The increasing ease of hearing new music, whether through streaming services, downloading (legal or otherwise), or CDs burned by friends or bought in stores has made it relatively easy to keep up with the state of the art. Still, enough releases come out every year that even the most ardent Pitchfork columnist can’t possibly get around to listening to everything that’s worth hearing within the calendar year. Some of my favorite albums of the last few years are ones that I didn’t hear until long after they’d come out. For example, my favorite album of the young decade is Gonjasufi’s 2010 releases A Sufi and a Killer, the existence of which I wasn’t even aware of until late 2011.
On my year-end list of last year’s best music, I ranked Killer Mike’s ferocious R.A.P. Music ahead of everything else. I’d still call R.A.P. Music a masterpiece, but it would’ve come in second had I heard Swans’ thrillingly unclassifiable double-album The Seer before making the list. Michael Gira and co.’s twelfth studio album truly feels like the culmination of their three decades of experience making music. The eleven tracks clock in at a combined running time of nearly two hours, but the extreme length of many of the songs allows the band to follow every thread of their songs to their logical conclusion. The thirty-two minute title track is as long as many entire albums, but it packs in more exciting ideas than most bands achieve in their entire careers, opening with Coltrane-esque free jazz played on bagpipes, transforming into hypnotic psychedelic rock reminiscent of Queens of the Stone Age at their most intense, and climaxing with a devastating guitar drone finale that would make Sonic Youth flinch. Much of the album is uncompromisingly heavy, but Swans always seem at least equally as interested in achieving transcendence as they are in pulverizing listeners’ ears. Appropriately, the last lyrics on the album (not counting some untranslatable screams) are “Fuck! Bliss! Bliss! Fuck!”
One of Swans’ most talented disciples, Canadian drone-rock experts Godspeed You! Black Emperor, returned from a decade-long hiatus last year with the gorgeous Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! The awkward vocal samples that would sometimes disrupt the ethereal beauty of the group’s music are thankfully absent, making this their most pleasing set to date. Where Godspeed frequently stretch their lovely minimalist compositions over twenty or so deliberately paced minutes, spastic electronica duo TNGHT’s colorful productions are densely packed rushes of pure adrenaline. The five tracks on their self-titled debut EP are ultra-catchy alternate universe sports anthems.
Art rock and electronica didn’t have a stranglehold on instrumental music last year, as a small handful of jazz releases attempted to break out of the genre’s “back corner of the CD store” ghetto. Jazz’s most brazen attempt at mainstream recognition came in the form of Black Radio, an album where The Robert Glasper Experiment are joined by a small army of guest stars from the world of R&B and hip hop. But while Glasper’s genre hybrids are consistently pleasant, they are too timid to qualify as innovative, as his talented jazz group is too often relegated to backup musician status for the star guests. More successful is Christian Scott’s double-album Christian a Tunde Adjuah, whose twenty-three tracks give the trumpeter’s exceptional quintet plenty of room to stretch out and improvise (as a jazz band should) even as they organically incorporate elements of electronica and rock.
Exceptionally gifted genre-blurring producer/DJ/MC Madlib had a relatively quiet year in 2012, but his talented brother Oh No continued to pump out high quality under-the-radar hip hop. For the album Ohnomite, the Oxnard producer was granted access to Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite soundtracks, which he repurposed for funky, left-of-center rap tracks with the help of a small army of indie rappers. As is the case with most of Oh No’s projects, the high quality of the beats seems a bit out of proportion to the mostly average lyrics, and there are a few too many tracks where Moore’s influence is indecipherable. But it’s still required listening for beat junkies, and stands as one of the distressingly few notable Stones Throw releases of the last few years.
None of the above albums got as much press attention as Tame Impala’s Lonerism, which was treated as a major breakthrough despite sounding very similar to (and really only being slightly better than) the psychedelic pop group’s unjustly ignored 2010 debut Innerspeaker. But even if Lonerism is more of a predictable progression of Tame Impala’s Beatles-indebted sound than a full-blown masterpiece, there’s no denying that its songs are consistently beautiful and catchy.