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Western Herald – Editor’s Picks – Top 30 Albums of the Year, Part III: 1-10
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Editor’s Picks – Top 30 Albums of the Year, Part III: 1-10

Without further ado, my top ten favorite albums of the year. Click here to see albums 11-20 and  here for 21-30.

1. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball

More than ever before, my number one slot this year was a real battle, a struggle that played out between one of my all-time favorite idols and two bands who are eternally indebted to his canonical classics. At the end of the day though, when I look back on 2012 and think of the most definitive musical moments, my first listen to Bruce Springsteen’s seventeenth studio album (and his best in over two decades) is what swims to the forefront of my mind. Somebody once told me that, years down the line, you’ll be able to tell the best albums by how well you remember the day, the hour, the moment that you first heard them, and more than any other record released this year, Wrecking Ball infected me from the moment I pressed play. I remember the Sunday night when it leaked: staying up until 1:30 or 2 in the morning, letting the songs wash over me, discussing them with fellow fans online, and reveling in the fact that Springsteen had, quite likely, just made his best album in ages. I remember the scorching liveliness of “Easy Money,” the Irish rave-up that was “Death to My Hometown,” the mournful guitar solos that cut across desolate ballads like “Jack of All Trades” and “This Depression,” and the redemptive power the echoed through the long-awaited studio version of the title track. Most of all though, I remember sitting entranced as the gospel-infused grandeur of “Land of Hope and Dreams” washed over me. When the ghostly saxophone of the late Clarence Clemons burst through the texture halfway through, my eyes filled with tears. This is how music is supposed to make you feel, and throughout Springsteen’s great American protest album, he achieves that level of emotional transcendence time and time again: it would be a crime for me to call the result anything less than the album of the year. (Album review here, live review here)

Key tracks: “Death to My Hometown,” “Wrecking Ball,” “Land of Hope and Dreams”

2. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten

Handwritten, my most anticipated album of the year from the get-go, finally came into my life at the end of the hottest day of the hottest summer that I can remember. The timing could hardly have been more perfect: on Handwritten, Brian Fallon and company construct a invocation to classic rock ‘n’ roll and to the transformative power of music, a maze of tumultuous guitar tones (“45”), transplanted fifties girl group pop (“Here Comes My Man”), behemoth riffs (“Keepsake”), punk rock shout-alongs (“Howl”), and string-soaked Springsteenian balladry (the wistful “National Anthem”). In between, Fallon consistently positions himself as the throwback romantic, the guy who writes by the light of the moon (the title track) and watches, scorched, as his love vanishes into the mist on “Mulholland Drive” (even as guitarist Alex Rosamilia overwhelms the texture with a dizzying, skyscraping guitar part). Fallon has always been an expert at nostalgic references, spending the vast majority of 2008’s The ’59 Sound weaving the lyrics of his idols into his own work. Here, he stands on his own two feet a bit more, but the result is his most stunning collection of songs to date, a viscerally thrilling record that beats with the wild pulse of rock ‘n’ roll tradition and believes in no limits. From the moment that I heard the sweeping strains of “Mae” slice through the sweltering atmosphere on that first night, I knew that Handwritten was something special; I still do. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “Here Comes My Man,” “Keepsake,” “Mae”

3. The Killers – Battle Born

Perhaps my favorite thing about my top three albums this year is how inexorably linked and interchangeably excellent each of them are: all three explore similar musical territory and parse related thematic lines, but they are also thoroughly cohesive, grand without a lick of pretension, and alive with the nuanced and conflicted personalities of their creators. Furthermore, and perhaps coincidentally, my appreciation for each record springs from the album that comes before it on the list: where my adoration of Gaslight grew directly out of my love for the music of Bruce Springsteen, my realization of Battle Born’s true scope and perfection came immediately after my first experience with the Gaslight Anthem live show. Somewhere between Detroit and Kalamazoo, with the highway laid out ahead and the 1 a.m. darkness swirling around me, the songs on The Killers’ fourth proper full-length (and their first in four years) came alive. I never thought that Brandon Flowers and company would make a better album than 2006’s Sam’s Town, but on that late night drive, I felt my perception of that change before my eyes. Maybe it was the haunting desolation of “Flesh and Bone” that kicked things off, or perhaps the triumphant grandeur of “Runaways” as it flowed into album-highlight “The Way it Was.” I heard echoes of Hot Fuss on “Miss Atomic Bomb,” of ‘80s arena rock on “Here With Me,” and of pure Springsteenian longing on “A Matter of Time.” But no matter the impetus, by the time the album reached its one-two punch finale (the pulsing balladry of “Be Still” and the gloriously climactic title track), I found myself singing and shouting along, reveling in the power of the music, and feeling as infinite as the highway before me. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “The Way it Was,” “Miss Atomic Bomb,” “Battle Born”

4. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

If, during 2012, you had a party and Celebration Rock was not part of the soundtrack, then you did it wrong. As the title suggests, this quick, concise rock ‘n’ roll tour-de-force is a fist-pumping, adrenaline-fueled set of rockers that is almost impossible not to like. The genre is punk, but the scope falls closer to Springsteen’s Born to Run: eight tracks, no excess, no letdowns, just spacious and redemptive classic rock. Too few artists recognize the power of concision anymore. Back in the vinyl days, artists had about 25 minutes to work with per side…less if they wanted their music to play in the highest fidelity. As the CD (and then the digital release) came to prominence, running times expanded, tracklists got more bloated, and “filler material” became a daily piece of the lexicon for die hard music fans, but Celebration Rock takes us back to a time when this wasn’t the case. The album opens and closes with the sounds of fireworks, and between those two crackling bookends, there’s nothing but wall-to-wall guitars, vicious drum-fills, and spontaneous, shout-along melodies. “The Nights of Wine and Roses” roars out of the gate with reckless abandon (“Long lit up tonight and still drinking/Don’t we have anything to live for?” singer Brian King asks at the album’s outset), while “Fire’s Highway” builds a carnivalesque atmosphere of boozy nostalgia, and “Evil’s Sway” lifts its chorus hook directly from Tom Petty’s summer-soaked “American Girl.” But it’s the album’s final two tracks that elevate it to classic status: “The House That Heaven Built” is the year’s most skyscraping anthem and “Continuous Thunder,” with its spiraling wall of guitars and King’s passionate delivery, its most emotional. As I drove home from a night out with friends and co-workers on one of the last nights of summer, the latter slashed through my car like the will of God: nothing has ever felt so sublimely climactic.

Key tracks: “Fire’s Highway,” “The House That Heaven Built,” “Continuous Thunder”

5. John Mayer – Born & Raised

Maybe it’s because one of his records (2003’s Heavier Things) was the first album that I ever bought with my own money, but I’ve always had a lot of appreciation for John Mayer that most of my friends and family members don’t seem to share. That respect counts for double on Born & Raised, which ties 2006’s blues-laden Continuum (one of the few records from the last decade that I think is unquestionably headed for classic status) as his most cohesive work yet. The album is also one of his best, turning away (mostly) from the pop and blues sounds that he’s mined on previous albums and moving instead towards sun-soaked California folk. And while that development might sound like a strange one for a guy who started out as a heartthrob teen pop star and became a blues-rock guitar God midway through the 2000s, the aptly titled opener, “Queen of California,” shows just how perfectly the transformation works. The song, complete with a sunny guitar solo, plays like ‘70s AM-radio gold, and sets the tone for the killer collection that follows. The folky aspects of the disk come to the forefront on album highlights like “Shadow Days” (complete with mournful pedal steel accents) and the campfire confessional title track, but Mayer litters the middle ground with splashes of Irish drinking song (“Age of Worry,” “Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey”), bluesy throwbacks (“Something Like Olivia,” “Love is a Verb”), and star-crossed arena rock (“A Face to Call Home”). It’s Mayer’s most eclectic and mature work to date, and on my late summer night drives this year, few albums sounded better. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “Born and Raised,” “Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967,” “A Face to Call Home”

6. Yellowcard – Southern Air

Of all the albums on this list, none of them are more personal to me than this one, and that fact alone gets Southern Air into the top ten. In my initial review, I called Southern Air a record “about family, about loss, about youth and how it fades away, and about striking out towards a new life-chapter,” and for me, it was the resplendent soundtrack to all of those things. As I near my college graduation, I can slowly feel the vestiges of my past life—of youth and its carelessness and euphoria—slipping away. At the end of this past summer, I had to say a lot of goodbyes. My girlfriend finished her own schooling and moved away to start a job, my parents began considering a cross-country transplantation, and the place where I had worked, waiting tables and putting on musical performances for three straight summers, a place where I had made so many friends and built so many fond memories, closed its doors indefinitely. As I drove away from home, it felt like a final page, like I was embarking towards a new life, and this album was my coda. The words felt like I had written them myself, from the tumultuous first track (“Bottoms up tonight, I drink to you and I/Because in the morning comes the rest of my life”) to the visceral emotion of the last (“The sun lays down inside the ocean, I’m right where I belong/ Feel the air, the salt on my skin, the future’s coming on/And after living through these wild years and coming out alive/ I just wanna lay my head here, stop running for a while”). The one I will always come back to, though, is “Always Summer,” the album’s first single. There may have been “better” music this year, but every time I hear the song’s stunning refrain (“I left home but there’s one thing that I still know/It’s always summer in my heart and in my soul”), I know that no song defined me more in 2012. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “Always Summer,” “Here I Am Alive,” “Southern Air”

7. Taylor Swift – Red

Last December, when I ranked Adele’s 21 as my 15th favorite record of the year, I marveled at the fact that I would have had to go all the way back to 1984 (Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.) to find a favorite album that was also the year’s best seller. 21 changed that, smashing records and becoming one of the most successful albums of the modern era in the process. From the looks of it, Taylor Swift is going to continue to the streak, and why shouldn’t she? Red is a tremendous album, a record that hits equal parts nostalgic heartbreak (song-of-the-year contender “All Too Well”) and pure pop bliss (surefire hit single “22”), and one that never overstays its welcome, even at 16 tracks and well over an hour of runtime. Swift sheds a good deal of her country influence here, opting for U2-style arena rock (“State of Grace”), dubstep-infused breakdowns (“I Knew You Were Trouble”), and euphoric dancefloor pop tunes (“Holy Ground,” “Starlight”). The pop starlet proves herself as an expert genre hopper throughout, but some of the most satisfying moments here are the most no-frills: “Treacherous” and “I Almost Do” are simplistic, rootsy ballads that adapt Taylor’s sonic bread-and-butter to a more mature landscape, while the Butch Walker-produced, Ed Sheeren-assisted duet of “Everything Has Changed” is just one of many late-album triumphs. Perhaps most impressively, album closer “Begin Again” sounds like vintage singer/songwriter fare: Taylor references James Taylor, but the song itself falls closer to the sound of ‘70s songstresses like Carole King and Joni Mitchell. If Red is any indication, Taylor could be the heir apparent to those legends, and few things would be more welcome in today’s pop music. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “All Too Well,” “Starlight,” “Begin Again”

8. The Tower and the Fool – How Long

As a music writer, I don’t find myself picking up that many promos nowadays. I prefer to govern my own listening and reviewing habits based on what attracts me most, and there’s nothing worse than taking a sub-par promo and still being obligated to listen to and review it. Every once in awhile though, a real gem falls into the promo pile and I can’t help but snatch it up. That’s what happened with How Long, an emotionally intense set of break-up songs (think Tunnel of Love or Blood on the Tracks) structured around gorgeous, sweeping Americana a la Counting Crows or Whiskeytown. Fragile beauty abounds throughout, from the escapist anthem “Broken” (We can still make believe/We’re anyone we want with whatever we need/Well, tonight, I’ll be Johnny/If you like, baby you be June”) to the swelling alt-country of “Valentines Day” (“Cause saying you’ve got a lot to do or see when you’re still young/Means you’re not happy where you are or with who you’re with”). Clearly, frontman Alex Correia has had his heart broken a time or two, flawlessly conveying the hurt and longing of a relationship that dies too soon throughout each of How Long’s ten tracks. Whether he’s blasting through ringing choruses (the instant-classic opener “Dive Bar,” the B3-drenched “Die Alone”) or baring his soul on raw acoustic numbers (the haunting wistfulness of the title track, the quiet agony of “Who Does She Think She Is?”), it’s the universal human emotion of the proceedings that comes to the forefront. If you’re looking for the year’s saddest record, look no further. (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “Broken,” “How Long,” “Valentine’s Day”

9. Matthew Mayfield – A Banquet for Ghosts

I spend a lot of time in the car. Between a long distance relationship, cross-state treks to concerts, and a hometown whose sprawl extends miles and miles, my Honda Civic and I spent many, many hours together during the months of 2012. And when it came to the reflective late night drives, there was no album that I reached for as often as Matthew Mayfield’s A Banquet for Ghosts. The former frontman for alt-rock band Moses Mayfield, Mayfield turns down the amps and slows down the tempos here, largely opting for rootsy, acoustic arrangements (see the slow-burn grandeur of “Ain’t Much More to Say,” which opens the album in perfectly understated fashion). Best of all is “Take What I Can Get,” which builds to a sublimely emotive conclusion, or maybe “Always Be You,” a gorgeously hesitant hymn to lovers reuniting after heartbreak, but you can’t go wrong here. Definitive moments rain down on each track, whether Mayfield is letting loose guttural cries at the end of “I Don’t Know You At All,” employing Coldplay-esque expansiveness on “Carry You,” building a haunting air of finality on the piano-based “Beautiful,” or serenading a loved one with a whispered lullaby on “Safe & Sound.” (Read my full review here)

Key tracks: “Ain’t Much More to Say,” “Take What I Can Get,” “Always Be You”

10. Keane – Strangeland

Keane’s Strangeland, a shimmering set of throwback pop tunes, is the most outright nostalgic album of the year. Critics largely panned the album, criticizing the band for pilfering from their influences or for ditching the experimentalism of 2008’s hit-or-miss Perfect Symmetry in favor of more traditional territory, but I would argue that those critics missed the point. Strangeland is an entrancing journey back in time, to limitless days of youth, explosive eras of promise, and long nights where all the answers you needed were only a spin away on the radio dial. On “You Are Young,” singer Tom Chaplin belts out one of the most triumphant choruses of the year, surrounded by echoes of Joshua Tree-era U2; on the bouncy “On the Road,” he’s reminiscing about nights spent driving out into the middle of nowhere “to sing beneath the stars”; and on “Silenced by the Night” and “Sovereign Light Cafe,” you can almost see the widescreen illuminations of summertime carnival rides playing out before you, the yearning nostalgia for a different time and a different place washing through the arrangements like evening tide. Later, Darkness on the Edge of Town-era Springsteen drifts through the canvas on “Neon River,” a small-town operetta about a girl who escapes and a guy who gets left behind, the commandments he scrawled on the bowling alley wall fading and lost to the decay of time. From start to finish, Strangeland is a brilliant piece of work, and while its lyrical splendor, conflicted characters, and classic pop ideals might have gotten lost in translation for listeners eager to write-off Keane’s revealing and candid earnestness, there’s something transcendent and timeless here for those willing to give the record a chance. (Read my full review here)

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