Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 5 Albums of 2012

Mainstream, indie, and even the indie-mainstream have been bereft of good, major releases this year. When the best that outlets like Paste and Pitchfork can muster are albums by Best Coast, Beach House, Tame Impala, Alt-J, and the Lumineers, it’s obvious that we’ve been dealt a poor hand in terms of new music on the national level.

Overall it feels like the indie-mainstream in particular is waiting for a new movement. The Arcade Fire sound-alikes (which used to be Modest Mouse sound-alikes) have finally worn out their welcome. New Grass (or Banjo-core as I prefer to call it) never had the ability to sustain more than a few bands at a time and with Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, and the Lumineers on the scene, that quota has been filled. Like the generic “techno” outbreak in the mid-late 90’s, dubstep isn’t ever going to catch fire in a big enough way nationally and anyway, most of what people are calling dubstep isn’t really dubstep to begin with. And finally, the wispy synth-ish indie-pop movement (see: Alt-J, Tame Impala, and especially M83) isn’t worth taking a second look at and won’t last very long unless something changes.

The airwaves are bored and I couldn’t have picked a better year to dive head first into the Austin local music scene. In 2012 four out of five of my top picks come from artists local to the Austin, TX area. For several of these groups this will be the 3rd or 4th time I’m writing critically about their albums, having covered them for OVRLD earlier in the year. Given that fact, I ask you to forgive me if my blurbs about those albums seems lifted from my previous articles.

1. Balcones by Zlam Dunk
While never intended to be the band’s swan song, “Balcones” nonetheless performs admirably in this regard. Having recently called it quits, Zlam Dunk’s 2012 EP saw the group maturing, both instrumentally and lyrically. While still offering a unique blend of technique and danceable punk grooves, the absence of their debut’s synths along with the return of Charlie Day’s impassioned, raspy vocals create a more personal, introspective space on Balcones. There is a definite theme of coming into adulthood and striking out on one’s own here and while it leaves the EP feeling darker than Zlam Dunk’s previous work, it’s all the more powerful for it.

For fans of: At the Drive-In, Q and Not U, Cinemechanica

2. Lessons on Love, Sharing, and Hygiene by The Capitalist Kids
Austin’s prolific political punks came back this year with their 3rd full length and it may just be their best yet. Here’s the kicker though: it’s full of love songs! “Lessons on Love…” skates gracefully between political snark, finger-pointing anthems, and blisteringly fast ballads in a way that few bands could accomplish. The Capitalist Kids manage to find the goldilocks zone with every song in providing politics without being preachy and love songs without the sap. If you can’t get your toes tapping to this album then you may be a robot or possibly a Republican.

For fans of: Bad Religion, Screeching Weasel, Green Day

3. Arab Spring by Literature
I think it’s safe to call this album Austin’s sleeper hit of 2012. “Arab Spring came out of nowhere early in the year and this first full-length LP by Austin’s Literature has subsequently ended up on the “best of” lists of many major local outlets. Literature play a lo-fi, punkish brand of jangle-pop that’s both catchy and playful. Never overproduced, but laden with poppy hooks, Arab Spring skirts the line between old-school punk and pop like a tightrope walker. The end result is an incredibly catchy collection of songs with a very genuine, DIY feel.

For fans of: Polaris (the band that did the songs for Pete and Pete), Vampire Weekend, Talking Heads

4. All Our False Starts by Pswingset
For me to compare an album to the mid-Atlantic post-punk music scenes of the late 90’s/early 00’s is high praise indeed and in my mind Pswingset’s debut LP “All Our False Starts” is worthy of no less. This album is full of the kind of jangly, technical, minor-key, post-punk music that scored much of my 20’s and continues to be a favorite. There’s a moodiness to All Our False Starts that while subtly reminiscent of mid-late 90’s emo, is at once more mature and less affected. The end result as presented on this LP is both gripping and chill.

For fans of: Shudder to Think, Bats and Mice, Sunny Day Real Estate

5. Fang Island by Fang Island
Despite being my #2 most listened to album of 2012, Fang Island’s self-titled sophomore release has to come in at #5 on this list simply for the fact that it’s actually a 2010 release. Fang Island is not your typical instrumental rock band. For one thing, they often have lyrics (though if their 2012 release “Major proves anything it’s that they’re more interesting without them.) For another thing, this is the most positive, feel-good instrumental music you’ll ever hear. Where most instrumental bands tend to lean towards meandering, building epics, Fang Island aim to play fast, loud, and fun. This self-titled album is the perfect demonstration of what these guys do best and though it’s a quick listen that just means there’s plenty of time to hit “repeat”.

For Fans of: People who fall within the middle of a venn diagram of pop punk and post rock

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