Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Top Albums: 2012

Since the world didn't end, I guess I should go ahead and post my usual end-of-year lists. (If the Mayans had been right, it would have saved me a lot of work.) As usual, there are a host of big movies that have yet to come to the cultural cesspool that is Arizona, so that list won't come for a couple weeks. But we can start with my favorite albums. 2012 was a good-but-not-great year for music -- deeper than last year, but not quite as top-heavy. At least, that's my initial impression. Who knows what 2012 records will still be on rotation in a year, 2 years, 5 years. There's probably a 2012 chestnut or two that I haven't even discovered yet. My point, as always, is that these lists are subjective and volatile and will probably be irrelevant sooner rather than later. But I enjoy putting them together anyway. So, keeping with that theme, let's start with a few records that I enjoyed but just wasn't able to spend enough time with to confidently rank:

Ben Folds Five - The Sound of the Life of the Mind
Father John Misty - Fear Fun
Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel...
Jack White - Blunderbuss
The xx - Coexist

Now, the Honorable Mentions, in alphabetical order (* = saw live this year):

Beach House - Bloom
Ben Kweller - Go Fly a Kite
Brandi Carlile - Bear Creek
Cloud Nothings - Attack on Memory
Cory Branan - Mutt
Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan
Eve 6 - Speak in Code
Hospitality - Hospitality
The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond
Lucero - Women & Work*
The Lumineers - The Lumineers
The Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth
Reel Big Fish - Candy Coated Fury
Silversun Pickups - Neck of the Woods
Titus Andronicus - Local Business

With 15 down, the next 10 will make a pretty good list of my 25 favorite records from 2012. Here we go:

10) St. Lucia - St. Lucia [EP]
Genre: Electronic/indie/pop
Standout tracks: "All Eyes On You," "Before the Dive," "Closer Than This"

It's only six songs long, but they're good enough to snag the #10 spot on this list (and hey, spoilers, my #2 only has 8 songs). St. Lucia is dreamy, dancy electropop in the same vein as Passion Pit, The Naked and Famous, et al., -- Drive soundtrack music, if you will (and I, for one, will). "All Eyes On You" sports a chanty chorus and mid-song saxophone solo that totally works; "Before the Dive" is is a jaunty little number, replete with jangly keys and smooth synth; disc-closer "Closer Than This" is on the shortlist for my favorite song of the year. On it, Jean-Philip Grobler, the Brooklynite (of course) behind St. Lucia, allows his sonorous voice to take center stage to tell a simple love story that would sound perfect over a Ryan Gosling/Carey Mulligan (deleted) love scene -- or maybe just your own private night drive. Either way, it should whet your appetite for the upcoming (James Iha-produced) full length. You can also watch the video for their new single "September" right here. I'll be right here saying, "You're welcome" when the full-length is on your top 10 list next year.

9) The Bouncing Souls - Comet
Genre: Punk/rock
Standout tracks: "Baptized," "Fast Times," "In Sleep"

I've long been of the opinion that music doesn't have to be "arty" -- complex, aesthetically-challenging, innovative, or what have you -- to garner a spot of "best of" lists. You just have to fucking like it. And I fucking liked the new Bouncing Souls record. The Souls have always been effortlessly likeable ever since I first heard "Hopeless Romantic" on a Punk-O-Rama compilation years ago. An improvement on their last outing, 2010's somewhat minor Ghosts on the Boardwalk, Comet combines the band's staple sub-2:30 punk chestnuts ("Baptized," "Fast") with the kind of longer, more contemplative jams ("In Sleep") they've been experimenting with since about 2006's The Gold Record (which might be my favorite Souls record). So while Comet may not be the most "arty" record on this list, it was also on constant rotation all year (and I think I probably listened to it about 4-5 times straight right after I got it). That's good enough to slot it at #9. Now, if only they would come back to AZ and play a show where the band is decently sober...

8) P.O.S - We Don't Even Live Here
Genre: Rap
Standout tracks: "How We Land," "All Of It," "Piano Hits"

It seems like a hip-hop album or two always makes its way onto my top 10 list, and this year is no exception, with the new P.O.S record coming in at #8. P.O.S is an interesting character, one who actually got his start in the Minneapolis punk scene. That brash punk aesthetic has always bubbled to the surface in his music, and is what sets him apart from a lot of other rappers (at least the ones I listen to, anyway). The beats, for the most part, come hard, fast, and angry, and the rhymes are acerbic, antagonizing, iconoclastic. Then there are song titles like "Fuck Your Stuff" and "Lock-Picks, Knives, Bricks and Bats." Kanye West, this is not. The obvious exception to this is "How We Land," easily the record's most "radio friendly" song, and also perhaps its best. It also features Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who also featured on Kanye's "Lost in the World," which is also perhaps the strongest track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy -- maybe P.O.S and West aren't that different after all. Also: Justin Vernon, hip-hop savant. Who knew?

7) The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten*
Genre: Rock/punk
Standout tracks: "45," "Handwritten," "Desire"

It's actually a little surprising to me to rank a Gaslight Anthem record this low, as their last two releases (2008's The '59 Sound and 2010's American Slang) were perhaps my favorite albums of those years. Tough racket, this music thing -- you release my 7th favorite record of the year and it's still labeled a disappointment. But the band just explored so much musical territory on their two records that they probably had to return to a more simple approach. The result is a record that, while still very good, gets slapped with the dreaded "same-y" label -- there are just too many mid-tempo, verse/chorus/verse, inspiration-on-its-sleeve jams here. The record starts out very strong -- "45" (another song of the year contender) and the title track are the first two songs -- but then gets bogged down by a succession of lumbering 4:00-5:00 minute slow burners, and it's never really able to recover. Hopefully, lead singer/songwriter Brian Fallon remembers there is more to his musical palette than -- and to think, I almost got through a Gaslight write-up without mentioning Bruce Springsteen -- Springsteen odes, and the next Gaslight Anthem record can battle for the #1 spot, instead of settling for #7.

6) Heartless Bastards - Arrow
Genre: Rock/garage rock/indie
Standout tracks: "Got to Have Rock and Roll," "Simple Feeling," "Skin and Bone"

Much like an early Black Keys record, you might mistakenly think the Heartless Bastards were some forgotten '70s band that you'd never heard of before upon first hearing Arrow. But, just like their fellow Ohioians... Ohionites... Ohioans, the Heartless Bastards are a contemporary band that only *sounds* like a band your dad might have listened to on LSD in the '70s. All of that is to say that the Heartless Bastards very much appeal to the classic rock fan in me. And how could they not, as Arrow is scattered with references/homages to various '70s stalwarts as varied Led Zeppelin (especially III), Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bad Company, etc. What sets the Bastards apart, however, is their vocalist, Ms. Erika Wennerstrom, possessor of one of the most entrancing voices I've heard this year. Her forceful, low croon -- but she can also soar when need be -- is a perfect accompaniment to her bandmates' driving rhythms and stomping chords. Listen to "Skin and Bone" to see what I mean -- hell, listen to the entire album while you're at it. You won't be disappointed. This is an album that showcases its influences, yes, but one that doesn't dawdle in them, either.

5) Tenacious D - Rize of the Fenix
Genre: Rock/humor
Standout tracks: "Rize of the Fenix," "Roadie," "39"

The first thing I'd like to point about about this record is that the phoenix on the cover is shaped like a dick. With flaming wings. That's about all you need to know about this record. But I'm going to write some more anyway. Rize of the Fenix is yet another record with an eye to the past (our third straight). But this one is the best-ranked of the three because it takes influences as disparate as Iron Maiden ("Rize"), Survivor ("To Be the Best"), and Bob Seger ("39") and combines them with the reverential-yet-warped genius of Jack Black and Kyle Gass, who are back in rare form. After a creative and commercial dip with The Pick of Destiny album/film, Fenix is filled with the same kind of shenaniganry that made their self-titled debut so successful. There are the extended story-songs ("Rize," "The Ballad of Hollywood Jack..."), short, silly numbers ("Low Hangin' Fruit," "They Fucked Our Asses"), and, of course, skits ("Classical Teacher" is excellent, while "Flutes and Trombones" is... not). The highlight of the record, for me anyway, is "Roadie," a 3:00 acoustic ballad to that most under-appreciated denizen of the music industry. I have included the Danny McBride-starring video below, for your viewing pleasure. Come for the jokes, stay for the songs.

4) Passion Pit - Gossamer*
Genre: Electronic/indie/pop
Standout tracks: "Take a Walk," "Carried Away," "Constant Conversations"

I didn't get into Passion Pit's debut LP, 2009's Manners, until about a year after the fact, but I've been hooked ever since. Their brand of poppy, synth-y, immaculately-produced confections isn't just catchy, it's contagious -- infectious, even. Of course, I can somewhat understand the band's detractors and their claims of too much production, their perhaps saccharine qualities, and, most notably, Michael Angelakos's distinct falsetto voice. But if you can get past that, it's the dark underpinnings of the lyrics -- substance abuse, recession, interpersonal strife -- that separate the band from any number of other sunshiny electropop bands. "Little Secret" from Manners and this year's "Take a Walk" are exemplary of this -- perhaps the poppiest (and best) songs on each album are cut with somber, sobering lyrics. That said, I actually *like* those other qualities -- the production, the saccharine-ness, the falsetto. This is the year's most aggressively buoyant record (in spite of the lyrics), and absolutely perfect dance party music -- oh, and it plays amazingly live as well. Those boys, keyboards and computers and all, really know how to put on a live show.

3) Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
Genre: R&B
Standout tracks: "Sweet Life," "Super Rich Kids," "Bad Religion"

I first encountered Frank Ocean when listening to Jay-Z and Kanye West's excellent Watch the Throne album -- Ocean's outstanding hook on "No Church in the Wild" *made* that song and, along with his also outstanding mix-tape, Nostalgia, Ultra, signaled the arrival of a major new talent. But whereas Ocean's appearances on Throne and many of the tracks on Nostalgia were reliant on others (Ocean samples acts such as MGMT and the freaking Eagles), Channel Orange is all Ocean -- and it's easily better than both Throne and Nostalgia. The entire record is confident, assured, and the smoothest thing since Sean Connery. Many critics point to tracks like "Thinkin' 'Bout You," "Bad Religion," and especially the almost ten-minute album centerpiece "Pyramids" as the best tracks, but for me, "Sweet Life" is not only the best song on the album, but also one of the best of the year. It has tight production and gorgeous vocals (this dude can SING), yes, but it is also phenomenal lyrically (this dude can WRITE). The chorus is absolutely stunning, and "Why see the world / when you've got the beach?" just might be the line of the year. I know I've ranked two albums ahead of this, but trust me when I say that if you need to hear one album -- *need* to -- from 2012, that album is Channel Orange.

2) Japandroids - Celebration Rock*
Genre: Rock/indie
Standout tracks: "The Nights of Wine and Roses," "Adrenaline Nightshift," "The House that Heaven Built"

Talk about all killer, no filler -- at a brisk 8 tracks and 35 minutes, Vancouver-based duo Japandroids' second album is a punchy, riotous powder keg of an album. It's also the most aptly-titled release of the year; each song, almost all between four and five minutes, feels celebratory -- of life, of youth, of music. The effect is vitalizing, and this record is one of the most vital of the year. This is another one whose influences aren't hard to decipher -- Zep, Who, Tom Petty ("Evil's Sway" lifts its "Oh yeah / All right" refrain right from "American Girl") -- but it's done with such glee and abandon that you can tell guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse (and that's the entire band) are merely celebrating their progenitors, calling back to a time when rock 'n' roll was simpler, more visceral. Each flailing chord, each cymbal crash, each group-chanted lyric is a paean to writing, to performing, to hearing, to *living* rock music. Lead single (and yet another potential song of the year) "The House that Heaven Built" is the best of the bunch, a glorious five-minute romp full of "whoa-oh-oh"s and an instantly classic chorus -- "When they try to slow you down / tell 'em all to go to hell." Check the video out below -- and yes, their live shows are as fun as the video makes them look.

1) Metric - Synthetica*
Genre: Indie/rock
Standout tracks: "Youth Without Youth," "Speed the Collapse," "Dreams So Real," "Synthetica"

Following 2009's stellar Fantasies was always going to be a tough task. While I may not have been as kind to it at the time, it has since gone on to become perhaps my favorite record of the past 5 or so years. From Synthetica's placement at #1, you can probably tell that it followed up Fantasies just fine, thank you. I think, overall, Fantasies' strongest songs ("Gold Guns Girls," "Gimme Sympathy," "Collect Call") are probably stronger than the strongest songs here, but I think Synthetica works as a more cohesive album, so it's probably a wash (but ask me again in a year or two and I might tell you something different). Synthetica, a concept album, deals with some pretty weighty philosophical themes -- real vs. artificial, analog vs. digital -- combining cryptic lyrics, atmospheric instrumentals, electronic flourishes, and, for good measure, some out-and-out poppy segues. At the center, as always, is singer Emily Haines, who easily shifts guises from song to song, from rebel ("Youth") to messiah ("Dreams") to pop goddess ("Lost Kitten"). The result is a dreamy, dynamic album, but not one without an edge and an ever-so-slight hint of abject terror below the sleek production and coy vocals. This is just an impressive record on all fronts. Finally, not only did Metric deliver my favorite album of the year, but they were also responsible for the best show I went to this year. Don't you just love it when high expectations aren't just met, but exceeded? Me, too.

Unless you were busy stockpiling for the apocalypse all year, you probably listened to some music as well, no? Feel free to comment and/or tell me what I missed. Or just lurk like a creepster, either way. I'll post my favorite songs in a day or two, and my movies list sometime after that. Enjoy, or not. Until then...

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