Ra Ra Riot‘s third album, Beta Love, sounds like it’s going to be a big departure from their earlier records The Orchard and The Rhumb Line. The album’s first two singles, “Beta Love” and “When I Dream,” kept their signature strings but piled on drum machines and synths.
“Dance With Me” totally ditches the chamber pop for a snaking bassline, thick synths and dance music. It could be the catchiest song they’ve ever written, and I can’t be the only one anxiously waiting to find out what other surprises Beta Love has.
Beta Love is out January 22 on Barsuk.
1. Punch Brothers - Who’s Feeling Young Now?
This year’s top record might be a surprise, unless you’ve actually heard Who’s Feeling Young Now?. Punch Brothers‘ third (technically fourth if you count Chris Thile‘s How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, which also featured the band) album mostly left what the critics called “progressive bluegrass” in favor of something pretty close to indie folk.
After mixing genres like bluegrass and classical on their first albums, Who’s Feeling Young Now? focuses more on songwriting. Thile and the rest of the band still pluck and bow at virtuoso levels, but this time it’s more about how the instruments work together — often in the background — instead of the heavily layered bluegrass.
There’s also a great deal of instrumental manipulation. The violin on “Hundred Dollars” is about as far from the fiddle as you can get, and I’m still baffled how they managed to so perfectly cover Radiohead‘s “Kid A” with mandolin, acoustic guitar, violin, double bass and banjo.
And what better way to celebrate our album of the year than by seeing them live on New Year’s Eve? Tonight, Punch Brothers finish off their three-night run at Bowery Ballroom in New York, and I couldn’t be more excited.
2. Japandroids - Celebration Rock
The best thing about Japandroids isn’t their music. Don’t get me wrong, Brian King and David Prowse are incredible musicians, but what really got me about their debut Post-Nothing and still gets me on Celebration Rock is the feeling that comes with it.
Most albums have perfectly planned highs and lows, but Celebration Rock is all highs, and better for it. It’s an unrelenting tornado of youth, energy, sing-along shouts and distortion that borders on perfect. It’s heart-racing, fist-pumping rock that never stops and never wears out.
In his review of “The House That Heaven Built,” Pat Hosken of Astro Cannon said, “Anthem is too soft a word.” It definitely is, but I can’t think of a better one. Celebration Rock is an anthem. And it’s changing rock music entirely.
4. John K. Samson - Provincial
This list has featured a lot of music’s greatest songwriters. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are legends, and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats is certainly working his way there as well. But leave it to John K. Samson to fly in under the radar.
Samson has long been a master songwriter in my book. As the frontman for the Weakerthans, he makes it seem easy to write from the point of view of a cat or about explorers in Antarctica. And while his debut solo album is different, his brilliant character-driven fiction still shines through.
As its title might suggest, Provincial, is about Samson’s homeland of Canada. Some tracks, like ”www.ipetitions.com/petition/rivertonrifle/” — a literal petition to the Hockey Hall of Fame — are unmistakably Canadian, but most carry familiar themes like the small-town boredom of “Cruise Night” and the frustration of “When I Write My Master’s Thesis.”
That’s what makes Samson a great songwriter. His songs read like works of fiction, with creative characters and settings, but they always boil down to something universal and true.
5. Flume - Flume
It was a big year for Flume. At only 20, the Australian producer also known as Harley Straten toured with the xx, got over a million YouTube views and even has a gold record in his home country.
But even without all that, Flume’s self-titled debut album would still make this list. Streten creates fascinating electronic music full of rich textures and vibrancies. But it’s his rare talent of turning those sounds into great songs that puts him above most other electronic musicians.
Streten’s already got an even bigger 2013 lined up. In addition to headlining tours, he just signed to indie mega-label Mom + Pop — home of Andrew Bird, Metric and Tokyo Police Club, to name a few — for the U.S. release of Flume. Get ready to hear a lot more about Harley Streten.
6. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
Frank Ocean‘s excellent debut mixtape, nostalgia, ULTRA., caught the attention of Kanye West and Jay-Z, and honestly, he outshined them on his two Watch the Throne tracks.
So expectations were high for his debut studio album (and early singles “White,” “Pyramids” and “Sweet Life” raised them even higher), but Ocean unquestionably delivered. channel ORANGE featured guest spots from big names like André 3000, John Mayer, and fellow Odd Future members Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, the Creator, but Ocean’s presence — in both his songwriting and singing — is so strong that you barely notice them.
Now, with several Grammy nominations, Ocean is contemplating not making any more albums. Although he just said it in passing and it’s hopefully not true, channel ORANGE would be an incredible standalone legacy.
Posted in Album Reviews, Music Reviews
Tagged André 3000, Channel Orange, Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean, John Mayer, Odd Future, Pyramids, SoundCloud, Sweet Life, Tyler the Creator, White
7. Tame Impala - Lonerism
There’s more to Tame Impala than the Beatles comparisons. Sure, Kevin Parker — who is Tame Impala in the studio — really does sound like John Lennon, but more importantly, his music captures the Beatles’ penchant for pop.
Parker takes that basic Beatle pop and skews it into something his own. His warped psychedelic effects on both Lonerism and its predecessor, Innerspeaker, sound more acid-soaked than when the Beatles actually were on acid. But the massive synths, blown-out riffs and reverb never wash away the pop at the heart of his music. And nobody writes pop like this anymore.
8. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Fiona Apple’s last album Extraordinary Machine is a glaring example of label troubles. After two years of delays and leaked demos, Epic Records finally released it in 2005 — but hey, at least we got two versions of that excellent record. It looks like the label might’ve learned from their mistake, releasing her newest album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, pretty much right after they found out about it.
So if it wasn’t the label’s fault, why has it been seven years before she put out a new album? Apple actually recorded The Idler Wheel… in secret, without the label’s knowledge. She had no pressure in the studio and created the album she wanted to make — an album that might be her best.
The Idler Wheel… doesn’t have the grand arrangements of Extraordinary Machine, but the pared-down music is still her most adventurous. And her lyrics are as sharp as ever — conveying every bit of the incredible emotion held within.
Fiona Apple’s absences are easy to forgive, because her records are always so good.
9. Balmorhea - Stranger
No album this year even came close to the beauty of Balmorhea‘s Stranger. The Texas band grew out of a duo playing songs about American Southwest folklore. As the band expanded, from two to six – including a string section and full percussion — the music did as well. Balmorhea started looking beyond West Texas, creating rich, layered studies of solitude, nature and night.
Their fifth LP, Stranger, goes from quiet, looped echoes to electrified bursts with jaw-dropping precision and restraint. It’s simultaneously concise and complex, uniting a collection of ideas, textures, and sounds into one genre-defying landscape.
10. The Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth
The Mountain Goats have been pumping out albums lately. Four albums in the last five years is no small feat, especially when they’re this brilliant. Somehow, even with the birth of his first child, John Darnielle managed to follow up last year’s All Eternals Deck with another new release this year.
And Transcendental Youth isn’t just a by-the-numbers Mountain Goats album — although they could definitely make those forever and I’d be totally happy. Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster teamed up with Matthew E. White, whose horn arrangements added another shade of life to the already-great songs.
Even paired with the range of the whole Mountain Goats catalog at their live shows, the Transcendental Youth songs stand out as some of the strongest. “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1,” written for Amy Winehouse, and “Harlem Roulette” are already fan favorites. The title track gleams like something from the big-band jazz era, and “The Diaz Brothers” might be the catchiest Mountain Goats song ever.
There are always fans wishing Darnielle would go back to his lo-fi tape recorder — which he sort of satisfied with the “Night Light” demo — but the Mountain Goats are in top form on Transcendental Youth.
Posted in Album Reviews, Music Reviews
Tagged Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1, Cry for Judas, Harlem Roulette, John Darnielle, Jon Wurster, Matthew E. White, Merge, Night Light, Peter Hughes, SoundCloud, The Diaz Brothers, The Mountain Goats, Top 20 of 2012, Transcendental Youth