People (and by people I mean music writers and geeks and fans of various stripes) often talk about fallow years for music, about an occasional paucity of great albums across a calendar year. I’m not sure how much I subscribe to this theory, although it’s one that I’ve expounded upon at length to my fellow DRC members; I suspect, that if you mine a specific seam deeply enough, you’ll be able to find plenty of wonderful music to fascinate and beguile you. There are innumerable pulses upon which you could have your finger, and there’s always new old music, too.
Why this might be, if you agree with the concept, is a matter open for conjecture – and there is, of course, a huge discussion to be had about how these things get decided (history is not written by the winners, but won by those who could be bothered to document [and perhaps fabricate] it, in the end, in some ways, perhaps) – but it does seem to be an actual thing phenomenologically; look at Pitchfork’s People’s List from earlier this year, and click on the bit where you can see the breakdown of what years albums voted for were from – 2007 and 2010 are big peaks, while 2006 and 2008 are lowly troughs. My own experience bares this out – 2007 felt like amassive, triumphant year for music to me, whilst 2008 seemed dull and empty. Of course, personal circumstances must colour that opinion as much as any empirical assessment of music actually released.
But anyway; this year closing, 2012, seems to be being talked about as being one of those fallow years – the big hitters of acclaimed music that trendy western people talk about on the internet either didn’t release anything (Radiohead) or else released something that everyone seemed to go ‘meh’ at (Animal Collective), and no explosive or unifying new trends or artists emerged to change perspectives and flavour the whole year.
Or did they?
I am just one (lower middle class white English) guy, and I don’t keep up with everything. I’ve not even, at the time of writing, listened to Kendrick Lamar or Frank Ocean’s albums, the two most acclaimed records of 2012 judging by end-of-year lists. The Kendrick I’ve only heard of in the last couple of months, which have been chaotically busy, and the Frank Ocean I’ve had reservations about based on the opinions of people whose opinions I trust. Also, with both, I’m just not that into musical story-telling, which seems to be a big part of the acclaim afforded to both. As I outlined here, I’m not keen on literary-criticism masquerading as music writing, and nothing I’ve read about either record has really given me any idea of what it might sound like. Not being a (semi) “professional” music writer anymore, I feel no need to listen to stuff in order to form an opinion about it, so I’ve not felt compelled to investigate. There’s also a certain bloody-mindedness at play here, if I’m honest. A few years ago I’d have kicked against that bloody-mindedness with equal force from the opposite direction, but today it seems like a waste of energy, when I could just be enjoying the records below again (debate the personal and spiritual growth ramifications or cultural ennui or inherent conservatism or whatever of that as much as you like).
As an aside, because I do love a good aside; I’m always baffled by people, especially people who are just music fans like me rather than industry professionals, who list anymore than about 20 albums at the end of the year. I’ve seen people list 100 or even more records. If you’re Stephen Thomas Erlewine and parse records for your job, I can understand it, but with a full-time job that has nowt to do with music, a home life, and other hobbies to devote time to (football, cycling, films, etcetera, none of which really allow you to listen whilst partaking), I honestly don’t know how I could pay adequate attention to, let alone like enough to list / write about, more than a dozen or so records.
As another aside, I’ve little interest in rap, metal, country, opera, punk, classical, or chart pop, only passing interest in jazz, a dilettante’s knowledge of electronic music… see what I’m getting at? I am not, in any way, authoritative.
What I’m saying is that I don’t know if these albums I’m writing about are the best of this year, because what does that even mean?, but they are my favourites (of the ones I’ve heard, and I’ve [again, just so you don’t moan at me] not heard everything).
So there are 12 records in this list, because this is a year of 12s, and why not? And the only order they’re in is the order they were released, because who ranks art, anyway? The Tate Modern doesn’t put paintings in order of awesomeness. I know; I’ve been there.
So here goes nothing.
Grimes – Visions
I liked this straight off the bat (the bat being a single on 6music) because it reminded me of Cluster and early Orbital, possibly as photocopied by someone with a really old photocopier. It still does. I’ve not played it in full in months, but it soundtracked a big chunk of spring and summer, and Emma liked it a lot too. Grimes’ tunes, and notably her hooks, are insidious but with a short half-life, which made Visions easy to listen to (or, rather, just “put on”) a huge amount without finding it wearying. Yes, she only has one idea; yes, her beats are… prosaic; but, they work. Her DIY ethos and uber-geek aesthetic are appealing too; Grimes seems like she’d be fun to hang with, which is exactly what her music was.
Portico Quartet – Portico Quartet
Like The Necks in most years, Portico Quartet got played a lot whilst doing other things – reading, cooking, packing our lives into boxes. Is it jazz? Yes, but it’s the kind of jazz that any indie rock fan could get behind without suffering cognitive dissonance, all sway and no skronk. I’d been aware of them for years but never delved in; an early-year hunger for some new British jazz propelled me towards it happily.
Field Music – Plumb
I’ve written about Plumb at length, and stand by everything I’ve said all these months later. It’s a delicious, thoughtful, sensitive, creative, righteous (in a good way) record, but more than that it’s packed full of tunes and melodies and musical passages that make you smile to hear them. Lyrically, as a 30-something man with a wife and a mortgage and worries about the state of the nation, it spoke to me. Musically, it sang to me, rocked me, and grooved me beatifically, finding that sweet spot of sadness at joy or joy at sadness.
John Talabot – ƒin
This I struggled with initially – I was expecting something closer to Caribou’s Swim or Orbital from what people were saying, but when I clamped ears on it these seemed like strange, possibly lazy comparisons. I didn’t quite get the Balearic sunset vibe from this either (although I’ve seen Balaeric sunsets for myself I was never dancing). What I did get was something meticulously structured and richly finished, which stayed with me throughout the year, across dozens and dozens of listens, in the car, at home, at work, intensely, distractedly, on headphones. I still have no idea who he is; I doubt his identity would mean much to me. It still feels a little anonymous, but that may be psychological as much as phenomenological, and sometimes anonymity is good.
Liars – WIXIW
Whereas this is almost the polar opposite; rough and amateurish, a hint of sophistication from Daniel Miller but so much rambunctious, experimental enthusiasm and oppression that it could never be tasteful. I fell for Liars heavily with this album, found their immersion in synthesizers and electronic beats beautiful and powerful in equal measure, bought up chunks of their back catalogue, and felt that WIXIW somehow meant something important, though I have no idea why, or what.
Neneh Cherry and The Thing – The Cherry Thing
I’ll be honest – I’ve not listened to this enough to really love it, or even know it that well yet. I’ve not had chance. Em’s not keen on Neneh Cherry’s voice or on free jazz, and I bought this during the midst of our interminable months of living out of boxes. But when I have played The Cherry Thing, it’s been scintillating, outrageous, exciting, and I’ll be getting to know it much better, I know that much.
Four Tet – Pink
Initially I thought this was a strange, hydra-headed beast, created for the dancefloor and not 100% comfortable away from that context. But actually it’s revealed itself over the late summer and autumn as a perfect livingroom record; perhaps not as possessed of the same kind of gestalt as There Is Love In You (which I think is Hebden’s masterpiece now), but thoroughly beautiful and intriguing and enjoyable nonetheless. “Ocoras”, “Peace For Earth” and “Pinnacles” are as wonderful as anything else he’s done. I’m a fanboy; I can’t resist.
Minotaur Shock – Orchard
Speaking of “livingroom records”, this is another fine one. I first heard of Minotaur Shock through his remixes of early Bloc Party singles, and bought Maritime to investigate further. That record never struck me particularly for whatever reason, but somehow, years later, I got talking to David Edwards, who is Minotaur Shock, on Twitter. He sent me a link to download Orchard, so I did, listened to it, liked it well enough, and bought a real copy out of a sense of fairness one day in HMV when I wanted desperately not to walk out empty-handed. Opening Orchard up on proper speakers, letting it fill space, it became a favourite, and much turned to. Deciding not to shy away from the “folktronica” tag he’d found irritating in the past, Edwards has found a beautiful balance of multitudinous elements, from krautrock pulses and folky, English acoustic pastoralism to more exotic textures and rhythms. Orchard covers a lot of ground, and does it all incredibly well and incredibly tunefully.
Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits
I covered this for The Quietus, and, again, stand by what I said – this is as good a record as any latter day (Gimme Fiction onwards) Spoon album, laden with tight grooves, taut songs, and well-dressed hooks. Yes, it’s just a bunch of guys playing guitars, bass, drums, and synthesizers; no, they’re not breaking any new ground; now, they’re not even writing particularly outstanding songs – but sometimes it’s enough to just be pretty good and very cool and sound like you’re having a lot of fun.
Swans – The Seer
If you were in the wrong mood, The Seer could feel as long as Swans’ remarkable career. I say ‘remarkable’, but I’d never listened to Michael Gira’s outfit before this year, despite having known about them for what seems like forever. This year, though, I found myself lured in by the rabid enthusiasm it was talked about with. The Seer is unremittingly intense, unapologetically serious, unnecessarily long. It feels like desperate music. At times it feels like dangerous music. Like latter day Terence Malick movies it also feels like it could do with a sympathetic but strict editor. But it’s also incredibly rewarding, and – and this isn’t mentioned often enough – remarkably good fun. Like an over the top horror movie, half the pleasure is in the performativity, the fact that you know this isn’t the way that people behave everyday. Or, at least, that’s the case for me. It may be that Michael Gira is like this everyday; if so, I’m glad someone is. When it hits you, when it gets close to pushing for transcendence, The Seer is pretty magnificent.
Grizzly Bear – Shields
It’s about the way “Sleeping Ute” collapses into soporific beauty for the final minute. The way “Speak In Rounds” edges up to you, shuffling and peering around corners, before grasping your hand and galloping for the horizon even as it’s telling you it’s leaving you alone. How “Gun-Shy” pulses, rich in tune, from one place to another. It’s about the brass, the guitars, the drums (the DRUMS!), the voices, the moments of absolute calm and absolute beauty and almost absolute chaos, the way it sounds and feels like a dream much of the time. I’m not picking a favourite album of this year, because who knows how to even do that, but if I did…
Daphni – Jiaolong
Someone much wiser than me described this as “griddy”, in that the structures of the compositions seem to fit perfectly into imaginary grids of how you might draw a topography of a piece of dance music with a pencil and a piece of graph paper. And it is. Of the five “we are going dancing in a club” records I bought this year (Talabot, Four Tet, Blondes, Orbital), Jiaolong is the most fun, the one with the biggest smile on its face, the one enjoying itself the most. It is decidedly functional, and doesn’t beguile or (emotionally) move me in quite the same way as Caribou does, but it’s not trying to do that. It also best captures the “last track feels like going home after a great night out” vibe that I love so much.
Coming at some point soon, 12 songs from 2012, and 12 old records that were new to me in 2012.