Music: The Best Albums Of 2012
2012 certainly wasn’t a famine year when it came to great albums, with the boundaries of popular music pushing out into ever-more idiosyncratic and unexpected realms. No one sound really dominated (apart from maybe Gotye’s anguished bellowing), and so our music writers’ choices for their albums of the year cover so much ground that we wager there has to be some overlap with your own personal proclivities. In short, you’ll like these. Here’s our 2012 album picks for those potential misses.
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Fiona Apple isn’t exactly prolific when it comes to releasing albums – The Idler Wheel… was her fourth record since Tidal, her 1996 debut release. Yet, like her other efforts, in this instance, you feel her protracted break has been well-earned. The songs seldom lack impact – they invariably encompass a spare but palpably gritty musical backdrop coupled with Apple’s forceful, throaty vocals, causing her to sound not dissimilar to Joanna Newsom, though with an abundance of pent-up anger giving her voice a starkly emotional edge that few singer-songwriters possess. Yet the lyrics are perhaps the most potent aspect of this album. Her anger is occasionally directed at a lover or friend – on ‘Werewolf’ she compares the former to ‘a shark’ – yet invariably, the rage is turned inward. ‘I’ve made my peace/I’m done, I’m dead,’ she sings at one point, while also describing herself as ‘a moribund slut’ on ‘Left Alone,’ before she begs ‘to be loved’. Such unflinching honesty does not always feel pleasant to listen to. However, in an age in which our most trivial, meaningless thoughts are relentlessly shared online (Apple tellingly tends to ignore all forms of social media), and singer-songwriters regarded as boring and passé; it’s difficult resist the temptation of interpreting the album as an overt statement, and an important one at that.
Trying to follow Cosmogramma, Flying Lotus’ dazzling and remarkably eclectic 2010 masterpiece, was always going to be a considerable challenge, yet the 29-year-old producer/musical prodigy succeeded by not really trying to. Until the Quiet Comes is Steve Ellison’s Kid A to Cosmogramma’s OK Computer. It does not quite contain as many patently jaw-dropping or gorgeous moments as its predecessor, yet it’s a far more cohesive and arguably, more satisfying album as a whole. FlyLo has acknowledged he consciously sought to refrain from engaging in the previous work’s sheer ostentatiousness and idea-filled chaos. The new record is also, seemingly, more affected by personal circumstances, given that the album was made in light of Ellison’s mother’s death. Hence, the somewhat manic Aphex Twin-influenced computer game-esque sounds have been partially replaced with a more jazzy and soulful aesthetic. That is not to say that this new direction means the album is without obviously exceptional moments though, as ‘All In,’ with its intoxicating mixture of bells, kick and snare drums, shakers, harps, guitar and electric bass, attests.
Channel Orange can’t help but feel like a watershed moment in hip-hop. And it has both everything and nothing to do with Ocean’s coming out as bisexual earlier this year – a brave move, given that he’s part of a notoriously homophobic industry. Essentially, while there are no direct allusions to this issue on the album, its mournful tone and lyrics evoking the disillusionment of ‘super-rich kids’ suggest a melancholia induced by a struggle to establish one’s identity. This pervasive sense of self-confession, in which we’re invited to be Ocean’s ‘shrink for an hour,’ is particularly evident in ‘Bad Religion’ – a song in which the central character is confronted with a significant conflict between his spiritual and physical needs. And if you’re not moved by its level of candour, lyrical depth and sensitivity, with which this work brims and whose intensity has been practically unheard of in the predominantly macho world of rap music until now, anyone with a pulse will be won over by Ocean’s painstaking falsetto-delivered repetition of the words ‘love me’ amid the onset of an exquisite-sounding organ, in what is surely the most spine-tingling musical moment of the year.
Honourable mention: Ariel Pink – Mature Themes
Since his 2010 commercial and critical breakthrough with the wonderful Before Today, Ariel Pink has become increasingly popular and prominent. Nevertheless, his live shows have been negatively received, owing to Pink’s reluctance to perform in front of an audience and tendency to freak out when things don’t go according to plan. Mature Themes, therefore, sounds like a partial retreat back into the indie music wilderness, an In Utero-esque hangover album of sorts. Yet even in this form, the musician can’t resist composing the odd striking melody. ‘Baby’ for instance – a cover of an old Donnie and Joe Emerson number – may include a derisive laugh from the singer, but it is plainly an entirely accessible song that constitutes a superbly surreal and subversive take on the original. Similarly, ‘Only in my Dreams’ may contain faux naïve and ostensibly sardonic lyrics (‘If at first you don’t succeed at love/Just dream a little dream about a girl so real’) and an intermittent, out-of-place country rock sensibility, but it’s ultimately a relatively conventional and even beautiful song, once you get past all the posturing. Hence, John Lennon once said: ‘Part of me suspects I’m a loser and part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.’ And the quote applies to Pink too – part of him seems content to remain in his closed-off indie comfort zone, and the other part is persistently aiming for the stars.
This is most likely the record that you never heard. I was both thoroughly impressed with the scope of the sound and equally adrift on a rage fuelled tantrum that it didn’t see enough airplay. What gives? Lo-fi with hymnal synths, drone beats with Rice Krispies (they snap, crackle, and pop #getmemycoat) and psych bop voodoo. Genre transcending and bordering on perfect. The record is only 8 songs, a little over 38 mins, but a pure sound stretch effort. My two super-bright spots on this sparkler are ‘Del Paso Heights’ and ‘Burn the Fruit‘. The album is available on Bandcamp here.
It’s hard to believe that this all started as a bit of a joke. I first came across them during a Gobble Gobble tour opener slot. Brilliant gig. The rig that Roddick has, all podded up, suspended above a mini launchpad/live mixer is in-and-of-istelf a thing of beauty. This year was big for Purity Ring, mainly because they toured almost non-stop. They’re getting ready to go out again and do 17 North American cities in 23 days. Wow. The sound is distinctive, instantly recognizable, due to the aforementioned electro rigging under the airy lift of MJ’s vocal hijinx. ‘Shrines‘ is loaded with standalone singles: ‘Obedear’, ‘Ungirthed’, ‘Fineshrine’ and ‘Lofticries’ all being rolled out in stages and to roaring success, but it’s also a start to finish proper piece. Fractured elegance.
Holy Smokes. Hyped up psych-pop revivalists gain more momentum on a truly interesting over-polish blamp. Old meets new, pop meets rock, echo meets echo, echo meets echo, echo meets echo. Some genuinely dirty, mop-headed guitar work over very agreeable melodies with heavy doses of low-mixed vocals. Dinfully good shtuff and an exquisite capturing of that lost sound. Who doesn’t love the Beatles? You? I thought not. Proper nods and a positive transition forward without sacrificing the core. A solid 9 outta 10 and growing. Tame Impala are showing that they’ll stick to their guns, but have upgraded the ammo on this sophomore full length. Worth the Hype. Most dope…
WAIT! WHOA! Hold yer horses. I’d be remiss not to shout for these clickable honourable mentions: Alt J, TNGHT, Heems, the evens, Foxygen, Black Moth Super Rainbow, Action Bronson, Death Grips, Damien Jurado, Clock Opera, Beach House, Teeel, MVSCLES and Dudes. Also, in the interest of fairness I should point out that I didn’t ‘get’ the following 3 super hyped records : The xx , Frank Ocean & Kendrick Lamar.
The fourth Shins release saw James Mercer bring his influences to the table, melting them down into a swirling mix of melancholic psychedelia and nostalgic balladry that buried itself into the subconscious. Lyrically it flits from vague notional imagery to rose-tinted declarations with an opaque undercurrent coursing throughout. ‘Simple Song’ is anthemic, irresistible power pop of Phil Spector ancestry, while the gorgeous ‘September’, ‘Taken For A Fool’ and ‘It’s Only Life’ are a masterclass in melodic wonderment. In an album in thrall to Big Star and a host of other ‘B’ bands The Shins may have re-invented the wheel, but they certainly roll it in style in this pristine sounding collection.
With songs stitched together by a ‘radio segue’ effect and a dazzling palate of sound, Animal Collective created a kaleidoscopic collage that is a joy in which to submerge. On their ninth album and with guitarist Deakin returning to the fold after a long absence, the work is that of a band playing live again after 2009’s sampler-based Merriweather Post Pavillion. With ‘Today’s Supernatural’ came the single of the year, while all over the album the band knit together effect after effect and sample after sample, never letting go of the simple and often disarming melodies that underpin it all. Ambitious and progressive, it’s up there with their best.
Sweet Heart sweet Light has Jason Pierce continue in his unyielding search for spiritual enlightenment through music. Born from the experience of playing their classic Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space album live, the record is full of soul-wrenching intensity, pleas for guidance and good old-fashioned pained love songs. The themes are wrapped variously in solid soul struts, gospel-tinged swells, drone-noise freak-outs and balls out garage rock harking back to the Amazing Grace days. Pierce seems to have found his saviour on final track so ‘Long You Pretty Thing’, and she’s a lot more effective than the inner demons and higher powers this collection entreats.
Liars – WIXIW, Lower Dens – Nootropics, Windings – I am Not The Crow, Melody’s Echo Chamber – Melody’s Echo Chamber, First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar, Lambchop – Mr M, Drunken Boat – Tied In Knots, Purity Ring – Shrines
The third album by US six-piece indie somebodies White Rabbits marked a massive leap from raw, dark polka-rock rounds into accomplished, sophisticated electro-rock. Opener and lead single ‘Heavy Metal’ makes a fantastic benchmark: cool, understated sleaze with a snarling lick that’s pure durt. From there we take in the whirligig persuasion and driving guitars of ‘Temporary’, the cheekiness of the repetitive piano riff in ‘Everyone Can’t Be Confused’, the clever, muted anthem ‘Are You Free’… there isn’t a bad track on Milk Famous. Nor is there a loud one. This is a solid and slick slice of brilliance, and should be lauded as much for its light touch as for its quietly compelling singalong hooks that, on the face of it, seem to come out of nowhere to bite your ears on the arse.
Seven albums in, the hitherto arty-farty Shearwater take a stab at a massive, radio-friendly collection of exuberant monsters, and nail it like an eyebrow-raising metaphor nails a beatnik chick at a poetry slam. It might sound slightly sacrilegious to suggest that Shearwater’s assimilation into a more mainstream audience was desirable, let alone necessary, but it’s hard to argue with the heart-swelling, arm-pumping big rock, big voice, big brilliance of Animal Joy. The wild themes and occasionally impenetrable lyrics remain, but in general, Animal Joy sounds like the bursting of a dam. Check your concerns at the door and just run with it.
The long-awaited debut from the Swedish duo turned out to be a triumph, nestling somewhere between the brazen melodrama of ‘80s rawk divas and the breezy-but-worthy soundscape of naughties Knife-like electronica. Recounting themes of joyous or forlorn love with potent, earth-mama imagery – animal cunning, wild vistas, innate impulses – Instinct sounded like a rave at a winter solstice where everyone was wearing spangly pants. Who’d have thought a pair of vintage-styled, nu-tronica electro hippies could be so much fun? Hot pouters like Austra, take note.
Delorentos – Little Sparks , Foreign Slippers – Farewell To The Old Ghosts, The Cast Of Cheers – Family, Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again
British newcomers Alt-J scooped the Mercury Prize this year with their refreshing debut album. An Awesome Wave is a textured, experimental record that takes in a number of genres from psychedelic rock to pop and folk. Their videos accompany the songs so well, each one telling a captivating story. Another thing that makes their music so accessible is how identifiable their subjects are, and they make literary and film references throughout. ‘Breezeblocks’ is one of the finest singles of the year and other stand-out tracks include ‘Something Good’ and ‘Taro’. But really, every track on the album is quality listening. After this thoroughly impressive debut, we’re excited to see what comes next.
The gentle musings of Natasha Khan, better known as Bat For Lashes, are lovingly gathered on her third studio album. The Haunted Man was released in October, showing the dream pop purveyor’s ability to strip it all back and still hold that power and beauty in every track. Having experienced writer’s block following her previous album Two Suns, she sought the advice of a certain Mr Thom Yorke who told her to start drawing. Lucky for us, this seemed to have worked because soon after that she penned the first track on the album, ‘Lilies’. However the top track and has to be the stunning single, ‘Laura’. Intense and cathartic, it’s one you can listen to again and again, and it never loses its charm.
Listening to Bloom is equivalent to drinking a bottle of Dreamy Sleepy Nighty Snoozy Snooze (I’d imagine): it feels like floating on air. This is the fourth and finest studio album by Baltimore’s Beach House. Back in 2010, the pair’s popularity gained a massive boost when MGMT mentioned they were fans during an interview and endorsed them on myspace. Their previous album Teen Dream (featuring the hit single ‘Zebra’) was critically acclaimed. However with Bloom they’ve surpassed themselves. From the addictive and ecstatic opening track ‘Myth’ to the brain-melting ‘Lazuli’, it’s one of those albums that, like a good book, makes you feel disappointed when it comes to an end.
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- Animal Collective
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- Best Of 2012
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- Purity Ring
- Seventeen Evergreen
- tame impala
- White Rabbits