the year in review: music

By  Cody Robinson on 2/19/2013

The 10 albums from 2012 that you simply cannot miss:
  1. RodriguezSearching For Sugar Man  (Download this: “I Wonder”)                       The story of Sixto Rodriguez is so remarkable that I didn’t fully believe it until I watched the documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, for which this album serves as soundtrack. It seemed too fabulous to be true, but as they say, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. After releasing two commercially unsuccessful records in the early ’70s, Rodriguez, a native of Michigan, returned to relative obscurity, working construction and odd jobs. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, his records had somehow made their way to South Africa, where they became anthems for the anti-apartheid movement. He essentially became the Bob Dylan of South Africa. Except that he surpassed Bob Dylan; in South Africa, Rodriguez was bigger than Elvis, and he had no idea! For 25 years! He was literally a superstar on the far side of the world and here was working menial jobs in the slums of Detroit, just trying to get by. How something like this could happen boggles the mind, and yet it did. The film has a happy ending, but I won’t ruin it for you by revealing anything here. Oh, and did I mention the music is incredible, too?
  2. Alt-JAn Awesome Wave  (Download this: “Tessellate”)                                               I cannot give this album enough praise. Through truly original experimentation (occasionally bordering on outlandish) ranging from Gregorian incantation to Spanish guitars, Alt-J have somehow created music that is chill yet also chilling, cathartic yet disquieting, and as full of vitality as it is fragile. I don’t say this often, but I’ve never heard anything quite like it. Their music has an intellectual quality something akin to Radiohead, and a cool, “make-out music” vibe in the same vein as recent British breakout act The XX, but also more gusto than either of the two. More than any other entry on this list, this album is an experience, best enjoyed uninterrupted from start to finish. Buy it, download it, steal it (jk!) – whatever you gotta do – and get lost in the blissful sound.
  3. The Brian Jonestown MassacreAufheben  (Download this: “Panic In Babylon”) The Brian Jonestown Massacre are one of those bands that have been around forever but never got a record deal because they’re too crazy. Literally. Just listen to any interview with frontman Anton Newcombe – he makes Serge Gainsbourg look like Justin Bieber. But that doesn’t stop them from making some effing awesome music. Or from having their track “Straight Up and Down” chosen as the theme song for hit TV show Boardwalk Empire. As experimental as they’ve ever been, BJM uses this record to fuse their past forays into shoegaze, folk, psychedelia, electronica, and world beats, into one cohesive, totally unique album. Oh, not to mention it’s multi-lingual: listen closely and you’ll hear Finnish and French.
  4. Tame ImpalaLonerism  (Download this: “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”)   In Tame Impala, Australia has given us a true gem. They constitute, along with The Black Angels, The Dead Weather and a few others, the only group of current bands bravely forging ahead for neo-psychedelia. While social stigmas surrounding psychedelia still remain post-60’s fallout, the music’s good as it’s ever been. These guys employ a unique blend of fat synths and dreamy lullaby vocals to take us to a la-la land full of green pastures and butterflies floating in effortless harmony. It doesn’t hurt that their singer sounds uncannily like John Lennon. Seriously: when I first heard these guys I nearly crapped my pants because I thought “The Walrus” had come back to life. (Somewhere in a grungy underground London pub Liam Gallagher is getting pretty green with envy).
  5. Cat PowerSun  (Download this: “Manhattan”)                                                       Having recovered from a psychotic break that coincided with the release of her album The Greatest back in 2006, Cat Power (aka Charlyn “Chan” Marie Marshall) has finally given us another original effort. Whereas her earlier work was often bleak, if beautifully tragic, with Sun, Chan has replaced despair with hope, and seldom has a record sounded so empowering. One of the most difficult things to do as an artist is to create something that uplifts without being cliche, heavy-handed, or melodramatic. But here, Cat Power pulls it off with a grace that seems effortless. Sun is the sound of the fabled phoenix rising from the ashes.
  6. Purity RingShrines  (Download this: “Obedear”)                                                        If you love to delve into the depths of digital reverb and computerized beats, as I often do, then this is the album to listen to from 2012. Starting with Crystal Castles, MSTRKRFT, Zeds Dead, and now Purity Ring, Canada seems to have a thing for electronic duos lately, and we’re better off for it. Shrines is Purity Ring’s first effort, and is by far the best debut of any of the aforementioned groups. Actually, it’s better than any album the other three groups have put out (note: Zeds Dead have yet to release an LP). Shrines has undertones most reminiscent of Crystal Castles, but whereas the latter group often oscillates between shrill (see Alice Glass) and dull, Purity Ring has a smooth serenity in their sound that draws you in instead of blasting right in your face. Their sound summed up in one word? Soothing.
  7. Alabama ShakesBoys and Girls  (Download this: “Hold On”)                           With a winning combination of soul and southern rock, and a lead singer who’s every bit as Amy Winehouse as she is Janis Joplin, Alabama Shakes have achieved a sound that is astoundingly classic and yet current. The group have only been around for a couple years – Boys and Girls is their debut album – and yet they’ve already managed mega performances at CMJ, Bonnaroo, and The Newport Folk Festival (remember when Bob Dylan went electric?). They also pulled in 3 nominations at this year’s Grammys, including a “Best Rock Performance” nod for their hit single “Hold On.” If you need more reasons to check out a band, I can’t give you any.
  8. NasLife Is Good  (Download this: “Daughters”)                                                       “But what about Kendrick Lamar!” I hear you say (the rapper’s widely acclaimed debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was released last year and made most year-end top album lists). Well excuse me ladies and gents, but while Kendrick may be the new, trendy upstart, full of young swag and untested bravado, he is but a pawn in a game where Nas has long reigned supreme. On Life is Good, Nas’s rhymes flow as effortlessly as they did back in his Illmatic days, proving once again why he is one of the greatest rappers of all time. Kendrick Lamar’s deluxe edition album cover? A poloroid of someone’s beat-down minivan. Nas’ cover? Him on a plush leather couch holding his ex-wife’s actual wedding dress (for which she was neither consulted nor gave consent). ‘Nuff said.
  9. Grizzly Bear, Shields  (Download this: “Gun-Shy”)
    You know those records you love, but it’s taken you a few listens to realize how much you love them? Well Grizzly Bear’s Shields is one of those records. I’ve also found that oftentimes it’s these records that take more work to know that I end up loving most, i.e. Dark Side Of The Moon, Lateralus, Take It From The Man!, etc. And although Shields may not quite be on the same level as Dark Side, I am only on my fourth listen through… and every new listen I like it a little bit more.
    While the album as a whole may not be for the casual music lover – though there are a couple tunes that instantly grab you – if you put in the work, you will be amply rewarded. Take it from me.
  10. Deftones, Koi No Yokan  (Download this: “Tempest”)
    I’ve never been too into thrash metal (Slayer, Meshuggah, or any of those crazy Norwegian black metal bands) for the simple reason that I prefer music to have a balance of dynamics: there have to be ups as well as downs – some kind of movement. Plus I can only take so much “God hates us all!” The beauty of Deftones is how they temper earth-shaking pounding and distortion with moments of earnest melody and truly poetic lyrics. “Stay with me / As we cross the empty skies / Come sail with me” singer Chino Moreno sings on track “Rosemary.” Can you name any other metal band who writes lyrics like that? I can only think of one: Tool. And together these two bands represent, to me, the highest echelon of the genre. They are metal as it should be: a tension of harmony and dissonance, turbulent upheaval counterbalanced with tranquility – there’s just no redemption in “let’s all slit our wrists and die.”

… and the two who almost made it:

  1. Jack White, Blunderbuss  (Download this: “Love Interruption”)
  2. The MaccabeesGiven To The Wild  (Download this: “Pelican”)

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