Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Pop and Rock, Part Two
Published Dec 17, 2012We left you hanging on Friday (December 14) with 30 through 16 on the Pop and Rock list. Now, we're unveiling the rest of our top 30, from 15 all the way to our number one album. Let the arguing begin!
Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Pop and Rock, Part Two:
15. How to Dress Well
Is How to Dress Well indie rock or R&B? Does it even matter? In a year where the lines between the two genres became more blurred than ever, Tom Krell, the falsetto-voiced brainchild behind the project, sidestepped the debate entirely and created the year's most deeply personal album with Total Loss. Musicians regularly use their craft to explore inner turmoil, but rarely does the listener get the complete journey offered on Krell's sophomore effort. From the album's opening line, "You were there for me when I was in trouble," repeated again on "Struggle," to acknowledge the figurative loss of his sick mother and actual loss of a friend, Krell lays bare his greatest fears and insecurities. Set to minimalist piano, pounding drums and washes of sound, Total Loss takes the sonic template he established on his debut and creates a dynamic and tightly wound narrative, culminating with the ode to the living, "Set It Right." That he managed to pen a bona-fide pop jam with "& It Was U" in the process is just icing on the cake.
14. David Byrne & St. Vincent
Love This Giant
If you aren't a fan of a horn section, then David Byrne and Annie "St. Vincent" Clark's collaborative album might have left you cold. Having been asked to create an evening of new music for a Housing Works charity event, Clark brought the idea of using a brass band rather than a traditional rock band to the table. Within these constraints the pair set about crafting a set of songs that, through emails, occasional meetings and spare studio time over two years became Love This Giant. The challenge was clearly one that both partners in the project thrived on, each bringing out the best in the other: Clark's fine guitar work is allowed to shine, while Byrne's delivery veers from delicate croon to paranoid mania. From low-end bass drones to churning raw funk, swaggering horn battles between the Dap Kings and Antibalas to the delicate closing passage of "Outside Space and Time," Byrne and Clark explore the full capabilities of their chosen set-up. The role of long-time St Vincent collaborator John Congleton cannot be underestimated either — his beats, buzzes and electronic hits form a vital part of the record, provided for Byrne and Clark to pick apart and reconstruct as necessary. Most importantly, Love This Giant isn't simply some dry experiment, but a record with the power to make you move, be it head-nodding, feet-shuffling or whatever you call the dance move they were doing in the video to lead track "Who." Quite where they go from here is another question, but we can only hope that this isn't a one-off collaboration.
The Seer is not an album to add to your shuffle mix. Don't jog to The Seer. Don't even listen to it with the lights on. The Seer is a heavy piece of art. An ayahuasca trip. A dirty thought. A Pasolini film. After a 13-year career that was sometimes meditative, sometimes brutal but always chaste, Michael Gira decided to disband Swans in the mid-'90s, focusing on the freaky, folksy Angels of Light before returning to the dark side a decade-and-a-half later. Thirty years in, The Seer has proven to be his masterstroke, an album described by Gira himself as "the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I've ever made, been involved in or imagined." That quote makes perfect sense once you find yourself lost within The Seer's labyrinthine throng of noise and lunacy. But it's Gira's follow-up statement, "It's unfinished, like the songs themselves," that throws listeners for a loop, since The Seer seems so complete, so resolute and, for the first time, so at peace with itself. Songs like "Avatar," "The Apostate" and the 32-minute title track are rich with soaring and collapsing crescendos of drone, feedback and voice, while "Lunacy," featuring Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low, "Song for a Warrior," with Karen O, and Gira's reunion with Jarboe, "The Seer Returns," that demonstrate just how easy it is to buy into Swans' wicked wilderness. Gira may have released albums with a greater focus or grander ideas, but he's never soared as high as he does on The Seer.
12. The Men
Open Your Heart
The Men's Open Your Heart is indie rock for the history books. With a mix of American heartland soul and visceral noise, the album builds on the groundwork laid by the best '80s underground rock bands. There's spacey Meat Puppets twang on "Country Song," beer-swilling Replacements poetry on "Candy" and moody Dinosaur Jr. guitar freak-outs on "Animal" and closer "Ex-Dreams." But despite all the names that must be dropped in an effort to write about Open Your Heart, the Men have crafted a statement all their own. The album is muscular and sometimes droning, though always immediate and accessible. Not only did the band emerge from the lo-fi basement of their earlier work to a much wider audience, they did so with confidence and on their own terms. Anyone who strives to earn a liveable wage doing what they love should be able to relate to Mark Perro as he sings the chorus of "Candy" with resolve: "When I hear the radio play/ I don't care that it's not me/ Remember the days when I'd shout anything/ For you to see me."
Kill For Love
(Italians Do It Better)
The easy thing to say is that Chromatics rose to fame from Johnny Jewel's essential contribution to 2011's Drive soundtrack, but that would be an unfair assessment. Fact is, Chromatics have been gearing up for world domination since they ditched their scrappy, mediocre post-punk beginnings and embraced Italo-disco half a decade ago. Ice cold synths and distant vocals may have come across like a passing fad, but the Portland quartet have proven their staying power. After a terrifically long wait, Kill For Love is an engrossing double album with equal parts pop appeal and synth-drenched mystique. The album rewards repeat listens, offering new pockets of appeal each time, and cements Chromatics as one of the most important acts around, Gosling or not.
10. Beach House
No record made me cry as much as Beach House's dream-like, hazy and haunting garage-pop wonder, Bloom. From the shimmery waves rising up on the opening track, "Myth," to the fuzzy grunts on "Wild," to the starry magical reprieve of "Other People," grief and the seemingly impossible notion of surviving tragedy have never been so profoundly and literally translated through music. There's heavy lyrical repetition in each song, but throughout, the words never lose their urgency. Whether the duo is lingering in the heartbreaking realization that "heaven won't keep us together," or warning "you were getting wiser / It's better this way," the album's journey is nothing short of cathartic. But if you're just in it for a good musical time, Beach House deliver that, too. Contrast builds in the most unexpected spots, toying with the listener's capacity for tension on "New Year" and "Wishes" before slipping into the folkier, gentler waves of "On the Sea." And an all-too-rare secret song "Irene" proves to be that magical moment where you think something is over, and then you find one last bit to savour. As the album fades out, Beach House coos "It's a strange paradise" over and over again — and really, there's no more fitting description than that.
9. Jessie Ware
"Devotion," the opening cut off of Jessie Ware's dazzling but down-tempo debut of the same name, has the UK singer breathily pleading "Don't leave me in the dark/ don't leave me this way." Removing the lyric from its lovelorn context, it's an odd line, considering Ware's first full-length has thrown her from the odd guest spot for SBTRKT and Joker to standing in the spotlight solo. It's one of the stronger debuts of the year, with Ware's sensual set of pipes befitting all of the styles she attempts on the diverse outing. The warped vinyl warble of "Sweet Talk" has her breathily dominating '80s gloss pop, while she can hold her own with the modern Florence's of the world on the spirits-raising, arena-bound "Wildest Moments." She excels on minimalist funk, gives her pipes an octave exploring workout on "Night Light," and offers up an intoxicating update to Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself" on the 808-skittering late-night bedroom jam "110%." To paraphrase Ware herself, who could say no to all that?
8. Godspeed You! Black Emperor
'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
What is the triumph of this new GY!BE album? Is it that the band are able to describe the physicality of spirit in a slow explosion of joy and fear and frustration? Yes, of course. Is it the excitement of witnessing individual wills merging collectively into an engine running cleanly on the fossils of rock music? Surely, yes. But above all, this new album triumphs because we weren't expecting it any more than we were expecting F#a#∞ back in 1997. After a ten-year hiatus, though not a true disappearance, as projects like Silver Mt. Zion rose in estimation and promise, the band had reconvened to play at festival invitations and sporadic short tours. Those shows really didn't hold promise of new recordings. Yet then, this. More than any of their previous records, 'Allelujah! captures the energy and velocity of the band's live show, likely because the two long cornerstone pieces are culled from the band's epic performances but had gone previously unrecorded. That historical familiarity, coupled with a renewal of old bonds and the fact that they are still ready to rage against the ever-gathering storms that weigh down our horizon, results in a grateful welcome back.
METZ have given Canadians plenty of noise-rock mayhem through a flurry of shows spanning the continent, buoyed on the bold promise of a debut album glinting in the horizon, while numerous seven-inches over the past two years slaked appetites in the meantime. And METZ's self-titled full-length, clocking in at only 30 minutes, provides a one-two punch of brevity and intensity that feels authentically like their shows. Continuity is key as radiating hooks propel each track forward amidst vocalist Alex Edkins' primal cries and howls. It's the classic three-chord punk rock structure with a vengeance, justifying comparisons to early Nirvana and Jesus Lizard. The band are more than a grunge-revivalist act however, as their ferocity invokes an unrelenting hardcore feel. "Headache" immediately launches into breakneck guitar and Edkins' screams, while "Negative Space," quoted as being the launching point for the album's sound and writing style, is a schizophrenic, albeit powerful, track with thundering drums and screeching guitar hooks.
6. Dirty Projectors
Swing Lo Magellan
For some reason, the release of Swing Lo Magellan, Dirty Projectors' best album yet, has Dave Longstreth and company fending off attacks from all sides: those with a musical sweet tooth deride the band for being indulgent and intentionally "difficult"; those stimulated by the band's more experimental early catalogue disparage it for being too accessible. But Swing Lo Magellan has the best of both worlds. Songs like the towering "Offspring Are Blank," with its explosive, distorted-guitar chorus, balance Longstreth's dense, intricate melodies with stirring moments of release. More rhythm-based tracks, like "Just From Chevron" and "The Socialites" pile vocal harmonies and plucked guitar melodies on top of complex, skittering rhythm tracks to ensure that both sides of the brain find something in Swing Lo Magellan to appreciate. The best example is perhaps lead single and album highlight "Gun Has No Trigger," on which female vocalists Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle provide a bed of dynamic harmonies whose volume ebbs and flows with Longstreth's anguished tenor, punctuated by a trotting drumbeat and minimal bass line. Despite a slower tempo, the song builds, gradually, to a dramatic swell: Coffman and Dekle open from "oohs" to "ahhs," the bass speeds up, and Longstreth wails a spine-tingling lament of 21st century social impotence. Was there something you longed for on Swing Lo Magellan that wasn't there? Then you didn't listen hard enough.
5. Fiona Apple
The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw & Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
It's been seven years since Fiona Apple has released an album, so not only was this year's return highly anticipated, but it was well worth the wait. In true Fiona fashion, the album title is as abstract and emotionally unedited as we remember the singer-songwriter to be: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do is definitely a mouthful, but that's just a primer. Idler Wheel is a stripped-down acoustic album that bares all of Apple's rawest feelings, allowing the pain to come in, "like a second skeleton," as she so aptly reveals on opening track, "Every Single Night." Apple's erratic smorgasbord of feelings is finely distilled in every track and her sharp words cut through like a knife that's been sharpened for quite some time. As much as Apple's brilliantly crafted lyrics are aimed at exes who have wronged her — like on "Regret," when her voice maliciously rips through the line "I ran out of white doves' feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me" — her wildly melodramatic lines are turned around and directed at herself as well. On "Daredevil", she admits to needing a chaperone to protect her from herself and she rationalizes, "How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone," on "Left Alone." Apple's bare bones approach is anything but simplistic and is some of the strongest work we've seen this year, from her or anyone who's ever suffered from a broken heart.
There's not a single moment of hesitation across the eight tracks and 35 minutes of Japandroids' sophomore album; hesitation is a marker of uncertainty, immaturity. While the Vancouver-based duo uses Celebration Rock as a remembrance of youth, it's delivered from two grown men who found a way to capture those momentous moments with maturity and insight — a rare feat. And they do it without losing an ounce of energy that made their debut such a joy. Vocals nearly shouting every word, backing "oohs" and "yeah yeah yeahs" that are simultaneously fierce and melodious, and unrelenting beats underscore an urgency to not forget one's formative past. The album ends in a way that most can only hope for — with perhaps the best single of the year in "The House That Heaven Built," a song that never slows from its frenetic pace; and "Continuous Thunder," a beautiful closing track to their opus that looks at love, relationships and the questions and fears that are birthed from these two monumental life forces. Celebration Rock is as much a time capsule of the past as it is a Dead Poets Society-esque "seize the day" manifesto.
3. Cloud Nothings
Attack on Memory
In these digitized times, you'd be forgiven for presuming that any serviceable, post-hardcore curio with a well-thumbed copy of Our Band Could Be Your Life under its arm could find a cult following in some fusty internet corner or another. But to excel, such a record must reach beyond ear-grabbing catchiness and decibel wars to grasp something altogether more profound. The reality facing Cloud Nothings main man Dylan Baldi is a pertinent one: young people are repeatedly told by politicians and mainstream media that the power to create change is in their hands, but the evidence is in short supply. While many will confuse generational disappointment with vague self-loathing, Baldi possesses a righteousness that goes beyond fashionable cynicism, blitzing of-the-moment nostalgia-pop with hard riffs and finger-pointing lyrics: "They don't believe in me/ Why should I agree?/ They don't believe in me/ I should cooperate," rasps "Fall In." "Wasted Days" reiterates the sentiment: "I know/ I'm losing all my time/ Doesn't seem/ Like it was ever mine... Getting tired/ Of living till I die." It's as poignant as it is powerful, rattling through a succinct manifesto while retaining the necessary melodic resonance to follow neatly behind the Replacements and the Wipers as a great modern punk item. "I need time to stay useless," yells "Stay Useless," hurtling its lungs towards a bleak light at the end of the tunnel. Given the single-minded force of Attack On Memory, you suspect the prospect of treading water needn't trouble the trio any longer.
2. Tame Impala
In a year where so many familiar faces either stumbled or spun their wheels, it was refreshing to see a band actually deliver on the promise they've hinted at. Australia's Tame Impala didn't just set the bar for good old-fashioned rock in 2012, they leapt right over it like, well, an impala. Lonerism is a very easy album to like — that happens very quickly. It isn't hard to get caught up in the swirling psychedelic guitars and the John Lennon-esque vocals, but they are simply a starting point. Love of Lonerism comes with time, as the immediacy of the songs is slowly replaced with the realization of the epic scale that Kevin Parker has achieved on only his second album. This is a glorious amalgam of '60s pop and '70s prog-rock passed through a hazy filter that adds new colours and sounds to an already vivid palette. And all in convenient, bite-sized chunks, with just the occasional meander where Parker stretches his wings and heads skyward. It is hard to imagine how they will ever top this.
Grimes has been caught wondering aloud why she gets pegged as an infantile naïf: and yet on the 90-second track that opens this, her international pop breakthrough, Montreal-via-Vancouver's Clare Boucher comes off like a wide-eyed, helium-voiced anime heroine. Yes, her voice is a mix of an '80s pop moppet and a new age flake. And yes, that heinous album cover, her fashion choices, her videos, her interviews and her on-stage banter are, more often than not, insipid. So perhaps Visions' greatest strength is that we're able to look past all that and discover a dense, layered masterpiece that, like Björk, stems from a pop history alien to rockists and preachers of punk orthodoxy. Grimes (the artist, as opposed to what may have been Boucher's personal experience) was born of Kraftwerk and Nina Hagen, grew up on Madonna and Mary J. Blige, and attended more than a few raves and loft parties before holing up in her bedroom and blacking out the windows to imagine the dreamscapes heard here. It's the polar opposite of what the CanRock curmudgeons tell us Canada sounds like, and yet it is clearly the sound of a lonely Canadian winter spent fantasizing of escape, of connection, of sunshine, of reimagining the self — both metaphorically and, in the case of Grimes's voice, the physical form as well. Grimes is all about transformation, not unlike Prince in his prime; like that artist, she is a solitary studio entity buried in beats, role play and libidinous exorcism. Visions is not just the best pop album of 2012, it's also the best album that sounds like 2012, of aiming to find beauty in chaos, of forging an uncertain future, of navigating digital landscapes, of communication beyond words. Oh yeah: and of Canadian artists continuing to take over the world, one landmark album at a time.