2012’s Overlooked Albums

The end of the year is usually my favorite time in music, because I’m a big sucker for end-of-year lists and various other “year in review” pieces. But this year I may have officially gotten tired of year-end lists, or at least ones that are focus-grouped by websites or magazines in an attempt to rank the “best” albums.

What stood out to me this year a lot is just how samey all of these lists are — the same names are at the top of just about every list (Fiona Apple, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar), and the sites that ranked 50 albums are generally just shuffling around the same music into different places. The main reason an artist makes it onto a year-end list is not because their album was good, but because it was “important.” And certain artists who don’t fit into the broader conversation on music in 2012 get shut out entirely. (I’m guilty of this as well, which is maybe why I’m writing this.)

I’ve always thought the best purpose for a year-end list was to maybe introduce people to music they might have missed, or make people reconsider an album they may have underrated after listening to it just a couple of times. The lists this year were, for the most part, one obvious name after another, with the year-end list being more of an exercise in branding and a coronation for the same hyped-up artists we’ve heard too much about this year already. Like, do you really need to see Japandroids on every top 50 list to get the idea that Celebration Rock was a good album?

With this in mind, I thought it’d be fun to just list some albums I liked this year that I haven’t seen on any year-end list. I’ll go alphabetically:

Dead Sara – Dead Sara

Why it was good: Loud, unpretentious guitar-driven rock songs with memorable hooks and an extremely talented lead singer in Emily Armstrong. Dead Sara was a breath of fresh air in many ways for me because it didn’t sound as fussed over as so much of the indie stuff that passes for rock these days.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: I already hinted at it in the last paragraph: Dead Sara isn’t indie enough, and they also didn’t have enough mainstream success to potentially be noticed by a less snooty magazine like Rolling Stone. There’s not really a place on year-end lists for just a fun rock album, unless it gets some wider narrative attached to it (like Japandroids did — they were the indie saviors of guitar rock or something).

Evans the Death – Evans the Death

Why it was good: Similar to Dead Sara, Evans the Death was a relentlessly hooky pop-punk album with surprisingly witty, self-deprecating lyrics from singer Katherine Whitaker. This band has some more indie influences, adding some noise and shoegaze to their bright sound.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Not “important” enough. They’re also not breaking tons of new ground with their sound and they don’t fit into any of the biggest indie trends of 2012. But not every worthwhile album needs to fit into what the mags and websites are pushing onto everyone.

The Evens – The Odds

Why it was good: Punk legend Ian Mackaye and his wife Amy Farina’s third album had perfect harmonies, acoustic arrangements, and more energy than their previous efforts. It also had typically smart, politically-minded lyrics that made it a perfect example of how punk doesn’t always need tons of noise and sloppiness to be effective.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: It was made by old people. The focus of most sites is to try to attach themselves to up-and-coming artists, which results in talents like Mackaye being tossed aside for hipper acts. The Evens also have to operate in the shadow of Fugazi, which is too bad — they’re a completely different band that make better music than the young whippersnappers of today.

Grass Widow – Internal Logic

Why it was good: For a few albums now, Grass Widow have been pursuing a completely unique sound, with ghostly three-part female harmonies and bouncy post-punk guitars and bass-lines. Internal Logic has stronger songwriting than their previous releases, resulting in their most consistent effort so far.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Too self-contained. Sounding like nobody else can sometimes be a bad thing, and in the case of Grass Widow it causes them to be ignored for artists that fit into more superficial trends that are being hyped up by the music press.

Is/Is – III

Why it was good: The Minnesota band’s first full-length combined shoegaze, stoner rock, and various other psychedelic genres into a cohesive package with high-quality songwriting. This was a unique, heavy album that had a wide range of sounds that were all executed really well.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: All the reasons for Grass Widow also apply here, but Is/Is also represent another kind of band left off these lists: the hard-working locals who haven’t made it onto the national scene. In this case, the album just didn’t reach enough ears, but it was better than most of the crap that did.

Jessica Bailiff – At the Down-turned Jagged Rim of the Sky

Why it was good: Bailiff’s sixth album was some of the best shoegaze-influenced music I heard this year. This album had songs that were haunting but also weirdly addictive, and as a whole it seemed to form its own little world.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Bailiff likely lacks a certain amount of “star power” that these lists are looking for. She does her own thing and her introspective music isn’t really trying to grab the attention of anyone. Nonetheless, this album will appeal to fans of shoegaze and quality singer-songwriters.

No Joy – Negaverse EP

Why it was good: Building on their excellent 2010 album Ghost Blonde, No Joy quietly released this EP, which featured more of their familiar shoegaze/noise rock sound with vocals buried deep in the mix. Negaverse had some more moments of exploration than their full length, and in general it’s just a sound that I really like.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Combination of EP length, obscurity, and being overshadowed by bands like Dum Dum Girls and Best Coast that have more of a style and girl-group sensibilities in the noise-pop department.

Tindersticks – The Something Rain

Why it was good: The veteran band’s ninth album had great lounge-jazz-pop arrangements and Stuart Staple’s low, soulful vocals. But it’s mostly on here for the first track, “Chocolate”, which was one of my favorite songs of the year —  it’s a 9-minute spoken-word day-in-the-life tale that has a genuine twist ending.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: Any band putting out their ninth album is highly unlikely to make it to one of these lists — in the eyes of the media, their time has passed and it’s time to focus on new groups. Tindersticks have mostly been replaced by The National, who pillaged much of their sound but gave it more of a sad-boy indie sensibility.

White Lung – Sorry

Why it was good: This was one of the most furious and energetic punk albums I heard this year, with 10 hardcore-influenced songs over 19 minutes fronted by singer Mish Way’s various feministy rants. Sorry obviously recalls some old Riot Grrrl bands, but also adds in some grunge influence.

Why it’s not on year-end lists: This is a tough one. My guess is either the short running time, the fact that it’s female-fronted, or maybe the music press just has bad taste.

Favorite Albums of 2012

After another year of listening and reflection, 2011 has held up as one of my favorite music years, mostly because a ton of my favorite active artists put out new albums that surpassed expectations. Albums by PJ Harvey, Björk, Kate Bush, Wild Flag, and St. Vincent all would rank highly on my favorite albums of the decade so far. Add in great albums by some new artists like EMA and it was a year that had tons of music that I still listen to on the reg (youth slang for “regularly”).

So admittedly, 2012 had a tough act to follow, especially because none of the aforementioned artists were going to put out new music. But even given those excuses, I found 2012 to be a pretty dismal year. The few albums I was looking forward to at the beginning of the year almost all fell flat for me. Jack White went full-blown Rolling Stone dad rock on Blunderbuss. The xx’s second album was a snoozer. St. Vincent’s collaboration with David Byrne gave her some good moments, but was mostly marred by Byrne’s old-man ramblings about television. And I also just got plain sick of a lot of artists I had liked before (Beach House, Bat For Lashes, etc).

The good news is, these artists all falling flat on their face with mediocre outings opened the door for some new faces to earn a spot among my favorite albums of the year — a coveted achievement for any artist, given that a place on it usually leads to a significant boost in record sales dubbed “The Noise Made By People Bump” by the music industry. This list represents my favorites based solely on my personal taste and isn’t intended to be any sort of objective ranking (not that any such thing exists, but figured I’d clarify). These are the albums I thought were great in a year that mostly wasn’t.

10. Hospitality – Hospitality

Hospitality formed in 2008, but didn’t release their debut album until early this year. Fortunately, it was worth the wait: Hospitality is a very fully-formed debut of charming indie pop from the New Yorkers, fronted by Amber Papini’s quirky vocals and instrumental work that is more creative and punchy than most allegedly “twee” music. But what really separates this album is its lyrics, which tell realistic stories of life in New York and post-college angst, especially on songs like “Liberal Arts” and “Eighth Avenue.”

9. Goat – World Music

Not much is known about Swedish band Goat: they don’t give interviews and have members that have mostly remained anonymous, even in an era where artists are seemingly constantly tweeting and oversharing things. That may have been why I was so taken with their debut, which lives up to its title by patching together elements of seemingly all kinds of rock music, but does it in a way that is impressively cohesive and also has a mysterious, enigmatic quality. With songs veering from the scuzzy psychedelic riffing of “Goathead” to the funky and almost-pop “Let it Bleed”, I never knew what this band was going to do from one song to the next, which made World Music one of the most surprisingly entertaining albums of the year.

8. Lower Dens – Nootropics

The music of Lower Dens is usually described with adjectives that I associate with boring music: it’s “atmospheric,” “complex,” and “understated.” All of those are fitting, but Nootropics  is also full of creative energy that keeps it from being a drag, with the band’s swirling noise combining with pulsating rhythms to create a product that sounds like no other band out there. And of course there’s Jana Hunter’s voice, a unique instrument of its own that gives every song a haunting, woozy feel. This was one of my favorite albums to just get lost in this year.

7. Cate Le Bon – Cyrk

Cate Le Bon’s second album was released in mid-January, and I feel like it was barely discussed, then completely fell off the map as the rest of the year’s releases rolled in. Which is too bad, because Cyrk is an overlooked gem of an album, a unique singer-songwriter effort with just the right amount of experimentation. Le Bon’s sound perfectly balances folk and indie rock elements, and Cyrk has a quirkiness that doesn’t feel forced and a level of mystery that allows it to hold up to repeated listens.

6. Screaming Females – Ugly

For their fifth album, hard-working New Jersey power trio Screaming Females decided to take things up a notch, enlisting Steve Albini to engineer and dialing Marissa Paternoster’s guitar-hero swagger to seemingly the highest possible level. The result is their best album yet: Ugly has more memorable guitar riffs than pretty much all the other albums this year combined, as Paternoster takes cues from indie rock legends, classic rock gods, and heavy metal titans while also singing with more authority than ever before. It’s an album that lives up to its title by serving as an antidote to prettified so-called rock bands that make “beautiful music.”

5. Nü Sensae – Sundowning

One of my favorite storylines of 2012 was how many great rock albums came out of Canada — I enjoyed albums by White Lung, Japandroids, Metz, and others, while mostly being indifferent to American and British rock. But the Canadian band that made the most noise was Nü Sensae, whose third album Sundowning was the most intense and primal rock album I heard this year. The band added a guitar player to their lineup before recording the album, which added some riffs to go along with singer Andrea Lukic’s crazed screaming vocals that she alternates with sinister whispering. I like rock albums that sound pissed-off and are a bit scary, and Sundowning fits that bill perfectly — it’s a good soundtrack for when you want to punch things.

4. Jessie Ware – Devotion

Jessie Ware is an unlikely pop star — she previously served as a backup singer on an American tour and was hoping to pursue a career in journalism before getting a chance to record a solo debut. On Devotion, she shows that she’s an incredibly talented vocalist who also has a skill that some other singers could learn from: restraint. Ware’s vocals are capable of big theatrics, but she spends most of the album singing in more sultry, hushed tones while backed by sophisticated pop arrangements and silky smooth production. When she does decide to start belting — like on “Wildest Moments” — she makes it count. For whatever reason, Ware didn’t seem to make much headway on the charts in England or America, but this album is still a reminder of how great pop music can be in the right hands.

3. Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance

As the guitarist for Deerhunter, Lockett Pundt has spent most of the last few years in the shadow of outspoken frontman Bradford Cox. On Spooky Action at a Distance, Pundt takes a big step out with a cohesive and individual collection of droney shoegaze jams in the model of previous Deerhunter highlight “Desire Lines.” Lockett’s ability to make epic songs while retaining an understated charm is prominent here, especially on longer songs like “Jet Out of the Tundra” and “Remember Our Days,” both of which combine his blissful guitar-work with Stereolab-like rhythms. I can’t say Spooky Action is particularly innovative, but it was some of my favorite pure ear-candy of the year.

2. Allo Darlin’ – Europe

One of my biggest issues with 2012’s music was how it felt like every hyped-up indie pop artist had some sort of gimmick: autotune, production effects, silly lyrics, noise — whatever superficial elements they could throw together that could get them noticed by Pitchfork and the rest of the blogging hype machine. I found a lot of this music incredibly alienating because it was so desperately trendy and calculated. That’s why Allo Darlin’s Europe was such a breath of fresh air — it’s an indie pop album that embraced the genre’s roots in genuine emotion and warmth instead of trying to be in the next iPod commercial. It also established Australian Elizabeth Morris as one of my favorite singer/songwriters. Her true-to-life lyrics, heartfelt singing, and the band’s jangly instrumentation made Europe impossible for me to resist.

1. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel…

Of all my favorite established artists who released music this year, Fiona Apple was the only one who really delivered. I think it might be because she barely uses the internet or leaves her house, which is why The Idler Wheel… sounds so fresh and timeless. Like all of her albums since Tidal, it feels like an album only Fiona Apple could have made, and it doesn’t feel poisoned by all the outside pressures that made so much music lame in 2012. The Idler Wheel… also is the most authentic Fiona Apple album yet, reducing her sound to just acoustic instruments and some quirky found percussion while putting the focus on her outstanding voice and lyrics. The time lapse between her albums indicates an artist who pours herself into every effort, and that’s what really separated The Idler Wheel… for me this year — it’s the album that felt most important to the artist that made it.

Tig Notaro — “Live”

In addition to being a big dork about music, I’m also significantly dorky about comedy. I fit nicely into that stereotype of the person who “takes comedy seriously”: I’m the guy who explains jokes from The Simpsons, tries to explain to you why Family Guy sucks, and spends too much time writing and analyzing his own jokes that aren’t even all that good. And my views on comedy aren’t that dissimilar from my views on music: I think the best, most enduring stand-up comedy comes out of some sort of personal fear or despair, and at its best it will make you think in addition to enjoying it on a basic level.

Comedian Tig Notaro performed her set that comprises Live (the title is the verb, as in living) a couple months ago at The Largo, a club in Los Angeles. Word spread of it pretty quickly among comedy-types on Twitter and elsewhere: Louis C.K. described it as one of the few masterful standup sets he’d ever seen, and fellow performers Ed Helms and Bill Burr both expressed their awe of Notaro’s performance. Louis liked it so much that he decided the world needed to hear it, and he’s currently selling it at his website for five dollars.

So what’s so special about this performance? Notaro performed it just hours after being diagnosed with cancer in both of her breasts, and just weeks after her mother died in a freak accident, her long-term partner broke up with her, and she suffered from a life-threatening bacteria in her intestines that caused her to lose 20 pounds. In the face of that mind-blowing adversity, Notaro remains calm and good-humored, even starting the show by greeting her audience with “Hello! How are you? I have cancer! How are you?”

Notaro’s comedic voice is very wry and calm, which in some ways makes her a perfect fit for subject matter that sometimes goes to the darkest places imaginable. At first her audience is stunned and not sure how to react to her brazen material about potentially being near death — frequently during the show she has to assure them that “it’s going to be okay,” before adding “well, you’re going to be okay. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.” A lot of what makes Live such a unique and incredible document is how the classic relationship with stand-up and audience unfolds over the course of the 30-minute set, as eventually the awkward silence gives way to laughter (and, according to people who were at the show, tears). Near the end, Notaro decides maybe she should go back to performing some of her old material, at which point a man with a booming voice in the audience yells “NO! NO. THIS IS FUCKING INCREDIBLE.”

Live resembles a typical comedy set even less than Tig’s usual stuff, which has always favored longer comedic storytelling over “jokes.” For the most part it’s just her talking about all the crazy things that have happened to her with a baffled sense of resignation. On paper it may not sound too funny, but Notaro is remarkably able to wring tons of laughs out of the most morbid subject matter. One of the funniest parts of the show comes when Notaro wonders if God is looking over her and saying “I think she can take a little more.” Notaro never is angry or blames anyone for what has happened to her, but instead is just nonplussed at the litany of horrible things that life has thrown at her for no reason.

So, even though it’s not music, Live is maybe the best thing I’ve listened to this year. If Tig was a musician it could be a classic, moving album, and if she was a writer it could be a touching, heartfelt memoir. (Notaro actually did land a book deal after this whole ordeal.) Like the best comedy, it’s funny and thought-provoking, but it is also incredibly inspiring to hear someone who has been through hell just go on stage and make people laugh about it for 30 minutes. And while most comedy albums are rehearsed endlessly, there’s a spontaneity to Live that makes it unique beyond just the rare and frank subject matter.

Notaro is apparently doing better since Live was recorded. She appeared on Conan saying she has received a double mastectomy and is currently cancer-free. I urge basically anyone to go to Louis C.K.’s website and download the special. Four dollars from each purchase will go to Tig herself, and she plans to donate some of the money to breast cancer research. I highly doubt you’ll find a better way to spend five dollars this year.

The xx — “Coexist”

The xx’s self-titled debut seemed to come out of nowhere in 2009. It was an album that sounded like nothing else at the time and displayed a very young band that had a shockingly developed sound, making use of minimalist electronics and space to create perfect late-night soundscapes. But all those elements that made it great also made it age poorly for me: after burning through it that year with seemingly hundreds of listens, I’ve rarely revisited it in the last couple of years. Once that out-of-nowhere element of surprise was gone, I became sick of the album’s sound and found that there was little to it beyond the surface.

Nonetheless, I was interested to hear their new album Coexist, because I still remember that feeling of first discovering their debut. I also think it’s a fascinating case study in how a young band tries to live up to massive expectations after such a successful first album — especially one like The xx, who carved out such a specific, well-defined niche that it seemed like there may not even be anything left to explore. I was curious if they would expand their sound, change their songwriting style, or pull any other tricks to separate this from their debut.

But in the back of my head, I pretty much knew what Coexist was going to be, and that’s what makes it so disappointing. It’s not that it’s horrible or something: if you liked the first album, chances are you’ll like this one. But that’s also kind of the problem. While most artists I really respect throw curveballs at their audience, Coexist is a lazy softball right down the middle. It’s the musical equivalent of a “meets expectations” grade in elementary school. It does everything that you expect it to — no more, no less — and then kind of evaporates after you listen to it, completely failing to leave any sort of impression.

At least those were my initial thoughts, but I have a habit of unhealthily analyzing my own opinions. And I thought: “what the hell did I expect?” It’s not like The xx were going to release a prog-metal psychedelic rock opera or an album of acoustic ukulele folk songs. This is just what they do. And if I liked what they did before (at least for a time), why wouldn’t I now? Am I so starved for experimentation and change that I can’t just enjoy music for what it is?

That may be the case, but I also think the songs on Coexist just aren’t as good as they were on the debut. Nothing on it is nearly as memorable as “VCR” or “Crystalised,” which had legitimate hooks to go with the band’s spare music. The exception is opening track “Angels,” a beautiful song by Romy Madley-Croft that is actually more minimal than anything on the debut but still manages to make a pretty big impact. The rest of the album just feels like The xx is trapped in the tiny musical world they created on the debut, with all the hushed male-female vocals and samey lyrics about love. (“Reunion” sounds kind of like what an xx parody band would come up with if such a horrible, misguided idea ever came into existence.) They make an effort to occasionally incorporate some dance beats, but they never quite gel with the music. Jamie Smith’s production is slick as usual, but most of the album feels underwritten in a way that the debut managed to avoid despite its bare-bones style.

The good news for The xx is that they’re still young and talented. Also, they’re already much more successful than I will ever be at anything I do in my life. And who knows, maybe Coexist appeals to their die-hard fans who want to hear more of the same stuff instead of someone like me, who always loves it when artists change up their sound and actively antagonize their core audience. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone really being blown away by Coexist when it’s so similar to what they’ve already heard before.

Lotus Plaza – “Spooky Action at a Distance”

Atlanta indie-rockers Deerhunter initially gained notoriety for frontman Bradford Cox’s flamboyant personality, wild stage antics, and experimental pop songwriting. But while Cox has always dominated the headlines for the band, their most recent album, 2010’s Halcyon Digest, showcased their secret weapon: guitarist Lockett Pundt, who stepped out of Cox’s shadow and produced the best song on the album with “Desire Lines,” a 7-minute spacey shoegaze centerpiece that managed to sound epic without really trying.

Spooky Action at a Distance is the second album Pundt has released under the Lotus Plaza moniker, and it’s about what you would expect from the guy who penned “Desire Lines”: non-stop guitar jams that make skillful use of repetition to turn tunes that seem like they should be ordinary into epic, surprisingly catchy rock songs. Deerhunter fans like me that prefer their anthemic guitar-rock side to their bedroom pop side are sure to love it, and it’s probably my most listened-to album of 2012 so far.

Pundt doesn’t have the big personality that Cox does, but he has a quiet confidence that suits his laid-back style, and his lyrics that are often about nostalgic yearning are also a nice match for his bright, summery guitar lines. Songs like “Monoliths” and “Remember Our Days” are about simple themes like friendship and childhood, but Pundt infuses them with just enough personality and hooks to make them into effortless anthems. Pundt never sounds like he’s trying too hard, even on a song like “Jet Out of the Tundra” that launches into a lengthy, repetitive instrumental similar to that of “Desire Lines.”

Nothing on Spooky Action at a Distance sounds that groundbreaking, particularly with this summery guitar-pop being trendy in recent years. The shoegaze style always will bring comparisons to My Bloody Valentine, but Pundt mixes it up a bit with some acoustic strumming on songs like “Black Buzz” and “Dusty Rhodes.” Some of the songs also have a driving rhythm reminiscent of Stereolab, which pushes the music forward and helps keep Pundt’s specifically defined style from overstaying its welcome. Mostly, Pundt separates himself from the competition by simply executing the songs better and with more consistency. There are no weak songs on the album, and they all seem to get better the more you listen to them. He has a style that is relaxing but also engaging, and I find it difficult to stop listening to the album when I only intended to play a single song off of it.

Overall, Spooky Action is a significant step forward for Pundt, who deserves to be more than just “that other guy in Deerhunter.” In fact, I prefer this album to any of the Deerhunter or Atlas Sound albums so far. It’s not trying so hard and doesn’t feel labored over, and it’s not caught up in trying to be “important.” Much like the man who made it, it seems to succeed and transcend effortlessly.

Listen to it on Spotify

Fiona Apple – “The Idler Wheel…”

Stream it on NPR

If there were any lingering doubts I had about the first Fiona Apple album in seven years, they were quickly erased when she revealed the title: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. The decision to go for another poem title after 1999’s 90-word When the Pawn… was a classic Fiona Apple move, one that made her detractors smirk and made her supporters shake their heads and chuckle to themselves. Seeing it was a sign of reassurance, a confirmation that the Fiona Apple who always follows her artistic muse — occasionally to her detriment — was still around.

Being a Fiona Apple fan is often frustrating. While some artists always seem to be in the spotlight and working on new projects, Apple — a noted recluse who claims to rarely leave her house — falls completely off the radar between albums. This can sometimes give the illusion that she isn’t working or doesn’t care about making music anymore, and at times in the last few years I wondered if I would ever hear new music from her again. The advantage is that when she does finally resurface it feels like an event, and with The Idler Wheel… she’s offered a reminder of how much music has sorely lacked her presence since 2005.

Apple officially returned to the spotlight at the South By Southwest music festival, where her performances of new songs were met with rave reviews for their raw energy and nerves. She frequently sang with her eyes closed, twitching back and forth and, as usual, sang with a tremendous amount of conviction, as if she was excising some inner demon with each performance. Little details like this are what makes Apple so refreshingly different from what music has become now. There are no put-ons or affectations, no musical gimmickry or autotune. She does not hide behind a persona. All she’s done (at least since Tidal) is be herself, and that’s especially true on The Idler Wheel…, which is probably her most Fiona Apple-y album yet.

The Idler Wheel… mostly ditches the sometimes excessive instrumentation that permeated Extraordinary Machine, putting the focus entirely where it should be: on Apple’s voice and lyrics. The music is primarily based around piano and percussion, with a lot of different drums and several sampled sounds used to give the songs Apple’s trademark quirkiness while not stealing the spotlight from her. As usual, Apple’s lyrics are witty and reflective, focusing on her relationships and inner struggles. Her voice used to sound silky smooth on earlier albums but now has a world-weary rasp that serves the songs and subject matter better.

Like all of her albums since Tidal, The Idler Wheel… isn’t making a huge bid for radio play and commercial success, as the spare instrumentation makes the songs more suited for quiet headphone listening than blasting on the radio. Lead single “Every Single Night” is probably the most accurate glimpse into Apple’s psyche so far (and the artistic psyche in general), where “every night is a fight with my brain.” The accompanying music video with Apple wearing an octopus on her head and being covered in snails reminds me a bit of the video for “Criminal,” but with slimy animals instead of creepy sexuality.

Other songs, like “Werewolf” have a sense of looking back, perhaps to early childhood. The most chill-inducing moment on the album is in the last minute of that song, when Apple samples in the sound of children playing on a playground, instantly giving the song a tangible sense of longing for simpler times as she sings the quotable line “nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.” Elsewhere, Apple pays tribute to former boyfriend Jonathan Ames (on “Jonathan”) rather than excoriating him like she may have done when she was younger. Album closer “Hot Knife” is probably the catchiest song on the album, a timpani-backed duet with her sister where lovers are imagined as hot knives that cut through butter.

It’s hard to imagine any member of Apple’s rabid fan base being disappointed with The Idler Wheel…, which is an extremely individual record that shows her talents in top form. Her voice sounds better than it ever has, and the arrangements complement it perfectly. Her lyrics, which I’ve always contended are some of the few in music that stand up as poetry without accompaniment, are as quotable as ever, and Apple continues to have the special ability to make her personal experiences seem universal. This album serves as a reminder that she is one of the most talented singer-songwriters there is, and that her work is always worth the wait.

New Female-Fronted Rock Music

Screaming Females

I’ve always been a bit weirded out by people who have really eclectic taste in music. There’s a part of me — the part that thinks people need to like things for a reason, dammit — that gets irrationally frustrated when someone seems to consume everything and enjoy all of it indiscriminately. Maybe it’s jealousy, because having eclectic taste always seemed kind of cool to me, and liking more music and being less picky would probably be awesome. But despite occasionally making efforts to branch out and become more of a critic who listens to everything, I tend to go back to the same types of music that I know I love.

The most obvious example of music that fits into my comfort zone is loud female-fronted guitar rock. At this point, I would say I’m somewhat infamous for loving this style of music among anyone who has had any sort of musical-related conversation with me at any point. As a result, for awhile after making the blog, I was trying to write about other music to sort of diffuse that stereotype a bit and to show people how many different cool things I listen to. Doing this, I figured, would solidify my coolness in the minds of the people. That didn’t really happen.  And now I don’t really care, so with this post, I’m just gladly embracing my stereotype.

Because 2012 — which I think has otherwise been a forgettable year lacking any top-end albums so far — has had a lot of loud female-fronted guitar rock albums that are among my favorites so far. What’s more,  there’s actually been a lot of diversity among this narrowed down field of music. There seems to be more of these groups embracing some disparate influences beyond the obvious Sleater-Kinney, PJ Harvey, and Breeders comparisons that are always foisted upon such bands. Here are some of the new ones I have been enjoying:

Screaming Females – Ugly

Disappointingly, only one female actually screams in this New Jersey power trio fronted by guitarist/singer Marissa Paternoster. Her vocals are plenty to fill a room though, and she’s also probably the best guitarist in rock today. Ugly is the hard-working band’s fifth album and their best yet, a 14-song, 54-minute barrage of guitar heroics and punk sneer with a dirty sound that lives up to its title. Paternoster’s noisy but melodic fretwork garners well-earned comparisons to previous indie rock guitar wizards like Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis, but she also ventures into other styles like on “Doom 84” which almost sounds like an early metal track. If there’s a criticism of Ugly, it’s that there’s almost too much rockage to handle in one sitting, but I think I can live with that.

Dead Sara – Dead Sara

This L.A. band, fronted by singer Emily Armstrong and guitarist Siouxsie Medley, just released their debut album in April. They have a sound that’s been really missing in the last few years, playing bluesy hard rock with mainstream appeal that seems made for the radio. In fact, their lead single “Weatherman” managed to make some noise (in more ways than one) on the otherwise embarrassing Billboard Modern Rock charts, which has been strictly a boys club for over a decade now. Armstrong is a throwback style of rock frontwoman, with seemingly unlimited vocal power and charisma, and Medley is a skilled guitarist who unleashes tons of heavy riffs. What I oddly love about their debut album is that it doesn’t sound “indie” — it’s just an unpretentious slab of crowd-pleasing rock that deserves a wider audience, especially in the world of mainstream rock that desperately needs something new.

Royal Thunder – CVI

Royal Thunder play a style I’ve been increasingly obsessed with, pairing alternative rock style female vocals with more noisy stoner-rock or metal music. Overall the band plays a mix of classic rock, stoner rock, and metal, with frontwoman Mlny Parsonz bringing it together with her wailing, sultry vocals. Sometimes really heavy music can seem soulless and impersonal, but Parsonz adds a real emotional core to Royal Thunder’s music that separates them from a lot of similar groups. CVI is a massive rock album, clocking in at over an hour in length and featuring a good mix of shorter almost radio-ready tracks like “Whispering World” and “No Good” and longer doom metal dirges like “Shake and Shift” and “Blue.”

Is/Is – III

Is Is is (yep) a local band that I stumbled upon when one of the members’ other bands played at my school a couple months ago. Right now I don’t know too much about them, except that I bought their full length III on iTunes and have been enjoying it quite a bit. The band is all women and plays a style they’ve dubbed “witchgaze” — they sound like a hybrid of stoner rock, punk, and shoegaze groups, with some occasionally poppier numbers thrown in. My favorite moments of the album are when the band really lets loose, like on the epic penultimate track “Sun Tsunami” that reaches a space-rock style climax and builds for nearly eight minutes. The group has an original sound going for them and I hope they can continue to gain traction on the Twin Cities scene that I frankly find kind of boring.

Marriages – Kitsune

Marriages are another band fusing a few different sounds together. They mostly fit into the shoegaze style, with Emma Ruth Rundle’s voice buried under a lot of sound. But the typical shoegaze guitars are replaced with some metal riffs that make the band sound a lot heavier (imagine a whole album of songs that are a bit like “Loomer” by My Bloody Valentine). Kitsune is their first release and is only six tracks and 30 minutes long, but it’s incredibly cohesive, with the tracks blending into each other and making it sound like one solidified piece of music. Within that cohesive structure, there’s a lot of different dynamics and moods that make the whole thing kind of seem like an adventure.