I got the idea to do this from Tim, a PCV friend, who does his own top 10 albums of the ending year. His taste in music is much mellower—but way cooler—than mine. He explores more indie, folk-y and classic albums, where as I listen to more pop, dance-y and electronic albums. Collectively, we cover a lot of musical ground. So, if you’re in search of even more good music, I’d urge you to check out his posts for 2010, 2011 and the newest 2012.
That said, music is so significant to me that it’s only natural to have strong associations with certain albums over the course of a year, and because I, too, listen to a lot of music and keep up with an array of artists, I decided to compile my own top albums list.
Disclosure: I run through albums once, but I don’t usually listen to albums in their entirety. Rather, I make playlists of songs I’m drawn to or I set my iPod to shuffle, which is always the best way to rediscover albums I already own, but have yet to give proper attention to.
That is what’s special about these albums. This year I have listened to the following in their entirety several times—and though some songs stick out much more than others—these albums have surfaced and resurfaced on my most played playlists during this year, which is my primary gauge for classifying them as “best.” It should go without saying that this is my own subjective opinion.
These albums are not ranked, but they are in order of when they appeared in my year. For example, I heard A Thousand Suns the most at the beginning of 2012 and I’m ending the year listening to a lot of Beirut.
So here are my top albums—some are old, most are new-ish—but all were epic to me in 2012.
A Thousand Suns – Linkin Park – 2010
I have been a loyal Linkin Park fan since high school, but when I first heard this album back in 2010, I wasn’t ready for it. It was cold and eerie. The theme of this album is dense. It’s opening track, “The Requiem”, is haunting with silvery verses about an apocalyptic ending to humanity burning “inside the fire of a thousand suns”—and that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
The album’s songs weld together with gapless fade-outs and pick-ups, fusing in audio samples of significant moments in our collective human history. In the second track, “The Radiance,” the entire song is the creator of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad-Gita in the famous speech that delivers his discovery to the public. Mario Savio, a freedom of speech activist in the 1960s, is sampled in “Wretches and Kings” and Martin Luther King, Jr. is featured in “Wisdom, Justice and Love.”
All the songs create an ominous atmosphere, examining the destructive nature of humanity. The songs build—then destruct—the build again. Musically and lyrically, there’s clashing revolt (“When They Come for Me,” “Blackout,” “The Catalyst”) then a penance (“Iridescent,” “Fallout,” “The Messenger.”)
The tracks I don’t like would make a shorter list, but my favorite track from this album is “Waiting for the End.” Chester Bennington and Mike Shinoda find the perfect blend of melodic rock vocals and insightful hip hop verses that no other Linkin Park song has accomplished before. It’s delicate and strong. It’s stunning.
Entren Los Que Quieran – Calle 13 – 2010
Calle 13’s early music deserves credit for being some of the most fun and popular Latin music to dance to, but in this album, the best tracks depart from their infectious beats and crude—but straightforward—rhymes and lyrically explore what it means to live in modern Latin American society.
Entren Los Que Quieran explores an array of social and political themes ranging from feeling trapped in an office cubicle in “La Vuelta al Mundo,” to a metaphorical uprising against negative North American attitudes towards immigrants in “El Hormiguero.” Calle 13 are always true to their—at times, lewd— form, but in this album René’s verses are brusque and extremely insightful.
This album is Calle 13 growing, expanding, reaching towards a higher critique beyond fashion, fame, or biting remarks referencing scandals—except for maybe in “Digo lo Que Pienso,” but it’s still a great song. This album is the sound of their idealism.
I don’t have the words to express the magnitude—and the pure romantic idealism—of “Latinoamérica.” The lyrics are beautiful, blending a variety of Latin music genres, instruments and singing styles. It touches me in a way few songs ever have. Calle 13 has single-handedly voiced an anthem for the spirit of the Latin American people—even taking care to include a verse in Portuguese—musically uniting most Central and South American countries. Just check out the video. It’s revolutionary.
Ceremonials – Florence + the Machine – 2011
If albums had a scent, this one would be of damp earth, decaying leaves and fresh rain. If Mother Nature had a singing voice, it would probably sound like Florence Welch.
Florence + the Machine’s debut album, Lungs, had a sound that, to me, was stellar and celestial (i.e. “Cosmic Love”). For me, Ceremonials takes a step back, digging into Nature. It’s not any less magical, but it takes a different approach. Like looking at the world from within it, rather than from above it.
All in all, this album is tribal and Welch is the Amazon queen leading us through it with her voice. This is epitomized in “Heartlines.” I can’t help noticing all the references to natural elements, animals and mystical entities in her lyrics and song titles. “Shake It Out,” “What the Water Gave Me,” “Never Let Me Go,” “No Light, No Light,” “All This And Heaven Too,” “Landscapes” (in the deluxe version) – all these contribute to the creation of a lush melodic planet with mythical electronic undertones.
If I were ranking the albums on this list, this one would undoubtedly be in the top 3.
LP4 – Ratatat – 2010
Ratatat has been one of my favorite electronic artists for a while. I love that they are entirely instrumental, yet non-irritatingly upbeat. Unlike a lot of instrumental electronic music that tends to slip into mellow ambiance, Ratatat is more like an indie movie soundtrack. The songs are lyric-less, but charged with emotional cues making me envision them as theme music to my fill-in-the-blank activity.
This is especially true for LP4, Ratatat’s latest album, which has musically colored my experience in Indonesia with songs like “Neckbrace,” “We Can’t Be Stopped” and “Party With Children.” Yet, two songs are particularly great: “Sunblocks,” which I consider my Peace Corps Indonesia theme song and the inspiration for this post, and “Bare Feast,” which inspired this video.
Walking On A Dream – Empire of the Sun – 2008
This is a band I overlooked for a long time. Although, I don’t really think of it as “overlooking.” Rather—like certain people—certain music comes into your life at the right time. Like Ratatat’s LP4, Walking On A Dream’s electronic tunes have supplied the theme music to my Indonesian experience.
Songs like “Standing on the Shore,” “Walking on A Dream,” “We Are The People,” “The World” and most significantly the beautiful instrumental track, “Country,” all have supplied the music to the varying backdrops of Indonesia: beaches, skies filled with kites, winding roads and volcanic peaks.
I am not a fan of every song on this album. There are times when this Aussie duo sounds synthetic and a little too 80s for my preference (i.e.: “Half Mast,” “Tiger By My Side”, “Without You”). Nevertheless, I will always warmly associate Walking On A Dream with the optimistic exhaustion of the first months of Peace Corps training in Indonesia.
Mylo Xyloto – Coldplay – 2011
This is a concept album about an urban futuristic couple named Mylo and Xyloto. Coldplay narrates their love story through music. The bright neon branding of the album isn’t just following the current marketing trend—the music has movement and its frequency has this color.
In this album, Coldplay’s music is luminescent, melodically glowing and sparkling with its electronic highlights. From the very first instrumental intro – “Mylo Xyloto”—you embark on a sweeping zephyr that invites you to float through this love story, beginning to end.
The song sequence fuses seamlessly, never breaking the pace. Like any ride, or love story for that matter, there are moments of sheer calm, flittering on the edge of heartbreak’s melancholy (“Paradise,” “Us Against the World,” “U.F.O.”). Then come the moments of turbulence, which make you want to run, or at least, bounce with the beats (“Hurts Like Heaven,” “Charlie Brown,” “Every Tear Is A Waterfall,” “Princess of China”).
Coldplay’s sound has definitely transformed since their early days—and nothing will ever be as monumental as Parachutes through X & Y—but I don’t love them any less. Their music ignites me with such happiness that “Charlie Brown” literally makes me feel like I’m glowing in the dark.
In Rainbows – Radiohead – 2007
This album had been drowning in my iTunes probably since it’s release date in 2007. Sure, I’ve listened to it, but it never caught my mind’s eye in the way it did this year. This album came on at random as I practiced yoga in my bedroom in Indonesia and it rushed through me.
From the very first percussion beat in “15 Steps,” I couldn’t tear my ear away until the last piano chord in “Videotape.” The ebb and flow of the jazz undercurrents in “Naked” and “House of Cards” soak through my soul. The drum and guitar intro to “Reckoner” entrance me. Thom Yorke’s voice swims through In Rainbows painting lyrical pictures in your head of weird fishes, moths who want to share your light, card games and Cheshire cat grins. It’s dreamy.
18 Months – Calvin Harris – 2012
Calvin Harris is currently at the top of his game. Though he has been making records and producing music for top international pop stars for a while, he has never been more popular than with this high-energy electronic/dance album. Its luminous throbbing tracks are everywhere—and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
I’m lucky the top singles “Feel So Close” and “We Found Love (feat. Rihanna)” were released before I came to this hopeless place – for going out and parties that is. These party anthems made my life as I was leaving New Orleans and will forever be reminiscent of exuberant times and vibrant people.
Other highlights: “Bounce,” “We’ll Be Coming Back,” “Iron,” “I Need Your Love,” which features Ellie Goulding, and “Sweet Nothing” featuring Florence Welch. (See Ceremonials for my rave on her.)
I listen to this album and I can hear all the parties I could be having dancing through my head. Take it from someone who cannot be out for New Year’s Eve in quite the same way: if you’re not dancing to this whole album on New Year’s Eve – then why even be out? Cherish the opportunity! (And conveniently this album comes with a continuous mix track.)
Red – Taylor Swift – 2012
So significant it deserves an abbreviation, before Red (B.R.) listening to Taylor Swift’s sugary innocence and wonder made me feel like the darkest, gloomiest hater in a cotton candy pink room filled with kittens and chandeliers. I couldn’t listen to TSwift, B.R. I can’t decide if it’s only Swift that has changed, or if I have as well, but I enjoyed this album.
Now that Swift is way past her high school days and has experienced different degrees of love, her lyrics are much more relatable. The music has also significantly improved, showcasing her singing abilities. She departs from the country twang and the beautiful pop ballads are as charismatic as Lady Antebellum’s “I Need You Now” and “Just A Kiss.”
Highlights: “Treacherous,” “I Almost Do,” “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” “Come Back…Be Here” (in the deluxe edition). Yet, the album’s best song is a duet with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, “The Last Time.” Not surprisingly, the song is more like a Snow Patrol song featuring Taylor Swift—not vice versa. The lyrics are striking and the sentiment is heart melting.
Perhaps, I’m in an emotionally vulnerable place that’s making me extremely susceptible to Taylor Swift – but I’m ok with that. In the past I would have been ashamed to admit it, but I don’t care who knows it now: Red has made me Taylor Swift fan.
Lon Gisland EP – Beirut – 2007
A few years ago I had the opportunity to see a Beirut concert in New Orleans and for some forgotten reason I didn’t see it. Worst. Mistake. Ever. I still can’t believe I’ve been missing out on them for this long—but I’m making up for it.
The first Beirut song I ever listened to was “Scenic World (Second Version)” and I adored it instantly. I must have heard that song about 30 times in one day. The uncomplicated lyrics, the vivid violin, the emphatic accordion, the nostalgic trumpet – it sounds like life. I can’t decide if this is a happy song or a sad one, but I enjoy every moment that it lasts.
The rest of the songs on this 5-track EP are consistent with the tone of “Scenic World.” “Elephant Gun,” “The Long Island Sound,” “Carousels”—all caught somewhere in-between sentiments—suspended in bittersweetness.
Cool story about Beirut: “Elephant Gun” was used as the theme song for the Brazilian television series, Capitu, in 2008. The song, and subsequently, Beirut, became so popular in Brazil that it sparked a musical movement called Beirutando, in which Brazilian musicians cover Beirut songs adapting the sound with their unique culture, musical styles and traditional instruments. For such a low-key indie band to have such an impact on a major and proudly musical country—that’s powerful. And testimony to how epic Beirut is.
So Still – Mozez – 2005, particularly the tracks “Feel Free” and “Take the Sun.” Because of a slightly lower play count, this album lost out to Walking On A Dream.
Noteworthy Tracks of 2012:
- “Something About the Fire (Carlos Serrano Mix)” – Adele vs. Daft Punk – 2012 – Free download!
- “Youth” – Foxes – 2012 and this Adventure Club remix
- “Don’t Stop the Levels (Project 46 MashUp)” – Avicii vs. Journey – 2011
- “Reckoning Song” – Asaf Avidan & the Mojos – 2008 – epic by all accounts: music, instruments, lyrics, singing style.
So, that’s it! My year summarized in ten albums. And now I’m off to make my own song—set to the tune of “On the 12 days of Christmas”— called “15 Days in Flores.”
Happy Holidays & Happy New Year, all!