Beat Connection’s early demos and mixtape now seem like child’s play compared to The Palace Garden. On their first proper album, these Washington youngsters take the idea of pop music as a blissful, glimmering medium and exaggerate every aspect of that.
THE 2 BEARS
Few albums have provided as many ear to ear smiles as in 2012 as Be Strong. The celebration of club-thumping beats, friendly circumstances and gorgeous scenes, Be Strong is one of the few electronic album that didn’t take itself too seriously this year. And for that alone it was a breathe of fresh air.
Eric Copeland had a banner year in 2012, not only was his solo record Limbo an impressive output, Mr. Impossible worked to reinvent the sound that Black Dice became known for over a decade ago. “The Jacker” missed my top tracks list, but it remains one of the more interesting songs not only on the album but in the band’s catalogue.
Six Cups Of Rebel
Granted, Smalhans might actually be the more polished, accessible album from this Scandinavian synth master this year, but Six Cups of Rebel proves what Lindstrom is capable of when there are no rules. It’s entirely hectic and at times confusing, but it’s also unexpected and thrilling. “De Javu” is absolute magic in the form of music, and “Quiet Place to Live” makes genre tropes in electronic music seem silly.
Joy And Better Days
My colleagues have done a better job all year championing this album than I ever could in one paragraph.
I Know What Love Isn't
Leaving the hilarity and irreverence of last year’s An Argument With Myself behind him, Sweden’s Jens Lekman took a much more romantic approach to I Know What Love Isn’t. Not since Oh You’re So Silent Jens has Lekman sounded as vulnerable and honest as he does on record, and with singles like “Erica America” there’s still plenty for the casual, pop-minded fans to love.
TOTALLY ENORMOUS EXTINCT DINOSAURS
Orlando Higginbottom might make stadium thumping anthems, but don’t confuse him with today’s other european machismo electronic producers. On his debut album, Higginbottom combines his delightfully coy vocals with intelligent, meticulous synth work, creating a sound that is as fit for a room of a few dozen as it for a sold out festival. Far from the most buzzworthy dance album of the year, it’s actually the most exciting.
PURE BATHING CULTURE
Pure Bathing Culture
While Portland might be better known for their left-field garage rock or Modest Mouse style triumphs, it was a few ex-Veviter members who made the biggest splash this year. Pure Bathing Culture were not only one of the best new bands in 2013, their debut effort was a sparkling, visionary record that was both stark in its approach and breathless in its execution. The music is in a sense delicate, but more than that it radiates a sort of confident, gorgeous exterior.
DAVID BRYNE & ST. VINCENT
Love This Giant
In one of the more exciting and promising collaborations of the year, St. Vincent and David Byrne combined for the some best tracks of the year. But that’s sort of the issue, a few of the tracks on Love This Giant are brilliant, inspiring pop experiment, but as a whole the album falls short of our collective high hopes. “Dinner for Two” and “Who” are two quirky, catchy standouts, but save for those the rest of the album is a mixed bag of uninspired nonsense. Love This Giant suffers from a lack of cooperation from the two artists, a problem which I cited at length in my review.
Kill For Love
While it took a few months for the proverbial dust to settle around this album, the post-hype conversation around Kill For Love has finally turned from hyperbolic to sensical. While it’s a terrific album, the Chromatics’ delicate balance of futuristic minimalism disguised as nostalgic vogue begins to wear thin over the exhaustive 70+ minute album. It really felt like the group never fully committed to any one idea, and in doing so a variety of opportunities were left uninitiated. Be it the silent brilliance of “The Eleventh Hour” or the electro-pop nature of “At Your Door,” the Chromatics simply needed to narrow the scope of Kill For Love for it to be more enjoyable.
Where most protest albums from hip-hop artists, or musicians in general, skew towards the generic “fuck the man” sort of vibe, Killer Mike made standing up to authority and educating yourself a sexy prerogative in 2012. From the borderline paranoia of “Reagan” to the booming top 40 vibe of “Big Beast,” R.A.P. Music is electric and enlightening. Few rapper sound as collected and confident behind the mic as Killer Mike does, making the convictions he levels that much more empowering.
We will never get another White Stripes album, The Dead Weather have always been completely uninteresting and the Raconteurs will never be the sort of oddball collective Jack White so desperately tried to make them out to be. But on his first solo album, White continues his legacy (whatever you may think of it by now) as one of the modern day guitar evangelists. The result is varying, sure, but as a whole Blunderbuss is an incredibly enjoyable folk-infused rock album. It’s not without total cheeseball moments, see “I’m shakin’,” but “Sixteen Saltines” and “Blunderbuss” more than make up for those mistakes and account for some of the better songs of the year as well. It’s hard to even call the album divisive with it now being so far removed from the collective mind share, but there are countless people who will never let themselves enjoy Blunderbuss after all White has done with his career in recent years. I for one found the record entirely entertaining and impressive as a solo endeavor.
While 2012 may eventually be known as the year we crept incredibly close to the uncanny valley of false interaction (captained by Instagram, Lana Del Ray), Jessica Pratt is the opposite of whatever that made up description might actually mean. Seeming to exist completely off of the internet, void of tiny desk concerts, +1s and the endless, meaningless echo chamber that is Twitter, Pratt conceived one of the few genuine albums not only this year but in recent memory. While conventional, powerful songwriting in folk music was lacking overall this year, the few artists that committed themselves to cause left a lasting mark. It’s unassuming and therapeutic, and while calling it a pallet cleanser might sound a bit insulting or trite, there’s just such a specific energy around this album that makes everything else just sort of wash away.
SIMIAN MOBILE DISCO
The science of Simian Mobile Disco has been refined to its most pristine state on Unpatterns, the culmination of unrelenting work over some half dozen albums. From their formidable days as Simian, to their more recent, ambitious experimentation on Temporary Pleasures, James Ford and Jas Shaw are masters of the thoughtful synth piece. “Cerulean” approaches perfection in this strange, uncanny way that so many producers dismissed in 2012. While most of their peers tried desperately to seem chic or opted for bizarre crossover collaborations, Simian Mobile Disco created an album so technically proficient and entrancing that it deserves praise as one of the best.
A Thing Called Divine Fits
As with most, I immediately discounted A Thing Called Divine Fits as a throw away side project from a group of various, assumedly bored musicians. And maybe its my longing for a new Spoon album that made me want to love Divine Fits more than I should, but there’s just something calming about hearing Britt Daniel behind a microphone. But the more time I spend with it, the more A Thing Called Divine Fits started to feel like its own experience, not just something I may have imagine derived from one deceased band or another. “For Your Heart” is the kind of indie pop that was sorely lacking in 2012, and along with “Would That Not Be Nice,” Divine Fits became the bastion of mid ‘00’s indie rock we might not have known we needed.
There are certain bands that forever exist towards the periphery of the zeigeist of blogs and music magazines. Artists who never get hung up on being the first, the hippest or even the best. It’s the kind of intellectual maturity that ran rampant through The Walkmen’s Heaven, a calculated, brilliant display of orchestration and patience, both emotionally and musically. But it’s also outwardly confident, and “We Can’t Be Beat” shouts that from the highest rooftop. If nothing else, it’s commendable to hear a band never stray from their strengths, instead iterate on those initial ideas to the point of near perfection. And after all these years, that what The Walkmen are approaching.
SHARON VAN ETTEN
Watching Sharon Van Etten perform just a month before the release of Tramp, there was something different about the New York singer/songwriter than in past performances. She exuded confidence, radiating with a smile and a swing in her step even while she continued to deal with emotionally scarring issues on record. Few tracks exemplify that attitude better than “Serpents,” as Van Etten acknowledges her demons but knowingly deals with them, set to the tune of powerful drums and rhythmic choruses. There’s no longer a subtext or a pretense, Van Etten appears to be at peace with herself and Tramp explodes with her renewed energy.
FATHER JOHN MISTY
There’s a natural, indescribable flow to songwriting and vocals on Father John Misty’s debut record Fear Fun. Effortless yet echoing, lead singer Josh Tillman is hardly a stranger to these sort of things. A founding member of Fleet Foxes and an accomplished solo artist under the title J. Tillman, this bearded songwriter has completely reformed his imagine once again under the Father John Misty title. Where J. Tillman records were hollow and meticulous, Fear Fun is loose and flippant. “This is Sally Hatchet” is one of the most addictive and vivid songs of the year, and the track’s music video remains one of my favorites in recent memory. Tillman’s vocals are so stunning that they certainly stand on their own in his more intimate recordings, but Fear Fun provides a more palatable composition for the songwriting, resulting in one of the more surprising and enjoyable albums all year.
SONNY & THE SUNSETS
Optimistically pessimistic. That’s the easiest way to characterize Longtime Companion. Sonny Smith’s break up record is both sad and honest, but in that honesty lies a great amount of hope for the future and reverence for the past. There are songs of heartbreak and songs of letting go, but Smith’s delivery makes them feel more like folklore than his own reality. “Year of the Cock” is one of the most delightful and irreverent tracks of the year, and proves that even though Smith might be dealing with personal turmoil, his escape through music and songwriting will prevail. If you’ve been pining for a twang of country all year, Longtime Companion is your best bet.
Ty Segall wins the category for “Most” in 2012. Just the most in general. This Bay Area garage crooner has probably been written about more than any other artist this year, and on his third album of the year, Segall combines everything he has been tinkering with to craft his best effort as a solo musician. The deafening noise of Ty Segall Band’s Slaughterhouse oozes through “Ghost,” the gleaming, screaming fun of early Segall is conjured on “You’re The Doctor” and the classic garage fun of Segall & Mikal Cronin is evident on “The Hill.” It draws from a lot of different sources, but ultimately it’s a singular vision of what Segall has helped revive across the industry.
At this point, I’m not sure what noise collective Deerhoof need to do in order to garner the respect and reverence they deserve. Their last four albums have been incredible movements of sound and noise, a balance between the bizarre and the catchy. On Breakup Song, Deerhoof take that same idea and create their most accessible, but more importantly enjoyable, album to date. Where Friend Opportunity or Apple O’ suffered from feeling like a loose collection of songs versus a well realized whole, Breakup Song is was masterful in its ability to sound completely orchestrated start to finish. It’s not grinding or excessive like so many of its predecessors, and thankfully it doesn’t alienate longtime fans of the nearly two decade old collective. There’s still nothing else that sounds like a Deerhoof album, and after all these years that is sort of amazing.
More than any other album in 2012, Mr. M taught me about patience. Lambchop’s slick blend of late night lounge charm and breathtaking vocals are enticing in theory, but this kind of meandering, well paced procedural songwriting is not usually what I am drawn towards. Maybe it was the Jens Lekman-like absurdity of opening with “don’t know what the fuck they talk about” that grabbed my attention, but from that line on I was fascinated by Lambchop’s articulate, expansive arrangements. Few albums have the ability to present me with songs I never thought I wanted to hear until I heard them, but Mr. M did just that. Especially in a year when the half-life of attention spans became ever so apparent, Lambchop’s unconventional approach was nothing short of stunning.
Put Your Back N 2 It
For me, Put Your Back N 2 It was so utterly fascinating because of its often heavy and sometimes bizarre subject matter. Everything from abuse, both physical and drug related, to statements on his own “gay suicide letter” are in play, culminating in an emotionally exhausting record. Mike Hadreas is one of the most brave and inspirational songwriters I have ever had the chance to listen to, and even though his issues are so far removed from my own experiences, he makes them feel just as important; as if he’s sitting across a table opening his heart to me. At times, Put Your Back N 2 It almost scares me, it shakes me, but most of all it haunts me in a way so few albums do.
It's The Arps
While technically an EP, It’s the Arps clocks with plenty of full length albums, and thus I consider it such. But even in its limited length, Norwegian super producer Todd Terje crafted one of the most timeless, near-perfect electronic arrangements I have ever heard. “Inspector Norse” is the massive, club-stopping single that put him on every website’s radar early last year, but the more time I have spent with It’s the Arps, the more I find myself getting lost in the two “Swing Star” tracks. Terje’s ability to combine blistering synth patterns on top of boundless arpeggios, topped with the sort of strange, sci-fi offerings on “Swing Star pt. 2” makes for a package that’s more about the details than the danceability of it all. It’s the Arps represents, albeit for a brief instant, the apex of electronic music. The reproduction of noises in a way that’s truly detached from time or place, the pounding repetition of horns, keyboards; analogue devices creating virtual worlds that engulf the listener in a blanket of psychedelia and imagination.
It’s not the flashiest or most unique album of the year, and probably not even in his own small catalogue of releases, but Dent May’s Do Things stands for more than just straightforward pop music. It’s a mindset, a way of life in some ways, just as May’s Cats Purring collective in Oxford MS. believes in a higher level of kinship than any borough in New York could offer. It’s a record about believing in yourself, from the title track to “Rent Money,” May eulogizes seizing the moment free of circumstance or judgement. Putting an emphasis on corny keyboard loops and virtual handclaps versus his magnificent ukulele makes for a light, indulgent canvas on which to impart his wisdom. Do Things makes me happy, and I’m not too cool to admit that makes me love it all the more.
One of the more surprisingly terrific releases of the year, and one that only continues to be more rewarding and glorious with each listen, is Au’s Both Lights. The product of Portland duo Luke Wyland and Dana Valatka, Both Lights is magnetic and massive, a record full of twisting horns and fleeting keyboards. It’s the kind of schizophrenic, melodic mix of everything from xylophones to saxophones that makes music so wonderful. Both Lights is organic, traveling from the emotional to the surreal in the span of a few seconds. While “Both Lights” and “Get Alive” stand out amongst their peers, the album functions best as a sort of sweeping array of sound and light, best taken as a whole experience. Wyland’s structuring and song writing is like nothing I have encountered before, and with each listen I continue to find various nuance and intellect littered throughout the record.
Cancer For Cure
If this past week has proven anything, there’s no room for me to be writing about hip-hop on the internet. So I won’t. I’m not going to pretend like I understand the culture or the deep rhetorical nuances at work, but much like Perfume Genius’ Put Your Back N 2 It, Cancer for Cure and other hip-hop albums I adore fascinate because of their ability to invite me, an outsider, into their world. And that’s exactly what El-P was able to accomplish on his first album in over five years.
Although Chan Marshall later became this sort of tragic figure, held up as an example of why indie music is failing its most popular artists, she actually released one of the best albums of the year. An album which championed her attitude towards the public and her mismanaged past. It’s about starting new, living vicariously and “Nothing But Time,” one of Sun’s best tracks, spends ten beautiful, serene minutes dealing with just that. The piano keys strike like heavy iron mallettes as Marshall’s sings about “never giving up your friends,” a poignant balance between the past and the future. But aside from “Nothing But Time” and its anthemic, powerful nature, Marshall also dabbles in some of the most energetic and proud pop music of the year on “Cherokee” and “3,6,9.”
It’s the side of songwriting that Marshall has so rarely explored on record, and on these and the rest of Sun she comes across as more enlightened than ever before. I’m not here to accuse listeners or consumers for their apparent lack of support surrounding the album, but I do know that it is a damn shame that she wasn’t able to tour Sun as she originally intended. Sun might ultimately be more bombastic than most people like their Cat Power to be, but to me Sun is the ultimate evolution of Marshall’s oft-twisted reality.
Sweet Heart Sweet Light
There’s no denying the legacy of Jason Pierce and his rotating group of musicians known as Spiritualized. From their early days supporting Lazer Guided Melodies, to group’s magnum opus Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space, there’s little room in the group’s catalogue for another monumental album. So maybe that’s why so much of the zeitgeist completely passed by Sweet Heart Sweet Light, that just because the album maybe ranks as the third or fourth best record in their catalogue it somehow wasn’t worth anybody’s time. “I Am What I Am” ranks as one of my favorite songs of the year due in part to its no nonsense rock and roll approach, the kind of striped down, crunching noise better known from The Black Keys than this UK group. And in many respects that how the entire album plays out, from “Hey Jane” to “So Long You Pretty Things” to “Mary,” Sweet Heart Sweet Light plays out much more intensely than the previously more orchestral sounds of Song in A&E. And that is maybe what’s most impressive about Spiritualized, that even though I can hear an album and pick it out of a theoretical lineup as their own, the band never gets stuck in one mindset or sonic range.
Sweet Heart Sweet Light is just an impeccable album from top to bottom. It contains the kind of meticulous attention to detail that so many albums lack, and while not being completely over the top it still houses an enormous amount of energy. Indie music as we knew it ten years ago has been turned on its head since then, but Spiritualized continue to carry that generation’s torch, and Sweet Heart Sweet Light gives me hope that we’re all much better off not getting caught up in the buzz and sludge of hourly hype cycles.
On Lonerism, Kevin Parker better summarized my thoughts and feelings on the people around me better than any other artist, writer, or musician ever has. And maybe that’s why I have struggled to write about it for so many months now, I feel as though there’s nothing else to be said about the claustrophobic, omnipresent narration this odd Australian has laid out on Lonerism. From the bashful, awkward feeling of meeting somebody new, to the paranoid thoughts surrounding your relationship, Lonerism is gospel to the egoists we have all become. But there’s also recognition of guilt, on the album’s opening track “Be Above It” for instance, as Parker sings “This time I’m just gonna take it or I’m never gonna shake it.”
Even though we have all become these sort of self-involved lunatics, if we’re able to remove ourselves from the situation of self-reflection, life can be more rewarding. “Every man is happy until happiness is suddenly a goal,” Parker notes on “Nothing That Has Happened...” and in that one short line Parker neatly packs every thought I have had on the year in music, culture and writing into the most timely critique on our current culture. Happiness has been measured, gamified, re-contextualized and misconstrued in 2012, and more than ever I want nothing to do with any of it. And so I retreat back into Lonerism time and time again, finding comfort in the hopeful fantasies and misaligned opportunities.