Tag Archives: 2012

My Favorite Releases of 2012

7 Jan

2012 has been a whirlwind year for music. It seems like everyone is releasing an album, going on tour, collaborating and then some. Perhaps it was the supposed “apocalypse.” Perhaps it was something in the water. Whatever it was, it was nearly impossible to get my list down to 10, 15 or even 20. Though I stopped at 25. I assure you I could have gone on longer.

Here are 25 lucky bands and artists that made it to the the top of my list. You can share questions, thoughts or your own list in the comment section below.

1. Menomena – Moms

For their first release as a duo, Menomena put forth one of the most emotionally honest albums of the year. Moms

touches on the effect of parental relationships and lack thereof (no pun intended). Danny Seim and Justin Harris, trade off storytelling throughout the ten-song effort. It’s dark, it’s brutally honest, and it’s a breath of fresh air for all parties involved. Be prepared to keep this in your record player for months.

2. Ben Kweller – Go Fly A Kite

After his last release, Changing Horses, it was unsure if Kweller would go pop, rock, or country. Instead, he went with all of the above. Go Fly A Kite, released on Kweller’s own label, The Noise Company, takes his best work and makes it better. Even the badass album packaging can’t hold a candle to just how great these songs are, but it is pretty cool to have a diorama record cover, complete with the chords for every song.

3. Cursive – I Am Gemini

Though Cursive is best known for their concept albums, I Am Gemini takes it to another level entirely. The story revolves around two twin brothers – one good, one evil – and carries out a story that you can’t look away from. Even better, Cursive pulled out all of the stops, bringing in Kasher’s theatrical-scoring background to really bring the story to life. This album is a must-have for any lit-nerd.

4. DZ Deathrays – Bloodstreams

Hailing from Brisbane, Australia, this dance punk band is no frills. Singer Shane Parsons will tear you in half with his gritty vocals, while drummer Simon Ridley pounds into his kit without apologies. With the clever use of pedal-work, these songs will catch you off-guard and keep you dancing for days on end.

5. Liars – WIXIW

Liars weren’t lying when they said this album was different. It’s their most atmospheric effort to date, and their experimentation paid off greatly. Somehow, it’s both soothing and driving at the same time. You won’t get bored of this album.

6. Hop Along – Get Disowned

Sometimes a band and it just clicks. This is the case for me with Hop Along (thanks to dear friend’s recommendation.) In their debut, the Philly-based trio put together an atmospheric alternative album that takes you from acoustic to rock and back. Singer Frances Quinlan’s raspy, perfectly imperfect vocals will steal your heart and keep you hanging on her every word. Do not miss out on this album or this band.

7. Wild Nothing – Nocturne

If you didn’t find yourself dancing to this album beneath dim lighting at a house party, you didn’t truly live this year. To put it best, Wild Nothing is the kind of band that would be on a John Hughes soundtrack if John Hughes were making “brat pack” movies nowadays with its equal parts of new wave, pop and synth-powered indie.

8. The Jealous Sound – A Gentle Reminder

Hopefully you’re lucky enough to know about The Jealous Sound. If not, it’s time for a formal introduction. A Gentle Reminder is so effortless, with all of their late 90’s/early 00’s indie rock charm, it’s as if the band never took a  ten-year hiatus after their debut full-length, Kill Them With Kindness. Most bands don’t have that kind of staying power, let alone enough to make a comeback. The Jealous Sound did it swinging.

9. Ceremony – Zoo

Ceremony is typically known for their more aggressive sound, but when the Bay Area-based group slowed it down, they didn’t become boring. Zoo is fast-paced without giving you whiplash. More importantly, the group pulls from a pool of influences and finds a creative way to blur lines between punk, hardcore and rockabilly without  feeling pretentious. Some claim this album is mediocre, I’ll politely decline. Not just anybody can get into my Top 10, okay?

10. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits

Divine Fits is a super group in its own right, consisting of Britt Daniel (Spoon), Sam Brown (New Bomb Turks), and Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade/Handsome Furs). Daniel and Boekner compliment each other so well, it doesn’t feel like a game of tug-of-war. The songs are no more like one than like the other, but their influence is obvious at every turn. The album is playful, sexy and every other adjective you imagine a good rock album should be.

11. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – The Heist

Seattle-based rapper, Macklemore, is everything a grass-roots musician should be: talented, artistic and  driven. With viral hits such as “Thrift Shop” and “Same Love,” Macklemore brings a much-needed voice of intelligence and awareness to hip-hop. He’s as quick as Jay-Z, as catchy as Kanye and as funny Dave Chappelle.  This isn’t your best friend’s hip-hop.

12. Sleigh Bells – Reign Of Terror

I never thought I’d place Sleigh Bells in my top ten, but it was hard to pick up anything music-related and not see an ad for Reign of Terror. Needless to say, I gave in. In short, Sleigh Bells features Alexis Krauss, a bad-ass little firecracker of a singer, with Derek Miller, former guitarist for Poison The Well, on guitar. Mix it up and you get something like hip-hop infused cheerleader shred rock. No bubblegum bullshit. It’s the mixture you never knew you were missing.

13. Sara Bareilles – Once Upon Another Time (EP)

Once Upon Another Time highlights some of Bareilles’ best work to date. Her voice packs a punch as she delivers emotionally charging lyrics. Even better, Bareilles blazes down a path all her own, separate from other pop singers entirely. These five songs will take listeners from a cappella cathedral to blues, from blues to pop, and then back again.

14. Why? – Mumps, Etc.

Why? isn’t known for their modesty, but more so for their crippling honest. It’s just what works for them. On Mumps, Etc., the group’s nucleus, Yoni Wolf, delivers cleverly-written lyric full of self-awareness, the art of aging with bitterness, and where to go when you’re not really sure what you’re doing anymore. If you still can’t visualize it, take poetry, throw in equal parts of sexual frustration, indie rock, hip hop and experimentation. Throw it in a blender, and you’ve got one of the best albums from this year.

15. Fiona Apple – Idler Wheel…

When Fiona Apple’s new album dropped, fans couldn’t help but rejoice – especially following all of the issues she was having with her label. Lucky for us, they released it. Idler Wheel… brings us a vision of Apple who’s as sharp as she’s ever been, orchestrating brilliant piano compositions alongside poetic grace. Her voice is stronger than ever, the lyrics cut a little deeper, and the songs sound more mature (complete with big band and  jazz influences.)

16. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse

Slaughterhouse is something between hi-fi grunge-punk and  lo-fi dance-punk. Compared to Ty Segall’s solo work, Slaughterhouse has layer and depth. Admittedly, it’s at its best when Segall’s voice isn’t completely fuzzed out. More importantly, it’s a ride through underground punk in 11 tracks. This is a definite recomendation to anyone how enjoys dancing in crowded, sweaty basements that smell of sweat and cheap beer.

17. Delta Spirit – Delta Spirit

In the four years since their debut, Delta Spirit has matured from a group of soulful, wide-eyed friends into men observing the world around them. Their third, self-titled album has proven that the band ages like a fine bottle of whiskey. Whether you’re seeking nostalgia, awareness or something else, this album will hold your attention. The album is up more than it’s down, but if you’re into songs that are as cinematic as they are rock n’ roll, this album is for you.

18. Two Gallants – The Bloom and The Blight

At times, you’d think that The Bloom and The Blight was more peaceful than previous releases. Au contraire. The quieter moments have more folk undertones, but when it gets loud, it tears into you with the force of heavy rock. Worry not, though. The sound is still very much Two Gallants.

19. Minus The Bear – Infinity Overhead

Minus The Bear has always known what their sound was. Even so, the group has transformed over the years without changing much at all.  Regardless, the group has found a way to blend previous experiments in more electronic sounds with their perfected skill in rock. Infinity Overhead might not be as sexually charged as OMNI, but it will still make you want to hop between the sheets with someone.

20. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory

At times, this eight-song doozie has the grunge appeal of Smashing Pumpkins. Other times, it feels like you’re listening to a clever fusion of The Vines and Real Estate. It might sound like a head-scratcher, but somehow, it works. Don’t question it. Simply put, Attack On Memory drips nostalgia, finding a way to bring some of rock’s most delicious moments back to life all at once.

21. The Mountain Goats  – Transcendental Youth

Transcendental Youth kicks off with the uplifting bang, “Army aka Spent Gladiator 1,” crying for anyone listening to “just stay alive.” This type of loving wisdom is what has kept The Mountain Goats around for so long. Darnielle’s excited strumming and modest vocals are shaped by Owen Pallett’s arrangements, making this album as full of life as Darnielle himself.

22. Maps & Atlases – Beware and Be Grateful

On their second full-length, it seems settled that Maps & Atlases have progressed traded in their multiple time signatures for harmonized vocals. And the truth is, they’re better for it. They’re staying relevant for their talent, not simply their ability to pull tricks out of their sleeve. The songs are more aware, more well rounded and, often times, more sincere.

23. New York City Queens – Burn Out Like Roman Candles

This Houston-based group worked tirelessly to write, record and produce their sophomore album. It’s composed tracks are both breezy and electrifying. This is the kind of rock that oozes promise of a bright, full future.

24. Tame Impala – Lonerism

Labeled as “neo-psychadelic,” Lonerism is the perfect soundtrack to smoke to. Once you get past the initial Beatles-inspired sounds and visualize something other than bell-bottoms or a laser show, you’ll find cleverly created pop melodies veiled in fuzz. The drums on Lonerism have a refreshingly clear compared to other modern-psych bands, and the guitar almost comes secondary to the bass groove and shimmering keyboards.

25. P.O.S – We Don’t Even Live Here

In his fourth effort, rock-hop artist POS takes his music to a new level. With beats that act as a cinematic backbone, his lyrics pack a one-two punch harder than ever before. The bass drum will make your heart race as artists such as Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Astronautalis are featured on tracks that tackle social issues across the board.

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Beyond Our Control: Why we’ll never avoid being cut by the double-edged sword of success in the music industry

26 Mar

The dust might finally be settling in Austin following its week-long occupation by SXSW-goers, but there’s still a buzz around what was seen there. And while Austin’s locals are still shaking their fists and telling us not to move there, I’m sure someone is currently roaming the “Help Wanted” ads hoping to high-tail it into the so-called Music Capitol of the World.

Nevertheless, Houston is only a stone’s throw from Austin, and our local music scene and city pride is just as strong – just without the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign featuring that eye-sore of a font.

So I wasn’t very surprised when Chris Gray, Editor of Houston Press’ music section, wrote an article reflecting on how the heart of SXSW Music has somehow become covered in Doritos cheese-flavored dust.

Now, more than ever, SXSW has become one big walking (or driving) advertisement. Nearly every surface in Downtown Austin is wrapped in saran wrap (to cut down on the time and cost of removing stickers and posters), while pretty much every official showcase is “hosted” by someone. And whether it’s Sony handing out free breath-mints and koozies, or Taco Bell hooking up with MTV, you’ll be hard-pressed to close your eyes and remember an object that wasn’t covered in ads.

And while Gray hit the nail on the head with that one, he got me thinking about how the music industry, not just SXSW, has changed in general.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to make it out to the entire festival this year, but I did get to go to the showcase that fun. played at Stubb’s on Friday night with Delta Spirit and The Drums. I saw crowds come and go for each band, but I distinctly remember getting irritated with the hundreds of people that cleared out as soon as their latest single, “We Are Young,” finished.

To some, the fickle crowd might have been caused by something many would call “selling out,” but in my eyes, it only furthered my growing resentment for those people who chew bands up and spit them out.

When “We Are Young” debuted in September 2011, it entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 53, but quickly became just another great song by fun. that I would appreciate alone in my car. However, the cast of Glee covered it on an episode in December, and people took notice of it – including Chevrolet, who used the track on their Superbowl commercial.

In 2008, fun. was formed by lead singer Nate Ruess due to the demise of his former band, The Format. He asked partners Jack Antonoff of Steel Train and Andrew Dost of Anathallo, two bands he’d toured with, to embark on the journey.

The group’s debut (and only other release), Aim and Ignite, featured “Walking the Dog” – which was later used in an Expedia commercial. For Ruess and Antonoff, it was the first time that a band they were part of had seen any kind of commercial success.

So while Gray might not have intentionally suggested this in his article, it got me thinking about how often the term “sellout” is thrown around by fans, critics and musicians alike. Perhaps it’s my inner-optimist, or the fact that I love to see people find success doing what they love, but I tend to avoid the word at all costs. More importantly, I would never say that a band like fun. wasn’t deserving of their single making it to #1 on the Billboard charts, no matter how it got there. Then again, I’m only one person.

So now I’m left wondering what exactly makes a band deserving or undeserving of their success. Is it simply because their music is played on the radio, or used by outside companies? Is it any group that signs a recording contract that will allow for their music to be licensed out, or is it something else entirely?

In recent years, I’ve noticed more and more indie bands being used for things like movie previews and promoting sales at Old Navy. Maybe it’s just a trend, but can we really get mad at a band if their record company requires bands to license their music in exchange for money to record their album? Or what about the fact that we’re in a recession, and indie artists might be cheaper than Top 40 artists? And have you ever stopped to consider that indie film-makers are more interested in bands from Barsuk or Saddle Creek than Warner Music Group?

The truth is that indie bands can license their catchiest tunes for years and go completely unnoticed. If you don’t believe me, you must not be a big Mates of State fan. They’ve been featured in commercials, movies and TV shows over the last ten years, yet they’re still only playing in small-to-medium sized venues.

Then there are bands like Matt & Kim. Six years ago I was telling everybody they would blow up (and getting laughed at in the process), but I won’t lie when I say that their success surprised even me when they won an MTV Woodie award for their “Lessons Learned” video in 2010. I’m just happy to admit that they’ve never changed, and I doubt they ever will.

Truth be told, they were the only reason I went to SXSW in the first place, and now I couldn’t get into their shows if I tried.

Sure, I could hang my head and mope about how I’ll never get to chance to see Matt & Kim play to 50 people the way I did in 2008, but I’d much rather see hundreds of people smiling and dancing then walking away shouting that they deserve more credit.

Music isn’t a selfish thing. And as both a journalist, fan, and rational person, I can’t find a better word to describe people that complain about “selling out” than “hypocrite.” If you like a band enough to support them, you obviously like them enough to tell people to listen to them. If you’re telling people to listen to them, you can’t really be surprised when word gets out and they’re climbing the charts and suddenly playing sold-out shows in Europe.

I stand with Gray when he openly expresses hope that bands aren’t writing songs with the intent of being featured on commercials, but in this day in age, bands are lucky to be heard at all. Sure, local music scenes will always support their own, but the truth is that attention spans have diminished to the point where listening to an album in its entirety is virtually unheard of. Instead, it’s cheaper and easier to consume one song via iTunes for .99 cents than it is to splurge for the entire album, that is, if you’re lucky enough to get people to pay for your music at all.

I’m glad that I’ve got men and women like Gray on my side who refuse to let the music industry fold to corporations looking to hawk off their latest inventions, but I will say that we need to re-evaluate how we view and value success.

The concept of being a rock-star isn’t new, but if bands are constantly waiting for daggers to be thrown at their backs every time they do something that gets even whisper of attention, what’s the point of making or listening to music? And conversely, if they’re expecting fans and critics to start name-calling at all, what’s stopping them from embracing that stigma and slapping their music to any and every ad they’re offered?

Sure, we can argue that art is made to allow the artist to express oneself, but like paintings and sculptures in museums, the best bands will find their way into the public’s eye whether they’re trying to or not. And if someone could tell me how a 30-second clip of a song is “less legitimate” than the entire track being played on a radio station, I’d love to hear it.

So here’s my advice: if you like the music someone’s making, then enjoy it, recommend it, sing and dance along to it. If you’re making music, take advice from Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.

The duo, which also includes Patrick Carney, once turned down $130,000 that would have allowed for their song to be featured in a British mayonnaise commercial, and they say they’ll never turn down money again.

“That would have paid my rent for two years,” Auerbach told Spin. “It’s almost insulting to my mom, who works every day teaching kids and doesn’t get paid shit. As long as your art is pure, who cares where it is?”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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