Wednesday, December 19, 2012

All Around Sound's Favorite Tracks of 2012

In a year that I felt was far more populated by stellar singles than exceptional full length albums, the idea of cherry-picking my favorite tracks of the year seemed more than a little daunting. While my favorite albums seemed like such a no brainer, arranging my favorite songs of the year seemed like a far more stressful but not impossible endeavor. So here's my favorite tracks of the year, arranged in no particular order. Enjoy!

Plants & Animals - "Lightshow", The End of All That
It's the track that singlehandedly dominated the early part of my year, while The End of All That was ultimately a major letdown for me in terms of living up to this fantastic lead single, to omit it from this list seemed wrong. Why? Have you ever heard a more earcatching single? That question is rhetorical and the answer is no. A track that grabs you right from when you press play, "Lightshow" manages to be rather simple in construction, featuring a pretty standard slow build incorporation of instrument but it's when these all converge together that the consuming power of the track is revealed. The lyrics? Awesome. The not too balls-to-the-wall style of rock that enables the immediate attention paid to the lyrics? Also awesome. It might very well be the single greatest song the band has written/performed and that's why even after burn after constant burn, I'm guaranteed to come back.

Lower Dens - "Brains", Nootropics
The first single from Lower Dens hot anticipated sophomore record Nootropics was a righteous jam. There's no other way around it. It's the kind of track you imagine would be twice as long live because it's pretty much neverending in it's simplicity. Chug-a-long guitar riffs with a sort of question/answer voice part. It sort of belies where the rest of Nootropics was bound to go (that is, a set of non-jams). It's catchy for its insistence and manages to avoid being annoying about it. It's a track that easily gets stuck in your head but that you make no major effort to get rid of. The lyrics may be obscured by fuzz but the track is no less enjoyable. Just thinking about the track gets the repetitive chunky lines stuck in your noggin and next thing you know you're jamming along to "Brains" on repeat and anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 days have gone by. It's dangerously time-consuming but you wouldn't have it any other way.

Father John Misty - "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings", Fear Fun
In the initial cymbal crash of "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" mild-mannered J.Tillman singer/songwriter/drummer of Fleet Foxes fame was instantaneously reborn as Father John Misty. While Fear Fun remains to be an album many are trying to fully wrap their heads around (myself included), one thing is clear "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" fully justifies Tillman's Fleet Foxes split on its own merit. It shows a more honest, decidedly more creative Tillman than we've experienced thus far and it's far better for it. It also helps that it's catchy as hell. So catchy that the lyrics aren't immediately apparent to the listener. After dozens of listens it wasn't until reading an interview with Tillman where I realized the song was about graveyard sex. Cool. It's a proper departure from the songs about heartbreak and reconciliation that your standard singer/songwriter doles out in spades. The track alone was enough to ease the hurt of no longer getting to witness Tillman charming up Robin Pecknold's awkward stage banter as well as providing something new and exciting to look forward to. Father John Misty, you can stay.

Alt-J, "Breezeblocks", An Awesome Wave
While support of UK art-pop band Alt-J seems to be split right down the middle, one thing is clear at least to me "Breezeblocks" is incredible. It might've been the accompanying video shot in reverse but from the second I heard "Breezeblocks" I was hooked. It's a spindly, slowly-raveling tune which lurches forth with more than its fair share of mood changes. Sparse folky interludes burst into a grooving, multi-layered laid-back rock. For me, it's the most appealing song from Alt-J; the track you throw on a mix or send along when you're trying to gauge whether someone would like them or just to give them a taste of what the band sounds like when it's at its best.

Patrick Watson, "Into Giants", Adventures in Your Own Backyard
"Into Giants" is the probably the best example of Adventures in Your Own Backyard's normalized grandeur, raising a simple love song to fairy tale pleasantness. But far more impressive is Watson's song construction, properly enlisting a strong female vocal to act as a foil to his soft falsetto. It's easily the most memorable song of the album and it's not hard to see why. A lighthearted jaunt composed of various little flourishes and moving parts but plays smoothly and places melody at the forefront. "Into Giants" is Watson at his absolute songwriting best creating a track that's insanely enjoyable to listen to while also giving you that heart-clench you get from a properly emotional song. The perfect balance whimsical pop that still manages to stay grounded with a bit of seriousness.

Daniel Rossen, "Not Coming Back"
Anyone who knows me probably knows that I have a major love of Daniel Rossen's non-Grizzly Bear related projects. Department of Eagles, his solo stuff, whatever, I've never been disappointed. Even though he released an immaculate solo EP this year, the greatest gift happened when Rossen entered the 21st century and joined the social networking site Twitter. Why? Because though he doesn't tweet often when he does he does something incredible like drop a previously unreleased track from days past. Case in point: "Not Coming Back" a demo that apparently Rossen doesn't think too highly of, he's since dispersed it among Silent Hour/Golden Mile and Shields and seeing no future use for the remains posted it to his Soundcloud for curious ears. Obviously Rossen is a perfectionist of the highest order because "Not Coming Back" is brilliant. An emotive jam that seems to be establishing itself as Rossen's trademark, it's hard to believe "Not Coming Back" isn't a fully realized song ready for release.

Flock of Dimes, "Prison Bride", Prison Bride 7"
The solo project of Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner, I was too busy making up for lost time listening to Wye Oak's Civilian to pay any attention to Wasner's solo debut last year. In fact it wasn't until Caleb from Lands & Peoples mentioned that he picked up the recently released 7" that I was even aware Flock of Dimes existed and while she's put out a fairly sizeable amount of new tracks in the year, "Prison Bride" remains the most insistent, the most demanding of my attention and infinite listens. Perhaps its because so many parts of its overall construction seem so non-beautiful. The chunky beats and percussive effects compliment Wasner's dizzying vocals perfectly. Wasner seems to be on a crusade to elevate the current status of pop music and with tracks like "Prison Bride" she does a pretty good job of throwing her hat into the ring. I hope there's more songs like Flock of Dimes' or even that Wasner herself gets more popular (which is normally not a thing I wish on any of the bands I like) as everyone can do with a little more substance like Wasner seems inclined to dole out.

ARMS, "Summer Skills (Bump in the Night Version)"
Ah, some of you might think of this as the obligatory ARMS track that's meant to go on my list since my almost two year long obsession with them and perhaps you'd be right in that. But in addition to wanting to have one of my favorite bands represented in a year-end roundup there's also the fact that the jazzed up version of the title track off last year's incredible Summer Skills is a real home-run. Normally a slow-burning ballad, ARMS put a little bit of a groove-centric spin on the track (which actually got debuted at their record release show last year) and went about putting it to tape this year. Ace.  Not everyone is always in the mood for a ballad but everyone and I do mean everyone is in the mood for a jam and the Bump in the Night version of "Summer Skills" is a jam if there ever was one. Taking its place among other Summer Skills ragers proudly.

The Tallest Man on Earth, "To Just Grow Away", There's No Leaving Now
With a large part of The Tallest Man on Earth's draw (and subsequent criticism) being that each album adds a number of songs to a steadily growing songbook, every once in awhile you have a song that really stands out among the crowd. Impressive considering Matsson balances his songwriting talent pretty evenly among his albums tracklists. The Wild Hunt's was "The Drying of the Lawns" (with "King of Spain" a very close second), Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird's was "Thrown Right At Me", and There's No Leaving Now seems to "To Just Grow Away" despite valiant efforts made by "1904" and "Revelation Blues". It's the beginning track and sets the stage wonderfully for the album's rather different take on Matsson's rambling folk reveries.
Tallest Man on Earth - To Just Grow Away by maggiemreid

AU, "Solid Gold", Both Lights
There are tons of bands that claim to be or are lauded as being energetic and then a band like AU comes around to prove what being energetic really means. "Solid Gold" with its wild, breakneck mbira is and unfettered masterpiece of unrivaled, untameable energy. Sure, there's the occasional slow down when Holland Andrews enters lovingly caressing each note but ultimately the track moves at a speed that'd be nerve-wracking if it weren't so perfectly executed. At any moment the track seems like it could burst into flames ruined by it's own hubris of flying too close to the sun but it never does. It's a musical thrill-ride, nusic as a spectacle in the best way. "Solid Gold" is catchy as hell to rival AU's artistic ambition. The track bustling and frantic but confident in its abilities. It pays off because the risk seems monumental.

Prussia - "Annie", Girl Cops single
While Prussia may (or may not) be a thing of the past, they made sure to leave us with one more nugget of sweet, quirky songwriting with the Girl Cops single. And while the single is no doubt excellent, I fell hard for the b side "Annie". Featuring Prussia cinematic scope and innovative storytelling "Annie" is one of the reasons I'm going to miss Prussia. Ryan Spencer's lyrics have a tendency to explain just the right amount to give the narrative life while making you fill in the blanks yourself and also giving more questions than answers. It's never quite clear who Annie is exactly as major of an influence as she is on the song's course - instead minor details about her shift slightly more into focus as her character hangs back in the periphery. This combined with the sort of glammy 80s synth-pop vibe that manages to stay aligned with Prussia's intimate chamber pop stylings, it's not hard for the track to win you over. Vivacious, intelligent, and weird "Annie" could very well be inspired by the messed up realm of Poor English without fitting tidily into that box.

Lucius, "Genevieve", Lucius EP
There are few bands around as good as Lucius. While band after band can and will continue to use 60s girl pop as their muse, few will do so as effectively as the Brooklyn quintet. In fact, my first brush with them turned me into a puddle of exclamation. My brain couldn't process the level of talent being dished out and that wasn't some fluke - each member of Lucius is an integral part of that effect not just Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig's tight-knit harmonies and jaw-dropping vocal chops (though they certainly do help). While the full effect of Lucius isn't attained outside of their live set, "Genevieve" is most closely captures the vivacious brassy attitudes, the sauntering melodies, the dynamic musicianship. It's short but sweet, simple but all-consuming, "Genevieve" hints at the playfulness and the rising levels of mind-shattering interplay of the band while being restrained enough that you don't utterly lose it when the track plays. Win win.

Parlovr, "Holding On To Something", Kook Soul
It was an album I was rooting for since catching the Montreal pop trio at CMJ back in 2011, the concept seemed quirky enough to work. Three Canadians find influence and inspiration in soul music - a decidedly American idiom and effective pair it with their own brand of wild, high intensity power pop. It was an idea that turned out to be far more ingenious in theory than practice. Though Kook Soul certainly was not without it's triumphs - "Holding On To Something" no doubt being the absolute best of them. It's a track much like "Lightshow" that hinted at an potential not quite reached within the confines of the album but which shines brightly on it's own. The energy "Holding On To Something" is infectious, the fellas talents for cobbling together sloshing but pristinely memorable melodies with an interesting even dance-y feel. Though the rest of Kook Soul failed to live up to the sinful pop promises of "Holding On To Something". it certain was worth the effort if only for the track's creation.

Lemolo - "Open Air", The Kaleidoscope
Perhaps it's because it's the single upbeat track in a series of brooding ones, maybe it's that it functions as the perfect showcase for Meagan Grandall and Kendra Cox's vocals accompanied purely by a piano, beat-keeping drum and a limitless sense of freedom but "Open Air" was the track I found myself returning to over and over again on Lemolo's stunning debut The Kaleidoscope. Simple lyrically as well as compositionally, it manages to grip you by putting the two ladies' harmonies fully on display unencumbered.

Illuminator - "Tangled With Bear", Soul Sister (forthcoming)
What can I say I have a real fondness for concept albums. The higher the stakes for it to be completely missed or fail completely, the more I'm interested in it. Sure, sometimes releases get bogged down with all the minute details that came from crafting a record as much more than just a musical narrative but when they really get it, it's excellent. Enter Illuminator: On paper Soul Sister (or what we've heard from it thus far rather) seems weird. Like REALLY weird. In execution though it works, surprisingly. "Tangled With Bear" kind of drops you into the middle of the action: a battle between the album's protagonist and a violent soul he's confronted through multiple lifetimes. Without the concept, "Tangled With Bear" is a rollicking blues rock jam which alternates between moments of delicate pulsating narrative-driven plotting and glorious bursting emotive climaxes. In concept, it's more than just an addictive piece of southern-inspired rock, it's cathartic and interesting to have an internal and external battle taking place with the music functioning as both weapon and battlefield. Weird, yes, but good. Normal's overrated anyway.

Town Hall - "Mary A. Longden", Roots & Bells
 If you're going to go the tall tell narrative route of folk pop, you've got to be damn good. Not just in lyrical content but in overall presentation. The tales, the arrangements, you name it they all better be pretty damn interesting otherwise you end up with a sort of "Why am I listening to this?!" sort of reaction. Because your narrative aren't grounded enough in reality to be considerably relatable. Fortunately that's not really a problem for Town Hall who released a whole album of narrative-driven songs of their own creation in Roots & Bells. One of the absolute gems being "Mary A. Longden" so good they released it twice. First on their Sticky Notes & Paper Scraps EP and then premier full length debut. They may not be doing anything genre-defying in terms of instrumentation or overall but where they do deserve some credit lies in their absolute creativity and ability to make a series of character studies into something worthwhile and accessible. Their vocals also happen to be downright crackerjack.

Johnny Flynn - "Flowers in My Garden", A Bag of Hammers soundtrack
Earlier this year, British folk singer Johnny Flynn surprised everyone with a two day jaunt across the US (one day in NY, one in LA) before retreating back to the Britain. The reason why seemed unclear. Did Flynn just miss touring after a year of theatre engagements? Yes. Was there new Johnny Flynn material on the horizon? Not quite but sure. While Flynn is still at work on his follow up to Been Listening, we did get new release from him in the form of a soundtrack he wrote for the indie dramedy A Bag of Hammers. The first track from the soundtrack out well over half a year before the soundtrack streeted, it's Johnny Flynn at his best: An updated but inspired take on actual folk music. The track sounds very much like the music used in the Shakespeare plays he's been featuring in and perhaps that's the intent. But also: The track is just plain good.

Gracie -  "Creature Pleaser", Bleeder (forthcoming)
What isn't there to like about "Creature Pleaser"? The first taste from Gracie's forthcoming full length, the track is an absolutely infectious and entirely all-consuming dance jam. If any of Bleeder's tracks come anywhere close to this one in terms of just insane catchiness, we're going to all be in real trouble. Because from the moment you press play on "Creature Pleaser", listening to anything else seems like an absolute chore. Instead you're compelled to just replay it and marvel at it's toe-tapping, body-moving splendor. Fairly certain the song is laced with some sort of high grade aural crack because one you start you're hooked and  it isn't until someone intervenes. But damn if it isn't the best 4 minute potentially life-ruining decision you've made.

Grizzly Bear - "Half Gate", Shields
Sure it's an album where each song leans slightly upon the other to support the colossal weight of the whole but for some reason "Half Gate" with wind-whipped plotting and gently unfolding piano pop stuck with it the most. More than that. It's the moment that Shields won me over completely. Before Shields, I wouldn't consider myself as a Grizzly Bear fan by any means but Shields with it's epic grandeur, it's clean immaculate twist on orchestral pop sans orchestra, has made a convert out of me. It seemed tighter and more accessible than records past while not trading in any of Grizzly Bear's notorious layered complexity. Shields seemed to me the first truly collaborative effort of the group of four musicians and "Half Gate" the best display: Placing Ed Droste's vocals with Daniel Rossen's and letting them highlight each other's strengths and fill in what the other's couldn't. Instead of just functioning as harmonic filler like times past, "Half Gate" sees the band's two main vocalists actually working together in the full context of a song. Their voices may alternate but it's the first time I felt both's vocal prowess was acknowledged and not only that - deployed together for an excellent heart-fluttering effect.  

Cheyenne Marie Mize - "Keep It", We Don't Need EP
As Cheyenne Marie Mize reaches a rather eclectic happy medium on her We Don't Need EP, the straight up feisty girl rock track "Keep It" was really what conquered me. The whole EP a charming display of personality, "Keep It" with it's rather eloquent rejection gives Sharon Van Etten's "Serpents" a run for its money with its level of casual, fiery badassery. It's as easy as that. There's no posturing, no elaborate metaphor; "Keep It" is a scorching dismissal pairing with all the rock trimmings needed to drive Mize's point home.

Lands & Peoples, "I Tried", Pop Guilt 
If an album is featured on one of my favorites list I try not to feature it on the other (try being the operative word because last year didn't work that way) but sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do. To not feature "I've Tried" would not only be the biggest slap in the face to the uber talented Baltimore lads but also to the idea of a favorites list. "I've Tried" has gotten a hell of a lot of play from me. Maybe more so than any other song on this list? Why? Well it takes Lands & Peoples "there's actually a buttload of complex things happening here but listen to how fluid it all sounds" method of song construction that I had become enamored with and put it in a decidedly more poppy context than I was used to from the band. It's also one of the few songs on their record that really shine a spotlight on the vocals. Sure there's singing all over the album but really "Ukulele", "Ghosts", and "I Tried" show Lands & Peoples at their best vocally. While "Ukulele" and "Ghosts" are more emotional fare, "I Tried" is more guilt-free pop (if you can really even call anything Lands & Peoples that), which manages both a showcase for Lands & Peoples creative accompaniment (there's a part from Terminator thrown in there!) as well as Caleb Moore's vocals. There's even a bit of that trademark L&P harmony. Just a small taste but it's a nice touch.

Secret Mountains - "Golden Blue", Winter Sessions/Rainer (forthcoming)
While Secret Mountains are certainly known for taking their time in all things, this year's tide over release Winter Sessions -  a collection of 3 songs from their upcoming full length debut Rainer saw Secret Mountains turning over a more immediate leaf. Their songs are still pleasantly lengthy but there's less build up, less pacing, and more here's what we can do as a group of tight-knit and talented musicians after we introduce you to the main idea. It's like knowing the destination but electing a new way to get there. The scenic route if you will. On "Golden Blue" Secret Mountains sure give you a lot to see too; offering winding, curling passages of subdued, tasteful pyrotechnics while deploying Kelly Laughlin's dynamite vocals, their biggest explosive of all.

Sea of Bees - "Broke", Orangefarben  
You'd be hard pressed to find a more earnest artist than Sea of Bees and her latest album Orangefarben certainly doesn't disappoint on that front especially in lead singler/album opener "Broke" as Sea of Bees lets her hearfelt feelings bubble out of her fitting considering the song's about attempting to keep your feelings bottled up. Her vocals are sincere, her feelings a very special type of raw; not quite heart-breaking but moving, gripping, and intense. I suppose that's always been Julie Bee's ace in the hole. Girl's got a hell of a lot of heart and she's not afraid to bare it. Despite what the actual lyrics of "Broke" might want you to believe. 

Sharon Van Etten - "Leonard", Tramp
It's not my most shining moment but for some reason I had never really gotten around to giving Sharon Van Etten a proper listen until I heard the fiery vitriol of "Serpents". It seemed like such a different take on the heartbroken lover shtick your most basic singer/songwriter resorts to and I was intrigued as hell. But there's a reason "Leonard" is here over "Serpents" though each song would be more than welcome on this list. My preference for "Leonard" started superficially at first a "listen to those harmonies!" moment as I watched the acoustic version featuring Sharon Van Etten and Heather Woods Broderick for i-D. But as I watched the video more and more and Tramp eventually made its way into my hands, more of it appealed to me. Sharon Van Etten's always been a profoundly honest songwriter but "Leonard" to me seemed to marry the idea of the spurned lover while also acknowledging her own faults in the mess while featuring Van Etten's uncanny knack for downplayed moments of lyrical brilliance.  

Fiona Apple - "Hot Knife", The Idler Wheel...
Perhaps it's place after a set of high intensity, emotional, catharsis-seeking moments on The Idler Wheel... but by the time Fiona Apple reaches the album's terrific conclusion with sultry pop "Hot Knife" is shined my absolute gold. Only the kicker was that it held up pretty incredibly on its own. That discredits that theory. But for all her trouble singer/songwriter-y ways, Apple is a gifted popsmith rewarding those that listened to her air of her life's various grievances, moments of pain, heartache, and ugliness with a simmering ode to sexual need. While that might sound like something you'd expect to hear on Top 40 radio and just grimace at until it was over or change the station over, lest we not forget Apple's gifts. Primitive drums beat out underneath a fugal masterpiece of layered vocals and damn if it isn't the catchiest little thing. For all her songwriting-as-therapy methods, Apple really shines when she takes on a simple truth and runs with it in a rather significantly fun way. 

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