The Indie Rock Trends of 2012

Ah, the holiday season, the chilly time (in the northern climes, anyway) when we critics dollop a smidge of eggnog into our pints of bourbon, take a break from mailing boxes of coal to Mumford & Sons, and inundate you readers with list after list after list of our Favorites, Most Importants, and Absolutely the Bests of the year. I know as well as you do the potential for this curatorial spirit to reach maximum saturation sometime between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, with a chorus of blogs and online mags (and, if you can believe it, print magazines) clamoring for a rightful spot on your RSS feed until the whole thing blurs into a singular blob the color of a stale holiday fruitcake.

Still, if you can steel yourself for another nutmeg-sprinkled retrospective, 2012 offered the indie world more than a few interesting developments. I’ve grouped a handful of my favorites here, and none of them are even pumpkin flavored.

Bringing Scuzzy Back*

After a solid half-decade of the twee-ing of indie rock, the most celebrated rock records of the year will scorch the term “chamber pop” right out of your synapses. Japandroids’s Celebration Rock, this year’s NPR-approved crossover success story, delights in a transparently terrible guitar tone, its monstrous riffs pounding your ears into gleeful submission. The band pulls in equal measure from the grit of legendarily sloppy acts like The Replacements and greasy-haired classic rock heroes like Tom Petty, crafting a shot-to-the-heart blend of punk energy and ‘70s-rock stadium hooks, each shouted chorus or blitzkrieg drum fill a monument to unpolished joy.

Elsewhere, the miraculously resurrected Swans defied the odds in the way only a band properly allied with Satan could, dropping the best album of its 30-year career in The Seer. Japandroids are nice Canadian boys, happy to help you off the floor when the pit gets to be too much; Swans will put a boot on your throat. A seething, brutalizing sprawl of a statement, one of the joys of the season comes in placing The Seer’s LP next to the Sufjan Stevens discography at your local record store and watching the latter melt into a puddle of coagulating wax.

Toronto’s Metz and Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings tapped into stripped nerves with Metz and Attack on Memory, both records that hark back to the heyday of Dischord Records and the rhythmic attack of bands like Jawbox, earning heaps of critical acclaim and leaving various bodily fluids on the cement floors of clubs nationwide. Whatever the reason, the indie rock world seems to be making room for aggression again. The kids are all right.

*I’m so sorry.

What Glass Ceiling?

In a genre often pegged—and rightfully so—as male-centric, female singer-songwriters can struggle to find the same degree of critical attention and due praise as their male counterparts. On one level, I hate to contribute to such a binary discussion—you know, male versus female, insisting on grouping two genders and their accomplishments into different camps. But more so, I feel uncomfortable ignoring that the distinction exists, particularly when women have been releasing the most adventurous, amazing examples of craft 2012 has to offer.

This year has been one of genre-busting (more on that later), and women have led the charge in this kind of bold synthesis. Claire Boucher, as Grimes, has become likely the most lauded “new” artist of the year through the virtue of her eclectic musical palate, one that spans Top 40 R&B, ‘80s industrial, dubstep, and beyond. Crucially, the diversity of sounds on Visions, her breakthrough record, never sounds anything close to a hodgepodge—rather, Boucher integrates each disparate touchstone into a seamless sound all her own.

Two much beloved standard bearers, Fiona Apple and Bat for Lashes, returned this year with breathtaking albums that pushed each artist’s sound into subtle new directions. Natasha Khan, as Bat for Lashes, withheld on this year’s The Haunted Man a good deal of the high melodrama characteristic of her previous records, opting instead for a lush electronic palate, with emphasis on the type of minimal percussion and deep bass swells that have made producers like Jamie xx so celebrated in the last several years. The record’s finest moments are those where Khan moves farthest from typical sound, like the devastatingly spare piano ballad “Laura” and the tensely coiled title track.

Fiona Apple, back from a seven-year hiatus, follows a similar template on her stunning The Idler Wheel…, its songs sprung from carefully arranged instrumentation with an emphasis on percussion, be it the often staccato chop of Apple’s piano, the clattering stomp of tracks like “Periphery,” or her staggering facility in delivering complex rhymes and verbal rhythms. Both records deserve spots near the peak of these end-of-year climbs, and both split the difference between pop accessibility and engaging experimentation in a way that could make critics and audiences alike lift them to the top.

A note, too, for Jessie Ware, whose Devotion sees her folding silky futurist touches into classic R&B tropes to divine results. I can’t make any sense of her as yet middling showing on her native UK charts; Adele, after all, sold ten million copies of 21 on a formula much more derivative and much less seductive. With any luck, Ware will gain further momentum as colder days lead to more couples looking for a sultry record for evenings indoors.

Albums Without Borders

In the six months I’ve written in “Slanted, Enchanted”, my tastes—at least, when I look at my LastFM profile and iTunes playcounts—have shifted, if not decisively, then at least notably away from the kind of guitar-driven, nuts-and-bolts rock music the column explores. And I’m not alone—the genre itself, whatever “indie rock” has come to mean in 2012, seems less and less rigid, harder to pin down than ever before. I’m not complaining. The world of independent music seems as thrilling to me now as it ever has in the past, and it’s wonderful to see the world of independent music journalism focusing on a wider array of artists with each passing year.

Frank Ocean will likely top most of the indie world’s Best-Of lists this year, and for good reason. The reception surrounding his Channel Orange represents, like Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s fitting monopoly on critical honors in 2010, the further expansion of the boundaries of indie rock journalism and fandom alike. I haven’t conducted a PEW Research survey, but I get the sense that there are more than a few people who, if asked what kind of music they primarily enjoy, would respond with “indie,” while naming Ocean’s album their favorite of the year. This, of course, is more or less unremarkable—but it’s the ordinariness of the decision that deserves some attention, the consensus surrounding an album outside of what, even ten years ago, would’ve been considered a fairly bold selection.

The same can be said of my two favorite albums of the year, Killer Mike’s El-P produced R.A.P. Music and Kendrick Lamar’s stunning good kid, m.A.A.d. city, both sure to garner high placement on otherwise rock-centric lists. A few years ago, the placement of hip-hop records in the top ten of, say, Pitchfork’s list resulted in an explosion of internet commentary, much of which bemoaned such a selection as “token” or some sort of poorly aimed stab at cultural relevance.

From the ambient hum slathered over large swaths of my favorite rock record of the year, Chromatics’s Kill for Love, to the trap-inflected rhythms of Purity Ring’s Shrines, to the classic radio-rock touchstones of Japandroids’s Celebration Rock, the albums that hit me hardest in 2012 all shared a willingly expansive palate, and it’s difficult to say why any of them should be called, plainly, “indie rock.” Whatever the term should be, the eclecticism of this year’s finest albums point toward even more exciting things to come in 2013 and beyond.