Monday, December 31, 2012

The year's favorites! 2012 is finally over.

I haven't pulled together a "top albums of the year" list in a while because it's been a couple of years since I've gotten altogether excited about new music. I'm a bit of a luddite and though I'm fortunate enough to see all sorts of music come to me via email, there's something about the anticipation of a new record's release when you're responsible for finding your own entertainment, and it's easy to take music for granted when it's coming to you in droves each week, all sorts of publicists throwing Bandcamp links at you and saying, "Check out this single! Best single of the year!"

This year I was largely underwhelmed by music, but the records I loved, I really loved, and kept on repeat until year's end (and counting). That said, it felt ridiculous to narrow down to a top five or ten, so there's an arbitrary number of favorites here.

Grass Widow - Internal Logic

Grass Widow is at once a pre-AIDS B-52s and a pre-Christianity/motherhood Raincoats. They're an all-female trio from San Francisco who'd sound perfectly at home in London in 1979, but they don't bear the weight of sounding trendy and repetitive. And they harmonize.

Bry Webb - Provider

It was a bit devastating when Constantines took an indefinite hiatus after celebrating their ten-year anniversary; as it turned out, frontman/guitarist Bry Webb had just become a first-time father to Asa (for whom this album's opening track is named), and separately, could no longer handle the strain of touring. Webb has been a phenomenal lyricist and all-around songwriter since the Constantines' first record, and it seemed to me a waste that he'd disappear into domestic life, even if family is, sort of, you know, worthwhile. He took up construction, and then Feist made him come out of hiding. Thanks, Feist.

In 2011, his debut solo record was born, and in October 2012, it finally saw an American release. Provider is stunning, and unfortunately received a really, really quiet release; while songs like "You Are a Conductor" and "I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song" usually got pushed to the conclusion of those otherwise hard Constantines records, Provider is a tribute to the side of Webb that is all heart and empathy. It had me weeping on first listen, and it's the ideal record to fall asleep to. (Also have a look at Webb's gorgeously written blog and read about his European travels here.) If I could tell you to buy one record from 2012, this would have to be the one.

Will Stratton - Post-Empire

I'm actually going to put this in a category quite similar to Bry Webb's Provider; Will Stratton released Post-Empire several months prior to a cancer diagnosis (and much like Webb, is an excellent writer even outside the context of music, a skill well-documented on his website). Though he was healthy during its release (and is expected to fully recover), there's an enormously melancholy tone throughout Post-Empire that hadn't entirely been realized on his previous records. It sounds very much like the changing of seasons --  "When You Let Your Hair Down To Your Shoulder" is the friskiness of the first falling leaf, while "Colt New Marine" leads the record into a cold, cold winter, and "At the Table of the Styx" sees snow melting for the spring. And he accomplishes this much as an aside to his voice; he's the rare songwriter who captures a complete mood through music alone.

When Lhasa de Sela wrote her final record, it was largely about her acceptance of death -- she was losing a battle with cancer and knew it, and the record conveyed that devastation. Stratton is obviously faring much better than she had, and Post-Empire is not about illness. But a complete listen to Lhasa would leave me heartbroken and sapped of energy; it had stopped me in my tracks and forced me to listen, and I left the record feeling all the weight of the world. And that's how I feel when I listen to Post-Empire. It is an experience, and it's his best to date.

(Also, his treatment is nearly complete, but if you appreciate his music, please buy one of his records or make a donation to his medical fund.)

Is/Is - III

This Minneapolis band shares its bassist with Gospel Gossip, and I'm always a bit surprised when I see photos of them, because they look like young adults in their late teens but play with the confidence of, and sing like, properly-aged women. This record is the perfect soundtrack for the quintessential bad girl, and is dark, smoky, and grungy. They also like Mazzy Star, as they should. One of the only rock records I loved this year.

Jherek Bischoff - Composed

I became a big fan of Seattle trio the Dead Science while living in Washington nearly a decade ago; singer/guitarist Sam Mickens eventually wandered off to Brooklyn and started his own projects, and drummer Nick Tamburro got married (sure, I e-stalk). But Jherek Bischoff, previously off in the background with his standup bass, made a BIG ASS DEBUT this year with an orchestral performance in Manhattan, featuring all sorts of guests, like Mirah and David Byrne and Carla Bozulich. A recorded version just happened to follow. Composed is a big, beautiful springtime record, and the songs themselves have such lasting potential that, while the vocalists chosen did a marvelous job, new vocalists could be switched in, and the songs would sound equally as grand, as though they were selections from a classic musical.

Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel [...]

It feels like something of a copout to name a favorite in something that's sold at every Whole Foods checkstand. Fiona's nothing new to discover, and sure, she's tried very hard to make herself sound like a nutter and then dispute such in the press. But the once-moody singer has evolved into a brilliant songwriter; she's no longer precocious, as she was on Tidal, and The Idler Wheel didn't feel like the major production that Extraordinary Machine seemed to be. She's finally found herself, and she's become a wholly relatable lyricist who no longer dwells on her heartbreak and lack of social skills, but accepts what she is. She no longer exercises her vocabulary in her lyrics -- she merely means what she writes and writes what she means, even if it's to say Fuck you, Jonathan Ames, for adding me to a list. And hell, she'd make a great jazz singer, and this record might be the closest she's gotten to realizing this.

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