Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Best 30 Albums of 2012: PART III

The final part, not without controversy of course...

1. Kendrick Lamar Good Kid, M.A.A.D City:

a sprawling journal of urban black life in Compton, Lamar’s major label debut excels by re-telling his hardships to everyone who’s played a part in his life. That includes the many women (Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst), street-wise peers and, more nakedly, himself in virtually every song. The stunning thing here is the gut-check on display and even while the guest voices swirl in and out, we’re left with Kendrick’s steady hand and well-orchestrated verses. This is the type of hip/hop Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy paved the way for two years ago: the self-confessional thug life being mercilessly analyzed. In Lamar’s masterful vision though there are no heroes or redemption…just gritty reality and the struggle for a decent life.

2. Frank Ocean Channel Orange:

Channel Orange is a stunning peek into that type of adolescent world of half-grown men and-- if you watch HBO’s brilliant series Girls-- immature women, all who are waking up, or in this case coming out to new, frightening realities. It is the best male R&B album since Rahsaan Patterson dropped Wines & Spirits five years ago, and its way better than that. He could have been a coward and shut the world out of what he was feeling, become a closet case but thankfully, he’s trusted us enough to air his fears and experiences. That’s when the best type of soul music gets done…when something real jolts an artist, opens up their eyes truly for the first time.

3. Grimes Visions:

The truism of Visions is that Grimes has finally conquered her target: completing successfully a triptych by her love of twisting beats and rhythms. Now with the emergence of her voice as a strong point her oeuvre is so strong that she could have recorded bird droppings and still scored best new music scores from any critic. Her sights must now be to fully subvert sound into longer concepts for a few critics have cited Visions as being front-loaded with all the goodies but I wonder how so: the fabulous Skin—the album closer—could have sounded if for once she had foregone the minimalism. Not to mention the scattered Nightmusic, a song that feverishly runs its gamut so effortlessly, one trembles in awe at the thought of what her next album will sound like.

4. Big Boi Vicious Lies& Dangerous Rumours:

releasing an LP mid-December is asking to be ignored but as Big Boi is one-half of the most important hip/hop act in the past twenty years, one ignores him at one’s one peril. Vicious Lies has less appeal than his solo debut two years ago but no one has lyrical chops to match Big Boi—a casual spin of Gossip confirms this. It’s a more stripped-down affair this time but all the trademark flourishes are present and even a few new tricks present themselves: Higher Res is a stuttering electronic move with guest verses by Jai Paul. The album only loses some steam when Big Boi does actual singing and cedes way too much time to his female guests but this is still quite a party.

5. THEESatisfaction Awe Naturale:

if Erykah Badu ever split her musical self into equal halves—one urbanely gay and the other natural-hair & brainy-- then surely this duo would be the product of such a move. Awe Naturale is a stunning debut to behold from Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White who happen to be partners as well. After first rising to prominence last year on Shabazz Palaces great album, the ladies have now confidently stepped out on their own. It’s the type of urban hip/hop poetry one would expect but there’s nothing too deeply militant or forced here, everything swings naturally and terrifically.

6. Schoolboy Q Habits & Contradictions:

while West Coast rap continues its return to prominence, Schoolboy Q reveals intent to take it even further. Habits & Contradictions is a manual to this new versatile path and a stunning album simultaneously, released before Q’s clan leader, Kendrick Lamar put his own LP out to round up the year. Habits & Contradictions sands out mostly with its biting production value---so much so that this sprawling 18 song package heavy on repetition doesn’t suffer. The thug life has been examined to death in gangsta rap but it’s never been this tender and personal.

7. The Lytics They Told Me:

it hasn’t gone unnoticed that hip/hop has undergone a remarkable transformation this year. Many artists now forge a new, personal idealism that overshadows the years of war and thug appeal. The Lytics on their astonishing sophomore is one such band moving ahead but also looking back at the many lessons learned. It’s a tricky move but one they don’t seem intimidated by. Ring My Alarm moves smoothly along with the type of production we haven’t heard since The Fugees. Maybe this embracing of other genres is the latest direction for the genre and if that is so then thank The Lytics for helping to spur the movement on. All they need is for the rest of us to catch up to them and not just in native Canada either.

8. Shearwater Animal Joy:

this opus—filled with the expected Bowie-like vocals by Jonathan Meiburg would still be top-notch even if the lyrics were not prominent…we’d still be left with blistering musical production. The band’s seventh LP is a slow burner but everything is so richly layered that it wins the listener over quickly. Meiburg has been emerging strongly with this moniker for some time now but here (especially the brilliant opening three tracks) that’s now nothing more than past tense. And just to show his fellow band mate Will Sheff who’s the boss, he drops the brilliant You As You Were.

9. Azealia Banks Fantasea:

her “official” mixtape debut, doesn’t breach such celestial heights as 212 but the diversity on display makes clear what purpose the album serves: formal notice to lesser hip/hop stars like Nicki Minaj or legends on the verge of irrelevance like Missy Elliott that she, Azealia, is here now to reign. Azealia finds innovative ways to explore her genre. The title track is the album’s first big statement and the awesomeness never lets up from there. F-ck Up the Fun makes the best Missy Elliott comparison to come her way yet, with its luscious filth and pre-programmed drums. Then there is Nathan, the standout that could have fit comfortably in any of Missy’s great albums, with its super crunchy beats. Nathan starts off a trio of exceptional, career-making grooves: L8TR (‘if it ain’t about a dollar/ I’m a holla at cha later’) is her love-for-money grab while Jumanji asserts her right to be a ‘real bitch, all day’ because at twenty-one she can.

10. Animal Collective Centipede Hz:

a more cooled reaction to the guys this time but maybe the real issue with Centipede Hz is the uncertainty of what it represents for the band and fans alike. The first half sounds like a real team effort while the latter half sounds like Avey and Panda constructed separate mini EPs without any consultation from the other. The sad thing is that those are the songs that hold the collective vision of the band best. You don’t need to be a critic to realize what this subtext means, or where it is, alas, most likely to lead to. You’ll be thinking on that while you hear the poignancy of the closing trio (Mercury Man, Pulley & the stunning Amanita). All three tracks stand among the very best Animal Collective has done in their long and great career. I can’t believe I’m saying this in print so soon after their apex but it’d be a real pity if they become the last three tracks of their immense journey.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

2012: The Top 100 Best Songs: Part V (#1--#20)

The final part...

1. 212 (Azealia Banks):

there is no shortage of female hip/hop artists out there going filthy for street cred or attention but no one has arrested the spotlight with an independent release quite like Azealia Banks. 212 was released late last year merely to get a toe-hold online but a year later it still holds sway. It could be the propulsive house beats given new life out in the mainstream or the body part most voiced (the female reproductive organ) but nah, its Azealia’s astonishing confidence.

2. I’m Addicted (Madonna):

I can hear the outbursts now: “Madonna isn’t relevant anymore” and “she’s too old to be hip”. Most of this is true and while her album disappointed there were a few gems including this full out rave number where she slyly—and brilliantly—manages to spell out the album’s title mixed with the drug MDMA (Ecstasy) towards the end but I bet you hadn’t realized until now. They’ll be stomping to this one in the many gay clubs around the world and remembering just who their boss is.

3. Gangsta in Design (No Concept)(Schoolboy Q):

Schoolboy Q belongs to that emerging class of young hip/hop heterosexual male, which means he’s all about looking the part to attract the ladies. If that includes a little metrosexual primping and gay-bait attention then so be it. He knows the game and will jot it down after conquest.

4. Genesis (Grimes):

a hybrid of pop music and the composition on her keyboard, the opening riff is now ingrained in the minds of all who’ve heard it. Grimes does little more than hum repeated lines in Genesis but its testament to her craft that you’re not aware of this until the dreamy sequences end.

5. Five Seconds (Twin Shadow):

a sublime mix between David Bowie and TV on the Radio, the first track released from Confess is a dirty whirl of winds being filtered through dance-funk.

6. New York (Angel Haze):

spitting verses harder than Azealia, Angel Haze proves that she’s more than just an Aaliyah look-alike with this stunning track, decorated with so many tasty electronic hi-claps and a stunning programming that it dares you not to nod with approval.

7. Pyramids (Frank Ocean):

a ten minute attempt to bind human life and sexual tension from ancient Egypt to modern times. It best reminds us of his brilliant Novocain last year, only it’s far more epic.

8. Dreams Deferred (Five Steez):

the jury is still out if Steez was inspired by Langston Hughes famous poem but the hopeful and hopeless circumstances juxtaposed to Damien’s brilliant production is electrifying.

9. Another Ace in the Hole (Bryan Scary):

surrounded by prog rock, this track stands alone on Scary’s album as a pure rocker and even with fey vocals, the result is instantly gratifying.

10. Nathan (Azealia Banks feat. Styles P):

a stunning gauntlet thrown down but I’m still stuck with one burning question” who the hell is Nathan exactly?

11. You as You Were (Shearwater):

the usual Bowie-like stomper, this one timed to sweet perfection and some hectic drumming. It’s an ode to the past he’s still wrestling with.

12. There He Go (Schoolboy Q):

the usual sexism on display but when he cracks the repetitive falsetto in the chorus, it lifts what could have been a by-the-numbers track into some type of awesome edict.

13. Feels Like We Only Go Backwards (Tame Impala):

a pleading, turned upside-down with crunching guitars and their lovely voice directing the action right up to its beautiful yet tragic end.

14. Montreal (The Weeknd):

after an outstanding last year, who knew Abel Tesfaye would save his best—and most defining track—on top of a new year where others would remain dormant. Montreal starts with reverb before his vocals trip in with so much longing and soul-brother testimony that it leaves us dizzy and hoping that he’ll take the girl that did him wrong back.

15. A Simple Answer (Grizzly Bear):

veers close into their tried-and-true territory and isn’t much more than a wily repetition of its one world chorus but the varied instruments used make it fascinating.

16. Goldie (ASAP Rocky):

digging on the cultural fascination with the thug life, ASAP Rocky cuts hard vocally before relieving himself with Lil Wayne-like verses.

17. Yellow Orange Rays (Sam Sparro):

screams Prince without imitating the legend!

18. 1991 (Azealia Banks):

a stunning, versatile offering that chronicles her start to current standing within the hip/house community. As with the rest of her stuff, this is a winner.

19. A New Town (Field Music):

a delicious falsetto affair full of lo-fi programming and doo-wop harmonies that go on for days. The band’s new album is scattershot but this one settles nicely into its groove and achieves maximum effect.

20. Young Man in America (Anais Mitchell):

the stunning title track of her new albums doubles as guide to her heady vision, replete with hypnotizing horns and percussions.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

2012: The Top 30 Best Albums: Part II

here goes...

11. Ava Luna Ice Level:

not many bands tackle several genres simultaneously but Ava Luna never got the memo so Ice Level mixes punk, rock, blues, R&B and soul into one tight setting. Carlos Hernandez grew up in a home where music was diverse and it shows in his pairing with Becca Kauffman. These songs sport huge riffs but just like THEESatisfaction there is heavenly poetry involved. Other musicians and ideas filter through this debut LP but buoyed by Hernandez’s steady hand at craft, it never gets too crazy or goes overboard.

12. Bryan Scary Daffy’s Elixir:

Bryan Scary is a huge throwback to the mid 70s where big-hair rock was emerging across America and everyone was experimenting with drugs to get high. Daffy’s Elixir sounds like genres crossed in some grand flower power scheme. One hears early Bowie and Freddy Mercury in between the musical parts. Songs like Cable Through Your Heart rotate endlessly, as if on ice skates. Ziegfield Station is even better with its fey vocals and power riffs. Elsewhere, Scary lays the guitars on thickly with exquisite fashion, teaching old masters like Bill Corgan new ideas. Diamonds proves that he can rest on his soaring voice alone while Another Ace In The Hole proves he’s no wuss either.

13. Twin Shadow Confess:

inspired after a bike crash three years ago, Forget continues the stunning rise of George Lewis Jr. That means he’s still a great Hispanic Bowie with the synths and 80s new wave riffs. The main difference between this as his 2010 debut (Forget) is the booming effect of melody and reverb. Songs like When The Movie’s Over and The One go for days because of this new confidence. No synopsis of the album can be complete without addressing the brilliance of Five Seconds, a TV On The Radio-esque rave, full of pop/rock references.

14. Killer Mike R.A.P Music:

Killer Mike hooks up with El-P and presents the best protest rap music of the year. It’s pretty unimpeachable and flows seamlessly from style to style and, because everyone wants to know, it’s short for Rebellious African People. That ideal spreads a political message, no more than Reagan, which lambasts the former US president while linking him to everyone since. It’s also an impressive document on the African-American experience, one that the internet age will ignore for Kendrick Lamar but will realize that both reference the same era, both personal and cultural.

15. Sam Sparro Return To Paradise:

it takes a while to warm up (the first three tracks are deceptive) but after that a slow disco fever takes hold of Sparro and never deserts him. This is 1980s club music, conjuring up images of George Michael and Terence Trent D’arby, which is a retro lover’s wet dream. Sparro has modernized these concepts---note the Prince-like riffs that dominate the blissful Yellow Orange Rays and the dirty funk of We Could Fly. Though most critics have already labeled him as a one-hit wonder, Sparro may yet prove them wrong.

16. Mac Demarco 2/ Rock & Roll Night Club:

a pair of debut albums from the Canadian who shift-shapes into so many different categories. If Rock & Roll Night Club is the thrilling one-night stand, then 2 is the after event cup of surprise coffee. On the surface this doesn’t seem capable from the same artist, who, after all, is trying on his girl’s lipstick in one instance and donning his dad’s shirt the next. That’s the crazy cool thing about Demarco though—that sense of not taking himself too seriously. His jangle pop is so convincing that it’ll bring a lot of Bradford Cox comparisons.

17. Of Montreal Paralytic Stalks:

Kevin Barnes and his gang return with the usual bag of tricks and though they’ve done this brand of neo-pop better before, the songs on Paralytic Stalks are no less charming for that fact. The sheer dizziness of the first four songs alone sets a stride that never relents…exposing us to Barnes’ full array of genius. As with everything Barnes touches, the highs are very high and the not so high, well, those tracks are highly experimental. Through his constant questioning of identity though, Barnes never fails to connect to this weird, cool space and titles (Authentic Pyrrhic Remission).

18. Grizzly Bear Shields:

the band that can do no wrong for critics returns with more sweeping, theatrical gestures that only prove how much in the zone they’ve become since Veckatimest three years ago. In Daniel Rossen, the band has a voice that poignantly wades through many different emotions. At times this is stark yet eerily beautiful (the last two closing tracks) and jazzy (Gun-Shy). Rossen, who does work in Department Of Eagles, is a master technician in these moments…a man on a mission to wrap the entire world in melody until there’s nothing else left but its immensity.

19. Amanda Palmer Theatre is Evil:

the eccentric Palmer returns with a glorious pop model, steady tunes and whip-smart grooves. It wouldn’t be an Amanda Palmer project without fanfare: the former Dresden Dolls singer took to the internet to raise a million dollars for the project. A few fellow artists raised alarms but the outcome is a feminist document of her experiences throughout the period. This is pure pop/rock done right; the type Pink has forgotten how to make and Palmer has now perfected.

20. Alabama Shakes Boys & Girls:

after building incredible hype the past two years, the trio finally releases the debut that showcases the brilliant bluesy vocals of Brittany Howard and her good intentions posing as lyrics and therapy relief. It’s a group effort but Howard is easily the star, her voice striking so many moods and impressions. She’s found a balance between genres and her band-mates wisely keep to the background. Boys & Girls thus is a tease—like the neophyte invited to sing in front of potential agents and wowing them enough to see the inevitable down the road.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

2012: The Top 30 Best Albums: Part I

Not a particularly great year for LPs but another solid 12 months. When the music was good then it was idealistic and great. When it wasn't then it just felt right but not revolutionary. Here are the 30 records I felt were most successful in bringing their divergent points across...

21. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti Mature Themes:

an almost drunk vibe careens through this record, as if Pink has come under the influence of a powerful sedative that allows him to dive beneath guitar loops etc. He remains emo-rock’s most polarizing figure though, on one hand dishing up astonishing blues like Baby and falsetto on Pink Slime. Mature Themes is his most focused album production-wise, moving him in the steady Beck-like stream of clarity that he’s inevitably drifting towards.

22. Dr. John Locked Down:

now a crotchety old man but still rocking away like a sea captain, Dr. John rolls back the years to unveil the stunning Locked Down. With Black Keys member, Dan Auerbach providing production, Dr. John gets to just lose himself amid the sea of luxury grooves placed alongside him. The heavy grooves of the title track set the tempo while the remaining tracks follow comfortably into the pattern. Auerbach wisely stays out of the limelight even if he comes up trump with the funky Ice Age. I guess all those tiki tiki bars now know what new masterpiece they’ll be playing well into next year now.

23. Alt-J An Awesome Wave:

this year’s Mercury Prize winner is buoyed by Joe Newman’s weird, cryptic vocals. An Awesome Wave rolls through its glacial format impressively in spite of the fact that the lads are on debut. The album conjures up images one would expect from Scandinavian acts but is suffused by guitars and doo wop (Fitzpleasure) and stark lyricism (Matilda). Some critics have been put off the trio’s vocal lilt but the emotional realism that crests on a track like Breezeblocks is undeniable: whirling beneath this carefully crafted effort is hard-boiled intent to be heard and discovered.

24. Slam Dunk Welcome To Miami:

while there remains no shortage of punk bands around, the distinctive quality has clearly dissipated. Enter Slam Dunk, a foursome that knows how to party in style. The beats here are frantic, the choruses immediate and copious. The ten track LP is loud, fast yet melodious to the point of structure being executed without spilling any of the beer its guzzling. Songs like Scabies and Horse Bumper are outright stompers and lead singer Jordan Minkoff’s throaty growl becomes a trademark joy.

25. El Perro Del Mar Pale Fire:

I’d never understood the appeal of Sarah Assbring but finally with Pale Fire, her aesthetic has started to seep through clearly. Though her haze pop has brought diminished returns in the past, her move to more upfront pop terrain yields delicious results here: Hold Off The Dawn juxtaposes pop with reggae beats and it works. Elsewhere the synths get heavy on a 1980s vibe which is pretty impressive mood music. Assbring no longer gets lost in her production nor is Pale Fire guilty of over-thinking…it’s merely an album self-assured in its ethos. Count me in as a believer now and keep the misty music a-coming.

26. Django Django Django Django:

four years in the making, the London band’s debut has more than a healthy comparison to Yeasayer. This debut has the sounds of the world about it, replete with a hefty slate of instruments and riffs. Life’s A Beach contracts with sunny pop hooks and a wailing guitar that grooves for days. Storm makes it clear though that the 60s remains the ideal this type of music aims for. Suffice it to say guys, your effort is working.

27. Imani Coppola The Glass Wall:

while the state of black female soul/pop seems safe in the hands now of Janelle Monae, most critics are content to keep it there and ignore everyone else. How else could Coppola be around for the past fifteen years without anyone knowing much of her big, brassy vocals? That’s a bit harsh I know because Coppola—like Dionne Farris and Lauryn Hill—has pretty much rejected the demands of major label contracts. The Glass Wall is a clear labor of love and it chronicles her struggles from isolationism (State of Art) to the uncertainties about love (Ave Maria, where she chants the funny line ‘is he gay or European’). The stunning thing about Coppola though is her insistence of blending genres with an equal timetable for results she wants to hear.

28. Chet Faker Thinking in Textures:

while Faker doesn’t physically fit easily into the stereotype of white singers digging on black soul music, there’s no doubt that, over the course of this seven track EP, he’s made a successful run in the fold. Thinking in Textures is a surprising gem, moving smoothly through the beats to project some blue-eyed magic that doesn’t seem forced or exhausted. Faker, real name Nick Murphy, hails from Australia and grew up on jazz and his moniker is in ode of Chet Baker so you get the idea behind his slow vocal work filling up the spaces between his beats. The EP has been compared to Bon Iver—especially the lush Solo Sunrise, a stretch in my view but one I’m sure Faker won’t mind as a new artist…nor should you as we await even more stunning interpretations on a full LP.

29. Tame Impala Lonerism:

it’s easy to imagine Tame Impala’s lead singer, Kevin Parker fashioning himself for an Ariel Pink-like career with that falsetto yet Lonerism is too hooked on the abstract but more on melody. The best songs here combine both ideals (Elephant, Feels Like We Only Go Backwards) in a stew of luxuriousness. The lo-fi approach was present on their debut but here, with brute force, is a sense of purpose, a defining line that the band has crossed and now wants to share it with us.

30. Dr. Dog Be the Void:

after the disappointment of their last album, the band rebounds with a bluesy affair that features so many stylistic tricks and yummy treats. Underlined is the sense of ennui, underlined with a lot of repetition but to say these songs are merely homogeneous is not correct. These Days is a current update of honky-tonk that works and ditto That Old Black Hoe. Many critics have termed this retro-rock and sure enough this sense of Americana hangs over the LP but modern sensibilities are deeply embedded here too.