So I figure everyone else is doing his top albums thing, so I might as well. Now I don’t get free albums or anything, so I have to spend my hard earned money on music. Thus, my list is limited to the top ten, but you’ll get the idea.Now, are these the best albums of the year? Most likely not. Is it my top ten? Like my favorite albums of the year? Mostly. I honestly find it difficult to find great albums, as consistency just isn’t easy to carry off, apparently. Like track 1-12 consistency. Even some of the best albums are uneven. So here are my top 10 favorite albums that I happen to I own from 2012 in alphabetical order. Enjoy. Or don’t.
This is one of those bands that I’ve peripherally come across in my musical wanderings, but always dismissed them out of hand as “not my thing.” Oh, how wrong I was. Granted, my understanding is that this album is quite a departure from past efforts. Luckily, I don’t care what they used to sound like (they could have farted tuba music for all I care) cuz now they’re right in my wheelhouse. Guitar rock is dead my ass, as these guys — with some help from my favorite producer of all time, Steve Albini, — rock it old school with insane, thundering drums (complete with time signature changes galore), squealing guitars and raw-throated vocals overlaid with art rock aesthetic and Nirvana-like anti-melodies. Think a less prog rock version of an early Trail of Dead album. Though I suppose that’s like saying “think a less funky version of an earlyParliament album.” It doesn’t quite make sense in the abstract, but in reality it’s right there — especially on the 9-minute second track, “Wasted Days.” The whole thing just feels like rock used to feel — wide open and exciting and aggressive but thoughtful. Maybe it’s just the radical shift in rock music to bleeps and bloops, but I can’t help but love the throwback nature of the attitude here. My only complaint is that at only eight tracks (one of which is an instrumental), it feels more like an EP than a genuine album. But even at its short length, it’s definitely at the top of my 2012 list so far. Rawk!
Company – Dear America,
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It’s funny. Upon first listen, I was less than enthused about this album. I mean, I didn’t expect a whole lot, but it just kind of laid there for me. But on subsequent spins, I’m wondering what I missed the first time. This thing is eclectic, but not in that band still trying to find their sound kind of way. There is certainly a pop sensibility throughout, but there is also this strand of indie Americana that I find genuinely endearing in most bands. Shit, I’m practically a sucker for it. I’ve found that similar thing going on with Manchester Orchestra. Certainly not a band I’m supposed to like, but I find the smooth sound of expansive Southern rock ‘n’ roll both compelling and emotional in a way some of the douchey, distant stuff from the City isn’t. Another touchpoint here is Band of Horses, which certainly isn’t a perfect parallel, but is at least in the same ballpark. There is a bunch of touring band self-referential stuff in here, which is the tip of the hat to its indieness. And, while some of the drumming is cool on the first half of the album, some of their strummed, harmonica tunes are also just as intricate and listenable. You’d think, given the album’s title, that there would be a political slant to the lyrics, but besides the title track, there really isn’t much. And even that song is just kind of an ode to the country and a positive wish for it, rather than an attack. How positively not indie rock. But while the attitude may be lacking, the music certainly isn’t. It’s nice on occasion to discover that hidden gem.
Islands – A Sleep & a Forgetting
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Upon first listen you may be tempted to ask yourself, “Is this a joke?” But don’t be scared. I don’t think it’s a joke. At least not an obvious one, once you get into the album. That’s the thing with the old Unicorns the new Islands; you’re never quite sure how to take them. They make pop songs with a little bit of a throwback sound and an attitude that says to the listener, “It’s okay to smoke a bowl and just sit back and chill out to our oddly crooned love songs.” An do it in headphones, because this thing was engineered to be consumed on a one-to-one basis. This isn’t stuff you play for your friends or rock at a party, but the vibe is vibey and perfectly suited to melt into in your favorite comfy chair.
Holy fuckin hell I love this album. It’s like Andrew W.K. for the indie set (but waaay better), and right out of the gate with “The Nights of Wine and Roses” we’re put on notice that Japandroids are taking this shit seriously. They are as hard charging as they were on their last album, Post-Nothing, but the duo add that fist pumping fury and sung choruses that, though I love their last one, puts this one into the stratosphere. I still marvel, as I listen to this thing for the twentieth time, that there are only two guys in this band. I think the perfect word is “rollicking.” That’s without looking it up, of course, but the word itself sounds like pummeling drums and frantic guitars. And the music, all of which is just unrelenting and continuously in your face, seriously feels like the album’s namesake: a celebration. The songwriting, or the general spirit of the thing, reminds me a little of Craig Finn and his lyricism for Lifter Puller and early The Hold Steady. It’s a celebration of being young, being free and just not giving a shit about anything except being young and free. And it feels good. Serious anthems along this line, like the indie song of the summer 2012, “The House That Heaven Built,” make me want to throw off the yoke of daily drudgery and give all the Bender fistin convertible Mustang speeding along a coast road with a case of cold beer at my feet, wind blowing through my hair and no destination in mind. Fuck it, celebrate life. Celebrate music. Celebrate a Canadian band called Japandroids and their album, Celebration Rock.
I honestly had very little hope for this album. After all, the guy I assumed was the creative brain behind the Menomena outfit, Brent Knopf, had skedaddled to pursue his former side project and now full-time project, Ramona Falls, leaving the “other” guys in the band to soldier on without him. It’s not that good and/or great bands in the past haven’t survived the departure of key founding members, but Menomena, with its distinct sound and recording technique, seemed destined for an INXSian precipitous downfall. Turns out they’re more AC/DC than Genesis, not changing at all at their core, and honestly not sounding a whole lot different than they did prior to Knopf’s departure. In fact, this album feels almost more focused because there are less people in the mix. More focused and in a way more stripped down, which for me is just fine, as the former incarnation, while awesome at times, was prone to overdoing it a bit in the sonic department and thus drowning out some of their better moments with studio bombast. These songs just sound a little more personal and less futuristic waxing about a world run by robotic bees and shit (if that’s even remotely what those old songs are about). Not missing is the haunting uniqueness that they always bring to the table, executing pianos and horn blasts and just a layered beauty mixed with languid cadence that makes the whole album feel a bit like a dream — a dream that is constantly jolting you back to reality with guitar squeals and perfectly placed orchestral bombast. The whole thing is just atmospheric and almost impossible to pin down genre-wise — and, as always, absolutely awesome sounding in headphones. Definitely one of the surprise finds of 2012.
Nude Beach – II
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I’ve always been a sucker for Elvis Costello throwback bands. I mean the man himself made some pretty damn awesome songs, but it was his kind of macho, but nerdy, swagger that really endears him to today’s indie pop/rock fans. Fans like me that are sick of the gauzy pusiness of so much of the so-called indie music today. Nude Beach is certainly in the former mode, writing and playing what are most certainly pop tunes filled with something life affirming and soul-warming in their straight ahead style. Sure, there have been plenty of bands over the years that have tried imitating this style, but most of them sounded like just that: imitators. But these guys end up sounding natural in their effortless strumming and their pop crooning. The album itself seems pretty brief, But within its ten tracks are more than a couple impressive and memorable tracks that will have you wondering where you’ve heard them before and where the hell you can get your hands on more.
Listen, people, this ain’t my genre. Not even close. In fact, R&B in my mind is still “rap and bullshit” (to quote De La Soul). Sure, there are occasionally compelling rhythm and blues performances, but often times the whole “I wanna rub you down” thang makes me want to just stick my finger down my throat or float away on a cloud of yuck. But somehow Frank Ocean manages to both stick pretty closely to the genre’s roots and yet makes something compelling in a way that the genre very seldom is. Not compelling in the way an R. Kelly is, but recorded and stylized in such a way that the tunes make you want to listen more. There is just something in the recording of the songs (especially when listened to in headphones) that is just super-cool. And I know that a lot has been made of Mr. Ocean’s sexual orientation and stuff, but had that not all come out, I would have had no idea this guys loved guys. He does even seem to mention chick in some of his songs, but that’s just r&b bravado for you. Though I am very often the last person to figure this kind of stuff out listening to lyrics (see Bloc Party). This is all irrelevant, of course. What is relevant is his kind of cool swagger he has that is fuzzed out with an almost lazy delivery that at first confused me a little, but after a couple listens really grew on me. For some bizarre reason, he, and this album remind me of this old Basehead record I have. It’s the kind of off-kilter, surprising little twists that Ocean puts in his music that makes it special. All I could hear in my head for the first couple of weeks after hearing this was the ‘The best song wasn’t the single’ from “Sweet Life.” Call me a convert.
Have you ever seen Donnie Darko? Well, if you haven’t, then consider this a supplement to your soundtrack. Well, that mixed with a twinge of Cat Stevens’ “Trouble.” And the similarity between the two? Both Donnie Darko and Harold & Maude – the soundtrack on which “Trouble” was so prominently featured – are just sad-ass movies. Different, but both haunting and sad. Granted, Yusuf Islam probably wouldn’t approve of Perfume Genius Mike Hadreas’ gay lifestyle, but Mr. Hadreas clearly digs on Stevens’ aesthetic. There are also some other references in there, but I’m honestly having trouble sussing them out. But I swear the subject matter, though set to echoing piano and dirgey backing effects instead of driving guitars, is more akin to Tool than his crooning singer songwriter ilk. I’m not certain where the title comes from (unless it’s some bizarre shout out to Ice Cube?) but it’s certainly out of line with the album’s somber, almost slipping-into-a-hot-tub-with-slit-wrists, approach. It’s almost impossible to come away from this album without some sort of feeling. Mine was unendingly melancholy. But with so much music out there evoking nothing more than a shrug and a FF on the old iPod, we can’t overlook those albums that manage to elicit emotion, no matter how icky it may make us feel at times.
Swearin’ – Swearin’
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Who’s happier than me that the latest trend in indie music is the 90s college radio throwback sound? It sure beats the hell out of the 60s psychedelia, 70s excess, 80s cold bleep and bloops and even the grunge revival. I mean those all have their place, but bands like Swearin’, with their obvious Superchunk idolization is pretty great. There’s an exuberance and looseness that prevails among this music that you just help but love. The foot stomping pop-driven beats and amazing melodies never wane, as they come up with new infectious tunes on every song. With the female lead singer and guitar-laden support, one will inevitably hear comparisons to bands like The Breeders, Belly and any number of Juliana Hatfield albums, but there’s a consistency here that didn’t exist with these other bands. The only other album I’ve heard of late that compares style and pop-consistency wise is Sleeper Agent’s Celabrasion. This thing could definitely be on heavy rotation in the coming year, and a nice, warm throwback blanket for years to come.
Look, I know these guys are old, but I still find them incredibly compelling. There’s something immediate about their music, entertaining and clear headed. Just like the best of the bands they’ve clearly influenced, like Art Brut, The Rakes, Maxïmo Park, The Futureheads, The Libertines and on and on, they lead with great storytelling, seeming confusion over chicks and wry humor. They also continue their crisp, live-sounding production that Steve Albini first piloted on their seminal work, Seamonsters, and again on the album right before this one, El Rey. And while Albini isn’t twiddling the knobs on this one, they hired an equally experienced (but much more commercial) dude, Andrew Scheps, on the boards and luckily he didn’t fuck with the formula too much. There are certain bands that I find myself going to when at a loss of what to listen to, and just want something solid, consistent and rockin’. While I hardly ever admit out loud to old Alkaline Trio being one of those, I’m not ashamed to say that The Wedding Present, including this new one, are a great go to when stuck for inspiration.