Northren Psych
Columbus Discount

This was a banner year for Columbus, Ohio music, even if the only people outside of the city that seemed to care all that much were Australian. Of the handful of albums (many included in our Top 20), it was Northren Psych which sounded the most “Columbus.” If there is such a signifier, we’ve taken great pains to try and describe it on these pages. As Nate Knaebel wrote, Ron House is the “poet laureate” of the city’s rock underground, but the true mettle of Psandwich lies in the band House stumbled upon. Featuring two of the city’s most unique guitarists in Brett Burleson and John Olexovitch and a taut rhythm section of Bobby Silver and Zac Szymusiak, House had no choice but to submit to their whims. What started as a drunken one-night stand turned into a consensual and complex marriage. Thank god House tied the knot.

Milk Music
Beyond Living ep

I’ve spent the last six months trying to track down an interview with Olympia’s elusive Milk Music. Alas, they were always unavailable or just incredibly tapped into to their art and on the road. Wanting to remain off-the-grid, self-released, living in vans, gripping manifest destiny, and all that bohemian hokum suits the trio’s gnarly debut. Effusive guitar squall and feedback rattle and ramble on as if Dinosaur, the Wipers and Blue Cheer all existed in the same time and space. Beyond Living revealed pure beauty through amplification and love of the riff.

Bad Sports
Kings of the Weekend

There are so many party-punk bands these days with interchangeable members and various side-projects that it’s hard to keep up. And Denton, Texas seems to be the epicenter of it all. Most of them are clad in denim and leather, still burning the Ramones’ torch and keeping alive the spirit of the Exploding Hearts with endless tours and endless hooks. Bad Sports made the only one of those albums that stood apart for me. Kings of the Weekend is standard issue, but with just enough originality to keep it in rotation throughout the year.

Negative Guest List

While we do our best to give our readers the closest approximation of a zine as we can on the internet, Negative Guest List remains one of the few true zines in the world still in print—at least one of the few that matter. Send them money, and they’ll send you printed paper packed with the fluid ongoings of the booming Aussie underground. It just feels from another planet, one which would be interested in a column devoted solely to Columbus music next to features on the latest abject punk band from Brisbane. Plus they managed to put out some righteous records.

Culture Dealer

It seems cassette labels have quadrupled over the last year. No need, though, to theorize on format fetish; if you dig deep enough, you’ll find some criminally overlooked albums on magnetic tape. Run DMT, which began as a project of murky bedroom sampledelica, here continues to include found recordings of self-help gurus and kids on Molly, but melds them into a deep hypnagogic goo of bubbling synths and distant pop songs. Dreams possesses both a Zen-like buzz and a synesthetic paranoia. How you approach it will determine which of those effects take hold.

Circuit des Yeux
De Stijl

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Haley Fohr’s voice is my favorite in all of music these days, and Portrait is the first time it has been the absolute centerpiece of her music. Equally haunting, fragile and profound, that voice shouts and hums through an album I described earlier this year as “somewhere between grotesque outsider folk and bedroom punk rebellion.” Portrait continues to exhibit a fascination with lyrical darkness and dank, evil, noisy textures, but the big moments on this record—“101 Ways to Kill a Man” and “Twenty and Dry”—show an evolved state of songwriting.

Low Life
Sydney Darbs ep
Negative Guest List

Lads, be brief. Tell me everything you need to in the confines of a 7-inch. Low Life takes brevity to heart. On Sydney Darbs, the band’s debut record, they manage to spin an instant classic of the down-underground in a quick, visceral 10-minute display of junk-punk chaos. Akin to last year’s crowned artifact, the Unholy Two, Low Life is infinitely ugly and loud—nearly annoyingly so—but they manage to also crack into a persona that creates a timeless sound. Wire as pigfuck, the AmRep also-rans re-imagined as the biker’s choice in a Mad Maxian barroom. Not sure if we can handle a full record of this.

Rvng Intl.

This was the year in which “new age” was no longer considered a dirty term. Deep below the surface of Animal Collective giving such a maligned genre a face stood a legion of solo pioneers, faceless and determined to justify the power of endless electronic soundscaping. The outpost and subsequent bridge between old and new was the Rvng Intl. label, which not only reissued the amazing Harald Grosskopf album, but also developed the FRKWYS series, putting artists like Blues Control and ambient legend Laraaji in the same room together. Not to be missed is the collaboration jam of David Borden, James Ferraro, Laurel Halo, Samuel Godin, and Daniel Lopatin. It’s a glimpse into your near future.

Amethyst Sunset

Amethyst Sunset is a one-man operation in Columbus, run by a guy who seemingly has his finger on a fringe that has yet to be discovered. The tiny catalog the label has cultivated finds the amorphous points where noise and drone nestle, synth meditations and psychic foretelling coalesce, and musicians are given free rein to freak-out. Put the cosmic vibes of The Path of Spectrolite by John Elliot (of Emeralds) aside the cruddy exhaust of Providien’s Followed by a Wraith to hear the wide range of colors provided by Amethyst Sunset.

Double Happiness, Columbus, December 3

Full disclosure: this was a show that I put together for one lonely Saturday night. Though 19 paid, the crowd seemed to number in the single digits. Was that for the better? For my soul maybe. That night I got to witness my own personal Forma show, a transcendent 45 minutes of kosmiche analog bliss. Where the masses might lug around one or two vintage synths and compliment those lines with a bevy of digital effects (i.e. a laptop), New York’s Forma is a plugged-in control center, boasting three members transmitting from within a ring of wires and circuits, keys and knobs. I saw a number of shows during the year, but this one seemed the most authentic of them all.

Kitchen’s Floor
Look Forward to Nothing

Last year Siltbreeze released the debut by Mt. Carmel, a record which seemed to counter all of the dissonance the label had established over the years. This year comes Kitchen’s Floor, another entry into the Australian junk-punk sweepstakes. Compared to records by, say, the Shadow Ring, Look Forward to Nothing is positively radio-pop. Perhaps the best distillation of the blast chords and gnarled racket permeating that scene, Kitchen’s Floor know exactly when to cut the cord so that the barbs get stuck and one’s not left handing out mercy applause. It’s all the pleasure without the messy clean-up.

Peaking Lights
Not Not Fun

Psychedelic head music of the highest form, Peaking Lights made this year’s best dub album in 936. (Parts of Psychedelic Horseshit’s Laced come in a close second.) There’s so much riddim lurking in the unwashed haze of organ drones, scattered percussion and the bittersweet coos of Indra Dunis, involuntary mind-traveling occurs even when you just want to chill and zone out.

Gross Magic
Teen Jamz
The Sounds of Sweet Nothing

Some would have you believe Gross Magic is the product of grunge, and that bedroom auteur Sam McGariggle is reaching back to a sound he only heard in his infancy. I prefer to think of him more as a vessel channelling Jeff Lynne, making his Electric Light Orchestra for the lo-fi set. Teen Jamz is sugar-coated, brimming with catchy choruses and sickly sweet harmonies that touch on blitzed-up glam and “Jeepster”-esque swagger, without resorting to camp or revisionist history.

I’m Bleeding Now
Smog Veil

Though Lamont “Bim” Thomas is best known for manning the skins in bands as varied as the Bassholes and Puffy Areolas, it was only a matter of time before he had to speak out for himself. And by all accounts we shouldn’t be passing Obnox off as Thomas’ side-project; this album is pure rage, a full-time hobby for the man. As Stephen Slaybaugh wrote, “Bim goes for the throat at every opportunity. For example, ‘The Get It Inn’ might have been a feel-good summertime ditty were Thomas not shredding it apart from the inside out. Indeed, one can hear everything from Bowie to Albini at work here, only completely digested and regurgitated in chunks.” No surprise that Thomas has already announced a follow-up in Obnox II: Purple Reign. Can’t wait.

Mad Nanna
“I’ve Been Talking”
Albert’s Basement/Little Big Chief

I’m still at a loss as to how to describe what Mad Nanna do. I’ve chalked it up to living-room four-track improv with a mind for melody and a chain linking them way back to the beginnings of the Xpressway underground happening in the southern hemisphere. Mad Nanna play the antithesis to the Aussie punk gnawing at their heels, and instead mellow through an amateurish lens, though we know they know every bent note and misplaced beat is in its proper place. More please.

Real Numbers
”Tear It in Two“
Florida’s Dying

Judging Real Numbers’ first single by its cover, one could toss it off as simple twee pop or, giving them the benefit of the doubt, a less informed slice of early British DIY. It’s pop above all and tends to fall somewhere between those two perceptional theories. I’d liken it to the Desperate Bicycles or Swell Maps were both those bands slightly more mod.

The Men
Leave Home
Sacred Bones

Leave Home is a guitar record first and foremost. Throughout the Brooklyn quartet’s debut for Sacred Bones, there are a number of heavy psychedelic polarities at odds with each other. Burly choogle and big-muff grind recall everything from Hendrix to the Boredoms, convening in a spiritual jam which searches for the center of the heart of the sun. If urban bohemia had a soundtrack, it would sound like this.

Higher Ground
Bella Union

There are a number of bedroom producers on the cusp of stardom, lining up for the eventual top-shelf collab, but my gut has to go with Brooklyn’s Rimar. Higher Ground may be influenced by a new generation, but it still oozes with old-school technique. Remind yourself there’s no such thing as chillwave anymore (2011 all but eradicated it), and though Rimar cuddles up to the soft-pop of guys like Toro Y Moi and Washed Out, there’s a whipsmart, street-funk breeze slipping through the beats. Big things abound in 2012.

Los Llamarada
Gone Gone Cold

It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Monterrey, Mexico’s Los Llamarada. Blame it on a lack of communication with the outside world or blame it on the city’s ongoing drug war, but Gone Gone Cold couldn’t have come at a better time. The record is reportedly the band’s swansong, and as such, it thrives on a bleak desperation and catharsis that can only come from the unified mind of this band. Los Llamarada may be looking to destroy, but instead build a fortress of cacophony among the ruins. This record stands as a powerful testament of their existence.

Ty Segall
Goodbye Bread
Drag City

How Ty Segall eluded our year-end Top 20 and my own personal list is beyond me. San Francisco has become a factory for fuzzy psych-pop thrillers in recent years, and somehow, among records from Sic Alps, Thee Oh Sees and The Fresh and Onlys, Mr. Segall deserves all the props. Goodbye Bread put on the breaks and took a reflective step back, but that seemed to strengthen the hooks inherent in Segall’s songwriting.

—Kevin J. Elliott