2012 will be another musical year defined by its plenty: another year in which listeners were drowning in a deluge of constant new releases. With LPs flooding the digital realm at an furious rate, the album-of-the-year list becomes a necessary measuring stick; charting the high watermarks of another crazy-busy year in indie music. And, in 2012, none swelled higher than these records, which are collective evidence that amongst the oceans of new music, there are still definite, cresting peaks.
The charming 2010 LP, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, introduced The Mynabirds as a girl-group-lovin', jukeboxy lil' thing dressing Laura Burhenn's warbles in Richard Swift's vintage threads. But Burhenn grew restless resting in audio nostalgia, and Generals is a defiant attempt to engage with the present. This comes not just via Swift's armada of synths and thundering drums, but its lyrics. On "Mightier Than the Sword," "Body of Work," and "Generals," Burhenn uses the pulpit presented to her by her day-job ("I haven't made a dollar yet") to write veritable calls-to-arms, inciting the artistic underground to use their access to means of production and distribution and stage an uprising. It amounted to a wild, inspiring oration, the opposite to an election-year's uninspiring political gasbagging.
After Lord Huron arrived in 2010 with a pair of impressive EPs, Mighty and Into the Sun, the Los Angeleno band-most-likely-to cultivated genuine expectation for their debut. Lonesome Dreams furthered the sound found on those EPs, and sustained it over an album that maintained forward moment and fought off flagging interest. Leader Ben Schneider synthesizes a mix of My Morning Jacket's 'grain silo sound,' tropicalist, polyrhythmic percussion, and evocations of Springsteenian Heartland rock. It touches on some of the same sounds as the War on Drugs' breakout Slave Ambient LP, but with less of a record-collector feeling; the dorky sincerity of "Time to Run" a grand case of heart worn proudly on sleeve.
There's a familiar feel to Kishi Bashi, the project of multi-instrumentalist and Regina Spektor offsider Kaoru Ishibashi. Ishibashi assembles his violin-bowing, voice-layering songs by loop-pedal, like Andrew Bird. As a touring member of Of Montreal, he's clearly drawn influence from Kevin Barnes' giddy love of melody. And his voice sounds a lot like James Mercer. Yet, 151a is anything but a collection of recombinant parts; instead, it's a debut that feels like it's a decade in the making, an explosive creative outburst after a lengthy stint as understudy. 151a's greatest quality, by far, is its giddy energy: "Bright Whites," "It All Began with a Burst," and "Chester's Burst Over the Hamptons" hurtling forward with manic enthusiasm; the songs sounding as if overjoyed that they've been brought into existence.
Chicago's Volcano! have long been one of America's most overlooked and under-appreciated bands, sometimes feeling barely acknowledged in their homeland, despite having delivered two great LPs(2005's Beautiful Seizure and 2008's Paperwork) and one of the greatest-ever Vincent Moon videos. Again, Volcano!'s third LP, Piñata, seemed to fly under-the-radar; despite its brilliant marriage between complexity and melody, irony and sincerity. With Aaron With wielding his high-strung voice like a whip, he sings songs about modern life; "Long Gone" a satirical take on humanity fiddling ("walking around in the multiplex with a silly t-shirt on") whilst the world burns. Its title-track is even saltier (and sillier), an ode to karmic reincarnation sung from the perspective of a jerk turned into a papier-mâché pig, swinging in a village square, ready to be obliterated.
Though they were forced to change their name from Yellow Fever, Austin duo Deep Time took their rebranding as a chance to forge a new identity. The ragged, punky, lo-fi fuzz of their 2010 Yellow Fever LP (a compilation of their output to that point) has evolved into something sleek, soulful, and a little strange. The 4/4 rush of the past has been slowed down into something more sleek, slippery, and strange; the stripped-down songs having a wiry sound that amplifies the exhilaration of the taut rhythmic shifts, and leaves Jennifer Moore's deep, doleful, soulful singing way out front. On songs like "Clouds" and "Bermuda Triangle," Deep Time sound like dead ringers for the swiftly-forgotten Quix*o*tic, one of the most underrated (and just, like, best) bands of the '00s. This is no diss, but, instead, a huge compliment; Deep Time a welcome, inspired reinvention.
Youthful enthusiasm can be a blessing in the right rock'n'roll hands, and London teenagers Evans the Death employ a lethal dose of infectious exuberance on their self-titled debut LP. Awesome singles "I'm So Unclean" and "Threads" introduced Evans the Death as a band to watch in 2012, and their LP confirmed their status as one of Britain's best new bands. Over their giddy indie-pop rhythms and brash, noisy guitars, Katherine Whitaker sings in a voice equal parts sweet and salty, delivering lyrics that match sarcasm to sincerity. They're at their best when finding profundity in deadpan domesticity; making "When I'm watching the shopping channel, I will think of you" a genuine devotional, and "I wanna know what you had for lunch, and if it was good, 'cause it always should be for you" a touching wish.
In truth, Wild Nothing's standout 2012 moment didn't actually come on Nocturne, but with the Michelle Williams-starring video for "Paradise," which added an transformative spoken-word verse to the song's bridge, becoming one of my favorite random musical moments. Of course, the album's pretty good, too; Jack Tatum again inviting listeners into the dream-pop dreamworld in which he inhabits, all twinkling melancholy and sweet synths and jangly guitars. Though 2010's Gemini turned Wild Nothing into indie success story, Tatum still sounds uneasy interfacting with reality; instead retreating into the isolation of books/movies ("Rheya," heartache as homage to Solaris) or constant, crippling crippling loneliness ("Disappear Always"). It's prime wallflower pop for anorak-clad indie romantics.
Like its predecessor, 2010's Pigeons, Here We Go Magic's third LP, A Different Ship, is a work slippery mood music in which more minor, incidental moments give way to glorious standouts. Which could, to some ears, seem like a weakness; but feeling the precise, precious set funnel its wafting ambience towards the blossoming beauty of "How Do I Know" or the kinetic Polyrock funk of "Make Up Your Mind" is to be taken on a journey. Sure, the record has a far fussier feeling than either of its predecessors; feels thought-out by band and smoothed-over by über-producer Nigel Godrich. But its highlights shine so bright that it's hard to think of A Different Ship as anything but sweet success.
Owner of perhaps the year's most beautiful album cover, Animator is another study in sonic strangeness and subconscious distress, Jesse Stein piloting her band of merry adventurers down compositional rabbit-holes. Following 2011's great sophomore set Too Beautiful to Work, Animator finds The Luyas sounding a little less like avant-gardists fashioning pop-like mosaics from unlikely sound fragments, a little more like a rockband. On cuts like "Fifty Fifty," the giddy zither and French horn of yore give way to sweeping strings, clunky drum-machines, an army of analog organs, and, even, just a regular ol' acoustic guitar. But The Luyas' most evocative instrument remains Stein's odd, effecting voice, which echoes out breathy hesitancy even amidst cacophonous sonic storms.
41. Laurel Halo 'Quarantine'
Quarantine plays like a series of sonic petri-dishes; slides that, on closer observation, reveal infinite complexities and fecund possibilities. Laurel Halo employs all manner of fragmentary synthesizer squiggles, abrasive concrète tones, and wet, saturated beats; every piece a solitary sound experiment that, when employed in its ongoing sequence, gives rise to greater ideas. The isolation between songs speaks of the isolation within them; the Brooklyn-based artist singing —in a double-track deadpan leaving eerie effects trailing from each syllable— of life on the digital grid, in all its pantomimed connectivity and emotional disconnection. After the more beat-driven Hour Logic EP and synth-pop-ish King Felix EP, the first Laurel Halo full-length made for an unexpected —and rewarding— left turn.