A friend showed me Alt-J over the summer, and I really dug the track he showed me and wrote the band down in my neverending list of artists to download, but never actually got around to it. Then, Stereogum’s 40 Best New Bands came out and included some of my favorites from the year including TNGHT and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs- but a quick trip to the comments section saw many, many readers angry at the omission of one band, Britain’s ∆ (pronounced Alt-J), and reminded me that I need to give this band another listen.
Fast forward a few weeks later, and I have listened to their debut album, An Awesome Wave every single day since I downloaded it. I won’t bore you with background on the group (you can read it on their Wikipedia page), but instead will give you a review from someone who discovered their favorite album of the year, and knew about it upon first listen.
The album starts with “Intro,” which immediately calls to mind the first song on The xx’s eponymous debut not just because of the song name, but because of the amazing instrumentation that stands out even in today’s music world where we think we’ve heard everything. Then we get into the first of three interludes, which is an acapella from singer Joe Newman that draws comparisons to Marcus Mumford, and we’re not really sure where the album is going to take us.
Four minutes into the album the first note of “Tesselate” rings and feels incredibly familiar, and the off-set drum beat comes in and all comparisons to Mumford & Sons are thrown away. While it is incredibly difficult to classify Alt-J under a certain genre, the electronic influences are clear to see, and this is what sets them apart from anyone else because it is just one of many influences. Joe’s timbre makes it difficult to make out all the lyrics, but certain phrases immediately stand out such as “triangles are my favorite shape/three points where two lines meet.” But the group is not about lyrics, or guitar riffs, or catchy choruses, yet somehow they encompass all three without trying.
The follow-up to “Tesselate” is probably the most accessible song on the album, and the one I always show to people for the first time. I’m not a musician and not an expert in any sense of the word on this, but the song structure of “Breezeblocks” had me absolutely hooked upon first listen. There’s so much going on at once, so many genres blending and instruments piled on top of each other, but they are seamlessly combined thanks to their amazing songwriting ability and musical talent. The conclusion of the song sees vocal tracks layered on top of each other in a round style, and I dare you to try not to sing along by the end of the track- it’s that catchy.
If you asked me to pick my favorite track from the album, it would probably differ after each listen (right now it’s “Something Good” “Taro”). I think this is a testament to how good the album is; even the songs that didn’t stand out as much upon first listen and seemed weaker (“Matilda,” “MS”) end up being the ones stuck in my head for days after. It amazes me that I think I know everything about the album after 30+ listens, and still discover something new every single time. “Fitzpleasure” hits harder than many songs in EDM do, and “Something Good” has so many tricks up it’s sleeve that you may have to listen to it again to make sure you heard it all right.
2012 has been an amazing year in music, thanks mostly to bands like Purity Ring and Alt-J that don’t settle for refining tried musical genres, but instead creating new ones and pushing the boundaries on not only what can be created, but what can be popular. I find it very interesting that this has been the best year for music yet in my lifetime, but will probably be remembered for “Call Me Maybe” and “Gangam Style.” As far as I’m concerned, the general public can keep eating up the spoon-fed radio pop songs while the rest of us enjoy the music that Alt-J, Passion Pit, Grizzly Bear, GRiZ, and all the other musicians have put their heart and soul into.