Top 25 Rock Albums of 2012

Written by: Dr. Scott Swanson

I love end of the year “best of” lists, because they help you to find worthwhile things you may have missed, or rediscover things you may have too quickly dismissed.  Here’s my pick of the best rock music of the past year, to encourage your musical exploration or rediscovery.

All of these lists are subjective, reflecting personal taste.  But as Christians we are called to expand our musical palate and appreciate some objective criteria.  Basically I am looking at three things: musicianship, message, and aesthetics.  Musicianship refers to the quality of musical artistry, skill, and craft evident in the music.  Message is the lyrical content: asking whether the artists have something coherent and interesting to say with that (for these purposes then excluding instrumental music–could be a different list).  By aesthetics as distinct from musicianship, I mean what is pleasing, accessible, enjoyable to listen to.   I suppose these criteria could be compared to terms used by Paul in recommending our engagement with culture for its creational goods (Phil. 4.8): whatever is excellent, true, and lovely (or beautiful).  In the case of music, what makes it particularly good is a combination of each of these qualities.  For example, you do have avante garde productions of great technical skill, but are unlistenable, at least for most ears.  On the other hand, much pop music may be superficially tuneful, but there’s no depth of craft.  And again, the lyrics of much otherwise quality music reflect no significant ideas about life or meaning.  The best music combines all of these to some degree, though albums also make my list even though weak in one area, because they excel in others.  Anyway, this approach makes my list a bit different than some typical media outlets.

This list includes a wide range of the subgenres of rock music: classic rock, so-called indie or alternative rock, folk, electronic, post-punk, experimental, latin, pop, and some of the best combine features of several styles.  What is not represented here is rap/hip-hop and even R&B, because its typical crude language and violence can make it a difficult listen for discerning Christians (Lecrae being one obvious exception).  Yet there were amazing records in that category from breakthrough artists like Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and others.  We should remember of course that Christian discernment is called for with all contemporary cultural expressions, and on the albums below there are cases of language and content where a critical ear is especially called for.  There was a lot more great music this year that didn’t make the cut here.  See me if you’d like to know my top 26-50 albums of the year.

1.  Grizzly Bear, Shields
A masterpiece of complex pop songs, with beautiful harmonies and thoughtful lyrics.  Check out “A Simple Answer” for their take on meaning of life and religion.
2.  Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan
While some were put off by the unconventional quirkiness of their songs, on repeat listens the creativity of the music and seriousness of the lyrics will not fail to amaze.
3.  Chromatics, Kill For Love
Expansive, cinematic, atmospheric music, perfect for a long night walk/drive.  Reflects on the impermanence and uncertainty of life and love.  Beautiful and addictive.

4.  Paul Banks, Banks
Lead singer from Interpol sounding like Interpol at its best.

5.  Animal Collective, Centipede Hz
Their experimental freak pop is all over the place, but an exhilarating ride.

6.  The Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits
New supergroup with Britt Daniel from Spoon and Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs, and they sound like the best of all their bands.

7.  Lost in the Trees, A Church that Meets Our Needs
Ari Picker’s classical training contributes to a beautiful orchestral album that celebrates life as it deals with loss.

8.  The Mountain Goats. Transcendental Youth
John Darnielle’s dark and ultimately triumphant Christian ruminations on faith and despair.  Some of his best.

9.  Crystal Castles, III
Intense and sometimes harrowing electronic music that is also wonderfully melodic and danceable.

10.  Yeasayer, Fragrant World
Eclectic and experimental but mostly fun synth pop.

11.  Pinback, Information Retrieved
Classic indie rock band of the 2000’s is back after several years off–and still excellent.

12.  Bat For Lashes, The Haunted Man
Album of mostly beautifully arranged and sung ballads.  Natasha Khan’s best yet.

13.  Fun.,  Some Nights
In spite of the Queen fixation and the overplaying of “We Are Young,” a great album with an anthemic sound and emotionally honest lyrics.  Check out “Carry On” for their philosophy of life in the face of death.

14.  Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas
Who knew that Cohen could articulate Christian convictions with such profundity?  Moving.

15.  Django Django, Django Django
The catchiest art rock of the year.

16.  Bob Dylan, Tempest
Dylan’s latter-day revival on display.  A lyrical master with stories of violence and divine judgment, and even an implied Christian supplication on “Narrow Way.”

17.  Lord Huron, Lonesome Dreams
Pretty indie folk and americana, reflecting on Michigan and love that transcends death.

18.  Imagine Dragons, Night Visions
Some of the best arena pop since the Killers faded.

19.  Café Tacuba, El Objeto Antes Llamado Disco
Pioneering Latin indie/alternative rock of the 90’s returns with some of their best music ever.

20.  Todd Snider, Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables
Fun folk rock songs of bad religion and injustice.

21.  Dinosaur Jr., I Bet On Sky
Mainstay of 90’s alternative guitar rock has one of their most consistent and enjoyable records in years.

22.  Of Monsters and Men, My Head Is an Animal
Best new band from Iceland–anthemic and catchy folk rock.

23.  The Shins, Point of Morrow
Sure it’s not as groundbreaking as Chutes Too Narrow, but James Mercer is still a great songwriter.

24.  Rush, Clockwork Angels
The classic rock act rocks harder and has bigger ideas than ever before.

25.  Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball
Sounds like Springsteen, with political and religious themes, but amps up the volume and stylistic variety.