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.