I have always been a fan of gratuitous drug use and highly interested in how said drug use affects space, time, and music. So it’s no secret that one of my favorite genres of music is psychedelic (insert: anything), and luckily or unluckily (I haven’t decided yet), psychedelic seems to be the “it” thing right now. In a perfect world, this would mean that bands are experimenting not only with their music, but also with their states of mind, which, let’s face it, is a recipe for amazing music!
When one thinks of psychedelic music, they probably think of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, King Crimson, and so on, which is fine. There is nothing wrong with thinking this at all. Traditionally, psychedelic music has been associated with the rock genre, but with the recent integration of the genre into not only mainstream music, but also fashion and modern lifestyles in general, the genre’s influence has begun to branch out in a way that not even the hippies of the ’60s could have foreseen.
Now even pop music has its own psychedelic subgenre. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a genre that didn’t include at least one band with psychedelic undertones in it at this point in music. This has done wonders to not only grow the fanbase of psychedelic music, but to expand the original definition of what psychedelic music is. So don’t be surprised if you see an album on the list that doesn’t seem to fit. I assure you I am well qualified in the art of the “trip” and have deemed these all worthy spirit journey albums.
10. The Alchemist – Russian Roulette
Beverly Hills hip-hop producer The Alchemist (Alan Daniel Maman) released a concept album this year entitled Russian Roulette via Decon/Shady Records. Each track contains samples from classic Russian folk songs and is recorded in the style of a ’50s radio spy show mixed with what I could only imagine would be the stylization of a live action comic book. The concept alone is interesting enough, but the style in which the record is put together is what makes it psychedelic to me. This is probably the best example on my list of how far the psychedelic genre has separated itself from the dusty stereotype of yesteryear.
9. Pontiak – Echo Ono
Pontiak is a psychedelic rock band formed by three Carney brothers from the Blue Ridge Mountain area of Virginia. Their latest effort, Echo Ono, was released this year via Thrill Jockey Records and has definitely raised some eyebrows amongst the genre’s more traditional fans. Pontaik is a part of a movement of bands that are recreating the ’60s vibe in a contemporary way. If the genre continues to enjoy popularity, I could easily see them leap frogging up the charts next year.
8. Sleepy Sun – Spine Hits
Sleepy Sun is a psych-rock band hailing from the Bay Area, and as is the case with most things that come out of San Fran, they are truly unique. Their sound comes off super traditional at first, but the arrangements are out-of-this-world exotic groove sessions, and the deep, scratchy vocal harmonies layered amongst the heavily saturated backdrop of the music is something you simply must experience for yourself. I still feel like they should probably be a lot higher on this list, but I just couldn’t find room!
7. Memory Tapes – Grace/Confusion
Dayve Hawk (aka Memory Tapes) is probably my favorite electronic producer out right now. His mix of multiple electro genres and his strong psychedelic influences have mesmerized me many a night. What sets him apart from most electro acts today is his addition of vocals and the content of his lyrics. He constructs these very organic worlds using mostly electronic sounds and adds these lush, dynamic vocals over the top. The results are, in many instances, mind blowing. Grace/Confusion is a bit of a departure from Hawk’s usual structure with more electronic-sounding atmospheres and fewer vocal parts, but what you lose in vocals and organics, you gain in concept and album flow.
6. Deerhoof – Break Up Song
Deerhoof is a band of many hats, but their biggest and most imposing hat would be their ruthless nature for brutal experimentation, which, of course, is the foundation for psychedelic music. Deerhoof is the second band from San Fran on the list, and that is probably not a coincidence. Some of the genres’ original leaders back in the ’60s were centralized around the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, so it only seems right to have the city well represented on a list dedicated to the year’s best psychedelic bands.
5. The Mars Volta – Notctourniquet
The Mars Volta was the first New Age psychedelic band that I really got into. With the release of De-Loused in the Comatorium in 2003, they showed millions of people that the genre can and will continue to grow out of the stereotypes projected upon it. Even though The Mars Volta’s new album, Notctourniquet, wasn’t what a lot of people wanted it to be, it still struck a lot of chords with me, hence its inclusion at #5 on this list. The Mars Volta are still building these amazingly lush, spaced-out atmospheres, and they are still experimenting with time signatures, instrumentation, and recording techniques. These things — coupled with the raw talent of the band — makes for one incredible listen. I highly recommend you don’t pass it up.
4. Tame Impala – Lonerism
Now onto an album that I am sure a lot of people would have put at #1. I first heard Tame Impala last year with the release of their first LP, Innerspeaker, and I immediately fell in love with the group. I walked around humming “Solitude Is Bliss” all day, and when I heard that Lonerism was set to drop this year, I was downright giddy.
Lonerism is a wonderful sequel to Innerspeaker. It shows that Tame Impala has the ability to conceptualize arrangements on a grandiose scale and that their palette for sound design is much, much greater than originally perceived. There are a few things that kept this album out of the top three for me, though.
One is that I wish the vocals were mixed more towards the foreground. On some songs they just seem to sit so far back in the mix, and I can’t help but want my vocals soaring right along with me and my music. The other is that the album comes off relatively safe. It’s not a huge departure from Tame Impala’s first effort, and it’s not a clone. It feels just different enough, and therein lies the problem for me. The risk may always outweigh the reward, but the reward should never outweigh the risk.
3. Animal Collective – Centipede HZ
Here’s an album that upset a lot of people this year and would probably be a lot lower on most peoples’ lists. Animal Collective is a tough group to discuss in public. People either like them way too much or hate them so much it makes you uncomfortable. As for me, I couldn’t dig this group more. Open drug use, albums molded off the effects of different hallucinogens, lyrics that pinpoint feelings during a trip that you thought were previously indescribable…the group is a treasure trove of decoder-ring-like messages and counter-culture influence.
Centipede HZ marks the return of Deakin, who hadn’t been with AC since Strawberry Jam, and whenever Deakin is around, the weirdness level on this group magnifies by 10, but in a good way, of course. Now Centipede HZ took a lot of criticism for being “too all over the place” and “lacking any general cohesiveness,” but that sounds a lot like what originally drew me to Animal Collective in the first place.
I believe Centipede HZ is an album that wasn’t created with the intent to please everyone, and as I have found out in my life, when you try to please everyone, no one likes it. The album is a perfect middle ground between Jam and MPP and is one of my favorites to date from the group. I still can’t help wanting an all acoustic album from them, but beggars can’t be choosers.
2. Grizzly Bear – Shields
If you have only heard of this band and not actually heard this band, then I could see how you might be questioning my selection of Shields for this list, but the hard fact is that Grizzly Bear is one of the most refined psych acts out today. With their fourth LP Grizzly Bear took the sprawling, melodious landscapes from Veckatimest and elegantly expand them into some kind of space-jazz-fusion rock. It’s hard to describe really. Some bands keep that raw feeling from their first few albums for a long time, but over their last two albums, Grizzly Bear has recreated that feeling, and they sound like a band that is on their 10th LP together instead of just their 4th.
As with the other Grizzly Bear albums, Shields is one of my favorites this year for one reason: ability to stay fresh. No matter how many times I listen to the album, I always hear something that I didn’t hear before (a subtle horn stab, a vocal harmony in the background, a keyboard or guitar part that is mixed into a break, etc.). It’s rewarding to be able to go back to music multiple times and discover something new each time. Plus, in my humble opinion, their harmonies are the best in the business right now, bar none!
1. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
Which leads us to my #1 psychedelic album of 2012: Swing Lo Magellan by the Dirty Projectors via Domino Records. This album has everything a psych lover would ever need: complex layering, exotic sound design, passionate (front-mixed) vocals, a beautifully elaborate concept, and a beat you can dance to (or at least swing your arms around to while tripping).
Seriously though, this album is the funkiest album I have ever heard without using any traditional funk progressions or structures. It’s true that virtuoso singer, guitarist, and writer David Longstreth is the monster behind the Dirty Projectors’ mask, but the rest of the band members are not just chopped liver. They are an integral part of what makes this band so unique, as is proven on songs like “The Socialites” and “See What She’s Seeing.” With the release of Swing Lo Magellan, I feel like they have finally hit their stride musically.
The quality of the recording alone is enough to put this in the top three of any list this year, but the musical bond that this band has formed is unlike anything I have ever heard. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, they went and released what is possibly the most significant music video of my generation, “Hi Custodian,” based off a dream David had. If you are still complaining that the Dirty Projectors are not psychedelic, tell that to their 20-minute music video made from a dream because that was all it took to cement their newest effort as my #1 psychedelic album of 2012.