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.
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:
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
Over at NPR Music, we’re wading through 2009’s best music: the best albums, songs and miscellanea from the past year. It’s admittedly obsessive and music geeky, but hey, that’s what it’s all about.
My main contribution to our coverage is a round-up of the year’s best cover songs, a genre that I can safely say is one of my favorites. This year seemed better than most with an outstanding number of great compilation and tribute albums featuring a wide array of cover songs. Take a look at the list — including my favorite ongoing project, Beck’s Record Club — and see Youtube videos of all my song choices here: