Sitting down to sift through the vague shortlist of records I’ve been holding in my head for a few weeks now, I was surprised by how strong a year 2012 seems to have been. As I separated the sonic wheat from the chaff, other LPs continually popped into my head – but what about that one? Musically, then, 2012 feels like the best year for several.
Some records have come too late for me fairly to consider them: I’ve been slow to explore Alt-J, Sharon van Etten and Band of Horses, all of whom will appear in the lists of others. Yet more are bubbling under: Paul Weller’s Sonik Kicks was that rarest of things, a vital album from a ‘heritage’ act; Leaving Eden found the Carolina Chocolate Drops as exciting as ever despite the loss of one of their three founding members; Hanne Hukkelberg’s Featherbrain was both charmingly other-worldly and satisfyingly texturised, and Cat Power’s Sun surely takes its place as one of the best entries in her entire back catalogue. All of which is without mentioning the impish pleasures of Of Monsters and Men, the lush Americana of First Aid Kit, and Calexico’s Algiers. So, yeah. Decent year. There can, however, only be five, arranged in no particular order.
Grizzly Bear – Shields
Resist the inevitable all you like: from the clanging melody of ‘Sleeping Ute’, Sheilds is a creative, intricate reimagining of the indie rock album. Here is a record on which lap steel sits entirely comfortable with a drum machine, and which will have considerable influence on a legion of musicians currently toiling away in obscurity. The band’s advocates gnashed their teeth when 2009’s Veckatimest was overlooked by some critics; in many ways, Sheilds is that record’s direct sequel, and may suffer a similar fate. On the other hand, there’s more heart here than was on show before, a sort of energy behind the cleverness. Sheilds isn’t all shenanigans – and that makes it doubly inspiring.
Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America
It isn’t often that you hear an honest-to-goodness concept album anymore, but Mitchell’s fifth album – a follow-up to another honest-to-gooness concept album, Hadestown – is just that. It’s not so much a character study or a rock opera as it is a meditation on a theme. Its title, of course, alludes to the myth of the self-made American man, but its content makes clear that it is too aware of Uncle Sam’s current malaise to lionise anyone. (The first track, ominiously, is entitled ‘Wilderland’.) Mitchell’s distinctive vocals often act as a setting agent for structurally adventurous songs, which break away from their deceptively simple titles – ‘Venus’, ‘Tailor’, ‘Ships’ – to drift prettily over the sense of something wicked this way coming.
Django Django – Django Django
Like Vampire Weekend if they meant it, Django Django offer something for everyone: catchy hooks, memorable melodies, and rhythmic innovation. The use of world music feels organic and even ‘authentic’, fully fused with the structure of the songs rather than added as exotic seasoning. ‘Default’ might be my song of the year, but ‘WOR’ and ‘Skies over Cairo’ have been equally placed on repeat in car and flat alike. If Sheilds and Young Man in America are occasionally overly sober, Django Django is simultaneously smart and fun.
Dr John – Locked Down
But here is where you need to be if you want to party. Produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Locked Down is a swampy, moody slice of proper New Orleans funk. This isn’t an album for Bourbon Street, though – it feels more fitting for the bayou, expansive and echoing. Dr John’s voice comes at you like a shaman’s, full of power but also a kind of knowledge. What’s also here, however, is humour: one of the tracks is entitled ‘Kingdom of Izzness’, and the overall atmosphere is one of abandon, a kind of – at last! – accommodation with every aspect of Mac Rebennack’s storied career. Either way, Locked Down is a simple pleasure, first to last. Stompin’.
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
Ignore the title, which isn’t even Apple’s most rococo: Idler Wheel is by some measure her most accessible work, regardless of the attempt to render Extraordinary Machine streamlined and without distraction. There remain the usual absurdities – the video for ‘Every Single Night’, for instance, featured Apple wearing a squid on her head – but there are also songs which feature the singer-songwriter’s trademark arresting lyrics, allied with a newly deft melodic touch. ‘Wolves’, for instance, features a repeated line – ‘Nothing’s wrong when a song ends in a minor key’ – which I’ve found myself singing absently more than any other this year. That, my friends, is real songwriting. It was good to have Apple back.