Top 12 of ’12

Grimes – Visions
Don’t let the skull on the cover put you off, this is chirpy electropop. All the electro-mechanical doom of The Knife with the cheer of glucose-infused helium sucking heroine. It’s a fun contrast, and evokes all sorts of dark SF worlds, so maybe the skull fits.

Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
The record touches on all the major rock genres of the last few decades, from post-punk, metal, screamo, noise-rock. Wasted Days starts out simple enough, with a fist-pumping 4×4 punk anthem, then both slows and builds into a reverbed maelstrom, before finally collapsing back into all the rage of the buildup.

Arrange – New Memory
Kids with laptops recording chilled out electronic music is its own genre by now. Malcom Lacey (Arrange) takes simple melodies and whispered vocals and mixes them into a fuzzy blizzard, like an Instagram filter. There’s enough quality in the source material (both lyrically, melodically) that the digital wizardry just casts the whole thing in a bright haze, like the hint of sun behind Portland clouds.

Beach House – Bloom
Words fail when trying to get into the details of why Bloom works. The record evokes a mood, of mourning, plodding grandeur, loss. “Myth”, with lyrics that for some reason remind me of the Batman origin story, finds a way to melt flawlessly from Victoria LeGrand’s mournful lament to mirror-image echo in guitar distortion. Irene rises out of a static sea to set a scene. “It’s a strange paradise”, LeGrand sings, a dark dream cloak of sound enveloping her voice.

Diiv – Oshin
Oshin is a distillation of all the melodic progressions, time signatures and reverbed echoes of The Cure without any ecstatic Robert Smith antics. The whole thing keeps chugging along, fluid, the only vocals subsumed by instrumentation. That being said, the entire thing is executed perfectly, feels out of its time, like a forgotten relic unearthed from the vaults of the 80s.

Passion Pit – Gossamer
Still just as commercial (Taco Bell Doritos Loco Taco!) and saccharine, but the mental breakdown backstory makes the glee sort of sad. The lyrics are surprisingly mature: the conservatism of “I’ll Take a Walk” fits right in with Fox News talking points. “I’ll Be Alright” and “It’s not my fault, I’m happy” speak to the Angelakos’s demons, ultimately taking ownership and powering through. And ignoring all the meta-arguments about the juxtaposition of DSMIV diagnoses and creativity, the distilled melodic essence of these songs is pretty potent.

Purity Ring – Shrines
If a coven of Norse druids gathered beneath Stonehenge were equipped with Pro Tools, they might come up with Shrines, from Purity Ring. The chord signatures are brooding but earthy, the vocals rustic, like a pixelated Middle Earth.

Mount Eerie – Ocean Roar
The record is a study in contrasts. For one, you have the softly spoken vocals, with motifs of gently falling snow, walking in bucolic pathways, peace. Then there’s the flat out sound assaults, metal rifts distorted into raging textures, evoking all the imagery of an ocean pummeling a rocky cliffside. Pale Lights encompasses both, with apropos lyrics in the eye of the storm: “…a small yelp on the wind, and then more roaring…”

Chairlift – Something
Chairlift was threatened with the fate of Radiohead, writ small – a big hit (Bruises) with a unique sound that didn’t fit perfectly with the rest of the catalog. The lyrics were even similarly self-depreciating. With Something, Chairlift, and vocalist Caroline Polachek, pulled a “Bends” – ignore the manic pixie dreamgirl lyrics of Bruises and embrace much more nuance and depth. The music is still catchy electro-pop, and there are plenty of “ooohs” and “aaahs”, but there’s a mature feel to the whole production. As she sings over a remixed elevator-music riff: “Got the Grown Up Blues”…

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Godspeed are an elusive species, disdainful of publicity, or touring, or any sort of commercialism. They release records without fanfare, years apart, compiling just a handful of epic songs. The formula is pretty similar to other stuff: Mladic opens with a sample of some religious figure intoning “With arms outstretched!”; plinking guitars, like sonar beeps; orchestral alignment; a distant exotic fiddle. All in prelude to rampaging guitar. It’s tempting to read apocalyptic messages into the music, and it’s easy enough, given the cover art, the song titles, their past discography. There’s narrative in the texture of the sound. But I think pasting allegory on top of the music weakens it, sets it in a time and place, aligns it with our current modern fears. These are songs that should stick around, even after the apocalypse, and some inventive kid rigs a record player to run on solar energy: an Ozymandius to our brilliant and vapid time.

The Egg – Something To Do
Hearing Something to Do for the first time, I had to do a double check that I wasn’t listening to B-sides from Royksopp’s Junior sessions. The boppy fun is there, the super-cool synth mixing, the disparate styles assembling. “Catch” with its anthemic breakdown; “A Bit” with it’s nonchalant Britishisms; “Stars” and “Electric City” with sci-fi motifs. The whole thing is slick and catchy and listenable.

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Most people probably noticed this guy as the backing vocalist on Kanye’s “Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”. But it was his “Nostalgia, Ultra” mixtape that really brought attention. Here was an R&B singer ignoring all the clichés of wealth, sexual prowess, nightclubs. He used popular alternative songs (Coldplay, Radiohead, MGMT) as the underlying track, mixing in references to old-school fighting games (street fighter, soul caliber). And the single Novacaine, when it dealt with those R&B tropes, subverted and explored them. It was existential, not simply a catalog of exploits, but a love song to the numbing effects of that gluttony and lust.
Channel Orange picks up on that same vein, and along with Frank’s reveal about his own sexual background, there’s considerable hype around the record and the artist (queue Grammy nods, etc). Musically, the record is much more in line with traditional R&B – backing vocals, sappy orchestral accompaniment, smooth baselines. But the songwriting possess that same questioning, that unhappiness, the diary of an outsider.
“Super Rich Kids” sings of the corrosion of wealth, all the while reveling in the luxe shower.
“Pyramids” is an epic daydream, an exotic dancer figuratively ascending the throne of the Pharaohs, even as she’s just climbing a polished pole.
“Lost” globetrots “Amsterdam, Tokyo, Spain” without fulfillment.
“Bad Religion” meshes the after-effects of love and faith. “If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion”.
“Pink Matter” might be a love song to Descartes. “What do you think my brain is made for, is it just a container for the mind?” Ocean questions that binary with the simple rejoinder: “Pleasure”. Feeling, and being in our body, is what makes us human.
The lifestyles of the ballers, the gangsta-rappers, the wealthy hip-hop moguls: it’s all questioned here. Even the fallbacks of religion or family or culture that traditionally infuse the genre with “soul” are rejected.
All that meta stuff could be why Ocean’s getting critical acclaim. But the music, production, and Frank’s voice stands on its own.

Best Of: Music

These lists are popping up all over the place. Figured I’d put up my own.

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion

This record was called out as best of the year way back when it was released in January. It’s lived up to the title. One of my favorite memories was walking north from Penn Station to Columbus Circle through Times Square, listening to this album straight through. Normally it would be a painful, aggravating stroll. But with the melodious labyrinths of My Girls, Daily Routine, Bluish, and Brothersport as soundtrack, weaving tourists and hustlers grew cinematic, all lit from above with rainbow LEDs.

Passion Pit – Manners

Joyous, ecstatic, blissed out, danceable. And marketable. This record has probably been the accompaniment to more ads this year than the Beatles. More power to them. I could care less about the sellout label, especially for songs that possess such tightly evolved electropop DNA.

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

I’d heard Phoenix before, usually piped into a whimsical Sophia Coppola film. But here they’ve upped their amps and toned down the airy flimsiness that was so…French. Hell, there are even bombs on the album art. I think they acknowledge their opus, given the composer name-dropping title. Even as Liztomania and 1901 are tightly constructed singles, the highlight of the album is the mournful drone of Rome – memories of lost civilizations and loves.

Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer

In a year when the majority of musical output (both mainstream and indie) was run through ten thousand post-production tools, Sunset Rubdown was a refreshing change. Their songs aren’t lo-fi or minimalist or fuzzy (the most obvious and unfortunate backlash to the computerization of music). Instead they are crisp ballads of strange characters and mystical lands, painted with lilting keyboard, roiling drums and often angry guitar. And there’s urgency and enough human touch so the entire thing feels like it was recorded live for an audience of one.

Dan Deacon – Bromst

The volume of this record has always been too loud in my iPod. Perhaps it was intentional. Deacon’s music is like a maelstrom of cacophonous sounds (glitchy scratches, alarms, chipmunked cultists) coming together into something worshipful. If my eardrums have to suffer for that, so be it.

Franz Ferdinand – Tonight

Franz Ferdinand has constructed an alter ego of Ulysses, and like the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, he’s on a journey through dangerous waters. There are a few more Sirens in this tale. The night of revelry starts out standard enough, a few drinks and dance rock, but then it gets epically weird as the entire thing deconstructs into minimalist electronica.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!

For all of Karen O’s cutesy projects this year (Wild Things, Flaming Lips – I Can Be A Frog), she needed to do something appropriately punk to maintain her cred. If the album art of It’s Blitz doesn’t count (in all its feminist irony), then her two openers “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll” will have to do.

The Decemberists – Hazards of Love

Shape-shifting animals have been Colin Meloy’s go-to image for two records now (crane, faun), spicing his historical ballads with a rich dose of magical realism. And even with all the literary fireworks, the musicianship follows. The biggest shift in sound is the quasi-doom metal guitar in “A Bower Song”. The guest vocals can be distracting as well. But then we’re right back into the saddle, fording raging rivers and confronting evil queens, all for destined love.

Metric – Fantasies

Emily Haines has quite a timid voice for all her indie rock prolificity. But it meshes perfectly with her frightened rabbit lyrics of “Help I’m Alive”. The record is a mix of toe tapping guitar pop and shadowy ambiance, but her voice blankets the whole thing in warm innocence.

Big Pink – A Brief History of Love

The catchy radio-friendly songs like Dominos and Velvet drew me in, but it was the shoegaze epic Crystal Visions that sold me. What a way to open a record – “200 naked pure gold girls” ride in on vortexes of distortion. From there its mostly pedestrian pop but its still catchy enough to deserve a nod.