The Best Music Of 2012
Posted 01/21/2013 by cal
I've finally finished, folks! As the final strains of your next-door neighbor's crappy demo tape fade out, I can now say I've heard every single record produced in 2012. Therefore, I can now present the definitive list of The Best Music Of 2012. Yes, I know you are dying to see how your personal opinion matches up with the truth; you shall now have your answers. I wish I could reveal how my own tastes line up with objective goodness, let you all in on what I'm a FAN of, an indulgence that is only permissible for music writers at this time of year; oh, to afford myself such a luxury! But what a disservice it would be to you, my dear readers! In the face of undeniable greatness, what is one man's opinion? I do welcome any incorrect arguments you may have concerning omissions; please submit them in the comments section at the bottom of the page.
The first list like this that I made at the actual time it would make sense to make one was, I believe, for 2001. At the time, I gave top honors to the final Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire album, The Swimming Hour; a decade later, the effects of some of the tunes on this album have worn off somewhat, although there are a few pieces of pure genius on it (the most obvious being “Why?”). I am constantly revising these lists upon discovering new things, a purely narcissistic pursuit at this point as I’m the only one who sees them. But in hindsight, it seems silly to stick to my guns; at this point, I’d say Tool’s Lateralus was the best album of 2001. For how long, who knows? It’s even tougher in this day and age, with unlimited numbers of albums available to listen to for ten bucks a month at any time simply by taking my phone out of my pocket. Already in the early months of 2012, I realized I had to say Drake’s Take Care ought to have edged out PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake for 2011. Whoops!
Who the hell cares though, right? The whole point of telling you this was to illustrate the fact that I’ve got these ever-changing lists coming out of my ears, and I had to glance back through them recently to see if I was crazy or if this really was the best year of music since I started doing this. No doubt 2005 comes closest: Deadwing, Ghost Reveries, Feels and Blood Inside have lost none of their luster, but in terms of total volume of magnificence, artists putting out the best music of their careers, I’d have to go back to 1999 to top 2012. Feel free to mock me a year from now after I’ve changed my mind several times, especially if number one changes, ‘cause no previous album of the year has ever been so easy a choice.
(Note: Most album titles link to Spotify. I apologize to those who aren't on board with it, but it's the most convenient method for my purposes.)
?. Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE
It wasn’t even the accolades and the way it has run away with all the year-end lists and all the Grammy noms that made me listen to this album over and over; it was seeing Frank Ocean live at Lollapalooza, one of the best sets of that weekend. Based on that alone, I was pretty sure I’d love this record, but in the end I only love a few of its songs. Channel Orange is kind of a cross between a Take Care and a Forget for 2012, and it certainly has the best singing of the three but the worst lyrics. After a while it was hard not to cringe at some of these lame, adolescent rhymes, and to be honest, although Ocean has a heck of a voice, a lot of the melodies that are praised by some as “unorthodox” are actually random and awkward, sounding as if they were improvised on the spot with little or no connection to the music. But it’s the words that kill this album. Here’s a sample from “Sierra Leone”:
“And a new day will bring about the dawn/And a new day will bring another cryin' babe into the world/Our daughter's reachin' for the nipple cause it's time for her to eat”
R. Kelly could get away with crooning that, maybe; Ocean sounds ridiculous. The way he sings it makes it clear that he’s trying to evoke gravity and tenderness that isn’t there. There’s no subtlety to most of Ocean’s poetry; there’s not much besides middle school-caliber metaphors.
“Hittin’ stones in glass homes
You’re smokin’ stones in abandoned homes
You hit them stones and broke your home
Crack rock crack rock
Crack rock crack rock”
GET IT?? Songs like “Not Just Money” and “Super Rich Kids” aren’t terrible but they tackle their social commentary in such cliché fashion. In any other instance, most of these songs wouldn’t be worth mentioning; I only scrutinize (hell, I’m only writing this at all) because Ocean has been so lauded for his words.
There are some truly superior melodies and vocal arrangements on this album (“Thinkin Bout You”, “Super Rich Kids”), some wonderful music (“White”, featuring John Mayer, is great) and the epic “Pyramids” is a game-changing song for R&B/soul--endlessly intriguing musical twists and turns, sweet melodies, emotionally charged story. I’ll even give Ocean credit for “Lost” and “Sweet Life”; there are some killer lines in those songs. And no doubt, “Bad Religion” is perfection; if that doesn’t get you in the gut, perhaps you’ve never been attracted to a human. It’s not like he can’t tell a story, but particularly after seeing him live, the lack of craft in most of these lyrics is startling. “Forrest Gump” is one of the worst songs I heard all year, truly aggravating, mainly because I kept listening to it to try and glean what could be liked about this dull-ass beat and awful title melody that gets repeated over and over. And again, it’s so lyrically dumb I can’t get around it; that he’s finger-painting a picture of adolescence is not a worthwhile excuse for pasting words together like a fourth grader. This album is a reason to get excited, showcasing an undeniable fledgling talent and flashes of brilliance and innovation, but some aspects of it are plain bad.
HONORABLE MENTION: of Montreal, Paralytic Stalks
After a disappointing outing in 2010 in terms of album (False Priest) and live show, Paralytic Stalks is encouraging. It doesn’t break any new ground and couldn’t quite be called a return to form if you hold it up to the virtually peerless Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? but it’s interesting and it has personality and some of Kevin Barnes’ best loopy poetry yet. Like 2008’s underwhelming Skeletal Lamping, the new record begins with a noisy, paranoid blast that doesn’t reflect the rest of the ensuing songs; unlike Lamping, this is not a broken and phony-sounding attempt at disco/funk. Those elements are kept to a minimum, accents on the vast palette of Barnes’ schizophrenic whims and obscure vocabulary. But while this album is more eclectic than the last couple, it holds together better; it seems Barnes is more at ease as a songwriter when he’s not limiting himself to a single persona, and evidently Georgie Fruit is gone for now.
If Barnes was determined to have fun with his dance-party phase, he’s back to delving into the often ugly depths of his own consciousness and lashing out bitterly and matter-of-factly at whatever characters happen to be in the path of his desires. Many of his lyrics are sung/spoken with virtually zero rhythm like he’s vomiting them up spontaneously, and it’s a very effective tactic for lyrics like “Lately I'm rutted in the filth of self-authored agonies that really should fill me with shame but all I have is this manic energy” (“Spiteful Intervention”) or “I wanna get all fucked up and tell you how I really feel cause your vibrant blackness coco augury is so unreal” (“We Will Commit Wolf Murder”) The by-now expected ambient noise interlude comes in “Wintered Debts”, otherwise the least remarkable song on the album. The excitement then picks up dramatically for the final two songs, including the stunning new epic called “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission” (of course it is) which brings the scattershot album to something somewhat resembling closure.
20. The Men, Open Your Heart
We saw a lot of that hooray-for-regular-rock-and-roll stuff in 2012; spearheaded by this year’s phony-Springsteenian-earnest-punkishness à la Gaslight Anthem (referring here to Japandroids’ Celebration Rock), middle-aged critics reveled in music that sounded normal to them. Halfway between that and Open Your Heart was Cloud Nothings’ Attack On Memory, a very good, very catchy album that’s just raw enough not to be strictly pop. The Men play the kind of ragged, echo-drenched rock that inspires the term “garage”, raging guitar music that sounds accidentally catchy, striking a balance between shambolic and focused without a hint of contrivance.
I don’t endorse the reckless tossing-about of the term “punk” but a track like “Animal” could scarcely be anything else; it might be the closest an American band has ever come to sounding like The Sex Pistols. Then there are the slow, rootsy dirges like “Country Song”, which at first could be mistaken for something produced by the second coming of Earth, or “Candy”, which takes its inspiration from the Stones’ “Dead Flowers”. Then there’s the explosive VU/krautrock jam of “Oscillation”, straight out of the Catacombz playbook. Or the blistering waves of ebullient noise that punctuate album closer “Ex-Dreams”, monstrous and joyous. It’s not polished and it’s really not pop, but this is the kind of rock that I like to celebrate.
19. Katatonia, Dead End Kings
Fine, I’ll admit it: you could call this nu-metal. I won’t call it that, but it would be tough to argue the point if someone called me out. Actually, I could even go a step further: a tune like “The Racing Heart” could almost be a Def Leppard song, as long as you disregard the lyrics. And it’s the lyrics and singing of Jonas Renkse that were so lacking on Katatonia’s last album, 2009’s crappy Night Is The New Day. Miraculously, after the worst work of their career, Renkse and guitarist Anders Nyström recovered from an acknowledged bout of writer’s block and conjured up some of their choicest tracks yet. Chief among these is the aforementioned “Racing Heart”, possibly the most straight-up mainstream radio rock song ever recorded by Katatonia. I have to assume there were some straggling old-school doom fans for whom this tune was the last straw, but it is so emotionally charged and impeccably arranged that I have a hard time understanding how a person could not be moved by it. (Disclaimer: I feel the same way about “Love Bites”.) Renkse’s blunt, evocative lyrics are a study in less-is-more, a talent he seemed to have misplaced on the previous record. He survived for years on pallid, tortured emoting, but his singing has finally blossomed into something mellifluous and powerful in its own right.
Granted, the Tool-esque muscular, streamlined riffs and polished, straightforward production are a far cry from the suicidal desolation of Katatonia’s turn-of-the-century heyday. Stylistically, the band hasn’t exactly evolved a ton since 2006’s The Great Cold Distance, but after taking a depressing step backward, Dead End Kings showcases an efficient display of palatable heavy rock. The weird dub tendencies that sprung up on Distance b-sides are more intuitively integrated into tracks like “Leech” and “Undo You”, and there’s a mild but increasing prog element seeping in, particularly on album closer “Dead Letters”. Considering 1999’s Tonight’s Decision is one of my favorite albums of all time, the progression to a more accessible and less original sound has been tough to swallow, but these brilliant songs have won me over again.
18. Ani DiFranco, ¿Which Side Are You On?
I’d like to believe that there are people out there who could love Ani’s music despite disagreeing with her political or spiritual views. There are certainly aspects of her philosophy that pop up from time to time that piss me off, but I’m starting to suspect that modern music writers are too afraid of touching politics to touch Ani any more outside of a cursory one-paragraph review. Which is fine; she does very well for herself on word-of-mouth and past glories, no doubt about it. It’s just that this album features peak songwriting, arrangements and musicianship, and passion, and somehow it still gets ignored. Is it because there are uncool pop songs? Is Ani getting some credibility-destroying FM airplay or something? Good thing I’m not in marketing, eh?
Album opener “Life Boat” takes the “Not A Pretty Girl” concept to its logical metaphysical conclusion; “You can smell me coming from halfway down the street”, sings Ani in her dejected confessional persona (see also: “Grey”, “Studying Stones”, etc.), but the whole song is actually another metaphor for the way she sees herself, or the way she thinks the world sees her. “Unworry” is probably the closest she has come yet to adult-contemporary; the chamber-ish arrangement contains a few interesting detours but it’s very nonthreatening overall, although the final lyrical couplet is an extremely well-put musing on the human means of perceiving the world. The DiFranco melodrama has undeniably softened and gone rosy in the wake of marriage and motherhood, but her treatises ring no less true or less clever. If anything, her concerns are now more relatable to a wider cross-section of, um, mainly liberals; the sentiments in “Splinter”, “Promiscuity”, “If Yr Not” and “Zoo” are tough to deny no matter what else you might believe, while tracks like “J” and the sinister groove of “Amendment” are ideas that liberals could state in every possible combination of letters (example from “Amendment”: “If you don’t like abortions, don’t have an abortion/And teach your children how they can avoid them/But don’t treat all women like they are your children”) and still have no effect on a Republican, but Ani still knows her way around a grin-inducing poem.
On the predecessor to ¿Which Side Are You On?, 2008’s Red Letter Year, the only attempt at grandiosity, “The Atom”, was just about the only really good song; the weirdly sophisticated instrumental swells on “Splinter”, “J”, “If Yr Not” and especially “Amendment” showcase the ambitious nature of the lil’ folksinger, a nickname Ani can’t possibly still lay claim to in terms of her records. Predictably, the silly love songs are the weakest moments; there are some good turns-of-phrase here and there, but it’s admittedly a bad sign when a gifted wordsmith like DiFranco turns in a lyric like “Inside me is the room to which you hold the key” (“Albacore”). Still, every other sign on the album is positive; Ani espouses a personal resilience in the face of a pretty bleak picture of American society, and she expresses it all in her uniquely inspirational way.
17. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city
Purely on the strength of its best songs, this album is one of the most essential of the year. There are a handful of mediocre tracks (“Backseat Freestyle”, “Poetic Justic”, “Real”), but what really bring it down for me are the doggone skits. Yeah, a lot of the all-time great rap albums are ridden with skits, but in general they only detract from the music. Who gives a shit about bad acting? And the acting on good kid, m.A.A.d city is bad. Skits are tolerable when they’re obviously tongue-in-cheek bad, but this is we-think-we-sound-authentic bad. Honestly, what could possibly be more pretentious than scripting an inspirational voicemail from your mom?
But the good songs on here are so good; the lyrics cut deep on multiple levels. You don’t have to strip away the bluster of “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” in order to get at the actual meaning, but it’s worth doing if you’re initially turned off by it rather than being seduced by it. But chances are people who instantly understand the sentiment are already in it. I’ve never heard such an artful and poignant illustration of the power of a negative group consciousness (no matter how righteous the individual) as the two-part masterpiece “The Art Of Peer Pressure”; if you think you can’t relate to this song, open your mind a little and think more universally, and you’ll realize you’ve been there. Lamar’s delivery on these tracks hail him as one of a kind; he uses this style quite a bit and at first it annoyed me but it eventually became endearing, and there’s no denying his raw rhyming skills. And of course, the beats; the eclectic spirit screams Kanye, but not in a way that you can deduct points for similarities, and the whole thing is remarkably cohesive given that no two tracks were produced by the same personnel. Sounwave and Tabu do much of the best work, capturing the dichotomy of deeply creepy and kinetically sensual with the smallest possible arsenal of sounds, an art that is virtually absent from the past decade or so of hip hop, and Pharrell’s work on the title track is so perfect in every bass line and percussive flourish he had to have been saving several of his best ideas ever for a while, waiting for the right song.
The centerpiece of the album, the twelve-minute “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst” (under ten minutes if you subtract skits) is a mixed bag; engaging rhymes and music, and clever lyrical and sonic devices in the first five minutes (essentially Lamar’s approximation of “Stan”) that work well at first but some of them wear thin, and the sentiments get a tad sappy in some instances. Using a skit to bridge the two parts of the song isn’t my favorite thing in the world, either. The last track, “Compton,” featuring Dr. Dre though not produced by him, sounds a lot like a latter-day Dre track--all stomping synth and brass and unconvincing swagger. Handpick the best five or six songs (“Swimming Pools (Drank)” would of course need to be included) and chop off the non-musical portions of each one, though, and you could probably make the best EP of 2012.
16. Wodensthrone, Curse
It’s impossible to keep up with the constant factioning and re-imagining of black metal, but the dominant splinters like the folk-based stuff and the progressive/experimental stuff and the dreaded post-black metal tag are showing signs of flagging (yes, it’s nearly all folk-based at the roots; maybe you know what I mean, and maybe you don’t, I don’t care). Drudkh continued to underwhelm on the atmospheric front with Eternal Turn Of The Wheel. Experimental genius Vindsval finished his 777 Blut Aus Nord trilogy this year with a relative whimper, although it had some great moments. The New York hipster black metal of Krallice showcased a wearing-thin of its formula with Years Past Matter, a good album that fails to reach past heights with the same basic sonic equation. Overall, it was a lackluster year for black metal, except for this brilliant album by Wodensthrone.
Curse could be considered somewhat progressive; wailing, icy synths and tribal vocal harmonies highlight “Jormungandr” and some of the grinding, melodic riffage of “The Great Darkness” and mellow leads of “First Light” are beyond what could be considered traditional. It’s produced in a crisp, modern style as well (courtesy of Esoteric’s Greg Chandler), so it can’t be mistaken for a rootsy or retro endeavor, but overall it’s very stylistically straight-laced, basically accessible in terms of its genre. So it relies on the strength of its songs, which are fantastic. The blood-curdling opening lick of “The Great Darkness” introduces a rich, ingeniously arranged slab of harrowing violence that veers (as does “Wyrgthu”) at times into Nordic death metal territory. The key is that the songs flow extremely well between movements but never dwell too long on a single motif; eight minutes go by in the blink of an eye, and the rhythmic shifts never prevent you from sustaining the headbanging groove. The heights of epic grandiosity in “Battle Lines” proceed to the punishing attack of “Wyrgthu” with no chance to catch a breath over 20 minutes of music. Curse is one instance where innovation becomes irrelevant in the face of immaculate craftsmanship.
15. Neurosis, Honor Found In Decay
Much has been made of the increased folk elements on Honor Found In Decay; undeniable, but the more you listen to the past couple decades of Neurosis albums, the more you recognize the distinctive threads running through all of them: the hypnotic drone, the lurching dynamic between darkness and light, the cryptic, twisted, cynical lyrics that can somehow produce uplift, the stark separation of sounds, the gargantuan riffs. There’s been a constant stylistic evolution, but even going back to the hardcore days, there’s no band that’s been making music for as long as Neurosis whose output has been more uniformly kick-ass.
Song for song, Honor Found In Decay doesn’t quite stack up to the last two albums, but the best tracks are as good as any in the catalog. “At The Well” is ridiculous; once the insistent beat kicks in, it starts to build intensity not with a monster riff but with a psychedelic, watery lead guitar that’s tonally reminiscent of Kurt Cobain. Once the second chorus of “In a shadow world” starts up, the guitar finally starts growling; the climax is Earth-quaking. The initial riff of “My Heart For Deliverance” is very early-Cobain-esque as well; the middle section is a gorgeous, meditative piece that could be a Spiderland outtake, and then there’s a cosmic tribal recitation followed by a crushing sludge groan that could only be Neurosis.
The gut-churning, hissing swoon that closes out “Casting Of The Ages” and then the swirling wah-wah lick that sparks “All Is Found…In Time” put you in a stupor, until the stomping main riff kicks in, which is like a wicked bestialization of the principle motif of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. It eventually dips into a creepy melody via fragile, naked electric guitar, then gets pierced periodically by stabs of fuzz-synth that then herald the beginning of the build. The creativity bouncing back and forth between guitar, drums, bass and keyboard is astounding, and the abrupt ending following a final stanza of lyrics (“Cracking the bones to get at the marrow”) is cruelly effective, as is the fact that after that, all that remains is a single six-minute song. Brutal. It’s not a short album, but it’s over too quickly.
14. Liars, WIXIW
You won’t know which you’d rather do to this music: dance, or meditate? It’s kind of perfect for either, which you definitely couldn’t say about Liars’ last two albums but possibly the 2006 classic Drum’s Not Dead would fit that same description. Even though this is stylistically a straight-up pop record, it’s far more esoteric than the band’s last two rock-oriented offerings. The hooks are harder to reach, buried in ambient layers or slowed to a glacial pace. There’s nothing in-your-face about WIXIW at all, except how inventive and infectious it manages to be within an overtly subdued electronic context. The closest thing America has to a Radiohead has made its Kid A.
The unmistakable chanting of Angus Andrew and the juxtaposition of insistent hopelessness and glum determination tie this collection to all the other Liars albums, although if there was once a hint of humor in their music it’s nowhere to be felt on WIXIW. The first two tracks are eerie dark ambient pulses, and “No. 1 Against The Rush” could almost pass for The National at certain points, but the instrumental coda of this song, a rolling boil of electronic noise melodies, is nearly as weird and intense as the end of “The National Anthem” sounded the first time you heard it. The woozy swoons and swerves of the title track suggest a boozy, one-sided loneliness for an absent love; it’s mostly too upbeat to be despondent, but there’s no positivity in Andrew’s moans of “Wish you were here with me”. The shift from the downbeat and downtrodden “Who Is The Hunter” to the snotty electropunk stomp of “Brats” makes the latter downright exhausting when it’s finished. If there’s a ray of hope, it’s the final track; “Annual Moon Words” is a quasi-happy expression of resignation, musically sunny if a bit bleak lyrically, although “I’m on my way down” never sounded so content. Still, it comes off as the end of a story, not as if the band members themselves are these mopey creatures. They’re just conveying this bittersweet treatise on the dubious nature of conditional love, finding the beauty there as well as the heartache.
13. iamamiwhoami, kin
There’s a certain kind of moody synthpop that I absolutely cannot resist. I was on a binge of it right up until I suddenly got punched in the face by some Tame Impala lyrics and then that was that. If that hadn’t happened and I’d discovered kin at that moment, it might be my album of the year instead; hard to say, it’s that kind of year and this list is going to fluctuate for a long time due to the fact that I’m not sick of any of this stuff yet. When I listen to kin (especially the track called “rascal”) I can’t help thinking about how that Portishead comeback album left me cold but now I feel like I’m finally having that itch at least partially scratched, along with the one for new stuff from The Knife and also a weird Cure/Fleetwood Mac/Depeche Mode thing too. Maybe that sounds gross but it’s not.
Basically, I want to be haunted by synthpop, and that’s what happens with kin. “In due order” is a menacing little tune, 8-bit horror flick synth rhythm with insidious vox. It’s actually reminiscent of Liars’ “Brats” with its insistent fuzz beat--actually, a cross between that and the Knight Rider theme. The chorus of “idle talk” is an insanely satisfying melody; the verses are so soothing, so familiar, so sensual that the chorus, as subtle as it is at face value, is bliss, like getting lofted into the air in a billowing fountain of absolute knowledge that aliens do exist. “Rascal” is pretty much old school trip-hop, hey we missed ya! “Goods” is totally modern, shrieking hardstyle-ish synths but not so frantic, although it would certainly inspire feverish dancing in the right setting.
There are some lyrics that cut to the chase with sudden potency (“play” and “idle talk” are essential examples, even in a year chock full of amazing cruel love songs), and there are some instances where something may have been lost in translation from the Swedish conception (I hope), but musically the album never falters. The various vocal effects and affectations serve the songs without getting gimmicky, icy and sexy, often so obscured and distorted that there’s no telling what Jonna Lee is even singing. Until she hands out lyric sheets, I’m going to assume it’s something awesome.
12. Converge, All We Love We Leave Behind
Further breaking down the barriers between punk and metal…ladies and gentlemen, Converge. For decades now, hardcore has been that bridge, but this is one of the most eclectic illustrations ever, shifting in style and attitude from punk to metal constantly throughout All We Love We Leave Behind. I’ll leave it to the genre coven at Wikipedia to determine the official designation; there are simply too many different styles of extreme music going on to peg it. Shit, in a perfect world, you could call some of these songs pop music. There are more choice hooks in “Sadness Comes Home” or “Coral Blue” than in your typical Katy Perry song; it just so happens that many of them involve guttural screaming. Though the tempo occasionally slows, the pace and intensity of the album are relentless. The sheer quantity of badass original guitar riffs is unprecedented. Every year there’s an album that would be a perfect entry point for people who are ready to take on the challenge of appreciating extreme heavy music. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be palatable to the general public; it just means if you’re ready to make that leap, this one could open you up to the possibility of becoming a believer.
11. Field Report, Field Report
We all have our cause artists, the ones who aren’t superstars and we feel it reflects poorly on society at large. Field Report has at least risen past the point where I feel particularly responsible for trumpeting its virtues any more. The fact that I’ve been lavishly supportive of far less talented singer/songwriters over the years probably undermines whatever I might say about Christopher Porterfield. Probably no further amount of local coverage will enhance his reputation much. Critics all over the country have sung his praises. His music’s potential mass appeal, even if it’s just within the music-snob community, is self-evident. There’s even a guy he used to be in a band with who got famous and won Grammys thanks to computer programs and songs not half as good as these songs. But I don’t really feel like Field Report is a cause artist for me. With a cause artist, deep down, you know in your heart there’s a valid reason more people don’t like ‘em. This band happens to be based in the town I live in, and happens to be awesome. If you think I’m just biased, listen to their album, and pay attention to the lyrics, and go see ‘em live at Turner Hall on February 14th. That’s all I can say. (original review here)
10. Baroness, Yellow & Green
There’s no denying that this turned me off initially, largely because there are moments when the vocal harmonies sound superficially like they could be Nickelback. Also, because I knew Baroness as a metal band, and this really isn’t metal. All these strange developments; jagged, primitive riffs and raw production defined Baroness prior to this double album, and here they come all polished and precise with clean, noodly guitars and I swear to God they sound like STS9 for a minute in “Cocainium”. Yellow & Green hardly sounds like the same band that made The Red Album. But damn, does it sound good.
The world has plenty of metal, but maybe only one contemporary surrogate Thin Lizzy. The 70s hard rock force is strong with this one, with lots of Lizzyesque twin leads (most notable on “Little Things” and “The Line Between”). Baroness one-ups most of its peers and its antecedents as well in terms of vocal harmonies; we’re not talking Queen here (although the twin guitar solo in “Back Where I Belong” is total Brian May worship), but the three-minute practically-a-capella ditty “Twinkler” is ingenious, essentially an ambient pop nugget, and throughout the album the vocals shine through, fairly standard arrangements but so perfect for the words and naturally embedded in the instrumentation.
It says something strange about 2012 that at least some of this album isn’t plastered all over FM rock radio. These tunes are accessible, the production is tight and shiny, the lyrics are relatable and interesting; hell, this band even has a crazy, uplifting real-life narrative going on. I can’t put myself in the 70s so I can’t say for sure but I don’t think commercial radio was completely useless in those days; perhaps it is now.
9. Zatokrev, The Bat, The Wheel And A Long Road To Nowhere
A month or two ago, I was thinking this would be the first year in forever that there wouldn’t be a metal album in my top ten. As songs from this album kept popping up when I’d shuffle my iPod, though, it became clearer and clearer that every damn song on it is amazing. And this is a long album. The last album I can recall being this vicious and raw and epic was Negură Bunget’s ‘N Crugu Bradului, which is totally different stylistically but similarly skin-peelingly wicked. Listening to it is an ordeal. The way Frederyk Rotter screams makes you feel like you should cower and apologize for something. The riffs are intoxicatingly brutal; “The Bat” is the musical equivalent of the room spinning and you tipping over, hitting your head on the window sill and puking. The song “Rodeo With Snakes” is completely unprecedented; it has no possible subgenre tag. It sounds kind of like if Tanner Olson took a bunch of acid and tried to channel something from Burst’s Origo, but with massive bassy slow-death blast riffs and groaning twin leads.
“Goddamn Lights” is a punishing mix of Godfleshy industrial, Oceanic-era ISIS and straight-up sludge, and the way its different levels of intensity are arranged, sometimes ever-building, sometimes ambushing, is ingenius. The pure riffage of “9” will warm any headbanger’s cold heart. The thunderous, discordant guitar growls that dominate the final track are evil enough to wake the dead. Not sure what this band was up to during the six-year gap between albums, but if that’s how long it takes to make an album this good, I have no problem with that.
8. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel…
Egged on by one of my favorite shows of the year, I forced myself to revisit the Fiona Apple catalog; it wasn’t a Herculean effort or anything but I’d only ever been mildly impressed before. (By the way, based on that one and only time seeing her live: If you ever have a chance to see Fiona in a club, do whatever you can to go. Like, even if it’s The Rave.) Then one day I heard “Hot Knife” on the radio and instantly had a new favorite Fiona Apple song. The production is so fastidiously crisp that you can hear every twist of her lips, every time a tooth brushes them; whether it’s because of the sound quality or the minimalism of the instrumentation or purely Apple’s singing becoming more expressive than before, this album hits me in the gut harder than her other ones. They’re all moving and interesting, but this one is more. Apple’s vocal control is supreme, sometimes bringing to mind Judy Garland in terms of melodicism as well as timbre, and in terms of stripped-down pop music, her music might be just as timeless.
Fiona is an almost unassailable institution, in a way; fans wait patiently for years between albums and expect this level of quality from every one, and pretty much get it. The only way to rank her albums is by how much you can personally relate to the songs. To a person who has never heard of her, it would be nearly impossible to determine which of the past 50 years or so these songs were made in. The alternately sophisticated and ragged poetry is perhaps a bit risqué, the instrumentation just slightly too experimental, to be pre-1960s but otherwise this would be blowing minds to an equal degree whatever year it came out.
The music on this album rarely consists of more than piano and percussion and brief orchestral or double-bass flourishes, reliant on Apple’s distinctive lyrics and vocals for 90% of their character. The accompaniment, though, is pure understated brilliance down to a song. The jazzy drumming on “Jonathan” is particularly wonderful, as is the army of unidentifiable scattered percussion in “Anything We Want”, the fullest-sounding song on the album and positively grand. Contrast these with the simplicity of the muted timpani of “Hot Knife”, the only idea that could work as the song gets more and more convoluted via piano and voice, and you get a pretty wide scope of economic intensity. It should be no shock that this thing took so long to make; for all the minimalism, songs this good don’t just appear magically.
7. Death Grips, The Money Store
Easily the most unique and experimental hip-hop release of the year, which instantly grabbed me. Then I discovered there are certain moods that are wholly inappropriate for listening to Death Grips, and I ended up ignoring it for a while. Basically since June I’d listen a lot, then get turned off, then come back and find it totally refreshing again. It’s cliché to say, but each new listen is a bit of a rediscovery; musically there are so many things going on and it’s all so rapid-fire that you can’t digest it in just a few listens. MC Ride’s delivery is not exactly pristine; it’s positively dirty, ranging from growl to bark, frequently drenched in various distortions and sometimes virtually obscured by the music. But Ride’s rhythmic powers are stunning, anything but conventional; the words chase themselves around your head and until you know the album you catch the clever nuggets a couple beats late and while you’re smiling about that one you miss the next one. For pure badass bluster, you can scarcely beat tunes like “System Blower” and “Fuck That” and “Bitch Please”; they’re like sucker-headbutts coming right at you out of your speakers.
It’s sort of a crime to think that live, producer Zach Hill just plays drums, because the thought of raging to these tracks as they’re being performed is tantalizing as hell, but these beats are so incredible! Obviously “Fuck That” has to be amazing as a purely organic entity. Hell, I’m sure they all are, but my point is this album would be a contender for this list even without any vocals. There’s such a mixture of old and new electronic styles, but absolutely nothing traditionally-hip-hop about any of it. It barely ever reminds me of anything that came before it, but there are instances, like “Blackjack” and “System Blower”, when Death Grips sounds kind of like a trippy Bone Thugs for ravers--I’m no raver, but psychedelic music plus my favorite rappers ever is a pretty enticing sum. Overall, though, it’s essentially unprecedented; listening to it reminds me of how I felt when Kala came out (making what little M.I.A. has done since seem all the more disappointing…). It’s vicious, it’s infectious, and at times it’s hilarious (“Hacker”, oh my God, all three at once). Hip hop for people who hate hip hop AND people who love hip hop.
6. Anathema, Weather Systems
This is kind of the anti-Lonerism, the album that contains all the lessons I was supposed to be learning, all the positivity I was struggling to perceive for most of 2012. Weather Systems contains its fair share of tension and pain, especially when you listen to it on your iPod or stream it on Spotify and get jolted every time there’s that tiny pause between tracks where “The Gathering Of The Clouds” is supposed to flow seamlessly into “Lightning Song” (we can put a man on the moon but blah blah blah), but overall it’s about recognizing the beauty of being alive, not taking things for granted, letting go of fear. It expresses this both with its cheesily self-evident lyrics and its unabashedly polished and lovely music. Subtlety is for evoking uncertainty; Anathema revels in the throes of unshakeable faith, which is a stupendous accomplishment for a band that had been floundering for almost a decade leading up to this album. I admit that I totally lost faith in these guys, but maybe I’ve learned my lesson now. (original review here)
5. Mount Eerie, Clear Moon + Ocean Roar
I’m not totally, um, clear on whether these two records were intended to be considered as one entity. If I only get one, I’ll take the first one in a pinch; it’s basically the mission statement and the more consistently excellent of the two (not by much). But the way it ends with the ambient portentous synthesizer drone (called “(synthesizer)”), it sounds much less like an ending than a lead-in to “Pale Lights”. They’re both pretty desolate works, beautiful but in a way, desperately not-beautiful. There’s an emotionally untenable lyric in the first song that sums up the pervading sense of futility of these records: “I meant all my songs/not as a picture of the woods/but just to remind myself/that I briefly live”. And then there’s the kicker in the last song that has lyrics, “I Walked Home Beholding”: “Totally at peace with the meaninglessness of living”. These albums are like Lonerism overdosing on depressants.
The music has no genre. Ambient, folk, rock, post-rock, drone, black metal, jazz If you take the time to read along to a song like “The Place I Live” you can’t fail to be overwhelmed by the ingenious vocal arrangement, the way Phil Elverum and a few different Allyson Fosters wrap and twirl around each other and come together on the word “momentarily”…it’s breathtaking. “Ocean Roar” is almost as brilliant, same basic idea. He’s searching so hard for some sort of revelation about the universe and life itself, and the triumph and joy of truth eludes him, and it crushes him, even if he never explicitly admits it. Far from dispiriting, though, the maudlin themes all hinge on self-reflection, the quest for enlightenment; that they have yielded little success does not make them uninspiring. “Lone Bell”, a musing on the unreality of the imagination, possibly the pointlessness of dreaming, is so powerful and odd as the guitars begin to snarl and the horns persist as rhythmic honks, it sounds like there’s got to be an answer in there somewhere…
This whole thing is an intricate mind-game, one that Elverum tries to pass off as being unimportant, as if he’s merely here because it’s the only thing that occurred to him, that he has nothing better to do than muse on nature and his own thoughts. The most pathetic part is his refusal to acknowledge the importance of anything he can’t see; sure, we only have our own perceptions to base our lives on, but the rest of the world is out there. I get what it’s like to live inside your own head, but some of this is unbearable drudgery, only tolerable because it’s either poetically satisfying or particularly appropriate for the music. There’s a lot of music I love with lyrics that would disgust and offend me outside the art they’re a part of; I generally don’t get engaged with those except in an escapist or voyeuristic sort of way. Clear Moon is more of a philosophical point of view I’d like to argue vehemently against with its author, except it would do no good. You can’t argue faith; it’s either there or it’s not. And if Elverum retorted, “Yeah, but look at the incredible music this inspires!” I would have nothing to come back with.
4. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Another one you can file under Band That’s Been Around For Decades Makes Best Album Of Career. All the old Godspeed contain good stuff, but nothing as powerful as the two epics on this album. They shift between anguish and fury and triumph like an entire lifetime and write novels about you in your brain as you’re listening. In most cases it takes me several listens to an album to become immersed, to even know how I feel about it, but not this one. “We Drift Like Worried Fire” shook me to the core on first listen in a way that no song has done in a very, very long time. I actually felt like I was at a Phish show. At the time, I wrote that this album is a modern-day Larks' Tongue In Aspic. I’m still trying to figure out why I wrote that. Maybe just because it’s that good.
The album is relatively free of found sounds and de facto political statements; Godspeed obviously felt strongly enough about these compositions to let them speak for themselves, and justifiably so. What Phish does better than anyone else is to create worthwhile pieces of music in the moment through improvisation, an exceedingly difficult endeavor. With the two long pieces on Allelujah, Godspeed has accomplished the exact opposite: the equally unlikely achievement of the illusion of improv through the composition of shockingly naturalistic movement through what is liable to reach your ears initially as chaos. The separate melodic movements of “Mladic” are of course brilliant compositions, but the urgency with which they’re performed and laced together suggest that the musicians arrived at them spontaneously in one take. The transition in “We Drift” from a dark and menacing theme into a freefall of elated triumph comes across as something that couldn’t possibly have been written; it’s too perfect to be a happy accident but it’s executed with such passion and fluidity that even after the shock of it is long gone it still grips you in the throat and balls and squeezes. There’s plenty to be absorbed in the shorter drone pieces, but the magnificence of the two feature-length events is all that really matters; they are the journey, the type of thing where I can’t imagine a person sitting down with his or her full attention on the music and not be blown away. Take the time.
3. Open Mike Eagle, 4NML HSPTL
Most of my favorite rap music is escapism, it’s true. I’ve never contemplated actually doing most of the things that go on in a typical Snoop Dogg song. I have to assume the same about most of the middle-class white dudes who contribute to the majority of the prestigious year-end lists out there, although they sure do wax empathetically about Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean, don’t they? I’m starting to get the impression that for a rapper to impress the typical music critic, he has to have a violent and criminal past, or at least brag and make up stories as if he did. A dude like Open Mike Eagle comes along. He wrote this song called “4nml (Korzygski's Lament)” that I wish I could just type all the lyrics in here for you, but the essence of it is: “The truth is your thoughts, and not what you said/Language is prison for what’s in your head”. In this song, Mike details basically the problem that lies at the center of what we as writers are trying to do with our lives, and not just writers, but the communication issues that we as humans all have. He doesn’t just lay it down; he turns it into an ingenious series of rhythm and rhymes atop a beat like no beat you’ve ever heard in rap music, based around a very brief ambient sample from, of all things, Yes’s “Close To The Edge” (you didn’t hear that from me). It was essentially my theme song for most of the year until I got a bunch of new ones from Lonerism, and it still grips me and plunges me into contemplation and that old familiar yearning for human connection every time I hear it.
And the thing is, this record is full of brilliant shit like this. It’s very geeky, yes; we’re talking about a dude who references Frank Zappa’s ”Dirty Love” one minute and They Might Be Giants' “Particle Man” the next, and he’s so clever and often hilarious and such a talented writer and MC that, oh, you know where this is going. But clearly, NOT A BADASS. “I can’t afford to pay the cover to an ant hill” he sings in “Dancebill”, not a very macho thing to say. Nowhere does he detail his drug-dealing past nor how many bitches he has fucked or pimped. He is about the least hip rapper you’ll ever hear, and because of it the dorks at Pitchfork and all the influential music sites around don’t get turned on, because they can’t pretend to be badasses too when they try to bob their heads awkwardly to these weird-ass beats. So Open Mike Eagle will probably never be popular, and I guess at this point that is part of his unending charm for me; I can relate to what he’s saying, possibly moreso than any other rapper ever. But don’t worry; I’m already well aware of my own unhipness, and I’m cool with it; I still wish more people would dig this guy, as long as it wouldn’t hamper his ability to write songs like he does now.
2. Swans, The Seer
By no conceivable measure could The Seer be considered any less good than any other album of 2012, or of the past decade for that matter. There may be no other record of this length in history that’s this good. I can’t think of another 32-minute composition from the rock and roll era that I like more than the title track. If this is not some day regarded by society at large as a classic album, then human culture is doomed to ultimately fail.
See, sometimes it’s fun to say shit like that; I’m not actually quite that extreme of a music snob. I get that half of this album is purely noise to a lot of people, like tweenwave; it’s not those people who will exult The Seer. Just saying if you like other music like this, you can’t not like this. Nearly every song on the two-hour album is an individual masterpiece, performed in seemingly effortless fashion. There’s no longer a sensible set of defining characteristics for the term ‘post-rock’, but all the same, I say we just declare The Seer to be the new standard (whoops) by which all other music like it should be judged.
You reach the peak of the opening track about four minutes in, a chanted chorus of “LUNACY! LUNACY!”, and you feel like you’re conducting your own orchestra of crazy people. There’s a sinister undercurrent, yes, but you can’t help feeling overjoyed at this point. This is the way to instantly sweep a listener up into the experience of an album. With an opus this long, your appreciation of it is bound to evolve as you become more familiar with it, but the first four minutes of The Seer should be all it takes to reach you if it’s going to reach you.
If that doesn’t do it, and “Mother Of The World” doesn’t do it, don’t even bother continuing; it stomps maniacally to begin, then drifts through a couple of hypnotic motifs before arriving at the perfect simplicity of the brief section of sung lyrics, then the layered drone increases in intensity just to keep you hanging on for about a minute before dying out. At ten minutes it’s one of the less expansive epics on the album, but it might be the best individual song.
The track order is very different for the digital vs. vinyl versions of this album; considering the fact that the LP splits up the three longest tracks anyway, it’s puzzling as to why the running order was rearranged for the CD. The only thing that makes sense is that Gira figured a digital audience needed to be hit with the most engrossing tracks first, while the licorice pizza crowd was in for the long haul and so he rewards their patience with “Mother Of The World”, “Avatar” and “The Seer” at the very end. I have to admit I’ve listened to the digital more than the vinyl so I’m pretty partial to having “Mother Of The World” right up front, but the way those latter three sides of the vinyl version play out is untouchably powerful. Then again, it’s hard to argue against ending with “Avatar”>”A Piece Of The Sky”>”The Apostate” either with that drum apocalypse like it’s hailing bowling balls, and lyrically “A Piece Of The Sky” almost has to be towards the end, but then again going straight into “Apostate” following “Lunacy” is certainly audacious…LOOK, ALL I’M SAYING IS the flow barely matters when every piece of music is so insanely glorious. Vignettes, jams, ballads, compact avant-garde symphonies, all uniquely brilliant, each engineered to help make sense of the other parts of the whole no matter how you assemble them, beauty that is the inevitable result of apparent chaos. Life.
1. Tame Impala, Lonerism
I guess Tame Impala avoided the sophomore slump. I have written enough material for at least a couple more reviews of this album, so I guess I’ll put some more in here. It’s one of those rare no-filler albums, so I thought I’d just go song-by-song in an effort to deconstruct a handful of the things that make it so brilliant.
“Be Above It” ::: It’s nice of Kevin Parker to start the album like this. A positive mantra, but also a simple warning that there is some serious shit ahead. It’s built of multiple noise crescendos that sound like split-second bursts of memory that overtake you unawares when you’re in a state of repression after some traumatic event in your life. You have to keep listening to it over and over until those become swells of love.
“Endors Toi” ::: A lesson in building a triumphant wave of guitar, twice, in less than a minute each time. A tiny epic, and really only the intro to the next track.
“Apocalypse Dreams” ::: There’s the two verses, bright and upbeat musically while not at all encouraging lyrically. There’s the bridge, that starts with this magnificent The-Edge chiming melody and unfolds into another existential crisis. There’s the chorus/coda, a recreation of the majestic “I Get Up, I Get Down” climactic dirge of “Close To The Edge”, except you don’t get your resolution, just agony until it fades out.
“Mind Mischief” ::: This is the one with that pure McCartney guitar riff that sort of gets eaten up in a swirl of psychedelic layers and then just when you’re tipped completely onto your side it rematerializes to end the song in the aural facsimile of rousing yourself out of a drug-induced stupor.
“Music To Walk Home By” ::: This is where the social anxiety gets incredibly thick, and where the various guitar and synth themes mix and merge and separate as directed by these monstrous Dale Crover-esque waves and crashes. When the Buzzo-worthy closing riff barges in I completely lose it every time, Melvins Lite indeed.
“Why Won’t They Talk To Me?” ::: If you can’t admit to ever having felt like this, or especially if you actually never have, I hate you, I really do.
“It Feels Like We Only Goes Backwards” ::: Besides being an insanely perfect arrangement of a pure pop song, complete with that loopy bassline that sounds in part just like that song “In The Meantime” by Spacehog, and the drums getting less and less contained in any conventional rhythm as the end approaches, a non-drummer free to do whatever he feels like with the sticks, the way those ghostly harmonies nail you when he sings “I got my hopes up again/Oooooh nooooo, not again”, is one of the most heartbreaking points of the whole brutal album.
“Keep On Lying” ::: I suppose the most heartbreaking point is in here, when Parker sings cheerily, “It never really was love.” But I don’t know, it also could be the unbearably loud, echoing cackles at the height of the instrumental section. It’s clear that the point is you feel how you feel and that’s that, but it’s really not nice to put us through the punishment of being mocked for our alienation.
“Elephant” ::: Come on. Everything about it is perfect.
“She Just Won’t Believe Me” ::: It sounds pretentious to even say, but this 57-second song with only two lines captures everything Lonerism has to say. It switches back and forth between truth and self-deception and willful dishonesty over and over as you dig deeper into the album. But it’s also cruel as shit of Parker to get my hopes up with this amazing beginning to a song and then just chop it off after less than a minute. Fucker. I won’t be satisfied until this turns into an actual song live.
“Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” ::: Again, the title alone is so evocative of a peculiar emotion, probably different for anybody who ponders it. Maybe it’s about death, or maybe unrequited love, or ill-advised love, or a general crippling fatalism, or a contented resignation to the whims of the universe; you take away what you put in. Once again, the instrumental section tells its own evocative tale, structurally like nothing I know of in that it’s got literally a dozen chances to surrender to a satisfying groove but these halting drum and bass patterns stymie you over and over again, crushing your hope as well as any lyrics could do.
“Sun’s Coming Up” ::: The only one I can easily sing along to, probably the one that reminds me the most of John Lennon. One that I used to occasionally not listen to, if I was in a hurry to do something else, because the previous one was always the crux of the album for me, but since something clicked for me about the end and that switch into the warm major key, this wordless wailing has become another abstract mental narrative and I can’t walk away until I’ve heard that tape recorder shutting off. (original review here)
THE BEST SONGS OF 2012 IN APPROXIMATE ORDER OF AWESOMENESS
I didn’t agonize over this by any means, but I’d never put songs of the year in any order before and I thought I’d try it. Most of these songs and more feature on a couple of Spotify playlists I made. This is the one with mostly short, not-too-heavy songs. This is the one with mostly long, heavy songs.
Tame Impala, “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control”
Tame Impala, “Elephant”
Open Mike Eagle, “4nml (Korzygski's Lament)”
Field Report, “Fergus Falls” [note: yes, this song is old, but this new version is the better than the old ones]
Kendrick Lamar, “The Art Of Peer Pressure”
Katatonia, “The Racing Heart”
Anathema, “The Calm Before The Storm”
San Cisco, “Awkward” [note: this might have come out in 2011 but I didn’t hear it until last summer]
Swans, “Mother Of The World”
Frank Ocean, “Bad Religion”
Altos, “Sing (For Trouble)”
Here We Go Magic, “Make Up Your Mind”
Juniper Tar, “Residents”
Fahri, “The Island Cannibal King”
Wodensthrone, “The Great Darkness”
Ani DiFranco, “If Yr Not”
Lower Dens, “Brains”/”Stem”
Royal Baths, “Faster, Harder”
Fiona Apple, “Hot Knife”
Twin Shadow, “Run My Heart”
Cloud Nothings, “Fall In”
Death Grips, “Hacker”
Converge, “Sadness Comes Home”
Jack White, “Freedom At 21”
Chromatics, “These Streets Will Never Look The Same”
Lotus Plaza, “Monoliths”
Jonathan Burks, “I Like It”
Bear In Heaven, “Space Remains”
Mount Eerie, “The Place I Live”
Elusive Parallelograms, “Glue”
Sigh, “Far Beneath The In-Between”
Holobody, “Way The World Goes Round”
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Grafitti, “Schnitzel Boogie”
Zatokrev, “The Bat”
Angel Haze, “New York”
of Montreal, “Feminine Effects” [note: this is a couple years old, but it came out on a Record Store Day 2012 record, so there]
Jaill, “Perfect Ten”
Dirty Projectors, “Maybe That Was It”
Xiu Xiu, “I Luv Abortion”
Punch Brothers, “No Concern Of Yours”
The Men, “Animal”
Killer Mike, “JoJo’s Chillin”
Sat. Nite Duets, “Don’t You Love Me, Baby?”
Little Otik, “Long”
Cadence Weapon, “Hype Man”
Animal Collective, “New Town Burnout”
Secret Chiefs 3, “La Chanson De Jacky”
Rush, “Clockwork Angels”
Painted Caves, “The Ocean”
Poliça, “Dark Star”
IfIHadAHifi, “All Hail Magnets”
Flying Lotus, “Putty Boy Strut”
Buckethead, “The Raid”
Pg.lost, “I Am A Destroyer”
Lisa Ridgley & The Fainting Room, “Karma Caught Up”
Peaking Lights, “Midnight (In The Valley Of Shadows)”
The Melvins Lite, “Tommy Goes Berserk”
Mortgage Freeman, “Clay, Sand & Silt”
School Of Seven Bells, “White Wind”
Moon Duo, “Circles”
Nervous Curtains, “Cats In The Dark”
Yeasayer, “Reagan’s Skeleton”
Goat, “Det som aldrig förändras / Diarabi”
Local H, “Look Who's Walking On Four Legs Again”
Police Teeth, “Life Is Precious And God And The Bible”