December 29, 2012 by Daniel
This was a weird year of music for me. Last year was a year that a lot of critics deemed lackluster, but I thought was pretty damn awesome, probably because it was the first year where I was actively engaged in what was going on in new music. By contrast, few albums came out this year that I really felt inclined to check out ASAP – mostly, it was stuff that I was vaguely interested in but didn’t care enough about to jump on immediately. Halfway through, I was ready to write it off as a disappointing year for music. I don’t really know what happened to flip it all around, but sometime in the past few months – probably around the time I started this blog and actually started to listen to what was on my large list of bookmarks – I started to realize how good of a year it’s actually been for music. This was a year where some bands debuted strongly, others lived up to and surpassed their old material, and still others cemented themselves as integral parts of underground music culture. 2012 was markedly different than last year, which felt like it was made specifically for my musical tastes, but it still turned out to be a diverse and exciting one for music. Click the album names for song links.
Top 10 Albums of 2012
This record was suggested to me by the head of Albatross’s record label SWERP after I was offered a free album for pre-ordering Johnny Foreigner’s newest EP. J. Matthew Nix, said record label executive, asked me what kind of things I like and I replied that I was into “punky stuff that’s a little more complex than usual” and “stuff that’s a bit esoteric and sonically unique”. From the opening flurry of drums and percussion, I could tell that Nix hit the nail right on the head in sending me Bugs, Berfday, Gum. It shows a confidence that few debut albums do, and though it’s filled with over-the-top drums and slinky math rock guitar lines, it somehow manages to be supremely catchy and even downright poppy throughout. These guys broke up shortly after releasing this album, and it bums me out to no end that I’ll never get the chance to catch ‘em live.
One of the saddest parts of my music-listening year was learning that I didn’t have a new Bomb the Music Industry! album to look forward to. However, that impact was ever so slightly lessened when mastermind Jeff Rosenstock released this solo record, made up of previously unrecorded odds and ends from the past few years. While I Look Like Shit sees Rosenstock heading back to the programmed drum sounds of old, it still feels like a continuation of where BtMI! left off. What’s most amazing about it is how thematically and sonically consistent it is despite its patched-together nature – this is probably the most depressing Rosenstock has ever been lyrically, with most of the album dealing with aging, fear of dying, and losing touch with old friends, wrapped up in that melancholy but still vaguely fist-pumping music that BtMI! always specialized in. If not for some songs that would have benefitted greatly from a full band – “Amen” most notably, whose gated drum sound is just a bit too invasive – this would have placed higher on my list. But as it stands, it’s a consistent album from my favourite songwriter, and so long as I still get my high-quality Jeff Rosenstock fix every once in a while, the loss of my favourite band is at least somewhat manageable.
I was all prepared to write off Regina Spektor for good. I mean, I love her – she’s the only one of those piano-based songstresses that I really care about – but her last effort Far strayed a bit too much into cutesy pop territory for my tastes, that quirky/annoying barometer too close to the “annoying” side. So it was rather heartening to see her get her mojo back with What We Saw From the Cheap Seats, which mixes together her two sides – piano folk and unique pop – in a more effective way than ever before. This is her most balanced effort yet, one where she’s able to pile on her weirdo idiosyncrasies without them overtaking the songs. It’s also her most dynamic album ever, showing a greater understanding of when and how to use extended instrumentation, and it’s extremely diverse as well. This is an album that’s equal parts romantic and chilling, sorrowful and joyous, passive and aggressive, and it’s one of the best albums Spektor’s ever made.
When I first heard this album, it was kind of disappointing. It was good, certainly, but it seemed like Japandroids putting out the same record twice – the pounding rock, the group vocals, the celebratory lyrics. It was all just a bit too similar. But one day, I was walking home drunk from a campus bar at 7 PM, where I had gone with some friends to celebrate the completion of a final test, and realized that no band at once captures the stupidity, glory, loneliness, and freedom of being young and lost quite like Japandroids do. And y’know, maybe them going for the same thing feel twice isn’t such a bad thing if they keep doing it so well. Besides, Celebration Rock actually isn’t as similar to Post-Nothing as it seems – they’ve done the sophomore album thing, amping up the production quality and dropping whatever diversity they had on that first record in favour of a tighter focus on the anthemic quality previously exemplified by “Young Hearts Spark Fire”. Celebration Rock may not quite live up to that first burst of youthful exuberance, but it gets damn close and ends up hashing out a decent personality of its own that sits together nicely with everything Japandroids stand for.
I have a conflicted relationship with Jack White. While I appreciate his identifiable style and prolific nature, as well as the fact that he’s pretty much the only “rock god” my generation has, none of his various projects have grabbed me for very long, and the only album of his I don’t think is about 20 minutes too long is one that most people seem to not like very much (The Whitestripes’ Icky Thump, ‘natch). The dude is so idiosyncratic, so completely dominating over whatever project he’s involved in, that the very idea of a Jack White solo album just seemed kind of…silly. But somehow, Jack White validates it completely, and I can say with no hesitation that it is my favourite thing that he’s ever done. At only 45 minutes, it’s a tight, no-fat experience, each song totally different from the last but a winner nonetheless. And where White has always approached his music with a sense of distance – putting his vocals through a bunch of filters, attempting to remain fairly elusive throughout his career – Blunderbuss is a personal journey with the newly-humanized songwriter at the organic center of it. It also, unsurprisingly, kicks a whole lot of ass, thrashing along in the way that only Jack White can deliver. I urge you to put aside any prejudices you might have about this record and check it out.
As I neared the end of the year, I was worried I wouldn’t be repping any hip-hop on this list. I really liked that More or Les album but it didn’t seem top-10 worthy in the end, I discovered Macklemore too late in the year, and the impenetrable length of Kendrick Lamar’s new record stopped me from checking it out in time. So it’s a good thing that I finally listened to Dark Time Sunshine’s psychedelic hip-hop masterpiece ANX. This is not only the best hip-hop album I’ve heard all year, but one of the most unique, exciting, easily-listenable hip-hop albums I’ve experienced since I first got into the genre. A lot of the best hip-hop shows a symbiotic relationship between the rappers and the music behind them; while the beats on ANX, courtesy of Zavala, are absolutely transcendent, dreamy but hard-hitting and intricate enough that they could be an instrumental electronic album in their own right, the way they mix with the intelligent lyrics and smooth style of Ozzy Ozzborn is what really makes the album work. On top of that, this is a record with a million guest stars on it, but everyone featured on it fits the sound so well that you won’t even notice when, for example, underground phenom P.O.S takes the mic for a verse or two. This is a brilliant record and I’m so glad that I got the chance to scratch it off my “to-listen” list by year’s end.
I’ve often made the claim that a lot of the music I listen to is stuff that most people find annoying. Dan Deacon is undeniably one of them – while I had gained a new electronic hero the first time I listened to Spiderman of the Rings, the focus on repetitive high pitches and the general excitability and esotericism of his work overall seems to make most people cringe. Which is a bit of a shame really, because underneath all of the crazy sounds of Deacon’s material is one of the most unique songwriters of our generation and music with a pronounced amount of heart. America serves as an evolution – it is undeniably, profoundly Deaconian, but it’s also just a bit more mellow, a bit more well-rounded, maybe even enough so that the average person can get into him. I hope they can, truly, because America is also Deacon’s best work yet. The use of theme is really what works here; on this record, Deacon sets forth to give us an unbiased view of America as a nation. It’s not like the record sounds like Springsteen or such a nebulous term as “Americana”, but what it does is capture all the little parts of the country of America in sound – its grotesqueries and excesses, certainly, but also its vast expanses of idealism and natural beauty. I think America might be the greatest artistic statement this year, and one that I very much implore you to listen to and keep an open mind about.
Also, “True Thrush” is the only music video this year that I took note of, and it’s totally awesome.
From the time the intense opening salvo of the Ramones-referencing “Sheena Is a T-Shirt Salesman” kicked in, I had to look deep inside myself and ask “how the hell have I not heard of this band until now?” The Plot Against Common Sense is basically all of my favourite things about music wrapped into one album – it’s punky without being straight-ahead punk, noisy in all the right ways (you heard me gush about the fuzz bass yesterday, after all), and extremely incendiary but smart enough to throw in ample amounts of snide humour for levity’s sake. It’s the kind of album where I’ll imagine myself being every member of the band while I listen to it. Remember how I was saying that I love a lot of things that other people find annoying? I presume that this would be one of those. But, y’know, screw those people – this is intelligently-done, energetic and intense music with an unmistakable style and a bevy of riffs that are just plain badass.
I have no idea how this album crept up so high on this list. 2 is like that – you put it on for the first time and a few days later your iTunes playcount says you’ve listened to it ten times and you know every single song really well…and then you put it on again because, hey, why not? It’s just an album that’s perfect for every situation – at once chilled and energetic enough for party background music, but so full of catchy hooks and just plain well-written songs that it lends itself to repeated active listens too. To wit, the first time I listened to this album was the night after I saw him live, on vinyl, sitting in my reading chair with the lamp on and a glass of scotch. DeMarco has a really confident sense of style; while he’s easy to describe in relation to other bands – a midpoint between the relaxed psychedelia of Real Estate and the loose crooning of Kurt Vile – he’s really hashed out an attitude and songwriting style that is entirely his own. 2 is not the most sonically unique or mind-blowingly amazing album 2012, but it’s almost definitely the one I listened to the most throughout the year.
So much of how you perceive any piece of entertainment is based on expectation – you hate a sequel because the first one was so amazing; you love something because you thought it would be terrible and it actually ended up to be pretty solid. A huge part of why I love Gossamer so much is because I had really hopeful expectations for it, and it lived up to every single one of them. The first time I heard Passion Pit was at a music festival in Maine, where their variety of acid-washed synth-pop went over extremely well under the setting dusk sun. But when I got home and checked out their first album Manners, I was a bit disappointed. About half of the album was an energetic and rather beautiful collection of dancey goodness, but the other half was just kind of boring and the lyrics were abstract to the point of being meaningless.
But I liked those few songs enough to see that Passion Pit could be something really special, so I held out hope for a stellar second release. When bandleader Michael Angelakos made the statement that the second album was in the works and that it was turning out to be some “really beautiful” music, it seemed like we were on the same page for what we wanted a second Passion Pit album to be like. And when Gossamer came out and it was every bit as great as I hoped it was, I knew that it, and only it, could be my favourite album of 2012. Frankly, it’s a stunning album, one that takes everything great about those first few songs – the danceable rhythms, sparkling synth tones, and just plain gorgeous atmosphere – and pumps them up, while dropping the aspects of their sound that didn’t work. The beats sound bigger, the synthesizers are more thickly-layered, and they’ve changed their focus from overt four on the floor dance music to a less easily-identified amalgamation of pretty electronica. The biggest change, though, is in Angelakos’s lyricism, which has grown from too-vague surrealism to a pointed-but-still-artful style that is much easier to identify with. Gossamer is an album of contrast, big joyous music paired with the words of a clearly-depressed man, and it works amazingly. Ruminations on suicide, the selfish nature of love, and the pitfalls of capitalism are laid on top of songs that just get bigger and more cerebral; by the time “Where We Belong” fades away, I end up emotionally drained in the most satisfying way possible. Gossamer lived up to every one of my expectations, and has cemented Passion Pit as one of my favourite modern bands – I’d say that’s grounds enough for my album of the year.