Are these really my Top 10 albums of 2012? I mean, over the last 12 months I’ve been making mental notes of LPs I’ve come across that really stood out to me as Top 10 material but it wasn’t until I started ranking them that it sank in how much I’ve enjoyed, learned from, and connected with each one of them in different parts of the year.
2012 has been a really special year for me and one I’ll probably look back on as the year I chose to be happy. I’ve never consciously thought about happiness as being something I choose to attain or achieve for myself. I had always expected for happiness to simply happen as a reaction to something.
I’ve had the pleasure of travelling overseas by myself for the first time this year, I’ve met and hung out with some awesome people in London, Paris, Brisbane and here back home in Melbourne. Making the move to breakfast radio and receiving a broadcasting award from the station after five years on air was such a surprise and delightful moment of validation. I felt my confidence come back to me, not as it was before I lost it, but in a new and slightly more bulletproof form. I was excited by change, I was opening myself to new experiences and beneath all these experiences, the music never stopped.
Although it has been a year of playlists and tailoring my own listening experiences, I’ve been really inspired by a handful of artists who have come through with really good albums. These Top 10 albums of 2012 have all inspired me and my personal exploration as a songwriter and artist (it still feels weird for me to refer to myself as a singer even though I know I can sing. I am not ready for the pressure of being a ‘singer’). There are glossy pop albums here, creative projects that opened me up to new styles and influences, and grand singer/songwriter albums.
As much as I love blogging about music, I’m really excited to explore the possibilities of being an artist myself and that’s pretty much what I’m gonna focus my time and energy on in the new year. Friends, you gotta follow your bliss.
Before we launch into the Top 10 albums of 2012, here’s a quick recap of the other notable albums of the year:
#30 – Timomatic by Timomatic
#29 – Human Condition: Pt. 1 Doleo (EP) by Wynter Gordon
#28 – Overexposed by Maroon 5
#27 – Is Your Love Big Enough? by Lianne La Havas
#26 – Return to Paradise by Sam Sparro
#25 – Bodyparts by Dragonette
#24 – 1991 (EP) by Azealia Banks
#23 – DNA by Little Mix
#22 – Armageddon by Guy Sebastian
#21 – Two Eleven by Brandy
#20 – Push and Shove by No Doubt
#19 – Make Me Believe in Hope by Bright Light Bright Light
#18 – Origin of Love by Mika
#17 – My Head is an Animal by Of Monsters and Men
#16 – Django Django by Django Django
#15 – Girl on Fire by Alicia Keys
#14 – Glassheart by Leona Lewis
#13 – Idea of Happiness by Van She
#12 – Heal by Loreen
#11 – True (EP) by Solange
– #10 –
Fall to Grace
British soul siren Paloma Faith blew me away with her impressive sophomore Fall to Grace. I was very much a fan of her debut Do You Want The Truth or Something Beautiful? but this collection of songs just feel richer and more cinematic. I immediately wrapped it around my ears when it was released at the break of winter here and kept my insides toasty when her warm dulcet tones.
Fall to Grace unfolds with great confidence, bearing a series of love-bruised ballads that all shimmer with a touch of old glamour. The windswept first single ‘Picking Up The Pieces’ aches from the get go with an earnest opening like, “do you think of her when you’re with me?”. It is pure musical theatre dramatics, sparing no heartstrings at the orchestral chorus.
The stunning ‘Black and Blue’ is a gospel-infused number calling for empathy for your fellow fallen man and womankind. “I know people who use chatrooms as confessionals. I know down and outs who once were, once they were professionals. Wipe it off your sleeve, your superiority. Don’t roll your eyes, my sweet.”
Having said that, Fall to Grace is not all theatrical and severe in practice. ‘Blood Sweat and Tears’ is a stomping nouveau disco/soul blend that glitters with a slight nod to Giorgio Moroder. Behind the smoke and strobes lies a really life-affirming song about perseverance and faithfulness. Elsewhere, ‘Freedom’ hears stern piano chords kick about with 90s hip hop beats that feel like they might’ve been ripped from a Reebok commercial.
The album’s key producer Nellee Hooper (who has brought to life monumental records for Björk and even arranged the score and soundtrack for Baz Luhrmann‘s Romeo + Juliet) was instrumental in maintaining some kind of coherence in all these different and rich soundscapes. In Hooper, I believe Paloma Faith has found a musical soulmate of boundless potential. Fingers crossed they hook up again for her next opus.
Album highlights: ‘Black and Blue’, ‘Picking Up The Pieces’ and ‘Blood Sweat and Tears’.
– #9 –
The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle
I wasn’t sure where to place myself as a Missy Higgins fan. Is fan too strong a word? How about interested spectator? I don’t tend to fangurl over Melissa‘s work or keep it on repeat as much as I do with anything Ricki-Lee puts out, but in my head there’s a steady acknowledgement that this woman knows how to do good organic pop that never seem go out of fashion.
The ARIA award-winning singer songwriter seized the nation with her debut album The Sound of White, which gave us the unforgettable modern Aussie pop staple: ‘The Special Two’. However after a five year hiatus, bringing a lot of soul searching and a tentative career change, I wasn’t sure how a recharged Missy Higgins was going to reconnect with her fans and interested spectators.
The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle just greeted me like a long lost friend the minute I let it into my home. There’s the familiarity and warmth in Missy‘s voice that you forgot. There’s her way of telling stories in song that become infused with your own memories and experiences, which you’ll replay in your mind for years to come.
The new album carries new stories of Missy‘s journey in the last five years which she can’t wait to fill you in on. The opener ‘Set Me on Free’ is a free-flowing melodic pop song about writers block. ‘Everyone’s Waiting’ hears her open up about life in the limelight and its asphyxiating pressures.
Sonically, I’m quite impressed with Missy’s sensible forays into a bit of country, folk and blues. ‘Temporary Love’ is a full-bodied and kinda sexy pop song with a massive chorus surrounded by a uplifting strings, guitars, keys and percussion – it’s every inch a crowd pleaser at gigs. Elsewhere, ‘Watering Hole’ gives you blues, hand-claps and soul realness like Memphis meets Albury/Wodonga.
The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle is a confident and personable body of work from a faithful favourite.
Album highlights: ‘Set Me on Fire’, ‘Everyone’s Waiting’ and ‘Temporary Love’.
– #8 –
Fear and Freedom
It had been some five years since we last had an album from Ricki-Lee. So, round about the same leave of absence as Missy Higgins but here’s the deal, unlike the aforementioned Higgins, our fierce former-Idol popstar has never had a truly defining album to call her own – until now.
Fear and Freedom is hands down Ricki-Lee‘s best and strongest body of work to date. She has never had a more cohesive album and one that is so evidently ready for the international market. The shimmering European-style dance/pop productions are perfect backdrops for Coulter’s signature big vocals, which come charging at the gates with anthemic lyrics to fulfill the album’s liberating themes.
The beauty about Fear and Freedom as a “dance music-style” album is that, its approach is still completely that of a pedigree pop album. You get a sense that each track was crafted with lyrics and radio-friendly melodies as a priority – unlike a lot of Top 40 dance-inflected hits these days, which are clearly driven by nothing but the beat.
In fact, half of the collaborators on this album are not typically associated with crafting club floor fillers. Vince Pizzinga, who co-wrote and produced the stunning ‘I Feel Love’ and ‘On The Floor’, is better known for working with Delta Goodrem on piano-laden gems like ‘Innocent Eyes’.
Elsewhere Sydney-bred DJ and producer Hook N Sling (aka Anthony Maniscalco) hems the brazen, fist-pumping ‘Burn It Down’ and ‘World Disappears’, a throbbing Ibiza-ready cut. Both are addictive landmarks on this record that reflect the wig-snatching worldwide quality set by ‘Raining Diamonds’, which is pretty much one of my favourite songs of all time.
All in all, Fear and Freedom is an uplifting and immediate pop album that injects Ricki-Lee‘s megawatt energy to its listeners in ways we’ve never experienced before. Vibrant, triumphant and genuine – in a lot of ways, it reminds me of the great nods I gave when I first heard RuPaul‘s Glamazon album, which was one of my Top 10 albums of 2011.
Album highlights: ‘Raining Diamonds’, ‘Burn It Down’, ‘World Disappears’.
– #7 –
I think my favourite part of this album is the ability to fold your Conor Maynard album booklet in three different ways to display three different cover arts. But on a serious note, this is the most enjoyment I’ve gotten out of a solo male pop artist in a long time. Because, y’know, sex with Nick Carter happened so long ago I’ve kinda forgotten?
British teen sensation Conor Maynard‘s debut Contrast is a confident first step into the big league. The project calls on some pop heavyweights like The Invisible Men (hitmakers behind Jessie J), Ne-Yo, Stargate (bank-breaking hit producer for Rihanna) and Pharrell to name a few, but despite all the A-list assistance he could get, the kid still co-wrote like 10 out of the 12 songs here. I think his involvement’s been key to why Contrast is bearing such believable and vital sounding “boy-next-door” records.
There’s a certain teen boy cheekiness rendered over a majority of these tracks that is destructively sexy. If the 19-year old’s smooth and breathy vocals over contemporary urban pop beats isn’t enough to drive you from the groins of Bieber over to Brighton, some of these choice songs will.
‘Can’t Say No’ – the album’s lead single – is a cool, girl-chasing number that’s still kinda innocent in the way he coos, “some girls are naughty, some girls are sweet. One thing they got in common is they all got a hold on me…”. Elsewhere, ‘Another One’ is cocky-as-fuck in a way that makes you wanna roll your eyes but still smile a little at the scrotum-grabbing lyrics about bagging another girl while your mates are “still searching the floor”.
Polished productions, songs that tip-toe the tightrope between sweet and sexual, and a very confident vocal performance: Conor Maynard‘s Contrast stacks up well as one of the best debut pop albums I’ve heard all year.
Album highlights: ‘Can’t Say No’, ‘Turn Around’ and ‘Lift Off’.
– #6 –
The 2 Bears
You are now looking at one of my favourite EDM albums of the year. Come give it a bear hug. London-based duo The 2 Bears (made up of Joe Goddard from Hot Chip and Raf Rundell) has fashioned what slowly dawned on me to be the coolest house music album I’ve heard, possibly ever.
In a pop field so asphyxiated with dance music of late, I often struggle to sustain my enthusiasm for the genre after swimming through miles and miles of Calvin Harris and David Guetta-style singles. Subconsciously, my personal quest slowly turned to exploring different streams of dance music and dipping into more alternative house or “indietronica”. In came offerings from the likes of Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, Flume, Azari & III, and these guys.
The 2 Bears brought a refreshing amalgamation of 90s house, hip hop and a much-welcomed spanking of soul. Be Strong is just a really inviting, sweet and enjoyable house album that glows with heart-warming optimism. It’s divided in two parts: the front-end delivers uplifting house, and that’s compulsory listening as far as I’m concerned, while the second half explores more intriguing downbeat electronica, which may or may not be what you’re here for.
Hunty, “if you pay 10 dollars to get in the ball”, you better work it out to stompers like ‘Bear Hug’ and ‘Be Strong’. Stylistically, they are both exceptional homages to house music and its deep roots in gay club history. The latter actually serves as a bit of an anthem for me now. I mean listen to this, “some people say that music sets you free but all my life the music has imprisoned me, keeps me awake in the night and in the morn… give the music all your lovin’!”
Album highlights: ‘Be Strong’, ‘Bear Hug’ and ‘Work’.
– #5 –
Our Version of Events
When you are already one of the industry’s most sought-after singer/songwriters of the moment, everyone’s gonna expect for you to bring fire and brimstone on your own album. You don’t wanna do a Ne-Yo and fail on that front.
Emeli Sandé thankfully delivered with Our Version of Events, a meticulous collection of well-crafted piano-based ballads with nods to gospel and a dash of drum and bass. Every effort has been made to showcase the quality of Sandé’s songs and her emotive vocal performance here. Each track spills over with emotions so rich you can’t help but be moved by what she is sharing with you.
I remember hearing ‘My Kind of Love’ on the radio when I was in London – now, by this stage I have already had the album for about five months – but for some reason it just hit me with a fresh meaning that morning as I was sitting on the other side of the world on my brother’s birthday, so desperate to trade anything just to give him a hug.
‘Read All About It (Part III)’ – Sandé’s solo re-writing of her UK #1 collabo with Professor Green – is another monumental track on Our Version of Events. It totally takes a life of its own, outside what you know of the original. “Let’s get the TV and the radio to play our tune again. It’s ’bout time we got some airplay for our version of events… yeah we’re all wonderful, wonderful people so when did we all get so fearful? And now we’re finally, finally finding our voices just take a chance, come help me sing this.” I love the semi-political tone in this, suddenly it’s about empowering a generation to speak up. It is in these songs that you realise how skilled the Scottish singer is at capturing themes of struggle, quiet strength, heartbreak and loyalty.
Album highlights: ‘Read All About It Part III’, ‘My Kind of Love’, ‘Clown’ and ‘Heaven’.
– #4 –
Marina and the Diamonds
Welcome to the marvellous, murky and multi-faceted stylings of Marina Diamandis‘ work. The Welsh singer/songwriter swapped out of her darker, more organic indie stylings to embrace a glossier synthetic pop sound for Electra Heart – and all the sudden, she’s a revelation.
This feels like a pop album after my own heart, really. It’s like an episode of The Simpsons. Electra Heart has depth and layers of enjoyment to benefit mainstream pop music listeners of all levels. You can take away the irresistibly fun uptempos like ‘Primadonna’ and ‘Bubblegum Bitch’ and just fucking gorge on its sugary melodies and feisty lyrics, or you can save a piece of it later for a deeper reading. ‘Primadonna’ is a flamboyant and totally mocking sketch of a needy, attention-seeking queen, which I’m sure can be further explored as commentary on pop culture and superficiality.
What I really like to dissect in Electra Heart is, of course, the more confronting and raw break up tracks. Stunners like ‘Starring Role’ shine a spotlight on the awkward and prickly awareness you get when you realise you love someone more than they love you, and the negotiations made between your pride and desperation. “You don’t love me. Big fucking deal. I’ll never tell you how I feel.”
Elsewhere, the dark ‘Power and Control’ pins down power struggles and egos in a relationship, conveyed in an emotive vocal performance that hears Marina go from trembling her voice to nerve-raising taunts. “Think you’re funny, think you’re smart? Think you’re gonna break my heart? Yeah, you may be good looking but you’re not a piece of art.”
Despite the initial uproar in Marina pursuing a more straight-up pop direction, I think this switch has done her art a tremendous service. To be able to showcase her A-grade songwriting abilities in an accessible backdrop of trendy, electro pop beats is going to pitch her music to a larger audience than possible if she had stuck with a more abstract and stripped-back style. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, obviously. But I just think there’s something to be said about an artist who isn’t afraid to embrace pop, and isn’t afraid to challenge herself by making quality music that is still super accessible. Judging by my tone, I think it’s safe to say that I view Electra Heart as something of what 0304 was to Jewel.
Album highlights: ‘Primadonna’, ‘Bubblegum Bitch’, ‘Power and Control’ and ‘Starring Role’.
– #3 –
I’m not gonna lie. My jaw slackened a little when I started playing Flume‘s breakthrough album the day it came out. The 21-year old Sydneysider first caught my ear when his single ‘Sleepless’ (featuring Jezzabell Doran) starting doing rounds on the blogosphere and before you know it, I started seeing this album race up the iTunes chart based on pre-orders alone. This dude was gonna blow up big and real quick too.
Flume is a precise and enjoyable 50-minute body of work, treating listeners to a rich, textured collage of syncopated synths, atmospheric sounds, hip hop beats, and chopped-looped-distorted vocals.
‘On Top’ (featuring T.Shirt), the album’s sole hip hop track, is probably one of my favourites. It’s great to hear no-bullshit rap about ambition rendered over grinding mechanical synths and a traditional 90s hip hop beat. Elsewhere, ‘Insane’ (featuring Moon Holiday) hears waify vocals, pitched up and pitched down, traversing a dreamy soundscape of intergalactic synths.
I feel so out of my element commenting on this body of work because I haven’t traditionally immersed myself in this kind of EDM. This year was probably the first year I really started exploring these different styles of electronica and bask in tracks that don’t necessarily always have lyrics, melodies, song structures or even vocals. It kinda opens you up to discover that there’s emotionality, beauty and colour in the chord progressions, beat patterns, loops and samples.
Even though I am kinda excusing my lack of knowledge of this genre in this Flume review, I must say – on a production level – I am so impressed with what Flume has created. To me, it’s a very special piece of art and I think every music fan needs to have that one album that’s a little abstract, a little out of their scope, to explore and immerse in every now and then.
Album highlights: ‘Sleepless’, ‘On Top’ and ‘Insane’.
– #2 –
Lana Del Rey
Born to Die
What is 2012 without Lana Del Rey? The American singer/songwriter and self-described “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” carves a bewitching persona in pop unlike any other we’ve seen for as long as I can remember.
Through her cinematic album Born To Die and her always chic Old Hollywood glamour appearance, Lana Del Rey singlehandedly made melancholia stylish, alluring and intoxicating.
Born to Die is a gloriously produced and dramatic body of work, drawing inspiration from 60s music, blues, hip hop and modern day “indie” pop. The project’s core producer Emile Haynie – who has crafted acclaimed records for Eminem and Kanye West – brings an element of grittiness to the orchestral backdrop, creating a modern sound that complements Del Rey’s songs and vocals.
My personal favourite example of said style is displayed on the glorious ‘Off To The Races’. Here you’re treated to a combination of edgy and hedonistic spoken word rap verses with a cooing Marilyn Monroe-esque chorus. “Light of my life, fire of my loins. Be a good baby, do what I want. Light of my life, fire of my loins. Gimme dem gold coins, gimme dem coins.”
I think what’s also interesting about a lot of the tracks on Born to Die is how they eerily reflect – and appeal to – the self-destructive, sad and desperately clingy aspects of our personality. Okay, maybe that’s just me. Songs like ‘Blue Jeans’ hit the mark, depicting a desperate and all-consuming love: “I will love you ’til the end of time. I would wait a million years. Promise that you’ll remember that you’re mine. Baby, can you see through the tears? Love you more than those bitches before. Say you’ll remember. Say you’ll remember.”
‘This is What Makes Us Girls’ is another nostalgic gem, serving a story of a wild child with some frank commentary on friendship in female groups: “This is what makes us girls, we don’t stick together ’cause we put love first…” I honestly wish Del Rey had written more songs like this. Y’know, songs that draw on her childhood and given a glimpse into another story, another chapter of hurt (as sadistic and voyeuristic as that sounds).
Album highlights: ‘Video Games’, ‘Off to The Races’, ‘Summertime Sadness’ and ‘This is What Makes Us Girls’.
– #1 –
The Spirit Indestructible
I know this is probably not your first, second, third or fifth pick for album of the year but for me – when it comes to personal style, edginess and creative approach – there’s all these albums in 2012, and then there’s The Spirit Indestructible.
Nelly Furtado‘s comeback album stood out from the pack and inspired me more so than any other body of work I heard this year. It’s funny because it didn’t strike me at all as number one album of the year material when I first heard it. I went through a cycle of trying to understand it, feeling frustrated with it, then becoming addicted to a different track every time I heard the album.
The Spirit Indestructible is a challenging album. I mean, there’s actually not a lot of radio-ready hits here. In fact, if you look over your shoulder and see the other two Top 3 albums – they all probably share the same trait. Quite a sharp contrast from last year’s Top 3.
At risk of sounding like an indulgent wanker, I think I’ve kinda gone off the rails on this one and started to obsess with the micro details in the production, her songwriting, and how she chose to sing certain sections, to really care that there’s not many “hit single” materials.
I love that there’s a bit of a careless abandon to this album. I love Furtado’s magpie-like approach to collecting different musical styles across genres and ages – throwing together elements of folk, hip hop, dance, world music, 80s rock, pop balladry and more.
I love that this album can sound so slick and precise, yet so casual, raw and unfinished in parts. I love that there’s a earthy core to it. That these songs are all centred around stories, memories and a certain fondness.
Furtado brought to the table real personality, depth and variety in The Spirit Indestructible. I think I’ll forever be gagged and surprised that she teamed up with mega-commercial American producer Darkchild to create this opus, which is possibly the most left-of-centre album he has ever produced. I mean, this is the man who has worked with the likes of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Spice Girls, Brandy and Destiny’s Child.
The project’s first single ‘Big Hoops (Bigger The Better)’ descends like a storm – we’re talking ominous synths, slick hip hop swag, staccatoed percussion, and a mean drum ‘n’ bass breakdown. Lyrically, the 33-year old artist wrote ‘Big Hoops’ as a homage to her 14-year old self and her budding passion for hip hop music at the time. There are lines recalling her putting on her big hoop earrings, going out dancing with her mates, and expressing herself through the beats.
“Tonight it’s the jam, I’ll be there ’til dawn. I’m going down, I got my big hoops on. Pant legs so wide, I got my backpack on. I’m gonna hear my favourite song.” You gotta admire the innocence and childlike storytelling quality to the lyrics (and Furtado’s delivery), and how it sets ‘Big Hoops’ apart from all the other dance/club songs out at the moment.
‘Waiting for The Night’ is another stunner. Here’s a Middle Eastern-influenced nocturnal number that is tender, sensual and tribal all at the same time. ‘Spirit Indestructible’ is written from a worldly woman’s perspective on life and the human spirit’s ability to overcome adversity. It’s a peculiar universal jam with a big heart. And who could get over that breakbeat section with her oddly chanting the vowels (of all things)?
The guitar-driven ‘Bucket List’ is another instant favourite with its sentimental reflection of all the things Furtado wants to check off in life – not forgetting being with the one she has always loved. “Climb a mountain, swim the seven seas. Get your body to look like Hercules. Jump out an airplane with a parachute… I’d trade in my wildest dreams for you forever.”
I could go on forever because no two songs sound a like here but you’re best to discover it for yourself and pick a favourite.
Album highlights: ‘Big Hoops (Bigger the Better)’, ‘Parking Lot’, ‘Waiting for The Night’ and ‘Bucket List’.