The year is 2012. This is music that I like that came out this year. It is presented alphabetically unless otherwise noted.
Chairlift - Something
Completely bowled over by this one. They lost Aaron Pfenning inbetween their debut and this album, but it most certainly did not hurt them. This is an incredibly strong record, with a handful of great singles, and half a dozen more stellar songs, all bolstered by one of the most under-praised, strongest, most versatile voices in music, Caroline Polacheck. From the oddness of "Sidewalk Safari" to the gentleness of "Ghost Tonight," this album is full of range and vocal ticks, both on display in the wonderful song below.
Live: Sandy benefit show at Glasslands. Very good, fun, playful live, Polacheck's voice holds up, as does her younger sister's, who joined her on backing vocals.
An endlessly interesting, at times arhythmic but ultimately very poppy record. There's an element of David Longstreth that's always been a bit self-serious, but it's that confidence (or ego) that lets you make this record. Beyond the obvious parallel of "Hi Custodian" and "Runaway," Longstreth is in many ways the indie Kanye West. Bold, brash, annoying at times, but always interested in the sonically new, and in pushing the boundaries of his respective genres. In any other band the high-pitched harmonizing would be a gimmick, but with Dirty Projectors it feels like an essential component in the weird, wild sound of one of America's best bands.
Grimes - Visions
How this Canadian art school cliche was able to charm a subset of the music obsessed, I will never know. On paper this seems like everything I should bemoan. She makes her music in Garage Band for fucks sake, she has tattoos on her hand from a shitty Luc Besson movie, she's fucking pictureplane, and she tried to live on a god damned house boat on the Mississippi. And yet this is in many ways THE album of the year and the one that makes the biggest case for the laptop musicians of the future, in her case it's not the tools but how she uses them. It is, in some ways, outside the context of music. It's noise, it's emotion, it's unrelentingly great. There is no genre, there is only style, tone, mood, and abandon not seen in even the most raucous of traditional pop music. The ideas, however opaque, are incredibly simple, but in it's simplicity it's able to convey an astounding amount of emotion. If you had to define what music was in 2012, this would be a good place to start.
Live: Twice, once in Chicago at a free Lollapalooza aftershow, it took an hour to get in but fuck was it worth it. The most fun I had at a show in 2012, free, anti-anxiety pill of youth. Again, in Williamsburg, a bit bigger stage show (she pilfered a few things from her time on tour with Skrillex), but retained the energy of the earlier, more intimate shows.
Hospitality - Hospitality
Surely the most accomplished traditional rock record of the year. If you weren't already in love with them from "Betty Wang," pick a song at random and try not to have a guitar riff or lyrical quirk stick in your head for months. This is what so many people are asking for and here it is, waiting to be adored.
Live: Twice, once in Chicago opening for Eleanor Friedberger, they blew me the fuck away, once on the South Street Sea Port. They rocked so hard the goddamned pier caught fire. See them.
Hot Chip - In Our HeadsOne of the finest living bands, period, put out what might be their best record. On the surface there are no stand-outs, but with repeat listens you begin to realize that's because the whole album is a stand-out. From the masterful opening ("Motion Sickness," seemingly written to get people excited as the first song of a live set), to the tender ballads ("I Will Always Be Your Love"), the obvious first single ("Night & Day"), every song sticks in your head, every song is drastically different than the previous, but they are all very much of a piece. There is no other album this year I would feel confident throwing on any song from in a mix and knowing it will please. Very few bands stay as good as this one, almost nobody gets better this late in the game. A bunch of polite British fathers made the best dance record of the year.
Live: In New York, they've expanded their live band, and even though Al Doyle still runs around to fifteen different instruments during every song, it feels as though they've finally hit the right number, every single song hit and hit hard. Probably the best live touring band now that LCD Soundsystem is gone.
Purity Ring - ShrinesWhen I saw Purity Ring open for Dirty Projectors this past summer in Brooklyn I was left unimpressed. I'd somehow avoided them, and first encountering their music on a hot summer day in a park, with their light machine and what not was not the best first encounter. I gave them a second chance though and I'm glad I did. Lyrically they're a genuinely odd band, and sonically I think they've tapped into the love that white indie-ism has long held for some of the worst hip-hop. They're essentially a rap-synth band, but that combination doesn't send me screaming for some reason. It's carefully crafted, even if its intent is to be direct. There's a depth to them that I hope they explore on future records. I didn't get it for a long time, now I do.
Live: I was bored. Now that I'm more familiar with them I have a feeling I'd have a much better time. Next time indoors though, okay?
How do you follow up what is, in retrospect, kind of a perfect album? You can't repeat yourself wholesale, especially when your first album was, even in its greatness, a bit of a gimmick. What you do is flesh out the less fashionable part of your aesthetic, play to your strengths. That's exactly what Sleigh Bells did. This is a somber, angry record, but one filled with the cheesiest, most fun guitar rock this side of Warrant. It doesn't equal "Treats" (seriously, go back and listen to that, there's not a weak track on it), but it's a damn fine record and it should abate some of buzz-cooling they've experienced.
Like Sleigh Bells, Tennis started off with a gimmick. The lo-fi pop music of another era, filtered through a sun-soaked boat trip. What to do for a follow up? Working with producer Patrick Carney, they refined their sounds slightly, made it a bit cleaner and dare I say rockier. I first encountered a few of the songs on this album live, and thought I adore the first record, they stood out in an incredibly good way, in a way that new material often doesn't live. The record, without the through-line of the first one, can be tricky to navigate at first, but time spent with it reveals it to be a superior effort. The songwriting is stronger, the music denser. It's a great record.
Live: I thought they were solid the first time I saw them, before they got signed, but they've improved as a live band through incessant touring. They structure sets well and they've loosened up a bit. I've seen them now four times and there's a reason for that, the most recent time was just after I'd been forced back to Chicago and even that (at the time) indignity didn't stop me from having a great time.
My other favorite albums of the year (alphabetically):
A solid, if meandering debut full length. They're an incredible live band, and their 12 inches over the years have nearly all turned into classics. Nothing on here is as as strong as any of those releases, but it's still great, great stuff. I look forward to their development, and hope momentum builds for them as a live act. They're terrific people (some of whom I have danced with) and they are splendid music.
Live: Twice, in two iterations, both made me feel proud to be a new New Yorker. The first one was a full live band at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, the Village Voice used my picture for their review. The second was a newer iteration of the band called The Crystal Ark Party Machine. This is less live, but so fun. Dancers, crazy keyboard playing. The name is appropriate. Bonus: Danced with some of the dancers and Viva Ruiz herself until 4am. So fun. This is my happening and it freaks me out.
David Byrne & St. Vincent - Love This Giant
There's no way that this record could be anything but a let down. When you hear of a collaboration like this your mind wanders, what could it possibly sound like? It ends up sounding like a pretty even split between Byrne and Clark, and that's not a bad thing. Once you dig into the songs and find the niche they're working in, drop your preconceived notions and just listen to the songs themselves you'll find a strong, searching record. It's not the record of your dreams, but something great nonetheless.
Live: I cannot afford to subsidize David Byrne's bike racks, but I did let Annie Clark use our bathroom at work two minutes before we closed and then awkwardly yelled "You're great!" as she left, she didn't hear me, I had to repeat it and she thanked me. Everyone who was there hasn't stopped making fun of me, and rightly so.
Memoryhouse - The Slideshow EffectAt this point I think I'm the only one still beating the drum for these guys, and thought I had some initial disappointment in their debut full length, I grew to love it. Gone is the washed out loveliness of their pre-Sub Pop recordings, but here instead is a focus on structured song writing. Abeele has said he wanted to get rid of the echoey noise of their earlier work because it felt like they were hiding in it. I get that, and the cleaner sound emphasizes what good players they are and how unique and distinctive Denise Nouvion's voice is. I'm a fan, I always will be, and I hope to bring more people onto this bandwagon because they deserve it.
After the break, the best singles of the year, and coming soon, the best videos of the year.