Thursday, December 20, 2012

SCQ's Top Twenty Albums Of 2012

Nobody has ever accused Skeleton Crew Quarterly’s Top 20 Albums list of being a deduction in populist opinion. But as five years of scouring the ever-changing landscape of indie music’s expanses can attest to, these year-end proceedings have certainly distanced themselves from the top-tier names one might expect. That is, if anyone has any idea of what to expect anymore. How does one measure fame when buzz-bands fall in and out of favour so rapidly? How does one express loyalty when we’re constantly on the fringe of something new, something else? Five years ago I worried about sharing too many favourite album picks with the likes of Pitchfork; now that’s just a funny memory.

I can’t condemn the accelerated accessibility of new music nowadays, especially since many of the artists who appear on this year’s list were introduced via that perpetual online frenzy. Still the virtue of loyalty plays just as significant a role in this year’s decisions – not intentionally, just as matters of talent insisted. Included are bands I’d pretty much closed chapters on, albums I'd never planned on listening to and, in one instance, a recreation of music that was written nearly 300 years ago! Unlike some of my colleagues’ exclamations, I don’t personally think 2012 was an exceptional year in music. But it was a great year, like the rest.

With the utmost pleasure, I present Skeleton Crew Quarterly’s Top Twenty Albums of 2012. Enjoy and Happy New Year!



20) The Four Seasons Recomposed - Max Richter (TOP 20 OF 2012)

Vivaldi - The Four Seasons | Recomposed 

Max Richter
Deutsche Grammophon.

SCQ Rating: 81%

While this note-by-note rewriting of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons likely won’t unearth throes of listeners wondering about Vivaldi – you know a score is already ingrained in Western culture when about half of the rich villains in action movies have hired a tuxedo-dressed quartet to perform it – but this disc should shed fresh light on ambient-storyteller Max Richter. Like modern day Vivaldi lovers, Richter’s following is quietly dedicated and sure to notice how his interpretation invokes the same emotional clairvoyance that adorns his post-classical catalog. Although any surfacing revelations should be accredited more to Vivaldi than to Richter, this terse reworking finds The Four Seasons’ beauty feeling sharper and more resplendent than ever.

19) Exercises EP - CFCF (TOP 20 OF 2012)

Exercises EP

Paper Bag Records.

In 2009 Mike Silver wouldn’t have been a wise candidate for keeping electronic music firmly in its shoes. His debut Continent had engorged itself with a taste of everything the electronic music scene brought to the buffet, espousing chillwave, downtempo, IDM, the lot. This year’s Exercises EP not only matches the Mike Silver I’ve seen spinning, diligently reserved, in the trendier lounges of Montreal, it inverts CFCF’s adventurousness from of-the-moment chic to 70s futurism with a post-classical bent. It feels truer to electronic music's past without getting trapped in the kitsch.

What makes this newfound dry approach work is how Silver’s electronics and piano work never fully enmesh; the old-school analogs coinciding with his traditional compositions the way vines curl around woodwork. Complimenting the record cover, Exercises EP finds two different scales fleshing out an architecture hollow but reliable, small in stature but deeply impressionable.

18) fin - John Talabot (TOP 20 OF 2012)


John Talabot
Permanent Vacation Records.

No electronic music fan worth his or her salt can deny the distinction between a dance album and a dance epic. One’s a collection of individual cuts, organized to fulfill the artist-in-question’s style; the other utilizes those style principles as a foundation for something grander – an imagined landscape populated with sonic intricacies that seek to transport your mind as well as move your muscles.

Given the string of singles John Talabot has teased over the course of some four years, the likelihood that the long-awaited fin would land in the latter category is surprising, especially because those singles appear here as if originally written to be part of fin’s evocative, Heart Of Darkness-like journey. Talabot doesn’t just find a rare kinetic balance on tracks like “Depak Ine” and “Oro Y Sangre” but a complete state of being, transmitted from some dense jungle south of Ibiza’s lush coastline. Even in the headiest moments of club-thumpers “Last Land” and “So Will Be Now…”, we’re never in a poorly-lit club; we’re weightless in the mindspace of Talabot’s creepy, masked fancy. 

17) Long Slow Dance - Fresh & Onlys (TOP 20 OF 2012)

Long Slow Dance

The Fresh & Onlys
Mexican Summer Records.

As a band renowned for a ragged brand of garage-y psychedelia, it’s funny that Long Slow Dance’s best attribute is its light touch. Surrounding the odd riff-heavy chasm of “Euphoria” we find classic pop songs swooning in details: “Foolish Person” dabbed in sweet echo, “Dream Girls” decorated with some island marimbas and death-slow surf guitar laced throughout the title track. Given the instrumental wares working to compliment Tim Cohen’s poignant lyrics, the album’s highlights – “Executioner’s Song”, “Fire Alarm” – have the chops to haunt just about any competing rock tune this year.

16) Beams - Matthew Dear (TOP 20 OF 2012)


Matthew Dear
Ghostly International.

SCQ Rating: 80%

Music critics are so engaged with peering into the artistic realm that it’s funny when artists appear to be gazing back. Lord knows what Matthew Dear has been reading of his own press but something must be said of Ghostly’s promotional video for Beams, which seems to harness only the most grandiose of associations with the electronic pop artist. While Dear sits in a NYC loft like an emotionless icon, various artists surround him: a poet reads aloud, a trumpeter plays, an interpretive dancer performs and Ghostly artist Michael Cina paints a portrait of him.

The implicitly highbrow aspirations aren’t the problem; it’s just that Beams doesn’t cater to any of that daring. Instead of leaping into unsure waters, these eleven tracks boast Dear’s assuredness as a producer of immaculate, off-kilter pop and a singer of creative means. The scale of “Her Fantasy” is devastating in the realm of electronic pop, and hooks formed out of Dear’s bizarre, multilayered phrasings strike repeated sweet-spots in “Fighting Is Futile”, “Ahead Of Myself”, and “Temptation”. Less ambitious than the claustrophobic Black City and all the better for it, Beams lacks a grab-me guise to present itself under. But boring as it may sound without the trumpets and dancers, this is the sound of Dear’s open loft; lots of light, space and consistency. That, in and of itself, presents a lovely change of pace.

15) Equilibrium - Benedikt Jahnel Trio (TOP 20 OF 2012)


Benedikt Jahnel Trio
ECM Records.

SCQ Rating: 84%

Every year-end list deserves a devious curveball. Against most readers’ wishes, Skeleton Crew Quarterly has indulged in a few jazz oriented posts over the last two years – a show review here, an editorial there. But Benedikt Jahnel Trio’s stunning Equilibrium has the distinction of being not only the first straight-up jazz disc to factor into SCQ’s year-end festivities but a sure-fire sign of vitality for ECM records.

A longstanding measure of artistic quality and sonic mastery, ECM has nevertheless aged alongside its top exports. With the exception of John Surman’s electronic-assisted Saltash Bells, the label’s recent output (by big names like John Abercrombie and Eberhard Weber) has consisted of conservative balladry or high-brow minimalism, suggesting that revolutionary statement-records had indeed become part of the past. Equilibrium isn’t rewriting jazz genetics but pianist Jahnel and his trio have bolstered ECM’s renowned knack for beauty with a bucolic sense of momentum. Percussionist Owen Howard evokes Jack DeJohnette's wide plateau for the piano and bass to intermingle on the relaxed drive of “Wrangel” and the serendipitously reflective “Sacred Silence”. At thirteen minutes “Moorland and High Land” proffers where Equilibrium might’ve toppled over but, instead of meandering in some elitist wilderness, the trio abides a disciplined, snaky narrative that rises from free-form disquiet to a thriving, unified whole. It’s undoubtedly motivated foremost by piano but as the closing moments of the title track illustrate, no heart can resist the right touch of ivories. A spirited ray of light from one of jazz’s very best imprints.

14) Barchords - Bahamas (TOP 20 OF 2012)


Universal Music.

“Lost In the Light”, handily one of the best tracks I’ve heard all year, recently placed prominently in a commercial for a jewelry company. I get that it’s a payday and I’m happy Afie Jurvanen’s had a successful year. Still, there are ample instances on Barchords that suggest an artist developing head and shoulders above today’s indie rites of passage. Much like “Lost In the Light”, tracks like “Never Again”, “Be My Witness” and “Time and Time Again” carry an air of timelessness, behaving more like statements of intent than something construable as an advertisement jingle.

Nothing quite touches that soul-shaking first track but Barchords’ well-paced variety proves Jurvanen’s adeptness for acoustic balladry (“Montreal”), laid-back electric jams (“Your Sweet Touch”) and upbeat pop (“Okay, Alright, I’m Alive”). In other words, there’s too much on display here to suggest that Bahamas isn’t a career artist in the making. 

13) The North - Stars (TOP 20 OF 2012)

The North

Soft Revolution Records.

SCQ Rating: 81%

Wait – I’ve been full-on ignoring Stars for something like six years. So how did this come about? (1) “The Theory Of Relativity”, a super-tight disco-groove of an opening track that convinced me to purchase the CD - again... - for my wife. (2) The glossy veneer and explosive sentimentality of single “Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It”, calling to mind the band’s previous high watermark Set Yourself On Fire. (3) A series of atmospheric rockers (“Backlines”, “Through the Mines”, “A Song Is a Weapon”) that over routine drives through the city kept the disc firmly in our car stereo. And (4) lovesick deep cuts (“The Loose Ends Will Make Knots”, “The 400”) that resound as if playing through a neighbour’s wall, making plain the case that The North is the most assured and fulfilling Stars record since most casual fans stopped caring. As a former member of that group, I can attest: now’s a great time to get reacquainted. 

12) In Our Heads - Hot Chip (TOP 20 OF 2012)

In Our Heads

Hot Chip
Domino Records.

SCQ Rating: 82%

My name’s Ryan and I’m a Hot Chip fan. Well that wasn’t so hard. But somehow, despite buying every record of theirs since 2006’s breakthrough The Warning – all of them under the cover of being for my wife, it should be noted – I’ve maintained a distance between the band’s infectious tracks and any bits of admiration I might've offered in return. Even after their brand of electro-pop, instantly catchy but often lacking the teeth to leave a full imprint, reached an impasse with 2010’s patchy-at-best One Life Stand, I somehow stuck it out for one more round.
This summer’s In Our Heads provided the TKO I forgot the British five-piece was capable of, and asserted that any long-sought, daydream Hot Chip record I wordlessly followed them for was no mere fantasy. “Motion Sickness” might just be the finest opener of the year, an emotive roll of the dice that consolidates all of the band’s well-known schizophrenic impulses, and subsequent tracks (“Don’t Deny Your Heart”, “Night and Day”) flesh out a funk-addled love-in of nerdy studio grooves and razor-sharp arrangements. It’s still very much a Hot Chip record, but the top-notch Hot Chip we’ve only heard in fits and spurts over the last few releases. If you’ve been on the fence throughout it all, In Our Heads might be your record to come clean to as well.

11) Lux - Brian Eno (TOP 20 OF 2012)


Brian Eno
Warp Records.

SCQ Rating: 84%

When Lux was billed as Brian Eno’s “first solo album on Warp Records”, I admittedly arced an eyebrow. It read as though the label was in some way subverting any deflated expectations brought about by 2010’s soundtrack to that shitty Peter Jackson movie Small Craft On a Milk Sea and the pair of Rick Holland accompanied releases, Drums Between the Bells and Panic Of Looking.

But maybe Warp weren’t dealing in semantics, because Lux sounds precisely like Eno’s first solo album in quite some time, a refreshingly ambient procedure that stands proudly in the shadow of Music For Airports and several other top-notch entries in Eno’s ambient/installation series. Beautiful, evasive, monotonous and with the rare capacity – found among other sterile ambient albums – to elicit foreign emotions out of thin air, Lux maintains that Eno can focus as thoroughly as he can muck about with friends. Long live the Godfather of Ambience.

10) Mixed Emotions - Tanlines (TOP 20 OF 2012)

Mixed Emotions

True Panther Sounds.

There are so many ways one could deepen the purpose of Mixed Emotions but it’s unnecessary. Here's a record culturally of-the-moment but in the shadow of no contemporaries, entirely retro-inspired but committed to meticulously. 2012’s whored-out haze has been scrapped, the 80s-aping dismissed for Tanlines’ truly unabashed pop, the sort five-year-olds can understand almost as fully as grown adults. Songs about love, distance, communication and longing utilizing pitch-perfect doses of discord (“Green Grass”), harmonics (“Abby”), the odd dose of afro-rhythm (“Real Life”) and a sense of melody occupying every write-it-on-the-wall chorus. It sounds simple because it is; the direct nature of Mixed Emotions supersedes trend and scene for the heart, and it’s pretty much a bulls-eye.

9) Lineage - Shigeto (TOP 20 OF 2012)


Ghostly International.

While Shigeto rivals some of Ghostly International’s lead exports in terms of sheer output, the moniker for Zach Saginaw has yet to achieve as much recognition. Released in the bleak beginnings of January, Lineage looked to upgrade that reputation with a sterling mix of nu-jazz rhythms, R&B harmonies and euphoric beat-splicing. Nearly twelve months on, Shigeto remains something of an underappreciated workhorse for the label.

But, true to form, Lineage proved that little train that could in the life-cycle of Skeleton Crew Quarterly, surviving periods of neglect over the course of the year only to bounce back more resilient and purposeful than ever. At first a smooth selection of grooves to watch snowfall from one’s balcony, tracks like “Soaring” and “Huron River Drive” ushered in the jazzy, brain-candy brilliance of triptychs “A Child’s Mind” and “Field Trip”. As long as Saginaw can continue usurping expectations a few thousand people at a time, Shigeto’s on his way to building a formidable catalog.

8) 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! - Godspeed You! Black Emperor (TOP 20 OF 2012)

'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!

Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Constellation Records.

SCQ Rating: 85%

There’s a reason the shanty-house manning the cover of GY!BE’s first studio record in ten years has the mystique of a portal. These four cuts – two expansively detailed guitar workouts and two experimental blurs – return post-rock to its earthly pleasures, where friction and abrasiveness make a journey of the joys and sorrows so exploited in indie-rock these days. Much like, say, chill-wave’s canned euphoria, post-rock has been rightly accused of abiding by a predictable code. And although the group’s long-awaited return features tracks they’d been performing live way back in 2003, Godspeed You! Black Emperor have reinvigorated the genre’s waning trademarks. The slow build of "Mladic" erupts in a way nobody could’ve anticipated.  “We Drift Like Worried Fire” snakes its way through a classical body, finding beauty within savagery and vice versa. And, for the life of me, I still can’t pull much from muddied ambient tracks "Their Helicopters Sing" and "Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable"; they’re unofficial comedown epilogues to preceding epics that leave me as speechless as Godspeed have ever left me.