Friday, January 11, 2013

My Favorite Albums of 2012

Given the relative dearth of music I've listened to this year, I probably have no right fashioning a Best of 2012 list. I've been much more involved with film this year, obviously. But this is the blogosphere, and we solo bloggers essentially thrive on the idea that we can post whatever we want, whenever we want. Ed Howard of Only the Cinema just published another of his exhaustive music lists (even if it's somewhat truncated this year), one of those lovely behemoths that routinely puts to shame every other music list on the internet through the sheer breadth and variety of stuff Ed listens to as well as the superb quality of his writing, so for the sake of conversation, I figured it's as good a time as any to unleash my own thoughts on the year in music. Here's ten albums I found thrilling and rewarding this year.

1. Ian Hawgood: The Shattered Light

Packaged as six tracks but more accurately one long, morphing composition, Ian Hawgood's The Shattered Light is the kind of ambient that makes all conventional music look like it hasn't set its priorities straight. This is an album that (forgive what sounds like a godforsaken hyperbole) stirs deep parts of the soul that are only touched by the likes of Tarkovsky, Bergman, bits of Bresson and maybe some Antony & the Johnsons. Enough romanticizing though: Hawgood layers extensive, glacier-sized stretches of organ and guitar drone, crackling waves of white noise, and distant, ghostly snatches of melody to form a piece of music that peaks, crests, contorts, wavers in the wind, and lounges like a heavy arctic landscape of sound. Basically, it's the classic ingredients of ambient combined with impeccable artistry and shaped into a mounting narrative that climaxes on the transcendent title track before self-destructing into a thin, gravelly fade-out, the preceding drones of the album recontextualized as a bit-crushed minefield. I've returned to this sublime arcing accomplishment multiple times now, and it's never failed to transport my mind somewhere else.

2. Sun Kil Moon: Among the Leaves

What could possibly best Admiral Fell Promises for plaintive flamenco guitar-based folk? Well, Among the Leaves, Mark Kozelek's follow-up, makes a darn good case for it. Granted, the ambition is not quite as astounding, and the music is different too: less virtuosic instrumental interludes and unwieldy song structures and more no-nonsense songwriting and guitar playing. That said, what Kozelek strips down musically he more than makes up for with emotional directness and thematic coherence. Among the Leaves is an unapologetically narcissistic album, wall to wall with as many hilariously self-deprecating jokes as there are bittersweet, often wrenching anecdotes touching on Kozelek's lonely life as a traveling songwriter, his fleeting attempts at romance, and the decades of rock sorta-stardom that have both hardened and humbled him. Taming back his penchant for allusive poeticism, Kozelek's storytelling here is tender (the album's opener), oddly charming ("Song for Richard Collopy"), self-aggrandizing ("The Moderately Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man"), self-consciously jokey ("UK Blues"), and, on album highlight "That Bird Has a Broken Wing," downright haunting. With 17 tracks and 5 bonus cuts, it's an album that is practically overflowing with memorable tunes and deceptively extraordinary musicianship.

3. Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan

David Longstreth & Co. have topped their previous career-best Bitte Orca with Swing Lo Magellan, an album that finds a gorgeous balance between the band's nervous dissonance and their equally impressive grasp on warm, pastoral textures. The dichotomy is at the heart of their music, noticeable even in a hodgepodge of solo experiments like 2003's Morning Better Last!, and it's been wielded here with consummate power. Songs like bouncy single "About to Die" or the angular "Just from Chervon," with their stop-on-a-dime transitions from prickly rhythms to glorious harmonization and back again, build this idea into their DNA, while others, like the crashing "Maybe That Was It" or the sweetly satisfying "Impregnable Question," indulge powerfully in one direction. While their hipster image becomes grating in regards to their marketed identity (Hi Custodian, the 20-minute Longstreth-directed musical film based on the album, is a shameless Jodorowsky/Buñuel pastiche committed to weirdness for its own sake), Dirty Projectors' music is the real deal, a buffet of novel ideas and distinctive sounds.

4. Scott Walker: Bish Bosch

Consistently and enthrallingly unpredictable in a way that few albums are anymore, Scott Walker shuffles through every musical idea and invents much more of his own on his sprawling 73-minute Bish Bosch, the third in a string of avant-garde opuses that constitute a radical reinvention of the musician's identity in the last two decades. Here, Walker alternates between noisy bombast and passages of whispery repose with joyful recklessness, obliterating conventional understandings of song form and musicality. The fickle nature of these jarring symphonies is complimented by Walker's deeply strange lyrics (lines like "rotting grapes bunch brooch on chest of bruises" proliferate), sprinkled like snatches of Russell Edson across collages of wacked-out instrumentation (metal chains, crying babies, slashing swords, actual farts). Bish Bosch is an album to get lost in, that's for sure, but then again, it's not really easy or possible to put a stop to it once it's started anyway. Walker commands attention with a vice grip.

5. Pedestrian Deposit: Kithless

Kithless marks the third recording by electronics guru Jonathan Borges and cellist Shannon A. Kennedy, and it's definitely one of their best. A nearly forty-minute long trip into a cold, dark mental state divided into two pieces, the album combines Borges' kaleidoscope of samples, tape loops, and edgy drones with Kennedy's expressive cello tones. Each musician takes their respective instruments past the point of recognition through both processing and a creative approach to the physical tool: Kennedy's cello, therefore, sounds like a rumbling gale, a squeaky wheelbarrow, and the cry of a seagull at varying points on the recording, while Borges creates textured frameworks of noise (the quiet hissing of a live wire or a cyclical organ dirge) beneath it. At one point Kennedy records herself lounging in an ice bath, her heightened breathing and shivering suddenly lending a palpable human element to this dreamy landscape. Kithless forges a gloomy atmosphere of loneliness and foreboding and refuses to let up; the album concludes in a way that inconspicuously segues right back into the sounds of the opening track. It's as if Borges and Kennedy want their listeners to become hypnotized by this music, to gradually lose a sense of time and structure.

6. The Walkmen: Heaven

Potentially insufferable album title notwithstanding, The Walkmen (still my favorite rock band in the world) craft a collection of songs that sensitively reflect their status as aging dads optimistically navigating an indie rock landscape of cynical, trendy young hipsters. Fortunately, at this point they've earned a reputation that is fairly set in stone with their solid, unshowy musicianship, an amalgam of earlier rock-n-roll legends that maintains a signature booziness all its own, and there's little doubt in my mind that they'll be around for as long as they want to be, carrying out the promise of their New York breakthrough at the beginning of the aughts. Heaven has a much slicker, less distinctive sound than 2010's Lisbon, or any of their work for that matter, but the unbeatable (pun intended) quality of the songwriting and the force of Hamilton Leithauser's voice (the gorgeously jagged high-register wail now finally resolving into Orbison-esque stateliness) remain intact. "We Can't Be Beat," "Love is Luck," "Heaven," and "Dreamboat" are standouts.

7. Of Montreal: Paralytic Stalks

Fifteen years and eleven LP's deep and Of Montreal are still finding ways to subtly mutate their signature sound from album to album. Paralytic Stalks seemed to have quietly passed over critical and popular attention when it was released in early February, which is ironic given the album's in-your-face directness, always a quality on the fringes of the band's sound but rarely quite as pronounced as it is here. Despite the characteristically fanciful song titles, Kevin Barnes is free of flamboyant alter egos here and uncensored, unleashing romantic agony, familial regret, and vengeful bloodlust with startling matter-of-factness. It's not that Barnes' hasn't ever been emotionally raw (beneath the poeticism and showmanship there has always been a particularly hard edge of truthfulness); it's just that he's used Paralytic Stalks as a platform for bold expressionism. To hear Barnes repeatedly scream "beating a whole in me" at the 3-minute mark of the insistently intense "Ye, Renew the Plaintiff" is to hear unfiltered passion on display. This vocal anguish, of course, is matched by Paralytic Stalks' big, messy, grandiose musicianship, a gloss of indulgence that reaches its logical conclusion in the aimlessly noisy "Exorcismic Breeding Knife" before eventually dispersing for the quiet piano farewell.

8. Nils Quak: Long Forgotten Days Under a Dust Covered Sky

Nils Quak's Long Forgotten Days Under a Dust Covered Sky has the opposite emotional effect of the Pedestrian Deposit album on this list: for me, this album inspires a warm, cozy meditation on childhood, family, and hazily remembered instances of time. With its calm, reflective, low-key ambience, it's the sort of album that pairs beautifully with a plane flight (as long as you're sitting at the window seat and have a ravishing view of clouds and the minuscule landscapes below, an opportunity I had several times this year). It's also a fairly succinct piece of work, each self-contained track a compact hybrid of analog and digital haze. Instead of fashioning the kind of glacially paced atmospheres created by Hawgood, Quak's music shape-shifts more frequently and offers more self-conscious sonic variety. Piano arpeggios bleed into airy synthesizer pads, burbling electronic glitch morphs into floating sine waves, and drones regularly thin and thicken. Although it would function fairly well as an introductory album for those not normally attuned to ambient music, it's gorgeous, inspired work nonetheless.

9. Clams Casino: Instrumental Mixtape 2

I'm not a big rap fan, not because I don't recognize anything valuable in the music (in some cases I do) but because I just have trouble personally relating to the sound, but my enthusiasm towards Clams Casino's wordless hip-hop albums suggests a major exception to that taste. The moniker of Italian-American producer Michael Volpe, Clams Casino has worked with countless contemporary rappers before, but on Instrumentals Mixtape and his latest, Instrumental Mixtape 2, he favors a complete immersion into the beat, the deep, pummeling drones, and the fragments of vocal samples scattered through the mixes like faint echoes of live performance. For the most part, these tracks are murky midtempo trudges through protracted fuzz, languorous bass movements, and heavily distorted drum loops. It's nocturnal music, the sounds of urban machinery in the middle of the night.

10. Swans: The Seer

At nearly two hours, Swans' The Seer feels like a major statement, a culmination of the many approaches frontman Michael Gira has been working with throughout his career. Augmenting and extending the intensity already inherent in the band's previous album, 2010's My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, The Seer explodes with ballsy grandeur, encompassing its listener with loud, lengthy jams on single chords and repetitive chants that sound like Aboriginal conjurations. Gira's lyrics are usually incomprehensible, a collection of bizarre, menacing riffs on ideas of creation/destruction and birth/rebirth, and on The Seer his rich baritone – supported by backing vocals from the members of Low and Akron/Family – works mostly as another texture to be added to the assault of layered noise. Though the band's relentless spell-casting grows wearisome at times (see: the 10-minute minor-key bashing in the middle of the 32-minute title track) and the album lacks the focused punch of My Father (what else could explain the seemingly arbitrary injection of Karen O-crooned folk pop at the start of the album's second half?), there are just as many instances when the music is downright entrancing ("Lunacy," "93 Ave. B Blues," "Avatar," "The Apostate").

Honorable Mentions: Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas, Tim Hecker/Daniel Lopatin: Instrumental Tourist, John Zorn: Nosferatu


Loren Rosson III said...

What? You mean the mega-talented band known as One Direction didn't make your cut? I'm appalled.

On the serious side, I'm glad to see Of Montreal on your list.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the kind words, Carson. I'm glad you decided to put this up. Very good list, we have lots of overlap this year. So glad to see Dirty Projectors, Clams, Swans, Scott Walker, Of Montreal and especially Pedestrian Deposit, who really just keep getting better and better ever since Borges teamed up with Kennedy. I'd say it's easily their best yet.

I didn't feel as strongly as you about Sun Kil Moon, but I liked it. Kozelek's voice, lyrics and guitar playing are always a welcome and familiar pleasure, even if any particular album or song doesn't blow me away. This one was interesting primarily because a lot of it is so lyrically cynical and nasty beneath the surface pleasantness - as you say, it's narcissistic and self-absorbed, with Kozelek ranting about, among other things, the fact that the hot girls who used to come to his concerts have been replaced by schlubby hipster guys. Pretty hilarious in spots, and his songwriting and playing remain great.

Ian Hawgood's a name I'm not familiar with, but I'll be downloading that as soon as I get home tonight. Sounds great.