Yes, I realize most people had their lists up since December, but as my longtime peeps know, I rank my fave albums by the number of times I listen to em start to end in the calendar year. The more times album X flows in the ear canals, the higher on the chart album X will sit. So between that, tabulation time and all the regular stuff the ticking of time plants in front of you, the list is finally here.
2012 in general? Sadly enough, it was figuring out how awesome 2011 was. As my post last year will attest
, I dug myself quite the musical hole last year, so a good chunk of my listening time was reflecting back on the stuff I missed out on. (And again, although it's said countless times, I will say it again: there is stuff from every year that slips between the cracks, at least around here.) This is where a handy dandy revised 2011 best of would be a welcome sight, but, uh, it is still be tabulated. But take my word for it that it would/will look quite different from the list I posted.
Looking at my top 15, I'm sorta OK with it, although like last year there's a lottttt of CDs I missed. There's stuff on the list I thought would not get as high as they did, but the total number of listens of these 15 were staggeringly low. So it didn't take a lot for a particular album to worm it's way in. (I only listened to a smidge over 50 albums, and more than a few only once. Whether that's a testament the sheer magnitude of music I try to give time to, or a silent critique of the listenability in some of my 2012 candidates is a thought piece I don't have the time to write.) In fact, one album got in that I didn't even obtain until after Christmas!
So let the reverse counting begin!
15. Melody's Echo Chamber
-- Melody's Echo Chamber
The recent bull-rush of modern artists looking to recreate the heyday of 60s sunshine pop naturally make it hard for certain acts to distinguish themselves. Melody's Echo Chamber gets a big boost from the simpatico production and guidance of Tame Impala ringleader Kevin Parker, but Melody Prochet is a talent of her own right. Her winsome vocals bound across the swirly soundscapes like a precocious flower girl, but never get lost in the mercurial lurch of some of the heavier numbers. I Follow You
is the highlight, but new sounds and delights reveal themselves with continued visits. As for Kevin Parker, well, we'll be hearing more from him...
14. Stew and the Negro Problem
-- Making It
So how exactly *do* you follow up a Tony-winning Broadway play-as-autobiography about discovering the power of rock? Much like Passing Strange, Stew let real life set the stage as he and longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald discovered how such a massive undertaking strengthened some bonds and frayed others. Like the rest of Stew's catalogue, it dips equally into classic pop structure, satire and unflinching self-reflection. Bummer of the year: realizing Stew was teaching a song-writing class at my alma mater two weeks after it had concluded.
13. Elion The Great
-- Theme Music
With the rise of mixtapes and social media as free/cheap publicity, hip hop is moving away from its longtime strongholds into newer areas. North Carolina has a little rap history (Black Sheep
called it home before they migrated to New York and the Native Tongue posse in the late 80s) but it took Little Brother
to make a scene in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area. LB is history now, but Elion The Great, a member of the Lion's Den crew, is looking to fill those shoes. Like Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh, Elion rides classic R&B derived smooth beats with swagger and panache. A bevy of producers keep things interesting, but oddly my favorites are the self-produced ones.
12. Kendrick Lamar
-- good kid, m.A.A.d city
Not many rappers can situate themselves inside the Venn intersection of the "selling records" circle and the "getting critical praise" circle, and none of them excelled at both this year like Kendrick Lamar. Crafting a sprawling concept album with star-studded cameos (Dr. Dre
, and MC Eiht
among others) and membership in the hottest hip-hop conglomeration Black Hippy definitely helps. But it's probably Lamar's talent in portraying the inner struggle of trying to escape the streets versus the struggle of simply trying to survive.
11. Plug 1 & Plug 2
, Plug 1 & Plug 2 Present First Serve
Hip-hop is growing exponentially, so for an old-school act to stay above the fray requires exceptional skill and willingness to embrace change. Considering De La Soul
has exhibited mass amounts of both since their debut almost 25 years (!?) ago, it shouldn't shock anyone to see De La still surviving and thriving. Here, the two De La MCs Posdnuos and Dave (credited as Plugs 1 and 2) play the roles of Dean Witter and Pop Life a.k.a First Serve. Peppered with plenty of De La's legendary vocal interplay and their fresh humor (three words: Dean Witter's mom), it's great to see two all-time greats show their style in a new format and seem to have a good time doing so.
10. Royal Headache
-- Royal Headache
From The Saints
to Radio Birdman
on through to You Am I
and The Vines
, there's alway been an influx of Aussie rock bands beneath the pop surface of the likes of Men at Work
and Midnight Oil
. Royal Headache are looking to add their names to that list, and judging by their debut they could be in that company quickly. Speaking of quickly, this s/t LP churns out 12 gems in well under a half hour. There's plenty of garage rock grit and lo-fi chaos, but the X factor may well be lead vocalist Shogun's powerful vocals. He sings with soulful purpose lingering just underneath the forceful punk melodies of "Girls" and "Really in Love."
9. Ben Folds Five
-- The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind
An unlikely reunion (but not the only, or even the most unlikely, in this countdown) of the '90s favorites got mixed reviews, but to these ears the results are exactly what I expected -- a little more mature, a lot more relaxed. Whether musing on what Frank Sinatra
's handler does after Ol' Blues Eyes goes away (On Being Frank
) or how people's lives can randomly intertwine (Michael Praytor, Five Years Later
), the BF5 cut down on the snark while doubling down on their band chemistry. Who knows if the trio will remain intact, but this Sound was a welcome surprise.
-- Young and Old
This duo made waves (groan) with their debut Cape Dory
which featured the partners recalling life on their sailboat, literally setting their ports of call to song. It was a nice way to distinguish them from other twee-leaning indie acts, but it was not the type of thing you could comfortably place a career arc upon. A year later, Young and Old find Tennis serving (groan) 10 more songs, but with depth and introspection. Tennis didn't just revamp themselves lyrcially -- the music of Young and Old was denser and more direct as well. Appearing on my list two years in a row is no easy feat, but Tennis have achieved in that feat. Can they go for a third? The ball's in their (groan) court...
-- All Else Failed
StarPower's been a fave of mine from a ways back from his breakthrough 2008 release The Petting Zoo
. Here, he interlaces thoughts on massive stardom (I Wish I Had Drake's Problems
) between club jams (When In Rome
) and manifestos of self-determination (AudaCity
) while sampling adult contemporary gems from Carole King
and Elton John
. But the true power of the album is how StarPower is true to the listener and himself: the whole of All Else Failed is interspersed with audio clips of his school teaching day job. (StarPower was also part of That Jungle Music
with God Bless,Tsi LeBrev and Chris Maestro, who collectively released a series of YouTube videos over the summer called The Jungle Book. Check that out as well.)
6. The Twilight Sad
-- No One Can Ever Know
I'll admit I wasn't exactly doing somersaults with rumours of long time faves The Twilight Sad going the "synths and drum machines" route. In my mind, The Sad had found an intriguing sound as defined by their first few LPs and EPs which they could presumably creatively camp on for a spell. But lo and behold, No One Can Ever Know is an enjoyable, and dare I say even natural progression of their sound. Enlisting Andrew Weatherall is an aide de camp most likely did not hurt, as the loming clouds of distortion and guitar squalls are hardly missed. The Sad instead bring out the iciness and creepy intensity of their synthesizers while singer James Graham manages to give us just enough in his lyrics to defer hearing the whole story.
5. Sun Kil Moon
-- Among The Leaves
Sun Kil Moon's 5th studio release got a bit of advance press for its massive length (78 minutes, and that's not counting the bonus disc it was bundled with) and some of the periphrastic song titles (The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man
, Not Much Rhymes With Everything's Awesome At All Times
.) The end result was the most spontaneous set of lyrics Kozelek has scribed, like his stage banter set to song. UK Blues
and UK Blues 2
combine both gripes and dark humor ("London, London/It's all the rage/if your favorite color's beige") to display the loneliness of life on the road. The road life informs much of the album, whether singing about writing new material (Track 8
) trying to find companionship on tour and the resultant fallout (That Bird Has a Broken Wing
. Heck, even the guy who fixes his guitar gets a song. But beyond the lyrcial concerns, Kozelek still makes poignant, moody songs perfect for quiet Sundays and rainy afternoons, and Black Kite
and Young Love
can be proud additions to the canon.
4. White Rabbits
-- Milk Famous
Another album with a genre change I wasn't so sure about, White Rabbits with this release sounded a little less like Spoon
and more like Radiohead
. Teaser track Heavy Metal
was precisely not, but the omnipresent backwards piano loop set up the rest of teh album nicely. Easily the Rabbits at their most experiental, there's little in the mix that isn't distorted, reversed or otherwise given some studio treatment. At times, the process threatens to overmine the songs, but there's enough standout cuts (particularly I'm Not Me
and I Had It Coming
) to ensure future listens.
3. Grizzly Bear
Of the four Grizzly Bear LPs, their latest Shields is arguably the one that shows the least amount of artistic growth. As much as that sounds like a critique, in my mind it shows the Brooklyn quartet knew what a special sound it cultivated for Veckatimest
and decided to work off that. If anything, the resultant songs seem organic and more robust. They still get a lot of mileage of the Grizzly Bear standbys of rich harmonics and folksy strumming, but parts of Sleeping Ute
and Yet Again
have more sonic roar than anything the band has produced.
Although Richard Davies
and Eric Matthews
have each notched a degree of solo success, it was their brief union as Cardinal that created one of the most compelling LPs of the mid 90s. The mannered arrangements and baroque leanaings stood in direct contrast to the grunge leanings of radio and record sales. Tracing that album's influence to much the current indie rock sound is a simple task; keeping Matthews and Davies artistically simpatico proved to be an impossible one. So seeing another Cardinal release almost two decades after their debut was a bewitching surprise. Much has changed between the two albums, and thankfully the genesis of Hymns is borne of reinvention rather than trying to recreate the debut. There's still much of their neo-classical style to be found in Rosemary Livingstone
and Northern Soul
, but there's plenty of genre exploration, too. The two may never see eye to eye creatively, and Davies may not find much much respite from his day job at a law firm, but any future releases will be gleefully accepted.
1. Tame Impala
It's one thing to sidestep the sophomore slump and build on the promise of Tame Impala's debut Innerspeaker
. It's quite another to rewrite Innerspeaker's sonic playbook from page 1 and still deliver the goods. What made Innerspeaker such a delight was Kevin Parker's keen eye for songcraft -- great arrangements, hummable choruses, stellar bridges, all sorts of instrumental cohesion. Sure, Tame Impala were a psych band first and foremost, but one who knew how a good pop song should sound. There's still a great wealth of great songs on Lonerism, but traditional choruses are out, song structure is all over the place, and general nods to the Brill Building are hard to come by. Yet, for some reason -- Parker's mastery of his instruments, his prowess as a producer, the effortless way he blends grooves and riffs -- the songs are just as, if not more, memorable. Plus, the whole conceit of exploring the relation of music and alienation makes for repeated analytical listens. Is the titular "ism" a disease that can't be cured or a religion whose tenets should be obeyed at all costs? The answer is up for debate, but by posing the question, Tame Impala should be expecting more and more of a crowd and rave reviews.
Coming soon: A big list of all the stuff I didn't get to hear yet!