Friday, January 11, 2013

Kyle's Top 50 Albums of 2012: 10-1

Below are the best records of the year, the Top 10! They blend listenability and artistic integrity seamlessly. Because they are so good, I'll keep this prologue short. Cool?

10. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!

Post-Rock has seen a slow dissolve into the rest of music, almost entirely abandoning its independence. The mercurial Godspeed You! Black Emperor silently distributed this album two weeks before its release date in October at a show in Boston, their first album in a decade. What 'Allelujah... does for Post-Rock is what this year and the last did for R&B: it's a revival. Maybe we won't see a burst of Post-Rock releases immediately, but eventually you can bet it will inspire many to pick up their instruments and try the tired genre again. Due to the band's attention to the artistic importance of a physical release of music, Goodspeed packaged the shorter, Drone-based songs on a 7" record and the true Post-Rock songs on a 12", creating an interesting and content-focused vinyl release. "Mladic", which begins the album, opens with a scattered radio signal detailing what sounds to be an assassination, a possible retelling of the Bin Laden killing - it's pretty unclear and I am only speculating, but this opening shifts the interpretation of the record to a more political stance regardless of intended meaning. The arrangements on 'Allelujah... are grand, unpredictable, and move toward the epic at any random point. Though it took them a decade to release a new album, Godspeed proves Post-Rock isn't dead, and it can teach adeptly without speaking. 

9. Tame Impala - Lonerism
[Modular Recordings]

Largely recorded abroad, Lonerism assures the Australian Pyschadelic does not fall victim to the sophomore slump, and in many ways, it improves on Innerspeaker. Band leader Kevin Parker made sure to keep recording gear at his disposal at all times, ensuring no ideas would be lost in the shuffle on the tour for Innerspeaker. This album is packed with 70s era Psychedelica to the point where I question how much money the band spent on vintage gear. In a year which saw Instagram sell for $1 billion, it's a comfort to hear art that is organically vintage, not slapped with a filter after the fact. Obvious themes of loneliness are weaved throughout Lonerism, imposing a solidarity with the listener. This is the music of Nyquil dreams and sleep paralysis, at times, and other times it is a vast landscape of floating guitar tunes and marching drums. The production deserves some attention as it perfectly accentuates the shifts in moods. This is a record that gives and gives until there is nothing left but a dissonance of static and anxiety, an exhausting record to create yet boundlessly enjoyed. 

8. Japandroids - Celebration Rock

It should be harder than this to be so maturely nostalgic of youth, without pandering one bit. Japandroids record nearly all their music in one live take, sprinkling a in handful of overdubs later. It's this technique that accurately portrays their live show in recordings, something many bands fail at. Celebration Rock starts and ends with fireworks, leaving just as quickly as it came. And fireworks are often enjoyed more by the young than the old, a statement that seems to reverse itself when it comes to Japandroids. Equally influenced by Garage and Punk Rock, Celebration Rock seems even more self-aware than Post Nothing, the band's debut full-length, constantly playing with song conventions and inverting them. Only eight songs long, including one cover, Celebration Rock builds on what its predecessor did so well in 2009. I definitely feel like I have some sort of Shining with this band, but it seems that whomever they click with, that Shining is shared. The way Japandroids paint youthful lust and mistakes is beyond clever, never sounding the least bit banal. I wasn't surprised when I heard how good this record was, I was just elated that I had more Japandroids to listen to; they're the band you just want more of. 

[Clean Slate; Epic]

"Every single night's a fight with my brain," sings Fiona Apple on The Idler Wheel... opener "Every Single Night". Apple is an artist deft with the pen, and also with her simple, effective arrangements. She's not comfortable in her own skin, still, so a lot of this album is fidgety. There are few moments of repose, yet it's still fascinatingly pretty. If this is Apple's grownup album - she's now in her mid-thirties - then I can't wait for whatever stage of insecurity comes next. When she reaches her most desperate pleading on "Daredevil", she assures herself how she needs someone to watch over her, a chaperone; this is exactly how the listener feels throughout The Idler Wheel... as if they are watching someone close to them toe the line of a steep personal decline. It's not as gruesome as a train-wreck, but the closer you listen to the lyrics, the more you empathize with Apple, wanting to help her however you can. And while Fiona could care less if she has your support, she has succeeded in having you share a small portion of the everyday struggles she goes through. I love how personal this record is, without ever feeling like a sob story - Apple often takes responsibility her current problems. It's great to have Fiona Apple back making music, though after studying The Idler Wheel... closely, it's hard to say how long she will be sticking around, musically or otherwise.

6. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music
[Williams Street; Grand Hustle; Adult Swim]

Killer Mike has always been this good. He has always been in the conversation of the best southern rappers. Mike just needed someone equally as talented as he. Enter New York's legendary El-P. A collaboration between Atlanta and New York, R.A.P. Music feels instantly familiar. Released with the help of Williams Street, this match of producer and rapper feels predestined throughout. El-P's beats now sound pointed and political under Killer Mike's aggressive assault. Like Ben Goodheart, I have heard this record is too political, but you could also argue it's too personal: Killer Mike is a humanist with progressive ideals and responsibility. "I'm glad Reagan dead" might be the funniest line on the record, though the album is chock full of witty lines like that, producing an entertaining listen each time. Nothing is half-baked on R.A.P. Music, every single idea is fully developed, its own entity. But the best part about this record is you might learn something. Mike's raps are factually correct - heck, it might even leave you enlightened. When such a talented MC and producer get together, it raises the bar for other rappers to be much wiser with their beat selections, and producers to where they lend their beats. It's this stake-raising album that makes Rap (music) better.

5. Grizzly Bear - Shields

Beautiful in respite, Shields sees Grizzly Bear throw out most of the pop-sensibility on Veckatimest and bring back in more of the seclusive elements from Yellow House, which makes a lot of sense considering most of the record recorded in the same place as Yellow House. Shields speaks a lot to location, much like how Phil Elverum is so adept at translating setting into music. Grizzly Bear is such a collaborative effort on Shields; there are no distinct band leaders, each member contributing equally. Chris Bear's effort on this record is the most noted, when it comes to critical response, but the drummer has always been one of the driving forces of the band -- I was surprised with just how many critics commented on Bear's drumming like he had never even been considered part of the band. In a year where Animal Collective faltered, Grizzly Bear might just be the new indie darling band. With three exceptional albums under their belt, the band shows no sign of slowing down, continuing onward by force of its own momentum. Shields parallels the band's success: it's a complete work, snowballing into some crescendo no one dreamed of, until this.


Converge sat down, after having molded and reshaped Metalcore a dozen times, and thought, What's next? They decided to control every aspect of All We Love We Leave Behind, from the recording process to the artwork and distribution. Everything is perfect. The vocals sound like the pleading of a lunatic, the guitars attack with mathematical precision, and the rhythm section shifts with the music restlessly. Brutality is an understatement when it comes to describing All We Love We Leave Behind - there are multiple transitions on this album where my only reaction is to laugh at how ridiculously good and unexpected they are. And Converge is writing even bigger songs than the ones featured on the band's classic Jane Doe. "Coral Blue" is one of the best songs on the album, sounding like a discontent Mastodon song mixed with Isis. I just wish this album came out when I was younger, so I could have worked out some of that teenage aggression - but that is folly, as it should take a band over two decades to sound this good. This is Converge at the top of their game, imposing their will on any band that even half-jokingly considers themselves heavy. Laugh, Converge, laugh. 

3. Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d. City
[Top Dawg Entertainment; Aftermath; Interscope]

"Instant classic" is a term thrown around in Rap far too often, but it seemed like everyone, including almost every critic, was calling Kendrick Lamar's major-label solo debut an instant classic. It is, unfortunately. Now it will carry this title, a cross to bear, for the years in which its longevity will be tested. This shouldn't be difficult for good kid, m.A.A.d. City, so no one should worry, right? Well, if this "classic" title precedes the album every time someone new is introduced to it, it's at an inherent disadvantage: all expectations are raised and the listeners raises a keener ear. Rants aside, GKMC is perpetually strong, in the now. There's no denying the purpose of this record was to receive acclaim, using every penny of its budget to fully express Lamar's visionary raps. Everything on this record works. It's extremely intelligent; the beats are all tailored to Lamar and his many flows; and it says as much about the current Rap scene as it does about how people perceive it. There is a distinct call for change on GKMC, and with such a high exposure level, Lamar's message will be broadcasted to millions. Though it is pretty foolish to claim something a classic - the definition of classic in art being defined by its timelessness - GKMC makes an educated guess that it will continue to define rap for the years to come. 

2. Frank Ocean - channel ORANGE
[Def Jam]

Pretty much every music blog this year chose either Channel Orange or good kid, m.A.A.d. city for its album of the year: both were hugely anticipated albums, major label debuts, hyped by a rap collective at the height of their popularity, and deserving of AOTY titles. I remember when Ocean made his television debut on Letterman, revealing the album was up for digital downloads a week early; "I remember, how could I forget?" I rushed to my computer and purchased it on iTunes, something I haven't done in about two years.

Frank Ocean is the perfect storm of an artist; one that comes along only once every decade, a true original, but there are definitely shades of Prince in Ocean's persona and talents, not to undermine his vision. He is constantly misquoted, concerning his sexuality and willingness to leave music altogether; misunderstood; and extremely under appreciated, despite being a critically lauded musician. I think Channel Orange doesn't begin to scratch the surface on what we can expect from Ocean. nostalgia, ULTRA was a decent prelude, though no one could predict a song like "Thinking Bout You", which is up for a Grammy -- despite Grammys becoming less and less salient. Even songs like "Sierra Leone", a song I feel never quite coalesces, is a great exercise in harmony and rhythm that hints at more excellent music, experiments, from the twenty-five year old we have yet to hear. "Pyramids" is the most epic song I heard all year, including songs from Baroness, Converge, Cloud Nothings, Death Grips - all bands that seemingly pride themselves on being larger than life; Ocean remains just one man.

Introducing sexual ambiguity and a myriad of unconventional accompaniments, Channel Orange efficiently increases R&B's clout in the ever-shifting musical landscape in the internet age; a trend put in motion by the recent emergence of Drake and The Weeknd as a radio juggernaut. Frank Ocean even uses tumblr in a way not warranting hatred and frustration with the human race, fully understanding how the internet community, though almost entirely fickle and spoiled, can receive a person who is true to his or her online avatar, which Ocean captures in spades. Channel Orange feels more like a movement toward acceptance, away from misogyny, and twirling, twirling, twirling toward deeper music broadcasted to a larger audience than just another album from 2012.

1. Death Grips - The Money Store / NO LOVE DEEP WEB
[Epic] [Self-Released]

What feels like a swift kick in the teeth, Death Grips' The Money Store is an album forged deep in the recesses of technology. Using samples from iPhones and a swathe of digital white noise, The Money Store is the masterpiece of MC Ride and Zach Hill (maybe Flatlander): their "fuck you" statement to the music industry. This is an album whose story is just as good as the music, a rare entity in the DIY era. Death Grips signed to Epic, a move into the very industry Exmilitary seemed to steer away from - who was going to sign a band who shouted incoherently over violent beats, then sell it? The music community stood nonplussed, yet foaming at the mouth to see what happened next. The Money Store comes out, it garners every critic's recommendation, and a vast tour is booked, only Death Grips now promises two releases in 2012. The tour is cancelled, production on NO LOVE DEEP WEB begins. Death Grips blow their entire advance from The Money Store at L.A.'s famously star-inhabited Chateau. They leak NO LOVE from an iPhone with a picture of Zach Hill's dick serving as the cover. I thought it was all brilliant. The band was immediately dropped from Epic, left homeless and broke, and this is all within the year of their breakthrough. This is all from a band that is increasingly reclusive, despite being one of the most sought after interviewees, and proclaimed "No representation is better than misrepresentation;" it's pretty accurate to say Death Grips functions on its own honest frequency.

The Money Store boasts forty-one minutes of brutal, often ineffable music. MC Ride is a little more coherent on here than Exmilitary, but doesn't loose his edge at all. He's also curbed back, as the songs are a bit shorter, creating a more focused album. The Money Store even features some bangers you can play whenever, not just when you want to see if you can make a Molotov cocktail; "Get Got" and "I've Seen Footage" do have some appeal, though the closer you look, the more you can see how baffling the move to Epic was. Hill bears the weight on the production - the recondite samples and beats on this album are outstandingly fresh and innovative. The album also scored two perfect ten scores from The Needle Drop and Drowned in Sound, adding to its merits.

NO LOVE DEEP WEB showed what happened when the artistic abyss that is Death Grips stared into itself. Much further down the isolationist rabbit hole The Money Store started down, this record is frightening. This might be the most artistically true record all year. Death Grips didn't capitulate to any demands on NLDW. And though it didn't receive the acclaim the former record did, it serves as an important companion piece: this album is the ultimate goal of The Money Store's unease. What this record does best is pair MC Ride's aggression with the deepest of beats, sometimes only using drums as the sole instrument. It's amazing what Death Grips does with so little. This is the record that put millions of dicks in people's iTunes.

These albums have exhausted a band who was an unorthodox entity to begin with, so maybe a complete defenestration was the band's planned future. And just an author's note these albums certainly aren't for everyone, but those who can understand their importance and originality will be perpetually rewarded with each skittishly unpredictable listen.

So that's the year in music for one self-appointed critic. You can return to the main page to view all the lists, and Flatted Third has some bonus lists geared up for next week, so don't forget to come back and check them out!

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