A year ago this week, I watched my first set of dreams fade away before my eyes. I was a vocal performance major, working towards a degree (and hopefully a career) in the musical arts, and spending hours a week in practice rooms or rehearsal spaces, trying to make those options more viable. For my final exam, I entered my performance hearing jury–ostensibly the tool the faculty uses to decide whether or not students can remain in the program–and failed. But as I drove home (to the startlingly appropriate strains of M83’s “Intro,” no less), it didn’t feel like an ending. A part of my heart was broken, aching for all the time I had wasted, but another part of me–a bigger part–was massively relieved. I had my whole life laid out before me, and for the first time in a long time, I felt like I could take any road I wanted to.
In a lot of ways, this year was my rebirth. I went back to school and redoubled my efforts, picking up an English major and rapidly wracking up resume builders. Since then, I’ve written for two global music publications and two online magazines based out of my hometown; I spent the summer interning at a business that was half marketing agency, half newspaper, gaining a ton of valuable skills along the way; I landed a job editing the Arts & Entertainment section for this very newspaper, managing my own small team and keeping my writing up along the way; and just this week, I was just offered yet another writing internship for my final semester. Furthermore, though I sometimes forget it, I am still a full-time student, building towards my double-major graduation this spring (I shifted my music degree to a generic B.A.), and trying to finish an entire English degree in just a year and a half.
For good reason, the soundtrack to all of this has been a strikingly memorable one, and cultivating this list has been an even more joyous (and joyously difficult) experience than is was last year. In many cases, I was surprised at how the order shook out: I was intrigued at what I left off and chose to include, and interested at which specific musical memories swam to the forefront of my mind as I worked through this extensive retrospective. For me, music has always been an emotional ballast, a means to remember and re-live the most important moments of my life. Unsurprisingly, then, serendipity and nostalgia played a big role in which albums won and which albums lost, so to speak. When a record comes along at just the right time, it melds with our memories, our loves, our friendships, and everything between, becoming immortal. In the following list, I discuss a few of those anecdotes, trying to tell my own story through the music that has, over the past 12 months, most clearly defined it. To steal a line from the 2011 version of myself, this list represents the 30 records that I “lived, loved, and listened to” the most in 2012. Enjoy.
NOTE: Check back tomorrow for albums 11-20 and Thursday for my top ten albums of the year.
I first heard North, Matchbox Twenty’s first full-length album in a decade, on the last day in my hometown this past summer. Naturally, I was feeling in a state of transition, and when the elegant bombast of opening cut “Parade” came cascading out of my speakers, the music felt like an old friend and a welcome comfort. “When the slow parade went past/And it felt so good you knew it couldn’t last/And all too soon the end was gonna come without a warning/And you’d have to just go home,” frontman Rob Thomas sings at the outset, a nostalgic guitar burning behind him. The song sets the tone for North, which swings back and forth between fun, upbeat pop-rock (“She’s So Mean,” “How Long,” “Radio”) and the band’s patent lovelorn balladry (the lovely “Overjoyed,” which makes it seem as if the band has only been gone a day). Thomas lays down one of his best vocal performances to date (along with some of his best lyrics) on “Sleeping at the Wheel,” a sweepingly melodic finale to the most eclectic album of the band’s career. (Read my full review here)
Key tracks: “Parade,” “Overjoyed,” “Sleeping at the Wheel”
No one was surprised when Rolling Stone Magazine gave Tempest, Bob Dylan’s blood-soaked 35th studio album, a glowing five star review. What was more surprising, once I actually got my hands on it, was how accessible and easy to like it really was. Dylan’s post-millennial albums, aside from 2001’s Love and Theft, have largely been derivative blues efforts, and while there’s never been anything wrong with Dylan pursuing that kind of sound, I must admit that I haven’t been exceedingly taken with most of it. Tempest has moments of blues rock, but is largely grounded in Dylan’s folksy roots. The most obvious example is the title track, an epic, twisting narrative that charts the sinking of the Titanic in classic Dylan tradition (think “Desolation Row”). But moments like the elegiac “Long and Wasted Years,” the classicist romance of “Soon After Midnight,” and the Lennon eulogy of album closer “Roll On John,” quite simply feel like they’ve come from a much younger version of their creator. For a guy who turned 71 this year (and who celebrated the 50th anniversary of his first release), Tempest is a shockingly vital and relevant musical statement. (Read my full review here)
Key tracks: “Duquesne Whistle,” “Long and Wasted Years,” “Tempest”
Back in 2004 or 2005, Tyler Hilton was one of the most promising young singer-songwriters around, a guy who seemed like he was on the cusp of fame. (Though it was difficult to envision whether he would go teen pop, rock ‘n’ roll, or country—all of which were viable options.) Just 21 years old at the time, the kid had landed a recurring role on a popular teen soap opera (One Tree Hill), achieved minor success with a pair of singles from his sophomore LP (“Glad” and “When it Comes”), and offered a brief but charismatic cameo as Elvis in the Oscar-nominated, Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. But record label disputes and a shift in leadership and direction (all at Warner Bros.) left his third album, Storms We Share, tied up on the shelf. Most of those songs saw the light of day on a pair of EPs in 2009 and 2010, but it wasn’t until this past spring that Hilton finally delivered that long-awaited third album. The result, Forget the Storm, doesn’t just choose one of Hilton’s potential musical directions, though; it chooses all of them. We get scorching southern rock (“Ain’t No Fooling Me”), should-have-been mainstream country hits (“Leave Him”), all-out pop (“Prince of Nothing Charming”), twangy folk (“You’ll Ask For Me”), and some fantastic mix of them all (“I Belong”). But where most of Forget the Storm really could have brought Hilton into the mainstream fold, some of the best moments are the ones where he shows more edge: see the harmonic opener, “Kicking My Heels,” or the sassy and sexy blues rock of “Loaded Gun”—then drop this guy back on your “artists to watch” list. (Read my full review here)
Key tracks: “Kicking My Heels,” “Loaded Gun,” “I Belong”
Maybe it’s the ringing, effects-laden guitar sound that permeates every song on this record, but Wild Blood caught me more completely off guard than almost any other album I heard this year. The best moments here are the ones that take full command of that anthemic, nostalgic sensibility, using it to create expansive, bleeding arrangements (look to “Great Divide” for a masterclass of musical atmosphere, or “We Were Owls,” whose chiming and minimalistic guitar line is nothing short of entrancing). Elsewhere, the band drops the tempo and strips things down with “Girl,” a sobering hymn to undying devotion. But for the most part, Wild Blood is a towering road trip record just begging to be played at maximum volume. Album cornerstones like the title track, “Pink Champagne,” and “Your Country” burn with raucous intensity and classic rock ‘n’ roll spirit, while the towering grand finale that is “Anodyne,” with a skyscraping bridge and a transcendent vocal delivery from frontman Michael Shepherd, puts most of this year’s music to shame. (Read my full review here)
Key tracks: “Girl,” “The Great Divide,” “Anodyne”
Detractors will call Go Radio’s sophomore full-length top heavy, repetitive, histrionic, or derivative, but this past fall, I formed an emotional connection with these songs that rendered each of those points moot. Sure, the album throws three of its best songs out as an opening, but what an opening that is. The propulsive “I Won’t Lie” feels like a bonafide anthem, while “Baltimore” is a searing leaving song whose tearful bridge perfectly captures a last night in town—a last night with the person you love—even as a grand departure looms. “Collide” is the companion piece, a flawless piece of pop-rock meant to soundtrack that kind of departure: bittersweet, regretful, but also full of optimistic hope for the future. “Go to Hell,” with its staccato piano chords and gleeful bombast, is a pure pop music kiss-off, while highlights like the title track and “Things I Don’t See” build a sense of sun-soaked longing around the album’s long-distance relationship themes. And while the album loses a bit of its tumultuous urgency as it barrels towards its conclusion (the band clusters most of their ballads in the second half), the autumnal build of “Hear Me Out” more than redeems any missteps, establishing Close the Distance as the kind of personal soundtrack album that becomes a scene classic or an all-time favorite five or ten years down the road. (Read my full review here)
Key tracks: “Baltimore,” “Collide,” “Close the Distance”
No one could possibly deny John Mayer’s pyrotechnical electric guitar skills. Indeed, at best, the musician has always felt like the heir apparent to some of the all-time greats, from B.B. King to Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan to Robert Johnston. But Mayer has never leaned on his guitar skills, at least not on record, and this year’s Born and Raised, as good as it is, is less grounded in solos or instrumental show-offs than ever before. Blak and Blu, the first full-length album from Texan blues-hand Gary Clark Jr., is essentially the album that Mayer’s detractors have always wanted him to make: an all-out, pulse-pounding, blues-rock display with more than its fair share of face-melting guitar riffs. Throughout, Clark’s smooth and sultry voice blends with his fuzzy guitar sound and his penchant for foot-tapping rhythms, turning Blak and Blu into an ultra-satisfying blend of classic blues (“Bright Lights”), pure Motown R&B (“Please Come Home”) and throwback 50s/60s rock ‘n’ roll (“Travis County,” which legitimately sounds like a lost Chuck Berry single). More than any album on this list, choosing favorite songs from Blak and Blu is a daunting task: the whole album flows perfectly, a wonderfully executed melange of unimpeachable charisma and sexy ambiance. And throughout, Clark somehow manages the impossible, writing songs that would be equally suited to the pop music golden age and to the radio waves of today.
Key tracks: “Travis County,” “The Life,” “You Saved Me”
Speaking of R&B, Frank Ocean is one of the genre’s most exciting and buzzed about new figures, and while his debut LP doesn’t quite live up to the earth-shattering amounts of hype it has collected since its release this past summer (Spin and The A.V. Club already named Channel ORANGE the best album of the year, and Pitchfork could very well follow suit), there’s still a lot to be respected about Ocean’s eclectic, scattershot ambition. A few moments here miss the mark, and interludes and framing tracks drag the tracklist to an unnecessary 17 songs, but on the whole, Channel ORANGE is a solid and fascinating record, one that sweeps you up into its vortex and doesn’t let you go until it crosses the finish line. On the album’s purest R&B efforts (“Thinkin Bout You,” “Sweet Life”) Ocean’s voice sounds smooth and angelic, while the ambitious centerpiece (the ten-minute, two-part “Pyramids”) moves from electro-infused dance-club gold to entrancing slow jam, all the way to spacey guitar outro (courtesy of John Mayer himself). And those facets only make up a fraction of Channel ORANGE‘s sweep: “Super Rich Kids” pays tribute to Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” “Lost” displays Ocean’s knack for writing effortless pop songs, and “Bad Religion” surrounds the singer in an introspective mass of organ and balladic ambiance. (Read my full review here)
Key tracks: “Pyramids,” “Lost,” “Bad Religion”
On his third LP, Swedish singer/songwriter Kristian Matsson mines pretty much the exact same territory he’s always occupied, writing striking, crisp, and beautiful melodies—usually over the bed of Spartan acoustic arrangements—and delivering them with his wistful, Dylanesque voice. The formula suited Matsson especially well on 2010’s The Wild Hunt, but while his latest isn’t quite up to that level, there’s still a lot to love about this specific disc. “Wind and Walls” alone makes the whole export worth it, a freewheelin’ road trip anthem from a dedicated drifter, and arguably the best song Matsson has ever written. The rest of the record taps into that same kind of yearning nostalgia, from the dusky pedal steel strains of “Bright Lanterns” to the picking-up-where-we-left-off opening duo of “To Just Grow Away” and “Revelation Blues.” The title track swaps Matsson’s trademark guitar for a wonky piano, and the album’s closer, “On Every Page,” is less guttural troubadour hymn than pensive campfire confessional, but on the whole There’s No Leaving Now champions the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, and with a result this pleasant, that’s a hard mantra to argue with. (Read my full review here)
Key tracks: “To Just Grow Away,” “Bright Lanterns,” “Wind and Walls”
Call it a guilty pleasure if you want, but I’ve always been surprisingly taken with The Fray’s anthemic brand of piano rock, and they’ve only gotten better each time out. Make no mistake, Scars & Stories is hardly a massive step forward for the band: we still get the string-laced piano ballads (“I Can Barely Say”), the driving, mid-tempo pop rock anthems (“Heartbeat”), and a few traces of rock ‘n’ roll edge (“Turn Me On”). But for whatever reason, I found myself coming back to this album a lot this year. “Heartbeat” may be something we’ve heard a million times before, but it’s also one of the most addictive openers on any record this year; “I Can Barely Say” may be a slightly slowed-down re-write of last album’s “Never Say Never,” but Isaac Slade’s passionate vocal performance is still hard to fault; and it might be hard for some to buy into The Fray as a convincing “rock” band, but “Turn on Me” has a surprisingly funky bassline. Elsewhere, the band does what they have always done, slinging U2-sized choruses (album-highlight “Munich”), deriving yearning urgency from universal human struggles (“1961″), and crafting spacious and uplifting numbers destined to serve as the coda for TV shows and films alike (“The Wind”). The Fray may be mainstream cannon fodder nowadays, but these songs aim for deeper and more interesting territory than most of their contemporaries risk, and I’d like to think there’s a group of real artists trying to escape here: only time will tell. (Read full review here)
Key tracks: “Heartbeat,” “The Wind,” “Munich”
The most remarkable thing about The Rocket Summer has always been its one-man band mentality. The mastermind behind it all, Bryce Avary, plays all the instruments on his records, somehow managing to make all of those different tracks coalesce into something as cohesive and fully-formed as Life Will Write the Words. The sound here never wanders far from Avary’s bread-and-butter pop-punk, but I can also sense Americana songwriting textures creeping in around the fringes. Maybe I’m just imagining that element—after all, the cover and the album title sound like they’re meant for some heartland bluegrass or pop-country band—but I don’t think so. Throughout this record, Avary spins myriad moments that feel as if they’re destined for America’s sunburnt highways, from the propulsive “Run Don’t Stop” to the shapeshifting “200,000,” all the way to the gleeful handclap aesthetic of “Circa ’46.” The feeling only becomes overt a couple of times—the magnetic twang of “Soldiers” and the cathedral-ready balladry of “Scrapbook” are the best examples—but throughout, the remarkably personal nature of Avary’s storytelling recalls some of the greatest songwriters in the American tradition, from Springsteen to Petty. The hooks rarely soar into earworm territory, and Avary’s ultra-compressed production could use some work, but Life Will Write the Words is the sound of a great songwriter maturing and emerging right before our eyes, and I frankly can’t wait to see what’s next.
Key tracks: “200,000,” “Soldiers,” “Scrapbook”