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Jan 15 / Great Apes

Top 10 Albums of 2012

About a week ago I posted a list of my top 5 video games of last year.  This post is going to cover some top albums.  It’s a lot easier to listen to a larger number of records than to play video games, so this list is going to be twice as large at 10.  I’l try and describe in a paragraph or two why I like each album and link to a song on it that I hope you’ll enjoy.  This’ll go in reverse order, starting at 10 and leading up to my favourite album of the year.

10. Wish Upon A Blackstar by Celldweller

This is a bit of a weird one on this list.  I’m not really into a lot of electronic music and the electronic music that I am into tends to be on the ambient side of things (The Field, for example).  On the one hand I kind of want to hate this album for reminding me of dub-step, but it has a few things going for it that dub-step doesn’t:

1. It’s very melody-driven.

2. There are lots of guitars and live drums.

3. It’s not shit.

It’s entirely possible that a big part of why I like this is that Celldweller is an act that I was introduced to around the time I started university and I’ve been waiting to hear this album, much delayed, for several years.  Odds are pretty good that you’ve heard Celldweller even if you don’t realise it; check out the list of films, video games, and TV shows his music has been licensed for.  Anyway, I’m not really sure what to say about the album other than the fact that I’m not entirely sure why I like it, but like it I do.

9. Sweet Heart Sweet Light by Spiritualized

I’m not really sure what the deal is with Spiritualized.  I like pretty much all of their albums, but I never seem to listen to them.  Then every once in a while they’ll put out a new one and I’ll go, “Oh yeah, these guys.  They’re good!”  Plus, I mean, the guy who writes all the songs calls himself J. Spaceman, so there’s that.  If you’ve heard any Spiritualized before then you’ve more or less heard this album.  It still works as well as it ever did, but there’s not much here you’ll have not heard before.  If you haven’t, Jason Pierce (Spaceman) writes big orchestral arrangements one instrument at a time by playing them on piano, then enlists people who play other instruments to play the real thing on his albums and on tour.  Most of the songs tend to be centred around piano or guitar, which Pierce plays, but they tend to be pretty . . . big.  He creates an interesting fusion of psych-rock and gospel that doesn’t really sound like anything else.  As the name implies, the songs frequently deal with themes of faith and God, but in a personal rather than evangelical sense.  The album itself sits near the back of my list at #9, but this song may be my favourite of the year:

8. Mr. M by Lambchop

Lambchop are another strange band who don’t really sound like anything else, always sound like themselves, and keep putting really good music.  The lyrics continue to be wry and insightful, telling interesting stories about fairly normal people.  The music continues to be beautiful and calming, but there are offbeat undercurrents running through most of the songs.  I don’t have much else to say about this one, but it’s worth a listen (as is the rest of their back catalogue if you’ve not heard them before).

7. Attack On Memory by Cloud Nothings

I suspect that if I had first heard this album 6 or 7 years ago I would have liked it much more.  It’s an album that reminds me a lot of the feeling that you first get when you leave university; the world seems open to you in ways it hadn’t before, and yet it seems so closed off at the same time.  You begin to realise how many of the goals that you set for yourself haven’t been reached and probably won’t be.  This could lead to quiet reflection, reassessment and adjustment, or it could lead to raging at what’s been lost, or what never was but seemed like it might be.  Cloud Nothings have clearly chosen to rage.  Choruses on this album are often simple, repeated lamentations like “No future! No past!” or “No one knows our plans for us/We won’t last long”.  But despite that, the album feels too restrained.  There’s a lot of shouting, but the music never quite seems to match the intensity of the lyrics or the vocals.  This is a band that could really use a DOD Grunge pedal.

6. Rooms Filled With Light by Fanfarlo

Rooms Filled With Light is probably the best pop album released in 2012, so it’s unfortunate that it seems to have been pretty overlooked.  I talked about it on Twitter one day, and a number of people checked it out and told me that they really enjoyed it.  I suspect it’s one of those albums that nobody knows about but everyone would love if they just gave it a listen (The Delgados’ Hate, one of my favourite albums ever, is another great pop album that seems to fall into this category).  Rooms Filled With Light is that strange brand of Scandinavian pop music that works so well combining pianos, strings, electronic instrumentation, and the occasional brass instrument.  The lyrics are often ambiguous criticisms of modern life, as with the incessant sarcasm of the album’s catchiest track, “Shiny Things”: “Let’s not worry about going extinct/We’ll be preserved on a shelf somewhere”, “It’s as if nothing happened, as if it was enough/Think we rolled over gladly, thinking of shiny things”.  It’s catchy but never simple, inventive but never indecipherable, the perfect kind of pop album for someone who likes their pop music to be a little more smartly composed.

5. Threads by Now Now

I really, really like this album.  But I kind of feel guilty about it.  In contrast to Fanfarlo, who I like because their music is complex and creative, Now Now have written an album full of simple indie rock melodies, standard song structures, and straight-forward lyrics.  But as those things sometimes do, in this instance they work together really well.  There are times when the more rock-oriented songs on this album remind me of another album full of simplistic guitar parts – Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights, which is a masterpiece.  I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, as this is no Turn On The Bright Lights.  But I’ll be damned if I haven’t listened to it a lot in the past few months.  The guitar parts are simple, but they’re often just really good.  Something about them just clicks with me.  And then there’s the lyrics.  They’re simple and often repetitive (3/4 of the songs must mention difficulty sleeping), but they’re earnest expressions of young love and its loss, and there’s something about that that always stirs up powerful nostalgia in me.  Consider, for example, the opening lyrics to “Wolf”: “I would kill to be your clothes/Cling to your body and hang from your bones/But I could make a mark if you would let me start”.  So it all works.  I’m not sure why, but it does.  Plus the lead guitarist is really cute.

4. Kitsune by Marriages

Now we get to the part of the list where the Isis influence begins to make its presence.  Isis was a metal band that put out some of the best metal albums of the 2000s.  Their members have been prolific, with numerous side projects.  One of those was instrumental rock band Red Sparowes.  Two of the members of Red Sparowes (though none of the ones from Isis) formed a new band this year, Marriages.  They’re not quite a metal band, but they’re definitely on the harder end of the rock spectrum.  This is an album filled with great, swirling, melodic guitar leads and rumbling, driving bass lines.  It also contains what may be the only metal song ever written about being pregnant.  It’s also the rare hard rock band with a female vocalist who has a great rock voice rather than a highly melodic one that contrasts with the more edgy music.  At risk of wandering into cliche territory, it’s also got a really atmospheric feeling to it.  These songs are dense.  This is the kind of album that doesn’t get written often enough anymore, one with consistently great, loud, crunchy guitars.  I’m embedding one song here to keep with the format of this blog entry, but all of Kitsune can be listened to free and legally on the band’s page.

3. No by Old Man Gloom

Round 2 of the Isis connections, this time much more closely.  Old Man Gloom is an experimental metal band fronted by former Isis frontman Aaron Turner.  It’s a super-group of metal/hardcore bands in a sense, also featuring members of Converge and Cave In.  In the past Old Man Gloom’s music has been difficult and unapproachable, which is probably about what you’d expect from an experimental metal band.  No is also a fairly difficult, complex album, but it’s far more approachable than their previous efforts.  The album opens with a two and a half minute track of what is essentially guitar feedback and ambient drones, and the second track ends with 4 minutes of slowly deteriorating noise.  But by the third track the album is veering closer into more recognisable metal territory, and the middle stretch of the album is full of killer guitar parts that it’s virtually impossible not to throw up the devil horns and head-bang to.  Even the more straight-forward songs are still pretty unusual, even in the realm of heavy metal, but the whole thing is put together exceptionally well.  It might be a difficult album to get into, but it definitely rewards patience and repeated listens.  And as I’ve said, some of the guitar riffs are just killer.  The band has released a free stream of the full album, so you should definitely check it out.

2. Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! by Godspeed You! Black Emperor

I find it a bit surprising that a new GY!BE album was released and it wasn’t my favourite album of the year, but here we are and there that is.  Allelujah! is a very good album.  A great album.  But it doesn’t quite live up to their first few releases.  It’s a far more rock-oriented album than any of their others, and while knowing my taste in music you might think I would appreciate that, in the context of GY!BE I don’t necessarily.  One of the things that has made their music so amazing in the past is its other-worldliness.  GY!BE records have always sounded like nothing else on Earth, even though many bands have tried to copy them.  Their previous work mixed orchestral arrangements, standard rock instrumentation, and various field recordings in a completely unique, always exhilirating fashion.  This album maintains a lot of what made them great in the past, but there’s just that little something missing.  But maybe I’m being too hard on this album on account of how mind-blowingly good most of their previous work has been (I’d rate Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven among my top few albums ever released and “Moya” may just be the best song of all time).  This is still a fantastic album, better than all but one that I heard this year.  And you should definitely listen to it too, if you haven’t.  It’s hard to list a sample track since the whole album contains just two 20 minute songs and two shorter interludes, so here’s the better half of the album:

1. Heaven by The Walkmen

And that brings us to #1.  I’ve been asked what it is about The Walkmen that makes them such a fantastic band, and I find it hard to explain.  On the surface they’re just an indie rock band playing indie rock songs.  There’s no one particular thing that sets them apart from all the other bands writing indie rock songs; what makes The Walkmen great is that they do what they do perfectly.  Their albums are full of perfectly written guitar parts, catchy and memorable, backed by a lock-step rhythm section that always drives the songs in the right direction.  There are no wasted notes, no unnecessary parts in Walkmen songs.  While all of The Walkmen’s albums are excellent, every other album is truly top-notch and Heaven falls on the top-notch side of the ledger (along with Bows and Arrows and You and Me).  One of the things that I love about this band is that they do something that almost no other band does: write songs about being a normal person doing normal things.  They write songs about things like reflecting on friends’ weddings and how that makes you feel about where you’re at in your life.  The lyrics, like the music, so frequently hit their mark by leaning toward quiet understatement rather than grand posturing.  Here’s how The Walkmen sing a love song: “You should follow me where it goes/It might take a while but you never know”.  Exactly.  Everything in its right place.

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