Friday, January 04, 2013

Top 5 Discoveries of 2012: Music

This is the first official list in my “Top 5 Discoveries of 2012” series. To better appreciate my approach to making these lists, please read the brief introduction to this series (posted here).

2012 was a big year, musically. It seems that everyone under the sun was putting out a new album, including several artists who hadn’t produced new material in years. Among the active 2012 artists putting out their first albums in several years: Alanis Morissette, Ben Folds Five, Counting Crows, the Cranberries, Everclear, Fiona Apple, Garbage, No Doubt, Smashing Pumpkins, and Soundgarden. It was a good year for music fans.

Not every artist that I discovered in 2012 is new on the scene. But there were a handful of tremendously good albums I heard for the first time this year, turning me on to a new group of contemporary artists that I hope to hear more from in the near future. In a semi-particular order, here are my top five musical discoveries of 2012:

5. Young the Giant
Young the Giant’s eponymous debut album officially hit the scenes in 2010. Having heard their name being bandied about, I decided to give them a listen in April of 2012. I was immediately sold. The band’s mellow, straightforward brand of radio-friendly, indie alternative rock is the stuff that intelligent but hip movie soundtracks are made of. That may not sound as complimentary as it should, but you get my point. Though nothing on Young the Giant’s album screamed familiar to me, I was certain I’d heard a couple of their songs somewhere before. One such song is “My Body,” which can be heard via the embedded video below. This is Young the Giant at their most raucous, not to mention infectious.

Like that? Check out “Cough Syrup” by clicking here.

4. Dia Frampton
Dia Frampton was the (warning: irrelevant fact ahead) Mormon runner-up on the first season of NBC’s The Voice, a show that Melanie and I have loved since its spring 2011 debut. Dia was a quick favorite of ours, with a voice at once sultry and meek, raspy and delicate. Her debut album, Red, hit stores in December 2011. I purchased the mp3 version from Amazon in January 2012 when it was offered for a cheap $5. I’ve listened to the album numerous times since, and it’s catchy as hell. It’s pure pop, but without the flightiness and immaturity that so often pervades Top 40 radio. Listeners should note that Dia is a sophisticated songwriter who tackles weighty subjects in her lyrics. In other words, this ain’t Ke$ha (thank your lucky stars). Check out the video below for “Don’t Kick the Chair,” the first song on Dia’s album (and my personal favorite, rap interlude notwithstanding).

3. Foster the People
Apparently, Foster the People’s iconic debut single, “Pumped Up Kicks,” hit airwaves in late 2010. For whatever reason, I didn’t hear the song until early 2012, when I fell in love with it on my first listen. The song’s haunting retro vibe nearly convinces you it’s at least 20 years older than it is—in a good way. Countering the faux nostalgia are the song’s somber and all-too-modernly-informed lyrics. “Robert’s got a quick hand. He’ll look around the room, he won’t tell you his plan.” So the song begins. It then proceeds to paint, with deceptively simple brushstrokes, a traumatizing picture of teenage angst come to murderous fruition. The tale is almost too harrowing to handle—quite the feat, given that so much is left to the imagination. It’s enough to make you feel guilty for ever singing along with the bouncy chorus, told from Robert’s perspective: “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, you better run, better run, outrun my gun. All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, you better run, better run, faster than my bullet.” (Note: the phrase “pumped up kicks” is a reference to sneakers that trendy kids might wear.)

It’s hard to compete with “Pumped Up Kicks,” but Foster the People’s debut album, Torches, is excellent from start to finish. The electronically infused album features steady, danceable rhythms, entrancing synths, and the idiosyncratic vocal stylings of Mark Foster. (For quite some time, I was certain that the opening track, “Helena Beat,” featured a female co-vocalist. It does not. That’s all Mark.) Still, it would be misleading to call the album quirky. It’s much too serious—and hypnotic—in tone to be ascribed any label that might imply it is only frivolously entertaining. Torches is a powerfully good album. (Check out the video for “Pumped Up Kicks” below.)

Like that? Check out “Helena Beat” by clicking here.

2. Imperial Teen
Of all the groups on this list, Imperial Teen is my most recent discovery. While the band has five studio albums to their credit, dating back to 1996, I have heard only their most recent release, 2012’s Feel the Sound. It has quickly become one of my favorite albums of the last few years. One likely reason is the band’s striking similarity to Foster the People. As the opening track of Feel the Sound, “Runaway” could easily fit on Foster the People’s Torches. But that is not to say that the two bands are wholly indistinguishable. On the whole, Imperial Teen ventures into poppier territory than does Foster the People. Imperial Teen is also comprised of numerous vocalists who trade off lead singing responsibilities. The result is decidedly more eclectic. While I hate to describe the band purely in terms of comparison, I can’t help but feel that Imperial Teen is a crossbreed of Foster the People and The New Pornographers, one of my favorite bands of all time. In my mind, that is high praise. Check out the video for “Runaway” here:

1. fun.
Like many of you, I discovered fun. by way of their 2012 chart-topping radio hit, “We Are Young.” Since that time, I have had the privilege of acquiring fun.’s two studio albums, 2009’s Aim and Ignite and 2012’s Some Nights. Both albums are amazingly good, comprised of flamboyant, eccentric pop songs complemented by Nate Ruess’ enthusiastic tenor. Ruess is one of the most impressive vocalists of the last 20 or 30 years. Comparisons to Freddie Mercury—easily my favorite vocalist of all time—are not without merit. While Ruess is less edgy and less versatile than Mercury, he may very well have the superior voice in terms of clarity. Both singers can belt a note with enough power to crack your ribs, but there isn’t so much as a speck of gravel in Ruess’ voice. It’s so pristine, you’ll wonder if Ruess has ever had occasion to clear his throat in his entire life.

Although “We Are Young,” fun.’s hallmark song, appears on Some Nights, I strongly recommend newcomers begin with Aim and Ignite. It’s a less ambitious album, but therein lies its charm. I’ve decided to put up a few videos so you can get a taste of both albums. I’ll start with “We Are Young,” of course. Next is “All the Pretty Girls” from Aim and Ignite. (Anyone hear a little Electric Light Orchestra in there?) And finally is “Light a Roman Candle with Me,” also from Aim and Ignite. It’s a favorite of mine and showcases the softer side of fun.

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