And so, faithful reader, we come to the triumphant conclusion of the Top 30(ish) Albums of 2012. It’s been a long, strange, and, hopefully, quasi-enjoyable journey, with stops in Compton, Baltimore, outer space, and, as is the world's contractual obligation, Billy Corgan's own private IdahOceania. Without further ado, then, let’s get to the last act.
4. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Ascension
Since length (or lack thereof) seems to be turning into a theme here in the Great Eight (and, indeed, throughout the Top 30 entire), may as well get it out of the way: it’s not an insult to say one of the key strengths of the Heed’s glorious Ascension is that, held up against the rest of the band’s discography, it’s so short. Coheed and Cambria has always had a deft hand at combining prog and pop (among other styles) in unlikely yet brilliantly effective ways (see: In Keeping Secrets… and Good Apollo, Part 1) and embracing new genres with an almost pathological devotion with each new album (post-hardcore, prog, hair metal, electronica, goes the rough roadmap). With these dalliance, naturally, came experimentation—often good, but also often rambling. The Afterman trims the fact around these edges and feels like a distillation of all the band does well, without the filler that could sometimes start to weigh down albums past (even Good Apollo, which some consider the band’s best, is arguably guilty of this). Prog epic “Domino the Destitute” sits snugly beside the electronic ballad title track, the all-out rocker “Goodnight, Fair Lady,” and metal shredder “Vic the Butcher.” All of this might make Afterman sound a bit jarring, but it’s a testament to Claudio and crew that they’re able to draw on their storied past and piece it all together in a way that feels natural, sensible, innately epic, and, most amazingly, concise.
3. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself/Hands of Glory
It may be cheating to include both of these albums, as they technically came out at practically polar ends of the year; but if the Mr. Bird himself can package them together, then, dammit, so can I. And in reality, a lot more connects the full-length Break It Yourself and the longer-than-your-average-EP Hands of Glory than the year of their release. The latter’s “Orpheo,” for instance, is a reinterpretation of the former’s “Orpheo Looks Back”; more generally, Hands answers the general sprawl of Break—whose eight-plus-minute “Hole in the Ocean Floor” just might be the most majestic thing Bird’s ever put to tape—with a (mostly) laconic set of simple, folksy arrangements. Most notable are “When the Helicopter Comes” and “Railroad Hill” (although Hands closer “Beyond the Valley of the Three White Horses” beats “Hole…” for both length and range, a theme and variation that takes one simple melody through a myriad of styles). All that, to say nothing of spectacular earworms like “Near Death Experience Experience” (which is impossible to hear without some sort of reptile-brain-based rhythmic reaction), “Lusitania,” the “Orpheo”s, and many others. Even interludes like “Polynation” and “Behind the Barn” make the most of their brief time: the latter stands as a particularly compelling blend of sinister and beautiful. All in all, then, it’s actually the sheer spread, the very fact that Break and Hands are poles, that makes the collection so intensely united.
2. Hammock – Departure Songs
Another double-disc set that makes the most of its maximal-ism. Hammock, as a band, has remained fairly steadfast within its (admittedly broad) wheelhouse of just-this-side-of-ambient post-rock, owing more to artists like Harold Budd and Brian Eno than the comparatively in-your-face approach Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Explosions in the Sky. That said, the duo of Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson has also managed to steadily and surely add to its sonic palette, supplementing strings, horns, vocals, and just general grandiosity to the act’s more conventional starting points of atmospheric synth pads, chiming guitar arpeggios, and arch form-informed build-up dynamics. Honestly, two discs’ worth of this material very well could be exhausting—and, to many, no doubt is—but with emotion as genuine as “Pathos” and “(Leaving) the House Where We Grew Up” as well as moments as flat-out gorgeous as “(Tonight) We Burn Like Stars That Never Die” and “Ten Thousand Years Won’t Save Your Life,” Hammock is able to justify its own reach and grasp. With most double albums, hypothetical arguments can very easily be (and, well, have been) made that with a bit of trimming, the artist could have released one front-to-back excellent disc, rather than two comparatively middling ones; not so with Departure Songs, though. In this case, the only logical hypothetical is how stellar a triple-disc Hammock set would be.
1. mewithoutYou – Ten Stories
A circus train crashes somewhere in the Pacific Northwest in, as the first song (and lyric) helpfully informs us, “February, 1878.” Thus begins what is—quite unexpectedly—one of the most thought-provoking and emotional musical concept albums anyone can hope to hear. Now, without question, mewithoutYou is a divisive band, even—or perhaps especially—among its fans. Its evolution from post-hardcore to…well, fable-folk?...is certainly unusual. Besides that, the vocals of frontman Aaron Weiss often resemble spoken-word ranting more than singing or even shouting. The band’s grown more melodic over its tenure—to the chagrin of some longtime loyalists—but what Ten Stories encapsulates is both evolution and compromise. Indeed, the first song’s title, as well as its general aggression, could be read as a callback to “January 1979” from Catch for Us the Foxes, and “Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume” echoes the rhythmic energy of Brother, Sister. Meanwhile, on a larger scale, the album’s overarching lyrical bent maintains that animals-as-characters approach of It’s All Crazy!
The latter conceit, especially, bespeaks the chief strength of both Ten Stories in particular and Weiss’s songwriting on a macro scale: he can make an Elephant into a philosopher on par with Descartes (begun in the insanely catchy “Grist for the Malady Mill,” brought to fruition on the builder “Elephant in the Dock”) and weave a yarn about a Bear and a Fox that’s genuinely tearjerking (check penultimate track “Bear’s Vision of Saint Agnes”—but, please, not before listening and learning the album’s story up to that point). I don’t mean to sell the other musicians short. Guitarists Michael Weiss and Brandon Beaver (who, given his name, may receive a song all his own one of these days) expertly transition from the spacey meditation of a song like “Aubergine” to the propulsion of “Fox’s Dream…” (or the reverse on “Grist…” and “East Ender’s Wives”) with expert fluidity, while the rhythm section of drummer Rickie Mazzotta and Greg Jehanian manage to make their presence both felt and resounding; half the infectiousness of “Grist…” comes from Mazzotta’s thump, after all. Add in the horns, strings, guest vocal spots (hey, Hayley Williams can actually be bearable!), and this is one massive project. And it’s Weiss’s adroit, multi-faceted, pseudo-spiritual but wholly open-minded wordplay that serves at the bow on this ruminative collection and makes these eleven tracks, like all the best stories, truly transcendent.