The twenty best albums of 2012

Music

It’s what you’ve all been waiting for… the OxStu’s famous Albums of the Year Countdown!

We’ve surveyed a wide range of music lovers for their favourite records of 2012 and collected their choices in order to provide you with the definitive list of the year’s best musical offerings. To order the results, we assigned points to albums based on their positions in the Top Ten lists of our participants, and then did some painstaking analysis in order to whittle down over 117 nominated albums to 20 heavyweights. So read the reviews, get the albums, and, er, ignore the fact that it’s only November.

20. Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind

Converge are back at their thrillingly visceral best. All We Love We Leave Behind is an attempt to capture, but not restrain, the unhinged beauty of their live shows. They’ve cut back on the production, guest appearances and samples of their previous albums like Axe To Fall, in order to let the stunning instrumentals and Bannon’s wretched, desperate lyrics shine through. AWLWLB harnesses the passion of Jane Doe with the vitality of their hardcore roots, to produce one of the most poignantly brutal albums of the year.

Ollie Sheerin

19.  The Maccabees –Given To The Wild

Given To The Wild was always going to represent the moment when The Maccabees either made their music their own, or fell into the ever-increasing abyss of teenage indie-bands which never quite hit the mark. This record sees a new, maturer sound; the vocals are brooding, whilst the heartfelt lyrics detail their emotional growth. The variation and journey of the album overcomes the occasionally Coldplay-esque feel, and with riffs as simple yet as beautiful as that in ‘Ayla,’ they can’t go wrong.

Jen Appleton

 18. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

Celebration Rock picks up where Post-Nothing left off, using the same formula but bettering the result. The title really captures the essence of Japandroids, and its eight tracks are guitar-driven tributes to the endless excitement of adolescence. ‘The House That Heaven Built’, with its soaring, distorted chords and sing-a-long refrain is the album’s strongest track, and representative of their remarkable sound, seemingly beyond the capabilities of a duo. Celebration Rock is a brilliant sophomore release.

Ashley Cooke

 17. Flying Lotus –  Until The Quiet Comes

Built from the blocks of dreamspace and the unknown, this is a more abstract beast than Steven Ellison’s previous offerings. Sounds don’t explode but are hinted at, and though handclaps and deep vocal samples may be a little on-message in 2012, Until The Quiet Comes runs alone. Or does it float? Intricate and jazzy in places, glossy and even-handed elsewhere; it’s varied but never schizophrenic. Not a tangential, but rather a progressive record, this is probably his classiest to date.

Jamie Brown

 16.  The xx – Coexist
The xx ensured they didn’t become another Mercury Prize winning flop with Coexist, an album that perhaps even surpasses their debut. From opener ‘Angels’, the album is an aural house of cards, so delicate it feels like the slightest whisper may knock it down; in a good way. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim’s vocal exchanges create an album which is more than just a group of songs, but a beautifully crafted, cohesive whole.
OxStu Sport
15. The Cribs – In the Belly of the Brazen Bull

In the Belly of the Brazen Bull is the first Cribs album I’d describe as a grower. They’re getting subtler as they develop, and listening to this release requires a bit more maturity from their audience. They’ve been criticised for it, but nobody wants the same album five times. Here, The Cribs take the raw integrity of their early material and combine it with new-found depth, without sacrificing too much of their catchy melody. It’s a strong album from an uncompromisingly passionate band.

Kate Bradley

14.  Jack White –  Blunderbuss

Given that we’ve already experienced Jack White’s musical talents filtered through incarnations of three different bands, it seems unbelievable that he hasn’t made a solo album until now. What is believable is that it would sound like this. Blunderbuss takes the essence of White’s various projects and unites them in a glorious melange of genres. Blues, jazz, and rock-opera are fused with his trademark stomping riffs and screeching guitar solos. It’s raw and riotous, with just the right amount of stripped-back blues to balance the rip-roaring singles.

Sarah Poulten

 13. Liars – WIXIW

WIXIW (pronounced ‘wish you’) is the most polished Liars record to date, eschewing much of the lo-fi production that adorned their previous releases with a sense of unhinged menace. This throws greater attention on the songwriting, which induces as much wonderful anxiety as ever. Coldly artificial drums skitter all over the lush electronic cascades as the band take in the drawn-out drive of krautrock, and Angus Andrew’s disillusioned groans and wails are as infectious as ever. A darkly brilliant exercise in sustained threat.

Tom Bell

12. Actress –  R.I.P.

Having blurred the distinctions between dance genres on Splazsh, Darren Cunningham transcends them altogether on the blazingly original R.I.P. Regular beats are largely supplanted by rhythmically gaping space or rejected altogether, and his arrangements are at times so free that the parts run together as casually as ripples on a lake. But it never loses momentum, ever-evolving, unified by the burbling melodies of garbled techno nostalgia. In terms of UK electronic music, Actress is on his own plane.

Tom Bell

11. Swans – The Seer

The Seer feels like more than just an album. There is an elemental power about the construction and collapse of the monumental sound structures that fill its two disk length; disregarding utterly mankind’s penchant for order and structure.  The gradually unfolding textures are both a supreme opportunity for escapism and an evocation of the unseen natural forces — the shifting of tectonic plates and the rise and fall of mountains — that the album’s human themes pale beside. Michael Gira’s best work to date is truly a force of nature.

Lewis Coenen-Rowe

10. Tallest Man On Earth – There’s No Leaving Now

Sometimes having obvious influences isn’t a bad thing. It doesn’t take long to spot Kristian Matsson’s, but over the last few years the Swedish Dylan has released consistently strong songs with some of the prettiest guitar-playing around. Though he hasn’t quite gone  electric, There’s No Leaving Now, Matsson’s third album as The Tallest Man On Earth, adds enough new texture to the lone acoustic guitar of previous releases to keep things fresh without losing the intimacy that makes his best songs so powerful.

Nick Megaw

9. Jessie Ware –Devotion

Sprouting from Brixton’s gritty nucleus, Jessie Ware has trodden a musical path which has led to the fruition of an album so stirringly beautiful that her burst into the mainstream is unsurprising. With simple and strong vocals, but a production clearly indicative of Ware’s previous diet of dance music and drum ‘n’ bass, Devotion manages to achieve astounding refinement without seeming polished. Standout tracks include the ethereal ‘110%’, the catchy rhythms of ‘Sweet Talk,’ and the unabashedly listenable ‘Night Life.’

Ophelia Stimpson

8. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE

Frank Ocean revitalised the world of R&B with his 2011 mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA. This july he topped it, returning in fashion with an album full of soaring  vocals and sleek production. Ocean doesn’t compromise; his honesty and self-awareness on tracks like ‘Pyramids’ and ‘Bad Religion’ define the record and set it apart from its competition. Guest spots from Andre 3000 and fellow Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt don’t hurt either. Here is an artist who has injected life into a genre that too often seems cold and calculated, and channel ORANGE just might be his masterpiece.

Otis Graham

7. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

Old Ideas proves that, despite his age, Leonard Cohen remains the patron saint of student bedsits. Track one, ‘Going Home’, opens, “I love to speak with Leonard, he’s a sportsman and a shepherd.” Although experience has taught me to be wary of musicians apt talk about themselves in the third person, this release has none of the self-indulgence one expects of an album whose artwork is dominated by monochrome self-portraits. Sparse, melancholy, and comforting, this is the quintessential autumn album.

Will Upton

 6. Beach House – Bloom

To say that Bloom is one of the weakest offerings from Baltimore duo Beach House is a testament to the quality of their work rather than a detriment to this album. The record is yet another haunting example of what the band does best; unearthly music with chilling riffs. Though the best song of the album is indisputably the mesmerising ‘Wishes’, Bloom should not be listened to song by song but as a collection. A sense of the ethereal, prevalent across the pair’s work, is here nurtured to perfection.

OxStu Stage

5. Tame Impala – Lonerism

Tame Impala’s 2010 debut, Innerspeaker, was a whirl of psychedelic rock that garnered rave reviews and launched songwriter Kevin Parker into the spotlight. Lonerism is a worthy follow up. Whilst it retains what made Innerspeaker so good – 60s sounds with 21st century production, Parker’s distorted vocals, and some seriously catchy hooks – there are notable changes.

Lonerism is more diverse than its predecessor. ‘Keep on Lying’ contains classic pop elements, a simple chorus, and healthy dose of synth, yet breaks into a Strokes-esque riff during a two-minute instrumental reprise. Parker’s experimentation with ambient noise is also surprisingly successful. Arguably the standout track is ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,’ detailing a failing relationship set to a gorgeous melody and shrouded in waves of guitar and synth. Parker may sing about sadness and isolation, but his second collaboration with The Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann is an unmitigated success.

OxStu Screen

4. Godspeed You Black Emperor! –  ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

GY!BE don’t do album promotions. The first anyone knew of ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! was when they slipped it on to the merch table at a concert earlier this year, but you can rest assured it is a triumphant return after a ten year hiatus. In true Godspeed-style, the album contains just four tracks, but lasts more than fifty minutes. Tracks one and three, ‘Mladic’ and ‘We Drift Like Worried Fire,’ both clock in around the twenty minute mark, and are framed by two pieces of drone; the string cacophony of ‘Their Helicopter’s Sing,’ and the slightly menacing distortion of ‘Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable.’ ‘Mladic’ is soaring and unconstrained, whilst ‘We Drift Like Worried Fire’ is much tighter and controlled in its crescendo, showcasing the band’s capability for both untrammeled fury and melodious orchestration. GY!BE have returned spectacularly, matching, if not exceeding, their earlier accomplishments.

Ashley Cooke

3. ∆ – An Awesome Wave

Winning the Cambridge-based quartet a Mercury Prize last month, Alt-J’s debut’s was written to be listened to from start to finish. The thirteen perfectly constructed tracks, despite each possessing a distinct identity, seem to fit together like a jigsaw.  Whilst belonging to an atmospheric and intimate alternative rock genre that has recently been dubbed ‘folk-step’, their soundscapes are a wholly unique blend. Vocals seamlessly infiltrate the layered instrumental texture with candid lyrics and endearing folk-inspired harmonies. In this way, the beginning of the album is particularly enticing with songs such as ‘Tessellate’ and ‘Breezeblocks,’ yet, towards the end, the music becomes more introverted. The lyrics are ripe with allusion which, coupled with a diverse range of experimental song structures, leaves a lasting impression. Despite the unconventional composition however, the music feels entirely accessible and honest. With every song proving to be a favourite, An Awesome Wave refuses to become tiresome.

Hettie Burn

2. Grizzly Bear –  Shields

The fourth album from Grizzly Bear is their most mature and intricate yet. Adding new emotional depths to their already distinctive medley brand of jazzy, indie folk-infused baroque pop, Shields is an intelligently crafted and thoroughly addictive work. On ‘Sleeping Ute’, the creative instrumental strands of each member combine wonderfully in a hypnotic swirl that finely complements Daniel Rossen’s melancholic vocals. ‘Speak In Rounds’ sees a slick bass plod along beside slowly building synths into a groovy yet frenzied chorus. The album’s highlight is ‘Yet Again’ where Edward Doste’s pristinely gorgeous vocals are laced with a sense of irresistible ennui. The album does have its lighter moments too, on ‘A Simple Answer’ and ‘Gun-Shy’. The album is certainly one of the finest of 2012 and this decade so far. The only thing stopping it from being truly great is closing track ‘Sun In Your Eyes,’ where Grizzly Bear’s baroque indulgences become slightly excessive.

Will Barns-Graham

1. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city

So here it is: the OxStu’s album of 2012. It truly is interesting that the only rap album to make the top twenty actually topped the list, but it isn’t that surprising. Kendrick Lamar completely separated himself from his competitors this year; while most rappers stuck with sex, drugs and money, he crafted a stunning concept album about youth, temptation and redemption. good kid, m.A.A.d. city transcends the usual limitations of its genre: Lamar unfolds his story with nuance and depth without sacrificing charisma and his trademark dizzying wordplay, and this lyricism is backed up by lush production that keeps you engrossed throughout. It isn’t the sort of album you can dip in and out of. It’s a story about coming of age in an abandoned part of society, a record that demands to be listened to as a whole. In short, it’s an album. And it’s the best album of 2012.

Otis Graham