December 9, 2012

AwkwardSound Presents: The Best and Worst of Everything Else in 2012

AwkwardSound may have finished declaring 2012's best albums, songs, videos and breakthroughs, but before we put an official end to this year's list season, it's time to look at the bands and artists who defined it for better or for worse. It's not in AS' nature to dwell on sounds or sights it doesn't necessarily care for, but once a year, it shows its teeth and let's you know what was downright inexcusable. In the end, the good ultimately outweighs the bad, and those people deserve due props for making our experiences with music (or in this year's best artist's case, life) all that much better. Whether it be one huge step forward or 10 steps back, here's to everything else in 2012...

Most Overhyped Album: The xx's Coexist

As it stands as of time of posting, the xx's Coexist has been received to "generally favorable" reviews, which doesn't necessarily make this year's selection for the Most Overhyped Album superlative a typical case of raging against critically acclaimed adoration. What bugs AwkwardSound so much about Coexist were the events preceding the hotly anticipated sophomore follow-up from the UK minimalist R&B-pop group. Without naming any names here, certain tastemakers made more than a big ado that necessary about any move from the UK trio starting as early as as May, despite the fact Coexist wasn't released until September 10th. Five months of press wearing us down with chronic updates every time Jamie xx sneezes is the music journalism equivalent of having a Facebook friend who is one mobile upload of their dinner plate away from being hidden in your News Feed. To make all of this entirely more is that this LP definitely falls under the "sophomore slump" category in terms of quality, as the xx downsized their brand of minimalist pop even further into sleep-inducing territory nowhere close to the sultry electronic soundscapes of their debut that launched a wealth of dance-worthy remixes, and said-guilty site kind of agreed. Let this be a listen of what happens when the hype machine ends up setting itself up for disappointment.

Most Overhyped New Artist: Jessie Ware

Jessie Ware is a rising star in a new cast of non-commercial pop stars for a post-Robyn-comeback world whose allure AS doesn't understand. Unlike past year's Most Overhyped Artists such as Lana Del Rey and Sleigh Bells (who, by the way, redeemed themselves as the ultimate "Comeback Kid" with this year's solid sophomore effort Reign of Terror,) this isn't so much an issue of style over substance, as so much that the British songstress' slickly produced sultry pop hasn't been going down as smoothly in these earbuds as other tastemakers have built her up to sound. After giving Ms. Ware's acclaimed debut Devotion several tries, the end-conclusion around here is the same: Ware certainly has a voice, but the music itself is one-dimensional and lacks a spark to captivate AS' attention. I'm old enough to know that if you want hear what Jessie Ware sounds like with some substance behind her style, just dust off your '90s cassette collection and reach for the Lisa Stansfield or Sade. Taking into account this year's Most Overrated Album, these sexy R&B pop sounds made in the UK which everyone else seems to be falling in love with aren't translating well in these parts.

Best Live Act: Ceremony

The makers of this year's Best Album of 2012 continue what has become a tradition here on AwkwardSound of Cali punks owning this category (the past honorees being Trash Talk in 2010 and Touché Amoré in 2011.) It isn't just because Ceremony are relentless road warriors or continue to incite circle pits still despite transitioning over to a post-punk medium with the release of their Matador debut, Zoo, however. What places the shape-shifting quintet above the rest of the bands living in vans is how Rohnert Park's finest exemplify a core tenant of hardcore culture of it being an open-minded scene, where they've had no qualms playing alongside a diverse spread of partners in the last 365 days, ranging from millennial UK hype band Bloc Party, Jersey rockers Titus Andronicus, Screaming Females and fellow genre-transcending act, Fucked Up. On their days off with those bands, Ceremony filled the gaps and paid it forward by booking DIY venue dates in the surrounding area that gave up-and-coming punks a chance at some face time with their listeners.

Train Wreck of the Year: At the Drive-In
Reunion of the Year: Refused

2012's Train Wreck and Reunion of the Year have collided perfectly into one another, as its really the tale of two post-hardcore prodigal sons. The seminal influence of At the Drive-In and Refused has grown to myth-like proportions since both exited the stage in the early 2000s, similarly due to inner turmoil and creative differences. When Coachella came knocking at their doors with money bags full of cash as long as they'd play together again, both obliged, but for entirely different reasons: At the Drive-In's was for the sake of money and nostalgia, where as Refused saw their return as an opportunity to replace the bad taste left in their mouths by their final tour behind The Shape of Punk to Come, where they infamously last played to just 100 people inside a basement in Harrisonburg, Virginia before cops broke up the show. Being in attendance for both of their sets in Indio, AS can attest that the difference between the two act's stage presence couldn't be an more different, with At the Drive-In appearing as lifeless shells of their former selves, mocking the crowd's choice of fashion ("Urban Outfitters is the Costco of the youth culture.",) playing the hits and collecting their paycheck while the black-clad Swedes absolutely destroyed the stage with a career-spanning set that left attendees wanting more. At the Drive-In's reunion stint amounted to few and select appearances at the world's biggest festivals (a.k.a. the ones with the biggest monetary gains) while Refused turned theirs into a world tour, even bringing along the next generation of noisemakers for the ride in the form of Sleigh Bells and OFF! In their goodbye letter to fans, Refused stated that the hatchet has been successfully buried and graciously thanked everyone for "populating the pit in 2012." I'm still waiting to receive one from Cedrix, Omar and company, but at the same time, I'm not about to hold my breath for it...

Best New Artist: Merchandise

You should already be familiar with Merchandise's backstory by now: Hardcore punks flip the script on their local scene by trading in their cutoff denim vests for fresh-pressed button-downs and become a noise pop band, keep DIY integrity in tact, thwart off incessant advances from Pitchfork to cover them, eventually cave, and gain deserved exposure as a hot new BUZZSound and Breakthrough Artist honorees by making the 9th Best Album of 2012 with their latest release, Children of Desire. Despite all of this, the band still remains unsigned and elusive while they continue honing their craft down in Tampa, as their early Morrissey-meets-No Age style continues to evolve in unfamiliar and promising ways that could go in any direction at this point. Sure, when the band recently toured throughout NYC this past autumn, the constant namedropping of Merchandise in AS' tweet feed was almost enough to consider them as this year's Most Overhyped New Artist, but in this case, the excitement over a band boldly going against the grain has to be applauded.

Artist of the Year: Laure Jane Grace

Typically, AwkwardSound's Artist of the Year is awarded to a band or musician who put out a phenomenal body of work that permeated throughout the entire year, but this year's honoree's contribution to the music world doesn't necessarily come in the form of an album, song or video, yet their impact will no doubt transcend years, decades or even generations for that matter. Back in May, Against Me! lead singer -- known at the time as Tom Gabel -- came out as transgender in an in-depth interview with Rolling Stone, and introduced the world to who she really was in her new name, Laura Jane Grace. Laura's story was incredibly candid and brave, shedding light on her struggles coping with transgender dysphoria, living a double life (even though the clues were literally right in front of everyone in tracks such as New Wave's "The Ocean" or White Crosses' "Bamboo Bones,") and the support she's received from her wife, Heather, and her AM! bandmates. This wasn't the first time a musician had come out as transgender, but in Laura Jane's case, it was the first time that an artist whose success had already amounted to the level of Against Me!'s made it an incredibly important story, no doubt within the punk community where macho stereotypes reign supreme. While the support poured in from all corners of the music world, to say people weren't surprised would be an understatement. Yet, here we are 8 months removed from Laura Jane Grace's coming out, and I don't think many people are slipping up with proper pronoun usage or even forgetting her name isn't "Tom Gabel" anymore. We've also been able to take part in Laura Jane's experience first hand whenever she appears on stage, as Against Me! have made a psuedo-revival of sorts in their post-major label heyday back into the punk community they sprung from, with Laura's story only accentuated the "punk" ideology naysayers say they turned their back on when they hopped in bed with Warner Bros. Laura Jane has certainly gotten the conversation going in a broader sense on understanding the transgender community, and from AS' point of view, it's also served to demonstrate how far we've come not as only as open minds in the music world, but in society in general. She and the rest of the band are currently at work on their next LP, aptly entitled Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which will be one of 2013's most anticipated releases here on AwkwardSound, for sure.

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