Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Best Albums I Got in 2012

A quick note: having quietened down for a while things should pick up around here next week. I’ve got three sets ready to put up right now, have another one that might be ready by the weekend, plus an exciting run of shows coming up. Keep an eye out.

Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2003)

Belle & Sebastian featured in last years list, this year I added the last few ‘must haves’ from their catalogue, this being the best of them. I’d avoided the band for quite a while because people tended to use terms like ‘fey’ and ‘twee’ to describe them. While there are slight elements of that in their music, they are usually incredibly hooky and don’t take themselves entirely seriously, which are the two failings that I usually associated with twee music. Particular highlights include Step Into My Office, Baby (the break in this song gives you an idea of what I was worried their entire catalogue might sound like); Piazza, New York Catcher; I’m a Cuckoo; and the title track.

Childish Gambino – I Am Just a Rapper 1 & 2 (2010)

These two EPs (free from and are my joint favourites from the five or so Childish Gambino records I’ve listened to this year (all also freely distributed). I Am Just a Rapper 1 is the weaker of the two, but features the strongest track ‘Bitch Look at Me Now’. That title should make it clear to those looking for more comedic gold from Donald Glover (writer for 30 Rock and star of Community) that this isn’t comedy-rap; he takes this seriously. Having said that he raps about the issues he faces, which aren’t struggling to make ends meet or dealing drugs. That honesty is pretty refreshing and coupled with his obvious talents make him worth checking out.

Drive-By Truckers – Decoration Day (2003)

I usually manage to discover one or two bands via tours. This year I found Jason Isbell from the Ryan Adams tour, and War on Drugs from Harvest. I’d actually already heard DBT’s supposed masterpiece ‘Southern Rock Opera’, and not enjoyed it. So my expectations of this were fairly low, but I bought it in part because of the Jason Isbell tracks I’d heard live. But the rest of the material here is great too, similar to Southern Rock Opera, but with more of a focus on the music, rather than the overhanging theme. Particular highlights include Outfit, Decoration Day and Sink Hole.

Japandroids – Celebration Rock (2012)

My great discovery of last year was Japandroids, so my expectations for this album were pretty high, although tempered by the fact I hadn’t enjoyed Post-Nothing as much as some. This album is a mixed bag (at least by Japandroids’ standards). The House That Heaven Built is as good as anything they’ve done, and Younger Us makes an expected album appearance. But that standard isn’t maintained over the albums relatively short length. I’m still waiting for Japandroids to create their masterpiece, but this is better than most bands ever achieve.

Josh Ritter – Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter (2007)

One of my favourite gigs of the year was the Simone Felice/Josh Ritter double header at the Corner. I’d borrowed both this album and Animal Years in the leadup to this show and loved both. In fact, when I eventually buy Animal Years (I’ve been trying to track down the 10th anniversary version if anyone has any suggestions) it’ll end up on a best of year list. The particular standout on Historical Conquests is The Temptation of Adam. Part of the reason I love it is that it does a wonderful job of telling a story, without (like most attempts by musicians) being too blunt or too bland. It’s no surprise that Ritter has also written a well received novel. I’m now slowly working my way through the rest of his catalogue, but so far this is the standout.

Various Artists – Beginner’s Guide to Africa

I’ve got a theory that any reasonably large genre, timeframe or geographic region will have some good music. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to start finding out about African music. One of the things that this compilation establishes pretty quickly is that the concept of ‘African music’ as some kind of traditional music makes as much sense as saying American music is just folk songs like the Cuckoo is a Pretty Bird. This is a very cheap three cd compilation, with each disc focussing on a different facet of African music. Highlights for me include Vieux Farka Toure (recently announced for Womad, so hopefully about to undertake a full Australian tour), Sir Victor Uwaifo, Juldeh Camara, Lobi Traore, and Yousseu N’Dour. Particularly given the price, this is a great introduction for those who know virtually nothing about the music of this enormous continent.

War on Drugs – Slave Ambient (2011)

Not only is this my favourite album of the year, their show at the Northcote Social Club was one of my favourite shows of the year. This is amazingly catchy, managing to at times to have hints of Bob Dylan, at others Fleetwood Mac, but constantly being unique. I’ve listened to, but not bought, their first album Wagonwheel Blues, which isn’t quite as immediately catchy, but is still extraordinary good. If there’s any justice in the world (and there seldom is) this band will have a lot of success in the future.

Jason Isbell – Here We Rest (2011)

I’ve already mentioned Drive-By Truckers, but this album is at least as good as what I’ve heard from them. The album is more laid back than most of the DBT material I’ve heard, and perhaps more folky than country. Having said that, it should appeal to DBT fans (particularly if they like Jason Isbell’s contributions). Virtually everything on this album is great, but particular highlights are Alabama Pines, Codeine and Daisy Mae.

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – S/T (2011)

This album and Noel Gallagher’s Big Day Out sideshow were unexpected highlights of the year. I’ve appreciated bits and pieces of the Oasis catalogue, but have never been a big fan. This album (and the shows) manage to emphasise the Noel Gallagher aspect of Oasis without either being simply an attempt to clone their sound or to diverge greatly simply to demonstrate his independence (for those who think that balance is easy to achieve, try listening to Beady Eye). Although there hasn’t been any news of a follow up, the Melbourne sideshow included a couple of songs that weren’t on the album, so hopefully the sophomore effort (and another Australian tour) aren’t far away.

Sigur Rós – Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust (2008)

Among the great things about Vietnam are the cheap albums. I bought a bunch of genuine albums for $2.50 each. At that price its reasonable to get albums I might not normally have been so interested in. That was the case with this Sigur Rós’ album; while I’d enjoyed Takk, none of the other albums had particularly grabbed me. I think the difference is that the other albums are extremely delicate, slowly unfolding to reveal themselves. There isn’t anything wrong with that (in fact lots of people love it), but I find it means they’re only suited to a very particular mood, and if I’m not in that mood they are frustrating listens. This album is much more upbeat and accessible, without sacrificing the essential albums that make this a Sigur Rós album, rather than simply an indie album that happens to be (mainly) in Icelandic).

The Eastern – Hope & Wire (2012)

This double album was written in the wake of, and at least partially in response to, the Christchurch earthquakes (the band are based in Lyttelton, which is about 20 minutes from Christchurch, and was also badly affected). That produces a slightly melancholy tinge to the songs, but never descends into moroseness or despair (and as usual there are a few raucous, uplifting songs). The band has started to make excursions into Australia, and look set to continue that with an April show already booked for a Victorian festival. For those who enjoy Jason Isbell or Gillian Welch, this is a band to check out.

Cave Singers – Invitation Songs (2007)

This is the Cave Singers’ debut, and probably got attention because of the presence of a former Pretty Girls Make Graves and Murder City Devils member. Those folks might have been disappointed to find that this is a much more subdued effort than the work of those bands (or at least so I’m told, I don’t really know their work much). This is often described as indie folk, but unlike Fleet Foxes for instance, the emphasis is more on the indie than the folk. I can’t say this is a genre I listen to a lot so I can’t think of any bands to compare them to. The best I can do is say that for those who normally find indie folk too slow and melody focussed at the expense of energy and movement, this might be a good entry point. As a side note I just saw that they’re releasing their fourth album this year, so hopefully an Australian tour might happen (they seem like a good fit for Harvest).

There were a bunch of other albums that could have made this list, but I couldn’t be bothered writing something for all of them: Gary Clark Jr – The Bright Lights (Aust Edition), Radiohead – The King of Limbs, The Rolling Stones – Singles Collection: The London Years, Vieux Farka Toure – Live, Neil Young – Americana, The Fourmyula – Very Best of the Fourmyula, Wavves – Life Sux, Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything to Nothing

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