I’ve never really mentioned music here, perhaps owing to the breakneck speed of that particular industry. It seems that by the time you truly learn to appreciate one release, another five hundred have come and gone in the interim, all of which are equally deserving of a stand in the limelight. I’ve always viewed music as something that warrants a dedicated blog of its own, one conducive to shorter, rapid-fire updates: something which you sure ain’t getting here.
Looking back over the year, however, I can’t help but feel that too much came out in 2012 not to warrant a quick look back. Considering this is the year that saw Psy orchestrate a successful bid for world domination, I’m surprised there were enough raw materials left to press discs that didn’t have the words ‘Gangnam Style’ printed on them, let alone to facilitate the continued rise of the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean. 2012 was somewhat of a poster year for experimental, intelligent hip-hop, but more than that, also saw the Deftones’ return to form, Carley Ray Jepsen’s dating masterclass, and the dawn of hamburger-based horror in music videos. We’re truly living in great times.
Tying in with my upcoming run-down of 2012’s videogames, it also wouldn’t be proper if I didn’t give mention to two soundtracks that, like Darren Korb’s work with Bastion last year, watered pants worldwide– Hotline Miami’s eclectic compilation of electro and psychedelica, and the ambient blips of Disasterpeace’s soundtrack to Fez. Throw money at them – they deserve it.
Anyway, here are my top 5 albums of 2012. You’re more than welcome to tell me how wrong I am, and I’m equally welcome to curl up in a ball and cry when you insult my taste. Give it a go; we’ll make a party of it.
5. The Bad Plus – Made Possible
I was largely unfamiliar with The Bad Plus until the release of their ninth album in September; and I’m not ashamed to admit that my main motivation for including this here is guilt over having ignored them for so long.
That’s not to say that Made Possible is anything less than deserving. The Bad Plus’ approach to experimental, contemporary jazz is simultaneously fun, serious, innovative and familiar; and this album represents the group’s continued maturing between albums. Made Possible’s poster track ‘Seven Minute Mind’, for example, proves a bold turn that places pianist Ethan Iverson front and centre alongside subtle hints of electronics (a first for the group), producing a fuller, bombastic sound, in contrast to their prior work’s emphases on restraint and suggestion. They don’t quite abandon the old; but they experiment enough to make Made Possible a necessary addition to their catalogue.
If there’s one word I’d use to describe the group, it would probably be ‘cheeky’. Melody is always suggested; introduced and then removed from our grasp just as soon as it arrives, resulting in a frenetic, diverse experience from minute to minute, all held together by the drum work of founding member David King, who – true to form – shines throughout this album. It’s clear that The Bad Plus are eager to take turns, here, never devoting too much real estate to any one member, and this is perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the work. If there’s one thing the trio – bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and aforementioned drummer David King – have, its chemistry; and nowhere is this more apparent than in Made Possible’s hour-long runtime.
4. John Zorn – Templars: In Sacred Blood
True to his usual self, John Zorn released just shy of a billion albums this year; proving just as prolific and insane as ever. If you’re not familiar with his work, all you need to know is that Zorn is an experimental composer, multi-instrumentalist, and all-around madman, known for his collaborations with a whole slew of equally unhinged individuals making bizarre, conceptual avant garde music.
Pretentious? Maybe, but I’m too busy in his trance to care.
Templars: In Sacred Blood marks the 6th outing of his ‘moonchild trio’, a collective comprised of Mike Patton, Joey Baron and Trevor Dunn; made a quartet this time around by the inclusion of Medeski, Martin & Wood’s John Medeski on the organ. Zorn’s efforts are best described as ‘high concept’, and this album proves no exception, laying its focus on the Knights Templar both lyrically and musically. Expect tales of conspiracy and bleakness in ‘ye olde times’, with a liberal accompaniment of chanting and reverb carrying through the album’s assortment of spacious compositions.
I’m not always on board with Zorn, but Templars proves accessible, entrancing, and just a bit unsettling, with a standout performance from Mike Patton in particular as the album skits from soft jazz to heavy metal and back again. If there’s one thing I appreciate about Zorn, it’s that he seems to act against the overall self-seriousness of his concepts and labelling; and where Templars proves best is when it kicks loose and takes stabs into the unknown, often to comedic effect.
As grim and unpalatable as it may seem at first, as a cohesive whole, Templars is never anything less than fun.
3. Diablo Swing Orchestra – Pandora’s Piñata
Swedish jazz-metal octet Diablo Swing Orchestra are filling a void, there’s no doubt about that. Promising a fusion of symphonic orchestration, metal, and swing; they burst onto the scene a few years ago like something out of a fever dream; a bizarre combination of people, instruments and styles that seemed to have no right going together, and yet somehow worked. Until the release of Pandora’s Piñata earlier this year, however, they’d never quite shaken off the novelty that accompanies their premise. While their previous efforts, The Butcher’s Ballroom and Sing along Songs for the Damned and Delirious were entertaining in their own right, they didn’t rely on their compositional strengths as much as the gimmicks of orchestration and lead vocalist Annlouice Loegdlund’s operatic talents, and ultimately fell short of greatness.
Pandora’s Piñata refines the formula that has seen their growth since 2006, then, playing to the strengths of the diverse range of instrumentation available, and rubber-banding between a range of influences without sacrificing any of the recording’s sincerity. From the Muse-esque turn towards the grandiose in tracks like ‘Exit Strategy of a Wrecking Ball’, to the infectiously jazzy and upbeat swing of the lead track, ‘Voodoo Mon Amour’, Pandora’s Piñata is a bold step in new directions for the ensemble, and provides the world with the operatic, heavily orchestrated jazz-metal that’s so high in demand these days.
Sure, it might get a bit cheesy, especially towards the album’s later half, and I’m not quite sure what to think about the closing lapse into glitchy electronics, but the downsides do little to compromise an otherwise great experience. Equal parts melancholic, beautiful, dark, quirky, and danceable, Pandora’s Pinata is one of the year’s biggest surprises.
2. Death Grips – No Love Deep Web
If you keep up with the music industry to any extent, the fact that Death Grips should show up on yet another ‘2012’ list shouldn’t come as a surprise. At risk of descending into Pitchfork-esque hyperbole and snobbery, the Sacramento-based trio were guaranteed to show up on lists like these from the moment the second track off The Money Store – ’The Fever (Aye Aye)’ – released in March.
I’m aware that most would place their bets on The Money Store as Death Grip’s best album, but strangely, I’ve found a lot more of worth in its follow-up, No Love Deep Web. Released against the wishes of their label, Epic Records this October and resulting in their subsequent departure from the company, No Love Deep Web arrived out of nowhere and stole my heart. In my opinion a more cohesive whole than The Money Store, front man MC Ride descends into feverish wailing here, and packs a punch that better resembles the anger on display in the group’s 2011 Exmilitary EP; accompanied by stripped down synths and samples that allow him the space he needs to shine. The sheer atmosphere of sleaze and contempt breathing through tracks like ‘Deep Web’ and ‘Lock Your Doors’ is enough for me to declare myself a fan, without even taking into consideration the lyrics’ unique, semi-poetical approach to the internet age.
No Love Deep Web is abrasive, maybe even simplistic, and yet as a whole it demonstrates itself to be paradoxically intelligent and layered – heck, even scary.
Minimalist, chaotic, terrifying – and that’s only the cover art.
1. Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind
My personal favourite of the year, All We Love We Leave Behind seems stripped-down compared to Converge’s prior work this decade, a statement that would serve as a death knell for most other groups. Here, however, the slower pace is welcomed – embraced, even. All We Love We Leave Behind is an album length ‘time-out’ that proves just as valuable to the listener as to the band. Sure, there are still hardcore belters strewn throughout, perhaps most notably the brutal closer, ‘Predatory Glow’, but the bare, more introspective moments are where this album shines. ‘Coral Blue’, for example, slows things down to a relative crawl, and proves once and for all that it’s not just about speed – Converge have a style and sound all to themselves, regardless of how many decibels the music is played at or what tempo; and I get the feeling that Converge themselves only recently figured this out.
As a result, All We Love We Leave Behind seems to be a celebration of the band’s development – a concise love letter to the old and new following more than twenty years making music. There’s little I can say to recommend it – no single feature or song that stands out as the album’s defining moment – the whole thing simply shines as the result of the group’s collective experience in the industry; a well-aged bottle of hardcore, if you will; more intoxicating than ever before.
Sometimes, that’s all it takes.