Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Top 30 Albums of 2012

Hey y'all. Merry Christmas to all of you!  Here's my Christmas gift to you: my 30 favorite albums of 2012.  I only wrote about the top ten though because I'm T I R E D O F W R I T I N G.

30. WIXIW - Liars

iTunes | Spotify








29. Mature Themes - Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti

iTunes | Spotify








28. Sweet Heart, Sweet Light - Spiritualized

iTunes | Spotify








27. Gossamer - Passion Pit

iTunes | Spotify








26. Wrecking Ball - Bruce Springsteen

iTunes | Spotify








25. Conflict of a Man - ERIMAJ

iTunes | Spotify








24. 1999 - Joey Bada$$

Download Link (Free)








23. Kill for Love - Chromatics

iTunes | Spotify








22. Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! - Godspeed You! Black Emperor

iTunes | Spotify








21. Centipede Hz - Animal Collective

iTunes | Spotify








20. 151a - Kishi Bashi

iTunes | Spotify








19. Celebration Rock- Japandroids

iTunes | Spotify








18. Strata EP - Rafiq Bhatia

iTunes | Spotify








17. Accelerando - Vijay Iyer

iTunes








16. The Seer - Swans

iTunes | Spotify








15. Kaleidoscope Dream - Miguel

iTunes | Spotify








14. Black Radio - Robert Glasper Experiment

iTunes | Spotify








13. R.A.P. Music - Killer Mike

iTunes | Spotify








12. Attack on Memory - Cloud Nothings

iTunes | Spotify








11. groundUP - Snarky Puppy

iTunes | Spotify








10. Bloom - Beach House

iTunes | Spotify

As the ultra-famous last piano chord of "A Day In The Life" slowly fades out, you start to hear the ambient noise around you -- a radiator whirring, the wind outside, cars going past.  The fade-out is meant to be an easy transition from the world of Sgt. Pepper back to reality.  Similarly, the only moment of pure silence on Bloom comes after the ending of closer "Irene."  About seven minutes of silence, actually, after which a hidden track begins to play.  These seven minutes are there for you to regain your bearings and come back to reality after Beach House have transported you to their sunny world for an album.  The Baltimore duo have spent four albums and eight years perfecting their sound, a distinctive blend of shiny pop and melancholy psychedelia.  But Beach House are not just a sound; two of the strongest songs the group have recorded appear on Bloom.  "Lazuli" is a musical shoutout to the post-punk movement of the 1980s, and is one of the best songs of the year.  "Wishes" has one of the most delightful melodies of any song this year.  The wall of sound on their record comes at you for 50 minutes, but as Alex Scally's final guitar chord echoes into submission at the end of "Irene," you're left on your own to find your way back to the real world.  But Beach House are still there.  Hidden track "Wherever You Go" fades back in delicately, as an afterthought, assuring you that their album will linger with you after it's already over.

9. Moms - Menomena

iTunes | Spotify

Even the energetic claps that begin Menomena's fifth album suggest a captivating album, before any note actually sounds.  Moms is my biggest surprise of the year.  The band had lost a member, and I figured their sound would suffer on their next effort because of it.  In fact, it's their best effort yet.  Menomena have always used woodwinds, especially the baritone saxophone, on their recordings, but here they use them in ways that really impact their songs.  A bari sax comes in during a breakdown in the middle of opener "Plumage," becoming the driving riff of the song.  At the end of "Capsule," Ian Anderson-esque flute improvisation comes in, coolly bringing the track to a close.  The drum beats on Moms are always busy but never overbearing, and the record is constantly energetic.  On standout "Heavy Is As Heavy Does," they borrow Pixies' method of a soft verse and loud chorus.  On Moms, Menomena show that their blend of progressive rock and pop-punk won't ever lose its integrity, whatever the band goes through.

8. Until the Quiet Comes - Flying Lotus

iTunes

Stephen Ellison, the one-man-show behind Flying Lotus, truly strives to present an album full of variety.  Not once on Until the Quiet Comes will you hear the same pattern in the bass drum in two different songs.  There are defining sounds and elements to every song on the record.  But with that being said, the album has no shortage of unifying elements.  Ellison continues to feature the sultry, mellow voices of singers like Erykah Badu and Thom Yorke.  And in the spirit of the late J Dilla, his idol, Ellison always puts in something retro; a Fender Rhodes, a crackly production, a jazz guitar sample.  The end result is a solid record that sounds both futuristic and vintage at the same time.  Until the Quiet Comes moves briskly; many of its tracks are less than two minutes long, and only one of them is over four minutes.  The fast pace keeps you wondering where the record will go and where it will take you.  It's always interesting.

7. Shields - Grizzly Bear

iTunes | Spotify

All the members of Grizzly Bear are very talented instrumentalists.  Its two primary vocalists, Edward Droste and Daniel Rossen, are two of the best singers in indie rock.  But the instrumental virtuosity of this band isn't the best thing about their latest release: it's the production.  Bassist Chris Taylor abandons the hushed pop sound of 2009's Veckatimest in favor of a louder rock sound on this record.  And the difference is stunning.  Instead of drenching everything in reverb like the band's last album, Taylor leaves the drums, vocals, and bass relatively clean, which gives the music a more straight-ahead, moving quality.  "Yet Again" is one of the most bombastic rock songs you'll hear from this year.  There's still plenty of echo on the album, though; almost everything besides the basic tracks are melded together.  But the combination of these two elements makes Shields distinctive from other releases by the band, but doesn't lose its integrity as a record that's truly Grizzly Bear.

6. Christian aTunde Adjuah - Christian Scott

iTunes | Spotify

Christian Scott is a great trumpeter, with a progressive jazz vision.  His compositions are consistently interesting and unpredictable, as is his playing.  But the real gem of this expansive release is the quality of musicians with which he has surrounded himself.  He has spent the last few years with the same group of musicians perfecting a sound.  Jamire Williams' drumming is excellent, as always.  He doesn't resort to conventional jazz drumming styles, and rarely plays the same pattern twice throughout the album's nearly two hours.  The drums are mixed high, unlike Lawrence Fields' keyboard and Kristopher Keith Funn's upright bass.  These instruments act as a whisper, everpresent but barely noticed.  It gives the music an open sound, as does Matt Stevens' impeccable guitar playing.  Stevens' style is eclectic, favoring open intervals rather than crunchy jazz chords.  His sound evokes visions of a barren, desolate landscape, like the one Scott seems to be gazing towards on the album's cover art.  The group's sparse playing leaves enough room for Scott's trumpet solos, creating a sound that is truly unique on an album that is uncategorizable, unpredictable, and unending in its brilliance.

5. The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do - Fiona Apple

iTunes | Spotify

Fiona Apple took seven years to make a new album, and still managed to shock the music world with the stark progression she made.  The first time I started listening to The Idler Wheel..., I found myself waiting for "Every Single Night" to kick in, like her previous, more upbeat songwriting style.  But that never happened, and 43 minutes later I found I had just listened to one of the most minimal, raw albums I'd ever heard.  There's little besides Apple's voice and her piano on this album, and what other instruments there are (tom-toms, shakers, other small percussion) are never loud.  Apple took a page from the book of experimental minimalism legend Mark Hollis here, never adding anything that wasn't totally necessary.  She found that a drumset wasn't really necessary to keep the beat in her music.  She favors unexpected samples like the sound of a door closing on "Werewolf" and the sound of factory machinery on "Jonathan" for that purpose.  The Idler Wheel... is one of those albums that will sneak up on you.  I listened to it once or twice when it came out and I didn't revisit it for quite some time, but a few months after that I realized how excellent it is.  Fiona Apple's emotionalism and bravery will stick with you for a while.

4. Lonerism - Tame Impala

iTunes | Spotify

Kevin Parker, the main musician behind Tame Impala, lives in Perth, Australia, a city famous for how isolated it is.  Although Parker uses a touring band for Tame Impala's live shows, he plays and sings almost everything on the band's studio albums, as well as handling the production.  So it's fitting that he would call his album Lonerism.  Parker can teach his bandmates how to play the songs live, but the album succeeds because it is a single person's vision fully realized on record.  If one member of a band writes a song, they can tell the rest of the band about the song and teach them how to play it, but it's possible that one member may have a totally different interpretation of the song than the writer.  That doesn't happen here.  From the hypnotic drum beats, to the lazy, fuzzy synth notes, every sound on this album is as close to how it sounds in Kevin Parker's head, and exactly how he wants it to sound in studio.  He wanted the morphing guitar in the intro of "Enders Toi" to sound like "Echoes"-era Pink Floyd.  He wanted the bass and guitar to play the riff at the end of "Music To Walk Home By" simultaneously, just like Led Zeppelin did.  But he also wanted the syncopated drums and glitchy synths to sound futuristic and unlike either of those bands.  Lonerism is a great record that combines Parker's excellent songwriting skill with the vintage sounds of his influences and the forward-thinking visions in his head.


3. channel ORANGE - Frank Ocean

iTunes | Spotify

There haven't been many true overnight superstars in recent memory, but Frank Ocean is one of them.  His stunning performance on Jimmy Fallon skyrocketed him into the public eye, and then the critics raved about his album shortly after that.  The music is direct and to the point.  "No, I don't like you / I just thought you were cool / Enough to kick it," Ocean says on "Thinkin Bout You."  Though the pointless skits and interludes bog down the album from time to time, for the most part it moves along, often stopping abruptly when the point of a song has been made.  channel ORANGE combines a truckload of influences, with Ocean's vocal style tying it all together.  The fact that he doesn't miss a note on the whole album is augmented by his captivating mix of sultry R&B crooner and mellow jazz lounge singer.  Frank Ocean is one of the most talented and promising young artists today.  His songwriting still has a lot of issues and has a long way to go and he still put out one of the best records of the year.  I can't wait to see where his talent takes him next.

2. Swing Lo Magellan - Dirty Projectors

iTunes | Spotify

After the sprawling, progressive rock epic that was Dirty Projectors' 2009 album Bitte Orca, bandleader Dave Longstreth set out to make the band's next effort more accessible and poppy.  On Swing Lo Magellan he brings together a collection of love songs that are based more around beats and moods than virtuosity like Bitte Orca.  Four of Bitte Orca's nine tracks were five minutes or more, but only two of Swing Lo Magellan's twelve songs are over four minutes.  Lead single "Gun Has No Trigger" is stripped down and has clear influences from Motown with its leader and backup singers construction.  Brilliant vocalist Amber Coffman does her best Whitney Houston impression on "The Socialites."  But the quirkiness of the Brooklyn band is still here; the sound of this album is very much that of Dirty Projectors.  Standout "About To Die" features a frantic, syncopated bongo beat.  The timing of "Maybe That Was It" is so strange that after five months of hearing it and watching it live I still have no clue what's going on.  Longstreth's guitar playing on "Just From Chevron" and "Dance For You" is some of the best he has ever done.  Dirty Projectors have lifted the barrier of inaccessibility on this album without compromising their band's sound, much in the way of Merriweather Post Pavilion, another highly regarded album.

1. good kid, m.A.A.d city - Kendrick Lamar

iTunes | Spotify

Kendrick Lamar freaked everyone out in the months leading up to the release of his major label debut.  The first single everyone heard that actually ended up on the album was "Swimming Pools (Drank)," of which the cynical lyrics were misconstrued by many a college partier.  Those who saw through its misleading chorus saw it as the familiar sarcastic and political Kendrick Lamar from last year's Section.80.  But when the next song from the album surfaced on the internet, "Backseat Freestyle," the subject matter was confusing.  Gone were the politics that characterized his 2011 release, in favor of a bragging Kendrick who desired money and power and wished his penis was bigger.  Fans waited and waited, as the release date was pushed back.

When we finally heard it, we didn't know what to make of it.  "Backseat Freestyle" and "Swimming Pools (Drank)" are arguably the only two tracks on the whole album that are fit to stand alone.  good kid, m.A.A.d city is heavily conceptual, and isn't immediately striking.  I thought it was good, but I missed the uptempo, louder, jazzy beats that were present on Section.80.  But after a few listens and becoming more familiar with the story of the album, I realized something: good kid, m.A.A.d city is a masterpiece.  It's the best album from 2012 by a mile, and the best album since Kanye West's latest.  The story of the album is deeply personal for Kendrick, but it's also a story of self-realization and redemption that is easily relatable to every listener, even a white kid in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Kendrick Lamar is a great storyteller, and he proves that on this album, telling his own story while interspersing it with tales of characters from his childhood.  The end result is a musical representation of Compton.  We see the city's struggles, and at the end it leaves the hope of a future triumph.  The narrative is certainly the driving force of this album.  There are few featured guests, and the dramatic high point of the album (the stretch from "Swimming Pools" to "Real") only features Kendrick rapping.  For that reason, it isn't a party-ready hip-hop album, with the exception of a few tracks.  But that's one of its strengths; unlike most hip-hop releases today, you don't have to blast good kid, m.A.A.d city out of a huge subwoofer to fully appreciate it.  And Kendrick tells this story with flawless virtuosity, gliding through his introspective lyrics with his natural flow, often in double- or triple-time.

On this album, Kendrick reveals a key aspect of his character to us.  He can't do anything right.  From taking his mother's car without her permission, to sexting his girlfriend and nearly crashing the car, to drinking too much alcohol and smoking too many drugs, the album's story is one long poor decision of a misguided youth.  It's full of moral ambiguity too; on standout "Money Trees" he explains "Everyone gon' respect the shooter / But the one in front of the gun lives forever."  His shenanigans ultimately lead to a botched gang drive-by, which results in the death of Kendrick's brother. When Kendrick realizes the error of his ways, he mourns his brother along with his city, and vows to redeem himself.  He gets right with God and his family, but is that really enough to save him?  Is God enough to save Compton?  Kendrick makes it clear he thinks the politicians won't do his hometown any good.  The album ends on a cliffhanger.  Will Kendrick really live up to his vows and change his ways?  The album is an anthem to all the confused, frustrated youth of today, who don't know what they want and hate thinking about the future.  On this record, Kendrick is impulsive.  He knows what he wants in that moment, but not much beyond that.  There's no explanation for this sentiment, this impulsiveness.  It's simply: "And that's just how I feel."

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Thanks for reading, y'all.  Merry Christmas!  If you like what you hear on Spotify of these albums, I'd strongly encourage you to visit the iTunes link and BUY the album, or visit your local independent record store and pick up a physical copy.  Spotify is a legal alternative to downloading torrents, yes, but it doesn't make the artists much more money than torrenting.  There's only one way great music like this will continue to be made, and that's by funding it.  So if you need a late Christmas gift or want some new music on your iPod, buy the album!!  Anyway, have a happy new year!

--Jacob

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