This was a strange year for me and music. There were albums aplenty that I enjoyed, but I’m also a little frustrated to look back at this list. It feels…maybe too comfortable, in a way? Two returns to form by artists whose music I’ve enjoyed for ages. (Three, if you count the Forgetters album.) I’ve had more daring top ten lists; this reads like what it is: the favorite albums of someone raised on punk rock with a fondness for ambient and drone music. Am I worried that this means that, at the age of 36, my tastes are calcifying? A little, yeah. At the same time: this is my list, and I’m okay with it.
Oren Ambarchi: Audience of One (Touch)
Between this album and the EP Sagittarian Domain, Oren Ambarchi spent 2012 expanding the boundaries of his solo work from a core of smart, textured drone. There’s some focused singing to be heard here, and some taut percussion; it’s both a huge leap forward for him and an incredibly immersive listening experience.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (Constellation)
And speaking of textures and drone, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s return to the world of recorded music is fantastic, an imposing work that retains all of the ominous beauty of their previous work while feeling like a logical progression forward from it. Welcome back, you magnificent Canadian anarchist geniuses.
Rebecca Gates: The Float (12XU)
Another instance of an album where “long-awaited” doesn’t really suffice as a description. It’s been a while since Gates’s solo debut Ruby Series, which continued the more atmospheric pop sound initially heard on the Spinanes’ 1998 Arches & Aisles, was released. The Float continues that sound, but adds a bit of crunch back into the mix — something that’s even more apparent when these songs are heard live.
Andy Stott: Luxury Problems (Modern Problems)
I’m often at a loss for words when describing Stott’s music. A soundtrack for your next surrealist dance party, maybe? Catchy, haunting stuff — and an album where the way that disparate elements are combined elicits as much admiration as the songcraft itself.
Forgetters: Forgetters (Too Small To Fail)
File under: albums I wasn’t expecting to even hear, much less love, this year. While the band’s debut 7″ recalled Blake Schwarzenbach’s earlier work in Jawbreaker — albeit even more stripped-down and visceral — here, they’ve broadened their range, still looking with a pinpoint gaze on depression and unrest.
The Men: Open Your Heart (Sacred Bones)
The Men took a big swing towards accessibility with this album; the guitar sound remains huge and fraying at the edges, but there’s also a warmth reminiscent of Dinosaur Jr. in their (first) heyday.
Terry Malts: Killing Time (Slumberland)
On first hearing Terry Malts, I compared them to an odd yet compelling marriage of early-Magnetic Fields pop songwriting with archetypal-Ramones three-chord crunch. That description still holds true after months of listening, and goes a long way towards explaining this album’s presence here.
Like Pioneers: Oh, Magic (Abandoned Love)
Alternately: some folks from The Narrator and Bound Stems — each of whom exited making fantastic albums — started a new band with all of the carefully-controlled fury and earworm-y hooks of their previous outfits.
Merchandise: Children of Desire (Kartoga Works)
There’s a lot on Children of Desire that shouldn’t work: hardcore energy plus Morrissey-infused vocals plus drum machine plus drone elements. And yet it all holds together, cathartic and blissed-out at the appropriate times.
Nü Sensae: Sundowning (Suicide Squeeze)
Furious, fuzzed-out punk rock, done incredibly well. What’s not to love?
Also notable: Dirty Three, Toward the Low Sun; Tanlines, Mixed Emotions; Lonnie Holley, Just Before Music; White Lung, Sorry; Deep Time, Deep Time; Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory.