Sunday, January 06, 2013

My favorite music of 2012

By Michael J.W. Stickings

There's no way I can ever do a year-end "best of" list when it comes to music. I don't listen to enough new music for that, particularly in areas outside my specific tastes, and I don't pay attention to what I suppose we can call "the music scene." I generally know what's popular, what's "hot," but that's about it.

Anyway, instead of a "best of" list, here are some reflections on my favorite music from last year, the music that I listened to and loved, the music that remains with me now:

1) Porcupine Tree -- 2012 was the year of Porcupine Tree for me, the year that a band I'd liked for a fairly long time became truly special to me, the year their incredible, magnificant music entered a realm previously occupied by just Pink Floyd and The Beatles. It is difficult for me describe this, to explain just what PT means to me, what their music does to me. If certain music -- a certain singer, a certain band -- touches your soul in a way that stirs your very being, you'll understand.

It's one thing to like a band, or any artist, quite another for that band to be a central part of who you are as a human being. I never thought any music but Pink Floyd's would be there for me, even more than The Beatles'. And I was hardly expecting it -- you know, because you reach a certain age when you think you've heard it all before, when you're a bit too jaded to be open to new musical experiences. It's an amazing feeling. I listen to PT and realize that I've fallen in love again. That may sound crazy, but there you are.

PT didn't release any new music in 2012, with its members all doing other work, but they did release another live album, and a great one, Octane Twisted. I wrote about it here. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

2) Steven Wilson -- PT's founder, singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist will release his third solo album, The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories, on February 25. (And he'll be here in Toronto at the end of April.) 2012 brought a live concert video (with CD), Get All You Deserve, from the Grace for Drowning tour. It's fantastic. In fact, I have it on as I'm writing this.

In terms of other projects by PT members, I'd highlight two:

-- Storm Corrosion, the collaboration between SW and Swedish prog metal band Opeth's frontman Mikael Ã…kerfeldt, released its self-titled first album. It isn't exactly what you might expect from the founders of PT and the much heavier Opeth, but, then again, these are two artists who have defied expectations over the years, much to their credit. This is very intense and challenging stuff -- long compositions with variously ambient, folky, and psychedelic qualities alongside the harder sounds -- but also extremely rewarding.

-- PT bassist Colin Edwin and American guitarist Jon Durant, released an instrumental collaboration, Burnt Belief. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, it's a "profoundly intellectual" piece of music. "No, this isn't just background music, which is what we often expect of instrumentals. This is music that captivates you, that engages you, and that rewards patience and reflection." 

3) Post-Progressive -- PT and SW are with the Kscope ("post progressive sounds") label, which is home to a number of post-prog bands artists. (While terms like "prog" and "post-prog," like "punk" and "post-punk," can be silly, they're useful in helping to make sense of our fractured musical culture. And with Kscope, it's great to have a label dedicated to outstanding post-prog music.)

From 2012, I'd single out All the Wars, the ninth studio album by The Pineapple Thief (sounding a lot like Radiohead), and, even more so, Fog Electric, the second album by North Atlantic Oscillation, a truly mesmerizing work. From the former, the excellent title track is the place to start, while from the latter, the incredible "Savage With Barometer" was one of the best songs I heard all year.

Fog Electric may well be the best album of 2012. When I first listened to it, my reaction was similar to when I first listened to Portishead's Third back in 2008 -- I was blown away by it, and I realized right away I was listening to something truly great. Here's what NAO singer Sam Healy had to say about the album: 

It's an album about doubt and loss, but there's a counterbalancing sense of resignation and even optimism too. One of the main themes is that of searching for meaning in a scientific, post-religious world. Science is absolutely a force for good, but after it showed us that the physical world is all there is, and that far from stripping experiences of their mystery this revelation actually makes them more mysterious, it sort of left us to our own devices in terms of producing the unscripted, improvised drama that is life-minus-god.

Compelling music, thoughtful lyrics, profound themes. It's post-prog at its best.

4) Shiny Toy Guns -- As I wrote back in November, there wasn't much I was looking forward to (in music) more than the new release from this L.A.-based alt-techno-rock band. III is by no means an unblemished album, but it's a strong effort overall. Is it derivative? Sure. Is there anything new? No, not really. But it's great to have Carah Faye Charnow back. And there's a lot to like here.

5) Family of the Year -- Loma Vista, this indie band's second full-length album, is really good -- as I wrote in September, "it's a wonderful album, rich in texture and authenticity, and they're a pretty great band" -- and "The Stairs" and "Hero" are on my list of favourite songs of 2012.

6) P!nk -- Yes, P!nk. She's a lot better than pretty much everything else on the charts these days, and certainly much better than pretty much every other hugely popular female artist of her ilk. I can't say I like everything on her latest album, The Truth About Love, but two outstanding songs stand out: "Try" and "Timebomb." And particularly the former. I wrote a while back that it's chorus was "exceptional in its lyrical composition," adding: "Call me a romantic, but [it] just works for me, over and over again, particularly the way she sings it, combining determination and vulnerability, the combination that has always defined her and that she is now expressing with greater maturity, and less aggression, than ever before."

7) Female singer-songwriters -- I've always had a particular affection for female singer-songwriters like Sarah McLachlan, Shawn Colvin, and Vienna Teng, and while there's always a lot to choose from, I'll highlight three who released very good albums last year:

-- Erin McCarley, My Stadium Electric. I loved her debut album from 2009, Love, Save the Empty, and was eagerly awaiting her follow-up. Stadium isn't quite as good, but it's still very enjoyable, with standout songs like "What I Needed" and "Re-Arrange Again." (See my post, with three videos, from November 2009.)

-- Anna Ternheim, The Night Visitor. I've liked this Swedish singer for years, and The Night Visitor, recorded in Nashville, finds her at her best so far. As I wrote back in August, she has deepened her songwriting, adding a layer of American roots to her gothic folk-pop, and this album shows her at a level of maturity and depth beyond her previous work. And "Bow Your Head" is one of my favourite songs of 2012.

-- Antje Duvekot, New Siberia. Another singer I've liked for a long time, this was a welcome release over three years after her last studio album. It's very mellow and folky -- and "Phoenix" in particular is a great song.

So there you go. It's hardly a comprehensive list, but these are some of my favourites from last year. Needless to say, I recommend them all highly.


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