Tuesday, January 8, 2013

On Warmer Music's Favorite Albums of 2012 [15-8]

And so it is - my favorite albums of the year. 2012 was not just a great year for music, but it was one where I listened to far more records than I ever had before. It was honestly, a bit overwhelming just trying to process everything, but I guess such is the life of anyone trying to cover music in the age of total information. I could have easily doubled this list without having to forfeit too much quality, which is saying something given that I fucking work during the day! Either way, you were great 2012, here's what you sounded like to me.

15. Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn't  Buy It!
From my review for Spectrum Culture:
Lekman has said that he feels that this is his first proper album (as opposed to “collections of recordings”) in that the songs were written more or less in a batch and are sequenced in a narrative arc. However, this still sounds very much like any other batch of Jens Lekman recordings with lush, playful instrumentation including various horns, strings, ukuleles, glockenspiels, pianos and some flutes and saxes popping up throughout. Sure there’s plenty of post-relationship obsession and sadness, but it’s all of the tempered, resigned variety... These aren’t the thoughts of a man reeling from a breakup, but rather one in the picking up the pieces stage. Lekman is able to quarantine his pain and transform it into a dull ache lurking at the base of the heart rather than an eviscerating despair of the early breakup that threatens to make normal functioning impossible.
On I Know What Love Isn’t, Lekman’s charmingly Swedish in his insistence on well thought-out, sober realizations about everyday life and long-term relationships, with just a dash of his old capital-R Romantic whimsy thrown in. The boy who remembered every kiss has had some scales removed from his eyes and now he’s being forced to mature and develop some emotional armor. For him the great catharsis is being able to tone down his emotions enough to allow him to rejoin the workaday slog of getting back to life. Fortunately for the listener, only Lekman can make resignation sound this good. Maybe maturity isn’t so bad after all.
14. El-P - Cancer 4 Cure  Buy It!
Listening to Cancer 4 Cure makes me think of the Mountain Goats song "Lovecraft In Brooklyn" - in the song John Darnielle uses words to capture H.P. Lovecraft's vision of "cosmic terror" crafted by his urban surroundings, while on this record, El-P creates that feeling sonically. Between this outing and his work on Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music, 2012 was a banner year for the Brooklyn producer and DJ, which makes sense, as his dense, gorgeous-yet-threatening soundscapes are the perfect soundtrack to modern life. Whether he's describing the grinding brutality that surrounds us in "My Upstairs Neighbor" or the ever-increasing reach of state-sanctioned surveillance and violence in "Drones Over Bklyn," El-P's world is one of people packed densely together breathing each other's dread and sin, trying desperately to find something human to grasp on to. Fortunately, the painstakingly-crafted worlds of sound have enough warmth and intrigue to keep the proceedings from becoming suffocating. Cancer 4 Cure isn't an easy listen but every time I put it on I found more reasons to keep coming back.

13. Spider Bags - Shake My Head  Buy It!
Although they still haven't matched the stumbling, slurred poetry of their 2007 debut, A Celebration of Hunger, North Carolina's Spider Bags came out with yet another album of weird, angry lovelorn indie punk with this summer's Shake My Head. Stompers about drinking and pining and drinking some more like "Friday Night" and "Keys To The City" continue to dominate the group's sound but there's more than just that. Dan McGee continues to experiment with barroom psychedelia with "Quetzalcoatal Love Song" or the glorious "Daymare" and delivers another along wonderful "without you I'm nothing song" in the mold of "It's You" with  "I'll Go Crazy." The Bags seem content churning out revved-up southern rock with a touch of insanity that flies under most peoples radars, which is either a blessing or a curse. On the one hand you've gotta hope that his music finds appreciative ears, on the other though, it's hard to ignore their lack of polish as a key ingredient to their charm. 

12. Cloud Nothings - Attack On Memory  Buy It!
There's nothing quite like falling in love with a band onstage, in-person, record unheard. That's what I did with Ohio's Cloud Nothings, a group whose name had always sounded to like yet another skippably wispy indie-pop bedroom project. But seeing them open the Pitchfork's second day with an explosive set that ended in an ill-advised man-vs-nature battle of wills in the pouring rain was enough to send me scurrying for their latest album. And what an album it was raucous blend of the best of early indie rock from '80s angst to '90s slackerism, all set to Westerbergian about the obscurity, boredom and seeming pointlessness that often characterizes the teen and early adult years in the Midwest. Although "Wasted Days" and "Stay Useless" get the most love, album cuts like "Fall In" and "Our Plans" are perfect "where the fuck do we go now?" songs sure to populate playlists for years to come. Dylan Baldi has promised us an album a year, lest he feel "lazy" which I think is just so wonderfully Millenial - he worships the '90s but combines that love with some work ethic. Who knows how far that could take hi - certainly out of Cleveland.

11. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music  Buy It!
I'm sad to admit that I was one of those people who knew Killer Mike almost exclusively through guest verses until this year. Fortunately, with this inspired collaboration with El-P, Mike has made sure that rap fans everywhere know exactly who he is and what he's about. R.A.P. Music has a burning intensely-focused anger mixed with a personal passion just as strong. It's a combination which lets him get away with making sure you know that he you know that he's the baddest motherfucker on the street because you also know that it's all coming from a good place. Lyrically his songs move effortlessly from macro to micro concerns with Mike able to approach everything from geopolitics ("Reagan") to affairs to the heart ("Untitled") with the same skill and insight. Coming at the end of an album full of rage, despair, violence and heartbreak that is life for so many black Americans in 2012, the title track is the key to to the whole affair. On it, Mike let's us know that he's got the answer that provides comfort, guidance and salvation, for that is the purpose of this, R.A.P. Music.

10. The Sea and Cake - Runner  Buy It!
The Sea and Cake are a band very good at working meticulously to discover new nooks and crannies within their singular post-rock sound and their remarkable consistency in this regard has often been mistaken for stagnation. Perish the thought with Runner, arguably their strongest record since the turn of the millennium. Appearing initially to be just another breezy Sea and Cake record, designed to fade into the background on sunny fall days, the album's full of deftly-executed left turns lurking just under the surface. Whether it's the drums halfway through "The Invitations" or the almost skronky guitar on "New Patterns," there's enough between the gorgeous set pieces like "Harps" and "A Mere" to soothe and excite at the same time (I'll spare you further gushing over the acoustic "Harbor Bridges" other than reiterating that it kicks ass). The more I live with Runner the higher up on my list of S&C albums it climbs, nearly knocking on the doors of their mid-'90s zenith, which is saying something.

9. The Waco Brothers & Paul Burch - Great Chicago Fire  Buy It!
I wrote about this album for PopMatters back in September and since then it has only grown on me (I initially gave it a 7, now I'd say it's easily an 8/8.5). The Waco Brothers had long been a live favorite of mine, but I often found their full-lengths to be a bit... well, lengthy. Great Chicago Fire, however flies by with the surprising rapidity of an album full of effortlessly engaging music. Teaming with Paul Burch worked to the advantage of the both him and the band, with each feeding the other's versatility and strengths. "Give In" and "The Wrong Side Of Love" continue to be some of my favorite singalongs of the the year while the more delicate sounds and clever writing on "My Flight To Spain" or "Someone That I Know" are just tailor-made mixtape breathers. With ten songs, including one cover, engagingly sequenced that share a common musical DNA but have a nice mix of tempos and styles, Great Chicago Fire reminds me of the great classic rock albums that I grew up listening to, which is a high compliment indeed.

8. Titus Andronicus - Local Business  Buy It!
It would be pretty hard for anyone to top an album as massive and beloved as The Monitor, so Titus Andronicus was wise to trim its sails for album number three. Ditching the extensive guest cast, spoken word interludes and overarching concept, Local Business is a (relatively) quick shot of stripped down rock made to be portable, direct and organic. Without reaching the airy heights of either of the first two records, it succeeds in showing that Titus can continue to grow . The slightly cleaned-up production was nice to see, hopefully indicating that Patrick Stickles feels more comfortable letting his hooks hang out without a mask of lo-fi noise and jams like "Upon Viewing Oregon's Landscape With The Flood Of Detritus" and "In A Big City" sound all the more rousing and breakout-ready for it. Titus is a band designed to be read with lyrics sheet in hand and Local Business's songs grapple with aging, authenticity, mortality and even more abstract concepts like "reality" with humor, unblinking ferocity and even insightfulness. This is a band operating at such a high-level that even a second-tier record within their catalog sounds refreshing and vital. Another coup from a band that I've decided to dub the Post-Modern Lovers.

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