reading over various end of year “best of” music lists i felt compelled by some unseen force to create the same.
i’m aware of the uselessness of the exercise. we all know said lists are irrelevant. further confirmed by my relative non-existence in the vast array of people offering their opinions in numbers 1 through 10. in theory i don’t believe in categorization of worth, and yet couldn’t answer a plaguing question: “why are these lists so goddamn fun?” (i suppose this is as good time as any to confess that my eyes are also drawn, like magnets to metal. to ‘who wore it better?’ comparisons, victoria beckham usually wins if you’re wondering)
but as i began to construct a list of my favorite albums of the year, something much more interesting emerged: my top five albums were all solo female artists. so i figured i’d abandon numerical categorization and just talk about those albums and the artists (my apologies to tame impala, grizzly bear, crystal castles, etc., i’m sure numerous much more important, further reaching publications will discuss your contributions to 2012 music with great aplomb).
2012 was officially the year of the female solo artist! this is not to say there weren’t great albums by male solo artists, numerous bands of various sexual make-ups, and probably a few quality recordings by cats. but for me, these 5 albums were far above the crowd.
so, let us begin (remember in no particular order):
grimes – visions
i was introduced to grimes by friend who recommended her to me after we connected on our mutual love for bjork. now, grimes is nothing like bjork, other than both being musicians with a penchant for employing electronic wizardry to profound effect. where grimes differs is she seems very interested in pop sensibilities, but turns them on their head. where bjork occasionally creates songs that are barely listenable (in the interest of expression, i guess?), grimes isn’t afraid of accessibility and recognizable melodic tricks. however, it’s how she combines these familiar themes into something wholly unique. it’s pop, but don’t expect it on any top 40 radio station any time soon. furthermore, she’s created this music without musical training, so this is purely product of her own experimentation. she’s bizarre enough to make a solid impression, and like bjork, lykke li, and a handful of others, she’ll be one of the artists i’ll be excited to see how she uses her creativity next, rather than simply expecting something comforting in its familiarity.
(song doesn’t start in proper until about the 1 minute mark)
sharon van etten – tramp
a recent discovery for me, it’s refreshing to come across a singer/songwriter that doesn’t cause one to cringe at the very thought of a singer/songwriter. she takes the best qualities of cat power, aimee mann, and others, and weaves something at once straightforward and familiar and yet utterly spellbinding. her voice helps a great deal in pleading her emotional case, simultaneously sultry and melancholy, she fills her songs with palpable emotion and vulnerability. i’d find it hard to believe anyone could hear the lyrics from one of the album standouts “give out”, ‘you’re the reason why i’ll move to the city / you’re why i’ll need to leave’ and not be reminded of their own heartbreaking romances or at least be moved by her truthful delivery. she creates an intimidatingly fragile soundscape that is as solid a songwriting effort as i’ve heard in recent years.
cat power – sun
full disclosure: i’ve been in love with chan marshall (aka cat power) for many years. however, i’m not so blinded by affection to be incapable of recognizing her less than stellar offerings. this applies to her last 3 releases, ‘the greatest’, ‘jukebox’, and ‘dark end of the street’. the last two are covers albums so utterly devoid of inspiration that i’ve listened to them once and never again. the eponymous track on ‘the greatest’ was such a promising tease for the album to come. it ended up being track 1 on the full album and the true high point, as the rest was a few solid efforts among a collection of throwaway tracks. with ‘sun’ cat power has a return to her own voice, rather than resting on blues tropes that had sort of swallowed what made her so interesting. at the same time, this is a slightly different sound for cat power, less reliant on acoustic guitar or piano, and embracing a more produced while still pure sound. hoping this establishes a new trend for her music, where she trusts that we want to hear what she has to say. not bluesy easy listening versions of other people’s songs. or worse her sound watered down into something i can see easily appealing to an elevator crowd. i still love you chan, i’m sorry. this criticism hurts me more than you.
bat for lashes – the haunted man
natasha khan (aka bat for lashes) grabbed my attention with the album ‘two suns’ for her wonderfully endearing mix of multi-instrumental talent, kate bush-esque vocals, fantastically nerdy lyrics about castles, knight, and wizards, and melodies so catchy her songs remained in the consciousness long after listening. ‘the haunted man’ is a stripped down album in comparison to ‘two suns’, but still retains her skill for appropriately placed pomp, usually melodically in this case, and is very much a bat for lashes album. ‘laura’ one of her lead singles from the album is as spare as bat for lashes has ever been, which is a bold move as a promotional tool for the whole album, but its simple piano line and heartbreaking melody/lyrics leaves very little emotion behind. you don’t miss the more layered qualities of her efforts that you’ll get plenty of on the rest of the album. i wish she came to the united states more. i think she’s only briefly toured here in ’09, but perhaps with the acclaim this album has received she’ll be tempted to come back. Please, there are many who would love to see you live!
fiona apple – the idler wheel . . .
the full title of the album is “the idler wheel is wiser than the driver of the screw and whipping cords will serve you more than ropes will ever do” and if you twisted my arm i’d say this was my favorite album of 2012. while admitting that i am defying my preface of avoiding worth categorization, this effort was so special it deserves recognition. fiona apple released an album that i truly feel no one else could have created, it is entirely her own voice. in that regard she defies what people might have expected from what could easily be qualified as a comeback effort (her last album was 2005’s ‘extraordinary machine’). the songs on ‘the idler wheel . . . ‘ are melodically and musically complicated, at times inaccessible, but wholly creative and surprising. lyrically she’s as much a strange poet as ever. some sentiments, however, are expressed so pointedly that you can’t help but feel, as bizarre as the music might get, that she always knows what’s she doing and more importantly what she’s saying. with ‘every single night’ when she sings the refrain ‘every single night’s a fight with my brain’ taking the word ‘brain’ into the mode she does is both unexpected and brilliant (just listen to it). with an album like this fiona apple could easily have recorded it away in a secret studio, released it to the world, and then vanished. i’m please to say upon seeing her summer 2012, her live performance of this album is just as accomplished as the songs themselves. this album is defiant in its commitment to a sound she must have known wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s what makes it so impressive. like her or hate her, her talent and uniqueness are undeniable.