Friday, January 25, 2013

Top 25 Albums of 2012

Every year for about the past five years, at one point or another some publication will releases an article talking about the "death of the album as we know it". And every year since those articles have begun to appear, bands worldwide have continued to put out thought-out, cohesive,  40-80 suites of music designed to be listened as a unit. Here now, a little after 2012 and looking back at the year, there were some truly incredible albums released during those 366 days. No trends, no requirements: just 25 really excellent albums that everyone should have gotten last year.

25. Gap Dream-Gap Dream: I want to call Gap Dream’s debut simple, but that feels like it is doing it a disservice somehow. Gap Dream feels like it’s from another era, 10 cuts of AM Gold influenced, burnt out psych from the mind of Gabe Fulvimar. It’s hazy in nearly every aspect, from the production, to the mood, to even the cover art itself. Still, it manages to claw its shimmering hooks inside the brain, its demented take on the genre(s) so well-crafted in the likes of “58th St. Fingers” or “Leather” that it feels like the album was actually plucked from the ‘70s, albeit an alternate dimension version of the decade.

24. Born Gold-Little Sleepwalker: Reinventions are nothing new with electronic artists, but rarely are they as much of a flip as Little Sleepwalker was with Born Gold. Completely stepping away from the creative bombast of Bodysong, Born Gold fully embrace mainstream pop, Burial style dubstep, and cut up synthpop, to craft a deeply twitched and new sound on Little Sleepwalker. Born Gold goes so far as to shift his vocals several octaves higher to change his sound even more. However, as current as Little Sleepwalker sounds, it is still a Born Gold, meaning that no matter what root Born Gold starts from, the end result is more off-kilter, more different, and more creative than where he started from. And that is no different with the ethereal Little Sleepwalker.

23. Royal Headache-Royal Headache: It seems so simple and so stupid at the same time; craft honest, genuine soul songs and have them backed by a garage-punk band. It could have easily turned out horrible, but Royal Headache’s self-titled debut instead turned out sort of really great. Shogun’s vocals are powerful, and well, deeply soulful, while the album’s clean production lets every instrument shine through, while still retaining more than enough energy to give every track a small, rough-around-the-edges quality. If this is what soul-punk is, less than three minute blasts sharply articulated of love and life, than I’m all for it.

22. Andrew Bird-Break it Yourself: I feel like Andrew Bird has never gotten the credit he deserves for his past few records, despite how solid each of his releases has been since The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Break it Yourself is another album to add to that cannon of quality works, a more cohesive album than expected that allows Bird to stretch out his legs sonically. Only two of the fourteen tracks are under four minutes, yet nothing feels unnecessarily long or forced. Instead, Break it Yourself is just as breezy as its predecessors, its hour length passing in the blink of an eye. Brilliantly constructed and intelligent indie-folk that feels instantly timeless. But what’s new for Andrew Bird?

21. Divine Fits-A Thing Called Divine Fits: Super groups, indie or not, will always get the short end of the stick with music history, not only having to create music of merit, but also having that music stand in the shadow of each member’s other musical accomplishments too. This is nothing new with music, or any musician who starts a new band after their initial one breaks up. Still, I feel it was that perspective that robbed people from fully appreciating A Thing Called Divine Fits. A deeply moody record that nicely balances Dan Boeckner synthier style to Britt Daniel’s bare-bones indie rock, ego doesn't prevail with Divine Fits but substance does. The pure intensity of “What Gets You Alone”, the sparse dance-rock of “Like Ice Cream”, the pitch perfect, and near haunting rendition of “Shiver”; if A Thing Called Divine Fits was nothing but the leftover scrapes from Boeckner and Daniel, they were more than substantial.

20. Dan Deacon-America: If America is what Dan Deacon sounds like grown-up, I do not mind him growing old at all. The shift is noticeable from the very beginning with “Guilford Avenue Bridge”, a track that begins with Deacon’s usual sonic barrage but instead tempers out to something more digestible half way through. Then there is the new found lyricism of “True Thrush” and the minimal, electronic burst (for Deacon) of “Lots”. Though what clenches Deacon’s stylistic shift is the epic, four part “USA” suite that ends the album. In those four tracks that can only be seen as a whole, Deacon creates something truly poetic and memorizing that he has never managed to accomplish before. America is a beautiful, chaotic, beep-filled sprawl, much like the thing it’s named after.

19. DREAMEND-And the Tears Washed Me, Wave After Cowardly Wave: How can something can someone turn something so awful and make it so beautiful and memorizing? That was the thought I had as And the Tears Washed Me, Wave After Cowardly Wave played, DREAMEND’s second album based on a found journal of serial killer. And I do mean fully heartedly that this album is beautiful. It’s creaky, lo-fi, fuzz folk that echoes and hums and just takes hold of you despite what bandmaster mind Ryan Graveface is singing. The haunting quality that the album has already with the instruments is just magnified by the songs’ content. And the Tears… is a deeply warped record, but being able to craft such warmth at the same time is something quite powerful.

18. Thee Oh Sees-Putrifiers II: After releasing two albums last year that encompassed practically every aspect of Thee Oh Sees from their drugged out folk tunes to their manic, speed-filled garage stompers, how does a band progress? If you’re Thee Oh Sees, you release possibly your most cohesive album to date and name it Putrifiers II. And that is exactly what they did. There is nothing toned down about Thee Oh Sees here; their weirdness is intact from the opening jolt of “Wax Face” to the sprawl of the title cut. However, they also let an old-school, sun baked catchiness infiltrate nearly every part of Putrifiers II, so not only do you have tracks like the breezy “So Nice” and utterly upbeat “Flood’s New Light”, but tracks like the eerie “Lupine Dominus” easily lock themselves in your brain as well. It’s the albums Thee Oh Sees would have made if they had existed in 1968, but made now.

17. Boomgates-Double Natural: Double Natural was not the post-punk meets indie pop entity that many (myself included) had inferred it would be from Boomgates’ previous singles. Instead, Double Natural was for the most part, very sweet, jangly pop tunes, filled with duel harmonies and commentaries on love and life. The thing is, Double Natural is very, VERY great jangle pop. Boomgates have bloomed into the band they wanted to be Double Natural, incorporating twee pop, restraint, twang, and pure romanticism to their sound to make all those styles so refreshing. If it’s indie pop that’s simple, it’s also indie pop that’s pretty perfect too.

16. Purity Ring-Shrines: Naming their debut album Shrines was a very smart move on Purity Ring’s part; the title invokes a sense of worship that is surprisingly prominent within their music. The production is equal parts eerie, clubby, and warm, choppy and manic in certain sections while spread out and glowing in others, all showing a clear dedication and attention to detail that doesn't shine with most electronic music. The lyrics carry an equal sense of devotion, though one that is both deeply sincere and very twisted that adds to the warm eeriness of the album. More so though, Purity Ring’s attention to craft is what makes their hypnotic, deeply modern electro pop so great.

15. Lower Dens-Nootropics: Nootropics is sort of like OK Computer in a lot of ways: it is a shift in a band’s sound that is sharp but logical, both contain an embedded sense of paranoia and reflection of encroaching technology, and both use lyrics which are at time both obtuse and completely understandable. Unlike OK Computer though, Nootropics fully embraces the dark atmosphere is interacts with rather than fighting against it. From the first notes of buzzy synth and pulled guitar lines of “Alphabet Song”, Lower Dens are crafting their own eerie, mechanical, and yes sometimes lovely world of electronic and mildly shoegazy electric-folk. from the soft vocal delivery to the sparse instrumentation, Nootropics is an album functions purely on subtlety (outside of the brilliant build of “Brains”), yet as quiet and distant as it can get, Nootropics never fails to pull you into its world, a world that is like floating through dark fog.

14. The Music Tapes-Mary’s Voice: Talking about The Music Tapes’ Mary’s Voice is a deeply tricky task because modern, buzz filled music writing has removed most of the necessary words required to give the album a proper description. For most it is several different takes on the word “old-timey”, but that doesn't come close to giving the album its dues. Mary’s Voice has an inherent, timeless quality due to band master mind Julian Koster’s flawless production, magnified greater by the band’s use of banjos, singing saws, brass, and even the cover art. However, anyone who has ever listened to The Music Tapes already knows all that. The magic of Mary’s Voice lies in how the band takes worthwhile risks, like the bombastic orchestra sound of “The Big Beautiful Shops (It's Said That It Could Be Anyone)”or the heartbreaking, six minute finale of “Takeshi and Elijah” which cement the creativity the band always have had at their core.

13. Ty Segall Band-Slaughterhouse: The reason I think everyone paid attention to the fact that Ty Segall was releasing three albums this year, lest we forget that Guided by Voices did the same too, was that we sort of knew that of anyone, Ty Segall might be able to make them all sound great. And listening to what he did as Ty Segall Band, that is more than true. Slaughterhouse is as close as we've gotten to a studio version of what Ty Segall and co. are like live: metal, sludge, punk, blues, and garage all ripped apart to their core, mushed together, and hypercharged. From the tension build and explosion of the appropriately titled “Death” to the screeching 10 minutes of ‘”Fuzz War” is this Ty Segall unleashed; may he never be contained again.

12. Titus Andronicus-Local Business: While Local Business might be (somewhat) fairly criticized for not being as great as The Monitor, I ask what band could ever properly follow up an album that emotional and powerful correctly? Instead, Titus Andronicus took a streamlined approach to their new album, and produced a very cohesive, anthemic, and flat out great indie rock album. From the opening desperation of “Ecce Homo” to the centerpiece of “My Eating Disorder” to the introspection of “In a Big City”, Titus Andronicus capture the sense of growing older and wiser, but no less lost or confused either. It might all be local issues for Patrick Stickles and co., but the themes and emotions will always be universal.

11. Animal Collective-Centipede Hz: Was Centipede Hz the most under appreciated album of 2012? Probably. The bigger issue was how that rejection was applied to Hz; no savage reviews, no hyperbolic rejection on the internet. Just a steady stream of “Eh” from nearly everyone, in the same way everyone seemingly approached Radiohead’s King of Limbs last year. And much like King of Limbs, I can’t wait for people to turn back and realized how great Centipede Hz is. Yes, it is spazy, noisy, dense, and just flat out weird, but those things are what make it so enjoyable. From the crash of “Moonjock” and forward, its surreal world opens up, takes hold and never lets go. After the relatively placid Merrieweather Post Pavilion, that is a very ggreat thing.

10. David Byrne & St. Vincent-Love This Giant: Really, could you have asked for a better pairing? The idiosyncrasies of these two artists are in full force here with nothing tempered, instead every weird impulse or quirk amplified. Love This Giant feels herky-jerky, but extremely loose at the same time. A huge brass band is at the core of every song, but the album has deep, modern electronic undercut to it as well. The entire album was made through file sharing, yet everything feels so interconnected that it feels like the two artist were making it together side by side in the studio. Most importantly though is how mind-blowingly creative and original these tracks are: the fractured bump of opener “Who”, the industrial percussion meets pop jazz of “Ice Age, the chaotic, dark swirl of “I Should Watch TV”, each not even close to properly representing Love This Giant. A truly unique album in an age where that is seemingly a more impossible feat to pull off.

9. The Mountain Goats-Transcendental Youth: When I saw the Mountain Goats for the first time in 2012, John Darnielle said he that despite the massive joy within him from his new born son he said he would try as hard as he could to not let it soften his music, going so far as to say he was going to make a Satan record for the kid. While I don’t think he succeeded in that department completely with Transcendental Youth (except for the awesome screaming demonic heads that adorn the cover), Darnielle and co. did succeeded in delivering their craft in full effect. Starting with a tribute to Amy Winehouse in the form of “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1”, the album proceeds to 11 more stories of deeply damaged, doomed, or dead people that one still should glimmer perspective, or even hope from. Highly emotional, near heartbreaking stuff, but for John Darnielle that’s just the usual, though Transcendental Youth is anything but.

8. METZ-METZ: Anyone who thought “they don’t make them like they use to” when listening to METZ’s debut is wrong; there are tons of bands producing quality post-hardcore, Jesus Lizard influenced albums out there. We, the blogosphere, just don’t listen to them. Which is why I’m so grateful that everyone paid attention to this album; it, like others by Milk Music, The Men, and Ty Segall, have helped usher different types of guitar rock back to the forefront of the indie conscious. More so though, METZ’s self-titled is just headache inducing good; crushing, pulverizing, pounding Sonic Youth meets The Melvins riffs, bass, and drums that smash over the listener for 29 minutes, augmented by vocals that are like a knife to glass. It’s a kick to the chest crafted 10 different ways, only (briefly) letting up to bring itself harder on you

7. Japandroids-Celebration Rock: The fact that Japandroids decided to both open and close Celebration Rock with the sound of fireworks could have been the most self-damming thing possible, but in fact is the clearest representation of what the album is. Everything that was spectacular about Post-Nothing, the energy, the passion, the excitement, is there on Celebration Rock times a hundred. Easily the most anthemic album of the year, the amount of times I've screamed along to the chorus in my car, in my room, out in the street, even when they were just “Oh oh oh oh oh” are too many to count. It’s deeply euphoric music, pure and simple from the cries of “The Night of Wine and Roses” to howls of “The House that Heaven Built”. Life, young, foolish, and joy-filled, crystallized into eight tracks.

6. Godspeed You! Black Emperor-Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!: For nearly everyone, Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! was a “FINALLY”. For me though, it was a “first”: first proper exposure to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, first time seeing them live, first time being floored, risen, and utterly blown away by them. Really, I don’t think I could have asked for a better introduction than Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! It’s haunting yet beautiful, with its two “full length” tracks spiraling higher and higher, hinged on a graceful, Middle Eastern influence (opener “Mladic” is particularly overwhelming), while brought back down by the album’s two “ambient” tracks. Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is like a crash course in every aspect of GY!BE, and it is an utter powerful, gorgeous one at that.

5. DIIV-Oshin: The sonic world DIIV creates with their debut album is matched perfectly to its title. The album envelopes the listener, washing over them gracefully and sublimely, the effortless post-Galaxie 500 dream pop created by DIIV blurring together in the most positive way possible. But so too are the off elements of the band here as well invoked by the misspelling; the subtle but ever present melancholy within the album, magnified by the sparse, nearly non-present lyrics. Perhaps I’m over thinking Oshin, but I don’t care; this is fully formed, beyond excellent dream pop created by a band that should be too young to be able to pull off such feats. They do though, and it is wonderful.

4. Ty Segall-Twins: There is one element that Ty Segall is able to channel in Twins that wasn't there with Slaughterhouse: focus. When it’s just him in the studio, he has to make every note, every moment count, and it shows here. Twins is possibly Segall’s best solo album, and possibly just best album in general. Dropping most the folk-rock he picked up with Goodbye Bread, Segall channels a demented mix of classic, glam, and fuzzy garage rock, that manages to be heavy and blaringly loud, yet each song still contains a core of something to make the noise memorable and infectious. Only someone like Ty Segall could be so prolific, and yet still produce something of such quality.

3. Whirr-Pipe Dreams: Anyone who says shoegaze is just loud guitar noise, that it is all generic, that nothing original has come from the genre since Loveless, 1) needs to shut up & 2) go listen to Pipe Dreams. Whirr, one of the best shoegaze bands in North America, released Pipe Dreams to little fan fare, which is an utter shame because of how utterly stupendous it is. Blaring yet sublime walls of guitar form and envelope every inch of this record as the just flat-out stunning duel vocals of Alexandra Morte and Loren Rivera add just effortless beauty to every track with every word they utter. The true magic of Pipe Dreams, however, lies in the emotional sucker punch it delivers. Despite the blur, haze, and distortion, the fact that nearly every lyric is indecipherable, like Cocteau Twins before them, Whirr’s music still hits you hard in the chest with every listen. Something starts hurting in my chest every time I play this album, and for Pipe Dreams to be so great as to physically affect me, says more than enough about the album.

2. The Men-Open Your Heart: I have yet to have my jaw drop from hearing a piece of music, but I know for a fact that my mouth contained an extremely large grin after hearing Open Your Heart. Probably the closest approximation to what Hüsker Dü would turn out to be today, Open Your Heart is an explosion of hardcore fury, Dinosaur Jr. riffs, krautrock extension, post-punk angularism, the smallest hints of country, and bits of tons of other genres that The Men manage to cram together in the most seamless and intense ways possible. Open Your Heart roars at you through anger, sadness, loss, and when it’s not it’s just slowly building to that point. Few pure rock albums manage to be this smart, creative, and engaging and Open Your Heart does all three of those things with utter ease. A classic in the making, I’m sure of it.

1. Mount Eerie-Clear Moon/Ocean Roar: Dichotomy has always been one of the core tenants of Phil Elverum’s song writing (“Ocean 1,2,3”, “Samurai Sword”, the entirety of Wind's Poem), but nowhere has that been more self-evident than in here, when he released two albums to specifically highlight this quality. Clear Moon, a representation of his softer, quieter, and more synthetic sound, and Ocean Roar the complete counter-point of crashing noise, eerie quiet, and abject loneliness. While it might seem like a cop out to put these two records together on the same spot, really they are both halfs of the same record.  They are interconnected, not just in the way almost everything Mount Eerie has created is interconnected, but in how they both fill in each other's gaps, expressing whatever the other one doesn't. It's profoundly sad music, captured at both it's quietest and loudest points, and in both cases are utter master works for an artist who has made several already.

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