A seer is traditionally thought of as a clairvoyant, a prophet of things to come. Whether you believe such an ability exists, has existed or never did, the 30-minute “The Seer,” the centerpiece of Swans’ excellent return album after more than a decade of dormancy, amazes for its ability to convey such a madness, either by being plagued by visions or the deception, either of self or others, that would come along with proclaiming oneself to be a seer. Michael Gira intones “I see it all” rapidly, without emotion, like someone being driven mad, exploding into an orchestral explosion that lodges itself among the year’s most affecting musical experiences. The rest of the album moves between no wave noise rendered dramatic (“Mother of the World”) and frighteningly beautiful chamber folk, such as the stunning “Song for a Warrior,” abetted by a vocal from Karen O. Though it’s a harrowing experience, The Seer feels entirely essential, even as it sometimes also feels like a thousand ancient hands pulling you into the abyss.
23. Mac DeMarco – 2
Lo-fi goofball Mac DeMarco made two great records in 2012, first with the beguiling Rock and Roll Night Club, then with this second, more mature follow-up. He sheds some of the jokeiness and cassette-hiss that made Night Club immediately appealing but drew a fair share of comparison to Ariel Pink on 2 and instead focuses on songcraft. The surprise is that Mac and his cohorts are a great guitar band, streaming cloudy melancholy over beautiful guitar lines on “Dreaming,” coming on like a Canadian Aztec Camera on “Freaking Out the Neighborhood” and pulling out the stops for a dramatic, dandified acoustic closer, “Still Together.” While plenty shambolic, 2 doesn’t need to stamp its feet to make you feel its impact. (Read my live review of Mac DeMarco here.)
22. Blanche Blanche Blanche – Wink With Both Eyes
My favorite find of 2012 has got to be Blanche Blanche Blanche, a couple of lo-fi pop weirdos from Vermont that made the kind of record children would make if they had the know-how. Wink With Both Eyes runs at a fever-pace with stream-of-consciousness lyrics and melodies crammed with tiny hooks, churning out songs on rinky-dink organs and drum machines through what sounds like a steam-powered recording device. Once you submit, Wink With Both Eyes is a beautiful, terrifying and occasionally hilarious wonderland of sound. One of the most “what the hell was that” kind of records of recent memory, in the best way possible. I saw a copy or two of this floating around Amoeba at some point, so look out for it!
21. King Tuff – King Tuff
Originally this was going to go way down my list. It was like, yeah it’s good and have loved Spiritualized/Spacemen 3 in the past, but this is kind of overrated. “Hey Jane” sounds like he wrote most of it in two seconds. Then I put it on for the first time in months and was totally floored. J. Spaceman’s various albums usually take a few spins to get under your skin, and what sounded at first like retread to me, eventually I started to really appreciate. Especially good is the middle chunk of the album, from about the back half of “Hey Jane” to “Little Girl” and “Too Late,” songs so lovelorn and sweet you don’t really want them to end, through the acidic “Headin’ for the Top Now.” Over time, most of the albums released in a year are largely forgotten, if you’re listening to them in a high volume. I think Sweet Heart Sweet Light is one I’ll keep coming back to and uncovering something new.
Lower Dens and its frontwoman Jana Hunter ask you to sit down a minute, stop playing with your phone and listen. Their music is available on Spotify, but Hunter is openly critical of it. The aptly titled “Brains” feels like a head massage, five minutes of warm, fuzzy guitar, krautrock beats and arpeggiated vocals. Hunter is likely compared with Beach House’s Victoria Legrand, but if there’s room in your heart for two female crooners of heartbreaking melody, songs like “Propagation” and “Nova Anthem” will knock you flat. They might not headline Coachella any time soon, but if you give it the chance, Lower Dens’ music cuts deeper than a thousand disposable pop songs.
Fireworks open Japandroids’ Celebration Rock, and what follows is their musical equivalent. Thought there’s some shade in the pensive riff of “Evil’s Sway” or sad distortion of “Continuous Thunder,” Celebration Rock is largely, as its name would imply, about unbridled joy. Was anything this year as much of a blast as the noise country of “For the Love of Ivy”? At only eight tracks, the album burns bright and fast before extinguishing itself in an explosion of color. If you have trouble getting past your cynicism, Celebration Rock will help you let go.
The hubbub surrounding The Flaming Lips’ album of collaborations with artists as varied as Neon Indian and Ke$ha threatens to overshadow how good the thing actually came out. They released it on Record Store Day, with a limited edition coming with drops of the artists’ blood in the record — ew! But coming off one of the best albums of their long career, 2009’s Embryonic, The Flaming Lips employ a similar kitchen-sink approach to this album, in which taste and editing go out the door in favor of adventurousness. Not all of it works, and some of the artists sound like they were just called in for name value to sing in the background, like Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros on the beautiful if dubiously named “Helping the Retarded to Know God.” When it does, Heady Fwends achieves a bizarre magic matched by little else released this year. Controversy aside, their cover of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” with Erykah Badu is absolutely transcendent.
We can wax on about originality all we want, but sometimes a band just gets a sound so right that it doesn’t matter. With the help of Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, Melody Prochet’s French-accented vocals and soft melodies come through Parker’s corrosive guitar playing casually, like Prochet does on the album cover, gingerly entering a room through a bead curtain. Though its main selling point is that it pleases fans of bands like Broadcast, Lush and Stereolab (like myself), Melody’s Echo Chamber is full of interesting noise, like the Asiatic guitar on “Some Time Alone, Alone” and gossamer keyboards of “Endless Shore.” It’s really just gorgeous. I could listen to this album for a whole day on repeat and not get sick of it.
Some go for perfection. I like artists who take some chances. Light Asylum’s debut LP ain’t perfect, but its so in your face, so badass and even heartbreaking in its most bittersweet moments, like the stellar “Shallow Tears” and aching “A Certain Person.” In its heavier moments, as on the nasty “Pope Will Roll,” Bruno Coviello’s Depeche Mode-on-MDMA synths and Shannon Funchess’ snarling warble combine into something scary, sexy and mystical.
Killer Mike wins on all fronts: his beats are insane, like on the fast-paced “Go!,” calling to mind OutKast singles of yore; he raps better and faster than rappers half his age; and the quality of his rhymes is superb. Full of rhymes both personal and political (often at the same time), R.A.P. Music demands your attention, even as it delivers jam after jam.
Mature Themes is a misnomer in that Ariel Pink still sings about things like “suicide dumplings dropping testicle bombs” on Bowie-ish “Kinski Assassin.” But there’s a newfound desire to move beyond jokey lo-fi (even when it serves him well, as on the heavy blues of “Schnitzel Boogie” and ethereal jazzercise jam “Pink Slime”). On the’70s soft rock reflection of the title track, the jangly “Only in My Dreams” and ace cover of Donnie & Joe Emerson’s quietly romantic “Baby,” Ariel Pink creates affecting pop with barely a wink.
“LOOK AT LOOK AT LOOK AT LOOK AT ME!” You awake yet? Fiona Apple doesn’t fuck around on The Idler Wheel …, demanding your full attention early on, on the brilliant “Daredevil,” and getting into her ugliest, most demanding songs yet. On songs like “Jonathan” and “Left Alone,” Apple’s classic jazz-inflected and atonal delivery, both on piano and vocal, serves as the springboard for Apple’s winged demons to come flying out. It’s beautifully exhausting — ‘till she lets loose like Nina Simone on the flirty “Hot Knife,” closing out maybe her best album yet on a note that leaves you realizing you haven’t yet got Apple figured out, and maybe never will. In an age of “seen it all before,” Apple keeps your interest piqued on The Idler Wheel.
Grizzly Bear tried to go back to the drawing board when recording Shields, relocating and changing their approach, before scrapping that and going back to what they did best, recording in singer Ed Droste’s mother’s house in Cape Cod that yielded their previous records. Smart move. Even more so than 2009’s superb Veckatimest, Shields sounds like the apotheosis of a honed, hard-working band perfecting their sound. Lush and swooning, Shields also plays the trick of allowing for the band’s most thrilling guitarwork yet, on “Sleeping Ute’s” angry arpeggios and “Yet Again’s” expansive arrangement.
On The Haunted Man, Natasha Khan pushes herself to the limit, whether that be vocally, on stunning opener “Lillies,” with Khan nearly going hoarse to pull you in; or emotionally, on the crushing “Laura,” which digs heartbreak out of choice detail. And she is as embracing as she ever has been on the album’s pop songs, like “All Your Gold,” which finds transcendence in sexlessness, and “Marilyn,” a neon ballad about completely letting go — to the moment, to another person, to music. At her best, Khan can make you believe in anything.
What’s that stupid line about “it’s the quiet ones you have to worry about”? I guess that’s true of Lockett Pundt, the guitarist and sometimes singer/songwriter for Deerhunter. Though frontman Bradford Cox garners most of the attention, Pundt’s guitar playing — subtle, simple but not simplistic, always pleasurable yet somehow elusive — is a huge part of the sound that makes up one of the era’s more beloved bands. That couldn’t be more clear on the latest release from Lotus Plaza, Pundt’s solo/side project. Whereas on previous release The Floodlight Collective Pundt created alluring but overly spacey atmosphere, Spooky Action’s songs come through more clearly, though a haze of effect shrouds everything in mystery. It doesn’t grab you at first. Give the songs more than a handful of listens though, like the My Bloody Valentine-style guitar pop of “White Galactic One” or heartfelt noise ballad “Monoliths,” and you’ll be coming back to it more than you realize. It becomes like an old friend you might take for granted until you’re actually in their presence. Definitely one of my most-listened-to albums of 2012.
Of all the dark disco bands of the past decade, Chromatics have always been my favorite. Though part of the aesthetically aligned and member-sharing Italians Do It Better roster, Chromatics stand above the rest by staying true to its impossibly cool style but borrowing and burgeoning the sound with influence from a number of sources — obscure disco, gothic new wave like The Cure, soundtrack maestros like Ennio Morricone and Goblin, and the shoegaze referenced by that Loveless-looking album cover. Reflecting onto all of that is Ruth Radelet, the band’s singer, who only rarely conveys true emotion through her vocals. She sings the words breathily, hollowly, letting the words hang in the air like ghosts. It’s one of the least ego-driven vocal performances I can think of, and it’s a huge part of what makes Chromatics work so well, allowing the music and ambiguous wordplay (“Baby I just want you to come back/Give us all something to do,” for example) to take on vague meaning that somehow entrances. After many lineup changes, their breakthrough, Night Drive, was scary and sad, like the radio left on in a car wreck. Kill for Love alternately brims with life underneath its studied veneer, whether its “Kill for Love’s” New Order-style, heartbeat-thumping chorus, or the unknowable sadness of “Lady.” The album’s second half relies more heavily on guitarist Adam Miller and producer Johnny Jewel’s moody soundscapes, on tracks that seem like a bummer at first but then grow on you over time and reveal themselves to be crucial to Kill for Love’s dark core. Chromatics prove music that at first sounds aloof and style-conscious can end up being the most emotional.
The first time I heard good kid, m.A.A.d city, I was reviewing it for Amoeba as a preview. I didn’t really intend to listen to it all right then, yet I got sucked into Kendrick Lamar’s vivid descriptions of life growing up in Compton, getting sucked into gang violence (“The Art of Peer Pressure,” “m.A.A.d city”), sex (the Janet Jackson-sampling “Poetic Justice,” co-starring Drake) and drug use (“Swimming Pool,” which sucks you into its hedonistic cloud rap scene). I was hooked and listened to it all the way through twice right then, and every time I come back to it I find some new lyric or insane beat that gets me — I just realized how badass Dr. Dre still sounds on “Compton”! Believe the hype; Lamar and his producers have made the best mainstream hip-hop album of the year by amazing at every turn. Dismiss it to your own loss.
Grimes’ success in the indie music world was a foregone conclusion. Grimes aka Clare Boucher was signed to 4AD out of relative anonymity, causing watchers to discover her first three independent releases, which showed how prolific, promising and exciting Grimes would be. Faster than you could say “seapunk,” Grimes backlash came hard, like Hipster Runoff saying her music “sounds like a baby voice goo goo gaa gaa-ing over some bleep bloop music.” Hilarious and true, but it also doesn’t do the music justice. Visions is an album that manages to have it both ways, frontloading with relatively “normal” singles “Genesis,” whose beat is so basic it would be limiting if Grimes didn’t do her best pop star impression over it, and “Oblivion,” where Boucher gets freaky over a squelching beat that only goes down easy due to its bubblegum melodies, some approximation of early Madonna spaced out to infinity. Throughout Visions, Boucher seems intent on staying true to herself, going full psycho-baby on the awesome “Eight” but keeping it reined in enough (that song lasts less than two minutes) so that her eccentricities aren’t played for shock value. Everything done on Visions seems like a conscious choice from an artist who doesn’t mind being ridiculed, having fun or acting her young age while still making exceedingly intelligent music. Who cares if she hangs out with Skrillex, who is truly terrible and don’t even think about “trying to get into him,” and Kreayshawn (same deal)? Grimes is the queen bb because her music sounded fresher than just about anything released in 2012.
Ty Segall and his wrecking crew of musicians tear through roughly a half-hour of some of the best pure rock ’n’ roll in ages — one of three albums he released this year, including his solo album Twins and collaboration with White Fence, Hair. With Black Sabbath and Nirvana decals serving as guiding lights, Segall’s quickly penned songs sound like they were bashed out in record time, in the best way imaginable. If the return of fuzz-fueled rock is what the early 2010s end up being remembered by, Slaughterhouse surely is one of its highest points.
Complete insanity. The Money Store’s gleefully violent party music slaps you in the privates and wakes you up to the possibilities of sound and energy. Zach Hill and Andy Morin’s drumming and programming hits light a thunderstorm of programmed and live beats, siren-blaring synths and weird sound breaks, while buffed-out Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett looks and sounds like an action figure come to life, spitting rhymes aggressively, but never angrily. Do a fun thing and listen to “I’ve Seen Footage” while you look at a slideshow of your own photos/scroll through your pictures on Facebook. Your life will look way more fun.
It feels like I’ve been listening to Lonerism just about every day since it’s come out. Kevin Parker’s songs, written quietly and in solitude in Paris, convey the melodies you hum to yourself in your head out of boredom, while the dream-like arrangements reveal their hooks upon repeated spins, lodging themselves into you over time. Production-wise, Lonerism is just perfect, full of blown-out psychedelia and judicious rocking out that never feels indulgent; rather, the record feels like an ornate gift, decorated impossibly well and loaded with gems. In order to send the album on its way, Parker and co. include two of the best instapleasure rock songs of the year, the heavy blues of “Elephant” and kaleidescope pop of “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards.” (Read my live review of Tame Impala here.)
Hype’s not enough; music has to hit you in the gut in order to really make an impact. For me, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange did that more so than any other record this year. The day before Ocean posted his heart-wrenching coming-out letter, I heard “Thinkin Bout You” for the first time. I was moved to tears. The song is sublime; its juvenile lyrics and pained vocals describe early unrequited love, while the song’s dreamy arrangement hints at an unknowable future. It taps into a feeling many, if not most of us have felt. On a more personal note, for anyone who dealt with coming out, the song perfectly captures the feeling of falling for someone for the first time who can’t return the feeling (“You were my first time/A new feel”) while remaining vague enough to be universal. The rest of Channel Orange shoots off into several directions like a firework. Ocean claims “the best song wasn’t the single” on the Stevie Wonder-ish “Sweet Life,” as if to try to keep your attention, but he doesn’t have to. Ocean keeps throwing curveballs, like “Super Rich Kids’” Elton John stomp and detached description of privileged black youth. “Pilot Jones’s” dark ethereality recalls the lo-fi R&B of How to Dress Well with more outward sexuality and stronger production. “Crack Rock’s” weary drug tale isn’t played for shock value nor does it glorify, as Ocean captures a specific bleakness (“You don’t know how little you matter until you’re all alone in the middle of Arkansas with a little rock left in that glass dick”) over an almost cynically light jazz backdrop. The album is rich with depth, so much so that even its jammer, “Pyramids,” is a nearly 10-minute epic that moves from the depiction of a human goddess to its darker second half, which grows quieter, more weary as Ocean depicts the life of a stripper and prostitute with no glory, no sentimentality. This was the first single Ocean released from Channel Orange. Building upon his hype, Ocean could have made a cash-in pop/hip-hop record and sold oodles more, like similarly talented Nicki Minaj, who showed flashes of brilliance but ultimately sold out on the troubled Roman Reloaded. Instead, Ocean worked with bright people he liked, including Andre 3000, Pharrell and creative partner Malay; came out of the closet, an unprecedented move by any aspiring pop star at his level, let alone one who is black and in the realm of popular R&B/hip-hop; and churned out a record that feels so complete that it seems to have been drained out of him. Ocean himself has even said that he doesn’t know if he’ll follow it up, yet its impact, both musically and culturally, is already being felt. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope that he does.
It occurred to me while seeing Beach House play live earlier this year. They played maybe 20 songs from across their catalog of albums with little break in between — flawlessly — and there wasn’t a clunker in the bunch. I got that “I love this song” feeling every time they began a new one. Listening to Bloom in the car, blasting on the stereo at home or alone on headphones feels very much the same. Bloom was the most consistently great album released in 2012, which is no surprise, coming from a band that has built their name on consistent greatness. Its predecessor, the equally great Teen Dream, was stylistically more varied, while Bloom paints with a more basic palette, mirrored by its dichromatic album art. But this isn’t a detraction. Bloom’s high focus is its strongest point. Jumping off from Teen Dream’s Fleetwood Mac-esque “Norway,” Bloom finds the band creating the sort of lush world of sound Stevie Nicks may have seen in her mind across its 10 gorgeous tracks. Perhaps Beach House’s greatest achievement is that Bloom’s sound is created with only a handful of people. Nothing feels overly layered, and for all intents and purposes they still sound like Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally alone in a room, dreaming up their own planet of sound and sharing it with the world. “Myth’s” mellow intricacy leans into the grandiose “Wild,” drunk on its beauty. “Lazuli,” the album’s shimmering centerpiece, takes your breath away with slowly fluttering guitars, dream synths and half-remembered depiction of lost love. Its like a quietly dying memory, someone remembering their love on their deathbed. Its ability to affect while remaining bleary and vague is a stunning achievement, something many songs aspire toward while falling into becoming dismissible. While Bloom’s overflowing romanticism is something to celebrate, so is its remarkable pop precision. “Other People’s” lunging chorus keeps you gripped even as its lyrics spin with “Lazuli’s” lost love and the added warmth of familiarity, of the simplicity of comfort from seeing old friends on Facebook. Every song that follows amazes with some new hook or chorus or some immaculately placed guitar part, like the swooning harmonies that lure you into “The Hours” or Scally’s bold two-note riff in “Troublemaker” or “New Year’s” sudden shuffle. In its closing, Bloom becomes a glass castle of contained emotion, as delicate as their early work but with newfound clarity. “Wishes’” princess-like longing folds into the sea shanty of “On the Sea,” drifting into “Irene,” featuring some of Scally’s finest guitarwork to date while Legrand’s ever-impressive pipes bellow out into the ether. (Read my live review of Beach House here.)
FURTHER LISTENING: Nas’ return to form on Life is Good; the gleeful dubtronic indie-pop of Peaking Lights’ Lucifer; Moon Duo’s garage-kraut jams on Circles; Grizzly Bear member Daniel Rossen’s sweet Silent Hour / Golden Mile EP; Flying Lotus’ brain-stew electro-scrabble on Until the Quiet Comes; Black Marble’s on-the-nose darkwave with A Different Arrangement; Crystal Castles’ fearless electro-noise on III; Liars’ underloved but still worthy electronica record, WIXIW; El-P’s intellectual hip-hop in full flair on Cancer 4 Cure; Daughn Gibson’s electro-country noir on All Hell, complete with hot album cover; Beachwood Sparks’ lovely return on The Tarnished Gold; the riveting first third of Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday...Roman Reloaded.