December 31, 2012

My top 5 of 2012

1. Fiona Apple made an incredible album

Like Frank Ocean's channel Orange, Fiona Apple's fourth full length, The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Turner of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do was something most critics could get behind regardless of bias. Unlike the circumstances that surrounded Apple's previous releases, the press actually seemed ready for something this emotionally raw and thematically bizarre. The awkward release of Extraordinary Machine in 2005 (prefaced by the leak of demos from 2004, which sounded more like collaborations between Apple and her then producer Jon Brion) led to an uneven album, as well as a minor split between fans who preferred the new arrangements with Mike Elizondo and the fans who believed Apple's earlier demos with Brion to be superior.

I fell into the latter category, and I remember being blown away by the Extraordinary Machine demos; they made good on the promise of 1999's When the Pawn... (which arguably remains Apple's best record) and took her songwriting in a much stranger direction. Brion's signature in the productions was unmistakable. The songs were dark and despairing, but Brion's orchestral arrangements achieved a balance between the ruthlessness of Apple's musical ambition and her mad swell of romantic energy. Apple's concern, and the reason why the album was delayed and reworked before its proper release, was that Brion's compositions overshadowed her songwriting. Upon re-listening, Apple seems wholly justified and it's clear that she's been careful to avoid the same problems since.

Musically, The Idler Wheel... is Fiona Apple's sparest record. The accompaniment of percussion (and any instrumentation beyond the piano) serves her material, which is always jarringly personal and, for that reason, always slightly askew. As The Onion's AV Club review put it, "the production feels compulsive, not calculated." This distinction works to describe most of the album, and I'd argue that Jon Brion's earlier work with Apple achieved the same effect despite working from the opposite direction. Apple's persona is dangerously excessive. In this year's Valentine's Day post, I suggested that for Apple, love always occurs at a pathological level. The point is distilled throughout the songs of The Idler Wheel..., but the line that lays it out best occurs in its centrepiece: the playful, sporadic "Left Alone." "How could I ask anyone to love me," Apple realizes, "when all I do is beg to be left alone." The whole "I'm my own worst enemy" thing is one of the worst pop culture cliches, and though Apple's project frequently suggests as much, she avoids reducing her emotions to the rational and the obvious.

2012 was peppered with news about Apple's run-in with the law, her touching responses to fans, and her tour cancellation (she wanted to spend time with her dog who was dying of cancer). (My favourite interview/article, which celebrated her as a "musical hermit" came courtesy of New York Magazine.) The headlines were amusing but The Idler Wheel... provides us with a self-portrait of real depth, and it has album artwork to match (assembled from a stack of designs and doodles that Apple gave to her record company). As an amateur critic, I can say without reservation that The Idler Wheel... is Apple's strongest and most cohesive artistic statement yet. As a longtime fan, I can also say that she's finally delivered on her promise in a style and format that allows her songwriting to thrive. I've always had pretty strong convictions with regard to Fiona Apple and it's nice to finally see internet buzz machine working in her favour. God knows she deserves it.

Fiona Apple: "Left Alone"

2. The "garage rock" revival revival

Remember popular music in 2001? Remember the attempts of taste-making dinosaurs like Rolling Stone and Spin to market a "return" to rock and roll, despite proclamations by major bands like Radiohead that "rock is dead"? Looking back, the connection between the changing face of music journalism and new trends in popular music has to be made. For the teenage me, those rags were the real engines that drove musical exploration; they were resources, guides, and often oracles for the next big thing. But by the turn of the millennium, they were also becoming outdated and increasingly selective. So it makes sense that a return to the hallowed tradition of rock (in bands like The White Stripes, The Vines, The Strokes, Interpol, and countless others) would give magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone a boost.

All this preamble, simply to say that 2012 saw a minor surge in critically successful albums that bear some resemblance to the garage rock revival of yesteryear. Or, at least they pick up where some of those other bands left off, which is also to say that despite the seeming groundswell of 2001, garage rock has never really gone away. My favourite "rock" albums of this year came from retro outfits like Tame Impala, The Men, Thee Oh Sees (who've been plugging away for the better half of a decade), and their prolific wunderkind pal, Ty Segall.

Australia's Tame Impala released their debut back in 2010. It was an awesome mess of pop hooks and psychedelic guitar effects. Lonerism works with the same kind of energy, but this time around there's a focussed theme and the songs are simply tighter. In a similar way, Putrifiers II is Thee Oh Sees at their most polished and listenable. If indie rock has a sound that it should striving for, it's captured by Thee Oh Sees. Songs like "Floods New Light" and "Wax Face" are exceedingly ballsy jams, while "Wicker Park" closes Putrifiers II with an amusing swell of strings that makes for a comic conclusion to a very different sounding album. It would be easy to describe Thee Oh Sees' sound as "disaffected" but there's plenty of feeling here; it's just that most of the time, it's put in its proper place, amid all the bullshit.

Tame Impala: "Mind Mischief"

Thee Oh Sees: "Wax Face"

3. The year of the loner

Along with a glimpse of Fiona Apple's brooding ego and Tame Impala's sonic embrace of alienation, Sharon Van Etten's Tramp gave the loner in me plenty to chew on. Folk singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen, but Van Etten (like Fiona Apple) demonstrates how compelling one can be in the wake of failed relationships: she stands as a flawed source of resolve, but also site of doubt and despair. Tramp is easily Van Etten's best, and as title might suggest, the album isn't simply a breakup record; it's about a compulsion toward heartbreak and isolation, the passage in and out of relationships, over and over again. It's a dozen breakup albums rolled into one. No surprise, then, that Tramp is at times ridiculously sad. "Warsaw" opens the album with a resounding note of futility. Moments later, the chorus of "Give Out" finds Van Etten mourning her relationship before it even takes off: "you're the reason why I'll move to the city, you're why I'll need to leave." The comparatively upbeat lead single, "Serpents," continues in a similar tone, addressing the speaker's self-projections head-on through a former partner who "hold[s] the mirror to everybody else." Every one of Tramp's songs is heartbreaking (even "We Are Fine," her decisively optimistic duet with Beirut's Zach Condon) and it's hard not to be swept away by the power of Van Etten's emotional despair. So, in conclusion, be careful with this one.

Sharon Van Etten: "Give Out"

4. Est. Brooklyn, 2009

Speaking of history repeating itself, 2012 saw the release of new albums from three of the biggest Brooklyn indie bands and one of its most overlooked, each of whom released their previous (breakthrough) full length in 2009. Unlike all the critical fanfare that accompanied Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective's latest record, Centipede Hz, came and went without much notice. Grizzly Bear and the Dirty Projectors, on the other hand, released some of their best material. Since 2006's Yellow House, I've been a big fan of Grizzly Bear and I was prepared for an album that would continue in the direction of Veckatimest. For better or worse, Shields does not do that. Initially, I found it rather dull and bleak. It took some time, but once I had an access point ("Yet Again"), Shields became an expansive record, full of some really epic moments. The compositions are dense and meandering, while the conceptual terrain is equally dark and plodding. For me, this resulted in what was probably the most immersive listening experience of the year. With Shields, Grizzly Bear has created a rich and sombre world, one that I couldn't easily escape and still don't really want to.

David Longstreth's latest with the Dirty Projectors marches forward with a less totalizing and more optimistic outlook. The songs on Swing Lo Magellan mark a real improvement over 2009's Bitte Orca (which I still consider to be one of the previous decade's best albums) because they take what's best about the Dirty Projectors' sound, composition, and approach and make it personable. The pretence of Longstreth's lyrics has also been toned down (though he did follow the example of Kanye's "Runaway" video and direct a eccentric half-hour film based on the album). And although the song structures are slightly more conventional than they have been, this approach finds the Dirty Projectors at their best.

Unlike the big three I've mentioned, Here We Go Magic hasn't really been subject to the hype of the indie music buzz machine. Their 2009 debut drew equally from the baroque pop of Grizzly Bear and the DIY electronica of Animal Collective. This time around, however, we get a crisp and restrained sounding record that takes its nautical title (A Different Ship) quite seriously. Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich assists with an album that is at times energetic ("I Believe In Action"), unabashedly romantic ("How Do I Know"), and perfectly subtle ("Over the Ocean," "Alone But Moving," "Miracle of Mary"). The latter, slower ballads leave me thinking that frontman Luke Temple has been listening to a lot of Talk Talk, and one can never listen to too much Talk Talk.

Dirty Projectors: "Gun Has No Trigger"

Grizzly Bear: "Sun In Your Eyes"
Here We Go Magic: "Over the Ocean"

5. R&B is very cool right now

This one is pretty self-explanatory

My favourite albums from 2012

1. The Idler Wheel ... - Fiona Apple
2. Lonerism - Tame Impala
3. Putrifiers II - Thee Oh Sees
4. Tramp - Sharon Van Etten
5. A Different Ship - Here We Go Magic
6. Swing Lo Magellan - Dirty Projectors
7. Shields - Grizzly Bear
8. Spooky Action at a Distance - Lotus Plaza
9. Hair - Ty Segall & White Fence, Twins - Ty Segall, Slaughterhouse - Ty Segall Band
10. Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! - Godspeed You! Black Emperor
11. Total Loss - How to Dress Well
12. Animal Joy - Shearwater
13. Sweet Heart Sweet Light - Spiritualized
14. The Haunted Man - Bat for Lashes
15. Open Your Heart - The Men
16. 2 - Mac Demarco
17. Oshin - DIIV
18. channel Orange - Frank Ocean
19. Nootropics - Lower Dens
20. Moms - Menomena


  1. I am one of those "former" people that prefer the official version of Extraordinary Machine, but not by a great deal. I will admit that a lil' bit of Brion's demos bleeding into the official version would have made it a masterpiece. However, we got two exceptional and vastly contrasting versions of the same album. It's like Fiona has released five albums, instead of four. So, I'm thankful for that.

    No matter which version you prefer I don't believe you can call Brion's version a collaboration. Fiona has said that she basically gave the songs to Brion and let him do whatever he wanted with them. And that's what it sounds like to me.

    Also, I don't think the media was hostile towards EM, since it was one of the more acclaimed albums of 2005. However, the official version vs bootleg version yip-yap did leave some people dismissing it. I think the distance of time between The Idler Wheel and Fiona's "This World is Bullshit" speech, along with the quality of the album itself, has been the main contributors to its acclaim. It is her best work to date.

    1. Thanks for your comments.

      Five albums instead of four. I like that idea.

      As for my point about EM as a collaboration between Fiona and Brion: a lot of collaborations work precisely in the way that you spelled out. One artist lays the groundwork and another builds on it. In my mind, that still counts as collaboration. Perhaps Brion's EM didn't conform to the ideal of collaboration that we typically imagine, and that's why it wasn't officially released. All I meant by the term was that both parties had a significant stake in the album. Also, I'm not suggesting that one version is empirically superior over the other; I'm simply stating my preference.

      In response to the last point: I do think the media has written off Fiona in the past. I wasn't specifically referring to the "This world is bullshit" speech, but, yeah, that was a moment where Fiona alienated herself from the kind of buzz that dominated the industry. For some, including myself, it was an example of the kind of honesty I expect from Fiona. For a lot of others at the time, it was a strange outburst that didn't make sense in context of the MTV Video Awards. In the case of The Idler Wheel..., it made a huge difference to have the alternative press behind her record, and I don't think it makes sense to compare the context surrounding albums like When the Pawn... and The Idler Wheel..., since music journalism has changed significantly since they were released.