Thursday, August 9, 2012

Top 15 Rekkids of the First Half of 2012

Oy. It's been a while. I simply must do a better job of updating this damned thing. Oh well. Here is a look at some of the releases that haunted my mind and my speakers over the first six months of the year...

1. Mark Lanegan Band Blues Funeral (4AD)

I've already written extensively about this dark and beautiful bit of wonderment, so I won't dedicate much space to it here. Suffice it to say that it charged immediately to the top of this list upon it's release way back in February and, while other releases have been pretty fantastic, nothing has yet risen to take its place. The finest work of Lanegan's long and illustrious career.

2. Patti Smith Banga (Columbia)

There is always a certain level of quality to any Patti Smith release, and while the work she has produced thus far has been very good, there hadn't been a truly great album from the matriarch of punk since the mourning and elegiac dyad of Gone Again (1996) and Peace and Noise (1997). With Banga, Smith has not only returned to top form, she may well have produced her finest work since 1978's Easter. Where other recent works have been somewhat uneven, and at times a bit too self-conscious and/or didactic, this album finds her doing what she does best, and doing it at her best. That is, combining her gifts for language and impassioned musical expression to create great rock art.

Banga finds Patti expressing herself at the highest level. Inspired by her journeys through life and around the world over the past few years, it is a fabulous musical travelogue carrying the listener along with her on her paths through both the external, physical world, and the internal landscape of her soul and conscience. By turns somber, contemplative, commemorative, relaxed, raucous, and joyous, it is on the whole a celebratory experience, even in its darkest passages. Highlights include her homage to my favorite filmmaker, 'Tarkovsky"; memorial odes to the recently fallen Amy Winehouse "This Is the Girl" and Maria Schneider "Maria"; tone poems "Fuji-san" and "Mosaic"; and the title track's frenetic celebration of our canine brethren.

Like so many truly great albums, this rekkid saves it's best for last. The penultimate track, "Constantine" is a 10+ minute poetic and sonic dreamscape adventure which takes the listener from the crusades through the Renaissance to Columbus and ultimately back to Patti herself, all the while examining the nature of art, adventure, exploration, power, ambition, and the effects of all of these on the human soul. "Constantine" stands proudly aside any of the best tracks she has ever released. The album closes with a beautiful and faithful rendition of Neil Young's gorgeous environmental piece "After the Gold Rush", with the compelling twist of passing it on to the next generation as Patti's voice fades out and the plaintive closing verse, "look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century" is taken up by a chorus of young children. Another masterwork from a master of her craft.

(Purchasing note: I highly recommend the "Special Edition" of this CD, which comes in hardcover book form, featuring art and photos of and by the artist; Patti's story of her travels and the writing and recording of the rekkid; plus the tasty bonus track "Just Kids")

3. WhoMadeWho Brighter (Kompakt)

Electro-infused art pop really does not get much better than the latest release from Copenhagen's own WhoMadeWho. These precocious young Scandoids create a music is electronic and intellectual without losing it's humanity; hook-driven and infectious without sacrificing artistic integrity. Check out the videos above for the proof in the pudding. Filled with some of the most delicious electronic pops and skronks outside of Sweden's the Knife/Fever Ray, and fueled by the voice of singer Tomas Hoffding, who could compete (but likely not win) with Ferry and Bowie in a crooner-face delivery contest, and possesses a creepy falsetto which evokes a Scandinavian-electro Joshua Homme. This rekkid has infected my mind, and the standout track "The Running Man" (again, see the above video), is one of my favorite tracks of the year.

4. Violens True (Violens)

This has been in heavy, heavy rotation in my workplace since before its official release. Indeed it may top my friend, co-worker, and fellow music geek blogger at Silence Is a Rhythm Too's best of 2012 list.  This heaping helping of spacey, ethereal, psychedelic synth pop will, if given the chance, invade your psyche like a sleek, silky, and silvery earworm and not let go. Glossy and shimmering throughout, eerie and even downright evil in spots. Peppered with chiming, ringing, clean and reverberating guitar. It's a knockout.

5. Amadou & Mariam Folila (Nonesuch)

The latest delightful outing from Mali's finest duo is a delicious stew with an Afro-beat base accentuated by chunks of indie rock, hip-hop, and American dance pop. Some have complained that the copious guest appearances have diluted their sound here, particularly leaving Mariam a bit lost in the shuffle. That is as may be, but it does not change the fact that this is a tremendously entertaining rekkid. While the disco feel added by the presence of Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears on "Metemya" seems striking on paper, the truth is that it works. Guest spots by Santigold "Dougou Badia" and Theophilus London "Nebe Miri" give a nice contemporary feel, while the appearance of Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio on "Wily Kataso" seems perfectly natural. On an academic level I  understand purists' objections,  but I prefer to judge this work on its own merits, and the truth is that it is pretty damned good.

6. Sharon Van Etten Tramp (Jagjaguwar)

Haunting and compelling folky indie rock from one of the finest young voices in her field. Recommended to me by one of my colleagues at the Electric Fetus, who handed me a promo 7" and said "It's knd of a Patti meets PJ" kind of thing. Slightly more consonant and less aggressive of voice that Patti or PJ (actually, if you throw Chan Marshall into that mix, you're almost there), Van Etten is certainly a solo voice to be reckoned with, and this rekkid is another which has thoroughly imprinted itself on my brain. I've caught myself unconsciously whistling portions of "Give Out" for months now.

7. Metric Synthetica (Mom + Pop)

A perfect companion to 2009's Fantasies, though my reaction upon first listening to it was that it sounded a bit too much like its predecessor. Time and repeated listens have shaken me of that illusion. If anything, I find that it is an expansion on, and superior to the prior outing. It is somehow just as vast and heavy in sound, but more playful and fun. While I don't know that Canada's finest (sorry Arcade Fire, I'm just not quite feeling the intensely earnest thing anymore) will ever top their 2003 breakout Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? in my heart, this is probably their best work since.

8. Bobby Womack The Bravest Man in the Universe (XL)

A couple of years ago, Damon Albarn pried R&B legend Bobby Womack out of retirement to appear on a Gorillaz album, and it was one of the best among many great things that Albarn has done. Now the two of them have collaborated to create one of the best rekkids of the year. While the Albarn touches are there, it is Womack and his distinctive, yearning voice that star here. This is the sound of a nearly lost legend of the 70s shining brightly in a 21st century setting.

9. Pond Beard, Wives, Denim (Modular)

I'm not entirely sure whether the remote city of Perth, Western Australia is on the cutting edge of new psychedelic rock, or if the real issue is that Perth is so isolated that the early 70s just got there. Either way, Pond and their cohorts Tame Impala (along with Sweden's Dungen) are producing some of the most delicious acid rock anywhere right now. This rekkid sounds like the greatest lost album of 1972. There are a lot of things I love about "psychedelic rock", and other things I don't (aka jam bands, DeadPhishMatthewsBand, you know the drill). Pond embody most of the things I love. More fun than a wallaby in a chicken suit.

10. Lee Ranaldo Between the Times and the Tides (Matador)

The George Harrison of Sonic Youth steps away from that embattled scene and goes solo, and we are all the better for it. If there is any knock on this rekkid it is that it sounds too old school 90s indie rock. I don't find that a problem, as it sounds as good or better that nearly every album of that age, and on a nostalgic level, every time I hear it all I can think of is sitting on the back porch of a duplex by Riverside Park in Minneapolis, drinking super cheap local beer, and relaxing in the evening sun.

11.Spoek Mathambo Father Creeper (Sub Pop)

If you haven't yet heard about Spoek Mathambo, he is a super-weird hip-hop/indie rock/kitchen sink artist from South Africa. As far as I am concerned, that last sentence should be enough to get you interested. Moody, arty, rocking, creepy, and everywhere in between, this rekkid is a strange force of nature. Difficult to describe but ultimately quite rewarding. Check it out.

12.  First Aid Kit The Lion's Roar (Wichita)

And the award for best new alt-country act goes to... two sisters from Sweden. That's right kids, I don't know what the buzz is like in your neck of the woods, but around these parts people are going nuts. I saw them opening for Lykke Li a couple of months before this rekkid dropped, next thing I know they're selling out the Cedar Cultural Center. My dream is to see them on a double bill and or collaboration with Neko Case. Great stuff.

13. Paul Weller Sonik Kicks (Yep Roc)

The modfather strikes again. Still going strong after three-and-a-half decades, his third great rekkid on a row is as electric as its cover. Plus he's now being boosted by young Tour de France and gold medal winning uber-mod Bradley Wiggins. Still super cool and culturally relevant (at least in blighty) after all these years.

14. Barry Adamson I Will Set You Free (Central Control)

Ah yes. Barry Adamson. File under: People who are cooler when they're on the toilet than I am at my most shining moment of groovyossitude. Not his finest rekkid by any stretch, still a solid, swaggering chunk of raw hep. "Destination" is like the greatest early 80s Iggy track you never heard, and is near the top of my list of best songs of 2012.

15. The Soundtrack of Our Lives Throw It to the Universe (Yep Roc)

Easily TSoOL's best rekkid since their first three, which I grant you isn't saying a lot, as those first three are brilliant and the last two are... um... not. Okay, that's not a ringing endorsement, but this is closer to the glory days than the doldrums. Where Communion was bloated, and the then-highly-anticipated Origin Vol. 1 was downright boring, Throw It to the Universe is considerably more focused and concise. A tasty hunk of classic progressive rawk, showcasing their trademark homages to the past.