INAUDIBLE is thrilled to present his 4th annual end of year listy list!
Holy shit, here we are again! As the year quickly comes to a close, I gaze out my window and watch the first winter storm of the season hit Montreal. Wistfully, I shuffle through the year in my mind, flashing back to a busy but amazing spring and the golden days of summer – of bike rides and park hangs, tennis matches and hot knives, cold beers on rooftops and falling in love. So nice. And with these memories comes snippets of sound, the summer jams I played way too loud and way too late and pissed off the neighbours. The songs that soundtracked my days and nights. With autumn came the return of the grind, the job that gets in the way of the work I really want to do, but keeps me young in the process. But there was also those crisp evening jogs, with music always pushing me, propelling me to run farther and faster. So good. And now l’hiver returns, encouraging ambient and electronic swirls and quiet guitars to join me on my weekly slog to work.
Life changes, music remains. All that to say, without further ado, let us go then, you and I…
TOP 15 ALBUMS OF 2012
15. Beach House – Bloom (Sub Pop Records)
Baltimore duo, Beach House make me feel like an adult. And for the six people who read this blog, you may have noticed over the last four years that this whole “adult thing” is something I’ve slowly been stepping into … lento, lentement, I’ve been testing the waters, and shedding away the ideals of youth I’d been stubbornly latching onto and have instead begun to embrace life as a real-live adult, and no other band plays a better soundtrack to this than Beach House.
Having a dinner party with friends who have children and own homes and drink wine instead of can beer? Play ‘em some Beach House! Parents stopping by to meet your new boyfriend or girlfriend? Pop on some Bloom! I actually gave a copy of this album to my dentist to put on while he’s drilling holes deep into some unfortunate’s maw, and guess what? The good doctor loves this shit. “Nice stuff that Beach House. It really grew on me,” he said with a grin, right before he jammed the cold needle into my jaw.
This is no way to discredit the music found on Bloom, because it showcases the duo’s finest songwriting to date. The leaps and bounds they made from Devotion to Teen Dream are now solid strides. They make being a grown-up look easy. The whole record flows smooth from appetizer to dessert, but it’s also an album that can accompany you just as nicely during a nightcap with a loved one and the snuggling that happens after…
14. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan (Domino Records)
I first saw Dirty Projectors play in 2009 when they opened for TV on the Radio. At the time, Bitte Orca had just been released and the indie world was a-buzz with grandiose statements about how incredible they were. The show was in Toronto’s worst venue (The Sound Academy) and I was only able to enjoy their set in a cursory way, because I was waiting for friends to show up and could not venture close to the stage. And somehow along the way after that, they ended up getting lumped in with a long list of bands that everyone says are awesome and I just haven’t listened to them: Animal Collective, Vampire Weekend, The Shins et al. Bands that seem too academic or cerebral, in the sense that they play with their minds first instead of their guts. I don’t doubt these bands aren’t great, they just didn’t appeal to my musical sensibilities at the time…
Anyway, fast forward to this summer, and my friend Mateusz is blasting “About to Die” in my kitchen on a sunny morning during Osheaga weekend and it clicked. I was swept into Dave Longstreth’s eccentric compositions, with their subtle evocation of White Album-era production. Swing Lo Magellan is all sorts of things: quirky, technical, gentle, sparse, and oddly moving. Critics have said that this is arguably the band’s most “listenable” record to date, and if so, I hope they continue in this vein rather than attempt to further complicate their sound, and as I said, play with their gut.
13. Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance (Kranky Records)
The other guitarist in Deerhunter, ya know, the shy guy who gets engulfed by the larger than life Bradford Cox? The one who just stands there and quietly rocks out? Well, his name’s Lockett Pundt, and he modestly stepped into the spotlight this year, releasing the excellent Spooky Action at a Distance under his Lotus Plaza moniker. It’s a shoegazey affair full of reverb and distortion, recalling 90’s indie bands like Superchunk, Treble Charger, and Dinosaur Jr.
It takes a few listens for the album to grow on you but once it does it reveals itself as a record that plays out beautifully from start to finish. It’s interesting to note that Spooky Action works in the same way an ambient album does, you can put it on and not hear it at all or listen carefully and get swept into every lick and hook. But I think it’s a record that needs to be listened to in its entirety, I don’t feel the songs pack the same emotional punch when listened to one at a time or out of sequence. That said, the album can feel a bit samey at times, but thankfully, that’s why we have Deerhunter.
12. Azealia Banks – Fantasea (self-released)
Blame this one on summer time – a guilty pleasure without question, but hell if it ain’t got some amazing production courtesy of Diplo, Hudson Mohawke, Araabmuzik, Ikonika, Machinedrum, and more. Around this time last year, Azealia Banks appeared out of the blogosphere with her now ubiquitous song “212”. It was an absolute earworm that showed off her talents as a singer and rapper. This year’s been a busy one for the young artist, she’s put out her 1991 EP, as well as Fantasea, and shows no sign of slowing down, as her full-length debut is set to drop in February.
As with all the new young ‘hip’ artists that explode overnight, I took Banks’ for what I thought she was, a young musician in a long line of young musicians lucky enough to have her 1,500,000 views of fame before fizzling out. But her damn name just kept popping up everywhere, and so when even my cousin Chris (a man of discerning tastes) was spouting her praises, I started putting Fantasea on while jogging, and within a few listens I was pumping my fist in the air and singing along with her. Fantasea is scattered, varied, and uneven, but there’s a lot of hands in the soup at this point, and Banks is still trying different things and figuring out her style…and while she’s figuring things out she’s having a hell of a fun time doing it. Tracks like “Luxury”, “Nathan” and “Fierce”, show her moving from deep house to disco to crunk as if it ain’t no thang. And as I mentioned earlier, she’s been fortunate to work with some of the most innovative producers out there, and so at this point the question that remains is if she is the by-product of amazing producers or the real star? Only time will tell and I’ll be listening along the way.
11. Purity Ring – Shrines (4AD)
The first of three Canadian entries on my list this year is the fast-rising duo from Edmonton, Purity Ring and their debut album, Shrines. Mixing the sensibilities of the Knife, Holy Other, Bjork, Burial, and labelmate Grimes, the young band have created a dark and moody collection of songs, with the help of processed vocals, synths, gloomy bass, and gritty yet expansive production. The lyrics throughout the record focus on the body and its organic nature, reminding us of our mortality while making us simultaneously contemplate our next move. Shrines came out in the summer but is better suited to the grey days of winter, and you can be sure it will be one I’ll be returning to during the wintry months ahead…
10. Wild Nothing – Nocturne (Captured Tracks)
Jack Tatum returned this year as Wild Nothing with his sophomore release Nocturne and makes good on his promise to amp up all that was endearing about his excellent debut Gemini. But to be honest, I was worried. After seeing his band play a dismal live show in Toronto in 2010, I was ready to cast them aside and get my 80’s/90’s fix elsewhere (Twin Shadow, Beach Fossils, Diiv, Wild Beasts). But, because I loved Gemini and the Golden Haze EP so much, I decided I had to give Nocturne a try. After my first listen I was underwhelmed, I felt the direction he had moved in was flat and the songwriting wasn’t as dynamic, but after a few more spins I realized my first impression was wrong, the songs were better written, gorgeously recorded, he’d upgraded to a live drummer, and incorporated some great strings. In short, Nocturne is a more complete album than Gemini, the songs have more meat on their bones, and don’t have to rely solely on reverb to get their point across.
Opening song “Shadow” revels in Tatum’s upgrade, with lustrous strings in between verses and a nod your head beat that makes me smile every time I hear it. “Only Heather”, “Paradise” and “The Blue Dress” all show Tatum as not just an excellent guitarist but a damn fine bass player as well. Perhaps Wild Nothing works best as a studio project and that’s fine with me, because in the end, Nocturne has proven to be one of the most consistently satisfying albums of the year for me.
9. CFCF – Exercises (Paper Bag Records)
Montreal producer Michael Silver aka CFCF returned this year with the stunning Exercises EP on Paper Bag Records. Silver has been on a bit of a run lately dropping the fantastic Night Bus mixes in 2011, in which he reinterpreted Aaliyah, Biggie, Fever Ray, Autechre and more for the wee hours of the night. But with Exercises, we see the steady maturation of Silver’s talent as a producer. The album is made up of eight keyboard based tracks that are subtle and subdued, working on loops and licks of sound that consistently surprise. Silver is able to eke out emotion, knowing that he only has to hit the right note once in a song to make his listeners feel the meditative vibe.
Silver has an ear for simple melody, letting tones and swirls of synth gently build on top of each other, and this is one reason why this album is so successful. The other is its shining star, the amazing middle point track “September”. It’s a cover of the David Sylvian track of the same name and the only song with vocals on the album. Silver’s voice sounds strong and assured, the synths mesh together perfectly, and the song packs quite an emotional punch. The first time I heard it I was on the bus in the morning and it was chilly but the sun was shining and Silver’s voice surprised me at first, reminding me a bit of Arthur Russell, and the subtle build of the production was just perfect with the hand clap beats, farting bass line, and synth stabs sounding so nice…that you can guess what happened: I got that pang, my eyes went a little watery, I had to turn my face to the window for a moment and take a breath. I had to let that tingly feeling wash over me, let it quietly remind me of all that’s good and true and possible in my life. C’est la définition of good music, my friends. I’ve since listened to it many times and can say it’s one of my favourite songs of the year, and being followed by the equally gorgeous piano based song “December” doesn’t hurt either. Every track is a winner.
Exercises is CFCF’s finest work to date and shows he is definitely an artist worth getting excited about.
8. Holy Other – Held (Tri Angle Records)
Tri Angle recording artist Holy Other released his full-length debut Held this year, and it sees him further expanding on the moody gloom of his earlier With U EP. This is a dark, dark record, one that can throw listeners for a loop upon first playthrough. On the surface it is so bleak and forlorn it seems the perfect soundtrack for the end of days we’ve been waiting for oh so eagerly…
I have a student in one of my classes who is obsessed with the apocalypse and death. 13 years old and he might as well have “memento mori” tattooed on his forearm. During a History lesson, he will shout out, “Why are we learning this? We’re all going to die soon anyways!” Or during my spiel on pollution and green living in Geography class, he’ll pipe in, “We might as well all just kill ourselves now!” I’ve had to kick him out of class a few times, mainly because it annoys me that his dark thoughts influence the other kids too. One quasi-suicidal teen in each class is more than enough thank you very much. He’s just so blasé about it all too, as if he knows his life is nothing but a short joke and he’s sitting around waiting for the punchline. Fuck he pisses me off. So, I have been trying to open his eyes to the bigger picture, trying to get him to jump over to the optimistic side of the fence, and at least see things from another perspective.
Same thing could be said for Holy Other’s Held – once I started looking at it as uplifting rather than somber, I heard it in a whole new way. Once my ears latched on to this perspective, “Love Some1” turned into perhaps the most effective love/break-up song of the year, with its haunting climactic chant “Love someone/me me me”. Title track “Held” is also a powerful and intimate cry for what we all want most, to be held, to be loved, and the subterranean vocal plea: “Hold me, ahh, love me” may sound twee within the context of this write-up, but is extremely compelling within the track. It has a way-slowed down R&B feel at the end, as if he’s drifting off to sleep happily wrapped in his loved one’s arms…
Holy Other taps into that sad, lonely, existential part of you, much in the same way that Burial does. And sometimes it’s nice to walk in the rain, to wallow a little, and with Holy Other as the soundtrack feeling moody never felt so good.
7. Luke Abbott – Modern Driveway EP (Notown Records)
Norfolk based electronic musician, Luke Abbott, released two EP’s this year, Modern Driveway in the spring, and Object is a Navigator at the beginning of December. While both reveal his refined ear for analogue craftmanship, it’s with Modern Driveway where Abbott has truly tapped into something sweet. The title track opens the album with a slow build of insistent chord stabs and a subtle 808 line that softly swells underneath the arpeggio synths like something out of halcyon mid-90′s Detroit. Abbott ekes so much emotion out of this track, it’s hard to believe he’s able to outdo himself a few tracks later, yet that’s exactly what he does with penultimate track “Carrage”. It’s a beautiful and bubbly stomper with the requisite ‘pull the beat out of the mix and drop it back in mid-point’, and although I’ve heard this technique more than countless times, Abbott does it so well here, you’ll want to play the song again and again. Interspersed between the stunners are two subdued pieces, more align with the material on his earlier record, Holkham Drones. Overall, this is one of the finest electronic releases of the year, one that begs for repeat listens, and a sure-fire sign that Luke Abbott is about to blow up big time.
6. Tame Impala – Lonerism (Modular Records)
Tame Impala returned with sophomore album Lonerism, twelve more tracks of that great psychedelic rock I fell in love with on Innerspeaker. Grabbing the listener by the neck right from the start, “Be Above It” transforms into a terrific Pink Floyd-esque mechanical drone, and with its mix of the retro and the experimental, Tame Impala are making some of the most authentic sounding “new classic rock” I’ve ever heard. This unique throwback sound is one of the things the band does so well, and I think it’s safe to say that few other bands today sound like them at all. A little further on in the album, songs like “Apocalypse Dreams” and “Why Won’t They Talk To Me” really allow frontman Kevin Parker’s songwriting abilities to shine through.
I saw Tame Impala play this summer at Osheaga and they put on a great show, trying out “Apocalypse Dreams” and the awesome “Elephant” to the delight of the crowd. Wafts of weed floated in the air for the duration of the show, and I completely zoned out in the vibe. Still, I think they’re a band better suited to an indoor venue, and so I’m looking forward to seeing them again on their tour this spring. Lonerism contains hit after hit, but in listening to only a few of the songs on the album you’d be missing out – this is one case where the whole is clearly greater than the sum of its parts. The album flows together seamlessly, with each song picking up on, and adding to, subtle parts of previous tracks. Tame Impala take Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, Sabbath, and The Beatles, mash ‘em all together and create an amazingly authentic 60’s/70’s sound that I could listen to all day. Great stuff.
5. Grimes – Visions (4AD/Arbutus)
Claire Boucher aka Grimes is 2012’s “it-girl”. Visions came out early in the year and helped catapult Boucher from local weirdo/hero to international star. Visions is a hypnotic album that expertly meshes pop sensibilities with electronica in entrancing ways. Her two big hits “Oblivion” and “Genesis” are still just as fun and immersive to listen to as they were when they first hit the interwebs a year ago. Grimes’ production brings to mind early Aphex Twin and other old Warp artists, and her voice floats in her strange falsetto above the mix, often unintelligible but no less bewitching.
Seeing her live show at The Cabaret du Mile End in Montreal was very impressive as I saw a young artist emerging before my eyes. Grimes was particularly cute and awkward on stage, seeming a bit nervous, continually asking the sound guy to “turn down the lights” and “turn up the music”. And once the lights went down and the sound went up she seemed much more in her element, letting her inhibitions go and her voice soar. And for the most part, she totally had the vocal chops live, although I did notice some voice loops assisting her once in awhile, most notably during the high parts of “Be a Body”. Production wise I was very impressed as the songs took on a grittier, darker vibe than they have on the album. The bass thumped hard, the snare pops rattled, and the synths coalesced into an analogue swirl of sound.
Later tracks on the album like “Nightmusic” and “Symphonia IX” although unassuming are arguably the strongest and most hypnotic with their subtle 4/4 beats and warm analogue production. Grimes seems to be at the forefront of a whole new wave of young electronic musicians pushing the boundaries of genre and technology. I expect big things from her in the future and think her sound will only get stronger, louder, and more particular the longer she keeps making it. Awesome album.
4. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory (Carpark Records)
It was on a cold day in early January when I first listened to Cloud Nothing’s debut record Attack on Memory. Before opening track “No Future/No Past” was even a minute in I was already hooked. It was like I was sixteen again, I could feel the angst and tension in Dylan Baldi’s voice, and the aggression hidden just below the surface of the band’s tight rhythm section. It made me excited to be alive, in the same way bands like Eric’s Trip or Tool or June of 44 did back in the day. That exemplary teen angst powerfully comes to a head in the refrain of the 8-minute blast of “Wasted Days”, when he screams “I thought I would be more than this!” over and over until his voice is ragged. Afterwards, they lighten the mood for the next two songs, before returning with the Drive Like Jehu-esque “Separation” and “No Sentiment”, reminding me of amazing bands like A Minor Forest, Paul Newman, and North of America with their chugging bass lines, angular guitar licks, and kick ass drums. Cloud Nothings bring to mind so many bands from the past, yet they never sound too much like one or the other, which has resulted in them paving out an indie-rock sound all their own. They are a young band quickly coming into their own and one to watch out for in the next few years.
Here’s something I’ve been pissed off about for six months now: I had tickets for their show at Casa del Popolo but missed it. It was a Friday night and me and my friend Mike were drinking a beer at his place, watching the Raptors lose on the telly, thinking if we get there by 10 we’ll be totally fine. So we get there at 10 and it was already over, they were packing up their gear, and drinking a well-deserved beer. Son of a whore, I am still pissed about this! And of course their set was awesome, loud, super-tight, there was a mosh pit the entire show, and apparently due to technical difficulties during the last song, rhythm guitarist Joe Boyer put down his guitar and dove in the mosh pit. Come back to Montreal soon guys, I’m waiting…
3. Grizzly Bear – Shields (Warp Records)
Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest was the crown jewel of INAUDIBLE’s very first BEST OF LIST in 2009. That album was so thrilling to me with regards to its production and each song’s dynamic and diverse composition. I had not listened to their earlier albums, so Veckatimest was my point of departure and it left me convinced they were one of, if not the best, young band making “indie-rock” in our present day. The reason for this was because I really enjoyed how within their music they seemed to be constantly looking back yet ever looking forwards; not afraid to sound a bit like their influences, while at the same time, ambitiously driven to lock down their own style. With Shields Grizzly Bear have done just that – they have sonically carved out their niche, gained a whole new legion of fans, and released my favourite “rock” record of the year.
Seeing their live show this year solidified my belief in their talent, as they effortlessly played their challenging compositions, switching instruments mid-song when needed, and delivering strong and near pitch-perfect vocal performances throughout. The band emitted an air of subtle class on stage, void of rock star pretension, letting the music speak for them, which I found very refreshing.
Unlike Veckatimest’s instantly infectious “Two Weeks”, Shields has no clear-cut single – the album calls for careful listening, and takes some time for it to reveal itself completely, but once it does it will reward your ears and mind again and again. Tracks like “Yet Again”, “Speak in Rounds”, “What’s Wrong” and “Gun-Shy” are all different stylistically, but each song showcases the band’s varied writing strengths. The album closes with “Sun in Your Eyes”, an eight-minute opus that has hints of theatre and prog and is arguably the band’s best example to date of their overall sound. Shields is a challenging album but one that showcases everything that is great about modern rock and roll. So good. More gentleman, more.
2. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city (Interscope Records)
Oh yeah, we gettin’ down to the wire now! Coming in at a strong second for the year is Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. Ever since my Mom confiscated my Straight Outta Compton cassette tape when I was 12, hip hop has held a coveted place in my musical makeup. It was a view into a whole other culture for me, and the first time I paid close attention to the lyrics in music.
My Mom realized how angry I was with her for taking my rap music away from me, so she replaced my N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew tapes with the PG rated “He’s The DJ, I’m the Rapper” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, while my Dad was trying to get me into Zeppelin and The Beatles. But still I would go to my friend Justin Smith’s house, because his Mom let us listen to all the gangsta rap he wanted, plus let us watch R-rated horror movies and eat an endless pile of junk food. Eventually, once I started playing guitar, those classic rock discs my Dad kept pushing on me would take over my musical tastes, which would then lead to metal and indie and post-rock. But then, in first year of university I heard Aquemini by Outkast and it was one of the most amazing albums I’d ever heard of any genre. This was the start of my rap renaissance, as I got into Def Jux artists like Aesop Rock and El-P, old skoool heros like Tribe and Nas, new skoool stars like MF Doom, and even Kanye West. Since then I’ve never stopped listening to rap, but it’s definitely been a minute since a hip-hop record has excited me as much as good kid, m.A.A.d city. And what a record it is! It deserves all the attention it’s been getting, because it’s a truly original, compelling rap record, unafraid to risk taking a moral stand, with the confidence to successfully execute Lamar’s ambitions.
The narrative thread is familiar: black kid growing up in the projects has dreams of making it as a rapper, yet is pulled in directions he doesn’t want – crime, drugs, gangs, etc. – and after his friend is killed in a shoot out he decides to no longer get caught up in the game, and effectively pave his own way in the world. Yet even if the story is familiar, the delivery is not. Interspersed with amazing voicemails from his Mom and conversations with his homeboys, we see Kendrick as son, as well as, as a young kid growing up out there in the “m.A.A.d city”. Musically, the album is obviously indebted to Outkast (see “The Art of Peer Pressure”), but has such a strong sense of place that it deftly sidesteps the derivative. Kendrick uses many influences but he deploys them strategically, unexpectedly, which helps the record already feel like the classic it surely will become.
2013 will be an enormous year for Kendrick Lamar. Let’s hope he can hang on to the vibe he’s got going right now, because good kid, m.A.A.d city is the year’s most powerful record both lyrically and musically. Ya bish, ya bish!
1. Four Tet – Pink (Text Records)
In a way this can be considered more of a lifetime achievement award, as Kieran Hebden’s has been an innovator in the world of electronic music for over a decade now. That said, Pink is still the most exciting electronic album of the year for me. Under his Four Tet stage name, Hebden has released groundbreaking albums that span electronica’s sub-genres from leftfield to post-rock to IDM, yet over the last few years Hebden has had his ears set not to the sky but to the ground, namely the dance floor, after he started DJing at the Plastic People Club in 2009. The next year he released the superlative There Is Love in You, which saw him writing more dance-oriented tracks like the excellent “Love Cry”. His Fabric mix followed in 2011, and now with Pink, a collection of 12-inch singles, we find him writing some of the best techno music of the year.
Hebden has eschewed the quirk and abstract he is known for and applied a more clinical approach to get booties shaking and fists pumping and the results are spectacular. This is not to say that he’s lost any of his playfulness, these songs still maintain an inherent organic quality even though they follow the techno formula, mainly because Hebden always throws in a little something extra – chimes, synths, vibes, bass wobbles, piano, skittering vocals, and more. Compositionally, he seems to have been inspired by artists like Omar S, Burial, and Pantha du Prince, easily pushing songs into the 8-minute mark. Stand out track “Pyramid” uses a great bass line and repetitive vocal lick: “I remember when you walked away” to amazing effect, this track is a late-night banger, one that urges you to get up and dance. But, it’s dark too and has a great Steve Reich breakdown in the middle before the house beat and funky bass return to keep you shakin’. Opening track “Locked” starts off the album with nothing but minimal, interlocking drum loops for well over a minute, before a characteristically beatific melody emerges, and spirals around those shuffling drums, phasing in and out of focus accented with occasional deep bass wobbles. Elsewhere, “Ocoras” and “Jupiters” reveal Hebden’s knack for rhythm and groove, and the sprawling “Peace For Earth” momentarily eases away from the dancefloor with a komische-y, near beatless ten minutes, before throwing us back on the floor again for awesome closer “Pinnacles”.
Critics have sort of harped on Hebden saying he’s made great strides into club territory but still hasn’t quite fleshed out his style as a dancefloor artist. And while Pink technically shouldn’t be considered a proper follow-up to There Is Love in You, I think even as a singles compilation it suggests that Four Tet is still capable of going deeper and expanding higher than almost anyone else out there. Great stuff!
Yes! I made it to the fucking end!
HONORABLE AUDIBLES (click album to sample a track)
R.I.P. Jason Noble (1971 – 2012)
Best wishes for 2013 and onward! Cheers to good muzik, friends, many laughs, and brief moments of (un)clarity.