E.’s Favorite Albums & Tracks of 2012

Back in 2010, my homie Kyle asked me to throw together a top ten list of songs just for kicks. This is my third annual list, and we now run a blog that Atlanta Magazine, The Fader, and SBNation follow. It’s our weekend war, and you’re welcome to check it out. For now, here are my favorite albums and songs from 2012 (click-through the titles for a choice cut from each album):

my favorite albums of 2012

10. Curren$y – The Stoned Immaculate
After leaving major record labels to pursue an independent solo career, Curren$y released over a dozen mixtapes and several indie albums over the past few years. The Stoned Immaculate served as his major LP debut for Warner Brothers. The word play, the themes (Colorado and Washington, this is your living counterargument against the feds), and the characters (Wiz, Big KRIT, Young Roddy, Trademark) have mostly stayed the same, though Pharrell, JUSTICE League, 2 Chainz, and Wale made their presence known. Still, the sound is bigger– the stakes rose along with the budget. Perhaps the commercial polish made it less of an idiosyncratic and thus memorable release. It’s certainly more approachable than, say, Pilot Talk and Covert Coup. But if you want a Curren$y mixtape, go grab his other releases from this year: Cigarette Boats (with producer Harry Fraud), #The1st28 (with Styles P of the LOX), or Priest Andretti.

9. Miguel – Kaleidoscope
With Frank Ocean and The Weeknd somehow now dominating R&B, it might be easy to forget about other THC-fueled soulful singers. Miguel outright asks, “Do you like drugs?” in one song and “How many drinks would it take you to be with me?” in another. Though I usually skip albums that lack a consistent sound, this album seamlessly combines electronic, rock, hip-hop, and traditional R&B sounds. It must just be his intriguing voice that holds my attention: each verse has its own curious touch.

8. Killer Mike & El-P – R.A.P. Music
If you’re a Reaganite, I’d suggest passing on this album. Killer Mike of the Dungeon Family spouts inflammatory conspiracy theories about our political and religious leaders (and, no, our 44th president is not exempt) on several tracks, most notably on “Reagan” and “Ghetto Gospel.” Though, he’s vicious in his rhymes, he sounds less violent and dystopic than, say, Death Grips. Really, Killer Mike, who is an avid fan of both the First and Second Amendments, wants to use his platform to tell people the truth as he understands it.

7. Clams Casino – Instrumental Mixtape 2
This compilation features two of the best hip-hop instrumentals in recent memory: “I’m God” and the remix of XV’s “Swervin'”. There’s depth to all of Clam’s production. To contrast, I wouldn’t sit for an hour to listen to the best Dr. Dre instrumentals, even though “In da Club” does feature a neat guitar riff. But I will sit and listen to Clams’s instros over and over because they’re compelling and haunting all on their own.

6. Joey Bada$$ – 1999
Much like Blake Griffin in those Kia commercials, teenager Joey Bada$$ and his Brooklyn-based Pro-Era crew rap reminisce about the last year of the 90s. This album may be one of the more traditional hip-hop albums to have come out this year. Apparently it’s still legal to make rap songs without a pumping dance beat. (Who knew?) What I love about this album is that even though it fits neatly into the hip-hop genre, it’s not obsessed with bringing hip-hop back (apparently LL Cool J wants to do just that), a mission akin to “Taking America Back.” Joey raps about his life and his hood, and it’s dope. I kept the J Dilla-produced cuts “Snakes” and “Where It’$ At” on repeat.

5. Beach House – Bloom
Beach House could produce ten more dream-pop albums, and I still couldn’t get enough. Infinite summer!

4. Chief Keef – Back from the Dead
Most working teenagers can’t even manage to prepare my fast food properly (“Did you ask for extra meat or no meat?” smh). Despite (or because of) their age, borderline-mute Chief Keef and his portly producer Young Chop delivered a monumental street album, easily matching the hitting-you-over-the-head bangers of Waka/Luger’s Flockaveli. In Keef’s Pitchfork “Selector” interview, which the site promptly took down because their visit to a gun range potentially violated Keef’s parole (do note that he’s 16), he dismissed three instrumental tracks that Pitchfork wanted him to rap over. Typically, the rapper/interviewee happily chooses one instro and then rhymes over the track. Snare drums not popping off? That’s what Keef doesn’t like. And when Chop spoke with Pitchfork, he said that only his own production inspired him. Perhaps more notably, Chop ranted on Twitter after Kanye West remixed “I Don’t Like” by adding autotune and other flowery effects.

I agreed with Chop’s point about Kanye– the original song is close to perfect. Attempting to make the song even more epic takes away from the original’s appeal. Similar to Keef’s bragging about indiscriminately ridding his block of haters, Chop’s instrumentals here indiscriminately explode on each verse. Though it can get repetitive, this album is not meant to rival the artistry of, say, a Joanna Newsom record. And Keef will not be submitting his lyrics to the Pulitzer’s committee. Little subtlety can be found on this mixtape. But why be subtle when you’re so used to “Winnin” and when the ladies can’t seem to stop screaming your name (“Sosa”)?

What this mixtape may challenge you to do is consider our country’s gun policy (I somehow doubt Keef’s squad registered all the semiautomatic weapons featured in the “I Don’t Like” video), the murders in Chicago that do not receive national media attention, and the limited education and job opportunities for disadvantaged young people. It’s not like Keef quit his accounting job at Ernst & Young and decided to start rapping. Rather than condemning his lyrics and his appearance (and thus only treating the symptoms), maybe we’ll soon focus on the causes. Bang bang.

3. How to Dress Well – Total Loss
I ranked Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean’s albums one-two because of their lyrical mastery, but I chose this How to Dress Well album because of his non-lyrical mastery. HTDW artfully communicates emotion through his energy– I’m still not sure what that means but trust that he’s put a lot of thought into it. Listening harder, perhaps using one of those ear horn trumpets from yesteryear, will not bring clarity when playing “Cold Nites” or “Struggle.” What might help is accepting that words will always paint an incomplete picture because they’re simply sounds and letters that we attach to ideas and to what we see/hear/feel/taste/smell. You could probably just make out to this music, too.

2. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Frank Ocean makes it look easy. He doesn’t grunt or groan in the middle of his songs, and he doesn’t sing ad libs or riffs. He meticulously placed every word and every syllable on Channel Orange, but he often sounds like he just rolled out of bed. The vision and execution of the songs make this a remarkable album. Any pain comes through in his matter-of-fact frankness (ha!) that you could confuse for your friend sitting across from you at brunch after a late night out: he has some regrets but why not revel in how ridiculous life can be?

There’s something entirely familiar about his songs and videos, despite their themes being fantastic. Maybe that’s why he’s such a powerful representative of the non-straight community: here’s a thoughtful, almost sedated singer who loves, hurts, and loves again just like anyone else. Plus, his social commentary stops short of judging, and it can be difficult to judge someone when he doesn’t judge you back. Take “Super Rich Kids.” He merely comments on the ostentatious wealth and waste of his neighbors. Maybe he paints the picture and expects us to fill in the blanks, but drawing that conclusion probably goes too far. He’s at once an observer and a participant in the fanciful reality he describes.

1. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
This album starts with a prayer: young men in unison ask to forgive their sins, even though we have not been introduced to the characters or even to Kendrick Lamar. By the end, with the track “Compton,” Lamar makes sure that you know that his story is ultimately about his hometown. Less obvious, and at the same time more intriguing, is the storytelling that guides the listener throughout the album. At the end of most of the tracks, a character acts out a part of the story, which mainly involves Kendrick and his friends’ riding his mom’s van around the city and causing mischief. I usually press the fast forward button when I hear skits on an album (like with Snoop [Animal’s] Doggystyle), but this works because the songs are loosely connected to the narrative, so missing out on the dialogue would actually take away from the next track.

Lamar does not dumb anything down for his audience: he packs in more words in his rhymes than almost any other rapper (check out “Rigamortis” from Section.80). But it’s not forced. He manages to convey a certain warmth, even when he sings “B**** Don’t Kill My Vibe,” a hook that his label mate Lady Gaga originally sang.

It would probably be wrong to lump Kendrick Lamar with other backpack, post-College Dropout rappers. No person other than Kendrick Lamar has a distinguishable mark on this album. OutKast and other rappers who dared to be weird probably paved the way for songs like “Swimming Pools” to be played on the radio, but Kendrick isn’t the next Andre 3000 or Big Boi. He’s entirely Kendrick.

my favorite tracks of 2012

1. So Many Details – Toro Y Moi
Cerebral, funky, and delightful.

2. I Don’t Like (ft. Lil Reese) – Chief Keef
An alarming video but an unbelievably catchy hook

3. Climax – Usher
Though I’m not sure where Usher wants to go with his career, I’ll hold out hope for more Diplo-produced songs like this one

4. & It Was U – How to Dress Well
A dance song that’s nearly impossible to sing along to

5. Pyramids – Frank Ocean
A ten-minute epic and my favorite track from Channel Orange

6. I Got This – Big KRIT
Turn the bass way up for this one. And listen to all of Live from the Underground if you have a chance.

7. Myth – Beach House
Bloom’s lead (and probably its best) track

8. Turn on the Lights (Ryan Hemsworth Remix) – Future
Ryan Hemsworth essentially recreated this song into something much less irritating than the original

9. Swervin’ – Clams Casino
Addictive, just like all of his second compilation album

10. Jasmine – Jai Paul
I do hope she makes your dreams come true. Also, check out Lemonade’s Neptune for another wavy tune.

11. Hot Shots Part Deux – Action Bronson, Riff Raff, & David Coppafeel
Probably the best introduction to Action Bronson and Riff Raff, if you haven’t listened to them already. After listening to this, check out Bronson’s “Mike Vick” and “Randy the Musical” from Rare Chandeliers

12. Hands on the Wheel (ft. A$AP Rocky) – Schoolboy Q
You have to love the Kid Cudi sample

13. NEEDSUMLUV – Machinedrum x Azealia Banks
I’m still not a huge fan of Azealia Banks, but this song’s a winner

14. Aliens Fighting Robots (ft. Sir Michael Rocks) – Mac Miller
This and “School High” were my favorite brandUn DeShay-produced tracks from 2012. Also, give a listen to Lap of Lux by Sir Michael Rocks of The Cool Kids

15. MYD – Evian Christ
Evian brings to life a short sample from a Tyga song

16. Pretty Flacko (and its remix with Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane, & Pharrell) – A$AP Rocky
Too hype. Pharrell gets extra points for his Captain Ahab reference.

17. Your Drums, Your Love – AlunaGeorge
Almost as much fun as “NEEDSUMLUV”

18. Sunroof – Curren$y
Spitta gets introspective on this and a few other tracks on his major label debut

19. Push Thru (ft. Kendrick Lamar & Curren$y) – Talib Kweli
Your favorite rapper’s favorite rappers

20. Lullabies (Jim E-Stack Remix) – Yuna
Another remix!

21. Westside, Right on Time (ft. Young Jeezy) and Cartoons & Cereal (ft. Gunplay) – Kendrick Lamar
Hey, it’s my list so I can choose two songs, right?

22. Mia Wallace – Wiz Khalifa
Charlie Brown’s Linus on the keys. Just kidding.

23. Thoughts Weigh – Casey Veggies
Some conscious rhymes from Young Veggies

24. 24K of Gold (ft. J. Cole) – Big Sean
And some more conscious rap from these two stars

25. Another You (ft. Kanye West) – Tony Williams
“What good is love if we can’t be equal?”

I wrote this in between watching bowl games, so let me know in the comments if I missed anything you loved! And happy new year!

-E.

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