2012 was a pretty sweet for music, especially if you knew where to look. Here are my highlights:
Favorite record to zone out to: FOOD PYRAMID – MANGO SUNRISE
One of my favorite labels this year is Oakland, CA-based Moon Glyph, and Mango Sunrise, the debut LP from Minneapolis’ Food Pyramid, is certainly their best release to date. This beautiful, intricate album of hazy drones and spacey synths represents both the culmination of the psychedelic krautrock sound they initially explored on last year’s trilogy of tapes, while also reaching beyond to parts unknown, expanding their sound into the outskirts of smokey dub riddims, kosmichse club bangers and jazz funk fusion. The exotic sonic flora on this album are sprawling in their diversity, yet maintain a cohesion with that persistant, indelible groove. Clearly the ambition of this midwest trio is buoyed only by their exception talent.
Favorite artist that makes you feel just plain fantastic: MAC DEMARCO
Montreal’s Mac Demarco just blew me away this year. This veritable prince of pop stole the show (and my heart) with the one-two punch: the startling, taunting jab of the swaggerful Rock & Roll Nightclub, quickly followed by the satisfying left hook of 2‘s dreamy pastoral pop melodies. The sunny shimmering of a lackadaisical guitar, the heartbroken lyrics sung in a disaffected croon, the poignant synth chords and minimal drums all play together in a colorful cornucopia of narcotic grooves and poignant ballads that put that bounce back in your step. Required listening.
Bonus: this interview (and this)
Favorite other pop act from Montreal: TOPS
What is it with Montreal this year? After a shot of Mr. Demarco’s feel-good testosterone rock, your author chases it with the bittersweet dream pop of TOPS. Cushy synths float aloft minimal Fleetwood riffs, intertwining with strings of siren Jane Penny’s silky moans. Their debut full-length Tender Opposites (off their own Arbutus records) is a masterpiece of airy intimacies, love and regret mingling in a nostalgic soup of delicate, unexpected harmonies, 60’s disco-tinged grooves and bedroom ballads. Equally great for saturday night soirées and sunday morning reveries. Don’t sleep on this gem.
Favorite rapper that restored my faith in hip-hop: SCHOOLBOY Q
One-fourth of Compton’s Black Hippy crew (along with rising stars Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul & Jay Rock), SchoolBoy Q released Habits & Contradictions (Top Dawg Entertainment) in January. The tracks on this album revolve around the usual rap topics like copious drug use, the endless pursuit of fine females and dollar bills, flouting traditional authority and asserting one’s prowess as a general badass. But what distinguishes this album from the endless stream of mediocrity is an earnest energy that recalls the best of golden-age gangster rap, but greatly enhanced for contemporary tastes with crystalline, bass-heavy production and an unconventional slew of infectious loops and cushy, swollen beats . Throw in a hefty peppering of trap, and you got the perfect cocktail of druggy party music. Yet unlike most one-hit club poppers, this excellent album persists in the mind long after the hangover passes.
Runner-up: Lil Ugly Mane
Favorite hugely popular and yet still underrated South African rap-rave act: DIE ANTWOORD
When ‘Beat Boy‘ went viral in early 2010, most people didn’t know what to make of exhilarating, mysterious Die Antwoord. Many casual listeners initially celebrated and subsequently lambasted the group as a mere internet-meme joke, but anyone who dove head first into their record and saw their incredible live act quickly realized that the combination of Afrikaans irreverant gangsta rap and 90’s-inspired deep house and trance was PURE PARTY GOLD. After Interscope attempted to censor the debut single FOK JULLE NAAIER, Die Antwoord reacted in true G style; they trashed their contract with the label, re-recorded the new album with added lyrics panning the greedy coke-head execs , and released their sophomore record TEN$ION themselves as a big, proud middle finger to all the haters. With pounding, nimble beats that confound classification and an unstoppable overflow of nasty rhymes spinning with acrobatic procession, the new record is pure honey to their large and ever-expanding chorus of loyal fans. ‘If you haven’t gotten it by now then you’ll never gonna get it.’
Favorite symphonic esoteric ambient artist: PANABRITE
Seattle-based Norm Chambers, aka Panabrite, is undoubtably one of the most prolific electronic artists of 2012. With at least 5 full length recordings released on great labels such as Preservation, Aguirre and Digitalis, this synth wizard has aptly captured a current phenomenon in music wherein strains of ambient, synth, psychedelic and free folk have coalesced into maturing movement. Spells of kosmiche coasting through fields of synth arpeggios slowly blow out into a slow drone, gradually replaced by a focused baroque composition that melts under layers of effects into a poignant guitar strumming primitivism. This kid has his bases covered. BONUS: he is also behind last year’s oceanic epic Jurgen Muller’s Science of the Sea.
Runner-up: ALICE COHEN – Pink Keys
Favorite warped and twisted experimental ‘DJ’: DIGITAL NATIVES
Florida transplant Jeffrey Astin has been making experimental electronic music for years now as Xiphiidae and other monikers. Now in Los Angeles, Astin branched out from his usual ambient drone this year with the warped outsider funk of Digital Natives. His cassette-only releases are less original compositions but rather more like mixtapes for the experimental vinyl head. The guy knows his records: each release plays through 40 minutes of choice cuts and deep buried nuggets in an eclectic mix of genres: old funk soul hits, dusty garage 45s, polka serenades, aborigonal drones, 80’s house hits and bollywood b-sides. What distinguishes Digital Natives from your local Friday night afficianado is the deft handling of effects to create a seamless mix warped and pitch twisted into something both shockingly foreign and bizarre, and yet strangely recognizable, like hazy golden memories resurrected from an acid-soaked ether. Perfect for long road trips and moonlit after-parties.
P.S. remember Girl Talk?
Best Live Performance in Boston: Chain and the Gang @ Whitehaus
Unfortunately Calvin Johnson (of K records) couldn’t make it to this summer show at the fabled Whitehaus; apparently he had some trouble with the Canuks at the border. Fortunately his compatriots Chain and the Gang, fronted by Ian Svenonius (Nation of Ulysses, The Make-up) just killed it with a surprisingly energetic display of their smarmy, brutal blues rock. Their records are pristine, fun, catchy plays on a theme, but live they transform into something else entirely, a thrashing gorilla of dirty detroit gutter rock. And there were a lot of excited, sweaty people there. With hindsight, it was probably the biggest show at the Whitehaus in 2012, if not in it’s entire storied history. Play the video, turn up the volume and cherish the memories.
If you’re bored and jaded with ‘music’ and the label experimental is meaningless to you: Piotr Kurek – Heat
If you love to dance and crave anything vaguely tropical: Vacation Dad – L I V I N
If you like to smoke weed and dream of California beaches: Jeans Wilder – Totally