You can't say one bad thing about the music of 2012 -- It was an absolute monster of a year that had it all, making for perhaps the most competitive landscapes on AwkwardSound's 25 Best Albums list to date. What makes 2012 so remarkable are the number of big, important names who offered up new listens, on top of an incredible helping of breakthroughs from the next generation influencers. Williamsburg's Class of 2009 valedictorians, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear, coincidentally all returned with strong LPs that kept their position as integral critical darlings in tact, and yet, there wasn't room for any of them on AS' list. A slew of reclusive alternative legacy acts resurfaced after years away from the studio -- Two of which are included here, with the possibility of one more massively anticipated return happening before the New Year. Most gratifyingly, many of AS' favorite up-and-comers within the realms of punk and hardcore who've been championed here from the very start finally came of age. There probably isn't a wrong way to do it this time around, but here at AS, it's the exciting, shape-shifting noisy risktakers who tend to leave the biggest impact. These are AwkwardSound's 25 Best Albums, made by the musicians who put a permanent dent in the way 2012 played out...
25. Lower - Walk On Heads EP
On last year's debut New Brigade, Iceage established themselves as the default ambassadors of Denmark's underground hardcore punk scene, a reckless and often times dark, nihilistic community of intertwined artists you'd come to expect from a country stuck in chilling temps and sunlight deprived winters for a majority of the year. Their counterparts in Lower continue familiarizing audiences with its capital's noisy art-core underbelly on their EP debut, Walk On Heads, an 8-minute long, four track throw down of post-punk racket that backs up Iceage's portrayal of a youth culture bored inside its own environment. In spite of the latter, Lower sound motivated and capable enough on Walk On Heads to shake their surroundings out of a rut.
24. Daughn Gibson - All Hell
Alt-country's haunted past gets a beautifully bastardized makeover with All Hell, the multi-faceted introduction to the rising talents of Daughn Gibson. Evidenced by the cascading synths and sampled loops between the twang, the Pennsylvanian singer-songwriter holds as much a place in his heavy heart for Nashville noir as he does 69 Love Songs. It's a juxtaposition between genres Gibson manages to mend together using his smooth, smokey baritone voice that is sure to make women swoon and his male counterparts envious as indie rock's newest dark and handsome bad boy.
23. Xiu Xiu - Always
Jamie Stewart's avant-pop project Xiu Xiu has undergone several cosmetic changes over the past decade, but their latest effort and Polyvinyl debut enhances each of its best assets he and his revolving cast of co-workers have set forth over the years. At its most accessible, Always overdoses in rainbow bright synth pop confections, but those softer edges are sanded down and made jagged by Stewart's ability to force listeners into uncomfortable situations with disturbing imagery and tongue-in-cheek wit. 10 years strong, Always is Xiu Xiu's most cohesive and well-rounded release of the band's career by catering to all extremes.
22. SLEEPIES - Weird Wild World
Crust punk riffs bent over wavering choruses that once stylized some of the most unheralded sounds from the '90s underground get a second shot at life more than two decades later with a band that – until this year – had been flying far below the radar as well. Weird Wild World is the breakthrough sophomore effort from BK darlings SLEEPIES, a scrappy anecdote aptly astute for anyone dissuaded by a self-absorbed music landscape, or simply wants to have their aural senses numbed with a spoonful of grunge-era nostalgia and today's post-recession shoulder shrug culture who've no use or time to give a fuck about anything.
21. Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold
The debut album from Parquet Courts, the band spearheaded by former Texan, Andrew Savage of Fergus & Geronimo fame, takes full advantage of the frontman's relocated NYC surroundings with an impressive understanding of the city's storied post-punk past. It's a success on all fronts, as Light Up Gold is unafraid to flaunt its influences in an immediate and repetitive sense that make for 15 excellent upbeat pseudo-pop jams that seamlessly flow together. The LP's smaller-scale DIY production leaves a bit of a grit on its outer layer, however, toughening up the appeal of Parquet Courts and allowing them to tear down the door of the party if they want to.
20. The Men - Open Your Heart
On last year's breakthrough effort Leave Home, the Men put themselves at the forefront of a new wave spawned from NYC's noisy underbelly. Ripping pages from the catalogs of '80s era shape-shifting scene staples Swans and Sonic Youth, the Brooklyn quartet fabricates an entirely different sound on Open Your Heart while still connecting the dots between the past and present. Far less unbrittled and hardcore this time around, Open Your Heart showcase the Men polishing their songwriting while bending nostalgic garage punk licks into swerving rounds of uproar, resulting in a clean and cohesive collision course of the Big Apple's many punk eras.
19. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
With the Kanyeization of rap, hip-hop and R&B, we've become desensitized as to how flashy and over-produced its music has evolved over the past decade, which is what makes Frank Ocean's Channel Orange a humbling reactionary remedy to all of this. The soul and class of the Odd Future gang doesn't necessarily wean himself away from the emo-ness and diary-scribed lyrics that have won over fans for 'Ye, Drake and the Weeknd just the same, but even if not for Ocean breaking the genre's glass ceiling by opening up about his sexuality, Channel Orange still keeps it classic with underproduced beats and sensual falsettos that transcend style points regardless of which year you hear it in.
18. METZ - METZ
We've been hearing the rumblings of a post-hardcore revival for years now it seems, and it finally comes to fruition fully formed with METZ's self-titled debut. Three years in the making after honing their craft in DIY spots with tireless touring schedules and singles releases, the Vancouver trio's full-length arrival carries on Sub Pop's legacy of releasing music by artists with a penchant for big-sounding '90s grunge era riffs and blisteringly loud reverb à la the Jesus Lizard, Mudhoney and Drive Like Jehu. METZ doesn't necessarily break the genre's mold, but its satisfyingly meticulous sense of post-hardcore chaos leaves you wondering what took the world so long to come around to embracing this sound back into their stereos.
17. White Lung - Sorry
Even in modern times, the DIY punk and hardcore scene remains a super-saturated boys' club, but White Lung's breakthrough sophomore effort Sorry accomplishes a lot in very little time to tear away that perception. The three-fourths female Vancouver act's fury of melodic hardcore riffs recall fellow Canadians Fucked Up's early work while frontman Mish Way's vocals clawing their way through the raw brutality invoke the kindred spirit of riott grrl's past. Altogether, the 20-minute-plus LP remains true to the genre's core tenants, but the statement White Lung make here makes for one of year's most outstanding breakthrough punk albums.
16. Joyce Manor - Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired
There are no nasally vocals here, nor are the love songs sung by some wimp who probably deserved to get his heart broken -- Joyce Manor's Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired restores faith in pop punk by sounding youthful and impassioned without catering toward an audience that will guarantee they get laid. As the Bay Area quartet champions the underdog DIY scene made for acne-ridden, awkward suburban punks packed inside basement shows and house parties, their sophomore effort disregards hour-long epics, parlaying their sound into other genres or taking fashion queues for substance. In just 13 minutes, Joyce Manor quartet makes a lasting impression by sticking to the fundamentals of fast, fun and emotive punk that shoves off self-awareness.
15. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Fiona Apple’s brilliance is reclusive, difficult and often tangled in an over-wrought thought process, but her vision reaps massive rewards whenever the outside world is granted access to them. On her fourth LP, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, Apple scales back the full-blown orchestral theatrics of 2005’s Jon Brion-produced effort Extraordinary Machine and even further away from her angry alternative goddess status of her early career with an album tightly knit inside the many ramblings of her introspective psyche and vulnerabilities. As emotionally exhausting as it can be, The Idler Wheel… is the watermark of singer-songwriter perfection from a master who understands just how much every noun, adjective or even syllable counts.
14. Swans - The Seer
Michael Gira's career as the innovative molder of NYC's art rock cast reaches full formation on Swans 12th LP, The Seer. A two-hour-long double LP expedition bruised by violently cacophonic noise and the most primal of energy, the effort amasses the past three decades of the project's giant, mutating catalog, from abrasively deconstructed post-punk, the pitch black core of industrial and irreplicable experimental rock made into a fine art form worthy to sit behind the glass in a museum. Demanding and not for the faint of heart doesn't even crack the surface of this listen, but it wouldn't be a slave-and-masterful Swans album without all that.
13. Death Grips - The Money Store and NO LOVE DEEP WEBB
The story of Death Grips in 2012 can only be told by acknowledging both their bid at major label stardom, The Money Store, and the album that raged against that same evil empire in the self-released and contract-killing follow-up, NO LOVE DEEP WEBB. On the former, we have have the Sacramento hardcore rap trio softening the blows of MC Ride's confrontational lyrics with fluorescent synths as drumming machine Zach Hill steers its heavy beats into a dance-worthy direction, while the latter presents the vision many of us probably expected all along in fizzled out electronica that unleashes darker lyrical fury in the vein of Public Enemy from its frontman. The nuances between both are glaring, but more importantly, they collectively give listeners a real time perspective of creative control.
12. Screaming Females - Ugly
Anyone who has followed Screaming Females from their humble beginnings as a DIY band tirelessly working the nation's basement scene should know know these indie punkers are the real deal, but for anyone who's been living under a rock the past six years, their third full-length effort Ugly is NJ trio's clearest call to jump on their bandwagon yet. Much like another listmaker here, the Screamales stepped into Steve Albini's Electric Audio studio, amplifying frontwoman Marissa Paternaster's six-string virtuoso and wailing stature amid a bevy of chomping riffs and '90s alt-rock radio tunefulness. If it wasn't known before, then it is now, as the secret's out on Ugly: Screaming Females are the heirs to guitar-shredding greatness.
11. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - ALLELUJAH! DON'T BEND! ASCEND!
Remaining true to their anarchist stance against the mass recording industry, Godspeed You! Black Emperor caught the world off guard by releasing their first new album in 10 years, ALLELUJAH! DON'T BEND! ASCEND!, not through a surprise online leak, but rather as a relic this day in age: Selling it physically at the start of their fall tour. Since reforming in 2010, the reclusive and mysterious Canadian post-rock collective's live shows have proven their menacing orchestral noise riflings still sound as alive as ever in spite of an electro-centric stronghold on the modern music landscape. While LP 4's arrived in arrived in an archaic sense, the product itself reminds us that the true value of music is still measured by the standards artists set to outdo themselves with each new release.
10. The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten
Handwritten is the new apex for a young band that's grown out of tiny bars and into the arena without losing their identity along the way. The Gaslight Anthem may never be able to shake away comparisons to classic rock luminary and fellow Jersey boy, Bruce Springsteen, or the ramshackle punk of the Replacements and the Clash, but where their major label debut succeeds is completing the journey that began six years ago. There's FM-friendly rippers, leather jacket swagger and Brian Fallon penning every man's diary as his bandmates rise above to back him up every step of the way. On Handwritten, the Gaslight Anthem refreshingly remind us of what rock 'n roll at its best sounds like in a day in age where computer-modulated music tends to reign.
9. Merchandise - Children of Desire
After years of playing instrumental roles spearheading various Tampa-based punk and hardcore outfits, Carson Cox, Dave Vassalotti and Patrick Brady made the conscious effort to challenge the scene's open-mindedness by throwing them a noise-pop curve ball with Merchandise. Keeping their DIY roots close in tact, they're winning them (alongside a larger audience outside the Florida panhandle) over with their breakthrough effort, Children of Desire, a fierce collection of scorched static pop rock that shares a lot in common in more than just one way with a Morrissey's '90s-era solo material, yet reminds us, too, that the Mozfather himself was once a young punk experimenting outside genre conventions and changing the shape of it altogether.
8. Liars - WIXIW
Until WIXIW came along this year, Liars' 2007 self-titled effort was the band's most direct attempt at winning over a wider audience. The evolutionary noise rockers make a bold run at becoming an electronic act on this go by replacing their drum-centric formula with Pro Tools, synths and an assist from renowned electronic music producer / Mute Records founder Daniel Miller, unintentionally giving the difficult-sounding avant rockers their least abrasive yet entirely fathomable makeover to date. An innovative anomaly within the trio's ongoing creative guessing game, WIXIW restarts the conversation on Liars, whether you be a loyal listener or curious spectator cautiously watching from the outskirts.
7. Title Fight - Floral Green
Contrary to last year's Walter Schreifels-produced breakthrough debut Shed, Title Fight's sophomore effort flips the script by going at it without an overly experienced body directing them along the way, putting faith in their own capabilities instead. The result is Floral Green, a near flawless display of smart melodic hardcore sensibilities that showcases the band in quarter-life crisis mode, yet still entirely sure of what they want in their sound. The Kingston, PA quartet may have some hang-ups about where life is leading, but as long as they stay on the path to righting post-hardcore's wrongs over the past decade, Floral Green at least establishes that the genre's future is good hands with Title Fight.
6. Trash Talk - 119
Los Angeles-by-way-of-Sacramento thrashers Trash Talk had already amassed a huge cult following inside DIY circles before the release of this year’s 119, but their oddball alliance with hip-hop badasses Odd Future and their label gives Trash Talk a larger soapbox to shout their battle cry off of without necessarily forgetting where they came from. Named after their L.A. creative space, LP 3 keeps the band’s signature scathing portrayal and social commentary of outsider life close, but a few bigger-sounding moments invite new faces into the mix. That’s more than a good thing, as nothing backs up punk cred than a band’s ability to grow with an open mind without trying to pander to any sort of commercial or critical expectations.
5. Chromatics - Kill for Love
The perilous romance at the foundation of last year's cult fav crime thriller Drive came to life in part by its sultry, night riding soundtrack featuring fashionable electro-pop makers Chromatics. On their fourth effort Kill for Love, the Portland-based band create an original storyboard's worth of material that puts listeners into the thick of the plot. It's part Hollywood noir and Parisian suspense (throw in a dangerous car chase scene or two) with effervescent frontwoman Ruth Radelet filling the role of the film's mystery woman as director Johnny Jewel's eclectic vision situates his stars on a sound stage bedazzled in ultramodern synths. Even with its standout singles ("Kill for Love," "Back from the Grave",) reimagined covers ("Into the Black") and cool ambiance ("These Streets Will Never Looks the Same,") Kill for Love's plot works best when taking in the album as a whole.
4. Japandroids - Celebration Rock
Celebration Rock is the seamless next step from where Japandroids left off three years ago on their debut Post-Nothing, but they're doing more than just sparking their young hearts afire, as this try is engulfed in amped fuzz punk anthems with an unstoppable momentum from the moment you hit "play." Carefree, beautifully sincere and inspiring, the emotionally-charged connection a Japandroids song can create is indescribably electric -- A rare gift not forced or over-thought, but feelings that simply put, are real. Witnessing these songs being played live is Japandroids' ultimate end game, but their extended invitation on Celebration Rock guarantees one of the best and most life-affirming listening experiences of your life.
3. Converge - All We Love We Leave Behind
The 8th full-length effort from Converge shows no signs that the seminal Boston hardcore vets will be slowing down 23 years on into their career. All We Love We Leave Behind is both bare bones in impact by brushing away concepts and guest spots which once helped breathe new life into each new Converge release, yet it ranks among the most cohesive and naturally raw listens since their Jane Doe days. Credit goes to the quartet focusing on each member's strengths and the collective well-oiled riff-making machine they've made them into over the years, as All We Love We Leave Behind is the product of a band who is wise enough to know the ins and outs of both the genre and themselves to ensure listeners continue being surprised by the end result.
2. Cloud Nothings - Attack On Memory
Dylan Baldi was just 18 when he began writing music under the Cloud Nothings moniker, immersed fully in bubbly bedroom pop songs that smelled like young, naive teen spirit, but on the sophomore effort Attack On Memory, the now-21-year-old frontman outgrows his bedroom, makes new friends with a full band lineup and enlists recording engineer Steve Albini for good measure in a bid to reclaim pop punk's glory days of the '90s when smart, emotive lyrics and buoyant angst collided at a crossroads. The end result eschews last year's peppy self-titled debut for a less rainbow-filled world as seen through the eyes of a young punk just figuring out how to lay his heart out in a song without making it sound like a useless whine.
1. Ceremony - Zoo
It was telling on 2010's Rohnert Park that Ceremony were on the verge of evolving in a big way, but to what extent the Bay Area hardcore quintet would stretch the genre was up in the air. Despite the fact the band's Matador debut Zoo includes many a thrasher exiting the circle pit in favor of taming a form of artsy post-punk, it turns out there's more that can be done with a hardcore foundation than just making music to slam bodies to. Purists unwilling to embrace the cosmetic changes Ceremony has been able to achieve with this highly refined (yet still entirely grating) punk rock style coming to a head here on Zoo be damned. As Zoo defiantly makes us aware, the most punk bands this day in age are the ones who can grow out of their skin without losing a sense of what makes them tick, diving headfirst into the unknown which few of their contemporaries dare to discover and not fearing the point of no return.