My Top Ten Best Albums of the Year:
10. Cat Power – SUN — I was pleasantly surprised with SUN — it’s truly a great effort from Chan Marshall. Chan, before the production of this album, felt really discouraged as an artist for various reasons, a lot of them based upon expectations to meet certain standards while also shredding some at the same time — these pressures existed both inside and outside of the industry. It was brave of her to follow the kind of sound represented on SUN. She just went with it, put her heart deeply into its production, and out came an end result that is a great predecessor to The Greatest. It’s a new-ish sound, but it’s not too new to the point that it makes Cat Power fans totally uncomfortable. Some may disagree, though. I know that for a fact. SUN is just truly a great effort, and has been a great listen for me this year.
09. Purity Ring – Shrines — Hello, Purity Ring! What can I say, I love this band. They’re in this weird little “clique” that came out this year, of which I like to call the Canadian Clique of Electronic Music. Purity Ring is not strictly electronic in my opinion because I find their sound to be very experimental and unusual. They do not gravitiate toward any boxed-up category — they are just true to their art-form. I’ve spent the past several months listening to them — and I began to take notice of the lyrics that are integrated within the intricate tracks. There’s poetic rawness and a bizarre input of unexpected darkness (anatomy, uncomfortable imagery, stark statements, dream-like & surreal scenarios) that the duo brings to the table. Edmonton, Alberta is where the duo hails from, and the sound of Purity Ring is large, grand, and vast — just like the landscape of a hidden, gem-like territory of this northern Canadian province. This is a band, like Grimes, that will likely stick around and reinvent their sound with every polished album such as Shrines.
08. Crystal Castles – (III) — I still listen to (III) whenever I drive anywhere in my car. This may possibly be because it’s the only CD I own/have in my car — but I definitely do not mind this factor. Crystal Castles made an album that I love. Some feel this way, some don’t. That’s why I’m not going to analyze it too much. I obsess over any kind of media that makes me feel and react in a strong, intense way. After the release of their single “Plague” and its video — consisting of one of my favorite horror/art-house scenes in cinematic history — they leaked things bit by bit, and surprised many along the way. Sadly, I did not get to see them in Kansas this past October, but I’m sure I will in 2013. Getting back to what I was saying about art making me feel — after I first listened to the album it made me feel uncomfortable, creeped-out, almost jumpy. It made my mind feel dark, heavy, grim, and godless. The music took me to a goth territory that is very exciting to hear in 2012 — it’s honestly an album with affect, dispassion, angst, and chaos. What I find so disappointing is that Crystal Castles has a gigantic fan-base who love their old shit of bleepy Mario Bros/Super Nintendo sounds that were OK when they came out, but now I do not really listen to (I) and (II) unless it’s for a couple of tracks. So, a lot of people don’t know what to do with (III) — can we dance to it? Yes. Can we enjoy it like electronic music? Can we mosh to it? Can we feel it? Absolutely yes, on all levels. (III) will the album that I will be blasting if I am alive during our Earths’ apocalypse — there’s no doubt about that.
07. Grimes – Visions — I am in love with Grimes/Claire Boucher, and I am happy to say she’s my best discovery of 2012. She’s a strange girl who is also, of course, Canadian and cool as a cucumber. Grimes is getting noticed — her entire vision is becoming more integrated in the scene of electronic music, and especially any bands from the Canadian Clique. Grimes is so, so unpretentious, in my opinion. Interviews with her show a frenetic girl with an unusual appearance, and you then learn she’s a visual artist slash musician. Grimes is self-taught and self-governed with her music. She establishes her own voice on the album Visions — which is an audio-visual experience that is truly, truly creative — it’s not only fun — it’s exciting. It’s strange and bouncy in its ambiguous darkness.
I believe Visions is a dodgy album for 2012 considering the vamp of the generalized electro sound being a forever relentless ongoing invention — but her mark in the field is deeply etched & drawn in place. Grimes forte is music videos, and I believe she’s probably going to commit more to videos for a while, which I love. Her videos are inspiring for all of those DIY-ers out there. She performs with strange, alluring personality that is also awkward and humble — so she’s approachable, and her music is as well. “Genesis” and “Oblivion” are beautiful songs, and smart singles with complimentary videos that expand her vision even further. “Symphonia IX (My Wait is U)” is my personal favorite with its cinematic pacing and immense grandeur of opera-like electronic music that has elements of a theatrical experience, where being the audience is very much enjoyable.
06. Christina Aguilera – Lotus — Yeah, Christina! I love this album. It’s very enjoyable to listen to. Christina is one of my absolute favorite vocalists, and female artists. Ms. Aguilera really inhabits her own space as an artist with this album: it’s not over-controlled by a band of producers and “yes” people — there’s simply her backing up the production every step of the way. I wish Christina participated more in songwriting, though. Why would she hire someone to write a song like “Your Body”? Can’t she trust herself to write her album singles/hits after everything she’s gone through in this industry? Well, that’s fine, because “Your Body” was a brave single for her to release. As its first single, the song was ultimately released first into the open waters full of sharks and animals that eat art whole on sites like PerezHilton and PopMatters — where there are the “opinionated” individuals who aren’t afraid to be downright hateful with pop music. Pop music takes balls. Pop music is a bitch. It’s the most competitive thing on the world stage in context with the music industry. Yes, her music is, always, over-sexualized and at times shallow, one-dimensional. In the end, it’s always at least very entertaining.
“Blank Page” is a song that I feel deserves a spot right up to one of Christina’s reliable power-ballads along with “Beautiful”, “Hurt”, and “You Lost Me”, as some examples. She creates albums into experiences: with opening intros that lead into hand-picked tracks that follow in a famous pop sequence: a couple dance songs, then a ballad, a couple consist of both, then it’s more dance songs, then ending with a ballad. It’s formulas that keep pop music alive, and she has fun doing it. “Lotus” is Christina’s best album in regards to the control of her vocals. Only a couple songs does she blow you away with her occasional shrill-shriek singing that makes you too intimidated to sing along with! She paces herself, and also experiments with her voice. I love “Lotus” a lot.
05. Lana Del Rey – Paradise (EP) — I say “fuck OFF!” to anyone else’s “opinion” about the artist Lana Del Rey. I hate reading/hearing what people say about her — the way people so unforgivably shred an artist into pieces really pisses me off. Lana Del Rey first appeared to me as a sensitive artist who wouldn’t be able to handle the harsh blows of the stupidity that swims throughout what is called the audience. It’s not like she’s an artist that’s constantly thrown in your face: so if you don’t like her, don’t watch her!
Lana Del Rey is an authentic artist to me because she stays very true to her fundamental artistic image. This image, in a few words, consists of the American Girl, the Girl from California, who is not from this time, yet instead pulled from time capsules planted next to Sunset Blvd motels and buried in the nearby sands of the beaches on such emotional landscapes. She rides along the windy, twisty roads down mountains near Malibu, California with the fresh morning wind that gusts in her face and hair, making her feel alive. This image is mastered by Lana Del Rey, especially in 2012. She’s of her own species, her own kind. “Ride” is an example of what a true professional female musician represents.
Be careful of how quickly you judge an artist like her — because Lana Del Rey has the ability to maintain a lot of success despite all of the setbacks of her career that is still only toddler-sized. The release of this EP took major balls, and even still it had to eat the shit of the press. Luckily, it lives on forever in the hearts of fans like myself. Fans who make up an audience that is reasonable and rational — and do not overthink why they love an artist like her.
04. TGNHT (Hudson Mohawke X Lunice) – TNGHT (EP) — This EP was really, really exciting to discover. I remember my first listen to it was when I was getting ready to go out to the bars — getting my best outfit together, trying my hair in 5 different styles, spritzing on the cologne — an amount that’s just enough. This is a fun process that leads to a fun night and I really, really love music that amounts to that feeling of excitement. Who doesn’t live for going out for a good time?
TGNHT consists of these guys who are producers/DJs and they’ve obviously put in their time having observed electronic music for god-knows-how-long — so their own original creations have a lot of credibility behind them. I had not ever heard of these guys before this EP. The EP is very successful, and is gleaming light on them that’s probably long overdue. If they’ve got this EP out, I can only imagine what else is up their sleeves for the future. 2012 needed a 10-ton dynamite EP like this one — explosive, very explosive.
03. HOLY OTHER – Held — I love the darkness (or the general goth sound) that exists inside of electronic music these days. Contemporary electronic music, I suppose, is the proper box to wrap these acts up into. Sound creations from HOLY OTHER consist of a multi-layered, subdued sound that nails down and delivers a feeling, an affect — something highly abstract as opposed to being “dance music” or strictly experimental to its audience. The opening track “(W)here” shoots up through a murky surface into an eerie territory that is very much influenced by ambient/house jams and is not unfaithful to the subtle ingredients of contemporary R&B. I can’t wait to see what else HOLY OTHER releases after their triumph with Held — as they will continue as pioneers of experimental electronic music that yields strong atmosphere and affect — elements that create connections with the audience, rather than just merely entertaining them for the sake of entertaining with their music. HOLY OTHER intends to do things with their music, and it’s highly respectable, and great to have discovered them. Held is a great album of electronic obscurity midst lots of other innovative acts in their league.
02. Pete Swanson – Man With Potential (EP) and Pro Style (EP) — I cannot get enough of Pete Swanson — who is most often identified as one of the main engineers of Portland’s Yellow Swans, a terrific electro-noise cocktail whose songs glitch and glimmer in their odd, at times discordant, sound structures. I mark Pete Swanson as one of my greatest musical discoveries of 2012, if not of this decade. The sounds of Man With Potential & Pro Style put me into a state of reverie that I cannot really articulate. The length of the opening track “Misery Beat” blew my mind and took a firm grip of my very own intrigue: the rest of its discordant compositions follow headily in a difficult, yet rewarding, sequence of tracks.
Pete Swanson’s music on these EPs are conceptual (at least in my opinion) — and Man With Potential is definitely some sort of concept album. The concept behind the EP certainly follows some sort of nonlinear, abstract flux that draws in a listener and takes them to a strange psychological territory. Tracks slew along like psychological topography for both the artist and audience, thus creating an unusual bond of action and reaction through the medium of electronic music that experiments endlessly. I do not expect many people to really “get” my gist of this because it’s difficult, discordant music that is noise, but the noise is more controlled than it seems. Intricate programming and selected factors of style influenced by house/industrial/Euro electronic that meets rhythmic counterbalances of a common rap/R&B track — this creativity and original sound is very interesting to explore.
Pete Swanson doesn’t hold your hand through the experience: you are all on your own. Sometimes it’s scary, sometimes dancey, sometimes too unusual, sometimes fun. The tracks are lengthy and expansive, more captivating an audience for a concept album that you sit & listen through — and its affect drives everything forward. Dark and moody gothic influences drive through Pro Style as well, but not nearly as much as Man With Potential which may find Pete Swanson a man who has already met his potential — and will continue to produce work that shines in dark, strange territory of psychological music that is experimental and generally electronic. Cheers to him, he’s great, and I love his work a lot.
01. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel… — Well, this is a no-brainer. It never was even for a moment when I first heard of the albums official release from Fiona’s relentless record label Epic Records. In 2012, I experienced my very first (and perhaps only) live concert in Kansas City, MO at the Midland Theater where I stood only a few leaps away from Fiona Apple on stage. I was a die-hard motherfucking fan having some sort of exorcism while the rest of the audience remained subdued, watching her with intrigue, as one would observe a piece of art in a museum. People do not always know what to “do” with Fiona Apple in regards to her music, personality, and live performances. I, on the other hand, know exactly how to handle her in every aspect possible. All it requires is a little bit of emotion, and a little bit of letting yourself go by stopping all of the questions, comparisons, and expectations.
As an album, in the present moment, it’s a perfect piece of art that’s fine-tuned and crafted by Fiona’s engineering talent: her ability to write the lyrics on this album will impress me for all eternity. She’s the best female songwriter in the industry. She has a style that is so singular, so original, that it cannot be distinguished from any other female artist whom Fiona may be “cut from the same cloth” — which is something I disagree with.
Fiona is her own cloth — she exists in her own bubble in space and time. By embarking on a very extensive tour for this album — she proves herself as a grown woman with extreme talent as a skilled artist. Fiona is provocative on this album such as on the song “Jonathan” where she, on a first-name basis, sings about a failed relationship on top of sounds similar to machinery that whirs and works in the background, then unfolds on a made-from-scratch piano ballad, until we morph completely into her territory that is created from Fiona’s heart — a very personal, vulnerable, strange little place that is the size of the Atlantic.
Fiona demands that you be careful with her due to her fragility, but also due to the abrasiveness on her surface: she can hurt just as she’s been hurt, and she can love just as she’s been loved. Fiona is the mastermind of her own emotions and she willingly explores them in songs like “Every Single Night” — a song lyrically comparable to a Confessional-mode where the artist fully self-discloses, but stylistically knows how to blur all the lines that need to be blurred. She speaks through the fourth wall by shredding it to pieces — there’s nothing holding her together — she’s in pieces right before you — and you need to look closely in order to understand the bravery and brilliance she exudes endlessly.
Fiona is flighty and flaky when it comes to her career itself because she lets everything happen in its own timeline, not a timeline created by anyone else, even herself: her own creative process is something that’s respectable as it is frustrating for her fans. This album stays in somewhat of a familiar territory, but overall is the much-needed expansion of “Extraordinary Machine” because she goes beyond any previous work by existing as Fiona Apple in 2012: an artist who plays around with both simplicity and complexity in a risky, yet effortless way, and is truly herself when it comes to the context of her musical and visual style. Now, more than ever, Fiona is proclaimed as a true artist. Her fourth album is equivocal to all previous work — a factor that’s unheard of for solo artists. Fiona is strength, courage, and vulnerability that is humble, truthful, beautiful, and challenging.
Albums that did not do it for me this year in 2012:
Passion Pit – Gossamer — I am not going to get critical, nor will I critique, but this album ended up on pretty much every other top-10 list year and I have no idea idea. Passion Pit did not progress nor reinvent anything with this album — instead they catered to their regular sound and left me feeling bored, uninterested. I question whether I’m even a fan of this band or not, though. They’re well-loved by many, so it doesn’t really hurt that their fan population may exclude myself.
Bat For Lashes – The Haunted Man — Man, oh man. This album was such a let-down for me! I had been looking forward to it for so long and it just… ugh… simply let me down. When I tried to make it through all of the tracks, I felt compelled to just listen to her previous albums instead! Natasha Khan (Bat For Lashes) is definitely “growing up” as an artist, but I don’t see what took her so long to make this album. Sorry, but it’s no wonder that her record label continuously rejected any material she would send to them. The album is just plain. “Laura” as a piano ballad is nice, but not as her first single. It seems like she’s a totally different artist now — there’s not a semi-sinister, dreamy David Lynch-enthused soundscape that typically describes the vision of Bat For Lashes. Instead it just feels like she’s trying to write/create music that will be marketable and, while that’s very true, it’s a just on to another several years before her next album.
Madonna – MDNA — After being bored with Gaga’s “Born This Way” after it’s first full-listen, I expected a little something from the realm of dance music. Madonna highlighted the Superbowl with an explosive performance, yet she was singing a new song from this record that made me feel distracted — it made me feel like it wasn’t what she should be releasing.
My issue with Madonna’s music is a familiar issue that I’ve always had with the “marketable music of dance/disco” because dance music, in itself, is a product. It’s created with top-notch programmers hired along with the best song-writers rounded up together where they basically “reinterpret” the artists’ image — and then the artist says “yay” or “nay” to the results.
Madonna is perfectly fine being in this area of the industry, and I have nothing against it. It’s profitable because it’s what is blasted in every gay club every weekend all around the world. Clubs are picky with what they choose to remix or play for the dance-floor, and this is in a part of the industry where the attention span is only a mere few seconds long. I enjoyed some parts of this album — but MDNA isn’t even love-to-hate good, or music just for fun/enjoyment. You still hear some sort of misconstrued theme/message being translated in her music, and it’s distracting.
Album I wish I could include for 2012:
WHITE RING – Black Earth That Made Me — Okay, so this album was only brought to my discovery in 2012, except it’s been out since last year. I feel like since I’m on the topic, I may as well digress a bit. WHITE RING really impresses me. They’re doing something new and atypical with electronic music along with the efforts of artists similar to their sounds. WHITE RING is a group that has fine-tuned artistry that intends to breathe fresh air into electronic music — all while trying to revamp the “goth” or “industrial” genre into a more approachable format — a format that reminds its audience of hip-hop, rap, and common styles that ring similar to the creation & production of mainstream rap, thus creating “witchhouse” I guess. SALEM of course leads the discourse on this sub-genre which has become ever-so-trendy, much to my surprise! WHITE RING & SALEM are bands that create marketable music that doesn’t stretch out to the market — they cling on to their independence and exist in a musical land of experimentation.