Greetings, Flagpole faithful! It’s that wonderful time again where everyone in America who’s listened to more than ten new albums this year decides to write a top ten list, and I’ll be damned if I’m the exception. 2012 was a great year for strange, confusing, and challenging music, and kind of a crappy one for mainstream rock and pop (T. Swift and Carly Rae excepted). I swear to God if I never hear “Somebody That I Used to Know” or anything by fun. ever again, it’ll be too soon.
But no reason to be a negative nancy—we’ll leave that to the Pitchforks and Spin Magazines of the world—when there’s so much positive to write about. If you’re like me, and you’re always on the lookout for something new, something different, something that will make your friends say “You like this? Really!?! ” then here are a handful of 2012 releases that might be right up your alley.
Just Missed the Cut:
Demdike Stare – Elemental Pts. 1 & 2
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel . . .
TNGHT – TNGHT EP
Mouse on Mars – Parastrophics
Honorable Mention #3: Crystal Castles – III
Crystal Castles have always been a dour proposition. No matter how danceable their beats get (and they do), there is an inescapable sense of danger and even malevolence to their music. III is something akin to looking at the duo’s fractured, psychotic sound under frosted glass. A heavy, cough-syrup fog drenches producer Ethan Kath’s prickly electronics and renders his aggressive beats plodding and sluggish, giving rise to terrifying sonic monsters like “Kerosene” and cracked-out, torrential blitzkriegs like “Insulin” in more-or-less equal measure. Vocalist Alice Glass’s haunting, banshee vocals and darkly sensual presence are cocooned in massive, cumulonimbus cloudbanks of ominous bass and glitchy feedback, and even the album’s least unnerving songs (“Affection,” “Child I Will Hurt You”) are largely swallowed up by its spooky vibe. These songs play like they were written for (or during?) the end times; the soundtrack to a violent, anarchic world where technology has either failed us completely, or risen up to become our unmerciful master. Crystal Castles may allow hope, and even love, to occasionally peek through the gloom, but only cursorily, so as to better make clear their banishment. This is a band seeking to embrace the darkness, not escape it.
Honorable Mention #2: Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
I finally saw Dirty Projectors live in 2012, after years of admiring their bizarre, vocal pilates from afar, and the simplicity of their stage setup was astounding. In an age when singers both good and bad utilize autotune, vocoders, and a variety of other vocal manipulations to achieve their own distinctive ends, Dave Longstreith, Amber Coffman, and Angel Deradoorian belt out their trademark yowls and octave leaps with no such assistance. Their voices really are that strong… and that strange. Swing Lo Magellan finds the DPs stripping down to basics, foregrounding those breathtaking vocals and letting the oddball arrangements that defined their breakthrough masterpiece Bitte Orca, shift slightly outside the spotlight. The title track is a lovely neo-folk ditty with an uncommonly friendly melody for a band that often traffics in willful obtuseness, and many of these tunes, particularly “Dance for You” and “Impregnable Question” speak heartfelt words of love and devotion. Longtime fans need not worry, however. There’s still plenty of quirky, dissonant fun to be had here too (“Maybe That was It,” “The Socialites”). By the time you reach the touching, melancholic closing track “Irresponsible Tune,” it’s clear that Dirty Projectors, despite finding some improbable mainstream success, are still more than willing to push boundaries, augment expectations, and keep tinkering with their already insanely playful sound. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they do next.
Honorable Mention #1: D’eon – LP
Nova Scotian singer/producer Chris D’eon managed to fly pretty far under the radar this year despite crafting a semi-precious gem of an album that seems to perpetually blossom and expand into new territory with each passing moment of its nearly 80-minute runtime. D’eon expands on the 80’s soft-pop throwback work done by Bon Iver and Destroyer in recent years, but with a painterly stroke and a flurry of poly-rhythmic electronics that could be just as sonorously pleasing as instrumentals. These songs meander through elysian fields of casio, drawing on the ephemeral blips and arpeggial flourishes of classic new age artists like Yanni and Ray Lynch (standouts include the epic “Now You Do,” and the entrancing “Virgin Body,” which features D’eon’s feathered falsetto). His vocals and lyrics are deeply reminiscent of Peter Gabriel, which is all that many people will need to hear to pre-decide their feelings on this record, but the similarity feels natural and unavoidable, not calculated or practiced, and anyone who dismisses D’eon as nothing more than an imitator is doing both the artist, and themselves a disservice.
10.) Liars – WIXIW
Liars may be the most appropriately named musical act working today. Every time you think you’ve got a bead on who they are and what they’re about, they change things up on you. They cannot be trusted, and that’s a great thing. Transitioning to a more stable, electronics-based sound on this, their sixth album, Liars can still be counted on for a few of their trademark eccentricities—the monk-mantra vocals, the dark, dystopian sensibility—but WIXIW (roughly pronounced “wish you”) features some of the most song-like songs Liars has ever written. Turning traditional pop structures on their heads, this music is tough to categorize. The catchy “No. 1 Against the Rush” (well, catchy by Liars standards, anyway) features a repeated, plinky-plunky electro-xylophone run, and approaches something that might be called post-new wave. “A Ring on Every Finger,” similarly, recalls both Depeche Mode and The Talking Heads just enough to lull you into a false sense of security, before launching the listener into much less familiar, or definable territory. “His and Mine Sensations” is the band’s druggiest, most upbeat song in recent memory (you could even dance to it, if you were so inclined), and immediately following that is “Flood to Flood,” a murky, high-stepping march to industrial war. If all this sounds daunting, take heart; WIXIW is a more polished, and more approachable animal than anything Liars have done since their 2006 landmark Drum’s Not Dead. They may be unpredictable, from album to album, and even song to song, but that just makes them all the more fun to figure out, and it’s what allows them to remain enthroned in the elite, upper echelons of truly fearless indie rock.
9.) Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes
The follow-up to 2010’s manic, infinitesimally extrapolated “Cosmogramma,” Until the Quiet Comes is a much calmer, subtler affair, while managing to not sacrifice an ounce of FlyLo’s virtuosic intricacy and attention to detail. This is an album meant for a midnight drive through a neon-bathed metropolis, or a pensive spacewalk in the embrace of zero gravity. Sultry female voices regularly invade the shadows cast by the artist’s cold, calculated production, beckoning the listener into the darker, stiller recesses of his mind. This album breathes, where his previous work could largely be described as breathless. If Cosmogramma was a Jackson Pollock-style soundgasm splattering off into a million different directions, Until the Quiet Comes is a Buddhist sand painting; a meditative journey with a centered, fine-point stability. If Cosmogramma carried us deep inside the tangled, interlocking, staticky bowels of our modern, industrial state, then Until the Quiet Comes zoomed out to a stratospheric orbit and showed us the spotless, seamless framework as a whole. But most of all, if Cosmogramma was for many, a work of impenetrable chaos (personally I loved it, but I know many people who found it too obtuse), then Until the Quiet Comes may be the album that less seasoned listeners someday see as an entryway into this enigmatic artist’s muddled, magisterial world.
8.) Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin – Instrumental Tourist
Instrumental Tourist is a collaboration between architect of digital monoliths Tim Hecker, and Daniel Lopatin (AKA Oneohtrix Point Never), the closest equivalent to a Renaissance master that the world of electronic music has produced thus far. The interplay of these two artists—who might seem similar at the surface-level, but ultimately operate from very counter-opposed ideologies—is fascinating. Many tracks find Hecker’s harsher, more structured tones attempting to reign in the freeform, half-dissolved machinations of Lopatin’s inexhaustible mind, not unlike the small handful of combative recordings between Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane (the former an intractable perfectionist, the latter an unwieldy, untamable genius). Indeed, the weakest tracks on this record are the ones in which the pair find common ground and drift into the calm waters of the incidental (“Vaccination,” for example, sounds like little more than the eerie background tones associated with bad sci-fi), but those moments are few and far between, and are a small price to pay for the pleasure of listening to Lopatin, a songbird in flight, bump up against Hecker’s dark, obsidian walls and course-correct as fast as he can erect new ones. These two are heavyweights of modern electronica engaging in a contentious, musical chess match, and who the winner is, is entirely up to the listener.
7.) Hundred Waters – Hundred Waters
Hundred Waters make pastoral, electronics-embroidered folk belonging to the same ethereal realm inhabited by the likes of Joanna Newsom, Julianna Barwick and even Enya (this music has more than a little new age bubble to it), but with a playful sonic palette and pixiedust magic that suggests something more visionary and unique (think Bjork meets tUnE-yArDs). The Florida quartet’s self-titled debut plays like a very private, primitive dance party, staged within the confines of a fairy toadstool ring, with a mirrorball suspended from the starry sky overhead, very much by magic. “Visitor” employs a gorgeous, crystalline melody that rises and falls in luxurious waves, cradling frontwoman Nicole Miglis’s delicate voice like a fallen leaf resting on a spiderweb. “Thistle” is a ritualistic, crepuscular chant, calling out mellifluously to nameless goddesses of nature and fertility amidst shafts of forest light, while “Theia” gives those same, forgotten deities name, and rejoices in their ever-evolving creation. Discovered and signed by Skrillex of all people, these exquisite recordings fit together like a prism of stained glass, reflecting every spectrum of visible light into the world via song.
6.) Swans – The Seer
Swans are a tough sell. I don’t care who you are. There is a certain sadomasochistic tendency that must exist within a person before he or she even attempts to wade into their sprawling discography, and only still-darker desires can spur one onward to explore it fully. To put it simply: you have to want to like this band. They’ll give you nothing for free. Swans’ earliest feats of nihilism (Cop, Filth, Greed) churn with the kind of grinding, seizure-inducing proto-noise one imagines being played for hours on end at Abu Ghraib to torture confessions out of terrorists. Their more recent material bathes in the blood of virginal sacrifice and ritual suicide, soaking in man’s worst impulses and repackaging them into a kind of sonic anti-beauty. The Seer, the latest unholy expression of Swans mastermind Michael Gira’s tortured soul, is a crushing, exhausting behemoth—it spans two discs and features three different tracks that top 19 minutes—that lumbers through smoldering fields strewn with military wreckage and war-dead; that amplifies the screams of broken men shivering at the bottoms of oubliettes; that sounds the horn of fate and ushers in the next dark age. No band more potently expresses the thoughts and emotions that regular people dare not name. Swans are fear. Swans are pain. Swans are a nightmare come to life. Enter at your own risk.
5.) Pepe Deluxe – Queen of the Wave
Queen of the Wave is what I always imagined the inside of Quentin Tarantino’s head must sound like. A constant, propulsive jumble of funky basslines, trilling psych-folk flutes, loungey tropicalia, acid jazz horns, analog synthesizer dreamscapes, French girl-pop giggling, surf-style shredding and any number of other bits and baubles of 60’s and 70’s kitchen sinksmanship. Indeed, “add contents and stir well” seems to be Pepe Deluxe’s modus operandi on their criminally cool fourth album, and while the long-suffering Finnish electronic duo certainly blend all their nostalgic tics together with airtight, modern production work, and employ a number of extremely esoteric, modern instruments (the Tesla Coil Synthesizer, Edison’s Ghost Machine, the Psychical Predictor, and the Great Stalactite Organ—the world’s largest instrument, located in the Luray Caverns of Virginia), they have crafted an album steeped in the grainy, gritty cool of 50 years ago. A cratedigger’s wet dream, this album cartwheels and somersaults with abandon from idyllic flower power (“Queenswave,” “Temple of the Unfed Fire,” “Contain Thyself”) to rip-roaring garage rock (“A Night and a Day,” “Go Supersonic,” “Hesperus Garden”) cherry-picking the hippest elements of the hippest genres of the hippest decades in music. The result is, by leaps and bounds, the most fun record I listened to all year.
4.) Raglani – Real Colors of the Physical World
St. Louis electronic composer Raglani is unconcerned with marketability. Calling to mind the groundbreaking work done on electronica cult favorite Nuno Canavarro’s Plux Quba, Raglani’s pieces progress in the manner of shapeshifting amoebae, melting and folding in on each other like liquid mobius strips, or sifting desert dunes in a shadowy, twilit wind. “Fog of Interruption” is symphonic in scope, able to dip in and out of movements on a dime, slipping from orgiastic cacophony to meditative euphony in a single, elusive moment. “Terrain of Antiquity” builds slowly, with all the dread and menace of Godspeed You Black Emperor!’s most epic, post-rock dirge, but instead of devolving into an inundating sea of guitar feedback, it ascends into the cataclysmic heavens—a rickety, digital spacecraft, buffeted about by asteroids amidst the eternal destruction and recreation of the cosmos—and breaks through to the other side like Clarke’s star child, seeing something beyond, touching the infinite. The 3rd and 4th tracks clock in at just over 5 minutes apiece, creating a severe dichotomy between them and the album’s opening two numbers, and establishing an organizational kinship with other imbalanced classics of psychedelia like Sleep’s Dopesmoker or Pharoah Sanders’s Karma. Toss in the flat-out craziest album cover of 2012, and you’ve got a record that should be soundtracking acid trips and 4/20 parties for years to come.
3.) Coin Locker Kid – The Ghost Sonata
2012 proved a rap resurgence of sorts after 2011 was, in this critic’s opinion, a terrible year for hip-hop. 2012 however, that was the stuff. 2012 saw Gift of Gab and Aesop Rock, my two favorite working MC’s, both release tongue-twisting, asthma-inducing new records, along with other young luminaries like P.O.S. and Action Bronson adding to their growing bodies of work. 2012 found me reconsidering my opinion of budding star Kendrick Lamar, whose game-changing good kid, m.A.A.d. city may someday be thought of as this generation’s Illmatic. Hell, I even dug some of the sillier stuff from 2012, like Atlanta trap-rapper Future’s hilarious anthem “Same Damn Time” and 19-year-old Floridian Kitty Pryde’s adorable “OKcupid.” 2011 may have been the year hip-hop went all in on lo-fi, but 2012 was the year it figured out how to do it right, and even as all of the above-mentioned activity was afoot, it was the virtually unknown, experimental wordsmith Coin Locker Kid (also of Quakers) whose bandcamp-released The Ghost Sonata most thoroughly captured my hip-hop attentions. Working with just a sampler and his own somber, supple poetry, this mysterious figure has crafted an engrossing musical statement, pulling from jazz, electronica, and tribal and ceremonial musics from around the globe. Equally adept at singing, spoken word, and spitting rhymes, he delivers his lyrics in hushed, hypnotic tones, and comes across like the blessed lovechild of Shabazz Palaces and Prince Rama. The result is a half-spooky, half-spiritual journey into the psyche of a fascinating new talent.
2.) Roomful of Teeth – Roomful of Teeth
The experimental acapella group Roomful of Teeth thrive in the spaces where most human voices will never travel. They push their vocal chords out of normal ranges and into loftier, more precarious heights, extrapolating some of the vocal trickery explored by Meredith Monk, or the band listed at Honorable Mention #2, and carrying it to its logical conclusion. What lyrics they’ve written are sparse and willfully oblique, but ensconced in the group’s velvety, cathedral tones and operatic incantations they take on a more mystical significance. “Montmartre” is a multi-tiered labyrinth of tuvan throat singing, yodeling, and offbeat, criss-crossing harmonies in unusual time signatures. “4 Pieces: 4 Pieces: No. 3. Courante” is a gorgeous, swirling, wordless hymn that moves forward with the momentum of a steam train to heaven, powered by its passengers’ rhythmic, final breaths. “4 Pieces: 4 Pieces: No. 1. Allemande” swings between cavernous, harmonic droning and densely layered speaking voices that call to mind some of The Books’ more memorable sampling experiments (despite being 100% acapella). Even setting all the technical skill aside, however, these songs still hum with a supernatural power. It’s easy to imagine them being performed arm-in-arm while their creators reverently encircle Stonehenge, or dance wildly on the beaches of Easter Island. Unlike anything else I heard this year, these prodigious, precocious choir folk are redefining the term “vocal gymnastics.” This is something closer to vocal Cirque du Soleil.
1.) Black Dice – Mr. Impossible
In the still-early years of the new millennium, there is already such an onslaught of new music being birthed into the world every day that it can begin to feel a bit overwhelming. The more specialized technology allows us to get—the freer we become to pick and choose what we actually like, as opposed to just listening to what’s “popular” (an increasingly irrelevant term)—the easier it becomes to zip right past objectively huge albums in favor of one’s own preferences. I’ve already praised Kendrick Lamar, and I was quite taken with new offerings from Fiona Apple, Beach House, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor this year as well, but when your job is to keep up with new music, you reach a point where an album has to be something really special—something that doesn’t sound quite like anything else you’ve ever heard before—to catch your ear and earn more than one or two repeat listens. There just isn’t time to give everything its proper due. And so, as I compiled this list, I realized that the only album I’d listened to well over a dozen times this year was Brooklyn experimental electro-noise outfit Black Dice’s cerebellum-melting Mr. Impossible, a bruising, abrasive masterpiece of auditory deconstruction that will make you question the very definition of the word music. I had the distinct pleasure of getting my eardrums ruptured by these guys in Atlanta over the summer, and watching them hunched over their souped-up, spliced-together circuitry boards—each one the size of a foozball table—twisting knobs, pushing faders, triggering samples, making adjustments with instinctive alacrity, I was utterly transported. This is music so forward-thinking it makes one wonder if its creators have traveled back through time to deliver it to us from some distant, hellish future. Black Dice are ostensibly playing with the same kinds of sounds many electronic artists delve into these days—factory clatter, Nintendo bleeps and bloops, dubstep squelch—but they distort them to such dizzying effect it’s as if your brain is listening through funhouse mirrors. This music morphs outward and congeals inward, it wiggles into tight corners and then, just when you think its got nowhere left to go, it explodes through walls to explore whole new spaces you didn’t even know it was approaching. With the possible exception of #6 on this list, it is as challenging an album as you’ll hear all year. Singling out individual tracks is virtually pointless. Mr. Impossible must be experienced in its entirety to be appreciated, and even then, it’ll likely take more than a dozen times through.
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