Top 10 Albums of 2012 Revisited

Now, Now - ThreadsAs is my yearly tradition prior to posting my top 10 albums list, I look back at my top album from the previous year and tweak it with things I missed or ended up growing on me. Looking back on 2012, there’s one album that was on the list that jumped a few spots, and new entrants barely knocked out the previous slot holders at the list’s bottom.

The Original Top 10 Albums of 2012

1. Celebration Rock – Japandroids
2. Negotiations – The Helio Sequenc
3. History Speaks – Deep Sea Diver
4. Threads – Now, Now
5. Fear Fun – Father John Misty
6. The Heist – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
7. Tramp – Sharon Van Etten
8. Touch Screens – Erik Blood
9. On the Impossible Past – The Menzingers
10. North – Stars

The Updated Top 10 Albums of 2012

1. Celebration Rock – Japandroids
2. Threads – Now, Now
3. Negotiations – The Helio Sequence
4. History Speaks – Deep Sea Diver
5. Fear Fun – Father John Misty
6. The Heist – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
7. Tramp – Sharon Van Etten
8. We Don’t Even Live Here – P.O.S.
9. The Kaleidoscope – Lemolo
10. Visions – Grimes

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Top 10 Albums of 2012

Stars - North10. Stars – The North

Compared to previous Stars records, The North is positively joyous. Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan’s dual vocal attack remains as tight as ever, but there’s more hope in the words they’re singing. The instrumentals are also more upbeat with shimmering indie pop backings being boosted by deep groves. It’s a sweet collection of love songs that begs listeners to sway along.

Menzingers - Impossible Past9. The Menzingers – On the Impossible Past

The Menzingers is the band I thought I was getting when people first started raving to me about The Gaslight Anthem. The music wonderfully blends an angry punk sound with lyrics the pine for the elusive American dream in a way that’s Springsteen-esque. On the Impossible Past fiercely kicks off with “Good Things,” one of the year’s best songs, and barrels full steam ahead from there.

Erik Blood - Touch Screens8. Erik Blood – Touch Screens

Touch Screens is the classiest, most polished filth of the year. Erik Blood’s ode to pornography mixes a variety of guitar-driven rock styles while (naughtily) touching on everything from porn star biographies (“The Lonesome Death of Henry Paris”) to selecting a daily dose of smut (“Today’s Lover”) to the complexities of porn actor’s relationships away from the job (“Share Your Love”). Each song is fine tuned with the deft production skills that have made made Blood one of the go-to producers in the Seattle scene. Touch Screens may leave you feeling dirty, but it’s too pleasurable to deny.

Sharon Van Etten - Tramp7. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp

There’s beauty in stability. Sharon Van Etten wasn’t shy about letting her personal pain spill out on her first couple records, but Tramp finds her exploring music with a new sense of poise. It’s much more of a full rock record than her previous efforts and the fleshed out sound shines on songs like “Magic Chords” and “Warsaw.” While her words can pack an emotional, cutting punch (“Serpents”), its pleasant to see that Van Etten has found some personal peace of mind.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - The Heist6. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist

After spending years of honing their craft and slowly building their brand, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis finally delivered their breakthrough record. Macklemore is equally deft at deft at delivering swagger (“Thrift Shop,” “Can’t Hold Us”) and vulnerable reflections (“Same Love,” “Neon Cathedral”) and Ryan Lewis’s sample-free compositions help The Heist have a feel that’s distinctly it’s own. When you add a host of terrific guest choruses (Allen Stone, Mary Lambert, and more) to that mix, the result is the most solidly diverse hip-hop album of the year.

Father John Misty - Fear Fun5. Father John Misty – Fear Fun

No one bombastically burst onto the scene in 2012 quite like Father John Misty did. Fear Fun is a wildly entertaining drug-fueled ride through L.A.’s underbelly in a manner that would’ve made Jim Morrison proud. Whether he’s dwelling on darkness (“Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”), the tragic absurdity of art (“Now I’m Learning to Love the War”), or the chemical substances in his system (“I’m Writing a Novel”), FJM does so with a sly sense of humor and bravado. It’s a throwback rock album that revels in how silly the very idea of a throwback rock album is.

Now, Now - Threads4. Now, Now – Threads

With the aide of producer Chris Walla, Now, Now found its tonal sweet spot on Threads. Everything the band did well on previous records is distilled into an immensely accessible album full of superb vocal and guitar harmonies and unintrusive drum beats. And while the band still excels at slow jams (“School Friends,” ), it’s also great to hear the band unabashedly rock out for once (“Thread”).

Deep Sea Diver - History Speaks3. Deep Sea Diver – History Speaks

While Deep Sea Diver frontwoman Jessica Dobson served a stint as The Shins’ lead guitarist this year, her own band’s first LP History Speaks was clearly her crowning achievement in 2012. The album bursts with lively energy while blending melodically tight guitar rockers (“Ships,” “You Go Running”) and piano pop ballads (“NWO”). The entire package is crisp, clean, and undeniably hooky. One listen to History Speaks and you’ll be humming the melodies for days to come.

The Helio Sequence - Negotations2. The Helio Sequence – Negotiations

With each passing album, The Helio Sequence’s music has become more focused on atmosphere and flow. Drummer Benjamin Weikel’s synth backings now feature much more open sonic space and frontman Brandon Summers’s guitar work also no longer forces the issue. As a result, the band keeps getting better and better. Negotiations almost feels more like a single composition featuring a series of movements instead of a traditional rock record. No individual track reaches out and grabs you, rather they all welcome you warmly into their collective embrace.

Japandroids - Celebration Rock1. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

Celebration Rock got me back in the pit. While my body and age had kept me on the pit’s fringes for years, this record made my instinctively rush into the sweaty throng to thrash, bruise and scream along when Japandroids came to town. Every note on Celebration Rock pulsates with youthful electricity: every thundering drum beat, every massive split-signal guitar riff, every “woah-oh-oh-oh-oh” chorus — all of it. Japandroids elevated its game to a new level. It’s as if your favorite dumb punk two-piece band suddenly got arena rock ambitions while making a record and somehow nailed it.

Top 10 Songs of 2012

Even more so then previous years, it appears I was really into guitar rock in 2012. It’s not exactly a diverse list in that sense, but I can live with it.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

10. “Serpents” – Sharon Van Etten

While the solemn serenity of Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp gets better with each listen, the album lacks is the authentic sense of pain that was prevalent on her first two official records. The one exception to this comes in the form of “Serpents.” Van Etten’s signature angry sorrow comes through as she tremblingly snarls the line, “You enjoy sucking on dreams…” It’s a spine-shivering delivery. While it’s great that Van Etten has found a sense of personal peace, it’s terrific as a listener to hear her pent up venom momentarily seep thorough.

9. “Comeback Kid” – Sleigh Bells

Waves of huge guitar noise helped Sleigh Bells build buzz, but “Comeback Kid” is the band’s first real stab at melodicism. Backed with typically massive riff, the song maintains Sleigh Bells’ sense of chaos and noise while Alexis Krauss’s layered vocals cut through the shredding with an upbeat enthusiasm that makes the song by far the band’s most accessible track to date. It’s a rare high energy track that can be equally enjoyed in the offices of the Brooklyn music blogosphere and in football weight rooms across the country.

8. “Ships”– Deep Sea Diver

Before the day of Deep Sea Diver’s album release show, I hadn’t ever heard the band’s music. I rolled out of bed, checked Twitter, and saw that the band’s new album (History Speaks) was streaming on Bandcamp. On a whim, I clicked play on the first track – “Ships.” I was immediately hooked. The song showcased the best of the band: Jessica Dobson’s killer guitar work and vocals, terrific off-beat drumming (plenty of rim action here), and melody in spades. I quickly snagged a ticket to the release show, bought the album that night, and Deep Sea Diver eventually became my favorite Seattle band of the year. Not bad for a first listen.

7. “Thread” – Now, Now

Now, Now mainly sticks to finely crafted tunes that are relatively slow; borderline plodding. “Thread” unabashedly kicks things into a higher gear with a straight-forward rocker. Everything about the song is pitch perfect: Cacie Dalager and Jess Abbott’s vocal and guitar harmonies, the frenetic tempo, Chris Walla’s production, the jumbled clap beats in the post-chorus. Pulling a thread and watching it all unravel hasn’t been this enjoyable since Weezer’s “Undone – The Sweater Song.”

6. “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” – Father John Misty

I want Father John Misty to be my L.A. tour guide. I imagine he’d get a kick out of showing a bus full of tourists his version of the city, the one that exists on “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.” As the rhythmic guitar riff messily crashes about, FJM bellows the refrain of “Jesus Christ girl…” (or more accurately “Je-e-e-e-e-sus Christ girl…”) with a sense of desperation, exasperation, and a hint of condescension. All the while, his tongue is planted so firmly in his cheek that one might worry that it’ll bore a hole in his pretty little preening face. What a delightful way to play in the dark. Continue reading

Now, Now Feature From The Inlander

Land of 10,000 Licks

Now, Now continue the surprisingly strong lineage of music from the North Star State.

If Minnesota ever comes to mind, it’s likely because of lakes, the Vikings, or maybe Judy Garland. But for decades, the state has gone unnoticed for putting out loads of great music. The ’80s saw the rise of Prince and the iconoclastic underground sounds of Husker Du and the Replacements. In more recent years, some of the best hip-hop around has poured out of the Twin Cities (P.O.S., MF Doom, Atmosphere, Brother Ali) along with some choice indie (Tapes n’ Tapes, Low) and pop-punk (Motion City Soundtrack).

And that’s not even mentioning the Minnesota boys who went to the big city to showcase their songwriting chops: the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn and the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman.

It’s weird how quietly Minnesota music has flown under the national radar. But Cacie Dalager, the lead vocalist and guitarist of the excellent Minneapolis indie-pop trio Now, Now, sees one clear reason for the loads of talent coming from the Land of 10,000 Lakes — the notoriously brutal snow and cold that forces artists to feed their creative fires.

“It’s pretty much winter at least half the year,” says Dalager. “From October to, sometimes, May, it just looks like winter all the time. That kind of puts me in the right mindset to be writing, because usually what I end up writing about isn’t anything particularly cheerful.”

“Being forced to be inside and be creative helps; as opposed to living somewhere really sunny, where you want to live outside all the time.”

Now, Now (formerly Now, Now Every Children) started playing a blizzard of indie rock in 2003 when Dalager and drummer Brad Hale began writing songs after high school marching band practice in Blaine, Minn. After toiling away for years, the duo gained a modicum of national buzz with their first LP, Cars. Dalager eventually connected with guitarist Jess Abbott via MySpace. Continue reading

SXSW ’11 Final Recap

A final look back on the best of my journey to Austin for SXSW. Includes my list of the 10 best acts of the fest. Once again, I oblige you to check it.

LL the Album’s Best Photos From SXSW ’11

I took way too many pictures out SXSW. Here are some I liked more than the others.

(Click to enlarge images.)

TV on the Radio

The Antlers

Electric Child

Death From Above 1979

DFA Riot

Okkervil River

Lazerbeak

P.O.S.

Fences

Sharon Van Etten

Kevin Devine

Tapes ‘n Tapes

Continue reading

SXSW ’11 Day One Recap

I’m covering SXSW for The Newshouse. Day 1 included The Antlers, Now, Now, The Dodos, Mister Heavenly, The Gay Blades, Four Fists, Darwin Deez, Deafheaven, and Young Man. Check it.