10. Burial- Truant/Rough Sleeper
William Bevan, under the name Burial, is best known for producing downtrodden dubstep and post-dubstep that evokes a rainy downtown London in the middle of a rainstorm. Such a specific mood requires a specific set of sounds, and Bevan often receives flak for seeming repetitive and coasting on previous successes. However, Truant/Rough Sleeper, his newest single, picks up where Kindred EP from earlier this year left off and expands his sound significantly. Both tracks are exploratory epics that shift between different sections, incorporating steel drums, jazz saxophone, and more varied beats combined with Burial’s staples such as girl-next-door vocal samples and vinyl crackling. While the transitions between sections are clunky or non-existent, the single finds Bevan expanding his sound into new territory and, by extension, new moods.
9. Niechec- Śmierć W Miękkim Futerku
Niechec are a Polish Nu-Jazz group that combines raunchy saxophone with noise rock guitars and atmospheric synths to make a unique soundscape that can be both claustrophobic and spacious. Their debut album, Śmierć W Miękkim Futerku, effortlessly flips between both extremes. Opener “After You” starts with a growling, out of time sax solo that eventually erupts into a lofty haze, while “Taksówkarz” follows with a tight, tough jam that cycles around a hokey piano and walking bass line. Overall, Niechec display a great level of musicianship as they effortlessly shift from mood to mood while remaining within a style uniquely their own, making their debut album a triumph.
8. The Music Tapes- Mary’s Voice
The Elephant 6 label is known for taking an old-world feel a la 1920s carnival on the boardwalk at Atlantic City (generally speaking) and combining it with a modern indie rock aesthetic, and The Music Tapes are currently the label’s premier band. Led by Julian Koster (of Neutral Milk Hotel fame), the group combines traditional rock instrumentation with banjos, singing saws, horns, and organs to evoke nostalgia for a time most people have never experienced. While their most recent release, Mary’s Voice, finds the band ditching their pension for musique concrete experimentation in favor of stronger pop sensibilities. The results are excellent, as Koster’s strained vocals fly above wooly compositions to form an intensely emotional experience.
7. Jason Lescalleet- Songs about Nothing
Electroacoustic Improvisation wunderkind Jason Lescalleet seems most comfortable around tapes and extremes of sound, which make his album Songs about Nothing more than just an awkward Big Black joke. The album opens with “The Beauty of Independent Music”, which consists of a high pitched, bloodcurdling sample, while second track “Old Theme” finds rhythm in distorted, thunderous noise that sounds as if the Earth were splitting in half. However, once feeling out both edges of his sound palette, Lescalleet then moves inward, exploring the more delicate aspects of noise and musique concrete while still keeping the listener on the edge of his seat. Tracks like “Beauty is a Bowtie (HTDW)” stop time with ethereal vocal manipulation, while “Tarnished Copper (Copper Will Never Be Gold)” evoke a house in decay with a slowed down piano sample that breaks into a bleak, decrepit ambience. “The Future Belongs to No One” closes out the album with a 43-minute road trip that encompasses all nooks of his sound that elevates his musicianship to another level. Lescalleet deals not in melodies but in colors that shapeshift into one another. While his format is one that causes people to question if his work is even music, it simultaneously causes the most pure, undiluted emotional reactions in the audience, which seems to be one of the purposes of music in the first place. As a result, Songs about Nothing is a difficult, unique listen that will fascinate some and appall others, but nevertheless ranks among the best releases of 2012.
6. Dan Deacon- America
Dan Deacon made his name as a musician with upbeat, noisy electropop songs that felt right at home on the dancefloor. However, his new release America marks an important change in his career, where he foregoes a straightforward dance album in favor of more developed compositions. As a result, the album sounds somewhat transitionary, where tracks like “True Thrush” maintains Deacon’s pop sensibilities, while the closer “USA Suite I-IV” recalls Steve Reich’s ethereal minimalism for an instrumental tour around Deacon’s writing skills. Some may view the two-sided nature of America as a debilitating weakness, but these tracks are overflowing with creativity and a breathtaking beauty that makes the album one of 2012’s high points.
5. Liars- WIXIW
With WIXIW, neo-tribal experimental rockers Liars went electronic and managed to expand their already-vast sound while still maintaining the atmosphere and bravado that has made them successful in the past. “The Exact Colour of Doubt” opens the album with an ambient atmosphere that feels both inviting and subtly insincere. Immediately after, “Octagon” reveals Liars’ true nature with creepy, pulse-pounding synths that evoke the same imagery as previous Liars releases have, but in a more futuristic-sounding context. The rest of the album further explores this new aesthetic, making use of both foreboding synths and traditional rock instrumentation to flesh out Liars’ demented perspective on popular music. WIXIW finds Liars yet again entering new, uncomfortable sonic territory and managing to create something fresh while still holding true to their voice as musicians, showcasing their tenacity as musicians to continue evolving their sound.
4. Zammuto- Zammuto
Nick Zammuto, guitar-wielding half of recently deceased The Books, began his solo career this past year on a high note. His solo debut Zammuto combined some of the found sound, collage elements of The Books’ sound with a more concentrated focus on percussion and acoustic instrumentation to make for one of the most inventive pop releases of 2012. Opener “Yay” combines Zammuto’s rhythmically chopped vocals with bouncing percussion and organs to make an effervescent track that expertly builds to a beautiful climax. “Idiom Wind” ebbs and flows around a pulsating wind instrument sample until it gives way to Zammuto’s boyish vocals lecturing an “educated man” who’s “education isn’t worth a damn” to find motivation to live his life, which comes off as humorous as it is touching. Stand out “Zebra Butt” combines his recently found love of funk with that ubiquitous, automated female voice found on almost every PC reading off insults to the audience, making a track that is both comedic and musically inventive. Zammuto benefits from it’s playfulness and willingness to incorporate multiple genres, and it marks another great release from an artist who has yet to run out of creativity.
3. James Blackshaw- Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death
James Blackshaw made a name for himself making transcendent folk in the vein of the American Primitivism movement. His most recent release Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death finds his compositional skills expanding as he uses wider instrumentation to flesh out his songs more fully. These elements are clearly apparent on tracks such as “And I Have Come Upon This Place by Lost Ways” and the title track, where the former builds around a lovely female vocalist and the latter uses clever key changes to introduce piano and organ elements that recontextualize the entire track’s aesthetic. However, while the instrumentation feels more variegated, the entire mood of the album is much more intimate. Where previous Blackshaw releases such as the beloved O True Believers seem intent on inspiring awe, Love is the Plan feels much more subdued and warm. This is perfectly shown through the cover art of the album as well as the snug breathing that envelops the entire album. While the breathing can be rather distracting at points, it makes the album feel as if Blackshaw is sitting next to you performing each track. This element, combined with both the softer songwriting and wider instrumentation make this release an emotional piece of music that can be both calming, unnerving, and celestial at points.
2. Arca- Stretch 2
While other trip-hop producers aim to make you hop, Arca seems dead set on making you trip as heavily as possible. His outsider beats include a wide variety of samples of disparate instruments, distorted vocals, and rhythmic stuttering that makes ‘wonky’ seem like too weak of a descriptor. However, beyond just being ‘weird’, Arca possesses a devotion to his music that others don’t appear to have. Where other beatmakers will merely find a pleasing beat, ride it for about 3 minutes and call it a day, Arca’s tracks constantly shift styles and structure, ever pushing the sound forward while still recalling earlier themes. This talent is perfectly showcased on his new release Stretch 2 to an amazing effect. To see his gift in action, one need look no further than “Fortune”, the second track off the New York producer’s album. The track starts off with a solid beat that immediately shuts down when what sounds like a sample of the stomping from Queen’s “We Will Rock You” interjects. This sample acts as a wrench jammed into the gears of the beat, where Arca then stretches and slows down vocal samples to sound like the entire track grinds to a halt. From these remnants Arca constructs a new beat that cleverly utilizes the Queen sample in a brilliantly inverted way, resulting in a track that seems like more a recording of the creative process than a presentation of a final product. This makes the entire record sound alive—actively transforming from one sound or mood to another while creating an overarching, mind-bending atmosphere. Ultimately, Stretch 2 is a uniquely confident release from one of the most promising producers out there.
1. Swans- The Seer
Swans’ combination of post-industrial, no wave, and post-rock elements have for decades terrified, unsettled, and invigorated listeners. Previously releases include the apocalyptic Filth, the cathartic Children of God, and the disturbingly bizarre Soundtracks for the Blind, and since their inception in the early 1980s the band has travelled from genre to genre while still maintaining the singular voice of tyrant Michael Gira. So, when Gira announced the bands newest release, The Seer, and claimed it was the culmination of 30 years of writing and experimenting, it was no wonder that people took notice. The resulting album is a whirlwind of sounds, textures, and moods, ranging from the threatening “Lunacy” surrounded by an unassuming guitar strum and thundering timpani to the hauntingly beautiful “Song For a Warrior” with delicate vocals by Karen O to the transcendent “A Piece of the Sky” that maps the growth of sound from a crackling field recording to a mid tempo jam with choral backing. Musically, the 2-hour epic finds Swans presenting some of their most inventive material in styles from drone to experimental rock to musique concrete. Tracks twist and turn with time signatures ever shifting, sections transitioning to one another sometime smoothly and sometimes abruptly, and instrumentation dynamically changing with every passing minute. The overall result is a massive, emotionally draining travelogue of styles from Swans’ past that still manages to work perfectly as a cohesive whole.
However, the retrospective nature of this album raises an important question: can an album be both an examination of a band’s previous work an innovative piece of music that benefits from forward thinking? Many people decried The Seer as a cash-in on Swans’ previous sound with nothing new being introduced. While Gira’s advertising of the album may give this argument steam, an examination of the music itself seems to quell any of these concerns. For instance, the half an hour title track shifts from a bagpipe-driven drone to a menacing romp at the 4-minute point that combines banjo picking with a drum sample that could easily operate as the beat to an industrial hip hop act, making a unique atmosphere that is unlike anything the band or other artists have done before. However, a more prevalent example is the track “A Piece of the Sky”. This track is split into sections that transition from musique concrete to a vocal drone, then to a bell-sounding guitar drone that eventually gives way to a mid-tempo jam fronted by Gira’s low growl. The entire track feels exploratory, where each element on its own may borrow from an established style or genre, yet piece as a whole works together operates to map the growth of sound from its bare bones (musique concrete/field recording) to a tonal, ambient atmosphere (drone sections), then to a more conventional style of music for the modern listener (alternative rock). It is in this transformation that Swans manages to pull from previous sounds and influences to create something both new and retrospective, and it is moments like these that make The Seer my favorite release of 2012.