Friday, December 14, 2012

My Favorite Albums of 2012

It's been a while, but I thought, "Hey kimosabe, now's as good a time as ever to shake the rust off and brush up on those writing chops." So that's what I did. After reading countless blogs each day, I decided to give my top 10 list a go...which wasn't easy. Lots of good music this year though, bro.

Extremly High Honorable Mention:

David Byrne and St. Vincent - Love This Giant
Dr. Dog - Be The Void
Titus Andronicus - Local Business
Hot Chip - In Our Heads
El-P - Cancer For Cure
The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten
The Walkmen - Heaven
Hospitality - Hospitality 
Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan

10. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory

Opening with a dark piano riff, it’s immediate that this isn’t the same Cloud Nothings that Dylan Baldi started just a few years ago. With thundering production from Steve Albini, Attack on Memory charges through eight songs of post-punk fury. Most often heard are echoes of Fugazi (“Wasted Days”) and the Descendents (“Stay Useless”), but Baldi is able to draw on his influences and make something completely his own. With a chorus consisting of “I thought there would be more than this,” he blistering “No Sentiment” reeks of youthful abandon that condemns the past and demands a better future. After releasing this as his band’s only second proper album, it seems that a better future is imminent.  


9. Swans – The Seer

I’ll be the first to admit that before I heard this album, I knew very little about Swans - despite them making music for 30 years.  As a new listener or as long time fan, The Seer is easy to get lost in and demands your attention for nearly two and a half hours. The chanting battle cry opener of “Lunacy” sets the stage for a dark voyage into the galloping and frantic panting of “Mother of the World,” eventually breaking to vocalist Michael Gira’s nasal scowl. Things get funky at times on “The Seer Returns,” demonic jazz on “93 Ave. B Blues,” and even Karen O shows up on “Song For A Warrior.” By the time you’ve come out on the other side, you’re completely convinced that this album comprises everything the band has been doing for three decades. 


8. The Shins – Port Of Morrow

Dating back to 2009, it didn’t look like the Shins were ever going to record again: frontman James Mercer fired half of his bandmates, and went off with producer Danger Mouse to do pseudo-space rock with Broken Bells.  Thankfully, once the new lineup released Port of Morrow earlier this year, the band was not only back in the game, but right on top of it. Lead single “Simple Song” is catchy enough, but the sunnier “No Way Down” might prove catchier, and the floating “September” wouldn’t sound out of place on their debut album.  The great “Fall of ‘82” bounces along nostalgically right beside some of the band’s best, and things wrap up out in the upper atmosphere along with Mercer’s falsetto on “Port of Morrow.” He and his new lineup remind us what we’ve been missing for the past five years. 


7. Bob Mould – Silver Age

For 52-year-old Bob Mould, much of 2012 was spent on preparing and discussing his upcoming tour celebrating his former band Sugar’s landmark album Copper Blue.  And rightfully so – it got the 20th anniversary deluxe reissue treatment a few months back as one of the seminal power-pop albums of the 1990s. Bob also had something else up his sleeve, however, when he released his return-to-form tenth solo album Silver Age. Joined by Jason Narducy on bass and Superchunk/’The Best Show’’s Jon Wurster on drums, the power trio picks up right where Sugar left off. The opening string of ‘Star Machine,’ ‘Silver Age,’ and ‘The Descent’ alone are enough to convince you that Mould is not only still relevant but not going anywhere anytime soon. Sit back and enjoy the ride…or start rocking-out in your living room (recommended). 


6. Grizzly Bear – Shields

This year marked what was supposed to be more exciting to all the hipster kids – the Brooklyn Class of 2009, comprised of Animal Collective, the Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear, each made their returns after their breakthroughs of that year. Three years have seen the indie landscape shift to be more electronically flavored it seems, but nevertheless Grizzly Bear has kept things moving forward. Their most focused record to date, Shields finds the bands looping guitars and downright jamming on “Sleeping Ute,” crooning through orchestrated chaos on “Yet Again.” Vocalists Ed Droste and Dan Rossen trade vocals on highlights “Gun Shy“ and closer “Sun In Your Eyes” sounding more cohesive then ever. Fads in music come and go, but this album makes it certain that Grizzly Bear won’t.

5. Tame Impala – Lonerism

Tame Impala’s second long, strange journey begins way off in the distance of your speakers with a freight train of drums charging closer to reveal a whispered refrain of ‘Gotta be above it.’ Once the laser beam guitars strum a chord a minute or so in, you find yourself in the middle of a 52-minute acid trip that you won’t want to end. “Will I ever get up/Does it even matter?” asks band mastermind Kevin Parker during the spacey, piano driven “Apocalypse Dreams,” which sums up the dream-like feel of the entire David Fridmann (Flaming Lips, MGMT) production, although Fridmann does a great job of not letting it go too far off the rails.  Amid all the swirling keyboards and phaser pedals is “Elephant,” an outlaw-style rocker that finds that band aims for the arenas of the past. Just as anyone who was as enthralled with their first album had hoped, Parker and his band mates are the real deal.

4. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…

Much like the way The Seer works as a culmination of all of Swans’ work through their career, Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… sounds like the album she’s been waiting to make her entire (now four album) career. Instead of going with staple producer Jon Brion’s and his wall-of-sound-like production, Apple and drummer Charley Drayton produced the record themselves. This stripped down sound allows Apple to stretch out vocally on “Every Single Night” and “Left Alone,” in which the latter finds her at her jittery, neurotic best. Percussion and piano dominate the sound of the record but manage the to play a different role in each song. Brash snares and the lower end of the piano help elevate Apple’s sandpaper scowl on the chorus of “Regret,” timpani dominates the semi-round of “Hot Knife,” and street style glass bottle skitters along with piano and bass on “Anything We Want,” which may be the closest thing to a love song Apple has ever written. The Idler Wheel… sits at the top of Apple’s work as a record that adapts all of the best elements of her songwriting throughout her sporadic yet influential career.


3. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

With a name like Celebration Rock, what better way to start off your album than with fireworks? Thanks to the infectious single “The House That Heaven Built,” the Vancouver duo became the biggest little band on the scene since the album’s May release. And rightfully so – the album is exactly what it says it is, with infectious hooks, pounding drums, buzzsaw guitars and plenty of ‘oh oh oh oh’ refrains. Vocalist Brian King’s lyrics are abundant with lost youth and bombast, and “waiting for a generation’s bonfire to begin” on “Adrenaline Nightshift.” This may also be the one instance where recycling a song has worked out well, since “Younger Us” still stands as one of the band’s best and was first released as a single in 2010. Japandroids are one of the most exciting bands on the indie music scene at the moment, being passed the torch from the likes of bands as recent as The Hold Steady and as far back as the Replacements. Here’s hoping the party never ends, bro. Grab me a beer.


2. John K Samson – Provincial

As part of Canadian punkers Propagandhi and later fronting the folk-rock Weakerthans, John K Samson knows a few things about songwriting. On his first proper solo record, Samson brings it all back home to focus on the trials and tribulations of everyday life in his native Winnipeg, Manitoba to tremendous results. Much like the Weakerthans, songs seamlessly blend folk and punk aesthetic while painting the picture of small town struggles: a failing business on “Grace General,” an affair between teachers on “The Last And,” and even a rally to induct Reggie ‘The Rifle” Leach into the Hockey Hall of Fame on “Petition.” Samson’s writing is poignant enough to the point where you think he is video gamer aspiring for greatness on “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” or the TB-stricken patient at the Manitoba Sanatorium in “Letter In Icelandic from Ninette San. ” His songs have a way of burrowing their way in and never sounding stale or trite, which is exactly what this record has proved to do since it’s release in mid-January. Samson may not get the attention or praise he deserves, and this album only reasserts that notion exponentially.


1. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE

One of my personal favorite things about music is its ability to surprise. With the internet beyond saturated with music sites praising this and panning that, the artist or groups themselves end up becoming the main focus instead of the music itself. Such was the case with Odd Future, whose success skyrocketed after Tyler, The Creator and Hodgy Beats rode on Jimmy Fallon’s back on late night television. The blogosphere was abuzz about all things OF with the group only having a few mixtapes…awful mixtapes, might I add.
So enter Frank Ocean. Ocean, part of the OF collective, had released a mixtape in 2011 as well, the acclaimed ‘Nostalgia Ultra.’ Given that association, I paid little attention to it. Not until I saw his performance of “Bad Religion” on Jimmy Fallon (ironically enough) did I start to pay attention. After listening to the first few songs on channel ORANGE the first time it was more than apparent that Ocean is no Tyler, The Creator or anyone else in the Odd Future group. Channel ORANGE is truly a masterpiece.

As this album tops most year-end lists, and at the risk of sounding redundant, I will only offer one observation about this album and about Ocean himself: he is an excellent songwriter. Much like Samson above, Ocean tells stories in his songs and paints pictures of his world. He’s not the drunk guy on the roof in “Super Rich Kids,” nor is he the ‘in love with a stripper’ on “Pyramids.” He’s the yearning romantic on “Thinkin Bout You” and “Bad Religion” that knows how to make a great song.

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