Thursday, March 28, 2013

Best of 2012

(Hey guys, sorry for the excessive length of this post, which grew much longer than I intended. This is what happens when I get an opportunity to express my opinions. To make matters worse the whole thing is bloated with annoying embedded vidoes in case you want to check out the actually music referenced. Also, some of those videos are NSFW due to bad language, and at least two contain naked boobs. Also: butt shot preview below. Thanks for humoring me.)

You know what I've never done before? Compile a best-of-the-year list. Everyone does those nowadays, right? The web is flooded with these things. Even your mom posted a Youtube countdown of the best ten guys she picked up behind the bowling alley this year.

I didn't blow any guys in bowling alley parking lots in 2012, so my options for best-of lists are a bit more limited.  Best videogames? Well... what did I play last year? Most of my game time has been taken up by Skyrim, which is a really fantastic game. But those lying bastards on Wikipedia claim it came out in 2011.  Before that I was playing Kirby's Epic Yarn, which is fun, but it was released in 2010.  This was the year that I finally got around to playing Braid, which is even older. I did receive a free copy of Far Cry 3, a game that made numerous end of the year lists. However, Skyrim continues to dominate my non-Chrontendo gaming time; thus FC 3 remains unplayed. I also want to play Dishonored, but this won't be happening anytime too soon.

The situation might not be so bleak for 2013. Excited by the voluminous and near-universal praise heaped on Bioshock Infinite, I've got a copy on order.

The film situation is just as bad. I've heard about all these cool sounding movies: Holy Motors, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zero Dark Thirty. But I'm so behind of my movies right now, I'm still trying to catch up with 2011. I haven't even seen the fucking Dark Knight Rises yet.

Supposedly very good, but how would I know?
 The only category I'm even remotely qualified to create a list for is music.  As a reminder: Dr. Sparkle used to work for a large online music retailer. I used to read music magazines, subscribe to email lists from hipster music stores, go to tons and tons of shows... all that crap.  Nowadays, I'm sort of out of the scene. Certain genres, like classical music or jazz, I haven't been following (believe it or not, in the 2000s I would tear through classical review mags like Fanfare as they came out.) I've also lost touch a bit with the avant-garde music scene. So my familiarity with the music of 2012 is somewhat limited.

The very idea of a "best music of 2012" list is pretty ridiculous. With all the music released that year, how can we choose the best? Who's listened to anywhere near enough music to decide what "the best" music of 2012 is? Have you listened to enough albums to make an education decision? How many great albums from 2012 will you discover in 2013, 2018, or 2023?  The great British improvisational guitar player Derek Bailey put it best: when asked to put together a list of music from the previous year, he replied to the effect of "2003? I'm still trying to figure out 1963!"

There are quite a few albums from bands I love that I haven't had a chance to explore yet. The new albums from Swans, Thee Oh Sees and Godspeed You Black Emperor! are supposedly terrific, but I've haven't heard enough of them yet. That said, here's my list of best/favorite/whatever music of 2012.

I'd be traitor to my hometown if I didn't mention Death Grips' The Money Store. The bizarre rise of Death Grips is the most unlikely story in the music world in 2012. Formed by longtime Sacramento legend Zach Hill (of Hella/Team Sleep/a hundred other projects) and a neighbor of his, Stefan Burnett, Death Grips released a mixtape of noisy, skronky "rap rock" in 2011. Last year they: were suddenly signed by Epic Records; personally received by L.A. Reid, who told them that Death Grips reminded him of Mariah Carey (?!) They then released their debut album, which somehow got reviewed by the likes of the BBC and Robert Christgau; booked an international tour; announced they were canceling the tour on their Facebook page; recorded a second album; remixed songs for Bjork; created a cover for their new album which consisted of a photograph of an erect penis with the title written on it with a Sharpie. They then released this album online themselves, which angered Epic. The band then leaked the angry emails from Epic, which resulted in them being dropped by the label.

The Money Store made various critics' "best-of" lists last year. The music is certainly not for everyone, but the fact that Death Grips had an album released and promoted by a major label is pretty baffling. It just shows you how insane the music biz really is.

Onto my own personal favorites for 2012. Two albums really stood out for me:

The Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan

Of all this year's albums, Swing Lo Magellan is the one that has grown the most on me.  At first it seemed too mellow, too acoustic, and less weird than their previous records. Yet every time I listened to it, I liked it a little bit more.  The basic Dirty Projectors template of Africanized guitars and bleated background harmonies is still present, though their music now sounds less archly eccentric and more warm and humanistic.

Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music

Hip-hop might be dead, but that doesn't mean great rap albums don't come out from time to time. R.A.P. Music dispenses with the references to jewelry, cars and expensive champagne, and features almost no guest vocalists. It sounds nothing like typical top-40 rap music, thanks the chilly, minimalistic production from El-P. This is hip-hop music at its purest, without relying on a fake "old school" sound. It's just wall to wall lyrical technique.

Other Cool Stuff I liked:

Frank Ocean - Channel Orange

I thought for sure Frank Ocean was going to sweep the Grammys this year. Frank Ocean was the dude everyone was talking about in 2012. The record was the critical darling of the year; it topped the R&B charts, and it received tons of Grammy nominations. I thought there was literally no other serious contenders for Best New Artist, Best Album, etc. Yet every year, the Grammys prove that they are somehow even worse that you thought they were.

(Oddly, Frank Ocean's shut-out was only the 2nd biggest WTF Grammy moment this year. The weirdest moment came with the nomination of in the Dance category of a song by an artist that absolutely no one had ever heard of, Al Walser. The fact that Walser's song was an amateurish Rebecca Black type number that had been released only a week before the nominations were announced deepened the mystery. It turned out that Walser was a member of the Recording Academy who schmoozed his fellow members into voting for him. [The funny thing is, this happened the year prior as well, when a complete unknown named Linda Chorney scored a nomination by personally entreating lots of voters.])

Anyway, I sort of hate Frank Ocean, as he made me love a song that features John-fucking-Mayer.

Gojira - L'Enfant Sauvage

The French have an undeserved reputation of not knowing how to rock. They are the nation that produced Metal Urbain and Magma, so their rock credentials are in perfect order. More proof: this new record from French metal dudes Gojira. Fantastic drumming on this record.

Wolves in the Throne Room - Celestial Lineage

"Cheater! This album came out in late 2011!"  I don't care. I guess my taste in metal leans towards the weird-o end of the spectrum. Stuff like this, or Blud Aus Nord or Nachtmystium, whose Silencing Machine should also be on this list. WITTR might be called "pastoral metal," perhaps? It also has about the best looking packaging/cover/interior photos I've seen lately.

Bat for Lashes - The Haunted Man

2010's Two Suns is one of my absolute favorite albums of this decade, so far. The Haunted Man is not as good, and is not nearly as wild, mysterious or baroque as Two Suns. But it is pretty damned nice. This album actually landed in the top 10 in the UK, which proves the British are really weird.

Alcest - Les Voyages de L'ame

These guys are also French?! Somehow two French bands ended up on this list! As uber-hispter SF music store Aquarius Records states: Alcest is not a Black Metal band, yet Black Metal fans love them.  Their stuff is like chill-out music for metal fans. They might remind you of Opeth's more gentle moments.

Ty Segall - Twins

Scuzzy psyche-rock is a genre that will never die. The current king of this type of music seems to be Ty Segall. Twins is exactly what it should be: primo scuzzy psyche-rock.

High on Fire - De Vermis Mysteriis

Dr. Sparkle has a weakness for Sleep spin-off bands. I've been lucky to see both High and Fire and Om live (and both seriously rocked, in very different ways.)  I haven't heard the new Om record, but De Vermis Mysteriis is awesome. They're pretty damned high on the doom/stoner rock totem pole. Also, Sleep's Jerusalem/Dopesmoker album was reissued again this year, in what is supposedly, its final, perfect form. If you've never heard Dopesmoker, grab a copy and some drugs to go along with it, and get busy.

Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats - Blood Lust

More groovy stoner rock. I guess I really like drug-related music.

El-P - Cancer 4 Cure

Sort of the companion album to R.A.P. Music. El-P produced the Killer Mike record, and Mike appears on Cancer 4 Cure. I don't think anything in El-P's solo career will ever reach the heights of  what he did on Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus, one of the best hip-hop records ever made. Cancer 4 Cure is still the best stuff he's done in years, however.

I've had a hard time following hip-hop lately. I haven't included any mix-tapes in this list, but it seems that mix-tapes and free online releases are becoming the preferred distribution method for the genre. Here's a disturbing pattern I've been noticing: a rapper releases mix-tapes online, makes a name for themselves, and starts making lots of guest appearances on others' songs. Everyone says this artist is super wonderful and awesome. Once the hype has reached a fever pitch, the official major label debut album appears. But that official album turns out to be pretty lame, and then said artist is suddenly over-exposed and everyone hates them. This has happened over and over again in the last few years. I'll tell you what: this phenomenon has become so common it needs a name. And, as a favor to the music world, I'll give it a name right now: "Nicki Minaj Syndrome." She's the most obvious and high-profile example I can think of, and perfectly embodies the underground=loved  > mainstream = hated career arc. To any music journalists out there: I hereby authorize you to refer to this as Nicki Minaj Syndrome.

One such victim this year was Mr. Muthafukin' eXquire, who followed up his awesome mixtape Lost In Translation with a rather lame major label debut called Power and Passion. At least we still have his insanely great "The Last Huzzah" video, which features a who's who of contemporary rappers, including El-P and Killer Mike, standing in the background. I love the way El-P seems to be transforming into Ron Swanson as he gets older. Once again, this came out in late 2011, but I'm calling it for 2012.

There were have it. Please feel free to tell me how absolutely full of shit I am. With any luck, the next post will be announcing Chronturbo 4.


Dan S said...

Dr. Sparkle: all this talk of hip-hop albums and no mention of Kendrick Lamar? He put out what was easily my favorite album of last year and the best hip-hop album I've heard since maybe the early 00s. I hated the first couple guest spots Kendrick did because he sounded so robotic, but somehow he pulled it off on an LP, and it's like nothing else out there. I'd go so far as to say he's the best rapper out there right now.

While I loved certain cuts off Killer Mike's and El-P's records, they just didn't come together overall for me. I don't think I'll ever get over El-P's style of stringing large nonsensical words together, which while cool, goes over my head most of the time. It's great if you want to pretend you're smarter than someone, however!

Oh, and don't get me started on the horribly overrated mess that was Channel Orange. The 20-second rave-a-thon in the middle of "Pyramids" was probably the highlight of the album. Made me really sad because I loved Nostalgia, Ultra. I guess not having memorable hooks is what garners critical acclaim these days.

Anyway, I'll get off my soapbox now. Nice list otherwise!

Doctor Sparkle said...

Right. I figured someone would call me out on Kendrick Lamarr. As of yet, he has not clicked with me. But Dr. Sparkle can be veerrry slow to warm up to an artist sometimes. It took me a while to get into Channel Orange, actually.

El-P's lyrics can be a mixed bag. He's sometimes very clever, but often it's some variation on "I'm really upset about something and I am going to fuck shit up." I do tend to like stream of consciousness style lyrics. He does have some great moments, like his counting his lines in "Last Huzzah".

Anonymous said...

Great list that I'll need to explore in depth when I have a chance. Check out Godspeed You! Black Emperor though... I absolutely adore their latest album (on vinyl, I'm so Hipster). Not for everyone though... thanks!!

RetroMask said...

This blog never disappoint me, old school video games, beer and music.

I must say I'm jealous reading that you seen Om and High on Fire live! I had a chance to see High on Fire on a Swedish (I live in Sweden) festival a couple a years ago but that other thing your blogging about (beer) came in between and I missed their show...

I don't know if your familiar with a German trio named Colour Haze? Anyway, they released a really good album last year. I strongly recommend you take a look at that band if this is news to you.

Remember, play it loud as fuck!

Skymaster T said...

As strange as it may be, the ELP album is actually titled "Cancer For Cure". I believe it may be a statement on the present state of rap (inverted). It may also be a questioning of his own contributions to the world of rap music. It could also be something nonsensical, lol.

Doctor Sparkle said...

ST - You are, of course, correct - though I guess its proper name is actually "Cancer 4 Cure." El-P would probably not give a record of his a hopeful sounding name. I'll fix the post.

HOF has played my hometown a few times, but I saw Om under stranger circumstances - opening for Current 93 back in 2005. I had never heard of Om, but was impressed by their set and went to buy the CD. Then I discovered Om was two dudes from Sleep. Another funny thing, shortly before the show I literally ran into Steve Stapleton of Nurse with Wound in Amoeba records as we were turning around the corner of an aisle or something.

Colour Haze, from what I've heard, is pretty cool, though you never see their albums in the US. They were once mentioned in a music blog I follow: which is a great source for discovering trippy/stoner/psyche/cosmic music.

Anonymous said...

I was incredibly surprised and delighted by your lengthy music post. You seem to think you're somewhat out of touch but I'd say you're fairly up to date with the good bits. The Chrontendo guy knowing Death Grips was unexpected, much less enjoying them. The Money Store was pretty damn good, though nowhere near the rawness of Exmilitary in my opinion. No Lovwe Deep Web was pretty terrible, I thought, a big disappointment - the whole label brouhaha was the most interesting bit. I'm curious where you find your music news. What are you excited for this year? I'm hugely anticipating !!!, Bibio and Mount Kimbie among others. Perhaps you've heard about Boards of Canada releasing a new album as well?

Oh, and, uh. More Chrontendo please. I've watched all the old episodes to death.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Anon - remember, I actually live in Sacramento, so Zach Hill projects are not exactly obscure. Anybody who knows anything about music in Sac would have gotten their fill of Death Grips news last year.

I've heard that Boards of Canada dropped word of their new album by sneaking one copy into some random record store in NYC on Record Day? I guess I like BOC, but I was more of an Autechre guy back in the day.