Albums I loved in 2012

My relationship with music was different and strange in 2012. Being out of the BBC’s Audio & Music department for the first time in five years and out of London for the first time since 1995, have distanced me from many of the trends that break sooner in the capital and within the music industry echo chamber. As I didn’t go to any festivals nor work at them and haven’t been to many gigs (think its just been ten), the new music I’ve loved had to work in headphone mode rather than in the speakers. New music discovery meanwhile required more directed searching via blogs, friend recommendations and podcasts.

Will there be another underground youth movement?

With another year passing without a significant youth musical movement emerging, I start to wonder whether we’ll ever have another rave or punk explosion. The disparate nature of music consumption combined with instant social communication probably prevents large underground movements ever existing in the same way again.

If we look at the underground rave/hardcore scene of 1988 – 92, this was allowed to grow through word of mouth, pirate radio stations, plus the scarce distribution of mix tapes, white labels and tracks from specialist record shops. Record shops were the hubs of the scene where exclusivity, inside information and underground credentials created an incremental movement. Pirate radio and shows like 808 State’s on Sunset in Manchester propagated sounds to the bedrooms of 14 year old Wiganers like me, as the scene grew gradually to form an alternative culture from the mainstream media. Even when Radio 1 picked up on dance culture in a big way with Pete Tong in 1991 and when mainstream ‘handbag’ clubbing kicked off in 1993, underground variants still existed away from the glare of publicity, for a while.

Ravers in 1989

Let’s compare 1992 to today’s music industry, where everyone has the means of sophisticated production and distribution. Where the majority of people in the UK are online almost all the time, have access to millions of songs and where trends can explode then become saturated in weeks rather than years. The positive side of this is the vast diversity of musical influences on artists and their subsequent mixing of these new styles, free from the pollution of big corporate models. The clash of afro-rock, post-punk, late-disco and techno that we see in bands like Foals or the Latin infused Berlin minimal techno of Ricardo Villalobos would only have happened due to parents’ record collections, John Peel and random purchases in 1992. In 2012 they happen by exploring a multitude of blogs, aggregators, internet radio stations, Mixcloud, Soundcloud and then sharing these finds amongst friends. Everything is at your finger tips, as long as you have an internet connection.

The down side of this open access to music is a lack of collective listening. There are very few songs that soundtrack the year, nor a sound that a generation can gather around to define the themselves, outside the dispensable commercial pop market. A sound of the times was easier to define in earlier eras, it is a lot harder now. When a scene does develop, the swift means of spreading the news and sounds, now suffocates it and shames it with fame before it can develop properly. There is something to be said for insulation and slow growth, but those times are no more.

That’s not to say it is easy success for bands. There is more competition and access to the right people (promoters, DJs and sites like Pitchfork for instance) is still required to earn a living from music. In 2012, to be a professional musician required you to tour tonnes, DJ loads (playing your own productions) and, if you’re really lucky, licence your track to an advert. This skew towards the live market as a means of living, rather than just promoting the latest album, is probably a positive thing – encouraging collectivism in the headphone isolated kids. It is also a world of big promoters, hard-nosed economics and style over substance. I look forward to seeing how the growth in fan mobilising tools like TopSpin, Reverb Nation, Kick Starter and DeTour combined with looser music licensing laws in the UK empower artists to build their own clout without resorting to tricks, mockery or despair.

That off my chest, here are albums I loved in 2012.

Sun Kil Moon – Among the Leaves

Sun Kil Moon (Mark Kozelek)

Laconic, wonderfully humorous and often bitter, touching vocals set to a variety of sparse, touching instrumentation. The songs stay musically compelling but avoid rhetoric completely. Not Much Rhymes With Everything’s Awesome All the Time is a witty disparaging swipe at the unstruggling artist, whilst Song for Richard Collopy laments the guy who used to fix his guitar in tender remembrance.

Beach House – Bloom

Beach House

Ethereal swooping sounds wrapped around Fleetwood Mac inspired tunes. Each song is varied and altering, with New Year the stand-out track for its astounding blend of reverberating, melodic layering.

Father John Misty – Fear Fun

Father John Misty

Dennis Wilson inspired lyrical debauchery with a sweet gutsier harmony. Feels like the confessions of a cult misfit, but all told with a warm glow. The mandolin plucked, clap rhythm percussion and crying vocals of Funtimes In Babylon is a highlight.

Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

Dirty Projectors

All over the place in style and sentiment. From haunting sixties soul beats and polynesian choral tones under a raw rock vocal on Gun Has No Trigger to psychedelic prog-rock on Maybe That Was It; this album keeps surprising in both its ambition and execution.

Frank Ocean – Orange

Frank Ocean

A lot has been said already about this rich, revelatory soul release from the Odd Future member. The beautifully tweaked backdrop of organic sounding electronic instrumentation welds on to Frank’s emotional pleas stunningly. Frank (real name Chris) Ocean has written for the biggest names in contemporary R’n’b and hip hop, but this album sounds like Stevie Wonder in his mid-seventies purple patch, which pretty much defined modern soul. My favourite tracks on this ear caress of an album are the bubbling smooth Thinkin Bout You and the, almost but not quite sickly, vocal funk of Pink Matter.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

Ariel’s oddly seventies synth underlain ditties can sound a bit silly and then unnerving in a post-punk bleakness. Its sometimes like they’re unearthing a spooky childhood memory. They can also evoke something pure and affecting, such as Only In My Dreams or the musky twilight soul of Baby.

Actress – R.I.P

Actress (Darren J. Cunningham)

Industrial bleak synth mixed with modulating tickles of sweet pulses. Actress nods to the Detroit of Carl Craig, the grooves of Cajmere, Italy’s Moroder, as well as the more ambient musings of Rochdale’s Autechre and Cornwall’s Aphex Twin (early stuff) . It is not the type of album to have favourites on, as it stands as a whole, but if you want a taste in five minutes, Raven is a good place to start.

Grizzly Bear –Shields

Grizzly Bear

Could be considered a slightly more structured and toned down version of Dirty Projectors on first listen, but Grizzly Bear have their own earthy conviction on the band’s best album to date. Tighter, but still inventive tracks, score the album with grooving basslines, plucked intricacies, rolling strums and well placed narration throughout. The driving Speak In Rounds and skippy psychedelic rifts of Yet Again cause a sway.

Errors – Have Some Faith In Magic

Errors - Have Some Faith In Magic

Errors take the post-rock Mogwai agenda and hone it with a sharper synthesised edge. They often strike the troubling chords found on Walter Carlos’ contribution to Clockwork Orange, especially on Tusk. There’s warmth in the metallic sound too, with Blank Media and the New Order style Pleasure Palaces.

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