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.

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.