My Top Five Albums of 2012

If you haven’t read “Why You Won’t Be the Person You Expect to Be” by the Times’  John Tierney, which lit up Twitter and Facebook like wildfire last week, I highly recommend you do so. Once you get past the Thought Catalog-esque headline, the research contained within the article offers some fascinating insight into how we view both our past and future selves.

Summarily, recent studies have shown that individuals are aware how much different they used to be in terms of personality and taste. However, our species is also particularly horrible at forecasting similar changes in our future. This “end of history illusion” leads us to believe that we will always act as we do in the present.

Researchers can’t explain this anomaly in our self-perception. Some think it’s due to our tendency to “overestimate (our) own wonderfulness,” as Tierney puts it, allowing us to constantly experience the delusional satisfaction of living at the peak of our wisdom. Others blame it on laziness; it simply takes more effort to imagine our future selves than it does to recall our past.

Nobody in the article brings up boredom, which was the first reason that came to my mind. We live our lives under a set of rules and circumstances, and expect a consistent return in satisfaction. Instead, with precious few exceptions, the return always diminishes.

Musical taste is a perfect example. Think back ten years ago. You had a favorite song, album and band, all of which you knew would never change. When was the last time you listened to any of them? Take a look through your recent playlists on Spotify. How many bands were you even listening to two years ago, much less ten?

This brings me to the list of my top five favorite albums from 2012. Five years ago (with the possible exception of the Alabma Shakes), the genres represented on the list were those that I would not have even considered listening to, much less appreciating like I do now. In fact, in 2007 I wouldn’t have even been able to make a top five list, because the most contemporary album I was listening to at the time was probably Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986).

Times have changed; musical trends have changed; we have changed. But thanks to John Tierney I now have no idea what I’ll be listening to in 2017.
5. The Alabama Shakes- Boys and Girls

Boys and Girls climbs nearly to the tip of its mountainous pre-release hype. Nearly. Unfortunately, it sounds content to have settled firmly on the ledge below greatness. This is not due to any lack of effort on the part of the Shakes, it is a damned impressive debut, but one in which the band’s youth and lack of confidence shine through just as much as their inherent strengths.

Brittany Howard’s voice is a nostalgic revelation. The band accompanies her like a more talented and less drunk version of Big Brother. All the ingredients were here for a classic, but Boys and Girls was slightly undercooked, and the stiffness of the songs sounds nothing like their now-famous live concerts.

Take a listen to this more recent version of Hold On, recorded over a year after the studio track. It’s performed by a different band, one filled to the brim with swagger. When you take into consideration a bustling semi-movement for Jack White to produce their next album, I predict that their sophomore effort will be the best album of 2014.

4. Kendrick Lamar, good kid, m.A.A.d city

I have a fumbler’s grasp on rap music, it escapes me the harder I try to hold on to it. That being said, an ignorant could sincerely ask what Dr. Dre wrote his thesis on and still be impressed with Kendrick Lamar’s debut effort.

The rappers I like, from a ‘flow’ perspective, are the ones that bounce around the beat, shifting rhythms in their cadences with a complexity verging on randomness, like a -yup- fumbled football. It is a musical style that actually hearkens back to improvisational jazz and blues of the 50’s and 60’s, only then it was done by cats with soul, as opposed to dudes with flow.

Kenrick’s style bounces with an athleticism I have not heard since Andre 3000’s heyday, and he nearly matches the Outkast phenom in the creative quality of weirdness. I would highlight “Backseat Freestyle” as the best example, with a chromatic melody in the chorus that offers the aural illusion of a record being sped up and slowed down; an effect so simple and brilliant I wonder whether rap as a genre has even come close to its potential. Imagine if someone took the effort to add such idiosyncracies to all parts their rhyming? I mean, someone in addition to Kendric Lamar.

3. How To Dress Well, Total Loss

I subscribe to the 20-year doctrine popular musical theory, meaning that music that was popular 20 years’ prior always finds its way back into the mainstream. The 90’s saw a 70’s revival and the aughts were saturated with updated 80’s music, so if my theory holds true we can all expect a percolation of nineties influences any time now.

Total Loss is an essential first step (yes, “an.” not “the,” there are no “the’s” anymore in popular musical progression. The Internet makes it impossible for bands and genres to explode onto the scene to warrant the title of “the” essential first step, but I digress). Mastermind Tom Krell’s synthesizers are a little more nuanced and a lot more directly popular and sappy than what we’ve heard recently, lending a similarity more to Michael Jackson circa ’91 than Devo circa ’85.

Of course, Krell keeps with our generation’s trend of taking pop-sounding music and coating it in crippling despair (even more on that later!). He employs a falsetto that cuts through like an expensive knife and bleed the emotion out of the warmth of his production, which itself is comprised of layers of artificial sound to create something natural and heartbreaking. If he made the songs a little more accesible, the result would sound a lot like…

2. Passion Pit, Gossamer

Bi-polarism has never been caught so well on record. There is a manic hyper psychosis in songs like “I’ll Be Alright” and “Carried Away,” as if Angelekos had more ideas than he could even fit into one song. “Oohs” and “aahs” pop into your headphones from the left and right, up and down, in the foreground and back, frantically jumping on top of layers of intertwining drumbeats and glittery guitars. Give the Keebler elves some speed and this would be the background songs while they jittered away in their factory, making sugar-coasted delicacies for the masses.

Only Passion Pit’s candy is laced with pills and whiskey. Gossamer’s subject matter is about self-loathing and pity in a disturbingly literal fashion. Depression has been eternally associated with music, only it usually sounds, you know, depressing. Gossamer’s ceterpiece and masterpiece is “Constant Conversations,” which on first listen could be a new D’Angelo sex track. But here is instead an intimate portrait of a couple being torn apart by alcoholism, with Angelekos singing “I’m drunker than before they, told me drinking doesn’t make me nice.” Suddenly even the most beautiful and bright of noises sound like they should be listened to alone, in the early morning hours, when the street lights go out one by one.

The highs and lows of life existing at once, with nothing in between, encapsulated in song. An ambitious undertaking, one that only Passion Pit, among the current crop of artists, could undertake.

1. Alt-J, An Awesome Wave

Rare is the sound of many, and when bands to choose to incorporate the influence of their contemporaries, they seldom look farther than their musical neighbors. Band of Horses begin to harmonize like the Fleet Foxes. Vampire Weekend rely more heavily on the MGMT-synths.

When a band chooses to incorporate the sounds of all its contemporaries, however, the result is normally a bloated mess that is usually relegated to artifact status of the era in which it was born, looked upon years later as representative of its generation’s particular flavor of excess, which is what makes An Awesome Wave all the more outstanding.

Alt-J, in their debut LP, have crafted the perfect artifice of whatever you want to call the last five years (“late-aughts, early teens?”). In 40 years, when whatever the next iteration of Pitchfork ranks the best albums of this time period, An Awesome Wave, in its shimmering encapsulation of the era, will most certainly be near the top. The band can harmonize like Grizzly Bear or Fleet Foxes with similarly gentle plucked acoustic guitars. They play a tight, African-tinged pop reminiscent of Vampire Weekend and their brethren. Synths shine through like Passion Pit, and the rhythm section (though they would probably hate the comparison), hit spacey polyrhythmics like what Kings of Leon think they sounded like.

People will remember, correctly, that the years of 2007-2012 was when indie music hit its golden age, and then appropriately got swallowed up by the mainstream. While the music of computers and acoustic guitars will continue to gain popularity (see Mumford & Suns and FUN respectively), the time of innovation is over. A lot has changed, quite quickly, over the past five years, and I am glad that we have An Awesome Wave to look back at that rapidity and remember it fondly. I am looking forward to the rapidity of future change.

Honorable Mentions

Angel Olsen, Half Way Home

Most people have a rose-colored view of previous generations. Angel Olsen, like the cover of her album suggests, sees it in shades of darker gray. Her music is the dark dirt roads that sprawled the mid-western countryside during the dirt bowl. Her voice is that of an age past, rising from the grave; or, more personally, the tinge of regret over an old lover. Either way, it is haunting, disturbing and beautiful.

Tame Impala, Lonerism

Everybody loved this album, and it does an excellent job paying homage to The Beatles. But you can have fun playing an Epiphone and still yearn for a Les Paul, and whenever I listen to Lonerism I just want to hear Abbey RoadSorry to end on a bad note.

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