The List 2012
At the end of each year I make a list of the twenty albums I enjoyed the most. To be eligible, a record has to be of album length (at least ~30 mins), and contain entirely (or almost entirely) new material; live albums, cover records, and compilations are ineligible.
- The xx — Coexist
Like a lot of people I discovered The xx in 2009 when it was already too late to not be influenced in some respects by the hype surrounding their debut. In following up the Mercury winning xx they have chosen to refine their sound rather than make any radical alterations to it, but the result is a more focussed album than their first. I feel about it similarly to how I feel about Portishead’s first two albums: the second is a more complete and technically perfect distillation of the band’s sound, though (in both cases) I marginally prefer the debut.
- The Mars Volta — Noctourniquet
The Mars Volta have been with us for almost a decade now and I feel no closer to working them out. As maddeningly obtuse as anything they’ve ever put out, Noctourniquet continues in the vein of 2009’s Octahedron but with added dark-synth elements that do something to compliment Cedric’s vocals, which still walk the line between seeming stream-of-consciousness & tightly controlled. This is an album full of wilful music that only just falls short of their peak to date, which remains The Bedlam in Goliath (2008).
- The Shins — Port of Morrow
It was with no small amount of impatience that I waited five years for a follow-up to Wincing the Night Away - one of my favourite albums of 2007. If this new effort from James Mercer et al is lower down this list than expected it’s perhaps owing to the fact that it takes so few risks. In projects like Broken Bells and the track on Dark Night of the Soul, Mercer has shown that he’s willing and able to try different things, and yet Port of Morrow plays it so straight that it’s hard not to feel just a touch cheated. The flip side of that coin is that what is here is quintessential Shins: ‘Simple Song’ could be the band’s calling card. It’s a record I enjoy a lot, but which found itself — fairly or not — dwarfed by five years of expectation.
- Fiona Apple — The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
It’s strange to think that Laura Marling’s entire three-album career to date fits comfortably within the gap between Fiona Apple records. Apple is in no rush, and the release of Idler Wheel… was rightly met with huge expectations. As it turns out it’s a complex beast of a record, ceaselessly expressive and impassioned but, like its title, sometimes unwieldy and rarely neat. I don’t say that pejoratively, I feel like it’s a choice taken consciously in the putting together of the record, and one that often pays dividends. Apple’s voice remains incredible, with some of the extents she pushes it to (on ‘Daredevil’ for example) being comparable to PJ Harvey’s exploration of her limits on last year’s Let England Shake. Far from easily digestible, and as such a hugely rewarding record. ‘Every Single Night’ remains the most stunning piece of music I heard all year.
- Deadmau5 — > album title goes here <
A late-in-the-year discovery for me prompted by looking into the track ‘Professional Griefers’ featuring Gerard Way on vocals. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking to be found here but I’ve found this whole album to be a great late-night listen, full of glossy synth and colossal bass-driven rhythms. Way competes with Cypress Hill, and Imogen Heap (sadly not on the same track!) as MVP guest contributor, but just as many of the instrumental tracks are highlights. Perhaps not one I’ll still be playing in five years’ time but I’ve given it a fair few spins this winter.
- Liars — WIXIW
WIXIW is the latest despatch from Liars as they continue to occupy some kind of weird limbo where music is extrapolated from the more outré elements of Radiohead’s Amnesiac. I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is I find so appealing about Liars, and yet, like the three albums that precede it (perhaps 2007’s self-titled release most of all) I find this stuff endlessly worthy of re- listening, re-examining, further puzzling over. If anything there’s a slight detectable lightening of the musical palate here, on tracks like ‘No.1 Against the Rush’, which helps distinguish this record from 2010’s Sisterworld - you couldn’t call it a change of direction however, Liars’ direction remains resolutely undecided.
- Blondes — Blondes
I’ve struggled to remember how I cam across this one; most likely it was added to the stack of new release playlists I tend to build up on a Monday and then not get around to listening to for months on end. Regardless, once I did get around to delving into this dense thicket of electronic synth & rhythms I found myself hooked. There’s something appealing about this album’s unknowability: its one- word song titles and stark typographic artwork. It’s there in the music too: no quarter given, no concessions made - an album to take or leave on its merits. Something about its swooping, echoing calls and 16bit-esque samples caught my ear.
- Royal Headache — Royal Headache
With an average song length somewhere south of two-and-a-half minutes this is thrillingly energetic, under-produced garage rock of the purest kind, accompanied by a flawless ear for infectious melodies & hooks. There’s also an unmistakable buoyancy to it, a non-ironic optimism that you can’t help taking on as you listen. As such it’s one of the most fun-loving and simply enjoyable albums of 2012.
- Wallace Roney — Home
At the start of the year there were a couple of jazz records that I was looking forward to: Christian Scott’s double-disk opus, and the new album from Robert Glasper. Roney wasn’t on my radar at that time, but a couple of great reviews for Home got me interested, and the album quickly became a headphone favourite for me. Roney’s trumpet is superbly expressive: by turns manic and pacific, and the overall spread of the album runs all over the tempo and emotional spectrums. ‘Evolution of the Blues’ is a stand out favourite, as it builds a theme over eight minutes whilst still allowing room for impressive trumpet and piano solos. I had though, over the last couple of years, that piano-led jazz was my flavour of choice but Roney brought brass back in style for me.
- Cloud Nothings — Attack on Memory
This is a lean, wiry, noisy record from a band I had no familiarity with at the start of the year. It was Steve Albini’s production that first keyed me into this album, and it remains an essential ingredient in what appeals to me about what is essentially a post-rock / grunge fusion sound. The space Albini gives the recording, so that it sounds like it’s unfolding live in some otherwise empty room, is what makes these songs breathe - especially the album centrepiece: ‘Wasted Days’. That track alone is a brave sonic experiment from a band whose back catalogue is decidedly poppier than Attack on Memory would lead you to believe. But this isn’t just a nostalgia exercise for those of us who haven’t heard anything that sounds like In Utero in a good long while. It’s a smart set of dark rock songs that says everything it has to in 33 minutes and leaves you wanting to hit play again.
- Four Tet — Pink
Pink has taken Kieran Hebden quite some time to put together, and reads less cohesively than previous efforts There is Love in You, Everything Ecstatic etc. but is no less impressive. Four Tet was one of the artists that opened the door for me to electronica ten or so years ago, and his prolific output is still some of my favourite work in the (loose) genre. Hebden can do warm as well as anyone, whilst still feeling experimental and never stale: ‘Ocoras’ is a prime example. Album highlight for me though is the closer: ‘Pinnacles’, which had a 7″ release least year and has a play count somewhere in the high thirties last time I looked.
- Regina Spektor — What We Saw from the Cheap Seats
The twin attractions of a Spektor record are her captivating, somersaulting voice, and her faultless sense of melodies that stick in your head despite being just the right degree of off-kilter. It took a while for me to get into this record, but once I did (once those tunes worked their way in there) it was one that I returned to just to listen to a track or two with increasing frequency. Before I knew it most of the album had worked its magic on me. I enjoyed 2009’s Far but it fell short of the album that brought her to my attention: Begin to Hope (2006). This one is right up there.
- Portico Quartet — Portico Quartet
This is one of those tenacious ones: a January release that has stuck it out all year to claim a place in the top ten. In some ways a pretty unexpected sounding album, the instrumentation favours the electronic far more than on previous releases, but its constantly impressive what four talented musicians can conjure from the less familiar. Tracks like ‘Spinner’ still feel heavily jazz-influenced, but they are counterbalanced by the more electronica-esque songs like ‘Rubidium’; it feels like the album was sequenced with this balance in mind and it works superbly. I have a feeling I’ll still be listening to this one for years, but I’m also intrigued to know where Portico Quartet go next.
- Godspeed You! Black Emperor — Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
I didn’t get into GY!BE until it was too late, and I would say it has been a long wait for new material only I didn’t really consider it a possibility that there would ever be any (see also My Bloody Valentine). The four tracks of Allelujah!… comprise one of the year’s most perfectly coherent albums, to the degree that it almost makes little sense to consider the tracks separately appreciable. Opener ‘Mladic’ is one of the finest pieces of music of 2012, but only because its glacial, intoxicating build over 20 minutes dissipates into the slow crawl of ‘Their Helicopters Sing’. This is music of considered construction and as such it seems a cheat to listen to anything less than the full 50+ minutes. That’s something I’ve only managed a handful of times this year but I’ll be coming back again - there’s something special in here for sure.
- Ben Kweller — Go Fly a Kite
After reaching a high with his eponymous album in 2006, Kweller left me a little cold with 2009’s Changing Horses. I applaud the effort at adding something to the palate but I’ve never been able to key into country music to any great extent and found the tweaks to Kweller’s pop-rock sound a little off-putting. It’s clear right out of the gate here that things are back on power-chord, bubblegum course and once it gets going Go Fly a Kite never really lets up. The jaunty piano sing-along of ‘Gossip’ is vintage, and Kweller finds a new gear with ‘Justify Me’ that is thrilling to hear. Looking back over the five post-Radish solo albums it’s very impressive how many great songs this guy has written.
- Islands — A Sleep & A Forgetting
Islands’ previous album but one, Arm’s Way, made an appearance on The List in 2008, and yet drawing comparisons between that record and this one seems of little value. (There is also the matter of 2009’s Vapours which is a different animal again.) Islands’ sole defining characteristic is Nick Thorburn - the series of line-up changes that has altered the face of the band over the last three albums is difficult to overstate.
All of which is only important in as much as it informs the state of A Sleep & A Forgetting. A very personal record for Thorburn, written pretty much solo on piano and released on Valentine’s Day, it is perhaps one of the finest modern examples of that pop staple: the break-up album. In places melancholy, and in others possessed of an infectious optimism, Thorburn is brilliantly adept at capturing his mood in song, wrapping melodies perfectly to the feel of his odd, sometimes touching lyrics.
At its core AS&AF contains some of the year’s most memorable, whistleable, sing-along-able pop songs, the strength of which would be enough to find it a place on this list. That it is this high up is owed to the emotional strength and variety of the material. One of my most played albums this year.
- Bloc Party — Four
A couple of years ago when it was announced that Bloc Party were going into hiatus it didn’t feel like a permanent thing. As with the last decade of Silverchair’s existence there was always that slight fear that they would drift apart and not find their way back to each other for an extended period, but four years doesn’t seem like an unreasonable length of time to wait, especially as it saw the release of a very interesting solo album from Kele, which served as an insight into the presence of different musical impulses within the band. Four doesn’t feel like the product of a divided band at all. It’s muscular and assured in every respect: a definitive statement. There is musical diversity here, from the tender ballad of ‘Real Talk’ to ‘We Are Not Good People’ at the other end of the record’s (and the band’s) spectrum, but it comes across as cohesive and well built. This is a set of musicians very familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses and fully in command of what their band has been and can be.
Repeated listens reveal a multitude of wonderful moments: the seductive bridge of ‘3X3’, the none-more-angular guitar spine of ‘Octopus’, the Smashing- Pumpkins-via-Weezer solo in ‘Kettling’ - and it’s out of these that the record as a whole is built, moving from one to the next with a sure hand and without a misstep.
The only things to dislike about the record are its poorly conceived cover art and the soon-irritating spoken interludes between numerous tracks. Luckily both of these decisions are easily edited out via iTunes, leaving a pretty flawless 21st century pop-rock album.
- Grimes — Visions
New discovery of the year goes to Grimes. I stumbled across the video for (album highlight) ‘Oblivion’ on Pitchfork back in January and was instantly hooked. The album was one of the first I purchased this year, and between my iPod and the CD I burned for Elizabeth’s car it must be one of my most listened to records of 2012. That I’m nowhere near tired of it is a testament to the strength of the songwriting. From the artwork to the videos and her on-stage abandon you might not think that ‘subtlety’ would be Grimes’s strength but in large part it’s the ingredient that makes this album work. There’s no overindulgence on this record, which moves sure-footedly around a dance/trance borderland knowing exactly when a dark bass grove or a distorted vocal is called for, but never overplaying these elements, content to let the kernel of the album’s hypnotic rhythms do most of the talking.
Also, she is nearly as entertaining on Twitter as she is on record, so that’s a plus.
- Metric — Synthetica
This is the kind of flawless start-to-finish pop record that only comes along very rarely. Somehow, over 11 tracks, Metric don’t make a single misstep. It’s been one of those rare albums with which I’m constantly undecided as to which is my favourite track. The 40 minute run time fairly flies by in a whirl of soaring hooks, lap-drummable percussion, and singalong choruses, and I almost always want to hit play on this again.
At the time of writing my favourite track is probably the perfect night-driving soundtrack ‘Speed the Collapse’ or the year’s best danceable anthem ‘Breathing Underwater’… or maybe twisted ballad ‘Lost Kitten’. Stop asking me to choose! For me this record harks back to Garbage at their mid-90s finest. That band’s first two records were very important to me at the time, and still get the odd play now, but Synthetica may well be better.
..OK, my favourite is ‘Clone’. (Or maybe ‘The Void’.)
- Deftones — Koi No Yokan
Probably having read about it in the darkest corners of Kerrang! magazine, I still remember putting down far too much money at my local Our Price to import a copy of 1995’s Adrenaline. When it eventually turned up however, the wait and the money had proved to be well worth it. Unfairly tied to bands from the nu metal scene emerging at the same time, Deftones never really fit that mould: they were too melodic, too obtuse and, as the albums moved on, too romantic. Around the Fur was nothing short of a new gospel to me when it arrived in 1997, and 2000’s White Pony is a religious text I still consult regularly today - without question one of my desert island discs and some days my favourite record of all time.
Solid and enjoyable as they most certainly are Deftones (2003), and Saturday Night Wrist (2006) failed to set my world alight as their three predecessors had done. To listen back to those albums now (and they are still eminently listenable) sounds to me like a band treading water to some extent; re-working what they did well with somewhat lesser returns.
When Deftones shelved the almost complete Eros in 2009, following bassist Chi Cheng’s tragic accident (which leaves him in a coma to this day), it felt to me like an admission that the band were struggling with their own identity. Particularly in the absence of a founding member it must have been incredibly difficult to grasp what the band stood for anymore. However, with Diamond Eyes, a soaring and heartfelt tribute to their friend, Deftones secured a place in my top 10 for 2010. That record was proof that this was still a band capable of great things and Koi No Yokan is the fulfilment of that promise. In many ways the culmination of all of Deftones’ strengths, this is a rock record full of tenderness and passion. As brutal as it is elegiac, and as romantic as it is bruising. No other band I know of under the sun can fuse these elements so flawlessly, and in Koi No Yokan Deftones have created something that can stand proudly shoulder to shoulder with their millennial masterpiece.
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