1. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…
Musically reticent yet emotionally resonant, Apple’s fourth studio offering – and the first in seven years – is nothing short of revelatory. Though the album’s minimalist production values make it a stark and uncompromising listen, every song brims with creativity and furious energy. Apple’s adept piano work is steadied by precise, rapid-fire percussion with little else adding to the mix. What extra flourishes are present in the recording, such as the xylophone on the opening track/lead single, “Every Single Night,” seem wonderfully out of place and serve as harbingers of some impending, unidentifiable danger.
Of course, the main attraction here – as is the case with any Fiona Apple record – is the lyrical content. The liner sheet reads like entries culled from her diary, and the singer-songwriter’s smoky voice is the perfect vehicle for expressing her inner turmoil. On “Daredevil,” for instance, the coda is the literal representation of a figurative breakdown. Vocals hoarse and cracking, Apple desperately pleads with her lover, “Give me what you got in your mind/in the middle of the night.”
The unabashed rawness of the subject material wears heavy at times, but it is befitting of an artist as temperamental and idiosyncratic as Apple. Clearly, she exists on a plane populated by very few of her musical contemporaries, and The Idler Wheel… is the masterstroke of a visionary who is at the top of her game and, perhaps, the pinnacle of her career.
2. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
‘Epic’ is an adjective that gets bandied about these days without much thought as to what exactly it is that it is describing. But having been fortunate enough to attend a GY!BE concert on a cold, blustery Asheville night in March 2003, I tend to use the word sparingly. Lasting the better part of four hours and requiring my constant attention throughout, the experience was indeed epic. And although it was ultimately fulfilling, it was also physically and emotionally draining. Such is the devastating impact of the Montreal collective’s towering, symphonic compositions.
It has been ten full years since GY!BE last released an album. After going on indefinite hiatus mere months after that show at the Orange Peel, the band lay dormant until its members reunited for a European tour in late 2010. Though the group has been performing live on a semi-regular basis in the two years since reconvening, it shocked fans when copies of newly recorded material suddenly surfaced at U.S. tour stops this fall.
GY!BE’s first album since 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O. is as hauntingly beautiful as anything else in the band’s oeuvre. But what is most impressive about Allelujah! is that the group has struck a perfect balance between dissonance and melodicism. The ample guitar drones on past albums sometimes felt too long. Here, though, they are countered by soaring swells of horns and strings at just the right moments. Whether it is an outcome of renewed passion or simply having refined their sound on the road, there is an undeniable singularity to each of the album’s four tracks. The end result is a record as immediate and powerful as anything you are likely to hear this year.
3. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
The latest offering from Dirty Projectors, while not a concept album per se, is nevertheless heavy on big ideas. Deeply personal reflections and poignant philosophical musings populate singer/guitarist Dave Longstreth’s lyrics, and he waxes poetic throughout the record in search of answers to some of life’s biggest questions. Sweetening the pot, however, is the fact that his bandmates seem to have perfected their signature brand of off-kilter indie rock.
While in the past the Projectors have been criticized for their quirkiness, here their more experimental leanings have been given a listener-friendly pop treatment. The gorgeous harmonizing for which the group has come to be known is affective, and the music is rife with hooks. Songs like “Offspring Are Blank” and “Maybe That Was It” feature frenzied psychedelic riffage. Conversely, “Dance For You” and “Impregnable Question” are surprisingly tender acoustic ballads, the latter track containing lyrics touching enough to induce tears.
4. Swans – The Seer
Exploring the dark side of humanity has been Swans’ modus operandi since their inception in 1982, and they do it better and with more relish, authenticity and aplomb than anyone else past or present. Creating apocalyptic, charred soundscapes is the band’s specialty, and this, their second record since reforming after close to 15 years apart, is as harsh and moving as anything they have ever produced.
This time around, Michael Gira and company (which include Akron/Family, Ben Frost, Karen O and original Swan, Jarboe) have ratcheted up the fear factor by stretching two hours of intensity over two discs. Threatening guitar drones – accentuated by tribal percussion, bursts of free-form jazz and countless other forms of music expression – build into mammoth pillars of white noise. Several songs exceed 10 minutes; the longest, the title track, clocks in at over half an hour.
The Seer is not a pretty listen. It is neither easy nor fun. It demands patience and perseverance. In fact, it helps to be in the right frame of mind when preparing to give the album a spin; otherwise, you might be scared. But stick with it and you will be rewarded. You might even glean a sort of ragged beauty amid the brutality.
5. Beach House – Bloom
Dream pop isn’t exactly a genre that suggests the type of mainstream success that Beach House have enjoyed in 2012. But having attended two of their concerts this year, I can attest to the duo’s deserved and meteoric rise from marginal club act to headliner. Though they showed signs of grandeur on 2010’s Teen Dream, Bloom ranks as the band’s most accomplished work to date.
Even after countless spins, I continue to uncover nuanced splendor in the album’s 10 tracks: the seamless marriage of synth and electric arpeggios on “Wild;” the wistful and hopeful vocals on “Other People;” the deliciously bent notes of “The Hours;” the entirety of “Wishes.” Simply put, Bloom is a record that warrants your immediate attention.