The absolute best records of 2012 (based on a very limited sample (Part 1))

Muse — The 2nd Law

Short version: this is a crazy dance remix of a Muse/Queen mash-up. You know you’d buy it!

Returning briefly to their previous record The Resistance, Muse seem to have recently dabbled with recapturing the spirit of earlier songs: Uprising feels like a very cynical attempt to re-make Knights of Cydonia, while Unnatural Selection has a good stab at Citizen Erased but falls short, partly in its crisp, plain production. Well, it’s third time lucky, as new track Animals combines the best of Micro Cuts and Ruled by Secrecy, with a 5/4 time signature thrown in for good measure.

External inflences are much more important to this record however; between the James Bond quotation in Supremacy, miscellaneous Brian May guitar squeals, Queen-esque vocal harmony and the infamous “bro-step” wub-wub intrusion into Madness and The 2nd Law: Unsustainable, a 2nd Law drinking game based on identifiable references is inevitable. Still, it would be utterly wrong to describe any of this as “derivative” (except in a very narrow sense) — this is important work being done to bring together diverse influences and show people what can be done. Panic Station makes 70’s disco cool for heaven’s sake.  The 2nd Law: Unsustainable shows how the Skrillex formula of “lame sequenced music:epic wub-wub drop:repeat” can easily be improved by replacing the “lame sequenced music” with something that is inspiring in its own right. There have been about 600 years of work done on how to build musical tension without just boring your audience into wanting something else to happen. Muse aren’t ashamed to draw on it. Follow Me is also pretty brave as it essentially changes production style between verses and choruses, giving the might of pumping compression without killing the track’s structure. I really hope that hundreds of dull pop producers were smashing their heads against expensive mixing desks when Madness was released — they’ve been trying to make exactly this track for Cheryl Cole et al for years now, and simply lack the musicianship and creativity to do it. This album is a real gift to song-writers and producers.

How does it stand up as a record in its own right? Well, Survival didn’t exactly bode well, with it’s preposterously serious arrangement set against outright terrible lyrics and cheesy riffs. In context, following Panic Station, it is a lot more acceptable as your inhibitions have already been knocked away. Much as I like the arrangement in the chorus of Save Me, I think a lot of people will find it a dull ballad. The overall concept is great: I’m pleased to see mainstream bands endorsing environmentalist concepts, and the closing pair of title tracks are very powerful (although as a thermodynamicist I must object to the insinuation that the Earth is an “isolated system”.) And so we come to the elephant in the corner:

“save me”, “free me”, “follow me”… this album should be renamed “The Imperative Tense”
— Jonathan Archer, MPhys

Muse’s lyrics have never been that great. On the earlier records it simply doesn’t matter, as the vocals are largely buried in distortion. When they really are the centre of attention, they are good enough and Unintended is a very moving song for example. But as they’ve moved towards a more pop-music aesthetic, it’s becoming more of a problem. You can string cliches together for an album or two, but you can’t get to this level of stardom and 7 albums without being criticised for lines like “Embedded spies, brainwashing our children to be mean.” Explorers is probably the first canonical Muse song that is actively boring. It’s embarrassing, guys. Sort it out.

Coheed and Cambria — The Afterman: Ascension

Coheed and Cambria’s opening tracks are always great; creepy instrumentals which are usually interrupted by loud guitars for Track 2. The Afterman: Ascension doesn’t disappoint, yet brings some variation — what is this? Dialogue?! Then a beautiful variation on the opening theme for In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 (which has already been reprised on Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume 1: From Fear Through The Eyes Of Madness), and no rude interruptions. For those who’ve read this far without being familiar with Coheed and Cambria’s material, you are correct in surmising their love for ridiculous titles. There’s always a logic to them but it can be a little… remote… Coheed are basically a modern progressive rock band (or “nu prog” as it is called by the truly desperate), but their sound palette is largely drawn from metal. (It would be a disservice to call them a progressive metal band.) Synthesisers and electronics are usually present, but take a back seat to deceptively simple riffs and deceptively complex arrangements.

I don’t generally have any idea of what is going on in these records. While it’s often possible to get some semblance of a story or a moment from individual songs, the overall events are beyond me. I understand that there is a (graphic) novel/comic project running in parallel, but to quote the inimitable Plinkett on Star Wars Episode I:

“… don’t any of you ****** tell me that it was explained more in the novelisation or some Star Wars books — what matters is the movie. I ain’t never read one of them Star Wars book, or any books in general for that matter, and I ain’t about to start .”

It’s refreshing that with The Afterman: Ascension one can at least get a decent sense of story-like things; characters are explicitly named in lyrics or song titles, and you might even learn something about them. The rhythms and melodies are as inventive as ever – a significant part of the difficulty in understanding the lyrics comes from the atypical phrasing. I’m not sure I’d change this; we come to Coheed for crazy melodies that nobody else would write, set to tasteful and engaging rock/metal arrangements. This album really delivers, while containing enough new sounds and experiments to overcome the slight stagnation of their last two records. I would recommend it to established Coheed fans and laymen alike.

Plan B — Ill Manors

What? A hip-hop/urban/what-have you record? Not my usual scene I’ll grant you, but this is the kind of work with so much attention to detail it makes everyone else look lazy. It’s accessible for all the right reasons, and never boring. The title track easily takes the title for “Song of the Year”; the chorus is just a great piece of writing. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the first line:

"ill manors" chorus

Over four bars, the first note of the bar is progressively brought closer to the bar line. This builds up the tension and lets it move easily from slow and epic to tricky and syncopated.

Unashamedly topical, I’d accuse the song of being crude and over-the-top if it didn’t seem so sincere. This holds for the whole record – “Pity the Plight” has minor descending piano motifs, eerie synth pads, bleak poetry, actors crying and screaming. Heavy-handed? Maybe. Traumatic? Hell yes. Justified? A lot more so than if it were on a Dream Theater record.

The last album which make me this uncomfortable was The Inevitable Rise And Liberation of Niggy Tardust — and this is much closer to home. I can’t really join in with the chorus when I am a “little rich boy”. Yet as with the Saul Williams/Trent Reznor collaboration, I’m riveted by the combination of passion and sophistication. The conflict is that culturally the music isn’t openly aimed at me, but good music will of course reach through regardless. A suspiciously wide range of bands and are quoted and even name-checked, and there’s a fantastic rant about newspapers, suggesting that this is actually intended to reach the middle class and we’re meant to feel this bad. Great.

As a film soundtrack, this falls into the depressingly small group of concept albums that have an easily intelligible story. The songs follow different characters through connected events. Essentially it’s about being poor on a London estate. As a key theme of the album is that people misunderstand and misrepresent this culture, I can’t possibly comment on how authentic or appropriate it is. Everyone is criticised; parents, schools, police, government, media – while a sympathetic portrayal, it is clear that on some level the characters themselves are also to blame, and circumstances are given as explanation, not excuses. It’s not the most positive or constructive message, but it captures some of the ideas and problems of our time very effectively. I’m left upset and angry, but with no real outlet other than making my own angry music.

Music video of the year

Gangam Style. Because pelvic thrusts are still funny.