Thursday, January 3, 2013

All Around Sound's Favorite Albums of 2012

As mentioned in my favorite tracks year-end round up, 2012 function more so as the year of the single than anything else and more so this year than any other in recent memory. While one or two tracks were pretty spectacular on their own, throw together with a group of like-minded (or not in some cases) tracks saw them floundering for life, attempting to plug up the holes of sinking ships of hastily recorded follow ups or unmethodical debuts.That said, the year was not without it's fair share of brilliant music moments - albums that not only delivered on the potential of their singles but exceeded them by leaps and bounds. Here are, in no particular order, some of the exemplary records that really took the idea of an full length record to heart. Enjoy!

SoftSpot - Enzo
A relatively recent addition to my list of almost obsessively listened to albums, SoftSpot's premiere full length Enzo gets it's name from the Japanese word for "circle" and delivers as much; the album flowing from track to track with unceasing undulating energy. A listen to Enzo, it's not hard to see why it belongs on here: Sarah Kinlaw's vocals are hypnotic, the band not relegated to merely background players. SoftSpot reach an exceptional balance between balls to the wall frenetic jams and organic unfurling introspectives. There's no clear divide between them either as a track metamorphoses into the other almost without warning but not jarringly so. Everything on Enzo seems natural, seems right with no undue kinetic energy explled as SoftSpot demonstrate their prowess as band of patience willing to ride out the mounting waves of their own composition and benefiting greatly from it.

Bro. Stephen - Baptist Girls
If there's anything I've learned from Mad Men (besides how to drink copious amounts of booze, chainsmoke, and commit adultery like an Olympic champion) it's this: Nostalgia is America's chief good. Case it point: Bro. Stephen's nostalgic reveries are simply too good not to enjoy. It's intimate, heart-felt, and more so about beautifully crafted moments that make your heart bang or flutter than anything else. Scott Kirkpatrick is certainly gifted as a singer and a songwriter, of that there's is no question, but what really makes Baptist Girls is how each individual part of it's construction: from the precious melodies, the subtle creak of wood, to Kirkpatrick's beguiling sincerity, it's how they all congeal together to create these moments similar to yours, similar to anyone's that you can relate to. That are so beautifully simple, they make you nod while maybe you tear up a little. Baptist Girls is more than just a collection of songs, its a series of moments lovingly arranged like a family photo album.

Cold Specks - I Predict A Graceful Expulsion 
While it never really pays to cut down another artist in other to praise another artist, damn if only some of that residual buzz from the Alabama Shakes had fallen on Canada's Cold Specks. Her voice crowning the stormy, weathered soul of her own make. Dark atmospheric pieces with brilliant, triumphant moments I Predict A Graceful Expulsion is a quiet, delicate beauty of an album and entirely deserving of as many eager ears as possible. The fact that it hasn't might be the greatest slight of the year. She doesn't have a big band behind her gospel-inspired take on the singer/songwriter idiom but Al Spx's voice is as sagely, pained, and most important of all sincere as a modern soul singers could be. That's not a dig at anybody, Spx just provides a clean, non-showy alternative to what can sometimes become a flashy, spectacle.  

Jessie Baylin - Little Spark 
Layered with sweet Bacharachian sweeps and Dusty Springfield's classy sensuality, Jessie Baylin's sophomore record is one steeped in past influences but instead of playing like a jukebox album, Baylin utilizes her adoration of  60s/70s pop to convey her own troubles which are not all that different from theirs. At times fun and infectious, others serious and heartfelt, Jessie Baylin's Little Spark is a pop album that thoroughly benefits from knowing its history. The Brill Building lushness and orchestral flourishes provide an insatiable base for Baylin's flavorful additions. It's guilt-free pop you'd wish could set some sort of standard. Not only wearing your influences on your sleeve but using them merely to enhance instead of dominate what you're already skilled in. 

Laura Gibson - La Grande 
With more than a handful of releases underneath her belt, La Grande is Laura Gibson's most accomplished. Seeking solace in a rather old-timey sound, La Grande manages to avoid hokey-ness aided completely by her minimalistic approach to songwriting where she says just enough to have every word resonate with purpose while never quite being contrived about it. Each song belongs, each verse and phrase important. Gibson always been a gifted, poetic lyricist but when aided with the rather creative western-y lo-fi leaning sound on La Grande, the whole takes on a very classic feel. 

Lord Huron - Lonesome Dreams 
A work of unmitigated patience, forethought, and effort, Lord Huron's debut full length Lonesome Dreams could be called a concept album of sorts. While western-tinged instead of the world-inspired sound of their previous EPs, the album fits rather excellently into the Lord Huron canon. Despite the fact that the PR campaign seemed filled with painstakingly thought of detail (a website for the fake author of the novels of which Lonesome Dreams is based on being one of them), Lonesome Dreams is an album that doesn't get bogged down with all that when put into actual practice. The details function more as behind the scenes notes dictating where the story will go without seeing exhaustingly recalled. Lord Huron have a talent for simple-seeming but complexly layered chamber pop and they don't disappoint here. Their sound as full and evenhanded on their sepia-colored opus as any of the more electronic leanings of Ben Schneider's creation, Lonesome Dreams is another stellar example of what a concept album can be: easily to listen to without foreknowledge, enjoyable all around, and tremendously rewarding if you do happen to get it. While I'm sure we've yet to get the full brunt of Lord Huron's innovation, Lonesome Dreams is a particularly wonderful start.  

Daughn Gibson - All Hell 
If you had explained Daughn Gibson to me before playing it for me, I probably would've avoided it like the plague. Electronic/Country hybrid? That sounds relevant to exactly none of my interests. Thankfully no one told me what to expect from Daughn Gibson and I got the pleasant surprise of a wonderful album of unexpected twists and turns and a surprising amount of emotional resonance for such a sample-laden release.    It's rather easy to be dissuaded from an album that feature stories about people appearing on Cops and yet Gibson with his commanding presence, deep booming baritone, and adventurous charm make the album a completely worthwhile endeavor. A rather impressive effort and much appreciate burst of new and interesting in two genres where sameness is commonplace.

Hospitality - Hospitality 
From the angular melodies to the band's tight knit padding for Amber Papini's smart lyrics about city life, post-college, and all sorts of old young people concerns, Hospitality is catchy jangle pop done right. Papini has a real knack for pop hooks that don't quite feel like pop hooks and the band perfectly balances hanging back to give Papini the room her feathery vocals need to alight while making their own presence known and heard. A far different version from the syrupy chamber pop of their EP days, Hospitality provides an excellent base for the band to build upon. An album that proves Hospitality are ones to watch and enjoyable ones at that.

Conveyor - Conveyor
If there was a more vibrant, colorful album released all year, no one certainly told me. Conveyor's self-titled debut is an auditory sunburst, channeling sunny days and unrepressed happiness while building on the group's  minimalistic experimental pop we saw at work on their Sun Ray EP. Quirky but not goofy, Conveyor create exuberant smile-inducing moments of sheer aural bliss while never casting any doubt on their talents as legitimate musicians. Conveyor is a slowly-evolving but always engaging pitch-perfect adventure where every route is the scenic one and every path worth taking. A charming whole filled with tasty, interesting parts.

You Won't - Skeptic Goodbye
Sometimes making truly special folk pop let alone music isn't to try and turn the whole world upside down. It's possible to be creative without necessarily redefining a whole genre of music. Sure, those are what everyone's usually looking for but every once in awhile you stumble upon a record like Skeptic Goodbye from the Massachusetts duo You Won't. It's charming beyond words, fully demonstrative of the twosomes talents, a brilliant collection of songs that works together, but any deviation from pre-established norms is subtle. No look at me attention-grabbing antic here. Josh Arnoudse is a gifted lyricist with the kind of voice that gently commands attention not pleading for it and Raky Sastri is a skilled instrumentalist and well as producer. Their songs are either catchy as all get out or just too good not to want to listen to again and really that's what any good musician to strive for. Skeptic Goodbye is a great smattering of folk pop some with rather anthemic leanings.  

Will Stratton - Post-Empire 
Singer/songwriter Will Stratton is an musician who really gets it. Having great lyrics (which he certainly has in spades) is not all it takes to write a good song. Stratton's approach to songwriting pairs all of his various talents to work to create incredible music moments and excellent mood-changes. In fact, Post-Empire starts with about 2.5 minute orchestral intro before the entrance of the more folk-friendly guitar, a full three before Stratton's first verse is even uttered. This reverence for the actual extra elements of a song is something you'd wish more people cherished, more people employed. Maybe not in such a grand fashion but when an album takes it's time beginning, you know it's going to be a worthwhile listen. In addition to lovely arrangements, Stratton's fingerstyle guitar paired with his rolling, ambling melodies makes for a pretty incredible all-around immersive experience. Post-Empire is the kind of album you can put on and just sit and marvel at the level of musicianship contained within. 

Daniel Rossen - Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP 
Most people refrain from putting EPs on an albums list. I'm not most people. Especially not when you have a record like Daniel Rossen's Silent Hour/Golden Mile EP. On his first true solo outing, Rossen expounds upon the epic arrangements of Department of Eagles and Grizzly Bear with his own solid voice resulting in five songs that are simply spectacular. Astonishingly poetic turns of phrase that stick with you are paired with larger than life instrumentals that seem to grow larger and more layered with each subsequent listen. Topped off with intensely emotive vocals, the EP is a testament to Rossen's own talents and why others are so lucky to have him a collaborating. A beautiful stirring collection of songs that almost weren't. Thank heavens they were.

Efterklang - Piramida
With three fantastic albums under their belt, there was no doubt in anyone's minds as to Danish trio Efterklang's awesomeness or artistic integrity. Then in a move that couldn't possibly be foreseen, the Danes had the wacky idea to go to an abandoned Russian coal-mining settlement in the far north of Norway where they recorded all sorts of sounds that formed the framework for their brilliant, brilliant fourth studio album Piramida. On it, they combine the accessibility of Magic Chairs with the dreamy, atmospheric air of their orchestral-leaning albums. Piramida is a work of incredible artistic ambition proving Efterklang as master craftsmen and truly creatively leaders. Employing women's choirs and orchestras, Efterklang reach a level of collaboration most can only dream of.

Kishi Bashi - 151a 
With a real sense of overarching themes and a cinematic scope, Kishi Bashi's debut is certainly an impressive one. Especially considering the pit of doubters waiting in the wings to compare him to other violin/loop pedal users Andrew Bird and Owen Pallett. While learning from his predecessors, K. manages to offer up a singular, unique voice. Japanese vocalizations are welcome treat from the "oh" and "ah"'s you find in standard pop music while K.'s psychedelic deviations add a distinctive coloring to what would already be an applause-worthy effort to create a debut so strong it has to be heard to be believed. 151a is an amazingly adventurous debut brimming with talent and life.

Lands & Peoples - Pop Guilt 
Though by no means a proper representation of the brilliant new direction the Baltimore lads have taken since losing some of their members, Pop Guilt is a snapshot of the band in their youth and in it you can trace elements for their rugged experimentalism. That said Pop Guilt is a great album in its own right featuring bustling pop choruses, dynamic textural play, and some rather incredible vocal chops in Caleb Moore and Beau Cole. And yet as pleasant and arresting as the vocals can (and are allowed) to be, Lands & Peoples music isn't nor has it ever been a platform for them. Lands & Peoples make great use of textures and layers, using vocals to add more dimension, more depth to their already seemingly fathomless experimental pop ditties.

Port St. Willow - Holiday 
After my discovery of The Antlers' Hospice, I really wasn't looking for a record like that again. A record that would utterly destroy all my emotional barriers and make me absolutely fatigued from just feeling so much but here we are. While not quite as devasting, Holiday certainly falls into the same category of mood music that is simply too beautiful for words. Each and every listen results is a cathartic release and never do you grow numb to Nick Principe's raw, emotion-shredding work. In musical landscape dominated by senseless, vapid music without real meaning, it's a treat to get something this precious, this heartfelt, this real. Principe places himself completely out in the open and the result is an album of absolute elegance and finely crafted pathos.

Levek - Look A Little Closer 
In addition to being a veritable grab-bag of 70s musical styles, Look A Little Closer builds upon the somewhat cartoon-y vibe of Levek's demos with some pretty solid jams. It also happens to function doubly as a sort of emotional catharsis for Levek mastermind David Levesque while avoiding relying too heavily on that to function. In fact, without that little tidbit of information, it's still entirely possible to enjoy Look A Little Closer without feeling like you're missing something; some crucial piece to the puzzle. Instead the album slopes gently into a multitude of jam-laden 70s psychedelic subgenres while not sounding like it's trying too hard to do so. Levek for all intents and purposes casually eludes any notion of genre seeking the far more rewarding option of simple good music.

Young Man - Vol. 1
As under-represented as female songwriters/arts/bands seem to be in the music industry sometimes it seems like they have the most interesting stories to tell. The most clever spins on their tragic love lives, the most affecting vocals. I wasn't actively looking for an exception to that, for someone to describe the trials and tribulations of manhood when I found Colin Caulfield aka Young Man. In a series detailing his rite of passage into manhood, Vol. 1 isn't even the full scope of the Caulfield's experiences. And yet, it does so so articulately, so universally, so accessibly while sounds so personal that Vol. 1 quickly became a favorite. It's a male songwriter singing about something actually important that isn't your standard heartbreak tale or love song. Wrapping up his sagely observations in smart-pop dressings, Vol. 1 isn't just an album that appeals to young men or even older men. It's got a broad appeal while tackling a subject few explore that actually matters.  It's a well-rounded effort equally displaying Colin Caulfield's intelligent songwriting chops while also showcasing the talents of his collaborators and dressing them up nicely in solely beneficial arrangements.

Bowerbirds - The Clearing 
There comes a time in every band's career when they seek to change some form of what they've been doing either for better or worse. For Bowerbirds, they expanded upon their pastoral reveries by reaching a higher level of universal resonance than ever before. Transforming from mild-mannered folk band to high-minded art rock band, The Clearing in a lot of ways shines a light on where Bowerbirds have been and where they are going. Their third album, the album gives little hints about their roots while detailing their lives together in their trademark nature-laden imagery and artful use of metaphor. And while employing far bigger experimentations to their sound, they also apply it at a smaller level giving resident power harmony gal Beth Tacular her lead debuts in "Hush" and "In the Yard", the result is simply amazing. Beth, Phil Moore, and the rest of the talented crew of musicians are in rare form on The Clearing and create an album that both appeals to the long-standing Bowerbirds fan while also shaking things up to keep things interesting and grab some new ears.  Bowerbirds have always been masters of subtle emotion-stirring moments and the certainly don't disappoint as each lyric, each phrase, each musical flourish pulls at the heart-strings, brings a smile to your lips, or just lets you bask in the glory of a truly good band that knows what it's doing.

Hundred Waters - Hundred Waters 
In a musical climate where things sound more than a little similar and overdone, a band like Hundred Waters is a much needed breath of fresh air. One of my favorite things about the band is the utterly unclassifiable nature of their music. Owing equal parts of their composition to electronics and the ethereal sensuality of Nicole Miglis vocals, the band are rather unlike anything I'd heard before in the best way possible. Imaginative, creative, and expansive, Hundred Waters' debut album plays like an absolute dream - consuming you fully from start to finish with it's mesmerizing textural play. Hundred Waters are a band of artists in a completely nonpretentious sense creating enthralling, intriguing multi-layered masterpieces that don't beat you over the head with how art-y they are. Instead Hundred Waters offer up works of beguiling beauty that all fit together spectacularly in the grand scheme of their album. Their album is downright cosmic - raising perceptions about what art music can be while remaining accessibly so. Their palette of sounds are otherworldly and grand - the soundtrack to epic adventures or grandiose happenings while remaining subtle enough to operate on a smaller level. An absolute behemoth of talent and dazzling display of non-grandstanding musicianship.  

Honorable Mentions:
River Whyless - A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door

Lucius - Lucius EP

Black Girls - Hell Dragon

Daniel Hart - The Orientalist (rerelease)

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