Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Big 2012 Music Post!

You know the drill, the lists below don't represent an attempt at any kind of definitive endorsement of quality, just the records that I got the most enjoyment out of.  So let's start with my top ten albums. 

1. Neneh Cherry and The Thing - The Cherry Thing

Those who knew me in college are well aware of my disproportionately passionate love of Neneh Cherry's 1989 pop-rap single "Buffalo Stance," although they probably mostly think of it as an eccentric personality quirk.  In my personal mythology, I first heard the song on my 21st birthday, when I saw the trippy video several times over the course of an all-night acid trip (every house or dorm room we visited had a TV tuned to either MTV or one of the Friday night video shows that were popular at the time),  but I think in reality I was already into the song before that.  I even bought the cassingle!  Haven't really kept up with Ms. Cherry since then (I do seem to remember hearing a song on WUOG in the 90's where Neneh was singing about fish, and Michael Stipe was rapping about gun control--can that be right?), but I came back to her in a big way in 2012, when she released what is unquestionably my favorite album of the year, a collaboration with Scandinavian free jazz combo The Thing.

There are at least three all-time badass tracks here.  On the opening track, a Neneh Cherry original called "Cashback," the band swerves and screeches with the exhilaration of a Hollywood car chase.  Their cover of Madvillain's "Accordion" is amazing, with Neneh transforming MF Doom's bugged-out rhymes into abstract, beatnik poetry.  And their skronk-drenched version of "Dirt"--and please know, I absolutely do not say this lightly--is a strong contender for the best Stooges cover of all time.  There's also a gorgeous take on Suicide's "Dream, Baby, Dream" that easily bests the original, and a tough cover of Martina Topley-Bird's "Too Tough to Die" that anchors the album in solid bedrock, covers of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry (Neneh's dad, apparently--you learn something new every day), and an original instro by The Thing.

2. Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music

From track one, R.A.P. Music is as aggressive and in-yaw-face as any rap album in recent years.  The opening minute of "Big Beast" reminds me of Wu Tang's "Bring the Rukus" in terms of announcing its arrival.  The thing just BLASTS out of your speakers.  El-P's harsh, powerful beats, like the double-kick drum that comes in after a few bars, compliment the aggressive raps, especially on the nasty, near-industrial "Reagan."  Mike's cynical take on The System and the 40th president (never enough anti-Reagan songs, am I right?) is just about the harshest sonic assault of the year.  (I like what he says about it in this amazing interview, basically saying that it's more about him than it is about Ronnie.)  But my favorite track is the title track, a great tribute to "Revolutionary African Peoples' Music."  The only problem I have--with both the song and the album--is the generic title.  Both should have been called "The Opposite of Bullshit."

3. The Flaming Lips - Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends

The Lips' album of collaborations,with everyone from Lightning Bolt and Yoko Ono to Ke$ha and Bon Iver, is spectacular.  I'm not sure to what extent their various collaborators actually contributed to the compositions (they're very clearly singing Wayne Coyne lyrics, unless they actually are familiar enough with the band to have written Flaming Lips parodies), but I'm amazed by how this band continues to put out great stuff.  How long has it been since the Butthole Surfers stopped putting out great albums?  Hell, how long has it been since Sonic Youth put out something top-ten worthy?  And here are the Lips, still blowing my mind every time out.  OK, they have their ups and downs, but I keep thinking they're at the end, and they keep proving me wrong.

4. Plug One and Plug Two of De La Soul - First Serve

I'm not sure why they decided to list the artist in such an awkward way, but let's put that aside.  Kendrick Lamar probably put out the more impressive rap concept album this year, but (to my ears) First Serve is the more enjoyable.  It tells the story of a rap group's rise from striving nobodies to big stars to egotistical backstabbers.  OK, not a particularly original story, but the strength here is what has always been the great strength of De La Soul: their unconventional approach to rhyme, which allows them to weave a story through dialogue while flowing so nice that you don't even notice what they're accomplishing if you don't listen closely.

5. Jack White - Blunderbuss

A fine classic rock album, Jack's first solo joint is warmer, mellower and more varied than anything he's done in the past.  Maybe it's his Led Zep III. It even climaxing with a Zeppelin-esque epic, "Take Me With You When You Go" (I was gonna say "Stairway"-esque, but that's laying it on a bit thick.  It's a minor epic, more like "Over the Hills and Far Away" or "What Is and What Should Never Be").  My favorite is the title track, which is written in some sort of archaic language, as if to invoke some old poetry or an ancient folk ballad or something (I still can't figure out what he's describing in that corner exit), but hitting on some real emotional truths ("Such a trick to pretend not to be doing what you want to/But that's what everybody does every waking moment").

6. Ondatropica - s/t

Quantic's career arc is pretty cool.  He started out as a DJ/producer who incorporated global music in his tracks, then began leading the Quantic Soul Orchestra in creating original music in this vein, focusing on Latin and Caribean sounds, and gradually focusing tightly on the music of Colombia.  Last year, he curated the collection The Original Sound of Cumbia for Soundways records, a huge, two-disc set of Colombian recordings spanning the decades.  So the logical next step was Ondatropica, where Quantic and Mario Galeano (Galeano seems to be the prime mover here, I'm only focusing on Quantic because I'm more familiar with his work) brought together a bunch of veteran Colombian musicians to record.  The styles are varied, and while some of the music is strictly traditional, other songs incorporate elements of hip hop, dub, rock, and whatever else floats through the room.  Actually, who am I kidding?  I don't know if any of it sounds like "traditional" Colombian music, but I do know that all of it sounds great when you're sitting in a kiddie pool trying to beat the heat on a summer's day, and this is the album that was rockin' my tiki bar all summer long.

7. Grimes - Visions

This album is just so kooky.  By all logic, it should not exist, and certainly shouldn't be a "hit."   The combination of experimental/weirdo music and chart pop is bizarre, but somehow feels logical.  It's so crazy it just might work! I think what really won me over to this album is watching the videos.  Seeing this cute, fresh-faced girl who could easily be a pop star, and basically acts and dresses like a pop star in the videos, just puts it over the edge.  The video for "Genesis" could so easily be a Ke$ha or Lady Gaga video, but it's a video for this weird, ambient composition.  But the fact that I'm even talking about it as if there's a difference between pop stars and weirdo musicians shows how outdated my mindset is.

8. Animal Collective - Centipede Hz

Centipede Hz is a masterpiece of modern psychedelia, all trippy tape loops, swirling organs and clattering percussion.  If that sounds like every Animal Collective album going all the way back to their early, experimental works...well, you're not wrong.  But their focus is tighter now.  They're not experimenting.  They know exactly how to go about creating these songs, and they put that experience to hard service in creating the definitive statement of their career.  There's probably not a single song here that's as impressive as "Summertime Clothes" or "Brother Sport," but song-for-song, this is a much more solid effort than even Meriweather Post Pavilion

9. Redd Kross - Researching the Blues

THE choice for driving with the top (or at least the windows) down on a Saturday night.  This is the first album Redd Kross has put out in 15 years, and they pick up pretty much where they left off on Show World: playing perfectly constructed power pop songs on a foundation of hard, sweaty rock.  I won't front, my ongoing affection for this band probably factors heavily into their inclusion on this list, but I never get tired of watching these guyss evolve.  They started out as a punk band who would talk about how much they loved KISS and The Partridge Family, then became a band that did semi-ironic send-ups of KISS and The Partridge Family, but, they're just a band that sounds like a cross between KISS and The Partridge Family, because that's what they want to sound like.  This is how I see the McDonald Brothers: they grew up in the 70's, obsessed with music from a very early age, but being young, they experienced all the music they were hearing as one thing: from big arena metal bands to AM radio easy listening pop, from punk and glam to Godspell and those weird bubblegum songs that used to play during the chase scenes on Scooby Doo, Where Are You? was all one thing to them.  And that's the sound of Redd Kross.

10. The Dirty Projectors - Swing Low, Magellan

The Dirty Projectors work their way through a lot of styles on this, their most solid album, from heavy metal and garish 60's psychedelia to slinky soul and Appalachian-based Deadhead sounds, but they never sound like anything other than The Dirty Projectors, with their signature weird harmony vocals.  (Well, I guess the title track is an exception to this, an almost-creepy Lou Reed impersonation.)  I always like the way bands like Sonic Youth and Deerhoof can take their weird experiments and, over the years, begin applying them to focused pop songwriting, and that career arc is certainly applicable to this album.

Best Album I Bought in 2012: v/a - This May Be My Last Time Singing
This is the second massive collection of gospel on Tompkins Square records compiled by Mike McGonigal, and it's even better than the last one (Fire in My Bones).   70-something tracks ranging from 1957-1982.  Yes, '82--there's one track here with a drum machine, although besides that detail it still sounds like something that could have been recorded in the 60's.  There are so many greats on this collection it's impossible to know where to begin.  Each of the three discs contains a version of the title song, my favorite being Brother Will Hairston's on the last disc.  It's not on YouTube, so I uploaded it to DivShare just to give you a listen.  What happens around 2:45 is just unbelievable.  BUY THIS ALBUM!!!!

Punk Rock Heroes of the Year: Pussy Riot
Pussy Riot are not really a band.  They're a performance art collective who are most famous for what you could say is a performance as a band of Bikini Kill-like riot grrrls, protesting against authoritarianism, patriarchy, Vladmir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.  For their troubles, they were sentenced to hard labor in a Siberian gulag.  They've gotten plenty of attention, not least because they are great self-marketers with a great name and image.  Let's hope that the international attention to their plight can be spread into countries like Iran, where singing a protest song can get you fatwa'ed, or Mali, where simply singing secular music will get you arrested and probably executed.

MVP of the Year: Erykah Badu
She sang the best song on Flying Lotus' new album.  She contributed the climactic rendition of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" (performed in heavy Sabbath slo-mo) on the Flaming Lips record.  Plus a great rendition of "Afro Blue" with Robert Glasper, and some really cool space funk with Rocket Juice and the Moon.  

25 great fucking songs (I'll go easy with the embeds):

M.I.A. - Bad Girls
Slammin' beat, and a great video to boot.  I assume, although I've never heard M.I.A. say so, that the video is a show of solidarity for the Saudi women who protested the ban on women drivers last year.   Either way, it's a striking visual.

Angel Haze - Cleaning Out My Closet
This is from a free, 5-song mixtape that Angel Haze released on the internet of her rapping over other people's beats (this one being based on the Eminem song of the same title).  The tape opens with a take on Lupe Fiasco's "Bitch Bad," wherein Angel expresses a deep understanding of domestic violence and misogyny, and closes with this track, where she describes her own childhood sexual abuse and the psychological aftermath.  It's as difficult to listen to as Tori Amos' "Me and a Gun," and it's the most powerful performance of the year.

Fun. - Why Am I the One?
This song bedevils me, upending my already-confused feelings about 80's pop.  Fun. are deeply rooted in 80's radio.  Sometimes their sound recalls horrible bands like Simple Minds, Tears for Fears or Def Leppard.  Other times, they sound like even more horrible bands, like Chicago, REO Speedwagon or Toto.  In fact, they borrow from so many 80's groups that it's impossible to really nail their sound down.  Their big hits, "We Are Young" and "Some Nights," sound like songs you'd find on the soundtrack of something like St. Elmo's Fire, but "Why am I the One?" is the one that's really grabbed me (like a lot of this list, I got the song off of Fluxblog).  It's sounds like...well, like every fucking song I hated when I was in high school.  But things change.  This sort of music is no longer being shoved down my throat by radio and MTV, and I no longer feel an ideological need to divide music into warring factions to affirm my identity, so now that horrible 80's sound is just one more sound.  It's not what I generally go for, but I no longer see anything inherently wrong with it.  Instead, I just hear these beautiful, intertwining melodies that get so pleasantly stuck in my head.  Every time I listen to it, I feel like I'm stabbing my teenage self in the back.  But my teenage self was a horrible person, so fuck 'im.

Titus Andronicus - In a Big City
2012's victory anthem, the sound of crossing the finish line, a beer commercial waiting to happen.  In a year this exhilarating, it just feels right.  Patrick Stickles reminds me of Patterson Hood in the way he sings shit that is obviously beyond his ability, but it sounds compelling to hear him trying to hit those notes, and his almost-hitting them is like the minor victories at the end of movies like Rocky and The Bad News Bears.  Plus, it's a New Jersey anthem in a year when Jersey could seriously use an anthem.

BJ the Chicago Kid w/Kendrick Lamar - His Pain
Thanks to Soul Sides for posting this song, that I would otherwise not have heard.  Kendrick's album is fantastic, and I was trying to decide whether I should include it on my list, but this song is almost like a microcosm of the album, and that smoky jazz loop hits my buttons more than the neon-noir sound of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City.

Amanda Palmer - Melody Dean
This song needs to get the fuck out of my head, like NOW.

Flaming Lips w/Ke$ha and Biz Markie - 2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)
Adele - Skyfall
Well, it's morning of 12/21/12, and as far as I know, the world hasn't ended and the singularity has not been achieved, but at least two great songs came out of it.  Ke$ha does a great Stooges parody about taking acid and enjoying the apocalypse (prepping for her duet with the man himself), and Adele turns in the best Bond theme since..."Live and Let Die," maybe?

Japandroids - Nights of Wine and Roses
Was there a more rousing rock song than "In a Big City" this year?  Well, yeah: this one.  And they work well together (I have them back-to-back on my 2012 playlist), "Nights" being a song about that period in your life when you think you can expend the energy of your unfocused ambitions on drinking and howling at the moon.

Killer Mike - R.A.P. Music
Couldn't find this song on YouTube, so the link goes to "Big Beast," which is almost as good.

El-P - The Full Retard
Since the late 90's, El-P has been creating harsh hip hop that merged the noisy soundscapes of The Bomb Squad and The Rza with their obvious analogues in industrial music--say, Nine Inch Nails or Skinny Puppy.  The results have been pretty amazing, but they've rarely really been much fun to listen to (at least since the first Company Flow EP). So his new album really stands as a great achievement: he still manages to conjure a Bladerunner-esque urban distopia, but now it's one you can bob your head to.

Zebra Katz w/Njina Red Foxxx - I'ma Read
Unrelenting minimalist rap with a creepy-ass video that looks like something out of some Japanese horror flick.

Sleigh Bells - Demons
Sleigh Bells take everything that was actually cool about 80's hair metal, turn it up to 11 and run it through the filter of today's laptop-based music.  Their first album was fun for a listen or two, but couldn't really hold my interest long-term.  This time around, they fleshed out their sound, with Alexis Krauss not just screaming demented cheerleader routines,  but also cooing sweet lullabyes.  This adds a lot of dimension to their sound, and while this song is not really the best example of it, it does have the most classic metal riffage.

The Coup - The Magic Clap
"To Homeland Security, we are the bomb!"

Redd Kross - Stay Away From Downtown
If you need proof that these guys should be taken seriously, this should do the trick.

Of Montreal - Spiteful Intervention
This may be the best song Kevin Barnes ever wrote.  He can't sing it for shit, but it's a great fucking song!

Animal Collective - Today's Supernatural
"Let let let let let let let let goooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

The Internet - Cocaine
This song is so smooth and seductive, just like the drug itself.

The Dirty Projectors - Gun Has No Trigger
I got nothin', other than this is a beautiful song.

Nas - A Queen's Story
Lyrically, the themes here are pretty standard, but it's possible that they've never been done better.  The tone of bittersweet victory, the way the extended chorus takes on a darker tone the last time around, the cascading piano on the final verse: classic Nas.

DJ Eleven w/Mike Baker the Bike Maker - Every Freakin (Illo Keam Remix)
Great stupid lyrics, and the remix gives it a great roller disco beat.  Thanks to Mixtape Riot for posting this!

Flaming Lips w/Bon Iver - Ashes in the Air
Best lyric of the year: "You and me/We thought we were so smart/We thought we could outrun them/But they had robot dogs."

Mystikal - Hit Me!
"Even the white people sittin' up in this muthafucka do nothin' but say Wow!/Hear that Helen?/He's tearin' it up, that fella!/I'd like to get my hands on those a capellas/That nigga sicka and slicka than lemon lime Jell-ah/We on the one/Me and the band gellin' like Abbott and Costellah/Stanky and smellah/Tummy and bellah/Peanut butter-jellah!"

Skrillex w/Wolfgang Gartner - The Devil's Den
2012 was the year that my generation collectively said "Oh, that's what dubstep is?  It's fucking horrible!"  Well, I kinda like this Skrillex dude in small doses.  I like how he basically plays heavy metal solos on...whatever it is he uses (Turntables?  An iPad?).  I went with his most "metal" song--even has a totally metal-porn video!

Kelly Hogan - Daddy's Little Girl
A very odd tribute to Sinatra(s) from the former siren of Atlanta.

Best Cover Song Not by Neneh Cherry and the Thing: 
Field Music - Terrapin
A great Syd Barrett song becomes a great T-Rex song.

Pour one out for:
Adam Yauch
Davey Jones
Donna Summer
Robin Gibb
Etta James
Dave Brubek
Doc Watson and Earl ScruggsRavi Shankar (the most amazing performance in Monterey Pop, if you ask me)


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