Dear faithful LITC readers,
Our favourite post of the year is here! We apologise that it’s taken so long, but think of it as a late Christmas gift. As with previous years, we’ve included our respective Top 10 Albums of the year as well as some honourable mentions and some not so honourable ones. Feel free to share your favourite records of the year in the comments section. Maybe you’ll even discover some unknown treasures within our lists. Take care, readers. See you in 2013.
Elijah & Greg
Elijah’s Top 10 Albums of 2012
10. Valtari Sigur Rós — Whilst I loved 2005’s Takk…, I found that 2008’s Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust left much to be desired. Valtari leans more toward Sigur Rós’ earlier style, a more ambient and reflective record although I’d hesitate before calling it ‘samey’. Incredible tracks like ‘Varúð’ and ‘Varðeldur’, some of the finest I’ve ever heard from the Iceland post-rock legends kept me from pushing this record out of the top ten. For this record the band also came up with they’ve called the ‘Valtari Mystery Film Experiment‘ in which they employed twelve filmmakers to make music videos for the album based upon what the song brought to their minds and without the final approval from Sigur Rós. See ‘Varúð’ below, created by Inga Birgisdóttir, who designed the album cover and also directed the video for ‘Ekki Múkk’:
9. Gentle Stream The Amazing — This was the first record of 2012 that really caught me by surprise. Released in Sweden in 2011, Gentle Stream proves to be just that, a gentle yet wide stream of quality, what I would describe as a subtle mixture between Simon & Garfunkel and Dinosaur Jr. Like their previous releases, The Amazing and Wait for Light to Come, there are still hints of psych rock (influenced by the presence of various members of Dungen) and classic rock and the finished product it is most satisfying.
8. All We Love We Leave Behind Converge — Before I listened to this record, I didn’t want to include Converge in this list because it’s starting to look like whenever a few of my favourite artists make a new album they inevitably end up on my ‘Best Albums’ list. For those who know how I rate music, it’s unlikely that the top four will come as any surprise this year. But give me some credit; I can betray bands I love when they make subpar records – like Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz or my ‘dishonourable mentions’ below. Or last year when I resisted We Were Promised Jetpacks’ In the Pit of the Stomach, Atlas Sound’s Parallax, David Bazan’s Strange Negotiations, DeVotchKa’s 100 Lovers, Danielson’s Best of Gloucester County, etc. See, so when I include one of my favourite bands in my top ten I really mean it!
All that being said, I didn’t want to include Converge this year, so when I heard the first track, ‘Aimless Arrow’, I was relieved and heartbroken simultaneously. I would consider the track their weakest opener to date (especially compared to their last record’s first track, ‘Darkhorse‘), and with its hints of ‘screamo’ and melodic hardcore (don’t worry, there’s no ‘singing’ on this track), I was fearful of listening to the rest of the record. But the eight tracks to follow are all heavy, quality tunes! The rest of the record features some spoken word, which works on top of the slow, thoughtful guitar work by Kurt Ballou. But my heart was nearly torn in two upon listening to the tenth track, ‘Coral Blue’. It’s not all that frightening until the chorus, which isn’t quite ‘screamo annoying’, but more confusing for those who listen to Converge. Thankfully, that’s the extent of this ‘singing’ charade on All We Love We Leave Behind. It closes out with the sufficiently epic title track and sufficiently heavy ‘Predatory Glow’. No, on the whole this was no serious transition for Converge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. They tried that on You Fail Me and they failed me indeed.
7. Sweet Heart Sweet Light Spiritualized — I know, great cover, right? OK, it’s probably one of the worst album covers this year, but don’t let that put you off! This here is an excellent record. Jason Pierce, also known as J. Spaceman, the creative force behind all of Spiritualized’s incarnations over the last 22 years, wrote the album whilst undergoing serious medical treatment for his liver, which was left in a sore state as a result of many years of drug use, both prescribed and recreational. But unlike 2008’s Songs in A&E, which was also inspired by a serious medical emergency (aspiration pneumonia and periorbital cellulitis), Sweet Heart Sweet Light is a much more hopeful, inspiring record, somewhat in the vein of 1997’s Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space.
6. ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! Godspeed You! Black Emperor — This is the Canadian post-rockers’ first record since 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O., and whilst I found Yanqui rather uninspiring after 2000’s masterpiece Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, ‘Allelujah! is a return to form and then some. Godspeed has a rare skill (shared with Sufjan Stevens) for making 20+ minute songs engaging throughout. The tracks are engrossing and become, as the album title suggests, transcendent objets d’art, ushering the listener into heavy aural ascension.
5. America Dan Deacon — I appreciated Dan Deacon’s music before (his 2009 release, Bromst was among my honourable mentions that year), but this record caught me by surprise. The opener, ‘Guilford Avenue Bridge’, is a buzzy digital number, which flows into the two subsequent tracks until Deacon decided to change the pace with ‘Prettyboy’, which seems to ruin the rhythm of the album, that is until we’re brought back into the jam with ‘Crash Jam’. The highlight of the album is the four-part ‘USA’ opus below:
4. Lonerism Tame Impala — Tame Impala’s last record, Innerspeaker, which came to me as such a surprise thanks to Greg’s preaching of the gospel, ranked 6th on my Best Albums of 2010 list, so in my desire to not be let down, I was suspecting that the follow-up wouldn’t be as good. As with their previous material, Lonerism draws much from the past (‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards‘ could’ve been part of Magical Mystery Tour, right between ‘Blue Jay Way‘ and ‘Your Mother Should Know‘, or it could’ve totally replaced the latter and I wouldn’t have minded), but always with a sense of artistic integrity and completeness. Thank you, Tame Impala, for defying the awfulness of your band name yet again and coming up with another excellent piece of psychadelic groove rock! Oh and isn’t it groovy!
3. Bloom Beach House — After their excellent third album, Teen Dream (which ranked 8th in my Top 10 Albums of 2010), I expected Beach House to lose steam. Every subsequent record was getting better and no band can keep that up. Well, this loss of steam will have to wait until their next record, because I’d say that Bloom might very well be their best record to date. Whilst their sound remains distinctively ‘Beach House’ (those keyboard and guitar-driven dream pop soundscapes and that husky female voice), the songwriting in Bloom has taken a step forward. And even though this record demands more time and attention than their previous releases, the payoff is tenfold. And how amazing is this Ghostbusters-inspired video for ‘Lazuli’?
2. Dept. of Disappearance Jason Lytle — This was an exciting year for us Grandaddy fans: the band reunited after six years apart! And very fortunately for us, the excitement didn’t end there. Grandaddy principal songwriter, lead singer and guitarist, Jason Lytle, has kept busy since the break up in 2006. In fact, Grandaddy’s final record, 2005’s Just Like the Fambly Cat, was written and recorded entirely by Lytle. After the break up, a move inspired by lack of commercial success, Lytle relocated from California to Montana and toured with Rusty Miller in support of Just Like the Fambly Cat. In 2009, Lytle released his first solo record, Yours Truly the Commuter and followed that with an EP, Merry X-mas. Lytle and former drummer of Grandaddy, Aaron Burtch, joined with members of Earlimart to form the band Admiral Radley, who released their debut record, I Heart California, in 2010. Each of these incarnations were superb (I Heart California was an honourable mention in my Best Albums of 2010 list), but none seemed to capture the magic that Lytle’s earlier work possessed in great measure. Until now. It’s safe to say that Dept. of Disappearance is a grower, but there was enough of pure goodness present from the first listen to keep me going. Each track is excellent, and some are among the best Lytle’s ever written, such as the title track, ‘Matterhorn’, ‘Last Problem of the Alps’, ‘Somewhere There’s a Someone’ (below), ‘Gimme Click Gimme Grid’ and ‘Elko in the Rain’.
1. Shields Grizzly Bear — I won’t make excuses or defend my pick despite the fact that Grizzly Bear’s previous record was my number one album of 2009. Shields is just that good. Still present are the Grizzly Bear trademarks we know and love, but this record is the band’s most aggressive and coherent to date. At times it is far darker than their previous material (‘Speak in Rounds’), yet it still takes the listener into the clouds (‘Half Gate’). In the midst of this more aggressive direction, Grizzly Bear also ventures into the realm of more accessible pop music, music that isn’t as dissonant as their previous releases yet retains its creative bearings. On top of all of their unique qualities as proficient musicians and songwriters, Grizzly Bear demonstrate a continuing process of maturation, one that solidifies them as—in this listener’s opinion—one of the best bands of their generation.
Elijah’s honourable mentions
- Silver & Gold Sufjan Stevens — A massive five-disc, 58-song, 2.7-hour Christmas feast!
- Shrines Purity Ring
- Fear Fun Father John Misty
- Information Retrieved Pinback
- Cancer 4 Cure El-P
- Love This Giant David Byrne & St Vincent
- Tramp Sharon Van Etten
- The Seer Swans
- Tempest Bob Dylan
- Coexist The xx
Elijah’s dishonourable mentions
- Mirage Rock Band of Horses
- Silver Age Bob Mould
Greg’s Top 10 Albums of 2012
Another conflicted year of listening for me: some of my favorite bands put out albums I thought were shite (Animal Collective, Sigur Rós) and other bands that I expected more from turned out mediocre fare (Passion Pit, The Avett Brothers). Then there were the albums that had real moments of brilliance on them…but which couldn’t sustain that level of greatness throughout the entire record. The following albums didn’t break into my top ten, but you should definitely check out the songs indicated:
- Bloom Beach House — ‘Myth’, ‘The Hours’, ‘Irene’
- Charmer Aimee Mann — ‘Labrador’, ‘Soon Enough’, ‘Slip and Roll’
- Confess Twin Shadow — ‘Golden Light’, ‘Five Seconds’, ‘Be Mine Tonight’
- Lonerism Tame Impala — ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Sun’s Coming Up’
- Shields Grizzly Bear — ‘Yet Again’, ‘Gun-Shy’, ‘Half Gate’
- Time Capsules II Oberhofer — ‘HEART’, ‘I Could Go’, ‘oOoO’; also did a great cover of Kanye West’s ‘Runaway‘
10. Young Man Follow Future of Forestry — I don’t mind if I lose all indie credibility for putting a Christian, anthem rock band on my top ten. This album falls somewhere in between Delirious?/Phil Wickham and post-Pop U2/Snow Patrol (right now, Elijah is raising his eyebrows/giving me a look of consternation/experiencing a slight taste of bile in the mouth). I know that there’s a strong hint of songwriting formulae, mixed with sentimental emotionalism, strategic falsetto insertion, and derivative production sleight-of-hand, but I can’t help it…I eat it up. This is my sonic Kryptonite. It moves me and I can’t help loving it. So there you go.
9. Milk Famous White Rabbits — This was a late addition to the list. I had loved the track “Everyone Can’t Be Confused” earlier in the year, but never got around to purchasing the whole album. Two weeks ago, I finally got it and have enjoyed the carefully orchestrated arrangement and production of each song immensely. As I began reading reviews, many of which were not kind, there was some talk about the band selling out and transforming into Spoon-lite (one of that band’s members produced the album). I actually can’t stand Spoon, but I love these guys!
8. The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do Fiona Apple — I’ll be honest, I’m not such a fan of the craziness that exists inside this woman’s head, but her startlingly stark songwriting, passionate confessionalism, and uncompromising originality make this album a work of undeniable greatness.
7. Port of Morrow The Shins — There may be some measure of sentiment and nostalgia in this pick. The 2001 album Oh, Inverted World was a life-changer for me (a moment captured and corrupted in Zach Braff’s film Garden State) and I can hear echoes of those glorious times in songs like “It’s Only Life,” “No Way Down,” and “For a Fool.” For those purists who find this a shameless exploitation of The Shins brand (being that only one member of the original band plays on this album), a stance which I myself initially considered, I respectfully disagree. The magic is still here…
6. Adventures in Your Own Backyard Patrick Watson — Watson is one of those artists whose voice alone puts him into a category of talent and beauty that should earn accolades–but he is also a brilliant songwriter and musician whose idiosyncratic vision comes into its own on this release. If you’ve never listened to his work before, his catalog is well worth exploring, including his work with The Cinematic Orchestra.
5. Heaven The Walkmen — This band has been loitering in the periphery of my musical tastes for a while–a great song here or there, but no album that absolutely blew me away. Until now…you MUST listen to this record.
4. Tramp Sharon Van Etten — Such fine, delicate songwriting; beautiful, haunting, and frequently spare instrumentation to accompany her striking, melancholy voice; and brilliant production & instrumental assistance from The National’s Aaron Dessner (who better be working on a new album himself!). I love so many of these songs with an affection that is reserved for a select few artists. Listen to the song belong and try not to simultaneously smile AND ache:
3. Break It Yourself Andrew Bird — I wrote about this album earlier in the year, wondering if it would grow on me more and more. Boy, did it ever. As I said before, Andrew Bird cannot make a bad album, but here, he’s certainly made a great one. I think it really comes alive after the first 1/3 of the album is over, so don’t give up on it if you don’t immediately sense the genius.
2. Silver and Gold Sufjan Stevens — I’m considering this a 2013 release, even though it is a collection of EP’s that Sufjan had privately given out to friends and family over the last five or six years. Of course I love it—I’m a Sufjanite through and through. But beyond my dedication to the man, this really is a beautiful collection of 58 songs that I think transcend the holiday season itself and act as a meditation on the human condition as a whole, refracted through the hopes and disappointments that we connect to a particular time of year and experience of faith, family, community, and tradition. There are haunting covers of Christmas & holiday classics (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Joy to the World,” “Let It Snow!” and “Silent Night”), worshipful church hymns simply arranged and devoutly performed (“Ah Holy Jesus,” “Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates,” and “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light”), and Sufjan originals or adaptations that stand up to any of his other records (“Justice Delivers Its Death,” “Christmas in the Room,” “The Midnight Clear,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “The Child with the Star on His Head”) along with a myriad of lovely instrumental meditations (my favorites include “Make Haste to See the Baby,” “Go Nightly Cares,” and “Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way”), crazy experimental electronica (not my favorite genre but occasionally delightful), and simple fun communal musical merry-making. It’s also fun to view the collection in tandem with the albums he was working on during these years (The BQE and The Age of Adz). You can actually download some of the best tracks for free on Sufjan’s Noisetrade page—and that is a truly wonderful gift from the greatest artist of our age.
1. Fear Fun Father John Misty — One day this year, I was listening to an unbelievably compelling live set of songs on KCRW by a band whose name I somehow kept missing. I finally went onto the station website and discovered that it was Father John Misty. This is the first release under this band name by J. Tillman, former drummer from Fleet Foxes. I had some of his previous solo releases post-FF, which were pretty average folkish meanderings. But this! On this album, Tillman discovers some kind of alchemy that turns his melancholy into the rarest kind of beauty and wonder. His songs sound like they were written 40 or 30 or 20 years ago—any age but now, yet they simultaneously capture the hidden spirit of some mystical contemporary world surrounding us that we may not perceive. Even the songs I don’t absolutely “like” have a tangible genius to them. I didn’t want to like this album—the creepy cover, the hipster pedigree, the critical darlingness of it. But, for me, in 2012, this was it.
Greg’s honourable mentions (albums)
- Among the Leaves Sun Kil Moon — Such lovely instrumentation and melodies; such bothersome narcissistic lyrics
- Born to Die Lana Del Rey — I think one is not supposed to like this album due to its contrivances, over-production, other myriad reasons—nevertheless, I found it strangely compelling in a fashion from start to finish
- Lonesome Dreams Lord Huron — Quality folk/Americana
- Strange Land Yellow Ostrich — This ended up on exactly no one’s top ten—yet really quite a solid indie rock record!
- Who’s Feeling Young Now Punch Brothers — Not enough substance to crack the top 10, but some real winning songwriting here, with a eminently listenable sound throughout
Greg’s honourable mentions (EPs)
I have neglected my musical prophetic calling as of late, but LO, I have returned to separate the melodic wheat from the chaff and to baptize you in the tuneful rivers of new music (the evangelist metaphor is wearing thin, I know). I have put together a mix of some of the latest songs to catch my ear–cleverly entitled “2012: My Own Apocalypse”–but since sharing music online is a dangerous pastime, I will simply offer to send you a link to the songs (if you know me, shoot me an email; if you don’t know me, post in the comments section and I should be able to see your email…AND make sure you are not an undercover agent of the RIAA!). Most of the following artists I’ve highlighted have a track on this mix…
To begin with, two years ago, in my first “Band Evangelist” post, I lamented the break-up of a band that I believed had great potential to be among the indie greats: The XYZ Affair. Well, the singer of that band has just released a free 5-song EP under the moniker Leonard Friend. It’s a bit more quasi-ironic 80’s electronic poppy than I might wish, but this singer/songwriter’s talent cannot be hidden under a bush & heck, it’s FREE!
Another singer/songwriter–Ramesh Srivastava–from a similarly lamented & potentially epic indie band that broke up several years ago–Voxtrot–has just released a few new songs as well, which can be heard for now at his website (the song “The King” was on my best of 2010 mix). I think Ramesh may someday rise again like the phoenix to the heights he reached with Voxtrot (whose must-have songs include “The Start of Something,” “Fast Asleep,” “Firecracker;” their self-titled album from 2007 is worth a purchase, though not essential), but for now, these few songs are all we have to remind us of what could’ve been.
Some of the kings & queens of indie-dom from years past also have new albums out/coming out that must be reckoned with:
- Andrew Bird/Break It Yourself (out now): I did buy it & I do like it thus far. I’m sure it will grow on me even more (straightaway, I was taken with the penultimate 3 tracks quite a bit). The man is so multi-talented (composing melancholic melodies, playing guitar/violin/violin like a guitar/whistling, etc.), he cannot make a “bad album,” but to be honest, I think he could stand to have a producer other than himself (it lacks a sonic fullness and critical perspective that a talented outsider could have brought), he should focus his lyrical impressionism just a bit, and, this sounds harsh, but he needs to drop his brushes/soft kick drum percussionist Martin Dosh, who, while an incredibly talented musician himself, I think, brings out a soft-rock mildness and self-indulgence in the Bird that keeps him from attaining his full greatness on record (when they play live together, as a two-piece, they are able to create an entire symphony of sounds through looping).
- The Shins/Port of Morrow (out now): After a few listens, I am uncertain what I will ultimately think of these 10 tracks. Having loved the early Shins, it is hard to see this new line-up, sans any other original member than singer/songwriter James Mercer, as anything more than just Mercer resurrecting a “brand” that’s proven to sell records. But his voice & lyrics are so great to hear again (though the instrumentation on this album may have been a bit OVER-produced) and the old sparkle does emerge in some of the attempts to recapture the old Shins magic (much more glimmer than I found in the Mercer/Dangermouse collaboration, Broken Bells).
- Daniel Rossen/Silent Hour/Golden Mile (out now): This lovely throated & absurdly brilliant songwriter from Grizzly Bear and Department of Eagles has released a five-song EP that I have found wonderfully enchanting, lovely to the bones, and all other kinds of goodness. Yep, you should buy it!
- Sigur Rós/Valtari (May 29): Now I have to admit that I am getting my hopes up ionospherically high for this forthcoming album–to the point that I do not want to hear any tracks until I have the album in my hands. I was personally disappointed with singer/composer Jonsi‘s recent solo release, so I’m hopelandic (or Vonlenska, if you prefer) for a aural reconciliation between my fey Nordic friend and me.
- Regina Spektor/What We Saw from the Cheap Seats (May 29): I’m not totally sure what to think of this quirkstress any more. I did love so much of her last album, Far, but the initial single for this album, “All the Rowboats,” is cloyingly precious (oh, poor paintings that want to escape from their museum prisons) and I fear the worst. Still, she does have heaps of talent, a golden ear for melodies (until she kills them with an intentionally dissonant note to the throat), and a certain sweet naivete, so I’m certain I will give it a listen.
- Other releases of note to check out or watch for include: White Rabbits/Milk Famous (out now)–I don’t know much about them, but I love the song “Everyone Can’t Be Confused,” Damien Jurado/Maraqopa (out now)–“Museum of Flight” is pretty as all get out, Rufus Wainwright/Out of the Game (April 23), Silversun Pickups/Neck of the Woods (May 8), Beach House/Bloom (May 15)–the song “Myth” from this album is soaringly lovely, Best Coast/The Only Place (May 15)–get a free song off the album here, The Walkmen/Heaven (June 5), and a new Passion Pit album in June. Post in the comments about any albums I missed!
SO those are releases from the KNOWN bands…but let me list out a few NEW (to me & perhaps you?) acts that I’d like to commend to you all:
- Sharon Van Etten/Tramp: This singer-songwriter caught my ear with “Serpents” before I’d heard that The National‘s Aaron Dessner had played on/produced her album (which is reason enough to take note). Her voice is a mix between Cat Power, Kathleen Edwards, and Sarah Jaffe (who also shares a similar composing style & sound). This woman has an incredible future ahead of her. I’ve been playing this album non-stop of late.
- Yellow Ostrich/Strange Land: This LP is the apotheosis of indie-songsmithery. Haunting at points (“Up in the Mountains,” “Wear Suits”), darkly epic at others (“Marathon Runner”) and hopping off walls at yet many other points.
- Pandercakes/Paint By Numbers EP: I don’t quite remember how I heard about this band, but you can download some songs here. Read this music blog to find out more about their sound, which I like immensely–densely layered & yet fun and catchy at the same time.
- Oberhofer/Time Capsules II: I have only listened to one song of of this album (“Heart”) but it has set expectations quite high. This song is a mix of Animal Collective, Explosions in the Sky, Page France, and Muse (the piano parts)–to my ears at least. This kid is the next generation of indie genius.
- Dry the River/Shallow Bed: A friend with impeccable taste just turned me on to this band via a set on KCRW. Check out this quote from their online bio:
“This five-piece band has all the hallmarks of the latest folk sensation: elemental name, beards, acoustic guitars, even a violinist. But what sets Dry the River apart is a background in hardcore and post-punk bands, hence the tattoos, lyrics that read like a Steinbeck novel and a sonic palette that sweeps from gentle to giant like an incoming storm.”
Well, that should keep your ears busy for a short while…until our next gathering at the edge of the river, let the “Glory Hallelujah’s” roll!