Thursday, December 6, 2012

My Top Ten Albums of 2012

Matt Domino unveils his Top Ten Albums of 2012.

The first full week of December is almost over, which means we are getting into the thick of  “List Season,” where every media outlet will begin presenting you with lists of their favorite albums, songs, movies, books, sporting events, and just plain old current events. Reading all of these lists can be an exhausting and repetitive experience—especially if you are a music fan; there are just so many Top 50, Top 100, and Top 20 lists you can scan before your eyes start to glaze over and you start to get angry because each list has it completely wrong!

Because these list reading experiences can be so frustrating and, well, boring, I decided long ago (aka 2009) to do my own take on the Year End Music List. See, the whole point of this blog is to write about what you like with passion and intelligence, so I decided that at the end of the year that I would make a list of the top ten albums that I really liked in a given year. How is that different than a normal year end list? Well, the albums that make my Year End List don’t necessarily have to come out in the year I am making the list for. The only criteria is that they helped summarize where my mind was and where my listening tastes were during a given calendar year. It’s like a mix-tape, except you have to choose albums instead of single songs. And it all ties into an old family philosophy, which is, “Too bad…I like it!

So without further ado, here are the ten albums that defined the year 2012 for me.

10.  El Dorado – ELO (1974)

Look, I’m not proud that an ELO album made my Top Ten List for 2012, but I have to be honest: some part of my brain was in a very ELO place in 2012. It started out like most guilty pleasures, as a mere curiousity. “Hmmm, Jeff Lynne was in the Traveling Wilburys. He produced Tom Petty. His records with the Move were pretty influential in psychedellic music. ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ is like Abbey Road-era Beatles on some kind of steroid that definitely makes you feel sick. Maybe ELO is actually good!” And soon enough, I found out that I had a made a mistake—ELO is definitely not good, but for some reason this god damn album stuck with me throughout the year. Perhaps it could have been the hooks of the aptly titled, “Can’t Get it Out of My Head”; or maybe it was the Dylan meets Orbison of “Poor Boy”; could it have been the Beatles-channeling pop of “Boy Blue”?; maybe it was the epic “El Dorado” suite that concludes the album? In the end, I decided that it was just part of my mind getting softer from either years of booze, resting on my laurels in my late-20’s, or possibly the actual biology of my brain just maturing. And if part of maturing means indulging in overproduced, cinematic and odd ELO albums from time to time, well then that’s OK.

Ah, who am I kidding? It’s not OK.

9. London Calling –  The Clash (1979)

London Calling is universally considered one of the best albums of all-time. It’s certainly the fourth best double album of all-time behind The White Album, Exile on Main Street, and Blonde on Blonde. And even though it is a staple in the canon of rock n’ roll and I have listened to it a million times in a million different situations and mindsets, it was still able to reveal numerous surprises to me in 2012. You find new aspects in Clash songs, especially on this album, in different ways than you do Beatles songs. It’s not about finding new nuances to a layered piano part or trying to figure out if it was Paul on drums or maybe, wait, was that John playing maracas in the bank and mumbling? No, with London Calling, it’s more about reveling in the way the sequencing of the album hits you differently each time you listen to it in a different year or era of your life. This time around, the run from “The Card Cheat” all the way through “Train in Vain” was absolutely in tune with how I felt in large doses throughout the summer. I felt loose (“Revolution Rock”); I felt tough and mysterious and drunk (“The Card Shark”); I felt driven and dramatic (“I’m Not Down”); and of course I felt romantic and redemptive (“Train In Vain”). The way each of these songs fell in line—and then in relation to the rest of the album at the tail end—made the album hit me differently than it ever had before and I was immensely grateful. And then of course there is “Spanish Bombs,” and “Rudie Can’t Fail,” and “Death or Glory,” and “Clampdown,” and “Lost in the Supermarket” and…

8. Struggling Man – Jimmy Cliff (1973)

Anyone who knows me personally (Well, I suppose that’s all of you. Strangers don’t read this do they?) knows that I am struggling at my current day job. And perhaps if you know me well enough, you know how much I struggle with regular existence and the universe and all that crap you don’t want to talk about when you’re drunk, but really want to talk about when you’re alone, so you wait until you feel alone enough and not drunk enough with a close friend to talk about (usually over drinks).

In any case, why I like this album has nothing to do with any of that. I had known about Jimmy Cliff because of his life-altering version of “Many Rivers to Cross” off  The Harder They Come Soundtrack. (I used to listen to “The Harder They Come” to pump myself for going to work at Conde Nast. THE HARDER THEY FALL BABY!) Yet, I had never truly delved deep into his catalog. So I picked up Struggling Man on vinyl and gave it some listens. I liked it a lot. The title track was great and so was “Those Good Old Days,” but it was when I hit a showstopper like “Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving You,” that I truly understood why the album spoke to me. It seemed to be the missing link—that missing music that mixed country, pop, soul, gospel and even boogie rock like the Faces. It was as close to that “cosmic American music” that Gram Parsons was striving for, yet, this was “cosmic human music.” I was floored. And so I used a track like that or a track like “Let’s Seize the Time” as touchstones to let the rest of the album really sink in. And it did.

7. Lonerism – Tame Impala (2012)

The most famous quote about Tame Impala this year, came from a live review on Pitchfork by Jayson Greene, where he said that Kevin Parker, the singer and creative force behind the band, sang like “someone trapped John Lennon's vocal take from ‘A Day in the Life’ in a jar and taught it to sing new songs.” If that isn’t one of the best (and heaviest) compliments of all-time, I don’t know what is.

But Lonerism is more than just marveling at the John Lennon comparisons (I’ve gotten over my bout of  “Beatle comparison obsession” that took up about ten years of my life and I still can’t deny it when I listen to the album), it is marveling at the range of John Lennon impressions. Hold on, I’m being serious. When I say range I am not just referring to Parker doing his version of different eras of Lennon or of the Beatles, I’m talking about the gamut of emotions he can make you feel. On “Mind Mischief” the very Ringo drums and the bright fuzz guitar throw you right into a hazy, lovely Summer of Love; while “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” (possibly the song of the year) is sharp with self-doubt and pessimism; and “Music To Walk Home By” is the music that Julian Casablancas has always wanted to make while he walks the streets of New York City or Los Angeles late at night. Plus, there’s the mourning quality of  “Sun’s Coming Up (Lambingtons).”

The remarkable quality is that the shift to each of these emotions is never stark or jarring. The songs drift into each other and then take on a shape, personality, time and place of their own, which is kind of what happens in life as we move from day to day.

6.  Port of Morrow – The Shins (2012)

Back in April, I already spent about 3,000 words explaining why the Shins aren’t cool, but why I love this album and how much it means to me, so I’ll be brief here. There’s just something undeniable to me about a perfectly crafted and professional pop album in the most traditional sense. Fans of AC Newman and the New Pornographers will be able to relate. With this album, the Shins became a very loose moniker for James Mercer’s music—even moreso than before. And with songs like “Fall of ’82,” “Taken for a Fool,” “Simple Song,“40 Mark Strasse,” and “September,” James Mercer took a step closer to becoming one of the true enduring songwriters of our age.

5. Excitable Boy – Warren Zevon (1976)

I will definitely remember this year as the year I was initiated into the world of Warren Zevon (thanks, Nick Mencia). Once I was in, I was all in. And the album that I spun over and over was Excitable Boy. Whether it was a truly twisted tale told over irresistible pop in the title track, the rich-man’s Springsteen (OH YEAH!) of  “Tenderness on the Block,” a chorus that would put Dylan to shame in “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” the inevitable swagger of “Werewolves of London,” or the never-say-die attitude and guitar strums of “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” I was head over heels. There were countless winter mornings where I strutted off the subway, through a crowd of people out into the sharp, cold air murmuring Warren Zevon lyrics and feeling like a million bullets couldn’t bring me down.

I needed a lot of that this year—we all do. And if an album makes me feel like that, its going to be in my Top Ten for a given year and probably with me for life.

4. Heaven – The Walkmen (2012)

I wanted to write about this album all year, but I never got a chance to until now. I suppose its better off, since I have written about the Walkmen more than a few times. And even now, I want to make a huge sweeping statement about Heaven just like I wanted to make huge sweeping statements about Lisbon and You & Me when they came out and I raced to my computer to document how I felt.

However, its harder for me to write about this album. So many critics and music outlets were quick to pin the album down as some kind of ideal of “domestic bliss,” of a band getting older and more comfortable in life. Sure, there are lyrics in “Heartbreaker” and “Song for Leigh” that could make you believe that, but as the months have passed, I see the album as more than any kind of statement of comfort or familial bliss. I think it is a glimpse into those worlds; it is a moment to enjoy a carefree, pre-60’s rocker such as “Heartbreaker” or “Heaven.” However, there are still ghosts out there, there are still misty nights. And so there are tracks like “The Witch” or “The Love You Love,” which are unbearably longing and restless and suggest that no matter what, there is some part of us that wants to be as weird as we can for as long as possible. A part of us that doesn’t want to just be defined as a parent or a husband or a boyfriend or wife. We want to be those things, but still be ourselves damnit!

That kind of insight is invaluable and I am lucky to have the Walkmen provide me with it, musically, every other year.

3. Nilsson Sings Newman – Harry Nilsson (1970)

C’mon, you knew Nilsson was going to be on this list and you knew that he was probably going to be up this high. We had a NILSSON WEEK ON THE BLOG AFTER ALL! I’ve also written separately about how Nilsson Sings Newman has had a profound effect on me in some of my smaller and quieter moments as well.

There’s not much I can say about this album other than the fact that it is perfect. This album taught me about the craft of recording a voice in the studio and also about how a musician or performer can truly use their voice as an instrument. Sure, I know all about Jagger and how he mixed his voice in with the rest of the tracks on Exile so that is was just another “instrument.” However, Nilsson is in another ballpark as far as actual vocal ability. Jagger could never sing “I’ll Be Home” with the touch and the nuance that Nilsson does. I don’t know if anyone else besides Nilsson could even make the first “lost track” minute of “Vine Street” feel like as much of a complete song as it does. “Living Without You,” as sung by Nilsson, might be the best short story that James Joyce never wrote—it is full of the mundane and it is full of a sense of epiphany that can only be found in somehting like “Araby” or “The Dead.”

Then, there is the album ending duo of  “Dayton, Ohio 1903” and “So Long Dad,” which are quieter, more obscure, but have ended up breaking my heart and making me mourn time and existence more than any other tracks on the record. It’s not just the harkening back to simpler times, it’s the profound sense of loss in simple words and simple emotions. Sure, Randy Newman wrote poignant lyrics, but no one could make them hurt or seem to mean so much as Nilsson.

2. Channel Orange – Frank Ocean (2012)

I’m going to be candid with you. When the World’s Coolest Dude Committee met earlier this week in Geneva, Oklahoma, I cast my ballot for the World’s Coolest Dude 2012. My vote: Frank Ocean. Now, I don’t know if he will win it—there are a lot of Committee Members leaning a lot of different ways as far as I can tell—but that should say a lot about how I feel when it comes to Channel Orange.

If I may be bold, I suggest that, in the future, instead of going to our respective places of worship, we should all just wear comfortable robes made of nice white linen and sit Indian style in sunny spots on the floor in our homes (you know, the ones that your cat will find) and listen to “Bad Religion,” “Pink Matter” and “Forrest Gump.” Then, for an exit service, which consists of walking outside to lay on the grass for a few minutes, we will play “Thinkin Bout You.” I feel as though that kind of ceremony and way of life would cure all religious wars and suffering.

No, but you’ve heard it before and will read it on other lists all over the Internet: Channel Orange is truly a staggering record to listen to. Whether it’s the Elton John-copping beat, hilarious, but earnestly sung lyrics and mumbly Earl Sweatshirt verse on “Super Rich Kids,” or it’s the “HOLY SHIT ANDRE 3000 IS ALIVE AND AMAZING” cameo on “Pink Matter,” the gravity defying falsetto on “Thinkin Bout You,” or the mind-boggling odyssey of “Pyramids,” this album has it all.

And in the end, we have “Forrest Gump,” which is an album closer that any person of any sexual orientation should be able to get behind and enjoy. Who knows what it all means and who cares? If you don’t like that song, check yourself for a pulse.

1. Fear Fun – Father John Misty (2012)

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Josh Tillman aka Father John Misty this summer. At that point, I was still in the honeymoon phase with his remarkable album Fear Fun. You can read the full interview over at the Montreal Review, but in it, we talked a lot about identity and about feeling comfortable in what you do or create. We talked about the difficulty of injecting humor into your art, whether it is writing or music or anything else.

Then in October, I saw Father John Misty play at Music Hall of Williamsburg on a damp but mild night. All of the songs I loved on the album sounded fantastic live, in fact many of them sounded better. “Now I’m Learning to Love The War” and “Only Son of the the Ladies Man” became much more anthemic than they originally came off on record. “Hollywood Forever Cemetary Sings” rocked harder, “Sally Hatchet” was more White Album-ish. “Funtimes in Babylon” was still beautiful and “Everyman Needs A Companion” was still just as important to me as it was the first time I listened to it. However, I saw what Josh Tillman had to do to make his persona work.

All of the things we spoke about on the phone, about being yourself, about creating your own myth by not trying to create your myth, seemed to be gone. Father John Misty was an excellent performer, he gyrated and sold each song as well as any performer I have seen in recent years. However, there was something sinister and insincere lurking; something more smart ass and snide than clever or sharp. I’d seen it in his Twitter (I KNOW! I KNOW! IT’S JUST TWITTER!) and I was seeing it live.

There have been a lot of End of Year and other hype articles written about Father John Misty and I don’t want to come off as someone who wants to keep his favorite albums and artists to himself. I actually encourage everything and everyone I love to get famous, make money and be comfortable in life. However, I was lucky to be tipped off to Fear Fun back in May and I have cherished it throughout 2012. I have listened to it more than any other album. I love every track in its own way and listen to them all almost equally (OK, I listen to “Everyman Needs A Companion” more than the rest).  And I guess what I am saying is that Fear Fun was my favorite record of 2012, but even in the span of seven months I have seen how one of my favorite artists can seem to change or not live up to my idea of them.

There is nothing wrong with that. I don’t know Josh Tillman and he should do whatever he wants. Also, I’ve never been slightly famous or buzz-worthy and had to travel and perform in front of people, so I don’t know what that’s like. I’m just saying that Fear Fun as an album, as well as my interview with Father John Misty, made me realize that what I’m doing on this blog is the right thing, because it is who I am—all the jokes, the dark glimmers, the sensitive rambling, the BASKETBALL. And no matter what happens, because I can explore that and put that out into the world, I come out on top.

As we head into 2013, I just want Josh Tillman to remember all that he taught me through twelve tracks and a twenty-five minute telephone conversation.

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