Monday, December 31, 2012

Totally Unauthorized: 2012 Album of the Year Awards

After such a mind blowing year for music, the only appropriate action to is to try to make sense of it all. After a pretty meh musical year in 2011, the past year has provided so many outstanding releases that it's hard to know what to do with them all. Many of those albums were released by artists that rank as personal favorites, and many artists have been added to that roster.

2012 will be remembered as the year of Frank Ocean. The Odd Future hookmaster released a statement confirming his homosexuality before dropping Channel Orange, one of the most highly esteemed albums of the year. Whether you see Ocean's statement as a heartfelt message of encouragement to the LGBT community, a ploy to boost hype for his album, or somewhere in between, one thing cannot be denied: Channel Orange is one of the year's most highly acclaimed albums. It has been sweeping album of the year awards from various publications and may well score top honors from the Grammys in February. Ocean is unquestionably one of  2012's top winners.

2012 will be remembers as a year of loss. 92-year-old Sitar legend Ravi Shankar died on December 11. He had not only become the pride of India's music scene but had emerged as an icon the world over. Audiences were endeared by his dizzying play on the sitar, an instrument many had never heard of before Shankar's emergence. Jazz piano impresario Dave Brubeck died on December 5 at the age of 91. Brubeck established himself as one of jazz's top bandleaders during the bebop era of the 50s and 60s, delighting the public with shuffling tunes such as "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk." Also tragic was the death of Natina Reed from 90s R&B pop stars Blaque, who was hit by a car in October. Reed was 32.

2012 will also be remembered as a year of comebacks. British rave legends Orbital released Wonky, their first album since 2004, released to warm critical applause. Less noticed was the return of country/western/rockabilly artist Dwight Yoakam, whose 3 Pears was a ravishing return to the fore after a seven year break.

But most of all, 2012 will be remembered as the year of Pussy Riot, the courageous Russian female punk band who was jailed in March for speaking their convictions about Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Their case involved the music world but also transcended it, raising questions about freedom of expression and what rights we are entitled as pleas for the band members' release grew to a fever pitch.

And yes, lest we forget, there was a ton of great music worth detailing. Here is Totally Unauthorized's Top 12 albums of 2012, preceded as always by a few miscellaneous categories.

(Top songs of the year and live acts of the year have been moved to their own separate posts, found here and here).

Comeback Album of 2012
Jimmy Cliff - Rebirth

2012 marked itself as a year of heavy commercialization of the genre. Reggae stalwarts Rebelution's Peace of Mind was an uplifting but decidedly pop-based reggae record, while Matisyahu descended further into a dancefloor techno funk. Heck, even Snoop Dogg went reggae. But full marks go to reggae's elder statesman, Jimmy Cliff, who succeeded in giving us a record that rings true.  It had only been eight years since his previous album, but seems like it's been much longer than that since the authentic sound of Jamaica crackled through our national consciousness the way Rebirth has.

Best Bandcamp Album  
Koi. - Malestrom

Bandcamp is one our most overlooked and underrated resources for unearthing new music, even though there is a surprising amount of great material hidden there. Koi. has produced an album full of pulsing electronic music that is exuberant, cheerful, and evokes images of a warm summer day. There really isn't much else to say other than just listen to it.

Biggest Disappointment of 2012
Best Coast - The Only Place

Best Coast's debut Crazy For You took a great concept and executed it in a great way. The sunny, lo-fi presentation had been done before, but Bethany Cosentio's sense of personality manifested the style in a way it had never been done before. The Only Place, by comparison, is over produced, oversanitized, and in the process reveals something about Bethany that the murkiness of the debut helped cover up - the girl can't write. If nothing else, it could have been a fun, feel good pop record, but Cosentio's constant whining and emo lyrics ruin even that. Her career seems to be in a tailspin, and a tour with pop punk retreads Green Day doesn't seem to be the elixir needed to lift Best Coast out of their funk.

Totally Unauthorized's Most Viewed Post of 2012
Goatwhore - Blood for the Master

Seriously, what were people searching for? Originally posted to this site in March, this review of the blackened death metal outfit's fifth album Blood for the Master was more effective in generating traffic for the site than any other piece posted this year. This was a nice album which is worth revisiting from time to time, but ended up falling off my radar screen due to the lack of innovation. That didn't seem to bother the denizens of the Internet, who gorged on Goatwhore and kept coming back for more. I am not sure what to think about this.

Most Overrated Album
Japandroids - Celebration Rock

Credit them one thing -- the writing on this disc is excellent. Celebration Rock brilliantly sums up that beer spilling, out of control period of youth where you're crazed to live it all up while you still have the chance. It reminds us well that sooner or later the clock's striking midnight and these opportunities will be lost forever. What hippy cliques like Pitchfork failed to grasp, however, was the fact that the band itself leaves much to be desired. A layer of fuzz tries, but fails to cover up the fact that the singer can't sing, and he can't shout loud enough to distract us from the damning lack of imagination in the music composition itself. The result is like Longfellow writing on a napkin: a poetic message delivered in a format not built to last the test of time.

Best New Artist
Purity Ring

This came down to Frank Ocean and Purity Ring. Unlike Purity Ring, Ocean already had a full length release in Nostalgia Ultra. He also recently announced he may not release a followup to channel ORANGE. So Purity Ring represents the best hope for the future. This Canadian synth pop duo fascinates with their deep, low frequency electronic backing tracks, while the angelic voice of Megan James provides a nice counterbalance. With lyrics that are sometimes grotesque, sometimes abstract, their debut album Shrines has often been compared to taking a trip through a warped enchanted forest, or journeying through a twisted gingerbread house.

12. Katatonia - Dead End Kings

Anyone surprised by Katatonia's mellow direction on Dead End Kings hasn't been paying attention the band's recent trajectory. Since establishing themselves as one of Sweden's top doom inspired metal acts, Katatonia have progressively gotten softer and more atmospheric on each passing record. Dead End Kings now presents a band with a sizable cadre of tricks. Their method resembles a thoughtful craftsman reaching into his toolkit, always retrieving the right utensil for the job. When needed, they can pull out mesmerizing female backing vocals to complement their dreary effect; they can pull off flawless piano ballads, craft tracks that capture an atmospheric beauty of a driving rainstorm. And yes, they can even pull out the metal when needed. "Buildings" contains one of the band's sickest riffs ever, on what is supposedly Katatonia's "mellow" album. They haven't gone soft, they've just learned to play to their strengths. As Dead End Kings proves, they have plenty of them. 

11. The Tallest Man on Earth - There's No Leaving Now

The release of Kristian Matsson's third full length gave the Swedish singer/songwriter some new toys to play with. Specifically known for conjuring a trail blazing folk ethos with nothing more than his guitar and scratchy voice, on There's No Leaving Now Matsson begins to diversify instrumentally with light flourishes of electric guitar, woodwinds, and forays into multitracking. Yet the core values remain the same. The addition of new dynamics never diverts attention away from Kristian or his accomplishments with pen and guitar. He retreats from the white hot urgency presented on his previous works, which causes the album to lack some of the impact that The Wild Hunt and Shallow Grave had. Still, it's hard to shrug off the quiet introspection of "Revelation Blues," the high spirited frontier journey of "1904," or the ravishing success of Matsson's piano ballad on the album's title track. 

10. Cloud Nothings - Attack on Memory

Dylan Baldi got started with a proclivity toward making bedroom punk, but his ambitions have led to much more. Kicking around in the suburbs outside Cleveland, Baldi crafted roughly an album and a half worth of pop punk that was sunny and bright although miserably produced. That changed after teaming up with famed producer Steve Albini. The sound presented here represents a cold and icy nature, most notably so on the album's centerpiece, "Wasted Days." It advocates a bleak, suffocating outlook while awing the listener with its cacophonous post punk instrumental section. But the band also demonstrates proficiency in bouncy pop punk, slow droning anthems, and technical offbeat drum rhythms. The songwriting on the album's second half doesn't feel as fleshed out as some of the early cuts, but not a single track on Attack on Memory misses the mark.

9. Tame Impala - Lonerism

Lonerism is unquestionably one of 2012's most colorful releases. Frontman Kevin Parker has crafted a vibrant album full of wonder, and totally smattered it with seventies psychedelic synths. Lonerism favors keyboards to guitars, in contrast to their previous album, Innerspeaker.  Bu they go much farther than simply pulling from the classic age of rock; they make it seem as though these sounds were invented yesterday. "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" owes a debt to the era of Motown soul, while demonstrating the strength of Parker's songwriting chops. It should speak powerfully to anyone who's ever been stuck in a rut, no matter the situation. If that doesn't convince you, look no farther than mind expanding keyboard work on "Enders Toi," a track title that roughly translated, urges you to let yourself be hypnotized. If Lonerism doesn't do it, there's not much chance anything will.

8. Iamamiwhoami - Kin

Kin, the first full length album from Iamamiwhoami, certainly represents a move to the center for the experimental electronic duo. Jonna Lee, known in Sweden for her mainstream pop albums, along with Claes Bj√∂rklund, crafted god tier production work and an alien like vibe on a slew of singles released in 2010 and 2011. Kin is clearly much less bizarre, but still captures the key elements that made the project great. There is a focus on crafting pop based electronic songs that are much less experimental than what we've heard from her in the past. But Kin covers a lot of ground. "Play" is a seductively sexy love ballad fit for Silent Hill, while "In Due Order" showcases Lee's industrial edged rancor. "Kill" showcases some implacable backbeats,  "Goods" is the penultimate futuristic dance tune,  and "Good Worker" even offers social commentary on the role of woman. Yet the ultimate essence of Kin can be found in those beats -- those sublimely captivating, hypnotizing and otherworldly beats. 

7. Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE

Frank Ocean could have taken it easy on channel ORANGE. He's a young man with plenty of time to forge his legacy, and Tyler had a monopoly on all the Odd Future headlines at the time, so what's the rush? Fortuantely Frank decided not to do that, and we're all better off for it. His debut solo album is true tour de force, brimming with some of the year's most memorable songwriting. "Thinkin' About You" gives him the chance to wow us with the raw power of his voice, while "Super Rich Kids" weaves a stunning portrait of upper class urban decadence. "Sweet Life," an ambiguously cynical look at beach house extravagance, is built around a slick Neptunes beat while Frank sets our mind's eye racing with his peaches and mango imagery. And there is the two for the price of one "Pyramids," which is essentially a techno soul song that gives way to progressive R&B, two styles of music no one even knew existed before Frank. channel ORANGE loses a few points for being slightly bloated; it could have benefited from a little editing, but Frank's creative process is up there with almost anyone right now.

6. Grizzly Bear - Shields

Indie folk heroes Grizzly Bear reached new heights in their career with 2009's Vecktamiest, but if there was one caveat it was that the album was a bit too pristine. Any band with a name like Grizzly Bear had rightfully ought to try to present some ruggedness into their sound. Shields is characterized by magnificent sing alongs, wonderful harmonies, hypnotic guitar playing, splashes of psychedelia, and the much welcomed emergence of Christopher Bear as a thunderous and dynamic drummer. Daniel Rossen's "Sleeping Ute" sounds like a romp though an abandoned forest, while "gun-shy" showcases the year's most spellbinding harmony arrangements  The band even shows they can play outside their normal formula on the ambitious and experimental closer "Sun In Your Eyes." The only main downfall is the minimized role of the dynamic Ed Droste; had he been more prominent, Shields could have ranked even higher.

5. El-P - Cancer 4 Cure

With Cancer for Cure, Brooklyn rapper El-P has crafted the prototypical young man's angry rap album. Every moment is soaked in intense vitriol and aggression. His rapping is smooth, free flowing, and always hits hard. Even the beats sound like they want to start a knife fight with you. He never skirts confrontation; in fact, he goes to great lengths to make it a central theme of the record. On "Tougher Colder Killer," he declares," To the mother of my enemy, I've just killed your son/ He died with his face to the sky and it cannot be undone." Later on the album, he plays the role of interrogator, declaring that he will do whatever necessary to extract information from you. So what's his problem, exactly? He's just doing a great job getting the listener pumped up and energized. Like the musical equivalent of Red Bull, Cancer For Cure finds itself doing what metal once did: affirming the masculinity of its audience, and whipping them into a frenzy.

4. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Alleljuah! Don't Bend! Ascend!

Anyone's who's invested considerable time into this record can attest to the fact that it will ring through our collective consciousness for some time. As a fully instrumental tale told over the course of four distinct movements, Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! is no ordinary piece of music. The heart of the album is built around two tracks -- "Mladic" and "We Drift Like Worried Fire" -- that clock in at 20 minutes apiece. Over their duration they run the gamut of almost every conceivable emotion, from fist pumping exuberance to dewy eyed catharsis. They are different from one another as they can possibly be while still sounding like part of a collective whole. But there is also a strong element of apocalyptic doom, reinforced by a pair of eerie and unsettling drone tracks. Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! is so effective in establishing the sound of the endtimes that when the crescendos come crashing down, it isn't unreasonable to wonder if this is the last sound you will ever hear. 

3. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music

R.A.P. Music is hardly the first album to confront race relations. But while many of those albums take a confrontational, us vs. them approach, Killer Mike instead focuses on painting a compelling image of black America, summarized by the acronym he presents in the album's title - R.A.P, or rebellious African people. With his arms defiantly crossed on the album's cover, there is no secret what type of attitude is being espoused. The album's title track paints a moving portrait of the musical and cultural history of African Americans, while the bitter and biting "Reagan" illustrates effects of the drug war instigated against inner city inhabitants. Killer Mike is acerbic, caustic and full of venom, but it makes his social commentary all the more illuminating and unforgettable. From a musical perspective, R.A.P. Music succeeds because it boils rap down to its most core essentials. In a time where the genre is too often diluted by dubstep, dance music, or other elements, this is a much needed gesture.

2. Beach House - Bloom

If anyone out there is still asking the unfortunate question if we really need another album from this band, then take this as your cue to kindly shut the **** up. Guitarist Alex Scally noted during a Pitchfork interview his indignation at this assertion he claimed people were actually making. The Baltimore duo's fourth LP Bloom provides all the repudiation to that theory one could ever need, along with a whole lot more. What impresses so much about this band is how they have gotten deeper and more captivating with every album. The basic framework of each song is well constructed but simple pop music, it's what's behind it that makes this music special. Alex Scally is like the pied piper, mesmerizing listeners with his dreamy tremolo solo at the end of "Myth" or with his instantly memorable playing that can be found on any track of the album. Victoria Legrand does her part with her booming, majestic voice, while subtly coloring each composition with her deft keyboard work.

 1. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Where to begin with this album? The songwriting, the structure, the lyricism, the raw emotion and passion found here; it's all something that's wonderful and captivating and terrifying all at once. The full scope of each song on The Idler Wheel is so awesomely complex, yet at the same time is eminently presentable and accessible. In the most basic interpretation, it is a singer/songwriter album predicated heavily upon piano and possessing a very homespun texture. Yet there are idiosyncrasies that can exist only on an album like Idler Wheel. Fiona Apple is a very bizarre woman, prone to erratic and irreconcilable behavior. These attributes appear in full force on Idler Wheel, but the profession of music proves to be the perfect canvas for our star crossed starlet. 

Her writing takes on a free flowing, poetic nature, best evidenced on "Every Single Night" and "Daredevil," while "Left Alone" features an almost hip-hop style flow; Apple possesses a command of her delivery not unlike that of a slam poet. She does, however, excel at pop based song structure that is more conventional (at least by her standards). "Werewolf" cleverly uses metaphor to characterize her feelings toward a romantic interest she is not destined to have, while "Valentine" presents a strikingly detailed imagery: a dinner plate at a high end restaurant stained with teardrops. There are plenty of other examples, but what is important is that Idler Wheel rejects anything we've come to expect from modern music. Apple's constant bending and tinkering with the rules injects a new sense of vitality in music that has been sorely lacking, and one that is necessary to the sustained well being of the art form.


Cara Mico said...

Love the write up, you brought a lot of groups to my attention; I tend to find things once they've already been discarded. I like your eclectic list! Also I really don't get what the big deal is with Grizzly Bear? They're okay but nothing to write home about imo. I'll give them a second try though since you ranked Fiona Apple's latest highly, she is one of my very favorites. I haven't heard her latest though but will give it a listen :) I really don't get how the two could be on the same list but I'm most likely missing a deep truth about the universe lol.

Cara Mico said...

Okay, finally got around to listening to the Fiona Apple album, and you're right, it deserves that spot. Her third album kind of sucked balls but I remember reading that she was hamstrung by the studio etc. so to hear the return to what it was I liked so much about the second was great.