By Jack Evans
40. Allah-Las – Allah-Las (Innovative Leisure) – For many, the “throwback” tag has gotten old. The idea of modern bands embracing the rock culture of the 60s and 70s to the extent that they sounded like they came from those years – the AC/DC sound-alike-ness of Jet and Airbourne, the trad metal throwbacks to Sabbath and Zeppelin by Witchcraft and Graveyard, and, of course, the Beatle-worship of Oasis, who had already been huge for years – was a novelty in the mid-to-late-2000s, but of late, it seems that everyone has realized that most of those bands were just ancestor-worshiping copycats. Few “throwback” bands, though, have referenced the surf-pop of The Ventures, Dick Dale, et al. Los Angeles quartet the Allah-Las do here on their debut, adding vocal lines with a hint of Jim Morrison (or is it Iggy Pop?) swagger to most of the songs.
Key Tracks: “Don’t You Forget It,” “Sacred Sands,” “Sandy,” “Long Journey”
39. Foxy Shazam – The Church of Rock and Roll (I.R.S.) – In the mainstream world, 2012 was the year of fun. (the band). From the moment “We Are Young” appeared in that one Chevrolet ad, the radio-listening world was obsessed with the pop group’s theatrical bombast and infectious hooks. Around the same time, though, another band, the jubilantly named Foxy Shazam, was releasing The Church of Rock and Roll, an album with its fair share of theatrics and bombast and hooks (done far better than fun.). The Cincinnati outfit pounds out (mostly) upbeat rock numbers obviously influenced by Queen and Chicago (check the awesome horn licks spread all over the album). On the ridiculously catchy/raunchy single “I Like It,” huge-voiced frontman Eric Sean Nally, presumably in response to catching sight of a physically endowed woman, proclaims: “That’s the biggest black ass I’ve ever seen – and I like it!” A silly lyric, yes, but if you can get funky with the whole neo-glam thing, you’ll like it too.
Key Tracks: “Welcome to the Church of Rock and Roll,” “I Like It,” “Holy Touch”
38. The Antlers – Undersea EP (Anti) – Undersea is an apt title for the excellent new EP by The Antlers. The Brooklyn 3-piece’s follow-up to last year’s Burst Apart overflows with smooth, drawn-out vocal lines atop swaths of reverb-drenched guitars, thick bass and bubbly electronic elements. Even the lyrics reference the album’s aquatic theme: on “Drift Dive,” Peter Silberman croons, “Slow it down, wait it out/ We can’t run but we can go swimming/ Diving in late at night, we come together/ Dissolving into a million pieces in a billion places.” Despite the watery feel, Undersea won’t drown you; it’ll just carry you away on a gentle, luscious wave.
Key Tracks: “Drift Dive,” “Endless Latter,” “Crest”
37. Buke & Gase – Function Falls EP (Brassland) – “Blue Monday” is, as a whole, one of the “biggest” pop songs in music history. Aside from the original version by New Order, the dance classic has been covered successfully by artists including Orgy and Flunk. A new cover of the song is the cornerstone for Buke & Gase’s Function Falls EP. On the EP’s four songs, Aron Sanchez’s gase (a guitar/bass hybrid) blends seamlessly with Arone Dyer’s buke (an electrified baritone ukulele) backed by percussion that’s both thick and minimal – limited to bass drum and “toe-bourine.” Meanwhile, Dyer’s vocals, often reminiscent of St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, meander through “Fussrate” and finally fully break open on “Tending the Talk.”
Key Tracks: “Tending the Talk,” “Blue Monday”
36. Memory Tapes – Grace/Confusion (Carpark) – If the electronic pop movement dubbed chillwave can be held as a subgenre by itself, then it’s easy to say that Memory Tapes (aka Dayve Hawk), along with acts such as Neon Indian and Washed Out, is right at its forefront. Like most of the genre’s artists, Memory Tapes seeks to present hazy, acid-drenched vocals alongside catchy dance beats. On Grace/Confusion, though, Hawk branches away from the “traditional” chillwave formula. On opener “Neighborhood Watch,” he allows the main theme to drop away to a thin vocal fog propelled by pulsing synth bass, which then jumps into an epic, distorted guitar riff. Heavy guitars and other more traditional rock sounds are used similarly on “Thru the Field” and “Sheila.” With Grace/Confusion, Hawk not only delivers one of chillwave’s best albums yet, he also distances himself from the genre – proving that high risk does indeed yield high reward.
Key Tracks: “Neighborhood Watch,” “Thru the Field,” “Sheila”
35. Hundred Waters – Hundred Waters LP (OWSLA) – The members of Hundred Waters live in a different universe. It’s a universe where folk and electronic music seamlessly coexist, where dance beats are created in equal force by computers and by snare taps, where melody can be provided by swirling synths or delicately plucked guitars or ethereal vocal harmonies. Their debut album has a lot of other things that most indie bands don’t have. That is, most indie bands don’t endow, much less open, their albums with a song called “Sonnet” that actually is a sonnet; most don’t use drum circle madness as the main element of a song (“Wonderbloom”). And there isn’t any other indie band who’s released an album through Skrillex’s label. If there’s one thing to take away from this album, it’s that Hundred Waters is one of the most unique bands to emerge in 2012.
Key Tracks: “Sonnet,” “Visitor,” “Thistle,” “Boreal,” “Wonderbloom”
34. JEFF the Brotherhood – Hypnotic Nights (Warner Bros.) – Uber-prolific Nashville duo JEFF the Brotherhood (brothers Jake and Jamin Orrall) play energetic garage rock that has some pretty conventional touchstones at the core, but that doesn’t make their music typical in any way. JEFF is one of the few garage rock bands who worship at the shrine of Black Sabbath rather than The Who, and probably the only one with a guitarist who plays a custom see-through guitar with only three strings. That’s not even mentioning their forays into hardcore (“Staring at the Wall”) and psychedelic sitar sections (“Mystic Portal II”). Oh, and if you get a chance, see them live. Even when their equipment malfunctions and their drums fall down and stuff, they still put on a hell of a show.
Key Tracks: “Country Life,” “Sixpack” “Staring at the Wall,” “Dark Energy”
33. Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania (Martha’s Music) – If you called Smashing Pumpkins inconsistent, you wouldn’t be wrong. But you can’t deny that they’re legendary, too, having put out two of the greatest albums in rock history in Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (which received a massive reissue this year), as well as a handful of other good releases (notably, Gish), despite some of the more mediocre moments of their career. Oceania doesn’t meet the triumphs of those masterpieces, but it’s their best release at least since 1998’s Adore, containing a handful of good, even great songs and a rhythm section in which young drummer Mike Byrne fills the void left by the departure of long-time drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. This is one of 2012’s most underrated rock releases.
Key Tracks: “Quasar,” “Panopticon,” “Violet Rays,” “Oceania”
32. Moon Taxi – Cabaret (12th South) – On their second full-length, Moon Taxi have shown a vast transformation: the quintet, initially a pretty straightforward jam-rock group, has morphed its sound into that of danceable, southern-prog-tinged rock with indie and electronic influences. Their music isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, but it’s a nice change of pace from the typical jam band boredom, and the songs are fun, groovy, and occasionally shred-y while still being… well, songs.
Key Tracks: “Mercury,” “All the Rage,” “Square Circles (feat. Matisyahu),” “Cabaret”
31. Every Time I Die – Ex Lives (Epitaph) – Ex Lives is Every Time I Die’s best (and most aggressive) take yet on their fierce brand of math rock-influenced hardcore. From Keith Buckley’s opening throat-shredded screams of “I WANT TO BE DEAD WITH MY FRIENDS” on “Underwater Bimbos from Outer Space,” the album takes off and doesn’t let up, even when the tempo slows down on songs like the southern-groovin’ “Revival Mode.” Buckley’s bleak, literate lyrics add another dark shade to the band’s repertoire, like when he howls “You’ve never even seen the blood you’ve drawn or looked in the eyes of a kill you claimed was yours before taking a picture with it.” It’s intelligent, but dammit if it isn’t worthy of playing over a bar-brawl scene.
Key Tracks: “Underwater Bimbos from Outer Space,” “Typical Miracle,” “I Suck [Blood],” “Revival Mode”
30. Enter Shikari – A Flash Flood of Colour (Hopeless) – Haters gonna hate, but Enter Shikari (and, hey, not Muse) is the only band/artist to do dubstep – or, at least what the general public thinks of as dubstep – right this year. That’s probably because, instead of just electronic wobbles, they blend the genre with biting but accessible hardcore, emotional, politically charged lyrics, and an ever present sense of humor. The songs emphasize human togetherness (“…Meltdown”) and criticize oil dependence (“Arguing with Thermometers”); they’re pro-peace (“Gandhi, Mate, Gandhi”) and anti-totalitarian (“Hello Tyrannosaurus, Meet Tyrannicide”). Basically, it’s everything you want from a punk band, but done in a daring, unique, and not classically punk style.
Key Tracks: “…Meltdown,” “Sssnakepit,” “Arguing with Thermometers,” “Constellations”
29. Meshuggah – Koloss (Nuclear Blast) – I can personally guarantee that I’m not the only one who’s sick of the “djent” movement. If you’re not familiar with the djent thing, it’s essentially a mass of Meshuggah-worshiping kids who took the legendary Swedish death metal band’s complex riffage and combined it with more accessible metalcore and shred guitar (*coughPeripherycough*). But the genre’s originators are still doing it right, pumping out nearly an hour of ruthless technical metal – vicious screams, impossibly fast double bass drums, and guitar riffs so odd they’re impossible to wrap your head around. Koloss, more organic than 2008’s excellent ObZen, is another victory in a long line of excellent releases for Meshuggah.
Key Tracks: “The Demon’s Name is Surveillance,” “Do Not Look Down,” “Break Those Bones Whose Sinews Gave it Motion”
28. P.O.S. – We Don’t Even Live Here (Rhymesayers Entertainment) – P.O.S. is an interesting anomaly: he’s got a background in hardcore punk, and his rapping is often highly opinionated, but he’s got an ear for a catchy hook (just listen to the chorus of “How We Land,” which features Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon), and the music is fun rather than being overly serious. The Minnesota native may not be “the best in the world,” as he proclaims on “Wanted/Wasted,” but whatever he’s doing, it’s working pretty well.
Key Tracks: “Fuck Your Stuff,” “How We Land,” “Lock-picks, Knives, Bricks and Bats”
27. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (Domino) – Dave Longstreth’s Dirty Projectors have hit their stride, full on. Swing Lo Magellan hits indie-pop where it’s popular right now – in the weird. Elements like eerie “oohs” – which usher in the surprisingly rock-y opener “Offspring Are Blank” – and off-kilter guitars, both of which call to mind St. Vincent’s artsy pop, help the album accomplish this. On songs like “About to Die,” Longstreth, among handclaps and sparse, buoyant keyboard chords, mixes simple, hooky lines like “Where would I ever be without you?” with dense, poetic storytelling – “If the search has been long and futile and brutal, and if you squint trying to reconnect the bosom of your hood rum love, you reach out and into the absence and gasping, the vastness grabs you like an alien embrace.” He does the same on other standout tracks like “Gun Has No Trigger” and “Just from Chevron” and several others, and as a result, despite the Swing Lo title, Dirty Projectors hit high.
Key Tracks: “Offspring Are Blank,” “About to Die,” “Gun Has No Trigger,” “Just from Chevron”
26. DIIV – Oshin (Captured Tracks) – Founded by Beach Fossils member Zachary Cole Smith and named after Nirvana’s “Dive,” DIIV take the growing popularity of the dream pop practiced by Beach House et al and concentrate its best parts into the great, hazy opus that is Oshin. From the reverb-drenched guitar hooks of “Past Lives” to the pop songwriting genius of “How Long Have You Known” to the instrumental trio of “(Drunn),” “(Drunn Pt. II)” and “Oshin (Subsume),” Smith and co. curiously capture humanity in something that doesn’t even sound like it would exist on Earth, or at least not on land.
Key Tracks: “Past Lives,” “Air Conditioning,” “How Long Have You Known,” “Earthboy”
25. Grizzly Bear – Shields (Warp Records) – Beloved Brooklynites Grizzly Bear have never been known for following traditional indie-rock songwriting. Shields – which some have called their best work – opens with an excellent example of this in “Sleeping Ute,” which, in addition to being the album’s best track, alternates pieces of shimmering, adroitly picked guitars and relaxed percussion with sharp strums and strong cymbal hits, drops into oceanic synth arpeggios, and ends on gentle string plucks underneath a stunning vocal melody by Daniel Rossen. And then they jump into “Speak in Rounds” with a tribal beat followed by folky guitar strums, you know, just ’cause they can.
Key Tracks: “Sleeping Ute,” “Speak in Rounds,” “Yet Again,” “A Simple Answer”
24. How to Dress Well – Total Loss (AcEphale) – Emotional. Fragile. Deep. Those are some words that you could use to describe Total Loss in a nutshell if you wanted to – but then again, why would you, when you can just listen to it? On his second full-length as How to Dress Well, Tom Krell takes his experimental R&B to a new level of beauty. Over minimalist electronic beats composed of kicks, snares, snaps and claps, Krell, in his perfect falsetto, utters lines like “You held my soul in some machine like I was supposed to do, and now the ground beneath your hair’s nothing I’d hope to choose” and “Have a heart facing foreign places, tired of seeing love, tired of waiting.” The lyrics, music, and vocal performance are often heart-wrenching, but that he does it so well without seeming overbearing or insistent is what makes Total Loss so special.
Key Tracks: “When I Was in Trouble,” “& It Was U,” “Talking to You,” “Set it Right”
23. The Shins – Port of Morrow (Columbia) – The title “Simple Song” belies the true songwriting behind The Shins’ Port of Morrow. It’s not obviously complex – there aren’t any long jazz interludes or anything – but it’s certainly not typical verse-chorus stuff. Be it the synth-wrapped bridges on “The Rifle’s Spiral” or the layers of innovative guitar parts all over the album (not the least on “Simple Song”), there’s plenty here that would tell even the most naïve listener that The Shins are no strangers to writing indie rock. Not to mention, they run the gamut from upbeat rock (“The Rifle’s Spiral,” “Simple Song,” “Fall of ‘82”) to acoustic-driven ballads (“It’s Only Life,” “For a Fool”) to danceable pop tunes (“Bait and Switch,” “No Way Down”) – and it’s all catchy!
Key Tracks: “The Rifle’s Spiral,” “Simple Song,” “No Way Down,” “Fall of ‘82”
22. Swans – The Seer (Young God) – It’s hard to even comprehend how impossibly ginormous of a sound that Swans accomplish on The Seer. For over two hours, Michael Gira and his band plunge you into the deepest, darkest confines of the human psyche. As foreshadowed by the haunting chants on opening track “Lunacy,” the coming hours plunge deep into psychosis, be it through extended panting, echoing country-style acoustic guitars, a Karen O guest spot, or the 32-minute title track noise rock opus. One lyric best sums up the album’s intense (and occasionally beautiful) bleakness: “Your childhood is over.”
Key Tracks: “Lunacy,” “The Seer,” “Song for a Warrior,” “A Piece of the Sky”
21. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange (Island Def Jam) – I’ll go ahead and point out the obvious: Channel Orange is about 20 spots lower on this list than it is on most others. But just because I don’t think that Channel Orange is the year’s best album – or even one of the top 20 – doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s great. On the album’s 17 tracks, Ocean, in his spot-on, wide vocal range, looks back on his first love, talks (with the assistance of Earl Sweatshirt) about the exploits of spoiled “super rich kids,” journeys from the sands of Egypt to a strip club, makes a song subject of one of the most beloved movie characters of all time, turns a taxi driver into a shrink, and, in perhaps the most enduring lyric of the album, asks, “So why see the world, when you got the beach?” The ease with which Ocean delivers the line exemplifies the album’s layers of depth in even the simplest moments. As Ocean steps out of the Odd Future spotlight and steps into the spotlight as 2012’s biggest musical figure, it’s easy to see why so many already consider Channel Orange an R&B classic.
Key Tracks: “Thinkin Bout You,” “Sweet Life,” “Super Rich Kids,” “Pyramids,” “Monks,” “Bad Religion,” “Forrest Gump”