Seems 2012 was a good, but not quite great year, for music. If no absolutely dazzling records came out this year, at least we saw plenty of depth. And ’90s bands reuniting, often a good thing.
20. Benjamin Gibbard, “Former Lives”: While it’s always great to hear from Gibbard, the adequate solo album comes across as a weaker echo of his Death Cab for Cutie work. Standout track: “Dream Song” is sufficiently solid that it feels like it could pass on either of the last couple DCfC albums.
19. Los Straitjackets, “Jet Set”: Surf rock remains an underappreciated genre, and it’s quite possible no one in the field put out a better record than this in 2012. Standout track: The gritty horn-aided “Crime Scene” starts the album out in atmospheric style and sets the stage for a wild ride.
18. Soundgarden, “King Animal”: While no one’s saying this is as good as [insert name of your favorite Soundgarden album], Chris Cornell and the boys hardly embarrass themselves in this credible rocking effort. Standout track: While perhaps an obvious title, “Been Away Too Long” bleeds old-Soundgarden style in just about every way.
17. Garbage, “Not Your Kind Of People”: One of many ’90s bands to reform and release an album in 2012, this talented supergroup continued its record of often dazzling but ultimately inconsistent efforts. Standout track: “Automatic System Habit” is as captivating as anything they’ve ever done, which is saying something.
16. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!”: This is most certainly the strangest selection on the list, but GY!BE’s rejection of easy categorization or description is one of its chief charms. Standout track: The epic 20-minute “Mladic” is at times dissonant, at times orchestral and always intriguing.
15. Tennis, “Young and Old”: This sunny, sneakily seductive album from husband-and-wife team Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore features a simple, elegant sound falling somewhere between She & Him and Bic Runga. Standout track: “Take Me To Heaven” is one of many gladly showcasing a throwback girl-group sound.
14. Butterfly Boucher, “Butterfly Boucher”: Boucher’s cool, husky, British vocals may not have the range of singers like Florence Welch or Feist, but she economically can pack as much of an emotional punch when she chooses. Standout track: If “5 6 7 8″ isn’t perfectly cut out for the dance hall or aerobic studio, I don’t know what is.
13. Tragically Hip, “Now For Plan A”: Even if my favorite band fielded what feels like a subpar (for them) effort (more “Trouble at the Henhouse” than “Fully Completely,” if you will), Gordon Downie and mates are always interesting. Standout track: Though virtually unpronounceable, the breezily likable “Goodnight Attawapiskat” is a candidate to become a staple in the band’s always-outstanding live shows.
12. Of Monsters and Men, “My Head Is An Animal”: This beats out the likes of Xx and Stars for Best Pop/Rock Album Featuring Alternating Quavering Male/Female Vocals. Standout track: “Little Talks” shows this formula in all its glory, with the bonus of a rousing horn section.
11. Mumford and Sons, “Babel”: Any Mumford and Sons album will bring more than its share of musical prowess, powerful vocals and lyrical skill, but for whatever reason this effort never came all the way together for me. Your mileage may vary. Standout track: “I Will Wait” showcases the blue-sky possibilities with this band: plaintive words, powerful vocals, perfect playing in the fast-slow-fast structure.
10. Little Hurricane, “Homewrecker”: Some have compared this duo to a better looking albeit less prolific White Stripes, but they deserved attention even before “Haunted Heart” and “Hold Me Back” incongruously started showing up in Taco Bell commercials. Standout track: “Give Em Hell” is a smoldering gem of a track that builds in pace and intensity.
9. Now, Now, “Threads.” This seems a lot like the album Metric should have made this year but didn’t. The Minnesota trio marvelous unspools sensual, sensuous vocals over dizzyingly varied and layered sonic soundscapes. Standout track: “School Friends” shines with its gently driving beat and wistful storytelling conjuring misty watercolor memories.
8. Lindsey Stirling, “Lindsey Stirling”: Stirling’s skills in electric violin and arrangement are so prodigious, her ability to incorporate unusual influences into her work so compelling and her overall creativity so explosive, this is an artist definitely worth watching. Standout track: While “Elements” does include a touch of (yes) dubstep, it’s a mesmerizing piece of work.
7. Bob Mould, “Silver Age”: The man’s in his 50s and still rocks harder and more intelligently than most of the industry. All hail Bob Mould! Standout track: “The Descent” is trademark hook-heavy music from a man who’s been doing this — and doing it well — for some 30 years.
6. Minus the Bear, “Infinity Overhead”: No one has ever questioned the talent of these math-rock/prog-rock heroes from Seattle, but their most accessible album to date is either a fabulous evolution or a horrible travesty, depending on whom you ask (I’m in the former camp). Standout track: The decidedly tight, funky “Lies and Eyes” is a highlight that is hard to get out of your head.
5. Imagine Dragons, “Night Visions”: An unexpected surprise from a group that’s hard to easily describe (a more rock/emo kin to One Republic?). Any bits that don’t work here usually come from overambition, but this late entry gets better every listen. Standout track: It seems almost impossible to fit as many vocal and instrumental hooks into less than 4 minutes as they do marvelously in “It’s Time.”
4. Everclear, “Invisible Stars”: Looks like the best move for Art Alexakakis and Co. was to hang up the crunchy guitars for several years to return refreshed and refocused for their best effort since 1997′s “So Much for the Afterglow.” Standout track: Some stretching lyrical turns notwithstanding, the civil rights anthem “Jackie Robinson” is among the band’s finest works.
3. Avett Brothers, “The Carpenter”: After the breakout success of “I And Love And You,” “The Carpenter” feels more like a typical Avetts record (complete with a “Pretty Little Girl from …” entry). Which, to me, means it’s a great album but not as transcendently beautiful as their previous. Standout track: “I Never Knew You” is the quintessential Avett Brothers track, sounding sunny and funny despite sad subject matter, with a kilt full of killer wordplay, hooks and harmonies.
2. The Wallflowers, “Glad All Over”: Among the notable ’90s acts that recorded an album in 2012 after a layoff, I consider this the best. It helps that The Wallflowers were fairly timeless in their sound anyway. Standout track(s): Two songs featuring a collaboration with The Clash’s Mick Jones seem an odd concept, but “Misfits and Lovers” (and, to a lesser extent, “Reboot the Mission”) is full of win.
1. Killers, “Battle Born”: After their 2008 effort, “Day & Age,” was their weakest to date, band members took a break to work on side projects and the combination of their proven dramatic, hooky pop-rock numbers and new influences have them back in top form. Standout track: “Be Still” is an outstanding dim-the-lights, stop-what-you’re-doing-and-listen ballad in this age of short attention spans.