My Favorite Albums of 2012 – Part 2

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

The list continues below. Check out Part 1 here if you’re just tuning in…

Fiona Apple – “The Idler Wheel…”

The full title of Fiona Apple’s 2012 album is “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.”  Now you know why I didn’t put it up there in bold and how it continues Fiona “this world is bullshit” Apple’s reputation of lunacy and pretentiousness into the present day.

That said, “The Idler Wheel…” is a strong effort built on a new collaboration on the ashes of a failed prior attempt at the material dating back to 2010.  The almost impossible promise of the lead track, “Every Single Night” is never quite realized, but the mood is still well set:  The focus is very close and intimate with an emphasis on rhythm.  Rhythm in the copier-machine sound that opens “Jonathan,” rhythm in the tribal chants of “Every Single Night.”  Charley Drayton, Apple’s touring drummer seems to have brought that element in as co-producer.

The result stays intimate without falling into the “girl and a piano” trap one might expect.  One cannot imagine Tori Amos ever making an album this close to the chest, and that is a definite strength.  “Valentine” could be a Carole King song.  Intentional “flaws,” like the opening of “Werewolf” (a door closes and you can clearly hear the pedals of the piano) are another characteristic.  As the album was literally made behind the record label’s back, what we have can come across as particularly strong demos.  At 10 songs and 42 minutes of duration recorded over 4 years it’s not exactly prolific, but it never loses the spellbinding quality of being right there in the room while the magic is happening.

Frank Ocean – “channel ORANGE”

In some alternate dimension, R. Kelly and Stevie Wonder are a single person named Frank Ocean.  His music is certainly informed by both – narratives similar to Kelly and delivery similar to Wonder.  The fact that he can make it work so consistently well on the 55-minute “channel ORANGE” seals any doubt as to his talent as a songwriter and performer.  Prior single “Novacane” was no fluke – it was a clue as to what would become a 2013 Album of the Year Grammy nominee.

“Thinkin’ Bout You,” the lead single and first proper song on the album is a great place to start – but it’s hard to pick highlights out of this one. The brief sketches commonplace on hip hop albums just add to the overall narrative quality of the album. I don’t claim to understand it all, but I can say with confidence that it’s an entertaining and intriguing enterprise and well worth taking in in a single sitting.

Jack White – “Blunderbuss” 

The incredibly long, prolific years of Jack White and the various bands he has been in over the years has led to his first true solo album being an unmitigated masterpiece.

Most rock artists build their taste and eventual original work from the rock bands that went before – whether it’s The Beatles or anyone who came after.  But White quite famously started (and to a large degree remains) with the same influences of bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles themselves – the rhythm and blues artists of black America from the first half of the 20th century.

Imposing less restrictions over form and instrumentation than ever, “Blunderbuss” is a successful transition from the sound of The White Stripes to something more akin to 70’s Motown.  White’s not trying to be the greatest guitarist or vocalist in the game.  He’s writing diverse and interesting songs and the collection is so clever and compact (the average song length is just over three minutes) that even if a song or two don’t tickle your fancy, it’s over soon and the next one will.

“Missing Pieces” sounds like a lost Raconteurs track before the pure bombast of “Sixteen Saltines” and “Freedom at 21.”  The following block is slower but no less powerful with the trembling duet “Love Interruption” followed by the quiet beauty of “Blunderbuss” and “Hypocritical Kiss.”  “I’m Shakin'” firmly adds “and roll” back to the rock.  It’s no less amazing that it sounds fresh 60 years later.  The fantastic piano hooks of “Weep Themselves to Sleep” and “Take Me With You When You Go” sounds like White stepped in for Billy Preston at a late Beatles session.  It’s also a particularly well-executed example of White’s “dual-mono” mixing style when the listener gets hold of the bipolar guitar solo.

Nada Surf – “The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy”

Nada Surf is one of those bands I can not get enough of.  They’ve never forced themselves into the spotlight since their minor hit, the uncharacteristic novelty song “Popular.”  The song that really got my attention was 2005’s “Always Love” from the stellar album “The Weight Is A Gift.”

My introduction to “The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy” was a chance YouTube recommendation to the video for “When I Was Young.”  The song’s great lyrics and chest-thumping turn a few minutes in is well complimented by the video with uniformed school kids making eyes on the subway.  The song makes a clever shift, becoming louder and slower in a really satisfying way.  It’s not quite as different as Wings’ “Band on the Run’s” varied sections, but the impact is there nonetheless.

“Teenage Dreams” is another callback to the theme of being both better and worse for no longer being young.  Most of the album keeps production minimal with great tones never interfering from Matthew Caws vocal delivery.  The sparse horns and strings of “Let the Fight Do the Fighting” is a welcome break from the standard instrumentation without overdoing it.  Standout tracks include “Clear Eye Clouded Mind,” “No Snow on the Mountain” and “The Future.”  “When I Was Young” is far and away the best song, and the video (included below) is also great.

Pet Shop Boys – “Elysium”

The 1990 album “Behavior” was a very different album from the dance and pop that came before (and in some cases after) for Pet Shop Boys. It’s title track “Being Boring” and cover art featuring Chris Lowe in mid-yawn set the tone for their more ambient, down-tempo work. Many fans shied away from the album never to return.

“Elysium” gets off to a similar start with “Leaving,” a song just a lush and beautiful as “Being Boring” but not as lyrically overstated.  Where “Behavior” was a statement by a band in it’s 30’s, “Elysium” is a fascinating look at that same band over 20 years later, approaching 60.  “After being for so many years the life of the party, it’s weird; I’m invisible.” “You’ve been around but you don’t look to rough, but I still quite like some of your early stuff,” is the actual chorus of “Early Stuff.”

Ever introspective lyrics, Chris Lowe’s lush synths and Neil Tennant’s unmistakable voice are as potent as ever as they poke fun, elucidate and explore their place in the world that seems to wish they’d just go on repeating the past.  As someone who eventually warmed to “Behavior,” “Elysium” is itself something of a coda and a glimpse of what it might be like to be an artist that has long outgrown its early career.

While “Leaving” is probably the more accessible video for the album, I have to give the space to the video for the song “Winner.”  It’s marvelous.

continue to Part 3


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