5. Father John Misty – Fear Fun
Being a fan of Fleet Foxes, I was looking forward to former member J Tillman’s new solo project called Father John Misty. My first introduction was the cut “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” and the accompanying video- which may be the number one ear-worm of the year for me. It’s a simple song and simple melody, but it is a good example of Tillman coming out on his own with confidence and his own voice (so to speak). While this album certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel, I think it holds up as a great sounding record with decent songwriting and great arranging. Tillman’s voice is nestled in nicely around the strings, synths, and guitars. Which is also a good point- it’s nice that this record isn’t trying to hard to stay in one genre. Tillman lets the songs be what they are. It doesn’t need to be just a folk record or a rock record- the songs are allowed to be what they are.
4. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
A record produced by one of the guitarists of The National, Aaron Dessner? Yes please. I’ve been a fan of Dessner’s production (Dark Was The Night) and was, of course, eager to hear a project he said he’d be producing with Sharon Van Etten, whose name I’d been hearing on music blogs. Tramp doesn’t disappoint. Van Etten’s voice and songwriting are beautifully melancholic.
Again, this is a record that just sounds so good. Dessner allows Van Etten’s voice to skim the surface of the songs like smoke eddies, with the occasional wisp upwards. The vocals aren’t buried so deeply as, say, Michael Stipe’s on an early R.E.M. record, but they meld well with the instruments around them. It’s hard to pick out stand-out tracks, I’d have to pick almost the whole album. “All I Can”, “We Are Fine”, “Leonard” are wonderful. Tramp might win for the best opening to a record: the powerful “Warsaw” (listen to that guitar jab in the melody!) that recalls Throwing Muses at their best, then brought down with the reserved “Give Out”, and brought up again with my favorite: “Serpents” (Play this next to Wye Oak’s Holy Holy). Why is this not higher on my list?
3. Lambchop – Mr. M
I didn’t think they’d be able to do it, but Kurt Wagner and co. have done it again. From the opening line “Don’t know what the fuck they talk about,” with Wagner’s meandering, lazy, lounge-singer approach and the toeing-the-line of saccharine strings to the mid-tempo “Gone Tomorrow” on through the jazzy horns of “Betty’s Overture”, I feel like Mr. M is a companion piece to their 2002 effort Is A Woman. Lambchop’s 2008 record OH (Ohio) somehow felt a little less like a band-record than a band backing up Wagner, which was a fine change of pace, but I feel like Mr. M is a more collaborative effort somehow. Which is ironic considering all of the backing vocalists that were on OH (Ohio), and how much strings are a part of Mr. M.
One of my highlights of 2012, was actually getting to see Lambchop play Chicago’s Lincoln Hall. Having not really heard the record prior to the show I didn’t know what I was in for- but they brought Mr. M to life (despite the lack of strings) expertly. The only thing I was missing was a chair (an auditorium would have been better than a ballroom). Wagner certainly knows how to work a crowd, and it was somehow appropriate with his martini glass and trucker-hat.
As a side note, while I am admittedly a completist when it comes to most artists (why do I own R.E.M.’s Monster again?), the companion piece to Lambchop’s Mr. M, Democracy, is an illustrative look into the mind of Wagner. Both versions of “2b2” stand up to the “produced” version on Mr. M. Listen to the last version on Democracy with headphones. It sounds like Wagner has a bubbling soda track and, for lack of a better term, a soft labial stop (pop?) track. I appreciate the forethought and experimentation to create a sonic space.
2. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Sometimes you need a sexy-time record on your top-5. While I don’t want to add to the hype surrounding this record (see Father John Misty), I can’t help but admit that it SOUNDS. SO. GOOD. I was only tangentially familiar with the Odd Future collective and, like many, read Ocean’s preemptive address prior to the release of Channel Orange and, being the sap that I am, couldn’t help but be touched by the beauty and honesty of that open love-letter(?). Was it a publicity stunt? Maybe. Do I care? No. It was brave and beautiful and I appreciate that.
And, so far, the record holds up. It recalls some of my favorite parts of Shuggie Otis and Stevie Wonder (“Sweet Life”, “Sierra Leone”, “Super Rich Kids”) and makes me reconsider how much I generally dislike modern R&B.
1. Why? – Mumps, etc.
While I’m not a professional album critic, I still am reticent to include an album by Why? on any of my lists. I feel like it’s not an unbiased review or commentary as I am friends with this group, and have worked with them in the past. That said, I can honestly say that this band has made me completely rethink how I think about music with every album they release. I cannot distil a description of this band down to a single word or short phrase (which is neither a necessity nor a statement about other bands I can easily describe) and haven’t been able to since Yoni released Oaklandazulasylum. Mumps, etc. is no exception. I believe its the perfect follow-up to the pair of records recorded at the same time: Alopecia and Eskimo Snow with its honed chamber-music elements, acutely rapped verses (“Waterlines”, OMG), and the beats, my god, the beats.
I’ll be the first one to admit that Why? is not for everyone (what music is?). Yoni’s confessional lyrics can be a lot to take in. There seems to be little obfuscating his message. I, personally, find that kind of lyrical honesty refreshing. There’s also something to be said for the fact that in this age of the meta-view of our lives that we have an artist attempting to wrestle with these ideas of how people view us under the magnifying glass that is modern technology.
Why? has also continued to evolve their sound, somehow simultaneously tightening everything while also adding elements. Josiah’s wife Liz lends her voice to some songs on the album (and plays as part of the sextet they tour as) and works as a beautiful harmony to play against Yoni’s froggy rap attack. Seeing them live, both times, were two of my favorite concerts this year. Incidentally, the sextet formation they are currently touring as is such a good representation and evolution of the record, I’d love to seem them record with that lineup. The last cut is a perfect example, where else would you find someone rapping over a string quartet that ISN’T SAMPLED, and the beat almost comes more from the bowed bass and cello than the drums.
You can probably sense the theme that runs through the albums on this list; they all sound amazing. Mumps, etc. continues said theme. This album was recorded by longtime Why? soundman, Brent Benedict along with Yoni and Josiah Wolf and you can hear that intimacy come through. Alopecia was a grand and expansive and/or dreamlike record. Eskimo Snow was more subdued and in your ear. Mumps, etc. has found a way to be somewhere in between. This record hits on everything: hooks (“Strawberries”, “Sod In The Seed”), rhymes (“Waterlines”, “Paper Hearts”), beats (“Danny”, “Bitter Thoughts”) and layers (“White English”, “Distance”). I know I said this list was not in a particular order, but this album clearly is my favorite record of the year.
Labors – The Dry As A Bone EP
This EP can’t count because I played bass on and recorded it (not to mention the fact that it’s only an EP). It was released on Valentine’s Day this year. And I have to say that playing with this guys this year has been one of the highlights of musical experiences in my life. Look forward to a proper LP follow up in 2013.
I didn’t get to listen to these albums enough to make an opinion, but the little bit I did hear, I really enjoyed.
Serengeti – CAR
Kelly Hogan – I Like To Keep Myself In Pain
Calexico – Algiers
Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again