I think it’s about time that I let you all in on a little secret: I’m just a touch older than the average SputnikMusic user. Shock horror, huh? In fact, I may even be old enough to have seen items go out of fashion, only to have them return in popularity years later. Thick-rimmed glasses, new wave music, mini-skirts and vinyl records are all examples of such phenomena, so when The Gaslight Anthem released a single titled “45”, you could say that my interest was aroused… When the old-fashioned quartet went on to title their fourth LP ‘Handwritten’, I was officially an acolyte to the Ministry of The Gaslight Anthem. And yes, I do still hand-write many of my reviews, just like Brian Fallon and the guys would want me to. Here, famed producer Brendan O’Brien assists the New Jersey natives in carving out huge, soaring anthems which lose little of the band’s endearing sincerity. The accomplished musicianship takes in every corner of rock, with Fallon’s vocals continuing to improve as his surprisingly introspective lyrics make the detailed storytelling no less captivating. ‘Handwritten’ may downsize the outfit’s punkier leanings and be too familiar for some, but it is ultimately another assured, consistent and cohesive album from a rock’n’roll band at the top of their craft. Now if only they would advocate a return of all things mission brown! Recommended Tracks: “45”, Biloxi Parish, Handwritten & Mulholland Drive. -DaveyBoy
Did Diamond Eyes suffer its critical darling-like stature so assuredly because it was such an insistent release? An obvious and confident rebuttal against tragedy that glistened with the fine sheen of accessibility that had seemed so absent from the group’s last few outings, it represented the group operating at their most immediate and forthcoming, the taciturn and almost self-avoiding nature they had built such a strong foundation on pushed aside to reveal what almost seemed to be utter joy at being a “band” again. If this is true, Koi No Yokan is an oddity then; as gleaming and bright as Diamond Eyes‘ commercial peaks, but also crushingly ambivalent, chameleon-like with its colours. It’s an album that predicates itself on an epiphany, and oddly it arrives at that realisation all too quickly, leaving the remainder of the record to fill in the blanks for its future-earmarked swan song.
Deliberately intoxicating, Koi No Yokan asks a lot of its listeners, especially by comparison, though it’s a prideful kind of hubris that steers the album along its predetermined path. And the group have never more adequately prepared and equipped to make us believe their defining statement; Chino, in full stadium-sized overload has perhaps never sounded as authentic and consequently, vitriolic as he does here, pining over love and legend. And he matches the dynamic and diverse background with an authoritative ambiguity that belies the group’s initial proceedings, skirting as they do around the bones of a sound they were never truly a part of and have subsequently managed to outlive. And it’s that pride, as humble as it may be, that allows Koi No Yokan to be every inch the crowd pleaser that it is, and will always deserve to be. That belief from the band in what they are doing, that authoritative understanding and gentle push into the ether that only they can do best. -Deviant.
To be honest, I haven’t actually stopped listening to Mount Eerie’s Clear Moon. Really, it’s been on a constant rotation of sorts, finding its way back into my life over the course of 2012. This makes for a good album. What makes Clear Moon agreat album, however, is that each time it meanders into my thoughts, I find something new to love about it. While it stands as Phil’s more approachable album this year, it isn’t without an intense depth. Deceptively simple in parts, Mount Eerie creates mysterious yet majestic music, all with the patented ambiguous lyricism. Borrowing parts from his entire discography, Clear Moon exists as one of Phil Elverum’s most fully realized works to date. More importantly, it is an inherently brilliant work that once more proves why Mount Eerie is easily one of this generation’s most intriguing songwriters. -Eli Kleman
I was easily startled by Jessie Ware’s year. Beyond her live show, in which I stored a lot of faith and was more than a little floored (informal sidebar: during “110%” she kneeled towards the crowd and shared our love), a confidence emanated around Devotion that was purely her own, one that got the best out of a well decorated, hyper-emotional pop album in need of the force of a star behind it. Ware rose to the challenge in more ways than meet the eye; themed by those who heard it as an album begging requite and speaking heartbreak, one that our own Adam Downer compared to abusive relationships like he had with the Jets (some American sports reference- I’m lost), Devotion demands a closer look to see how stylised and performed it is. Ware plays with melodrama, sure, and it makes for big singles, like the wonderful, oh so wonderful “Wildest Moments,” but she can play it slick and shy too, presenting herself slight on “Sweet Talk” and “110%.” Ware’s biggest strength is that any of it can be a single, as if she could bring a heart swell to the smoothest, easiest song: she never has source material that weak on Devotion, but her skill is her elevation.
Live, Ware gave herself an improvised challenge to make “Still Love Me” looser, longer and more immersed. She played out the song’s one rhetorical question over and over, suppressing it none over the course of the beat’s long extended romp, her experiment proving how strong- and again, how confident- she is with every shade. On Devotion, Ware is like an actor reading into her tracks what she will, perfectly bringing off what little queues she’s got. Her record was my favourite of the year, and while I wondered whether or not it was the one that resounded with me the most, I never stopped to wonder if anything could impress me more. -Robin Smith
At this point, it’s a little redundant to extol the music of Converge. After all, two decades into their careers, the men behind the band have heard their fair share of praise, with each release being hailed as a “landmark” in one way or another. That doesn’t stop every doe-eyed music fan, however, as many have fallen for the “aural assault” that is brought about by each new album. But it’s never really settled too well with me that this band is consistently praised for their “sonic barrages of pure anger” or what have you. To say such is to completely miss the point, and with All We Love We Leave Behind the band prove once more that they are above the senseless aggression that hangs around them like a bad stench. You see, Converge’s eighth album is a carefully and wonderfully constructed album. It’s brilliantly written, and sees the band explore their “metal side” more than ever. Each song feels full of energy, but all without sacrificing any artistic integrity. Perhaps this all sounds a little too pretentious, but the meticulous production and keen attention to detail go a long way in making All We Love We Leave Behind the band’s deepest offering to date. From the explosive opener, to the jaw-dropping title track, Converge’s latest offers up a stunning amount of incredible moments. And really, that’s all we could ever ask for. -Eli Kleman
Maybe it’s just a function of Andrew Bird’s rather “lit’ry” approach to songwriting, all gentle plucks and crafty wordplay, but Break It Yourself begs to be described in superlative adjectives like “mellifluous” or “meticulous” or “contemplative,” although I’m partial to just “fucking beautiful.” On paper, Break It Yourself seems to check off all the boxes rather perfunctorily: it is a long, twisty and rock-strewn dirt road into the heart of staticky AM folk and dusty alt-country that Bird has been steadfastly traveling for quite a while; it is an album impeccably designed and prudently arranged; it still revels in the effortless use of words commonly found in textbooks and the clever syllabic arrangements that remains Bird’s signature. Yet Bird has never written an album this emotionally direct yet still frayed around the edges, sepia postcards warped by time and the long, crushing weight of emotions experienced and discarded, one on top of the other. “We’ll dance like cancer survivors / like we’re grateful simply to be alive” needs no adorning, no phonetic wizardry from an artist who has finally connected the emotional underpinnings of his music with the nostalgia and vague melancholy that his vast palette of looping strings, fiddles and that wistful whistle naturally conjure.
Our Keelan Harkin called Break It Yourself Bird’s most complete record: “The oak cask has set; the textures are fuller and the colours a little deeper.” Like that fine wine, Bird’s music is meant to be enjoyed slowly, moving in careful half-steps and gradual consideration of that forgotten romance or lost opportunity. It is also his most effortlessly subtle. Although the pop structures that inform his core aesthetic are well in evidence here, Bird is much more interested in building something up just to break it down. Melodies drift along string motifs that wind around as an ethereal counterpoint to Bird himself, who seems more grateful for the lovesick memories that haunt him then regretful, more pleased with the chances he’s received than the ones he’s squandered. The best songs here—the slow, bubbling “Lazy Projector,” the time-worn pastels of “Sifters,” the eight-minute-long crackle of “Hole in the Ocean Floor”—take their time, and when they arrive, as with “Lazy Projector’s” oddly triumphant climax or “Hole in the Ocean Floor’s” near-religious vocals and eventual disintegration, it’s a sad remembrance but also an infinitely hopeful one. An album like Break It Yourself never fails to remind you, for all the weight and heartbreak, life is still a pretty wonderful thing. -Rudy K.
It’s an incredible thing to witness the evolution of your favorite artist over more than a decade. From Funcrusher Plus through Fantastic Damage, El-P’s songwriting has always been future-focused; El doesn’t just push the envelope – he redefines it on every release. Coming into 2012 four years removed from I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, no one ever expected a collaboration with the guy who did “ADIDAS” to not only happen, but also be as incredible as it is. As a rapper, Killer Mike is an unorthodox, yet perfect compliment to El-P’s scientifical sounds; his storytelling is simplistic yet poignant, his flow goes hard yet balances the line between vicious and emotive. Most importantly, his serious subject matter comes off as introspective and thoughtful as opposed to preachy; both artists know how have fun on a track while still maintaining a meaningful message. One needs only to listen to the self-titled album closer to witness the conviction of R.A.P. Music at its fullest. -Sobhi Youssef
Let’s talk about 2010 for a second.
In 2010, Kristian Matsson was an unlikely revelation. The Wild Hunt took our website by storm in a year where it seemed impossible to do so without hard confessionals and self-absorption; in a year of melting personalities and grand dick picture songs, of existential synth-pop from Sufjan, of all people. Matsson was our prize in a year of Kanye and Titus, one where our top ten otherwise lay sorely on self-deprecation and, in The Monitor‘s case, worldwide defecation. But we picked Mattson for the spring in his step and because, despite the fact “Runaway” and “Impossible Soul” were released in the same year, there was this man, laid barer without the histrionics or the orchestral suite, and personal to you – “because you named me as your lover,” he said, needing only one fucking acoustic guitar behind him to say it, “well I thought I could be anything.” 2010 had Big Boi and Janelle Monae, tallied next to eachother, releasing remarkable and conceptual work. 2010 had Joanna Newsom’s triple album. 2010 was tall trees, rivers and volcanoes, and then it had this man, who could strum well, emote hard and sing like Bob Dylan.
I felt it was triumphant on two counts. It made Sputnik proud, once more, to side with the underdog, adding Matsson to the unlikely company of Kayo Dot and Off Minor, but it also proved that we all were seeing the same little thing. (I say we, but I wasn’t staff yet – nice one guys.) We’ve moved on two years in this riddled musical landscape, where we stayed in for another folk record, though this time one that simply flowed like a fucking river, and Matsson has changed none but become the third in our hearts. And doesn’t he belong in the exact same way? Not only is There’s No Leaving Now as homogenous as all of his previous work, he finds himself in the company of compositional wizards and surrounded by personal politics. If you scroll down, you’ll see what I’m talking about, because it seems our 2012 was dominated by what we needed from music, or what we needed it to say. We had new masterpieces of the self, thanks Frank, thanks Fiona, and we had Converge. Sputnik had Converge. Meanwhile, Matsson made a record that sounded exactly like all of his other records. Again.
It’s a testament to Matsson’s talent that he has the impact he had in 2010, but it’s not a surprise. His brilliance is that he’s out on his own, songs mined from the earth and still in water, revealed only in cryptic aphorisms, gorgeous for their impossibility: “thank god we’re bright/ said the lantern’s brother/ cause I don’t know a thing about boats or the land I see.” There’s No Leaving Now is full of its own life, a breathing piece of landscape like the cold wide open of The Wild Huntand the forest (or some shit like that) pervading Shallow Grave. It’s a world of misgiving, one we’re never really invited to understand but one where the land becomes familiar and the language has its own music. We place him so high here at Sputnik without ever really knowing what’s on his mind, but we’d still quote “Criminals” in its entirety on our Facebook page.
Maybe Matsson isn’t a revelation anymore. We don’t necessarily have to point to him as the up and coming songwriter, and Justin Vernon doesn’t need to tell us that what he does with a guitar will make us believe in folk music again (this is apparent on “Wind and Walls,” a track that sounds fuller than anything else this year, in a great feint). But Matsson has become better than that, for our website at least; Mattson is our dedication, and this year, I saw him perform twice and learned the words to the most mysterious of his songs. There’s No Leaving Now is another chapter in his career, and I look forward to the day we argue over which thirty-six of his albums is our favourite. Just like Dylan, yes? Enjoy your apocalypse, Michael Gira. It’s nice and quiet over here. -Robin Smith
The Godspeed You! Black Emperor I saw in October was not the Godspeed I fell in love with. That Godspeed set the gold standard for atmosphere, a grandmaster of pathos-driven instrumentation and heartbreaking romanticism. This one beat me in the chest with an aluminum bat for two and a half hours then left me a little cab money to get out of its apartment by the time it was done showering.
Oh yes, the Godspeed You! Black Emperor that returned this year has lost its illusions. Fourteen years ago, F#A# (Infinity) imagined a tearful apocalypse more akin to what we all secretly wanted to happen on December 21st. Allelujah reflects the ire we felt when it didn’t. In Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, we see traces of the growing cultural frustration that nothing of great consequence is happening. As if Godspeed were announcing their irritation over having to come out of hibernation just to chide us for being so stupid, the terrific “Mladic” opens in drone, guitars brushing sand from the band member’s eyes, and then, slowly, it starts pounding. As Godspeed openers go, “Mladic” is the angriest, its climax not a cathartic culmination of emotional turmoil but a galloping sneer of a riff in Arabic mode. It’s characteristic of the prominent heaviness that characterizes Allelujah; “We Drift Like Worried Fire” may sound triumphant, but its a punchy, twisted sort of triumph. Elsewhere, the incredibly sparse B-sides of the record come off as frustrated meanderings in the face of artistic devolution. Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! finds Godspeed no longer simply oracles culture, but punishers, bitter dissenters, “I told you so” sayers. When it was announced there was a new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album coming out back in October (true story: the show I was at was literally the one after they announced they were selling their new LP at shows), there was a question as to whether or not they were still even relevant. Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! proved that yes, we need Godspeed. And perhaps now more than ever. -Adam Downer
In reflecting upon 2012 – a year that included a multitude of high-profile releases including Converge, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Tallest Man on Earth, Deftones, Frank Ocean, and a list that goes on too long to mention – it would be easy to get taken aback by seeing Swans at the top of our year-end list. This is a band that was as dead as a doornail as recently as three years ago, when they hadn’t released any new material since 1996. Even after Swans’ successful resuscitation in 2010, it is hard to imagine that too many people saw The Seer coming – a two hour, two disc magnum opus that inharmoniously reconciles elements of post-rock, alt-rock, drone, and industrial metal.
From a musical standpoint, this album is a crowning achievement. Much like a foreign culture, one needs to immerse him or herself in it to fully appreciate its nuances. Once enough time has been dedicated and acclimation sets in, the overbearing length and repetitiveness are no longer flaws – they are characteristics of a landmark album. They are necessary to its existence. It wouldn’t be The Seer without the thirty two minute title track that scares away first time listeners like frat brothers hazing a pledge. It also wouldn’t be the same without the massive, swirling drone passages that take up fifteen minute chunks of time just to ensure that listeners are invested enough to wade through any and all abstract haze in order to stumble upon sinister gems like ‘The Seer Returns’ and the second half of ‘A Piece Of The Sky.’ Gira and co. could have cleaned this album up quite well, but they would have been doing The Seer a great disservice. By allowing the album to progress naturally and flow with the ambition of a live set, Swans managed to create something that listeners can latch onto from the opening chants of ‘Lunacy’ and ride all the way to the closing growls of ‘The Apostate.’ It is not the easiest listen and it’s not supposed to be, but The Seer is definitely the most rewarding two hours you will spend with one album this year.
This could be the best album of Michael Gira’s thirty year career. It’s also possible that Swans’ prior discography never received the exposure it needed in order to catalyze the ascension that we witnessed this year. But no matter what reason you acknowledge behind The Seer’s success, it is impossible to deny that the record makes good on three decades of raucous experimentation – corralling all of the vastly differing styles that the band has executed and turning them into one tangible thing. This isn’t the type of album that will be hailed for its conquest of a three hundred and sixty five day calendar and then forgotten when the page is turned. Gira has ensured that The Seer’s impact will be felt for much longer, and in doing so, he has placed Swans among the best resurrected musical acts in recent memory. -SowingSeason
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