Friday, January 25, 2013

COLUMN: Best of 2012 - Music

Ah, the end of the year. The time when a highly-refined intellectual like me takes a moment to pause, reflect, and most importantly, pretend that my pretentious musical tastes are better than yours. It's still my favorite column of the year to write. Take 'em or leave 'em, behold my picks for the Ten Best Albums of 2012:

10. The Raveonettes - Observator - The Danish duo of Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo have been making fantastically fuzzy pop records for a decade now, but never on an emotional scale like "Observator," their stunning seventh record. Wagner's decision to treat his clinical depression with a week-long bender in California might not have been a smart move by any stretch, but it inspired a record that revels in forlorn haze andmelancholy.

9. Ringo Deathstarr - Mauve - The ridiculously amazing Texan band with the world's most ridiculous name return. Never a band to concern themselves with originality, Ringo Deathstarr occasionally take critical heat for their perfect mimicry of classic UK bands like My Bloody Valentine and The Primitives. Their answer? Raise a middle finger to the haters and turn it up louder. They still evoke My Bloody Valentine, but this time paired with a dose of Sonic Youth inspired noise rock that sounds like it was recorded in the basement of an imploding house.

8. Paul Weller - Sonik Kicks - In the 1970s, Paul Weller topped the British charts as frontman of the groundbreaking mod/punk band The Jam. In the 80s, he deftly meshed soul with new wave as leader of The Style Council. In England, he still packs arenas and is as almost as revered as McCartney or Bowie. The difference, though, is that at age 54, Paul Weller's releasing some of the most innovative and ground-breaking music of his career. "Sonik Kicks" finds him exploring electronic psychedelia, Krautrock, and progressive folk  without losing his vintage soul roots. The resulting sound is fresh, new, and impossible to believe that it's his 23rd studio album.

7. The Primitives - Echoes and Rhymes - 2012 has definitely been the year of reunions, but none made me smile quite like the return of the Primitives. When I was in college, I had a wall-sized shrine to their singer Tracy Cattell on my dorm wall. She was the epitome of cool, and the Primitives' ultra fun brand of indie pop (remember "Crash"?) was the soundtrack to a good chunk of my upbringing. The death of original bassist Steve Dullaghan resulted in a pair of reunion gigs and now a brand new album of obscure girl-pop covers that proves twenty years hasn't dulled their sparkle. Welcome back.

6. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light - It would be easy to dismiss Spiritualized as a one-trick pony: gospel-tinged blues rock with recurring themes of drugs, religion, and redemption performed by a notoriously difficult sonic perfectionist. But Spiritualized frontman Jason Pierce does his one trick SO WELL that you can't help but be amazed, especially considering the array of illnesses and on/off opiate addictions that Pierce readily owns up to. But despite the morose subject matter, most of Pierce's songs end on a positive note, with hope for redemption and salvation. "Sweet Heart Sweet Light" is his most accessible record in a decade and the surprising feel-good album of the year.

5. Young Prisms - In Between - The cover art of "In Between" features someone racing gothically through a dark woods, and it's the perfect image. In fact, if I ever found myself racing gothically through a dark woods, THIS is the record I'd want on my iPod. Existing in a perfect haze, San Francisco's Young Prisms have managed to ignore trends, scenes, and traditional song structure in favor of a washed-out soundscape that plays like a Cure album put through 100 reverb pedals. Call it ethereal, dreampop, shoegaze, or whatever you fancy... I call it the sound my brain makes when I'm in a quiet room. It might not be the BEST album of the year, but it's definitely my favorite.

4. Ultrasound - Play for Today - It's no coincidence that the opening song on "Play for Today" says: "We crashed and burned, but we've returned." In 1998, Ultrasound were hailed as one of the most exciting new bands on the planet. THEN they released their debut album, and critics weren't kind, saying it was too full of ambitious swagger for its own good. As a result of the bad press and infighting, the band was kaput in less than a year. But in 2011, they reformed for a benefit gig and decided they still had more to say. "Play for Today" picks up right where they left, with the same epic confidence and over-the-top rock swagger. Imagine if Tenacious D took themselves seriously and you'd be close. In a perfect world, they'd be filling arenas.

3. Taylor Swift - Red - What happened to you, Taylor Swift? Last I checked, you were a cute teenager releasing harmless pop-country radio fluff to generic America. Sometime in the past year, though, you grew up. Sure, "Red" is still an ode to a year's worth of failed celebrity dates and young love gone awry, and yes, there's definitely a fair share of catchy radio fodder courtesy Top 40 svengali Max Martin. But instead of innocent verse-chorus-verse sappiness, "Red" blooms with an unexpected confidence and maturity that a 22-year-old shouldn't possess. The album's opener, "State of Grace," wouldn't sound out of place on a U2 record. "Red" might be about as country as Snoop Dogg, but who cares? There's clearly a lot more to this girl.

2. Fun. - Some Nights - So how did the world fall in love with a campy indiepop band from New York City? It's really all due to "Glee," who used FUn's anthem "We Are Young" during a pivotal scene. Downloads went through the roof, and suddenly we had the least likely chart-topper of the year (well, until a certain South Korean rapper came along.) But there's no denying the greatness of "We Are Young" or the entire album that followed it. It's a odd melange of Queen, Fleetwood Mac, show tunes, and auto-tune, all held together by the soaring voice of Nate Ruess, who can go from torch song to hip-hop with the pinache of Freddie Mercury and the gravitas of Les Mis. It shouldn't work, but it somehow does, and the world's a better place for it.

1. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange - Any talk of Frank Ocean that's come up this year inevitably starts with his sexuality. On the eve of the release of "Channel Orange," Ocean confessed that the inspiration for much the album stemmed from his unrequited love towards another man. For a guy poised to make millions, this was a courageous and unprecedented move to make, especially in the notoriously homophobic and unforgiving world of hip-hop. But WAY more impressive is the album itself. I don't care if he digs guys, girls, cats, dogs, or purple pandas from Pluto -- this is a record for the ages. Full of complex, heartfelt musings on greed, fame, excess, and yes, unrequited love, "Channel Orange" is the most intelligent R&B record you'll hear this side of Marvin Gaye, and easily the Album of the Year.

My picks for 2012's best TV come next week.

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