Friday, January 11, 2013

On Warmer Music's Favorite Albums of 2012 [7-1]

Well, better late than never, right? As always, life has kept me busier than I could have possibly imagined this past year and, given that I'm posting this eleven days into the new year, 2013 looks to be no different. Although there was a lot of great music this year, my two favorite albums were from local artists who meant a lot to me not just as a music fan but as a writer who was blessed with the opportunity to write about each of them - a lot. Until next year music fans!

7. Japandroids - Celebration Rock  Buy It!
The cliche-because-it's-true line about this album is that there was not a more-aptly named record this year. Although there is certainly a lot of exultation and celebration in these songs, it would be misleading to paint this as a carefree party album. Like the Replacements, Hold Steady or any good band that trades in rock n' roll about drinking until you forget, the Japandroids are writing about people partying with as much desperation as joy. Remember, this is a band that was almost ready to call it quits and give up before their debut album Post-Nothing started blowing up so they know that nothing's guaranteed and time is always short. 

Celebration Rock is firmly rooted in a fatalistic hedonism. People are aging, opportunities fading away and in the face of this all that Brian King and David Prowse can do is fill their mind's with enough feedback and alcohol to get them through the night and forget about the rapidly-approaching dawn. Starting with "The Nights Of Wine And Roses" and barreling straight through to "Continuous Thunder" the duo never lets up pounding their skins and strings long enough for the pain to get to heavy and always have a cathartic chorus a few bars away to make you forget it completely. Like a night of glorious but ill-advised drinking, Celebration Rock will chew you up, spit out out and leaving you holding your head but at least you'll be smiling about it.

6. Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth  Buy It!
An excerpt from my recap for Spectrum Culture:
On Transcendental Youth, the band sounds like as confident and supple a three-piece as it ever has, with Peter Hughes on bass and Jon Wurster on drums deftly accenting John Darnielle’s animated guitar. Tapping Matthew E. White for horn arrangements was also an inspired choice, as his brass provides both punch and color to songs like “Cry for Judas,” “White Cedar” and the title track.
I am happy where the vermin play,” Darnielle admits early in the record, which makes sense given the rogue’s gallery of losers, villains and burnouts he spends his time painting in empathetic strokes. The list includes a fatally drug addicted Frankie Lymon, Christ’s betrayer, some forgotten characters from Scarfaceand, of course, Satan. It’s not that Darnielle revels morosely in darkness but rather that he drawing strength from his characters’ perseverance in the face of life’s greatest challenges. It’s this spirit that animates the album – one of finding somehow finding good in people even when they’re at their worst. By combing the band’s trademark lyrical style with an impeccably-executed expansion of their musical palate,Transcendental Youth not only holds its own among latter day Mountain Goats records but also further solidifies Darnielle’s position as one of the premier songwriters going today.
5. Screaming Females - Ugly  Buy It!
This double album's worth of punk glory has only grown on me since first hearing it this spring. It's a shame that Marissa Paternoster struggled with her health all year because her and the boys are truly hitting their stride as a great punk band. Here are some choice excerpts from my original review:
What Ugly sounds like isn't a sonic assault but rather a refinement of a trio explosive enough to blow the roof off the place but also talented and smart enough to that they don't have to do it every song. Indeed, the whole "ugly" concept here strikes me as the band doth protesting a bit too much even as songs like "Rotten Apple", "Something Ugly" and "Extinction" play with the idea of distortion and decay.

The years of touring have clearly turned the Females into a razor-sharp power trio the likes of which we haven't seen since the Pharmacists added a second guitarist. However, rather than just bashing it out and relying on muscle and energy to carry the music across, the band is now increasingly willing to play with pacing, vocals and emotion. The songs are still air-tight but they're also subtle. Of course, Paternoster's guitar will get a lot of the credit for their success and rightfully so. Often compared to J. Macias or Carrie Bowenstein, I hear a lot of Ted Leo's amp'd up Thin Lizzy style in her playing. Her guitar is used not just for volume or hooks but just as often for texture and less-obvious accents...
 All this allows Screaming Females to release their most diverse album to date. "Something Ugly", "Tell Me No" or any of the first three songs pack the power-pop-punk wallop the group's earned their spurs refining but that's just scratching the surface. Paternoster shows some more Carrie Brownstein influence, this time from Wild Flag in extended classic rock-inspired outings like "Doom 84" and "Leave It All Up To Me" that would have sounded right at home next to "Glass Tambourine" or "Racehorse". There's even a (GASP!) acoustic entry here, "It's Nice" which lives up to its name...
On this, her fifth album in six years, Marissa Paternoster may have been aiming for filthy punk, but it would seem that at this point her and her band's talent and hard-won experience have made it impossible to limit the outcome to something that constricting. Instead of playing ugly, she ended up somewhere between ass-kicking and entrancing.

4. Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE  Buy It!
This album topped a lot of lists and I can see why. It was a slow-grower for me but ended up near and dear to my heart. Here's an excerpt from my recap on Spectrum Culture:
Just like Jackie Robinson had to be not just a groundbreaking person but a great ballplayer, for Ocean to succeed required more than just confession – he needed to also deliver incredible music. Fortunately, channel ORANGE is a stunningly ambitious record, an instant classic and perhaps the first album to truly document 21st century America. Proudly displaying neo-soul and R&B influences like Erykah Badu, D’Angelo and Stevie Wonder, Ocean crafts gorgeous musical worlds, accented with his own chill-inducing falsetto. Sonically, channel ORANGE moves forward by looking backwards, sounding more like a record that a Def Jam artist would sample than release.
The world depicted in channel ORANGE is one full of deeply lonely people exhausting themselves and modern life’s distractions in a desperate search to find another human to help them ease their pain. Whether it’s the unfulfilled 1% in “Super Rich Kids,” the stripper in “Pyramids,” the roadie in “Monks,” or the junkies in “Crack Rock,” Ocean’s characters are prototypically American – restless, unfulfilled and endlessly seeking. The impossible nature of their search is reflected in the unrequited love songs that bookend the album. In “Thinkin’ Bout You,” the singer yearns desperately for a love that seems unattainable, only to get that person in “End/Golden Girl” and find himself still unhappy and wracked with doubt.
“Whoever you are. Wherever you are.. I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike.” Frank Ocean took that simple statement from his coming-out letter and created a musical document of stunning scope, sweetness and humanity around it.
3. Kendrick Lamar - good kid M.A.A.D city  Buy It!
Wow, was there anyone who wasn't almost physically blown away after listening to good kid for the first time? I sure as hell was, having downloaded it just before going to bed, I decided to sample a few tracks before sleeping. It should be no surprised that I ended up an hour short on sleep that night. In a genre known for autobiography, Lamar's record takes things to the next level, providing a searing, intensely personal and heartbreaking account of trying to grow up to some sort of sustainable adulthood in Compton. Even more impressive is that the thing sounds fucking amazing, soulful, menacing, tender, goofy and downright tearjerking, as necessary. Here's my excerpt about Lamar as artist of the year for PopMatters:
It’s a little ridiculous to call someone the “savior” of this or that form of music, knowing that there’ll just be a new one next year but it’s hard to avoid that phrase when reading about Kendrick Lamar. You can’t blame writers for getting excited about him though, after three highly-lauded independent releases and successful debuts from the rest of his Black Hippy crew. The Compton native further stoked excitement for his major label debut by spending much of the year with a stream of releases including “The Recipe”, “Westside, Right on Time”, and “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. During this time, he became an increasingly hot commodity, lending Dre some much needed credibility, collaborating with Lady Gaga and dropping hints about an album with J. Cole. Finally, in November, Lamar lived up to the hype with good kid m.A.A.d city, an album stunning in both its ambition and execution. The record debuted at #2 on Billboard and secured him a spot in pantheon of great Southern California rappers alongside Tupac, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. Success hasn’t seemed to have gone to his head, as can be witnessed by his response to a highly publicized Twitter diss from fellow rapper Shyne. While fellow Californians Game and Schoolboy Q lept to his defense, Lamar refused to engage, saying “it’s his opinion. One opinion can’t stop what the world thinks.” When you’ve had a year as good as his, it’s easy to let your music do the talking.

2. Kelly Hogan - I Like To Keep Myself In Pain  Buy It!
It was neck and neck for my top album of the year between this record and BBU and, quite honestly, I would easily flip the two on any given day. Kelly Hogan seemed to be everywhere this year and her resurgence was a joy for me both as a writer and music fan. From her charming Memorial Day concert at Navy Pier, to our lovely conversation at the Hideout Block Party to being the subject of my first review for PopMatters,  Here's an excerpt from that review:
What holds I Like to Keep Myself in Pain together is Hogan’s musical instinct. They allow her to shift effortlessly between different styles (folk, jazz, pop, country, etc.)  without seeming schizophrenic. Her willingness and ability to serve the song allows her to blend in seamlessly when singing behind others, but, solo, it becomes a defining asset. Whether it’s the classic country romantic paranoia of Robbie Fulks’ “Whenever You’re Out Of My Sight”, the upbeat pop of Jon Langford’s “Haunted” or understated classicism of the Handsome Family’s “The Green River Valley”, Hogan’s versatility and lack of ego allow her to own each song while also making each one seem totally unlike the others.

A Georgia native, Hogan came to Chicago in the late ‘90s, to allegedly quit music, but instead ended up working as a publicist for Bloodshot Records and tending bar at the hipster-dive mecca the Hideout. There she met and collaborated with another non-Chicagoan, Andrew Bird, who contributed (along with co-writer Jack Pendarvis) “We Can’t Have Nice Things”, a song whose ethos perhaps best exemplifies the record’s strengths. Coasting in on an airy Booker T. intro and carried by a Gabriel Roth bassline, it’s a lilting, upbeat number about coming to grips with the disappointments of life. When Kelly Hogan sings of her meager accomplishments and possessions, “still, I’d rather have these things than nothing”, the sentiment carries genuine comfort.

Other standout songs include M. Ward’s Frank and Nancy Sinatra travelogue “Daddy’s Little Girl”. Although she claims not to be a Sinatra fan, Hogan delivers classic one-liners (“New York you were my endless song / Berlin you were my bombshell blonde”, etc.) in a breathy hush that would have made Old Blue Eyes take notice. “Plant White Roses” by Stephin Merritt comes closest emotionally to her familiar country ballad territory, which is fitting, given her weepy cover of the Magnetic Fields’ “Papa Was A Rodeo” on her 2000 album Beneath the Country Underdog.  The record’s first contribution was a song from the late Vic Chesnutt, “The Ways Of This World”. With its dark-hued nostalgia about life and lost innocence, it made a large impact on Hogan, who has said she remembers listening to the original demo and thinking, “How did he know my entire life?”

For a woman who tried quitting music and instead ended up clinging to the background for years, it seems only fitting that the record’s true standout song is the one she penned. “Golden” was nominally written for Neko Case but, as Hogan has said at recent live shows, it is also a more general “you go, y’all!” song (and God bless her heartfelt, Southern embrace of a gender-neutral, second-person pronoun, might I add).  “So go on, show ‘em what you’re made of” she sings, “someday you and all you put your hand to will turn golden”. Just then, as a laid-back yet passionate guitar solo appears before giving way to an equally adroit Booker T. organ interlude, it’s hard not to apply the sentiment to the singer herself. After a career spent paying her dues, it’s exhilarating to see Kelly Hogan step so effortlessly into a spotlight of her own.
1. BBU - bell hooks  Download It!
Like Kelly Hogan, my connection to BBU has been both musical and professional. Since downloading bell hooks I've not stopped playing the music and I have not stopped writing about them. Since it looks like this is the last full-group record we'll be getting, it's at least nice to see them go out on top, although it would have been better to see them getting the recognition they deserve. Of course knowing their restless spirit, we can bet that this isn't the last we've heard from these guys, theirs isn't a spirit that rests on its laurels. Hopefully next year's album list will have some solo BBU shit, in the meantime here's an excerpt from my original review:
bell hooks is an album bursting at the seams with great ideas, executed expertly. Every song seems built around a unshakably catchy chorus and an equally massive beat, whether it's double-time workouts like "Outlaw Culture" and "The Wrong Songs" or more laid-back fare such as their big guest tracks, "The Hood" with GLC and "Please, No Pictures" with Das Racist. "Kurt De La Rocha" not only pays homage to Nirvana and Rage, but shows that they can steal a great hook as well as any hitmaker, but need only use it sparingly to be effective. Hell, even the skits are funny enough to have replay value (and they toss off a few amazing "commercial" song parodies in the Mr. Goodbar sketches).

Every proper song contains at least two and generally all three of three of the following things - 1) angry indicts of commercial hip-hop 2) angry, politically-charged indicts of modern America 3) a hook massive enough to carry the song for people who don't care about #s 1 and 2. This is a group that gives away its music and names its releases after a radical scholar of racism and feminism so perhaps it shouldn't surprise me that they put this much work and quality into a mere mixtape, but it does. This is a blue collar record in terms of its workmanship, lack of bullshit and relatability but it also has a sophistication and grandeur of a big city - in other words, this is a Chicago record, through and through...
The problem that BBU set out to fix can be summed up with a line from “The Hood” - "too many conscious rappers can't face facts / the drug dealers happen make better rap”. After a full album of in-your-face tracks determined to prove that statement wrong, they put their case on ice by bringing in local DJ Gods, The Hood Internet and hip-hop’s current critical kings, Das Racist. Over a boom-bap beat, some chill synths and chirpy vocal hook (that is thankfully not overplayed) they rip Miley Cyrus and Wocka Flocka Flame right next to Andrew Breitbart (it’s all the same enemy) and easily hold their own with Das Racist.

At the end of the day I’m just another leftist bearded white music nerd preaching about the next “revolutionary hip-hop” act. If BBU were doing their thing and couldn’t rope me in, they’d be having a rough time indeed. The trick for them will be to see if they can overcome either the “white guy-approved conscious rap” or “local internet hit” ghettos and catch on with a large audience. That mythical “large audience” is harder and harder to come by these days but theirs is a commentary that people of all colors and views could stand to hear and lord knows pop music is one of the few places left we can still at least occasionally talk across the lines of class and race. If such an attempt were to succeed, this would be the kind of album that would be able to make that happen.

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