Another year passed, another year-end list. This one came together pretty nicely in the last few weeks of December, and I’m really pleased with its eclectic nature. A little apocalyptic post-rock and ambient drone here, a little black metal and EBM there, and a little psych-y folk and vintage synthpop over there. The songs aren’t really listed in any particular order, FYI.
“Mladic” by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
It may have seemed that, after 10 years, we didn’t need Godspeed You! Black Emperor and their particular brand of musical sturm und drang. We’ve grown too cynical and inattentive for their sprawling orchestral arrangements, glacial slowburns, and field recordings. Besides, dozens of other post-rock outfits have emerged in the past decade, robbing that musical formula of its potency and urgency. And then Godspeed unleashed “Mladic” and annihilated any naysayers’ doubts. Those expecting a return to Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven’s gorgeous dirges got something far less nuanced and far more punishing. “Mladic” is Godspeed at their leanest and meanest, a 20-minute call to arms that makes you want to raise the banners and storm the gates. To borrow a quote previously associated with another instrumental post-rock act, “Mladic” totally fucking destroys.
“South Downs By Morning” by Brother Sun, Sister Moon
After the bruising “Mladic,” a moment of respite… Brother Sun, Sister Moon’s self-titled debut (my review) was one of the year’s most haunting albums for me. This was due, in part, to its genre-spanning nature, moving from shoegazer to downtempo trip-hop to fragile pastoral landscapes like the hauntological “South Downs By Morning.” Listening to this song, it’s hard not to imagine you’re exploring long-forgotten English countrysides on a fine spring morning, all the while surrounded by the sounds of nature and the melancholy tolling of church bells in the distance. Easily the most transporting song I heard all year, “South Downs By Morning” seems to contain an entire world.
“Hands” by Sam Billen
I’ve been a fan of Sam Billen’s music for years now, going all the way back to The Billions. (Who, by the way, performed in my basement once. True story.) Billen’s previous album, Headphones and Cellphones, was delightful enough, but Places is something else entirely. Overall, it’s sadder and more reflective, with death and the loss of loved ones permeating nearly every song. And yet, in his desire to recapture the innocence of youth, he wrote the brilliant “Hands,” which makes such phrases as “I want to be young again” and “There was so much we didn’t know” seem less like navel-gazing introspection, and more like triumphant statements of purpose. And the fact that the song is a lovely slice of noisy psych-pop is just an added bonus.
“Black Rose” by Northern Valentine
Honestly, Northern Valentine’s previous material never did much for me. But on Fin de Siècle (my review), everything fell into place, and the result was one of my favorite ambient/drone albums in recent memory. Ominous drones and soundscapes were in great abundance, as you might expect, but there was a warmth and sense of loss that made a song like “Black Rose,” for all of its foreboding atmospherics, much more intimate. Indeed, the song draws you in like a black hole, urging you to listen closer and more loudly to better experience the song’s depths. Will you make it back out? That’s just a risk you’ll need to be willing to make.
“The Swart Raven” by Winterfylleth
I feel unqualified to write about black metal. As much as I’ve read about the genre and its notorious history, I’ve listened to hardly any actual music from the genre. So I was rather confused when I listened to Winterfylleth’s acclaimed The Threnody of Triumph. Yes, the guttural screams, blast beats, and furious riffing were present (and awesome), but it all sounded, well, a bit on the pretty side to me. I’m sure the fine lads in Winterfylleth would cringe if they read that, but “The Swart Raven” was a far cry from the demonic cacophony from the bowels of hell that I was expecting. Remove the screaming vocals, and you practically had Godspeed-style post-rock at times, with an acoustic bridge thrown in for good measure. But while “The Swart Raven” confounded my expectations, I could not deny that it totally rocked at the same time, that those blast beats and superhuman riffage got my blood pumping and adrenaline flowing. And I’d like to think that’s really all that matters.
“Life Away From the Garden” by Damien Jurado
I’m sad to say that there were a few years during which I lost track of Damien Jurado. Perhaps it was because Ghost of David was such a heavy album — I listened to it obsessively while going through a pretty dark time — that I couldn’t bring myself to listen to him again. But I came back to Maraqopa and I’m glad I did. While the album doesn’t quite have the same intimate storyteller feel of earlier albums like Ghost of David and Rehearsals for Departure, it boasts an incredible psychedelic palette courtesy of producer Richard Swift. “Life Away From the Garden,” which chronicles the loss of childhood faith (“There was a time when I believed you/When in doubt, I put my hand in your side/Broken bells, I don’t hear you ringing”), becomes all the more haunting, disturbing, and thought-provoking thanks to Swift’s spectral production and that backing choir of ghost children.
“Preschtale, Part 3” by C-jeff
C-jeff’s Preschtale might be filed under “chiptune,” and yes it does boast a number of 8-bit-reminiscent sounds. But it’s far more ambitious and, dare I say, epic than yet another simple regurgitation of vintage NES bleeps and bloops. The Russia-based musician brings some progressive and psychedelic rock elements to the nostalgic electronics, and the result is something beyond trippy, and almost cosmic in scope (as befitting the album artwork, which depicts an intrepid astronaut gazing over an alien landscape). When that keyboard solo gets going during “Preschtale, Part 3”’s final moments, propelled by the double bass drums, get ready for an out-of-this-world voyage, man.
“Savage Streets” by Perturbator
Perturbator’s Terror 404 was envisioned as a soundtrack to a sci-fi/horror movie set in a dystopic cyberpunk world. At least, I hope it was because I want to see the movie that plays in my mind while listening to “Savage Streets.” The song’s creepy arpeggios and chilly synth washes put you smack dab in the smog-choked ruins of post-Singularity Los Angeles, chased by digital horrors as you attempt to jack into the Metaverse… or something like that. Indeed, if your vision of the future is less-than-optimistic, and involves artificial intelligences, nanobots, and other such things run amok, then “Savage Strees” is probably what’s been playing in the back of your mind the whole time… you just didn’t realize it.
“Room 10” by Kuroshio
You remember that rave scene in The Matrix Reloaded, the one where we got to watch hundreds of Zion hippies bump and grind as they revelled in their humanity in the face of imminent destruction by the machine race? If you were like me, you were probably cheering for the machines by the time that scene ended. Now, imagine if the Wachowskis had ditched all of that stuff for something with more animé-influenced action featuring lots of guns and kung fu. Kuroshio’s “Room 10,” with its blend of industrial/EBM and trance electronica, would be the perfect soundtrack for such a scene. The song’s pulsing beats, shivering synthlines, and insistent vocals never let up for a moment, making it perfect background music for wiping the floor with that smug Architect and its mechanical minions.
“I Want Your Love” by Chad Valley
I’m convinced that Chad Valley (aka Hugo Manuel) comes from some parallel world where it has been sunny California circa 1985 since forever, and will always continue to be. His music lines up nicely with that whole chillwave movement (was that still a thing in 2012?), what with its dreamy atmospherics, digitized vocals, and retro-future nostalgia. Listening to “I Want Your Love,” it’s hard not to imagine donning some Ray-Bans and cruising down the strip in the golden summer twilight, top down, while palm trees and ocean waves beckon in the distance. But beneath all of the auto-tuning and glossy, chrome-plated synthesizers, Valley’s soulful vocals imbues his electronic pop with some real emotion and yearning.
“Oblivion” by Grimes
I’m not quite sure if Grimes’ Visions is the revelatory album that many think it is. But it does have several delightful gems, and at the top of that list is “Oblivion.” Claire Boucher’s girl-ish, sing-song vocals traipse, chirp, and coo across ominous synthetic atmospheres, icy orchestral stabs, and undulating arpeggios like a little girl lost. It brings to mind so many different artists — e.g., Kate Bush, Björk, The Cranes, Heather Duby, Cocteau Twins, etc. — and yet, Boucher never sounds like anyone other than Grimes the whole time.
“Into Deep Sea” by Lightfoils
Lightfoils’ self-titled EP (my review) is the best shoegazer release I heard in 2012. I listen to a lot of shoegazer, and admittedly, I get a bit blasé to the genre after awhile: the layers of billowing guitars, melancholy atmospherics, and ethereal vocals can all start run together after awhile. But Lightfoils brings an intensity and edge to their dreamy sound that’s a welcome change. “Into Deep Sea,” as the name implies, plunges headfirst into the stormy waters, and it’s a bracing listen — especially in the song’s final moments, when a surging guitar solo comes blasting across the song’s surface. Utterly exhilarating stuff, especially from a genre known more for haziness, lethargy, and blissfulness than urgency and intensity.
“Christmas Unicorn” by Sufjan Stevens
Only Sufjan Stevens could write a twelve-minute-long Christmas song about the various conflicts contained within the holiday — between the materialistic and the spiritual, the secular and the religious, the Christian and the pagan, and so on — throw in some Joy Division, and make it more than a train-wreck. Well, on second thought, “Christmas Unicorn” is a train-wreck, but only in the very best sense. The song is exciting, unexpected, and rather breathtaking in its audacity. But would you really expect anything else from Sufjan? The moments when the unmistakable strains of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” begin to emerge from Stevens’ swirling electronics (around 7:33), and the choir starts belting out that classic refrain (around 8:35), were my favorite musical moments in 2012.
“Mid Air” by Paul Buchanan
As anyone familiar with The Blue Nile knows, Paul Buchanan is a true romantic. However, his songs aren’t about the big, sweeping emotions associated with love. Rather, they focus on the small, seemingly mundane everyday details. Which makes his music all the more intimate and stirring. With Mid Air, his first solo album, he pushes that focus even further, stripping his music down to the barest of essentials: sparse piano, sparse orchestral arrangements, and that gorgeous, world-weary voice of his. The album’s title track is one of Buchanan’s finest compositions ever, a short but (bitter)sweet ballad of devotion and adoration that recognizes the ravages of time but quietly asserts that they won’t have the final word.
“Sing Once for Me” by Joy Electric
Ronnie Martin has been at the synthpop game for nearly two decades, and you’d think he would’ve run out of new bleeps and bloops by now. But he’s perfected his formula so well that any new instance of it is still worth hearing because of the level of craft on display. Dwarf Mountain Alphabet, Martin’s 14th album (and first independently produced album) is everything you know and love about Joy Electric, and that’s really enough, isn’t it? It was hard to pick a track from the album, since there so many solid ones, but I ultimately went with “Sing Once For Me.” It’s such a fine example of Ronnie Martin’s uncanny ability to blend catchy pop melodies with melancholy undercurrents (e.g., the lyrics, the catch in his voice, the subtle shades in his analog sounds). The song is less than a month old, but it’s already vintage Joy Electric in my book.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.