Hello, and welcome to a Best of 2012 list that is a full 6 months past its due date. Its best-before date, if you will. There are a number of explanations I could give for my extended absence, which I will do, and I will also direct you to Allie Brosch’s most recent Hyperbole and a Half post, for laughs and tears but also for an extraordinarily sensitively rendered and entertaining depiction of emotional stumblings. I’m not trying to say that I share her mental health issues; far from it. But her piece helped me understand some truths about my own mental health problems and how I do (and overwhelmingly, don’t) work through them. This is me trying to articulate myself in my own, uh…charmingly stilted, way.
Please allow me a crude comparison. Late last summer, Larissa and I had booked tickets to see Morrissey on his now well-publicised failure of a world tour. We were to see him in Minneapolis at the end of October. We were excited, and only slightly less so when a friend of mine who saw him on his honoured Seattle stop reported that he removed his shirt partway through the show as if it was still 1987 and he had Johnny Marr to deflect attention while he flailed. The first time he canceled, we received over a day’s notice. I showed up at work on the day I had booked off, sheepish and ridiculous. The second time around, we weren’t so lucky. At about 11:00PM the night before we were scheduled to leave, bright and early – we had a 7 hour drive ahead of us – I had the good sense to check my email, and sure enough, there was a notification from Ticketmaster that the concert was “postponed” again. This time I was already at my mother’s home, outside of Winnipeg and nearer to Minneapolis, and couldn’t get a ride back into work the next morning, so I stayed in Steinbach, lounged around my mother’s apartment, and wasted a day of my life (okay, not so bad, and also not so unusual). After that I lost track. We kept much closer tabs on the status of the tour. Everyone’s health seemed in jeopardy (Morrissey’s, his mother’s, mine…but that’s another story). Swathes of dates were cancelled. Finally in spring I got a refund on my Mastercard, email notice of an actual concert cancellation, and we gave up our apparently impossible dream of seeing Morrissey, at least in North America. In Larissa’s words, “his booking agent is an idiot.” Clearly nobody in any decision-making capacity knew their limits when booking this tour.
I suppose I didn’t know my limits either. Although dissimilarly, I wasn’t really pushing myself – I was just utterly drained of all positive emotional energy and self-confidence. Why set my mind to finishing something when it was already so embarrassingly late? Why try when so many people, including Larissa, do it so much better? To make matters worse, right at the end of last year, when finishing this piece was still somewhat attainable, my external hard drive gave up the fight and failed on me completely. It was, of course, totally my fault. I stupidly didn’t back up my data. It felt like a demoralising blow to someone who was already lacking basic confidence in her work. Obviously, in the grand scheme of things it was minor, but it felt like a monkey on my back far into the new year and beyond. I should have notified any readers who may or may not have given a shit, but I don’t have Morrissey’s publicist and I couldn’t summon the emotional energy on my own. This is my retroactive and hugely apologetic explanation.
Now spring (and summer!) has rolled around, which has a lot to do with my change of tune. Winter makes me passively depressed, which means I just sleep a lot and try not to feel feelings. I also got back from a lovely vacation about a month ago, which always energizes me. Not because I came back rested and relaxed (I rarely go on non-urban vacations and there’s little relaxation involved) but because my energy and motivation levels go up when I realize how much I’ve accomplished in a couple of weeks away. Additionally, I finally got around to reading Roy Wilkinson’s brilliant and inspiring Do It For Your Mum on my trip. British Sea Power have always been one of my favourite bands, but the incisive, strangely humourous (or should I say humourous but in a strange way?) and utterly moving account of the band’s formation, philosophy, struggles, and eccentricities made me want to shakily try my hand at talking about music again. I don’t promise I’ll be any better. I strongly doubt it. But I’m trying again, and I’m trying not to hate my work. Puerile words I’m sure, at least to seasoned writers, but every time I get out of the writing groove I’m reminded of how difficult it is, at least for me, to re-motivate and re-establish routine. My intense feelings of incompetence and the events that prompted them caught me off-guard. It’s gotta be something before it’s gonna be something good.
And of course, if the mental block that has been this piece is completed, it means I can finally start moving forward with new reviews and pieces. My apathy about writing has also obliquely meant that my curiosity about new music has been rather diminished, but there are, of course, exceptions. The latest British Sea Power, for example. It’s already been several months since its release, of course, but as you can tell, BSP have been taking up a ton of real estate in my brain during that time and it would be nice to acknowledge it. I’ve also been enjoying music by Savages, Melt Yourself Down, John Grant, and Little Boots recently.
I mentioned this sad sack (because I’m finishing it in July) project to a friend recently, and his suggestion was to shorten the list to ten albums. Or to not write annotations on each one. The thought of doing either of these things depressed me for several reasons, the main one being: what would be the point? It’s all or nothing. Fail spectacularly if necessary, but if you’re going to finish a project, finish it properly. So: comically, ridiculously late or no, these are my favourite albums of 2012. I hope to see you again soon, or at least sooner than eight months from now.
24. Rae Spoon – I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets
Even for those who have not had the immense pleasure of seeing Rae Spoon live, it might not be surprising to know that they are a total charmer, an awkward bundle of self-deprecation and clumsily delivered jokes when not playing heartfelt, often painful songs such as the ones on I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets. The jokes and the songs are a great combination, and speak to Spoon’s talent for storytelling and making people feel at ease even during segues to songs about a friend’s tragic death, love found and lost, and painful childhood memories. Since first listening to and reviewing this album at the beginning of last year, I’ve also had a chance to read Spoon’s First Spring Grass Fire, a small volume of personal short stories about growing up different on the Canadian prairies and the ongoing importance of family and history in Spoon’s life. It’s beautiful, harrowing, and, of course, charming – it brings a different sense of depth to the collection of songs that comprise I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets. Moreover, both book and album are subtle, sensitively rendered testaments to the need for taking care of one’s mental and emotional wellness before being able to help others.
Read my review of I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets here.
23. Hot Chip – In Our Heads
The first thing that hooked me was the music video. The Peter Serafinowicz directed (yes, the virtuoso comic with the rubber face and gift for celebrity impressions), bizarre clip features dancers clad in monk-like garb, two muscled dudes apparently worshiping a giant egg with nipples, and a dramatically doomed spacecraft. It also stars Reggie Watts, Terence Stamp, and Lara Stone, with a very brief cameo by the band themselves. Regardless of this delightfully surreal visual interpretation of “Night and Day”, In Our Heads is life-affirmingly beautiful and is more catchy and groundbreaking than anything they’ve done. The sentiment behind “How Do You Do” is not a thing I would normally go for, happy exuberance and everything, but their multifaceted, dimensional view on life and love is contagious. Hot Chip’s work on In Our Heads is more subtle and more rewarding than past projects, and it feels like now that they’re no longer the next big thing but at the height of their career, their joyfulness is coming through more than ever.
22. Eugene McGuinness – The Invitation to the Voyage
Confession time: I’m pretty charmed by how transparently eager Eugene McGuinness is to abandon the DIY bedroom-pop stylings of his early work. Not that I dislike his early work at all; far from it, in fact. The irreverent and manic subject matter and turns of phrase evident on The Invitation to the Voyage are a natural progression from the lyrics on his 2008 self-titled LP, just tighter, angrier, and with punchier, slicker songs to match. This time around, he is unabashed in his ambitions to become the heir to such British greats as Paul Weller, Paul McCartney, Jarvis Cocker, and Ray Davies. Even among his like-minded pals Miles Kane and Alex Turner, McGuinness is top fop. He’s got the look, he’s got the songs, he’s got the profuse and biting wordplay, now he just needs the recognition. Happily, with the release and reception of The Invitation to the Voyage, it looks like he’s on his way to getting it.
Read my review of The Invitation to the Voyage here.
21. Graham Coxon – A+E
It actually only occurred to me recently that I seem to be fairly isolated in my love for this album. I’m more than a little confused by this. Graham Coxon has demonstrated his pop chops time after time after time, and while I love his classic solo albums (see: Happiness in Magazines, Love Travels at Illegal Speeds) as much as the next fan, this take on pop, dance, and punk music as chopped up and blitzed through some kind of sonic woodchipper reaches a little deeper and speaks a more primal language than its predecessors. It’s brazenly anxious and paranoid, and uses those qualities as advantages to play up the claustrophobic grooves and abrasive instrumentation here. Lyrically it stays moderately dark, echoing the paranoia, skepticism, and anger of its music. Despite all of this, it’s an overwhelmingly fun listen – just as fun and fucked up as anything he’s released in the past. A+E: a washed up pop star attempting to revisit adolescence? No, a wickedly reckless romp through pop music’s past, rose-coloured glasses most definitely removed.
Read my review of A+E here.
20. Future of the Left – The Plot Against Common Sense
Some people say that getting older mellows people, and that’s certainly true for some of us, in certain ways. It isn’t true for Andy Falkous of Future of the Left: I picture him as an old man, chucking bricks through windows of big corporations before hobbling away with a walker. After all, he’s seen into the future, and everyone is just slightly older. But to paint him in such a cartoonish (imaginary) light is doing The Plot Against Common Sense a great disservice. This album, while playful, irreverent, and crass, is not jokey. It does not fuck around. It strikes me that “City of Exploded Children”, with insistent bass and guitar lines designed to sound like bagpipes, particularly so during the last minute and a half when severe, inflexible snare drums join, is meant to lull listeners with its repetition. This both underlines and belies lyrics about comfortable ignorance in the face of extraordinary numbers of lost lives. “A Guide to Men” is more concise: how can people who call ourselves civilised fight in so many utterly devastating and unspeakable wars? This irony is broken open and beaten to a pulp, offering a fitting structure to dovetail with the song’s content. It beats you hard, but in the end it does hit home. The Plot Against Common Sense’s messages are hard to forget.
Read my review of Future of the Left’s The Plot Against Common Sense here.
19. VCMG – Ssss
Yeah, I’ll be the first person to stand up and say that I know very little about the original wave of techno. Okay, probably any resurgences since then too. Basically I am totally unqualified to write anything about any techno ever, but Ssss (so snakey!) makes me want to try. I will also admit that what brought me here are the names: Vince Clarke and Martin Gore (too obvious to try and hide, really). The former Depeche Mode bandmates reunited in 2011 to form VCMG, a minimalist electronic duo and to dabble in some dance music that neither of them had really explored before in their previous work together. The result is weird, and I doubt anyone could have predicted it, but it’s also very good. Shocker? Nah, these guys know what they’re doing. Opener “Lowly” is kind of like an old-fashioned horror film, creeping in and jolting you with crescendo-ing synths propelled by shiny, robotic drum sounds. Remember that old Mighty Boosh scene where Vince drops some “harsh tasty beats” for the enjoyment of Mr. Rogers the cobra? That’s almost exactly what “Zaat”, and indeed much of Ssss, feels like. It’s the kind of rave music that can lend itself to significant enjoyment even while not tripping.
18. The Pre New – Music for People Who Hate Themselves
If it’s not already glaringly obvious, I love contempt in music. I love meanness, I love astringency, I love harshness – in music it’s so easy to assume another character, or to write songs about subjects thought but not talked about. Irony and sarcasm work much better in music than they do in other, more direct art forms. In the current pop cultural climate of so much boring, inoffensive, harmless drivel, it thrills me so to hear something that means to excite, offend, and maybe harm. Earl Brutus, The Pre New’s previous and slightly different incarnation, were always great at that. Forming after Nick Sanderson’s untimely death in 2008, they are essentially Earl Brutus 2.0, still touring older songs from their earlier lives. Album centre “A Song for People Who Hate Themselves” begins with an introduction that could go in the direction of anyone who trades in and values the stock of glam, art, and industrial rock, such as Siouxsie or Boyd Rice with Hirsute Pursuit. It’s definitely got the same sleazy strut. Once Stuart Boreman’s vocals kick in, however, this song belongs to The Pre New only: his rapidly diminishing enthusiasm as he utters such lines as “nice house, nice wife, nice life…now what? Now what?” is a very clever effect next to the giddy delight with which he mentions the head of Susan Boyle. It’s so invigorating to hear something so contemptuous once in a while.
Read Larissa’s review of Music for People Who Hate Themselves here.
17. Actress – R.I.P
Actress, aka Darren J. Cunningham, has an incredible knack for comprehending the nuances of electronica. His songs explore microcosms of sound at their most minute, almost rendering the silences between beats of other music and genres alive: clicking, humming, whirring into existence. The subdued tone and volume of these pieces encourages the listener to devote attention to the littlest details. The shivery crackle underlying and the broken jack-in-the-box melody atop are equally important in “Jardin”. “Marble Plexus” is about as driving as Actress gets, offering a fuzzing pulse upon which creeping minor chords and arpeggios alight. It might be an unusual metaphor, considering how synthetic and produced this music is, but R.I.P reminds me of nothing so much as that attic you wondered whether was haunted as a child. It seems to move and shift without provocation, doing things unrelated to its surroundings and context. It creaks twice in the quiet dark, but not again, causing deep unease, yet a familiar sense of the mysterious at the same time.
16. Daphni – Jiaolong
When I first heard of Daphni I didn’t realize this was yet another moniker for Dan Snaith of Manitoba and Caribou. I have to say, I prefer this project over anything he’s ever done under those names. This collection of dancey, yet still experimental, electronica pulses with creativity and is looser and more exuberant than his other musical work to date. On opening track “Yes I Know, he melds ‘70s soul with acid house, and when the funky groove of the former is juxtaposed with only the barest synth pulses of the latter, it becomes abundantly clear just how perfectly the two genres work together. “Light” is, true to its name, liquid and sunshiny, pausing for extended breaks of intricate rhythms and surreal electronics, while “Ahora” crackles with vintage smolder while rocking on the beat of a crisp hi-hat. “Jiao” is satisfyingly, heavily syncopated, but with a rigid, straight melodic line played on top of it. This, perhaps along with The Integration LP, would be perfect for summer parties on patios, in cars, beside pools. Jiaolong is about as refreshing as dance music gets.
15. Killing Joke – MMXII
I don’t know if Jaz Coleman is right and everyone else is wrong or the other way around, but Coleman’s sense of the apocalyptic and conspiratorial seems to grow with each new Killing Joke album, and true to form, MMXII is positively swelling with impending doom. Even better than 2010’s excellent Absolute Dissent, the highs and lows, hard blows and soft whispers juxtaposed so dramatically here are flawlessly executed and serve to give a platform to – even just for the album’s duration – Coleman’s political views. That, and it’s a proper enjoyable listen. Establishing drama and power right from the start, “Pole Shift” is a harrowing opener, beginning theatrically with a synthesized string effect, swiftly focusing into a steady drumbeat and that distinctive yell. There is a certain Sturm und Drang quality to MMXII, certainly not in its original Germanic literary sense, but in a contemporary way that distils fear and uncertainly into music and subsequently transmits that dread to the listener. It’s not all hopelessness, though. “Primobile” speaks of how despair and hope are linked and underlines the human ability to survive catastrophic turmoil with spirit intact. This culminates on “All Hallow’s Eve”, a celebration of rebirth and second chances for the earth and for humanity. With Coleman’s unflinching conviction, I’m buying every word.
14. Jack White – Blunderbuss
As one of the rock musicians I’ve been following for the longest time, Jack White’s persistent creativity and musical risk-taking continues to delight and engage me. Okay, I haven’t always been super on-board with the extremes of his country music forays, but as just one influence on the ever-evolving blues-heavy garage rock he’s favoured from the beginning, White makes old sound new and new sound old over and over again without repeating himself, showing just the right amount of deference to his blues-rock elders. Clearly his enthusiasm has a lot to do with his charm, and that too shows no signs of flagging. Blunderbuss contains all the raw recklessness of The White Stripes’ early work with a lot of new ideas to boot: vintage country/soul very reminiscent of Dolly or Dusty on “Love Interruption”, the almost honky-tonk of “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy”, and my personal favourite, a riotously danceable cover of the juke joint classic, Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin’.” Blunderbuss is more than just the sum of its musical parts, too: White’s oblique and surreal lyrics from his White Stripes days are largely abandoned in favour of more personal confessions and frustrations. Ultimately, it works almost surprisingly well – acknowledging his past work while moving forward with an album that is brilliantly true to form.
Read my short piece about Jack White and Blunderbuss here.
13. Go-Kart Mozart – On the Hot Dog Streets
Ah yes, another fifty-something aging pop relic making music without regard to his own age or appropriateness level. But seriously, who gives a fuck about appropriateness when the music is this sharp, this weird, this uncompromising. Hate the music? It doesn’t matter, Lawrence hates you back. He acknowledges this himself on “Retro-Glancing”, a psychotically upbeat number featuring him speaking bitterly about former loves and rivals leaving him behind in the dirt as he gets older. The line “You’re trying to glance back as you’re being flushed down the drain” distils his contempt (and crudeness) well. (Slightly) famous for the gaping rift between his desire for fame and fortune and his bands’ varying but all very small-scale levels of success, his sordid, cheap, plastic and day-glo take on Birmingham and England in general on On the Hot Dog Streets is simultaneously appealing and disturbing. Lawrence’s tongue remains firmly in cheek, his plastic-visored cap atop his greasy head, and his Go-Kart Mozart albums remain some of the most biting and fun listening experiences possible.
Read Larissa’s piece on Lawrence and Felt: The Book here.
12. Rolo Tomassi – Astraea
All of the music nerds I respect are of this opinion, so let me state it again: Rolo Tomassi are so unfairly underrated. My picks for mathcore/rock worth listening to aren’t terribly consistent, but Rolo Tomassi are always included not least because they continue to get better and better with each subsequent release. “Ex Luna Scientia” is a roiling storm of stop/start drumming, aggressive screaming that relents only for a minute in the song’s middle, and spiky guitars somehow corralling the whole thing together. So, so refreshingly, instead of getting softer and more mellow with age and their third album, RT are becoming even more aggressive and uncompromising in their aural onslaught. Why begin with a pleasant chord when you can start off with a frenzied shriek? (“The Scales of Balance”). Why soften the attack when sharp, fast, and hard will sound that much more enormous? (“Echopraxia”). Unlike most of the songs here, “Empiresk” actually begins relatively slowly and softly and works through a mystical, prog-like first half before the familiar and finely executed torrent resumes at the halfway mark. Hipsters may have tired of them and music critics may want them to tone down, but Astraea is Rolo Tomassi at their innovative best.
11. Grimes – Visions
Yes, she’s adored by hipsters (whatever) and the music press (largely whatever), but that doesn’t actually negate the quality, nuance, and sensitivity of her music. The fact that I happen to agree with Grimes’ recent blog post railing against, among other things, the sexualisation of herself and of young women, particularly in the pop music industry, also doesn’t detract from the sounds and emotions being explored on Visions. Obviously, her being a media figure does not affect the complete and extraordinary piece of work that Visions is. There’s ‘90s R&B references of the sort that the Haim sisters deal in, but taken in a much more subtly nuanced, textured, and brightly alluring direction. The synths glimmer while Grimes’ combination semi-unintelligible lyrics and breathy crooning overlap each other, pulling back the green velvet curtain onto an alternate reality where the sky is pink and intelligent robots fall in love with each other. Yeah, I want to live there too.
10. Carter Tutti Void – Transverse
I’ll begin this by saying I’m not sure I can effectively write about this piece without having been at its actual performance. Transverse is, of course, the recording of a one-off show performed by Nik Colk (Factory Floor), Christ Carter, and Cosey Fanni Tutti (both formerly of Throbbing Gristle). It’s experimental in the best sense of the word, combining elements of industrial and ambient music to compelling effect. It is hypnotic, drawing the listener into spiralling waves of rhythmic sounds – some familiar, many strange. It sits on the border of that mysterious place where sound becomes music, and music becomes art. And, you know, I’m beginning to get more on board with the musical album as art project the older I get. Music does not need to appeal to everybody, nor should it – this has been proven time and again and makes for shit listening. Transverse is clearly not for everyone. However, the people it isn’t for will be easily weeded out by way of their un/familiarity with its comprising constituents. And if those uninitiated are up for a journey into a sonic grid of steel trapdoors, whirring machinery, and unrelenting menace, then please…do come in.
9. Chromatics – Kill For Love
No other album from 2012 has sounded as hauntingly isolated, as bleakly desolate, as gasping for human contact as Kill For Love does. Between the more straight-ahead guitar- and piano-based songs a pervading synth chill takes over and does not let up. It’s a deeply bleak, yet unrelentingly realistic and often beautiful look at how technology and modern life divide, not unite us. These separations start small, with missed calls and series of unanswered texts, and on Kill For Love grow to destructive dimensions. Of course, the destruction here doesn’t equal chaos, but desolation and a profound anomie. Chromatics have captured that hopelessness so precisely, in fact, that this album is often the opposite of precise: sprawling, self-indulgent, expansive: melancholy in double LP form. Kill For Love shimmers like the mirages of films and of dreams; it offers the illusions of connection and hope but once you’ve arrived at album’s end, there’s no salvation in sight.
Read my review of Kill For Love here.
8. LA Vampires with Maria Minerva – The Integration LP
Unlike almost all (exception: Daphni) of the other dance and/or electronic music featured on this list, The Integration LP is the epitome of breezy, summery, road-trip music. A collaboration between Amanda Brown, aka LA Vampires, formerly of Pocahaunted, and Maria Minerva, aka Maria Juur, lauded by Simon Reynolds among many others, this meeting of musical minds is a match made in, well…music obsessive heaven. A heady mixture of dub, disco, electronic, and whatever that rapidly fading genre known as chillwave is supposed to represent, The Integration LP sounds above all like it was incredibly fun to make. It also sounds like the early nineties as screened through the electronic dance music surge of the last decade or so, and no, in case you’re wondering, it holds appeal for people who aren’t hipsters as well. Title track “Integration” is slinky and sly, with murmured vocals obscured further still through a haze of effects. The baggy backbeat lends some structure to the song’s languid form, and even though it’s five and a half minutes long, at its finish it feels like barely 45 seconds have passes. “Seasons Change” begins with jazzy piano as its underpinning, and adds those reverb-soaked vocals along with possibly the world’s most groovy horn line. These sounds are an accurate indication of the entire album’s effect: it takes a lot of work to make dreamy laziness like this sound so easy.
7. Lower Dens – Nootropics
It freaks me out that Nootropics is so soothing and so unsettling at the same time. Its ominousness is all the more disconcerting given the way it sneaks up on you, forming a taut line of unbroken, subtly building suspense for a full 50 minutes. Jana Hunter’s deadpan vocal delivery has a lot to do with that, as well as the steady motorik rhythm that underpins most of these tracks. Before you even realize it the eddying guitars have slowly shifted to allow shuffling drumbeats into the spotlight, and their starkness set against Hunter’s creepy vocal melodies and otherworldly synth flourishes may as well be the sound of aliens landing on earth. It is bleak, cold, and robotic, but it also offers warmth. Hunter has talked about the lyrics and the subject of transhumanism, but this listen isn’t about the (mostly impenetrable) words she’s singing. This is the krautrock and experimentalism of early ‘70s Can, Kraftwerk, and Eno made contemporary and individual. Like many albums on this list and many of my very favourite albums of all time, it references the past without relying on it. The musical ideas may be old, but the pervading creepiness plumbed so thoroughly here is solely the creation of Lower Dens.
6. The Monochrome Set – Platinum Coils
Tripping on drugs should always be this much fun. And if only the actual experience involved this much giddy aural genre-hopping. This album is legitimately all of the genres or none of them, and if that sounds like some impossible-to-listen-to joke, then give Bid and (almost) original crew a chance with Platinum Coils. I mean, I never thought of myself as someone who enjoys vintage-referencing crooning country, but “Les Cowboys” is delightful, largely because it feels so perverse and self-aware. The warmth and sweet harmonies of easy-listening folk-pop are featured on “Mein Kapitan”, but its lyrics allude to derailing a convicted dictator from his “thought crimes” with some Kant, stone fruit, Lou Reed, and acoustic guitar strumming. Charming, and effective, I’m sure. “Waiting For Alberto” features my favourite line: “Will he bring me pears or apples or a bag of exotic…? I hope it’s not bananas, bananas make me ill.” Well, that’s entirely understandable: bananas are disgusting. My favourite tune, however, is one about the infectiousness of music and how it moves a seriously ill man to dance in the institution he’s being kept at, to “glide around polished floors, tripping the wax fantastic.” Platinum Coils is no less transcendent.
Read Larissa’s review of Platinum Coils here.
5. Screaming Females – Ugly
I suppose it’s very predictable that I’m utterly besotted with Marissa Paternoster. She truly does not seem to give a fuck what people think. More importantly, she writes awesome songs and performs the shit out of them. The music that Screaming Females make is not unusual or exceptional in genre – it’s just flawlessly executed and punctuated by Paternoster’s unusual, exceptional voice and point of view. I genuinely believe that a dude-fronted band making songs like this would be huge in indie rock circles, but much like the band itself, Screaming Females’ following remains small-scale and modest. It’s not entirely depressing to think about: there’s a certain kind of privileged thrill that comes with getting into this band, like encountering some small, precious treasure. But, you know, the kind of precious discovery that makes you feel like a badass superhero, bopping down sidewalks, imaginary cape secured, ready to take on anything.
Read my review of Ugly here.
4. The Eccentronic Research Council – 1612 Underture
It was unsurprising that Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer, both seasoned veterans of Northern England’s indie and electronic music scenes and emanating from Salford and Sheffield, respectively, would produce such an excellent and playful electronic concept album as this. What’s more surprising is 1612 Underture’s inclusion of Northern actress Maxine Peake as vocalist, mostly reciting monologues and occasionally poetry against a backdrop of vintage synths and otherworldly electronica. The concept is, of course, the 1612 trials of the Pendle witches – 1612 Underture opens on the road to Lancashire, A666, also known as The Devil’s Highway, Peake tells us. “Autobahn 666 (Travelogue #1) is mostly factual in content, but it’s a distinctive opener in that it includes a longish monologue from Peake, introducing us to the particular quirks and charms of her voice, and that it’s juxtaposed with such a poppy, jaunty little electronica riff. The effect is immediately captivating. Between updates from three more such travelogue pieces, bits of poetry, traditional folk songs, and chants, instrumental interludes of unnerving sounds, and several all-out songs, 1612 Underture slowly becomes a whole and satisfying piece – so unusual and so rewarding. It’s a documentary, a concept album, a piece of travel writing, a historical horror story, and an experimental electronic pop album. It’s fabulous.
3. Scott Walker – Bish Bosch
It must be cool, and likely more than a little bit weird, to be Scott Walker. Dude can do whatever he wants. Happily for us music nerds, what he wants to do is so unnerving, experimental, and consistently interesting that he can leave us for six or even eleven years between albums and never compromise his devoted fan base. I think I may know something to do with that, and it might have a little something to do with that voice. Known for his dramatic, even violent, one-eighty from his early success in ‘60s pop and blue-eyed soul as one third of The Walker Brothers to become an icon of avant-garde and art rock – he even punched meat as percussion on 2006’s The Drift – groundbreaking and brilliant weirdness is what we’ve come to expect from Scott Walker. Bish Bosch doesn’t deviate from this expectation: it opens with “‘See You Don’t Bump His Head’”, an extraordinarily strange and repetitive piece that mashes together an insistent drum beat to replicated lyrics of “while plucking feathers from a swan song.” His delivery of the words “a mythic instance of erotic impulse” is positively shiver-inducing. A harsh guitar joins in for a lone riff, and Walker continues his tormented refrain. The sonic centre of Bish Bosch is “Epizootics!”, a shuffling dirge punctuated with unsettling lyrics and broken open periodically for a strident horn refrain, ringing from the rafters. His voice sounds alien over this highly controlled chaos, but it’s endlessly, edge-of-your-seat exciting.
2. Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre is Evil
Amanda Palmer talks an enormous game, but she always delivers. Good luck getting away from her – or her internet presence, anyway – if you’re not a fan. She has successfully taken on Kickstarter, TED talks, and she may or may not have successfully propositioned Morrissey into helping him make his next album via Kickstarter. Her earnestness and enthusiasm aren’t trendy, but she definitely gets shit done. Theatre Is Evil is a triumphant return to solo(ish) form since working with Ben Folds on Who Killed Amanda Palmer, but made even more personal with a set of songs designed to hit all the musical and lyrical buttons her admirers crave: dark, dramatic ballads, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s musical reference points, theatrical flourishes, torrents and profusions of always-heartfelt words, and unadulterated exuberance. On the album’s striking sleeve art, she surveys her audience with a slight smirk, pale eyes coolly and slowly turning criticism into art. Yeah, I’m projecting. But I feel like I’m not far off. If haters are gonna hate, which they are, then AFP is gonna be right there with them, word for word, no challenge unanswered.
1. Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny – Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose
I am still a bit gobsmacked by Beth Jeans Houghton. Where exactly did she come from? A grotto for wayward punks who like violins too much and who sing warmly that “red wine and whiskey are no good for me”? A glam rock spacecraft where they worship Kate and Anna McGarrigle as much as they do Marc Bolan? Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose took me aback at first listen and it still does, its lyrics sounding like they were pored over for years and its music sounding like it was thrown together in the studio, and I mean that in the best and most loving way possible. It’s ramshackle, like she gathered up her drinking buddies to form a band and showed them how to play together while they were still drunk. To me these songs convey the joyfulness that’s present in all but the saddest times and the melancholy that inevitably creeps into the happiest times. It’s multifaceted, it’s rewarding on so many levels, it’s sad, it’s ridiculous, it makes me feel more human and more like myself. Oh, and the lady knows her John Waters references. I’m in love.
Read my review of Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose here.