ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
There are two moments in 2012 when someone who isn’t necessarily a music person might have heard about Fiona Apple.
The first was when she was arrested in Sierra Blanca, Texas for minor possession of hash and marijuana (at the same checkpoint where, among others, Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson have been arrested in the past) and subsequently got into a minor war of words with the local authorities. The second was when she cancelled a series of South American tour dates because her dog was dying, penning a passionate letter that, depending on your point of view, was either heartfelt or hyperbolic.
If that’s all you saw of Fiona Apple in 2012, you might well consider her little more than a washed up, train wreck performer — that “drugged-out-looking chick from that 90s video” making headlines instead of hits. You would, of course, be very wrong, given that I’m writing about The Idler Wheel as the year’s top album. But neither were those events aberrations: they actually tie directly into the hyper-emotive honesty and barely-controlled physicality that make The Idler Wheel such an incredible record — and Apple such a remarkable performer.
I was lucky enough to see Apple in Brooklyn back in March, at one of her first shows back on the road this year. Watching her work through a set that mixed old favourites with a few songs that would show up on The Idler Wheel — plus an amazing cover of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” — I was struck by the physicality of the performance. Apple’s body, all flesh and bone, twisted and turned the entire show, weaving into odd contortions and positions along with the music. When her voice needed to shine, it did, but the physical exertion it took to get it there was as enthralling as the notes themselves. It was like watching a great struggle between chaos and control, played out in the context of an 11-song pop performance.
That same sensibility flows through The Idler Wheel, from the rolling piano of “Left Alone” to the explosive collision of voices that culminates the album on “Hot Knife.” Apple’s piano playing can sometimes be soft when it needs to be, but rarely does she choose that tone: she instead rolls across the keys with a thunderous, weighty intensity. Similarly, the album’s percussion sounds have a certain kitchen sink quality to them, like you can hear the sticks clashing and clanging with every beat.
But the album’s emotional core is Apple’s riveting vocal performances. Roland Barthes, in his famous essay “The Grain of the Voice,” wrote about the idea of great vocal performance as “the body in the voice as it sings,” when you can hear not just the lungs but, “the glottis, the teeth, the mucous membranes, the nose.” With Apple, it’s like you can hear her toes, her fingers, her ankles. The vocal cracks in “Daredevil” or “Regret” are so powerful that it’s almost as if my body shudders in response as I’m listening. From the runs of “Periphery” and “Every Single Night” to the quiet restraint of a song like “Werewolf,” Apple’s voice can seem in complete control one second, then seem ready to collapse under its own fragile weight the next.
Apple’s own physicality flows through the album’s lyrics. Her pain, she sings, is a “like a second skeleton.” “I don’t feel anything until I smash it up,” she croons. There are callouses, kisses, tears and other touches and wounds that pop up. Her choice of metaphors, too, evokes intense physical contact: hot knives on warm butter, hungry werewolves. My favourite song on the album, “Anything We Want,” is among the simplest and most direct: a lust song driven by desire for intimacy — again, one that just seems just barely constrained by politeness.
None of this is normal: when I think back to my favourite music of 2012, or favourite music in general, there’s often a manner, curated quality to it. Sure, most music seeks some sort of physical response, and certainly many of the albums below can easily warrant phrases like “heavy,” and “raw,” and “intense.” But rare are those albums that feel like a physical experience in and of themselves, and in particular that present a physical and emotional experience tied so strongly to a performer and her persona. Apple’s news stories, her live performance . . . The Idler Wheel is the sonic distillation of the same intensity that marked those events.
Back in March, Apple was light on stage banter, but she seemed genuinely moved that we had all come out to see her. The only time at which she spoke extensively was, in fact, about her pitbull Janet. (This was months before her letter was published and she cancelled her tour dates.) A friend had given her a painted wooden cut-out version of her pet to take with her on the road, so before she began she wanted to explain the cut-out and share it with us.
With The Idler Wheel, it feels like Apple is sharing everything with us: her twists, her turns, her breaks and bends. It’s the sound of a performer in a moment of her own making, but just barely holding onto it. And it’s the most remarkable record of 2012.
Below are 24 of my other favourite albums of 2012, a list which a) has a lot more straightforward rock than I would have expected from myself at this point in my life, and b) while ranked because I like ranking things, probably shouldn’t be read as definitive. This felt like a year with a lot of albums on a similar level, and really all of these earn my recommendation:
2. The Walkmen – Heaven: A band once defined by a rollicking, ramshackle sound complete their evolution towards accomplished, adult songwriters, keeping just enough of the spark around to match their craft. One of those albums where the charms are all there on first listen, but burrow deeper and deeper over time.
3. Japandroids – Celebration Rock: An album that was never supposed to happen (the duo planned to break up after Post-Nothing), by two gents who claim to not be that interested in studio time or songwriting. And it ends up the year’s great fist-pumping, heart-stirring rock record. Sometimes, the fates are wonderful creatures.
4. Swans – The Seer: In a year where my tastes often veered towards easy-consumption pop, The Seer is the album that I kept returning to when I wanted to lose myself in waves of noise, dissonance, beauty and madness. Michael Gira’s slow drones hypnotically build to primal, deafening glory; two hours well spent.
5. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory: There’s a bit of nostalgia in this one: you can hear echoes of great, raw rock records from Nirvana through to Trail of Dead. But from the drawn-out “Wasted Days” to the sharp pop of “Fall In,” its derivatives feel instead like a respectful, impassioned addition to a great lineage.
6. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!: Like an old friend you instantly reconnect with, Allelujah doesn’t feel like a comeback album. It feels like the album gy!be would have released eight years ago and simply took their time releasing. One half heavy, one half sweet and melodic, all riveting.
7. Taylor Swift – Red: There were mere hints on Speak Now that Swift was capable of something like this: a masterful, diverse pop record that finds fun and heart in equal measure. Best of all, she pulls off what few of her pop contemporaries can manage: truly great ballads, in particular the knockout “All Too Well.”
8. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball: Arguably the Boss’ best since the 1980s — only Magic is in the same league — Wrecking Ball finds Springsteen fusing his folk interests with his rock persona, producing an album that applies songwriting lessons of the past to the losses and hardships of the present.
9. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten: Becoming less and less of a punk band would be a problem for these Jersey Boys it wasn’t for Brian Fallon’s uncanny rock historicism: he romanticizes the present with images and echoes of the past, with jangly riffs and power chords tied deep in the seams.
10. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas: Considering the acclaim for his 2008-09 tours, Leonard Cohen could have been content to leave his comeback as a nostalgia experience. Instead, he surprises with this aching record about love, loss and the end — easily one of the best late-career albums by anyone, ever.
11. Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man: Some records sneak under your skin, while others dash in keep clawing away at you. The Haunted Man is the latter: a Kate Bush-ian record of moving, powerful torch songs that kept leaping back onto my stereo over and over again.
12. Shearwater – Animal Joy: Sometimes, novelty is overrated. There’s nothing at all flashy about Animal Joy, but it’s some of the most catchy, enjoyable indie rock of the year, by a bunch of Austin, Texas lads who sound positively, wonderfully British.
13. Kathleen Edwards – Voyageur: Given that I figured my own Polaris picks (Fucked Up, Japandroids) were sort of longshots, it was Voyageur I was rooting for, which should be taught in singer-songwriter school as a textbook case in how to expand your sound without losing what made you great in the first place.
14. Titus Andronicus – Local Business: While I do miss the scope of The Monitor, there’s lots to love in Andronicus’ newfound directness, mixed with the same puke-heart-on-sleeve comedy/tragedy that was so endearing the first time around.
15. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan: There’s no “Stillness is the Move” here, but there are more of the clever, surprising and engaging manic pop hooks that made Bitte Orca so compelling. In a year when many follow-ups to breakthrough records fell a bit flat, this one bucked the trend.
16. Beach House – Bloom: Okay, so maybe two records bucked the trend. Bloom isn’t all that different from Teen Dream, which is a slight demerit, but regardless I kept coming back to it throughout 2012 whenever I needed to dive into a sea of loopy, dreamy pop music.
17. Gonzales – Solo Piano II: I’ve never found Gonzales’ more garish productions to be to my taste — I think they work live, but not on the record — so I was thrilled to hear the pop genius return to just the black and whites, penning a remarkable set of infectious melodies.
18. Metz – Metz: The garage rock record that everyone loved in 2012, Metz’ self-titled debut full length is kick after kick after kick: huge riffs, big fuzz and just enough tunefulness in the mix to hold it all together.
19. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange: The year’s consensus record is a doozy: classic R&B hooks delivered over instrumentation that surprise at nearly every turn. Ocean earns his wunderkind status in spades.
20. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits: Only sort of a supergroup, not really a side project, but whatever it is, Divine Fits is a great showcase of Dan Boeckner and Britt Daniel’s ability to pen hooks so cool that they freeze your skull.
21. Bob Mould – Silver Age: At the risk of being rockist, damn it felt good to hear Bob Mould rock again. Silver Age recalls Sugar’s best albums with a fevered, intense guitar assault.
22. Jenn Grant – The Beautiful Wild: Grant’s one of those performers whose consistently starts to become a detriment, critically, because people overlook when an album that sounds as great as Wild gets released. Ignore this at your peril.
23. The Mouthbreathers – Appetite for Deconstruction: This Sackville, New Brunswick trio were the discovery of Sappyfest for me, joyously nailing the awkward, nerdy note of being awkward and nerdy as a 21st-century 20-something.
24. Chairlift – Something: It’s maybe a bit too Brooklyn, sure, but the synthpop hooks on Something are simply too good to ignore. It fuses hot and cold together with consistently engaging timbres.
25. Carly Rae Jepsen – Kiss: Just because.