Best Albums of 2012
By Aaron Binder
Originally Published at Lithium Magazine
This has been one of the most tumultuous years for music as far as I can remember. After almost two decades of mainstream music that was pissed out of a major label studio into an oversized cup of suck, finally the game has changed. As cranky writer Bob Lefsetz will tell you, artists have the power now and this past year of 2012 the switch was finally pulled.
We finally have a mainstream and underground searching for the same goal, to produce music people want to hear. This is a list of those albums that flew far above the hundreds of others I heard this year, each one has its own reason for being here so I truly hope you give them all a chance, they really deserve it.
10) The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made the Radio
Pet Sounds will remain the Beach Boys gold standard long after they’re gone – they’ve put out other great work but nothing that defined a sound as perfectly. Their history over the past 30 years has been a storied and vitriolic debacle but in 2009 the band reconciled and started a surprisingly short road to releasing an album resulting in That’s Why God Made the Radio.
Describing it as their best ever will go unnoticed in the annals of history but it’s hard to deny the incredible quality of an album put out by a band that hasn’t played with an almost original lineup in 30 years. I wrote about the album on my website earlier this year and this paragraph sums up why this album is gorgeous:
Aged as the members are, we may never see another Beach Boys album. But really, with a potential bookend in That’s Why God Made the Radio, they can stay out of the studio. Packed with interesting song structures, rich layering, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful vocal harmonies, one of the most storied bands in American music history has hit the perfect wave.
9) MoodyMann – Picture This
http://www.scionav.com/collection/947 (Site provides free download)
Detroit had a great year in 2012, with Apollo Brown turning out really good albums with both Guilty Simpson and The OC, it seemed Mr. Brown was destined to hit the top 10 …. and then Moodymann dropped this. Considered by many to be the top deep house DJ on Earth, Moodymann is as much a producer as he is showman. His live show is rife with sexual tension and candor, his albums are no different. While some of his other work like Freaky Mutha F cker (All I Need Is U) and Black Mahogani are pure, carnal and perfect mack music, Picture This explores different tones.
Gospel samples and funky guitar add great flourishes to an album that balances between the deep-house Moody is known for and the funky side he exhibits so well from time to time. This is the type of album that you might not listen to all the time, frankly it’s good for getting a lingerie party started and cranking while you’re hooking up with your guy or gal, but it’s packaged so nicely that you can’t help but feel the beats coursing through your head all day in anticipation of that hook-up.
8) Indian Handcrafts – Civil Disobedience is for Losers
You can’t be a two-piece, a very very loud two-piece and avoid allusions to Death From Above. It’s even more difficult to avoid when almost everything they do is as good or better than DFA.
Yeah, that’s right.
After checking these guys out live at SteamWhistle Unsigned, it was impossible to deny just how face-rippingly good these two guys are together. They groove so hard and in so many ways that disco is jealous. Civil Disobedience is for Losers puts it all together so coherently too, while there’s nothing like seeing this duo live you can’t ignore just how bloody fun this album gets.
From big riffs (which some reviewers call to RATM inspired…somehow) to the grooves to the awesome vocals, this is doing the two person band right by being as loud and obnoxious as possible while showcasing master butcher chops.
7) Nas – Life is Good
Just when you thought an old dog couldn’t learn any new tricks, Nas came out with this. While his track record may have been more relative to ‘ehhh’ than ‘ooooh’, the man that helped revolutionize hip-hop in the 90’s has reclaimed his title as King of New York.
Much like a lot of the top albums this year, it’s all about lyrics and the way they work. Nas has always been known for his clever word play, even on albums of his that are less than stellar you can still count on great lyrics. With Life Is Good he’s meshed together those clever words with beats on par with Illmatic.
Like many, Nas is best when he’s facing adversity, honest too. This is an album that is as much about his shortcomings as it is about ideas and cultural commentary. To make it though he had to stop worrying about everyone else and strip back his persona to the basics that made him great in the first place – lyrics, good production, honesty.
6) Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
After years stuck in legal limbo, a shaky 2010 start, and the collapse of Jive Records, Miguel has proven that dedicated talent surfaces to the top given enough time. Commandeering the bulk of production and writing on top of performing, Miguel’s sleeves are full of heart on Kaleidoscope Dream. In the future, 2012 will be remembered as the resurgence of hip-hop, Kaleidoscope Dream won’t have a footnote but a chapter in dedication to this monumental piece of work.
Kaleidoscope is a showcase of Miguel’s salacious talents and there is no shortage of displays. The problem with a lot of hip-hop running up to the last couple of years was that it borrowed so much from the nu cock-rock genre of Hoobastank fame – one or two hits and 9 filler songs an album. Every song on Kaleidoscope is the absolute opposite, finely crafted and incredibly delightful when taken individually or as a whole.
Listening to this album makes it feel the man is in your living room, there’s a sensual, personal nature to it that coerces your ears to keep listening long after you’d expect. Miguel hasn’t necessarily changed the formula with this album, there are a couple bangers, you’ve got a couple slow songs and your standards, its just the difference in quality. No longer is mediocre or good justifiable, Miguel has helped define the new benchmark.
5) The Herbaliser – There Were Seven
The Herbaliser has been putting out questionable to great albums for almost two complete decades – and while they have a niche, it’s surprising to see that they aren’t way more popular. There Were Seven is just a wonderfully fluid album with exceptional sampling, impeccable vocals, and all the feel of a good James Bond in musical form.
Guesting vocalist Hannah Clive lends her larynx on The Lost Boy, a track that sounds more like a collaboration between Thievery Corporation and Portishead than strictly a Herbaliser track. The duo is so good at combining elements of so many genres that what might sound derivative for most DJ’s and bands comes off sounding crisp and fresh as July 1990 Vanilla Ice. The album is intended to inspire the human side of electronic music and in this regard is nothing short of flawless delivery.
4) Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid Maad City
Here’s a guy that’s doing something different. Treading the line between what’s considered tasteful and the other side – our desires. More often Lamar skips to the dark side but the themes presented on this album don’t leave any black or white, they simply exist for the listener to observe.
Lamar’s Good Kid travels through the life of a teenager trying to live in an absurd world filled with religion, violence, school, and girls all thrown together in the pressure cooker that is inner city life. Sure, at first listen it has the vibe of a gangsta rap album but really it goes far deeper. What is truly impressive about this album is the actual music itself; the production is larger than life thanks to the hands of Dr. Dre and a number of other talented producers. While it may sound like Kanye syndrome, there aren’t six producers on every song with the intent to create a hit but instead to make some damned awesome tunes.
This is easily the dirtiest album of the year; you will want to fuck with it playing in the background. Once you’ve…and I quote “fucked the world for 72 hours” and taken a bunch of showers, it’s worth exploring with just your headphones and a joint. Once you’ve experienced it both of those ways, try it sober. You’ll find new things every single time and that is why this album comes in at number 4. Now if only it weren’t so long.
3) Brasstronaut – Mean Sun
Every single time you listen to Brasstronaut you find something new to enjoy. After a prior LP and a couple EP’s, the band is only getting better. Mean Sun is the equivalent of being seduced, at first you might be a little apprehensive, but as soon as the smooth words, charm, and lovely qualities start to sink in, they already have you in between silky sheets.
Brasstronaut incorporates a wide variety of landscapes into their sound, in fact it’s what they do best – as their house influences catch your ear while the vocals and guitar slink into your mind, whispering sweet everything’s and promises of love and Paris vacations. They deliver without compromise.
Lead man Edo Van Breeman’s voice permeates through every song, acting less as vocal accompaniment but more as an instrument unto itself. Combine that voice with the rest of the band and you have an album that feels as though it were created under one hive mind the way it fits so seamlessly.
There is so much talent in this album, so much meticulous care that you have to appreciate the multitude of small details just as much as the overall themes and beauty of each individual song. For everyone that doesn’t enjoy Indie music that much, this is your album. It’s as fun as it is engaging and important. As the music industry continues to change, bands like Brasstronaut are proving that you can make music the way you want and be successful.
2) Smashing Pumpkins – Oceania
If you’re purist type then this album is as Smashing Pumpkins as Chris Cornell. The important factor to remember, though, is that the Pumpkins have been and always will be 95-98% Billy Corgan. Oceania is an album that a lot of people will want to hate because it isn’t Gish or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Others will consider it a bastardization of the Pumpkins spirit, Corgan attempting to rekindle a long-dead fire. They’re almost right, this could have been a Zwan album – it could have been comparable to some of the lower points on Zeitgeist.
It’s not even close. This is not just one of the best albums of the year; this is arguably the best Pumpkins album of all time.
Corgan has always prided himself in writing rich textures, obtuse transitions, and could be considered one of the few modern-era songwriters that understand the value of writing music instead of songs. In Oceania, he was deftly penned an album filled with everything the Pumpkins name is built on. It is an album that has the maturity behind it to realize a real and solid progression from the angst of youth into the critical questioning of adulthood.
The music moves with ebb and flow, there is a real breath-ability to the album that is hard to find from modern-era bands. This is the type of album that musicians should be listening to and learning subtleties from. Old fans will love this album for its return to form; its gritty heart. Casual fans will love it for the bangers on the album – Violet Rays and Panopticon – are enough to convince even the biggest stalwart. New fans, this is no nostalgia act, Corgan is the real deal.
I’m cheating a bit here and actually turning a Top 10 into a Top 11, but only because every album deserves to be on this list. My Number One is actually two albums that impressed me to the point where they’re still daily listening.
Two widely different styles of music and levels of fame but there’s something that brought them together, great form and an absolute desire to produce music without regard given to external influences. That is to say they’ve created albums for themselves, the artists as opposed to playing to a crowd. This has been such a phenomenal year for almost every genre of music. Outside of the decaying pallor that is Indie Rock it was daunting to write this list considering the sheer amount of music that ended up being required listening. Out of the hundreds of albums I listened to this year, two had allure unlike any others. It’s impossible to give precedence; these albums will go down in history as timeless classics.
1) Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
2011 was the year that a number of bloggers declared hip-hop dead. Nas said it in 2007, Rolling Stone repeats in whenever Rock isn’t in need of a saviour and to be completely blunt, there hadn’t been a fresh breed of real, great artists for at least half a decade.
Frank Ocean changed the game.
When Odd Future started rumblings that the old guard was about to be shuffled into retirement there were a few willing to listen. By 2011, if you weren’t listening, you were old news. Suddenly hip-hop was back on life support according to the press. It still wouldn’t matter though, much like guitar-driven music the day of the mega-star was over – after Jay-Z and Kanye there wouldn’t be any more in the world of hip-hop.
Certainly there were a bunch of great albums coming out – Pharoahe Monch, The Roots, The Beastie Boys – on the fringe that flirted with the mainstream consciousness but they were still flirting, kissing maybe, home plate was still so far away. While the mainstream was still obsessed with whatever the hell Carrie Underwood and an assortment of flavours of the month were up to, the assault had already begun. These great albums from Pharoahe Monch, The Roots, The Beasties, and others were finding their way into ears that had forsaken hip-hop. No longer was hip-hop on life support but finally walking around.
Then came hip-hops’ Cecil Fielder, a player that could knock a grand slam and land it on Trumball Avenue. With a stadium waiting, salivating, Frank Ocean knocked it outta the park. Channel Orange was everything that the world wanted.
Here we are at the end of 2012 and hip-hop is back on top of a world that had all but forgotten it for American Idol washouts. Frank Ocean changed the game and created an album with a soul, a god giving life to its creation but this god didn’t take seven days, it was overnight. Channel Orange is an album that has as much to say musically as it does culturally. Talking about how Billy Corgan revitalized the Smashing Pumpkins name seems small when you can, in the next breath, talk about how Frank Ocean helped create a completely new and fresh world of hip-hop.
This album takes on the world, loves it, criticizes it and makes you feel things. We haven’t felt things in music for so long, we haven’t had a chance to sit back and actually listen. When you can place a 10-minute song on an album that is minimal as Pyramids but engaging enough to be one of the best songs on the album, you’re doing music right. Listening to a song about bitches and hos felt so distant before, now it’s laughable. Frank Ocean changed the game, hip-hop is no longer a caricature; it has real feelings and lyrically is as real for Ocean as it is for the listener.
1) Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
The other album coming in at number 1 could be summed up with the following line “You are witnessing elegance in the form of a black elephant”. Mike, relatively unknown aside from hardcore Outkast fans, much like the rest of hip-hop, has been flirting with the mainstream for years. After Outkast released The Love Below/Stankonia, it seemed like a matter of months before Mike would hit the mainstream and ride the success he had been involved in. Months turned into a year, that year turned into a decade.
Talent always wins over popularity. That’s why Mike, in 2012, is coming out on top. With R.A.P. Music, Mike has created a piece of music that the world cannot ignore – greatness in album form. This album has everything that a classic should have, unimaginably good songwriting, an overall theme, and just damned good listening.
I wrote about the song Reagan on my blog, it is certainly the best song I’ve heard this year and the reason for that isn`t just the music – the lyrics are perfect, just literally perfect. The rest of his album offers exactly the same. At a time when the music game is changing and artists are realizing power they haven’t had in decades, R.A.P. Music is the sword to Frank Ocean’s suit of armour. While Snoop might have had Gin and Juice, Public Enemy had 911 is a Joke and the parallel is apt today when comparing these two artists.
R.A.P. Music is what hard hitting, punctuated rap music should sound like, this album is real and it’s about life. Ocean and Mike share that about these two masterpieces, while they may come from two different perspectives, they’re absolutely real.