10. Micachu and the Shapes – Never
As Marc Pell, Mica Levi and Raisa Khan mash into their instruments, build up terrifyingly noisy soundscapes and throw jarring and discordant sounds into the middle of a progression or arrangement just for the hell of it, you can really go either one of two ways. The first, naturally, is flee the scene in terror and fear for your hearing and well-being. Many have taken this path with the band, and in a way that’s perfectly understandable. For anyone with the capacity to stick around for awhile, however, Never brought a set of ambitious and imaginative tunes directly to the forefront. Three years after their debut, they still create a divisive and wholly creative path in their music – perhaps unlike any other contemporary act. Plug in, unwind and just leave the rest to them.
THREE TOP TRACKS: OK, Easy, Holiday.
9. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten
Within months of one another in 2012 came Wrecking Ball and Handwritten, the new albums from Bruce Springsteen and The Gaslight Anthem, respectively. Upon reflection, we can officially count 2012 as the year that the apprentice overtook the master. As has been well-documented, without the Boss there is no Gaslight – and yet, for all of Wrecking Ball‘s enjoyable moments, it simply couldn’t hold a candle to what he had influenced and inspired over the years. Handwritten is the most assured, authentic and powerful TGS record to date; a mix of cautionary small-town tales and regret-tinged nostalgia. Rich in character development as much as it is incomprehensibly catchy choruses, this is the kind of album that won’t let you leave until you note every single track as an essential listen. The quest for the great American rock album is as arduous and oft-attempted as the great American novel. With Handwritten, The Gaslight Anthem have come closer than anyone else in at least the past five years.
THREE TOP TRACKS: National Anthem, Here Comes My Man, Handwritten.
8. fun. – Some Nights
For all the crazy, rapidly-changing times of the 21st century, it’s remarkable what things stay exactly the same. In 2006, Nate Ruess was one of the smartest and most talented men working in pop music. In 2012, that very sentiment rings as true as ever. Of course, the circumstances have changed: Ruess’ previous outfit, the Arizona-based duo The Format were making underrated pop music for a relatively small audience. These days, he’s in the Big Apple, fronting a band called fun. and performing to more people in one week than The Format probably ever performed to on an entire tour. What’s stuck, however, is Ruess’ endearing melodies, his tugged-heartstring lyricism and his Wilson-brother-sized harmones and arrangement ideas. Choir here! Autotune solo here! Where are the horns? More guitars! For all the acts that cracked mainstream attention in 2012, Some Nights put the most soul into it. The new pop demographic has arrived.
THREE TOP TRACKS: Why Am I the One, Some Nights, It Gets Better.
7. Kate Miller-Heidke – Nightflight
Everything that Kate Miller-Heidke has done – from humble, quiet beginnings with “Space They Cannot Touch” up to 2011’s baritone alt-pop project Fatty Gets a Stylist – has lead up to this very moment in her musical career. Nightflight would be a hell of an accomplishment on anyone’s behalf; but it feels all the more gratifying from a woman that has proven time and time again that she is bigger and infinitely better than any opera-trained vocal stunts and the damning “quirky” tag that’s stuck with her since the break-out hit in “Words.” The album is a mature, layered and deep record, a mixed bag that ensures that its larger pop moments have just as much impact as the stripped-back tear-jerkers. Everything here feels momentous, vital and emotionally invested. It’s a complete package, resulting in an LP that critics probably never saw coming and long-time fans always knew she had in her.
THREE TOP TRACKS: The Devil Wears a Suit, Ride This Feeling, I’ll Change Your Mind.
6. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
What a difference a year makes. In January 2011, Cloud Nothings released a hazy, summer-ready indie/pop record – harmless enough, but hardly something with a firm identity stamp or worth extensive listens. Around 12 months later, Attack on Memory came charging out of the gates, tearing through speakers and cementing itself as one of the year’s essential indie rock records less than a month into the fucking thing. How the hell did we get to this point? There are two people to point in the direction of in this case. The first, of course, is frontman Dylan Baldi – tearing through a vocal range that his prior discography would have you believe didn’t even exist, his furious delivery elevated these songs into an entirely new stratosphere. The second is producer Steve Albini – mixing the thrashing, punchy style of his production work on In Utero with the churning post-everything sounds of his own Shellac, his approach made the record as raw and oozing with angst as any classic he’s put his name to. Through every screamed refrain, slamming drum break and piercing guitar noise, Attack on Memory kept the entire year turned up to eleven.
THREE TOP TRACKS: Wasted Days, Stay Useless, No Future/No Past.
5. The Chariot – One Wing
It begins with distorted screaming going head-to-head with a churning, downtuned guitar. Some thirty-odd minutes later, it ends with a wall of feedback and a speech from Charlie Chaplin. In the in-between, The Chariot deliver their most ambitious, belligerent and, ultimately, finest LP to date. One Wing refuses to let the loss of long-time bassist Jon Kindler reduce the band to a three-legged dog: instead, the band move into territory both traditionally chaotic (“Not,” “in”) and surprisingly left-of-centre (see the spaghetti western progression of “First” or the shaken piano balladry of highlight “Speak”). They show a hunger for creativity, longing beyond the binary-code riffs that have sunken their contemporaries. With it, they’ve created one of the most rewarding albums of 2012. A new chapter begins.
THREE TOP TRACKS: Speak, First, in.
4. Tame Impala – Lonerism
A lot has been made of the wonderful cover art for Lonerism – a photograph of Paris’ Jardin du Luxembourg from the perspective of outside the gates. What may be more telling, however, is the back cover. As you peruse the tracklist, you may notice Kevin Parker laying down in the middle of a bedroom that’s packed within a square inch of its life with equipment, wires and instruments. This, in essence, was how Lonerism was created, with Kevin Parker building up each track on his own from scratch. The end result is far from a mere bedroom project, however – the album’s expansive array of sounds surpasses that of 2010’s “de-butt” effort (hi, Jess Maubuoy!) InnerSpeaker within the first few tracks. This LP may even be the first instance of the Tame Impala project sounding like its own band, rather than just a sturdy tribute to the acid-washed prog-rock of yore. When Parker asks near the end of “Apocalypse Dreams” a trilogy of questions – “Am I getting closer?/Will I ever get there?/Does it even matter?” – we can now safely answer him: Yes, yes and yes.
THREE TOP TRACKS: Apocalypse Dreams, Elephant, Mind Mischief.
3. Lincoln le Fevre – Resonation
Lincoln le Fevre has a story to tell. A couple, in fact. Really good ones. You could well just sit him down and have a yarn over a beverage of choice, but you might get even more out of him by simply listening to Resonation. A masterclass in modern Australian storytelling – possibly the best example since Gareth Liddiard’s Strange Tourist LP – Lincoln takes his listeners into the suburbs and through the country towns, peering into bedrooms and yards along the way. It’s strikingly intimate and raw, yet possess a universal quality in its themes. We’ve all been inspired by muso mates (“Get Drunk, See Bands”), wondered about the larger-than-life characters down at the pub (“Hope and Crown”) and even bitched about our hometown to anyone who would listen (“Dilettantes,” “The Mainland”). It’s in the way that LLF takes this subject manner and spins it in such a wholly personal and remarkably creative way that makes Resonation so utterly fascinating. Pull up a stool and shoot the shit with your new mate Lincoln.
THREE TOP TRACKS: Driftwood, The Boatshed, Get Drunk, See Bands.
2. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
You already know the story. You’ve seen the endless tweets and updates fly your way about dominoes, [person] having a “dreaaaammmmmmmm,” calling people a “bish,” screaming “BEEEYOOOOCH” and posting every other rhyming couplet from the album’s many highlight tracks. good kid, m.A.A.d city essentially dominated 2012 – an impressive feat, given that it was only around for just over two months of it. High-concept and big-talking, the album boasted an A-team of collaborators and producers, from Dr. Dre to Just Blaze – on its own, enough to have hip-hop heads salivating. What kept good kid within the confines of the collective conscience, however, was a matter of both quality and quantity.
Yes, at nearly seventy minutes in length, this was a big record to take in. The greatest thing about good kid, however, was just how much more lay within it. It’s in the little things – the way Kendrick’s verse is shockingly cut short in “Sing About Me,” the interludes that detail the cast of characters further, the way Hit Boy sets the chaotic mood off just right in “Backseat Freestyle.” Every year sees a hip-hop star rise – and, yet, the way we’re talking about good kid already makes it feel like we’re discussing something bigger than a passing fad. It might not be very long before we’re speaking of this record as a hip-hop classic. As they say: Watch the throne.
THREE TOP TRACKS: Backseat Freestyle, Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst, Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.
1. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Screw,
and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Barack Obama had his first successful term in office. We had not one, not two, but four “generations” of iPads released. A global financial crisis came and went. We lost R.E.M., Oasis, the Violent Femmes, Supergrass, The White Stripes and a-ha (fucking a-ha!). We got back – even if for a time – Crowded House, Van Halen, Rage Against the Machine, Blur, Pavement, The Police and the Vengaboys (the fucking Vengaboys!). That’s barely scratching the surface of what has changed in the seven years between Fiona Apple’s last studio album – the bitter, seasick and typically-troubled affair that was Extraordinary Machine – and last June’s new LP, the title of which is second only to the record-breaking When the Pawn… in terms of length. Not that our dear Fiona has been simply twiddling her thumbs in the interim – much like Extraordinary, the release of The Idler Wheel was dogged by delays, secret recording sessions and various shrouds of mystery.
Still, that’s what made it all the more exciting when it finally reached the ears of those that had been patiently waiting all this time – not to mention those going on their maiden voyage with Apple, having heard so much already. Even with a few of her usual vocal tics present, as well as her trusty grand piano dishing out jazzy misery like it was 1996 all over again, The Idler Wheel sounded nothing like her three LPs prior – neither as a combined unit or as separate entities. Rather, it was an insular and close-cut affair, essentially a series of trade-offs between Apple and producer/percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Charley “Seedy” Drayton. The minimalist arrangements cause one to listen closer to the proceedings, as if leaning in to be told a secret. Oh, and how many secrets Fiona had been keeping from us all these years.
The album unshackled a multitude of fears, insecurities and interpersonal breakdowns. Many have sung about exes – few, however, will go to the extent of naming a track after them (“Jonathan”) and explicitly singing simple yet devastating phrases like “I don’t want to talk about anything” or “I like watching you live” – the latter delivered with the kind of poisoned bitterness that can only come with the most splintered of separations. Many have sung about describing their inner workings – few, however, will go to the extent of not only openly singing a lyric like “Every single night’s a fight with my brain,” but turning it into an extended-syllable refrain.
That’s perhaps the most striking thing about The Idler Wheel – how willing Fiona is to place her fragile being out on these limbs and ledges. Her world is crumbling as the piano descends to its bottom end, clinking percussion hovers above and the cacophony builds – and there she is, in the very centre of it all, wryly smiling at you from a distance.
The idler wheel is wiser. It makes for instant classics, too.
THREE TOP TRACKS: Anything We Want, Jonathan, Hot Knife.