Thursday, January 3, 2013

Top Albums of 2012, 2-1 + Honorable Mentions

2. mewithoutYou - Ten Stories.  Anyone that's a fan knows the story: mewithoutYou began as a post-hardcore band with spoken- and shouted-vocals and heavy instrumentals but gradually became less heavy and more experimental with each album.  The band's last record, It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's All Right, completely deviated from the group's hardcore foundations for a more melodic, singalong aesthetic.  Moreover, whereas earlier albums focused on Weiss' personal struggles, Crazy! centers around fables concerning anthropromorphic animals and vegetables.  So when mewithoutYou announced that their fifth album would be released in 2012, it was anyone's guess where the guys would take their sound.
I don't know anything about truth, but I know falsehood when I see it, and it looks like this whole world you've made.
To my relief, the first song I heard was the thunderous "Fox's Dream of the Log Flume," which features one of Weiss's strongest deliveries ever, as he shouts his last-gasp vocals for two and a half minutes.  Weiss also leads the equally relentless instrumentals, as the rattling guitars, thumping drums, and grooving bass follow his volatile vocals up and down the windy track.  The song is a part of a larger narrative about a circus train's crash in 19th century Montana, and here we listen to the conversation between the escaped Fox and Bear.  But this is not a simple allegory; it's a densely-packed discussion of truth, existence, God, love, and death.  We have brilliant one-liners like, "some with certainty insist 'no certainty exists,'" and there's even some comedy, as the bear recollects: "I asked her, 'do you ever have that recurring fantasy / where you push little kids from the tops of the rides?' She shook her head no and I said 'Oh, neither do I.'" But while culling Weiss's lyrics is often inspiring, it's not always illuminating to the song's grander message: the Fox had once "mistook signs for signified" (or mistook words for something real or concrete) and thereafter tried to find Truth separate from language ("tied my word-ropes in anchor bends").  But the Bear questions whether the Fox can certainly deny all certainty in language and directs some blame at the Fox for their aimless travels: as the Fox withdraws from the world's illusions of truth ("all the bearing points we thought we knew") they move "waywardly on . . . it's still dark on the deck of our boats / haphazardly blown, broken bows."  Between language and silence, certainty and doubt, the Bear announces: "I think it's pretty obvious that there's no God / and there's definitely a God."  Then, during the song's climax, the fox imagines their death in the album's boardwalk/carnival-themed imagery: " I charged at the waves with a glass in my hand / and was tossed like a ball at the bottle stand / and landed beside your remains on the stones / where your cold fingers wrapped round my ankle bone / while maybe ten feet away was a star / thousands of times the size of our sun / exploding like tiny balloons you'd throw darts at." 
This mock trial can no more determine my lot than can driftwood determine the ocean's waves.
The song is a stunning commentary on religion and post-structuralism: if language creates illusions that block Truth, how do we seek and communicate Truth outside of language?  The Fox claims certainty exists, but the Bear is skeptical, finding contradictions in seemingly oppositional binaries: certainty/uncertainty, existence/nonexistence, Truth/Falseness.  The song invokes numerous questions: Why must animals discuss these very human issues?  What does each animal represent?  What does it mean to sing a song renouncing language?  We never receive answers, though we do see the Bear and Fox again in the album's penultimate song, where the weary Bear envisions St. Agnes and jumps off a cliff: "We'll fly in straight lines as from carronades / we'll crash like tidal waves, decimate the islands / as our hollowed lumber falls like water, ends where I start."
Did you come knocking on my door?  Or did I come to yours?  Whose ship came washed up on whose shore?
As if the lyrics were not rich enough, the box set I purchased comes with a twelve-inch lyric booklet with interpretive drawings of each song, providing an interactive and extremely rewarding aesthetic experience to accompany the music. The album is a gift that keeps giving: Weiss's lyrics are difficult but certainly not impenetrable; it simply takes time and experience to unlock his messages.  But it's not just the lyrics that are profound; the music on Ten Stories is wonderfully varied, from the big electric guitars, heavy bass, and wild drums on opener "February, 1878" to the deceptively heavy melodies of "Grist for the Malady Mill."  mewithoutYou also find new ground on songs like "Cardiff Giant," which contrasts bright, jangly guitars with Weiss's heavy screams, and "Fiji Memory," which features wailing guitars over acoustic strums.  
I saw how far I've traveled down the solipsistic road. I climbed out to ask for directions. . . .  [They] asked about the passage from the Bible on my wrists, but I couldn't catch my breath enough to answer.
I know I sound like a fanboy when I describe this album, but Ten Stories is the most engrossing record I've heard all year; each song has layers of meaning that need unpacking to adequately convey its brilliance, and frankly I'm still digging into many of them.  Like mwY's other albums, I imagine I will be listening to Ten Stories for a long time, and it will grow with me over the years.  Overall, Ten Stories represents the intersection of the band's heavier roots with its more experimental, melodic ambitions -- a kind of Hegelian synthesis, which is fitting, since the album ends by quoting Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit:
all circles presuppose they'll end where they begin, but only in their leaving can they come back round.

1. JAPANDROIDS - Celebration Rock.  I had a hard time deciding between mewithoutYou's sacred "stories" and Japandroids's secular "celebrations," but the reason I ultimately gave Celebration Rock the nod is a simple one: it's the record that made me happiest this year.  Celebration Rock is a fantastic album, an enormous leap forward from the occasionally amazing but mostly uneven Post-Nothing.  I blasted this album in my car all summer, screaming along with Brian King as he shouts, "OH YEAH! ALL RIGHT! Hearts from hell collide on fire's highway tonight."  The duo said that they anticipated their fans' live reactions to their new songs while recording their fittingly-titled albumand they shouted and screamed to their songs as if they were their own fans.  It's a pretty cool recording philosophy, and it shows.  Plus, it worked.

The album's climax is the one-two punch of "Younger Us," a song first released in 2010, and "The House that Heaven Built."  "Younger Us" is one of my favorite Japandroids songs: it's a concise, fast-paced anthem that reminisces about the "night[s] you were already in bed, said 'fuck it,' got up to drink with me instead."  These lyrics just scream high-school/college keg party, yet they're also deeply nostalgic; "Younger Us" is not about "saying things like 'we'll sleep when we're dead' and thinking this feeling was never gonna end," it's about remembering those feelings, which apparently have ended.  Despite this, the song exudes a youthful, triumphant feeling of invulnerability.  The song thus operates on both young/impulsive and experienced/reflective levels: it can represent the night you chose partying over sleeping as it happens or when those moments, sadly, become unattainable.  Even if one identifies with the latter, "Younger Us" is still a jolt of electronic energy: the guitars crackle like lightning on the chorus, raising the group's brand of fuzzy noise to new levels.  The song also never wavers in intensity, seemingly crescendoing during each chorus as well as during the middle's instrumental breakdown.  Even when the song appears to slow down, a bolt of guitars gives way to the energetic chorus and Japandroids's chanty moans, which can be understood as joyful exclamations and/or wistful wails.  Only 3 minutes, the song is one of Japandroids's shortest, but I guess that's the point: our youth seems to pass by in an instant -- it seems like yesterday that I was living in Seton Hall's dorms blasting "Younger Us," but now I'm finishing graduate school, and my friends from college are scattered all about the country.

"The House that Heaven Built" picks up where "Younger Us" leaves off: massive electronic, fuzzy guitars; big drums; anthemic choruses; and sing-songy but emotionally-tinged lyrics.  The song is energetic, full of enthusiasm, and just really fun -- it commands you to sing along, and to tell anyone who tries to "slow you down . . . to 'go to hell.'"  I wouldn't believe this song is performed by just two guys if I hadn't seen it live because it sounds so loud, so full of warm sounds.  These guys dump all their energy into their music, and Celebration Rock carries their spirit with it in an almost tangible way.

Although "Youner Us" and "Heaven" are my personal favorites, all eight tracks stand out in their own way: "Continuous Thunder" is the intimate ballad that triumphantly closes the record, "Fire's Highway" uses simple "oh oh" chants to create the album's catchiest chorus, and "Evil's Sway" features the heaviest drumming (and even brief solo) that David Prowse has hitherto demonstrated.

A lot of people don't understand the hype around Japandroids, but that's not surprising: this is not a band that's trying to save the world with their music; they're not making any philosophical statement; and their music is not political.  If you're expecting something revelatory, you're picking up the wrong album.  These songs are celebrations; they're meant to make you happy, to be played around friends, to be the background--and foreground--noise at your keg party.  These songs are immediate and fun, structurally simplistic but long-lasting.  If Japandroids break any barriers, they collapse the gap that the CD/MP3 creates between musicians and their fans, as the refined Celebration Rock captures the atmosphere, sounds, and spirit of the group's live performances.  It's the best album of 2012, and will make my winter of 2013 seem a whole hell of a lot more summery.

Honorable Mentions:

KENDRICK LAMAR - good kid, m.A.A.d city - If I reranked these albums now, Kendrick would've easily cracked the top 10.  This album is an unbelievable journey.  I'm going to be listening to this for awhile in 2013.

THE XX - Coexist - I loved this initially, but I stopped listening and have seldom turned back.  I wanted a sparser sound and got it, and now I'm looking for more of the embellishments from the near-perfect XX to color Coexist.

THE SHINS - Port of Morrow - An enjoyable album, if not a totally memorable one.

CRYSTAL CASTLES - III - The lyrics are horrendously written, but the disorienting electronic noise and bass as well as Glass's murmuring vox make III as enjoyable as Crystal Castles's previous two albums.

TAME IMPALA - Lonerism - I've resisted this because I felt like these guys are making music John Lennon released in the 60's/70's, but I can only resist so much: Lonerism is infectious.

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