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411’s Top 25 Albums of 2012 (#5 – 1)

January 25, 2013 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas

Welcome to 411’s Top 25 Albums of 2012! Are you burned out on year-end lists yet? Well, hopefully not as we have one more for you! 2012 saw the release of many great albums from a variety of genres, from pop and rap to rock, alternative, even folk and electronica/dance music. The field of popular music diversified greatly over the last twelve months; when it’s all said and done however, there were some albums that just rose to the top and deserved to be honored as the best of the year. We of the 411 music zone chose to honor those efforts.

To present this list, every 411 writer had the opportunity to share their top 25 albums that were released during 2012. After the staff provided their lists, the results were tabulated and compiled into one single top 25 list. Writers took several things into account, from chart performance and individual sounds to the personal tastes, the album’s progression (for good or ill) of the artist’s catalog and much more. Keep in mind when reading this list that it is one that spanned all genres, and every staff member of 411 has different tastes. Some value certain criteria more than others do. We don’t all agree on what albums deserved the top spots, but we all respect each other’s choices and hope you can do the same. We begin our list today with the five albums that just missed the cut, a recap of what’s come before and then #5 through #1.

Stone Sour – House of Gold and Bones Part 1
Green Day – ¡Uno!
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Shinedown – Amaryllis
Japandroids – Celebration Rock

The List So Far:
#25: B.o.B. – Strange Clouds
#24: The Killers – Battle Born
#23: Marina & The Diamonds – Electra Heart
#22: The Lumineers – The Lumineers
#21: Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
#20: Soundgarden – King Animal
#19: Testament – Dark Roots of Earth
#18: Muse – The 2nd Law
#17: G.O.O.D. Music – Cruel Summer
#16: Black Country Communion – Afterglow
#15: Bob Dylan – Tempest
#14: Lana Del Rey – Born to Die
#13: Taylor Swift – Red
#12: Slash – Apocalyptic Love
#11: Alabama Shakes – Boys and Girls
#10: Halestorm – The Strange Case Of…
#9: Nas – Life is Good
#8: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre is Evil
#7: fun. – Some Nights
#6: Mumford & Sons – Babel

#5: Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, m.A.A.d City

Billboard 200: #2
R&B/Hip-Hop Albums: #1
Rap Albums: #1
    • “The Recipe”
    • “Swimming Pools (Drank)”
    • “Backseat Freestyle”

Bill Wannop: Kendrick Lamar may be considered a new artist to a lot of music fans, but in reality he has been killing it in the hip hop underground for awhile now. In fact just last year he released one of the top albums (if not the top hip hop album of the year), with his mixtape Section.80. However when it was announced that he had signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label, skepticism ran rampant, with everything from the thoughts that Kendrick Lamar would be forced to change his style and sell out in order to make more radio friendly records. Additionally how many times have artists signed to Dr. Dre’s label to have their albums constantly delayed or not released at all? The answer is a lot.

However, Kendrick managed to not only release his album in a quick amount of time, but he managed to release one of the best hip hop albums of the year. Of course there was the radio single “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, in which Kendrick was able to remain true to his style and managed to create a great radio/club song, without sacrificing his lyrics.

Additionally there are some just hip hop classics on the album; from the track “M.A.A.D. City” with MC Eiht to “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” to the Dr. Dre assisted “Compton” and “The Recipe.” Kendrick came with the goods on this release and didn’t bow to the radio norms to change his style in order to sell records.

David Hayter: Kendrick Lamar proved on 2011’s Section.80 that he was capable of penning both dexterous knotty rhymes and slick pop hooks, but on good kid, m.A.A.d city he set himself aside for greatest. Unlike his previous work, GKMC is built around a strong narrative core. Kendrick tells the tale of a young man growing up in a terrifying and enlivening environment. He’s born into a world where women are treated as second-class citizens, drug use abounds, poverty is unavoidable, violence is glorified and wealth is worshiped.

Across 11 brilliant tracks (excluding “Compton” which serves a detached victory lap) Kendrick battles his baser instincts and explains brilliantly how he dealt with his own egotism and struggled against peer pressure. What makes Lamar remarkable is that he is forthcoming in admitting his flaws: he was that young kid that wanted “money and power” and “bitches,” and he nearly fell to alcoholism. He’s not pious like Lupe Fiasco, he admits his own weakness as he struggles to stay strong, and as Kendrick progresses as an individual, the listener’s understanding and investment in GKMC increases.

On the brilliant closing suite “Swimming Pools (Drank)”/”Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst”/”Real” Kendrick comes to the conclusion that self worth should not be derived from money, wealth, power, violence, drug use or misogyny. He brings the listener face to face with oppressive nature of the inner city poverty but he doesn’t use it as a crutch to justify amoral behavior. He has the strength to overcome, others may not; he doesn’t offer definitive answers only enlightening insight – and that’s what GKMC is: a truly enlightening listen.

#4: Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball

Billboard 200: #1
Rock Albums: #1
    • “We Take Care of Our Own”
    • “Rocky Ground”
    • “Death to My Hometown”

Sean Comer: As long as times marches forth and change immolates everything it happens upon, the world will need Bruce Springsteen. Wrecking Ball‘s opener “We Take Care of Our Own” finds New Jersey’s patron saint seemingly proud as he’s ever been to partake of his country’s compassionate communion wherever hard times make landfall. From the persistent beat of handclaps, to Springsteen’s permeating, sneering, growling brogue and choral backing, it’s a hymnal for the Common Man still awaiting the deliverance of change from depression and recession.

It’s everything Springsteen has ever been, and that the world will ever need him to be: a painter of living, unflinching portraits of his times.

Chad Webb: Bruce Springsteen’s streak of great albums since the beginning of the millennium is pretty incredible considering 63 years-old and shows no signs of slowing down. Wrecking Ball not only captures the classic Springsteen & the E Street band sound, but is also ambitious, acerbic, and most of all, fun.

The lyrics in Wrecking Ball cover a wide range of topics, including the recession, Barack Obama’s presidency, Giants Stadium, and more. They are personal, heartfelt and pointed. Springsteen is a master at integrating his messages and feelings into a packed powerhouse of an album. The record kicks off with the rocking single “We Take Care Of Our Own” that reminds us that Springsteen has not lost a step. It’s a great track with an aim Americans can connect to. But he ventures into different areas for this outing. He slows things down for the emotional “Jack of All Trades” and mixes it up with “Rocky Ground” that features a rap from Michelle Moore. You could go into detail about every song. They all work so well.

Wrecking Ball is Springsteen’s 17th album and in my opinion it is the best of the year. Lately Springsteen has pumped out efforts that were made with the utmost passion and dedication. When you hear them (and more specifically Wrecking Ball) for the first time, you know it will be timeless. I saw Springsteen in concert recently and while many people buy tickets to hear their favorite hit singles from a long career, I was anxious to hear the outstanding songs from this album. He delivered like only he can.

#3: Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE

Billboard 200: #2
R&B/Hip-Hop Albums: #2
    • “Thinkin Bout You”
    • “Pyramids”
    • “Sweet Life”
    • “Lost”

David Hayter: Had Frank Ocean not produced one of the greatest albums in recent memory the release of Channel ORANGE would have been completely overshadowed by the star’s admission of bi-sexuality. The trouble was, as much as the media might have wanted to make a meal of his sexual preferences, the quality of his music made any extra-curricular activity irrelevant. When the gorgeous melting tones of “Thinkin About You” drift out of your speakers the last thing on anyone’s mind is the gender of the protagonist. Instead your attention becomes locked upon the sublime vocal performance, the wonderfully adventurous metaphors and that perfect final lyric: “Do you not think so far ahead? Cause I’ve been thinking about forever”.

The brilliance of Channel ORANGE is captured in that one line. For all of the album’s experimentation, the gorgeous and routinely surprising instrumental selections, and the incisive subject matter (dependency, detached wealth, drug use), Frank’s greatest assets is his ability to cut through all the complexity and land upon a universal truism. Channel ORANGE nails the notion of longing – we’ve all been there, that lover the plays on your mind and tears the interior of your mind asunder.

Channel ORANGE is uniformly beautiful, the compositions are wildly creative and there are plenty of unpredictable nuggets to uncover. Ocean’s turn of phrase is equally brilliant, whether it’s movies, hallucinogens, religion or erh…monks in a mosh pit…Frank finds new angles from which to approach his favored subject matter (disorientating, addictive love). Reassuringly, in the midst of all this bewildering innovation is a series of luxurious melodies and insistent hooks – it might be a masterpiece, but first and foremost, Channel ORANGE is a bloody brilliant pop record.

Tony Acero: It’s been a long time since R&B has been important. Somewhere in the early 2000’s, R&B came the softer side of pop, losing all of its luster and deep, emotional feelings. It became a shell of its former self, trying so hard to figure out just what the hell it wanted to be. For some time, R&B was nothing but hip hop-lite. It would take a dip in the pool of pop, but never dive in completely. It truly was just…there. Names like Chris Brown and Ne-Yo (who also seems to have altered his idea of R&B) are the flag bearers, and people like Drake attempt to change what the idea of R&B is, much to the chagrin of myself.

Then came channel ORANGE, and it changed everything. This album is a slowly moving trip through a silky smooth bed sheet. It entangles you as you lay there, and alters the mindset completely. The album speaks volumes at such a low level, and is truly one that bears repeat listens due to the numerous layers that are on it. His lyrics can be simple, but with R&B, you’re looking for relatability, not profundity. The profundity is in the music, and this is another area where the album excels. Creating a sound that is both new, and a throwback is difficult and a hell of a risk, but Ocean’s album does it well. There is something to be said about an album that boasts isolation and pain yet feels like triumph. Jeremy Thomas recently said about this album: “This is a multi-layered and powerful debut from an artist who may well pull R&B from the overly-safe doldrums in which it finds itself.” I find myself hard pressed to disagree.

#2: Rush – Clockwork Angels

Billboard 200: #2
Rock Albums: #1
    • “Caravan”
    • “Headlong Flight”
    • “The Wreckers”

Robert Cooper: To anyone who has heard this album, this placement can’t be of any surprise. Rush are a legendary band, this album is yet another affirmation of that status. The band is still all here, Geddy Lee still sounds amazing after all of these years and his bass playing is something to behold. Alex Lifeson has great riffs and solos. Neal Peart is still the greatest drummer in the history of ever (not my favorite, but still the best). They show that after nearly 45 years, they can still bring new tricks to the table. They have lots of progressive goodness, which is to be expected, but my favorite song on this album, “Headlong Flight,” proves that they still have some heaviness in them, creating what can be argued to be one of their heavier songs ever. I like the opener, “Caravan” so much that I think that it may be one of my favorite songs of the year, as well as the already-mentioned “Headlong Flight.” This album is infinitely catchy, there are so many songs that you’ll be singing to yourself for weeks. They manage to do catchiness well, not the guilty pleasure type of catchiness, but the air guitar in the middle of the grocery store type of catchy. (I want the record to show that I do that). I think that will help with the staying power of this album when everyone looks back on 2012 in music. You’ll have all of your typical pop acts, but you’ll also have this old band still releasing music that is up to date, fresh, and still enjoyable in every little way. Every song is great, catchy, beautiful crafted, nicely lyriced, and there is only enough filler on here to keep your head from literally exploding due to the greatness of this album. In short, I absolutely adore this album.

Jeremy Thomas: Rush had not released an album in over five years before 2012, and while the band has never been bad or even remotely mediocre, I felt that Snakes & Arrows was a little bit uninspired compared to the rest of the band’s work. As such, I was looking for the venerable Canadian rock gods to deliver on Clockwork Angels and to say they did so is an understatement. To me this album is, without any exaggeration, the band’s best album in at least a couple decades. The group delivered a more focused and impressive effort here, loosely written around the idea of a man on a quest to follow his dreams. Neil Peart’s lyrics are some of my favorites of his pretty much ever and the band’s sound is just as good as they’ve ever been. There are a lot of bands who have lost their way well after they reach the ten year mark or even fifteen, buried under the weight of their back catalogue and impossibly high expectations. Rush has been rocking for over forty years and is still going as strong as they ever have before.

#1: Jack White – Blunderbuss

Billboard 200: #1
Rock Albums: #1
    • “Love Interruption”
    • “Sixteen Saltines”
    • “Freedom at 21”
    • “I’m Shakin'”

Joseph Lee: This is an album that I didn’t think I would enjoy, and yet here it is as my favorite of the year. It’s just a very eclectic album and no two songs really sound alike. But there’s just a sense of enjoyment that grows as you listen to each track. “I’m Shakin'” is toe-tappingly good, “Love Interruption” was a solid single and both “Take Me With You When You Go” and “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep” are very easy at climbing into your head and staying there. I think Jack White has really outdone himself this time, and if he continues at this pace we’ll all be asking in five years, “The White what?”

Jack Stevenson: I don’t know if I would have considered Blunderbuss to be the best album of the year. I think it’s a magnificent slice of quirky blues rock, but can’t quite boast the depth, scope and intelligence of either Old Ideas or Channel Orange. But! If I was simply basing my votes on how much I enjoyed listening to an album (which I should probably be doing anyway) then this becomes an easy number one pick, and thus I’m delighted to see it do so well. From start to finish, Blunderbuss is an absolute rip roaring good time. Jack White powers his way through super stylish songs about love, lust and heart-ache with swagger and plenty of cool, and this produces one great moment after another. Sixteen Saltines is Blunderbuss’ first high-point of many, as White squeals over the top of an insanely catchy guitar, sounding like a love-sick high school student who can write inexplicably brilliant music, burrowing into your brain with the “who’s jealous of who?” refrain. Then there’s I’m Shakin’, a lusty little tune with undertones of the fifties and sixties. White’s modulated voice sings almost maniacally of the effects of a woman on him, backed up by two female backing singers who croon about Samson and Delilah. The album even has some choice slower moments, such as the silky smooth Love Interruption, in which White confesses he wants love to grab his fingers and “slam them in a doorway.”

Jack White has always been perceived as a bit of an oddball, and pleasingly this album will do nothing to dispel this image. It’s quirky to the point of kooky, and that’s why it’s so wonderful. White has no qualms about borrowing liberally from his rock and roll predecessors, but bringing their styles into the 21st century makes Blunderbuss sound utterly fantastic, a superb tribute that is still identifiably a Jack White album. In between this and his superb collaboration with Beck, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to say that 2012 was the year of Jack White, and our writers seem to agree; Blunderbuss by Jack White is a deserving winner of the 411 Album of the Year.

And there you have it! Thank you for coming in and reading our list and sounding off in the comments! Here’s to a great year of music in 2013!


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Jeremy Thomas
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