The state of original music in this country is wonderful. It could be argued that, although corporate-owned mainstream radio has eschewed what’s clearly good, honest music, for what will sell (and what’s released by labels owned by the aforementioned corporations), we are currently able to enjoy more great original music than ever before. It’s just a little harder to find it.
Which brings me to an apology. I’m sorry for kicking off my fifth annual “Best Albums of the Year” column for Boulder Weekly with a complaint, but “12-12-12,” aka Concert for Sandy, really got my blood boiling.
Sure, a benefit concert of any kind is good news. But I’d love to know why the organizers of “12-12-12” chose to stage a concert in New York City, centered around raising awareness and money for the effects of a hurricane that hit New York and New Jersey, with not one band from New York or one formed in the last 20 years. Heck, most of the acts were sexagenarian Englishmen.
Point is: Respect the old, but at least give the new a chance. And don’t look at video of 68-year-old Roger Daltrey singing shirtless at “12-12-12,” making us all feel like we’d just accidentally walked in on our grandfathers showering.
I hear a lot of people, young and old, lamenting rather than listening. Saying “There’s no great music anymore. It’s all been done.” Bullshit. There is something exciting for every kind of ear. So for the fifth year in a row, I’ve done a lot of research for the lazy kind of ear that complains but doesn’t seek. Here, in no particular order, are 10 remarkable new albums from 2012 worth digging into.
Tame Impala/Lonerism (Modular Recordings)
Like many, I came upon Tame Impala this fall after seeing many notable music rags mentioning the psychedelic rockers’ Lonerism with enthusiasm. Tracks like “Music to Walk Home By” feature the sort of stoner-centric, reverbed-out vocals, guitars and drums that The Verve made famous on A Storm in Heaven, with added funky beats, ELO-style keyboard solos and soaring Magical Mystery Tour-influenced psychedelic indulgence. A more apropos LP title might be Music to Float Home By.
Sera Cahoone/Deer Creek Canyon (Sub Pop)
Sub Pop is annually enthralled by the love they get on this list. Some might be tired of it, but don’t blame me. Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, Helio Sequence, Mogwai, Death Vessel, Beach House, Blitzen Trapper, Fruit Bats, etc.: Sub Pop has, in my opinion, music’s most impressive current lineup of original talent. That includes Sera Cahoone, the earnest, melancholy and hopeful 37-year-old singer-songwriter who was raised in Littleton and formerly drummed for Band of Horses. Cahoone beautifully juxtaposes the emerald tenderness of Washington with Americana that’d make the Carter family proud. NPR said it best: “Channeling Patsy Cline by way of Neko Case.” Deer Creek Canyon, Cahoone’s third LP, swirls with bluegrass, country, blues and indie-rock, and is her best yet.
Frank Ocean/Channel Orange (Def Jam)
Here’s how white I am: My introduction to the immensely talented 25-year-old R&B sensation Frank Ocean was a profile in The New Yorker. Getting back to “12-12-12,” Ocean is the antithesis of the embarrassingly self-conscious and inappropriate Kanye West performance that night. Ocean, a Muslim, isn’t necessarily doing conscious hip-hop, though — rather, an almost shockingly honest and original form of R&B. And not just because, in my memory, Ocean’s the only openly gay black male music star. Ocean is deadpan funny (“Got a beach house I can sell you in Idaho”), cutting ("the freaks ain’t trying to sleep with crackie”) and courageous (who else writes a straight-faced love song to Forrest Gump?). Here’s hoping his openness, and sheer musicality, reaches millions of young ears for years to come.
Godspeed You Black Emperor!/‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (Constellation)
Canada’s instrumental post-rock legends Godspeed You Black Emperor! blew me away with the frightening and profound 20-minute masterpiece “Mladic,” but there’s clearly no way to fit it neatly on the mix CD I always distribute to friends in conjunction with this column. It’s hard to even fit a GYBE! track into your day. The influential experimental group’s slow-burning noise-symphonies are unique experiences that shock listeners out of quotidian experience into thoughtful terror. And unlike the stereotypical post-rock bands formed in its wake, GYBE!’s music is an unpredictable, poignant, brilliant journey, not a build-and-release blueprint.
First Aid Kit/The Lion’s Roar (Redeye)
Amid the increasingly commercial Americana phenomenon, sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg (22 and 19) have come from Sweden to teach us the sound of our own roots. Made famous and beloved as high-schoolers a few years ago with a viral YouTube video of the duo, now known as First Aid Kit, performing a Fleet Foxes tune in the woods, the Soderbergs hit No. 65 in the U.S. (No. 1 in Sweden) this year with The Lion’s Roar. Its woodsy purity is a more fleshed-out, accessible version of Vermont’s Mountain Man. Yet tracks like “Emmylou” are so true to country music — and somehow still sparkling with brash, youthful indie originality — that First Aid Kit often makes groups like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers sound like how the emperor looked in his new clothes.
Heartless Bastards/Arrow (Partisan)
It really is heartening how women currently lead the way in rock ’n’ roll, and Heartless Bastards frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom surely leads the leaders, going so far as to command us on the group’s uncompromising new Sabbath-meets-Pretenders fourth LP, Arrow, “You gotta have rock and roll.” Though the quartet secured a record deal after a recommendation from fellow Ohioans the Black Keys and its past two albums have been produced by Spoon drummer Jim Eno, Heartless Bastards’ guitar-driven rock seemingly becomes more dirty and less mainstream with every release. Wennerstrom’s songs detail personal change, honesty, home and needing “a little bit of whiskey and a little bit of time to ease my troubled mind,” but she’s no Jewel. Les Paul in hand, Wennerstrom is the brave, steely-voiced fem-Lemmy of soulful, female-fronted garage rock, and she keeps getting stronger.
Andrew Bird/Break Yourself (Mom Pop)
“You will need somebody when you come to die,” Andrew Bird sang this year. The sound of his violin would be just fine. Known as much for his voice and violin as his master whistling, Bird, nearing 40, has clearly experienced a musical rebirth since 2009’s Noble Beast & Useless Creatures. The former showcased Blonde on Blonde-esque wordplay and shimmering indie-folk, while the latter confidently and creatively showcased Bird’s instrumental virtuosity. This year, Bird released the familiar-but-different LP Break Yourself, which hit No. 10 in the U.S. by carving dreamy song-worlds of love and curiosity out of encyclopedic word-play and awe-inspiring (yet tasteful) musicianship, and the dusty, old-timey Hands of Glory, the most stripped-down album of Bird’s career. The latter, thick with blues, folk, country and gospel influence, is a musical time machine. The highlight of both is Bird’s sweet version of Townes Van Zandt’s 1981 classic “If I Needed You,” which, courtesy of Bird’s voice and violin, now sounds more like a 1931 classic.
Poor Moon/Poor Moon (Sub Pop)
Seattle’s Poor Moon is mostly the brainchild of vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Christian Wargo, whose bass guitar and enchanting harmonies aptly back up young Robin Pecknold in Fleet Foxes. My daughter, then 2 years old, stayed out late the evening of Oct. 7 to attend her first big rock show, when Poor Moon, her first bona fide musical crush, played the Boulder Theater. It’s understandable, as the xylophone-happy group is a more playful, irreverent take on the chamber-folk fad. Kid-friendly but deceptively dark (the “devil in my soul” lyrics; the “Holiday” video featuring Tom Skerrit blissfully popping pills in a mental institution), Poor Moon is a chance for Wargo, and listeners, to shake off the seriousness of indie music and feel comforted, at first, with trippy late- ’60s banality.
Until repeated listens reveal a twisted gloom, you’re too hypnotized to contest.
Beach House/Bloom (Sub Pop)
Whereas Heartless Bastards, also female-fronted, stress the garage-rock simplicity of fuzzed-out vintage guitars and acoustic drums, Beach House (led by French-born Victoria Legrand’s wise, elegant voice) is two hipsters, one guitar and a slew of technology. Guitarist Alex Scally’s sweeps of sound are reminiscent of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, with a more calming nod to the Velvet Underground’s most lush ’60s material and the European movement it spawned. Legrand, as always, could be singing anything and the resulting feeling would be akin to walking home through a 3 a.m. mist down San Francisco’s Mission Street. A more coherent update of the Cocteau Twins’ best, Bloom, as Legrand sings, is “deeper than you and me”: Heavenly headphone rock made for uncontrollable head-bopping and self-reflecting. It’s “momentary bliss,” but so is life.