Here’s a project I did last month with guitarist extraordinaire Marnie Stern, from her apartment in the Upper East Side in New York.
For the last five months, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has served as the commander of Expedition 35 aboard the International Space Station. And while in space, he’s made some fun and surprisingly educational videos: You may have seen him making a sandwich or wringing out water from a wet towel.
Hadfield’s latest video is perhaps his best yet: a music video of a stunning cover version David Bowie’s 1969 classic and space tragedy “Space Oddity.” The video is gorgeously shot (hello lens flares!) and edited, and as you see Hadfield slowly floating and singing alone on the space station, it’s remarkably poignant.
30 January 2013
by Mike Katzif
I’ve long been an admirer of the aesthetic of artist Stanley Donwood, the longtime visual collaborator of Radiohead, who’s created artwork for practically every Radiohead record. I think I first took notice around the time of Kid A and Amnesiac because the visual imprint of those two musically-tied records was so perfectly cohesive. I love poring over all the tiny details embedded in the liner notes booklets and inserts and it always seems to be the way I picture Radiohead’s albums and songs in my head.
Currently I’ve become enamored in the artwork Donwood has crafted for Thom Yorke’s solo project Atoms For Peace, the new band he’s made with Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker, Flea and Mauro Refosco. The band’s new record, AMOK, is coming in late February and from what I’ve heard of it, it’s already one of the best records of the year. But originally, Atoms For Peace was put together in 2009 to tour in support Yorke’s first solo album 2006’s The Eraser and adapt songs constructed as beats and samples on a laptop into a living, breathing and danceable beast. That record was exceptional: intricately crafted and dark, but the glitched beats could feel sterile. Live, these songs were allowed to stretch and take on a newfound energy.
At the time The Eraser came out, I really loved the artwork. But now that Atoms For Peace is rolling out its new singles and album, that album cover becomes part of a larger collection of pieces all tied together by the same thematic look: A stark black and white color scheme and intricately rendered pop art-meets-woodcut-style illustrations that just pop right off the screen.
It’s clear that Donwood has extrapolated this style for not only AMOK, but the artwork for the two singles, “Default” and “Judge, Jury And Executioner” as well as the non-album track “What The Eyeballs Did.” On the Atoms For Peace website, you can see that these images are just part of a long, side-scrolling interactive panoramic Donwood has created.
The art for AMOK is above, but here’s all the others, so far:
“Judge, Jury And Executioner” single:
“What The Eyeballs Did” single:
Now Donwood has even taken that theme a step further into something groundbreaking. Back in December, when Atoms For Peace originally announced its upcoming album release date, it came paired with an animated GIF of a sprawling drawing on a building, rendered in the same style as Donwood’s artwork. In a press release, Donwood described the image as a “scene of armageddon in modern Los Angeles.”
The scene was part of a collaboration between Donwood and the artist INSA, who painted several murals based on the artwork onto the walls of record label XL’s L.A. office building. The various murals were photographed and turned into an animated GIF for a project they’re calling “Hollywood Dooom”
Here’s Donwood’s lengthy explanation about the original art:
“Los Angeles is, of course, fucked. Everything is fucked, all of our cities, all of our towns, our villages, our farms, our entire way of living. and I don’t mean fucked in a good way, oh no; I mean it in a very, very bad way. Our energy rich and culturally complacent society has doomed everything, and really, we all know this. Or at least, we should do. We have run out of everything, pissed it up against the wall, blown it, spent it, wasted it. We’ve run out of money, of oil, of gasoline, of water, of food, of any resources, of energy, of everything. We are reduced to trying to blast pathetic amounts of gas from solid rock and we don’t care if we poison our water while we’re doing it.”
“The apocalypse is already here, and the saddest thing is that we’re trying to fool ourselves that it isn’t happening. Our politicians are fucking idiots, our heroes are fools, our industries are dying, our farmland is trashed and our culture resembles nothing more than a self-devouring joke. Our architecture is hideous and our art revels in empty platitudes. There is no future; we have evicted ourselves from our own cities, rendered our agriculture poisonous, criminalised the poor, aggrandized the rich, honoured the stupid and ridiculed the intelligent. I don’t pretend to stand outside this fucking mess. I’m just as guilty as anyone.”
Conceptually, GIFs have really exploded again in the last few years, as a continuous, looped image, not totally unlike a snippet of a sample, looped into a larger musical song, say one written by Atoms For Peace. I love how this stuff all fits together and in all makes a cool grouping of images that seem to now completely fit the mood of the band’s music. I could totally envision Thom Yorke and friends incorporating these visuals on stage in some way or another. I can’t wait to see how.
27 January 2013
by Mike Katzif
Last Monday, I spent the day watching the presidential inauguration on TV, feeling wistful of my time in 2009, standing out in the cold in D.C. to watch President Obama get sworn in the first time around. It was such an once in a lifetime-type experience and one of my favorite memories of living in Washington. As the day went on, I wished I was there to be part of it again, and that this time meant the same as it did before. Four years later there was simply less of that magical feeling, like the enthusiasm had burned just a tad less bright. There was a less ecstatic hopeful tone and more of a tempered, pragmatic and strategic sense of “Let’s get to work!”
I realized that even if I had gone, there’s just no way it would’ve been the same, and like they say, sometimes you just can’t go home again. We grow up and we change and we see things different the second time around.
It made me think about certain pieces of music and how I sometimes wish I could hear it again anew with fresh ears. And there are some albums that dig even deeper when they come out, hitting at just the right time in our lives. For me I’ve had a handful: Kid A in 2000, Sea Change in 2002, Illinois in 2005. These musical landmarks got me through hard times, but also through some of the best moments of my life.
I regularly listen back to these records and still identify with them, still appreciate their masterpiece status on a musical level, and know them inside and out. But, If I had to be honest, I do feel a twinge of sadness because I don’t feel them as viscerally and with the same level of enthusiasm and even heartache as I did back when they meant so much more to me. Sometimes you just can’t go back to who you were at those snapshot moments.
In 2003, it was Give Up.
So when news broke last week that The Postal Service — Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello — are getting back together this spring, I found myself nostalgically trying and failing to recall when I first heard the long-since dormant duo’s first and only album Give Up.
When the record dropped I was 21, in my junior year of college. I’m sure I came to it after hearing it was made by the guy from Death Cab For Cutie, and it was made by sending tracks back and forth with electronic musician Jimmy Tamborello (a.k.a Dntel) via the mail — a concept that at the time seemed incredible, but now in the age of Dropbox, seems quaint.
But honestly I can’t remember where I was because it feels like I’ve always known this record front-to-back.
Give Up, like so many near-perfect records tend to do, soon found itself everywhere, not just in commercials and covered in movie soundtracks, but as a backdrop to that specific time in my life: I listened during quiet walks on campus and on drives along bleak stretches of I-70 in Kansas between school and home — where I could let my mind wander while staring at flat farmland that went on far into the horizon.
Give Up was one of those late night records we put on as a party wound down, when you were maybe a tad too drunk and sleepy, but not ready to go home just yet. I it played in my car on night drives with a college girlfriend. And I played these songs over and over on my very first iPod while I was studying abroad in Germany, where it filled my head with a wistful familiarity as I explored new places Europe, often alone, for the first time.
And the opener, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” was a theme of sorts when, in 2005, I took a chance on a new job and moved to D.C. without knowing anyone — I was equally nervous and excited about the unknown.
Give Up had a perfect blend of electronic sounds and indie pop lyricism that captured those tiny, universal notions of love, loneliness and growing older. And yet, as personally important and influential this record was for a time, I actually haven’t listened to it in years. As Ben Gibbard went back to Death Cab full-time, I guess I moved on to other things. Maybe I just was so over-familiar with songs like “Such Great Heights” and “We Will Become Silhouettes” that they began to mean less to me.
So The Postal Service is gonna do some shows and festivals, that’s great. But I, like many fans, am not-so-secretly hoping for more, like say, I dunno, maybe a new album (!?!?). Gibbard has been asked about a new record for so long, and has frequently denied that it will ever happen, http://www.spinner.com/2012/10/24/ben-gibbard-postal-service/ so that that may be unlikely. (Like that elusive new My Bloody Valentine record or the eagerly-anticipated, finally-happening new season of Arrested Development, it’s fair to keep those expectations tempered until the artifact is firmly in hand.)
These nostalgia reunions often rarely the mega-events we picture in our head and tend to fall short, if only because we are older and wiser and it’s difficult to recapture the magic. Still, it’s welcome news for fans who have long pined for activity from this long-distance collaborative side-project. And for me, it’s the perfect excuse to revisit this band and those songs again, and maybe now that I’m older and have a little distance, hear something new. Maybe we can’t go back and revisit an album that at one point meant so much. But we can always move forward.
Today, on his 66th birthday, David Bowie announced he was set to release a new album, The Next Day — his 30th album and first in ten long years of radio silence — on March 12. Along with that announcement, Bowie dropped that album’s first single, “Where Are We Now?,” along with a self-referential and inward-looking video directed by Tony Oursler about aging and mortality.
Both the video and the song itself contain both visual and musical allusions to Bowie’s experimental “Berlin” era from the mid-1970s, which yielded the famed records Low, Heroes, and Lodger.
And if you have seen the album art for Bowie’s latest album, you’ll easily recognize its use of the familiar cover to Heroes, which obscures this classic black and white portrait of Bowie with a giant white box, with simple typography of the album’s title The Next Step. In the upper right corner, you’ll notice that Heroes is lined out.
This album cover could come off as some kind of silly meta joke, but once I thought about it, it really works.
To me, Bowie has come off as a iconoclastic figure always moving forward, abandoning the old for something fresh and new — be it his visual personae and fashion sense, or his ever-evolving musical styles and genre-pushing experimentation. Here, and what appears to be for the first time, Bowie seems to be looking backward — tapping into an older sound and hinting at the reflexive mood of this as-of-yet unheard collection of songs.
Yet with the boxed-out face, there’s a sense of detachment from the old Bowie. In a superb, and creatively illuminating self-Q&A on the Virusfonts website , Jonthan Barnbrook, the designer of the album art, says the art implies not so much an homage, but a visual representation of trying to make room for the new.
“Normally using an image from the past means, ‘recycle’ or ‘greatest hits’ but here we are referring to the title The Next Day. The “Heroes” cover obscured by the white square is about the spirit of great pop or rock music which is ‘of the moment’, forgetting or obliterating the past.
Barnbrook also says that the cover acknowledges that, despite our best efforts to move ahead we cannot lose our past:
“…no matter how much we try, we cannot break free from the past. When you are creative, it manifests itself in every way – it seeps out in every new mark you make (particularly in the case of an artist like Bowie). It always looms large and people will judge you always in relation to your history, no matter how much you try to escape it. The obscuring of an image from the past is also about the wider human condition; we move on relentlessly in our lives to the next day, leaving the past because we have no choice but to.”
Album covers may have sort of lost some of their real estate since the move to digital — where they are often only seen as tiny icons rather than detailed artistic statements. But there seems to be something of a resurgence in the importance of artwork as a way to convey a mood and instill a feeling about the music. Reading about the amount of effort and provocative thought that went into designing this deconstructed, albeit completely silly concept for such an extraordinary musician as David Bowie is endlessly fascinating.
(All that said, I cannot wait for someone to construct a Sleeveface photo of this album cover. Or one of those endlessly mirrored reflections where the cover infinitely loops inside of itself. Or for people to start imitating this concept on other classic album covers. Some enterprising young go-getter should get on that stat!)
The last year in comics was an especially strong one thanks to many excellent long-running series wrapping up, and, in turn, many more being relaunched in the last few months by Marvel and DC. And don’t forget the huge year at Image with many stellar new creator-owned series. There was so much to like, and I still haven’t gotten to everything various writers have recommended in their best of 2012 lists.
So how do you follow that? Well, clearly by trying new stuff slated to debut this year. Here’s a few things — a lot of superhero books, admittedly — I’m looking forward to in the coming few months of 2013.
SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN | Dan Slott, Ryan Stegman, Humberto Ramos, et al | (Marvel)
Dan Slott’s long gestating run on Amazing Spider-Man culminated with a new, more, um, villianous lead character in the exceptional and controversial final issue #700. It’s supposedly a darker and bolder new direction that was sure to rankle longtime fans. Let’s see (SPOILER ALERT!!): Peter Parker’s mind got switched Freaky Friday-style into Doctor Octopus’ dying withered body, and vice-versa. Then Doc Ock’s body died, and supposedly the real Peter Parker with it. Now Doc Ock has Peter’s young body and all his memories and no one knows what just went down. Got all that? While no one knows how long this current status quo will last, Slott has more than proven his love for and full understanding of Spidey and he’s more than earned trust that he has a big story to come. But if one thing is certain, he’s about to take us on another wild ride.
UNCANNY X-MEN / ALL-NEW X-MEN | Brian Michael Bendis, Chris Bachalo, Stuart Immomen | (Marvel)
As Brian Michael Bendis shifts from his giant eight-year run on the Avengers books to helm the X-Men franchise, we’re getting the writer splitting his big story between the already-launched All-New X-Men and a soon-to-be released Uncanny book. There’s been a shift in power dynamics in X-Men’s world: Cyclops is a sorta villain mutant freedom fighter running around with Magneto, new mutants are popping up all over the world, and the original Stan Lee\Jack Kirby-era teenage team (Marvel Girl, Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Angel) has just been transported to the modern day, shocked at what they see. It’s a gutsy set up being given a lot of space to build, not to mention new territory for a decidedly reinvigorated Bendis. And thanks to artists Stuart immoman and Chris Bachalo, you know these two books are going to be gorgeously designed and full of vibrant energy.
THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY | Brian Michael Bendis, Steve McNiven | (Marvel)
Outside of Brian K. Vaughan’s stellar new series Saga, I don’t much care for sci if space opera mixing into my comics. And when it comes to space superheroes, I often tune out, as I did with the much-heralded run of cosmic Marvel books from writers Keith Giffen, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. (I should catch up on those someday.) But with a Guardians movie announced this summer to be on the horizon and Bendis and the hyper-realistic art McNiven taking on this new book, I have to say I’m intrigued enough to try it out. A creation of the 1970s cosmic era of Marvel, Guardians are focused around hero Star-Lord Peter Quill and his gang that includes Groot, a talking alien tree, and Rocket Racoon, a gruff gun-totting racoon. With Bendis’ equally relatable and funny characterization and his giant story scope, these oft-neglected characters may actually break through and find a bigger audience.
PHONOGRAM: THE IMMATERIAL GIRL | Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie | (Image)
I gobbled up the first two collected editions of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram, and loved the series for its whip-smart humor, clean pop art-styled illustration and design and the deep cuts-heavy music references to Britpop and the U.K. music scene. Also the concept — music as magic — was inventive and weird and really fun. After the second series, Singles Club, there’s been a long hiatus, mainly due to financial reasons, but the story always felt like there was more to tell and somewhat unfinished business. Last year the duo surprised many by announcing a third installment, but that book kept getting pushed back for other projects. Here’s hoping this will finally see the light of day in 2013.
YOUNG AVENGERS | Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie | (Marvel)
Okay, so bad news: Phonogram has been pushed back and we may have to wait awhile for that book to surface. Good news: It is because the same creative team is taking on the Young Avengers as part of the whole Marvel Now initiative. Gillen had a well-liked run with Kid Loki in his Journey Into Mystery arc (I haven’t read it, but read it was good), and continues with that character here, along with various other next generation superheroes. This book looks to take on the excitement of being young, on the verge of adulthood and having crazy superpowers too. I’d say this might be the breakout hit of the year thanks to the writer and artist sure to bring their winning indie chemistry to a big time series.
SEX CRIMINALS | Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky | (Image)
Okay, so if you search the name of this book on the web, make you add some extra search terms at the end, since this is maybe one of the most un-Google-able comic titles since Girls (not the band, or the Lena Dunham TV show). Still, Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals — his first new creator-owned book since Casanova — has a killer set up, that seems tailor-made for Fraction’s weirder ideas: It’s a sex comedy following two young lovers on a “lust-fueled crime spree with a twist — when they have sex, time itself seems to stop.” Sure to be full of filthy, sexy humor and layered plot lines, Fraction and Zdarsky’s book may be 2013’s breakout success from Image.
PRETTY DEADLY | Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios | (Image)
I haven’t read too much from Kelly Sue DeConnick, but she seems poised for a big year: Coming off a critical darling miniseries, Osborne, DeConnick relaunched Captain Marvel this summer, and just took over Avengers Assemble, which looks to be a good jumping-on, new-reader-friendly book for fans of The Avengers film. Now in 2013, DeConnick and her Captain Marvel and Osborn collaborator Emma Rios are getting in on the creator-owned boom over at Image with Pretty Deadly, a gritty spaghetti western featuring a female assassin lead character with a physical disfigurement. With so few westerns and even fewer good female antiheroes in comics, this series may be a nice change of pace for an up-and-coming writer worth keeping an eye on.
LAZARUS | Greg Rucka, Michael Lark | (Image)
Greg Rucka and Michael Lark first teamed up together with Ed Brubaker on DC’s acclaimed, Batman-adjacent police procedural Gotham Central, but the pair is reuniting with Lazarus, a series set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future destroyed by economic strife. Centered around protagonist Endeavor Carlyle — a “genetically modified one-person security detail” — the sci fi-centric story seems to be inspired by the recent Occupy movements and the clashes between the one percent in government and corporations and the lower classes. With such a high concept ahead it’ll be interesting to see how Rucka and Lark — who are mostly known for their noir crime work — adapt to world-building and futurist character and technology design. Regardless, it’s a story that sounds like it could easily be adapted to television or film, and one I’d be eager to read on.
1) EXITMUSIC, Passage
Out of the many records showcasing female singers immersed in epic soundscapes released this year — from Cat Power, Sleigh Bells, Grimes or Now, Now — Exitmusic’s Passage is simply the most transporting and haunting. Aleksa Palladino and Devon Church, the married couple behind Exitmusic, make intensely personal ruminations on frayed relationships, loneliness and despair. Still, there’s a seductive romanticism to the anguished heartache. In songs like the title track or “The Night,” guitars, pianos, synths and sparse beats messily intermingle; melodies flutter around the periphery like burning embers in the wind one moment, and erupt like a cyclone in the next. And yet all the cascading waterfalls of noise and feedback are but an emotional backdrop for Palladino’s aching, alluring voice. Her nuanced vocal command allows her to go from breathy and quivering to full-throated and powerful, often within the same song. While Passage may be melodramatic and tortured, ultimately it’s Exitmusic’s soaring, dreamy beauty that will overtake you.
2) FIONA APPLE, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
It had been seven years since we last heard anything new from Fiona Apple. But the elusive, enigmatic songwriter finally resurfaced this spring for a string of live shows and a masterpiece of a new record — the knottily-titled The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw, And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.
So much has been said about the emotional baggage of Apple’s early years, it’s become too easy to try diagnose her angst and ignore her songwriting and musicianship. Apple is now 35 years old and no longer that angry and disillusioned persona of her youth. Yet she remains an extremely fragile and mysterious artist full of regret, pain and personal demons to work through. Still, The Idler Wheel… finds Apple more comfortable in her skin, and her voice in top form.
In songs like “Werewolf,” Apple’s trademark idiosyncratic wordplay is as great as ever as she delivers lines that delightfully bounce off the tongue, while illustrating how a relationship was destined to fall apart: “And I could liken you to a chemical, the way you made me compound a compound / But I’m a chemical, too, inevitable you and me wouldn’t mix.”
The Idler Wheel… is a superb work for its gorgeous melodies and devotion to instrumental restraint while emotionally leaving nothing hidden; on album and on stage, Apple does not hold anything back. It’s truly stunning to dig deep into these new songs and hear something different each time. While seven years is a long time between albums, this one was worth the wait.
3) SHARON VAN ETTEN, Tramp
Witnessing the musical transformation of Sharon Van Etten has been a joyful experience. When the singer first surfaced with 2009’s superb Because I Was In Love, Van Etten and her music was all exposed nerves and hushed pain. Her spare lovely songs depicted crumbling love, introverted insecurities, and a fragility as if at any moment Van Etten or the song itself could simple dissipate into the air.
Slowly but surely, a confidence and musical bravery began to take hold and blossom. If her first record was the fallout from a ravaged relationship, Van Etten’s latest album Tramp is the fullest musical extension of new positivity. The songs still deal with indecisiveness and weighty personal issues. But as songs like “Serpents” and “All I Can” build to powerful rocking anthems, there’s a grandiosity to Tramp that feels outright triumphant. Van Etten sings of newfound love, finding happiness and being okay in her own skin. Produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, every song on Tramp has a rich palette of sounds that stretch Van Etten’s songwriting into new places, making her transfixing and winning vocal harmonies that much robust and stirring. But still at the heart is her distinct lyrical voice.
This year has seen Sharon Van Etten and her excellent band play to bigger and bigger audiences, playing festivals and talk shows and culminating in a blowout victory lap concert at New York’s Town Hall featuring a lineup of friends and special guests. A perfect capper to this first act of Van Etten’s musical evolution, this wave of success could not been more well-deserved for anyone else out there.
4) CAT POWER, Sun
Sun feels like nothing Cat Power has ever done before, which is exactly what Chan Marshall needed. Apparently in the long gap of time between records, the elusive and often-troubled musician faced health and financial issues and inner turmoil. So when she finally returned to write new music, she scrapped an entire batch of songs after being told they sounded like the typical sad and wispy songs you might expect from Cat Power. Instead, Marshall reevaluated the kind of music she wanted to make and eventually wrote all new material. Incorporating electronics and densely layered vocals, these songs are fully-realized by Marshall, who plays every instrument and sings every note on the record. And thanks in part to some adventurous sound design assistance from French producer Philippe Zdar, Sun is a compelling album full of emotional pain and stirring beauty. And ultimately, it’s Cat Power’s best collection of songs yet.
5) PATRICK WATSON, Adventures In Your Own Backyard
The musical world of Patrick Watson is an imaginative place out of time, where eras overlap, genres blur and words evoke memories that feel like they’re your own. Watson’s method of chamber pop songwriting tends toward embellishment: his memorable melodies and vocal harmonies are fleshed out with wildly inventive arrangements and an idiosyncratic kitchen sink approach to instrumentation and percussion. That said, at the heart of Adventures In Your Own Backyard is a tender emotional core both of nostalgia and, in the case of “Words In The Fire,” a lesson about finding peace living in the moment. Watson’s dusky falsetto can whisper or fill the church rafters while singing about dreams, childhood and the newness of falling in love with subtle turns of phrase and evocative imagery. This lovely collection of songs and sentiments will linger and echo in your mind long after it’s over.
6) NOW, NOW, Threads
Now, Now’s superb record Threads found the right recipe for fizzy power pop hooks and lush and disarming layers of sound. Comprised of Cacie Dalager, Jess Abbott, and Bradley Hale, the band finds larger universal themes sparked from quiet but deeply personal moments. In the title track, “Thread” and later in “But I Do” Dalager’s lyrics capture the weird, complicated feelings that come with one-sided friendships and the fragility of love unraveling not all at once but one stitch at a time. Elsewhere, in songs like “School Friends” and “Separate Rooms” she sings of insomnia, and the confusing, often phantom limb feelings that still linger when seeing a former love and not knowing where things stand. Ultimately, it’s Now, Now’s tightly constructed and infectious blasts of melody that shows makes this band one of the most confident and exciting new acts of the year.
7) KISHI BASHI, 151a
To watch Kishi Bashi assemble his songs in concert is a clinic in how such a musician works at the craft of songwriting and composition. Like Andrew Bird, Kishi Bashi is one-man symphony of violins and voices inventively looped to create overlapping melodies that flutter like butterflies inside your chest. For many, that reliance on looping ends up being more of a crutch or gimmick, but Kishi Bashi’s debut, 151a, is actually comprised of songs brimming with interlocking and twisted sounds and snippets of motifs that add up to an inventive and wondrous world. His breakout “Bright Whites” may be one of the year’s most infectiously fun and timeless songs. Yet songs like “I Am The Antichrist To You” prove there’s an emotional weight and darkness under the surface that give those gorgeous highs that much more depth and ultimately, lasting charm.
8) FRANK OCEAN, Channel Orange
A lot has been written about Frank Ocean, his official debut Channel Orange, and the soulful singer’s deeply personal essay revealing his bisexuality that was posted just weeks before his album dropped. Many interpreted that letter in different ways, both positively on the rarity of this honesty in the R&B world and with some skepticism — Was it a marketing ploy? Why hasn’t Ocean done more for the LGBT community? Regardless, Channel Orange’s story arc will always be connected with his personal life and its songs seen as darkly lit confessionals. What may have been ignored is Ocean’s skill in storytelling and the possibility that not all these songs are truly drawn from his own experiences as much as characters and archetypes he’s projecting.
Still, Frank Ocean has been a near-consensus critical darling in 2012 and for good reason: The triumph of Channel Orange is its distinctive and universal voice. These songs are about love, emotional baggage and pain. But also there’s a swagger to these songs, thanks to some sleekly minimal production and straight up funky grooves that puts Ocean’s soaring voice front and center on “Thinkin Bout You”, “Bad Religion” and “Lost.” As a singer, a lyricist and a performer no one in R&B and soul is doing what he’s doing, and the album will be a high watermark for years to come. As Frank Ocean is poised to break through to another level in the coming year it will be exciting to watch where he goes next.
9) HOSPITALITY, Hospitality
Many songwriters have mulled over the rootlessness of their youth, but few describe it with as much whip-smart and wistful sentiment as Hospitality’s Amber Papini does. The Brooklyn trio’s very fine self-titled debut is full of buoyant and well-crafted songs such as “Eighth Avenue” and “Liberal Arts” that serve as intimate snapshots of living in New York City, and meditate on fading relationships and the complicated feelings that come with a life in transit.
Hospitality’s greatest skill however is offsetting weighty notions with taut arrangements and singable pop hooks. At the center is Papini’s warm, embracing voice, which shyly flutters just above a mix of treated guitars and vintage synthesizers. These songs find a happy middle ground between cute and sharp-edged, intimate and exuberant. There are enough breezy harmonies, crisp guitars and lilting bass grooves to get listeners doing their very best Snoopy dance. Still, songs like “Argonauts” occasionally sprawl and burst with joyful noise — a winning combination that makes Hospitality’s first record a delightful palate-cleanser full of sweet, memorable moments.
10) TY SEGALL, Twins
The impossibly prolific Ty Segall has been banging out record after record of thrashy rock and fevered guitar riffs for the last few years. But 2012 was his best year yet: With three albums (and a handful of singles and other recordings) to his name, Segall’s skillful craft has increased, while remaining true to his raw live wire energy. While his other 2012 efforts were solid — Ty Segall Band’s Slaughterhouse and the Ty Segall and White Fence album, Hair — the gritty Twins may be his best one yet. This record is brimming with screeching guitar noise and lip-curling riffs that only add to the fully satisfying melodies he’s singing. In a year where many young bands went loud — The Men, Mind Spiders, Metz — Segall’s aggressive take on the distorted garage rock was just a hair above the rest. Here’s hoping 2013 finds him just as productive.
The Next 15:
11) Julia Holter, Ekstasis
12) Jason Lytle, Dept. Of Disappearance
13) Porcelain Raft, Strange Weekend
14) The Men, Open Your Heart
15) Simone White, Silver Silver
16) Mind Spiders, Meltdown
17) Yellow Ostrich, Strange Land
18) Lower Dens, Nootropics
19) Purity Ring, Shrines
20) Metz, Metz
21) Shearwater, Animal Joy
22) Sleigh Bells, Reign Of Terror
23) Grimes, Visions
24) THEESatisfaction, awE naturalE
25) Waxahatchee, American Weekend
Ten Honorable Mentions:
– Soko, I Thought I Was An Alien
– Melody’s Echo Chamber, Melody’s Echo Chamber
– Django Django, Django Django
– Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan
– Death Grips, The Money Store / No Love Deep Web
– Mount Eerie, Clear Moon / Ocean Roar
– JEFF The Brotherhood, Hypnotic Nights
– La Sera, Sees The Light
– Teen, In Limbo
– Cloud Nothings, Attack On Memory
So I’ve never written about comics, bu lately I’ve become a fairly regular reader. And this year I’ve found to be one of the strongest years I can remember. Here’s an unranked round-up of some of my favorites that I look forward to. I cannot say I read everything out there — you’ll notice no DC books because I don’t read those — and I sort of pick and choose based on what others are talking about. So really, this is not a comprehensive Best of 2012 list. It’s just a bit of a recommendation of things to try out.
HAWKEYE | Matt Fraction (writer), David Aja, Javier Pulido, Matt Hollingsworth (artists) | (Marvel)
I’ll admit it, for years Hawkeye has been my Aquaman. That is, I’ve found the character dumb both in concept and look: He’s a third tier character — an archer, with no super powers, dressed all in purple, and he’s kind of a dick. Following the big breakout role in this summer’s megahit The Avengers, I still was not swayed, mostly due to Jeremy Renner’s brooding assassin portrayal. That seems to be the angle Marvel has mostly been going in the last year too, eschewing the funky mask and skirt-like purple uniform, for a sleeker, black-with-purple accents spy look, that is at least functional looking. But beyond the costume, (because, really, who cares?), as portrayed in the various Avengers books, Clint Barton is still that hard-nosed assassin type, but with the occasional burst of smart-allecky jokes. Yeesh.
So for me to say that a Hawkeye comic is probably the series I most look forward to each month is a huge deal. But such is the case with this series by Matt Fraction and David Aja. This pair not only have revamped the character with the very simple, continuity-lite “This is what Hawkeye does when he’s not being an Avenger” concept and one-and-done single-issue stories, but with meticulously rendered artwork that has regularly blown my mind.
This series is a clinic in compressed and detailed storytelling, crafting inventive page layouts from tiny, design-heavy panels. Aja’s artwork is so impressive while also being incredibly clean, owing much to the 1960s look. It’s very mod, but not retro. And coupled with Matt Hollingsworth’s flat coloring style and perfectly complimentary color palette — lots of muted purples and yellows and burnt reds — this book is a marvel to look at, and especially so on the iPad, where those colors just sing.
Fraction’s writing here is also truly at its best, showing how single repeated jokes can pay off down the line. And Fraction has also stumbled across one of the best will-they-or-wont-they buddy relationships in comics between Clint Barton and Kate Bishop — a younger female Hawkeye in training and the moral compass of the story — by giving them funny banter and interplay.
But really, the book is awesome because it takes a character that I’ve never shown much of a need for, and showing why I should care by boiling it down the fact that Clint Barton cannot help but be a hero, even on his days off. “Hawkguy” keeps trying to save his neighbors and takes a beating at his own expense to do the right thing. That’s all you can hope for in a comic book. This series has only just started, but I cannot wait to see where it goes and how the team tells it.
FATALE | Ed Brubaker (writer), Sean Phillips (artist) | (Image)
This year may be remembered as the year of Image Comics, as the creator-owned company unleashed a ton of stellar books (Saga, Fatale, Manhattan Projects, Mind the Gap), and finds itself positioned to be the place for writers and artists both looking to stretch and reinvent themselves in a non-superhero world. Perhaps the best among them in 2012 was a new offering from the always great creative team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. I’ve been a fan of Brubaker’s mainstream work on Captain America, Iron Fist, and Daredevil. But it’s this pair’s work together that has truly been impressive — from Sleeper to Criminal to Incognito.
In some ways Fatale doesn’t shift too much away from what one might expect, it’s based in pulpy noir, gritty crime, and shady characters who do wrong even when trying to do right. But if Criminal was more straight up crime, and Incognito added in pulpy superheroes, then Fatale is Brubaker’s horror book. The story is actually simultaneously-told in several time periods, shifting from modern times to the past seamlessly, building a world around men drawn to a beautiful woman, who seems to have both powers to live forever and sway the hearts of men with a single glance.
Fatale can be gory and creepy with creatures and cults and magic, but in the hands of Phillips’ art, it remains grounded in the world and style that he and Brubaker have mastered. Originally intended as a mini-series, I’m super excited that this story is now listed as an ongoing, meaning I can look forward to this book each month for the foreseeable future.
SAGA | Brian K. Vaughan (writer), Fiona Staples (artist) | (Image)
Brian K. Vaughan is no stranger to the high concept: He’s told stories of teenagers on the lam from their supervillain parents in Runaways; he’s explored what happens when a man with the ability to talk to machines runs for mayor of New York in Ex Machina; and, in Y: The Last Man he’s shown us a post-apocalyptic tale where every male on the planet dies except for one immature 20-something man and his monkey and must somehow navigate this new woman-run world and stay alive. Got all that?
Vaughan returned to comics in a big ambitious way this year with one of the craziest and loveliest books out there. Saga is a science fiction space opera-meets-family drama centered around a couple of military deserters on opposite sides of a war with no end in sight. Oh yeah, and their brand new daughter, who serves as the narrator and entry point of view for the story.
Coupled with Fiona Staples’ impossibly beautiful all-digital artwork and layout design work this book has the look and feel of hand-sketched drawings but heightened with robust coloring made to look like high-end cell animation and dreamy paintings. And it’s full of insane character designs and creatures — from monkey mechanics, gorgeous female assassins with spider legs and regal robots with TV screen heads.
Yet at its heart, Saga is a love story about a family just trying to get by and survive this war-torn universe together.
FANTASTIC FOUR, FF | Matt Fraction (writer), Mark Bagley, Mike Allred (artists) | (Marvel)
Up until Jonathan Hickman’s incredible three-year story on Fantastic Four and FF, I had never been a fan or reader of Fantastic Four. Despite its history as the first Silver Age superhero comic that launched the Marvel Universe and made household names of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, I just could not be bothered to care much about the characters. But in the hands of Hickman, the whole “superhero family” concept finally clicked with me thanks to layered long-game plotting and character moments that felt true.
Now that that series has wrapped, Marvel has relaunched both F4 and FF as part of its Marvel Now initiative, that, while not a reboot, has reinvigorated the entire line with top tier writers and artists getting shuffled off older books and onto new books they had never written, and in turn getting to define and redefine the various series going forward. In one of the most exciting and best pairings of creators and characters, Matt Fraction being put on the two sister books is an inspired one.
Fraction is known for his off-the-wall ideas and sharp wit, and as his run on Iron Man has shown, great at longterm planning. But paired with a pro’s pros like Mark Bagley (on F4) and the pop art artist Mike Allred (on FF), has taken both the writer and the books up to the next level. Both books feel of the same piece, but FF is truly exceptional thanks the Allred’s eye-catching design layouts and clean lines and his wife Laura Allred’s popout coloring. While only two issues of each have dropped so far in 2012, this story is going to be one to keep an eye out for in the next year.
MANHATTAN PROJECTS | Jonathan Hickman (writer), Nick Pitarra & Cris Peters (artists) | (Image)
After doing a month-long deep dive into Jonathan Hickman’s inventive and superbly plotted Fantastic Four and FF runs, I came to this new creator-owned series hoping for more of the same world building and pseudoscience. Manhattan Projects does not disappoint. It’s a series bursting with demented energy and mind-blowing ideas. Set in a re-imagined “real world” during and around the end of World War II, this series reveals that the true Manhattan Project building the Atomic Bomb that ends the War was just a front and only the tip of the fringe bleeding edge science the team was up to.
With characters such as Robert Oppenheimer’s evil twin, a diabolical Einstein from an alternate universe, and an re-animated artificial intelligence FDR, this series is both super dark and truly bananas. But it’s also a total blast with lots of “what the f—?” moments.
DAREDEVIL | Mark Waid (writer), Marcos Martin, Paulo Riviera and Chris Samnee et al (artists) | (Marvel)
Much in the way Hawkeye is using it’s modernist art style to reinvigorate the character, Mark Waid and company have done the same for Daredevil for the last two years. Daredevil was the breakout hit of 2011, thanks to inventive artwork and sunnier characterization after the many years under the pen of Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis, and Ed Brubaker. I loved the runs by Bendis and Brubaker in particular, with it’s grim crime-focused storytelling, but after those runs, where could you possibly go? The only direction was a clean sweep, which is what Waid has been doing. The series still has it’s dark broodier moments — it IS Daredevil after all. But this book, even in year two, continues to be a delightful must-read by going to unexpected places.
I read quite a few other books this year, some good, some just because I had nothing else to do. Here are a few more worthy of a name drop:
– WINTER SOLDIER | Ed Brubaker, Butch Guice, Michael Lark | (Marvel)
A super cool S.H.I.E.L.D espionage thriller that continues where Brubaker left off in Captain America. Great stories teaming-up Winter Soldier and Black Widow that bring lots of twists and turns that leave you guessing.
– AMAZING SPIDER-MAN | Dan Slott, Humberto Ramos, et al | (Marvel)
Returning to the big fun and troubled exploits of Peter Parker, Slott has been building a long-gestating 100-issue story arc that is about to culminate with #700 and promptly blow the internet in half next week. Can’t wait to see what happens.
– WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN | Jason Aaron, Nick Bradshaw, Chris Bachalo, et al. | (Marvel)
If you had told me the bearded biker guy (and Kansas City resident) who wrote the gritty series Scalped was writing the best and wackiest X-Men book out there I’d be shocked. But sure enough, this book, which features some oddball characters and cartoony artwork, is just a load of fun, but a lot of heart.
– UNCANNY X-FORCE | Rick Remender, various artists | (Marvel)
One of the darkest, most bloody superhero comics out there, but also one of the thoughtful books full of big ideas that ponder the cycle of violence that begets more violence, and to what end? Remender just brought this epic run home with the series’ final issue. But go back and read it again from the beginning. It might reveal just how heavily-plotted it was from the get-go.
I have mixed feelings about Christmas songs. I don’t celebrate the holiday, so I don’t have any sentimental or spiritual reasons for listening to these songs. And it’s easy to get inundated with holiday music playing at every place you turn from basically October until New Years. But despite all that, I do tend to enjoy the music for music’s sake, when it’s not too overplayed. I’m sure I’m not alone on that. Typically my favorite Christmas songs tend to be those that invoke a bit of melancholy, introspection, or even subversion, rather than being sugary sweet. Newer songs like Low’s “Just Like Christmas” or Sam Phillips’ “It Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas” or many of Sufjan Stevens’ new songs on his two massive box sets have been excellent additions that find that right tone.
But I’ll admit, sometimes I just want to hear a big burst of joy.
One of my favorite songs from this time of year is Paul McCartney’s 1979 hit “Wonderful Christmastime,” known for that distinctive synth riff from a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5. McCartney did a pretty delightful version to end Saturday Night Live this past weekend, and it got me thinking about how much I like this song.
“Wonderful Christmastime” is a song that I think many view as treacly and overly sentimental McCartney pop, the way a lot of his post-Beatles music is viewed. Sure, it has got no teeth. This ain’t “Helter Skelter” — let alone “Jet.” But to me, this song, and especially the chorus “Simply having a wonderful Christmastime” is impossibly catchy and actually fun. And as part of a mix of newer holiday fare, it’s a nice addition to the canon.
Still, “Wonderful Christmastime” has been pretty popular, inspiring its fair share of reinterpretations — from Barenaked Ladies and Hilary Duff to Jars Of Clay. None of them have been particularly good. But just this year, I’ve heard two new covers of this song and both are fairly solid offerings.
The first, by The Shins, on a new Starbucks-produced compilation album called Holidays Rule*, is a more-or-less straight-up indie pop recreation. It’s a perfectly fine and serviceable rendition, but doesn’t quite add enough of James Mercer’s flavor. But it also certainly doesn’t detract at all from McCartney’s original. Sometimes a new artist playing a song as you want to hear it is enough.
*As far as new Christmas comps go, Holidays Rule has some decent selections played by many artists I really love: Rufus Wainwright and Sharon Van Etten, The Civil Wars, Eleanor Friedberger, Y La Bamba, Andrew Bird, and even McCartney himself. It’s definitely worth checking out.
The other cover of “Wonderful Christmastime” that I’ve heard is by a brand new baby band Ex Cops. The Brooklyn band’s upcoming 2013 debut True Hallucinations is already a favorite new discovery of mine, so it’s cool to hear them play those synthy chords and then give the chorus an energetic boost of crunchy guitar distortion and throttling drumming.
MARVEL NOW POINT ONE #1
by: Nick Spencer, Luke Ross / Brian Michael Bendis, Steve McNiven / Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness / Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie / Matt Fraction, Mike Allred / Dennis Hopeless, Gabriel Hernandez Walta
As far as introduction teaser anthologies go, Marvel Now Point One succeeds at building excitement for Marvel’s latest initiative. It’s clear that moving around writers (namely Bendis, Fraction, Ed Brubaker, Jonathan Hickman) and artists to new projects and different characters after many years on a book has reinvigorated the stories. While the old guard’s runs were hugely successful and built the foundation for nearly a decade worth of stories, it’s nice to see new blood on properties and writers jazzed to begin their own epic runs.
Point One succeeds by not just proving the first few pages of a new book, but creating short stories that tease the tone and feel of what’s on tap with books like Guardians Of The Galaxy, Nova, FF, Young Avengers, Cable And X-Force, and Secret Avengers.
Among those that look the most enticing would be the new FF series and Young Avengers, both of which bring a mod pop art look and superb design sense to the characters, the panel layout and colors that catch the eye. The tone of both series seems to be a ton of fun, and not your typical superhero book. These look to be modernist, deconstructionalist, but ultimately family-friendly takes that take advantage of the tropes of superhero comics but also feel like indie books with a lot of quirks and distinctive feel.
The others — Cable and X-Force, Guardians, Nova, and Secret Avengers — show promise as well. There seems to be a push towards diversity, even within the superhero format, proving that many of these books coming down the line in this new initiative will be worth trying out, sampling the kinds of books you’re looking for. There’s a lot to be excited about and there’s certainly something in this batch for you.