The two-day 2012 edition of Slipped Discs—where we feature great albums that missed our Best Albums of 2012—concludes with PopMatters writers offering their personal picks for some of the best records of last year.
Blues Funeral may not be the best album of Mark Lanegan’s career, but it’s the one that, once and for all, cement’s the man’s title as one of the best songwriters of his generation. Like Dylan, Young, Waits and others who reside in the upper echelon of modern bards, Lanegan continues to take chances and experiment with his craft, refusing to churn out the same formula. Yes, his morose lyrical focus on longing, morbid obsession and biblical allusions remains, but the music backing his tales is worlds removed from the acoustic folk-blues of his earliest solo records. Building on the brutal rock template of previous album Bubblegum, Blues Funeral sees Lanegan add down-tempo electronica, disco and synthpop elements to the mix. What results are 12 moody soundscapes, brooding and evocative, profane and transcendent, with Lanegan’s sandpaper baritone serving as the conductor of the deep black vanishing train. Cole Waterman
Wake Up to the Waves
People standing behind keyboards and racks of equipment, thrashing around a bit, playing thumping, psychedelic, cerebral dance music that isn’t rock or pop but does not qualify as “techno”, either. In these post-Merriweather Post Pavilion days, it seems like there are a lot of those around. But don’t let that cause you to look past Last Days of 1984 or their thrilling debut, Wake Up to the Waves. On the surface, the Irish duo may have a lot in common with Animal Collective’s recent work. Further exploration reveals their sound to be its own beast. Wake Up to the Waves took in dreampop, techno, polyrhythmic world music, as well as Fleet Foxes-like pastoral folk and Bollywood soundtracks. And it was all molded into Last Days of 1984’s unique, reverb-soaked, wonderfully left-field approach. It all added up to one of 2012’s best, most essential debuts, not to mention one of its greatest videos. John Bergstrom
Lilacs & Champagne
Brooklyn label Mexican Summer had a supremely impressive output in 2012, especially with the strength of the debut LPs they put out, namely the self-titled albums by Light Asylum and Lilacs & Champagne. The latter was also one of the strongest overall debuts of the year; sadly, given its January release, it was woefully overlooked come the swarm of end-of-the-year summaries. Lilacs & Champagne—the moniker of Alex Hall and Emil Amos, two members of the Portland post-rock outfit Grails—is a niche project, but one that’s very effective at filling that niche. The brand of trip-hop of Lilacs & Champagne evokes a specific mood: a psychedelic spy film. In my initial review for PopMatters, published back in March, I described it as like “watching The Friends of Eddie Coyle after a bad LSD trip,” a strange image that I stand by still today.
But for all the paranoia on this record, there’s also a spirit of great fun laced throughout, what with the many bizarro samples (“Of course he’s a nice man… did you expect the Antichrist to be some sort of nasty person?” a televangelist rambles) and some intriguing, Urban Dictionary-defying song titles (“Moroccan Handjob”). There hasn’t been much chatter about Lilacs & Champagne since early in the year, which could mean this was nothing more than a one-off. Hopefully, this isn’t the case; while it would be ill advised to rehash this same style again and again on future adventures, Hall and Amos have proven themselves to be masters of creating mood through music, a skill that should be talked about more often. But whether this is a debut for something else in the future or a one-time deal, Lilacs & Champagne is a deep and rewarding album, one that’s easy to see gaining a cult following in the years to come. Brice Ezell
The Passing of the Night
The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons grabbed most of 2012’s Americana headlines, but it’d be a shame for the Lost Brothers to go unnoticed. The group’s third album is their best yet, offering a quieter folk vision, free of Mumfords-style dramatics. If you’ve ever wondered what the Everly Brothers might have sounded like if they were raised in an English pub, the Lost Brothers provide a possible answer. Already armed with gorgeous harmonies and intricate fingerpicking, Irishmen Oisin Leech and Mark McCausland benefit from the way Brendan Benson (and his backing band) bring out subtle new tweaks in the Brothers’ sound. Musical saw, pump organ, Sun Records-style twang, faint traces of horns, Andrew Bird-worthy whistling, and hints of the ‘60s folk revival all show up on Night, elevating the album’s sound beyond what you’d normally expect from an acoustic duo. Andrew Gilstrap
Sin and Lostness
Noise rock is a mad beast, and not just because the music is intended to abuse. Err too far to one side and you’ve sold out and made “hard rock”, too far to the other and, well, you’re Merzbow. Following down the path that A Place to Bury Strangers have paved, the Lost Rivers’ outstanding debut falls near in the middle. The slow burn opening drone explodes into white noise guitar and pounding repetitive bass. Monotone vocals, nearly lost in the mix, do little to ease the listener into this world. The odd sampled beat placed here and there only pushed the record further into red, simply creating another element to battle for supremacy amongst the furore. There seems to be a hint of romance or ballad in a track or two, but for the most part this is simply nearly an hour of torrential noise rock. Music to frustrate your neighbours and frighten your dog. Sin and Lostness may push the dial more to the Merzbow side than many will enjoy; but that’s the price you pay for venturing into unchartered territory. Andrew McDonald
That Nootropics, Lower Dens’ sophomore breakthrough, takes its name from mind-altering cognitive enhancers is appropriate enough, considering that the album basically creates its own alternate reality out of a complex, fully immersive sound. Nootropics is an effort that truly operates on multiple levels at once: it can envelop your unconscious mind with its post-Kraut space-rock atmospherics, or it can shake you out of a daze and get you to pay careful attention to its finely wrought details. Like a new-school Stereolab or Broadcast more steeped in an Amerindie tradition, the adventurous Baltimore band, led by multi-talented Jana Hunter, has a knack for concocting experiments with sound without ever sacrificing shape and form. Just check out album highlights like the earworming mind-trip “Brains” and the pinwheeling mid-tempo “Propagation”, which work equally as well as deep, heady noise-art or as singles streaming from the future. In short,Nootropics is one of those albums you can constantly go back to, yet always find something new that to fascinate you. Arnold Pan