Anybody who tells you that 2012 was a lame-ass year for pop music frankly doesn't know what the filth-flarn-filth they're talking about. They are grade A, world-class maroons. This past year was one of the best years for new music in quite a while. Read on and discover some of the year's best new music.
City Paper managing editor
Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!
Few if any pop music fans were expecting Godspeed You! Black Emperor to release a new album this year. After all, the apocalyptic instrumental band act hadn't released an album since 2002's Yanqui U.X.O. and they've performed very little in recent years. So ear-candy connoisseurs were more than a bit shocked when Godspeed released Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! in October. Once again Godspeed is in fine form, showing the pop world why they are the preeminent makers of doom-and-gloom soundtrack-style music, standing head and shoulders above Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, and Sigur Rós. It's difficult to describe the four tracks on Allelujah! — including the disc's two 20-minute-long oblations to the rock gods — but as a whole they make for the band's most assaulting work since their 1998 release, F# A# (Infinity). Allelujah! is also Godspeed's most hopeful collection to date. Truth be told, it's almost inspirational. So lift your skinny fists to heaven, brothers and sisters, and give thanks to the good Lord above.
Queen of the Wave
For sheer balls-to-the-wall weirdness, you just can't beat Pepé Deluxe's Queen of the Wave. The Finnish duo of James Spectrum and Paul Malstrom have crafted an undeniably infectious piece of psych-dance pop with their fourth outing, a strange concept album about Atlantis. From the James Bond theme song stylings of "My Flaming Thirst" to the organ-powered 1960s Brit pop of "Temple of the Unfed Fire" and the Spaghetti-Western show-tune sounds of "Riders of the First Storm," a strange ditty about the demise of unicorns, Queen of the Wave is a fearlessly mad work of pop art. If you crave musical oddballs — from Beefheart to Bungle — you absolutely have to check out this disc. Forget bath salts. Forget salvia. Forget LS fucking D. Queen of the Wave is the most powerful hallucinogen known to man.
If Walter White had a favorite band, it would be Calexico. No other band captures the gloriously haunting, blinding bleakness of the American West, the one that's inhabited by one-room loners, desperate men and women willing to risk life and limb in search of a better life, trigger-happy border guards, and, yes, cancer-stricken meth makers. With Algiers, Joey Burns and company have crafted their most desolate disc to date, but that doesn't take away from its cross-cultural Amexicana beauty. The album's cold-as-a-desert-night mood is established with the leadoff track "Epic," and it remains there through Algiers' various journeys into South-of-the-Border/North-of-the-Border roots music all the way to the mournful last track, "Ghost of a River." However, no single song on the album feels more like a slow-healing, sunburnt scar than "Para," a beautifully dreary requiem for a doomed love affair.
Yellow and Green Album
Every once in a while a band takes such a giant creative leap forward that it forever changes who they are as a band. Sometimes they even manage to change pop music itself. Think of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, Radiohead's OK Computer, Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Now you can add Baroness' Yellow and Green Album to the list. With their latest release, this one-time Savannah, Ga.-based metal outfit ditched the Cookie Monster vocals and the punishing riffs in favor of ambient Iron & Wine-style rural ballads ("Collapse"), soaring harmonies ("Twinkler"), and polished modern rockers ("Little Things"). And it all comes together on Yellow and Green's standout track, "Cocainium," a bit of death-metal disco that sounds like it was sung by Fleet Foxes during the recording sessions for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. This is without a doubt the most kickass song of the year, and a sure sign that the best of Baroness is yet to come. Here's wishing singer-guitarist John Dyer Baizley and company a speedy recovery following their near-fatal bus crash earlier this year.
Firewater's International Orange is a booze-soaked slice of world-music mash-ups and political rants. The album, the latest from ex-punker Tod A and a loose collection of collaborators, marks the second time the Firewater frontman has tackled politics. Tod A first ventured out of his patented brand of badass Bukowski rock territory with 2008's The Golden Hour. But while that release was largely a get-the-hell-out-of-Dodge diatribe against Dubya — Tod A has more or less lived the life of an American expat for the past half-decade — this year's collection was inspired by the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Largely written and recorded in Turkey where Tod now lives, International Orange features a cross-section of globetrotter pop, from the slinky, Rat Pack swinger "Up from the Underground" to the Middle-Eastern rocker "A Little Revolution" and the Latin heat of "Ex-Millionaire Mambo." Cue this disc up and before the last track plays, you'll be shouting out "Viva la revolución" and giving the great surveillance camera in the sky the middle finger.
City Paper contributor
The first four songs on Bear Creek, starting with the catchy "Hard Way Home" and culminating with the melancholy hit "That Wasn't Me," are as good as any four-song run out there. They run the gamut from desperate to exultant and back with style, as Carlile never loses her edge and never really lets us get comfortable until the last song. It helps that her voice has a unique, crisp tone that is at once airy and earthy, flinty but full.
I could talk about Sirens for days. In fact, I have. If you make badass rock songs full of existential questioning, you have my attention. From the incredibly tight kick-starter "Santa Ana Winds" to keyboardist Abe Wilson's anthem for the end of the world, "Last Call at the Eschaton," this album has fantastic replay value and is very clearly the Sons of Bill's best work yet. The cherry on top is the versatility of guitarist Sam Wilson, who sings the gorgeous "Find My Way Home" and then delivers an astounding three-minute guitar solo on "Turn It Up."
The Great Despiser
Chicago-based songwriter Joe Pug has commanded a fervent following in the Midwest and the Northeast for years, but he has yet to make inroads down here. Look for that to change thanks to Pug's latest album The Great Despiser. The singer-songwriter's intricate wordplay is given a little more background music on the new disc, and it serves him well, especially on the title track, which is as close as he comes to rocking. On the flip side, Pug doesn't ignore his acoustic side. His unique and heartbreaking voice is given the full floor on "Silver Harps and Violins" and "The Servant's Ace," which are as spare and beautiful as it gets.
I rarely stray into the worlds of hip-hop, punk, or, God forbid, the non-music drivel they call dubstep. However, greatness is greatness, and it exists in every musical form (except dubstep). With channel ORANGE, Frank Ocean seems to have resurrected the soul-meets-hip hop essence of D'Angelo's Voodoo. But while Ocean's latest has a similar feel to Voodoo, this is very clearly the product of Ocean's super-intense mind. His falsetto on "Thinkin Bout You" is just frikkin' gold. And his collaboration with rapper Earl Sweatshirt, "Super Rich Kids," is one of those this-moment-in-America songs. However, the best track is the 10-minute-long "Pyramids," which is so smooth it feels like a three-minute song. This is what hip-hop could be — and what a lot of us wish it was.
A Painting of a Painting on Fire
Ryan Monroe is the multi-instrumentalist for Band of Horses, and I hate to say it, but the Charleston-based band has never put out anything as good as Monroe's A Painting of a Painting on Fire. Monroe recorded every note on this album, itself just a small portion of the more than 120 tracks he has recorded over the last few years. A Painting of a Painting on Fire is complex, original, and rich music, which is part of the reason why it's my favorite album of the year. It's an impressive achievement. So do yourself a favor and listen to "The Darkness Will Be Gone," which continues to fascinate me months after I first heard it. And then listen to the next track, the title track, which left me nearly mummified. After you repeat those songs, which you'll want to do, catch your breath and listen to the album all the way through. There are a few Pink Floyd moments, but beyond that, I cannot tell you one other band A Painting of a Painting on Fire made me think of, because it made me think of all of them. Cheers Mr. Monroe, this is truly one of a kind.
City Paper contributor
On Grief Pedigree, Brooklyn native Ka serves up gritty tales of despair that recall blues at its rawest. Ka raps about doing dirt, being one with the gutter, and the hopelessness therein. All of that is matched by the disc's equally morose production and Ka's gravelly and exhausted voice, which hearkens back to East Coast legends Wu-Tang's Raekwon, Nas, and Guru of Gangstarr.
Three Loco EP
In the early days of rap, there was a balance. For every Public Enemy there was a Biz Markie, for every DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince there was a 2 Live Crew. Enter Three Loco. This comedic rap trio, made up of former MTV star Andy Milonakis, Dirt Nasty (a.k.a. actor Simon Rex), and Riff Raff (of the reality series From Gs to Gents), released an EP this year packed with sophomoric ribaldry and arcane pop-culture references. From the chant-worthy dumbassery of "Beer" and the self-deprecating lines of "Neato" ("Neato, still whip it like Devo/ Cus my dick short and fat like Danny DeVito"), Three Loco could be written off as a novelty act if only their flow and beats weren't so nice.
Wild Water Kingdom
As two-thirds of the now-defunct rap trio Das Racist, Himanshu Suri (a.k.a. Heems) and Victor Vazquez (a.k.a. Kool A.D.) both released two solo mixtapes this year. With 51, Kool A.D. stepped away from the frenetic experimentation of his previous effort and embraced the verbal dadaism of Al Green and slick wordplay on tracks like "La Piñata." Meanwhile, Heems' second effort sees him bypassing the East Coast beats of his partner-in-crime Mike Finito to enlist the help of other more established producers like Harry Fraud and Beautiful Lou in an effort to cement his status as a true emcee. The album's last track, "Combat Jack Show Freestyle," Heems dishes out some truly searing commentary: "The only project they care about is singularity/ Apparently, if your parents be the sons of important parents it's a parody/ A monopoly, it's collusion/ It's a lot of big words, it's confusing."
The Evil Empire of Everything
Prince will always be purple, Mick Jagger will always be a sashaying horndog, and Chuck D will always be a rhyme animal. On The Evil Empire of Everything, Public Enemy once again proves that rap, like rock, doesn't have to exclude men of a certain age. Tracks like "Beyond Trayvon" and "Say It Like It Really Is" remind listeners of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame band's enduring strength in a field where an artist's shelf-life is increasingly fleeting.
City Paper staff writer
Silver & Gold
I'm still a little bit traumatized by the YouTube video for Sufjan Stevens' "Mr. Frosty Man" in which a chainsaw-wielding snowman wreaks bloody havoc on a horde of snow-zombies. Rendered in horrifically grisly claymation by director Lee Hardcastle, it introduced me to one of the two poles on Surf-Yanni's latest salvo of Christmas songs: holiday TV-special cheesiness cranked to 11 with a total lack of kid-friendly propriety. The other pole is more familiar territory for Stevens: reed-heavy orchestral arrangements, peace on earth and goodwill toward men, and oddly soothing auto-tune arpeggios. Favorite lyric: "Do you feel what I feel now?" (repeated again and again on "Do You Hear What I Hear?").
I'm generally embarrassed by the saccharine schmaltz that passes for contemporary Christian music. Notable exception: Showbread, a deafeningly loud band from Georgia whose members have dubbed their sound "raw rock." I will always have a soft spot in my heart for this band, whether they're raging against Bible Belt hypocrisy or playing songs that split the difference between dirty Southern rock and Nine Inch Nails. Oh, and this one's a dystopian sci-fi concept album. Favorite lyric: "'Blessed are the meek' succumbs to 'Might makes right'/ 'Turn the other cheek' succumbs to pre-emptive strike" ("I'm Afraid That I'm Me").
good kid, m.A.A.d city
I've never set foot in Compton, Calif., so I'm not going to pretend I know much about the lifestyle Lamar describes in his lyrics — the gangbanging, the drugs, the swimming pools full of liquor — but when I listen to this album, I hear the death of innocence at the hands of poverty, fear, and peer pressure. This is gangsta rap as Greek tragedy, where all of the boasts ring hollow and young men die seeking the shade of a money tree. Favorite lyric: "It go Halle Berry or hallelujah/ Pick your poison, tell me what you doing/ Everybody gon' respect the shooter/ But the one in front of the gun lives forever" ("Money Trees").
Like Kendrick Lamar, North Chuck native Matt Bostick (a.k.a. Righchus) paints a less than glamorous picture of thug life, rapping about crack cocaine addiction and friends being gunned down in the street. Bostick also shows a startling lyrical dexterity and a penchant for getting parties started. Producer Max Berry and a bevy of guest producers get props for sampling everything from Imogen Heap to sax improvisations by Ian Sanchez, all in service of some truly memorable hooks. Favorite lyric: "Young African prince, where my Lisa McDowell?/ Man, I'm talkin' numbers, you tryna purchase a vowel" ("Calculators").
O' Be Joyful
What else is there to say about Shovels & Rope's latest album? When I reviewed O' Be Joyful in July, I was struck by the band's reckless abandon and country charm, but I wondered if they weren't just playing characters. Now, having spent a few hours cruising with Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent in their Winnebago, I can report with confidence that these two hometown heroes are the real deal. Favorite lyric: "I wanna know the whole story over/ Where you came from, where you're going, however long it takes to know you/ With your heavy metal heartbeat, salty but you seem sweet/ Tippy toes on both feet rockin' to the teen beat" ("Cavalier").
City Paper contributor
What do you get when you combine African soul with a British songwriting sensibility? The best darn album of the year, that's what. With Home Again, Michael Kiwanuka gets the old Otis Redding nod, but he's his own thing. This album is a perfect record all the way through and will get you ready to party, make love, sip scotch, or go to work. It makes everything better.
A Painting of a Painting on Fire
It's a shame that nobody knows who Ryan Monroe is while Band of Horses, the group that this multi-talented multi-instrumentalist normally plays with, sells out venues on a regular basis. The thing is, after hearing Monroe's amazingly strong solo effort, A Painting of a Painting on Fire, I couldn't wait for Ben Bridwell and company's Mirage Rock. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Mirage got three listens, but I still listen to Monroe's A Painting of a Painting on Fire. And it gets turned up every time. By the way, Monroe plays every instrument on Fire.
Director Benh Zeitlin and composer Dan Romer sat alone in a rented house in Lafayette, La., and created the haunting soundtrack to Beasts of the Southern Wild on a computer. Then they brought in live strings to fill it in. As I'm writing this, I haven't even seen the movie, but its soundtrack brings me to tears.
O' Be Joyful
Local acts often show up on the City Paper's year-end album lists. But this time, it's not just us. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are the new darlings of the Americana world. Here's hoping we all get to see them again before they hit the big time.
Big Moon Ritual
Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson released two albums this year with his new band, the appropriately named Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Together, the band picks up where the Grateful Dead left off. The first release of 2012, Big Moon Ritual, was packed with sprawling jammers, while their second, The Magic Door, didn't reach the previous disc's heights. But even though that was the case, the latter effort did absolutely nothing that would cause the Chris Robinson Brotherhood to lose any of their lot cred on Shakedown Street.
City Paper staff writer
Half Way Home
Angel Olsen's voice is bananas. She sounds like a heartbroken Linda Ronstadt wannabe warbling in a backwoods honky-tonk bar with a sweaty face and too much eyeliner and an outfit you could buy at the Recycled Cowboy in Ladson. This is the vision I get specifically from "The Waiting," Half Way Home's rowdy second track, but it carries over to the album's quieter, plucky songs as well.
Now Here's My Plan
If Angel Olsen is the opener at a honky-tonk bar, Bonnie "Prince" Billy is the well-seasoned main act. Will Oldham is the master of taking old songs that were good to begin with and making them even better, and he does it by presenting them in an entirely different way. And that's what he does on Now Here's My Plan to some of his most popular songs. For example, while "I See a Darkness" is slow and sullen on its eponymous album, on Oldham's latest, the tune is transformed into a jig-dancing celebration.
Children of Desire
Cards on the table: I knew these guys when I lived in Florida, but they've come a long way from their Terminal Jagger Jane's Addiction Boxset cassette that my roommate would play on drives to the beach (and that I only kind of liked). This LP has six tracks, including "Time," which made Pitchfork's list of 2012's best — if you're into that sort of thing. But I always skip right to the ever listenable "Become What You Are" and "In Nightmare Room," two blissfully bleak and astonishingly dancey tributes to the stupidity of young love and punk culture.
Phil Elverum (a.k.a. Mount Eerie) put out two albums this year, Clear Moon in May followed by Ocean Roar in September. The former is better. It's dark and moody, deep and rich, and a lot louder than Mount Eerie's older stuff and Elverum's work with the Microphones. The more music Elverum releases, the farther away he gets from the heartbreaking work of staggering genius of the Microphones' The Glow Part 2, but Clear Moon makes up for some of the less-than-interesting material he's produced over the past few years. Bonus point: Clear Moon was recorded in a desanctified church.
Women of Your Life
The Bloomington, Ind., boys in Sleeping Bag play really fun indie pop tunes, which is a nice contrast to the Plan-It-X folk punk that the Indiana college town is usually known for. The band may look like serial killers, but make no mistake, Sleeping Bag is still really cool. The album's closer, "Walk Home," sounds like the end of summer break — you know, when you still believed that the next nine months of school would turn out OK.
City Paper contributor
There's No Leaving Now
With There's No Leaving Now, Swedish Americana master Kristian Matsson is sure to win over those who shied away from the nasally rasp of his past work. His latest effort offers a softer, subtler approach. Matsson still employs forceful strokes of his acoustic guitar to underline his ardent vocal outbursts ("1904"), but he now incorporates a more delicate voice and a thoughtfully light touch to his fingerpicking ("On Every Page"). There's No Leaving Now is a captivating musical journey into what seems to be the next stage in Matsson's musical odyssey.
The Lion's Roar
The First Aid Kit's Johanna and Klara Söderberg are the girls you want to hang out with around the campfire. On the Swedish sisters' second release, woodsy folk meets vintage Americana, replacing the twang with twinkling glockenspiels and siren calls. Tracks like "To a Poet" and "Wolf" uncover the influence of 1960s folk while harmony-driven songs like "In the Hearts of Men" meditate on the themes of time and regret in a lyrical ebb and flow. The Lion's Roar proves that when these Swedes do old-time folk, echoing acoustics, and melodic harmonies, they do it well.
Beach House's Bloom is what a symphony under the sea probably sounds like. Lush layering floats into an ethereal atmosphere and transports listeners into a dreamy sonic world, while the sparkling guitar and hypnotic synth meld with the alluring vocals of Victoria Legrand to create a mellow dynamic. Shades of sadness tint several songs ("New Year," "On the Sea"), but the energy Beach House perfects is found in tracks like "Lazuli." You will need to listen to Bloom in a room with a high-vaulted ceiling to fully appreciate the sublime architecture of Beach House's experimental pop.
My Head Is An Animal
The debut from Icelandic folk band Of Monsters and Men, My Head Is an Animal, is both engulfing and soothing. The synergy of the sextet creates an almost palpable intimacy of sound ("Slow and Steady") while their voices gain power in a communal share of harmony ("Dirty Paws," "Your Bones"). When the band's simple acoustics gallop into a whirling crescendo alongside reverberating vocals, Of Monsters and Men manages to create sonic grandeur ("Mountain Sound," "Little Talks," "Dirty Paws"). All the while, the calm emotionalism that weaves throughout the album makes for a reflective collection worthy of repeat listens.
Born to Die
Whether she's calling herself Lizzy Grant, the Phenomena, or Sparkle Jump Rope Queen, Lana Del Rey is doing something right. With Born to Die, Del Rey dives into the pop of the 1950s and '60s. While her notoriously pouty lips and sultry voice could make her just another pretty face on the charts, the femme fatale's songs are addictive because of the contrast between her saccharine voice and gangster attitude ("Radio," "National Anthem"). The real power of this pop enchantress is her melancholic drop in key that she drapes in nonchalance in songs like "Video Games" and "Born to Die." As a whole, Born to Die delivers an honest, chilling sound that can slay even the biggest of pop haters.