Top Albums of 2012 (thus far)

A mid-year look at Brian Lee’s favorite albums of 2012. Beach House (above), Sigur Ros, Grimes make the list.

[By Brian Lee]

It’s August and I’m glad I’m writing my mid-year review 2 months late. 🙂 Hey, summer ain’t over!

Now that we’ve spent 2 months chiseling our abs at the gym, this is the time to hit those beach parties and flaunt the tankinis. But, if you’re like me, the type of guy who spends insurmountable time at the gym and never gets skinny, maybe you should attract pretty girls by making them a tasteful mixtape. It works for John Cusack in “High Fidelity” and John Cusack can do no wrong!

In retrospect, I personally think 2012 is such a brilliant year for music. If what we’ve heard so far is any predictor, then we are in for a great year. I get goose bumps thinking about all the music left to discover this year…READ this lineup: Animal Collective, Bloc Party, Four Tet, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Cat Power, Dan Deacon, Matthew Dear, The XX….what a wonderful world! I got a feeling my year-end list will comprise of musical releases from the next 4 months.

Honorable Mentions:

TheeSatisfaction – awE naturalE

Twin Shadow – Confess

Anti Balas – Anti Balas

The Magnetic Fields – Love at the bottom of the sea

Julia Holter – Ekstasis

Diiv – Oshin

Father John Misty – Fear Fun

La Sera – Sees the Light


And now on to the countdown…

15. The Shins – Port of Morrow

Oh how much I miss The Shins! Five years ago, I walked into Michel Gondry’s sentimental nostalgic dream with “Wincing the Night Away”. I fell in love, I faltered, I fantasized, I sang in the shower. Natalie Portman was right…This band changed my life!  Expecting the same power pop and traditional guitar anthem from their new release, I view “Port of Morrow” to be the band’s most divisive record. I am sure the departure of all the original members, except for James Mercer, plays a big part here. Overflowing with catchy guitar jingles, driving bass lines a la 60’s McCartney and pop-electronica instrumentals, there’s a lot here to get lost in. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes this experimentation works! For the song “Port of Morrow”, the contrast between Mercer’s stretched-out falsetto and woozy synthesizers feels otherworldly calm and seamlessly chilling in a bizarre fashion.  On the flip side, you wish you get more “Simple Song”, a song so catchy, wistful and jangly you thought it was recorded on their “Chutes Too Narrow” days.

In short, I’d say the dual nature of this album is nothing more than a new level of maturity. Sure the band strays away from their comfort zone (powerful ballads with lush vocal melodies), however, in the process, the band never abandoned their true strengths: meticulous songwriting, mysterious lyrics and powerful vocals. This album just requires a close and patient listen.


14. Tanlines – Mixed Emotion

When I’m at the gym, I hate doing squats! To muster the courage, I need a jovial tune with catchy dance beats, recurrent hand claps, synthesizers galore -then you top all that with some hopeless cheesy lyrics! 🙂 “All of Me” never ceases to expose my inner “Jedi”!

Shuffling 80’s dance-pop beats, Afro-Pop instrumentation and New Order-esque synth play, this Swedish Pop duo is making club-worthy pop gems with the sound of the ‘80s in a way that feels very refreshing. Yeah, there were occasional songs that felt “emotionally subdued” (“Not the same” or “Brothers”) and you wished you had gotten more enthusiasm, simplicity, and definite directness from this album. But, overall, Mixed Emotions still plays like a great debut! These songs hum all over your head, it’s almost impossible not to press REPEAT.


13. Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror

Sleigh Bells are a head turning band! Every time I hear those fuzzy garage-grunge shred and overly noisy drum machines, I just get the rage to display my uninspiring air-guitar skills. I can’t quite pinpoint how I’d describe this album…what I “think” I know is: they like 80’s metal guitar solos, they like 90’s Shoegaze guitar screeching, and they like bass-drum machine combos (not exactly EDM style).

Call me an “old soul” but at times, the amount of fuzz, echo, and explosion just felt too boisterous for anyone to play this album on their stereo. And this is where Krauss’ breathy, high register comes into play. That slightly wounded yet sincere vocal does a tremendous job offsetting the intersection between those manic guitar riffs and that dreamlike easiness. With that in mind, I think“Road to Hell” is the album’s flagship salvo.

Our contributor, Franceasca Seiden, wrote a compelling album review here .


12. Porcelain Raft – Strange Weekend

You realize how certain dream-pop records just suffocate you into that hazy soundscape and at the end of the record, you feel exhaustion with zero gratification. This is not the case with Porcelain Raft! In a way, Remiddi’s struggle to find a true music identity (whether it’s reverb guitar pop, hazy dance music or 80’s synth-pop) is what makes Strange Weekend a compelling, fascinatingly layered, and never predictable record. At first listen, the opening track “Drifting In and Out”, I thought I was getting DIY bedroom music with reverb-drenched vocals and spacey beats that make them both ethereal and nostalgic. But then you get a song like “Unless you speak from your heart”, a fidgety synth-pop tune with a big/optimistic chorus that could’ve been found in any early 90s George Michael record.  No, the fun doesn’t stop there! What about “Shapeless & Gone”? A song with an over the top acoustic hook, preening multi-layered electric guitar and pensive keyboard, it sounds like Remiddi’s best effort to recreate Spacemen 3’s “The Perfect Prescription” or (maybe) New York Dolls’ “Too Much Too Soon”.

While an initial listen of the album might feel like the album needs a better transition, it’s with repeated listens that you’ll be able to learn, absorb and realize just how much Remiddi is able to cram into the woozy, hypnotic beatscapes of Strange Weekend.


11. Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It

Towards the end of January, I was reading Spin’s article about a talented young man, named Mike Hadreas a.k.a. Perfume Genius, who put out an album so controversially mournful that at the end of the album “you’d be crying until your last breath”.  So with full-on bravado, I tried to listen to this album. Granted, after 6 songs, the album has broached the subject of: trading sex for money, searching prostitutes for temporary affection, gay teenagers committing suicide, etc. At this point, I was yearning for a cigarette, no more psychodrama please!  But then the song “Dirge” (Edna St. Vincent Millay’s piece) came up, a song/poetry so defiant, courageous, and resolute despite the writer’s best intention to describe the raw emotions of feeling loss. I’m glad the writer didn’t go with the simplistic clichés such as “God has many plans for her” or “She’s smiling at us from heaven”, instead it ends with “…I am not resigned”. I didn’t resign from listening to the next 6 tracks.

When stripped to the bone, “Put Your Back N 2 It” is the aural diary of an emotionally conflicted young man figuring out how to signify his pain with piano-ballads, a beautiful falsetto, and nothing but the truth. To describe Hadreas’ vocal, I’d think Anthony Hegarty from Anthony and the Johnsons…it’s quite androgynous to the point where it can be overwhelmingly romantic or weary. Many of the songs, such as “Hood” or “Take Me Home” or “Awol Marine”, lack the optimistic outlook, instead, these songs build up such a strong tension then drop everything in silence…it’s so intoxicating, you’ll be left wondering for days.


10. Hot Chip – In Our Heads

There’s no denying that Hot Chip has 1 formula: Making music to make us dance out of our skin! I was reading one of the listeners’ comments on their Youtube video for “Flutes” — boosh1988 commented, “Do you think the band knows the internal torture they’re causing in us all with this song? It is so difficult to listen to this song in public and restrain yourself from waving your arms in the air at 4.36.”

While most contemporary club music forays into other stern subgenres – let’s say dubstep – Hot Chip seems content being the nerd who finishes second on the DIY robot competition as long as the robot exemplifies their personality – can do the shuffle while chugging a 40 oz. on autopilot mode.

I’m not so sure how Hot Chip did it again! For me, at least. Throughout all of their albums, they had some of the most peculiar, unabashedly heartfelt, energetic electro-funk I have ever had the pleasure of hearing! Blending the best of 90’s R&B, 80’s Soul/ Funk Revival, and some 70s cheesy soft rock, I found “In Our Heads” to be very eclectic yet riveting to the point of liberating– the soundtrack of your fun night out, or that radio friendly pop that plays OVER & OVER & OVER.


9. Frankie Rose – Interstellar

I’ve been following Frankie Rose for a long time and I thought she did well (given the constraints) whether it’s her work for Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts, Dum Dum Girls, or Frankie Rose & The Outs. But then “Interstellar” came out, and boy I felt like a proud mother whose daughter just won the Spelling Bee contest! Stripping down the lazy guitar or hazy reverb, “Interstellar” feels refreshingly clean and hi-fi! No longer she’s the shy girl who hides her soft vocal behind layers of reverb, instead, she flaunts that melodious vocal on top of distant tambourines and stripped down bass. On lead single “Pair of Wings”, Rose’s ameliorative effects of higher register is paired up effectively with sequences of single notes and minimum percussion. The result is what twentysomethings kids would call a “hot mess” – emotional submersion with no serious repercussions – there’s fragile agility but you find solace beneath this dreamy malaise.

The production of “Interstellar” is stunning, it reminds me of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Superstition”. The song “Know Me” has the optimistic approach of Siouxsie’s “Kiss Them for me” or Cocteau Twins “Iceblink Luck” – a romantic shoegaze tune that feels formulaic and ethereal with its soft guitar play and delectable vocals – it hits the pop pleasure center-targets.


8. Purity Ring – Shines

Don’t you hate those bands who sold out tours before their first proper LP? In 2001, we saw The Strokes selling as many tickets as Limp Bizkit or Nickelback before the release of “Is This It?”.  In 2006, myspace shot Arctic Monkeys into global stardom and they were practically saying F U to every record company.  In 2011, we saw the Cults post 3 songs on their Bandcamp website for fun and gain overnight notoriety after Pitchfork, Hypem and Gorilla vs. Bear hyped the hell out of them. In 2012, we have Purity Ring! A year ago I downloaded “Belispeak” and “Ungirthed” from a popular music blog and it was love at first listen…it has lots of skitter electronics but I like how they wash those hissing vocal samples with synthesizers effect then create pulverizing hip-hop beats using a computerized drum machine. Then they glorify the whole mix with that airy, gothic, non-verbal vocal a la Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins). GENIUS! Trust me, I spent gruesome hours last year investigating their whereabouts.

In the end, after listening to “Shrines” extensively, I can honestly say this time around the hype machine was DAMN RIGHT! Tunes like “Fineshrine” or “Obedear” could very well be the blueprint for what dream-pop might sound like for the next few years. With all of the weight of the blogosphere pressing down, Purity Ring somehow created an album of immense beauty and emotional fulfillment. It’s one of those records that feels more rewarding each time you hit the repeat button – an otherworldly sound that sends chills down the spine as effectively as it calms the soul.


7. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

Dirty Projectors is one of those bands who quickly reached a certain level of quality and they know they can walk all over whomever they want without any real repercussions. Released in 2009, “Bitte Orca” spawned the conceptually artistic hit “Stillness Is the Move” and won over famous fans including David Byrne, Bjork, Jay Z, and the LA Philharmonic. Just like many creative forces we came to admire – from Bowie to the Beatles to Bjork to Radiohead – Dirty Projectors are always pushing boundaries in which each of the records is a polar opposite of the last and somehow they were able to drag along their loyal followers.

For “Stillness is the move”, it’s almost impossible for me to describe their sound. For many years, my friends labeled the band as the “incongruous experimentalist” and most of them had given up figuring out their sounds even before the release of “Bitte Orca”.  Granted, it took me 4 weeks of consistent listening before I could honestly say I’m enjoying “Swing-Lo Magellan”. In a nut shell, it’s an odd musical coincidence – it’s Dave Longstreth’s craft of polyrhythmic layering combined with African art-pop, progressive-rock influenced electric guitar, slow R&B jams, simple percussions, ear burrowing hooks and swinging acoustic guitar. Somehow they were able to tie all of the above dissonance with this gorgeous vocal melody –think of it like a Bouillabaisse dish- throw all the seafood in a pot and stir gently.


6. Grimes – Visions

And yes, here we have another vocal inspired by the great Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins. Her vocal quality mimics macabre goth-pop but her operatic octaves suggest something more reachable, immediate and quirky at times.  Blending garage guitar chords, K-POP craze, squeaky synth-pop, euro-trash music, repetitive IDM beats, and some old school R&B vibe into a lo-fi DIY electro-jam template, I found “Visions” joyfully expressive and highly glossy – it’s clean, assured, and instantly accessible.

I remember the day the record came out, I tweeted, “If you haven’t heard of Grimes, you gotta be living in the cave. This is CYBORG POP at its best!”. In a way, I sounded like the macho guy indulging in a guilty pleasure.  I mean, if there’s a comparison to be made to Grimes’ sound, it’s that “Visions” sounds at times like a Katy Perry record produced by Burial. Who would’ve thought it would work so well?


5. Lower Dens – Nootropic

In case you guys are wondering, Nootropics are drugs that enhance cognitive functions such as concentration, memory, and intelligence. I’m not too sure what’s the correlation between the band’s sophomore album and the smart drugs but if I have to guess, it’s the kind of album that, at first listen, you experience glitches of euphoria, then by your 10th listen you finally become so enamored with their dark atmospheric soundscape, you can’t help but feeling hypnotized to dissect different layers of meandering noise and electronic waves at each listen. Take the song “Brains” for instance. The song starts out with a metronomic drum pattern solely to induce your curiosity, and then there is the urgent guitar riffs and gloomy synth lead that slowly but surely reach a crescendo…At this point you’re thinking – THIS SONG IS SO FREAKING DOPE! But no, the surprise didn’t stop. Finally, you heard Jana Hunter’s wispy androgynous singing behind those droning guitar noises, it drives you into this bleak icy hinterland that’s both relaxing and detaching. Think about it like I’m sleeping but not quite asleep.

Taking cues from Krautrock and Galaxie 500’s downbeat melodies, this four-piece band from Baltimore seems expansive in creating their own unique sonic dimension. It’s one of those records that feels eerily out of this world but at certain occasions, the sun would glare beautifully during that long drive home.


4. The Chromatics – Kill for Love

Gotta admit, I never had the chance to familiarize myself with any of Johnny Jewel’s works. Not sure what’s the meaning of Italo-disco revivalist, not sure how another hazy-synthpop tune would sound different than a Deerhunter record, not sure how Jewel has so many projects (Desire, Glass Candy, The Chromatics) yet gone unrecognized in the musical blogosphere.

One thing I know – I love the movie “Drive” almost mainly due to the kick-ass soundtrack: it’s New Order-esque, it has that chilling Ibiza party sound (Delorean), and it has that cigarette-smoke ambient vibe similar to Matthew Dear’s latest LP.  “Kill for Love” is no different, but this time around Jewel is mimicking Ryan Gosling’s character in “Drive” – equal parts desolate, daring,  elusive, and can be romantic at times. For the song, “Kill for Love” and Neil Young’s cover of “Into the Black”, the desperate cooing behind the subtle yet dense layers of melody suggests the band is reeling a montage of romantic screen kisses from the Golden Age of Hollywood – I thought about Toto (that little kid) from the movie “Cinema Paradiso”. It’s poignant, it’s engaging, it’s luminous yet the thought of “true love” is an uncanny sense of ambiguity.

And yes, as much as we like to serenade ourselves with Radelet’s bedazzled crooning, I thought the best moment in the album is the 8.5 minutes so-called Italo-disco jam “These Streets Will Never Look the Same”. The retro electro-soul soundscape, the pulsating beats, the unruly hooks and the heavy dosage of auto-tune vocal made you feel as if you were traveling through time – it has that flip-flop quality – And this is why Chromatics feel perfect for this point in time, somehow fluttering between the dearest of a past, but right at the juxtaposition when music & technology are fixated with The Future.


3. Sigur Ros – Valtari

(Photo by Lilja Birgisdottir)

I can’t explicitly explain why I’m drawn into Sigur Ros music. No, I’m not some pretentious artsy-fartsy wanna-be. I agree for every moment of big explosive crescendo, there are moments of wordless murmur and dull piano play that you wish you could play “Block Rockin Beats” at the 11th volume.

Moving on, after 6 weeks of constant listening, gotta admit “Valtari” is another stunning art-pop by the great Sigur Ros – it still holds the minimalist elegance (expansive landscape, ebbs and flow beauty, slow harmony progression) and I can’t honestly say how listeners would respond – it seems Sigur Ros always tailors their music to the listeners’ personality and becomes whatever the listener wants them to be. Is it an overstatement if I say Sigur Ros’ music is capable of inciting 4 out of 5 senses given the right time and space? In a way, it makes them a band that’s intellectually stimulating, passionate, inspiring, and bewildering at times.


2. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp

Remember the “Bridesmaids” scene when they were trying on wedding dresses and everyone came down with uncontrollable diarrhea? If Sharon Van Etten were all the five bridesmaids then the dude in Tennessee (subject matter of all her albums) would be the wedding dresses. A few months ago, I revealed my undying love for Sharon Van Etten and told her how she’d be better off going out with a no-frills like me.:)

Well my album review wasn’t quite the love letter but “Tramp” is such an amazing tale of young love, being oppressed and how she regains her self-esteem. In the end, I said, “…I have no doubt Tramp is a means of catharsis and in the process Sharon has created a career-defining album…Just like Van Etten’s troubled romance, it’s easy to get sucked in again and again with her music”.

And my #1 pick is…

1. Beach House – Bloom

I’ve been waiting for this record for 840 days! I’m not sure I can wait another 840 days for Beach House’s next record. It’s gotten really serious…I don’t care how mind-blowing any other bands’ records would sound…I have no doubt “Bloom” IS my ALBUM OF THE YEAR!

In essence, Beach House has been making the same records the last eight years – it’s lush, reverberating bedroom pop embroidered minimally over drone, shallow keyboard tones and lullabies.  I remembered a few years ago I had this strange fascination for the song “Gila” (from 2008’s Devotion) and every bit of “Gila” is still very dominant in “Bloom” – Victoria Legrand’s gauzy humanly imperfect vocal, the built-in drum machine, the radiant Yamaha keyboards, the lack of crescendo and the verse-chorus gyrating through four chords. It’s a formula that has worked over the years yet the music never loses its clandestineness.

There are many highlights to this album. “Lazuli” and “Myth” still show Beach House’s fascination with youth’s emotional fragility and the trauma they have to endure years later. “Wild” conjures the weary emotion of a broken home – you’re compelled to show your best behavior though you know you father is destroying the family.

Beach House

In the end, all I have to say is once again Beach House has put out another career defining record. “Bloom” sounds exactly like a Beach House album: one that has made all the right moves, knows exactly what they do best, and are concerned only with making their best music yet. When Legrand chants, “It’s a strange paradise” near the end, it’s hard not to agree.