I'm not sure what happened to oddball music, but it seems like the new bands in 2012 who were applauded for being different were still coloring inside the lines. Egyptr's self-titled release transports the listener back into a better time for post-punk, a time when Fugazi was shredding a house show in a small kitchen. The album is aggressive but anchored by relaxed vocals that whirl around bouncy guitars, inventive drumming, and guiding bass lines. Egyptr are following their own path of songwriting, a path that will probably never land them success in the current indie handling of inauthentic post-post punk music (looking at you, Cloud Nothings). However, by staying outside of the buzzy pitfalls, Egyptr has crafted one of the more inventive and exciting releases of 2012.
Sweet Heart Sweet Light
I know it's a music journalist's job to add perspective and critique albums, and even more so when defending year end picks... but I'm wondering when it will be acceptable to celebrate a record simply for being solid and nothing more. I don't really have any grand accolades to bestow upon Sweet Heart Sweet Light, but I know that I could always turn to this album and know that I was in for a satisfying spin. Sweet Heart Sweet Light was the my musical comfort food, an escape to a space of pleasurable sounds that would invite me in, float around with me, and let me stay a while.
The first time I saw Daughn Gibson play live, he feigned as if to slam the microphone stand through the floor time after time. This was an insanely hypocritical gesture considering his deep vocals and steady, marching music. Somehow though, despite the juxtaposition, it all made sense, as Gibson was clearly hearing the slightest moments of differentiation in his music as explosive, climatic moments of intensity. It was after this realization that All Hell started making complete sense to me as a listener. On the first few spins, the album seems to just coast, but give it a little time and, like Gibson, you'll be able to hear the very subtle moments of emotional intensity that elevate his music.
It makes complete sense that Roman Ruins (a.k.a. Graham Hill) is an architect and landscape designer. The entire album seems very precise in the placement of each and every sound, sort of like those tiny trees you find on architectural models that might surround a miniature office building or a new restaurant. For Hill, the placement of those tiny trees, or in this case the layers upon layers of sounds to accompany his vocals, are just as important as the office building... or to the sounds made immediate to the listener. Musicians should study Homebuilding as a learning tool concerning what can be achieved when every detail is methodically considered rather then lazily thrown into the mix.
I fully expect R.A.P. Music to move way up on this list in a few months when I look back, as I've only just started spinning this record obsessively for about a month or so. I'll fully admit I'm a current hip-hop curmudgeon, one who might be getting too old and nostalgic for the glory days of rap to be any kind of authority on the subject. As the years progress, I'm finding it harder and harder to wade through the hype and find what I consider quality. I'm not sure I have a specific criteria, but I know it when I hear it, and I knew it when I heard R.A.P. Music, just like I knew it when I heard Shabazz Palaces' Black Up last year. Killer Mike, as he always does, attacks his verses with such passion that it's almost impossible not to give him his dues. Unlike the work of most of his peers, R.A.P. Music feels like a complete album that doesn't rest on a million featuring credits or gimmicks to succeed. It's Killer Mike's stage and he commands attention with ease.
THE HENRY CLAY PEOPLE
Twenty-Five For The Rest Of Our Lives
We live in a time where someone like Grimes is more of a household name in the alternative world than The Henry Clay People. I'm not sure when we started taking all the eggs out of the talented band basket and putting them into the "I own a laptop" one, but we're all failing good old rock and roll. The Henry Clay People, and I say this as a statement of fact in a subjective world, are one of the best live bands we have today. Show after show, they give their audiences everything and more, with no frills whatsoever, just your standard vocalist, two guitars, bass, and drums. A band like The Henry Clay People are not the ones that need to change - it's us. It's the entire "indie" scene. The Henry Clay People are a sad reminder that a band like The Replacements would never make it today. It's a thought that makes me want run out and buy another copy of Twenty-Five For The Rest Of Our Lives just to assure myself that music like this continues to exist.
Woods is a band that gets the credit they deserve, but I think it's time to start considering them as one of the best "indie" bands we have going today. Year after year, it seems like we're greeted with another amazing release from Woods. At first listen it's easy to proclaim that Woods are just playing the same card as they have on previous releases, but on further examination, Bend Beyond is quite different from their body of work. The album focuses more on jams and on extending their previously contained lo-fi sunshine sound. Bend Beyond is their best produced record to date, and while I was hesitant about them cleaning up a little, all it ended up doing was to allow for their talents to shine through a little bit brighter.
Porchpuddles is a complete, intimate work that should act as a breaking-out point for Dylan Shearer. As his discography grows, I fully expect Shearer to become one of our most reliable singer/songwriters. Shearer is at his best on Porchpuddles when he allows the silent moments or breaks in his songs to stunt the mood for just a second before ultimately returning with a devastating blow. This album is just the beginning for Shearer; hopefully people will start to realize he's one of the best young songwriters worth following in the years to come.
Matricidal Sons Of Bitches
The biggest complaint critics seem to have with Matricidal Sons Of Bitches is that Friedberger is his own worst enemy, crafting an inaccessible album that's too smart for its own good. The ultimate joke is that this project is a test in sound perception. Split into four movements, every moment of the album proposes an emotion or mood, with Friedberger forcing the listener to ask themselves how they feel about that specific sound. Friedberger, being one of the most important musician today, conjures up sections of songs that sit firmly on the middle of the emotional fence, and each unique listener can and will interpret them differently. He frames this concept around the album having the feel of a narrative, so the songs feel more like a collection of stories, stories that are later retold as the movements evolve throughout the album. Matricidal Sons Of Bitches works both as an exercise for the musical portion of the brain and also as a cerebral means of enjoying the wonderful and distinctive sounds of Matthew Friedberger.
This Jessica Pratt album is why music blogs should wait until the end of the year before rolling out our "best-of" lists. After tweeting about how great 2012 has been for folk acts, Gorilla VS Bear tweeted Jessica Pratt as a suggestion. I was immediately blown away by the timeless nature of the music. It feels plucked out of the earthy folk scene of the late 60s, but comes across as incredibly unique and current at the same time. The album only elevated its standing once I secured a vinyl copy; the warm feel of the medium complemented Pratt's hypnotic stylings perfectly. This album will always be a reminder to keep an open mind, to consider all suggestions, and - regardless of the hits lost by not being "first" - to be fair to artists/bands by waiting to release these year end lists.
You might not be able to find a bigger fan of of Montreal's early work, nor a larger detractor of their last few albums than me. As low as my hopes were following False Priest, it came as no surprise when I really disliked Paralytic Stalks after the first spin. I bad-mouthed it to my few friends who loved of Montreal, and we all agreed it was a weak effort. A few days later I returned to the record and gave it a few more spins. I started to like it a little better. A few more spins. I started to love it. Now, a bunch of spins later, it's firmly placed in my top albums of 2012. A lot of people associate of Montreal with fun, and while that's certainly still fitting, Paralytic Stalks is a record that demands a lot of the listener. There are layers and layers of mysteries waiting to be unlocked, and it's a shame that it requires several listens, because this is truly one of the band's best works. Kevin Barnes is an unapologetic songwriter who could easily lean on the accessibility of Hissing Fauna and get away with it. Instead, he's elevated his craft and delivered one of the smartest and most challenging releases of the year.
While Passion Pit received critical acclaim from the larger "indie" publications this year, The Pass quietly released an electro-pop/rock record that is far superior. Mixing in their electro influences with flourishes of U2 and The Cure, The Pass crafted a record that is catchy, intelligent, and ultimately a huge leap forward for them. The step comes in the form of leaning a little more to the rock side than their past tunes, which were more heavy on the electronics. Melt finds an infinitely and justifiably more confident vocalist in frontman Kyle Peters, and his guitar work throughout the entire album is some of the best of 2012. I don't think there is another album released this year that could have been a major label hit, while at the same time satisfying any alternative listener's needs/wants. It's impossible to put on Melt and not glide through track by track with toes tapping and a huge smile on your face.
It becomes very clear, very quickly, that as much fun as it is to listen to Mac DeMarco's 2, nobody is having more of a ball than DeMarco himself. The entire album is anchored by a guitar tone from outer space. It's a distorted, high-pitched, manic, extremely fresh tone, one that complements DeMarco's deep southern feeling vocals (he's from Canada, so not sure where that comes from). My cousin summed up DeMarco the best after seeing him live when he said that none of what DeMarco was doing should work, but it all somehow succeeds. DeMarco has me confounded to find the right words to sum up his magic. I've been defeated, so I cop out and just say to go listen to his records and try to figure it out for yourself. If you do, let me know, but even without the right words, I know this is one of my favorite releases of 2012.
Marissa Nadler is just moving at her own pace year after year, releasing one quality album after another. One of the most accomplished and impressive songwriters we have today, Nadler settles back into emotionally deep music once again with The Sister. I'm not sure why it wasn't on more year end lists, but every time I press play on this record, the nature based soundscapes and personal vocals act as a reminder of what a treasure Nadler is to the world of music.
While people were way too concerned with where Bloom sized up against Teen Dream, and if it was a step forward or backwards for Beach House, I was just simply enjoying one of the best-crafted start-to-finish records of 2012. Sure, Bloom wasn't a huge departure from Teen Dream, but most of us loved Teen Dream, and the newest offering was different enough to exist on its own merits as a great gift from Beach House. The guitars are stronger on Bloom then any other Beach House effort, a fact that's exemplified by my favorite track, "The Hours," where the guitars rise up like rockets. There might be a time, maybe with the next release, where I find myself hoping Beach House shakes up their sound and explores new boundaries, but with Bloom, I was more than happy to accept even the smallest progression of their sound.
I think this album is so much fun that people never took the time to stop bobbing their heads and realize that it's also one of the most solid releases of the year. Dent May takes the listener on a southern funk journey through abandoned landscapes rarely tackled by songwriters. In my head I see empty strip malls, bowling alleys where one can still smoke, and teenagers drinking gas station sodas on the curb while a neon sign soaks into their skin. May's vocal styling works perfectly with the new funk direction. He feels like an out-of-place lounge singer who, oddly enough, is the perfect narrator for the visuals conjured by the album. The last track, "Home Groan," captures a universal feeling about having a place that fits an individual regardless of its level of cool. He croons that New York and LA are not for him - Do Things confirms it, and for this, we should all be grateful, because May is truly one of the few musicians who can capture the forgotten visuals of the south and bring them into the homes of listeners all around the world.
It was hilarious reading music blogs try to pin Conveyor down with comparisons to Animal Collective and other "listen if you like" attempts. I found it funny because the debut from Conveyor is one of the most original releases of 2012. When people ask me what Conveyor sounds like, I say it sounds like the spirit of Weezer's blue album without sounding anything like Weezer. Conveyor revel in changing up their sound track to track and crafting tunes that are both catchy and extremely original. I'm always impressed when a band can put together a complete album that shows off exactly who they are trying to be as a band. Conveyor does that in spades with their self-titled debut.
We are living in a time where young bands can be as weird as they want and still find a solid audience. Knowing this, it's impressive that the most ambitious and downright bizarre album came from a sixty-nine year old man, Scott Walker. I'm a very visual listener and for some reason, when listening to Bish Bosch I always think about the movie scene that frighted me the most when I was a child. That scene was from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and in it, Gene Wilder's demented Wonka is leading the kids on a gondola ride through a hellish, psychedelic tunnel. Bish Bosch plays the same way, with Walker acting as the guide, his bizarre, loungy vocals being complemented by a warped journey through every genre of music from the past seven decades. Both the movie scene and Bish Bosch are frightening works of art that embrace twisted evil, and to be able to sum up such an emotion is a hard task, but one worth applauding.
TY SEGALL & WHITE FENCE
Ty Segall released exactly four hundred albums in 2012 and Hair is easily the best one. Before the release of Hair, my two favorite 60s psych throwback acts were Ty Segall and White Fence, so it only made sense that a collaboration would work perfectly. In the end, it exceeded my expectations because it appears the two bands pushed each other to explore other elements (like rockabilly) to advance the growing psych resurgence. Unlike the other releases from Segall and White Fence in 2012, Hair was the perfect formula of guitar shredding solos and moments of restraint. The balance of these two elements lead to a short but more than satisfying listen that reaffirms why these two bands are firmly at the top of their genre.
SHARON VAN ETTEN
Sharon Van Etten suffered from the Beach House, "is it different enough from the last release" syndrome. For me, Tramp was the most logical next album from Van Etten after two highly personal releases. With Tramp, we still have Van Etten opening up to the listener, but it feels like we're also hearing her sing about her own growth and acceptance, a new aspect to her songwriting. It's been a real treat seeing her grow from her first album to Tramp, and while Epic remains my favorite, the newest offering shows a songwriter that some thought might only have little left to say speaking volumes from track to track.
A lot of people grouped the two Mount Eerie records in their best-of lists. I have no problem with this approach, as they're supposed to be companions, but Ocean Roar is the album that left me stunned. I'm not saying this album is Radiohead's Kid A, but I haven't felt the notion of a post-apocalyptic landscape translated into sound as perfectly until this album came around. The space that Ocean Roar explores is expansive, with each layer of sound stretching further than one would think possible. There is something evil lurking beneath the melodies of this album, but even with all the darkness, Ocean Roar manages to let the light in at all the right moments.
Album after album after album after album after album Deerhoof prove to be the most inventive and solid band in the contemporary scene. They've survived through changing decades and feel as fresh as ever on Breakup Song. Boasting the most talent per band member of any group out there, it's a headscratcher why such a beloved band hasn't propelled to being a household name. Unlike some previous releases, Breakup Song is extremely accessible - a spin jam packed with pure joy. I want to live in a world where I can walk into a dance club and songs off of Breakup Song are playing. I dream of Deerhoof headlining Madison Square Garden and being as popular as an Animal Collective or at the very least Grimes. It might never happen, but at the very least I know Deerhoof will keep making music that continues making me have these dreams.
The Tarnished Gold
Speaking of bands that don't get the credit they're due, we have Beachwood Sparks. If you talk to any music fan from Southern California, these guys are "indie" gods. Outside of that space, the band has small loyal followings from region to region, but in my opinion, deserve to be every bit as well-received as a band like The National. With more than a decade separating album releases, Beachwood Sparks showed no signs of rust with The Tarnished Gold. In fact, this album might grow to be my favorite release, considering that all the elements that made them a personal favorite are here front and center. On top of what we already knew about them, Beachwood Sparks seem to be working in a softer side that allows them to weave in a little bit more emotion on The Tarnished Gold than on anything that came before it. For me, this album is a must-list for year end recaps. Hopefully, it won't be another decade before hearing more from this spectacular band.
BEAR IN HEAVEN
I Love You, It's Cool
When everything was all said and done in 2012, I spent more time with I Love You, It's Cool than any other album. Bear In Heaven definitely win the award for the most underrated release from a band that is "rated" in the alternative world. I have a feeling that a large part of this is due to the fact that most of the tracks feel similar on the first couple of plays. However, the more time you spend with this album, the more separation starts to take effect, allowing some truly amazing moments of music to reveal themselves. One of the biggest problems with the current state of music journalism is that to be a successful music blog/website, you have to review at least five albums a day, five days a week. Even with a large staff, this leaves little time for an album to grow on a critic. That's exactly what I Love You, It's Cool does: it grows and grows. I promise that if any listener spends enough time with this record, you'll find it to be one of the best releases of 2012 rather than a step back, like most will have you believe.
ARIEL PINK'S HAUNTED GRAFFITI
I spent over two months working on a review of this record with fellow music writer Kenny Bloggins. I have too much to say about Mature Themes, so I refer you to: READ REVIEW.
As you're about to see by the following selections, maybe I'm growing soft in my old age. 2012 will always be one of the best years for folk and singer/songwriter albums in recent memory. One of the albums that made this possible was Baptist Girls, a quiet, unassuming release from Scott Kirkpatrick, a.k.a. Bro. Stephen. Baptist Girls is the album version of driving at night in the forest, windows rolled down, the fresh air making you feel alive. Recorded in a converted chicken coop, Baptist Girls doesn't have the biggest production, but it does have everything it needs to let Kirkpatrick shine as one of the best new voices in folk. There isn't a moment on this album where I don't find myself sucked in by waves and waves of emotion and melancholy. I've always found that one of the hardest things for a songwriter to accomplish is to be both bold and gentle - Kirkpatrick does this with ease, and Baptist Girls will always be one of the pieces of art that shaped my life in 2012.
Half Way Home
It's almost impossible not to just repeat myself with some of these summaries because everything I just said about Bro. Stephen can be applied to Angel Olsen. What stands out about Olsen is how unique her smoky, intense voice is at each and every moment of Half Way Home. This is another example of the many impressive debuts from 2012, and Olsen wastes no time stamping her name as one of the new artists to watch from here on out, if not the artist to watch. Over the past couple of weeks, I've seen bigger outlets taking note of Olsen, and it's only a matter of time before she reaches that next level of popularity. There isn't a wasted moment on Half Way Home - Olsen uses every second to announce herself to the world as an important voice that will surely shape the landscape of music for years to follow.
PORT ST. WILLOW
I'll let Brian Eno take this one. Of Port St. Willow's Holiday, Eno says, "I just heard a record last month by Port St. Willow— "Amawalk" (it's "Holiday" Eno, but please, go on)—which I became completely entranced by. I just thought how amazing that somebody could take the same few chords, pretty much the same sorts of sounds—it's quite hard to tell what is original about it, but I just know I've never heard it before. It's such a fabulous record." Eno sums this record up about as well as anyone could. Port St. Willow has crafted an album that takes simplicity and turns it into a life-changing piece of art. The emotion packed into Holiday is paralyzing, and I would gladly get lost in the mesmerizing sounds of this album forever.
Kurt Wagner a.k.a. Lambchop has been making fantastic albums since 1994 with a revolving cast of guest musicians acting as a backing band. With eleven fantastic albums under his belt, the biggest compliment I can pay Wagner is that Mr. M is his best one yet. With a genius-worthy mixture of Wagner's classic songwriting wit combined with an emphasis on long stretches of instrumental beauty, Mr. M is the definition of a complete and well-thought out album. Even though there are memorable single tracks capable of standing on their own, Mr. M is an album's album in every way, one where every moment of the record comes together to form a perfect journey from start to finish. In years past, Mr. M would have easily been my #1 record. It's that solid. However, this year, a record came along that was impossible to beat...
Joy And Better Days
Hip Hatchet's Joy And Better Days is my favorite record I've had the pleasure of listening to in the five years of running We Listen For You. On top of that, this is one of my favorite folk albums of all time. Philippe Bronchtein a.k.a. Hip Hatchet is such an amazing lyricist, I don't hesitate with listing him alongside the greats like Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and Stephin Merritt. I've been trying to think of the best lyric to highlight in this post, but the entire album is just one perfect line after another. My criteria for a perfect folk record is storytelling, poetic lyrics, sincerity, and melodies packed with honest emotion. Bronchtein gets tens in each of these categories on Joy And Better Days.
The album is a very important record to be released when it was. People seem to bemoan a changing America, and nostalgia for a better time is growing. Joy And Better Days makes the case that this better time still exists, and Bronchtein documents a large part of America by singing about his travels from New Jersey to Portland to start a new life. Along the way we learn about being a stranger in a new town, about life on the open road, about dive bars, and throughout it all, everything is painted with brush strokes that seem to come to life. The themes on this album are universal. Nostalgia, lost love, fear of the unknown, the pain of transition... all of them fill up Joy And Better Days without ever pandering. I always wanted to live in the time when Nick Drake was making music and with Hip Hatchet, that moment has come true. I can't wait to follow Bronchtein's career, and only hope that more people start paying attention to him, because he is quietly one of the greatest new talents in songwriting today.