|An Album for the End of the World: Twenty Favorite Songs from 2012|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Written by Jeff Ignatius|
|Thursday, 20 December 2012 05:56|
For the seventh year, I’ve compiled a selection of favorite songs from the past year and sequenced them into an album – something that can fit on an 80-minute CD, with no artists repeated from previous years and a limit of one song per artist.
This year’s edition features 20 tracks and is notably heavier and louder than any of the past six. Read nothing more into that than the possibility that my hearing is likely deteriorating now that I’m north of 40. (And don’t infer anything from the inclusion of two Swedish bands and another from Denmark, or my apparent weakness for the second songs of albums.)
Beyond the surface aggression, I’m imposing on my 2012 album an air of finality, both aesthetically and thematically. Whether it’s the violence promised and delivered by the Hives or the natural calamity of Alexandre Desplat or the seasonal metaphor of Max Richter or the self-loathing regret of Cloud Nothings or the ominous instrumental clouds of Goat, this sounds a bit like the world is ending. I’m pretty sure the planet as we know it will be here on December 22, but here’s a soundtrack for December 21 just in case some interpretations of the Mayan calendar prove correct.
The Hives, “My Time Is Coming.” There’s always been a threatening edge to the punkish garage rock of the Hives, but it’s always been obliterated by cheekiness, matching outfits, and a bright bluster that made it impossible to take anything at all seriously. Here, the title and chorus are far from earnest, but both the music and vocals carry something darker – not of getting one’s due but of seizing out of desperation and deprivation (“You see I grew up in a hole / Squeezing diamonds out of coal”). The reverb-heavy guitar and the quiet opening before detonation represent minor aesthetic developments for the Swedes, but the biggest change is how they tap into a rage that for once feels authentic.
Dr. John, “Revolution.” I don’t want to take credit away from Dr. John, whose smooth but slightly singed bayou vocals here are warm and wise – and whose “Let’s all just pray on it right now” command mid-song shows who’s boss. But the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach continues to demonstrate his gifts as a producer on Locked Down, which he also co-wrote. Every sonic element on “Revolution” – the cavernous, pinpoint guitars, the bleating keyboard solo – is gorgeous, but it’s the creamy, thick saxophones that are ultimately irresistible, especially in their sudden runs.
Alexandre Desplat, “The Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe, Part 1: A Veiled Mist.” Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom prominently features Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and composer Alexandre Desplat has explicitly taken his cue from that seminal work for his collection of “Heroic Weather-Conditions of the Universe” pieces, allowing each part its own introduction and its own space. Bright, playful instruments capture a sense of youth, innocence, wonder, and possibilities, while the stringed instruments – particularly the guitars – gently temper the mood and add a hint of foreboding. Desplat’s composition neatly articulates the arc of Anderson’s story – with its twin storms of puberty and a hurricane – as well as his precious tone. But he employs a restraint foreign to Anderson, and his score is lovely and poignant on its own.
Dirty Projectors, “Just from Chevron.” At the outset, the elements here are clearly separated – handclaps on one side, vocals on the other, and a guitar in the middle. The next passage is similar, with drums in the middle and the guitar shifted to one side. This could be no more than an overly clever approach to the mix, but here it hints at the Dirty Projectors’ deliberate, thoughtful approach to indie pop. There’s not a sound here that isn’t carefully considered and placed, yet the sunny ensemble brings such penetrating warmth to the song that it never feels clinical.
Silversun Pickups, “Make Believe.” The best reference I have for Silversun Pickups is Sunny Day Real Estate – pitching inward emotional content against explosively expressive rock – but with a sexy vocal and instrumental slink and a sonic palette both exact and blunt; the tension is carefully ratcheted up before finding release points with maximum velocity and effect. There’s an epic expansiveness to the music under intimate lyrics and singing, a bit like a heart bursting and making a bloody (but elegant) mess on the walls.
Ruby Throat, “Shoe.” The tentativeness of the opening lyrics – “I though I should / I decided I shouldn’t / But I thought that maybe I should” – is matched by the ethereal tremulousness of the singing, but the song never wavers, channeling Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” through a woman’s doubt. Walking a fine line between conveying a feeling musically through mimicry and becoming it – the latter of which would be deadly with this particular song – “Shoe” hides its sureness behind lyrical and vocal uncertainty.
Ty Segall, “Inside Your Heart.” It’s sloppy, barbed-wire lo-fi on the one hand, but the meat here is a blistering three-guitar attack – twinned six-strings in a soaring elemental riff over rhythm guitar in the first two breaks before devolving into howls, feedback, and escalating distortion at the climax and conclusion.
American Dust, “Gold Souvenirs.” It will probably sound like faint praise to call this track (from the vinyl-only Hello Quad Cities – Volume 1 compilation) paint-by-numbers Americana, but I mean only this: Nearly every musical element and development is easily anticipated, because it clings to a familiar formula. Admittedly, that’s not difficult. But the song is also artfully transcendent, with coarsely paired male/female vocals and the the liquid melodies of the pedal steel burrowing deep into head and heart.
Cat Power, “3, 6, 9.” Chan Marshall spent her past few albums looking to the past – with the Memphis soul of The Greatest and the covers record Jukebox – and they felt to me like wastes of her idiosyncrasy, stylistic straitjackets. On Sun, she feels freed, and “3, 6, 9” has a buoyancy and playfulness that’s nearly shocking after the measured melancholy and spareness of 2003’s You Are Free and the two retro records between then and now. She incorporates electronics and other instruments over which she had no mastery, and rather than sounding amateurish or presenting expressive roadblocks, they open up possibilities. Even the dreaded Auto-Tune gets a workout here, but she uses it as a tool rather than cover or a crutch. Despite an almost joyous liberation, the song proudly bears its burdens: “3, 6, 9 / You drink wine / Monkey on your back / You feel just fine.”
Cloud Nothings, “Wasted Days.” There are other lyrics in this song, but one line of single-syllable words is repeated so often and with such force and insistence that it might as well be all there is: “I thought I would be more than this.” In nearly nine minutes, words other than these end in the first two minutes, and the remainder is dominated by that chorus and a four-and-a-half-minute instrumental exploration – the type of jamming I typically loathe. But Cloud Nothings fill that space with such living detail – waves of buzzing noise, silver-tongued lead-guitar lines, growing agitation – that it miraculously generates the song’s emotional transition, like mental processing happening through hands and fingers. The central lyric in the song’s first two choruses sounds convincing but not particularly heartfelt; after the break, it’s screamed with such primal ferocity and undiluted self-hatred that you might find yourself ruing your own wasted days.
Goat, “Diarabi.” It amounts to little more than variations on a brief melody on a handful of guitars – something vaguely from the East through the lens of metal – but you can hear in it the essence of an entire movie: desolation and danger, a showdown, an unforgiving landscape that feels alien. Metallica showed that Ennio Morricone translates well to heavy music, but this Swedish outfit seems to be digesting the Spaghetti Western composer rather than just regurgitating him.
Bob Mould, “Silver Age.” He has always found musical outlets for his anger and his pop sensibilities, but the successful fusion of the two has been rare in Bob Mould’s long career. Two decades after the tuneful fury of Sugar (particularly the Beaster EP), the former Hüsker Dü guitarist and singer nails that alchemical mix again on Silver Age and its title track. Mould’s trademarks are here – the whiny, sneering singing, the solid-as-steel hook, the acidic tone – but as with Sugar, it’s a tight, concentrated blast of inspired power pop, sweet enough to be enticing but brutal enough to be punishing, an embrace and sucker punch in one.
Jeff Wichmann, “Look.” The former Quad Citian, in combining his koto and trumpet with electronic music, has synthesized three elements that don’t belong together into an album that rarely feels forced despite its obvious novelty. On “Look,” all three components are front-and-center, and even though they’re speaking different languages, there’s no dissonance and nothing lost in translation. The Eastern tinge of the koto and the jazzy melody lines of the trumpet and the modernity of the electronics occupy a previously unimagined Venn-diagram space where they complement each other without sacrificing their identities.
Diamond Rugs, “Gimme a Beer.” The music of Deer Tick’s John McCauley is often defined by its shabby and shambling qualities – particularly his wonder of a hoarse shriek – and the super-group Diamond Rugs (which features, among other artists, Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin) captures that perfectly on this song, lyrically positioning a lazy inferiority complex against equally lazy wishful boasts: “I want the kind of dog that listen when I call / and pisses on my neighbor’s fence. / I want the kind of clothes so everybody knows / here comes a confident man.” Dual, dueling pedal steels underneath horns and chugging beat in the break are a controlled frenzy elevating lyrics that might otherwise be a bit too pathetic to stomach.
Cains & Abels, “Money.” Addressing its title subject as a lover – “Money / You take my hand” – is a conceit that should be too cute by half, but singer/songwriter David Sampson attacks it sincerely and richly, and in the process he taps into a truth most of us would rather not recognize: This is a pervasive and rarely healthy relationship that colors and often undermines many of our human interactions. With its slight whine, Sampson’s voice pines with a full-throated vigor, and Joshua Ippel’s guitar provides a gorgeous counterpoint, shading the lyrics with other emotions – anger, despair, frustration – that help paint the picture in all its complexity.
Dinosaur Jr., “Recognition.” Even when I liked J. Mascis’ songs, I found them mostly excuses for masturbatory guitar-playing. Consequently, I haven’t really been curious about Dinosaur Jr. since college in the early ’90s. But I Bet on Sky shows that as a singer, songwriter, and artist, Mascis has grown significantly. There’s still bravura guitar-playing, and “Recognition” has several distinct passages – the dextrous runs after the first two verses and the solo – that are a bit too showy. But employing a vocal style reminiscent of Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard and a chorus that connects, the song works as a song and not just an instrumental showcase.
The Raveonettes, “You Hit Me (I’m Down).” The tension here is between the vivid precision of its elements – the vocal harmonies, the up-front acoustic guitar – and the gauzy effect of the whole. The words are vague (“Do you sleep all alone? / Do you sleep to forget?”) but evocative and perhaps even ghostly, and like the song itself, they amount to more than their combined parts. Similarly, it’s not difficult to identify each component of the airy but full arrangement, its function, and how it’s presented, yet that process does nothing to unlock the song, which retains an impenetrable dreamy mystery. I’ve been listening to this Danish duo for a decade, and it’s gone from loud formal experiments in garage rock to bracing forays into nearly magical texture.
Beach House, “Troublemaker.” If the apocalypse is nigh, this is the song to play while watching from a safe distance: “Like a hand you reached out to me / The thunder rolls in with the dawn / Tiny fingers on the edges / Watch it unravel / Pulling everything apart.” The nightmarish imagery is a bit startling in the context of the breathy, organ-driven minor-key pop – I’m particularly fond of “The walls are shaking in their skin” and “You watch the shape these things are taking / ’Til you cry out in your sleep” – but in the end it feels right; when the world is ending, look on with calm, detached wonder rather than agitated horror.
Matt Mays, “Take It on Faith.” The Canadian singer/songwriter is a bit of a rock-and-roll maximalist, with treatments so casually loaded that it sounds like he doesn’t quite trust his material. That doubt is certainly justified on “Take It on Faith,” which might be an honest enough expression of adoration from afar (“I don’t know you but I feel you / Do you feel it, too?”) but is far too simple and nebulous to work lyrically. Still, the song exudes energy, conviction, and musical confidence, and the richly realized arrangement paired with Mays’ warmly damaged singing and a ringing slide-guitar solo sells the hell out of it. Sometimes cheese tastes good.
Max Richter, “Winter 3.” I am unqualified to speak with any authority whatsoever on what composer Max Richter has done with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on his Recomposed by ... album. While some of the pieces (such as “Summer 3”) sound like largely faithful re-imaginings with a contemporary voice, the closing section feels merely “inspired by” the original. Richter expands one fragment no longer than 12 seconds in Vivaldi into a poised, pregnant expression of beauty – in the form of Daniel Hope’s flitting violin – balanced by a subtle anxiety, an elusive fear slowly consuming a moment’s pleasure.
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