Thursday, December 27, 2012
That Wonderful Year in Music... 2012
It was only December 19th when I started writing this, but as far as new music goes 2012 was very much over. The industry basically shuts down from early December to early January, partially because it's foolish to market a new recording in the middle of the holidays. (I'm sure there are other reasons.) This gives the critics and music nerds plenty of time to assemble their best-of lists for the year. These lists are typically bloated yet diverse, jam-packed with memorable albums yet never totally comprehensive. This is my seventh year writing a best-of, and whittling my picks down to ten is so operose that I can't get beyond twenty.
What can I say about 2012 in itself? That was it was good to be prolific, as Neil Young, Andrew Bird, and jazz great Chick Corea all released multiple albums. That shoegaze might be having a renaissance. That the notoriously brash Odd Future rap collective can produce compelling, oddly introspective hip-hop (well done, Frank Ocean). That the best songs on AAA and alternative radio came from albums released in late '11. That a short, pudgy, uncharismatic Korean guy can not only record the catchiest pop single of the year, but also make the accompanying video the most downloaded in YouTube history. Granted, what you see below may not be a complete list (Kendrick Lamar is on my radar, just trust me) but it certainly captures what made 2012 a bountiful and rarely boring year in music.
1. Channel Orange, Frank Ocean. It is anaphora to say it would be tough to come out as bisexual in the typically homophobic world of hip-hop. Frank Ocean did exactly that in June 2012, and one listen to Orange indicates that Ocean is as free as an artist as he is as a man. Many of Ocean's songs, like the unrequited love ballad "Thinkin' 'Bout You" and the especially raw slow jam "Bad Religion," are emotionally vivid and generous in detail. The assured attitude of Ocean's debut album makes his attraction to men almost a footnote.
2. Bloom, Beach House. If there is a modern-day heir to the ethereal rock/shoegaze throne abdicated by Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance, than this Balitmore-based duo wearily wears the crown. More of a suite than collection of songs, Victoria LeGrand, Alex Scally, and engineer/partner-in-crime Chris Coady create a sonically gorgeous listening experience, one that seems elusive and confusing at first but pays off later.
3. Blunderbuss, Jack White. If you see the name Jack White in the liner notes of any CD, you know who's calling the shots. After all three of his bands called it a day in 2011 --we still miss you, White Stripes-- Jack finally cut his first solo album in '12. Where the Stripes were raw and primitive, Blunderbuss is a professional yet energetic effort.
4. Tramp, Sharon Van Etten
5. Celebration Rock, Japandroids
6. Attack on Memory, Cloud Nothings
7. Visions, Grimes
8. Boys & Girls, Alabama Shakes
9. Put Your Back N 2 It, Perfume Genius
10. The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than..., Fiona Apple. After all the accidental drama that surround her much-delayed third album Extraordinary Machine, Apple waited even longer to write and record her fourth effort, and it proved to be worth the wait. The surly teenager we met in the late '90s is now a strident thirty-something; her voice is front and center. Apple's songwriting is as enigmatic as its ever been, and the arrangements are sparse yet elliptical.
11. Reign of Terror, Sleigh Bells
12. Love This Giant, David Byrne and St. Vincent
13. Break It Yourself, Andrew Bird
14. Hospitality, Hospitality
15. Ghostory, School of Seven Bells. Speaking of dream pop and ethereal rock, SVIIB's third album is both a personal triumph and a compelling effort. Reduced to a duo, Ghostory retains the lush layering of their past efforts and take a step forward in texture and vulnerability. Claudia Deheza's departure is not swept under the rug by any means, as the amimosity seemingly fuels the soured relationships within the songs.
16. Swing Lo Magellan, The Dirty Projectors
17. Coexist, The XX
18. Port of Morrow, The Shins
19. In Our Heads, Hot Chip
20. Young & Old, Tennis. Less than two years ago, the husband-and-wife duo Tennis cut Cape Dory, a concept album about their honeymoon along the eastern seaboard. Their follow-up Young & Old is a more emotionally mature effort, depicting the daily grind of marriage in the eyes of an overwhelmed, almost hapless young couple. The sound is still peppy neo-surf rock, but the lyrics convey soul-searching and an unexplained yearning. Between you and me, I really hope they work their issues out.
"Midnight City," M83
"Tongue Tied," Grouplove
"California," Delta Spirit
"We Are Young," Fun.
"Change the Sheets," Kathleen Edwards
"Yet Again," Grizzly Bear
"Too Close," Alex Clare
"Would That Not Be Nice," Divine Fits
"Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns," A.C. Newman
1. "Bad Girls," M.I.A. The critics at Paste magazine deemed this video "a chaotic jumble of powerful imagery." Indeed, it's a weird juxtaposition, taking your typical hip-hop video and shifting the action to a desolate Arabian setting. The result is a thought-provoking mash-up of American and Middle Eastern stereotypes. "Live fast, die young," indeed.
2. "Oblivion," Grimes. What a remarkable year for Emily Kai Bock. She directed three pretty good videos (I liked the song "Yet Again" slightly more than the video, so it's on the singles list) but she made her finest clip to date with "Oblivion." Finding contrast in the masculine bravado of sporting events and slam-dancing with the quirky femininity of Canadian techno songstress Claire Boucher, Bock uncovers a certain, unexpected overlap.
3. "Lofticries," Purity Ring. This is not a short film so much as a series of one-minute vignettes pieced together, all depressingly commonplace yet linked by an undercurrent of loneliness and futility.
4. "Sixteen Saltines," Jack White. Simply put, the kids are not alright.
5. "Oldie," Odd Future. Either the sloppiest rap video ever made or the funniest. "I don't know my verse!"
6. "Dawned on Me," Wilco. This was a toss-up between the trippy fairy tale video for "Sunloathe" and the charming (albeit fleeting) return of Popeye the Sailor Man and his pals, the first new Popeye cartoon in several decades. In the end, I went with the spinach-obsessed maritiner.
7. "No Future/No Past," Cloud Nothings. A surreal depiction of mortality and self-awareness, embodied by a well-kept, middle-aged man being hopelessly dragged from his home and into the woods.
8. "To Be The Best," Tenacious D. You only hear about 35 seconds of the song, but the wacky "reunion" of JB and KG more than makes up for it.
9. "Someone I Used To Know," Gotye. Is any discussion about 2012 in music videos not going to include this omnipresent, much-parodied clip?
10. "Gangham Style," Psy. Ditto?
Honorable Mentions: "Let's Go," Matt and Kim; "Houdini," Foster The People; "Comeback Kid," Sleigh Bells.
Coolest Gimmick of 2012: Chairlift's "Met Before" video. Two years after The Wilderness Downtown (the interactive short film that featured Arcade Fire's "We Used To Wait"), an indie pop duo from Brooklyn takes the personalized concept one step further. This is basically a choose-your-own-adventure music video, featuring the band as grad school lab rats on the verge of an astonishing discovery.