The Top 10 Pleasant Surprise Albums of 2012

by PopMatters Staff

17 December 2012

Cat Power 

5 - 1


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James Iha

Look to the Sky

(The End)

Review [15.Oct.2012]

5

James Iha
Look to the Sky

It had been 14 years since Smashing Pumpkins lead guitarist James Iha released his fairly anticipated solo debut. Let it Come Down essentially affirmed that Billy Corgan was truly the brains of Smashing Pumpkins. The record was straight out of left field leaving many Pumpkins fans puzzled at the bizarre lovelorn acoustic neo-country tunes. Fourteen years later, no one was expecting a new Iha record. He had all but disappeared from the limelight after Smashing Pumpkins disbanded. But with the dissipated sour taste of Let It Come Down, Iha managed to slip in with a beautifully produced record that manages to stay true to his love-song tendencies while reinventing his acoustic/indie-pop vibe. Look to the Sky’s main achievement is its charm. While lyrics like “New Year’s Day / New Year’s Day / We’re running up a hill” sound hokey at times, it’s difficult not to fall for Iha’s boy-like charisma and wide-eyed wonder. Iha paints a perfect setting of young love under a starry night, with uncomplicated sentiments and beautiful instrumentation. Enio Chiola

 

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The Shins

Port of Morrow

(Columbia)

Review [19.Mar.2012]

4

The Shins
Port of Morrow

For all intents and purposes, Port of Morrow should have sucked. James Mercer disbanded the Shins about five years back, rebuilding it from the ground up, which should have left the band in shambles, a mere reflection of what it used to be. And with the underwhelming Wincing the Night Away, the band’s last record, all signs pointed to a downward spiral for the Shins. However, Port of Morrow, while a slicker version than previous efforts, brims with enticing choruses and interesting production choices. Tracks like “Simple Song”, “Bait and Switch”, “It’s Only Life”, and “Fall of ‘82” are evidence of just how hard Mercer and his plethora of guest players worked on getting this record to be a super condensed batch of sophisticated ultra-pop tracks. While many may not have expected much from Mercer and Co., Port of Morrow proves that the Shins are long from over—all it takes is a little dedication and perseverance. Enio Chiola

 

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Aimee Mann

Charmer

(Super Ego)

3

Aimee Mann
Charmer

Aimee Mann, for a few years now, was beginning to show her lack in adapting and changing with each new record. Although she managed to make some interesting leaps and bounds with producer-genius extraordinaire Jon Brion back in the day, her previous two records @#%&*! Smilers and to a lesser degree The Forgotten Arm showed signs of fatigue on Mann’s part to come up with some interesting pop/folk/rock tunes. Although The Forgotten Arm had the brilliant “Video” and “I Just Can’t Help You Anymore”, it was @#%&*! Smilers that lacked a single intriguing tune anywhere on the record. Even the mellow “Little Tornado” (in Mann’s classic touching ballad style) failed to invoke any real emotion in the way that most tear-jerkers on Lost in Space managed to do. It was starting to look like Aimee Mann was going the way of many ‘90s artists—monumentally less interesting. Along comes Charmer, a charming pop record overflowing with eclectic synth instrumentation and enough twists and turns to lay claim as some of Mann’s best work in years. And lyrics like “But fetching sticks was the best I had for tricks / You got bored / You got mad / Then you got crazy” is veritable proof that Mann is still the best lyricist around. Enio Chiola

 

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Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra

Theatre Is Evil

(8ft)

2

Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra
Theatre Is Evil

Amanda Palmer is a frustrating character. Her actions seem to be dictated by an insatiable lust for attention. Her know-how of ways to attain it is often staggering. Before she became the crowned Queen of Twitter, she was playing an intriguing cabaret-punk angle with her old duo, the Dresden Dolls. They took a break and Palmer dropped Who Killed Amanda Palmer, which suggested she hadn’t fully revealed her musical talents. One record-setting Kickstarter campaign later, she finally has. With all of the attention surrounding Theatre Is Evil, it was a record that seemed doomed to fail. Then the thing came out and absolutely blew me away, starting with the fact that Theatre Is Evil not only had teeth but downright fangs. From the vicious lead-off single “The Killing Type” to the ferocious closer, the record’s vigor rarely wanes. When it does, it allows for some of Palmer’s finest work. Most notably, the devastating “The Bed Song”, which is not only Palmer’s personal best but one of the best tracks of the year. At nearly 76 minutes, the record never ceases to be engaging and, more importantly, seems more than worth the $1,000,000+ that was attained in funding it. Steven Spoerl

 

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Cat Power

Sun

(Matador)

Review [4.Sep.2012]

1

Cat Power
Sun

Put Chan Marshall’s erratic reputation together with the seeming trend—on the The Greatest (2006), the covers album Jukebox (2008), and multiple tours—towards a career as a soul/blues crooner of sorts, and few people likely predicted that Sun would be as strange and exciting as it is. She’s recaptured the bohemian/mystic/street poet side of her earliest albums while carrying more power, confidence, and talent in her approach as a singer, songwriter, and artist. Sun carries forth all of her idiosyncrasies and her capable ability to speak for the lonely, strange, and pained. Yet it’s also less inward-focused, with songs that speak strongly to national and human crises and quandaries. Musically, as a somewhat futuristic reinvention and exploration of the basic Cat Power sound, it’s breathtaking. There are moments small and big—especially the 11-minute, life-affirming “Nothin’ But Time”, where Iggy Pop makes a majestic, understated appearance near the very end—that at once are anguished, strange, and some of the most beautiful music released in 2012. Dave Heaton

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