I give up.
I’ve been thinking about the inevitable year-end top whatever list of albums for more than a month now. Countless records have found their way across the turntable or into my phone for listening on the train and some have risen to the top and others aren’t even a blip. But so many of them are just too good to rank, dismiss, or inadvertently diminish by stacking it above (or below) some other great album. The real message that bears conveying is that I’ve listened to a lot of great music this year and, while some of it was new in 2012, some of it dates well back to the past.
In keeping with the spirit of things I’ll limit this post to great things that came out in 2012 but stay tuned for more on those other things that have been occupying my ears in an upcoming post.
First of all, for you listening pleasure, I’ve compiled a Soundcloud playlist that encompasses selections from most of these releases. So fire it up and read away.
New artists are always a delight to encounter. Two that were new for me this year were The Men with their album Open Your Heart (Sacred Bones SBR-071) and Matthew E. White whose debut, Big Inner (Hometapes HT056) blew me away.
I learned about The Men early in the year when Sacred Bones was promoting their Record Store Day sampler Todo Muere vol 2. (SBR-075). They posted a track called “A Minor” on Soundcloud that convinced me to buy the sampler, look into the band and put their new record on my shopping list. Their 2012 album did not disappoint. Blending the strong hooks and balanced heaviness of post-punk, with sharp lyrics, and excellent chops, Open Your Heart has remained in my play stack since I first picked it up.
Matthew E. White’s name was new to me but I was familiar with some of his previous work either first hand or through friends in Richmond. You can read my longer review of Big Inner here so I’ll simply say that I still love this record and the vibe that it lends me when I spin it up.
I’m always catching up on artists that have been out there for ages doing amazing things. It is impossible, even if it were your full time gig, to know and hear everyone that you might possibly like or even love. Which is why I’m not surprised that I discovered two such artists last year.
The first is Matt Valentine. He was with The Tower Recordings, a psych-folk group that formed in the mid-nineties before the so-called “freak folk” movement was a thing. They captured fractured psychedelic spaces in such a way that must be heard to be understood. Since the demise of that group, Valentine has been recording with Erika Elder as ‘MV & EE’ as well as solo. I first heard him when he performed as a guest member of Woods in Richmond in December of 2011 and, in 2012 I began to seek out his records. The body of work is quite significant when you begin counting self-released CDr and cassette recordings but last year’s Space Homestead (Woodsist 060) is a perfect launch point into the trippy Vermont mountain space that these guys occupy. I don’t know if they have universal appeal but they certainly appear to my universe.
The next artist that came to my attention is one hell of a prolific performer. Ty Segall released three albums last year with three different bands/collaborations. He’s a San Francisco, CA based multi-instrumentalist/singer/songwriter whose sound ranges from garage to metal to psych to lo-fi indie rock. All three of his 2012 releases bear note in a 2012 recap so, we’ll start with the most recent. Released in October, Twins (Drag City DC530) swerves all over the map of Segall’s sounds and influences. Ballads, fuzzy psych jams, and folky tunes populate this excellent collection. Slaughterhouse (In The Red Records ITR-231,) released in June, is billed to the Ty Segall Band and presents a heavy, dark, sound worthy of its cover.
The first release from Segall in 2012 was a collaboration with the lo-fi psych pop excellence known as White Fence. Hair (Drag City DC503) came out in April and delivered a terrific dose of guitar driven garage psych. Not designed so much to rock out but rather to trip out, this album comes together and carries you away to a fantastic electric dream space.
While we’re talking about White Fence, here’s another artist that released three records in 2012 all of which bear mentioning in top ten lists/recaps/etc… In addition to the aforementioned Hair Tim Presley’s White Fence released two albums this year entitled Family Perfume vol. 1 and Family Perfume vol. 2 (Woodsist 057 & 058.) The pair are complementary collections of psych pop that drip with the sounds of mid-60’s Kinks and deeper cuts in the Nuggets catalog. I haven;t been far from these albums all year long. In fact, after the pair were re-released as a compilation, I bought the comp on cassette for my truck.
Of course, this post wouldn’t be complete without another excellent record from Woods. This year’s entry Bend Beyond (Woodsist 062) holds up to their standard of releasing an excellent album each year. Their sound ranges from blissed out pop on “Cali In A Cup” to heavy janglers like “Size Meets the Sound.” Check my full review of that record here.
While we’re talking about great albums that I’ve already reviewed [disclaimer: I only review albums that I like. Why put out more negativity when the internets already seethe with it? Also, why listen to something that I don't like enough times to write a detailed review?] I should go ahead and let you know that Moon Duo’s album Circles (Sacred Bones SBR-083) still holds up as a ripping fuzzed out psyche rocker. You can read up on it here.
The other record that I reviewed this year (and the most recent previous blog post because I’m a damned slacker with this site although I have been writing elsewhere but that’s not important right now) is Jason Lytle’s Dept. Of Disappearance (Anti- 87166-1). This record is so good and, as the vinyl release was delayed until earlier this month, I’m currently enjoying a revisit to this beautiful collection of songs. You can see what I said about it in October right here.
Speaking of “beautiful”, if you haven’t listened to Sharon Van Etten’s latest album, Tramp (Jagjaguwar JAG201) you’ve been missing out on a devastatingly powerful combination of voice, lyrics and music. Her lyrics alone will slice your heart out with precision lines like “You’re the reason why I’ll move to the city/You’re the reason why I’ll need to leave.” The first single, “Serpents” builds quickly to a feverish tempo, urgency pulsing as the drums double time and guitars wail deep in the mix. Her movement from a quiet singer/songwriter to a band leader was, in retrospect, inevitable. She commanded the stage and your stereo on her own and now, with a great set of musicians at her back, Van Etten has risen to be a force that you can’t help but notice. Everytime this album hits my turntable, I fall deeper in love with it.
Lastly, I’m going to tell you about a couple surprises from 2012. These next few albums are from artists that go way back and have each bucked the conventional wisdom that states that legacy artists rarely put out relevant music.
Neil Young is here to put that myth to bed. He turned 67 in 2012 and released not one but two solid albums with his old friends Crazy Horse. Americana (Reprise 531195-1) is a look back to the folk legacy of the Americas through the ragged lens that is Crazy Horse.
Old Stephen Foster songs become dark and heavy rockers and you can’t help but dig it because you already know these songs… Sort of. Young is wringing the sugar out of them and leaving you with the bitter truths about our land and legacy.
The second release, Psychedelic Pill (Reprise 531980-1) is an expansive (3lps!) collection of new material and long, distorted guitar explorations of a sort that Neil and Crazy Horse haven’t delivered on an album in decades, if ever. It’s Young’s longest studio album in his storied career and features an opening cut the tops 25 minutes! The songs are mostly personal, broadening at times to speak of his generation and narrowing at others to mirror themes and ideas presented in Young’s 2012 pseudo-memoir, Waging Heavy Peace. It’ll probably take the next several years to completely unpack this album but the pleasures of doing so make it worth the effort.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor returned to the road from an indefinite hiatus in 2010 and, in 2012 released ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (Constellation CST-081-1) to deservedly positive reviews. Is this a marked change for the collective? Not really. But these guys produce music with such an expansive sweep that any new music that isn’t a disappointment (which has not yet happened in my opinion) is a thrill.
The fact that the two extended tracks on this release are reworking of songs performed live prior to the hiatus matters little when you drop the needle and are carried into the depths of this powerful music.
It had been four years since Spiritualized released an album (Songs In A&E which made my Top of 2008 list) so I was quite excited when not only did they announce a tour but a new album for 2012. Sweet Heart, Sweet Light (Fat Possum FP1263-1) was not only a surprise because it came out at all, it proved to be a stunning return to form for the often ailing Jason Pierce (aka J. Spaceman, the man behind Spiritualized). These songs come with a strength that was scarce on the previous album and while delivering the requisite blend of orchestrations, choruses, and psychedelicized guitars. While Pierce may never top 1997’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, he has certainly delivered a work that can easily stand beside it in his catalog.
Dinosaur Jr. has been around in some form or another since the mid-1980’s. Although it was largely a J Mascis solo vehicle after Lou Barlow split from the band in ’88 their reformation as a trio in 2005 has earned them favorable reviews. I Bet On Sky (Jagjaguwar JAG228) is their third post-reunion album and hit me as a revelation. Designed to be played loud, this celebration of guitar godliness and laid back vocals catches your ear with vocal hooks, killer riffs and guitar solos that will stand up to any test. Although the album was released in the Summer, I got into it in the Fall and have not gone a week without listening since. It never fails to move me.
And that’s a look at 2012. It’s been a hell of a year and there are tons of great releases that I didn’t include. And then there’s the archival releases (Dick’s Picks on vinyl, anyone?) So, I hope you’ll forgive my longwinded nonsense and lack of ten-to-one format. The enjoyment of music this past year has simply outweighed any possible metrics and made comparisons seem pointless. Here’s hoping that 2013 has more of the same in store (New Besnard Lakes! New Akron Family? Ty Segall already has a single out!)