WE LIKE THINGS 2012: Telling you all about the awesome things you (maybe) missed last year.
Yes, another year gone by, and another (ridiculously-late) set of top ten lists from us folks here at SCR of all of the good/amazing/awesome things we ran across in 2012. Your intrepid writerly-type people have gone through literally thousands (no, really) of releases of all types, from 3-song EPs to 3-CD best-ofs, and we’ve come up with five handy, intensely useful lists at which you can be amazed and astounded.
Will you agree with all of it? Nah, probably not. And screw it; agreement’s overrated, anyway. (Although it should be noted that apparently most of our writers here liked St. Vincent this year, with or without David Byrne…) But even if you don’t agree about how goddamned brilliant Band Z happens to be, you may well read about and be intrigued by Band Q, and go on to discover your New Absolute Ultimate Favoritest Band Ever. After all, isn’t this why all us music junkies do this, in the first place?
Now, let’s dispense with the chitchat. Onward we go into the lists themselves; have at it…
Apologies for this being so freaking late (again); the blame for that sits squarely on my shoulders, right here. It’s just that once I start looking at the best-of-the-best from the previous year, I tend to fall down the rabbit hole, so to speak, and find myself listening and listening and listening and listening and trying to get it all exactly “right.”
Which is stupid, really, because this is music — it’s not about “right,” it’s about what affects you and how and where it hits. And that’s something I lose sight of sometimes, unfortunately; I’d be willing to bet a lot of us do. So I’ve found what I have to force myself to do is not overthink this stuff. Too much dancing about architecture really misses the point, as it were.
To make matters harder, there was a lot out last year that I liked/loved. Not only was it difficult deciding that crucial top five best albums of the year, but hell, it was difficult deciding the top 15. As a result, the “Runners-Up” list below is insanely long, because a lot of that stuff — Shearwater, P.O.S., New York City Queens, The Sword — really should have been in the “big” list, instead. But for the sake of my sanity (and to keep the whole “top 10” thing from becoming too farcical), yeah, I had to keep things down a bit.
In the end, this is a list not of “The 15 Objectively, No-Argument Best Albums of 2012,” but rather of “The 15 Albums That I Loved Above and That Stuck With Me Beyond Pretty Much Everything Else in 2012.” These are albums that I’m still listening to right freaking now, in April of 2013, and loving just as damn much (if not more) as I did the first time they came through my headphones or out of my car’s speakers. Enjoy ’em.
1) X Ambassadors, Litost
Alright, so X Ambassadors‘ (formerly just “Ambassadors,” by the by; not sure what prompted the name change) Litost won the top spot in this list in part because I cannot freaking believe this album didn’t explode everywhere in 2012. It bowled me over when I heard it last spring, and it’s been high in the pile ever since. Seriously, I expected to see it on dozens of top-ten lists, and yet, I’ve barely run across it at all.
Which is ridiculous, because it’s a damn-near flawless album from start to finish; there’s not a song on here I don’t like, and I’ve listened to it from end to end and then started all over again a whole hell of a lot of times since running across it early last year. The band’s nu-soul/indie-pop sound is funky, gritty, and heartfelt, like Cold War Kids with flesh and blood beneath the plastic skin or Reptar minus the amped-up party-time craziness.
And best of all, the Brooklyn band can seemingly pull off anything they want, from the thundering, fiery rock of “Falls” (about which?: Best. Driving. Song. Ever.) to the percussion-heavy, utterly addictive “Unconsolable” to the Bill Withers-esque “Litost” to the pseudo-gospel harmonizing of “(O Death)” and “Bodybag” to the tense, wiry snarl of “Caged Animals,” and throughout they sound like the same band. Trust me on this one; Litost is phenomenal.
2) Alkari, Blackout Falls
[Full Disclosure Time: I know the guys from this band pretty well, and yes, we’re lucky enough to have Jason Smith writing and taking photos for this very site. And believe it or not, that didn’t factor into this one damn bit. This album earned its place here.]
I knew I would like the new album from local trio Alkari; I’ve liked the band’s other stuff before now, so I was looking forward to hearing what they came up with this time around. What I didn’t expect, however, was to be have my jaw hit the desk on the first damn listen. And yet, that’s exactly what happened.
With Blackout Falls, these three guys released a freaking perfect gem of an alt-rock album; and no, I’m not even exaggerating. They’ve painstakingly crafted a set of songs that manage to all fit together just like they’re supposed to, to the point where I’ll be listening, and the band shifts into a break or a riff or a melody or whatever the hell else, and I’ll go “ah, that’s right.”
The guitars roar and surge while never crossing the line into metal territory, the keys are lush and warm, the rhythm section throws itself against the wheel, and singer/guitarist Mike Beatty croons and yells, and the end result is something like an Americanized version of The Verve or Snow Patrol, if either of those bands had grown up listening to The Replacements or Soul Asylum, or maybe Sebadoh. It all just plain works, and that’s a beautiful thing to hear.
3) The Eastern Sea, Plague
At first, I was a little uncertain about this one, and it took me quite a while to even be able to put a finger on why, especially since I’d been waiting-waiting-waiting for three years to hear The Eastern Sea‘s oft-delayed “debut” full-length, Plague.
Basically, the album is a grower. I don’t mean, “okay, it’s decent, but it has to grow on you,” mind you; not at all. Rather, you have to grow in order to love the album. You have to be willing to step past the band’s past two EPs, which were also great in their own right, and recognize that just because there’s no “The Name” on Plague, that doesn’t mean it’s not amazing.
Instead, after you listen a while, you realize every damn song on here is incredible, all by itself. Each single one is an exquisitely-made gem of a orchestral composition, with all the parts fitting together just how they need to, whether on the warm, breezy “So Long/Either Way,” the propulsive pop of “Santa Rosa,” or the piano-drone hymn “Central Cemetery.” There’re no “singles” here, because they’re all singles, every one of ’em. Even now, I have to shake my head in amazement at what Matt Hines and his crew have pulled off here. Wow.
4) The Ghost of Cliff Burton, The Maybe Laser
Ever wondered what it might sound like if you captured Cake’s John McCrea, strapped him to a chair, and force-fed him equal amounts of insanely sugary cereal and chocolate milk mixed with melted-down copies of The Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and King Missile’s The Way to Salvation, all while making him watch Doctor Who on endless repeat? Well, wonder no more, because what you’ll get in the end will (I’m assuming, anyway) sound a heck of lot like The Ghost of Cliff Burton‘s debut album, The Maybe Laser.
All of which, by the way, works a whole lot better than you’ll likely think it would just from reading it. Former Black Math Experiment-ers Jef With One F and Bill Curtner gobble up video games, Goth culture, Tom Waits-ian strangeness, beat poetry, and Thomas Dolby-esque retro-electronics, and spit back out a set of carefully-crafted, astoundingly original pop songs that meld all those things with some surprisingly deep thoughts about religion, sin, and love. About half the time, I’m grinning like an idiot while I listen; the other half, I’m nodding along and trying to follow whatever the hell Jef’s saying. More, please.
5) Buxton, Nothing Here Seems Strange
I’m just going to come out and say it: Buxton was robbed. No, not physically, but when it comes to music in Houston, there’s really only one set of accolades that matter much, the Houston Press Music Awards. And when Buxton released Nothing Here Seems Strange, one of the most eagerly-anticipated albums of 2012 for a lot of people around here, I felt like punching the ceiling.
The album is serene and gentle, for the most part, swaying and ambling through life like Fleet Foxes might if you replaced those Northwestern woods with the swamps and waterways of the Gulf Coast. The music’s bluesy and rough right when it needs to be, but still gorgeous and fragile like a pewter figurine teetering on the edge of an old wooden porch. It’s less fiery than I’d originally figured it’d be, but nevertheless, it’s excellent.
So, given all that, I figured the band was a shoe-in for some kind of award at this past year’s HPMAs. How could they not win something, with a stellar, slow-burning chunk of country-roots-folk-pop like this? And yet, nada. The award mechanism this year changed, and as a result, Nothing Here Seems Strange fell through the cracks. A damn shame.
6) David Ramirez, Apologies
David Ramirez‘s Apologies won me over practically on the first listen; the album just meanders into the room, climbs up on the stage, and starts to spin out these world-weary, bleak as hell songs of loss and regret and guilt, and as it rolls along, Ramirez comes across like a true heir to Steve Earle’s roots-rock/country mantle. He’s got that cigarette-scratched voice, that understated lyricism, that feeling like you’re right there with him and he’s singing for your benefit alone, the whole deal.
Apologies is an intensely personal album, to boot, a stark, regretful portrait of a man who’s hit the bottom and has begun to make his way back up. The title is meant pretty literally, it seems — with songs like “Friends and Family,” the album makes me think of friends (who won’t be named, obviously) who’ve gone through AA and programs like it and have had to make amends in one way or another to the people they’ve damaged along the way. From the sound of it, Ramirez knows exactly what that feels like.
7) The Rebecca West, Lost and Found
I swear, I fully intended to review Lost and Found, the debut EP from insanely-great Houston/New York trio The Rebecca West. Yeah, I ended up interviewing ’em, which was great to be able to do, but I still wish I could’ve given the EP a real-live review, because it’s flat-out amazing.
Granted, I’m not a hard sell, here. I’ve been a fan of singer/songwriter Cameron Dezen Hammon for years, and a fan of her guitarist/singer brother Alex Dezen (also of The Damnwells) for nearly as long. Given that Cameron’s husband Matt Hammon is a stellar songwriter & singer in his own right, it was inevitable that the music that came out of this band would be amazing. And again, it is.
The star of the show is debut single “Lost and Found,” with its driving, strummed rhythms, low-key Out-West guitars, gorgeous piano, and Dezen Hammon’s crystalline vocals, but the band’s no one-trick pony, aiming both for a more backwoods sound on “Next of Kin” (which I’m told is actually about genocide in the former Yugoslavia), an almost gospel feel on “Firefly” and “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made,” and serene folk-pop on “Enough.” Like I said: flat-out amazing.
8) Stars, The North
I stumbled across Stars‘ latest album, The North, pretty late in the year, late enough that if I’d only thought it was “pretty good,” it wouldn’t be on this list. I was wary at first, though; I’d had an on-again, off-again quasi-love of the band over the past several years, where I’d like one song like mad and then find myself disappointed by the next. Finally, I was psyched to see them at Summerfest a few summers ago but walked away feeling like it was a decent-but-not-great performance. I was ready to shrug and move on.
Even my first listen to The North wasn’t all that auspicious — for most of lead-in track “The Theory Of Relativity,” I felt like I was listening to a pretty blatant retro-’80s thing, and most stuff like that just makes me yawn these days. Then “Backlines” hit, with its urgent, half-pleading female vocals, low-key-but-driving rhythms, and call-and-response guitar lines, and holy shit, I was paying attention. The song is/was like Blondie transposed to the ’00s, and that’s not something I say lightly.
When I got to the unwieldily-entitled “Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It,” I suddenly felt like I was listening to the distillation of everything awesome and amazing about pop music in the past three decades, all boiled down to its purest, most incredible essence. It’s shimmery and soaring and sincere and gorgeous and soulful and insanely catchy, and Amy Millan‘s voice is like Kate Bush in her heyday, while Torquill Campbell sounds like some long-gone-by matinee idol. The album as a whole is thoughtful and warm (despite the coldness hinted at in the title and title track), sweetly playful, and just flat-out joyful, the sound of a band that’s simply in love with making and playing music, whatever the consequences or rewards. The last time I got this vibe from a band, it was from another band of Canadians, The New Pornographers; take that however you want.
9) Craig Finn, Clear Heart Full Eyes
Much as I love The Hold Steady, I was nervous as hell upon receiving Clear Heart Full Eyes, the solo album from Steady frontman Craig Finn. It doesn’t even really have to do with him, honestly, but with another band and frontman who shall go unnamed — I loved said other band, so I jumped at the chance to check out the frontman’s solo album, and…it was fucking terrible. And not only that, but it soured me on the band, as well; I just couldn’t get past it. If that happened with The Hold Steady, well, I’d be downright miserable.
On top of that, this album sees Finn breaking out from his Hold Steady vein, sound-wise, veering out from the classic rock-isms of albums past and into realms a little alien; with Clear Heart Full Eyes, he dabbles in psych-pop, blues, and even country. Happily, Finn proves here that when you’re a great, great songwriter (and no slouch as a musician, either), you can basically do whatever the hell you want.
Eyes doesn’t actually sound like The Hold Steady, for the most part, but it does sound like Craig Finn, and that’s kind of amazing. He swings through the different genres with an astounding nonchalance, like hey, he’s always done stuff like that, just never where you or I would’ve heard it, alright? And in the end, he’s made an album that stands apart from his “real” band but is great all on its own.
10) The Linus Pauling Quartet, Bag of Hammers/Assault on the Vault of the Ancient Bonglords
In some ways, 2012 felt a hell of a lot like The Year of the LP4. First, after hitting some delays and whatnot, the Linus Pauling Quartet finally released new album Bag of Hammers, their first all-new release since 2007’s All Things Are Light, and yeah, it is/was everything I’d hoped it’d be — nothing but sludgy, fuzzed-out, bass-heavy rawk that namechecks Conan the Barbarian, D&D monsters (mind flayers are awesome), 1984, and chimp astronauts over the course of eight titanic tracks.
It’s a great, great addition to the band’s catalog, one that sees ’em trying some different things while keeping it all relatively non-goofy (no, seriously), which is a cool change from where I sit. Hell, by the end of it, I found myself wishing it was longer than its 40-minute running time.
Then, of course, because they’re who they are, the LP4 shrugged and dropped their second release of the year: the 3-CD best-of compilation Assault on the Vault of the Ancient Bonglords, which pulls from the last two decades of the band’s output (42 songs!). Oh, and they wrote a fucking role-playing game module to go with it, complete with playable characters, quasi-handmade maps, and old-school TSR-style artwork. And yeah, it’s the coolest damn packaging I’ve ever even heard of, much less owned. Well played, y’all.
11) Featherface, Actual Magic
I can’t even really put my finger on why I like Featherface so damn much. There’s just something about the band that hits that exact right point inside my skull, and poof, it all magically works. I was pretty sure of it prior to now, but last year’s Actual Magic sealed the deal completely.
The album’s this strange, fuzzy-yet-shiny gem that’s multiple things at the same time — it’s sweet and danceable but simultaneously bleak and melancholy, bright and pretty but simultaneously sharp-edged and proggy, and heartfelt and warm but simultaneously cerebral as hell. The centerpiece is absolutely the gloomy, Bloc Party-gone-Goth piano-dirge “I Saw You Dancing,” but those whole damn thing’s brilliant from end to end, coming off like some wonderfully-done mishmash of Chavez or American Football with Pink Floyd and Radiohead.
12) Bob Mould, Silver Age
Yes, yes, yes. This right here is what I’d been hoping to hear from Bob Mould since, oh, about File Under Easy Listening. Nothing against the music he’s made in the intervening years, but it feels like Mould — who looks more and more like a German avant-garde film director every time I see a picture — after his years in the electronic wilderness, has finally stepped back into the sound that fits him best.
The guitars roar and rage like they used to in The Good Old Days, and Mould snarls like a man clawing his way back into the world. Hell, I can’t even really explain why this is hitting me so damn hard, beyond the fact that as soon as I hear that guitar sound (and the ever-badass drumming of Jon Wurster, to boot), I can’t help but feel this strange, happy, warm feeling come over me. Songs like “The Descent,” “Steam of Hercules,” and the title track of Silver Age feel and sound like “The Act We Act,” “Your Favorite Thing,” “Changes,” “Hoover Dam,” “Helpless,” and every other damn fuzzed-out, head-filling, raw-throated blast of post-punk awesomeness that Sugar was, and goddamn, I’m loving it.
13) Blackmarket Syndicate, And the Peasants Rejoiced
The past few years have been kind of weird for yours truly, politically speaking. I sympathized quite a lot with the Occupy movement, feeling like maybe that grassroots-level kind protest would finally get things moving away from the America-as-a-Corporate-Subsidiary future we all seem to be headed towards. But then I’d look to the world of music, hoping to see that same fury and fire mirrored there in raggedy-edged guitars and full-throated vocals, and instead saw…well, not much.
For whatever reason, politically-minded punk rock has been sidelined, even as the punk sound gets co-opted further and further by gangs of tattooed kids with fucked-up haircuts. And yeah, that got me down. Every generation does different things with the music they make, obviously, but I’d really, truly hoped for something more.
Blackmarket Syndicate saved me. Their most recent album, And the Peasants Rejoiced, is easily the most politically-minded release I’ve heard since Anti-Flag’s For Blood and Empire, back in the darkest days of the Bush Jr. Era. It threw me a little at first, because there seemed to almost be a fatalistic, “everybody’s fucked” sentiment lining the whole thing, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that frontman Randy Rost‘s gravelly, Mike Ness-esque vocals, hard-bitten lyrics, yell-along choruses, and raucous, roots-rock-punk guitars carry with them a subversive sort of defiance. The old system may be broken, they seem to say, but we can sure as hell create a new one.
14) The Manichean, LOVERS
I have a hard time thinking of The Manichean‘s LOVERS as an album; what it really feels like, to be honest, is a piece of avant-garde musical theater, a dramatic, brightly-colored, intense performance up on a stage somewhere that you maybe can’t see from where you’re sitting. There’s a whole set of murky, half-seen characters, an overarching plot that requires some serious attention to follow (and no, I’ll freely admit that I don’t entirely know what it is, myself), and — naturally — sublime songs to push the whole thing along.
All of which makes the band’s performance of the album last year as a real-live musical perfectly, awesomely apt. You don’t necessarily need to see the band to enjoy LOVERS, however — the music stands on its own really freaking well. The songs are layered beyond belief, quietly shifting and morphing while remaining tied together, and the arrangements are beautifully orchestrated, sounding like nothing more than Jeremy Enigk’s wholly-underrated Return of the Frog Queen.
The best part of the whole thing, though, for me, is the chance to hear the band finally amping up and getting wild (so to speak, anyway) in recorded form. I’ve heard the band do some great stuff before, but it’s always felt restrained, in a way, like they were holding themselves back; with LOVERS, happily, they’re all in.
15) Omotai, Terrestrial Grief
So, in the past I’ve gotten pretty used to describing Houston-bred doom-metal outfit Omotai as being like a gigantic, Godzilla-sized monster stomping and crunching its way through some unfortunate city. And yeah, that’s worked pretty well as a way to explain the awesome power of this heavy-as-fuck trio.
After Terrestrial Grief, though, I’ve been forced to revise how I talk about Omotai, because, well, it just doesn’t fit as well anymore. Not that they’re still not as fearsome as they were before, no, because they sure as hell are, but because Grief‘s not the sound of a massive giant tromping across the landscape. Instead, it’s the sound of a cataclysmic storm, a gargantuan tornado of raw, thundering, sharp-edged noise, like a whirlwind full of razorblades that’s roaring right at you.
Grief is still heavy, but now that heaviness is leavened by a more proggy, less bass-centric sensibility; it’s almost closer to Kylesa and Mastodon than it is to Isis (although fans of Neurosis should still immediately listen to this band), and the sound’s fuller and more intricate because of it. High five, y’all.
- P.O.S., We Don’t Even Live Here
- Shearwater, Animal Joy
- New York City Queens, Burn Out Like Roman Candles
- England in 1819, Alma
- Mission of Burma, Unsound
- Second Lovers, Wishers, Dreamers and Liars
- Glass the Sky, Glass the Sky
- Venomous Maximus, Beg Upon The Light
- Kyle Hubbard, You’re Not That Special
- The Sword, Apocryphon
- Fang Island, Major
- Bang Bangz, Bang Bangz EP
- The Cribs, In the Belly of the Brazen Bull
- California Wives, Art History
- The 71’s, We Are The Seventy Ones
- Reptar, Body Faucet
- Weird Party, Hussy
- Tilly and the Wall, Heavy Mood
- Day Sailor, Day Sailor
- Tyagaraja, As Is EP
- Sunrise and Ammunition, Tesseract
- Southern Backtones, La Vie En Noir
- RACES, Year Of The Witch
- excuseMesir, With You In Mind
- Baroness, Yellow & Green
- The Small Sounds, 12
- Shellee Coley, Where It Began
- The Wiggins, The Myth of Man
- Latch Key Kids, Democracy: The Art of Maintaining a State of Fear
- My Education, A Drink For All My Friends
- Jody Seabody and The Whirls, Summer Us
- Sharks and Sailors/Honey and Salt, “All Static”/”Cohere”
- Dinosaur Jr., I Bet On Sky
- Benjamin Wesley, Think/Thoughts
- Balmorhea, Stranger
SONGS THAT BLEW ME AWAY THIS YEAR:
- X Ambassadors, “Falls”
- Dana Buoy, “Call To Be”
- Knights of the Fire Kingdom, “Chinese Dragon”
- David Ramirez, “Stick Around”
- Featherface, “I Saw You Dancing”
- Shearwater, “Animal Life”
- Buxton, “Broke From Bread”
- Stars, “Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It”
- Glass the Sky, “Holiday”
- Blackmarket Syndicate, “Plead the 5th”
- Midnight Norma Lane, “Dead Actress”
- The Eastern Sea, “Santa Rosa”
- Second Lovers, “Tired Man”
- Fang Island, “Sisterly”
- P.O.S., “Fuck Your Stuff”
- Justice, “New Lands”
- Vox and the Hound, “The Man You Thought Was King”
- California Wives, “Marianne”
- New York City Queens, “Tell Me All About It”
- Shellee Coley, “Conversations with Z”
- Omotai, “Spanish Constellation”
- Waterparks, “Silver”
- The 71’s, “Adeline”
- Band of Skulls, “The Devil Takes Care of His Own”
- March to the Sea, “Forest”
- Close Your Eyes, Empty Hands and Heavy Hearts
- The Ex-Optimists, “Nitemare City”/”February”
- Sarah Harmer, “Captive”
- Gotye, “Somebody That I Used to Know (feat. Kimbra)”
- Junius, Reports From the Threshold of Death
- Gemma Ray, “Runaway”
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY:
Art Institute, People Like It When You Fail
Damn. This one hurts, for multiple reasons. First and foremost because not long after I saw twitchy, wild-eyed art-punks Art Institute play one of the best freaking sets I’ve ever seen from any band (no, I’m not kidding, not one bit), the trio acrimoniously called it quits and pretty much fell off the face of the planet. Which sucks, because they were honestly one of the most promising bands in town, and they were doing something that nobody else here is even coming close to doing with their half-primitive (but still cunning) breed of throwback proto-punk.
The other half of the equation is, well, me. The guys in the band were kind enough to send me a copy of their then-brand-new release, People Like It When You Fail back in September of 2011…and I dropped the ball. I fucked up. I ran out of time, I procrastinated, the whole deal, and never reviewed the damn thing. Which, hey, it happens. shrug. It happens a lot, actually — we get a ton of stuff sent to us here, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day (even if we did this full-time, for actual non-Monopoly money) to review it all. We listen to and write about as much as we can, and a lot of times, if it just doesn’t grab us immediately, eh, it goes on the pile.
People Like It When You Fail wasn’t one of those; it shouldn’t have been, at any rate. It was — is — a full-on great album, the product of the insanely singular vision shared (at the time) by the three guys in the band, executed flawlessly and somewhat expensively (see: original cover art by Raymond Pettibon; “roulette groove”; etc.). It’s fun and crazed but dark and menacing as hell, strutting along down the alleyway like it’s daring you to pick a fight. It’s jagged-edged like a rusty can lid but cleaned and polished up just enough to sneak in under your radar and then stick into your gut. It digests everything SST ever put out, gobbles down Noo Yawk No-Wave and ’90s indie-snarl and spits it out as this fully-formed chunk of something wholly Other, and it’s amazing to witness.
And I blew it. This should’ve been one of the top handful of albums in my list last year, and yet, it wasn’t. And now the band’s just a memory and a piece of incredible vinyl. Grab your own piece while you still can.
1. Trust, TRST
Trust is a Canadian gothic synthpop duo composed of Robert Alfons & Austra‘s Maya Postepski. The band’s debut album was released February 28, 2012 to critical acclaim, and the band has toured the world endlessly this past year in support of the album. From start to finish, TRST encompasses this amazing collection of pulsating dance beats, all set to Alfons’ deep, trance-like vocals. I first heard the single “Sulk” and was immediately hooked. “Bulbform,” “Shoom,” and “Dressed for Space” are my other favorites off the album, but it’s best enjoyed from start to finish, letting the songs take you to some dark European night club where nothing exists except you, Alfons, strobe lights, and lasers.
2. Crocodiles, Endless Flowers
I’ve been a fan of the San Diego haze-rock, lo-fi punk band Crocodiles since their debut album Summer of Hate a few years ago. I love the band’s carefree attitude, grungy sound, and singer Brandon Welchez‘s vocals. Endless Flowers, the band’s third full-length, is the band’s most accessible and polished album yet. It’s still got that classic Crocodiles punk rock stamp on it, but takes away some of the haze and adds in some 1960s surf-pop sound. I’ve seen a cool progression in their sound over the years. From the lo-fi days of Summer of Hate (which brought us “I Wanna Kill”) to Sleep Forever, which was a much more polished and cohesive album, and now with Endless Flowers, their best release yet.
3. Dum Dum Girls, End of Daze EP
Dum Dum Girls came onto the scene with the release of their debut, the lo-fi grungy-yet-pretty album I Will Be on Sub Pop in 2010. They surprised listeners with a cleaned up, less hazy sounding EP showcasing singer Dee Dee‘s beautiful vocals on 2011’s He Gets Me High. Only in Dreams followed in 2011 in similar fashion, and 2012 saw the release of End of Daze, which many people call the band’s best effort to date. End of Daze is a collection of five strong, confident, beautiful tracks that rock harder and sound better than any previous DDG release; it’s stunning. At only 17 minutes long, the EP has a way of stopping time and drawing listeners in to a place where nothing else seems to matter,
4. School of Seven Bells, Put Your Sad Down EP
Put Your Sad Down was my first real experience with synth-pop duo School of Seven Bells, and it was a great place to start. It’s the band’s fourth release, and my favorite collection of music they’ve released thus far. It starts with the album’s title track, taking over 12 minutes to get through, but which still feels like it should never end. The song starts off fast-paced with pulsating synths, continues in a similar pattern through half of the song, slows down for a couple minutes in the middle with some drawn-out, shoegazey sounds, and then builds to an even better, louder, and faster ending before fading off. The EP continues in this fast-paced, electro-dance pattern through all five songs, without slowing down for a second. “Painting a Memory” and “Faded Heart” make the EP incredible, both electronic dream pop tracks at their best.
5. Chairlift, Something
Recovering well after the once three-piece indie outfit lost its third member, Chairlift returned with Something, their second album and first release in almost four years. Something is a mix of synthpop dance tracks, some faster and some slower, accompanied by all sorts of interesting sounds and tempos set to Caroline Polachek‘s beautiful, delicate-yet-strong vocals. My favorites include “I Belong in Your Arms” (one of my favorite tracks of the year hands down), “Met Before,” “Cool as a Fire,” and “Ghost Tonight.”
6. First Aid Kit, The Lion’s Roar
Swedish sisters First Aid Kit first came to light after they posted a video of them singing a Fleet Foxes cover that subsequently went viral. The Lion’s Roar is the sisters’ sophomore album and proves they can stand on their own two feet. The songwriting is brilliant, and the sister’s harmonies even more so. Their folksy tunes are some of the most beautiful collection of music I’ve heard, and the album from start to finish is fantastic. “King of the World” features indie legend Conor Oberst. Also try radio friendly track “Emmylou,” “The Lion’s Roar,” and “Blue.”
7. Grimes, Visions
There’s probably no artist that has been more talked about this past year than Claire Boucher, aka Grimes. Whether it’s been criticism or acclaim, it seems we can’t get enough of this “post-Internet” music sensation. I first saw Grimes open for fellow Canadian band Austra in 2011, before the release of Visions, and I fell in love with her unique style and extremely catchy dance beats immediately.
I was also impressed that one girl on the stage could create all these unique sounds and vocal loops. When I first heard “Genesis” and “Oblivion,” I couldn’t help but play those songs over and over as loud as they could go. Those two songs are so good that it’s easy to overlook all the other songs on Visions. It took me a long time to get past those two songs and focus on the rest of the album, but once I did, I found an array of pop tunes worthy of a listen, over and over and over again.
8. Diamond Rings, Free Dimensional
Diamond Rings is the music project of Canadian John O’Regan, and Free Dimensional is his second album. It’s an honest, energetic collection of ’80s-inspired dance-pop songs set to his deep vocals. “I’m Just Me,” “All the Time,” and “Runaway Love” are the album’s best songs, and “Day & Night” brings out another side of Diamond Rings as O’Regan raps through the lyrics. On Free Dimensional, O’Regan isn’t afraid to be himself, and the album encourages listeners to do the same.
9. Purity Ring, Shrines
Purity Ring seemed to come out of nowhere, and all of a sudden they were selling out shows across the country and receiving critical acclaim from their debut album. I must admit that I jumped on the Purity Ring bandwagon pretty late in the game, but in this case, better late than never. The Canadian dream-pop band creates trippy electronic tunes accompanied by singer Megan James‘ fragile vocals. There’s not much variance in the sound of each of the album’s 11 tracks, but in this case, it doesn’t matter. “Crawlersout” and “Fineshrine” are my favorites.
10. Niki & the Dove, Instinct
Niki & the Dove have been kind of a mystery for the past couple years. There was news that they signed with Sub Pop and a single — “The Fox” — was released in 2011, and then a digital-only EP also in 2011, but it was all somewhat mysterious. Finally in 2012, Niki & the Dove released their debut full-length, and it seemed to shed some light on the mystery. Half of the songs on Instinct had previously been released on either a single or their previous EP, and the other half were brand new.
Either way, Instinct is a great collection of the Swedish electronic duo’s current discography. It’s electronic music that has this almost Native American tribal feel during some songs, along with pounding drums and vocals I often compare in my mind to that of Stevie Nicks. The album is such an interesting collaboration of sounds and styles that it’s worth a listen. “The Fox,” “Tomorrow,” “The Beach,” and “DJ Ease My Mind” are my favorites.
Here it is again! The (almost-)beginning of a new year, so we get to reminisce about what was so great about the last one. For me, 2012 was the year of the music video. Our local artists here in Houston push out a ton of new music, but they’re a little more reticent about their music videos, so I always ooze with delight when some come my way. With that, I present the best from 2012.
1. 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 (Clean Slate/Epic). When I saw her back in March, playing the greatest concert I’ve seen in easily half a decade, Fiona Apple took her bows after 60 minutes and left the stage, never to return despite the ecstatic pleas for an encore that continued for a good ten minutes. But we didn’t feel cheated. On the contrary: If having her for no more than an hour was the price for watching her burn that hot, so be it.
Apple’s always been emotionally naked; that’s kind of her thing. What’s different at the moment is her focus, which is so razor-sharp that she can’t tell whether it’s freeing her or taking her down, and she can’t unlock either way. The unraveling gallop of “Left Alone” may provide The Idler Wheel‘s central thesis: “It hurt more than it ought to hurt, I went to work to cultivate a callous.” (Don’t bother sticking around for a “[sic],” because she’s long gone by the time you realize she needs one.) You can talk forever about Apple’s depth as a songwriter or her exquisite agony as a performer, but for some reason, everybody seems to miss her equally fine skill with the recording studio. Just turn to closer “Hot Knife,” where Apple’s voice repeatedly folds back on itself like a swordsmith tempering a blade, recombining simple koans of desire in kaleidoscopic fashion, but with a determined intensity nonetheless.
2. Sara Watkins, Sun Midnight Sun (Nonesuch). While her former Nickel Creek bandmate Chris Thile was out embarrassing himself with foolishness like touring with Yo Yo Ma and winning MacArthur genius grants, Sara Watkins quietly put together an album that would have marked her as one of our premiere singer/songwriters, if she could just get anyone to notice.
With an assist from Fiona Apple (who helps her out on the stampeding cowboy holler that is “You’re The One I Love”), Watkins spends Sun Midnight Sun exploring a frustrated melancholy well-suited to alt-folky arrangements that have both a steam-powered drive and the built-in illusion that they might topple over at any second. What makes “When It Pleases You” so heartbreaking is her implicit acceptance of the status quo despite knowing that she deserves better. (For an opening argument, the line “You love me when it pleases you” sure doesn’t pull a lot of punches.) Echoes of her bluegrass past whir past from time to time — kickoff instrumental “The Foothills,” the harmony vocals and plunking waltz of the unrequited “Impossible” — but that’s just Watkins nodding to her roots. They may be what anchors her to where she comes from, but she’s grown higher and wider since then.
3. Bloc Party, Four (Frenchkiss). I’ve always found Bloc Party frustrating, usually more interested in paying tribute to the sound of British postpunk than in doing much with it. So it’s a little ironic that their first album to get me well and truly het up is the one that seems to have paid the most attention to the sonics. I mean, the instruments on Four are unmissable, right up in your fucking face. But Four manages the feat of being both angular and as narrow as a laser, giving the band a tactility and urgency it’s never really had before.
It’s present in the dirty rumble in every bass note, the heavy-fisted whomp suddenly infusing the drums, and even Kele Okereke‘s British accent, which has been turned from a simple factor of personal geography into a way of contouring the attitude behind his words. “Team A” captures the transformation, pitting stuttering, complementary guitar and bass riffs against each other before eventually having them collide in a single, unison snarl, while the speedy, punkish scrape of closer “We’re Not Good People” is the inevitable endgame of Bloc Party’s new approach. It’s not pretty, and it’s not nice. And it’s goddamned thrilling.
4. Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre Is Evil (8ft.). It’s a testament to just how good Amanda Palmer is that “The Bed Song,” as searing, clinical, and wrenching a post-mortem on a doomed relationship as has ever been set to tape, seems like the track that’s too on the nose. Hooking up with a fierce backing band as adept at sweeping anthems as with terse New Wave guitar rock, Palmer gets herself a gang and lights up a beacon for the weirdos and art nerds, not because they can’t stand up for themselves — unlike, say, Lady Gaga, she doesn’t need to offer acceptance because it’s already assumed as a given — but because that’s how community is created.
5. Jellyfish, Live At Bogart’s (Omnivore). Sure, this time capsule from 1991 is largely redundant if you already have the out-of-print, limited-edition, four-disc Fan Club box set. But you don’t, and the five new additions that complete the set make it indispensable even for fools like me that do.
For a band that seemed ideally suited for the studio — they couldn’t look more at home in the recording-session photos adorning 1993’s Split Milk if there were a bed set up in the corner — Jellyfish were flabbergastingly capable of transferring what seemed like meticulous multi-tracked creations to the live stage, right down to the four-part harmony vocals that would be a pain in the ass even if the lead singer weren’t simultaneously manning a specially-modified stand-up drum kit. Like the sharp power-poppers (and pop-history obsessives) they were, they picked up quite a few things from Cheap Trick, like the importance of opening with a surging greeting song (“Hello”) and appealing directly to female fans’ hearts (“Will You Marry Me”).
Which makes you wonder whether releasing Live At Bogart’s 20 years ago when it was still fresh might have had the same effect as Live At Budokan, giving a band that had flirted with mainstream success the firm footing they needed to keep going beyond one more album. There’s no way of knowing for sure, of course. No matter. We’ll always have Bogart’s.
6. Lucius, Lucius (ilovelucius). It’s funny thinking of a four-song, 14-minute EP as needing time to sink in. But opening track “Don’t Just Sit There” makes Lucius seem like they’re going to be your typical Watson Twins-style alt-folk outfit. Then the first changeup comes with the “Ah-ah-HAH!” chant that propels the handclappy and dark “Turn It Around,” which turns girl-group ebullience against itself. That gives way to the slow, aching harmonies that seem to wrench “Go Home” from the gut, and by the time the slashing, rhythmic stomp of “Genevieve” has concluded, the fact that Lucius has more in its quiver than what “Don’t Just Sit There” initially suggested gives it more weight the next time around. It’s a risky gambit, potentially sacrificing identity for breadth. But rather than showcasing four different bands that happen to share the same members, Lucius presents a single band that can do four different things, with the conjoined-twin vocals of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig providing a center around which everything else can pivot effortlessly.
7. Corin Tucker Band, Kill My Blues (Kill Rock Stars). Corin Tucker‘s 2010 release 1,000 Years was solid enough, but it could be frustratingly tentative, muted, and distant, three words that could never be applied to Sleater-Kinney (and I’d go ahead and add “frustratingly” to that list, as well). Kill My Blues wastes no time reawakening the fierce rocker in her, blowing out of the gate with “Groundhog Day” courtesy of a band that seems to have suddenly remembered who their boss is.
Where her former bandmates’ current band Wild Flag mines a love of riffage and guitar heroics characteristic of the pre-punk mid-1970s, Tucker pulls from the postpunk moment that bloomed with the twilight of the decade, with tightly elastic riffs, punk-disco basslines, and twitchily danceable beats aplenty. Kill My Blues is still marked by a modesty that prevents it from scaling the heights Sleater-Kinney regularly summited (though the closing “Tiptoe” comes close enough that you might need calipers to tell the difference). But if 1,000 Years was Tucker’s McCartney, a necessary head-clearing exercise of a solo debut, Kill My Blues is her Ram, where she cracks her knuckles and gets back in the game.
8. The Who, Live At Hull 1970 (Geffen). Is it cheap to include Live At Hull 1970 just because it’s a 42-year-old concert recording by one of the best live bands in history at its impossible peak? Yep. That’s also what makes it a no-brainer. So what if it runs on a parallel track to 1995’s already stunning expanded reissue of Live At Leeds? You’re telling me that you wouldn’t have seen the Who twice in 1970 if you had the opportunity?
The band’s got its shit together on “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” which ironically makes it inferior to the versions from Leeds (where Townshend‘s muttered “Oh, dear” is the entire set’s secret fulcrum) and the Rolling Stones’ Rock And Roll Circus, but we’re talking incremental differences here. Besides, that “Go!” hollered off-mic launching “Summertime Blues” is, in its own way, the heart of Hull. As a band, the Who were at their best flying into action as a single, four-headed entity. And the Who were never better than they were right at this moment.
9. Lianne La Havas, Is Your Love Big Enough? (Nonesuch). As England’s latest Lady Neo-Soul to spill onto our benighted shores, Lianne La Havas is as languid as Corinne Bailey Rae, as emotive as Beyoncé and as probing as Meshell Ndegeocello, all at once. Is Your Love Big Enough? captures her simply showing off what she’s capable of, from the multiple Liannes tracked into inhuman-sounding harmony á la Imogen Heap during the opening “Don’t Wake Me Up” right down to the electric guitar as bendy as a pipe cleaner that provides the only support on “Tease Me.”
Meanwhile, La Havas keeps approaching her topics from oblique angles, with “Au Cinema” attempting to make sense of a relationship through the distance of reimagining it being played out on the big screen, and the cocktail-jazzy “Age” celebrating a May-December romance from the perspective of the spring side of the affair. Even a seemingly straightforward sentiment like “They say our love won’t last forever / They could be wrong” hinges on that crucial “could,” as if La Havas sees the doubt and gives it just enough weight to wonder. Admittedly, Is Your Love Big Enough? is plagued by a small handful of lulls, but on a debut album by a 22-year-old, that’s actually reassuring. She’s got plenty of time for perfect yet.
10. The Ting Tings, Sounds From Nowheresville (Columbia). Every time I put this record by The Ting Tings on, two thoughts occur to me: how it’s not consistent or substantial enough be Top Ten-worthy, and how damn fine it sounds. But you confront those facts — both of which remain as true as I type this as they were before I bumped Sera Cahoone‘s lovely Deer Creek Canyon and added this one to this list (sorry, Sera) — long enough and eventually the weight of the latter reaches critical mass.
Maybe more than any other recent album by a group that seems to understand and accept (with glee, even) the current expectations of Top 40 radio and the music industry in general, Sounds From Nowheresville has a clear Side A/Side B division, frontloaded with the clear chart torpedoes while the back half is so diverse as to sound like it was programmed entirely at random. It’s a pop album that hits all the necessary pleasure buttons without a hint of guilt (on your part or on theirs). And it tanked utterly, because nobody knows anything anymore.
WIDOWS AND ORPHANS:
1. Pussy Riot, “Putin Lights Up the Fires.” Once the Pussy Riot saga — complete with an anarchist collective, a thought-police crackdown, international celebrity outrage, and, yes, a crushworthy rebel girl for indie boys to swoon over (which, for all I know, could very well have been a deliberate part of the provocation) — reached its media-saturation breaking point, all the group needed for their coup de grace was to release a great punk song. And then they released a flat-out great punk song.
2. St. Vincent, “Krokodil.” Annie Clark buried her wildest, most aggressive track in ages (maybe ever) on a Record Store Day 7″. Far be it from me to say that two and a half minutes of rending her body and soul to shreds in the thrall of a drug that’s incapable of loving her back trumps her album and tour with the delightfully quizzical David Byrne. But that’s exactly what I’m saying.
3. Butterfly Boucher, “I Wanted To Be The Sun.” With a bouncy chank that erupts into a chorus where all the pieces rev up at different times, Sarah McLachlan‘s bassist nails the agitation that comes with pining for something you have no reason to think you’ll ever get. “I don’t want to hurt anymore,” sings Boucher, before getting her hopes up all over again.
4. Amanda Brown, “Stars.” When Brown performed Grace Potter’s song on The Voice, I’d already heard and dismissed the original along with the rest of The Lion The Beast The Beat. But Brown’s cover (in both its live-show and studio-download versions) was a revelation, putting the lie to the assumption that Potter and the Nocturnals are necessarily the best interpreters of their own material; their determination to be ragged-but-right too often only achieves half of its aim, while Brown’s controlled but rich voice cleaned up the edges enough to crystallize the longing and sense of insignificance. Floored, I revisited the original and remained unmoved. Potter gave us the song, no small accomplishment. But Brown made it glow.
5. Eisley, “192 Days.” The buried gem of Eisley‘s Deep Space EP initially seems so twee that you can’t believe it’s not being played on a ukulele. But Eisley have spent ten years — ten years! — subverting exactly those types of expectations, and as Sherri Dupree goes deeper into an unabashed expression of delirious love for her husband, she adds more colors. That’s still not enough to keep it going, until suddenly, at the exact right instant, just when the song is about to tip from sweet to cloying, there comes a bridge that lifts the veil to reveal the darkness that’s kept at bay solely by the joy exploding in her heart. By the time she ends the song with a “Bup-ba-da-da,” we not only know where her childlike wonderment comes from but have seen what’s in store if she loses it.
6. Grace Woodroofe, “Transformer.” In which Woodroofe vows to be whatever it is you want her to be, courtesy of a bluesy swing that’s Jack White via Nina Simone. She has an inkling that it’s degrading, but she’s too blinded by lust to worry about it.
7. Grimes, “Oblivion.” Claire Boucher‘s woozy and ethereal almost-pop song glides along on burbling synthesizers and layers upon layers of her breathy coo that are so effortless that it’s easy to miss the violence in what she’s singing. But that’s not just by design, that may be the entire point: We live in a world where horrible things are possible, so it’s an act of defiance to choose otherwise.
8. Martha Wainwright, “Proserpina.” Wainwright‘s lament for a daughter left behind was the last song written by Kate McGarrigle, folk icon and Wainwright’s mother, before cancer took her, and Wainwright recorded it after becoming a mother herself and thus being able to empathize with what it would mean to have your child taken from you. Thus does the singer beg and wail over her mother’s loss using the words provided by that selfsame mother. “Proserpina” sounds like it could be centuries old, and Wainwright sings it like she’s looking you dead in the eye and forcing you to bear witness to bottomless grief.
9. Brandi Carlile, “That Wasn’t Me.” Step 9: Make direct amends to persons we had harmed wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Guided By Voices, “God Loves Us.” So single-minded in both its lyric and the hacking guitar churn that there’s no room to doubt the devotion that Tobin Sprout‘s espousing. In Sprout’s hands, it’s a simple cosmic fact.
BETTER LATE THAN NEVER:
This year’s Better Late Than Never involves so many cheats, workarounds and hedges that I’m equivocating and making it a two-fer. The English Beat’s Special Beat Service (Go Feet/I.R.S., 1982) should probably be disqualified from consideration from the get-go, as I discovered while listening to it as part of Shout! Factory‘s all-inclusive The Complete Beat box set that I already knew it more or less by heart, courtesy of growing up in the shadow of an older sister who apparently, as I’d forgotten, played it all the time. (Bear in mind, that’s full recall despite my having not heard it at all in nearly 30 years.)
Released at a time when bands thought little not only of releasing an album a year but also of evolving substantially in that time, Special Beat Service pulls back a bit from the worldbeat that characterized much of sophomore album Wha’ppen? without retreating to the Two-Tone orthodoxy that provided debut I Just Can’t Stop It with its unifying (though not exclusive) approach. If anything, it’s a more expansive form of ska, tight when it needs to be (the mechanistic “Rotating Head”) and easygoing when it doesn’t (toasting session “Pato And Roger A Go Talk”). All this plus a pop song whose true, juvenile meaning snaps into focus once you hear its title as “Save It Fellator.”
There are no extended blowjob jokes on The Very Best Of Vince Guaraldi (Fantasy, 2012) — seemingly no blowjob jokes at all, if you can believe it — just a whole lotta 1960s piano jazz. (Not that those are mutually exclusive.) And again, the music that made Snoopy dance has been hardwired into my system for more decades than I care to admit. But it appears that I’d never actually sat down and listened to Guaraldi before. Take “Linus And Lucy,” which is one of those pieces of music that you’ve heard so many times that you assume it holds no active excitement anymore, when in fact you’ve simply stopped paying attention to it; it’s a brilliant, muscular composition.
There’s a playful spirit marking Guaraldi’s playing — you get a sense of nothing so much as his hands lightly darting across the keys of his piano at all times — that was present well before Charlie Brown and friends crossed his orbit. And nowhere is that lightness more vivid than on “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” so breathtakingly wonderful that my immediate response on hearing it for the first time was to lament that I’d never known it before that moment.
10) Shearwater, Animal Joy
Here’s an album I had overly high expectations of. Shearwater‘s last two albums have been in heavy rotation for the last several years and their last album, The Golden Archipelago was one of my top albums of 2010. I even made the pilgrimage in January, 2011, to Austin to see them perform their last three albums in succession — yes, three albums, back to back to back! And what a triumphant concert it was!
Then Shearwater went into hibernation to record their next album. Interestingly enough, this was during the time Alkari was also recording in Austin. We even recorded organ at Good Danny’s, the same studio where they had recorded Animal Joy. When I was there, I saw what looked to be a box containing masters of the album, and being the superfan I am, there was some temptation to ask to hear them (I resisted, as we were pretty busy with our own music).
Months later while recording in Austin, I even discovered the album on our producer’s computer’s iTunes and took a sneak peek. But what I heard was a brand new Shearwater. Gone were minimal soundscapes echoing with glockenspiels, tribal drums, and cathedral reverb. In its place was an indie-rock band fronted by bandleader Jonathan Meiburg. I tried to understand the artist’s need for expanding his horizons and just go with it. But their new direction seemed to me at least to strip away some of what made them so amazing in the first place. It’s a lot easier to be a run-of-the-mill indie-rock band than what Shearwater has been doing for the last three albums. Listening to this album, I had to get used to the new direction they were taking. Meiburg’s voice is there, and the songs are great. I just had to let go of my expectations. Letting go of expectations became one of the themes of 2012.
Top Songs: “You As You Were,” “Run The Banner”
9) Muse, The 2nd Law
Muse has become an unstoppable Rockzilla, yet I find their music irresistible. My wife the Rolling Stones, jazz, and classic rock lover rolls her eyes and laughs at Muse, or maybe she cringes and leaves the room when they go on the turntable.
She’s right; they are operatic, ridiculous, bombastic, outrageous caricatures of their former selves. Yet here they sit with their album at number nine. It just goes to show how much I love ridiculous, bombastic, operatic rock! Opener “Supremecy” comes off like a James Bond film theme, and then the second song “Madness” switches gears into a love song that would fit George Michael’s voice a lot better than Matt Bellamy, but it is on the Queen-like production of this tune that Muse shines brightest. Next up is “Panic Station” which sounds uncannily like a song Houston’s own Electric Attitude would write — and I should know, because my band shared a practice space with those guys!
Anyway, I’m not going to go through the rest of it track by track, but I’ll end by saying I have been torn by Muse’s output for three albums now. They’ve continued to make great music, but it’s not up to the quality of Absolution or their masterpiece Origin of Symmetry. It seems the more famous they become, they more preposterous they want to be. And so ironic that they are completely the huge band they are while Jimmy Gnecco, who I’ll talk about shortly, stays relatively obscure.
Top Songs: “Madness,” “Explorers,” “Liquid State”
8) The Manichean, LOVERS
The next two albums and an EP are at a three-way virtual tie in my year end favorites list. They’ve all been in my CD player for much of the year, and I’ve seen each of these bands at least twice this year. And… They’re all from Houston! First up is LOVERS, by The Manichean.
I’ve been following them in Houston for four years now, and they have become one of my top three must-see Houston bands (as well as friends) in the process. After two original EPs and a third remix EP, it was finally time to hear what Cory Sinclair, Justice Tirapelli-Jamail, Sean Spiller, and company could do with a full hour at their disposal. And with it they have practically invented a new rock genre. I don’t know if anyone has tried to name it, but I will give it a stab: I call it “Soliloquy-Rock”. If they don’t like that term, maybe I can come up with something else (I’ve got backups).
The album unfolds in a romantic story, with singer Cory Sinclair as its first-person lovestruck narrator. From acoustic ballads (I feel like I’m floating and watching the story unfold from above on “Yukimi’s Granddaughter”) to all out indie-rock anthems (Dylan Jay’s soloistic drum fills at the end of “The Gosling” are Keith Moon-worthy!) to orchestral pieces (“Melotonin” should be in a film), the songwriting and performing is top-rate. The lyrics summon you into the plot and invite you to listen to the whole album from start to finish. Even some so-called concept albums don’t manage this kind of story coherency. In the end, you realize that the boy doesn’t get the girl, but will live to love again.
Top Songs: “Between Orchids and Collarbones,” “Innocence,” “Yukimi’s Granddaughter,” “Melotonin”
7) The Dead Revolt, A Night of Nostalgia EP
If you read last year’s list, you discovered that near the top of my countdown was Houston’s The Dead Revolt‘s Vanixer album. These three young men (the youngest is 17!) look up to the classic rockers of the ’60s and ’70s who were required by their record companies to put out an album every year — maybe that’s why they feel the need to be so prolific themselves. They’re back at it again in 2012 with a new EP called A Night of Nostalgia. They told me they’d actually have made an album if they could have afforded the studio time, though with four long songs, the EP clocks in at about 25 minutes, so it’s almost a classic rock LP. Wow, someone with the means needs to pick up the tab with these kids and get them a proper record deal!
With this EP, they prove that Vanixer was no fluke. We get more of the odd time signatures, intricate-yet-heavy rock drumming from Dylan Golvach (one of my top three favorite Houston drummers), guitar (George Baba) that finds influences from Jimmy Page, Santana, and Eddie Van Halen, and bass (Spencer Golvach) playing that mirrors my own influences, be it McCartney, Jack Bruce, or John Paul Jones. With A Night of Nostalgia, they’ve honed their sound into a tight prog-rock fireball. While the vocals will definitely remind you of Cedric Bixler-Zavala in his At The Drive-In days, The Dead Revolt’s melodies will dig deeper into your brain than the typical ATDR melodies will. As I re-read my Vanixer review, I find that I wrote exactly what I want to write again. HOUSTON — wake up! This band is the real deal!
Top Songs: All of them (there’s only 4!)
6) Buxton, Nothing Here Seems Strange
At the record release party in February 2012 for Buxton‘s Nothing Here Seems Strange, the band gained my respect, but earlier in that same week, I started listening to their brilliant new album from New West Records. It made an immediate impact on me, and then after the concert, was firmly planted as one of the 2012 albums to beat.
Fans of Wilco, REM, The Band, and Whiskeytown, take my advice and buy this album — the songwriting on it is top-notch. The bridge section in “Broke From Bread” is one of the most rhythmically interesting sections of any song released this year! Certainly, I thought, it would be a shoe-in for album of the year at the 2012 Houston Press Music Awards. I felt embarrassed when the HPMA nomination list was named and Nothing Here Seems Strange was not on the list of best albums! I mean, I wanted the honor of my band losing to this album, and it wasn’t even nominated.
What is wrong with you, Houston? (And by extension, Houston Press, though they can only deflect the responsibility of the HPMA nominations and awards to the fans.) It seems Buxton was too busy being musicians to campaign for such trifles as a hometown award — and good for them! Let me hand you the award anyway, Buxton. I can say with confidence there’s no more important Houston album from 2012 than Nothing Here Seems Strange. Thank you, Jason Willis, Chris Wise, Justin Terrell, Sergio Trevino, Austin Lloyd Sepulvado, and Haley Barnes — keep up the great work!
Top Songs: “Broke From Bread,” “Blown a Fuse,” “Boy Of Nine,” “Oh My Boy”
5) Grizzly Bear, Shields
Brooklyn based Grizzly Bear‘s Shields has grabbed me and won’t let go. The opening track, “Sleeping Ute,” is their best work to date. Each successive song makes a haunting impact, yet doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s lush and beautiful. Fans of The Antlers (also from Brooklyn), Deerhunter, Olivia Tremor Control, and Radiohead’s OK Computer (what self-respecting hipster isn’t a fan of that?) will all find something to enjoy on this album.
Even though this album only came out in September, it has grown on me quickly. The double vinyl arrived later in the year and soon got many thorough “living room” listens on the good system, instead of the car or computer. Shields is probably the most “indie-cred” album in my top 10. It’s gotten a lot of year-end nods from the big magazines, and for good reason. Hopefully I’ll get to see them if they tour this year…
Top Songs: “Sleeping Ute,” “Yet Again,” “What’s Wrong”
4) David Byrne & St. Vincent, Love This Giant
St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) has been an obsession of mine since her album Actor was my favorite album of 2009. I never expected her to team up with “the Dean of the College of American Indie Pop,” which is what I consider Byrne to be. Seems like it took the “Pitchfork crowd” (that’s what I call the narrow-minded-national-indie-rock-gang-of-critics) by surprise, as well, because the album hasn’t been exactly raved over, though I absolutely love it.
In ways, it comes off as kind of a teacher/student science project where the student shows she has just as much to add to the conversation. It also comes off like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. “You’ve got your David Byrne mixed up in my St. Vincent!” And yeah, it tastes delicious. The live show of this album (as I wrote earlier today) was incredible; it was the concert where these songs made their mark. Intermixed between the collaborated songs Byrne would sing his songs, and St. Vincent would sing hers, and it was this interplay that showed how well their collaborative songs worked. Now I’m left to wonder if Annie Clark will continue her “odd-numbered year” albums. It would make her quite prolific if she was able to return next year with a new St. Vincent album. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Top Songs: “Who,” “The Forest Awakes,” “Lazarus”
3) The Life and Times, No One Loves You Like I Do
Ahh, the top 3! I can’t say I had one super stand-out album this year, one album that will go into directly into my top 100 of all time (a different project I’m working on). The album I listened to the most this year was actually 2011’s Prologue by The Milk Carton Kids, and that one is going into my top 100, along with Manchester Orchestra‘s Simple Math.
That said, there are three albums that came out early in 2012 and kept my attention the whole year. Two of the three bands, I got to see live, and the other one, shamefully, I didn’t. I wrote earlier in the “live countdown” about seeing The Life and Times at SXSW in a little backyard bar on Sixth Street. Seeing a band live and immediately buying the album from them does not happen that much to me. Usually I’ll see a band and then not have the money or not be floored enough to buy it, or I’ll think, “I’ll just listen to it on Rhapsody awhile to be sure I want it…” But that day, I had to buy No One Loves You Like I Do, directly from Allen Epley, the band’s singer. We exchanged pleasantries, and I told him if they come to Houston, my band wants to open.
Anyway, about the sound — it’s a trio, with melodic, driving rhythms, lots of arpeggiated guitars, soloistic single guitar lines (reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins at times), heavy on the mid-range as the bassist, Eric Abert, plays with a pick. They have a little bit of a Fugazi sound to them, and a couple of times they remind me of Radiohead’s heavier stuff like the song “National Anthem,” but The Life and Times are tough to pigeonhole. As for the songs, they’re all related to love, possibly obsessive/possessive stalker love — over a twelve-day period.
All the songs are named “Day One,” “Day Two,” etc. At first I thought maybe the songs were just named after the day in the studio, like they tried to write a song each day and called the songs after that particular day — cool idea, right? The songs are not in day order on the album, but if you put them in order it seems as though it tells a bit of a story. But I don’t get the feeling it’s a happy one. No matter, dark albums like this one make me happy!
Top Songs: “Day Six,” “Day One,” “Day Nine”
2) Band of Skulls, Sweet Sour
Band of Skulls play a type of blues-rock that was there 40 years ago and will be around in another 40 years. Blue Cheer, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix pioneered this type of music, then Led Zeppelin perfected it with their first album. There are no surprises left in it; that alone will stop a lot of people from giving a band who plays that kind of music any credit. From that viewpoint, Band of Skulls is not bringing much new to the table.
I used to be that kind of music snob. It’s probably why I couldn’t stand The White Stripes (no bass player, and I thought they were ultra-gimmicky) or why I don’t like The Black Keys (no bass player, either, songs don’t grab me). Band of Skulls, however, with their new album Sweet Sour, have successfully revived this simple three-piece rock formula. Before seeing them live, I just thought they had a couple of good songs. It’s live where they shine brightest. After seeing them at SXSW, I started listening to their album on a regular basis, and it became my go-to album of 2012. I never got tired of it. The rockers are the best, but the slower, lighter songs give you a little respite and gear you up for the next rocker. It’s a simple formula that works just right.
Top Songs: “Sweet Sour,” “The Devil Takes Care of His Own,” “Lies,” “You’re Not Pretty But You Got It Goin’ On”
1) Dry the River, Shallow Bed
And we finally reach the end. I hope I didn’t step on any toes through this exercise. It amazes me that I actually have met so many of the bands that I listen to and love with everything I’ve got. So I hope I didn’t say something that rubbed someone the wrong way, as I love you all. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see or meet Dry the River. For the life of me, I can’t remember how I started listening to this album, this band. I know they played SXSW in March, so it upsets me that I missed out on seeing them — I wasn’t yet a fan.
Then I also know they played Austin City Limits Fest. It ended up being too expensive, even to get a one-day pass. Funny thing, there were three bands that I wanted to see at SXSW, Dry the River, Rufus Wainwright, and The Whigs, and they were all playing exactly at 2PM on Saturday afternoon. I just said, “forget it.” Hopefully this British quintet will come back to America soon.
Now, let’s discuss this album. It’s beautiful. I discussed the band Shearwater earlier in the countdown, and Dry The River remind me a lot of Shearwater. There’s also a hint of Travis, a Scottish band that made its mark in the late ’90s. And though I’m not a fan of Coldplay, I certainly hear shades of Coldplay in Dry the River. Dry The River has melodies and songs that had me reaching for their album every time I got in the car wanting something soothing (in other words, something that was not Band of Skulls or The Life and Times). I was also looking for a 2012 album that could catch the feelings of my 2011 favorite, Manchester Orchestra’s Simple Math.
You’d think the M.O. side project Bad Books would have done it, as they put out an album this year. And that album deserves a lot more of my attention, for sure, but this lush, gorgeous, orchestral Brit-pop album gets the nod. Most likely, you haven’t heard this album, so I implore you to find it; at least check out all their videos on YouTube. They’ve recently released an “acoustic” version of this album. I haven’t listened to it yet, as I like the more rocking parts of the version I have. Maybe I’ll give it a listen soon.
BEST SHOWS OF 2012 (IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER):
As an introduction, I saw over 300 different bands in 2012. I was on a mission to see more bands in one year than I ever have, and I succeeded (and then some). To narrow it down to 10 is pretty impossible, and then to list them in order of “most entertaining” or “most memorable,” well, that is completely impossible. So I decided to attempt to do just my favorite shows of the year in chronological order:
1 – Radiohead, 3/4/12 at Toyota Center. This show gets chosen more because it was my first chance to shoot photos at Toyota Center than for anything else. I had seen my friend Levi Johnson, who works for Live Nation and Toyota Center, a couple months prior and jokingly told him I’d like to shoot photos at Radiohead. He said to “put in for it, and you never know.” So I did, using my Space City Rock connections and was fortunate enough to get the photo pass.
If you’re an aspiring rock and roll photographer, my two pieces of advice are: #1. Go to as many Houston band shows you can and practice your butt off. Upstairs at Fitzgerald’s is where I have been “cutting my teeth” for the past two years. The Houston bands will appreciate your photos more than any national act and you’ll make a few friends in the local music scene. #2. Get connected with a good Houston blog (not SCR, because that’s my territory!) and start making connections with Live Nation. But I emphasize #1, because at shows at Toyota Center, you only get three songs to take photos, and if you’re like me, you are going to be nervous taking photos of one of your favorite bands.
Radiohead — obviously, they were amazing. They’re one of my top three all-time favorite live bands, and I hadn’t seen them in years. Certainly I missed their OK Computer songs, as they only played a couple from that album, but a night with Radiohead is always a must.
2 – Band of Skulls, 3/15/12 at Cedar Street Courtyard (SXSW Day Show). Band of Skulls is one of the two acts that made my top ten shows and albums this year, and their live show at SXSW is what propelled me to keep listening to their albums. If you know the Cedar Street Courtyard, you probably know about it because of the amazing bands they host during SXSW day shows (Keane, Reptar, and Kaiser Chiefs were also on the bill that day). They pack it in with people, too, but you can squeeze your way down near the front like I did if you really want to.
Band of Skulls are a trio with a female bass player, and they play simple riff-rock that many have compared to The White Stripes and The Black Keys, but I tend to go further back to describe them as “Cream meets Blue Cheer with some Hendrix in there.” This music is old — old-school. I think that’s why I identify with it so well. I would get to see them again at Deluna Fest in Pensacola Beach in September, which was just as great of an experience.
3 – Big Star Third Tribute Band, 3/15/12 Paramount Theater (SXSW FILM). “The original indie pop band,” Big Star was a big reason I didn’t buy a wristband to SXSW this year. The documentary film Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me was part of the Film Festival, so they just charged $25 to get in, and that took up most of Thursday evening, and then on Friday night I knew I was going to the Big Star tribute unofficial show at Ginger Man. (I could write a whole other entry about that show!) So there was another night not needing a wristband. You can enjoy SXSW without a wristband. It’s not that tough.
The evening started with a beautiful documentary. It was a perfect way to show people who don’t know Big Star about the band. After the film, there was a question and answer and then an all-star tribute band (including Jody Stephens from Big Star, REM‘s Peter Buck, The dbs‘ Chris Stamey, and The Posies‘ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, among many others) played Big Star’s album, Third. I watched from the balcony and wept through the whole concert; it was one of the most moving concerts I’ve ever been to. It wasn’t lost on me that Big Star deserves to be one of the most famous bands in history, while most of today’s music world was rocking out all over Austin completely oblivious to the amazing concert being performed at The Paramount. The irony was palpable. Like they said in the movie, Big Star is one of those bands that you ask someone if they like, and if they do, you are instant friends in the same little club. So…do you like Big Star?
4 – The Milk Carton Kids, 3/17/12 at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary (Official Showcase). The Milk Carton Kids are my big find of 2012. I found out about them through a Website called Operation Every Band. The people at the Website somehow sift through every act with an official SXSW showcase and write a quick blurb on each one. I tried to sift through their spreadsheet, and in doing so saw the name The Milk Carton Kids with a comparison to Simon and Garfunkel next to it. I then checked them out on YouTube, and sure enough, then and there decided I’d better find them at SXSW.
In the following month or so leading up to SXSW, I became obsessed with their harmony-laden acoustic guitar-picking folk music and looked very forward to hearing them live. The day of their show was a fun and drunken one. I saw quite a few bands that day and realized I needed to sober up because I was planning on driving home after The Milk Carton Kids played. I arrived at the church to see them early, but didn’t realize for about an hour that I was in the wrong part of the church. I was not in the sanctuary. I actually saw Joey Ryan, one of the members of the group, in the room I was in and said “hello.” He told me they were playing in another room in about a half hour.
I had seen some decent acts in the room I was in, but I had to go get a refund and re-pay to go in the sanctuary. There I saw Micah Hinson, who was entertaining, and then The Milk Carton Kids played a show I will never forget. They made a good fan in me, because I’m the type who will spread the word as loudly as I can. And if you read any of my blogs, you know this to be the case. Later in the year they played the Kerrville Folk Festival, so I took my wife to see them, along with my camera. At Kerrville I bought three copies of their 2011 album, Prologue, on vinyl and gave one to my father-in-law and one to my friend Vanessa, who was babysitting our dog for us. I’ve already got a spot for them in my 2013 countdown, as hopefully they’ll be releasing an album next year.
5 – The Beach Boys, 6/8/12 at Cynthia Woods Pavilion. I never thought I’d see this: Brian Wilson‘s pitch-perfect backing band in tandem with the original members of The Beach Boys! Brian Wilson’s Smile concert in 2004 was one of the top concerts of the decade, mostly due to his band — no one cares about The Beach Boys music more than the members of that band. So when I found out that much of his band would provide the backing for this tour, I was floored with excitement. Not even Mike Love could ruin this, right? Of course, I joke, because Mike Love did seem to get in the way all night by constantly pitching their new album between songs. Still, it was The Freaking Beach Boys! This was no quickie concert, either. I believe they played over 30 songs to fill the evening, and many of them were favorites like “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations.” The new songs fit in well with the classics, too. What a memorable night!
6 – The Manichean, 6/16/12 at Alley Theater. I wrote a full review of this show, and it’s published here. Looking back nine months later, it was without a doubt the best concert any Houston band performed this year. Hopefully they will make it an annual event, and more bands will follow suit, though none is more suited to the Alley Theatre than The Manichean. I’m not going to try to rehash it again now, so please have a look at the review…
7 – OURS, 8/24/12 at Emo’s Austin. And here we are, my number two best show of 2012 out of 315 or so acts. I don’t know why Jimmy Gnecco moves me so much. Perhaps because he lost his mother a few years ago, and I lost mine in 2003 when his best album, Precious, was in heavy rotation on my car CD player. Perhaps it’s the fact that he persists and perseveres at his art despite never reaching the commercial success he deserves. I have a little saying that goes, “If Jimmy Gnecco isn’t famous, then how could you think you should be?” I also call him “The best voice alive in rock!” Sure, there may be better, but most of those are dead or certainly not what they once were. Perhaps it’s that he is the standard by which I judge all other rock singers, and he has a cult following of people like myself who keep him going just as he keeps us going.
Well…there he was in Austin at the end of the summer of 2012. I was fortunate that my Austinite friends, The Calm Blue Sea got the nod to open. They’re big fans of Gnecco, as well. There was an excellent third band, Stereo Is A Lie, also from Austin, who I hadn’t seen in a few years, so that was a pleasant Britpop surprise. Because of the connection with the opener, I was able to get a photo pass, but realized when I got there that it wasn’t necessary — anyone could bring in DSLRs. But my connection did get me in free (leaving me extra money to buy Gnecco’s solo album on vinyl). There’s not much more to add, except that if you haven’t heard OURS, start with Precious, see if you like them, and then try to see them live sometime. You should also check out recordings of live shows on YouTube.
8 – Foo Fighters, 9/22/12 at Deluna Fest. I have wanted to see Foo Fighters again (I saw them twice in the ’90s) since seeing them on YouTube’s live feed of Lollapalooza last year. They were a well-oiled-machine-of-rock&roll that night, and as I watched from my computer, I wanted to jump through the screen and join them.
So when I realized Austin City Limits tickets were expensive and quickly selling out, I wondered if there might be another festival that I could take my wife to. Then I found out Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters would be headlining Deluna Fest in Pensacola Beach. One of my best friends, Scott Saxon, is a huge PJ fan, so I texted him with the idea for us to “double date” to Deluna. He immediately said, “hell yeah!,” and we made plans.
It was an excellent festival on the beautiful beach of Pensacola. I hope they have as good of a lineup next year, so we can make plans to attend again. The Foos delivered. They are everything a live rock band should be, with the hits to match. My buddy got his Pearl Jam and I got my Foo Fighters (and Joy Formidable, Joan Jett, Superchunk, Florence & The Machine, and Band of Skulls). What a weekend!
9 – David Byrne & St. Vincent, 10/6/12 at Hobby Center. This right here was hands down the best show of the year! I had been listening to their album, Love This Giant, for about a month before they came through Houston on tour and was excited about the concert enough that I waited for tickets to go on sale online and bought them the minute they went on sale. That got us two seats on the fourth row, and since my wife is a Talking Heads fan, we could both be happy; she with David Byrne and me with Annie Clark.
The concert held my rapt attention throughout, but never was I more entranced than when St. Vincent performed her solo works with the brass section. Those songs shone in the live setting, and her song “Marrow” is quite possibly my favorite song of the past five years. Hearing it played live like that may be the best song I’ve heard since Brian Wilson and his band played “Surf’s Up” at Verizon Wireless in 2004. The whole show was one long highlight, but other notable moments included Byrne’s “This Must Be The Place” and the lead track, “Who,” from their album.
10 – Paul McCartney, 11/14/12 at Minute Maid Park. Even though we didn’t have the greatest seats for this show, it provided countless memories. It was my third time seeing McCartney. The first time I was just as far away in Berkeley Stadium in 1990. The second time I was very close at Toyota Center in 2005. It was hard to go back to being far away, but money’s tight, as they say. It actually came down to the weekend before the show. I had resisted getting tickets — having just spent all my fun money on a turntable and speakers. But when it came down to it, I really wanted to go. StubHub came to the rescue, and I found a couple of seats along the first base line.
McCartney came through, too, old man that he is. Listening to that concert was like listening to a slice of the 20th century, a big slice. There were smiles and tears alike as he effortlessly performed some of the best songs written in the last fifty years (I don’t need to even mention the song titles, because you already know). And all the while I’m watching and thinking — this is probably it — soak this all in — who knows if you’ll ever get to see this again?