Chris‘ Top Lists of 2012
This was a good year for music. It usually always is. Mostly, the more one pays attention to new material, the more they think, “This was a good year for music”.
It’s safe to say that a lot of the bands I adored back in college took a break this year (save a few, see below), which left a power vacuum in my heart. This year I made a point not to be a jackass in my review, let’s see if it works.
5: Andrew Bird / Break It Yourself + Hands of Glory
Andrew Bird and his flock of manicured instrumentalists developed his sound by falling back to the nitty gritty (talented dudes playing in a barn), and produced his most emotionally textured album in many, many years. Break It Yourself and its excellent companion EP Hands of Glory (recorded with a single microphone in a barn!) are the sound of a man striking a creative vein. The singular and simplistic beauty of a roots-oriented band being recorded rather than one man in his studio, as well as the emphasis on myth to color tales of scorned love and melancholy (“Orpheus Looks Back” and the re-write on the EP “Orpheo”), augments the power of these songs, making their arrangements highly memorable. Rewind “Orpheo” for Bird’s vocal duet with his violin.
Key tracks: “Danse Caribe”, “Hole in the Ocean Floor”, “Orpheo”
4: Shearwater / Animal Joy
Continuing on the crystal clear sounds of chamber music, Shearwater’s Animal Joy continues Jonathan Meiburg’s preoccupation with the division (or lack thereof) between primal urge and human behavior. No band walks right on melodrama and makes it work like Shearwater: people becoming lions, the power of light, and pop arrangements that feel like they were written out of time (feeling old but sounding new). That’s hard work. What makes Shearwater the real deal is their wielding of powerful forces of good, which is akin to meeting Gandalf for the first time. The second-half of “Insolence” makes each second of life seem like an epic miracle; Meiburg sings over the band roaring like sea rocks, “And it’s real! Joy! And it’s real! One more time! It’s real!” One of the best moments captured to tape this year.
Key tracks: “Dread Sovereign”, “Insolence”, “Open Your Houses (Basilisk)”
3: Ultraísta / Ultraísta
This was an album I encountered through a negative review in an issue of Rolling Stone. Nigel Godrich’s band. Okay. Ice cold beats and hypnotic drumming sung over playfully by a mod party chick named Laura Bettinson. Alright. Psychedelic music videos construing the songs into visual journeys. Yes. The review said it lacked that “something” to keep the listener tuned in, save a few standout tracks. Well, my ears might already be favorable to electronic female-fronted dance pop, BUT something tells me the reviewer didn’t have their head screwed on straight. This album is a classic grower: texture develops with each listen, and it becomes a sort of crutch to lean on when all the other records just seem to tire out. Songs like “Gold Dayzz” punctuate lazy bass lines with snappy drumming and heartbroken lyrics sewn together with urban doom. I can’t tell you how great that makes me feel. Bettinson sings, “The whole town is burning while the wheels keep turning. Gold Days, what can I say? You didn’t care, now you’re giving it away. I’m hopeless and yearning. It makes a man very hard to take.” Fantastic. Elsewhere, the conjoined hooks in songs like “Smalltalk” keep the action close to the dance floor and never leave your ear. Never.
Key tracks: “Bad Insect”, “Gold Dayzz”, “Our Song”, “Smalltalk”
2: The Men / Open Your Heart
Rock n’ roll didn’t go anywhere; it just didn’t have enough money for guitars. What The Men give in droves (guitars), they also take away (structure, focus). Perhaps this is a kind of prototype for the return of hardcore music to the fold, a focus on feeling and not so much structure or style. Either way, sitting back and listening to Open Your Heart has a strange effect of becoming a record store. In some ways, they are the 90’s version of LCD Soundsystem. In other ways, they are the enemy of pretentious reviews like this one. Straight ahead rock and blue-eyed yearning in songs like “Open Your Heart” to country mumblers like “Candy” rank solidly with the best of that style without all the gum-chewing, and is all the more astonishing rubbing elbows with doomy shoegaze in songs like “Presence.” Damnit, it’s just good to blast the speakers out again. And with reunion murmurs with post-hardcore heroes like Unwound, this could be the start of a Renaissance of the highest order: the return of genuine darkness to indie music (also known as the return of the 90’s).
Key Tracks: “Turn It Around”, “Open Your Heart”, “Presence”
1: Sharon Van Etten / Tramp
DUL readers should not find this as a surprise. We’re all on board here as far as I can remember. Sharon Van Etten is magnificent and I’ve already written many words on her and especially on this record. What hasn’t been said is how this one has aged in the year since it came out. The emotion rendered here in songs like “Warsaw” still feel so immediate and kind of anxious even after many, many listens, and Aaron Dessner’s production keeps Sharon’s voice out front while giving the arrangement some spikes of pain or pathos when needed. Certain songs grow in your mind like “In Line”, which sets Van Etten’s sense of personal grace and loss with a massive emotional scope to encompass most wayward souls. The howling voices in the background seem like the dead haunting the graveyards of bad loss and bitter flavors. She sings, “See the light in line. Distant light in line.” Very few singer-songwriters can render meaning like that in both lyric and singing style. Can’t wait for the next one.
Key Tracks: “Warsaw”, “Give Out”, “In Line”, “Magic Chords”
It’s only appropriate, given the commercial cheekiness (and ignorance) of the “End of the World” and my well-documented preoccupation with the apocalypse, to put together a perfunctory list of (my own version of) apocalyptic songs. There was was a lack of hockey this year. That is a fucking apocalypse.
5: “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)” / The Flaming Lips featuring Ke$ha
Everyone deserves to listen to this. It’s completely awesome. Ke$ha seems absolutely normal in this context, spitting whiny lyrics about tripping balls in the midst of Pandemonium. The production is about as strange as the Flaming Lips get, with crude glitch percussion and spacey organ interludes. Beauty and ugliness rub elbows with a slight mention of a new beginning by song’s end—getting serious before crunching the whole arrangement together again and tossing in a bad vocal take by Ke$ha for good measure as bookends.
4: “Revenge” / A Place to Bury Strangers
A Place to Bury Strangers doesn’t fuck around. No, they would rather blast your ear drum out of your skull than move you or communicate with you about apocalypses. “Revenge” is a sonic war whose only goal is to castrate your cochlea and shine strobe lights into your dilated pupils. Although this band hasn’t come up with any new startling ideas in a couple of records, I believe this battle-tested formula does what few songs can: physically hurt you.
3: “The Loop Closes” / How to Destroy Angels
Keeping with our “sentence fragments as band names” theme, this song on Trent Reznor’s latest release, An Omen, conjures grooves on an acoustic pretext while still managing to be an electronic piece of music. Reznor and his wife, Mariqueen Maandig, repeat as the song intensifies, “The beginning is the end, it keeps coming around again.” This is a theme oft used in Nine Inch Nails: cyclical destruction (whether it be the self or the outside world or both). Perhaps that’s the kind of thing that goes down every single year: the world ends all the time and no one ever notices.
2: “Endless Ladder” / The Antlers
The Antlers’ quietly delivered 4-track EP Undersea sounds like sessions recorded after a long night out, where childhood dreams, jazzy interludes, and murmuring wishes are set free to aimlessly wander in the coral reefs. This eight-minute song’s tinkling guitars, ethereal samples, and vocal loops seem to ripple over a surreal transformation: leaving a prior “self” without properly realizing it. Peter Silberman sings, “If you receive a letter from 2012, it could be the last letter you could send to yourself”. This song’s “climbing” pertains to possible futures and “getting out” of certain “selves” into … well I’m not sure. This song (and EP) disturbs the line between waking and dreaming. I would certainly not mind if the apocalypse was this quiet, contained, beautiful, and inevitable.
1: “Ruin” / Cat Power
One of the songs of the year in any case, this one from Chan Marshall’s mostly excellent Sun found her delving into electronic rock and sometimes even hip-hop (very fascinating considering it was self-produced). Her keen playfulness and plaintiveness on “first world problems” in this song is what make it apocalyptic and fun. The song is best heard in that context, rather than the often documented personal issues of Marshall herself, but of course it works in both ways. The song is also a notification of the struggle of people across the world compared to our experience, “Sitting on our ruin”. This song puts apocalypses in a multi-faceted lens, while giving much more value to stuff we might only know and/or share as Internet memes (or as end-of-year rankings).