Right off the bat I’ll announce that I didn’t get as much of a kick out of 2012, especially when I put it up for comparison next to 2011. Whereas I had trouble putting together a coherent and definite Top 30 last year, this year a decent amount of 3.5s sneaked into my Top 25 (#17-#24) and, heck, even a 3.0 somehow made it (at #25! Unbelievable travesty!). It’s also worth noting that the quality of the Top 10 was only significantly bolstered within the last three weeks or so, when I simply freaked out at how my playlist was starting to look and started massively consuming the stuff which was appearing on the Staff’s Best Of lists (I have the best writing colleagues in the world).
That being said, I don’t think the low mean score of the final Top 25 is necessarily a reflection of the lack of quality of the music that I listened to this year, but rather a direct consequence of the fact that in a finite amount of listening time granted to me (made even smaller by my full-time employment with an oil and gas company), I chose to actively pursue albums and genres which I had never focused on in the years prior. Heavier music took on a priority, for instance (those of you who know my musical inclinations will note that /m isn’t a term generally associated with yours truly), as did hip hop (/h?!??) and lo-fi.
This ultimately made for an interesting compendium of 2012 albums (yes, I still buy most if not all of my music) – even if at the end of it all I might still be forced to concede that there were probably some natural personal inhibitions which prevented me from appreciating certain albums the way those familiar with the genre might be able to.
In any case, here’s my Top 25 of 2012 for your viewing pleasure. Each album is presented with alternative album/artist art (because I figure you all know what all the covers look like in the back of your mind anyway) plus a YouTube link so that you might peruse a music video if it tickles your fancy. On top of that, I’ve also chosen to link each record to a review on the site that I particularly liked (note: I had to use my own in some instances because no alternative review exists), with my motivation being that hey, we’re all here out of a common love for music and writing right? So why not support each other’s work as much as possible?
On that note, enjoy!
25. Sigur Ros – Valtari
Eighteen years of spelunking in the ambient/post-rock landscape hasn’t blunted Icelandic outfit Sigur Ros’ instincts one bit, but it certainly has refined them a little. Valtari, the quartet’s sixth studio release, spends most of its 54 minute runtime twinkling serenely at listeners and stretching contently before their very eyes, as if trying to gauge the absolute minimum amount of work necessary to keep audiences satisfied. Although typically behaviour ascribed to bands terminally overawed with the notion that they’ve earned the right to do whatever the hell they want, it’s worth noting that Sigur Ros’ art is never once worse off for it.
24. Soundgarden – King Animal
Sometimes, all we need is some knuckle-headed music, and this year King Animal filled that niche for me. Elsewhere, how we managed to go for over a decade with only sporadic listens of the genius of Kim Thayil is beyond me.
23. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory
The entire vocabulary of “No Future No Past” is all of nine words deep, yet even with these meagre resources singer-songahawriter Dylan Baldi and his band have managed to espouse more dirt, blood, guts, and grime than many other talents with so much more artistic breathing space. This is the sound of a band finding its teeth for the first time, and coming to terms with themselves in the process.
22. Exitmusic – Passage
The thing that sort of bugs me a little each time I listen to Exitmusic is the fact that I constantly seem to be picking up all sorts of stylistic influences that Devon Church and Aleksa Palladino appear to drawing from – which would be fine, I guess, if not for the fact that most of them give me the impression of being egregiously misplaced and that I seriously need to get my ears checked. There’s a moment on “The Modern Age”, for instance, which reminds me of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s distortion-propelled pile drivers, while Church’s negative, minimalistic instrumentation on “White Noise” frequently gives off the sensation that Palladino actually has The xx somewhere behind her, playing the role of being her backing band. And that’s not to mention the fact that I feel like Palladino herself often comes off as a sleeker, softer version of Zola Jesus. Phew – thank God I like all of those artists then.
21. Meshuggah – Koloss
This record reminds me of the Antikythera mechanism – calculated, precise, and timeless in its mechanical sophistication.
20. Silversun Pickups – Neck Of The Woods
If nothing else, “Mean Spirits” wins my personal award for being the best-arranged song of the year.
19. Benjamin Gibbard – Former Lives
Benjamin Gibbard will never write another Transatlanticism – that much is clear – yet as far as substitutes and surrogates go, Former Lives is about as close as he might come. “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?” and the Rudy Klapper-endorsed “Bigger Than Love” are particularly poignant.
18. Drudkh – Eternal Turn Of The Wheel
If you’d told me last year that a black metal album featuring lyrics sung entirely in Ukrainian would have made my “Best Of” list in 2012, I’d have told you to pull the other one.
17. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten
The Nick Hornby introductory essay found in the liner notes to Handwritten goes to great lengths to justify The Gaslight Anthem’s choice of musical style by arguing that there’s essentially nothing wrong with deciding to walk in the path of giants:
“It’s hard to find new ways to tell stories and write songs; even clothes made out of meat won’t do you much good if your music is 1980’s dance-pop. So you have two choices. The first is this: you do something nobody’s ever done before. You play the nose-flute underwater, put it through a computer backwards, and get a black Japanese guy to rap over the top. Or you write a novel using only consonants. Or you make a movie which nobody can see. And that’s all cool, but nobody will want to read your second novel written using only consonants, so then you’ll have to write one using only vowels. And the second is this: you think, write, play and sing as though you have a right to stand at the head of a long line of cool people – you recognise that the Clash and Little Richard got here first, but they’re not around any more, so you’re going to carry on the tradition, and you’re going to do it in your own voice, and with as much conviction and authenticity and truth as you can muster. And if you can pull that off, you’ll be amazed at how fresh you can sound.”
You could ask me to post the rest of the essay up here, I guess, but I think all that one really needs to do to appreciate Hornby’s point is to find a good pair of speakers, crank up the dial to maximum, and let a cut like “Blue Dahlia” or “45” do the rest.
16. Dead Sara – Dead Sara
We should all have listened to theacademy.
15. Mount Eerie – Clear Moon
14. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
R.I.P. Clarence Clemons – your spectacular contributions to “Land of Hope and Dreams” adds to the already-stellar legacy you left behind.
13. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
I’ve always found post rock to be a bit derivative as a genre, but Godspeed You! Black Emperor have assured me that all is not necessarily lost.
12. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
In a year when good lyrical work consistently appears to be taking a back seat to concept-based experimentation and sonic palette expansionism, Fiona Apple gives us plenty to think about. “Say I’m an airplane/And the gashes I got from my heartbreak/Make the slots and the flaps upon my wing,” she offers nonchalantly on “Daredevil”, serving up the kind of extended metaphor worth marvelling at repeatedly for the quality of its concrete imagery alone. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: elsewhere, “Werewolf” opens with the delightful, “I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead/But I admit that I provided a full moon”, whereas “Anything We Want” features a desperate Apple plaintively begging “you to kiss me when we find some time alone.” It’s a raw, rugged trip through the American singer-songwriter’s basest and most personal wires, the singular experience of which is probably perfectly summed up by Apple in her record’s opening minutes: “Every single night’s a fight – with my brain-n-n-n!!!”.
11. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Ascension
Many a Coheed & Cambria fan feared the worst when, in the aftermath of the tepid Year of the Black Rainbow, the band suddenly found their numbers halved by the sudden and somewhat acrimonious departures of drummer Chris Pennie and bassist Michael Todd. Much bigger bands have been torn apart by even less. Yet the band picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and with the help of once-estranged drummer Josh Eppard, somehow found it within themselves to write what is easily the best and most consistent album that they’ve produced since Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume 1. What’s more, in “Key Entity Extraction I: Domino the Destitute”, the band may have finally produced a cut actually capable of replacing “Welcome Home” as their final, climactic song at live encores.
10. Chromatics – Kill For Love
I can’t even begin to describe how wonderfully warm, textured, and sibilant Chromatics’ fourth studio release is, but I can say this: each time Ruth Radalet sings the line, “but I killed for love” on the album’s title track, and then allows herself to trail off into oblivion, I can’t help but feel like I’ve died a little inside. So much pain, regret, and self-reproach goes into those five simple words that it’s gotten to the point where I don’t see how Radalet could permit herself to perform the song at live shows, lest she be unable to replicate the fine studio form displayed here. Easily one of the most beautiful things you’ll hear all year.
9. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
Dancing like a cancer survivor.
8. Beach House – Bloom
There’s nothing like lapis lazuli.
7. Deftones – Koi No Yokan
Who would have thought that Chino Moreno would be the one to produce the year’s most heart-warming lyrics? On “Romantic Dreams” the grizzled frontman gives birth to the line, “I promise/To watch and raise your babies”, before variously encouraging his partner out of her shell while emphasizing his unstinting devotion: “I’m hypnotized by your name”, he repeats ad infinitum. An equally potent promise bookends the track: “I wish this night would never end”, croons Moreno. Well, neither do we.
6. Passion Pit – Gossamer
Passion Pit 2.0 – sunnier, shinier, and simply better.
5. David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant
A combination that looks good on paper turns out to be even better on tape – Byrne’s soaring refrain of “I didn’t come to set you free!” on “Lazarus”, for instance, would probably get nowhere without the presence of Clark’s absorbing backing vocals in the background, while first single “Who” sees the pair jiving spectacularly over a bed of call-and-response vocals. Elsewhere, if the chorus of “Weekend In The Dust” doesn’t make you want to get up and jig for a bit, you probably have no soul. Also ROBIN SMITH WHAAAIII U NO HEAR THIS YET?!??
4. Grimes – Visions
The music video for “Genesis” features a small group of teenagers backing away slowly from Ms. Claire Boucher as she dances towards them in a style that mimics an aircraft marshaller’s day at the office – arms raised aloft and shoulders fully outstretched, and performing a set of physical movements that seems more consistent with waving a pair of imaginary landing sticks at a slowly-retreating behemoth as opposed to an MTV music video. Yet the teenagers’ gesture is telling: it’s best that we stand clear, as there’s no telling how big Grimes’ star could yet get.
3. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
R&B has always been one of those genres which I had always thought that I could never ever really get into. Yet Christopher Francis Ocean has decisively managed to prove me wrong with his debut long player, for even after umpteen listens of Channel Orange it still surprises me to discover how much I adore everything about it – even if I still don’t get the silly posturing and self-aggrandizing (“You say it’s big but you take it/Ride cowgirl”) which goes on at times. Still, I can’t deny the powerful sense of discovery and unbridled excitement which has come with finally being able to appreciate a genre which I had previously conceptualized as being permanently inaccessible to me. How fitting then, that much of this album is about dealing with a forbidden and unrequited love.
2. Rush – Clockwork Angels
The guys who run the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations process must have heard “Seven Cities of Gold”, “Caravan”, and “Headlong Flight” during a drive home from work one day and realized that it was high time to get their heads out of their asses and just bloody induct the band.
1. The xx – Coexist
In what has got to be the biggest turnaround in an album’s rating for me, I went from first scoring Coexist a paltry 2.0 to eventually handing it the mother of all results – a perfect and unhesitating 5.0. And this, I wager, is why the album has not ended up on as many end-of-year lists as it probably should have – folks have simply given up on it and moved on. But to have done so is to miss out one of the year’s most impressive and assured records. Coexist, while broadly stylistically similar to the three-piece’s debut release, actually operates on an entirely different plane. While all it took to hook listeners onto The xx were the first few bars of a well-produced cut like “Intro” and “VCR”, Coexist instead focuses on rewarding attention to detail. Jamie xx’s grooves, for instance, are notably slighter, yet take full advantage of the minimal spatial arrangement of the other backing instruments to first bubble and then expand powerfully into the vacuum, allowing them to blanket the record with a slick, well-oiled production sheen that is simply captivating in its sparseness. Meanwhile, co-vocalists Jamie Croft and Oliver Sim sing not with each other, but at – and truth be told, it’s an experience akin to watching two people in two different rooms attempt to emote and communicate with each other, with the wall between them acting as both a barrier and an amplifier; the medium is the message, after all. It’s a tense and occasionally frustrating means of conveying information, to be sure, but isn’t that usually the case in a matter as complicated as love anyway?
Twelve Songs from 2012:
A small selection of some of the stuff that has warmed my heart this year –
i.) “Pyramids” – Frank Ocean
ii.) “Lazuli” – Beach House
iii.) “Chained” – The xx
iv.) “Seven Cities of Gold” – Rush
v.) “Poltergeist” – Deftones
vi.) “Symphonia IX (my wait is u)” – Grimes
vii.) “Mirrored Sea” – Passion Pit
viii.) “Weekend In The Dust” – David Byrne and St. Vincent
ix.) “Key Entity Extraction I: Domino The Destitute” – Coheed and Cambria
x.) “Mean Spirits” – Silversun Pickups
xi.) “45” – The Gaslight Anthem
xii.) “Dauðalogn” – Sigur Ros
That’s all from me for now (at least until the Staffs’ Annual Feature). In the meantime though, let me take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! (or as we say in Malaysia, Selamat Hari Natal dan Selamat Tahun Baru!) Cheers!