FEATURE: “I’ll Stick Around”: The Best Albums of 2012, A Year Later – Pt. 2
by Trevor Johnson
As consumers we should all be very worried about letting “what’s new” dominate the conversation – because it already vastly outnumbers – “what’s good”. The next five albums stand as “what is good,” in addition to being “what was good,” just a year ago, even as “what’s new” grows more each day. Don’t let any of these bands fall from your line of sight simply because they didn’t release much in 2013.
(Check out Part 1 of our two-part feature here.)
Frank Ocean channel ORANGE
He’s fucking with us, right? This record cannot be digested without frequently asking what is real and what is jest. I was turned onto Frank Ocean early and spent the latter half of 2011 mining Nostalgia Ultra for gold. The soil ended up shallow (or is it fertile?) and the returns plentiful as songs like “Swim Good,” “American Wedding,” “Novocain” and others were almost too promising for a debut mixtape. Frank could sing, he could rap, and he could shape music and melodies that got beyond your head and stuck in your soul between listens.
But then channel ORANGE came out and it felt like Frank Ocean was just fucking with me. On “Sweet Life” he’s singing about fruit over smooth jazz. No I’m serious, small town, daytime NPR smooth jazz. AND IT’S PERFECT. There were songs on first listen where I couldn’t help but feel like he had just barely missed his mark. Like he was a bit too green even if the ability was so strong. But then there would be that one part in every song that I couldn’t miss that kept me from skipping it on listens two, five and seven. Eventually every song was perfect. Eventually it got to the point where I was convinced I had worked my way up to his level.
I listen to this album a year and a half later and marvel at how brilliant Frank Ocean is. The entire thing is connected. It might not be a short film, but channel ORANGE is like what Kendrick Lamar was doing, like what Kanye West was doing: it was a complete concept. channel ORANGE isn’t songs on an album. It’s the composition Frank Ocean wrote for you in 2012 and it’s meant to be consumed in its entirety.
And then there’s that feeling that he’s fucking with you. That he’s smarter than you and that you aren’t supposed to get everything you want from this album. “Fertilizer” sounds like the kind of song that could be a hit in any decade from 1960 to today, on par with a song like “Fuck You.” It’s the best hook on the album. And it’s a goddamn interlude. It cuts out. Similarly, it seems hard to believe that an entire song would be about Forrest Gump and yet by the end you’re wondering what the fuck Jenny’s problem was? Forrest was basically the best guy ever. There are lines like “do they sew wings on tailored suits” as the narrator preps for a suicide jump in “Super Rich Kids.” Frank Ocean manages to make this character unbearably snotty yet vulnerable, sympathetic. Songs like “Lost” and “Pyramids,” among others, are deeply sociological in their examination of Black culture but if taken at face value just sound like perfectly-crafted and delivered versions of everyday radio fodder.
And on top of it all there’s Frank Ocean’s voice and his delivery. I would pay double for a recording of just the melodies on display here. He has the soul to write smooth jazz songs and the swagger to make it completely natural. His voice is so good that it took me months to realize just how simple some of the arrangements are on this album. channel ORANGE is purposely imperfect to the point where I am convinced I had to get over what I was hearing wrong on the album. As it stands, Frank Ocean is peerless.
Everyone Everywhere Everyone Everywhere
While I will never disagree with Chad that a band as good as Annabel deserves way more praise, this band is my Annabel. They have put together two LPs of well-written, melodic, indie pop songs that I can’t understand why they aren’t just huge. On this, their second self-titled LP, Everyone Everywhere comes off a lot more like a very polished 90’s indie rock band (think Nada Surf during The Proximity Effect), rather than a midwestern emo band of a similar vintage.
Brendan McHugh’s vocals are their own enigma, waiting to be unpacked. He’s never very emphatic, but rather has a great way of maximizing a delivery that’s instead downplayed and static. In most cases, a line like “Spill my guts from my chest. It’s like there’s less and less left” (“Turn & Go & Turn”) would come off melodramatic. His delivery instead helps land the line as an accepted fact, like whatever is changing shouldn’t be considered all bad. He sings very bravely about aging and adult relationships. This obviously isn’t the most enticing source material for plenty of people; but when done right, as it is here, it can be at once enjoyable and comforting.
Dirty Projectors Swing Lo Magellan
I don’t know what the fuck Dave Longstreth is doing. That is the most exciting thing about Dirty Projectors. Sure, I can fuck around on stringed instruments; I’ve played in a few bands and been around when songs were written. I know that it takes talent, experience and some level of intelligence to write a good song. If you take all of those things at a virtuoso level and add a whole bunch more shit that I can’t think of, I still don’t see many people writing Dirty Projectors songs. I don’t want to blow too much smoke here — this band has imperfections — but I keep coming back to Swing Lo Magellan with the intent of trying to figure out just what the hell was happening and along the way it became one of my favorite albums of 2012.
Dirty Projector’s previous album Bitte Orca was a very good indie rock record with a lot of weapons, put to good use. It captured the moment in which it was written very nicely. Much of that record feels like a good night spent out in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for people that don’t sit around complaining about hipsters and don’t mind the occasional stench of “death + vomit” (not found on the record). But Swing Lo is different. It’s art rock to the point that yes, it seems to want to dissect most of what we enjoy about pop music and paste it back together, rearranged. And yet, there are still hooks. Almost every song still has a chorus. The more you listen to this album the more you realize Longstreth just wants to see how much he can stretch the conventions of pop music without changing arenas. Sure, his voice can be off-putting but that is one of his sharpest tools in this pursuit. He also has three bandmates with great voices that can reel everything back in.
There are songs on this album that sort of sound like James Taylor on acid (“Impregnable Question,” “Irresponsible Tune”). In “Unto Caesar” I swear the intermittent female vocals in the second verse are supposed to be the sort of hook you would hear in a very mainstream, very mediocre hip hop song (ie: “BAWWWLIN’”). I KNOW, that seems insane, but in my head that is the parallel, only when executed by women with fantastic voices in harmony it stops being obnoxious and sounds completely natural. And then you hear a song like “The Socialites,” a perfectly cheery, poppy R&B track that sounds like it came pre-orchestrated on a Casio keyboard. The chorus tones swell in and out with the tinny beat and it feels like you’re listening to the remix before you’ve ever heard the…whatever you call the version that comes before the remix. I also don’t believe I know anyone that wouldn’t find this song enjoyable … though curious (see “Two Doves” off Bitte Orca for the heartbreakingly perfect version of this same scenario). That is what’s fun about Dirty Projectors records and Swing Lo Magellan in particular: a simple pop song is just too easy, but they still give you that moment, that glimpse at everything you wish the song could be, balled into one.
Dikembe Broad Shoulders
Dikembe has increased their value by creating this air of finality to everything they do. Apparently they all have career aspirations or want to start a teaching commune or some other “unpunk” whatnot. After 2011’s Chicago Bowls EP they were a band with a ton of promise, some great elements, and no guarantee that they would ever be heard from again. That’s what made Broad Shoulders pretty special (thanks, Tiny Engines!).
But what really made it special is that it combines being really distorted and heavy with some undeniable hooks. Singer Steven Gray’s lyrics are conversational enough to be quickly memorable and catchy, but manage to dodge triteness or cliché. Grey’s voice, a sort of snarled, never-quite-yelled/always-more-than-sung delivery, perfectly suits the band’s energy. On “Apology Not Fucking Accepted,” when Gray sneers “I’m so mad I can’t fucking see straight,” you feel where he’s coming from (a line that also sounds a lot better on record than it does in black and white). But when he sings it a final time in a defeated, resigning tone you really understand him.
Though it doesn’t necessarily show up in its sound, Broad Shoulders reminds me a lot of Something to Write Home About. It’s more in the approach. When you heard the guitars come in on “I’m a Loner Dottie, a Rebel” or “Ten Minutes,” you sort of knew there was way more pop punk in the recipe than there was for most of their peers. Dikembe goes at this album with a yearning to play harder and faster than a lot of the groups to which they’re compared. Even when they’re going quiet to loud, (“I Watch a Lot of Jackie Chan Movies,” “I Just Don’t Understand…” ) they make all the transitions count, as if they’re making up for all that lost time spent on the clean channel. They also really know how to utilize a quick pause. Speaking of which, guys, you couldn’t have given me another chorus on “I Just Don’t Understand…”? I know most of these songs are short but that’s a two-minute song that could have been easily doubled before anyone started to care. Just play it twice live, I guess?
Japandroids Celebration Rock
This album is far from perfect. The few subpar tracks (there are only eight total) sadly suffer from a bit too much “rock n’ roll YOLO.” But Japandroids have always been a band that used youthfulness to its advantage. 2009’s Post Nothing showed that young exuberance and good times were in the Vancouver duo’s DNA from Jump Street. The album’s first track is called “The Boys are Leaving Town”, which is as perfect a “let’s get to the show” song as any ever. Then there’s “Wet Hair” where a line like “Let’s get to France so we can French kiss some French girls” is perfectly clumsy and spills over with jittery energy. It’s topped only by the climax of “Young Hearts Spark Fire” which is literally just the band yelling “OOOOOH” atop their lungs during a three-beat rest, four consecutive times.
A few tracks on the first half of Celebration Rock end up a bit too much like indie rock attempts at “Born to be Wild”. But when they settle in on the second half of the album, they don’t have to beat you over the head with lyrics about how much they’re going to drink and smoke. Great party songs are more about the friends that make things memorable than the beers and joints anyway. Throughout its final four tracks, Celebration Rock just becomes this amazing record by a band that you can tell is having the time of their lives simply being a touring band and getting to have the time of their lives, just in a different city each night. It also features what was, for this writer, the best song of 2012 in “The House that Heaven Built”. No one, but no one, that writes lyrics can hear a chorus line like “When they love you – and they will – tell them all they will love in my shadow,” and not hurt a little bit because they didn’t think of it sooner.