The Best Albums of 2012

I swear, I’m not entirely a procrastinator. Just mostly. I started working on this list back in November, before my daughter was born. Obviously it’s taken some time to put the pieces together.

Long-time readers will notice that we’ve tweaked the year-end list thing just about annually. Call it restlessness, call it a general loathing for the arbitrary nature of lists and rankings in general. My aim this year was to provide our usual in-depth reviews for each record before the final list was posted so that this post could be a summation, giving the reader the ability to delve further into each work if they so choose.

While the format may have been altered the inspiration is the same: this is NOT an absolute dictate on the relative level of quality of these records or a judgement on those you don’t see on this list. The mandate of this site is to shed light on lesser-known work with an emphasis on local and unsigned artists. What follows is a summation of the albums I enjoyed most this year that fit that mold. That means you won’t necessarily see albums that were lauded elsewhere on the net, in print, or otherwise. Everyone knows Japandroids, for example, had a pretty-much perfect album, but 2012 saw them anointed rock gods everywhere from Pitchfork to late night TV. Cat Power, Ariel Pink, Dirty Projectors, Killer Mike, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Grizzly Bear, Fiona Apple…these are all artists that released great records in 2012. They just don’t need our help (and yes, I understand that a band like The Mountain Goats could be considered analogous in stature, but fuck you, they’re my favourite).

So we’re talking lower/medium-profile records that I felt didn’t get the due they deserve. The ranking is arbitrary and of-the-moment, but these 20 albums are the ones that stand out most significantly for me. Each is more than worthy of your time and attention.

Thanks for reading and for sticking with our sporadic updates for another year.

foreign fields small

01. Foreign Fields - Anywhere But Where I Am

An intriguing listen that values mood above conciseness, melody over structure, and patience over simplicity. This quietly audacious album unfolds so slowly that it’s likely to lose some listeners in the early offing but this is one of the most confident and assured debut albums I’ve ever heard. This record could only be better if they were Canadian.

Read more here.


02. Andy Shauf - The Bearer Of Bad News
This Reginan’s sad-sack songs have made him a local fixture for almost a decade now but The Bearer Of Bad News marks the beginning of his career’s second phase. His initial songwriting, done in secret, showed him to be a precocious teenager whose subtle delivery belied his gift for song craft. This latest album is still low-key but his bare-bones arrangements fill your speakers, his multi-tracked clarinet work creating an ethereal fugue that contrasts the bleakness, desperation, and death of his lyrics. This is a piece of work that literally left me both desperate to and afraid to hear more.

Read more here
white-lung-sorry-cover03. White Lung - Sorry

This is just what punk is now you guys. There is any number of lesser punk bands out there but if they aren’t White Lung they aren’t terribly relevant. There are no frills here, it’s just frenzied aggression and frenetic guitar stabbings and the concise blasts of Mish Way’s vocal purging. Her caterwauling amps up the tension and drives it into the red, never relenting until the last note drops. As if that wasn’t enough, a newfound focus on melodicism only makes their sound that much more appealing.

Read more here


04. John K Samson - Provincial
If there’s a songwriter in Canada whose work is as consistently captivating as John Samson’s I’d like to see it. He’s equal parts dramatist and musician, delving even further than usual into his trademark brand of story-songs. They’re driven by characters of all stripes, from restless teenagers to depressed academics to diseased Scandinavians in medical asylums. He’s detail-oriented and his characters are remarkably human. His writing is all about nuance but lyrics aren’t the be-all and end-all; his sense of melody is as refined as his wordsmithery, colouring within the lines on every track with beautiful, gentle tonality. There’s just nothing here to dislike.

Read more here


05. The Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth

I didn’t do a full review of this record in 2012 (or in 2013 for that matter) but at this point I’m not sure what else I might be able to say about The Mountain Goats. We’ve written about John Darnielle more than just about anyone on this site. Transcendental Youth is just one in a long line of remarkable albums penned by this living legend. This time he focuses partially on mental illness and the victims of different kinds of abuse (both of which he’s extremely well-versed in), writing with his unique sense of empathy and eloquence. He continues to integrate his backing band deeper into his process, making the end product more collaborative. He also continues to explore new elements, namely the introduction of a horn section that beefs up several numbers, including the rollicking “Cry For Judas.” This guy is one of my favourites and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. As long as he keeps making albums there’s a very good chance you’ll see them here.


06. Cory Branan - Mutt
Years of promise came to a powerful head on Mutt, Branan’s first album in six years. He seems to have dropped all pretense of courting Nashville A&R representatives and he’s better for it; this is arguably his most diverse record in three or four attempts, conjuring everything from Steve Earle to John Mellencamp to Tom Waits and a whole bunch of folks in between. But Branan’s an original through and through; “Survivor Blues” is his songwriting in a microcosm, showing off his aptitude for engaging storytelling, his willingness to delve into gritty rock, all while maintaining the sensitive side of a born poet. This album might leave your head spinning but you won’t mind a bit.
Read more here
rah-rah-the-poets-dead-cover07. Rah Rah - The Poet’s Dead
We’ve been fans of this Regina group pretty much for as long as that has been possible, but it isn’t nepotism or favouritism of local acts that got them a place on this list. They earned it by reminding us a band of individually and uniquely talented songwriters can meld their voices into a cohesive whole that is the sum of their parts. Committing to 10 songs and working with a no-nonsense producer has honed their focus, giving us a record full of memorable tracks. If “Prairie Girl” doesn’t have you simultaneously rocking out and wiping away tears you have a heart of stone.
Read more here


08. Swearin’ - Swearin’
No frills, no nonsense, just straight-forward power chord-laden punk and pop rock. After years behind the drum kit Alison Crutchfield is letting her voice be heard and it’s LOUD. She proves herself to be at least as sophisticated a lyricist as her sister (herself occupying a space on this list under the name Waxahatchee), who was the primary songwriter in their best-known band PS Eliot. She waxes eloquently on aging, music as (and not as) art, and the overwhelming indifference of romance gone sour and she does it with a muscular pop punk sound that is damn near timeless.
Read more here


09. Jennah Barry - Young Men
The elaborately-rendered cover art of Barry’s solo debut is a terrific visual metaphor for her music. She collates a laundry list of different musical styles and quirks and creates a remarkably harmonious (in every sense of the word) final product. She’s got pop hooks, rock tone, acoustic country and folk earnestness, and a wicked sense of humour and panache to spare. She’s put together an album that feels like it’s sophisticated beyond her years and an absolute pleasure to listen to.
Read more here


10. Erin Passmore - Downtown
Solo artists rarely manage to feel this accomplished when stepping outside the boundaries of a group they’ve been associated with for years. But Passmore, diverting eight songs around her beloved Regina band Rah Rah, manages to show she’s a lot more than a cog in that band’s collective machine. The songs boast a huge sound, intricate webs of sound woven from a dizzying array of acoustic, electric, and electronic elements. The songs are shot through with a current of heartbreak, something that rarely sounds so well-realized.

Read more here


11. The Wooden Sky - Every Child A Daughter, Every Moon A Sun
This remarkable Toronto band continues to wander further away from the rootsy sound that used to be more of a touchstone in describing them. Instead we’re left with a captivatingly-spare album that focuses on quietness and solitude of sound as much as it does intensely-focused melody. Touches of waltz, breezy acoustic tones reminiscent of more tropical climes, and bursts of rock energy see them colouring gleefully outside the lines.
Read here or here for more


12. Murder By Death - Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon

Another case where we didn’t get around to putting together a formal review but by now you should have an idea of what you’re in for. This Indiana band has been following it’s own muse, a ghastly, devilish spectre, for over ten years. Their hybrid of cinematic storytelling and rockabilly, folk, country, and symphonic dramatics gets kicked up a notch on this record thanks to the occasional sense of menace and the addition of a capable horn section. The level of consistency Murder By Death offers is next-level bonkers.


13. Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas
A legend in our own time. You never want to wish hardship on another person but in a way I’m almost glad that Cohen had to go through some serious trouble (an embezzling former manager, the ensuing legal battle over his entire retirement savings, a return to touring and recording just to keep an income) to make this stunningly-good record. You can’t necessarily call it a return to form for someone as consistently remarkable as Cohen but Old Ideas is a slate of minimalist numbers that showcase his mastery of tone as well as his lyrical prowess.
Read more here


14. Waxahatchee - American Weekend
Talk about minimal. Waxahatchee’s first LP is Katie Crutchfield’s return to songwriting and its as personal and devastating as records get. Hell, the tape hiss of this home recording alone has more depth than most overproduced rock records these days. Less a break-up record than a harsh self-assessment of Crutchfield’s inability to exist in a relationship without blowing the whole damn thing to pieces, American Weekend is one of those rare solitary records that speaks almost universally. Lo-fi trappings be damned, this album is one long raw nerve and you can’t look away.
Read more here


15. Hostage Calm - Please Remain Calm
Walking even further from their hardcore roots, this Philadelphia band continues to craft a sound that’s miles away from their punk rock ethos. Acoustic guitar, pop melodies, and cooing Beach Boys-style harmonies make their hybrid pop rock a creature all its own (with some obvious nods to Bracket’s landmark Requiem album). Their politics become more personal than ever as they present a lyrical analysis of the state of America in 2013, the all-too-common tales of broken homes and desperation that underline the state of a nation they see as closer to crumbling than ever. But like all great tales they find redemption in the rubble and hope in despair, all while leaving you wanting more.
Read more here


16. Belle Plaine - Notes From A Waitress
Another of Regina’s most promising acts, Melanie Hankewich takes a seemingly-uncommon amount of joy in her work. She went full-time a couple of years ago in an attempt to make a career out of music, leading to this full-length record that focuses more on her formal education in jazz than the roots-based acoustic folk work of her previous EP. Pianist and co-writer Jeremy Sauer is the secret weapon here, helping pen evocative explorations of locations (”Waikiki,” “Port Angeles,” “Vegas”), experiences (”Notes From A Waitress,” “Old Love”), and emotion (”Legendary,” “To The Best Of Our Memories”). There aren’t a lot of young people embracing the style but Hankewich and her collaborators do it better than the rest.
Read more here


17. Corb Lund - Cabin Fever
The honky-tonkin’ Albertan who once shredded as a member of The Smalls turns in probably his best solo recording yet. Cabin Fever is a tour de force of Lund’s unique sense of humour, his incredible melodies, and an endless willingness to tweak the expectations listeners might have of his work and country music in general. He touches on apocalyptic themes, light-hearted criminality, and despair, all the while finding a new vitality in rock guitar and genuine heartache.
Read more here


18. Zachary Lucky - Saskatchewan
Brief though it may be this Saskatoon folk troubadour has created an EP that stands up to most full-lengths. Lucky’s Neil Young-inspired acoustic guitar work is dextrous and lovely, underscoring his road-weary tales of travel and the longing that comes with it. Coming to a head with two different songs about his home province (one is an original ode, the other his version of a song his grandmother Eleanor wrote decades ago), it’s an album that expresses the genuine relief and love he has for his native land without being overly sentimental.
Read more here


19. Ruth Minnikin - Minnikin Family Photo Album
Like Lucky’s album (and running a similar length) this east coast singer-songwriter has also crafted a set of songs inspired (and performed) by her family. A creative process triggered by the death of her father has yielded a varied and intimate record that is striking in both its simplicity and its sincerity. Perhaps the most human, touching, and relatable album of the year.
Read more here
moonface-with-siinai-heartbreaking-bravery-608x60820. Moonface with Sinaii - Heartbreaking Bravery

This is the complete opposite of Ruth Minnikin’s record, a record that sounds as if it was created by robot dragons by dropping ancient gold coins onto medieval synthesizers. Or something. Either way, the demented vision of Spencer Krug, well-known for his quirky take on indie rock in bands like Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, and Swan Lake, is surprisingly well-complemented by Finnish Krautrock band Sinaii. Compared to the rest of his Moonface discography, this album is more focused and structured, conjuring up some delightful tweaks on the rock music form. It’s a genuinely exciting listen that takes you down a winding path to sonic confusion and back. 

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