My favorite albums of 2012

2012

So here we are, a year later, 2 weeks into 2013 and well past time for me to post my Top 20 albums of 2012.

A note on process: I choose these albums using a highly unscientific semi-random pseudo-bubblesort method, taking into account my initial impressions, whether they grow or fade on me, how I’m feeling that day, and numerous other subjective factors including probably how much I’ve had to drink. These are not the “best” albums of 2012, but a snapshot of my favorites which I arbitrarily stop updating on January 1st. (I have to stop myself at some point or I’ll never get the mix done!) 

My friend and Radio Gen1us cohost Aaron told me I should pick a theme for my mix. A mix needs a theme he says, beyond just “top 20 of 2012”–which I personally thought was a pretty good hook to hang a mix on. Anyway, if I were to pick a theme out from the albums I’ve chosen I think it would have to involve the desire to return to the 1990s in some way. Seems like half my albums are from artists who were active 15-20 years ago, whether they were in their heyday or just starting out or even thought to already be past their prime. I’m not sure why this should be–why would someone want to listen to a bunch of music that reminds them of a time when they were young, in much better shape, had fewer responsibilities, partied all the time… Anyway, if anybody out there has a theory, I’d be happy to hear it. Also, let me know what you think of the mix! It’s a long one, given that there are several songs greater than 8 minutes in length and one that’s around 20 minutes long, but it flows better than it has any right to, given its eclecticism. Also I apologize in advance for any mangling WordPress does to the formatting of this post.

Or right-click, Save As if that’s the way you roll. And there’s an 8tracks player at the bottom of the post, though the full MP3 flows better as I’ve been able to manage transitions.

 

The Men - Open Your Heart20. The MenOpen Your Heart 

Song: Oscillation (00:00-07:18) The Men are a punk band from Brooklyn. (I got this factoid, as I will probably get most of the statements of fact in this post, from wikipedia) I listened to and liked their 2011 album Leave Home, which mainly consisted of noisy art-punk and post-hardcore. The new album has added some weird flavors, some surf punk and one strange, slow, trippy “Country Song” that’s heavy on guitar effects, but my favorites are the two extended, driving noise-rock jams, of which I’ve chosen the first for this mix. How does that meme go? “Always be yourself. Unless you can be Sonic Youth. Always be Sonic Youth.” 

http://wearethemen.blogspot.com/

High On Fire - De Vermis Mysteriis19. High On FireDe Vermis Mysteriis 

Song: Bloody Knuckles (07:18-11:31) What can I say about High On Fire that I haven’t said when raving about one of their albums previously? Thunderous skull-pounding riffs? Check. Second coming of Motorhead? Check. Headbanging like an idiot whilst wearing a Spider-Man mask during their set at the last Dark Lord Day? Well maybe I haven’t mentioned that. Anyway, I’ve read that some people consider this their best album so far. I haven’t warmed quite that much up to it yet but production-wise, it is a return to the murk from the too-pristine sound of 2010’s Snakes For The Divine. For this mix, I’ve chosen the album’s second song, featuring all the High On Fire signatures, a pounding, insistent beat, some blistering guitar work and aggressive vocals.

http://www.highonfire.net/

...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead - Lost Songs18. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of DeadLost Songs 

Song: Opera Obscura (11:33-15:15) This is Trail of Dead’s best album since Source Tags & Codes (and I’m saying this as the one guy who actually really really liked Worlds Apart). This is maybe because it almost seems like a reprise of, or a sequel to that album. The songs may not be consistently as strong but for the most part, each seems to have its analog in that classic album. Or perhaps it’s the progression that’s analogous. Regardless, I’ve picked the song Opera Obscura, which builds from a tense drumbeat into a frantic percussive tempest of guitar noise.

http://www.trailofdead.com/

Bob Mould - Silver Age17. Bob MouldSilver Age

Song: The Descent (15:15-19:09) Longtime Bob Mould fan? It depends I guess. I liked Husker Du back in the day as much as the next guy did, if the next guy was also a guy who owned a few Husker Du albums and liked them well enough. I never did get into Sugar or any of his other projects though. Apparently I should have, as it seems to be the critical consensus that this album is a throwback to that band. It’s competent 90s-style alternative guitar rock and sounds like what you’d think the guy from Husker Du would sound like 30 years later.

http://bobmould.com/

Baroness - Yellow & Green16. BaronessYellow & Green

Song: March To The Sea (19:09-22:20) The first time I listened to this album, I thought it was boring. I only got into Baroness for the past few albums and they seemed to be following a familiar arc, excising the harsher sounds from their repertoire and becoming more accessible in the process. Which isn’t bad, but I like harsh sounds! Then a friend of mine who listens almost exclusively to extreme metal expressed surprise that I thought the album was boring and I decided to approach it again on different terms. I also listen to some poppier metal/hard rock bands, like Torche (who also had a good album in the running this year), and if I could handle that I could handle this. This… is WAY better than Torche. You just have to get past your own expectations, I guess. The song March To The Sea exemplifies this kind of heavy pop music as well as anything.

http://baronessmusic.com/

Swans - The Seer15. Swans – The Seer

Song: Avatar (22:20-31:07) Swans… is a weird band. I’m not going to pretend to know much about them other than what I’ve heard on their last 2 albums. They’re kind of hard to listen to sometimes. I remember though that one of the most amazing things that happened to me recently happened while listening to their previous album, My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky. I was listening to it at work, wearing earbuds, zoning out in that kind of narcoleptic post-lunch inertia that you get, the music fading to the background, when I heard someone speaking to me, quietly but firmly: “Jim. Jim. It’s time to begin.” I should probably use that song instead of 5 hour energy from now on but I’m not sure the effect would be the same. Anyway, this new album is a double-length but ever so brief trip into psychosis, but I’ve chosen one of the more approachable tracks to play for you.

http://www.swans.pair.com/

The Maldives - Muscle For The Wing14. The MaldivesMuscle For The Wing

Song: Blood On The Highway (31:10-36:07) The aforementioned Aaron and I were recording another podcast last week, wherein we discussed each others picks for 2012’s top 20, and I played the opening track from this album for him. “Dude,” he said, “you just blew away every song I’ve got on deck.” The Maldives are a Seattle-area country band, but a country band that plays melodic rock and roll. Maybe that’s not quite right but if you have to buttonhole a band, Americana is where you’d put these guys. Since I don’t want to play the same song in this mix that I played in the other, I’m picking another hard-hitting slow burner.

http://themaldivesmusic.com

Cloudkicker - Fade13. CloudkickerFade

Song: The Focus (36:08-39:20) Don’t know much about this guy but he apparently puts out a ton of music on BandCamp. This is music for people who like the sound of guitars. It’s not all prog chops wankery like some albums I’ve put on lists in the past, but it’s instrumental, guitar-driven, definitely has progressive and mathy tendencies, but sweeping and melodic and is overall a pretty nice place to lose yourself for 3/4 of an hour or so.

http://cloudkicker.bandcamp.com/

Dinosaur Jr. - I Bet On Sky12. Dinosaur Jr.I Bet On Sky

Song: Recognition (39:20-43:08) I’m not a guy who does a whole lot of writing, and in what little I do it seems hard sometimes to avoid repeating myself. Last year, I wrote about a band who at times sounded like Dinosaur Jr and I just found myself wanting to talk about their tone the same way. Instead, I’ll say that I love Dinosaur Jr.’s sound, and that, decades after they began, after the drama and the breakups and everything, they still make some great music together. Less noisy, less chaotic than in the late 80s, poppier maybe, but good. There’s even a song that calls to mind Lou Barlow’s contributions to his other band, Sebadoh, of whom I’m also a huge fan, and that’s the song I’ve chosen to play for you.

http://www.dinosaurjr.com/home/

Pig Destroyer - Book Burner11. Pig DestroyerBook Burner

Song: Baltimore Strangler (43:08-46:26) Pig Destroyer is another challenging listen. I am, as you may have gathered, a fan of several styles of extreme metal, but grindcore has always been difficult for me. I’ve enjoyed some previous Pig Destroyer albums, but mostly the bits between the grind, when they take a breather and settle into a recognizable thrash riff for a few seconds. This is the first time I’ve found myself admiring the stop-on-a-dime way they change up every few seconds. Each song is itself legion, caroming from riff to disparate riff in a seemingly chaotic way belied by their machineline precision. Baltimore Strangler is one of the longer tracks on the album but perhaps more accessible in that the riffs persist long enough for the listener to catch up.

http://www.myspace.com/therealpigdestroyer

Titus Andronicus - Local Business10. Titus Andronicus Local Business

Song: My Eating Disorder (46:27-54:40) In my brief writeup of Titus Andronicus’ 2010 album The Monitor, I touched on but didn’t really explore the dichotomy of this band–that they are a punk rock band doing non-punk rock things–long songs with complex structures, themes that cohere over the length of an album, rather than a series of simple 2- or 3-minute standalone songs. It’s an arc that continues on this record, but then, as if to put the lie to that observation, they break into a raucous 1-minute long instrumental riff (that they call Food Fight!) on the New York Dolls’ classic Identity Crisis. This however precedes an 8+ minute song (continuing the food theme) called My Eating Disorder (which I’ve chosen for this mix). Maybe they’re a band with an identity crisis: punk rock with prog ambition, party anthems with depressive lyrics… or maybe I shouldn’t overthink it.

http://www.titusandronicus.net/

Propagandhi - Failed States09. PropagandhiFailed States

Song: Things I Like (54:40-56:38) Propagandhi is one of those bands that makes you wonder where the dividing line is between punk rock and speed metal, if only to figure out which side of it they’re standing on. They are so fast and so tight, and getting more so with every record it seems. The song I’ve chosen is a short one but covers some ground; it starts as a simple and sometimes kind of goofy of things the singer likes, then slows down for a middle section with an Ojibwe friend of theirs giving a monolog in Anishinaabemowin about his people before the band tears into a brief final section about liking “dark narratives of the future that looms, of our impending doom.” 

http://propagandhi.com/

Converge - All We Love We Leave Behind08. ConvergeAll We Love We Leave Behind

Song: Veins and Veils (56:39-59:11) Converge is a hardcore band that has been banging them out for a long time. I was first introduced to them though, honestly only a few years ago when they were the opening act in a lineup that looked like this: Converge/High On Fire/Mastodon/Dethklok. And as out of place as they might seem on that list, they weren’t really. Their album that year was one of my favorites, so I was naturally excited when I saw this one coming out. There’s less pure hardcore chaos here, and they may slow it down a few times on the album, but there are still some wacky time signatures involved for the purist.  The song I’m playing for you starts with an ominous bass line over a pretty straightforward rock beat but builds into a thrashing bit of metalcore.

http://www.convergecult.com/

The Protomen - A Night Of Queen07. The Protomen – A Night Of Queen

Song: One Vision (59:12-62:51) I love the Protomen. I got to see them live recently and they were every bit as good as I’d hoped they’d be–I only wish they’d been headlining the show so I could have seen more of them. They play a kind of bombastic 80s-influenced rock that is usually bent toward the purpose of fighting evil, as their first two albums were rock operas based on their interpretation of the Megaman videogames. However, in 2010 they played at a farewall concert for another Nashville band called Evil Bebos. Evil Bebos were playing a Black Sabbath tribute set, so the Protomen decided to pay tribute to a band that had been a huge influence on them–Queen. This was the first time they were playing any of these songs live in front of an audience, but you know what? They went ahead and recorded the show anyway and 2 years later, we have it in album form. Does it have flaws? Yes it does. But this band not only had the sack to attempt it, they also had the chops to pull it off.

http://www.protomen.com/

Japandroids - Celebration Rock06. JapandroidsCelebration Rock

Song: Fire’s Highway (62:51-67:34) This album didn’t really hit my radar until late in the year. I’d heard their previous album and liked it well enough–I don’t know why I didn’t listen to this one until I was well into the process of compiling this list. However, every time I listened to it, it jumped 2, 3, 5 spots higher on my list. It’s an album composed mostly of fist-pumping anthems, full of yeahyeahyeahs and whoawhoawhoas and triumphant crashes of guitar. Listening to it, I kind of had the idea, as good as most of it was, that there was a clear standout track; however, I’m assured that everybody else in the world thinks the same thing about a different track. It’s a relief, since I usually want to play something for you that you might not have heard already and I now I feel free to present to you my own personal favorite song from the album.

http://japandroids.com/

Panopticon - Kentucky05. Panopticon Kentucky

Song: Black Soot And Red Blood (67:34-77:38) Appalachian black metal. I’m as surprised to type that phrase as you are to read it. This album intersperses long, atmospheric/melodic black metal pieces with mountain bluegrass and Union anthems. It’s both a tribute to a state and the story of coal miners standing up to corporate exploitation. Listen to the old miner telling his story in the track I’ve chosen; it’s powerful stuff, as are the sounds of protest that close the track.

http://www.paganflames.com/artists/PaganFlamesLP_Panopticon_kentucky.htm 

 

Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light04. Spiritualized – Sweet Heart Sweet Light

Song: I Am What I Am (77:38-82:16) Spiritualized back with, well, more of the same I guess. But not in a bad way. The Pitchfork review calls it “not a drastic transformation as much as an acute refinement,” which I can go along with. Junkie soul is what I usually call it, though it’s rock, gospel, blues and a sort of sleazy psychedelia by turns, run through the gutter and broken, but beautiful and crying out for redemption. “I Am What I Am” opens with a rolling bass line and some Dr. John piano that sounds as much like an amped-up “Cop Shoot Cop” as anything I’ve heard from them lately, before gospel backup singers come in on a chorus that delights me with its mondegreen (hint: they’re not singing about Telly Savalas).

http://www.spiritualized.com/

Jimmy Cliff - Rebirth03. Jimmy CliffRebirth

Song: Reggae Music (82:16-86:08) Jimmy Cliff is a living legend of reggae, and this album is as vibrant a document of roots reggae as anything recorded in his heyday. It was produced by Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong in perhaps a nod to the debt owed by punk and ska for the sounds they appropriated from the 70s reggae scene. And if so, Jimmy Cliff nods back with covers of the Clash’s Guns of Brixton and Rancid’s Ruby Soho. Jimmy Cliff’s career has spanned the 50 years of Jamaican independence, and the song “Reggae Music” tells his story in that context–I hope you like it as much as I do.

http://www.jimmycliff.com/

Local H - Hallelujah! I'm a Bum02. Local H – Hallelujah! I’m a Bum

Song: Another February (86:08-90:38) Local H is a Chicago area 2-piece (guitar and drums, but sounding like a full band nonetheless) that has been putting out angry but clever alt-rock for nearly 2 decades. Their past few albums have leaned toward the full-album concepts–2008’s 12 Angry Months chronicled the year after a bad breakup, and now double-album Hallelujah! I’m a Bum indicts American partisan politics, skewering both sides of the aisle (without the easy “truth somewhere in the middle” conclusions that they’re equally bad, or that participating in the process is futile). Musically it’s a concept album as well, with songs segueing naturally one into the other, themes being reprised from song to song and a definite arc to the whole. Possibly the album dates itself with some specific references to the 2012 election cycle but overall the political themes should, sadly, be recognizable in any election. The song Another February takes the focus explicitly away from politics for a moment to talk about the depressive effect that the long and terrible winters can have in Chicago, on the economy, on individuals and families.

http://www.localh.com/

Godspeed You! Black Emperor - 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!01. Godspeed You! Black Emperor‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

Song: We Drift Like Worried Fire (90:38-110:30) ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s first album in 10 years and was kind of a surprise when it was unexpectedly released at a show of theirs in early October. If you’re not familiar with the band, they are sort of the ultra-postrock band, each song lasting 20+ minutes, consisting of various movements, often (but not always) with some kind of sampled voiceover, building ever so slowly to a triumphant climax or several. It is the kind of music that you can, possibly, leave on in the background and half-ignore, but that may exhaust you in a careful attentive listen. This newest album features 2 of the aforementioned 20+ minute postrock tracks, along with two 6 minute drone tracks. I’ve chosen the less dark, more uplifting of the two postrock compositions to play for you (in its entirety–I recommend headphones or earbuds, some goggles, and a good stiff drink).

http://www.brainwashed.com/godspeed/