Tis the season to be reflective as music journalists and Impact is no exception, so here are our top 10 albums of 2012. This list was composed from both our writers’ and readers’ votes for their favourite albums of the year, Impact would like to extend a huge thank you to everyone who voted and made this article slightly less insular & at all possible.
Having spent a decade carving out an ever expansive niche for themselves, Dirty Projectors decided to takes things a little more low key with the latest release, Swing Lo Magellan. Through past works Dirty Projectors became recognised as one of the more experimental acts currently releasing music with a keen melodic approach and saw nothing wrong with contrasting Velvettes-style harmonies against Zappa-style guitar solos. This approach has not wholly been abandoned on Swing Lo Magellan, but they have certainly become more refined, it’s a far sparer album that appreciates space as well as multiple textures.
Oscillating through Psychedelic, Folk, Electronic and various Experimental elements, Swing Lo Magellan has a fresh energy to it, jumping from idea to idea leaving you guessing as to what will come next. Lyrically frontman David Longsreth takes an almost naïve approach to poetry, with childishly elegant wordplay, fanciful imagery of solitude and Americana undertones. It’s refreshing to come across a band like Dirty Projectors, they constantly redefine and evolve their sound adding a versatile nature to their music. Theirs is a constant creative cycle, which favours innovation over conformity every time, but doesn’t lose a grounded listenability as they do it.
It had been so long since The Shins last released an album that it’s somewhat a surprise that they finally got around to it. That said, Port of Morrow is completely worth the wait. Controlled, tight and wonderfully mastered, the album serves as a reminder of why The Shins are without doubt one of the best bands of the last couple of decades.
‘This is Life’ treads that fine line between cliché and complacency to be the standout track of the album. ‘No Way Down’ is an absolute joy to listen to and, if the title track ‘Port of Morrow’ is perhaps a disappointment, the bonus B-side that follows, ‘Pariah King’, more than makes up for it as arguably the finest thing The Shins have written since ‘Caring is Creepy’.
Indie may be passé as a genre in the eyes of much of the contemporary audience but arguably Port of Morrow breaks with stereotypical indie just enough to produce a very listenable album without abandoning the band’s original roots. It might no be the ‘classic’ indie sound associated with the Shins, but it is at the same time a much-needed change in direction for the band. If only it hadn’t taken five years to get there.
Grizzly Bear were first introduced to me by a friend a few years ago as “The Beach Boys meets Radiohead”. Several weeks and an entire discography later, I understood what this generalisation was suggesting, but couldn’t bring myself to agree. This was an entirely different animal, a beast that had tamed the surreal and mastered the symphonic.
If I were to tell you that I hadn’t been anticipating their 2012 album Shields, it would be a lie. By the time it came out, the lead single ‘Sleeping Ute’ had been played repeatedly through my headphones so many times I was word perfect. Obvious biases aside, this fourth studio-length release calmly carves another definite notch in a career spanning roughly ten years. Lead singers Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen resume their airy vocals, dominating the controlled psychedelic melodies backing them.
While this formula marks the typical tone from the band, a heavier onset of optimism and gusto is evident in this latest installment The final songs ‘Half Gate’ and ‘Sun In Your Eyes’ both build from a bleaker and immaterial concept of compassion to a brighter and more solid one. Overall, Shields contends with Grizzly’s preceding works competently. So much so that I cannot choose one over the other.
Since the early 80s, Swans have been a fiercely autonomous entity in rock music, their brutal minimalism exemplifying form mirroring content, music as violence. Although their approach has grown steadily more sophisticated and surprising, their prerogative has always been the physical, rather than intellectual, power of music – and their latest album, The Seer, pushes further, as a sense of utopianism emerges from their grooves and drones.
The Seer is touted as the culmination of Swans’ career, their gestalt. Delving through their back catalogue and tracing their aesthetic development is fascinating in itself, but The Seer looms above this long series of formative experiments, a focal point in a dense web of musical genres. But all form and structure is carved back, leaving only the sonic forces that blast you right in the solar plexus. There is an intentional overspill, pushing the boundaries of the recording studio. And this time round, implicit in that disorientating heaviness, is the theme of transcendence. Face up to the two-hour challenge it presents and you’ll see that every second pulls you towards Swans’ ultimate goal: “ecstasy”.
The music of Flying Lotus is notable for marrying many distinct genres of music. He seamlessly blends Electronic, Jazz, Hip-Hop and Psychedelia, all of which are interpreted through his individual, futuristic style. Flying Lotus, or Stephen Ellison, is also remarkable for the progressions from record to record. In 2008, Los Angeles had a very dark hip-hop vibe and 2010’s Cosmogramma was more focussed towards the jazz side of his sound. This effort seems to be taking his music down a much more surreal alley. Sounds flitter around and instruments drift in and out of focus, colourful sounds that are much more soft on the ear than previous records.
A common complaint is the disjointed nature of Ellison’s records, tracks may never fulfil potential and whose adjacency is jarring, but in this case it compliments the fleeting, dream-like tone throughout the record. The production matches up to the high standards Ellison has set for himself; the percussion pops and fizzes delightfully and the synths sound rich and warm. This record lacks much of the grandeur of Cosmogramma, the instrumentation is a lot more stripped back giving the record an intimate and personal vibe. These new additions to Flying Lotus’ sound really help build on his fascinating style, resulting in Until The Quiet Comes as one of 2012’s most absorbing listens.
The Money Store feels like an album that could only be made at this moment. It’s got the spirit of the zeitgeist with it, and the zeitgeist now is information overload. Lyrics are cryptic, often short phrases, shouted at you angrily by MC Ride, who seems like the kind of guy who’d kill you for your shoes. There’s references to hackers, footage, chemicals; it’s like Neuromancer, sung angrily.
The theme throughout the album is one of almost overwhelming confusion – the production of the songs is incredibly detailed and rich, and while the songs seem a bit overwhelming at first, soon this nausea starts to make sense, and you realise the sense of disorientation is deliberate. And the production of these songs is really what makes it stand out – considering the recent trend in rap is towards “cloud rap”, it’s refreshing to hear an hour of shouted thrash-punk-hip-hop, inspired more by grind and metal than anything else.
There’s an immediacy and vitality to it which differentiates it from the other big hip-hop albums this year. Furthermore, while every other rapper seems to be making confessional dream-pop about their lives as Boyz In Various Hoods, MC Ride is an enigma, a tattooed, manic-seeming homeless guy shouting about computers into your face, and treating grammar as a suggestion. His lens is turned outwards, inspired by a world of financial crises, Wikileaks, CCTV and self-service checkouts.
If the album is about anything, it’s about how we’re witnessing the on-going fusion of politics and technology, but none of us know what it is or how it works or what it means. It’s noisy and sometimes uncomfortable, but so’s Newsnight, yet Death Grips have caught that sense of political confusion and distilled it into an album. Gaga couldn’t handle that shit.
I stumbled across Beach House in 2010, shortly after the release of their astonishing third album, Teen Dream. From the opening note of ‘Zebra’ to the sweeping crescendo of ‘Take Care’, I was utterly hooked and have never looked back – except to listen to their previous works.
When Bloom finally dropped, it became immediately clear to me how strong a duo Victoria LeGrand and Alex Scally are. They proved the standard of songwriting on Teen Dream wasn’t a mere fluke and, while it certainly isn’t quite as anthemic as its predecessor, they pulled off what is arguably the most consistent collection of songs released this year.
Album openers rarely get stronger than ‘Myth’, a bold reminder that the band are on a seriously upward trajectory. Each album is bigger and more ambitious than the last, but other tracks on Bloom, such as ‘Wild’ and ‘Wishes’ show they haven’t yet forgotten their core ideology of using pop melodies to create larger, ethereal soundscapes. Much like with ‘Take Care’, they are at their most ‘Beach House-y’ on the album’s closer, ‘Irene’, a delicate ballad that starts small, then swells and soars – much like the band itself from their simple beginnings.
Still riding the waves from his first mix-tape Nostalgia, Ultra., Frank Ocean gave us another taste of brilliance in the form of channel ORANGE. Released in sync with his brave and poignant confessional letter in which he revealed his first love was a man, channel ORANGE is all too real. Within the album lay tunes allegorical of lost love, discovery, sex and the discord embodied in a reckless, overindulged youth.
It’s hi-fi R’n’B, at times woeful and at others funky. My favorite aspects of the album include the unrequited love ballad, ‘Bad Religion’, and the history of female sexual prowess found in neo-soul epic, ‘Pyramids’, though the delicately intimate ‘Thinking Bout You’ has all but become a staple of 2012. Guest appearances include: Earl Sweatshirt of Odd Future on ‘Super Rich Kids’, John Mayer in ‘White’ and Andre 3000 in ‘Pink Matter’ (another favorite). An impressive cast, but one which only stands to support the performance of the leading man. I implore you to listen to the entire album before the world ends. Tick tock, tick tock.
Compton revealed another protégé of the famous West-coast hip hop scene this year: Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick burst into public recognition this year with his critically acclaimed LP good kid, m.A.A.d city. Throughout the album, Kendrick provides a moving narrative to his life growing up in Compton backed up by hooks and beats that have made him the envy of the West-coast hip hop scene.
The stories that Kendrick unleashes on the listener don’t fulfil the usual clichés of the genre, his stories have a very real sound to them that is refreshing in the current world of hip-hop – the listener feels engaged in his stories of alcohol abuse and peer pressure. If the lyrics are strong, though, they have absolutely nothing on the infectious grooves of songs, such as ‘Backstreet Freestyle’ and ‘m.A.A.d city’.
Ultimately this album delivers all that could be asked for from a debut album: a stellar bill of artists, genuine lyrics, and grooves that are so hot you could fry an egg on them.
While there is nothing on Lonerism that will alienate fans of 2010’s Innerspeaker, the record marks a distinct stylistic shift from their debut, in both songwriting and production. The psychedelic blend of strained vocal yelps, sprawling drums and thick riffs remain, but Lonerism has a stronger electronic element. Long synthesizer chords stretch the tracks out, creating more space to absorb the levels of instrumentation, best exemplified on standout ‘Apocalypse Dreams’.
Arguably Kevin Parker’s most experimental piece to date, the track drifts on, its jittery but forceful bass line dotted with splashes of colour throughout. But Lonerism also packs a punch, as on lead single ‘Elephant’, its heavy, chugging riff a direct thwack to the chops that balances the record after some of its more meandering episodes. The end result is an album of comparatively seismic proportions which offers numerous treats buried within its dense textures. A significant and welcome step-up, Tame Impala have crafted an infectious record, one as instantly gratifying as it is adventurous and unique.