By Eli Geddis
It comes as no surprise that 2012 was another great year for music. After combing through and re-listening to the numerous albums I’ve heard in the past 12 months, I’ve put together this list of my favourites of the year. These are the albums that I found most meaningful and most effective at capturing the spirit of the year, both in the underground and on the surface.
10) Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
Leonard Cohen isn’t getting any younger, but in Old Ideas, his best album in, oh, 25 years, his growling old baritone seems renewed with a sense of vigour. After peppering around on his ‘90s synthesizers for the past two decades, Cohen seems to have finally re-realized that he’s one of the world’s greatest living artists, and he had better start acting the part again. What he has crafted is ten organic-sounding songs that bleed richly through the speakers, Cohen’s voice high in the mix. He sings, whispers and pontificates on those good ol’ subjects: mortality, spirituality, sex, and darkness.
Highlights: “Show Me The Place,” “Darkness.”
9) Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
All of my favourite hip hop albums either sound like the aural equivalent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory or an episode of HBO’s The Wire. Last year, Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne was pure ear candy. This year, Kendrick Lamar, a young hip hop artist from Compton, gets his hands a little dirty. He has released one of the most intriguing, innovative, and puzzling albums of the year. It’s framed as a concept album about a young version of Lamar getting caught up in street life in Compton, which allows Lamar to take some authorial distance from his lyrics. The narrator is naïve, self-deprecating, hormone-addled, funny, tragic, foul-mouthed and arrogant — like most teenagers, really. But the beats are immaculate, the lyrics nimble, and I can’t wait to see where he goes next.
Highlights: “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.”
8) Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
I came to the new Fiona Apple album without hearing much of her earlier output. Don’t blame me too hard. I was an eight-year-old boy when she was doing her modest victory laps after the success of her 1995 album Tidal. I wasn’t exactly her chief demographic. But don’t miss her new album, The Idler Wheel… regardless of how old you are (the full album title would take about two weeks of Vurb to fit). It’s a weird and brilliant take on the vulnerable singer-songwriter cliché. Apple outfits these ten songs with spare instrumentation, punchy and clangy acoustic percussion, and some of the best lyrics you’re going to hear all year. Listen to the few opening seconds of “Anything We Want,” and until Apple starts singing, you could swear you were listening to a lost Tom Waits tune.
Highlights – “Every Single Night,” “Werewolf.”
7) Plants and Animals – The End of That
This is why I love Canada. Montreal’s Plants and Animals have been tirelessly building up a solid following across the country since their debut album Parc Avenue in 2008. The sound and aesthetic of The End of That, their third release, is a bit rockier, a bit dirtier, than their first album, but cleaner and more coherent than their second. Vocalist Warren Spicer is in the best form of his life; not a trained singer, he wrings emotion out of the oddest syllabic places. The way he drags and lingers on the “s” sound in “feets,” and “hips,” all throughout the standout titular song, makes every line and moment something to look out for. Not only that, but their song “Crisis!” is probably the best song that I’ve seen performed live this year.
Highlights – “The End of That,” “Crisis!”
6) Godspeed You! Black
Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
The legendary Montreal post-rock collective is back, after going into “indefinite hiatus” back in 2002. Godspeed have always excelled at creating bleak but beautiful extended orchestral rock movements, mining both the extremes of extended silence and of noise. Their new album consists of four songs, two of which border on the 20-minute mark and meander from creaky ambience to full-blown feedback heaven. On “We Drift Like Worried Fire,” the band sets up a creeping, eerie note melody, and slowly drags it from a crumbling underground to joyous heights. It’s the type of album that you listen to loudly on headphones, and when your friends notice you staring into space and drooling, you just tell them not to worry because Godspeed is totally blowing your mind.
Highlights – “Mladic,” “We Drift Like Worried Fire.”
5) Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
This young rising R&B star and frequent Kanye West and Odd Future collaborator made some pleasantly shaped waves in the hip hop community this summer when he decided to come out as definitely not hetero via a tumblr post. This was a brave move — especially in a music scene that can often rightly be seen as homophobic or misogynistic — and his proper debut full-length is equally brave. He sidesteps the current pop craze sounds, wobbling bass lines, punching Euro-dance synths, and bestows his songs with a kind of crackling vinyl warmth. Ocean is a class act, if a self-contradicting one. His high register is irresistible, and he can curse and mutter obscenities in the most endearingly smooth voice. He offers seductive and reverent praise to both pronouns. It’s a full and rich album, and shouldn’t be missed.
Highlights – “Pyramids,” “Lost,” “Bad Religion.”
4) Snowblink – Inner Classics
Sometimes I listen to music and understand exactly how it was formed. One chord moves to the next, onto the next, and reliably back again. You can predict the next line’s direction from the one preceding it. And then there’s Inner Classics, a completely unexpected and understated little masterpiece. For the life of me, I can’t figure out Snowblink’s blueprint for these songs. Each successive movement, even on a line-by-line basis, seems to arise from some place unexpected. Daniela Gesundheit has a gorgeous voice that, paired with Dan Goldman’s slightly-reverbed guitar work, creates a magical, ethereal, pop-oriented selection of songs. In “Best-Loved Spot,” she builds an army of overdubbed voices that warp and swirl around each other, turning a seven-minute playtime into a brief and wondrous blur. It’s a crazy good album.
Highlights – “Best-Loved Spot,” “Inner Mini-Mississippi.”
3) Bob Dylan – Tempest
Can we actually say anything about Dylan that hasn’t been chewed around and spat out before? Didn’t think so. Here’s what you need to know about his newest album Tempest, released 50 (yes, 50!) years after his debut record in 1962: Dylan has mined the past century of pop culture to throw together as many clever allusions, borrowed lines, stolen obscure rock riffs, recycled trash, and guttural sardonic humour bits as he can fit into 68 minutes. Dylan rivals the most innovative rap artists with the sheer breadth of words included in this listen. Tempest is his best album in his most recent stage of “growling American troubadour,” and it’s certainly his darkest. This thing crackles with death, blood, vengeance, and at the bottom, a strange hint of bitter tenderness.
Highlights – “Long and Wasted Years,” “Pay in Blood.”
2) Wintersleep – Hello Hum
This is what you get when you strike the perfect balance between production and songcraft. Working with producer Dave Fridmann (the man behind many of the Flaming Lips’ best moments) this Nova Scotian band avoids so many of the pitfalls of “gone-electro” rock bands. Lead vocalist Paul Murphy, who quietly released an acoustic album of minor, beautiful folk tunes in 2009 under the name Postdata, has an amazing ear for songwriting, and the dazzling flourishes of Fridmann’s production only highlight these traits, instead of obscuring them. This is especially evident in the stomping pseudo-electric percussion of “Nothing is Anything (Without You)” and the inexplicable faux-windchimes in “Resuscitate.” These just should not work in a rock song, but somehow they do. And then, partway through the album, in “Saving Song,” all the production is whisked away, revealing a gorgeous bare-boned ballad, in which you can hear the rustles of the band members shifting around, somebody’s chair creaking.
Highlights – “In Came the Flood,” “Nothing is Anything (Without You),” “Saving Song.”
1) Patrick Watson – Adventures in Your Own Backyard
This Montreal-based experimental indie pop band, with their Jeff Buckley-esque falsetto coos, delicate piano work, oddbeat percussion, and classical influences, is one of the most innovative and quietly exciting Canadian acts currently recording. Patrick Watson snagged the Polaris Prize a few years back for their breakout album Closer to Paradise, and Adventures in Your Own Backyard continues this trend of general awesomeness. It is a bold, subtle, beautiful album of cabaret pop tunes, luscious strings, enthusiastic guitar work, driving delicate piano, and soaring vocals. It unfolds slowly — a significant statement in a year when any song lacking an EDM drop seemed to be immediately dismissed as archaic — and hovers in an area of loftiness, while still being more grounded than anything the group has done before. It’s the kind of album that can define a year by being the antithesis to it. It’s the kind of album that can belong to any year. And I’m glad this is the year it chose.
Highlights – “Into Giants,” “Blackwind.”