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The musical elite of 2012.

So it’s come to this has it? A year of music so good that for the first time I came close to wishing albums would stop being made, as anything new coming out will surely distract and take away time from enjoying the fantastic albums that came out already. I feel bombarded with so much good music, yet time to listen slowly dissolving away (as evidenced by my balding head). Granted, it’s very true that I may not branch out as much as one could, and the most frustrating part is half of what I am into based on this post (and my runners-up post next week) may look like I do nothing but wait for Pitchfork’s daily reviews to guide me on my way musically. Rest assured, that is not the case, and just merely a coincidence. Most of the times I’ve done these posts I’ve just said “HERE! This is where’s it’s at – and listen to this other person tell you why!”. Last year, I took the time to write up my own reviews (who’d a thunk it?), but after looking at my blog stats I saw that it really didn’t reach many people. Your loss! So instead of making this feel like a chore left unnoticed this year by writing relatively long reviews that would fall on deaf ears, I would simplify. In the end, let the music speak for itself, eh? Well, for the most part. So, here you go, my favorite albums of the year. I guess technically they are what I consider to be “the best”, but by saying that it means these then have to be put in some sort of order, and quantified some way. But I really can’t do that. Depending on the mood of the day, each one of these albums is “the best” at one time or another, so really out of all the albums I’ve listened to over the past year, these are my go to albums – my favorites – my “desert island discs” of sorts. I’ve shared one track from each album as well, songs that I think not only represent what is great about the entire album, but what may spark an interest in you to checking out the whole thing, because to me they are all worth your time and quite rewarding indeed. Enjoy with aloha, and as always, turn it WAY the hell up, and for crying out loud use headphones. Laptop speakers = death.

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lotus plaza | spooky action at a distance

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Brought to my attention by a good friend of mine, Lotus Plaza’s Spooky Action At A Distance clicked with me immediately, and has never tired on my ears once since then. A side project of sorts from a member of Deerhunter, this is their second album, and it’s 44 minutes couldn’t be more perfect. It’s so good I’m finding it quite difficult to figure out how to describe it without shortchanging it in any way. Let’s say it’s a folky, dream-pop type record if you will, full of big choruses that can put a smile on the face of even the most jaded of us. A few months after hearing it, it became the soundtrack of my first trip to the Pacific Northwest, and it couldn’t have been any more apropos. Vocals so reverbed you could hear them echoing through the mossy forests of Douglas Firs, and guitars so gorgeously airy, distorted, and wispy they could soundtrack the most poignant scene from Twin Peaks. It was fitting that during my trip the band just happened to be playing in Portland at a surreal little place called The Doug Fir Lounge. It was like stepping back into the 1950’s, the setting being a mix of The Jetsons, Mad Men and The Great Northern Hotel from Twin Peaks in all it’s log cabined glory. It was a trippy evening for so many reasons, and hearing this music live, in that setting, it was just exactly the kind of experience you want to have when far away from home. This album is full of so much rain-soaked natural beauty, it is the sound of the PNW, fitting the environs just perfectly. A gorgeous, natural work of art without any sense of pretense – it rocks, it glimmers, it relaxes, it’s absolute perfection, and hopefully the track I’ve shared, ‘Eveningness’, will evoke that. [Kranky]

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dead can dance | anastasis

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Dead Can Dance’s first album in 16 years is pretty much tied for album of the year with Lotus Plaza. It’s exactly what a follow-up to 1996’s Spiritchaser should sound like, and surprisingly the black veil has been lifted. Beneath all it’s dark “world music” sounds is a pop sheen – for a Dead Can Dance album of course – but it’s catchy none-the-less compared to their output from decades past, and it’s most welcome. Full of grooves and color, the entire album is a winner, and as hard as it was to pick just one song, I chose the lead off track ‘Children of the Sun’ to share. It doesn’t highlight the better singer of the two, Lisa Gerrard, but it’s one of the rare tracks where they sing together. Brendan Perry croons his lyrics about the bright possibilites of the future, despite the horrors of the world, and about each of our tiny yet meaningful places in the universe. Then for a brief but all encompassing moment Ms Gerrard joins him at the end in a signal of unity that you can really feel coming through the speakers, singing backup with the lyrics “Faith, hope, our charities / Greed, sloth, our enemies” – it’s a moment and a song that, despite not being the best track on the album, encompasses the feeling of the entire album. There aren’t many musicians out there that you can truly call artists with as much integrity as Dead Can Dance, and as such they are worth the time investment. A most enriching experience, live and on record. [Play It Again Sam]

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chromatics | kill for love

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Now, back to the Pacific Northwest, with Portland’s Chromatics. I was late in the game with them and their fellow Italians Do It Better label cohorts, but glad they came into view, as this album is quite an ambitious project that is really fun to let soak in. It’s album cover is what pulled me in, with a sense of nostalgia and a sense of the epic with what to me is a nod to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless album. And it is big, clocking in between 75-90 minutes depending on the version you get. It’s full of vision, yet very simple all the same. Anyone familiar with the soundtrack to Drive will have much to appreciate here, blending a mix of 80 throwbackery (new word) and a sense this music is of the future. It’s Blade Runner by way of John Carpenter’s Halloween with a dark moody pop dance sound; desolate, empty, rainswept city streets at 3am, moments of freedom and wide open spaces in a claustrophobic time. Not every song clicks on it’s own, but this is an album through and through, and listened as a whole, it’s quite a little treasure. Ambition on this level doesn’t always come together very well in the end, but the time and patience the creation of this album was given over the years pays off in high measure. The sound of a painting hung in a modern art museum come to life, Kill For Love is a gorgeous opus – quiet, yet grand in scale. Check out the song I’ve shared, ‘The Page’, for proof. Very highly recommended. [Italians Do It Better]

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purity ring | shrines

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Purity Ring’s debut album Shrines is a wondrous little thing. It took a few listens to see what was going on here, as at first it felt very standard; fairly simple electronic beats with a breathy woman singing over it. Been there before, right? But then all the different styles of songwriting going on crept in and revealed themselves, from downtempo, to dubstep, to hip-hop to the strangely yet perfectly named witch house sound (see the appropriately named Salem for an example of that genre), these crafty Canadians mix it all together into a perfect balance, and incredibly make all of it sound fresh. Hearing people call it “future-pop”, it couldn’t be more ample. All the while the beats are accompanied by these grotesque, vividly horrific, yet strangely romantic lyrics belted by this young woman with her sweet ethereal croon. She has a real sense of what a strong pop melody can do to a song, and really if you can make lyrics like “Get a little closer, let it fold / Cut open my sternum and pull / My little ribs around you” sound sweet and charming, you are pretty much on to something or already at the top of your game. Maybe it’s just her voice, but her inflection to me is a great example of real genuine talent, making the entire album glow, and glow brightly, and the song I’ve shared, ‘Belispeaks’, should exemplify this. With a small dose of patience, this album will unravel between your ears as the perfect pop record, one for a sane world finally devoid of the utter bland. [4AD]

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the birthday massacre | hide and seek

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Toronto’s The Birthday Massacre were introduced to me by a friend and old co-worker of mine a few years ago, and I think the reason I was intrigued was simply because of their name. It implied the starkest of contrasts, between dark and light, happiness and sadness, celebration and mourning, color vs black & white. It implied to me right away – without hearing a single note – they were some sort of pop version of goth music. And that’s become my summation of exactly what this band is, and they do this and other contrasts brilliantly. Just look at promo shots of the band – they are over the top ridiculous, outlandish, the absolute worst example of Hot Topic “fashion”. But then watch interviews with them, and they are humble, completely normal and clearly very intelligent and believing in their music very strongly. Their album titles, Walking With StrangersNothing and NowherePins and Needles, and now Hide and Seek; all contrasts – two sides to very coin. Then there is the music, again striking a balance so perfectly. When I first heard them it reminded me of early Madonna – meaning first album Madonna – pop music of the highest order in both vocals and melodies (nevermind the heavy use of synths), but fronting a sort-of heavy metal band. Some groups have attempted this in the past (the vomitous Evanescence comes to mind), but no one has perfected it like The Birthday Massacre. The songwriting is undeniably strong, the production always hits you right in the chest from the guitars and drums, and the synths make every song soar and glide beautifully. “Metal” guitars and keyboards have never melded so perfectly, especially when considering this is – in it’s essence – pure bubblegum pop rock. What brings it all together, undeniably, is leader singer Chibi. She is a good vocalist – not spectacular, but more than adequate and it fits the music very well. But her strong point is melody. Every single song on each of their albums has an incredibly memorable hook, a pop melody that just sticks in your head so strongly, it frankly amazes me trying to figure out where shes come up with them so consistently. She can easily rank herself up there with the likes of Madonna, and put clones like Lady Gaga to shame. The track I’ve shared here, ‘Down’, is the first track released from this album, and it’s a great example of what they do best and the talent she has as a very unconventional pop singer, from her ethereal vocals during the verse, to the guttural screech in the pre-chorus, to the gorgeous hook in the chorus. Riding out this style of music is not an easy task – and that makes her and the entire band a unique entity in music today, once you open your mind to their world of constantly shifting contrasts. This new album is a bit less heavy than previous releases (other than the track I’ve shared), and at times bordering on proper dance tunes, but as always it’s very beautiful, very fun, and I can’t recommend their entire catalog enough. [Metropolis Records]

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alpine | a is for alpine

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Hailing from Melbourne, Alpine are a big deal in their home country of Australia these days, and most rightly so. I first heard of their music through their video for single ‘Hands’, a hazy, nostalgic Sofia Coppola inspired clip involving young girls writhing around in their unmentionables in some sort of licking orgy. Yup, you read that right. Go ahead, take a break and check out the video and then come back. OK, you’re back, welcome! To balance the perviness, the song is pure pop; bright, addictive, polished, yet very disjointed and basic. They almost remind me of The xx in some weird way, using quiet and spaciousness, but in a loud, semi-rocking mid-tempo sort of way. Then the vocals of the two female leads only add to the interesting mix, sounding like a full choir of young women enjoying hits off a helium tank. Adventurous without being overbearing, it’s beauty lies in it’s simplicity, allowing the listener to make up their own mind if the music is rocking out, or perhaps taking it slow – it’s all in the ears of the beholder. No matter the pace you’re in, this album has the ability to fit right in to your day at any given moment, and although it may take a few listens to sink in, as it did for me, it’s well worth giving it the time it deserves. However, the song I’m sharing here, ‘Gasoline’, is probably my favorite song of the year, and won’t take any time to infect you. When I first heard it, it immediately took me back to my visits to both Australia and New Zealand. Sunny, fresh, clean, crisp and snapping like new fallen snow, it’s insanely catchy and full of bright smiles. A real gem of a pop song. Hopefully these guys and gals will take off here, they are certainly deserving of more attention. [Ivy League Records Australia]

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jessie ware | devotion

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The debut album from South London’s Jessie Ware came across my radar during the summer via the great music site The Line of Best Fit. Within weeks it was being hailed by Pitchfork and getting nominated in her home country for the prestigious 2012 Mercury Prize, and with good reason. I suppose Ware could be described as a bit of a modern day Sade, but a slightly grittier, even harder edged and more beat oriented Sade, comparatively. When it comes to R&B, there’s not a lot that speaks to me. So much of it is good without question, but for whatever reason I’ve never been able to connect with a lot of it. The moment I heard this woman’s voice however, I was converted, and then I heard the full album and it just hit all my soft spots. It’s cinematic, it’s smoky, it’s quietly sophisticated, repetitious, down-tempo, and utterly gorgeous from beginning to end, with her soulful voice matching the sheer etherealness of the music with such ease and grace. This is the kind of music I envision artists like Beyonce and Rhianna making if they focused less on reaching the top of the charts and hitting their sales targets, and more on the music itself. Deep down those artists can do it, but seem to aim more for quantity over quality. Ware on the other hand oozes class and artistic integrity with the most gorgeous of voices from the first note to the last beat. One moment elegantly riding a bass heavy beat on ‘No To Love’ (the song I’ve shared here), the next belting it out like only the greatest sirens of our past could on ‘Night Light’, and all the while keeping it forward thinking, futuristic and interesting in very turn. Even if R&B and hip-hop isn’t your thing, there’s something here for everyone to appreciate. This album is not to be missed, a real bewitching piece of work. [PMR / Island Records UK]

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diiv | oshin

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Diiv’s debut album, Oshin, is lovely, and lovely, and then a little bit lovely as well. Hailing from Brooklyn, they named the band after the Nirvana song ‘Dive’, and when reading about these guys I see mentioned often that they’re apparently influenced by them quite a lot. I’m not sure if they said they have been, but if it’s music critics saying it, I’m really not hearing it. I may be seeing it, however. In most of the press photos and video clips I’ve seen of them, they have a scraggly, couldn’t be bothered, grunge-y Seattle look going on while playing in dirty graffitied basements with beer cans and cups scattered about. It’s all such a juxtaposition from the music they make, which is truly and completely gorgeous. It has all the sounds that prick up my ears; a driving, repetitive almost krautrock groove, heavily reverbed and echoed guitars, and vocals that are added more as an instrument or effect rather than a soapbox for bad lyrics (check out the song ‘Follow’ that I’ve shared). Of course the lyrics could be bad, but who can tell, really? What makes them stand out above the rest are a few things. First the willingness to be instrumental. So much of the album reminds me of the old 4AD band Dif Juz not only in their sound, but being open to just letting the music speak for itself in all it’s jangled beauty. Second, the length of the songs and the album as a whole. A lot of times bands that go for this sound have something, well, cinematic in their heart. There’s something about this particular style that feels theatrical and epic in scale, and bands tend to stretch songs for well over the running time of a normal pop structure, and that’s all good and fine and I personally love it, but the short get-to-the-point vibe of these songs is another reason why this album stands out for me. The songs are kept short – on average about 3 minutes – and thusly it makes the appeal of coming back to this album repeatedly ever so stronger. Lastly, there’s an element here that I can only just call “adult”, and just plain effervescent. There is a mood in their songwriting that reminds me so much of The Radio Dept. – especially their last album Clinging To A Scheme (which topped my 2010 albums list). I don’t know how to explain it, but there is a humility in their music that is very admirable, especially at their age. This one’s a gorgeous, rockin’ little jewel. [Captured Tracks]

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ice choir | afar

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Ice Choir is the latest project from Kurt Feldman who previously could be found shredding his axe (well, sort of) in bands like The Pains of Being Pure At Heart and The Depreciation Guild. While TPOBPAH were mostly nostalgic for the 90’s, running the gamut from Pale Saints to Smashing Pumpkins over the time of their various releases, Ice Choir is unashamedly 80’s. And I don’t say 80’s lightly, as I have not heard an album by really any of these 80’s-minded artists (of which I am a big fan supporter of) that nailed the sound of that era so perfectly. Most of those artists take influence, and apply it somehow to their own songwriting skills, utilizing whatever their strengths are to the sound and vibe of the time. Here, Ice Choir have decided full on to make an album that sounded like it was recorded and released in 1984. Luckily Feldman’s skills are up to the task, as there is no doubt in my mind if this album was released back then it would have been a tremendous hit. Forget the Pointer Sisters, films like Beverly Hills Cop would have taken at least two of these tracks and made them Axel Foley’s soundtrack as he patrolled the City of Angels. It feels as if this album was recorded, placed in a time capsule, and it’s now been unearthed nearly 30 years later. The music may not be everyone’s cup of tea (those crazy few who don’t appreciate the brilliance of 80’s music that influences artists today more strongly than ever), but it’s an extremely adept album. The production is gorgeously polished, Feldman’s vocals and delivery are heavenly and understanding of the time, the beats (which I think 80’s music doesn’t get enough credit for) are fantastic, and the melodies are insanely irresistible. Afar is a lush, new-wave pop gem in the vein of Scritti Politti, The Lightning Seeds, Spandau Ballet, Johnny Hates Jazz and Tears For Fears, amongst many others, and Feldman’s seriousness for the style makes this a rewarding listen that I’ve been going back to over and over again. The track I’ve chosen to share, ‘A Vision of Hell, 1996’, should showcase that quite adeptly. [Underwater Peoples]

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dead skeletons | dead magick

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If there was such a thing as hell, and such a thing as a little red creature with horns and a pitchfork that ruled such a place, but he/she/it had given up on their quest for destroying life and everything that is good in the universe, became a hippie, and now just wanted to party like it was 1666, this would be their soundtrack. Icelandic band Dead Skeletons are an enigma of sorts. Releasing videos here and there during their origins as a one off art project, they let the music and visuals speak for themselves while keeping their own identities hidden and obscured. Of late they have been coming out of the woodwork, performing live, granting interviews to anyone that might happen to be interested. The mystique of who they are fit in well with their sound. I first heard of them via an email I received from one of a few Icelandic websites I subscribe to which recommended some of the best Icelandic music of the past year. Song after song and I lost more and more interest, but stuck with it anyway hoping something would stick out. And then the lead off track from this album played, ‘Dead Mantra’, and it was unlike anything I had heard before. There were definitely reference points. The swirly, otherworldly space drone of Spiritualized. A gothic, psychedelic sort of rockabilly. Tribal drums, ghostly vocals floating around guitars heavily awash in reverb. Their music is a creepy, cinematic, groove-filled soundtrack for a trip through the darkest of forests in search of a haunted house party. Yes, I just said “a creepy, cinematic, groove-filled soundtrack for a trip through the darkest of forests in search of a haunted house party.” And THEN, it’s also mystical, it’s primal, and yet despite all of the dark imagery and moods, it’s also incredibly uplifting. Living by their own mantra of “He who fears death can not enjoy life” – inspired by a band member who has lived with HIV for the majority of their life – this album somehow brims with such life and optimism, and yes, hope. There are so many wonderful emotions to experience from this album. From complete beauty to utter cheese, from darkness to light, and to what could only be called a happy despair. It’s dark, incredibly fun, and well, a hell of a party for the end of days. The song I’ve shared, ‘When the Sun Comes Up’, should portray the mood of this album just perfectly. [A Records]

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beach house | bloom

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Baltimore’s Beach House released their second album, Teen Dream, two years ago, and it was an enjoyable little affair. But there was something missing to it that I could never quite figure out. I’m not sure if it was the melodies that just never connected with me, but mostly it felt like there was never a coherent mood that made the entire thing gel. Now on Bloom, their third album, little has changed in their sound. So much so that this album can be a difficult collection to digest upon first listens as it’s a a bit of a struggle trying to figure out how they have progressed from the last album. A few of the songs completely stand out, but as a whole, at first, it’s hard to tell. But like most albums (and how many times can I possibly say this?), with time and patience, it crystalizes, to the point that Bloom feels like to me the sound and the level of craftsmanship they have always been trying to achieve. The sound is the same, but the vibe is refined and the songwriting is vastly improved. Just listen to the song I’ve shared here, ‘Lazuli’, an incredibly gorgeous and dare I say romantic track. Like a lot of the album, it’s drenched in this 70’s easy listening mixed with Cocteau Twins dream-pop sound (and no I am NOT referring to the vocals who couldn’t be further apart in style), with a beautiful refrain at the song’s closure (“Like no other you can’t be replaced”) that easily makes it one of my top tracks of the year. It’s a high bar to follow up with, but like the finest of wines (or cheese – like me!), each track ages in the most sublime way possible. It’s lush, it’s luminous, glowing with the most genuine of vocalists, and above all every note feels sincere. On tracks like the closer ‘Irene’, the sound of nostalgia jumps out to you, as if the memories in your fading pile of polaroids come to life, rekindling a more innocent time with friends and family that felt so far out of reach as time has gone by. They’re wonderful feelings to conjure up, and Beach House do it so naturally and with such class and ease. Truly majestic. [Sub Pop]

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theme park | wax e.p.

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London’s Theme Park are one of England’s latest buzz bands, but unlike most of them that seem to wet the knickers of the entire staff of New Melody Express, in my view these guys actually have “the goods”. Their name alone is what grabbed me, conveying bright colors, sunny days, innocent and carefree times, the pure joy and simplicity of summer. Luckily their sound and the band themselves meet the level of preconceptions. Reading and watching interviews with these very young lads, they come across as every parents ideal child. Happy, humble, kind. And their music matches the image. It’s all very upbeat, refreshing and colorful like sno-cones and cotton candy. It’s sweet indeed, and the music covers every base, from funky Talking Heads bass lines to Caribbean steelpan. It’s beach music, it’s the soundtrack to your backback trip throughout Europe, it’s your cruise ship lounging music – no matter how you see it, it’s the sound of VACATION – buoyant, clever, vibrant, and really if it doesn’t somehow put a smile on your face, you may need to have your vital signs checked. The song I’ve shared, ‘A Mountain We Love’, is a great example of this vibe they’ve successfully conveyed on this EP. So far this is the only official release here in the States, but with a full length scheduled for release in the UK in January, the promise of this band is very high indeed. With a future so bright, they very well may need to wear shades. Pfft. [Transgressive Records]

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onuinu | mirror gazer

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It’s certainly fitting considering my first trip to the Pacific Northwest this year, and my resulting obsession with all things Portland, that two of my favorite albums this year are by musicians from the City of Roses, but really it is simply a coincidence. Of course I learned of this artist, Onuinu, and his very fun debut album Mirror Gazer, because I purposefully searched out new Portland bands after my trip, but I digress. His music reminds me a bit of Toro Y Moi’s first two albums, taking the somewhat hazy, bedroom recording quality of Causers of This and combining it with the few quality tracks of his followup Underneath the Pine in all their funky, dance-inducing glory. There is a strong 70’s spacey sort of psychedelic disco vibe going on here as well, sometimes making me feel like I’m listening to that massive Disco Discharge series that was introduced to me by a close friend earlier this year – but ultimately this album is rooted ever so firmly in today’s (or really, yesterday’s?) “chillwave” sound, house music and even a nod to artists such as Stevie Wonder on tracks like ‘Last Word’ and Funkadelic on ‘Happy Home’. Those big chunky beats, as evidenced by the track I’ve shared here called ‘A Step In The Right Direction’, should illustrate where I’m coming from. And luckily this album is short, clocking in at 38 minutes, and one of the tracks, ‘Ice Palace’, can be skipped all together as it’s a meandering mess of electronic squiggles and ideas that just makes no sense at all to the average listener. The majority of the album is very strong however, and because of it’s short length and the fun vibe of it all, it makes you hit replay as soon as it’s over. Equally satisfying as both a disco-pop album, and a headphones-at-full-blast calm-yourself-the-hell-down kind of experience, this one’s a real winner. PDX! [Bladen County/Bad Cop Bad Cop]

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trust | trst

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There must be something in the public water that nourishes our friends north of the border. Like-minded and fellow Torontonians The Birthday Massacre have been highly successful in adding a new dimension to today’s gothic scene (see above), and now newcomers Trust have added their own refreshing take to the genre by unleashing their debut album Trst (yes, that’s Trust, sans the U). My assumption is that it’s a bit hard to make something fresh out of something as stale as this genre. Gothic music has been around for a long time now in many facets, and has been stretched far thinner than anyone could have imagined. It’s most certainly always perfectly dark, brooding, foreboding, even depressingly romantic, but these moods can really only go so far and usually try the patience of the average listener. Trust are most certainly gothic, from the album cover to press shots, there’s no mistaking where their hearts lie. But what they bring to the mix is a strong desire to dance. Goth music has always been quite danceable of course. From Joy Division to The Sisters of Mercy, the beats have always been there, but it’s always been a matter of your sensibilities and whether or not the music speaks to you in ways that you can look past the dark nature of it all. Trst asks this of you as well, but without the subtlety. The beats aren’t lying deep in a cobwebbed cave waiting for you to connect with them, they are shoved in your face and demanding you get your pale, pasty, black cape wearing ass off the floor of that opium den and show everyone what you’re made of. The track I’ve shared here, ‘Gloryhole’, is a perfect example of that. The synths build and build, the spectral industrial beats throbbing, the gorgeous moonlit chorus – it makes you wonder how a mood and a vibe so macabre (re: vocals that sound like the meandering gibberish of a serial killer) could be so much fun. This entire album is the sound of leaving your apartment at 2am – to START the night – on a crisp Autumn evening, knowing that where you’re headed is going to be dark, dirty, scary, and wrong in every way possible … and hoping it never ever ends. Fantastic. [Arts & Crafts]

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