jump to navigation

The Top 20 Musical Releases of 2012 December 19, 2012

Posted by gwyoung in Album Reviews, Lists, Music, Track Reviews.
Tags: ,

This being the fourth year that I’ve posted year-end lists to safer in the dark, I’ve tried really hard to learn from my past failures and absurdities and aimed to cut the fat and focus on what’s really important when designing this one. My first few lists were focused on exposing readers to albums they might not have heard about, either on this site or others, while ignoring the more important albums that readers had probably heard enough about as it was. This was great in concept, but unfortunately I often found myself making and distributing a second, “real” list that included the big releases of that year that usually took up some of the more sought-after slots. Though I remedied that with a more definitive composition last year, I still divided the releases by type (album, EP, single) and included way too many on each list, diminishing the relevance of each particular choice that I made just because I was having trouble narrowing it all down. This time around, I’ve made just one list (besides the album art and overlooked/underrated which I’ve already posted, because those are just fun for me) of all releases (LPs, EPs, reissues, and even 7”s and singles) that will accurately describe my year in music, and I’ve limited it to (mostly) 20. The reasons for doing this are a) music comes in all shapes and sizes, some songs are as long as a whole album, some EPs are longer than LPs, and a reissue is just as much a part of a year as a new album is, so why shouldn’t they be stacked up against each other? b) is there really a difference between something that’s ranked 32 versus something ranked 33? and c) who even cares anyway? Begin:



Grace / ConfusionMemory Tapes – Grace / Confusion

By the time Grace / Confusion came out in early December of this year, I had already painstakingly assembled my top 20 from a list of about 100 potential releases that I had been amassing throughout 2012. After last year’s Player Piano and 2009’s Seek Magic, I had assumed that Dayve Hawk’s latest work under the Memory Tapes moniker would be similarly good but not great, and that there was little to no chance of me needing to save a space for it. The last few minutes of opener “Neighborhood Watch”, however, led me to reconsider, and by the end of this glorious mess of an album I was forced to concede that it is entirely deserving. Though I probably should’ve shuffled the rest of the entries around and reduced the list back to its declared length, the fictional 21st slot seems appropriate for this surprising album that will continue to mystify.



When We Were Eating Unripe PearsBee Mask – When We Were Eating Unripe Pears

You know an album is good when it invites you to revisit your feelings about an entire sub-genre. There’ve been a lot of electronic musicians making a new kind of abstract ambient music – the kind that constructs an otherworldly space from bizarre patterns, rhythms, and synthesized tones. Among the more popular of these artists include Oneohtrix Point Never, Actress, Rene Hell, and perhaps Laurel Halo, but the album that finally pushed me over into this strange world of left-field composers was Bee Mask’s When We Were Eating Unripe Pears. I won’t spoil any of the surprises (as the album’s excitement stems from its unnervingly dynamic movement through various facets of the paradoxically familiar unknown) but I will say that it’s a musical experience worthy of anyone reading this list, and definitely one of the most interesting of my 2012.



Five SecondsTwin Shadow – “Five Seconds”

It’s no coincidence that the album art for Twin Shadow’s best single is a nighttime view of the open road and its video features George Lewis Jr. on a motorcycle: “Five Seconds” calls to mind all the best one-hit wonders of cheesy ‘80s synth-rock without directly copying any particular one, and its similar propulsive qualities make it just as good as any to jam to during a night highway drive. The track takes a sound deeply nostalgic from my youth (it wouldn’t feel so out of place blasting out of the car stereo on one of my family’s road trips) and thrusts it into an entirely new and modern context, and the results show just go to show how great that combination can be.



GossamerPassion Pit – Gossamer

Any discussion of Passion Pit must involve the inherent contradiction between Michael Angelakos’ sad, sad life (as expressed through his lyrics and manic falsetto) and the peppy, upbeat, and fun music that supports it. It’s not so easy to ignore the words when they’re coming right out of your mouth as you sing along in the shower or while driving, and chances are (if you’re sane and not an emo high school student) you may disagree with his claims (such as the one about love being greed). But there’s no denying that this power-pop is extremely powerful, whether it be through its sheer infectious qualities or as a result of this intriguing contradiction, and, given all the incredible songs packed onto this disc, there’s no denying its place as one of the albums that will be remembered long past 2012 (even if it sounds a little bit Disney).



ghost toastyyu – ghost toast

ghost toast is about meandering, moaning, floating, wandering, whining, wailing, getting stuck, getting unstuck, popping, clicking, whirring, and other things that ghosts might do, or that toast might do. yyu makes the kind of music I wish I could make: it seems so easy to just throw a bunch of samples, piano chords, guitar plucks, and distorted vocals together and produce something like this, but his curious vision and sense for delicate placement infuse this EP with a stirring sense of emotion that make the music much more than the sum of its parts.



The Palace GardenBeat Connection – The Palace Garden

Beat Connection’s debut EP, Surf Noir,  was one of my favorites from 2010, mostly due to the shimmering and liquid qualities of the aptly-titled “In The Water” and the “chillwave” haze of “Sunburn” and “Silver Screen”. Like other contemporaries (and critics, for that matter), Beat Connection have abandoned the chillwave aesthetic in favor of something more… icy. The Palace Garden as a whole seems more crystalline, pairing elegant and emotive vocals (especially on the outstanding “Think/Feel” featuring Chelsey Scheffe) with frosty synth stabs and intricately jangling chimes. That being said, tracks like the title track and “Saola” showcase the same kind of warmth felt throughout Surf Noir, both through the use of shining brass and vocalist Tom Eddy’s increased presence. Though Beat Connection’s palace may be frozen over, its garden is cozy and comforting, and together they deliver on the promise of The Palace Garden’s predecessor.



Centipede HzAnimal Collective – Centipede Hz

Animal Collective fans tend to rave about each new album as if it’s their absolute best, so it was shocking to many to find that their latest, Centipede Hz, is just not as jaw-droppingly good as the rest of their releases. Fans (and critics) raged that the album was a huge disappointment, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad album: in fact, Centipede Hz is an aggressive and powerful mind-fuck of a record both sonically and conceptually. It’s just not as groundbreaking as, say, Feels or Strawberry Jam were, and so doesn’t quite meet the ridiculously high standards the band has established for itself. But that’s ok, since a not-their-best album from Animal Collective is still leaps and bounds ahead of most great albums by any other band, at least in my biased opinion, and thus Centipede Hz deserves so much more than to be forgotten at the year’s end.



Simple SongThe Shins – “Simple Song”

I’ll admit, I was nervous about hearing a new Shins album in 2012, five years after their stellar Wincing The Night Away and four years after James Mercer fired the rest of his band (forcing them to earn their living working taco stands instead) and replaced them with new musicians who could play the more complex pieces he was composing. Because musical trends change so much more rapidly in this internet age, it’s always interesting to see how an old favorite releasing a new album will fare against the popular styles. “Simple Song”, the first single off of Mercer’s comeback album, Port of Morrow, not only eased my anxiety but stunned me in a way that not even Wincing The Night Away could have back in 2007. Though “simple” in its traditional verse-chorus structure, “Simple Song” is actually a complexly layered space-pop-infused folk-rock gem, complete with powerful guitar chords, synth noodling, and a rollickingly propulsive drumbeat. Though the rest of the album wasn’t quite up-to-snuff with the expectations set by its first single, “Simple Song” is strong enough on its own to stand up as the Shins’ glorious comeback.



Two Airships Exploder FallsCandy Claws – “Two Airships” b/w “Exploder Falls” (reissue)

Reissues are just as much a part of the listening experience over the course of a year as new releases are, especially when the album had either dropped off the indiesphere’s radar or was never popular to begin with. A lot of my 2012 has been spent taking advantage of a timely reissue to discover albums that may be old but were new to me, such as Paul MCartney’s Ram, William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, and this, Candy Claws’ first single featuring “Two Airships” and b-side “Exploder Falls”. A stunning precursor to In The Dream Of The Sea Life, this “single” contains two lengthy, instrumental jams that are just as bombastic and blown-out as their titles suggest. Though each is 12+ minutes in length and doesn’t feature either of the gorgeous voices typical of the experimental pop duo’s work, the tracks are thoroughly dynamic and consistently intriguing. Though one could potentially draw comparisons to noisy contemporaries such as Black Dice or Fuck Buttons, I really haven’t heard anything quite like this before, and I’m grateful that this year’s reissue introduced me to this diamond that might’ve forever remained in the rough.



The Idler WheelFiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

As evidenced by a lot of this list so far, my musical tastes have been delving deeper into the world of the abstract and electronic as of late. Every once in awhile, though, I feel like I need a more tangible record, comprised of real instruments and actual “songs”, to keep me from plummeting to the lowest depths. This year’s rope was Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel…, a stunning collection of ramshackle folk melodies and powerful piano balladry. Apple’s lyrical angst is universal: we can all feel and relate to both the pain and joy embodied by the songs on The Idler Wheel…, and the album as a whole is so personable and intimate that its not a real surprise that its dominating the onslaught of year-end lists, regardless of the musical taste or persuasion of their respective list-makers.



Wait South CongressAirhead – “Wait” b/w “South Congress”

Airhead’s “Wait” could technically be classified as a remix of “Maps” by the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, but in the hands of this extremely talented producer the brief samples of that ever-so-infectious chorus are transformed into something with an entirely different feeling from the original. “Wait” is both nostalgic and contemplative, seamlessly flowing from acoustic strumming to the sounds of nature, skipping playfully along the boundary between found-sound collage pieces and traditional electronic music. “South Congress” is its polar opposite: a peppy, blippy, shiny piece of production magic that doesn’t feel pressured to weave in a notable sample, instead focusing on a repeated melody of synthetic chimes. Together, they show just how much an electronic musician can accomplish in the confined space of a 7” and make for a pleasantly unexpected pairing of abstract electro-acoustics.



LotsDan Deacon – “Lots”

Eschewing his defining chipmunk chiptunes that first broke onto the scene with 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings, Dan Deacon crafted an album for our nation that was really more like an exercise in control. Reigning in his overly ambitious and at times bloated compositions from 2009’s Bromst, Deacon’s focus shifted toward the twinkling landscapes and anthemic rock & roll that define his America. “Lots”, an extremely surprising sidestep for a Dan Deacon single, reminds me of the music I listened to in high school: it’s a thrashing, sweeping, and guttural sing-along for the ages, and it totally rocks.



A Different ShipHere We Go Magic – A Different Ship

I mentioned in my lengthy review of A Different Ship that it felt like an instant classic, though I mostly cited its Talking Heads and Paul Simon influences as the basis for this claim. I feel the same way now, half a year later, but for different reasons: there’s something really comforting about Here We Go Magic’s latest effort that makes you want to listen to it again and again. There’s a human warmth that pervades these songs, whether it be in the soft and bright guitar strums of “Hard to Be Close”, the sighing background vocals in “Over the Ocean”, or the fluid energy of movement in “Make Up Your Mind” and “I Believe in Action”. The album has a life force, with blood flowing through its limbs giving the music space to breathe deeply and relax into their forms. Though a lot of hard work and tough production decisions went into the making of the album, this natural quality makes A Different Ship seem effortless, allowing the listener to transcend from the typical listening state into a closer emotional engagement. Here We Go Magic have significantly matured with this release, and we can only hope that this ripening will produce even more delicious fruit going forward.



Swing Lo MagellanDirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

I’ll admit, Swing Lo Magellan’s rambling, meandering, folksy nature was a bit off-putting at first, especially when compared with the grand and precise vision behind 2009’s Bitte Orca, but even if the sequencing was a bit off, the tracks themselves stood on their own as great examples of experimental outsider pop done right. Swing Lo Magellan is an experiment with texture, as each track forms and dissolves around erratic patterns of unexpected electronic tones or acoustic noodling, and almost all of these repeated trials turned out to be a huge success in the long-term. From the anxious vocal buildup of “Gun Has No Trigger” to the stuttering twinkle behind Amber Coffman’s stunning voice in “The Socialites” to the elastic guitar that forms the backbone of “See What She Seeing”, the album feels like a childlike wonderland of curious structures and places to explore. The directness of the lyrical content reinforces this lullaby-like aspect, and though the album sometimes tries to stand up too quickly and falls back into a crawl, on the whole it shows a new direction of growth for this band that just gets more intriguing and nuanced with every release.



Yet AgainGrizzly Bear – “Yet Again”

Though the haunted beauty of Yellow House will always be my favorite Grizzly Bear sound, there’s no denying that the band has a knack for writing melodies. “Yet Again” has possibly the best chorus of any Grizzly Bear song thus far, and ever since I let it sink into my brain with the first few hesitant listens, I’ve found myself singing the tune both in my head and aloud while walking down the street, driving home from work, or even asleep in my bed. Shields is pretty magnificent on the whole, but “Yet Again” is the real reason I keep returning to it, and If I had to pick one individual song that defined my 2012 (which I did for Stereogum’s Gummy Awards) I would be left with no other options.



Choose The LightMi-Gu – Choose the Light

Choose the Light collects the best tracks from part-time Cornelius backing band Mi-Gu’s career thus far, giving a stateside release for some incredible music that was previously only available as expensive imports. Though it’s a compilation in concept, the album flows beautifully from jagged female-fronted guitar rock to poetic and pensive musings and back again, taking many detours and pit stops in various musical genres and bizarre ideas along the way, ranging from the orchestral bombast of “Oshiro” to the existential contemplations of “Floating” to the ecstatic boogie of closer “From Space”. Choose the Light is weird and ethereal and powerful, and it makes for a great introduction to another excellent Japanese experimental rock outfit that is sure to be climbing the ranks with releases to come.



ProphetRamona Falls – Prophet

It seems as if Menomena just aren’t the same without Brent Knopf’s musical ADD-influence. Though their fourth record, Moms, was entirely decent (in fact, “Capsule” was one of my favorite individual tracks of 2012), it was missing Brent’s pop sensibilities (and charming vocals) as a key ingredient to balance the aggression and heaviness of the other two musicians that made up the now-fragmented trio. It definitely says something that Moms isn’t on this list and Brent Knopf’s solo project’s latest output, Prophet, sits at #5, and while it’s still too soon to write off Menomena entirely in favor of Ramona Falls, it certainly makes me wonder to what heights the fully united band could have soared in 2012 had they collaborated instead.



ConveyorConveyor – Conveyor

Conveyor’s self-titled debut is at times annoyingly contrived (see the intro to “Mane”) or lyrically shallow (see “Short Hair”), many of the tracks seem almost direct rip-offs of similar contemporaries (see “Two Davids” and Animal Collective or “Mom Talk” and West Side Story), and others are just plain boring (see “Mukraker”). The fact that the album still made it to #4 on my list, despite all of these evident flaws, just goes to show how truly unique and original this band really is. Conveyor’s willingness to try a whole slew of new approaches to song structure and lyric without being afraid to fail along the way, all the while constructing a thoroughly exciting and cohesive album, make them one of the most promising new bands of 2012, and I can’t wait to see where they go next.



AC_7in Innersleeve TLorSL_wHolesAnimal Collective – “Honeycomb” b/w “Gotham”

Animal Collective pulled a Beatles this year when they released the stand-alone single “Honeycomb” with its b-side “Gotham”, neither of which appeared on the full-length that followed but both of which can be counted among the band’s best efforts. These two tracks are not merely outtakes from the Centipede Hz recording sessions: together they form the perfect distillation of Animal Collective’s musical trajectory over the past 10 years, showcasing the band’s exquisite attention to detail and layering, masterful balladry, and bizarre creativity in the selection and arrangement of samples. Though Centipede Hz came around a few months after, this 7” is the more accurate depiction of Animal Collective’s post-Merriweather Post Pavilion triumph, reminding us all that, even though they are prone to change their style, we can always count on them to deliver something both shockingly innovative and ecstatic to the ears.



Beak & Claws / s / s – Beak & Claw

After touring The Age of Adz and playing “Impossible Soul” dressed as a disco-ball rocket ship while surrounded by “wacky inflatable arm-flailing tubemen”, Sufjan Stevens let both his creative genius and increasingly troubled psychosis overflow into various other unexpected projects, most of which involved extensive use of the increasingly polarizing auto-tune. Beak & Claw is the best and most underrated of these: a collaboration with rapper Serengeti and like-minded maximalist electronic soundscapist Son Lux that spans four ingenious pieces ranging thematically from a school field trip to marrying the Octomom and musically from spoken-word to dubstep to the jaw harp. Beak & Claw is all over the place in the best way possible, and it serves as a true testament to the talents of the three disparate artists involved that they were able to tie all of their grand, chaotic ideas into a neatly-packaged, 16-minute bundle of pop perfection.



Breakup SongDeerhoof – Breakup Song

“When you say it’s all over
When you say it’s all over
Oh yeahhhhh
Oh yeahhhhh”

The perfect album for the would-be apocalypse of 2012. Well done, Deerhoof. In a year full of let-downs, missteps, and mixed bags, you’ve delivered a cohesive and consistent album of canon-defining material, 11+ albums into your career. Keep on truckin’.




Bish BoschScott Walker – Bish Bosch

Assigning a usual ranking to Scott Walker’s latest felt like an act against God, but 0, the void, is almost perfect for it: Bish Bosch is like a black hole, sucking all music and art, along with all of its criticism, inside of it and completely obliterating everything that stands in its way, similarly to how 0 obliterates any number it is multiplied into. Additionally, everything that decays approaches 0, and with Bish Bosch it is all too clear that Scott Walker is decaying. The album is both musically and thematically dark: the lyrics feature vignettes concerning the beheading of dictators and more grotesque forms of disease and plague than Crystal Castles could ever use as song titles while the textures included in the immersive and profoundly silent landscape include scraping machetes, the sound of slabs of meat being beat against the ground, and one of the two “tubaxes” (a combination of the tuba and saxophone) in the country. As the tinymixtapes review pointed out, Scott’s baroque delivery occasionally feels like the lunatic ramblings of a psychotic old man, and the casual references to excrement, the oft-archaic vocabulary, and the cliched insults such as “If music were shit you’d be a brass band!” and “Does your face hurt? Because it’s killing me!” only further extend the comparison. Bish Bosch is a swirling vortex of avant-garde motives and musical ideas that is unparalleled by anything else released this year (except maybe Swans’ The Seer, though my listening experience with that was not nearly as pleasant nor intriguing due to the dizziness and nausea that ensued), and forcing a comparison by placing it somewhere in the center of this list of natural numbers is an absurdity I’m not willing to bear.



75475TemplateWilliam Basinski – The Disintegration Loops (box set of reissues)

At this point my list has turned into a big math joke, but I’m not going to let the year finish without at least briefly mentioning this now-classic piece of ambient beauty that has been re-issued as a box set with the complete set of its incarnations in all their glory. William Basinski’s masterpiece, The Disintegration Loops, is pure both in sound and in concept: using prior recordings impressed on magnetic tape that he wished to convert into a digital format, Basinski happened upon his ever-present aesthetic of deterioration as the backing fell off the age-damaged tape during the transfer process. The result is a breathtaking, looped orchestration that seems to dissolve over the course of an hour, replacing the sounds of the instruments with the hiss and crackle of failing technology. Though he applied this same technique to many recordings in the years to come (all of which are collected here), the first is notable because of its completion on the morning of September 11th and Basinski’s decision to use it to soundtrack a video of the smoke and ash against the sunset that he viewed from the roof of his apartment (and later used as the cover for the compact disc). This adds a haunting and sombre allure to the composition, and solidifies its place both in contemporary musical history and at the bitter end of this increasingly contrived year-end list, 11 years after the fact.



1. gwyoung - December 21, 2012

Here’s a Spotify playlist collecting all of my year-end lists for 2012, plus a few honorable mentions:

yyu and Headaches are missing because they’re not available in Spotify. You can stream ghost toast using the link I included in the post, but I’ve yet to find the Headaches EP anywhere 😦

2. Sugarfree - January 21, 2013

Accidently stumbled upon your blog, interesting combination of graphic and music. Interesting list too, nice that you mentioned Here We Go Magic and Memory Tapes. They are seemingly too underrated! Just curious why Alt J – An awesome wave didn’t make it to the list? Too “mainstream” perhaps? Haha.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: