Paste’s Best of 2012 series continues through Dec. 31 and is made possible by our friends at Tretorn.
There are plenty of reasons to make an EP—whether it’s to whet our appetites in between full-lengths, find a proper home for B-sides or serve as an introduction to an up-and-coming group before their official debut. Whatever the motivations were, these 10 Best EPs of 2012 prove that size doesn’t always matter.
10. The 1975 – Sex
The follow-up to August’s Facedown is the equally simply titled Sex. While not appearing entirely cohesive at first, the five-song collection comes together remarkably well after repeated listenings. Equal parts ethereal and synth pop, The 1975 a band on the rise for good reason. Opening track “Intro/Set3,” sets a mellow, atmospheric tone, the heavy sound effects contradicted by the layered, at times haunting vocals of lead singer Matt Healy. A different approach is taken on “Undo”; the song is stripped of too many attention-grabbing production theatrics and instead focuses on the smooth vocals and infectious chorus.—Shaina Perlman
9. Punch Brothers – Ahoy!
Having one of your songs covered by Punch Brothers is clearly an honor—it’s almost impossible to round up a more talented group of players in any genre. But having one of your songs covered by Punch Brothers is also, assumedly, pretty terrifying—there’s a good chance they’ll end up performing it with twice the flair and skill. On Ahoy!, a five-track EP of B-sides from this year’s excellent Who’s Feeling Young Now?, the world’s most progressive bluegrass quintet puts its signature stamp on three wide-ranging tunes: Josh Ritter’s folk epic “Another New World,” Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ reflective country ballad “Down Along the Dixie Line,” and—the biggest head-scratcher—post-hardcore trio Mclusky’s snot-nosed “Icarus Smicarus.” Ahoy!‘s true standout, however, is a delicate interpretation of the traditional folk ditty “Moonshiner.” Thile’s voice is draped in roomy echo, as the instrumentation is layered organically, building to a gorgeous acoustic collage, each element balanced equally in the stereo spectrum.—Ryan Reed
8. Frightened Rabbit – State Hospital
Coming from one of Scotland’s most addictive recent exports, the cinematic five-track EP tells dramatic tales of war, loneliness and breakdowns. And the band—a five-piece from Glasgow noted for its gloomy, poignant and honest storytelling—sounds whole on this EP, which frontman Scott Hutchinson attributed to the full band writing these songs together. The opening title track is the only song from the EP that’s also slated to appear on the band’s upcoming full-length release, due out next year. The song is by far the best on the EP, channeling the same Scottish darkness and pain that marked on 2007’s The Midnight Organ Fight. Near the end of the song, Hutchinson wails the “all is not lost” refrain, layered with arpeggiated “ohh ohh ohh’s” that close out the track.—Hilary Saunders
7. The Antlers – Undersea
The lavishly produced EP Undersea finds The Antlers spinning even further into orbit. Inhumanly gorgeous opener “Drift Drive” is an experience best suited for headphones: It spirals its way out of the speakers in a luxurious calm—an alien funeral ballad beamed in from another galaxy. The wash of sound is so magnificent, it’s easy to miss all the details: Darby Cicci’s decaying trumpet lines, the echoing harps, the sci-fi synth whooshes, the ricocheting piano chords. On the droning, eight-minute “Endless Ladder,” guitars and synths and wordless coos disintegrate into slow-motion colors and shapes. Frontman Peter Silberman’s been labeled a Jeff Buckley clone too many times to count, but on the trip-hop space-jazz of “Crest,” he literally seems to inhabit the guy’s body, beaming in a Grace-full falsetto moan over a simmering landscape of muted trumpets and synth loops. If this is simply a tease of The Antlers’ next full-length, we’d all better prepare for an epic, mind-bending masterpiece. But for now, Undersea is pretty magnificent all on its own.—Ryan Reed
6. Daniel Rossen – Silent Hour/Golden Mile
As Grizzly Bear took some rare-but-necessary time off during the final months of 2011, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Rossen escaped the chaos that was his New York City existence. It offered him a rare collaborative reprieve in which he could focus on Silent Hour / Golden Mile, his solo debut. The five songs on his spring release convey a stunning beauty that can only be found in the solitude of Rossen’s mind. More importantly, songs such as “Up on High” and “Silent Song” make fans hopeful that an equally majestic full-length may someday follow.—Max Blau
5. Azealia Banks – 1991
“212” was the most razor-sharp showcase of new talent in all of 2011: filthy, skillful, clever, pro-sex, with an unforgettable (and simple!) video. It’s not a putdown to say the other three tracks on 1991 couldn’t possibly live up. Instead they do something much rarer: pull away from the spotlight to reveal a retro hip-house outfitted with shiny new synths and a youthful motormouth. Not only does it hark back to a forgotten treasure trove, but imagine the original wave of this stuff with Rakim- or Missy Elliot-sized talent emceeing.—Dan Weiss
4. Burial – Kindred
In keeping with techno’s bizarro world, its biggest rock star, its Jimi Hendrix, is its most invisible. Will Bevan is a quiet virtuoso whose music scales skyscrapers, integrates the already-established as it chews up the city and spits out fractured gray mist, skittering shells, sticks, stones, the fog of an alley, the beats of a creaking old manufacturing plant, and a whole sky of visceral tones and klaxons to project imagery onto just like this review. It’s sex, it’s sadness, it’s sleep, and on the mighty 13-minute closer “Ashtray Wasp,” it’s hope and euphoria.—Dan Weiss
3. Rubblebucket – Oversaturated
On Oversaturated, this year’s EP from Brooklyn’s Rubblebucket, something sounds different than 2011’s Omega La La. Don’t worry: Kalmia Traver still carries a tune and whistles like a songbird, the bass still thumps along infectiously and the horns still blare majestically. But here, things seem a little more controlled and synth-driven than on its incredibly upbeat predecessor. Maybe this falls more so on the change of producers, with Bear Creek Studios’ Ryan Hadlock taking a turn this time around. Rubblebucket has delivered five songs that remind us why we declared the group to be the Best of What’s Next: They can write catchy, compelling music that will make anyone with a pulse dance.—Alex Skidmore
2. Dirty Projectors – About to Die
Closing out a year for the critically adored group that also included the premiere of their short film Hi Custodian, About to Die runs the risk of seeming like an afterthought; a few B-sides pressed on vinyl to promote a new single after the band had completed their more pressing artistic endeavors. But, anyone who has followed the career of the Dirty Projectors could attest to how seriously Longstreth and company take their craft, and About to Die is no different, standing slight only in its length and providing another win for the band’s nearly blemishless record. Dwelling on austere subject matter like existential gloom, insignificance, futility and even death, “About to Die” displays a distinct lightness in the face of it all, even toying with horror film paradigms to make these big ideas scary in a more tangible way. Possible connections surface in the new tunes, with “While You’re Here” also taking a turn away from what could be an existential crisis of the soul—this time in the loss of a friend—and instead choosing to focus on life rather than death. Even the title of “Here Til It Says You’re Not” touches on a certain inevitability of existence, and the lyrics refer to the “destruction” that can come from of staring into the “void.” About to Die manages not only to seem vital in comparison to the other Dirty Projectors’ art projects of this year, but also stirs hunger for the 25 other songs from these sessions that will hopefully see an eventual release.—Philip Cosores
1. Dum Dum Girls – End of Daze
When Dum Dum Girls made the leap from songwriter Dee Dee’s bedroom to Sub Pop for 2010’s debut LP I Will Be, those unfamiliar with the project’s backlog of EPs and singles could easily make the mistake of judging the band from their press photo, depicting four vampy women dressed in all black while standing on the beach, equal parts Joey Ramone and Bettie Page. Idiosyncrasies like the leather-and-stockings uniform and single-word nicknames might have worked against the band in some ways, leading some to think they already knew what the girls would sound like without listening. But after recording a wealth of material in a relatively short amount of time, Dum Dum Girls increasingly affecting and surprising music has overshadowed their image.
On their latest offering, the five-song End of Daze EP, any remaining naysayers should readily concede that Dee Dee’s songs continue expand on her range, leaving a band whose musical trajectory seemed predictable with an ever-increasing ceiling, both commercially and artistically. Using I Will Be’s jumping-off reference points of ’60s girl groups, punk and ’80s gloomy post-punk, subsequent releases have seen Dee Dee write from deeply personal spaces about death, love and loss. End of Daze continues with this, recorded immediately after last year’s Only in Dreams and working almost as an appendix to that full length. Here we see Dee Dee’s grief from her mother’s battle with cancer and eventual death consuming her even further than on Only in Dreams, making it an unflinchingly sad record, but also a very honest and beautiful one.
From the driving and grand scale of the self-eulogy “Mine Tonight” to the surprising minimalism of the upbeat “I Got Nothing,” Dum Dum Girls are nearly unrecognizable from the band we met a couple years back, and the transformation is a mostly successful one. “Mine Tonight” is a revelation, building tension with the sludgy distortion of the guitar strums in the verse until the eventual explosion of sound that is predictably fulfilling. First single “Lord Knows” is just as moody, but with a maturity in Dee Dee’s voice matching a newfound maturity in her songwriting. Lyrics aside, the arrangements on End of Daze steer away from easily classifiable terms like “ballads” and “rockers.” No, the songs are much more complex than that.
Dee Dee is even a smart enough songwriter to know when her airing of her personal baggage might be wearing thin, and she maintains control of her emotional outpour up until the release’s closing moments. Ultimately, Dee Dee confirms that “a confession is not cure / there is always darkness to endure / on the path to be redeemed” on the closer “Season in Hell,” with hope seen in the final moments when Dee Dee notices that after these hard times, the “dawn looks divine.” End of Daze is a brief trip through a songwriter’s grief, and one with enhanced by lyrical honesty and musical risks. Maybe most importantly, the End of Daze EP cements Dum Dum Girls as a band that should be taken seriously and whose look has become the least interesting part about them.—Philip Cosores