far Beneath The In-Between"(seriously, Nightwish should take notes), In Somniphobia is an incredibly challenging album, marrying all of Sigh's best traits and adding new tricks to the mix. Progressive, avant-garde, experimental, psychedelic - In Somniphobia is a metal album pushing the envelope, challenging the conventions of metal while borrowing from the past (Imaginary Sonicscape).

2. Burial - Kindred EP
You’ll all no doubt have heard of Burial by now. Letting all of us become familiar once more with Dubstep’s presence in 2007 via Untrue, Burial helped us get in touch with a genre we almost forgot existed and has since been satiating the craving for those pining to hear more of his signature style of Dubstep through the release of EPs. Somehow (almost impossibly) redefining a sound that was already redefined, “Kindred” (song and EP) sounds like it’s charting new territory, fleshing out Burial’s brooding side and focusing heavily on atmosphere. On an EP with songs that constantly meander, “Kindred” is decidedly the most straightforward of the three.

3. John Talabot - fin
John Talabot’s 2012 entry aluum (Fin) is one of the most exciting house albums I’ve heard in recent memory. Toying with ideas most artists stray from or are too afraid to fully explore, Talabot seems to really have a knack for creating mood and atmosphere, taking influence from funk, glam, electro, and so on. Fin truly is an album comprised of songs that sound completely different, nuanced, and fully realized. It’s in listening to a track like "Depak Lne" that one can fully appreciate just how nuanced his sound is: drawing initially from tribal percussion and a contorted synth line, "Depak Lne" is a slow burner - transitioning from a hazily brooding atmosphere to an organic, upbeat sound with crooning chants, it encapsulates Talabot’s best qualities.

4. Grimes - Visions
Visions is an atmospheric work of genius. Drawing from several genres such as: IDM, Industrial, New-Age, Pop, etc., young Canadian producer/vocalist Claire Boucher has created her most focused and impassioned work to date. Its sound invites comparisons that range from the textural, drugged out electronics of Aphex Twin to the soothing calm of Enya's delicate voice, all the while sounding like it's charting unexplored territory. With skilful production techniques and blissful vocals, Visions ends up being a record that far and away exceeded my impossibly high expectations after hearing "Oblivion", and given the right amount of time to set in, it may just very well end up as one of the year's best.

5. The Men - Open Your Heart
Open your heart is one hell of a rockin’ album, aspiring as nothing more than to be a homage to rock’s legends. It has all the fixings of quintessential rock: garish production, meandering rock-out instrumental bits (“Oscillation”), indecipherable vocals (but who cares, it’s a hell of a lot of fun!). Messy, passionate, and loud, Open Your Heart is a great musical direction for The Men and an excellent representation of a group teeming with life.

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