You’ve doubtless already made up your mind on what were, subjectively (though this may perhaps be mistaken for a narcissistic objectively as is below), the records to have ultimately defined the year that was 2012. Personally, I wouldn’t deem it to have been the best of years and though not the worst of years either, the dispersion of opinion on the top ones, twos, and various other fews across the board appears to reflect this. My maths is a little haphazard at the best of times – read on and you’ll discover more on that – but the jury has been out for quite some time now, or at the very least since the first of increasingly uncountable lists was originally published at the ludicrously early turn of November. Undoubtedly, no one record has epitomised these past twelve months as Let England Shake did last time around though that’s not to say that there weren’t profuse works worthy of effusive commendation. Goat’s distorted take on World Music, for instance, which never quite slipped on in. Though as above, so below are the twenty-five finest from my pretty damn humble perspective, and the respective reasonings as to why. Sorry if some bits aren’t quite right for whatever reason, and indeed for there in fact being twenty-six LPs listed in this particular inventory. Maths…
Dots & Dashes’ Records of 2012.
25. Sleep Party People, We Were Drifting On A Sad Song.
We begin with a record that bloomed among the darling buds of April, and one that has continued to beguile well into this year’s wintry gloaming. It wasn’t just the bunny masks that plotted parallels between great Dane Brian Batz’ We Were Drifting On A Sad Song and Richard Kelly’s 2001 flick Donnie Darko, for it’s one that seemingly inhabits a snoozy void between an awake lucidity and an oneiric aloofness. It sounds like neither now nor then, with then being the most compatible of variables, and will stick with us long beyond 2012.
24. Lana Del Rey, Born To Die.
Though how is one to adjudge the records of any given timeframe? According to the artistic integrity of each? Or their individual longevity? Perhaps purely according to the mark they did once smear across said period? When it comes to the artist (for the time being) known as Lana Del Rey, well, she’s one of a pretty well negligible integrity, whilst any views of her sticking around for too long following on from dates already notched up in next year’s diary are opaque at best. Though if anyone has defined this one it’s been she. And, released in its earliest moments and alive ’til its last (albeit perpetuated by the entirely inessential Paradise Edition recently bundled up and thrust out), Born To Die has stuck about like the gloopy saccharine gum that it truly is beyond the superficial, faux-bad gal exterior. It has abetted her unwaveringly in her quest toward a since achieved omnipresence which has already seen her pick up that wholly enviable accolade that is GQ’s ‘Woman Of The Year’, and bedazzled with her unmistakably awkward live performances, crooning of how her womanhood tastes of a certain fizz franchise all the while. Even if this were the last we were to see of Lana Del Rey you can bet that bottom dollar in the back pocket of your Blue Jeans that it ain’t the last we’ve heard of lil’ Lizzy Grant. And for the sake of fascination if nothing else, that’s an unquestionably good thing.
23. Tall Firs, Out Of It And Into It.
Good things of any description, meanwhile, proved the unattainable scourge of brothers in IPA-stained melancholia, Dave Mies and Aaron Mullan on Out Of It And Into It. The ATP Recordings-released third full-length from the New York City duo – whose sound and indeed moniker may have intimated a more bucolic belonging – bristled with an infectious discontent. It dealt in a passive aggression; a great desolation, and won over as many newfound acolytes as LDR did polarise myriad opinions. Two guitars coiled tightly about that same number of lugubrious voices, the Tall Firs whispered an alluring dirge to encapsulate the perpetual suicidal tendencies of any which white picket fenced suburbia.
22. Human Don’t Be Angry, Human Don’t Be Angry.
From nondescript US nothingness to the UK highlands, that seemingly perpetually irate wee Scot Malcolm Middleton ever mellowing once seemed about as likely as the Arab Strap only fraying once death did do them part, though that’s precisely what went on with Human Don’t Be Angry. A collagist’s daydream which fused together the progressive instrumental with the decidedly humanly vocal that at times also reflected the sound of a halcyon ’80s glinting back at the listener from a futuristic sheen, it was an astonishingly subdued listen then and has since proven an unprecedentedly, and repeatedly inviting effort. And if you thought The Greatest Story Ever Told by Bill Wells and onetime ally Malcolm Middleton was heartstring-twanging, Celtic dejection at its most majestic then Monologue: River went and blew it clean out the water.
21. Clark, Iradelphic.
Ah modern-day predictability! The default position for so many of our contemporary artistes and so often the bane of our existence. Well, when Chris Clark returned three years on from the perhaps excessively challenging Totems Flare with Iradelphic, all expectations and predictions would surely go out the window. Warp stood by their man steadfastly, as he embarked upon a mesmeric voyage of self-discovery during which the much maligned IDM epithet was unceremoniously canned in favour of a more organic feel that in no way compromised on the irrefutable intelligence of Clark’s discog. Acoustics and slabs of profound ambience were its two primary ingredients, though elsewhere the nomadic experimentalist called at smoky collaboration (the expansive if unassuming, Martina Topley-Bird-featuring Open) and a wondrously audacious triptych composition in the exhaustive form of The Pining. Even the most educated of guesses could surely not have foreseen such a Delphic expedition.
20. TOPS, Tender Opposites.
Grimes’ skewed avant-pop Visions may have been the most notorious release from any which Arbutus artist across 2012, although it was the ebullient yet crestfallen, disco-flecked broods of fellow Canucks TOPS that, well, topped it for us. The four-piece floated atop the sigh-a-sec vocals of the ever blithe Jane Penny though did really beat away to a palpably palatable wooze of gently rousing soft-rock. Standout Diamond Look came fully-formed, and fucking infested with compelling staccato guitar work redolent of that of Modest Mouse’s enviably savvy Isaac Brock.
19. Dark Dark Dark, Who Needs Who.
The Minnesotan baroque-pop ensemble flirted with the sublime on both of their previous full-length escapades, though Who Needs Who was the sound of a band finally coming to terms with its firmly concretised identity. The vocally articulated woebegone anguish of Nona Marie Invie was, inevitably, centrally focussed throughout though around it whirled a dizzying array of cirque sonic manoeuvres, ashen ebony/ ivory refrains, and – shush – impressionistic anthemia. Whether the soaring minors of It’s A Secret, or the gelid tinker to Patsy Cline the all-important inquisition went answered: you need this one.
18. Land Observations, Roman Roads IV – XI.
How many records inspired by the history & geography of former Roman roads can you claim to have heard in your lifetime, let alone this year? The answer to that one, I should full well imagine, will be one of the two digits to make up the binary numeral system. Thankfully, we indulged. And overindulged – make ours a 1. Meticulous graphite whiz James Brooks veered off-road, and discovered the guitar to be mightier than the humble pencil to pen introspective instrumentals to have mined inspiration from anywhere from Via Flaminia, to our very own Kingsland Road. A total delight, and a triumphant 1-0 to the avant-garde.
17. Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE.
The inevitable. My immediate and sincerest apologies, but it really was that good. I even tried not to fall for it, though flicking onto the undiluted smoothness of channel ORANGE was one of my many musical highlights over the duration of 2012.
16. Teengirl Fantasy, Tracer.
And across the latter half of this twelve-month running time, Tracer never found itself far from the laser glaring out from within Dots & Dashes’ trusty boom box. The decrepit old thing thirsted for this mesh of some of the most eclectic electronica served up in recent memory as any self-deprecating Dalstonite does Staropramen, dahling. Fizzed with hyphy urban tracks and subduedly euphoric house bits and bobs, guest turns from Panda Bear, onetime Daft Punk vocalist Romanthony, and Laurel Halo, amongst others, only added further to the overriding ethereality of the LP – one that never went on long enough.
15. Beak>, >> / Fairhorns, Doki Doki Run.
From one that never ran far enough to sate this weirdly ravenous hunger, to two inextricably linked records we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to separate: first up, Beak> returned with the intensely enigmatic and densely invigorating follow-up to the eponymous début – a record as subversive in nature as it was in name. As with Dark Dark Dark before them in this list (if not in the year that was) >> may have been all but entirely unpronounceable though musically, it spoke volumes of the trio’s increased comprehension of one another. That said it was, most discernibly, still the unmistakable sound of three decidedly introverted individuals in Geoff Barrow, Billy Fuller, and last but by no means least, Matt Loveridge. He is Fairhorns, and his Doki Doki Run was another equally provocative extravagance: if it may have initially seemed an impenetrable excursion from Beak>’s slightly more refined Kraut stylings, then it only grew like a tumorigenic compulsion ravaging the brain with time. “Listen. Again, and again, and again”, it hissed. Probably…
14. Daphni, Jiaolong.
Another that has only positively matured with this trundling of time is Dan Snaith’s astonishingly cohesive compilation of sorts. An aural résumé of his each output kicked out from under the guise of his DJ nom de plume, Daphni, Jiaolong proffered a transcendent and with that sophisticated luxury that served as much as this engrossing sonic CV of sorts as it did a catalogue for his label startup of the same name. From the rapturous funk/ soul wobble of opener Yes I Know right through to the elate electro-pop bloopery on Long, whilst Daphni may not quite be Caribou and Jiaolong is, overall, never quite as scintillating as Swim, as parallel projects go this one’s already operating on all the right planes.
13. Mac DeMarco, Mac DeMarco 2.
Mac DeMarco 2, to my ears, was bookended by two particularly intriguing propositions. At the one end, Cooking Up Something Good; at the other, Still Together. The former a giddy indie jaunt concerning DeMarco Snr.’s predilection for crystal meth; the latter a tender acoustic shush sung to DeMarco Jnr.’s enduring Kiki. That’s his girlfriend, y’all. Though these two are particularly interesting, as each proves strangely redolent of a different ’60s track made famous by two separate Disney films: the former, to my ears, is as though a slinky garage redux of The Bare Necessities, whilst the latter evokes gleeful memories of a time when The Lion Sleeps Tonight was the only song sung in the schoolyard. But these are just the bookends, and in between are some highly digestible further works. I mean Freaking Out The Neighbourhood – freakishly good.
12. Sam Willis, Winterval.
The brick that fell through Walls and thudded down onto our stereo like a ton of proverbials, Sam Willis’ Winterval served as a refreshing snap back to a surreality of glistering electronics and scrupulously manipulated glitches. Swelling like a sea, the crests peaked on Frozen/Cirrus – a track which bobbled joyously about the place like the loneliest of buoys revelling in unending solitude. Elsewhere, Willis hacked away at, cut, and pasted from the electronic blueprint of this particular decade thus far, and superimposed these snippets over timeworn techno designs to compile a thriller that leant nonchalantly on the past whilst never prizing its transfixed gaze from a vastly promising future.
11. Melody’s Echo Chamber, Melody’s Echo Chamber.
My calculations often transpire to be in some way or other incorrect, though across this list I’ve totted up ten ladies to approximately fifty gents. That’s a gently deplorable overemphasis on the XY sex chromosomes by all accounts; a 5:1 ratio in favour of the largely bearded and universally bedraggled among it all. However, irrespective of sex, no other came out with anything as irrefutably sweet and utterly effervescent as Melody Prochet who, playing with the Melody’s Echo Chamber moniker, released this gloriously dulcet eponymous LP to a meritoriously rapturous welcoming on my birthday, of all days. It’s an unabashedly pop record, though one which commands a strange and compulsive dedication. I can’t remember the last time I got myself quite so committed to such a superficially jejune record, and maybe it’s only still here as I only first heard it a bit over a month ago. To revert to my slipshod mathematics, there may be a slight skew in favour of the second half of the year here, though I’ve already cultivated this niggling feeling within that this one may still be cemented into the aforesaid stereo for quite some time yet.
10. John Talabot, ƒIN.
This one, meanwhile, already has. Ten months and still counting, to be a little more specific. The Balearic beat term has been so heavily worn this year and last that it’s now about as threadbare as the shamelessly bankrupt morality of John Talabot’s native Barcelona. But ¡Dios mío! we couldn’t have hoped for a more exemplary epitome of the genre’s sultry ability to engender the sort of seamy moves you never knew you’d ever be capable of making: from the humid grooves of Depak Ine, to the widescreen throwback pop smother of Destiny and beyond, ƒIN was just the start of something fucking beautiful. And that, Paloma, is the God’s honest.
9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend.
From a merch table in Boston to the hallowed top ten of this here rundown, the unannounced reinstitution of Godspeed You! Black Emperor brought some apposite gloom to the year’s fourth and final quartile. Of course, given that it represented their first original work in almost exactly a decade meant that it could automatically, and with that authentically be deemed their finest in years upon years, though it was so much more rich and ultimately rewarding than that. Opener Mladic was conceivably their most fulfilling composition since Moya and at almost twice its length, was certainly one of their fullest. This, and the forlorn slow burn of We Drift Like Worried Fire were punctuated by two whirs of uncontrollable drone that, although noncore on first listen, with time began to most adroitly equilibrate the four-track behemoth that was Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend.
8. DIIV, Oshin.
Zachary Cole Smith may only be picking up the odd £50 here and there for selling Oshin (Subsume) to the devil known only as Spencer Matthews, though his LP of the same (unbracketed) name has been picking up numerous plaudits since its suitably summertime release back in mid-July. Again appositely, the record built like a wave curled by some divine hand, whereby it concertedly worked up to that point three minutes into Doused at which everything comes tumultuously crashing down about Cole Smith’s twinkly guitars, before washing away to arguably the year’s most doleful recording in Home. Devastating and disconcertingly accomplished for a début, we can but hope the Captured Tracks catch strictly adheres to his preferred DIY ethos, and outs a follow-up pronto…
7. Lotus Plaza, Spooky Action At A Distance.
I love Bradford Cox’ contribution to alternative culture as much as I loathe his megalomaniacal erraticism, and when fellow Deerhunter Lockett Pundt eked out his sophomore studio release, Spooky Action At A Distance back in April, its taste proved supremely bittersweet as a result: on the one hand, well, it was a wondrous piece of music start through finish. But then on the other, it distressingly evinced the suppression Pundt must surely feel within the context of his day job endeavours: Strangers, Dusty Rhodes and White Galactic One stood up to anything on Halcyon Digest (anything, aside from the Pundt-penned and indeed trilled Desire Lines, one might contend) whilst the luminously radiant Eveningness and the ever brighter grandiosity of Monoliths rose above his every previous. Irregardless of his repressed standing beside Cox and the distance intimated by its title, Spooky Action At A Distance was the songsmith gambolling jubilantly toward us and intimacy; running before he could really even walk.
6. Dinosaur Jr., I Bet On Sky.
Few bands will stagger on to reach the indisputably admirable artistic milestone that is the tenth full-length and, although J Mascis’ Dinosaur Jr. have fluctuated a touch in quality across their decade (which has, factually, already spanned almost three in terms of these sorts of twelve-month sessions), they returned to their subtly visceral optimum with I Bet On Sky. I had expected little, only to be vigorously tousled to the maximum as Watch The Corners, Almost Fare, Pierce The Morning Rain, and more or less its every other component made sure the Amherst trio returned to the bestest of books.
5. Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan.
Whilst Swing Lo Magellan incontestably saw David Longstreth and his Dirty Projectors continue on a trajectory toward an ever greater accessibility – albeit one with heavily syncopated rhythms and nimble, spindly guitar frenetics smudged into its very essence – much debate ensued as to whether they’d pushed the off-kilter pop propensities too far. To bring some subjectivity to the parley though, it was, to my mind, their most estimable, and with that convincing record yet. A little more organic than the almost mechanical precisions contained within Bitte Orca and yet still oozing those very same oodles of eccentric harmony, the whole thing proved a delightful sway to have swept me insouciantly as though two ears of barley in a field drenched in a sepia shade of warmth. Scorching.
4. MONO, For My Parents.
The latter half of 2012 will surely go down as a good ‘un in the annals of post-rock – a fine vintage, with the high end pedlars actively out in force. You couldn’t move for instances of sporadic magic: whether that was ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend Ascend, or Godspeed’s rejoicing in their live return, or Do Make Say Think revisiting the ruminative genius of Goodbye Enemy Airship the Landlord Is Dead in full it was the genre de tous les jour to have cast a dim blanket of obdurate gloom over a world already cowering in fear of some impending apocalypse prophesied by the long since deceased indigenous people of Yucatán. The time is almost nigh. Supposedly… And when the time comes, there’s no record I would rather have on than the latest from Tokyo woe mongers MONO. For My Parents was, for inexplicably few, the breath-snatcher; the heart-puncturing work of unwavering hopelessness and unfathomable grace – the only feasible soundtrack to life itself, were existence reduced to glacial solitude deep within the expansive and altogether unforgiving Arctic Circle. Soon sure to be commissioned by the Beeb and smeared beneath Attenborough’s winsome lull, then…
3. Dirty Three, Toward The Low Sun.
Were Warren Ellis, Jim White and Mick Turner’s Toward The Low Sun to accompany a visual documentary, conversely, well the Dirty Three’s wily instrumental narratives hardly befit reality. The glaring-as-morning creak of Moon On The Land, or the stormy clatter to The Pier are compositions carved from an Antipodean reconstruction of Dickens’ Dingley Dell – sorrowful in aesthetic, though monumental in stature. A loose recording that somehow just about holds itself together for forty-odd minutes, I for one had never before heard an almost entirely improvisational work with such a direct and propulsive thrust behind it, and I’ve since often wondered whether or not I ever will again.
2. Efterklang, Piramida.
There are many cons to the www. and as far as the worldwide distribution of music, and the immediacy the internet has incurred may be concerned, there are good bits and bad bits. Piracy, for one, is probably bad, with leaks stripping away that veneer of heady anticipation for the most part. There wasn’t a great deal of expectation heaped upon Efterklang as they approached Piramida, though if there is one humungous advantage to the way we now consume intangible things through our ears then it is that we can be plugged in absolutely anywhere, listening to a cast of three again indubitably great Danes now shacked up in Berlin, whose most recent and indeed best record was composed on an abandoned Norwegian archipelago. Globalisation gone mad maybe, but it’s undoubtedly rather exhilarating. As was Piramida: diligently constructed as a vibrantly textured neo-symphony, the record plays like the opus of an orchestra that is deconstructed in places and recomposed in others as it steadily dwindles toward its inescapable end. It’s what the repeat button was originally, if albeit inadvertently intended for and represents, without question, their masterpiece thus far.
1. Sharon Van Etten, Tramp.
And so we reach the summit. Congratulations and colossal thanks if you clambered through all the above to get here – hope the hike was worth it… If you’ve ambled alp-like the peaks and troughs of Dots & Dashes previously this year, you’ll doubtless already be only too aware of our undying infatuation with, and adulation of, Ms. Sharon Van Etten. It might, therefore, come as something of an anticlimax to find her sittin’ pretty up here but really, we couldn’t have run with anyone else, could we?
One fleeting thought, though: will she ever better Tramp? I’m actually unsure.
Or at least I was, until she aired a thoroughly fantabulous work in progress at her final of four London dates this year. Though where SVE goes from here is the talk of another time, for the most estimable recordings surely serve as heavily meditated documents of a particular period in the life of a certain someone. The lyrical catharsis to have coursed throughout the record was one thing, and one thing articulated particularly brilliantly. Her venomous guitar work too, which rasped when it wanted to and cooled off in light acoustica at other moments, was absolutely faultless over 46 minutes and 19 seconds of superlative. Though it was her voice – that puppyish bay; those scowled yowls – that set the lady of the Tramp apart. In all honesty, not one other record came close and as with all great recordings, in its subtle imperfections lie redemptive semblances of perfection. Though all in all, to flaw the record which will doubtless be fondly recalled forevermore as the one that really made her is totally futile. Congratulations, too, to Sharon Van Etten: the incontestable, and with that to my mind uncontested artist of 2012.