Here are, to my ears and in no particular order, the best and the next best of 2012:
Chuck Prophet, Temple Beautiful (Yep Roc)
A love song to San Francisco delivered on a hot plate of raucous rock 'n' roll, Temple Beautiful
is instantly catchy. From the churning chords of opener "Play That Song
Again" (which I did, again and again) to the celebratory "Willie Mays
Is Up at Bat," Prophet makes San Francisco come to life in all its
enduring, freaky glory.
Kelly Hogan, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (ANTI-)
Kelly Hogan enlisted a who's who of songwriters to pen tunes for her
first solo album in 11 years. The title song (from Robyn Hitchcock) and
"Ways of This World" (from the late Vic Chesnutt) are particularly well
suited for Hogan's gorgeous voice, which amid all the excellent words
and music (including Booker T. Jones on organ) still rises above.
The Helio Sequence, Negotiations (Sub Pop)
The Portland, Ore., duo put together a new practice space/studio alongside this album, working for four years on Negotiations,
which balances the band's sense of shimmering cool with an entrenched
sense of isolation. It's a night record, full of reflection, doubts,
comforts and haunts.
Japandroids, Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)
Appropriately beginning with the sound of fireworks exploding, this
head-rush of an album fits its title to a T. Celebrating big guitars,
pounding drums and hooks galore, Japandroids made their mark on rock 'n'
roll this year with simple perfection.
The Walkmen, Heaven (Fat Possum)
Without entirely abandoning the urgency of the band's early albums, the Walkmen stretch out and slow down a bit on Heaven, their most irresistibly melodic batch of songs yet.
Jaill, Traps (Sub Pop)
In a taut 34 minutes, Jaill delivers an album packed with jangly
guitars, big garage riffs and psychedelic tangents. It's the sound of a
scrappy band making good on 10 years of hard work.
Metric, Synthetica (Metric)
Metric's best-yet record, Synthetica is a sci-fi concept
album—exploring disorientation, disillusionment and the defiant search
for authenticity—packaged as a muscular and thrilling dance-rock record.
Jens Lekman, I Know What Love Isn't (Secretly Canadian)
Swedish songwriter Lekman returns after five years with a lush,
wistful album that explores a painful breakup through his inimitable
songwriting voice, which combines tenderness, wit and honest
Dr. Dog, Be the Void (ANTI-)
Be the Void finds Dr. Dog thriving with a joyful, live
spontaneity that bounds from song to song without ever losing the band's
magnetic catchiness. It's an eclectic, adventurous, ramshackle album
that swings between abstraction and dialed-in melodies.
Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits (Merge)
Shockingly more than the sum of its weighty parts, this collaboration
between Dan Boeckner (Handsome Furs, Wolf Parade) and Britt Daniel
(Spoon) treads adventurously beyond "supergroup" expectations to deliver
11 fantastic, compelling songs.
Honorable Mention: Bob Dylan, Tempest; Shearwater, Animal Joy; Alabama Shakes, Boys and Girls; Giant Giant Sand, Tucson; Sharon Van Etten, Tramp; Nada Surf, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy; Plants and Animals, The End of That; Calexico, Algiers; Field Report, Field Report; Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur; Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball; Jay Farrar, Anders Parker, Yim Yames and Will Johnson, New Multitudes; Heartless Bastards, Arrow.