The Top Ten Albums
2012 was a strong year for music in general. As you saw in my Top Ten Songs of 2012, artists working in genres as diverse as indie-rock, instrumental hip-hop, R&B, black metal and Christmas music caught my ear. My Top Ten Albums, however, are deeply rooted in guitar-based rock. Part of this is my own personal taste for sure, but also guitar-driven bands are having their strongest year in decades. It seems the nineties are in full resurgence, which I can’t really complain about. But even within this list, there is a fair amount of diversity to chew on. So here we go, the Top Ten (plus honorary mention) Albums of 2012:
Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet on Sky
Most 90s indie-band reunions result in one or two tours, little or no new material, and quick, uneventful dissolution. Not so with Dinosaur Jr., the venerable guitar rock icons that have released several great records since reuniting in 2005. I Bet on Sky shows the band’s songwriting, and J. Mascis’ fretwork, as strong as ever.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Godspeed has never been not enigmatic, so releasing their first LP in almost a decade with no pre-release fanfare shouldn’t have been a surprise. The record’s two proper songs – the Eastern inflected rager “Mladic” and the more cryptic, soaring “We Drift Like Worried Fire” – easily stand with their best work.
Suckers – Candy Salad
Brooklyn’s indie-rock trio took a huge step forward with their second LP – songs like the charging, guitar solo fueled “Going Nowhere,” the instantly hooky “Chinese Braille,” and the wobbly beautiful “Roses” earn the band favorable comparisons to Menomena.
Tame Impala – Lonerism
Lonerism contains some experiments that don’t work, in my opinion. But the record’s middle section, where the band perfects their retro-futuristic take on early 70’s psychedelia, in undeniable. The driving “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” and the instant classic pop of “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” are highlights.
The Twilight Sad – No One Can Ever Know
Scotland’s The Twilight Sad have ditched the walls of sound they borrowed from fellow countrymen Mogwai in favor of steely, industrial soundscapes on No One Can Ever Know. The new sound foregrounds frontman James Graham’s intense vocals and bleak lyrics.
The Top Ten Albums of 2012:
10. Swans – The Seer
Swans’ latest, The Seer, is so far out of step with current musical trends that it seems to exist out of time. Over two hours with several songs over 15 minutes long, The Seer is tough to digest but rewards patience with stunningly powerful climaxes throughout. Epic, patient, desperately bleak and strangely beautiful, The Seer has been described by bandleader Michael Gira as the culmination of his life work. A record this dense and uncompromising might just take an entire lifetime to fully appreciate.
9. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse
San Francisco’s resident garage rock brat, Ty Segall, had a moment this year — befuddling David Letterman and causing morning news anchors to lose their shit – behind the crazily catchy, hyperbolically energetic record Slaughterhouse. Between the woozy guitar soloing of “I Bought My Eyes,” the sludgy stomp of “Wave Goodbye,” and the minute-of-fury “Oh Mary,” Slaughterhouse feels like four decades of rock n’ roll filtered through one prolific, deranged musical mind.
8. Screaming Females – Ugly
New Jersey’s Screaming Females, behind diminutive front woman Marissa Paternoster’s penchant for hooky riffs and explosive guitar solos, have quietly grown into one of underground rock’s best bands. With Ugly, they’ve finally released their first great LP. The first two tracks, “It All Means Nothing” and “Rotten Apple,” are flawlessly executed pop-rock songs that deeply embed themselves in your brain. “Red Hand” sways with gothic attitude behind rhythm section Jarrett Dougherty and King Mike. And “Doom 84,” the record’s 8-minute centerpiece, bobs and weaves between tension filled verses, guitar solo breakdowns and explosive, Queens of the Stone Age-style down-tuned stoner riffs.
7. Alcest – Les Voyages de L’åme
France’s Alcest, spearheaded by songwriter Neige, have produced a nearly unclassifiable album with Les Voyages de L’åme, a record that is built with the raw material of black metal but in end has very little in common with the genre. Yes, there are blast beats, hyperfast riffs and low-end screaming abound here, but they are fused with folk (“Autre Temps”), shoegaze (“La Ou Naissent Les Couleurs Nouvelles”) and post-rock (the astonishing “Faisures De Mondes”). These recombinations alone aren’t new – many metal bands have dabbled in crossing genres – but very few pull it off with the beautiful and galvanizing power of Les Voyages de L’åme.
6. Menomena – Moms
Portland’s Menomena has built a strong following on the back of their knack for knotty, off kilter arrangements and lyrics that resist easy interpretation. But after nearly imploding and losing one of its original members, the now duo crafted it’s most personal, affecting record to date with Moms. The songs still tumble forth with hooky war worms buried beneath adventurous arrangements (the handclappy, layered “Plumage”) and instrumentation (the sax driven “Don’t Mess with Latexus”), but the naked emotional honesty of a song like “Pique” (and a ripping guitar solo to boot) add a welcome dimension to the band’s utterly original brand of art rock.
5. Fang Island – Major
One thing I can say for sure about Fang Island’s Major – no album this year puts me in a better mood. This is by design – the band strives for joy the way other bands strive for transcendence or musical perfection. Using a hybrid that shouldn’t work – indie-rock harmonizing, cheeseball 80s guitar riffs and lightning fast guitar solos – Fang Island crashes through perceptions of what’s “cool” with pure adrenaline and enthusiasm. Through a combination of wide-eyed wonder (lyrics on the record’s first song include “All I know/I learned in kindergarten”), bright and infectious melody (just try getting “Make Me” out of your head) and hoe-down worthy stomping (“Asunder” and “Dooney Rock”), Major should be bottled and sold as a cure for melancholy.
4. 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
Fiona Apple’s last record, 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, made headlines for existing in two completely different, stylistically opposite formations. One was the opulent, Jon Brion produced nuevo-symphonic version. Apple killed this interpretation in favor of the more stripped down “official” version. At the time this confused me – I thought Brion’s version was clearly stronger. But now that Apple has released the barebones The Idler Wheel…, her decision makes total sense. Armed with just her voice, pianos and jazzy accompaniment by percussionist Charley Drayton, “The Idler Wheel” places complete emphasis on Apple’s lyrics and vocal performance – both are utterly mesmerizing. “Every Single Night” coos with tribal rhythm. “Left Alone” saunters dangerously with possibly Apple’s most arresting, surprising vocal performance to date. Album closer “Hot Knife” thrills with little more than looped vocals and well-timed timpani hits. Throughout, Apple’s lyrics approach poetry, putting most similar-minded singer-songwriters to shame.
3. Bear in Heaven – I Love You, It’s Cool
Bear In Heaven’s breakout record, Beast Rest Forth Mouth, didn’t grab me at first – some months later, I listened to the album almost once a day. I Love You, It’s Cool initially disappointed me – now, I listen to it constantly. Bear in Heaven craft synth-dance music that clandestinely attaches itself to your unconscious. They bury hooks so far beneath their warm synths and rumbling bass lines that they are practically invisible. But lead singer Jon Philpot’s high, reverb-y vocals are endlessly enticing (as are his lyrics: “If you dance with me/I think you’ll like my moves”). Opener “Idle Heart” sidesteps expectations with implosive drum fills. “The Reflection of You,” the record’s most immediate song, sounds like the soundtrack to a film John Hughes never made about New York nightlife. Even the record’s moments of pure texture (the end of “Sinful Nature,” album closer “Sweetness and Sickness”) suggest psychedelic songs reinterpreted by Kraftwerk. Give Bear in Heaven a chance and they will retroactively blow your mind.
2. Grizzly Bear – Shields
There’s no such thing as perfection in music – very few art forms are more subject to personal taste and interpretation. And yet, every so often, a band comes together so flawlessly that their songs feel perfect. Grizzly Bear, with their latest stunning album Shields, has become one of those bands. I’ve praised the groups individuals endlessly in these year end lists – Daniel Rossen’s subtly brilliant guitar chops, Ed Droste’s silky baritone, Chris Taylor’s inventive production and instrumentation, Chris Bear’s thunderously precise percussion – but on Shields they sound more like a seamless band then ever before. The band has taken its greatest strengths from its previous records – Yellow House’s introspective epics and Veckatimest’s glossy pop sheen – and fused them thrillingly here. “Sleeping Ute” rides Rossen’s proggy folk with unexpected bursts from the full band. “Yet Again” features one of Droste’s strongest vocal performances and climaxes with unexpected rock n’ roll force. “What’s Wrong” recalls the bands earliest, quietest jazzy experiments with more focus and control. And album closer “Sun in Your Eyes” provides the band with a new high-bar to clear – the seven-minute epic crescendos spectacularly, giving all the band members a moment to shine. I will not call it a perfect album, but it’s certainly damn close.
1. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
No one would have expected Dylan Baldi, whose band Cloud Nothings started as a pop-punk, one-man bedroom project, to come out swinging in 2012 like the heir apparent to Kurt Cobain. But that’s exactly what he did with Attack on Memory – he gathered a smashing rock band around him, got the in-the-room legend Steve Albini to produce and engineer the record, and put out a rager of an album that stands toe to toe with the best rock records of the last 30 years. The mood is set right away with the apocalyptic slow burn of “No Future/No Past” (first lyrics: “Give up/Come to know/we’re through”). Next up is “Wasted Days,” a nine-minute anthem against ennui with a startling, hair-raising instrumental breakdown in the middle. Things shift abruptly with “Fall In,” a hairpin turn so pronounced I couldn’t get past it in my first few listens – now it feels to me like the best song Pavement never recorded. “Stay Useless” is another perfect slacker anthem, the album’s most likely to become immortal in any future films featuring characters in flannel shirts. Darkness creeps back in the record’s back half, with the clattering instrumental “Separation,” the dirge-y “No Sentiment,” and the jauntily hopeless “Our Plans.” Attack on Memory finishes with a sing-along anthem called “Cut You,” for Pete’s sake. 90s revivalism has been everywhere the last few years, with the likes of Refused and Mazzy Star going out on tour, Dinosaur Jr. and Godspeed You Black Emperor releasing great new records, and young bands everywhere embracing the guitar/bass/drums sound of grunge’s heyday. Cloud Nothings certainly fit this trend, but in echoing a very 2012 vibe of stagnation and frustration, they’re created a 21st century masterpiece with Attack on Memory.