Saturday, July 13, 2013

My Favorite Things: The Best of 2012

It may seem ridiculous to be assembling a list of records from a year that is over six months past, particularly when there are a lot of best-of lists from the first half of 2013 popping up. I decided to put this together for a few reasons. First, I didn’t get the chance to share my list with most people yet and this will hopefully give you a sense of where I’m coming from taste-wise. Second, putting out a list well after the year has ended gives you some perspective on how well those records you went nuts over during the year stayed with you. Finally, it gives me a chance to catch great records that I might have missed during the calendar year.

I’ve never been a big fan of numerically-bound “Best-of” lists. The idea that you should either have to whittle down your list of favorite records to some arbitrary number, or convince yourself that you liked more records than you did just to hit that number, seems, to me, completely arbitrary. Simply put, some years are better than others.

What follows is a list of the records that came out last year that I’ve listened to the most, and more importantly, the records I am still listening to. They are in no real ranked order, but perhaps follow some subconscious hierarchy starting at the top.

Grimes – Visions: This album was a favorite early in the year (January) and it stayed with me. Although her helium-high voice might be a bit much for some, this album featured some of my favorite vocal melodies all year. Musically, Visions is weird and mysterious. It starts with gangbusters “Genesis” and “Oblivion,” falls into a steady stride before hitting the peak late in the record on “Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U)” and “Nightmusic.” Glossy synth-pop rarely gets better than this.

Matthew Dear – Beams: This album is still growing on me with each listen. Although each song is good on its own, the album works best as whole. It’s more than just the simple sum of its individual parts. Slick and stylish, Beams is of a piece with 2010’s Black City, only more emotionally connected, less distant. Matthew Dear is starting to perfect this futuristic, woozy, Phillip K. Dick-inspired dystopian rock. I don’t hear as much Bowie as other people. It’s there, particularly the Berlin period, but I just as easily hear Arthur Russell or Talking Heads’ slippery synth-funk.

PiL – This Is PiL: This was a genuine surprise. John Lydon is always interesting and therefore worth a listen. This Is PiL is that group’s best in years. Some have quibbled that much of the record is blatantly self-referential. For some reason, white rock artists aren’t allowed to get away with the same autobiographical voice that blues, r&b, hip hop and reggae artists do. Why can’t Lydon sing lines like, “My name is John, I was born in London,” or “This is PiL… P.I.L.,” but Bo Diddley, Lee Perry, and Jay-Z can give themselves constant shout-outs in their tunes. How is it different? There seems to be a very dubious double-standard here. Regardless, “One Drop,” “Deeper Water,” and “Out of the Woods” are really great funky, dubby cuts that just do what this group has always done best. The lyrics aren’t simple, but they are direct. Lydon has always called it like he saw it, and he still has one of the most exciting voices in music.

Santigold – Master of My Make-Believe: My only criticism of Santigold is her seamlessness. Her records are almost too well-constructed, too canny, almost opening herself up to the critique of being contrived. However, single “Disparate Youth” is so breezy and effortlessly tuneful it’s hard to justify such an argument. The dark dub of “God From the Machine” and “Pirates in the Water,” the slowburn ballads of “This Isn’t Our Parade” and “The Riot’s Gone,” and the Kim Wilde-esque anthem of “The Keepers” are all highlights.

Jessie Ware – Devotion: This record was finally released in America this year, but I couldn’t wait and bought the import that came out last year. The domestic version tacked on some unnecessary tracks, but either way it’s pretty great. It would easy to peg Ware as a Sade clone, but I like to think of her as Jennifer Lopez if she made good records. Ware makes classy, elegant, sophisticated downbeat records. I don’t know how cool that is in 2012 or 2013, but I don’t care. This is an adult record and so much the better for it. There aren’t enough quality records made by and for mature audiences.

Twin Shadow – Confess: No song hit me as hard as Twin Shadow’s “Five Seconds.” On hearing this single, I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of the album. This was my song and video of the year. Unfortunately, that song created expectations that were impossible to live up to and was far and away the best track on the album. It didn’t help that the second single, “Patient,” was the worst song on the record. The rest of the record is still pretty good though. “Run My Heart” sounds like vintage Police. “The One” sounds like a Strangeways outtake. “You Call Me On,” “Beg for the Night,” “When the Movie’s Over,” and “Be Mine Tonight” are all professional-grade, John Hughes-ready new wave. The enhanced production on this record is a good sign of things to come. George Lewis Jr. is too talented to stay in the indie underworld for very much longer.

Liars – WIXIW: These guys are total pros. They put out good product. I saw these guys on tour for this record and it stood in sharp contrast to the Twin Shadow show I saw with the month of it. George Lewis is still trying to find himself as a performer; the Liars know who they are and if you don’t feel it, there’s the door. Watching them, listening to them on this record, you can tell they are making music for themselves. I suppose you could say that this is the group’s electronic record, sort of. (It was produced by Daniel "Warm Leatherette" Miller, head honcho of Mute Records.) Really, this is something more subtle and nuanced than that. I hear This Heat, Eno, and Faust in the mix here. If you weren’t a fan before, there won’t be much to change your mind. I still stand behind my contention that The Liars’ records will age significantly better than the other 00s New York, nu rock compatriots like The Strokes, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and TV on the Radio.

Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again: This was a wonderful surprise of a debut record. That it came out the same year that Terry Callier died is cosmic coincidence. Kiwanuke’s music has the same sound as Callier’s jazz-folk-r&b hybrid. There are even parts of this that remind me of vintage Traffic. Maybe it’s the flute. It’s soulful and warm the way a Bill Withers record is. I wish it wasn’t something as rare as it is nowadays. Nathaniel Rateliff is one of the few people I can think of who does something similar in this vein anymore. Rateliff hasn’t made a record in over two years now, I hope Kiwanuke doesn’t wait as long to deliver another. If Bon Iver’s record were this good I would buy them.

Chromatics – Kill for Love: This band is great at covers. The opening Neil Young cover here, “Into the Black,” a slightly retitled version of Rust Never Sleeps’ “Hey Hey, My My – Into the Black,” makes the old warhorse chestnut sound new and fresh. They do what everyone should do when covering a song. They make it their own. It’s not the best song on the record though. That honor goes to song number two, the title track, a song so swoony that the guy from M83 probably kicked himself that he didn’t write it first. My only complaint is that the album is a little long – okay a lot long. None of what’s here is bad, but the peaks are spread out too thin and a more condensed version would have hit harder. It’s a small complaint that feels a little sour when talking about something this universally pretty.

Frank Ocean – Orange: I wonder if this record would have been as well-reviewed if it weren’t for the news story surrounding it. Ocean is obviously a very talented writer/performer, but like most modern r&b/hip-hop artists he needs an editor. I’d love to hear him make a record with a maestro-level producer: ?uestlove, Kanye, Eno ... whomever. What excites me about Ocean is that he draws from classic soul, but he is unmistakably a modern artist. This isn’t a retro soul record. It’s not afraid of being sexy or funny, sometimes in the same line. “Pyramids” deservedly got a lot of critical love because of its imaginative scope, it’s narrative structure, and it’s shear length – it’s the centerpiece of the album. Other singles like “Sweet Life,” “Lost,” and “Thinkin Bout You” are also pretty great, but even album tracks like “Pink Matter” featuring Outkast’s Andre 3000 standout. I also appreciate that the skits are relatively short and feel at home in the context of the record, instead of being distracting like so many are. Ocean’s best work is ahead of him. It will be exciting watching him try to best this.

Screaming Females – Ugly: Who misses guitar heroes? I do sometimes. I miss loud guitar rock and roll that doesn’t feel hyper-masculine. Enter Marissa Paternoster, whose machine melts faces. Paternoster shreds up so much of the indie rock that’s out there it’s not even funny. The J Mascis influence is unmissable, but frankly I don’t mind. The tunes and writing are strong enough to stand on their own regardless of the comparisons. “Rotten Apple” is perfect pop-punk a la The Toy Dolls or The Fastbacks. However, this record can’t be pigeonholed as poppy and cute. A lot of it is really heavy, which makes something like the string-lead closer “It’s Nice” feel earned. Also, any time you can hear Alibini-recorded bass and drums is certainly welcome.

Craft Spells – Gallery: Man, I dig the 80s. This is just an EP, but it’s a good ‘un. It’s a nice quick follow-up to their excellent full-length, Idle Labor. This band has been my favorite of the whole Captured Tracks heavy reverb scene (Beach Fossils, Wild Nothing, Dum Dum Girls, etc.). One thing that separates them from the pack is their memorable, catchy vocal melodies and their use of synths and drum machines in alongside the pretty guitar jangle. There are also real songs here, not just coatracks for cool style. The next record should dare to come out of the fog a little bit. The one thing none of these types of groups have done is displayed a vocal toughness that their influences had. I don’t expect false melodrama, but I want to hear in their voices a piece of what’s at stake in what they are singing. The singer for non-Captured Tracks act, The Drums, actually comes closer to this sense of vocal personality than the rest of the CP roster although he comes off as a little whiny (and outside of “Money” they don’t match Craft Spells’ songwriting). For now, I’m content to listen to the weightless gossamer of Craft Spells.

Best of the Rest:

Here are some records that I liked last year, but they will likely fade for me either due to a lack of real highlights or they are uneven or flawed despite their qualities. Some of the entries below are longer than those of my actual “best-of” list. What can I say? Sometimes it’s easier to articulate faults more than successes.

DIIV – Oshin: Okay, it’s another Captured Tracks band. This label kind of has my number a little bit. I’m willing to admit it. The rhythm section of this group has a little more muscle to them than some of their peers, particularly the drums. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s nice a soundtrack for driving and writing.

Gary Clark Jr. – Blak and Blu: Gary Clark Jr. is crazily talented and for a blues scene that’s been filled with too many smug white guys for too long he was a breath of fresh air. I was really excited for this record to come out for over a year. The longer it took for it to come out the more worried I became. My worry was that the record would be overcooked and overproduced. My worry was unfortunately well-founded. There’s nothing bad about this record. It’s just too long and too slick. It feels like it’s trying to play to the mainstream blues festival audience. It does so quite successfully at that – the ribfest market ate this record up last year. The record is a buckshot of blues-based styles designed to make everyone happy. There’s the overly-fuzzed Chicago style hit (“Bright Lights”), the obligatory Hendrix cover (“Third Stone”), the smooth r&b cut (“Blak and Blu”), the doo wop song (“Please Come Home”), the hip hop-inflected pop cut (“The Life”), and lo-fi acoustic delta blues (“Next Door Neighbor Blues”). The record is all over the place and suffers from a lack of cohesion. I should add that there is a lot to like here, each of these tracks on their own shows an incredible facility and promise. I just don’t think he’s found his voice yet. He sounds like he has been burdened with saving the blues and he’s trying not to let anyone down. He has an interesting dilemma as a musician. As a singer, Clark has a sweet angelic voice – he’s really not a natural blues howler/growler. As a guitar player, Clark is an incredibly nuanced rhythm player and a very spontaneous and original soloist. He doesn’t stick to stock pentatonic blues licks – he’s more exploratory, pushing outside of the standard scales sometimes using an almost frenzied Television/Sonic Youth rave-up approach when he crescendos. The dichotomy between his two different instruments, sweet vocals and wild guitar, make it difficult to strike a balance. He can growl decently (“Bright Lights”) to match his guitar playing, but his voice really shines on the softer songs. He might bridge the divide by learning to turn the fuzz box off because the natural tone coming out of his hands gets obscured in a sound that just makes him sound like everyone. Ultimately, only Clark can figure the puzzle of his talent out. I hope he does.

Air – Le Voyage Dans La Lune: It’s become cool to dismiss Air. There’s no denying that these guys are big-time nerds, but I mean that as a compliment. Their last few records didn’t get a fair shake and were quickly tagged as being autopilot rehash: Air does Air, a lifeless copy of themselves. However, these later records kept hanging in there for me, opening themselves up after multiple listens. This album/soundtrack is certainly a nerdy project, but it works as accompaniment to a landmark film or as a nice stand-alone piece. There is no great revelation here. It’s simply a nice record to have in the background no matter what you are doing.

Various Artists – Shangaan Shake: This one is a bit of an oddity. This is a double-disc, various artists remix project by Honest Jons that has Western electronic artists doing versions of the same label’s compilation of South African electro, Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music from South Africa. I actually feel a little easier listening to these remixes rather than the source material. It’s more impure and somewhat takes the “World Music” exoticism out of records like this. It’s cool to hear another culture's interpretation of modern Western music, but whether it’s Congotronics or Baile Funk, I feel like I don’t have the requisite cultural background to appreciate it honestly. I feel a little bit like an interloper or voyeur, a third world fetishist, a first world peeping tom of "the other." There’s a layer of imperialist condescension that feels built into an American listening to impeccably curated collections of international music. Maybe that’s entirely my deal and something I bring to it. What’s interesting to me though is not all world/international music makes me feel this way. I don’t have a problem with Soweto beat records or Ethio Jazz or Fela’s afrobeat. I think the difference is this: the Shangaan Electro record, Congotronics, and Baile funk are not as good as their Western counterparts, yet they are lauded and acclaimed because they sound exotic. No one would say that Fela isn’t as good as James Brown because no one is that good (Sly, George Clinton, Rick James, whomever). However, Fela is original and powerful enough to avoid comparisons. Ethio Jazz is actually better than Western attempts to blend American jazz and middle eastern modes (whether it’s Yusef Lateef or Ahmed Abdul-Malik – both of whom I like). Shanachie's International Beat of Soweto was so good Paul Simon ripped it off wholesale to sell millions of records. However, Shangaan electro is just not as good as Africa Bambaataa, Egyptian Lover, or the Arabian Prince (at least not to my ears), even though those three latter artists are obviously guiltier of greater cultural theft. The one artist on the original Honest Jons compilation who does stand out is Zinja Hlungwani, who not surprisingly is given the most tracks. After some more research it appears that he is this scene’s Lee Perry, a producer and studio owner. Blah, blah, blah – I haven’t even talked about the actual record at the center of this review. Basically, the big difference in these new versions is the expanded sonics, lots of space and lots of bass. It features mixes from Villalobos, Hype Williams (the duo, not the video director), Burnt Friedman and more. There is a lot of playing going on in these mixes that is often absent from these artists own work. The Burnt Friedman track is particularly good, using a Zinja track naturally. I’d love to see some actual crossover work between Zinja and someone like Friedman. Kind of like a Serge Gainbourg meets Sly & Robbie type of deal.


Pilgrim – Misery Wizard / Pallbearer – Sorrow and Extinction: This is kind of unfair to lump these two records together, but it’s convenient to do as they were the two metal records I bought last year. Both draw something different from Sabbath, although I recognize that sounds as stupid as saying two jazz artists draw something different from Louis Armstrong – duh. Pilgrim bring the slow heavy and Pallbearer bring the epic Ozzy-like vocal drama. Neither has Sabbath’s sense of space, but almost no metal band since Sabbath has understood the riddle of the void.

Beachwood Sparks – Tarnished Gold: This was a nice record that I didn’t listen to enough. I loved their Once We Were Trees album from a dozen years ago. This was their first full-length since that album and the reason I may not been as gaga about it as I was its predecessor may have more to do with how my tastes have changed in the intervening years rather than how much their music as changed. I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself discovering this album a few years from now and falling in love with it.

Swans - The Seer / Scott Walker - Bish Bosch: Technically these two albums are more perfect specimens than most of the records at the top of this list. There are few, if any, flaws between the two, but sometimes it’s the flaws that draw you in. These are both albums I appreciate more than I actively enjoy, but I know that 15 years from now I will be able to put these records on and find something new. The Swans record is in my mind better than their last record (My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, 2010) which itself was very good. Gira is still brutal after all these years, but he sounds happy about the brutality of life now, not down. He comes off like the father figure of family-like cult who enjoys the natural chaos of the world around him. Think Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man. Even more harrowing is Walker’s Bish Bosch which is a continuation of his Tilt/The Drift sound. For as dark as this record is, there is a streak of black humor running through it that you can’t deny. “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” has some of the best one-liners outside of Lou Reed’s Take No Prisoners or a Henny Youngman album. Sample a few lyrics from said song: “This is my job,/I don’t come around and put out/your red light when you work” or “Know what?/You should get an agent,/why sit in the dark/handling yourself.” Still, later in the song, when Walker rages about throwing your mother’s cooking back at her he is operating in a voice that the entirety of the Scandinavian black metal scene would envy.

John Cale – Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood: John Cale is still working on developing himself as an artist. I don’t mean to say that he’s constantly trying to reinvent himself like Bowie, Neil Young, or Prince. Cale is still trying to grow as an artist, constantly reorienting himself as the world around him changes. This means he is susceptible to new influences he hears, eager to interpret new sounds from new groups through a filter of his own experience and personality. In short, with respect to this new record, Cale dabbles in autotune. This device doesn’t add anything to the album, but it doesn’t detract too much from it that much either. It will slightly date the record in years to come if doesn’t already date it now. “December Rains” is the primary offender. Cale is a master arranger and has a keen ear for melody so no matter what his missteps there’s always quality meat on the bone. I like this one better than Black Acetate (2005) and at least as well as HoboSapiens (2003) when he was enamored with the Beta Band.

Gwylim Gold – Tender Metal: Possibly no album was imbued with genius more in 2012 than this one. That is, if you want to classify it technically as an album at all. Tender Metal is a collection of pieces released only through Gold’s new app called Bronze, a media player which morphs the song being played into a new arrangement and production each time. Each song is different every time it is played so you never accrue a sense of real familiarity with the songs. There’s almost more of a sense of déjà vu each time you listen. This is something Brian Eno might have come up with. So what does it sound like? It’s like Thom Yorke’s solo work or his Atoms for Peace project with Nigel Godrich if those records actually moved me. Gold hails from the fantastic and now sadly defunct Golden Silvers. These pieces are quiet, understated keyboard-led themes adorned with a melancholy that’s beautiful, but never whiny. “Limbless” is particularly affecting, its melody so strong to remain with you through the countless versions you will hear throughout your life. This is literally a record that will always be new, always changing. I don’t know if it’s the future or just a marvelous cul-de-sac of a brilliant mind. If Nicola Tesla had made pop music it might have sounded like this.

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