Sunday, December 23, 2012

Top 10 Albums of 2012

I've long since given up trying to regularly follow scenes, trends, or even labels.  It seems that every year I write about how my listening habits -- and therefore my end-of-year lists as well -- are increasingly subject to luck and randomness, and about how I've more or less come to accept (or even embrace) that notion as the years go by.  In that sense, I can feel secure that I've "done my job" if I can say that parts of my top ten list would have looked totally alien and unbelievable to me one year earlier.  In other words, if you could travel back in time and show me this list one year ago, my reaction should be "huh?? In a year's time I'm going to go nuts over [Indie/Techno Act I've Never Heard Of]?"

This list has a few surprises of that sort, but there are even more albums that hit the other extreme where you might need to check your calendar to confirm for yourself that it's 2012 and not 2001.  Yes, it was a good year for big names making great comeback albums.

So ...


10.  Voices from the Lake feat. Donato Dozzy & Neel, "Voices From the Lake" (Prologue)

Seeing how it's a techno album best not heard outside of your bedroom anytime before 2 AM, this effort by Voices From the Lake isn't for everyone.  It reminds me of the albums released by Starfish Pool in the latter part of the 90's (more specifically, everything after 1996's "Interference") -- woozy, minimal techno tracks that go on forever and dial down the temperature in the room while still being eminently danceable. 

9.  Matt Elliot, "The Broken Man" (Ici D'Ailleurs)

Matt Elliot's journey into folk rock enters its second decade and finds him stretching his sparse balladry to even more epic lengths, with three tracks at or exceeding the ten minute mark.  The Drinking/Failing/Howling Songs trilogy saw him gradually move toward beer-soaked Tom Waits territory, but with "The Broken Man", he ditched the alcohol for solemn tales of loneliness and lost love.  Plus, the expressiveness of his guitar and piano playing continues to grow with every album. 

8.  Silent Servant, "Negative Fascination" (Hospital Productions)

I listen to a lot of mixes and podcasts but that music almost never crosses over into my album listening habits, and I've never been sure why.  I knew Silent Servant very well from his mixes, where he was equally at home playing deep, heavy techno as he was with 80's techno pop and industrial.  His debut full length album was a perfect melding of those two sides of his personality.  "Negative Fascination" felt familiar from the very first listen, I felt like I'd heard it a million times before, and in some sense I had because Silent Servant's podcasts had already prepared me perfectly for his vision of what a techno album should be. 

It's also really refreshing to hear a techno album that's shorter than forty minutes in length. 

7.  Swans, "The Seer" (Young God Records)

Swans deserve all the praise they're getting for their monumental comeback.  I'm a bit surprised that "The Seer" has had this kind of impact, because is certainly not an easy listen. It's long, it's devastatingly heavy, and it's not something you put on unless you're in exactly the right mood for hearing it.  In many ways, it's an album that you admire rather than enjoy, like a classic book that sits on your shelf for years and is rarely read.  Like all two-hour albums, "The Seer" has its flaws, but every one of those ups and downs is essential to the fabric of the album.  You can't just skip to the best parts, you need to be patient and wait them out to properly absorb the album's power.

6.  Godspeed You! Black Emperor, "Allelujah!  Don't Bend!  Descend!" (Constellation)

I have to admit that the twenty minute compositions with the predictably monster endings might not age well over years of listening.  I think I learned my lesson there with "Yanqui U.X.O.".  Instead, it's the long droning interludes that hold the album together.  "Levez vos Skinny Fists ..." is their best album because of the combination of long dramatic pieces with the field recordings and other assorted oddites.

5.  Spiritualized, "Sweet Heart Sweet Light" (Double Six Recordings)

Despite its inconsistency, this was the best album from Spiritualized in over ten years, and a surprisingly uplifting, hope-filled effort considering a) most Spiritualized songs are about broken hearts and drug spirals, and b) the (literally) painful circumstances surrounding the recording.

4.  Actress, "R.I.P." (Honest Jon's Records)

Electronic music fans sometimes pine for those days in 1998 when Boards of Canada and Autechre were in their bleepy, moody phases and were releasing music that sounded much like this.  But "R.I.P." is much more than a nostalgia trip.  It not only meets, but easily exceeds the quality of those 90's benchmark albums, twisting those antiquated tones into fascinating new shapes, leaving nearly all the IDM copyists in the dust while still managing to sound almost nothing like them.  "R.I.P." feels like a partial redefinition of the boundaries of techno, and for me, this is the album where Actress finally started living up to all of the hype and then some.

3.  Raveonettes, "Observator" (Vice Records)

One could argue that a band whose music is as derivative as that of the Raveonettes isn't capable of making a great album, virtually by definition.  For instance, you could say it's ridiculous to claim that their 2008 album "Lust Lust Lust" is better than Jesus and Mary Chain's "Psychocandy" because if it's such a transparent attempt to duplicate the original, then it can't have anything new to say.  In trying to be too much like "Psychocandy", it can't make us think about that album in a way we haven't thought about it before.  

First of all, "Lust Lust Lust" is much better than "Psychocandy" because it's executed better -- with better tunes, better vocals, and better harmonies.  You can call the feedback and murky production a tie.

And "Observator" is much better than "Lust Lust Lust" because whereas the latter does one or two things well (because that's all it needs), the former does a bunch of things well, or more specifically, each song excels at something different from all the others.  

2.  Sigur Ros, "Valtari" (Parlophone) 

I still can't figure these guys out, just when I thought they might be going pop (on their last album), they went the opposite way and became the Icelandic Stars of the Lid.

1.  Beach House, "Bloom" (Bella Union)

I'm a bit tired of reading about other people's favourite albums of the year, not least because I feel bad about not having time to listen to them all.  Sometimes its better just to avoid tasks that seem too overwhelming.  And I can't stand critics lists where they try to justify their pick with some kind of higher cultural significance, i.e. "in a year where [signficant political event] dominated the landscape, [album] encapsulated the times perfectly."

As great as 2012 was for music, Beach House's "Bloom" was my album of the year by miles, and this was never in doubt almost from the first listen.  Even so, if you haven't heard it already then you probably don't have the time or energy to listen to it because just like everybody else (including me), you've got a backlog of other albums that you hope you catch up with one of these years.  I get that.  

So rather than sit in front of the computer for hours, hopelessly trying to write the perfect blurb about how incredibly great "Bloom" is, for people who will likely never get around to listening to it no matter what I say, I've picked out the best bits of the album -- the very best part each of its ten songs -- and edited them together for your listening convenience.  Now you only have to spend a breezy 1:45 to hear the very best that "Bloom" has to offer.  Well, perhaps not the absolute very best, because I could have picked out a few dozen fantastic moments just from the opening song, "Myth".  But I wanted to have the entire album represented.  

I have no idea if this will excite anyone enough to go out and hear the entire album for themselves.  The truth is that I was more worried about ruining the album for myself.  If you keep rewinding and rewatching a scene from a movie or TV show, you run the risk of ruining that scene by oversaturation, and losing your enthusiasm for the rest of the movie because you only want to fast forward to get to the best scenes.  Fortunately, I've heard the 1:45 version of "Bloom" a number of times already and it only makes me want to put the album on repeat and never take it off.  

Now that's a great album.  

"Myth", 1:12 - 1:20.  Probably the best Cocteau Twins impression ever ("Heaven or Las Vegas" era), which includes about 70% of the music recorded by the Cocteaus.  

"Wild" :59 - 1:08.   Out of all the "Saint Etienne goes shoegaze" moments on the album, this might be the best.  

"Lazuli", 1:59 - 2:13.   This short bridge might be the finest moment on the album.   

"Other People", 2:19 - 2:27.  Another brief bridge/interlude.

"The Hours", 1:16 -1:31.  Of course the best part of this song had to be the chorus, because it's the best chorus on the album.  It actually pained me to cut this clip down to less than fifteen seconds.  

"Troublemaker", 1:49 - 1:56.  It's the weakest song on the album, but the chorus still delivers.

"New Year", 1:54 - 2:05.  This is during the mid-song break where there's a "Loveless"-lite passage with wailing guitars and other noises that sound like seal cries.  

"Wishes", 2:20 - 2:27.  Yet another great instrumental passage.

"On the Sea", 4:40-4:51.  I had no choice but to go with the big finish.

"Irene", 4:02 - 4:09.  The repeated refrain in the song's last three minutes can't be topped, but it also can't be easily excerpted.  So I chose the moment when the guitar revs up again and starts re-entering the song in full force, because that's the exact moment when the "Hey Jude" repeat until forever ending becomes an inevitability.  

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