Yes, that says 2012. It was just not a great year for albums, to me. I had contemplated and scrapped a list of my tops for the year last December or January before I thought: maybe I will just wait. And then maybe I’ll get back to it and find that there were albums there all along that I didn’t discover until later, which is a thing that happens to me all the time.
But that didn’t happen either. Very few of the albums that I liked songs from came together as a whole. And albums from artists that I generally like came out that year, too, but they largely felt lackluster. A couple of gems made the cut, though:
1.) Mynabirds – Generals
“I’d give it all for a legacy of love”
I’ve been a fan of Laura Burhenn for a while. The short-lived Georgie James band showed a lot of promise. When she cropped back up on her own with The Mynabirds debut, I was on board for that even if that initial album was a lot more Dusty Springfield than my tastes usually run. I still liked it well enough on its own merits to check out the followup. In a rare show of restraint, I waited until the advance single arrived on Record Store Day to check out the first cut, the title track “Generals”. Kids, it kind of blew my mind. It was not was I was expecting from this band: it stomps, it revels, it rebels, and it’s a call to arms.
I pre-ordered the album the next day and it did not disappoint. There are few albums in a given year— even in this very list— that I can listen to front-to-back, over and over, and really enjoy. Even fewer, perhaps, that I can drop into the laps of almost anyone else I know and tell them with confidence that they will enjoy it. And even here in late 2013, it holds up greatly.
2.) Tame Impala – Lonerism
“It feels like I only go backwards, baby / Every part of me says go ahead”
Psychedelic rock: it can be amazing or awful. In many ways, this Australian band’s sophomore effort reminds me a lot of local Stumptown heroes Unknown Mortal Orchestra but eschewing the level of sheer insanity for a more heartfelt approach. More Waters and less Syd, in a way, but the end result is still an album that a longtime Pink Floyd fan like me can definitely appreciate.
It’s a very front-to-back listenable album but there are definitely tracks that stand out on my first few passes through. “Elephant” was the first on that I’d heard— on XMU— and my interest was sufficiently piqued to hunt down the rest of the album. Not long thereafter, “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” dropped heavily into my rotation as well as on the radio’s. And the cuts just go deeper from there.
3.) Summer Girlfriends – Shockwaves
“So just sit tight, walk right, aim high”
It’s easy enough to lump femaie-fronted bands of a certain lo-fi indie pop aesthetic into the same umbrella because there have certainly been a lot of entries in this nascent genre. Dum Dum Girls certainly lead the pack (and they have a new album in 2014 that I’m definitely looking forward to) but there a number of others in this vein that readily come to mind: Best Coast, Frankie Rose, Coasting, and Vivian Girls, among others, embody the aesthetic. But if the sound has a lot of commonality, it’s the songwriting that sets the bands apart.
Chicago’s Summer Girlfriends’ debut excels in this department with high-concept song titles like “PG-13 Sex Scene” and “Goth Beach Party” that deliver in hook-laden execution. My favorite track to date opens the b-side of the record (if you’re listening to it that way), the excellent “Balloon Rooms”. It’s held up well despite, or maybe because, being no more than it pretends to be. The bubblegum pink vinyl is a nice touch, too.
Not to disparage these albums, as they’re all pretty solid, but they didn’t have the same je ne sais quo is for me.
- Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Meat & Bone
- Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
- Kelly Hogan – I Like To Keep Myself In Pain
- Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil
- Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
- Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet On Sky
- Regina Spektor – What We Saw from the Cheap Seats
Honorable Mention: JD McPherson – Signs & Signifiers
Technically, this album came out in 2010, hence the Honorable Mention status, but it got a major label rerelease in 2012 and so it was new to me and many others as well. I stumbled across this gem on a fateful Sunday in the springtime when I was in a serious need of something new to listen to. It was the cover initially that drew me in on the shelves at Jackpot: McPherson clad in denim and seated on a couch in a wood paneled room, a book on Japanese in one hand, the other hand pressed against his face in anguished repose, a wood-bodied electric guitar at his side. Then there was the NPR pull quote, “Engineered to restore your faith in rock and roll.” I needed faith restored in something, it had been a long winter with a healthy dose of soul searching.
I took it up to the counter and the Jackpot clerk asked me, “Have you heard this?”
No, I said, but it looked interesting. He effusively fawned over the album for a minute or two, ending with, “I hope I didn’t oversell it!” I was getting it anyway and I told him that I would soon find out for myself. I got home and accidentally put on the B-side first (the track “Dimes and Nickels”) and was immediately impressed. McPherson’s 50′s rock influences are worn on his sleeve from the composition to the recording techniques and the result is a record that at once feels new and old, a timeless rocker from a forgotten era.
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