[4 December 2012]
Here’s a confession to start: I don’t know what the term “indie rock” means in 2012. I’ve made this list for PopMatters the past three years running, and I’ve always sent it off to my editors feeling as if I’d cheated somehow, swept a few albums underneath the banner that likely didn’t quite belong there. But now, looking back over the year, I’ve noticed more of a subtle—but still seismic—change in my own listening habits than ever before. I’m not one to assume the playcounts on my own iTunes scorecard should be taken to suggest anything remotely like a pattern in the year’s musical landscape, but I do know a) I’m a tried-and-true rockist and b) most of my favorite albums of the year featured nary a power chord, or even a guitar, at all.
What to do? While I know I couldn’t include, on this list, my favorite record of the year—that would be Killer Mike’s oxygen mask of a mission statement, the El-P produced R.A.P. Music—or other highlights like Kendrick Lamar’s vital good kid, M.A.A.D. City, Frank Ocean’s studio-rat opus Channel Orange, or Grimes’s joyously offkilter Visions, what about albums that more readily tread the line between rock and, well, something else? Should the finest singer-songwriter records of the year, Bat for Lashes’s The Haunted Man and Cat Power’s Sun make the cut, or do they speak with more clarity to the worlds of pop (whatever that may mean these days, too)? Can I claim Purity Ring’s Shrines or Frankie Rose’s Interstellar or do they belong somewhere closer to the dancefloor than the rock club?
Ultimately, I said no to those albums. Instead, I decided to reemphasize the “independent” in “indie rock”, focusing on rock(ish) records that were made outside of the mainstream studio-radio apparatus. Simple enough, if not very satisfying. I promise to have it all worked out by 2013. Corey Beasley
Spencer Krug must think nothing of momentum—he bowed out of one of the decade’s most-lauded rock bands, Wolf Parade, and broke up his other act, the sorely missed Sunset Rubdown, without so much as a formal announcement (he left it to his former Wolf Parade partner, Dan Boeckner, to confirm the band’s demise in an unrelated interview). Who knows how long he’ll record under the Moonface moniker, but the project—aided by Finnish droners Siinai—has already given us a fantastic record. Krug’s affinity for prog rock saw diminishing returns in his Wolf Parade songwriting and mixed results with Sunset Rubdown’s less earthbound tracks, but with Siinai’s help he finally finds the sweet spot between pop melody and prog sprawl. Heartbreaking Bravery can be a dense listen, but it’s best consumed in a single sitting, the bursts of hooks (the title track, “Shitty City”) slicing deeper when springing up from the depths of the record’s more droning, meditative selections (“I’m Not the Phoenix Yet”, “Headed for the Door”). When those dueling tendencies ultimately coalesce in the massive, lacerating final cut, “Lay Your Cheek on Down”, it’s an exhausting thrill.
The strongest song on Oshin, “How Long You Have Known”, also turns out to be something of a feint. Riffs the stuff of dreams, a steadily propulsive rhythm section to buoy them even higher, Zachary Cole Smith’s breathy vocals practically pickled in reverb—not groundbreaking, this shoegaze pop, but a more effortless version than you’ll typically find. It’s when Oshin focuses more on texture than on hummable melodies that DIIV’s charm has its subtle way with your dopamine levels, the bulk of its songs acting more as experiments in mood than occasions to sing along. In that way, Oshin changes depending on what feelings you bring to it, rather than insisting you bend your mood to its whims.
Deerhunter often leaves me cold—easy to admire, especially in a live setting, but tough to love, despite the accolades raining down on the band with every product of its exceptionally prolific output. Spooky Action at a Distance proved to be one of the nice surprises of the year, a solo outing by Deerhunter guitar maestro Lockett Pundt that sacrifices most of the volume of his other band in favor of a gentler, tightly woven songcraft. Play Spooky Distance at a low volume, and its songs wash over you in a pleasant haze; turn the volume up, and Pundt’s surprising knack for pop choruses reveals itself again and again. If nothing else, when compared to Deerhunter’s consistent reinvention from album to album, this record suggests dynamism can work in a quieter way, too.
The best Jade Tree record that label never released, Attack on Memory delights in the signposts of early ‘90s emocore: emotional sloganeering, brittle guitars, reverence for the floor tom. Here, Cloud Nothings tap into a time before “emo” was a dirty word, when the distortion in Jawbox’s amps would peel the tattoos from Chris Carrabba’s flesh. The record comes packaged with a back story, Dylan Baldi jettisoning the forgettable power-pop of his previous solo work in favor a full-band effort with Steve Albini in the studio, but it’s best to plunge into the songs without much preparation. That way, the sting of “No Future/No Past” and the adrenaline kick of “No Sentiment” will feel stronger, less calculated. That should do the record justice—a serious amount of craft must have gone into the writing of Attack on Memory for it to seem so raw and volatile.
Do not reinvent the wheel. Rather, find a partner or two who know how to make it spin more smoothly. If you’re Dan Boeckner, late of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs, figure Britt Daniel can lay a sultry rhythmic groove underneath your restless, anthemic yearnings. If you’re Spoon’s Britt Daniel, consider how Dan Boeckner might ladle the sweet syrup of his straining vocal chords and punk-Springsteen guitar heroics onto your deconstructed pop songs. Recruit human metronome Sam Brown of New Bomb Turks to sit behind the kit, while you’re at it. Shake. Apply to studio. Release into the world a vision of hard-won rock professionalism honed by two of the most essential songwriters in a generation. Rejoice in the surprise of just how much fun it all turns out to be. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
At end-of-year list time, Beach House could be its own worst enemy. Had the band not released one of the best records of 2010—and of the decade—in Teen Dream, the praise for its follow-up, Bloom, would likely be more effusive. Bloom doesn’t do much at all to tinker with its predecessor’s winning formula, with simple beats and Alex Scally’s dreamweaving guitars providing the elegant latticework to support Victoria Legrand’s knockout vocals. The songs shimmer and ache, never insisting too firmly on their own melancholy, keeping it quiet enough to register in increments. The ultimate effect, once you come to know the subtle turns of the album, can be flooring. Beach House plays to big venues these days, but Bloom is better suited to a more empty space. Let it breathe.
Loudness does not have to equate to bluntness. Any band can stack amps to the rafters to wreak maximum violence upon its audience’s eardrums. It takes skill to find a purpose in all that noise, to use aggressive volume for something beyond its own sake. Toronto’s METZ has scorched a Shermanesque trail of sonic destruction on tour, making a name for itself as an essential live band. But unlike like-minded aggressors—Trash Talk and Death Grips, hello—its recorded output actually lives up to the expectations set by the band’s brilliance onstage. METZ assaults and batters, but it also finds time for a vice-tight lockstep rhythm section, jarring moments of harmony juxtaposed in dense swaths of dissonance, and a firm sense of organization suffused through all that chaos. If you invest in earplugs, do so just because you want to be able to listen to this record at the same levels in ten years.
The breakout rock record of the year, Celebration Rock has the honor of finding itself 2012’s Big Crossover Critical Hit, a freshly NPR-crowned infanta of indiedom. And good for Bob Boilen and company for choosing as this year’s “indie rock” representative an album with real heat to it, as opposed to mainstream rock critics’ usual affinity of late for all things twee, immaculately constructed, and comparatively sterile. There is a place, I know, for the Grizzly Bears of the world, but doesn’t Middle America already have enough health problems related to a sedentary lifestyle? Hearing the full-throttle, heart-torn-from-sleeve rattle of “Evil’s Sway” or the indelible roar of “The House That Heaven Built” on All Songs Considered has to be good for its audience’s blood pressure. These songs are a shot to the chest in the best way, a party with a sense of purpose. May they conquer the airwaves.
Can a band release its best record 30 years into its career? Is Mick Jagger’s johnson made entirely out of antibiotics? The Seer at once revisits, revitalizes, and exceeds everything Swans have done in all their time as the world’s evilest band. Frontman/godhead Michael Gira finally pools every element of the often-overlooked eclecticism that has marked his recording career with and without this band into a heady, roiling stew. Brutal noise, primeval hooks, moments of alarming quietude, carnal grooves—it’s all here, and Gira and his cohort navigate this terrain with the expertise available to only a truly tested, visionary collective. Come and bear witness.
Drop the needle onto a random point on Kill for Love and you’re guaranteed to hear something beautiful. The trick is how many different shades of beauty Chromatics manage to color into the record, creating a cohesive and poignant patchwork from a remarkably wide spectrum. The perfect synth-pop of “Back from the Grave”, the tonal minimalism of “The Eleventh Hour”, the melancholy club bait of “These Streets Will Never Look the Same”—Kill for Love’s 16 songs are disparate in style but unified in cinematic sweep. Johnny Jewel’s crisp production lends a crystalline sheen to the proceedings, uniting varied textures—the wounded detachment in Ruth Radelet’s vocals and the mechanized ennui of Adam Miller’s autotuned counterpoints, for example—under the same warm glow. Most pop music can either offer quick and easy escape or a more introspective, emotionally amorphous journey. Kill for Love, in something of a miracle, gives you both.