It's a little pathetic that the last post I wrote for The Haçienda was my 2011 roundup, but that fortunately says more about my own time commitments than the state of music in 2012. Nearly all of my work on CMYK this year was related to deployment of the site itself; I managed only one long-format post this year – a technical one at that! Nonetheless, my "favorite records of the year" post has always been my favorite one to write, partly because it's easy to knock out once I've made my list but more because I like revisiting it later as a historical account of the year as I heard it.
I'm pleased that this year's list continues to cut across genres and reveals a vibrant music scene without boundaries. We see consistent high-quality output from list veterans, artists suddenly kicking it into high gear, and a few surprising comebacks. Regrettably, there's not a single debut album on this list, which is a bit disconcerting, as I'm either not discovering as much new music or it's not making as much of an impression. Let's hope the recent rollover of the Mayan calendar shepherds in a new age of sonic prophecies.
Although only first on my list for alphabetical reasons, this year's album from Clark vies for a top spot and was one of the few albums I knew would make my list from my first listening. Surprising to me, Iradelphic has received largely lackluster reviews, which I suspect owes something to it being such a departure from his earlier output. In stark contrast to the menace of icy, grating works like Ceramics Is the Bomb and the magnificent Totems Flare, Iradelphic weaves brighter tones into a warm tapestry, culminating in the magnificent 3-part song cycle "The Pining".
Crystal Castles, (III)
For reasons unknown, I listened to Crystal Castles' second LP an incredible number of times this summer and fall, and just as I was coming out of that phase, III dropped. While I still think II is their finest hour, III is a brilliant record. Crystal Castles' ability to coax so much from of their limited sonic vocabulary is stunning. It's amazing that their 8-bit/goth/noise/pop style has lasted at all, and even more so that III feels fresh while being their most stripped-down production to date.
Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan
While 2009's Bitte Orca proved that Dirty Projectors could produce accessible music, it would be hard to qualify any of their prior output as "catchy", with the obvious exception of "Stillness is the Move". Swing Lo Magellan changes all that with a fresh palette of hummable tunes. Rise Above was dazzling in its composition, Bitte Orca majestic, and Swing Lo Magellan earnest, with the players breathing life into Longstreth's skeletal structures.
I came across Earth via Jim Jarmusch's sensory masterpiece The Limits of Control, and The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull is one of my favorite headphone albums, with its delicate sonic textures expanding to fill a cavernous space. AODDOL2 continues in this mode but is even more infinite, with the band's collective restraint offering a particularly dark brand of enlightenment.
Frank Ocean, Channel Orange
Channel Orange will be on countless "best of" lists this year, and for good reason. It's ironic that Ocean, having composed blockbusters for ultrapopstars like Bieber and Beyoncé, could reach audiences with his own music that his big-name clients would never be able to get close to themselves. Channel Orange frees pop from the mass market, co-opting its proven formula to express something more specific, erratic, and personal, but somehow even more universal.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
GY!BE released Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! at an October Orpheum show in Boston. Their first album in 10 years, A!DB!A! recalls their masterpiece Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven in its scale but feels tenser and oddly claustrophobic. Its longest piece, "We Drift Like Worried Fire", is like an inverse of Pink Floyd's cosmic jam "Interstellar Overdrive", instead drilling to the center of the earth.
Grizzly Bear, Shields
It took me longer to get into Shields than Veckatimest, which I consider a work of near perfection. As I've written before, Veckatimest is staggering because it seems to actualize a singular concept so completely. Shields is more complex and offers no easy interpretations. Like the best Jackson Pollock paintings, it's filled with intricate filigrees and possible connections that hint at a larger organizing principle which could be a revelation if only we could grasp it.
Spiritualized, Sweet Heart, Sweet Light
I first saw Spiritualized play live in 2002, supporting Let It Come Down and also saw them this year on their SHSL tour. In that first show, the stage was awash in a blanket of white light with the band members mere silhouettes, fitting for the LICD's disembodied soul-searching. In the last show, the production was unfussed with the band simply lit and clearly material. While it revisits the usual Spiritualized themes of loss and redemption, SHSL doesn't strive to such lofty heights and feels far more grounded. J. Spaceman probably knows more than anyone what a difference 10 years can make, and song titles like "Get What You Deserve" and "I Am What I Am" make for gospels more humble than despondent.
Tindersticks, The Something Rain
The Something Rain was also a sure thing for my list this year. The 9th album from Tindersticks, a band who remains virtually unknown in the US despite spawning immensely popular sonic descendants, is a stormy night punctuated with flashes of lightning. Tindersticks are masters of the slow burn; tracks like "A Night So Still" smoulder intensely under their inert-seeming veneer.
White Hills, Frying On This Rock
This year's release from White Hills – the only repeated artist from last year – is a scorcher. While not as artfully concepted as the dystopian masterpiece H-p1, FOTR fulfills that album's promise of release, igniting a store of raw energy that explodes in random psychedelic shards.