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Plummeting Down The Charts: Albums of 2012

Posted on Thursday, 10 January 2013 | No Comments

One more act of retrospection before we move on, I swear...
Like a junkie reaching for the needle or an NME editor putting a Gallagher on the cover for the ten thousandth time, here's another list of long-players for the year just gone of the sort that us music autistics scribes just can't get enough of.

As it's albums that I'm focusing on, I'm leaving EPs out of the running - a quick tip of the hat though to Kindred by Burial and Undersea by The Antlers, both of which have the ambition and heft of the year's finest LPs but at a fraction of the time and are easily two of the finest releases of the year just gone.

Honourable Mentions (75-21):

…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead – Lost Songs
Andy Stott – Luxury Problems
Animal Collective – Centipede Hz
Baroness – Yellow & Green
Belbury Poly - The Belbury Tales
Cate Le Bon - Cyrk
Clinic - Free Reign
Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
Crystal Castles – (III)
Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan
Dexys - One Day I'm Going to Soar
Eugene McGuinness - The Invitation to the Voyage
Gallon Drunk - The Road Gets Darker from Here 
Hot Chip - In Our Heads
How To Dress Well - Total Loss
The Irrepressibles - Nude
JJ Doom - Key To The Kuffs
John Talabot – fin
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Laetita Sadier - Silencio
Laurel Halo – Quarantine
Liars - WIXIW
Lindstrom - Smalhans
The Maccabees - Given to the Wild
Maximo Park – The National Health
Melody’s Echo Chamber – Melody’s Echo Chamber
Nas - Life is Good
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill
Neneh Cherry & The Thing – The Cherry Thing
Neurosis – Honor Found in Decay
Nite Jewel - One Second of Love
Of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks
Om – Advaitic Songs
Polica - Give You The Ghost
Rufus Wainwright – Out of the Game
Saint Etienne - Words and Music by Saint Eteinne
Sharon Van Etten - Tramp
Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light
Stealing Sheep - Into The Diamond Sun
Tame Impala – Lonerism
Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin - Instrumental Tourist
Toy - Toy
The Twilight Sad – No One Can Ever Know
The Walkmen - Heaven 

Albums of 2012, 20-1:

20. The xx - Coexist

Q: How do you follow up a critically-acclaimed, platinum selling debut album? A: Release the same album again. It's unavoidable that Coexist makes full use of the formula that xx broke through with in 2009 - there's plenty of hushed vocals, interwebbed guitar and bass lines and sharp, icy dupstep-referencing production from Jamie xx. What made Coexist worthwhile is that it tightened up the formula further. The beats hit harder, the sound pallette was more minimal, the emotions amplified. The Burial click of Chained, the gorgeously melancholic Missing, the actually dancefloor-ready Swept Away and the emotional heft of Our Song made Coexist a worthy refinement of an already addictive mix. Mind you, they could still do with unleasing Jamie xx a little when it comes to LP3...

19. THEESatisfaction – awE naturaL

With their connection to conspiratorial hip-hop enigma Shabazz Palaces and Sub Pop issued debut, THEESatisfaction might have established their alternative credentials before listening, but even a cursory spin of awE naturaL confirmed their undeniable swing. A glorious psychedelic swirl of R&B, rap, neo soul and electronic funk, the duo of Cat and Stas looked to the whole past of black dance music and dragged it back to the future that it always had been. awE naturaL was a short, compulsive record that burrowed its way into the head - and got your hips shaking irresistably.

18. Grimes – Visions

Although the breakout success of this album may appear obvious in hindsight - a zeitegist-surfing take on electronic music, four bone-fide pop greats in Genesis, Oblivion, Nightmusic and Be a Baby, and of course the internet-ADD technicolour explosion of Claire Boucher herself - it's still worth remarking on a the interesting game 4AD played when they signed Grimes up for her third album. Her early work may have paid lip service to pop, but in the kind of dismissive, bratty hipster tone almost designed to put off all but the most devoted fashionista, and even 2010's Halfaxa boasted a resolutely underground aesthetic. Yet on Visions, Grimes pulled off the impressive trick of staying true to her identity - there's still plenty of pseudo-goth rumblings and odd sidesteps here - whilst hitting on a new level of craft and inspiration. It was a stride forward that kept all the ground she's already won, and deservedly brought her widespread acclaim.

17. Sigur Ros – Valtari

When Sigur Ros went on hiatus in 2009, there was plenty of reason to believe that they'd reached the end of the line. Their last, patchy effort, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, had seen them drift uncomfortably close to the dead waters of Coldplay, and Jonsi's solo work seemed to have taken priority. Come 2012 though, and the arrival of Valtari found a band taking their sound back to its roots whilst also pushing it into a new direction. Although the album may still be unmistakeabyly Sigur Ros - there's plenty of twinkling background effects, soaring strings and the bounteous falsetto of Jonsi - in stripping back the bombast and taking a new, frequently percussion-less and ambient direction, they managed to refresh their identity and also create an impressive, immsersive piece of work.

16. Future of the Left - The Plot Against Common Sense

By rights, Falco should be a national icon by now. Future of the Left's ferocious, damn-near-perfect second album Travels with Myself and Another was a dazziling burst of fury, hooks and razor-sharp that should have taken them to the big leagues (and Falco probably knows this as well as anyone). But, this didn't happen. So he's still shouting from the sidelines, but the re-shuffled line-up featured on The Plot Against Common Sense gave his attack new focus and clarity. While the length of the thing does count against it - for a band like this, fifteen full tracks is just too long - it's still a hilarious, superbly executed attack on the mass stupidity and complacency of Britain of 2012. And again, there is no song this year with a better title Robocop 4 (Fuck Off Robocop).

15. Flying Lotus – Until The Quiet Comes

For many listeners, 2010's dense, exploratory Cosmogramma was the defining statement of Flying Lotus. So where do you go from there? On Until The Quiet Comes, the answer was obvious: inwards. As a producer, Steve Ellison continues to thread together an exquisitve patchwork of micro-songs and wired, fractured hip-hop beats, and there's still a remarkable flurry of ideas as the album progresses, with eighteen pieces bleeding into each other over the album's forty-five minutes. Yet there's also a spaciousness and meditative quality here that's new to Flying Lotus, and especially on the the second half of the record the cosmic jazz side of his material gets its fullest reign yet, culminating in the beautiful coda of me Yesterday//Corded. If it's not as risk-taking and frantic as its predecessor, the more inviting Until The Quiet Comes makes it another success for the wunderkind producer.

14. Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind

Since 2000's epoch-defining Jane Doe, Converge have been the undisputed masters of hardcore - faster, heavier, louder and smarter than the rest of the pack. 2009's Axe to Fall however saw them weighed down with a horde of guest appearances and collaborations. For All We Love We Leave Behind then, it's stripped back to the direct four-piece sound, and the result is possibly their most impressive collection since You Fail Me in 2003. In some senses more conventional than before - there's nothing as gleefully insane as a Concubine or a Sacrifice here - Converge have centered back on their punk-metal core and recorded a set that balances aggression and abrasion with a real emotional heft and surprising catchiness. Yet again, they're the best in the game.

13. Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It

"I will take the dark part / of your heart into my heart" promised Mike Hadreas on Dark Parts, summarising the mission of his second Perfume Genius record Put Your Back N 2 It. Where debut Learning had been confessional in the extreme, like reading through an especially traumatised high school diary, this time round the effect was of solidarity and sympathy. Shaking off some of the lo-fi constraints and inclining towards hope amidst the despair, Put Your Back N 2 It is the one record here that years down the line people will be clutching to the hearts during the bad times.

12. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

In one of the most impressive surprise releases there's ever been, Godspeed You! Black Emperor quietly snuck copies of their first post-reformation recordings 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! onto the merch desk at the start of a North American tour in October before any formal announcement of the record's existence. Consisting of two long pieces premiered before their 2003 hiatus, Mladic and We Drift Like Worried Fire (formerly known as Albanian and Gamelan respectively), and two new drone interludes, it might not have the same dramatic punch as F# A# Infinity or Life Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, but it was still a wonderful surprise and a great comeback all the same. Here's hoping the wait for the next album's a little shorter...

11. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. City

While good kid, m.A.A.d. city may not be Kendrick Lamar's debut per se, with his internet-only album Section 80 coming out the previous year, there's still some truth to the claim that this has been the most feverishly received major-label rap offering since Illmatic by Nas back in 1994. If Kendrick's record might be just a little too baggy to be a classic of quite that stature, it's still easily one of the finest hip-hop records of recent memory. An ambitious tale of Kendrick's upbringing in Compton and his escape from falling to the gang lifestyle, it's a smart and vivid critique and re-examination of gangster rap, with Kendrick establishing him as a formidable young talent.

10. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
Although this much-vaunted comeback wasn't quite as unexpected as some had suggested (with 2001's exceptional Ten New Songs and 2004's Dear Heather being strangely overlooked), Leonard Cohen's first new album following his return to the live stage in 2008 was another fine addition to arguably the greatest songwriting canon of all time. Wry and witty, Old Ideas took on ageing and mortality with the same grace and wisdom as he also approached his long-term subjects of belief and longing, with the finest moments here - Going Home, Amen, Darkness, Different Sides - standing up there at the top of his tower of song.

9. Grizzly Bear – Shields

Approaching the daunting task of following up 2009's Vekatimest, the quartet of Grizzly Bear opted for evolution over revolution. As such, while Shields may not have made the same immediate splash as its predecesor, repeat listens open up a record that might just be the band's best to date. There's a looseness within their sound now that's opened them up to new colours like the careening opener Sleeping Ute, the slinky and polished Gun Shy or the synth washes that adorn Speak In Rounds, while the epic closing number Sun In Your Eyes is certainly the most dramatic, and perhaps the greatest, achievement the band have managed to date. With Shields, Grizzly Bear proved themselves as a band for the ages.

8. Frank Ocean – channel:ORANGE

It's funny now to think that twelve months ago, Frank Ocean was just the singing one from Odd Future. He's since become an R&B icon on the verge of genuine superstardom, all thanks to the genre-blending, soulful channel:ORANGE. It might be somewhat disjointed and messy as an album, but the bredth and depth of the songwriting here - the strutting funk of Sweet Life, the sultry Thinking About You, the epic Pyramids, those Earl Sweatshirt and Andre 3000 collaborations, and of course the titanic Bad Religion - renders that only a minor complaint. On channel:ORANGE, we saw one of pop's most exciting new talents announce themself to the world with gusto.

7. Beach House – Bloom

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. This approach can have its detractors, and for good reason - but then again, are you going to slag the Ramones off because they kept pumping out two-minute smash after two-minute smash? Beach House kept to form on Bloom, keeping the upgraded production values from Teen Dream and incorproating live drumming for the first time. They got away with it though for the simple reason that Bloom is the strongest set of songs they've had to date, resulting in an album whose grace and beauty it's a delight to get lost in. This generation's answer to the Cocteau Twins? On this evidence, well, yes.

6. Death Grips – The Money Store

Death Grips put out two fine, attention-grabbing records this year, but for this writer it was April's The Money Store that stood out as the highlight. Taking all the menance and experimentation that made debut mixtape Ex-military a cult hit and expanding on it with the budget of (temporary) paymasters Epic, Death Grips unleashed one of the most uncompromising and bruising records to have ever escaped from the confines of a major label. At its finest, The Money Store took all the paranoia of the internet age and the anger stoked by recession and the failure of the political classes, and threw it back at the listener as a cathartic, empowering energy. Just try listening to I've Seen Footage or Hacker and not feeling twelve feet tall afterwards.


5. Tindersticks – The Something Rain

Following the final installment of their mighty triptych of Tindersticks, Tindersticks II and Curtains emerging in 1997, Tindersticks turned their hand towards several different styles and methods (including soul music, soundtrack work, and the rougher sound of Falling Down a Mountain) to a variety of success. Nothing however had quite touched the gold standard of these three records until ninth album The Something Rain. While it's hard to pick exactly where the difference lies - their new line-up gelling fully after two slightly hesitant releases, the glossy production with a hint of Avalon-era Roxy Music to it, or just a startling high level of quality control this time out - it's regardless a remarkable statement. It's as dark, seedy, romantic and sweeping as any Tindersticks fan could hope for.

4. Chromatics – Kill For Love

Kill For Love is full of decisions and ideas that shouldn't work. Disrupting the flow of your synth-pop numbers with tracks of icy ambience? Starting the whole thing with a cover of a classic Neil Young number? Keeping any audience waiting five years from when your previous release was briefly in-vogue? Part of the majesty of this release though is how thoroughly vindicated every decision of Johnny Jewel's has been. It may have been a good album with just the pop songs, but it's the incredible ebb and flow and the scope of this thing that elevates it to greatness. Rather than dominating the rest of the material, the introductory run-through of Into the Black actually sets out the sonic and emotional terrain of the following hour-plus perfectly. And the five-year wait? Well, some film called Drive meant that when they finally came back, Chromatics had a whole new audience waiting. Kill For Love, as with the top three following it in this rundown, is a tribute to artistic bloody mindedness and the rewards of sticking to your vision.

3. Swans – The Seer

About fifteen minutes (!) into the title track of The Seer, with Swans having spent the last few minutes banging away at one single chord until it starts to rip a hole through time and space, there's a few thoughts that might run into the listener's head. How long is this going to go on for, obviously. How the hell is this possible, closely following up. And if you've really been paying attention, you'll then be asking: why does this ever have to end? A two-hour long, two-CD/triple vinyl goliath, The Seer might rank as the first reformation record to actually best anything previously accomplished by the act in question. With his reconstituted band and an array of guests (including Low, Karen O and former Swans co-leader Jarboe), Michael Gira presents us with his grandest argument yet for heavy music and emotional extremity as a pathway to transcendence and enlightenment. Listen through all the way, and you'll be taken on a remarkable journey through a huge range of moods and textures before arriving, as the final song The Apostate rings out, unshackled and free. A difficult but undeniably phenomenal achivement.

2. Field Music – Plumb

After 2010's weighty double set Measure, the slimmed-down scope of Plumb might have represented a retreat. Instead, Plumb marks the apotheosis of their career to date, compressing their ingenious arrangements and gift for hooks into a continously unspooling treat. The real achievement on Plumb though was the lyrical development - where Field Music lyrics have previously been the bits between the 'ahh-ahh' vocal harmonies (resulting in the frankly lethal Field Music drinking game), here the focus on more personal matters and on the challenges in trying to live and work as an artist in the modern day gave the record a meaning and focus that elevated their songwriting talent even further. The increased attention the album gave them was well earned: this was the sound of a group hitting their peak.

1. Scott Walker – Bish Bosch

Increasingly, I'm of the view that late-period Scott Walker (which we'll take here as starting with 1995's Tilt) can be used as a kind of aural Rorschach test. The reactions to the trilogy of albums from then - Tilt, The Drift and Bish Bosch - seem to reveal something underlying about how we've come to react to challenging and provocative artistic statements. For the average indie rocker, it's an interesting novelty, but really, can't he just crack out a bit of Brel like the old days? For the pop fan, it's something to be actively scorned, an absurd waste of time, its own punchline. For the dedicated avant-gardist, it's a weak imitation of the advances made by serious, 'real' twentieth-century composers, a mere tip of the hat to experimental music made to appeal more credible.

While my own feelings towards the album are perhaps evident by Bish Bosch's placing (and what it says about me - well, I'll leave that one to you...) , there is some truth to all of these. Most mornings, I'd probably rather listen to Scott ease his way through Jackie than make my way through the inhuman percussive assault of 'See You Don't Bump His Head'. Trying to actually describe the bloody thing - the ten-minute piece that includes the sound of machetes being scraped together and a soundtrack of farts, a twenty-two minute centrepiece about Atilla the Hun's dwarf jester travelling through time to become a pole sitter in New York in the 1920s - is almost beyond parody. And while your parents would likely disagree, hidden away on this thing is a fair amount of genuine, conventional, pretty melody.

So why is Bish Bosch sitting at the top spot for 2012 then? For me, it's very simple: this album marks the fullest realisation yet of the most distinct, exploratory and significant songwriting voice at work today. It's the album Scott Walker has been building towards since those four pieces of futuristic rock with which he ended his songwriting silence on Nite Flights in 1978 - delving deeper into the possibilities of arrangements, shifting his one-of-a-kind baritone into a space more nebulous and queasily expressive, restructuring his entire lyrical style to express images hitherto alien to the world of popular music. (Certainly, that he seems to be the only lyricist out there - poet/lyricist Leonard Cohen marking an honourable exception - to have noticed the last century of poetry happened underlines his significance as a contemporary lyricist.)

Indeed, by this point, the usual critical standard of drawing comparison with other singers, bands or sounds just doesn't work anymore. On Bish Bosch, what we are confronted with is far more akin to Francis Bacon at his most graphic, to the vast range and allusions of Ezra Pound's Cantos, to the ribald multitudes contained within a Thomas Pynchon novel. As post-modernity breathes its last (how else do you explain the V&A doing a retrospective?), Scott has taken on the mantle of the still-unfinished modernist project and taken it boldly into the twentieth-century.

What we have then is an album that, as much as it draws from all manner of different disciplines, dares ultimately to stand on its own, without a movement or a grouping to fall back on. Even as the album nods towards the metal genre - check those guitar parts at the end of Phrasing - or the electronic viscera of Dimple or the already mentioned 'See You Don't Bump His Head', or shifts to a bizzare lurching parody of jazz part way through Epizootics!, the effect is to shift the work away from any easy categorisation. Old forms are crumpled, stripped bare and put to new use, to glorious and barbarous new skeletons to conjure something fit for the new. 

An album this well constructed, this singular in its delivery and intent, one that shifts from brutality to beauty via some gloriously warped music-hall gags (one of Bish Bosch's great achivements surely must be proving once and for all that, yes, Scott does have a sense of humour) and that stands at the apex of what has been one of the most expansive and shifting artistic careers imaginable is, with a certain inevitability, always going to top any such list for me. It may not always be pretty, it may not be the big new sound, but if you want to experience the power and potential of music explored fully, Bish Bosch is the record that counts.

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