2012 was one hell of a year.
I say something to this effect every year that passes, but this time, I mean it in a positive sense. This has been the year that things finally came together, a year where I’ve started to feel like something approaching a successful adult, and doing so on my own terms. There have been no serious disasters to deal with, and nothing severely awful ever happened. On the contrary, my 2012 maintained a near constant upward trajectory from start to finish. It’s been a nice change, to say the least.
So, what’s made this year so great? To pick out a few highlights, seeing Touché Amoré headline an all-ages show in a packed basement venue was incredible, and stands as one of the most fun and cathartic experiences I’ve ever had. I also played a Hot Water Music cover set this Halloween with my band dressed as Ken from Street Fighter; unfortunately, no one was taking photos. I should probably mention I got a job that uses my degree as well. That was a big deal too.
Something that hasn’t changed much however is my taste in music. Every year I wonder if I’ll finally grow out of indie, punk, and hardcore bands and start listening to Tom Petty exclusively, but now that I’m less than a month away from turning 28, I’m starting to think it’s probably something I’ll be stuck with forever. Fortunately though, there are a lot of hard working bands active right now that have done an incredible job of mining the last two decades of emo, indie rock, and hardcore for inspiration and making it their own.
I feel that labels like Topshelf, No Sleep, Run For Cover, and Tiny Engines all deserve a fair amount of credit for keeping the music I love feeling fresh and relevant. They’ve all done an incredible job of putting out great records from talented acts this year, and if they weren’t in the game I don’t think I’d be as optimistic as I am about the current state of the underground punk / hardcore / whatever scene. Here’s hoping they keep doing what they’re doing.
With that said, the “twinkly” emo movement that has been building over the past few years feels like it’s hitting critical mass, and the ratio of legit bands to piss poor copy cats is starting to tilt in the wrong direction. There are some awesome bands of this ilk that put out some of my favorite records of the year (Dikembe, You Blew It!, and Prawn all deserve a shout out for that), but I’m predicting that over the next couple years, this is a fad that will start to burn out. I thought the same thing about generic metalcore about eight years ago too though, so we’ll see how accurate that call is later.
On the heavier end of the spectrum, any year with a new Converge record is a good one. All We Love We Leave Behind answered all questions about how the band would follow up 2009’s Axe To Fall: with a colossal record that clocks in at an almost exhausting seventeen tracks. The new Code Orange Kids record Love Is Love // Return To Dust renewed my hope that hardcore isn’t dead, as did this year’s efforts from Gaza and Loma Prieta. I don’t listen to as much aggressive music as I used to (maybe age has changed a few things after all), but it’s definitely refreshing to hear bands keeping the noisy and chaotic side of hardcore interesting.
There were a lot more great records put this year as well, and unfortunately, there isn’t room in my top ten to include all of them. However, Hot Water Music‘s new LP Exister was a welcome surprise. It seems that everyone has a favorite record from this band they personally feel will never be topped, and honestly, that’s probably the album’s biggest downfall; regardless of how good it might be, it’ll never match (insert classic HWM record here). Still, it’s great to see a band I’ve grown with for years still playing music.
On a much sadder note but still worth a mention, Sharon Van Etten‘s new album that came out earlier this year, Tramp, is fantastic. Van Etten’s lyrics detail the pains of emotional abuse in a way that’s daringly bold and honest to the point of almost being uncomfortable. It’s a record that provided a really stark contrast compared to the mostly positive mental state I’ve had most of the year, but it also kept my feet on the ground with the understanding that life isn’t always hugs and handshakes.
My only wish for 2013 is a swift end to dubstep.
And now, because reading large paragraphs of text is boring but bulleted lists are fun and easy to digest, here’s my top ten records of 2012.
10. Father John Misty – Fear Fun
Slyly sarcastic and smartly written pop music that has a lot more going on that it might seem upon first listen. It’s like a 70’s rock record mixed with modern indie rock and given a heavy dose of sass. This is a tightly played album that shows just how much Josh Tillman is better off on his own than he was rehashing Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young songs with Fleet Foxes. Even if you’re not usually into this sort of stuff, Fear Fun is worth giving a shot.
9. Joyce Manor – Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired
Joyce Manor took things in a different direction than what I had anticipated based on their previous work. These are short and deceptively clever pop punk songs that don’t last a second longer than they need to, all the while managing to cram in no shortage of hooks and melodic twists. Simple yet complex, and challenging yet accessible, this record is short enough that you can listen to it on repeat about four times over in the same time it’d take to get through another album once, and you’ll hear something new every time you give it a spin.
8. Cheap Girls – Giant Orange
I’m not sure if the interest that Rise Records has taken in bands like this is driven by much more than a need to stay relevant as their audience gets older, but I’m not sure I care, either. If they want to continue signing bands like Cheap Girls instead of boring metalcore bands, then I’m down. Giant Orange is a solid collection of melodic alt-rock jams that could have easily gone on college radio in the 90’s. I remember hearing an electric version of “Cored To Empty” before the record came out, and was thrown off slightly by the (still excellent) acoustic version that ended up on the album. If anyone knows where to find that alternate version, please let me know.
7. Dikembe – Broad Shoulders
There are a lot of bands playing throwback 90’s emo right now, but with Dikembe, it doesn’t feel like a throwback at all. Too many acts trying to play this style fall into the trap of just plugging into a Fender Twin, dialing up a jangly clean tone, and then trying to do their best American Football impression. Dikembe, on the other hand, focuses on writing kick-ass jams that don’t abuse obvious genre clichés. Broad Shoulders is a great record full of intricate melodies, positive energy, and refreshing self-awareness from a band that takes their music more seriously than themselves.
6. The Casket Lottery – Real Fear
The Casket Lottery came back from the dead and put out a record that sounds like they never really left. The fact that this sounds as current as it does despite being their first recorded output in eight years is affirmation that the kids are really just now catching up to what they were doing back in the late 90’s. While I was a casual fan before and enjoyed their older records, this one kicked things up a notch. I am never not in the mood to listen to this album.
5. Converge – All We Love We Leave Behind
I don’t want to picture a world without Converge, but at this point in their career, every time they announce a new record I have a sinking fear that it could be their last. Following up a record like 2009’s Axe To Fall is a monstrous undertaking, but after hearing the first few tracks off All We Love We Leave Behind, I knew they were up to the task. On their last record, they upped the ante by bringing on as many guest artists as they possibly could. This time around, they made an even longer, darker, and more aggressive record entirely on their own. The only question left now is, “Where can they possibly go next from here?”
4. Slingshot Dakota – Dark Hearts
Slingshot Dakota absolutely nailed it on Dark Hearts. This is a sad record, but it comes off more honest than mopey, and more relatable than self-pitying. Their keyboard-driven sound has an almost hopeful vibe to it that gives the album a sense of having a silver lining, even with lyrics like “We’re waiting for the world to end / We’re waiting for our friends to die / We’re living our days with wet eyes.” The record deals with topics like death and heartache in a way that’s very blunt and mature; Carly Comando’s heart is fully on her sleeve here, and the result is an album that feels undeniably real.
3. Now, Now – Threads
I first heard about Now, Now back when they used to be called Now, Now Every Children. Based on their name alone, I assumed they were a pretentious indie rock band that I would probably hate. I was wrong. Threads is an insanely catchy record, but its lyrics and layered melodies give you a lot to dig into underneath its poppiness. Based on a recurring theme about the temporary nature of human relationships, it’s a deeper listen than it might seem like at first. I’m hooked.
2. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten
Four records into their career and The Gaslight Anthem still haven’t written a bad song as far as I’m concerned. Of all the records on my list, this is the one I’m most likely still going to be listening to in 20 years. Handwritten combines the maturity of American Slang with the rougher rock and roll drive of Sink Or Swim, and while it didn’t offer much in terms of anything new or surprising, it didn’t need to. It’s common for bands to make claims about how they’re going to stick to their guns and just play the music they want to play after they make the major label leap. With these guys though, it’s nice to see a band actually make good on that promise.
1. Hostage Calm – Please Remain Calm
Hostage Calm took the top spot for my record of the year not only for writing an incredibly catchy record with Please Remain Calm, but for also taking bigger creative risks than any other band in their genre that I can name off the top of my head from the last decade. You would think that for a hardcore band to turn their backs on aggression almost entirely in favor of writing pop songs wrapped up in an aesthetic equally informed by the 50’s and the 80’s would be career suicide. Instead, it’s brought them to a much wider audience than they ever would have enjoyed otherwise, which may be proof that hardcore kids are smarter than they often get credit for. There’s also a strong sense here that the band is simply playing exactly what they want to be playing, and nothing more or less than that.
And that does it for my list. I want to thank all of my friends, family, and the rest of the staff here at The 1st Five for helping to make 2012 the best year of my life. See you all in 2013!