TOP 30 ALBUMS OF 2012
30. Melanie Fiona - The MF Life
Free of the constraints of her 60s-inspired debut, Melanie Fiona came out strong with her follow-up album. There’s a bit too much obvious covering of the bases going on (a requisite retro John Legend appearance, a club-ready T-Pain number, one that sounds like Jason Mraz wrote it) but Melanie sticks the landing when she’s really able to show off her singing chops (“Bones,” “Break Down These Walls”) and when material heads toward the darker, Drake-ier sides of R&B, like on the simmering standout, “4AM.”
29. Bobby Womack - The Bravest Man in the Universe
Bobby Womack, probably the most underrated male vocalist in R&B history next to William Bell, cashes in the indie-cred he gained from the Gorillaz and delivers his own version of Johnny Cash’s Rick Rubin-produced final chapter. Minimal beats and weird sonic detours put the focus squarely on Womack’s voice and he seems energized by the unfamiliar territory, most notably on the title track and “Please Forgive My Heart,” two songs that sound like lost soul treasures from an alternate galaxy.
28. Holy Other - Held
Pneumatic beats and ghostly vocals are kind of the M.O. of Tri-Angle’s roster of downcast witch-house electronica (just ask Balam Acab), but Holy Other’s full-length debut is full of quiet intimacy, tension, and strangely moving bits of clarity in what would otherwise seem like an album made up of nothing but hazy clouds and dark rooms.
27. Hot Chip - In Our Heads
Having made stability and commitment exciting on 2010’s “One Life Stand,” the ever-reliable Hot Chip increase the tempo back to “Made in the Dark” levels while still pulling off the unusual task of making highly danceable songs about things like long-term relationships. Opener “Motion Sickness” is as buoyant of a pop music moment as you’ll get in 2012.
26. Ellie Goulding - Halcyon
Goulding’s sophomore album somehow manages to have it both ways; the hooks are big and the production often crescendos to heights that would fit in on a Florence + The Machine album, but the core of these tracks always remain insular and grounded in just enough weirdness that Goulding’s impulses feel unique and unexpected. “My Blood” is a stunner and a gorgeous reminder that pop doesn’t always have to follow a checklist.
25. Passion Pit - Gossamer
Pitchfork said it better than I could; Gossamer is an overwhelming album about being overwhelmed. As always is with Passion Pit highlights, the production recalls streams of sunlight and sparkle, but there’s panic and anxiety in this material that eventually makes all the relentless hyperactivity feel exhausting. It’s like the musical equivalent of the artifice of Paxil.
24. Evian Christ - Kings and Them
Drawing off influences from the UK bass scene, producer Evian Christ (who seems to have just stumbled into his talent as if by chance) put out a debut mixtape that’s striking in its uniform texture and hazy aesthetics. Beats come in hard and relentless and take turns with dead space in a way that’s nothing short of mesmerizing. “Fuck It None of Ya’ll Don’t Rap” is my miracle at the end of a grueling run song.
23. Theo Bleckmann - Hello Earth! (The Music of Kate Bush)
It’s hard to screw up Kate Bush (if you ask me, some of these are the finest songs ever written), but Bleckmann somehow manages to make her songs sound even more impressive in hindsight by creatively retooling them in ways that show just how sturdy the skeletons were in the first place. It helps that Bleckmann picks a bunch of Bush songs that are intensely personal to me (“And Dream of Sheep,” “All The Love,” “Suspended in Gaffa”), but you’d have to be crazy not to admire the sheer amount of talent and musicianship Bleckmann brings to this material, even when his craft and precision make complicated songs even more complicated.
22. SWV - I Missed Us
When I heard that my favorite girl group of all time was getting back together after 15 years, I never expected that the result would actually be this good. Wisely eschewing attempts to jump at radio trends, SWV play to their strengths with songs that recall their 90s heyday, which thankfully means no David Guetta club stompers or verses from 2 Chainz. I Missed Us feels genuine, and if that means it sounds like an album made by women approaching middle age and singing songs about divorce, so be it. So glad to have them back.
21. Beach House - Bloom
People seem to like Beach House. I do too! Again, I can’t seem to write about this band without using the word hazy so I’ll just stop now. It’s pretty! It’s transfixing! It’s good to write to, back when I did that.
20. The xx - Coexist
Having seemingly entered the sleepy portion of this list, The xx’s new album somehow manages to sound even more relaxed than their effortlessly cool debut. It’s not as good as that album was, but it’s charming in all the right ways - all sexy tones and rich rhythms that just make everything sound good. Much of this was elevated to me following a live show that brought these tracks to life in a way I hadn’t anticipated going into it.
19. Andy Stott - Luxury Problems
I admit I was drawn into this record because of it’s glamourous album cover, but I was instantly hooked by the lush textures and mysterious sense of atmosphere. A lot of this is ice-cold isolation and abstraction. It takes time to get to know but the results become more rewarding the further you sink into the music. If I get to use the word “ethereal” once this year, I want to use it here.
18. Brandy - Two Eleven
I love Brandy to the point of insanity. That’s never been a secret. Two Eleven is a return to form following 2008’s rather vanilla Human, and while it never quite reaches the genius of Afrodisiac, it sure sounds good to have her back. The album isn’t as dynamic as it could be, but there are tracks here that stand as tall as anything else in Ms. Norwood’s catalog, namely the beautiful “No Such Thing as Too Late,” and the haunting Frank Ocean-penned “Scared of Beautiful.” It’s on those tracks that Brandy takes a stab at the popular minimalist R&B trend, and it’s one that suits her husky timbre perfectly. Get Brandy teamed up with someone like Jamie xx and there’s no telling what type of material she’s capable of putting out. Meanwhile, I’ll just stay freaking out over the deep runs of “Wildest Dreams” and “Slower.”
17. Chairlift - Something
Breaking free of the overly precious kitsch of their debut, Chairlift emerged as a group rebirthed on their second album. Smart, silly, and full of elastic melodies and memorable vocal performances, Something is New Wave revival done perfectly. Few songs were as propulsive or as catchy as “I Belong in Your Arms” this year.
16. Azealia Banks - 1991 and Fantasea
Azealia Banks is in a lane all by herself. It just happens to be one that’s incredibly filthy, totally unapologetic and maybe en route to a drag ball. Azealia is probably the most exciting artist to watch out there right now, and while we’re still waiting on a proper debut that’s hopefully a little more focused, Banks has clearly made good promise on her dazzling “212” debut with weird 90s house beats and a distinctive and authoritative flow. I just can’t say no to a woman in menswear and plum lipstick.
15. Lana Del Rey - Born To Die
Certain people and their asinine arguments about Lana (We suddenly demand our pop stars to be authentic? When the fuck did that start?) made it feel like a mortal sin to admit to liking any of “Born To Die,” but I simply couldn’t care. These are well-crafted songs, full of memorable kitschy imagery, masterful musical arrangements, and vocal deliveries that are fascinating in their calculated indifference. Pop music and image have gone hand in hand since the genre’s inception, and while Lana will have to reinvent to risk parody on album 2, I can’t in good faith say that “Born To Die” wasn’t anything but a perfect snapshot of Tumblr’s blasé opulence and navel gazing. “Gangster Nancy Sinatra” will get a reaction out of you, no matter what. Lana won.
14. Perfume Genius - Put Your Back N 2 It
Arriving to me in the winter doldrums of a particularly depressing time in my life (I’m better now!), Perfume Genius’ album was like a miracle. Sparse piano arrangements, ghostly vocals and more raw nerve emotion than it almost humanely possible to take, Put Your Back N 2 It is an album for the sad gay boys in all of us. Made even better by the most intensely personal and heart-wrenching live performance I’ve ever had the honor of being a part of.
13. Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d. city
This is a weighty album, taking on the introspective and sensitive hip-hop of Drake and bringing it to a new level of honesty and purpose. Structured as a concept album about growing up in Compton, Kendrick brings almost everything it takes to the table to make this thing soar. My only complaint is that “Cartoon and Cereal” couldn’t find a place at the beginning.
12. Solange - True
This is the Solange I’ve been waiting over 4 years to see. I’ve attributed every cool/quirky thing Beyoncé has done in the past few years to her much more hip younger sister, and while I saw tons of potential in her underrated 2008 album, it’s nice to see Solange finally find her niche after years of searching. True is short and efficient, full of effervescent charm (“Losing You”) and powerful vocal displays (“Lovers in the Parking Lot”) that remain relaxed and laid-back without losing themselves too much in the groove. Keep proving them wrong, Solange.
11. How To Dress Well - Total Loss
Bedroom R&B revivalist delivers his first studio album and develops a more energized and full sound without losing the threadbare emotion of his dazzling and enveloping 2010 debut. Krell has a knack for honing in on the raw elements of influencers like Janet Jackson’s “janet” album and turning sex into sexless anguish and ruminations on death. Killer stuff.
10. The Tallest Man on Earth - There’s No Leaving Now
I’ve heard people say Kristian Matsson’s third LP is too much of the same but I can’t fathom not falling in love with these songs. Dylan comparisons are always inevitable with a voice like this but there’s just as much to admire in Matsson’s graceful phrasing, lyrical verbosity, and rambunctious guitar playing as there is his devastating gravel delivery. Matsson’s on his way to creating the new Great American Songboook. Just so happens it’s actually a Swedish one.
9. Jessie Ware - Devotion
Classy doesn’t have to be boring, and nobody proved that more than Jessie Ware in 2012. Ware’s songs are adult contemporary in nature, but they also have a cool sophistication to them that make them sound hip and effortlessly sexy. This is a powerhouse voice if there’s been one, but Ware’s phrasing is perfectly restrained, letting notes hit without fuss and allowing each and every word cut right to the bone. “Sweet Talk” is the best love letter to underappreciated 80s R&B I’ve ever heard. Impeccably cool, never dull.
8. Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dream
It’s been interesting watching R&B go indie considering it’s been my musical genre of choice since the first time I listened to music. There’s a lot to be excited about these days, but there’s always an uncomfortable lingering sense that R&B has to have qualifiers to be worthy, that it couldn’t possibly be exceptional without a “but” or in its undiluted form. Miguel’s album is R&B that doesn’t feel like it has to redefine the genre to legitimize it. The touchstones are clear - Marvin Gaye (on “Adorn,” a good case for song of the year), Prince, Donny Hathaway - and Miguel works within the classic parameters to deliver an album that’s smart, deceptively complicated and true to the genre at it’s very core.
7. Bat For Lashes - The Haunted Man
Bless Bat For Lashes for keeping art pop - real art pop, not the Lady Gaga kind - alive. The spirit of Kate Bush is in the blood of standout opener “Lilies,” a song that crackles with the vocal intensity and earthy sensuality of classic Bush. Bat for Lashes is no copycat though. This is an incredibly confident and dense album, full of tremendous intelligence and material that’ll take a full calendar year to process. Pop is more fun when it’s weird as hell.
6. Purity Ring - Shrines
Fantasy novel narratives and wobbly down-pitched vocals and sonic landscapes come together to create one of the most distinctive sounding debuts in recent memory. Shrines is uniform in sound but it never bores as so much of it feels like the entrance to a dark fairy tale portal. Purity Ring is both enchanting and a little bit scary. There’s as much wonderment here as there is the sense that something is a little off and a potential yellowbrick road to trauma. The effect is hallucinatory, both a dream and a nightmare.
5. Grimes - Visions
When the Terminator movies warned us about the rise of the machines, they forgot to mention that the upside was Grimes. Watching the musically untrained Claire Boucher live is like watching man (no, woman) and computer fuse into one nebulous whole. It’s easy to become entranced by the futuristic loops, the endless arpeggios of “Genesis, the Mariah whistle notes of “Circumambient. This doesn’t feel fully human, but how could that be the case when so much of Visions is about optimism and spirit? Much of what Boucher sings is unintelligible, but that’s not really the point. This is about finding humanity in progress, the soul of the cyber and the heart of the 808.
4. Daughn Gibson - All Hell
I laughed when I first heard Daughn Gibson described as “Country James Blake” because that just sounded like something so hilariously catered to my conflicting reference points that it had to be made up. Gibson sounds like the classic romantic baritone cowboys, but there’s fear in these tracks, a feeling that should be evident by all the guitars made to crack and bend with electronic distortion. All Hell, as the title implies, is more Killer Joe than High Noon; an album fixated on making the fucked up into a sort of homespun normalcy, a place where getting kicked in the teeth with a steel-toed boot is in the water supply. The title track is a nightmare - the embodiment of traditional meeting the modern and combusting in the darkest pockets of America.
3. Dawn Richard - Armor On/Whiteout EP
As a former member of Danity Kane, Dawn Richard has no business sounding like the future of R&B. This is futuristic R&B in the vein of what Timbaland was doing 15 years ago but with the added benefit of having someone who has a deep sense of humanity and unique introspection at her disposal. Richard has Brandy’s husk and it sounds like a dream traversing through dark soundscapes and tribal elements to deliver aching pleas like “I want to be human” and even managing to make the high-risk drama of lines like “think I’m color blind cause I’m bleeding black and grey” feel utterly monumental. Defenses and isolation are reoccurring themes in both EPs and Richard does a tremendous job of making music and lyric work in tandem to express the idea of being unable to establish real intimacy due to internal anguish and history. This is experimental, highly conceptual R&B from an unlikely source. It’s the best surprise of the year and a mark of woman willing to carve her own path, finally free to do what she wants and completely unafraid to be honest and confessional. The “oohs” of “Whiteout” feel like a soul left out on the ice, exposed to the elements but still beating.
2. Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel…
Fiona Apple can make instability feel well-oiled. There’s a LOT going on in each track on The Idler Wheel but it never feels like something that’s not firmly within the artist’s grasp. There are risks everywhere - the seasick melodies of “Jonathan”, the guttural vocals of “Daredevil,” the lyrical audacity of “Regret,” the whole of “Hot Knife”- but they’re so assuredly crafted and so deeply tethered to Fiona’s mouth that they feel like extensions of her body. There’s risk of alienation as Fiona grows more complicated in age but The Idler Wheel simply doesn’t care, nor should it. This is Fiona’s best work yet and the mark of an artist without peers.
1. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
Of all the things Channel Orange could have reminded me of, it reminded me of the cartoon “Bobby’s World.” On that show, Bobby was a quiet kid drawn to imaginary dreamworlds as an escape to a family that was much louder than him and much less likely to create elaborate internal narratives as a coping device. Channel Orange is about a lot of things. It’s about unrequited love. It’s about identity. It’s about class disparity. It’s about drugs. It’s about spirituality and existentialism. It’s about human connection, or at least the attempts at making them. Frank is an observer, just like Bobby. This isn’t the viewpoint of a Holden Caulfield looking at phonies, rather it’s the portrait of youth in constant question. The world is unfamiliar and it takes a lot of work to really understand people, something Ocean makes no qualms admitting he isn’t even close to an expert at. There’s wonder at surroundings here, attempts at making real connections, thread pulling at the nature of existence, basically everything that comes with figuring out the world at a young age. All of this happens to be occurring over songs that feel like well-worn classics, ripe with sentiments as simple and affecting as you’re likely to come across in any format. “I can never make him love me, ” is the killer line from “Bad Religion,” and while it has some personal reverence from me for being a truly honest same-sex love song, it’s a perfect encapsulation of what makes Ocean work so well. Ambition without pretense, meaning without artifice. You feel like you know Ocean when Channel Orange is done, even if you’re not completely sure what to make of him.
Meanwhile, Usher’s Climax and Cassie’s King of Hearts were my favorite tracks of the year not represented above.
Frank and tennis. The dream.
Let me use this moment to highlight three great songs from albums that didn’t quite make the list: Kelly Rowland’s “Motivation,” Lil B’s “I Hate Myself,” and Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” It felt so mean not giving them a mention. Oh, and Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” too. On to part 3. PS: I was drinking wine on these ones.
20. Jamie Woon – Mirrorwriting
I’ve already had a few British artists on this list that are mixing R&B with polished modern electronica (and really, I’ve barely even scratched the surface on R&B’s big indie 2011), but Jamie Woon fills in the middle lines between James Blake’s (so many mentions, and we haven’t even got to him yet) weird minimalist inwardness and SBTRKT and Katy B’s wild and loud ambition. Pitchfork already made this point, but it’s an extremely correct and viable one. Jamie Woon has the right kind of Keanu Reeves-esque good looks and smooth vocals that he could easily take the easy route and become the U.K.’s latest next big thing and set himself up for a career full of easy to earn accolades similar to Duffy in 2008. But that’s boring (and always comes with a backlash), so what great news to hear a singer as clearly as talented as Woon take a more difficult and unique approach with his debut album. Mirrorwriting is slick, there’s no getting around that, but it also takes cues (like Katy B) from more obscure movements in British soul and dance to create songs that are admirable in their ambition (“Street” and “Night Air” perfectly capture the loneliness of rain-slicked urban life following a night of drinking and dancing) but never cloying in their obvious attempts at beauty. I’m guessing it’s the moments of largely acoustic blue-eyed soul ballads that are earning Woon a few tackles from the press, but there’s truthfully nothing boring about songs like “Gravity” or “Spiral” thanks to Woon’s thoughtful and easy-going production (although it really is quite ambitious underneath the relaxed charm) and Woon’s ability to twist and turn a phrase for maximum swoon points. A few of these tracks could have set radio on fire easily, namely the hip-hop elements of “Lady Luck” and “Middle,” a song that’s essentially a lost Sugababes song (Mutya era), but Woon seems to be thinking intuitively rather than commercially. The result is what’s probably the most underrated album of the year and a promising glimpse into R&B’s future mutations.
Best Tracks: Night Air, Lady Luck, Spirits
19. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost
2009 was basically my lost year of music (honestly, I remember Shakira’s She Wolf and little else) so I missed out on the first wave of the Girls train. It’s funny then that their second album opens with Christopher Owens singing about girls that don’t like his “bony body” or “dirty hair” on “Honey Bunny” because it’s the type of reasoning that kept me away from the group in the first place. I didn’t think I’d like a group like this, but then Father, Son, Holy Ghost really wowed me. I mean, like really wowed me. It’s hard to hear a song as sprawling and raw as “Vomit” and not feel inspired even before the song’s epic gospel finale (complete with a black female vocalist) pushes it into a whole different stratosphere. The Rolling Stones have been doing blues rock with gospel for decades now (and hardly the first to do so), but something about “Vomit” feels like a new beginning of some sort. If it catches you in the right mood, it’s bound to produce some combination of goosebumps and tears by the refrain’s 10th utterance of “come into my heart.” Girls excel elsewhere on songs like “Forgiveness” and “Just A Song” that take elements of 60s California folk and transform them into stadium anthems. Elements of Beach Boys (“Honey Bunny”) and Deep Purple (“Die”) are a lot of fun, but Girls really excel when they go for broke on big ballads with just as big instrumentation and even bigger heart. You can’t go wrong with this many organs unless you’re Kid Rock.
Best Tracks: Vomit, My Ma, Love Like A River
18. Kate Bush – 50 Words For Snow
To really enjoy 50 Words For Snow you just have to accept that The Dreaming was 30 years ago. It’s foolish to expect artists to stay exactly where they are for that long of time, and while that album (arguably one of the best of all time, at least in my book) saw Kate as one of pop’s wackiest and most brilliant innovators, these days she doesn’t seem as fixated on completely reinventing pop music (which she’s done at least 2 or 3 times now already) as much as she seems interested in writing quieter mood music that reveal their complexity (and yes, still complete and udder weirdness) in ways that are less immediate than something like “Babooshka,” but not any less jaw-dropping. It’s really hard to even pin down a mood on 50 Words for Snow. While most winter-themed albums take a cozy cabin approach, Bush’s icy vocals and pumped up atmospherics make 50 Words For Snow a sneakily creepy album, at once consumed in beauty but also aware of the cold season’s unshakable isolation and loneliness. So no, you won’t hear screeching vocals or crazy production like you would on “Wuthering Heights” or “Get Out Of My House,” but that hardly means this album is boring. In fact, it’s hard to think of an artist out there as fearless as Kate. Who else could make songs as crazy as ones about yetis (the bouncy first single “Wild Man,” easily the poppiest moment here), looking for lost dogs (the sprawling “Lake Tahoe”), or having sex with snowmen (“Misty,” in which Bush stretches out the line “I can feel him melting into my hands” until it’s practically orgasmic) and still make them sound so universal and essential? The album saves its two highlights for the end. “Snowed in on Wheeler Street” pairs Bush with Elton John, her biggest influence, and produces the album’s most obvious moment of beauty ( its “I don’t want to lose you” refrain), while the title track reminds us that Kate is still off her rocker creatively, as a Vincent Price sound alike names 50 different nicknames for snow (“melt-o-blast,” “anklebreaker” “bad for trains”) while Bush seductively counts from 1 to 50. It’s weird, it’s a bit silly, and it lets us know that Bush will never become anything less than completely genius. My year of Kate had a nice finale.
Best Tracks: 50 Words for Snow, Snowed In on Wheeler Street, Misty
17. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes are basically spoiling us at this point. The first time I listened to the follow up to their widely loved debut, I thought something along the lines of “Wow, that was pretty.” Helplessness Blues deserves a lot more than that, it’s just that after 2 albums full of material this uniformly gorgeous, it’s almost feels like it’s coming too easily to them. But music this stunningly flawless takes work, even when it doesn’t show. The band’s choirboy harmonies are still there, tight as ever, making every track sound so beautiful that you’d almost think the only explanation is that they sprang from the earth organically. Gold-hued textures of American folk history are back as they were on the first album, but every once in a while they take a darker, more complex turn that hints at promising future directions for the band. There’s something incredibly raw and disarming about “sunlight over me no matter what I do” being yelled over guitar chords that resemble moving steams as if it’s a punishment like so happens on the epic “The Shirne/An Argument,” a song that morphs into expansive psychedelic folk halfway through its running time. Helplessness Blues isn’t just about being pretty, even though moments like the “oh mans” in tracks like “Montezuma” sure seem to beg otherwise, instead the album deals with darker material, namely reconciling the past and accepting the future, to create some of the most haunting moments in recent memory. On “Blue Spotted Trail,” the album’s best track, we hear a delicate pang of fragility in Robin Pecknold’s voice as he calmly states the obvious, “Why is life made only for to end.” It’s a killer line and it practically knocks you down to the ground. Excuse me, I think I have something in my eye.
Best Tracks: Blue Spotted Tail, Montezuma, The Shrine/An Argument
16. Miranda Lambert – Four The Record
I really need to stop assuming that it’s only a matter of time until Miranda Lambert betrays me. Coming off the biggest album of her career (2009’s Revolution) and a Country Song of the Year Grammy for “The House That Built Me” (one of my weepy songs), now would have been the opportune time for Miranda to start gunning for a more crossover Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood sound. Lead single “Baggage Claim,” essentially an R&B country song with Destiny’s Child lyrics, wasn’t exactly the most encouraging sound when it was released earlier this summer, but thankfully Lambert sounds as great as ever on her fourth album, deftly mixing in tributes to classic country (“Easy Living” actually has a whistle interlude) with some of the riskiest gambits the genre has seen in quite some time. The album’s most notable moment comes early on with “Fine Tune,” a song that dares not only to ramp up the sex with a ton of engine tunin’ metaphors, but also puts Lambert’s voice through a filter for its entire duration, a decision that no doubt shocked a whole lot of country traditionalists. It’s an early triumph on a record full of them, especially the trio of ballads at the end of the album, none better than a powerful cover of Gillian Welch’s “Look At Miss Ohio” that nearly rivals Miranda’s “Easy From Now On” cover from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. And while I’m probably alone in liking Miranda’s quieter side on tracks like “Oklahoma Sky” and “Over You” more than the tough chick reputation that she’s known for, you’d be an absolute idiot not to love the barroom sing-along of “Nobody’s Fool” or the rollicking “Mama’s Broken Heart.” The latter of those two is an important moment for Lambert, who at times appears to be tacking the “crazy girl with a bat” songs on just for consistency’s sake (“Fastest Girl In Town” is fine but it’s sort of spinning its wheels). “Mama’s Broken Heart” could be classified as one of these songs, but it takes a much more creative approach – Miranda explaining how she doesn’t “hide her crazy” when shit hits the fan like her mother’s generation did - and injects it full of details and wry observations like “I cut my bangs with a pair of rusty kitchen scissors,” and “I wish I could be a just a little less dramatic/like a Kennedy when Camelot went down in flames” to create the year’s best true and true country song. Not only is country safe in Miranda’s hands, it’s evolving in them too.
Best Tracks: Fine Tune, Mama’s Broken Heart, Little Miss Ohio
15. Destroyer – Kaputt
2011 was without a doubt the year of the saxophone revival. Some of these applications were good (Bon Iver’s “Beth/Rest”) while others came off cloying and trying too hard in their tongue-in-cheek irony (Lady Gaga, Katy Perry). It’s tough to say if Destroyer are being ironic with their use of the same smooth sax that Kenny G loves so much, but I’m inclined to say they’re not. There’s nothing wrong with loving long-gone eras of music or getting a kick of out the cheesier recesses of music history, so why not make the type of music you love? There’s enough heavy material here, such as “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker’s” take on racial identity (“400 years of this shit, fuck it/it’s not you, it’s nothing personal/no hard feelings/nothing’s there”), to insinuate that Kaputt isn’t a joke, just a solid and well-written album that happens to take its musical cues from equal parts Roxy Music and Chuck Magione. And you know what? It sounds fantastic. I could go on about the tracks and how hard it is to make an album that sounds so distinctive yet uniformly singular, but you can’t really do it justice without hearing it. The album’s title track repeats the line “it all sounds like a dream to me” and that’s about as good of a descriptor as I can think of. For a lot of people this would be a nightmare, but for those of us that aren’t afraid of high art mixing with the low, Kaputt is like a gift that keeps on giving.
Best Tracks: Chinatown, Kaputt, Suicide Demo for Kara Walker
14. Adele – 21
Had 21 come out in November instead of January, I think we’d be seeing it a lot higher on most magazine year-end lists. At this point, “Rolling In The Deep” has become incredibly overplayed (it’s the rare track that can be played in almost every format except country) and listening to “Someone Like You” has essentially turned into the universal meme for being sad and lonely. A lot of the album has lost its luster over the last 12 months, true, but that also probably has a lot to do with just how much it felt like a record we’ve had for years even upon its first listen. Adele’s voice probably doesn’t need description at this point, but there are moments on 21 (the voice crack during the chorus of “Someone Like You”, the scale climbing on “Turning Table’s” bridge section) where it doesn’t even seem like it could belong to a human. As a breakup album, 21 isn’t the most cryptic or literary example of its genre, but that doesn’t at all take away from the all consuming emotional power that Adele channels into each and every track. When we hear her sing lines like “I know I have a fickle heart/ and a bitterness” it’s hard not to want to hug her. It’s no secret from her album sales that Adele has tapped into something universal and wholly engrossing to almost every demographic out there. It’s heartening to see it happen to such a talented performer on such a quality record, the type of album that makes a promising talent a full-out star, much like Back To Black did for Amy Winehouse. This one will be nearly impossible to top.
Best Tracks: Someone Like You, Don’t You Remember, Turning Tables, Rumor Has It
13. Jay-Z & Kanye West – Watch The Throne
Pardon me, but it’s 2011 and if I want to hear an album with hip-hop’s two greatest personalities rapping about luxury goods and how great they are instead of some self-satisfied rapper from the Twin Cities with the “socially conscious” label thrown upon them, that’s my prerogative, and I don’t feel bad in the slightest. I laugh every time I hear someone say Watch The Throne is too excessive. Yeah, it’s Jay and Kanye, never exactly music’s biggest wallflowers, and after a listen or two of this album, it really hits you how much they deserve to talk about whatever whim strikes them. Is name dropping Margiela and having Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci design your album cover relatable? No, but who really cares? Watch The Throne is pure fun all the way through. The Beyoncé-assisted “Lift Off” is about as infectious as music got in 2011 (plus, it gets really awesome in its last minute), “Niggas In Paris” is the year’s most quotable song (“that shit cray,” “what she order? Fish filet.”) and “Who Gon Stop Me” makes the year’s obligatory dubstep breakdown sound fresh as hell thanks to a bananas verse from Jay-Z. A lot of Watch The Throne feels like a Kanye album production wise (Kanye even mentions how he’s rapping on tracks he could have sold for a lot of money on one song), but Jay is just as present, allowing the album a sorta-cute mentor/student vibe. And just in case comparing their collaboration as “something like the Holocaust” seems a little gauche, Watch The Throne delivers its fare share of insightful material as well, best of all “Murder to Excellence,” which examines cycles of black on black violence over a blistering beat. It’s also a treat to hear Frank Ocean on two tracks, including the chilling opener, “No Church in the Wild.” He’s even better on “Made In America,” which by all accounts should fail with Ocean’s super-earnest “Sweet King Martin/Sweet Queen Coretta/Sweet Brother Malcolm/Sweet Queen Betty” hook, but instead feels sweetly sincere and a good reminder of how Jay and Kanye are just two kids with big dreams that are enjoying the hell out of their lives and making the rest of our poor asses happier in the process.
Best Tracks: Niggas in Paris, Who Gon Stop Me, Lift Off, Murder to Excellence
12. Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra
R&B has been my bread and butter genre since I was 7 years old, but I’ve often been heard to lament just how few good male singers the genre has had in recent years. There’s nothing remotely interesting about a person like Trey Songz; even if you overlook the boring production, all you have is a singer who’s driven by no other impulse than sex, and while R&B has always been about sex, there’s no weight behind it other than boasting and pretending to understand what ladies want. It’s the musical equivalent of looking in the mirror and kissing your own bicep. But then came Frank Ocean (and a few other dudes we’ll get to later) who made the world of male R&B a fascinating place to be. We can honestly thank Drake (and The-Dream) for this, but we all of a sudden have a crop of amazingly talented singers and songwriters who lay all their emotions on the table for all to see. Even a song like “Novacane,” again a song about fucking, is made interesting by how honest it is, spinning a yarn of sexual conquests into something dark, ugly and miserably lonely. Nostalgia, Ultra is highly ambitious and while not everything totally works (the MGMT redux is a bit on the silly side), it’s hard not to admire a guy ambitious enough to include large chunks of dialogue from a Nicole Kidman monologue in Eyes Wide Shut on “Lovecrimes” and who even dares to turn “Hotel California” into a song about a crumbling relationship. Even a reimagining of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” soars, with Ocean’s nostalgic lyrics and sweet voice turning lines like “say hello/and say farewell to the places you’ve known” into words with real depth and a sense of time and place behind them. It’s that vulnerable side that really makes Ocean’s debut (although it’s still just a mixtape) a truly special thing. Most singers would be afraid to be admit something as personal as Ocean does when talking about his absent father on “There Will Be Tears,” but the moment you hear “those boys ain’t had no fathers either/and they weren’t crying/my friends said it wasn’t so bad/you can’t miss what you ain’t had/well I can/I’m sad” you instantly know him better than you’ve known Usher in the last 15 years.
Best Tracks: Strawberry Swing, Novacane, We All Try, There Will Be Tears
11. tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
It’s always encouraging to see a female performer as gleefully unafraid to weird people the fuck out and ruffle feathers as much as TUnE-yArDs’s Merrill Garbus is. I mean, what the hell is w h o k i l l anyway? Is it Afrobeat? Is it punk? Is it offbeat jazz? The “world music” label seems much too limiting, especially considering her vast cultural influence doesn’t so much seem to be a collage as much as it is a new style of music that’s only being currently being performed by one person on the planet. There are a lot of things going on this album, but the clutter never actually clutters, instead the mixture of things like trash can percussion and human siren noises inject the songs with a dizzying sense of chaos and pure energy. And while I’d say the political messages (of which there are many) never become too pushy or obvious (again, save that for conscious hip-hop), the whole project feels like the spirit of community action put into music. “Gangsta” takes on gentrification and race with an almost violent approach on the horns and it doesn’t sound remotely like anything else this year. It’s pure undiluted creative energy in a four minute slice and it’s a spirit that never really dissipates, certainly not on “Bizness,” which pairs a relaxing island rhythm with Garbus’ impassioned vocals. Albums don’t often get this inventive or completely unique. I guess if they were all like this they wouldn’t feel nearly as special.
Best Tracks: Gangsta, Bizness, Es-so