JEFF MANGUM live at the Great Hall at Union Station. Hartford CT. 2/19/13.
(photo by Will Deitz at ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror, 2011)
“No photography or video recording allowed at any time during the show”
Thus read a bold-font note taped to the door of Hartford’s Great Hall at Union Station, where former Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum played a highly anticipated concert last night with Tall Firs and The Music Tapes. The universal photography ban has been in place for nearly all dates on each of Mangum’s three solo tours since his highly publicized return to the stage in December 2010.
I had seen Mangum perform twice before last night, first in Boston in September 2011 and again in New Haven in January of last year, and at both of those shows, the rule made sense. Boston’s Jordan Hall and New Haven’s Shubert Theater were both ornate, seated venues; within these storied theaters, which had in the past hosted philharmonics and operas, Mangum’s music felt almost saintly. Attending each felt like witnessing a musical performance as religious experience — to defoul such a private, holy moment with camera flashes and cell-phone video recording would be like photographing the Pope during Easter Mass in the Vatican City. I’ve never experienced that, but I imagine that such activity is frowned upon there.
Last night, however, was different. For the occasion, the central hall of Hartford’s primary train station was transformed into a massive, standing room venue, complete with a four foot high stage, lighting fixtures, and a large and perpetually crowded bar serving alcoholic drinks. It was a radically different setting from the two shows I had seen Mangum perform previously, and at first I was excited at the prospect of seeing him in a relatively more traditional ‘rock concert’ setting. As I soon discovered, though, the more ‘traditional’ setting of the Union Station Great Hall provided more than I had bargained for.
The night began, after doors were postponed from 7 to 7:30, with a frantic rush to the front of the stage. Along with a handful of others, I staked my claim to the very front and center, nervously eager at the prospect of the show that was to come. Tall Firs began the opening set as a solo act, having temporarily lost a member due to a family obligation. David Miles’ moody, blues-inflected folk would have likely caused some tears in a more intimate setting, but the nuances of his restrained voice and skeletal guitar work were lost on much of the audience, who frustratingly talked throughout the entirety of his set. The Music Tapes fared considerably better, amplifying the tinny twee-folk of their records to a dizzyingly high, full-bodied level. Although not as whimsically majestic as their October 2012 performance in Hamden, The Music Tapes’ set was certainly the most sonically engaging performance that I’ve seen them play. Along with his band of horn blowers, key-ticklers, and pipe-pounders (and, of course, the Seven Foot Tall Metronome) Julian Koster looked and sounded like the last thing I would have pinned him as: a rock star.
Thirty minutes after the Tapes closed with a rousing, evocative performance of “Takeshi and Elijah” from last year’s Mary’s Voice, Jeff Mangum took the stage. Heavily bearded and wearing his distinctive flannel, Mangum looked hermetic and rustic, as if he had wandered out of the Connecticut woods and stumbled into Union Station just minutes prior. Exhibiting a cluster of grey at its center, Mangum’s beard was aesthetically questionable, but effective in making him appear older that he is. I don’t blame him — if I, at Mangum’s age of 42, were known exclusively for work that I did in my 20s, I would try to distance myself from appearing young as well. He sat down and, with a brief, mumbled introduction, launched into a seamless performance of “Two-Headed Boy” and its companion piece, “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2.” As with the two previous performances that I’ve seen, Mangum’s setlist yielded few surprises. The vast majority of songs were gleaned from Neutral Milk Hotel’s two full lengths On Avery Island and In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, both of which are terrific records, and both of which hold unique nostalgic significance for me and countless other fans, many of whom were present in Hartford last night. In the opening set, Tall Firs’ David Miles positively noted how many young fans had been present at all the shows on this current tour, and although the extent to which Neutral Milk Hotel’s legacy has been preserved in the 15 years since Aeroplane’s release is certainly admirable, the presence of so many young fans at the show last night was not without its detriments.
I don’t mean to sound curmudgeonly (as I, at seventeen, am quite a young guy myself), but it was frankly difficult not to be annoyed by the level of immaturity that certain crowd members set during Mangum’s performance. A friend described it as “a bunch of six year olds trying to impress their dad,” and I’m inclined to agree with his assessment — it was cringeworthy. I don’t know if half the crowd had just spent their first afternoon on /mu/ earlier that day, but the number of “Jesus Christ” jokes and inane, pointless interjections that the crowd shouted at Jeff in between songs approached an insufferable level. He handled it well enough, but there was a look of weariness on his face by the end of the show that even his thick beard could not cover up.
Mangum encouraged singing, and the crowd unhesitatingly obliged, matching nearly every word and strained vocalization. During the more heavily orchestrated songs, such as “Song Against Sex” and set closer “Ghost,” the audience filled in vocalized versions of horn parts and harmonies atop Mangum’s sparse guitar strums. It was occasionally moving; if the previous shows had been akin to a solemn service at the Vatican City, last night’s show was more like a Baptist spiritual. Still, even as I passionately sang along, I could not shake the impression that something sacred was missing from this strange, communal celebration. For my own peace of mind, I’ll place the blame on the audience rather than on Mangum himself — for one thing, some of the crowd members really could not sing, and the warbled bleats of the immediately post-pubescent boy near me grew increasingly grating as the night wore on. But more importantly, I think the issue was one of familiarity. We all knew the songs so perfectly that there was no potential for surprise or spontaneity at any moment during the show. Even Mangum’s alternate/live version of “A Baby For Pree,” which usually throws some fans off at his shows, failed to startle anybody present last night. Similarly, when former Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster came back on stage to play singing saw on “Engine” and “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea,” it felt trad and predictable, though still entirely welcome.
In a word, the concert experience felt cheap — worth the $30 that most fans paid for their tickets, certainly, but perhaps not entirely worth the hastily-arranged flight that I booked back from Washington, D.C. when I learned that the show had been postponed from its original date due to snow. From a certain perspective, it was a perfect show, featuring two especially great performances and a smattering of some of the best folk songs I’ve ever heard, and yet, it was also painfully hollow and lacking in the urgent, vital essence that made all those Neutral Milk Hotel songs so great in their original incarnations. To put it plainly, I was conflicted in a way that I have never really felt before. After the full hall sang along to “Aeroplane,” with Koster conducting the crowd to match Scott Spillane’s absent horn solo, saw-bow in hand, the two former bandmates bowed and calmly exited the stage.
In my pocket I held a Kodak disposable film camera, which I kept there, primed and full of film, for the entire duration of the show. I considered saving it until the very end, allowing myself minimal possibility of punishment, and justified its potential use by virtue of the archaic quality innate within a disposable camera. Surely there were kids wielding Kodaks at Neutral Milk Hotel’s shows in the ’90s, right? Ultimately, I decided against using it at all. After nearly three hours of terrific, powerfully familiar songs, overwhelming waves of nostalgia, and some fundamentally cringe-inducing crowd involvement, I considered it my obligation to preserve whatever dignity remained in Union Station that night. After meeting up with the Music Tapes once more and thanking them for their particularly stellar performance, I walked out into the rainy Hartford night, left with a frustratingly mixed, thoroughly exhausted impression.
Setlist - 2/19/13
- 1. Two-Headed Boy
- 2. Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
- 3. Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
- 4. Song Against Sex
- 5. King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
- 6. King of Carrot Flowers Pts. 2-3
- 7. Oh Comely
- 8. A Baby For Pree/Glow Into You
- 9. Oh Sister
- 10. Holland, 1945
- 11. Naomi
- 12. Ghost
- 13. Engine (with Julian Koster) (encore)
- 14. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (with Julian Koster) (encore)
Watch: Jeff Mangum & Julian Koster play “Engine” in Ithaca, NY - 2/13/13
Top 25 Songs of 2012
A great song is a singular entity — something that stands out from the pack on a record, that distinguishes itself from everything it touches. The following 25 songs all happen to appear on albums that I liked, many of which I enjoyed largely because of the strength of these individual tracks and others. Some were huge singles, and others were local anthems. Some were big budget hits, and others were simple demos. Some made me laugh, more of them made me cry, but all of them made me feel something real inside. Behold, my 25 favorite songs of 2012.
Stream the 8tracks mix featuring all 25 songs in reverse order at the embedded link below. Read on and enjoy each song individually below that. As always, thank you for being supportive and reading my work. I appreciate it more than I can articulate.
25. The Magnetic Fields - “Andrew In Drag”
In a way that no other track on Love At The Bottom of the Sea succeeded, “Andrew In Drag” perfectly blends modern synths, beats, and textures with the lyricism of Stephin Merritt’s very best material as The Magnetic Fields. “Andrew In Drag” hits all the marks of being a classic Magnetic Fields track, from its twee bleeps and bloops to its unexpectedly soaring chorus, and its inclusion of gay humor for both romantic and comedic emotional appeal. It’s also got one of Merritt’s best lyrical characters in years — not Andrew, the cross-dressing titular subject, but rather the frustrating, confusingly lovestruck observer.
24. Joey Bada$$ - “Survival Tactics” (feat. Capital STEEZ)
While going over my completed list, I was actually listening to this song when I heard the news that Joey Bada$$ collaborator and Pro Era member Capital STEEZ had died of an apparent suicide at age 19. The effect was rather chilling, and probably not unlike hearing about the death of any of the now deceased 90’s hip-hop legends that Bada$$ and the Pro Era crew idolize. Before I heard the news, I was thinking about how STEEZ’s verse is what makes this song so great — such a stellar combination of 2012-nowness (to the point that it already almost feels dated) and childlike nostalgia. Bada$$, of course, is the star of the show throughout most of his 1999 mixtape, but right now, I think it’s probably more important to honor the awesome feature guest, who will sadly never grace another terrific track with his rhymes.
23. WHY? - “Sod In The Seed”
Far and away the best cut that the ever-unpredictable hip-hop act WHY? put out this year, “Sod In The Seed” is a hard-charging, fist-pumping anthem the kind of which Yoni Wolf & Co. have never before released. It drives along, driven in equal measure by a terrific bassline and Wolf’s nasally, bleeted raps, spat faster than nearly anything else in his discography, solo or otherwise. It’s a tour-de-force of a track from a strictly musical perspective, but Wolf’s hilarious lyrics are the real highlight. A road veteran, Wolf knows what he’s talking about when it comes to insincerity and vulturism in the music business, and is quick to call out all the “wordy blogger thugs” and their equivalents in the world with as much spite as he has humor. It’s self-aware, comedic, and laughable, but there’s more than a grain of truth to Wolf’s lamentation of the “first world curse.”
22. The Human Fly - “Moth”
“Moth” is the most pure and pristine distillation of the product that The Human Fly was trying to craft on Everything Feels Bad All At Once, the emotionally crippling debut from Robert Mathis’ solo project. Hell, its lyrics are even insect-themed. It’s really rather heartbreaking, posturing Mathis as the utterly insignificant ‘fly on the wall’ and subtly, beautifully conveying that feeling of total helplessness through its slowly overlapping guitars and Mathis’ deep, hushed vocals. He re-recorded this track and others with a punk band shortly after the release of the debut album, channeling that complacent grief into anger, but the effect is lost in that context. On the original, Mathis grieves solemnly, and is all the more evocative because of it.
21. Titus Andronicus - “In A Small Body”
This track may deserve its spot primarily for a single line, which happens to be my favorite lyric throughout all of Titus Andronicus’ new album Local Business. In between memorable figurative punchlines like “your dick’s too short to fuck the world” and references to Titus’ pals Diarrhea Planet, Patrick Stickles delivers some cold, hard truth: “What do you know about being no sort of slave?” he screams over dueling guitars, “I know some kids who’d kill for this kind of cage.” With that verbal wrecking ball, Stickles ideologically demolishes a number of his newfound Brooklynite peers, but he also cuts himself down to size. Stickles himself is the cage — a flawed, damaged, but still remarkably privileged one at that. If there’s anything that I wish Local Business would have done more of, it would be to acknowledge that more thoroughly.
20. Elvis Depressedly - “Road Side Memorial (repeat)”
Out of the context of his 2012 album Mickey’s Dead, Elvis Depressedly’s grim closer “Road Side Memorial (repeat)” paints a bleak and powerful portrait of a vague, tortured individual. In the context of the album, though, the listener realizes that it is a portrait of Mat Cothran himself — the remarkably damaged songwriter behind the Elvis Depressedly project. This knowledge doesn’t necessarily increase our perceived quality of the song, but it does make me at least very worried about Cothran’s stability and wellbeing. There is something so perilously honest about “Road Side Memorial,” from its reverberant, single chord throb to Cothran’s hard-panned multitracked vocals almost casually dropping lines like “burn my wrists with cigarettes / wash the blood out of my dress” and “I don’t want or need your fucking help.” Cothran, it seems, doesn’t literally need the “self portrait painted in vomit” that he describes in the second verse; this track is as wounded, flawed, and true as any self-portrait could be.
19. Hostage Calm - “Woke Up Next To A Body”
Hostage Calm want to be a pop band, but they can’t quite shake their punk rock roots. “Woke Up Next To A Body,” from this year’s Please Remain Calm, is something like their Archaeopteryx, miraculously blending a sunny, power-pop verse melody with one of the year’s greatest stage dive-inducing, fist-pumping shout-along choruses. It’s also one of the most personal tracks on Please Remain Calm, conveying the universal struggle for romantic validation through a distinctly millenial lens. The track’s closing line, “No longer young and in love and at war with the world,” may actually describe Please Remain Calm more accurately than the band’s chosen descriptor — “The punk rock album of the Great Recession.”
18. Dum Dum Girls - “Lord Knows”
All the praise that is being heaped upon Dum Dum Girls for their new EP End Of Daze, and its lead single “Lord Knows,” seems to focus on how much frontwoman Dee Dee has developed as a songwriter. I, however, maintain that at least since the Dum Dums’ second LP, she’s always been mature, poised, and hugely talented. If I had heard Only In Dreams last year, I guarantee that “Coming Down” would have graced the top 10 of my Songs of the Year list for 2011. “Lord Knows” doesn’t quite reach the highs and lows of that aforementioned drugged out lamentation, but it’s definitely a terrific track, floating breezily on a reverb-heavy chord progression that gives way to a terrifically unexpected chorus. Dee Dee may have always been a great songwriter, but now she makes it sound easy.
17. Grimes - “Oblivion”
At the Pitchfork Music Festival this year, I skipped Grimes’ set to get a spot in the front row for Godspeed You! Black Emperor. I don’t exactly regret it, but I do feel like I missed out on an important aspect of my potential 2012 experience. Even if it was just to hear this song, I would have liked to be a part of that communal existence — to take part in something that would only ever mean as much as it did in that very moment. Every year has a song like this, but no song I’ve heard has ever been like this, exactly. “Oblivion” is far-reaching in its appeal, accessible and catchy, bolstered by the year’s best video, and yet, it still feels like a great secret. I still feel like I could put it on a mixtape and not feel ashamed. In its best moments — the deceptively ominous chorus, the first time the “la la las” come in from the back of the mix, the “girl you know you’ve got to watch your health” line — it almost makes me want to love Visions as a whole. It doesn’t quite succeed at that, but it comes close.
16. Serengeti - “Go Dancin”
If Serengeti’s pitch with this year’s C. A. R. was for originality, then “Go Dancin” is his most successful sale. In its frantic, image-powered depiction of a decaying relationship (probably a marriage, given the context that the rest of the album provides), “Go Dancin” achieves in four minutes what countless minimalist indie films struggle to do in two hours. Geti’s constant lyrical contrasts, his increasingly emotional delivery, and the song’s brilliantly simple concept leave the listener struggling to decide whether to root for the narrator or to abandon him like his partner eventually does, as Geti’s last-ditch efforts for a meaningful life turn into empty promises and eventually selfish kiss-offs. It’s an emotionally wracked song that achieves remarkable pathos from relatively meager means.
15. Slow Warm Death - “Sleep”
The 2011 dissolution of emo revival firebrands Snowing left many wondering what direction frontman John Galm would take with his next project. He answered those questions to a certain extent when he dropped Slow Warm Demos, a demo collection released under the name of his new band Slow Warm Death. The record is perilously lo-fi, and mostly comprises gritty garage rock numbers in the vein of Ty Segall’s early material. One track, however, stands so tall above the rest that it would be criminal for Galm not to explore this style more in the future. “Sleep” begins with hollow acoustic guitar and strained vocals, calling to mind Galm’s rare solo material, but at exactly the one minute mark, the track goes supernova, evoking the massive sonic weight of Have A Nice Life with maxed-out guitars and a thunderous drum machine. Despite its demo quality, no other track blew my brains out the way that “Sleep” did this year.
14. Jens Lekman - “I Know What Love Isn’t”
Like Giles Corey, my #1 album of the year pick for 2011, Jens Lekman’s I Know What Love Isn’t is best appreciated as a full album, not as a collection of songs. Unlike Giles Corey, I Know What Love Isn’t is a lot of fun to listen to. On an album full of great tracks, the song “I Know What Love Isn’t” is one particular highlight. Lekman throws caution to the wind over a jaunty acoustic guitar, shooting the shit with a best friend, ogling girls from afar and, for 3 minutes and 33 seconds, forgetting about the one who broke his poor little Swedish heart. By the end, you’ll realize that he’s still miserable and alone, but each time that the glockenspiel signals the beginning of the song, I can’t help but feel that there’s hope.
13. Beach House - “Lazuli”
Beach House have distilled their formula for dream pop bliss so perfectly on “Lazuli,” that the track doesn’t even need a chorus. The effortlessly beautiful and cool Victoria Legrand’s smoky falsetto simply hums along each time the verse gives way, arching skyward over a constantly rising synth loop while Alex Scally layers harmonic textures. They’ve been building towards “Lazuli” for years, and from here, I honestly don’t see how their aesthetic could get any better or any more refined. Given the quality of this track and the rest of Bloom, for that matter, I’m nevertheless excited to see what they do next.
12. Carly Rae Jepsen - “Call Me Maybe”
If I had released this list a week ago, nobody would have minded this choice. You might even have thought that it was ‘cool’ of me to include such a sugary, maximalist pop song on a list that mostly comprises music released on independent labels. But now that everyone from Pitchfork to Stereogum to probably Rolling Stone or something like that has included Carly Rae Jepsen’s summer smash “Call Me Maybe” on their end of the year lists, a lot of people are throwing the ‘pop tokenism’ card. I can’t say I blame them, given the track’s utter ubiquity, but to dismiss this as a token pick would be a disservice to just how great “Call Me Maybe” is. Although she goes for the ‘innocent teen girl’ market, 27 year old Jepsen’s anthem is remarkably empowering and even quite mature. On top of that, this synth-heavy treat is endlessly appealing. Even after hundreds of plays, on the radio, at parties, and in the comfort of my own home, “Call Me Maybe” has yet to grow tiresome for me.
11. Purity Ring - “Fineshrine”
If I can write about Carly Rae Jepsen for a little longer, I have to admit that I was made a little uncomfortable when I found out about her age. I had been imagining her as 19 at the oldest, and the realization that she was 26 when “Call Me Maybe” was released made me aware of just how powerful marketing can still be. Afterwards, the song made me feel kind of creepy and weird in a way that was definitely unintentional. Around that time, though, I was just starting to get into Purity Ring, another terrific pop act that also made me feel creepy and weird, but in a decidedly purposeful manner. “Fineshrine” is on par with Jepsen’s hit as my favorite straight up synth pop song of the year, but Megan James’ eerily sexual lyrics and self-imposed, childlike fetishization make “Fineshrine” the superior dark horse, despite its considerably lower budget. I’ve had “cut open my sternum and pull my little ribs around you” uncomfortably stuck in my head for six months, and that chorus shows no sign of leaving any time soon.
10. Self Defense Family - “Self Immolation Family”
I think we can stop calling them End of a Year now. The latest music from the newly re-christened New York band Self Defense Family bears little in common with the DC post-hardcore worship of the records released under their former name. The new Self Defense Family is decidedly more experimental, heavier, and much, much better, as their recent output indicates. The perfectly-titled “Self Immolation Family” is the a-side to a 7” they released on Deathwish, Inc. this year, recorded at Sigur Ros’ studio in Iceland. True to its Nordic origins, “Self Immolation Family” is frost-bitten and, at over 6-minutes, glacially paced. The band’s endearingly tuneless frontman Patrick Kindlon barks his bitter heart out with vigor, but the real highlight is the pummeling instrumentation, with interwoven guitars and bass that evoke post-rock more than the band’s once-signature post-hardcore style.
9. The Music Tapes - “Takeshi and Elijah”
Much has happened to the Elephant 6 collective in 2012. Jeff Mangum continued his second year of solo touring after a very successful return to the spotlight in 2011, and has possibly hinted at a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion for 2013. The Olivia Tremor Control continued their reunion, including a stop that I witnessed at Pitchfork Festival, until the untimely and mysterious death of frontman Bill Doss. Honestly, I think the best thing that happened to the closely-knit Athens, Georgia collective was the release of The Music Tapes’ new album Mary’s Voice. It’s really the first great album from Neutral Milk Hotel ex-pat Julian Koster’s longtime pet project, and the closing track “Takeshi and Elijah” is far and away the best song he’s ever written. It’s mostly a solo cut, featuring Koster’s strummed banjo and nostalgic lamentations and remembrances about his life, including his time with his old band. It’s actually rather sad, for the most part, but once the full band comes in at the end with Rob Cucchiaro’s horns blaring, it’s clear that there is still hope — for Koster, and for all of us.
8. One Hundred Year Ocean - “1576”
Often, the most profound memories are set off by the simplest remembrances. In “1576,” the heartbreaking standout from One Hundred Year Ocean’s Poison Smoak EP, Derrick Shanholtzer-Dvorak describes fumbling around in a messy car for a dropped marijuana joint, only to find “burned CD-Rs” and other mementos of a former life that now seems so distant. It’s a bittersweet paean to the confusion of life, the unfortunate necessity of companionship, and the bittersweet comfort of home. Shanholtzer-Dvorak wrote “1576” about his current home in the small town of Willimantic, Connecticut, but it could just as easily be about my hometown of New Haven, or any other town in America. “All cities are coffins,” he sings along with vocal harmonies from his wife, Katie Shanholtzer-Dvorak. The lyric is grim, but the sentiment is transcendent. “We’ve all got to die somewhere,” he sings in the guitar pounding final movement. He’s right.
7. Suns - “Crocodile”
“Crocodile,” the best track from Suns’ debut full length The Engine Room, creeps up slowly in a manner not unlike the animal that its title describes. Lithe, and swimming just beneath the surface, the track lures the listener into complacency with its spindly guitar line and soothing vocals, before exploding in a cataclysm of spiteful virulence at the end. There are lyrics there, but only two lines are discernable. “WHY DON’T YOU GET IT?,” screams frontman Will Rutledge. Later on, the sentiment is even more desperate and angry — he’s simply shouting “Oh my god.” The violent final minute of this song is my favorite 60 seconds of music from 2012, but it’s only so powerful because of the preceding three minutes of slowly building, restrained urgency.
6. Kendrick Lamar - “Swimming Pools (Drank)”
Last year I was at a party where somebody asked me to put on some music. I put on a track from Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80 mixtape, and within a minute or two, somebody had exchanged it for some other song by a different artist. It was kind of depressing, but I understood it. Section.80 wasn’t party music material. From a certain standpoint, neither is anything on good kid, m.A.A.d city though, ESPECIALLY “Swimming Pools (Drank),” the super depressing alcoholism study that Lamar released as a lead single from his major label debut earlier this year. Why then, does Kendrick’s reedy flow and “Swimming Pools’” cavernous bass hum seem to follow me to every party I attend? Probably because it’s the best track he’s ever released. Hip-hop purists might prefer the 12-minute suite “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst,” but to me, this single has the perfect combination of eeriness and accessibility, pleasure and pain, and happiness and misery.
5. Spirit Night - “The Last Time”
Spirit Night’s “The Last Time” strikes a very similar emotional chord with me as One Hundred Year Ocean’s “1576,” which is appropriate considering that they were both released on Derrick Shanholtzer-Dvorak’s label Broken World Media this year. Like OHYO’s anthem, “The Last Time” is a sweeping piece of emotive, mid-tempo indie rock. It courses with the viscous, tangible energy of desperation, opening up slowly as frontman Dylan Balliett describes with just the right amount of vagueness a harrowing teenaged realization. “I don’t want to have to kill you,” Balliett stammers in the first chorus, “I don’t want to have to kill anyone…” By the time the chorus rolls around again, he sounds stronger in his convictions. The listener never learns exactly what “The Last Time” is about, but the music is so incredibly powerful that one can’t help but feel its innate confusion, sadness, and pain.
4. Frank Ocean - “Bad Religion”
So much of Frank Ocean’s breakout album channel ORANGE is effortlessly great, from the buttery soul of “Sweet Life” to the borderline rock chug of “Lost.” Of all the great tracks, only “Bad Religion” seems to take a genuinely painful emotional toll on Ocean. On “Bad Religion,” the California-based singer abandons his philosopher’s mentality for the first time and bares his soul to a humble taxi driver, unraveling a truly unexpected outpouring of sorrow and conflicted pain through his achingly gorgeous falsetto. The album’s accompanying letter gives Ocean’s pathos context, but more than all the other tracks on channel ORANGE, “Bad Religion” truly speaks for itself. No other song in 2012 made the tried and true topic of unrequited love so real, so intimately human, more than Frank Ocean’s solemn, quiet masterpiece.
3. How To Dress Well - “Ocean Floor For Everything”
“Ocean Floor For Everything” is the most formless song on How To Dress Well’s stellar Total Loss LP, but it’s also the most powerful, favoring pristine, nearly divine-sounding atmospheres over songwriting chops and structure. In that way, it almost seems like ‘post-music’, or perhaps something more pure and ancient, untouched by the musical conventions that humanity has developed over thousands of years of making noises just for the pleasure of it. Philosophy student Tom Krell, the mysterious electronic/R&B project’s unassuming mastermind, is still singing words of course — lamenting “the worst of things” that no amount of planning could prepare for. And yet, this isn’t a song about sadness, or even particularly a sad song. It’s an experience in and of itself: not a conveyer of emotions, but an objective constant from which emotions may come. It’s art for the sake of art, untouched by the perversion of the surrounding totality.
2. Title Fight - “Head In The Ceiling Fan”
Much as Grimes’ “Oblivion” video did a lot to increase my appreciation for that song, so too did Title Fight’s clip for “Head In The Ceiling Fan,” the breathtaking, anomalous standout from their otherwise merely solid Floral Green LP. That grainy VHS footage of friends laughing, jumping off rope swings, and playing baseball in empty parks contrasts in such an intensely heartbreaking way with the slow, building chaos of the song’s shoegazing guitars. When the drums crash in, godlike in their sonic density and heft, it’s hard not to be emotionally moved. All of this joy that comes with everyday life, the song seems to suggest, will fade just as unexpectedly as it arrived. “Head In The Ceiling Fan” is the sound of that happiness dying out. It is the sound of your entire life’s experiences meaning more to you than you possibly could have imagined at the time. It is the groaning, glacial progression of existence towards a formerly unwanted but ultimately welcome end.
1. Japandroids - “The House That Heaven Built”
I have been waiting for so long — at least since I first started consciously paying attention to new music — to find a new album like Japandroids‘ Celebration Rock that is as good as Celebration Rock, with a song as good as the lead single “The House That Heaven Built.” My favorite songs of the year for the past two years have essentially made me want to kill myself, but this is different. This is flawless, unforgettable punk rock makes me want to stay alive forever, and I couldn’t be more gratified that it exists. I could have chosen “Adrenaline Nightshift” or “The Night Of Wine And Roses” or “Fire’s Highway” or nearly any of the album’s eight near-perfect tracks to put in this place, but “The House That Heaven Built” somehow stands out in particular. It is the apex of an album about living life to the most ridiculously intense degree, about forgetting the rules and breaking them inadvertently, and ultimately, about transcendence. Isn’t that what we all want, at our deepest core? I can’t speak for anyone reading this, but if I ever achieve that primal goal, “The House That Heaven Built” will be blasting on my record player in the clouds.
2012 Albums of the Year (#50-21)
Every time December rolls around, as list season begins to manifest, I find myself astounded at how great music was in each particular year. Throughout the previous eleven months, however, many of us have a tendency to compare one year to another. By mid June, I’ll admit that I was certainly considering how 2012 was ‘stacking up’ to 2011 and the previous year, for that matter. And yet now, as I sit here writing about my favorite records from the past twelve months, I realize once again that every year is uniquely wonderful. For personal reasons, each may have its ups and downs, but the beautiful, perfect, perpetually comforting thing about music is that it is always there for you, every year, sounding as divine as it ever has. Especially now, with Internet downloads having just recently overtaken CDs as the major medium of music acquisition, I find it nothing short of miraculous that great music being made, but that it is also readily available to those of us who care enough to look for it.
Although I maintain that every year is great from a musical perspective, I do not mean to suggest that each year in music is the same. To me, the musical saga of 2012 was particularly exciting, and not unlike a great novel in terms of depth and complexity. In the indie rock field, some garage bands continued to nostalgize the freedom of youth while others stodgily rebelled against it, ironically to a similar musical effect. Emo revivalist stalwarts continued to break up, as they are wont to do, and an adventurous new guard took their places, eager to expand beyond the tried and true Kinsella-aping aesthetic. In hip-hop, some old legends faltered and faded while others returned in full force, eager to capitalize on their newly-empowered sphere of influence. At the same time, new West Coast royalty was crowned while the East Coast lay in wait, plotting their response. Electronic music expanded in popular prominence, bass music finally blended with hip-hop, and Flying Lotus picked up a mic. Animal Collective let everyone down, except the people whom they didn’t. Pop stars sang pop songs, some of them were great, and that’s completely okay. Folk singers found new ways to make me cry, and some even made me proud. Frank Ocean and Grimes had terrific years, and one of them completely deserved it. It was a tale of Tolkienian proportions, and I was more than happy to be the quiet boy in the back, silently scribbling my notes as I tried to take it all in.
Below you will find the list of my Top 50 Albums of the Year, #50-21.
Tomorrow I will put out the top 20. Edit: The top 20 albums list is available HERE! Each entry includes a link to purchase or stream the album. It was very difficult to make this list, largely because I listened to more new music this year than ever before. That said, I’m completely satisfied with how it turned out and I hope you will be too. Read on and enjoy, and most importantly, thank you for supporting Lewis and his Blog in its third year!
50. Woods - Bend Beyond
Folk Rock, Psychedelic Rock
While Best Coast were plodding away in the creation of The Only Place, their rather boring sophomoric homage to their home state, this year’s best paean to the Golden State came from the other side of the country. Spearheaded by the heartwarming lead single “Cali In A Cup,” Brooklyn-based folk rockers Woods delivered a fuzzy gem of a full length with Bend Beyond. It’s mostly a gentle and relaxed listen, interspersed with a handful of psychedelic rock-indebted jams, that finds Jeremy Earl refining his songwriting while making notable strides forward in production fidelity. Although it has moments of brooding melancholy, balanced by moments of contentment, Bend Beyond rarely has room for extreme emotions; for better or worse, it simply floats along in its soothing folk rock haze.
49. Samuel Bass - The Gritty Smoke
To say nothing of his personal integrity, Connecticut songwriter Samuel Bass is an enviable character. The songs on his debut full length The Gritty Smoke speak of a harrowing and complicated life lived deliberately and with great intent, if not traditionally “well.” The hollow acoustic thump, dirge-like electric guitar textures, and tobacco-stained vocals on The Gritty Smoke have a certain aged quality to them, as if they were produced by somebody much older than Bass, who was only 18 at the time of this recording. That said, the appeal of this record transcends the novelty of Bass’ youth. It’s simply one of the best gothic folk albums of 2012.
48. Port St. Willow - Holiday
Dream Pop, Ambient
I was introduced to the music of Nick Principe (aka Port St. Willow) when his band, touring as a three piece, opened for The Antlers back in September. As they started their set, audience members exchanged some glances of amusement; they sounded a lot like the headlining band. And yet, as their music developed and their lush atmospheric textures materialized, a hushed attentiveness seemed to descend over the audience. By the end of their set, they had brought down the house. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, about Port St. Willow’s new LP Holiday — a beautifully dreamy record that features Principe’s rather heavenly vocals and occasional inflections of post-rock-lite in the instrumentation. It’s never quite as overpowering as their live show in Center Church, but it constantly strives to capture that divinity.
47. The Magnetic Fields - Love At The Bottom of the Sea
Indie Pop, Twee Pop, Electronic
Original review HERE
Twee pop godfather Stephin Merritt sounds more invigorated than he has in years on Love At The Bottom of the Sea — The Magnetic Fields’ latest LP, and their first to feature synthesizers since their 1999 opus 69 Love Songs. His characters are as clever and cartoonishly human as they’ve ever been, from the gender-ambiguous subject of “Andrew In Drag” to the sardonic bible thumper of “God Wants Us To Wait.” The electronic production is also notably more hi-fi than anything in the band’s ouvre, providing the listener with an experience based on more than just brilliant lyrics and catchy melodies. In other words, it’s twee pop for the post-aughts era.
46. Spider Bags - Shake My Head
Garage Rock, Alt-Country
On the latest full length from Spider Bags, the North Carolina group moves past its country origins into bolder, brasher garage rock territory. Working like The Replacements in reverse, the band — led by enigmatic frontman Dan McGee — seems to be getting more punk as time goes on after sprouting from gentler roots. On Shake My Head, the songs are tighter, sharper, and more vitriolic, and McGee trades in his most of his typical soul-searching surrealism for more straightforward lyrics. Occasionally though, he let’s his true colors fly in all their unhinged glory. Closing track “The Moon Is A Schoolgirl” is a particularly moving slice of psychedelic fervor; though unusual, it’s easily one of the record’s best tracks.
45. TNGHT - TNGHT EP
Instrumental Hip-Hop, Electronic
Loud, irreverent, and seemingly all too brief, the debut EP from EDM collaborators Hudson Mohawke and Lunice (aka TNGHT) predicated electronic music trends in 2012 as a whole. Combining the smothering heft of trap rap with the deep bass rumble of British dubstep, this little record was one of the most visionary additions to the electronic music catalogue this year. TNGHT’s genius lay in their embracing of party music attitudes while preserving the experimental attitudes and compositional depth of IDM — a combination that nobody has been able to pull off with this much thumping pizzazz.
44. fun. - Some Nights
Indie Pop, Electronic
Original review HERE
Nate Ruess has been aiming for this kind of success since well before The Format. On Some Nights, the sophomore LP from Ruess’ post-Format trio fun., his approach as a songwriter hasn’t changed much, but with producer Jeff Bhasker layering sugary electronic textures, his vision seems to have expanded boundlessly. Although I can understand the criticism from those who indiscriminately hate this kind of revelatory fist-pump bait, I can’t reconcile the backlash from fans of fun.’s previous LP, Aim and Ignite. Ruess’ lyrics have always been this mind numbingly dumb — his arrangements, always this opulent. All that has changed with Some Nights is that Ruess has thrusted himself firmly into the sonic present. Of course, I understand your plight; you grew up, they got a major label contract, and suddenly “We Are Young” was ubiquitous. But deep down, you know this is what you once claimed to desire. Embrace it, or be careful what you wish for.
43. SPOOK HOUSES - Trying
Original review HERE
Trying was SPOOK HOUSES’ pitch for the great American Indie Rock Record of 2012. Although that ambition doesn’t consistently yield great results, the reckless, self-aggrandizing attitude of this record is easily the best thing about it. Even when the songs aren’t as great as the band thinks they are, SPOOK HOUSES sell every one like it’s the best song of all time. Every once in a while, they actually deliver one such song — the terrific Built To Spill-homage “The Bad Sound” may be the best — seemingly willed into existence by sheer power of their collective musical conviction.
42. The Music Tapes - Mary’s Voice
Julian Koster’s pet project The Music Tapes pleasantly surprised me with this heartwarming and evocative record. A lot of bands appeal to listeners’ nostalgia these days, but The Music Tapes’ take seems more earnest, more human. Mary’s Voice eschews the clichéd imagery of summer nights and lovers past in favor of a more deeply rooted nostalgic energy — the soothing warmth that seems to seep in as sleep approaches, the borrowed memories from grainy old photographs, the tears and laughter shared in equal measure on tour with your former band (Koster’s just happens to be Neutral Milk Hotel). That band may never see the light of day again, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Honestly, this the best thing any Elephant Six-affiliated group has released in years.
41. The Saddest Landscape - After The Lights
The Saddest Landscape are music nerds, and you’ve got to admire them for it. In addition to releasing tons of rare vinyl — that’s what the kids like these days, right? — the northeastern group plays a brand of music that reflects their eclectic tastes. At its core, their new record After The Lights is a screamo LP with irrefutable ties to the current revivalist movement known as “The Wave,” which they helped pioneer. It’s the peripheral aesthetic, though, that sets After The Lights apart from its forebears and contemporaries. Resonant guitars evoke post-rock, while frontman Andy Maddox spits out his bitter lyrics in a Tim Kasher-reminiscent hiss.
40. White Lung - Sorry
Whatever you do, don’t call this a Riot Grrrl record. White Lung’s latest LP Sorry may be aggressive, fleet-footed, and deceptively catchy, but this female-fronted Canadian group is making no attempts at reviving the long-dormant Riot Grrrl movement. Rather, this adventurous record, clocking in at under 20 minutes, is one of the most immediately appealing and forward thinking hardcore albums to drop this year. From the searing riffs that anchor “Glue” to frontwoman Mish Way’s vicious verbal attacks on “Thick Lip” (a Lana Del Rey diss?), Sorry never makes time for apologies.
39. Parquet Courts - Light Up Gold
Post-Punk, Indie Rock
It’s been a minute since anybody considered New York post-punk revival cool, but that’s only because the bands making that kind of music in New York right now are passé. Leave it to Andy Savage, the Texas-hailing former frontman of Teenage Cool Kids, to wrench that aesthetic back into relevance with his new band Parquet Courts. On their debut LP Light Up Gold, Savage and Co. trim the fat from post-punk, leaving only the raw, unrelentingly catchy essence. On these fifteen brief cuts, Parquet Courts recycle chord progressions, re-use guitar/bass tones, and rarely change up their vocal mannerisms, but it doesn’t matter. They’ve effectively perfected the formula for this style of music; all they can do now is continue to run with it.
38. Henry Bemis Is A Superhero - I’ve Been Asleep
Indie Folk, Screamo
In the sleepy town of Missoula, Montana, there is a young man who looks and sounds a lot like a teenaged Conor Oberst. His name is Ethan Uhl — aka Henry Bemis is a Superhero —and although he tends to shrug off comparisons to Oberst’s longrunning Bright Eyes project, one can’t help but note the comparisons in vocal style, lyrical content, and general demeanor. And yet, Uhl’s vision points in a decidedly different direction from his older, Omaha-based counterpart. His new EP I’ve Been Asleep is stripped down to its barest core, leaving only tape hiss, desperately strummed acoustic guitar, and frantically wracked vocals that reach skyward in their agony only to fall, defeated, into the hollowed-out mix underneath. Because of the emotions that it will surely evoke, it’s the kind of record that you’ll never want to listen to, but every time you do, you’ll realize something new about yourself.
37. Poliça - Give You The Ghost
Electronic, Synth Pop
This band has been riding on extensive hype from the get-go. After their South By Southwest showcase earlier this year, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver even bought into it, calling them “the best band [he’s] ever heard.” One can understand why Vernon was so appreciative. Poliça, a Minnesota-based group, mixes distinctly modern tones and production qualities with appropriated elements of 1980s pop nostalgia, much as Vernon did with his side project Gayngs. Poliça’s record Give You The Ghost, however, is much more dance-oriented than any of Vernon’s work. It’s punchy and urgent, featuring some of the better beats and disco-inflected synth lines of the year, but it’s also a remarkably bizarre record. Frontwoman Channy Leaneagh’s vocals are the highlight, multitracked and frequently run through auto-tune filters to give it a uniquely-2012 feeling of retrofuturism.
36. Tawny Peaks - Tawny Peaks
Emo, Indie Rock
Original review HERE
The precocious New Jersey five-piece Tawny Peaks provided the stumbling emo revival movement with a dose of youthful energy this year with the arrival of their hype-baiting debut full length. Tawny Peaks exudes freshness and clarity, blending male and female vocals with fluid guitars and adeptly straddling the line between emo’s more aggressive and more relaxed tendencies. It’s a particularly great record for the colder months of the year, in which Charlie Perris and Molly Grund’s warm, harmonic vocals provide a soothing balm against the frigid air. Although this band takes their name from a 1980s porn star, they manage to eschew much of the hackneyed humor that many of their revivalist peers use as a crutch with respect to their song titles and lyrics. Especially considering that Tawny Peaks is a group that predominantly comprises teenagers, such professionalism is impressive.
35. Aesop Rock - Skelethon
Aesop Rock could have looked in on himself on Skelethon, the New York rapper’s self-produced seventh LP. He could have taken it as an opportunity to be introspective and personal, given the notable absence of collaborators and additional producers. Although his raps on Skelethon do occasionally get intimate, Aesop predominantly aims his barbs outward, re-asserting himself as a singular hip-hop force after his five year absence (his last solo record came out in 2007). Aesop’s scene may have changed a lot since that record came out, most notably with El-P’s Definitive Jux label going under in 2010, but it’s good to see that Aesop himself has changed little. On Skelethon, he maintains his presence as rap’s most brilliant conspiracy theorist. He’s as paranoid as ever, but he’s never been more articulate.
34. The Ambulars - Dreamers Asleep At The Wheel
Pop Punk, Garage Punk
Call them reactionary if you must. 2012 was a year that saw numerous rock bands tread back over the post-adolescent battleground to cull renewed meaning from the well-worn thematic realm of teenaged angst. Of the bands that succeeded, The Ambulars did so under the most strained circumstances — lack of funds, disparate band members, infrequent shows, and relatively little hype behind them. And yet, perhaps because of those odds, their debut LP Dreamers Asleep At The Wheel feels uniquely authentic. Combining the earnest, nasal whines and lyrics of The Get Up Kids’ Matt Pryor with rough and tumble noise rock guitars and reverb-laden female harmonies, Dreamers is the idyllic record your high school band wished they made.
33. Purity Ring - Shrines
Electronic, Dream Pop
Original review HERE
Let’s get this out of the way early on: Don’t expect to see Grimes’ Visions higher up on this list. When it comes to buzzy, female-fronted synth pop, I’ll take Megan James’ glimmering pipes and Corin Riddick’s expansive trap-hop beats over Claire Boucher’s affected bleats and bloops any day. Purity Ring’s debut LP Shrines is an ambitiously accessible pop record, combining heady soundscapes with thick, sweet synths and terrific melodies. Lyrically, James’ darkly sexual come ons sound particularly eerie when conveyed through songs as catchy as “Fineshrine” and “Belispeak.” In the future, I’d like to see this group go full on sugar-pop, while retaining the murky conceptual platform that makes Shrines a unique record. An increased production budget could lead this band towards pop perfection.
32. Spirit Night - One Man Houses
Indie Rock, Emo
Original review HERE
West Virginia-based singer/songwriter Dylan Balliett raised the stakes on One Man Houses, the new record from his longrunning Spirit Night project. After dropping 2010’s dreamy full length What We Will Be, along with a series of EPs and splits last year, Balliett spent some time in Brooklyn and came back to turn Spirit Night into a full on punk band. The hard-charging One Man Houses is the result, blending Balliett’s unique brand of singer/songwriter overshare with searing guitar leads, propulsive drums, and a renewed sense of aggressive desperation. Most of the material comprises fast, earworm garage punk, but the real highlights come when the band slows things down, as on “The Last Time,” retaining their newfound heaviness at a restrained pace. Additionally, their punk rock cover of “Rubberneck” by Balliett’s friend David Bello is absolutely perfect.
31. Title Fight - Floral Green
Pop Punk, Indie Rock, Shoegaze
Pennsylvania punks Title Fight’s sophomore LP Floral Green is an accomplished paean to all things vaguely “90s” and “independent.” You’ve got your Jawbreaker-indebted pop PUNK (“Numb, But I Still Feel It”), your noisy slacker grunge rock (“Secret Society”), and, most importantly, a heavy dose of Hum-reminiscent shoegaze. The band succeeds the most when exploring the latter aesthetic, mixing complicated, churning guitar textures with the vitriol that Title Fight’s background in melodic hardcore taught them. The record is rarely as transcendent or thoroughly dreamy as the standout track “Head In The Ceiling Fan,” but Floral Green’s diversity only makes the highlights stand out more clearly.
30. Titus Andronicus - Local Business
Indie Rock, Power Pop
Original review HERE
Conceptual heavy-handedness, tepid production, and fucking “(I Am The) Electric Man” aside, I can’t help but love it. Titus Andronicus is my favorite band, and although Local Business is clearly the first misstep (or at least sidestep) of their career, it’s still a Titus Andronicus record. After laying out the Civil War-sized scope of The Monitor, the Glen Rock, New Jersey group refined their focus down to power punk quintessence on Local Business, evoking The Hold Steady’s sturdy bar rock more than ever before. Despite what its of-the-earth title and simpler arrangements might suggest, Local Business a lyrically high-minded album that finds frontman Patrick Stickles questioning the meaning of existence through a series of personal vignettes — a deadly car accident, a move to New York, a lifelong eating disorder, and more. It doesn’t all come together, but on an individual level, Stickles’ pointed lyrical observations about life are this record’s saving grace.
29. The Tallest Man On Earth - There’s No Leaving Now
Original review HERE
With now three excellent full lengths out under his stagename The Tallest Man On Earth, Swedish singer/songwriter Kristian Matsson is quickly establishing himself as one of the world’s foremost modern folk bards. His fleet-fingered guitar plucks and aged, wiry tenor serve as a great conveyer for his timeless, evocative poetry. On There’s No Leaving Now, he expands his musical formula with some mostly-unobtrusive supplementary instrumentation: lithe electric guitar leads, gentle keyboards, and click-tracked percussion. The instrumentation change is definitely interesting, but crucially, the songs are also terrific. Tracks like the strummy “1904” and the somber “Bright Lanterns” would sound great regardless of how they might be arranged.
28. Joie De Vivre - We’re All Better Than This
Emo, Indie Rock
With their new full length We’re All Better Than This, I think it’s safe to say that Illinois’ Joie De Vivre have solidified their position as 3rd wave emo’s foremost mope rockers. Although We’re All Better Than This lacks the sweeping coherence of their 2010 masterpiece The North End, it’s still just about the most misanthropic listen you’ll find in 2012. The slow, American Football-style guitars drone on in misery and frontman Brandon Lutmer moans slowly, with apparent agony in each desperate vocalization. There is humor here, in the song titles and some of the lyrics concerning aging and disillusionment, but it’s the kind of humor that sort of makes you want to kill yourself once the laughter subsides. Perhaps it’s true that the funniest people you know are always secretly the ones with the most problems. Anyway, this record is great.
27. El-P - Cancer For Cure
Original review HERE
Former Definitive Jux head El-P returned after a 5 year absence from the rap game to drop Cancer For Cure this year, a record that seemingly strove to wrench El-P’s brand of futurist alt-hip hop back into relevance by sheer brute force. His ambition as a rapper and as a producer on this record is huge — the thing clanks monstrously with brutalist, blocky beats while El-P guns down target after target with his rapid-fire machine gun flow. It’s an unsubtle beast for sure, unlike his pal Aesop Rock’s 2012 album, but it’s so gleeful in its destruction, so violent in its delivery, and so tactful in its inclusion of hyped guests like Danny Brown, Killer Mike, and Mr. Muthafuckin’ ExQuire that I can’t help but love it so much more.
26. Cloud Nothings - Attack On Memory
Garage Punk, Emo
Original review HERE
One of the best and most profound surprises of 2012 came just a few weeks into it when Cloud Nothings dropped Attack On Memory, their dark, grungy follow up to last year’s self-titled record. In every aspect of its existence including its ominous title, Attack On Memory sought to eradicate any notions of Cloud Nothings as an inoffensive, post-Wavves, lo-fi pop band. Instead, this Steve Albini-produced monster finds Dylan Baldi’s group blending the heavy atmospheres of Slint and Unwound with ’90s emo’s sense of melody and song structure. The band manages to justify this radical stylistic shift by virtue of their conviction; Baldi screams lines like “We’ve started a war” and “I thought I would be more than this” as if such sentiments had never been uttered before. Meanwhile, the newly solidified Cloud Nothings full band (previous works had been recorded entirely by Baldi himself) throbs along with the kind of energy that only live tracking to tape can capture.
25. King Tuff - King Tuff
Original review HERE
Emblazoned with its iconic and suitably ridiculous skull and batwings cover art, the latest and best LP from Vermont’s King Tuff is a humorous and bright-eyed powerhouse of rock & roll worship. With help from his remarkably tight backing band, the King lurches gleefully across genres and decades, mixing Zeppelin-tier riffs (as on “Anthem”), 80’s shoegazer textures (“Stupid Superstar”), Replacements-style power pop (“Hit & Run”) and 60’s garage “Loser’s Wall” into 40 minutes of careening roller coaster fervor. In his vocal inflections and lyrical motifs, King Tuff keeps things silly and upbeat, but because of its musical viability, the record never feels cheap or disingenuous. Along with the delightfully catchy stoner anthem “Alone & Stoned,” lead single “Bad Thing” is the album’s highlight — 2 minutes and 19 seconds of Strat-smashing, cymbal-crashing, chorus-howling, joyful fury. You know you secretly love AC/DC; give this a try as well.
24. Suns - The Engine Room
Emo, Indie Rock
Original review HERE
Suns didn’t blow me out of the water in 2011 when they dropped their first high profile release, an EP entitled Be Good Boy. To some extent, my lackluster appreciation for that record was informed by residual sadness and frustration about the unofficial but apparent demise of Midi & The Modern Dance, one of my favorite Connecticut-based groups ever. Suns formed alongside that band, of which all three original members were a part, but rose to prominence out of Midi’s ashes. For their first full length LP The Engine Room, they welcomed former Fugue guitarist Peter Katz into the fold, who brought an instrumental dexterity and compositional edge to their music, undoubtedly allowing frontman Will Rutledge to improve his lyricism and settle into the dark atmospheres that they were now working in. The result is an album nearly on par with Midi’s Make It Easy On Yourself, but darker, more musically diverse, and featuring significantly improved production. Despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that it often strays into gentler, more sublime territory than the work of many of Suns’ peers, The Engine Room was the best record that emo revival had to offer this year.
23. Beach House - Bloom
Dream Pop, Electronic
Dream pop darlings Beach House seem to one-up themselves with every passing record, improving their uniformly lush, billowing production, tightening their album-wide coherence, and writing better and better songs on every subsequent LP. Knowing that their formula is a great one, Beach House rarely actually changes its aesthetic in any dynamic ways, but rather improves it, playing to their strengths in all the right ways. This year’s Bloom is a marked improvement on 2010’s Teen Dream, and although it’s not as romantically evocative as a whole, the album simply provides such a gorgeous listening experience that it hardly matters. Any number of these ten gorgeous tracks could find a place on my forthcoming Top Songs of the Year list (only one, as per my self-imposed rules, actually made it), but Bloom works best in its full, hour-length duration. Sit down, relax, and let the aching bliss of Victoria Legrand’s vocals and keys, Alex Scally’s reverberant guitar, and the duo’s collective atmospheric solvent pour out onto you.
22. How To Dress Well - Total Loss
At the roots and core of rhythm & blues, there is a fatally broken heart that somehow continues to beat. Rather unexpectedly, DePaul University philosophy student/very white white boy Tom Krell managed to tap into that timeless desperation with the appropriately-named Total Loss, the latest LP from his experimental R&B project How To Dress Well. Total Loss is a futurist soul record that finds its place somewhere between the drugged-out misery of The Weeknd and the solemn philosophizing of Frank Ocean, milking the moody textures of the former while maintaining some semblance of composure throughout, like the latter. Krell occasionally ventures into full on soul pop territory (on “& It Was U”), but mostly remains in an amorphous electronic stasis, favoring shimmering, deeply layered atmospheres over well-constructed songs. Thankfully, the aesthetic that he creates on Total Loss is among the only truly unique sonic worlds that I had the pleasure of exploring in 2012, and I’m entirely grateful for it.
21. Loma Prieta - I.V.
Of the heavy music albums that I listened to this year, Loma Prieta’s I.V. blows everything else out of the water in terms of sheer sonic heft. It’s an unrelenting behemoth of an LP, kicking off with a searing scream on “Fly By Night” and never ceasing to relinquish its rage throughout its 46 minute running time. The production on this thing is truly unbelievable: every thunderous bass riff, every chug of a six string charged through a humbucker pickup, and every Hell-wrenched bark of frontman Brian Kanagaki is nothing short of earth-shattering via its impactful inertia. The energy that Loma Prieta produces on I.V. is so violent and unstable that it cannot practically even be separated into individual songs. On the five minute, three-part “Trilogy” series, traditional notions of song structure are all but entirely abandoned. Like heat from an overcharged furnace, the aggression rises to the top, and with one blistering drum fill after another, Loma Prieta quickly shatters the ceiling.
Check back here tomorrow for the final 20 entries in this list. To keep up with all the lists I’m putting out this year, check out my 2012 list schedule. Thanks for reading!
THE MUSIC TAPES live at The Blank Canvas. Hamden CT. 11/3/12
It’s hard for me to put into words what the past 24 hours have been like for me, but I will do my best. It was, to put it briefly, an utterly surreal experience. As soon as I walked into The Blank Canvas (a temporary warehouse space owned and operated by The Space), it was as if I had transcended this drab, material plane of existence and entered something entirely transmundane. On record, The Music Tapes are at best capable of merely alluding to this exo-world, giving fuzzy and brief glimpses into it through the nostalgic hiss of old magnetic tape and the gentle bleat of a bowed banjo. Although their recorded music has come to occupy a very special space in my heart, their live show — especially on this tour — is completely incomparable.
I first saw The Music Tapes nearly a full year ago, when they opened for Jeff Mangum at the Shubert Theater in New Haven. It was an appropriate pairing, given that Mangum and The Music Tapes’ frontman Julian Koster were once both members of Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Tapes certainly brought that Elephant 6 Collective whimsy and pyschedelia to the show last night as well. The difference between the New Haven show and this one was as much a matter of intimacy as it was of scope. Along with the previous night’s show in Massachusetts, this show was a preview of the band’s boldest live vision yet. It’s called the “Travelling Imaginary” tour, and it involves the Music Tapes bringing a giant rectangular circus tent to every show and allowing the attendees to come in and sit inside it, inviting them into a dreamlike, musical world for the duration of the night.
Although the band was still working out some logistical kinks (it was, after all, a preview show), the Travelling Imaginary experience was delightfully playful and, at times, soberingly beautiful. It was also surprisingly interactive, featuring film projections, a carnival-style beanbag toss, and a silly Romanian ball game (played with red balloons) that Julian Koster curated and played with the raptly attentive audience of approximately 75 people. When the band was actually playing, they sounded better than I’ve ever heard them, on record or otherwise. Koster was joined by longtime collaborator Robbie Cucchiaro, who played various horn instruments, along with a keyboard player and a multi-instrumentalist who occasionally found himself playing three instruments at once. The four piece was supplemented by an accoutrement of Music Tapes members of the inanimate variety, including a “mechanical organ tower” and a 7-foot tall metronome that stood ominously and obelisk-like behind the group. Koster himself frequently switched instruments from orchestral banjo (which he played with a violin bow) to singing saw, and even to heavily distorted bass guitar, which he used on “S’ Alive to Be Known (May We Starve),” much to the audience’s delight. No matter what instrument he was playing, a wide-eyed smile never left Koster’s perpetually youthful face, which filled the iridescent tent with enough warm energy to staunch the cold air from outside.
Much of the setlist was culled from the band’s newest and best album, Mary’s Voice, which is out now on Merge Records. Album opener “The Dark Is Singing Songs (Sleepy Time Down South)” made for a wonderful highlight in the middle of the show, with Cucchiaro’s muted trouble accenting Koster’s pining vocals, while “Spare The Dark Streets” found Koster’s banjo waltzing in time with Cucchiaro’s valve trombone. The setlist also included standout tracks from the band’s other two LPs, including the metronone-assisted “The Minister of Longitude” from 2008’s Music Tapes For Clouds and Tornadoes. Although the show was filled with evocative instances of beauty both great and small, there was one moment in particular that stood out as truly moving and memorable. When Julian Koster solemnly stood in the center of the tent for the last time to play “Takeshi and Elijah,” surrounded by his bandmates and their various eccentric instruments, it was akin to when I saw Jeff Mangum close with “Ferris Wheel on Fire” in Boston last September. As “Takeshi’s” forlorn banjo chords rang out amidst the hushed, cross-legged crowd, the room assumed the kind of indescribable energy that many of Julian’s endearingly imagined folk stories are about. It’s as if there was an abstract understanding reached amongst everyone packed into the tent last night — some profundity so immaterial that it could only be conveyed through music, specifically that of Julian Koster The song’s last, lone banjo note seemed to last forever, as if in an eternal solipsism, as a testament to the timelessness of Koster’s legacy. By the time the full band came crashing in at the very end, keyboards and horns blaring, it seemed more like a celebration than a requiem. The Travelling Imaginary may have ended for us that night in an objective sense, but it nevertheless left an indelible mark on everybody who was there.
Of course, if you’ve been paying attention to what I’ve been posting in the past day, you know that my experience with The Music Tapes didn’t actually end at The Blank Canvas that night. When I drove home with Julian Koster in my car, ate veggie burgers a diner on Dixwell Avenue with seven of the loveliest people I now know, and eventually made breakfast and drank coffee with them this morning, I saw a human side to a group of people who just last night had made a pretty good case for idolization. It made me realize a truth about modern music culture, specifically with regards to The Music Tapes, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Elephant 6. There are no rock stars anymore — just people who are creative and/or crazy enough to survive this kind of musical existence. Julian Koster and the Music Tapes do that and more; they thrive in their lifestyle and inspire others to do the same. When Julian signed my copy of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea before we all headed back to Hamden to take down the tent today, it felt oddly anti-climactic, but the truth is, he had already left his mark on me. That mark — the mark of influence, respect, and hope for the future — was more permanent than any autograph could ever be.
fairly certain that this was referring to Laura and me
The Music Tapes - “Takeshi and Elijah”
This is my favorite track from The Music Tapes’ new LP Mary’s Voice, their most accomplished and coherent album yet, from a songwriting perspective. It’s soothing, but fraught with uncertainty — gentle, but mysterious and dark. Julian Koster’s strummed banjo and voice solemnly occupy the first five minutes by themselves, before the full band comes in at the end to finish the record on a lush, exuberant, high note.
The lyrics speak of past times, with touching references to Koster’s past band Neutral Milk Hotel, but the song itself feels timeless, like much of the Elephant 6 Collective’s best output. I feel like Koster has spent the past two decades searching extensively for the best way to express his thoroughly unique creative voice, and this song is perhaps the most fully realized documentation of the progression that he’s made.
Stream “Takeshi and Elijah” above and purchase Mary’s Voice from Merge Records. If you’re in the Connecticut area, come catch The Music Tapes tonight on their “Travelling Imaginary” tour at The Space in Hamden. More information about that show can be found HERE.
The Music Tapes are staying at my house tonight after their show.
This is the first time I’ve hosted a touring band at my house, and I’m really excited. I hope I don’t geek out too hard but it’s a distinct possibility.
Left of the Dial Radio Playlist - 11/2/12
Thanks for tuning in to my radio show last night on WNHU. Below is the full playlist, which, I’m happy to say, included a number of great requests. Thanks for that especially! Stream the available tracks via Spotify at the bottom of this post, and be sure to tune in again next Friday from 6 to 8 PM Eastern time.
- 1. You Blew It! - “The One With Marc”
- 2. Cock Sparrer - “Riot Squad”
- 3. Joan of Arc - “The Hands”
- 4. Joie De Vivre - “Maybe People Do Change”
- 5. Beach House - “The Hours” (Requested by myriad-harbour)
- 6. Simon & Garfunkel - “Bleecker Street”
- 7. Neil Young - “Harvest”
- 8. The Rural Alberta Advantage - “Tornado ‘87”
- 9. Neutral Milk Hotel - “Little Birds”
- 10. Akron/Family - “I’ll Be On The Water” (Requested by withlugosi)
- 11. The Music Tapes - “Freeing Song For Reindeer”
- 12. My Morning Jacket - “Wordless Chorus”
- 13. Sidewalk Dave - “Cayenne”
- 14. Man Man - “Black Mission Goggles”
- 15. Feist - “My Moon My Man”
- 16. The Hold Steady - “Barfruit Blues” (Requested by please-get-free)
- 17. Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate) - “When You Are Done Living On Borrowed Time” (Requested by sea-fence)
- 18. Earl Sweatshirt - “Chum”
- 19. Hot Sugar - “Rat City” (feat. Big Baby Gandhi, Nasty Nigel, YC the Cynic & S@rah Miche11e Gell@r)
- 20. jj - “Things Will Never Be The Same Again”
- 21. College - “A Real Hero” (feat. Electric Youth)
- 22. PJ Harvey - “This Mess We’re In” (feat. Thom Yorke)
- 23. Gang Gang Dance - “Mindkilla”
- 24. Boards of Canada - “Chromakey Dreamcoat”
- 25. Radiohead - “Life In A Glasshouse”
- 26. Bright Eyes - “The Center of the World”
- 27. The Music Tapes - “Takeshi and Elijah”
Stream via Spotify:
Neutral Milk Hotel - On Avery Island (1995 - 2011 Vinyl reissue)
I’m giving this a quick spin right now before the Jeff Mangum solo show tonight at The Shubert in New Haven. This release of On Avery Island was included in the vinyl-only Neutral Milk Hotel box set that was released at the end of last year. It’s notable for its slightly different cover art, which doesn’t feature the red border and text of the original and the CD issue. The inner gatefold features a black and white drawing of an angel in an old theater hall, much like the hall in which Mangum will be playing tonight.
Anyway, regarding the show —
Julian Koster’s band The Music Tapes is opening, which hopefully means that I’ll get to see a Mangum/Koster reunion of sorts at some point tonight. This will be my second Jeff Mangum show, as I saw him in Boston in September. Check out a review of that show HERE and expect a new review tomorrow night.