Among the artists who made my 10 favourite albums of 2012, one takes listeners to the ocean, one is dirty and one is a doctor. No, I don’t mean Frank Ocean, Dirty Projectors and Dr. John, though all of these deserved consideration. For me, the standout records included those by Hey Ocean!, Dirty Ghosts and Dr. Dog — what might be the makings of a bizarro Top 10 compared with other lists. Read on for the full rundown:
Dr. Dog, Be the Void: The seventh studio album by the Philadelphia group led by two songwriters and known for its relentless touring is a sonic delight thanks to a combination of factors: the addition of two key band members (drummer Eric Slick and multi-instrumentalist Dimitri Manos), the band’s realization that their best work is done in Philly and not in some fancy studio elsewhere, and a return to its comfortable combination of rock, blues and a bit of twang. On Be the Void, this solid foundation allows for some creative song structures with a depth of sound that locks listeners into a groove and never lets go.
Japandroids, Celebration Rock: Distilled, two-man rock ‘n’ roll was never supposed to be this anthemic, but Japandroids are apparently not your average two-piece. This second album from Vancouver’s Brain King and David Prowse was conceived with the idea that the audience participation that’s so key to their live show could be harnessed and brought into the studio. The result? A clattering, call-and-response spirit that just sounds big — not only are the sounds heavy, but so are the nostalgic themes. Celebration Rock is short, but the songs are memorable enough to revisit the listener’s cerebral cortex frequently with welcome bursts of punk energy.
Hey Ocean!, Is: Forget fun. — the band fun., I mean. I’d argue that Is was the most fun any band had in 2012. Despite its diverse sound ranging from pop to lounge jazz to the Come-On-Shake-Your-Body-Baby-Do-The-Conga-esque rhythms of “Make a New Dance Up”, each song on the debut album from Vancouver’s Hey Ocean! carried an overwhelming sense that this was an exciting record to make. Ashleigh Ball possesses a distinctive, sunny pop voice that shines through at all times, making Hey Ocean! the kind of group you can’t imagine recording downer music.
Best Coast, The Only Place: Sophomore albums are never easy, but here Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino employs her rich vocal talents for more than just the breezy lyrics that became the hallmark of debut record Crazy For You. The Only Place is, on the main, an ode to California, but metaphors for love and loss permeate each song, giving the album a slightly tragic weight. And while first impressions indicated there wasn’t much to it, The Only Place became one of my go-to records in 2012.
Hot Chip, In Our Heads: Probably the most consistent record in Hot Chip’s 12-year history, In Our Heads borrows some of the pop sensibilities and synthesizer grooves of the ’80s to complement the electro-dance sound it has successfully cultivated since the band’s inception. Aside from that, the difference here is that the band steers clear of the few missteps that prevented past albums from rising above the crowd. The end result shows a maturity that indicates Hot Chip is ready to embrace its place as a mainstay on the UK pop scene.
Bahamas, Barchords: There were hints in 2009’s Pink Strat that Afie Jurvanen, a.k.a. Bahamas, would be a relaxed, soulful force to be reckoned with. His unmistakable voice, held aloft by a soothing blues guitar, takes on a confessional tone and spirit on Barchords, an album that hit all the right notes in 2012.
Lord Huron, Lonesome Dreams: Bahamas’ music is best in its most sensitive, raw moments, but Lord Huron (the project of Michigan native Ben Schneider) thrives on bombastic drama instead, and Lonesome Dreams strikes a more calculated but equally emotional chord. Schneider’s debut is a layered-folk soundtrack of a journey of longing, and the nice part is there can be no denying how ear-soothing the quest is.
Beach House, Bloom: This appears to have been the year of the women vocalists for me, and no one’s voice is more striking today than Victoria Legrand’s: incredibly strong and full, yet whispery in its own way. There was no one track that stood out on Bloom, but for a complete-album experience — one that sweeps the listener off to another, more tranquil place — this release was unmatched.
Dirty Ghosts, Metal Moon: The gutsy but controlled vocals of Allyson Baker are the star of Metal Moon, the debut release from San Francisco’s Dirty Ghosts, and her band keeps pace with a post-punk sound laced with samples and global influences. At their best, like on the dynamic opener “Ropes That Way,” Dirty Ghosts build to a layered crescendo that brings all the elements together.
Delta Spirit, Delta Spirit: Producing the single of the year is never enough to earn your way onto my Top 10 list. Luckily for Delta Spirit, they went beyond that. But yes, “California” is worth special mention for its propulsive beat and sunny backing vocals disguising a slightly passive aggressive take on letting go of a young love. The rest of the album features a set of surprisingly inventive freeway-friendly rockers that only touch on the psychedelic side of Americana.
Hon. mention: Grimes, Friends, Tame Impala, Metric, Django Django, Frank Ocean, Dirty Projectors, Lumineers, Redd Kross, Jack White, Divine Fits, Alt-J, Zeus, Mountain Goats, Cat Power, The Vaccines, Calexico.
Mason Wright is This Magazine’s music columnist.