An interesting thing happened in 2012 – the old dudes won. While the music journos and blogarati continue espousing myriad thinkpieces on the rapidity of music consumption and where culture is heading in our hyper brain lubing digital reality, aging punks quietly went into the studio and released the best music of the year. The artists under 30 on the following list are the clear minority. The new guys rode trend waves and tailcoats. The seasoned veterans reinvented themselves or honed their craft to its critical mass. While 2011 seemed to offer a greater volume of great albums, this year offered greater albums – works that are determined to become classics, and uproot previous efforts as some artists’ master works. It was a hell of a roller coaster ride. Alright, let’s do this…
SIX ORGANS OF ADMITTANCE – ASCENT
A friend of mine once wrote that his first experience seeing Six Organs of Admittance live caused pure dementia, in addition to believing things that were not true. He was convinced his apartment had a fourth room, which it did not, and he was ready to take a hammer to the bathroom wall to discover it. This, of course, only scratches the surface concerning the mystical power of Six Organs’ incandescent, eastern tinged, enveloping psychedelic modal noodling. Chasny has meandered a bit too ambient the past few years, but he finally returned in full force on Ascent, initiating his evil divining rod to communicate across the mortal coil and lobbing out his best effort since 2006′s The Sun Awakens.
LANDING – S/T
Save for a quick 7″ one-off, husband and wife space rock power duo Landing has remained radio silent for almost six years. And in the interim, it appears Landing discovered trace amounts of caffeine, or ginseng, or perhaps 5 Hour Energy and/or PCP. Landing ropes in the flying, hypnotic ambience that made the Connecticut-based slow-core outfit adored amongst those tuned in to the otherverse, this time over a significantly higher BPM count. Album highlight, “Heart Finds the Beat,” offers up lessons in jet propulsion coupled with ancient healing powers. It’s celestial pop worthy of transmitting over the SETI system, antennas pointed toward possible intelligent life in the universe. Hell, I could even label this song, unironically, a salient club banger. More importantly, “Heart Finds the Beat” bolsters a cathartic, soaring chorus gorgeous enough to use as a spiritual litmus test. Landing is a surprising, satisfying listening experience throughout, providing a benchmark example of how a veteran space/post rock band can stay fresh and inventive throughout their career.
ACID MOTHERS TEMPLE - SON OF A BITCHES BREW
The descriptor “cultish” tends to attach itself to myriad second and third wave psychedelic artists, from the NPR-safe Edward Sharpe to perennial blog favorite Prince Rama to the aptly-titled Brian Jonestown Massacre (Miranda Lee Richards even said as much about the latter). But no artist feels more like a cult, one that possesses the power to bend young minds no less, than Acid Mothers Temple. The shapeshifting Japanese collective has adopted varying monikers across their releases, some of them tongue-in-cheek, and others so bodacious they could only be conceived with the assistance of the world’s finest getty green. For their latest, Son of a Bitches Brew, Acid Mothers Temple open another chapter in the Melting Paraiso U.F.O. catalogue. While most of the Paraiso repertoire hones in on drone and freak-out standards, Son of a Bitches Brew delivers an umbrella synopsis of Acid Mothers Temple’s newfound infatuation with the album’s primary inspiration and source material: American jazz, warped for their own otherworldly plans. No, this isn’t tote bag-wielding dinner party music; it’s far too terrifying. Rather, the sprawling double LP is informed by sharp Mingusean free jazz standards, amalgamating intergalactic funk, dissonant horn arrangements, broken melodic structures, and spot-on syncopation to probe the gnarliest crevasses of the known universe.
BROTHER STEPHEN - BAPTIST GIRLS
Many folk-leaning artists in the complicated indie rock realm bolster a feeling of “hard traveled troubadour” through crestfallen acoustic riffing and waxing on dirty motel rooms and missing home. What makes Brother Stephen much more remarkable than the general fare of folk and freak folk varietals – he actually lived it. Up until last year, nomadic Midwesterner Scott Kirkpatrick lived in his car; relentlessly touring, crashing with friends, and took jobs that require that an amount of travel agreeable to a touring musician. Scott now has a mailing address, but his narrative torch ballads are undeniably relatable… and authentic. It’s an old sounding record not because it tries to be, but because Baptist Girls revels in the most storied and humanistic tropes. Earnest music is hard, but Brother Stephen makes it feel urgent. As a long time fan of rustic folk like Pentangle and Fairport Convention who has become increasingly become bored by harsh noise dub art whatever-the-fuck, it’s nice to find a retreat in the pastoral sonic green space of Baptist Girls.
TY SEGALL – TWINS
Goodbye Bread proved Ty Segall is a master of less-is-more psych folk pop. Twins has made him dangerous. While “You’re the Doctor” offered up one of 2012′s most destructive anthem’s, the gospel tinge of “The Hill” is of such a genius level that Ty Segall is now a full-on formidable force, as the newsdesk of WGN learned this fall. Chicahhhhgoooooo!
DEATH GRIPS – THE MONEY STORE
Yeah, I drank the Kool Aid on this one. But you know what? It’s nice to hear some good old fashioned, family friendly, frightening-as-shit doom hop. You can have your Kendrick Lamar and play slap dick all day for all I care, I’m on team #moneystore.
FELTBATTERY – BEHOLD A GOLDEN THRONG
Behold a Golden Throng, the massive 21-song release from The Research Triangle’s feltbattery, provokes a remarkable sense of wonder. On the one hand, the compositions of Benjamin Trueblood summon the tropes of the apocalypse, making prodigious use of field recordings with bees, locusts, and frogs. On the other hand, much of this loose concept record about the parallels between colony animals and human behavior transmits a prismatic, fantastic channeling of natural splendor through electronic static– not too disimilar from the approach of Boards of Canada or The Focus Group, yet with an angle all his own. ”Bivouac” opens the album with the ambient soundscape of nature films and scientific instruments before launching into loose, rhythmic birdsong on “Beat Harvest” and an omnious swarm of crawling samples and textures on “Coronation.” Throughout, Trueblood showcases a unique accumen for using tonality and sound sculpture to overtly and accurately replicate the living world. At times a playful kaleidsocopic collage (“Sun Cycle,” “Tiny Hairs”) and at others a suffocating (“Woman With Skeps,” “Drona”) and sinister swirl of awe, Behold a Golden Throng is both an extremely adventurous listen and also one of the most accessible noise albums since Black Dice’s Creature Comforts.
OLD BABY – MISUNDERSTANDING HUMAN BEHAVIOR
Old Baby is a new supergroup of sorts, and a disparate one at that. Members of Shipping News, Dead Child, and Sapat lay the foundation for rustic folk singer and wild mountain man Jonathan Glenn Wood to lay out some nasty ass primordial psych proto-metal with a (what We Listen For You dubs) recession rock bent. This is Folsom Prison Blues after the complex has been burned down and all the guards were force fed the brown acid.
SHARON VAN ETTEN – TRAMP
As if Tramp’s inclusion on this list needs to be explained, but it was one that I almost slept on until I caught her powerful performance with The War on Drugs this spring. What an absolutely devastating album. And yo, I kinda want to punch in the back of the dome the dude that did Sharon wrong, the inspiration for many of Tramp‘s finer moments like “Serpents,” don’t you? It’s hard to reinvent electric folk, an aesthetic that’s been played out into dust. But Van Etten’s unusual melodies, huge atmosphere, and emotively shape-shifting vocals helped concoct a wholly original, remarkable collection of songs.
AXIS:SOVA – WEIGHT OF A COLOR
Chicago’s Brett Sova dubbed his incandescent debut full-length as “oceancore,” and that’s with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Eerie and beautiful, dark and buoyant, Weight of a Color comes replete with soaring cosmic synths, an urgent urban decay crunch, and meditative, damaged guitar meditations that wouldn’t be out of place on a Tower Recordings set. The past few years have seen many pop bands look to the beach, but Axis:Sova’s shadowy take on the genre offers the first soundtrack for beaches destroyed by oil spills and roving plastic patches.
WOODS – BEND BEYOND
When Songs of Shame came out, this blog wrote something like “the strained falsetto, Elliott Smith experiencing zipper-trouble vocals” to describe Jeremy Earl’s throat melodies. We all got accustomed to Woods’ Edoran psych folk since then, of course, and Earl’s distinct songwriting is fast approaching iconic. On Bend Beyond though, Earl’s vocals are wholly different, reflecting the more morose, understated direction this time round. As as one of the few soldiers that have traversed the DMZ between indie rock and jam band culture unscathed by haters, Woods more unabashedly embraces a rootsy, Byrds-esque approach to the formula they’ve tweaked for five years. They even went a little jammy on the amost baroque “”Size Meets the Sound.” What a good move, both sonically and aesthetically - Woods achieves the raw antiquated sound that no amount of reverb and tape hiss could recreate, and they’ve written their best, most simmering and melodically crystalline songs to date (“Is It Honest?” “Back to the Stone”).
DANIEL BACHMAN – OH BE JOYFUL
Virginia-bred and currently Philadelphia-based cosmic picker Daniel Bachman used to record and perform under the moniker Sacred Harp, but now he bears all and embraces his Christian name. That’s the editorial “Christian,” of course. I have no idea what his faith is, though he seems to come from whatever sacred body reared the likes of the father Jack Rose, the son Ben Chasny, and the holy ghost The Incredible String Band. Since he started recording his latest full-length Oh Be Joyful, Bachman’s been keeping his spear sharp, supporting Amen Dunes, recording some live sessions on taste-arbiter WFMU, and generally controlling the weather with the HAARP technology attached to his acoustic axe. Bachman’s engrossing, complex, cavernous guitar modalities convince you that your home is larger on the inside than out like some House of Leaves shit. It’s altered states-ready psychedelic folk blessed by medicine men and mystic healers alike. Most importantly, this kid is super young, and with no shitting here, is on a fast track to be the new John Fahey. The most important, trippy-ass acoustic instrumental album in quite some time.
SWANS - THE SEER
How rare is it for a band that’s been around three decades to release art that still feels vital, even while plastering a wolf bro straight cheesin’ across the cover? To wit, how rare is it for a band that feeds on provocation to keep their crown as world’s most frightening art rock collective in that time span? Despite the fact that Gira dons a cowboy hat and refers to people as “folks” nowadays like a big ol’ dork, the Swans cult leader undoubetedly continues to hang a portrait of Marquis de Sade above his bed and act like a general bastard. Swans evoked a small sense of worry with the relatively tame 2010 comeback effort My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky. Welp, those fears were swiftly, with decisive action, nipped in the bud on The Seer, Swans’ most disturbing, most beautiful, most foreboding, and most importantly, cinematic work in ages. Their best since 1995′s The Great Annihilator.
Also, yo, check my Michael Gira face sometime.
JESSICA BAILIFF - AT THE DOWN-TURNED JAGGED RIM OF THE SKY
With little to no fanfare, Jessica Bailiff gently offered At the Down-Turned Jagged Rim of the Sky to everyone before scurrying away again. It’s Jessica’s first album in six years, undoubtedly her most expansive work yet, and honestly, her best to date. Jessica’s last album, 2006′s Feels Like Home, coupled light touches of rural psychedelia and ominous slowcore-shaped folk into a heady, beautiful listening experience. The crystalline new effort provokes a much more hopeful and luminescent atmosphere; her whispy, melodic, reverberated vocals hovering over cavernous, atmospheric folk painting the canvas of the deep still just before the break of dawn. Grouper owes Jessica no small debt of gratitude, #realtalk. “Take Me To The Sun” masterfully balances the somber and uplifting with a haunting, soaring three minute light flight into territories both known and mysterious, as washes of eerie echoes and rumbling, sludgy, intricately fuzzed textures wash the lingering fog away.
THE MEN – OPEN YOUR HEART
In many ways, Open Your Heart is an album I’ve been waiting years for and never knew it – the most punk post-punk album to see the light of day in years. Much like the trailblazers Swell Maps, Flipper, and Wire, The Men draft high concept, diverse, moody art rock out of raucous, pummeling RnR. Last year’s scuzzy Immaculada barely hinted at the wealth of ideas the Baltimore collective was keeping close to the chest, or how they were about to get The Stooges to take a ride on the Autobahn with Mr. Shields and Company and still throw on an occasional twangy electric folk ditty for giggles and shits. On the surface, the supremely nuanced Open Your Heart is a really great no wave punk record, but repeated listens offer repeated rewards. The title track is perhaps the most strangely beautiful pop song of the year.
GODSPEED YOU BLACK EMPEROR - ‘LLELUJAH! DON’T BEND! ASCEND!
“With his arms out stretched [with his arms out stretched]“ When that weird ass field recording from God knows where kicked in and kicked off the biggest surprise of 2012, a brand new album from Godspeed You Black Emperor, how bad did you geek out? Well, I was at work, and I ran out of my office, onto the street, and began an incessant mashed potato dance that lasted, oh I dunno, 15 minutes or so. Then I returned, rewound the tape, peeled back the film over my MREs, cracked open a Cormac MacCarthy over a trashcan fire, and sauntered back into the desolate landscape of GYBE’s aural hell. So in the decade long interim since GYBE’s last studio effort, everything they said about the police state and corporatocracy turned out to be 100% fucking true, and like your friend rubbing in his/her highly accurate NCAA March Madness bracket, they celebrated by taunting the fuck out of you. Also in that time period, GYBE became a goddamn metal band. Was there headbanging during “Mladic” when I saw them at Louisville’s Headliners in October? Yes, yes there was. Ascend! is an astounding effort from GYBE, and truly only their classic Lift Your Skinny Fists surpasses in the catharsis category.
SCOTT WALKER – BISH BOSCH
Challenging, agitating, beautiful, Scott Walker proved himself once again to be the grand sensei. Damn near 70 years old, and Walker is producing art more potent and pummeling than… shit, just about everyone. You young’uns, pack it in, you’re done-zo. Walker won and he’s doing touchdown celebration moves all over your hair-brained “concept album.” Bish Bosch is the most surrealistic deconstruction of American music since the mid-aughts zenith of noise, and if you’re allowed to dance in hell, “Epizootics” is the soundtrack.
BLACK MOTH SUPER RAINBOW – COBRA JUICY
The self-released Cobra Juicy saw Black Moth Super Rainbow abandoning much of the Technicolor-hued, whimsical, glitchy carnival of sound that rendered the band instantly recognizable over the past decade. Their distinct arsenal of wonky synths and syrupy, slightly sinister vocoder vox remain in tact of course, but the Black Moth hiatus of the past couple of years (which also saw solo releases from many of the collective’s members) seems to have rebooted the project into BMSR v2.0. Cobra Juicy serves up Black Moth’s most focused effort to date, showcasing a songwriting craft that’s elevated Tobacco’s brainchild into new stratospheres. Cobra Juicy offers a more traditional collection of songs while remaining even harder to categorize at the same time, which is kind of a mindfuck. It’s unequivocally one of the best psych pop efforts to come out in a long time, mainly because it, compositionally, has more in common with anthemic classic rock than the general touchtones of psychotic pop. Most impressively, BSMR continues their refined balance of how seriously to take oneself. Cobra Juicy is a triumph.
ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI - MATURE THEMES
Ariel Pink has always intensely dichotomized most listeners, that’s to say, the old trope of the brilliant vs. bullshit argument he tends to present. Even his previously best work, Worn Copy, came replete with a healthy smattering of total sonic bullshit. And yet, buried under the washes of wholly demented and warped 8-track pop for the mescaline demographic was a vision. Not necessarily one you wanted to see, but a vision nonetheless. That vision is the thematically complex Mature Themes. That’s not to say Mature Themes is an endpoint, or that this record is what Pink’s entire musical trajectory has been leading to. Rather, it’s a record that provides a quintessential snapshot of Ariel Pink as the anti-artist. Mature Themes is Dada art – arguably the first true form of dadaism in our modern “indie” world. Mature Themes isn’t schizophrenic, as many would have you to believe; it’s anti-art, a document to point the finger at the current state of art, only to be laughably slapped with critical scores, violating the whole concept.
LOTUS PLAZA – SPOOKY ACTION AT A DISTANCE
Imbuing kraut, shoegaze, and shimmering, aerodynamic melodies, Spooky Action At A Distance develops a strong identity early on. Each of the album’s 10 songs follow a strict formula – riding an early-established groove song-wide, in tandem with blissed-out choruses, pensive verses, muffled incantation vocals, and metronomic rhythm. Following an ambient intro, “Strangers” sets the stage for the entire album – a form of cosmic sing-along that’s both ethereal and tangible. Pundt’s new found dream pop doesn’t launch into the atmosphere, it exists on the surface, extolling the beauty of the nature around us. Geez, that sounded kinda heavy handed and hippie-stupid, but truth be told, there’s a visceral pastoral quality within Lotus Plaza’s shoegaze that doesn’t exist in the genre’s forbearers that informed Spooky Action At A Distance. While, say, My Bloody Valentine’s foreignness feels extraterrestrial, Lotus Plaza’s otherworldly timbre evokes the sensation of watching water droplets in slow-motion or blooming flora at a higher framer-per-second rate. Perhaps it’s the band’s southern roots – a welcome injection into the storied aesthetic. Pundt commands familiar sounds and song structures and construes them into wholly new perspectives, and in the most simple, organic way possible.
SPIRITUALIZED – SWEET HEART SWEET LIGHT
It’s safe to say 1997′s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space is a modern classic, widely considered that year’s other masterpiece. Jason Pierce topping that album was perhaps the biggest curveball in 2012. It’s no surprise, however, that Pierce told the NME that much of Sweet Heart Sweet Light‘s inspiration came from performing their beloved magnum opus in its entirety for ATP. All the ideas Ladies and Gentlemen put forth as the more theatrical offspring of Spacemen 3 – American blues and gospel standards, space rock, symphonic murder ballads – have come into the clearest focus of Spiritualized’s career. However, while Ladies and Gentlemen explored places of drug-riddled despair, Sweet Heart Sweet Light sees Pierce as the survivor. He’s been to hell and back, now a happy family man who embraces the unknown. Sweet Heart Sweet Light as a work of joy and uplifting celebration is a great look on Pierce. Not to mention ”Get What You Deserve,” “Headin’ for the Top Now,” and undoubtedly “Hey Jane” offer a trifecta of Spiritualized’s most important songs. Sweet Heart Sweet Light is a masterpiece.