Well, I would have to say 2012 has been one of the most unsettling years I've ever lived. I can't believe it's coming to an end, and while I am somewhat relieved things turned out as they have, I also have even more trepidation about 2013, what with job uncertainties and the ability to hold on to things (like my house, or a purpose to live...). But seriously, I've come to the realization that the world is just eternally fucked up and I must play my role. After 16 years at one job, my wife and I will both be let go by early February 2013, and will hopefully be able to start our new business venture together shortly thereafter. So far, finding financing has not gone very well, and it will be scary, but we work well together and will do our best to make it work. In the meantime, I may not be able to hear and review as much new music as I have in the past few years while I get settled. I hate Spotify because I think it steals from the artists and rips the very heart out of indie record shops, and I don't like the quality of downloads. Even worse are leaked tracks and downloads not approved by the artist, a blight on modern music retail. So I may have to take a short break. Then again, I may hit the lottery. As for 2012--a rollercoaster year for music if there ever was one--here we go with the best (and sometimes most dysfunctional) full length offerings of the year:
1) SAINT ETIENNE--Words and Music by Saint Etienne
Here I am this supposed major Etienne fan. They even made my favorite album of 2012, Words and Music. They toured the states for the first time in years, and I couldn't find the funds to get to NYC to see them. Couldn't they have thrown a little love Midlantica way? I know people who have never gotten to see them that would love to, and that's because the last time they played this town (Philadelphia) was over a decade ago! I digress. Simply put, Words and Music is the best Saint Etienne album, and that's saying something in a 20-year career of making records. Granted, it had been seven years since their last effort, the amazing Tales From Turnpike House, and this time, instead of being an encapsulation of everything English, we have an encapsulation of what makes them pop music lovers. The first thing I loved about this album is the cover art. Ingenious! The next thing was the glory contained within--13 stunning tracks and not one dud in the bunch! Etienne could easily farm out the production to their friends at Xenomania for 13 similarly fantastic singles, but instead they choose to keep the variety intact by leaving in many of the most intimate and less glossy moments. This approach to production and track sequencing is something that adds to the album's specialness. "Over the Border" is possibly the best mostly-spoken-word track Saint Etienne have done (along with the fabulous "Teenage Winter" and hit single "Nothing Can Stop Us"). Sarah Cracknell retells stories of a history spent loving music, and how it relates to her (and her band members') lives and loves. Songs like "I've Got Your Music" (single of the year?), "Tonight", and "DJ" are perfect examples of their polished side ("DJ" is particularly interesting for its extended portions). In between are some of the best songs they've ever written, including the swooning "Last Days of Disco", the euphoric "Answer Song", and the elegantly sad "I Threw It All Away". Toss in "When I Was Seventeen" (another contender for best Etienne song ever written and best song Pet Shop Boys should have written), add the splendid house-groove of "Heading for the Fair" and the definitive closer "Haunted Jukebox", and the album exudes brilliance. I know they were selling a special edition at their shows containing a few extra tracks, and while I heard a couple of the songs and thought they were OK, this is an album that is absolutely perfect as is, and really doesn't need any extra shoulderpads. A 10 out of 10 and album of 2012 for me!
2) LANA DEL REY--Born to Die (Paradise Edition)
My year has been a breeze compared to Lana's (I mean, Lizzie's). Talk about being raked over the coals, after her performance on SNL last January, you would think she had committed crimes on the worst level for the criticism she received. While her performance was sadly shaky, her UK performances were actually quite good, and while this record tailed off rather quickly in the US, it continued to sell in other parts of the world. Adding several more tracks of equal and excellent quality to an already excellent album only added to the allure and general aura of Del Rey. By the way, who cares if Lana isn't her real name? How many other artists go by fake names as well? Bob Dylan, Billy Idol, Bruno Mars, Cee Lo Green, Adam Ant, Danger Mouse, Nicki Minaj, Pink, Lady Gaga, Tori Amos, Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie, Joe Strummer--and the list goes on--none were their real names, so using that as an excuse for legitimacy is ludicrous. That being said, "Video Games" has to be one of the most haunting debut singles of the past decade. "Born to Die" was an excellent followup single that didn't really receive the attention it deserved, and then things went sort of quiet in the US. More singles like "Blue Jeans" and "National Anthem" only solidified the album's image, that of a disaffected girl (possibly rooted in Southern California) who has seen far too much of the dark side of the world. The video for "National Anthem" even saw her depicted as some type of Jackie Kennedy figure in a modern sort of fairytale retelling of the assassination story. Other great songs were plentiful--"Off to the Races" had a hip hop vibe, while "Dark Paradise" is a ballad worthy of Marc Almond and "Carmen" paints a vulgar picture of a woman who has seemingly lost it all. "This is What Makes Us Girls" brings all these concepts full circle, closing the album with its manifesto intact. Then, later in the year, surprise! An additional EP (more like another album's worth of tracks!) was added (or sold separately) with several more great songs. Leading off with the Rick Rubin-produced "Ride", and featuring other great songs produced by Rick Nowels (Madonna, Celine Dion), Lana proved the faded starlet concept could be extended and even built upon. Featuring the best opening line of any song this year, "Cola" begins with the come on: "My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola". Seriously, how can anybody deny this kind of caustic wit? Her cover of "Blue Velvet" went even further into David Lynch territory, and came with an accompanying commercial video featuring Lynchian images. While Lana gets accused of doing the fallen chanteuse thing like a one trick pony, she obviously does that one trick very well. I struggled with where to put this album, as I actually thought it could be number one, but then it seems to function as two albums with all 23 tracks in total--a nearly overwhelming proposition for a debut. Still, she has delivered what may be the best work she will ever produce (that remains to be seen), and brought my intrigue into full view. I wonder where she could possibly go from here, and I can't wait to see.
3) PET SHOP BOYS--Elysium
Before reviewing this album (which I have already done extensively elsewhere), let me just say that I absolutely love it. I know I am not necessarily of the popular view. People (i.e. flighty fans) have said it 'lacks melody' and is plain 'boring', but I believe it to be one of their mid-period masterpieces, full of nuance, shading, and heartfelt passion about their music and their place in a pop world. One of the most difficult of emotions to convey in a pop album is reflection, and there is plenty of that going on here--"Leaving", "Invisible", "Breathing Space", "Everything Means Something"--all are heavily laden with reflective thoughts. Some of these songs float along with seemingly little effort, but peer under the surface and there is so much depth and ingenuity in the songs. Add in a couple personal trifles like "Your Early Stuff", featuring quotes from people who have given Neil their thoughts on his music, and "Ego Music", containing quotes from celebrities about how highly they regard their own work, and there is much humor to be had. A humorous climax exists in "A Face Like That", a song that seems to have dropped in straight out of their debut, "Please" (1985). While "Hold On" may divide fans with its broadway-isms, it does have a nice melody (courtesy of Handel), and "Memory of the Future" and "Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin" are two of the most elegantly beautiful songs they've ever crafted. Even songs like "Give It a Go" and "Winner" seem to have a directness and an intentional lack of sarcasm unlike what one finds in most of their songs. It's a shame this album is going to be seen as a general failure as it sold rather poorly for them, and they must have known it was a tricky prospect as they are already back in the studio with dance producer Stuart Price. To be honest, the album did come out during the implosion of their company EMI, so promotion was likely not on the minds of most of their employees (chalk that one up to bad timing). Maybe a song like "Leaving" doesn't have a place in the upper reaches of the singles chart anymore, but judgement shouldn't be heavy on their best recent single in a long history of great singles. Sales are not always the best indicator of quality. Elysium truly shines.
4) ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS--Cut the World
Some may cry foul while this is made up of orchestral readings of previous Antony songs, but let me say he (along with orchestrators such as Nico Muhly) created something absolutely stunning with this record that puts most of the originals to shame. Performed live on stage, Antony's vocals are better than ever, featuring a warmth and level of talent and charm lacking in some of the band arrangements. His voice is so big it BEGS for orchestral backing. His choice of collaborators shows what can be done for an album like this when done right. Peter Gabriel tried the same thing last year with mostly positive results. Tori Amos did it this year, but her arrangements took the songs to many of the same places the originals had already been. Joni Mitchell has done it with her world-weary voice (also much deeper than before). There are many ways this could have gone pear-shaped (or at least Rod Stewart-shaped), but these new arrangements (and the stunning new title track) only serve to bring out just how special Antony's songs really are. How brave to feature and 8-minute spoken-word track as the second thing on the album, with Antony speaking of his respect for the female sex and sexual differences. The final three songs, "The Rapture", "The Crying Light", and "Twilight" make a trilogy of three of the most hauntingly beautiful songs I have ever heard. A revelation.
5) MARINA & THE DIAMONDS--Electra Heart
I actually DID get to see this concert back in the summer, and wow, she put on a great show. Moreover, what a fantastic singer she is! To pull off what she pulled off live is quite special, and that energy translates very well to this, her second studio album. Like Del Rey, Marina had a couple different versions of this album, originally sticking one of the best songs ("Radioactive") on a bonus disc of extra tracks. When the album was released in the US a couple months later, the song was readded, along with a new single, "How to be a Heartbreaker", while other tracks were removed. These sorts of practices make it difficult to review albums when they are really in a constant state of flux and mutability. That being said, the general personna, the concept, the music of Electra Heart, was really something special, and like Del Rey, it shows a starlet on the downside of fame (this could have been subtitled "Dear Lindsey Lohan..."). "Primadonna" was one of the catchiest anti-fame songs of the year (Katy Perry should wish it was hers), "Bubblegum Bitch" straight to the point, "Sex Yeah" a lesson for teenage girls, "Starring Role" about acquiring fame above all else, and "State of Dreaming" reacting negatively to living a delusional life. All these songs from the girl who sang "I Am Not a Robot" a couple years ago. While the irony of the fame-stricken starlet may have been lost on many young listeners, Marina really upped her game from the last album, establishing herself as a contender to watch in the future. A brilliant manifesto.
6) BAT FOR LASHES--The Haunted Man
This is the first record on the list that hasn't been reviewed by me before, as it was released in October. Natasha Khan has created some very special music with this album, resting comfortably between the sound of vintage Kate Bush and vintage Bjork. Once you get past the (sort of) shocking cover art, you will find an album full of passion and yearning beneath. "Lilies" has to be one of the most glorious opening songs from any album this year, layering the lightly pastoral strings and her gorgeous voice scaling upper ranges over a driving and startling synth-bass heavy rhythm that recalls prime-era Eurythmics. "All Your Gold" is the catchiest song she's written (alongside "Daniel" from her last record), with "Marilyn" a close runner-up. "Oh Yeah" has some very interesting vocal samples, and the title track features a full section of marching men's chorus. However, the real diamond here is "Laura", written and arranged by the same guy (Justin Parker) who worked with Lana Del Rey on her single, "Video Games". "Laura" may even be more stunningly haunting than the Del Rey song, and the album closes with the synthy "Rest Your Head" and the ambient dreaminess of "Deep Sea Diver". Beck also worked on this album. Another 2012 treasure!
7) BRIGHT LIGHT BRIGHT LIGHT--Make Me Believe in Hope
I have got to give credit to Rod Thomas for coming up with this album over the course of a couple years, recording at his own pace and releasing singles as needed to help finance what would become a cohesive and enjoyable album done completely independently. Many of the songs and styles here echo music of past eras (80's, 90's), but he mixes things with such style and ingenuity that they become completely his own. He is also a master of euphoric choruses (see "Feel It", "Cry at Films", "Waiting for the Feeling", "Disco Moment"), and has recently been giving away a mashup a day throughout the month of December (and some of them are really very good). I think my world became a little brighter this year with Rod in it.
Continuing my fascination with 80's inspired alternative rock, Toy seemed to come out of nowhere (they actually formed from the ashes of much-hyped Joe Lean & the Jing Jang Jong), but through their connection with friends the Horrors and S.C.U.M., Toy found a sound touching many other sounds but ultimately mixing to become something of their own. "Colours Running Out" and "Reasons Why" are two very melodic opening tracks, as is the great "My Heart Skips a Beat", but this band have lots of other tricks up their sleeve, like the atmospheric "Dead & Gone", the wistful "Lose My Way", driving "Motoring", and krautrock inspired closer, "Kopter", which goes on for nearly ten minutes of pure shoegaze bliss. There really is something special here, and I can't wait to hear more from this very new, young band, something unique in 2012.
Some might find this a bit derivative of the Knife and Bjork, but Jonna Lee's vision as part of Iamamiwhoami is nothing short of genius and demands attention. After an extended web campaign that saw people speculate about their identity (even Christina Aguilera was tossed about!?!), songs came one at a time, first with the Bounty EP, and later this year, Kin, the album. This may be electropop on a basic level, but the music has so much variety and refuses to stay in one place. Compare the sad opener, "Sever", with the R&B flavors of "Play", and you'll get a good idea of what they can accomplish. Closing track "Goods" is a killer disco song from a couple of artfully minded Swedes. I would be remiss if I did not mention the fantastic music videos made by the pair, all which look very expensive and feature gorgeous cinematography. They are an integral part of the Iamamiwhoami experience.
10) DRAGONETTE--Body Parts
Canadians Dragonette continue to make pop music of the highest order, and this one is a gem. Here they manage to keep the pop edge they've always had (first singles "Let it Go" and "Live in This City" are good examples), while putting a more polished sheen on the proceedings. "My Legs" is absolutely addictive, "Riot" is like Justice with vocals, "Right Woman" and "Giddy Up" are playful in different ways, and "Ghost" their most beautiful closer. They even had time to make a great Christmas song called "Merry Xmas", which didn't actually feature on the album, but still will be remembered for being affiliated with this period. My only gripe--why did they leave "Rocket Ship" off the vinyl pressing? Weird, but still a great album.
11) HOT CHIP--In Our Heads
This band really hit their stride with this full length, and album New Order would have been proud to make.
Somewhere Bird & the Bee are killing themselves that they haven't made this album yet.
13) GOSSIP--Joyful Noise
Poor Beth Ditto & co. deserved so much better for this fabulous Xenomania-produced lp, which is my fave so far.
14) PASSION PIT--Gossamer
I had written them off after a somewhat lackluster debut, headspinning arrangements mix with sad lyrics and fizzy electronics here for one of the year's best courtesy of Michael Angelakos and a supporting cast including master orchestrator Nico Muhly (see No. 4 above).
15) FIONA APPLE--Idler Wheel...
Her inner angst intact, Fiona created an album that rewards with repeated listenings. Now if she could just shake that mugshot...
16) JOHN CALE--Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood
Fascinating view into the mind of a septegenerian who seemingly hasn't aged, always inspired and inspiring.
17) SCOTT WALKER--Bish Bosch
Scary album from septegenerian #2 (well, he's 69), Walker continues the path of most deconstruction in alarming ways.
18) LIANNE LA HAVAS--Is Your Love Strong Enough?
Probably my biggest slow burn of 2012, La Havas proves she has top notch vocal and writing capabilities when it comes to her mix of fractured jazz, folk, and pop stylings.
The only album I purchased here as a download (the imports were late and too pricey), this was the definition of versatility in 2012 with a starpowered lead singer.
20) SCISSOR SISTERS--Magic Hour
Another strong effort from one of New York's most engaging acts, Kiki's included.
21) FRESH & ONLYS--Long Slow Dance
One for fans of wistful 80's jangle pop, and one to watch in the future.
22) WILD NOTHINGS--Nocturne
These guys do not pastiche the 80's, they live, breathe, and turn it into something new and beguiling.
23) BEACH HOUSE--Bloom
The album that finally clicked for me, and deservedly so with some of the most effortlessly beautiful arrangements on record this year.
24) DONKEYBOY--Silver Moon
Norwegian pop of the purest order, melodies intact.
25) CHROMATICS--Kill For Love
An album of epic proportions, and so long it barely fit on one CD (which had some trouble playing as the laser got nearer the edge), and pure atmosphere as well.
I thought more of this when first released than I do now, but it's still better than Hard Candy, with "I'm Addicted" as my favorite track.
27) SHINS--Port of Morrow
So charming and tuneful in a Broken Bells sort of way.
28) SINEAD O'CONNOR--How About I Be Me (and You Be You?)
After a rough promotional period with well-publicized marital craziness, Sinead delivered one of the most solid records of her career, and more people should have heard it.
29) CHAD VALLEY--Young Hunger
Like a modern Tears for Fears with lots of guest star help, this act has piles of potential and a knack for great tunes and arrangements.
30) ELLIE GOULDING--Halcyon
Skrillex: "Sweet, sweet Ellie, this is so much darker than your debut album, and while the synths rock toward dubstep territory, your lyrics show how you were unhappy with my refusal to work with you..."
31) MADNESS--Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da
Can this band still be getting better after nearly 35 years? Shockingly good.
32) CAT POWER--Sun
The switch in sonics does her well, but will her fans agree...? Let's ask Iggy Pop...
A baby step down from their epic predecessor, but still, moments of greatness exist.
34) DEAD CAN DANCE--Anastasis
Thank God you are back--now could we have a little less digital and more real instrumentation next time?
35) JENS LEKMAN--I Know What Love Isn't
This should have been higher on my list. I think it will be one day. Poor Jens has to suffer again!
36) NIKI & THE DOVE--Instinct
Where Stevie Nicks reunites with Prince in Kate Bush's bedroom.
Another great power-pop tour de force, their confidence grows.
38) TWIN SHADOW--Confess
80's influences from the Police to Don Henley to Prince to Talking Heads--this could only come from Brooklyn.
39) SCHOOL OF SEVEN BELLS--Ghostory
The finest female shoegaze of the year, even minus one twin sister.
40) GARBAGE--Not Your Kind of People
Shirley & the Boys fulfill a dream of returning to the core of their sound to make a great record once more.
41) 2 BEARS--Be Strong
If this is Hot Chip moonlighting, they should moonlight more often.
42) PIERCES--You & I
Enchanting harmonies from one of the best sister acts around.
43) BARRY ADAMSON--I Will Set You Free
He's been doing it for decades, but he's never been this free and easy with himself before--so polished and assured, one hopes he's got more of these in him.
44) PAUL BANKS--Banks
Who needs Interpol?
45) AIMEE MANN--Charmer
Another solid effort from Boston's sharpest songwriter.
46) GRIZZLY BEAR--Shields
A change in sound but no change in high quality.
47) RUFUS WAINWRIGHT--Out of the Game
Mark Ronson helps Rufus deliver his most direct and assured record since Want.
48) SHINY TOY GUNS--iii
Great return from a band who had severely lost the plot and realized the original parts needed to be reunited.
49) MARK EITZEL--Don't Be a Stranger
Nobody does melancholy like Mark Eitzel, NOBODY...
50) TRACEY THORN--Tinsel & Lights
...Except Tracey Thorn at Christmas.
There were also many albums I enjoyed or even listed on previous faves that didn't make this list. That doesn't mean they were bad by any means. Here are some of them:
SANTIGOLD--Master of My Make Believe
NO DOUBT--Push and Shove
KYLIE MINOGUE--Abbey Road Sessions
FRANK OCEAN--Channel Orange
MORTON HARKET--Out of My Hands
MAGNETIC FIELDS--Love at the Bottom of the Sea
BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB--Different Kind of Fix
SOULSAVERS--Light the Dead See
KINDNESS--World, You Need a Change of Mind
PUBLIC IMAGE LTD.--This is PIL
PAUL WELLER--Sonik Kicks
RICHARD HAWLEY--Standing at the Sky's Edge
BILL FAY--Life is People
DIVINE FITS--Thing Called Divine Fits
SILENT FILM--Sand & Snow
SNOW PATROL--Fallen Empires
BOB MOULD--Silver Age
GREEN DAY--Uno! Dos! Tre!
MIKA--Origin of Love
VAN SHE--Idea of Happiness
BEST COAST--The Only Place
TWO DOOR CINEMA CLUB--Beacon
CLAUDIA BRUCKEN--Lost are Found
ROBBIE WILLIAMS--Take the Crown
MUMFORD & SONS--Babel
VACCINES--Come of Age
Now for the disappointments...(HUMBUG)...
KILLERS--Battle Born (derivative of their Springsteen sound and some really atrocious lyrics)
CALVIN HARRIS--18 Months (excepting the Florence & Rihanna songs, a lack of invention is at work)
SLEIGH BELLS--Reign of Terror (real songs don't suit them at all)
MELODY GARDOT--The Absence (bring back the smoky jazz, ditch the light latin sound)
TORI AMOS--Gold Dust (lackluster renditions of songs already recorded better by her--mostly)
RNDM--Acts (Joseph Arthur puts a lengthy diatribe out online and follows it with a rather aimless Pearl Jam collab)
EMILI SANDE--Our Version of Events (one or two good singles and a bunch of treacle)
PALOMA FAITH--Fall to Grace (listen to her first album for less vocal hysterics and better songs)
FINE FRENZY--Pines (what happened here? too many directions, none all that riveting)
SIGUR ROS--Valtari (we've lost a pulse...)
LADYHAWKE--Anxiety (we've lost the hooks...and ditch the drrrty rock sound)
BIG PINK--Future This (best example of indie selling out)
Disappointment of the year:
TING TINGS--Sounds From Nowheresville (Nearly four years on and we get this directionless mess. Where was their good single "Hands"? Hang it up now.)
Up in 2013 (supposedly):
Lady Gaga (hyped by her mostly)
MIA (delayed but on the way)
Depeche Mode (March 2013)
Nick Cave (Feb 2013)
Hurts (March 2013)
The Knife (April 2013)
Delphic (Feb 2013)
Sally Shapiro (Feb 2013)
Suede (in the studio)
Little Boots (long delayed but promised...)
Cher (new single just premiered)
Iamx (new single just premiered)
Dido (hyped by her and new material being revealed)
Vampire Weekend (new songs played live)
Kate Boy (new single premiered)
Florence & the Machine (supposedly in studio)
Pet Shop Boys (supposedly in studio)
Florrie (finishing up first full LP)
Annie (may only be online EPs)
La Roux (was supposed to be 2012)
Lily Rose Cooper (aka Allen) (in studio recently)
Origibabes (Mutya Keisha Siobahn) (promised in 2013)
Goldfrapp (it seems like it should be soon now)
Daft Punk (much talked about)
Shout Out Louds (2013)
Alison Moyet (2013)
Where are they now?
Nine Inch Nails
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Morrissey (touring but still no record deal? Do it yourself--surely you can afford it)
Empire of the Sun (Is this still a thing?)
Peter Gabriel (I'm giving up on new material)
David Bowie (I'm giving up on anything--happy retirement)
I'm sure there's more...
If the world doesn't end next week (and maybe it should), Happy 2013 everybody.