Saturday, February 2, 2013

Year-End Report: Looking Back at 2012 - Top 50 Albums 10-01

I think I've made it clear over the course of this blog that I have a serious music addiction, probably worthy of its own show on TLC, the “learning” channel. I’m not sure how big the audience is for watching me strung out around a pile of records, listening to my tenth of the day, and ranting about Brian Eno's genius; but hey, I’m willing to field offers from networks. Anyway, we have reached my Top 10, which I have culled from an astonishing 433 albums that I listened to in 2012. If you are wondering how I knew that number, I kept a list that I continually updated after I listened to something new. Sure this borders on insanity, but the records that made the cut mean more to me than I can probably put into text. These are the ones that came with me through many important and often frustrating moments in my life over the past year. Without further ado, I give you the definitive ten best albums of 2012.

10. Menomena - Moms

After the departure of Brent Knopf, who went to focus on his project Ramona Falls, many fans, including myself, were left wondering what would become of Menomena. The strange thing is that now a duo, Menomena sound reinvigorated and confident throughout their latest effort. I remember the first time I heard Moms in my car on one of my many jaunts to New York last year; from the opening lines of “Plumage”, I knew it was going to be something special. The song is a twisted mating call with horn blasts and a hip-shaking rhythm that would appease even the harshest critic. Members Justin Harris and Danny Seim blend a number of interesting sounds and instruments to come up with their finest work to date. By the time you reach the grandiose strings and emotive piano in the ambitious closer “One Horse”, your jaw will already be on the floor.

09. Father John Misty - Fear Fun

In 2012, J. Tillman stepped out if the shadows of Fleet Foxes and released this Bukowski-cum-Nilsson album under the moniker Father John Misty. The thing that sets this record apart from other well-orchestrated singer/songwriter albums is the cheeky narratives he pieces together over the course of its length. Surely, you’ll find it endearing when your inebriated protagonist ponders, “Jesus Christ, girl / What are people gonna think / When I show up to one of several funerals / I've attended for grandpa this week / With you / With me” as he does over an almost Marc Bolan-esque blues shuffle on “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”. Fear Fun is ample parts freaky and folky like Devendra Banhart when he was at his best. Read my full review here for a more in-depth look.

08. Torche - Harmonicraft

Speaking of fun records, Torche returned in 2012 with Harmonicraft, another fiery blast of stoner/doom/sludge pop. It was hard to believe that four years hard passed in between the record and their much lauded previous full-length, Meanderthal. Harmonicraft sounds just a bit tighter than it's predecessor and they added a little more sweet to the sour. The album is the final confirmation needed for Torche's mastery of melodiously rich metal. The opening trio is the perfect introduction to their bite-sized shredfests, while spacey, droning detours like “Reverse Inverted” and “Roaming” serve as the perfect soundtrack to staring at that album cover.

07. Converge - All We Love We Leave Behind

Converge possesses extreme metal's most impressive discography. It seems surreal that over twenty years after their inception, they would be dispensing the same intensity with album number eight that they had on number one. That’s not to say nothing has changed; Jacob Bannon trades his signature abrasive shriek for a maddening shout on many of the album’s tracks. This doesn't sound like much, but fans definitely took note on the opener and single, “Aimless Arrow”. Guitarist Kurt Ballou's licks also have a greater sense of harmony especially on album highlight “Sadness Comes Home”, which finds him running the fretboard at impossible speeds. It’s amazing that this sense of melody does not once come at the expense of ferocity. Most of the songs are relentless shedders, only to be broken up briefly by the doom-gaze stylings of tracks like “Glacial Pace”. I have to make the bold statement that it is their best since the almighty Jane Doe.

06. Japandroids - Celebration Rock

The Canadian duo of Brian King (guitars/vocals) and David Prowse (drums) became one of the biggest rock bands in North America since their debut. As unlikely post-punk heroes, Japandroids had a lot of pressure for their sophomore set, Celebration Rock. The casual approach at which they met said pressure is what makes the record so successful. Despite one of the songs being a single from 2010 (“Younger Us”) and another being a cover (a brilliant one of the Gun Club's “For the Love of Ivy”), the remaining six songs were perfect enough to leave fans satisfied. The appropriately titled Celebration Rock is perhaps the most anthemic album of 2012 with several shout-along call-to-arms hooks. If you aren't screaming along to the chants of “When they love you, and they will / Tell 'em all they'll love in my shadow / And if they try to slow you down / Tell 'em all to go to hell!” by the end of “The House That Heaven Built”, there is something wrong with you.

05. Grass is Green - Ronson

Ronson was a bold leap forward for the young band that is already on their third release. Grass is Green upped the ante with more mesmerizing tempo changes and greater attention to detail. As I mentioned in my previous write-up, it is fun to play the namedrop game with your friends who are well-versed in the 90’s alternative underground scene. Last time I managed to get Jawbox, Polvo, Mclusky, Drive Like Jehu, and Chavez all in just two paragraphs. The crazy part is that all of them were warranted and necessary. Just check out how many of those influences are squeezed into the 2+ minutes of “Dance Punk Revival School for Kids”, where we learn about the titular character. Grass is Green are in a league of their own and anyone who has seen them live will also attest to the fact that they can deliver a spellbinding math rock assault like no other.

04. 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

After seven years absence, Fiona Apple returned in 2012 with her most stripped down collection yet; I believe most of the exertion went into the album title. Some of the more exploratory vocal harmonies and blues undertones carry over from the Tom Waits-influenced Extraordinary Machine, but overall it is a much more subdued effort. The jazzy percussion flourishes courtesy of Charley Drayton add wonderful flavor to these tracks, especially on “Valentine” and “Periphery”. As expected, the lyrics are inward-looking but also confessional as heard on “Every Single Night” where she exposes, “Every single nights a fight / With my brain / I just wanna feel everything.” I don’t think there was a single song I related to more from the year. She does, however, also seem more self-assured on this release as she concludes “Nothing wrong when a song ends in in the minor key” on "Werewolf". She even exudes a bit of hubris through the seductive intertwining melodies on “Hot Knife”. It’s a pleasure to get invited back into Fiona Apple’s world even if it happens so infrequently.

03. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light

It’s no surprise that Jason Pierce wrote much of Sweet Heart, Sweet Light on tour while performing his landmark recording Ladies and Gentlemen...We Are Floating in Space. Well, I should clarify; for longtime fans, they can pick out that album’s influence in the lush orchestral arrangements and gospel choirs. After the intro, which seems to admit its own needlessness in its title (“Huh?”), Spiritualized launch into a magnificent rock opus that channels the Velvet Underground and ends with a vibrant, assuring coda of "Sweet heart / Sweet light / You're the love of my life." This is the kind of majestic soul-searching songwriting that seemingly can only come from Pierce. The closing track reaches equal heights. It starts with a tender lullaby co-written by his daughter before transitioning into a soaring sendoff for the ages that repeats the lines, “So long you pretty thing / Save your little soul / The music that you played so hard / On your radio / All your dreams and diamond rings / And all that rock and roll can bring you / So long / So long.” This record came at a time where I needed to hear the words it was transmitting and it helped reassure me of the healing power of rock ‘n’ roll.

02. Tame Impala - Lonerism

Admittedly, when Australia's Tame Impala hit the scene with their debut, Innerspeaker, I didn't quite understand the mountains of praise. I enjoyed their brand of tripped out haze but I didn't think it was the second coming of psychedelic rock… until now. On Lonerism, they brought all of the promise of their debut to its logical conclusion, taking their warped sound construction into the pop realm while making everything trippier, groovier, and heavier. I can’t think of many bands that have used the Beatles influence in such an effective manner as to complement their own sound without seeming derivative. Producer Dave Fridmann has always been hit-or-miss for me, but here, much like his work with the Flaming Lips, it’s a match made in psych-rock heaven. Adding to the strength of the songwriting and production are the lyrics, which reach new echelons of existential inquisitiveness. Give a few spins to a song like “Elephant” or “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” and tell me they don’t hold their own against rock history’s greats.

01. Pile - Dripping

Here we are with my absolute favorite album of 2012. If you know me, this one doesn't come as much of a surprise. I have been singing the praises of Pile for some time and with Dripping, they have expanded their appealing sound into the ambitious and masterful record I had hoped for. Unlike the multitude of bands who are described as being influenced by the 90’s alt rock, post-punk, and grunge scenes; Pile has a sound that can be described as their own. This is established from the start with “Baby Boy”, a song about a man who lives on a playground. Frontman Rick Maguire gradually increases the intensity of his vocals until reaching Black Francis (see: “Debaser”) levels of manic screaming when delivering the line “Those baby teeth won’t grow!” Matt Connery’s bass rumbles beneath the chaos as Kris Kuss’s drums surge and crash like the perfect storm. Towards the end, Maguire and guitarist Matt Becker weave riffs as the track progresses into a deafening crescendo. It’s a formula that works well, yet they aren't content to repeated it.

“So Hard” slows things down after the opening smack in the face. The cries of “run away” in the song’s climax are almost ethereal. It is evident at this point in the record that you have strapped yourself into an auditory roller coaster that is willing to throw you as many twists and turns as you can handle. Whether it is the trick endings in “The Browns” or the angular attack of “Grunt like a Pig”, you will always come away with a new favorite moment. One of the other big attractions on this ride is Maguire's lyrics, which always seem personal with just enough detachment to hold a high level of intrigue. The emotional and musical centerpiece of the record is “Prom Song”. It begins innocently enough with an off-kilter warble and builds to an affecting breakdown where a one of its kind guitar solo sears itself into your memory. The track ends by deconstructing into a giant pile of rubble. It makes for one of the greatest aural experiences of 2012. Right up until “The Jones”, which contains some of the most memorable vocal harmonies, Pile holds your interest with their eccentric approach. If you are still somehow on the fence, I insist you see them live before passing judgment; I guarantee you will walk away a fan.

Below is a playlist that counts down the full Top 50 Albums/Tracks of 2012:

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