Monday, January 28, 2013

Wild Reeds

In Wild Reeds, director André Téchiné dramatizes the moment right on the cusp between adolescence and adulthood, right at the moment when teens are struggling to define themselves, to cope with burgeoning sexual desires and decide what they want from life, where they're heading and what they'll be doing in the future. The film sets this awakening against the backdrop of the Algerian War, as so many French films have, juxtaposing the passage into adulthood with the loss of innocence represented by the violence and political turmoil of Algeria.

Téchiné renders this story with a wan and somewhat faded color palette, like an old photograph, worn and frayed by the nostalgia accrued in the decades between this 1962 summer and the film's production. Téchiné himself would have been 19 in the year the film is set, suggesting that he's drawing on his own experiences, his own memories of the discomfiting intimacy between his own adolescence and the background of war and confusion against which it occurred.

The film is elegant and delicate, the camera gently tracking around the quartet of teenagers at the story's core. There's François (Gaël Morel), who's starting to realize that he's gay, nursing an intense desire for his schoolmate Serge (Stéphane Rideau). François is also the platonic kind-of boyfriend of Maïté (Élodie Bouchez); they've been friends since childhood and are thought of as though they're dating even though nothing has ever happened between them. This neat triangle — Serge desires Maïté, who says she doesn't care about François' sudden realizations about himself, even though she's clearly shocked — is complicated by the presence of Henri (Frédéric Gorny), an arrogant and elitist youth who's immersed in the news from Algeria, where he lived until just recently.

Algeria and the politics surrounding it haunt the film, and political convictions are one of the things that these young people must come to grips with as they try to decide who they are. Henri is a far-right partisan of the French nationalist terrorist group the O.A.S., whose activities are mentioned frequently on the radio news reports that Henri's always listening to. Maïté, like her mother (Michèle Moretti), is a Communist, though one senses that she doesn't share her mother's absolutist conviction in the cause. Maïté's mother, a schoolteacher, is such a partisan that she hands out grades in her English class based on the political ideas expressed in papers, and there are references to Maïté's father leaving them because she was immersed in her cause to the exclusion of all else.

The film's dominant composition is the two-shot, as the young people pair off into different couplings, different combinations, as though experimenting to see what works. Téchiné captures them in intimate two-shots, their faces overlapping and close together, electric tension suspended in the scant space between them, their uncertainty and confusion passing between them in the glances they give each other, the hesitant intimacy of their dawning desires. For most of the film, Téchiné never even brings all of the characters together, restricting them to these alternating pairs and quasi-couples. Occasionally, Henri tries to horn in on the furtive intimacy between Serge and François, but not until the very end of the film do all the characters come together, first as a cheerful threesome that recalls Band of Outsiders or Jules and Jim, and then as a full quartet — though they quickly pair off again before the finale suggests that they're all heading in separate directions anyway.

The film is all about the contrasts and resonances between their fresh young faces. Serge, befriending François, tells him that they'll go well together because they're such different "types," and indeed they are, François delicate and boyish in contrast to the broad, tanned working class face of the farmer Serge. The sensuality between them is enhanced by the differences in their types, which is a way of saying the differences in their backgrounds, the differences in their economic class — and thus the differences in their likely futures, as Serge ultimately decides that all he wants is to stay on his family's farm, while François seems bound to graduate and head off to more intellectual pursuits.

This uncertainty about the future is what makes the film so poignant, so gently moving. It's a touching, emotionally complex film with a real sensitivity to nuance: in one scene, the confused François pays a visit to the only gay man he knows, the owner of the town's shoe store, and though the man seems uncomfortable talking about his sexuality and can't help François, Téchiné grants the man a parting closeup that is searing in its directness, capturing the expression of yearning, confusion, and recognition on his face as he watches François walk away. That shot makes it clear that the man desperately wants or needs to talk to someone, but can't find the words any more than François can.

Téchiné treats his themes with delicacy and grace, never forcing an epiphany or trying too hard to resolve the ambiguity of these relationships. Instead, the film is warm and sensuous, capturing with precision and understated emotion the time in life when everything seems hazy, when political convictions and sexual desires and ambitions about life and love and work are all up in the air, and anything might still be possible. The film, though, is about the closing of those horizons, the narrowing down of all possibilities to those few that seem appealing and likely.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Just Pals

Just Pals is a warm, pleasant, low-key early silent from John Ford, a simple and rather loose film about a town bum and the young rail-riding kid who he befriends. Bim (Buck Jones) is a layabout, reviled all around town as a good-for-nothing bum who will never trouble himself to do a bit of work that he doesn't have to do. In one nice shot early on, Ford shows Bim lounging around in a hayloft while, in the deep focus background, laborers work hard down below. Bim shouts out to them, in a title card, that even just watching them work is too much work for him, and that sums up his character pretty well. But his restlessness, shifting around trying to get comfortable after seeing the workers, suggests that maybe he isn't as content with his shiftless reputation and laziness as he tries to pretend he is.

Bim soon makes friends with a young kid named Bill (George Stone), who, like most other kids and no adults, instantly likes the laidback Bim. They have a warm friendship that Ford depicts in a few scenes — most humorously, a great scene when Bim tries to give the resisting kid a bath by dangling him from a barn rafter with a rope tied around his midsection — before the film ambles on to something else. The plot's surprisingly overstuffed for a film that's not even an hour long, and the second half builds much of the action around a crooked accountant (William Buckley) who gets his sweet schoolteacher girlfriend Mary (Helen Ferguson) in trouble by "borrowing" money from her. The film also crams in a suicide attempt, a bank robbery, a child kidnapping, a lynch mob, and some frenzied action scenes.

This means that the film switches tones every five or ten minutes, sometimes pitched as a light humanist comedy (in tone, anyway; there aren't many actual jokes), sometimes as a Western actioner with Bim trying to foil a gang of bank robbers, sometimes as a melodrama with the schoolteacher suffering for the crimes of her no-good boyfriend and Bim trying to save her from harm. The one throughline is the very Fordian Western theme that the lazy bum turns out to be a noble, decent man while the seemingly sophisticated businessman is actually a crooked scoundrel who reveals his true colors in the finale. It's a version of the noble-country-versus-corrupt-city dichotomy of many old-school Westerns — Ford's own Bucking Broadway included — even if here all the characters belong, geographically if not spiritually, to the country.

There are some excellent scenes along the way, too. In one scene, seemingly disconnected from the rest of the narrative, a young boy is supposed to throw a bag full of kittens into the river, but he can't go through with it, and he just dumps the cats out in the grass instead. Mary looks on in horror, instinctively turning her face away and covering her mouth, and in the next scene the town is abuzz because she's thrown herself in the river, distraught over the scandal in which she's stuck. The connection between the kid's act of mercy and Mary's suicide attempt is ambiguous but very resonant.

Later, during the bank robbery, Ford employs Griffith-like crosscutting to enhance the building tension as the robbers blow the vault, Bim races to save the day, and in the church, the rest of the townsfolk are totally oblivious. That includes the clueless sheriff (Duke R. Lee), the broadest comic caricature here, a gnarly old man who, when the collection box comes around in church, flashes his badge as though that exempts him from donating. At the very end of the film, he disrupts the romanticism of the finale with an almost surreal flourish when he pokes his head out of a hole in a tree like a cartoon animal.

This is a rather strange little film, and a very enjoyable one as well. Its arc of redemption is predictable, but still poignant, and Jones' heartfelt performance makes it especially easy to feel the heartbreaking regret that the seemingly easygoing Bim actually feels about his his lowly place within this town. And the film is just packed with so much, offering some lush melodrama one moment, a gang of thieves riding into town, kicking up dust, the next. Throughout his career, Ford would always combine genres and tones like this, often more smoothly than here, but Just Pals already shows the director deftly juggling comedy and drama, equally interested in tugging heartstrings and delivering brawling pile-ups and gunfights.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Salvation Hunters

Josef von Sternberg's debut film, The Salvation Hunters, immediately gained him a reputation as a filmmaker worth watching and catapulted him to a position in Hollywood, even though this hour-long experimental project, shot by von Sternberg himself on a low budget in real locations, was anything but commercial. Purely by luck, the film got the attention of stars Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and the young filmmaker would soon become a Hollywood director. In this debut, the themes and aesthetics that would weave throughout the remainder of von Sternberg's career are already readily apparent in nascent form. The opening scenes, with various losers and lost souls aimlessly hanging around on the docks, would be echoed in the later classic The Docks of New York, and more generally the moody, melancholy atmosphere of this film proves that the director's aesthetic was fairly well-formed right from the beginning of his career.

The film is a loose, nearly plotless study of a trio of outcasts who number among "the derelicts of the earth," to whom von Sternberg dedicates the film in the text-heavy introduction. The film announces right up front that it's not about narrative but about attempting to photograph "a thought," and its minimal story concerns broadly defined types rather than specific characters, because what von Sternberg is really exploring is not a story happening to particular people but a universal state of being, a universal set of emotions. The characters aren't even named, they're just identified as a boy (George K. Arthur), a girl (Georgia Hale), and a child (Bruce Guerin), who together form a de facto family, united in their loneliness and their downtrodden existence. They're miserable and alone at the docks, surrounded by mud and garbage — von Sternberg captures the atmosphere of the docks so well, in closeups of rotting fish and junk barges, that one can practically smell it — so they decide to go to the city, but find that things are no better there.

The film's story is minimal, but its photography is gorgeous and haunting, and even in this first amateur work, it's steeped in von Sternberg's raw stylized emotionalism. Despite this, it seems obvious that the inexperienced young filmmaker was not yet confident enough in his visuals to let them drive the film, and the film is saddled with overbearing, pompous, self-consciously literary text scattered throughout its copious title cards. The writing drags the film down, explicitly identifying visual symbols — at one point, a title spells out that a mud-dredging claw was "a symbol of the boy's faith... that all mud could be brought up into the sun" — and hammering home the themes without the subtlety and ambiguity that would always characterize von Sternberg's subsequent films. It's a mark of insecurity; von Sternberg clearly knew what he wanted to say in this very personal debut, and though he says it very well in pure visual terms, he seemingly wanted to make sure that his message was not missed. It's unfortunate, and the constant barrage of text breaks up the flow of the images, marring the visual poetry.

This problematic wordiness aside, The Salvation Hunters is evocative and potent, and it's easy to see why it was such a hit with film artists like Chaplin and Fairbanks, if not with general audiences. Chaplin was so impressed by the film that not only did he help bring von Sternberg to Hollywood, but he immediately cast Georgia Hale as the bad girl love interest in his own masterpiece The Gold Rush, made later the same year. The Salvation Hunters itself has hints of Chaplin's influence on von Sternberg, especially in the scenes of sentimental comedy featuring the kid, a very Chaplinesque type whose sporadic antics infuse the film with an energy that's certainly not found in the downtrodden older leads.

Hale's performance, in particular, is intensely sad, her mouth permanently twisted into a frown, her eyes heavily lidded so that she seems to be staring at the world through thin slits, a cigarette lazily drooping from her lips — "good girls don't smoke," the boy tells her, taking her cigarette, and she promptly grabs it right back and resumes sullenly smoking. In one scene, she sees a dock bully get splashed with muck on a garbage barge, and she laughs for a moment before she suddenly seems to remember herself and forces her expression back to its sneering scowl. It's a focused performance of pure malice and depression, set off against Arthur's weak-willed everyman, who needs to overcome his cowardice and weakness and journey from "the mud" to "the sun."

The journey is blatantly symbolic, but what's interesting is that von Sternberg also grounds the film in a gritty, realistic depiction of the cruelties of the world. Though their story is couched abstractly in terms of "mud" and "sun," this downtrodden trio encounters all too real violence and corruption, with monstrous bullies who beat the kid and a slimy pimp who circles around the girl, trying to starve or seduce her into prostitution. That tension between expressionist, abstract symbolism and seedy realism would perhaps be more cleanly resolved in von Sternberg's later films, but here in its raw form it's still a potent combination. The Salvation Hunters is an excellent debut in general, still marked by the flaws and weaknesses that the director would smooth out with more confidence, but pictorially striking and wonderfully atmospheric.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

My Year In Culture, Part II: Music

Following Monday's 2012 in film list, here is my top 25 for the year in music. These lists are incomplete every year but it feels especially so this year, when I had less time than ever to listen to all the music I wanted to hear. Still, here are 25 great albums from 2012.

1. Lil B | God's Father (Based World)
2012 was the year of Lil B. At least for me it was. There was no artist I listened to more this year, and no artist who excited, baffled and provoked me so consistently. The young rapper first caught my attention last year, with I'm Gay (I'm Happy), a mixtape that turned heads with its controversy-baiting promotion but maintained interest with a cohesive string of moody, introspective songs that had little to do with that flamboyant title. That dichotomy is a good indication of what's in store with Lil B: irresolvable tension between earnest positivity, crass rap clichés, and aggressive confrontation of those same clichés. From album to album or song to song, Lil B might be a wide-eyed nature-lover, a rude sex-obsessed misogynist, a philosopher of positivity, a gangsta, or a loony surrealist who insists that he looks like Ellen Degeneres, Miley Cyrus and Bill Clinton. There's little trace of the goofy extremes of that latter mode on God's Father, but otherwise the many sides of B are well-represented here — and how could they not be, on a mixtape that stretches to 34 tracks, for nearly two full hours of based listening?

That's a lot of Lil B, but he's always been an artist who's as concerned with quantity as quality, and this year he's been especially active, releasing 17 mixtapes totaling over 21 hours of music — and that's not even counting an 855-song data dump that overlapped with previous releases but still contained over 8 hours of new and previously uncollected music. In that context, a two-hour mixtape isn't really excessive, especially since this one is remarkably consistent, packed with one great track after another. It's a two-hour album of nothing but highlights from a rapper who has often been characterized elsewhere by his scattershot inconsistency and lack of a filter.

Much of the album finds B in his most accessible and direct mode, delivering earnest philosophical musings and slice-of-life stories over cloud-rap ambience and soul samples, but what makes God's Father so great, what marks it out as the best Lil B release in a year packed with gems from the prolific rapper, is its ability to encompass so many of the different aspects of this complicated, fragmentary figure. As "Real Hip Hop 2012" makes clear with its sincere and well-realized Wu-Tang homage, Lil B is above all a dedicated historian of rap music, and he's able to absorb much of the genre's history and its multitude of conflicting sensibilities, making each of them his own and placing them side by side. Hence the naked aggression and nuttiness of "I Own Swag" — which jacks a David Banner beat and takes swipes at the older rapper, climaxing with the joyously exclaimed, "that's what you shoulda done on this beat, motherfucker!" — can share space with tracks like the lovely "Flowers Rise," which samples video game music, or nostalgic coming-up stories with glistening, silvery beats, like "Secrete Obsession" and "SF Mission Music." It's an expansive vision, one that refuses to commit to any one sound or set of concerns but, here at least, also never comes across as schizophrenic or ADD-afflicted. Lil B's massive output and barrage of Twitter/Facebook promotion suggests the fragmentation and increased speed of Internet culture, but musically, he's anything but blinded by the now. Instead, he's constantly looking forward to an imagined utopian future where everyone's "based," while musically namedropping everyone from Wu-Tang to Three 6 Mafia to Jay-Z, always keeping an eye on his forebears as well as his contemporaries.

Lil B had a great and very busy year; it would've been possible to fill the entire top 10 of this list with his albums and still have a few gems left over. In fact, in tribute to his amazing year, this list is followed by a Lil B-only top 10. Those other mixtapes are great, too, ranging from the 90s-style party rap of #1 Bitch to the schizoid eclecticism of White Flame to the nutty and purposefully dumb Task Force to the cloud-rap street tales of Glassface and the delightfully named Obama BasedGod. But it's God's Father I keep returning to as Lil B's finest accomplishment to date, the best possible summary of a figure who otherwise resists easy summary. The real genius of Lil B is in the sprawl, which means that it's better to listen to five or six or ten Lil B albums than one, but if one album can possibly be picked out of the overall patchwork of the hours and hours of music he's released this year, God's Father is the one.

2. Wreck and Reference | Youth [No Youth] (Flenser)
This remarkable duo's uniquely skewed approach to black metal first appeared on last year's grimy, Bandcamp-released Black Cassette, which cleverly combined digital-age cutting-edge with outdated technologies and a bleak, sullen sound awash in noise. With their second album, the duo have cleared away some of the murk — Black Cassette was purposefully muddied-up by transferring between digital and analog media — but maintained the bleak atmospherics. There are no guitars on either Wreck and Reference album, only drums and electronics, but they churn up their processed, distorted walls of samples and synth lines into monolithic riffs and strummed notes that resonate into the void. The music is intense and emotionally raw, with vocals alternating between melodic chanting — sometimes tweaked with electronics into splintered, high-pitched tones — and growly metal screaming. The drums provide a grounding in "real" metal playing, with rapid fills and constant shifts in tempo, while the layered electronics vacillate between creating industrial-metal drones and approximating guitar shredding. It's a powerful and unforgettable record that takes a decidedly non-traditional approach to metal orthodoxy, interspersing its more explosive moments with droney, moody passages, muttered monologues, and stretches of melodic singing that sound like religious exultations.

3. Swans | The Seer (Young God)
Michael Gira's return to the Swans, the seminal post-punk outfit he led until their late 90s breakup, has been one of the great musical pleasures of recent years. The reformed Swans have picked up right where they left off, crafting gloomy, epic drone-rock that's made to be played as loud as possible; music meant to overwhelm, to bludgeon, to pound the listener into a state of blissful, ecstatic immersion in which the music is everywhere, everything, impossible to escape. The band's triumphant return, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope To the Sky, was relatively straightforward, a set of thrashing, pummelling rock songs driven by the pulsing repetition of the drone and by Gira's alternately enraged and resigned baritone vocals. The Seer takes things much further, focusing on the droning, almost ritualistic aspects of the band's music. It's a huge, epic double-disc set, with songs that just keep building and building with no end in sight: the title track is a solid half-hour of relentless cyclical riffing with chanted vocals, and the second disc is dominated by two twenty-minute slabs of noisy catharsis. Gira has surrounded himself with likeminded guests, whose presence mainly adds to the communal ritual vibe given off by the music: Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker from Low chant along with Gira on opener "Lunacy," while elsewhere he's joined by his former collaborator Jarboe and his protégés Akron/Family. This is big music, obsessed with apocalypse, with creation and destruction, with violence and the occult.

4. Jason Lescalleet | Songs About Nothing (ErstSolo)
For his first proper solo album since 2006's intensely personal The Pilgrim, tape-loop sound artist Jason Lescalleet has crafted his finest statement yet, a double album that encompasses the full range of his music and his unique ideas about sound, influence, and sampling. It's a story of multiple reference points, musical touchstones that are miles apart in terms of sound, ideology, and scenes, and yet here are married within Lescalleet's expansive sound world. Lescalleet is drawing on Steve Albini's industrial/post-punk provocateurs Big Black — from whose 1987 disc Songs About Fucking Lescalleet has drawn this album's title, its clever cover, and its track lengths — as well as Depeche Mode and "You're No Good," Terry Riley's fantastic tape deconstruction of a Harvey Averne R&B tune. The first disc of Lescalleet's album is divided into thirteen consise, punchy tracks, the same number of songs as appeared on the LP version of Songs About Fucking. The music is comprised of sizzling high-pitched electronics, field recordings and snippets of voices conversing, and, notably, sampled guitar riffs that are looped and layered into massive walls of noise. It's Lescalleet's version of a punk album, although one where the guitars appear only sporadically and briefly, usually before being radically altered or swallowed up by hungry waves of electronic noise. The second disc, on the other hand, consists of a single 43-minute piece, and it's more abstract than the first, without the obvious guitar samples, consisting of lengthy drones and stretches of hushed near-silence in which a fire crackles and a train rumbles by. It's an album of punk followed by an album of high-art musique concrète composition, and it's on the latter disc that Lescalleet inserts some samples from the noisy second half of "You're No Good," electronic swoops the source of which will be obvious to anyone who's heard the Riley piece. The disc then closes with a slowed-down segment of Depeche Mode that's mostly allowed to stand on its own. The Riley insert is especially notable as something of a punk gesture, with Lescalleet dropping a piece of another composer's music into his own, distorting and manipulating sounds which were themselves the result of distorting and manipulating pop music. Lescalleet is completing the cycle, and by doing so, not only is he creating a work that is in itself beautiful, provocative and intense, but he's bridging the gap between the punky snarl of Albini and Big Black, the playful minimalism of Riley, and the downbeat pop of Averne and Depeche Mode. It's a complex and challenging record, its reference points clear but its real beauty deriving not from those sources and inspirations but from the ways in which Lescalleet builds his own ideas, his own statements, around and upon the music he's referencing.

5. Pedestrian Deposit | Kithless (Arbor)
Until 2006, Pedestrian Deposit was the solo noise project of Jon Borges, whose dense, intricate walls of harsh noise were some of the most blistering and powerful on the scene. But Borges took that sound as far as it would go, and when PD re-emerged after a hiatus in 2009, Borges had been joined by cellist Shannon Kennedy, and the new duo version of Pedestrian Deposit proceeded to craft an entirely new and exciting music very distinct from the abrasive noise of Borges' earlier work. On the duo's latest album, and their first on vinyl, this evolution has reached its peak. It's a gorgeous diptych on which the noise textures of Borges' early years have been all but entirely abraded away, replaced by the keening scrape of Kennedy's cello, at times entirely unaugmented, or else swallowed up and processed by electronics, warped into elongated drones. The album opens with mournful cello tones echoing into a void, with a faint suggestion of hissing static filling in the silences between notes. The cello is soon joined by small scraping and rustling noises, bits of close-mic'd noise that skitter around underfoot, worrying at the sweet, sad serenity of the strings. The music is aching and melancholy: "kithless" is an antiquated word for being without friends or family, kinless, and Borges and Kennedy assiduously evoke this loneliness and isolation through their music. At one point, the cello drones are supplanted by a long sequence of heavy breathing and sighing, an outgrowth of the duo's stage performances, in which Kennedy submerges herself in freezing cold water and records her shivery, whispery breath. That moment of raw emotion and physicality provides important context for the duo's music, which is now at its most subtle and minimalist but still contains a kernel of the intensity that once defined Borges' solo music.

6. Scott Walker | Bish Bosch (4AD)
Scott Walker's latest discharge is a wild and chaotic and fearlessly obscure album that follows 1995's Tilt and 2006's The Drift as the third installment in this one-time pop star's reinvention as a Brechtian avant-garde provocateur. Walker's last opus took over a decade to complete, while this one follows The Drift after a comparatively brief six-year span, and indeed it's a much looser and loopier album than either of its predecessors. It's apparent from early on that Walker's vicious sense of humor has come to the fore here, when on "Corps de Blah" the archly delivered line "the sphincter's tooting a tune" unleashes a chorus of actual farts, lovingly recorded and as carefully crafted as any of the more traditionally produced sounds Walker is working with here. The album's sound is eclectic and jarring. At times, Walker's baroque voice floats out of an eerie void, moaning and crooning, leaving pregnant pauses in which listeners can wrestle uncomfortably with his often-confrontational and puzzling lyrics. Elsewhere, there are bursts of pseudo-industrial rhythms, grating electronics, jazzy finger snaps, bleeting horns that recall the earlier fart sounds, big metal riffs that stutter along for a few moments before cutting off in favor of more silence or some orchestral bombast or, on "Phrasing," a few passages of sunny bossa nova. All of this and more is especially encapsulated on the album's mammoth centerpiece, the 22-minute "SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)." Here, Walker really stretches out, arranging bursts of frenzied noise around long stretches where his aching vocals float unaccompanied, delivering bizarrely unfunny jokes like "you're so fat/ when you wear a yellow raincoat/ people scream 'taxi'." There's a lot of nastiness here, with Walker often taking on the persona of a lousy insult comic, or else musing on death, decay, aging, nagging mothers, and ungrateful children. The album's lyrical darkness, encompassed in both elaborate mazes of imagery and direct statements of anger and hate, is matched by the alternating bombast and minimalism of Walker's arrangements. Even when the music verges on incomprehensibility, which it frequently does, there are moments of bleak beauty and striking verbal images that pull the listener irresistably into Walker's insular, outlandish world. This is a thrilling and unforgettable album; there's nothing else in music like a new Scott Walker album, nothing as daring, as unafraid to face ridicule and charges of pretension, as utterly strange and funny and scary and confounding.

7. Mount Eerie | Clear Moon/Ocean Roar (P.W. Elverum & Sun)
Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie has taken his time following up the explosive, black metal-inspired Wind's Poem — one of his very best albums — but the pair of albums he released this year have validated the three-year wait. Elverum hasn't entirely retreated from the moody metal drones and abrasive textures of Wind's Poem, which at the time represented the apotheosis of a direction the always-evolving songwriter had been moving in for several years. Instead, he's maintained the intensity and atmosphere of that music while largely toning down the distortion, and has subtly incorporated electronics as a new element in his ever-expanding palette. It's a music of subtleties, where every detail matters: when, on "Clear Moon," Elverum's voice is unexpectedly autotuned for a few bars, it's exhilarating and oddly beautiful, a moment of wonderful restraint with an electronic tool that's often slathered liberally over slick pop records. It's more than the novelty of finding such devices within the universe of Elverum's insular bedroom rock; it's the fact that Elverum has taken these electronic flourishes and incorporated them so thoroughly into his sound that the electronics, mostly manifested as bits of drum machine programming and subtle sound processing, feel like just another element in the landscape. The usual interstitial bits of noise that always appear on Elverum's albums have here been transformed into glistening, crystalline synth drones that conjure images of a frozen wilderness, the icy ground unbroken by footprints. Similar icy synths weave through songs like the lovely "Lone Bell," with its skittering undercurrent of drums and bold synthesized horn lines punctuating the beautiful melancholy of Elverum's vision. These records frequently recall ambient music, with Elverum's plaintive murmur barely making it above the droney electronics or the hazy metal riffs that have been slowed down and smeared into a fog of distortion. The overall impression of this music is indistinct, blurry, chilly, a music of arctic cold, the music of vapors arising from the snow in the morning sun. It's not as immediate as the best moments of Wind's Poem, especially on Ocean Roar, which is even hazier and moodier than Clear Moon, all shoegaze guitars and extended buildups to a release that never quite comes. This subtle music requires careful attention, and even then it keeps its sense of mystery very much intact.

8. Aesop Rock | Skelethon (Rhymesayers)
Aesop Rock kind of disappeared over the years. The Def Jux MC was big with backpackers and fans of twisty abstraction in the early years of the new millennium, the perfect time for his paranoid, frenzied aesthetic and, since I was in college when his classic Labor Days dropped, the perfect time for me in particular to get caught up in his dense, wordy mazes of rhyme. But he followed up Labor Days with the disappointing, largely self-produced Bazooka Tooth, and though subsequent albums were better, he quickly faded from view. Skelethon is his first full-length album since 2007, and it's a triumphant return to form. It's again self-produced, but Aesop's production has made a quantum leap from the busy but lifeless thump-thump-thump of Bazooka Tooth; this album's sound is intense and aggressive, with drums that leap and skitter crazily, shards of guitar winding between the breakneck beats, rubbery basslines with a funky propulsiveness. Finally, Aesop's music has caught up to his breathless lyrical delivery, and the result is exhilarating and exhausting. The huge drum sound drives forward some of the rapper's best rhymes ever, as he pours out a non-stop barrage of words, often overwhelming the listener with so many complex metaphors, obscure references and odd images that deciphering any meaning from this chaos seems like a lost cause. Gradually, though, meaning emerges, and the album's themes slowly become apparent: childhood rebellion, the importance of music as symbol and social signifier, and, especially, death. "ZZZ Top" spins out a tale of three different kids using music — Led Zep, Afrika Bambaataa, and Mexican-American punks the Zeros — as symbols of their developing identities. Later, "Racing Stripes" hilariously relates what seem to be childhood memories of kids rebelling with their haircuts, and "Grace" finds Aesop improbably taking on the persona of a mom trying to cajole and mock her son into eating his green beans. In the context of the album as a whole, this nostalgia for childhood's petty rebellions and uncertainty about identity seems like a response to the adult world's far more serious problems. In particular, Aesop seems haunted by the death of a friend, at one point wondering about the distinctly modern form of grieving that is obsessing over a dead friend's name and number in a cell phone. This thread reaches its apex on the fantastic "Crows 1," in which Aesop tries to force his own form of mourning onto his friend's death, refusing — through surrogate Kimya Dawson, who sings the morbid hook — to deal with a decaying body in a casket, preferring the more abstract treatment of ashes scattered in the ocean or under a tree. It's a potent and poignant album, with these kinds of emotional revelations hidden everywhere within the music's dense labyrinths of words and drums.

9. Liars | WIXIW (Mute)
Liars have always been a band who resisted easy pigeonholing or categorization. While they debuted with a couple of albums that were (perhaps too) comfortably slotted into the dance-punk revival of the early 2000s, since then they've evolved into a much stranger and more unsettling beast. If at first they seemed content to perform able repetitions of their post-punk forebears, they later evolved into one of the great experimental rock bands of the last decade, combining jittery aggression with tribal drums, vocal chants, moody ambiance, and unpredictable song structures. WIXIW continues this path of experimentation; sonically, it's the least characteristic Liars album, but because of that, it may just be the most characteristic of the band's inventive restlessness. Here, the trio's rock instrumentation is largely subsumed by electronic textures: droning atmospherics, bits and pieces of 80s-ish synth-pop, the glistening, crystalline ambient music of Brian Eno. Despite the radical stylistic shift, the band's character is very much intact, creating an overriding mood of dread and despair within these minimalist electronic structures. Some reference points are hard to escape — Tangerine Dream and other Krautrock electronic pioneers, Wire's 1980s reinvention as a gloomy synth-pop outfit, Radiohead circa Kid A — but the haunting quality of the music and the unsettling leaps from one track to the next belong wholly to the Liars. The title track is a perfect example, with Angus Andrew breathily intoning "I wish you were here with me" over a bed of driving percussion, the drums buried deep in the mix beneath a wheezing organ-like motif, its cyclical motion subverting the forward drive of those distant drums. It's as though the band has decided to sabotage the one element that had previously remained constant throughout all its various transformations, its emphasis on rhythm and drums. The drums remain primarily as a looping, subliminal pulse, felt more than heard, and the result is the loosest-sounding Liars album yet, despite its heavily worked-over electronics and layered compositions. It's gorgeous, sad, and sinister, and may just be their finest accomplishment yet.

10. Killer Mike | R.A.P. Music (Williams Street)
Killer Mike makes a breakthrough with the sharpest, most focused and intense statement of his career, a gritty and soulful album of high-octane rap, loaded with bold lyrical assaults and backed by the dense production of Def Jux founder El-P. The album's sound, courtesy of El-P, is dark and foreboding, noisy and mean, and Mike rises to the occasion with a fiery delivery and a lyrical focus on the politics of drugs, the ghetto, and race in America. The album's centerpiece is "Reagan," a paranoid polemic laced with snippets of Reagan's contradictory statements on the Iran Contra scandal. Mike's first verse castigates rappers, including himself, for glamorizing the thug lifestyle for the kids who listen to their music, then shifts gears to run through a series of political conspiracy theories, even taking aim at Obama for being just another "talking head speaking lies on teleprompter," and climaxing with the insinuation that Reagan was actually the Anti-Christ. It's bold, frenzied stuff, and Mike follows it up with the even more incendiary "Don't Die," which traces out a revenge fantasy against the kind of corrupt, racist cops who killed Black Panther Fred Hampton. There's more nuance in the haunting, melancholy "Anywhere But Here," which compares white-run New York with its billionaire mayor to black-run Atlanta and concludes that neither city is really addressing the pervasive problems of poverty and education. R.A.P. Music ends with the gorgeous title track, which compares rap to religious music — Mike clearly cares very deeply about his music, its meaning and its impact, and that seriousness is evident throughout this album. This is overtly polemical music of the kind that isn't fashionable anymore, but which was one of the foundations of rap's history. Mike, along with El-P, draws on the example of Public Enemy and N.W.A. to deliver an intense, confrontational record bursting with anger, vitality, and raw emotion.

11. Lower Plenty | Hard Rubbish (Easter Bilby/Special Award)
Something of a supergroup of Australian garage rockers, this trio's ramshackle lo-fi folk is very distant from the churning fuzz of the bands (like UV Race and Total Control) from which they emerged. Tentative acoustic guitars are backed by plodding drums that sound like they're being played from another room, with bits of ambience and field recordings drifting in and out of the mix as though onlookers are lazily meandering through the recording space, oblivious to the band. All three band members sing, their voices sometimes alternating for verses or whole songs, sometimes overlaying one another in unstudied pileups as though they're all just huddled around a campfire, tunelessly crooning along to the rudimentary strumming and the lazy beats. The monotone moans of Al Montfort and Jensen Thjung contrast sharply against Sarah Heyward's slightly sweeter tones. When electric guitar appears, as it does on "Dirty Flowers," it hardly seems to be playing notes at all, just laying down a current of rumbling distortion against which Heyward's lilting couplets struggle to stay afloat. The songs are simple and rough, with a purity and a sense of place that makes them especially evocative — songs like the lovely "Nullarbor" are intimately rooted in Australian geography, and even for those not familiar with the places named, the images of stolen cars, long-distance drives and old flings are concrete and potent. This is stripped-down, raw music, its emotions largely understated and resigned — a sigh rather than a scream — but extremely powerful in its restraint and simplicity.

12. Dirty Projectors | Swing Lo Magellan (Domino)
Conventional wisdom about this album is that, now that Dirty Projectors frontman and sole constant Dave Longstreth has stripped down his music to a relatively accessible, minimalist pop foundation, without as many of the wild structural detours and eccentrically elaborate arrangements of previous albums, he's finally "emotional." That's nonsense, not because Swing Lo Magellan isn't an emotionally affecting record, but because this isn't a new quality in Longstreth's music; for all the off-beat time signatures and twisty song structures that have often characterized the Dirty Projectors, a core of raw feeling has always remained at the center of their music, embodied by Longstreth's cracking, straining voice and the smoother female voices with which he offsets his own oddball croon. Here, those voices carry even more of the burden than ever before, because Swing Lo Magellan is a comparatively simple album, musically; the explosive guitars have largely been calmed, and the songs are far more direct than ever before, laying bare the slightly warped but very appealing pop sensibility that has always driven even the band's strangest music. On "About To Die," Longstreth sings a mildly morbid love ballad over plucked, rubbery guitars, drums that sound like bouncing tennis balls, and the cooing hums of Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. This is immediately followed by "Gun Has No Trigger," which sounds like a typical Dirty Projectors song hollowed out, stripped down to a steady hip-hop beat and vaguely sinister background humming as Longstreth belts out a melancholy hymn about failure and empty rebellion. Much of the album's effect comes from the grit in Longstreth's voice, the way he often seems to be straining, audibly taking breaths to prepare for a particularly intense passage, his voice filling with emotion on the evocative "Just From Chevron," which bookends Longstreth's fiery middle section with calmer balladry from the women in the group. This album may represent a more accessible and direct side of this band, especially on the folksy title track and the lovely closer "Irresponsible Tune," but in its emotional intensity and its emphasis on vocal virtuosity, Swing Lo Magellan is very much building on the band's past work while consciously refusing to simply repeat their past successes.

13. Kevin Drumm | Relief (Mego)
In recent years, at least on his more high-profile works, Chicago noise legend Kevin Drumm has tended more towards synthesizer drones and slow, creeping ambience, as epitomized by the languid Imperial Horizon and Imperial Distortion. His newest LP, Relief, doesn't entirely abandon this direction, but integrates it into a noisy, churning palette that recalls Sheer Hellish Miasma — which was, perhaps not coincidentally, Drumm's last album on Mego and one of the towering landmarks of the last decade in noise. On Relief, the drones of the "Imperial" albums are retained as stable centers amidst the roiling noise that surrounds them. There's a throughline of low-key, melodic synthesizer music running through the album, barely heard through the fog of static and screeching high-frequency tones. This submerged melodicism gives the album a vaguely spiritual aura, as the churchy, haunting synth tones emerge from the murk and grime as almost a subliminal presence, a subtle suggestion of order and beauty within a generally cold and cruel world. The music is not nearly as fierce as Miasma, and the catharsis isn't as intense; Relief is more deliberate, a harsh but carefully modulated record on which its noisy grit is always balanced by the underlying loveliness of those tranquil melodies. It's the work of a musician who's consolidating all of his strengths in one place, incorporating his recent experimentation with the successes of his earlier years, recalling all of this history without seeming like he's merely repeating himself.

14. Julia Holter | Ekstasis (Rvng Intl.)
On Tragedy, Julia Holter's debut full-length from last year, a little slice of vocoder-driven synth-pop called "Goddess Eyes" seemed just slightly out-of-place amidst that record's eclectic mix of neo-classical experimentation, noisy electronics, field recordings and occasional bursts of avant-pop songs. On Ekstasis, two more versions of "Goddess Eyes" make an appearance, but here the whole record seems to have been structured around them. Holter's tamed the schizophrenic sprawl of her debut and honed in on a single direction out of the multitude she'd explored over the course of her first album. At first, this seems like a step back — the mad ambition and creative splintering of Tragedy was a big part of its appeal — but Ekstasis is just a very different type of record, and in its own way might even be better than its predecessor. Holter's voice here croons and echoes as if in a cathedral, set against a backdrop of gorgeous synthesizer pieces that are by turns bright and burbling, moody and low-key, dense and foreboding. This is a set of remarkable synth-pop tunes, crafted with not a trace of obvious nostalgia; unlike so much of today's knowingly retro synthesizer-driven music, this doesn't seem to be calling out the music of the past so much as crafting a thoroughly modern take on a form that is generally linked with a particular time — and those who want to evoke that time. Holter harmonizes with her own disembodied and echoing voice, while layering synth motifs that are simple in form but deeply resonant in their emotions. In this context, "Goddess Eyes" no longer feels like one more diversion on an album defined by its eclecticism. Here, the song's haunting romanticism and glistening melodies are perfectly suited to the album's uniform mood of slightly distanced, icily perfect beauty.

15. Voder Deth Squad | II (SicSic)
The second tape from Jeremy Kelly and M. Geddes Gengras is every bit as good as their first, creating the same vibe of spacey, vaguely sinister ambient synthesizer music. This is real UFO music, a perfect soundtrack for long trips through wormholes or staring at the flashing lights from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music slowly, patiently unfurls itself across each of these side-long twenty-minute pieces, with languid synth melodies reverberating through the vacuum. The duo leave plenty of space; the tape is never really silent but the synth lines are allowed to naturally decay, hinting at the void that might come roaring in if the music ever entirely trailed off. Instead, the burbling, pulsing electronics inevitably cycle right back up again before that can ever happen, and these central lines are surrounded by swirling alien noises and bleeping. The effect is hypnotic and haunting, as the music gradually builds from a sparse and grim foundation to lush layers of melody and back again.

16. Biota | Cape Flyaway (ReR)
The latest album from this long-running experimental collective arrives five years after their last effort, which found the group settling a bit too comfortably into their by-now familiar heavily processed textural soup, in which fragments of too many instruments to name are swirled together into a dense pastiche of ethnic musics, fractured pop, folk, progressive rock, and droney electronics. This time around, all the familiar Biota elements are still in place, but the group has conceived a set of songs structured around the influence of English folk, and the subtle changes this triggers in their music are palpable and very welcome. Singer Kristianne Gale returns from the last Biota album (breaking a streak of guest vocalists sticking around for only one album ever since the band started incorporating vocals in the mid-90s) and contributes lilting, haunting ballads that evoke and sometimes quote from classic English folk tunes. Her sad, high tones appear sporadically throughout the album, acting as its central presence even when she hangs back and lets the music speak for itself. The juxtaposition of these melancholy melodies with the group's jangly guitars, organ drones and warped drums makes for an intriguing combination, rendering these classic motifs somewhat strange and new due to the context.

17. Clams Casino | Instrumental Mixtape 2 (no label)
Clams Casino returns with his second album of beats, and where this kind of collection often feels like an indulgence, a novelty, from other hip-hop producers, with Clams it's absolutely essential. While his combination of shoegazer melodies, booming drums and fuzzy, hissy atmospherics makes a perfectly enveloping blanket for any rapper, and while Clams made his name backing up Lil B, his music really seems to thrive when the vocals are stripped away and his aesthetic is allowed to stand on its own. This glistening, soulful music, with its wordless, chopped-up vocal harmonies and dense production, sounds great behind a rapper but seems to really blossom when there's no one to talk over it, when every reverberating drum and crackling background noise becomes the focus rather than lyrics or rhymes. This year, Clams propped up rappers like A$AP Rocky and Mac Miller, but these tracks sound much better here, with a grace and a mysterious beauty that's not always that well-served by the rappers Clams works with the most. But even the tracks that were great to begin with — like a couple from the Main Attrakionz crew or Lil B's breakthrough classic "I'm God," at last appearing as a proper instrumental track — are very welcome presences here, showcasing just how exciting these productions are, and just how comprehensive Clams' aesthetic is. Even when he remixes tracks from artists as diverse as Washed Out and Lana Del Rey, he effortlessly makes these songs his own as well.

18. Vatican Shadow | September Cell (Bed of Nails)
Dominick Fernow continues to be extraordinarily prolific with his dark ambient project Vatican Shadow, which has increasingly absorbed more of his attention than his previously dominant Prurient alias. The flood of limited tapes and vinyl that Fernow has crafted under this name only increased this year, but the quantity of new material hasn't diminished the overall impression of this body of work as one of the most vital in modern noise music. September Cell only represents one facet of that work, a vinyl EP that does about as good a job as any other Vatican Shadow record at capturing the project's eerie appeal. It's stripped-down, minimalist techno that seethes with barely contained emotion, building tremendous tension from the elemental combination of pulsing beats with keening synth melodies. The sound is by now familiar to anyone who's been following this new direction in Fernow's music — and its antecedents in the synth and noise scenes of the past are very clear as well — but the potency of these recordings has not faded one bit since Vatican Shadow's debut.

19. Rangda | Formerly Extinct (Drag City)
I can't say I ever expected a second album from this modern psych supergroup, but I'm really glad it's here. Rangda is the ferocious power trio of Sun City Girls' Richard Bishop, Six Organs of Admittance's Ben Chasny, and ubiquitous improv/psych-rock drummer Chris Corsano. Formerly Exinct easily tops their 2010 debut False Flag, which now feels like merely a warmup for the intense instrumental workouts that the trio have unleashed this time around. It's exactly the kind of music one expects from a band consisting of two modern guitar gods and a virtuoso drummer: tightly wound, intricate, prone to flights of high-octane soloing from both guitarists. But this is no mere display of technical prowess, and the trio's raw instrumental talent is always channelled into music that has as much feeling and fire as it does virtuosity. Chasny and Bishop are both fascinated by Indian music and other non-Western sources, and these influences frequently show up here, buried in fuzz and distortion, alongside more traditional classic rock reference points: the gorgeous, melodic guitar solo that emerges in the second half of "The Vault" recalls Neil Young at his best. All three musicians are as comfortable with this kind of straightforward rock jamming as they are with the more meandering, spacious, Eastern-influenced "Silver Nile," which immediately follows "The Vault." Chasny and Bishop's guitar styles are complementary enough that they intertwine easily, but distinct enough that the individual voices are still apparent in these serpentine entanglements of riffs. Noisy, dense and varied, Formerly Extinct is an ideal team-up for these exciting instrumentalists.

20. Burial | Kindred (Hyperdub)
The UK dubstep producer Burial has always been wary of expectations and acclaim — he remained anonymous until his identity was uncovered by a newspaper in 2008 — so his refusal to follow up 2007's Untrue with a third full-length feels like a way of dodging expectations, of subverting the widespread and semi-mainstream adoration that greeted his first two albums. Since 2007, he's been only sporadically active, collaborating on vinyl-only EPs with Four Tet, Thom Yorke and Massive Attack, and in the last couple of years starting to re-emerge with some solo singles as well. These discs, including Kindred, find the producer's sound largely unchanged: gauzy, reverb-encrusted slabs of sound with loose, flitty beats, throbbing bass, and vocal samples smeared until they sound like ghosts haunting these tracks, singing in a language that vaguely recalls English but where meaning and individual words can be elusive. There's something about his music that makes a new track feel instantly familiar: on the first spin, cuts like "Kindred" and "Ashtray Wasp" worm into one's brain so stealthily that it already feels like the tenth spin, or the hundredth. On the title track, the bass pulses, thick and sinister, and the drums skip across the surface of the music, light as air, while a female voice coos and slurs, occasionally delivering a more intelligible snippet: "baby you can find the light." The central track, "Loner," opts for more of a hard club groove with a pulsing, menacing synth line, but it's "Ashtray Wasp" that's the real standout here, gradually building up a driving rhythm while distorted, disembodied voices moan, "I want you... I need you... I belong."

21. Aluk Todolo | Occult Rock (The Ajna Offensive)
This third album from these French metalheads — all veterans of the black metal scene who have largely, but not entirely, left the strict tenets of that genre behind — expands their vision into a towering, monolithic mass of dark, foreboding sound. The trio stretch out across this sprawling double album, effortlessly crafting 10-minute-plus epics in which metal riffs are hammered into the rambling, build/release/build structures of millennial post-rock. The music has more in common with Mogwai or certain strains of Krautrock than it does black metal. This integration of post-rock's restraint and structural concerns into a doomy metal aesthetic has been a trend in recent years but Aluk Todolo take it to the extreme; there are times on "IV" that they hearken all the way back to Slint with some circular, repeating guitar figures emerging from the general morass of distortion, backed as always by the nimble drums of Antoine Hadjioannou, the band's subtle backbone. The overall effect is hypnotic and lulling, with wave after wave of guitar fuzz and deep bass pulsations washing over the unwary listener.

22. Of Montreal | Paralytic Stalks (Polyvinyl)
Of Montreal's reinvention from a twee-pop Elephant 6 offshoot into surprisingly funky, eclectic purveyors of fractured pop collages is by now well-established enough that this sound threatens to become overly familiar and safe. Kevin Barnes has shaken things up in recent years by splintering his music more and more, delivering divisive records like Skeletal Lamping and False Priest that flit wildly from one idea to the next at a frantic pace. Paralytic Stalks steps back from this trend to offer yet another variation on the group's subtle evolution, this time honing in on the noisy, dissonant chaos that has always lurked at the edges of Barnes' music. Here, "We Will Commit Wolf Murder" morphs by its end from a typically jaunty Of Montreal pop tune into a dark, dense soup of beats and noise, then segues effortlessly into the sunny woodwinds of "Malefic Dowery," the one throwback here to a simpler and sweeter era of Barnes' music. After that, the album leaps off a cliff with the nine-minute sprawl of "Ye Renew the Plaintiff," which melds psych-rock hysteria with the relentlessly bouncy forward motion of the beat and all kinds of noise swirling around in the mix. This all still sounds very much like Of Montreal, and there are still enough musical ideas and sounds jammed into each song to sustain most other artists for an album or two, but it's Of Montreal with a slightly different emphasis, a new twist on the insular mental landscape that Barnes has been elaborating on since around 2004.

23. Spitta Andretti x Harry Fraud | Cigarette Boats (no label)
On this compact web-released EP, rapper Curren$y collaborates with producer Harry Fraud, and the result is one of Spitta's most focused and enjoyable sets. It helps that it's exceptionally tight: just 5 songs, around 15 minutes total, with two short guest appearances by MCs (Styles P and Smoke Dza) who fit in perfectly with Curren$y's languid celebration of the "jet life." Harry Fraud's lush, sensuous productions — all swooning, hazy samples, a gauzy choir of female voices, slowly pulsing beats — is also a perfect complement to the rapper, whose subject matter and style are by this point well-established. It's all about how great his life is, basically, how much better his weed is than anyone else's, how much hotter his girls are, how many cars and houses and fancy clothes he owns. It's bragging honed into an art, and it's a lot of fun to listen to — in small doses, anyway, which is why this super-short set may just be the most enjoyable Curren$y has ever been. His laidback delivery is all in service to thinking up new and clever ways to rhapsodize about his lifestyle, even if much of it has to be bullshit: the final track, "Sixty-Seven Turbo Jet," proves that Curren$y's either a terrible criminal or a total poser, since in the process of praising his "getaway car" and his house he lays out all his plans for dealing with cops and details exactly where he hides his money and his drugs. Regardless, it's great that this EP is so detailed, that Curren$y's braggadocio is never generic, and Harry Fraud provides a perfectly luxurious backdrop for these tossed-off but well-constructed verses. This is the sound of a great rapper settling comfortably into the perfect sound like it's an expensive leather armchair.

24. Godspeed You! Black Emperor | 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! (Constellation)
I'm as surprised as anyone to find a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album on a 2012 best music list. Before this year, the post-rock legends hadn't released an album since 2002, focusing instead on various side bands and other projects in the intervening decade, and their epic, apocalyptic music, with its rise/fall structures and found-sound samples, began to seem like a thing of the past, intimately linked with millennial angst. Instead, the band has re-emerged after reforming for live shows in recent years, and this new album seamlessly picks up their trajectory, feeling in every way like the fourth album they might have recorded as a stellar comeback soon after 2002's relatively disappointing Yanqui U.X.O. In fact, the album's two lengthy twenty-minute slabs of rock — which are broken up by a pair of shorter drone tracks — are re-titled versions of songs that had appeared in the band's live performances shortly before their decade-long hiatus commenced. The band's sound is very much intact: epic swells of guitar-led orchestral rock, with a busy rhythm section buttressing up the layers of distortion, passages of squealing melodicism, dramatically sawing strings, fiery soloing. "Mladic" builds its squalls around a vaguely Middle Eastern melody, played in a high register on one guitar among the many that constitute the song's dense construction. As always, the band's music is divided into loose movements, with passages of barrelling rock giving way to maudlin minor-key interludes, the music swelling and ebbing, a pattern that had already started to feel formulaic by the group's third album but now, after a decade away, is a welcome reminder of what made their first two records so exciting when they were new.

25. The Mountain Goats | Transcendental Youth (Merge)
At this point, a new album from John Darnielle is a comforting pleasure. The incendiary emotional bombast of Darnielle's earlier recordings, back when the Mountain Goats were just him, a guitar and a hissy boombox, has long since been tamed and reshaped, funneled into the more expansive, more polished vision of Darnielle's latter-day recordings with a full rock band. The music has changed, sacrificing raw immediacy for greater complexity and musical nuance, and it's a tradeoff that's sometimes for the better, sometimes not. But one thing that hasn't changed is the quality of Darnielle's songwriting, his ability to quickly and economically sketch out a verbal image or delineate the entirety of a life and a character with a few well-chosen words. His great albums and his merely good albums (there's no other kind) alike are full of evidence of Darnielle's brilliance as a storyteller and portraitist. Transcendental Youth is, to be honest, one of the merely good ones; it lacks the focused intensity of something like The Sunset Tree, and though it's a thematic/stylistic grab bag like last year's great All Eternals Deck, it lacks that album's experimentation and forcefulness. What it does have is one good song after another, one patiently drawn character study leading into the next, Darnielle's voice mostly avoiding the cracking, straining quality of his rawest outbursts, instead delivering these eloquent short stories with deadpan understatement. A few songs have horn arrangements, which aren't as revelatory or jaw-dropping as All Eternals Deck's flirtation with barber-shop harmonies, but still provide some sonic diversity to Darnielle's tight, stripped-down music. The horns blurt ecstatically on the closing title track, providing bursts of bright, beautiful light in between the sweet sadness of the verses. On the record's best song, "The Diaz Brothers," a jaunty piano line winds through this propulsive rocker, as Darnielle sings in an exuberant tone about murder, betrayal and criminality, weaving a poignant tale out of a pair of incidental characters from the movie Scarface.

And now, some honorable mentions and, as promised, a Lil B 2012 top 10.

Honorable Mentions: Cut Hands, Jason Crumer, El-P, Guillemots, Tim Hecker & Daniel Lopatin, Jel x Main Attrakionz x Zachg, Mouse On Mars, Michael Pisaro & Toshiya Tsunoda, Pete Swanson, Sun Kil Moon, THEESatisfaction, Vasculae, Yeasayer, Richard Youngs

Lil B Top 10
1. God's Father (February)
2. Obama BasedGod (July)
3. White Flame (January)
4. #1 Bitch (March)
5. Glassface (December)
6. Rich After Taxes (July)
7. Illusions of Grandeur 2 (October)
8. Task Force (July)
9. The Basedprint II (April)
10. Water Is D.M.G. Pt. 1 (May)

Monday, January 7, 2013

My 2012 In Culture, Part I: Film

Welcome to my annual week of year-end lists. As usual, my film list is not at all up-to-date on current releases, and instead lists the best films I saw for the first time during 2012, regardless of when they were released. It's been a busy year for many reasons, the best of which is that in June, my wife and I had a baby girl, our first. As a result, this blog hasn't been a big focus for me, and much of my writing in the second half of the year was published from an archive of stored-up reviews. The pace around here is likely to continue slowing down, but that doesn't mean that I don't still enjoy writing about movies or interacting with all the wonderful people I've met in the film blogosphere. Thanks to everyone who's been reading, and my apologies if I haven't been around to respond to comments or comment on other blogs as much as I would like to.

Below is my list of favorites from the year in film, in alphabetical order and accompanied by excerpts from my reviews. My more traditional music list (which is limited to 2012 releases) will appear on Wednesday.

And We All Shine On (Michael Robinson, 2006) - "There's a powerful idea lurking in the current obsession with the retro and the nostalgic, and Robinson cuts to the core of it: the media of previous generations is so weighted with emotional import and meaning that exists almost entirely outside of the media itself, in the minds and memories of those who experienced it when it was fresh. Thus Robinson is trying to make these things new again, to recreate the sense of danger and mystery and strangeness that accrues to something that's new. He's delving into nostalgia to find the monsters lurking there, but rather than rendering them harmless through the filter of fond remembrance, he's trying to capture them in all their fearsome, memory-distorted glory, not as collections of pixels but as blurry figments of fevered childhood imagination."

The Castaways of Turtle Island (Jacques Rozier, 1976) - "[A] manic parody of the touristic impulse, explicitly connecting this kind of exotic Western tourism to the evils of colonialism... The film is a prolonged reductio ad absurdum in which Rozier ceaselessly mocks these clueless urban Westerners who have romanticized the exotic islands of the Caribbean and decided that they want what they think will be a glamorously 'authentic' tropical adventure."

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010) - "In that sense, none of this is 'authentic' — it's acting, a performance — and yet all of it is, because when a viewer is watching a movie, he or she is always aware on some level that it's not 'real,' and yet movies are still capable of sweeping audiences up in emotional narratives, producing empathetic reactions from the fakery of actors. This has often been a focus of Kiarostami's work, and though on its surface Certified Copy does not deal with the documentary/fiction dichotomy that has so often been playfully tweaked and subverted in the director's oeuvre, these concerns are still implicit in the film's thematic subtext."

City Girl (F.W. Murnau, 1930) - "Murnau's images are loaded with drama, particularly in the way in which he frames taut two-shots in which the characters' poses are infused with their conflicted emotions. The images of Kate and Lem together, especially, are charged with their new, passionate, but fractured relationship — their postures simultaneously suggest intimacy and disconnection, as though they're both desperately pushing towards each other and pulling away, their intimacy polluted by the differences in their backgrounds and origins."

Demonlover (Olivier Assayas, 2002) - "This is a frightening film, a work of unsettling sci-fi that barely feels like sci-fi because the future world it depicts is maybe just a few steps ahead of our own... Assayas is suggesting that this ruthless corporate ethic is at the root of the dehumanizing culture on display in this film. And the participants treat it like a game, destroying one another to get to the top, where really they've only been set up as the next target for those below them. The film is an unforgettable satire of a globalist corporate culture that seems determined to turn people into video game characters or doll-like mannequins, just more grist for the pop culture machine."

The Draughtsman's Contract (Peter Greenaway, 1982) - "Language is very important to this film, which boasts a marvelously clever script by Greenaway in which every word, every circumspect and torturously polite turn of phrase, disguises some secondary meaning, often a naughty bit of sexual double entendre — lots of appreciative banter about fruit, ripeness, fecundity, and 'the maturing delights of her country garden' — or a sly insinuation about someone or other's reputation, or a threat so carefully hidden in banal chit-chat and freighted symbols that its more sinister meaning might utterly pass over the head of the one being threatened."

The Freethinker (Peter Watkins, 1994) - "The Freethinker is continually... blending biography, literary criticism, sociopolitical commentary and media analysis. It's an amazing film that reflects Watkins' ideas about media hegemony and its connections to class imbalance, but most importantly its polemics are integrated into a larger whole that also wrestles with the nature of art and the relationship between the individual and his or her historical and social context. Even its cooperative production seeps into the film, providing an example of an alternative media model that skirts around the corporate mass media that currently dominates the distribution of information."

I Know Where I'm Going! (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1945) - "This is a delightful romance of the Scottish isles, totally charming and sweet, shot with an eye for the natural poetry of the land, the beauty of sea and sky even in their darkest, most threatening moments."

La Chienne (Jean Renoir, 1931) - "What's great about the film is the somewhat haphazard unpredictability of its plotting and its juggling of tones. It's a twisty film where the reversals and ironies are anything but cheap, but instead provide bitter commentary on the follies of the characters and the society in which they live."

Lips of Blood (Jean Rollin, 1975) - "The film moves at a typically lethargic, dreamlike pace, blending gothic horror imagery — bats and graveyards and vampire girls clad in gauzy robes — with a weird conspiracy thriller vibe... Rollin's films have often been comparable to the surreal quest narratives of his contemporary Jacques Rivette, with worse acting and more nudity, and nowhere is that comparison more relevant than here. Rollin renders the city as a quiet, nearly unpopulated stage, pools of colored light highlighted in the darkness, shadows cast large and threatening on stone walls as Frederic wanders around the city, searching for answers and chasing phantoms through the streets."

The Man From London (Béla Tarr, 2007) - "The films of Béla Tarr have always been haunted by film noir to one degree or another. Tarr's downtrodden characters plod miserably through gloomy, shadowy wastelands, getting tangled up in plots and intrigues that briefly distract them from the otherwise unchanging stasis of their lives. In The Man From London... the influence of noir is as overt as it's ever been in Tarr's work, but tellingly it is not a drastic departure from the rest of his oeuvre, only a slight shift in emphasis that brings these subcurrents to the surface."

Midnight In Paris (Woody Allen, 2011) - "[W]e always yearn for an ideal past that we never experienced and that never really existed. Such desires are an escape, an outlet for anxieties about the present, rooted in the inescapable feeling that if only one had been born earlier, or elsewhere, everything would feel so much more right. Woody realizes that this is a somewhat misguided desire but he can't help feeling it anyway, and he lovingly depicts 1920s Paris as a beautiful, perfect, charming place, even while gently nudging Gil towards the realization that the past can't offer solutions for the problems of the present."

Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927) - "It is certainly one of the most innovative films of the silent era, with Gance restlessly inventing and combining multiple techniques, pouring everything into the film. Even before the famous climactic final reel, for which Gance created a widescreen three-camera shooting technique he called Polyvision, the film is a virtual catalog of everything that was possible in the silent cinema, and probably at least a few things that weren't possible before Gance. The camera shakes and sways, freed from static framings, and the film's approach to montage, controlling pacing by periodically building up to bursts of frenzied cutting and layered multiple exposures, is practically modern."

Pandora's Box (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1929) - "[Louise] Brooks' Lulu is a woman in trouble, a troubled woman, or maybe just trouble, but there's no question that she's utterly mesmerizing to watch, and Pabst perfectly captures her luminous qualities. The film's melodramatic narrative, which puts Lulu through a series of increasingly demeaning tragedies, is balanced by the combination of realism and stylized glamour in Pabst's aesthetic, making this one of the great collaborations between a director and an actress.

Prom Night (Celia Rowlson-Hall, 2010) - "These fluid transformations suggest that Rowlson-Hall is enacting various archetypes and stereotypes of femininity, embodying alternately the demure hometown girl, the untouchable symbol of spiritual purity, the Pamela Anderson sex kitten, the lollipop-sucking Lolita, Madonna with her infamous cone bra... Rowlson-Hall is delving subtly into the many different meanings of the prom in American culture: as a locus of sexuality, as a stage for enactments of gender roles, as a repository for memories of adolescence, as a last ritual of the teen years before the transition into adulthood."

Providence (Alain Resnais, 1977) - "Editing is the key to the cinema of Alain Resnais, the crux of his work. Through the cut, the filmmaker controls the flow of space and time, controlling what's seen and not seen, where a scene starts and where it ends, and few other directors have made this truism so explicit in their art. For Resnais, this process has often been a cinematic analogue for the workings of memory, for the self-editing capacity of the human mind."

The Red and the White (Miklós Jancsó, 1967) - "Jancsó captures the fragmentation and absurdity of war in every moment of his film, alternating between long periods of stasis and confused bursts of violence in which it's seldom clear which side is which or who's winning... The wide frame de-emphasizes any individuals: there are very few characters who survive more than a few minutes onscreen, and even when one of the soldiers momentarily steps into the foreground of the frame for an ad-hoc closeup, inevitably he's dead or melted back into the general clamor a few moments later."

Sátántangó (Béla Tarr, 1994) - "'We relate to it as twigs to the rain: we cannot defend ourselves.' That's the essence of Tarr's perspective on time, this relentless forward flow that cannot be paused or halted, that is always charging onward regardless of what's happening in any individual life. The emphasis on the passage of time is so essential because one of Tarr's key themes here is stagnation: time passes, and yet nothing happens, everything remains the same, the people of this town continue to wallow in misery and boredom, to simply pass the time."

The Sleeping Beauty (Catherine Breillat, 2010) - "The film's style is both magical and direct, with crisp cinematography that makes these glistening fairy tale locales seem quotidian and grounded... In one stunning sequence, Anastasia rides a reindeer into the arctic wilds to find an old crone who controls the winds, and the snowy landscapes stretch across the screen, the Northern Lights explosively filling the sky, with the princess a fuzzy little smear in her pink coat, lost and alone in this beautiful but deadly land."

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964) - "She'd imagined that life would be like a melodrama, that she couldn't live without her lover, but she finds that in reality, unlike the movies, memories can fade, life can go on, and there are endings that aren't quite happy, but aren't quite unhappy either, that the sadness and the pleasure of life can be tangled and intertwined so completely that it's difficult to separate one from the other."

Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock, 1949) - "Hitchcock's Under Capricorn is one of the director's more divisive films, but it certainly doesn't deserve its unflattering reputation. This lavish period melodrama, set in 1800s Australia, might be deliberately paced, but it's as emotionally, psychologically and formally complex as any of the director's best work."

Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932) - "It's a surreal and haunting experience, a rather indirect horror movie in which its atmosphere of fear arises from what's not seen rather than what's seen... A farmer with a scythe rings a bell, an ominous tolling that seems to forebode grave events in the offing. Shadows are disconnected from any physical bodies, passing along walls without any sign of who might be casting the shadow. A reflection of a child runs, upside-down, along the surface of a pond, with no corresponding figure upon the shore who could be creating this reflection."