Don’t Go Away Mad… On Second Thought, I’m not Responsible for Your Feelings, Don’t Lay that Guilt Trip on Me: Coerce You’s Music Picks for 2012

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 +/-.

Tycho: Dive

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

This is a lush record that I already wrote about. I fucking love it. They have a new EP out, too.

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.

Autopark: Autopakao

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.

Musique in le 2010

What a year.

My apartment burned down, I got into a PhD program, I got engaged, I spent the summer sweltering in the Midwest, I got married, I drove across the entire country with my wife, and I just finished my first quarter as a doctoral candidate.

Did I listen to any music?  Let’s perform a simple diagnostic test that will tell us the answer.

Diagnostic Question: Was I alive at any point during 2010?

Answer: The aforementioned details of what went on would indicate yes.

Result of diagnostic analysis: I listened to music in 2010.  This is what I really got into.

LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening

Clean and long-form dance songs about how terrible and shallow people are in New York.  For some reason this really spoke to me this year.  There are also some meditations on commitment once and for all to yourself or another person, commitment to the wrong person, making the mindless sex with the funny people who have to drink and pretend they don’t want to make the sex before they make the sex, and sticking to your guns.  End of shipping manifest.

Wild Nothing: Gemini

This record transformed the stifling inland old-growth Southern Indiana/Moon of Endor jungle where I spent the summer sweating myself into a damp raisin into a hazy place of dreams and pining.  Wild Nothing is VA dude Jack Tatum, and what he achieved here made it safe for men to cry again, to cry little girlie tears of winsome loneliness into the 150% humidity of a million degree summer night.  Reverb washes from these songs across miles of imaginary sepia toned highways, while jangly faeries hold your sniveler’s hand and you weakly bop to the no-balls-at-all vocals and the distant drums, too limp-wristed to masturbate.  Seriously, this is a really good record.

Kurt Vile: Constant Hitmaker

For some reason this came out in 2008.  I didn’t know anything about this until my buddy DC and his crew at WWALT alerted me to the fact that I was already deeply in debt and I didn’t know it.  I was in debt and I needed to pay my respects to Mr. Kurt Vile.  I have done so, and I continue to do so with interest.

Though the tome of wisdom that is comprised of Vile’s work can be opened to any page for enlightenment, this is the album that does my soul the most good.  Every song takes you back into the womb of the blues, where mother earth’s arterial amplifier hum swishes all around your foreverdreaming ears and Momma never kicks you out of the house.

Squarepusher: Squarepusher Presents Shobaleader One: d’Demonstrator

Tom Jenkinson, or Squarepusher, is the guy Radiohead looks up to as their Radiohead.  See the trailing bits of the below interview he gave to BBC2’s The Culture Show for Thom Yorke’s kudos if you want proof.  If you sit through the part of the piece intervening between the start and the finish of the interview, and I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t want to, you will gain a valuable insight as to why Jenkinson’s work always stands out as such an individualized oeuvre.  As he puts it, he tries to keep a “hermetic” approach to his work, to let what he is expressing develop with limited influence from or intertextuality with trends that sweep through music at any one time.  I listened to nothing but this record for several weeks straight as it deeply and tortuously carved from the inside of my head the high chambers of Squarepusher’s new cathedrals of tone.  Everything on this record, from art to composition to the engineering of the sound, is a high resolution postcard from a new world.  He has pulled in the reins and diverted from his last few performance jazz influenced records to revisit some earlier themes of otherworldly R&B and sharp synthesizer crunch, culminating in a record that could just as easily have been named “Oh my god” if the demonstrative appropriateness of the record’s title had been deemed important than being cryptic and awesome.

Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest

Sure, fine, I’ll reduce this record to an oft-reproduced blurb singer/songwriter/guitarist Bradford Cox posted on his Facebook page around about the time of this record’s release.  He said that the title is a reference to “a collection of fond memories and even invented ones…The way that we write and rewrite and edit our memories to be a digest version of what we want to remember and how that’s kind of sad.”

What is it really?  It’s a painful and ecstatic faceplant on the very edge of spiritual awakening, if you take the subject matter of “Don’t Cry” or “Revival” at face value.  I’m just one listener/fan/critic, but these sound like meditations on how a person at the end of their rope can turn toward faith instead of away from it when they’re at the very terminals of extremis.

The record’s a desire-gone-cold reflection on lost youth and gained cynicism, on life lived on the perimeter if you take “Desire Lines” (sung by guitarist and vocalist Lockett Pundt) at its word.  “Memory Boy” is a tribute to the departed Jay Reatard if I ever heard one.  The opening riff is pretty reminiscent of the former Deerhunter collaborator’s track “Before I was Caught” from his final album, Watch me Fall.

The limitless talent and the fearlessness with which Deerhunter put out their new music is incontrovertible, unassailable.  It is the only true mark of an artist.  At the end of the day or the end of a life, what does one have but one’s work?  The simple fact is that we, all of us, know that we have nothing if we have not remained true to our talents and our ideal selves, to THE IDEAL SELF locked like a minotaur inside the maze of mysteries or miseries he or she must decipher alone.  Deerhunter is a pack of monsters who live that human axiom to its rarely practiced extreme.  I unabashedly love this band with their shimmering atmospherics, their endless experimentation, and their personal lyrics.

Caribou: Swim

A weird trip through handcrafted techno.  This album which I thought completely programmed in a DAW is actually completely played live.  It’s cold-weather music for weird headspaces.

Lloyd Cole: Broken Record

My wife, she of the impeccable musical taste who is always teaching me something new, she introduced me to Mr. Lloyd Cole during our courtship.  Maybe first she slipped me “Like Lovers Do” during one of those stealthily competitive and eminently meaningful exchanges of single songs that takes the place of exchanging mix tapes in the digital era, and, when I was sufficiently whammied by that, by the depth and breadth of her musical knowledge and her acumen in discerning killer songwriting, she closed in for the kill with the masterful and timeless “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?”  That could be how it came about that I became a fan of Lloyd Cole.

Then, there we were with a 3,000 mile road trip ahead of us.  Thank the songwriting gods with every pagan rite they demand that Lloyd Cole put together a top-notch country band to back up his melancholy musings and Westerbergian turns of phrase just in time for our departure.  It starts eloquent and sad, lamenting the pratfalls of self-involved lovers on the skids in tracks like “Like a Broken Record” and “Writers Retreat!”, and it ends elegant and glad with overtures like “Oh Genevieve” and “Double Happiness”.  On the way he manages to touch the fuck you kiss off base as well, with the resignedly exasperated- but not too hurt- “That’s Alright.”

Thanks, Lloyd.  Glad to see you weren’t afraid to be heartbroken again.

Matthew Dear: Black City

Black city is a wild meander through the secret ghettos of techno, where the locals will tell you there’s nothing to do, but from the windows waft strange vocal stylings and the streets throb with secrets.

Shy Child: Liquid Love

Have you ever been wrong, said something in foolish youthful bravura you wish you could take back?  I have.  I’m sorry, Shy Child, but I was wrong about your new record when I first heard it.  I thought that your last record, Noise Won’t Stop was the pinnacle of what your work was going to amount to.  All the staccato breaks, the overpowering, interweaving lead synth lines, the barely comprehensible shouting over all that musical intensity.  It was so tight and immediate.  How was I supposed to be prepared for this shift into measured genius, into subtle groove?  I wasn’t up to the task.

I’ve spent the year listening to the new record, Liquid Love, however, and I’ve changed my ways.

Have you ever come to the realization once you took inventory of how many of a certain group’s CDs you had or how many plays of an artist’s songs you’d racked up on your MP3 player, that you were a superfan of a band, or that that one record you’d been overlooking was, unbeknownst to you, in actuality your favorite?  That’s how the ballad of me and Shy Child would go.

Like LCD Soundsystem, Shy Child is a New York band that has learned how to put the space and pace back into dance music.  That’s where I’ll stop that comparison, though, because Shy Child is doing something else entirely in all other respects.  They’re a band that bites all the cheese of ’80s synthesizer decadence and cornball delivery, they steal riffs from Tango in the Night era Fleetwood Mac and vocal cadence from Hall and Oates, but they are still firmly entrenched in dance music.  Between albums they’ve learned to sing and not shout, and the deliberate delivery of their carefully designed synthesizer sounds is a testament to a commitment to musicianship that goes beyond the berserker bombast of their last album.  Arpeggios, sleazy slow disco-paced beats, throbbing basslines, and vocal harmony strung up over all the neon.  An almost total lack of that dilettante’s crutch, irony.  This is absolutely one of the best records of the year.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: The Brutalist Bricks

In the world according to Ted Leo, we are all terminal cases- unless we stand up, once and for all, and hear the tracks he’s laying down.

The hardest working man in Rock ‘n Roll is also the only actually earnest, tireless, unimpeachably incorruptible, driven, and humanist artist to aspire to the concert stage since the baby boomers popularized those tenets as a disguise for their avarice and consumerism in the ’60s.  He’s a real punk.

He and his Pharmacists put together a big, lush set for their Matador Records debut this year marked by a speed, vivacity, and urgent intensity that has only grown more remarkable over the course of an already long and wonderful career in music.

And this is the thing about Ted Leo.  He’s not cashing in, he’s not slowing down, he’s not mellowing out.  He believes in his art and he believes in his message, and he backed that up this year with some of the hardest-driving music he’s put out to date.

“Where Was my Brain?”, the song from which the album’s title was taken, has these quintessentially Ted Leo lines, lines that really, really spoke to me this year:

Well modern agriculture gave me my fill/until I saw the things it brutally killed/well modern architecture gave me a kick/until I lived among the brutalist bricks/where was my brain?/with me all the time/getting it wrong again.

Sporting influences from Squeeze to Thin Lizzy (and millions of local stops in between I am not even qualified to speak to), the man, the songwriter, the band continues to set the world on fire, bathing it in the light of warning flares and messianic abandon.

Sebastien Tellier: Sexuality Remix

How many times in a row have you felt compelled to play a remix album?  I didn’t think I could love the material on last year’s Sexuality by Sebastien Tellier any more.  It was verging on carnal.  Then this remix collection dropped.

Small Black: New Chain

This one has been growing on me, all new wave and echo.  The opening track sucks you in with a combination of The Cure’s “Pictures of You” and Psychedelic Furs’ Pretty in Pink, and then the record just takes off.

Sweet Lights: S/T

This Sweet Lights S/T is a great record for fans of Kurt Vile and the Beatles, a good slow-grow set that I can’t say I deliberately put on for straight-through listening, but that came on randomly often enough, always giving me pause to see who it was, that I came to love it front to back.  There was a reason this never came off my iPod all year.

Bear Claw: Refuse this Gift

Pure Chicago aggression, pure aggro intensity, pure obsessive method.  This is one of the most inventive, intense, aggressive, and sonically interesting recordings I’ve heard in a very long time.  No guitars, only basses.  There isn’t anyone else out there doing what Bear Claw is doing.  Small wonder Steve Albini listed them as one of his favorite bands.

Washed Out: Life of Leisure

Normally I revile music that trades in a false sense of nostalgia, but there is something really happening here.  Digital aliasing brought on by downsampling, fuzzy filtering, the trappings of overbearing tape compression, slow compressors that mean each instrument is pushing the other one out of the way in the mix- all these things are here along with a dreamy 1.5 times slower speed to the swing tempo that really makes you feel like you are somewhere better, in the sun and on drugs.

Against Me! White Crosses

The follow-up to 2007’s Sire debut New Wave, Tom Gabel’s Against Me! are riding the Butch Vig big drum express deeper into pop territory.  Good thing they are bringing all that ordnance.  Sentimentality, power pop, strong lyrics (as always) and slick production find  Against Me! still waving the punk flag.  After the anthem of New Wave‘s “Thrash Unreal”, I didn’t think it was possible for him to make another sad song such a Springsteen-y stadium rocker.  Yeah, he gets sadder on this one, and bigger.