Thursday, January 17, 2013

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Best Albums of 2012

So of the 150 or so new albums I listened to last year, these are the top 20%.

  1.  Spoek Mathambo: Father Creeper
  2. P!nk: The Truth About Love [RCA]
  3. Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE [Def Jam]
  4. Jens Lekman: I Know What Love Isn’t [Secretly Canadian]
  5. Azealia Banks: 1991 EP [Interscope] 
  6. Burial: Kindred EP [Hyperdub]
  7. Death Grips: The Money Store [Epic]
  8. Beach House: Bloom [Sub Pop]
  9. Loudon Wainwright III: Older Than My Old Man Now [2nd Story Sound]
  10. Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d. City [Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope]
  11. The Mountain Goats: Transcendental Youth [Merge]
  12. Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas [Columbia]
  13. Allo Darlin’: Europe [Slumberland]
  14. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Americana [Reprise]
  15. Lana Del Rey: Born to Die [Polydor/Interscope[
  16. Cloud Nothings: Attack On Memory [Carpark]
  17. Action Bronson: Blue Chips [Fool’s Gold]
  18. Disappears: Pre Language [Kranky]
  19. Serengeti: C.A.R. [Anticon]
  20. Elle Varner: Perfectly Imperfect [RCA]
  21. Saigon: The Greatest Story Never Told: Chapter Two: Bread and Circuses [Suburban Noize]
  22. s/s/s/: Beak & Claw EP [Anticon]
  23. Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music [Williams Street]
  24. Patti Smith: Banga [Columbia]
  25. Plug: Back in Time [Ninja Tune]
  26. Taylor Swift: Red [Big Machine
  27. Ab-Soul: Control System [Top Dawg]
  28. Skrillex: Bangarang EP [Atlantic]
  29. The Coup: Sorry to Bother You [ANTI-]
  30. Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream [RCA]
  31. Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Ever Do
  32. Japandroids: Celebration Rock [Polyvinyl]
  33. JJ Doom: Key to the Kuffs [Lex]

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Books & Beer XIII (Devil Week)

Best Songs of 2012

I've been slow on album postings because I've been thinking about songs a lot, which is something I don't do as often as I'd like to becaue I tend to consume the vast majority of my music in album format. Quite a few of these came out last year ("212," "Video Games") but since the albums came out this year and everyone else seems to be including "Thinkin Bout You" and "Call Me Maybe" (which also debuted in 2011) in their 2012 lists I say fuck it. So before I get on to my #1 album of the year (hint, it's not Chief Keef), give it up for these dudettes and dudes.

20. Icona Pop (ft. Charli XCX)-- "I Love It"

If we count Charli XCX here (as we should since she wrote the song), she is one of only two artists to appear in this list twice.

19. Angel Haze-- "Werkin Girls"

18. Todd Terje-- "Inspector Norse"

Yeah, I'd dance to this in a club. Apparently they do in the UK. We still win though because we have Skrillex.

17. Macklemore-- "Same Love"

A great pro-gay hit that doesn't steal its hook from Madonna (ahem, Lady Gaga).

16. Heems-- "NYC Cops"

As Das Racist split up, it became clear that Heems was the stronger rapper by far. An absolutely brutal overview of the unarmed black victims murdered by the NYPD, ages 9-57.

15. The Magnetic Fields-- "Andrew In Drag"

A wonderful trifle from the ever-brilliant Stephen Merritt.

14. Azealia Banks-- "1991"

Like Charli XCX, second artist to appear twice on this list is also a few years younger than me. Fuck, I feel old.

13. Elle Varner-- "Sound Proof Room"

That voice, hot damn.

12. Charli XCX-- "You're the One"

The crush-song of the year, with groaning 80's synths and an excellent minor-major switch in the chorus.

11. Frank Ocean-- "Thinkin Bout You"

The clear stand-out on an already stellar album. Although "Sweet Life" and "Bad Religion" come awfully close.

10. Carly Rae Jepsen-- "Call Me Maybe"

Well, obviously.

9. Usher-- "Climax"

Usher is an excellent singer when we wants to be (which unfortunately is not too often), better than any of the new r&b artists to pop up in the last few years. As for Diplo, I'm beginning to really believe that everything he touches is gold.

8. Taylor Swift-- "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" 

I hope she means it, because this girl seriously lacks some judgment when it comes to boyfriends. That and music video directors.

7. Miguel-- "Adorn"

There's really not anything I dislike about this song.

6. Chairlift-- "I Belong In Your Arms"

I'm such a sucker for 80's pop, but I typically find modern indie imitations shallow and soulless. Here's an exception.

5. Nicki Minaj-- "Beez In The Trap"

Quintessential Nicki. Her best performance yet, and yes, that includes "Monster."

4. Eric Church-- "Springsteen"

Token country song. Maybe now that the cool kids think r&b is cool, they'll eventually come around to country also.

3. Lana Del Rey-- "Video Games" 

Such a sophisticated vocal style. Like Lady Gaga, her videos are usually cheesy and pompous, but her songs are pure streamlined pop glory.

2. Solange-- "Losing You"

Channeling a very different part of the 80's with a song that finally does justice to her voice.

1. Azealia Banks-- "212"

What I said earlier

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Best of 2012: 15-11

15. Lana Del Rey: Born to Die [Polydor/Interscope]

Although not so thick as to be oblivious to the sophisticated beauty of “Video Games,” I felt a vague and inexplicable dislike for Lana Del Rey almost instantaneously. Just what we need: more scenes from a millennial in the haut monde of NYC, as if Lena Durham hadn’t provided me with a enough reasons to despair for my generation. Then, of course, there was the hype and (far more prevalent) the anti-hype of the blogosphere, neatly summarized and smartly critiqued in a 5.5 review on Pitchfork. While I don’t believe that it’s necessary or even salutary to get “beyond the hype” in order to appreciate an artist’s music, the astonishing vocal style, pop excellence, and expert songwriting of the first half of Born to Die certainly encouraged me to listen deeper. When I did, I found intelligent lyrics so nuanced as to whiz over the heads of nearly all its critics, who seem to like their messages more straightforward. Take for example Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz, who points out that the album’s “sexual politics are troubling”  (quite perplexing coming from a magazine which offered encomiums to Waka Flocka Flame and OFWGKTA). This is not entirely unfair, but the subtlety of Del Rey’s cynicism seem to escape Zoladz entirely. Fatalistically committed to debauchery and fatalism, Lana Del Rey (not Lizzy Grant) isn’t afflicted with emptiness-- she thematizes it. The same goes for her perceived helplessness, passivity, and detachment.  Like the creation of her cherished Marshall Mathers, Lizzy Grant’s dramatis persona uses irony as a means of exploring-not-promoting escapism. Through it all, she achieves an excellent balance between vivid imagery (Jesus on the dashboard, PBR on ice, Chateau Marmont) and pop truisms ("I will love you till the end of time," "do you think we'll be in love forever"). Her metaphors aren't the usual cliched crap ("hold you like a python," "take me like a vitamin"), and quoting Nabokov is a sure way to win over a lit guy like me.


14. Neil Young & Crazy Horse:
Americana [Reprise]

I adore Neil Young, but if you had told me he would be responsible for one of the best rock albums of 2012, it would take the Lord himself to convince me that you weren't full of shit. And if you then told me that this album was entirely comprised of American folk standards like "Oh Susannah" and "Clementine," well, I'm not sure if even the Almighty could persuade me. Embracing the populist and protest elements of the folk tradition as well as the notion of people's history, this love/hate letter to the US of A urges you to reconsider the handful of tunes you were taught and inculcated with in grade school, reconsider the simplicity with which you swallowed them at an early age and later rejected them as lame bourgeois propaganda. Oh so characteristically, Americana is both sloppy and thoroughly researched, unpredictable and rooted in tradition; in classic Crazy Horse fashion, it grooves, thumps, and rocks. Almost all of the original melodies are irreverently transmuted, while the lyrics reclaim the leftist sentiments of their authors, whether they were folkies or doo-wop legends. Although it isn't subtly revisionist, Americana does exhibit restraint in applying its radicalism, a neat trick which, amazingly, shows their qualified but sincere admiration for this country and, more amazingly, shows mine.

13. Allo Darlin': Europe [Slumberland]

The only listeners to offer paeans to Allo Darlin's "unashamed" love affair with Pop presume that loving Pop-- or worse still, Twee-- requires penance in the first place. Predictably, insofar as Europe obtunds the more obvious twee of their self-titled debut in 2010, it has earned significantly more praise among those who find twee algetic. Still, as much I enjoyed both albums, I can't deny that some (pardon my french) maturing has taken place. Melody here remains as central as it is irresistible, with each of these ten well-crafted tunes threatening to lodge itself well into your brain. Slowing down the tempo for at least a few of the songs doesn't diminish their catchiness in the least, proving Elizabeth Morris to be a talented songwriter capable of introspection as well energy, the best example being the trifling but lovely "Some People Say." Lyrically sharper and more self-aware, Morris laid a claim to my heart the moment she paid homage to the Go-Betweens, perhaps the greatest indie band my generation seems to be unfamiliar with, although she's still not going to turn me on to the far less worthy Silver Jews.

12. Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas [Columbia]

Make no mistake about it, this is his death album, something that becomes obvious from Cohen's impersonation of the Almighty in the opening track, if it wasn't already from the  campy and strangely touching album cover. Said track "Going Home" succeeds mainly as an encapsulation of the themes of the album, even if its tone of gentle humor immediately gives way to a deep grimness, grim prayers, grim hopes, grim fears, that is notable even for one of the most melancholy artists in the traditionally melancholy form of signer-songwriters. As befitting of a 78-year old, most of these songs bespeak a profound calmness and resignation. Even when his spiritual supplications acknowledge the fear and the trembling they always hint at, the feeling is always zen, which might eventually annoy if Cohen didn't keep a foot, at least a big toe, touching the ground of the colorful world he only partially regrets to leave behind: "I'm naked and I'm filthy and there's sweat upon my brow / And both of us are guilty, anyhow." The songs here are great, at times touching the doleful glory of Songs of Love and Hate; the lyrics, and especially the somber voice which delivers them, extraordinary. Youngsters and old folks, devotees who have cherished Cohen since the 70's and newcomers who ran across this album at their local Starbucks-- all are invited, and all should come.

11. The Mountain Goats: Transcendental Youth [Merge]

If you been educated in the U.S., there's a good chance you've had memorized at least a fragment of "The Raven" at some point in your life. You may have noticed how well Poe's poem lends itself to memorization-- its formulaic, painfully monotonous trochaic octameter hammering away at your eardrums. For purely mechanical reasons, I can also recite "The Raven" without having read it in years. For entirely different reasons, I can do the same for a hundred or so lines from the non-rhyming and far more supple verse of Paradise Lost, not because it mesmerizes but because of the arresting strangeness of its language. Although the songs here are as catchy as ever, I suspect John Darnielle's most incisive lines stay with me for the same reason as Milton's. Intelligent, funny, melodramatic, thoughtful, poingnant, poetic in-a-good-way-- utterances of loneliness and teenage exasperation strike you time after time: "Do every stupid thing to make you feel alive, "Sad and angry, can't learn how to behave /Still won't know how in the darkness of the grave," "Some things you do just to see / How bad they make you feel," "Hold my hopes underwater, / Stand there and watch them drown," "Count a couple of stray hopes outlawed, / May their numbers one day be increased," "Speed up to the precipice / And then slam on the brake. / Some people crash two or three times/ And then learn from their mistakes. / But we are the ones who don't slow down at all." With over twenty-something albums out, reaching a climax with the studio debut of 2002's brilliant Tallahassee, some (not I) may wonder why we need another Mountain Goats album.Its theme is familiar-- outcasts, outlaws, eccentrics, et al. personae non gratae-- and like most Mountain Goats albums, its vaguely conceptual if not always diegetic. But with horns (!) and the excellent jazzy drumming of Jon Wurster, who has definitely been listening to his Philly Joe Jones, the arrangements of Transcendental Youth sets it apart. Lyrically trenchant as ever, its real theme-- the ability of young people to find themselves through music and bohemian culture-- is as old as rock and roll itself.

Best of 2012: 20-16

20. Elle Varner: Perfectly Imperfect [RCA]

Finally. Something to shove in the face of all those who complain that top 40 contemporary r&b is boring, swanky, and robotic, something, that is, aside from Frank Ocean. If Varner's excellent debut sounds like a throwback, it's because this daughter of music bizzers has done her homework: older soul and even jazz seem to be the main pools she draws from. Her raspy voice, undeniably impressive without being ostentatious, is well-matched to the lyrics (also hers), which move seamlessly from sensual to shy to self-doubting, but are always refreshingly human, as is her voice. Her body-image issues, like her unsatisfactory sex-life, never seems artificial. These are realistic if fictionalized quandaries of a young twenty-something (a month older than yours truly): think Taylor Swift, unless you don't like Taylor Swift, in which case don't. "Sound Proof Room," about desire and loud sex, is my favorite, but its sense of unquenchable eros is accentuated the next track, which mourns her inability to speak to the man she wants. And when the lyrics seem maudlin and the production (again, hers) too pristine, an expert hook pulls you back in and you let style take the wheel. Before you know it, the substance returns.

19. Serengeti: C.A.R. [Anticon]

Goofy Chicagoan David Cohn is the best kind of weirdo rapper-- smart, funny, sincere, organic. If you aren't familiar with 2008's "Dennehy," the loving and hilarious tribute to his best fictional creation, blue-collar Southsider Kenny Davis, go and Youtube it immediately. Eclectic samples, great jokes, and vivid and carefully-rhymed details worthy of Ghostface render C.A.R. one of those heartfelt albums that you don't have to abandon your beloved irony or your sense of humor to enjoy. Just check out the aptly-titled Chitown lament "Cold," which yearns for "a simple life, where we milk cows and cobras." Anecdotes and one-liners pervade these sympathetic snapshopts of social realism so witty and so funny you know they had to be the work of someone clinically depressed.

18. Disappears: Pre-Language [Kranky]

Channeling such touchstones as Joy Division and The Fall is now a practice in indie rock as entrenched as irony, fuzzy guitars, and PBR. It's also one which I have been known to bitch about. Most of the time, 80's hero-worship is simply not done well: it doesn't move, or it incorporates bad verse, or it fails to register emotionally, or it lacks bite. With the help of newly enlisted Steve Shelley, these Chicago shoegazers have crafted an album that both grooves like The Fall (and yes, Sonic Youth) and reinvents Mark E. Smith's disdainful snarl. What's more, they've crafted an album that manages to stand out amongst so many of its nearly indistinguishable compeers. Maybe not at first, but play it a few times and realize that "Hibernation Sicknes" has one of the best guitar solos you've heard in months, that certain phrases of terse bitterness refuse to leave you, and that nearly every song has a hook that scratches an itch you forgot you had and a beat you can't help but move your body to.

17. Action Bronson: Blue Chips [Fool's Gold]

NYC's most famous Albanian rapper-by-day and chef-by-night hasn't altered his style too much since his debut, 2011's very solid Dr. Lecter, except for exchanging a pretty established producer for some punk who goes by "Party Supplies" and hails from, I kid you not, Williamsburg. It turns out Party Supplies not only has a damn good ear, but an eclecticism that leads him to sample everyone from Dean Martin and Aaron Neville to Iron Butterfly and Frank Zappa. Challenging samples, like the ballsy strings-only in opener "Pouches of Tuna" or the ballsier theft from Ghostface Killah (to whom Action is always compared, though I think Nas is just as accurate) in closer "Tapas," establish beyond all doubt that, at least on a strictly technical level, Action Bronson belongs to a very elite group of rappers. The culinary metaphors are witty, but, as this Feinschmecker should know, a great flow needs some meat as much as a great voice does (*cough* Christina Aguilera), or great guitar chops (*cough* Jeff Beck). And to be fair, there is quite a bit of substance here. His subject matter, though, is for the most part limited to drugs, hoes, and food-- or so a cursory listen would have you believe. Dig deeper-- as his verbal dexterity and apt beats will encourage you to do-- and you'll find poignant reflections on everything from his mixed feelings about his dad to his anger at an ex to his anxiety over his small penis.

16. The Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory [Carpark]

They can gripe all they want about how Steve Albini's production involved chilling out and playing Scrabble on Facebook-- reasonably so as Albini has become synonymous with hands-off production, giving equal volume (as in this album) to all parts and replicating the 'live' sound of a band-- but there was no good reason to pay attention to this band before this album. But really, who cares? This is a surprisingly exciting album, and such a step forward from their previous emo slag. This is emo gold, not beyond borrowing from post-hardcore and Sonic Youth or from 00's bastardization and Pete Wentz, whom I sincerely believe to be an underrated lyricist even if he is a shitty songwriter. The monstrous "Wasted Days" is the winner here, although "No Future/No Past" also represents a major step forward for the band. Does this album represent anything about 2012 or the future of music? I doubt it, but it warms your heart to know that a guitar-based band can still create exciting music. Really, if you don't like riveting rock and/or roll, well, there's always Bon Iver. A midwesterner myself, I can assure you Dylan Baldi speaks for far more of us.