Thursday, July 12, 2012

Taking On 2012: Top Albums (Q2 Quarterly Review)

We've gone through the songs, and that means it's time to start tackling the larger constructs that hold them all together. During my last quarterly review I was hesitant to call 2012 a great year for music at the time because, at that point, the releases were stretched fairly thin. Sure there were some gems, but even albums I thought would have staying power have faded away with what seems like an onslaught of top notch releases since the end of March.

There's quite a bit of ground to cover, so let us commence the counting down!

10. The Tallest Man On Earth - There's No Leaving Now (NE)

The Tallest Man On Earth may wear his influences on his sleeve, but when you are so directly channeling the sounds of Bob Dylan and doing so with songwriting that, while not exactly on the same level, recollects the accomplishments of fine poetry it ultimately doesn't matter how much imitation is going on. Music has these figures, the John Darnielles and Cass McCombs of the world, and Kristian Matsson carves out a place alongside both. Of personal interest to me though is his country of origin. Swedish born, Matsson commands the English language with such grace and beauty that it's hard to believe it's not his mother tongue.

9. El-P - Cancer 4 Cure (NE)

Though I have long been a fan of the now defunct Definitive Jux, El-P was a member who I had a tough time completely embracing. Part of the reason, I believe, was because his work as a producer tended to overshadow his time on the mic. With his latest he achieves a perfect blend of lyrical complexity with literally some of the best beats I have ever heard. His work as producer on Killer Mike's R.A.P Music is great, but his flow combined with the droning sounds make Cancer4Cure not only a dauntingly rewarding lyrical showcase, but also an aural journey.

8. Death Grips - The Money Store (NE)

Technically, at least this is what I have come to understand, Death Grips make hip-hop. While The Money Store may stretch that definition like a rubber band in parts, I understand the elements that come even before the lead singer is directly rapping. Groups like Odd Future have been lauded, and rightly so, for the sense of energy they inject at their live shows, and perhaps that sort of energy, this unbridled outpouring of release is the most apt way to describe listening to The Money Store. Nothing is held back, sounds ring out in a way that echoes tUnE-yArDs in the instrumental mastery except with a rawness and twisted overhear that encompasses the whole album. That this album is not higher on the list is a testament to the year's quality so far.

7. Schoolboy Q - Habits & Contradictions (-5)

Unlike Death Grips, I know for a fact that (assuming we operate under the condition that genres are in fact real and accurate) Schoolboy Q makes hip-hop. In the past twelve months or so it seems like the rappers of the future have made a push, new faces and names springing with talent all coming to the forefront around the same time. Habits and Contradictions released a little over year after Q dropped Setbacks, his debut album, and in that time the four members associated with TDE have relentlessly been slaughtering tracks. I can't predict the future, but my guess is that Schoolboy Q, and the rest of TDE, is a talent here to stay for quite some time.

6. Lana Del Rey - Born To Die (-5)

I have a sense that the best of 2012's pop is still to come, but practically since its release earlier in the year Lana Del Rey's debut album has reigned at the top of pop as far as I'm concerned. Del Rey caught a lot of flack for external aspects that, quite frankly, don't have much bearing on the fact that, even with lyrics that seem to intentionally play with the idea of simplicity (a trait that defines the severely underrated Weezer album Raditude), the instrumental work that contributes to Del Rey's music is top notch. Born To Die isn't just the best pop album released so far because the year has been weak, it's the best pop album because it's a great album.

5. Willis Earl Beal - Acousmatic Sorcery (NE)

Beal's debut album, aside from working with some of the most captivating lyrics of the year, should also be praised for the way it balances so many different sounds. Though there's a certain sense of a DIY aesthetic, it never holds the sounds back from coexisting with Beal's songwriting. The rough edges on the album add directly the raw emotion that can be found on each track, so much so that it becomes a part of the work's success rather than a detriment.

4. Japandroids - Celebration Rock (NE)

Sophomore album from Canadian garage rock duo Japandroids, while not as charged as their debut Post Nothing, shows that it is possible to maintain a specific sound while advancing it in interesting directions through songwriting. I don't want to get bogged down talking about the latest Sleigh Bells record and how it functions as a notable step back from their debut, but given that each work with loud noises to achieve a specific emotion with their music it seems apt. Where Japandroids most excel is not in their part to create this lush cacophonous soundscape, which they certainly do, but rather in their ability to create a sense of yearning, a nostalgic mood that encompasses the songs on both of their albums and their EPs. It's the lyrics that make them magic, the sounds just add to the wonder.

3. Spiritualized - Sweet Heart, Sweet Light (NE)

Though the sounds that come to define much of Spiritualized's latest album are ones of euphony, there's a brilliant darkness to many of the songs. Working within this juxtaposition (most notably on stand out track "Hey Jane"), the band creates a sprawling achievement that functions as this grand statement album. It's hard to make a record feel truly grandiose, but Spiritualized achieve it in spades here.

2. Ab-Soul - Control System (NE)

Like labelmate Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul injects a fresh energy in to the previously floundering world of hip-hop, but what I find to be most interesting about Ab-Soul is the versatility of both his flows and subject matter while working through big ideas from tack to track. Every entry in this album is highly polished, and even though the album doesn't always feel like a cohesive whole the parts are so individually fulfilling that it at times becomes irrelevant. Ab-Soul sets the bar for hip-hop in 2012.

1. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw A Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (NE)

Based on sheer audacity of album title alone, Fiona Apple's latest should probably deserve an honor all its own; however, as a collective work, as a fragmented individual collection of tracks, as a means of evoking emotion, as a songwriting vehicle, as a thematic exploration, and any other angle you can approach the album from its top spot is completely deserved. A single second is never wasted, a single word never misused. This is, by a long ways, the best that 2012 has to offer. It's not just magical, its downright other worldly.

And for those keeping track at home, here's how I rank the rest of 2012:

11. Killer Mike – R.A.P Music
12. Lil B – God's Father
13. Xiu Xiu – Always
14. Big K.R.I.T. - Live From The Underground
15. Joey Bada$$ - 1999
16. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
17. Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror
18. Charli XCX – You're The One EP/Heartbreaks and Earthquakes
19. Grimes – Visions
20. Lambchop – Mr. M
21. Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man in the Universe
22. Guided By Voices – Class Clown Spots a UFO
23. The Walkmen – Heaven
24. Jack White - Blunderbuss
25. The Beach Boys – That's Why God Made The Radio
26. The Shins – Port of Morrow
27. Serengeti – Kenny Dennis EP
28. Perfume Genius – Put Your Back N 2 It
29. Animal Collective - Honeycomb/Gotham
30. Odd Future – The O.F. Tape Volume 2
31. A$AP Rocky – Live, Life, Purple
32. Beach House – Bloom
33. Metric – Synthetica
34. Azealia Banks – 1991 EP
35. Mount Eerie – Clear Moon
36. Cadence Weapon – Hope in Dirt City
37. Best Coast – The Only Place
38. Of Monsters and Men – My Head Is An Animal
39. Sharron Van Etten - Tramp
40. Girls Generation – The Boys
41. Curren$y – The Stoned Immaculate
42. The Alabama Shakes – Boys and Girls
43. Heems – Nehru Jackets
44. Lil B – White Flame
45. Hot Chip – In Our Heads
46. Weird Dreams – Choreography
47. Fun. - Some Nights
48. Nicki Minaj – Pink Friday...Roman Reloaded
49. Lil B – The Basedprint Volume 2
50. Curren$y – Here EP
51. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
52. Homeboy Sandman – Subject: Matter

So how did I do? Did I miss a huge release or criminally under/overrate something? Let me know in comments and be on the look out for the final Q2 review of films in the next few days!


Comments are welcome and, for anyone with a literary mind, I encourage checking out my poetry blog filled with all original works for your reading pleasure.

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© 2012 Richard James Thorne

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