I hope you enjoyed reading my mini-reviews of the first 25 albums on my list yesterday, and I hope you are ready to read some more in-depth reviews of the top 25 today. As I went further down the list to the albums I really, really loved this year, I found I had a lot to say. Many of these albums have already been written about a lot this year, but I give my own personal take on them. Here's the top 25. Enjoy!
25. Lambchop - Mr. M
Every minute of this album is beautiful. The subject matter that Kurt Wagner sings on is not always happy, in fact at times it is quite sad, and other times he’s just talking about cooking, but the songs remain beautiful. It’s as if the message of Mr. M is “life is beautiful, no matter what.”
24. Schoolboy Q - Habits & Contradictions
Habits & Contradictions could not have been called anything else. The title describes this album perfectly. At one moment Schoolboy Q is spitting something thought-provoking, at another he’s talking about drugs and hoes. At one moment he’s moral, another, immoral. Good, bad; love, hate; right, wrong; he covers everything and its opposite. It’s an exercise in duality. And it isn’t.
23. Passion Pit - Gossamer
Whether or not you read about Passion Pit mastermind Michael Angelakos’ constant struggle with his bipolar disorder and how that inspired this album, you can still enjoy the hell out of it. In the context of his mental instability, the album’s grim lyrics definitely make more sense, but you can always, like you probably did with their first album, just listen and dance to the joyous music surrounding his tortured vocals. This is definitely an achievement for Passion Pit and Angelakos. No album this year was quite so emotionally gripping; whether it’s happy or sad is up to you.
22. Death Grips - The Money Store
Death Grips had quite a year. In a way they owned this year in music. No other band in recent memory has fucked with people’s expectations this much. No one expected them to release two full albums. No one expected them to sign to the major label Epic Records. No one expected their debut album to be so accessible. No one expected them to leak their own second record and make its artwork a dick pic. No one expected them to basically antagonize their label to drop them. Yet, they did all that and released one of the best albums of the year. The music on The Money Store is just as extreme, uncompromising and idiosyncratic as the band itself. I can’t wait to see what they do next.
21. The Weeknd - Echoes of Silence
I know, I know, this album came out at the tail-end of 2011, not 2012. But, it’s not fair for me to not include it. It was one of my most-played albums this year and my favorite of the Weeknd’s Trilogy. I can’t just leave it out in end-of-the-year limbo like that. This is the Weeknd album that really feels like an album. It seamlessly flows from beginning to end. The way the partying and debauchery cause Abel Tesfaye to straight-up lose it on the song “Initiation”, and the way the rest of the album serves as his come-down, and eventual demise, is as entertaining as watching the massive, computer-animated ship go down at the end of the Titanic … except you don’t cry.
20. THEESatisfaction - awE natural
I don’t get it. How has this album been so underrated this year? Everyone loved Shabazz Palaces’ debut last year and these two were a part of three of those excellent songs. It would be understandable if this album sucked compared to Black Up, but it doesn’t. It’s actually almost as good. The rapping/singing duo of Catherine Harris-White and Stasia Irons really carved out their own territory with their debut, and that territory is instantly engaging, shape-shifting rap, pop, soul and R&B tunes. No matter what style of music they are doing though, it sounds like they’re having a damn good time, and that feeling rubs off on the listener. Those who didn’t give this album the chance are missing out on the fun, in my opinion.
19. How To Dress Well - Total Loss
Tom Krell, aka How To Dress Well, has been one of my favorite artists since I heard the song “Decisions” back in 2010. His debut album was one of my favorites of the last few years, and I was really excited to hear how he would follow it up. Total Loss doesn’t disappoint in any way, and actually outshines Love Remains since all of these songs were made to be heard as one album. Love Remains was merely a collection of tunes from HTDW’s EPs, but Total Loss shows what he can do when he has time to prepare a full album. The improvement in production really adds something to his songs and his songwriting ability has improved as displayed on the stunning “& It Was U”, a R&B/gospel jam for the ages.
18. Andy Stott - Luxury Problems
Luxury Problems is one of the most unique and best electronic albums I have heard this year. The way Stott mixes clattering percussion, incredibly deep sub-bass rumbles, and the vocals of opera singer Alison Skidmore (Stott’s old piano teacher) into dreamy soundscapes that disorient and hypnotize in equal measure is just incredible. The more I explore this album, the more I enjoy it; and the more I enjoy it, the more I forget that I’ve never heard anything like it before. “Originality” is the selling point for all kinds of experimental electronic music, but it doesn’t count for anything if the music can’t move you as a listener. This album does more than move you; it picks you up, carries you off, and sits you down gently at the end.
17. Animal Collective - Centipede Hz
This album didn’t get the universal praise that AC’s past albums have got, but does that mean it is not good? Of course not, a bad or so-so Animal Collective album is still a great album. That’s practically a rule in my book. I might have a little bias towards this album as a huge AC fan, but allow me to make an argument for why it’s one of the best albums of the year. 2012 was a year filled with many, many excellent albums, albums that were powerful, moving, transcendent even. But, it almost made me want to ask “why so serious?” Is it because of the Mayan doomsday propaganda? Or we had another joke of a presidential election, and politicians acted more asininely than ever? Yes, all that sucks. But, sometimes you have to ignore all that bullshit and have fun anyway. That’s what these guys did. This is their most upbeat, fun and unserious album since Sung Tongs. They deserve praise for making an excellent album that also happened to be fun in 2012.
16. Burial - Kindred EP
This is a three-track EP, but it certainly doesn’t feel like that in scope. The music on here is dark, epic and full of mystery. The more I listen to Kindred the more mysterious it becomes. How does Burial make his percussion sound like that? What are those sounds in the background? Is the song falling apart at the seams? Who’s singing those female vocal samples and how are they so grippingly beautiful? As soon as one question is answered, another appears, which means I’ll be listening to these three tracks for a long time to come.
15. Bat For Lashes - The Haunted Man
Artists make some really incredible art when they’re depressed, it’s true. But, I would argue they make their best art when they have just overcome depression and have a new joy for living. Look no further than this album for why that’s true. Natasha Khan, aka Bat For Lashes, found the inspiration to make this album after a devastating break-up that left her in emotional pieces. She wasn’t able to write for a long time, but when she finally overcame her demons and put pen to paper, she wrote what would become the most ambitious album of her career. This album is beautifully produced and orchestrated, and Khan’s voice has never sounded better. There is also several near-perfect pop songs on here. But, more than anything else, this album is rewarding because it is raw, powerful, and uplifting. “Thank God I’m Alive!” Khan emotively belts on the first track and sets the tone for the whole album. It’s the best kind of art. The kind that makes you happy to just exist.
14. TNGHT - TNGHT EP
Who would’ve thought that the best beats of the year would be on an instrumental EP? But, these are, in fact, the best rap beats of the year, so good they shouldn’t even be rapped over. Any extra sound added would take away from the perfection that is this music. “Higher Ground” is the most energetic song I’ve heard in a long time and should be played at every club on planet Earth for the rest of time. If it isn’t playing on the radio everywhere by this coming summer, then there’s no hope for radio. I’m just saying.
13. Chromatics - Kill For Love
Kill For Love might be a better movie than Drive. It’s pretty close. I like the character in Kill For Love better, but his voice kind of sounds like a woman’s. That was kind of weird. But, KFL has less violence than Drive so it’s more family friendly, and I love the part where the main character is listening to a voicemail message from a concerned female acquaintance, deletes it before it even finishes and then throws the phone in the river. That was bad ass. The music on KFL was definitely better. Yeah, I think I’m going to go with Kill For Love as the better film. Hat’s off to Johnny Jewel for the most cinematic album of 2012. It evokes images of driving through the city at night better than a movie about driving through the city at night.
12. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music
Whether or not you are a fan of hip-hop or rap, you should listen to this album. It is one of the most important albums of the year in a way that transcends genre and any blogger’s end-of-the-year list. It is more than just a great hip-hop album. It’s protest music, and not in that vague, metaphorical Bob Dylan way. Michael Render is not happy with America's hip hop culture, society or government, and he’s not afraid to be specific about why. In order to not be afraid to be specific, you have to not be afraid to die. Let’s hope it never happens, but on some level (one that people don’t like to talk about) Killer Mike is putting his life on the line to bring you the messages in this album. At least give him the time it takes to listen to this album once, with an open mind.
11. Purity Ring -Shrines
It’s not very often you hear music that sounds unlike anything you’ve heard before. But, that’s exactly what occurred for me when I first heard Purity Ring’s debut song “Ungirthed”. It sounded completely new. That’s the beauty of Purity Ring’s music. It is something new and fresh that could only have been made with modern-day production tricks and effects. You could compare it to artists like The Knife if you want, but I guarantee you aren't going to mistake a Purity Ring song for another artist's anytime soon. I talked to Purity Ring briefly in the fall of 2011 after a show in Cleveland, and a friend with me asked them what their influences were. “Umm … skin, water, food,” vocalist Megan James replied and continued listing the most random things she could think of. Her point is obvious: they don’t have influences. They tried something new and it worked really, really well.
10. Grizzly Bear - Shields
Grizzly Bear just keep improving with every album. This is their best work yet. The playing is tighter, the songs simpler yet more powerful, and the vocals of Daniel Rossen and Ed Droste are better than ever. These guys also have an advantage when it comes to end of the year lists: they make album-albums. They don’t make songs that are meant to be heard alone. Every song is meant to be heard in the context of the album as a whole. They have done this since the beginning and they are quite good at it by now. Lots of other artists do this as well, but then they compromise by putting in one song that works in the album context, but is there more as a single than anything else. It’s obvious when that happens. Grizzly Bear do not compromise. I love them for that.
9. Ab-Soul - Control System
Ab-Soul might be my favorite member of Black Hippy. I love Kendrick as much as the next hip-hop fan, and his album might be better, but there’s just something about the mad genius that is Soul. He’s one of those artists that either you “get” him or you don’t, but if you get him, then you have nothing but love. He’s incredibly talented as a rapper, even if his flow sounds a little too Jay-Z-ish at times. But, unlike most rappers, what he says always outshines how he says it. He‘s not afraid to voice his opinion on anything, and such is the nature of his complex mind that he covers more subjects in one song than most rappers do in their entire career.
Control System is simply Ab-Soul’s soul put on blast for all to hear. He, along with Killer Mike and his buddy Kendrick, is one of the bravest artists out there right now when it comes to pulling the skeletons out of America’s bank vault of a closet. But, socio-political commentary isn’t his only favored subject. He’ll gladly discuss the pineal gland and the nature of reality, DMT, male-female double standards, Sumerians, religion, and his personal struggles. You name it, he’ll rap about it in an intelligent way with a fresh perspective. The album isn’t all serious either, there’s some party tracks to bump, for appearances and mass appeal only of course. The best track though isn’t the one where he calls Obama a puppet or the one where he talks about smoking DMT. No, it’s the second to last track, “The Book Of Soul”, which is the major standout. It is one the most emotional, powerful songs I’ve ever heard. It is Soul talking about his extraordinary life and the tragedies (one very recent) he’s had to overcome. After that track, the whole album takes on a different context. You know why Ab-Soul is Ab-Soul, why he’s so good, and why he raps like he has nothing to lose.
8. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Allejuhah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Godspeed You! Black Emperor have been a symbol of artistic integrity, political protest and boundary-pushing experimentation since 1994. That’s quite a resume for an instrumental, post-rock band that is a loose, ever-changing collective of musicians. With this album they’ve captured the global feeling of unrest and aversion to change that has defined 2012 and put it into music. It’s an unconventional album, made up of two 20-minute mind-bending post rock tracks and two six-minute drone tracks.
The album opener and first of the two long tracks, the middle-eastern tinged “Mladic”, evokes images of that area of the world that’s been a constant warzone for centuries and of the disillusionment of the American people over our country’s involvement in the chaos. It’s an unrelentingly dark, brooding track that feels like it is about to explode or implode as it builds to an incredibly epic climax. Then, there’s the second 20-minute epic, “We Drift Like Worried Fire”, the polar opposite of “Mladic”. It is a track that evokes sheer, almost unimaginable beauty and transcendence. It’s the people who are choosing to stay positive and move forward during this time of craziness, the ones who know there’s hope and good things to come and will work to make them happen. It’s the “Ascend!” part of the title. These two tracks together with the tense, but at times beautiful drones, make one of the most powerful albums of 2012. Words really don’t do it justice.
7. Jessie Ware - Devotion
Up until a week ago, I’d never heard Jessie Ware’s music. Now, her debut album, Devotion, is one of my favorites of the year. That’s how damn good this album is. It’s a perfect pop album with some of the best production of 2012. Much like Robyn’s Body Talk in 2010, this is one of those excellent female pop records that reminds one how aesthetically deficient and very boring most mainstream female pop artists are (K$HA).
This is a pop album that anyone can enjoy. The production, songwriting and lyrics are all there for the critical listeners. But, for those who just want to dance, there’s plenty of that to be done to this record as well. And although Ware is an ultra-feminine diva, none of her music is alienating for us guys. “110%” is actually one of the most bad-ass songs I’ve heard this year by any artist. I’d compare this record to a really good IPA: goes down smooth as silk, but it’s full of flavor and body that makes every sip equally enjoyable.
6. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
I’m sure this album has topped the majority of the end-of-the-year lists, and I’m sure there’s not much more I can add to the conversation about it. So I’ll just say that, all hype about Mr. Ocean and his sexual orientation aside, this album is a classic that may never be forgotten. I get the feeling when listening to it that Ocean has had this album in his gray matter for a long time, and he’s just been waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with his talent so he could release it. This album is the result of Ocean, to quote Kendrick Lamar, “Standing in the dead-fucking center looking around”, and reflecting on what he sees. And what does he see? Sadness, love, hate, lust, greed, happiness, disillusionment, hope … basically, existence.
5. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel …
Fiona Apple is one brave woman. She doesn’t have a problem baring her soul for all to hear. That’s what makes her such an excellent artist. For this, her best album, her lyrics are raw, uncensored glimpses at Fiona Apple the human being. She made her career on songs about her personal struggles, but never have they been so, for lack of a better word, real.
When listening to an artist like Apple, the temptation is to view her as a catalyst for one’s own emotional strife. Her troubles are much like your troubles and so you cry, laugh, hate and rejoice with her. There’s nothing wrong with that, and indeed her music would not be popular at all if it wasn’t for us all doing this. But, does anyone ever stop and think, “This is a real person, who really has these problems, and she is willing to write songs that are completely honest about them, and share them with millions of people”? I think it is rare for someone to listen to a song like “Left Alone” and not empathize with it, but rather think, “poor girl.” Like I said, the appeal and power of her songs comes from empathy, and that’s wonderful. But, when she makes an album like this, I feel like she deserves to have a listener take a moment to say, out loud even, “Fiona Apple is one of the bravest artists in the world.”
4. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan
Dirty Projectors’ mastermind Dave Longstreth is one of those artists that is a genuine musical genius. So much so that when he makes music that he enjoys and that challenges him, it can be alienating for the rest of us casual or even critical listeners. His early Dirty Projectors material was so out-there and experimental, not many people could “get it.” In 2009, however, he tried making some nice, but still very experimental, pop music on Bitte Orca, and a lot of people enjoyed it. So when he said his follow-up to that album was inspired by Kanye’s instant, insane classic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I didn’t know what to expect. Was it going to be his most experimental album yet like MBDTF was for West, or would it be his most committed effort at making accessible pop music?
Turned out to be more the latter, but what it really is is the most stripped down music DP have ever made. A lot of these songs aren’t pop per say, but their very minimal, repetitive nature almost makes them pop by default. They’re definitely catchy. They’re definitely experimental. This album, despite having themes of American disillusionment, decaying morality and apocalypse, was one of the most fun-sounding albums of the year. And because of the stripped-down approach, it is that much easier for all of us to appreciate Longstreth’s musical genius. Couple this excellent album with its equally good visual element--the ambitious short-film Hi Custodian and the music videos for each song that are really just extended scenes of the film-- and you have some of the best art of 2012.
3. Tame Impala - Lonerism
I’m not afraid to admit that I know what it’s like to be a loner, and can relate to just about everything that Kevin Parker sings about on this album. I’d often wonder back in high school, and even part of college, “Why don’t they talk to me?” And then I came to a similar conclusion, “I don’t care, I wouldn’t listen to a word any of them say anyway, they just talk about themselves all day.” The funny thing is, I think, just maybe, we all can relate to this album on some level, even the ones who didn’t talk to me and made me feel all loner-ish.
It’s a comforting thing to think of oneself as smarter, better, and more artistic than the rest when others don’t appreciate one’s unique personality. But, hasn’t just about everyone, at one time or another, felt that way? Is that so impossible to conceive? At times, yes, it sure is. Each one of us sees the world through his or her own filter lens whether we realize it or not, and that, more than being a loner, is what this album is about. Some people, like Parker, are aware of this, and others are not. It’s hard for the aware ones to relate to the unaware, and it’s hard for individual people to relate in general. So at times, I have felt like I am the only one who gets me, and on the most basic level that is true. But, so has that redneck guy who made fun of me for listening to “weird hipster music.” That’s why, when someone like Parker and Tame Impala come along and make a near-perfect, psychedelic pop concept record about being a loner, more than just Parker can appreciate it on a deeper level. Because we’ve all been the loner. Lonerism is a more common affliction than you might think.
2. Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, maad City
This is not an album by Kendrick Lamar. It is a short film by Kendrick Lamar. Indeed, Good Kid, maad City plays out just like a great movie. The story line has a clear exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution just like you learned about in that film class you may or may not have taken (or may or may not have been awake for) in school. What’s the synopsis? A well-meaning, but flawed young man by the name of Kendrick Lamar struggles to rise above and find an escape from the terrible gang violence that ravages his hometown of Compton, CA. The title couldn’t be better. Sounds like the perfect formula for a summer block-buster that could even get an academy award nod.
The problem with movies is they’re not real, and very rarely try to capture the full, uncensored reality of a story like this. Actually, movies about stories like this don’t usually get made in America. That’s why GKMC is more important than any kind of fictional tale could be. It’s a life. It’s Kendrick’s real life story. On his debut mixtape, Section .80, Kendrick told us loud and clear the kind of messages he wanted to communicate in his music. On his major label debut he had the unique problem of taking those messages even farther while also communicating them again in a way his vast amount of new fans could understand. He solved it ingeniously. Rather than make another concept album about his messages, a sequel to Section .80, he made a prequel. He simply told his life story, the story that lead him to the spiritual and philosophical revelations that allowed him to overcome his surroundings, escape them through music, and become one of America’s next big hip-hop stars.
This, like Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, is an incredibly important album in a way that transcends end-of-the-year lists. It transcends music blogs, Pitchfork, MTV, BET, Billboard charts and, really, all the ways we usually think about music and art. I think it says something positive about the future of humanity that an artist like Kendrick can have a #1 selling album and reach a massive mainstream audience with a story like this. This might be the first time an album like this will reach global audiences thanks to the internet. Will it have a positive impact on the world? That remains to be seen. If it leaves an impact on the listener, it will be positive. The danger is that people have become too accustomed to listening to music as a commodity, and the messages of GKMC might go in one ear and out the other. Either way, Kendrick has attained an incredible artistic achievement here, and all he had to do was follow his Mama’s advice, “Tell your story.”
1. Beach House - Bloom
As much as I would have loved to put Good Kid, maad City as number one, this is a list based on my opinions, and therefore I have to follow what my heart, soul and ears tell me I like the best. I’ve been in love with the music of Beach House since I saw them perform “Zebra” from Teen Dream on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon two years ago. And it wasn’t like the usual, normal, “Oh, I really like this song. This is a cool song.” It was one of those very rare, but so awesome moments (we’ve all had them with music) where my soul said, “Yes, this is what I’ve been missing!”
After that, I bought the album the very next day and proceeded to listen to it constantly for the next several months. When I finally started to get tired of Teen Dream, I went back and listened to BH’s first two albums. It deepened my love for their music even more to see the progress they’ve made over the course of each album. A lot of people like to think of them as this poster child for down tempo, “hipster” music that makes the same kind of albums over and over. Those people obviously don’t have very critical ears. Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand never let their creativity sit still. They improve their very unique, complex-simple approach to music making on every album. Over the course of their career they’ve gone from their very minimal, lo-fi self-titled debut to this, their most ambitious, grandiose and beautiful album yet. With each album they step up the production game, add more layers, and write better and better songs. Bloom is the pinnacle of their talents so far.
To be honest, after hearing all of their work prior to this album coming out I thought there was no way BH could improve what they did on Teen Dream. When I heard they had another album coming out just two years after that one, I thought, “This is probably going to disappoint.” Then, I heard “Myth”. My doubt quickly faded. When I heard the full album for the first time, I loved it. Wasn’t sure if it their best work yet, but I kept listening and listening and listening. I’ve listened to this album more than any other this year so, by default, it is number one. But, what really makes it special is that every time I listen to it feels like the first time. Every listen I find new things to love about it. Every listen I can go deeper into these songs. There is so much to hear, so much to feel, so much to think about. And yet, Bloom has a mystery that never fades for me. The last song, “Irene”, is one of the most powerful pieces of music I’ve ever heard, no exaggeration necessary. It reminds me of Shabazz Palaces’s song “Are You… Can You… Were you? (Felt)” in that it is a song about a feeling that can’t be described. And really, that sums up every song on this album.
Music is such an amazing thing because it can communicate those ideas, emotions and feelings that words cannot, and this album is an excellent example. It communicates a feeling that even the ones who wrote the songs can’t name (“Help me to name it…”). On the closer, “Irene”, Legrand comes as close as she ever will to putting it into words: “It’s a strange paradise.” Hearing Legrand sing this over and over as that song builds and builds and builds, is just so indescribably powerful for me, and it was especially so when I heard it live at Pitchfork Music Festival earlier this year. There was a moment at the song’s summit when it seemed that every person watching was frozen in awe and silence. When the song ended, suddenly disappearing into the ether as it does on the album, I felt as if the final note was still hanging over everything long after the band had left the stage. That is beauty. That is art. That is why I love music. Thank you, Beach House.