The Half Dozen Report: Best Albums of 2012 (So Far)
Well, here we find ourselves at the half-way mark of the calendar year– a time when culture bloggers start to compile lists like teenagers celebrating one month “Anniversaries” (look that word up, kids!)… And while we had to fight resorting to straight-up hyperbole in our glowing reviews of last year’s releases, the Year of Our Lord 2012 has already proven to be full of stereo-warmers and high-water-marks from some of our favorite artists, as well as a few new names. Whittling it all down to a short list is no easy task. So without retracing our tracks (albums we’ve reviewed already), here are fifteen releases that have stayed stuck in our players these past sixth months.
- Guided By Voices – Let’s Go Eat at the Factory / Class Clown Spots a UFO
After more than twenty years, sixteen albums, and many line-ups, Guided by Voices officially called it quits on New Years Eve 2005. But no retirement could slow down the ever-prolific Robert Pollard, who continued releasing solo and side-project work at a frenzied pace. So few were shocked when the maestro announced the reunion of the “classic ’93-96” line-up (responsible for classics like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes). But unlike many of their royalty-check-cashing reunited peers, GBV got right down to recording new music and dropped Let’s Go Eat the Factory in January 2012. With 21 tracks clocking in at 42 minutes, its fuzzed-out hooks and dashed song-sketches show a return to the patchwork spirit of Lanes, pairing Pollard’s wit (song titles like “Doughnut for a Snowman”, “How I Met My Mother”) with Tobin Sprout’s penchant for poppier tricks, all basked in the familiar comfort blanket of lo-fi tape hiss and distortion.
This week, the reunited titans released their second album of 2012, Class Clown Spots a UFO, with another already on the way later this year (titled Bears for Lunch). Class Clown waves the same flag as Factory, but shows only growth and improvement on its predecessor’s formula. Rather than purposefully aping the low-fi recording quality of their roots (as on Factory), Pollard & co. strike a perfect middle ground for showcasing bigger stomping rock songs, while leaving more room for Sprout to play the Paul to his John on standouts like single “Keep it in Motion” and the super-catchy “Starfire.” With a whirlwind of revitalized energy hardly befitting their collective AARP-membership age, GBV are poising themselves for a late-period renaissance and don’t seem to give a damn who notices.
- Flaming Lips – Heady Fwends
Meanwhile, another group of prolific, experimental, cloud-headed and middle-aged midwesterners arrive at the druggiest stop on their long strange trip, with a star-studded spectacular freak show of a release. Let’s just run through those guest-appearances, in as random an order as they are random… Yoko Ono, Nick Cave, neo-soul goddess Erykah Badu, noise-fit duo Lightning Bolt, glitch-pioneer Prefuse 73, human beat-box and hip-hop legend Biz Markie, and yes, even Ke$ha and Chris Martin of Coldplay. One could easily see Heady Fwends as the culmination of the Lips growth over the past decade of headlining festivals and leaving their joyfully weird, confetti-covered mark on the cultural landscape of pop music. Though Wayne Coyne and co. are hardly strangers to utilizing celebrity connections in the strangest ways possible (Justin Timberlake occasionally joined them onstage as an animal-costumed dancer, Steve from Blue’s Clues played a significant part in their self-produced acid-nightmare of a holiday movie, Christmas on Mars). Though it may be hard to look past the deep roster of famous guests, Heady Fwends presents a remarkably cohesive set of cosmic pop songs with the Lips signature focus on strong melodies, driving basslines, pulsing rhythms, and celebratory heights of high-ness, Maaan.
- The Walkmen – Heaven
With the exception of the Sonic Youth’s Murray Street, Sonic Nurse, and Rather Ripped, I can’t think of a better three-album run than The Walkmen’s latest output. What began with You & Me and Lisbon, continues with the quartet’s latest, Heaven, a spare and whittled collection of songs that refines the band’s distinctive sound without diminishing its emotional resonance. Sure, it’s a tad too schmaltzy and much of the album is about domestic bliss and fatherhood (“Heaven). But nearly every song sells the sugar with impeccable craft and energy. So while on paper a tune made for Hamilton Leithauser’s daughter might seem to exclude us from its world, Leithauser soaring vocals and refrain of “Sing myself sick about you,” perfectly capture devotion, making its sentiment less insular than one might expect. It also helps that Leithauser has one hell of a voice, which plaintive songs like “Southern Heart” and the stunning “Line by Line” showcase. He’s still a snide bastard, but throughout the album, and on these songs particularly, you can hear the groan of age in his voice. The Walkmen might have finally grown up and settled down, but they continue their stately ascent to songbook royalty.
Songs: “Line by Line,” “Song for Leigh,” “Southern Heart”
- Santigold – Master of My Make Believe
Santi White has spent much of her career in the shadow of one M.I.A. and their shared producers Diplo and Switch. But after a long four-year wait since her debut, Master of My Make Believe sees Santi stepping out from that shadow and claiming her throne. From rousing opener “GO!” featuring guest vocals from Karen O (herself in rare form reminiscent of early Yeah Yeah Yeahs), MoMMB presents better a stronger sense of pop songcraft than her stylistic predecessor (still talking about Maya here) has in one fashionable finger. Likewise, the production is more geared towards synth-pop anthems that capture the sense of past hits like “L.E.S. Artistes”, balanced with a few choice Diplo-helmed party rockers (“Look at These Hoes”, “Freak Like Me”), altogether more cohesive than 2010’s abrassive misfire /\/\ /\ Y /\. Clearly, team Santigold took note of what worked before, streamlined those elements, looked back to 80s pop as much as to future trends, and delivered an album that should serve as a summer soundtrack as essential to every beach party and road trip as a towel and sunglasses.
Songs: rhythm-complex shining-synth anthems “God From the Machine”, “The Riot’s Gone”, “The Keepers”
- Electric Guest – Mondo
Electric Guest have as much going in the favor as working against them. An L.A. “buzz band” that perhaps hasn’t had to work very hard for that “buzz” due to some advantageous connections (singer Asa Taccone’s brother Jorma is one-third of SNL-approved novelty-pop act The Lonely Island), their debut album should really be allowed to speak for itself. But the critics have already weighed in, and here’s what the professional complainers over at Pitchfork had to say about Mondo: “perfectly anticipates a logical extension of the MGMT/Passion Pit/Foster the People trickle-down effect, composed like corporate pop, produced like radio R&B, and given a synth-and-guitar power trio presentation that somehow lets it scan as ‘indie rock’,” labeling it an A&R formulated “hit album” lacking any actual “hits.” We think they missed the trees for the forest, or at least would like to know what kind of trees those snobs are smoking. With production by Danger Mouse (another perk of big brother’s connections), Mondo gets off to something of a false start on its opening track. But starting with first single “This Head I Hold” listeners are treated to bombastic candy pop with retro-funk accents more reminiscent of producer Mark Ronson’s signature style than Danger Mouse’s touch. Though the above comparisons are apt if you’re trying to corner Electric Guest into a specific genre, listening to Mondo without any preconceived prejudice promises more infectiously catchy ear-worms than might crawl off the screen of a sci-fi creature feature filmed on the hollywood lots neighboring Electric Guest’s recording studio.
Songs: “Amber” “Waves” “This Head I Hold”
- The Men – Open Your Heart
It’s the standard rock arc: band opens up, lets a little sugar in, gets “poppy,” and arrives with its most accessible release to date. Swipes influences, steals riffs. Yeah, yeah, so what? Here we are again discussing music that is cobbled by knowing music lovers—an album that is maybe about the love of music, its transportive and lifesaving ya ya ya—band members with A to Zebra record collections—who just want to honor, as well as take the piss out of their musical forefathers. For better and for worse,The Men’s Open Your Heart is exactly that kind of record. But what makes Open Your Heart so awesome is just how superlatively fun and positive it is. Like Titus Andronicus, The Men make meals out their record collections, and turn them into a basement circus of rabble-rousing noise, spindly guitar work, and crushing drums. Although Open Your Heart trades in tropes and borrowed feelings, it doesn’t so much reconstitute The Men’s lineage, as it refracts the last thirty years of punk and alternative music.
Songs: “Turn it Around,” “Presence” with it’s lazy blues twang and repetitions reminiscent of Spacemen 3, The Sonic Youth-inspired closer “Ex-Dreams”
- Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Right from the opening track of Killer Mike’s new album he welcomes us “tourist mothafuckas” to Atlanta with aggressive “PLOW PLOW” verbal gunblasts more fit for a Geto Boys track than the laid back purp-drenched lyricism we’ve come to expect from members of the Dungeon Family. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that Geto Boys frontman Scarface guests on the very next track (fellow heavy hitters Bun B and T.I. appear on opener “Big Beast”). By and large, R.A.P. Music sees Killer Mike dispensing with any Outkast-inflected party-rockers in favor of a strapped to the teeth flow befitting the album’s title. This isn’t “hip-hop” for those that like to draw lines in the sand or define tastes by what they don’t like or don’t rap about. This is rap music. Southern-Fried, Butane-hot, Ghetto Gospel music (just a sampling of song titles). But what really makes R.A.P. Music hit like a ton of bricks is El-P’s old school flavored production, blending classic breaks and scratching with some of his most layered and bombastic beats since his Cannibal Ox days. That El-P’s own Cancer For Cure has been just about the only other hip hop release of note so far this year shows just how strong a pairing these two make… Like the underground’s answer to Kanye and Jay-Z without the proximity of any Kardashians– pure focus, pure heat. Rap music, plain and simple.
Songs: “Reagan” a no-holds-barred attack that slyly turns speech samples, “Go!”, “JoJo’s Chillin”
- Justin Townes Earle – Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now
How do you top an album like Justin Townes Earle’s last, the gloriously ramshackle roots masterpiece Harlem River Blues? Well, for the son of country outlaw Steve Earle and spiritual progeny of his father’s mentor Townes Van Zandt, the answer seemed to be a clean slate and reaching for a different set of roots altogether. Through various interviews, Earle has made it clear his goal was to journey into new territory, arriving at a style that would better reflect his southern soul influences by employing more of the melancholy horn arrangements only hinted at on his previous album. The result was supposed to be something like the inverse of Ray Charles and Solomon Burke recording albums of country hits and western ballads in the 1970s. Instead, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now delivers a logical progression of the mix of rockabilly shuffle and traditional country crooning found on its predecessor. The horns are indeed more present, but they essentially serve the same role as the electric piano and organ backing on Harlem River Blues. Even moreso, Earle faithfully replicates the production style of that album, with pristine clear vocals placed high over a mix that emphasizes the live textures of plucked strings, popping upright bass, and captures the very emptiness or fullness of the room itself. Soul, Country, Rock… Justin Townes Earle is all of these things. But the young artist may think he’s exploring new styles when in fact he’s merely growing up and growing into his own, and doing so in style.
Songs: “Maria”, “Movin’ On”, the blues-rock of “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea” and southern-fried soul stylings of “Memphis in the Rain”
- Alabama Shakes – Boys and Girls
Don’t stop us if you’ve heard this before. The Alabama Shakes come from humble beginnings playing Led Zepellin and Otis Redding covers to guitar stores and bars in their small hometown of Athens, Alabama (near Decatur and Huntsville). But their blending of blues and rock sounds has more to do with their geographic proximity to nearby Muscle Shoals, where Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler famously brought artists like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett to record with soon to be high in-demand southern white session players, where Sun Records founder Sam Phillips grew up and found the inspiration to combine “black” and “white” influences into what would become the “Sun sound” of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, where artists like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Allman Bros, Eric Clapton and many more would journey to capture a sound and feeling that lives today, embodied by revivalists like the Black Keys (whose own 2010 Grammy-winning Brothers was recorded there) and now locals done good The Alabama Shakes. In the past year the ‘Shakes have gone from those small town beginnings to darlings of the British music press, late-night television performances, and prized slots on every major summer music festival. But whats so great about their meteoric rise is that its organic, and earned on the merit of their talents. Unlike their over-polished predecessors The Black Keys and Kings of Leon, its doubtful we’ll see fame spoil the raw talent of this quartet of southern boys and girl. This debut captures a band firing on all ten cylinders, playing their riffs tight and close to the bone. And leading it all is front-woman Brittany Howard, a force of beauty who belts like Janis and Arethra and can shred like Jimi Hendrix. Though the band may seem like an anomaly in today’s music industry, they’re carrying the torch of the Muscle Shoals tradition and carving a road map of how to make it based on work ethic and earned merit.
Songs: The classic rock sheen of “I Ain’t the Same”, delicate fury of “Rise to the Sun”, blues and soul flavored singles “Hold On” and “I Found You”
- Disappears – Pre Language
For their third album in as many years, Disappears utilized one hell of a ringer on the skins— Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, who one presumes has a lot more time to indulge in collaborations and side-projects given SY’s indefinite hiatus. A lot of critics were baited by Shelley’s presence, dismissing Pre Language as a high-profile failure, especially when much of the drumming on the album is primitive at best. But the charge to the punk primordial began on Guider, Disappears’ follow-up to their angular and melodic debut Lux, and Shelley’s contributions fit perfectly with Disappears evolution. Pre Language is muscular and excised, a brainy brawny wash of krautrock and post-hardcore. Guider may have been more about roiling riffs and hypnotic rhythms; Pre Language finds Disappears invested in pummeling proto-punk. It’s no less hypnotic than Guider, though it is defiantly stark and beveled. While Guider had songs that felt like journeys, with push-pull tension, the tracks on Pre Language feel like self-contained systems. That might make Pre Languageless appealing and less involving to some listeners, but its starkness and desaturation demonstrates Disappears’ talent at wringing the most out of a little. Listen again and you’ll find there’s more than meets the ear.
- Ghosty – (Self-Titled)
It goes without saying that not all the best indie rock comes from the coasts (or more specifically Brooklyn)… But why should Ohio (GBV) and Oklahoma (Flaming Lips) be the only cornbelt states represented on this list? Bringing it all back home, 2012 saw the unexpected return of Lawrence, Kansas’ favorite sons, Andrew Connor and Ghosty. And sure, we might overuse the phrase “fine form” when discussing the comeback albums, but on this, their third proper full length, Ghosty is more of an unstoppable tuned and oiled pop music machine than caterwauling haunt. But putting football rivalries and state border lines aside, Connor and the boys have gotten plenty of neighborly help from Wayne Coyne and company along the way. The members of Ghosty provided backup instrumentation and vocals on the Lips’ “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell” off their Yoshimi follow-up, At War With the Mystics. In return, The Flaming Lips frontman lent his guest vocals on their debut Grow Up Or Sleep In, recorded with Trent Bell in Norman, Oklahoma. But the Ghosty of 2012 don’t need to stand on the psychedelic shoulders of any giants. Their newest album delivers a well honed brand of restrained yet energetic power pop that speaks for itself.
- Ty Segall and White Fence – Hair
A collaboration between two prolific stars of a smeary garage-rock revival scene, Hair is seemingly the most polished work by Segall and Tim Presley (White Fence). But the tidy production does nothing to diminish the duo’s cachet in a scene that values expedience, grime, and elbow grease. Hair, despite how flighty and one-off it seems, is still powerfully vital. Through it’s kaleidoscopic digest of seventies classic rock and sixties garage-pop, Hair showcases some of the loosest moments Segall and Presley have committed to tape. That’s not to say the album is all impromptu wankery—songs like “Time” and “I Can’t Get Around You” are perfectly composed and performed, full of drive and combustion. And then there’s the mesmerizing fun house mirror of “I Am Not A Game,” a raucous song held in tension between its nervous drumming, tight zig-zagging riffs, caustic organ bleats and its explosive refrain.
Songs: “Time,” “I Am Not A Game,” “Scissor People”–
- Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance
While it shares many of the hallmarks of Lockett Pundt’s main band Deerhunter, his second solo effort Spooky Action at a Distance, benefits from clarity and straightforwardness. Always an integral contributor in Deerhunter (see the Pundt penned “Desire Lines” from 2010s Halcyon Digest), Pundt’s album takes the dreamy reverb and damaged-pop of his main band and stretches and contorts these qualities to his own end. The result is a work that at first flush seems like unused Deerhunter tunes, but again, it’s the contour and the shape of Spooky Action that gives it distinction. While lead single “Strangers” has been called a sequel to “Desire Lines,” with its perpetual ascension and shimmering guitarwork, its vertical and horizontal proportions, buttressed by Pundt’s ponderous vocals, make it emotionally involving. Although The Floodlight Collective, Pundt’s first solo work, was unjustly underrated and is still a great album, Spooky Action marks great progress for Pundt. Improving on its predecessor by mixing the cerebral incantations of Floodlight with Deerhunter’s pop-squall, Spooky Action is both heady and tuneful, stirring and exacting, a brightly realized set of aching songs that prove Bradford Cox isn’t the only member of Deerhunter that can go solo and create great music.
- Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man in the Universe
Soul legend Bobby Womack gained a whole new generation of fans after appearing on two of the strongest tracks off the Gorillaz last album Plastic Beach (including the debut single “Stylo” alongside Mos Def). So it makes sense he’d follow up with a solo effort targeting those younger ears and old souls alike. The Bravest Man in the Universereunites Womack with Damon Albarn, who along with Richard Russell (XL Records owner-producer) goes into Rick Rubin mode, revitalizing the crooner’s magnetic appeal with pulsing modern production. Though the opening title track opens with Womack’s voice bared (but in fantastic shape) over a cello, it quickly gives way to a Massive Attack-style trip-hop beat and DJ-drops of the album’s title spoken by a woman’s voice. And though a guest appearance by Lana Del Rey may be too controversial for some to look past, Albarn and Russell balance it out with spoken word “introludes” from both Gil Scott-Heron and Sam Cooke. And you know what? Lana carries her weight just fine along Womack, so leave that angel headed hipster alone and focus on the man of the hour himself. With a powerful voice still capable of projecting the rawest emotions, Womack doesn’t allow any collaborator, living or dead, or any change in style to overshadow his legacy.
- Ana Tijoux – La Bala
Ana Tijoux, a French-born Chilean MC already well known in South American circles for her role in the hip hop group Makiza, crashed ashore to Northern markets with the release of her third solo output La Bala. Like her work with Makiza, La Bala is a politically conscious album coming from a region that has seen its fair share of turmoil and upheveal. It might seem unlikely that the album would crossover to non-Spanish speakers, but its success in America and push from outlets like NPR, speaks to its incredible quality. Certainly for me, with my limited high-school Spanish skills, I still enjoyed the fuck out of this album in the early months of the year. La Balafeatures full-blooded production, sick beats that would make El-P blush, and amazing lyricism from Tijoux herself. Tijoux’s vocals are a particular highlight (even if us ‘Mericans can’t understand her words) due to her liquid flow, which volleys from delicate poise to righteous indictment.
Songs: “Desclasificado,” “La Cosas Por Sur Nombre”