Tag Archives: best of 2012

The Most Under-Appreciated Albums of 2012

2012 has been a pretty good year for music.  Every genre has received some kind of hit record: for folk-indie, there was Mumford and Sons’ Babel; for R&B, there was Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange; for hip-hop, there was Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, for pop, there was Taylor Swift’s RED.  Perhaps it’s because it was a good year in music, there’s been several albums that have kind of fallen by the wayside.  The collection of albums below have gone through 2012 without much appreciate.  Here, this means that the album didn’t receive much critical or commercial attention — Grizzly Bears’ Shields is excellent, and underappreciate by audiences at large, but it was championed by critics and it has found its way on many “Best Of…” lists already.  The following list of albums is by no means ordered.  Stay tuned for a list of the most disappointing albums of 2012 coming soon!

damon albarn Dr Dee

Damon Albarn — Dr. Dee
It would be hard to Damon Albarn to release anything that goes under the radar.  Sure, Dr. Dee was noticed, but it was largely dismissed upon its initial release.  The album is a folky British opera that chronicles the mysterious John Dee — a consort to the queen, scientist, magician, mathematician, and astronomer.  Who would have thought that audiences weren’t interested in traditional operas about obscure 16th century alchemists?  The album is littered with Blur-esque acoustics by Albarn, but the majority of the album is traditional opera.  Critics were hoping for a small scale, intimate set, but instead, they got a strange, esoteric passion project.  SAMPLE THIS:  “Apple Carts” and “Preparation.”

liars WIXIW

Liars —  WIXIW
Those fans that were hoping that Radiohead would return to their uncompromising, electronic tendencies (Kid A and all) got their wish with last year’s King of Limbs.  Anyone still feeling a bit unsatisfied should seek out Liars’ WIXIW (pronounced “Wish You”).  The band has been no stranger to changing their sound between albums or being inaccessible: WIXIW changes none of that.  On the face of it, it’s an electronic record set with many of dance-ready beats.  A deeper listen reveals the paranoia and menace of the album.  It’s an album that rewards repeated listens, and while it may take a few to get used to the dense electronic atmosphere the band creates, it’s well worth the time.  What initially feels like a claustrophobic and harsh set of songs gradually opens up to be a surprisingly open and rich record.  SAMPLE THIS: “No. 1 Against the Rush” and “His and Mine Sensations.”

Django Django

Django Django — Django Django
It’s the band so nice they named it twice — four times if you take into account this is a self-titled record.  When I first listened to Django Django’s debut record, I knew that this was the record that everyone would be talking about in 2012.  The album has everything a listener could want: it’s well produced, it’s catchy, it’s fun, and it spans an array of genres, constantly keeping you guessing what comes next.  The band effortless shifts between surf-rock, electronic music, traditional Egyptian, and world music, but they never forget to give the listener a melody to remember.Django Django opens with the sound of nature before giving into the sounds of an arcade-like PacMan synthesizers.  It’s the perfect metaphor for the album itself: it’s an album that marries very natural sounds and melodies with fun electronics.  The album came in went with some people noticing it (NPR), but for the most part, it was lost in the rush.  Check this album out!  SAMPLE THIS: “Hail Bop” and “Waveforms.”

Grass Giraffes transportation

Grass Giraffes — Transportation
The Athen, Georgia-based band carries on the musical traditional.  The band’s debut release, the Transportation EP is a stellar mix of pop-rock and psychedelia.  Grass Giraffes’ music is sure to please anyone looking for more music by the Elephant Six collective.  The EP is only 5 songs long, but the band leaves its mark on the listener by giving the audience melodies that are irresistible and spot-on musicianship.  The lyrics here are just as smart and sharp as the lyrics, and if Transportation offers anything, it’s the hope that this kind of music (whose epoch seemed to fade out after Neutral Milk Hotel’s excellent In The Aeroplane Over the Sea) isn’t quite on its way out just yet.  SAMPLE THIS: “Backstories” and “Better Alone.”

Dan Deacon america

Dan Deacon — America
Dan Deacon has been skirting around massive audience appeal for some time now.  He’s a hard guy to pigeonhole:  his background is in classical music, but he is constantly trying to push the boundaries of electronic music.  America offers one of the best examples of what Deacon is capable of: the first half of the record is a handful of short, melody-heavy pop songs, and the back half of the record is a sprawling instrumental.  It’s hard to understand why Deacon isn’t a bigger figure in the mainstream consciousness — his music is either too electric for classical listeners or too classic for electronica listeners.  America does a great job marrying the two approaches, and if any release this year makes electronica fun, smart, and beautiful, it’s this one.  SAMPLE THIS: “True Thrush” and “USA II: The Great American Desert.”

Jesca Hoop the house that jack built

Jesca Hoop — The House That Jack Built
Tom Waits once described Jesca Hoop’s music has refreshing as “going swimming in a lake at night.”  It’s a surprisingly apt description of her music, and on that front, The House That Jack Built succeeds.  Hoop, who recorded this album after touring as part of Peter Gabriel’s band, pushes herself in a ton of different directions.  This album is a bit more streamlined than her previous work, but it’s also more accessible — fans of Hunting My Dress may be a bit disappointed with the decidedly poppier approach Hoop takes here, but it pays of in dividends.  Although Hoop’s musicianship is pristine here, what really shines is her lyrics; the material spans a wide array of subject material, but nothing is as profound as her reflection of death on the haunting and minimalist “D.N.R.”  Hoop’s music feels too poppy for the indie-audience that she records for, but here’s hoping this fantastic album finds its audience.  SAMPLE THIS: “Ode to Banksy” and “D.N.R.”

Aimee Mann charmer

Aimee Mann — Charmer
Aimee Mann has been around for a while now, but 2012’s Charmer feels like she’s found new inspiration.  The 90’s alternative rocker’s latest album is a fun, slick record that never forget to put the melodies up front.  Complimenting Mann’s guitar this time around is a Cars-like synthesizer. The album is accessible, but it’s immensely listenable — this is a record that never fails to just be a fun record.  Even though some of the subject matter turns sour (“Disappeared” or “Living A Lie”), Mann couches it all in poppy songwriting.  Collaborations with James Mercer from the Shins and Tim Heidecker from Time & Eric give the songwriter enough room to maintain her own personality while offering new takes on her music. SAMPLE THIS: “Charmer” and “Soon Enough”

Exitmusic-Passage

Exitmusic — Passage
Celebrities playing in bands is not a new spectacle.  Everytime you here about a Keanu Reeves and Dog Star or Russell Crowe and 30 Odd Foot Of Grunts, it’s hard not to imagine that these are ployed attempts at artistic credibility.  These celebrities play in their band, but they never want that to be the focus of the music; Billy Bob Thornton, for example, nearly cancelled a live interview because the radio DJ singled him out in a question.  Exitmusic, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like a gimmick at all.  The group is a husband/wife duo featuring Boardwalk Empire’s Aleksa Palladino on vocals.  Their album, Passage, has all of the atmospheric bombast that a Sigur Ros record has, and it’s just as beautiful.  Simultaneously beautiful and haunting, this is a record that works both as background music and music to lose yourself in.  SAMPLE THIS: “Passage” and “Sparks of Light.”

Hot Chip in our heads

Hot Chip — In Our Heads
Here’s an album that initially received a bit of a buzz at first only to seemingly sizzle away.  Hot Chip has been around for a while now, and their records have been mixed at best.  Sure, some are better than others, but none of them have been as consistent as In Our Heads.  Part R&B, part electronica, part dance, this British group’s latest record features the band at its very best.  The band’s positive outlook makes In Our Heads not only a great album, but one that you’ll enjoy spending time with.  If the music isn’t trying to create a groove to dance to, it’s dropping melodic hooks that will keep listeners coming back for more.  SAMPLE THIS: “Motion Sickness” and “Let Me Be Him.”

Future of the Left plot against common sense

Future of the Left — The Plot Against Common Sense
I don’t know the last time I listened to an album so brutal.  Future of the Left’s The Plot Against Common Sense is noise-rock at its finest, made all the most harsh by the fact that they just don’t seem to make bands like this anymore.  Not only is the music aggressive, but the lyrics are just as sharp as the melodies here.  Moving from cynical to satirical, Future of the Left tackles subjects such as the music industry, Hollywood, the Occupy Movement, and um, bad restaurants.  It’s one of the year’s best, as long as you’re willing to endure the fast, noisy, and raw sound that’s thrown at you.  SAMPLE THIS: “Sheena is a T-Shirt Salesman” and “Beneath the Waves an Ocean.”

Honorable mentions:
La Sera — Sees the Light
Mynabirds — Generals
Hopsitality — Hospitality

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FILM REVIEW: Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN

Lincoln Movie

LINCOLN starts off like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN: people fighting and dying for war. In Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the scale of D-Day was astonishing and gruesome. This memorable first scene sets the tone throughout the entire movie — even if characters make jokes an hour into the movie, it was hard to fully remove yourself from how truly awful war was. While LINCOLN’s first scene doesn’t hold nearly the same grand scale that SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s did, it serves the same function. We’re made to look upon brothers fighting in the rain, in the mud, with their bare hands if they had to. It’s a short scene, but the rest of the movie is haunted by the thought of these men — all around the country — fighting and dying for what’s going on in Washington DC.

It’s often hard for big studio pictures to equal the sum of its parts — not so for 2012’s LINCOLN. On the outset, I was super excited for this movie: it’s got one of the best living directors heading it (Steven Spielberg) with one of the best living actors leading it (Daniel Day Lewis) about one of the most significant moments in American (and human) history (the ratification of the 13th amendment) from the perspective of one of America’s most beloved presidents (Abraham Lincoln). But wait! There’s more: a DP that can make anything look cinematic and beautiful (Janusz Kaminski) and a cast of some of the best actors in supporting roles (Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Lee Pace, John Hawkes, James Spader, Walton Goggins, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael Stuhlbarg, and plenty of others). It seems that a movie like LINCOLN would never be able to live up to its pedigree — but it does. LINCOLN is one of the best movies of 2012, and I can’t think of anyone I wouldn’t recommend this movie to.

First, I’d like to clarify that this movie is not a biopic in the traditional sense — it’s not a movie about the life of Abraham Lincoln. LINCOLN is about Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to ratify the (then controversial) 13th amendment to the United States Constitution. If you’re not familiar with the story already, the 13th amendment clarified that equal rights ought to be provided for all people, of all creed and race. In today’s time, this sensibility seems like nothing special, but in the 19th century, it divided the nation. Getting congress to ratify any amendment can be an arduous process, but Lincoln was up against near-insurmountable odds: he faced a split (and nearly hostile) congress and a strict time line (he wanted to pass it before his re-inauguration after his re-election). Oh, and let’s not forget that the entire country was at war with itself in the bloody and brutal Civil War. This is what the movie is about: we pick up in the middle of the civil war, just after President Lincoln’s re-election, and the movie ends just short of the amendment’s ratification.

The film is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book TEAM OF RIVALS. Spielberg and (screenwriter) Tony Kushner do well to shrink the scope of their story. Rather than trying to cover every element of Abraham Lincoln’s life, they focus in on one of the most pivotal moments of his life and of American history. Working on this smaller scale, Spielberg is able to capture the drama of it all — there are clear story arcs at work here. LINCOLN is excellently paced with plenty of moments of drama, suspense, and even comedy. The movie never for a moment feels like a history lesson. The political maneuverings are fun to watch and, even if you know the story, feel cinematic. Spielberg never gets jingoistic about America either — there’s a sense of patriotism here, but it’s earned by watching the characters on screen fighting for human rights, rather than hollow platitudes.

There’s considerable buzz that Daniel Day Lewis is a shoe-in for the Best Actor Oscar, and the hype is warranted. Lewis is good in pretty much everything he does, but he genuinely disappears as Lincoln. While watching the movie, I would forget that the character on screen wasn’t the actual Abraham Lincoln. He comes across as stern, stoic, and infinitely wise. Through the movie, it appears to be a defeated man, but he is still able to find the beauty in moments with his young son, or camaraderie with his staff with a few jokes. I wouldn’t say that Lewis steals the show though (as he did in THERE WILL BE BLOOD) — the rest of the cast is phenomenal. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens (the staunch, idealistic congressman) is excellent; James Spader as W.N. Bilbo (as hired gun sent out to obtain votes from on-the-fence congressmen) is hilarious; Michael Stuhlbarg as George Yeaman (the nervous, on-the-fence Democrat) is great. I really could go on — the acting is superb.

LINCOLN is one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2012, and Spielberg’s most consistent drama since MUNICH.  While there is a bit of foul language (and violence in the first scene), I would recommend this movie highly to anyone interested in it.  Go see it.

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Grizzly Bear: SHIELDS

2009’s VECKATIMEST is a fantastic album, and it ranks among one of the best albums recorded in the past ten years. Grizzly Bear’s second studio album is as finely crafted and poured over as anything available on the indie-rock market. Maybe it’s the album’s attention to detail; maybe it’s the sincerity the band expressed through the lyrics; maybe it’s the melodies and soaring harmonies; whatever it is, VECKATIMEST is undoubtedly a hard album to follow up. If you haven’t heard the album yet, you really owe it to yourself to stop reading now and check out this previous album. Aside from it being a completely refreshing listen, this album will inform much of the band’s fourth full-length album SHIELDS.

After touring for VECKATIMEST, Grizzly Bear took a 3-year hiatus from making music together to explore their own divergent musical tastes. While SHIELDS is definitely a Grizzly Bear record, it uses a much more varied and scattered approach than the intricate VECKATIMEST. There are moments on SHIELDS that reach out into unexplored territory for the band: psychedelic rock, atmospheric minimalism, and synthesizers. If their previous album was a meticulous exercise in tightly-wound control, this album is a more instinctual and gritty affair.

The opening track, “Sleeping Ute,” makes no attempt to hide the band’s less-polished features. The guitar riff that carries the song is a bit jarring: using a non-standard time signature, it sounds good but feels disorienting. The same frenetic acoustics of “Southern Point” appear on SHIELDS’ second track, “Speaking in Rounds.” Things take a turn for the poppier with “Yet Again,” and “A Simple Answer;” the latter song begins not unlike another well-crafted pop tune, but by the 4-minute mark, the song is completely ditched for a new direction. The remaining two minutes of this song, after abandoning the pop-tune melody, the song changes considerably to a more downbeat, moody course. Between these two songs, the minimalist “The Hunt” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Radiohead record (particuarly on IN RAINBOWS); it’s sparse instrumentation (and inclusion of clarinet?) make this song excellent. The brief interlude “Adelma” is a subterranean and submerged atmospheric exercise – it’s a completely unexpected moment on SHIELDS, and one that I wouldn’t have predicted for Grizzly Bear. The same eerie minimalism is repeated in the outro of the excellent “What’s Wrong.” There’s a groove on “gun-shy” that Grizzly Bear haven’t quite experimented with yet – it’s a smoky and sexy tone, and it slowly comes together to form one of the more accessible tracks on the record. The album ends with “Sun in Your Eyes,” a song that isn’t scared to let a few notes of silence ring out — these moments of silence aren’t annoying or jarring, they come at just the right moment, making the song a wistful, quietly beautiful piece. The ending, complete with harmonies, pounding organs, and distorted bass finds the band ripping loose for the album’s finale.

Make no mistake, SHIELDS is a great record, but it doesn’t have the same “mainstream appeal” that VECKATIMEST had – there’s no potential crossover hits like “While You Wait for the Others” or “Two Weeks.” Instead, this album is chock full of great songs that work best in the cohesion of the album’s entirety. For this reason, this record might be a little less friendly to new listeners (not that that is necessarily a bad thing). I would recommend listeners who have not listened to Grizzly Bear to start with their third album before moving onto this one: VECKATIMEST is a much more accessible and immediate album than SHIELDS, thanks to the support of the aforementioned singles and less scattered direction.

What I like about all of this is that this album doesn’t try to one-up the previous record. Instead, the band tried to do something a bit different – much of what made VECKATIMEST great is represented here, but there’s enough changed and tinkered with that this album is hard to draw complete comparisons to. This album is a must-listen for fans of Grizzly Bear, and it’s a more-than-worthy addition to a band with an extraordinary (but young) catalog. Essential tracks to sample/download: “Sleeping Ute,” “A Simple Answer,” and “gun-shy.”

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