For Keep an Ear On, my music column on Brooklyn Based, I had the privilege of listening to so many terrific artists over the past year. Some of them have already been mentioned in the national press (Yeasayer, Kaki King, Sharon Van Etten, Dirty Projectors), while others are still building names for themselves. The following is not so much a year-end best-of list–it’s more of a roundup of some of personal favorites from 2012.
You can listen to the complete playlist here, or add it to your Spotify account. Here’s to more great music in 2013!
Clare and the Reasons
It was Clare and the Reasons’ extended stay in Berlin that led to the creation of their most recent album, KR-51, of which this ethereal track is off of. “I think I wrote that song–as cliché as it sounds–sitting in a park going back and forth between the apartment and the park, back and forth on a beautiful day, sort of doing the music inside and then going out to the park and listening, working on the words and sitting in the grass,” says singer Clare Muldaur Manchon. “I just like the narrative of it. There’s personal little lines in there that make sense to me. It’s sort of a floating kind of song.”
Remember the Seinfeld episode where Elaine’s boyfriend tells her to be quiet because the Eagles’ “Desperado” was on the radio, and then he goes into a sort of trance? Okay I’m exaggerating, but that’s how I kind of feel when I listen to this gorgeous ballad by the duo the Ampersands. From the terrific power pop album, This Is Your Adventure Too, “Alsace Lorraine” is an amazing track not just for the melody, but also for the extraordinary lush orchestral section and the beautiful harmony singing between Aaron McQuade and his wife, Evie. “I went through a divorce about seven years ago and this came out of that,” Aaron said. “This one’s very personal and it is sort of the story of moving on.” This may be my favorite song of 2012.
She Keeps Bees
A relatively new track by the duo of Jessica Larrabee and Andy LaPlant, “Counter Charm” has this haunting Southern gothic quality augmented by some powerful guitar and drums as well as the cello playing of Gaspar Claus. Jessica’s voice is equally affecting, channeling a torch singer. She once told me that the group’s sound is “raw, roots, simple, soulful, driving rock,” which aptly sums up this terrific song–a harbinger perhaps of what’s to come on their next album.
Another Brooklyn duo, Tiny Victories craft energetic synth pop music as evidenced on “Mr. Bones,” from their EP Those of Us Still Alive. You can’t help but feel inspired and alive from listening to this song. “When we both started out practicing, ” Cason Kelly told me, “we both agreed that as our calling card or initial statement, we want to be known as being able to get things moving, get your body moving, get that party started. It’s kind of like a statement.” With this song, I’d say that’s mission accomplished.
The Universal Thump
Okay, seriously what’s up the duo theme that’s emerging on this list? This track from The Universal Thump’s double album is a charmer. It recalls the type of AM radio pop music you’d hear back in the ’60s or ’70s. Plus, it’s not often that a song is inspired by the Komodo dragon, and the overall message from it is about self-empowerment–all packed in one exuberant ditty.
“Two Men Down”
In the New York indie rock scene, Clarence is a rare breed as his music recalls the singer-songwriter movement of the ’70s with its warm, introspective sound and lyrics (think Jackson Browne). One of the standout tracks from his recent and poignant album, Walls of the World, is “Two Men Down,” inspired by the late photographers Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, who were both killed in the recent Libyan conflict. This rootsy song shimmers with some inspired guitar and moving lyrics.
This excellent track from Teen definitely has a New Wave vibe thanks to some old school keyboard flourishes. Teeny Lieberson, the band leader for this female quartet, told me that the song was inspired by a close friend of hers. “He just started bragging about being able to do something better than one of his friends who was like super pro at it,” she said. “So I thought that was really funny. It was actually a joke. I went home making fun of my friend being like, ‘This is the most ridiculous idea being able to doing things better than everybody else.'”
“Hey Mr. Fireman”
The sound of Mattison, whom I first saw live a couple of years ago at The Rock Shop, verges between old school pop and R&B. This romantic and smoldering track is rife with sexy double entendres: “He can climb my ladder/He can save me from the fire.” It showcases some lovely singing and groovy jazzy soul playing by the ensemble. There’s also a common thread in the Mattison songs, particularly a sense of yearning. “I think a lot of times I would have trouble expressing what I’m feeling in a relationship or outright saying it,” singer Kate Mattison said. “So for me I’ll write a song about it.”
Sharon Van Etten
There is absolutely no doubt that Sharon Van Etten was one of 2012’s breakout stars, and it’s just only the beginning for her fast-rising career. Her third album, Tramp, has been universally lauded and rightfully so. I was one of the fortunate few who saw her preview all of the songs from that record at the Mercury Lounge earlier this year. One of the standout tracks from the new record is “Serpents,” an intense and powerful song that shows how much Van Etten’s sound has evolved from the acoustic folk of her debut “Because I Was In Love.” One listen to this track–or for that matter any of her songs — and you will be seduced.
“Pretty Little Bird”
In contrast to the number of duos that we covered here in Brooklyn Based, Balthrop, Alabama boasts a much larger ensemble–about 13 members, led by the sister-brother duo (that word again) Lauren and Pascal Balthrop. Their latest album, We Have Electricity, combines down-home rootsy music with indie rock sensibilities. “Pretty Little Bird,” one of the album’s tracks, is a lovely (albeit melancholy) soulful ballad and a showcase of Lauren’s lush, wistful vocals. “I wrote the chorus for that song a while ago when I was going through a break-up,” Lauren told me. “The verses are pretty literal.”
This upstart’s music takes a page from the past, particularly ’70s glam rock, punk and power pop. The raucous “Masochist,” from Devin’s debut album Romancing, drives it home with angst, passion and attitude. Maybe not surprisingly, Devin told me it’s one of his favorites. “‘Masochist’ is the most complicated,” he said. “It was like everything I was trying to do with the album comes together in “Masochist”—the idea that romancing, love is good and bad at the same time.” This adrenaline-fueled track is sure to get you out of your seat.
I found this group’s back story intriguing–the individual members have very different backgrounds in art and heavy metal. Yet together, Family Band creates some very alluring and hypnotic slow music as evident on their new album Grace and Lies. A fine example of that is “Night Song,” which is romantic, thoughtful and dreamy, evoking the feel of the evening. “[Guitarist] Johnny [Ollsin] had that riff that threads throughout the whole song,” said Kim Krans, Family Band’s singer. “He just kept playing it over and over and I just started singing over it and worked through a bunch of different lyrics. It’s about our cabin and having really amazing experiences up there.” Listen to this song while you close your eyes, and let its mood overtake you.
We Are Augustines
“Book of James”
This compelling, anthemic track was inspired by the troubled life of singer Billy McCarthy’s brother, James, who committed suicide. “He was a very loving kid,” Billy said to me. “The thing I fought and fought with these prison people and the lawyers was that this kid is schizophrenic. If you see a homeless person on the street, you think ‘Ugh–unsanitary, lazy.’ But actually they all come from somewhere…they all come from a family, that this is a human being.” An amalgam of rock and even gospel elements, this extraordinary song makes a powerful statement.
Henrietta Lacks, an important figure in the history of medical research and in American racial dynamics, led to a Yeasayer song on the group’s recent album Fragrant World. Band member Anand Wilder told me it was his colleague’s Chris Keating song. “He wrote that and we all came together for the production of that,” he said. “I think Chris picked up the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and ran with it as a jumping off point for a song.” It definitely shows the avant garde side of the band as this song shifts from a dazzling funky opening to a very subdued finale.
“Great Round Burn”
Glow finds guitar great Kaki King returning to her roots and making a mostly all-guitar instrumental record without vocals. “Great Round Burn,” which opens the album, is quite a powerful song with Kaki and the string section ETHEL. As Kaki told me recently, the song started out as a collaboration between her and the quartet’s leader Ralph Farris. “And then we actually rehearsed it with the entire quartet and me,” she said, “before we went to record it. So again we were able to make more changes to the arrangement and discuss how things were going. It was really collaborative, which I think you could really hear.”
It’s not surprising that Dirty Projectors’ latest album, Swing Lo Magellan, has been mentioned often on a lot of critics’ year end best of list–Dave Longstreth and company crafted a marvelous, eclectic-sounding free-form record. But this song, “Buckle Up,” comes from a recent EP of theirs and shows a punkier, garage rock side of the band that I love.
A song that echoes ’80s post-punk and New Wave, “Totally True” is a lovely track thanks to the airy vocals, lush textures and guitar lines. As Jorge Elbrcht told me, the song drew inspiration from Martin Newell’s band the Cleaners of Venus. “I think was trying to go for those similar kind of textures and feelings and sort of weird, stonewashed, denim color that I hear in his stuff with “Totally True,” he said, “That’s probably the departure point for it.”
“Closer to Me”
The Cliffie Swan member told me of her recent solo album Into the Waves: “I’d say it’s a pop-vocal record in the traditional sense where the vocals are way up front, and the production speaks to that. But it’s a little more eccentric than maybe what you think of as being a pop vocal record.” One of its songs, “Closer to Me,” features a very soulful vocal performance with a vibe that recalls ’80s R&B–it’s that infectious.
This veteran musician and longtime Williamsburg resident has a sound that harkens back to the old school–wry, clever melodic pop of the ’60s and ’70s with a mixture of Tin Pan Alley and Randy Newman. Halo is soulfully upbeat and full of catchy melodies. It’s good to know there are artists Feldman and the aformentioned Clarence Bucaro continuing the singer-songwriter tradition.
Ava Luna is an out-there combination of art rock, New Wave and R&B, a sound that is reflected in “Wrenning Day,” a soulful and arty song off their most recent album Ice Level. “We worked on it for a long time and it underwent a lot of changes, said band leader Carlos Hernandez. “I think was inspired by Timbaland [and] Aaliyah, you know, that kind of specific beat–it’s like fast hits but it’s really slow pulse. That’s a simple enough idea but of course the song kind of blew up into this behemoth.”
Buke and Gase
One of the more innovative new acts around, Buke and Gase (Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez) employ unique instrumentation to create quirky sounds, which are in evidence on “Misshaping Introduction” off of their EP Function Falls (they have a new album coming out next year). “We sat down and started playing this groove, recorded it, put it in, and we layered a few other parts on top of it and then she sang the vocal part and that was it,” Aron said about recording “Misshaping Introduction. “It was a pretty quick track.”
“Mektoub (It Is Written)”
Missy Mazzoli, a major young contemporary composer, wrote the opera Song from the Uproar–from which this dramatic composition, “Mektoub (It is Written),” is taken–about the fascinating life of female explorer Isabelle Eberhardt.
“What Are You Kids On”
No question that there is aspect of trippy-ness that surrounds Chappo’s music, especially from their most recent album Moonwater. This exuberant track, “What Are You Kids On,” certainly has a ’80s New Wave/’90s Brit pop feel. The band once told me about that song: “It was a collage of different instances or moments or events from the past where it was a night that goes on and on–whether it’s like getting lost in a dumpster behind some store you’re not supposed to be with or jumping over a fence into a weird yard. It was a kind of way to tie together a bunch of nostalgic ideas from childhood and throw them into one song.”