The year 2012 will be remembered for the quality of new musical ideas produced, not the quantity. The top three albums on this list are three of my favorite albums to come out in the past five years or so; but I will admit, it was tough filling out the rest of the list. I feel bad for all those writers out there that have to make Top 50 or Top 100 lists this year. Good luck to you all.
For the rest of you not taking on that mammoth task: enjoy this short, sweet list of 2012's 10best albums and have a happy new year.
10. NAS - Life Is Good
It’s nothing short of a creative miracle when an artist can remake himself and continue to revolutionize his genre after 20+ years in the game. Life Is Good is Nas’ strongest album in years.
Nas raps hungrily, like he’s still got things he has to prove. He raps stoically, like he brings knowledge that must be heeded. The young bucks running hip-hop these days (Odd Future, Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Mob, Chief Keef ... ) need to listen to “Daughters.” It’s one of the deepest and most heartfelt raps I’ve heard in a while. It talks about what true wealth is, what being a man means, and describes the strength it takes to go from being a thug to a responsible adult, in order to raise a daughter.
9. THE DIRTY PROJECTORS - Swing Lo Magellan
The Dirty Projectors have been on a continuous pop-ward spiral for several albums now. Swing Lo Magellan is this pinnacle. The music is still way too quirky for radio — with its asymmetrical, lilting beats, semi-odd chord progressions, strange harmonies, and whacko lead singer. But the chord progressions are not half as odd as they were on previous records, and this is kind of disappointing. We have enough poppy indie music. Many of the songs on Swing Lo Magellan are very pretty, though, and the lyrics make a lot more sense than they do on the other albums
I know this album is good, but I’m still obsessing over their previous Bitte Orca, so I can’t rank Swing Lo Magellan higher than #9.
8. ALABAMA SHAKES - Boys and Girls
Brittany Howard can sing the blues better than any of the old hound dog crooners of yore. Her voice can rasp, wail, pierce, and belt high and pure. She will do all of these things in every song. Her voice demands an emotional response from her listeners. Heath Fogg is also a hell of a guitarist. Howard holding that long note “hoooooold” on the chorus of “Hold On,” while Fogg riffs freely underneath, is one of the most fantastic musical moments of 2012.
Alabama Shakes strip down music to its most basic and vital elements. It’s powerful and courageous music. It takes some bravery to make music that relies so heavily on soul in this day in age; it’s a lot easier to polish it up, or make it super kinky, in order to get attention. The Alabama Shakes square up and face the listener, and let it all hang out.
7. GRIZZLY BEAR - Shields
Harmonious, complex, thoughtful, Shields is a great starting point for those who’ve not yet gotten hip to Grizzly Bear’s music. Their songs seem more organically structured, and more well-balanced than they have on other albums. They’re not building from absolute silence to dissonant windmill crescendos, or any of that jazz, like they did a lot on Veckatimist. The most they get weird with on Shields is experimenting with a few different snare sounds on one track. This is right for them. The warm words that emerge from the mouths of Daniel Rossen and Ed Droste and the intricate patterns that come from Christopher Bear’s drumkits are enough to make astounding, enthralling music. Twisting these perfect ingredients into abnormal, pretzeled arrangements only detracts from the end results. The ingredients speak for themselves. Grizzly Bear keeps it organic.
6. TITUS ANDRONICUS - Local Business
If Grizzly Bear is the organic music diet, then Titus Andronicus is the raw diet.
The production on Local Business is raw and refreshing. The guitars blare, the drums have that straightforward boldness that all punk rock should have, the bass melds with the other instruments to create singular powerful melodic lines. The songs are brazen, lightweight, agile, fit, and fun. Singer Patrick Stickles arranges his lyrical phrases in very clever ways over the straightforward beats. His lyrics deal with sensitive subjects, like his selective eating disorder (“My Eating Disorder”). His delivery is blunt, ragged, and earnest. I don’t know of any other punk band that can make 5-9 minute songs and can keep them exciting and driving the entire time.
5. The Roots - Undun
Technically this album came out December 2, 2011, but since it’s up for Best Rap Album at the Grammys this year, and it has close relation to an album farther up on the list (#2), I am going to cover it anyway. Undun is a concept album. It narrates the life of a street hustler backwards in time. The album begins with the hustler’s death and travels backwards to the shot that kills him, backwards through the bad times and the good, ending with the character’s promise not to live a quiet life of poverty, starting his journey towards his already detailed and tragic end.
The album has a somber, contemplative vibe. The verses ask big existential questions: “What’s beyond time?” and “When you return to the essence/ What is it back to the essence of?” concepts that are usually too big to fit into a 16-bar rhyming pattern. The band workshopped every verse for the album multiple times, and threw out hundreds of drafts in order to create potent and well-balanced lyrical content. All the verses are barbed and unique. There are no wasted words. It was during this polishing though, that I fear a bit of the pretense and didacticism typical of concept albums managed to creep in.
The album has this feeling of cold scientific distance. It seems at times as if all the rappers are studying this gangster as if he were a specimen in a petri dish, or a better metaphor: as if they were enlightened beings looking down from heaven sympathetically, at the doomed mortals below. It feels too rational, too well-ordered at times for the chaotic subject matter it claims to know. It’s a street symphony, which is beautiful, but life in these streets is chaotic, not symphonic.
4. Tame Impala - Lonerism
Tame Impala makes 1960s psychedelic pop music. Their guitars have that crunchy lo-fi sound of early Pink Floyd. The vocals are washed out, floating, and pure. The harmonies are dense and seem to drift off into the distance as they ring out, only to snap right back to the foreground the next minute. Jay Watson’s drums cut through all the psychedelic wavering, and are crisp and insistent. These dualities between sharp and soft, near and far, long and short, create fascinating soundscapes. Exploring them fully offers a pretty good auditory/cognitive workout.
The songs on Lonerism are surprisingly poppy and catchy. They will get stuck in your head, but are impossible to sing when you try. One tune will circle in your head all day, and will keep you feeling groovy no matter what kind of bullshit you've got to face.
3. FLYING LOTUS - Until The Quiet Comes
'Rewarding' is a good word to describe Flying Lotus’ music. With every listen, you will feel as if you learned something, expanded your horizons, found a new idea or inspiration. Flying Lotus is an incredibly broad-minded musician and thinker. He redefines what electronic music can be. The songs on Until The Quiet Comes meander through lavish soundscapes that are vibrant, rich, and full of color. His melodic lines are so dense, they almost emesh into textures, only suggesting chord progressions. His music is extremely visual, and as such it has spawned three of the best music videos of the year: “Until The Quiet Comes,” “Putty Boy Strut,” and “Tiny Tortures.”
2.KENDRICK LAMAR - good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city is also a hip-hop concept album masterpiece that illustrates the tribulations of gangbanger culture. The story follows a young 10th grade Kendrick Lamar as he drives around the city in his momma’s minivan. He gets mixed up in bad business, hooks up with some bad chicas, loses a friend, feels guilt, takes drugs. Kendrick Lamar captures the sounds and feelings of the environment he is trying to describe. The beat on “Mad City” has a pseudo G-Funk vibe, which Kenrick raps over with an urgent and exasperated voice, painting a picture of the poverty and violence that ravage people’s lives in Compton. This is nothing like the “Gin and Juice” G-Funk that made Compton famous. You feel the danger the young Kendrick is in.
While The Roots’ Undun describes ghetto atrocities from a comfortable distance, Kendrick Lamar and his listener are right there in the midst of it. You’re digging with him trying to find meaning in the darkness.
1. FRANK OCEAN - Channel: ORANGE
The thing that is most attractive about Channel: ORANGE, the thing that comes through on every song and makes this album a joy to listen to, is that Frank Ocean loves making music. His passion is infectious.
The album covers such a wide range of emotions, genres, and styles. Frank Ocean’s writing has done so much for revitalizing the super-clean, over-produced, modern R&B sound that infects pop radio today. “Thinking About You” was a godsend in this respect. The album is impeccably paced. The songs flow seamlessly. From his droll, bored-sounding rap (complimented perfectly by Earl Sweat’s sludgy assonant flow) on “Super Rich Kids,” to his lofty desperate cries on “Bad Religion,” to the trippy harmonies that scold a childish grown woman on “Pilot Jones” — there is no emotion Frank Ocean’s voice can’t express. There is no story the man can’t tell. All his songs sound genuine. They all show mastery.
There is a song for everybody on Channel: ORANGE.
What I mean to say is no matter who you are — old lady who only listens to Count Basie, infant child who only listens to Raffi cassette tapes (What? There are no more of those are there? That was just me, 22 years ago? Alright.), the last disgruntled milk man, the most sober and stern secret service agent (“Lost” will resonate with you particularly) — there is at least one (if not many) song on Channel: ORANGE that you will love, if you listen.
Frank Ocean is our generation’s Frank Sinatra.