Another year, another fantastic year of comics. And, another year where comic book characters demonstrated their dominance in pop entertainment.
For the last few years, the task of making a Best Music list has become a trickier prospect. I’m notionally open to listen to anything; I like to dabble in other people’s recommendations, try to hear what they’re hearing or find merit or craft in things that aren’t for me. But by December, it’s difficult to narrow down to a list that encompasses juggernaut pop stars, mid-career veterans, and relative unknowns. All can be great, and all deserve some accolades. But they’re operating with different goals and aiming for different audiences.
While the Christmas, er, holiday season seems to creep earlier and earlier into the fall each year, for most the day after Thanksgiving marks the official start of the mayhem. Black Friday is that special day synonymous with mobs of shoppers hungry for a good deal at those massive big box retail stores. But what if you’re like me, and unwilling to line up in the bitter cold before midnight, take an elbow to the gut rushing through the doors, or get clawed in the face over a giant TV or gadget? Maybe it’s a good time to visit that local record store instead.
All too often, bands you’re dying to check out — especially new ones — play shortened sets due to only having like ten songs to pull from — and you tend to walk away feeling a tad unsatisfied. I’ve always thought this is the perfect excuse to work up a cover song: It not only fleshes out the set, but, in many ways, introduces the audience to a band’s influences and own songs, and ultimately wins over fans. If a young band pulls out a great cover song, it actually makes me want to delve into its original music more. Go figure. So yeah, I love a well-chosen cover song, and especially one pulled off live in concert.
And this year, I was lucky enough to hear a bunch of them. Here’s a few:
I listen to A LOT of records each year — for work and to appease that nagging obsessive compulsive desire to hear everything and discover new things. One of the side-benefits of all that listening is seeing a lot of album artwork, and when you see enough of it, you start see some trends forming in terms of design, photography, layout, typography, and so on.
If last year brought me back into the fold of regular comics reading again, 2013 was a year where I actively broadened my horizons and sampled new things. And for the first time, I truly felt I had so many more options for how to buy and read comics — single monthly issues, digital issues on iPad, trade collections — that I actually had to choose my method for which comics.
The Internet awoke last Friday to find that Beyoncé had airdropped an entire new album onto iTunes. For most fans, the “visual album” was a total surprise and an instant success (it sold some 828,773 copies in the first three days — an iTunes record), despite a complete lack of advanced marketing, television appearances, or even a lead-up radio single. Granted, a pop artist of Beyoncé’s stature is clearly able to generate massive interest just by being, well, Beyoncé.
Still, Beyoncé’s model almost seems like an outlier, especially at a time where long, drawn-out hype cycles are now commonly expected — not just with artists of this magnitude much smaller indie bands as well.
All year, albums from pop music’s biggest names — and many mid-level and indie artists — were released after calculated, creative, and even mysterious marketing plans to help inspire fan interest, re-instill some fun in new music, and hopefully boost sales. Here’s a rundown of some of the year’s most notable.
The last year in comics was an especially strong one thanks to many excellent long-running series wrapping up, and, in turn, many more being relaunched in the last few months by Marvel and DC. And don’t forget the huge year at Image with many stellar new creator-owned series. There was so much to like, and I still haven’t gotten to everything various writers have recommended in their best of 2012 lists.
So how do you follow that? Well, clearly by trying new stuff slated to debut this year. Here’s a few things — a lot of superhero books, admittedly — I’m looking forward to in the coming few months of 2013.
SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN | Dan Slott, Ryan Stegman, Humberto Ramos, et al | (Marvel)
Dan Slott’s long gestating run on Amazing Spider-Man culminated with a new, more, um, villianous lead character in the exceptional and controversial final issue #700. It’s supposedly a darker and bolder new direction that was sure to rankle longtime fans. Let’s see (SPOILER ALERT!!): Peter Parker’s mind got switched Freaky Friday-style into Doctor Octopus’ dying withered body, and vice-versa. Then Doc Ock’s body died, and supposedly the real Peter Parker with it. Now Doc Ock has Peter’s young body and all his memories and no one knows what just went down. Got all that? While no one knows how long this current status quo will last, Slott has more than proven his love for and full understanding of Spidey and he’s more than earned trust that he has a big story to come. But if one thing is certain, he’s about to take us on another wild ride.
UNCANNY X-MEN / ALL-NEW X-MEN | Brian Michael Bendis, Chris Bachalo, Stuart Immomen | (Marvel)
As Brian Michael Bendis shifts from his giant eight-year run on the Avengers books to helm the X-Men franchise, we’re getting the writer splitting his big story between the already-launched All-New X-Men and a soon-to-be released Uncanny book. There’s been a shift in power dynamics in X-Men’s world: Cyclops is a sorta villain mutant freedom fighter running around with Magneto, new mutants are popping up all over the world, and the original Stan Lee\Jack Kirby-era teenage team (Marvel Girl, Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Angel) has just been transported to the modern day, shocked at what they see. It’s a gutsy set up being given a lot of space to build, not to mention new territory for a decidedly reinvigorated Bendis. And thanks to artists Stuart immoman and Chris Bachalo, you know these two books are going to be gorgeously designed and full of vibrant energy.
THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY | Brian Michael Bendis, Steve McNiven | (Marvel)
Outside of Brian K. Vaughan’s stellar new series Saga, I don’t much care for sci if space opera mixing into my comics. And when it comes to space superheroes, I often tune out, as I did with the much-heralded run of cosmic Marvel books from writers Keith Giffen, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. (I should catch up on those someday.) But with a Guardians movie announced this summer to be on the horizon and Bendis and the hyper-realistic art McNiven taking on this new book, I have to say I’m intrigued enough to try it out. A creation of the 1970s cosmic era of Marvel, Guardians are focused around hero Star-Lord Peter Quill and his gang that includes Groot, a talking alien tree, and Rocket Racoon, a gruff gun-totting racoon. With Bendis’ equally relatable and funny characterization and his giant story scope, these oft-neglected characters may actually break through and find a bigger audience.
PHONOGRAM: THE IMMATERIAL GIRL | Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie | (Image)
I gobbled up the first two collected editions of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram, and loved the series for its whip-smart humor, clean pop art-styled illustration and design and the deep cuts-heavy music references to Britpop and the U.K. music scene. Also the concept — music as magic — was inventive and weird and really fun. After the second series, Singles Club, there’s been a long hiatus, mainly due to financial reasons, but the story always felt like there was more to tell and somewhat unfinished business. Last year the duo surprised many by announcing a third installment, but that book kept getting pushed back for other projects. Here’s hoping this will finally see the light of day in 2013.
YOUNG AVENGERS | Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie | (Marvel)
Okay, so bad news: Phonogram has been pushed back and we may have to wait awhile for that book to surface. Good news: It is because the same creative team is taking on the Young Avengers as part of the whole Marvel Now initiative. Gillen had a well-liked run with Kid Loki in his Journey Into Mystery arc (I haven’t read it, but read it was good), and continues with that character here, along with various other next generation superheroes. This book looks to take on the excitement of being young, on the verge of adulthood and having crazy superpowers too. I’d say this might be the breakout hit of the year thanks to the writer and artist sure to bring their winning indie chemistry to a big time series.
SEX CRIMINALS | Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky | (Image)
Okay, so if you search the name of this book on the web, make you add some extra search terms at the end, since this is maybe one of the most un-Google-able comic titles since Girls (not the band, or the Lena Dunham TV show). Still, Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals — his first new creator-owned book since Casanova — has a killer set up, that seems tailor-made for Fraction’s weirder ideas: It’s a sex comedy following two young lovers on a “lust-fueled crime spree with a twist — when they have sex, time itself seems to stop.” Sure to be full of filthy, sexy humor and layered plot lines, Fraction and Zdarsky’s book may be 2013’s breakout success from Image.
PRETTY DEADLY | Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios | (Image)
I haven’t read too much from Kelly Sue DeConnick, but she seems poised for a big year: Coming off a critical darling miniseries, Osborne, DeConnick relaunched Captain Marvel this summer, and just took over Avengers Assemble, which looks to be a good jumping-on, new-reader-friendly book for fans of The Avengers film. Now in 2013, DeConnick and her Captain Marvel and Osborn collaborator Emma Rios are getting in on the creator-owned boom over at Image with Pretty Deadly, a gritty spaghetti western featuring a female assassin lead character with a physical disfigurement. With so few westerns and even fewer good female antiheroes in comics, this series may be a nice change of pace for an up-and-coming writer worth keeping an eye on.
LAZARUS | Greg Rucka, Michael Lark | (Image)
Greg Rucka and Michael Lark first teamed up together with Ed Brubaker on DC’s acclaimed, Batman-adjacent police procedural Gotham Central, but the pair is reuniting with Lazarus, a series set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future destroyed by economic strife. Centered around protagonist Endeavor Carlyle — a “genetically modified one-person security detail” — the sci fi-centric story seems to be inspired by the recent Occupy movements and the clashes between the one percent in government and corporations and the lower classes. With such a high concept ahead it’ll be interesting to see how Rucka and Lark — who are mostly known for their noir crime work — adapt to world-building and futurist character and technology design. Regardless, it’s a story that sounds like it could easily be adapted to television or film, and one I’d be eager to read on.
1) EXITMUSIC, Passage
Out of the many records showcasing female singers immersed in epic soundscapes released this year — from Cat Power, Sleigh Bells, Grimes or Now, Now — Exitmusic’s Passage is simply the most transporting and haunting. Aleksa Palladino and Devon Church, the married couple behind Exitmusic, make intensely personal ruminations on frayed relationships, loneliness and despair. Still, there’s a seductive romanticism to the anguished heartache. In songs like the title track or “The Night,” guitars, pianos, synths and sparse beats messily intermingle; melodies flutter around the periphery like burning embers in the wind one moment, and erupt like a cyclone in the next. And yet all the cascading waterfalls of noise and feedback are but an emotional backdrop for Palladino’s aching, alluring voice. Her nuanced vocal command allows her to go from breathy and quivering to full-throated and powerful, often within the same song. While Passage may be melodramatic and tortured, ultimately it’s Exitmusic’s soaring, dreamy beauty that will overtake you.
2) FIONA APPLE, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
It had been seven years since we last heard anything new from Fiona Apple. But the elusive, enigmatic songwriter finally resurfaced this spring for a string of live shows and a 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.
So much has been said about the emotional baggage of Apple’s early years, it’s become too easy to try diagnose her angst and ignore her songwriting and musicianship. 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, and her voice in top form.
In songs like “Werewolf,” Apple’s trademark idiosyncratic wordplay is as great as ever as she delivers lines that delightfully bounce off the tongue, while illustrating how a relationship was destined to fall apart: “And I could liken you to a chemical, the way you made me compound a compound / But I’m a chemical, too, inevitable you and me wouldn’t mix.”
The Idler Wheel… is a superb work for its gorgeous melodies and devotion to instrumental restraint while emotionally leaving nothing hidden; on album and on stage, Apple does not hold anything back. It’s truly stunning to dig deep 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.
3) SHARON VAN ETTEN, Tramp
Witnessing the musical transformation of Sharon Van Etten has been a joyful experience. When the singer first surfaced with 2009’s superb Because I Was In Love, Van Etten and her music was all exposed nerves and hushed pain. Her spare lovely songs depicted crumbling love, introverted insecurities, and a fragility as if at any moment Van Etten or the song itself could simple dissipate into the air.
Slowly but surely, a confidence and musical bravery began to take hold and blossom. If her first record was the fallout from a ravaged relationship, Van Etten’s latest album Tramp is the fullest musical extension of new positivity. The songs still deal with indecisiveness and weighty personal issues. But as songs like “Serpents” and “All I Can” build to powerful rocking anthems, there’s a grandiosity to Tramp that feels outright triumphant. Van Etten sings of newfound love, finding happiness and being okay in her own skin. Produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, every song on Tramp has a rich palette of sounds that stretch Van Etten’s songwriting into new places, making her transfixing and winning vocal harmonies that much robust and stirring. But still at the heart is her distinct lyrical voice.
This year has seen Sharon Van Etten and her excellent band play to bigger and bigger audiences, playing festivals and talk shows and culminating in a blowout victory lap concert at New York’s Town Hall featuring a lineup of friends and special guests. A perfect capper to this first act of Van Etten’s musical evolution, this wave of success could not been more well-deserved for anyone else out there.
4) CAT POWER, Sun
Sun feels like nothing Cat Power has ever done before, which is exactly what Chan Marshall needed. Apparently in the long gap of time between records, the elusive and often-troubled musician faced health and financial issues and inner turmoil. So when she finally returned to write new music, she scrapped an entire batch of songs after being told they sounded like the typical sad and wispy songs you might expect from Cat Power. Instead, Marshall reevaluated the kind of music she wanted to make and eventually wrote all new material. Incorporating electronics and densely layered vocals, these songs are fully-realized by Marshall, who plays every instrument and sings every note on the record. And thanks in part to some adventurous sound design assistance from French producer Philippe Zdar, Sun is a compelling album full of emotional pain and stirring beauty. And ultimately, it’s Cat Power’s best collection of songs yet.
5) PATRICK WATSON, Adventures In Your Own Backyard
The musical world of Patrick Watson is an imaginative place out of time, where eras overlap, genres blur and words evoke memories that feel like they’re your own. Watson’s method of chamber pop songwriting tends toward embellishment: his memorable melodies and vocal harmonies are fleshed out with wildly inventive arrangements and an idiosyncratic kitchen sink approach to instrumentation and percussion. That said, at the heart of Adventures In Your Own Backyard is a tender emotional core both of nostalgia and, in the case of “Words In The Fire,” a lesson about finding peace living in the moment. Watson’s dusky falsetto can whisper or fill the church rafters while singing about dreams, childhood and the newness of falling in love with subtle turns of phrase and evocative imagery. This lovely collection of songs and sentiments will linger and echo in your mind long after it’s over.
6) NOW, NOW, Threads
Now, Now’s superb record Threads found the right recipe for fizzy power pop hooks and lush and 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 the title track, “Thread” and later in “But I Do” Dalager’s lyrics capture the weird, complicated feelings that come with one-sided friendships and the fragility of love 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 tightly constructed and infectious blasts of melody that shows makes this band one of the most confident and exciting new acts of the year.
7) KISHI BASHI, 151a
To watch Kishi Bashi assemble his songs in concert is a clinic in how such a musician works at the craft of songwriting and composition. Like Andrew Bird, Kishi Bashi is one-man symphony of violins and voices inventively looped to create overlapping melodies that flutter like butterflies inside your chest. For many, that reliance on looping ends up being more of a crutch or gimmick, but Kishi Bashi’s debut, 151a, is actually comprised of songs brimming with interlocking and twisted sounds and snippets of motifs that add up to an inventive and wondrous world. His breakout “Bright Whites” may be one of the year’s most infectiously fun and timeless songs. Yet songs like “I Am The Antichrist To You” prove there’s an emotional weight and darkness under the surface that give those gorgeous highs that much more depth and ultimately, lasting charm.
8) FRANK OCEAN, Channel Orange
A lot has been written about Frank Ocean, his official debut Channel Orange, and the soulful singer’s deeply personal essay revealing his bisexuality that was posted just weeks before his album dropped. Many interpreted that letter in different ways, both positively on the rarity of this honesty in the R&B world and with some skepticism — Was it a marketing ploy? Why hasn’t Ocean done more for the LGBT community? Regardless, Channel Orange‘s story arc will always be connected with his personal life and its songs seen as darkly lit confessionals. What may have been ignored is Ocean’s skill in storytelling and the possibility that not all these songs are truly drawn from his own experiences as much as characters and archetypes he’s projecting.
Still, Frank Ocean has been a near-consensus critical darling in 2012 and for good reason: The triumph of Channel Orange is its distinctive and universal voice. These songs are about love, emotional baggage and pain. But also there’s a swagger to these songs, thanks to some sleekly minimal production and straight up funky grooves that puts Ocean’s soaring voice front and center on “Thinkin Bout You”, “Bad Religion” and “Lost.” As a singer, a lyricist and a performer no one in R&B and soul is doing what he’s doing, and the album will be a high watermark for years to come. As Frank Ocean is poised to break through to another level in the coming year it will be exciting to watch where he goes next.
9) HOSPITALITY, 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. The Brooklyn trio’s very fine self-titled debut is full of buoyant and well-crafted songs such as “Eighth Avenue” and “Liberal Arts” that serve as intimate snapshots of living in New York City, and meditate on fading relationships and the complicated feelings that come with a life in transit.
Hospitality’s greatest skill however is offsetting weighty notions with taut arrangements and singable pop hooks. At the center is Papini’s warm, embracing voice, which shyly flutters just above a mix of treated guitars and vintage synthesizers. These songs find a happy middle ground between cute and sharp-edged, intimate and exuberant. There are enough breezy harmonies, crisp guitars and lilting bass grooves to get listeners doing their very best Snoopy dance. Still, songs like “Argonauts” occasionally sprawl and burst with joyful noise — a winning combination that makes Hospitality’s first record a delightful palate-cleanser full of sweet, memorable moments.
10) TY SEGALL, Twins
The impossibly prolific Ty Segall has been banging out record after record of thrashy rock and fevered guitar riffs for the last few years. But 2012 was his best year yet: With three albums (and a handful of singles and other recordings) to his name, Segall’s skillful craft has increased, while remaining true to his raw live wire energy. While his other 2012 efforts were solid — Ty Segall Band’s Slaughterhouse and the Ty Segall and White Fence album, Hair — the gritty Twins may be his best one yet. This record is brimming with screeching guitar noise and lip-curling riffs that only add to the fully satisfying melodies he’s singing. In a year where many young bands went loud — The Men, Mind Spiders, Metz — Segall’s aggressive take on the distorted garage rock was just a hair above the rest. Here’s hoping 2013 finds him just as productive.
The Next 15:
11) Julia Holter, Ekstasis
12) Jason Lytle, Dept. Of Disappearance
13) Porcelain Raft, Strange Weekend
14) The Men, Open Your Heart
15) Simone White, Silver Silver
16) Mind Spiders, Meltdown
17) Yellow Ostrich, Strange Land
18) Lower Dens, Nootropics
19) Purity Ring, Shrines
20) Metz, Metz
21) Shearwater, Animal Joy
22) Sleigh Bells, Reign Of Terror
23) Grimes, Visions
24) THEESatisfaction, awE naturalE
25) Waxahatchee, American Weekend
Ten Honorable Mentions:
— Soko, I Thought I Was An Alien
— Melody’s Echo Chamber, Melody’s Echo Chamber
— Django Django, Django Django
— Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan
— Death Grips, The Money Store / No Love Deep Web
— Mount Eerie, Clear Moon / Ocean Roar
— JEFF The Brotherhood, Hypnotic Nights
— La Sera, Sees The Light
— Teen, In Limbo
— Cloud Nothings, Attack On Memory
So I’ve never written about comics, but lately I’ve become a fairly regular reader. And this year I’ve found to be one of the strongest years I can remember. Here’s an unranked round-up of some of my favorites that I look forward to. I cannot say I read everything out there — you’ll notice no DC books because I don’t read those — and I sort of pick and choose based on what others are talking about. So really, this is not a comprehensive Best of 2012 list. It’s just a bit of a recommendation of things to try out.