There’s a lot of new music out there, and, tell me if I’m all alone here, as the pages turn in the book of the years I find less and less that provokes that old adrenal response- the one that tells you, “Anything can happen!” when you know there are really something on the order of three things that can happen at any given time. 2012 was a year of revisiting records I didn’t pay enough attention to the first time around, and for deeper listening of everything that I committed to hearing. It was a year for walks through the Machu Picchus, Angkor Wats, and Roanoke colonies of musical trends and scenes, whose rockers and young lovers shag furtively after hours no more, and will not again.
Wow! That was heavy! Let’s talk about some pop music! This is where I was at in the year 2012, what I was listening to, old records and new, in no particular order.
Various Artists: MOJO Magazine’s Power, Corruption & Lies Covered (+ Blue Monday 12″ Revisited, + Bonus Tracks)
Yes, after many a year of dutiful attempts, plucky underdogs Various Artists finally struck gold with this promo collection put together by MOJO magazine. I always had a feeling those guys were destined for big things. Power, Corruption & Lies is occasionally my favorite album of all time, and always my favorite New Order record. There are so many ways this covers record could have gone wrong for a fanboy- In this modern age when everyone with a preference can also function under the misconception that they are a critic, and the critical voice is so often more about its author’s upbringing than about the work tangentially referred to, I was naturally fully prepared to flippantly shit all over this. However, this record actually gave my inner twenty-something a huge, solipsistic boner. Except for the very unfortunate treatment of opening track “Age of Consent” by The Golden Filter, who appear to have decided to take it upon themselves to shit all over this record so fanboys don’t have to, MOJO managed to curate a lovingly faithful take on this greatest of N.O.’s output that flows together as though it were not a collective effort, but one album by one artist, one whose every track bears the unmistakable idiosyncrasy of style of the artist covering it. Fujiya and Miyagi‘s cover of Your Silent Face replaces N.O.’s looseness with calculated meter while sacrificing none of the soul. Excellent Glaswegian synth outliers Errors do a huge, hazy take on The Village that takes you on an aural stroll through a slow, humid dream metropolis.
Red Fang: Murder the Mountains
These guys do a really great heavy seventies southern rock kind of thing, but they don’t wear bell bottoms and their hair isn’t as shiny as the Prell girl’s. They also seem to have a good sense of humor.
Metronomy: The English Riviera
I guess this was nominated for a Mercury Prize in 2011, but I didn’t start listening to it till early, early this year. They were beat out for the Mercury Prize accolade by P.J. Harvey. I didn’t know people actually listened to P.J. Harvey albums; I had always thought they were records the likes of which you had to have at least one casually but deliberately displayed in order to seem discerning.
The English Riviera is very hip, very uncluttered, very musically complicated dance music with very simple slap-bass disco basslines, and I highly recommend it.
Bottomless Pit: Lottery 2005-2012
My favorite band of the last couple of years didn’t release much new material in 2012, but they did release a complete 2-disc discography containing everything from their two full-lengths (’07’s Hammer of the Gods and ’10’s Blood Under the Bridge), all the material from the 2008 EP Congress, as well as three previously unreleased tunes (a fast version of Bridge opener “Winterwind”, and two new ones called “State I’m In” and “Colchis Eagles”). I’m glad they did, because that means I can keep them right here at the top of my best-of list for another year. We got to see them play here in Seattle in the intimate confines of The Sunset, and what ensued was one of the most transcendental show-going experiences I’ve had. The Dire Straits for the end times, Dad Doom, Ten Years After Playing the end of the world. How to describe a band whose songs are as full of nuance and drama as Russian novels? The only other band whose next record I’m waiting on as eagerly is +/-.
I had never heard Tycho before I caught them opening for label boss Matthew Dear at this year’s Decibel Festival Ghostly International showcase. I liken them to Boards of Canada, even down to the projected concert visuals of saturated aerial photography and desert scenes, except with tempos about two to three times as fast and an absolutely killer live drummer forming the heart and soul of the band. The fact that their whole electronic show was taken on the road live also evokes a comparison to Caribou and his last album, Swim. Now that I’ve typed that and see it glowing in phosphor, I guess even those two bands’ record names have a theme in common. This record was jammed deep in my ear canals playing on repeat for the better part of the last three months.
Kindness: World, You Need a Change of Mind
There has been a recent spate of ’90s nostalgia in indie music, wherein those poor bastards who were born into a bathetic, emotionally denuded chart environment dominated by the likes of the Backstreet Boys or even Boyz II Men are pushing us away from the ’80s thing we, as a culture, have been stuck on for so long (arguably because it’s as good as music’s ever gonna get), toward appropriation of the overwrought R&B forms that so oppressed the airwaves up to twenty years ago get emo all over again. Look at any other best-of list this year and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Every cultural moment, however, has its holy fools, its beautiful geniuses—there seem always to be silver linings to dark clouds what oppress us. At this particular nadir of the Kali Yuga, that transcendent alchemist turning sadness into truth and gold is Kindness. They combining mixed-hot minimal house with impassioned R&B apparently influenced by ’90s pop chimera Jesus Jones with some of the funky guitar aesthetic of Heaven 17. Kindness has released a dizzyingly diverse collection of songs that proffer elements of the current d(R)ab ‘n B fad while keeping the musical energy high. My first exposure to World was their reworking of the ‘Mats beautiful paean to human frailty, “The Swingin’ Party”. Digging into the rest of the record revealed that there was much, much more to discover.
Matthew Dear: Beams
Dear is indefatigable. He’s a label boss, a House icon and innovator, and now an electronic pop auteur. He’s one of those tireless figures who personified the music scenes of pre-gentrification New York. What always floors me about his work is his ability to transform his curiosity for new musical genres into a platform for expressing the epic wall-of-awe sort of feeling that dancefloor bliss-seekers seem so to hanker for. He’s a producer who wanted to transform that impression into words via lyrics, producing a double-whammy effect. Every record he comes out with, adhering to the same feeling of mysticism, builds on the impossible high of the last one. More guitar-centered than 2010’s Black City, it nevertheless maintains that rhythmic fingerprint of a past life spent in House music.
Lotus Plaza: Spooky Action at a Distance
This record appeared in the music press and airwaves this year and then disappeared just as quickly, which is a shame, since it’s further evidence of just how much Deerhunter’s groundbreaking sound owes to it’s axeman Lockett Pundt. Certainly, fans could see this after Pundt took front and center singer and songwriter duties on several Halcyon Digest songs, but, though it’s a wonderful set of recordings, that record overall sounded to this reviewer’s ears more like a struggle between two poles of influence diverging from one one another, like an Atlas Sound/Lotus Plaza collaboration, than a unified collection of Deerhunter songs. However you may view that last Deerhunter outing, Pundt’s increased exposure has only led to very good things as regards his side project. Hypnotic, motorik, distant in vocal delivery yet intimate in feel, Distance is the perfect companion to long summer evenings and rainy Northwest winters alike.
Shabazz Palaces: Live at KEXP
I only learned through a chance conversation that this Seattle-based hip-hop act was fronted by Ishmael Butler, frontman for Digable Planets. It makes sense, Digable Planets was there at several formative points in my experience. First was when Reachin’ came out, and then, an eon later (and well after it was released) I picked up a copy of the criminally overlooked Blowout Comb, a record so full of portentous space that the timing itself became another sound in the palate. When I happened to tune in to this performance live on KEXP as it was being broadcast sight unseen, it happened again. There’s something so unhurried, so confident, and so unexpected in the delivery and composition of these songs you immediately know you are hearing art. I can’t speak to their two full-lengths, but this short live set contains as much quietly dangerous energy as a beaker of nitroglycerin.
Errors: Have Some Faith in Magic
The British Expeditionary Force: Chapter Two: Constellation Neu
The BEF continue to be a band I hold all others up against. Their second outing is full of more carefully processed and layered vocals and sounds, with some British Sea Power anthemic Brit-rock thrown in for good measure. Constellation Neu was a long time coming and well worth the wait.
Jason Lytle: Dept. of Disappearance
The former Grandaddy frontman returns with a record of Grandaddy-esque themes and sounds done, as much as I continue to love that band, better. The sci-fi, post-apocalyptic hippie thing that Grandaddy was doing doesn’t really seem to reference a world that’s so far away anymore, and accordingly Lytle’s metaphors don’t distance the listener all that much from the frightening sort of surveillance society we’re entering. Laments about political demobilization and strange agencies that disappear people fit in among neo-mountain-man stories of love and loss, all held together by Lytle’s fragile voice and his wonderful sense of acoustics and signal processing.
It was this past summer during the EXIT Festival that I first heard Belgrade, Serbia band Autopark. Their newest record, Autopakao, translated as auto-hell, was being promoted by the festival and is still available at the link above for download. Though missing the feedback of a Chavez record, there is something in their arrangements that brings that band immediately to mind, and their fusing of math-rock with the heavy use of synthesizers reminds me of another of my favorite bands, Mew.