Once again, I will not make the argument that the below 10 albums are the best, greatest, or belong to any other group labeled by a universal superlative. My intention is only to share my favorite from the previous 12 months. The explanation is not to avoid conversation or even confrontation, but rather explain my own thought process. In my estimation, it was a pretty good year for most popular genres of music. Furthermore, and maybe most importantly, it was another better-than-decent stretch of time to reside in the D.C. area as a music fan. At the very least, if you share any of my favorites, you had the opportunity to see nine of the 10 artists responsible for creating the music that encompasses the below. And if anyone was wondering, I tend to think he or she who put out his or her list before giving the Ke$ha album a fair shake is out of his or her mind. So... without further ado, here's what I listened to a whole lot January through December. Judge me now. Judge me later. I only mind a little bit.
10. The Evens -- The Odds (12/1 -- KA-CHUNK!! Records)
Ian MacKaye and Amy Farina have never lacked for musical confidence, but it's on The Odds that their real-life partnership is best translated to record. The volume stays turned down, but the punk rock aesthetic both have embodied throughout their careers remains perfectly pervasive. The pair compliment each other too well for the authenticity they're known for to be diminished.
9. Matthew E. White -- Big Inner (9/22 -- Rock and Roll Hotel; 10/15 - Ottobar)
The calm and peaceful emotion which exudes from every moment of Big Inner is trance inducing. Instead of crossing over to boring, White remains effortlessly soulful for 40+ minutes. And by not trying to do too much, he takes a sound seemingly borne of the Bayou four or so decades ago and ensure that it is timeless.
8. Advance Base -- A Shut-In's Prayer (11/8 -- Sixth and I)
Not unlike Big Inner, A Shut-In's Prayer is filled with deeply personal and unique accounts of events too heartfelt to be untrue, and somehow, they feel entirely universal. It's not simply that Owen Ashworth is capable of creating songs which are easy to relate to, each track is a short-story so close to perfection that we are more his characters than their onlookers.
7. Bat For Lashes -- The Haunted Man
Natasha Khan has proven through previous efforts that she is more than capable of singing in hauntingly beautiful tones over dark soundscapes. Despite the title, The Haunted Man is not simply more of the same (not that there would be anything particularly wrong with that). While so many/too many of her contemporaries rely on aloofness and mystery to pleasantly unsettle, it's intensity that allows Khan to triumph on her third album.
6. Woods -- Bend Beyond (11/2 -- Red Palace)
Full disclosure: I admittedly belong to a subset of music listeners -- yes, I believe I'm not the only one -- who have come to the conclusion that Woods can do no wrong. Bend Beyond doesn't make me look like a sheep of a listener but rather one who appreciates that a band has proven that the lo in lo-fi doesn't mean gratuitous fuzz and poor recording techniques, There's strength in Woods' distinctly woven psychedelic-folk guitar musings and unmistakable falsettos.
5. The Mountain Goats -- Transcendental Youth (10/15 -- Ottobar)
It's easy (or at least easier) to write a sad song that depresses the listener. John Darnielle continues to write songs of profound despair that somehow manage to be uniquely empowering. Songwriters have come and gone who have offered comfort in letting us know that we're not alone in our desperation. What sets The Mountain Goats apart is not average resiliency, but an unmatched will and unique defiance.
4. Fiona Apple -- The Idler Wheel... (3/29 -- Sixth and I; 6/26 -- Warner Theatre)
Don't call it a return to form. No matter the approach, Fiona Apple's studio efforts have exceeded the stratospheric expectations that have come with each release since her first. On The Idler Wheel... she leaves behind the grandiose theatrics in exchange for true dramatic tension. With the bare minimum of additional musical accompaniment, Apple draws us in with what we've all come to hear: the piano and that voice.
3. Perfume Genius -- Put Your Back N 2 It (3/31 -- IOTA; 10/12 -- The Hamilton)
On Put Your Back N 2 It, Mike Hadreas sounds like someone approaching a self-exploration checkpoint. The instrumentation is both lush and sparse. The vocals are gorgeously road weary. As Perfume Genius, Hadreas is standing up bravely at a support group, ready to share his story and, most importantly, like The Mountain Goats, not simply be there for others, but lend a tangible helping hand.
2. Japandroids -- Celebration Rock (6/30 -- Rock and Roll Hotel; 12/7 -- Black Cat)
As many great rock bands before them, Japandroids have managed to mature without growing up. The Vancouver duo didn't run from what turned them into not-so-overnight successes, Brian King and David Prowse embraced it. On Celebration Rock, they figured it out without reinventing their own tour-tested wheel. It's the anthems, stupid.
1. Alt-J -- An Awesome Wave (9/15 -- Rock and Roll Hotel)
Alt-J spins the most gentle of electronically-tinged pop music. The band utilizes the familiar to comfortably envelop, while tactfully avoiding becoming derivative. Detractors, and there are plenty of them, be damned. This album, comprised of seemingly countless potential hits has had me hooked for too many months to not be called my favorite of 2012.
Follow Ben E. Kessler on Twitter: www.twitter.com/wmftc