UPDATE: Part Two is now available here.
Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2012: Pop and Rock, Part One:
30. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
Is Mature Themes an appropriate title for a record containing the phrases "suicide dumplings," "sperm brain" and "blowjobs of death"? Maybe, maybe not. Ariel Pink's most critically acclaimed effort to date is a pilgrimage to the edge of artifice. While most of its songs contain the sonic stimulation of a cloud-nine acid trip, other moments — and I mean this as a compliment to his intrepidness — are so utterly unlistenable that one cannot help but consider this might be a joke on us all. Ariel Pink (or Ariel Marcus Rosenberg, to earthlings) remains a purveyor of outsider-pop that hangs addictively on the fringes. But the mystery is part of the magic; it's fun to think that Mature Themes might be a 50-minute riddle. It hits its stride, loses it, and finds it again with brazenfaced earnestness, and its moments of most glimmering excellence shine through the slit between satire and sincerity. "Nostradamus & Me" is a grim, morbid, lovely lullaby, while the (comparatively-speaking) cleanly produced radio-friendly standout "Only In My Dreams" is rife with layers of methodical harmonies. Mature Themes is pathologically engineered so that it feels wonderful to listen to but frustrating to try and figure out. It's a smoggy storm of hell, angels, orgasms and existentialism that works best when you don't overthink it.
29. Passion Pit
Passion Pit's second full-length picks up where their beloved debut Manners left off. Intricate sequencing and bright and bouncing synths take the lead, melding with Michael Angelakos' falsetto voice to pop perfection. On Gossamer, Angelakos creates more room for the tracks to breathe, allowing the dance floor moments to burst through with greater intensity. The album begins with "Take A Walk," one of the year's best pop songs, that sets the tone for the following 11 tracks — musically, and to a greater degree, lyrically. The beauty of Gossamer soars well above its DJ-friendly beats and road trip melodies; it lands in a higher stratosphere, somehow managing to combine those aesthetics with dark themes of suicide, substance abuse, and other topics oft-relegated to gloomier music forms. Angelakos shares a deeper level of his personal struggles in a way that's not just digestible, it's enjoyable. It's an achievement one would never expect of a pop record, yet Gossamer defies conventions to deliver just that.
28. The Wooden Sky
Every Child a Daughter, Every Moon a Sun
The Wooden Sky took their time following up 2009's If I Don't Come Home You'll Know I'm Gone, and it paid dividends. Following an extensive amount of time on the road, the band returned to the studio with a notable confidence, a broadened sonic palette and a few years' worth of tales to tell. Built around frontman Gavin Gardiner's heartfelt lyrics and impassioned delivery, the arrangements on Every Child A Daughter, Every Moon A Sun are subtle and never overplayed. The spaces given for melodies and harmonies to unfurl are of equal importance as the rip-roaring guitar solos, choirs or the swells of the organ that appear elsewhere on the album. "Malibu Rum" has a world-weary wooziness to it, with sweet vocal harmonies and the distant slur of a theremin, while "Take Me Out" sways gently in waltz time, uncovering Gardiner's love of early rock'n'roll, complete with swooning strings and tinkling pianos. That isn't to say they have abandoned the louder side of their repertoire however, and there is plenty of twang to be found here too, the chiming "I'm Your Man" being a case in point. Despite the sadness, there is comfort to be found in Gardiner's gritty baritone, a quiet poise and grace to the Wooden Sky's ruminations on life, loneliness and loss, and a sense of joyful abandon when the band cut loose and let their guitars soar and shimmer.