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Rambling Fox top 10 of 2012

18/12/2012

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The grand main event of the end-of-year 2012 is upon us – the season of lists and of countless subjective opinions screaming in unison and trying to arbitrarily rank their favourite albums of the year, even though all the lists will become inevitably outdated a month into the next year when that one album you dismissed before suddenly clicks or you get into a new artist who happened to release an amazing album this year and now you’re late to the party. As usual, the Rambling Fox top ten is equal parts predictable and completely irrational, mixed with both names you’d have expected to be there (maybe) as well as ones you didn’t even realise had released something this year.

Fittingly for the great Mayan bullshit apocalypse about to rain on our parades any day now, 2012 was a year of being upbeat. Several artists who you could categorise as some form of ‘pop’ or any derivative/mix of the genre released their new albums this year, and even a lot of the artists who normally don’t ended up relying a lot on upbeat, catchy hooks and keyboard-laden melodies this year. There was barely any room for melancholy pouting, distorted guitars or depressed introspection: this was a year of big hooks, bigger choruses and songs that beg for dancing and singing along. Completely unrelatedly, it also wasn’t an especially strong year. While I stand firmly behind each of the albums in the top 10 here, this year there was no painful agonising over which order they were to go in and who to include as the tenth and final part of the list. The albums not appearing on this list often had very audible reasons they’re not included and, unlike last year, I had no great desire to form a straightforward honorary mentions list out of all the unlucky outcasts. To generalise the overall quality, 2012 was an enjoyable year in music – not particularly great but not particularly disappointing either, with highs and lows in equal measure.

This is technically the first part of the RFox end-of-year nerding out: another article in a day or two will feature other albums worth some accolades this year but which didn’t make it here for one technical reason or another: compilations, re-releases and soundtracks worth a mention as well as a few runner-ups and could-have-beens that almost made it here.

But now, ready your youtube-clicking finger and begin the journey after the cut.

kent

#10: KENT – JAG ÄR INTE RÄDD FÖR MÖRKRET

knt_jairfmKent are an ever-evolving band, with each album being a clear development over the last one. Even the two stylistic hard curves were logical, reasonable reactions towards their preceding albums. In 2012, Kent locked away the tradition: Jag är inte rädd för mörkret is a near-perfect redux of 2010’s En plats i solen, with the changes so small they’re more side strains than evolutionary paths. The live band feels is there but there’s lots of keyboards, lots of synths, lots of focus on big catchy choruses and an upbeat, sometimes quite pop feel. The moody tones of the promo photo displayed above is at complete odds with the brightly shining and openly optimistic music with stadium-sized choruses seemingly ready to conquer charts. Is it a revelatory, essential, important album? Probably not; it may be included here but the chances that it will become a landmark classic for Kent are slim. But the reason it is here because they are a really, really good bunch of songs. Kent have always had a knack for brilliant melodies and hooks, a skill that was always present even when the music swam on darker routes or tested the band’s stylistic borders. An open focus on those aspects is in no way dismissable when you’re dealing with a band who know what they’re doing with it. “Petroleum” alone has stolen an insane amount of my time this year (the whole song is a masterclass of pop hooks, basically) and while the rest of the album doesn’t quite match that song in its intensity, a great majority of it sure as hell tries and comes close. It’s not an album to sink into on quiet nights alone – it’s one to enhance your good feeling during the times when life feels all-around excellent.


Jag ser dig
Check also: Petroleum | Låt dom komma | Tänd på

lambchop

#9: LAMBCHOP – MR. M

lc_mrmGrower of the year. On my first listens Mr M sounded little more than pretty elevator music. Then somewhere along the year my relationship with the album escalated to the point that I spent around a week listening to almost nothing else but it. Mr. M is a subtle album. Not ‘deceivingly so’, either. It’s simply subtle because that’s how it rolls. It goes about in its own pace, it never fancies showing off or making a spectacle out of itself and a lot of the time it’s very content to just be in the background and doesn’t mind if you treat it as sonical wallpaper. Someone on the internet coined a running joke that Mr M is the very essence of boredom due to how leisurely it goes about, but that such a nature suits the album perfectly and isn’t actually a bad thing. It’s a bit hyperbolic but it does reveal a sliver of what makes Mr M so special – it has all the comfort and warmth of a lazy day in. It’s an incredibly beautiful and lush album with warmth and personality, but rather than rub that against your face it prefers to simply be, adding a relaxed air to it. On top of that you have Kurt Wagner’s voice: the soothing sound of a close grandparent or uncle crooning witty little observations about mundane life, layered on top of a soft bed of string sections and a calmly playing band. It’s an album that’s hard to recommend because it does not play its strengths in an obvious manner. But sometime, somewhere along the line, you can find yourself completely captivated and charmed by its effortlessly beautiful and serene tones when you most need it, a sonic duvet to wrap around.


Gone Tomorrow
Check also: If Not I’ll Just Die | 2B2 | Kind Of

batforlashes

#8: BAT FOR LASHES – THE HAUNTED MAN

bfl_thmOn the first two Bat for Lashes albums, Natasha Khan covered herself with feathers and trinkets and covered her music with fine production details and everpresent sounds. For The Haunted Man, her promo shots have changed into simple black and white pictures and everyday clothes (or nothing at all, like in the album cover) and following suit, the music too has been scaled down. Most songs are carried by a basic drum beat, a simple bass tone in the background and a faint melody or two, with a fuller sound used only when the emotion of the song really demands it (such as the orchestral finale of “Lilies”). It’s the vast space around the elements where The Haunted Man’s charm lies. Each song is a vast landscape where every element feels essential and integral, each small part playing out with importance and care. The space between the music creates a thick, enchanting atmosphere – The Haunted Man is audio heaven to anyone who likes to really immerse themselves into the music. It’s music that makes your imagination run wild, that creates a world and a setting in your head. On top of it all, Khan herself sounds stronger as well: while she’s never going to get away from having a somewhat otherwordly and mystical tone to the way she sings (thankfully, we might add), the sparser background and to some extent more direct lyrical material make her voice have more weight, resulting in some genuinely powerful vocal moments. With that, The Haunted Man becomes not only atmospheric but emotionally evocative. The Haunted Man may not have as many individual powerhouse moments like some of the other albums in the top ten do, but as a whole journey it’s one of the strongest of the year.


All Your Gold
Check also: Oh Yeah | Winter Fields | Laura

muse

#7: MUSE – THE 2ND LAW

muse_t2lMuse have gone insane. Thank god for that. During the last few albums they’ve already made it clear that they have no reservations about doing exactly what they want and that the best way to use their status as one of the globe’s biggest rock stars is to use the resulting big recording budgets to fulfill whatever bizarre fantasies they get. They’ve transformed from an enjoyable rock band into an exciting and completely bonkers musical outfit helmed by a man with insane talent when it comes to his chosen instrument and his voice. The 2nd Law is the epitome of that evolutionary path. Slap bass funk rock, dubstep, electronic elements, pseudo-dance anthems, 80s synth rock revival, imaginary Bond themes, Queen pastiches… The 2nd Law takes a sharp turn into the unknown in every single corner. The almost sacrilegous idea of having the bassist Chris Wolstenholme take the lead vocals from Bellamy on a Muse album seems awfully quaint and completely uninteresting in comparison to all the other mad twists the trio pull off. The risks bear fruit though, the mad genius on display isn’t just insanity but fantastic insanity. The 2nd Law is one of the most fun albums of the year, not only incredibly entertaining in all its self-knowing ridiculousness (you can’t insert those yelps in “Panic Station” without realising and embracing just how daft they are) but packed full with excellent songsmanship to boot. They even make dubstep sound interesting.


Madness
Check also: Panic Station | Big Freeze | Follow Me

pmmp

#6: PMMP – RAKKAUDESTA

It’s hard to nutshell Rakkaudesta, PMMP’s fifth album. On one hand the band have described it as their most ‘pop’ material and they’ve taken away the rough edges and aggression from their sound, and yet the album probably sounds their most deeply bitter and grudging out of their work, with the lighter musical tones only underlining the melancholy in the lyrics. The overall tone of the album is lighter and catchier, yet it still feels like the least instant of PMMP’s works, with only a small amount of songs that instantly make their strengths clear; almost as if to foreshadow this, the lead single ended up being “Heliumpallo”, a funeral march for crushed hopes that takes a while to make an impression. Even when you just want to categorise it stylistically, your task is made more difficult by such odd ones out as the aforementioned “Heliumpallo” and the self-esteem rap “Tytöt”. The sometimes very offball style variation is on the par with the rest of the PMMP catalogue, though, and the main difference is that this time the decision to leave the louder guitars away gives the album a little bit more additional cohesiveness. However you go about it, the fact remains that PMMP have released another excellent album – one that breaks away from their past direction and explores new paths, but still loaded with the same strong songwriting that has deservedly placed them in the top position they hold.


Rakkaalleni
Check also: Jeesus ei tule oletko valmis | Koko show | Heliumpallo

pariisinkevät

#5: PARIISIN KEVÄT – KAIKKI ON SATUA

pk_kosIf 2012 was the year of artists taking their sound into a lighter and softer path, Pariisin Kevät did the exact opposite on their third album. The incredibly hook-heavy pop/rock approach is still there but the caleidoscopically colourful and wildly imaginative frolic of sound that helmed the first two albums is gone, replaced with something murkier and darker. Kaikki on satua is far from being gloomy but it’s on the verge of being neurotic, seeing non-existent ghosts in the corner of its eye while fearing for its dear life. Everything feels like a dream but it’s not an exciting daydream where everything could happen, but a restless haze digging out your subconscious fears and worries. The lyrical characters in its ten songs are obsessed with their mortality and lost in their existential confusion, unsure how to survive the night and while the tunes themselves have the big singalong melodies as they always have, you sometimes find yourself wondering whether some of this stuff is actually something you should even sing along to. Everything else in 2012 wanted to party through the clichéd apocalypse – Kaikki on satua hid under its bed worried and paranoid what’s going to happen.

Pariisin Kevät has been one of the most exciting new acts of the 00s for me, Finland or elsewhere, and the excitement that Kaikki on satua brings is of a completely different nature to its two predecessors. Where those had the joyous charm of an unique artist coming out of nowhere to bring forth this vividly imaginative music, Kaikki on satua excites because it’s Arto Tuunela’s musical outfit’s first big steps towards somewhere different, showing that he’s got more tricks up in his sleeves than you would have assumed after the first two somewhat similarly-natured albums. It’s not a big step into the unknown but it introduces enough new sonical elements to the mixture that Tuunela’s songwriting manages to reveal a new side of itself. That ADHD-esque streak of wild creativity present before is now creating neurotic pop/rock anthems that teeter on the edge of sanity; beauty mixed with an otherwordly oddness, anthemic choruses mixed with a more refined atmosphere. Kaikki on satua is a wonderful rollercoaster to hop on, with exhilerating twists and turns and so many hidden depths beyond the most obvious strengths. A handful of its songs count among some of the year’s best and new favourites are still emerging. If it hadn’t been obvious before, Kaikki on satua is the album that officially brands Tuunela, and Pariisin Kevät, as one of the best new acts of the 00s.


Kevät
Check also: Saari | Ehkä kaikki palaa itsestään ennalleen | Häikäisee

benfoldsfive

#4: BEN FOLDS FIVE – THE SOUND OF THE LIFE OF THE MIND

bff_tsotlotmBen Folds is a songwriter god in my books but Ben Folds Five never meant much to me. Folds’ early band always gets the most accolades but to me it’s always sounded like youthful exuberance overpowering the actual songwriting, which was often full of great ideas but which rarely realised to their full extent due to Folds still being a fairly green songwriter. With each album they improved but Folds’ talent only fully came into bloom once the band had been docked away and the solo career began. The maturement of Folds’ skill is obviously the big difference between the original Ben Folds Five material and the new, reunion-fueled comeback album, so it’s not such a great surprise that the songcraft here is consistently better to the original trio of albums. What is more surprising that all the years between the original BFF albums and the present day haven’t dulled that energy and wild spirit that so powered the early albums. The men may be 15 years older but they have fun like they’re still young and the carefree interplay between the trio’s respective talents is still as strong as ever. That combination is why The Sound of the Life of the Mind is among the year’s best albums.

The songs themselves aren’t particularly different from Folds’ solo catalogue works, so his quirks and tendencies are just as likely to charm or turn one away as they ever were. The key difference between the solo material and the reborn band is the chemistry that three close friends and old bandmates bring to the table (there’s also some more notable sonical elements, such as Robert Sledge’s keenness on fuzz bass). In its core, The Sound of the Life of the Mind is a fun album and even during its quietest or most emotional moments carry the kind of relaxed feel you get from playing anything with good friends. Most of The Sound is however a bundle of riotous, often comically witty power piano pop gems. Folds himself has turned into an almost teenager-like trickster in his lyrics, with references to bro-tasing and drawing dicks on the wall making sudden appearances amongst the classier lyrical material. The fun audibly eminating from the songs is infectuous and thus The Sound is an absolute blast to put on – in a year full of feel-good albums, it stands out from the crowd. All the wonderful sonical elements, from the plentiful vocal harmonies to the loose instrumental groove, are simply a pleasure to listen as well. Combine the feel with all the other strengths (great songs, solid production) and you have not only one of the albums of the year, but a comeback album to prove that not all of them have to be flaccid excuses for cashing in fanbases. Hell, it’s managed to actually strengthen my feelings on the old Ben Folds Five catalogue.


Do It Anyway
Check also: The Sound of the Life of the Mind | Away When You Were Here | Michael Praytor, Five Years Later

guillemots

#3: GUILLEMOTS – HELLO LAND!

glmts_hlGuillemots have certainly got a new wind under their wings. Last year’s Walk the River – one of the best albums of 2011 – was a fantastic return to the upper tiers after Red‘s showcase of a confused band somewhat unsure what to do (disclaimer: Red is nonetheless a good album), and that they had more to show this year already is a great sign of a new creative streak fueling the band. Of course, the hyped up ‘four albums inside a year’ thing never happened: at the time of writing they’ve still not even released the second chapter of their trek through the four seasons. Good job then that the first of the quadrilogy, Hello Land!, does not need to be a part of a bigger context to in order to feel important. The only things that might hint at it only being a part of something larger is the relative shortness (eight songs) and the number 1 on its spine. Otherwise, should the band’s plans ever go awry and Hello Land! ends up being the only survivor of a failed project, it would still make a strong and solid part of the discography that stands proudly on its own two feet.

Hello Land!’s sound is one of serenity and bliss. It’s filled with sunshine and joy but it’s not bouncy or energetic about it; it floats around peacefully, takes its time and enjoys the moment. As the spring album of the season quadrilogy, it carries the sound of nature (literally, in some songs) quietly waking up to life after the slumber of winter, rays of sun melting away the snow and the trees and plants beginning to bloom once again. “Outside” near the end comes and shakes things up, but the rest of Hello Land!’s seven songs are in no hurry to go anywhere, rather enjoying the beauty of the moment. The drowsy and soothing atmosphere wraps itself around all the trademarks of Guillemots’ music – the lush production, the excellent and oft-exciting and surprising instrumentation, the memorable melodies and Fyfe Dangerfield’s ever-gorgeous voice. When much of the year’s music wanted to get you moving and threw their hooks right in your face (in a very pleasing way), Hello Land! opted for the opposite: it is at its best when playing during those still moments where there’s no rush anywhere and you can freely look out of the window while sinking into the music. At only eight songs it’s perhaps somewhat too short, but that is the only minor complaint you could come up with from such a fantastic set of eight songs. It’s a shame that the rough reception Red got seems to have shaked away the music press’ and the audience’s interests in the band – if Walk the River was a sign that the band had got their mojo back, Hello Land! is the final confirmation needed to state that Guillemots are once again ready to reclaim their position as one of the greatest groups making their way right now.


Fleet
Check also: Up on the Ride | Nothing’s Going to Bring Me Down | Outside

sigurros

#2: SIGUR RÓS – VALTARI

sr_vValtari is the first Sigur Rós album since Agaetis that makes what they do sound fresh and truly magical again. I’m not throwing shade against the rest of the band’s catalogue with that statement because heaven forbid I do love these albums so. However, once you’ve dipped into Sigur Rós you perfectly know what to expect and because all their albums are largely made from the same building blocks but giving different emphasis to different things each time, by this point their knack for impeccably beautiful soundscapes is an old hat to any fan – a really wonderful old hat that can still catch you unawares, but nonetheless one you’re very acquainted with and know what to expect from it. What Valtari does however is lay absolute and complete emphasis towards those soundscapes. It does away with things like structure, rhythm or any element you could describe as catchy, and makes extended passages of atmospheric sound its heart, core and essence. The band’s rhythm section have almost completely vanished from the way of strings, layers upon layers of keyboards and mild electronic elements. For most of its duration it’s effectively an ambient album, almost like an extreme reaction towards their (or their frontman’s) pre-hiatus experiment in being almost like a conventional indie band.

The gist is, that approach really works. Valtari is a really, really beautiful album and one that not only begs to be sunk into, but which actively takes hold of you with its truly wonderful musical passages. It’s an ambient album where the said ambience is all about those magical moments of serenity, uplifting melancholy and straight up uplifting beauty that the band have always been great at evoking. Only “Varúð”, “Rembihnútur” and the title track really deviate from the formula, the former two by acting like more conventional Sigur Rós songs with their crescendos and rhythms, and the latter by being surprisingly unsettling with its electronical elements without ever actually coming close to anything creepy. The rest simply linger, float and quietly envelop everything into a sonic pillow that is legitimately aweworthy in places, whether you’re being enveloped by the quiet haunting tones of “Ekki Múkk” or “Dauðalogn” or pounded by the humongous wall of sound eminating from the thundering finale of “Varúð”. It is, as all ambient albums are, a record that demands the right time and place, but when it finds that moment with you, it takes your breath away you with its presence and sonic textures. By deciding to have the music emphasise the very core of the band’s sound, Sigur Rós have managed to do something very unlikely: throwing around adjectives like “magical” or “beautiful” is a norm with Sigur Rós, but Valtari makes those words have their full meaning again.


Ekki múkk
Check also: Dauðalogn | Varúð | Varðeldur

hotchip2

#1: HOT CHIP – IN OUR HEADS

hc_iohCan we just begin to lift Hot Chip into the higher echelons of music royalty already? Earlier on in their career you could have levelled accusations of their talent and skill in crafting songs being slightly lost in the quirky desire to do whatever comes to their minds, resulting in somewhat ADHD-esque and zig-zaggy albums, but 2010’s One Life Stand introduced consistency and appreciation for a more solid style of songwriting into their formula, effectively marking the turn of a good band becoming a great one. Now In Our Heads has effectively refined that even further and leaped over their former peak, turning Hot Chip from a great band into one of the UK’s best and most exciting acts. If 2012 was the year of upbeat pop leanings, Hot Chip delivered those in the classiest and most immortal way possible.

In Our Heads sounds like an album that in a rightful world would have conquered the globe. It is a record crafted with so much love and dedication that despite their earnest nature, the songs sound ambitious and larger than life in a genuinely effortless way. It sounds like a classic album that never intended to be one – it’s not born out of intense work force or from a band trying to intentionally up their game but simply from having fun making music together, which just happened to result in a group of straight-up perfect, immaculately brilliant songs. There is an actually audible reason for saying this beyond simply wanting to be fancy in a pointless blog post: there is no worry or weight on In Our Heads’ shoulders and it affects the sound and feel of the album. For all the occasional high energy beats, larger than life choruses and in-your-face melodies it has, it’s a relaxed album. It’s the musical equivalent of a sunny day where everything feels perfect. In Our Heads is in love with life and it’s infectious in how it goes about it, brushing away all the worry and stress its listener might be going through.

In Our Heads is an album where everything simply clicks together perfectly. The band’s knack for a brilliant tune is still present and stronger than ever. The eleven tunes are consistently excellent and support each other like a good album flow should, while still containing the variation and sudden twists that belong to a Hot Chip experience, only less extreme. The opening track “Motion Sickness” is the perfect introduction to the album’s world that grabs you in its rollercoaster ride the instant you hear it; the closer duo “Let Me Be Him” / “Always Been Your Love” is the perfect end to a journey, the former a burst of all the joy and love the album’s been hinting throughout and the latter a sing-along, clap-along feel-good farewell to play over the end credits. Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard’s vocals and vocal interplar just get better as time goes by, and the increased role of backing vocals and harmonies are a perfect fit to the group’s sound. The lyrics continue on Hot Chip’s patented way of sounding incredibly earnest, honest and unpretentious in a fashion that makes them all the better, with their thoughts on relationships etc sounding like genuine heartfelt messages (aided by how they sound like guys looking for a genuine, long-lasting relationship rather than the usual throwing around of vapidities for quick flings). The dancier tracks make a club-averse guy like me want to run to the dancefloor, the slower songs sound like timeless classics that could play on any nostalgia radio station. The hints of melancholy and bittersweetness that crop up here and there over the album serve as an ideal counterweight to its more idealistic moments, making the latter feel even more genuine. And most of all, it sounds personal, earnest and human. It’s not a pop album that pretends like everything’s great and that there’s no bad things in life: instead, it’s one that sounds like a friend who knows exactly what life’s like and who’s encouragement to get you up and dance or enjoy your time on this planet is genuine and born out of actual emotion.

The most fun I’ve had with music in 2012 have been the moments I’ve spent with In Our Heads. And not just fun but a parade of emotions: joy of life, warming love for everything around, hilarious attempts at dancing, enjoying the beauty of the moment, reflection that you need the shadow to truly appreciate the light and much more. In Our Heads is an album that reminds me how great life is. That’s why it’s my album of the year 2012.

And let’s not forget the two best music videos of the year.


How Do You Do?
Check also: Motion Sickness | Let Me Be Him | Flutes

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