Okay, this is the last of the genre-highlighting lists of 2012 and the last of all music best-of posts aside from a few “honorable mentions” at the end of all of the site’s 2012 recapping. This is likely the last post of 2012 as well for me–I’ll have the “Best Films of 2012,” “The Best Comics and Graphic Novels of 2012,” and a “Catch-all + Honorable Mentions” post covering anything left out thus far, all of which will be up sometime in early January. Happy New Year to all!

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10) Big Boi -Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors

So while Andre 3000 has sat most of the past five years out, showing up now and then for much-demanded guest spots on other artists work, his other half of Outkast Big Boi has released two pretty spot-on hip hop records that showcase Boi’s considerable talent and a bit more variety than Outkast fans expected (we all assumed Andre was the sole source of experimentation and oddity, Big Boi makes the point here that this was not so). I haven’t fully digested this one yet, it arrived so late iin the year I’m going on the most basic of first impressions, but from what I hear it’s a winner.

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9) Alica Keys – Girl on Fire

As with the album at the 10-spot on this list, this one came out so late in the year that I can’t fully evaluate it fairly. First impression for me though is that this is the type of record I want from Alicia Keys. I’ve always found her to be a vastly talented musician who makes mediocre albums, but this one sounds full and fun, romantic and developed.

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8) The Weeknd – Trilogy

The Weeknd gave all three of these albums away for free last year, but if you missed them, you can get a slightly more polished release of them all in one at the digital stores as Trilogy. There are a few new tracks here, but the best things present are mostly from part 1, House of Balloons, though each other chapter had worthwhile songs as well. Taken in one sitting this blurry series of druggy fumbling and “romantic” vignettes can be a bit overwhelming, but the stand-out tracks are alternative R&B at its finest.

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7) Big K.R.I.T. – 4Eva N A Day

K.R.I.T.’s long awaited studio debut arrived this year as Live From the Underground. For whatever reason, I enjoyed it far less than I’ve enjoyed  most of the K.R.I.T. free mixtape full-lengths that have been released on the internet over the past two years. Case in point, the  mixtape album he released earlier in the year to build anticipation for the debut, 4eva N a Day was vastly more satisfying. It includes all of what makes K.R.I.T. so appealing, his balance of faith and tradition with wildness and party, his nostalgia, his syrupy thick flow, his southern beats. “Wake Up,” “1986,” Me and My Old School,” “Temptation,” etc. were all more interesting and catchy than anything on the studio album.

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6) Gary Clark Jr. – Blak And Blu

Okay, so first and foremost Gary Clark Jr. is a bluesman. On that note, you might wonder why his major label full-length album is on this particular genre-highlighting list. That’s because for one, the fact that Gary Clark Jr. is a full product of the hip hop generation is undeniable–from the way he approaches his music to the way he produces it, from the way he incorporates disparate textures and styles and the way he phrases particular lyrics. Yet much more than that, because Blak and Blue compiles so many different types of songs, there is much here on this album that is pure R&B, albeit a more classic type of it (perhaps neo-classicist nostalgic R&B?). Scattered between hard-rocking Blues numbers like “Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round,” “Bright Lights,” and “When My Train Pulls In,” there’s the beautiful almost Sam Cooke style R&B ballad “Please Come Home,” the modern revamped slow-jam of “You Saved Me,” the hip hop beat pop of “The Life,” and the Sly Stone-Jimi Hendrix wamp of “Glitter Ain’t Gold.” Blak and Blu plays like a mix-tape of all the different types of R&B influenced music Clark Jr. likes to hear and can play so well himself.

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5) Schoolboy Q – Habits & Contradictions

In many ways, Schoolboy Q represents so much of what is distasteful in rap. There are certainly blatant elements of misogyny and lyrics which wallow in the worst of life throughout this album. It’s a nihilistic and dark series of observations, a resignation to the afflictions of his neighborhood and lifestyle that finds little joy even in the excess and debauchery which seems like a mandate to survive such bleak surroundings. This is well-worn gangsta rap territory  Yet somehow, Schoolboy Q and the rest of his black-hippie crew (named so for their affinity for doing things differently rather than for anything else from the ’60s flower child movement) have managed to make West Coast hardcore rap sound new and different, and in many ways more skillful than many of their predecessors. The opening prayer of “Sacrilegious” haunt the ears and set the tone for the rest of the album. “There He Go” is a hip hop single with an irresistible beat laced with horns and a series of tight rhymes enunciated with a unique flow found few places else this past year (but too bad he can’t senses any cognitive dissonance  from the pride he takes in his daughter in the track to the follow-up support of pimping and prostitution as a relevant means of making money).”Hands on the Wheel” interestingly samples the Lissie folk rock cover of the Kid Cudi hip hop song to reclaim it for hip hop in a fun mash-up. “Nightmare on Figg St.” is the epitome of dark gangster horror story, a beat and a narrative perfectly matched to create unbelievable tension. The album should have concluded at the end of track 16 to end on a high note, the Kendrick Lamar guest-spotted “Blessed” which celebrates accomplishments, joys, and blessings–Q at the lightest and most positive you’ll find him on record to date.  Despite his flaws, Q makes compelling music which can be enjoyed thoughtlessly or dissected scholastically, played in a club or analyzed from a distance a bit uncomfortably.

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4) Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music

Killer Mike really came into his own on last year’s Pledge, particularly the track “Burn.” He continues that momentum here with R.A.P. Music. It’s still evident that he spent years with Outkast and the Dungeon Family crew– his ATL cadence and sound is still noticeable (as well as his ‘Kast influences), but he now also channels prime-era Ice Cube. Killer Mike is forceful here, making gangsta rap like it was made in the early days, full of vitriolic socio-political commentary. “Reagan” was one of the best songs of the year, and you can read what I say about it on my “25 Best Songs/Singles of 2012” as it placed at number 3 there. There are other great moments on record here–the crew shared swagger intro of “Big Beast” with T.I. and Bun B, the N.W.A-ish police brutality narrative “Don’t Die,” the ghetto gospel “Untitled” track and the love-letter to hip hop title track.

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3) Lupe Fiasco – Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. I

There are some let-down moments on Lupe’s latest, enough to keep a pretty solid album from my favorite modern rapper off of my overall “Best Albums” list this year, but the good moments on Food and Liquor II  are very good and as such this deserves a mention here on my recap of the year’s best hip hop and R&B. It starts off great, like a call to arms for real hip hop. Lupe’s sister Ayesha intros the album with her best spoken word poetry yet to appear on a Lupe record. “Strange Fruition” sets the tone for all that follows in a good way, immediately followed by the strongest song on the record, one of Lupe’s best yet, “ITAL.” “Around My Way” has been criticized by some hip-hop heads for jacking one of the most famous beats in hip hop history,  but Lupe puts it to good use for a new hip hop generation laced with some of his most potent lyrics. “Audubon Ballroom” continues things excellently with great lyrics, a solid chorus, and a nice beat. Lupe’s dissection of hip hop’s overuse of the word “bitch” in “Bitch Bad” is a much needed critique from within the genre itself and though his analysis itself is certainly open to criticism from others, it at least opens the conversation. “Lamborghini Angels” unfurls the best beat on the record but the lyrics are the darkest Lupe has ever written and seem unfitting of the beat. From there, the second half of the album falls off quite a bit. Had the second half of this record been as stellar as the first, this may have been the “Great American Rap Album” Lupe is quite capable of making. There are nice moments on the last 9 tracks, but some real filler and sub-par Lupe as well. Yet the first half is so good, it earns a spot this high here.

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2) Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid m.A.A.d. city

Kendrick Lamar came in at number 5 on my overall “Best Albums of 2012” post. Read it here.

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1) Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

Channel Orange was my album of the year in my overall “Best Albums of 2012” post. Read it here.

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10) Black Breath – Sentenced to Life

Black Breath channel their punk influences and energy into uncompromising metal. This is a hybrid whirl of punk, death, thrash, and hardcore, complete with Gothic flourishes. Sentenced to Life is all energy, all excitement, and it’s likely the best metal album you didn’t hear this year.

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9) Lamb of God – Resolution

It was a rough year for LOG’s lead-singer Randy Blythe as he spent much of in a Czech prison over a touring incident, and so much of the US and the world of metal fans as a whole were left without a chance to see the band’s latest, Resolution, performed live. The pre-release hype for their latest album was big in the heavy rock community–LOG have arguably risen as high in popularity as a band can without becoming crossover stars. And although some who see their last few records as polished and clean might disagree, LOG haven’t compromised their music in any cross-over appeals as most big-ticket metal bands in their shoes have done in the past. LOG could possibly be as big as Metallica or Pantera in their own way, but they’ve just continued making Death-Metal influenced American Heavy Metal, with catchy choruses, propelling beats, great intense vocals, and (most of the time) actual worthwhile lyrics (as Blythe did in addressing his own battles with alcoholism on early songs, or by making an  entire album of socio-political commentary on the Iraq War with Ashes of the Wake). Resolution isn’t the best album they’ve ever made, but it is more than solid with quite a few great songs.

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8) Dying Fetus- Reign Supreme

With a ridiculously offensive band name that practically ensures noone outside of metal will ever give them an open ear, Maryland’s Dying Fetus have kept a career going full of albums that pummel listeners with the loudest, fastest, most musically and vocally insane grind-influenced American death metal being made today. Their latest, “Reign Supreme” sets out to display everything they do best, and as such this is either for your or a nightmare for your ears and good taste. Yet despite their name, DF don’t wallow in offense for offense’s sake or retread tired exploitative lyrical territories. They perceive themselves as a political band, and behind the contorted growls and kick-drum blast-beats,  social commentary and pseudo-intellectual observations (couched in aggressive language of punk and protest) abound. This is intense music, good to head-bang or work out to, but it’s also musician’s music in its own way in that this is not simply made material. This album is the heaviest piece of work I heard all year, at least without forsaking song structure and melody completely. This really does work and it works better the more a listener allows its layers to unwrap.

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7) Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth

Eddie Van Halen is the reason countless metal guitarists first picked up the axe to play–and likely also the reason many hung it up in frustration that they couldn’t reach his soaring heights. David Lee Roth may often come across as a caricature and a jerk, but he’s also the blue-print for many a lead singer who followed him in heavy music. Together, these two forces created one of the best heavy rock albums of all time with their debut Van Halen album. Unfortunately, few albums in the band’s long history (and after Roth’s departure) ever lived up to that first effort. Now, the brief reunion (which collapsed before the tour was even more than halfway under way) didn’t produce the exact results of that original outing 30 something years ago, but A Different Kind of Truth is the best Van Halen record to come along since. The opening cheesiness of “Tattoo” is classic Van Halen, as is the quick follow-up “She’s the Woman.”  The opening riff for “You and Your Blues” is phenomenally simple, “Big River” rolls like one, and the closing “Stay Frosty” is the best Van Halen song in more than two decades. This album is supposedly the result of a revisit by the band to old demos and left aside tracks from their earliest days, polished and played with a career’s worth of experience behind them. As such, it’s a pleasant surprise, an album much better than anyone could have expected.

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6) Christian Mistress – Possession

Christian Mistress have received most of their attention because of their front-woman Christine Davis. Here is a female singer in a heavy metal band that carries the band to another level altogether. Female artists get a lot of attention in metal (and in hip hop) due to how badly they’re outnumbered by the boys, but Davis deserves attention for reasons wholly more than gender in that she is simply a terrific lead singer. She’s the heart of this band, and although their guitarists and drummer are all great and make great, neo-classicist heavy metal, Davis soars through each song with a powerful range and presence that accents each and every word with power. All the songs here are good, whether Gothic tinged ballad or full-throttle heavy metal anthem, but my favorite and most-played track of them all is “Conviction”–there’s something bone-chillingly haunting yet simultaneously gorgeous about the mid-song breakdown with Davis’ moaning intonations, and the kick-start that amps the song back up after that to race it to its end is that much better because of it.

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5) Baroness – Yellow & Green

Baroness have been more “metal” in the past; with their latest double album release of the next two albums in the “color” series, Baroness move away from Doom and Sludge–and some would say of metal altogether. Yet something beyond just their history in the genre cements this work in the (at least outer circles) of the metal genre. The vocals are clean and clear, the music is fully approachable,  but the emotional heaviness and intensity with which even the softest of songs are approached here remains, in whatever way, metal. “Take My Bones Away” and “March to the Sea” are reminders of a certain way of doing Rock that isn’t heard too often these days and a reminder of how that is missed.

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4) Nile – At the Gates of Sethu

Talk about a unique niche–ancient Egyptian death metal. Of course, there are now a few other bands who lyrically narrate songs about ancient Egyptian and middle eastern cultures and religions, but few ever reach the level of consummate genius that Nile has over a series of increasingly excellent albums. At the Gates of Sethu is the latest and greatest work of the band and includes everything fans love about them–heavy, dense, technical guitar mastery, sonic extremity, detailed lyrics (complete with liner notes which analyze the texts that inspired and are often incorporated into the songs) that faithfully and truthfully transmit historical texts, and  one of the best melodic death growl vocals in metal.

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3) Testament – Dark Roots of the Earth

Testament are a relentless thrash metal band. They’ve been making pure Thrash metal since the “big four” (Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer) started their careers in it and have continued on, an album every couple of years, long after most other Thrash bands have softened, moved on, or burned out. They’ve never moved in any sort of way to the mainstream, which has  certainly endeared them to metal-heads even if it has kept them underexposed to a larger audience. Dark Roots of the Earth is a great, fast, fun metal record from start to finish, full of stellar riffs and rollicking drums, and surprisingly, chock full of hooks. The vocals here are full of melody and there are sing-along choruses galore–something not found on every Testament record, but something done well here which works and manages to keep the songs grounded in Trash without moving them into some sort of cheesy pop metal. “Rise Up,” “Man Kills Mankind,” and the title track all display what this band has done best for more than 25 years now.

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2) Deftones – Koi No Yokan

I wrote a bit about why the Deftones are so good when explaining my pick of the Koi No Yokan track “Entombed” as one of the “Top 25 Singles/Songs of 2012” here. “Entombed” is a beautiful, soft-loud alternative metal ballad, a type of song that Deftones do better than anyone else. They do that sort of thing elsewhere on the record, notably with “Rosemary.” On these sort of songs the Deftones showcase their Smiths influence without being over-run by it as most other more recent heavy or emo bands influenced by Morrissey and company. Chino Moreno is a great vocalist who can really sing (as he uses to full-effect in his side-project Crosses in addition to these ‘tones ballads). He is unafraid to make “pretty” music as he has said, and that’s what much of Koi is, even at its heaviest moments. This band can switch from soft to heavy, from emotional and warm to full-force and thrashing without ever losing the melody. The above-mentioned “Rosemary” is a good showpiece for these disparate talents in its flux and pace-changes throughout. Then there’s the hand-clap rumble of “Poltergeist,” the unfurling psychological workout of “Leathers” (reminiscent of the classic “Change (in the house of flies) track from the bands seminal work White Pony), or just solid songs like “Goon Squad” and “Swerve City.” This is the best work the band has done in awhile, at least on fresh ears–there are songs from “Diamond Eyes” just now making their way into my listening rotation and catching on, so who knows which songs will stand-out from this set for me in a couple of years.

 

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1) Pig Destroyer – Book Burner

PxDx also made my overall “10 Best Albums of 2012” list with their latest effort. You can read why here.

Top 25 Singles/Songs of 2012

December 18, 2012

Just a reminder on the selection process for songs–now that I also post genre-specific album lists (best metal albums, best hip hop albums) and Honorable Mentions lists, I don’t exclude songs from the Top 25 singles list just because they are from one of the top 10 albums. This list is all about what songs work best by themselves as single songs, regardless of whether they were released as a single however. Feel free to comment!

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25) Daughters – Nas

Nas pens a lovely ode to his teenage daughter, details the troubles of raising a girl as a single man, made especially difficult by his past public image and persona. “Daughters” is one of few notable recent examples of hip hop’s ability to transition to adulthood, as well as the genre’s ability to analyze many things left unsaid in years past.

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24) Murderers Are Getting Prettier Every Day – Marilyn Manson

The best single Manson has released in a decade or so (at least since “This is the New S**t”), it’s also by far the best song on his latest album–but to be fair, Born Villain isn’t terrible even if it falls short of the creativity of the “trilogy” earlier in his career. Heavy guitars abound, heavier than anything on his last two records and an absolutely terrifying roar of a chorus which re-envisions religious ecstasy as end of the world terror, imagining religious truth as horror when it’s “someone else’s angels.”

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23) Stay Frosty – Van Halen

Well, no one really thought the David Lee Roth-Van Halen reunion would last long, but over before the money-making tour even really gets far underway? Seriously? The album the band made to justify that tour, at least, turned out to be much better than anyone could have predicted. A Different Kind of Truth was apparently the product of a revisit  to unreleased demos the band worked on around the same time as that break-out debut. Which may explain why this record turned out to be easily one of the best records they’ve made since then. The stand-out track is this goofy fun song which starts kind of “Ice Cream Man” slow and ends kind of “Eruption” fast. Vocal Rothisms abound, Eddie riffs soar, all of it works very, very well.

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22) Radio – Nude Beach 

Nude Beach’s II album is maybe the finest unpretentious garage-rock jam album I’ve heard in a long, long time. This is a record that channels all the best rock and roll artists of the past without copying their style in a redundant way. “Radio” feels like early Costello backed by the Heartbreakers in a Jersey Bar opening for Springsteen. This is unfettered, heart on sleeve, rock and roll; and like early 45 era r’n’r this song is done in 2 1/2 minutes.

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21) No Death – Mirel Wagner

Mirel Wagner was born in Ethiopia, raised in Finland, and makes Gothic World Folk music that is beautiful yet disturbing, eccentric yet approachable. “No Death” is one haunting, dark song–it’s also one hell of a great song. Warning: it’s about a man in love with a woman and still willing to have romantic relations with her as her funeral lights burn. This would be exploitative tripe from most other artists, but although most of us listeners (I hope) won’t relate to the feelings and actions described in this musical narrative, Wagner hooks our ears into her tragedy captive to its unfolding.

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20) Myth – Beach House

This dreamy, soothing digital bath of a track sets the tone for everything that follow on Bloom. I listened to this song more than any other new song in 2012 and I haven’t gotten bored of it yet.

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19) Dumpster World – Band of Horses

The latest Band of Horses record (Mirage Rock) is their best yet. My favorite song of the set fluctuated throughout the year from the anthemic “Knockin on the Door” to the downer “Slow Cruel Hands of Time,” and then ultimately to this Neil Youngish tongue-in-cheek song which fits midway between revolutionary protest and cynical observation. “Dumpster World” rocks harder, like much else on the record, than pretty much anything this folksy California-rock-style band has done in the past.

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18) Mulholland Drive – The Gaslight Anthem

Maybe the closest Gaslight have ever skirted to Bon Jovi rather than Springsteen–but so what? If it owes anything to Bon Jovi, it’s to the absolute best aspects of that band at the high-point of their career. This is a big, dumb, fun, cheesy, romantic, repeat-worthy rock song: repetitive chorus that doesn’t get old in its infinite repeats, throaty emotional vocals, hooky beyond hooky guitar solos and riffs–including one that could indeed be an outtake from a souped-up version of “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and of course a slowed down breakdown before one last trip through the chorus. The best song on the latest Gaslight album.

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17) I Got Nothing – Dum Dum Girls

This stony drum-bass lo-fi garage rock song from the latest Dum Dum Girls EP gets better each time I hear it. I can’t pin down why I love it as much as I do, but my play-count of it from this year is enough to make its inclusion on this list unavoidable.

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16) Come Back Little Star – Patterson Hood (feat. Kelly Hogan)

Maybe one of (if not the) prettiest and less nuanced songs of Patterson Hood’s career, in or apart from the Truckers–“Come Back Little Star” is a gem from his new solo record, a tribute to a departed friend. Kelly Hogan’s pretty vocals work great in duet with Hood’s rougher and folksier twang. This is another reason why I love Hood’s work, the great scope he is capable of is showcased in this simple, lovely ballad. Bonus points for the “traded in your wheels for wings” line.

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15) Entombed – Deftones

The Deftones have sustained a much longer career than one could have predicted when they emerged with a slew of nu-metal contemporaries in the wake of Korn. Of course, Deftones always had something more unique than that whole genre that they were originally lumped in with and have shown over a series of increasingly stellar albums that they are an intelligent, melodic, creative metal band, one unafraid to take chances and experiment with the possibilities of their sound and showcase different aspects of their influences. Koi No Yokan is a great album, maybe their best overall work since White Pony, and “Entombed” is my favorite song of the new bunch. It’s no secret that the Cure is a huge influence on the sound this band makes with songs like this, and that works perfectly here on this lush and layered quiet-loud ballad.

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14) Am I That Lonely Tonight? – Justin Townes Earle

Justin Townes Earle, son of legendary alt-country maverick Steve Earle and named after archetype of the genre Townes Van Zandt, has released three classic albums in a row now. Track 1, “Am I That Lonely Tonight?”  from the latest of these three albums (Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now) utilizes the smoothness of his vocals and the softest of horns layered through the melody to cement this as the perfect late night reflection song. Justin Townes could just as easily release a pop standards album with that voice and this type of production–it’s likely that in the realm of adult contemporary music he would become a big star. Whether he has the temperament (or desire) for that type of music is another question though, but this song makes a good case for it.

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13) Please Come Home – Gary Clark Jr.

Gary Clark Jr. may be the most hyped guita- slinging bluesmen to come along in quite awhile, but the stand-out track (excluding the great tracks here that were already released on last years “Bright Lights” EP) on his full-length debut for me is this beautiful throwback to doo-wop smooth R&B soul of the fifties. This is a great, great, song of warmth and emotional depth.

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12) Skyfall – Adele

Adele’s slow burn approach to a Bond theme is everything a Bond theme should be–classy, sexy, sultry, and catchy. This is a bluesy, jazzy, late-night song. It works amazingly well as a stand along single, but even better within the framework of the movie’s opening credits.

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11) Bad Girls – M.I.A.

The best and catchiest single M.I.A. has released since “Paper Planes,” “Bad Girls” is another world-music influenced eccentric approach to hip hop and club music. The lyrics are certainly not literary genius, but they suit the bang of the beat perfectly. Can’t wait to hear the album, whenever it finally comes.

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10) The House That Heaven Built – Japandroids

Like the most arena ready sounds of Springsteen and the E-Street Band channeled by the Replacements on a college radio station playing from a boom-box with speakers ready to burst, Japandroids bring hung-over bro-bonding to an emotionally sung fist-in-the-air rock anthem with a percussion beat that sounds like feet stomping on bleachers. You can’t help but want to sing along and feel every note, word, and emotion involved.

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9) Hold On – Alabama Shakes

The Alabama Shakes remind all of us that Alabama is, among all other things, also the origin point for so much great classic soul and R&B music, courtesy of the Muscle Shoals musicians who served as studio players for Otis, Aretha, and many other greats. Alabama Shakes channel that prime soul and rock with a crackfire band anchoring timeless sounding vocals by the personable and charismatic frontwoman  (at least vocally–I’ve never seen ’em live) Brittany Howard. “Hold On” is a simple, catchy, funky blues jam.

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8) Doom and Gloom – The Rolling Stones

Okay, seriously–what band can put out such a hard, heavy, rip-roaring, excellent rock song in their sixth ( ! ) decade of making music? This is as tight and exciting as anything on Exile, Some Girls, or Aftermath. This is prime Stones with everything they do and do well. One could complain that it’s just an excuse to get you to buy 3 discs of hits you probably already have being the one new song represented on GRRR! or a pull to see them on yet another world-tour, but you can just download it as a single and if you can’t afford to shell out the 200 bucks to see them on the current tour (me either), you can catch a number of live performances from their prime which are being rolled out all year.

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7) ITAL (Roses) – Lupe Fiasco

This is the best track from Food and Liquor II. There were some close runner ups (I’ll say more about that in my “Honorable Mentions” post at the end of these 2012 recaps or you can go back to my album review of it as well), but all in all the verses and the chorus all come together best to display Lupe’s skill and integrity as an artist on this track. You may not agree with Lupe’s affirmation of the President as a terrorist for actions in the Middle East, but his defense in the third verse of the uproar that statement caused last year is certainly emotional and heartfelt. But who can’t get behind the first verse which preaches the pointlessness of gang violence, calls out the laziness of coke and stripper song cliches, and warns listeners not to be misdirected by the false glamour of corporate hip hop. Best of all, when’s the last time you heard a hip hop chorus that showers so much respect on “the ladies and the gentlemen,” asks for “patience for the youth, sympathy for the poor, empathy for the old, more justice for the downpressed,” and “peace for the whole wide world?”  Of course it’s a bit odd to hear him drop the “b” word a few times on the same record that he dissects that word’s overuse in hip hop, but it is the only time on the record this is done outside of that song and here it’s not used as a gender-specific term. “ITAL” makes the case for this being the “great American Rap” record.

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6) Dim Lights, Thick Smoke – Dwight Yoakam

Enough country artists (and artists on the borderlands of country) have done this song to make it a standard, but Dwight breathes life into it by rocking it harder than any song he has in twenty years. This is rockabilly, bar-room ready energy. Dwight hiccups the vocals out over a brilliant flurry of guitar and drum-work by a killer band and when it’s over you expect a cloud of dust to be hanging in the air.

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5) Bad Religion – Frank Ocean

One of the main moments Ocean leaves his bisexuality open and plain (yet taken simply as matter of fact and not the point of the song at all) is this heartbroken lost-love ballad which compares unrequited love to religious cults. A “bad religion” for Ocean is one where he “can never make him love me.” An understated beat which builds to its conclusion gradually, a back and forth dialogue between narrator and taxi driver, and a haunting refrain all add up to one of the best soul songs in a long, long time.

25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Concert - Night 1 - Show

4) Death to My Hometown – Bruce Springsteen

If I have to pick one track from the excellent “Wrecking Ball,” it is ultimately this one–sure I could make the case for the lead off anthemic “We Take Care of Our Own,” the poignant modern spiritual of “Rocky Ground,” or the epic “Land of Hope and Dreams” as the stand-out moment from the album, and later on I may change my mind to one of those. But for now, this Irish stomping protest song seems the best representation of what happened with both Bruce and the country this past year. The live versions he performed with Tom Morello were also a nice bonus.

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3) Reagan – Killer Mike

A crackfire indictment of the patron saint of the modern Right, Killer Mike lays the blame for the destruction of a generation of poor minorities in the ghetto at the doorstep of former President Reagan’s White House. Solidifying the established educated gangsta rap motif of reaganomics and the war on drugs as the cause fora generation growing up without parents and bound for prison, Killer Mike seconds those that have claimed gangsta rap was born as a response to Reagan’s America. As so many are still feeling the effects of that decade–economic, political, and racial fall-out from those “formative” years are still playing out through the country at large–Killer Mike makes the case in song for the necessity of continued, yet insightful, gangsta rap. Of course, this genre has baggage and invites plenty of valid criticism its way, and Killer Mike (at least on this song if not everywhere on the rest of the record) turns his eye for detail on the genre itself not letting even himself off the hook for some of the less pure repercussions of the emotional and vulgar response that such a format has provided over the past few decades. On most of his latest album, but most especially on “Reagan,” Killer Mike steps out of the shadow of his old mentors Outkast and ten years later proves himself as his own artist–even though he does seem to channel Ice Cube in his prime and the solid production from El P certainly helps as well.

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2) Sixteen Saltines – Jack White

There was always one stand-out track that I can’t get enough of on every White Stripes album–“7 Nation Army,” “Icky Thump,” etc–but usually the rest of each album paled in comparison. There were always solid tracks, but the stand-out always buried the rest. Now, as a “solo” artist with an assortment of two bands to back him, Jack White has crafted a superb album, better than anything he’d done as one piece in the past. Yet there’s still a noticeable stand out–“Sixteen Saltines.” The rest of the record is good enough so that this track doesn’t bury it though, but this is an amazing stand alone single that would bury any other person’s album. It’s a quick, frenetic, rock and roll blast that’s over in 2 and a half minutes and begs for a repeat play as soon as it’s over. This channels everything that makes rock and roll big, stupid fun and really could slip into any mix of the best fun rock songs of all time. That riff, those ridiculous verses, and the break-down chorus (anchored by a wah-wah beat) all add up to equal pure rock n’ roll genius.

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1) Passion Pit – Take a Walk

So the best pop song about personal economic collapse and recession also became the music for a Taco Bell jingle? That is a bit odd, and a little disappointing  but Michael Angelako (who is the sum total of the band on record and employs the other musicians only for the live shows) has made it clear in interviews that he’s never seen himself as doing anything other than making pop music, so complain about him “selling out” all  you want for letting his catchy song be used as a catchy jingle, he doesn’t care. Passion Pit music is that above all else–catchy. Bright, poppy, synth-driven beauty that sounds better than any other pop music on the radio. Yet hidden (and usually not too subtly) behind those ear-worm melodies and beats are thoughtful lyrics, often commenting on tragic, paranoid, depressed, concerned, or simply confused states of mind. This is the best song Angelako’s written thus far, a tale of someone who struggled, worked all the time, forsaking his family to get established, then at the height of lving the “American dream” with his family now relocated to the states with him living in the suburbs, complete financial collapse over bad investments. It’s stark stuff, yet catchy as all get out and it is amazing how these two contrasts–lyrical desperation and dance-able melodies–play together perfectly. Still, it is a bit odd that a song about a man “too much a coward to admit when I’m in need” is used to sell Dorito Tacos. That’s 2012 for you though, and this was its best song.

Best Albums of 2012

December 14, 2012

So it’s that time of year again, the time everyone rolls out their top picks and I’m starting with my top 10 overall best album list. I’ll follow this up with my top 10 Metal Albums, top 10 Hip Hop and R&B Albums, and Top 25 Songs lists over the next month. By January or early in that month I’ll have the top 10 Comics/Graphic Novels as well as (once I’ve had a chance to see as many of them as I can as they are slowly released in prep for award season) top 10 Films. Thanks for reading and fell free to comment with your own picks!

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10) Beach House – Bloom

Like a bubble bath with a glass of cognac after a hard day, Beach House music is a warm, sensory soothing full immersion. Chill-wave  dream pop, synth music that is the best de-stress record of the year. Looking at my i-tunes play counts I see that I didn’t play another record anywhere near as often as I did Bloom. Of course, it’s at the number 10 spot so I’m not saying that it is the absolute best album of the year, just that it serves a particular function very well and apparently I needed to chill out quite often this year. Most of these tracks soak together and thus this works best as a one-piece deal (much like the next pick, but that’s the only thing these two albums share in common). There are a few stand-outs, notably the opening track “Myth,” which has the best lyrics of the batch and which sonically sets the scene for everything which follows. “Other People” bubbles up as a stand out in that the hooks and melodies come together terrifically and actually make for a sure-fire pop single. All in all, this is an arty relaxation session that edged out all other such competition, notably the almost-there album by Frankie Rose.

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9) Pig Destroyer – Book Burner

In direct contrast to the previous pick, Pig Destroyer unleashed a ferocity unchecked by anything else approaching “music.” A five year gap between albums has not slowed down this VA based grindcore band; though with age lead singer J.R. Hayes ear-shredding vocals might sound a little less ferocious and range pushing (perhaps the reason for a few guest-vocal spots?) as they were when they were so harrowingly employed on the debut album Prowler in the Yard, but that is only a matter of minor degrees in that he can still scream more jarringly yet oddly melodically than anyone else in the business. Grindcore is a form of music which pushes the boundaries of punk and metal to make something most folks would call “noise,” and most grindcore bands sound just as such. Pig Destroyer elevates the genre to a dark art, making quick, ferocious meditations on sanity and society that bury stellar guitar riffs under a mountain of rapid-fire drums and vocal howls. Throw in a scene solidifying dialogue sample here and there, organize all things under the banner of theme, this time around about book-based truth claims burnt altogether,and you have the best possible introduction to the band that you could ask for or another satisfying chapter in the discography for the long-time fans.

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8) Nada Surf – The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy

This was the first great record I heard all year long. while wading through the crap the first month or so of the year offered after the end of year lists last year were complete; nothing popped new and good for my ear-buds until I heard this one. Nada Surf are an inde pop/rock band of some caliber, always a bit underground since their one-hit wonder status of “Popular” in the mid-nineties (which sounds like nothing else they’ve ever recorded). They’ve released a series of earnest (in a good way) and literate (also in a good way) post-collegiate soft-to-mid rock with hooky choruses. I think this is their best album yet and there are a load of stand out tracks, especially “No Snow on the Mountain,” and “Waiting for Something.” This is a perfect growing up, ending your twenties and entering your thirties rumination record for anyone who came of age in the era of college radio.

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7) Dwight Yoakam – 3 Pears

The best country album of the year, unquestionably–but I may be biased. That’s because most country artists fail to make worthwhile country music whereas Dwight always delivers. Perhaps I just am not a “country” fan, but I love the classic artists like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, etc.,. as well as a slew of superb alt-country border edgers, but it’s only in the folks like Dwight  Lyle, Steve Earle, and such that I hear genuine song craft  folky intelligence  and pop-infused catchiness that works as authentic country music and that doesn’t insult the senses or the intelligence. Dwight has never made a bad record, and this may very well be his  best overall album since his debut, though he’s certainly had a history of perfect singles and songs in the meantime. This is a snapshot album of everything Dwight and his band does best — ready for country radio singles like “Take Hold of My Hand” and “Waterfall” that could also play on the right rock, pop, or college radio station; a rip roaring cover of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” which roars and rocks harder than anything he’s ever done; beautiful mid-range ballads like “Nothing But Love” and “A Heart Like Mine; tear-jerkers sung soulfully and excellently like “It’s Never Alright” and “Long Way to Go,” and the perfect John Lennon pop tribute title track. A fun, musical homage and display to all great Yoakam influences and the absolute best country music made in 2012.

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6) Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid m.A.A.d. City

Lamar is the best young rapper working in 2012. His potential is enormous. He plays with cliches and stereotypes but invokes uniqueness onto them. As such he is faulty in some sense and there are a lot of factors that kept me from wanting to include this record on my list, but in the end I just couldn’t avoid it. As a solid, cohesive statement this album simply does not fail as a whole, though pieces of it may a bit on their own.

First off, Lamar is a great rapper and all of the promise he showed on last year’s minor-label Section 80 comes to the big screen in a big way here on this concept album about growing up in the mean streets of Compton. This is all couched in narrative, opening in prayer and bringing that back near the end in the ghetto baptism “Sing For Me/Dying of Thirst.” But in between there are peer-pressure induced violent actions, hormonal gropings, over-indulgence and consumption–yet all with analytical eyes for detail which sociologically and spiritually break down the events and provides a warning to those who might follow suit. There’s the infamous backseat freestyle which is obviously mysognistic if not taken with a grain of salt and stepped back from to be seen as a recreation of a young dude with something to prove through an early rap.

The production from Dre, Pharell, and the rest all glosses artfully the work of a creative, interesting young artists who cetainly has faults but is also certainly aware of those faults–where he will go from here is the question. Will he fall into a cycle of the stereotypes and cliches  he toyed with and tried to attack with insight here, or will he find a way of rising above those cliches and steroteyps to make art withhis talent that is something from another place entirely?

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5) The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten

This is a rather cheesy record in many aspects. It is not a bold, new statement, no matter what the pre-release hype might have promised. It is also in many ways not as good as the last few Gaslight records. But despite all that, it is excellent rock and roll. No one really makes rock and roll so straight-forward, romantic, fun, and unpretentiously as Gaslight does anymore. I had personally hyped up this album for myself so much so that after the first few spins it slipped down my list of faves for awhile, but over the past couple of months it has really grown on me. The lead off “45” single is solid, but “Muholland Drive” is fantastic. Many might find D”Mae” too much, but it hits the sweet spot that older Gaslight classics like “Blue Jeans and White T-Shirts” did so well. As always, this band channels the timeless ethos of pure rock and roll’s finest elements and delivers them with a punk twist.

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4) Patterson Hood – Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance

So yeah, no new DBT album this year but we did get last minute live solo albums from Mike Cooley and ex-trucker Jason Isbell, and this–another excellent Patterson Hood solo album. Heat Lightning chronicles the downward spiral Hood had in his younger years as his first band and his first marriage both imploded, several friends and family members died, and he was generally down and out. Yet this is far from a depression only affair. Much of this is couched in hindsight and you get glimpses of the settled family-man and great band leader that he is now. You get pretty ballads with the likes of Kelly Hogan (“Come Back Little Star”) and general meditations on life, growing up and old, finding your way, knowing yourself and your place in history and the cosmos. This is an album born out of a scrapped auto-biography and it works as such but it works as excellent music as well. A really solid album, and all in all his best solo work yet.

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3) Bob Dylan – Tempest

I raved about this upon its release and I stay with that initial assessment. Another in a run of latter-day Dylan classics, following the thread established by Time Out of Mind and maintained with every release since. This one catches you right out of the gate on first spin and even the 13 minute Titanic reminiscence doesn’t get weighed down by its scope or length. Some great slow ones, some great fast ones, some solid blues throughout. Good stories sung in a ragged yet worth hearing voice.

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2) Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball

As he is  my favorite musician, I have to be careful in ranking albums by Mr. Sprinsgeen and company. I want to make sure my love for his career doesn’t: a) cause me to over-evaluate the latest record out of love for the artist or conversely, (b) unfairly castigate the latest record in comparison to the artists previous high-points  When it came to the last major Springsteen record, Working on a Dream, I didn’t even place it on my album recap in 2010. Since, it’s grown on me enormously and if doing that year’s list over again, I would rank it highly. So here, with Wrecking Ball–immediate reception for me was pretty high. Higher than the last 2 or 3 records. I gave it some time, it subsided a bit, fluctuated up and down the best-of picks, and now almost a year after its release it settles in decisively as the number 2 album of the year. It does this because it is a great record, a timely and relevant record, and a catchy one as well—just short of classic in the perfect sense, but close enough. 

“We Take Care of Our Own” is a perfect scene-setting 2012 Springsteen kick-off single, a song to remind America what it should but has failed too often to do. It is a call to camaraderie and care couched in catchy, take it how you want to but remember the true meaning experience. “Rocky Ground” finds Springsteen toying with hip hop as much as he’s apt too in a public release (I remember rumors of a shelved Hip-Hop influenced Springsteen record in the mid-nineties). It’s a great gospel-hip hop rock fusion track of church and state, spirit and flesh, hope and change.”Death to My Hometown” is a raging, Irish fueled protest song that invokes the unfortunate timelessness of oppression and classicism.All over, Springsteen is singing to a divided America, an America where rich devours poor and poor are fed up. He ties this in populist rage and protest, linking it to irish, hispanic, african-american, and all other past struggles for equality. The first studio release of the concert staple “Land of Hope and Dreams” thus never sounded so timely and good. “We are Alive” ties the dreams of past workers for a better life to todays and delivers a promise on their behalf. The title track is the studio version of last year’s excellent live football stadium anthem. All in all, the best E-Street band record one could hope for 5 decades in.

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1 )Frank Ocean  – Channel Orange

So back when I did the review of this album, I raved about it but I was somewhat tempered in some regards as well, especially toward its first half. I also made the claim that it may not be the best R&B album since D’Angelo’s Voodoo but that it is the most creative. Now I revoke the tempered aspect for the first half, and I remove that qualification–Channel Orange is indeed the best (as well as most creative) mainstream R&B album since Voodoo. This album has done nothing but grow on me and where I saw “rich kid blues” before I now since a well rounded series of personality vignettes, a whole host of emotional ennui observations plaintively observed and annotated across the widest spectrum of imaginable people. There’s really not a verbal clunker to be found either–an odd turn of phrase here or there that really only grows on you as you absorb the overall work at hand.

Channel Orange is really a record of beauty.From the lush soundscape of “Real Life” to the harrowing yet poppy drug mule escapade of “Lost,” and the ballad of unquestionable beauty in the form of taxi cab confession that is “Bad Religion,” complete with an intertwining cohesive narrative skit framework throughout to bind it all together. Not to mention a solid, great singing voice by Mr. Ocean to deliver it all. The centerpiece of the record is “Pyramid,” which re-envisions Cleopatra in a modern day Vegas club. For almost 10 minutes, Ocean works his voice around a hypnotic and positively repetitive beat which changes pace and texture in exciting measures. The talk that spiralled out when this was released may have often concerned Ocean’s personal sexuality reveal, but sexual orientation is far from the most important and unique factor this artist has going for him even if it is interesting that a mainstream hip-hop influenced R&B singer (and member of the same musical consortium as homophobic lyrical spinner Tyler the Creator) is so comfortably “out.”

I try to get my best-of lists out as soon as is possible while giving myself enough time in the year to hear and contemplate all possible releases,including last minute ones,  but I did notice this year’s Rolling Stone top picks as I was compiling my own list. My top 5 has been locked in for about 2 or 3 months, and most of the top 10 as a whole was fairly certain for the past month. I always knew this would be the number one record granted that no other surprise upset came along–RS gave this one the number 2 spot and awarded Springsteen the top honor. I wanted Springsteen to be number 1 in that as my favorite artist I wanted his latest album to be a classic number 1 album–for me though, my choices flip-flopped RS’ picks. Here we have the case of legendary artist making solid work versus an upstart new artist delivering a classic right out of the gate (well, on the heels of a phenomenal free mixtape from last year)–the freshness and newness of Frank Ocean just (barely) edged out the solid expectations I got from the Boss.