This is my favorite column to write each year.
As longtime readers can tell you, I’m almost relentlessly positive in this space. It isn’t always easy, particularly in a music year like this one, in which the disappointments almost outnumbered the unqualified successes. It’s a balancing act, maintaining a positive tone while navigating an onslaught of mediocre-to-painful new releases, and I do my best.
But the top 10 list column is my chance to be unabashedly giddy about music. This makes me happier than I can tell you. Each year, I spend an inordinate amount of time hunting for the music that brightens my days, the music that, at its very best, reorders my life and lets me live inside of it for a time. And each year, at the very end, I get to tell you that story, and bring you the very best musical moments I discovered. This makes all the work I do to find those moments worth it.
As I said last week, this was not a great year for music. It wasn’t a bad one, exactly, and I’d put my top five up against the best of any other year. But the bright spots were fewer and farther between. It’s funny, because my real life was just the opposite – this year held so much positivity, so much joy, that even the darkest moments (including the loss of a great-uncle and a grandmother, both of whom I loved very much) couldn’t dampen it. For me personally, 2012 was a very good year. Musically, that’s a different story.
But that’s not the story we’re here to tell. This is the good stuff, the edited highlights, the best of the very best. You guys know the rules by now, but here they are again, just for posterity: only new studio albums released this year are eligible for the list. That means no covers albums (and there were several good ones, including Field Music and Mike Doughty), no live albums (so no Live Blood from Peter Gabriel), and no hits, re-release or remix packages. Some critics, I’m sure, will put the Beatles vinyl box on the top of their lists, but that’s a no-no around here.
What I’m looking for are the best new albums of the year, made up of the best new songs of the year. Simple, straightforward, direct. I heard about 260 albums in 2012, and here, as far as I’m concerned, are the 10 best.
#10. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do.
Fiona Apple’s first album in seven years boasts 2012’s longest title, but her fans have come to expect a certain level of eccentricity from her. What they probably didn’t expect was the music within – these raw, complex songs have been stripped bare, often played on just piano and percussion. It’s unlike anything she’s done, and somehow feels like her most honest, personal statement. Not one moment of this album invites you in – you have to work at it, particularly when Apple sends her stunning voice into new, throat-shredding areas. She tops the whole thing with “Hot Knife,” a joyous sex song delivered a cappella, Andrews Sisters-style, over rolling tympanis. It’s a welcome moment of release after a fearless, difficult, absolutely stunning piece of work. Apple’s a batshit genius, and this album proves it.
#9. Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre is Evil.
This is the first of four albums on this year’s list to be fully funded by fans instead of record labels. The revolution is underway, and Palmer is leading the charge – she raised more than a million dollars to create, package and release Theatre is Evil on her own, and it shows. This is the record of her life, the one on which all of the disparate strands of her career come together. It’s sprawling, almost impossibly dramatic, and full of songs with titles like “Do It With a Rockstar” and “Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen).” But it’s also remarkably intimate at times, never more so than on “The Bed Song,” which traces a sad, stagnant relationship by the beds the couple sleeps in through the years. Palmer went for broke on this album, mixing the theatrical with the personal more thoroughly than she ever has, and wrapping all that up in massive, rolling waves of sound. It’s the best thing she’s done, and her Kickstarter donors definitely got their money’s worth.
#8. Rufus Wainwright, Out of the Game.
I was really hoping Rufus had another album like this in him. After a string of detours, culminating in the piano meander All Days Are Nights in 2010, it was beginning to feel like Wainwright’s days as a master pop craftsman might be behind him. But he came charging back with this glittering gem, working with Amy Winehouse’s producer Mark Ronson to add extra shimmer. While the drums pop and the strings glisten, the real stars here are the songs, hook-filled wonders like “Welcome to the Ball” and “Perfect Man.” I love hearing Wainwright’s voice in just about any setting, but it’s best when delivering perfect pop numbers like these. Far from being out of the game, Wainwright sounds reinvigorated here, and he remains one of the best songwriters in the biz.
#7. Shearwater, Animal Joy.
I’ve liked this unique Austin band for a while now, but this album, their seventh, is the first one that’s knocked me out. You’ve never heard a singer quite like Jonathan Meiburg, and while his pipes added an ethereal layer to Shearwater’s earlier, more ambient work, he really shows what he can do on the galloping, sweeping guitar-rock here. They’re still Shearwater, and they still traffic in atmospheres, but on Animal Joy they rock like never before. “Animal Life” sounds like flying over the African veldt, and “Breaking the Yearlings” is like crashing back to earth. Here’s hoping they continue down this path, because this album is remarkable.
#6. Ben Folds Five, The Sound of the Life of the Mind.
Yes, I was worried too. When Ben Folds announced a reunion of his old band, and even scarier, a reunion album, I expected a quickie cash grab that would sink to the bottom of Folds’ catalog. Silly, silly me. The Five – Folds, Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge – clearly delighted in playing together again, and this tremendous, cohesive, fan-funded album is proof. Some criticized it for not capturing the bratty energy of the original records, but this is an older and wiser Five, and these lovely, beautifully-crafted songs suit them well. They still stomp their way through piano-pounders like “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” and “Do It Anyway,” and they add a delicate touch to sad songs like “Hold That Thought” and “Sky High.” This is a reunion album that justifies its own existence, and then some.
#5. Bryan Scary, Daffy’s Elixir.
A 70-plus-minute insane pop opera about a steampunk wild west? It really couldn’t be anyone but Bryan Scary, if you think about it. This Kickstarter-funded project finds the one-man Queen in brilliant, completely unfiltered form – this is Scary’s magnum opus, a whirlwind of ideas and crazy arrangements and lush, wondrous harmonies. From the nimble, proggy “Cable Through Your Heart” to the manic “You Might Be Caught in Tarantella” to the gentle “The Tale of Opal Dawn” to the mammoth, jaw-dropping closer “Data Mountain,” there isn’t a weak, compromised moment here. Packaged as an illustrated book of short stories, Scary’s piano-fueled tales have never sounded better, fuller, more complete. It’s a testament not just to him and his frightening talent, but to the joys and rewards of artistic independence. Also, it’s freaking awesome.
#4. Husky, Forever So.
A late entry, but a stunning one. Husky is an Australian band led by a guy whose real name apparently is Husky Gawenda, and they play beautiful, beautiful music. This album occupies the Fleet Foxes spot this year, but Husky’s songs are less rooted in centuries-old sounds – they play a modern version of woodsy acoustic folk. The songs are marvelous things – the album’s opener, “Tidal Wave,” will stay with you for weeks, and “History’s Door” harnesses a power few songs this year managed. The band’s harmonies are impeccable, and Husky’s voice is soft and fascinating. Best of all, their album makes me feel like I’m sitting around a campfire, warm and happy. It’s quite an achievement for a new band, but if they can keep writing and playing songs like this, they’ll be around for a long, long time.
#3. Punch Brothers, Who’s Feeling Young Now?
2012 was the Year of the Punch Brothers. You may still never have heard of them, but thanks to this album and a number of high-profile appearances throughout the year, they’re not an ignored little group any more. And that’s cause for celebration, because they’re one of the best bands in the world right now. The Punch Brothers sport a classic bluegrass lineup – guitar, bass, fiddle, banjo, and the mandolin mastery of Chris Thile – and while they’re capable of traditional finger-pickin’ goodness, they more often play a mix of alt-rock, pop and prog. The title track could fit nicely on ‘90s alternative radio, “Movement and Location” is an astonishing feat of skill and speed, and “This Girl” is one of the year’s best bouncy pop songs. This album also features a note-for-note cover of Radiohead’s electronic nightmare “Kid A,” performed entirely on those acoustic instruments. The popularity of the Punch Brothers is a victory for real musicianship, and Who’s Feeling Young Now is a remarkable, accessible distillation of what they do. Even if you think you hate bluegrass, my bet is you will love the Punch Brothers.
#2. Marillion, Sounds That Can’t Be Made.
Marillion’s been at this game a long, long time. Sounds is their 17th album, and the current incarnation of the band has been together for more than 20 years. What’s amazing, then, is that they’re still finding new avenues to explore, new styles they haven’t conquered yet. This completely fan-funded album finds them stretching out over eight long songs, most of them heading new places, none of them sounding alike. But what makes Marillion one of the best bands on earth isn’t just their restless experimentation, it’s their ability to craft complex, powerful music that aims directly for the soul. This album begins with a 17-minute epic called “Gaza,” written from the point of view of a child growing up in the Gaza Strip. It’s heavier than anything they’ve done, but the heart of it is Steve Hogarth’s plaintive “It just ain’t right, it just ain’t right,” sung over delicate piano. They pull this trick off over and over again on this album, from the soaring guitars that end the ‘80s-inflected title track to the astonishing buildup of “Montreal” to the soulful chorus of “Invisible Ink,” all the way to the heartbreaking, glorious final minutes of “The Sky Above the Rain.” This is an album you feel, and that they’re still able to create music this intricate and emotional after so many years together is amazing. They’re one of my favorite bands, and they keep on earning my devotion.
Still, they didn’t capture the top spot. The album that did came out of nowhere, moved me like nothing else, and wouldn’t let go. If you’ve been keeping up with this column, you know what it is. My love for it hasn’t changed since I first heard it in April.
#1. Lost in the Trees, A Church That Fits Our Needs.
It’s been said that the best art comes from tragedy. That may help to explain why A Church That Fits Our Needs is so haunting, harrowing and sublime. It’s dedicated to lead singer Ari Picker’s mother – that’s her on the front cover. Stricken with cancer, she took her own life on the day of Picker’s wedding. This album – this glorious, difficult, emotional beyond all reason album – is his attempt to make sense of the senseless, and put her soul to rest.
Only he can say whether the record succeeds at those goals. All I can tell you is that it’s the most powerful, cohesive artistic statement I heard all year. Picker’s songs are full of personal allusions, the way old Tori Amos lyrics used to be, and if you know his story, they’re heartbreaking. His twin sisters, who died after a premature birth, are eulogized in “Red.” His mother’s artwork, in many ways the center of her life, comes up again and again, Picker even quoting from her suicide note at one point. In all my years as a music listener, I have rarely heard such a specific and personal outpouring of the soul. It sounds like cleansing, like rebirth, like setting fire to the past and walking through it.
The music on these 10 songs is the richest I’ve heard in years. Picker created all the arrangements himself, and the sweeping strings augment these delicate (and not-so-delicate) pieces beautifully. The transition from the gorgeous “This Dead Bird is Beautiful” to the room-shaking cello of “Garden” is one of my favorite musical moments of the year, and all of “An Artist’s Song” and “Icy River” just brings me to my knees. In many ways, though, it’s the unadorned closer “Vines” that packs the biggest punch, a tender moment of resignation after nine songs of ethereal, searching pain.
While this is an album meant to be heard as a single work, in sequence, it’s also one of moments, and several of them have stayed with me for the majority of the year. When Picker sings of dumping his mother’s ashes in “Icy River” (“Don’t you ever dare think she was weak-hearted, like a ribbon of silver, I poured her body in the river…”). The moment in “Vines” when Picker admits that there are things that songs can’t say. And the heart-stopping pain and love Picker brings to a single line in “This Dead Bird”: “I’ll carry her, because she breathed I breathe.”
This is what art is for. This is what music is meant to do. In 10 short songs, Ari Picker thoroughly examines his own pain, and shares it with us in ways that will leave you shaking. But there is healing here, there is wonder, there is moving on. I won’t be able to explain to you in words what Lost in the Trees have done here. As Picker himself sings, there are things that words can’t say. That’s why we have music. To wipe our tears, to hold our hands, and to guide us to the next place, wherever that may be.
And that wraps up the best of 2012. Tune in next time for Fifty Second Week, as we bid farewell to this year, and welcome in the next. As always, thank you for reading. Without you I’m nothing, and I will never forget it. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.