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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.
This entry is open to comments.
Recent tracks played are displayed on Last.fm.Taro, Alt-J


Page by page.

It is rather unfortunate that once-upon-a-times are fast becoming memories of the past. So while this year’s list does look just a tad bit longer than the previous, I still have my doubts as to whether the total number of pages read would make a sizable dent to my annual bookish affair.

Embarrassingly enough, I also seem to find more enjoyment reading selected young adult – oh, okay, children – literature. Cringe. I do not know if any other full-grown adult can perfectly justify their reasons for still reading about extraordinary boy geniuses half their age, but my convenient excuse is this: so that I can later pass the Artemis Fowl books on to my nephews and niece, although I highly suspect that they, too, would have moved on with the times and are more comfortable with their Ben 10s and whatnot.

(Shucks, who am I kidding, really? I should be growing out of that genre already, and quickly.)

In any case, I shall have to resolve to going back to reading more about my favourite fictional characters next year; I know that mysterious dark elves and brilliant space cadets will suit me more than reserved Japanese midwives and shipwrecked Bengal tigers ever will.

Read:
The Artemis Fowl series, Eoin Colfer
The Lost Colony
The Time Paradox
The Atlantis Complex

The Keys to the Kingdom series, Garth Nix
Mister Monday
Grim Tuesday
Sir Thursday
Lady Friday
Superior Saturday
Lord Sunday

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
The Invisible Man, HG Wells
The National: Experience*, Jayne Yong

*re-reads

Warehouse sales attended:
Big Bad Wolf, 6 December 2012

(See previous years’ lists: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011.)

Details of this entry.Tuesday, December 25, 2012, filed under Reviews.
Recent tracks played are displayed on Last.fm.Optimist, David Byrne & St Vincent


Tapped out.

I knew it was coming.

It could have turned into a brutal fight right up to the finish – blood flowed, sweat shed, shoulders popped. We had no one person to truly root for; the two fighters had become fast favourites and unassuming underdogs, though burdened with hate and remorse, a baggage many times heavier than life itself.

For all intents and purposes, it could have ended ugly; we visibly cringed at the upper left hooks, collectively gasped at the near hits, and quietly despaired at the revelation that only one of the two can emerge the winner when the bell rings for the last time.

It was not just a physical and bodily combat to harm and to disarm, but a climatic battle of wills to forgive and forget, and to bury the hatchet.

By the time the song came on, I was already close to tears. So I am not sorry at all with my choice to again watch a movie because of the band; but I would regret it all the more had I missed it for the sliver of hope it could bring.

Embarrassingly, all this crying-in-movies business is starting to get to me. That is it, it would take more than a miracle to have me consider stepping into a cinema hall ever again.

Details of this entry.Sunday, October 14, 2012, filed under Reviews.
Recent tracks played are displayed on Last.fm.About Today, The National


Shadow to you.

Okay, so it took me long enough. At one point, I was even wondering if I would be able to come up with anything remotely close to a list – such is the desert of the real that I have been living in – but today, I think I finally have it: the beginnings of the making of a list (yes!) of favourite albums of the year.

BloomBloom
Beach House
15 May 2012

Dear Victoria,

I quite adore Bloom. Really, I do.

It has the usual intricate melodies carefully woven with your husky vocals and dreamy sighs, and the synthesizer-heavy tunes beautifully layered with your musical partner-in-crime Alex’s shimmery guitar riffs, all of which when combined creates a pleasant escapade into an ethereal otherworld that often mark the signature sounds of a typical Beach House album.

… then came the chilling howling of the wind blowing across the ocean. I suspect I would have been much happier, though, if there were no hidden tracks annoyingly stretching a song to double that of its length; I see no justice in having the gorgeous album closer “Irene” seemingly punctuated with a prolonged silence at the end, only to have a lacklustre “bonus” song coming up again at the 13th minute.

But of course, I think you would know better. We do live in a strange paradise after all.

NocturneNocturne
Wild Nothing
28 August 2012

Dear Jack,

Very simply: you had me at “Shadow”.

First impressions do matter. I am sure you can relate to that – you hear a song for the very first time, and it gives you the chills as it keeps playing persistently in your mind for days after.

See, at first I knew nothing about you, your solo project Wild Nothing or your 2010 debut Gemini. But Nocturne has changed all that; those soaring strings and heartwarming hooks in “Shadow” are simply irresistible, and serves as a charming enough introduction to someone new to your work.

And then the next morning I caught myself candidly humming the other tracks from the album. They may be made up of mostly dreamy, lo-fi tunes pleasant to the ears, though not as unique or as easily identifiable, lacking the instantaneous appeal factor that “Shadow” already possesses in droves (perhaps having it as the album opener is too brilliant a move – the song had set the bar way too high from the start).

There are, however, a few notable exceptions: the catchy dance vibe beats in “Disappear Always” can always be conveniently foot-tapped along to, and the groovy moves in the graceful “Midnight Song” can surely keep you awake the whole night through, but it is the sweet, hypnotic riffs of the earnestly yearning “Only Heather” that I cannot seem to shake off easily, so much so that I could but only wish that you had written that song for me.

You are my favourite new discovery for the year by far. Only you can make me feel this way… for now at least.

ShieldsShields
Grizzly Bear
18 September 2012

Dear Chris, Chris, Daniel and Ed,

And so we meet again, three years later today.

Did you know that the masterpiece that was 2009’s Veckatimest still holds a very special place in my heart? Yes, it does; so much so that in the days leading up to the release of Shields, I was anticipating another knockout song in the veins of “Cheerleader” to be unveiled, but that – unfortunately (or not) – never came.

That, I think, was my mistake. But now, having given Shields a few more spins, I have finally come to terms that this fourth album of yours was never meant to be a sequel, a Part 2, or a “Reloaded” – to the relatively more subdued Veckatimest.

Yes, there are still the soaring harmonies and lush instrumentation that you have always been excelling in all this while, omnipresent in older albums such as Horn of Plenty and Yellow House. But I think what amazed me most is being able to bear witness to your music’s subtle yet successful transition – from the wintry brooding and comforting noises that often make the trademark of a Grizzly Bear album, into the wilder, happier and sunnier territories freely explored now in Shields. The persisting, jarring riffs used liberally in first single “Sleeping Ute” and the deliberate cacophony of synthesizers that closes immediate crowd pleaser “Yet Again” nicely complement and set off the “quieter” bits of the album, such as in the wistful delight that is “A Simple Answer” and the fun and bouncy “gun-shy”; all this makes Shields yet another wonderful standout in your already strong catalogue, and the most accessible yet.

At times it does feel more like delicate pop than delicate rock, and perhaps just a tad simpler and less polished this time around, but a rough gem is a gem nevertheless. After all, there is no wrong, or right; just do whatever you like. (And know that you will still have my full support.)

Details of this entry.Friday, September 21, 2012, filed under Reviews.
Recent tracks played are displayed on Last.fm.Only Heather, Wild Nothing


This is not a song.

It has been a relatively slow start for me when it comes to music; we’re only three months in, but I know I can do better than this. I blame work, expectations, and oh, life in general. It feels like I am re-living my tired and angry days; sooner or later, I am going to become a rebel without a cause and start ranting about everything and anything under the sun.

TrampTramp
Sharon Van Etten
7 February 2012

Female background vocals do not usually feature in indie rock band The National’s music catalogue. So when their musical contribution to the 2011 movie Win Win, in the form of “Think You Can Wait” (which also made the longlist in this year’s Academy Awards for Best Original Song) was first unveiled, I was naturally drawn to the female voice breathily declaring “All I have / is all” that came on in the chorus. It did two things: lent a particularly tender resolution to an otherwise typically brooding composition of The National’s; and made me pay more attention to Sharon Van Etten.

Now, Van Etten is, by no means, your regular novice; she has churned out two albums previously in the past to relatively modest success, but it looks like she has finally hit the headlines with the more confessional Tramp. Hot favourites from the album include first single “Serpents”, a tense and angry number that is subtly tinged with remorse and regret as she “hopes that he changes / this time”; the ukulele-driven “Leonard” that complements nicely with her delicate vocals; and “All I Can”, which has a crescendo nicely built up to finish off the song triumphantly.

Produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, the album was recorded over a course of 14 months; inevitably, there was a revolving door of guest artistes who regularly dropped by Dessner’s studio garage while the recording process for Van Etten’s album was underway, from Jenn Wasner (of Wye Oak) to Beirut’s Zach Condon doing additional vocal duties in “We Are Fine”. Judging from the critics’ positive response to Tramp, however, it seems that Van Etten has finally earned herself a worthy spot among her famous colleagues.

A Sleep & A ForgettingA Sleep & A Forgetting
Islands
14 February 2012

Canadian pop-rock band Islands may have seen various changes to its lineup since its formation in 2005, but there is an undeniable consistency present throughout all its albums that we now know could only be attributed to frontman Nicholas Thorburn, the only member and apparently driving force of the group who has stuck with the band throughout the years.

Islands’ A Sleep & A Forgetting is being unabashedly marketed as an album created out of breakups and failed relationships, and this is clearly heard in first single “This is Not a Song”, which is bound to tug at your heartstrings (“Why / do I find / it so hard to move on?”), and later on again in tracks such as “Don’t I Love You” and “Same Thing”, which both help end the album on a more poignant note. But really, that may be the only extent of Thorburn’s supposed sorrow, for the other tracks seem to have decidedly more upbeat tunes – there are the playful piano staccatos in “Never Go Solo”; the quirky tempo to “Hallways”; and the soaring ooh-oohs in “Can’t Feel My Face”, to wipe out any notion of this ever being a heartbreak album.

Surprisingly, the album flows by quickly, clocking in at just under forty minutes. Maybe these are glorious sounds made by a man on the mend and on the rebound. In this respect, Islands did not fail, and perhaps a good night’s sleep is all Thorburn truly needs to forget the sorrows of his love life.

Upcoming releases for 2012:
Beach House. Best Coast. Eve 6 (now that is a name I have not seen in a long while). Keane. John Mayer. See Metacritic’s release calendar here.

Details of this entry.Sunday, March 25, 2012, filed under Reviews.
Recent tracks played are displayed on Last.fm.Walk Off, The National


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