2012 was a weird one. So many positive, personally significant things happened, but it was a year marked by transience (my first since graduating from high school). Amidst furious job hunting, burning down the highways in search of one final endless summer, putting my home base of seven years (GSU) into the rearview, and ending the year travailing to find sea legs professionally, all the ephemerality (especially after years without) kept me in a pretty far-out headspace. Unconsciously marrying that with circumstance (i.e. a ubiquitous climate of dystopian dread and disenchantment throughout the country), most of my top releases shared a certain gravity, some even a doomy air, in spite of what I would characterize as a positive year in my spirit overall. No doubt the artists, too felt the weight of the world, though, and channeled that into their music. I also probably had the most rap-centric year of my listening life, thanks largely to a second year of Good Ol’ Boys and the invaluable opportunity it presents to collaborate with my oldest, dearest friend. Few motifs beyond that, except my delight at the prolific output of my top picks: over a quarter of the artists on this list released multiple records over the past twelve months. As the old saying goes, too much of a good thing certainly was a good thing. So without further ado, here are the releases from which I got the most mileage this year.
30. Fidlar – Don’t Try EP (Mom+Pop)
29. Grizzly Bear – Shields (Warp)
28. Heroin in Tahiti – Death Surf (Boring Machines)
27. Raime – Quarter Turns Over a Living Line (Blackest Ever Black)
26. Gaza – No Absolutes In Human Suffering (Black Market Activities)
25. Earth – Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 2 (Southern Lord)
24. Sun Araw, M. Geddes Gengras, & The Congos – FRKWYS Vol. 9: Icon Give Thank (RVNG Intl.)
23. Trash Talk – 119 (Odd Future/Trash Talk Collective/Sony RED)
22. The Chariot – One Wing (Good Fight)
21. Lil Ugly Mane – Mista Thug Isolation (self-released)
20. Horseback – Half Blood (Relapse)
Horseback came to my attention amid mentions of Skynyrd, Crazy Horse, black metal, “hillbilly drone,” and whiskey. Cheap a cash-in as that palette of name drops may be, I didn’t find it altogether inaccurate. The dark Scandinavian underground and the roots of the American South could very well be spiritual kin in their natural mysticism and ruggedly persevering spirit of hope. Half Blood plays like a woodsy experiment in stoking that kinship, to deep, dark, thrilling result.
19. Big Boi – Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors (Purple Ribbon/Def Jam)
From the astral opening notes of “Ascending,” the Intergalactic Funk Crusader makes it abundantly clear that we’re no longer spinning our wheels in the place from which all funky thangs come. Where Sir Lucious Left Foot felt like Antwan working to plant a flag on the same plane in the lyricist conversation as Andre, this plays very much like a declaration of his demand to be recognized as a true-blue artist of the same caliber. The Love Below this is not, but while Three Stacks holds fast to semi-retirement or toiletry endorsement or whatever, Big is twenty years deep in his career and still yanking us along from his new footing, always somewhere light years ahead of the game. He’s certainly putting the “mighty” in his half of the “Mighty O.”
18. Hawks – Push Over (Learning Curve)
It would be too easy to dismiss Hawks as just another pack of Amphetamine Reptiles. Whereas the most notable of those bands yipped and howled and even relied on amplification to assist with squeals of dissonance, Hawks stomp and roar and destroy. And somehow, between their last set I caught (mid-2011, opening for Young Widows) and this record, their sound has snowballed into this nasty, muscular, lumbering beast, complete with “Blood and Thunder” Neil Fallon handling vocal duties. Also for your consideration: best shirt designs ever.
17. Metz – Metz (Sub Pop)
Twice in my lifetime, I have stopped what I was doing and uttered the words “That sounds like In Utero.” Without disclosing the embarrassing first, Metz’s self-produced Sub Pop debut sounds convincingly to me like Albini played fourth man in the studio. If Kurt had truly and fully abandoned Nevermind‘s airtight pop songcraft as he boasted he’d done on In Utero – experimenting wildly with vocal techniques and leaving Novaselic and especially Grohl to rip through passage after passage – I suspect it would’ve sounded a good bit like this. That’s probably unfair to how raw and wonderful this record is on its own terms, but bangers like “Wasted” certainly deliver along that wavelength.
16. Deftones – Koi No Yokan (Reprise)
“Oh, I wish this night would never end.“ You know how Chattanooga looks like a floating future-city at night when it comes into view from I-24’s position up the hill? Koi No Yokan gives me the same feeling as when I see that. I love this record because it feels like a refinement of all I’ve ever loved about the Deftones, but longtime fans seem divided by it (where they seemed universally ecstatic about Diamond Eyes). Even music critics, who put words together for a living, can hardly take a consistent stance within a single review, let alone amongst themselves. I think that speaks, in part, to their staying power. Deftones are so heavy, but they incorporate elements of new wave and shoegaze so tastefully. This is a subtly special moment, though, because they’ve thickened and mastered their signature tones and the songs groove and glide seamlessly as a result.
15. Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Big Moon Ritual (Silver Arrow)
Normally reticent to embrace the jam band sound, the Crowes connection flung me headlong into this one. As it continued to grow on me, it felt like a record I was supposed to love – likely rooted in my high school self’s love of 311’s jammier live side. It’s a super heady record, but one grounded by melody and enriched by harmonies. Big Moon Ritual is best served in the early morning, as a daily reminder of why life’s worth loving. Thank you, Chris Robinson, for helping me return to my center day after day.
14. Curren$y – The Stoned Immaculate (Jet Life Recordings/Warner Bros.)
Spitta is the Miles Davis of the hip-hop game: prolific (seven mixtapes in 2012 by my count), innovative, fond of substance-enhanced creativity (though thankfully not the same ones), and effortlessly cool. In praising last year’s Alchemist collab Covert Coup, I cited his behind-the-beat flow and pitch-perfect curatorial ear for beats that suit his brand. The same is true here, only honed and heightened for major label presentation. Furthermore, I can leave his songs on all day and let the JETS vibe permeate, and that’s the thing: it’s not as much just music we’re talking about with Curren$y as it is a way of (JET) life.
13. Mount Carmel – Real Women (Siltbreeze)
Real rock ‘n roll will always be my lifesblood, and frankly, nobody’s doing it for me right now quite like Mount Carmel. No gimmicks, no frills, just meat-and-potatoes Midwestern soul. I saw them perform for all of 25 people late one Monday night in October, and they poured into that set like there were 25,000 of us (Red Bull’s Sound and Vision episode on them sheds light on this special ethic). Afterward, the dudes went out of their way to connect with everyone who came out to see them play. That authentic spirit of love and gratitude really bleeds into the music, and every song fills your cup. It’s the blues, man. It’s the thing that connects us all.
12. Tame Impala – Lonerism (Modular Recordings)
Unimpressed as I was with InnerSpeaker (i.e. I thought some talent rep had heard Dungen and immediately said, “We have to replicate this exactly, but with American English”), this record blew me away. Super psychedelic, well-written, perfectly executed pop gems. I still can’t believe “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” garnered all the praise, though: “Apocalypse Dreams” was a perfect single for the end of the world (“Everything is changing …”), and the most appropriately named, too. If you’re a crate digger like me, this is the year’s must-have wax.
11. BADBADNOTGOOD – BBNG2 (self-released)
I’ve loved about half a dozen contemporary jazz releases in about as many recent years. 2012’s notable output – Masambi Kikuchi, Tim Berne, Ravi Coltrane, Miles Okazaki, even Vijay Iyer’s resplendent Accelerando – either left no impression or failed to stick with me down the year’s long, winding stretch. The young men of BBNG, however, divisive as they may be among members of the jazz community, have held my attention for a second straight year. Their ability to hear other forms – hip-hop, EDM, British dubstep, shoegaze, even punk – and interpret them through the jazz vernacular is unparalleled, irreverent (in a genre that needs that quality in spades), and refreshing.
10. Black Breath – Sentenced To Life (Southern Lord)
In a word: RIFFS. After initial disappointment that Sentenced didn’t go for the throat quite like Heavy Breathing (one of my favorites of 2010), further listens drew me away from the latter’s plagiarism of Entombed and novelty worship of occult schtick. As a result, I had a blast with 2012’s toughest record (see: solo and outro riff of “The Flame“). And having caught them live this summer, I can now testify: Black Breath rules.
09. Torche – Harmonicraft / Harmonslaught 7″ (Volcom; Amnesian)
As far as I’m concerned, Torche is the greatest band in the world. To restate my mantra of the past few years, they’re my Beatles. Forgiving my imperfect analogue, they’ve finally emerged from the shadow of the landmark Meanderthal (their Sgt. Pepper’s) to deliver their Abbey Road. The same genius songcraft, with a refined interest in sonics, and a lived-in edge. That is, wearier exuberance reflective of their mileage between albums (nothing here has the sunshowery, warm-rain-on-your-face naïveté of that guitar solo in “Grenades“). They’re redefining heavy music (I mean, how deliriously femme is the cover?!), and I can’t wait for them to venture into newer, weirder territory (like one-off tribal freakout “King Beef“). Hopefully their Revolver, Rubber Soul, and White Album await.
08. Action Bronson – Blue Chips / Rare Chandeliers (self-released; Vice)
For as long as I can remember, the Northeast’s hip-hop dialect has been a foreign language. (Confession: I didn’t even really pick up Illmatic until about two years ago. Don’t tell anyone.) Bronsonlino changed that for me. It’s all about “right place, right time,” and before I ever downloaded a mixtape, I got on a wavelength this year with the hugeness of his presence, his wit, charisma, and his vibe. His larger-than-life personality offers context for his hilarious, seemingly effortless free-association boom-bap stylings. Paired with not one, but two game-elevating producers (Party Supplies and the almighty Alchemist), he pulls no punches, rattling off bar after golden bar. I award the Almighty Albanian the silver medal for Most Quotable Human Being of 2012, behind only the utterly inimitable JODY HiGHROLLER.
07. Ty Segall – Slaughterhouse / Hair / Twins (In the Red; Drag City)
I can barely wrap my head around how it’s possible to release three totally different records in less than six short months. Like, have I even finished three books in the past six months? But then they’re all great to boot, and it becomes unfathomable. Over the entire body of songs, Ty dials his brain’s knobs in different directions, channeling subtly different levels of his three (mostly) default settings: Haight-Ashbury love child, Nuggets-on-uppers, and full-on Ron Asheton. The purer moments (“Fuzz War” on one spectral end, “Easy Ryder” on another) keep the fare varied and interesting, but the real magic happens when wires cross and aesthetics bleed through (“Diddy Wah Diddy,” “Thank God For Sinners“). End of the world or not, Ty is going to spend every moment having a blast, sweeping in anyone within earshot of his party. His freak flag is sky-high right now, and the headwinds of creativity are gale-force. For the love of fun, I hope his storm continues a-brewin’.
06. A pair of Black Hippys:
ScHoolBoy Q – Habits & Contradictions (Top Dawg Entertainment)
Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope)
With good kid, K-Dot has officially planted his flag as the new torchbearer of New Weird America. It’s a banner record in a banner year, and I’d only be beating a dead horse offering my praise. My favorite TDE offering came from Q, who sounds totally unlike any other MC I’ve ever heard. He’s got cigarette grit, razor delivery, and a mind-bending approach to rhythm and cadence. Sonically, Habits is dark, grungy, warped, and intense, much like Q himself. I expect big things out of this camp (Ab-Soul included) in 2013 and beyond.
05. Burning Love – Rotten Thing To Say (Southern Lord)
The album’s tone is more or less set by the cover alone: though arranged in tidy cursive, the title is spelled using actual entrails (reflective of frontman Chris Colohan’s belief that “as much as we dress it up in flattery, we’re all only so much meat in the end”). What emerges when needle touches wax is even ghastlier. Half-buried by amp squall, the ghost of Blind Willie McTell opens the proceedings with the eerie knell of his sordid “Searching the Desert for the Blues” (“I really don’t believe no woman in the whole round world do right”). Ten seconds into experiencing the record, visceral and real horror rolls over me like a night fog. The thirty-five minutes that follow only thicken that fog, spinning tales of decay and deprivation – of the mind, the body, the heart, of species, of society. Frequent as they may be, comparisons to Queens of the Stone Age, Motörhead, punk ‘n roll et al. are unfair and inaccurate. No, the raw, powerful Rotten Thing boils down to being the heaviest blues record I’ve ever heard, in sound, spirit, and subject matter. While those bands are preoccupied with living, Burning Love have serious hellhounds on their trail. With Death constantly beckoning, there’s no need for the hollow, self-important fantasy of worldly meaning. Everything ends, and we’re fools to deny its growing closer each day.
04. StoneRider – Fountains Left To Wake (self-released)
Fountains can only be described as a journey, along which an entire record collection – Stax, Motown, Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, Al Green, Grand Funk, rock ‘n roll, psychedelic, country blues, American folk, even Indian and Tuareg concepts – is condensed into a sprawling pair of LPs. On paper, this seems like both a reach and a retread, but it’s studied, seamless, and sincere, infinitesimally full of touchpoints rather than crutched by tropes. Perhaps most notable is the band’s gift for melody, both vocal and instrumental: the riffs are as easy to sing along as the words, which happen to be fashioned into timeless, soaring hooks throughout (ex: “Trigger Happy” and “Say I Won’t“; good luck ever getting them out of your head). According to Instagram, I first heard the record in full 76 weeks ago, and had it been released, would have charted on last year’s list. And after a year, I’ve only grown fonder and fonder. The Fountains gatefold is among the first vinyl I’m excited to pass down to my kids … its appeal is that enduring. But don’t take my word for it – see them live a single time and you’ll be preachin’ the StoneRider gospel, too.
03. Every Time I Die – Ex Lives (Epitaph)
Over a decade into their careers, the party animals-cum-grizzly old misanthropes of ETID finally have finally outrun genre trappings and childish ways, just in time to celebrate the rise of the Police State. And, like their lives depend on it, all parties involved are positively on fire. Wordsmith extraordinaire Keith, beyond his tips of the cap to Keats, Dostoyevsky, and Baraka, demonstratively no longer compromises structure for substance, nor layers of context for cash-grab turn-of-phrase, as he has developed the talent and the experience to achieve both. “Holy Book of Dilemma,” read as a poem, is my favorite piece in many years. Awesome Andy, fresh from a guest jaunt aiding noise terrorists Trap Them, channels that renewed energy into the most crushing sacrament of his riff worship (Melvins, Torche, Black Flag, Jesus Lizard, and Entombed/Black Breath) to date. And newcomer Ryan “Legs” Leger certainly earns his keep with a pummeling performance, downright shaming predecessor Mike “Ratboy” Novak. Here we have the collective’s most complete work: everything from cover to marketing to massive sound (thanks, Joe Barresi) reflect a scathing reproach of the ugliness that wrought our End of Days. ETID want to make abundantly clear that woe is not us. Bloodthirsty for a moment in the sun, we have sung and danced and boasted and gleefully shared footage of our lead-footed dance on the skulls of the good-intentioned along the highway to Hell. C’est la vie.
02. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE (Def Jam)
Music is indispensable to our lives in its ability to rectify our need to express (as a vehicle for achieving shared meaning) and the insufficiency of language, or, as the old Victor Hugo saying goes, its ability to express “that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” If song conveys the meaning of feelings and ideas that words cannot, consider Frank Ocean a Toastmaster. Surreal an experience as channel may be, its nuances are familiar, guided not by explicit road markers along the running time, but by the shared meaning of experiences our souls have stored away, closely enough that we may grow from them, but distantly enough to keep from clinging to their now crystallized, untrue form. These songs are well-crafted enough to appreciate in a purely surface context, but something inside them tugs deeply. Frank’s economy of expression often belies the fullness of what we feel happening, and nowhere does more transpire than on masterstroke two-act album centerpiece “Pyramids.”* Though my highest praise obviously goes to that track, there’s not a middling moment on the whole record. Lest I forget the tender, gorgeous “Thinking About You” or the lost Love Below cut to which Frank so boldly invited the participation of the mighty Andre Benjamin himself. channel ORANGE is, in my mind, a classic, and Frank’s impact will echo through great music for years to come.
*Fun fact: I told at least a handful of people this year that I believed “Pyramids” is one of the greatest songs of all time. Unfounded and relative as that may be, I can’t remember the last song that gave me chills every single time I heard it. It currently stands as the fourth most-played track on the iPod I’ve owned since 2007. Be sure to check out my more in-depth thoughts on it.
01. Death Grips – The Money Store / NO LOVE DEEP WEB (Epic; self-released)
Today’s world eerily echoes Huxley‘s Brave New one. Our freedoms – of information, of suffrage, of due process, of privacy, and perhaps even of our life and liberty – are visibly dissipating. No matter, though! We have more pressing concerns, like “reality” television storylines (Congressional melodrama included), ritual celebrity worship, incessant broadcast of personal banalities, and deepening of our ill-informed misanthropy with help from the 24-hour “news” cycle!
That’s the sound and spirit of Death Grips: Apocalypse Now. What has emerged from the digital ether erupts from our speakers abrasively and arrestingly. While last year’s arresting, out-of-nowhere visuals for “Guillotine” and “Takyon” put the group on my radar, a perfect storm of circumstances primed me to receive the one-two wallop of The Money Store and NO LOVE DEEP WEB. Major-label release Money is pure punk hooliganism, as in “we just infiltrated the establishment, so we’re going to take as much pleasure as humanly possible in destroying it.” “System Blower” and “Hacker” sound like nightclub smashes in the world of French New Extremity, I once described “Punk Weight” as a “Molotov cocktail party,” and sort-of actual hit “I’ve Seen Footage” is paranoid anti-pop perfection. DEEP WEB, however, is a whole ‘nother animal. It feels very much like receiving transmissions from the underground (musically and literally), where the Resistance against the War on Tyranny is taking shape. Lock your doors, they caution, because a world of dogs awaits outside. They, too, will be holed up inside, waiting, beckoning anyone who dares to come up and get them – “it’s all suicide” to them anyway. MC Ride is berserk from start to finish, and “Lock Your Doors” (with its warped samples of actual human screams) and “Deep Web” are two of the genuinely most unsettling songs I’ve ever heard.
I love the electricity Burnett and Hill’s shroud of reclusion generates, and I am inspired by their militant commitment to the purity of their art and its intensification of their already jarring sound. I descended the length of the rabbit hole with Death Grips in 2012, and I hope to continue being invigorated by their primal energy and pure creativity.
I have no idea what new sounds the next year promises, but if the last two have been any indication, it’s only going to keep getting better. I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to a year as much as I do 2013, so with no expectations musically, anything on par with 2012 will be icing on the proverbial cake. Until next time, friends …