Sunday, December 23, 2012

Top 50 Albums of 2012 (Part I)

As 2012 slowly draws to a close and winter's grasp begins to tighten, it's time to engage in the time-honored tradition of unveil the top albums of the year. This time out, the list has been expanded to 50, and LPs, EPs, and mixtapes are all welcome here. Enjoy the list and enjoy the music that made 2012. 

#50 Cigarette Boats- Curren$y

This formula shouldn’t work so well. Every few months, the hardest working man in stoner-rap aka Curren$y picks a detour to drive his “push-button start,” down and only adds to his paper stack. On the plush EP Cigarette Boats, exclusively produced by Harry Fraud, Spitta’s paper stacks grow into mountains. On the up-all-night anthem “Leaving the Dock,” he’s got a “Rolex the long sleeves end,” and “a house on each wrist.” Over the island-paradise beat of “Biscayne Bay,” he can be found “sittin in the skyline, the style of a stockbroker, storytellin’ weed slanging pot smoker.” With all this luxury and leisure, it’d be easy for Spitta to kick his feet up and relax, but like he raps on “WHO,” “there’s more money to get, cars to park.”

"Biscayne Bay"

#49 Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors- Big Boi


Big Boi is in love with music. At cursory glance that may read as uninspired, but one listen to the genre-busting Vicious Lies & Dangerous Rumors, his second solo-album since the OutKast hiatus will confirm it. “The Thickets” is a pitch-perfect opener, and Big Boi is nimble as ever spitting lines like “operation grind and stack cause these rappers are out of touch, or like a rabbit that just lost one foot to a keychain out of luck,” with ease. “In the A” is constructed chaos driven by trap-rap drums, squelching guitar, and blistering performances from ATL compatriots Ludacris and T.I.  But Big Boi sounds most at home on this album when scanning unfamiliar territory. The Phantogram feature “Lines” would seem alien to the world of Sir Lucious Left Foot, but is a welcome visitor in this world. Sarah Barthel’s airy vocals haunt the spirit of the song while guest A$AP Rocky rattles off beleaguered bars about constant demons and Big Boi searches for help from a higher power. The three-song “suite” that closes the album is a minor-key masterpiece, particularly “Tremendous Damage” and “Descending” which see Big Boi pay tribute to his father who passed away before production began on Sir Lucious Left Foot. By the time the last notes of “Descending” bubble up to the surface, it’s clear Big Boi isn’t just in love with music he’s head over heels, committed to follow it wherever it goes.  

"Lines" ft. Phantogram & A$AP Rocky

#48 There's No Leaving Now- The Tallest Man On Earth

The world Kristian Matsson aka The Tallest Man on Earth inhabits is still a winsome one, where rabbits bound and deer have their “mind on the moor.” The winding trails and snow-capped mountains still bide for his time, but on this his third LP he’s grown more concerned with the relationships he cultivates. “I always want to bring you something, but sometimes it’s just roses dying too young,” he croaks on the jaunty guitar shuffle of “Revelation Blues” struggling to find the perfect gift for a distanced lover. On first single “1904” Matsson snatches up banjo picking and country fretwork to paint an idyllic scene of a year no longer in sight. The days of rocks hurled at windows and young nights have been subsumed by noise of the mind and “vague lessons.” “Little Brother” is a plaintive rumination, where Matsson wonders “why are you drinking again little brother, when your rambling’s the hardest part of loving you?” For a catalog abounding with opaque lyrics, it’s a stunning moment of directness. On There’s No Leaving Now Matsson opens the door to his snow-piled home to more than just stray travelers, welcoming in woodwinds, pattering drums, and flourishes of finger-picking. Matsson spells it out on the piano backed title-track, musing “will there be time to harvest rivers, that for so long refused to grow, all the little things you need to build a home?” With a full house, the cries for attention from the world outside have been reduced to a whisper.

"Little Brother"

#47 Blue Chips- Action Bronson & Party Supplies

If I told you one of the best mixtapes to drop in 2012 featured an Albanian-American dude with aspirations of being a chef rapping over Youtube rips and name-checking 1996 N.L. MVP Ken Caminiti, you’d no doubt nod politely and walk-off or double over with laughter. The squalling horns and clattering drums of “Ron Simmons” are swiped straight from a Thai-pop track. On “9-24-11,” Party Supplies stitches together a Dean Martin sample as Bronson balances between love and lust by spotlighting a prostitute in a wedding dress, before starting the whole second verse over. The 90s b-boy cut “Tan Leather,” sees Bronson teaching Culinary Arts 101, “spreading (bone marrow roasted) on the rosemary bread lightly toasted.” And on the semi-serious “Hookers at the Point,” Action Bronson details the deadly trade from the perspective of: prostitute, pimp, and john. Not a minute goes by where the recipe doesn’t seem to be in danger of falling apart on account of Bronson larger-than-life appetite for sex, drugs, and food, but as the man himself defiantly raps on the Spanish-flavored “Tapas” “only live once, so f**k if I’mma waste it.”


#46 Wrecking Ball- Bruce Springsteen

“Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea,” Bruce Springsteen wonders with righteous anger on “We Take Care of Our Own,” the anthemic opener to his 17th LP. In the past decade, that promise has been buried under an avalanche of two wars, a recession, depression, continual political turmoil, and an uptick in government mistrust. In lieu of the facts, it would be easy for The Boss to pack up and search for his answer in less tumultuous times. That’s not the case on Wrecking Ball, where he relishes the fight and leaves no stone unturned tracking down that promise. On the swaggering “Easy Money” he's a modern day Robin Hood, robbing Wall-Street fat cats becomes his ideal date. The spry “Death to My Hometown” recalls Springsteen’s work on folk affair We Shall Overcome, a raucous number to rally the troops against the common enemy of the “robber baron.” Springsteen’s strumming on the title-track is liberating, as he tempts fate, begging all doubters and naysayers to “bring on the wrecking ball.” “Don’t fall to your fear,” he pleads as Max Weinberg’s titanic-drumming belies his request. What was once a song for a soon-to-be demolished stadium has been re-imagined as a rallying cry for the downtrodden. The specter of “Big Man” Clarence Clemons haunts the rousing “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a gospel-like number that gathers saint and sinner together to go searching for that lost promise. Clemons’ bellowing sax-solo is pure energy, the only fuel the train needs to reach the promised land. “Dreams will not be thwarted,” Bruce snarls near the track’s conclusion. Sometimes the best way to stop a nightmare is with an unshakeable dream.

"Wrecking Ball"

#45 The Only Place- Best Coast

Forever is a long time, in the course of forever: we’re born, grow-up, live, love, laugh, grow apart, grow together, grow old, and eventually die. While the notion of forever in all of its guises is a constant factor in Best Coast’s second LP The Only Place, the band is more concerned with our life in-between the margins, where we decide just what to do with all that time. When boredom plagues us, we can hit the beach and catch a wave as singer Bethany Cosentino suggests on the picturesque “The Only Place.” If our days are ruled by misspent beliefs or the bottle, we can “kick our habits out the door,” as Consentino boldly does on the Penguins turned punk “Last Year.” “Better Girl” forces Cosentino to realize there’s “no fun” in spending forever alone. On The Only Place producer Jon Brion has increased the fidelity from 2010’s Crazy for You without sacrificing the timelessness of the tracks. The panning guitar and childlike xylophone of “How They Want Me To Be” is a defiant teenage anthem of love ripped from the Ronettes playbook as Cosentino coos “you don’t want me to be, how they want me to be.” The steady sliding guitar of closer “Up All Night” is the sound of a slow-moving summer night when forever seems a real possibility. Here Cosentino painfully realizes the relationship she longs for has no place in forever’s plans. “I don’t know what day it is cause I’ve been up all night,” she sings. As the track swells into a mournful violin-driven coda, Cosentino repeats the phrase as a lovelorn mantra. Throughout the course of The Only Place she’s been preoccupied with passing the time, avoiding the question of forever at every turn. But forever can only be ignored for so long.  

"Up All Night"

#44 Live from the Underground- Big K.R.I.T.

It’s doubtful if Mississippi MC Big K.R.I.T. can ever shake the comparisons to Southern-rap royalty that seem permanently pinned to him circa 2012. Live from the Underground does him no favors in that battle. At times, his voice still recalls UGK’s own Pimp C, he links up with Memphis heroes 8 Ball & MJG on the sensuous stripper-anthem “Moneyon the Floor,” and the title-track features the sort of gospel-humming, record scratching, and funky guitar playing that Goodie Mob staked their career on. Meanwhile, tracks like the countrified “Cool 2 Be Southern” set the scene with “24s on Caddys,” and “folks with the grills in mouth.” “Hydroplaning” is replete with a red-eyed Devin the Dude performance and takes shelter in the chopped and screwed universe. Slave-tale “Praying Man” backed by a haunting vocal performance from B.B. King is a Southern ghost-story with K.R.I.T. struggling to outrun reaper and slavemaster alike. On the closing “Live from the Underground (Reprise)” K.R.I.T. is left wondering if anyone can fill his shoes. If Live from the Underground is any indication, K.R.I.T. won’t find an heir to the throne until “the good Lord call him home.”    

"Rich Dad, Poor Dad"

#43 I Bet on Sky- Dinosaur Jr.

There are moments on “Watch the Corners” the second track off I Bet on Sky when the Dinosaur Jr. of the 80s comes roaring back; chugging power guitars lumbering like a brontosaurus across the land. Then something remarkable happens, that raucousness twists into a soft-bed of sunny feedback. Even the sweltering solo that’s become guitarist J. Mascis’ calling card is unassuming, not an ounce of aggressiveness to be found in its upward momentum. That laid-back feel is indicative of the entire album, which would could be mistaken for mellowing out, but is closer to growing up. The “power-pop” of “What Was That” gets the eternal slackers up off the couch and out the door, willing to try anything to ensure that “now is good.” “I got lost please don’t leave me, make to see I was wrong,” Mascis warbles on the quiet guitar-storm of “Stick a Toe In.” Twinkling piano (a foreign element to the Dino aesthetic) enters the fray as Mascis hits an apex of self-appraisal. Jangly fuzzed-out guitar on closer “See It on Your Side” veils unrequited love “back here all this time.” “It’s a shame to feel there’s no way of seeing it on yourself,” Mascis sings before a solo envelops the track. On opener “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know” Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph are “waiting waiting waiting,” a far-cry from the impatience of their 80s youth. Underneath all of that fuzz and feedback is the sound of a band growing up and growing old on their own terms. 

"Watch the Corners"

#42 Lux- Brian Eno

That these four pieces of meditative ambient music were originally crafted by Brian Eno for an art-installation should come as a shock to no one. Like any exemplary piece of art, Lux is all about balance. No one element ever overwhelms the album. The music found within these delicate walls is unobtrusive, meant to accompany and never detract. Single piano notes swell and then slowly shuffle out of sight. Warm strings refract through the window, and dissolve into a thousand points of light. Reverb washes over these pieces, but never carries them to sea. Eno’s music here is effectually a blank slate, a canvas for self-projections and endless interpretations. The horn honks that appear and then duck around a corner on “Lux 1” could be the rude interruption to an afternoon daydream.  The stretch of disappearing piano on “Lux 3” can symbolize the white-light we will all inevitably head toward. Lux carries no personal baggage or presuppositions of purpose. Akin to a work of abstract art, it’s an impossibility to pinpoint where one thread ends and another begins. Lux then is a world where nothing is certain, where feelings are in flux, and where every action or inaction is left up to the listener. 

"Lux 3"

#41 Rich Forever- Rick Ross


In which rap’s self-proclaimed “Teflon Don” puts the game in a choke-hold at the start of the calendar year, dominating Datpiff downloads, tossing off hashtaggable lines with mogul-like aplomb (“C-note after c-note, put the remix on my kilo, thought I wouldn’t make it now I’m winning Timothy Tebow”), and crafting a certifiable single in the mammoth “Stay Schemin.” Nowadays any rapper can release a mixtape, a cursory scan of a download site will kick back scores of never-ran rappers putting everything into one tape. That Rozay then dropped a tape whose beats would typically command a bigger price-tag than most rappers will ever make is a move of equal parts gusto and cruelty. Tracks like the fear-inducing “Holy Ghost” see Ross importing cocaine by the boatload from Mexico, getting Illuminati-money to the tune of 8 digits. Ross’ ear for beats is as impeccable as ever and the same came be said of his guest selection. Every rapper knows their role, serving as capos to the Don. He trots out a snarling Styles P to sip Courvoisier and “toast to n****s that beat cases” on the Miami Vice indebted “Keys to the Crib."  The warped ripple of “Triple Beam Dreams” crafted by J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League employs a reanimated Nas to spit a conflicted verse on the consequences of getting rich off the drug game. Then there’s “Stay Schemin” a track that ends Rich Forever as Ross, Drake, and a marble-mouthed French Montana gather at rap’s summit to finalize their plans for the takeover. Ross is preoccupied with “getting money that’s in any n**** category,” Drake is just “hittin my pinnacle” and French is on the corner like “Dwight Howard on the post dog.” “I see no need to compete with n****s like y’all,” Drake caustically raps over a cold-synthscape. It’s a summation of the entire tape’s mentality, this isn’t a  competition, it’s a declaration that the game is over.

"Stay Schemin" ft. Drake & French Montana

Any problems with the first batch of picks? Then let your voice should be heard, and look for the rest of the list to be unveiled throughout the week as we climb ever higher to the number one album of 2012.

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