Best of 2012: Brian Shultz's picksBrian Shultz's picks (2012) staff picks
Reviewer Rating: 5
Contributed by: InaGreendaseInaGreendase (others by this writer | submit your own) [Brian Shultz is a former Reviews Editor. He totally found a way to bring up Crime in Stereo below!]
Here Is an Introductory Paragraph Where I Talk About Myself and Hopefully Avoid Coming Off as a Self-Obsessed Asshole
Hey. I'm Brian. Long-time readers may recognize me as the former revi.
[Brian Shultz is a former Reviews Editor. He totally found a way to bring up Crime in Stereo below!]
Here Is an Introductory Paragraph Where I Talk About Myself and Hopefully Avoid Coming Off as a Self-Obsessed Asshole
Hey. I'm Brian. Long-time readers may recognize me as the former reviews editor here at the 'Org. I also try to help my successor, Joe, out by contributing a review here and there. That has generally been the extent of my involvement at Punknews in 2012, but Joe was generous enough to invite me over for everyone's favorite annual nerding session (You might also see my reviews and features in Alternative Press every now and then, which has been my trusty, paid side gig for nearly eight years now).
Personally, it's been a wild 2012. There's been curious ups and even stranger downs. It was my first full year on my own as an independent adult (and thus my first full year at B9 HQ), and I'm still alive, so that's pretty cool. I visited California for the first time (however brief and limited a weekend it was, but got to experience the lauded California burrito finally). I had a blast in Montreal on one spontaneous weekend. I went vegan, which has been an interesting, challenging transition, but also feels great. Looking forward, I found new living quarters for next year, which will put some money back into my pocket and hopefully allow me to live an easier life (namely, trading in my dilapidated 1993 Chevrolet Cavalier for something from this century). We're also looking at a pretty exciting 2013 at B9, so keep an eye out. Promising times ahead.
I listened to an absurd amount of new music this year, even for myself, really. So this is really the cream of my personal crop. (If you're incredibly bored and looking for new music recommendations, check out my top 100+ here [and top ~100 EPs/singles here].) Hopefully you discover something you like. These are the records that brought me the most enjoyment in 2012.
Murder by Death's best record in six years. Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon is practically a creative career revival. Not only do they get far more vibey than usual (the haunting "My Hill" and "Go to the Light," the ornate yet up-tempo "The Curse of Elkhart") but the songs are here too. "Lost River", "I Came Around" and "Hard World" are among the band's best anthems, with plenty of tasty alt-country and western-tinged cuts elsewhere spanning many a genre and mood.
One of the stronger reunion albums of the year, it shouldn't have been at all surprising that Hot Water Music would turn up the "rock" on this, given their more straightforwardly stylistic stint on Epitaph. While Exister finds them a little cleaner and stripped down, it also boasts a boatload of trusty, throat-shredding hooks.
Now, Now have made subtle steps forward since their Eisley-loving releases of yore, so it's hardly shocking that Threads stands as their defining statement thus far. The young trio crafted an absolute heartbreaker of an indie pop record, with subtle hints that they'll expand beyond their mopey template into something even more textured and enriching than their already lovely smeary, emotionally crushing compositions.
This record taught me an important lesson: Never judge a band by its scene (in this case being homogenized pop-punk, given a few of the American Scene's labelmates and the vast majority of their touring associates). Granted, the California act's earlier output was far more bland and often criticized for being too similar to a very modern, vaguely emo-influenced pop-rock band I never cared much for in the first place, but Safe for Now shows tAS to be so much more than that. It's an engaging, addictive, emotionally varied record with influences seemingly spanning from early 2000s emo (the Jealous Sound, Hot Rod Circuit, Brand New) to the best of the present day.
Sure, this might just be the extra lap Beach House is taking after hitting their stride on 2010's enchanting Teen Dream, but every step here carries incredible elegance. Bloom essentially cements Beach House as the quintessential dream pop band of the modern era (depending on how you feel about Blonde Redhead's last album), as they craft one gripping, anxious anthem after another with atmosphere you want to sink into and never leave.
The absolute worst time for Rise and Fall to dial down their activity as a band is now, because Faith is far and away the best recorded collection of songs they've blessed the hardcore scene with to date. Faith retains the band's fervent crust and D-beat overtones while stretching to include everything from Snapcase-esque, squealing guitars ("A Hammer and Nails") to restrained, howling epics ("Things Are Different Now"), and keeping it smolderingly heavy throughout. Let's just hope us fans Stateside get even one chance to see them play these songs live.
Ceremony's most complete and engaging album since their aptly titled, polar-opposite-of-this-kind-of-punk debut, Violence Violence, Zoo is a surfy post-punk record in the most literal and figurative senses, finding the band sneering and slurring their way through cuts that unexpectedly crib notes from acts like Dead Kennedys and Gang of Four.
The debut long-player from this Bay Area shoegaze/noise pop outfit delivers as promised: immersive, dissonant melodies and driving, swirling guitars all over the place, with emotional range—the playful "Junebouvier" and "Bogus" to weary standout "Home Is Where My Head Is"—to boot.
Sure, there are hints of forgetters' past here. It's hard to escape the connecting thread of frontman Blake Schwarzenbach's patient wordsmithery, while one can even feel the swaggering shuffle of early Against Me! (a duo drummer Kevin Mahon once made up half of) on "Turn Away." But on their hotly anticipated full-length debut, forgetters are (hopefully) forging a future. My favorite long-player from a Schwarzenbach project since Orange Rhyming Dictionary, forgetters is deliberate, coy and yet subtlely immersive, with the sort of understated, post-punk-influenced hooks you'd get on a mid-era record from the National.
A far more diverse and interesting collection of songs than their already heralded self-titled 2011 LP, Joyce Manor provide the ultimate citation to the "quality over quantity" debate with nine great tracks in 13 minutes. Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired reminds me of what might have happened if Guided by Voices decided to write and record a "punk" EP in the mid-'90s: lo-fi bashing-away with heartbroken yearning, acoustic sidetracks and a random, perfectly executed cover of an '80s one-hit-wonder smack in the middle of the whole damn thing.
mewithoutYou took a decidedly folky foray with 2009's it's all crazy! it's all false! it's all a dream! it's alright, and while the effort was hardly horrible, it didn't quite capture the tension and angularity of their past brilliance. Ten Stories splits the difference, retaining the band's newly conceptual, narrative approach while plugging in the guitars and romping through compellingly complex, storytelling orchestrations that wouldn't be out of place on the more recent albums by Fugazi or the Decemberists.
Is it too insulting to list the multitude of ways that Yellow & Green is Baroness' "Black Album?" Because there's a ton. Sometimes I just like it the most when everyone else thinks a band is selling out. Green is the effortless wind-down (the playful "Board Up the House;" the jaunty "The Line Between"), but Yellow is hit after rock-solid hit, from would-be Top 40 contenders ("Take My Bones Away." "March to the Sea") to bone-rattling displays of anguish ("Sea Lungs," "Eula").
The phrase "life-affirming" has been freely tossed around regarding this Vancouver duo's second official studio collection of anthems. Well, it's hard to argue: Celebration Rock delivers as advertised, with fuzz-coated rock that accelerates the Replacements' and Springsteen's stomping, arena-sized hooks into up-tempo, punk rock barn-burners. When that first verse kicks in on "The House That Heaven Built?" Fuck, man.
Such Gold could have played it safe and pandered to their core fanbase with a dozen tracks of meager, catchy pop-punk. Instead, they went out and wrote the leanest, hardest and most riffy stuff of their budding career. Misadventures mixes A Wilhelm Scream's rugged, technical speed with Comeback Kid's shouted angst via total, invigorating aplomb, resulting in the best melodic hardcore record in some time.
Circa Survive pushed their spacey, progressive alt-rock and post-hardcore meshing to new heights on the self-financed, self-released Violent Waves without losing any of the intricate atmospheres and ethereal, enchanting melodies they've made their name on to this point. Plus, this record proved that as long as you continued to write killer songs, you could make a towering production of an album with smaller (but no less talented) names to make the songs sound killer, too.
Make Do and Mend's sophomore LP hardly changed the band's sound—it just made it way, way better. Sure, there's some serious radio polish, with results ranging from gorgeous ballad "St. Anne" to nearly-a-recent-Rise Against-single "Lucky." But for the most part, Everything You Ever Loved is everything I may have ever loved about Hot Water Music and Jimmy Eat World in one fantastic album, with flashes of unique brilliance and chilling moments of harrowing anguish along the way.
This year alone there've been quite a few reunion records emerging from the "scene" I've followed most closely for the last decade or so. While a few are conspicuouslymissing from this wrap-up, none have been particularly bad; however, the Casket Lottery are the only band that somehow woke from their slumber musically and lyrically peaking. Real Fear is the best thing this Kansas City, Mo. trio (now a quintet) have conceived. Far more expansive and more haunting than the already emotionally damaged content of their last opus (2002's aptly titled Survival Is for Cowards), Real Fear took a risk by adding keyboards to the mix, but it merely enriches and illuminates the atmosphere, while the band stylistically touch upon a wider timeline of styles, from grunge to early new wave and '90s emo/alternative, operated at a punk-minded tilt and perfectly complemented by pedals and disconsolate uncertainty. It's aggressive, dynamic, ambitious and rewrites the odds for what a group of musicians can accomplish after considerable time away from each other.
Better to burn out than to fade away, huh? Daytrader drew lines in their already compact fanbase with what became the only full-length offering to their name. Some fans wanted the scrappy energy of the demo; others yearned for the dynamic, sharpened melodic punk of the EP; still more somehow questioned the brilliant, finely tuned pop and rock hooks laid to tape on Twelve Years, influenced by the best east coast "emo" songwriters of the last decade and change and filtered through an obscure smog of haunting guitars and literature-inspired personal prose. Hell of a swan song, but so it goes.
Title Fight have inhabited a number of punk-indebted styles throughout their decade-long tenure as a band: speedy, amateur-hour middle-school punk; poppy, post-Can't Slow Down melodic hardcore; gruff, '90s emo-laced angst. While it took eight years for the band to formulate their first proper full-length and only 16 months for the followup, it's not entirely surprising that the space they reside in now is their best yet. It doesn't hurt that Floral Green effortlessly combines both my life-long and more recent genre loves. They've become the perfect example of growing with their fans and continuing to simply play what they're into, and the result is a wonderful confluence of shoegaze's sweet and sour, Jawbreaker's ache and indie rock's pop ambition during the '90s, with earnest, honest lyrics about self-doubt and insecurities ruggedly spit forth by four deceptively simple suburban hardcore kids. Shed your skin indeed.
A new single from this Portland, Ore. act finds them transforming from barely-categorizable shoegaze legends-in-waiting to an equally splendid darkwave act who would have been a hit on MTV in the early '80s. GIVE US A FULL-LENGTH OF THIS SHIT ALREADY.
These songs took a while to come out, but they were worth the wait. Person L track their best anthem to date with "OK," and Weatherbox spin away their ragged, coarse blend of angular guitars and nasal melodies on the other side like it's old hat. Probably because it is for them, though.
Souvenirs deliver a second banger of an EP, continuing to inject their sappy emo with tastes of Red House Painters' solemn march and Knapsack's scrappy temper (with a strangely similar vocal similarity to Smoke or Fire frontman Joe McMahon's earlier, earnest bark). They're one of those bands that make depression feel impossibly good.
The Gaslight Anthem don't tack on some throwaway B-sides here. No sir. A yelping, bluesy cover of Bon Iver's modern classic "Skinny Love" plus the hushed chamber pieces "Misery" and "Hold You Up" make for wonderfully meditative partners on this Record Store Day 10".
Coasta vocalist/guitarist Jamey Lacey might have a semi-famous brother, but any sibling influence is kept to a dull roar on his own band's bang-up debut EP. Nimble and melodic, textured alternative/indie rock with the occasional, carefully dark shade, their label put it best when name-checking Nada Surf, Wilco and The Bends-era Radiohead as subtle touchstones coming together for something impressive and unique.
Sleepwalkers: The Wolf & The Moon
self-released September 18
Take all the best weird parts of the last four Converge albums and put them on one sick, immensely enjoyable EP. That's Sleepwalkers' The Wolf & The Moon in a nutshell. A local Massachusetts act who's seemingly just hitting their stride as they're slowing down as a band, their prior stuff was a modern hardcore footnote at best. Moon is not only a gigantic leap forward in style, execution and texture, but a complete reinvention for them as well. Great stuff.
While there's something a little disconcerting about a band with an anti-capitalist past charging $5 for only two MP3s, it's also hard to deny how much bang they're really giving you for your buck. With one incredibly strong album to their name, Desaparecidos risked mucking up their legacy by recording any new material at all (let alone their first in a decade), but this single delivers. The band keep it current with "MariKKKopa," lashing out at a racist Arizona sheriff through the ground-stomping power-pop they first perfected 10 years ago, while the thumping, radio industry hater "Backsell" oscillates between sardonic twinkles and straight bashing away.
originally released March 5 on Walnut Tree Records / reissued September 25 on Animal Style Records
It wasn't entirely surprising that the majority of Audio Karate would go on to record one of the better releases of its kind, no matter how long they waited to follow up 2004's Lady Melody with some proper rock. The Cruelest Kind is an inviting melding of melodic indie rock, alt-country and the most coy hint of punk sneering for that little extra something.
To be perfectly honest, all this split had to do was deliver as promised and it had the #1 spot here. When the track listing was announced, it was like the perfect spectrum of punk/indie-derived styles I've been into for close to half my life. My favorite current hardcore band (Touché Amoré) offering up a searing new song and an aggressively jangly cover of one of my favorites acts of the '80s (the Replacements)? Beloved emo veterans showing off one of their first new songs—an unexpected foray into grunge and Cure-ish post-punk, bridging the gap to the followup LP—in eight years (the Casket Lottery) and covering a track from another of my most-loved albums released this year (see Top Albums #16)? Shit, man. No Sleep basically released this just for me.
If I didn't work full-time for the label involved in putting this record out, trust me, it would still be included in this feature. Verse is arguably one of the first hardcore bands I got into, some time in the fall of 2003: a then-okay-ish youth crew revival act that assisted greatly in sparking my interest in hard, simple, aggressive music while I attended a college located directly within their home base. Nearly a decade later, they've emerged from a brief hiatus as one of the best and most impossibly complex bands playing that kind of music. Their possible watershed moment (and career high), Bitter Clarity, Uncommon Grace takes all sorts of chances (guitar solos, interludes, organs, a nearly constant unraveling of narrated, spoken-word frustration) and succeeds at every turn.
Raindance: New Blood
originally self-released May 18 / reissued October 30 on Animal Style Records
Early 2000s metalcore receives a healthy jolt of more Victory-era, '90s metallic hardcore on this juggernaut of an EP by New Bedford, Mass.'s Raindance. Shortly before its free digital release (later picked up by Animal Style for a vinyl pressing), the band had asked me to be their manager, and I flatteringly obliged. So while you might be skeptical of my impartiality, I can promise you that the band takes the best of early Every Time I Die, 108, old Poison the Well and Unbroken and combines those bands' experimentally fierce styles into one focused, weird and weirdly awesome spate of bitter, heavy hardcore.
This is some pretty great mid-tempo emo in the late Revolution Summer spirit (think earlier End of a Year, when they were a little more Swiz-y), with nearly unique, exasperated, almost grunt-shouted vocals.
January on Super Sonic Sounds
The man of a million hardcore projects at the moment, ex-Have Heart frontman Pat Flynn gets together with dudes from Verse, Dropdead and Soul Control for some sweet, sweet Swiz worship (hell, they even cover them here). Sensing a bit of a theme in this demo list? Rock 'n' roll.
self-released July 13
Okay, that's enough Swiz talk. Somos recorded the best (and easily best-sounding, courtesy of Panda Studios) demo I've heard this year, with immensely catchy, pretty dynamic and anthemic, melodic sorta punk that takes the best of Polar Bear Club's more recent, radio-friendly material and adds just the slightest touch of Piebald's quirk. Hell of a start.
Dreamscape: La-Di-Da Recordings
August 20 on Kranky
I'm not even sure this is a complete discography, but that's okay, because the nine tracks that are here from various EPs and singles released by this early '90s dream pop outfit (an apparent side project to Secret Shine, who had neither reached my ignorant consciousness) are excellent. Fuzzy atmospheres that sound lost, dissonant, nauseous, unsure and depressed—what more could you ask for?