Oh, hey, look. 12/12/12. Or, as my musician friends have been referring to it, National Soundcheck Day. (Raise your hand if you get that.)
Hard to believe we’re at the end of another year. This is the first of my three-part farewell to 2012, and anyone who has been reading this column for any length of time knows what’s coming. This week we’re going to look at the honorable mentions for the year, next week we unveil the top 10 list, and finally, we get to a thing I’ve been calling Fifty Second Week. What is that? Tune in on Boxing Day to find out.
Last year was a great year for music. This year, well, wasn’t. On paper, it looked terrific. But as the months rolled on, and the disappointments kept piling up, the outlook became more and more bleak. In fact, I racked up so many disappointments this year that I’m able to fill a whole section of this column with them, for the first time.
Not to worry, I do have 10 splendid records to fawn over next week, and I also plan to bestow 19 honorable mentions. But let’s start with the letdowns, since they most accurately represent this year. These aren’t just bad albums (in fact, some of them aren’t all that bad), they’re albums I fully expected would knock me over, based on their authors’ track records. Listening to each of these was a disheartening experience, one I’m not eager to repeat.
It hurts when a band or artist I’ve championed turns in a weak effort, but it hurts even more when I was one of the only voices doing the championing. I took a lot of shit for recommending Linkin Park’s A Thousand Suns, and I stand by it – it was a quantum leap from the Linkin Park of old. The follow-up, Living Things, limply retreated to safer ground, leaving confusion over the band’s direction. I take even more shit for liking Owl City, and defending Adam Young against unfair and lazy Postal Service comparisons. But he sold out everything that made him interesting on the putrud The Midsummer Station, a record I can’t even listen to. So thanks for that, Adam.
Jukebox the Ghost was a late discovery for me in 2010, and I hoped their third album, Safe Travels, would uphold their own high standard. It didn’t – it mostly sounds like a band sanding off their own rough edges on purpose, although there are some highlights. (“Everybody Knows” is one of my favorite pop songs of the year, in fact.) Sixpence None the Richer returned after a decade in the wilderness with the mediocre Lost in Transition. And Joe Jackson broke his hot streak with the misguided, mashed-up Ellington tribute The Duke. Which is a shame, because that was quite a hot streak.
Now we come to the bands and artists who have made previous appearances on my top 10 list. These are the real heavy sighs, the ones that left me confused and sad. Mumford and Sons made a huge impression with their debut, Sigh No More, so when sophomore effort Babel offered the same sound, but weaker songs, it felt like moving in the wrong direction. The Shins have broken up and re-formed more than once, but their latest incarnation, the one behind Port of Morrow, is apparently a coffee-warm adult contemporary band, and it’s the least interesting suit they’ve worn.
I’ve watched Keane’s evolution from piano-pop band to weird and wonderful experimentalists with fascination, but that all came crashing down with the safe, bland, forgettable Strangeland. I like a few of these songs, but the production is so mom-and-pop minivan that any charms are lost. Aimee Mann – Aimee Mann! – released a slight, simple effort with Charmer, breaking her streak of wonderful albums with the same snapping sound depicted on the album’s back cover. And Muse, who have long flirted with the ridiculous, took a screaming dive over the top with their absurd mess of a sixth album, The 2nd Law.
In the end, though, no one quite disappointed like Green Day did. Which may be because no one else disappointed three times. The much-anticipated Uno, Dos, Tre trilogy turned out to be a major-league bust, the band celebrating its former, more juvenile self instead of continuing down the road paved by American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown. I’ll review Tre next year, but suffice it to say that it follows in the footsteps of its predecessors, save for a couple songs that bring back the ambition. But it’s too little too late to save this bloated, uninspired trio of flops.
So all right, enough with the bad news. As I said, I have almost 20 honorable mentions to hand out, so let’s get started. Before I do that, though, I want to mention this: every year, there is one album that ends up on every critic’s top 10 list except mine. This year, that album seems to be Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, which I liked, but didn’t love. So you won’t find that here, or in next week’s rundown, sorry to say.
OK, the honorables. For a while there, it looked like 2012 was building momentum, and two of those early releases have stayed with me ever since. Nada Surf remains one of the most underrated bands in America, and they proved it again with the sharp, blissful The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy. And John K. Samson, formerly of the Weakerthans, turned in a literate, wonderfully observant solo bow with Provincial. That album stayed on the top 10 list for a long time, a testament to its graceful songs.
Two of my longtime favorites turned to their fans this year to help finance their latest efforts. Richard Julian moved his New York attitude to New Orleans and came up with the stomping, funny, sweet and sentimental Fleur de Lis, a valentine to his new hometown. And Bill Mallonee, who has authored more than 50 albums in his three-decade career, made another Americana-tinged winner with Amber Waves.
A pair of electronic artists took huge steps forward this year. Shiny Toy Guns get no respect, but their third record (wittily titled III) is an uncommonly strong electro-pop platter, particularly the more mature, sedate second half. And Passion Pit hit a solid triple the second time up to bat with Gossamer, a sparkling collection of ruminations on love and modern life, wrapped up in danceable, hummable wonder. Gossamer is such a massive leap forward that it barely sounds like the same band.
This was the year of fun., the band behind the hits “We Are Young” and “Some Nights.” Their second album, Some Nights, was almost too big to properly assess, but listened in isolation, its joyous songs and go-for-broke spirit prove irresistible. Beach House made a jump forward in popularity as well with their lush, lovely fourth record, Bloom – this one refined more than redefined, but the band’s sound is so singular that it hardly matters. And little-known songstress Lauren Mann convened her Fairly Odd Folk and made a beautiful little second record, Over Land and Sea. This album’s a gem, and anyone who likes pretty piano-pop should hear it.
Speaking of beauty, we have Hammock, the best shoegaze band on the planet. Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson released a double album this year, called Departure Songs, and it proved to be one of their best – more than 100 minutes of clouds and skyscapes, with transcendent guitar and wonderful melodies. They still didn’t outdo Sigur Ros for unearthly beauty, though. Valtari was an album that surprised even the band that made it, and it’s one of their most fragile and sweeping. It’s almost unbelievably beautiful, particularly the second half.
And then there is the Choir, whose 12th album, The Loudest Sound Ever Heard, is undeniably a step down from their two previous works. But they’re still the Choir – they still have the lovely voice and guitar of Derri Daugherty, the slippery bass of Tim Chandler, the off-kilter yet perfect drumming of Steve Hindalong, the sax textures of Dan Michaels. They are still a band that shouldn’t work, but does, time and time again, and even though I can’t call this album one of the year’s best, I’ve grown to love it. I hope they keep the tunes coming.
Which brings us to my Number 11s, the albums that missed my top 10 list by the slimmest of margins. Anyone calling any of these records one of the 10 best of the year would get no argument from me. We start with Tame Impala, whose psychedelic second album Lonerism impressed with its sprawling, anything-goes sensibility. Then there’s Bob Mould, who finally recaptured his Sugar-y sweet fire with Silver Age, the loudest and best solo album he’s made in… well, ages.
Speaking of people who have made their best album in some time (or ever), we have John Mayer, who seemed to discover earthy honesty on his fifth, Born and Raised. The acoustic, naturalistic country-folk on this album was a big surprise, as was the willingness of its author to forego radio hits for a more sincere artistic statement. Shawn Colvin also went dusty on her new album, All Fall Down, working with Buddy Miller to deliver her first major tonal shift, and perhaps her best record. Colvin’s voice works well in this twangy, sparse setting, and her new songs are tremendous.
Local wunderkind Andrea Dawn was on my list for a long time, thanks to her swell new album Theories of How We Can Be Friends. A dark pop record with surprising hidden depths, Theories should be Dawn’s calling card. It’s a million-dollar record on a thousand-dollar budget, and a showcase for her sultry voice and blossoming songwriting. Buy it here. Natasha Khan also made a remarkable dark pop album with The Haunted Man, her third as Bat for Lashes. It’s stranger and less immediate than anything she’s done, but no less stunning.
And finally, an album that actually appeared on the first draft of this year’s list. Paul Buchanan’s first solo album, Mid Air, is one of the year’s most gorgeous things, stripping back the layers of sound that defined his band the Blue Nile to reveal intimate, graceful piano sketches. Of course, Buchanan sings them in That Voice, a powerful instrument that loses none of its force in this quiet setting. In the best way, this album is like eavesdropping on Buchanan’s private thoughts, and I’m grateful he let us hear them.
See you in line Tuesday morning.