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Five Years Later: The Best Music of 2012!

Five Years Later: The Best Music of 2012!

Five years is an eternity in the life of a record.

Five years is an eternity in the life of a record. When coming up with this feature, the question the Spectrum Culture staff pondered was this: “How well do these albums play NOW!” Not five years ago, but how have they aged in our memories. While some acclaimed albums of 2012 remain strong on our list, some critically-lauded ones didn’t have the staying power. The Seer, The Money Store and Shields all didn’t make the cut. This list is designed to give new perspective on things five years old. Thank you so much for reading!

Here is what we said in 2012!

10. Tame Impala – Lonerism [Interscope]

Lonerism might just be the best album ever made about social anxiety. Kevin Parker’s pop hero stumbles over his own words, descends into deep head-trips of self-loathing and wonders aloud why no one will talk to him. It’s the kind of album you might find yourself quoting in reference to your own life. But it never strains to be relatable, never resorts to using the kind of hyper-specific language that makes you gasp “that’s me!” Parker will always be compared to Lennon for his reedy tenor and deft way with hooks, but some of the elder statesman’s songwriting must have trickled down too in the way Parker effortlessly spins complicated feelings into pop sugar.

In plundering the ‘60s and ‘70s for inspiration, Lonerism remembers that pop and rock were once one and the same. Lonerism works on the strength of its songs, and any one is likely to be a listener’s favorite—the Schaffel stomp “Elephant,” the alternately sour and soaring “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” (featuring one of the gnarliest chords in a pop song since “You Still Believe in Me”), the spectral Beatles carnival “Keep on Lying.” And beneath it all, as in so much of the best pop music in history, is a thinly-disguised layer of darkness and self-hatred.

It’s funny that Tame Impala has become associated with the bro crowd. Certainly 2015’s Currents was the work of a more confident artist with easier access to parties, drugs and girls than the studio hermit that made this. Lonerism isn’t music for popular people but rather people who lust for popularity, who judge themselves by societal proxies and find themselves coming up short. – Daniel Bromfield

9. Burial – Kindred EP [Hyperdub]

Burial beautifully distilled the fears and despairs of a generation on 2007’s Untrue, so much so that there was no way to logically follow it up. So he didn’t, choosing instead to release short-form pieces in a series of EPs that explored new depth and areas of his sound. Kindred, the second of these, is arguably the first that broke some sort of new ground. Where Burial’s early work was notable for its seeming spareness, Kindred introduces a fuller, busier approach, one that seems to embrace the chaos of the outside world rather than run away from it.

The opening title track is still a marvel, twisting and turning in all sorts of directions over the course of its almost 12-minute runtime. The vocal samples fade in and out like ghosts in the night, emitting vocalizations and parts of words rather than whole phrases. While that expands on some of Burial’s most recognizable themes, “Loner” and “Ashtray Wasp” point towards a different direction, one more recognizably steeped in house and garage music. “Loner” is almost a club track, an interpretation of house music for the SoundCloud generation. Its incessant beat and samples conjure images of the nightclub, yet it still feels distant. “Ashtray Wasp,” in contrast, feels warmer yet just as insular. Vocal samples are fed through buzzing filters, creating a translucent, smudgy sound that seems to have been intricately assembled through direct vinyl samples.

In creating something so starkly in conflict with itself—a house banger digitally assembled and fed through filters to resemble an analog sound—Burial presents a version of the lasting cultural conflict between advancement and nostalgia that still rages on in our culture today. Some might continue to wait for another full-length from Burial that may never come, but Kindred shows that a shorter format does nothing to curtail his creativity. – Kevin Korber

8. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes [4AD]

Ariel Pink makes outsider art despite not really being an outsider. He had already released several albums by the time he made Mature Themes, his second for 4AD, and he had already scored a Pitchfork-approved hit with “Round and Round” in 2010, off Before Today. Though hardcore Pink-heads may deem Mature Themes “too commercial” (at least by his own, decidedly uncommercial standards), it feels more like his definitive work, a record so good in so many ways that it recalls Brian Eno’s early solo albums.
Sure, the concluding song, slow-dance sizzler “Baby,” originally by Donnie and Joe Emerson, got a lot of attention, but the best track comes well before that. Consider, for example, the lo-fi videogame quality of the opener, “Kinski Assassin,” the ominous, post-punk feel of “Early Birds of Babylon,” the Eurotrash brilliance of “Pink Slime” or the pop sincerity (“I wanted to be good”) of the title track.

To some extent, it makes sense that someone who makes music like this would be a critical darling, given a certain kind of music criticism’s penchant for all things retro and ironic. But however tongue-in-cheek this music might be (perhaps only Mr. Pink himself truly knows), it manages to be affecting, even touching, in its own way—the kind of music a prodigal shut-in might make in the safety of his or her imagination. It trades in universal feeling despite the idiosyncrasy of its compositions and its askew lyrics, and five years later, it is no flash-in-the-pan, but still a classic. Pink’s in it for the long run. – Dylan Montanari

7. Chromatics – Kill for Love [Italians Do It Better]

It could be surmised that, deep down, Johnny Jewel wants to be a filmmaker. Somewhere along the way, though, he picked up a guitar and a synthesizer instead of a camera. The album cover of Kill for Love was even mocked up as a film poster, if that gives any indication of what Jewel is trying to accomplish with his music. His perfectionist streak has led to much of his work with Chromatics coming out piecemeal, which makes a full-length album seem like a magnificent event. Each work seems like Jewel’s defining statement, much in the same way that a new film from Terrence Malick or Paul Thomas Anderson seems like a major event. Indeed, Kill for Love aims to create some grandiose, epic sweep over the course of its 90 minutes. That it works at all is a minor miracle; that it remains a replayable masterpiece to this day is a testament to Jewel’s skills as a songwriter and arranger.

Atmosphere is something that Chromatics does very well, and Kill for Love is completely enveloping. The synthesizers and drum machines give everything a cold, almost alien feel. When something organic is introduced, like the warm piano of “Running from the Sun,” it’s undercut by Moroder-esque vocal filters and leaden bass hits. But what really brings Kill for Love to life are Jewel’s songs, which find him embracing a more openly pop-leaning sound than in the past. The elegiac synth symphonies and icy covers are nothing new here, but rarely has Jewel written something as blissfully melodic as the title track or as effortlessly cool as “Back from the Grave,” just to name a few. While he may yet eclipse Kill for Love with whatever he does next, Johnny Jewel crafted a piece of art here that holds up as well as any great film. – Kevin Korber

6. Beach House – Bloom [Sub Pop]

For all of the ‘10s bands indebted to dream pop and shoegaze, Beach House was most influenced by the genre aesthetics, crystallizing a distinct sound that has since become unmistakable. Lilting guitars, cascading synth melodies and a penchant for both antique organs and lo-fi drum machines became the band’s signatures, rounded out by Victoria Legrand’s hushed contralto. But it wouldn’t mean anything if the band wasn’t adept at walking the line between uplifting and melancholic moods. This is a band that’s always had heart, their raw emotions present on even their earliest output.

Beach House’s first two albums trafficked in a murky sound, as if they were too shy to come out of the shadows. Their third, Teen Dream, found the band beginning to hone their modern sound, but Bloom remains their most confident effort. The album includes some of the duo’s catchiest songs, like the buoyant “Myth,” the transcendent “Wild,” the morose “Troublemaker” and the wistful “New Year.” “The Hours” is a slow, considered rocker, while “Wishes” is practically tear-inducing in its beauty. Spacey standout “Lazuli” features the most thrilling breakdown the band has ever achieved, and it pairs with a characteristically warped music video indebted to Ghostbusters.

Cynics might contend the band was merely capitalizing on their own formula. Perhaps the better way to state it is that Beach House was focusing on what made their music work. Besides, it wouldn’t last forever; the band would soon bite off more than they could chew, releasing two lackluster records in 2015. But in 2012, they were right in the pocket. – Tristan Kneschke

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