2012: My End-Of-Year List
The year 2012 was a pretty good one for music if you ask me. So good in fact, that I felt like expanding my usual top 10 into a top 15. So here it is, followed by my thoughts on a bunch of other music I heard this year. Full steam ahead!
15. The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio
This really shouldn't be on my list. This album is deeply flawed, it’s extremely cheesy, over-produced, and more than a little awkward (those Mike Love lyrics are shudder-worthy to say the least). But I can't deny it, I've spun this record more times this year than any other album on this list. It’s such a breeze to listen to and some of that Beach Boys magic of old still remains no matter how much they try to smooth it out with Auto-Tune. This isn’t a return to glory days at all, but with Brian Wilson leading the band again, it’s perhaps the best we’re going to get from a bunch of old geezers making fun-times-on-the-beach tunes. I’d put this in the middle of the pack when comparing it to Brian Wilson’s solo work, but as a Beach Boys product, this is a cut above most of the sludge they’ve been pumping out for three decades now.
14. Iamamiwhoami – Kin
After a couple years of posting songs and videos to YouTube, this mysterious audio-visual act finally released their debut album this year. I was a little worried that the songs wouldn’t hold up without the gorgeous videos accompanying them, but my fears were unfounded. These are some really solid electro-dream-pop tunes. It’s constantly awash in reverb and an eerie atmosphere, but it never strays too far from its pop roots.
13. Big Boi – Vicious Lies And Dangerous Rumours
This is not quite up to the same standard as 2010’s Sir Lucious Left Foot, mainly thanks to a handful of Big Boi’s collaborators turning in perfunctory verses, and his penchant for getting indie musicians to sing his hooks may work for some more than others. But still, nobody makes pop rap like Big Boi. His production is always stellar and this record is no exception. No two verses or choruses truly sound alike and the beats and musical elements are always changing. It’s bright, joyful, and fun, but not unbearably corny like most of the stuff in this style you hear on the radio. Some of the individual highlights are among my favourite tracks he’s ever done. Especially “Mama Told Me,” that track is funky as hell!
12. David Byrne & St Vincent – Love This Giant
This collaboration didn't go where I expected it to, but it still ended up being pretty interesting. Both artists are represented pretty equally, and neither really dominates over the other. The preponderance of horns on the record gets a little tiring when listening to the whole thing, but it’s still an interesting aesthetic. I’m more of a St. Vincent fan than a David Byrne fan (at least as far as their recent output goes), but they both turn in some great tracks, “Weekend In The Dust” and “I Should Watch TV” being my personal favorites. The pair works really well together, and I hope to see more collaborations between them in the future.
11. The Frank Znort Quartet – Perler Fra Svin
This Norwegian group had been around for well over a decade but only got around to their proper debut this year. It's a ragtag collection of covers some of which will be familiar to the average listener but most of which won't. It’s basically an old-school party album; there’s jazz, boogie, blues, folk, rock, and more, which should make even the most cynical of folks (like me) want to get up and dance. Not every track is a home run, but these two disks are full of highlights. It’s overlong for sure, but if you had a decades worth of repertoire in your back pocket, you'd probably make a pretty long album, too. Besides, it’s a party, and how many parties last the length of just one short album? The handful of non-English tracks might throw off a few listeners if they aren't expecting it, but I’m actually really fond of them in particular. This record also includes possibly the most raucous cover of “Do You Want To Dance” I have ever heard.
10. Anglagård – Viljans Oga
Returning after a twenty year break, Änglagård doesn’t skip a beat. This is an album of lengthy instrumental progressive rock that refuses to be modern in any way. Flute, mellotron, hammond organ, and more make this feel like it came straight out of a bygone era. The mood is dark and chilly, but less in a creepy Halloween way and more in a long winter's night way. It sounds almost exactly like their original output twenty years ago, to the extent that I’d bet some people probably wouldn’t be able to guess which songs were produced then and now if they were all shuffled up. That lack of originality might be a downside to some but it was never what the band was about in the first place, and when it comes to recreating ‘70s prog bliss, they still can't be beat.
9. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel...
I've liked Apple's past work but was never really in love with more than a couple tracks per album. This record, however, definitely struck more of a chord with me than any of her others. The songs are very stripped down, pushing her vocals and personality to the forefront. The lyricism is typically strong, and Fiona’s voice is as emotive as ever. It helps that some of these songs are highly addictive, too; the chanted “Hot Knife” looped over and over in my head for weeks after I first heard it. On the whole, this album is Fiona Apple's most playful release, and I think that's what appeals to me most about it.
8. Ben Folds Five – The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind
Some people might have wondered what the difference between a Ben Folds solo album and an album by the Ben Folds Five is. Well, with The Five reuniting after 12 years, we can finally confirm that the difference is mainly one of quality. On a solo album Folds can do whatever he wants, including songs both good and bad. But with his bandmates along for the ride once again, he needs to be on his A-game at all times. There are a few more ballads here than you might be used to from a Ben Folds Five record (though you’d be very used to them from Folds’ solo career), but they’re really good ones, so you won't hear me complaining. Meanwhile, the upbeat tunes are all instant Folds classics.
7. Scott Walker – Bish Bosch
Scott Walker’s music tends to bend the definition of “weird” past its breaking point, and Bish Bosch is no exception. It’s not an easy listen by any stretch of the imagination. Lengthy a capella portions alternate with chilling soundscapes. Twisted lyrics about dwarf stars, gonads, and Communist leaders feature prominently. And nothing whatsoever even remotely approaches a standard song structure. Scott’s last album The Drift was similar, but this album distinguishes itself by being slightly less dismal and by displaying a sense of humor (fart noises and insult jokes feature prominently). Walker's music feels less like a bunch of songs and more like aural art. There are less tunes here than tones. There aren’t arrangements so much as there are blocks of sound (or lack thereof). It’s not something to just listen to, it’s something to sit back and experience. Scott Walker demands your attention, and if you aren’t willing to give it or don’t like what you hear when you do, then it’s probably best for you just to back away slowly. Personally, I find Scott’s particular brand of avant garde insanity as gripping as can be.
6. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
This music had been floating around in the band's live sets for quite a while, which meant that by the time the songs were properly recorded, the band knew them like the back of their hands. That connection with the material shows, since this music is tighter and more focused than you might expect for a band that specializes in instrumental 20-minute post rock behemoths. The two epics contained within this album are expansive and emotional, and the two shorter tracks are detailed and subtle. These tracks move quickly and purposefully, each section developing just enough to satisfy before shifting onto the next thing. All things considered, this might be Godspeed’s most accessible release yet.
5. Animal Collective – Centipede Hz
A kaleidoscope of trippy sounds and effects back up Animal Collective’s most aggressive batch of tunes ever. This record is so colorful it verges on turning brown. That was a downside for many folks, but personally I couldn't get enough of it. Few bands can make experimental music at the same time as crafting tremendous pop tunes, but Animal Collective seems to do it effortlessly. Each Animal Collective record exists in its own little world, and this one is no exception. Layers and layers of musical elements pile on top of one another clattering around the speakers until you can’t pick anything out anymore. Yet amongst the joyful cacophony, they still don't forget to write some good songs. It’s not as career defining as Merriweather Post Pavilion was but it’s own bold statement nonetheless.
4. Jack White – Blunderbuss
I've never been a huge fan of Jack White’s previous bands and projects, but Blunderbuss has done a lot in the way of bringing me over to Jack’s side. It’s got great rock songs of all stripes. Heavy tracks, soulful cuts, and songs influenced by electronics, folk and blues. White’s projects trend to focus mostly on one style out aesthetic at a time, but instead of doing that, this album demonstrates the best of what he's capable of all at once.
3. Mike Keneally & Andy Partridge – Wing Beat Fantastic
Andy Partridge is one of my favorite songwriters, but in the wake of XTC’s dissolution 10 years ago, he seems pretty determined not to put out normal solo albums. This collaboration with Mike Keneally is the closest he's come yet. The songwriting is as clever and engaging as anything Andy’s done in the past and Mike’s performances and arrangements make for the perfect accompaniment, giving the songs a significant amount more grit and instrumental color than they might have had Andy done these tunes on his own. Overall, this is a paradise of pop songwriting cleverness.
2. Death Grips – The Money Store
Aggressive, unrelenting, and brutal. Death Grips can barely even be considered rap. It’s like hip-hop funnelled through a punk fever-dream. The Money Store features the best of everything the band is capable of. The lyrics paint grimy visions of aggression and paranoia (at least when you can understand them), and the music twists and contorts what could possibly be considered club beats into oblivion and back again. The hooks are extremely long, to the point that each track is instantly memorable. But they do it without going “pop” or sacrificing any of their musical grit in the slightest. The Money Store is packed like a hoarder house with odd synths, weird samples, brain bending sound effects, and an enormous wallop of attitude.
1. Zammuto - Zammuto
The Books was a band I always found to be more interesting than good. When they broke up at the start of this year, I didn’t really care. But then former member Nick Zammuto put out his first album apart from the band, and it grabbed my attention in a big way. These songs are experimental, yes, but unlike The Books, highly tuneful as well. I absolutely love how bright and dry this album sounds. Too many experimental albums drown in reverb; this one leaves everything right in the open. Clarity is the name of the game. Everything is crisp and precise, especially the drums and percussion. This album might contain my favourite drum production ever. It's always so clear and upfront and involved. The musicianship is tight as can be -- some of the guitar work almost reminds me of King Crimson at times (albeit a much brighter, happier version). The vocal manipulations might take getting used to for some, but even that clicked right away for me. You can't get bored when every song has a different vocal style going for it. The first two thirds of this album are nearly perfect for me. The ending trails off a little with some slower and quieter material, but even those songs are growers. The arrangements aren’t overly cluttered with elements to get in the way of the music, but they also aren't so spare that they lose the listener's interest. A terrific blend of musical elements, impeccable production, and some great songwriting all combine to make this my favorite record of 2012.
A bunch other music that I got enjoyment from this year:
The Flaming Lips - The Flaming Lips And Heady Fwends
With possibly the most all over the place group of collaborators ever assembled, the Flaming Lips still managed to pull off a pretty great album. It’s neat to see where the different collaborators push the band, but each time they stay strong doing their thing. It’s not as consistent as the vast majority of their studio output, but that should be expected with a collection of one-off collaborations. For something as scattered as this is, it holds up surprisingly well as an album.
Astra - The Black Chord
Astra aims for the same vintage-prog territory as Änglagård, and while they don't succeed to the same extent, this is still a respectable effort. Unlike Änglagård, who aim to replicate the vibes of acts like King Crimson and Amon Düül II, Astra try for echoes of Pink Floyd and Genesis. This is their second album and it’s stronger than their first by a small but definite margin. They come up with a solid amount of good riffs and memorable compositions, though they suffer from being too meandering and wishy-washy for their own good sometimes.
Guided By Voices - Let’s Go Eat The Factory, Class Clown Spots A UFO, & The Bears For Lunch
Few bands are capable of putting out one album in three years, let alone three albums in one, but don't tell that to Robert Pollard. Not only did his newly reunited band hit that milestone, but he also found time to crank out a bunch of solo albums as well. It’s par for the course for him, but the sound of the classic line-up of Guided By Voices really brings his songs to the next level. If these three records were combined into one with just the best tracks from each, it would possibly rival any of the band’s best albums and would have easily risen to near the top of my list. But as is typical for most of Pollard’s projects, quantity over quality is the order of business so there is loads of filler mixed in. Oh well.
Death Grips - NO LOVE DEEP WEB
Speaking of band who released multiple albums this year, Death Grips also managed the feat. Released amidst a storm of odd circumstances that threatened to completely overshadow the record (the band basically did all they could to get themselves kicked off their record label, including releasing the album for free online and making the album cover extremely X-rated), the record still manages to stand apart from The Money Store and includes a solid number of the band’s best songs. It’s not as consistent as its recent predecessor, however, and the overall sound is far too sparse for my liking. Keyboardist Flatlander’s dark synths are all but absent from this record. Fans of Zach Hill’s drumming will find plenty to love, though; next to the vocals, drums are practically the lead instrument here. And when it comes to the vocals, this is MC Ride's most intense burst of raw anger and brutality yet.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti - Mature Themes
There are some weak tunes on this record (mainly in the second half), which will probably ensure that it won’t come to be regarded as one of Ariel Pink’s greatest records, but it does contain some of his best songs. The longing beauty of songs like “Only In My Dreams” and the title track kept me coming back.
Gorillaz, James Murphy, & Andre 3000 - DoYaThing
This isn’t an album, but since it runs 13 minutes it might as well be considered an EP. It was released as a one-off single, but it’s absolutely brilliant so it totally deserves to be on a year-end list. Three huge musical personalities collaborating could have been a too many cooks in the kitchen disaster but the track turned out to be exactly as fantastic as could have been expected from the collaboration. Andre 3000 absolutely dominates the song with a great sung hook as well as fantastic verses, one written and performed tight as hell, and the other completely improvised, loose, and full of character. But the epic length is pure LCD Soundsystem, and the beat is pure Gorillaz. There’s no doubt about it, this song *is* the shit.
Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
Ocean's soulful tunes don't resonate with me to the extent that I feel they’re trying to, but his voice and personality are still a breath of fresh air in the modern R&B landscape. It’s too bad this record is so hit and miss. Some tracks blow me away, others put me to sleep. He seems very intent on improving himself, though, and he is a really likeable guy. So hopefully future releases will see him getting better and better.
Steve Hackett - Genesis Revisited II
Here we have two hours of Genesis tunes re-recorded by former member Steve Hackett. Would you be better off listening to the originals? Probably. But did Hackett still do a tremendous job with these remakes? Absolutely. Hackett's first go at this project in 1996 screwed with the arrangements of the songs too much and featured some awkward vocal performances. This second volume, however, has consistently tremendous vocals from numerous guests, and sticks closer to the arrangements we know and love (and when it does deviate, it deviates in a good way). A handful of these new versions I actually like as much or better than the originals, which is high praise indeed. If you’re the kind of Genesis fan who’s memorised every moment of “Supper’s Ready,” this will be something you’ll absolutely want to check out. Remake albums are, as a rule, generally the furthest things from essential releases and this is no exception. But it’s still among the best remake albums you’ll ever come across.
Can - The Lost Tapes
Three disks of rare and unreleased Can. There have been numerous archival Can releases over the years so it’s pretty astonishing to find that they still have more in their vaults and that almost all of it is pretty darn great. I've never been much of a fan of the Malcom Moony era, so the tracks he’s featured on don't do a ton for me (though some are still good). The Suzuki stuff, on the other hand, is amazing and could have easily made for another classic Can album. It’s hard to believe that this material sat in the vaults for so long. This anthology touches on a little bit of everything that made Can a great band. I’d almost say this would be a pretty great introduction to the band, if it weren’t three disks long anyway.
Blur - Blur 21
An incredible box set. Having all of the band’s studio albums compiled together is pretty cool on it's own. But adding in nearly every B-side and unreleased track is something else entirely. There are more bonuses here than regular album material! And in case anybody had any doubts that Blur is a truly great band, most of the non-album material is just as good as what made it on the records (if not better in some cases). Blur 21 is everything a Blur fan could ever want really.
A few albums from this year that disappointed me for one reason or another:
Magnetic Fields – Love At The Bottom Of The Sea
The band returns to using synths for the first time since the classic 69 Love Songs. But instead of a return to form this album is a big flop. The synths add little but distraction, obscuring the songs instead of enhancing them. This only offers one or two highlights.
Die Antwoord - Ten$ion
Not terrible by any means, but Die Antwoord’s rave-rap-satire schtick is kind of growing tired. I know they’re capable of much more than this, but it seems like their Max Normal.TV and Constructus Corporation days are long behind them, and musically they’ve become content with whatever makes them the most money. Thankfully, they still push the envelope visually; their music videos in particular continue to be incredible.
Tenacious D - Rise Of The Fenix
While I do like Tenacious D's first record, and I'm quite fond of their movie and old TV show, this new album kind of blows. And the reason for that is that it's just not very funny. The first listen through provides a handful of giggles, but after hearing the jokes once they stop being funny. Their old material was a least pretty strong musically so that when you got sick of the joke you could still enjoy the songs, but this album doesn't really have that either.
Aaron Freeman - Marvelous Clouds
Ween, one of my all-time favorite bands, broke up this year, and the first solo material to appear came in the form of this record. As a small side project it’s pleasant. It sounds like a much sleepier version of Freeman’s former band’s 12 Golden Country Greats, but with Rod McKuen covers instead of original material. It makes for a nice enough listen on a lazy summer day, but nonetheless, as the debut of a solo career calling this underwhelming is an understatement. Hopefully, the former Geen Ween has some new songs up his sleeve in the future. At least there’s now a Ween-related album I’d feel comfortable playing in front of my grandma, though that’s a small consolation.
Rush - Clockwork Angels
There are a few big highlights here, but most of it is just a weaker version of the sound the band used to great effect on Snakes And Arrows. The concept aspect kind of drags the album down for me, I don’t mind Rush’s lyrics in general, but here it feels like the songs are supporting the lyrics instead of the other way around.
Barenaked Ladies - Stop If You’ve Heard This One Before
A near-total disaster. One of the most poorly assembled rarities compilations I've ever encountered. It’s extra shameful when you realize just how many great songs were cut that could have been here instead.
Best album of 2011 I missed from my list last year:
The Dear Hunter - The Color Spectrum
A microcosm of modern rock, The Color Spectrum touches upon tons of styles over its massive length and never runs out of steam doing it. I didn’t hear about this album until this past spring. During 2011 I never even knew that this existed. Where was the music press on this one? This should have been huge!
That's all for now folks! See you in 2013.
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