Sudden Little Drops has been recently resurrected so I could talk about music! Check out the new Albums of 2011 post below, and hopefully there will be more new content coming soon.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Albums of 2012

Here are ten records I enjoyed this year. They are - more or less my ten favourites, or at least the ten I most wanted to talk about. Partially I like making these lists as little time capsules, to remember what I really thought about the year just after it had happened. It's interesting to look back at last year's list and see what's missing. Atlas Sound's Parallax and The Caretaker's An Empty Bliss Beyond This World would definitely be on there were I to redo it, and I'm not sure how I overlooked Low's C'mon when I'd been playing it a great deal that year an oversight, certainly. But never mind. The main reason I make these lists is just to share some music, and to have a go at putting my thoughts about that music down into words. I didn't want to rank the albums in order of preference this time, so they're presented simply in alphabetical order.

Another point to note: three of my favourite bands in the world (Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear and Beach House) all released records this year, all three of which I had mixed feelings about. While I genuinely enjoyed all three (especially the Animal Collective, which I think is far better than its somewhat lukewarm reception might suggest) I feel like including them here would be something of a waste of time. Everyone knows I love those bands. So I've gone for ten other records I enjoyed, easily just as much if not more, as a kind of cross section (rather than a definitive 'top ten') of what I've been listening to. I hope it will lead you to discover or rediscover some great music.

 Andrew Bird | Break It Yourself

An easy record to forget about, tucked away at the start of the year, but one I've been steadily listening to throughout it, especially in the summer. The meticulous Bird loosens up a little on this release, and the songs have a more organic, improvised feel to them. He takes flight on the eight minutes of 'Hole in the Ocean Floor', which unfolds so gently that it's easy to miss how beautiful it becomes, how high it soars, until it's nearly over. Opener 'Desperation Breeds' is a twisting tale of an era without bees, and is a good example of how through simplifying his sometimes wordy lyrics he has heightened their emotional impact. My favourite moment, though, is 'Lusitania', a duet with Annie Clark (from the band St. Vincent), as relaxed and gorgeous as anything either artist has recorded. When Annie's voice first comes in, strolling in fashionably late mid-bar, it's a near perfect moment. Add in Hands of Glory, the recently released collection of extra material from the same sessions, and you've got two discs of treats from this always fascinating songwriter.

Andrew Bird - Lusitania

Burial | Kindred EP

Technically an EP, the scope of Kindred made it feel much larger, the longer track times allowing Burial to marinate in his atmospheres a bit more, do more with them, push them further. It is the first music of his that I've not just been impressed by, but really connected with. 'Ashtray Wasp' unfolds in separate movements, coming first as a swarm of noise and confusion before unravelling to reveal its sad, lonely heart. The last few minutes of it are just devastating. The drums on the title track feel desperate and charged; at several points they falter, or shut down completely, as though unable to continue. Like all Burial, the sounds here powerfully evoke the space of the city. He simply understands what it feels like to live in a modern city the day-in day-out weariness of it, the constant movement and people and voices, the alienation concealed by that and he captures this experience powerfully through sound.

Burial - Ashtray Wasp

Dan Deacon | America

What I really enjoyed about America was hearing Deacon's recent experiences in classical composition filter into his frantic, technicolour day job. America is both more ambitious and more refined than his earlier work, in that it does more with less. Opening track 'Guilford Avenue Bridge' is a typical cluster of synths and squiggles, but its delicate arrangement occasionally opens things up, allowing some breathing space, before colliding everything together again with even more force. Like the similarly amorphous 'Prettyboy', it is fluid and unexpected. These moments contrast nicely with straight-up pop songs like 'True Thrush', a tune which feels as inclusive and inviting as his famous live shows. The four-part 'U.S.A' is the climax of all this new exploration: it is ambitious, complex, unique, forward-thinking, and it feels like only Dan could have made it.

Dan Deacon - True Thrush

Fiona Apple | The Idler Wheel... 

The Idler Wheel is an intimate listen. It feels startlingly and refreshingly homemade, and it rewards close attention. The percussion is all plucks and taps and hand slaps, making use of whatever's lying around. Apple's piano playing is often percussive as well, making use of staccato notes that feel bodily, embodied. Stripped-bare production means all these sounds feel close, clear, as though Fiona were playing right next to you. The striking hand-drawn cover and the confessional lyrics seem scrawled out as though in a diary, though with infinitely more craft and care than a typical diary would contain. From the first whispers of 'Every Single Night' the album draws you in, and remains brittle and engrossing, her voice often leaping from a whisper to a growl without warning. "I just want to feel everything," she sings in that same song: the anger and love and pain and desire all on show.

Fiona Apple - Every Single Night

 Julia Holter | Ekstasis

Following last year's excellent Tragedy, which felt like one long composition, Ekstasis is an album far more focussed on songs and songcraft. It is a collection of colourful, creative vignettes: the dreamy drones of 'Boy in the Moon', the playful 'Fur Felix', the wistful and longing 'Our Sorrows'. Each contains more ideas than many whole albums, yet these ideas are always kept in balance, handled with care and control, so that the songs never feel overstuffed or rushed. Then there is 'Marienbad', my favourite song of the year, opening with a watery synth-line and winding through a labyrinth of melodies before its elements all come together halfway through, with a kind of unexplainable alchemy, lifting the whole thing up to new heights. It's marvellous, and I could listen to it again and again and again.

Julia Holter - Marienbad

Liars | WIXIW

Liars' new album starts off gently. 'The Exact Colour of Doubt' arrives like a cloud of paint fumes, conjuring a hazy but tense atmosphere that lingers throughout the next ten songs. WIXIW, despite its emphasis on electronic textures, sounds physical and material. Its synthesisers feel like hot glue dripping from a glue gun, or nail varnish remover poured straight into your ears. Only more pleasurable than that sounds. Even the title is a strange sound in your mouth: I can imagine it scratched with a nail into a mirror in some horror film. But Liars' real talent, as it always has been, is in taking whichever strange, unsettling sounds they're working with and crafting oddly beautiful songs out of them, and WIXIW contains some of their finest: the strangely funky 'A Ring on Every Finger', the menacing 'Flood to Flood' and the shifting, elusive title track all fine examples.

Liars - A Ring On Every Finger

Perfume Genius | Put Your Back N 2 It

The intense vulnerability of Mike Hadreas's music is not the easiest thing to swallow at first, but the shades and depths of these thoughtful songs are worth discovering. The lyrics are especially haunting: '17' describes a young man's body stuffed "in the body of a violin", while 'Dark Parts' is a touching plea for his mother to let go of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. The melodies are restrained and often don't resolve, creating the sense that the songs simply bear witness, see things which need to be seen without trying to offer easy, insufficient answers. Just the right instruments are selected to accompany each song - a muddy, buried drum machine on 'Floating Spit', a crystalline guitar on 'Normal Song' - creating a short record that hits with great power.

Perfume Genius - Dark Parts

Sun Araw, M. Geddes Gengras & The Congos | FRKWYS Vol. 9: Icon Give Thank

I've been a fan of Sun Araw's work for a while now, especially his album On Patrol from a few years ago. But this collaboration was something a little different: he brought his modern, spaced-out psychedelica (along with similarly minded producer M. Geddes Gengras) to St. Catherine in Jamaica, to jam with classic dub reggae band The Congos, and the results are timeless and sublime. It's a conversation across generations, across continents, the sort of music that the internet makes more possible to initiate, but which only happens when different people are in a room together, bouncing off each other, exploring. The blend between the different artists involved in this project is seamless - they sound like they've been playing together forever. That on its own is inspiring. That the music itself is so gorgeous - a burst of sunshine that sounds like nothing else - is icing on the cake.

Sun Araw, M. Geddes Gengras, & The Congos - Happy Song

Swans | The Seer

The Seer is ludicrously ambitious. Much has been made of it being the culmination of Michael Gira's thirty years of sonic experimentation in both Swans and Angels of Light. Much has also been made of its difficulty. It is an act of almost physical endurance, requiring total immersion in its cosmic mingling of dark and light, fear and hope, the physical and the transcendent. But what impressed me most is that it achieves its cacophonous, experimental ambitions while remaining, at its heart, a kind of blues-folk album: eleven songs, a few guest vocalists, a mixture of tender ballads ('Song for a Warrior', 'A Piece of Light') and snarlier, bluesier numbers ('The Seer Returns', 'Avatar'). And when I think of it like that, it becomes even more astonishing: that Swans can stretch these songs so far, can transform them with swirling orchestral diversions, twenty-minute-long intros and stretches of pounding, relentless percussion, without breaking them, without losing the songs themselves. It results in the most powerful and moving album of the year, an album that genuinely leaves you breathless.

Swans - Mother Of The World

THEESatisfaction | awE naturalE

It's near impossible not to compare THEESatisfaction with their label-mates Shabazz Palaces, whose 2011 record, Black Up, I was pretty keen on. They both guest on each other's albums, and both share a love of strange, spacey sounds and unpredictable song structures. But while awE naturalE isn't quite as fully formed as Black Up, it's damn-near as enjoyable to listen to. It's the definition of short and sweet - at just over half and hour long, it's like a little tasting menu of different flavours and surprises, each song bubbling up with different ideas, then popping before you get too used to them. The warped downtempo of 'Earthseed' nestles between the playful two-step of 'Bitch' and the twisted, funky groove of 'QueenS'. The vocal harmonies are spot-on throughout, while Stas's raps are eloquent and thoughtful. These are the sparks of a very exciting duo.

THEESatisfaction - QueenS

No comments:

Post a Comment