2012 Calvin Awards: Best Album

By BOP Staff

February 13, 2012

Get those hipsters off my lawn!

Resolved: Box Office Prophets loves The Decemberists. From the time we began honoring our favorite music of the year with a Calvin Award in 2006, The Decemberists have been a mainstay among our consensus picks. The first year of this award their third full length, Picaresque, finished in fourth place; a year later The Crane Wife took top marks. When Colin Meloy and company went full on prog-rock opera in the year preceding our 2010 awards, The Hazards of Love ended up our #3 album of the year. So, it should come with minimal shock value attached to learn that The Decemberists are the first repeat winner of a Calvin Award for Best Album.

With The King is Dead, The Decemberists successfully pared down the very elements - baroque folk, prog rock, murder ballads, songs about ghosts and pirates, etc. - that made us fall in love with their music in the first place; the result was a concisely pristine alt-country masterpiece. At times quiet and introspective ("January Hymn"), and in other places daring to evoke the jangle-pop influences of REM, this year's model has little in common with anything that came before it. And yet, we loved it all the same. Every stylistic choice represented a risk and a payoff, from Peter Buck's production (and mandolin), to the supporting vocals of Gillian Welch, to the very recognizable harmonica seemingly plucked straight from Bruce Springsteen's The River. Each of these elements contributed to a resulting sound greater than its parts, and an album that was our favorite of the year among a crowded field.

At this point, our second place finisher Bon Iver has produced two albums (For Emma, Forever Ago and the self-titled second album that's second on our best of 2011 list) that have met with immense critical acclaim and (relative) commercial success. While Bon Iver is unlikely to graduate to arenas, the success of their two albums means their nearest comparison in indie rock circles is Arcade Fire - the same Arcade Fire who won the Album of the Year Grammy in 2011 for their third album. Bon Iver - Bon Iver is a step away from For Emma, without leaving it behind. The sound is simultaneously intimate and grand, spare and enveloping and worth every minute you spend with it.


Third spot goes to Cults with their eponymous debut album. Sure, they may sound at times like a '60s girl group, with Madeline Follin's sweet voice lending a sweet air to the youthful-feeling tunes, there's a petulance in the lyrics that shows the band has a little more depth of intention than it appears on the surface. It's an album that once you pick it up, you want to listen to it over and over again, with "Go Outside," "Abducted," and "You Know What I Mean" in particular worming their way into your head and never ever leaving. We look forward to hearing this band's sound evolve.

Exploding into the mainstream after years of "best kept secret" indie blues rock, fourth place finisher The Black Keys had a fantastic 2010 album in Brothers, which finished fifth in our Best Album voting last year, and followed it up with a fantastic 2011 album (El Camino). As they embark on their first arena tour this spring, the band finds itself at their most commercially successful while hitting an artistic peak. El Camino is filled with hooks, dirty blues guitar and more hooks. Not only does El Camino boast one of the catchiest songs of the year (opener Lonely Boy), but it successfully meshes their spare, direct style with the more out there production of Danger Mouse, an experiment that really didn't work quite as well on 2008's Attack & Release.

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