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.

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