[3 February 2013]
The two-day 2012 edition of Slipped Discs—where we feature great albums that missed our Best Albums of 2012—kicks off with the forward-looking Afrobeat of Antibalas, the brilliant comeback of Dexys, a host of stellar indie and metal, the electrodance of Kindness and many more.
The core influences of Brooklyn based Antibalas could have easily trapped them in a musical time capsule, leaving them in the niche territory of Fela Kuti tribute act. However, the key to the success of their eponymous fifth album, is the startling urgency which they bring to a sound, which has its roots in the dark and humid dancefloors of 1970s Lagos. Antibalas shines, because whilst the musical references may be self-evident, the band draw together everything that they have learnt from their earlier, looser, more experimental albums.
Creating something which strips away the fat from the bone, pairing their sound down to tight grooves, blazing funk and high horn stabs which were the hallmark of their antecedents. It’s this vitality which they bring to tracks like standout, “Dirty Money”, a tale of corporate greed and oppression of the little guy, which fits perfectly within the Afrobeat style, but also places their sound very much in the present, with themes and ideas which resonate hard in these times of global instability. Rather than a new album from old hands, this bristles like the debut of a band with fresh purpose. Invigorated by the spirit of the times and blistering with the fire of highlife. Tom Fenwick
This past year saw the release of some of the most emotionally draining and ingeniously beautiful music I’ve ever heard. For example, Anathema’s Weather Systems and Gazpacho’s March of Ghosts magnificently expressed heartache and the human condition with melodic brilliance. However, perhaps no album last year soared higher than The Village to the Vale, the debut LP by the Autumn Chorus. Full of sorrowful lyrics, delicate vocals, splendid English orchestration, restrained dynamics, and tinges of post/progressive rock instrumentation, the album is a relatively unknown gem that may just bring you to tears.
Like many great albums, The Village to the Vale is best thought of as a single statement broken up into tracks. While every second of the album is breathtaking, a couple selections stand out. The blend of acoustic guitar, flutes, and complex percussion makes “Thief” a fine piece of folksy progressive rock, while “Brightening Sky” is absolutely heavenly thanks to its exceptional synthesis of male and female vocals, horns, piano, and devastating melodies. The other six compositions are arguably just as overwhelming and impressive, though, making the record flow blissfully from beginning to end. The Village to the Vale is an absolute masterpiece that you should seek out ASAP. Jordan Blum
You say you want a revolution? Well Kap Bambino’s Devotion is everything you dreamed 21st century pop music could be when you were a kid. Inventive, incendiary, insane. Futuristic, frantic, fresh. Mysterious, maniacal, melancholic. A dayglo riot o’ dynamite packed tight into a mercurial magic box designed in league with Ol’ Beelzebub by feral, wide-eyed French outcasts. A blueprint of wreckin’ ball resistance to flip the finger to the plastics, the greys ‘n’ The Man and the perfect soundtrack to annihilate our loveless, lobotomised slavery into oblivion. Le Bambino’s fourth and most exhilarating ‘Speed-demon, watch-the-world-burn’ EST broadcast Devotion proves such a trip ‘n’ a kick it surely must be illegal if not now then in some dystopian future ruled by the Kardashians. Yet beneath the amphetamines, spraypaint, suicides, switchblades, stitches and burning crosses there’s bloody beauty and beating-heart martyr soul too. Friends, lovers, comrades pack your bags, the circus has come to town. This is an exit. Matt James
The cover version is a subtle art. It’s not merely enough to provide a jazzed up take on a song someone has already written; what truly makes a cover distinct is in its ability to reflect the artist performing it while also elevating the song beyond its original performance. In 2012, no artist achieved this difficult task better than the British band Bastille, headed up by Dan Smith. In February, Bastille released a groundbreaking collection of covers in the mixtape Other People’s Heartache, which included cover versions as recent as Lana Del Rey’s “Blue Jeans” and as obscure as the mid-‘90s minor dance hit “The Rhythm of the Night”, rendered by Smith as a nocturnal ode to the allure of darkness. The influences that go into these tracks are many, including electronic, rock, soul, and hip-hop, all with innovative uses of film samples (audio from Requiem for a Dream is used as a chilling lead-in to the “Blue Jeans” cover).
While Other People’s Heartache was strong enough to stand on its own, Smith gave something of a Christmas surprise with the December release of a followup mixtape, Other People’s Heartache Pt. 2. Smith’s song choices on this second half are even more eclectic: Seal, TLC, and Fleetwood Mac all comfortably mix together on this EP. But where Bastille really hit home was with a haunting rendition of the traditional Christmas hymn “O Holy Night”, interspersed with darkly comic samples from Home Alone. 2012 saw a great many albums released for free over the internet—BBU’s hip-hop masterpiece bell hooks being a prime example—and Bastille easily stood out amongst the ever-growing DIY online labels and distributors. Hell, Bastille made better music than much of the stuff you’d have to pay for. The band’s debut Bad Blood will be released in March of 2013, and although most of what we’ve heard from them has been the words of other musicians, they’ve made those words entirely their own. Brice Ezell
Seattle four-piece Beat Connection have brought us a debut LP of warm, joyous electronica with Palace Garden. For those still unconvinced that electronic music can be warm and joyful, here’s a tip: listen to the lush synths of “Saola”, or lose yourself in the after-hours romance of “The Palace Garden 4am”. From the unexpected steel drums on “Further Out” to the blissful “Other Side of the Sky”, this record lulls us into a seductive summer haze, heightened by the gentle nostalgia of Tom Eddy’s vocals. “I think too little and feel too much,” he sings on “Think/Feel”. If these are the results of such an excess of emotion, Beat Connection shouldn’t worry too much about that state of affairs. Devoid of the intellectual posturing that often plagues the genre, this is electro with genuine heart, a delicious cocktail of summer vibes with a faintly wistful kick. Gem Wheeler
The Belbury Tales is an eccentric and mysterious love letter to another time and space, the story of an alternate mid-20th century Britain in the quaintly sinister ‘Parish’ of Belbury Poly. A nostalgic patchwork of vintage electronica, psychedelia and folk, intertwined with samples from film, television and spoken word recordings. To the uninitiated, imagine a fevered hallucination, where the BBC Radiophonic Workshop perform incidental music from Quatermass and the Pit, at the base of a wicker effigy. Unlike his previous albums, this fourth outing has seen Jim Jupp expanded his once solo project to include a wider array of musicians. In doing so the possibilities have broadened, creating an immersive distillation of the Belbury sound: from eerie prog-tinged funk in “Goat Foot” and the psyche freakbeat of “Chapel Perilous”, to the glacial, but unnerving electro ambiance of “Summer Round”. With looming shadows of myth and folklore to regulate it from falling into the realm of novelty or self parody, The Belbury Tales is staring through a dark glass, from the future to the past and back again, conjuring up sonic vibrations from another world. Tom Fenwick
John Cale turned 70 just prior to the release of Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, but you wouldn’t have known it from listening to the album. The forward-thinking, always-mischievous Velvet Underground veteran was not one to go gentle into that good night. Cale’s masterful amalgam of garage, industrial, hip-hop, and classical sounds was fresh, vital, and utterly unique. Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood was one of the best albums of Cale’s long, intricate career. But just as importantly, it proved a broader point. Rock ‘n’ roll is not a tradition that needs “elder statesmen”, past-their-prime folks who are content to sit back, relax, and play to the softening tastes and expectations of their aging audiences. Rather, it needs more men and women like Cale, embarking on new adventures, even shifty ones, after the gray hairs have set in. John Bergstrom
Opening yourself up to your audience is less courageous than most critics believe. Yes, honesty is admirable, but in many cases, its that honesty that gives artists a comparative advantage to their peers. Putting your anger and depression out there is one thing. But for Chan Marshall a far more personal element of her private life was exposed to audiences as hospitalizations and financial woes were laid bare to the public. To many, these revelations would be far more painful to make public than any confessional album. At the same time, Marshall released an album that for all purposes, should win her a flood of new fans. Sun does away with the Memphis blues detour of The Greatest and embraces dance, late ‘70s era Joe Jackson (“Manhattan”) and even an 10-minute epic with an appearance from Iggy Pop. Sun isn’t Marshall trying to make a “happy” album to match some of her more morose releases. It’s simply Marshall making a great album. Sean McCarthy
One of the year’s most pleasant surprises was the highly anticipated sophomore album Something, by Chairlift. In 2009, the band won hearts and minds with their impressive debut Does You Inspire You, featuring complex snythpop arrangements centered around the palpable chemistry of partners Aaron Pfenning and Caroline Polachek on tracks such as “Bruises”, which with its complementary vocal harmonies made it the perfect poster child for an iPod campaign. In 2010, Aaron and Caroline split. Remaining band mates Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly soldiered on, facing down the challenge of the Aaron’s departure by “dialing back the artsy side” as one of my colleagues and early Chairlift advocates notes, in favor of a stripped down sound that in a courageous shift, laid emotions bare.
One of the first signs that Chairlift was intent on charting a new direction came with the band’s set at CMJ in October of 2011. Playing in complete darkness, the atonal synth riffs that open “Sidewalk Safari” signaled a departure from the sunnier textures of tracks. Few things say ‘baby is all grows up’ faster than a declaration that proclaims: “If I see you on the street, you’d better run. I’m aiming my all-terrain weapon in your direction”.
Something is a revelation, pairing Caroline’s confessional vocals sit atop industrial snyth riffs on a pair of contemplative tracks tinged in regret, “Wrong Opinion” and “Take It Out on Me”, that tap an emotional resonance not frequently found in krautrock or electropop. Something also features two exceptionally catchy dance-oriented tracks, “Amanaemonesia” and “I Belong in Your Arms”. which sit as two lost artifacts from the golden age and the album’s retro highlight “Met Before”, a John Hughes vignette if young love were to blossom among Ph.D students. Dennis Shin
After the release of 2010’s startlingly accessible Blue Sky Noise, listeners may have felt Circa Survive flirting with a big breakout and a whole lot of financial success. Instead, the band parted ways with Atlantic Records in 2012, choosing to record and produce their new album Violent Waves themselves, kicking off the affair with a seven minute song titled “Birth of the Economic Hit Man”. A quick cash grab this was not. No, Circa Survive knows full well where their talents lie, as lead singer Anthony Green’s meandering melodies flow effortlessly over the band’s progressive soundscape, led by Colin Frangicetto’s incredible guitar work. Violent Waves picks up where the band’s unpredictable 2005 debut Juturna left off, showcasing a maturity and a renewed sense of vigor in the band’s songwriting. Instead of delving into the world of radio-friendly rock and climbing the industry ladder (something the band likely could have accomplished with ease), Circa Survive has chosen to stay true to themselves and create one of the best experimental rock releases of the year in Violent Waves. Kiel Hauck
Few recording artists have combined longevity and integrity of vision to the degree of Leonard Cohen. I saw him perform live a few months back, and at 78 years old, he’s still as vibrant and gracious a performer as ever. But in a touching moment mid-set, he acknowledged the fact that this may be his final act, that “we may not meet again”. Then, with that signature blend of charm and irreverence, he declared that he couldn’t wait until his 80th birthday so he could finally start smoking again.
This mixture of mortality and mordancy defines the mood of Cohen’s most recent studio release Old Ideas. Musically, this album favors stripped-down blues and Americana-based arrangements over the more intricate work of Cohen’s past, allowing for his rich, well-aged baritone and vivid lyrical imagery to form the centerpiece of these songs. On “Going Home”, he riffs playfully upon his own legend, speaking as from on high: “I’d love to speak with Leonard / He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” But he goes on to impart the song with deeper meaning and spiritual longing (“Going home without my sorrow / Going home without the costume that I wore”), balancing the sacred and profane as he has done to such great effect throughout his career. Robert Alford
In 2012, electronic pop auteur Dan Deacon brought the radically participatory revelry of his live show to the Occupy Wall Street May Day General Strike, developed an iPhone app that transforms his audience into an organic, orchestrated light show, and released his appropriately epic third album America, an ambivalent sonic testament to the nation’s natural beauty and hubristic imperial ambitions. Musically, the album offers some of Deacon’s most accessible, pop-based work to date, and blends a greater use of live instrumentation into his signature style of hyper-speed computer riffs and carnival ride synth-scapes. The record closes with the “USA” series, a four song suite of live, orchestral instrumentation interwoven with swirling synthetics and Deacon’s deranged and impassioned vocals. This song series may be the greatest artistic achievement of Deacon’s career to date, their sounds flowing by like the contours of their namesake land viewed through the windows of a speeding train—beautiful, vast and full of possibility. Robert Alford
Recorded in a bedroom in rural New Jersey, the sophomore album by Delicate Steve Marion delivers precisely what its title promises. While the most buzzed about releases these days tend towards nihilistic narcissism (i.e. the Weeknd, Odd Future), Delicate Steve stands for something more selfless, more hopeful, and ultimately more honest. Positive Force boils over with uplifting arrangements. Almost entirely instrumental, composed and performed by Marion himself, his guitar tends to play the part of a vocalist, its idiosyncratically effervescent tone so bright and performance so nimble that it says more than words ever could. That said, there are a few recognizable words places throughout the album, but the voice is treated as an instrument, rather than a bearer of meaning. The meaning itself is more of a feeling, an overwhelmingly positive force, timeless and indestructible. If you could bottle the feeling of watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation for the first time, this would be the resulting cologne. It sets fire to cockles. Alan Ranta
This is, increasingly, how music works. You have something to say and you set yourself up to say it; you get accounts at Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Vimeo, Tumblr. You make music as fast or slow as you want, organize it into whatever groupings you feel are appropriate, and release it online for whatever people decide to pay (or, for a small fee, you offer them some custom art with their download). Toronto’s DenMother isn’t the only artist to be working in this way, unencumbered by physical releases (the odd cassette aside) or financial concerns. DenMother is fascinating and maybe concerning because the music (here maybe more distorted but just as dreamy/hypnotic as her self-titled debut last year) is amazing, more compelling than many of the hazy vocals and beats and ambience projects out there. Her songwriting and grasp of atmosphere are both stellar, and while I’ve never gotten the impression she wants the project to be any larger-scale than it is, the fact that her music is totally under the radar suggests that this modern form of distribution will, if anything, let even more fall through the cracks than before. DenMother, and Insides Out, deserves better. Ian Mathers
Twenty-seven years on from their last album, at the time met with indifference and in some cases downright hostility but now acclaimed as a bone fide masterpiece Don’t Stand Me Down, Kevin Rowland and Dexys (Dexys Midnight Runners) are back with only the fourth album of their brilliant career. It’s hard to think of another band, or songwriter, that has been so consistent, so awkward, so difficult, so singular in their outlook to life and music. I am a huge fan of all of Rowland’s work, as I am of the other offshoots of Dexys such as the Bureau, the Blue Ox Babes and guitarist/vocalist Pete Williams’ solo work.
One Day I’m Going to Soar is a suite of songs, whisper it quietly, a concept album, that reads as a mea culpa from Rowland as he recognizes and admits his faults, in love and life. Now 59, he is still, though, a man of principles. From opener “Now” with its call to “Attack / Attack /Attack” right through to closer “It’s Ok John Joe”, this is a beautifully written and played album; Mick Talbot on keys, Big Jim Patterson on trombone, Pete Williams on bass & vocals and Lucy Morgan on violin, provide the supreme backing along with the actress Madeleine Hyland, foil and sparring vocalist to Rowland on the semi confessional love songs that mark the core of the album. Rowland has never sounded better; to my ears full of remorse, full of combativeness, defiant even, but still full of soul.
Dexys deserve their place in the pantheon of truly great bands that Britain has produced, One Day I’m Going to Soar embellishes their reputation. Majestic. Jez Collins
2012 was a very good year for shoegaze enthusiasts. It began with the rerelease of pivotal albums from Ride and ended with hints of a new My Bloody Valentine album. And to top things off, there were plenty of releases from that genre’s next generation of torch-bearers. DIIV, led by Beach Fossils guitarist Zachary Cole Smith, lends a poppy dynamic to a genre that is better known for its squalling guitars than genuine hooks. Oshin is a wonderful debut, packed with cool, watery imagery that makes it perfect late fall/early spring listening material. “How Long Have You Known?” is one of those types of songs that make you question how a chorus that memorable wasn’t created earlier, say in the late ‘80s. Need something more immediate? Give “Air Conditioning” 15 seconds of your time and you’ll be convinced that guitars still have plenty to say in the age of laptops and iPads. Sean McCarthy
Lord only knows how you write concise rock and roll songs that feel like they can go anywhere, but the Atlanta-based District Attorneys manage it. Rock, blues, doo-wop, soul, you name it, just about everything finds its way onto Slowburner before it’s all said and done. There are a ton of good bands coming out of the South right now, and very few of them fit the term “Southern rock” as we’ve been using it since the ‘70s. The District Attorneys are at the forefront of a movement with Muscle Shoals, Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta, Birmingham in its DNA, finding ways to take what came before and blend it together into something fresh and new. Slowburner overflows with fun and intelligence, and the District Attorneys seem to be hittin their creative stride, releasing several free songs and participating in side projects throughout 2012. Slowburner stands as one of the best rock releases of the past year. Andrew Gilstrap
Few bands today can match Spoon in terms of translating kinetic energy to music. Their albums have a nervy utilitarianism quality to them, packing as much hook-filled drum, piano and guitar riffs into four minutes. In fact, one of the only indie bands that were able to match Spoon’s nervous energy and translate it to some incredibly memorable songs, was Handsome Furs, who called it quits in 2012. The loss of that band led to rock’s best consolation prize last year. Spoon’s Britt Daniel’s grounded sense of melody perfectly played off Dan Boeckner’s taut vocal delivery. A few weeks in the studio yielded A Thing Called Divine Fits. And while “My Love Is Real” and “The Salton Sea” are great, realized pop songs, one of the best aspects of listening to Divine Fits’ debut is its scrappy unpredictability. The only thing better than the feeling you get after listening to A Thing Called Divine Fits is the feeling of anticipation of what they’re going to do next. Sean McCarthy
With his 2012 release Big Station, Alejandro Escovedo struck gold with a release that built upon the widespread critical and commerical acclaim of his 2010 release, Street Songs of Love. 2012 was a victory lap of sorts, as Escovedo was able to bask in long-awaited praise as a roots rock legend, getting mainstream exposure and recognition. His ‘me and the boys’ communal spirit mirrors that of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. His deep knowledge and appreciation from artists spanning punk, roots rock, blues, and Tex-Mex have fashioned Escovedo as an Americana version of Jools Holland, serving as emcee of his annual SXSW closing night showcase at the Continental Club.
Big Station features the broad expansive mix that one expects from Escovedo’s repertoire, working in partnership with Chuck Prophet and producer Tony Visconti. The group plays ensemble rockers, spiritual ballads that yearn for a simpler time (Sabor a Mi, San Antonio rain). But Big Station features tracks that build upon his band’s ensemble strengths, showcasing horns and strings, wall-of-sound guitars and percussive hand claps, while showcasing the pathos of his storytelling. In much the way that his signature hit “Chelsea Hotel” conjures up the doom and gloom of Sid and Nancy, tapped from Alejandro’s personal experience as a punk scenester, Big Station is rife with stories, both tender and heartbreaking.
“Sally Was a Cop” touches on the human toll of Mexican drug cartel warfare, bringing to mind the tale of hurt and bitterness of Bruce Cockburn’s “If I had a Rocket Launcher”. In “Headstrong Crazy Fools”, he rattles off the woes of a cast of characters. “Common Mistake” conjures up the power pop of Look Sharp era Joe Jackson. And yes, he can still rock, as evidenced in this live clip of “Man of the World”, with its sing-along chorus and Duane Eddy/Eddie Cochran guitar riff. Dennis Shin
The Evens, featuring guitarist Ian MacKaye and spouse, drummer Amy Farina, know that less is more. As a co-singing duo inhabiting a gender gray zone, they eschew garage rock bombast, facile indie rock pretense, and processed pomp. Instead, as the muted cousin of Fugazi, which MacKaye helped helm for two decades, their appeal is found within reserved tendencies. They replace the emotional cliff-hangers and dissonant dexterity of that band with domicile (un)rock, even include house lamps on their stages. The nasally MacKaye maintains a kitchen sink style, wielding unfussy rhythmic thrusts that dance with Farina’s incessant, propulsive grooves and her stark voice, which echoes a bit of P.J. Harvey. Cadences found in the mesmerizing “King of Kings” unfurl at the speed of Lungfish and reveal wry wordplay and alliteration. Meanwhile, “Wanted Criminals” approximates an avid social critique, decrying an age of hive-mind shadow surveillance, while “Warble Factor – Version” and “Let’s Get Well” mine the existential tension between nature—life and dying—and fakery: media concoctions of beauty and finance. Recalling Samuel Becket’s sense of endlessly re-worked language, the band reminds listeners that intelligence is not measured by hype but by exploring the road less traveled. David Ensminger
Fang Island won acclaim here and there for its rousing, self-titled 2010 album. That record was full of great guitar riffs, solos, and fun power-chord rock. But the band was no backwards-looking throwback to ‘70s rock or ‘80s hair-metal. Instead, they used tricks picked up from post-rock and metal to give guitar rock a fresh twist. Major picks up where Fang Island left off, but quietly adds new elements to the band’s sound. The album opens and closes with songs (“Kindergarten” and “Victorinian”, respectively) that are dominated by piano and emphasize Jason Bartell’s singing. The guitars are relegated to background atmospherics for a change.
Things snap back to normal for the bulk of the album, which is again dominated by catchy riffs and soaring guitar harmonies on great tracks like “Chompers” and the hoedown-style stomp of “Dooney Rock”. But the band clearly put some work into the lyrics this time around, and Bartell’s voice stays out in front on Major. Fang Island is now going for vocal hooks as well as guitar riffs, and largely succeeding. The band straddles the divide between indie rock and metal, and their approach is unique. They want you to rock out to their guitar heroics and sing along with a huge grin on your face at all times. Chris Conaton
English folk troubadour Bill Fay rose to astonishing heights in recent memory when cameras captured Jeff Tweedy playing Fay’s track “Be Not So Fearful” in the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. In that single moment, an icon once relegated to cult status was introduced to a new audience. Nearly 40 years on from his ‘70s albums, Fay returned to the studio to deliver Life Is People, a masterful reflection on mortality, broken humanity, and spiritual longing. Stand out songs include the lead-off track “There Is a Valley” with it’s shadows of “Pacific Ocean Blue” and “This World”, an upwardly melodic rocker which features Tweedy on guest vocals. As if to return the favor, Fay croons on a haunting and transparent cover of Wilco’s “Jesus, etc.”
Fay has a penchant for detail, as found in the melancholic and searching narrative of “Big Painter” and points towards Christian spirituality with near-hymns like the aching prayer of “Thank You Lord”. Echoes of his classic album Time of the Last Persecution find their way in explorations of worldly power in tracks like “Empires”. With the aid of the London Community Gospel Choir, Fay pleads for inner harmony on “Be at Peace With Yourself” and finds his thematic crescendo on “Cosmic Concerto-Life Is People”, summarizing the “advice of his old Dad” with a slow building meditation on the true measure of life. World-weary, but heaven-focused, Fay returned to fine form, sounding like a grand storyteller passing song-strewn wisdom on to a future generation. Josh Antonuccio
Ben Folds is in a weird position. He has a large, dedicated fanbase that has followed him since the ‘90s through every permutation of his solo career. There’s another group of fans out there who abandoned him shortly after Ben Folds Five broke up, and were excited for their reunion album and tour. And yet, many of the reactions to The Sound of the Life of the Mind have been negative. People were pissed that it didn’t sound like the direct follow-up to the last Ben Folds Five album, despite that album coming 13 years ago. Others were aggravated that it sounded too much like just another Ben Folds solo album, as if Folds didn’t write 95% of the songs Ben Folds Five every played. Still others were annoyed that Folds still comes off sounding like a misogynistic asshole whenever he writes a “Woman done me wrong” song.
The Sound of the Life of the Mind is an album that can legitimately absorb all of these criticisms, and yet, it’s also pretty damn great. Esoteric tracks like the harsh and jazzy “Erase Me” and the character study “On Being Frank” sit side by side giant crowd-pleasing sing alongs like “Draw a Crowd” and “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”. Through it all, Folds, drummer Darren Jessee, and bassist Robert Sledge still have the vocal chops to pull off their trademark three-part harmonies. Jessee proves both more subtle and more powerful a drummer than Folds himself or any of his solo collaborators, and Robert Sledge brings his best fuzz bass solos to the table. For better or worse, The Sound of the Life of the Mind is a legitimate Ben Folds Five album. From this corner, it’s definitely for the better. Chris Conaton
Considering how vilified the practice has been in the past, it’s a little surprising that so many found it easy to accept Auto-Tune in 2012. I suppose that’s just where trends lie in the end, though, which is what made Future such an interesting litmus test for the year. A lot of the music he’s made and seems intent on continuing to make seems a little niche, which may hurt him a little going forward. But for now Future’s found him a way to make the audiovisuals of trap house economics feel relatable, clear and honest. Looking back on everything few albums feel as of its years as Pluto does, so, if you’re into the pop or the hooks at al, check it out. David Amidon
Toronto’s Great Lake Swimmers might have raised a few fans’ eyebrows when word came out that the band’s fifth album, New Wild Everywhere, would be its first recorded in a traditional studio. Granted, the band’s usual recording locations—grain silos, churches, etc.—had contributed greatly to the band’s often haunting sound, but this new approach yields fresh rewards. There’s an undeniable opennness and light to New Wild Everywhere, though, even on vocalist/songwriter Tony Dekker’s more introspective moments. The songs sound a little more expansive, as if they finally have room to breath, and in the case of upbeat songs like “Easy Come Easy Go”, the band strikes a sound that evokes Fleetwood Mac’s classic, honeyed ‘70s sound. You could argue that this is the same Great Lake Swimmers—rootsy and wistful—we’ve always had, just with better sound. It’s kind of hard to find anything wrong with that. Andrew Gilstrap
Here We Go Magic might have made a claim to be the American Radiohead when they hooked up with producer Nigel Godrich to produce their third full-length album, A Different Ship. However, the Brooklyn group was able to retain much of their folksy sound with just the added dash of some electronic percussion in the mix. And the results were superlative. Whether it was the motorik feel of “Make Up Your Mind”, the funky strum of “Hard to Be Close” or the very Radiohead-sounding ballad “Alone But Moving”, this was an album full of just simply great songs. There’s hardly a dud in the bunch, and there’s much here to revisit again and again. There’s an overlying consistency to the record which is fresh and engaging, and there’s additionally a deft balance between structure and experimentation. A Different Ship is definitely, in the end, a vessel that is much worth boarding and taking a long journey with. Zachary Houle
OK, let’s get this out of the way. The concept behind High on Fire’s De Vermis Mysteriis is that Jesus Christ had a twin who died at birth so that Jesus could survive. But Jesus’ twin automatically becomes a time-traveler and shoots forward in time, until he finds a scroll from a Chinese alchemist and then begins to travel backwards in time. He then begins to occupy peoples’ bodies at the worst possible times in their life ala Quantum Leap. Got it? Because according to the band’s website, lead vocalist and guitarist Matt Pike only wants to explain the plot once. It’s probably just as well not to dwell on the storyline, because De Vermis Mysteriis offers plenty in the way of musical pyrotechnics. Produced by Converge’s Kurt Ballou (who had a banner year himself in 2012), De Vermis Mysteriis finds High on Fire returning to the dark, sludgy recesses of albums like Death is This Communion and Surrounded by Thieves. Tracks like “Bloody Knuckles” and “King of Days” prove that as far as metal bands go, newcomers or veterans, few can bludgeon listeners’ eardrums as effectively as High on Fire. Sean McCarthy
Justin Ringle is a man out of time. His honeyed voice, pastoral invocations, and rustic guitar picking were just not meant for modern times. They belong next to a roaring fireplace in a home made of jagged wood surrounded by frost and ice that crushes the adjoining landscape. Cynic’s New Year tweaks Horse Feathers’ folk formula only granularly adding some woodwind and brass accents and a few minimal drum beats to punch up the already-perfect musicianship that Ringle and his fellow bandmates have locked up after four albums together. Cynic’s New Year is a new peak for Horse Feathers, but no one paid much attention in 2012 except those already attuned to the band’s quiet majesty. And if it seems strange that such elegant folk music comes from the same label that housed Sleater-Kinney and Deerhoof, then that’s more a testament to Horse Feathers’ appeal; they won’t beg for your attention, but if you’re kind enough to listen, you’ll find plenty of reward. Scott Elingburg
Hospitality’s debut is a wonderful kaleidoscope of Holly Golightly images: a crisp night wandering through Manhattan (“Eighth Avenue”), a hilarious college girl crush (“Betty Wang”), and grad school angst (“Liberal Arts”). What ties the album together is Amber Papini’s remarkable pop virtuosity, as she paints indelible images of New York City like an impressionable polymath who can only communicate in three-minute takes. Everything on the album is in sharp focus, as Papini brings NYC vividly alive in the colors of personal remembrance. It’s like a memoir of a freshman year at NYU, as told by the witty and brilliant class valedictorian. John Grassi
If nothing else, Scandinavia is known for a certain eclecticism. Indeed, that impression is reinforced by Norwegian singer-songwriter Hanne Hukkelberg’s fourth studio album. Featherbrain sounds like it exists on the edge of a dream. Considering things like the piano sound that keeps cutting out in “Noah” and the lo-fi wail and mic muffling of “Sms” contrasted with manipulated field recordings like the whistling then dying tea kettle on “The Bigger Me” and the weird paddling churn of the opening title track as well as a cornucopia of detuned instruments in evolving arrangements, there is an otherworldly, theatrical quality about the album, substantiating where the frightful whimsy of dark fantasy meets the grim realities of riot grrl. The album stood out in the 2012 soundscape as one of the few albums able to toe the line between aural experimentation and pop accessibility, retaining a natural pace while avoiding the blatant trend chasing that tends to fill popular EOTY lists. As such, Featherbrain exists on its own terms now, and its value will appreciate over time. Alan Ranta
As we’ve learned over the years, a lot of blogosphere buzz doesn’t always translate into a lasting, powerful contribution to music. While some have turned stellar EP debuts into full-fledged careers (the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, the Strokes), most bands disappear in a sea of shifting blog posts, soon lost to budget bins the world over.
When Jonna Lee’s iamamiwhoami project began leaking mysterious, high-quality clips on YouTube (all featuring strange synth collages and otherworldly visuals) a few years back, the “guess who?” nature of the whole project smelled of a well-done publicity stunt, but soon the electro noodles gave way to real songs, the mysterious tree-licking videos setting up a loose, otherworldly narrative told only by song, and since the project wasn’t actively selling any of its music, it gave them a long time to build up their sound and form it into something very palpable and very human. So, when the group’s debut album kin finally got released this past year, it wasn’t simply one of the most confident debuts in recent memory; it was also one of the best albums of the year, hands down.
Wrapping a wide swath of synthetic textures around (somewhat) conventional pop song structures, the group found the beating heart in the middle of cold synth music, leading songs like the melting “Play” (where the synths sounds like the life is being drained out of each note), the industrial punch of “In Due Order”, the positively skittering “Drops”, and the modern disco reimagining that is “Goods”. The ethereal vocals come more into focus on each listen, showing a great sense of play, loss, and wonder, often all in the course of the same song, giving us one more mystery in the collective’s myth machine: in such a short amount of time, how were they able to put out an album this good? Evan Sawdey
At a time when the core tenets of heavy metal—power, melody, fantasy, mystique—are being cast aside by a new generation obsessed with technicality, low-attention-span songwriting, and lazy harsh vocals, a new band from Finland reminded us all just how fun metal can be when you embrace those old traditions. Bridging the galloping rhythms of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal with the organ-driven jams of Uriah Heep and a good dose of occult lyrics, Jess and the Ancient Ones might be stubbornly rooting though the past for inspiration, but they emerge with a sound that’s lively, vibrant, and best of all, unbelievably catchy. The key component is frontwoman Jess, who is an absolute force, singing with the kind of power the music demands, but is never above injecting a little soul into the music. The end result is a stunning debut album, highlighted by the murky “Ghost Riders”, the devilish “Prayer For Death and Fire”, and the phenomenal “Sulfur Giants”, the latter being the hookiest 12-minute metal epic to come out in a long time. Adrien Begrand
The Forgiven Ghost in Me was one of three compelling albums to feature Neurosis guitarist and vocalist Scott Kelly in 2012. The most recent, Neurosis’s latest behemoth Honor Found in Decay, was undoubtedly influenced by Kelly’s solo work. However, his first release for the year, The Songs of Townes Van Zandt (a magnificent split with fellow Neurosis guitarist and vocalist Steve Von Till, and Saint Vitus frontman Wino), set the scene for the middle album of the trio.
Guided by traditional folk and country, Kelly’s strength as an artist (solo or otherwise) is his ability to tell evocative and searching tales of struggle. That relentless yearning for understanding was magnificently rendered on The Forgiven Ghost in Me, where he was joined on his quest by a host of guest artists. Kelly’s solo work is melancholic, and often exceedingly grim, but opening The Forgiven Ghost in Me with the line “I love you like a flower loves the sun” on “A Spirit Redeemed to Sun” revealed a sense of redemption at last. “I washed the blood from my hands. I’ve forgiven myself in my soul.” Still, while it was a beautiful beginning, it wouldn’t be Kelly without the gloom. On the rest of the album, slow and skeletal acoustics and semi-acoustics, mixed with sparse touches of keys and percussion, reaching into the darkest pools. Kelly journeyed to frighteningly intimate locales, but as with all of his art, it was that very unflinching honesty (and that graveled, world-weary voice) that made The Forgiven Ghost in Me so deeply resonant. Craig Hayes
Adam Bainbridge’s first record was surely one of the oddest releases of 2012, in the best possible way. From a bizarrely brilliant cover of ‘80s British soap star Anita Dobson’s “Anyone Can Fall in Love” (it’s the EastEnders theme tune with vocals, fact fans) to a haunting take on the Replacements’ “Swingin’ Party”, the record buzzes with invention at every turn. “Bombastic” features a rundown of all Bainbridge’s musical idols set to a jazzy backing. As luminaries ranging from Michael McDonald to Diana Ross are namechecked in a faux-seductive murmur, you realise where he’s coming from. With his eclectic tastes in music and that crucial touch of humour, he probably couldn’t make a dull record if he tried. The sheer funkiness of “That’s Alright” makes the album worth a spin, with just enough Prince thrown in there to agreeably chill the spine and lower the potential cheese quotient. Pastiche or homage? There’s too much genuine craft here for World, You Need a Change of Mind to be anything but the latter. Gem Wheeler
When Cameron Findlay left Parallels it was—to use technical parlance—“A Real Pisser”. Their luxurious 2010 synth pop opus Visionaries was, and remains, “Bloomin’ Brilliant”. Well sob no more and ring-a-ding-ding as Findlay has risen again, Phoenix-like, as the bemask’d, growling phantom of the elecro-opera juggernaut known as Kontravoid. Picture a streetwise, tough-talkin’ Ian Curtis resurrected and reunited with an on-form New Order. This is pop you need to wear a gum shield for. The rugged, nuclear punch of “Native State”, the slamdancin’, whiplash Goth of “Expulsions” and the menacing midnight shadows ‘n’ fog of “Silent Visions” are all top drawer, black nail varnish “Alternative night at the Ritzy” electro noir to get f’cked up to. But Kontravoid‘s sharp enough to haunt you long after the party’s over. There’s an infectious, clawing ache to “Forgotten” whilst the “Atmosphere”-esque dying suns and fading horizons of “Dead Eagles” offer a memorably mournful, tear-soaked wave goodbye. A star is reborn. Matt James
The problem with end of year lists is that as soon as you send in your ballot some worthy contender goes and releases a late-year stunner. Case in point, 2012’s Container Ships, by San Francisco-based noise and atmospheric post-metal quartet, Kowloon Walled City.
Following up 2009’s Gambling on the Richter Scale (the band’s bruising and groove-laden debut), Container Ships stretched out to encompass the angular cut of Fugazi, the post-hardcore funeral marches of Neurosis, and the blunt attack of Shellac. The album was a lesson in the totality of the riff, and the power of emotional honesty. Its two longest tracks, “Container Ships” and “You Don’t Have Cancer”, were crushing, slow-build dirges that underscored Kowloon Walled City’s punishing sonic weight. Every other track showcased the strength of melodic clean lines mixing with distorting sludgy riffs and bass-heavy dissonance, all wound tight around a gut-wrenching encapsulation of anguish.
Container Ships was more pressure-filled and metallic than the band’s previous work, but it didn’t forgo the grungier, propulsive noise, making it progressive enough to show a welcome songwriting ambition while remaining faithful to the band’s integrity and core sound. Heavenly heaviness all round. Craig Hayes