My Year In Music, 2012

Exitmusic's 'Passage' is one of the most dramatic and emotionally lovely records of 2012. (Courtesy of the artist)
Exitmusic’s ‘Passage’ is one of the most dramatic and emotionally lovely records of 2012. (Courtesy of the artist)

Here’s a roundup of my favorite musical moments and a couple disappointments from 2012, originally written for WNYC’s Soundcheck.

Favorite Album Of 2012 — Exitmusic, Passage

While Exitmusic’s transporting debut Passage ruminates on brooding despair and frayed emotions, there’s a seductive romanticism to the heartache. In songs like “The Night” and the “Storms,” the married duo — Aleska Palladino and Devon Church — creates haunting, swirling soundscapes as they sing of loneliness, love, and regret. Still, amidst the cascading waterfalls of noise and Church’s cyclone of guitar distortion, there’s a soaring, rumbling beauty to these melodies as they flitter like burning embers in the night sky. And yet, all this is but a powerful, dreamy backdrop for Palladino’s alluring voice as it swells from quivering to full-throated thunder as in the epic chorus in “The Modern Age.” Exitmusic may be melodramatic and dark, but there’s no denying that the catharsis of Passage is as intense as any album you will hear in 2012.

Favorite Song Of 2012 — Hospitality, “Argonauts” from Hospitality

Many songwriters have mulled over the rootlessness of their youth, but few describe it with as much whip-smart and wistful sentiment as Hospitality’s Amber Papini does. Hospitality’s very fine debut is full of well-crafted songs such as “Eighth Avenue” and “Liberal Arts” that serve as intimate snapshots of living in New York City and the complicated feelings that come with transition. But “Argonauts” is the standout, for its lovely depiction of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol for the promise of reinvention and searching a new direction. This year saw so many songs that charted new ground, were perhaps more innovative, or took on weightier topics. But for me, “Argonauts” hit a certain joyful and sweet tone that I kept returning to again and again in 2012.

Favorite New Band Or Artist Of 2012 — Now, Now

This year was a particularly strong one for young artists and up-and-coming bands with a ton of upside. There was sweet orchestral pop of Kishi Bashi; the earnest bedroom folk of Waxahatchee; the bleary-eyed psychedelia of Teen and Melody’s Echo Chamber; the off-kilter dance rock of Django Django; the powerful soul of Frank Ocean; the brash garagey punk of Metz, to name a few.

And then there’s the Minneapolis trio Now, Now, whose fantastic record Threads found the right recipe for fizzy power pop hooks and lush but disarming layers of sound. Comprised of Cacie Dalager, Jess Abbott, and Bradley Hale, the band finds larger universal themes sparked from quiet but deeply personal moments. In “Thread” and “But I Do” Dalager’s lyrics capture a sense of unreturned love and the fragility of relationships unraveling not all at once but one stitch at a time. Elsewhere, in songs like “School Friends” and “Separate Rooms” she sings of insomnia, and the confusing, often phantom limb feelings that still linger when seeing a former love and not knowing where things stand. Ultimately, it’s Now, Now’s taut and blasts of infectious melody that shows makes this band one of the most confident and exciting new acts of the year.

Biggest Musical Surprise Of 2012 — The Comeback Of Fiona Apple

It had been seven long years since we last heard anything new from Fiona Apple. So when the elusive, enigmatic songwriter finally resurfaced this spring for a string of live shows and her masterpiece of a new record — the knottily-titled The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw, And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do — I was, like most diehard Fiona fans, stunned and giddy that this comeback was as excellent as it proved to be, let alone happening at all.

Apple is now 35 years old and no longer that angry and disillusioned persona of her youth. Yet she remains an extremely fragile and mysterious artist full of regret, pain and personal demons to work through. Still, The Idler Wheel… finds Apple more comfortable in her skin, her voice in top form.

Songs like “Every Single Night” and “Hot Knife” showcase Apple’s trademark idiosyncratic wordplay that delightfully bounces off the tongue, and arrangements that demonstrate a devotion to instrumental restraint while emotionally not holding anything back. It’s truly stunning to dig into these new songs and hear something different each time. While seven years is a long time between albums, this one was worth the wait.

Biggest Musical Disappointment Of 2012 — Purity Ring, Live At The Bowery Ballroom

In a year brimming with bands featuring female voices surrounded by dreamy soundscapes (Beach House, Lower Dens, Polica), Purity Ring’s debut Shrines has been one record in my constant rotation since this summer. It’s an immersive, sound-rich tapestry of serrated electronic beats and glittery keyboards from Corin Roddick, and eerie sampled voices that delicately swaddle the vocoder-ed vocals of Megan James. I fell in love with songs like “Crawlersout” and “Fineshrine” with their wide-eyed innocence intermingled with heartache as intricately crafted sounds ping pong around the edges.

So when I saw that the duo was performing at New York’s Bowery Ballroom this fall, I was anxious to see them translate these songs live. And I was especially interested after seeing their creative lighting rig made up of cocoon-shaped lanterns that blinked on and off and changed colors when triggered by Roddick’s electronic drum pads in real-time.

Unfortunately, the band’s music did not live up to the gorgeous visuals. When I listen to this album in headphones, I realized that the glitchy production sounds much more subtle and trancelike. In concert, the beats and bass were more overwhelming, owing more to the dance-club ready EDM world than the ambient electronic music I love. And while James’ ghostly, child-like voice works well on the record, she was lost in the mix, drowned out by all the noise swirling around. It was not a horrible performance per se, but certainly something of a letdown to realize that the way I enjoy this Purity Ring’s music is a much more intimate listening experience than what this immensely talented band does on stage.

Most Memorable Concert Of 2012 — Patrick Watson, SXSW, St. David’s Episcopal Church, Austin TX

Man, I saw a lot of shows this year, so it’s tough to pick a favorite. Was Fiona Apple at South By Southwest, or later the Historic I Street Synagogue in Washington D.C.? Or perhaps Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner trying out brand new, just-written songs to about 100 people? Maybe one of the four times I saw Sharon Van Etten this year, including her final victory lap blowout at New York’s Town Hall surrounded by guests like The Antler’s Peter Silberman, Thurston Moore, and The National’s Aaron Dessner? Death Grips’ unrelenting, in-your-face assault during CMJ? Or maybe it was the Telekinesis CMJ show where Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan and comedian Fred Armisen served as Michael Benjamin Lerner’s backing band for the entire set? Like I said, hard to choose.

But ultimately it was Patrick Watson’s deeply emotional and joyful midnight performance at St. David’s Episcopal Church during this year’s South By Southwest that has stuck with me more than any show this year. This beautiful sanctuary, lit from above by strings of Edison light bulbs, was the perfect setting for Watson’s imaginative and timeless chamber pop from this year’s masterful Adventures In Your Own Backyard. But near the end of the set, the singer and his band gathered in the aisle between church pews to do single mic renditions of “Into Giants” and “Words In The Fire,” — a stirring song about finding happiness living in the present. Sitting next to so many close friends, it was hard not to get caught up in that moment and realize how lucky we were to witness this special show. All these months later, I still get choked up every time I put on “Words In The Fire.”

Music Trend Of 2012 — It’s Okay To Like Pop Music Again

This year had so many excellent pop songs that broke out not only in the mainstream, but were loved by people (often like me) who regularly tune out. Sure it was difficult to ignore Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” or Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” let alone fun.’s “We Are Young,” Usher’s “Climax,” Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” I can’t say I love all these songs, but I found myself not wanting to dismiss them, as ubiquitous as they were. Maybe it’s because of all the great writing and analysis I’ve read in the last few years, but I can better appreciate the appeal of pop songs like these. They’re supremely well-crafted, well-produced, and above all, fun to hear. So yeah, for me, popular music. Go figure.

Worst Music (Song or Album) Of 2012 — Paul McCartney, Kisses On The Bottom

Making a joke about an aging rocker gone soft is about as bland as a joke about traffic on the freeway. But for every mediocre second act vanity projects devoted to the American Songbook, there’s been many examples of good late-career work: Bob Dylan has enjoyed one of the best recent string of records since 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, Neil Young continues to put out interesting, if not always satisfying projects, and Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series reestablished the country icon for a new generation.

And then there’s Paul McCartney, who critics and fans have grappled over since the day The Beatles broke up. Sure McCartney has put out some schlock over the years, but he’s always shown skill in his songcraft, from Ram to his Wings albums to his latest efforts. I was a big fan of his Nigel Godrich-produced album Chaos And Creation In The Backyard and its follow-up Memory Almost Full, both of which got back to the sounds McCartney was going for in his classic self-titled solo album.

On stage at Madison Square Garden for this week’s Sandy relief benefit concert, McCartney proved he can still bring it when he wants to. He opened with the blistering rockers “Helter Skelter” and “Let Me Roll It” and played deeper cuts like “I’ve Got A Feeling” when everyone was probably expecting “Hey Jude” singalongs. Oh yeah, and then he played alongside the remaining members of Nirvana!

So this year’s mostly-covers album Kisses On The Bottom came as a major disappointment, if only because I know he is capable of much more than treacly jazz-inflected pop songs. At this point, McCartney has nothing left to prove, and this record is certainly not the worst thing you’ll hear all year. But for a former Beatle, and one of my absolute musical heroes, I still want Paul McCartney to be as relevant as I know he’s still capable of being.