While I didn’t have a theme in mind when I put together this list, a look through it reveals one: Aside from a few exceptions, my list this year features established artists reaching heights I never thought they could, artists whose best days could have, and maybe even should have, been behind them. There are a lot of old men, relatively speaking, on this list.
Surely every year-end list is a reflection of its writer, but more than in any year previous, I want to see myself in these artists. I want to see that as a 33-year-old, while I may never pitch in the Major Leagues or compete in an Olympic event, my best days may well still be ahead of me. This is a top 10 about not letting the fire go out. This is a top 10 that represents facing turmoil and coming out of it stronger for having conquered it. There are ten albums here that meant something over the course of the last 52 weeks, albums that will continue to mean something for years to come.
At least, they will to me.
So the big story about Killing Joke this year had nothing to do with their incredible album. It had to do with frontman Jaz Coleman apparently disappearing off the face of the earth for a couple of weeks. Apparently he was wandering around the Western Sahara, writing a book. Because hey, he’s Jaz Coleman and why the hell not?
Weirdly, the propensity of Jaz Coleman to, say, up and disappear (after apparently discrediting the entire recorded discography of The Cult, though he maintains that that wasn’t him) tends to lend legitimacy to what he does as part of his band. You listen to something like MMXII, to a song like “Rapture”, where he sings “Nothing is real / Or is illusion / Escape from flesh / Transcend the earthly / With fire, and chants / Purification / Between the worlds / In this state of bliss” and he sounds TOTALLY LEGIT, because yeah, he’s on a slightly different plane than the rest of us. MMXII is huge, and loud, and angry, and a little bit bonkers, and it always sounds about thiiiiiis close to going completely off the rails.
You know, I like Zeitgeist. It’s not Smashing Pumpkins as they once were, but hearing Zeitgeist is like hearing Billy Corgan accepting that he’s just not like other people. He’s a helpless, hopeless romantic, he dreams big, and he writes music bigger. Oceania is where he doesn’t just accept that about himself, but he embraces it. He tries to turn songs with titles like “Panopticon” and “Glissandra” into people’s anthems, pop songs with soaring choruses and hopeful verses. He combines history and mythology and religion and love into this weird musical soup that is so uniquely his own, and he just, he doesn’t know how to filter it anymore. He doesn’t know how to take one piece of that mixture and let us concentrate on one thing. He’s just exploding it all out at once, everywhere, in every direction, and it’s all he can do to just stop assaulting us with his id and ego after four minutes. It’s hard to imagine Corgan ever again creating the sorts of classics that seemed to come so naturally in the mid-’90s, but the music he’s making now still holds up, especially when he lets it go on for an entire album.
Bob Dylan sounds awful. His voice is as off-putting as it’s ever been. And yet, it’s still comforting to sit by the fire and let gramps tell us a few stories. When he starts one, just try to shut him up before he’s done. You can’t do it. Well, at least, I can’t.
There were some killer pop albums that came out this year, but none more simultaneously odd and appealing than Ms. Goulding’s. Her voice is one of those heavily affected, breathy voices that sounds well-suited to softly-strummed guitars and hemp bracelets — the closest vocal match I can think of for her is the blonde on Nashville who’s not Hayden Panetierre. Instead of hiding behind a guitar and, presumably, her hair, though, she struts her way through this collection of pop songs like a seasoned veteran, whispering when she needs to whisper and yelping when she needs to yelp. By the time she triumphantly sings “I know it’s gonna be” for the seventh or eighth time in the climax of single “Anything Could Happen”, you’re on board, because not only are you impressed at the display of emotion, but you’re kind of singing along and tapping your foot, because the song’s got a killer hook and a great beat. There are a lot of killer hooks and great beats to be found on Halcyon. This album is all the proof you should need that “Lights” was no fluke.
Poignant, confident, and every so often surprisingly juvenile; it’s everything we could have hoped for from a Ben Folds Five album, everything Ben Folds Five ever was. There’s a joy to this album that transcends the songs themselves, the je ne sais quoi that comes from bandmates who know each other better than even they would like to admit. It is a delight to hear them back together, and one can only hope this isn’t the last chance we get to do so.
There aren’t very many albums that I know are going to end up on my year-end list by the time I get done with the first track, but Mr. Producto’s latest is one of them. “Request Denied” is the type of album opener that gives the listener goosebumps, that makes those who hear it wonder just how much time was put into constructing the ultimate sonic pastiche, the mechanical groove to end all grooves. It also makes the listener wonder whether the artist can keep up the pace for an entire album.
For the record, he can’t. If Cancer for Cure managed to keep up with “Request Denied”, it would have been album of the year, and it wouldn’t even have been a contest. As it is, this is the album where El-P kept all of the noisy tendencies that he showed off on Fantastic Damage but boiled them down to brief snippets that might actually be called songs. It’s a fascinating thing that requires multiple listens, and it may well become known as his masterpiece.
Extraordinary Machine never quite seemed worthy of Fiona Apple. It sounded like her, and it hand plenty of great songs, but it was scattered, a little bit of a mess of an album that betrayed a tortured soul trying desperately to figure out how to use its vessel. As it turns out, Ms. Apple is at her best when she’s giving tremendously long titles to her albums. One wonders if she knows what the album will be called before she writes a single word of the album itself.
Regardless, The Idler Wheel is a quiet album, but a potent one. The way her voice breaks in the bridge to “Daredevil” sounds like the lashes of the whipping cords in the album’s title; the lyrics of “Regret” raw and specific enough to cut. Apple sounds confident, even as her words and melodies are as cut and bruised as they’ve ever been.
Too often this year, I have needed quiet. I have needed something to guide me to calm, to remind me that the pressures of the outside world can be tuned out. Coexist has been the soundtrack to those moments as an album that whispers, coos, and squirms its way into your headspace in a way that no other album was able to do this year. This is ambient music with words.
I’m not sure I’ve ever really listened to those words. For me, it was never about the words. It’s about the sound, and nothing this year sounded like Coexist. I needed it. It was here for me.
When Swans came back a couple of years ago, they did so with an album that reminded us of nearly everything that drew us to Swans in the first place. Michael Gira rediscovered his taste for noise and chaos, imbuing all of it with some of the songwriting skill he honed as part of his Angels of Light project. What The Seer manages to do, however, is expand on what we knew about Swans, about Gira, and about everything his noise-rock tendencies are and could be.
Every so often, The Seer lets us in. Quiet moments like Karen O’s lullaby “Song for a Warrior” and Gira’s blues thought “The Wolf” offer an accessible side that serves as counterpoint for the rest of the two disc epic. The rest of it, of course, pummels us, droning on for a solid half an hour on the album’s title track, jamming for 20 minutes with his friends in Akron/Family, and offering a 20+ minute closer in “The Apostate” that is like watching surgery without anaesthetic. It is not the type of album that one will listen to often, but it is the type of album that cannot help but be remembered.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about this album since the first time I listened to it, a week or two after it came out. Here’s the thing about The 2nd Law: It is a complete exaggeration of everything Muse is and has ever been. It is operatic, and epic, and electronic, and weird and loud and quiet and messy in all the ways we have come to expect of Muse, except more. Lead single “Madness”, of the slow tempo and dubsteppy wub-wub-wuuubs, is almost a red herring, an exemplar of subtlety on an album that shuns subtlety at every turn. It is Queen, and U2, and Prince, and Radiohead, and Frederic freaking Chopin all rolled into a massive, ridiculous casserole. It is a band unleashed. The 2nd Law is an album where nobody was allowed to say “I think that might be a little much”, and it works as a thrilling document of what can happen when a band is allowed to travel as far in every direction as they know how to go. It’s brilliant.
…and that’s it. Sorry Frank Ocean, sorry Orbital, sorry Mark Lanegan and Azealia Banks and Sleigh Bells and Gotye and Kimbra and Bruno Mars. There’s a lot I wanted to put in here that just didn’t quite fit. If there’s one thing I learned this year, it’s that you have to draw the line somewhere. ‘Til 2013, y’all.