Tuesday, December 11, 2012

My Top Albums of 2012

I kind of want to call this The 3rd Annual Thought Porridge Awards, but nothing is actually awarded.

Is it December already?  It must be, because the internet is filling up once more with all sorts of Best of 2012 lists.  Loyal readers of this blog will already be familiar with TP’s stance when it comes to ranking art.  For newcomers: In short, I think that presenting one’s opinion as fact is the height of presumption and precisely the sort of behavior that causes true artists to hold the media and the masses in contempt. 

With that in mind, it bears repeating that this list does not claim any of these albums to be the best of anything.  This list is subjective.  It contains my favorite albums that I discovered, or first paid real attention to, in 2012.  The albums themselves could have been produced in any year, but they must be more or less “new” to me.

Lastly, if you find you really enjoy this, let me make a plug for my 2011 and 2010 lists.


The list is in alphabetical order by band, not in order of my favorites.  Neurotic readers will note that this was bad year for the second half of the alphabet.


1.  Beach House – Bloom (2012)

Last year I wrote that the band Exitmusic was a bit like Beach House, but way better.  Evidently, Beach House read my blog and decided to serve me up a plate of crow.  All their previous stuff has been melodic and sometimes very pretty, but glum and soporific.  Not so with this album.  The first track, “Myth”, is among my top five favorite tracks of the year.  It seems like found themselves a good producer or got into a good studio, because they’ve finally turned up the volume on the drums and the bass.  They injected enough pop into the music to make it listenable, and the product is a really satisfying album.

I mean, I assume the album is satisfying…I’ll tell you when I stop listening to the first track on repeat.  Just kidding.  Maybe.  But, no, really, the album’s good.  Except for in the last track, which is 16 minutes and really just two songs separated by 7 minutes of silence.  Musicians across the world, could you please, please stop having long-ass gaps of total silence in your songs?  There’s nothing artsy about it, it’s just irritating. 

2.  Bear in Heaven – Beast Rest Forth Mouth (2009)

Between Grizzly Bear and Minus the Bear and Bear in Heaven, my musical life is starting to get furry.  This is a band I’d never heard of until I visited the US.  I was driving around in South Florida with Craig in his car.  Most of you don’t know Craig, but you should know that over the last six years his car has been a place of many wonderful musical discoveries for me.  Craig used to be a CD purist, paying top dollar for high quality sound, but these days he’s abandoned his principles and often enjoys the tunes on his iPod through a shabby little cable that hooks into the tape deck in his car.  Combined with age and electronic infirmity, that has set back the formerly rich sound quality.  Sadly, that’s the first way I heard this album, so naturally I didn’t appreciate it the first time around.  Nonetheless, I downloaded it later and listened to it through high quality headphones, and I found it fascinating.  Like so many albums that I love, the songs really flow well into one another, which provides cohesiveness.  They’ve definitely got a kickass drummer (not something I often notice).

It’s one of those albums where you don’t know what you think of it as a whole the first few times, but you get attached to a couple songs.  Then, as you keep listening, different songs start appealing to you, and sounds and riffs that you didn’t care for at first begin to please the ear.  And some things get to you right away: the buildup and chorus in “Ultimate Satisfaction” and that bass/guitar/keyboard sound that could only be described as towering (though “epic” might work) halfway into “Deafening Love”. 

3.  Bear in Heaven – I Love You, It’s Cool (2012)

What?  Two albums by the same artist on the same list?  It’s not unprecedented!  In 2010, Pink Floyd and Johnny Cash both got two albums on the list.  I heard Beast Rest Forth Mouth first, but the newer I Love You, It’s Cool might be the one I prefer.   Like BRFM, it’s got these very non-traditional melodies and song structures, odd assortments of sounds that need some getting used to.  One big difference is that, while BRFM featured songs that felt like they fit within more traditional indie rock instrumentation, the songs in ILYIC are thick with spacey, keyboard-driven sounds.  Heavy reverb on the vocals and distant-sounding drums give the album a much more atmospheric feel.  It sounds both newer and older; ’80s-ish,  but in a good way. 

Both of these Bear in Heaven albums are ones that I could find annoying in the wrong mood, but incredibly satisfying when I’ve got a craving.  They’re highly cohesive and weird enough that you wouldn’t really just listen to them in the background or put them on casually for your friends.  They need some attention and flexibility.  Without meaning to put them on par with Radiohead, but it’s a little similar to the way I feel about Kid A/Amnesiac: In the right mood, it’s amazing.  In the wrong mood, I just don’t have the patience.

4.  Devendra Banhart – What Will We Be? (2009)

This album kind of sneaks onto the list, not because I fell in love with it, but because it’s served pretty well over the last year.  It’s almost breaking my own rule to put it here, because I first heard it two years ago and it’s not like I hadn’t already heard it.  But for some reason, starting back when I was in a major funk in January, I began listening to What Will We Be more often.  When you’re feeling a bit melancholy, what song might start you feeling better than one called “Can’t Help But Smiling”?  That’s the opening track.  Throughout the year I’d put this one on and let my mind wander.  One strange thing is that there aren’t any truly great, life-changing tracks, but there are a bunch that you’ll find yourself humming for days after listening to the album (“Angelika”, “Baby”).  Devendra, being the playful weirdo that he is, can deliver his funny little lyrics in a way that just makes me chuckle. 

Reflecting his nature as a musician, the album has all sorts of tracks.  You get emotional stuff  (“First Song for B”), garage-rock jams (“Rats”), psychedelic folk (“Meet Me at Lookout Point”), rock that sounds like a road movie ones (“Goin’ Back), and a smattering of all the other critters running around in his brain.  I hope for the world’s sake that someday he puts together a concentrated, cohesive album.  What he could do if he focused all that talent…it’d be something to behold.

5.  Empire of the Sun – Walking on a Dream (2008)

I confess: This is my guilty pleasure of 2012.  I’m a couple years late to this party, I know.  The Peace Corps Volunteers in Indonesia like to swap playlists as a way to get to know each other, and I found songs by Empire of the Sun on several different playlists.  “Walking on a Dream”, “We Are the People”, and “Country” are just so flippin’ catchy.  When I listened to the whole album, I had a whole-soul eye-roll at myself.  I couldn’t deny that I found it super catchy and listenable, but it also felt decadent and overwrought.  I mean, look at that album cover.  Siegfried & Roy go to some alien planet, where there are tigers, elephants, futuristic cities, Chinese junk ships, deserts, active volcanoes, space stations, and what appears to be a palantír from Middle Earth.  And white Mickey Mouse gloves (!).

Uncomfortably similar, no?
But I’m not hating.  That way over-the-top sulky singing voice, the Aussie falsetto, the simple strumming timed exactly with the backbeat…many songs on the album just make me want to keep hearing them, which I think is the definition of catchy.  I have no idea if the lyrics mean anything.  I’ve never been able to figure if the songs are actually about something.  I’m too distracted by all the shiny sounds.  For me, listening to the elicits the same reaction as looking at the cover art: Are these guys serious?  Well, actually, I kind of like it…


6.  Exitmusic – Passage (2012)

The first sounds you hear on this album are two piano chords and a crunching sound (presumably a guitar being plugged into its amplifier).  That crunching sound echoes several times, and that tells you a lot about what this album sounds like.  Most of the album swims through echo and reverb.  It’s as thick as honey, if not so sweet.  I guess the opposite of this thick sound would be a “crisp” sound.  Anyway, I’m not complaining.  Though I don’t love this album to the degree that I loved the EP that preceded it (which was on last year’s list), it does have a greater range of sounds and emotions.  The way that Aleksa Palladino sings is pretty interesting.  She howls and yowls and growls, sometimes she’s breathy and sometimes full-throated.

The album creates moods like giant banks of stormclouds, rolling and thundering off in the distance, evoking deep greys and blacks and bolts of white and purple lightning.  Listening to the album is like watching that massive storm arrive.  There is a dark vastness to the sound, but whether you feel that the vastness is pregnant or empty depends on your mood.

7.  How to Destroy Angels – How to Destroy Angels EP (2010)

An odd chain of connections led me to listen to this band.  I was a fan of the soundtrack of The Social Network by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross.  Then I saw the movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was awesome.  The soundtrack to that film was really reminiscent of The Social Network, and I saw that it was indeed done by the same dudes.  So I got the soundtrack to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is almost 3 hours long, and only two songs have vocals.  The final song (“Is Your Love Strong Enough?”) was performed by Trent Reznor’s other project, called How to Destroy Angels.  And it so happened that I got addicted to that song and had to get my hands on other work by How to Destroy Angels.  I’ve never really listened to Nine Inch Nails, but I’ve always sort of liked that industrial sound.  HtDA is what people call “post-industrial”.  It seems I get easily into anything that’s “post”.  So, long story long, I got this EP.

What can I say?  It’s not the greatest music of all time, but I really like it.  HtDA is good brooding and background music for writing, rather like the soundtracks to The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  The EP is heavy and melodic, even poppy in some places. The songs are extremely clean and precise, in the same way that albums by the Strokes are super precise. .  For me, albums like this are a counterweight to albums like those by Bear in Heaven, which are more challenging and can bring out a wide range of reactions.  How to Destroy Angels doesn’t challenge as much, which makes it pleasant, if that’s a word one can use to describe any music by Trent Reznor.

8.  Hundred Waters – Hundred Waters (2012)

Hundred Waters is a band from Gainesville, Florida, which, in addition to their music, practically makes us automatic best friends.  I’d never heard of them until a bunch of people I went to college with started linking to their website, where you could stream the entire album for free and even read all the lyrics.  The first song that drew me in was “Caverns”, with its tinkling and sparkling and splashing and echoes, and how Nicole Miglis, the singer, somehow whispersings the first few lines to make it sound like she’s right there, and you are too, in an immense, glittering cavern.  After hearing it for the first time, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Sometime before visiting the United States in August,  I got hold of this album, which I found engrossing.  These are some serious musicians.  I saw a video of Nicole Miglis playing a recital of a rousing ballade by Chopin at the University of Florida and spent the next hour telling anyone who’d listen that I was just going to have to quit Peace Corps and marry the girl before someone else did.

The album, especially in the first half, is like a wonderful canvas painted in a million colors.  The songs all have different structures and often end up in completely different places than they started.  Really, I don’t have the words to capture everything I like about it.  It reminds me of Björk, in the way that she’s so nonstandard.  Nothing about this album feels regular or normal; it just feels fresh and honest and bold—and often rather wacky.  Not every moment is good, and there are a couple moments where the songs get a little carried away.  Still, the songs flow well into one another, and I’m excited because it feels like their best work is ahead of them.  Some of my strongest associations with this album are with first getting back to the US, reading the book Kafka on the Shore, and having people look at me like a crazy person for suggesting that I would leave Indonesia to marry a girl I’d never met.

9.  Idan Raichel – The Idan Raichel Project (2006)

Like What Will We Be, this album also kind of sneaks onto the list through the back door.  I might be violating my own rules by putting it on the list, seeing as I’ve had this album for close to four years already, but I’ve only recently started appreciating it as a whole.  I suppose it was for the same reasons.  Some songs on this album just have the power to bring me gently out of a down mood.  Listening to those songs got me listening to album in its entirety more often, and my appreciation grew.

Some people call this world music, but that’s a lame and rather flimsy term.  Idan Raichel is an Israeli musician.  I first heard of him through my friend Leo.  The songs on this album are in Hebrew and Amharic, and there’s just a huge range of moods and styles.  It’s clear that a lot of different musicians worked on this.  I love how different it is to much of the music I listen to.  I love the melodies that you wouldn’t hear in purely Western music.  And I like that I can’t understand the lyrics.  When you don’t know the meaning of the words, you’re free to focus more on the music and on the way a language actually sounds.  Half of poetry is about the way words sound rather than what they mean, and it’s much easier to concentrate on that forgotten side of lyricism when interpreting meanings is impossible.  Particular favorites from this album include “Bo’ee”, “Mi Maamakim”, and “Ulai Ha Pa am”.


More Thoughts

So that’s my list.  Truth be told, this was not a strong year for new music in my life.  There are only nine albums on the list because I just wouldn’t have felt right squeezing any others there.  There were plenty of albums and bands that I heard for the first time and quite liked, but overall I find this list weaker than the last two years.  I heard a lot of pretty good albums this year, but I don’t think I would call any of them truly great.  Nothing blew me away like The Age of Adz or The People’s Key or Homogenic or The Flying Club Cup or ( ). 

Is this a function of getting older?  I wonder if, as you age, it becomes harder and harder for new music to get deep down into your soul.  Maybe that’s not the case, and I surely hope it isn’t.  This could just have been a fluke of a year.  It also doesn't help that I listened to practically no new music all the way through July.  I had a long drought, whereas in 2010 and 2011 I was consistently listening to new stuff.  Maybe this is all to be expected.


Honorable Mentions & Random Stuff

·       The XX – xx (2009)
o   Interesting stuff, very catchy.  The only thing is it's a bit hard for me to connect deeply to the lyrics, at least at this point in my life. 

·      Grizzly Bear – Shields (2012)
o   Some really good stuff on this album.  It was next in line to make the real list, but I didn’t give it enough listens.  The songs are a bit more energetic than previous Grizzly Bear stuff, which I like.  And “Gun Shy” is insanely addictive.

·      Incubus made a comeback on my radar, thanks to Melanie (who, incidentally, has made her own Top Albums list for 2012, so check it out).  Takes me way back to high school.  Also got a lot of individual tracks from her that gave me something to think about.  Does admitting that I really enjoy Ryan Adams’s version of “Wonderwall” and John Mayer’s “Free Fallin’” mess with my indie cred?
·      The song “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes almost deserves its own place on the list.  That song was crucial for me in the early parts of this year.

·      James Blake went up a couple notches in my estimation, as I found myself some evenings actually craving songs other than “The Wilhelm Scream”.

·      The song “To Build a Home” by the Cinematic Orchestra was a three-day obsession.  I love that kind of piano.

·      The compilation album “Dark Was the Night” has some really, really great stuff on it.  Any person looking for a good variety of indie music should check it out.

·      The songs “Spread” and “Roses” by OutKast from the album The Love Below.  I’m many years behind everyone else on this, but I swear, those songs were new to me and I could not stop laughing anytime I heard them.

·      “When I’m Small” by Phantogram.

·      Probably no song puts me in a better mood than “We’re From Barcelona” by the band…wait for it…I’m From Barcelona.  Note: They are Swedish.

·      Gave a lot of attention to Eminem’s Recovery, renewed my appreciation for the amount of technical skill that guy has.  It’s seriously absurd.

·      It wasn’t eligible to make it onto the list because I’ve already listened to plenty, but Jose Gonzalez’s In Our Nature has been getting a lot of love from me recently.  That’s a really damn good album.