Monday, December 31, 2012

My Favorite Albums of 2012

My tastes have grown increasingly masculine over the years. Not in a macho way, though I did cut my hair short, grow a beard, and start obsessively watching football (granted only for the sake of Fantasy Football but you know). More of a general understanding of myself. I racked my brain trying to think of female artists to put on this list because I felt it was so overpoweringly Male that it might look sexist even though dropping in a token female fronted band for the sake of having gender diversity is probably even more sexist. Maybe St. Vincent could have just released an album this year (on her own, NOT with David Byrne, which for some bizarre reason I never got around to listening to why is that?) and I could have continued to avoid the fact that my sonic diet is mysteriously devoid of ladies.

Still, a couple of ladies managed to find their way onto this list, but not as many as I feel like there should be. They feel wholly underrepresented. But then again, I’m stuck in a musical comfort zone and have been stuck there for years and the stuff I turn to tends to be sad men with big hearts. But then again, indie hip-hop started to click at some point this year and for the first time ever I have legitimate non-rock entries to my year end list. It’s scary thinking how entrenched we get. In anything, really. Jobs, relationships, cities, bands, TV shows, cuisines, whatever. It seems only natural to see comfort and safety. To seek the calm, reassuring security of ordering the same Jucy Lucy at the Blue Door Pub every time even though you know the rest of the options on the menu are probably great. And while comfort is all well and good, it’s almost always a positive thing to make progress. To adapt and evolve one’s tastes and explore new things. As I get older I feel pretty cemented in my tastes but I also feel like there are little additions being built on top of them. Like modifiers that sit on top of your DNA or a new subdivision in the suburban sprawl of your life. There’s always room for more.

I’ve been making a year-end list for ten years. I started when I was sixteen years old. My favorite album of 2002 was Dillinger Four’s Situationist Comedy. What a great record! That’s one I still own on CD and still listen to in the car and still enjoy the same way I did in high school and more so now that Dillinger Four is a local band. A local band! What the hell happened? How did I end up in Minneapolis? I have a theory that bands like D4, Husker Du, the Replacements, and the Hold Steady mythologized the Twin Cities for me over the years and I think that’s probably accurate. There is something romantic about this place that I can’t quite explain, and I think it’s because I’m just thrilled to live in a place that come hell or high water sustains a vibrant music scene. I never really got that from Kansas City where all we really had was the Get Up Kids and I never really got that from Lawrence outside of a couple of bands I loved fiercely. I always felt guilty about being picky about local music and now I can still be picky and still really enjoy that the hip-hop scene here produces incredibly top-notch stuff.

It’s been a weird year full. I got married, I moved away from Kansas, I worked at three different Half Price Books stores and eventually got promoted, my wife got a job with her master’s degree and we’re basically on the precipice of not having to live like college students anymore. I’m becoming an adult and it’s strange because I can see it happening. I look more and more like my dad every day and my hair is going grey strand by strand. I feel a pull toward ambient music and another one toward socio-political hip-hop and another towards dark, artsy, and no-bullshit metal. I feel less judgmental than I did four years ago where shitting on music was my game. I was good at it. Now the meanest thing I feel like I can muster is indifference. I think that’s a positive thing. I’ll always be a pompous jerk, but I’m trying. This list is pretty much what you’d expect, but I recommend all of these albums.

10. Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It

This is one of the saddest albums I’ve ever heard. It’s also a triumph. An album that undeniably proves that the promise Mark Hadreas showed on his 2010 debut Learning was no fluke. That he’s able to confront the darkness in his own life and the world and craft songs this touching and powerful without completely falling apart is amazing.

9. Lambchop – Mr. M

The wine tasted like sunshine in the basement.
-“Gone Tomorrow”

So goes my favorite imagery written in song this year. Mr. M was my first encounter with Lambchop. It seems psychotic that they were overlooked during my alt-country years in college. A real, bona fide cryin’ shame because after listening to this sad, gorgeous record I went back and listened to their discography album by album and it’s the sort of solid you don’t fuck around with. For whatever reason I prefer directness in songwriting but Kurt Wagner’s cryptic songs make me want to be a better man.

8. The Tallest Man on Earth – There’s No Leaving Now

There’s No Leaving Now was an album I used for the feelings of needing to move on in 2012. Kristian Matsson still sounds like the long lost heir to Bob Dylan’s throne (sorry Conor Oberst) without sounding like he’s trying to be Dylan. He’s also done a great job at staving off repetitiveness which is basically knocking at your door every day when you’re making hushed folk tunes. Where Shallow Grave and The Wild Hunt so perfectly encapsulated the autumn, There’s No Leaving Now feels like so much like the spring, and it’s Matsson’s best yet.

7. Moonface – With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery

It just wouldn’t be a year without a contribution from Spencer Krug. And I suppose, it wouldn’t be my year-end list without a contribution from Spencer Krug considering my rabid Krug fanboydom. Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Moonface, I don’t care, it’s all good in my book. Though Moonface lacks the cohesion of Sunset Rubdown, with Finnish rock band Siinai Krug has put together a truly badass album. It just sounds cool. It’s also unhinged and loose and spontaneous but Krug’s songwriting is as disciplined as ever.

6. P.O.S. – We Don’t Even Live Here

This album never quits. End to end, through the whole 45 minutes Stef Alexander is spitting his worldview at you at warp speed. Yet as Alexander spews references to Surly, NOFX’s “The Decline,” Christopher Hitchens, Minnesota, Doomtree, black presidents, and generally hammering home the fable of American exceptionalism. It’s a fucking masterpiece. An honest and unflinching testament to the fucked-upness of our times that also happens to be a whole hell of a lot of fun. Not only does Alexander get the whole Doomtree involved via Lazerbeak beats and guest spots from Sims and Mike Mictlan, but reels in outsiders like Busdriver and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. The Vernon collaboration “Where We Land” is the showpiece here, constructed as a step back from the venom of the rest of the tracks yet seeming somehow like the whole point. Well, that and “Lockpicks, Knives, Bricks and Bats” which is Alexander on his own delivering his thesis statement like a valedictorian delivering a speech to his graduating class. It’s half personal history (“Aight! Motherfucker, see, I was born like this/ Pissed with a twist/ Raised in the Midwest where they hate with a grin”) and half anarchist anthem set to tear shit down. Every song feels insanely important, and the beats are an incredibly diverse blend of glitchy electronics, soulful grooves, and some live drums on opening track “Bumper” that just totally blow my mind with how well they work with that song. Not like anyone should ever trust my opinion about hip-hop. For years it’s been the genre I’ve kept at arms length with a sort of passive “I think it’s the one musical genre that’s really pushing things forward but I don’t really have the desire to listen to it in my free time.” And then this year I changed. I’ve always appreciated indie hip-hop but moving to a city where indie hip-hop is the bulk of the local music scene kind of fundamentally changed everything. Minneapolis has always been a place that has fostered great music in the face of harsh weather and fake nice people, and P.O.S kind of proves that nothing has really changed in that regard.

5. Guided by Voices – Let’s Go Eat the Factory/Class Clown Spots a UFO/The Bears For Lunch

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not ever. But it did. The thing is, when the classic line-up version of GBV announced that they were producing an album, I really didn’t have any expectations. Could it be awful like so many reunion records? Sure. But there was also the chance that it could be really good and honestly, since no one ever expected this to happen Let’s Go Eat the Factory was given permission to suck. And the fact that it not only didn’t, but was mostly an excellent record was kind of what I imagine Christians would feel like if they found out angels were real. There was a sense of triumph, a collective fuck yes from every diehard GBV fan in the world. And that Class Clown Spots a UFO and The Bears for Lunch were just as good (or better, in the case of Bears) brought the sort of next dimension joy a music geek gets once or twice in a lifetime.

4. AC Newman – Shut Down the Streets

Sometimes I can’t figure out how Carl Newman’s mind works when it comes to writing songs for the New Pornographers and writing songs for himself. On Shut Down the Streets that question gets answered. Newman has flirted with adding openly autobiographical elements to his songs (notably through Neko Case on Challengers’ “Go Places” and The Slow Wonder’s “Come Crash”) but Shut Down the Streets is straight up personal drama. Which makes sense, as the album comes in the wake of his mother’s death and his son’s birth. So you have the hearbreaking sadness of “I’m Not Talking” and “They Should Have Shut Down All the Streets” and then you have words of encouragement to his new son in “There’s Money in New Wave.” But there’s also the disgustingly amazing pop gold of “Encyclopedia of Classic Takedowns” which, with Neko Case on backing vocals, sounds 100% like a New Pornographers B-side but hey, I’m not splitting hairs because no matter where that album pops up in Newman’s expansive discography it’s one of the best he’s written.

3. John K Samson – Provincial 

On the second year-end list I ever made, the #1 record was the Weakerthans Reconstruction Site. That was 2003 and nine years later they’re still probably my favorite band (next to Guided by Voices, of course) and John K Samson is absolutely my favorite songwriter. So much about how I think and write is influenced by him, and every time he puts new songs out I find myself caught in a sort of flabbergasted sense of amazement because really, how can one man be that good? Though most of these songs are new versions from his “Manitoba Roads” 7” project, the new recordings bring all of these songs to a real cohesive whole where they really belong. 

2. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

If ever there was an album that lived up to its name, it’s Celebration Rock. The thing kicks off and closes with the canned sound of fireworks and in between are the eight most triumphant songs of the year. “The House that Heaven Built” and “Younger Us” were the hits that everyone kept talking about, but for me it was all about “The Nights of Wine and Roses,” “Adrenaline Nightshift,” and “Continuous Thunder.” Beginning, middle, and end. The construction of this album is masterful, even with the intriguing conclusion of the Gun Club cover “For the Love of Ivy.” The pureness of the love described in “Continuous Thunder” is what really kills me though. To convey so much heart in a song that basically repeats the same two verses for five minutes is an enormous accomplishment, and Japandroids seem to know it. Celebration Rock is easily the most confident album of the year if only because Brian King and David Prowse don’t over think a single thing.

1. Father John Misty – Fear Fun

There’s something majestic about this album, which is effectively J Tillman’s identity crisis. I suppose plugging away as a singer-songwriter for a decade and then only being known as “the drummer from Fleet Foxes” when you actually didn’t really have anything to do with the crafting of those songs would take a toll on anybody. Tillman appropriately name drops Joseph Campbell on Fear Fun, an album wrapped up in creating mythologies in Hollywood Babylon. This is a fun concept for sure, but it’s Tillman’s swagger that really sells this thing. Watching him perform the album’s most transcendent track, “Only Son of the Ladiesman,” on Letterman is what sold me. This is a dude from the Northwest who’s been making pensive and thoughtful singer-songwriter indie folk for years and suddenly turned into a sassier Leonard Cohen, a less sleazy Serge Gainsbourg. Where Fleet Foxes spend their days trying to recapture the lost sounds of Appalacia, the departed Tillman is coming out as a truly great American songwriter.

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