The 10 Best Albums of 2012 (So Far)

We are now midway through 2012. Congrats to us! Musically speaking, it’s been a very good first six months. Certainly better than the first half of 2011. With that in mind, I put together a list of the year’s 10 best albums so far. Some of them might not appear again on the year-end list in December, but they’re still remarkable records worthy of being written about and listened to again. Let me know your favorites, too.

I’ve also made a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite songs from my favorite albums, including a few that didn’t make it into the top-20. Please enjoy — or tell me how wrong I am. Whichever.

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I still have no idea how to describe Open Your Heart, other than it sounds like the exuberant offspring of the Buzzcocks, Jesus Lizard, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, and about a thousand other bands from the 1970s and 1980s, but I do know that it’s the perfect soundtrack to a messy punk-rock party.

El-P’s Blogspot is titled “im going to stab you.” That gives you an indication of the type of fury you hear on Cancer for Cure, the rapper’s third full-length album, one that sounds like it was recorded during the middle of a holocaust. It’s dark and unrelenting, a conceptual masterpiece about feeling paranoid, about yourself and the world around you — and it’s not even the best album he was involved with this year.

Sharon Van Etten’s expressive, vulnerable voice float above most of the spacious, airy songs on her sophomore release, Tramp, which was produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner. But her words are refreshingly direct (“You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/Or why I’ll need to leave”), and she sounds more confident than she did only two years earlier, on 2010’s Epic, which could be described as Angst Presented by Xanax. It’s a major step-up for one of indie rock’s most talented up-and-comers.

The fact that more people aren’t talking about Reks, and this album in particular, is baffling to me. Straight has an old-school jazzy vibe to its songs, which should appease purists (thanks to producer Statik Selektah), but it also samples Kanye West and Reks raps about issues that matter today. Every year, people tend to root for one album that isn’t getting nearly enough attention. This is mine.

Here’s what I said when this album came out last month:

Here are but a few words that have been used to describe Fiona Apple’s first album in seven years: focused, refined, perfectly sequenced, exquisitely rendered, thrilling, emotionally ravaged glory, wonderfully jarring, and essential 2012 listening. I lied: those are all from a single review, from the Los Angeles Times. Idler Wheel has reduced critics to blubbering piles of adjectives and high praises, and with good reason: it’s a nearly perfect album. It’s riveting, raw, self-loathingly honest, daring, claustrophobic yet allows room for interpretation, violent…see, there I go.

And it’s only gotten better with time. 2012’s best comeback story?

With a scuzzy sound reminiscent of being made in an abandoned factory, or maybe a meat locker, Slaughterhouse is one of the year’s most distinctive albums. You hear a song like “Diddy Wah Diddy,” which sounds like a scraped-knuckle mashup of the Stooges and the Kinks, and you won’t forget it. Slaughterhouse is a raw straight-up rock ‘n’ roll album, and in an era where so much of rock sounds like overproduced Kings of Leon dreck, fuzz-drenched chaos has never sounded so refreshing.

Usually when a rapper talks about how “real” they are, I think they’re anything but. If you were “real,” you wouldn’t care about your realness. Killer Mike is the exception to the rule. When he spits, “I don’t make dance music, this is R.A.P/Opposite of the sucker sh*t they play on T.V,” it’s impossible to not take him seriously. Killer Mike raps with such a terrifyingly determined flow — with assistance from El-P’s merciless production — that you wouldn’t want to be the guy who calls him out. R.A.P. Music is Fear of a Black Planet for a new generation.

It might be #3 on this list, but Japandroids’ second album has the best album title of the year, and the most literal. It really is a celebration of rock, about how something so simple as the sound of the drums, guitar, and bass together can make you feel more than you are. But there’s a hint of loneliness and despair beneath the soaring, sweat-stained noise made by Brian King and David Prowse; they’re two angry young men making their way through life, playing their instruments as loud as possible. In other words, they’re rock ‘n’ roll, in all its glory.

It’s not fair. A 20-year-old, a 20-year-old from OHIO, shouldn’t be able to create something as good as Attack on Memory. But Dylan Baldi, who is, yes, 20 years old, pulled off the near unthinkable by first hiring Steve Albini to engineer his third album, which you can tell from the first pound of the drums, and then ditching his lo-fi pop-punk past to make something more professional. It’s no less urgent than his former one-take-and-let’s-move-on songs, but that urgency is assisted by his heavy-hitting, hungry band, remarkable hooks, strained voice, and a goal of wanting to make something great. Mission accomplished. When you turn 21, Baldi, first beer’s on me.

A tell-tale sign of an A+ album: you intend to only listen to one song, but end up listening to the whole damn thing. I tend to latch onto a single song from an album, but looking at my iTunes playcounts for Bloom, they’re remarkably similar. Beach House makes songs that sound alike, but don’t blend together. You know you’re going to hear a chilly synth, scant drumming, and perfect-for-hip hop beats, but Victoria Legrand’s husky, melancholy voice keeps things from TK. I fear saying too much about Bloom here, though — I have a feeling you’ll be seeing it at #1 again in December…