There was simply too much great music this year to narrow it down to a top ten list. So despite the fact that I’m sure I haven’t heard a bunch of this year’s great releases (and may only become aware of the existence of some of them through other people’s year-end lists), I’ve expanded my look at the year’s best music to a top twelve.
1-2) Killer Mike always seemed a little out of place as a guest rapper on his old mentor OutKast’s albums (despite that group’s wildly flexible sound), but on his sixth solo album, R.A.P. Music, the Atlanta MC finally found the perfect marriage of vocals and beats by enlisting ace producer El-P to create the music for all twelve tracks. The New York beatsmith’s trademark combination of dystopian soundscapes and hard-hitting drums has never sounded better than it does under Mike’s fiery vocals, and the pairing works equally well on speaker-destroying posse cuts (“Big Beast”), rapid-fire battle raps (“Go!”), fiery political protests (“Reagan”), and moving tributes to the power of music (the title track). The consistent quality and polish of the Killer Mike album is all the more impressive considering that El-P also released his third solo album this year. Cancer for Cure is less an obvious leap forward for El-P than a refinement of the sound of his excellent I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead (2007), but the improvements in both the carefully layered productions and dense rhymes become clear on repeated headphone listens. El-P has never sounded as direct and legible as he does on the new album, his most accessible and emotionally affecting work to date. Though El-P shut the doors to his venerable Definitive Jux label in 2010, albums like R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure find that collective’s legacy of tightly constructed, forward-thinking hip hop albums fully intact.
3) No current band has a sound as otherworldly as Dirty Projectors, who combine theatrical vocals, sweeping strings, African guitars, and off-kilter hip hop beats into an utterly distinctive aesthetic. The group has been steadily pushing toward a more accessible vision since their great 2007 LP Rise Above, and this year’s Swing Lo Magellan is their prettiest and most pop friendly set of tracks to date. Lead singer/songwriter/producer/guitarist Dave Longstreth has found a way to make his songs more approachable without sacrificing any of the band’s considerable eccentricity. Commercially, the band remains a respected indie rock act rather than a world-beating chart sensation. But on a pure sonic level, Dirty Projectors can be placed alongside The Beatles, David Bowie, Bjork, and OutKast as a group whose avant-garde risks are virtually inseparable from their pop smarts.
4) It is a testament to the quality of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange that the album’s content was not ultimately obscured by the many headlines addressing the revelation that the Odd Future-affiliated singer is bisexual (which is sadly still somewhat of a taboo in the macho world of R&B and hip hop). With his first full-length LP (following last year’s Nostalgia, Ultra mixtape) Ocean announces himself as an artist too multi-faceted and strange to fit comfortably under any label. The breadth of styles on display here recalls such genre-bending classics as The Beatles’ White Album (1968) and Andre 3000’s The Love Below (2003), and though Ocean clearly has the vocal chops and arranging skills for conventional pop music, he consistently approaches his productions with the curiosity and imagination of a mad scientist.
5-6) On last year’s twin EPs Passed Me By and We Stay Together, Andy Stott proved his talent for creating moody soundscapes too detailed to be called minimalist and too unsettling to be called ambient. Stott’s new full length Luxury Problems blends his trademark lurching beats with the hauntingly beautiful, quasi-operatic vocals of the producer’s former piano teacher, Alison Skidmore, leading to some of the richest and most dynamic electronic music of the year. Flying Lotus’ Until the Quiet Comes is equally gorgeous, a wonderful continuation of the aesthetic of 2010’s outstanding Cosmogramma. The Los Angeles producer’s unique mix of Madlib-style dusty beats, rubbery keyboards, elegant live strings, and exotic jazz touches remains one of the most hypnotic sounds in modern music.
7) Ariel Pink’s background as a highly prolific lo-fi bedroom recorder suggests that he should be considered part of a lineage that includes such spirited weirdoes as Wild Man Fischer and Wesley Willis. But while it’s true that Pink has been known to use armpit noises as drum tracks, and to write weirdly sincere lyrics about things like his desire to eat a schnitzel, Pink also manages to marry his considerable eccentricity to genuine songcraft. With the possible exception of Deerhunter/Atlas Sound frontman Bradford Cox, nobody in contemporary music is as skilled as Pink at combining hypnotic creepiness and radio-ready catchiness. Mature Themes is Pink’s tightest and prettiest sounding set of songs to date, but his newfound professionalism hasn’t prevented him from writing nonsensical tributes to Klaus Kinski or singing a cheery song with the chorus “let’s dine on pink slime.”
8) On their ninth album, Tindersticks stretch the limits of their carefully constructed, cinematic pop music to organically incorporate elements of virtually every genre imaginable. The Something Rain opens with a dryly funny spoken-word short story and ends with a Morricone-style dramatic instrumental, and finds the band effortlessly switching between styles in its middle tracks.
9) Simultaneously drawing inspiration from the creative resurgence brought about by his cameos on recent Gorillaz albums and by his unfortunate colon cancer diagnosis, soul veteran Bobby Womack released The Bravest Man in the Universe, his first album of original material since 1994. Rather than attempt to resurrect his classic ‘70s sound, Womack enlisted Damon Albarn and Richard Russell to provide sleek trip hop backgrounds for his beautifully ragged outpourings of grief, regret, and defiant optimism. Shortly before the release of the album, Womack officially beat his cancer; here’s hoping that this album was the start of a long creative revitalization and not the last testament that it seems that it was intended to be.
10) On last year’s download-only release Section.80, Kendrick Lamar displayed incredible lyrical and vocal dexterity, but his best tracks were buried under a pile of common rap album flaws (subpar guest verses, off-putting choruses, wildly inconsistent social messages). So it’s a pleasant surprise that the Compton MC’s major label debut is one of the tightest and most intelligently conceived albums of the year. Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is presented as an audio documentary of Lamar’s adolescent growing pains, and, unlike most concept albums, it actually follows a clear, coherent, and moving narrative. Even the between-song skits feel essential here, contributing to the album’s uncomfortable intimacy while putting an interesting spin on the tracks they accompany. As an individual track, “Backseat Freestyle” would appear to be a misogynistic trifle (albeit one with a memorably insane beat), but the context of the album turns the flagrant sexism and macho chest-beating on its head by positioning the song as the first recording of a nervous kid trying desperately to look cool.
Air’s Le Voyage Dans La Lune has the appearance of a minor work, because it’s largely a collection of songs conceived as background music for Georges Melies’ seminal 1902 sci-fi film of the same name. While the tracks function wonderfully as incidental silent film accompaniment, they work equally well separated from the visuals. The rubbery synths, clanging percussion, and carefully treated guitars add up to the French duo’s finest set of songs since 2004’s Talkie Walkie.
Dan Deacon’s mixture of Phillip Glass-style minimalist live instrumentation and hyper electronica beats remains one of the most exciting sounds in modern music, though the relatively somber tone of the new America can’t quite compete with the mad sugar rush of 2009’s masterpiece Bromst. The four-part “U.S.A.” suite is among the most ambitious and sophisticated pieces of music recorded this year, a genre-defying synthesis of everything that the multi-talented composer has learned up to this point that sends a message that he’ll continue to explore in the future.
Breakthrough is officially the full-length solo debut of talented electronica producer The Gaslamp Killer, though practically every track is a collaboration with either frequent vocal partner Gonjasufi, like-minded producers like Daedelus, or adventurous live musicians. The variety of approaches on display prevents the album from being as coherent overall as the albums by Andy Stott, Flying Lotus, or Dan Deacon, but the quality is impressively consistent throughout all sixteen tracks. The Gaslamp Killer’s spirit of fun throughout this album is infectious, and though his army of collaborators all make their voices heard, they never drown out his distinctive brand of gritty psychedelia.
In the eyes of most music fans, Aesop Rock and Nas are two MCs whose new music is never going to match the quality of their most famous releases. And while neither Aesop’s new Skelethon nor Nas’ Life is Good deserve to ever rival the popularity of Labor Days (2002) or Illmatic (1994), they are nonetheless very solid releases that find each rapper quietly getting down to business while avoiding the flaws that have hampered some of their other recent work. Aesop’s CD deploys a more eclectic musical style than some of his past albums have (despite the fact that the rapper produced each of the tracks himself this time), while Life is Good features much better beats and far fewer awkward pop crossover attempts than the average Nas album.
The tracks on Big Boi’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors have a more mixed success rate than we’re used to from the OutKast veteran. But while Big Boi’s attempts to incorporate contemporary synth-pop and rock sounds into his usual aesthetic don’t always pay off, it always sounds like he is at least attempting something interesting, and even the album’s handful of duds aren’t bad enough to be embarrassing. Of course, it helps that Big Boi remains simultaneously one of the least predictable and most consistently entertaining lyricists and vocalists in hip hop.
Masked rapper MF DOOM delivered a freakishly prolific series of releases in the mid-2000s (including the all-time genre classics Madvillainy and MM…Food, both released in 2004), then disappeared into the shadows, releasing the solid yet vaguely disappointing Born Like This in 2009 and little else in the ensuing years. With the help of underground producer Jneiro Jarel, DOOM made a surprising return this year with Key to the Kuffs, an endearingly modest album made under the pseudonym JJ DOOM. Perhaps the album isn’t as exciting as the endlessly delayed Madvillainy 2 or DOOM/Ghostface collaborative releases, but it’s always nice to hear the world’s most reliably odd MC rapping over eclectic sets of gritty beats, and the album’s odd detours (such as a frantic pop song called “’Bout the Shoes,” featuring a singer named Boston Fielder) are as satisfying as its main tracks.
The relentless flood of free hip hop mixtapes makes it virtually impossible to keep up with the state of modern hip hop, but a few key releases stood out from the crowd this year. Clams Casino’s Instrumental Mixtape 2 is exactly what it sounds like, but the producer’s moody ambient/hip hop hybrid approach remains compelling despite its growing familiarity, and his beats continue to sound better without the vocals of frequent collaborators like A$AP Rocky and Lil’ B. Flying Lotus somehow had time to record both the great Until the Quiet Comes album and the very strong Duality mixtape this year, the latter project being the debut of his rapping Captain Murphy alter-ego. The pitch-shifted vocals and dusty beats that Lotus utilizes for his Captain Murphy project add up to a sound that is less utterly distinctive than his electronica work. But while Duality owes a heavy debt to both Madlib’s Quasimoto side-project and to the lyrical aesthetic of Odd Future, it already feels like Captain Murphy is a peer of those artists rather than a mere imitator.
I’m still waiting for Gonjasufi to make a proper follow-up to his mind-blowing 2010 breakthrough A Sufi and a Killer, but his subsequent minor releases have been solid excuses to hear more of his otherworldly croaking vocals-plus-psychedelic beats aesthetic. 2012 brought the “mini album” Mu.Zz.Le, a strong 29-minute suite of supremely offbeat music.
Lightning Bolt remain the world’s loudest and most intense band despite having only two members, bassist Brian Gibson and drummer/vocalist Brian Chippendale. They are not, however, the world’s most prolific band, having not put out a proper studio release since 2009’s great Earthly Delights. This year the duo put out Oblivion Hunter, a collection of songs and improvisations that the band recorded while preparing for Earthly Delights. These seven cuts aren’t as strong as what ultimately wound up on Earthly Delights – and several of the tracks sound distinctly like warm-ups for that album’s Middle Eastern-inspired “The Sublime Freak” – but new music by Lightning Bolt is always welcome, even if comes in the form of what are essentially demo recordings.
Several of my other favorite bands put out solid albums this year, though none of them were strong enough to crack the top 12. But here’s some quick shout-outs to Grizzly Bear’s Shields, which is not as pretty or immediately satisfying as 2009’s Veckatimest but is nonetheless a fine set of moody chamber pop; The Mars Volta’s Noctouriquet, which (despite having the year’s most ridiculous album title) finds the band continuing to move confidently toward compact song structures without softening their prog rock eccentricity; and Spiritualized’s Sweet Heart Sweet Light, which has a number of exciting rock/gospel/jazz hybrids but peters out with a couple of dull tracks toward the end of the album.