Monday, December 9, 2013

Good To Know That If I Ever Need Attention All I Have To Do Is Blog Somewhere Else

You knew this was coming.

It's been a rocky 2013.  Lots of listening and life choices.  At the end of it all, I've come to the realization that my time running This Song Starts A Craze... is over.  There's a myriad of reasons why, but for now, let's hang this decision on the constantly changing variables in the life of someone who self-publishes.

Call it a refocusing, if you will.  

To that end, I want to thank you for supporting this blog, either as my friend, a reader, or as a fellow blogger.  This blog will always be special to me--it's helped me develop my voice over these past 6 years and it's been a platform to meet some really wonderful people like Matt and Liz.  Along the way, I like to think we've had fun, and that I've even adhered to my own Orson Welles-like standards of exactitude to produce some thoughtful reflections.  If I haven't...well, my bad.  YOLO, I guess.  Is that how you use it?

Anyway, the bigger point I'm trying to make here is that I'm not finished writing.

Call this new chapter my Side 2.  If you want to keep up with my musical ramblings, I'll be shifting over to my personal Tumblr (motifs in the city) for shorter reflections and the ever important End Of The Year List (don't worry, I got one for 2013).  I also have some other opportunities in the works, projects slated for 2014.  Those collaborations have me all sorts of excited, and I hope this post gets you excited for the future as well.

So, since this is too long already, thank you.

I hope this blog ignited some of your airwaves.


Sunday, January 27, 2013

Most Anticipated Albums Of '13

2012 was so...2012.  Right?  It's 2013 people, which means there are some great releases on the horizon.  Per time honored tradition, here are Matt's picks over at The Sight Of Sound.

Bayside- TBA:
When you break out during the emo phase of the early 2000s, it’s hard to come out as anything different. Ask a lot of similar bands, from Taking Back Sunday to Fall Out Boy - it’s hard to make new music when you are constantly being compared to what you put out during that time period. But Bayside has begun to break as a credible rock band, with 2011’s Killing Time serving as a surprisingly strong record. All that’s been said is a Facebook post that a new album is coming in 2013 and longtime fans have been excited. The most interesting part of new material: Can Bayside breakout and earn some new fans in 2013?

The Black Keys- TBA:
While technically not confirmed for a 2013 release, all signs indicate the follow-up to El Camino will arrive at some point this year. The duo has said they are going in the studio this spring to work on new material and that may be the smartest move for one of the hottest acts in the industry. Though they’ve deviated from a their early sound, the past two records have been fantastic and can only be built upon.

Cage The Elephant- TBA:
Not much is known about Cage the Elephant’s third album, but that could be a good thing. The debut provided some catchy, albeit schizophrenic rock that netted their biggest song to date in “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked.” The follow-up sounded the same, but with more effort shown in the production side. All that has been posted for the untitled third record is studio footage from working on songs, but if these guys make anything half as good as the first two then it will be good. Anything more than that and we could be looking at a surprise hit of 2013.

Paramore- Paramore (April 9):
If controversy creates interest, then Paramore is one of the most popular acts in music. After lighting up the Internet a couple years back with the high school-type stories that surrounded the Farro brothers’ departure from the band, the reenergized trio is pushing on. Five songs have been released since the lineup change, one for the Transformers soundtrack, a three-song E.P. and the first single of the upcoming self-titled fourth record. “Now,” along with the other tracks, show that Paramore is more than ready and able to keep going. More than a dozen tracks were revealed to be a part of the record so fans are in for a treat come April.

Vampire Weekend- TBA (May 6):
Vampire Weekend was one of many bands to take advantage of Internet buzz and be one of the first “hipster” bands to make it to the mainstream in the second half of the 2000s. Their first album could have been considered a one-off (like so many others from that time period) but their follow-up was just as good. Now, three years later Vampire Weekend will return once again. The live performance of “Unbelievers” on Jimmy Kimmel shows the band hasn’t changed much and that could bode well for an album that will be mostly about the question of if they can perform more so than the music itself.

Honorable Mention:
Justin Timberlake- The 20/20 Experience (March 9)
The Neighbourhood- TBA
New Politics- TBA
Senses Fail- Renacer (March 26)
Taking Back Sunday- TBA (*possibly* 2013)

And here are MY picks for 2013....

Atoms For Peace- Amok (February 25):  Thom Yorke and Flea for the price of one LP?  Count me interested.  While the spacey “Judge, Jury & Executioner” sounds like an anxious computer at some cosmic dive bar, expect some red-hot grooves this time around.  There’s life outside of Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers for these two famed musicians, let’s hear what that sounds like.

Jimmy Eat World- TBA:  Edgier and brasher, Jimmy Eat World are promising a record that really goes for the throat in 2013.  Recent Twitter posts suggest the album is in its final mixing stages, but the real surprise is to see where they go after the emotive, and Marshall stacked fuzz of 2010’s Invented.

Queens Of The Stone Age- TBA (April/May):  Josh Homme has a party on his hands because Dave Grohl is laying down drum tracks and everyone from Trent Reznor to Nick Oliveri are laying down vocals.  Whether the new Queens record will continue to explore the angular robot-rock of Era Vulgaris is anyone’s guess, but it sounds like they’re having fun making it.

Sleigh Bells- TBA:  Sounds like Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller are antsy.  After their 2012 world-conquering tour, the Internet’s favorite bubblegum-pop by way Slayer contingent are reportedly hard at work on their follow up to the bone-crushing Reign Of Terror.  Viva la feedback.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs- Mosquito (April 16):  Mayhem comes in many forms for Karen O; gone are the post-disco Blondie trappings of It’s Blitz! and enter the tribal, dubby, “Sympathy For The Devil” swagger of Mosquito.  If the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ live previews are any indication, this record should be a real barnburner.

Honorable Mention
The Black Keys- TBA
Black Sabbath- 13 (June)
James Blake- TBA
M.I.A.- Mantangi (April 15)
My Bloody Valentine- TBA

What are YOU looking forward to on 2013?  Let me know in the comments!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

2012: The Year In Music

You didn’t think I forgot about this, did you?

It may have taken a bit longer than usual, but after a great deal of re-listening and reflection I can definitively say THESE are the albums in 2012 that caught my ears, piqued my interest, and took up space on both my iPod and computer.  And now, without further adieu…

Best Release: Sleigh Bells- Reign of Terror (*****)
From the stereo to my ears, no album conquered 2012 quite like Reign of Terror.  Coming off 2010’s speaker blasting Treats, Sleigh Bells opted to twist their noise-crunk sound into something immense, personal, and sweeping.  Reign Of Terror is a warzone of a record; between Derek E. Miller’s spikey Slayer-sized riffing, its cold 808 drums, and Alexis Krauss’ girl-group vocals, this LP is the gritty chronicle of living in desperate times.  From pep rally in Hell clatter of “Crush” to the proto-thrash of “Demons,” Sleigh Bells expand their sound in jagged, splashy fashion, giving their particular brand of noise-pop an incredible focus.  Nowhere is this more apparent that on the suicide-valentine of “You Lost Me” a track that marries chiming Def Leppard arpeggios with a story of tragic devotion.  In many ways, Sleigh Bells have crafted an album that explores America’s culture of violence, how pain and anguish is packaged through our media and mythmaking.  Krauss and Miller’s metallic dream-pop musings aren’t simply for novelty, but in fact present the perfect mechanism to examine how fear, addiction, and combat have become so darn stylish (Must be the Ray-Bans).  Between its M16 samples and smutty bubblegum sheen, Reign Of Terror’s unyielding dread and grand scope make it 2012’s crowning musical achievement.

Key Cuts: Crush, Demons, You Lost Me

Best Debut: Gary Clark Jr.- Blak & Blu (***½)
There weren’t many debuts that caught my ear in 2012, but Gary Clark Jr. kept me interested.  The blues man splatter on Blak & Blu invites Jimi Hendrix comparisons by the truckload, but Clark doesn’t play on 60s nostalgia to captivate audiences.  Blistering blues chops aside, Blak & Blu works because of Clark’s surprisingly nimble voice, caramel smooth one moment and deep-bellied the next.  It gives the more R&B inflected numbers, like the album’s purple haze-hued title track, more credence when juxtaposed with the real barn-burners, of which there are many.  For instance, the hard riff workout on “When My Train Pulls In” is simply punishing, taking its time to ramp up before Clark’s expressive fretwork pierces through the mix.  Make no mistake—Clark slings a mean axe, from the janky, broken-down twang of “Next Door Neighbor Blues,” to the fuzz-rock bravado of “Glitter Ain’t Gold.”  He’s a musician’s guitarist, one that plays from his gut instead of the studio booth.  True, the album is a bit bloated and a tad too eager to crossover (Clark’s worst songs remind listeners of the neo-Hendrix promise Lenny Kravitz never delivered) but he’s soulful, which makes up for even the most egregious, and cheesy, editing errors.  For all its warts, Blak & Blu is a promising start for an artist that’s destined to play for a long, long time.

Key Cuts: When My Train Pulls In, Glitter Ain’t Gold, Next Door Neighbor Blues

Best Rock Release: The Gaslight Anthem- Handwritten (*****)
When you’ve got Brendan O’Brien behind the boards, you’re no longer in the underground; you’re in the major leagues.  This is a good thing for The Gaslight Anthem, because Handwritten is too impressive to keep hidden.  Gritty and sentimental, Brian Fallon’s songs act like mini movies, as powerful as a supped up Trans AM barreling down Thunder Road.  “45’s” soaring vocals and searing guitars cut like hot knives, while the hard-hitting “Biloxi Parish” finds Fallon perfecting the art of the anthem.  Long time fans will notice the bluesier touches and foggy atmospheres that punctuate Handwritten, but the biggest difference is in the storytelling.  Handwritten chronicles Fallon’s quest to reconcile the past with the man he is today.  While past Gaslight Anthem LPs relied on American icons like Marilyn and Elvis to evoke a sense of Golden Era romanticism, Handwritten places listeners in the shoes of Fallon’s characters, painting vivid portraits of what it means to deal with loss and love.  The results are mesmerizing and personal, from the flange soaked lullaby of “Mae” to the twisting guitar duals and high tension of “Mulholland Drive.”  Records like these don’t stay hidden, and Fallon reminds listeners that you don’t always need to over think music, you just need to feel it.  In the end, Brain Fallon makes records the way they used to: With a whole lot of heart—handwritten.

Key Cuts: “45,” Mulholland Drive, Biloxi Parish

Best Punk/Post-Hardcore Release: Every Time I Die- Ex Lives (*****)
Coming from the punk/post-hardcore end of the spectrum really means you’ve got attitude, enough grit and chutzpah to douse your songs in gasoline and light the fuse.  After the brittle, ambling New Junk Aesthetic, Every Time I Die return with the soul-crushing Ex Lives and enough “everything-be-damned” fire to roast the world.  And it shows, the arrangements are schizophrenic slices of chainsaw-inspired hardcore and southern rock crunch while Keith Buckley’s serpentine scream rounds out their sound.  Ex Lives is simply bone-crushing, from the behemoth-sized weight of “Underwater Bimbos From Outer Space” to the banjo inflected, hardcore bull-rush of “Partying is Such Sweet Sorrow.”  Buckley gives the performance of this life, no longer relying solely on his deafening rasp to recount twisted social nightmares, but also implementing his rather nimble mid-range to give his punk rock sermons some sass.  The biggest surprise, however, is how Every Time I Die have really expanded their sonic palette without sacrificing their aggression.  “Indian Giver” orbits and blasts doom-laden riffs with ethereal psychedelic flourishes, while “I Suck (Blood)” sets a new bar for sludgy breakdowns.  Unafraid to charge full speed ahead, Ex Lives shows that Every Time I Die continue to take the hardcore scene by their own, aggressive terms.

Key Cuts: Underwater Bimbos From Outer Space, I Suck (Blood), Partying Is Such Sweet Sorrow

Best Metal Release: Converge- All We Love We Leave Behind (*****)
Hard to believe Converge formed their punishing brand of hardcore-meets-thrash more than twenty years ago, especially after releasing All We Love We Leave Behind.  Musicians that work within extreme music genres tend to arrange music that’s more conservative as they get older, losing aggression and replacing it with atmosphere, as if the two are mutually exclusive.  Converge, on the other hand, play like a band during the peak of their powers, continuing to preserve their intensity as the years pile on.  The slash and burn riffing is as furious as a heaven-sent swarm of locusts, while their cyclonic drumming churns and stops on a dime.  “Aimless Arrow” twists and scratches skyward while the all-out hardcore blasts of “Trespasses” and “No Light Escapes” hit with savage intensity.  When Converge shift gears however, the results don’t lose any less bite.  “Sadness Comes Home” sports titanic, heaving riffs before speeding off into a spiraling-oblivion, reaffirming the fact that Converge’s sound is as gargantuan as their ambition.  Yet what’s most refreshing about All We Love… is its enormity.  In an age where heavy music is pristine, mechanical, and sterile, Converge reminds listeners that fury and feedback go a long way, creating brutal vistas along the way.  The result is a group, 20 years in, still making some of the best and uncompromising music of their career.

Key Cuts: Aimless Arrow, Trespasses, Sadness Comes Home

Best Electronic Release: Death Grips- NO LOVE DEEP WEB (*****)
Electronic music is not known for harrowing aesthetics, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind with Death Grips’ newest album NO LOVE DEEP WEB.  Their second LP of 2012 (after the chopped up punk noise of The Money Store), MC Ride and Zach Hill twist their keyboards to mirror the real life End of Days disaster they see unfolding before them.  NO LOVE is acrimoniously stitched together with lacerated vocal samples and terrifying vitriol as the duo implements a mish-mash of stuttering 808s and synthesizers that sound like overloaded circuit breakers.  MC Ride’s death-howl flow is here too; whether it’s exploring his tortured anguish on the manic “Come Up & Get Me,” or his fire and brimstone sermon on “Lock Your Doors.”  This isn’t electronic music for background accents; NO LOVE is a nightmarish Frankenstein, every synthetic sound warped and blasted into an uncompromising expansiveness sorely needed in today’s tepid electronic scene.  Instead, Death Grips aim to shake listeners out of complacency, whether it’s the metallic clank of “Stockton” or the phantasmal-glitch rumble of “Bass Rattle Stars Out The Sky.”  Raw, immediate, and explosive, NO LOVE DEEP WEB is a force of nature for the digital age.

Key Cuts: Come Up & Get Me, Lock Your Doors, Stockton

Best Produced: Kanye West Presents: G.O.O.D. Music- Cruel Summer (***½)
Aside from the Kim Kardashian stories, the Taylor Swift interruptions, and the leather kilts, Kanye West continues to intrigue because of his Renaissance-style vision for hip-hop.  Cruel Summer culls together some of the bright up and comers on his G.O.O.D. Music label, and Yeezy directs them with a master’s sense of perspective for a rather thrilling set of collaborations.  Blending opulence and arrogance, Kanye works his studio magic to create a record fascinated with refinement but with enough crushing grooves and modernism for the clubs.  The wobbly flow of “Clique” and the pitch-shifted murk of “Mercy” act as the perfect stage for egos like Jay-Z, 2Chainz, and Pusha T to twist their punch lines around their personalities.  Crystal clear, and space-age clean, the whole experience on Cruel Summer plays like one of Kanye’s beautiful, dark, twisted, fantasies, blending 90s style excess with pristine vibrant keyboards.  Yet Kanye doesn’t just steal the show behind the boards, he makes his presence felt often on the mic, whether it’s over the aggressive buzz saw hooks of “Cold” or trading quips with Ghostface Killah on the gunshot-piano climb of “New God Flow.”  While the record’s second half loses momentum and cohesion, the sheer recklessness and confidence of Kanye’s vision makes Cruel Summer one hell of a ride.

Key Cuts: Clique, New God Flow, Cold

Best Comeback: Bloc Party- Four (*****)
Who expected Bloc Party to ever put out a record this angry?  Cut with a relatively live feel, Four is Bloc Party’s triumphant comeback after the lukewarm reception of 2008’s electronic-leaning Intimacy.  While the group hasn’t necessarily traded in all their keyboards and effects pedals, Four plays out like a much more groove-obsessed post-punk record, while incorporating spacey atmospheres and rusty dissonance.  From the rubberband rhythms on “Octopus” to the fuzzed-out blitzkrieg of “We’re Not Good People” Bloc Party explores a sound that’s primal, immediate, and surprisingly heavy.  However, that doesn’t mean they’ve let this newfound drive squeeze out their more confessional offerings.  Lead singer Kele Okereke’s falsetto is still one of the brighter portions of Bloc Party’s arsenal, especially with his lilting delivery on the shimmering late album cut, “The Healing.”  While fans of Silent Alarm may balk at the bigger, beefier use of distortion, they’ll be missing out a Bloc Party record that sounds less like a computer and more like a 4-piece again.  Drummer Matt Tong is simply relentless, whether it’s on the dizzying heights of “So He Begins To Lie,” or machine gun space-funk of “Team A.”  All in all, Four reminds listeners that no amount of bad press can knock down Bloc Party, especially when they sound this confident.

Key Cuts: Octopus, The Healing, We Are Not Good People

Best EP(s): My Chemical Romance- Conventional Weapons (*****)
If you’ve forgotten what dangerous and desperate rock n’ roll sounds like, look out for Conventional Weapons.  Originally scrapped from their 2009 sessions with producer Brendan O’Brien, My Chemical Romance is presenting this “album-that-could-have-been” in 2-song E.P.s over the course of several months.  Yet the real shocker is how these songs were shelved in the first place in favor of the synthed-out futurism of Danger Days.  The band returns to their bloody-soaked brand of post-hardcore, paying homage to punk heroes like The Stooges and MC5 with a truly liberated batch of songs.  “Tomorrow’s Money” barely hangs together with car crash drumming and Ray Toro’s blistering lead work, while “Kiss The Ring” sports hyper-macho swagger and enough sleazy riffs to burn down L.A.  Though the songs tread on MCR’s usual “us-against-the-world” pulp fiction, Conventional Weapons out shines the technicolor Danger Days because of how these songs attack our disposable culture with startling precision.  Whether it’s Gerard Way’s come-at-me sneer on “Boy Division,” or “AMBULANCE’s” movie-ready anthem of devotion, MCR continue to explore how the enduring power of love can conquer even the darkest world.  Bold, black, and still alive, Conventional Weapons finds MCR firing on all cylinders.

Key Cuts: Tomorrow’s Money, AMBULANCE, Kiss The Ring

Most Ambitious: Kendrick Lamar- good kid, M.A.A.D. city (****)
Hype is a dangerous double-edged sword, but thankfully for Kendrick Lamar, it works to his advantage.  good kid, M.A.A.D. city is the kind of open narrative statement that hip-hop is starving for amidst the Lil Waynes and T-Pains of the world.  Mentored and produced by the famed Dr. Dre, M.A.A.D. city is a sprawling concept record detailing the trials and tribulations of Lamar’s rise to fame from Compton, CA, set against smoky atmospheres, soulful production, and an ever-evolving cast of characters.  “The Art Of Peer Pressure” uses brooding string arrangements cut through Lamar’s late night anxiety with switchblade precision, while the blissful “Poetic Justice” goes down easy like fine cognac.  Though rags to riches stories aren’t anything new, Lamar’s ability to tell a multi-character story within the confines of such a sonically accessible album is impressive.  He knows when to place his tonged twisting skills to the test (“Backseat Freestyle”) and when to let the gravity of his narrative overtake listeners (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”).  While Lamar struggles to turn M.A.A.D. city into a classic, especially considering the absence of a bona fide crossover hit like “Nuthin’ But A “G” Thang” or “Jesus Walks,” there’s plenty here he should be proud of—it’s not everyday debut albums are this deep, affecting and sincere.

Key Cuts: The Art Of Peer Pressure, Poetic Justice (Feat. Drake), Swimming Pools (Drank)

Most Experimental: Childish Gambino- Royalty (****½)
Oh, to have Donald Glover’s expansive resume.  The comedy writer-turned-actor-turned-rapper continues to mesmerize with his latest mixtape under the name Childish Gambino, Royalty.  Listening to these cuts feels like stumbling onto a psychotic version of Glover’s Google search history.  All his brainiac, blog buzzing, pop-culture addled fantasies are on display, from the blinking club bang of “One Up” to the electro-Kavinsky swiping on “R.I.P.,” painting him as Jay-Z and Ryan Gosling within three songs of each other.  His tastes are diverse though, suggesting he had a great deal of fun assembling this mixtape, from the Tina Fey guest verse on “Real Estate” to RZA’s brass-band digital breakdown on “American Royalty.”  While the public jury still might be hung on what Glover can bring to the table in terms of substance and storytelling, his fearlessness is certainly engaging.  The stuttering, chopped and skewed punch lines on “Toxic” nick Britney’s biggest hit for a surprisingly dread filled atmosphere, and hell, even junk king Beck Hansen shows up with his smooth drawl for a verse on “Silk Pillow.”  While Glover is certainly making a name for himself as a kid with quick wit, it’ll be fascinating to watch him work his magic in the future because for Childish Gambino, limits don’t seem to exist.

Key Cuts: One Up (Feat. Steve G. Lover), R.I.P. (Feat. Bun B), American Royalty (Feat. RZA & Hypnotic Brass Orchestra)

Most Eclectic: fun.- Some Nights (****)
Pop music should be inclusive and accessible, which is why fun.’s major label breakthrough Some Nights is so refreshing.  Dabbling in fuzzed-out beat making, carnival-style whimsy, and Nate Ruess’ ever-impressive register, Some Nights was a 2012 smash that virtually everyone could enjoy.  “We Are Young” is a lighter waving anthem filled with hip-hop clatter and naked sentimentality, while the trip-hip bounce of “All Alone” provides playful yearning and a cotton candy hook.  The Grammy buzz is well earned though, because Some Nights hangs its hat on expert songwriting instead of an exploitation of genre trends.  From the choir-backed “All Alright” to the album’s vocoded title track, Ruess comforts and reminds listeners of the splendor found in self-defining life moments.  For Ruess, the adventure is just a lonely night away, even if mortality is fleeting.  He embraces self-revelations like adrenaline straight to the heart (“Man, you wouldn't believe/The most amazing things/That can come from/Some terrible lies...”), extolling the virtues of saying “YES” over pinch-harmonized guitars and lush production.  While pop music typically exudes positivity, it doesn’t always hit the personal kind of reflection Some Nights explores, which make this bombastic set of songs such a fascinating listen.  For lack of a better way to say it, pop music is rarely, if ever, this kind of fun.

Key Cuts: We Are Young, All Alone, All Alright

Most Crapped On: The Offspring- Days Go By (**)
Some men decide to buy an extremely extravagant car as they get older, a vessel to park not only their fading youth but to blast their homemade demo tape from the college band they used to play in.  If you’re The Offspring, however, you call up Bob Rock and make another record.  To their credit, few 90s punk revivalists have aged well, but time has been especially cruel to Dexter Holland, his voice shriller than ever.  Yet the real problem comes with passion: Days Go By is mechanical, slick, and tame, everything that doesn’t support the adrenaline-addled energy of The Offspring’s best material.  Most of the album is a mid-tempo malaise, and the jokey electro-blitz of “California (Bumpin’ In My Trunk)” makes you think they should have won a Pulitzer for “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)” in 1999.  Still, the band shows flashes of their old selves, even for a brief moment, with the staccato crunch of “Dividing By Zero.”  Too little, too late though.  Days Go By deserves the criticism: When you’re covering your own songs (I’m looking at you “Dirty Magic”), it’s time to hang things up for good.  So long and thanks for all the jams Offspring, you gotta keep your dad selves and your old lives...yup, you guessed it—you gotta keep ‘em separated.

Key Cuts: The Future Is Now, Dirty Magic, Dividing By Zero

Biggest Surprise: Gallows- Gallows (****)
Frank Carter WAS Gallows.  His vulture scream was as recognizable as the group’s strident and angular take on hardcore punk, and that voice helped create some of the most engaging punk records of the past decade.  So when it was confirmed that Carter was leaving,  and that his replacement was ex-Alexisonfire growler Wade McNeil, there was cause for concern.  Surprisingly, Gallows is a wholly different beast that stretches the band into new and exciting territory.  “Victim Culture’s” sledge-hammer stomp and “Last June’s” swervy hardcore splatter finds the band locked, loaded, and ready for war.  Though not as terrifying as Carter, McNeil’s biker snarl adds an intimidating facet to the Gallows sound that simply feels bigger and brasher.  While there are moments of all out-white noise fury, like on “Vapid Adolescent Blues,” some of the record's brighter moments are on the second half anthems like the call-and –response depravity of “Odessa.”  Though the group trades some of their more angular sounding arrangements for a chunkier, faster slice of the hardcore pie, Gallows displays a band that’s revitalized by their line-up change, rather than hampered by it.  Frank Carter might have been Gallows, but McNeil & Co. have proven that Gallows is so much more than one man and one era in time—it’s a beast with a mind of it’s own.

Key Cuts: Victim Culture, Last June, Vapid Adolescent Blues

Biggest Letdown: Frank Ocean- channel ORANGE (***)
For a record that’s topped out nearly everyone’s End Of The Year List, channel ORANGE is expected to be a GREAT album—and it isn’t.  There’s no denying that Frank Ocean, the most velvety member of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, is blessed with a blissful set of pipes, but his debut is simply too disorganized to take seriously.  From the celebrity bloc party of John Mayer and Andre 3000 to the bloated interludes, channel ORANGE distracts more than it immerses.  The frustrating part is that there IS a great album in there—it’s just buried.  “Pyramids” may be the most inventive, multi-suite soul song of all time, its glacial movements and cool synthesizers feelings more at home on a Radiohead record.  Elsewhere, Ocean’s free-verse inspired delivery on “Crack Rock” shows his drive to take future soul somewhere new and exciting, into the spacey abstract where slow jams rarely orbit.  Between the PlayStation samples and digital mist, channel ORANGE is certainly expansive, but it plays like a collection of Ocean’s thoughts and sketches rather than a statement of purpose.  Though interesting in scope, Ocean’s debut simply confirms what we already knew about him—his potential is only as powerful as the producer that edits him.

Key Cuts: Thinkin’ About You, Crack Rock, Pyramids

Biggest Blog Buzz: Lana Del Rey- Born To Die (***)
You couldn’t escape 2012 without talking about Lana Del Rey (a.k.a. manufactured pop queen Lizzy Grant), and with good reason: She was as divisive a pop-star as we’ve ever seen.  The “Gangster Nancy Sinatra” was a bit of a tabloid target from her barely-there GQ spread to her strange fling with Axl Rose.  Yet it was Born To Die that really set the Internet on fire, lambasting her for a less that pristine set of pipes and her comatose stage presence.  It’s understandable, mainly because Born To Die is a classic exercise in style over substance.  Lana puts on a Scorsese-sized production:  Metallic trip-hop beats and movie score strings rest against a backdrop of Hollywood glamour and enough drugs and cheap thrills to make anyone seem numb on Sunset Boulevard.  The problem is it’s hard to buy into Lana’s mystique and easy to digest her product, which ultimately makes her blasé.  There are slow burn home runs like the funeral piano crawl of “Video Games,” or the buoyant come-on of “Diet Mountain Dew” but it’s hard to know where the allure starts and the anguish begins.  For all the spectacle that’s present, there’s little tension, and Lana’s darkness is never really earned.  This lack of sincerity ends up making Born To Die feel more like a commercial—interesting to take in but dangerously disposable.

Key Cuts: Video Games, Diet Mountain Dew, Radio

The Record That Should Have Caught On: P.O.S.- We Don’t Even Live Here (****½):
Stefon Alexander’s lack of name recognition is a bit criminal at this point.  Whether it’s from his spitfire work with the Doomtree collective, or under the moniker P.O.S, Alexander is simply the most energetic presence in hip-hop today.  Combining blitzed out synthesizers with punk rock percussion, We Don’t Even Live Here continues to illustrate Alexander’s undying passion for authenticity and his love of glitched-out noise.  “**** Your Stuff” is a volatile cocktail of anarchist tongue twisters, while the graveyard clatter of “Lockpicks, Knives, Bricks & Bats” and the relentless bang and buzz of “Bumper” show Alexander’s zeal for urgency.  We Don’t’ Even Live Here ultimately amounts to the strongest musical call to arms in years, an album that reflects the pastiche instincts of our modern world while preserving something uniquely human in spirit.  In an age of cookie-cutter celebrities, manufactured nostalgia, and a never-ending cycle of tragedy addiction, it’s refreshing to hear Alexander rap about what it means to be a human being in the face of such a disposable culture (especially from a genre that’s known to perpetuate it).  So if you want your hip-hop to say something, check out P.O.S—Stefon Alexander has something to say.

Key Cuts: Bumper, **** Your Stuff, Lockpicks Knives Bricks & Bats

Worst Release: The Mars Volta- Noctourniquet (0)
If you’re a Mars Volta scholar you’ll probably be determined to like this disaster of an album.  Nothing I type about how it’s a fractured malaise of pretentious art rock noodling, wrapped with dubstep twitches and spastic wailing will deter you from liking this album.  For all I know, you’re into this too.  Fair enough.

Key Cuts: Say, how’s that At The Drive-In reunion going?

WILDCARD: Deftones- Koi No Yokan (*****)
Tragedy can really affect people, and for the Deftones it has focused them.  While the smash-and-scream of 2010's Diamond Eyes carried a sense of frustration around their fallen brother Chi Cheng, Koi No Yokan finds them reflective and contemplative.  Taking prog-rock cues from bands like Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the Deftones marry spacious soundscapes with their mammoth sized riffing to create a truly otherworld experience.  Whether it’s the crushing grind of “Swerve City” or the robo-thrash breakdown of “Leathers,” the Deftones have created one of the more immersive albums since 2000’s White Pony.  Chino Moreno is still one of the most underrated vocalists in heavy music today, continuing his impressive streak with the soothing space coo of “Entombed” and his almost rabid delivery on the lurching “Poltergeist.”  Above all though, the album’s real achievement comes in the form of “Tempest” a swirling maelstrom of polyrhythmic drumming, hypnotic rhythms, and dream-like vocals.  Replacement bassist Sergio Vega intimated that Koi No Yokan translates from Japanese to mean “the premonition of love,” or “love at first sight.”  That’s not too far off base.  After the tragedy the Deftones have endured, Koi No Yokan is the sound of a band exploring what’s next for themselves, their music, and the things they love.  As such, listening to Koi No Yokan bloom and develop should thrill fair weather and fanatic Deftones fans alike.

Key Cuts: Swerve City, Leathers, Tempest

Friday, December 21, 2012

Honorable Mention: Music in 2012

The amount of albums that came out in 2012 is staggering.  Wikipedia can give you a general idea but the truth is unless you're Michael Fassbender in Prometheus, that's not a math problem you'll have fun solving.  Yet it's become increasingly apparent that when I roll out my end of the year lists, I spend I great deal of time with records that don't end up represented in that coveted collection.  So here are the less-sung heroes for me, the albums that brightened my 2012--the ones worth your time but impossible to place.  Enjoy!

Alabama Shakes- Boys & Girls (***½): Brittany Howard’s soulful pipes and brash blues riffs are tailor made for fans of Sharon Jones and the Black Keys’ most recent stab at retro chic.

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra- Theater Is Evil (***): The Wagnerian/Elton John ambition is there, but Palmer’s Kickstarter-funded project plays more like Dresden Doll b-sides instead of a creative manifesto.

Bad Books- Bad Books II (****½): A bit foggier, and sporting more keyboard quirks, Bad Books II finds the Andy Hull/Kevin Devine braintrust going strong with sensitive-guy charm.

BADBADNOTGOOD- BBNG2 (****½): Anything but bad, BBNG2 finds basement jazz masters balancing tight drums, slinky bass twitches, and a healthy side of hip-hop swagger, mingling with their free-form ambitions.

Beach House- Bloom (***½): Playing like Teen Dream at midnight, Bloom continues Beach House’s preoccupations with ethereal chimes, breathy whispers, and cooler end of 80s new wave.

Ben Gibbard- Former Lives (***½): The sweeping string arrangements and sweet sentimentality owe a great deal to the Beatles, but much like Gibbard’s idols, solo record will make fans hungry for his former band.

Blockhead- Interludes At Midnight (***½):  Aesop Rock's favorite DJ casts swervy, late-night shadows and sports dense beats that would make Beck Hansen blush.

Clams Casino- Instrumental Mixtape 2 (*****):  Dramatic without being overly pretentious, Michael Volpe's latest batch of larger than life beats borrows from nightmarish landscapes, intoxicating trip-hop, and just enough movie score gravitas to make E.S. Posthumous proud.

Cat Power- Sun (***): Charlyn Marshall’s fascination with David Bowie's Low era pushes her band to try on summertime synths and trip-hop thumps where her smoky bar presence would typically reside; call it sobering if a bit somber.

Crystal Castles- Crystal Castles (III) (***½): Alice Glass' Apocalypse-pixie shtick is warped into oblivion but Ethan Kath's thin, fluttering beats, make longtime listeners hungry for the thick low-end of Crystal Castles (II).

David Byrne & St. Vincent- Love This Giant (***½): Floating in a sea of clamoring horns and awkward funk, David Byrne and Annie Clark only really click when they focus their energy onto icy synth-sprawls.

Death Grips- The Money Store (****): This chopped up punk-rap is blasted with noise and staccato samples, while MC Ride's tortured braggadocio makes Tyler, The Creator look like Bruno Mars.

Divine Fits- A Thing Called Divine Fits (***½): Sporting Wolf Parade's wavey atmospheres and Spoon's angular bass-heavy work-outs, Divine Fits' 80s-ramped debut is the perfect antidote to a lonely night drive with nothing to do.

Fiona Apple- The Idler Wheel Is Wiser That The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords WIll Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (****): Older, wiser, and more neurotic, Apple's fifth LP specializes in free-jazz anachronism and bitter communication breakdowns.                                                   

Flying Lotus- Until The Silence Comes (***): If you can stand how ADD-riddled FlyLo's Alka-Seltzer style beats are, his Miles Davis approach to warped dubby samples might just be for you.

Garbage- Not Your Kind Of People (*****): Butch Vig and Shirley Mason's victory lap; an LP that truly embodies their band from film-score grandeur to electronic-robot rock, and the effervescent cool-gaze that separated them from their 90s contemporaries.

Gold Motel- Gold Motel (***½): Sleepy and subdued, Greta Morgan continues to plunk around her keys while the rest of her group channels retro-Beach Boy vibes.

Green Day- ¡Uno! (****½): Berkeley’s National Treasure keeps it short and sweet with songs about personal empowerment and love, channeling Cheap Trick and their Gilman days with Ramones-style energy.

Green Day- ¡Dos! (****): If you were looking for the 60s trash-rock sequel to Foxboro Hot Tubs’ Stop Drop & Roll!!!, look no further than this lustful batch of garage-ready cuts—just don’t be surprised when the party comes crashing down.

Green Day- ¡Tré! (****): After Billie Joe and Co. made a mess of the whole damn place they put the evening and their lives in perspective; ¡Tré! fluctuates between lean and mean pop-punk, 50s rock n’ roll glamour, and Green Day’s multi-suite American Idiot ambitions.

Hot Water Music- Exister (****): With some modern production and heaving bass lines, Chuck Ragan’s rag-tag punk battalion sounds like the powerful basement band he’s heard in his head since the very beginning.

How To Destroy Angels- An omen_E.P. (***½): Feeling more like sketches than a full body of work, Trent Reznor’s anxiety humming glitches and twitches coast under his wife’s siren-worthy presence.

Jack White- Blunderbuss (***): The Hardest Working Man at Third Man Records opens up his blues-rock vault, revealing that the discipline in his other groups allows him to serve up sizzle instead of the lukewarm Grammy fodder on this solo LP.

Japandroids- Celebration Rock (****): Earnestness never felt so tremendous as this duo powers through 9 cuts of “forever young” epiphanies, sounding like a proper 5-piece in the process.

Lamb Of God- Resolution (***½): Randy Blythe may be facing criminal charges overseas but let’s not forget his band’s immense fury—Resolution marries expansive dirges with rattlesnake riffs, making Blythe’s legal battles sound like child’s play.

M. Ward- A Wasteland Companion (***½): Playing like the kind of songwriter that plays bars in the evening and sleeps during the day, Ward conjures up some old folk magic on his latest album.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis- The Heist (***½): The synthesizers are glitzier, the beats bigger, and the sound brighter as hip-hop’s resident boy scout churns out an album of strikingly honest rhymes.

Matt Skiba & The Sekrets- Babylon (****): As if Matt Skiba’s back catalog wasn’t expansive enough, the hyper caffeinated power-punk punch and textured Cure-keyboards on Babylon remind us all why he inspires such a devout, albeit gloomy, following.

Memoryhouse- The Slideshow Effect (***½): Soft and sweet, like a mid-afternoon nap, The Slideshow Effect is an exercise in syrupy melodies and breathy allure.

Mumford & Sons- Babel (****): Though the group trades in some of their quaint bluegrass flair for some feverish acoustic energy, Babel is the kind of album that ascends on the backs of thick harmonies and heartfelt stories.

Muse- The 2nd Law (****): Looks like Matt Bellemy just flipped through the Mos Eisley jukebox: Some flashy Zeppelin riffing, operatic Queen flourishes, blitzed-out electronics, and some blooming snyths jettison The 2nd Law into its own musical galaxy.

Motion City Soundtrack- Go (***): Slightly more subdued, Justin Pierre leads his usually bouncy band through the inner workings of his half-acoustic Atari heart—think bed room confessionals for gamers.

Neon Trees- Picture Show (***½): Mining the 80s for all their pulpy thrills, the Neon Trees move past their Sandals-ready sound to something bigger, brasher, and surprisingly artier.

Norah Jones- Little Broken Hearts (***½): Danger Mouse is gonna Danger Mouse, which amounts to a smoky record with tight drums, but Jones reminds us that her honey-smooth voice is the real reason we’re tuning in.

oOoOO- Our Love Is Hurting Us E.P. (****): Call it make-out music for ghouls but these witch house pioneers continue to take their warped vocal warbles and click-clack beats to Halloween-style heights.

Passion Pit- Gossamer (****): Holy 1980s Batman--If you’re looking for some slick keyboards, hooks engineered to move Mentos, and some spaztic pixie wailing, look no further than this glimmering LP.

Purity Ring- Shrines (***): Unsure if it wants to be Depeche Mode or the next witch house flavor of the month, Shrines is as sexy and scary as Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice, with its music box keys and dime-a-dozen programming.

The Raveonettes- The Observator (****½): Eisley Brothers sensibilities intact, the Ravenonettes continue to toy and tinker with shoegaze fog over their usually gloomy valentines.

Say Anything- Anarchy, My Dear (***): Max Bemis’s marriage has mellowed him some, so Anarchy… doesn’t blister and burn like his previous work, but in between dorky string laced come-ons and Weezer earnestness, it’s good to hear Bemis happy.

The Shins- Port Of Morrow (***½): Garden State might have been eons ago but the fuzzy radio transistor vistas on Port Of Morrow will take you back to a time where people got excited about The Shins.

Sigur Rós- Valtari (****): Thanks to Sigur Rós, I’m convinced that the expansive Icelandic country side resonates with the sounds of fantasy creatures swooning (or dying) in slow motion—so if you like that, plus healthy does of ivories, check this album out.

Silversun Pickups- Neck Of The Woods (****½): Channeling their inner Radiohead, the Pickups grow into a spacious sound that’s lush, angular, and down right mesmerizing, finding a happy medium in between dizzying and despondent.

The Smashing Pumpkins- Oceania (***½): Billy Corgan’s Curmudgeon Republic channels spacey synths, incense and peppermints psychedelia, and world religion mysticism, but this record really comes alive when Corgan splatters his guitar solos like it’s 1993.

Trash Talk- 199 (****): Everything here is sharp, overblown, blasted, smashed, and on fire—you’ll be hard pressed to find a more immediate addition to your hardcore punk collection in 2012.

The xx- Coexist (****½): Even if they’re spearheading this new dub-inspired PBR&B aesthetic, The xx keep their stark minimalism intact while adding some lightness and softness to their sound.

Walk The Moon- Walk The Moon (***½): A dizzy stab of indie dance jams that you’d swear Maroon 5 would try to make; then again, what’s refreshing about Walk The Moon is that no one has a record quite like it.

Yellowcard- Southern Air (***): They may not be tearing up the OC anymore, but Yellowcard continue evolve in interesting fashions, especially with some Americana flourishes creeping into their violin-powered pop-punk.

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