10. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
It's really hard to give a shit if Frank Ocean is gay or bisexual or whatever. If he's saying that shit at an opportune moment for the press, or to make a point. It actually kind of gets in the way of whether or not the album is good, if it is "brave", and while it might be brave to sort of vaguely come out when you're in hip hop at all and you're a member of Odd Future. It is also 2012 and no one really gives a shit unless there are songs about explicit gay sex on the record. And there aren't, there's just some male pronouns where female pronouns used to be on Nostalgia Ultra. Channel Orange, it's not a coming out album, and I guess that's the point, but it's super problematic how much of the writing about this album (including this) feels the need to discuss Ocean's sexuality. Of course, it's because that's the conversation Ocean wanted to have or he wouldn't have been as specifically oblique on his website. Everyone overshares on the internet at some point, Frank Ocean did it before his album dropped. Maybe intentionally? But the relationship as a listener I've had with this album has truly nothing to do with who Frank Ocean wants to sleep with.
Channel Orange is an album, a pretty stellar one. It's slow to start, it doesn't really get going until "Sweet Life". It has a lot of filler skits that plague it and bog down great songs with overlong tedious filler, like the worst 90s rap records. It has guest features from artists specifically chosen for their ambivalence with the entire concept of celebrity (Andre 3000, Earl Sweatshirt, John Mayer), and who have all been burnt by it on their own volition. It has Ocean taking the first person layered storytelling approach he had on his previous album and dialing it back to something less complex (for clarity, let's hope) - except on the albums two most profound songs on the album. Those tracks - "Bad Religion", a confession sung to a taxi driver about love, language, and religion, Ocean as a heartsick Michael Clayton on top of huge strings - recalling John Brion's work on both Kanye and Fiona's records. The other a 9 minute centuries spanning pyramid song, Cleopatra on her way to her shift at Cheetahs, having more to do with Prince and Radiohead than the intentional references Ocean has made before. "Pyramids" is the best goddamn song of 2012, expansive and huge in a way nothing else was. It was also just a song, not a concept album or a confession, lived in and full of detail, riding out on a guitar solo so big I was a little shocked when I learned John Mayer was the one playing it.
But the two dominant tracks here kind of overshadow the songcraft of something as infectious as "Lost", because it's not an epic or a showstopper. Removed from their context, most of the songs here decimate whatever comes on next to them in shuffle. As a whole, if you can make the concession that it takes time to get into (not in the sense that it needs a few spins to work it's magic, you actually have to get used to it not starting strongly), it's actually a stronger album than Nostalgia Ultra. It doesn't have a song as devastating as "There Will Be Tears", but what does? Frank Ocean, he's always been someone we should be thinking of as a songwriter over everything else. Storytelling, detail, humanity, humor, utter vulnerability in unexpected moments, and all to a tune. That's all still here, that never left. The other stuff -- no matter how he meant it -- that's press. That's trivia. -SW
9. Ernest Gonzales - Natural Traits
There's a ton of goofy sounding titles on this album, the sort of bone dry nature skillet stuff you can find when you read the blurb for a Thomas Kinkaid reproduction, or on the handmade greeting cards they sell at your local pour-over coffeehouse. That's not a dealbreaker, no matter how much ones personal taste might lean towards the overly serious minimalism of naming songs after whatever their track listing happens to be. To label the obvious (and thus immediately belabor it), it's the music that makes the difference, and Ernest Gonzales lush combinations of digital composition and regular old fingers-on-instrument are strong enough to merit any level of goofball naming conventions. Natural Traits is a tricky collection, a suite of songs that don't demand a huge amount of focus and can even slip by almost unnoticed. But if you zero in on it and try to keep up with the melodies as they tumble ahead, what seems like attractive wallpaper betrays a level of depth that goes beyond what oh-so-pretty usually requires. It's tremendously good while still being embarrassingly shy, and easily one of the best albums of 2012. -TS
8. The Men - Open Your Heart
Probably the album I was hottest and coldest about this year, Open Your Heart had a jack-of-all-trades quality, and as the rest of that cliche goes, so goes the assumption: they gotta be somewhat shitty at all the stuff they're doing, right? And of course they would be, if it wasn't for the twist that what happens on Open Your Heart isn't a wide swath of music, from opera to concrete, it's in fact just guitar music. All guitar music. It's not a mixtape, or a covers album, but it does end up being a tour, a road movie with a themed soundtrack, like Spawn or Judgment Night before it. It's an album devoid of transition, a series of middle children lined up without any indication of what their parents did with the bookend offspring. It's the kind of music you could easily see being ruined by the incorporation of a turntable, from a band who might not be aware of what a bad idea that would be. Until embarrassment, we remain. -TS
7. The Swans - Seer
The Swans are one of those bands that go on tours so as to discover which of their loyal fans are masochistic enough to handle them in person, and The Seer--their second album in 16 years, the last being 2010's My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky--is a perfect collection of heavy, thunderous drone and rock music within which to bludgeon those who make the trek. There's a cautioning throughout the album, a warning that arises with the same clanging insistent fervency with which the first song "Lunacy" arrives. It's not that it feels dangerous (although it does), it's that The Seer is the sort of music that leaves no room for an audience to participate, to exist. It's the kind of music that would start playing in a yoga class, right before they murdered you with their teeth. It's not inhuman, it's just too big to comprehend--cavernous music that's unnervingly full, whereas usually this sort of work has enough empty patches where we can rest. Listen to those first minutes of "Mother of the World"--whose lead do you follow? Those drums, stepping and accelerating? The colliding noises? That humming, disonant murmer? It's circular business, and yet it seems crucial, a contained network, built from a toolbox of articles no one else would care to use. This music isn't composed. It's hewn. -TS
6. Japandroids - Celebration Rock
Japandroids’ music is full of excess, songs of hyper-indulgence in the usual indulgences. Drinking, yes. Smoking, sure. Girls, you bet. On paper, Celebration Rock could easily be mistaken for a glam-rock album. The external trappings are all there. But while the songs focus on the youthful need to capture memories, keep the internal fire burning, and make the party go on forever, they’re secretly about the quiet moments between chugging and making out and putting photos up on Instagram. Those are the moments when you’re lost, and the big questions drop in, and you’re left with a ton of frayed edges from letting the internal fire burn too bright for too long. Musically, Japandroids always have an answer for reigniting the flame—usually in the form of a monster guitar riff or desperate drum roll—but the existential thoughts always creep in. “Do we have anything to live for?” vocalist Brian King asks in the opening song. Though he answers yes, Japandroids spend the rest of the album attempting to prove it. What follows is music—indulgent music—driven by two things: panic and nostalgia. And both panic and nostalgia ask the same question: Will It Ever Get Any Better than It Was Just Now? Though Japandroids’ methods (booze, drugs, nakedness, adrenaline) are those of youth, Celebration Rock suggests that, despite the constant tug of a comedown, the constant search for the next great memory isn’t a bad way to live, no matter how old you are. When you die are you going to look back on all the great resting you did? -MB
5. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel is Than The Driver...
The percussive, minimalist, mostly acoustic approach to production here focuses even more on Fiona's words, her voice, the way she uses both as instruments. Apple's cadences are worth so much, they could be talked about on their own forever before you even got to lyrics. You can talk about Fiona Apple like you would a rapper super easily, or as a novelist, before even getting to singer/songwriters. Same as talking about her as a genius/flake of a public figure, same as her relationship history with public figures of our age (The director, the magician, the writer, though gods they were), and her mental state (which I guess she's now publicly talking about? pretty frequently?). The albums -- far apart, but not at Scott Walker/Portishead periods of delay -- are meticulously crafted, frequently sitting on shelves for long periods (at least the last 2) before the world gets to hear them, they fit the years they are produced by sounding like completely alien of their time. They are all about "you" in a way more complicated than love songs or songs of opposition. The songs, the kind of find a place between combativeness and emotional connection, but in a moment to moment kind of way. "I don't want to talk about / I don't want to talk about / anything" is a lyric that sticks out, as does the workmanlike, busy way she says "I don't cry when I'm sad anymore" that's not how anyone should say that. This is at a lot of times, a hard album to listen to comfortably, and that's kind of weird because of just how present and constant it felt once I started spending time with it. It seemed like it was always on, even though it probably wasn't. Apple's ability to take apart moments in a relationships with a surgical acuity, using only the right words in the right order... it's something unique to her. I've written too many shitty english papers to highlight lyrics as examples, how this simile, or this phrasing that changes midway through does this or this. That feels a little cheap, at least for this. Asymmetrical lyrical warfare sounds like a good description, but this isn't warfare. What we're talking about is innate talent of one human being, who is maybe not great at day to day life but profoundly great at documenting her negotiations with it. The way in which she hurdles over making the minutia into an examination of the listener's internal life is always going to be the greatest slight of hand. But slight of hand is just that, the real magic is how she keeps doing it, and on album four you don't hope she has her heart broken again. Fiona Apple's never going to make an album of lifestyle music, never going to be someone whose ferocity and humanity dies when the problems stop happening so frequently, as happens to so many people this good. If we get another album, and we may not, or we may have to wait a Scott Walker-ian length of time for, I can't imagine it being anything less than devastating and essential, just as every previous album. Idler Wheel, I need this in my life, simple as that. -SW
4. Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid M.A.A.D. City
N.W.A.’s Compton was an elaborate mythology. To many of the suburban kids who rocked the tape in their ’85 Volvos, that Compton was as foreign and mysterious as the Black Gate of Mordor—and no less violent. Kendrick Lamar’s Compton, on the other hand, operates an awful lot like a suburb. Gang violence is still omnipresent, but Kendrick’s primary concerns are astonishingly rural: When can I meet up with this girl Sherane? How does my identity shift when I’m around my friends? What happened to my self-control? Most of good kid, m.A.A.d. city is a tussle between Kendrick’s conscience and his baser instincts. He’s impressionable, first to girls, then to peer pressure, then to addiction. Over the course of the album, he gets a series of phone calls from his grandmother (?), with his granddad yelling from the background of each one, getting more faded with each call. Here, his grandfather is a comic figure, irate about some missing dominos, singing about his wife’s fat ass. But in “Swimming Pools,” when Kendrick questions whether or not to take that next drink even though it could kill him, you realize that turning into his granddad wouldn’t be so terrible compared to his other possible futures—alcohol poisoning or getting swept up in a robbery spree with his homies or caught up in gun spray because his instinct was not to duck. So you start rooting for Kendrick’s conscience to win out, and all of a sudden Kendrick Lamar is relatable to the same extent N.W.A. was frighteningly romantic. But just when you think you have a vested interest in this dude winning against his nihilistic impulses, the unreliable narrator drops this suburban scenario on you: “If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me?/ Or see me to be innocent Kendrick you seen in the street/ With a basketball and some Now & Laters to eat?”
3. Twin Shadow - Confess
The line that sticks out most on Confess, is "I don't give a damn about your dreams". Because it is kind of exactly what you want to hear on an album like this, where 80s new wave nostalgia or the "dark romance" angle of George Lewis Jr's persona could have overpowered the songs, they never do. Both of these elements could be cliche, especially in a year where both of those poses are everywhere, and usually insufferable. Lewis -- his voice sounds a little bit like Richard Marx and whole lot like Tunde Adibempe, neither of those overshadow that he's fucking feeling this stuff, without ever losing his cool, which recalls a dude he has very litle in common with sonically - Prince. "I don't believe in / you don't believe in me / so how could you / make me cry" is some ice cold shit to say to anyone, it only works if you know the singer is deflecting some pretty deep heartache. With Twin Shadow, all of that is on the surface, and gets deeper with each listen. You can dance to this album, you can dance the hell out of this record, but maybe that only counts because you feel every word Lewis Jr. sings. The resentment and hurt is there as much as the new romantic gestures of uncaring rock star, and you need both for this to work, at so when you're singing along you can get all the way into it instead of hitting the itunes delete button in 2 months. Feelings are no fun, but this is an album that gets that they're also not optional, you can't turn them off even when you say you can. Anhedonia's great in theory but in real life it only happens when you're Kanye/Bowie-level famous / crazy / coked-out / genius / some combination of those things. Or if you're like, Snake Plissken (hey, get that all my examples are pretty famous for breaking that mask to show real tenderness/pain despite themselves, it almost works!). So if you're going to have feelings anyway, might as well feel them like this guy. -SW
2. Chromatics - Kill For Love
If 2012 has been obsessed with the 80's in some form - 80's synth scores, 80's pop, 80's world-conquering rap, 80's movie references, 80's actors, 80's property revivals that aren't really revivals, 80's directors back to show us all how a procedural should look, then Chromatics is the ultimate synthesization of all of that. "Running From the Sun" is an 80's-style synth song that evokes Kathryn Bigelow's vampire western classic Near Dark and its Tangerine Dream soundtrack, and it's gorgeous in its specificity. But cultural references aren't what makes this album stick around beyond a cool novelty period. There is something else going on with Kill For Love that might take a while to sink in - the decisions made, of a long instrumental bridge yielding a declaration of love on a voicemail get deleted, of a weirdly incongruous "Into the Black" cover, the interpolations of classic rock radio motifs into songs, the persistently gorgeous female vocals singing pointedly male sentiments ("If I could only call you my lady, baby I could be your man"). If there's a narrative here, and there isn't, it's of someone pushing away from whatever messed up relationship they're entangled in, even the most romantic stuff here is wistful. Lot of vampires and rain soaked windshields on this record, but even the most stark moments of loneliness are hovering between warmth and emptiness. This band is most famous right now for a song on a soundtrack to a movie I don't like very much, and this album seems poised to appear all over film released in the next couple of years, maybe intentionally on the band's part. Results, it should be said, are important, and Kill For Love delivers. More breakup album than Eno-ian fake soundtrack, more breakup album than the actual breakup albums that came out this year. To delete this message press seven. -SW
1. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music
Like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music is a battle rap record disguised as a political one. Despite the complex arguments, the copious intelligence, and the lyrical storytelling, Mike’s aim is a simple one: sonning you. Let me state, for the record, that it is an absolute pleasure to be sonned by Killer Mike. For too long, dude has been held captive by the intricacies of his own thought, oscillating on record between political screeds and strip-club joints. But “A.D.I.D.A.S.” and “Ric Flair” are monumental songs because of their simplicity; Killer Mike hasn’t been able to sustain that level of focus at album-length until now. A lot of it has to do with El-P’s boom-bap production. El-P restrains himself from his own retro-futurist impulses (ahem, breakbeats) and provides Killer Mike with straightforward, sternum-rattling beats. The production forces Killer Mike to streamline his thoughts and allow his natural strengths—his arrogance, aggression and charm—to take over. He is in complete command, firing on all cylinders, and it should surprise no one that that coincides with him sounding like he’s having the most fun of his life. -MB
-Marty Brown, Sean Witzke, Tucker Stone, 2013