Pliny the Elder, among others, reports in all earnest that bear cubs arrive in the world as unformed lumps and become bears only after their mothers have literally licked them in to shape. Blog posts are also like that. My hard drive is littered with unformed lumps of prose that were meant to become posts to one blog or another but that never achieved bearhood, pieces that failed to find their true form before losing their sense of urgency and subsiding back in to the primordial broth. Some of those were reviews of newly released music, to which I would certainly have liked to refer you in conjunction with the List that follows, but to which such a reference would be futile because they never became bears.
Here, then, is 2012 iteration of my Year-End Music List. As always it is, to paraphrase a 2011 Twitter remark by Steve Smith, really just a list of "Albums I Played a Lot This Year, and Will Likely Continue to Play Next Year." The methodology behind it, and the associated disclaimers, are essentially as I described them last year:
Yada-yada: purely personal, totally subjective, necessarily omitting all sorts of worthy choices that I simply haven't heard or that I was not inclined to seek out or that did not penetrate my thick aesthetic skull for whatever reason. The List itself displays all of the biases that went into its making. No doubt some of my judgments are flatly wrong. I am at peace with that.
As I went to work on this  compilation, I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how long my initial "Long List" was—it seems [2012 ]was a pretty good year, musically-speakingwise—and how reluctant I was to snub any of the music that I found there. I also found that even as I grew increasingly comfortable with my rough rankings, I was troubled that some of the music down the list was much better than its numerical rank might suggest. I am satisfied that the upper end of the list fairly reflects my personal top choices, but the quality differential between topmost and bottommost listees is not all that great. All have won; all by rights should have prizes.
Surveying the nominees, I was again confronted by a certain bicameral quality in my tastes. Roughly half of my choices come from the realm of Popular Music, though hardly from popular music. The other half are drawn from so-called Classical and the Genre With No Name that is typically referred to as (insert prefix of choice)-Classical: new music for orchestra or for smaller ensembles of mostly orchestra-type instruments, largely but not exclusively composed and played by artists a generation or two younger than this blogger, often but not always associated with one or more of the five Boroughs, generally not understood or appreciated by certain West Coast music Authorities who shall remain nameless, etc. Some items "do go both ways," and could fit with near equal ease or unease in either of the main collections.
At first, I tried to rank the entire List item by item, but that proved frustrating and ultimately unsatisfactory, especially given that a list of 40 or so selections inevitably exacerbated my worry over short-shrifting "lower ranking" music: did I really want to tar some Very Deserving Record with a lowly "35" ranking, giving the impression that it is perhaps not so Deserving? So I compromised with myself: I divided my picks sheep-and-goatwise in to two lists of  based on the bicameral system heretofore outlined, ranked each sublist from 1 through , then recombined them so as to produce a list with two picks in each of twenty spots. In the resulting list, the choices from the Classicalorwhatever group are listed first in each position, but that is merely a gratuitous result of the cutting and pasting process by which my absurd edifice of song was finally constructed. I am not looking to privilege either artificial subset over the other: I like all of it, thank you very much.
The List comes with links to each artist's website, and with links to each album's page at [generally] Amazon.com—from whence this fool would receive a small gratuity if you were to make a purchase of some kind after clicking on through. There are also two "special cases" appended at the end, each of which would have placed well into the upper half of the list had I included them in it. They are sui generis for reasons I will note, so they get a separate spot of their own.
And now, behold! The List:
a fool in the forest's Hybridized Catalog
of 46 Favorite Albums of 2012
[with 2-Album Addendum]
Tin Hat's setting of fourteen e. e. cummings poems, interspersed with three cummings-inspired instrumental pieces, was perhaps the most unexpected and satisfying recording of this year. It is something of a refutation of genre: in some sense these are art songs, but with arrangements as well suited to a smoky boîte as to a salle de musique. The cummings classics are here—"buffalo bill" as town-square funeral march, "anyone lived in a pretty how town" ticked out with a stunning widescreen dobro part—but the emphasis is on lesser known poems, especially those that expose cummings as at heart a bruised romantic. Eccentric, bracing, and necessary music. (Listen here.)
Cardinal—the pairing of Richard Davies and Eric Matthews—had its moment in the cult-favorite sun in 1994, followed by an 18-year hiatus. Both members pursued solo careers; Davies became an attorney in New Jersey. ("Carbolic Smoke Bomb" on Hymns refers to an 1893 decision encountered in every first-year Contracts course.) Somehow, the pair overcame their differences—or most of them: Matthews still doesn't perform live—and recombined to produce a chamber-pop gem full of guitars, horns, strings, fabgear vocal arrangements, and more hooks that a deep sea dragline.
Two very different flavors of musical theater here.
Missy Mazzoli's opera is a plangent collage of incidents surrounding the mysterious title figure, Isabelle Eberhardt, a young woman who traveled from Switzerland to north Africa, lived for a time disguised as a man, and drowned in the desert. Among other things. The whole is enveloped in the pulsing bursts and cantilevering melodic lines that make Mazzoli one of the most distinctive and immediately recognizable stylists among the "rising New York composers". (Listen here.)
In February House, Gabriel Kahane has written an old-fashioned musical (with a book by Seth Bockley) about refusing to be old fashioned: a tour through the house in Brooklyn briefly shared in 1940-41 by the likes of Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten with Peter Pears, Gypsy Rose Lee, and a rotating gallery of "bright colored brilliant" creators and thinkers. Witty, heartfelt, it will certainly make you laugh and possibly make you cry. And you will never think of bedbugs in the same way again. (Listen here.)
Nothing else on this list—or elsewhere, really—sounds like Roomful of Teeth. An eight member a capella ensemble under the direction of Brad Wells, Roomful of Teeth starts with finely honed traditional choral chops, then lavishly applies every worldwide and extended vocal technique they can find: yodeling, throat singing, breathing-as-percussion, monkey chant, nasal filterhumming … whatever the human head and lungs allow. Astonishing stuff to render eyes and ears as round as saucers. An old Steely Dan lyric insists that "[e]ven Cathy Berberian knows there's one roulade she can't sing." Roomful of Teeth acknowledges no such limitations. (Listen here. Really, do.)
Love This Giant, meanwhile, is a collaboration between David Byrne, Annie Clark, and brass, Brass, BRASS. Grand, typically eccentric popcraft. Also, one of the most fully enjoyable live shows of the year.
Max Richter embraces Ezra Pound's dictum to "make it new," deconstructing the hyperfamiliar much-beloved wheels and cogs of Vivaldi's concerti and reconstituting them as a series of layered quasi-minimal set pieces. The result is recognizably still Vivaldi, but imbued with the foggy melancholy of Richter's own compositions.
This fool is a long-time endorser of Tim Elsenburg and his mates in Sweet Billy Pilgrim: I first wrote about them in 2005 and their prior album, Twice Born Men, was my #1 pick for 2009. They returned this year with their third full album, still aggravatingly hard to come by in the US, but deserving of the effort to do so. Difficult to categorize, but still a thoroughly engaged and engaging ramble 'cross the wounding but worthwhile business of being a living human among other living humans.
Michael Mizrahi, pianist with NOW Ensemble, leads a scintillant survey of new solo piano repertoire, written in the past five years. It is all of it worth hearing, but the highlight is definitely the title piece, by NOW Ensemble guitarist Marc Dancigers. (Listen here. Video excerpt here.)
There was a new Dylan album this year. This is probably all ye need to know.
In Seven Steps, string quartet Brooklyn Rider combines two contemporary originals—the semi-improvised title number and Christopher Tignor's quartet+electronics piece, "Together Into This Unknowable Night"—with an account of Beethoven's [late] Quartet No. 14. It may not be remotely idiomatic, but it is consistently urgent and compelling music making.
Steve Adey's prior album, 2007's All Things Real, landed at #7 on my list that year. A line from Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man captures the feel of this music, each note seemingly excavated with effort from a dark place at the base of the spine:
'Never to me,' was the reply; the voice deep and lonesome enough to have come from the bottom of an abandoned coal-shaft.
Gloomily commendable and worth seeking out.
William Brittelle makes me happy. His orchestral pop opus, Television Landscape, with its visionary apotheosis of Sheena Easton, tied for #2 on my 2010 list. This collection focuses on his compositions for sting quartet, and subcomponents thereof, supplemented by a battery of electronic frills and gewgaws. The title piece, with Caleb Burhans' fallen angel falsetto vocal, is pure melodic ecstasy so joyously inexcusable as to require no excuse. (Listen here.)
Fine old fashioned psychedelia is made new again by Australia's Tame Impala, who were likely required to file an environmental impact report as a condition of deploying this much reverb. The tricksy twisty bass lines alone are worth the price of admission.
String quartet ETHEL runs the table with style, skill and near-non-stop action. From Don Byron's back alley "Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye" and the Delta wheeze of John King's "No Nickel Blues" to the widescreen action sequence of Raz Mesinai's "La Citadelle" and foot-stomping pleasures of Kenji Bunch's "String Circle No. 1," excitement is the watchword. The notable exception to the hurly-burly is a stilled and perfect transcription of David Lang's "Wed," which I could wish went on several times longer than it does. The packaging of the CD, by the way, is a marvel of attractive simplicity.
The pleasures of an easeful southern summer run through Matthew E. White's debut, whispering its way under your skin. The porch swing and a little something with branch water in it are calling.
Composer Gavin Bryars plays in the ensemble (upright bass) and provides many of the arrangements in this Opera North-originated project that strips away the sonic oddities and gravelly yawp of Waits' own recordings and situates a selection of his songs in company with Brecht/Weill and a handful of folk tunes. Mezzo Jess Walker is the singer, deftly and movingly navigating Waits' and Brennan's labyrinth of cynicism, yearning and heartbreak.
And speaking of cynicism, yearning and heartbreak: American Music Club's Mark Eitzel returns with his strongest collection in several years. Smoke and whiskey not included.
Combining three EPs and a lengthy bonus selection, Drones collects several years of pieces written for electronics-accompanied solo instruments: piano (Bruce Brubaker), viola (Nadia Sirota) and violin (Pekka Kuusisto). Knotty and rewarding.
Laura Burhenns and the Mynabirds only make rock 'n' roll, but I like it very much. A swift sinus clearing kick to the energy centers, like Dusty Springfield adjusted to 11.
Chicago's Eighth Blackbird ensemble plays in the dark corners of your head. The centerpiece of this collection is the title piece, Stephen Hartke's six-part suite of music for "imaginary puppet plays," assuredly not plays for children. Also here: a teriffic Missy Mazzoli piece ("Still Life with Avalanche") and Philip Glass' seminal "Music in Similar Motion."
It is hard to think of a working artist more appropriate than Meshell Ndegeocelo to showcase and honor the legacy of Nina Simone, performing fourteen songs associated with Simone without succumbing to rote imitation. Simone's power, idealism, dignity and talent are all honorably emulated. Features possibly the least languid "Suzanne" anywhere, and concludes with a simmering, unflinching version of "Four Women" that is not to be ignored.
Salonen's Violin Concerto, with its high speed marathon solo part owned by Leila Josefowicz, is the ostensible attraction here. And it is terrific. But. For me, the reason to listen to this album is Nyx, an invocation of the night drawing on the Debussy-to-Stravinsky toolbox, to ravishing effect.
Ramona Falls is the project of former Menomena member Brent Knopf. Intricate explorations of life, the universe and everything.
Ibsenesque tragedy plays out in a preindustrial early 20th century Egyptian village, where the burden of blood revenge rebounds upon both the innocent and the vengeful in Sumeida's Song. A powerful, highly promising work from a young composer to watch.
Tucson is best thought of not as an opera per se as a series of excellent, thematically linked Howe Gelb songs. Two parts Arizona, one part Denmark, a twist of Monkish piano jazz, and all of it sprinkled with what-nots from south of every border.
wild up has received more column inches on this blog than anyone this year. The ensemble's official premiere recording features a sortie through Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony that produces enough energy to power a small duchy and provides at least a glimpse of what makes this group so compelling in live performance. (Listen here.)
Produced by Richard Swift, Maraqopa is a textbook "singer-songwriter on spiritual journey" album, which is a perfectly fine thing to be.
Nonextraneous Sounds collects five new pieces for cello and electronics. It is all interesting, and Mariel Roberts is an aggressive stretcher of her instrument. The high points lie in the percussive interplay of Andy Akiho's "Three Shades, Foreshadows," and the 1-bit tidal surge of Tristan Perich's "Formations."
I have never really warmed to the New Pornographers, but the solo albums of core member A. C./Carl Newman, of which this is the third, are among my favorite things. Brainy, moving pop songs of a high order.
Nashville-based ALIAS surveys the smart, personable music of Kenji Bunch. The set includes the complete "String Circle" series (see ETHEL, supra), an evocation of the experience of running the New York Marathon ("26.2") and the delicious "Boiling Point," a chugging churning new music equivalent to the cartoon-assembly-line sound of Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse," the length of which is determined by the time it takes a tea kettle to boil. Hot steamy pleasure.
Smoke Fairies, centered on the Jack White-endorsed pairing of Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, is another UK act too little known in the U.S. Lovely folk harmonies and a fondness for sidewise blues and slide guitar make for a darkly winning combination.
Contemporaneous is a new music ensemble out of Bard College and Berkeley native Dylan Mattingly is its co-director. He is also a composer of furious promise, suffering if anything from a surfeit of intriguing ideas jostling within his pieces. A composer, and a collection of fine players, to watch and to conjure with.
Theo Bleckmann frequently gets categorized as a jazz singer, but he is not so easily pigeonholed. Here, he makes a selection of Kate Bush songs—some well known, some deep album obscurities—his own, while highlighting just how well made her music is.
Andrew Zolinsky's recording of the solo piano music of David Lang is a thornier thing than The Bright Motion (#5 above), more focused on rhythmic and textural probing than on melodic expression. In addition to the title composition, the album collects Lang's "Memory Pieces," written over recent years in honor or contemplation of friends now gone. Among those pieces, in its original version for piano, is "Wed" (for Kate Ericson, a young artist married in her hospital bed just prior to her death), five minutes of inarticulable sad true beauty.
Thank heaven there will always be an England, as that immediately improves the odds that there continue to be new Field Music records. So clever, so charming, such pleasant company. More from Peter and David Brewis in the Special Case section below.
Some artistic schools or genres get to name themselves—the Pre-Raphaelites, the Italian Futurists, dubstep—while others have names or genre-hood thrust upon them either by way of insult—those filthy Impressionists, those nasty Fauves—or critical laziness. "Minimalism" is of the latter, lazier sort. Virtually none of the musical or visual artists to whom the term has been applied has approved or embraced it. The same is true of so-called "Holy Minimalism," typically used to portmanteaulize music by the likes of Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, and Henryk Górecki. Lazy sod that I am, it is convenient for my purposes to now add Vladimir Martynov to that list. Instead of repeating a phrase and expanding it with minor variation, Martynov tends to worry a phrase slowly, until its deepest secrets are shaken out of it. Meditation, with teeth.
Neil Young's "Psychedelic Pill" album is well named: after lo these many years Neil is still psychedelic and he's still a bit of a pill.— George Wallace (@foolintheforest) December 29, 2012
With his work as producer via Bedroom Community and on projects such as Hahn & Hauschka's Silfra, supra, Valgeir Sigurðsson's influence feels like the contemporary equivalent to late '70's Brian Eno. Here, a collaboration with such usual suspects as Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota, and Shahzad Ismaily, yields an abstracted but rigorous series of pensive miniatures.
Calexico relocated from Tucson to New Orleans to record Algiers. You can take the band out of the great Southwest, but you can't take the great Southwest out of the band. Which is all to the good.
Icebreaker's Apollo shares lineage (and record label) with Bang on a Can's transcription of Brian Eno's Music for Airports. The synthesizer-based originals melded the electronic and organic largely through the presence of Daniel Lanois' steel guitar. Here, with B J Cole as guitarist, Apollo's atmospherics become both warmer and more transparent.
Moms is a Menomena record, which arguably tells you already whether you will like it or not. Reduced from three members to two, the Menomena blend of twitchy precision and visceral squish survives intact.
Robert Fripp, Andrew Keeling, David Singleton – The Wine of Silence
Various – Lost in the Humming Air (Music Inspired by Harold Budd)
An atmospheric pairing tied to former collaborators of Brian Eno. The Wine of Silence consists of orchestral arrangements of Robert Fripp "Soundscapes," the digitally looped and layered guitar pieces that are the contemporary heirs to the analog "Frippertronics" recordings. Immersive envelopes of sound ensue. Lost in the Humming Air, meanwhile, is what it holds itself out to be: an array of obscure (to me) electronic/ambient performers emulating the spacious reverberant drift and feel of original-ambienteur Harold Budd. Immersive envelopes of sound ensue.
Two Special Cases:
Minnesota Orchestra has been in the news for all the wrong reasons: an ongoing labor dispute that has left the musicians locked out by management. In late March, however, the Orchestra premiered Judd Greenstein's Acadia, about which I raved at length here. A recording of the March 31 performance is still available for free download from the Orchestra's website. With beauty and brains for days, Acadia is a rich, proliferating, idea filled feast of a piece that deserves to be embraced by orchestras everywhere. (Who will give it its west coast premiere, I wonder, and when?) Not a true "album," really, and so not included on The List, but Acadia remains a work I am supremely happy to have heard and reheard in 2012. My single favorite composition of the year, hands down.
Field Music's Field Music Play… was released as a strictly limited CD purchasable from the band. I took the plunge and imported a copy when it was briefly available, and smile warmly just at the thought of it. Play... is a covers album: eight songs the Brewis brothers claim as influences, or simply as songs they wanted to play, from a range of predecessors including John Cale, Leonard Cohen (like Meshell Ndegeocelo, they put their spin on "Suzanne"), even Ringo. It is a delight, if a slightly trifling one, and would have landed mid-List if only it were actually available in general circulation. Three tracks—Roxy Music's "If There is Something," Pet Shop Boys' "Heart," and Syd Barrett's "Terrapin"—can be streamed via Soundcloud.
And in 2013, perhaps I will be more successful over the course of the year in setting free some bears?
~~~Photo: Sled Dog and Gramophone, Terra Nova Expedition (1910-1913), via