Welcome to my list of good and not so good new music for 2012. As usual I have to add a ginormous qualifier: Most of the music I met in 2012 was, as usual, not made in 2012. So, as usual, the list isn’t exactly long, especially given how easy it is for us to listen to new music nowadays via the interweb. What follows is a list of new music that I heard in 2012, that was released – not necessarily recorded in 2012. Like my previous lists it is ranked in relative order but features absolute ratings.
1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor: ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (9/10)
I love this, and so I have a dilemma.
1. Scott Walker: Bish Bosch (9/10)
3. Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do (9/10)
I think at some point every good singer songwriter owes their audience a stripped-down record, so we can see the songs as they might have been in demos, so we can see the songs as they might be without the dressings. I guess this is Apple’s version of it, though it still has production touches that would hardly put it in the tradition of something like Plastic Ono Band or Nebraska.
Without the idiosyncratic production of her last album we are allowed to see the idiosyncratic songs and new levels of honesty in her performances (particularly on “Regret”). You can’t go wrong with good songs performed well. This is pretty much what a singer songwriter record is supposed to sound like.
4. John Zorn: The Gnostic Preludes (8/10)
This is gorgeous music that feels both modern and eternal. And though it is hardly Zorn at his most radical, I don’t think that’s bad in this case.
Zorn has created a series of compositions that fit together as if they were eight parts of one thought and there is no need for obvious extremism or atonality when you’ve got such compelling melodies and compositional intricacy. I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff, I must admit.
5. Hilary Hahn and Hauschka: Silfra (8/10)
6. The Mars Volta: Nocturniquet (8/10)
If it’s possible for a group as progressive as the Mars Volta to record a pop album well, this is it. Read the rest of the review.
7. Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan (8/10)
Swing Lo Magellan seems to continue the accessible-yet-idiosyncratic production and arrangements of later Dirty Projectors (I’m guessing). The compelling thing for me with this music is that you really don’t know what he’s going to do next (on first listen anyway). One song has barely any instruments at all beyond the human voice and what sounds like a drum machine, but it is not as “pop” as it should sound and is a huge improvement over the vocal-overdub obsessed ‘urban’ music it should conceivably follow. Some of the songs are perhaps a little too straightforward compared to some of their other music, but on the whole it is impeccably made and the strength of the production keeps me from worrying too much about whether or not the songs are actually any good.
8. Jack White: Blunderbuss (8/10)
What I said at the time: I don’t know what people were expecting but all I can say is that hype is a terrible thing.
Additional Thoughts: I can’t say I remembered much of the material by the time I saw White live in October, but that doesn’t mean all that much. It made me happy despite not being anywhere near as radical as I might have hoped.
9. Failure Epics (8/10)
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard something via Exclaim‘s ClickHear that I could get excited about. I can get excited about this.
Yes, it’s pretty scatter-shot. But that is part of its charm. It embraces a whole whack of genres, each of which I like (or at least don’t mind).
The band has chops. (Imagine that, a band featured on Exclaim! with chops…that wasn’t very nice of me as it does happen…only it feels like less than once a month.)
Call it prog-something, call it post-something, it doesn’t matter. It’s good. And it’s inventive.
And that’s what we should be looking for and celebrating. Not bands that find a style from the past that they like and wear it like it’s their own. This is more like it.
10. Weasel Walter, Mary Halvorson, Peter Evans: Mechanical Malfunction (8/10)
Three world class improvisers just going balls-out. Really fun.
11. Leonard Cohen: Old Ideas (7/10)
What I said at the time: Cohen is one of the few major songwriters from the 60s that I have somehow managed to avoid (not on purpose) so I am hardly the guy to put this in its proper place. I don’t really know where it sits in his catalogue. That being said:
The songs are pretty strong and the arrangements are usually tasteful and restrained enough not to interfere. I know Cohen’s voice and don’t have issues with it (occasionally he reminds me of a lower Dylan during a particular phrase). The one general issue I have with some of his songs is the over-use of biblical cliches, but they are at least over-used better than most other songwriters would over-use them.
Additional Thoughts: As I noted, I really can’t comment on this as a Leonard Cohen release, and that makes me sad. If you would like to lend me your Leonard Cohen albums, you would make me happy.
12. Regina Spektor: What We Saw from the Cheap Seats (7/10)
What I said at the time: On the whole I like this. Just idiosyncratic enough for me. On occasion she sounds too much like the offspring of Bjork and, in her quieter moments, like Joanna Newsom, not that that’s a bad thing.
Additional Thoughts: My liking this seems, to me, proof that I am mellowing out with age. I am regularly disturbed by my contemporaries mid-life embrace of safe and popular music and yet I find myself doing the same thing thing (not that this is exactly super popular or superduper safe). What happens to us? Where does our passion for Art with a capital A go? By that I mean: art that offends, that breaks with convention, that makes us think as much as it makes us feel, that causes us to lose sleep, etc. Where does this need to love artistic rebellion go? And why do we replace it with acceptance of the trite? I miss teenage Riley and his immature snobbery.
13. Kelan Philip Cohran and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (7/10)
14. Laurel Halo: Quarantine (7/10)
Normally I don’t like most things labeled ambient because I find them way too samey.
But there’s enough going on here to make it actually interesting and worth repeat listens. I’m inclined to call this mis-labeled, since it certainly doesn’t fit Eno’s conception of ambient music. But the other labels applied to it don’t really fit either (this is what we’re calling synth pop now? Okay…).
Regardless, this is musically interesting, which is all I want out of electronic-based music, but which I rarely get to hear.
Additional Thoughts: I seem to remember liking it well enough.
15. The Darcys: AJA (7/10)
Better than the original. (He didn’t really say that, did he?!?!?) Read the review.
16. The Zilis: Sketches (7/10)
Yet another Hamilton band I imagined to be completely unaware of while living there.
17. Every Time I Die: Ex Lives (7/10)
What I said at the time: So this is pretty standard “metalcore” (I feel like I should make a joke) but it’s still right up my alley. I can’t help myself, even though I feel like I’ve heard this sound a million times by now, I still can’t help but like it. It helps that the lyrics are above average for this subgenre and genre as a whole and it helps that there is a little variation as compared to some of their contemporaries.
Additional Thoughts: None. I don’t remember it.
18. John Hiatt: Mystic Pinball (7/10)
19. Bleating Hearts (7/10)
What I said at the time: Apparently these guys are not to be confused with an ’80s band with a very similar name.
I like the aesthetic despite the utter lack of originality (I am a sucker for horns) and can’t help thinking that with repeated listens I would really, really like this, even though everything is really too obvious and easy to be considered outstanding or remarkable.
20. Heavy Steps: You, Conduit (7/10)
What I said at the time: Though this sort of reeks of indie pop cliches, there is enough going on to make it worth multiple listens. The hooks are decent (would you expect anything less from indie pop?) and the arrangements, though quirky, are effective and not over-done.
21. Various Artists: Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan (6/10)
This is, I guess, a fitting tribute to the greatest English-language singer-songwriter of the second half of the twentieth century (of the whole century? of any language?). It is extremely vast, though that is appropriate, as there are over 70 songs. The problem with all tribute albums, but especially one that attempts to deal with so much of such a large oeuvre, is that this is really hit and miss. The music falls into several categories:
22. The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends (6/10)
I want to make some kind of Supernatural joke but I can’t come up with one.
23. Kurt Elling: 1619 Broadway: the Brill Building Project (6/10)
I am not a fan of Brill Building pop in general and not a fan of vocal jazz either. But I can at least admire this, even if it is a pretty idiosyncratic selection of “Brill Building” stuff. (I feel like just because songwriters associated with the style wrote the song, doesn’t mean the song was in the style; see for instance “Pleasant Valley Sunday”.) Anyway…
Elling’s interpretations are at least interesting and even vocal jazz bugs me I can’t help but admire taking such an off-kilter approach to “On Broadway,” to pick one of the most famous songs here. It’s the whackiness of these covers that makes them listenable. This still isn’t converting me to vocal jazz, but at least it’s not MOR shit.
24. Rococode: Guns, Sex and Glory (6/10)
What I said at the time: Listening to and liking interesting music doesn’t always entail making interesting music. Case in point: Rococode.
There are tons of ideas going on under the surface: the time signatures are often extraordinarily wacky (for pop rock), there are both obvious and not so obvious breakdowns that violate pop rock rules / conventions, and little vamps that go on too long. Someone in this band likes interesting music. Maybe the whole band.
The problem is that their desire to write hooks and / or their desire to have people sing along with them (and really, I have no idea where this desire comes from: “all I want to do when I grow up is write catchy music!”) overwhelms the clear interest in Interesting Music.
So, while this should be miles beyond everyday pop rock, it isn’t. It’s stuck pandering to people who would be alienated by what’s under the service through hooks and lyrics that don’t make you think.
25. Baby Eagle and the Proud Mothers: Bone Soldiers (6/10)
What I said at the time: Way too much like Built to Spill (and some other indie / alternative band I can’t place) but that’s okay with me. I’d rather listen to this than a lot of the other stuff I come across on Exclaim.
26. The Wooden Sky: Every Child a Daughter, Every Moon a Sun (6/10)
What I said at the time: I saw these guys in August ’11 at the Wolfe Island Music Festival, and though I wouldn’t say they were the best band there, they did provide the highlight of the festival. At one point, the lead singer turned to the rest of the band and told them to do a different version of this song (I don’t remember if he just said “electric” or something more apt like “crazy”). The performance was extraordinarily frantic and nothing like the rest of their set. At two points during the song the bass player was playing his bass with just one hand, while he played a melodica in unison with the band’s fiddle. The whole thing was pretty awesome.
Unfortunately, this album sounds like the rest of their set: typical indie roots rock. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s not bad at all. I generally like this. It’s just that it sounds like so many other bands, there isn’t really anything that stands out. There isn’t that moment I had during the WIMF when I was like “Whoa, this is awesome.” It’s a shame that moment is all I have.
Additional Thoughts: That performance was now a year ago last August but I still remember it fondly. I just wish they could convey that manic intensity on record.
27. Lamb of God: Resolution (6/10)
What I said at the time: Well, unlike some metal bands they actually try the odd different thing…within limits. It’s hot to hear something so lauded and realize that…well, it’s a relative thing as it always is with metalheads. If all you do is listen to metal, I guess this sounds pretty amazing. Outside of that context it sounds more like an okay metal band, who at least change their sound up from song to song (most of the time) but who are hardly going to convert me with something so conventional.
Additional Thoughts: I remain disappointed.
28. Grizzly Bear: Shields (6/10)
29. Brasstronaut: Mean Sun (6/10)
Mean Sun is reasonably interesting for indie pop (for lack of a better term). The horns make things a little different. There’s a bit of a post rock vibe despite the commercial nature of the release. It’s a nice little amalgam but it’s hardly earth-shattering.
The songs are only alright and the arrangements are consistently superior to those songs (but not enough of my kind of thing to feel like they save the lack of strong songs or more energetic performances).
Just as an aside: could Canadian music critics (Exlcaim!, Now, etc) please stop claiming this music is somehow related to jazz. I would like to know how that is possible. Just because you hire a few horn players doesn’t turn you into a jazz band. I don’t think there’s a single solo on here. How exactly is something without improvisation jazz? Indie rock music critics should stop listening to nothing but indie rock already.
Additional Thoughts: Please, somebody, start teaching basic music genres to children, even children who aren’t learning instruments. Would it kill kids to have them listen to some Coltrane? Okay, not Trane, as he will scare them. Miles Davis then. And then we can stop this “I hear a trumpet / saxophone. It must be jazz-influenced!” Rock music with brass instruments has existed since the late 1960s. I want to sit down some of these critics and play them some actual jazz and say “You hear that? That’s what jazz sounds like. This is what indie rock with horns sounds like.” Then I would play them Brasstronaut or They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? or someone like that. “Please explain to me how they sound alike.”
30. Justin Townes Earle: Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now (6/10)
I don’t like the aesthetic. That wouldn’t matter if Earle was a great songwriter. However, he just an above-average songwriter.
Everything is impeccably produced and arranged; although the different genre homages hit the right notes. And that’s probably the problem. Unless, those genres are your thing, it’s hard to love this: he doesn’t exactly bring anything knew to them.
It would be nice if he had found a better, more consistent aesthetic to match his songs. Or, if he was truly committed to this genre-hoping aesthetic, it would be nice if he had written better songs.
31. Ben Folds Five: The Sound of the Life of the Mind (6/10)
It’s kind of absurd to come at such an established performer for the first time through his latest record, but then it wasn’t on purpose. I didn’t try to do this. It’s just how it happened.
Folds has a strong knack of melody and his lyrics are well above-average. But I got to say that the idiosyncratic nature of the title track mostly disappears from the rest of the album. Most of this is just straight ahead power pop. It’s great that someone is trying to keep “piano rock” alive but whether or not you like Folds depends on whether or not power pop is your thing. And it’s not mine.
No idea how this fits in with his canon.
32. Cold Specks: I Predict a Graceful Expulsion (6/10)
She is certainly talented. But for me the songs are not strong enough to make me like this more than any other singer-songwriter out there (and how many are out there?). The aesthetic is fine. Hopefully she will write some better songs in the future.
Additional Thoughts: Don’t remember the album enough to validate my opinion but I do seem to remember a lot of people made an awfully big deal out of her.
33. Mares of Thrace: The Pilgrimage (6/10)
Varied enough that it doesn’t get boring. If it stuck to one subgenre it could really get tiresome, but fortunately there is enough here to confuse you as to what type of band they are.
Additional Thoughts: None. Don’t really remember it now.
34. Erin Passmore: Downtown (6/10)
What I said at the time: She is clearly very talented, as the varied approach to the arrangements shows. But often she sounds too much like Joni Mitchell.
Additional Thoughts: Don’t remember it.
35. Christina Vantzou: No. 1 DVD + Remixes (6/10)
What I said at the time: Fine, but who hasn’t heard this a million times since Eno invented it in the mid 70s?
Additional Thoughts: Lazy on my part but I think I was frustrated with reading praise and then hearing yet more ambient music.
36. Boxer the Horse: French Residency (6/10)
What I said at the time: I want to like this, I do. For much of it, it sounds like a tour of American indie rock over the past two decades (and also Blur’s foray into American indie rock).
The problem is that one of the singers is a dead ringer for Stephen Malkmus. I mean, it’s uncanny. And I just can’t get over it. He needs to learn to sing like himself before I think I can take these guys seriously.
37. Tindersticks: The Something Rain (6/10)
What I said at the time: Well, it’s not bad. But what does that really mean?
It sounds like something I should like, but alas I have heard this stuff done better by other people (maybe never one album that sounded quite like this, but I feel like many of the songs refer to other bands I’ve heard a great deal of). I can’t hate it.
Better than the radio.
Additional Thoughts: Wow, what a lazy “review.” I think what I was saying is that it really just wasn’t bad and probably wasn’t that good either.
38. Catl.: Soon This Will All Be Gone (6/10)
What I said at the time: Well this is fine.
The aesthetic is pretty authentic but the songs are just okay.
And that’s the problem: if you are going to revive something and make it more than just plain nostalgia you should either make sure that you are writing strong new songs in the genre or you need to add something new to the sound.
Because I like this kind of music, I like this fine. But it’s nothing special.
39. Bahamas: Barchords (6/10)
What I said at the time: He certainly has a knack for melody and when he wants to he can play. But this is very middle of the road.
Additional Thoughts: This made no impression on me. Frankly I don’t know why I deemed it “above average.” However, he has since become famous and I have had him recommended to me more than once.
40. Bidiniband: In the Rock Hall (6/10)
What I said at the time: I can’t deny this guy’s knack for hooks. They seem to come super easy. And he has a sense of how to arrange a song, too.
But his lyrics are often pretty bad (or for reasons I cannot figure out, he merely lifts them from famous songs… no doubt as tribute, but still) and well, I can’t say that I’ve ever liked easy pop rock. It just sounds like they’re not trying that hard.
Knowing nothing about the Rheostatics, I can’t say how this compares, but it is certainly merely above average out of that context.
41. Dearly Beloved: Hawk vs. Pigeon (6/10)
Absolutely nothing to write home about.
There are moments that rise above this, I guess, but on the whole I feel like I’ve heard bands like this a million times and I don’t really know why I’d spend any more time on this then I already have.
42. Chains of Love: Strange Grey Days (5/10)
What I said at the time: My step-dad buys the odd CD because of the looks of the girl. And I make fun of him (behind his back) for this. At least I think it’s the looks. Maybe it’s the voice as well, but looks are definitely a part of it. And usually I can’t understand it. But occasionally I come upon something where I sort of get how an alluring female voice can make you forget the musical problems. It’s why I went through a period where I tried to like She and Him. Her voice did it for me, though at this remove I must say that the aesthetic rarely did anything for me, if it ever did.
Additional Thoughts: I was seriously worried about falling into a teenage idol crush on the lead singer so I haven’t acquired this. And again such feelings make me wonder what happened to my old self that would have dismissed this as crap instead of nearly falling in love. Revivalism is the enemy of art. How have I forgotten this?
43. Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball (5/10)
What I said at the time: Springsteen seems to me to be – at least half of the time – on a similar kind of mission as Costello and Dylan: bringing non-rock and pre-rock Americana into the 21st century (I say this about only about half the material on this album, though). The only problem is that he overproduces the shit out of it, so it really doesn’t stand comparison with those two.
The remaining material is made up of his usual over-the-top productions. I don’t know what I would think of Springsteen’s songwriting if he ever let up on the wannabe Phil Spector thing. Well, I guess I do know. I like Nebraska. But every other time I try to give him a chance I can’t really concentrate on the songs because he just goes so overboard on the arrangements that it distracts the hell out of me.
Additional Thoughts: I remain very iffy on Springsteen. I am trying, periodically. But it’s hard when critics have been telling me how Important he is for so long and I just can’t hear it myself.
44. Mark Lannegan: Blues Funeral (5/10)
What I said at the time: Very meh.
Has nothing on par with his best songs and contains unwelcome stylistic diversions that just don’t work. When you name something “blues funeral” you sort of expect… you know, blues.
Additional Thoughts: I would add that, in addition to expecting blues, you might also expect a funereal mood. I don’t remember enough of that.
45. Yukon Blonde: Tiger Talk (5/10)
What I said at the time:Well this is certainly not bad: it’s competent, it’s catchy, I think it is pretty obvious that these guys have some kind of talent.
But it sounds so much like other things and it just lacks any real kind of desire to make interesting music that there really isn’t anything here for someone who wants something new or interesting.
Additional Thoughts: I accidentally saw these guys live the next summer at WIMF, and they were as boring live. In fact, if anything they made me even less interested in them when they performed a cover of “Let’s Dance,” with seemingly the entire guitar solo comped note-for-note. Why cover something if you can’t – or don’t want to – add to it?
46. Islands: A Sleep and A Forgetting (5/10)
What I said at the time: This guy says this is his soul album. I know nothing about him but I know a little bit about soul and, well, this lacks it. Middle of the road indie pop that doesn’t in anyway offend, challenge or inspire.
Additional Thoughts: I’m sure someone somewhere was offended by that. I’m pretty sure Islands are (is?) adored somewhere. Bland.
47. Lake Forest: Silver Skies (5/10)
What I said at the time: If you thought some of these reviews are lazy, well you just found the laziest: “So incredibly meh.”
48. Branches: Wisdom (5/10)
What I said at the time: I’m trying to figure out why I or anyone else would listen to this over anything else.
49. Carla Kihlstedt, Matthias Bossi: Niagara Falling: Tales for the Stage III (5/10)
50. The Holiday Crowd: Over the Bluffs (4/10)
What I said at the time: I tried to listen to this but I could not give it my customary three listens for any conceivable reason. It sounds like Morrissey having taken complete control of Joy Division (with a different guitarist). It is plagiarism. Yuck.
51. The Elwins: And I Thank You (4/10)
Sometimes I encounter a band where I can’t even bring myself to give them their deserved three listens. Read the rest of the review.
52. Steve Wishart, Sinfonie: Hildegaard (4/10)
53. John Pizzarelli: Double Exposure (3/10)
Pizzarelli appears to me to be almost like the Eric Johnson of jazz: a great guitarist who has absolutely no taste in music. Well, he thinks he has taste, but his taste is that of my dead grandma. (Actually, my dead grandma would probably be put off by at least some of this music, but you get the idea. If my grandma had been born a few years later, maybe everything on here would be up here alley.) It’s pretty horrible to hear someone so talented playing such shitty music.
Not Ranked: Haydn: String Quartets Op. 33 ‘Russian’ by the London Haydn Quartet (10/10)
Not Ranked: Ives: Four Sonatas by Hilary Hahn, Valentina Lisitsa (9/10)
This is an excellent set of Ives’ violin sonatas. The pieces are a little more accessible than some of Ives’ more orchestrated pieces, in part I guess because of the nature of the violin. But the music is still characteristic Ives: challenging yet appealing. And the performances sound great to my ears, though like always I am not really familiar with the music so I do not know if there is a better version of the set out there.
Not Ranked: Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, Netherlands Radio Choir, Juliane Banse, Petermarsch, Will Hartmann, Markus Stenz Simplicius Simplicissimus by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (9/10)
From the very opening bars it’s clear that this is no ordinary opera. And though that’s true of the most path-breaking and challenging operas of the early 20th century (I am thinking chiefly of Berg’s work), this one is perhaps more shocking given the (seemingly) more traditional stance of the composer.
Not Ranked: Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado, et al.: Kammermusik by Paul Hindemith (9/10)
This set collects Hindemith’s Kammermusik compositions (two are actual chamber music pieces, seven are concertos) and for reasons I may not ever understand, pairs them with a violin sonata and an incomplete work.
The collection is nearly essential, containing some of Hindemith’s best music. But also containing a sonata which has no place next to these large “chamber” works. If you can get over that (you should be able to), this is great.
Not Ranked: Mike Patton and Ictus Ensemble: Laborintus II by Luciano Berio (9/10)
What I said at the time: I should eat this up. This is a work written by my favourite Italian composer of the second half of the 20th century (and with Busoni and Puccini, a contender for my favourite Italian composer of the 20th century) performed, in part, by my favourite male rock singer of all time. Read the full review.
Additional thoughts: It certainly isn’t for everyone and I acknowledge that. But if you like your avant garde art music, this should be for you.
Not Ranked: The Britten Quartet: String Quartets Nos. 1-4 by Michael Tippett (9/10)
Not Ranked: Frankfurter Opern und- Museumsorchester, Chor der Oper frankfurt, conducted by Sebastian Weigle, et al.: Konigskinder by Englebert Humperdinck (9/10)
Not Ranked: Halle: The Apostles by Edward Elgar (8/10)
Not Ranked: Ex Cathedra et al.: Sacred Symphonies by Giovanni Gabrieli (7/10)
Though this is named so that one might assume this is a performance of either the Sacrae symphoniae or the Symphoniae sacrae, it appears to actually be performances of selections from each. And, like any collection like this, is arbitrary on the part of the curator (the conductor in this case). That’s something I always nit pick over.
The music is compelling late Renaissance choral, despite the “symphony” suggestion – symphonies didn’t exist in their modern form at the time, did they? – and it is performed in the traditionalist way; something I don’t have a problem with necessarily. Certainly for a first time listener, it is probably best to take on a composer on a traditionalist recording rather than some kind of modern performance or even radical reinterpretation, much as I might prefer such an interpretation farther down the road.
If anything, this recording makes me want to seek out the complete works themselves, as he was definitely up to some wacky – contrasting voices across a space, which obviously would work a lot better live, for example.
A decent survey, I suspect.
Not Ranked: The Grateful Dead: Spring 1990: So Glad You Made it (7/10)
The standard line about this tour seems to be it was the best Dead tour in some time. I have no idea whether or not that’s true, because this is the second live album of theirs I have heard. This album is a sample from the box set, something I would only ever buy if I was a massive Deadhead. You can guess from the fact that this is my second Dead live album that I am not, in fact, a massive Deadhead.