Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bringing Up the Rear

Back in December I promised that when I had more time I would write more about the top-ten album list I submitted to this year's Pazz & Jop poll. (I'm so completely out of the loop that I didn't even bother submitting a singles list this time around.) Before we get too much farther into 2012, I should go about doing that.

Top Ten of 2012

(With the previous caveat that there was still a lot of stuff I hadn't heard as of the moment when the list was due.)

10. Bill Callahan - Apocalypse

In a year that was partially dominated by bearded men with guitars making over-produced albums of gloopy soft-rock schlock, there was room for counter-programming in the form of a man with a guitar singing sparse, starkly minimal guitar ballads about the death of America. There isn't a single moment of this record that doesn't feel exquisitely crafted, and yet the result is never overstated or affected - it simply sounds perfect, thoughtful and quiet in equal measures, without ever quite devolving into mere tastefulness. I didn't think much of it the first few times i heard it, but a few months after the album came out I started hearing tracks from Apocalypse popping up on the local college radio station. I was struck by the serenity of these songs in a way that hadn't necessarily been evident on first exposure, and it's a sensation that has only grown with subsequent listenings. Given time to breathe the music grew on me immensely.

9. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

Here's where you get to snicker at me for being a predictable old dude just plugging his list with SPIN magazine's top artists of 1996. Yeah, we can all admit that her last couple albums were weak and / or strange (not to say that they don't have their admirers), but that's OK now because a few years in the wilderness making weird harpichord music gave her the confidence to make another album of frightening potency, the kind of album you could never have predicted she'd have the guts or the chops to make based on her career trajectory some twenty years' gone. All artists firmly into their third decades of continuous recording should be so ambitious: an album that is simultaneously lovely and horrifying at the same time, a "concept album" with neither useless narrative or unnecessary pomp. This is some very pretty music that nonetheless cuts right to the bone.

8. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong

I cannot for the life of me understand why this album has been so systematically ignored by most of the other critics' lists. I had to double check to make sure this was actually released in 2011 - sure enough it was, but for whatever reason all the hype from the first quarter of the year had entirely dissipated when it came time for people to hash out their preferences. I listened to this album pretty much exclusively for a couple weeks back in the Spring - it's strong from beginning to end and sounds like a dream. Nostalgia only gets you so far without the tunes to back it up: any group who can write a track like this does not deserve to be so casually dismissed. If you find yourself wondering why they don't make more music that sounds like Psychocandy spiked with bits of the Psychedelic Furs and New Order, the answer is that they still do and it's fantastic.

7. The Rapture - In the Grace of Your Love

I don't think I could improve on what Marty had to say here. Leave it merely to be said that I'm basically a DFA fanboy who buys any record with the lightning bolt logo on sight - and I've got the Prinzhorn Dance School CD to prove it. So maybe my opinion is suspect: I'm genetically preconditioned to want to like the Rapture. But like it I do nonetheless. The actual, sincere revelation at the core of many of the songs only adds to the appeal, a reminder that there is a world and history of dance music outside the province of nervous white kids with skinny jeans.

6. They Might Be Giants - Join Us

I've spent enough time talking about these guys recently, but again for emphasis: this is a complete return to form, with their strongest batch of songs in fifteen years.

5. Low - C'mon

Sometimes I feel like the last Low fan in the world. I love these guys: there's something about their quiet intensity that never seems to get old for me regardless of how dated an idea "slowcore" might seem at this day and date. I think Mimi Parker has a gorgeous voice, and they know how to write songs that spotlight that instrument wonderfully. Isn't that enough?

Next: the final four.

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