Writers’ List: SYN Reviews’ Top Tens of 2012
David Claridad, Senior Contributor
1. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory
Miles ahead of the bedroom wunderkid’s eponymous album, Dylan Baldi returns with a louder sound. More jagged than broken glass, Dylan and co. play vigorously with Steve Albini at the helm as ‘recording engineer’. From mega-swirling jam Wasted Days to catchy hooky Stay Useless, this is the type of sonic onslaught that manages to shit on the past.
2. Ty Segall & White Fence – Hair
Hair as a symbol binds San Franciscan garage-hanger Ty Segall and lo-fi giant Timothy Presley aka White Fence, who are both in need for a haircut. While the former leads a prolific year (three albums released this year with ‘all killer, no filler’ notions), together these scuzzy brothers recreate the neo-psychedelia of latter day Beatles. Not to put the Tame Impala album down tamely, but Hair lunges for the jugular, like an ambitious five o’clock shadow.
3. Titus Andronicus – Local Business
Off the back of sophomore strong-strider The Monitor, Titus Andronicus continue the literary-punkishness with third album Local Business. While early signs indicated a pus arm, the New Jersey boys flex their muscles on a new sound – more straightforward rockers with just as much spitting venom. While a late contender, songs like ‘Upon Viewing Oregon’s Landscape With The Flood Of Detritus’ should keep listeners content.
4. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes
Ariel Pink shows that quirkiness was in his wheelhouse off Before Today, but Mature Themes just proves he’s just as mad as he is weird. A long thorough album, there’s enough here to indulge in: fromLegend of Zelda-like ballads in ‘Mature Themes’ to psychobabble of ‘Schnitzel Boogie’. Strange synth-based songs bleed through and through as the sweat and tears of a bizarre frontman come to the fore to confuse/endear the listener – truly unique, without my being able to put a finger on who may have inspired such an odd sound.
5. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Mangellan
Brooklynite Dave Longstreth brings the merry band together. Different from Bitte Orca (less virtuoso guitar), the sound here is different, a little more gentle but, when necessary, stretches out with mammoth guitars. Tracks that wow include About To Die, which amazes with its earworm chorus, andDance For You, a quasi-twee hand-clapping cute number.
6. Purity Ring – Shrines
My girlfriend really likes this album. On my trip to the US, I saw a couple of bands and by some crazy coincidence, we were following a similar itinerary with Purity Ring. Buzzed beyond all recognition, all shows were sold out – for good reason too.
7. JEFF the Brotherhood – Hypnotic Nights
Brothers Jake and Jamin Orrall punch out Weezer-style power pop songs, but without the kitsch. With the stoned fuzz in the three-stringed guitar and bombastic beats on the drums, it’s a surprise that it sound soooo full. Case in point is the stupid cock rock anthem ‘Sixpack’, a song about boozing up with your mates. It’s got ‘fist-pumping anthem’ written all over it. They’re just straightforward jams: likeStaring At The Wall which provides plenty of punch on record and live.
8. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Like how a good concert shouldn’t ever make your feet hurt regardless of how long it goes for, some albums make you not even think that your UrbanEars headphones are squishing your head regardless of length. Sensitive new-bi guy of raucous crew Odd Future, Frank Ocean steps out of their misogynistic shadow and proves he can craft a lot of excellent pop songs, some even with complex structures. Here, the lyrics are poetic and intelligent, as dense (in the good sense) as a Franzen novel. The pièce de résistance is ‘Pyramid’, which darts in and out of a standard song for ten-minutes, a milestone for R&B. A crossover classic of an album.
9. METZ – Metz
Blowing CMJ showcases without falter, METZ are a loud power trio (guitar, bass and drums – the holy trinity). Perhaps owing a lot of the hardcore and punk scenes (think Shellac, Hot Snakes or even The Birthday Party), METZ crash cymbals, electrify with their axes and just generally kick ass. Headacheleads the affair with crunching velocity, with the sonic energy so kinetic all the way up to Negative Space.
10. Screaming Females – Ugly
Steve Albini maintains his Midas touch on the new album for New Jersey rockers Screaming Females. With a strong rhythm section (throbbing bass over anthemic punk drums), it’s a surprise that the wailing – both vocally and guitar-ly – comes from a pint sized frontwoman called Marissa Paternoster. From crunchy guitar riffs (Doom 84 has more seismic action than an earthquake) to guttural menacing singing (listen to Red Hand, and tremble), Screaming Females are an enormous sounding band.
Jarryd Bendall, Senior Contributor
Honestly I spent more of 2012 napping than listening to music, but here are my favourite picks of the year.
1. Francolin – Won’t Let You Down
The most refreshing, vibrant sound in quite some time. Consisting mostly of a chirpy guitar, crisp snare drums and a stellar trumpet, of which everyone could use a lot more, it’s a tightly timed, upbeat and just plain good fun to listen to.
Although jazzy and slightly tropical in parts, Francolin sounds unique yet totally familiar due to the music traditions it engages. This album not only has no comparative sound in 2012, there’s also little else in my books that is as joyful and well written this year. Anything more is just going to be raving, so I’ll leave it with; make sure you see these guys live too! They go to another level!
2. Django Django – Django Django
Here’s how to listen to this: turn up your speakers up to 11, bring your head in close, put on the single “Default”, and let yourself get awesome-punched in the ear-hole by that incredible bass riff. If you come too on the floor moments later, continue to lie there on the flat of the back and let every moment of this fantastic album infect your bones.
One of the better examples of how to construct and pace and album from beginning to end, rather than just whacking together a bunch of songs, Django Django is sometimes mythical, has occasional dalliances with the modern country genre, but is constantly pounding that incredible bass groove. Impossible to listen to at anything less than super loud, it hits some sort of aggressive-but-super-cool groove, and never lets up.
3. Tallest Man On Earth – There’s No Leaving Now
A more melancholy turn for the man on this album. Calmer and more controlled than previous works, it’s also, unfortunately, less refined and lacking a little direction. A greater focus on piano than his finger picked guitar is welcome, and there are no doubt some real hits (“To Just Grow Away” and “1904”).
Ultimately using words like “vibe” or “feeling” or “mood” are a poor way to describe almost everything, except people’s mental state obviously. But to communicate why this album is one of the best of 2012, I don’t have too many other adjectives. It’s one of those ones which is a step above the technicalities of the music of which it is constituted. Tune in for it’s mood and it’s fantastic lyrics, and don’t listen to hard to what’s coming through the speakers.
4. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
Blues and roots with heavy soul inspirations, and energised with electric guitar and some funky drums. Keeps things fairly slow and chilled, then bursts into glory. Particularly notable for the outstanding voice of lead Brittany Howard, who invigorates every song with a heck of a lot of power and passion.
If you’re looking for an updated interpretation of those swingin’ sixties LP’s, the Shakes are the second coming.
5. Passion Pit – Gossamer
Not my regular cup of tea, but an effort hard to ignore. An immense amount of synth and electronica all the way throughout, but grounded with solid drums and softened by the lead singer. It’s practically bursting with energy to begin with, but wisely avoids becoming a house dance genre dream (or hell, if you’re me), and instead mellows in tone without losing its synth essence.
6. Graveyard Train – Hollow
Big, rollicking, gritty, gloomy, and more than a little menacing. Full bore blues, let down by cartoon-villain lyrics. Take what you’re doing seriously, boys, and this truely visceral album would’ve rated a whole lot higher.
7. The Vaccines – Come Of Age
Upbeat drums, if slightly uninspired, two guitars shredding away with a bit of distortion, and a lead singer. Except better than that. Incredibly heavy and overwhelming, and mostly sold on that sound, but with traces of Indie-rock which make it more listenable, if no the highlights.
8. The Lumineers – The Lumineers
Ultimately more authentic than just a Mumford and Sons ripoff. Gets great mileage out of the lead banjo, but fleshes out the sound with powerful bass vocals and a complimentary piano. Throw in some tambourines, footstomps and choruses which sound like they’re sung by a packed out bar, and this gutsy effort keeps its head above the rest – just – on the strength of its conviction.
9. Tame Impala – Lonerism
More of the same as what made them brilliant last year, but with a few new neat twists. And still so utterly unique in the current music landscape, how could you not? Hints of the Beatles and a psychedelic groove.
10. Vance Joy – Riptide
Not even a full album, but this rounds things out to ten, and I can’t think of anything I’ve enjoyed this year more than this tune. Simple ukele, suddenly backed up by mellow drums and pleasant bass, and touching lyrics which take a surprising turn in the middle, only adding to the brilliance.
Jac Manuell, Senior Contributor
1. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
It’s on everyone’s list of top albums for the year and the same applies for me. Channel Orange is genre-defining, and vulnerable and contains of the best lyricism and production you’re likely to find on any release. I feel the major reason it resonates with myself and so many other people was just the pure honesty that encapsulates the entire album, every lyric and every beat is delivered with heartfelt honesty coming from a rare and true talent. Bad Religion is my song of the year by far.
2. G.O.O.D Music – Cruel Summer
While it was widely criticised by the music media I thought Kanye and his crew’s new release was a fantastic album and one of the best hip hop releases of the year. With tracks like Clique, Mercy and To The World making it into the world of pop culture, Kanye and his label mates have yet again formulated an album that trascends the world of hip hop.
3. Jack White – Blunderbuss
Jack White is one of the modern rock gods in music today and Blunderbuss is evidence of that. Breaking away from The White Stripes and all his side ventures allowed White to show his full solo prowess and a lot of the time he’s just showing off whether it be in his sexy falsettos or bangin guitar riffs. Easily one of the best rock albums of the year.
4. Two Door Cinema Club – Beacon
Their debut album was great and this one’s as good if not better. There’s a maturity in this record while still maintaining what’s great about the band, sing-along choruses and driving indie beats.
5. Bloc Party – Four
All of the hour albums by Bloc Party has been dinstinctly different and with Four things get a bit heavy rock at stages and as always they pull it off. The synths are ditched for the guitars and while it may be a different sound for the band they pull it off like always.
6. Santigold – Master of My Make Believe
Santigold’s second record blows her debut album out of the water as a whole piece. There may not be the catchy singles but everything about it is great, the sequencing the array of sounds from guitars to Rastafarian beats, it all works and it’s all awesome.
7. Nas – Life Is Good
Nas is the best rapper alive, period and while Life is Good isn’t Illmatic by any stretch it’s still a damn fine rap record.
8. Last Dinosaurs – In A Million Years
This is my favourite Aussie album of the year, what can I say I’m just a sucker for catchy rock tunes and this record is full of them. Album highlight Zoom, would have to be one of my favourite songs this year as well.
9. Band of Skulls – Sweet Sour
I’m a huge fan of three-piece bands that sound so much bigger than they actually are and Band of Skulls are one of those bands. This album is in the same ilk as Blunderbuss, just badass rock tunes which I love, Bruises is an absolute gem.
10. Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg
This kid is my tip for next big thing, while he’s already huge in his homeland of the UK, Australia is yet to realise this gifted youngster. This album while short in length is anything but in terms of talent, he’s been called a modern Dylan. I think he’s more of a mixture of Alex Turner, Miles Kane and some country twang chucked in for good measure. Definitely give it a listen.
Jake Cleland, Departing Editor
1. Titus Andronicus – Local Business
I’ve already spilled thousands of words on why Local Business is my favourite album of the year but for fans of concision: I’ve never heard an album which so explicitly/expertly articulates the self-consciousness and insecurity of being an angry young punk. Plenty of great records explore just what exactly is fucked up about the world but how many go one step further and wrangle an image of the people who listen to and absorb those great records? The folks who’re pissed off at the world but feel impotent because everyone else is content to leave well enough alone and just what’re you doing poking the hive when your life is pretty sweet, anyway? The obvious answer is that most people’s lives aren’t pretty sweet and if yours is, you could probably use a little of the slack fate’s given you to help out the people not quite as privileged. Of course, that’s quite inconvenient and most people don’t have it in them to worry about anyone other than themselves, hence the reflexive hatred for which punks are most well-known. In other words, being a politically-charged little cretin has its own set of problems and Local Business documents them in a magnificently cathartic fashion.
2. King Tuff – King Tuff
The most buoyant album of the year. I almost missed out on it completely. When I heard “Bad Thing” I thought it was decent but not all that dissimilar to the torrent of summer-y garage-pop that came out over the preceding few years. Then I watched this interview with King Tuff on Pitchfork.tv and became so enamoured that I had to hear the rest. King Tuff’s King Tuff is an album of small pleasures: getting stoned, listening to music on your headphones, dancing with your friends if you feel bad, and shaking up your life when shit gets you down. And yeah, sonically it’s not that far removed from Wavves’ King of the Beach or Girls’ Lust for Life or Hunx & his Punx’ Hairdresser Blues. But what sets King Tuff apart is that there’s a sort of Matthew McConaughey vibe, this pervasive, carefree optimism that no matter what, you can make everything alright.
3. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Seven perfect songs and one alright cover. If you’ve heard one song offCelebration Rock you’ve pretty much heard them all. Rapturous phrases like “blitzkrieg love”, “Roman Candle kiss”, “gypsy fears” and “hearts from hell” fire off like backyard bombs, every second a new proclamation that makes the moment in which you currently reside seem like the most important moment of your life- no, fuck it: any life, anywhere. Most of it’s complete nonsense but it’s so eloquently nonsensical that it nestles deep into your heart and takes root in your soul until just walking to the bus stop feels like a scene in some blockbuster romance. Points, also, for being the most aggressively air-drummable record in recent memory.
4. Carly Rae Jepsen – Kiss
It’s a phenomenal feat that Carly Rae Jepsen was able to put out a record full of tracks so good they dwarfed even the song which put her on the proverbial map. “Call Me Maybe”, the “Somebody That I Used To Know” of 2012 (w/r/t ubiquity), will find its way onto hundreds of year-end lists as The Pop Song of the Year, butKiss went on to bring us “Tiny Little Bows”, “This Kiss”, “Good Time”, “Turn Me Up”, “Hurt So Good”, “Tonight I’m Getting Over You”, “Guitar String/Wedding Ring”, “Your Heart Is A Muscle”, “Drive”, “Wrong Feels So Right”, and “I Know You Have A Girlfriend”. It’s unbelievable that such a long album (16 tracks for the deluxe edition) has so little filler. Every song deserves more than I have the space here to say so I’ll leave that to The Singles Jukebox or the inevitable 33 1/3 book, except to say that of all the Dr Luke/Max Martin-assisted projects to date, Kiss is the most thoroughly enjoyable.
5. Passion Pit – Gossamer
There are times when extraneous detail interferes with an album’s critical reception to its detriment. The vitriolic discussion surrounding Lana Del Rey before the release of Born To Die eclipsed the album itself and became the focal point for most of its reviews. Equally, Frank Ocean’s coming-out became the angle through which hack critics could write about Channel Orange while avoiding the responsibility of actually discussing the album. But there are also times when it provides important context, as was the case when Pitchfork released its cover story on Passion Pit, in which Larry Fitzmaurice uncovered the depth and breadth of Michael Angelakos’s depression. It was perhaps the greatest piece of music writing this year and it added some perspective to music which, at a cursory listen, sounds as light and sweet as the fairy-floss colouring of Gossamer’s cover. It was all too easy to imagine the kids at the summer festivals shouting “Love! Love! Love!” in their denim cut-offs and Bintang beaters, basking in the exuberance of their youth, while missing the line “Love is just greed / It’s selfish and it’s mean.” The chorus to “I’ll Be Alright” went from sounding like indifference to a break-up – yeah, whatever, get lost, I’ll be fine, I don’t care – to someone unconvincingly reassuring their lover that if the relationship is too much they’ll be fine, all the while knowing that if it ends they’ll have nothing left to live for. Despite sounding as upbeat as the three prior albums on this list, Gossamer comes out as the darkest, an unrelentingly honest portrait of depression, solipsism and self-loathing.
6. Plan B – Ill Manors
Caitlin Welsh once told me she can only listen to Ill Manors sparingly. It’s too draining, too intense, too real. If The Wire was a record it’d be Ill Manors.Interspersed with scenes of violence on the streets of London, Ill Manors is a loosely conceptual album following a kid called Jake as he’s initiated into a London gang. For all the idiot publications confoundedly wondering where all the protest music’s gone (while overlooking the recent PJ Harvey album, Let England Shake)then here it is, the sound of the tension among London’s disenfranchised youth exploding. Ill Manors came out less than a year after the 2011 England Riots, and four days before the London Olympics. The Olympics, the world’s greatest sporting event, were also used as a sanction to evict thousands of working class Londoners, ejecting them from their housing so it could be demolished with the promise that all former residents would be offered affordable housing in the new developments. Naturally as the developers shook with one hand, they crossed their fingers behind their backs with the other and most of those promises were broken. This is the regime under which the working class live in London, one which, rather than help their circumstances, opted to try and hide them from the world when the cameras rolled for the athletes. It’s no wonder that kind of frustration birthed such an incredible record – just look at all the music that came out of London in the 70s.
7. BBU – bell hooks
Sort of on that Das Racist tip without the bad press and worse attitude, BBU’s bell hooks mixtape must’ve been my most-played rap album of the year. bell hookscombines offbeat comedy with pro-feminist advocacy, racial politics and, unusually, disappointment towards President Obama. Jason Perez gets in a jab at America before elite cracker Will McAvoy even dreamed of facing off with his straw-college girl: “Evidently it’s elementary / They want us like Barack eventually / Imperialism blackface, embrace the self-hate in hopes you relate / Guess what? I don’t think this country is great.” For every tongue-in-cheek “Beau Sia”, the group’s “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”, there’s a “26th & Cali”, spitting “I’m from a place where it’s cool to have no ambition / And crack’s the only thing that’s ever cooked up in that kitchen.” Somehow they manage to balance winking goofiness with conscious rap and the result is as entertaining as it is clever.
8. Ingrid Michaelson – Human Again
Ingrid Michaelson was a surprise discovery this year. There was a lot of shit I downloaded and then forgot about. I’m not the kind of organised fella who can keep up with frequent releases without a good reason. Things get lost in my Downloads folder and I forget about them. Just yesterday I found an album in there by a band called The Ambulars. Never heard of them, can’t fathom why I downloaded their album, but I put it on and it was pretty good! Same thing happened with Ingrid Michaelson. Human Again is a fairly by-the-numbers folk-y pop record, Michaelson’s lyrics are hardly revelatory and often simplistic, and yet the whole thing is exquisite. Booming drums nail down melodies built from sawing violins and a thumping piano. Meanwhile, Michaelson’s voice takes turns alternating between lilting sweetness and balladry. I don’t know anything about Ingrid Michaelson except that she’s from New York, but I listened to a lot of horrendous noise this year (as a preference) so Human Again provided a suitable antidote.
9. Charli XCX – You’re The One
The whole discourse around music felt so fractured this year. There was a distinct lack of Lana Del Reys or Odd Futures where everyone felt the need to weigh in, and no tUnE-yArDs or St Vincent upon whom to heap unanimous praise. It’s especially a shame because I thought Charli XCX deserved it. She got a lot of mentions, sure. She was on that brilliant cover with Grimes and Sky Ferreira. But where were all the thinkpieces? Take a look at her tumblr, here’s three speculative headlines for the intrepid essayist:
“Fairuza Balk-wave: Is Charli XCX Bringing Witch House To Pop Music?”
“By The Numbers: Ranking Brooke Candy Videos By Likeliness To Give Children Headaches”
“My Daughter Is Turning Goth: How Charli XCX Is Rearing The New Generation Of Devil Worshippers”
The pitches practically write themselves! Yeah they’re all garbage but so what? So’s most of what passes for signal boosting these days. The point is to get the name out there and maybe finally elevate a leader bewitching enough to overturn our terminal society. I’ll start: Charli XCX’s darkwave goth-pop etfuckingcetera is not so distant from the European electro vanguard like Robyn or The Knife. Desperation abounds as Charli claws her way through heartache/break: “Do you remember what I said? / That first time we met? / Stay away / Why couldn’t you stay away?” Every verse on “Stay Away” drips with lip-quivering misery, all bleary eyes and mascara-stained cheeks as she pleads and pushes away from a dangerous lover (Will Adams said it best.) “You’re The One” opens with the same booming buzz as The Knife’s cover of Jose Gonzalez’s “Heartbeats” and borrows the classic imagery of dancing in the dark as she describes the intoxication and obfuscation of a tumultuous affair. You’re The One is the other side of the coin to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Kiss: dirty, fucked up and all too brief.
10. Grimes – Visions
This final entry was almost going to be Xiu Xiu’s Always, because “Honeysuckle”, I’m not ashamed to admit, still makes me cry whenever I hear it, and seeing Jamie Stewart live was probably the greatest experience I had with live music this year. And yet it seemed criminally negligent to leave out Visions. I suppose I was wrong before: there was an artist in 2012 who everybody rallied around. It was Grimes. As a person, Claire Boucher was easy to like immediately: an experimental artist who took cues from k-pop and Mariah Carey in equal measures while hyperactively and enthusiastically talking about her art and performance in hundreds of interviews. As for her music, you either got it or you didn’t. “Oblivion” was what first caught me. That blorb-blorb-blorb-blorb bass line. The childlike vocals describing a late night walk during which someone comes up from behind and breaks her neck. (Shit like that felt very relevant this year.) If seeing Jamie Stewart was the apex of this year’s live shows then seeing Grimes was a very close second. There was a palpable sense in the room of shared love and respect. Whether it was because her music sounded more new and refreshing than anything else in the alt-mainstream in recent memory or because the affinity they felt for her as a person transferred to her music, to a lot of people, myself included, a significant part of 2012 belonged to Claire.