Biff Bam Pop has been sharing Top 5 Album lists each year for five years now. It’s a bit of crazy thought that we’ve ben doing it for so long, but we do love our music and we do love to share it with our friends.
The great thing about coming up with these sorts of catalogues is the discussion it stimulates with other music lovers. Andy Burns, BBP’s Editor-in-Chief, generally has a distinctly different compilation than what I put together at the end of every year. 2012 was no exception. You can read his thoroughly rockin’ list here.
When listening to music, and deeming it “best of” – I have one criteria that rates above all others: it’s got to be music that stays with me, an album that plays on repeat all throughout the year. It’s got to be something that stands the test of a sound bite as well as a second single: a musicianship that lasts a full album, a sound that entices, surprises and elicits emotion.
Here then, are my top 5 albums of 2012.
Muse – The 2nd Law
In the lead up to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England, Muse released their song “Survival” (found on the then forthcoming album The 2nd Law) as a sort of rock/pop tribute to the athletes of the games. It was a calculated manoeuvre, to be sure: a Queen-esque space-rock opera about winning life’s rat race at all costs. As a commercial for the album, I thought it sounded out of place, shining a light on the negative aspects of human competition at a global event that presented participating countries on a single stage as equals.
Maybe I’m just an optimist for the human race. Or maybe I’m naïve. Muse are, and have been, anything but those two words.
Although their sound hasn’t changed much from previous albums (their 2009 release, The Resistance made my top albums list for that year, which you can find here), Muse are still espousing the folly of man’s current state of evolution on The 2nd Law. Amid jazzy guitar sounds, hard rock and spacey solos, dub step beats and crazed electronic funky grooves, The 2nd Law always sounds distinctly Muse playing to a stadium full of like-minded Philip K. Dick fist pumpers. The band is musically gifted, to be sure, and they’ve definitely found their sound and poetry. The science of expansion permeates the album amid the raucous of traders at a stock exchange in “Animals” and “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” – a two–part musical epilogue to the album. But the prelude comes in late as the fourth track on the album in what amounts to a collection of songs that runs two or three too long. Still, “Madness” is a bass-fuelled revelation (played on a double bass guitar mounted iPad in concerts!), “Panic Station” sounds like something Stevie Wonder might have had a hand in creating and “Big Freeze” is shimmering pop glory. Even the previously mentioned “Survival” sounds more at home here on the album, more likable than when heard at the Olympics.
If you’re into glorious space rock and, potentially, a disdain for 21st century electronic culture (amid bouts of fleeting beauty), then The 2nd Law should be heard. At it’s worst, it proves an overly long musical warning to the human race. At it’s best, it showcases great sounds and songs that lift the human spirit.
Moonface with Siinai – Heartbreaking Bravery
Heartbreaking Bravery is the second full-length album released by Moonface, who is, in essence, Spencer Krug, one of the founding members of the now-on-hiatus, Wolf Parade (who’s 2008 album At Mount Zoomer made that year’s list). It’s drastically different from the first.
Krug has always been prolific with other musicians, so much so that you’re never too sure, historically, what his main band was. In any case, he enjoys creating music, here on Heartbreaking Bravery, with Finnish prog-rock band, Siinai.
Heartbreaking Bravery is a dark, heavy album, best heard late at night. It’s just got that kind of syrupy sound: thick, weighty layers of sounds from pounding drum kit to overlaid organs and out-of-tune electronic canvases. It’s a slow burn – but one that stays with the soul. Krug and Siinai reminisce gothic 1980’s Peter Murphy as much as the guitar wall of 1990’s My Bloody Valentine while still managing to sound fresh. For me, “Quickfire, I Tried”is the plodding star of the album, invoking emotions rarely heard in one single song: elation, despondence and, finally, contentment with the anticipation of starting this particular circle of sentiment over again.
But there’s glam-rock in the prog-rock too. “Teary Eyes And Bloody Lips” references Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, amid a joyous organ solo while “I’m Not The Phoenix Yet” is by far the most accessible stage-diving single for all the college kids. That particular song runs 2:47 long. Extremely short when most on Heartbreaking Bravery run over five minutes in length.
The ten songs that make up Heartbreaking Bravery deal, as one might imagine, about the aftermath of broken relationships. Together they make a coherent album that surprises in that they grow with the listener. Sounds reveal themselves on multiple listens, lyrics give varied meanings and the songs provide a backdrop for a late-night melancholy, full of peaks and troughs and foundation building.
Despite the somewhat despondent title, Heartbreaking Bravery by Moonface with Siinai is, at its essence, a beautifully life-affirming album.
Grizzly Bear – Shields
Shields, by Brooklyn-based alt-rock band Grizzly Bear, is another album that grew with me over the year. I must admit that I wasn’t a huge fan upon its initial release. It’s not as immediately accessible as the band’s previous release, Veckatimest, nor is it entirely as progressive sounding as I might have thought it would be. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but what I got slowly wrapped itself around me and pulled me closer and closer to it.
A merging of art pop, rock and folk is, I suppose, what best describes the oeuvre of Shields, but then that’s Grizzly Bear, isn’t it? “A Simple Answer” was the first song that drew me in, with its rolling drum and keyboard sounds. Like other tracks on Shields, it breaks into a slow dirge from its steady march, towards the end, a telltale sign of the sense of collaboration between the four band members that permeates the entirety of the album.
Truly, that’s the essence of Shields. Every musician here pulled their weight in the song writing, the instrument playing, the singing, the harmonizing and the production of the record. It’s a complete whole that begs a complete listen. Where first single “Sleeping Ute” rocks with it’s offbeat guitar lick sounds, “Gun-Shy” sounds as sweet as a nighttime lullaby. If you’re drifting off, the last song on the album, “Sun In Your Eyes” will draw back the curtains with it’s glorious breaks and sparkling vocals.
Shields is as complete an album as you’ll listen to this year – a grower that will musically seed in your mind, took root in your heart and grow in your soul.
Jack White – Blunderbuss
Or, you know, you could also give Blunderbuss, his first “solo” album, a listen.
Blunderbuss ties all of White’s musical interests into one coherent-sounding album. Whether it’s electric or acoustic, the thirteen songs that make up Blunderbuss pay homage to blues, bluegrass, country, folk and rock music in a way no other artist working today can manage. Jack White is a student and a teacher of all these styles. At once, the sounds of Blunderbuss are ripped from what could be the American old west or Hendrix-era guitar rock – all the while being distinctly Jack White.
There’s no mistaking the man for any other musician today – even if the styles of songs change throughout the album. Whether it’s the soft, country-tinged lullaby of title track “Blunderbuss”, the rolling saloon of “Hypocritical Kiss”, the fun and bluesy “I’m Shakin’”, the southern carnival delight of “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” or the straight gun-powder rock of first single “Sixteen Saltines”, every song always sounds just like Jack White. Who’d want it any other way?
Blunderbuss is a delight. It’s an album that is thorough in its influences but always reaches and grasps a twenty-first century sound aesthetic. Distilled, it’s a musical history lessen that dictates the future of rock and roll.
And Jack White?
Jack White leads the way into that guitar-driven potential.
Alt-J – An Awesome Wave
Their first release, An Awesome Wave is unlike any other album I’ve heard this year. It constantly surprised me in both its influences and its musicianship and that’s why it finds itself on this particular list. It must have done the same for others, as the album caught the attention of the UK music press and won the coveted Mercury Prize as album of the year. High esteem indeed.
There’s a world-beat sound to the entirety of An Awesome Wave, funnelled through an urban filter. Sure, there’s a Radiohead influence at play here, but I hear more Eno and the experimentation of latter-day Talking Heads. Heck, Alt-J sounds more New York than Cambridge, where the band members first met during their university days.
Although there’s experimentation in the studio with knobs, dials and buttons, the art of their sound is best evident in their live performances. The sweetly sounding and whispery “Matilda”, a pop-culture nod to the Luc Besson film, The Professional, is absolutely gorgeous in it’s musical structure: soft, rolling drum and lightly plucked acoustic guitar. The percussive “Fitzpleasure”, on the other hand, contains a menacing urban rift played up against a joyful break, a harmonizing of opposite soundscapes. “Tessellate” sounds a little like a trip-hop version of a science fiction novel, while “Taro” presents the band’s global, political side. Here, they tell the story of early twentieth century war photographers Gerda Taro and Robert Capa. It’s a beautiful tune, detailing the deaths of the two frontline war journalists.
All of these songs, these genres, never feel forced or insincere on An Awesome Wave. Alt-J have created a album of sure music that transcends influences and becomes something new that hypnotizes listeners, mystifying them in the art of musical creation.
One album may not make a career, but An Awesome Wave promises much more from Alt-J, a young band with something to say, creating music worth listening to.