Welcome to Part II of The Top 30(ish) Albums of 2012, where we check in on entries 24 through 17.
24. Verse – Bitter Clarity, Uncommon Grace
Reunion albums are typically tricky propositions, but hardcore act Verse’s first disc since 2008 (and fourth, all told) reveals that time apart can be as much an asset as an obstacle. Always one of the more political-minded bands of the contemporary hardcore scene, what sets Verse’s Bitter Clarity apart is the increased prominence of personal-tinged lyrics, which present themselves perhaps most lucidly and self-awarely on opener “The Selfish of the Earth,” which both acts a (very) thinly veiled explanation of Verse’s breakup and establishes that the band is deftly funneling the consequential cynicism into its music. Music that is just as incisive, dynamic, and mutedly melodious as anything it’s ever penned.
23. Frankie Rose – Interstellar
Rose is no stranger to the cresting wave of girl-dominated surf/post/dream pop, serving spells in both Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls, and, with this, taking part in her second eponymous project. Interstellar, then, is not technically distinctive—for instance, Rose’s voice uncannily resembles a less angular version of Dum Dum Girls frontwoman Dee Dee Penny’s—but rather an exercise in refinement. Clocking in at just a shade over 30 minutes, these ten tracks crystallize all that works within the genre, all the front-and-center-yet-slightly-reverbed vocals (“Pair of Wings”), the earworm melodies (“Know Me”), the moments of unexpected and entirely welcome atmosphere (Interstellar’s entire final third) into a whole that derives its component parts so well, it transcends being derivative.
22. Baroness – Yellow & Green
For quite some time, Baroness fit quite snugly beside fellow sludge/stoner metalheads like Mastodon and Burst, but with each release, the band has proven to possess a near-unmatched affinity for delicate melody work to buffet its more bludgeoning tendencies. That’s not to denigrate the likes of Mastodon and Burst (whose own, harsher sounds are still far from predictable), nor is it even necessarily to praise Baroness, as melody is not, by default, synonymous with good melody. Fortunately, on Yellow & Green, most times it is. While some may gripe about the increased “lightness” of sound, and, more justifiably, that the double-disc set naturally suffers a bit of bloat, Yellow & Green also provides enough surprises and variations, like the folksy leanings of “Green Theme,” the keyboards of “Back Where I Belong,” and the reassuring grit of “Take My Bones Away” (along with others aplenty) to overshadow its occasional misfire.
21. Lo’ There Do I See My Brother – With Eyes Open, We Fall on Our Swords
There are several songs on With Eyes Open, We Fall on Our Swords—including, notably, opener “Birth”—that will have listeners looking at their player and being surprised that they’re still on the same track. Whether that’s a good or bad thing may vary from listener to listener, but what it is, quite irrefutably, is classic post-rock, where songs are split into movements and crash and ebb and flow and weave and simmer and flare up and then do all those things a few more times. Available for both streaming and download from the band’s Bandcamp site, With Eyes Open, We Fall on Our Swords is quintessential, unabashed post-rock. Witness song-long melodies like “Caught in the Shallows,” which counters simplicity with grandiosity, or “You Were the Source,” which sounds like the sort of thing movies are written around. The whole undertaking approaches 80 minutes, and every second of it—even, perhaps especially the slower ones—is utterly arresting.
20. Exitmusic – Passage
Something about dream pop seems to disproportionately attract female/male duos, and often to profoundly full-sound effect. Wye Oak and Beach House remain the most famous examples, but Exitmusic should soon find their way to that shortlist. Not only do they follow a similar template, and well, but Aleksa Palladino (who is perhaps best known for playing Angela Darmody on Boardwalk Empire) boasts an impressive set of pipes more reminiscent of Florence Welch than Victoria Legrand. And although bandmate Devon Church is no slouch, crafting soundscapes so darkly melancholy that they could sometimes be more rightly labeled nightmare pop, it truly is Palladino’s husky vibrato that brings everything together. Listen to “The Modern Age,” and you’ll know exactly how (and why) it works.
19. Ben Folds Five – The Sound of the Life of the Mind
It’s possible that more was made of the return of piano-meister Folds’ trio than was actually necessary. Sure, the band’s last output was 1999’s vastly underrated The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, but it’s fair to say Folds remained quite active in the interim, as did bassist Bob Sledge and drummer Darren Jesse in their own rights (with International Orange and Hotel Lights, respectively). Plus, the trio played a few reunion concerts during its absence, so it’s not as if this is all entirely new. Still, 13 years is quite some time to remain away from the recording studio, and it’s a testament to The Sound of the Life of the Mind that it sounds A) so natural, it could have easily been released in 2000 and B) so fresh, it fits just as well in 2012. Part of that is no doubt the easy rapport of the players—as well as the range they cover: the sneering piano-punk of “Do It Anyway,” the contemplative balladry of “Sky High,” and the lyrical portraiture of tracks like “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later.” All these are vintage Ben Folds Five flourishes, and all arrive both intact and in style, making this a Sound well worth hearing.
18. Purity Ring – Shrines
While 2011 saw an embarrassment of riches when it came to chilly, atmospheric, indie-informed R&B (with LPs from Active Child and Washed Out, EPs from How to Dress Well and Clams Casino, and mixtapes abound), 2012 slowed the roll a little bit—which is fine, provided the offerings are as consistent and effective as Purity Ring’s debut Shrines. Vocalist Megan James lends her gorgeous vocals to a series of stark, sparse arrangements from instrumentalist Corin Roddick. The results resemble a more sinister Lykke Li, or the sort of thing Holy Other might do if fronted by Grimes’ Claire Boucher. All of these comparisons to other acts might give the impression that Purity Ring is merely a copy, but nothing could be further from the truth. The duo accomplishes a more singular, textured sound over the course of these eleven tracks than most bands do in an entire decade; this deceptively dark pairing has a bright future.
17. Between the Buried and Me – The Parallax Part 2: Future Sequence
The ‘sequel’ to 2011 EP The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues, Between the Buried and Me’s sixth full-length does well in retooling the sprawling impulses (or is it compulsions?) of 2009’s The Great Misdirect; the result is a record that clocks in at 65-minutes and still, somehow, feels lean. Yes, it’s paradoxical beyond words how the band can write songs that breach the 15-minute mark (“Silent Flight Parliament”), fit in a xylophone-and-string section amidst squalls of distortion (on “Extremophile Elite”), pair synths and flutes (“Melting City”), or turn a glorified segue into one of the album’s most beautiful moments (the piano-driven “The Black Box”) and make the self-indulgence feel natural and earned, rather than, well, merely self-indulgent. Even by doing something as simple as varying track-lengths, BtBaM keep listeners hanging on with knuckles that would be white if they weren’t also bloodied from the moshpit. This is something that couldn’t be so easily said of the band’s past work, even career high-point Colors, and The Parallax Part 2’s newfound (or, at least, newly polished) strength in structure and songwriting easily earns it a spot on this list.
Next time: We travel to Stockholm, Canada, and, of course, Compton.