Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 The Year In Review

2012, to me, was not an exceptional year in music, with only one release meriting a Highest Recommend (and sorry, Frank Ocean fans, it ain't Channel Orange), but it was nonetheless a highly satisfying year, and that can be attributed to one thing...


Despite an overall lower than average number of quality releases, and no definitive new trend (though straight-up rock, wispy-voice electro-pop and touchy-feely Rap & Soul were definitely ascendant), every niche in 2012 seemed to produce at least one or two genuinely memorable records.

As such, I've decided to review this year's releases by genre first rather than just present one ranked master list.

So over the next few weeks, we'll look at the year that was by category - starting with Indie Pop, then moving onto Straight-Up Rock, Folk/Singer-Songwriter, Electronica/Electro Pop, Hip-Hop/Neo-Soul, Dad Rock, Psych Rock/Shoegaze, and Art Rock/Post Rock.

Following that, I'll offer my thoughts on what I feel were the year's most overlooked and overrated albums, and finally, I'll get to my overall picks for the best songs and albums of the 2012.

But first, to get a sense of how the rest of the world felt about the year just past, here's what four notable periodicals, websites, and critical aggregators came up with as their top choices of 2012, starting with the granddaddy and unrepentant Classic Rock champion Rolling Stone.

1. Wrecking Ball - Bruce Springsteen
2. Channel Orange - Frank Ocean
3. Blunderbuss - Jack White
4. Tempest - Bob Dylan
5. The Idler Wheel - Fiona Apple
6. good kid, m.A.A.d city - Kendrick Lamar
7. Here - Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
8. !Uno! - Green Day
9. Celebration Rock - Japandroids
10. Psychedelic Pill - Neil Young & Crazy Horse
11. Babel - Mumford & Sons
12. Rebirth - Jimmy Cliff
13. Old Ideas - Leonard Cohen
14. The Only Place - Best Coast
15. Locked Down - Dr. John
16. Sun - Cat Power
17. Born and Raised - Jon Mayer
18. Life Is Good - Nas
19. Mirage Rock - Band Of Horses
20. R.A.P. Music - Killer Mike
21. Attack On Memory - Cloud Nothings
22. Slipstream - Bonnie Rait
23. A Thing Call Divine Fits - Divine Fits
24. Cruel Summer - G.O.O.D. Music
25. Sunken Condos - Donald Fagen

Obviously, a defiantly strong lean towards veteran 60s and 70s artists here, but I'll argue for the Dr. John and Leonard Cohen titles just as loud as RS would, both releases are fantastic.

Now the most popular flip-side of the rock journalism coin - the ultra-contemporary, twee-and-inscrutability loving, classic-rock loathing website Pitchfork.

1. good kid, m.A.A.d city - Kendrick Lamar
2. Channel Orange - Frank Ocean
3. The Idler Wheel - Fiona Apple
4. Lonerism - Tame Impala
5. The Seer - Swans
6. Grimes - Visions
7. Bloom - Beach House
8. Kill For Love - Chromatics
9. The Money Store - Death Grips
10. Shields - Grizzly Bear
11. Celebration Rock - Japandroids
12. Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! - Godspeed You! Black Emperor
13. R.A.P. Music - Killer Mike
14. Luxury Problems - Andy Stott
15. Swing Lo Magellan - Dirty Projectors
16. Kindred EP - Burial
17. The Haunted Man - Bat For Lashes
18. Ty Segall Band/Ty Segall & White Fence - Slaughterhouse/Hair
19. Attack On Memory - Cloud Nothings
20. Devotion - Jessie Ware
21. Mature Themes - Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
22. Until The Quiet Comes - Flying Lotus
23. Kaleidoscope Dream - Miguel
24. Shrines - Purity Ring
25. Habits & Contradictions - Schoolboy Q

Clearly, a near complete disregard for older or more mainstream artists here, but I do feel few sites do a better job of parsing through the offerings of younger indie artists than Pitchfork, and a very good rule of thumb - those albums that make the year end lists for both Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, are, by and large, the true must-hear albums of that year.

Now let's look at the near final consensus tallies from two of the world's best aggregator sites.

First, www.metacritic.com 's tally, which aggregates year-end rankings from almost every notable English language website and publication.

1. Channel Orange - Frank Ocean
2. good kid, m.A.A.d. city - Kendrick Lamar
3. The Idler Wheel... - Fiona Apple
4. Lonerism - Tame Impala
5. Celebration Rock - Japandroids
6. Visions - Grimes
7. The Seer - Swans
8. Devotion - Jessie Ware
9. An Awesome Wave - Alt. J.
10. Blunderbuss - Jack White
11. R.A.P. Music - Killer Mike
11. Kaleidoscope Dream - Miguel
13. Bloom - Beach House
13. Attack On Memory - Cloud Nothings
13. Shields - Grizzly Bear
13. Killer For Love - Chromatics
17. Tramp - Sharon Van Etten
17. Until The Quiet Comes - Flying Lotus
17. Boys & Girls - Alabama Shakes
20. The Money Store - Death Grips
20. Django Django
20. Tempest - Bob Dylan
20. Red - Taylor Swift
24. Our Version Of Events - Emili Sande
25. Sun - Cat Power
25. Swing Low Magellan - Dirty Projectors
25. All We Love We Leave Behind - Converge

And for a more international slant, www.acclaimedmusic.net 's 12/24 tally, which factors in most of the lists Metacritic considers, but also works in final rankings from a wide swath of the world's top foreign language websites and publications.

1. Channel Orange - Frank Ocean
2. Lonerism - Tame Impala
3. good kid, m.A.A.d. city - Kendrick Lamar
4. Visions - Grimes
5. Shields - Grizzly Bear
6. Kill For Love - Chromatics
7. The Seer - Swans
8. Coexist - The Xx
9. Bloom - Beach House
10. Blunderbuss - Jack White
11. An Awesome Wave - Alt-J
12. Swing Lo Magellan - Dirty Projectors
13. The Idler Wheel... - Fiona Apple
14. Django Django
15. Celebration Rock - Japandroids
16. Sun - Cat Power
17. Until The Quiet Comes - Flying Lotus
18. Tramp - Sharon Van Etten
19. Devotion - Jesse Ware
20. Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! - Godspeed You! Black Emperor
21. Attack On Memory - Cloud Nothings
22. R.A.P. Music - Killer Mike
23. Tempest - Bob Dylan
24. The Haunted Man - Bat For Lashes
25. Boys & Girls - Alabama Shakes

Interestingly, the albums one would consider most instrumentally adventurous soar to the top of the international list, while lyrically anchored efforts like Fiona Apple's or those firmly rooted in traditional North American rock tropes like Celebration Rock drop, but clearly, over all four of these lists, some consistent titles have emerged.  I'll touch on many of these in the pages that follow...along with some other wonderful releases that I feel also deserve recognition.

And now, onto Indie Pop.

2012: The Year In Indie-Pop

In a way, it might be wrong to start here, as I feel indie-pop was the least significant genre of 2012.

After a half-decade counter to the noise and aggression of the 90s, the pop-rock pendulum seems to  be finally swinging away from the gentile beauty that's dominated recent years back to the harder, more aggressive approaches of decade's past.

That said, nothing is more beloved in music than a great hook, something these albums provide in spades...and significant or not, the titles I've group here under the indie-pop umbrella are among the most colorful and eclectic batch 2012 produced.

1. Europe - Allo' Darlin: Twee-pop Nirvana.  Easily my favorite pop album of the year and one of the year's most instantly endearing and consistently solid releases.  If you've got a taste for early R.E.M.'s guitar-driven flow combined with Belle & Sebastian-styled lilting pop sweetness, this female-fronted jangle-pop gem is the album for you.
STRONG RECOMMEND - Spotify! / I-Tunes / Amazon

2. Making Mirrors - Gotye: Technically a 2011 release but not released in the states until January,  2012, most will associate this record with its ubiquitous summer 2011 hit Someone That I Used To Know, but it's the pop-eclecticism of the rest of the album that blew me away. Recalling a pre-American Idol sensibility where aiming for the pop mainstream still allowed for quirks, adult   intelligence, and off-beat artistry, Making Mirrors evokes the feel of guilty pleasures like Journey, Keane, George Michael, Travis, Stevie Winwood, Phil Collins for sure, but when it's all this well done and this varied, who cares.
STRONG RECOMMEND - Spotify! / I-Tunes /Amazon .

3. Researching The Blues - Redd Kross: An often hysterical, self-deprecating power pop album from an aged group of under-recognized L.A. lifers, Researching The Blues operates in the vein of the best work of Cheap Trick and more recent power-pop stalwarts like The New Pornographers. The riff's often "go to 11" on this hard-chugger, but make no mistake, this is a pop album through and through, with hooks galore.  Uglier, the band's acerbic take on the "joys" of aging, justifies the cost of admission alone.
SOLID RECOMMEND - Spotify! / I-Tunes / Amazon .

4. Sun - Cat Power: Following the breakup of her long-term relationship with actor Giovanni Rabisi, Chan Marshall moves away from the Nashville/Stax-flavored balladry that defined her last release of originals, The Greatest, into the world of quirky, self-produced electro-pop. It's a change that works. The album's back half sags some, but the opening half, especially Ruin, is wonderful, and it's all capped by one of the most unlikely songs of the year, the Hey Jude-like, eleven-minute Iggy Pop collaboration Nothing But Time, written to cheer up Rabisi's teenage daughter, with whom Marshall had formed a deeply felt relationship.
SOLID RECOMMEND - Spotify! / I-Tunes / Amazon .

5. Devotion - Jessie Ware: She broke out last year as a guest vocalist on several releases in the drums & bass world, most notably SBTRKT's self-titled debut, but for me, there's only one way to describe the music contained within this promising debut - Sade reborn.

6. Django Django: One of two genuinely bizarre pop releases to take the UK by storm in 2012 (the other being Alt-J's An Awesome Wave), this is my favorite of the two for its greater bounce and more eclectic feel.  Combining wonderful 60s-garage harmonies with all manner of natural and electronic influences, the band can come off like Devo one minute (Default), and spaghetti-western-inspired surf-punks the next (Hailbop), but it's all done with a sense of off-kilter, David Byrne-like fun.
SOLID RECOMMEND - Spotify! / I-Tunes / Amazon .

7. A Thing Called Divine Fits - Divine Fits: A nifty set of indie-pop tunes from a new side-project fronted by Spoon lead-singer Britt Daniel and Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs guitarist/song-writer Dan Boeckner.  Fans of any of these bands will find much to like here.
SOLID RECOMMEND - Spotify! / I-Tunes / Amazon .

8. An Awesome Wave - Alt-J: The other big, out-there Brit-pop release of 2012, An Awesome Wave is a much mellower, moodier affair than Django Django, playing more to the Blur / Radiohead side of the Brit-pop spectrum, but a couple of the tracks, especially Tessellate, feel as oddball fresh as any of 2012. Strange, but will be interesting to see how this band evolves.
SOLID RECOMMEND - Spotify! / I-Tunes / Amazon .

Other 2012 Indie-Pop Albums of Note:
Bloom - Beach House
Ghostory - School Of Seven Bells
My Head Is An Animal - Of Monsters And Men
Nocturne - Wild Nothing
Port Of Morrow - The Shins
Plumb - Field Music

Next Up - Straight-Up Rock.

2012: The Year In Straight-Up Rock

Every couple of years, in this era when TV-oriented teen-pop, hip-hop, and electronic dance music dominate the charts, silly music writers will go out and pronounce straight-up, guitar driven rock 'n' roll dead...and then every couple years, just after such pronouncements have been made, rock roars back with a vengeance.

2012 was one of those years, highlighted by a number of fine albums that put chugging power chords, killer blues riffs, boogie-woogie keys, and party-all-night choruses back where they belong in rock 'n' roll - front and center.

1. Celebration Rock - Japandroids: The unquestioned summer rock album of 2012. Open Your Heart and Attack On Memory are more varied and consistently interesting, but for sheer hoist-your-brew-to-the-sky drums-and-guitar party anthem awesomeness, nothing topped this record or the epic twin pillars upon which it was erected, The Nights Of Wine And Roses and The House That Heaven Built, both bona fide contenders for song of the year.
STRONG RECOMMEND - Spotify! / iTunes / Amazon.

2. Open Your Heart - The Men: It shouldn't work as well as it does - the mix is dreadful, the vocals sometimes even worse, and it displays a complete disregard for traditional coherent sequencing...but for noise rock done with tons of urgency, devil-may-care stylistic freedom, and a strong debt to old time masters like The Stooges, MC-5, Sonic Youth, and The Rolling Stones, nothing topped this slop-rock joy.
STRONG RECOMMEND - Spotify! / iTunes /Amazon.

3. Attack On Memory - Cloud Nothings: Another fine album, this Nirvana-esque effort from young Cleveland native Dylan Baldi doesn't deliver quite the peaks of Celebration Rock or the front-to-back intrigue of Open Your Heart, but it might offer the best combination of both. Mixing grungy, youthful power pop like Fall In and Stay Useless with emotionally and/or instrumentally searing material like Wasted Days and Separation, Attack On Memory marks Baldi as a name to watch in the years to come.
SOLID RECOMMEND - Spotify! / iTunes / Amazon.

4. Call Me Sylvia - Low Cut Connie: The piano is back, baby! Taking on the same bar band/blue rock motifs that have powered The White Stripes, The Black Keys, and The Hold Steady through the last decade, but re-incorporating that old-school tickled-ivories boogie-woogie of classic rock pianists like The Rolling Stone's Ian Stewart into the mix, Call Me Sylvia is lively, bawdy, irreverent, barrel-house fun
SOLID RECOMMEND - Spotify! / iTunes / Amazon.

5. Blunderbuss - Jack White: I didn't care for it at all at first, and I still think this is one of the year's most overrated albums...but it has grown on me to the point where I now consider it a legitimate solid recommend. After a decade on top, White is really starting to repeat himself...riffs, lyrics, vocal phrasings here all feel like recycled, less interesting variations of his better White Stripes and Raconteurs songs (Salute Your Solution-clone 16 Saltines anyone), but I have to admit, those are some excellent White Stripes and Raconteurs songs Blunderbuss is referencing. More piano-based than past efforts, if Jack White can do no wrong in your book, you'll love this album.  If like me, you were hoping for something with a fresher feel, give it a spin on a free streaming service first before plunking down any cash.
SOLID RECOMMEND - Spotify! / iTunes / Amazon.

6. Ugly - Screaming Females: You want riffs, you've got it.  Singer/guitarist Marissa Paternoster's Corine Tucker/Karen O flavored vocals are a challenge - raw and powerful one moment, as grating as shredding Styrofoam the next - and will be a deal breaker for some, but her heavy Dinosaur Jr. meets Sleater-Kinney guitar work, as well as the backing of the trio's lean rhythm section, is sometimes inspired.
MILD RECOMMEND - Spotify! / iTunes / Amazon.

7. Black & Blu - Gary Clark, Jr.: An occasionally fantastic but often wishy-washy major label debut from the already legendary Austin axe-swinger, this album is riveting whenever Clark posits himself as the natural successor to the Jimi Hendrix / Stevie Ray Vaughn school of guitar exorcism, and average at best when he tries to prove he can hang with his contemporaries in softie neo-soul. An album where eclecticism hurts rather than helps, check it out for its best moments, but this is one you may want to cherry-pick.
MILD RECOMMEND - Spotify! / iTunes / Amazon.

8. METZ - METZ: One of the most punishing releases of the year, Metz is a hard one to define, sticking to punk brevity, but blurring the lines between hardcore punk, psych-rock, no-fi noise, and modern metal.  I like the psych-rock leaning numbers like Wet Blanket and Headache best, but fans of muddy, harder-edged music will probably like it all.
MILD RECOMMEND - Spotify! / iTunes / Amazon.

Other Rock Titles Worth A Listen:

Boys & Girls - Alabama Shakes
Clear Heart Full Eyes - Craig Finn
Heaven - The Walkmen
Local Business - Titus Andronicus
On The Impossible Past - The Menzingers
Yellow & Green - Baroness

Next Up - The Year in Folk and Singer-Songwriter

2012:The Year In Folk/Singer-Songwriter

Women dominated the Folk and Singer-Songwriter categories in 2012, but it was a rich field overall.

Here are some of my favorites.

1. Young Man In America - Anais Mitchell: To my ears, two out of the last three years running now, Anais Mitchell has produced the year's best folk album. But Young Man In America is a very different record than 2010's Hadestown, which incorporated a vast swath of indie guest vocalists to recast the Eurydice-Orpheus myth in depression-era America.  Here Mitchell is front and center, the songs modern and stylistically of a piece rather than unrelentingly eclectic, and the lyrics, though still narrative in design, far more personal.  But as strong as several of the songs are, it's the crystal clear, graceful moment-to-moment flow of the album's spare, idiosyncratic instrumentation that really sets this record apart.  My favorite late night chill album of 2012...in year that produced several.
STRONG RECOMMEND - Spotify! / iTunes / Amazon.

2. The Idler Wheel... - Fiona Apple: I've never been the biggest fan of Apple's past work.  I admire many things about her - her voice, her hold-nothing-back emotional honesty, and her massive spine when it comes to pushing back against the music industry's cheapening commercial forces - but I've always been a sound-is-way-more-important-than-the-words listener, and I've never connected with her jazz-inflected musical sensibility.  But that said, this elaboratedly titled new record is an out-there confessional gem, full of unexpected, quirky lyrical and stylistic turns, and all set to instrumentation so pared down, it eliminates the jazzier feel to her past albums that I've never liked. One of the best reviewed albums of the year, I can't give it a nod over Young Man In America's often breath-taking musicality, but for most singer-songwriter fans, this was the record of 2012.
STRONG RECOMMEND - Spotify! / iTunes / Amazon.

3. The Lions Roar - First Aid Kit: This latest effort from two young cherub-voiced Swedish sisters who harmonize like angels and write far beyond their years includes two of 2012's most gorgeous songs in Emmylou and To A Poet. That the rest of the album nearly matches this excellence is just a bonus. Along with Allo' Darlin's Europe, Dr. John's Locked Down, and Japandroid's Celebration Rock, one of the most immediately agreeable albums of the year.
SOLID RECOMMEND - Spotify! / iTunes / Amazon.

4. Tramp - Sharon Van Etten: Assembled over multiple years primarily in the garage of good pal, producer, and National guitarist Aaron Dessner (yeah, he's one of the twins), I still question the production decisions on this album, not convinced that Dessner's lush, High Violet-like adult-contemporary arrangements serve Van Eten's beautiful, powerful but instinctively damaged voice as well as the spare acoustic backings on her previous, more country-flavored release Epic.  But there's no denying Tramp has a number of excellent, brooding tracks.  The album takes several listens to process, but it's worth the effort...and keep an ear out for Beruit's Zach Condon, who swoops in to save the day towards the end just when things start to feel a little repetitive.
SOLID RECOMMEND - Spotify! / iTunes / Amazon.

5. Put Your Back N 2 It - Perfume Genius: With the lone possible exception of the Chromatic's Kill For Love, Put Your Back N 2 It was 2012's most intimate album - tiny, Paul Simon-esque, often gay-themed song fragments set against the most delicate of piano instrumentation. A bit hit or miss, but the best moments - Normal Song, Dark Parts, Hood - hit with such emotional impact, it's all worth it.
SOLID RECOMMEND - Spotify! / iTunes /Amazon.

Others 2012 Indie-Folk/Singer-Songwriter releases worth hearing:
A Church That Fits Our Needs - Lost In The Trees
Big Inner - Matthew E. White
Deer Creek Canyon - Sara Cahone
Fear Fun - Father John Misty
I Like To Keep Myself In Pain - Kelly Hogan
Narrow - Soap & Skin
The Something Rain - Tindersticks
There's No Leaving Now - The Tallest Man On Earth
What We Saw From The Cheap Seats - Regina Spektor

Next Up - The Year In Electronica and Electro-Pop.