The Christ and Pop Culture writers got together and hashed out our list of the best music we heard this year. Here’s what we came up with.
Update: check out these and more of our favorite albums on Spotify here.
1) Mumford & Sons – Babel
The second album by the most recent Brits-to-do-American-music-better-than-Americans was one of 2012’s most anticipated albums in many different circles: the radio crowd, country music fans, rockabilly kids, and Americana-heads all bought Babel (or listened to it on Spotify). But the feedback was mixed. Some people loved it because it was classic Mumford & Sons, thumping banjo and all. And some people hated it because it was classic Mumford & Sons, thumping banjo and all.
Some apparently wanted Mumford & Sons to revolutionize the relationship between popular music and American roots music again. Instead, what Marcus Mumford et al. put out was an album of darn good songs. Most of the songs on the album are played within the formula of Mumford-folk, i.e., subtly abrasive banjo, aggressive acoustic down strumming, the best harmonies since the original Carter Family, and existential, if not spiritual, lyrical work.
Babel has several tracks that are simply rapturous. Few other musical experiences this year came close to listening “Lovers’ Eyes” in the privacy of my Chevy S-10 and lightly singing the hymn-like refrain:
But do not ask the price I paid, I must live with my quiet rage,
Tame the ghosts in my head that run wild and wish me dead.
Should you shake my ash to the wind, Lord, forget all of my sins
Oh, let me die where I lie ‘neath the curse of my lover’s eyes.
Like Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, and Skip James before them, Mumford & Sons work masterfully within a tried and true formula. In a culture with the collective attention span of a school of goldfish, it can be a dangerous career move to not fundamentally change sounds with every single album. That kind of “monotony” can make a band seem boring or uncreative these days. But with their second album, Mumford & Sons release their passion and creativity without needing to re-invent the wheel. – Nick Rynerson
2) Propaganda – Excellent
It’s easy to dismiss Christian rap. So much of it feels too easy, too disingenuous, and too pedantic. Gangsta rap tropes are twisted into metaphors for fighting sin and the devil, and entire albums are written with seemingly no other purpose than to remind us of various biblical doctrines. This year, though, Propaganda’s Excellent has proven the potential of the genre all over again.
You may be familiar with the album because of its most controversial song, “Precious Puritans”, which was an affront to many Reformed pastors who saw the Puritans as precious indeed. The song singlehandedly started a discussion about privilege and race that had been brewing quietly underneath the surface for years. By directing the blame toward humanity’s potential for idolatry rather than any particular race or person, Propaganda made a winsome case that stopped short of breathless adoration of the Puritans — or any Christian leaders for that matter.
I’ll be honest: I’m not exactly sure what it is that makes Excellent seem less preachy than many other rap albums. Propaganda has his stark opinions, and his album seems destined to offend and shock each and every listener. But maybe it’s because most of the hard truths he has for us seem to come from a place of humility. As much as Propaganda hates sin in others, he’s always acknowledging and railing against its existence within himself. The album’s first track ends with an imperative: “Don’t listen to me. We just met. What do I know?” And in that spirit, he shares his masterfully constructed and unfiltered thoughts with us. Take them or leave them. – Richard Clark
3) Tame Impala – Lonerism
Christians ought to be the most confident of all people because of what Christ has accomplished for us. That, however, is often not the case because of our tendency to measure ourselves against other people rather than see our worth after being secured by Christ’s work of redemption. We are often a mess of insecurities this side of eternity. Psychedelic rock outfit Tame Impala’s sophomore effort, Lonerism, is refreshing because it gives voice to those insecurities.
As the album title implies, Lonerism serves as an exploration of lead singer/songwriter Kevin Parker’s headspace. He confesses frustration with a lack of progress in life in “Feels Like We’re Always Going Backwards”, expresses uncertainty about his position in life in “Mind Mischief”, and despairs of being alone without any sure guides in “Why Won’t They Talk to Me”. These are sentiments that American cultural Christianity has trained us to silence. Consequently, there is something really refreshing about listening to Lonerism and exploring and confessing self-doubt.
While such explorations can potentially lead to obsessive introspection, the album’s tone consistently suggests otherwise, leaving us to wonder if there really are ways to be self-secure without becoming self-absorbed. The closest Parker comes to providing an answer is in the song “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” where he sings, “Every man is happy until suddenly happiness is a goal”. – Drew Dixon
4) Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
I’ve been a fan since 1999 and the release of When the Pawn…. With that album, Fiona Apple made it clear that she wasn’t just one more in a trail of Angry Girl Bands. Not that there’s anything wrong with women expressing the emotional pain they’ve suffered through raw lyrics. Guys do it, so why shouldn’t women? But Apple’s first album, Tidal released in the Alanis Glut of the mid-’90s when you couldn’t turn on a rock station without hearing some singer or another describing the wrenching pain from some guy who did her wrong. Because of the ill timing, Apple was easy to overlook.
Fortunately, Apple continued producing albums and each of these show remarkable writing skill, musical talent, and the temerity to explore the woman’s musical imagination. The Idler Wheel… does nothing to veer from Apple’s penchant for delivering inventive, playful, and powerful music.
The album perhaps shines brightest in Apple’s eloquence. She chooses words and elucidations that provoke a sense of music even wholly apart from the instrumental work itself. She relies heavily on assonance and shows a fondness for verbing nouns (and then invoking that very noun). She sings in word pictures that appropriate thoughtfulness and whimsy. And even while her songs explore ideological landscapes, the music as well continues to surprise. Melodies take unexpected turns and phrasing gregariously staggers around the party like a happy drunk.
Winning GQ’s “Rookie of the Year” might not usually seem like a big accomplishment for an R&B singer-songwriter. But this year, Frank Ocean’s victory seems like a cultural milestone. Frank Ocean’s non-straight impact on cultural “manhood” is only where it starts, though. The true milestone is his debut full-length album, Channel ORANGE.
At a distance, it seems like little more than a smooth, refined set of R&B songs. When you dive in, though, you’ll find a deep self-portrait of a guy working through issues of sexuality, spirituality, money, identity, and relationships with a surprising amount of candor. Each song reveals a new facet of Ocean’s personality and musical style, which seems to get only more and more likable as the album progresses. It’s as ambitious and visionary as Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy without any of the bravado. In other words, a near perfect album. – Luke Larsen
6) Sam Billen – Places
Early on in “Hands”, one of the standout tracks from Sam Billen’s Places, you hear Billen intoning “I want to be young again”. That desire to recapture youth is the album’s underlying theme, as Billen sings songs literally pulled from his childhood memories. But such an effort doesn’t come without a price: Death and sadness haunt the album, be it in lyrics that recount a wintry day spent with his mother shortly before her death, or the melancholy and delicate music arrangements that drift through songs like “Places” and “Choices”.
That being said, Places is not a depressing album. There’s real happiness in these remembrances, e.g., the joyous way Billen sings about playing the ol’ Nintendo on “Hands” or the triumphant swell on “A Light Goes On”. Death and sadness are present and real, yes, but they don’t have the final say — and so the album ends, appropriately enough, with the gentle, comforting “Secrets of the Universe”.
7) Bob Dylan – Tempest
With 71 years behind him and 35 albums under his belt, Bob Dylan has done it again. With the release of Tempest, his heaviest album to date, Dylan delivers a set of songs that showcase heartwrenching tales of pain and sadness. And moreso than any other album, Tempest shows Dylan to be a vocalist on the same level that he has always been a lyricist. The deepness of his voice, more than likely due to age, pairs effortlessly well with his songs’ subjects. The title track is a near 14-minute tale of the sinking of the Titanic. I cannot imagine any other artist painting this sad story for us.
As a dedicated Dylan fan, this album did not disappoint me. The content of these songs are weighty and dark: “Tin Angel” tells of a murder and suicide while “Early Roman Kings” depicts a massacre. Would I listen to this album (more than once) if another artist I wasn’t familiar with sung these songs? Chances are slim. So what is it about Bob Dylan that keeps me dedicated? I think it comes down to the uniqueness of his sound and the unforgettable way he tells stories. I don’t know what else to expect from Bob Dylan, but if he gives us another album, I can only imagine that it will contain stories yet untold sung in a way that only Dylan can sing them. – Jewel Evans
8) Avett Bros. – The Carpenter
I have to admit, straight off, that I’m an Avett Brothers fan. It would have taken a pretty bad album this year for me to not have liked it. Now, I’m going to spend the remainder of this blurb trying to convince you that I don’t think this album is great simply because I’m a fanboy. That’s beside the point; The Carpenter is objectively great.
First, if you are used to the Avett Brothers at all, then you will find that they are still the Avett Brothers: Their music sounds like the kind of music people can sit around and make. That may sound odd, but for me it is a big deal. I actually play the banjo, and for my birthday this year, I had a buddy come over with his guitar and another friend come with his mandolin and we jammed. The Avett Brothers make music like that. It isn’t edited, pitch-controlled, canned studio sounds that you get here. It’s some dudes sitting down and jamming who are really, really good at it. I love that. (Also, I’d like thank Scott Avett for rescuing the banjo from its bluegrass pigeonhole. Thank you, thank you, thank you.)
If you aren’t familiar with the Avett Brothers’ work, I’d say it’s a kind of folk rock. It has the banjo, the drums, electric guitar, and… the cello. And the upright bass. Folk Rock? Yeah, that’s as good as I can do. Whatever you call it; it works. And it is fun to listen to.
The Carpenter is a little different than their previous albums, though. The guys mature a bit with this one. Instead of singing fun songs about lost loves and being lousy boyfriends, they move on to contemplate life and death. Songs like “Down with the Shine”, “The Once and Future Carpenter”, and “Live and Die” are reflective songs on the nature of maturing, being supplanted by the younger generation, and ultimately, resigning oneself to death. While that may sound sort of melancholy, they make it sound like a genuinely interesting and fun journey to take.
If you haven’t given the Avett Brothers a listen before, I heartily commend this album to you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. – Brad Williams
9) Lana Del Rey – Born to Die (Paradise Edition)
I feel roughly the same about Lana Del Rey and pop music that notorious critic Lester Bangs felt about The Stooges and rock ’n’ roll: “It takes courage to make a fool of yourself [like The Stooges], to say, ‘See, this is all a sham, this whole show and all its floodlit drug-jacked realer-than-life trappings, and the fact that you are out there and I am up here means not the slightest thing.’”
Del Rey’s Born to Die manages both to expose and run on pop music’s vapidity. Her album is ahead of the curve in that its retro sound dates itself before a few years’ passing does the dating. Del Rey doesn’t play by the rules and will continue to provoke backlash in response. Years from now, though, I suspect appreciation for Born to Die will increase.
It’s not a truth universally acknowledged yet, but Born to Die is a great album enhanced by its literary (namely Nabokovian) and cinematic (chiefly Lynchian) influences. The album’s particularly great because it came at a time when we needed counterpoints to Lady Gaga and the glossy Minajerie that filled the airwaves. – C. Ryan Knight
10) Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
I haven’t known about Andrew Bird for very long and I say that to my shame. Bird’s Break It Yourself is simply winsome and beautiful. The album’s sound is celebratory and light, contrasting very well with the songs’ somewhat heavy subject matter. The gentle use of the violin and Bird’s almost professional way of whistling bring the listeners into his own world for just a moment. From bees to death and much more, Break It Yourself shows Bird to be an artist with a talent for taking the mundane in life and making it meaningful.
My favorite track on Break It Yourself is “Sifters”. I find it delightful that Bird beautifully plays the violin in the same way the “moon plays the ocean like the violin”. I don’t know the inspiration for the song, but I love it, and find myself relating to it in a very real way. The music swells as I hear “If I could convince you that I mean you no harm, just want to show you how not to need”. As the song continues, Bird gently sings “Would I still miss you or would you then have been mine” and I am left to wonder what the answer might have been, too. Meanwhile, the “moon plays the ocean like a violin”.
Gentle, meaningful, and beautifully crafted, Break It Yourself has become a favorite album of mine. – Jewel Evans