I’m gonna change things up a bit from the others in this column, and switch from a ‘favorite songs’ to a ‘favorite albums’ format. You’ll still get my favorite track from each one, which I think is arguably my favorite 20 or so songs (give or take a few, XXYYXX).
Because you know, for the first time in my life, I didn’t have enough time for music. 2012 was full of sonic surprises and twists; so many singles inboxed, so many parties DJ’d, concert festivals visited… And somehow I feel like I missed so much of the music out there! Maybe it was the starting my own business, maybe it was getting married, maybe it was the hangover from an indulgeant 2011. I don’t know.
But for the first time too in 2012, I realized I was out of date. While I’ve got a list of 20 great albums (and accompanying tracks), I really can’t tell you what’s on the radio. I hear the names of artists with apparent millions of YouTube views that are unknown to me. That’s new to me, and I’m not sure how to handle it.
What I can tell you about music in 2012, is that there were some great albums, most of which stuck with me for the entirely of the year. Perhaps my “falling behind” wasn’t so much missing out as it was efficiency. Each of these albums I found promptly, loved, and never let go. Sure, there was development (my personal “charts” change with my moods, repeat listens, and lyrical discoveries, as they should), but I didn’t need to go looking for new undiscovered music when the stuff already in front of me! What’s the old saying? Why buy the cow when you get the sex for free?
Something like that.
Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE
“The best song wasn’t the single.” Frank couldn’t have been more right in writing that line. I’ll be # 27543233 to sing the praises of what was head-and-shoulders-above-all-else the album of the year in Channel ORANGE (and possibly the worst album art too), and I’m okay with that, because a classic deserves unanimous praise. This is the album that keeps on giving. Just when you think you can’t stop singing a song more than ‘Thinkin’ Bout You’, you hear ‘Sweet Life’. Just when you think it couldn’t be any sweeter, you hear the story of dealer and the stoner (‘Pilot Jones’). Just when you thought you couldn’t get any more stoned, you get ‘Crack Rock’ (and how blunt is that?). And just when you need to escape, you’re Lost, “Lost in the heat of it all”. And when you think you’ve got nothing left, the cheerleaders raise their pom-poms inspiring you to run, Forrest, run (“Forrest Gump”). And in that order. This is a masterpiece of R&B bliss. This is an album full of singles, none of which even need to be released for it to be recognized. Forget the fact that Frank is a personification of this generation; a liberal, a dreamer, a bisexual, a designer, a tumblr. I can’t wait for more. I could include this whole album as each entry on this list.
Tennis – Young & Old
Easily the most underrated album of the year. For whatever reason, people didn’t get behind this Tennis album, and I cannot understand why. It’s melodically, technically, and completely better than their previous effort. It’s slightly more soulful, recalling some great ‘One Step Away’ era Aretha, while keeping their beachy brightness, combined with non-preachy messages (“a picture of fragility/is it a woman you think you see”). Motown by the sea, if you will. There isn’t a song I’ll skip on this album. In addition, the Vacationer remix of ‘Petition’ miiiiight be my favorite song of the year. iTunes says I listened to it 16 times this year (I DONT EVEN REALLY USE iTUNES TO LISTEN TO MUSIC!)
Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid mAAd City
Another easy favorite of the year for most. It’s a concept album, it’s an autobiography, it’s a mixtape, and more than anything else, it’s a complete hip-hop record. I haven’t actually been able to say that I’ve loved a rap album start to finish in at least 5 or 6 years. The first one that comes to mind is Stankonia? What was that, 2000? Even Eminem didn’t deliver complete albums. Great singles do not an album make. Lamar weaves a brilliant musical tapestry, from stellar production, to lyrical content touching on some very real topics like peer pressure (very resonant for me), to straight up city anthems (‘Compton’) which still manages to somehow not sound forced or out of place. Interspersed too are a collage of skits; a classic indulgence (and now lost art) of the rap album, bloating track numbers into the 20s. These seamlessly tie together the album’s thematic elements of faith, family, and the anxieties that a young man battles in the city.
Death Grips – The Money Store
The Money Store is not an accessible record. You don’t play The Money Store; The Money Store plays you. It is cacophony; the lyrics are mostly indecipherable, the song structure evolves at its own pace, and yet somehow creates something very visceral. I’ve never heard music like this, nor seen a live show that felt this way (my most memorable visual is the drummer playing over loops of himself, while being shouted at by a bearded, shirtless man covered in tattoos, while a woman poured a thick viscous brown liquid over herself . The more I hear it, the more I like it. It’s like a musical equivalent of your ears getting raided by a band of Barbarians. They take no prisoners; you’re either with them or against them. It’s a raw musical power I’ve not seen since, well, ever. This is very much a ‘getting myself amped’ record. Job interview? No problem. Dodgeball game? No problem. Bachelor party? No problem. Love it or hate it, I believe very much that this is the future of music.
John Mayer – Born & Raised
While I’m not sold on the roots-country-esque turn John Mayer took on this album, which felt like push to stay relevant and explore a reliable market as his stock fell. Beneath all the posturing, however, is Mayer’s most honest record since Room For Squares; mildly broken, heartfelt, and affected. I definitely had a bona fide cry listening to the title track this year, mourning my youth. It’s a wild feeling (and this was a great soundtrack to it). It’s good to see John getting in touch with his roots again, even if getting in touch with your roots means getting a little too in touch with roots rock.
Dirty Radio – Cassette
The most pleasant surprise of my music year, was this Edmonton/Vancouver trio who seriously picked up the torch Justin Timberlake lit so many years ago: a fantastic blend of R&B, pop, electronica, and killer falsetto. Take each track on Cassette, and it’ll bear a familiarity to all of the best, funky, indie pop jams. Seriously though, this is the record JT should have made, and if he had, it would be at the top of (almost) all of our lists this year. I have not shown this album to anyone and had them say they don’t like it. That’s pretty tough to say these days!
Unbuttoned – Electric Kingdom
R&B is obviously having an amazing renaissance, and not a second too soon. Unbuttoned is a soulful little crew from Toronto making catchy, affective new-wave R&B. Their sound is easy to like, and their song craft is great beyond their years. Synths and airy ooohs and ahhhhs compliment a keen musical sense and obvious love for pre-2000 R&B make this album good, but the rich combo of dual vocalists Casey MQ & Kamilah Apong that make it great.
Grimes – Visions
I’m not sure what I can say about Grimes that hasn’t been said. She’s ended at the top of countless lists, played infinity shows, and wet the sheets of every hip blogger (not without merit). The album is cool; it’s really cool. Visions is equal parts k-pop, dreamy 80s throwback, and Ross playing the keyboard in Friends, making up a very unique and original sound. It’s not for everyone, but Visions is entirely more accessible than any record that sounds like this has any right to be. Half the time I feel like I’m listing to ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ by Tiffany, and half the time I feel like I’m in Lazer Quest under a bunch of blacklights. She’s brilliant.
Jessie Ware – Devotion
I’m doing a lot of comparisons in this list, but new music this year is really making me remember the music I grew up treating as great. I’m not saying it was — maybe this all part of ‘getting old’, where you start constantly saying everything ‘sounds like something else’. Or maybe this is just a music cycle restarting, where the kids (read: me) who grew up with 90s R&B and pop are now the ones creating the music, so justifiably, everything shares those qualities with a new spin (I’m hoping). Anyway, like Frank Ocean & Unbuttoned, Jessie Ware is another fantastic fresh take on R&B. Mixing the best parts of future bass, sample pop, and soul, Jessie is a modern Whitney Houston. Or maybe Mariah Carey, back when Mariah was rocking killer power ballads and reminding us we’d always be her baby. Charming and space-y, this whole record is.
Chairlift – Something
I never would have considered this album as a favorite, but as I look back throughout the year, I kept coming back to Chairlift whenever I’d get bored of the new stuff I’d found. Each time I returned, I found a new song I liked more, or had felt like I missed the last time I listened to the album. Originally introduced to me as the opening act for Tennis, Chairlift too shares a great affinity with a time period of music (in this case the 80s). The record is pretty broad reaching too, running the gamut from riffing on classic Police (‘Amanemonesia’), to what could have been the theme song of a (good) John Hughes film (“I Belong In Your Arms)”. Lead singer/actress Caroline Polachek has a great set of pipes, too.
BBNG – 2
Bringing Jazz to a new generation. Exhilarating live shows, great hip-hop covers. (Go local boys go!)
Lana Del Ray – Born To Die
Unfairly hated on, I have no problem saying I like Lana (and her record). Born To Die may not have been incredible, but there is no denying the slick style and aesthetic, even if that’s all it is.
Uncle Skeleton – Too Human
The soundtrack to a crazy film from the 60s. Instrumental bossa nova, surf sounds, and airline jingles abound. Brilliant album art too.
Vacationer – Gone
My favorite remixers (Tennis’s ‘Petition’) of the year also dropped a great summer album. Their name could not be more appropriate, as every time I listen to this record I feel like I’m on vacation, somewhere warm, and certainly sunny.
Mac Demarco – 1
As aloof “I dont give a shit” frontmen go, all hail the new king. His live shows are weird, kooky, and oddly endearing. He’s an entertainer, a great throwback musician and even kind of a douchebag. (The likeable kind!) Sounds like soft rock and warbling aged cassette tapes. His last band was even called Makeout Videotape.
XXYYXX – S/T
I didn’t really love this album as a whole. The quality levels were all over the place, but it IS great to put on in the background when you need to relax, space-out, or make-out. It’s deep, narcotic, and contains one of the best synthesized harmonic noises I’ve ever heard in ‘About You’. A great single, and a decent album.
‘Higher Ground’ is the official party jam of 2012. Pumping, bouncing, trilling… You can do anything to this song. Shake your hips, pump your fists, nod your head, chicken dance — it all feels good. The builds are so good, so simple, and so powerful I can’t help but move every time I hear this song. Along with Frank Ocean, I definitely sang this song to myself all the damn time, all the damn year. And that is totally fine by me.”
The Junction – Grievances
Not sure how I managed to do it, but I didn’t check out the new record from one of my favorite (and consistent) local acts. These guys continue to evolve their sound, while maintaining all the cool elements that made a 20 year old Johnny fall in love with them. These guys are always full of indie rock charms and soulful, charging moments of energy and bliss. Looking forward to digging deeper into this record.
A Year Late
Virgins – RGB
These guys were a Bandcamp find when I was looking for bossa nova for a yet to be completed mixtape (it’s coming, I swear!). But their warm folky music sounds like it’s being sung in the twilight, in a backyard, by my closest friends, who are 4 bottles deep in red wine. Best night ever?
Passion Pit – Gossamer
It’s not that was even a bad album, it just sounded so polished, so artificial (and not in the cool Lana Del Rey sense), and so cold in contrast to their earnest previous effort.