Most “Best Albums of 2012” lists would be more accurately referred to as “Carefully Treading the Line Between Superficial Hipster and Music Fan”. It’s no surprise that our love of music must be kept in check by other people’s opinions of its coolness or un-coolness. After all, music is based on social sharing. Sure, mainstream music’s popularity is usually manufactured, but that doesn’t mean a few mega-produced releases have more to offer than the latest lo-fi indie recording, even if we won’t publicly admit it.
The truth is there’s no such thing as the Best Albums of 2012. The closest you can get is Metacritic or a similar score aggregator, and even then you’ll see a reflection of our own social hang-ups when it comes to the music we love. How do you reconcile the fact that nearly all of the top-selling albums of 2012 don’t make these lists? Are the people buying the best-selling music of 2012 not actually music fans?
Most critiques of music critics center around our subjective response to music. Where does one get off saying this album is good and the other is bad when the qualitative assessment is always on an individual basis?
If the root of our response to music is physical, emotional, spiritual and social — and I believe it is (or I wouldn’t be writing a book about it) — then the albums we choose as our favorites of the year offer some insight into our modern human experience in each of those realms. If so, a casual glance at the recurring “Best of 2012” album lists would reveal we’re horny and heartbroken but too fucked up on drugs and consumerism to care, let alone move. Sounds like 21st century America in a nutshell!
What does my “Best of” list reveal about my physical, emotional, spiritual and social state? Well, my taste for loud music with a healthy dose of melody, rhythmic novelty and a wide dynamic range might suggest I’m in a state of carefully calculated angst. Or it might just mean I like heavy, catchy music. I’ll let you decide. But ask yourself this: “What do my favorite albums say about my internal state?” You might surprise yourself.
Koi No Yokan
As one of my all-time favorite bands, it’s a bit of a disappointment not to put the new Deftones album closer to the top of the list. At the same time, it’s pretty incredible this band is still expanding its audience… even if I have to roll my eyes when new Deftones fans tell me Koi No Yokan is their best album ever when they haven’t even heard Around the Fur.
Nonetheless, if this is the album creating the widest and deepest emotional connection with the audience anchored in this specific time in history, I’m happy to see the Deftones gain altitude on popularity mountain. “Swerve City” is a standout track and was a good move as a quick second single when the less driving “Leathers” flopped. Other standout tracks include “Gauze” and “Rosemary”. No band does heavy and sensual like Deftones, and they have basically owned the new metal genre in terms of pure artistry for over a decade.
This was a divise album for people who were too cool for school vs. real music fans. I think it’s probably the most “real” album on my list — and my that I don’t mean some sort of vague “authenticity” but rather that it reflected the world and the way I see it not just lyrically, but from a production and songwriting perspective as well. You won’t hear another album produced or performed quite like it. There’s this awesome musical effortlessness — almost laziness — that turns the lo-fi approach into something so evocative. Pitchfork inexplicably tore apart the album’s single, “Gimme a Beer” as “fatalistic ‘fuck it'” while praising Cloud Nothings for “a gracefully arcing chant that’s equally vengeful, self-loathing, and hopeful”. While I’d agree the Cloud Nothings were a little more eloquent, they’re more brooding and introspective too — Diamond Rugs touch a raw nerve on the same topic, namely, the emotional emptiness of modern life. Both bands are commenting on this same subject matter in different ways, and both perspectives offer a rich listening experience. I think both deserve our listening attention. Other catchy tracks of fear and loathing include “Blue Mountains”, “Country Mile” and “Totally Lonely”.
No Absolutes in Human Suffering
Note for note, no band quite matches the brutality of Gaza. I’ve always felt like this band exists at the vortex of all things heavy — sort of a hybrid or multi-headed hydra from the various subgenres of extreme metal, but without the technical wanking. They can go from blast-beat to sludge in a blink, and it usually makes musical sense rather than the tech-metal scene with their potpourri of riffage. It’s hard to pick a standout track because this is one of those kinds of albums that are getting rarer and rarer — it’s the kind of album that begs to be heard back-to-front. It’s not exactly because each track is a standout single because, let’s face it, this would give people nosebleeds if it was played on the radio. Rather, the album works a holistic experience. In that sense No Absolutes in Human Suffering has kind of an ambient emotional effect — I found myself “feeding off” the songs to drive an overarching mood of, say, dark matter destroying galaxies, rather than listening to their individual articulations. But if you listen close you’ll hear stunning use of dynamics and technicality while not letting up one bit on the pummeling, punishing sound of inevitability. “This We Celebrate” has so many dynamic ups and downs, so many parts, and yet it just sounds so cohesive and powerful. “Winter in Her Blood” can only be described as relentless, and the album-closer “Routine and then Death” is the bleakest panorama of death anthem of the year.
Future of the Left
The Plot Against Common Sense
This band has officially escaped the atmosphere. Caustic noise rock at its best, Future of the Left are super-snarky riff punks with a serious ear for melody. From the opening “Sheena is a T-Shirt Salesman” and throughout, a dizzying array of non sequiturs, social critiques and freak-out hysteria drive rocket this album passionately forward. And yet with all the craziness, the band often evokes a sort of trance-like groove with mechanical repetition of phrases. The music is deliberate, heavy-handed and unsubtle, the lyrics stick out like a sore thumb, and it all works itself into something new and exciting to hear. “Beneath the Waves an Ocean” is a sarcastic lyrical onslaught with an aggressive throb that demands “no way you’ll ever find peace with the name they gave you” while “Polymers are Forever” is wonderfully bizarre atonal flourishes and robotic dance moves. These anthems of doom and human stupidity have at least a conceptual cousin in Nomeansno, but they’re so much more strange and heavy. “Robocop 4 – Fuck off Robocop” is a brutal rhythm-bender that references Howard the Duck. However my favorite track hands down is “I am the Least of Your Problems”, which is also the album’s most straightforward in terms of songwriting. It’s just high-quality, timeless pop-punk at its most driving, sneering best: “I get the point of missing you / no one else will do it for me”.
Yellow & Green
No sooner did Baroness simultaneously release their career-defining third and fourth albums than they got into a horrible bus accident — so it was definitely a best of/worst of year for them. Let’s focus on the positive: the band’s Yellow & Green double album was exactly epic, anthemic antidote metal needed to get out of its mainstream funk. Unfortunately, the mainstream didn’t think that way. Even though Mastodon or High on Fire can put out the same album several times, apparently Baroness still must tread outside the limelight despite evolving to new heights of songwriting with each release. Some long-time fans felt alienated by this leaning toward song structure vs. jams and riffs. I chalk it up to the same limiting mentality that prevents Ride the Lightning fans from admitting The Black Album was a masterpiece of songwriting and production.
“Take My Bones Away” is the strong-as-hell opener, and from then on you can’t ignore the weight of the production or the precision of the performances. With its interludes and dynamic shifts, it’s easy to find yourself at the end wondering what just happened. Other killer tracks include “March to the Sea”, “Eula” and “Sea Lungs”. Sometimes it feels like every Baroness song is the perfect opening or closing track — there’s no middleweight songwriting here. Sure, the album has a lot of what one might consider “interludes” or even “filler” but then turn around and give Godspeed You Black Emperor! (who also released a great album this year) a 10.0. What Baroness is really doing here is bringing post-rock and post-punk to metal, and doing it quite gracefully.
I’ll admit I had the wrong idea about NOFX until War on Errorism grabbed me by the ears and forced me to listen. Their self-titled album is right up there with War for pop-punk catchiness while displaying a similar razor-sharp wit. The album pushes beyond the political to tackle heavy subjects (“She Didn’t Lose Her Baby”) while at the same time boasts that snarky but dead-on NOFX humor (“72 Virgins”) that one critic described as “culturally insensitive” (the understatement of the year). I could listen to Fat Mike’s takes on the downside of fame all day (“My Sycophant Others”, “Cell Out”), or, for that matter, his acknowledgment and mocker of the the new world order (“Secret Society”). And the band really outdoes themselves with the quintessential punk rock divorce song (“I’ve Got One Jealous Again, Again”). To me it’s their best album yet (outside of The Decline EP), but then again, if you’re a long-time fan you’re probably wondering (as I was earlier with the Deftones) what the hell I’m talking about. If you have a sense of humor and are outraged by the world, this is your band.
Ian MacKaye, what can I say? The man stands for everything that is right and good with the world, particularly the world of music. He’s an unassailable icon of revolutionary thought in America, yet simultaneously as humble and approachable they come. In this kind of post-Occupy Wall Street environment where youth are tragically accepting disenfranchisement as part of their permanent identity, we needed an album like this.
I would put The Odds right up there with anything Fugazi ever did in terms of general awesomeness. One of the most alluring aspects of this album is its noticeable stripped-downness. There are still loads of dynamics because the studio production captures a live sound that makes it sound like the mom-and-dad duo of MacKaye and Amy Farina are in your living room.
Since this album came out right at the end of 2012, I’m still processing it… like, everyday. I’ve got lots of stars next to A-side songs like “King of Kings”, “Wanted Criminals”,”Sooner or Later” and “Warble Factor” for their instant singalongability. You’ll find yourself “whoa-ing” even before you know the words. MacKaye continues to smolder over socio-economic injustice in catchy songs like “Competing with the Till”, which is all I’ll ever ask of him. It’s not the happy-go-lucky album some fans feared would result from a more “mature” MacKaye, as certain music critics romanticize The Evens as post-post-hardcore.
I think none of this would be possible without the counterpoint of Farina’s vulnerable yet angst-laden vocals and the chemistry she shares with MacKaye from songwriting to performance to child-rearing. Intimacy and post-hardcore generally don’t mix, but this duo has found a way to transcend that awkward combination with pure veteran musicianship.
Weirdly enough, this was the only “Best of 2012” album that slipped past me until I was checking out the Best of 2012 lists — and I listened to a crap-ton of albums off those lists. Something sees Brooklyn’s Chairlift break out of electro-pop stereotypes to triumph with incredible songwriting, inventive production and incredibly catchy melodies. The whole album teeters on the brink of 80s nostalgia but never jumps the shark, instead coming across as authentically future-seeking songcraft. “Sidewalk Safari” is one of the year’s best, most unique electro-pop singles, but I have to say “I Belong in Your Arms” is even better. While “Safari” is a bit, well, weird, “I Belong” is a total mainstream radio hit that you don’t need to feel the least built guilty for liking. “Take it Out on Me” is like the best Samantha Foxx she never wrote. The whole A-side of this album is gold, and the B-side endures with great tracks like the crystals-and-fog machine of “Amanaemonesia” and the tipsy swag of “Guilty as Charged” with the refrain “if I gave you what you’re asking for/you wouldn’t want it anymore”… but I can’t wait for the next album, and to see this band live in my home state of New York.
Attack on Memory
The best albums defy description. This one is pretty tough. Eight tracks clocking in at 33:47. Every second compelling. Cloud Nothings to me represent the modern-day Nirvana. Here’s Dylan Baldi, one dude in the basement just recording stuff to GarageBand and posting it to MySpace pretending to be a full band. One thing leads to another and now they’re in the limelight. Lyrically, Baldi and Cobain were addressing the same topics: existential angst, nihilism, boredom, irony, failure… and those are just the lyrical similarities. Baldi’s scratchy-throat, piercing vocal delivery is from the same realm as well.
These comparisons are not meant to suggest Nirvana was the band’s biggest influence or anything… I consider them more of a spiritual successor. The songwriting is perfect, the production by Steve Albini is spot-on. “No Future/No Past” is kind of a gentle but firm post-rock flare that’s launched as warning for the 9-minute following epic that never once drags, “Wasted Days”. Then “Fall In” pops up with a more cheery, upbeat acceleration and daring tempo shifts. “Stay Useless” is the timeless hit single of our generation, “Separation” keeps the album driving forward, an awesome instrumental that builds into a sonic fireball. “No Sentiment” is a droning, noisy lament, “Our Plans” has a Strokes-y swagger to it but a sound all its own, and when the album closes on the melancholy “Cut You” you get the feeling this is a great time to be listening to music.
The 2nd Law
My favorite album of the year is one of those I spoke of earlier that sold a ton of copies (well, a ton for modern standards) and didn’t make too many “best of” lists. Muse may never make these lists, because their stadium bombast is antithetical to the concept of being cool. In that sense they strike me as much in the tradition of Queen-meets-Smashing Pumpkins — wanting to experiment with many different genres, wanting heaps of orchestration, wanting each song to be an anthemic, lighters-held-aloft choral experience, going for the Gold record. Whatever you want to call it, Muse have released their best album to date, and their track on album releases is pretty superb.
“Madness” is the monolithic single, an exercise in sonic taste featuring glistening neon-in-the-rain production. “Follow Me” is the anthemic single, a lighters-aloft ode to lead singer and songwriter Matthew Bellamy’s then-unborn child, which begins with the infant’s heart beat and crescendos into kind of a roller rink song on PCP, with a hint of dubstep. It’s that dubstep influence, most present on the teaser track “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable”, but I for one find it tastefully done and very much in character with Muse’s sonic personality, which in the past featured all the disparate elements of dubstep (nasty synths, polyrhythms, epic drops).
The stylistic standout is “Panic Station” with its danceable, upbeat mood driven by an all-star horn section, a total pop gem with the Bellamy’s noisy guitar grit inclusions. Two of my favorite tracks off the record, “Save Me” and “Liquid State”, bass player Christopher Wolstenholme steps out from the shadows to write and lead these tortured songs of alcoholism and redemption. They amazingly fit naturally into Muse’s palette while expanding it into more of a primal scream vs. Bellamy’s nigh-operatic vocal approach. And it’s the latter that will probably prevent most people from getting into Muse. I think this is stupid because while Bellamy is certainly not the next reincarnation of Freddy Mercury in his waifish, sci-fi fashion, but he embodies the same spirit.
To come full-circle to the meta statements I made at the outset, Muse is a perfect example of a band no music blogger or critic would be caught dead with at the top of their Best of 2012 list. They are already massively popular (strike one). Their album features million-dollar production and performance talent (strike two). Muse may be popular, but no one would accuse them of being ‘hip’ or fashion-forward (strike three).
I put them at the top because I love music. Specifically, to quote myself, I have a “taste for loud music with a healthy dose of melody, rhythmic novelty and a wide dynamic range”. Based on that criteria, Muse clearly wins. It’s not nearly the coolest album I liked all year, but it’s the one that resonated the most.