I call this list my favorite music of the year, not the best of, because I haven’t heard more than a third of all the music that people have been talking up in their end-of-year lists. Who am I to say what’s best? (Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city is probably the best, but I’m following Ann Power’s advice not to pontificate if the only hip hp you really paid attention to this year was the albums by Lamar and Killer Mike.) And yet I still had a ton of great music to enjoy in 2012. In no particular order:
ALBUMS OF THE YEAR
Jessie Ware, Devotion
Debut album of the year, fore sure. I love a burst of you-go-girl R&B uplift, and this year Jessie Ware served up the freshest serving. Devotion distills lots of tasteful influences — Sade, Soul II Soul, Everything But The Girl, Aaliyah, 2-step — and adds a dash of that futuristic gloss that British club music does uniquely well. Not a weak track to be found here.
The Joel Plaskett Emergency, Scrappy Happiness
I just discovered this Nova Scotian rocker, who’s made over 15 albums and appears regularly on Canada’s Polaris shortlist. Plaskett has serious power-pop chops, which in his case means channeling the I-can-play-that-style-too enthusiasm of Nick Lowe and singing about Hüsker Dü. Say what you will about the formalism of power pop, but Scrappy Happiness is anchored by two songs that any rocker would want for their record. “Lightning Bolt” is a stunning album opener, with its nervy, Graham Parker-like vocal narrating an epic swampy jam that journeys from the Grifters to Led Zeppelin. And “Old Friends” nails the sentimentality and pathos of its subject like a short story.
Julia Holter, Ekstasis
Having been burned before by artists hyped as “pastoral,” I was reluctant to warm to this album. But Ekstasis has been in my heavy rotation for the past six months, a wonderful exploration of the melodic, meditative art-student music made by Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Broadcast and Bjork. These compositions sound like the experience of riding Disneyland’s “It’s A Small World” on cough syrup: playful, enchanting, a little melancholy. Holter is unafraid of the oddball vocal — an eko-eko-eko-eko here, a vocoderized chant there — but her unembellished vibrato-less voice can be remarkably beautiful. Bonus points: in a year sick with Fleetwood Mac covers, Holter turned out the best one (not on Ekstasis) with “Gold Dust Woman”.
Fort Romeau, Kingdoms
The best deep house album in 2012 came from the British kid who used to play keyboards in La Roux. Their common four-on-the-floor notwithstanding, this music feels a million miles away from the pop-house beats dominating the airwaves currently. I like to think that Kingdoms conveys the romantic perspective of those worldweary iconoclasts Donald Fagen used to sing about (“I’ve got plenty of java/And Chesterfield Kings/But I feel like crying/I wish I Had a heart like ice”) — not a bad trick for an album that’s mostly instrumental.
I’d be tempted to call this indie-rock quintet “darkwave” if that term meant more than an 80s retromania of sequenced synthesizers and goth hamminess. Fortunately, Lower Dens have something more original, less monochromatic and more relevant going on. That said, if I may pull out my 80s lexicon, you know that hypnotic throb that the Police used on “Invisible Sun”? Nootropics achieves that vibe regularly, to my great delight. What’s in the water in Baltimore that it turns out these frontwomen singing in a bewitching mezzo-soprano?
The reigning poet of self-loathing, Eitzel continues to write beautiful music for his sometimes witty, often harrowing stories about broken individuals seeking connection: “And I haven’t talked to anyone in days/But look, I brought all this imported beer.” Don’t Be A Stranger hits the sweet spot of the craft Eitzel has been honing for close to 30 years, alternating the intimacy of delicate acoustic guitar picking and somber piano chording with a sensitive combo (featuring former Attraction Pete Thomas).
There were more funereal, sludgier, and more evil doom metal albums in 2012. This band’s less is more garage doom is, by contrast, only rock’n'roll — and I like it. But add Uta Plotkin’s Sandy Denny-esque soprano, and now you have something unexpected. With lyrics from a female perspective, Cauldron of the Wild takes doom metal down a less two-dimensional direction. Bonus points: through Scion AV, Witch Mountain also released a great single for free download.
2012 saw many indie-rock heavyweights of the last decade put out albums that added depth to an extensive repertoire but arguably fell short of the artistic/career milestones established on previous records. As a general rule of music listening, I find those albums useful contributions to an artist’s catalog. They’re your Magical Mystery Tours, your Sandinistas, your Uh Huh Hers; they show what an artist is really about after the plan has been set, the promise has been made. In this category, the album I returned to the most this year was the latest by Ariel Pink. It has none of the stand-out tracks or studio ambitions of 2010′s Before Today (which I think will go down, when the dust settles, as an essential indie-rock album); fans have described Mature Themes as setting a lower-fi, midway course between that record and his home recordings of the prior decade. Now we can see what’s what with Pink’s intuitive, asymmetrical composition methods, his scatological obsessions, and those so-called mouth drums.
I listen to a lot of pop radio with my kids, and our growing investment in the medium came to a head this year with the Ke$ha album. As a parent, I wince at her YOLO, fuck-the-rules, do-me feminism, which no “clean version” can hide from my 7-year-old daughter. (Not to mention my 3-year-old son: “Daddy, what’s a ‘touching in the dark’?”) As a middle-aged man, I identify with the bemusement, self-ridicule, and should-know-better curiosity that Iggy Pop conveys on their duet “Dirty Love”: “Yeah, and… Ke$ha!” As a house-music head, I gotta give it up for the state-of-the-art production by Dr. Luke and crew, who show a surprising command of 80s power ballads and raunchy country-rap alongside a mastery of Daft Punk’s filtered-house style. Warrior is a can’t-look-away car-crash of grating vocals, pop eclecticism and poor role modelling.
It felt like this British group had been away for years, the way their new album appeared without fanfare. The Tinder-schtick hasn’t really changed in almost 20 years: they write slow songs for couple’s drawn together by obsession, failure, lust, and the need for redemption. Or, more accurately, the band has evolved very slowly, with their early prickliness softening into a seductive, Isaac Hayes-meets-the Velvet Underground sound that’s well suited for baby-making. The band is in top form creatively and musically; the distinctive weathered croon of Stuart Staples remains a welcome guest.
More songs about fucking and fighting. This Brooklyn groups strips out the sub-genrification and hipster artifice that’s encrusting indie rock, then reconstructs it under the guidance of Kris Kristofferson, Phil Lynott, Will Oldham and Mark Knopfler. I can’t help but think of those “Eat Like A Man” articles in Esquire Magazine, with cholesterol-laden no-frills recipes for grilling a skirt steak and doctoring up breakfast eggs. Angelmaker is an album to help you rock like a man: don’t futz with the distortion pedals, don’t get the group so tight that they lose that bar-band lurch. “Rock before you roll/And roll before you die.”
Young Minneapolitans play Laurel Canyon music, but wait: where did they get that “Life’s A Gas” T.Rex swagger? Where did those Van Dyke Parks-treated pianos and guitars come from? How did they come to appreciate the finer points of Nilsson’s MOR schmaltz?
Don’t know why it occurred to anyone to bathe the 4AD-lite of 90s acts like Lush in low fidelity and a wicked dose of reverb, but it serves this L.A. group well. In 2012, this sound invariably earns the ‘hypnogogic’ tag, but mainman Lionel Williams may be young enough to come to this exercise with little of the nostalgic baggage you might expect; he also knows his way around a hook and a mood. A group like this is exactly what Bandcamp was made for.
It’s probably beside the point to make an event out of Brian Eno’s return to the ambient style he originated in the 70s and 80s. Like that work, Lux is meant to be played in the background at almost inaudible levels, but first you’ll want to listen closely to the cathedralesque sublimity found on these four extended tracks. Bonus points: if you’re excited by (or unfamiliar with) Eno’s ambient methods, I enthusiastically direct you to his iPad app Scape.
Such an irrepressible jam. A consummate aesthete of R&B styles and gestures, Miguel signifies some early 80s on this track; I hear the dry minimalism of Prince’s “Kiss” and, of course, the teasing drum machine from Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” here. But that bassline, cranked up properly, is all now. The rest of Miguel’s album Kaleidescope Dream is worthy, if not quite reaching the single’s heights. This dude’s trajectory is clearly pointing up.
This Brooklyn band is usually about restraint: gentle volumes, little ornamentation, unaffected vocals that sound like Glen Campbell (!!). This song, a Crazy Horse-style love song heard from across the void, makes explicit the desolation and force of character behind Virgin Forest’s evidetly unassuming methods.
I don’t know how Todd Rundgren got in the dance remixing business, but more, please! Rundgren pulls out some of his signature tricks, from his less popular albums no less — the orchestral massing of chords, the alteration of vocals — and Lindstrom’s nu disco stomp reveals the Rundgren Utopia™ that we had all forgotten.
“Searching for Sugar Man”
This documentary’s first half is a procedural mystery in musical urbanism, as devoted South African fans of Rodriguez track down the mysterious folk-rocker by parsing his lyrics’ geographical references: “Born in the troubled city/In Rock and Roll, USA,” “Met a girl from Dearborn… Asked her about her bag, suburbia’s such a drag”. In the second half [SPOILER ALERT] these fans locate Rodriguez, who never left Detroit after his music career ended in the 70s, and the film becomes the biography of an anonymous man’s life, family, and labors in a hard-luck city. “Detroit needs a hero,” his daughter says of her father; Rodriguez’s commitments, musical and otherwise, to the people and ethos of a city that so many have abandoned is one of 2012′s most moving stories on film.
Although it’s hardly the last word on the country music industry, this primetime drama achieves a measure of ethnographic veracity by filming on location, encompassing the overlooked songwriting/publishing system, and giving more-than-token nods to the Americana and indie-rock scenes that bubble under Music Row. But make no mistake, “Nashville” is a soap opera plain and simple, and one of enough scope and value for viewers to invest all sorts of cultural agendas. East Nashville Purists can “shit their pants” over how the show depicts their favorite haunts, or how T-Bone Burnett licensed a rival’s song for the big Connie Britton number. And, at least before November 6, blue-state viewers could soothe their Election 2012 anxieties by imagining how a red-state hegemony might not sound as bad as they feared.
Flying Lotus, “Until The Quiet Comes”
Man, what is this ghetto magical realism? Look, I know I said earlier I wouldn’t try to pretend any authority about this year’s rap music. Flying Lotus isn’t rap, although his album Until The Quiet Comes is deeply steeped in hip hop’s boom bap. But, if I may, it just seems to me that one thing that caught listeners off guard with the Killer Mike and Kendrick Lamar albums was their odd moments of ghetto spirituality. Is it crazy to think this short film (directed by Kahlil Joseph, feturing a montage of tracks from the Flying Lotus album) is offering visual and choreographic vocabularies for such a magical urbanism?