Guest Contributor Amy B.
Typically, at the end of every year I narrow down my favorite albums to the top 20 or so. And then, inevitably, I have to create all sorts of side categories to make sure albums and EPs and random songs and rad YouTube videos don’t get missed. This year I’m cutting to the chase by skipping the arduous process of trying to sort out my top 20 and going straight to the more interesting categories of random things I’ve made up. Hope the tunes of these awesome bands bring some joy to your ears as you wrap up 2012 and head into 2012!
Ed: Each of the links below will hook you up with an 8-track playlist home-brewed by the one and only Amy! Happy listening.
alt-J – An Awesome Wave
This is my absolute favorite album of 2012, hands down. Earlier this year, public radio station KCRW put “Breezeblocks” into its rotation and I’ve been attached at the hip to this entire album every since. (I can’t believe I just anthropomorphized a record. Okay, yes I can.) Their style isn’t easy to describe—maybe guitar rock with folk, synth pop, and psychedelia all mixed in—and their lyrics are full of completely obscure film and literary references, but their songs manage to be catchy and mainstream radio-ready anyway. I thought any excitement I get when I play this album would have worn off by now, but months and months later that’s not the case.
Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Ocean hit the scene in a big way. He made his TV debut on Jimmy Fallon’s show with a riveting performance of “BadReligion,” a song about falling in love with another man (not exactly common ground in the hip-hop scene); and hours later released this flawless album. Prior to this, he had published on his own website personal stories of past love and rejection and questioning sexuality. He continues these themes on Channel Orange, where he is confessional and introspective about love, money, sex, and drugs while managing to go beyond the “same ole, same ole.” His lyrics are inventive and intelligent and unlike what have come before them. All the hype and praise for Ocean is beyond deserved.
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
Guys, can you believe we waited seven years for this album? It was a long time, but Apple certainly didn’t disappoint and managed to live up to all the hype. She brought her signature raw emotion and honesty, and coupled it with her clever and atypical songwriting and piano-playing. Apple still carries with her some rage and heart-break, but I think this one has some love in it, too. The closing song seems utterly triumphant as she compares herself to a pat of butter and her lover as a hot, hot, hot knife. (I added the extra hots, but I think Apple was thinking it.) Welcome back, Fiona!
Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
Dirty Projectors caught a lot of people’s attentions when they released an album covering an entire Black Flag album from memory. I was totally on board, but I could see how many found it campy and maybe even overwrought. Each subsequent album has managed to be experimental while also inching toward mainstream acceptability, and I think Swing Lo Magellan is the most accessible yet. Everything is a bit more stripped down, a bit warmer, and (dare I say it) a bit poppier. If you admired this band before, but could never really get into their music, give their latest a spin.
Cat Power – Sun
Chan Marshall’s past albums have all carried a bit of sadness with them. These were songs for rainy days, hours spent alone, and moments of grief. In fact, You Are Free has reliably gotten me through numerous break-ups for nearly a decade. While Marshall was helping me cope, she herself was facing a rough road of substance abuse and bankruptcy and bad relationships. Sun is the light at the end of a dark, dark tunnel with its strong anthems full of confidence and passion. Marshall is ready to conquer the world (Saudi Arabia, Dhaka, Calcutta…), and we’re all invited to come along for the ride.
Dana Falconberry – Leelanau
Falconberry did what many other independent artists these days are doing when their artistic dreams are bigger than their budgets – raise some funds via Kickstarter. Falconberry’s campaign was a great success and the result is Leelanau, an album filled with “ghost stories from the Michigan shore, sparrows and barn owls, birch bark and maple leaves.” (Her gorgeous words, not mine.) The album is named after the picturesque Leelanau Peninsula (past and present Michiganders: it’s the pinkie), and is filled with gorgeous vocal harmonies and string arrangements and whistles and snaps and car keys and other fun things used as percussion. I can say with certainty that it’s the prettiest thing I’ve heard all year.
Lianne La Havas – Is Your Love Big Enough?
La Havas has one of those voices that instantly gives me goose bumps! She’s only 22 years old, but packs an impressive wallop of soul and emotion into her songs. Is Your Love Big Enough? features lots of lo-fi acoustic love songs with delicate guitar plucking that allows her stunning voice to shine. She manages to write about heartbreak with maturity, vulnerability, and hope – something not always common among her peers, let alone singer-songwriters of any age. La Havas has released a solid debut, and I have high hopes that it’s only going to get better and better.
Alex Winston – King Con
In the chorus of the first song on King Con, Winston orders us to keep on marching on. Her solid pop gems make that anything but impossible. Blending some banjos and mandolins and xylophones with sometimes bizarre lyrics and sing-along choruses with a little doo-wop thrown in for good measure is not usually the formula for pop song success; but Winston makes it all work with her imaginative songwriting. Elvis impersonators? Polygamy? Amish Rumspringa? It’s all up for discussion when Winston’s at the helm. I can’t wait to see what other unexpected thing Winston brings us in the future.
Melody Gardot – The Absence
Nearly a decade ago, Gardot suffered a near-fatal accident when she was hit by an SUV while cycling. During her long and difficult recovery—which included learning to walk again—Gardot began playing guitar and writing songs. These songs ultimately led to a self-produced EP, and then a few years later her debut, Worrisome Heart. She was hugely successful in the jazz scene and toured the world twice over, soaking up the music of various countries from Brazil to Morocco to Portugal along the way. The Absence is Gardot’s love song to those foreign places with its fresh mix of calypso and church bells, bossa nova and finger snapping, and samba and children singing. Perfectly, Gardot’s lush, radiant voice holds it all together.
Sara Jackson-Holman – Cardiology
Within the first few songs on this album, Jackson-Holman tells you that you can’t take her love, grief is a freight train, and to go ahead and break her heart. You think, oh, okay! This is a fired-up break-up album! (And that’s actually fine because where would music be without love songs and their break-up counterparts? See, e.g., roughly half of the albums on this page.) But no, it’s not. These are songs Jackson-Holman wrote about losing her grandfather, and somehow knowing that fact changes the tone of everything. Cardiology is a sweet and sometimes even raucous goodbye to the man who drove 6 hours round-trip to watch his granddaughter play countless piano recitals and competitions.
De La Warr – De La Warr
Lady/gent vocal harmonies? Catchy hooks? Sing-along choruses? Sign me up! The debut album for this local quintet was basically my entire summer playlist and will forever remind me of cruising around with the windows down and the sunroof open during the warm weather that lasts all of a couple months here. These tunes will still sound great with the windows up and the heater blasting though. Plus bonus points that people will be less likely to hear you sing-along off-key that way (or that might just be me).
Alialujah Choir –Alialujah Choir
Alialujah Choir is like a mini-supergroup, if that is even a thing, and maybe just a supergroup by Portland standards. The band is Adam Shearer and Alia Farah of Weinland, and Adam Selzer of Norfolk & Western and M. Ward; and the three came together merely to seek refuge from their crazy touring and performance schedules. The result is this long-awaited album full of sweet-sounding folk harmonies. With the demands of their other bands, it’s unclear if and when we’ll get more music for these three, so cherish these tunes in the meantime.
Grandparents – FUMES
This is technically a four-song EP, but I am so feverishly in love with all four songs that it felt a shame to leave it off. (Plus, if you read below, Black Prairie technically got two entries so I think it all works itself out.) This group makes shoegaze-y psychedelic rock with a little country-western thrown in for kitsch factor. They’ve recorded several EPs, a full-length album is apparently coming down the pipeline, and their live shows are energetic and inventive as members swap instruments and vocal duties. I hope 2013 brings this group amazing success!
Lost Lander – DRRT
You know the “Wall of Sound” perfected by Phil Spektor? This album seems like a modern indie example of that. Layers upon layers of sounds—handclaps, ukuleles, violins, haunting vocals, synths—reverbing over one another to create big, orchestral folk rock songs. Certainly a tip of the hat goes to producer Brent Knopf (Ramona Falls and formerly Menomena), who turned Matt Sheehy’s carefully crafted melodies into these lush mini-symphonies. If pretty, pretty music isn’t your thing, the album also folds out into a home planetarium and you can use a flashlight to project song constellations onto the ceiling. Win/win.
Black Prairie – A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart & The Storm in the Barn
Apparently there’s something in the water, but like Alialujah Choir, the folks in Black Prairie aren’t content with being members of only one successful band. Years ago, Chris Funk from the Decemberists decided to create a bluegrass-inspired side project and invited a few other local artists to join. Each member of the group contributed their influences and musical styles—from klezmer to jazz to tango to traditional Romanian music—to create their unique and unconventional sound. This year the released an album AND a soundtrack (to a children’s play! based on a graphic novel!) and I’m loving both. Prolific is an understatement.
Top 5 music videos that I watched no less than 50 times in 2012!
Erato – Call Your Girlfriend
While I certainly love both the original by Robyn and the subsequent cover of this cover by the mini-rockstar sisters, Lennon and Maisy, I think this version takes the cake. The simplicity of three ladies hanging out in a dim kitchen, singing pitch-perfect a capella harmonies, while drumming a beat using nothing but margarine tubs is somehow exactly how this bittersweet break-up anthem was meant to be sung.
Slow Club – Two Cousins
I love this video because of its song and I love this song because of its video. Even though neither seems to be perfectly related to the other, it’s still somehow a perfect fit. Two amazing contemporary lindy hoppers – Ryan Francois and Remy Kouakou Kouame – pay homage to a 1961 TV performance by the legendary dance duo Al Minns and Leon James. The original Al and Leon performance can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJsBa2u9aMQ. (And for what it’s worth, I highly recommend falling into the Wikipedia/YouTube rabbit hole and learning all about Al and Leon. I lost at least a weekend doing this, I’m sure.)
cdza – Opus No. 6 – Aces of Bass
For me, my fascination with this video is equal parts nostalgia, kitsch, and talent. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I still have nearly every song of Ace of Base’s The Sign mesmerized. So when a group of acoustic upright bass players band together to write a medley of these songs and then kick ass at performing it, of course I am going to re-watch this video a couple dozen times. Pro-tip: skip the last 20 seconds and re-wind to watch from the beginning. Repeat.
Cookie Monster – Share It Maybe
Carly Rae Jepsen’s pop hit “Call Me Maybe” was virtually inescapable this year with a slew of amazing spin-off renditions and parodies. This version, however, featuring one of my favorite muppets, the Roots, elementary school instruments, and Ms. Jepsen herself is hands down my absolute favorite. I was so infatuated with this video that I even tried to get others to partake in my obsession with me, including the 2 year old I babysit. She wasn’t having any of it though, and continued to request more Elmo. Oh well.
Jay-Z – Glory featuring Blue Ivy Carter
So, this one is here on a technicality. There’s no video to watch, per se, but I’m probably responsible for a solid chunk of those 5 million views. Since Jay-Z never released this on iTunes, I had this video bookmarked and listened to it nearly every time I wanted to hear one of the best love songs ever written. Jay-Z lets us in on his personal joys and hopes and promises for the future, and then bookends it with baby Blue’s tiny heartbeat and newborn cries. It doesn’t get any sweeter than this.
Someone once called Amy Bruning a ‘national treasure’, and is often referred to as ‘formidable’ by friends and enemies alike. She is currently thriving in the damp conditions indigenous to Portland, Oregon. Should she survive the winter, she plans on kicking ass and taking names in no particular order. In either case, the music was good.