2012 held some pleasant aural surprises, both from established and new artists. When I'm writing, I can only listen to music without words, or the lyrics start appearing on the page like some sort of mind-control conspiracy. And when I'm not writing, I like listening to all manner of things, from Johnny Cash to Frank Sinatra to EDM. Anyway, enough about preferred playlists, and on to the business at hand.
Here are my top five picks for the year just gone:
1) Of Monsters and Men - My Head is An Animal
This one smacked me upside the head. Folk pop from Iceland? Singing about furry paws, kings and lionhearts? Weird, check. Unexpected? Check. The best debut of 2012? Without a doubt. Love Nanna's lilting vocals, her call and return exchanges with Raggi, the horns and bells - basically, everything about this record. Why do we persist in glorifying miserable songs (from Nirvana, Radiohead, etc)? We need more musical joy, and with songs like Mountain Sound and Little Talks, Of Monsters and Men bring it.
2) BT - If the Stars are Eternal, So Are You and I
There are several classically trained electronic music pioneers, but none of them comes close to Mr. Brian Transeau, aka BT, for range, creativity and talent. I've been a BT fan since he released Ima in the mid 90s and defined the sound of trance. Since then he released the acclaimed score for the film Monster and the equally cinematic This Binary Universe, a beautiful collection of sonic landscapes and electronic sound poems. IFSAESAYAI (how about that for an acronym?) is the heir to the latter, combining slowly building melodies with mournful guitar plucking and synth sweeps that Robert Moog would be proud of. This is the soundtrack to my next book.
3) Mumford and Sons - Babel (deluxe edition)
A test of a good band is how closely their live performances (vocals particularly) resemble the mastered, edited studio versions of their songs. Having driven four hours each way to see M&S in Nebraska this summer (and nearly dying after foolishly drifting off at the wheel at 2 am on the way home) and watching them on a baking hot night in Kansas City last summer, I can attest that Marcus Mumford and his band of merry banjo-plucking, bass-strumming, key-plonking men pass this assessment. The hoedown stormers (Whispers in the Dark, I Will Wait) are easy to like, but it's the depth of feeling in the slower songs (The Ghosts that We Knew, for example) that give this second LP longevity on my beloved Technics turntable. Oh, and their version of Simon & Garfunkel's The Boxer blows the original out of the water.
4) The Lumineers - The Lumineers
"Lovely girl won't you stay, stay with me..." The Lumineers is that rare group that combines catchy, ear-worm lyrics with fine musical composition and impassioned delivery. Sure, the hits on the record (Ho, Hey and Stubborn Love) are EVERYWHERE, but don't let the band's commercial success put you off. They're the real deal.
5) BT - Morceau Subrosa
Is it gratuitous to put two albums from the same artist on a 'best of' list? Yes. But this 45-minute meditation is reason enough for me to urge you to start listening to music for music's sake, with your eyes closed. Too often we relegate music to mere background noise to work, exercise or travel and that's fine, but emotive, immensely detailed compositions like Morceau Subrosa deserve our full attention. When you're done listening, do an internet search for 'microsound' and geek out on musical composition terms you may not understand (I sure as heck don't), but explain what he's doing on this album. Some enlightened soul once explained music as 'controlled sound.' If that's the case, Morceau Subrosa is on another creative level.