Year's Best: Okayplayer's Top 12 LPs Of 2012
Okayplayer best albums of 2012
It's the most wonderful time of the year--time to drink spiked eggnog, reconnect with friends and argue about the best albums of 2012. So start mixing up your favorite recipe for coquito, pull up a comfy chair (and comfy headphones) and let the argument begin. Don't get too faded, though, or let the "discussion" drag out too long. You'll undoubtedly want to raid this list for gift ideas and at the time of writing you only have 11 days 5 hours 44 minutes and 36 seconds left on the Christmas clock. And even less on the Doomsday clock. So let the countdown begin! (Actually, it's not a countdown. What follows are the 12 albums we cared about most in 2012, in no particular order).
Nas "Life Is Good" album cover
1. Nas – Life Is Good.
With 10 #1 albums under his belt--not to mention a debut record that many rate as the gold standard of rap music, any year with a Nas album in it already has at least a candidate for album of the year. Of course more than 1 of those 10 #1 debuts were also candidates for 'most disappointing album of the decade'. Here's why Life Is Good is different--and one of 2012's best. 1) It is a Nas album. 2) It is a Nas album with zero clunkers--"No Introduction" and "Stay" may not be as memorable as "Queens Story" but there are no wrong notes on here, really, and some of the record's quietest albums cuts--like "You Wouldn't Understand" with Victoria Monet--provide some of its most satisfying moments. Yet 3) Its louder, radio-ready cuts constitute a more consistent run of bangers--"Loco-Motive" (below); "Queens Story"; "Daughters"; "Accident Murderers"; "The Don"; "Cherry Wine" and "Bye Baby"--than his last 3 projects combined. In fact, about half the songs on the tracklisting are potential song of the year contenders, taken separately. But an album of the year title is not built on joints alone. What really makes this record work is 4) the depth of the subject matter, addressing the emotional battles of his real life--including parenthood, divorce and death--with blunt eloquence and a grown man's perspective favored over lyrical showmanship. Just as important it's all tied together with 5) a consistent sonic palette of Marley Marl-inspired drums and soulful strings that consciously channel Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. Which might be the most telling thing about Life Is Good; in spite of the plethora of singles, none is consciously commercial in the sense of courting radio-play or current club trends, a prime reason for past clunkers. With a debut like Illmatic hanging over his head, one might expect that Nas could have spent a career trying in vain to repeat it. But his 10 #1 LPs have mostly recorded the sound of him trying not to repeat the heavily-bootlegged classic, which famously failed to go gold on its initial release. Life Is Good may just be his second-best LP not so much because he tried to repeat his best--but because he stopped trying to run away from it.
Cody ChesnuTT - Landing On A Hundred (cover art)
2. Cody ChesnuTT - Landing On A Hundred
One of the most exciting artists of the new millenium returns from the wilderness to deliver a stunner of a sophomore LP, roughly 9 years behind schedule. This spot was supposed to be owned by D'Angelo and yet Landing On A Hundred, Cody ChesnuTT's totally unlooked-for follow up to 2002's Headphone Masterpiece is perhaps even more impactful for coming out of leftfield. The surprise is not just its existence, but its sound as well. The joyful mood of Landing--introduced by the very first track, the gospel-infused "Till I Met Thee" (below)--is a departure from the sublime sleaziness which characterized signature tunes like "The Seed" and "B**ch, I'm Broke." For some older fans this new voice will be too sincere, the classic soul arrangements and production too safe when compared with the raunchy reinventing-rock edge of his previous efforts (though it is still present in places). In fact, the album versions of some songs pale in comparison with their rawer live sessions (neither the LP version of "Everybody's Brother" nor an earlier incarnation from the 2010 EP Black Skin No Value come close to the spare organ and voice session ChesnuTT released in conjunction with the album). But as Black Orpheus already knew, you can't sing about loss and redemption and mean it unless you have been to the underworld and back. The best writing on Landing On A Hundred reflects the fact that ChesnuTT has experienced both sides of life and when one of the great talents of a generation is willing to strap on his helmet and report with emotional honesty from the frontlines of such experience, the heat generated is undeniable. When the songwriting and production click with those soaring highs of emotion, as on "That's Still Mama" and--most especially--"Chips Down In No Landfill" the songs that result are not merely song of the year contenders. They are Beatles-level badass. There are many moments on Landing On A Hundred when the listener may wish ChesnuTT had pushed further or been more willing to experiment with palette of 70s-era soul. But when it comes down to it, he is one of the only artists making music in 2012 who possesses the voice and vision to even achieve disappointments--and glorious successes--on this level. Sometime we overstate the ability of music to change our lives; we can't say if or how many souls will be saved for all eternity by Landing On A Hundred. But it carries more than its fair share of songs that can save your soul for a day--a rare achievement in an era of songs that barely succeed in distract you for their 3-minute run time.
Flying Lotus - Until The Quiet Comes (LP Art)
3. Flying Lotus – Until The Quiet Comes
Until The Quiet Comes is simultaneously 2012's most coherent and its most eclectic album, a testament to the versatile touch of its architect, Flying Lotus. Within the world it creates, the textures and rhythms of trap, jazz, dubstep, golden era hiphop, cosmic soul, techno, filter house and even beat-less musical passages which are hardly done justice by the dated genre-term 'ambient' all combine to create a singular dreamlike experience. Never mind that these multiform, hard-to-verbalize dreamscapes are all conjured up with little or no reliance on words (Erykah Badu's appearance on "See Thru To U" is a welcome exception). Never mind that FlyLo's restless, synaesthetic intelligence has produced visual accompaniments (The animated video for "Putty Boy Strut"; the fx-heavy mini-movie starring Elijah Wood that is "Tiny Tortures"; the experimental album preview Small Moments; the Sundance-selected short film with Kahlil Joseph also titled Until The Quiet Comes) which threaten to overshadow the album with their brilliance. Even taken as a purely sonic document, Until The Quiet Comes is a remarkable achievement. Not just for the fluid way that it plays with musical form; walking jazz basslines morph into flying and hovering basslines, the odd harmonics and thumping drum kits of Dilla-esque beats (see "Getting There," below) rub against what appears to be the sound of Radiohead's Thom Yorke being attacked by killer dolphins. But because, as with the visuals, the psychedelic variety of the music somehow serves a unified feeling--the simultaneous disbelief and limitless possibility of a lucid dream.
4. Georgia Anne Muldrow - Seeds
One has to wonder at the cultural staying power of the 1970s, considering that some of the best music of 2012 is still exploring pathways opened up during the decade of cosmic consciousness. Case in point, Georgia Anne Muldrow's collaborative project with Madlib, Seeds. Of course, in many ways this album could also be considered hip-hop at its purest. But the (re)combination of Madlib's ear for the dustiest soul grooves and thumpingest drums with GAM's blown-out vocal stylings--uniting under a homegrown and universally-minded ethos that is at least 10 years older than either of them--feels more like a new form of concentrated, corn syrup-free supersoul. There are the overt blaxploitation references of "The Birth Of Petey Wheatstraw" and the kodachrome look of the video for "Seeds," which accentuates the feeling that the tracks on Seeds are outtakes from an unseen film shot sometime between Sun Ra's Space Is The Place and Sweet Sweetback's Baadaaass Song. But this unique project feels less like G.A.M. & Lib were self-consciously playing retro and more like they used 21st century genetics to revive superseeds cryogenically-preserved from the afro-era to bloom again and repopulate the musical landscape.
Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dream (album cover art)
5. Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream.
For every generation there is one artist who's role is to embody, or better yet re-invent, sex. For the sexually active portion of earth's population in 2012, Miguel was that artist and Kaleidoscope Dream was the sound of future babies crying and cooing. Forget that 2012 was the year in which Miguel's distinctive swag was elevated from merely odd-looking to iconic. Forget that it was the year in which he developed his live show into an artform all its own, surprising not only in terms of pure chops for such a young artist but also for his ability to keep things spontaneous, taking unexpected risks without ever missing a step (or, say, a vault off Jimmy Fallon's couch). Forget the artsy sophistication he brought to his (often self-produced) videos and artwork. And most of all forget the variety of moods and melodies he brought to the songs on this album--as evidenced by the title track (below). "Adorn" may have been the anthem, but everything you need to know about this record can be found in the title "P**sy Is Mine." All those other factors are merely arrows in the quiver, the central aim being to pin you to your lover with one shot from cupid's crossbow. Suffice to say; Target acquired.
Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City (LP art)
6. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. City
good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar's major label debut, garnered numerous accolades and best-of picks and almost as many comparisons to Nas' Illmatic (perhaps the last time a rapper took the music world so totally by storm right from go). Sonically, this comparison makes almost no sense. Kendrick's wordplay doesn't really touch the pure ghetto poetry of young Nasir--nor does he particularly try to. Beat-wise Illmatic was remarkable for the coherence achieved by its all-star cast of true school producers. Whereas good kid reflects, quiet as kept, perhaps the most diverse and innovative use of samples--from chopped Janet Jackson on "Poetic Justice" to screwed nuyorican house on "Backseat Freestyle" to indie dreampop outfit Beachhouse on "Money Trees" (below)--that rap has ever seen (ya bish). But on a deeper level, there is a very strong spiritual connection between the two albums. If Illmatic perfectly captured the project's-eye view of a young black male in Queensbridge ca. 1994, Kendrick's genius lies in focusing his own anger and self-doubt, his frenetic flow and most of all his ever-present chorus of stuttery cartoon voices and ghost-children to channel with eerie perfection the mindstate of the eponymous good kid lost in the gangland geography of L.A.
7. El-P – Cancer 4 Cure
Of all the notable qualities that make El-P's Cancer 4 Cure a 2012 stand-out--articulate anger, unrelentingly original beats, post-apocalyptic anxieties--impeccable timing has to be counted near the top of the list. In the wake of his last LP--2007's I'll Sleep When You're Dead--a verse or loose beat from the self-appointed El Producto might be considered more or less in the same light as a reunion show of his old outfit Company Flow. Which is to say, a blast to the backpack past, a guilty throwback pleasure best appreciated by those really in the know, connoisseurs of indie rap's golden era, and NYC's underground scene in particular (hello there okayplayers). But in 2012 it seemed that not only music (ie the rise of the soundcloud electronic beat scene as a measurable force in pop culture) but even reality itself (the increasingly normal paranoia of the war on terror, the daily headlines of flying killer robots over middle eastern skies) conspired to make his shit mainstream. El-P himself didn't change much. Certainly he focused and refined his already considerable skills both as a beatmaker and rhymer, as well his generally uncompromising worldview, refusing to "give a fragment of a fuck" about what was trendy. Guest appearances from allies hitting a similar peak in stride like Danny Brown, Mr MFN eXquire and of course Killer Mike didn't hurt. But mostly the year itself revealed that the things that had always made El-P uniquely El-P--a classic b-boy aesthetic filtered through a very offbeat sense of rhythm and the mind of someone who's played one too many first-person shooter games--were not so much obscure or underground as simply ahead of their time. Welcome to the new normal.
Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again album cover
8. Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again
Michael Kiwanuka's debut album Home Again is a simple gift; a bundle of beautiful, well-crafted songs delivered in the most uncomplicated manner possible, something which hardly require lengthy explanations or arguments to sell it. Which is not to say that it is lacking in depth or complexity. On the contrary, as the title suggests, the album's lyrics revolve around the universal need for belonging and connection--and the simultaneous impossibility of holding on to them for long; a bittersweet theme that may yet prove too complex for pop radio. But like the two-word title itself, the themes are approached with a plainspoken honesty that it is physically difficult to dislike. This simplicity is reflected in the album's focus on Kiwanuka's voice and guitar, which--outside the afrobeat horns of "Tell Me A Tale"--are augmented only with drums and fairly traditional arrangements of flute and piano that would be familiar to any fan of 60s folk-pop. This rather old-fashioned sound has drawn many comparisons between Kiwanuka and Bill Withers. These are well-founded (Kiwanuka has in fact worked with Withers' ex-drummer James Gadson) but Otis Redding, Norah Jones, Tracy Chapman or even Jimmy Buffett would all make equally valid points of reference. More importantly, the throwback sound on Home Again feels less self-consciously retro than just timeless. An over-used distinction, perhaps, but one which best describes the happy confusion felt when you do stumble across a song like "Bones" or "I'll Get Along" (below) on the radio dial and wonder just what you've discovered. As the comparisons above might indicate, the songs on Home Again are destined to find a place prepared for them in the coffee shops of the world, nestled right next to the house blend. But here's hoping others embrace it as well. Because by all indications Kiwanuka is a talent too big for such a small shelf.
9. Santigold – Master of My Make-Believe
Like Landing On a Hundred, Santigold's Master Of My Make-Believe is a long-overdue follow-up to a much-loved debut LP, although in her case the gap between the release of Master and the acclaimed Santogold is a mere 4 years. The gap still leaves a sort of fire-break, however, that the tracks on her sophomore LP had to burn extremely hot in order to leap across. With early songs like "LES Artistes"; "Creator" and most of all "Shove It," Santi almost single-handedly invented a new genre, lashing together elements of neo-soul and the bass-heavy sonics of Philly club music onto her grounding in the punk/ska band Stiffed. It was a sound which like-minded collaborators such as Diplo and M.I.A almost instantly made the sound of a hipster generation in search of a sonic identity. Santogold was so original, in fact, that it was hard to know exactly what to expect from a sequel. Make-Believe proved to be a subtler--in some ways stronger--but less splashy progression from the debut. If "Shove It" was Santi's punky reggae call to arms, "Disparate Youth" was its Empire Strikes Back. In his okayplayer review, Jeff Harvey used the song as a prism to describe what had changed--and what remained the same--about Santigold's music: "With jittery keys and drums belying a mid-tempo trance groove, lyrics of rebellion are delivered with world weary resolution as opposed to reckless abandon, as if sombered by a newfound awareness of the struggle that will come after the uprising." Or to put it in album terms, having done it once, it was natural but perhaps unfair, to expect Santi to invent a new genre every time out, rather than exploring and mapping the world she created. That journey of exploration, on Master Of My Make-Believe, is not only a brilliant set of songs in her signature style. With their particular blend of disaffection and uncompromising rebellion "Disparate Youth"; "Go!"; "The Keepers" and the other compositions collected here are far more telling soundtrack of our moment in history than the trap and EDM that will inevitably be recycled in future movies set in 2012.
10. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music
"You are witnessing elegance, in the form of a black elephant..." with that single bar, Killer Mike manages to nicely encapsulates the inevitability of his album R.A.P. Music's inclusion on any album of the year list. Like it's audaciously blunt title indicates, R.A.P. Music comes on like an unstoppable force; a runaway locomotive, a bull elephant in full charge, a rap attack the likes of which the genre has not seen in decades. Sounding as much like Ice Cube in his prime as the Killer Mike who stepped into the spotlight of mainstream radio with Outkast's "Whole World," post-Purple Label, the Atlanta-based rapper has reinvented himself as the archetype of the angry black man. The best way to describe him to any listener not familiar with the new Killer Mike, in fact, would be to say that he combines Sean Price's pure lyrical hitting power with the fire and intellect of a young Malcolm X. Weaving the quintessentially American tropes of bibles, guns, paranoia, strip clubs and vast conspiracies into a distinctive southern gothic worldview over production from El-P (who puts his dark post-Moroder synthwork and b-boy drums to excellent use here), Killer Mike fashions R.A.P. Music into a blunt instrument that is both a searing indictment of his homeland (Black President or no) and a steel-toed Adidas to the ass of hip-hop.
11. Quantic & Alice Russell w/ Combo Barbaro - Look Around The Corner
If Look Around The Corner feels like a joyful reunion, it is. Not only between Quantic & Alice Russell, who collaborated years ago on songs for the Quantic Soul Orchestra, before the prolific producer/arranger defected to Colombia. It is also a reunion of sorts between the distant cousins of American soul and the various strains Afro-latin music represented here by the members of Latin American supergroup Combo Barbaro. Though more focused on expression--and musical expertise--than experimentation, the resulting set often feels like a classic soul album that has been reclaimed not only from a lost decade but a lost continent as well. On original compositions as well as covers, Look Around The Corner poses--and satisfyingly answers--the question of what would happen if the luminaries of Motown and their contemporaries in salsa or tropicalia had actually gone into the studio together instead of just studying each other's licks. Imagine a duet between Marvin Gaye and Caetano Veloso on one hand, or Minnie Ripperton and Ismael Rivera on another, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect in both sound and quality. Though the lead singles "Look Around The Corner" and "I'll Keep My Light In My Window" (originally recorded by Gaye and Diana Ross) have drawn the lion's share of attention--and rightly refocused the spotlight on Alice Russell's awe-inspiring vocal prowess--the instrumentals are equally revelatory.In fact, one of the best things about this record is that having identified a rather specific approach, the gathered company feels free to stretch out and explore different moods and directions within their lost continent, from the Nuyorican dance number "Boogaloo 33" to the Stevie Wonder-ish pop chestnut "Magdalena" to the cumbia/chicha instrumental "Road To Islay" to the perfect polyrhythmic rhythm & blues of "Travelling Song" (below).
Frank Ocean - Channel Orange (cover art)
12. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
Very few artists could create a buzz equal to that produced by Frank Ocean's Nostalgia, ULTRA (not to mention his scene-stealing cameos on Watch The Throne) and then turn in a debut album that delivered on all the promises made. Channel Orange does, however. Not only does it surpass it's leaked predecessor in terms of sheer joints ("Pyramids" and "Thinkin Bout You" are not worthy sequels to "Novacane" or "Swim Good", they far outweigh them) but in terms of 1) vision, 2) great, original songwriting and 3) the willingness to be weird, artistically self-indulgent or explore idiosyncratic subject matter without ever losing its universal pop appeal, Orange is everything you could really ask from a Frank Ocean album. Though it often feels loose, even made-up-as-it-goes along--an artifact of Ocean's trademark stream-of-consciousness writing style as much his predilection for whimsical drum programming--there is rarely a false step on here, from the convoluted (and controversial) poetic conceit's of "Bad Religion" to the reanimated "Benny & The Jets" vamp of "Super Rich Kids." The guestlist--which might have reasonably been expected to include Kanye, Jay and any number of Odd Future wolf cubs--is similarly tight. Andre 3000, Tyler, Earl and John Mayer. That's It. Yet even if those were omitted, leaving 13 tracks of nothing but Frank, there would easily be enough here to last you until next year. See you then.
The Weeknd - Trilogy (cover art)
The Weeknd - Trilogy, (eliminated by the double jeopardy rule because the core of it was included in last year's list as House of Balloons); Big Boi – Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors, Georgia Anne Muldrow x DJ Romes - Blackhouse (for being too new to absorb by the time this list was compiled) and Oddisee, Sean Price, Lee Fields and The Menahan St. Band for general excellence in their respective fields.