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The Very Good, the Not At All Bad and the Downright Ugly Records of 2012

December 17, 2012

Looking back, I simply purchased too many amazing platters in 2012.  In the past week or two, I found myself faced with a problem in trying to figure out how to break the year’s releases down. I intended to keep it simple this season and only do a Top Five but that instantly became a Top Ten. Once I got to my Top Twenty-Five it seemed criminal to leave out the rest.

So how about a top fifty-one?

That’s the total of the first two sections (The Very Good and The Not At All Bad) in this 66 album year-end round-up. There’s probably a few you’ll think should be in the first category, but the two lists are almost arbitrary pretty much interchangeable.

And of course, being who I am, I couldn’t resist pointing out the ugliest discs I picked up this year as well, some of which are still in rotation on my iPod (which is no indication of quality).

 

THE (very) GOOD

2012 the very good

Swans: The Seer // “This album was 30 years in the making” is the kind of artist’s statement which can only lead to falsely heightened expectations and disappointment. Unless the artist is  Michael Gira. In which case he delivers on the promise. He’s made crushing records. He’s made beautiful records. He’s made epic records. Now he’s a made the beautiful, crushing, epic record every previous Swans and Angels of Light album was striving towards. This is the album My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky was just shy of. It’s a lyrical and transcendental, truly hypnotic spiritual experience. There’s nowhere to go but down from here. If the next Swans album is harsher, or more beautiful, or more epic, The Seer‘s exquisite balance would be thrown off and the result couldn’t be as perfect. The best Gira can hope do next is stagnate—which isn’t something he’s ever been willing to do. If, in a few years, he does manage to top The Seer, I almost don’t want to hear it. I doubt my mortal heart could take it. It’d be like looking into the sun and seeing that hideous dog face from the cover staring back at you. It’d be like the rock’n’roll version of Cthulu.

Black Walls: Acedia // In ten or twenty years, if the world hasn’t ended, we can expect something like The Seer from Ken Reaume‘s Black Walls project. That’s the promise he makes with Acedia. At first blush, the album’s sweet, soft-spoken doom could be the love child of Boduf Songs‘  dark lullabies and King Crimson‘s medieval space operas, yet deeper listening reveals Reaume has his own distinct voice. He has his own hard truths to tell and he knows how to soften the blow with layers of soothing arpeggios and yearning whispers.

The Black Magic Family Band:  A Magical World Of Animals And Spirits and Mike Bruno: The Sad Sisters // If you’re going to call yourself The Black Magic Family Band, you’d better be prepared to bring the Chuck Manson acid-folk creep factor. These kids do. In spades. This is total Wickerman shit. Usually artists trading in this kind of gloomy witch-folk pull their punches at some point and give you a wink to tell you it’s all make believe so you’re still able to sleep at night. The Black Magic Family Band doesn’t. And while I don’t expect they actually live in a one-room shack deep in the woods, living off squirrels and mushrooms and communing with spirits, they at least sound like it’s possible. A magical world indeed. Family Band cult leader Mike Bruno‘s solo slab, The Sad Sisters, is a much more intimate affair but just as spine-tingling. Sort of a Leonard Cohen of the Apocalypse or a Marc Bolan who’s more interested in actual spiritual journeys than becoming famous and getting laid.

Hot Chip: In Our Heads // Not too many people are making the kind of nearly perfect cerebral electro-disco-pop records  the likes of ABCBronski Beat and Erasure and could be proud of any more. Not even my beloved  Pet Shop Boys who—judging by the relative merits of Elysium vs. those of In Our Heads—really need to have Hot Chip produce their next record. HC have hit on the formula that made PSB’s first half-dozen records such seductively bitter-sweet pop—dourly insightful lyrics set to beguiling beats that make you smile through the pain. There might not be any huge hooks like PSB’s classic hits, but there aren’t any obtuse clunkers like “I’m With Stupid” or “Winner” either. Just as solid a set of dance pop for bitter adults and cynical youth as you’re bound to find this side of 1990.

Lost in the Trees: A Church That Fits Our Needs  // Any artistic endeavor should be an attempt to communicate a human experience (even if that human experience is just the desire to shake your booty). Confessional singer-songwriters should attempt this goal doubly or else, by definition, their art serves no purpose. Yet because people often try too hard to weave gold out of the drab straw of their own lives, confessional concept albums are usually a little off-putting and send us running for something less pretentious and self-satisfied in their clever inauthenticity. But when these albums fire on all cylinders, when the songwriter has a story to tell and the skill to tell it, we can’t help but be enthralled and awed. A Church That Fits Our Needs, centered around the suicide of singer Ari Picker‘s mother, takes you in its arms and drags you down—willingly—into the murky depths. It’s engaging sadness is wrought with beauty and truth and—unlike most songs these days—the melodies aren’t too shabby either. A true masterwork.

K-Holes: Dismania // You know what punk needs? More sax. At times this record sounds like the Stooges (or early Sonic Youth) and Duran Duran (or mid-80’s Bowie) being played in adjacent apartments that are having a stereo war. Whoever loses, we win.

Carly Rae Jepsen: Kiss // Because there’s so much terrible music made in the name of teenage dance-pop, truly fantastic teenage dance-pop records seem to get short shrift. Victim of her own ability to offer-up a song genuinely hooky enough to launch a thousand memes, the public seems resistant to embrace (the not actually teenage) Carly, Canada’s answer to Kylie. Well, to be honest, pop singers aren’t generally known for their albums so much as their singles. Nine out of ten times, all filler, no killer is an accurate assessment. Which is what makes Kiss a stand-out. It’s sexy without being sleazy, sweet without being saccharine, catchy without being irritating, immediately accessible without sounding like it was written by a focus group, danceable without relying on an overly compressed kick drum at the forefront of the mix. Not only does this sophomore release nail the formula it took Kylie a half dozen records to get right (and eludes most dance-pop artists their whole careers), this is the top-to-bottom,  feel-good party album that makes Madge‘s MDNA sound like the audio equivalent of Miss Havisham moldering away in the attic of her soul. It might not be “dance music for adults” like Hot Chip, but it’s dance music for teenagers that adults (and everyone else) should be able to enjoy.

Crocodiles: Endless Flowers // If Crocodiles keeps this up they should just start naming their albums in a K-Tel manner like Infectious Noise-Pop Classics. Plus, I admire their ability to persevere in the face of adversity.  Since it’s flat-out impossible to write a catchier rock’n’roll song than “Bubblegum Trash“, they went ahead and filled the rest of their album with songs just as catchy. This is the kind of record that should replace everything Brian Wilson and Jesus and Mary Chain ever did in the pop music history books. Because it simply makes those hacks look like posers.

King Krule: s/t // This teaser EP isn’t really that great. The fact that it’s so short can’t be anything other than totally infuriating. Archy Marshall himself on the other hand really is utterly fantastic. Until I heard the artist formerly known as Zoo Kid, I had no idea I’d always wanted Billy Bragg to front the Blow Monkeys on covers of Smiths songs.  The enigmatic miserablist’s marble-mouthed croon is mesmerizing and fresh and exciting and everything rock’n’roll hasn’t been since the 1980s. And until he releases a full length you can actually find and actually buy, I can’t do anything but praise the fuck out of this (too short and not quite as brilliant as promised) record.

Bardo Pond: YNTRA // This “Latitudes” session is billed as an EP but it’s really pretty much a full-length album (by 1970’s standards anyway) of fuzzed-out psychedelic expressionism of the highest order. Rating The Bardos‘ multitudinous sides of pulchritudinous psychedelia in any kind of order would be nearly impossible, but if this doesn’t rank near the top of the heap, I’ll eat my weight in ‘shrooms. As it stands, it’s by far my favourite desert/psych-improv heavy rock record of 2012. Sublime fuzz, killer flute solos, dreamy vocals, expansive drumming, exploratory bass… if this record were a rocketship, it would have been last seen orbiting Neptune.

The Luyas: Animator // I’m a sucker enough for singers with fragile, elfin voices (especially when they’re fronting dream-pop bands), but when the band’s third record gets serious about mixing Phil Glass influences into their space-age bachelor pad music like they do on “Montuno“, I’m pretty much done for. Similar in its epic scope, Animator is sort of the enchanting, beautiful, much more pleasing to be around, little sister of Scott Walker‘s Bish Bosh.

Woods: Bend Beyond // Last year I though Sun and Shade was the one. But no. This is it. This is the Woods album that the others have all been leading up to. This is the one where the band perfects their falsetto-laden Crazy Horse-by-way-of-Pavement formula. It could possibly be one of the weirdest collections of #1 hits (that will never be #1 hits) you’ll ever hear. It’s also doubtful they’ll be able to assemble this many tunefully addictive ear-worms on one platter ever again which makes the intentionally lo-fi, cult-classic sound all the more laudable. The tunes are certainly deserving of slicker production, but they probably wouldn’t come to life with nearly the same magic in a Nashville studio. If it were the 1990’s, Woods would’ve been in grave danger of jumping to a major by now and ending up as generic janglers like The Posies. Luckily for us, it’s not the 1990’s anymore and they’re able to run their own label where they can pursue their distinct vision.

The Cherry Thing: s/t // Raw and gritty. Like squid sashimi. Until this year I wasn’t aware there haven’t been enough vocal free-jazz scuzz-rock records recorded. Neneh Cherry‘s hip-hop inflected lyrics and singing style has things just grounded enough to keep them in the pop realm, but this isn’t pop music. Or art music. There’s no artifice here.  And no self-indulgent, stratospheric solos by her or the players despite how they constantly wind improvisations around the song structures. This is just stripped-down, deep, grimy, black magic grooves surfacing from the lower registers.

Six Organs of Admittance: Ascent // The live show in Toronto was unexpectedly ropey—strangely out of tune, sloppy and low energy—but the album Ben Chasny and his Comets On Fire pals were supporting is a killer, many-hued slab of heavy psychedelic space-rock. There’s tunes here for travelling across the desert in a van with dragons airbrushed on the side as well as those for getting stoned in the shag-carpeted rec-room. But, like Bardo Pond, the great thing about Chasny’s approach to psychedelia is a reverence that doesn’t preclude an original voice. Ascent might sound like a lot of albums from 1968-1973 being churned together in a lava-lamp, but it’s also unmistakably Six Organs.

Friends: Manifest! // And what do these friends manifest? Sort of a Martha-and-the-Certain-B-Fifty-Tom-Tom-Parachute-Muffin-Club-Ratio, if you take my meaning (too far?). That is to say, this is new wave Afro-funk for and by white people to play at loft parties. Nothing wrong with that. Especially with hooks as big as the back-combed 80’s hair-dos on the cover. There’s always a few outfits trying on this retro sound, but (the forgettably named) Friends are one of the rare ones who seem to understand there was more to the early-80’s art-funk scene than the slightly dour Factory Records compilations would have you believe. There was a lot of fun too. And a  number of these tracks (“Sorry“; “A Thing Like This”) could actually have been top-40 contenders in ’82 or ’83. No small praise.

 

THE (not at all) BAD

2012 not bad

Grimes: Visions // The jury in my head is still out on Grimes. There’s only been a few artists in the history of pop music who’ve done this kind of minimalist techno art-rock well and even fewer who’ve done it better. And yet… there’s just something… missing. But it’s only by few millimeters that it’s off from being a direct hit on my heart. It’s a gorgeous, lovely, bleak, challenging, seductive, head-bobbing, hook-laden, creepy, brilliant pop record. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

Ringo Deathstarr: Mauve // How much stock should we place on originality? How much should we criticize a band for spending more time emulating their heroes than developing their own artistic statement? While you debate this, I’ll be over here blissing the fuck out to one of the best homages to Kevin Shields‘ studio notebook ever recorded (post 1991). Perfect obliterated shoegaze noise-pop; these kids got it right.

Eternal Tapestry: A World Out of Time // Forgive the inevitable pun, but Eternal Tapestry continue to discover new ways to weave timeless sounds. The double-entendre in the album’s title sums up the record nicely. This is music for a world that’s run out of time as well as being outside of time itself. Retro-prog is a truly knife-edged oxymoron of a genre to work within. When you’re meticulously recreating the sound of bands trying to sound “progressive” 40 years ago, you can’t expect to move the art form forward without failing at capturing that sound. When a band does manage to evoke the spirit of jam-sessions past and brings something uniquely their own to the table, it’s a rare feat. Eternal Tapestry have pulled it off again by bringing us another record that sounds like Tangerine Dream or Guru Guru might have recorded had they themselves not started making totally shit music around 1973. This is where things should have gone after 1972.

Rhyton: The Emerald Tablet // Jam-a-licious psych-o-rama. The 13-minute “Trismegistus sto Smaragda” is about as textbook dubby psych-improv as you could hope to be schooled by. Right on!

Horseback: Half Blood  // This Horseback album could be a little frustrating for fans of classic heavy psych. The band lays down some pretty authentic Zeppelin cum Sabbath riffage and then “ruins” it with death metal vocals. Or, depending on your point of view, sets it apart from the pack. I’m in the latter camp—I think it nicely leadens the psychedelic doom where an operatic wail would make it seem a touch generic. Regardless, Horseback are currently one of the leading outfits for this kind of thing.

Disappears: Pre Language // Continuing with the debate on the merits of originality, Disappears offer their third straight out-of-the-park winner. This time out the kraut-punkers finds themselves moving away from Sonic Youth playing Neu songs towards Neu playing Sonic Youth songs. Maybe it has to do with having Sonic Youth drummer, Steve Shelley on the traps this time. Again, it all kind of sounds like a desert rock side project made up of Wire and The Fall members. But when you aim to make records this perfect, originality can only be a hindrance.

Beak>: >> // Like the above record by Disappears, there’s something to be said for seeking creativity within a prescribed set of artistic boundaries. In the best cases, artistic limitations are actually inspirational boons. Beak>‘s sophomore album is clearly the product of one of those best-case scenarios. It’s straight up Can and Kraftwerk jamming with Neu, and no mistake. But it’s played with the palpable glee of krautrock fans whose heads are exploding with delight at seeing all their heroes, in their prime, jamming on one stage. It’s deeply reverent to the genre, but that also includes a reverence for the progressive, exploratory, creativity of those bands. Like Eternal Tapestry, Beak> goes one better than the original bands that have inspired them by not delving into the post-1973 bullshit that derailed the scene as the musicians learned how to play their instruments properly. There’s a trick to clearly skilled musicians playing with a beguiling, primitive, innocence and Beak> have mastered it.

Daniel Bachman: Oh Be Joyful and Seven Pines // Like the Beatles/Stones or Blur/Oasis arguments of old, fans of virtuoso, solo acoustic guitar are bound to be either in the James Blackshaw camp or the Daniel Bachman camp. They’re the two young guns making the biggest waves these days. Blackshaw is a few albums deeper into his discography, but Bachman might have the upperhand. At least in terms of sheer prowess and fire in his belly. Which is  also Seven Pines‘  weakness—you could play the seven track album all the way through or the first track seven times and have pretty much the same experience. This doesn’t necessarily place Blackshaw ahead, since his albums by-and-large fall prey to the same thing. Album-to-album, he explores a new texture, but generally only one. Bachman doesn’t necessarily branch-out on his second LP release of the year, but he’s refined Oh Be Joyful‘s John Fahey/Robbie Basho by-way-of Jack Rose mysterious finger-plucking Americana into gold (the recording quality is better too). If you only have room on your shelf for one splashy display of lyrical melody lines weaving through glistening arpeggios that tumble from fingers like waterfalls, Seven Pines won’t leave many wishing for more. The only thing it’s missing is a little restraint and a bit more variety in the program.

Chelsea Wolfe: Unknown Rooms // This mini-album of indie-folk song stories is at once engaging and elusive. It’s fitting that it has a slightly witchy, magical feel (something like Joanna Newsom in bed with Cat Power) since there’s clearly a spell of forgetfulness cast on the listener. Once it stops, I can’t remember a single refrain but while it’s playing I’m constantly thinking, “Oooh, I love this one too!”  How odd.

Scott Walker: Bish Bosh // Whenever someone artfully mixes Kurt Weil and Kabuki with accents of no-wave noise rock, it’s deserving of accolades. How often you’re going to be in the mood to listen to a record like this is another story. I’ve just completed my first (and possibly last) run through of what I’d be hard pressed not to call a masterpiece. I caught more than a few brilliant one-liners, a couple truly gorgeous moments and, overall, my soul feels pretty sick right about now. A dozen years ago I would have had this welded permanently into my CD player. But that was a dozen years go. Depending where you’re at on life’s journey, this might be exactly the demented cabaret opera you’re looking for, or not at all.

Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory // For me, hands down, “Stay Useless” is the single of the year. It’s also my pick for single of the decade—and by “decade” I mean the 1990’s. The rest of the album is some pretty darn fine indie-rock comfortably settled in between Pavement‘s sloppy slacker anthems and Superchunk‘s punky slacker anthems.

Moon Duo: Circles // Last year I gently criticized the Wooden Shijps/Moon Duo records for sounding exactly like all their previous efforts while being glad they hadn’t thrown any babies out with any bath water. This year’s Moon Duo record does exactly what I hoped it’d do—keep the baby, change the water. True, every single song on Circles is essentially exactly the same as all their other songs (i.e., amazing Can/Suicide mash-ups), but the textures and tones on each track are pushing their formula in a new direction. It’s what they needed to do to keep things interesting and continue to make their records relevant and worth owning along side their first couple releases.

Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs: Trouble // If Pet Shop Boys don’t take my advice and have Hot Chip (above) produce their next album, Orlando Higginbottom (not a Hobbit as his name would suggest) would be another strong choice. Like Hot Chip he seems to understand what made the best 80’s and early 90’s synth-pop records strong.

Pet Shop Boys: Elysium // 50% awesome. I wrote about this album in greater depth here.

Raveonettes: Into The Night and Observator // Falling somewhere between the perfect trashcan pop of Lust, Lust, Lust and the befuddlingly goth (but still beautiful noise-pop) of Raven in  the Grave, this year’s Into The Night EP and Observator LP are another set of perfectly strong efforts by the duo who launched the revitalization of an entire indie-rock sub-genre. Raveonettes offer up yet more golden pop hooks backed by washes of thin, transitory guitars. That said, Observator‘s nondescript, blurred, grey-scale cover shot and the slightly ambiguous title seem apt. The album and EP don’t ever quite click. Nor do they fail to click. They just click along very nicely, if you take my meaning.

Pop. 1280: The Horror // Another fine noise-rock release in the Sacred Bones catalogue. Pop. 1280 is a little more artsy—and a little less “cool”—than some of their bands tend to be, but they manage to pull off that sort of late-80’s punk proselytizing you don’t see much anymore. And they manage to do it with just enough gothic doominess and without too much theatrical silliness. “Beg Like a Human” in particular sounds like it could’ve come out of Rollins‘ or Biafra‘s mouth. Meanwhile the churning drone and metal percussion of “Bodies in the Dunes” hints at some mythical jam-session between Neubauten and Kyuss. Which is something I can fully get behind. As in “on infinite repeat” during my commute.

Men: Open Your Heart // Speaking of Sacred Bones seemingly bottomless well of talent, there was a time Sub>Pop seemed like they were sitting atop a similar resource. Which leads one to believe it’s inevitable Sacred Bones’ run of killer releases is going to dry up. But not yet, not if The Men have any say in it. Though with fewer nods to hardcore punk as on their previous album, Open You Heart continues to refuse to stick to any one sound for more than two songs in a row. Straight ahead punk rave-ups give way to krauty psychedelic drone-outs to country-rock to bouncy indie-pop to no-wave noise-rock. It keeps things interesting and, like most Sacred Bones artists, these guys are at the top of their game.

Eternal Summers: Correct Behavior // Similar to The Men‘s chameleonic abilities, the much sunnier Eternal Summers bounce around indie-rock sub-genres with the rapidity of caffeinated squirrels. Yet they manage to keep a cohesive aesthetic throughout. Whether it’s a punkier take on Blondie (“You Kill“) or C86 (“I Love You“) or post-punk (“Girls In The city“) or shoegaze (“Heaven and Hell“; “Disappear“), they do it better than most and haven’t forgotten to write some top-shelf hooks to go along with the sound(s).

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! // Their previous two albums seemed to be merely repeats of the post-rock chamber orchestra’s first two releases, but with predictably diminishing returns. So it only makes sense that if they were going to reconvene after a decade, Godspeed would try on some new ideas. You could argue they’re Glenn Branca and Terry Riley‘s ideas, but what of it? I own something like 5 different recordings of In C (yes, they’re all essential) so I’m perfectly happy to listen to something vaguely influenced by it. At the very least they’ve abandoned crescendos and are playing with a renewed feeling of passion. Plus, I can’t think of any other instrumental rock outfits this side of 1997 who can pull off something this audaciously grandiose.

Eraas: s/t // This Brooklyn duo did a better job at recording Radiohead‘s follow up to In Rainbows than Radiohead did. If King of Limbs disappointed you and you can’t wait for the Atoms For Peace album to drop, this is your platter.

The XX: Coexist // Common wisdom regarding the “sophomore slump” is that bands who try avoid it by exactly emulating their successful debut will, ironically, assure the slump by doing so. The XX haven’t duplicated their debut exactly on Coexist but, aside from some added textures, haven’t broken any new ground either. It’s still moody, surf-informed, minimalist pop. There also isn’t a stand-out single like “Crystalized“. But! It’s a perfectly pleasing album nonetheless and by no means a disappointment. It’s the sophomore album of a band that sounds like they plan to dig-in for the long haul.

A Place to Bury Strangers: Onwards to the Wall EP and Worship // The title Onwards To The Wall makes me think of Accept‘s 80’s Teutonic metal classic Balls To The Wall. Which is an unfortunate association on many levels. But, ultimately, neither here nor there. Comparing these two A Place to Bury Strangers’ 2012 releases, the Worship full-length is closer to the sheer, blistering surfgaze, noise-rock of their previous offerings. A little less ramshackle, a little more precise, but still the sound of teenage mutants reverberating up from the sewers. The preceding Onwards is oddly mellow in comparison—which is to say it’s a blender set to “blend” instead of “frappe”.

Earth: Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light, Vol. 2 // Did you buy Vol. 1? Then you’ve been taken care of already. Not that Vol. 2 is in any way inferior, it might actually be the stronger of the two albums, but it’s also a tad redundant unless Vol. 1 was your favourite album of 2011 and you need more of almost exactly the same thing. Which I, for one, am all for. Go Dylan!

Sigur Rós: Valtari // Jonsi used up all his happy on Go! That’s fine. Happy wouldn’t necessarily work for Sigur Rós. But there’s something small, yet essential, missing from Valtari to place it on the same level as Ágætis Byrjun, () or Takk... Perhaps their faery magic simply doesn’t work when you’re expecting it. No mistake, it’s a good album (the kind that would’ve been a stunning debut) but it shows that Sigur Rós is a band in need of serious reinvention and not this kind of “return to form”— no matter how welcome.

Stars: North // Similarly North is a perfectly decent new wavey indie-pop record by Stars. Before its release, they made a statement on their website to the effect of being surprised they managed to squeeze another one out. That’s about how it sounds. More of the same isn’t bad when it comes to this band, but it’s more of the same nonetheless. So, though it doesn’t reach the heights of Heart and Set Yourself On Fire, it’s better than a lot of bands’ 6th long-player (and 14th overall release).

Brian Jonestown Massacre: Aufheben // Anton Newcombe, on the other hand, is fellow who likes to keep moving. Albeit it’s always within the strict parameters he’s set for his long running psychedelic pop/rock project Brian Jonestown Massacre. This year the road he’s chosen is apparently the Autobahn. A good choice since he’s only flirted with krautrock in the past and it’s a relief to hear him finally embrace it. Like any BJM album, there’s some flaws and faults, but, like any BJM album, it’s also a lot better than you expect it to be (and I expect a fair bit from them).

Holograms: s/t // The Clash, Joy Division and The Fall as filtered through 35 years down to some youths from Stockholm. Is it essential? Hardly. Is it awesome? YES!

X-Ray Eyeballs: Splendor Squalor // X-Ray Eyeballs sidestep the sophomore slump by adding a few drops of new wave and post-punk to their Warholian  garage pop. Out of last year’s crop, I expected this outfit to be the one that faded away but I’m delighted to report the band least likely to, went and did. I feel like their next album has the potential to be huge (or terrible).

Young Prisms: In Between // One of the better so-called “nu-gaze” bands returns with another one of the better dream-pop/shoegaze records of last the decade or so. Other than the fact it rivals the best work of Ride and Slowdive, there’s absolutely zero to say about In Between.

No  Joy: Negaverse // One of the better so-called “nu-gaze” bands returns with another one of the better dream-pop/shoegaze EPs of last the decade or so. Other than the fact it rivals the best work of Slowdive and Black Tambourine, there’s absolutely zero to say about Negaverse (other than it’s about five songs too short).

Tamaryn: Tender New Signs // One of the better so-called “nu-gaze” bands returns with another one of the better dream-pop/shoegaze albums of last the decade or so. Other than the fact it rivals the best work of Cocteau Twins and Slowdive, there’s absolutely zero to say about Tender New Signs.

Echo Lake: Wild Peace // Not unlike The Luyas (see above), Echo Lake seek to combine Cocteau Twins‘ dream-pop with Stereolab‘s space-age lounge-kraut. Their debut, Wild Peace, is a textbook example of how to mix glossy shimmer with hypnotic pop rhythms. A few more bona fide hooks and their next record might make them (again, like The Luyas) a band to watch.

Passion Pit: Gossamer // With hooks that almost snare, melodies that almost soar and lyrics that almost connect, Gossamer is almost a great album. Instead is a pretty good album. It sounds a bit like Prince if he’d been born in the ’90s and influenced by Arcade Fire and Daft Punk instead of Sly Stone. This year Passion Pit‘s main man Michael Angelakos pulled a Chan Marshall and parlayed his  suite of  mental health issues into publicity fodder. Unlike Chan though, genuine artistic brilliance didn’t come in on his crazy train. Shitty deal for him. Still, Gossamer‘s good enough to hint that he might have some genius up the sleeve of his straight-jacket yet.

 

THE (downright) UGLY

2012 downright ugly

Stagnant Pools: Temporary Room // Seems like every year since Interpol ticked the millennium over, a band comes out which seeks to combine Joy Division‘s bleak post-punk and My Bloody Valentine‘s seminal shoe-gaze haze. This year the band is Stagnant Pools. In an unexpected switch-up, they seem to be a little more reverent to Echo and the Bunnymen and the under-appreciated Adorable than JD and MBV (could just be the timber of the singer’s low, maudlin croon which brings to mind the comparison). Though you’d be better off sticking with Adorable’s Against Perfection (or something by Air FormationFleeting Joys or Ringo Deathstarr), Temporary Room isn’t really a bad album at all. It merely lacks the surprises and truly memorable tunes to compete with its obvious influences—which means it comes off a bit like Stellastarr* (Who? Exactly).

Japandroids: Celebration Rock // A true sophomore slump record by the guys who brought us the best debut of 2009. Aside from the “Younger Us” single, Celebration Rock sounds decidedly uncelebratory. Sort of more “we’re tired of doing this rock.” My opinion has probably entirely been coloured by an interview I read where Japandroids said they’d come close to packing it in after years of touring and didn’t really want to be in the studio. But the proof is in the pudding. And the pudding is disappointingly bland.

Mi and L’au: Beauty is a Crime // This album is a crime. And not just because you were a fan of their two albums of creepy, freaky folk which preceded it. The duo are simply ill-suited to this Paris-influenced lounge/electro-pop sound. The production is plain fromage where I suspect it’s supposed to be either kitschy or hip. It’s neither and instead comes off something like Nick Cave replacing The Bad Seeds with Yamaha Portasound  presets. Plus the songs just aren’t any good. Ils ne sont pas Jacques Brel.

Ultraísta: s/t // This album really highlights what Nigel Goodrich brings to Radiohead. Unfortunately, it highlights what Thom Yorke brings to the table as well. Mainly, that’s intriguing lyrics and an engaging voice. Each track sounds pretty good—pretty much exactly like The Eraser in fact—until Laura Bettinson starts singing and the balloon deflates. On the bright side, this record really shows me what a treasure Grimes is.

Bob Mould: Silver Age // The best thing about Silver Age is it makes the Sugar‘s at-the-time disappointing, File Under Easy Listening (1994), sound a lot better in retrospect. I’ve never been a fan of Bob’s solo albums but I always thought it was the distortion-saturated production I missed. Nope. Let’s be honest, he generally just writes kind of lame Dave Matthewsy pop-rawk tunes. “The Descent” is a pretty great Copper Blue-tinted punker (especially the louder it’s played), but the rest limps along like ideas that got lost on the way to the Warehouse.

Lana Del Rey: Paradise // It was probably inevitable, but singer Lana Del Rey has managed to jump her own shark after one album. This stop-gap mini-album takes her borderline laughable (but brilliantly conceived) live-fast-leave-a-beautiful-corpse persona from Born To Die and soaks it in a cocktail of gin, bath salts and statutory rape. Where her debut worked as a sort of pop-art film-noir, Paradise is pure Technicolor and it’s all a touch too much. Still, the lead single “Ride” is one of her stronger tracks and the epic(ly tasteless) video is worth a viewing just because Del Rey really does have that elusive, bat-shit crazy, charismatic star-quality that’s genuinely enthralling. None of (the mostly enjoyable) Paradise is truly terrible (except maybe “American” which is god-awful), but hopefully she tones things the fuck down a little bit on her next full-length. Kind of like how Marilyn Manson albums went from sinister to silly, Born To Die was truly entertaining in its cartoonish pulp-novel drama but this is just a little too comical.

Madonna: MDNA // In 2010  Kylie released Aphrodite which was as good an album of dance-pop anthems as she (or any pop diva has) ever produced. Aside from the odd twinge if you thought too hard about how songs about reality-show styled dance club dramas maybe came off as a little pathetic coming from a 42 year old woman, it wasn’t a wholly embarrassing Dorian Grey’s portrait of an album. Which is what MDNA kind of is. That doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable, but it’s too obviously trying to emulate Robyn‘s brilliant Body Rock (2010) in the most calculated, reverse-engineered way. There’s something gently off-putting about the platter that Madonna‘s similar Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005) wasn’t. Even her repellent Hard Candy (2008) at least had a sense of misguided authenticity surrounding it. MDNA isn’t repellent, but set against Carly Rae Jepsen‘s Kiss (see above), it just feels like a joyless dance-pop version of Norma Desmond. To make things worse, and further making MDNA look a tad silly, this year Kylie released The Abbey Road Sessions, a “mature” reimagining of her hits befitting an artist gracefully embracing her age and a new phase in her career… blah blah blah… yawn. Frankly, I’d rather listen to MDNA which, aside from what I’ve just written, isn’t necessarily bad. I do more or less enjoy it for what it is—a pure pop product—and, let’s be honest, Madge making an “authentic” album might really be a whole lot worse (if she’s even capable of it).

Fresh and Onlys: Long Slow Dance // I like the new wavey production here. And maybe even the songs. But after two listens I can’t stand Tim Cohen‘s voice. At all.

Tanlines: Mixed Emotions // Similar issue here. This album of new wave informed indie-pop is infuriatingly close to being fantastic. I suspect, for a lot of people, it is fantastic. But there’s something about the guy’s voice that makes me want to punch him. In the face. Really hard and repeatedly. That’s a problem with me, not this record or these guys.

Gossip: A Joyful Noise // I was initially gripped by the pretty great 80’s rock production on this record. Until I realized it’s all just too Pat Benatar and not enough A-Ha. And I really dislike Beth Ditto‘s voice almost as much as Tim Cohen’s. For the record, I have no desire to punch her in the face.

James Blackshaw: Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death // Wha’appen? Since 2006, folk guitar virtuoso James Blackshaw put out eight pretty fantastic LPs. And then… this. There’s a number of faults on the album, most of which are due to risks he can only be applauded for yet still don’t pay off. The switch to nylon-string promised to be interesting, but doesn’t suit his playing. Or he didn’t alter his playing to suit the instrument. It all sounds a bit too easy-listening/new agey. The change in timbre also doesn’t distract enough from the holding pattern he seems to be in with his compositions. Unfortunately, what does distract you from this is Geneviève Beaulieu singing some pretty dopey lyrics in a full-bodied, church-ladyish voice. That’s the unfortunate deal-breaker.

Heavy Blanket: s/t // Being a fan of J. Mascis‘ psych-metal band The Witch, I was pretty excited about this album. I didn’t think about the fact that he plays drums in that band and I’ve never been a fan about his guitar playing. Which is all this album is. Guitar solos. Now, what exactly makes an instrumental, heavy psych-improv record not just guitar solos? I’m not sure. But something does. Something this record doesn’t have (See Rhyton, above).

Chairlift: Something // Rivaling Cloud Nothings for single of the year, Chairlift‘s track “Amanaemonesia” is pitch-perfect new romantic pop and catchy as hepatitis on a stick. The rest of the album is sadly too much of a pitch-perfect emulation of a one-hit wonder’s album circa 1985. “Sidewalk Safari” and “Met Before” aren’t shabby either, but the album is mostly lack-luster filler that has that “too-safe” Miami Vice sound. As in the songs Don Johnson sang. In the words of Smash Hits magazine, “Blee!”

Violens: True // I bet these guys went to music school. I just betcha. Though they’re pretty adept at creating the sound, it’s up for debate if “post-punk prog” or “new romantic math rock” are really sounds that should be created. But if you do go ahead and create something along those lines, you need to put more hooks in the choruses. Of course, in which case Violens might sound more like Level 42 or Cats Can Fly. This record ≠ my cup of tea.

Evans The Death: s/t // I recently discovered, in the world of beers, I don’t really like porter. I’m attracted to the darkness, and the richness, but it’s generally too syrupy for my tastes. Similarly, I recently discovered I’m not as into the Slumberland Records sound as I thought. But, like certain porters,  there’s Slumberland records (Velocity Girl, Lilys, Echo Lake, Pains of Being Pure at Heart) I can’t get enough of. But Evans The Death didn’t make one of them. The herky-jerky jangle is too close to the K Records sound for my liking. It brings back too many bad memories of the 1990’s in the Pacific north west. So it could quite possibly bring back some really great memories for you.

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5 comments

  1. Thanks for the linkage Large Hearted Boy — http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2012_yearend_on/


  2. […] favourite list, showing some love for cassettes from BATHAUS (ARCANE|||CUT) and OObe (DELPHI). Bone Rolling Reviews, run by our friend from the north (Jakob, of Moonwood / Arachnidiscs), kindly gives way to a doulbe […]


  3. The depth of this list makes me realize that I spent a good 15 years thinking no good new bands showed up after Stone Temple Pilots, and I became one of those douchebags who thought that the kids just didn’t get “it”, the “it” being what my late 70s/early 80s pop/rock mind intuitive felt was “good music”. So the Internet shows up and I realize I can download free mp3s. I hear Anji Bee’s CHILLCAST and think, “I can do that!”. So all I truthfully do is pick the best of what I’ve found and play that on my show. But you likely intuitively knew that anyway. I suck and I know nothing. But I notice what I’ve played and what you have listed here (good and bad) have crossed over a little bit. I actually picked Chairlift’s SOMETHING as Album of the Year. Likely because the singles were very powerful. And if I’m going to crush on any musical girl, it’ll be someone like Caroline Polachek.


  4. Now I am going to do my breakfast, later than having my
    breakfast coming yet again to read additional news.



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