1) Alt-J - An Awesome Wave
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.
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.
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.
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.
Keywords: "Top Albums 2012", "Alex Dawkins", "Zulu Records"