Among the zillion albums released in 2012, here are the top 25. As I heard ‘em, anyway. (And what’re they putting in the water down in Brooklyn?)
25. TANLINES – Mixed Emotions
For me, one terrific song – even more precisely, a spectacular 79-second passage within – overshadows everything else, but if I sidestep my oneitis for a sec, here’s why Mixed Emotions made the cut: a neat aesthetic recalling a preeminent force (Vampire Weekend) without tipping into simple-minded imitation (nor in this case, VW’s arch wordplay). The songs are a little samey, but the presentation is excellent. Vigorous percussion tracks, sparely catchy synth and guitar squiggles, oddly accented vocal phrasing. Alluring stuff. Go stream “Cactus.” It’s delicious.
24. VIOLENS – True
Not as glossy as the debut: I expected a Spandau Ballet moment given the LP title and the players. But True shifts the timeline a few gens along to early shoegaze, artfully bruised blurs of guitar distortion and other-end-of-the-tunnel singing. The pace is quick, lively. The songs are short, lively. True doesn’t play out like an album might, more like a series of compilation tracks, which might account for its rootlessness. It sounds like satellite radio set to an early-‘90s alt channel in a sun-baked world where rainy Seattle never happened.
23. ESCORT – Escort
Disco revivalism, good enough to share the same breath as non-Hegarty Hercules And Love Affair, mining the post-Fever vein that offered two basic approaches: rich Nile Rodgers rhythm guitar or gleaming NRG synths as lead instrument. That there’s little runaway 4/4 hi-hatting speaks to Escort’s determination to avoid cheese while paying homage to the likes of CHIC and Cerrone. Escort is actually a collection of singles topped up with new tracks, an ideal band primer and a surprisingly cohesive listen. Long may they boogie. I hear the live show is excellent.
22. GRIMES – Visions
Before long you’ll have to beat the copycats off with a stick, but as the pool dilutes it’s important to remember how good Visions sounded last winter, when its clubby loops and surprisingly sturdy songs withstood critical listening and gimmicky singing. This is a patchwork quilt of deceptive ruggedness. Even as the songs’ recurring motifs take root, dropped beats and sudden incursions function as creative disruptions, building tension. Loops spring back into action, refreshed and rested, with new momentum. It’s just a new way of remixing the same sandwich. Today it’s GarageBand, 35 years ago it was Tom Moulton and a scalpel. The song still matters most.
21. ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI – Mature Themes
He’s got me playing a five-minute, one-note joke about schnitzel on repeat. I’m also partial to the gloriously stupid rock star confidential one (“I don’t want to burn any bridges/but I can’t get enough of those bitches…my name is Ariel, and I’m a nymph”). And then for good measure, a totally believable ‘70s soft-rock AM pastiche (“Only In My Dreams”), and a fuzzy, strobe-lit miniature about ordering pink slime for dinner (that’s be “Pink Slime”). It’s not quite as good as Before Today, but that was a record of past triumphs re-made, while this jolly little thing was built from scratch. The surface LOLs obscure sinister strangeness. What was that Bukowski line about insanity?
20. JOHN CALE – Shifty Adventures In Nookie Wood
That point in “Hemingway” where he takes his line endings into shrieking falsetto is vintage Cale, that no-nonsense post-Velvets arty bastard with the stentorian voice and bravura instrumental dash. People fell over themselves this year with Springsteen’s bid for old glory; I say longtime Cale admirers are in for a similar treat. Sonically, Nookie Wood is closer to Artificial Intelligence than his Island Records peak, but the craft and delivery is worthy of the younger, chip-on-shoulder 1970s Cale. Keening keyboards cut a jagged swath through the trampling “Scotland Yard” and the misty “Vampire Cafe,” noise pollution pock-marks the more sedate tracks, Cale and producer Danger Mouse (!) play audio tricks with his voice throughout. Nookie Wood’s energy would look good on an artist half Cale’s age. We’re still learning how long rock artists might produce top-grade work: to date, this stands as the best record made by a septuagenarian.
19. FRANKIE ROSE – Interstellar
Starkly pretty, kohl-eyed post-punk from a Dum Dum Girl drummer who clearly heard her calling, and we’re luckier for it. (There’s an even better record from an indie stalwart’s drummer later in this list: Ringo and Moony never made albums this good.) What I like here is all the dark and lovely tension’s achieved without resorting to death grips and trickery: Interstellar builds its moody grooves on simple Severin and Budgie-calibre bass and drum tracks, its modest melodicism on chorused guitars and two-finger synth washes. All building block basics, but the arrangements are a blast: after all those years in garage-pop bands, Frankie knows how to fill a room in sound without fury.
18. HOT CHIP – In Our Heads
Looking back across five Hot Chip LPs it strikes me this is the first really good one. I don’t know if they’re cured of the tendency to pad with tuneless synth ballads, but In Our Heads raises HC’s game a couple notches. Non-single “Motion Sickness” equals anything they’ve ever put out on 45. First side’s paced with three singles that wouldn’t be out of place on Some Great Reward, such is its emotional relevancy and dedication to songcraft. The record backslides after that, although “Let Me Be Him” is terrific: the kind of soft-hued reflective sprawl that turned to mush on prior LPs hangs tough this time, peaking and cooling like a distance runner training in intervals. That the warm down lasts three minutes hardly matters – “Let Me Be Him” is one of the best eight-minute songs of the year, and maybe the best tune in the HC canon.
17. TOY – Toy
Where motorik meets psych, with a dash of flinty-eyed post-punk and better shag hairdos than anyone since Badfinger. Mojo’s treating TOY like the cool new kid at school with the to-die-for genealogy, and I can hear where its readership might want to slip this on between Tame Impala spins. Jesus, that’d be quite the double-bill down at the Marquee, actually. The sound is beautiful – better than the songs at this point (meaning we might get very lucky with this group, in time) – a throbbing, charging mass of gargling guitars, gnarled keyboards, Neu! drums and Tom Dougall’s frosty speak-singing. The groove songs’ll lift you out of your seat, the mopey-yet-brighter pop tones sport traces of Devoto and the Reid brothers. Score another point for record collector rock.
16. SUN AIRWAY – Soft Fall
Windswept and widescreen synthpop. I might be more careful about invoking “Your Silent Face” if this were my last bullet, but “Symphony In White No. 2” really does share New Order’s stately, epic sweep. The strings are more rhythmic motif than hook, but the gambit works. That rush of blood to the head permeates Soft Fall; “Close” sounds like Chris Martin fronting Cut Copy’s “Unforgettable Season.” In fact, you could argue Sun Airway = “Speed Of Sound”-era Coldplay – Jonny Buckland – Capitol quarterly operating budget + better lyrics. Or: gateway purchase for indie kids who fret about getting caught buying guilty pleasures.
15. WILD NOTHING – Nocturne
I confess it took me two months to split the shrinkwrap on Nocturne. ‘Til now, Wild Nothing’s been one of those Anglophone bedroom bands with one great tune and nice sound design. But on Nocturne’s third song, a he-man strides out from the perfumed fog to snap “I know where to find you, I know where you go” in a pretty decent Phil Oakey, and it’s jarring. And we’re off: the songs mean business. A jagged guitar riff here, a helicoptering delay-ridden line there, singing that doesn’t disintegrate on re-entry, rhythm beds that might even nudge the woofer. Point is, there’s been quite enough of this wallpaper indie, and now that seems to have passed, good writers like Jack Tatum are making better records. I’ve never had to learn his song titles before: “Only Heather,” “Nocturne,” “This Chain Won’t Break,” “Rheya”: collect ‘em all!
14. DIVINE FITS – A Thing Called Divine Fits
The kind of rangy, snarly rock record that sounds super cool coming out of any speaker in any circumstance, simple and catchy as an old Roy Thomas Baker Cars LP, without the gang vocals. I don’t want Spoon to die for Divine Fits to live, but Britt Daniel’s a mensch for going all the way on his date with newly single Dan Boeckner. It’s a Reese Peanut Butter Cup ad as rock parable. You’ve never heard so much dry ‘n’ gritty synth on a Spoon record, nor so much white-knuckled tension on a Wolf/Furs set. On the writing front, Boeckner outpoints Daniel by a nose, but he’s got nowhere else to put his songs right now: this is his day job. He’s also a proven master collaborative partner; now Daniel is too. Extra points to vet producer Nick Luanay for the snappy, tinder-dry sound, and third Fit Sam Brown for beating the blood out of his kit.
13. TRUST – Trst
I saw Trust open for Washed Out in 2010, and although the vibe was great the songs choked in deadpan gothic squalor. That problem’s been resolved. Cavernously reverbed yet thoughtfully gated, good melodies ooze over Maya Postepski’s clipped drumbeats, mostly via bell-like synths , thickly whooshing pads and the Vincent Price-with-a-mouthful-of-marbles vocal stylings of Robert Alfons, who manages to sound like the sleaziest cryptkeeper since Peter Murphy, without actually tipping over into stagey ridiculousness. Alfons’ range is good: the peppier tracks sound awfully energized with his filthy-sounding lisp in a higher, brighter register. Trst wraps with its best track, “Sulk,” which restates the band’s strengths: pretty gusts of atmos, monophonic melodies, a vampire singing on the edge of sunlight, a metronomic beat and sympathetic mixing from Damien Taylor, who recorded Postepski’s other band, Austra.
12. TINDERSTICKS – The Something Rain
Night music. Something like The National, but more soulfully cinematic and instrumentally varied, with shards of sax, twinkling glockenspiel and keening violins complementing trad rock tools to build mid- and crawl-tempo set pieces about disorientation and disappointment. “Show Me Everything” and “This Fire Of Autumn” exemplify The Something Rain’s deft restraint, with each instrument, including Stuart Staples’ voice, woven into a fluid mass, determined but mostly absent of typical rock accents. These songs have momentum, and eventually steam up the windows, but the thing is you never see the switch being thrown. Nice work, you magicians. “Come Inside” is gorgeous and it knows it, hovering for nearly eight hypnotic minutes, a reminder of mood music’s supreme purpose: to enhance what’s already in play. It works even better on repeat. (Trust me, there are worse ways to spend 23 minutes.)
11. CHROMATICS – Kill For Love
“Moody as film music” is metaphorically apt in the wake of Johnny Jewel’s work on Gosling’s Drive; Kill For Love never hurries to the payoff, like it knows you’ve paid your admission and aren’t budging before the end credits. I used to delight in playing 45s at 33 RPM because of the detail the speed reduction uncovered. Kill For Love sounds like one of those experiments, just fast enough to outrace claims of sluggishness, brimming with noirish menace. Think Bowie and Moroder’s version of “Cat People.” The pristine percussion clicks, new wave guitars dripping in phase and flange, serrated synth lines and just-fucked vocs are as compelling as an ‘80s coke-and-crime flick. Two-thirds of Kill For Love – don’t forget, this is an 80-minute double – is very, very good.
10. GRIZZLY BEAR – Shields
I haven’t listened to Veckatimest since the end of ’09 for a reason – I remember it as forgettable – but I’m glad I don’t hold grudges. On Shields, the tight chamber pop combo playing and singing remains the signature, but a new vigor drags songs out of their precious insularity and into a space where they might be enjoyed, not merely admired. Some of the best songs emerged from writing sessions pitting Ed Droste’s singing against Daniel Rossen’s strumming, surviving the transition from bristling demo to sophisto group arrangement. The new explosiveness – throttling (“Speak In Rounds”), tumbling (“Sun In Your Eyes”), thundering (“Half Gate”) – is bracing.
9. PORCELAIN RAFT – Strange Weekend
Bowie once said the dullest thing you could do with a synthesizer was stick to the presets. As someone who once tried to write a Jan & Dean surf soundalike using general MIDI sounds, I sheepishly concur. So does this record. It’s a masterclass in slicing, dicing, whipping and mashing every enlisted instrument, before loading each back into fairly straightforward dream-pop arrangements. The result is a kaleidoscopic, trebly shimmer built into some spectacularly lovely music. Sonic architecture, first order.
8. KILLING JOKE – MMXII
This lot must be on Creatine. Not that Joke ever needs an apocalypse prediction to rattle off a list of complaints, but MMXII did give ‘em a handy soapbox. And Jaz Coleman did disappear for a bit there in the summer. There’s possibly more automated response in the Joke camp than in Morrissey’s, except these guys make better records. And what a record! Every major facet of the Joke sound’s present – throbbing dub, galloping dance-punk, brawling industrial metal, glowering synthpop – united by consistently gripping writing, a spacious mix and Coleman’s commanding vocal presence. MMXII plays like a custom-built festival bill of quality, likeminded acts pared down to a 50-minute highlight package. Against stiff competition,possibly the best Joke LP of this millennium.
7. CHAIRLIFT – Something
And to think: this was a shrug-and-buy record by a band on the bubble. Sometimes the best decisions are the ones you don’t make. Chairlift 2.0 has largely traded precious art-song for hustling synthpop, using Caroline Polachek’s flexible voice as its bead on the competition. “I Belong In Your Arms” sounds like a breezy 45 from about ‘84; “Sidewalk Safari” churns over wobbly, interweaving melodic lines; “Met Before” kitchen sinks stately keys and heavily reverbed girl-group vocals over thudding Californian garage rock. The chichi numbers which made the cut are simply better than before: “Frigid Spring” is one of the prettiest songs of the year. Chairlift lost a member in the lengthy gap between albums – the guy Polachek was dating. I don’t know how he feels about it, but it’s worked wonders for his old band.
6. BAT FOR LASHES – The Haunted Man
It’s more reserved than previous records, nestling into the Hounds Of Love-The Sensual World neighbourhood, if you require a Bush parallel. What lifts “All Your Gold,” “Oh Yeah” and “A Wall” out of the ordinary – twinkling backdrop sounds, a male choir, thundering “Running Up That Hill”-style percussion – might seem elementary, but it’s the intensity that impresses. And when she goes for broke – “Marilyn,” a swirling, soaring set piece with full orchestration in a support role – there is the sense she’s got a “This Woman’s Work” moment in her future. Grand, elegant, soundtrack-calibre art pop.
5. ICE CHOIR – Afar
Unreservedly recommended to anyone with a yen for the sound of ‘80s synthpop – specifically, the sumptuous 1983-1986 vein mined by the likes of Nick Heyward, Prefab Sprout, Scritti Politti, Tears For Fears, China Crisis and Bill Nelson. If you own these records – and surely Kurt Feldman, on a busman’s holiday from his day job as The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s drummer, must – the Memorex impersonations of moments found in deep tracks will resound, the sonics and manoeuvres as comfortable as that old CFNY or KROQ radio tape in your childhood desk drawer. Afar could stand sharper choruses and/or a few sore thumbs, but it’s a confident, glowing, splendid ride.
4. PAUL BUCHANAN – Mid Air
Album number five wasn’t in the cards for The Blue Nile. The usual agonizingly long wait between albums (1984, 1989, 1996, 2004) wouldn’t be enough to get the band back together this time, to soothe over old slights, so the singer would have to take his song sketches and deliver them in the mode they’ve always called for in the first place, that wee-hour, one-for-my-baby-and-one-more-for-the-road-style dive bar balladry inherent in Sinatra’s suicide records and personified by Tom Waits in the 1970s. But Buchanan was never a piano player like Sinatra’s Bill Miller or Waits himself, so these tracks would stay rudimentary in the extreme, with none of the polish of classic Blue Nile tearjerkers (“Regret,” “From A Late Night Train,” “Family Life”). And although some of these songs are so wonderful you can’t help wishing for some of The Blue Nile’s hallmark sparkle – an oceanic delay, a shiver-inducing string pattern, a couple more choruses – they stand on their own, and it’s a treat to have a Buchanan record like this. He is that good.
3. TAME IMPALA – Lonerism
Superb conceptual cohesiveness notwithstanding – namely, Kev Parker’s determination to not only play everything on the record, but to play it like a fully functioning band with hungry egos to serve – the most exciting thing about Tame Impala is where the writing looks to be heading. He’s peacocking straight down Broadway with payoff singalong choruses you’ll remember next decade, songs that might even hook a future Rock Band iteration. Have you seen the YouTube clips with the song recognition audience whoops? This guy’s filling a void, a need for rock music with as much immediacy as the gross earworms production orgs are whipping up for the Katys and Justins and Whatnots. But because he’s coming at it from a hypno/psych angle, and because he’s writing songs about longing and belonging, there’s pathos and surrender in even the largest moments. A bear hug of a record.
2. SAINT ETIENNE – Words And Music By Saint Etienne
Etienne’s book smarts have never kept them from making terrific pop/dance records, but the conceptualization has ever provided the resonance behind the glittering veneer. Words And Music keys the best Etienne concept yet, a love letter to music fandom from Britain’s greatest music fans. Given the subjectivity of terms like “best” and “greatest,” you only get as much mileage as your belief allows. But I still buy records and read sleevenotes and make end-of-year lists and blabber on with brick-and-mortar clerks, so I might be different from you. (But probably not, if you’re reading this.) Words And Music basically functions as a symposium on music nerding, Etienne smorgasbording several dance music styles in the spirit of Donna Summer’s I Remember Yesterday, each rendered in would-be 45 single brevity and pop IQ. As such, it’s that rarest of creatures – the mid-to-late-career LP that captures the essence and excellence of a band, a totally serviceable introduction for new initiates who might only have a remix or two on their iPhone. The less clubby tracks are superb: the narrative-styled “Over The Border,” the guitar-led “When I Was 17,” the summery summation piece “Haunted Jukebox,” and my favourite, one of my top two songs of 2012, “Answer Song.” Saint Etienne also produced a 10-song More Words disc for the North American tour leg that might’ve made this list on its own merit, by the way. The best pop group of the past two decades hasn’t lost a step.
1. BEACH HOUSE – Bloom
Last spring a lucky stroke of scheduling saw four personal favourites release new albums in a three-week span. The new Beach Boys (#30, 2012) was a minor miracle after decades of sad adversity and ridiculous stupidity, while the other three? – they finished in my top four. I’d call that a pretty great showing from this stalwart group. Beach House is, far as I’m concerned, the best band going right now, on the strength of consecutive album-of-the-year wins (Teen Dream - #1, 2010). As they move further away from the indistinct fizz of their 2006 debut, an acute pop sensibility gives their songs greater reach than ever. It’s a given every Beach House song will arrive in a cloud of dry ice, on a bed of boxed beats, wrapped in gauzy organ drones and gnarly liquid guitar lines, with that stentorian contralto on top. But the new dynamic, in place since Teen Dream, is the payoff built into these newer songs, sunburst realized in the form of a soaring vocal bridge or guitar solo. With Bloom, this approaches formula: I’m not sure it matters when the songs are this terrific. The pop tangibility is something their dream pop peers cannot consistently match. The records don’t wear out, the T.V. appearances sound great, the romantic buzz at their shows is palpable. Legrand and Scally have surged to the top of the league as singer, guitar player and co-creators. The incandescent “Lazuli” is one of my top two songs of 2012. The October Kool Haus gig was my favourite small/medium venue show of the year. Beach House is on a roll.
2012 honourable mentions:
Chris Cohen – Overgrown Path; Stars – The North; Passion Pit – Gossamer; David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant; The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio.