SOUND SOUNDS ’12: The Best Of The Year

2012 will go down, in my book, as one of the best years of my life. During this year, I’ve seen 50 top notch shows put on by innumerable amazing artists (and one put on by a bunch of schmucks), listened to far too many records, had a child, started a podcast, and got the opportunity to thank three of my musical heroes. As usual, there’s absolutely no point in numbering the entries on this list, because there were so many amazing records this year. To rate them is an exercise in futility. So, let’s get started, right? As usual, the Thank-You’s. I’d like to extend my gratitude to an amazing group of people, which includes (but is not limited to): Kelly, Noam, Arya, Yousef, Darren, Cannon, and pretty much everyone who listens to Faces on the Radio, even if you find us (okay, me, really) to be incredibly obnoxious. Here’s hoping next year can top this one. Without further ado, the ten (or eleven, really):

Be the freak you wanna see.

Death Grips – The Money Store NO LOVE DEEP WEB

Let’s get one thing out of the way really quick: the two albums put out by Death Grips this year weren’t the best of the year. They were sloppy, boneheaded at times, and packed with enough anger and testosterone to kill a medium-sized horse. But if you existed on our level (read: the level of the music nerd), you had an opinion on Death Grips this year, and that opinion was never “meh.” Punks? Prophets? Try-hards? Publicity hounds? Verbal Kint was right: The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist. But what does he do after he does that? He stirs up the minds of the masses by signing to a mega-label, announcing a tour, cancelling that tour, recording an album in an attic, blowing the advance money, and then releasing that album for free with a picture of a cock on it. Publicity stunt or not, it’s hard to say that Death Grips stole this year from everyone around them. This was their year, plain and simple. I’m sorry, everyone; thanks for trying. You put in valiant efforts.

Underneath the stories, you have the music. And, no matter what angle you approached them from, they were truly insane records to behold. The Money Store felt exactly like the music that would come out with that album art: it’s alien and violent, with ever-heightening paranoia in every fiber. This is music that somehow defies description or genre (though “experimental hip-hop” is the closest I can get to it), and what’s more, you aren’t ever burdened by figuring that description out. I reviewed the record after a single headache-building listen, and though I barely understood what I’d heard, I loved it. But after repeated listens, the hooks start to come out: the poppy chorus of “Hustle Bones” and the absurdist, LCD Soundsystem-esque quotability of the album’s closer “Hacker” (you show me someone who didn’t want to bounce around the house shouting “THE TABLES HAVE FLIPPED, WE GOT ALL THE COCONUTS, BITCH!” after hearing that song, and I’ll show you a liar) digging themselves into your skull.

Six months later, they gave us the shitstorm-inducing NO LOVE DEEP WEB, with its ridiculous album art and its dense web of beats. NO LOVE is a harder shell to crack, but with that comes a much more rewarding experience once you get into it. The Money Store was rich with earworms and well thought out hooks, and while this record is no different, they’re the kinds of hooks that you don’t want to sing under your breath at work (“I got some shit to say, just for the fuck of it,” “It’s all suicide, it’s all suicide to me”). The rate of growth in Death Grips is incredible to witness, and though the star that burns the brightest dies twice as fast, one can only hope that they are going to break that mold, and keep pushing boundaries for at least another few years.

The heart is a yoke.

Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…

When I first heard The Idler Wheel… (full title: The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do), I fell in love with it. I wrote a review of it that felt apt, but as time went on and I fell deeper in love with the album, I discovered it was woefully incomplete. When you first listen to The Idler Wheel, its songs (at least to me) present themselves as rough sketches, almost fever dreams of songs to come. However, as you begin to break the record in, hills and valleys emerge. It’s an album that is sad, and hurt, and angry, but it is all of these things with a grace and poise that is generally reserved for much older, much more well-traveled artists. The 35-year-old songstress has spent a full half of her life as a well-known artist, albeit one known for being somewhat unstable. She is one who has always made her art on her own terms, meaning that most of her career has been spent quietly preparing for what’s around the corner.

Returning from a hiatus can be a crap shoot: they can lead to amazing things (see: Scott Walker, Portishead, Tom Waits), or dreadful things (see: the mediocre Vaselines return album Sex with an X). Which is why, when Apple came back with such force with “Every Single Night” and “Anything We Want,” it was almost hard to believe. Seven years gone, will it be as good? Luckily, the answer is a very resounding yes. The album is an incredibly pensive, bare-bones piece, where we find her and her piano, and almost nothing else. This makes the tension incredibly high, especially in the feverish, jazz-tinged “Jonathan,” or crackling holler of “Regret.” Lyrically, though, is where the album shines the brightest. Here, Apple comes off as a healed-over scab: hurt, scarred, torn, but past it just enough to make light of it, and never in a way that feels like it wants sympathy. You aren’t meant to feel sorry for her when she sings a bruiser like “How can I ask anyone to love me / when all I do is beg to be left alone?” (“Left Alone”) or “We can still support each other / All we gotta do is avoid each other” (“Werewolf,” one of the only songs about hearbreak I’ve ever heard where the victim claims partial responsibility), because the 0nly reason you get to know about it is because she’s already handled all of the emotions. For all intents and purposes, this album is the very best of 2012, and it is one of the best of the decade. Mark my words.

And they’ll see what they say, and they’ll do what they do, but it doesn’t mean a goddamn thing.

Passion Pit – Gossamer

Passion Pit were some sort of silly punchline when I first heard Manners. Michael Angelakos’ incredibly high voice made “Little Secrets” incredibly fun, but it also made it hard to focus on the more worthwhile parts of the album (see: “Moth’s Wings”). On their second record, Gossamer, Angelakos’ voice becomes something else entirely, though it proves immediately difficult to put your finger on what has changed.

From go, the album glitters and shines in a way that makes it impossible to stay still: “Take A Walk,” the super-massive single, bubbles over with a knack for fun that is impossible to duplicate, until he pulls the same trick a second time on “Carried Away,” which might possibly be the best song on the record. Even on the slow-groove of “Constant Conversation,” or the arctic drones of the often-solitary closer “Where We Belong,” it proves difficult to actually sit still. It’s a really great feeling. Possibly the best thing about Passion Pit is that you get what you want out of the band. If you’re merely looking to dance, you’re pretty much set. However, once you go down the rabbit hole and start reading lyrics, there is where you begin to really get something. All over Gossamer, its character battles with alcoholism (“Constant Conversations” and “Cry Like a Ghost,” to name just two), failure (“Take a Walk”), depression (“Where We Belong” and “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy”), and it’s never clear whether or not he battles these demons.

Seeing these songs performed live adds a completely different layer to the proceedings: Angelakos stalks the stage, pacing back and forth, as though too frantic about his issues to sit still. This is a troubled record, and although they are all problems that can be helped, they are problems that feel monumental even for the listener. “We all have problems,” he sings near the end of “Carried Away,” and it almost feels like he’s winking at the camera for just a moment, until it goes into the boozy, slow-funk of “Constant Conversations,” quite possibly the grooviest song about realizing that the people around you are likely very fake, and probably using you for their own gain. I’ve listened to this album end-on-end more times than likely any entry on this list (and I’ve listened to a lot of these a lot). The album rewards you with every single listen, and when it doesn’t, it provides you with an incredibly fun experience.

Dig holes in me with wooden carved trowels.

Purity Ring – Shrines

My relationship with Shrines is a relatively young one. I heard the album a singular time before seeing the band live at this year’s MusicFest NorthWest, on a humid September afternoon. However, after seeing the band’s sounds married to their live setup, replete with brightly-lit cocoons and mushroom-like bulbs that, when hit, trigger both light and sound. If you got me stoned, I couldn’t come up with something so ridiculous, but in the case of Purity Ring, these tricks work incredibly well. There is an inherent beauty in their music, as well as a cuteness that borders on twee, but without the common pitfalls associated with it. In other words: this is pop music made for adults. The biggest tell is the lyrics, so focused on the body: “They’ll cover the hills with their sweet flesh and soft nails,” cherubesque frontwoman Megan James sings in the chorus of the album’s opener, “Crawlersout.” There’s a focus on mutilation all over the record, with holes being drilled into eyelids, hungry hips, and loved ones crawling into sternums.

These things are sung in a way that conveys one powerful emotion: devotion. It’s a truly, truly beautiful thing. And, on Shrines, this devotion takes on different forms: marvel at the strange love-poem found in the churning, unruly “Belispeak,” a song that is addressed directly to the singer’s grandmother (the song also lead to a sequel, featuring none other than Danny Brown).These lyrics can be crude at times, but there is never a moment where this charm seems to wear off. It is also worth mentioning the fact that the beatsmanship of Corin Roddick is sugar-sweet, but incredibly well-worn. Certain beats feel like they are born out of the dubstep era, but upon closer inspection, it almost feel like each note that Roddick triggers is actually a living being, waking up from a deep slumber to emit a note. It is a persistent complement to James’ cadence. It’s easy to get lost in this sound, even easier to love, and it’s quite possible that the best way to achieve these two emotions is, quite simply, to see them perform these songs.

Spiked heels make a hole in the lifeboat.

Jack White – Blunderbuss

Jack White has been doing this so long, he doesn’t really need to make another classic record. On the first runs through 0f Blunderbuss, the first solo record by White, it’s easy to assume that it isn’t a classic, but is merely very good. And, really, after hearing it a lot, it’s still easy to say that it isn’t a classic. Album opener “Missing Pieces” bears all the familiar markers of a White Stripes song, though transposed onto a full-band, but it doesn’t quite breathe on its own, not immediately. However, once “Sixteen Saltines” kicks in, it becomes immediately clear that this is not a White Stripes album at all. The song roars to life, and White is howling like we haven’t heard in years, and you immediately realize that this is the persistent state of affairs here. I had the immense pleasure of seeing Jack White twice this year, and both times yielded different visions of the songs on Blunderbuss (and even those from his other bands). This is a mark of the versatility of the song-craft here; “Love Interruption,” for instance, is bare-bones enough that it lends itself to whatever interpretation you decide seems right, even if you decide to heighten the drama as much as you possibly can. Blunderbuss can easily seem like a mixed bag of collected thoughts and scattered ideas, but this is easily the best way to peer inside the mind of one of modern rock’s most creative – and exciting – elder statesmen.

Too many white lines and white lies.

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

When I first listened to Odd Future in ’11, the one thing that I knew for sure was that nobody in that group was ever going to achieve mega-stardom. This isn’t an insult; while I find things like the fucked-up imagery built into Tyler, The Creator’s songs or Earl Sweatshirt’s uncanny ability to spin a story to be incredibly compelling, they are not the kinds of things that the layman (read: not rap dorks [which I barely consider myself to be]) can really get into. Then, Tyler won himself a VMA for “Yonkers,” following Kanye West calling the video the best of that year. Then, I thought, maybe these guys might go somewhere, but they’re never going to be that big.

That’s where Frank Ocean comes in. If you listened to nostalgia, Ultra., you know that the man is a R&B wunderkind, but what is striking on Channel Orange is that there’s likely no difference between his vision for the record, and what actually came about. The album is a shining example of what happens when an artist, rather than breaking down the boundaries in front of them, merely pushes them to their breaking point, but leaves them there as a benchmark for future generations to use an an example. “Thinkin’ Bout You” starts off rather innocuously (featuring the incredible line, “No, I don’t like you, I just thought you were cool enough to kick it / Got a beach house I could sell you… in Idaho), but following that, everything just gets steadily more and more intense – “Super Rich Kids” being the best song in this section by a country mile, with the help of the sincerely missed Earl Sweatshirt – until “Pyramids,” the album’s centerpiece and a tribute to post-Gaye excess. Clocking in at a whopping 10-minutes, “Pyramids” changes what R&B can do, with at least three distinct movements, one of which featuring an absurd and blistering solo by John Mayer. This is the place where Channel Orange stops being merely great, and starts being classic. By the end of things, once Andre 3000 shows up on “Pink Matter,” I began to wonder if this is what it felt like to be around when What’s Going On and D’Angelo’s Voodoo came out.

Simply put: if you aren’t watching Frank Ocean, you’re wasting your goddamn time.

Are's & Els cover art

I can’t sleep among the sympathies of war.

Michael the Blind & The Els – Are’s And Els

On my way to the record release show for the album, my cohost Yousef Hatlani pointed out to me the fact that this album is more than a few years in the making, and it really does show. At a brisk half hour, Portland’s very own Michael Levasseur makes it look all too easy; “Another Circle of Fifths” soars with enough yelping, trembling exuberance to stack up against some of the best upbeat Mountain Goats tracks from the last 10 years, and that’s just the first song. Every inch of the record positively glows, in a way that makes it hard to find any actual faults. Since first hearing it, it has been one of my favorite albums to put on to do anything around the house while alone, because there’s so much fun to be had in shouting out during “Instead” or “Have It Out,” or harmonizing with “Sympathies,” possibly the most beautiful track on the record. Unfortunately, unless you’re a Portlander, you almost certainly missed this album this year, which means you have all of 2013 to get on my level with this record. You owe it to yourself.

“Make two lists!”

Tig Notaro – Live

Four months is by no means a long time. During the course of Live (pronounced like You’re Living All Over Me, not Live at the Witch Trials), Notaro makes a joke about asking to see the next four months of her life, and being sure that she’s been shown the next fourteen years. In the four months that precede Live, she contracted a near-fatal bacterial infection in her intestines, lost her mother incredibly suddenly, saw the end of a long-term relationship, and as though going for the Job Prize, was diagnosed with breast cancer in both breasts. In the spirit of the squirrel, rather than retreating into darkness, she got onstage at Largo in L.A., announcing jovially, “Thank you! I have cancer! Thank you!” before proceeding to do a half-hour set, pouring her heart out to her audience. What could have been a cringeworthy performance, in the hands of a less skilled comedian, became a shimmering, flawless set, which is at all at once life-affirming, heart-breaking, and downright awe-inspiring. This is the best the art form of live comedy may ever get, and I feel so, so privileged to have been able to be there when that moment was new and fresh.

At the very end of Live, Notaro leaves the stage to thunderous applause, announcing “there’s still more show!”, a statement which is meant to let everyone know that there’s more comedians after her. However, after that set, it takes on an entirely positive light, where those words are an affirmation of a will to fight on, rather than letting a shitty disease get the better of her.

As you know, I don’t generally write about comedy, despite it being the second love of my life (tied with film). I am, and have been since a very young age, a comedy nerd. However, I could not let this list go out into the world without telling everyone that you need to listen to this record, and you need to do it now. Please. Thank you.

We were cynics from the start.

Parenthetical Girls – Privilege

Okay, look. I’m cheating here: Privilege is the five EP series that Parenthetical Girls began in ’10, which concluded this year with the release of Portrait of a Reputation. However, upon receiving the very first EP, I made the decision to wait until the set was completed to listen to any of it – It was supposed to take a little over a year, I figured, why rush it?

Privilege was the very first thing I mentioned on the first episode of Faces on the Radio, and I’m okay with it having that reputation. Privilege is a lavish, over-the-top spectacle, clocking in at 21 songs and an hour-and-a-half of music. Hearing it end-on-end  makes for an often dizzying experience, though never in a bad way. The band as it was at the beginning is not the same as the one you see today, meaning that the power structure changes as you go along. The constant, of course, is the laser-focused Zac Pennington, a man with a flair for the dramatic and for spellbinding the listener with story-building (which, it seems, he is unable to not do). I’ve tried to sit down and write my review of the whole glorious affair on several occasions, but the task is easier said than done, and I may have to wait for the upcoming, abridged Privilege to do this. That said, of the songs here, I honestly would never want to see a single one cut; there’s a certain joy in hearing songs like “Sympathy for Spastics” in the same cascade as “Be Careful Who You Dance With” and “The Common Touch,” each of which glorious and vulgar in their own ways. If you didn’t hop on the opportunity to hear the complete Privilege by buying On Death & Endearments two years ago, you may be out of luck on hearing this record in its full, bloody glory. However, whatever the band decides to put forth to the masses will undoubtedly be just as mesmerizing.

I will take the dark part of your heart into my heart.

Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It

To call Put Your Back N 2 It, the sophomore release by Mike Hadreas aka Perfume Genius, an album would almost be pushing it. What Hadreas has captured here is the musical equivalent of a skeleton: there is so little tissue to grab onto, the album washes over your palette like the purest water you’ve ever slid past your lips. This is, perhaps, part of the charm inherent in an album like this, because it almost commands that you devote your time only to it, or else you’ll miss every detail there is to behold.

This whispy frame makes it difficult to discuss Put Your Back N 2 It, due to its unwillingness to present a thread to grasp onto firmly enough to allow it into your heart. Really, there is only one thread you can grab: those lyrics. You notice them right from the get-go: “Comfort the girl / Help her understand / No memory, no matter how sad / And no violence, no matter how bad / Can darken the heart, or tear it apart.” I could give more examples, but needless to say, it isn’t exactly the most uplifting album you’ll here this year. This is an album that rings with all of the power of the quiet, dark parts of The Antlers’ Hospice, with all of the same joy. Underneath all of that sadness, though, is a truly beautiful, moving, and somewhat unique experience. It stands as a great example of what can happen when a musician toys with the concept of minimalism, and rather than building on top of it, simply embraces the restraints, making something wonderful out of it.

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