If you are the kind of person who looks at year end lists to turn up your nose, feel anger that your pet fave didn’t chart or debate ranking order then go ahead and excuse yourself now. We say, “Good day to you, sir or madame.” We at Unwinnable are of the mind that such exercises aren’t meant to put a universe of personal expression in order, but to shine a light, share a vibe and spread the word. Our staff didn’t disappoint this year. With 145 records nominated, some of this year’s charters made the cut with only two votes. I’m proud to be among a crowd with such diverse, iconoclastic musical tastes. Our list willfully ignores prejudice in favor of passion. Join us, won’t you?
(Top albums linked individually, list sorted from most votes to least)
Jack White – Blunderbuss
Jack White has been a busy man in the last fifteen years. While in the insanely popular White Stripes, he formed two other bands, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. With these other bands he expanded on the rock sound that he was known for and fine tuned his songwriting craft, while also learning when to take a back seat to other band members. With his first solo album, Blunderbuss, he has taken this songwriting craftsmanship and raucous energy and channeled it into a wonderfully diverse album of hard rock, pop, soul and beyond. In a weird way, we can thank the RZA for the album – he couldn’t make it to the recording session, so White and a studio band started recording some of these songs. Well, we can also thank RZA for The Man with the Iron Fists.
– Michael Edwards
High on Fire – De Vermis Mysteriis
If Rob Halford was blessed with pipes, High on Fire vocalist Matt Pike has a rusted sewage line in his throat. The howls from this dude’s skunk-ravaged lungs sound like Lemmy looks. And such racket is perfectly suited to the motorcycle rumble of his trio’s massive stoner metal sound. In De Vermis Mysteriis, these Oakland malcontents have created a record as sleazy, aggressive and goddamn listenable as rock record you’ll hear all year. Where many acts in 2012 found magic in the housebreaking of metal, High on Fire said, “Fuck it. We’re pissing on the rug.”
– Gus Mastrapa
Rush – Clockwork Angels
Not that Rush have ever suffered, but 2012 has been an exceptionally good year for the Canadian power trio. Their concert tour has played to sold out hockey arenas all over North America (as has every one of their tours since the late 1970s). Their longevity has finally been recognized with the announcement of their impending induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And all of this is on the back of their best album in almost thirty years. Clockwork Angels sees the band return to the sci-fi concept album glory that gave us 2112 and the “Cygnus X-1” duology, with Neil Peart’s lyrics crafting a story about a dystopian steampunk universe and Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson providing some of the heaviest moments the band has ever put to tape. Witness “Headlong Flight,” a song that sums up everything about Rush in 7 minutes and 21 seconds. Driving rhythms, soaring guitar solos, long compositions. There’s a tone of finality to some of the songs on Clockwork Angels, but if this is their swan song, then they’re finishing strong.
– Don Becker
Bob Mould – Silver Age
I was overjoyed when I first heard Bob Mould’s Silver Age. It’s an exceptional rock record. Mould is joined by bassist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster for Silver Age. The record is at times playful, sorrowful and so brutal that it lunges for the jugular. Throughout the album, Mould revisits his Husker Du and Sugar days, clearing out the dust and the cobwebs to give his listeners a familiar and comforting sound that doesn’t compromise. Starting with “Star Machine,” Mould’s chorus shreds the music industry that pumps out pop stars and starlets faster than the music listening public can handle while condemning those who let themselves get sucked into it. “Briefest Moment” and “Keep Believing” echo Mould’s recent autobiography, giving us an exposed and unguarded Bob Mould. It’s one of the most honest records I’ve heard all year, and it fucking rocks.
– Ian Gonzales
Geoff Barrrow & Ben Salisbury – Drokk: Music Inspired By Mega-City One
This year saw the release of the movie Dredd, a monstrous box office bomb that was one of my favorite movies of the year. If the creators of the movie had gone with this original score submitted by Portishead member Geoff Barrow and collaborator Ben Salisbury, it would have been my favorite movie of the year! While I felt that the movie did a decent job of evoking the “future dystopia by way of the 80’s” of Mega-City One, this soundtrack would have immersed us in that world. An homage to the comics with track titles like “Titan Bound” and “Clone Gunman”, Drokk also pays homage to the musical scores of John Carpenter, Vangelis, and Tangerine Dream. For anyone who is a fan of ‘70s and ‘80s science fiction/action movies, Judge Dredd comics, as well as anyone who is a fan of dark ambient synth music, check out this album as soon as possible! Start with the track “Helmet Theme”, because it is awesome and really gives you an idea of what you’re in for.
– Michael Edwards
Graveyard – Lights Out
Over the years since getting my first Iron Maiden tape, I let my definition of metal get narrower and narrower until I didn’t much care for it anymore. This year, culminating with Graveyard’s furious third album Lights Out, I have learned how wrong that definition is. The Swedish four piece is a throwback to the psychedelic foundations of metal in the Seventies, but not in an empty, nostalgic way. This is a snarling swirl, a soulful jam that grooves and bites like a pit bull in turns. It feels old, certainly, but also extremely fresh and vital – an evolutionary offshoot rather than a pastiche. If you think metal is just wanky guitars and crusty vocals, ditch your preconceived notions and take your first step into a wider, darker world with Lights Out.
– Stu Horvath
Grimes – Visions
One synthesizer, one rollicking rhythm, one mind in outer space. It’s tough to call out something in the experimental/synth/dance/art wheelhouse as “fresh” – especially when that catch-all word can be a backhanded compliment, like a flippant, deluded ode to a boring piece of modern art. But Grimes is fresh. Sure, her music videos make Fear & Loathing look like an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, but her songs, corroded by sticky, bassy beats and buoyed by a banned-by-now form of rare helium in the vocal mix, straddle the art-dance line to include the crossed-arms snoots and the MDMA-laced neon kids.
– Sam Machkovech
Mumford & Sons – Babel
Mumford & Sons best articulates the religious human condition: repeating truth to oneself, over and over, until it starts to resemble a kind of desperate pleading more than anything else. There’s an admittedly rote formula that was present in Mumford & Sons’ first album. It only becomes more apparent in Babel, to the point that it starts to embarrass the listener: Marcus Mumford sings resonant sentiment at a low octave, quietly to himself. Then, as the song reaches his climax, he sings that same phrase, louder and in a higher octave. Yes, it’s easy, maybe even lazy – but it’s also a necessary part of a particular whole. There’s a transparent sense of weariness and bitterness present in Babel, a kind of exasperation with the status quo of suffering and divorce and betrayal that drives the album. Still, the perseverance of the saints motivates most of the album – that trademark banjo picking up the waning guitar and carrying it the rest of the way through the album. It’s a sonic picture of the rightfully shattered psyche of the deeply religious. This constant hope and longing? It changes you.
– Richard Clark
Metric – Synthetica
Metric hasn’t lost the sultry nihilism that’s defined all its previous work. But that doesn’t mean that, over a decade after their first recorded album, they aren’t just a little bit tired. On Synthetica’s standout track, “The Void”, frontwoman Emily Haines takes age and weariness as a challenge, singing “allll night/like a child/I/stayed up/to prove/I could keep up/with you!” It’s sexy and desperate and exciting and catchy and pathetic and somehow infinitely appealing. The album’s title may be a nod to increased electronic and synthesizer instrumentation, but the feeling is still Metric’s pure rock’n’roll badass.
– Rowan Kaiser
Swans – The Seer
Michael Gira once said, “Swans are majestic, beautiful looking creatures. With really ugly temperaments.” His band’s resplendent come-back record lives up to that self-imposed vision. The sprawling double record swings easily from sterile, heartfelt pleas like “Song For A Warrior” to profane funk dirges such as “The Seer Returns.” There’s beauty and bite in this epic double-record and for as long as it sticks around Gira and company never loiter. Through every cacophonous build up and pregnant pause in The Seer these musicians are aggressively present – deep inside each swelling moment and driving rhythm as they make it.
– Gus Mastrapa
Hotline Miami – Soundtrack (Soundcloud)
The Hotline Miami soundtrack perfectly accompanies the videogame while simultaneously transcending it. It’s no secret that last year’s Drive soundtrack, with College’s “Real Hero” and Kavinski’s “Night Call” brought electropop to the forefront again, but Hotline Miami continues the trend and even improves upon it. Tracks like El Huervo’s “Daisuke,” M.O.O.N.’s “Paris” and Jasper Byrne’s “Miami” evoke a neon haze of city lights, sweaty sex and dripping blood. Scattle’s “Knock Knock” is reminiscent of Barry De Vorzon’s “The Warriors Theme” in all the right ways. Man, all this record makes want to do is go out into the world and look for trouble. Though I think I’ll just fire up my laptop and go on a kill spree in Hotline Miami instead.
– Ian Gonzales
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar has produced a major debut in brilliant conversation with both West Coast G-funk and the culture that created it. He clearly loves that music (Dr. Dre makes a guest appearance) but the culture celebrated within is hardly above criticism on good kid, m.A.A.d city. In “m.A.A.d city”, Lamar raps over a track with as much violent swagger as NWA in its heyday, but consequences of violence, even supposed acts of violence, saturate the album. Then there are songs like “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, virtually a tract on temperance. Lamar’s location and musical style may win him comparisons to the masters of West Coast hip-hop, but he’s a lot like Kanye West in the quality of his debut and clever ambivalence about the music and culture. This is fantastic guilty conscience rap.
– Rowan Kaiser
Citizen Blast Kane – The Lobster Dinner Demos (Bandcamp)
Citizen Blast Kane – Who are they? Hailing from Hackensack, New Jersey, fronted by Amerika Bambaataa and Prince Matthew, Citizen Blast Kane is the way and the future of rock. With very humble beginnings, CBK started out as a handful of songs that were recorded on cell phones and played mostly for friends. Earlier this year, Amerika and the Prince took to the road and drove to Indiana where they recorded The Lobster Dinner Demos. Citizen Blast Kane are many things, sometimes they are powerful like Robocop and then soft like a blanket. At times they can be ugly like Edward James Olmos, while being delicious like a baked ziti sandwich. For fans of bands like Sparks and Gang Green, Citizen Blast Kane is music that makes you smile. Sit back and enjoy instant classics like “Sandwich Time,” “Fastball,” and “Sweatpants Lament.”
– Chuck Moran
Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet On Sky
For a trio of black-hearted, alternative demigods who just celebrated the 25th anniversary of their breakout record, there is no greater compliment to be paid than to say they are still making great records that sound like them. Every broken note is still ripped from J Mascis’ guitar like a dirty band-aid. Every bathtub-electrocuted melody still gives way to solos in the sonic equivalent of Bruce Banner transforming into the Incredible Hulk. Every sleepy lyric still sounds like a eulogy for an anxious thought. I Bet On Sky is a brilliantly layered collection of dysfunctional punk skirmishes, buttery head-trips and triumphant stoner-metal opuses any Dino fan would be happy to drown themselves in.
– Jay Pullman
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Ever Will Do
I hit a lull this summer—a lull dominated by nights of Popcap’s slot machine game on Facebook. I couldn’t process some emotional truths, and I couldn’t handle the feelings of loss and rejection and failure, however minor they might be, that come with most videogames. Instead, I succumbed to an embarrassing slot machine addiction. I put all of my hope into virtual tugs on a lever, riding the automatic wave of losing and winning and losing and losing virtual coins. It was pretty brain-numbing.
Well, with one exception. My fourteen-or-so days of slot machine hell were accompanied by Fiona Apple’s latest LP, The Idler Wheel and five thousand other words. It’s funny, this record. I’m typically careful to detach my emotions from records and bands, always afraid to have a favorite song taken away by heartbreak. But here I am months later, spinning the record for the first time in a while, and every song is pulling me down like a hard fist on a slot machine lever. There’s “Left Alone,” a dizzying piece of Fitzgeraldian ragtime in which, between fits and starts, Apple calls her listener a “moribund slut” and insists she “don’t cry” when she’s sad anymore. There’s “Anything We Want,” a moonlit charmer, punctuated by a kitchen-sink orchestra of spoons and clanks while Apple magically describes herself as “a neon zebra shaking rain off her stripe.” And there’s “Werewolf,” seemingly lifted from the *XO* sessions, that obsesses over a former obsession—man or metaphor—and happily lingers on the minor key of his/its passing.
The record is scored in strange, acoustic ruminations, like the building and tearing down of brick churches, and Apple wails beneath the ever-changing rubble. She could get out, yet she stares at herself and the life-changing love that persists, for better and for worse, when other lives end. These are the willfully trapped musings of someone who has done the same shit as me—who has fallen into drugless tactics that, too, failed to numb the pain. I fear clicking that Facebook link ever again, but when I listen to this record, I understand that weak, lonely time a little bit better.
– Sam Machkovech
Of Monsters and Men – My Head is an Animal
My wife is 100% responsible for my love of this record. She caught an artist profile of them on SiriusXM earlier this year and thought that I’d be into it; needless to say, she was right. This record is haunting and beautiful and the dual vocals weave some of the most pleasing melodies and harmonies in recent memory. Their combination of rock, folk and storytelling is evident through every track and makes me want to go to Iceland (which is the band’s country of origin). Their single “Little Talks” sums up the meat of the album and if you dig it, you’ll certainly be comfortable with the rest of the record from start to finish. I am greatly anticipating whatever they have planned for their follow up and look forward to catching them live on their next go-around. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy that some great songwriting and musicianship can still find their way onto Top 40 lists on American Radio. Thanks, Iceland!
– Erik Weinbrecht
Pallbearer – Sorrow and Extinction
The promise of doom is one kept by a Marshall amp. That plaintive lead-up, time kept by sparse tickles of stick against cymbal, is made good with a single strum. That’s how Pallbearer’s twelve-minute “Foreigner” launches one of this year’s most majestic metal records – first with delicacy then with a force. It is a great puzzle that for decades rockers struggled to translate the primal language of Black Sabbath into modern tongues. Pallbearer, like dozens of others today carrying on the originators’ great work, know the truth of it. They speak just as the old ones did. And in doing so their voices make the heavens tremble.
– Gus Mastrapa
Squarepusher – Ufabulum (Sorry, no stream)
Don’t let this record cover fool you into thinking that a member of Daft Punk has a solo album. Ufabulum is the 15th release of Tom Jenkinson, also known as Squarepusher, a man who is part electronic madmen and part world-class bass player. This album returns to his roots of hard breakbeats and supersonic jazz bass rhythms. Each song builds into dense compositions and travels through a variety of electronic sub-genres to become one of his best efforts yet. The Metallurgist, one of my favorite tracks, sounds like he is playing Einsturzende Neubauten through a Commodore 64 and while it may not be standout, it has its place on an album that comes off as a soundtrack to an unmade sci-fi movie. Going forward, this album should be a textbook for guys like Skrillex and Deadmau5 on how to stay inventive in the world of electronic music.
– Ken Lucas
The Men – Open Your Heart
You’ll think you’re in for a Darkness-esque, dick-grabbin’ rock-revival record when Open Your Heart opens with two New York Dolls-esque barn-burners, but the album reveals itself to be a staggeringly nuanced spread of rock influences. The Sonic Youth-like build-and-crash of “Oscillation,” the My Bloody Valentine-y dream-distortion of “Please Don’t Go Away,” the Replacements-caliber slop of the title track…sounds like a hipster record clerk grab-bag, yeah? And yet, the blistering earnestness of the noise stands out as a binding tie, too into its rock lords to bum you out as an aloof asshole behind the counter.
– Sam Machkovech
Ty Segall & White Fence – Hair (YouTube)
With so many irons in the fire, it’s no wonder Ty Segall’s sound has blazed a trail far and wide across the modern garage-rock landscape. But of his three albums released this year alone (all with different bands), his collaboration with Tim Presley as White Fence smolders above the rest like a plume of thick smoke. The contrast between Segall’s deconstructed, Nuggets-style freak-outs and Pressley’s meandering stoner dirges creates a savory combination of psychedelic wizardry. Greater than the sum of their parts, the duo breaks down classic sounds of 60’s folk and psych rock (it’s difficult to listen to opening track “Time” without thinking of George Harrison) and pieces them back together with lightning bolts for duct tape. The result is a Jenga tower which appears ready to collapse at any moment, but doesn’t, creating one of the most uniquely versatile collection of jams this year.
– Jay Pullman
Bonus Editor’s Pick: HEALTH – Max Payne 3 OST
HEALTH created something beautifully ugly in their soundtrack to Max Payne 3. This is the music of staggering drunkenness and feverish sweats and the metallic taste of blood in your mouth. Drums pound like a racing pulse while synths stretch and undulate, ratcheting tension up through every minute of every gun fight. It finally snaps from the strain in an airport, during the final angry, desperate, suicidal firefight. It’s the track “Tears” that plays, the lone song on the album with lyrics. They whisper to you, and it is a delirious, throbbing, hallucinatory shock – one of the year’s most powerful moments in both music and games.
– Stu Horvath
Listen to every nominated record on Spotify. Use random for best results.
All additional nominations linked individually: Änglagård – Viljans Öga(YouTube), A Silent Film – Sand & Snow, Adam Warrock & Rob Viktum – City Beautiful (Bandcamp), Alabama Shakes – Boys and Girls, Allo Darlin’ – Europe, Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself, Andy Stott – Luxury Problems (YouTube), Animal Collective – Centipede Hz, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes, , Baroness – Yellow & Green, Big Boi – Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, Bob Dylan – Tempest, Bosse-de-Nage – III, Brother Ali – Mourning in America, Bruce Springsteen – Wreckingball, Bruno Mars – Unorthodox Jukebox, Buck Satan and the 666 Shooters – Bikers Welcome and Ladies Drink Free (YouTube), Can – The Lost Tapes, Carly Rae Jepson – Kiss, Chantal Claret – The One, The Only, Chelsea Wolfe – Unknown Rooms, Christeene – Waste Up, Kneez Down, Christian Mistress – Possession, Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory, Coldplay – Live 2012, Cooly G – Playin’ Me, Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues, Crystal Castles – III, Cuffs – “Private View” b/w “You Can Come True” (Bandcamp) Dabke – Sounds of the Syrian Houran (Soundcloud), David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant, Deerhoof – Breakup Song, Die Antwoord – Ten$ion, Dirty Three – Towards the Low Sun (YouTube), Disasterpiece – Fez OST (Bandcamp), Donnie & Joe Emerson – Dreamin’ Wild, Earth – Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II, Echolyn – s/t (Bandcamp), Father John Misty – Fear Fun, Fear Factory – The Industrialist, First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar, Frank Ocean – Channel Orange, Fun – Some Nights, Future of the Left – The Plot Against Common Sense, Gaelic Storm – Chicken Boxer (YouTube), Grass Widow – Internal Logic, Hans Zimmer – The Dark Knight Rises OST, , I and Thou – Speak (YouTube), Ingrid Michaelson – Human Again (YouTube), IZZ – Crush of Night (YouTube), Jessie Ware – Devotion (YouTube), Jim White – Where It Hits You, JJ Doom – Keys to the Kuffs, Joey Ramone – “…ya know?”, John Maus – A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material, John Mayer – Born and Raised, Julia Holter – Ekstasis, Keith Fullerton Whitman – Occlusions, Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music, King Tuff – King Tuff, Lana Del Rey – Born to Die, Laura Gibson – La Grande, Laurel Halo – Quarrantine, Lecrae – Gravity, Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day (YouTube), Lee Gamble – Diversions 1995-1996, LHF – Keepers of the Light, Literature – Arab Spring (Bandcamp), Lower Dens – Nootropics, Main Attraktionz – Bossalinis & Folliyones, Mala – Mala in Cuba, Man Forever – Pansophical Cataract, Marillion – Sounds That Can’t Be Made, Marilyn Manson – Born Villain, Matthew E. White – Big Inner, Menzingers – On the Impossible Past, Merchandise – Children of Desire (YouTube), Ministry – Relapse (YouTube), Monolake – Ghosts, Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill, Non – Back to Mono, Off! – s/t, Oneida – A List of the Burning Mountains, Peter Buck – Peter Buck, Propaganda – Excellent, Public Enemy – Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp (YouTube), Redd Kross – Researching the Blues, Rival Sons – Head Down, Sharon Van Etten – Tramp, Shearwater – Animal Joy, Skinny Puppy – Live: Bootlegged, Broke and In Solvent Seas, Soundgarden – King Animal, Spaceghostpurrp – Mysterious Phonk, Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light, Sscion – Bent (YouTube), Still Flyin’ – On a Bedroom Wall, Stone Sour – House of Gold and Bones, Storm Corrosion – s/t, Tanlines – Mixed Emotions, Tenacious D – Rize of the Fenix, Terry Malts – Killing Time, The Congos with Sun Araw – Icon Give Thanks (Soundcloud), The Coup – Sorry to Bother You, The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends, The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten, The Mad Scene – Blip, The Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now, The Real McKenzies – Westwinds, The Shins – Port of Morrow, The Sword – Apocryphon, Titus Andronicus – Local Business, Tomahawk – “Stone Letter” (YouTube), Torche – Harmonicraft, Toy Love – Live at the Gluepot, Ty Segall – Twins (YouTube), Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse, UV Race – Racism, Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth, Vitalic – Rave Age, Wiley – Evolve or Be Extinct, Witchcraft – Legend.