Baldwin listened to so much music this year that we had to split it into two columns! Here are his top seven picks for the best albums of 2012.
Swans – The Seer
This double album gives new meaning to the term, “sprawling”. This thing is a monster, with the wolf-like creature on the front cover giving only a slight clue to the viciousness of the music itself. Even those who are familiar with the uncompromising, perverse and destructive nature of Swans’ music are in for a real test of endurance and patience. But careful and immersive listening will yield tremendous results for those who are willing to subject themselves to such an unwelcoming album. What we have here is a hybrid of post-hardcore, industrial noise, and twisted indie-rock showcasing a soundtrack to the apocalypse. And I don’t mean that in the cheesy heavy metal this-is-heavier-than-fuck-and-loud-as-an-atom-bomb type of apocalyptic sound. This is the actual sound of the world ending, and all the despair, devastation, perversion and pain that goes with it. The more optimistic sections of the music exist only as food for the long and relentless pounding of decadent notes that follow. Some pieces drag along like zombified blues, others have the repetitive and ritualistic quality of trying to conjure up some godly remains from a settling mushroom cloud, other songs screech like the tumbling of great skyscrapers in cacophonous noise, and a couple of acoustic country tracks add a bit of fingernail dirt to the mix to help preserve the human element through all the audial hostility.
Singer and band leader Michael Gira has said that he feels this to be Swans’ most important achievement, and I have to agree with him. He’s reached a level with his music here that’s almost untouchable in its negative purity. The word “epic” can be used here, but even that might be an understatement. There’s something intangibly ugly and scary about what Gira has done, which also makes this album more of an experience than entertainment. I wouldn’t call it every day listening material, but I do call it a momentous musical achievement.
Rush – Clockwork Angels
My Rush fandom is well documented, but that’s really not why this album made this list. To put it simply, this is just an incredibly inspired, creative and powerful rock album from a band that’s far from cashing it in. The fact that this album is their 20th and stands as one of their finest moments is admirable in itself, but more importantly it proves that just because a band has been around for a few decades doesn’t mean they can’t learn a few new tricks.
At the core, this is easily recognized as being a Rush album. All the elements are here, but I feel like their trademark sound has gotten a beastly makeover. Geddy’s voice is still high and somewhat feminine, but his tone here is a little grittier, fervent and youthful in its power. The trio plays their instruments here with an enthusiastic vigor that I haven’t heard since their Power Windows album, and the weight of the music hasn’t been this heavy since 2112. The lyrics are vague and yet potently visual. Neil’s words aren’t as preachy this time, focusing on guiding us through a really colorful adventure story. The novelization of this album is also superb, and you can read my review of it here.
The production is really meaty, and there have been complaints that the music is mixed too loud. I don’t find that to be a problem here. If anything, it helps make the band sound ballsier. If Rush wanted to try and separate themselves from being tagged as “soft” or “old,” they certainly pulled off a convincing Godzilla costume with this monstrous album.
Arvo Part – Adam’s Lament
I’ll be straight with you. This here is purely sacred classical music. I didn’t include this to make myself seem more sophisticated and snobby. I actually love this stuff, and the Estonian composer Arvo Part is a musical genius.
I don’t really have a literary explanation on why his music resonates with me. To me, his music is as divine as music gets. Most of this album is choral, slow and ethereal, giving the impression of celestial weightlessness. These compositions are just as uplifting as they are sorrowful, leaving the mind to wander in a limbo-like trance I can almost compare to a spiritual experience. I’m not a religious person, and although this music is labeled as being “sacred,” I feel this music transcends the boundary of Christianity and speaks of something much more intangible, amorphous, nameless and otherworldly. I don’t know, I’m probably talking out of my ass. To some, I’m sure this is just boring classical music and that’s fine. But for people that have an appreciation and patience for minimalism and the epic grace of choir with string accompaniment, you can’t get any more gorgeous than this.
This is a band that truly ages like fine wine. Here they are at their twelfth full-length album and they still haven’t shown any signs of withering. RIITIIR is another momentous achievement in a year of many amazing achievements…but no so much in the metal genre (just a personal opinion). What’s most enduring is the fact that the band managed to follow up what’s arguably their finest album with “Axioma”, with an equally compelling yet almost completely different effort. The trademarks are all in place; the vicious angular riffs, the 70s prog keyboards, the hedonistic Viking atmosphere and lyrics. But on this album, the songs are much more complex, unpredictable, linear and ambitious. This easily could have been a weakness, and I admit that because of the weird songwriting, it took a while for me to connect with this music. But when it all clicked, it CLICKED. “Thoughts like Hammers” pummels you one minute with marching Sabbath-type doom, and then lifts you up like a sword held high during the chorus with prog riffing rivaling Opeth in its majesty. “Roots of the Mountain” sets out to kill you and strengthen your warrior instinct as the same time. “Storm of Memories” pulls you deep into a post-rock kind of hypnotic void, and then thuds along like a marching army to its climactic conclusion. So many ideas are jam-packed into this that it’s probably going to take a few tries to really comprehend what Enslaved is going for. But trust me, it will be rewarding in the end.
After Opeth’s somewhat disappointing effort with Heritage (although, I’ve grown to enjoy it a bit more recently), we might have some new kings of extreme progressive metal. And I am ready to accept that.
I’m sure this is an unpopular choice. Many people I know who are fans of Porcupine Tree and Opeth didn’t see this as anywhere near what they were expecting or expected from the collaboration of Steven Wilson and Mikeal Akerfeldt. It’s nowhere close to being a mix between the two bands, and there’s no sign of metal, not even a riff to be had. And this is precisely why I find this to be one of the year’s bravest and most impressive releases.
To be sure, this is not a Porcupine Tree/Opeth hybrid. But this album IS a mix of sorts; a mix of influences and inspirations from what Steven and Mikeal were listening to, not what they’ve been producing. And the motley collection of albums they were listening to give clue as to why this album is so strange, mellow, beautiful and minimal. Obscure bands such as the death folk of Comus, the Krautrock of PopulVuh, the hippie rock of David Crosby, the dark chamber music of Univers Zero and the avant-garde styling of Scott Walker have helped make this album what it is. Put all those artists together, add Steven Wilson’s melancholic sense of composition and Mikeal’s flavorful guitar-playing and behold…Storm Corrosion. This is some really calm, weird, stoned and murky stuff, blurring genre lines between folk music, prog, ambient and chamber music. It’s an album completely alone in its sound, unlike anything else I ever heard…and it’s amazing.
For those willing to give this a listen, beware of expectations. Just listen to it for what it is, not for what it isn’t. It still might not be your thing, but you at least have to admire the bravery and the non-conformity in these two artists creating what they wanted to create, not what others wanted them to create.
This was an obvious choice for this list. Part of it might be that this band is constantly and unfairly ridiculed as being a prog rock dinosaur. This can’t be further from the truth. Yes, there are some prog elements to their sound, with song lengths on this album sometimes reaching the 13 and 17 minute mark. But that’s really just one aspect of what this band does. They have a tremendous understanding of musical dramatics, with the three longer songs of “Gaza,” “Montreal” and “The Sky above the Rain” reaching emotional heights comparable to Academy Award winning movies. But they also have an incredible pop sensibility in songs like the Prince-esque “Pour My Love” and the trip-hop meets rock anthem feel of the title track. The lyrics paint a beautiful picture of war-torn countries, diary entries and that age-old lyrical tradition of love lost. The music practices cautious but colorful dynamics like SigurRos, emotional modesty like Talk Talk, inventiveness like Radiohead and composition of eloquent grandeur like Opeth. But despite all these comparisons, they still hold their own distinctive place in the modern musical world, making relevant, soulful and challenging music in a very independent way. Marillion is a criminally underrated band and this is a fantastic album, with a lot of wonderful ideas to offer.
Scott Walker – Bish Bosch
Well, this “music” is certainly a challenge. It almost didn’t make the list at all, being that this came out in December. However, from only the first couple of times I listened to it, it shot right up to my top albums…and I feel like I really need to explain myself this time.
What we have here is a piece of avant-garde art. What that automatically states is that you either think this is amazing, or the worst thing ever. I wouldn’t argue with anyone who took one side or the other. This is incredibly weird, unwelcoming and almost offensive music. Scott Walker has basically made an album out of a collage of unmusical sounds set as a backdrop to his post-modern poetry. I am hard-pressed to find one moment through this entire thing that I can recognize as being a traditional musical moment. With Walker’s previous album The Drift, he was trying to make music to scare you. With Bish Bosch, he’s trying to scare you away from his music. He still has an absolutely beautiful crooning voice, but at age 70 it’s taken on a naturally deeper and sinister tone. His lyricism is impressive and dynamic, ranging from historical commentary to nightmarish imagery to anal jokes. The instrumentation ranges from classical orchestra to the sound of sharpening knives. The pieces of music move along like incredibly heavy blocks of sound with gaps of awkward silence between, sometimes with only his booming voice screaming a-cappella at an incredibly high level. The only reason I recommend this to anyone, is that this seems like the closest you can come to hearing the process of mental deterioration. Personally, I think the guy has lost his mind, and it’s fascinating to listen to it happen.
The brilliance of this album comes from just how closely it comes to being absolute shit. I mean, one of the pieces on here actually incorporates fart sounds, and another piece includes the lyrics, “If shit were music, you’d be a brass band.” But, it manages to keep on the positive side of the line that separates genius from atrociousness by being incredibly well produced, carefully composed, overly-committed and honest in its eccentricity. In other words, if someone who was talentless really wanted to make an outrageously strange album just to make a point that people will tend to eat up shit and call it gold, they wouldn’t come close to doing it this proficiently.
Meshuggah, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Mars Volta, Brian Eno, John Cale, Squarepusher, Flying Lotus, Portico Quartet and SigurRos all released great albums this year. These choices were simply my personal best from the batter of music in a year that tasted amazingly sweet. This was a very hard list to come up with, and I’m sure it’s pretty unusual. I hope you all enjoyed reading my choices and please, feel free to comment on anything you agree or disagree with. I’m genuinely interested in any other recommendations.
Remember, music is a purely subjective experience, and its enjoyment lies in a very personal connection with the listener tied to his/her musical upbringing and life experiences. With that said, try not to hate me too much for not including certain things.
P.S I just began listening to the new Wintersun album, I’m impressed so far. (Hey, I got to keep a few friends on here!)