2012′s Overlooked Albums

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

on 12.10.12 in Lists

The way we assemble our annual best-of list is this: Our editorial team creates a spreadsheet every January and then, over the course of the year, each of us adds to it albums that we love from month to month. And then, in November, we go through the list, album by album, argue it out and settle on an order each of us can live with. But even with a best-of list as long as ours, it’s inevitable that some albums are going to fall through the cracks. Here are some of our personal favorites of 2012 that just missed making the final cut.

In Limbo

TEEN + band

It's easy to get lost in In Limbo, the promising debut from Brooklyn's TEEN. Led by Kristina "Teeny" Lieberson (with her sisters Lizzie and Katherine and friend Jane Herships), the band mixes reverbed girl-group harmonies with jangly guitars and woozy, psychedelic synths. Highlights are the album opener "Better," where Teeny defiantly asserts, "I'll do it better than anybody else, ha!" and the soothing title track, with each of the women cooing a different layer of vocals over wavering guitars. – Laura Leebove

Seriously though, you guys: What's going on in Australia? Between Royal Headache, Total Control, Eddy Current Suppression Ring and Woollen Kits, it's as if all of Down Under is rising up to stage a new international pop overthrow. Add to that list Milk Teddy, whose latest full-length, Zingers, is a sparkling slice of jangle-pop that sprinkles the best bits of the Paisley Underground with just enough angel dust to make the colors start to run. Gently-bobbing melodies get tangled in glistening guitars like kites in telephone lines, making for one of the year's most subtle – and subtly infectious – records. – J. Edward Keyes

Playin' Me

Cooly G

Although its miasmic sense of anxiety suggested otherwise, Playin' Me was one of the heartbreak albums of the year, the seductive rush of "Come Into My Room" splintering into the unease of "Trying" and finally the devastation of "Is it Gone." This intensely soulful debut from the former queen of UK funky was as understated as it was unsettling, mixing slow-mo melodies with passages of beatless ambience to create a heady, hallucinatory sound. It was probably unrealistic to expect such an low-key record to cross over in the Olympics year – even if it did include a cover of Coldplay's "Trouble" – but as a soundtrack to London in 2012, it suited the destabilized mood perfectly. – Amber Cowan

You'd be forgiven for thinking San Francisco songwriter Jessica Pratt's debut was some lost chestnut from the early '70s. Stark, soft and beautiful, it combines the mystery of Vashti Bunyan with the angelic wonder of Judee Sill, Pratt's gentle coo drifting over gentle guitar like a leaf down a river. Typically, music this spare and willowy can drift quickly toward the soporific. Pratt's, though, retains its sense of the strange and fantastic, like it's being transmitted from the middle of an enchanted wood. – J. Edward Keyes

Shearwater is known for bleak, brooding songs about birds and islands, at the hands of ornithologist and former Okkervil River multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Meiburg. Meiburg and co.'s 2012 release, Animal Joy (their first on Sub Pop), still has some of the sense of doom found on the band's earlier work – though not quite on the level of a bird apocalypse, as in the 2008 song "Rooks." But musically it's by far their most accessible, especially in the triumphant opener "Animal Life" (easily one of my top tracks of 2012) and the piano layered with xylophone in "You As You Were." – Laura Leebove

Manchester black metal quartet Winterfylleth combines folk and post-metal leanings with a streak of romantic nationalism and a fixation on early Anglo-Saxon history and poetry. The lyrics on their third album The Threnody of Triumph delve into Medieval traditions related to death and the afterlife. It's probably just as well that they're unintelligible though. All the real poetry is in their lovely, harsh music. Sometimes it sounds like sort of netherborn melodic hardcore. At other times a wisp of Celtic fiddle or some deep, droning vocals underscores the folk and experimental inspirations. Wolves in the Throne Room comparisons are appropriate, but Winterfylleth deserves credit for following their own woodsy muse. – Amelia Raitt

Hurray for the Riff Raff continue to be one of our most beloved eMusic Selects alums, and their third album Look Out Mama is a reminder of why the New Orleans outfit caught our attention in the first place. Where singer/songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra's earlier releases were largely a solo act, this is a full-band affair: "Born to Win (Part One)" has a big group chorus alongside a harmonica, "Little Black Star" is a hand-clapping gospel tune, and "Lake of Fire" is ramshackle rockabilly, complete with plenty of "shoo-wop shoo-wahs." Less acoustic strumming, more Southern twang. – Laura Leebove

Okay, so we know that this album was first released in 2011, but as that was on vinyl only and the digital release was this year, we decided to sneak it into our list – we'll take any excuse to shout about this band. Uncle Acid are a Black Sabbath-inspired “coven of freaks” (according to their label) whose second album, Blood Lust, is about a drug-crazed sadist who goes on a witch-killing spree only to meet his own doom at the withered hand of Satan. The music sounds like Electric Wizard covering Queens of the Stone Age, with melodies that, Beatles-like, seem to inspire mass hysteria. Vinyl copies of this album sell for £700 and scratchy YouTube recordings have notched up hundreds of thousands of hits. However Uncle Acid do it — and we suspect it involves books, candles and incantations of the Lord's Prayer backwards — it's impossible to resist their awesome rocking power. – Amber Cowan

We could say that French duo Lio and Marie Liminana recall all that is great about the classic sound of their country's '60s pop heyday, but that almost feels like it's selling them short. It's true: in their songs you can hear both the smoky seduction of prime Francois Hardy and the grizzled Gitanes-huffing of Serge Gainsbourg, but the Liminanas only use that music as a base. "AF3458" has the same stone-faced chug as the best moments of Neu! or Can, and "Hospital Boogie" tie-dyes country twang until it's a swirl of colors not appearing in nature. Crystal Anis raises gooseflesh; it's as gently provocative as the tip of a feather on the back of your neck. – J. Edward Keyes

Movement is a fascinating and at times deeply disturbing album, in which Holly Herndon pulls apart sounds on a cellular level, taking forensic delight in how they can inflict acute discomfort. Her musical path began in Berlin clubs and ended with a composition degree, and Movement braids these two twisting paths into an unprizable know of conflicting impulses. Her music is a mesmerizing negotiation between propulsion and stasis. Half the time, it's tugging coyly at your body; the other half, it's cruelly teasing your mind. Often, it's doing both. – Jayson Greene

Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons

Max Richter

Composed in 1723, Antonio Vivaldi's four programmatic violin concertos The Four Seasons have in recent decades been the subject of degrees of revision ranging from switching the featured instrument to switching all the instruments to introducing a wild card (on the album The Meeting, Dave Lombardo of thrash metal band Slayer played drums on Vivaldi pieces, including movements from The Four Seasons). None have been as drastic, or as interesting, as the efforts of the German-born British composer Max Richter. Richter is classically trained, and co-founded the contemporary classical ensemble Piano Circus, but has also worked with electronic group Future Sound of London. His solo work combines ambient electronica with melodic minimalism, and in his recasting of The Four Seasons, everything is up for reconsideration except the classical instrumentation. Sometimes the melody is retained while elements of the accompaniment are reconstituted into a droning or minimalist style: Sometimes the rhythm is chopped up into uneven time signatures. Motifs are stretched through repetition in a way that reminds us of the similar construction of much Baroque music. Occasionally revisions practically result in a new melody, as in the opening movement of "Summer." Most of the time, though, Richter is inimitably Richter, even as he honors Vivaldi. It would have been very easy for Richter's Four Seasons end up a cheap gimmick. Instead it aligns the Baroque and the modern in thoroughly enjoyable and memorable ways. – Steve Holtje

Few things in indie rock make me reach for my revolver quite as quickly as the neo-beardy-roots-rock-choogle-catastrophe that's been foisted on all of us over the course of the last five years or so. So an outfit called Happy Jawbone Family Band pretty much automatically has me eyeing the exit. Here's the thing, though: That name is a huge canard. No one's holding hands or quoting Skynyrd or soloing for 20 minutes here. Instead, there's clattering kindergarten instruments, three-sheets-to-the wind vocals, cassette-recorder quality production and a brass section that sounds like it's on loan from the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence in Dumbo. Fortunately, all of these gently-worn elements are put in service of genuinely cheery melodies. Anyone who misses the ramshackle, simultaneously ruined and ornate quality of vintage Elephant 6, Happy Jawbone Family Band are here to help you remember. – J. Edward Keyes