Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Pop and Rock, Part One
Published Dec 14, 2012Pop and Rock is a pretty wide-ranging genre, so it makes sense that more albums fell into this category than any other. Today, we're posting the bottom half of our list of 30; the top half will roll out Monday. So, "Hey, where's MY favourite album on this list?!" It might be just around the corner...
UPDATE: Part Two is now available here.
Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Pop and Rock, Part One:
30. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
Is Mature Themes an appropriate title for a record containing the phrases "suicide dumplings," "sperm brain" and "blowjobs of death"? Maybe, maybe not. Ariel Pink's most critically acclaimed effort to date is a pilgrimage to the edge of artifice. While most of its songs contain the sonic stimulation of a cloud-nine acid trip, other moments — and I mean this as a compliment to his intrepidness — are so utterly unlistenable that one cannot help but consider this might be a joke on us all. Ariel Pink (or Ariel Marcus Rosenberg, to earthlings) remains a purveyor of outsider-pop that hangs addictively on the fringes. But the mystery is part of the magic; it's fun to think that Mature Themes might be a 50-minute riddle. It hits its stride, loses it, and finds it again with brazenfaced earnestness, and its moments of most glimmering excellence shine through the slit between satire and sincerity. "Nostradamus & Me" is a grim, morbid, lovely lullaby, while the (comparatively-speaking) cleanly produced radio-friendly standout "Only In My Dreams" is rife with layers of methodical harmonies. Mature Themes is pathologically engineered so that it feels wonderful to listen to but frustrating to try and figure out. It's a smoggy storm of hell, angels, orgasms and existentialism that works best when you don't overthink it.
29. Passion Pit
Passion Pit's second full-length picks up where their beloved debut Manners left off. Intricate sequencing and bright and bouncing synths take the lead, melding with Michael Angelakos' falsetto voice to pop perfection. On Gossamer, Angelakos creates more room for the tracks to breathe, allowing the dance floor moments to burst through with greater intensity. The album begins with "Take A Walk," one of the year's best pop songs, that sets the tone for the following 11 tracks — musically, and to a greater degree, lyrically. The beauty of Gossamer soars well above its DJ-friendly beats and road trip melodies; it lands in a higher stratosphere, somehow managing to combine those aesthetics with dark themes of suicide, substance abuse, and other topics oft-relegated to gloomier music forms. Angelakos shares a deeper level of his personal struggles in a way that's not just digestible, it's enjoyable. It's an achievement one would never expect of a pop record, yet Gossamer defies conventions to deliver just that.
28. The Wooden Sky
Every Child a Daughter, Every Moon a Sun
The Wooden Sky took their time following up 2009's If I Don't Come Home You'll Know I'm Gone, and it paid dividends. Following an extensive amount of time on the road, the band returned to the studio with a notable confidence, a broadened sonic palette and a few years' worth of tales to tell. Built around frontman Gavin Gardiner's heartfelt lyrics and impassioned delivery, the arrangements on Every Child A Daughter, Every Moon A Sun are subtle and never overplayed. The spaces given for melodies and harmonies to unfurl are of equal importance as the rip-roaring guitar solos, choirs or the swells of the organ that appear elsewhere on the album. "Malibu Rum" has a world-weary wooziness to it, with sweet vocal harmonies and the distant slur of a theremin, while "Take Me Out" sways gently in waltz time, uncovering Gardiner's love of early rock'n'roll, complete with swooning strings and tinkling pianos. That isn't to say they have abandoned the louder side of their repertoire however, and there is plenty of twang to be found here too, the chiming "I'm Your Man" being a case in point. Despite the sadness, there is comfort to be found in Gardiner's gritty baritone, a quiet poise and grace to the Wooden Sky's ruminations on life, loneliness and loss, and a sense of joyful abandon when the band cut loose and let their guitars soar and shimmer.
27. The Walkmen
Over the course of ten years, the Walkmen have written their own narrative. Starting in 2000, they released a celebrated debut and then a follow-up that carved out a sound all their own. They then suffered a mid-career slump that saw them fall into world-weary themes and money worries. Luckily the group reemerged with the release of Lisbon in 2010, an album that featured a newly enlivened sense of purpose that's led to Heaven. Album opener, "We Can't Be Beat" is the most stripped-down song the group have ever laid to wax, but it bubbles into a proud proclamation of the group's self-worth. The Walkmen have long been a band of extremes, equally at home in the middle of the harshest chorus or the most delicate bridge. On Heaven, the group master the middle-ground. Heaven successfully captures their uncanny ability to sound at once unique and reassuringly familiar.
26. Hot Water Music
For the eight years that Florida melodic punk band Hot Water Music were on hiatus (even though they splintered off into a number of projects), fans felt a definite void, so when Exister, their eighth full-length, dropped this summer it was like our posi-core purveyors had never left. The early years of post-hardcore HWM classics were back like a Gainesville fountain of youth (see the pit-worthy title-track and the heart-palpitating "Paid in Full"). Meanwhile, the added maturity that guitarist/vocalists Chuck Ragan and Chris Wollard have been exploring in their solo material is all over Exister. Tracks like "State of Grace," with its melodic stutter-step, and "Drag My Body," a bluesy heartbreaker that wouldn't sound out of place on small town farmer radio, highlight the duo's best songwriting work to date. Hot Water Music have always been that band you can pound your fist to and find hope in during the toughest of times. On Exister, they prove that optimism and a positive outlook make for the best kind of punk rock. File this one next to those few key albums that changed your life for the better, and keep it close by at all times.
25. Lianne La Havas
Is Your Love Big Enough?
Being a female singer-songwriter from the UK these days means that inevitable comparisons to being "the next Adele" come with the territory. Lianne La Havas has managed to navigate the smoke and mirrors with the intimacy and immediacy of her music. For La Havas, the last year or so has been bookended by an impressive breakthrough performance on UK TV show Later...with Jools Holland and landing on the prestigious Mercury Prize shortlist with this record. In between, La Havas's Is Your Love Big Enough? has steadily won new admirers, motivating Bon Iver to take La Havas on their North American tour and Stevie Wonder to sing back her own songs to her via voicemail. Is Your Love Big Enough? features La Havas's soul, folk and jazz-inflected songs probing complicated affairs of the heart and identity with maturity and striking insight. Anchored by her beguilingly wizened voice and guitar, the intricately arranged songs, many drawn from her 2011 Lost and Found EP, stand on their own merit whether embellished with studio sheen or left unadorned to revel in their austerity. La Havas shines whether she's bristling with latent anger, starry-eyed over romance, dispensing witty observations on May-December romances or wracked with aching residual pain. While the melodic draw of these songs instantly reel you in, it's her ability to authentically channel and convey her emotional breadth that signals her genuine staying power.
Del F. Cowie
24. Jack White
Although he has cultivated a reputation as one of contemporary rock's great team players, from the White Stripes to the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather and others, it seemed only a matter of time before Jack White recorded under his own name. How that recording would turn out was anyone's guess though, given how all of White's projects are conducted within strict parameters. For the first time, Blunderbuss put nearly all of White's influences together, making it precisely what a Jack White solo album should be. Garage rock fans were appeased with "Sixteen Saltines," while "Freedom At 21" gave a nod to the Dead Weather's hard-edged funk. Amid all of this reconfiguration, though, something new emerged: Jack White the mature singer-songwriter. Much was made early on of Blunderbuss being his "breakup" record, created as it was in the aftermath of his divorce from Karen Elson and official split with Meg White. And while songs like "Missing Pieces" and "Love Interruption" certainly alluded to that, the more "adult" lyrical themes instead opened new doors for White musically. Utilizing a cavalcade of musicians — many of whom found spots in his alternating male/female touring bands — White's distinct impressions of Americana were finally revealed to their full extent. He may still be a ways off from unleashing his ultimate masterpiece, but with Blunderbuss it's clear that the training wheels have come off.
23. Twin Shadow
"You don't know my heart," insists George Lewis Jr. (aka Twin Shadow) on "Run My Heart." Charisma and aloofness often go hand-in-hand and Lewis knows it. His excellent sophomore outing is called Confess, not "Confession"; candour is scarce and therein lies much of its charm. Musically, the collection is less claustrophobic than his debut, Forget. Lewis is still fond of new wave and '80s tropes (see the Cure-style jangly guitar on "The One" and the hair metal riff on "Patient"), yet he's firmly entrenched in the present. Pairing immaculate production and faux-frankness, he sets an uneasy tone. "Golden Light" introduces his dexterous vocals through a pre-programmed set of sonic waves. An ominous entrance tempered by a shimmery chorus, it deftly moves between two extremes. That precarious balance continues throughout. Melodramatic and a bit masochistic, "I Don't Care" is a guilty pleasure that either paints Lewis as a damaged lover or a sociopath. Given the militaristic rhythm and the pristine keys — not to mention the Bruce-Wayne-in-a-prison-pit chanting — he's not quite sure himself. Highlights abound, from the album's most earnest and straightforward cut, "Be Mine Tonight," to the writhing, hooky "Five Seconds," which could soundtrack both Maverick fist pumping on a motorcycle and a dive-bar dance party. Thematically, Lewis obsesses over the relationship between light and dark and ends up falling somewhere in between. He's an unreliable narrator and a bit of a cad, so Confess gives little away. Of course, that's the point.
22. Cat Power
The din inside Chan Marshall's head is manifested in full, glorious force on Sun, the Cat Power comeback album that wasn't so much a comeback, but a reckoning, artistically, professionally and personally. (Sun is her first original record in six years, since The Greatest, which came out shortly before she was hospitalized from a mental breakdown.) Sonically, it's a collision of blues, soul, pop, and EDM, with effects, layers, electronic gadgetry and studio tweaks. Her flash and sass is mostly front-loaded in the opening tracks "Cherokee," "Sun" and "Ruin," any of which could probably kick off a flash mob. But dig below the showy surface and most of the songs have a shattered mirror effect, thanks to Marshall's penchant for layering her vocals slightly out of sync. It has a disquieting impact, particularly on her softer, self-aware songs, like "Always On My Own," which finds Marshall lamenting the loves she's lost. Its rawness rips at your guts, a feeling that's repeated on the glitchy "Real Life" and sinister "Human Being." On first listen, the record could be called disjointed, careening as it does between dance jams, digital freak-outs, rap beats and stark, soulful confessionals. But nobody can listen just once. It's the kind of record that swallows you whole. Marshall offers up the entirety of her fractured self and it's just like the sun: burning big and bright, fiery, mesmerizing and all-consuming.
Last year, if you had asked us to imagine what a side-project from the guitarist of Beach Fossils would sound like, Oshin would have been exactly what we imagined. For Zachary Cole Smith's debut album as DIIV (formerly Dive, and renamed due to a Belgian industrial artist with the same moniker), the six-stringer didn't stray too far from the jangling, blissfully reverb-hazed sound of his other band, but he expanded on this style with darker forays and so much echo that the lyrics are mostly unintelligible. "Doused" rides a sinister groove for close to four minutes, while "Wait" turns up the fuzz during its shoegazing outro, and the percussion-free "Home" closes the album with a soft-focus blur of chilled-out balladry. These slight diversions aside, the album's 13 tracks mostly sound extremely similar; the vocals sit low in the mix, swamped by waves of chiming guitar and the occasional teen movie-esque keyboard, and this gives standout tracks like "How Long Have You Known?" a dreamy, narcotic quality. Rather than becoming repetitive, this sonic consistency allows listeners to get lost in the silky guitar leads and aquatic atmosphere, and Oshin holds up well under repeat listens. Of the countless reverb-obsessed indie pop bands to achieve blogosphere prominence in the past few years (Real Estate, Wild Nothing, et al.), DIIV are one of the best, despite not being one of the most original.
20. Ty Segall Band
(In The Red)
At the tender age of 25, Bay Area garage rock revivalist Ty Segall has accomplished more than most songwriters twice his age. After his introspective and critically acclaimed Drag City debut, Goodbye Bread, Segall went on a tear in 2012, releasing a solo LP and freak folk mini-album with White Fences' Tim Presley. But it was the June release of the Ty Segall Band's Slaughterhouse that really got people's attention. A self-professed "evil space rock" record that blatantly attempted to "throw people off," it was Slaughterhouse's ramshackle combination of proto-punk aggression with lower than lo-fi levels of distortion that propelled the young musician out of the West coast indie rock scene and up hundreds of campus radio charts. Starting off with the Sonic Youth evoking wail of "Death" and the "Don't Fear the Reaper"-inspired post-apocalyptic chime of "I Bought My Eyes," Segall and his band of merry pranksters scorch through an 11-song set of swaggering power punk and Black Sabbath-induced sludge that even rivals Hüsker Dü's amphetamine-fuelled ferocity. Following suit with fuzzed-out renditions of Fred Neil's "The Bag I'm In" and original scattershot rocker Bo Diddley's "Diddy Wah Diddy," Segall finishes up with ten-plus-minutes of excessive guitar feedback on album closer "Fuzz War." Because when you've delivered over half an hour of passionate, unadulterated rock'n'roll, where else is there left to turn?
It's hard not appreciate a band that's able to consistently escape the trap of reductive and/or comparative classification. The Liars of 2001's They Threw Us All in A Trench… are not the Liars of WIXIW, yet somehow, they are. Always skirting genres like post-punk, post-rock, tribalism, and in this year's model, EDM, the band siphon off the properties and strengths that best serve their central theses and leave behind the carcass of clichés and played-out tropes for less ambitious artists to scavenge. What they've crafted here with their best borrowed parts is a kind of desperate dance music better suited for head-scratchers than fist-pumpers. Twilit paranoia that is made all the worse by the relentless propulsion of layered beats, both live and digital, sets the stage where Angus Andrew tries to quietly and anxiously articulate the weight of lost love and whatever other confusions currently possess him. Collectively the album contains everything that's been right about feeling wrong in music for the last 20 or 30 years — Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, Richard D. James, Thom Yorke and many, many more lesser-known prophets of personal doom are clustered in the wings of this theatre. And like the music of those prophets, Liars manage to make it theirs and make it ours and make it so we can't stop listening.
18. Purity Ring
Corin Roddick and Megan James couldn't have fathomed the boost their first collaboration as Purity Ring, the 2011 single "Ungirthed," would give them. What started out as a long distance artistic experiment, à la Postal Service, eventually bound the duo to deliver more of their tricky brand of synth pop to an eager and rapidly expanding audience. The ensuing debut LP, Shrines, established the perfect conundrum suggested by their singles. A record that can be described as both ethereal and trap while maintaining an incredible level of cohesion is a feat in itself, but for that record to carry the undeniable appeal that Shrines has is simply absurd. This is what makes Purity Ring so compelling. An ideal balance is struck between Roddick's dark swelling electronic beats and James' gentile deliverance of anatomy-obsessed lyrics, simultaneously playing to a range of palates. However, in an era where the eclectic mash-up artist has worn itself to gimmick, Roddick and James express sincerity through their mature restraint and evident trust in their own and in each other's strengths. From their years as youth in Edmonton to their current individual bouts in Montreal and Halifax, the pair have come across a host of influences. Their respect and admiration for these influences have only bolstered their talents which, in an almost magical period of time, they've used to humbly and successfully forge a new sound.
17. White Lung
The common trajectory for beloved punk bands is to get hyped on your early stuff, release one great album and then either break-up or become one with the normies. Point is, the studded set don't usually stick with you when you make it big. White Lung's Sorry, however, is the exception to the rule: faster, leaner, poppier and cleaner than their 2010 effort It's the Evil, the album saw the band reach a massive international audience without isolating the house show set that loved them from the start. Sociological placement aside, it's also just a damn engaging record, packed with snarling vocals, busy guitars and a freight train rhythm section.
16. Grizzly Bear
Grizzly Bear's fourth majestic chamber pop album comes with a bit of back-story, in that the band basically scrubbed an entire LP's worth of material from a Marfa, TX recording session before starting over again at singer Ed Droste's grandmother's Cape Cod home, where they had previously recorded their breakthrough, Veckatimest. A cynic would say that the group's retreat to the familiar is a bad sign, perhaps pointing to a refusal to grow. They probably haven't heard Shields, the group's deepest and most challenging soundscape. That's not to say it's a difficult listen — it's hard not to get sucked into the swoony lilt of Droste's croon on tender psych ballad "Yet Again," or the easy-breezy, chimes-assisted blue-eyed funk of "Gun-Shy." "Speak in Rounds" deftly builds tension on a folky shuffle and fluttery fluting before bringing in that booming brass section. But while each track is layered with countless sonic touches, there's still room to breathe. The moody "What's Wrong" trots out chunky cello swipes, distorted organ, and jazzy piano-and-drums sections in rising patterns to excellent effect. While Droste and singer-guitarist Daniel Rossen take the lion's share of vocal duties, it's still a treat to hear the whole band dole out those full-bodied, multi-part harmonies. Despite the protective nature of the album title, Shields is the sound of a band finally letting its guard down.
Stay tuned for 15-1 on Monday, December 17.