2012 Music Reviews
Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O., Son of a Bitches Brew (2012) C-
Sorry fans, but I'm not feeling it, and I'm already familiar with Zorn and his Tzadik label so nothing on this jazzy-spacey record comes across as being anything particularly new to me.
Actress, R.I.P. (2012) D
Mundane 'melodies' galore in this release by UK-based Mr. Cunningham, who thinks adding a layer of static and fuzz to his tracks makes them special in some way. Even the album's standout, "Shadow from Tartarus," gets stale well before it ends.
Alcest, Les Voyages de l'Âme (2012) C
Had the majority of the album been as coherent and dream-like as "Beings of Light" I could see the "shoegazer" label fitting them, but then they go back to the tired screaming-followed-by-melodic junk. Even Isis has trouble making this work....
Alt-J, An Awesome Wave (2012) C
They take a lesson from The xx, strip away all non-essential sounds and try to keep it very, very basic ... what's unfortunate is that while The xx are good at knowing what sounds and words need to remain, these blokes haven't quite got that down. Joe Newman's vocals are erratic and the songs lack distinction.
Animal Collective, Centipede Hz (2012) D
I don't know any other way of putting it: this is terrible. After the very-inspired "Strawberry Jam" and "Merriweather Post Pavilion" this doesn't seem to have a hint of brilliance; hooks and auditory creativity have been replaced by rambling and repeating banal lyrics (until, I'm guessing, they're supposed to attain some kind of resonance). It's a wonky, tepid record, a wonky, tepid record, a wonky, tepid record.
Anoice, The Black Rain (2012) C-
Glitchy ambience - and some light piano music - from a Japanese six-person outfit does what so many similar acts do: start strong then drift into plain background fodder. It doesn't help that The Caretaker released his soundtrack "Patience (After Sebald)" first, which makes this all the more negligible in comparison.
The Antlers, Undersea [EP] (2012) B+
Anyone that tells me he or she doesn't like the musical direction the Antlers are going in gets a kick to the either the nuggets or knife wound. Consider yourself warned. I listen to "Drift Dive" and feel like I'm SCUBA diving with sleek, smiling marine life and they're talking to me and telling me to not crush on the coral and giving me free hugs. (Only complaint: this is only four tracks long. What, couldn't put on two more?)
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw & Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2012) B
Nobody does sorrow and regret like the wildly eccentric Ms. Apple, and she's remained one of the consistently strong female songwriters for the past decade plus, but this is probably her most bare-bones album, and with the piano muted as much as it is it borders on being a spoken-word performance piece. Still, with words and feelings like those, your brain and your lungs are the only instruments necessary....
The Avalanches, Since I Left You (2000) B+
Wildly impressive collection of thousands of samples intertwined so meticulously it seems effortless; this is mixing and production work at its finest. Of course, it's been (now) twelve years since this was released and they've done nothing much of substance. Weirdly enough, the way I first heard of them was from their fantastic remixes of Wolfmother's "Woman" and The Concretes' "Chico" ....
Baroness, Yellow & Green (2012) D+
Not one but TWO CDs of lyrics like, "Show me the corner I can't stand the sight of the smell / Harder and harder and harder to tell!" Inventive! Clever! Bright! Witty! No.
Battles, Dross Glop (2012) C-
As a rule, remix albums are generally a mess, as the various artists tend to 'reinterpret' their source track with great liberties, making it a discordant listen; this is no different, with some of the remixes being quite memorable (The Field, Gui Boratto), while most are all-over-the-sonic-map (The Alchemist, Shabazz Palaces) or just ugly (Silent Servant, Yamantaka Eye). The original album (from 2011) is marginally better.
Battles, Gloss Drop (2011) C
The gap between Williams et al. and Phish just got a little smaller.
Beach House, Bloom (2012) B+
I knew I had to listen to this through several times because there was no way it was going to be the masterpiece "Teen Dream" was and I needed to evaluate it on its own terms (I had to do the same, for example, with Interpol's second LP). Legrand's voice is still majestic and Scally's guitar still compliments her keyboards magnificently, but the blissful, teary-eyed memory trip-out that was their previous album isn't as potent this time around; that album came from a (deeper, more agonizing) place that few musicians can access while for this one the two of them are happy to ride on pure talent. And don't get me wrong, they're really, really talented. I appreciate it - and enjoy it - without being transported.
Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself (2012) B
Finally, a Bird album I like! You have no idea how much of a relief this is to me: I didn't care much for his previous LPs, then I saw him in concert (and was stunned), then I re-listened to his LPs and realized he wasn't maximizing his potential on record (which happens with a few acts; for some, it's the complete opposite). This one is sweet and delicate, and whoever he's working with got him to tone down the preening and pretentiousness (still apparent in tracks like "Near Death Experience," but it's lessened for the most part). The man knows how to play the shit out of a violin.
Brand New, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me (2006) B+
Cult album that leans a little too heavily on a Woe Is Me tone - self-pitying/self-loathing - and could use a bit more optimism (it's not all that bad, geez), but both the music itself and the lyrical content (not to mention the iconic cover) are undeniably solid.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Aufheben (2012) D+
It's like Newcombe and Co. came up with nice riffs for songs, proceeded to play those riffs over and over again and forget about musical structure, lyrical complexity and the like - almost every track seems to get stuck in the same looping rut. Don't get me wrong, they can rock the crap out of those guitars and that tambourine ... but after twenty years and some incredible albums and songs, they're so much better than this.
British Sea Power, EP1 [EP] (2012) B-
These kind gents from England have decided to release six EPs to coincide with some sort of continuous gig thing they're doing in Brighton. Why do it like this? Why not one massive LP? Why have signal flags on the stage? Why the stuffed wildlife? From EP1, "French Pornographic Novel" is a personal favorite.
Burial, Kindred [EP] (2012) B
So precise, so consistent, so transfixing: Mr. B. stands in front of his machines and mutters to himself, "I'm going to make dubstep that isn't garbage." It's like a cooking show with Emeril or Fabio: there are all the ingredients on the table, and then he throws everything in the bowl. It tastes like heaven.
David Byrne and St. Vincent, Love This Giant (2012) D
Oddball team up of, well, two oddballs results in a muted, remarkably unremarkable release: it's as if both musical talents are gun-shy and trying to not one-up each other, and instead of teaming up their strengths, they both (subconsciously? intentionally?) underwhelm out of respect for each other. "A masterpiece / a hairy beast"? More of the latter, sadly....
Cardinal, Hymns (2012) C-
Sometimes when a band hasn't released new material in eighteen years, it's best not to kick up the old amps, you know what I mean? The lyrics are lame ("Love Like Rain" is like nails not on a chalkboard but being pulled from their sockets with pliers) and these jingle-jangle pop tracks are hackneyed. According to their distributor's web site, back in 1994 they were "arguably the best band in the world." They should have quit when they were ahead.
The Caretaker, Patience (After Sebald) (2012) B+
This is the spectral, dark lullaby-inspired soundtrack to the Grant Gee film (inspired by W.G. Sebald's life and novel "The Rings of Saturn"). A lot of the 'compositions' sound like they were slowed down and played backwards, which might seem like a gimmick, but Mr. Kirby makes it all sound majestic and eerily soothing. Turn off the lights, shut out the world, mentally prepare yourself a watery grave. (He also released, for free, "Extra Patience (After Sebald)" for even more gloom!)
Cat Power, Sun (2012) B
In light of the (most recent) troubles in Marshall's life, this is as musically upbeat as I've heard her in forever. I'll admit I prefer the more downbeat Marshall, and the pop sheen on this sounds like she's trying (a smidge too hard, in my view) to not be such a sad sack. Ends considerably stronger than it begins (with "Manhattan," "Silent Machine" and "Nothin But Time").
Ceremony, Zoo (2012) D+
You know sometimes when you take a medication that they tell you is going to knock you out and you take it and are staring at your clock literally trembling with the jitters at 4 AM? Well these guys are the opposite: their warning label states that they're aggressive and loud, but I seem to get distracted mid track and tune them out. They're ordinary people. They say ordinary words.
Chairlift, Something (2012) C-
This tacky 80's revival needs to have its life support pulled. I believe the right to do so is listed in its (barely) living will. "Take It Out on Me" is dreadful, but then near the end of the album they almost seem to get it together ("Turning," "Guilty as Charged").
Christian Mistress, Possession (2012) C-
Not bad for a hard rock bar band, but I listened to this sober and not surrounded by truck drivers staring at their glasses of Lord Chesterfield. Having a booze-swilling, heavily-tattooed female lead is a little different, but the music is fairly standard (for the genre).
Chromatics, Kill for Love (2012) D+
Deadly flat, like a washboard or your 10-year-old sister's chest, and I'm not just talking about Ruth Radelet's vocals. Also, it's deadly long. Albums should warrant their length.
Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory (2012) C-
A tad more refined than their last album (released, oh, a few months ago), though that really isn't saying much, and those lyrics need a re-write by someone a little older than a perturbed high school sophomore.
Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas (2012) B
I've always believed that aging artists should never ever, ever, ever write their own personal eulogies, and the spectre of death hangs over this one a bit uncomfortably, but it's Leonard-freaking-Cohen we're talking about here, and even when he's facing his own eventual demise, he's got his tongue in his cheek and a smile a mile wide, ready to saunter into heaven and pat St. Peter on the back. He's less lustful but still loaded with regret; that's inevitable, I guess.
Giles Corey, Giles Corey (2011) B
Inventive artist/musician Dan Barrett has crafted this curious concept album, based on Giles Corey, a farmer murdered during the Salem Witch Trials. In typical Barrett fashion, this changes styles frequently, with Dan even turning out a melancholy, almost Beach Boys-esque "Grave Filled With Books."
Crystal Castles, (III) (2012) C+
More subtle and atmospheric and club-ready than past CC releases, which makes about as much sense as asking Leonard Cohen to write a death metal record or Sonic Youth to release an acoustic record: you lose what made the artist so relevant in the first place. It's not that this is bad, but without Kath and Glass being raucous and crazed (like they are ever so briefly on "Insulin"), it goes in the pile of Ordinary Electronica.
Death Grips, The Money Store (2012) C+
Their debut mixtape was this shotgun blast of fury with some clever wordplay; this lacks the same intelligent declarations ("System Blower" and "Double Helix" are downright lame) and even the blasts of frenzied noise sound like add-ons to make one think there's more going on in this than there is. Basically, it's an average hardcore rap album with digital effects.
Lana Del Rey, Born to Die (2012) C+
She was unfortunately attacked for her performance on Saturday Night Live - and sure, she looked a bit awkward (particularly with her goofy single "Video Games"), but what did everyone expect her to do, writhe on the stage like Karen O? Shoot up heroin and/or foam at the mouth? Anything that garners that kind of immediate criticism has to be hitting some sort of nerve ... and if you really want to take shots, go right for the stupid lyrics ("One for the money! Two for the show!") not the production value or her voice. She makes Willow Smith read like - and seem as deep as - Anne Sexton.
Die Antwoord, Ten$ion (2012) D-
I'm just glad that I called how terrible they are with "$O$." The only actual words I can make out of this are the expletives; they have nothing interesting to say, and the novelty of them hailing from South Africa (and dressing like white trash) has worn off.
Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan (2012) C
As with the forerunners in the math rock genre I suppose I'm to be impressed by the high level of technical skill and complexity in the tracks (with the constantly emerging off-beat sounds and samples), but as with "Bitte Orca" the incessantly morphing, off-kilter tracks reveal an outfit that excels in ingenuity but lacks a certain degree of emotion and staying power.
Django Django, Django Django (2012) C-
Clean, structured, possible to be enjoyed by children and adults alike, hardly introspective, bouncy. It's safer than filtered water.
DNTEL, Aimlessness (2012) D+
Tamborello sleepwalks through yet another album, coming to ever so briefly for the album's sole good track ("Santa Ana Winds"), which coincidentally has something called vocals. Without a vocalist he's D.O.A.
Bob Dylan, Tempest (2012) B+
I don't know how many cigarettes it takes to get your voice like that, and I'm not sure I want to know (how many cartons a week, Mr. Jones?). Still, this is Dylan in fine form (even in his 70's!), going back home (proverbially speaking) with his mellow backing instrumentals and some ingenious lyrics that could only come from someone who's been there, done that a bazillion times over. The 14-minute title track is an endurance test, but the rest of this is solid.
Brian Eno, Lux (2012) B-
I'm not going to say this is a landmark work by Eno - the monotony tends to take over after a while - though I will admit it's a tranquil and haunting journey. With as loaded an oeuvre as Eno has it's hard for him to compete with himself - all that notable production work and those great soundtracks, not to mention his solo material (such as "Music for Airports") - but here he goes back to what he's so good at: stirring minimalism.
EPROM, Metahuman (2012) D
Nice, some DJ figured out how to remix Nintendo bleeps and bloops into some kind of gizmo-heavy dance-hall record. No one ever thought of doing that before. And no one figured out how to make them this flat. No one. And no one thought to name a chill out song "Regis Chillbin." I swoon at the creativity.
Flying Lotus, Until the Quiet Comes (2012) B+
Enthralling, dreamy LP from Mr. Ellison, who has made three stunning albums in a row - this one, according to him, is concerned with "human consciousness and the dream world" which is a nice way of saying it's a stellar chill-out album with a bit of thought behind the production. Just watch that DMT, man....
fun., Some Nights (2012) F
Braindead "anthems" intended to be the songs of a generation, but they haven't quite outgrown their Nick Jr.-inspired view of the world. "It gets better / it gets better / it gets better / we'll get better." Nah, you probably won't.
Geographer, Myth (2012) C
Starts well enough with the somewhat vibrant "Life of Crime," but then it becomes more of the same, like a soda that's gone flat or a whiskey with too much ice in it. They get a little life in their routine with "Shell Beach," then go back to underwhelming with "The Boulder."
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! (2012) B-
Long, long, long-awaited new release from the post-rock masters from Canada continues their doom-and-more-doom-and-gobs-of-gloom approach to music, beginning with the screechy-guitars on "Mladic" and gradually drifting into (admittedly tiring) static and drone on the last 'track,' which rumbles for a good eight minutes. The power and majesty of "Lift Your Skinny Fists" remains their artistic apex.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, F♯ A♯ ∞ (1997) B-
Spoken word samples get paired with steadily-building guitars and hums - it's a slow march to oblivion. Some find this to be incredibly moving; I find it (purposely) devoid of easy emotion, but it's still a unique collaborative effort.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000) A-
Magical, transcendent, moody ... and there are moments in this that just make one want to break down. I don't know many artists that can make guitars swoop and swoon and crash like these guys. As for the first seven minutes of "Storm": Holy.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada [EP] (1999) B-
Basically this warm-up to the excellent "Lift Your Skinny Fists" LP is chock-full of apocalyptic notions and oodles of rumbling. Gotta love those bizarre sound clips....
Gojira, L'Enfant Sauvage (2012) D+
Unlike the 2012 Napalm Death release, this is Gojira at their least memorable: thrash metal cranked out just to go touring.
Grimes, Visions (2012) C
Kind of drifts in and out like a weird dream and could have used a touch more consistency; it's atmospheric but also kind of forgettable. Her voice reminds me of Joanna Newsom's ... and that's an individual I'd rather not listen to again.
Grizzly Bear, Shields (2012) B
Take every glowing (and, in my mind, misguided) review of "Veckatimest," strip them of the hyperbole, bring them back to Earth for a second and then attach them to this solid album - the band's fourth LP - which is a relatively consistent 10-track release. I don't know if these guys and Passion Pit put their heads together or what, but it's as if they both stopped going for the melodramatic at the same time, and decided to put out reasonable, fluid indie rock. I'm fine with that.
Calvin Harris, 18 Months (2012) D
I find it hard to believe someone that could make a track as transfixing and magical as "Feel So Close" - with Harris providing his own vocals - could produce such a terrible album, but here it is. The collaborations leave much, with Florence Welch (on "Sweet Nothing") being the most bearable of them. Maybe this Scot shouldn't have spent so much time drinking from the bottle and spent 18 months programming half-decent songs (take one listen to the 'pew-pews' of "Awooga" and get ready to shake your head in disgust).
Have a Nice Life, Deathconsciousness (2008) B
Moody, experimental double LP from genre-defying Dan Barrett, and its core strength is in its ability to transition so easily from one style to another. I kind of wish some of the lyrics weren't so washed out - I literally can't make out a thing he's saying (when, unlike MBV, the vocals are not meant to be simply another instrument) - but that could just be my issue. "I Don't Love" is a fuzzy standout.
Keaton Henson, Dear... (2010) B
Hermetic Henson, bearded and world-weary, sings ten laments to lost love. It gets a little overbearing in its sadness, but the Man-And-His-Guitar approach has a certain directness and intimacy that lend it a certain degree of authenticity. It's generally wise to let the damaged ones go - let them be someone else's nightmare.
How to Dress Well, Total Loss (2012) C+
Teeters uncomfortably between the earnest and the obnoxious, and that falsetto of his can becoming grating: for every track that hits home, there's another one ("Say My Name Or Say Whatever," "Set It Right") that jackhammers the ears and mind.
Japandroids, Celebration Rock (2012) B-
Audience-friendly garage rock duo from that ever-rocking Canada (!?) who keep things brief (eight tracks! 35 minutes!) and stay with the punk-formula of loud and sweet. Plus, there's a Gun Club cover in there ("For the Love of Ivy"), which guarantees it bonus points in my mind.
Joyce Manor, Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired (2012) D
At least at thirteen minutes, this punk outfit don't wear out their welcome. They don't even break out a sweat. And their audiences don't have time to finish their beverages. Being punk means not having to have a well-formed thought, not wasting time, not being original. Being punk means a Buggles cover is your best track.
Jucifer, Calling All Cars on the Vegas Strip (2000) B
Sometimes the good stuff slips by without me knowing - I can't listen to every record out there, although I certainly wish I could. This husband-and-wife duo make some grungy, catchy noise-rock (the horns in "The Movements of Swallows" are simply great) - this release, their first, came out twelve years ago but if someone told me it was a 2012 release I'd believe it. According to the Wikipedia page on them, they tour constantly in an RV and play live "with extreme volume." That's a coupling that will hopefully last for a while.
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) A-
If this did indeed inspire the progressive rock movement ... how come this is outstanding and those that followed lost the blueprint? Gets a bit roundabout in parts - they wander off and take a little long to 'get back' - but it's still an amazing journey.
Kendrick Lamar, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2012) C-
As if talking about abusing women, acting like a fool, shooting people and collecting money - traditional rap topics - wasn't rote by now Lamar then decides hey, I'm going to sample Beach House (on "Money Trees") ... and then start calling some woman a bitch (actually "bish"). Those praising this: do you feel he's being politically progressive? Is he a superior rapper when compared to his peers? Is his approach new or creative? Does he work towards reinventing the genre? As fun as "Backstreet Freestyle" is (as far as guilty pleasures go), I'm not reading it as a sarcastic condemnation of a hedonistic lifestyle.
Liars, WIXIW (2012) B-
They may be wishy-washy, but at least they like to have fun with music - this is arguably their most low-key release, more influenced by electronic music than their previous releases and it's probably their most cohesive album to date. No real singles to speak of - it's best to just start at the beginning and ride it out. It took me three listens to be able to assign a grade - it doesn't remain pronounced in the mind, but it is full of delicate pleasures when it's playing.
Liturgy, Aesthethica (2011) C+
Amazing timing (for a black metal band from frickin' Brooklyn!), but I'm a little concerned the technique overpowers the tracks: I'm busy being stupefied by the breakneck speed but less impressed by the tracks themselves (if that makes any sense). Also, that's some wonderful screaming (don't forget to guzzle that honey).
Lone, Galaxy Garden (2012) D-
Look out! Above your head! Dreadful bleeps and bloops! It's not even passable as video game music because it's too irritating! And there's a full hour of this hack work! Pull the plug.
Lost in the Trees, A Church That Fits Our Needs (2012) C
One of those Arcade Fire-influenced outfits that overdoes it on the feyness and sense of self-importance; when they get to the opera-esque chants, it goes comically over-the-top. Still, it's nice listening in spots, and they have tremendous potential.
Lotus Plaza, Spooky Action at a Distance (2012) B-
Pleasant (if a teensy bit flimsy) shoegazing from Lockett Pundt of Deerhunter - it starts stronger than it ends, probably because Pundt's voice (think of a sedate Julian Casablancas) and melodies tend to become a little static over time. Still, there are some really strong songs on this, including "Strangers" and its ambient lead-in.
The Magnetic Fields, Love at the Bottom of the Sea (2012) C
The gap between Merritt et al. and "Weird Al" Yankovic just got a little smaller.
The Men, Open Your Heart (2012) C
Inconsistent, and sometimes they come across as alt-country ("Candy"), while sometimes caustic art-rock ("Animal"), sometimes progressive rock-ish ("Country Song"), sometimes almost punk ("Cube"). Maybe the band name is spot-on: men can be fickle.
Micachu and the Shapes, Never (2012) C+
Like children banging on pots and pans and experimenting with making new kinds of noise, there's a wonky, off-kilter appeal to this, but like those children smashing and screwing around, the appeal is short-lived.
Miike Snow, Happy to You (2012) B-
Giddy Swedish pop that gives pop (and Sweden) a good name, and those synths are infectious. "Paddling Out" and "The Wave" just make me want to dance (in my head, of course).
Charles Mingus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963) A
One of our mad, brooding, bruising jazz geniuses died young but left behind a stellar catalog of albums I've been, over the years, working through - I don't know the technical aspects of what he's doing a lot of the time, but knowledge of the mechanics of his music don't detract from the end result, which was always frenzied, dynamic and profound. This four track album belongs in the (already crowded) top tier of his work, and that last number (the multi-part "Trio and Group Dancers") is a doozy.
The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation, Egor (2012) D
Sorry, I don't feel comfortable attaching the beloved word "jazz" to anything this outfit's doing - sure, there may be instruments used for jazz compositions in this, but they're just so jumbled and tiresome, and the four pieces on this saunter and bellow but don't arrive at any place remotely powerful. They start light, then get louder and more dissonant; all it leaves you with is a headache. Obnoxious.
Mumford & Sons, Babel (2012) C-
These English gents want you to know how Earnest they are - Earnest with a capital "E" - and wail on that notion for an hour. They get the ukulele and mandolin and banjo in the mix to let you know how Down Home and Real They Are. But their words are still the equivalent of shit-house poetry ("I'll never wear your broken crown" ... seriously?), and Marcus M. can burst any number of blood vessels in his neck yelling into his mic: it just doesn't matter.
Napalm Death, Utilitarian (2012) B-
Yes, a shout-out to Bentham and Mill! Seriously, though, there is little more that I expect from death metal outfits than to be unrelenting and empowering (in their hostility) and this latest release from the long-running Napalm Death fellows is just that. Metal in all forms has been a guilty pleasure of mine from back when I was in grade school, and it's nice to know an old-standby is still just as fierce as ever. In the I-Listen-to-Too-Much-Weird-Music category: I knew that was John Zorn on "Everyday Pox" without reading the liner notes (he's either Just That Obvious or I'm Just That Dorky).
North Atlantic Oscillation, Fog Electric (2012) D+
A lousy Muse knockoff ... and I can't stand Muse. Gotta love that robot voice on "Empire Waste."
Frank Ocean, Channel Orange (2012) B+
His recent "coming out" aside - because a person's sexuality has nothing to do with his/her talent - this is a stellar LP: mature, wonderfully paced, carefully penned. You can pick apart bits and pieces here and there ("Pyramids" runs a tiny bit long) as being minor missteps, but they're just that: minor. "Nostalgia, Ultra" was a well-received mixtape, and then in a few months he throws this out there. I'm impressed.
Frank Ocean, Nostalgia, Ultra (2011) B
The Ocean exclusives that fill the bulk of this (from "Novacane" to "Dust") are really good - he's a thoughtful lyricist, and even when he gets vulgar it's kind of charming. It's the bookends that have me cringe: his rapping over MGMT's "Electric Feel" isn't the best, and blabbing over Coldplay's "Strawberry Swing" is an odious offense.
Omar S, It Can Be Done, But Only I Can Do It (2011) C
Widely-praised ... if only because he takes the safe road (sonically) and keeps it basic ... and dull. I don't think playing audio clips from porn movies in tracks is ever a good idea, unless you're Mr. Bungle. Because they knew how to do that.
Passion Pit, Gossamer (2011) B
Oh thank you based Passion Pit for not trying to replicate the heart-rending agony of "Manners" again, choosing to go for this cheery, clunky dance-hall blitz. At a party, it can skip around and spill its drink while doing the tango with the Miike Snow record. Oh oh ohhhhh ohhhhhhhhh!
Porcelain Raft, Strange Weekend (2012) A-
Italian Mauro Remiddi - currently holed up in Londres - decides to quit working on the countless other projects he has set before him, finishes that third glass of Campari and orange juice (for breakfast, naturally), duct tapes together ten luscious dream pop tracks and makes what's bound to be one of the most stunning musical breakthroughs of the year. It's impassioned without being pretentious, which is way more difficult to achieve than it might seem.
Portico Quartet, Portico Quartet (2012) B-
Eclectic mix of Radioheadesque digital creakiness and jazz - oh, and somewhere along here a guest singer pops up and occasionally there's that Kenny G-ish tenor sax that they throw in. Still a rewarding listen, of course, and the mixture of all the musical elements sometimes adds up to something big ("Lacker Boo").
Purity Ring, Shrines (2012) C
I sense a pattern in outfits like this: get female lead to chirp innocuous longings over (incredibly) sparse electronic beats. Also see: Grimes.
Frankie Rose, Interstellar (2012) C
Maybe Ms. Rose didn't get the memo, but we already have a Best Coast and Cults and we have Zooey, and we don't need any more nasally lead singers projecting over silky celestial backgrounds.
Shabazz Palaces, Black Up (2011) B
I didn't know a lot about them when this album was sent to me, and the first thing I thought was "they sound like a slightly updated Digable Planets" ... and what do you know, that's precisely the origin. Ishmael Butler didn't reinvent himself, he just modernized his sound, and though the same complaint I had with Digable Planets applies (Butler's delivery is too dry for me), the chill-out, relax vibe and minimal construct makes it a solid recording. He's (still) cool like that, he's (still) smooth like that....
Shearwater, Animal Joy (2012) C-
This strikes me as being preening and self-important, and it may have something to do with Jonathan Meiburg's voice or it could be the unnerving delicacy of the tracks (finally breaking out with "Pushing the River"). Either way, it's a challenge to endure.
Shifted, Crossed Paths (2012) D-
Some of the most mindless, agonizing techno I've heard in a while, and that's actually saying something. Thump-a, thump-a, thump-a, thump-a, it's like robots screwing in a space station.
The Shins, Port of Morrow (2012) C
It's been close to a decade since the release of their highly praised "Chutes Too Narrow," and they're still basically doing the same thing, on both knees praying to college radio to play them. They try so very hard to be accommodating and pop-friendly and layer their sticky sweetness over the bread pudding they're spoon-feeding you.
Sigur Rós, Valtari (2012) C+
... And suddenly they're back with that iciness that made them so famous in the first place. Trouble is, of course, that they've become a little one-note in their time, and the tracks are barely recognizable from each other: an hour of creakiness.
Sleigh Bells, Reign of Terror (2012) C
Their first album was decent but I wasn't super impressed with it: there's a lovely woman singing over over-amplified guitars and pounding drums. It was a production trick, and it worked to some degree. This is more of the same, with the drums smashing and the guitars squealing and, on certain tracks, there sounds like there's a stadium full of people cheering them on. They're like a faux-artsy hair band from the eighties. Like Whitesnake. With a degree from SUNY Purchase.
Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light (2012) B+
This latest release from Mr. Pierce, who had yet another ailment when recording this record (liver disease? dear Lord!), is both sonically inspired and lyrically drab, yet comes across as being a success by the time he ends up on the oddly sweet "So Long You Pretty Thing" and all but cajoles his audience to sing along with him ("God save your little soul"). It isn't his strongest album, but all those drugs and all that sickness can get the better of you after a while - he's now taking medicine to get better to make music for you to feel better to hear.
Squarepusher, Ufabulum (2012) C
Same problem I have here I have with Sigur Rós' newest - namely that I'm not sure Jenkinson (who's been at this for years) has really made his newest release that distinctive; it certainly isn't bad, but it's more of an alteration of the past than a step to the future.
Stars, The North (2012) D
More sub-Cocteau Twins dream pop from an outfit that never really established themselves as being special - even their most notable LP, 2004's "Set Yourself on Fire," was nice if trivial. This is several steps backwards from that, if you can believe it.
Steinvord, Steinvord [EP] (2012) B
I remember when this "mysterious" IDM artist - whoever he or they could be - posted some tracks on MySpace a few years back and I was impressed with the talent of such a "no name" (ahem) electronic musician. If it is RDJ - and I'm thinking it is - he's the musical equivalent to Pessoa (and equally enigmatic). Regardless, it's an unpredictable and mesmerizing EP.
Stepdad, Wildlife Pop (2012) C
Pop glitz that begins a lot better than it finishes - "Must Land Running" is a nice opener and "Jungles" is a good follow-up, but they then get intolerably corny ("Will I Ever Dance Again").
St. Lucia, St. Lucia [EP] (2012) C
Has a bit of the ol' Passion Pit running through this ("The Old House Is Gone") and gets a little too close to the Easy Listening category for my taste ("All Eyes on You"), but "Paper Heart" gets it right.
Sun Airway, Soft Fall (2012) C+
The ambience is still in place from their last album, though I don't think the song writing and arrangements are quite up to par. "Nocturne" made you one with the waves of emotion and sadness; this is but a faint memory of that experience.
Swans, Soundtracks for the Blind (1996) B
Originally intended as the 'swan song' (ahem) for the band - although we now know it was a temporary break - this is a massive, two and a half hour epic of noise and dread. It's powerful in parts, but with a sizeable portion of passable, somewhat tiring sections: a case of trying to go out with a bang, of killing off a band in grand fashion. The ambition overwhelms the talent, but that doesn't keep it from being a unique and truly eclectic effort.
Swans, The Seer (2012) B-
Double LP by Gira and his bandmates is creepy and apocalyptic and stirring, though sometimes Gira has a tendency to let his tracks run away with him - I'm not denying the power of his grumbling compositions, but even on extended songs (like the title track, which goes for a half hour and has a lot of crashing cymbals and static), he tends to drift off. The feeling of menace holds it together.
John Talabot, ƒIN (2012) B
Talabot needs to run a seminar on how to make house music, setting up a classroom-like setting where up-and-comers can sit down and he can curse at them in Spanish when the tracks his students make are too tame. See, there can be actual vocals! And the vocals can be uplifting (like Ekhi's contribution to "Journeys")! Sound samples can be unorthodox (the screaming on "Oro y Sangre")!
The Tallest Man on Earth, There's No Leaving Now (2012) B-
This is nice, of course, but there's that lingering feeling that Mr. Matsson is repeating himself; you could theoretically swap out some tracks from this and "The Wild Hunt" and it wouldn't make a ton of difference. Still can't get over how powerful his voice and delivery are, and if I didn't know he was a 29-year-old from Sweden I would have thought he was a 46-year-old from Tennessee.
Titus Andronicus, Local Business (2012) C-
As a general rule, follow-ups to incredibly popular and critically successful albums are tough to pull off and generally underwhelming, and the Titus guys don't even sound like they're trying to replicate the conceptual goodness that was "The Monitor" with this tempered release. Overnight, they've turned into a Ramones cover band ... and not above repeating the same bland nonsense over and over (the title of "Titus Andronicus vs. The Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO)" is longer than the lyrics, where he shouts "I'm going insane") as if it's supposed to mean something. There's even a track on here called "Food Fight!," which gives me visions of Joey Ramone throwing pizza at his audience.
TNGHT, TNGHT [EP] (2012) D+
Sometimes hype is just hype, which is the case with this electronic duo, who illustrate that knowing how to use the software to make music doesn't make for good music. You boys chopped that up, how nice.
Twin Shadow, Confess (2012) D+
If you're going to reference the past, that's fine, but Mr. Lewis Jr. retains most of the tackiness of New Wave (like Tears for Fears' worst) without really updating the technique - what remains is silly and hard on the nerves. But as far as guilty pleasures go I'll just whisper this: I like to play "Golden Light" on repeat ("Some people say there's a golden light! You're the golden light!").
Two Door Cinema Club, Tourist History (2010) B-
Sunny-day hook-heavy pop that's so fluffy it makes The Postal Service, Phoenix and Tapes 'n Tapes sound as worldly and complicated as Leonard Cohen, but that doesn't stop it from being a pleasant listen. Don't expect them to alter your world, just groove on those guitars.
Ty Segall Band, Slaughterhouse (2012) C-
Can we all admit we miss the talent of someone like Jay Reatard and leave it at that?
Scott Walker, Bish Bosch (2012) C
Merely making obscure references to obscure historical matters - accompanied by (depending on the track) a backing band, some shouting, creaking noise, etc. - doesn't mean you're making good - or even fulfilling - music. At least "The Drift" had a slightly better sense of continuity: this almost sounds like a parody of that album (and more than once I admit to laughing at Walker's choice of words and accompanying sounds, which may or may not be intended). This is a truly puzzling release.
The Walkmen, Heaven (2012) B+
Beautifully tranquil release by NYC's own Walkmen who sound like they could fit right at some tiki bar in the Caribbean, playing their simple songs of love, depression and redemption to tourists guzzling Mai Tais. They're still one of the best bands in the world, and that so few people (at least in my experience) know of them is a damn shame. Not many bands can do so much with such few notes, a slow drum beat and a lot of ambience.
Jessie Ware, Devotion (2012) C
The only word that came to mind when listening to this (twice) was "serviceable": Ware has a nice voice but it's not soul-stirring, and the instrumentals too often remind me of the wrong side of 90's girl-pop. Speaking of which, where are Salt-n-Pepa?
Jack White, Blunderbuss (2012) B
I always knew there was a bluesman in there - it's a shame, of course, that he and Meg ended their White Stripes project, but now he can sit in a Louisiana club and belt his little melancholy odes. It ain't so bad. The jambalaya and mint juleps help.
Wild Nothing, Nocturne (2012) C+
A huge step backwards from the wonder that was "Gemini," and now Tatum sounds like Twin Shadow but with less crooning. I hope the Cocteau Twins are getting residuals from all this gratuitous homage of late....
The xx, Coexist (2012) B+
I'm probably going to be in the minority with this one, but I actually think this is a better "album" than their debut, if only because they seem more focused and concentrated and are content to tell the story of a troubled relationship from beginning to a more optimistic future. I can't imagine how this level of intimacy (and bare-bones instrumental work) comes across in concert; I would hope the audience keeps its damned mouth shut.
You Slut!, Medium Bastard (2012) D
Time signature change, time signature change, time signature change. So you know how to do that. I know how to make Eggs Benedict, but you don't see me making a film about it.
Zammuto, Zammuto (2012) B-
So low-key and basic it almost runs the risk of being inconsequential, but he keeps his head (and the album's) well above the waterline - the same thing could be said for his work (with Paul de Jong) as half of The Books. In fact, the tracks here sound a bit more cohesive and direct than The Books albums, which leads me to believe De Jong was the less organized/more experimental component of that duo.
Singles of the Year: The Afghan Whigs: "See and Don't See," Anoice: "Self-Portrait," The Antlers: "Drift Dive," Beach House: "Other People," The Brian Jonestown Massacre: "Blue Order / New Monday," British Sea Power: "French Pornographic Novel," The Caretaker: "Everything Is on the Point of Decline," Cat Power: "Manhattan," Lana Del Rey: "Without You," Mac DeMarco: "Ode to Viceroy," Ellie Goulding: "Anything Could Happen," Grimes: "Genesis," Grizzly Bear: "A Simple Answer," Calvin Harris: "Feel So Close," Japandroids: "Continuous Thunder," Kendrick Lamar: "Backstreet Freestyle," Lil B: "Ryan Seacrest," Lotus Plaza: "Strangers," Passion Pit: "I'll Be Alright," Porcelain Raft: "Unless You Speak From Your Heart," Spiritualized: "So Long You Pretty Thing," St. Lucia: "Paper Heart," Sun Airway: "Soft Fall," Tame Impala: "Feels Like We Only Go Backwards," Twin Shadow: "Golden Light," Jack White: "Take Me With You When You Go," Wild Nothing: "Paradise," The xx: "Angels," Zammuto: "The Shape of Things to Come"