Top Albums of 2012: Part 2 of 2

11/30/2012

And now the second part of my best albums of 2012.

For part one (6-10) click here.

5. Grizzly Bear – Shields
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Shields reminds me a lot of my favorite album from last year, the Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues. Neither is going to turn heads with their uniqueness, but they rise above the rest of their familiar genres with astounding production, disarming sincerity, and ultimately their raw beauty. They also both seem to be split into two halves: the first a bombardment of brilliant but more traditional tunes, the second a longer, looser, jazz-inspired journey into the unknown. As with Blues, I’m in love with both sides of Shields equally. The first reminded me what astounding heights the band is capable of reaching. The second reminded me of the unattainable depths of mystery musicians will forever keep trying to reach without quite getting their hands on them.

4. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…

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Fiona Apple is sincere in all the ways we get taught not to be as we grow up. Her latest set is sparse, bleak, and uncomfortably direct, with lyrics like “Every night is a fight with my brain,” and “How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?” Just perusing the lyrics, you might be tempted to think it’s a recording of a therapy session. But once that all gets filtered through Apple’s olympian vocal routine, it becomes less clear who is analyzing who. She swings octaves up and down, stops, picks up at a different tempo, screeches, and occasionally vomits her thoughts with astounding dexterity until her simple declarations are so layered I was straining my brain to comprehend them. “I just want to feel everything,” she explains in opener Every Single Night. I think she’s well on her way.

3. Swans – The Seer

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When I finished the 2+ hour odyssey of rapturous post-punk noise that is The Seer, I said, “It either has to be number one or it can’t go on the list at all.” From that I settled on a three spot. Even now, I still feel a little guilty for including it because I honestly cannot think of a context in which anyone I know would listen to this behemoth unless they too were making a list of the top albums of the year (three different tracks near album length all on their own, and those are mostly percussion driven); but maybe even more guilty for underrating it, since I’m also convinced that of all the things I encountered this year that could loosely be defined as music albums, this is maybe the most brilliant.

The Swans have been doing this sort of thing for about thirty years now; experimenting with the emotional powers of sound more than the traditional understanding of music. Sometimes The Seer is beautifully melodic, like in one heartbreaking solo by Karen O. But other times it’s chaotic, unwieldy, and repetitive — I’m sure comedically so if you’re not feeling it. I was feeling it. Yes, there were times within that massive stretch where I thought, “I’ve been listening to this same banging noise for ten minutes,” or, “I really have to pee,” but far more often I felt lost in the vast reaches of space, amazed by how well these guys conjured glorious images and inverted reality.

2. The Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

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On the first few listens, I found Swing Lo Magellan to be clever, unique, very entertaining, but perhaps a little mechanical and cold. On those last two measures I couldn’t have been more wrong. No album I’ve heard this year is more vibrant and alive.  Part folk, part southern gospel, part electronic rock, it skips along unpredictably through a breathless range of feelings and attitudes: the extremes of the harder rockers Offspring are Blank, The Gun Has no Trigger, and Maybe That Was It; the folksier, more intimate Swing Lo Magellan, The Socialites, and Irresponsible Tune; the peppy Dance For You and Impregnable Question; the playful, self deprecating About to Die, See What She Seeing, and Unto Caesar. It’s the latter category that I think first diverted my attention. The Dirty Projectors carry themselves a lot like the smartest kids in the classroom — a bit too eager to show off and so caught up in their own inside jokes that they don’t care who else gets them. Yet intelligence and self-awareness aren’t crimes, especially when they’re enhanced by music that sounds this good.

1. Passion Pit – Gossamer

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I’ve always felt Passion Pit was capable of a great album, ever since I heard the Chunk of Change basement recording Michael Angelakos first made for his girlfriend for Valentines Day. Even then the diabetically cheery sugar pop felt oddly matched with the down to earth — you might even say dour — lyrics. But now, as Angelakos’s resources and talents have increased, that little disconnect has turned into something strange. In Gossamer he sings about his most vicious inner demons without ever breaking glittery, neapolitan, jewel-encrusted face. That opening track on The Idler Wheel, with its bare silence, paranoid bells, and Fiona Apple practically whispering — the second track of Gossamer, I’ll Be Alright, does something similar but with a synthesizer pounding in a major key, whistles, chirps, and maybe a car horn. Or there’s the track titled “Love is Greed” that sounds like it should be accompanied with fireworks and dancing ewoks.

Stranger still is how well this approach works. Where the heftier subject matter might weigh down the airy jingles or the precious cooing undercut any emotional impact, the two instead work hand in hand — like The Lord of the Rings with Candyland art design (an imaginary film to which you should definitely imagine the trailer playing with every track). From the pounding, adventurous “Take a Walk” to the unapologetically melodramatic, “Where We Belong,” all of Gossamer benefits from this added weight. And what about Angelakos? How’s he getting along, you know, with those problems I was having such a good time listening to him sing about? I honestly can’t say. With all that happiness, there’s not a definitively optimistic moment on the whole thing. But it sure was nice of him to make it for me anyway.

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