So by all accounts 2012 had its share of delights, both actual and sarcastic. Rather than dwell on the stuff that makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry softly to myself, I thought I’d do something a little different this year.
Part of my 3 things for Calgary initative this year was to engage in the local arts and cluture scene, and I’ll be talking about that in my next post, but to start, we’re going with top ten albums of 2012. I might be the last human on the planet who still loves to listen to an album from start-to-finish, and as tempting as it is to do it just on songs, I’m sticking with albums. Okay, Colin, stop rambling, here we go.
10. Grimes – Visions
With the sort of distant, keening vocals that helped ground Sleigh Bells’ Treats – one of my favourite albums of 2010 – Claire Boucher layers 8 million synthesizers and genres over one another and creates something that’s part pop, part IDM, ALL COP. It kinda makes me want to hold a rave in an American Apparel.
One of the biggest disappointments of this year’s Sled Island was her dropping off the headlining gig for at Olympic Plaza. I hope I’ll get a chance to see her before she flames out from too much party rockin’ or whatever.
9. Jack White – Blunderbuss
Jack remains one of the my favourite people to listen to when I’m getting ready to go out. I love the way that he respects and understands the roots of American music. When he turns on the jets on tracks like “Sixteen Saltines“, I usually do a half-assed jump-kick off the bed and bust out Omega-Level Air Guitar. Some of the tracks on the new album take a little longer to unpack than his more-straightforward White Stripes stuff, but it pays off after multiple listens.
Also, “Freedom at 21” is just an awesome track to play when you want to walk down the street with your headphones in. You are 36% more of a badass by virtue of this song. That’s a guarantee.
8. Wintersleep – Hello Hum
After their last album New Interitors, I was a little bit bummed about the state of Wintersleep. Welcome to the Night Sky was such an incredible album – a collection of mood and sound that probably got heavier end-to-end play than any album I’ve owned in the last 5 years. New Inheritors seemed to signal a change in the band, away from the massive sound and soaring harmonies that make this band absolutely perfect for car sing-a-longs and into something darker, more distorted and synthetic.
Never mind – Hello Hum takes the new sounds, synths and rougher edges and incorporates it into the wider sound of Wintersleep; the results are gorgeous. Wintersleep are one of these bands that can take a song and stretch it out live until you hear and feel each instrument, and Hello Hum delivers a similar experience inside each song. This time, the tone and vibe is far more upbeat than in the preceding albums – instead of a brooding texture, the songs have titles like “Nothing is Anything (Without You)“, with massive soaring guitars and choruses that feel like cuts off Achtung Baby. It’s music to fall in love to, for sure.
7. Die Antwoord – Ten$ion
Trying to describe this group starts reading like some kind of menu item at the Hipster Cafe. “Today’s special is a pair of rap-rave Afrikaans, seasoned in the Zef movement, with sides of g-funk and post-internet commentaries on race.” When I first heard about this group, I rolled my eyes so hard I thought I might have detached my retina.
Then I heard “I Fink U Freeky” and I rescinded everything. This is one of those acts that not everyone’s going to love, and if you listen to their lyrics too much you’re going to start feeling a little bit embarrassed, but their voice and sound is so original that I can’t resist them.
6. Cat Power – Sun
Chan Marshall is a notorious neurotic and her reputation for perfectionism coupled with some of the saddest songs ever recorded has become such a trope that she’s even parodying herself on Funny or Die. Whatever might be happening with Chan right now, the same sense of humour that let her yell at kids on the internet for a laugh has permeated her new album.
We’re still talking about Cat Power, here, and this is by no means a comedy album, but with skittering electronic samples and beats backing many of her tracks coupled with a lyrical change that makes her far less a victim of circumstance and heartache and much more in charge, Sun is a fantastic name for the album. The whole thing warms you like a cat in a sunbeam, wrapping you in a dreamy layer of sound, with Marshall routinely layering multiple vocal tracks atop one another in interesting textural ways.
I only came to Sun in the last 3 weeks of the year, and I’m so glad I found it. It’s been the soundtrack of the holidays this year and felt like a great Christmas gift.
5. Cold Specks – I Predict a Graceful Expulsion
Al Spx is the lead singer of this band, and if you were a Trinidadian-Canadian who grew up in Toronto listening to American deep south gospel music, The Cure and had an absolute cannon of a voice, you’d probably make Cold Specks, too. I think this band is going to blow up in the next year. Her sound – which she jokingly refers to as “Doom Soul” – is the kind of thing that can hit people from a number of different directions and find the thing that hooks you. For me, it’s the way the album hangs her voice out into space, giving her enough room to really deliver the power of each note.
I saw her perform in the brand-new Festival Hall, and it was easily one of the top five shows I saw this year. She performed a couple of tracks a capella, and it was all I could do not to break down right there.
4. Bahamas – Barchords
Another amazing live show, Afie Jurvanen’s band and latest album is one of the most likeable things I’ve heard in a while. Feist’s guitarist on her last few tours, Bahamas has her knack for crafting melody, but has a way of creating a sense of space and warmth that was notably missing from Metals. This is definitely an album built for quiet Sunday afternoons in the kitchen, with your cat asleep on the couch and a pot of soup on the stove.
Compared to a lot of the other stuff on this list, this is definitely an unchallenging listen; I’m quite comfortable putting this album on when my parents come over for dinner. There’s nothing here that’s going to melt your face off, but it’s rare to hear an album that’s constructed essentially perfectly – where each song is a perfect accompaniment to the previous and each note seems part of a unified statement of musicianship. Plus, the music’s just fucking beautiful.
3. Twin Shadow – Confess
Twin Shadow’s first album was great, but the followup just killed it. I’m undoubtedly susceptible to 80’s-pastiche synth rock (wait ’till you hear my #1 pick) but George Lewis Jr. created a Vietnam in this album. Just like how Vietnam has absorbed the best of each of its would-be conquerors over hundreds of years and ended up with a distinct and proud culture and nation that produces saté beef served on french baguettes, Twin Shadow lets the last 30 years of music wash over them and pulls the best from each decade. Peter Gabriel, New Wave, Arcade Fire-circa Funeral, Morrissey, Prince, TV On The Radio, Joy Division, Dangerous-era Michael Jackson – it’s all there, layering and colliding within each track. The results are at times unbearably tense and passionate – the kinds of songs that you can’t decide whether to dance or cry to.
This album has been heavy, heavy rotation in the last two months for me, and there’s no question it’s my choice for best breakup album of the year. Lewis has written a bunch of songs that really swing through all the emotions that come with an old-school relationship apocalypse – with heartache, love, anger, sadness, paralyzing numbness, elation and resigned self-destruction playing pretty heavy roles in most of the tracks. He’s the kind of guy that can take a hook that is an obvious play on “Take my Breath Away” and turn it into one of the most danceable tunes I heard this year.
2. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Remember when we had them all on the run
and the night we saw midnight sun
Remember saying things like “we’ll sleep when we’re dead”
and thinking this feeling was never gonna end
Remember that night you were already in bed
said “fuck it” got up to drink with me instead
There isn’t too much more to say about this album that other people haven’t said better. Ian Cohen’s review on Pitchfork sums up this album just about perfectly: “Celebration Rock treats every day like the last day of school, raising a glass to the past, living in the moment and going into the future feeling fucking invincible.”
This is music not just to pump you up, but to help you remember the moments when you felt you could do anything, be anything – a life where limits didn’t matter, when time seemed infinite and at the same time unbelievably precious. This album sounds like two guys stuffing their drums with fireworks and soaking their guitar in kerosene – the album feels on fire, alive and visceral – and if you don’t feel the same way listening to it, I’m not sure I want to be your friend.
1. Diamond Rings – Free Dimensional
John O’Regan’s story is fascinating – a post-punk rocker with the D’Urbervilles, he gets Crohn’s disease, nearly dies and is reborn as a glittering glam-rock pop star. Ultimately, Diamond Rings tries to do something similar to Lady Gaga (elements of DIY personal construction, an attitude of letting your freak flag fly) but John O completely charms me in a way that Gaga’s “art in artifice” act does not. The fact that he’s a tall, awkward weirdo who clearly wrestles with conventional gender norms and understands the meaning of performance also helps.
And the music – this is a guy who clearly tried to moonwalk in his parents’ unfinished basement, who understands that music is meant to be moved to and move you at the same time, who shows a wry sense of humor that is so rare in a world of plaid shirts and beards. He writes adorable, earnest songs about falling in love and being yourself like he’s a living Degrassi High. Listening to him reminds me that no matter what the circumstances of my life might be, there are people in the world who are going to like and love me for exactly who I am right now.