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Triangles are my favourite shape.

Come December, I usually take pleasure in compiling the obligatory best-of music list; however, the curiously lower number of albums I have listened to in 2012, as compared to years past, may indicate otherwise. Perhaps I really did have a relatively dry year music-wise, but I am not fully convinced; after all, it is quality – and not quantity – that matters more. (See lists for 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.)

Miss me more, miss me less.
NocturneWild Nothing
Gemini (2010), Nocturne (2012) #

The best musical discoveries are made when you least expect it; I had long given up hope of ever hearing good new music (or anything of substance, really) being played on our local airwaves, but on this one rare occasion I am glad that I did tune in to the right music station at the right time. A few days later, with the irresistible earworm hooks of lead single “Shadow” still playing persistently in my mind, I took to scouring the internet to, ahem, continue my music education of Wild Nothing, and came away suitably impressed and immensely satisfied that I have found my album of the year. Nocturne is made up of friendly, dreamy lo-fi tunes that sound light and simple to produce, deceptively hidden behind numerous complex arrangements and multiple layers of electronics. The well-timed drumbeats that are lightly peppered throughout the graceful “Midnight Song”, those hypnotic riffs present in the earnestly yearning “Only Heather”, and the lingering falsettos that fade away only to become swirly night landscapes near the end of the title track, have indeed all been carefully considered and patiently waiting to be discovered. This is an album that can be played not only on a warm summer’s day, but at any time of the year, and I am sure that I am not the only one to feel this way.

Favourite tracks: “Live in Dreams”, “Summer Holiday”, “Bored Games”, “Our Composition Book” (Gemini); “Shadow”, “Midnight Song”, “Nocturne”, “Only Heather”, “Disappear Always” (Nocturne)

Three guns and one goes off.
An Awesome Wave.Alt-J
An Awesome Wave

It depends on whether you readily buy into all that hype surrounding the new UK band Alt-J: nerdy Radiohead wannabes, newly crowned Mercury Prize winner, guaranteed spot in critics’ list of best albums of 2012. Truth be told, I was not at all convinced at first, too – until I caught a video of the band’s full performance at a recent KEXP session. That chance introduction cannot be more perfect: it proved to be a key turning point for me, for it successfully cajoled me into giving An Awesome Wave a go… and more. Despite the halting drumbeats and stuttering stop-starts, the album still flows along seamlessly, miraculously chiming in time to lead singer Joe Newman’s sincere drawl and impassioned vocals. The folk-esque harmonies are made all the more charming and delicate, thanks to the regular use of raw and acoustic instrumentation, which subtly teases you into tapping your finger along to the music. The only bad thing about it all is that it may sometimes bring to mind the sounds of Mumford and Sons – but only very much less annoying. All in all, this is quite an astonishing accomplishment for a debut, and I am sure many of us are ready to continue riding on their waves to witness what the band is capable of doing next.

Alt-J plays at the Laneway Festival, Gardens by the Bay, Singapore, on 26 January 2013.

Favourite tracks: “Intro”, “Tessellate”, “Matilda”, “Fitzpleasure”, “Taro”

No wrong, no right.
Shields.Grizzly Bear
Shields #

Every Grizzly Bear album is a thing of fragile beauty, always carefully constructed and painstakingly produced. The same praise goes to the band’s fourth album, Shields; unfortunately, it also has the exceptionally difficult task of stepping into the big void left by the band’s 2009 masterpiece, Veckatimest. This is not to say that Shields is a bad album; in fact, the music is still as inventive and tight as ever, the trademark vocal harmonies and intricate instrumentation more cheerful than I can remember – so much so that more often than not, it hints more at experimental pop than delicate rock. But the band’s attempts to set their foot onto much wilder and warmer territories, opting to walk away from the wintry and brooding tunes that used to make up the theme of their past albums, must certainly be commended. No one else can pull it off as effortlessly as Grizzly Bear, and it shows in tracks such as the immediate crowd favourite “Yet Again” and the aptly eponymous “A Simple Answer”, making Shields yet another standout in the band’s already strong catalogue.

Grizzly Bear plays at the Mosaic Music Festival 2013, Esplanade Theatre, Singapore, on 9 March 2013.

Favourite tracks: “Sleeping Ute”, “Yet Again”, “A Simple Answer”

Momentarily bliss.
Bloom.Beach House
Bloom #

As its name suggests, Bloom sees the Baltimore duo Beach House growing out of its Teen Dream roots and working on refining their distinct sounds to suit a larger audience. Some may argue that their approach to the new album is somewhat similar to that of its predecessors, for there is always Alex Scally’s signature shimmery guitar riffs and tinkling piano keys, and Victoria Legrand’s husky vocals whispering bittersweet nothings into your ears; but in Bloom we see them upping the ante and testing the waters further, bringing in more melodious structures that allow them to expand on their brand of mellow dream pop, and adding hazy sound effects that amplify the mood further, like the dangerous windswept sounds that come on before the gorgeous album closer “Irene”. We do live in a strange paradise after all.

Favourite tracks: “Myth”, “Wild”, “Irene”

On a never empty street.
Love This Giant.David Byrne & St. Vincent
Love This Giant

This album has actually landed itself a place in the Worst Album Covers of 2012 of a prominent online music magazine, but you know how the saying goes: let us not judge the music by its cover. Love This Giant is the product of an intriguing collaboration by two of the most revered artists in the music scene today; to be honest, normally I would not have cared all that much for David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) or St. Vincent (Annie Clark, more popularly known for her guitar playing prowess), but pairing them together makes them fizzle and pop with new ideas and a sort of an other-worldly energy never before attempted in their respective solo careers. The brass orchestration heavily employed throughout the album definitely gives it all a bit more fanfare than usual; the regular use of horn instruments, especially when complemented eclectically with the funky beats, bouncy tunes and occasionally, the quirky robot-like moves they comically execute onstage, certainly lend an overall air of fun and celebration to what might have been the result of just another odd and uninspiring partnership modelled after a well-loved fairy tale.

Favourite tracks: “Who”, “I Am an Ape”, “Optimist”

The almost-theres:
Sun, Cat Power
A Sleep & a Forgetting, Islands #
Mr M, Lambchop
Born and Raised, John Mayer
The Lonesome Crowded West, Modest Mouse (1997)
Animal Joy, Shearwater
Tramp , Sharon Van Etten #

Also listened to:
Lost Songs, … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead
Mirage Rock, Band of Horses
The Tarnished Gold, Beachwood Sparks
The Only Place, Best Coast
El Camino, The Black Keys
Attack on Memory, Cloud Nothings
A Thing Called Divine Fits, Divine Fits
Rooms Filled with Light, Fanfarlo
Rhythm and Repose, Glen Hansard
Strangeland, Keane
Spooky Action at a Distance, Lotus Plaza
Silent Hour/Golden Mile, Daniel Rossen
Port of Morrow, The Shins
The Queen is Dead, The Smiths (1986)
The North, Stars
Heaven, The Walkmen
Blunderbuss, Jack White
Coexist, The XX

The return of a few of my favourite bands next year is getting me all excited already. But for 2012, this is what it looks like:

My top 15 most-played artists for the past year, as recorded by last.fm.

Details of this entry.Sunday, December 30, 2012, filed under Reviews.
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Recent tracks played are displayed on Last.fm.Taro, Alt-J


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