Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Favorite 19 Albums of 2012

So I (re)listened to a lot of 2012 music the past few days to get some perspective. It wasn't a bad year, but as always, I tend to end up listening to a lot of older music than new music. This is because I am old. But it's also because I don't really have a good way to introduce myself to new music. I pretty much don't trust most of what the blogs and websites say. I mean I have a few favored websites that I do visit fairly regularly but as far as the 'newsmaker' institutions (Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Quietus, Rolling Stone, Billboard, etc.), I find that my tastes have wandered way off from what The Young People listen to these days.

As others have noted probably, truly innovative and good music in the popular music mainstream is a thing of extreme rarity these days. For the past 10 years or so, we have been recycling older musical idioms in new packaging. (This doesn't mean that people are not making innovative music, just that it it no longer ever intrudes upon the mainstream). I suppose that's OK. But what that means is pretty much all music that is supposedly the "best of 2012" sounds like it could have been released 10 (and in some cases 20 or 30) years ago. My list below is like that too. Nothing on it would have been that out of place in 2002, 1992, or even 1982. Move along now. Nothing to see here. There's one major exception to that rule, and that is the album by Alt-J (see my no. 4).

So here are my favorite albums of 2012 (with quick thumbnail reviews since I'm too lazy to really go on about them). The general trend (as you'll see) is pop albums, i.e., stuff that's melodic and short on the one hand; and very noisy aggressive sounds on the other. I don't know what that says about me. I've provided links to my prior writeups on the bands.

19. Wild Nothing - Nocturne: I really liked their earlier album Gemini. Sounds like 1980s British pop but from Virginia. This would not have been out of place on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack or any other John Hughes movie. Pretty indie pop that just kind of washes over and makes you believe (erroneously) for 40 minutes that you might have had a better life a while back.

18. Metric - Synthetica: Seamless introspective electro-pop from from Canada led by Emily Haynes. Perhaps you've heard "Help I'm Alive" from their past album. Or the new song "Breathing Underwater" which was one of the best pure pop songs of the year, in my book, harking back again to the 1980s. It could have been a hit in 1986, for sure.

17. Grizzly Bear - Shields: One imagines a group of very talented, intelligent, and well-read people (who read the New York Times) working self-consciously to produce 'clever' music. Grizzly Bear has been doing this sort of thing for many years now but with the new album, they don't seem to be afraid of letting some emotion show through all the intricate arrangements. The emotions break through particularly well when they perform, as in this clip "Half Gate" from Shields. Unlike 'clever' pop musicians from the past (like XTC, for example), Grizzly Bear can be enjoyed without realizing how complicated everything is. Really great stuff.

16. Four Tet - Pink: This is basically a compilation of sorts, collecting a bunch of singles released this year by Kieran Hebden. It's really hard to describe his work, barring some very vague suggestion that it's electronic music. For a few years now, he's been putting out strange yet alluring albums that build on keyboard-based melodies over frenetic drumming. It sounds 'organic' yet off-kilter. (I would recommend both Rounds and Everything Ecstatic). Here, he moves more toward the club world. The melodies are still beautiful but the loops are made for the experimentally-inclined dance party.

15. Pinback - Information Retrieved: This came out and dropped out of sight. It was Pinback's first album in five years, which is a long time in the scheme of things. I'm still a fan (a massive fan) of their early albums (Blue Screen Life from 2001 and Summer in Abaddon from 2004) but the last album (Autumn of the Seraphs, 2007) was a bit underwhelming. I've written gushingly about them before so I won't repeat that stuff, but their m.o. is really the perfect 3 minute guitar-based indie pop song, immaculately produced and delivered. The new album doesn't deviate from that format much although there's less variety. Somebody put together an amazing video of probably the best song off the new album ("Glide") interspersed with images from from the 1965 French documentary Pour un Maillot Jaune about the Tour de France.

14. The xx - Coexist: This is the "difficult" second album. It's actually very much in the vein of the first but a bit more quiet and downtempo if that's even possible. So pretty much everything I've written about them before still applies except that if I said before that this was music made for 3 AM, now it's more like music made for 3:30 AM. Key lyric of first song: ".... being as in love with you as I am..." A quiet 37 minutes to recover from a party before you finally succumb and close your eyes.

13. Tame Impala - Lonerism: They are from Australia. Led by a guy named Kevin Parker, the band basically does late 1960s-era psychedelic pop. A bit like early Traffic or early Pink Floyd with some late period Flaming Lips thrown in, this is ostensibly an album about being alone. But don't let the retro affectations fool you, this is really a worthy update to psychedelic rock, along the lines of what (I think) Flaming Lips or Primal Scream or even the Chemical Brothers were trying to get at with their '90s albums. Rich and lush.

12. Cloud Nothings - Attack On Memory: This is one of the handful of very aggressive rock albums on my list. If you're hearing them for the first time, it's safe to say that you'll think of Nirvana. They do indeed sound at times (or evoke at times) aggressive guitar rock rooted in minor chords. What's different is that Cloud Nothings, led by one Dylan Baldi, has a bit more versatility with props to the Velvet Underground and krautrock. In fact, the album's centerpiece, "Wasted Days," sounds a bit like a minimalist merger of Nirvana and VU jamming for 9 minutes. In places here and there it sounds young, in a way that suggests Baldi searching around a bit, but I think this restlessness will pay off bigtime in the future.

11. Japandroids - Celebration Rock: Another throwback rock record about being young. I wrote before about how they write songs about youth slipping away. It's not necessarily something I relate to (since youth has long ago slipped away for me) but the high octane energy is infectious. This is anthemic rock'n'roll, a little bit like 1970s-era Springsteen on steroids. I guarantee that the fantastic melodic hooks of every one of the eight songs on this album will make a permanent home in your brain by the time the album is over. Standout track here is "Younger Us," a great lost track that could have been on the Replacements' Tim.

10. Ty Segall Band - Slaughterhouse: Ty Segall is a guy from California in his mid-20s who puts out like three albums every year. This is aggressive guitar-based rock'n'roll whose goal is to rock your brains out. I think I read a review somewhere that it bears similarities to the Stooges' Fun House. Certainly there are some overlaps: they're both incredibly heavy and loud, but Ty Segall is not necessarily interested in the apocalypse (like Iggy was); instead he wants you to sing along. His vocal style is actually a lot like late 1960s bands--lots of harmony and drama. The best way to describe this is that it's a bastard combination of the Stooges, Black Sabbath, and late 1960s pop if that makes any sense. It's a welcome record in a time when it seems people have forgotten their guitars and are (still!) unable to give up the controls to their autotune gizmos. Standout tracks: "I Bought My Eyes," "Wave Goodbye" (live) and  "Death."

9. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light: I could on and on and on about Spiritualized but what's the point? You either like them or you don't. By this time, nearly two decades into the Spiritualized phase of his career, J Spaceman (aka Jason Pierce) has three basic musical approaches: the songs about love-lost sung in a hapless/pathetic puppy voice; the songs about Jesus and light and angels that sound like mega-church choirs; and the songs about heroin/drugs/Jesus that veer between VU-grounded rock'n'roll and 10 minute long skronk blasts. You know the drill. The new album has a bit of all that although the focus here is on melody and song construction. Seems Pierce wanted to do more of a conventional pop album than anything else. Representative pop track here: the beautiful "Too Late."

8. Orbital - Wonky: Forgotten by hipsters, Orbital (basically the two brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll) 'reactivated' after a long break and came out with a new album this year. I really didn't know what to expect but was greatly surprised at how good it was. As with almost all of their music, the melodies are simple and gorgeous. Even as they lift up your mood into a celebration of life, there's a hint of melancholia in all of it. And you can dance to all of it. I'm not engaging in hyperbole when I say that this is the best Orbital album since 1996's In Sides, one of the greatest (in my mind) albums of that decade. Read my entry about Orbital from earlier this year, and take a trip through "One Big Moment" (the opening track on Wonky) played live at Royal Albert Hall earlier this year (2012).

7. Chromatics - Kill For Love: Another throwback to the 1980s, Chromatics put out this longish album (an hour-and-a-half!) this year that doesn't outlast its welcome. They were definitely trying to capture the vibe of 1984 and if you listen hard enough on headphones, they have fake "record scratchy noises" throughout the album. Pretty much every song on this album would not be out of place in the mainstream Top 40 although the subject matter does veer into darker (or at least maudlin) waters. Most have probably heard the awesome cover of Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" (which they re-title simply "Into the Black") but there are many more electro-pop gems on this album. You can't go wrong with the title track. They also had a song last year that was featured on the movie Drive ("Tick of the Clock") although it's not on this album. My brief writeup here.

6. Bat For Lashes - The Haunted Man: I've been listening to this a lot on my iPod. A very winter album yet warm and inviting. She (Natasha Khan) is one of the most talented singers around now, but it's not just her vocal delivery but her self-assured sense of what she wants out her music as a total package. For sure, she has a bit of Kate Bush in her--especially her aesthetic vision of music as a total experience--but also some Annie Lennox and perhaps Siouxsie Sioux; this simply fantastic album displays all of that. In fact, this is one of the most emotionally resonant albums I've heard in a long time, one that is not about being smart or ironic or obtuse. "Laura", a solo piano song, is the obvious standout vocal tracks here, but "All Your Gold" underscores her Top 40 aspirations very clearly. She's also something of an enigmatic but elusive star in Britain. Interviews with her here and here.

5. Dead Can Dance - Anastasis: Another band that has "come back" after years and years of being in limbo is the duo of Dead Can Dance. Anastasis is a bit like their late nineties period albums but with (slightly) more concise songs. It's amazing how well-preserved their voices still sound (both Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard are in their early fifties). They are still exploring all sorts of genres and idioms and ages and eras but they are not quite as willing to let go of the ground these days, so their songs tend to come from an older more reflective place. I saw them earlier this year in New York and it was one of the best shows of the year for me. Key tracks here are "Children of the Sun" and "Return of the She-King." My previous writeup on them here.

4. Alt-J - An Awesome Wave: This is probably the only album on my entire list that actually doesn't sound like something familiar from another decade. This is a thoroughly original album that takes from its influences but builds to make a startlingly wonderful pop album. It's not something you'll hear once and think magnificent (the lead singer's voice particularly is an acquired taste); instead, it rewards repeated listenings. An Awesome Wave is only the debut album by this British band but they already show mastery of multiple musical strands: you will find here scraps of pure folk, electronic music, hints of jazz, Top 40 pop, hip hop, trip hop, 1970s pop, indie rock, etc. etc. all packaged in strange tunes full of odd twists and turns. None of the songs really begin and end where you expect them to. This is the most original pop album of the year bar none. Check out the videos of the standout tracks "Tessellate" and "Fitzpleasure."

3. Lotus Plaza - Spooky Action At A Distance: Harking back to late 1980s indie pop, this is the dreamiest and prettiest album of the year. The architect behind Lotus Plaza is Lockett Pundt, whose main job is to play guitar for the band Deerhunter. So this is more like a side project, but it is a worthy side project, nearly as good as anything Deerhunter has ever done. The album has lots of reverb and echo and guitars playing minimal melodies that transcend up to some heavenly place. You close your eyes and drift away. If there was one album that was the soundtrack for my 2012, this was probably it. You can probably guess that I drifted in and out of reality a lot this year, important given that my work commute (through Harlem and into the Bronx) often necessitated a disconnect from my surroundings. Not sure if any of that made any sense. My previous writing on Lotus Plaza here and here. Standout tracks from Spooky Action At A Distance were "Strangers" and my absolute favorite "Remember Our Days."

2. Swans - The Seer: Ah, we finally get to the heavy stuff. Well, what to say about this new mangled horrifying creation of the Swans? This nearly 2 hour epic of noise, endurance, and catharsis? I saw the band this fall in New York and it was one of the most intense experiences I have ever had in a live setting. The sound was bone-crushing loud and martial. There seemed not a single note out of place as Michael Gira (pronounced jeera) led the band through the ups and downs of his mini epics. Even all the way back in the early 1980s when Gira began the Swans, the backbone of his aesthetic was one of submission-through-repetition, i.e., the idea that two or three notes repeated endless at bone-crushing volumes will eventually make you submit to the beauty of noise. Now, about 30 years later, the music is a lot more polished and planned and executed with clockwork precision (and yes, more melodic) but it has no less the effect. One thing about the The Seer: although the album is technically quite long, it actually doesn't feel tired. There's a lot going on here in terms of the dynamics of a band cruising through the limits of its abilities, wringing sound and fury out of its instruments. Yes, it will make you feel exhausted at the end, but in entirely a good way. There are genuine moments of tenderness amid sonic epics, real melodies that weave in and out, drawing your attention to the beauty of sound. Well worth the investment. I have written about Swans many times over the years on this blog, for example here and here. Standout tracks on this album include "Mother of the World" and "Avatar." There is also an interesting mini-documentary about the 2012 tour of this newest incarnation of the band, worth watching here.

1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!: Wow, what an album! I know, that's not exactly a review that says much. Well, the last album Godspeed put out was a long time ago, maybe 10 years ago, and it was fine but except for a song or two  it isn't something I go back and listen to that much. But this album, which seemingly came out of nowhere is perfect on every count. The album itself is structured around two lengthy instrumental pieces (about 20 minutes long) connected by two shorter (6 minute) pieces of drone music. The two longer tracks are actually older pieces the band played on their previous tour in 2003 but now have finally recorded as studio pieces. They sound sonically amazing, the first building into an epic army of guitars and the second, a loud but melodic instrumental piece that is almost redemptive. Unlike, say Swans, who often inhabit that fine line between ugly and beauty, Godspeed is at a fundamental level hopeful and about the future. The vinyl, packaged wonderfully as usual, comes with some oblique messages of support for the Occupy movement but is never at a polemical level. They invite the listener, through the music, to find spaces of hope. And you know, you don't have to even be political: the power of Godspeed (or at least, good Godspeed) is to connect with very personal struggles (loneliness, for example). Music for the beaten down, music for the empowered. It's all here. My previous posts on Godspeed are here and here. The first track off the new album is still being streamed here.


Patrick McCray said...


Thanks! I was waiting for this as a complement to your other lists. Best wishes,


spaceman said...

Thanks Patrick. Hope you like some of the stuff. I've been really jamming to Alt-J and Bat for Lashes recently. Mellow pop but very cool.