Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Favorite of 2012

So, as I said, I lost my best of 2012 list… Well, first off, I was lazy about writing it up. Then I lost it. And then somewhere in that time I finally picked up two of the albums that had come out early in 2012, and they ended up bumping off a couple others when I was re-compiling.

Not that this matters/you care, but I thought I’d share.

BTW, JT is being belligerent about this, but he’ll come around.

But here is my list, in no particular order, though I do name my favorite of the year.

Old 97s – The Grand Theatre Volume Two: Naturally, when you have a pre-planned, multi-volume series of releases on your hands, folks are gonna tend to assume the best of the lot will be on volume one, and the rest will be pleasant filler with a couple of standouts. Of course Old 97s are smarter than that, not to mention better, and when a couple of years ago Rhett Miller reported that the tunes were coming out of him like quicksilver (my paraphrasing), he wasn’t kidding. For as great as The Grand Theatre Volume One is, Volume Two might be just a smidge better. This one delves even further back into their “old sound,” with hardly any of the “good but not quite right” styling from their early 00s mainstream pop heyday, keeping things lean and raw and ragged. And the studio chatter tacked on to various songs is the sweetest of icing on this cake. 

Beach House – Bloom: As I said previously, the key here is repeat listens. When you do this, all the textures and subtle nuances in these songs bubble to the surface and present a startling cache of fresh beauty. Again, there may be a “formula” with Beach House, but (as with AC/DC) when you’re mining a vein of gold so rich, why change a thing?

Frankie Rose – Interstellar: I think this one is it, my personal favorite album of the year (thanks MSP). Why? Because of all the hip kids still riding on the retro 80s wave, Frankie has pretty much summed it up with a crimson bow. This collection of stark, moody pop is so alarmingly beautiful, that the first time I listened to it, I had to just stop what I was doing and become absorbed in the music. (Thankfully, I wasn’t driving.) But this isn’t moping for the sake of attention, this is genuine melancholy music, pop-tastic but atmospheric, with propelling drums, verb-slashed guitars and Frankie’s lovely, plaintive voice bringing it all together. A lot of the obvious “influences” are noticeable, like the Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, etc, but I swear I hear Gene Loves Jezebel as well, and (intended or not) that right there won my heart.

Aimee Mann – Charmer: A year ago if you’d asked me what Aimee Mann’s best record was, I’d have said 2000’s Bachelor No. 2 without blinking. And while I do own a few others, I’d also have said it’s really all you need, ‘cos the cool but intimate style she developed on that album pretty much carried forward, always with pleasing results. Well, Bachelor No. 2, take a step back, ‘cos here comes a real Charmer (sorry for that). Seriously, what an album. Right out of the gate with the title track, Aimee sounds fresh and vibrant and muscular. This album churns and broods and flat out rocks like…well, like she has in the past, but these songs are so stinking good and catchy, that you just have to step back and say, “Well done!”

Neil Halstead – Palindrome Hunches: I still feel SO guilty for not including 2008’s Oh! Mighty Engine in my top list of that year. And I like that album, but there is something about it that always feels rushed. Not so with Palindrome Hunches. Neil is in full on laid-back mode, moving through these tunes like a slow knife through room temp butter. As always, his take on love and life on the low track is fascinating, taking you there without effort and letting you drift awhile as you draw everything in. This is an album that demands repeat spins, allowing you to get lost in itself, but always letting you up for air. Take a deep breath and dive in for more.

Bob Dylan – Tempest: I’m not gonna raz Uncle Bob too much for the mediocrity of his last two efforts, but I will say that Tempest is an album where Dylan truly deserves the continued praise he’s had heaped on him with a cherry on top since his official comeback over 15 years ago. The key here is memorable hooks and instrumentation on top of his ever-worthwhile lyrical play. And instead of morphing a bunch of styles together, he lets each (jazz, Tin Pan Alley, etc) stand on its own, allowing the flavors of the individual songs to coalesce into a nice stew of yummy goodness. If he’d just left out the meandering, “We know how this ends” title track, I’d have put this in my top five.

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die: Love her or hate her, this prefab darling has the look and the hook. The latter is what I’m most interested in, because Born to Die is chock full of catchy melodies, catch phrases and dreamy musical interludes. But this isn’t fluffy bubble gum fodder. No, Lana is showing us the darker side of the trendy, hipster lifestyle, the tedium of “having it all” and the loss that we all fear when the lights go down and our eyes close. I admit that this began as a guilty pleasure, but producer-birthed image or not, she’s co-writing her own tunes and (for now) making me a believer.

Tallest Man on Earth – There’s No Leaving Now: Oh no, TMoE is going electric! No, not really. While Kristian did add some drums and bass to a couple of tunes, this is a) just the next logical step in a layering process he’s been bringing with each release and b) so perfectly melded into the overall feeling of those selected songs, that you really have to listen for them. In other words, There’s No Leaving Now is as strikingly minimalist and lovely as the first EP, there are just more pieces creating the whole. Meanwhile, the songwriting itself remains as passionate and moving as ever, focusing on the terms of self in the magically cryptic way that Kristian has of spinning his words. Bottom line, he’s getting better and better with each release.

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar: Along with TMoE, another Swedish import in the folky vein. Only instead of harnessing Dylan, these too-young-to-be-singing-like-this sisters are pulling heavily from old country and vintage Americana, creating a sound that’s old school familiar and yet freshly contemporary. Again, how kids this age can pull out aching lyrics along the lines of Emmylou, Blue and the title track is beyond me; and when you add their flawless harmonies, its truly a thing of wonder and magic. If your heart doesn’t break at least twice, then it’s made of wood.

Stars – The North: A Canadian import that I’ve only been vaguely familiar with in the past, a friend of mine was raving about this album for a solid two weeks, so on a whim I picked it up…and then I was spinning it nonstop as well. Stars’ take on dance punk is certainly steeped in New Order, but with an edge of menace that makes even NO’s dark early days just seem moody, and a flair for melody and overall musicianship that is…well, Bernard never claimed to be a guitar god. Long story short, this is a super fun album, with lots of rump shaking beats and full out sing-alongs that will keep the party going for darn near 45 minutes. 

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