Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Top 10 Albums of 2012

It is very possible that the music from 2012 was much better than the music released last year, or I may just perceive this to be true due to the fact that I was traveling around the world in 2011 and simply wasn't on the ball. My praise for the music of this year is also connected to the bands that released new work. That is, they are amongst my favourites: Hot Water Music, Sigur Ros, and Bloc Party are all in my Top Ten Favourite Bands of All this bias would make it pretty much impossible for 2011 to compete. Here are my favourites from 2012, in no particular order. 

1) Alt-J - An Awesome Wave

I placed the Wild Beasts' Smother on my Top Ten of 2011 and Alt-J actually has a lot in common with this band: both are led by troubadour-like vocalists, both contain folktronica elements, both use unconventional instruments (Alt-J's drummer often uses a saucepan), and both produce songs rife with obscure historical references. In fact, Alt-J supported the Wild Beasts main tour this year. I also reacted to both of these albums in the same way; initial dismissal sparked by arcane compositions transforming into incrementally-earned admiration and appreciation. It's hard not to respect a band that can make a catchy song about doomed photojournalists Gerda Taro and Robert Capa. Already got tickets to their show at Vancouver's Commodore Ballroom this coming April!


2) Sigur Ros - Valtari

Valtari means "steamroller" in Icelandic. This is ironic because Valtari is incredibly docile compared to their last three albums. In an act of delayed gratification, I did not listen to this album in its entirety until December 8th when I went to see the band's Mystery Film Project at Vancouver's VanCity Theatre. This project involved a wide range of directors creating music videos for every song on the album, with zero input from the band. This was indeed a strange way to enjoy and judge an album for the first time. While the videos varied a fair deal in terms of subject matter, I believe the recurring themes of water, rebirth in nature, and testosterone-driven angst say something about the tone of Valtari. This is a fairly melancholy and airy album that avoids the band's trademark crescendos and bouts of drum-fueled fervor. While it probably won't become my favourite Sigur Ros release, it is still a rich and mysterious collection of songs by a band that can do no wrong in my mind. Even if they teamed up with Timbaland or produced a rockabilly album, I'd still buy their albums and travel to see them live (have tickets for their show in San Fran on April 17th, 2012!!!)

3) El Ten Eleven - It's Still Like a Secret

A friend recently lent me the documentary Urbanized and I was floored when I heard El Ten Eleven playing as the soundtrack to this city-planning based film. This is not a well known movie, and El Ten Eleven are not a well known band. I saw this instrumental LA duo in November at Vancouver's Media Club and liked them a lot more live than recorded. I own two of their albums and bought them during a time when I needed lyricless music to study to, but I didn't realise how technical and complicated their compositions are until I saw them in person. The majority of their songs sound like just that...tracks to a film. This is not your typical John Williamsesque, Hans Zimmery instrumental music though. El Ten Eleven specializes in looped, upbeat, layered guitar pop that is the perfect match for cleaning the house, reading, or learning about the potential dynamism of urban river corridors.      

4) Beach House - Bloom

I've read reviews of Bloom that describe it as an improvement upon Teen Dream and definitely their best work to date. I really really liked Teen Dream, so you can imagine how excited I was to hear this new album. I like it - and am bordering on loving it - but think that it is very close in quality and character to their last effort. The dense instrumentation and dreamy layers that Beach House are known for are rich and encompassing here, but most tracks lack the hooks and fresh experimentation that were at the forefront of Teen Dream. I often play Bloom on iTunes and let Teen Dream follow. Personally, I think it is a testament to the band that I often forget which track belongs to which album. They are both so, so good.

5) Bloc Party - Four

This band is getting old. I find it really interesting how bands cope with the inevitability of aging. Some try to cling to their former selves (see: Franz Ferdinand, The Strokes), while others take unfortunate and unnatural paths to avoid predictability (see: Neil Young with Trans, Jack White). A large number of the better and more versatile bands out there face change head-on and incorporate issues like aging and altered band dynamics into their music.


Four has a great deal in common with Bloc Party's past releases in that it contains thoughtful pacing and the band's trademark juxtaposition of peppy riffs with emotional content. But it also contains a frustration and edge that the other albums lack, and this is most apparent in the brazen song intros and the tracks Coliseum and 3x3. Bloc Party has lost little momentum since Silent Alarm, but their songs are beginning to reveal an unprecedented maturity and grit.

6) The xx - Coexist

I found The xx's first album too simple and mopey to buy or listen to very much. While The xx still hangs its hat on the droning harmonies of guitarist Romy Croft and bassist Oliver Sim, DJ and producer Jamie xx has created angular song structures here that both engage with their programmed beats and grow in complexity as they progress. I have also found that this album, more so than their debut, can be played in a variety of settings. The clicks, pops, and synth percussion allow you to play it at parties, yet the atmospheric downtempo grooves of most tracks make it suitable as background/mood music. I'm finally a fan. Took me long enough.    

7) Of Monsters and Men - My Head is an Animal

A friend of mine went to Airwaves, the big October music festival in Reykjavik, this year and was expecting several bands to be overwhelmingly popular. Sigur Ros, Phantogram, and Shearwater were all packed, but the band generating the most hype at the festival was Iceland's own Of Monsters and Men. This was a band that I had heard a few tracks from, but several people told me I really really needed to give them more of my attention. The Airwaves hype and personal recommendations really do reflect the quality of this debut album. And I know there may be some music dorks who claim this to be a 2011 release (in Ice, Ice, Iceland), but North America and Europe couldn't get their hands on this animal until 2012. 

8) Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city

Unlike his last album Section.80, this release is the first of Kendrick's with major label backing. I am not the biggest hiphop/rap fan in the world, but this is a moving and super stimulating genre when done well. Like OutKast, The Roots, Busdriver, and Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick Lamar blends intelligent lyrics, strife, and original beats which engage the listener on several levels. The concept of this album is by no means novel - the autobiographical format was used just last year with The Roots' Undun - but the story of a smart kid escaping from the ghetto has universal and lasting appeal. Unlike his last album, this release has a low-key, downbeat, narrative style that prompts you to listen from beginning to end...rather than track by track.

9) Hot Water Music - Exister

I am not an extreme person. It is for this reason that I have never been able to relate to super fans. I could never put in the energy and investment required to memorize every lyric of a band's every song. I could never be a groupie, or one of those wack-jobs who get band tattoos. Having said this, I was genuinely upset when I heard Hot Water Music disbanded in 2006 due to Chuck's strained vocal cords and diverging musical interests amongst the members of the band. This is the only time I can remember getting emotional over a band...while I do truly love HWM's rhythm section, I also have very specific and valuable memories linked to this band's first five albums. So, you can imagine how excited I was to hear Exister, their reunion (and probably final) album. This album has a lot in common with the tone and heavy melodies of The New What Next, and Chris is handling more of the vocals than ever before, but songs such as Take No Prisoners and Drown in It carry all of the grit and dueling vocals that HWM fans mosh, drink, air punch, and run marathons to.


10) Hot Chip - In Our Heads

A great deal of the music I like requires some auditory attuning. I usually have to work towards appreciation and respect when listening to new music, but I loved In Our Heads from the first layered synth staccato of 'Motion Sickness'. I have seen Hot Chip twice live, and was a huge fan from the time my sister made my listen to 'Crap Kraft Dinner' in 2006, and this album proves that they are still amongst the best purveyors of indietronica on the market.

Keywords: "Top Albums 2012", "Alex Dawkins", "Zulu Records"

No comments:

Post a Comment