Half-Year Album Review 2012
It’s the half-year album review, 2012 edition! As before, the Top Tier is the best, Mid-range is stuff that ranges from good to okay, and Bottom Rung is like drinking hot sewage from a moldy, rusted metal bucket. Also there are dead spiders in the sewage.
Before anything else, it is only fair of me to tell you that Regina Spektor released an album this year.
Obviously, this means that I am terribly biased when it comes to rating albums. She fractures the system, and I can’t hold to any kind comparison unless it would be her 2012 album What We Saw from the Cheap Seats against every other album released this year. Her music is the British Petroleum to my Gulf of Mexico – everything becomes opaque and animals are dying and how can I spend any time thinking about other things then? In the interest of balance, and maybe some form of objectivity (in a subjective area like music), Regina Spektor gets her own category.
It must be noted that her category is above the other categories by such a wide margin that, if the other albums are, I don’t know, let’s say rooms in a house. Yes, if other albums are rooms in a house, then Spektor’s album is like the life-giving light of a distant sun shining down on a planet so beautiful that to merely look upon it instantaneously grants you wisdom far beyond all mortal ken.
And this sun is in a different universe.
On a higher plane of existence.
Anyway, the point is that I won’t be talking about her album within the confines of this meager rating system. Here’s the rest of the other album, by people. They’re okay, I guess.
Also! I think the Songs of note sections are new. Those are songs that are just a cut above the rest of the album, and you may want to check them out to see if you’d like the album. I didn’t include them for Bottom Rung albums because I don’t think you should listen to those albums.
Jenny Owen Youngs – AN UNWAVERING BAND OF LIGHT
Who knows how to make a good album filled with good songs? It’s Jenny Owen Youngs! Just about my only problem with the album is that it doesn’t open with “Pirates,” which might be my favorite song here. It starts with JOY belting out “We could be pirates!” and just gets better from there.
This album moves in cycles – start with an up-tempo song, then a slower song, then repeat. And you know what, that works very well for me. It has this perfect balance without repetition, without any hint of becoming stale. I keep picturing train wheels, the ones connected by that flat piece of metal so they rotate in unison, you know? First it’s up and forward, then down and sweeping back around. I love it.
The music itself is mostly what I think would be called indie rock, but it has more than a few brass sections. “Sleep Machine” in particular has this booming brass section that cuts off JOY’s voice to rise up higher than anything else in the song like a bird shooting out of a tree into the sunlight, and then it cuts off abruptly and you’re back in the hold of JOY’s voice. It’s really something; very well put together and executed.
The album opens strong, stays strong, and ends strong. When I said JOY knows how to make a good album, I wasn’t kidding. Straight to the end, where some musicians just stick songs that may not fit the tone or concept of the album, JOY is still going strong. “Wake Up” is the last song on the album, and it has this amazing ebb and flow to it – or rather, a rise and fall motion to it. Most of the song is this fantastic build up, where vocals and instruments are layering over each other, and then in the middle of the song most of it just stops. The piano and some clapping continues on, and then JOY’s voice comes back in (“Wake up great, I wake up fine” repeated over and over and yet never becoming stale). The piano changes a bit when she starts to sing as well. But then there’s a welling of sound, with drums coming in and building and building and a guitar joins in as JOY’s voice is layered over itself, humming “wake up” almost as a kind of punctuation. And it peaks wonderfully. And then most of the music stops again, and we are led out with JOY’s voice and a gently strummed guitar.
My point is the album is fantastic. Go get it. It’s easily a top contender for my favorite album of the year.
Songs of note: Wake Up (obviously, I spent all that time lavishing praise on it), Pirates, Sleep Machine
iamamiwhoami – Kin
Ah, the slow swell of music that begins Kin. Then come in the ghostly vocals, with just enough echoing to be slightly eerie. The music stops entirely at times to provide the lyrics with emphasis, like an audio underlining. And the lyrics themselves! “Almost forgotten – the way we used to live for play.” Jonna Lee, the eminently talented woman behind the project, knows what she’s doing, and she does it exceedingly well.
The brief buildup and abrupt drop into “Play” is pretty amazing as well. This is a really impressive album. Where there are repeated elements, they aren’t just endlessly forced on you in a song. They are used as a base upon which other notes are built. It’s like listening to someone build a tower out of diamonds and emeralds using sound.
The album as a whole also sticks together nicely. The songs don’t carry any particular variation because none is needed. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that there isn’t anything but variation; but no, that isn’t accurate either. iamamiwhoami has a sound that is unique. I think of Kin as folklore for a future techno-society, where people ride lasers to work and holograms raise the children. Maybe dogs are all cyborgs?
Anyway, this album is honestly amazing. Give it a listen or two and you’ll be hooked! Or you won’t, that’s okay too, but don’t expect me to approve of your poor tastes.
Songs of note: Gosh, just like, most of them. Kill (that one is great!), Idle Talk, Rascal (feels like it has some R&B influence)
Ingrid Michaelson – Human Again
“You burn me up, you burn me up, and I love it.” Ah, who can’t love Ingrid Michaelson? Idiots, maybe? Anyway, Human Again starts off really powerfully with “Fire.” Actually it stays powerful and clips along at a good pace for the first three songs, until it hits “I’m Through” which is a slow song. And that works. It works very nicely, in fact. So nicely that it happens again, right after. The next three songs are all loud and rockin’ (except “Ribbons,” which starts slow but ends up fast), and then we get a slow song in “How We Love.” And, uh, then it happens again – three loud until the soft “Keep Warm.” Hmmm.
Okay, so I have to admit that Human Again has fallen out of the Top Tier by a razor-thin margin. As much as I love Ingrid Michaelson, from her voice to song composition to lyric writing, this album could have been trimmed down. Admittedly, I have a version that came with three or four extra songs, but not even counting those, the album has about thirteen songs on it, and I think it could have been cut to about ten. I guess I feel that the album could be tighter in focus.
In any case, the album as a whole is strong, with many individual songs that can stand alone. My version came with a song called “Live it With Love” at the end of the album, and I think it should just be on the album proper. It’s a great song, and it fits the tone of the album very nicely. I also think I can hear Bess Rogers singing backup on it, so that’s a bonus.
Songs of note: Fire, How We Love (great lyrical imagery here), In the Sea
Ladyhawke – Anxiety
This is good! I especially like the slamming of the piano on “Sunday Drive,” and how no song gets too dry or repetitive. It’s not an album I was bored with at any point. Well, actually, the song “The Quick & the Dead” gets a tad tiresome. This album is more of an ‘indie’ rock album with a pinch of synth-pop, I’d say. I don’t know; I always find it difficult to classify artists or albums into a genre.
Oh, the opening to “Vanity” is really great too. Short but sweet!
I want to draw comparisons to the Metric album Synthetica for some reason. I think there are some similarities, but overall I find Anxiety to be the better album. Synthetica is just sort of like, “Yeah, this is Metric. Okay.” I couldn’t find any songs that really stood out. But here, on Anxiety, there’s a bunch of songs that are not only good stand-alone tunes, but they fit the sound and feel of the album.
Surprisingly, I don’t think the vocals are the most important thing here. I like female lead singers for some reason, I don’t know why. And the lead singer of Ladyhawke, Phillipa Margaret Brown (thanks Wikipedia!), does a fantastic job on Anxiety. At the same time, I think she really worked to make everything function as a whole on this album. The music doesn’t just support the vocals. Music and vocals sort of intertwine, fading into each other at times and pulling apart at others. I really like how it works. This is the top of the Mid-Range, and I only kept it out of the Top Tier because it lacks just a little something – though I enjoy the album, it doesn’t make we want to bounce around like, say, Jenny Owen Young’s album does.
Songs of note: Sunday Drive, Vanity
Cate le Bon – Cyrk
I learned about Cate le Bon because she opened for St. Vincent, and she is quite a discovery. Cyrk has a psychedelic thing going on, but it’s wrapped around these slow and steady guitar chords and layered on her voice, which is at times hushed or keening. Great stuff.
“Puts Me To Work” is a good showcase for the lyrics that I love from le Bon. “…but I know that you’re there / ‘cause you’re making it hurt.”
Nevertheless, the album suffers a bit from having a uniform kind of beat throughout many of the songs. While this switches up often enough to be interesting, it is noticeable and can lead to a little repetitive drone. This, however, is something like my eighth time listening through the album as a whole, so maybe it’s just me.
Songs of note: Puts Me to Work, Through the Mill (the descending piano behind Cate le Bon’s voice is excellent!)
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
Again, I run up against the impossibility of classification, of dropping artists into genres all neat and tidy. This album – henceforth The Idler Wheel – starts off a bit mellow. The whole album has a kind of minimalist theme running through it. If something can be emphasized with a hard strike on the piano keys, that’s all that’s used. And yet, far from being an entirely quiet album, or having stretches without noise, each song feels like it progresses naturally from beginning to end with exactly as much music as required.
This is actually pretty impressive to me. Nothing is overdone, but she didn’t fall too far in the other direction. Everything is exactly where it should be, nothing feels missing, and it all is very controlled. Fiona Apple has clearly put a lot of time and effort into The Idler Wheel.
And hot damn, the drums in the last song “Hot Knife” are just like magic.
The only reason it isn’t a Top Tier album is because I don’t love it hard enough. I’m sorry.
Songs of note: Werewolf, Hot Knife, Periphery (it has what I think of as a ‘walk-about’ piano theme to it)
Grimes – Visions
Weird electronic beats, crooning distorted vocals, difficult to hear lyrics. And for some reason I like it. Much of the album is slower songs, and all of them have a drifty feel to them. Put this album on while I sit outside in the dark and have a beer and look at the stars? Absolutely! Visions makes me feel like I’m in a montage about being lost at sea. I know that doesn’t make sense.
The aimless feel of the album is what keeps it from being great. Grimes certainly has fun with noises, and while it’s clear she knows how to place them, more revision to tighten the tracks up could have resulted in something really compelling. As it is, the winding feel of Visions supports a cohesive concept but doesn’t keep me interested the entire way through. I get bogged down in the relentless “weird half-beats and distorted echoing vocals” style.
Songs of note: Eight (creepy robot voice!), Oblivion (see the video!)
The Ting Tings – Sounds from Nowheresville
I remember not being too keen on this album, but the first song is pretty good. It feels quite a long way from “That’s Not My Name,” which is how I originally got into The Tings Tings. The second song brings me back though.
In general, Sounds from Nowheresville is good. The Ting Tings have their own sound, and it seems pretty obvious that they don’t have any interest in sounding like anything else. The enthusiasm they have for their music is very apparent, and it’s contagious. I usually find myself nodding along to the beat of the music. Lyrics aren’t anything to write home about, but they certainly blend well with the music. It isn’t that they are bad, they just aren’t anything memorable. At least they are well-sung.
The first half of the album, however, drones a bit. The beats are steady in excess. I’ve wearied of it by the middle of the album. Which is probably why the album slows down here! The song “Day to Day” is a nice change from the monotony of the first part of the album, but it still sounds like something I’d hear on pop radio. Hm, actually, the slow buildup of “Help” right after is nice too. That one…pleases me. As does the last song, “In Your Life.”
Well, the album opens nicely and ends nicely. Nothing makes me want to keep revisiting it though. When I hear it I don’t change it, but I don’t seek it out. Good, not great.
Songs of note: Hit Me Down Sonny, Day to Day (but see above), Soul Killing (I actually don’t like this song, but almost all throughout it there’s this sound that reminds me of bedsprings creaking during fucking. It lasts a little bit beyond the music, then abruptly ends, as if someone got up quickly. Maybe they use the pull-out method? I thought it was neat.)
Chromatics – Kill for Love
This album starts with a cover, which is an odd choice. The cover is of Neil Young’s “Into the Black” and it is very well done. The song is very recognizable, but the little things done to it change the tone and feel. It’s exactly the sort of thing I want from a cover song.
I like this album. It layers sound nicely, with a weird electronic style. Much of the second half of the album is slow songs with a minimalist touch. Some are instrumentals. None of it gets tedious or loses my interest. There are, of course, songs that I wouldn’t seek out, but if they just start playing it is unlikely I’d want to switch to something else. Solid album.
Songs of note: Birds of Paradise, Into the Black
Esperanza Spalding – Radio Music Society
This album isn’t my normal fare. It’s jazz! (I think). It has some touches of, well, I want to say swing but again I’m not sure. Spalding’s voice is great. The album isn’t mellow jazz; it’s more relaxed than anything else. There’s a confidence in the music that makes it very likeable.
Radio Music Society doesn’t fall into repetition, but it is able to maintain an overall sound. However, this could just be my general unfamiliarity with jazz. This could be a good intro for people like me – if you’re not into jazz, I highly recommend you check this album out.
Songs of note: Radio Song, Endangered Species, City of Roses
Sigur Ros – Valtari
Originally, this album reminded me of iamamiwhoami’s newest album, Kin. The first two songs have a delightful oddness to them; very charming, very likeable. It is also very well controlled. Notes and sounds are specifically placed in the course of the song.
As a whole, however, the album doesn’t seem to have an aim. The attention paid to what sounds go where doesn’t seem to want to take you anywhere. While the control over sound made me think of Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel, that album moved right along from point to point towards a well-thought out conclusion. Valtari doesn’t have an endgame. It meanders pointlessly. It’s not a bad album, it just isn’t very interesting.
Songs of note: Ég anda, Varúð
Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
Andrew Bird’s music feels like it could only be made by a weird dude, so I’m going to go ahead and say that Andrew Bird is a weird dude.
I like the album but it doesn’t stand out in any specific fashion. The music? Yeah, it’s good. Very nice background stuff. The vocals? Well, he’s got a kind of almost-drawl or half-mumble, and while it blends almost perfectly with the music, it gets on my nerves. The lyrics – well, I can’t be bothered to listen to them closely because of how irritating I find his typical form of enunciation. I’m sure they’re good though. Andrew Bird has a talent for good lyrics.
Overall, kind of bland and inoffensive, but not to the point where Break It Yourself is entirely a waste of time. I guess I found this album so distant that I don’t have a lot to say about it.
Songs of note: Lazy Projector (sweet whistling!), Lusitania (a lady sings too!)
Best Coast – The Only Place
This feels at first like a kind of unremarkable indie rock album. It starts to have a very little bit of twang to it, like it has the mildest of country influences. I don’t mind that at all – see the Jenny Owen Youngs album review above – and it gives The Only Place a certain sound that helps it rise above the generic indie rock sound. “No One Like You” is very much like a country love song.
But, as with many of the other albums on this list, there’s too close a similarity throughout much of The Only Place. It starts to drone, and every song begins to blend with the others. It isn’t as bad as some other albums (like Bloom by Beach House) but it is noticeable.
Songs of note: No One Like You (if you’re into country-ish love songs), Let’s Go Home
Metric – Synthetica
Metric is a good band. They’ve got this particular niche of rock that I don’t know how to put a label on. Synthetica holds up very well against its’ predecessors, in particular my favorites Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? and Fantasies. On the other hand, only one song really grabbed me; “Lost Kitten” is that song and it is great, because it has this line: “I was lookin’ for a hooker when I found you.” How great is that?
More than Metric’s past albums, Synthetica relies on the vocals. Oh, there’s a lot of rocking going on, but it all feels like support structures to let Emily Haines’ voice take center stage. That’s a fantastic idea, because Haines’ is a great singer – but at times, the album as a whole can get a little musically droning. There aren’t enough change-ups to hold my interest through the entire album, but individual songs can really shine. In general, I like the second half of the album better than the first half, and I think Synthetica closes more powerfully than it opens.
Songs of note: Breathing Underwater, Lost Kitten, Synthetica.
of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks
Upbeat and energetic music, even when the lyrics are creepy! It creates a nice dissonance; very enjoyable. There’s also an excellent melding of piano with the (indie?) rock. Everything is very well done.
Then again, the album seems to go with the “always something going on” concept. It isn’t quite a wall of sound, but it is certainly a busy album. And towards the end, the second to last song devolves into random noises in an attempt to create an ‘eerie’ feeling; it comes off as annoying. And the last song is 13 minutes long. Cute. Oh, and it also devolves into random noises, which then become minutes of a single held note from a synthesizer (I think?), and then becomes an actual song in the last two minutes. It’s a shame – it starts out as a nice song.
Songs of note: We Will Commit Wolf Murder (haha! What a great song title), Dour Percentage
Beach House – Bloom
Oh, I really like how this album starts off kind of dreamy. Kind of stays that way, too. I thought I was going to hate this album – I did not like Teen Dream, Beach House’s last album. Bloom has a much better thing going on. It seems like exactly the sort of music I might want to hear on the beach on a hot day. It’s steady, like it has a nice even pulse and nothing can get it worked up.
However, it is exactly this steady dreaminess that keeps it from rising out of the Mid-Range. Every song feels interchangeable; none of them have any personality. There is variation, just not enough. Okay, not great.
Songs of note: Lazuli
Shearwater – Animal Joy
Immediately I hate the vocals. The lead singers sounds like he is using a ‘song-voice,’ like his vocals are a deliberate affectation. It really annoys me.
Other than that, the album is okay. There’s a nice balance to Animal Joy, with songs being varied enough to maintain interest. At the same time, the songs themselves aren’t amazing. It feels a little bit generic, and I really can’t get over this guy’s voice. So grating!
Songs of note: Immaculate, Believing Makes It Easy
The Mars Volta – Noctourniquet
I really hated this album the first time I listened to it. I’m listening to it again. There has been a slight improvement – I’m drinking a beer!
Everything else is the same, by which I mean awful. The first song is just like pseudo-dubstep bullshit, random noises and heavy bass poorly placed under vocals that sound like they’re being run through a shitty distorter. I picture the band using a children’s toy as a microphone. If they clicked down just one setting on their Wal-mart mic, I bet the guy’s voice would sound like an alien. I can’t even be bothered to look up the band member’s names.
This album is terrible.
But let’s shit on it some more because I’m mad that I have to listen to it again. They should change their band name to The Aristocrats. I think that is a really great joke but I’m afraid no one will get it.
The concept for this album is “everyone write a song on your own, then we play them all at the same time.” The second song, “Aegis,” has the lyrics “Am I running away?” repeated towards the end, over and over. I don’t know man, maybe you should run away (#terriblejoke). Where is the Mars Volta that made Deloused in the Comatorium? That album fucking rules! Oh, how I wish I was listening to “Inertiatic ESP,” or “Circatriz ESP.” Those songs are just amazing. Where is that band? What happened? Did the moderate fame get to them? Has there been some drug or alcohol abuse? I can’t even-
Oh hm this slow down isn’t bad. The song that surrounds it, yeah, that’s painful to listen to, but this part is almost like a real song. Lyrics need another spin through the old workshop, but better than what I’ve heard so far. This is the fourth song, “Empty Vessels Make the Loudest Sound.” Yeah, okay, I wish they had stuck with this, where they “write songs” and then “practice them before recording them” and “listen to what they’re playing.” Maybe my memories are wrong and the rest of the album is okay.
OH HAHA WHOOPS the next song is total shit. “All the traps in the cellar go clickety-clack-clack ‘cause you know I only set ‘em for youuuu” just made me laugh while drinking. Ahhh foam in my nose! Sweet lord above, where…what is going on in this song? See, I’m thinking about how good Deloused in the Comatorium was (and still is, really), and I don’t know where they lost that.
Lapochka has a lyric that goes “How long must I wait?” It would be really easy to make a joke about how long I have to wait for this song to be over. So I’ll make it! How long must I wait for this song to be over and shit I ruined that joke by telegraphing it too heavily.
You know, I think the ‘wall of sound’ concept in a song can actually be utilized well. That’s not what I get from this album, though. They want all these sounds, but they don’t have the restraint to place them properly.
This album has become a dull drone in the background. Every song begins to sound the same – a cacophony of disparate noises, smashed together by idiots, without any guiding reason. I strongly recommend that you do not ever listen to this record.
Neon Trees – Picture Show
“Still Young” sounds like a by-the-numbers love song. Picture Show is also coming off as another typical indie rock album. It stands out a bit from others on this list by sounding like something I’d hear on a terrible radio station. Bland, uninteresting, boring. Don’t bother.
Marina & the Diamonds – Electra Heart
Something of a disappointment. I remember liking Marina’s first album – debut album, if we want to be classy – The Family Jewels. I don’t remember why I liked it. She’s got a synth-pop thing going on, and it worked on her first album. I kind of hate it here. None of the lyrics really amount to anything, and the music is either prime real estate for dance clubs or flat-sounding slow songs with repetitive beats.
All in all, it’s kind of a bland album. I’m not seeing anything that doesn’t sound generic. I had really hoped for more of the weird songs we got on The Family Jewels. “Hermit the Frog” and “Mowgli’s Road” were nice and weird, if I recall correctly.
On the other hand, I think that the songs are genuinely hers. They feel packed with trite and dreary clichés, but it seems that Marina is honestly putting herself into these songs.
End result – this album is bland and drab and you shouldn’t get it.
Buckethead – Balloon Cement
Okay, so I’m biased going into this album. Buckethead has always seemed like a stupid gimmick to me. If he is a good musician, why the frills (a bucket on his head, I mean)? Still, I’ll try to set aside my eye-rolling and displeasure-groaning. Let’s see what Balloon Cement is like.
Well, the album is one continuous song. It’s a pity that one song isn’t any good. By turns droning and grinding, Balloon Cement appears to be a jam band kind of thing. It sounds like a bastard child of industrial and electronic, with some 80’s guitar riffs played over everything.
One thing I liked about the album is that it is only half an hour long.
The Shins – Port of Morrow
Opens nicely, this album does. Upbeat indie rock, I’d probably call it. The first half of the album, at least. Port of Morrow is very good summer music; I can picture blasting it in the car while driving down to Kappy’s in Leominster on a hot Monday afternoon because I did that earlier. And “Dig yourself a beautiful grave” is a nice lyric.
For all that it’s a nice summer album, it doesn’t feel like anything unique. It’s a bit pop, a bit rock, a bit generic. It doesn’t grab my attention, and there aren’t any songs I feel like I should return to. Some songs are outright boring – “For A Fool” almost put me to sleep. The second half of the album is slower and made me irritated with the lead singers’ vocals. He isn’t good at holding notes. It sounds bad, is what I mean. I also don’t think it has any longevity. I can’t imagine that I’ll be listening to Port of Morrow in a few months.