Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Top 40 of 2012 Part I

2012 has been a strange, but really enjoyable year for music. The year was crammed with amazing and plentiful live performances by both young and hungry bands and some of the greatest performances I’ve seen yet from some of my old favorite, grizzled vets, which had me seeing more live music this year than I have since I was still young and energetic – like a real long time ago. I also found myself at a crisis point with music about halfway through 2012 – in danger of oversaturation and burnout (as confusingly described in the post found here). My collector and obsessive personality gets me into this predicament every once in a while, when I find myself in a panic over my inability to be aware of and own all of the world’s music that I know that I would love. It’s crazy, I know, but I do get over these brief breakdowns. So, here is my usual unrequested list of my supposedly most listened to releases of 2012. Meanwhile, as I write this introduction and attempt to format these posts, I listen to new to me albums by UK band Spotlight Kid, NW band Seapony, the Fresh and Onlys, DIIV, and have just learned that I missed out and need to track down the solo debut from ex-Gene vocalist Martin Rossiter and a very surprising and welcome reissue of material by Arizona’s masterful and completely overlooked Half String. It all makes me wonder where these albums might have placed in this list if only I had encountered them sooner. Oh well. I’ll be happy to discover them as I did these. That’s the power of music – it just keeps finding new ways to keep me engaged. Now, if only I can manage to dig up some of the energy and drive I had to begin last year.

Happy New Year to you all!


Joystick EP

In 2010, Nushu, a two-piece made up of southern California power pop veterans Lisa Mychols and Hillary Burton, released a catchier than can be album titled Hula. These two play nearly every note on the album by switching off on drums, lead guitars, etc., and if you enjoy fun, endlessly addictive, sunshine pop that harks back to the beginnings of the Go-Gos and the Bangles, you’ll dig it. This year they’ve released an EP of five cover songs, which shows off some of their influences, while still making these songs their own. A couple of these songs I was not particularly well acquainted with, like the Knack’s “Good Girls Don’t” (I only know the Knack like most people do – from “My Sharona”), which makes for a great gender bending song when fronted by a couple of women. The other song is by Phil Seymour titled “Precious to Me,” which reminds of an early 60s girl group hit. The other covers include the wonderful “Happy Hour” originally by the Housemartins, a straightforward version of the Cars’ oldie “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and finally a drastically different “They Don’t Know,” by Kirsty MacColl, but made famous by Tracy Ullman – a song which for some reason was on my mental playlist for a few months before I picked up this release. The piano intro/outro is a nice touch on this song. This makes me smile!

Nushu-Precious to Me


The Primitives
Echoes and Rhymes

Well, the Primitives surprised and shocked by returning out of the blue with a 7” EP with four brand new exciting songs (my #30 pick of 2011 seen here)! However, their first album back is one made up of all cover versions of female fronted obscure 60s songs. This was not what I was expecting or hoping for, but it is a pleasant treat none-the-less. Firstly, because these songs have now opened up a whole new world of music to investigate with the originals, but secondly, the Primitives still sound refreshed and inspired. I still miss the adrenaline buzz rush of their earliest material, but that’s a lot to expect by this point. It’s clear where this band originally built their foundation, because all of these songs (except for the spooky organ fueled “The Witch” – a teaser from Halloween 2011) clock in at under 3 minutes and have the melodic classic pop style that got us all excited about the Primitives in the first place. Tracy Tracy sounds just as unaffected as she always has, while Paul Court’s guitars show a much fuller range of styles than ever before. This is definitely a welcome return. Maybe next time we’ll get some originals?

The Primitives-Turn Off the Moon

Whipping Boy
“No One Takes Prisoners Anymore”
(Rocket Girl-download only)

I say this lot it seems, but wow, I never saw this coming. Whipping Boy released three albums in the 90s: the decent and promising debut Submarine (1992), the epic masterpiece (1995’s Heartworm – my ’96 #1 pick), and the posthumous unfinished, empty finale (2000, self-titled). So, it’s been 12 years since new material has been heard and now we’re presented with two download songs and no idea if they are back or if this is something of a one off. At any rate, if they can achieve anything near the heights of Heartworm, they will have me eternally singing their praises. “No One Takes Prisoners Anymore” is certainly a promising sign, as singer Fearghal McKee poetically confronts his strongest topic, which is brutal honesty regarding rocky relationships atop of huge sounding guitars and tasteful strings. Check. It’s all here, though a little rough around the edges – like their posthumous self-titled last album. The wordy verses blend nicely into the chorus (“It’s just another crazy love affair / she gets on your nerves / you get in her hair / one more emotional bomb scare”) and somehow it’s catchy. This is a great comeback, although this would be a good b-side for their Heartworm singles, but not worthy of that album. The strange acoustic b-side of this single is another story. It is really one of McKee’s mildly discomforting stories inside a building dramatic musical framework that intrigues but does not beg for repeated listens. It will be interesting to see if they are indeed back and if they will inspire like they once did.

Whipping Boy-No One Takes Prisoners


Best Coast
The Only Place
“The Only Place” 7”
(Mexican Summer)

I was a late comer to the world of Best Coast. Their 2010 debut didn’t land into my world until it had been out for a full year. Luckily, it hit me during the summer months, which is where it belongs. Crazy for You, is a lo-fi gem that is crammed with catchy 2 to 3 minute bursts of fun that invoke a timeless feel of early 60s surf and California sun numbers that we all have grown up with – all tinged with a sense of loneliness and longing that only being young and having nothing to do on a summer afternoon can bring. Each and every time I’ve listened to that debut, I’ve wondered what Beth Cosentino’s songs and her voice would sound like with more modern sounding production. Well, on her and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno’s second long-player we get the answer. The famous producer Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Keane, Spoon, Kanye West) jumps aboard and turns Cosentino’s reverb drenched songs into crystal clear shiny nuggets. Unfortunately, I’m not so sure this is the best sound for her songs. The charm has worn off a little bit with the new sheen, leaving these tracks a little dry. Luckily, the songs, though not a lot a different from their debut, win out. There are enough memorable moments to warrant repeated listens with songs like the California postcard “The Only Place,” “How They Want me to Be,” the classic sounding “Do You Love Me Like You Used To,” the redone closer “Up All Night,” and the most upbeat number that invokes the first LP “Let’s Go Home.” There’s not much progression here, despite the drastic shift in recording style, so it will be interesting where they decide to go next.

The pre-LP single and title track was released in the 45 rpm format and is especially worthy of attention. The A-side, of course, is a catchy little summery ditty that deserves repeated plays, but the B-side, is the real draw here. Beth Cosentino covers Fleetwood Mac’s “Storms,” turning Stevie Nicks’ day dreamy ballad into a much more urgent plea with a firmly strummed guitar and her plain every woman vocals up front. This is a huge highlight and hopefully a sign of bigger things to come.

Best Coast-Do You Love Me Like You Used To?


The School
Reading Too Much into Things Like Everything
“Never Thought I’d See the Day” 7” EP

The School has unveiled their sophomore LP, after 2010’s lovingly retro Loveless Unbeliever. Not much has changed here, as they mine the simple pop styles of the early 60s girl groups. This octet, believe it or not, actually make a very sparse straight forward collection of catchy nuggets. The orchestral accoutrements throughout are so subtle that one feels that they may be a little shy about all they could be doing, but there is no doubt that their ability to bust out a trumpet solo atop of strings and various percussives is their secret weapon. Lyrically, bandleader Liz Hunt, keeps things just as simple by writing exclusively about crushes and break-ups in the most na├»ve way one could ever imagine (too much so as in the case of a repetitive song like “That Boy is Mine”). It all somehow works though. The songs are catchy and sometimes quite twee, but the songs rarely hang around for more than 2 to 3 minutes and leave a nice glow of innocence and wonder in their wake. My favorite moments are from the string heavy Camera Obscura-esque “It’s Not the Same,” and the “rocker” of the bunch in the two minute handclapping beauty “Why Did You have to Break My Heart Again.” The School does a great job of making one feel good and that’s worth the price of admission if you ask me.

The pre-LP 7” contains two highlights from the album in the organ laden “Never Thought I’d See the Day,” and the Shangri-La’s styled flute infused “Where Does Your Heart Belong?” The single also includes two cover versions. There’s Jonathan Richman’s “When He Kisses Me” (the gender is changed here) and the song actually sounds like it was written for the School with its wistful excitement of fresh love. The other track is a cover of the Swedish song “I Wouldn’t Know What to Do” originally by the Honeydrips. This one is an acoustic strummer and again, it’s an incredible fit for what the School is all about. Very nice EP and a great introduction to the band.

The School-Never Thought I'd See the Day


Ringo Deathstarr
“Shadow” 10”
(Club AC30/Sonic Unyon)

I’ve been following Austin, TX band Ringo Deathstarr for a couple of years now and am excited by their early prolific nature. Mauve is their second full length (Colour Trip was my #19 pick of 2011 here), and much like their debut, they present these 13 songs in a ramshackle manner. One never knows what will come next: a fast tempo nearly punk rock burner (“Burn” and “Drain”), a dreamy epic reminiscent of Slowdive (“Brightest Star,” especially), or a mid-tempo flippant Jesus and Mary Chain fuck off type song (“Do You Wanna?”). It makes things off-kilter and fun, as does the sea-sick off-balance feel of their sound, an aspect of the incredibly influential My Bloody Valentine that is rarely drawn from. They are still quite derivative of their influences, but they capture enough of their own input, mix a variety of things together unexpectedly, and infuse it with fresh energy enough that it feels new. This second album, though pretty solid from start to finish, does not have any songs that reach the heights of first LP songs like “Kaleidoscope” or “So High.”

The four track 10” EP they released earlier in the year deserves some attention as these are all non-LP songs. The opening “Shadow” has a more spacious sound than they normally present, with Alex Gehring providing her dreamy floating voice as a compliment to the spiraling guitar layers, while Elliott Frazier shouts along over a dancey shuffle beat. The middle two songs are different types of experiments with noise – one a short burst, the other an extended dream sequence. The set closes with an appropriately creepy early 60s style (and then covered in feedback) slow dance of Angelo Badalamenti’s “Just You” from David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” This is a definite highlight and one to seek this out for.

Ringo Deathstarr-Rip


Mark Eitzel
Don’t Be a Stranger

I’m certain it is obvious that I am not a professional music writer. I do not have ready access to the bio sheets of bands and the latest promo material. In fact, for the most part, that stuff is only of a vague passing interest to me. I am a fan of music and write about how I feel about my favorite records here and there. That’s it. I have heard that Mark Eitzel, of whom I’ve been a fan since his remarkable and breathtaking live solo acoustic album Songs of Love Live from 1991, had a heart attack within the last year or two. I am not sure how this impacts this album – his first wide release since the last mach II American Music Club album (The Golden Age 2008), but I am certain that this is the first time I’ve felt re-engaged with his stuff since his lo-fi Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out ‘Cause I Love You Too Much Baby solo album from 1998. This new album is quiet and mildly jazz inflected like his first post AMC solo outing 60 Watt Silver Lining. And much like that one, I enjoyed it, but missed his open wound voice soaring above each sad sack song. Having said that though, what is not gone is his fantastic lyrics and self-deprecating humor, which is found in spades on my favorite songs here. “Oh Mercy” is somehow both lonely and sad and funny and uplifting as he describes his excitement at the possibility to being invited to a party and he talks of his penchant for stories and dirty jokes and how he will bring imported beer and “clean up the mess.” “Why Are You With Me” is a song that simply lists a huge bunch of things that he does or how he is (“I’m the sad clown that sings”) most of which are followed by a chorus of people asking “Why are you with me?” The waltz that is “Break the Champagne” finds him saying his “boo-hoo voice just annoys.” It is all desperate and sad but it is all so relatable. Eitzel can capture those deepest feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt so accurately and powerfully that it’s difficult to ignore. His lyrics also offer up amazing vignettes into life and all of its underdog characters, especially in the opening empty destitute nightclub scenes of “I Love You But You’re Dead.” There is a resolve in Eitzel’s lyrics here that is comforting, especially with the sparse accompaniment, and maybe that is where the recent health scare has changed his approach. At any rate, it is nice to feel re-connected with his music again.

Mark Eitzel-I Love You But You're Dead


(Test Pattern)

This second album from Sacramento’s Desario continues their run of consistency, whether it’s as this band or the member’s previous work with Rocketship, Holiday Flyer, or California Oranges. John Conley’s friendly voice is always welcome with whomever he finds himself working with. Their debut Zero Point Zero in 2009 was my #17 pick for the year (check out that album’s amazing closer “Sequoia Gee”) and it was a bit of a surprise in that these guys went for a more straight ahead indie rock sound with extended forays into some seriously detailed arrangements and lattice work guitar layers. The trend continues here on their second and it is even stronger and more consistent with an elevated level of intensity. The first three songs delight as they may be the strongest tracks here. “Cement Sneakers” cruises along and seems somewhat nondescript, until you realize that it has built itself into a nice frenzied climax. The tempo increases nicely with “Call Out Your Rivals” whose guitar jangle is detailed and energizing. The album continues to impress as they always manage to find a nice groove throughout, which is my only complaint with this album is that some of the tracks feel a little too long – as if they lose themselves in the groove too much with extended intros and finales. I think some of these songs would stick a little easier if they were a little more concise. However, this is a nice record and I hope they continue the quality work.

Desario-Victoria Island


A Place to Bury Strangers
Onwards to the Wall EP
(Deep Oceans)

There will always be a soft spot in my heart for the type of music that A Place to Bury Strangers creates. Their influences are so completely obvious, but not only are they similar influences to what I cut my teeth on as my mind expanded and grew towards music outside of the top 40; they are also pretty damn good at it. The most obvious influence is that of the Jesus and Mary Chain – the one of Barbed Wire Kisses style feedback drenched noise and monotone buried vocals. Over their first two albums they have perfected the cold cold metallic drone base of their songs, which are then lit afire with screaming squalls of burning feedback. Of course, they are at their best when they employ this technique and still manage to find a sharp melody to carry the blasting noise through to the end. Worship isn’t really any different. They are still the masters of this sound, but it’s on the songs where they employ their feedback driven walls of sound to use on something hummable and memorable (aside from remembering how loud they can be). “Worship” is a fine example of this, as they slow their jackhammers beats down and warm us with a stellar feedback melody to carry the song. Likewise, “Dissolved” opens like a haunting floating in the ether song that Slowdive won us all over with on their debut, but with Oliver Ackermann sounding a lot like Peter Hook with his flat monochromatic voice, before it transitions into a clean noted bouncy, almost surf tune on the second half. This is a huge step forward and hopefully a sign of things to come.

The Onwards to the Wall EP that preceded the release of the album is also more of their excellent brand of noise clash. This is definitely worth tracking down, if they’ve already won you over, and even a short version introduction to who and what these guys are all about. The opening “I Lost You” makes for a great single for the band, because it is catchy and loud and dissonant. While the title track again shows signs of progress, as this song is propelled by a fantastic New Order bass line and turns out to be a duet with Alanna Nualla which is a welcome change.

A Place To Bury Strangers-You Are the One



I honestly do not know how to articulate my thoughts about this record. So far Synthetica has been the one Metric album that has not captured me fully yet, but I’m not sure why. When I first ran across Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? in 2003, I was captivated and motivated to listen to it over and over, even though it took me a long time to warm up to its rigid 80s influenced music and Emily Haines’ vocals. However, once I did figure out what I felt about it, it was magical. Similarly, 2005’s Live It Out took me months to warm up to (it made 2006’s best of list at #6 - seen here, because it took so long for me to get), but is probably my favorite of all of their albums now. Meanwhile, their fourth album, 2009’s Fantasies, was an immediate favorite (#4 pick for that year seen here), but has not had the same shelf life for me. So, now, we have their fifth album, one which has a huge sound and commercial expectations, much like Fantasies did, and it sounds really good. For some reason, however, it has not yet been accessible to me. I like the epic atmospheric opener “Artificial Nocturne,” and “Youth Without Youth” makes for a catchy radio single, and “Speed the Collapse” is this album’s “Sick Muse” (though not nearly as addictive). Then I lose it for a while. None of the songs in the middle of the album have wormed their way into my consciousness yet. This does end strong though with the oddly warm sounding “Clone” (could be a Stars outtake), a solid closer with “Nothing but Time,” and the highlight and surprise duet with Lou Reed on “The Wanderlust.” What makes this so difficult is that with my history with this band could find me naming this my favorite album of 2013 or 14, because I never know when they will win me over. Overall, this is a pretty good record, but as of now, it is not their best work, in my opinion.

Metric-Youth Without Youth

You can find the remainder of the list at the following links:

1 comment:

  1. There is nothing"usual" or "unrequested" about the annual lineups you produce. In fact, I barely have the patience to read what passes for music journalism. I await your summary of the year's greatest like I waited for Santa as a small child. I am not alone. Hope we can work together in 2013. If not, at least play a few rounds and listen to the awesomeness you unearth from the chaos of the modern music industry.
    Happy New Year!