Beyond being the year that Randy Newman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2012 was a hell of a good year for music. But what year isn’t, honestly? Oh yeah. 2002. Screw you, 2002.
20. Action Bronson – Blue Chips
If Mario Batali could spit like Ghostface Killah (and was obsessed with hookers), you’d have the makings of Blue Chips, Action Bronson’s grimy, propulsive, breakthrough mixtape. Weaving through flurries of beats like the nimblest of driving range employees – often within the space of one track – this former chef paints disparate pictures of high-end gastronomy and sordid city streets. But whether he’s talking about drizzling vinaigrette on rosemary bread or a prostitute pissing in a fountain, Bronson does it with imagination, his flow loose and in the pocket, his nasal voice touched with post-bong-hit grit.
19. Santigold – Master Of My Make-Believe
If you had trouble distinguishing Santigold from M.I.A. before Master Of My Make-Believe, then you were in for a heap of trouble. Because while in the grand scheme of things, the album finds Santigold evolving the ska-tronica sound of her pre-copyright-lawsuit debut Santogold in intriguing new ways, it does sound a hell of a lot like that other funky lady. Full of stuttering rhythms, compressed electronic grooves, and lotsa shit talk, MOMMB toes the same fault lines that Maya did – between dance music and hip hop, punk and pop, bliss and rebellion. All of this is a good thing in my book, because Santigold does this whole swagger thing so well, whether it’s over the ominous kabuki funk of “Go!” or the murky dub of “Pirates in the Water.” The fact that we have two artists exploring this twisted pop terrain? To me, that’s something to celebrate.
18. Tenacious D – Rize Of The Fenix
All the backstory you need for Tenacious D’s first non-soundtrack album since 2001 lies in its opening, self-titled song. In which the f-bomb-toting classic rock satirists mourn their failed movie (Tenacious D And The Pick Of Destiny, which was a disappointment, yes), ponder the excruciating tattoo removals their fans must be suffering through, and eventually decide that a hit song could get them back on top. And while Jack Black and Kyle Gass didn’t achieve that elusive “one hit” on Rize Of The Fenix, they proved that they still got it on both levels – comedically, as a pair of melodramatic doofuses who love making fun of rock almost as much as rock itself; and musically, as two strong vocalists who write hard rock sing-alongs with the best of ’em, and get dudes like Dave Grohl to propel them heavenward. Fenix isn’t as generous as that 2001 debut, faltering on all of its skits and a song about the Death Star. But it’s got several of the best rock songs of 2012, especially the hilariously earnest “Roadie” – where else can you get chills while hearing someone sing, “I don’t want you roadie/I want KG’s chode!”
17. Nas – Life Is Good
When something negative happens to an artist we love, and it results in them making some of the best music they’ve put out in years, it usually puts us in an awkward place. Are we thankful for that near death experience/loss of a loved one/messy break-up? Would we gladly have our heroes miserable so long as they keep delivering the goods? But when listening to Life Is Good, 2012’s prime example of career rejuvenation born from sadness, that conflict isn’t there. On top of featuring Nas’ most focused performance in years, one that gives us a unfiltered look into his state of mind after his divorce from Kelis, the artist’s 11th album leaves us feeling nourished instead of hopeless, its title a celebration of honesty over irony. Over one warm, immaculate beat after another (especially those provided by No I.D.), Nas wonders how good of a father he’s been, waxes nostalgic about his childhood in Queens, admits he’s been rich longer than he was poor, and directly addresses his ex-wife in verses full of regret, respect, and love. It’s tempting to call this the Blood On the Tracks of rap, but it’s really a much different animal – a work that respects the past no matter how tumultuous it might’ve been, foregoing bitterness in favor of a battle-scarred kind of hope.
16. Sleigh Bells – Reign Of Terror
It’s rare for an album cover to give you a precise idea of what the music inside might sound like, but that’s exactly what a bloody pair of Keds does on the front of Reign of Terror, a record full of simple sentiments delivered in punishingly loud ways. Sleigh Bells doesn’t reinvent the formula of its 2010 debut, Treats – huge-ass drum machine beats, Derek Miller’s huger-ass stadium riffs, Alexis Krauss’ cooing vocals – but it does buff the edges a bit in the name of atmosphere. The chorus of “Born to Lose” might deliver bass drum hits with an AK-47, but it’s part of a carefully constructed assault of sounds that support Krauss’ suicide-baiting vocals. Whereas Treats could sound like two people battling over the volume dial, its follow-up is more cohesive – with hooks as sticky as these, and sentiments as endearingly straightforward (e.g. “I’ve got a crush on you”), Reign of Terror stays in your head, even after your ears have stopped ringing.
15. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
With 2009’s Bitte Orca, Dirty Projectors became indie darlings, thanks to a mix of angular riffs, wonky vocals and one especially lovely, Nico-biting ballad. But originality isn’t a synonym for quality, and as time passes and its sheen wears off, Bitte Orca’s flights of fancy tend to grate just a bit. But I doubt the same will be said of Swing Lo Magellan. Scaling back the dynamics and acrobatics of its predecessor, Dave Longstreth is in greater command of his talent here, building quieter, more pastoral templates to house his Geddy Lee-ish tenor. But this isn’t a McCartney/Ram kinda deal. Whether it’s a swirling pastiche of string plucks and drum machines or an out-of-leftfield horn section, Magellan is a rich, imaginative affair. It just doesn’t feel the need to declare itself in bold strokes. And thank god for it. Because while Dirty Projectors is far from done experimenting, it proves here that sometimes, a calculated move to the center can be revolutionary.
14. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse
There’s an art to fucking shit up. To making such an unholy racket that a portion of the population wouldn’t even classify it as music. In 2012, nobody perfected this art like Ty Segall. Slaughterhouse, the California dynamo’s second of three albums released this year (yes, you read that right), is the most off the rails of the lot, a seething onslaught of haymaker riffage, squalls of feedback and often-unintelligible screams. And thanks to Segall’s songwriting chops, weakness for British Invasion melodies, and palpable, youthful energy, it’s a freshly culled test tube of undiluted adrenaline unlike anything else I heard this year – except for those other Segall records, of course (see below). If for no other reason, the album matters because it reminds us that few things get the blood pumping like a talented artist beating the hell out of his instruments and vocal chords. You could call it the art of fucking shit up. Or you could just call it rock.
13. Bob Dylan – Tempest
When Bob Dylan visited Woody Guthrie in the hospital, the latter was in his early 50s, and rapidly deteriorating from Huntington’s disease. Now that Dylan is 71 and still releasing music as textured, immediate and Americana-laden as Tempest, his debt to Guthrie is as clear as ever, and his presence as a going concern a rare gift to all of us. If we’d lost him after Time Out of Mind, one of the most brilliant ruminations on age and sickness in rock history, we’d consider ourselves lucky. Yet here he is, 15 years later, laying down haunted blues grooves and crystalline country love songs, singing about trains and the Titanic and John Lennon with wit and mystery. Roll on, Bob.
12. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
Anytime an R&B artist releases a single that sounds like Marvin Gaye, or an album that isn’t heavily influenced by hip hop, it’s hard not to just pigeonhole them as throwbacks, slap a tag like “neo-soul” on them, and call it a day. Miguel does both of these things on his second album, Kaleidoscope Dream, but if anything, he’s looking to the future. Over production that nods to the dark, narcotic atmospheres of The Weeknd and the warmer instrumentation of Erykah Badu’s Amerykah albums, the singer delivers wry plays on words, romantic come-ons and spiritual rallying cries with creativity and conviction. Yes, his gorgeous single “Adorn” is indebted to “Sexual Healing,” but Miguel is reminiscent of Gaye on a deeper level here. Like the legend, he never sounds like he’s trying too hard; his lithe performance goes light on trills, sounding just as comfortable, believable and sexual no matter the context. Which makes Kaleidoscope Dream an album for contemplation, babymaking, and partying, depending on your mood.
11. Screaming Females – Ugly
With a remake of Total Recall, the reunion of Soundgarden and [insert questionable decision here] happening in 2012, it can’t be denied that 1990s nostalgia is something we’ll all have to deal with for a while. And instead of going down retread lane, I suggest listening to Screaming Females’ fifth album. Ugly is a molten-hot shitkicker of a rock record that hearkens back to Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, with walls of guitars thicker than a bank safe and vocals that tremble and snarl. (The fact that Marissa Paternoster is solely responsible for said vocals and guitars is a testament to her genius.) But Ugly is much more than some rock and roll time capsule; after delivering one indelible riff after another, and treating us to late-record masterpieces like the epochal “Doom 84,” Screaming Females distinguishes itself as one of the gutsiest bands of the here and now.
10. Matthew E. White – Big Inner
After reading about Matthew E. White’s borderline-insane obsession with Randy Newman (he tracked him down at home so he could personally hand him demos), I had to hear his debut album, sure it couldn’t live up to the high standards set by my own Newman fanaticism. But impressively, Big Inner did that and more – this is a gentle, intoxicating bear hug of an album, one that pairs richly layered, Newman-esque arrangements with White’s deep, casual vocal stylings, on songs about drinking hot toddies, not having to rush love, and the friend we have in Jesus. Jumping from tender meditations to stone-cold soul grooves, while never making you feel like you have to move from your spot by the fireplace, White is something much more than a guy with great influences. He’s got a sound and a vision all his own, one that could inspire a whole new generation of hero worship.
9. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
On the first single of his major label debut, Kendrick Lamar raps about being alone in his childhood bedroom, nursing a shot and dreaming of adoring fans. One voice in his head tells him that he should dive in a swimming pool full of liquor. Another says that he’s noxious and on the wrong path. It’s a compelling, heartbreaking metaphysical struggle, and only one kind of conflict that arises on good kid, m.A.A.d city, the rapper’s concept album about growing up with all the cards stacked against you. He falls in love, gives in to peer pressure, almost gets arrested and watches his friend commit murder, all while ignoring the voicemails from his mother (who isn’t worried about him, she just wants the car so she can leave the house). Words spill from Lamar’s mouth in a flow that’s second nature; every time he spits 16, it sounds like he could go for 160. Which makes his incisive personal and sociological observations all the more powerful, woven through laid-back loops that belie his Compton roots.
8. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
With both this album and Tempest making my list, I guess my secret is out – I’ve got a thing for grizzled septuagenarians. When they complain about the cold, it makes me so, so hot … Anyways, where was I? Oh yeah. Old Ideas is really good. Even though Leonard Cohen’s resurgence on the road and in the studio has more to do with money than the need to create, the 78-year-old is still the best in the game when it comes to writing songs about religion from the perspective of a sinner. “Amen” is an elegant, seven-minute blasphemy shuffle that we can now turn to for solace after hearing the 11 billionth “Hallelujah” cover. And “Show Me the Place” casts Jesus as a slave to his father, humanizing him more than any Christmas pageant ever could. Couple this caliber of writing with producer Ed Sanders’ subtle country & western touches and some solemn female backup singers, and you’ve got Cohen’s best work in 20 years.
7. Chromatics – Kill For Love
It’s easy to think of the 1980s as a wasteland of synthesizers and gated reverb. But it was also a time period where those elements were used to create beautiful, otherworldly sonic experiences, supporting organic instruments instead of merely replacing them. And it’s these kinds of arrangements that Chromatics simply nail on Kill For Love. This is a band that understands the potential of synths to create expansive frameworks, making listeners feel like they’re in a sonic Monument Valley, horizons all around. Taking cures from The Cure’s artful melancholy and Everything But the Girl’s introspective techno, Kill For Love is generous when building these landscapes. The eight-minute opus “These Streets Will Never Look the Same” takes a subdued “Eye of the Tiger” loop and transforms it into a breathtaking alternate universe, narrated by an Auto-Tune skewed voice repeating the line “The screen stayed flashing in my mind.” Full of shameless melodrama and cinematic production (it comes as no surprise that band member Johnny Jewel had a hand in two songs on the Drive soundtrack), Kill For Love is stuck in an ’80s haze. May their DeLorean never work again.
6. Rick Ross – Rich Forever (2012)
With details about Mitt Romney’s Swiss bank accounts clogging the news cycle, 2012 seemed like a bad time for Rick Ross to drop a mixtape that told us how great it is to have a fuckton of dough. But while practically every track on Rich Forever is concerned with materialistic one-upsmanship (in bed, Ross must count Benzes and Bugattis instead of sheep), it’s redundant in all the right ways, developing Ross’s drug kingpin character into something delightfully cartoonish, and featuring an unbelievable string of monster beats and instant-classic choruses that made me recalibrate my expectations of a mixtape. While Rich Forever is loaded with guests – most notably an in-top-form Nas on the standout “Triple Beam Dreams” – Ross is never outshone, painting ridiculous Robin Leach panoramas with irresistible panache, coming up with another dozen brilliant ways to say he’s rich on every cut (my current favorite: “Gotta run your credit just to bring my name up”). His steady baritone is the only thing about Rich Forever that follows a less-is-more aesthetic, providing a perfect counterpoint to all the tremendous, towering beats.
5. Jack White – Blunderbuss
I love that Jack White is a rock star. There’s just something beautiful about a mild-mannered guy who looks like an Edward Scissorhands stunt double making music that hipsters can listen to with their parents. And what finely crafted music it is. Blunderbuss is far from his first non-White Stripes album, but it is his first solo album, and a hell of a good argument against him ever forming another side project. Sounding more vibrant, organic and fully formed than anything since Icky Thump, the album hits a variety of Americana sweet spots, from the slinky soul of “Love Interruption” to the airy country of the title track and a seriously swinging cover of Little Willie John’s “i’m Shakin’.” Plus, White’s uncanny ability to turn mundane dude problems into poetry remains as sharp as ever. “Smile on her face/She does what she damn well please,” he bemoans on “Freedom At 21,” admitting defeat, yet sounding just a little bit like he enjoys it. It’s theater for sure, but like any rock star worth his salt, Jack White still has me believing every word.
4. Azealia Banks – Fantasea
I am a big Nicki Minaj fan. But I can’t help but wish my first exposure to her wasn’t Pink Friday, but one of the world-beating mixtapes that put her on the map. Her official releases are packed with great singles, but their reliance on chart-baiting dance-pop minimizes her talents. Lucky for me, I can take solace that I’m with Azealia Banks at the ground floor, before she inevitably rockets into the hip hop stratosphere. Comparisons to Minaj on her debut mixtape Fantasea are inevitable, what with her rapid-fire flow, cocksure attitude and club-ready beats. But the differences are crucial – there’s nothing cartoonish about Banks; she’s not one to scream for attention, and her music follows suit. Fantasea is 19 tracks of quick-pulsed, subterranean dance music, with very few hooks to be found. Banks is the hook here, her brilliantly syncopated rhymes proving that the human voice can be the ultimate percussion instrument.
3. Ty Segall – Twins
Ty Segall’s second entry on this list came out after he’d already blown our minds with Slaughterhouse, not to mention Hair, his album with White Fence. Twins is certainly proof of a prolific artist at work, somebody whose writing and recording processes must be as intense and immediate as the high-octane garage rock that is his stock in trade. And amazingly, it’s the best of the three. I mentioned Segall’s affinity for British Invasion melodies above, and he lets them shine through more than ever before on Twins, which, when coupled with his Lennon-esque tenor, inspires visions of The Beatles honing their chops in the dive clubs of Munich. Where Slaughterhouse took its name to heart in its sonic approach, Twins isn’t out to bludgeon, keeping its hooks relatively pristine, whether they’re part of the hyperactive hard rock of “You’re the Doctor” or the incredibly catchy ballad that closes the album, “There Is No Tomorrow.” If this kid finally takes a break, it’s safe to say he deserves it.
2. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
On his sixth album, Killer Mike makes it absolutely clear that he thinks real rap music is “the opposite of bullshit.” So by his own definition, R.A.P. Music is as real as it gets, a masterpiece of the form from a true gangsta scholar who never sounds like he’s full of it – whether he’s threatening Atlanta tourists, proselytizing about his art form, or dancing on Ronald Reagan’s grave. Unless by “it,” you mean a booming voice, mastery of language, political incisiveness, and an exhilarating sense of swagger. Nobody on earth can give a middle finger to the man like Killer Mike, and here he delivers them like a man possessed, slaying every hard, thumping beat that’s thrown his way, making you feel bad for every guest rapper, and damn good to be alive.
1. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
After a long night reviewing at show at Darien Lake this past summer, I decided to take the back roads home. Once I escaped the hell that is that parking lot and entered the wooded regions of Route 62, I put on Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE for the first time. As the highway wound through farm country with open skies above, I was swept away by the starry-eyed romantic plea of “Thinking About You.” Then I reached the outer ring of suburbs, while being treated to a pair of brilliant deconstructions of rich people problems – the breezy, Stevie Wonder-ish “Sweet Life” and the “Bennie And The Jets”-biting “Super Rich Kids.” As Buffalo’s troubled East Side neighborhoods loomed, the golden age hip hop beat of “Crack Rock” provided a spoonful of sugar for a frank take on what happens to addicts. And as I got closer to home, where my wife was waiting up for me, I heard the slinky Isley Brothers lick of “Forrest Gump,” and reveled in how she was running through my mind.
Homorable mentions (in alphabetical order): The Beach Boys – That’s Why God Made The Radio; Beach House – Bloom; Himanshu – Nehru Jackets; Japandroids – Celebration Rock; Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded; Various Artists – Kanye West Presents Good Music: Cruel Summer