(I bet you thought we’d finished our 2012 Listmania series. Think again. BadWolf brings us one more list.)
Three months into 2013, here’s another top 10 about 2012. These are my favorite articles to write every year, and also the most difficult. 2012 in particular was a musical gauntlet. The more promos we get here at NCS and at the other sites I write for, the more metal I listen to, the more I need non-metal records to give myself a break. It’s an infinite feedback loop.
I thought this would be an easy article. So many of my favorite artists in my favorite genres released albums in 2012 that I anticipated the article would write itself. Needless to say, things did not turn out that way. Old favorites like Marillion and Titus Andronicus released middle-of-the-road records. At the same time, I developed a tremendous appetite for hip-hop. One version of this list was entirely populated by rappers, which would have necessitated another top 10 list.
Also, so many metal labels released more-or-less rock records that I debated including them. In the end I opted not to: you know who Graveyard are, and they don’t need me for a cheerleader (seriously, though—listen to Graveyard).
In the end, these ten albums made the cut more-or-less based on play counts alone. They all share certain qualities with my favorite metal albums: intense sound, aggressive or melancholy delivery, vocals. You could call those things the core of my taste. Perhaps they’re also at the core of yours.
Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror
This is Sleigh Bells’ second appearance in one of my end of year top 10’s—Reign of Terror makes them 2 for 2 in sick records. People love or hate Sleigh Bells, there is no in between. Either you think metal guitar, industrial drums, and sugary pop vocals go together like chocolate and peanut butter or you don’t. Well, I do.
Reign of Terror works in two modes. On the one hand it’s far more arena-rock inspired than its predecessor, Treats. Songs like “Crush” and “True Shred Guitar” remind me of Kiss’s Alive and Def Leppard’s Hysteria, slabs of pure fist-pumping goodness. On the other hand, this is a pretty melancholy album. “Born to Lose” and “DOA” are mid-paced, bummed-out ballads, and songs like them compose half of the album. It’s not an even listen, and it’s pretty twee, but Reign of Terror is still a rock-solid pop-rock album in an era where pop rock is closer to death than black metal is.
Dead Can Dance – Anastasis
You may have never heard of Dead Can Dance, but you have heard Dead Can Dance. Their music has appeared in countless films and commercials, usually during a long camera pan over a majestic landscape — because that’s exactly what their music sounds like. Ostensibly, Dead Can Dance are a pair of amazing singers, Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry, who make what people call ‘World Music.’
I hate that term because really it just means ‘music made by nonwestern, nonwhite people.’ Nothing really holds all of DCD’s music together other than it all sounds quite dark, quite beautiful, and probably very exotic to your average American or European. Think of the cool interludes in Nile, Chthonic, and Melechesh songs, but that’s the whole record.
Gerrard and Perry had a booming career on the legendary goth label 4AD in the late 80’s and 90’s. Their discography was more-or-less perfect. in 1996 they broke off into their own solo careers. Anastasis is their first album since then, and it’s exactly as perfect as their older discography. If you’re looking for music to take you out of your own life and into another space, whether that’s a foreign land, or another dimension, or the afterlife, Dead Can Dance do all of those things.
Foxy Shazam – The Church of Rock and Roll
I have predisposition to liking Foxy Shazam—they hail from my native Ohio and played my hometown often in the early stages of their career, but that was a very different Foxy Shazam that played a bizarre mix of pop-punk and mathcore. After that, Foxy matured into something you don’t see very often: a straight-up glam rock band. Fuck The Darkness, Foxy Shazam is the real inheritor of Queen’s throne. How do you know? Well, for starters, the singer, Eric Nally wrote most of Meat Loaf’s last record. That’s a hell of a pedigree, and it’s all on display in The Church of Rock And Roll.
No bells and whistles here, just a solid half hour of 10/10 rock songs. No indie pretension, no self-consciousness or irony at all, just great music. This record broke down some walls for Foxy on the merits of its lead single, the kinda-insensitive-but-really-sexy “I Like It,” but still Foxy Shazam are very much an underground phenomenon. God only knows how-they put on one of the best live shows money can buy.
Think of it this way: There is parallel reality where heavy metal rules pop radio and it is probably, let’s be honest, not a pleasant reality. However, there is another parallel reality where Foxy Shazam are as big as Coldplay, and that reality is probably the one we all want to live in.
Kendrick Lamar – good kid M.A.A.D. city
Kendrick Lamar is from Compton, the same LA area ghetto that birthed Dr Dre (who produced a few of these tracks and guests on one), and he does not let you forget it. The titular mad city is his hometown, and the album follows Kendrick seemingly on a joyride through his neighborhood in the middle of a gang war.
Kendrick recollects, laments and celerates nights spent partying, women he once loved, the first time he smoked weed, and the body count that has piled up around his life. The record asks the question: why has Kendrick’s life been spared? But offers no definite answer, aside from Lamar’s musings, rendered in intricate enunciations and a variety of wholly unique flows and rhythms.
Kendrick has been rumored to be sort of a ‘next big thing’ for a few years now—it’s commonly rumored that he will be the featured guest MC on Dr Dre’s Detox record whenever it is released (for future reference the featured MC on The Chronoic was Snoop Dogg, and 2001 featured Eminem. So… kind of a big deal). In no uncertain terms, this may be the most big-money mainstream record I’ve ever blogged about.
Kendrick’s debut record from last year, Section .80, was alright but a bit too commercial and sentimental. M.A.A.D. city is much rawer and more experimental. For example, lead single “Swimming Pools [Drank],” currently on top 40 radio, segues perfectly into a 12-minute epic, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” It’s a hip-hop album that plays like a prog rock album.
Aesop Rock – Skelethon
In my estimation, Aesop Rock might be the best emcee in ho-hop in the past decade. His flow is sloppy, but impossibly fast, with a vocabulary to rival the Library of Congress in the service of a pessimistic, and also humanistic, wit. It’s been five years since Aesop Rock released his last album proper, None Shall Pass. In that time he’s become his own primary producer, moved to the Bay Area, and switched from one superb underground hip hop label (Def Jux) to another (Rhymesayers). I expected the move to sunny California and a more stable label would make for a happier Aesop. Boy was I wrong.
Skelethon is a dark and twisted record. Aesop’s beats sound crisper and more up-front than the beats Blockhead once crafted for him, but his lyrics sound all the more apocalyptic. The man makes buying donuts sound like winding up on the business end of a drug raid (“Fryerstarter”). To say nothing of standouts like the two “Crows” tracks, or even album standout, the a-cappella “Ruby 81,”which feels more like a short story that happens to rhyme. And make you queasy.
El-P – Cancer for Cure
The second hip hop record from a Dex Jux veteran to really surprise me. El-P was once a brilliant hip-hop producer and emcee, as well as owner/operator of now-defunct DEf Jux records. At his career height, maybe five years ago, he was working with Trent Reznor, before an apparent addiction problem tanked his business. I fully expected Cancer for Cure, his first album since then, to suck.
Finally El-P’s rhymes are catching up with his beats. He’s not the fastest rapper in the world, but he brings a tremendous ear for character to the table, the way a much younger Eminem did. The album shows off El’s most charming feature: his mile-wide mean streak—it puts you on street-level with him, like you’re walking next to him and trying to hold a conversation amid his overpowering ravings. The slickness of the sound is the rain purring into the gutters, and the clackity snares are El’s boot stomping against the pavement.
Cancer for Cure reeks of paranoia, as El-P’s speakers retreat deeper and deeper into conspiracy theories (“Drones over Brooklyn”) and drug addiction (“Works Every Time”). It’s clear that El hasn’t found a way to escape his personality flaws, but apparently he’s found a way to keep them in check and produce good work at the same time.
Cat Power – Sun
Before Sun, Cat Power was perhaps better known for her fragile state of mind than her music—even though all of her records are quite good. That said, her two extensive cover albums both felt stronger than her discography up until now. She’s a great songwriter, but there’s just other people that do what she does better—one of them is even later in the list.
But on Sun, Cat Power largely abandons her twangy electric guitar rock for a genre I despise—indie electronic-pop. And she nails it. Sun, aptly titled, is a warm, quiet record made by and large by drum machines and keys. Cat Power’s sultry voice gives it the human element that this style of music so often misses.
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
and the award for longest album title goes to…
I carry a torch for angst-ridden female singer-songwriters, and Fiona Apple’s brief-but-brillaint discography probably makes her the most accomplished of the bunch, at least during my lifetime. That said, I haven’t been able to settle into one of Apple’s records before The Idler Wheel; it feels tightened in a way none of her 90’s work is.
These songs find her grim blend of jazz and alternative rock humming like a V8 idling in a dark alley. The percussion pops and crackles like logs in a bonfire, and the piano feels like it could be a baby grand three inches above your head, ready to drop and flatten your skull. Apple stretches her vocal acrobatics further than ever, until her voice has a heft and weight of its, own—she sounds like soft, worn leather, a thing wrought from craft and hard work. All of this makes The Idler Wheel the strongest record from one of the best singer-songwriters still sucking air.
Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
I avoided this record at first, because Killer Mike is a veteran of the Atlanta scene, and as a rule I find southern-style hip-hop deplorably bad. The big exception to that rule is Outkast, and Killer Mike has guessed with Outkast, most famously on their single “The Whole World.” When I read that the production duties on the record were handled by El-P, it tipped me over. As I’ve said before in this very article, El-P never lets me down.
The record was a hard listen the first time through—the first couple songs felt a bit wimpy, but once the second act kicked in the album kept on wowing me. The beats are excellent, obviously, but what R.A.P. Music does best is sell Killer Mike as a deeply engaging character. He’s a fine rapper, albeit a pretty straightforward one, but the stories he tells are always fascinating yarns about lone nonconformists tangling with the powers-that-be in our society. Sometimes his lovable nerr-do-wells win, as in the drug dealer duping the TSA at an airport in “Jojo’s Chilling,” or when one of Mike’s alternate personas kills a crooked policeman in “Don’t Die.”
R.A.P. Music always comes across as a deeply personal record. All the characters, the cooked cop and drug dealer alike, are aspects of Mike’s personality. He raps candidly about his family, his wife, his daughter, his views on society and spirituality. Based on their record, he’s the kind of guy I’d want to be friends with, a man we could learn from.
Ultimately, the album hit a home run with me on the last track, where Mike discusses the way music functions as his religion, then proceeds to give a brief overview of the African American music that makes him tick—I like a lot of what he mentions. But what strikes the biggest chord is the chorus: “This is church, front pew. Amen, full clip. What my people need, and the opposite of bullshit.” I think we could all use less bull shit in our music. Killer Mike delivers.
Death Grips – The Money Store
You should have seen this coming. 2012 was the year of Death Grips.
Drummer Zach Hill and MC Ride mix bizarre samples, heavy beats, and hyper-aggressive rapping, their music, resting somewhere between hip hop, industrial, noise and a metallic affinity for violent rhythm. The Money Store could be the soundtrack to the graphic novel Transmetropolitan; it’s my favorite album of any genre in 2012. It’s a forty-minute ride of sneering attitude and dynamic sounds.
Death Grips come as close to mainstream hip hop as they’re probably going to get with energetic pop anthems like “Get Got” and “I’ve Seen Footage,” while keeping things violent and paranoid in tunes like “The Fever” and “Hacker.” No amount of blog-waxing will make this sound any smoother than it is. If you haven’t yet, download Death Grips, listen to everything. They’re worth it.