The Best Noise-Rock of 2012

Zach Schonfeld

To paraphrase Frank Zappa, rock isn’t dead. It just smells funny.

In 2012, the worlds of noise-rock and pop weren’t so far apart. This was the year the Black Keys debuted at number two on the Billboard charts -- and ended up suing Pizza Hut and Home Depot for using their in commercials without permission. Meanwhile, the Keys’ most immediate blues-rock grandfathers, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, rose from the dead -- hiatus, if there’s a distinction -- to release their first proper album since 2004.

This was the year Neil Young rallied together Crazy Horse to liven up “Oh Susannah” and “Clementine”, the year Cloud Nothings recruited Steve Albini for an indie-pop-goes-catharsis makeover, and the year Japandroids cracked the Billboard Top 50, ending up minor indie-rock royalty in the process.

To paraphrase Frank Zappa, rock isn’t dead. It just smells funny.

Honorable mentions go out to Lee Ranaldo’s Between the Times and the Tides, which finds the Sonic Youth sidekick aging gracefully into elder statesmanhood (though a bit too gracefully for this list); Liars’ WIXIW, whose most anxious cuts ("A Ring on Every Finger", "Brats") bring the trio full circle to its dance-punk roots; and the Soft Moon's Zeros, a seedy nostalgia trip through the 1980s’ gloomiest post-punk and industrial pathways. If I had unlimited room -- and unlimited freedom with regard to genre classifications -- these records would all find a place. Zach Schonfeld


Artist: Lightning Bolt

Album: Oblivion Hunter

Label: Load


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Lightning Bolt
Oblivion Hunter

Recorded in 2008 -- in between 2005’s Hypermagic Mountain and 2009’s Earthly Delights -- Oblivion Hunter is business as usual for the virtuosic Rhode Island duo, who are lucky enough to live in a world where “business as usual” means noisemaking to the most fiercely, unabashedly gleeful degree. It’s labeled an EP but long enough for a full-length, and its 38 minutes highlight the sort of hypercompressed dynamics, frenetic drumming, and finger-tapping speed-riffing trademarked by the band since 2003’s Wonderful Rainbow. There’s also room for a sing-songy guitar interlude (“The Soft Spoken Spectre”), as well as “World Wobbly Wide”, a screechingly unforgiving 13-minute assault that far outstays its welcome while cementing Lightning Bolt’s most timeless truth: they’re really just in this for the love of the noise.


Artist: Oren Ambarchi/Keiji Haino/Jim O’Rourke

Album: Imikuzushi

Label: Black Truffle


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Oren Ambarchi/Keiji Haino/Jim O’Rourke

A follow-up to 2011’s In a Flash Everything Comes Together as One There Is No Need for a Subject, Imikuzushi was similarly recorded live in Tokyo, where O’Rourke now lives, by three icons of avant-noise experimentalism. But here the objects of the trio’s fascination are not the prepared piano or oscillating electronics -- tools of the post-rock and experimentalist tradition. Imikuzushi is a shattering freakout of a rock record, a mission that is clear from the opening onslaught of “still unable to throw off that teaching a heart left abandoned unable to get inside that empty space nerves freezing that unconcealed sadness.” Between O’Rourke’s roaring bass and Haino’s maniacal shrieks, the most recognizable reference point may be the Stooges’ “L.A. Blues” -- but apocalyptic fury here is not the thunderous climax. It is simply the point.


Artist: Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

Album: Meat and Bone

Label: Mom+Pop


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Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
Meat and Bone

I won’t bullshit you. Meat and Bone, the first album from the raucous blues-rock heroes since their 2004 hiatus, isn’t a “mature” or “reflective” take from the aging boozy punks. Nor is it a half-hearted attempt to reclaim the lo-fi hiss-and-chatter of their early records, or a continuation of Acme’s flirtation with hip-hop guest spots (DJ Shadow and Chuck D, among others). Comfortingly straightforward, Meat and Bone finds a snarling, invigorated Jon Spencer just being Jon Spencer -- serving up scuzzed out, chop-and-paste blues rock to the screeching max. “I remember the 1990s,” growls Spencer in Meat and Bone’s second track, and by the time you’ve gotten that far in the album, so do you.


Artist: A Place to Bury Strangers

Album: Worship

Label: Dead Oceans


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A Place to Bury Strangers

Shame the album title World of Noise was already taken (flashback: that’s Everclear's first album), but Worship makes a good second choice: the Brooklyn trio wear their influences on their sleeve, and their third full-length is full of openhearted reverence for those idols. As usual, the band borrows most liberally from the Jesus & Mary Chain, merging earsplitting shoegaze textures with gloomy post-punk. This time around, though, there’s a bit less Psychocandy and a bit more Automatic bleeding through -- especially in the controlled industrial-punk of “You Are the One” and the shattering scuzz assault of “Revenge”. APTBS is known as the “Loudest Band in New York” for a reason, and Worship’s deafening roars pays off well in the live department. Between the flashing strobe lights and the hurling amps, no other 2012 show made me fear for my life quite like this one.


Artist: Odonis Odonis

Album: Hollandaze

Label: Fat Cat


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Odonis Odonis

Odonis Odonis is the project of DIY Toronto punks Jarod Gibson, Denholm Whale, and frontman Dean Tzenos. They describe their mission as a “gum-splattered ménage of surf-gaze, industrial and lo-fi,” which is to say that the surf-tinged guitar chord and spring-reverb slide riff that begins the album isn’t some ironic joke -- it’s a literal descent into Hollandaze’s thick, sun-splattered sludge, where surf-rock impulses war with an ugly industrial sheen. The centerpiece of sorts is “Seedgazer”, a six-minute drone-rock whir of guitar machinations, vocal mumbles, and an eerily looped low vocal moan.

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