Monday, December 24, 2012

Favorite Albums of 2012

Once again, it's that time of year where I set my stacks of  wax aside to make way for albums released throughout the current year.  As usual, my perfectionistic tendencies have prevented me from completing this list earlier in December, but I think the regular readers of Eclectic Grooves will find plenty on this list to satisfy their daily musical cravings.

Thanks to a couple blog resources (who shall remain nameless to protect their identity from the RIAA) I have been exposed to more new music in 2012 than in any previous year. While I didn't have to scramble at the last minute to discover the music released throughout the year, I still found myself rifling through the never-ending "Best of 2012 " lists for music that I may have missed through my virtual digging expeditions. For the most part, I found these lists to cater towards a mainstream listening demographic, but there were a few exceptions to the rule. Ty Segall, Flying Lotus, The Swans and Tame Impala were featured on nearly every list I came across, and while Swans The Seer didn't make my list, it is still an adventurous, complex record that definitely deserves the accolades it has received.

Overall, 2012 was an incredible year for discovering albums from both new and established artists, many of which released some of their most accomplished material to date.   Prominent musicians from the San Francisco garage rock scene including Thee Oh Sees, The Fresh and Onlys and Sic Alps explored a more accessible sound while still retaining enough of the gritty garage sound that got them where they are today. This was also the year where psychedelic rock was introduced to the mainstream with the runaway success of Tame Impala's sophomore effort Lonerism setting the bar high for the the new school of psychedelic head- trippers.   Dream-pop/shoegaze also seemed to have a resurgence this year with a plethora of artists who were channeling their inner My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive respectively like DIIV, Tamryn, Echo Lake and Vestals.  With Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine finally announcing that the follow-up to Loveless has neared completion, we may finally see the fruits of his labor in 2013.

On the other end of the musical spectrum, hip-hop artists like El-P, Killer Mike and Kendrick Lamar enjoyed a new found popularity as they reinvented themselves, thus drawing the attention of a new community of listeners who missed out on the first wave of  gangsta rap, electro-rap and dirty south hip-hop. While I preferred EL-P's material for Def Jux, I admire his ingenuity to wipe the slate clean and produce something fresh and exciting.  For my money, the best album by a hip-hop artist this year was by EL-P's former partner-in-rhyme Aesop Rock with his self-produced lyrical masterpiece Skelethon.

Even though I haven't been as intrigued with electronic music lately, acts like Actress, Flying Lotus, The Gaslamp Killer and Andy Stott discovered a way to be experimental and accessible at the same time., enabling their sound to cross over into uncharted territories. Another genre that isn't exactly my favorite, but  is perfect for listening to when you are feeling contemplative and relaxed is drone music. In fact, this could be considered the year that drone music took over the world as there was almost an endless supply of  records to sink your ears into from artists such as Evan Caminiti, Fennesz, Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin and Painted Caves. Last, I felt that most of  the jazz music released this year was either too experimental or too smooth. While I found it difficult to find jazz releases from this year that resonated with me, I was impressed by Neneh Cherry and the Thing, Han Bennink and Spectrum Road.

In summary, gone are the days where fans have to wait patiently for an artist to release one album every three years. In 2012, there were several artists who released 2-3 albums of quality material such as Ty Segall, Neil Young, Eternal Tapestry, Guided By Voices and White Fence. Maybe technology has made it easier to record at a faster pace, or maybe it's the fact that musicians generally have more control over their recorded output, but 2012 was undoubtedly the year of the prolific artist.

Overall, it is an exciting time to be a music fan as the methods for discovering music through Spotify, Soundcloud and Bandcamp make it easier to sample a record before you download/buy it, and great reissue labels like Light in the Attic, Analog Africa, Numero Group and Finders Keepers keep cranking out fantastic pressings of long-forgotten treasures.

Because so much fantastic music was released this year, I really labored over which records would make the final cut, but I have narrowed it down to twenty-five favorites and twenty-five honorable mentions in the interest of time. This list is not ranked in order of popularity so number 1 is no more deserving of making the list as number 25.

Without further ado, I bring you my Favorite Albums of 2012.


1) Sic Alps- S/T













On Sic Alps' last long player Napa Asylum, there were subtle hints indicating the direction they would be taking on their next record. For the first time in the band's career, they opted to record in a professional studio, giving them the opportunity to stretch their sound in ways they may have never thought possible. There are the usual psych-garage nuggets here, but now there is more of a focus on songwriting chops and the spaces in between the lines. While the band could have stayed with the tried and true, they opted instead to release their most ambitious, and dare I say "pretty" record yet.

God Bless Her, I Miss Her and Thylacine Man


2) Thee Oh Sees- Putrifiers II  
                         













It is probably not a surprise that this album figured into my favorites of 2012, but that doesn't make it any less deserving of this honor. I have been following these guys since the melodies from Help have been imprinted on my subconscious, and I can honestly say that they have released a record that perfectly captures the essence of their entire discography in one sitting. This time they cleaned up the production a notch, adding strings and brass to their infectious, fuzz-soaked psychedelia.

Wax Face and Will We Be Scared


3) Ty Segall and White Fence- Hair    

                           













Ty Segall is currently in the running for releasing as many records as Robert Pollard and GBV in one year. This year alone Segall  has released three full-length records, and a couple singles. With this kind of output, you would think that the quality would suffer, but these records were all great additions to an ever expanding discography. While I enjoyed Slaughterhouse and Twins, this was the record that stuck with me the longest due to its masterful blend of classic rock, kraut-rock, rockabilly and psychedelia. Firing on all cylinders is an understatement!  

The Black Glove-Rag and Tongues

4)  Jon Spencer Blues Explosion- Meat and Bone


















After producing a few lackluster albums earlier in the decade, Jon Spencer and company are in rare form once again, releasing what I think is the comeback record of the year. This is bluesy garage rock that pushes the needle into the red while still laying down a funky back beat for Spencer to howl over like a demented mental patient who forgot to take their meds.

Strange Baby and Black Thoughts

5) Aesop Rock- Skelethon














Considering that during the last 5 years since Aesop released None Shall Pass, he has gone through a divorce, lost a best friend to cancer and had his label (Definitive Jux) dissolve right in front of his eyes, it's no wonder that it took so long for him to complete the recording of Skelethon. It's even more incredible that he managed to accomplish this task with one guest star, and he produced the entire record himself with virtually no samples. In a day and age where "bling and bitches" is the accepted norm, Aesop continues to push the envelope by bringing an astonishing amount of lyrical depth and top-notch production to the whole of Skelethon.

Tetra and Gopher Guts

6) Tame Impala- Lonerism













When Tame Impala's first record Innerspeaker was released last year to critical acclaim, I was in the minority of people who just didn't understand what all the fuss was about. I reluctantly decided to give the new record a listen, and was completely blown away from the start. The lazy journalist's review of the record might go something like this: "Tame Impala sound like (insert band) if that band did more ( insert name of drug)", but this description does the band no justice. On Lonerism, they have created the perfect headphone record, with a seamless song sequence designed to slowly take the listener on a trip. The vocals and lyrics are often obscured beneath a blanket of synthesizers, trippy guitars and crashing drums, but the message comes across anyway to let the music take you wherever you want to go.

Mind Mischief and Keep on Lying

7) Alabama Shakes- Boys and Girls













Alabama Shakes story goes like this: hard working rock-n-roll band who hones their chops by tirelessly practicing and playing local gigs decide to leak a couple tracks on the internet and the rest is history. In the following year, the band received an well-deserved instantaneous acclaim for their debut record Boys & Girls.  The album features an intoxicating blend of soul, gospel and southern rock with lead singer Brittany Howard's vocals at times channeling the sound of an amphetamine-fueled Janis Joplin, and at others resembling a 70's era Tina Turner at the height of her glory. The rest of the band is no slouch either, as their skilled accompaniment perfectly complements Brittany's gritty vocals, creating a classic contemporary soul album with a rock-n-roll spirit.

Goin' to the Party and Be Mine

8) Lotus Plaza- Spooky Action at a Distance














Lockett Pundt's sophomore release didn't grab me on the first couple listens, but over time this has become my most frequently played record of the summer. Lyrics and melodies that embed themselves into your mind and shape the trajectory of your dreams.

Out of Touch and Monoliths

9) Allah Lahs- S/T-




                 








This is the debut album from this foursome from California who have crafted a jangly, surf-influenced record chock full of breezy garage-rock classics in the making.  While the analog production from Nick Waterhouse reveres the reverb-heavy style of the 60's, the band's fresh perspective on songwriting keeps one foot firmly planted in the present.  

Busman's Holiday and Ela Navega    

10) Menahan Street Band- The Crossing
  
                     











When the Menahan Street Band wasn't busy touring and recording with Charles Bradley in the past year, they managed to find the time to record this amazing instrumental homage to classic soul and funk.  It is truly a fantastic hodgepodge of sweet soul, heavy funk and jazz that will hold your attention from the moment you press play.  

Keep Coming Back and Three Faces    

11) Getatchew Mekuria & The Ex & Friends- Y'Anbessaw Tezeta
    
                     











Ever since I heard the transcendental sounds of Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria's music on the Ethiopiques compilation series, I have been thoroughly obsessed with the rest of his output. With the aid of experimental rock enthusiasts The Ex, he has released a couple albums in the past several years, and even toured the world.  Those of you who are only familiar with the live recording that Getatchew released a few years ago with the Ex can expect a much more relaxed affair with flashes of experimentation.  

Ambassel and Zerafewa/Eregedawo    

12) Mission of Burma- Unsound  
                     











With so many well-established post-punk bands attempting to revitalize their career after years of little to no output, it would be really easy for this record to fall under the public's radar. This is the fourth Mission of Burma record since reforming in 2002, and while there were moments of brilliance on each of the previous records,  Unsound is a masterful post-punk record from beginning to end. It is one of the best surprises of the year, and it comes highly recommended to people who like energetic post-punk with experimental touches.    

Semi Pseudo Sort of Plan and Second Television

13) Spectrum Road- S-T-    
                     











With a super group of sorts (Jack Bruce on Vocals/Bass, Cindy Blackmon-Santana on drums, Vernon Reid on Guitar and John Medeski on keyboards), this record is a jazz-fusion juggernaut from beginning to end, with blistering guitar solos and thunderous drumming that never lets up.    

Vuelte Abajo and Vashkar

14) Kid Koala- 12 Bit Blues  


                   










From the title of Kid Koala's latest record, you might be misled to think that this will be an electronic record. Instead, what were are presented with here are twelve "bits" of blues samples tweaked beyond comprehension by the turntable wizardry of Kid Koala.  With multiple samples being juxtaposed at the same time, this can often be a jarring, but no less rewarding listening experience.

1 Bit Blues and 3 Bit Blues    

15) Elephant 9 with Reine Fiske

     











Back in 2010,  I featured Elephant 9's absolutely zonked-out progressive jazz-fusion album Walk the Nile on my end-of-year list. Flash forward two years, and Elephant 9 is back with a vengeance, this time featuring the Swedish prog guitarist Reine Fiske for an added sonic punch.  This is mostly intense, cerebral jazz fusion of the highest order, with a couple mellow tracks to even out the mix. 

Black Hole and Freedom's Children

16) Cate Le Bon- CYRK













This record came out pretty early in the year, and I knew it would be on my list from the moment I heard it. Le Bon's second record is more diverse, featuring a wide array of sounds and styles such as jazz, psychedelic, folk, and electronic. Undoubtedly one of the best records of the year!

Cyrk and Fold the Cloth

17) Mmoss- Only Children













This was a late addition to the list as I only became aware of it in the past few weeks, but it definitely deserves to be featured here With a heady concoction of woozy psychedelia, classic rock, epic kraut rock and instrumental drone, Mmoss have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the new school of psychedelia.

War Sux and Hands

18) Cheap Time- Wallpaper Music













This is obviously a tongue in cheek album title as this record couldn't be further from wallpaper music. With Stooges style rave-ups, the amps steadily cranked to eleven and inventive guitar solos scattered throughout the album, Cheap Time have created a garage rock record that avoids the regular trappings of the genre.

Another Time and  Witches in Stock

19) Tamryn- Tender New Signs















Tamryn didn't immediately grab my attention with their last album The Waves, but this record features a hypnotizing mix of ethereal vocals with a sonic tapestry of layered guitars. Each time I listen to this record, I hear new melodies and guitar lines that I hadn't noticed before. This record rewards repeat listens, and is a must for fans of My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive.

Heavenly Bodies and Prizma

20) Spider Bags-Shake My Head













This is the first record that I've heard from these guys, but I am definitely eager to seek out other records from their catalog after hearing Shake My Head. I suppose this would be considered garage rock, however this record is all over the musical map. Some songs seem straightforward, and then they veer off into an unexpected bridge or psychedelic guitar solo that takes the songs into another dimension. Others have a strong pop sensibility that have the potential to stick in the listener's head for a long time. Overall, this is a fantastic record to sink your ears into.

Standing in a Curb and The Moon is a Schoolgirl

21)  Blank Realm- Go Easy













With its hot pink and blue neon-infused cover, you would think that this is going to be another 80's throwback record, but instead you get this infectious blast of electro-pyschedelic jams sent from the year 2020.  It works as a complete record, but each song is like its own adventure into alternative sonic realms.

Cleaning Up My Mess and Go Easy

22) Dignan Porch- Nothing Bad Will Ever Happen













This is a catchy slice of jangle-pop with the guitars cranked up high while still leaving plenty of room for the songwriting to shine through on the mellower tracks. This harks back to the classic indie rock sound championed by bands like Yo La Tengo and Versus.

Sad Shape and Never

23) Han Bennink Trio- Bennink and Co













At 70 years of age, you would think that Bennink's music would start approaching the smooth cocktail jazz end of the spectrum, but this is bold, confident improvisational jazz from a seasoned professional.  With accompaniment from Joachim Badenhorst on saxophones and clarinet and Simon Toldam on piano,  Bennink has created a record that flirts with experimental sound structures for a bit, only to return to straight-ahead jazz styles in the end. Remember this is the same musician who played a set of cheese blocks, and managed to keep the crowd captivated.

Klein Gebrek Geen Bezwaar and Dog

24) trioVD- Maze













This is definitely the most experimental record on the list with screeching horn segments juxtaposed with an electro-punk backdrop. I suppose it is reminiscent of visceral free jazz groups like The Thing, but thrown into a blender filled with electronic beats, metal guitars, complex time signatures and clipped horn fragments that sound like they are sampled, but apparently this is not the case.This is feverishly manic experimental jazz that rewards the adventurous listener.

Brick and Morse

25) Guided By Voices- The Bears For Lunch













Considering that Robert Pollard practically writes a song every time he wakes up in the morning, it is not exactly surprising that the original members of Guided By Voices have reformed and released three albums in 2012. What is surprising is the fact that they were able to capture the same magic found on earlier recordings like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. Let's hope that Guided By Voices continue to crank out quality records in 2013, but if not, we will always have this record to remind us of their majesty.

The Corners are Glowing and Finger Gang

Now, on to the honorable mentions (in no particular order)

1) Fontanelle- Vitamin F
2) Oddisee- People Hear What They See
3) Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz- Abraxas:The Book of Angels Vol.19
4) Vestals- Forever Falling Towards the Sky
5) Beak- S/T
6)Pheromoans- Does This Guy Stack Up?
7)Jessica Pratt- S/T
8)Parquet Courts- Light Up Gold'
9)Evening Meetings- S/T
10) Rangda- Fomerly Extinct
11)Eternal Tapestry- A World Out of Time
12)Prince Rupert's Drops- Run Slow
13)Catherine Irwin- Little Heater
14)Staff Benda Bilili- Bouger le Monde!
15)Neil Young and Crazy Horse- Psychedelic Pill
16) Flying Lotus- Until the Quiet Comes
17)Ringo Deathstarr- Mauve
18) Micachu and the Shapes- Never
19) Melody's Echo Chamber- S/T
20)Lower Dens- Nootropics
21) Thee Satisfaction- awE naturalE
22) Neneh Cherry and the Thing- The Cherry Thing
23) Jeans Wilder- Totally
24) Moon Duo- Circles
25) Roy and the Devil's Motorcycle- Tell it to the People

Well, I know this is a lot to digest, but I sincerely hope that you find some new music on this list that interests you. I would really love to hear what music you guys were digging in 2012.  Feel free to post your lists in my comments, as well as anything else that you would like to share.

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Here's to a new prosperous year in 2013 filled with happiness, new possibilities and plenty of musical adventures.

5 comments:

c said...

Great list, Kevin. Thanks for all the commentary you provided with it... I enjoyed reading what you had to say. Must've taken you some time :) I'm still just trying to figure out my favorites of the year... before the year is over!

Happy Holidays,
C

Kevin said...

Hi C.

Thanks for stopping by to check out the list. You had actually stopped by just before I posted a comment on your "Favorites of 2012" post. I'm glad that you enjoyed reading my list. It was really difficult for me to narrow this list down, and if time permitted my list would have been fifty favorites with reviews for all of them. I plan on doing a list with my favorite reissues, singles and ep's in the next couple days. This will just be a list with no reviews though. Hope you had a Merry Christmas.

Best, Kevin

Satisfied '75 said...

v. nice

TMCB said...

i forgot about dignan! thanks for reminding me

-the cowbell

Holly said...

I'd actually never heard any Dignan Porch, now catching up. Thank you very much. And happy new year!