No best album list is complete without something from Detroit. Nowhere else is as no frills and unvarnished. It operates as a palate cleanser to remind you to stop indulging your taste for bullshit. If Chicago drill rap bears a sonic debt to the trap of the dirty south, Detroit’s sound has always mirrored the slums of New York — or Newark if you consider the Eminem-Outsidaz connect. Danny Brown may have found fame as an asymmetrically-haired hipster icon, but his roots are on display on House Shoes’ Let it Go. Black Milk and Guilty Simpson make appearances. So do Quelle Chris and Roc Marciano, the latter of whom pops up on “Dirt,” arguably the most appropriately titled song of the year.
House Shoes has spent a decade and a half building a rep as a DJ’s DJ. A guy who inhabits the traditional role to a tee. He is a connecter and a selector, a curator and turntablist, a sample chopper and a nose bone smasher. His first solo record is a product of the man. A collection of diseased soul instrumentals and drums hard and black as igneous rocks. It’s a producer’s compilation with a clear vision. This was a solid year for the spawns of boon-bap. Homeboy Sandman dropped a good album and two equally 100 EPs. Guilty Simpson and Apollo Brown continued to keep things gully. And Ka and Roc Marciano both appear lower on this list. But House Shoes not only kept the spirit of Dilla and the D alive, he did it his own way. Hard-core and head nodding — the only way he knows how. Big Sean should be locked in up in solitary and forced to listen to this until he stops calling himself “B-I-G.”. — Jeff Weiss
When I recently interviewed DaVinci and his producer/manager Al Jieh, one word and theme came up repeatedly – lineage. We spoke for two hours, and most of that time was spent on history. Mainly the history of the neighborhood which inspired the name of this album, the history of rappers who came from there, and how DaVinci fits into the context of it all. And that’s essentially what the album itself is all about too. Not in obvious ways. It doesn’t try to capture the sound of any particular era nor does it tell a continuous linear narrative. But the air of tradition and nostalgia is plainly there, giving a sense of heft and gravity to the otherwise modern composition of the music; imbuing it with an extremely personal feel.
This ability to impart the presence of a wizened soul is the key ingredient in DaVinci’s appeal. He is obviously talented but he’s rarely prone to experimentation, his approach never feels outdated but it’s never groundbreaking or uniquely original either. As a musical artist he’s not particularly concerned with expanding or redefining the boundaries of his genre. Rap is more like an outlet for him, a way to tell his story and add another chapter to the Fillmore tradition he came from. — Alex Pivevsky
The phrase “Internet rap” conjures up images of nerdy white kids rhyming about HTML and overhyped blog-supported no-names desperately trying to get someone, anyone to listen to their mixtape. Every once in a while, however, the net allows for serendipitous combinations. Take Deneiro Farrar and Shady Blaze, two kindred spirits separated by a continent and brought together via the wonders of e-mailing each other verses. Seamlessly combining their efforts over beats by Soundcloud’s finest including up and coming talents Ryan Hemsworth, $ines, Lunice and Keyboard Kid, the duo’s efforts are almost enough to have you declaring free Wifi as the 5th element of Hip-Hop.
Of course, you wouldn’t know it by their content: Kill or Be Killed is strictly about the trials and tribulations of the streets, a mournful and downcast set of gangsta rap that wouldn’t know swag if it walked in the room and tried to teach someone how to Dougie. Don’t be afraid of the XLR8R-approved production list or the cloud rap tag: this is gangsta rap in disguise. — Son Raw
Regal Degal is a great new-ish band who made a great album this year and were ignored by most music critics. (Jeff threw them some shine in an LA Weekly column, but that was about it.)Hopefully, that doesn’t mean shit to them, and neither should this blurb, since they don’t know me from any of the other working music critics raised in the internet age (unless they love music criticism, mine in particular, in which case I accept your acceptance of my forthcoming praise Regal Degal).
What you should know, is that Regal Degal made one of the great albums of 2012, somehow figuring out how to combine post-punk and blurry drone-rock in a way that makes sense, even if those two sounds seem totally antithetical to each other. “Logs in the River” sounds like a standout from a Sacred Bones compilation, melancholy and upbeat, depressing and catchy. “Diminish Him” is one of the two best DIIV songs put out this year (the other one actually coming from DIIV).
Every song here is smart, dense and catchy, and despite that pleasantly dissonant wall-o’-sound, the lyrics are intelligible, a hybrid of Douglas Martin music that’s slightly more approachable than the work of equally great bands like Women and No Joy. This is approachable niche music and the fact that RD didn’t garner much attention this year should be inspiring for bands of similarly high-caliber—success is more a matter of luck than anything else, and the idea of “making it” shouldn’t extend past making a really excellent album. — Jonah Bromwich
Jeff made the call in his September review that he’d had grave concerns for the artistic validity of Wu-Tang Pulp, and I’d guess most of the Passion writers felt a similar way. But the Wrecking Crew’s Zilla Rocca is not only a friend of this site (and occasional contributor) but also an unapologetic realist. And as the months (years?) rolled by and the project crawled towards competition, his disappointment with its pace was offset by regular excited reports about the results.
That excitement turned out to be justified. Wu-Tang Pulp is a project that doggedly paints its own lane, far removed from the wide array of source material from which it draws. Its samples have been broken down, reconstituted, flipped and fried until their original use is forgotten. Whether you’re a Wu diehard or not, Pulp also provides an opportunity to witness three of the best MCs around (plus guests) blast through an entire tape of muscular beats, playing off off each other like brothers: Zilla Rocca the street-fighting youngest, his square-cut boasts a curt fist to the face, Has-Lo a pragmatic, perceptive middle child, and Curly Castro the crazed first-born, his raps cranked and twisted by what he witnessed.
All three of these guys are head down in individual projects, but Wu-Tang Pulp is arguably their finest work to date. It draws them even closer to each other, and you can’t help but feel together is where their future lies. — Matt Shea
Whether you’ve been down since Music by Cavelight or only know his name via that Aesop Rock record your college roommate wouldn’t shut up about, Interludes After Midnight (the title comes from a late-night adult cable-access show that aired in Manhattan during the ‘80s and ‘90s) is more than worth your time.
It’s a great headphone album—though I’m told it plays fine on speakers—that really does work well when you’re trying to drown out the “Creeps Crouchin” on the train (BART up here in the Bay). With headphones you really get to appreciate the subtle nuances of each track. And you won’t catch a lot of things until the third or fourth listen. Go check the latest boom-bap beat tape from that same college roommate and I guarantee it isn’t anywhere near as cohesive or emotive. With Interludes After Midnight, Blockhead has captured a feeling, a ride down the NY rail lines of his formative years. Whether it’s the Zen-vibe of “Hangover like Whoa,” the haunting ‘rise of the machines’ movie you’ll see in your head playing to the tune of “Tools of Industry,” or the taught and eerie “Snapping Point,” analogous only to a chase through the train yards after a late night art session, this record will take you places while you’re waiting for your favorite program (come on Arrested Development) to return — Max Bell
Chief Keef might be the break-out star from the Chicago’s drill scene in 2012, but musically, Lil Durk’s had almost as good a year as his younger contemporary, even though he spent parts of the year in prison. Durk’s more of a rapper’s rapper than Keef is, and, at 19, already shows a natural capacity for rapping that many rappers take a decade to acquire, if ever. His raps have a forward-only momentum; there’s no time to rest in Durk’s world, let alone go backwards, and his raps have a restless determination, a sense of urgency that give his songs a grim seriousness.
Which isn’t to say that Durk doesn’t know how to have fun. I’m Still a Hitta is definitely fun in places, but it’s a very specific kind of fun. “I Get Paid” hypnotizes with its blunt-force hook, and Durk dances all over the track’s intricate snares, popping up here and then ducking behind corners there. It’s a nihilistic sort of fun—YOLO with a fatalist streak. “L’s Anthem” lurches forward, screams in the background, warbled Auto-Tune propping up Durk’s melodic flow. “Eater” shows Durk’s ear for thick, satisfying hooks, and “Rite Here,” similarly focused on melody, reaches anthem status without losing the snot-nosed snarl. This is the thing with these Chicago kids; no matter how immediately accessible their poppier tracks how, no matter how much crossover potential they have, they’re still hard as fuck. Still a hitta, indeed. — Renato Pagnani
I’ve played Black is Beautiful more times on my iPod than any other record this year. There’s something about Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland’s hazy, half (or perhaps fully) baked mood pieces that lends itself to long walks through the rain. Equal parts nostalgia for a lost past of VHS tapes and Cocteau Twins cassettes and anticipation for a future where Grime producers conduct symphonies in Fruityloops and every city looks like Hong Kong or Tokyo. The album rewards repeated listens, clawing at your subconscious. Whispered Japanese vocals, tossed off Footwork, long-form dub jams, icy cold Gangsta rap and 70s pop covers shouldn’t belong together, but passed through Hype Williams’ lo-fi equipment and warped sensibility, they suddenly don’t make sense any other way.
When I told Hyperdub label head and A&R Kode9 that the record “clicked” for me when I listened to it in the midst of a fairly debilitating flu, his face lit up and he mentioned A&Ring in altered states, most notably when suffering from a lack of sleep. And while I don’t recommend catching an infectious disease or staying up for 3 days straight, I do recommend this release for hangovers, insomnia, blunt sessions or any other time when your head isn’t quite screwed on right. Think Chillwave except awesome. — Son Raw
I’m 89% sure that Wale’s spirit animal is Fiona Apple. The eccentric New Yorker may have been known for a lot of things other than her music in 2012, including but not limited to: long album titles, getting arrested for hash possession, and canceling the last leg of her tour because her dog got sick. But in spite of all that her latest album, titled (deep breath…) The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do was able to turn all of those external commotions into a powerful and raw expression of Fiona’s shattered self.
The Idler Wheel is beautiful for the same reasons it’s inaccessible: the torrent of stripped down emotions on top of bare-bone production isn’t for everyone. Every pain and slice of indecisiveness is dragged from the depths of Apple’s closet and laid out in front of the ever-demanding spotlight. Fiona’s pain is evident throughout the project and creates an uncomfortable air, similar to what one would experience as a stranger peeking into domestic dispute from the safety of a busy street. Writers love to gush about an artist’s emotions. But it’s worth noting that the painful content delivered on The Idler Wheel caries the same themes and emotion that hip-hop journalists have been bestowing onto Future and Pluto for this entire year. After you listen to The Idler Wheel in it’s entirety, it’s hard to see any artist in any genre as being truly honest. — Slava P
As our Great Leader pointed out, Madvillainy has had an unsung influence on a generation of young rappers looking to capture the essence of Doomlib’s magnum opus. Since Doom dropped the MF and is off in permanent exile in the Queen’s country (thus unlikely to finish the long promised sequel), we will just have to make due with the evil cult leader, Captain Murphy, instead. Captain Murphy, the brainchild of Los Angeles beat maker, Flying Lotus marks his debut into the field of rapping after years of lording over the L.A. instrumental beat scene.
Practically everything on Duality is built on the bones of Madvillain. The songs are short, the samples are dusty and the rapping is irreverent. Songs like “Mighty Morphin Foreskin” and the Earl Sweatshirt assisted “Between Friends” showcase Flying Lotus as a goofy prankster on the mic peppering his verses with pop culture references from Street Fighter 2 to Sealab 2021. The album’s highlight is “The Killing Joke,” a chilling creeper of a track, that pays homage to the Joker. Tracks like this prove that Duality is a fitting legacy to one of the greatest hip hop records of the 2000s. Maybe next time, Doom will emerge from his lair in Latveria so hip hop can feel the wrath of the world’s first rap Super-Villain Team-Up. — Doc Zeus
It says a lot about the power of Kenny Dennis that you automatically move to
describe Serengeti’s actual self-titled albums in the context of this ludicrous alter ego. But then it’s a natural thing to do, to relate the tribulations of the comedian through the prism of his onstage work.
Regardless, Kenny Dennis, the 45-year-old Buick-driving, O’Doul’s-sinking, Brian Dennehy-loving boor who’s as dedicated to softball as he is his wife Jueles, took another step to the left with Geti’s Kenny Dennis EP. With a newly completed backstory to draw upon, including a Chicago-area group called Tha Grimm Teachaz and an ill-faited 1993 deal with Jive Records, his creator had licence to skew Kenny
towards the ridiculous. So you have cuts like “Shazam”, a powder keg diss on Shaquille O’Neal after the
former basketball giant and occasional 90s rapper mocked Dennis’s moustache at a Jive Records Showcase. Or “Top That”, unearthed from a set of lost Grimm Teachaz tapes and featuring the zinging hook, “I’m hot! You’re Not! / And if you wanna mess with me I’ll give it one shot / Top that! Top that! Top that! Top that!!!”
If this all sounds too ridiculous for words, it’s because it is. The Kenny Dennis EP is something to be listened to and enjoyed (or not), rather than talked about. Perhaps more importantly, though, Kenny Dennis’s journey into the outer reaches of absurdity suggests in Serengeti an artist who’s more comfortable than ever with being himself. After the manic highs of Kenny, Geti’s C.A.R. full length is very much the Chicagoan coming back down to earth, like he’s been caught alone with his thoughts for once and can’t escape.
Still, in the depths of depression when he’s applying that overactive mind inward to ways of chastising himself, Serengeti still can’t help but get his groove on. He sometimes drifts towards the indie fuzz rap of Buck 65, but the writing’s better and he hews closer to the bass-driven heart of the genre, particularly on cuts like the childhood perv of “Peekaboo” or album highlight “Go Dancin,” where he makes a hopeless stab at reinvigorating exhausted love. Whether Serengeti is being himself or Kenny Dennis, he’s far too often overlooked. His mind’s a rabbit hole – get your hands on these records and go explore. — Matt Shea
On his third album in as many years, L.A. rapper Open Mike Eagle casts a skeptical, sardonic eye on the American financial system, student debt, self-help, self-hating backpackers but most of all, himself. The album is loosely structured around Mike’s visit to the titular hospital, a kind of Chapel Perilous where Mike confronts his personal failings.
4NML HSPTL is a more personal record than Rappers Will Die From Natural Causes. On “HSPTL” Mike regrets boozing habits, hating on friends’ music and spending potential rap checks on a “big rare cockatoo.” Despite HSPTL’s personal bent, the many guests abet our host’s subtly caustic humor. “Cobra Commander” brings in Danny Brown to blame the world’s ills not on Illuminati or the Elders of Zion, but the G.I. Joe villain. On “Your Backpack Past,” Has-Lo and Mike reveal the secrets for concealing a history filled with FatBeats 12’s and dirty Lugz: coke, belting Auto-Tuned R&B, fitted tees and penning think pieces in a mock neck.
On “Universe Man”, Serengeti and Mike offer life advice from lunatics, interpolating They Might Be Giants for the hook. 4NML HSPTL is produced entirely by frequent collaborator Awkward, whose glitchy, static-dusted beats slap and churn like gears turning in Mike’s brain. “Self Medication Chant” is the centerpiece, an examination of Mike’s everyday travails and what those pull out of his head. Even burdened by systematic racism, emotional emptiness and headaches, we keep pushing. Finding inspiration in Eustace Tilley even though he reminds you of slavery. These songs are panacea, everyday proclamations for the mentally taxed and artistically frustrated. — Aaron Matthews
Proving one needs neither a label nor the last name of Palmer to succeed, Black Moth Super Rainbow kicks out its best ear candy in a minute with Cobra Juicy, a Kickstarter-funded affair that has to be all the more fulfilling for the band for that fact alone. While the phrase I’m hearing most often is “their most accessible work yet,” fuck that noise — it merely diminishes what a stellar album Tobacco et. al compiled on their own merits.
Opening with a crunching guitar that has to make Dan Auerbach nod his head in respect on “Windshield Smasher,” the band muscles its way through a technicolor acid trip smoothed back with a heady sativa chaser. This is music for candy flippers. The full spectrum of head trips are approached, from the 70s high school movie projector soundtrack of “Like a Sundae” to the muscular dance floor romp that is “Gangs in the Garden.” Other standouts include the gut bucket groove of “Hairspray Heart,” the beautiful, semi-acoustic slop of “We Burn,” and the fuzzed out bliss of album closer, “Spraypaint,” which basically adds up to damn near every track here. Cobra Juicy is a succulent mess. Enjoy every gooey moment of it. — Chris Daly
This probably sounds terrible, but I was glad to hear 100s extol the virtues of cocaine. Weed and lean make you relaxed and sleepy, molly and ecstasy make you want to dance and hug random people. That’s all fine, but a cool playalistic motherfucker needs something with a little more edge and that’s where the blow comes in. See Superfly or Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: if you’re gonna be a playa you’re gonna need some coke and a coke nail. 100s got those, and the skills to back up all the game he is laying down. And obviously he’s got the hair for the job too.
The younger generation is sorely missing guys like these, the exaggerated hustler anti-heroes of rap, the progeny of Dolemite dripping with fur and jewels. Rick Ross is the closest approximation of this archetype in the mainstream and veteran regional playas still abound, but these are all people in their late 30s. The underground up and comers are more apt to talk about Pimp C than be about it, and they rush to the scene well before being ready for prime0time. Maybe that’s why 100s’ album makes such a strong impression. His character appeared fully formed, his style fills a void and brings a welcome counterbalance. Among a field of weird haircuts in progress, a well groomed perm stands alone. — Alex Piyevsky
While certainly not his most fulfilling album to date, Until The Quiet Comes still exists as an excellent snapshot of Flying Lotus’ progress as a producer over the years. Gems like “Putty Boy Strut” and a video for “Tiny Tortures” starring Elijah Wood managed to keep the album’s buzz alive, but throughout the album’s 18 tracks, you get the sense that FlyLo was somehow lulled in to a false sense of security during production. As much as songs like “The Nightcaller” and “DMT Song” stand out, Until The Quiet Comes seems unjustifiably weighed down by filler. Even the Thom Yorke collaboration “Electric Candyman” seems mildly phoned-in. But that’s the thing about Flying Lotus. We hold him to a different standard. Phoned in for him is fully wired for anyone else. Once you re-calibrate your expectations, it reveals itself to be a gorgeous holding pattern — even though it may end existing as “that one album” in between Cosmogramma and whatever he does next. — Aaron Frank
Genre cross-pollination has been near constant in music since the turn of the century, so it’s no wonder we don’t remark upon it much anymore. Even when Peaking Lights’ masterful debut came out last year, most of the focus was on the band’s backstory (something this sunny from a beautiful Wisconsin couple?) or to the particulars of the individual songs. But with the group’s second album Lucifer being as good as it is, the point becomes almost impossible not to make. In spite of the rise of mash-ups, the slow death of distinctive regional sounds, and the deplorable rise of EVERYONE feeling comfortable enough to rap, the fact remains—anything that results in albums like these is good for music.
Peaking Lights themselves provided an illustration of this fact, by releasing Lucifer in Dub, a version of their album which essentially shoehorned their multi-dimensional music into a single genre. Though a very solid listen in its own right, for the most part, the dub album really just made you remember how great that original copy of Lucifer was. The sharpness of Indra Dunnes voice on the standout “Beautiful Sun.” The fuzzy brilliance of “LO-Hi.” With Lucifer itself, the dub is there all along, but when coupled with five or ten other distinctive worlds of sound, the role of that Caribbean vibe becomes more well-defined, playing off the other genres without ever becoming tedious.
Most credit should go to Aaron Coyes and Dunnis—they clearly love so many different kinds of music that it becomes impossible to separate their influences or to prioritize one sound over any other. But a small thank you also has to go to the total dissolution of genre boundaries: please let music this strange, psychedelic, soulful and funky continue to come out on an annual basis and I won’t ask for much else. — Jonah Bromwich
Near the end of the ominous machine/robot noise, chopped vocals, and static that is the intro to Gaslamp Killer’s Breakthrough, a voice asks a question, looped to repeat: “Do you understand what I’m trying to say?” But before the track does actually end, the question fades away and melts into some soul soothing ‘60s psychedelia that I’m unable able to identify. How did I get here? It’s the question I kept asking myself on my first listen. Things were dark, and then suddenly they were light. It’s not where you would expect to go. You’d expect to launch right into “Veins,” the haunting violin suite featuring Gonjasufi telling you to “cut your vein out of your heart.” But this is what Gaslamp does. He is the crazed beat junkie carney pulling the lever on the sonic rollercoaster for the soul. He wants the light to creep in just before you launch down the tunnel thumping with the sound of bass and Turkish rock.
At 17 tracks, the record clocks in just over 45 minutes. It’s a wild ride, one filled with loops that will give you a head rush and twists and turns that will leave you flailing in raucous rhythm. As far as categorizing this record goes, most will mislabel it an electronic album. It’s not. Go listen to Daft Punk for that.
Breakthrough has too much soul. “Holy Mt. Washington” (with Computer Jay) sounds like Dam-Funk with harder drums and more grime, and “Dead Vets” (featuring Adrian Younge and MRR) is a sinister, organ-grinding cut complete with guitar stabs analogous only to the pain of a needle puncturing the arm of a soldier. For me, the record doesn’t get much better than “Nissim” (with Amir Yaghmai), a deeply personal and meditative track (it’s named after his late brother and grandfather, both of whom passed at 43) that’s inspired me to check out any and all music with a yayli tambur and to learn how to use the repeat function on my Itunes.
If you asked me to form a response to the question the record asks at the beginning, I couldn’t do it. Even if I did give you an answer, it wouldn’t do the man with the message behind his beats any justice. So, do I understand what GLK is trying to say? Maybe. I only know that I feel it. — Max Bell
Sometimes it’s impossible to know what you’re building until it’s complete. Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet’s Pink is mainly a compilation of 12″s released over the last year and a bit. They were not originally intended to form an album, but they absolutely work in this context. Bundled together, they document an immensely impressive stretch of production.
Pink is an inversion of the aesthetic Hebden was working towards on 2010’s There is Love in You. While that record was introspective and demure, Pink extends itself outwards, roots itself firmly on the dance floor, stretches to embrace everything at once. This underlying sense of connectedness permeates the record. Hebden reaches backwards to draw from the roots of electronic music. He opens “Jupiters” with intricate, interlocking synth patterns that recall early practitioners like Laurie Spiegel before dropping into a modern, minimal house groove. He puts dance music’s past in conversation with its present. Surprise, surprise: it sounds like the future.
Zadie Smith wrote a great piece wherein she discusses being on ecstasy at Fabric and feeling that she was more than joyful, she was joy itself, a part of a communal pooling of emotion greater than the sum of all the individual experiences in that room. There are parts of Pink that orbit this idea. When the bass line propelling “Pinnacles” hits, it’s not hard to imagine yourself lost in a throng of bodies moving in unison, traveling somewhere you can only go together. This moment will collapse on itself, but while you’re in it you are warm, safe, part of The Joy. — Adam Wray
With their second album Lonerism, Tame Impala somehow managed to encapsulate the the trauma of the quarter-life crisis without getting mopey or being too overt. While not exactly a concept record, most of the lyrics on the album relate back to the fear and uncertainty of growing older, but the topic is handled deftly by frontman Kevin Parker’s poetic tongue. The rugged, psych-pop sounds of “Elephant” and “Apocalypse Dreams” soundtracked the majority of my summer. But when Lonerism finally leaked and “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” surfaced, it marked the turn of a new era for this Australian five-piece, who might have never crossed our radar without the powerful reach of the web. —Aaron Frank
I didn’t even realize that Ascent had one, let alone two, folk-rock songs until about the 10th listen. It’s unclear where I go when I hear it. My ability to focus disintegrates. I revert to some primitive zonked-out sloth state. My antennae tunes in to some psychedelic pirate rock station in ’68 Tokyo. You start thinking weird scattered thoughts. None of it makes much sense. Ascent is the sort of album that makes you see past lives, extinguished civilizations, psychic casualties. Does that sound melodramatic and heavy? So does this record. Hendrix. Neil Young. Les Rallizes Denudes all in ashes at Ben Chasny’s shrine. Ascent is both a bulldozer to your trivial daily headaches and the feeling of severe pressure clotting against your temples.
Read Stewart Voegtlin’s review. It’s as cuneiform as Ben Chasney’s knotted guitar tones and primeval wails. This is Woodstock in ruins, grotesque and overrun with scavengers. Guitar rock as jagged as a Himalaya, with groove smooth as a getaway car. “ Ascent never quite commits to whether it wants to soar or scatter. It is less concerned with making sense than sensory transformation. Your brain turns into cake batter. Your blood turns to bile. Cruel scarred beauty, offering ascension but never allowing you to leave its gravitational force. — Jeff Weiss
Hair is a warped radio signal from a nonexistent, unspecified 1960s where coifs were longer, six-strings were louder and feedback flooded through razored up speakers. Ty Segall and Tim Presley, under his solo name White Fence, both make their bread with warped revisions of garage rock and psychedelia, respectively. So their collaboration album is not a throwback, exactly; it’s a bit more like jumping through time backwards to ’65 with a Nirvana CD in hand. It’s a rolling ball of guitar fuzz, hiss and fractal shapes, where songs move from soft-focus folk pop to raging garage punk in the blink of an eye.
This is where Segall’s bloodthirsty crunch meets Presley’s mellower pastures and finds common ground. “I Am Not A Game” pairs a declarative Kinks/Who brand chorus which dissipates in a sea of whirring, churning organs before culminating in the album’s most insistent hook. “Easy Ryder” is a sly recasting of the Hendrix song of the same name; it peels back decades of counterculture badassery to reveal insomniac paranoiacs on motorcycles, hopped up on pills and cruising to surf rock. “The Black Glove/Rag” is a Love-style song suite that grafts across a rough divide between Presley’s peaceful psych-pop and Segall’s savage riffage on the second half. You could rattle off names like Arthur Lee, Syd Barrett, the Beatles and the Sonics for days but Presley and Segall hold the ingenuity and wit to really have fun with 60s rock. Irreverence is the word, and the secret to paying tribute now that’s everything been done. –Aaron Matthews
While most UK producers kowtowed before monolithic House trends this year, Pangaea said fuck all of that, going darker, weirder and more idiosyncratically English than practically any of his peers. The Hessle Audio producer combined wobbling bass, amphetamine driven tempos, alien drum patterns and masterful sound design into a wholly unique beast: a dance music collection that rewards front to back listening and that defies easy categorization.
Opener “Game” and the penultimate “Aware,” bounce, tick and twist like dark Garage’s demented cousins with no discernible center or pulse, demanding you bump and flex until you truly feel the groove’s hidden internal logic. That sly Missy Elliot sample didn’t hurt either. The title track chugs along like an evil train, rumbling like primordial Dubstep crossed with the most cinematic of electronic music. “Time Bomb” and “Trouble” both reshape darkness and shadow into shapes as unconventional as
they are danceable and “Majestic” and “Middleman” alternately tackle the darkest of techno and sullen stomping pirate music. It’s thrillingly dark music that takes an idea rather than a genre as a starting point and continues from there, breaking rules, creating new ones and ultimately synthesizing its characteristics into a rare auteurist work that owes as much to a music scene as individual inspiration. We’re ready for that album Pangaea. —Son Raw
No one in 2012 did paranoia better than Ab-Soul. That’s important because in 2012, there was a lot to be paranoid about. Hurricanes, fiscal cliffs, semi-automatics, having to register our biological property… Control System is significant not because of how it compares to the rest of Black Hippy’s output this year, a lens many are content to settle for, but because of how compelling and relevant of a world view it presents. What is so striking, so unsettling, so memorable, is how far Control System stretches into schizophrenia.
No song here feels comfortable with itself – even the deliberately fun ones demand you watch your back. The celebration of drugs and life that is “Showin’ Love” still questions, “I don’t know if I’m on the red carpet or on Mars” over panicking, frantic high-hats. Which doesn’t even touch the levels of manic suspicion on songs like “S.O.P.A.” or “Terrorist Threats.” Soul and Schoolboy trade boastful challenges to the system thinly veiled as anger over Internet censorship. Danny Brown sprinkles some existential dread about drug-addiction. “Pineal Gland” presents Ab at his most frayed and tripped out, worrying about letters from Andromeda that plan to shrine his bladder.
It’s all fantastically imaginative, as well as an arresting way to frame hedonism. The Abstract Asshole, the Black Lip Bastard, revels and struggles in vice both in justification for and response to how incomprehensible his surroundings are. Control System is lush with Ahmad Jamal and Paul Simon samples turned frantic and lyrics dense with obtuse confusion. It achieves heights of fear during a scary-ass year, heights of psychotic anxiety as the Mayans prepare to end us all. When it happens on Friday, make sure you’re registered to donate your organs to science, bitch. — Tosten Burks
Spitta Andretti has made this list for the last three years running. If this is any indication, I’m sure he’ll be here again in 2013. Really, that says more about Curren$y than it does our preference for his immaculately stoned offerings. The man consistently drops solid projects. It’s a highly potent formula: Pick a few smooth beats every day, write raps about women, cars, kicks, video, games, green, and greenery, then record. That’s real “penmanship pimping.” In other words, that’s why much of what Spitta’s output sounds so effortless: he practices his craft regularly. How else could he put out as much material as he has in the last year? For anyone who’s counting, that’s two albums, one Jet Life record, and four (give or take one) mixtapes.
Priest Andretti just happens to be the best Curren$y project of 2012, (Cigarette Boats was a close second for me). With sonic assistance from long-time collaborator Monsta Beatz, Cardo, Harry Fraud, and a few other big name producers, Spitta channels the spirit of Priest, Ron O’ Neal’s character in Superfly (1972), doing what he does best over supersaturated Blaxploitation suites. There are no pauses for punchlines, they are delivered through the smoke and then it’s on to the next one. “Contacts,” “Stainless,” and “Cleopatra Zones” are where you should start. The rest I leave up to you. The tropes essentially remain the same, the backdrop changes slightly (compare the beats on Covert Coup, Cigarette Boats, and Priest Andretti), and as per usual, Curren$y comes out smelling like a weed and Versace. That’s good, right? — Max Bell
If you’ve listened to enough Bronsalino throughout his short career, you should be pretty well-aware of his list of obsessions, including but not limited to professional wrestling, tossed salad (both as artisanal dish and euphemism) and cheesy-ass action movies. As the tribute to the latter, Bronson enlisted 2012 first-ballot MVP The Alchemist– and a few perfectly curated guest rappers– for his second album of the year (the cover of which both gives way to the way fictionalized somersaults and should win all of the Album Art of the Year awards), a tour-de-force of his magnetic charisma, sharp rhyming skills, hysterical sense of humor, and vivid imagination.
After an unskippable intro from everybody’s favorite Albanian felon (not even David Chang’s rice and soup game is equal to that of Big Body Bes), Bronson spits a great many of the year’s best rap verses over much of the year’s best rap production– which is saying a lot given how unspeakably great 2012 was for rap. In the two-movement “Eggs on the Third Floor,” he pushes a Coupe DeVille and then hops into a cypher for the one of the most genuinely enjoyable musical moments of the year.
On lead single “The Symbol,” Bronson lives out his Steven Seagal dreams over rock god guitar soloing that could level the broad side of a Blunderbuss. (He takes it even further in the song’s video,wearing a ridiculous blonde wig, doing karate chops, and basically having the time of his and everybody else’s life.) Sure, Blue Chips has “Hookers at the Point” and “Thug Love Story 2012,” but Rare Chandeliers proves that Bronson is just as powerful a spitter as he is a songwriter. — Martin Douglas
If this list was charting the most original albums of the year then Future’s Pluto would be difficult to unseat. At #1, you’ll read allusions to Illmatic and ATLiens, but how do we even begin to create a context for an all auto-tune Rap & Blues album brimming with soul and sadness? Future is living up to his moniker, taking music’s most infamous filter over a strange, bold new horizon. While the two mixtapes that preceded Pluto didn’t quite deliver on their promise, the gleefully unhinged weirdness of his major label debut most definitely did. Songs like “Never End”, “Straight Up”, “Parachutes,” and “You Deserve It” have no business existing in 2012.
In this era of splashy, big name collaborations, Pluto somewhat boldly relies on three carefully curated choices: T.I. on top of his metronomic game on the “Magic (remix)”, a duet with fellow strange traveler R. Kelly on the aforementioned “Parachutes,” and Big Rube, cousin Rico Wade’s longtime Dungeon Family collaborator. It’s this quality, without the now seemingly mandatory Drake/Wayne/Ross appearances that makes Pluto an interesting, singular vision fitting of the Dungeon Family stamp of approval – to continue a legacy that started with Outkast and Goodie Mobb yet in no way shape or form resembles anything they, or for that matter anyone has ever done. Future began the year as the guy you remember collaborating with YC and ended the year with a showstopper off Rihanna’s blockbuster, evidence that there’s nowhere to go from here but up. I suspect Pluto will live on as a skeleton key for R&B nerds, a secret handshake of sorts for those who have ambition to unsettle the status quo and blaze trails into the as of yet uncharted waters of popular music. — Abe Beame
Frank Ocean does many things right on Channel Orange, but what stands out most is his sense of empathy. A song collection that blurs the lines between autobiography and semi-autobiography and pure fiction and autobiographical fiction. Something that is all those things and none of those thing. Ocean writes about dead-eyed rich teenagers “with nothing loose ends [and] fake friends,” crack-addicted middle-aged women, pimps who have to pay their prostitute girlfriend to have sex with them now, people that suffer from unrequited love, people that don’t know how to love.
No matter who Ocean sings about or what perspective he inhabits, there’s no judgment. He doesn’t pity the prostitute, his voice doesn’t drip with disapproval at the crackheads, he doesn’t treat the super rich kids with disdain. He treats them as real people with real problems and understands there are no easy answers for anyone, no matter their lot in life. They might not have their shit figured out, but neither does he. And when the result is something as honest and generous and simply gorgeous as Channel Orange, maybe that’s OK. — Renato Pagnani
For some, hip-hop production is an arms race to find “new” and exciting samples. Producers want to recreate for listeners the awe of realizing that Pete Rock took mere seconds from Ahmad Jamal’s “I Love Music” and made them into “The World is Yours,” or the bewilderment at seeing the unthinkably obscure records that Madlib used to make Madvillain. The ability to identify and transmute minute details from musical artifacts into something timeless is a super-power.
When you consider this alongside the premise of Russian Roulette – that the album was created after the chance discovery of a Russian-owned record store in Bolivia – Alchemist’s moniker makes a lot of sense. Russian Roulette is a triumph of crate-digging and a cache of incredible sounds culled from the unlikeliest of places. Alchemist shuffles together quick dashes of alien psych and prog, only playing a given beat long enough to set the scene before switching it up. There’s the spectral-to-somber “Apollo’s Last Stand,” the schizophrenic “Training Montage,” the pensive “Never Grow Up” which naturally features Evidence, the mournful “Adrian’s Word – Champion Song,” and of course the Roc Marciano-aided face-melter that is “The Turning Point.”
The wrappings are less a treatise on The Cold War than an American grab bag of Russian cultural markers and a loose Rocky IV narrative. In yet another left turn, the last eight tracks form mini-concept album about a space mission told entirely using beats and song titles. The talented rappers appearing throughout are just a bonus. All the potency, experimentation, and ambition of instrumental hip-hop is here as Alchemist stomps out any doubt that he’s one of the greatest ever. —Evan Nabavian
You might have heard of Rude Headache. A tumblr, it overflows with faux-fervor against Australian four-piece Royal Headache’s supposed lack of manners. The account features crackers such as, “I was at the courthouse once. Shogun was coming out of the toilet and let the door close instead of holding it open for me. So rude,” and, “We were trying to have a nice meal at Boca Fiesta in Gainesville Florida and Royal Headache were playing so loud on the stereo that we couldn’t have a conversation without yelling. Rude.”
The meme was inadvertently kicked off by a Black Keys fan with more time than common sense (Royal Headache supported Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney on their recent arena tour down under – the response from Keys fans was predictably muted), but it illustrated the backward way the Sydney punks have been drilling themselves into the independent consciousness.
Everything they’ve done has been left-handed. They stood outside the triple j radio system that acts as a tastemaker for Australian independent music (think Pitchfork, but for teens). And Royal Headache gigs often go down in odd venues like kickboxing stables and lawn bowls clubhouses. Their choice of label is overtly punk too, R.I.P. Society head Nic Warner recently causing a minor hoo-ha at the Australian
Independent Record Awards when he heckled one of the winners for not being independent (because their music was distributed via a major label).
It would be easy to wonder if there’s actually a band under all the controversy. After all, much of what is written about Royal Headache is about them and not their music. But this is where the Australian music scene makes it easy, because for a band to emerge and gain international exposure the way Royal Headache have, they’re most likely a) very different, and b) very good. And this self-titled debut record truly backs up the hype. On the face of it a 26-minute, 12-track deliverance of pure punk music, Royal Headache’s trump card is their vocalist, Shogun – a curly-haired, glassy-eyed deliverer of pain and impudence.
Shogun’s vocals howl and rage, but they’re also inflected with a stark soul that arrests upon first listen. It’s such a powerful weapon, pulling people into the band’s music and compelling them to hang around until the tunes stick. Shogun’s been compared to Rod Stewart and Otis Redding, but for Australian listeners the obvious influence lands closer to home, with his sudden jumps up and down the register closely resembling the work of Cold Chisel’s Jimmy Barnes. But even without Shogun, Royal Headache’s work would be impressive. The guitars splay themselves across the tracks, casting chords this way and that. It’d be a mess if they weren’t so tightly anchored by a Swiss-precision rhythm section, double hits and crashing cymbals matched to surprisingly plump bass lines.
It makes for an album of aural addiction, one brief, vertiginous high dispensed after the other, whether it’s the climbing “Surprise” or the surf-rock inflections of “Two Kinds of Love.” This is the kind of music that cuts deep and creates instant connections. The reaction against the demented Black Keys fan starts to make sense, because being a Royal Headache fan is like being part of a good-natured in-joke, one free of poseurs and snobbery. It’s pure, lived-in punk – and soul music for people who hate wearing suits. — Matt Shea
The biggest compliment you can give to give to Miguel is that he’s the kind of R&B singer that you’d bring home to meet your parents. There’s no backhanded undercurrent when I say that. Make no mistake, Miguel isn’t a modest guy, contrary to how some have characterized him on Kaleidoscope Dream, his sophomore album. In lesser hands, his aw-shucks sincerity would come off as eye-rollingly cloying, like the “What’s Going On?”-esque “Candles in the Sun” (which, for crying out loud, is called “Candles in the Sun.”) In Miguel’s hands, it’s affectingly innocent and never succumbs to naiveté.
But Miguel isn’t modest so much as honest, operating with a straightforward confidence in a genre full of manipulation and arms-length seduction. When he asks how many drinks it would take to get you leave with him because he doesn’t want to waste his time, it doesn’t come off as arrogant—it comes off as admirably upfront, an adult saying adult things. And then there’s “Adorn,” which might be the single best song of 2012, a track that feels simultaneously a part of a larger whole as well as independent of the album it appears on. It’s three minutes and thirteen seconds of perfection; from its unabashed giddiness to the squishy synths that sound like they’re about to start imploding on themselves, “Adorn” is everything in its right place. Remarkably, the rest of Kaleidoscope Dream is just as good. —Renato Pagnani
A cold late February evening with no L train service: we’re gathered outside the former address of the once legendary Fat Beats record store. Years ago, we’d ascend a dimly-lit staircase to discover crates upon crates of classic underground hip-hop vinyl. Now we’ve been left out in the cold, shielding our mouths from the winds of winter, our hallowed ground forsaken by market forces and shifting tastes. Posted up beneath the entrance stands Ka hooded out in boots and fatigues.
Grief Pedigree is the most unlikely record you’ll find on any year-end collection, the uncompromising vision of a rapper long since crossed off the endangered species list. Its intentions are pure; its ambitions are humble. Ka possesses an almost uncanny facility with words, twisting syllables until the sheer density of the text brings his environment into focus, like eyes adjusting to the darkness. Grief Pedigree may be an anachronism, but it’s also a testament to what art really is: you keep pushing product even if the store’s out of business. — Barry Schwartz
Like a perpetually pissed off phoenix, El-P resurrects his career every half decade, right when hip hop is ready to reinvent itself. After a five year hiatus, the death of a good friend and the permanent shuttering of his seminal underground label, Def Jux, the Original Funcrusher returned to the post-apocalyptic streets of Gotham like an schlubby ginger Batman with Cancer 4 Cure, a furious set of haunted fight music, perfect for your next relapse or the would-be Mayan apocalypse.
The glory days of Def Jux might only be pleasant nightmare, but Cancer 4 Cure is full of the same “independent as fuck” spirit that launched El-P to underground rap royalty a decade ago. El-P grafts new ideas on the bones of El-P’s signature layered horror science fiction aesthetic that start with the machine gun synths of Portishead’s Third, detours into EDM and ends with the operatic grandiosity of Trent Reznor. Killer lead single, “The Full Retard,” finds El-P channeling post-Bush paranoia into the closet thing that he’s come to a pure dance track.
The tragic death of Camu Tao, a member of El-P’s Weatherman collective, from lung cancer weighs over nearly everything; providing the album’s central theme as El-P struggles to find meaning in learning to want to live. A cure for cancer this ain’t but as a soundtrack to your chemotherapy sessions, this is ice cold chicken soup. — Doc Zeus
Azealia Banks has come a long way since September of 2011 when she dropped the video for “212. “Though it’s been a little over a year, it feels like just yesterday that we first saw the young diva dancing in front of an abandoned building with her Mickey Mouse sweater while politely asking us to eat her cunt. By July of this year, Ms. Banks stock had risen considerably thanks to a combination of natural talent, youthful vigor and venomous hate for everyone who looks at her sideways (see: Iggy Azalea, T.I., Elliott Wilson, Jim Jones, Lil Kim, Nicki Minaj, Kreayshawn and more). She capitalized on the hype by releasing Fantasea, a seapunk euro-trash project which was Azealia Banks’ first real attempt at carving out her niche.
Yes, her 1991 EP proved that she could rap – but all four songs on the disc sounded too similar to her inaugural “212” to see any depth or growth. This is more than made up for on Fantasea which features Ms. Banks doing lyrical backflips over acid house, Caribbean dancehall, Montell Jordan samples and vintage Dipset beats. Whether you think she sounds like a more feminine and aggressive Cam’ron or a brattier version of Nicki Minaj, Azealia Banks proved with Fantasea that she’s able to toe the ever-shrinking line between EDM and hip-hop without resorting to recruiting the Guettas or Skrillexs of the world. Speaking of guest appearances, getting Styles P and Shystie to feature on your debut-ish mixtape is nothing to laugh at. I can only imagine how many cups of juice Ms Banks had to buy before David Styles would agree to hop on a song as eccentric as “Nathan.” I proclaim 2013 to be the year of seapunk, post-apocalyptic movies, and Azealia Banks. — Slava P
I suppose this is good a time as any to stake claim as the first rap blogger to champion Ratchet Morales. Prior to earning a legion of insincere band-wagoners on account of his stellar performance on “Cartoon and Cereal,” the Gunplay Coalition, all six of us, suffered through trying times. Our taste was frequently called into question. We were accused of chasing irony. Naysayers refused to acknowledge the pure technical dexterity displayed on Inglorious Bastards and Off Safety. It’s been heartwarming to witness such a deserving talent amass a modest cult following over the last calendar year. But in retrospect, there was certainly an upside to the human L.A. riot registering somewhere amid Teedra Moses and Torch on the Maybach hierarchy. Obscurity forged a towering partition between Rick Ross’ proven, yet often overbearing influence. Sometimes the most effective method of artist development is responsible abandonment.
“Bogota Rich” is the direct result of Gunplay being left to his own narcotic fueled devices. It follows the same format as virtually every mixtape he’s ever released — an aggregate of premeditated freestyles, rehashed collaborations, original solo efforts, and excessive shrieks from a blaring host DJ. The project never introduced a marginal hit record, nor did it offer any proverbs from the Book of Seabass. It’s simply half an hour of unrelenting energy and charisma from a self-professed lowlife occupying the highest link in the food chain. I think I speak for the entire Gunplay Coalition when I express my deepest gratitude to the Rap Gods for blessing skeptics with the good sense to appreciate, or at least incessantly dick-hike, the wayward artistry of Don Logan. — Harold Stallworth
Rick Ross will undoubtedly go down as the most self-less chief executive officer in vanity rap label history. For all the hyperbole exercised in his writing, Rozay’s oath to “do good by [his] people,” Pill withstanding, stands among the most truthful lyrics of 2012. Unfortunately, his generosity may ultimately prove to be his undoing. Never has a crew of minions tried so desperately to sabotage their breadwinner’s livelihood as did the Untouchable Maybach Music Empire on God Forgives, I Don’t.
Aside from the tragic contributions from Stalley and company, it’s an otherwise impressive addition to an already Hall of Fame discography. But on Rich Forever, a promotional mixtape released seven months prior to his fifth retail album, he managed to optimize his crew’s meager talents and coach several of his esteemed peers through gold medal performances. Despite sharing a bevy of bylines, the main attraction was rarely, if ever, consumed by the glare of his supporting cast. Ross’ timbre was more audacious and bulldozing than anything he’s recorded before or since. More importantly, it’s the most fun he’s ever had over the course of a full-length outing. — Harold Stallworth
Like its creator, Mala in Cuba is a record wholly unconcerned with expectations or critical taste. What could be less cool to a Shoreditch tastemaker than a worldbeat Dubstep album…in 2012? Even Mala’s biggest tans grudgingly admitted that they’d probably have preferred a collection of unreleased dubplates when it came down to it. But in a year where dance music and its media arm seemed more unhealthily connected than ever, this disconnect was ultimately a good thing, freeing the DMZ founder to expand his horizons and make a record based on a brand new set of experiences. An extremely process-based album reconstructed from the stems of Cuban session musicians recorded half a world away, Mala in Cuba functions as a travelogue, an exploration and (unintentionally) an organic counterpoint to the drug soaked electronic excess that has come to signify Dubstep in the ears of the mainstream.
Despite being mostly shrouded in darkness like the best of Mala’s work, it’s also a surprisingly playful album, one that’s upfront about its sunny Havana origins and that isn’t afraid to occasionally reveal the original Latin grooves which birthed it. Mala’s always seemed like a bit of a hippy when it came down to it and Mala in Cuba feels like the result of one man’s ultimate backpacking trip abroad: it might not totally “get” Cuba, but it’s one hell of an interesting journey. — Son Raw
If the caustic, coarse-sounding introduction to Str8 Killa was Freddie Gibbs’ state of mind in 2010, then the polished, but equally caustic introduction to Baby Face Killa is the plateau reached in 2012. This year, Gibbs made a yet-to-be-released album with Madlib, appeared on a song with Eminem, toured Europe, and only just exited a stint on Young Jeezy’s CTE label. Baby Face Killa is a map of American rap sounds built from Gibbs’ collected experience. Regional favorites represent East, West, and South with Gibbs as the conduit for a faded tradition of gangsta rap.
Rising to the challenge, Gibbs contains the bombast of Don Killuminati-era 2Pac into a controlled flow that can speed up to keep apace with Krayzie Bone (“Kush Cloud”) or slow to a crawl over a suffocating haze of synths (“Money, Clothes, Hoes.”) The transition from Str8 to Baby Face sees Gibbs singing or employing singers on a third of songs and then deferring to the master on “Boxframe Cadillac (’83 DeVille Mix)” with Z-Ro. It’s a gangsta party with familiar scenes; only the approach evolves. Baby Face Killa sounds better than anything labeled “gangsta” since popular rap music went down south. The highlight depends on taste and mood. Cruising? Bump “On Me.” Back against the wall? Immerse yourself in “Tell a Friend.” Dudes’ night out? Try “Every City.” In any case, Freddie Gibbs makes a strong case for best rapper with a pulse. — Evan Nabavian
I’m sure every write up of Julia Holter’s “Ekstasis” is obliged to mention the title’s etymology- ekstasis, a Greek word, denoting being outside one’s body. It’s where we get the word “ecstasy” from. That OED-ified capsule review is in this case not lazy or wrong at all! The thing about Holter’s Ekstasis is that it is (on the one hand) about a lot of the aesthetics of disembodiment and creating a free floating headspace, unmoored but not out of control. But it’s also, as far as this sort of music goes, highly accessible. At times, it recalls Broadcast or Nico. It get’s sort of dance-y at times! At its best, it recalls those bits of my favorite Godard film, “Une femme est une femme”, that take place in the interior decorating-impoverished nightclub. Ekstasis makes some weird, hand-waving gestures at being sexy and of-the-body. But it’s still overly avant. It’s just that Holter does avant so well that it rarely comes off as strident or out of reach. It takes you outside, offering another view of the world or just yourself. — B Michael Payne
The unholy cabals of ‘Ye, Tunechi and the Bawse might have controlled the system in 2012, it was Top Dawg Entertainment that had pound for pound the best year for a rap crew since Wu-Tang in 1995. While Kendrick Lamar might be Black Hippy’s breakout star and the Black Lip Bastard might the group’s heart and (Ab-)soul, Schoolboy Q’s Habits & Contradictions was the group’s snarling “We’re here, motherfuckers!” mission statement and the record that launched the group’s hot streak this year.
Habits & Contradictions is a wicked concoction of slithering gangster rap, hazy stoner anthems and surprisingly lush production inspired as much by Portishead as N.W.A. It’s a record that pays homage to it’s L.A. roots without falling into the easy traps of dated west coast nostalgia.
Both the Dogg Pound and Lissie can coexist beautifully on the Figg Side which gives Schoolboy a modern sound not trapped in the aging tyranny of Dr. Dre’s steroidal piano chords. “Raymond 1969,” the year’s song most likely to start a knife fight at Coachella, will soothe the soul of a Hoover Crip while Menomena sampling “There He Go” is a party starter for the beards out in Silverlake. An eclectic mix of modern west coast rap that never contradicts itself despite its titular claim. — Doc Zeus
Each summer, one big tune emerges that stands a little taller than the others, soundtracking your montaged memories of the season’s parties. We had James Blake’s “CMYK” in 2010, Rustie’s “Ultra Thizz” in 2011. This year, it was TNGHT’s “Higher Ground.” Buzzy off a glass-shattering SXSW set and spins by the likes of Rustie and Flying Lotus, “Higher Ground” was tough to avoid and a motherfucker once it got its hands on you, its power claps and choppy vocal loop and monster brass hits utterly infectious.
The collaborative effort between LuckyMe label mates Hudson Mohawke and Lunice sounds like a natural extension of their respective styles. Both artists tend to swing for the fences, deploying air-raid synths, hip-deep bass, and drums that resonate like mile-wide kotos. And that’s the arsenal they stick to on this record, building pummeling tunes that are impactful because of their brutal simplicity. These are not delicate songs, and they do not blossom slowly. They grab you by the lapels, shake you up, and leave you feeling exhilarated and maybe a bit bulletproof.
The EP is just 15 minutes long, but its slight runtime works in its favour — listening to a full-length of this stuff would be like shotgunning a bottle of Tabasco. – Adam Wray
Aesop Rock devotees had to wait a long time for Skelethon. Journalists hadn’t been able to critique (like here and here) his “first eight bars” in what felt like an eternity. Of course, that’s only if we’re going by the unwritten industry rule of releasing one album every two years with a slew of EPs and mixtapes in between to keep your name in the pipeline. But we’re not. Aesop doesn’t adhere to these standards. He comes from a time when the words underground and artist still meant something and hitting the skip button while playing your shit meant it was probably just that.
Skelethon is Aesop’s best record to date. If he never releases another, it should be counted as his magnum opus. The album is the perfect synthesis of everything he’s been doing since Music for Earthworms. It’s a near perfect balance in terms of weighing the cryptic (“Postcards from the pink bath paint leisure/As a cloaked horse through a stained-glass Saint Peter”) with the emotively transparent (“Blue in the menacing grip of a day for which you are manifestly unfit”), all amounts to the well-constructed temper tantrum of a man at his ropes end trudging through the wasteland. It is Aesop phoning into the hip-hop radio station that held the telethon before the bombs fell. There’s no one on the other end of the line, but he’s finally ready to air it all out and put his two cents in.
The ills and angst of childhood are on full display (see “ZZZ Top” or “Grace”), the drudgery and near-suicide inducing ennui of the writing life (“Leisureforce”) is dissected, and the zen afforded to those changing lanes on two wheels is painted poetically in what might as well be the first hip-hop ode to Evel Knievel (“Cycles to Gehenna”). I suggest you start with “Zero Dark Thirty,” the album’s first single, on which Rock asserts his place as king of the underground while lamenting the fact that it no longer exists. From there, you can learn about the benefits of a bad haircut (“Racing Stripes”) and “chewing the Eucharist in cruller form” at Bob’s Donuts (“Fryerstarter.”)
If we have to wait another five years for the next Aes Rock record, I’m fine with that. There are still a significant number of eight bar metaphors on Labor Days that I haven’t begun to analyze. – Max Bell
It had been 11 days since Hurricane Sandy when the season’s first snow fell on Long Island. By that time power had been mostly restored to the area, but any hope of a return to normalcy would be further delayed by an indefinite fuel shortage. Gas lines extended for miles and miles and hours and hours down any road where a station had a drop. It’s pretty undignified to be completely fucked, yet there we sat queued on Route 110 in the snow, awaiting our deliverance from the merciful Sunoco: a full tank of regular unleaded gasoline for whatever they felt like charging us.
On Long Island all the poor neighborhoods are surrounded by wealth and all the rich neighborhoods are surrounded by poverty. Terrace Ave in Hempstead, NY is the heart of darkness (there’s no reason to be there for no reason) and Roc Marciano is nothing if not a product of his environment – a survivor and a survivalist. In my desperate hour I listened to Reloaded and somewhere around “Death Parade” the interminable assault of syllables coalesced into a forbidding dread. It is indeed a very cold world and Reloaded is tethered to its temperature. — Barry Schwartz
Remember the indie rock classes of 2005 and 2006: The Boy Least Likely To, Devendra Banhart, Bloc Barty, The Hold Steady, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Love is All, Wolf Parade, Voxtrot, Tapes N’ Tapes, Peter, Bjorn & John, Man Man, Band of Horses. Maybe you’d rather forget. Every one has disbanded or seriously declined. The worst are punch lines about the exuberance of the MP3-blog era and a false utopian future without record labels.
There is no need to remember Grizzly Bear. They are the favorites of Jay-Z, Beyonce, Odd Future, and the music supervisor for Twilight. They’ve played orchestra halls, The Hollywood Bowl and every late night talk show. They scored Blue Valentine and sold Volkswagens. And with Shields, their fourth album, they fortified their reputation as one of the best and most divisive bands of their generation.
If you scan the rest of this list, you can cherry-pick a few choice words and phrases that continually crop up: “raw,” “hard-core,” “underground,” “Montell Jordan samples.” Grizzly Bear technically boast none of those attributes. They are refined aesthetes worshipped by Ira Glass groupies. For this, they’ve been indicted as “sculpture,” “boring,” or “effete.” As though every band needed to be Dinosaur Jr. or Death Grips. As though it’s not enough to make music that simply sounds gorgeous.
No matter how much slander they sustain, no one can say that Grizzly Bear are not originals. They are neither nostalgic nor retro nor futuristic. They exist both as an allergy to modernity and an antidote. You listen less for lyrics than the feel that they incubate. It’s like listening to a Gothic cathedral, marveling at the stained glass and aerial architectonics. The music produces an ineffable feeling—not the catharsis of confessional, but the serrated regrets in your stomach as you enter, the lonely organ that bleeds through the walls, the beautiful penitentiary of isolation.
You can’t name a single band that they sound like, or a proper lineage that spawned them. The Brooklyn-based quartet was originally lumped in with Animal Collective and the freak-folk flurry that soon fluttered away. But Animal Collective can’t match Grizzly Bear’s clarity or concision. And over the years, campfire reveries became orchestral anthems, equally infused with the spirit of classical, jazz, 50s doo-wop and girl groups, and modern R&B. They are neither an indie rock band nor even a rock band. Their touch is too light and their tastes too omnivorous.
If it is sculpture, it is the Doryphorus. If it is sweet, it is subtly sarcastic. It’s not slow, it’s patient. The guitars are oven baked. The voices don’t soar, they levitate. They are Romantics not Modernists. Stuck on the impermanence of life and the persistence of dreams. The lyrics are replete with sleep, shadows, blood and the choking silence of knowing when there is no adequate response. It’s not about having the swiftest blade, it’s about having the sharpest knife. — Jeff Weiss
Mark “Royal-T” Taylor released the best electronic album of the year and may have saved UK dance music’s soul. Nominally a Grime record, it goes beyond that single genre to encapsulate the best of England’s rave traditions over the past 20 years: 2-step Garage (“Inside the Ride“), jacking house (“Move your Body”), euphoric breakbeat diva rave (“You’re Saved“) and aggressive eski-beat rapper food (“Music Please“). Better yet, in a year dominated by smooth sounds by pretty boys with fashionable haircuts, Rinse Presents is unabashedly populist, cranking its sounds up to 11 whereas too many of his peers seemed to spend 2012 lost in the fine tuned details of pointillist atmospheric washes.
This is music made for excess and illegal activity: parties that go on till the early hours and pirate transmissions too raw for the BBC. It’s music made by a 20-something kid from South Hampton who samples Stone Cold Steve Austin to open up his rave sets and puts Sonic the Hedgehog on his mixtape covers. It’s music that’s unabashedly masculine but too enthralled by Garage’s feminine mystique to fall victim to excess aggression. It’s an album with both a tribute to Burial AND 1990s G-Funk. In short, it’s a mutant mongrel that takes all of the most awesome bits music from the past 20 years, grinds it up and shapes it back together in the most potent and colorful way possible, all in one explosive hour of music.
In a year where every mention of Grime seemed to start with “You though it was dead…but it isn’t!” Rinse Presents Royal-T not only proved that England’s bastard musical child was far from dead, it proved that the new generation of producers coalescing around The Butterz label and club nights are making more exciting music than almost anyone in the world with nary a mainstream head catching on. You know, kind of like Dubstep in 2006. — Son Raw
As one of the preeminent Nas Stans walking the planet, I’m capable of providing valid rationalizations for every single shitty artistic decision Nas has ever made, but even I have to admit that it feels nice not to have to do that shit for the first time in a long minute.
There’s always going to be a segment of rap/Nas fans that want him padlocked to the radiator of his youth, so to speak. The rest of us should ignore those idiots. All most reasonable fans require of Nas is for him to marry his impeccable rapping to production and themes worthy of his rhymes. Simple enough, right? Well, for the first time in a while, Nas managed that and more – even down to the bonus tracks. I mean, listening to this album still brings a smile to my face and I’m the most cynical person I know! The man made a feel-good divorce album; that’s kinda amazing. In some small sense, and this could just be the Stan in me speaking, it almost feels like an honor to write about such a graceful and mature rap album. Nas isn’t the first to achieve this non-goal of sorts, but he’s the first one in a long minute to do so on such a wide scale.
Life Is Good isn’t a perfect album – it’s only his best since God’s Son (a sorely underrated project). Some of the aforementioned bonus tracks are probably better fits on Life Is Good than some album tracks and the songs featuring more prominent R&B types are probably the weakest on the set, but that oughta matter little to the reasonable rap fan in 2012. Simply put, Nas churned out a competent and at times, spectacular, set of sophisticated and deeply personal songs executed with a great deal of aplomb and with no suspicions of publicity stunts in lieu of marketing. By returning to the basics, Nas made good music that even feels good to write about. I guess life and art can be good when you keep it simple… — Deen
In any rational year R.A.P. Music would be a consensus critic’s #1. If he only released his album in the third or fourth quarter of the year. If only it weren’t for Frank Ocean’s revelation or Kendrick’s enormous, rockist mission statement, Killer Mike’s masterpiece would be getting its full due. The man only reclaimed political Hip Hop, making the first angry, relevant, conscious album of this century. The union between Mike and underground hero El Producto was equal parts improbable and inevitable. With his own private Bomb Squad, Mike found cohesion and purpose — these are 12 perfect tracks of homespun hellfire executed with perfect rap and brilliant concepts.
Moments like “Untitled,” “Reagan,” and arguably the greatest narrative song of this year, “Jojo’s Chillin” are theses, testaments to a seasoned practitioner mastering his craft with concept and substance. But for my money, the album gets no better then its eponymous track. On “R.A.P.”, Mike is able to lose the pretense of political anger that animates a majority of the album and let’s the true motivation behind his masterpiece shine. It’s a love of craft and history that makes this effort work, and when he drops the gloves and speaks directly to his personal passion he’s never been more effective. Mike unchained, at last. — Abe Beame
Though we haven’t seen a full-length release from Burial since 2008, he’s managed to keep his name alive through a steady stream of monumental EPs, none more so than Kindred. The three song EP culls from a number of different influences, straying from the usual dubstep and two-step framework to create a more wider-encompassing tone than we’ve ever heard from the mysterious UK producer. Most notably, we hear him finally embracing the compositional direction he seemed to be moving towards all along. No track is under seven minutes and the longest of the three, “Ashtray Wasp,” contains multiple perfectly-arranged movements, an approach he seems to be favoring more and more, particularly on the new single he managed to sneak in before the end of the year. — Aaron Frank
You’ve probably never heard of The G.T.O’s. They were a rock group comprised of Sunset Strip groupies and financed and produced by Frank Zappa. They released one album in 1969 with song titles that included: “I Have a Paintbrush in My Hand to Color a Triangle,” “Wouldn’t it be Sad if There Were No Cones?” Love on an Eleven Year Old Level,” and the skit “Miss Pamela and Miss Sparky discuss STUFFED BRAS and some of their early gym class experiences.” It’s satirical, hilarious, and absurd and would probably be one of the greatest albums ever made if any of the G.T.O.’s had a shred of musical ability.
Ariel Pink’s Mature Themes sounds like it was recorded in an attempt to all seduce all seven groupies in The G.T.O’s. The first words of the record are “a Kinski Assassin blew a hole in my chest.” It is part Spy Who Shagged Me, part complaint from a lovesick eccentric looking for someone to give him a pity fuck. The next song starts “G Spot, H Bomb.” The hook “Step into my Time Warp” seems straight out of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The album is part X-Rated camp, Rickenbacker chords ripped from The Byrds, 70s pop covers, Arthur Lee singing cowboy ballads, and schnitzel boogies that go great alongside Suzie Cream Cheese.
Ariel Pink wants to be a con man, but he can’t. No matter how much he tries to obscure his real self, it bleeds through in wry comic asides: “I wish I was taller than 5’4,” “I’m just a nympho from Beverly Hills,” “ I need my schnitzel.” Written in the aftermath of a break-up, Mature Themes both mocks his self-pity and indulges it. It finds Ariel Pink, son of Dr. Mario Rosenberg, hitting the town and texting girls to meet him at the Brite-Spot and the Chateau Marmont. The melodies, chords, hooks and quips are what stick. Aside from Juicy J and 2 Chainz, no one offered more memorable one-liners in 2012 than Ariel Pink. It’s too bad he was born 30 years too late. Mature Themes would have won him his own cast of plaster. — Jeff Weiss
Prior to Blue Chips, Action Bronson was the New York rap revivalist most likely to appeal to New York rap revivalists. He had cool videos, a dope debut more personality than your average 5 borough prospect but he was still operating in a fairly limited box: Statik Selectah beats will only get you so far and no one wants to be pegged as the backpacker’s choice in 2012. Plus, ya know, Ghostface.
Blue Chips changed that by bringing back spontaneity and personality to a New York rap landscape and reminding the world that underneath the technical skills and tradition, NYC is about the characters.Born out of now mythical “Youtube parties” where Bronson and producer Party Supplies would get stoned and pilfer beats by typing in random words into the video sharing service, Blue Chips is all about the process. Rhymes are written on the fly and flubbed with alarming regularity. Sound quality doesn’t so much bump as distort and you can even hear a Mac volume control sound on “Hookers at the Point.” Instead of living in a fetishized golden age where vinyl is king and everything has to be perfect, Blue Chips is boom-bap as it actually was: thrilling, unstable and dirty as fuck. Combining the best of his 90s inspirations’ sensibilities, Bronson made the biggest leap of his young career look easy.
The topics land squarely in rap’s current topical range but his odd flourishes are so singular that it’s harder than ever to compare him to his influences: sure the vocal tone echoes Starks but there’s also AZ, Juju, The Beasties, 3rd Bass, G Rap – the list goes on. Meanwhile Party Supplies’ production is far better than a side project from a Williamsburg sample-pop producer has any right to be and in a year where everyone else was going for molly-enhanced shine, his dirty soul loops proved to be a welcome reprieve.
But above all else, Blue Chips is fun. It gets stuck in your head. You’ll be quoting it to your friends. And in a year where rap made us choose between fun and lyricism –that’s enough to earn it a top spot on our list. — Son Raw
Let great artists be great and you will win more often times than not. It could have been so easy to persist with that Gaga feature, or ditch the ATLien robot voices, or trade introspection for escapism, or record little boxes of boilerplate “Pop That,” copies and call it an early day. With a couple of poor choices, good kid, m.A.A.d city could have easily not become the Great American Rap Album and we would be talking today about how the industry ground up another promising young rapper into industry grade pink sludge. For once though, Interscope had the vision and restraint to simply let the best American musician alive to record the most stunning debut record since…damn, I’ll just say it… Illmatic.
For their faith in Kendrick Lamar’s talent, they were rewarded with sweeping critical accolades and an honest-to-God commercial success. Definitive proof that masses will pay for quality if you just lead them to it. 481,000 in sales and counting for a deadly serious concept album without any major radio hits, feel good pop moments or easily digestible morals? In 2012? The album’s success lies in the basic human connection that people are feeling for the music and the universality of themes expressed in Kendrick’s story. Transcending beyond mere technical mastery or Kendrick’s wunderkind lyrical abilities, good kid, m.A.A.d city is perhaps the most fully realized album describing the modern teenage condition in America since Nasty Nas was losing sleep out of fear of its cousin.
Gifted with a novelist’s attention for detail, Kendrick vividly describes his life, his dreams, and his fears of growing up in Compton, USA and being swallowed whole by the big bad, m.A.A.d city. Kendrick deals with peer pressure, drugs, alcohol abuse, racist cops, gangs and the ever present, classic teenage desire for sex. Like the great heroes of American fiction, Kendrick is the flawed every-man – not an aspiring gang banger but not exactly a “stranger to the funk either” – who is desperate to make something of himself but finds obstacles everywhere he looks. Kendrick’s songs are telling stories that resonate within the soul of all of us. Some of us might not fear the omnipresent danger of death that seems around perpetually around the corner for Lamar, but who hasn’t heard a worried parent warn us that the recklessness of your youth might someday come to “burn us out,” or the soul crushing fear that you will never be as successful as a friend. It’s the commonalities in our experience that link us to our shared humanity and Kendrick is very, very human.
Nothing comes easy. We aren’t even sure at the end of the story that Kendrick finally comes home to his worrying parents. Audiences aren’t given the chance to exhale because for far too many parents in Compton, their child doesn’t come at the end of the evening. From the dreamy sounds of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” to the arresting G-Funk stomp of the title track, good kid, m.A.A.d city is a modern masterpiece. — Doc Zeus