In 2012, we were inundated: new artists, new labels, new microgenres, new ideas. A lot of these artists and labels were dropping releases so quickly (some weekly, some monthly) we could barely comprehend what was happening, let alone listen to them all, while journalists were scrambling to find new names for what was going on (doomstep, vaporwave, djent, hipster house, drill, etc.). It reached a point where there was an almost instinctual tendency to bracket any one-click genre creation as a temporary historical perversion: wait it out long enough, and the movement will either die or lose its cultural currency. Add the bottomless wealth of SoundCloud streams, Bandcamp uploads, DatPiff mixtapes, and Mediafire links, as well as the slipstream methodology of our most prolific reptilian artists, and it began to appear like music, over time, has been and will become increasingly fragmented.
But to understand music as being fragmented is to assume that there is something to be fragmented in the first place. Music for the past century has been best understood on the levels of syncretism, hybridization, and bottom-up subacculturation. Rather than fragmenting, the very conception of what music is, or what it can do, is simply expanding, reconstituting, and reinvigorating which notes can be played (Aaron Dilloway), which songs can be sampled (Daughn Gibson), which symbols can be recontextualized (情報デスクVIRTUAL), which genres can be reimagined (Sun Araw & M. Geddes Gengras Meet The Congos), which rhythms can be danced to (DJ Rashad/Traxman), which bodily noises can be aestheticized (Scott Walker). It’s at once about adapting and preserving, revising and recycling, progressing and regressing, evolving and devolving. All of these artists on this list contribute not only to an expansion of music’s identity and reach, but also an expansion of taste, where the perceptual foregrounding by artists like Dean Blunt can exist alongside the modernist narratives of Swans, where the pitch-black beats of Raime can complement the ecstatic harmonies of Grimes, where taste is reinforced by Frank Ocean but problematized by INTERNET CLUB, where the conceptual cinema of Kendrick Lamar can offer respite from the heretofore unimagined disgust of Scott Walker, where the untreated voice can be heard as alien (Laurel Halo) and the treated one as embodied (Holly Herndon, Farrah Abraham).
To defragment, then, would be to revert to classicism, to essentialism, to tired notions of authenticity. It would also be impossible. Humanism ain’t what it used to be, such that the default position of the modern listener is decidedly posthuman, favoring disunity, telepresence, and multiple perspectives: We don’t pronounce artist names; we copy-paste into search boxes. We don’t recall the past; we retrieve information. We don’t listen to notes; we identify symbols. We don’t create genres; we recognize patterns. Sure, it can be scary to see consensus drifting away, to watch values you once held so close morph into something once again foreign, to witness how quickly technology can be rendered obsolete by the faster dominating the slower, to observe not only the degradation of the environment, but now also the degradation of our collective imagination and memory. But what opens up is the possibility of adopting emerging, fluid identities, of inserting yourself in varied contexts politically or aesthetically. It’s a process of potentially becoming and embodying both nothing in particular and everything altogether, with the quaint idea that the next breakthrough in consciousness/justice/whatever may very well just be deceptively dormant, eager to find expression at just the right moment.
50. Mykki Blanco
Cosmic Angel: The Illuminati Prince/ss
Immersed in a sea of dolphins, octopuses, and underwater aesthetics, 2012 got pretty wavvy, while Mykki Blanco’s Cosmic Angel: Illuminati Prince/ss mixtape employed the dank beats of post-corporeal producers like Nightfeelings and Matrixxman to submerge our ears deeper into the abyss with a distinctly gritty mutation. The Gobby-produced “Riot,” for example, flaunted a particularly subaquatic production quality with its filtered, low-end beat. Alternatively, on “YungRhymeAssassin,” Blanco affirmed her fluid lyricism over a distinctly buoyant production by trap darlings Flosstradamus, comprising the genre’s signature airy snares and handclaps. In spite of its title, Cosmic Angel was far from angelic; Blanco rhymed about sinful scenarios including promiscuous sexual behaviour with DJs (“Fucking the DJ”), and her fierce tone, notable on the Benmar-produced “Kingpinning (Ice Cold),” remained frozen solid, bearing the entirety of the album. Moreover, Blanco’s hard militant demeanor, exemplified by the gabber-infused track “Virginia Beach” and visible in the video for “Haze.Boogie.Life” (which featured Blanco brandishing a baseball bat), clashed with a softer exterior of girlish attire, subverting any princessly presuppositions.
Quarter Turns Over a Living Line
[Blackest Ever Black]
No city knows how to commodify its past into neatly packaged scenes like London does. Or how to brood over something embedded in its cultural guts. But to make the connection between jungle and goth as Raime did is more curious than knowing. After plowing through Detroit techno, bass, and jungle, the pair of DJs who call themselves Raime found meaning at the bottom of the pile with 80s industrial and goth. Quarter Turns Over a Living Line was a rich, textured debut, made by men in their 30s willing to bang sheets of metal under bridges like oafish art students to get a first-pressed field recording basis to their sound. Their label Blackest Ever Black has pledged to resist the increasingly rarified and bland cycles of dance music by encouraging DJs like Raime to use real drums and cellos. But there is a reference less tribally pure than goth/industrial, which goes unacknowledged in Raime’s debut: the dark dinner party vibe of 90s Bristol trip-hop. Quarter Turns Over a Living Line was a smog-tinted record for their own city, to stand in good company with the urban synthesis of their gloomy DJ forebears. Although Raime favored a more gritty perspective over the aerial view of laptop composers, they still made a curiously urbane record: blacker in tone than in spirit.
48. Belbury Poly
The Belbury Tales
It’s 1973. Halfway through the filming of The Wicker Man, a freak incident with a combine harvester leaves composer Paul Giovanni dead, forcing director Robin Hardy to look elsewhere for a soundtrack. Hardy searches high and low for a replacement. Delia Derbyshire, electronic music pioneer extraordinaire, has just left the BBC to score horror films, and a desperate Hardy engages her on a whim, when, out of nowhere, his quixotic begging-letter to Fairport Convention bears fruit in the form of an unlooked-for affirmative. What to do but allow them to work together and see what emerges from this fecund, pagan cauldron? This, obviously, is an alternate history, one that could have produced The Belbury Tales. But content aside, alternate history itself is very much what the Ghost Box label, and founder Jim Jupp’s Belbury Poly project, is all about: a hauntological retro-futurism that draws on Astley-esque pastoral and BBC Keynesianism. Elsie Wright and Frances Griffin produced photographs of the fairies at the bottom of their garden in Cottingley; similarly, The Belbury Tales is the unreliable quarter-plate record of the time that Jupp saw something nasty in the woodshed.
47. INTERNET CLUB
This year, among the more enigmatic corners of the internet, a handful of artists took a late-2000s trend toward revitalizing the written-off sounds of nascent commercial digital instrumentation to its extreme. Visually identified by an esoteric take on early digital 3D animation and loosely grouped as vaporwave, these musicians often foregrounded the incidental, architectonic music of the boardroom, airport, or plaza, demanding a confrontation with the musical inheritance of global capitalism, about which the music had an eerily ambivalent relationship. INTERNET CLUB’s VANISHING VISION stood out among those who would make miracles from muzak. On a conceptual level, as James Parker put it in his review, VANISHING VISION was “a dramatic demonstration of the fact that the music/muzak distinction has always been unstable at a time when it’s less stable than ever before.” Its source material was, while never loose, vaguely human, from the wonky and inscrutable mallet percussion of “Zones” to the hyperactive R&B guitar in “Pacific” to the downright beautiful depth of “Ever be Real.” But music built on reframing, altering, and appropriating those pieces of the musical past — often to an acute degree — appears to be a project that bears only limited fruits. If so, VANISHING VISION helped point the way out before INTERNET CLUB, along with other key practitioners of the genre, vanished themselves.
All We Love We Leave Behind
In his review of Converge’s eighth studio album, Birkut wrote, “All We Love We Leave Behind entices kinetic release in every possible way.” Truer words have never been written: the latest offering from the Salem punk innovators just may have been their most explosive. With the marked absence of the digital effects featured heavily in the band’s last several albums, the hooks hit with twice as much force and none of the filters. With Jacob Bannon’s feral shriek now doubly piercing, the already-intricate riffs revealed even more complexity. Best of all, the aggression neither relented nor slipped into the redundancy that’s an all-too-common problem among their peers. The frenzied, almost drunken grindcore of “Tender Abuse” seamlessly flowed into sludgier cuts like “Sadness Comes Home” and “A Glacial Pace,” and on the title track, they sounded groovy. Ultimately, All We Love We Leave Behind proved to be the kind of record to throw caution to the wind, flip the bird, and take immense risks in nearly every aspect of its construction. And that fearlessness paid off: we’d be hard pressed to name many 2012 records more exhilarating than this one.
Familiar elements of exercise, recreation, gambling, and incarceration float in a pea-soup-green void on the cover of Arca’s Stretch 2. These ordinary objects are obscured by a humorous yet unnerving gray elastic leg that’s twisted, tweaked, and stretched in unnatural and impossible directions. This is much like the music that played beyond this fascinating and uneasy exterior of Arca’s second release of 2012. The clean-cut, delectable textures and rhythms that Arca produced here were — by themselves — masterful achievements of beat-oriented electronic music, but it was the vocals that made Arca’s work infinitely intriguing. Sure, they recalled the familiar elements of gangsta rap and modern hip-hop that we all know and love, but they were so heavily manipulated that the resulting inflections and phrasings became something else altogether: not a voice, not a synthesizer, but a horrifying, untameable monster. In fact, by the last two tracks, the monster had retreated back to its dark, dank dwelling, and Arca’s brilliant instrumental work slowly dragged us back down to Earth, where things just didn’t sound as cool.
44. Fiona Apple
The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Describing music as “emotional” is among the laziest and most short-sighted critical tools. Although you can typically suss out which emotions are being lauded, it suggests that certain emotions are more genuine, more real than others. So prepare to call me a hack when I admit I constantly reach for “emotional” when describing Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel. Apple’s fourth album was charged with something, but what? It was sad, but rarely depressing. It was angry, but rarely bitter. Even its moments of deep uncertainty sounded bathed in a soothing tranquility. “Every single night’s a fight with my brain,” she sang on the record’s opening, but she sounded full-throated and celebratory. Yet even then, the record never approached the time-honored, arguably cynical tradition of juxtaposing happy music with sad lyrics. Sure, The Idler Wheel was an exquisite piece of work, a show of masterfully economic songcraft that found Apple succeeding as she took her most uncomfortable leaps. More importantly, though, it was proof that she had reached a level where she can bypass typical modes of expression via song, obliterating artifice for something decidedly hers.
43. Killer Mike
Looking back, I can’t help but think that any vote against the Killer Mike/El-P ticket in the 2012 election was a wasted one. We need these guys in charge, people. On the one hand, you had Mike on the mic, brain and brawn, a trained, tried-and-true veteran with an intimidating (read: confident and, yes, charming/disarming) Southern drawl that managed unparalleled agility despite its gravity. On the other, we have El-P ‘s production matching Mike’s unstoppable aggression with laser beams of synth and pulverizing blasts of bass, pushing Mike’s triumphs of tradition headfirst into the unforeseeable future of hip-hop, a sentiment no more apparent than on the album’s title track. On R.A.P. Music, it all came together into something more than just a great listen. Mike’s record was downright inspiring: a rapper unafraid to show his seams/weaknesses and capitalize on them to better himself, a guy who could both spin a gripping (or hilarious) yarn when he wanted and, of course, wax the freshest of politics (see: “Reagan”). This meant crumpling the whole damn system like a ball of trash into the palm of his hand. So then, America, the question becomes this: Do we get a redo, or what?
42. Death Grips
No Love Deep Web
The Deep Web is a void, a cesspool. It is the vacuum in which truth and reality is consumed and held captive — the truth of the real, of humanity’s brutal essence. The Deep Web “others” us by casting an image that we don’t want to accept. When the first thing you see is a violently erect penis, you can only imagine what the music will sound like. And it was abrasive, hyperreal, and strangely intimate. MC Ride’s delivery was raw and hoarse, exhausted from the hard-fought battle. For Death Grips, hell is other people, and the Deep Web connected those people and then made them an entity. In comparison, Exmilitary and The Money Store were just small-scale battles, the first movement. No Love Deep Web introduced the war. The void was swallowing us up, and Death Grips were the keepers of the void.
41. Heat Wave
Fukd In Tha Game
In his quest to sample the entire internet, Alex Gray has tossed releases out like they’re wearisome sandbags weighing him down. Each mixtape was thrown haphazardly overboard and reached us as a chewy mulch of noise and relentlessly choppy rhythms. They all bore the sound of a man eager to get rid of his past before diving headfirst into a new project (DJ/PURPLE/IMAGE) — Gray is desperate, perhaps obsessed, with avoiding stasis. Yet rather than sounding like carelessness, Gray sculpted moments of arresting beauty from his dizzying array of samples. What was so entrancing about Fukd In Tha Game was its impenetrability — I doubt even Gray knew what was intentional and what was merely the result of random knob-twiddling/cursor-jerking at 3 AM. Thus, nothing sounded forced or contrived, yet Gray somehow staged a fascinating musical journey. We were casually led through bizarre experimentalism (“Smoke Rings”), chopped ‘n’ screwed R&B (“Party Time”), and poignant refrains (“Dem Boyz”) as if it were no biggie. Of course, there was no shortage of artists reappropriating the past, but Gray fucked with nostalgia in such a unique, bizarre, and precarious way that his creative stamp would be readily apparent on any musical debris he decided to grace with his presence.
40. Lil B
My favorite quote of 2012: “Underground music, nigga. I don’t want to make it.” The lyric completely outlined the composition of Lil B’s White Flame as a vessel of himself. Mariah Carey became a fine-tuned human-musical instrument, and Lil B has become the perfect 21st-century artist. Mixing satirical rap, self-deprecation, hyper-aesthetic marketing, trans-lyrical personification, and digital-deep emotion brought White Flame to that level of “I’m so self-conscious about my art work I’ll make it exactly about that. Oh, and hide it in the cheesiest pseudo-spoof mixtape, but keep it completely nostalgic on a Based level. And now I’m talking as Lil B the BasedGod as C Monster. It must be all that BasedEnlightenment I’ve been experiencing while listening to White Flame on random through three different media players.” Yet, it’s really hard to describe Lil B without quoting him — err, his work. So here’s the skinny: for TMT’s Chocolate Grinder section, I usually listen to a single track anywhere between five to [feels like a milli] times a day, but I can listen to White Flame on repeat forever. Thus, this stamp in the Lil B timeline, I feel, was his most important in 2012. “White Flame ain’t no joke.”
Conceptually and musically, ahnnu’s pro habitat created its own environment, one that depended heavily on preserving the habitats of his decaying sound sources (vinyl crackle, tape hiss) alongside orchestral crescendos, broken soul samples, and slurred jazz noises. While many beatmakers seek to isolate the parts of sound that they wish to use in order to repurpose it for their own music, ahnnu took a step back, analyzed the way the multiple layers of a song or sample existed together as a complete habitat, and boldly used all of it, suggesting an unbroken flow of similarities spreading between genres, locations, and time periods. The result was so smooth, so natural that it was impossible to imagine the size of the spectrum of varying musical habitats from which the source material was pulled. So, when “canopoli” rang in and a sampled voice suggested that “the music should be barely noticeable… and non-distracting,” it was like ahnnu was imagining a future of sample-based music portrayed by a smooth, painted landscape, rather than one assembled from puzzle pieces.
38. Ian Martin
From the very first moment of “Moving Activity,” I felt a chasm open up within me, gut-wrenching, head-sinking, chest-thumping. In all honesty, this hadn’t happened to me in six or seven years, back when I first heard “Everyone Alive Wants Answers” from the album of the same name by Colleen. As did that album, Mechanical Rain started from perfectly configured initial conditions and spun inward, onward, unfolding, it seemed, according to nothing less than absolute necessity. It made me feel alone, but in a way less sentimental than plainly truthful. It wasn’t exactly easy to listen to the desolate intricacies of Ian Martin’s two synthesizers, but it was a lot harder to not listen. I found the album demanded my attention without forcing my attention. It lay me out supine and closed my eyes, yet it refused to let me fall asleep. Call it “meditative” as long as you understand meditation as a discipline of the attention, as the ability to follow the objects of your mind without encouraging any of them to mislead you. Mechanical Rain was un-ambient: it didn’t sink into the background but rather became the background so that the background could become foreground. I listened to this music not to look at rain as weather, but to see rain as (strange, mechanical) rain.
37. Tame Impala
Kevin Parker has fully dispelled any lingering pretenses to the low-pass production filter de rigueur by so many of today’s psych revivalists. Lonerism’s purchase on solitude, what with its superabundance of reverb and wealth of manicured synth banks, owed more to Rick Wakeman sonic excess than Erickson angularity. Still accessible but short of anthemic, Fridmann’s maximalist hand on the stern suited Parker’s preference for texture over linear progression. Lonerism presented a giddy mood of teenage exceptionalism, that die-cast sense of me-apart-from-the-world. And yes, it was one to be indulged in, whether it was shamelessly air drumming to the flanged fills à la Steven Drozd or giving a quarter crank to the volume knob as “Music to Walk Home By” recapitulated its forward momentum. Maybe Tame Impala’s abiding anachronism lied beyond their retinue of driving pentatonic riffs, boutique fuzz pedals, and Beatles-esque psych ramblings; Parker’s latest embrace of studio wonkery and overdub indulgence hinted at an ideal of bedroom isolation predating our impulsive connectivity. In those moments, when we were caught chewing on the crumminess of the world, there were worlds to be lost in — not networks or directories. Lonerism is one to pull from the stacks 15 years down the line after pulling your dad’s speakers out of the basement.
36. The Men
Open Your Heart
“Evolved,” “changed,” or even “softened” might be words you had heard/read regarding The Men’s Open Your Heart, but their MO is the band’s driving force, and that for all intents and purposes was what had truly improved. Beyond their sound, quotable approach, and penchant for direct riff-rippage (Stiff Little Fingers, The Buzzcocks, and Sonic Youth, most notably), Open Your Heart showed a band in a classic state of personal and professional growth, while also showing that rock ‘n’ roll’s traditionalism could be just as exciting and sincere as the bands and moods they had appropriated. From the addition of slide guitars and an acoustic ballad, The Men looked to rock’s past in order to find an outward reflection of themselves and their intentions. Open Your Heart was not about reinvention, revivalism, or bringing back punk to the masses. It was about how playing with repetition, the past, and the present shapes meaning. The Men aren’t saviors; punk rock can save itself. Or as they put it: “We’ve never been a band that was part of anything.” Indeed, Open Your Heart was about something bigger than rock ‘n’ roll’s life status.
Burial likes to shroud himself in secrecy, the better to spin those threads that comprise his all-consuming worlds of sound, those little miracles that conjure up your most dangerous, most secret emotions. Such was the dark magic of February’s Kindred EP. Deeper and more textured than any Burial release before, Kindred not only captured the essential isolation and beauty of city life, but also made you want to wallow in it. Second track “Loner” immersed the listener in a soundscape where hope was twinned with despair, and once its seven and a half minutes were over, you were genuinely surprised to look out the window and see sunshine and palm trees rather than rain streaming down the windows of a junker car parked beneath a bridge near the docks. Critics drooled over the fact that tracks like “Ashtray Wasp” and opener “Kindred” came closer to dance-floor staples than any Burial release before, and why not? It’s only natural that, after Burial guided you into the heart of darkness and out again into the light, you’d wanna throw your hands up and celebrate the sensorial wonders of the human experience.
34. Thee Oh Sees
[In The Red]
Rather than putting his energy into coming up with a new genre or pushing some crazy personality to generate hype, John Dwyer unashamedly focuses his Thee Oh Sees project on 1960s garage psychedelia. Although perhaps not adding much to the critic repertoire of genre prefix and suffix shuffling, what he and his collaborators presented with Putrifiers II was a shining example of how to channel the raw garage power of The Monks, The Sonics, and the experimental composition of The Velvet Underground while maintaining that glint of newness, of a clear and present danger that made garage rock so compelling to youth and scary for adults the first time around. This album was not a mere anachronistic exercise. Bolstered by a renowned ability to perform live, Putrifiers II had a sense of immediacy to it that could not be faked with all the Pro Tools tweaks in the world. Awash in distorted guitar lines and heavily processed vocals, the pure jams of “Lupine Dominus” and the opening track “Wax Face” could make believers of anyone willing to listen. Sure, its forms may have been familiar — parallels could be drawn from “So Nice” to VU’s “Venus in Furs” or “Wicked Park” to Syd Barrett — but the energy that fuels Thee Oh Sees burned as hot upon their 2012 release as it ever could have.
33. Farrah Abraham
My Teenage Dream Ended
[Farrah Abraham/MTV Press]
Hoping to spark a critical debate on what exactly makes a piece of art good, former director of the Tate Modern Will Gompertz recently wrote an editorial making a plea for a major museum to stage an exhibition of works from its collection that it deems to be bad art. Just let them try to acquire Farrah Abraham’s My Teenage Dream Ended on behalf of The Museum of Bad Art; Abraham’s disorienting album fearlessly confounded every playlist and exhibition into which it was dropped, even as debate among critics continued and The Museum of Outsider Art came knocking. There was so much here: tortured echoes of tabloid sound-bytes, reality TV confessionals, and pop’s faked climaxes, but as Abraham said, “I can only put so much in a song.” For us, it wasn’t how much she had put in, but how deep she had buried it — all of it ratcheted by Auto-Tune and ribboned by churning bass riffs, both dramatizing and plowing under the album’s tortured backstory. The year’s most compelling narrative, sonically and otherwise.
32. Motion Sickness of Time Travel
Motion Sickness of Time Travel
By design, free-form drone music usually doesn’t come packaged as a big statement. It’s usually doled out little by little on CD-Rs, cassette tapes, and 7-inches. This kind of experimentalism seems meant to be absorbed in small bites, each one a beta test of a still-evolving sound. Although her sound is still developing, Rachel Evans achieved something of a watershed moment with this record. As she mentioned during an interview from May, the album’s gestation period saw it develop into a surprisingly self-sufficient statement. It is self-titled, it’s a double LP, and, as she told Jonathan Dean, ” I felt like the finished product was a good representation of where I’m at right now with [Motion Sickness of Time Travel]. In that way it is a definitive statement…” In terms of pure aesthetics, the album was a blanket of bliss. Evans had the courage and patience to allow moods and moments to develop at a glacial pace, clearly feeling the freedom to stretch out over nearly 90 minutes of recorded material. She also had the compositional ear to create beguiling layers of twinkling arpeggios and shimmering oscillations. These served as ripples within the vast waters of her sound, until the listener felt totally enveloped beneath the waves. What remained was a picture of an artist totally in love with her synthesizers, totally in love with the process of methodically building her tracks, and totally in love with drone.
31. Jason Lescalleet
Songs About Nothing
Cynically designed and morosely brimming over with sooty diamond-crusty apathy, Jason Lescalleet’s Songs About Nothing nonetheless thrilled and enticed as one of 2012’s most euphorically ear-opening experimental works. The mastery of a suspenseful atmosphere drove each of its 13 environ-peeping sections before it dropped you square in a glorping body-high bog of eternal squenche. In addition to it being the masterpiece of queasy abstract voyeurism that it is, there was a radiance-imbuing quality to this album. It was like a ratty old blanket you pull over yourself and dream roving desert dreams of a reckless peace and an ever-changing light at the bottom. You sense it’s there, but you are too terrified to look and take stock. Such was the way of it here. Songs About Nothing was the best horror film of the year, for years. It was a well-curated museum of breaking down, a murky stand of mottled black windsocks whipping about between two receivers. The sample circled arguing with the microscope. Time squeezed tight and flexed.
30. Dolphins Into The Future
Abandoning the turbulent nurturing of modern societies, Dolphins Into The Future’s Lieven Martens went to the Azores islands on a quest to find an arche, an ultimate substance and essence related to all things — and he probably found it in the primordial form of waves: mechanical (acoustic, oceanic), electromagnetic (light, radiation), mathematical (sinusoids, tones). Canto Arquipélago, like a wave, presented patterns of repetition and interference that absorbed the environment and reflected it back, in a way that the artificial (music) was not opposed to the natural (field recordings) but was embedded within it. Emerging from the gap between these categories, there were the oscillations of natural cycles confronted to traces of proto-languages (dolphin whistles, talking percussion, bird chirping, clusters of analog bubbling), and the bulk movement of wind and rain added to the arpeggiated and sweeping synths configuring primeval information networks, dismissing in the process any exoticist representation. Instead of a trance-like, out-of-body experience with new-spirituality pretensions, the whole trip was inundated with a pensive feeling of mundanity — the sublunary becoming all-too-earthly. Canto Arquipélago did not gaze at the heavens waiting for divine redemption, but melancholically stared at its terrene surroundings in humble contemplation.
[Beer On The Rug]
Taking its samples and inspirations from music that can often be found in places such as news channel intros, infomercials, and hotel lobbies, 札幌コンテンポラリー by 情報デスクVIRTUAL (a.k.a. New Dreams Ltd., Macintosh Plus, Laserdisc Visions, etc.) was one of 2012’s most challenging entries in the already perplexing genre of vaporwave. By foregrounding corporate sounds in an almost unadulterated format, the listener was confronted with the deconstruction of kitsch, a removal of the safe distance that ironic detachment once provided. During its 25 tracks (27 in a subsequent bonus release), 札幌コンテンポラリー demanded that you stop and listen to the unlistenable, music so ostracized that it became impossible to not thoroughly reflect on its very structure. Are we faced with a sonorous exposé of late capitalism, bringing its invisible sounds to the foreground, forcing us to pay attention to the never-ending muzak that make up the soundtrack of our consumerist lives? However you may choose to answer this question, 札幌コンテンポラリー was the perfect soundtrack to a certain Don Delillo quote: “He watched Broadway float into the curved window and felt as if blocks of time and space had come loose and drifted. The misplaced heartland hotel. The signs for Mita, Midori, Kirin, Magno, Suntory — words that were part of some synthetic mass language, the Esperanto of jet lag.”
28. Tim Hecker / Daniel Lopatin
You can’t entirely prepare for a collaborative improvisation. Sure, you can make patches or conceive of a tonal pool you might end up using during the session, and you can nail down some certainties by only bringing specific instruments. But the operative element of any good improvisation is what shined through on Instrumental Tourist: it unleashed Tim Hecker’s and Daniel Lopatin’s creativity from the restraints of their usually dense compositional process, leaving only the tethers of instinct and taste to decide where their work went. This freedom led to the intense, freewheeling bursts of energy found in Hecker’s massive collisions of musical data, as well as a calm wander through the nuances of texture heard in Lopatin’s deep pads and delay-laden samples. Instrumental Tourist epitomized the process of investigating the moment and imbuing it with sound according to the audition of the preceding moment, serving as a document of the free-play meeting of great musical minds. It was a game of Go, a conversation of musical impetus. For all the freedom and uncertainty on Instrumental Tourist, it achieved a remarkable coherence, rivaling even the most exhaustively composed works of 2012.
27. White Suns
Dear White Suns, I’m desperate and I need your help. See, the [HARDCORE] I was leasing just to get to work every day just broke down. I just can’t afford to get it fixed. But I also really can’t afford to miss work right now, because the aging [PUNK ROCK] that I take care of is really sick and can’t get its medication. I am supposed to be a provider. The thought of it just makes me sick. Also, the [HEAVY METAL] I was planning on using for retirement was lost in the recent super-storm. It’s all gone! Just like that. Just a smoking pile of rubble and ashes! I don’t mean to complain or anything, but is this what faith and hope in [CLASSIC ROCK] are worth!? And that’s not even the worst of it. See, my first-born [DRONE] just got drafted in an unwinnable war that, in one way or another, I just know will end up claiming his life. Everything just seems broken. It’s all coming apart. I don’t hear music anymore, just a terrible, inevitable sound. What kind of [NOISE] is this, White Suns? So fucking ceaseless. So fucking mangled. So fucking loud.
26. Sun Araw & M. Geddes Gengras Meet The Congos
FRKWYS Vol. 9: Icon Give Thank
A definite minority of humans personally identify with the Rastafari movement, but that didn’t prevent anyone from basking in the psychedelic and rhythmic synergy emanating from Icon Give Thank, the superb collaboration between the dub-inspired Sun Araw, producer M. Geddes Gengras, and legendary reggae outfit The Congos. Do you have a distinct idea of what constitutes the “court of the king”? Does the name Haile Selassie hold a special significance for you? It’s almost irrelevant, because similar philosophies (musical and otherwise) brought all of the individuals involved in this recording together for an album, crafted primarily in St. Catherine, Jamaica, which appealed across generations and regardless of whether or not your image of Zion comes mostly from The Matrix. Sun Araw’s modern take on dub music offered a fresh complement to The Congos’ delayed and nostalgia-inducing vocals, and this was particularly evident on “Happy Song,” where the driving bass line, a common quality of the former’s solo work, presented an amazing contrast with Cedric Myton’s memorable falsetto. A line in the song also works as an accurate commentary on the entire album: “Let us play the music. Let us sing the song. Let us dance and play. Music all night long.” I think we can all get behind that.
The Pathway Through Whatever
[Beer On The Rug]
In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a character dreams of addiction personified as Death with a big, yellow “Have a Nice Day” smiley face. That image stuck with me as vaporwave developed throughout 2012; the music was chintzy to the point of surrealism, but with an unsettling subliminal darkness. Sidestepping that, Mediafired’s gorgeous album felt optimistic in its hypnotic eccojams. “Pixies,” the centerpiece to The Pathway Through Whatever’s hyperreality, turned Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” into the most blissful broken record I’ve ever heard. Surrounding that, Mediafired passionately worked from the hazy, looping blueprint of Daniel Lopatin’s Chuck Person project, creating glitzy vignettes from warping The Who to the closing pair of fractured takes on The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” which first bloomed into the pulsing “Spring Is Here” and then stretched and melted like a lava lamp into a pitch-shifted choir on “Tender Age.” Lopatin first described the looped vocal fragments of eccojams as something spiritual and poetic to him, but he also hoped the practice could become more sophisticated. On that merit and more, The Pathway Through Whatever succeeded and became one of the most blissful mindfucks of the year.
24. Graham Lambkin
Technically released last year but too late in the year to make our 2011 list, Amateur Doubles was a testament to the versatility of listener interpretation. As suggested by the album’s liner notes (“Recorded 2010-2011 in a Honda Civic”) and gatefold (a sun-kissed photo of Graham Lambkin sitting in said vehicle with his family, his veiled gaze directed towards an obscured car stereo, two CD cases lying on the dashboard), the album was ostensibly recorded on the road. But regardless of whether it was read as a meticulously deliberate fabrication or as an authentic artifact, the recording’s seemingly indeterminate happenings remained an alluring evocation of automotive experience. Driven by Lambkin’s erratic audition of two otherworldly Pôle Records albums, the Civic’s womblike acoustics were supplemented by ambience of both interior and exterior genesis. Scattered throughout the cut-up tape, we heard the car’s ignition, its doors opening and closing, muffled speech and soothing whir, Doppler-effected horns and objects whizzing by. To listen to Amateur Doubles was to listen to the listening of music: the record blurred the line between recorded and not-yet-recorded sound, between Lambkin’s status as esoteric DJ and as field recorder, but in the process it cemented his reputation as sound poet.
23. Angel Olsen
Half Way Home
In a recent radio interview, Angel Olsen described the process of finding her voice as similar to how an actress, without ever seeing her own face, learns to control her expressions in order to convey what a given scene asks of her. Listening to Half Way Home, Olsen’s understatedly acrobatic voice nimbly elevated her collection of simple folks songs to a place that, when encountered, sent a shiver down your spine. Her delicate falsetto morphed into a caterwaul as easy as it receded into a whisper. Without a lot of modern vocal peers, it made sense to compare Olsen’s performance on the record to that of a great actress who both embodied a role and defined it as a part that only she could play. Even if you didn’t speak a word of English, Olsen’s voice would still convey the meaning behind her ambitiously sparse material, at once stoic and vulnerable, light and heavy.
22. Demdike Stare
No one explored the possibilities of disembodied sound this year better than Demdike Stare. Across Elemental’s nearly two hours of expertly stitched-together dub techno — for lack of a more apt genre tag — samples were taken out of context, rendered unidentifiable individually, but given a coherent, recognizable identity through collaboration. Like 2011’s superlative Tryptych, Elemental thrived on its powerful mood-induction. But while last year’s mammoth collection dealt in deeply claustrophobic atmospheres, Elemental’s sounds occupied less confining environments. Given greater space to breathe, those sounds gained the power to question the forces at work behind their nigh-cinematic evocations. These tracks were palpably nightmarish, provoking subconscious physical reactions and campily demanding at least a little bit of rudimentary psychoanalysis: Just why was this stuff so powerfully associative? And then the questions kept coming: Why did the drumming in “Erosion of Mediocrity” do “apocalyptic” better than anybody else, in a year where apocalyptic was simultaneously ubiquitous and easy? Why did the title of “We Have Already Died” give the track’s paradoxically organic-sounding techno groove such a funny and unsettling edge? But most importantly: When could we hear more?
21. Aaron Dilloway
Former Wolf Eyes member Aaron Dilloway spent years on his magnum opus, Modern Jester, a painstaking project that produced some of the most intricate and musically aesthetic noise to ever be pressed onto vinyl. And not unlike his peers John Wiese and C. Spencer Yeh, Dilloway comfortably explored the sonic dynamic ranges of gritty drones and oscillating static swells set beyond the noise traditionalism of unwavering harshness. Modern Jester then played a significant role in returning a once experimental genre back toward its exploratory roots, defying our expectations of what it is that noise does, can do, and, of course, will destructively undo.
20. Kendrick Lamar
good kid, m.A.A.d city
Despite exemplifying François Truffaut’s oft-cited claim that “it is impossible to make a true anti-war film, because the act of looking at violence is inherently exciting,” Kendrick Lamar’s “short film” succeeded at having it both ways, as a thrillingly visceral, yet explicitly critical depiction of a conflict that has claimed the lives of countless young men. Received as an instant classic, good kid, m.A.A.d city has revealed itself to be more flawed — and more rewarding — than even the rapturous critical response would have had you believe. Even if good kid, m.A.A.d city never fully transcended the Afro-American Gothicisms of its boilerplate gang-initiation storyline, Lamar experimented with form more daringly than any other rapper to date, a claim that even his detractors, few and far between, would have trouble disputing. There are few longform narratives in pop music and fewer still that are this thoughtful, cohesive, or self-consciously cinematic. Despite its fractured timelines and mythopoetic aspirations, it would be a stretch to describe good kid, m.A.A.d city as avant-garde; nevertheless, this was unmistakably the work of an artist leading the charge, at the forefront of a still-undefined new wave.
Da Mind of Traxman
“Footworkin on Air,” the opening track of this Planet Mu debut by Traxman, was one of footwork’s finest moments of the year. Instead of strapping a chopped vocal stutter into the pilot’s seat, Traxman commanded an echoey marimba melody to navigate the jagged snare snaps and jerky claps. It felt like, well, footworkin on air — like floating, lingering, wandering, drifting. The footwork sound ordinarily thrives on claustrophobic blasts and grinding repetition. But Traxman spread his wings and momentarily soared away from the battle floors that serve as the music’s natural habitat. This was a fascinating gesture considering that, due to Lit City Trax and Planet Mu’s numerous juke and footwork releases (Spinn, Rashad, Young Smoke, et al.), this once hyper-local Chicago dance music managed to smack many new ears this year — ears that belong to bodies with feet that were “on air,” not down on the dance floor. This same curious infinity-feeling snuck, ever so slightly, into head-nodders like “Chillllll” and “Lady Dro,” but Traxman mostly did what he does best: design dizzying mazes of ever-tangling sounds that maximized tension without offering breathing room, let alone the possibility of escape.
18. The Caretaker
Patience (after Sebald)
[History Always Favors the Winners]
Last year, our fourth favorite album of the year was The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss, a work that was best understood through the suspect deployment of nostalgia in 2011 films like The Artist and Hugo. Here in 2012, The Caretaker wowed us again. But while the album soundtracked Grant Gee’s documentary of the same name, the music this time also had to be approached through literature. An astute reader will understand immediately: we find W.G. Sebald, one of the most incisive and tragic writers of recent times, directly in the album’s title. At the start of this millennium, Sebald promised literary vision and deliverance; before the end of 2001, he was dead. Likewise, The Caretaker’s tracks, regardless of promised melody, seemed inevitably to drift away, to be lost at sea. Sebald was famous for embedding pictures into his prose, often antique found photos, already faded, holey, beautiful, tortuous for lack of clarity — not unlike the music of Patience. No single medium was sufficient in these endeavors, as all bowed to the greater work of Human Memory. In 2012, The Caretaker mined moments from the past and exposed them to the development of the present, without breaking a resolute stare toward the future.
17. Daughn Gibson
“Daughn Gibson” sounds like only a slightly down-pitched version of “Don Gibson,” the name of one of Nashville’s saddest poets. And yet, with such minor tweaks, Daughn Gibson (real name Josh Martin) seems to have resurrected all the great grim ghosts of country’s past. All Hell, his debut, didn’t merely set country music storytelling to wobbly synths and digital loops. Rather, it exploited the emotional possibilities of digital sound production to create a remarkably contemporary kind of pain. The redneck emptiness of “Bad Guys” existed not in spite of, but through its half-false processing of Gibson’s clichéd baritone; the outlaw desperation of “In the Beginning” came across not just in the song’s pleading lyrics, but in its crowded mix of scratchy samples, as they each incessantly returned to some long lost time before sin. Gibson had the good sense to keep his arrangements as light as the morning air, and yet it was precisely the incredible weightlessness of these songs that made each so crushingly tragic. In fact, All Hell simply did what all good country does: it turned the time of decay and space of ruination into pleasing sonic form. Sadness, grief, loss, betrayal — the circle is indeed broken, but the emotions it once contained here became sources of exquisite pleasure and established nothing less than a future for country.
16. Death Grips
The Money Store
Try to pigeonhole Death Grips. Just try. Experimental. Industrial. Hip-hop. Rap. Punk rap. Garage rap. Noise rap. Avant-noise. Post-noise. Electrical noise. Listen to “Double Helix.” MC Ride shouts about an “unidentified genre abductor,” and maybe that’s the best way to describe Death Grips. Furtive. Violent. The Money Store warped and wrecked sounds we knew or sounds we thought we knew. The Money Store crackled and rumbled from an unrecognizable future world, a wasteland where only shattered screens and burnt wires and exploded buildings remain. MC Ride, Zach Hill, and Andy Morin channeled an underworld from the end of the world to warn us, to shock us into remembering that no one is ever safe. “Lost Boys” trapped a disembodied voice in a burned-out power plant. “The Cage” distorted and broke down beats that sounded like alarms. “Hacker” invaded a crowd. The Money Store conjured a dark and deconstructed space where no one speaks and no one sleeps, a space mapped only by disregard and danger. And yet, we’ve returned again and again. We’ve returned for the thrill.
15. DJ Rashad
TEKLIFE Vol. 1: Welcome to the Chi
[Lit City Trax]
It’s easy to label DJ Rashad’s TEKLIFE Vol. 1 as footwork’s crowning achievement. After several years of hype and more than a few exceptional releases, 2012 saw the genre expand with the epic, 83-minute TEKLIFE released by his own Lit City Trax (with DJ Spinn and J-Cush), entering the mainstream media’s consciousness and subsequently representing the whole Chicago-based dance movement for most curious listeners. Unsurprisingly, Rashad lined his record with the enduring footwork trademarks: highly syncopated, often disorienting rhythms and chopped samples falling somewhere between bizarre minimal rap and kush-fueled experimentation. But let’s get real: TEKLIFE was its own hybrid animal, an album that reflected Rashad’s rapidly evolving musical intuition and an international flavor influenced by his globetrotting. The record could be weird as hell, brimming with ideas, sprawlingly uneven, and all the better for it. You either connected with it or you didn’t, its bare-bones production being either amateurish or a welcomed catharsis from overcrowded house and calculated, entitled indie. Appropriate for footwork’s ambassador, the tracks on TEKLIFE were constantly in motion, containing an almost improvisational spirit and looseness amidst an unrelenting pulse. As far as I’m concerned, the mid-album span from “Fly Spray” to “Over Ya Head” was its own masterstroke within a masterstroke, a 40-some minute stretch of absurdist new-electronic minimalism that once again raised the bar. By the time “We Leanin” locked into its pitch-shifting, hilarious, mindblowing four-minute mantra of “I’m geeked up off them bars, nigga,” there was no turning back.
inhale c-4 $$$$$
Another faux-trendy, post-ironic, undanceable dance release with lots of caps lock and hashtags? Nice, TMT. Real nice. No question we listened to plenty of “that” this year — not that our brains were too warped to interlock upon any consensus — but James Ferraro’s mixtape as BEBETUNE$ was an uncommonly singular entry, one that managed to encapsulate so many of 2012’s ever-morphing musical values without at any point allowing itself be mistaken for a thing cold, conceptual, anthropological, or rote. Sure, its social critiques (witness the mutant gurgle and PCE-evoking title of “Pepsi Baby”) were readily apparent. And the flotsam — the hypercompressed escalations building to nothing at all, the most indulgent Auto-Tune discharges this side of Farrah Abraham — might on first listen have sounded like baldfaced hit-or-miss references. But this was not a listening experience of strung-out addiction and malaise: some uncanny, aberrant harmony repeatedly beckoned us back. Ferraro’s became an accelerationism fearless and deceptively serene. Between the insanely cheesy synth that provided the lone ray of clarity in “#C I T Y LIGHT$$$” and what may be a literal storefront congregation in “P.O.W.E.R.,” Ferraro’s project was secretly about locating a kernel of belief at the core of all things cultural, messy, and anxious. Forget “distroid” — by far the most unnerving thing about inhale c-4 $$$$$ was the warm, beating heart at the center of each song.
13. Holly Herndon
Suspense was one of the central components that made Holly Herndon’s Movement such an irresistible listen. Patterns emerged through purported rhythms that stretched across a drastic range of formats, respiration being the most prominent. Ex/inhalation, contraction, expiry, and whisper become visualized as a consequence of observing compositional frameworks, where specific sounds were subconsciously imposed by association upon familiar, tangible motions — when Herndon breathed in, it was understandably expected that exhalation would follow. The element of tension was achieved through tampering with the setup of each anticipated response in creating something wholly unimaginable. Gingerly austere, delicately abraded, strung up, and wrapped in plastic, these patterns didn’t solely extend the breadth of the rhythmic experimental tracks exhibited here; they also encompassed those disco moments so lovingly hailed by critics as an open doorway to the “academic sound art tangled in Berlin nightclub appreciation” model that Herndon adopted. Regardless of the form these splendid compositions took — a 4/4 beat fumbling into pitch-shifted purr, a palpitating baritone loop bleeding into crumpled distortion, a stupefied retention that danced like analog static — suspense was always on the cusp, looming at the seams of the most gorgeously pranayamic album of 2012.
12. Frank Ocean
The de facto chaperone of a brilliant though foul-mouthed collective of young L.A. rappers, Frank Ocean had a few pop songwriting credits and a mixtape to his name when Kanye made him the first voice you hear on his and Jay-Z’s occasionally exceptional index of hubris, Watch the Throne. Stack on that the difficulty of coming out just before releasing an eagerly anticipated album in a genre where homophobia still finds plenty of purchase. And yet all this pales: “Thinkin Bout You,” ORANGE’s astonishing opener and single, introduced Ocean as a voice both pained and limitless, falsetto employed with abandon, as haunted and oversexed as anything from Prince or D’Angelo. Across the album’s 62 minutes, Ocean veered from heartbroken to pathetic (“Pyramids”) to eminently chill (“Sweet Life”) to something like lucky (“Super Rich Kids”). As he channel-surfed and catalogued the varieties of Californian experience, Ocean revealed himself to be an artful collaborator, a talented and well-read musician, and an innovative songwriter. channel ORANGE, defying its hype, revealed a young man at his most confessional, confused, and aching, already primed for an altogether new type of throne.
Let them be, they can’t shut up. Nor should they. You should calm down. No need to be angry. We can be far more than this… No, we have been. Even when we were excessive. Even when we sounded childish. People just try to bring us down because they need to. They need to forget that they, they themselves, are just as flawed and messed up. They just want us to fuck up so we feel better about themselves. Well, let them think that, whatever. We still have ourselves, right? And that certainly helps. You could be a better friend […] I could be a better man. You put a line, let it drag out, punched a beat that makes the whole damn thing danceable. You let your voice waver, quiver, but never get gimmicky. You kept yourself at a constant. You had help from others, but you were great by yourself. Being myself makes me feel like I know who you are. You kept yourself distant yet close, and that’s important. You’re always there, even when you don’t reveal yourself. And yet, you didn’t think of yourself as any better than anyone else: I know you’re faced with something/ That could consume you completely. It makes you very powerful. And you remember: It’s always different. They may not like you, but they can’t touch you.
10. Dean Blunt
The Narcissist II
[World Music Group/Hippos in Tanks]
“I can’t talk to you,” snarled the deeply frustrated, highly repugnant male subject of Dean Blunt’s The Narcissist II, before smacking his lover and tumbling into a mental morass of wheezing drone, wireless interference, and YouTube-compressed storm clouds. Upon reemerging, he found a troubling means of expression: self-reflexive “come hither” song sketches glued together by R&B cliché, but too ragged and paranoid to settle into any genre in particular. Here, songcraft congealed from artful escape into pathological avoidance, recentering the drama by way of co-opted language and mood, a comforting cloud of smoke blown at the bathroom mirror. But as the outside world intrudes — with violent narrative interjections, ringtone keyboard lines, the scraping whirr of a crusty apartment — that projected image warped and stretched to let through slivers of actual alienation. Blunt’s uncomfortable vocal delivery upped the tension, slipping from playful to sinister to desperate, hilariously confused but disturbing in context. On the sublime title track, at the singer’s lowest moment, he hurled out a strange request to “fold” her, some despairing desire trapped between fucking and holding, a smeared impulse left unresolved as the song washed away in a wave of canned critical applause. One of many bent transmissions from Hype Williams HQ in 2012, The Narcissist II may have been their most unusual and affecting infiltration yet.
[Beer On The Rug]
TIMETIMETIME&TIME was initially shocking for how painstakingly meticulous it was and how current and unabashedly hip its referents and sources were, embracing footwork’s skittering percussion, clipped vocal ghosts, and chopped-up twangs of acoustic guitar rather than the corporate pap of Beer On The Rug’s more well-known vaporwave releases this year. It was built on dance music’s core of repetition, yes, and wore its edits on its sleeve, but it joyfully avoided dance’s forward momentum — a gorgeous and purposeful surface at all times, but no cohesive trajectory, endlessly discursive and elusive. Its rhythmic underpinnings clattered in and out of formation as it followed inscrutable whims on odd tangents, memories of older loops appearing, transfiguring, disappearing, returning again in some mangled form. Certainly the least aggravating and most purely pleasurable of the label’s releases, YYU nevertheless seemed to invoke the same sort of intellectual fascination as vaporwave’s aggressively wretched material. It seemed to exist for some purpose or statement, but it even more so than the rest of the label’s work, figuring out what that might be proved close to impossible. After YYU, the loop and the edit were no longer firm and solid, but they proved just as transfixing.
08. Andy Stott
One of the most enduring kinds of music offers total immersion, an aesthetic world unto itself. An intangible place or headspace in which to while away some time, from which to return in some way enriched. Andy Stott’s Luxury Problems can lay full claim to this rare achievement: from the orbital vocal loops of “Numb” down to “Up the Box’s” mossy, terrestrial rhythms, the album was like an experimental techno circumbinary of Music For Airports, On Land, and all manner of interstellar debris in between. An evocatively textured and visually descriptive work, Luxury Problems was the most fully-formed microcosm presented by any one artist in 2012. Yet for all its atmospheric layers and tactile intricacies, it remained an unusually intimate listen. As if to center his most ambitious dub techno and “knackered house” abstractions to date, Stott’s widely noted use of his teenage piano teacher’s voice provided an emotional core half-hidden by both its title and its sonic palette. Allison Skidmore’s repurposed old a capellas served as warehouse operatics, textually ambiguous and obscured by echo, but nevertheless imbued with the deeply personal resonance of an artist returning to the woman with whom he began his musical studies, nearly 20 years later, to ask once more for guidance; to show her everything he’s learned.
Much of the year’s best electronic music could be described as indeterminate, open-ended technoid soundscapes increasingly preoccupied with vertical elaboration over sequential composition. The possibilities opened up by Selected Ambient Works Vol. II and Burial have crystallized into an established lexicon for the post-bass underground, and no one pushed this aesthetic logic further than Actress. R.I.P dramatized the journey of the soul through the underworld with a series of baroque abstractions, piecing together a dark brocade of richly textured materials, an elaborate drapery profuse with a labyrinthine complex of shadowy folds. No other electronic artist this year was as fixated on the encounter between clarity and obfuscation, smoothness and erosion, the explicit and the implicit, and no other artist displayed as much talent and poise in bringing the drama of that encounter to life.
06. Macintosh Plus
[Beer On the Rug]
For many of us here at TMT, 2012 was all about vaporwave. And in many ways, New Dreams Ltd., the umbrella moniker for Macintosh Plus, 情報デスクVIRTUAL, Laserdisc Visions, and Sacred Tapestry, embodied the genre best. Not only did it provide some of vaporwave’s most essential releases, but it also cannily folded at just the right moment, thanking us all for visiting the Virtual Casino. 2012 wasn’t just the year vaporwave broke; it was also the year it exhausted itself: morphed, rebranded, its practitioners moved on. If any single release deserves to be remembered, though, it is surely Floral Shoppe. From the very beginning, it stood out not only for its artful marrying of the conceptual with the sensual, but also for its performance of the inseparability between the two. Working with a particularly wide range of readymades, from R&B classics through glossy muzak to smooth jazz grooves, Floral Shoppe slid seamlessly between pure pop pleasure and the ironic framing of that pleasure, the presence of the artist at turns barely noticeable and dramatically foregrounded. This is the sound of a kind of sensuous virtuality, the artist as simulacra, both the experience and problematization of the post-human, a new cyber-pop unconscious.
05. Laurel Halo
There’s an unlikely precedent for what Laurel Halo did on Quarantine: Neil Young’s Trans. The vocal abstractions Young created circa 1982 for one of his most critically maligned works was an attempt to connect with his young son who had cerebral palsy and was unable to speak. His use of vocoder allowed him a chance to make a human connection through electronic enhancement. Halo asserted in various interviews that, by removing the reverb from her vocal tracks, the objective was to add some humanity into her works of techno wonder. Instead, she managed to offend a lot of fans or would-be fans the same way that Young did. The amount of bile spewed forth via internet commentators over Quarantine’s vocals was staggering. The same amount of hatred is still piled onto Young’s album, but both works are bright, bold, and beautiful, sounding as if they were beamed in from a “post-human” future. Some people were not quite ready for Quarantine. A lot of us were.
04. Mount Eerie
Clear Moon / Ocean Roar
[P.W. Elverum & Sun]
Mount Eerie’s two releases this year were tethered tightly, but asymmetrically. Clear Moon’s emotionally-satisfying songs flowed into one another as naturally as lunar phases, weaving together a career’s worth of Phil Elverum’s previous strains of sound (Wind’s Poem’s black metal, Lost Wisdom’s spare folk, and even The Glow Pt. 2’s indefinably catchy layers) with some new ones (vocoders, drum machines, synths) to create his most precise and, well, clear statement yet. The nearly instrumental Ocean Roar took those same elements and seemed to make fragmentation instead of coherence, lopsidedness instead of balance, sound instead of a statement. Released first, Clear Moon’s structured gravity seemed to shape the unpredictable swells of Ocean’s tides. But eventually, I caught glimpses of Moon’s reflection in Ocean Roar’s uneven surface, too. It makes sense that Mount Eerie would happen to record its most and least coherent albums at the same time: “There is either no end/ Or constant simultaneous end and beginning,” Phil Elverum sings on Clear Moon’s “Through the Trees pt. 2.” It’s not that Elverum has so successfully reinvented himself twice this year; it’s that, again, he’s never had to.
A bizarre paradox of the human condition: there is no experience of profound joy or pleasure that is not accompanied by pain. It’s unsurprising that Christian mystics frame religious ecstasy in violent terms, the flaming darts of St. John of the Cross or the golden spear of St. Teresa of Avila. It’s a joy that pierces, a joy that penetrates, a joy that overwhelms with its just-too-much-ness. Michael Gira has always aimed at capturing this rapturous state via the sheer sonic brutality of Swans, and in many ways, The Seer can be considered the culmination of those efforts. In its maddening dins and unnerving silences; in its thundering hammer blows and tender caresses; in its twisting, arduous passages that promised a fulfillment no frail human creature is sturdy enough to withstand, the record carved a rhythm that, for its near two-hour runtime, had the power to change one’s entire way of being. Like Gira’s parade of tortured mystics — lunatics, seers, warriors, apostates — we felt like we had brushed something vast and powerful, but not necessarily without cost. Swans used their profane tools to elevate us toward the sacred and showed us a path to ecstasy as severe as that of any monastic order.
02. Dean Blunt And Inga Copeland
Black Is Beautiful
From the dark, slow burn of Andy Stott and Black Rain to the more elaborate gloomscapes of Raime and Demdike Stare, black was serious currency in the international dance underground of 2012. Typical, then, that perhaps the year’s most convincing celebration of the color came wrapped in a red sleeve, the cover text referencing African-American consumer culture rag Ebony (black, amirite?). But if that undermined blacker-than-thou pretensions elsewhere, the act of détournement itself sprung from another scene entirely: Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland started out performing thriftstore improv in small galleries, and although their Hyperdub deal surprised many, it didn’t stop them from diversifying their gallery portfolio as career outsiders peddling homebrew psychedelia. For some listeners, the joy of Black Is Beautiful was found in the diversity of its frame of reference — surely only one band can connect the dots between Bruce Haack, Mick Harris, Nami Shimada, and Billy Cobham while sounding like no one but themselves — yet of all the contradictions and paradoxes that keep Blunt and Copeland afloat, perhaps the likeliest is that, all posturing aside, they are not incompetents. They are just competent enough, flaunting a rare and bewildering equilibrium forged in the crucible of on-the-fly collaborative composition. Against all appearances, Black Is Beautiful was a matter of precision.
01. Scott Walker
Is it now safe to say that 2012 was a terrible year? Is it now safe to say that it was another terrible year in a string of terrible years? God, did you see what I saw? Running together, shuffled into one consumptive experience, the stories that we have left to tell are terrible things, indeed. Pink slime, drones, Trayvon Martin, Fifty Shades of Grey, Benghazi, Lana Del Rey, #Kony2012, Hurricane Sandy, Jerry Sandusky, McDonald’s’ Flavor Wars, James Holmes, bath salts, and cannibalism. Unity through “Gangnam Style.” Ecce Homo, mangled. The dark day behind us, the dark day ahead… Was there a better year for a new Scott Walker album?
I admit: a part of me sighed after Mr P assigned me Walker’s Bish Bosch. Had we even had time to digest it? (Yes, Ed did, obviously.) Most of us are still farting out words left and right, trying to grant some air of meaning to a work that is bigger, yes, bigger than we are at this moment in time. I’m not suggesting that Bish Bosch is incomprehensible. What I mean is that Walker is a world-builder, and you don’t so much listen to Bish Bosch as much as you wake up into its interpretation and wander around. While most of us haven’t had the time to get to know it well, the first steps have nonetheless been thrilling, enough to warrant its placement here, at the end, even as we are only beginning to understand its importance.
From what I can determine, Bish Bosch is important largely for what it isn’t: more sentimental garbage from another “old master.” Working from the absolute periphery of what can still be called the “folk process,” it’s totally at home in tradition, in passing-down, in relating then to now. Yet, unlike his cohorts, Walker does so without a waft of nostalgia; no, his stories are cyclones picking the past up into the sky, dropping bits and pieces as he goes along his way. What’s left is dumped into the present. Sorted, sort of. Walker is a storyteller at the end of storytelling, and he “spins his yarns” from a broken radio play, broadcast from history’s rubble: a remnant of the decaying oral tradition, howling like the anti-Garrison Keillor at the Cabaret Voltaire, letting disgusting sounds from bodies and instruments slither around words and utterances, letting them articulate their meaning when the words and speakers themselves are losing ground.
Bish Bosch is also important for what it actually is: a reclamation, and transformation, of the meaning of lived history. I remember reading that Joan Didion, after enduring a week in El Salvador in 1983 (eh, eunuch Ron?), had made her see Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a “social realist.” Spend some time in 2012 with Walker, and he too unfurls the surrealism of the real from the real. For Walker, history is a springboard for facts to launch off of, so that they might break apart in the atmosphere until the blunt truth of them remains. Whether or not they orbit or crash down is completely contingent upon the nature of the truth. So yeah, Walker’s factually wrong sometimes. Sure, his stories are fantastical, non-sequential, absurd. But can you listen to “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)” and tell me that you’ve never turned into a brown dwarf? I know that nearly every day this year I woke up on the verge.
More significant than temporary importance, though, is what vitality Bish Bosch has lying in wait. What will propel Walker’s work forward — what will keep us listening beyond 2012, or 13, or 14 — is its comedic critique of the ruthless comedy that its world, our world, coheres to. The pitifulness of the pitiless. The rot and stench of the body, broken and broken down. History culminating in the questionnaire. The final, quasi-threatening words of wisdom: GTFO! That music is made with anything, everything, especially things that will kill you. That you make it anyway. That the story is finished slap-dash, and that it will nonetheless stand in judgement of a time and place that no longer really believed in judgement at all, but apocalypse. Honestly, I wonder if we’ll ever live to see the day that we’re actually done with Walker’s work.
So, maybe we only had a few weeks with Bish Bosch here at TMT, but for most of us, it only took a short time to discover how it could be possible that even our worst years (centuries, millennia, whatever) could be exposed, drained, re-/dis-figured, and recast/told/sung/farted/assassinated into a towering work of art. Bish bash bosh. The end. #yolo
50. Mykki Blanco - Cosmic Angel: Illuminati Prince/ss (Self-Released)
49. Raime - Quarter Turns Over a Living Line (Blackest Ever Black)
48. Belbury Poly - The Belbury Tales (Ghost Box)
47. INTERNET CLUB - VANISHING VISION (Self-Released)
46. Converge - All We Love We Leave Behind (Epitaph)
45. Arca - Stretch 2 (UNO NYC)
44. Fiona Apple - Idler Wheel (Epic/Clean Slate)
43. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music (Williams Street)
42. Death Grips - No Love Deep Web (Self-Released)
41. Heat Wave - Fukd In Tha Game (Self-Released)
40. Lil B - White Flame (Self-Released)
39. ahnnu - pro habitat (WTR CLR)
38. Ian Martin - Mechanical Rain (Further)
37. Tame Impala - Lonerism (Modular)
36. The Men - Open Your Heart (Sacred Bones)
35. Burial - Kindred [EP] (Hyperdub)
34. Thee Oh Sees - Putrifiers II (In The Red)
33. Farrah Abraham - My Teenage Dream Ended (Farrah Abraham/MTV Press)
32. Motion Sickness Of Time Travel - Motion Sickness Of Time Travel (Spectrum Spools)
31. Jason Lescalleet - Songs About Nothing (Erstwhile)
30. Dolphins Into The Future - Canto Arquipélago (Underwater Peoples)
29. 情報デスクVIRTUAL - 札幌コンテンポラリー (Beer On The Rug)
28. Tim Hecker / Daniel Lopatin - Instrumental Tourist (Mexican Summer)
27. White Suns - Sinews (Load)
26. Sun Araw & M. Geddes Gengras Meet The Congos - Icon Give Thank (RVNG Intl.)
25. Mediafired - Pathway Through Whatever (Beer On The Rug)
24. Graham Lambkin - Amateur Doubles (Kye)
23. Angel Olsen - Half Way Home (Bathetic)
22. Demdike Stare - Elemental (Modern Love)
21. Aaron Dilloway - Modern Jester (Hanson)
20. Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope)
19. Traxman - Da Mind Of Traxman (Planet Mu)
18. The Caretaker - Patience (after Sebald) (History Always Favours The Winners)
17. Daughn Gibson - All Hell (White Denim)
16. Death Grips - The Money Store (Epic)
15. DJ Rashad - TEKLIFE Vol. 1: Welcome to the Chi (Lit City Trax)
14. BEBETUNE$ - inhale C-4 $$$$$ (Self-Released)
13. Holly Herndon - Movement (RVNG Intl.)
12. Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE (Def Jam)
11. Grimes - Visions (4AD)
10. Dean Blunt - The Narcissist II (Hippos In Tanks)
09. YYU - TIMETIMETIME&TIME (Beer On The Rug)
08. Andy Stott - Luxury Problems (Modern Love)
07. Actress - R.I.P (Honest Jon’s)
06. Macintosh Plus - Floral Shoppe (Beer On The Rug)
05. Laurel Halo - Quarantine (Hyperdub)
04. Mount Eerie - Clear Moon / Ocean Roar (P.W. Elverum & Sun)
03. Swans - The Seer (Young God)
02. Dean Blunt And Inga Copeland - Black Is Beautiful (Hyperdub)
01. Scott Walker - Bish Bosch (4AD)