Top 5 Albums of 2012

Here it is… my long awaited (?) top 5 albums of 2012 list. Contain yourself. Here we go.

5. Rush — Clockwork Angels

It may not have made the biggest splash in the musical world, but for Rush fans this album was a long time coming… the band’s first true full concept album (no, really), their best music in decades (we really mean it this time), and it was followed by a tour featuring an 8-piece string ensemble (!) and their long overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (!!). It also features what is arguably the most genuinely beautiful piece of music in the band’s career, the closing track “The Garden.”

In many ways, the concept of Clockwork Angels is a steampunk-inspired, 21st century reinterpretation of their 1976 classic 2112 (note the time on the clock on the album cover), with less Ayn Rand and more first-hand wisdom. It’s also a clever retrospective and reflection on the band’s career itself. I don’t know if Rush will ever record any more albums, but I think this would be a good place to stop.

4. Aimee Mann — Charmer

Charmer is full of infectious melodies and perfectly crafted pop, but much like the best work of Steely Dan, beneath this sonic veneer lies a dark core. These songs explore, with… not quite cynicism, but perhaps a tired resignation, the more deplorable aspects of human nature. Which doesn’t make the songs any less catchy.

I have to confess that up until now I haven’t been a huge Aimee Mann fan. It’s not that I had anything against her music; I just never really gave her much of a chance. I also have to confess that the main reason I changed my attitude about her was her outstanding deadpan performance on an episode of Portlandia where she, being a struggling musician, was found working as Fred and Carrie’s housekeeper. There wasn’t much of her music in the show, but she was so natural in her performance that it really got my attention. I’m glad it did, because her music is fantastic.

3. The Darcys — Aja

Speaking of Steely Dan, how would you like a dark, noisy, post-rock reinterpretation of their entire 1977 classic Aja? Toronto-based indie band The Darcys have achieved something amazing with their stark, haunting, brooding take on the yacht rock classic (and one of my favorite albums of all time). At turns ethereal and icy, then erupting with white-hot rage, this album manages to do with Steely Dan’s music what they could never do themselves — match the darkness of their lyrical content.

At first I found this album hard to listen to, but as I allowed it to unfold and reveal itself, it became one of my favorites of the year… and I may now even like it more than the original.

2. Air — Le voyage dans la lune

Hugo was my favorite movie of 2011. With its focus on the legendary, and nearly lost, works of silent filmmaker Georges Méliès, specifically Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), it was also a perfect set-up for this year’s release of Air’s new score for the 1902 film.

The album came with a video of the restored, hand-painted color version of the film with Air’s musical accompaniment. It was a great way to see the full film for the first time, and I think despite over a century’s distance, and playing in styles (and with instruments!) that wouldn’t yet be invented for decades when the film was made, it works perfectly. The album also stands well on its own apart from the film.

1. Com Truise — In Decay

It’s funky, it’s weird, it’s overflowing with ’80s synths and drum machines. In short, it’s pretty much exactly the album I wish I had recorded myself in 2012.

This is definitely not an album for everyone, but I find it manages to perfectly balance my own penchant for weird noises and unpredictable song structures with an approachability that doesn’t make me embarrassed to be caught listening to it. (Yes, this is a serious concern for me a lot of the time.) It’s not as “out there” as Boards of Canada, but it’s got a fair amount of that IDM vibe (if we must put such a pretentious label on it). It never lets experimentation get in the way of a good groove however, and — despite being entirely instrumental — captures a lot of the nostalgic ’80s synth pop sound people of my generation just can’t quite seem to let go of.

Would I say Com Truise (great name, by the way) has recorded “objectively” the best album of 2012? Despite the fact that there’s no objectivity in art, I would still probably say “no.” But it’s the one album of the year that I just couldn’t stop listening to. Besides my own, anyway.

Top 5 Albums of 2012: The Contenders

It’s that time of year again. Looking back through my library, I am reaffirming what I observed when I checked out The Current’s Top 89 of 2012 polling the other day: I really have not been following new music this year.

I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been much more wrapped up in my business, too busy making my own music (currently working on my third full-length album of the year), or just disinterested in what I’m hearing on the airwaves, but the numbers don’t lie: in 2011 I bought about 50 new albums. This year the number is around 20.

In the past I have eschewed self-published albums here, but as the quality of self-published music increases, and the barriers to self-publication fall with new Internet tools, the idea of signed acts being of inherently higher quality than indie stuff is more ludicrous than ever (and, truly, it always was). I’m still considering the vanity factor and leaving my own albums out of the running, but there’s some other great indie stuff I need to put on equal footing with the kinds of music you can buy on CD at Target or Best Buy. I’m also eliminating my previous restrictions against EPs and live albums, if for no other reason than to pad out this list just a bit.

So, here’s the list. The top 5 itself will be selected from this esteemed group of artists and albums:

  • Absinthe & The Dirty Floors: Side 2
  • Aimee Mann: Charmer
  • Air: Le voyage dans la lune
  • Andre LaFosse: Do the Math
  • Andre LaFosse: The Hard Bargain
  • another cultural landslide: last days last days
  • The Beach Boys: That’s Why God Made the Radio
  • Ben Folds Five: The Sound of the Life of the Mind
  • Coheed and Cambria: The Afterman: Ascension
  • Com Truise: In Decay
  • The Darcys: AJA
  • Donald Fagen: Sunken Condos
  • Field Music: Plumb
  • Grizzly Bear: Shields
  • Muse: The 2nd Law
  • Pinback: Information Retrieved
  • Return to Forever: The Mothership Returns (Live)
  • Rush: Clockwork Angels
  • The Shins: Port of Morrow
  • The Shiny Lights: Morocco

OK, I can be honest and knock a few contenders out right now: there is no way That’s Why God Made the Radio or The Sound of the Life of the Mind will make the list.

This new effort from the Beach Boys is surprising mainly in that it doesn’t completely suck like I expected it to. No, the main reason it’s surprising is that Brian Wilson and Mike Love managed tolerate each other long enough to finish the album (but not the tour). But that shock aside, there are a couple of outstanding tracks, along with a couple of truly appalling ones. (All of which were written by Brian Wilson; the rest are merely mediocre and pointless.)

The Ben Folds Five album is certainly my biggest disappointment of the year though. I’m not sure why, though I suspect it’s mainly just that in the decade-plus since the band’s previous album, my musical interests and those of Mr. Folds have gone in exact opposite directions. Either that or he’s just become a humorless middle-aged hack musical competition judge. Or both. (Full disclosure: I haven’t even listened to the entire album yet. Much like with the last two Phish studio albums, I just can’t do it.)

I’m also going to eliminate the Muse and Coheed and Cambria albums. I just haven’t listened to them enough to be able to judge them properly, but I suppose my lack of enthusiasm for them says enough anyway.