You didn’t think I forgot about this, did you?
It may have taken a bit longer than usual, but after a great deal of re-listening and reflection I can definitively say THESE are the albums in 2012 that caught my ears, piqued my interest, and took up space on both my iPod and computer. And now, without further adieu…
From the stereo to my ears, no album conquered 2012 quite like Reign of Terror. Coming off 2010’s speaker blasting Treats, Sleigh Bells opted to twist their noise-crunk sound into something immense, personal, and sweeping. Reign Of Terror is a warzone of a record; between Derek E. Miller’s spikey Slayer-sized riffing, its cold 808 drums, and Alexis Krauss’ girl-group vocals, this LP is the gritty chronicle of living in desperate times. From pep rally in Hell clatter of “Crush” to the proto-thrash of “Demons,” Sleigh Bells expand their sound in jagged, splashy fashion, giving their particular brand of noise-pop an incredible focus. Nowhere is this more apparent that on the suicide-valentine of “You Lost Me” a track that marries chiming Def Leppard arpeggios with a story of tragic devotion. In many ways, Sleigh Bells have crafted an album that explores America’s culture of violence, how pain and anguish is packaged through our media and mythmaking. Krauss and Miller’s metallic dream-pop musings aren’t simply for novelty, but in fact present the perfect mechanism to examine how fear, addiction, and combat have become so darn stylish (Must be the Ray-Bans). Between its M16 samples and smutty bubblegum sheen, Reign Of Terror’s unyielding dread and grand scope make it 2012’s crowning musical achievement.
Key Cuts: Crush, Demons, You Lost Me
There weren’t many debuts that caught my ear in 2012, but Gary Clark Jr. kept me interested. The blues man splatter on Blak & Blu invites Jimi Hendrix comparisons by the truckload, but Clark doesn’t play on 60s nostalgia to captivate audiences. Blistering blues chops aside, Blak & Blu works because of Clark’s surprisingly nimble voice, caramel smooth one moment and deep-bellied the next. It gives the more R&B inflected numbers, like the album’s purple haze-hued title track, more credence when juxtaposed with the real barn-burners, of which there are many. For instance, the hard riff workout on “When My Train Pulls In” is simply punishing, taking its time to ramp up before Clark’s expressive fretwork pierces through the mix. Make no mistake—Clark slings a mean axe, from the janky, broken-down twang of “Next Door Neighbor Blues,” to the fuzz-rock bravado of “Glitter Ain’t Gold.” He’s a musician’s guitarist, one that plays from his gut instead of the studio booth. True, the album is a bit bloated and a tad too eager to crossover (Clark’s worst songs remind listeners of the neo-Hendrix promise Lenny Kravitz never delivered) but he’s soulful, which makes up for even the most egregious, and cheesy, editing errors. For all its warts, Blak & Blu is a promising start for an artist that’s destined to play for a long, long time.
Key Cuts: When My Train Pulls In, Glitter Ain’t Gold, Next Door Neighbor Blues
When you’ve got Brendan O’Brien behind the boards, you’re no longer in the underground; you’re in the major leagues. This is a good thing for The Gaslight Anthem, because Handwritten is too impressive to keep hidden. Gritty and sentimental, Brian Fallon’s songs act like mini movies, as powerful as a supped up Trans AM barreling down Thunder Road. “45’s” soaring vocals and searing guitars cut like hot knives, while the hard-hitting “Biloxi Parish” finds Fallon perfecting the art of the anthem. Long time fans will notice the bluesier touches and foggy atmospheres that punctuate Handwritten, but the biggest difference is in the storytelling. Handwritten chronicles Fallon’s quest to reconcile the past with the man he is today. While past Gaslight Anthem LPs relied on American icons like Marilyn and Elvis to evoke a sense of Golden Era romanticism, Handwritten places listeners in the shoes of Fallon’s characters, painting vivid portraits of what it means to deal with loss and love. The results are mesmerizing and personal, from the flange soaked lullaby of “Mae” to the twisting guitar duals and high tension of “Mulholland Drive.” Records like these don’t stay hidden, and Fallon reminds listeners that you don’t always need to over think music, you just need to feel it. In the end, Brain Fallon makes records the way they used to: With a whole lot of heart—handwritten.
Key Cuts: “45,” Mulholland Drive, Biloxi Parish
Coming from the punk/post-hardcore end of the spectrum really means you’ve got attitude, enough grit and chutzpah to douse your songs in gasoline and light the fuse. After the brittle, ambling New Junk Aesthetic, Every Time I Die return with the soul-crushing Ex Lives and enough “everything-be-damned” fire to roast the world. And it shows, the arrangements are schizophrenic slices of chainsaw-inspired hardcore and southern rock crunch while Keith Buckley’s serpentine scream rounds out their sound. Ex Lives is simply bone-crushing, from the behemoth-sized weight of “Underwater Bimbos From Outer Space” to the banjo inflected, hardcore bull-rush of “Partying is Such Sweet Sorrow.” Buckley gives the performance of this life, no longer relying solely on his deafening rasp to recount twisted social nightmares, but also implementing his rather nimble mid-range to give his punk rock sermons some sass. The biggest surprise, however, is how Every Time I Die have really expanded their sonic palette without sacrificing their aggression. “Indian Giver” orbits and blasts doom-laden riffs with ethereal psychedelic flourishes, while “I Suck (Blood)” sets a new bar for sludgy breakdowns. Unafraid to charge full speed ahead, Ex Lives shows that Every Time I Die continue to take the hardcore scene by their own, aggressive terms.
Key Cuts: Underwater Bimbos From Outer Space, I Suck (Blood), Partying Is Such Sweet Sorrow
Hard to believe Converge formed their punishing brand of hardcore-meets-thrash more than twenty years ago, especially after releasing All We Love We Leave Behind. Musicians that work within extreme music genres tend to arrange music that’s more conservative as they get older, losing aggression and replacing it with atmosphere, as if the two are mutually exclusive. Converge, on the other hand, play like a band during the peak of their powers, continuing to preserve their intensity as the years pile on. The slash and burn riffing is as furious as a heaven-sent swarm of locusts, while their cyclonic drumming churns and stops on a dime. “Aimless Arrow” twists and scratches skyward while the all-out hardcore blasts of “Trespasses” and “No Light Escapes” hit with savage intensity. When Converge shift gears however, the results don’t lose any less bite. “Sadness Comes Home” sports titanic, heaving riffs before speeding off into a spiraling-oblivion, reaffirming the fact that Converge’s sound is as gargantuan as their ambition. Yet what’s most refreshing about All We Love… is its enormity. In an age where heavy music is pristine, mechanical, and sterile, Converge reminds listeners that fury and feedback go a long way, creating brutal vistas along the way. The result is a group, 20 years in, still making some of the best and uncompromising music of their career.
Key Cuts: Aimless Arrow, Trespasses, Sadness Comes Home
Electronic music is not known for harrowing aesthetics, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind with Death Grips’ newest album NO LOVE DEEP WEB. Their second LP of 2012 (after the chopped up punk noise of The Money Store), MC Ride and Zach Hill twist their keyboards to mirror the real life End of Days disaster they see unfolding before them. NO LOVE is acrimoniously stitched together with lacerated vocal samples and terrifying vitriol as the duo implements a mish-mash of stuttering 808s and synthesizers that sound like overloaded circuit breakers. MC Ride’s death-howl flow is here too; whether it’s exploring his tortured anguish on the manic “Come Up & Get Me,” or his fire and brimstone sermon on “Lock Your Doors.” This isn’t electronic music for background accents; NO LOVE is a nightmarish Frankenstein, every synthetic sound warped and blasted into an uncompromising expansiveness sorely needed in today’s tepid electronic scene. Instead, Death Grips aim to shake listeners out of complacency, whether it’s the metallic clank of “Stockton” or the phantasmal-glitch rumble of “Bass Rattle Stars Out The Sky.” Raw, immediate, and explosive, NO LOVE DEEP WEB is a force of nature for the digital age.
Key Cuts: Come Up & Get Me, Lock Your Doors, Stockton
Aside from the Kim Kardashian stories, the Taylor Swift interruptions, and the leather kilts, Kanye West continues to intrigue because of his Renaissance-style vision for hip-hop. Cruel Summer culls together some of the bright up and comers on his G.O.O.D. Music label, and Yeezy directs them with a master’s sense of perspective for a rather thrilling set of collaborations. Blending opulence and arrogance, Kanye works his studio magic to create a record fascinated with refinement but with enough crushing grooves and modernism for the clubs. The wobbly flow of “Clique” and the pitch-shifted murk of “Mercy” act as the perfect stage for egos like Jay-Z, 2Chainz, and Pusha T to twist their punch lines around their personalities. Crystal clear, and space-age clean, the whole experience on Cruel Summer plays like one of Kanye’s beautiful, dark, twisted, fantasies, blending 90s style excess with pristine vibrant keyboards. Yet Kanye doesn’t just steal the show behind the boards, he makes his presence felt often on the mic, whether it’s over the aggressive buzz saw hooks of “Cold” or trading quips with Ghostface Killah on the gunshot-piano climb of “New God Flow.” While the record’s second half loses momentum and cohesion, the sheer recklessness and confidence of Kanye’s vision makes Cruel Summer one hell of a ride.
Key Cuts: Clique, New God Flow, Cold
Who expected Bloc Party to ever put out a record this angry? Cut with a relatively live feel, Four is Bloc Party’s triumphant comeback after the lukewarm reception of 2008’s electronic-leaning Intimacy. While the group hasn’t necessarily traded in all their keyboards and effects pedals, Four plays out like a much more groove-obsessed post-punk record, while incorporating spacey atmospheres and rusty dissonance. From the rubberband rhythms on “Octopus” to the fuzzed-out blitzkrieg of “We’re Not Good People” Bloc Party explores a sound that’s primal, immediate, and surprisingly heavy. However, that doesn’t mean they’ve let this newfound drive squeeze out their more confessional offerings. Lead singer Kele Okereke’s falsetto is still one of the brighter portions of Bloc Party’s arsenal, especially with his lilting delivery on the shimmering late album cut, “The Healing.” While fans of Silent Alarm may balk at the bigger, beefier use of distortion, they’ll be missing out a Bloc Party record that sounds less like a computer and more like a 4-piece again. Drummer Matt Tong is simply relentless, whether it’s on the dizzying heights of “So He Begins To Lie,” or machine gun space-funk of “Team A.” All in all, Four reminds listeners that no amount of bad press can knock down Bloc Party, especially when they sound this confident.
Key Cuts: Octopus, The Healing, We Are Not Good People
If you’ve forgotten what dangerous and desperate rock n’ roll sounds like, look out for Conventional Weapons. Originally scrapped from their 2009 sessions with producer Brendan O’Brien, My Chemical Romance is presenting this “album-that-could-have-been” in 2-song E.P.s over the course of several months. Yet the real shocker is how these songs were shelved in the first place in favor of the synthed-out futurism of Danger Days. The band returns to their bloody-soaked brand of post-hardcore, paying homage to punk heroes like The Stooges and MC5 with a truly liberated batch of songs. “Tomorrow’s Money” barely hangs together with car crash drumming and Ray Toro’s blistering lead work, while “Kiss The Ring” sports hyper-macho swagger and enough sleazy riffs to burn down L.A. Though the songs tread on MCR’s usual “us-against-the-world” pulp fiction, Conventional Weapons out shines the technicolor Danger Days because of how these songs attack our disposable culture with startling precision. Whether it’s Gerard Way’s come-at-me sneer on “Boy Division,” or “AMBULANCE’s” movie-ready anthem of devotion, MCR continue to explore how the enduring power of love can conquer even the darkest world. Bold, black, and still alive, Conventional Weapons finds MCR firing on all cylinders.
Key Cuts: Tomorrow’s Money, AMBULANCE, Kiss The Ring
Hype is a dangerous double-edged sword, but thankfully for Kendrick Lamar, it works to his advantage. good kid, M.A.A.D. city is the kind of open narrative statement that hip-hop is starving for amidst the Lil Waynes and T-Pains of the world. Mentored and produced by the famed Dr. Dre, M.A.A.D. city is a sprawling concept record detailing the trials and tribulations of Lamar’s rise to fame from Compton, CA, set against smoky atmospheres, soulful production, and an ever-evolving cast of characters. “The Art Of Peer Pressure” uses brooding string arrangements cut through Lamar’s late night anxiety with switchblade precision, while the blissful “Poetic Justice” goes down easy like fine cognac. Though rags to riches stories aren’t anything new, Lamar’s ability to tell a multi-character story within the confines of such a sonically accessible album is impressive. He knows when to place his tonged twisting skills to the test (“Backseat Freestyle”) and when to let the gravity of his narrative overtake listeners (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”). While Lamar struggles to turn M.A.A.D. city into a classic, especially considering the absence of a bona fide crossover hit like “Nuthin’ But A “G” Thang” or “Jesus Walks,” there’s plenty here he should be proud of—it’s not everyday debut albums are this deep, affecting and sincere.
Key Cuts: The Art Of Peer Pressure, Poetic Justice (Feat. Drake), Swimming Pools (Drank)
Oh, to have Donald Glover’s expansive resume. The comedy writer-turned-actor-turned-rapper continues to mesmerize with his latest mixtape under the name Childish Gambino, Royalty. Listening to these cuts feels like stumbling onto a psychotic version of Glover’s Google search history. All his brainiac, blog buzzing, pop-culture addled fantasies are on display, from the blinking club bang of “One Up” to the electro-Kavinsky swiping on “R.I.P.,” painting him as Jay-Z and Ryan Gosling within three songs of each other. His tastes are diverse though, suggesting he had a great deal of fun assembling this mixtape, from the Tina Fey guest verse on “Real Estate” to RZA’s brass-band digital breakdown on “American Royalty.” While the public jury still might be hung on what Glover can bring to the table in terms of substance and storytelling, his fearlessness is certainly engaging. The stuttering, chopped and skewed punch lines on “Toxic” nick Britney’s biggest hit for a surprisingly dread filled atmosphere, and hell, even junk king Beck Hansen shows up with his smooth drawl for a verse on “Silk Pillow.” While Glover is certainly making a name for himself as a kid with quick wit, it’ll be fascinating to watch him work his magic in the future because for Childish Gambino, limits don’t seem to exist.
Key Cuts: One Up (Feat. Steve G. Lover), R.I.P. (Feat. Bun B), American Royalty (Feat. RZA & Hypnotic Brass Orchestra)
Pop music should be inclusive and accessible, which is why fun.’s major label breakthrough Some Nights is so refreshing. Dabbling in fuzzed-out beat making, carnival-style whimsy, and Nate Ruess’ ever-impressive register, Some Nights was a 2012 smash that virtually everyone could enjoy. “We Are Young” is a lighter waving anthem filled with hip-hop clatter and naked sentimentality, while the trip-hip bounce of “All Alone” provides playful yearning and a cotton candy hook. The Grammy buzz is well earned though, because Some Nights hangs its hat on expert songwriting instead of an exploitation of genre trends. From the choir-backed “All Alright” to the album’s vocoded title track, Ruess comforts and reminds listeners of the splendor found in self-defining life moments. For Ruess, the adventure is just a lonely night away, even if mortality is fleeting. He embraces self-revelations like adrenaline straight to the heart (“Man, you wouldn't believe/The most amazing things/That can come from/Some terrible lies...”), extolling the virtues of saying “YES” over pinch-harmonized guitars and lush production. While pop music typically exudes positivity, it doesn’t always hit the personal kind of reflection Some Nights explores, which make this bombastic set of songs such a fascinating listen. For lack of a better way to say it, pop music is rarely, if ever, this kind of fun.
Key Cuts: We Are Young, All Alone, All Alright
Some men decide to buy an extremely extravagant car as they get older, a vessel to park not only their fading youth but to blast their homemade demo tape from the college band they used to play in. If you’re The Offspring, however, you call up Bob Rock and make another record. To their credit, few 90s punk revivalists have aged well, but time has been especially cruel to Dexter Holland, his voice shriller than ever. Yet the real problem comes with passion: Days Go By is mechanical, slick, and tame, everything that doesn’t support the adrenaline-addled energy of The Offspring’s best material. Most of the album is a mid-tempo malaise, and the jokey electro-blitz of “California (Bumpin’ In My Trunk)” makes you think they should have won a Pulitzer for “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)” in 1999. Still, the band shows flashes of their old selves, even for a brief moment, with the staccato crunch of “Dividing By Zero.” Too little, too late though. Days Go By deserves the criticism: When you’re covering your own songs (I’m looking at you “Dirty Magic”), it’s time to hang things up for good. So long and thanks for all the jams Offspring, you gotta keep your dad selves and your old lives...yup, you guessed it—you gotta keep ‘em separated.
Key Cuts: The Future Is Now, Dirty Magic, Dividing By Zero
Frank Carter WAS Gallows. His vulture scream was as recognizable as the group’s strident and angular take on hardcore punk, and that voice helped create some of the most engaging punk records of the past decade. So when it was confirmed that Carter was leaving, and that his replacement was ex-Alexisonfire growler Wade McNeil, there was cause for concern. Surprisingly, Gallows is a wholly different beast that stretches the band into new and exciting territory. “Victim Culture’s” sledge-hammer stomp and “Last June’s” swervy hardcore splatter finds the band locked, loaded, and ready for war. Though not as terrifying as Carter, McNeil’s biker snarl adds an intimidating facet to the Gallows sound that simply feels bigger and brasher. While there are moments of all out-white noise fury, like on “Vapid Adolescent Blues,” some of the record's brighter moments are on the second half anthems like the call-and –response depravity of “Odessa.” Though the group trades some of their more angular sounding arrangements for a chunkier, faster slice of the hardcore pie, Gallows displays a band that’s revitalized by their line-up change, rather than hampered by it. Frank Carter might have been Gallows, but McNeil & Co. have proven that Gallows is so much more than one man and one era in time—it’s a beast with a mind of it’s own.
Key Cuts: Victim Culture, Last June, Vapid Adolescent Blues
For a record that’s topped out nearly everyone’s End Of The Year List, channel ORANGE is expected to be a GREAT album—and it isn’t. There’s no denying that Frank Ocean, the most velvety member of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, is blessed with a blissful set of pipes, but his debut is simply too disorganized to take seriously. From the celebrity bloc party of John Mayer and Andre 3000 to the bloated interludes, channel ORANGE distracts more than it immerses. The frustrating part is that there IS a great album in there—it’s just buried. “Pyramids” may be the most inventive, multi-suite soul song of all time, its glacial movements and cool synthesizers feelings more at home on a Radiohead record. Elsewhere, Ocean’s free-verse inspired delivery on “Crack Rock” shows his drive to take future soul somewhere new and exciting, into the spacey abstract where slow jams rarely orbit. Between the PlayStation samples and digital mist, channel ORANGE is certainly expansive, but it plays like a collection of Ocean’s thoughts and sketches rather than a statement of purpose. Though interesting in scope, Ocean’s debut simply confirms what we already knew about him—his potential is only as powerful as the producer that edits him.
Key Cuts: Thinkin’ About You, Crack Rock, Pyramids
You couldn’t escape 2012 without talking about Lana Del Rey (a.k.a. manufactured pop queen Lizzy Grant), and with good reason: She was as divisive a pop-star as we’ve ever seen. The “Gangster Nancy Sinatra” was a bit of a tabloid target from her barely-there GQ spread to her strange fling with Axl Rose. Yet it was Born To Die that really set the Internet on fire, lambasting her for a less that pristine set of pipes and her comatose stage presence. It’s understandable, mainly because Born To Die is a classic exercise in style over substance. Lana puts on a Scorsese-sized production: Metallic trip-hop beats and movie score strings rest against a backdrop of Hollywood glamour and enough drugs and cheap thrills to make anyone seem numb on Sunset Boulevard. The problem is it’s hard to buy into Lana’s mystique and easy to digest her product, which ultimately makes her blasé. There are slow burn home runs like the funeral piano crawl of “Video Games,” or the buoyant come-on of “Diet Mountain Dew” but it’s hard to know where the allure starts and the anguish begins. For all the spectacle that’s present, there’s little tension, and Lana’s darkness is never really earned. This lack of sincerity ends up making Born To Die feel more like a commercial—interesting to take in but dangerously disposable.
Key Cuts: Video Games, Diet Mountain Dew, Radio
Stefon Alexander’s lack of name recognition is a bit criminal at this point. Whether it’s from his spitfire work with the Doomtree collective, or under the moniker P.O.S, Alexander is simply the most energetic presence in hip-hop today. Combining blitzed out synthesizers with punk rock percussion, We Don’t Even Live Here continues to illustrate Alexander’s undying passion for authenticity and his love of glitched-out noise. “**** Your Stuff” is a volatile cocktail of anarchist tongue twisters, while the graveyard clatter of “Lockpicks, Knives, Bricks & Bats” and the relentless bang and buzz of “Bumper” show Alexander’s zeal for urgency. We Don’t’ Even Live Here ultimately amounts to the strongest musical call to arms in years, an album that reflects the pastiche instincts of our modern world while preserving something uniquely human in spirit. In an age of cookie-cutter celebrities, manufactured nostalgia, and a never-ending cycle of tragedy addiction, it’s refreshing to hear Alexander rap about what it means to be a human being in the face of such a disposable culture (especially from a genre that’s known to perpetuate it). So if you want your hip-hop to say something, check out P.O.S—Stefon Alexander has something to say.
Key Cuts: Bumper, **** Your Stuff, Lockpicks Knives Bricks & Bats
If you’re a Mars Volta scholar you’ll probably be determined to like this disaster of an album. Nothing I type about how it’s a fractured malaise of pretentious art rock noodling, wrapped with dubstep twitches and spastic wailing will deter you from liking this album. For all I know, you’re into this too. Fair enough.
Key Cuts: Say, how’s that At The Drive-In reunion going?
Tragedy can really affect people, and for the Deftones it has focused them. While the smash-and-scream of 2010's Diamond Eyes carried a sense of frustration around their fallen brother Chi Cheng, Koi No Yokan finds them reflective and contemplative. Taking prog-rock cues from bands like Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the Deftones marry spacious soundscapes with their mammoth sized riffing to create a truly otherworld experience. Whether it’s the crushing grind of “Swerve City” or the robo-thrash breakdown of “Leathers,” the Deftones have created one of the more immersive albums since 2000’s White Pony. Chino Moreno is still one of the most underrated vocalists in heavy music today, continuing his impressive streak with the soothing space coo of “Entombed” and his almost rabid delivery on the lurching “Poltergeist.” Above all though, the album’s real achievement comes in the form of “Tempest” a swirling maelstrom of polyrhythmic drumming, hypnotic rhythms, and dream-like vocals. Replacement bassist Sergio Vega intimated that Koi No Yokan translates from Japanese to mean “the premonition of love,” or “love at first sight.” That’s not too far off base. After the tragedy the Deftones have endured, Koi No Yokan is the sound of a band exploring what’s next for themselves, their music, and the things they love. As such, listening to Koi No Yokan bloom and develop should thrill fair weather and fanatic Deftones fans alike.
Key Cuts: Swerve City, Leathers, Tempest