the obligatory 2012 retrospective

I realize I’m about a month late on this. God forbid I take a couple of weeks to process the year. But new years never feel different than old ones, and although much changed in 2012, more stayed the same. I still measure my life in semesters and I still have the same goals, ambitions, insecurities, desires, and anxieties as I always have. Though my optimistic self does feel closer to where I ultimately want to be–even though that’s often changing. And it should.

When it comes to music, 2012 was pretty great. Definitely better than 2011. I had a hard time even coming up with 10 albums last year. Without further adieu, here are my top 10 favorite albums of 2012.

10. Coheed and Cambria – The Afterman: Ascension
A welcome return to form. They’re back with Josh Eppard and the producers of their first three albums. This is the sound I missed. Chris Pennie is a better drummer, but Josh fits this band’s style much better. It’s still missing the epic prog rock tunes that I know they’re capable of, like most of their last few records, but I still love this one. The title track is probably their best song in recent memory.

9. Kids These Days – Traphouse Rock
Rap/rock/R&B fusion done right. This record flows seamlessly between country, blues, indie rock, and hip-hop styles in a way that doesn’t seem forced or awkward at all.

8. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
This band seemed to come out of nowhere. Brittany Howard is the best frontwoman I’ve heard in a long time. Amazing live. They seem so seasoned, like something my parents would listen to, in a good way.

7. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
Most creative R&B record I’ve heard in a long time. “Pyramids” might be the track of the year.

6. Poliça – Give Up the Ghost
Solid debut. I loved Channy with GAYNGS so I bought this record the day it came out.

5. Earlimart – System Preferences
I just discovered this band in 2012…one of my best finds. A lot of their songs have a very Elliott Smith vibe.

4. Kishi Bashi – 151a
of Montreal’s former violinist with a really impressive debut LP. I’m already hearing him in MTV shows and on commercials, which is a sign that he’ll be big this year.

3. Titus Andronicus – Local Business
I just love this band. This is a more back-to-basics record than the ambitious The Monitor, but that’s a good thing to me. They’ve done an epic already…no need to do it again.

2. The Viking Progress – Whistling While the End is Near
Excellent debut that you may not have heard much about outside of Athens. Very much influenced by In the Aeroplane Over the Sea all the way down to the album artwork, and including the fact that Scott Spillane plays on this record. But at the same time, it doesn’t sound like it’s ripping anything off. Patrick Morales wrote these songs while working on two fishing boats in Alaska named The Viking and The Progress. It’s a concept album about God deciding how to end the world. Between the concept and the ITAOTS influence, it sounds overly ambitious, but it’s really not. It’s just a really pretty record all the way through.

1. Reptar – Body Faucet
This album received an undeserved panning from Pitchfork. Honestly, many outlets would have this in a top 10 if it wasn’t for Pitchfork and their unwarranted influence on the indie zeitgeist. This was one of my most anticipated records this year and it doesn’t disappoint at all. I’ve also seen them live many times and each time was uniquely one of the most memorable shows I’ve been to. They’re basically WU LYF meets Animal Collective, but they’ve been around locally for a pretty good while, so I’ve been listening to them before I started listening to either of those bands.

Honorable Mention: Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Like Bon Iver last year, the new Japandroids is also good but overrated. Post-Nothing is the better record, and I felt like I had already heard too much of Celebration Rock on their 7″ releases over the past couple of years for me to consider it all that new.

Lastly, here are 5 songs from bands not mentioned above that I thoroughly enjoyed last year.

5. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – “Maniac”
This album didn’t get the attention it deserved. Almost made it in my top 10, but it was barely edged out. It has some really great moments. This is one of them.

4. The Antlers – “Drift Dive”
Burst Apart was my #1 of 2011. This was only an EP so it wasn’t in my consideration for albums of the year, but I love this band.

3. Sam Means – “Something in the Air”
Sam’s voice and the way he always sounds a little lo-fi reminds me of M. Ward with less folk, more pop.

2. fun. – “Some Nights”
Overplayed song and terrible production on most of this album. I trashed the album when it came out. To an extent, I don’t care. I’ve loved these guys too long and this song is irresistible. On the other hand, I really wish they had kept Steve McDonald, who produced Aim & Ignite and Dog Problems with The Format. He kept them from going too far into bubblegum territory, which is what this song is–aside from the lyrics, which are some of the best I’ve heard in a top 40 song in a long time.

1. CHVRCHES – “The Mother We Share”
This band is going to blow up soon…this song is too good. No album or tour outside of the UK yet. You’ll know them well this time next year.

where we’re headed we have never been

I might as well call this a Format blog with the amount of posts dedicated to those dudes. Didn’t intend that, but this recent find is definitely worth posting. I must thank Brooke for pointing out in a comment that a studio version of this exists out there. Also thanks to this Tumblr for posting it in the first place.

My search on the interwebs turned up a few streams, but no MP3, so I made one myself. This is basically the holy grail of unreleased Format tunes. It’s a post-Dog Problems song called “Swans” recorded for a movie (it wasn’t a good movie, so I won’t even mention it), and The Format also played it live on their last couple of tours (including on the Mayan DVD).

So here you go; the full, uninterrupted studio version of “Swans” ready to drop in your iTunes and put on all of your mix CDs (do people still make those? I still do…)

MP3: The Format – Swans

tie the rope, tap the brake, cause a scene

I saw a request for this somewhere out there, and I needed an excuse to post something. I’m pretty sure this little acoustic session known as the “White Room Demos” was sent out to people on The Format’s email list back in the day. It contains what is probably my favorite version of the b-side “Your New Name.” It’s also got an early version of “Janet” with a lot of lyrical differences and a more upbeat tempo than the final version, which I first heard back in ’04, so this is definitely pre-Dog Problems by a few years. Enjoy.

The Format – White Room Demos
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1. Your New Name
2. Janet

you’re alive and it shows

Sam Means (the instrumental half of long-time favorite The Format) is set to release his new 7″ entitled Nona on Record Store Day (check the link for more RSD releases and events–this year is looking better than ever!) I received my copy of Nona in the mail today, and I’m happy to highly encourage you to pick it up on Saturday. To get an idea of what to expect from Means’ post-Format work, imagine that band’s mellow, upbeat pop tunes with the soft/lo-fi vocal style of M. Ward. It makes for some fun, subtle pop music that I really look forward to hearing on a full length album at some point.

For now, you can watch the newly released video for “Something in the Air.” Also worthy of note is that this EP features contributions by musicians from Dog Problems and The Format touring band (Mark Buzard, Don Raymond, Mike Schey). A good cure if you’re still reeling from the band’s breakup in 2008.

feeling free

Meanwhile, in Athens news, Reptar is poised to release their debut LP Body Faucet on May 1st. The record will be out on Vagrant and is produced by Atlanta’s Ben H. Allen, also known for his work with Animal Collective, Gnarls Barkley, and more recently, Fanfarlo. This is a release I’ve personally anticipated for years, and is the culmination of three years of potential energy buildup unlike anything I’ve seen since I’ve lived in Athens. It’s definitely an exciting time to be an Athenian. For those outside of Athens, by the end of the year, you will be very familiar with these guys if you aren’t already. With a sound that brings together the gritty vocals and percussion of WU LYF with the catchy melodies of MGMT, they’re more than ready for mainstream and critical attention.

However, Reptar is not yet forsaking our small town for the big time, playing Ciné on Record Store Day (4/21), the 40 Watt for the Body Faucet release weekend (5/4), and they will also be headlining a night of AthFest along with Atlas Sound (6/22). Also, in what will go down as probably the coolest thing to happen in Athens this year, Reptar played an impromptu show at the Georgia Theatre back in February. The story is that the house show they were playing got shut down, so they just trekked over to the Georgia Theatre to finish up after Tom Green’s set that night. I wasn’t there (I caught them on New Year’s Eve), but judging by the videos, it was definitely ridiculous–any band with the ability to conjure such a crowd in a town where musical acts are a dime-a-dozen is one worth watching by the world. Look out for Reptar in 2012, for sure.

and at once I knew I was not magnificent

I’ve neglected this space yet again. No updates in almost two months. Well, here’s one I’ve been sitting on for a while. Bon Iver, though still evidently outside of mainstream consciousness, is a band that has recently blown up thanks to awards, TV appearances, Kanye, etc. I was lucky enough to see them last summer at what I consider to be a large venue, and this was before the Grammy win. On this summer’s tour, expect even larger arenas and amphitheaters to accommodate those fans who don’t listen to music that doesn’t win Grammy Awards. At any rate, one thing that’s especially evident to me in their live performances is that this is not one man–this is a band. Bon Iver may have been Justin on For Emma, but the project has gone far beyond that at this point.

In saying farewell to the club circuit for Bon Iver, enjoy this recording from their second night at DC’s 9:30 Club last summer. It was broadcasted by NPR, but here, it’s been split up, tagged, ribbed and lubricated for your iTunes importing pleasure.

[photo from Erica Bruce, Washington City Paper]

Bon Iver – Live at 9:30 Club – Washington, DC – 8/2/11
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1. Perth
2. Minnesota, WI
3. Towers
4. Holocene
5. Creature Fear
6. Flume
7. Hinnom, TX
8. Wash.
9. Brackett, WI
10. Blood Bank
11. Who Is It? (Björk Cover)
12. Re: Stacks
13. Calgary
14. Wolves (Acts I and II)
15. Skinny Love
16. Beth / Rest
17. For Emma

high octane

Reviewing this album is such a conundrum for me. You see, I loved The Format dearly. Their music carried me through college and all of the experiences, friendships, and relationships contained therein. I saw them live many times, and mourned their passing four years ago. fun. is a close sibling, and as such, my love carries over. It’s hard to keep these guys from winning you over. Regardless of your musical preferences, it seems so easy to let go of every pretension and enjoy this band, because their music lives up so well to its namesake. Even when it isn’t very good.

Some Nights is among the finest collections of songs Nate Ruess has ever written. His classic lyricism, hooks, and thematic elements are all present. Guitarist and Steel Train vocalist Jack Antonoff, along with ex-Anathallo multi-instrumentalist Andrew Dost, fill out the trio, and they are two of the most fitting and capable musicians for a project such as this. fun. has brought all of the necessary ingredients to make a fantastic pop-rock record, one that could have easily been better than their debut, Aim and Ignite. Unfortunately, the final product is cheesy, overproduced, and at some points, unlistenable. What happened?

The blame for this album’s shortcomings lies with chosen producer Jeff Bhasker, who prior to working with fun., produced for the likes of Kanye West, Adam Lambert, Beyoncé, and Drake. fun. is the exact opposite of the acts that Bhasker has previously produced for: a band fully capable of making music–good, highly accessible pop music–with no help.

While listening to this album (which I have many times already), the question I can’t stop asking is “why?” With the talent contained among the three of them, why would this band allow these production choices? Dear God, are those synth horns? You have a proficient horn player in your band! Why? Why choose a producer who makes your record sound like no one in the band can play an instrument, when the exact opposite is true? That’s not to say you won’t hear Jack and Andrew on the album, but Bhasker’s contributions are far more evident, to the point where they might as well put him at the forefront of the band. That bothers me; when I know how capable a band is, I want to hear it on the record. I don’t want a producer to cover it up.

Neither The Format’s output nor Aim and Ignite were inaccessible in any way. Steve McDonald, producer on both Dog Problems and Aim and Ignite, helped create a sound that sat perfectly on the fence between gleeful pop and substantive rock. Not only was Nate’s prowess as a writer of catchy pop songs evident, but contributions from other band members could be heard loud and clear. Given the right marketing, this band could’ve made it just as big as they aim for without sacrificing themselves to the most base sound imaginable.

Truly, the songwriting is not the problem here. At their core, the songs are great. The album starts strong with the anthemic, Queen-esque intro and title track, both of which are almost good enough–regardless of overproduction–to forgive the rest of the album. “We Are Young,” the band’s first real breakout single, is enjoyable, despite some terrible clichés (“set the world on fire,” “brighter than the sun”) and repetitive chorus. The ballad “Carry On” is catchy and solid; probably the closest thing to Aim and Ignite you’ll find on this album. All three band members shine on this track, which is sadly a rare occurrence on this album. Melodically, “Carry On” reminds me a lot of the unreleased Format song “Swans,” which proves my belief that if The Format were still making music in 2012, they’d be writing very similar tunes.

“It Gets Better,” ironically, is where it gets worse. This song is the worst victim of production on this album; an assault on the ears from the first few seconds of the track. In the live setting, it’s a callback to Interventions + Lullabies‘ catchy power-pop. On Some Nights, it sounds like Cobra Starship. “It Gets Better” is the epitome of the problem with this album. Again, the song is fine; it’s solely the production choices that make it such a cacophonous clusterfuck.

“All Alone” and “All Alright” have the same problem to a lesser extent. Like almost every track on this album, they would be far more tolerable (and actually very good) if you could just hear the band playing their instruments. “All Alright” in particular would be much better if Andrew’s piano part was placed far above everything else in the jumbled mix. “One Foot” is just as loud and grating as “It Gets Better,” but worse, with its blaring, looping synth horns that sound like something Bhasker dug up from a rejected Ludacris beat.

“Why Am I The One” is the most straightforward pop-rock song, and it’s probably one of the better songs from this record. The contributions from the actual band members are far more evident in this song than most other places on the album. The Elton John influence is obvious here, particularly in the chorus. Finally, closer “Stars” demonstrates what I think the band had in mind when they hired Bhasker. Like the rest of the album, it’s big, with plenty of synths and vocoder (you’ll notice that I didn’t mention vocoder, aka autotune, anywhere else–I actually don’t have much of a problem with its use for effect), and the only song on which I think the production is fitting. I would have much preferred a less artificial sound, but it fits in some places. Although it doesn’t make up for all the bad choices on this album, it helps me see what they were going for.

I’d be more forgiving if Bhasker had only been chosen to work on one or two tracks, maybe “Stars” and/or “We Are Young,” but an album filled with this much butchering is tragic. I can hear the sound they were going for; it’s certainly different from past Ruess-lead projects, but it could have been so much more interesting. In my wildest dreams, Kevin Barnes (of Montreal) would have produced this album. I can envision some of the soundscapes that would’ve resulted in such a collaboration, and they would have been very fitting for this direction. Barnes has worked with collaborator Janelle Monáe, so he’s not too many degrees away from this band.

There’s an old story Nate used to tell about his dislike for label executives and bureaucracy (which is also recounted in “Dear Boy.”) When he brought the first Dog Problems demos to The Format’s label at the time, an executive complained that they weren’t “high octane.” Shortly afterwards, they were dropped from then-label Atlantic.

If there ever was such a Nate Ruess record, it’s this one. Somewhere, that label executive is listening to Some Nights and shouting, “YES! YES! NATE, THIS IS HIGH OCTANE!”

If I gave a numerical score to this album, which I won’t, it would be between 3 and 7. If I just listen for shits and giggles, I can enjoy it on the 7-level, but when I take it a little more seriously, I dislike it quite a bit. For that reason, I doubt I’m the target market here. This is for pop radio. Car speakers. Although die hard fans like myself will listen from time to time anyway. I used to recommend this band to people. I still will, but definitely with a caveat if they choose to start here. I doubt I’ll need to, anyway–it certainly seems that the sound they’ve chosen is working out well for their own popularity. Good for them.

it [could’ve been] better

fun.‘s second album Some Nights will be released on Fueled By Ramen on February 21st. Until then, you can head over to iTunes and hear previews of each horribly butchered and overproduced song. Alright, I’ll retain my final judgement of the album for when I hear it in full, but I’ve already begun writing the negative review in my head. My skepticism about this record has always had more to do with production choices than a lack of confidence in the songs, and hearing the live versions proves this point. Until now, I’ve held off on listening to the new songs, as I prefer having a fresh listen of an album. But I’ve heard enough to solidify the disappointment, so I wanted to know what the songs sounded like minus the terrible production. Perhaps more frustratingly, they sound great, many of them right up there with the best fun./Format output. It’s just so tragic when production kills an album.

I’ve compiled live performances of the first nine songs off Some Nights–remaining tracks “Stars” and “Out on the Town” do not appear to have been performed live yet. If you’re a glutton for disappointment, listen to these before you listen to the final product.

1. Some Nights (Intro)

2. Some Nights

3. We Are Young

4. Carry On

5. It Gets Better

6. Why Am I The One

7. All Alone

8. All Alright

9. One Foot

This should also serve as a testament to how great this band is live. I’d very much recommend seeing them play instead of bothering with the new album.

hooray for tuesday

Fun fact: The Minders’ Hooray for Tuesday was recorded at Pet Sounds the same time as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. As such, it is also approaching its fourteenth anniversary.* Definitely worthy of a listen if you enjoy a good pop record.

*Jeff Mangum’s upcoming February 10th-11th shows at the 40 Watt will coincide with this anniversary, making the homecoming even more special.