Favorite Albums of 2012
This year in the interest of avoiding the capitalist enterprise of ranking I’ve worked my Albums of the Year into groups of similar influence or sound*. Some of these groups I’ve assembled work better than others, but the emphasis is on a more direct achievement of the intended product of list-making season: spurring discovery. As every year, this collection represents merely a fraction of the music that moved me most this year. This year in particular thanks to endless streaming and availability, I feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incredible records, songs, or even just sounds by artists that I’ve been fortunate enough to hear. It’s never been easier to discover and engage such an array of life-altering artists and yet artists desperately need support now just as they did in the eras where this music was so much harder to obtain. Endless streaming as a discovery tool is miraculous for the underground yet an existence with streaming as the only medium threatens to further devalue artists’ work to practically nothing and support of the physical product or live performances is as critical towards keeping this art alive today as it was ever needed in the past.
Chromatics – Kill For Love; Grimes – Visions & Peaking Lights – Lucifer :: These records don’t have much at all in common sonically, yet they were the definitive expressive performances of the past year. Chromatics’ sedative new-wave bears little resemblance to the layered and nuanced electronics surrounding Grimes’ child-like vocals or the circuitous, unending dub jams of Peaking Lights. Yet these three records move and challenge the listener unlike anything else this year – almost guaranteed to confuse the listener upon first listen yet demanding of successive listens that allow the listener to submerge themselves in the emotional and sonic layers while becoming overwhelmed by the artists. As I mentioned above I don’t want to rank albums this year but I do want to emphasize that each of these 3 records more than any other defined this great year in listening for me.
Allo Darlin’ – Europe; Eternal Summers – Correct Behavior & Standard Fare – Out Of Sight, Out Of Town :: Yes, these are indie-pop (or twee-pop, if you will — NO WAIT, COME BACK, PLEASE) records, but I’m uncomfortably adamant this year that these are records everyone needs to hear, because they don’t deserve all the pretentious assumptions that come with the genre even if that’s truly the genre these records sonically belong to. And to be fair, Allo Darlin’ are the most twee of anything else here – Eternal Summers get pretty noisy during the triumphant “You Kill” and Standard Fare strike me more as what The Wedding Present would sound like if Gedge was a female but Allo Darlin’ is what definitely requires the listener to drop their hip-defenses and enjoy, because “Capricornia” is enough to lift anyone out of darkness no matter how bleak their skies may seem, and “Talulah” even though it’s just a vocal and a ukulele (I know, I’ve already lost you) features the most affecting lyrics you’ll find anywhere this year. Trust me on this one.
Led Er Est – The Diver; The Soft Moon – Zeros & Lust For Youth – Growing Seeds :: Darkwave, moreso than any other genre this year was one that I really grew infatuated with its sound and history and that was largely thanks to the strength of darkwave-inspired releases this year with a special emphasis on these two Sacred Bones releases as the label is really going out of its way to cultivate a home for these twisted, demented sounds. These three records are sonically similar despite being comprised of different elements – Led Er Est’s more atmospheric breadth of sound vs. Lust For Youth’s minimalist synth. The Soft Moon’s aggressive, aural assault rings true with their entire essential discography with track “Insides” among the best in any genre I’ve heard all year.
Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action At A Distance; Cold Pumas – Persistent Malaise & Beach House – Bloom :: I’m not sure if there are any more engrossing sonic performances this year than the Lotus Plaza and Beach House records. Bloom especially – whether you’re reading this as an avid fan of Pitchfork releases & reviews or just reading this in awe of how much time you think I’ve wasted on this – find a Beach House stream of this album and hear it, because it’s an experience that enhances any moment for an individual, whether in the car or earbuds in the gym or noise-cancelling headphones on the plane, this is a record that just genuinely deserves to be heard by everybody. I promise it won’t disappoint. The Lotus Plaza LP similarly finds incredible sonic depth in almost every song , making for the perfect aural escape for any listener. Cold Pumas’ Persistent Malaise gives its guitars a little more teeth in a sound that’s a little harder to peg, but again I’m drawn to the expanse of what feels like unending sonic landscapes that I immediately want to revisit as soon as one song expires into the next.
Royal Headache – Royal Headache; Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory & Terry Malts – Killing Time. There seems to be a tendency in rock-crit-lit that “indie rock” as a genre is redundant, non-innovative & generally unneeded despite the prevalent role the genre has served in the underground over the last several decades. And yet, I don’t know how else to characterize these records which are each so absolutely essential to any listener, whether one well-versed in the history of the underground or one who is simply emerging upon it today. Royal Headache’s “soul-punk” inevitably invokes a GBV-impression upon the listener yet I don’t know that Robert Pollard ever created something so emphatic. Dylan Baldi’s angst and frustration (and even mockery) assault the listener in a way that would surprise anyone familiar with his previous work – anyone, that is, except the intended audience here who is going through exactly that angst and frustration with their own past that Baldi is speaking to in Assault On Memory. And Terry Malts’ arrogance and bravado again match exactly the young-20′s male that’s probably the only one listening to this record in the first place. For a genre that’s supposedly non-innovative, it sure is hard to find anything that resembles these records exactly, and yet these records and this genre form a part of every underground listener’s past no matter how easy it may be to disown once the vast world of the underground is uncovered by the listener.
The Men – Open Your Heart; Bob Mould – Silver Age & Japandroids – Celebration Rock :: College Rock is as alive today as it was in the 80s even if the sound isn’t necessarily progressing from where it was decades ago, although fans of the genre wouldn’t have it any other way. The Men turn in a flawless Hüskers performance on Open Your Heart and Bob Mould’s Silver Age might as well have been billed under the Sugar name. As I remarked earlier this year on twitter, Japandroids’s Celebration Rock may very well be the greatest record for pent-up males slamming cheap beer and hitting the town to make bad decisions since The Hold Steady’s Boys & Girls In America. In fact it may very well be even better than that record. From someone whose very life existence was defined by that record, there’s just no greater endorsement I can give.
METZ – METZ; Nü Sensae – Sundowning & Screaming Females – Ugly :: Sometimes all you need as a listener is a good punch-in-the-face, and to try and keep from over-complicating this, that’s exactly what each of these records provide. METZ have more of a streamlined, steam-rolling assault vs. Andrea Lukic of Nü Sensae’s more chaotic, individual spasms in each and every track while the band buzzsaws through your speakers. Screaming Females are inevitably grouped with these sounds based on their historical reputation, even though on Ugly the band turns in a far more intricate & soul-affecting performance than what you’ll find throughout their back-catalog.
Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man; Twin Shadow – Confess & Frankie Rose – Interstellar :: Thematically these records have more in common than they do sonically – each of these artists turn in performances that transcend the genres that they were borne from and are almost universally recommended to any listener. I recommended Twin Shadow’s Confess more than any other this year because this LP is just universally great pop songwriting delivered on an energetic performance that’s in my opinion, impossible to dislike. The fact Natasha Khan is pictured naked on her Bat For Lashes album cover is incredibly appropriate considering it’s the most baring songwriting & performance you’ll hear all year – it reminds me more of Joni Mitchell’s Blue in how uncomfortably exposing this performance is. It feels cliche to call Frankie Rose’s Interstellar transcendent, but that’s exactly what this record is as a soaring vocal is delivered amidst a sonic landscape that is worthy of soundtracking one’s most far-reaching dreams, and after hearing “The Fall” you’ll wonder if you may already actually be fast asleep.
Memoryhouse – The Slideshow Effect; Sourpatch – Stagger And Fade & La Sera – Sees The Light :: More female-fronted indie-pop in this group (and all over this page!) and here Sourpatch & La Sera are most closely related being guitar-pop bands where Memoryhouse is a nuanced, reflective dream-pop but perhaps my inclination to group these records is how refreshing each of these performances are. Effective pop songwriting is a powerful vehicle and often something that seems simple & natural gets overlooked even if the achievement of simplicity is a far more difficult trait to obtain than being buried in infinite, confounding layers.
Whirr – Pipe Dreams; Ringo Deathstarr – Mauve and Young Prisms – In Between :: Noise-pop (or “Shoegaze”) at its absolute pinnacle utilizes vocals so effectively as merely another instrument in the sonic landscape in such a way that whatever the lyricists are actually saying is so irrelevant that the listener essentially doesn’t even want to know what is being said because the totality of the entire sonic package is so much more convincing than anything words could ever convey. Ringo Deathstarr’s Mauve is the greatest My Bloody Valentine imitation I’ve heard since the originals and in all honesty I doubt even MBV’s highly-anticipated comeback next year can match how absorbing this performance is. The Young Prisms and Whirr performances are powerful yet engaging sonic escapes, the type where you can put headphones on and simply disappear from the world — soul-medicine unlike anything worldly-attainable.
Maribel – Reveries; Rat Columns – Sceptre Hole & Raveonettes – Observator :: The Maribel and Raveonettes records here have the most in common even if they are two bands coming from vastly different backgrounds, but both of these records truly deliver the soaring in the dream-pop that the listener desires. The Rat Columns record here is the intriguing option that kind of defines grouping thanks to the wild array of soundscapes and influences on display throughout this LP but inevitably it comes back to what draws the listener to dream-pop, the sonic-escape and embrace that defies explanation. When one first encounters the dream-pop escape it saves the listener in a way one never could have imagined until hearing it at that very moment; it’s a reminder to the theraputic component of the genre that gives it distinction apart from anything else in art as even film seems one dimensional compared to dream-pop when at it’s absolute best.
Prissy Clerks – Bruise Or Be Bruised; PAWS – Cokefloat! and Swearin’ – Swearin’ :: I love these indie-pop records so much, they invoke the spirit of creativity and complexity while sounding young, naive and amateur at their core yet featuring musicianship and key-changes of bands that are incredibly accomplished at their craft. These are guitar-ridden, garage-pop records that wear emotion on the sleeve – the type that remind you of why you even listen to music as a release and an inspiration in the first place. These performances are transcendent and inspired yet would admittedly sound a little out of place anywhere bigger than a claustrophobic basement surrounded by close friends. If I sound irrational and gushing over these records, that’s because that’s exactly how I feel about these records and I simultaneously want to let everybody in and nobody else in on these secrets at the exact same moment.
Merchandise – Children Of Desire; Black Marble – A Different Arrangement and Holograms – Holograms :: These albums undeniably carry post-punk and darkwave influences yet are so strong in their performances that you can’t simply characterize these albums as such. I don’t know if any other performance this year shook me quite as much as Merchandise’s Children Of Desire, as Carson Cox’s Berlin Bowie-like vocals came shrouded in layers of noise and distortion. So often darkwave-influences mean you’re stuck with almost free-form songs, yet both Children Of Desire and A Different Arrangement are characterized by melodies so strong that the groups simply can’t obscure them in noise & despair no matter how hard they try. Black Marble manage to create Closer-levels of anguish despite just being a minimalist synth two-some, where again the melodies here are so memorable that any listener will enjoy even if they don’t typically love all the self-loathing these genres are typically rife with. Holograms made me think Robert Smith & The Cure within almost seconds of hitting play (and seriously, “Apostate” quite literally starts off sounding like something off of Three Imaginary Boys and Pornography).
Beth Orton – Sugaring Season; Wymond Miles – Under The Pale Moon & Port St. Willow – Holiday :: These records are the most affecting vocal performances you’ll hear this year and each individually feature such emotional baggage that the listener almost needs to be careful of where you choose to experience it, for you could quickly find yourself with moist eyes and nary an explanation of why exactly you’ve been moved to such a physical expression of emotion. These albums are quite different in the sonic environments that encapsulate these vocal performances even if the prevailing emotion seems to hit one the same, and you owe it to yourself to engage each of these albums with headphones and closed eyes.
Diiv – Oshin; Dunes – Noctiluca & Wild Nothing – Nocturne :: I hate putting the two Captured Tracks releases here in the same group as that’s so inherently obvious, but the dream-pop brand going in Captured Tracks is so convincing & genre-defining at the moment that there’s simply no way around it. If you’re not listening to essentially every single Captured Tracks release at the moment, all I can say is you eventually will be as there’s an era-defining sound coming out of this Brooklyn-based label. Ironically, I don’t feel that the Diiv or Wild Nothing releases necessarily hold a candle to the hallowed releases of this label (Beach Fossils s/t & Wild Nothing’s Gemini), but the point here is moreso that there is such a cultivation of a sound – a sound of an era, or of a generation, and that these releases are so convincing and effective at it which means we are genuinely living in a moment, a moment to be embraced and loved before inevitably moving on. Dunes, while not being a Captured Tracks beneficiary furthermore give additional credence to the significance of the sound of this moment, and while Captured Tracks are certainly carrying the torch for this sound they are not the only label supporting it.
Jessica Pratt – Jessica Pratt; Daughn Gibson – All Hell & Sera Cahoone – Deer Creek Canyon:: I’ve always been deeply moved by country and folk-inspired performances by what feels like an even more exposed soul than in any other line of music, yet writing each of these records off as merely country or folk really fails to capture the depth in sound each of these records have created. Sera Cahoone’s songwriting and downtrodden delivery invokes thoughts of Gillian Welch, and Deer Creek Canyon is the complete emotional destruction of a record that Kathleen Edwards quit giving us. Jessica Pratt delivers such a bare & raw serenade that one is reminded of what folk records used to actually sound like – an unobstructed delivery of a vocal and lyric as opposed to a deluge of stringed instruments. Daughn Gibson’s performance is impossible to peg in a way you wish more singer songwriters would do, he sounds like a cowboy on keys playing for the only lounge in a small town with an audience that is simultaneously challenged and completely engrossed.
Lower Dens – Nootropics; Liars – WIXIW & Cult Of Youth – Love Will Prevail :: The Lower Dens and Liars records here have more in common than you might initially think, both creeping (almost haunting) purposely understated deliveries over sonic landscapes that evolve and morph throughout each individual performance. The Cult Of Youth LP stands in contrast to these two, with its more brash delivery, chanting and prominent acoustic guitar at the forefront of a blur of sounds. The common thread here may be a bit more of a reach, but these are each undeniably in the spirit of a post-punk performance, blending influences yet molded into something greater than what has come before it.
*Thanks to Aquarium Drunkard’s 2012 Year In Review for the inspiration on grouping and layout.