The rule is: I only pick music I’ve actually bought this year, so if there’s a work that you think I should have included, then chances are that I just don’t own it. Also, after I put the list together, I realized that it does have a rather interesting theme: alternate universes. More on that in the details below. Also, best label of the year? That’s easy: Bandcamp. About half of these albums (not including my own) are available there and no place else.
Top 10: Best Music of 2012
- Pye Corner Audio, Black Mill Tapes Vol. 3 and Sleep Games–I see this”best of” list as a personal story about my relationship with music. Nothing I listened to this year had as much of an impact as Pye Corner Audio. That’s partly because the music is so much like the music I’d love to be able to create were I a better musician. But it’s also because there seems to be a clear-cut vision at work in PCA: to use the sounds of the past (via vintage synths) to create the kind of music we should have been listening to back then (instead of crap like Heaven 17). If hauntology is nostalgia for a past that never was, Pye Corner Audio is the soundtrack for that imaginary past that should have been. Or something like that.
- Burial, Kindred and Truant–Burial didn’t release an album this year, but these two EPs clock in at over 50 minutes total, so I’d call that an album. And what an album! Although he continues to dwell in that 3 AM vacant London universe he created on Burial and Untrue, the songs here are stretched and expanded in so many new and interesting ways. Where claustrophobia has always been at the center of Burial’s style, there’s an added element of exuberance here. The “I want you” part of “Ashtray Warp” (from Kindred) is a good example: equally joyous and creepy, like a dizzy spell after a really nice drunken haze. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!
- Mika Vainio, Fe3o4 Magnetite–The more prolific half of now-defunct (sigh) Pan Sonic released about eight hundred works this year, but this is the best, a work that is (like all Vainio works) about the interplay between noise and silence. So few musicians today appreciate the power of silence, but Vainio does, and there is a lot of silence here, interrupted by tiny sounds and massive noise bombs. There is a tension at work between these extreme elements that just adds to the listening experience. It’s an adventurous disc, and one of Vainio’s best.
- Various Artists, Personal Space–I knew Pye Corner Audio, Burial, and Vainio would make good music this year; they always do. But I did NOT see this one coming–an album of “electronic soul” created between 1974 and 1984at the early stages of the bedroom musician movement by unknowns or artists who are otherwise known for other genres (like bluesman Guitar Red). And wow! If Pye Corner Audio is the 80s music we should have been listening to, then this goes quadruple for this stuff, since it was actually created then. I want to live in the world where Johnny Walker’s “Love Vibrator” was a hit.
- Can, The Lost Tapes–One of the truly undeniable powerhouses of rock music released new music this year, culled from hours of tape that wasn’t actually lost but was definitely shelved indefinitely before a few of the members decided to dig through and put it together. This is amazing music by any stretch of the imagination. There’s nothing revelatory here; it’s a more detailed look at the kind of music created on their seminal albums like Tago Mago and Ege Bamyasi. The big surprise here is the amount of music made with original vocalist Malcolm Mooney, who left the band fairly early on due to a nervous breakdown and was then replaced by Damo Suzuki. I’d say a good third (or more) of this album is culled from the Mooney period, including the amazing “Waiting for the Streetcar,” which is a ten-minute jam with Mooney singing the title over and over (with some not-so-vague hints of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” thrown in). That was improvised, as was a lot of the Can stuff at the time (including their formal records), so, really, this is just a few more hours of the music that made this band a legend.
- Tod Dockstader, Electronic Vol. 1–A lot of reissues were released over 2012 by seminal figures in the development of electronic music, including Daphne Oram, Laurie Spiegel, Suzanne Ciani, and the Parry Music set below. This one, by the great Tod Dockstader, was originally released in the late 70s as “library music” (aka stock music for commercial use). Why do I like this release more than the others? Not sure–perhaps because there’s something both haunting and playful here that makes me want to listen to it on a more regular basis. That’s also true of Parry Music’s release, too, though. This is science fiction music made not for a specific movie or TV show but just to evoke images of the future–a future that we now inhabit, actually.
- Stratus, As the Crow Flies–There are two As the Crow Flies albums: this one and The Advisory Circle’s from 2011. This one is better. Stratus are Mat Anthony and Martin Jenkins (aka Pye Corner Audio). Think of this as Depeche Mode curated by Ghost Box, and you’ll get a sense of what this music is like. I wouldn’t call this pop music exactly, since only a handful of tunes have vocals (like the great “Where Do You Go?”), but the music here is warm, appealing, and above all joyful. Standouts are the aforementioned “Where Do You Go?” with its almost whispered vocals that stretch across a circus wheel synth swirl; the stellar “Beneath the Wheel” (how’s that for a homage to Depeche Mode?); and “Aftermath” with is joining of guitars, elegiac synths, and those same whispered vocals holing up in the middle.
- Various Artists, Tomorrow’s Achievements: Parry Music Library 1976-86–Yes, another library music album, this time from a well-known Canadian library music studio (Canada’s version of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, I’m led to believe). This music is quite varied, but there’s a sense of wonder and joy throughout–the kind of wonder and joy that is at the heart of documentaries and stories for children, which I’m guessing is where most of this music was used. Some of my favorites include “Alpha Micro,” with the arpeggiated bass that slides into noise at regular intervals; “Technomobile No.2,” with its awesome groove straight out of Kraftwerk; and the final song, “Tomorrow’s Achievements,” by Harry Forbes, which is just about the best theme song I’ve ever heard and makes me wish I had lived in Canada as a kid.
- Georges Vert, An Electric Mind–This is the most recent release on Cafe Kaput, the Bandcamp label created by Jon Brooks (aka The Advisory Circle). The works on this micro-label are often more esoteric or specialized in sound than regular Ghost Box releases, but not in this case so much. This seems like a regular Advisory Circle release to me–perhaps a little less ominous but equally rich musically. I think there’s a French theme here, with the pseudonym and some of the titles (like “Jovan Freak (Version Originale)” and “En Plein Air”) suggesting a sort of proto-Daft Punk or Air (or Stereolab) sound. If so, awesome, but it’s not really necessary. The music speaks for itself, as it resembles nothing more than a collection of groovy disco or funk tunes from the early 80s. Once again, the big winner of 2012 was the music of the early 80s repurposed for a new audience. From someone who was a teenager during the 80s: this stuff is way better than the crap that came out then.
- Camera, Radiate!–The rebirth of Neu! Take a look:
Bottom 3: Worst Music of 2012
- Sigur Ros, Valtari–Okay, this probably wasn’t the worst music of the year, but Sigur Ros has been so good for so long that the failure of this work–where the guys retread every musical idea they’ve already thoroughly mapped in past albums–is magnified by both my expectations and disappointment. I bought this right away, listened to it a few times, and then never went back. Crap.
- Nirvana w/ Paul McCartney–Please don’t make an album. Please!
- Everything on VH1–Do I need to explain this?
Final thought: my wife is adamant that the musical event of 2013 will be Depeche Mode’s new album and tour. I’m holding out hope for the new Broadcast album (coming in January). Have a happy 2013, everyone!