2012 was one hell of a year. Some awesomely talented artists (Chromatics’ Ruth Radelet, seen above, was one of them!) were convinced to trek down here and grace our South Texas soil, and the site’s first festival, Galax Z Fair, came to exciting fruition. I am forever grateful to all who attended, supported, reposted, helped out, or contributed in some way shape or form to assisting in the manifestations of these visions. Thank you!
Now, to keep with what I’m going to go ahead and call a new tradition, here is a humble list of my favorite tracks that debut’d this past year. This is in no way a total collective of my favorites, nor is this a list of my favorite shows or artists who played down here, although some did make the list! These are just some of the songs I really, really enjoyed and cared to write about. Some contain descriptors, others associative experiences. Like with the previous ‘in pixels’ post, I engaged myself in the same, simple writing exercise. Scroll / Stream / Disregard / Enjoy!
Chromatics – Kill For Love
I’m going to go ahead and make the assumption that Chromatics mastermind, Johnny Jewel, devastated himself while composing one of the most thematically proficient and well produced records of the year. Its polished production emits the signature luster of lead composer Johnny Jewel’s focus and poise for detail. On each track, singer Ruth Radelet’s deep, smoky vocals are handsomely delivered and captured, frozen atop the rich, instrumentally colored canvas of each song. The instrumentation is clear and diverse, ranging from the slow strum of bronzen guitar strings in the album’s opener, “Into the Black”, to the bioluminescent bursts of synth work that opens the album’s title track. Empty, dark spaces during and between songs emit the warmth of an intentionally mixed crackle and pop of a dying vintage record. And that’s just the surface.
On a deeper thematic level, the whole album may be interpreted and sold as a dark celebration of the forces that compel one to grasp and make sense of the mysterious currents of romance. But to me, this album is a celebration of the insatiable devotion one can dedicate to manifesting the visions of their art – a dangerous romance in itself. It’s a foreboding journey one takes when attempting to tame the demons flashing in their mind, and Jewel makes this clear from the very beginning with their cover of Neil Young’s “Into the Black” – a fitting title for the album’s opener. The track is a ghost of itself, transformed from the song’s original, brute aesthetic into a cool, haunting piece that could close out a slow motion horse ride into the purple sky of a cinematic, country-western sunset. It also marks the opening of a dangerous journey for the artist – of the moment right before one makes that daring, romantic leap across the river and into the unknown of taming one’s visions. It couldn’t serve as a more telling album opener, with singer Ruth’ Radelet sulking out Young’s bold and affirming message: “Better to burn out then to fade away”.
Parquet Courts – “Stoned and Starving”
You’re stoned, standing in a small, dimly lit book room, nervous. Your blood cells and your pores, excited. The cheap schwag you smoked is making time swell and trip, and you’re dealing with the anxious, rapid fire wrangling of whether you a) want Swedish fish, roasted peanuts, or licorice, or b) if you’re going to have a heart attack. With nods to bands like Wire and the Wipers, Parquet Courts provide a cool, five-minute rush of post-punk riffage. One solid, awesome guitar riff is at work here, carried by the steady, anchored chug of a two-note bass line before it strays into a loose guitar solo and eventually de-rails into a swell of feedback. It’s a five-minute construction that aptly captures the cool, nervous rush of ennui imposed in its lyrics, which, for the listener, is nothing but fun.
Audacity – “Subway Girl”
California punks, Audacity, produced one of the best songs Rivers Cuomo never wrote with their track, “Subway Girl”. It’s a colorful, lo-fi power pop anthem, complete with those snare pounding chorus build-ups, a lyrical set that abrasively expels the frustration of yearning for someone outside of one’s league, and a beautiful guitar solo that arcs and curves before melting vibrantly into the melody of the vocal pattern. This is a stand out track on this record, but what makes this album so awesome is that virtually every track is solid and bangs out its own variation of lo-fi goodness.
Mac DeMarco – “My Kind of Woman”
If we assume the speaker in T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” to be a drunken intellect clamoring over a girl he didn’t have the balls to meet, then Mac DeMarco could very well be that ‘other’ guy on the opposite side of the room. He’s lurking in the shadows by the bookshelf, wearing an over sized, un-tucked flannel shirt. He’s got a calm, poised gaze on that very same girl, and he’s wiping the beer froth off his lips and singing his own pining, melodic poetry in the haze of his mind. In it are plucked, glassy guitars that creep up the arc of his chorus: “You’re my, my, my…my kind of woman”. Creepy, but honest, it’s an etherized, bro-fi masterpiece that rivals Prufrock’s (in my opinion, but i’m a disgruntled student of lit) lame but complex cat call that never was.
Cleaners from Venus – “Only a Shadow”
Ok, so technically this is not a new song. At all. It was released on cassette in the early 80s and apparently fell into the old, forgotten tape reel cobwebs of time! Thankfully, it was re-released on vinyl this past April thanks to the folks over at Captured Tracks. The album this single is off of, Midnight Cleaners, is an eclectic foray into post-punk, glam-pop, and dark-wave. It was basically the product of lead songwriter Martin Newall trying on a bunch of different genres in front of his mirror because it was his bedroom project – this was his one man party and he didn’t have anyone to tell him what fit best – which is ok! I mean, he wore it all pretty well. There’s plenty of good on this record, but my favorite dress is the early, Cure sounding dark-wave jingle embedded here. Stream and enjoy.
Deep Time – “Gold Rush”
A music critic once praised Deep Time’s self-titled debut by describing every track as being a melodic and rhythmically intricate Rube Goldberg device. That son of a bitch! What a great descriptor – I read this, and the pull strings and pendulums twerking around in my cortex came to a jolting stop as the marble finally dropped. I can’t think of a better way to describe the deceivingly minimalist presentation of Deep Time’s pop-song craftsmanship. Be sure to check this band out on Friday, January 18th in McAllen, btw!
Bear in Heaven – “Cool Light”
Not sure how it came to be, but this song became a sort of unofficial anthem for my friends and I at this past year’s hellish, oversaturated SXSW. For whatever reason, a lot of driving took place that week, and the song’s shimmery, air-conditioner hum, tumbling drums, glittery synths, and soft vocal croons provided a much needed sonic shade from the hot mess that was that festival.
Frankie Rose – “Know Me”
Depending on your intention and emotional investment, a mix tape / CD and the tracks you decorate it with can be a well-crafted gesture of love, friendship, or symbol of vulnerability if it ends up as a make-shift beer coaster. Hey, it happens to the best of us. For those of us who care to disregard the third factor and dig through the process anyways, there is one safety blanket to avoid feeling like a dupe: chose songs that are aesthetically alluring, but emotionally and lyrically ambiguous. With that being said, Frankie Rose put out one of the best pop singles of the year. Lyrically safe because her vocals are swathed in reverb, the track shimmers with ghostly, pristine guitars and an up-beat electronic clap and drum pattern reminiscent of the Cure’s “Close to Me”. Note: I am not dismissing Rose’s artistic, thematic message anchored somewhere in the depths of that pool of reverb – I’m simply saying that the track’s aesthetics alone are worthy of bejeweling the shit out of any mixtape, regardless of its emotional intent.
Nite Jewel – “In the Dark”
Just two days after my 2003 Honda CRV was broken into and a Gibson guitar was stolen the night before my show with Ted Leo, its transmission died. With over 100k miles, I decided in May to finally trade my battered warrior in for a much smaller, more gas efficient two door Honda Coup. The machine can practically fly, and I’ve basically torn through the South Texas highway system since. Night drives to the beach, to Austin, to Corpus Christi, have commenced as the orange glow behind the odometer has slowly begun to fade and shrink behind the skeletons of those digitized miles. The perks of all this driving has been the expanse of time to really absorb the artistry of some of my favorite young artists. That being said, Nite Jewel’s album, One Second of Love, was an album I initially felt was difficult to take in. I found myself clicking and skipping through the tracks of this record, expecting to find infections, catchy pop singles stacked on singles- I’m not sure why I was expecting this, as Ramona Gonzales is a master of creating difficult, art-pop pieces that aren’t normally accessible on first listen. These night drives, though, provided a second chance, not for the album, but for me, to re-evaluate my stance on the record. One Second of Love is an album that needs to be listened to as an album. The album has it’s pop-singles, like “Memory Man” or the lush love ballad listed here, but to truly appreciate the focused, intelligent artistry behind it’s presentation of well textured and complex love songs, one needs to give this record more than one second of love to fully absorb the splendor of Nite Jewel’s artistry.
TOPS – “Rings of Saturn” / Tender Opposites
Sounding like a younger Twin Sister, Canada’s TOPS are a vibrant, young dream pop act that put out one of the most solid releases of the year. Every track is a well crafted thing of beauty. “Rings of Saturn” was chosen here because it’s a sonic prism, displaying the full spectrum of the band’s abilities and where they can guide a song. Guided by singer Jane Perry’s sullen vocal melodies, the track springs opens with surprising finesse provided by the paintbrush bounce of a snare and plucked jingle of a guitar. The infectious groove eventually succumbs to the choir like layers of Perry’s voice and the warm blankets of synth in the bridge. It’s a cathartic, soothing jam off one of the most overlooked records of 2012.
Beach House – “Irene”
If you’re one of those soft-spoken critics who think Beach House is a one-trick pony, then I’d like for you to go outside. Buy a raspa. Stare at the sun as those black spots hover and sparkle and the syrup melts over the Styrofoam and sticks to your skin. I mean, that’s about all I can suggest you do, because a part of me doesn’t blame you for thinking that. Difference is I belive that one trick this band does is magical. “Irene”, however, takes a slight departure from the band’s typical trick. For one, this is a track aware of itself. That chiming, dissonant guitar line that opens the song foreshadows what’s to come in the bridge. Victoria LeGrand’s soaked vocals maintain their allure, and the ballroom piano drop shines with the band’s signature elegance. But before long, the song eventually sheds itself from the skin of each instrument and blooms into a monotonous, tonal beam that immerses the reader in a deep gaze with a twinkling, singular guitar chime that blooms brighter and brighter against the sonic backdrop of the song. It’s a trying, zen-like movement that’s out of character for this band, which, in their case, is a very good thing.
Total Control – “Scene From a Marriage”
I’m not sure why I didn’t place Total Control’s “Carpet Rash” on my list last year. It was a 7 minute post-punk bender, complete with dreary vocals and lead guitar lines that brought out the ‘hot mess flailing her hair and dancing by herself over a floor of aluminum beer cans in a empty living room’ in everyone! Or at least, it did that to me. Either way – what we have with this new one by Total Control is a total contrast. It’s still coming from a dark place, but the overall mood is more vulgar, more abrasive. It’s a four-minute celebration of the power-struggle between the trembling, nauseating guitars lines in the verse and the unchained barrage of dissonant drum and chord bashing in the chorus.
Lower – “Craver”
A riot squad is blaring a high pressure surge of water into a protester’s chest. His arms flail and his back smacks against a brick wall. His muscles are clenched and his teeth are grinding, but his soul remains resilient, even after he kneels and gets blasted (0:52) again (1:09), and again, (1:20) and again. I doubt this scene is what the song is about, at all, but it is what I imagine when a band presents a disjointing, vulgar, combative presentation of aggression.
Jungle Bodies – “Sawdust” / “Need Me” Cassette
Seeing Jungle Bodies open for Natural Child at Simon Sez this past November couldn’t have provided a more perfect blend of early, rock and roll nostalgia with the raw, youthful energy of young men blurring its form. You see, there’s this mirage of rock and roll memorabilia hanging behind the stage of Simon Sez. The walls are lined with neon guitars, black and white pics of dead musicians framed in gold, and an American flag with a Marilyn Monroe print plastered at its center that dangles from the ceiling. Tons of ‘rock’ bands play there, but few embrace, or rather, violently hug the aesthetic created by the wall’s framed legends and squeeze out their own gritty brand of raw jam. Jungle Bodies does that with their surf/psych/garage vibe, which came into live fruition that night, on that stage. The band closed with “Sawdust”, and during the song’s clamoring, spiraling bridge complete with off kilter drumming, a wobbly bass line, and the scrappy clang of a single coil strat, singer Andres Sanchez, donning patched out denim, whipped out a cigarette and puffed away on stage. It was a bold stage antic the crowd ate up, but I’d like to imagine it was a celebratory, satisfactory victory jest for a band that, to me, had finally become it’s own amongst the background of their sonic fore bearers.
Julia Holter – “Our Sorrows” / Ekstasis
Ekstasis is a tapestry of beautiful soundscapes that kept the daring song structures and space of her previous release, Tragedy, and adopted a more assertive pop sensibility. Essentially, Julia Holter moved from producing avant-garde music with a pop element, as with Tragedy, to pop music with an avant-garde element in Ekstasis. Her first single, “Our Sorrows” captures this. Holter guides listeners with the alluring melody and soft, heart-beat bop of the verse (reminiscent of Dirty Projectors’ Useful Chamber) before guiding them into virtually empty rooms of sonic space, decorated only with minimal swells of fuzzy synth and etherial, vocal coos. The video here seems to capture the process of her craft at work, as Holter is shown spinning a web of maroon ribbon with no perceivable pattern. The short ends with Holter displaying an expression that shifts from slight bemusement to a hint of satisfaction while meandering through the soft cord maze. It’s as if, while the audience may have not known what she was piecing together with her purple yarn, she knew the exact pattern of the sonic web she was spinning.
Cloud Nothings – “Wasted Days”
Last year I wrote about how a particular Dylan Byaldi track off their second record reminded me of a Beach Boys tune. And then he turned his bedroom project into an actual band and decided to record with them, And gave us this.
Molly Nilsson – “I Hope You Die”
Sometimes admitting you love someone comes with admitting who you are. Such is the case with Molly Nilsson’s awkward, but totally unforgiving and celebratory goth-ballad, “I Hope You Die”. With a backdrop of jerky, off-beat plastic keyboard beats and icy synths, the personality on record boldly professes her love with breathy, half-dead vocals and lyrics that sound like they were written by a young Wednesday Adams. She quips, “I hope we die at the exact, same, time” over and over again during the dreary choruses, professing not only her desires for her beloved but also painting a black and white picture of her vulnerable, morbid personality to create one of the most tender and honest love songs of 2012.
Daughn Gibson – “Lite Me Up” / Lite Me Up 7” on Dull Knife
This year displayed a ton of great artists presenting work within the realm of nostalgic genres and previously accepted aesthetics of pop music. And then there was Daughn Gibson, who gifted us with this anomaly. Splicing the dusty guitars and baritone vocal grit akin to country with lo-fi drum and vocal samples signature to chill-wave, Gibson created a sensual ballad about – get this – knocking boots. It’s one part cowlick, one part laptop glow, all parts handsome.
Twin Shadow – “I Don’t Care”
There are few things a man can do in less than three minutes to impress the opposite sex. George Lewis Jr believes one of those things is writing melodically alluring love songs (or well produced cat calls). This sentiment is what makes “I Don’t Care” the most ridiculous, yet also the best, and most over-looked, single on Confess. You see, this whole album is denominated by the theme of it’s title: Confessing – becoming yourself and expressing your feelings, your desires, and your thoughts – without shame. This sentiment is frozen within the single’s daringly forward lyrics and desperately reaching vocal melodies. But there’s more. The grand piano, the marching band drop, and the song’s impressive, grandiose structure all combine to create a mansion of romantic frustration that Lewis would probably wreck for one last fling with this girl. So much is put into this song it’s hard to believe this ballad goes down in less than two and half minutes. Yeah- it’s cheesy, it’s forward, it could even be argued that it’s a bit much, but look at this album’s cover. Look at it. Do you think a guy like that cares? Because he doesn’t. And you can’t be surprised. Fan or not, a track like this commands a sort of respect for an artist who’s reach has boldly, and intentionally, exceeded his grasp. It’s bold proclamations like this that make this such a pronounced piece on a record that’s thematically tied together by its title.
Black Moth Super Rainbow – “Like a Sundae” / Cobra Juicy
“Windshield Smasher” and “Gangs in the Garden” brought the dirty, mechanized, dance muscle on this album, respectively capturing that signature BMSR juxtaposed trip + synth groove factor.
But “Like a Sundae” is a fucking dessert laced with LSD.
It won me over with how the band tastefully interplayed their eerie, over-processed vocal melodies with the tonal diversity of the sometimes wet and hovering, sometimes polished elasticity of their synths. This is a 2:44 trip I’ve probably enjoyed more than any other track this year. Or at least danced in front of my bathroom mirror to.
Merchandise – “Become What You Are”
Every year I am reminded of the basic, beautiful sentiment of this song’s title. I am reminded to learn, again, how to embrace myself, and others, for the people we have all grown to be – for better or for worse. To many, that’s a difficult thing to do, but to others fortunate enough to not only understand this sentiment, but embrace it, it’s religious gold.
Merchandise couldn’t have sculpted this idea into a more honest and charming form. The Morrisey-esque vocals, those chandelier guitar chords, and the slow claps of electric drums slowly swoosh and swirl in a warm, shoegaze bath before the song begins whirling into an all out manic rush of fuzz and over saturated synth. Perhaps it’s to capture the rush and feeling of experiencing the song’s sentiment; perhaps it’s to balance out the slow groove of the song’s opening half. Regardless, the arresting song title is enough to ensure a listen, and, hopefully, a resonant, post-listen warmth.
Lower Dens – “Brains” / “Stem” / Nootropics
This is my song of the year. It’s a neuromantic piece that captures the emotional arc that comes with the anxieties of staring down the infinite – and having no fear. In it, an evolution takes place: the premonitions depicted with the trembling, steady chug of the snare and the haunt of Jana Hunter’s hymnals in “Brains” give way to the celebratory, ruminating carousal of hope in “Stem”.
It’s like staring out into a field and watching the dark shadows of the clouds slowly spread across the land. There is hope on the other side of the horizon, and in the end is the beginning.