Usually, when I put together my year-end music roundups, I have identified a theme or two and am able to sort of construct a series that tells a larger story. 2012 was weird, though. I’m sure there were themes, and perhaps they’ll become apparent as I look back with the benefit of time and distance, but I’m damned if I’m really seeing any of it right now. Which is strange, given the whole Mayan Apocalypse thing. Instead, 2012 felt more like a holding pattern year.
To be sure, there were plenty of worthy CDs and they span, as always, a range of genres. So without further ado, let’s dive right in, and we’ll begin with the Honorable Mentions. And, as always, a caution: I love music and I write about music, but I am not a reviewer. Apologies in advance for not being Lester Bangs.
Best CDs of 2012: Honorable Mention
The Explorers Club: Grand Ballroom
If you’re in a mood to be dismissive, it’s easy enough to write TEC off as a bunch of imitators and revivalists. And that they definitely are. If you’re of a more charitable bent, you might instead prefer the word homage. Whatever it is, damn, are they good at it. Grand Ballroom plays like a long lost Pure Pop gem from the mid-1960s, laden with delicious Beach Boys-esque harmonies and sunny horn arrangements and songs Burt Bacharach wishes he’s written.
I won’t tell you that it’s critically ambitious high art, but I will tell you that it’s marvelously executed and a genuine pleasure to listen to.
Tamaryn: Tender New Signs
How do you feel about unapologetic, unreconstructed early ’90s Shoegazer? This New Zealand duo hits you with a lush wall of fuzz that draws heavily from Cocteau Twins and the Emma Anderson half of Lush’s output, and if I played it for you and told you it was from a long lost 1992 album by a band you’d never heard of, you’d believe me.
Shoegazer is easy to do, but hard to do well, even if you’re actively working to ape a known formula. As is true with any other style (well, except for Jam Bands), there’s simply no way to fake your way through weak songwriting, and this is what makes Tender New Signs click. The distortion is built on a solid melodic infrastructure and Rex John Shelverton’s guitars weave beautiful threads through the tapestry of glorious noise.
Two Door Cinema Club: Beacon
I loved their debut and was anxiously awaiting Beacon. There’s a wonderful new breed of Indie Pop making a name for itself out there, and TDCC slots in nicely alongside the likes of Phoenix and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart in carrying the standard.
When Beacon arrived, it wasn’t quite what I expected. Beautifully crafted and produced, there’s not a false note anywhere. Still, they may have overcorrected a tad. Heather Phares nails it, I think:
Two Door Cinema Club returned with Beacon after a couple of years touring in support of their debut album, Tourist History. While that set of songs was already pretty sleek thanks to the production skills of Eliot James, the band opted to polish things further with the help of Jacknife Lee, who has worked with R.E.M., U2, Snow Patrol, and plenty of other epic-sounding artists. With Lee’s assistance, the band made Beacon a more sophisticated-sounding set of songs: witness the clever chord changes and harmonies on “Next Year,” the more prominent electronics on “Wake Up,” the intriguing percussion on “Pyramid,” and the big brass swells on “Sun,” which make the song a knowing nod to the band’s ’80s influences. However, this polish comes at a price, and much of the nervy, scrappy energy that made Tourist History so appealing is missing from Beacon. Songs such as “Handshake” are never less than pleasant examples of the band’s bright, bouncy dance-rock, but they’re not particularly distinctive; on the other hand, attempts to rock harder like “Someday” aren’t entirely successful either — the guitars don’t just sound heavy, they sound weighed down, and the gulf between them and Alex Trimble’s soothing vocals is nearly as big as the disconnect between the music and Beacon‘s borderline-saucy album cover.
In other words, as good as Beacon is, there’s not an “Undercover Martyn” or a “Something Good Can Work” here, and we’re the poorer for it.
Van Halen: A Different Kind of Truth
No, this isn’t 1984. But it is a lot better than I expected when I first heard about the Roth/Van Halen reunion, particularly given all the pointless wanking about since they decided they could no longer coexist back in 1985. (Wow. Has it really been that long? Damn.)
While there’s a certain amount of filler here and there, there are also spots where Eddie sounds more or less like the Eddie of old – yes, he can still play – and the grinding, ballsy, synth-free back-to-the-demos ethos might make you at least momentarily forget that Sammy Hagar ever happened.
And the political side of me can’t help loving “Tattoo” especially for that last verse:
Uncle Danny had a coal tattoo
He fought for the union
Some of us still do
On my shoulder is the number
of the chapter he was in
that number is forever like
the struggle here to win.
Best CDs of 2012: The Gold LPs
The Birthday Massacre: Hide and Seek
I don’t know that you’d characterize anything TBM has released as bright and chirpy, but Hide & Seek is arguably darker than what we’re used to, at least thematically. Musically, our favorite Toronto Industrial/Goth rockers are working familiar enough ground: grinding, crunching and loud, while at the same time remarkably melodic, they manage to channel the doomed romanticism of nuclear generation ’80s radio pop through a sonic onslaught that is very, very modern. As for the tunesmithing itself, I still feel like they haven’t quite matched the verve of 2005′s Violet, but they set the bar pretty high with that one, didn’t they?
They haven’t released an official video yet, but here’s some pictures and the lead single, “Down.” If you don’t know their music, you’ll get the idea.
You’ve heard Alex Clare this year. Even if you don’t know it, you have, because his people licensed everything on this disc to just about any advertiser with a few bucks in their pocket. Hard to fault him, though – TV shows and ads are the new radio, and there’s no telling how many people went running to iTunes after hearing a riff from “Too Close” or “Up All Night” in a commercial.
Crass commerce-driven product marketing notwithstanding, this is a damned fine CD. It’s easy enough to classify him with with a legion of other emerging neo-Soul stars (think Adele or Duffy or Sharon Jones here), but what sets Clare a bit apart is how his sound is informed by electronica. Yeah, the songs are clearly indebted to ’60s and ’70s R&B, but this is the farthest thing from revivalism. Slick and contemporary, yet thoroughly soulful, this is about as great as commercial pop gets in this day and age.
The dB’s: Falling Off the Sky
Let’s see, it’s been how long since we heard from alt.Jangle Pop pioneers The dB’s? Well, 15 years since the last release, and 25 years since we had an album from the original lineup. Once upon a time Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple (who later came to be regarded as the unofficial fifth member of REM), Will Rigby and Gene Holder were unwitting canaries in the music industry coal mine. Great things were happening with younger bands, but radio wanted no part of it. Hell, the sainted REM was on their sixth freakin’ album before programmers would touch them. So The dB’s had to leave the US and go to Europe to establish a reputation, and there have been few bands in history who ultimately failed to get their due quite like these Winston-Salem, NC natives.
But enough history lesson from the grumpy old man. Falling Off the Sky is a scintillating comeback, highlighting the songwriting and deft musicianship we remember them for, but at the same time demonstrating for us what it means to age gracefully. In short, this CD sounds exactly like The dB’s, only more mature. If there’s a tad less edge to the sound, it has been more than compensated for by a clear emotional depth and polish. If you’ve ever met up with a friend from your youth after 25 years, only to find that he or she was the same but better, this is that record.
I remember this cool little Indie band from Phoenix a few years back called The Format. Did a couple really good records and also knocked down a parody called “Fake Talking Heads Song” that’s as funny and deadly a spoof of David Byrne and Company as it’s possible to imagine. That front guy Nate Ruess would wind up in something as ambitious, as theatrical, as occasionally over-the-top and as commercially successful as Fun. frankly never occurred to me.
We do not live in an age where real rock stars aim high, swing for the fences or otherwise engage in overtly generation-defining anthemic behavior. No, that’s the domain of prefabricated, reality show-driven corporate pop. Serious artists “keep it real.” But there are moments here where we’re clearly dealing with very talented artists dabbling in the sorts of larger than life artistry that might evolve, in 20 years or so, into the Millennial generation’s version of Classic Rock. Quoth Tim Sendra:
On songs like the lead single “We Are Young” or the rollicking “All Alone,” he provides a very human core that grounds things even as the music builds to ornate crescendos. Indeed, the album is really, really big sounding and could easily have ended up collapsing under its own weight and pretension, but the opposite happens and Some Nights takes flight instead. The songs are both anthemic and human-sized, the heartfelt words and naked emotions are never buried, and the music is uplifting, not overpowering.
That Ruess is able to collaborate with Hip-Popper Janelle Monae without pandering is also impressive. These days it seems like white artists feel compelled to do a track or two with a rapper, perhaps in hopes that it will lend some urban grittiness or street cred. I don’t know. Usually these efforts outright suck, and in the best of circumstances they interrupt the continuity of the CD. Here the imminently talented Monae is deployed so organically that it actually improves the entire production. More of that, please.
Garbage: Not Your Kind of People
The last couple Garbage discs engaged in a variety of stylistic explorations, even including such out of character moments as “Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go),” a nifty little bit of ’60s girl group riffing from Beautiful Garbage. None of that here. If NYKoP reminds you of the band’s previous work, it’s more likely to be the first two releases. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine puts it:
Unlike their two W administration-era albums, there is no grappling with new sounds and styles, only an embrace of the thick aural onslaught of “Stupid Girl” and “Vow.” Garbage have homed in on their essence and are unafraid to revive memories of their past glories. Old pros that they are, they’re able to deliver their hooks cleanly and efficiently, accessorized in just enough ruckus to cut through the murk. There is no evident flab in either the composition or production; the album avoids the moody detours that sometimes bogged down their latter-day records, and there is a noted emphasis on the pure, simple power of melody. Every hallmark of Garbage is here, the only concessions to their advancing age arriving via Shirley Manson’s keenly aware lyrics, leaving the rest of the record to stand as a simultaneous testament and revival of their strengths.
I’m not sure I think the songcraft is as strong as I’d like it to be, but the bottom line is that while so many of the bands that defined the ’90s alt movement have faded away, Garbage has remained vital and viable, even as the music industry has chosen to ignore them as best it can.
Gossip: A Joyful Noise
Beth Ditto & Co. have pretty well established themselves as the Indie dance party band of the day, sort of like The B-52s were back in the ’80s. Here, though, the band moves rather deliberately in a more polished, commercial-friendly direction. Underneath the stylized gloss the meticulous attention to hooky song structures remains and A Joyful Noise is uninterrupted groove from one end to the other. But there’s little hint of their gritty punkish history, and much of Ditto’s sassiness has been switched out for what I guess I’d call a wistfulness and, if the term is really applicable to a dance pop disc, reflectiveness.
If you’re married to Gossip’s early sound, this disc might put you off. If you’re okay with your grungy party divas putting on some lipstick and going clubbing uptown, though, A Joyful Noise is a real treat.
Lee Fields & The Expressions: Faithful Man
Lee Fields has been around forever, and if you never heard of him, don’t feel bad – I hadn’t either. But thanks to the whole neo-Soul movement, we’re not only hearing young artists influenced by the Soul and R&B gods of the 1960s and ’70s, we’re actually seeing the revival of the careers of some of those original artists (Bettye LaVette is another one, for instance). Hal Horowitz at AMG describes his sound this way:
While his early material was heavily funk influenced, Fields has since shifted into an alternately gruff and tender world-weary soul belter/crooner; think more Wilson Pickett than James Brown, although there is a bit of JB’s rasp in his seismic singing.
Without making too much of an issue of it, let’s just say that Faithful Man is hands-down the make-out CD of the year.
Ida Long: Walk Into the Fire
Singer, dancer, and front for Baron Bane, the Swedish outfit that earned a Platinum nod for last year’s LPTO. Ida’s solo disc is a bit darker and moodier tonally, more Auraphonica than Indie Pop, and leans far more intently into the Kate Bush influence that I have noted in the past. It’s certainly fair to say that WItF is an artier effort, one distinctly in line with Ida’s parallel career in modern dance.
It’s a beautiful, thoughtful project that rewards the reflective listener, although it works wonderfully as an ambient mood-setter, too.
Let’s get this out of the way: I think I’m in love with Emily Haines. There’s a certain breed of intelligent female-fronted pop that draws on the ’80s, contemporary synth-pop and Electronica, not afraid of the occasional minor chord and willing to wear its somewhat-jaded-yet-still-hopeful-romantic heart on its sleeve that I’m just a complete sucker for. In thinking about artists like Haines, I can’t help reflecting that had she been born a few decades earlier her only hope of being heard would be to fall in with with a svengali who’d control her every move, writer all her songs, pick out her wardrobe, tell her where to be and when, and maybe pay her a few bucks if the record sold and she didn’t cause trouble. One of the greatest accomplishments of the past couple of decades has been the way our culture has unchained these voices and given them license to tell their own damned stories.
It’s probably not fair to make Metric into some kind of feminist manifesto everywoman, especially since there are three guys who have some input into things, as well, but the emotional honesty in Haines’s songs (the CD begins with “I’m just as fucked up as they say,” which is how you say hello when you’re not interested in small talk) is inherently compelling.
The worst thing you can say about this CD is that it’s really a lot like the last one. True, it doesn’t set out to remake the band’s brand, and in this case why should it? If they’re still recycling the same old same old in ten years, fine, but for now I’m good with tuneful, thoughtful, and genuine.
of Verona: The White Apple
If you like Metric, you might want to give of Verona a listen, too. There are clear stylistic similarities: strong female lead, electro-tinged pop, etc., although this emerging LA band draws far more heavily on old school Trip-Hop of the Portishead variety (they might also remind you of the first Supreme Beings of Leisure CD or perhaps Girl Next Door, maybe even Frou Frou, and these are all good things). Mandi Perkins concerns herself with the inner landscape of emotion lyrically, but her vocal delivery is hardly retiring: rich and assertive, she’s confident that what she’s thinking and feeling is relevant and worthy of your attention.
Odds are you haven’t heard of Verona before (or even heard of them). They’re definitely worth a spin.
Silversun Pickups: Neck of the Woods
I frequently find myself disagreeing with the real music critics of the world, and while I sometimes think they’re idiots, I try and respect the informed opinions of those who listen to even more bands than I do and who write about it for a living. This is one such instance. Matt Collar at All-Music thinks Neck of the Woods is a step up from Swoon, which earned a super-platinum nod in my 2009 wrap-up. Here’s his take:
Building upon Swoon’s layered melodicism and once again showcasing lead singer/songwriter Brian Aubert’s knack for evocative, introspective lyrics and fiery, multi-dubbed guitar parts, Neck of the Woods is an even more infectious and nuanced affair.
Well, there’s no arguing the core of his argument, and we do agree that this is a very good CD. Still, I was more persuaded by the songwriting on Swoon, which I thought hit some very high spots, and I thought the sonics were more immediate and compelling. Silversun Pickups are sort of equal parts Smashing Pumpkins and early ’90s UK Shoegazer – fuzzy and moody, fusing melody and aural dissonance in ways that aren’t always intuitively obvious, but which bloom into a gestalt that manages to be far more than the sum of the parts.
I’m keenly aware of the fact that I seem to be talking down this disc, and I don’t mean to. I guess I’m saying that I like it a lot, although I loved its predecessor. However, my guess is that the critical consensus is against me, which means you might like it even more.
Smashing Pumpkins: Oceania
Like most folks, I haven’t invested much energy in keeping track of Billy Corgan in about 15 years. He’s done some work under the SP banner and a bit more under his own name, and when I have heard snatches of these projects I’ve quickly tuned out. However, in Oceania we have what’s certainly his best work since Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and I’m about convinced that I think the 2012 release is even better. AMG calls it “an exuberant, gloriously melodic, fluid return to form for Billy Corgan,” and I have to agree.
Conceptual conceits aside, these are some of the most memorable and rousing songs Corgan has delivered since 1993′s Siamese Dream, the album that Oceania most closely mirrors in tone and aesthetic. Which isn’t to say that Corgan is treading old ground; on the contrary, there is something fresh and inspired about the songs on Oceania.
Here’s hoping that Corgan is back for an extended stay.
The eagerly awaited follow-up to the 2009 Dhani Harrison (yes, that Dhani Harrison) and Oliver Hecks debut leaves me a little conflicted. On the one hand, they’ve remained true to the course they set three years ago, engaging in thoughtful contemporary excavations of the ground that Massive Attack broke back in the 1990s. On the other, I don’t quite know what to do with the pointless collab with RZA. I know, I know. Massive Attack had Tricky. But at that moment in time we were seeing innovative explorations of an unfolding new genre, whereas these days it seems like … well, see what I said above in my comments on Fun. I don’t know that it’s fair to accuse Harrison of pandering in the way the entire corporate pop machine does, but it would be easier to see artistic merit in it if it went somewhere. As such, these moments feel like stapled on sidetracks that derail the flow of an otherwise pretty good CD.
Bitching aside, it has to be observed how very rarely the children of major artistic superstars ever accomplish anything of merit in their own right. Oh sure, they all get chances because they grow up with every advantage and their rich and famous parents are good for bankroll and connections. George Harrison’s boy is the exception, though. thenewno2 is every inch worthy of the famous father’s legacy and it’s not hard at all to imagine landmark creative moments in Dhani’s future.
The Well Wishers: Dreaming of the West Coast
As Bill Kopp’s worthy review linked here indicates, the really hard thing about being a Power Pop artist is staying within the well-tread stylistic boundaries without being derivative. A lot of bands can write a great song, but it’s a rare talent who can write albums full of great songs without it all getting repetitive.
Enter Jeff Shelton, whose music I’ve been enjoying for years. I love a hooky, tightly wound 3:30 guitar pop song and immaculate harmonies, and when the next track is somehow what you came for but not exactly what you were expecting, it’s hard to get bored. Here he runs a stylistic gamut, from the bouncy, jangly “Now and Then” to the garagy crunch of “Allison” to the Rundgrenesque piano ballad “Tonight.” In doing so it becomes clear that the artist himself is keenly aware of the genre’s boundaries and limitations, and is paying a great deal of attention to the task of keeping it fresh.