SCAN Reviews 2012: Albums of the Year

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The ‘end of year album list’ may well be among the worst ideas ever devised by music writers. The annual attempt by every music magazine, e-zine and blog to flatten down an almost incomprehensible  range of sounds, lyrics and emotions down into some Microsoft Excel friendly data is a pretty odd phenomenon, but it’s become such an essential part of the musical year that now it’s impossible to ignore. End of year lists definitely have a use as a way to shine lights on real under-the-radar gems, but in recent years they’ve become more of a sort of fashion statement, and a pretty banal and superfluous re-statement of what any given publication has been blathering on about for the last 12 months.

Some publications have contracted an unusually acute case of list-o-mania this year – listen to our Top 100 songs of 2012! Our Top 100 bass drum beats of 2012! Our Top 100 uses of G Sharp of 2012! Others have whipped up lists so predictable that they’re barely worth reading (I get it, everyone loves Grimes – but if there was ever a perfect example of an album that deserves a 6/10 it’s Visions).  On the other hand, some of the most diverse and interesting lists are so long and daunting that it’s hard to know where to begin – do you start with 4 hours of Metal Machine Music-esque ambience, or a 16 minute jazz-punk freak-out by a band from Micronesia? Lists, eh? What are you gonna’ do with them?

So what follows is less of a list and more of a mini-montage – a small selection of albums you may well have missed this year, from a fairly broad variety of genres. No numbers, no scores, no order; just a couple of friendly suggestions from your delicious and organic Student Union newspaper. 2012 was, as always, a fantastic year for music, and here’s to a even better  2013!

Laurel Halo – Quarantine

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xetI0rdi0vo

Along with its cousins ‘effervescent’, ‘ephemeral’ and ‘sounds like Radiohead’,  ‘ethereal’ is one of the most over-used terms in the music reviewer’s vocabulary. It’s often employed as a nice little synonym for ‘I like how her voice sounds, but I haven’t got even the slightest clue what she’s actually singing about’, but it’s worth noting its actual meaning when albums like this crop up – not of this world, of or relating to the ether. Quarantine is ethereal in the sense that it is a collection of songs that seem to have sprung from this ether, this strange ‘other’ space. It’s an album that was born out of the void between the digital and the real, an album that positively hums with the contradiction and conflict of a world where the only constant is that things are always changing.

Musically speaking, that means that Laurel Halo has left us with an album that is probably best described as ‘extremely weird’. It’s almost impossible to track the directions that her music heads in; familiar elements float off into an endless chorus-less void; her vocals shift from pure pop  to devotional chanting to atonal incantations and then back again. In parts it’s even a little scary – for example, about a third of the way into the already odd ‘Joy’, Halo pulls away all semblance of rhythm, leaving the listener floating in a bizarre, uncomfortable wasteland of off-kilter synthesisers and bursts of pulsating noise. Everything familiar is transformed into something that’s distorted, confusing and new.

In short – Won’t make you dance, but will make you think.

Death Grips – The Money Store

I never thought I would be the type to be corrupted by violent rap music, especially at the ripe old age of 21, but apparently I was wrong. Death Grips have changed me. They make me want to burn buildings. They make me want crash cars into walls at 110 mph, and generally behave as if I were in a Grand Theft Auto game. They make me want to stick the Earth between two giant speakers and rattle it and everything on it into tiny, indivisible pieces. I would even go as far to say that I hold them solely responsible for the very small act of vandalism I recently committed on the walls of a toilet cubicle. A pretentious and juvenile act it may have been – an obscure French revolutionary slogan written in non-permanent marker in an inconspicuous location – but I don’t care, because I AM FINALLY FUCKING WITH THE SYSTEM. TAKE THAT WORLD.

Ahem. Sorry.

The Money Store is great because it truly inspires action – something that can’t be said of much music at all at the moment. Whether it’s effecting tiny mental changes in its listeners, causing tiny acts of vandalism in pub toilets, or changing the way the music industry works, Death Grips are making things happen. The heart of this action is in the white-hot noise that the trio produce – MC Ride’s schizophrenic rhymes clatter over the top of warped beats and samples, and Zach Hill’s furious drumming barely manages to hold the songs together. Highlights are everywhere. Hacker is simultaneously a dance floor banger and a surrealist call-to-arms, as Ride raps ‘my existence is a momentary lapse of reason’ over the top of some skittery club rhythms. Punk Weight is a glorious mess of distorted drums, ultra-violent imagery and warped Bollywood samples. And on System Blower they take a sample of Serena Williams’ post-serve yelp and turn into it a hook so powerful that it could quite feasibly be employed by the US Army as some sort of weapon. Everything here is terrifying, powerful and utterly addictive.

In a year where a lot of mainstream was dominated by the bland and the bloated, Death Grips seem like they might be the harbingers of a new punk.

In short – they came to blow your system, and they succeeded.

Django Django – Django Django

If you’re a Scottish band with an extremely cool name then you’re almost guaranteed a spot on SCAN’s favourite records of the year not-list, and that counts doubly if you also happen to have the same gift for song writing that Django Django have. Simply put, the quartet have put together the finest British indie-pop album of the year, an album that expertly blends together myriad influences – surf rock, glitchy electronica, modern R & B, and even western soundtracks – into an extremely coherent and refreshingly minimalist package.

That’s not to say the Djangos are minimal in the same way that recent minimalist trend-setters, like James Blake or the xx, have been. Instead of filling their songs with vast swathes of empty space, they simply thrive on constraint and subtlety. You get the sense that every single note in every single song has been discussed, debated, argued over, and then meticulously placed for maximum musical effect. And it works stunningly well, with the brilliantly named Hail Bop and single Default thriving on irresistibly simple grooves. With the centre of the song established, they then pile on that good old Scottish charm, with their tight vocal harmonies, tighter guitar lines and a couple of stunning lyrical moments ensuring that their début was one of the finest of the year.

In short – an exciting and eminently danceable début. And several thousand light years less boring than Alt-Bloody-J.

Anaïs Mitchell –  Young Man in America

There are two kinds of people in this world.

1) People who have found meaning amidst the furious nihilism of day to day existence, who are happy and contented in all that they do, who have culturally enriched lives, think critically, act thoughtfully, and live the fullest life they could possibly lead.

2) People who haven’t listened to Anais Mitchell yet.

She really is that good. Mitchell first came to the attention of the wider public with 2010’s Hadestown, a sweeping folk-opera based on the myth of Eurydice that included supporting roles from Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver fame) and Ani DiFranco. It was (rightly) an incredible critical smash, enchanting everyone who had the fortune of listening to it and breaking all sorts of all-time highest aggregate review scores in the process.

Young Man in America continues in the same vein as its predecessor. And whilst it may seem narrower in its scope – this is a story of small town America rather than a Greek epic – if anything it’s even more effective at exploring themes of family, love and legacy. The fact that Mitchell can deal with such heavy topics in an incredibly effortless way shows how incredibly talented she is as a songwriter. Lyrics move from  the powerful, detailed realism of the title track (my mother gave a mighty shout/opened her legs and let me out) to the haunting repetition of Coming Down. Her sound beautifully complements this lyrical variety, too.  Her template may be a standard folky mix of guitars, keys and violins, but she steers her band expertly between moments of lush intensity and total, beautiful silence, which makes Young Man in America seem much more musically fleshed out than a lot of contemporary folk.

I’m going to steal some words out of a book I read this year, because I can’t think of a better way of how to describe how I and others feel when listening to this record – Anais Mitchell is the kind of artist that ‘ fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans hear her record’. It’s a zeal shared by some extremely big names (see below), and, if you listen to it, it’s a zeal you’ll share too.

In short – Another small masterpiece from an artist who doesn’t get the attention she deserves.

Chromatics – Kill For Love

Chromatics mainstay Johnny Jewel gave an excellent interview to the Quietus earlier this year (well worth a read, that) that perfectly explained the motivation behind their stunning album Kill For Love.

‘Kill For Love’ is about those little pieces of you that die when somebody you love isn’t around any more for whatever reason, death, distance or breaking up. Part of me that they held or that we shared is gone. I kind of keep that away from everybody and then slowly over time you build these walls and become detached. It’s kind of like killing yourself. People don’t understand that that’s what the song is about. It’s totally unhealthy and it’s not the correct way to be but it’s the way a lot of people react. In its own way it’s a romantic notion for respect. They’re not just catchy hipster lyrics! There’s a lot of thought. Kill is a strong word.’

Put simply, this is some really heavy stuff. This is nicely illustrated by the title track, which features such upbeat lyrics as ‘I kept a bottle by the foot of the bed’ and ‘I took a pill almost every night’. And this is the most upbeat song on the album! But it works because Jewel’s song writing, combined with the whole bands wonderfully understated playing and Ruth Radelet’s beautifully expressive vocals, come together in a unique way – it creates a sense of slowness. Kill For Love is a very slow album – the kind of thing that seems like it should exist on a crackly double LP rather than Spotify. It takes its time to get where it wants to go, always lingering on the painful bits, never rushing to get to an explosive chorus or anthemic, hands-in-the-air chant. And at 16 songs, this is not a short album either, with many of those songs are pushing 6, 7 or 8 minutes long. Other bands would condense songs like These Streets Will Never Look The Same and Running From the Sun into three and half minute chunks, but under the watchful eyes of Jewel they’ve been able to slowly develop, stretch out and evolve, turning what might seem like repetitive instrumentation into epic, meditative passages that you could quite happily listen to for hours on end. Guitars chug away, drums quietly patter way, and 80s synths play the same simple chord progressions over and over, but it never gets tiring. These slow builders come as no surprise, really, coming from a band who made their name with a 15 minute track that mimicked the ticking of a clock. But this type of song writing really comes into its own here, with these long stretches evoking lonely night drives,  lonelier night clubs, and, in the case of the title track, the loneliest of hearts.

The best art is always untimely, and Chromatics have created something that is so at odds with the instant thrill, pummelling noise, hyper-accelerated pleasure culture of 2012 that it just demands to be heard. That’s not to say it’s backwards looking, either – even though it moves along a pre-digital pace, Jewel uses this speed as a way to look at and critique modern society. To quote that interview again: ‘with emails, you read it when you want to read it, or they say they didn’t get it, or it bounces back. You’re always struggling with detachment and separation in a romantic relationship’. And ultimately, it’s this combination of past influences and forward-looking commentary that makes this one of the year’s best albums.

In short – Way better than the Drive soundtrack.

Rolo Tomassi – Astraea

Astraea may be ‘heaviest’ album on this definitely-not-a-list by quite some way (at least, in the traditional distorted guitar and screaming vocals sense of heavy), but that certainly shouldn’t put anyone off – this album represents the culmination of about seven years of musical development from one of the most progressive and hard working young bands in the country.

In previous years Tomassi albums were always highlights, but they always seemed to stop just short of genuine brilliance. Their début impressed with its wide range of ideas but suffered from a lack of focus as a result, and, while certainly a successful experiment for everyone involved, the Diplo-produced Cosmology was often a little too polished for its own good. So what’s changed? On the surface, things seem pretty similar. The quintet’s special brand of hardcore is as unashamedly proggy as ever, with the usual fiendishly technical instrumental parts hopping to and fro amongst an array of bizarre time signatures. Eva Spence retains the somewhat miraculous ability to flip-flop between a gorgeously tuneful coo and a pants-wettingly terrifying growl. And as per usual, songs lurch from shoegazey loveliness to industrial-strength metal in matter of seconds. But on Astraea these elements properly combine to create a truly coherent (yet sonically wild) whole.

The sung vocals are now less of a gimmick (hey, look, we can sing too!) and more of a real feature, and so the more usual shouty vocals feel even more powerful by comparison. And whereas previous attempts to meld genres were fun in an school-science-experiment-gone-awry sort of way (lounge jazz -> apocalyptic calypso funk -> Oasis covers -> metal ->K-Pop, for example), they now merge together completely and thrill in a school-science-experiment-gone-totally-awesomely-right way. The transition from classical piano to utter chaos on Empiresk is a particularly good moment here, but it’s the sublime final track Illuminare, with its shuddering, shimmering, shoegaze backdrop, that shows how far this band have come.

I never really felt like Rolo Tomassi were the kind of band that, in accordance with my general taste in music, ‘I should like’. Too heavy! Too screamy! Too scary!  But their initial ‘untitled’ EP drew me in with an utterly inexplicable musical gravity, and cuts from their first two albums like ‘I Love Turbulence’, ‘Fofteen’ and ‘Party Wounds’ do very strange things to my brain. Astraea manages to inspire this mixture of awe, wonder and fear on every track, and it’s this that marks Rolo Tomassi out as one of the most exciting and unique bands in the UK, a band that deserves to find plenty of fans outside the usual hardcore circles.

In short – a fantastic consolidation of their usual strengths as well a bold new direction from the Sheffield quintet.

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