Another year, another year-end music review from Recess. 2012 gave us a wide array of solid music, including an impressive selection from young electronic musicians (e.g. Shackleton, Holly Herndon and Laurel Halo) and many solid new albums from unironic rock groups (e.g. Japandroids, Swans and Ty Segall). Everyone’s already talking or talked about some of our favorites—Grizzly Bear, Frank Ocean, Beach House, the xx, Kendrick Lamar and Fiona Apple—so we figured we would use this space to talk about the albums that didn’t get as much notice. Obviously we can’t write about all of the albums we enjoyed listening to, so if your favorite’s not on here, go to our list online and add a comment. Without further ado, the Recess-approved albums of 2012:
Sharon Van Etten - Tramp
I first came across Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp because of the collaboration track “We Are Fine” featuring Beirut’s Zach Condon. After fifteen seconds I was completely stunned by both the creative simplicity of her compositions as well as the depth of emotion and pain in Van Etten’s cool, raspy voice. Her rough-edged folk plucks our idiomatically romantic heartstrings, and her cheerful ukuleles and melancholic harpsichord are played with an innovative style. Tramp left me seduced, nostalgic and optimistic. By exposing her own feelings of vulnerability, Van Etten creates a narrative that traverses heartbreak (with straightforward but poignant lyrics like “I am bad at loving”) followed by soft acceptance and finally resolution (“All I Can”). After its release in February, Tramp blew me away. Now in December I can still say its one of the best albums of 2012.
Actress - R.I.P.
2012 has been a lively year in electronic music. Producers new and old—from up-starts LHF and Jam City to veterans Shackleton and Andy Stott—released stellar albums that have pushed the boundaries of techno, house and bass. Yet in a year littered with great releases, Actress’ newest long-play R.I.P. stands out as the best of the bunch. Darren Cunningham’s work as Actress expertly deconstructs and reconciles elements of electro, hip-hop, house and techno. R.I.P. is oblique and challenging: half of the songs don’t have beats and most songs build to a climax and refuse to resolve. Tracks zoom in and out of consciousness, explore dark and smoke-filled environments. The explosive buildup of “Lord’s Graffiti” transports us to a gritty, underground club in Detroit. “IWAAD” with its violent kick-drums and foreboding vocal gasps could be the soundtrack to an apocalyptic, LSD-infused rave. “Shadow from Tartarus” has an other-worldly bass and is reminiscent of floating “in-limbo” a la Inception. Over R.I.P.’s 15-track narrative, Actress takes us to the grave and back, exposing us to sounds from the end of the world. If there’s any album to end 2012 with (or the world too), make it this one.
Holly Herndon - Movement
The litmus test of experimental electronic music is to create an atmosphere and a style that sound new without compromising excitement. In a year that overflowed with challenging electronic music, Holly Herndon, a PhD candidate at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, created the record that most tactfully balances the intellectual aims of the academy with the requirements of the dance floor. “Fade” is my favorite track of 2012—its multi-layered beats are choreographed to hive logic, though Herndon conjures just enough repetition to keep us centered. Every track of Movement explores a new facet of Herndon’s voice, and every vocal experiment, no matter how strange, is both fresh and listenable. Opener “Terminal” sounds as if Herndon composed music from the innards of humming ultrasound machines. I am still haunted by the computer manipulations of breathing patterns in “Breath,” and I’ve never heard a song quite like the guttural, choral hum of “Dilatto.” I don’t know how Herndon though any of it up, and I’m wildly impressed that she was able to make a collection of eccentric concept tracks into something danceable.
The Japandroids - Celebration Rock
Just like The White Stripes’ Elephant or The Kills’ Midnight Boom, Celebration Rock—the sophomore release by garage rock duo The Japandroids—makes more noise than two people should be capable of. Clocking in at a brief 35 minutes, the album is relentless in its raw energy and fire, channeling Tim-era Replacements and retaining the DIY punk rock production of their debut album Post-Nothing. The lyrics are earnest and without pretension—“Don’t we have anything to live for?/ Well of course we do/ But ‘til they come true, we’re drinking”—and they sound as anthemic as guitarist Brian King’s guitar riffs. The album is bookended by crackling fireworks, and fittingly so, because if Celebration Rock celebrates anything, it’s those fleeting, transient moments, perfectly encapsulated in their brevity, that replay in your memory like a favorite album.
Our Top Picks:
- Kendrick Lamar - g.o.o.d. kid, m.A.A.d city
- Beach House - Bloom
- Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
- Sharon van Etten - Tramp
- Grizzly Bear - Shields
- Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel...
- the xx - Coexist
- Shackleton - Music for the Quiet Hour / Drawbar Organ EPs
- Japandroids - Celebration Rock
- Holly Herndon - Movement
Tame Impala - Lonerism; Matthew E. White - Big Inner; Cat Power - Sun; Woods - Bend Beyond; The Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth