At some point I went from being the guy who hates on things just because to being the guy who likes a great deal of the stuff I come across. Below is an attempt to think of about 20 things across the arts spectrum that made 2012 a little better every time I listened to, looked at, watched, read or otherwise consumed them. I wrote about a number of them in some way over the year but I’m not linking to those articles here because while I’m egotisticl enough to make the below lists in the first place, I hope I’m not so fucking egostical to say, “I like this–and you should read me saying why I like this over here too.” Also included are a few of the ones I just couldn’t wrap my head around for whatever reason.
Joshua Abrams Represencing (Eremite)
Oren Ambarchi/ Keiji Haino/ Jim O’Rourke Imikuzushi (Black Truffle)
Jessica Bailiff At the Down-Turned Jagged Rim of the Sky (Kranky)
The Coup Sorry to Bother You (ANTI-)
Converge All We Love We Leave Behind (Epitaph)
The Evens The Odds (Dischord)
Julia Holter Ekstasis (RVNG)
Gate Damned Revolutions (Ultramarine) At some point in this life I may tire of Michael Morley’s thousand-mile-stare of a voice, the way his distorted guitar sounds like its fighting through the settling debris fog of a just detonated grenade, and stuttering pulses of electronic devices right before they malfunction, but that won’t be this year thanks to these two side-long excursions into existentialism’s morning after. Side note: Between this album and new releases from Smegma release and BeNe GeSSeRiT, and a Blood Stereo cassette, Ultramarine finished 2012 strong.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (Constellation) You can take all the time you need between recordings when what finally comes out is this devastatingly beautiful. “We Drift Like Worried Fire” = 20 minutes of glacial burn flowering into skin-puckering spine chill.
Grass Roots s/t (AUM Fidelity) One of the year’s best delivery systems for unfettered joy.
Guardian Alien See the World Given to a One Love Entity (Thrill Jockey)
The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation Egor (Denovali)
Nadja Dagdrøm (Broken Spine) The Canadian drone duo of Aidan Baker and Leah Buckareff teamed up with Jesus Lizard drummer Mac McNeilly to smelt this four-song slab of faraway storm thunder rattling the China cabinet. A great long winter nights album.
Frank Ocean Channel Orange (Def Jam)
Prince Paul Negroes On Ice (Nature Sounds)
Protomartyr No Passion All Technique (Urinal Cake) One of those albums that should be getting dry humped into instant classic status. Nothing really new here, but holy exit-this-Roman-shell does this Detroit quartet deliver the goods.
Schoolboy Q Habits and Contradictions (Top Dawg)
Swans The Seer (Young God) A tremendous statement of an album and despite–or, maybe, because–of its monolithicness I found myself listening to it quite often.
Ana Tijoux La Bala (Nacional Records) Another reason why I need to up my Spanish game.
Vatican Shadow Ornamented Walls (Modern Love)
Scott Walker Bisch Bosh (4AD)
My blind spot: The fish/barrel choice is Japandroids Celebration Rock (Polyvinvyl)–like all pop-punk dreck in the Green Day vibe, it’s a horn section away from a ska band–but I’m going to have to go with Baroness Yellow and Green (Relapse), which didn’t have the hooks to update .38 Special’s pop metal, wasn’t psych/prog enough to warrant the extended running time, and jettisoned conventional heaviness for a sound that felt merely frustrated and irritated. What was left was something the skirted far too close to Smashing Pumpkins dorm rock.
Baklavaa Hairmoans EP (self released)
Bamboo Jams (Friends)
Cex Presumed Dead (Automation Records)
Curse s/t (Realicide Youth Records)
Dan Deacon America (Ribbon) Side two is what really gets me here, the sound of an artist who has always invited his audience into the music becoming self-aware of himself as a product of a time and very specific place and responding to it with candid sincerity.
Dope Body Natural History (Drag City)
Friend Collector Americna Demos (Terra Firma) I thought this was called Bandwagon, based on the CD I picked up from Sound Garden, but the bandcamp page calls it American Demos and now I see that the first track is called “Bandwagon,” so I’m the old guy who doesn’t know how to interface with this new fangled technology or something. Regardless, Friend Collector chokes out a serious slab of suffocating noise rock, and I’d like to thank the band very much for that.
Gaybomb Weather Man (Ehse Suspicious Stimulus cassette)
Chester Endersby Gwazda Shroud (Friends Records)
Horse Lords s/t (Ehse) I’ve sung this quartet’s praises a few times already, and I should prolly shut up about it already, but every time I see the group play this or this live, I start shooting my mouth off again.
Multicult Spaces Tangled (Sleeping Giant Glossolalia) I hate myself a little bit for having yet to catch this trio live yet. Something to look forward to in 2013.
Labtekwon Hardcore: Labtekwon and the Righteous Indignation/Rootzilla vs Masta Akbar (self released)
Lower Dens Nootropics (Ribbon) A quick hat tip to the Push Record Play blog for its Top 10 list of Baltimore music videos (FYI: it’s a slow loading page), which appropriately includes Lower Dens’ striking videos for “Brain” and “Candy.”
Liz Meredith self-titled (self released)
Old Lines s/t (self released)
Roomrunner Super Vague (Fan Death)
Sexgender Transgenital (self released)
Silence Kid Thin Walls (self) A band that really deserves much more attention than it’s received so far. No wheel gets reinvented here–it’s a no-fuss guitar and drums duo capable of generating the skittish pop/rock joy of the Yips (Seven Pillars of the Yips, Bonfire in a Dixie Cup)–but sometimes all you want is so good no-fuss rock.
Spectre The True & Living (Wordsound)
Zomes Variations Vol. 1 (Thrill Jockey)
My blind spot: Beach House Bloom (Sub Pop) I tried. Really. As a fan of female vocals and downtempo dream pop that works great for soundtracking a lost Quaalude weekend, I tried. But there’s something about this group that just makes me think Swing Out Sister making house music for The Limited.
Fair Warning: My taste in singles has always run toward the things I wish were on the radio but aren’t, even though they’re kinda/sorta just as explosively superficial as the other things on the radio. I just like them a little more better.
Neneh Cherry and the Cherry Thing “Dirt”” I’m a total sucker for any cover of this Stooges nugget, but Cherry and company here, with a sax providing the riff, wring the living fuck out of it.
Big Christ “Living Dead” I know only two things about this Baltimore quartet: 1) This debut features a fantastic title/cover image combo and 2) “Living Dead” is a wonderfully infectious 95-second nervous breakdown.
The Dirty Projectors “Offspring Are Blank” I still think this is a pretty great Queen song.
Daughn Gibson “Lookin’ Back on 99”
Zebra Katz “Ima Read” The passive menace here cracks me up. It’s nothing but bass and voice making a flat statement of fact, like Proposition Joe calmly informing somebody, “You fuck with me I’ll kill your whole family.”
Solange Knowles “Losing You”
In this Moment “Blood” Because I apparently have been waiting for a woman with a big scream to front White Zombie.
Kendrick Lamar “Backseat Freestyle”
MIA “Bad Gurlz” Just a thought: can Romain Gavras direct the next Bond flick with MIA penning the title song?
Neon Hitch “Gold (Arcade 44 Boombox Session featuring Rahzel and Black Violin)” I love all those short video live treatments of songs that people do these days, such as NPRmusic’s fab Tiny Desk Concerts. The BBC does these well, whether 6 Music Live at Maida Vale or BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge, and there’s other overseas collaborative activities that I’m really late to hear about, such as MADE in Berlin. What comes out of these isn’t always amazing, but when lightning strikes–viz., MADE pairing Aloe Blacc with ciolinist/composer Mihalj Kekenj and painter Jaybo for this “Billie Jean” cover and DJ Fresh going acoustic for this gorgeous version of “Gold Dust” featuring Ms. Dynamite, both from 2011–it can be ass flattening.
Killer Mike “Reagan”
Frank Ocean “Super Rich Kids”
Rita Ora “How We Do (Party)”
Public Enemy “Catch the Thrown” Look, I don’t care that Most of My Heroes Don’t Appear on No Stamp was a little listless, to put it mildly. Some of the tracks hit pretty well–“Run Til Its Dark” and “I Shall Not Be Moved”–and this is just a solid jolt of righteous frustration.
Santigold “Disparate Youth”
Sleigh Bells “True Shred Guitar” Treats did nothing for me in 2010, save remind me of something Keven McAlester said about Atari Teenage Riot: “Ministry with hipper fans.” Sleigh Bells aimed squarely at the VH1 middle with Reign of Terror and somehow whiffed, but “True Shred Guitar,” with the hokey Live at Budokan-ish intro, see-spot-run simple lyrics, and grandiose sense of self-importance is one smart sports-stadium DJ from becoming a classic our-team-is-the-best jock jam.
Bruce Springsteen “Death to My Hometown” Dear 2013: Could you please make a Springsteen and Jon Langford collaboration happen in some way?
Taylor Swift “State of Grace” I really have to credit Erin Markey for even getting me to pay attention Taylor Swift’s songwriting in the first place and then thank my wife for genuinely loving “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” enough to make we want to buy the album, which I do enjoy. And this lead track is one of those generically epic songs that’s trying to appeal to the widest possible audience but the song boats one of those three-act structures–see also Jane’s Addiction’s “Three Days”–that I’m a sucker for.
Protomartyr “Bubba Helms” For my money the year’s closest to perfect 7-inch.
ZZ Top “I Gotsa Get Paid”
My blind spot: Fun “We Are Young” I know this came out in 2011 but it seemed to wallpaper the background in 2012, and not even the presence of Janelle Monae helps, though I suppose it was only a matter of time before somebody combined Air Supply’s junior-high power ballad with Decemberistsesque twee.
Megan Abbott Dare Me (Reagan Arthur)
Jami Attenberg The Middlsteins (Grand Central)
Dale Carpenter Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence vs. Texas (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Lisa Cohen All We Know: Three Lives (FSG)
Geoff Dyer Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (Pantheon) Dyer’s ability to write about anything and keep me interested would really piss me off if I didn’t enjoy reading it so much.
Ben Fountain Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco)
Gillian Flynn Gone Girl (Crown) I loved the pace of this thriller, its conversational tone and She Woke to Darkness narrative card shuffle, and I have to say Flynn’s creation Amy Dunne really knows how to bring the “Cathago delanda est.”
Kate Khatib, Margaret Killjoy, and Mike McGuire, editors We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy from Occupation to Liberations (AK Press)
Michael Kimball Big Ray (Bloomsbury)
Jonathan Kozol Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America (Crown)
Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (Nation Books)
Veronique Olmi (translated by Adriana Hunter) Beside the Sea (Tin House)
Rachel Maddow Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (Crown)
Daniel Sada Almost Never (Graywolf Press)
Richard Seaver The Tender Hour of Twilight (FSG)
Sylvie Simmons I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (Ecco)
RJ Smith The One: The Life and Times of James Brown (Gotham)
Chris Ware Building Stories (Pantheon)
Barry Webster The Lava in My Bones (Arsenal Pulp Press)
G. Willow Wilson Alif the Unseen (Grove Press)
My blind spot: Dave Eggers Hologram for the King (McSweeney’s) The twists and turns that made Zeitoun a strong piece of nonfiction feel soulless and schematic when Eggers tries to pile themes in his fiction, from You Shall Know Our Velocity through What is the What and now King, and the writing strains under the effort to Have Something Important to Say.
Also: I know I really need to start upping my small press game, and for helping me catch up on 2012 I’d like to thank the awesome Roxane Gay for this list of reads.
The local exhibitions I enjoyed the most are listed below, but one thing hadn’t happened when I made that list, and over the past few weeks I’ve come to the realization that any list of my favorite feats of creative labor in 2012 pretty much begins and ends with Pink Loves Consent.
Lesser Gonzales Alvarez Make/Shift at Open Space
Mina Cheon Polipop & Paintings at Maryland Art Place
Command Z: Artists Working with Phenomena and Technology at UMBC
Alex Ebstein at Sophiajacob
F.E.A.S.T. at Transmodern
Post Typography Ohsaycanyousee at the Windup Space
Gran Prix at Nudashank An explosion of searching, conceptual work that recognizes that conceptual art is about dialog, not getting it. Plus: all love for a show that includes pieces such as Caitlin Cunningham’s “Jack/son Torrence,” seen above, which cheekily alludes to the below premonition-qua-hallucination that a son envisions his father causing in The Shining.
Szechuan Best at Sophiajacob
Lauren Nikolacs and Becca Pad A Captive Behavior at School 33
Erin Zerbe Body Magic at School 33
My blind spot: Open Walls Baltimore. All respect to street art, private businesses funding destination art–I mean, transformative art, and synergistic alliances between artists and organizations to get involved in economic development, I’d just like the work itself to be stronger and more compelling.
Argo (Ben Affleck)
The Avengers (Joss Whedon)
Compliance (Craig Zobel)
Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg)
Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Goon (Michael Dowse)
The Grey (Joe Carnahan) I wrote this flick off on based on its ad campaign alone, and I have to give all respect for my checking it out to the movie/DVD reviewer over at 92Q (I think), whose afternoon drive-time review went something like: “Liam Neeson plays a dude who is in a plane crash with a bunch of other dudes and they get chased by wolves. And the wolves have the upper hand ’cause they on their own turf. Trust me, this one goes hard.” That totally sold me, and when I finally did see it was when I found out it was helmed by Joe Carnahan, a director for whom I have a considerable soft spot.
Hara Kiri: Death of a Samurai (Takashi Miike)
Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
The Imposter (Bart Layton)
Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik) A first viewing had me loving its blunt-nose cynicism, but after a few more I’m a bit amazed at its baroque minimalism and its sublime use of sound.
Looper (Rian Johnson)
Prometheus (Ridley Scott) I suppose it would be more accurate to say Michael Fassbender in Prometheus, simply for bringing three things together that I never would’ve presumed would go so great together: looking like Peter O’Toole, dressing like Mao, and talking like Nietzsche.
The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans)
Ruby Sparks (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)
Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard)
Searching for Sugarman (Malik Bendjelloul)
The Source (Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos)
Snowtown (Justin Kurzel)
2 Days in New York (Julie Delpy)
My blind spot: Moonrise Kingdom. I’m sure it’s just because I have a hard piece of coal where my heart should be, but every Wes Anderson film is starting to feel like a middle-aged man making an it’s-going-to-be-OK mixtape for his teenage self.
And full disclosure, things I still haven’t seen that I know I’m predisposed to appreciate: Silver Linings Playbook, The Sessions, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, Kid With a Bike, The Deep Blue Sea, Tabu, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
I had no idea how much BBC television I watched until I made this list–and I’m not even including all the solid documentaries it does that I enjoyed, from the one about toilets to docs about Ken Russell and Lucian Freud. And despite coming up with only 17 programs I now feel like I waste a wealth of time watching the damned thing.
Castle (ABC) Nobody has more fun on TV than Nathan Fillion.
Elementary (ABC) In the same way Castle is all about Fillion, Elementary is all about Johnny Lee Miller. This Sherlock Holmes update isn’t as beloved as the BBC’s Sherlock, but here’s one instance where I quite enjoy this very Americanized mass TV approach. Miller’s Holmes is a recovering addict who is pretty much using his impressive deductive reasoning as a shield between his very controlled seld and the out of control rest of the world. Fun.
Fringe (Fox) Not sure if I’m enjoying this final season or even particularly care all that much about it as much as I’m waiting to see just where the hell it’s going.
The Good Wife (CBS)
Happy Endings (ABC) The only sitcom I can do these days that doesn’t involve Peter Capaldi cussing a blue streak.
The Hour (BBC)
Hunted (BBC One/Cinemax) So I have a thing for a certain kind of TV program that Hunted, Last Resort, and Strike Back very neatly fit into, only these days I can’t really tell the ostensible good guys from the bad guys, given that everybody is employed by some well-funded organization of people with money. This may very well be the case these days.
Last Resort (ABC)
Nashville (ABC) More music, less politics, please.
Sons of Anarchy (FX) Gotta hand it to series creator Kurt Sutter: he’s created a man who becomes more frightening than Michael Corleone.
Strike Back: Vengeance (Sky1/Cinemax) Even when there are things on TV like Amish Mafia, this is the most preposterous show out there. Damn good fun.
The Revolution Will Be Televised (BBC) Smarter and funnier than The Daily Show but much fewer episodes.
The Thick of It (BBC) What would Malcolm Tucker do?
My blind spot: Mad Men I appreciate that the women are the more interesting characters, I appreciate the set design porn, I appreciate the narrative ambition the show attempts, but it all comes across like a heaping helping of white, heterosexual male self pity.
Finally, the best thing ever about 2012 remains July 24, the day I married the most amazingest woman ever.
Love you, sweetie. Thanks for continuing to make my life the exact opposite of suck.