To be honest, these are the top ten non-jazz albums as voted by our staff, but since ties are a habit with this year’s lists, we’re going to start things off at #8. We’d be a little more accurate in the title of our list, but the desire to make round numbers beat out the need for complete accuracy. It, much like our balloting, was a weighty decision. Nevertheless, these are the albums we felt quite strongly about, no matter the genre.
The 2012 Season of Lists
Think of it like the music journalists’ new year’s resolutions in reverse
The Best Non-Jazz Albums of 2012: #25*-11
The Best Jazz Albums of 2012: #25*-11
The Best Non-Jazz Albums of 2012: #10*-1
The Best Jazz Albums of 2012: #10*-1
8 tie) Suff Daddy – Suff Sells (Self-Released)
Heard of Suff Daddy? Probably not. He’s a hip-hop poducer based in Germany, where for the past few years he’s been turning out tracks built from odd, often jazzy, samples and his own synthesizer melodies and basslines. A frequent collaborator with Miles Bonny and Fleur Earth, Suff Sells is his most comprehensively Suff release yet, combining a sound unique to the European hip-hop scene with Slum Village-era J Dilla. It’s slick, and often ironic, but there’s a sincerity underneath it all. This is more than trendy music. It’s real music.
8 tie) Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. city (TDE/Aftermath/Interscope)
In a world where the new kids on the block of hip hop can’t seem to follow through on their built up hype, Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City” is just what the hip hop community has been looking for. Consisting of twelve tracks, Lamar’s debut is a story in it’s purist form, with tracks that make you laugh as well as thought provoking scenarios that can’t help but make you think “damn”. “Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City” is the fruit that is proof that Kendrick is more than hype, but someone we can expect great things from for years to come.
8 tie) Bonobo – Black Sands Remixed (Ninja Tune)
The English DJ Bonobo released Black Sands in 2010. The album was a heavy one in that it was dense. There was so much material to go through, and it was all very interesting. But if Black Sands was brilliant, Black Sands Remixed, released in February of this year is something else entirely. If Black Sands was intense, Black Sands Remixed is even more so. But the thing about the remix is that it isn’t dense in any negative sense. Whereas the original might have been difficult to go through at times, the remix comes with a hook: the listener doesn’t want to stop listening, and the material remains just as heavy.
So why does a remix of a great album belong on a top ten list? The album was not only a brilliant take on something that had been done before; that take was genuinely original. Bonobo, with this album, was saying something new than what he had said two years ago when Black Sands was released. Black Sand Remixed is one of the most creative and intense albums of 2012.
7) Grizzly Bear – Shields (Warp)
2009 was a really big year. Some of the best releases of that year were from Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, and Grizzly Bear. Thus, much like a planetary alignment, these three groups have released their highly anticipated follow-ups. However, of the three, Grizzly Bear’s Shields delivered the best. The quartet came back with a vim and vigor that seemed to build on the earnestness and creativity of 2009’s Veckatimist but crafts something just as firm in its ground and unique all its own. It’s somber but not brooding, rewarding due to its challenge but still not overly cerebral. It swells but doesn’t burst.
6) Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music (Williams Street)
At the very beginning of “JoJo’s Chillin,” the third track from his incredible new record R.A.P. Music, Killer Mike makes the odd declaration “This album was created entirely by Jamie and Mike.” It’s not the type of prideful acknowledgement we’re used to hearing on a hip-hop record (nevermind that producer El-P would have it publicly acknowledged that his name is Jamie). But then R.A.P. Music is far from typical, and I mean that in all the right ways. At a time in hip-hop’s history where the producer credits often run as long as the lyric sheet, R.A.P. Music presents the alternative, a pure partnership: two seasoned vets getting together in the studio, and managing to push each other past where either went before on their own.
El-P, the producer and MC extraordinaire, who already posted a stellar record of his own this year with Cancer 4 Cure, has finally begun to get the praise he should have been receiving throughout his 2-decade long career behind the boards. Thankfully, he’s peaking right along with his profile right now, and it’s his touch–able to move from trunk-bangers (“Big Beast”) to heartfelt laments (“Willie Burke Sherwood”)–is pitch-perfect throughout this varied set. Musical, challenging, and always banging, it’s clear that El and has entered that echelon of Madlib, Kanye, and Dilla; producers who compose rather than just make beats.
But the star of the show is the Killer himself, who after years of being known mostly as an Outkast protege, has finally posted a record cashes in on all of his early potential. He can still do hard better than just about anyone in the business, proving that veteran swagger doesn’t have to be about recycling the same decade old boasts (Jay-Z, take note). But it’s his sincerity and willingness to share every aspect of his thought-process that makes Mike’s performance the most engaging of the year. From brutality of “Big Beast,” the tongue-twisting “Go!,” the political fury of “Reagan,” and the self-conscious soul searching of “Anywhere But Here,” he make’s the year’s strongest claim as rap’s reigning poet laureate (check the first first of “Untitled” for confirmation).
5) Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Rope Will Ever Do (Epic)
Any time Fiona Apple releases a new album has become its own event now. It would appear she only sings when she has something to say, and boy, does she have something to say. The Idler Wheel… finds Apple upfront and honest about her shaky relationships, her own neuroses, and her general feistiness. Produced alongside her touring drummer Charley Drayton, Apple embraces a simpler sound, much like some of the quieiter moments of her previous album, Extraordinary Machine. Songs crunch and howl and creak, much like Apple’s voice which does exactly what she needs it to do to manage her always complicated, thesaurus plumbing lyrics. Apple is just as emotionally raw as usual, but she seems more comfortable in her own skin this time around resulting in what may be her finest album yet.
Every Single Night
Anything We Want
4) Tame Impala – Lonerism (Modular)
In the dirty process of boiling down my favorite records of the year, I tend to take the qualitative approach, namely by letting iTunes tell me the answer. And with 15 spins (16 after I finish writing this), there’s no denying Tame Impala’s brilliant second effort Lonerism as my list topper. For a the psychedelic revivalists of the past several decades, no one is more adept at channeling the 60s pysch spirits of the Zombies, Cream and especially the Beatles than frontman Kevin Parker and his band of Aussies. (dude even sounds like a permanently stoned John Lennon). But Tame Impala aren’t in the business of pastiche; Lonerism is incredibly confident display of smart songwriting, buoyed by three bona fide classics in the form of “Apocalypse Dreams,” “Elephant,” and “Feels Like We’re Only Going Backwards.” It’s also the smaller touches–from the buoyant bass line that holds together “Endors Toi” to the the nasty guitar riff that brings “Music to Walk Home To” to a thrilling conclusion–that make this such a constantly rewarding listen. (with really good headphones for best results). Final note, Parker also produced another fantastic slice of pysch-pop in the form of Melody’s Echo Chamber, which I’d recommend almost as much. Seriously, keep your eyes on this guy, he’s on a roll.
3) Nas – Life is Good (Def Jam)
Nas is a man scorned on his latest, but as it is with art, one’s personal pain often becomes the source of beauty for others. Though Nas addresses head on his rough divorce from singer Kelis, Life Is Good is far from a bitter-fest, in fact, one of his finest since the legendary Illmatic. The heartfelt, karma-esque, “Daughters”, the socio-political “World’s An Addiction” and the gritty Loco-Motive with long-time legendary collaborator, Large Professor, reaffirm Nas’ “King of New York” status. Young rappers take note.
2) Frank Ocean – channelORANGE (Def Jam)
For an artist as currently omnipresent as Frank Ocean, it’s difficult to recall that just a year ago he was mostly just known by insiders as ‘one of the guys from Odd Future who’s not Tyler.’ But then 2012 was the year of Frank, from his headline grabbing openness regarding his sexual orientation, to his show-stopping performance on Fallon. And though it’s easy to get swept up in the non-musical hype surrounding him, it’s critical to remember that primary reason Mr. Ocean was everywhere this year was channelORANGE. From start to finish, it’s a brilliant debut that delivered on his promise and then some, reminding a lot of us in the process that ‘intelligent pop’ can be a thing. Ocean’s ubiquity will no doubt result in a bit of channelORANGE backlash, particularly among the ‘best of’ list crowd. But put this in perspective: Did anyone else this year put out a vocal performance as mesmerizing as “Thinking About You,” a narrative as complex as “Pyramids,” a hook as big as “Sweet Life,” or a lyric as honest as “Bad Religion?” Believe the hype; channelORANGE belongs in the top rung of any best-of list.
channelORANGE, full album
1) Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes (Warp)
About a week or so before producer Flying Lotus released Until the Quiet Comes, he took to Twitter to inform the world that this was designed to be one complete listen, this isn’t one to shuffle around. He had to remind us all why we listen to albums. Why they’re formed and structured in such a way to flow and build a mood. There was love and true intention in Steve Ellison’s latest album, love in collaboration with Thundercat and the late Austin Peralta, love in collaboration with Samiyam, love in collaboration with Thom Yorke and Erykah Badu and Laura Darlington and so many others. It’s an album not too boisterous and none too proud. It’s a three-quarter hour hug that you just can’t help but nuzzle into over and over again.
Until the Quiet Comes
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.