I didn’t absorb the same volume of new music in 2012 as I have in the past. At Reverb and YEN I would listen to every record released, and could then accurately list the best albums of the year. I can’t confidently say that these are the very best of 2012, but they’re “top” albums and I would like to recommend them to you. The past 12 months were definitely owned by soul singers and rappers – of both young and old generations. I need to give an honourable mention to the new records from Band of Horses, Dinosaur Jr and two records that I have reviewed for this website – The Weeknd’s Trilogy and Redcoats’ self-titled debut record (which is incredible). Lupe Fiasco got his literary mojo back on Food and Liquor II.
Here are the other records I loved that I didn’t review this year for any publication.
Without any further ado:
THE TALLEST MAN ON EARTH
There’s No Leaving Now
Released: June 11, 2012
Swedish troubadour Kristian Matsson is a modern Bob Dylan. This year he released his third record, There’s No Leaving Now, and it’s every bit as extraordinary as his first two. He is a phenomenal songwriter, who effortlessly creates timeless, wistful folk songs that seem infused with the essence of the natural environment. It’s as if he channels voices from the soil beneath his feet and into the air. Matsson records with naked production – just his piercing, soulful and textured voice and an acoustic guitar.
I was lucky enough to see him do a sneaky support slot for Holly Throsby at the Gallipoli Legions Club in Newcastle and then interviewed him while sitting on a bus stop, watching the night-time traffic of Beaumont Street roll by. He was quiet, but very friendly. There’s no question that he should be world famous and I firmly believe that one day he will be.
Ironically, The Tallest Man on Earth is a short individual – but he is a towering figure in modern songwriting.
Matsson plays the title track on the piano – do yourself a favour: ‘There’s No Leaving Now’ by The Tallest Man on Earth
Neck of the Woods
Released: May 8, 2012
Silversun Pickups make incredibly exhilarating rock music and I’m very happy that they exist. I discovered them when I was offered an interview while they were in Australia. They were supporting Snow Patrol at Newcastle Entertainment Centre and I met them in the backstage area earlier that day and spoke with singer Brian Aubert and drummer Chris Guanlao. They were unbelievably friendly and interesting.
I liked their 2006 debut Carnavas and it’s single ‘Lazy Eye’. A lot of genius musicians have a lazy eye (Colin Hay, Thom Yorke etc). Stevie Wonder has two very lazy eyes. But I digress. Carnavas‘ shoegazey, guitar-driven thunder made sense to me. They got compared to Smashing Pumpkins a lot, but I had just discovered Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. That record mesmerised me and Carnavas has echoes of that iconic album’s dreamscapes.
Silversun Pickups followed Carnavas with Swoon, a very sexy, dark and dangerous rock album. Every song on Swoon is brilliant and it really confirmed what a talented songwriter Aubert is. ‘Growing Old is Getting Old’, ‘The Royal We’ and ‘It’s Nice To Know You Work Alone’ have this incredible, shimmering energy that completely envelops you.
This year’s Neck of the Woods has a little more sunshine that Swoon, but there’s still something lurking beneath the music. It seems to have this suburban atmosphere, and for some reason it reminds me of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. The songwriting is unpredictable, kinetic and inventive.
I can’t wait to hear what the Silver Lake quartet come up with next.
NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE
Released: October 30, 2012
On his first album with his beloved Crazy Horse since 2002’s concept album Greendale, Young channels another wondrous, cosmic journey. Thirty-five records into a phenomenal career, the great master sounds as fresh and fundamentally important as he did on 1969’s Crazy Horse record Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
Psychedelic Pill is a beautiful companion piece to his autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, in which the songwriter talks about bringing Crazy Horse back together and also the admission that he’s going through a creative dry patch – musically. This new album is evidence that the patch was short-lived. It’s beautiful to hear this record as you read the book.
In Waging, Young describes Crazy Horse as “cosmic” and the 27-minute opener Driftin’ Back is indisputable evidence of that. In the song he mentions his memoir and also his anger that the compressed sound of mp3 files only gives the listener 5 per cent of the original master recording quality. It’s a song that announces Young’s desire to remain relevant.
Also check out NY and Crazy Horse’s other 2012 release, Americana.
Good Kid, m.A.A.d City
Released: October 22, 2012
Kendrick Lamar has claimed that his major label debut record has the potential to be a classic but he feels it’s too early to tell. The 25-year-old visionary rapper is being humble. Good Kid, m.A.A.d City is dense, hypnotic, arresting and immersive. It’s undeniably the artwork of a gifted individual. I hope this is the rap of the future. It reclaims hip-hop from its hedonistic poolside soiree and puts back on the streets.
Lamar takes us through his hometown of Compton, California, as a lustful teenager forged into premature maturity through the heat of gang violence and social tumult. The record is every bit as ambitious as Kanye West’s My Dark Twisted Fantasy and echoes of the revelatory insights of Lupe Fiasco.
Opening track ‘Sherane’ has some sexually charged lyrics:
“Where you stay?”
She said “Down the street from Dominguez High”
Okay, I know that’s borderline Compton, a pair of mine
Well is it Compton?
No she replied and quickly start batting her eyes and
Strictly had one of her thighs around me
Seventeen, with nothing but pussy stuck on my mental
My motive was rather sinful
“What you trying to get into?”
She didn’t tell, just gave me her Nextel
Dropped the number, we chirped the whole summer and well…
Lamar calls this conceptual album a short film, and it indeed it has dialogue interludes. Overall it is rich in texture and sonic innovation – you feel like you’re with the rapper rollin’ on the streets of Compton. His next musical creation is an exciting prospect.
FATHER JOHN MISTY
Released: April 30, 2012
The single ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings’ struck me instantly as one of the songs of the year, but Fear Fun proved more of a slow-burner. Now I listen to it and think, as a whole, it’s a timeless masterpiece. Joshua Tillman had released a number of records as J. Tillman (the first record I heard of his was Singing Ax, released why he was still the drummer of Fleet Foxes), but Father John Misty announces a new musical voice. Tillman grew up in a Christian household and apparently had ambitions of being a pastor. Now he’s delivering sublime musical sermons.
Fear Fun is an echoed dreamy, eclectic malaise of folk, Americana, country, rock, bluegrass, boogie blues – and everything in between – and is rife with wry, lyrical gems. The singer leaves Seattle and throws himself into Los Angeles with druggy abandon. His enthusiasm is evident in the lyrics of opening song ‘Funtimes in Babylon’:
Fun times in Babylon
That’s what I’m counting on
Before the dam goes up at the foot of the sea
Before the new wing of the prison ribbon ceremony
Before the star of the morning comes looking for me
I would like to abuse my lungs
Smoke everything in sight with every girl I’ve ever loved
Ride around the wreckage on a horse knee-deep in blood
Look out Hollywood, here I come
While Tillman’s laconic, heady folk songs echo of the masters, both modern and old, there is no doubting that this swaggering star is in a league of his own. ‘Every Man Needs a Companion’ and ‘O I Long To Feel Your Arms Around Me’ are two instant classics.
The Bravest Man in the Universe
Released: June 11, 2012
While Blur and Gorillaz innovator Damon Albarn introduced the tail end of Generation Y to the soulful vocal cords of Bobby Womack, it was Quentin Tarantino who first put the singer in an updated spotlight. I first heard Womack on his hit ‘Across 110th Street’ during the director’s brilliant movie Jackie Brown.
But a new crop of music lovers now associate the legendary, enduring singer with the smouldering wails on Gorillaz’s single ‘Stylo’. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that.
Albarn and XL Recordings co-founder Richard Russell invited Womack to make a new record of original music, in what would be his first since 1994’s Resurrection. The soul icon admitted that he hadn’t explored his musical side in 20 years, having lost his way through heavy drug use and a loss of personal faith.
Despite a stellar career with Blur and an array of critically acclaimed side projects, The Bravest Man in the Universe might just be Albarn’s most beautiful gift to the world of music. The record is the sound of a 68-year-old man rediscovering the beauty of his voice. It’s the sound of jubilance. It’s sonic joy. It’s a rebirth recorded. It is very difficult not to be emotionally moved by tracks like ‘If There Wasn’t Something Else’ and the aching duet with Lana Del Rey on ‘Dayglo Reflection’.
Albarn and Russell’s arrangements are restrained – modern, down-tempo beats over which Womack can weave his magic. The singer’s voice is raw and pure, the vocals of a man who has felt and experienced life. It’s a breath-taking instrument.
Released: July 10, 2012
Every so often a debut album generates the hype it deserves. Many critics, like myself, were mesmerised when they tuned into Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. It’s an enveloping record woven from minimalist nuances – a poetic narrative concocted by an insightful mind. It’s futuristic soul, built from both old and new sensibilities. A shifting hybrid of trip hop, electronica, pop, jazz, blues and rock.
Ocean creates shimmering landscapes of blinking lights for his self-explorations, revelations and transformations to inhabit. Listening to his stunning voice dance throughout accomplished tracks like Pyramids, Sierra Leone and Thinkin Bout You, is utterly arresting. You can’t help but experience butterflies at the prospect of Ocean’s long musical future.