Friday, December 21, 2012

The Record Binge, Favorites 2012

The world is supposed to end in like ten minutes or something. But I ain't even sweatin' it, B. I mean why bother? It's going to happen at some point regardless, right? And whether that be on 12/21 or something like five billion years from now, there's not much you can do to stave off extinction (and even if there were, it does posit the logical follow-up as to whether life on a post-apocolyptic planet would really be worth it, anyway). Anyhow, I'd probably be busting loose with my all-time/history-of-the-earth favorites list if the Mayan calendar's end or Obama's reelection kept me up at night. Wanna know why I'm not? Because NASA, that's why. And as much as I accept that the ancient Mayans were in many facets a culture ahead of its time, they'd still collectively shit themselves at the sight of a satellite.

Thus, I present my favorite releases in music, vol. 2012. You will do well to note the use of "favorite" instead of "best" and abstain from bemoaning the absence of Beach House on these lists.



Highlight: "My Eating Disorder"
Titus Andronicus are punk as fuck. I get that traditionalists object to this classification on account of the fact that their records do contain some very unpunk elements - 14 minute songs, extended metaphor, piano and sax solos, Springsteen nods (plural), fucking patriotism - and also because people like me (who could in enumerable ways rightly be called a pussy) idolize them. But I don't really give a shit. For me, nowhere else are uptempo, messy, drunk, smoke-filled barroom shout-alongs and working-class power guitar better amalgamated. Everyone mistakenly dings this effort for being "not The Monitor" as if an effort to replicate the scale and scope of 2010's best album would have been an even remotely wise venture to begin with. We probably weren't ready, and we certainly weren't worthy. Regardless, the first half of Local Business is a suite of songs as strong as anything else the band have ever done, capped off by album climax and highlight "My Eating Disorder" (watch it here with companion piece "Food Fight"). TITUS ANDRONICUS FOREVER!

Attack on Memory / Cloud Nothings -

Highlight: "Wasted Days"
Cleveland's Cloud Nothings got dark. And they ain't even trying to hide it, neither. If the blurry, desolate landscape in greyscale wasn't an adequate indication of what was contained within (for reference, this is the cover of their last album, a spry collection of pop-punk jubilee), then the opening dirge "No Future / No Past" makes as much abundantly clear. When the rhythm section kicks in at 0:10 and frontman Dylan Baldi repeats some shit like "Give up / Come to / No hope / We're through" toward infinity in the saddest of sad bastard voices, you're inclined to believe him re: the whole hope is lost thing. But at three-and-three-quarters minutes, the elegy breaks up into some genuinely howled blood-letting. It's catharsis if ever it existed and was put to tape. Over the next half hour (beginning with the 8-minute killer "Wasted Days"), Cloud Nothings take the listener on a hard-hitting tour of Midwestern defeatism. Even lead-single "Stay Useless", which is about as close as the band get to approaching anything remotely pop-oriented, eludes despair only so long as to make apathy home. It's emotionally wearing, for sure, but Cleveland is a real shit hole. This is probably the most realistic music to emerge from the region in a long time (possible exception). Anyway, this album is awesome and authentic. Pick it up.

Highlights: "Serpents", "All I Can"
It really doesn't take long to figure out what makes this album special. Sharon Van Etten's voice is mesmerizing in the best possible way. At times whimsical, at times bare and incredibly vulnerable, at times times abrasive - it's the centerpiece of every song. It's wavering and sustained on what feels like every note. The most essential instrument on Tramp is, without question, the simplest. That's not the say the musicianship is at all lacking - members of Beirut, The National and The Walkmen assisted Van Etten on fleshing out her songs in the studio. The National's Aaron Dressner manned the boards, even. The instrumentation is good, but without Van Etten you've got little more than nice-sounding, ornate, spacey chamber-rock that would be at home on any of the aforementioned bands' records. Her vocals, and especially her melodies, take the incredibly honest and personal songs of her sophomore release to stratospheric heights. By the time the rest of the guys jump in halfway through "All I Can", you've forgotten they were absent to begin with.

Highlights: "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe", "Money Trees"
It took me a little while to really appreciate this one. The hypesters were all up on them m.a.a.d city nuts from the jump, no doubt. It was the alleged savior of west coast hip-hop. It was the purported masterstroke of Dre's latest protege. With the propaganda train rolling into station like that, I was fully prepared to be overwhelmed by product and underwhelmed by the results. I figured this young blud Kendrick Lamar would be discontent with excess and get caught teetering too far toward excessive. On first listen, though, it felt.. I don't know.. tame, or something. I didn't get the draw. In retrospect I realized it was because I'd been conditioned by highly-promoted major label releases to fiend for the boast, the brag and the swag. "Legit hip-hop" has been reduced to a punch line battle between those attempting the most unique or clever way to claim the superiority of their whips, their crib or their stick. Instead, Lamar offers a ripped-from-real-life narrative style, the most realistic depiction of the South Central menace since Dre, et al. brought it to the national fore two decades ago. That, as well as with the positively laid back G-funk-drunk production, is where the comparisons originate. There's still some of that bravado (ie. the whole dick as Eiffel Tower simile on "Backseat Freestyle"), but mostly you get as complete a look at the struggles of an urban upbringing (and the emotional, familial and moral strain placed upon it) as can be rendered on an album. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is worth it if only for that funky ass "Money Trees" (complete with a Beach House sample, haters!) and the fact that "Compton" contains the only legit verse the Doctor has dropped since 2001 (even if he still keeps name dropping his goddamn overrated headphones whenever he's behind the mic). Peep it. Best believe you gon' be waitin on Kenrick like the first and the fifteenth. 

Highlight: "Bad Thing"
What rules about garage noise punk shit is that it always maintains that one-take, plug-and-play feeling. Nothing feels overwrought or overthought. Put in too much production or too many overdubs and you begin to generate that feeling like it was put together piecemeal in a studio over the course of a month or two, and then it just feels kind of fake. That's not to say the songs aren't by-design, but it is to say the feeling is that planning is of secondary or tertiary concern. The problem is that this spontaneous feel often comes at the expense of melody and accessibility. Even Ty Segall's self-described "pop album" Goodbye Bread had about one song that could be, you know, tolerated by crossover fans. King Tuff's self-titled debut is the rare window into a world where legitimate garage acts don't shy away from writing big time hooks that demand repeat listens. (Alright, fuck it. I've postponed long enough. LOOK AT THAT COVER ART! A devil horned bat-bodied human skull thing clutching an SG in one arm/leg and a wizard wand in the other. Holy/what the fuck, that's rad.) There's mad riffage on opener "Anthem". If the ensuing "Alone & Stoned" and "Keep on Movin'" don't generate the head-bob and foot-tap, you're a rhythmless ass. As far as absolute fucking JAMS go, though, there's no steppin' to that barn-burner "Bad Thing". Garage rock's lightning-in-a-bottle is never more enjoyably released than when King Tuff mastermind Kyle Thomas slips the reigns and shouts "I'm a BAAAAaaaAAAaaaAAAD THIIiiiIIINNNGG!" 

Highlight: "Every Man Needs A Companion"
This was so goddamn close to being my favorite thing of the year. Father John Misty used to be J. Tillman. Though he used to release is own solo material under said moniker, J(osh). Tillman was more recognizably referenced as the drummer for Pitchfork bottom-bitches Fleet Foxes. After Helplessness Blues conquered all that is indie, Tillman bounced and reemerged as the newly ordained Father Misty. In tow was a collection of songs both more assorted in style and more deserving of interest and acclaim than any released under his abbreviated birth name. One thing that's clearly evident on Fear Fun is that Tillman is having a hell of a good time as his new persona. Songs like "I'm Writing a Novel"- wherein he admits ventures like his own are hardly, ahem, novel - are brimming with humor while still adhering to and reinforcing his moniker's origin tale. What's also clear (though it's been known) is that dude has a  killer voice. Some pretty remarkable vocal acrobatics merely enhance the superb songwriting on cuts like "Only Son Of A Ladiesman" and "Every Man Needs A Companion" (an obviously essential inclusion on any mixtape ever made for a woman from here on out). As a whole it's not the most focused outing, though it is quite possibly the most self-indulgent (Christ Jesus, look at the cover). You're going to sing along to all of this at some point. There's a pretty obvious cult-like undercurrent beneath anything involving this project, though, so I'm sure the Father would approve if you'd join his choir.

Highlights: "Fire's Highway", the rest
Eight tracks. They're basically all the same length. They're basically all equally amazing and cohesive. Celebration Rock is basically the perfect title for the sentiment stirred up here by two dudes that were prepped to throw in the towel before their last record took off. I'm unsure if it's because I'm just at that age, but this album perfectly mirrors those summers misspent practicing playing beer pong with the bros in an abhorrently filthy garage, two or three box fans trying and failing to generate some sort of cross-current. The damn thing even starts with the crackle of fireworks. From "The Nights of Wine and Roses" onward, it's basically balls out at 160 bpm. There's no variation in tempo or auditory aesthetic. Guitars distorted. Vocals distorted. No singing. Mostly shouting. There is celebration, yes. But there's also a lot of palpable rebellion. It's the kind of thing that could easily soundtrack a party, but it'd be the kind of party full of people that are to some extent conscious that their partying days are numbered or are (at the very least) going to start conflicting with the grown-up jobs they've spent their young adulthood trying to secure. It's a transitional term, an intimidating age. Not everyone copes well with its end. Celebration Rock does so by immortalizing and praising its impermanence, which is ultimately what makes it perfect.

Highlights: "Tan Leather", "Hookers At The Point"
End of last year, I was reserving the nod for my future favorite rap shit for The Bawse, Rick Ross. But goddamn if God Forgives, I Don't didn't land flat as Pac Man in the sixth. Action Bronson, though? Action Bronson came out ferocious as fuck in 2012. Dude put out not one but two top shelf mixtapes this year: Blue Chips with the (slightly) better rhymes+beats+etc, Rare Chandeliers with the best artwork (of all time). If you're as new to Action as I was, lemme lay it down: Queens' finest is a big, barrel-bodied bald dude, spittin' like Ghostface, grillin' like Batali, red beard and all. More apt and autobiographical: facially, he's like a young John Kennedy, but with more obscenity, EBT and Genovese. Bronseliño brings that gritty shit every track. Statistically speaking, his most memorable lines come in one of two flavors: rhymes about raunchy sex or rhymes about food. In fact, so often throughout the Party Supplies-produced Blue Chips, the two are presented side-by-side in the most glorious I-might-have-washed-my-hands-before-I-prepared-for-you-this-five-star-cuisine kind of way, as happens somewhere on "Tan Leather" ("Dope body but a pussy like an old fish / The antipasti, that's a cold dish."). The hook on the same track is basically a recipe for bone marrow. And there's so much more where that came from.. Actually, now that I think about it, these jams are all grub and grime. I ain't even trying to fault the the guy, though. Dude just likes his rhymes as blue as his yellowfin. It's so seriously refreshing to watch someone without a filter or a catch net. If the occasional cringe is the price of admission, then so be it.

Highlights: "Dance For You", "Unto Caesar" 
"Straightforward" is the most commonly crossed word in the critiquing of this album, and in just about every instance it's connotative suggestion is that this is a bad thing. I can only suppose this stems from the proven fact that being roundabout and intricate is kind of the Dave Longstreth's thing and, perhaps, a fear that some break from that is indicative of Dirty Projectors running out of ideas. I don't know.. that sounds like bullshit to me, mostly. Before Swing Lo Magellan, 2009's Bitte Orca was branded their most accessible effort, and it was pretty universally heralded as amazing. Few bands have, throughout their discography, made listeners put forth as much effort or invest as much patience for melodic payoff as have Dirty Projectors. Not that the rewards don't so often feel magnified as a result of wading through the twists and turns and tempo changes (sometimes over multiple tracks), but you always get that faint feeling that you're the rat running Longstreth's maze. There is still so much nuance and beauty contained in this album, and the fact that it's more readily available doesn't diminish that fact. The acoustic numbers are so damn genuine (and a rare insight into the Projectors often mysterious songwriting). The guitar playing is still impossibly unique (the brief guitar solo on "Dance For You" is probably my favorite thing on the album). Maintaining all the qualities that make Dirty Projectors truly original, interesting and great while simultaneously remaining more appropriate for repeated listens, Swing Lo Magellan is the best thing to come out this year.


"Broken Arrows" / Francisco the Man -

I almost didn't include this song on this list, since I feel like it's been out for forever. It was released independently last year as an online A-side and has been a staple of their live set for at least as long. This year it was remixed and made the B-side to the 7" they put out via New York's Small Plates label. Anyway, this thing mostly speaks for itself. "Broken Arrows" kicks up the best kind of nostalgia, that which threads the needle between sun drenched and sunburnt so impossibly, effortlessly and enjoyably. These dudes get a lot of credit for their ultra-tuneful guitar melodies à la Keep It Like A Secret-era Built to Spill (in full effect here during the extended second-half jam), but I've long maintained that what elevates them from a great band to an amazing band is their highly underrated rhythm section. It's truly a beast to be reckoned with, and it's always responsible for whatever equally compelling musicianship is going on behind the delay-heavy squall wall laid forth up front. That strength stands clearly evident here, as well (see: everything from the second verse onward). This song is good enough to be on this list for this year, last year, or any year.

Go see Francisco the Man live and buy everything they've ever put out.

"Never Ever" / The Orwells -

Shazam is easily my favorite and most used Android app of significance. It was the first thing I downloaded when I upgraded from my old, busted-ass phone this past summer. That being said, I'm terrible at it. I never remember to check the tracks I tag and pick them up later on. In six months time, I've tagged this song on three separate occasions at three separate locations. I'm pretty sure they were all bars and I was pretty drunk each time. I don't mean it's the kind of song I wouldn't be into when I'm sober. I'm not saying the booze brought me to tag it and the hangover had me wondering how I'd lowered my standards so.. It's just that simple kind of song that, you know, makes more sense when you're not thinking about it too much: a slow-burning build behind some basic truths sung by someone that sounds just as hammered as you are. It's the kind of song you might sing to the piss stall after several rounds of dueling double IPAs. While it is a bit disgusting once you learn that these are 17-year-olds singing about their "fear of aging", damn it if they don't sound convinced. Conviction is key.

"True Thrush" / Dan Deacon -

Dan Deacon has a mild-to-concerningly-mild obsession with this distorted vocal effect that makes him sound either like a cat in heat or The Chipmunks on acid, depending on who you ask. It's not a particularly pleasing sound, but it's sort of developed into the dude's calling card after "The Crystal Cat" came out ages ago, and it's largely forgiven because everything else about the dude is so awesome. "True Thrush" is pretty easily the most universally enjoyable song Deacon has ever put out. It's a body mover through and through, but with a touch of restraint and an ever mindful eye for melody. As it is wont to do, the cat-noise-thing does make a cameo (first at 1:30 and again later on), but it's marginal and relegated to the background. This is about as pastoral and accommodating as gets the Deacon with one of the more immediately indelible grooves I've heard in quite some time. It's only augmented by the year's best music video on a recession budget.

"We Can't Be Beat" / The Walkmen -

Years ago, The Walkmen wrote "The Rat". It was and is an amazing song. It brims and boils over with that blustering swagger of bands from the Big Apple, and it perfectly captured the sentiment of the early adulthood "fuck you" statement song. It almost dared you not to connect with it, and whether you were the scuzzy dude in the front row at their shows or that dude's dad, you did. They've slowed down since, bent to the will of that unavoidable middle arch of marriage and fatherhood, etc. Hell, Heaven's liner notes are loaded with family pictures from the respected band members, even. That's not to say the music's gotten worse, though. The first thing I heard from Heaven was the title track, and it was rad, Real Estate-inspired guitar line and all. "Heartbreaker" is also pretty awesome. They just didn't pack that punch, you know? But, once I had the thing in my hands and on the ol' record player, however, opener "We Can't Be Beat" made all else obsolete.

"The Rat" and "We Can't Be Beat" are, coincidentally enough, adjacent to one another on my iTunes playlist when sorted Album by Artist. It's fitting. The latter plays like the wiser, experienced counterpart to the green-behind-the-ears energy of the former. "We Can't Be Beat" begins contemplative and ruminative, bringing forth the prestige of old that was storied, but temporary. At the halfway point, though, it takes a pretty stark turn as it transitions from subdued reverence to revitalized celebration set to a steady beat/stomp. Indeed, those golden dreams will run you through, but you'll be all the better for it. I can only hope I'm lucky enough to last this long and learn this much.

"Plumage" / Menomena -

If you're any good at reading comprehension, you've no doubt figured out that I go hard for just about anything pertaining to biology. You'll understand, then, is right up my alley. A mating metaphor that kind of starts to fall apart after the first chorus, it's quick to assert that humans really aren't that much more than glorified animals, technically capable of cognitive thought but anchored like all species to hardwired cues from the opposite sex. Dude's "nothing more than an animal in search of another animal to tame and claim as [his] own." Sounds like a spot-on study of the single life to me. The chorus is the money-maker though, driving home an idea so incredibly simple and deeply ingrained in the (especially male) psyche that it's difficult to level it with our greatest aspirations toward an equal society: "I don't want to be just anybody to you. I want to be your one and only mate for life." It's subtle, but it's never promised that this arrangement goes both ways. Call it sexist. Call it unfair. But blame evolution and the probable nonexistence of a supernatural creator. (Also, enjoy the weird-as-hell video and the rad-as-hell baritone sax break at 2:07!!)

"Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" / Tame Impala -

All of Lonerism is solid. I could have very easily included it amongst my aforementioned favorite albums of the year, because it is. It's status as such, though, is most largely attributed to this song. "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" is an absolutely monster of an earworm. This thing was originally stuck somewhere in my auditory cortex for well over a month. The hook is insanely infectious and soars far above just about anything else I heard this year. It's entirely possible that the verses to this song exist only to offer a smidgen of variety, though it's entirely unnecessary. If this track were ten minutes of looped chorus, I'd still fuck with it no question. Additional props are due to the bass line, which ambles about and provides additional buoyancy, just in case the melody decides to come back down from the clouds. (PS: It doesn't).

Oh wait... we survived!