Saturday, December 29, 2012

Best of 2012: LPs

Yup, it's that time of year. Trolling through dozens of records and mp3 files, drinking myself stupid as I do so, all in a heroic effort to guide you, dear reader, through the best noise that 2012 had to offer. There's no real order to these lists-for example, I loved Bloom for very different reasons than Songs of Love and Despair, so they're not being assigned a qualitative hierarchy.
   First up are the LPs. EPs, tapes and demos will follow in separate posts. It's 11 insteada 10 'cause I got drunk and fucked up the numbers. Whatever, the Broken Water releases this year were ragers, all of 'em!


1. Wonderfuls-Salty Town (self-released)

If you only buy a handful of records in 2013, this should be one of them. This is the only record I’ve heard this year that gives Kitchen's Floor's Bitter Defeat EP a run for its money. It shares the same gripping melancholy of that release, but lacks the dynamism that Bitter Defeat has, by virtue of the organ and drums. On Salty Town, The Wonderfuls are obsessed with capturing the sound of desolation; listening to this album is like staring at an ice pond on an overcast day for an hour, completely alone, only to see the sun suddenly peek out from the clouds. Perhaps this isn’t entirely coincidental-Bobby Bot, aka Robert Vagg, drums in Kitchen's Floor, and he sings in the Wonderfuls.   
            The Wonderfuls debuted in 2011 with a savage piece of noize schlock on Negative Guest List, and this is a complete 180: instead of Raw Power on steroids, Salty Town is six tracks of hushed guitar and vocals, awash in layer upon layer of echoing effects. The music, care of Bobby’s cousin, Danny McGirr, envelops the vocals like a warm echo chamber: it sounds like Bobby’s singing in a Gothic cathedral. There’s nothing else: no further instrumentation, no attempt at mediating between the listener and Bobby’s tales of childhood nostalgia, adult problems, and efforts to come to terms with them.
            Bobby’s singing voice is a hollow, flat distillation of raw emotion that may have some echo in early Death in June, but in a completely different context. He stretches out each word, almost each syllable, until the vocals match the phrasing and glacial pace of the music. “Relapse,” as far as I can hear, is a tale of battling one’s demons and grappling with one’s inability to connect with other people: as the song closes, he repeats “I…think…they’re…out…there….” insistently, as if he can call some sort of companionship into being. It’s one of the best songs I’ve heard all year.

This is extremely bleak, melancholic music-in an intriguing interview, Bobby said that “I think Salty Town is about accepting that you may not be happy, and that this may be as good as it gets.” Yet, like the Bitter Defeat EP, my other favorite record of the year, by creating such a bleak and introspective album, the Wonderfuls are transcending isolation and anomie. Music doesn’t have to be therapeutic to be good, but most of the best records are, and Salty Town is absolutely that. Listen here.

2. Beach House, Bloom (Sub Pop):
"What comes after this/momentary bliss/[is a] consequence/of what you do to me..."-"Myth" 
I usually steer clear of what passes for indie rock these days, but Beach House is an exception. Sneer and mock all you like, but Beach House is probably the best, and certainly the most consistent, indie/rock band of the last ten years. What I respect most about Victoria LeGrand and Alex Scally is their ability to maintain the same ambiance across four LPs, while changing and developing within that basic framework. This is not the same thing as making the same album over and over again (like the Ramones, for example). Rather, Beach House is still working with the same dynamic that produced 2006’s self-titled debut, while incorporating new dimensions and, fundamentally, working a lot more space into each new album, even into each song. It’s like living in a house that you gradually refurbish and personalize over the years: it’s the same structure, completely transformed.
Scally and LeGrand hinted at this in their May interview with Pitchfork: Scally noted that a lot of people probably just listen to their sound, instead of their songs. I’m certainly guilty of this: I heard Devotion first, loved the self-titled LP but thought I was bored by it, and then, when Bloom dropped, thought it was just a slicker version of Teen Dream. This is a result of the sort of superficial listening that has overtaken most of us with the advent of the internet and all the changes it’s brought to music and its reception; Legrand cuts to the heart of the matter ten minutes into this interview-cum-live-show.
Bloom works with the same palette, maybe, as Teen Dream, but the canvas is much bigger; or maybe it’s the same canvas with an expanded palette. Whatever, Teen Dream-from Scally’s vibrant guitar notes at the beginning of “Zebra” to the surprisingly cheery organ of “Take Care”-was speaking the same language of Devotion and the self-titled LP, but in another register, another voice. The sadness and graying beauty of the first two LPs was still there, but a lot of the bitterness of Devotion was gone, replaced with a knowing refusal to wallow in self-indulgence: when LeGrand sang, in the chorus of “Zebra,” “Don’t I know you/better than the rest….”, she could be talking to her past self as well as an ex-lover. 

            Bloom is delivered in the same voice as Teen Dream, but the breathlessness of the 2010 LP is mostly gone, in favor of slow-moving songs that unfold at their own pace. Listening to “Myth,” the opening track and debut single, is like watching a flower, well, bloom: the more you listen to it, the more details you spot; as the song progresses, the more texture develops until it sounds like a full-on orchestral piece at the end. Again, patience and repetition is the key to appreciating Beach House: I hated this thing when it came out, thinking “Eh, Beach House has even slicker production so they did a fancier job of making their first LP again.” This is just the sort of lazy listening that Scally and LeGrand rightfully denounced in the above-mentioned interview. All music worth listening to demands something from the listener, and Bloom is no different. Released in May, it’s still surprising me in December, and I can see myself listening to it for years. How many other bands or albums can you say that of in this age of instant obsolescence?
         I demand that you sit down with this and listen to it repeatedly. It’s well worth it.
One last note, though: Scally and LeGrand seem like fundamentally decent people who have kept clear heads despite the whirlwind of publicity (at least on the indie level) they’ve lived in since “Apple Orchard” hit on Pitchfork. In interviews they sound intelligent, and I’m guessing they’re nice to their fans. I’m pretty sure most pop stars aren’t like that. Check it out here.

3. Merchandise-Children of Desire (Katorga Works):

“we’re still young, baby, but we’re getting old..."-“Time”

In 2012, the rest of the world (by which I mean the sort of people who attend that Pitchfork festival in Chicago, as opposed to those of us who got into Merchandise ‘cause they come from the hardcore scene ) acknowledged Merchandise’s existence. Honestly, I hope these guys become huge. God knows that growing up in Tampa counts as serving time off in Purgatory, and their songs are good enough that they deserve a wider audience than can fit in your local basement punk venue. It won’t be the same, but whatever: I'd be happy to see Merchandise in Chicago's Metro.

(Strange Songs) In the Dark grew on me after awhile, but Children of Desire had me hooked right from the beginning. Chris Cox’s voice is so impossibly, melodramatically sodden with emotion that I challenge anyone who’s not dead and who loves rock ‘n’ roll to hate this LP: even if the band sucked, and they don’t, the singing would be enough to make the LP noteworthy. “Thin Air,” a synthesizer-and-vox intro, merely warms you up for “Time,” which might be my favorite song of 2012. The keyboard notes are downright dreamlike as the song starts, and this slightly surreal feel only grows as the song ends its beginning and kicks into full gear. A burbling bass line underlies the swirling synthesizer box and massive guitar leads.
 I don’t wanna turn this writeup into a mush of references to ‘80s bands, but I will say that Merchandise, based on the core of this album-“Time,” “Become What you Are,” and “In Nightmare Room”-write some of the best, most heartfelt music I’ve heard in years. The music soars above the maudlin singing, with Vassoliti’s riffs creating a cocoon for Cox to gush in; heartbreak hasn’t sounded this wonderful in quite awhile. Don’t take my word for it; check out the video for “Time” on Youtube, and fall in love with the song. On “Become What you are," soft synthesizer fuzz and a drum machine set up another majestic riff. Cox’s first verse contains one of the best, and most dismissive, lines I’ve heard in a long time: “The music started/I realized it was all a lie/the guitars were ringing out/last year’s punk.” Check it out yourself, dear readers.

“Satellite” and “Roser Park” throw casual listeners for a loop and, even though “Roser Park” is the weakest track here, the last two songs show how ambitious Merchandise is. I dunno, I’m sick of talking about these guys, so just fucking get into ‘em already. Then go hassle Katorga Works to re-press this LP!  Listen to "Time" here.

4. The Men-Open Your Heart (Sacred Bones):
 I guess a lot of people hated this one because it wears its influences on its sleeves, and is a much more straightforward rock ‘n’ roll record than Immaculada. If you’re expecting innovation and new sounds from a rock ‘n’ roll band in 2012, you’re a moron: any musical genre going on 60 years simply cannot break new ground, in my opinion. If your band consists of a drummer, guitarist, bassist, and singer, there’s only so many sounds you can create, and most of them have been done. Quality rock ‘n’ roll in this day and age consists, as so much of it always has, in playing it like you mean it, not blazing new trails (listen to  Chord if you want that!).
            Another thing I hate about how The Men have been treated in the press/blogosphere/whatever is that, like Fucked Up, they’ve been hailed by lame cunts such as Pitchfork as the “saviors of punk” among other horseshit. Any asshole who would write something like that was never part of the punk scene, and I resent the idea that punk somehow needs to be “saved.” Us losers are doing just fine, thankyaverymuch.

So. Rant aside, this is simply the funnest rock record I heard all year. “Turn it Around” is an absolute wrecking ball, an anthem up there with The Clash’s best work. From “Turn it Around” to the closer, the blatant Sonic Youth-esque tune “Ex-Dreams,” it sounds like The Men are having a great time and inviting you to do the same. They haven’t ditched all their droney elements-“Oscillation” and “Ex-Dreams” in particular retain some kraut rock elements-but consciously or not, The Men have opened up to the masses on this one. Throw it on, crack a beer, and hang out. You can chill with The Men here.

5.  Bitch Prefect-Big Time (Bedroom Suck):

A lot of my favorite music in 2012 came from Hungary or Australia, for whatever reason. Most of this music, from both countries, was rambunctious, fundamentally obnoxious and/or simply nasty noise. Bitch Prefect, on the other hand, offers twelve songs that remind me of nothing more than Beat Happening if Calvin Johnson was an Austrlian instead of a hippy.
Bitch Prefect’s songs are so disarmingly direct, it’s downright offensive. Witness “Bad Decisions”: barely rhythmic drums, a basic chord change I could probably learn in an hour, and lyrics on the order of “then I got in a car and went into the city. And I was making bad decisions every opportunity. Bad decisions, bad life decisions.” Seriously, what’s with these guys? I dunno, but if you can move past the cotton candy quality of BP, they really grow on you. This LP works in a very perverse way. You keep waiting for the hidden brilliance to reveal itself, for some sort of subtlety to emerge after the Nth listen…but it never does. BP simply makes dirt-simple, clean pop songs that stick in your head. I keep wanting to hate this band and this LP, but I instead I just keep listening to it. Over and over again. Hell, if I was religious and/or dated a religious girl, I’d probably be able to keep listening to BP. I can’t say that of anything else in my collection except maybe the Byzantine liturgical chants I spin when I’m really blasted on Xanax. Buy it over here.
  6. Grass Widow-Internal Logic (HLR):

All of Grass Widow’s previous releases are solid, but Internal Logic is their most consistent release so far. Their sound has evolved considerably since their self-titled debut EP of 2009. What has changed is their mastery of the complex, interlocking harmonies.  The obvious comparison for this band has always been post-punk pioneers like the Raincoats and Slits, but it doesn’t do credit to GW to dismiss ‘em as revivalists. This comparison is usually followed by the obligatory “all-girl group” or “feminist band” blahblahblah, which really irks me. Why can’t people discuss Grass Widow or other post-punk bands whose membership happens to be all women without gendering the discussion? It’s reductive and stupid to assume that GW’s music is somehow determined by their gender. I’ll conclude by saying that “Internal Logic” is a fun piece of rock ‘n’ roll: come for the surf guitar, stay for the harmonic duets.

7. The Abigails-Songs of Love and Despair (Burger):
    I certainly wasn’t expecting a country rock album to rear its mullet-besotted head on this year-end list. The Abigails’ stunning debut wasn’t something you’d expect from Los Angeles: the cheerfully dark atmosphere of these songs places it deep in the desert or high up in the Rocky Mountains. The key to the album is Warren Thomas’ deep-throated croak and the twangy guitars. “Black Hell” gets a lot of mileage out of a basic riff and Thomas’ noirish tale of being stuck in some nameless hellhole of a Texas town….”there’s no comfort in black hell.” Put this on for your next gunfight or lover’s spat. Buy it over here.
 8. White Lung-Sorry (Deranged):

White Lung was the only new (i.e., a major album released in 2012) punk band I got excited about this year. In fact, Sorry was the only urgent album of the year: White Lung plays every song like there’s something their lives depend on it, as if they’re playing because they have to. I’ve been listening to punk long enough that I hope I know when a band’s faking it, and I think White Lung is f’real.
Militancy, in the best sense of the term, spews from every chord. The opener, “Take the Mirror,” was one of the best rock songs of the year, and White Lung keeps up the same frantic pace through all ten tracks. “Bag” is a frantic dance number, snazzy enough to get you moving but it’s over so fast you can barely get on the floor. I don’t know what White Lung is so freaked out about, but their passion and energy is infectious. Try listening to “Thick Lips” and not wanna punch someone in the face. It helps that that “someone” would probably be some chauvinist frat boy. Call it riot grrrl, call it punk, I don’t give a fuck: White Lung is angry, tuneful, and passionate, and this fucking shreds. Buy it here. 
9. Cavedweller-2016 Pts. II & III (Business Deal):

-->I don’t know why this guy isn’t huge, or at least a cult sensation. Dirk Michener, the brains behind Cavedweller, has been making cool, down-tuned acoustic blues that stick with you in a mellow sorta way since 1994. 2016 II & III was my introduction to this guy’s work, and I’m a believer. There’s very few frills, and absolutely no flash, to Michener’s work. He settles into a groove, and mines it for all it’s worth.
            Michener specializes in lightly distorted, heavily reverb’d lo-fi blues that I hesitate to to call country only because that word conjures up images of Garth Brooks in a lot of peoples’ minds. Yet this is country, in a good sense: music for driving down a desolate, lonely highway somewhere deep in the American heartland, with nothing but your memories, heartbreak, and Dead Moon tapes to keep you company. “Kevin grows Gills,” despite being about that wretched Kevin Costner flick Water World, hasa  ghost town vibe all its own; “Stacy” is a jangly, bittersweet ode to.
            You get the idea. This is a record for the long morning after New Year’s, when you’re sitting around your apartment, gutpit depressed, facing another new year with not a whole lot of options and even less faith in the world around you. Slip it on and focus on the groove. Michener's such a nice guy, you can download it for free, but really you should buy it!

10. Crooked Bangs-s/t (Western Medical):

I was having an exceptionally shitty day when this thing landed in my inbox. If memory serves, I had almost gotten hit by a bus on my way to work, had a panic attack at the archive, lost my cigarettes in the rain, then some asshole tried to sell me brown “coke” when I was drinkin’ a beer at the end of the day and wouldn’t leave me alone. This tight, clever, and fucking bouncy record changed everything. Within five minutes of putting it on, I was awkwardly dancing around my one-room apartment, guzzling beer cause I wanted to (instead of from frustration), and was screaming mangled endearments out my window at passers-by.
The Misfits references are everywhere on this LP, but the song writing, thick bass, and crisp singing really set Crooked Bangs apart. CB’s sense of balance is fantastic: the mix mediates the surf guitar, melodically snarling vocals, tight drums, and infectious bass in a way most punk bands could only hope to do. “Blood Castle” is a good example: Guitar vamps duel with a sinuous bass line until the singer almost whispers around the one-minute mark. The song is a slow burning post-punk dance number firmly anchored on the “punk” end of that hypen. It’s an important distinction.

This LP is for all you punks who, like me, spend most of your time bummed out and cranky but still have enough youthful(?) enthusiasm to get happy just by listening to music. Listen to, then buy LP here.

 11. Broken Water-Seaside and Sedmikrasky (Hardly Art):

 I’m treating this as an LP, even though it's only two songs: they're both epic, clocking in at plus 10 minutes, and require sustained listening to really get into. Broken Water is better known for its colossal riffs, snide Sonic Youth-isms, and its genius for channeling 90s heavyweights like Dinosaur, Jr. and Nirvana without sounding like a copycat band.
     On this, we get a very different side of them, something approaching post rock. “Seaside” is a slow burning drums-cello-guitar piece that drifts along for 9 minutes like a leviathan at the bottom of the sea. Finally background vocals kick in, but they’re completely indecipherable; a ghost has joined the leviathan. Things falter and almost collapse around 11 minutes; then the cello kicks up a droning, whiney dirge that you expect to explode. It never does, but “Seaside” is a challenging mood piece that works (barely). “Daisy Version 2” is slightly shorter. The opening evokes the Nio-John Cale tune “It was a pleasure then,” but then it breaks down into stumbling piano and guitar hiss, punctuated by the band members’ laughter. The piece doesn’t really go anywhere and is a freeform exploration of structureless composition, in my opinion. Whatever, this EP hints at how ambitious Broken Water were getting just before they broke up. Bummer. You can buy the LP here.

These should be in the mix somewhere, too....:
Peaking Lights-Lucifer (you should still be able to get this, here.)
Broken Cups-Slaves of the Grave (buy it here.)
 The Chaw-self-titled (grab it here.)
Sharpeye-Beyond the Realm of Reason (here).
Opus Null-Alkotmanyos Anarchia-They live over here.
The Dictaphone-Let's Not (livehere ).
Crazy Spirit-s/t (buy it here.)       

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