You might not know it to look at/listen to what little coverage I’ve given music this year (out of what little coverage I’ve given anything, honestly), but I heard 78 albums, mixtapes and EPs released in 2012. That’s excluding reissues, of which you can add at least another ten to that number (seriously, everyone go get the four Archers of Loaf albums). Excepting those only available digitally (like the second Death Grips record of the year – y’know, the cock one), I bought or was gifted all but one on vinyl or CD (the Stanley Odd album, if you’re wondering, which arrived out of the blue from a PR). By and large, I’m happy to have spent that much. It’s been a good year. And I like buying music with my own money, because it means I don’t feel beholden to anyone for a decent review if it’s pish.
Thing is, I can’t really drum up much enthusiasm for this year beyond ‘it’s been good’, because a rarely publicised side effect of taking in that much new music in the space of 12 months is that it’s hard to spend enough time with any one album to develop a serious love of it. My top ten are the albums I feel like I came to know the best, imperfections and all. There was a lot of good stuff outside of these ten – maybe even really good, maybe even better than stuff that made the list, but I can’t say for sure, because there was usually something else demanding my attention before I could find out. I’d estimate I heard more new albums this year than any year since the heyday of Brazen, where we’d dependably receive a few packages of new releases (for free) on a weekly basis.
Honestly, I can’t keep this pace up. Not just for the sake of my new household budget (first-time buyer as of the new year), but because I miss knowing albums inside out. I miss knowing all the words. Hell, I’d be glad just to be able to remember all the titles, so that I can describe gigs after the fact without having to resort to ‘they played… hold on, let me check my iPod’. I’m giving serious consideration to taking next year off from new music entirely and getting to know the records I already own a little better instead. I’ll probably chronicle that experience here, if that doesn’t seem too close to Noel Murray’s fantastic A.V. Club series from a few years back, “Popless“. Obviously there are some albums whose siren song I won’t be able to resist (hiya new Yo La Tengo and Nick Cave), but I think I’ll be happy making a note of things to check out in future rather than impulse buying everything in the new releases bin at Monorail.
Anyway, that’s next year. Top ten albums with accompanying capsules follow, along with some honourable mentions. I left comedy records out of it to keep things simple, otherwise Tig Notaro’s spectacular Live and Paul F. Tompkins’ magnum opus Laboring Under Delusions would likely have made the top ten. Oh, and “Call Me Maybe” was hands down one of the best songs of the year, pop or otherwise, and don’t let any joyless fucker tell you otherwise.
1) Flying Lotus – Until The Quiet Comes
Just as his fellow Los Angelean Paul Thomas Anderson has shaken off the Scorsese/Altman/Demme influences of his earlier work to exist entirely on his own artistic plane (more on that when the film list goes up), so Steven Ellison has moved beyond the Dilla/Madlib-inflected instrumental hip-hop of his first albums and crafted a style which, whilst acknowledging a wide sphere of influence, is wholly his. The pace of his development could only slow after the massive leap forward that was 2010’s frantic, brain-melting Cosmogramma, but the (only comparatively) stripped back Until The Quiet Comes should by no means be seen as a regression. Drawing from the same palette as Cosmogramma – video game music, his peers on the Warp roster, his family’s jazz lineage – Ellison has instead crafted a lush, dreamily beautiful after hours record whilst avoiding every potential pitfall associated with those descriptors (i.e. soporific inanity). Tracks bleed into one another across porous boundaries, defying splintered listening: for all that it has accompanying music videos, this is an album that needs to be swallowed whole. It’s a mood, a feeling, an almost physical space, at once reassuring and paranoid, nervy and smooth, Thom Yorke and Erykah Badu. It’s the sound of night time come to miraculous, all-enveloping life. It’s the work of an honest-to-God genius who, years from now, is going to make a lot of people feel very silly for not having acknowledged him as such.
2) Japandroids – Celebration Rock
Anyone who fell for the simple charms of Japandroids’ 2009 debut Post-Nothing had every right to be worried about its follow-up. After all, this was a band who weren’t even sure they had one album in them, and who seemed so committed to their drinking/girls/bros being bros ethos that it was hard to figure out where they might possibly take it next without stagnating. From Celebration Rock‘s opening sounds of fireworks exploding, fans could breathe a massive sigh of relief and get back to fist-pumping along with the best straight-up indie rock record since Boys and Girls in America. True, Brian King and Dave Prowse’s basic concerns remain drinking/girls/bros being bros, but here the art of spending your 20s fucking about is elevated to mythic proportions. Where Post-Nothing was full of brilliantly dumb sloganeering about sunshine girls and needing a ride to Bikini Island, in Celebration Rock hearts from hell collide on “Fire’s Highway” before the soul of the city is laid to rest in “The House That Heaven Built”, the latter of which contains the most startlingly poetic demonstration of how much they’ve grown between albums: ‘It’s a lifeless life with no fixed address to give / But you’re not mine to die for anymore, so I must live.’ More of this and they’ll be inserting themselves into a continuum alongside The Replacements, Guided By Voices and, yes, The Hold Steady. Purely joyous, life-affirming stuff from beginning to end, and even deeply moving, depending on your mood. The most aptly-titled record of the year. A band that could come to define memories of its era.
3) Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, m.A.A.d City
On its sleeve, Kendrick Lamar refers to his debut major label album as ‘a short film by Kendrick Lamar’, an almost absurdly pretentious claim that, by record’s end, he manages to justify entirely. An MC with the eye for detail and storytelling knack of Ghostface Killah, able to switch between the relaxed, seemingly effortless flow of Q-Tip and the overstuffed urgency of Talib Kweli, Lamar simultaneously celebrates and deconstructs the hip-hop mythos of Compton, creating a narrative that jumps back and forth in time as it looks back on his young manhood growing up and looking for kicks amongst petty street criminals and alcoholics. All of this plays out against an appealingly hazy selection of beats that feel like the cool twilight or morning after of G-funk’s sun-baked streets and all-night ragers, redolent of Lamar’s forebears but taking them in lesser-travelled directions. In “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, Lamar directs his ire at his contemporaries clogging up the top forty, saying of hip-hop as a genre: ‘I’m trying to keep it alive and not compromise the feeling we love / You’re trying to keep it deprived and only co-sign what radio does / And I’m looking right past you’. We’ve been here before many a time – remember when Lupe Fiasco was rapping ‘come in hip-hop, we’ve come to resurrect you’ and hadn’t made L.A.S.E.R.S? – but God damn does he not only sound like he means it, but that he might actually have the chops to see it through. 2012 was a pretty great year for hip-hop, but no other record came close to touching this.
4) Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
No transformation was more startling this year than that of Cloud Nothings from one-man lo-fi bedroom power pop into a fully-fledged, snot-nosed, abrasive, Steve Albini-produced, tightly-wound force of nature. Recording for the first time with his top-notch touring band, Dylan Baldi’s impeccable hooks are still there in spades, but now they share track time with thrilling extended instrumental jams. Alongside Japandroids, Attack on Memory is, more than anything, one of the torchbearers in 2012 of indie rock that actually does rock, reaching back to the heyday of Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, the 90s iteration of emo and Albini’s own bands and bringing their influence careening headlong into the present. It’s a brick through the window of contemporary indie. It grabs all the pleasant balladeers by the lapels and screams ‘I THOUGHT. I WOULD. BE MORE. THAN THI-II-IS’ in their faces, a gloriously malcontented pop-punk howl of rage, angst and frustration from a genre that’s lately been too often content to mumble passive aggressively.
5) Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
Without wanting to be the guy who says ‘these lyrics are poetry, man!’, a Higher English class could do far worse than spend weeks picking apart the layers of meaning and construction of every song on Fiona Apple’s first album in seven years. Take the opening verse of the staggering “Werewolf”, for instance: ‘I could liken you to a werewolf, the way you left me for dead / But I admit that I provided a full moon / And I could liken you to a shark, the way you bit off my head / But then again, I was waving around a bleeding open wound’. An entire relationship – the attraction, the volatility, the violent emotions engendered, the messy ending, the lingering feelings – condensed to four lines. And that’s before you even notice the liken/lycan homonym, or get into the potential innuendo of that bleeding open wound. Every one of The Idler Wheel…‘s ten tracks is a similar miracle of raw poetic concision, both lyrically and musically, pared down for the most part to piano and dissonantly off-kilter percussion (both drummed and bashed out on whatever happens to be near at hand, including the piano), placing the focus squarely on Apple’s virtuosic vocal performances. And, also without wanting to be the guy who compares every record on his list to the work of Paul Thomas Anderson (particularly in this instance), I’m going to reel off just a few of the elements that make this album great – the dissonance, the intimacy, the vulnerability, the unexpected moments of heart-stopping beauty, the equally unexpected bursts of violence – put the words Punch-Drunk Love next to them and leave it at that.
6) Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
For the fullest indication of just how all-conquering a cultural force Channel Orange has been this past year, try to cast your mind back less than two years ago to when everyone thought Tyler, The Creator would be Odd Future’s big breakout star, and chuckle at how absurd that seems in retrospect. Now try to imagine your year without “Thinking ‘Bout You”, “Super Rich Kids”, “Crack Rock”, “Pyramids”, “Lost” or, God forbid, “Bad Religion”. Now think about how much of a prick anyone who ever ended a line with ‘no homo’ must feel. There’s not really much else I can add that you don’t already know – I imagine that out of all the albums listed here, this is the one that everyone has heard and, given how universally beloved it’s been by critics and audiences alike, taken to heart – except to reiterate that it’s utterly extraordinary and a heartening reminder that a unifying blockbuster touchstone of the magnitude of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Voodoo or maybe even, given time, Purple Rain, is still possible in an age of digitally fragmented audiences, and that it can be such even though (and maybe even because) it contains a ten minute song conflating Cleopatra, strip clubs and a John Mayer guitar solo.
7) Miaoux Miaoux – Light of the North
Providing a much needed jolt of energy to a Scottish indie scene that’s been too content these last few years to fall back on acoustic guitar and fiddle, Julian Corrie’s debut solo full length of electronic pop wears its influences openly: There’s the Postal Service track (“Sweep Clean”), the New Order track (“Cloud Computer”), the Four Tet track (“Stop The Clocks”), even the anthemic banger replete with diva vocals (“Is It A Dream”). What elevates it beyond pastiche and gives it cohesion is a quieter, less hip influence, or maybe ‘point of comparison’ would be a more accurate way of putting it: Paul McCartney, whose unerring knack for melody is all over Corrie’s earwormy compositions. This is songwriting that’s the work of a craftsman, and not in the derogatory journeyman sense that term has come to denote, nor the self-serious singer-songwriter archetype. Swooning romanticism goes hand in hand with utter joy in singing, playing, dancing, aching, trying harder, being alive and young and in love with everything. Elevate your hands and arms indeed.
8) The Twilight Sad – No One Can Ever Know
The Twilight Sad’s third album in five years opens with a song whose chorus begins ‘so sick to death of the sight of you now’. That this isn’t the track that’s actually called “Sick” should be an early indicator that the band hasn’t reversed the plunge into darkness begun on Forget The Night Ahead. Like that album, the stylistic shift musically is initially jarring, their trademark wall of noise this time largely stripped back, instead bringing in influences from the bleaker side of electronica and post-punk: Cabaret Voltaire, PiL, Wire’s late 80s period and even at times Nine Inch Nails. Underneath the synths, though, James Graham and Andy MacFarlane’s songwriting is as recognisably their own as anything they’ve ever released, fitting comfortably into their propulsive live sets alongside fan favourites from their first two albums, their evolving sound on record more a reflection of their continued growth on stage than a self-conscious change of direction. It’s clearer now than ever that they have absolutely no interest in trying to recapture the ethereal magic of Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, and they’re all the better for it: You don’t remain the best band in Scotland by staying still.
9) Sun Kil Moon – Among The Leaves
Mark Kozelek’s fourth studio album of original material as Sun Kil Moon is, seven months out from its release, his weakest under that moniker to date. A portrait of the touring musician as a middle-aged man, the bitter humour of Kozelek’s vignettes of fleeting connections made on the road occasionally curdles into self-aggrandisement at best and outright misogyny at worst, especially in the early going: Opener “I Know It’s Pathetic But That Was The Greatest Night Of My Life” finds a young female fan writing to the singer to make the titular claim about the night she tried (and failed) to track down his hotel room after speaking to him at a gig, whilst the self-explanatory “The Moderately Talented Yet Attractive Young Woman Vs. The Exceptionally Talented Yet Not So Attractive Middle Aged Man” grouses at a seemingly more successful (and again, younger) ex whose ‘simple songs, small creations’ he claims wouldn’t be noticed without her ‘pouty face, great photos’. Still, credit Kozelek for putting his ugly side on the line like that, and for his later acknowledgement that ‘men are men, but we’re all half alley cat’. If that doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement for a top ten slot, well, it might not be in lesser hands, but Kozelek continues to make some of the most beguilingly gorgeous music around, couching his lyrics in productions seemingly beamed in from a world where it’s always early autumn. He’ll need to resort to out and out hate speech for my infatuation to end.
10) Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
Miguel is much more a traditional R&B man than Frank Ocean. Well, he is and he isn’t. On the one hand, Kaleidoscope Dream is an album full of none too subtle come-ons, from the immaculate “Sexual Healing” tribute of opener “Adorn” (first lines sung on the record: ‘These lips can’t wait to taste your skin, baby / And these eyes can’t wait to see your grin’) through turning ‘do you like drugs’ from a question to a statement of intent and, in a plea that rivals R. Kelly for bluntness, asking for confirmation that your pussy is, indeed, his. On the other, his genre hopping goes far beyond the standard confines of R&B. With his pompadour and sharp suits, it would be easy to position him as a male Janelle Monáe, but he draws from a different set of influences than the largely peppy ArchAndroid, favouring alternately anthemic and moody electronics that push the typical loverman persona into territory for the most part untouched by the top forty. Centrepiece “The Thrill”, for instance, wouldn’t sound too out of place on M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming or the soundtrack to Drive. Tellingly, that languorously paced piece of dream pop is, musically at least, the closest thing to a traditional ballad on the whole album. Except, y’know, the pussy one.
The next 30 (in order acquired except for Robert Fucking Pollard):
Fránçois & the Atlas Mountains – E Volo Love
Guided By Voices – Let’s Go Eat the Factory/Class Clown Spots A UFO/The Bears For Lunch
Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
The Men – Open Your Heart
Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action at a Distance
Human Don’t Be Angry – Human Don’t Be Angry
Actress – R.I.P.
Jack White – Blunderbuss
King Tuff – King Tuff
Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
DIIV – Oshin
Cooly G – Playin Me
Aesop Rock – Skelethon
JJ DOOM – Key to the Kuffs
Cat Power – Sun
David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant
The xx – Coexist
Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits
Bob Dylan – Tempest
Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet On Sky
Bob Mould – Silver Age
METZ – METZ
Titus Andronicus – Local Business
Captain Murphy – Duality
Jonny Greenwood – The Master
Various – The Man With The Iron Fists OST
Big Boi – Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors