What Does It All Mean?
Off the bat, here’s what this list isn’t: 1) A definitive guide to the best albums of 2012. 2) A definitive ranking for music released in 2012 that I encountered. 3) An objective attempt to find either. With the air now cleared, here’s what this list is.
A list of my recommendations for music I discovered from January to December, pretty much regardless of release date, coincidentally and conveniently rounding out at fifty (until later edits). Each was reviewed and received at least an A MINUS. For the record, all but the top five received an A Minus, the rest A, leaving me without an A PLUS record this year. That’s not surprising; I don’t think I’ve found one since 2007 wherein I was lucky enough to find three (1). You’ll notice there are six records in the mix that weren’t released in 2012. Originally I thought this number would be higher, and while there were albums from years past I wanted to spend more time with, I thought it better to investigate what was on the up and up. I otherwise might have churned out a few hackneyed reviews of albums I like but were nonetheless being reviewed because of my eagerness to share my findings—and besides, better reviews can be found elsewhere. There were plenty more non-2012 releases I reviewed, but I was well aware of them before the year started; since they don’t fit the criteria to make the list, they didn’t. Plenty of other good albums are still in my queue awaiting judgment (Killer Mike, Elle Varner, Heems, and so on) and I’ll dole out reviews in the coming weeks. Furthermore—and it should go without saying—this list is subjective and ranked in order of personal preference. As a guide, I’d say the first twenty or so I’d recommend to anyone with an open ear; from there on it gets a bit more, I don’t know, eclectic (2)? Not to mention the ranking becomes a bit more flippant; it was far easier for me to sort out what was 11th and what was 12th, less easier to discern 36th from 37th, though the distinction is slight. Basically, I found something of worth in the remainder, and I do recommend them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we disagree. Though if at least half my top twenty doesn’t jive with you (not in a list-y sort of way, just in terms of enjoyment), you might as well stop reading; we haven’t much in common.
1. Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t (Secretly Canadian)
2. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange (Def Jam)
3. Todd Snider – Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables (Aimless Records)
4. De La Soul’s Plug 1 and Plug 2 Present… First Serve (Duck Down Music)
5. Yonlu – A Society In Which No Tear is Shed is Inconceivably Mediocre (Luaka Bop ’09)
6. Titus Andronicus – Local Business (XL Recordings)
7. Pink – The Truth About Love (RCA)
8. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory (Carpark Records)
9. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas (Columbia)
10. Beach House – Bloom (Sub Pop)
11. Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror (Mom+Pop)
12. St. Vincent – Actor (4AD ’09)
13. Allo’ Darlin – Europe (Slumberland)
14. Balkan Beat Box – Give (Nat Geo Music)
15. Martha Wainwright – Come Home to Mama (Cooperative Music)
16. Homeboy Sandman – First of a Living Breed (Stones Throw)
17. The Jezabels – Prisoner (Mom+Pop)
18. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city (Top Dawg/Interscope/Aftermath)
19. Tha Grimm Teachaz – There’s a Situation on the Homefront (Breakfast Records ’11)
20. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Epic)
21. Serengeti – The Kenny Dennis EP (Anticon EP)
22. Listen… Oka! (Oka Productions ’11)
23. Twin Shadow – Confess (4AD)
24. Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes (Warp)
25. Himanshu – Nehru Jackets (free download)
26. Ani DiFranco – Which Side Are You On? (Righteous Babe)
27. Bob Dylan – Tempest (Columbia)
28. JJ Doom – Key to the Kuffs (Lex Records)
29. Jack White – Blunderbuss (Third Man/XL Recordings)
30. Madonna – MDNA (Interscope)
31. Serengeti – C.A.R. (Anticon)
32. Karriem Riggins – Alone Together (Stones Throw)
33. Ultraista – Ultraista (Temporary Residence)
34. Goldfrapp – The Singles (Mute)
35. David Byrne & St. Vincent – Love This Giant (4AD)
36. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball (Columbia)
37. The Shins – Port of Morrow (Columbia)
38. Nneka – Soul is Heavy (Decon)
39. Screaming Females – Ugly (Don Giovanni)
40. Sondre Lerche – Bootlegs (Mona)
41. Bambara Mystic Soul: The Raw Sound of Burkina Faso (Analog Africa ’11)
42. THEESatisfaction – awE naturalE (Sub Pop)
43. Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fit (Merge)
44. Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral (4AD)
45. Bebe – Un Pokito de Rocanrol (EMI Spain)
46. The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea (Merge)
47. Patti Smith – Banga (Columbia)
48. Antibalas – Antibalas (Daptone)
49. Ghost – Opus Eponymous (Rise Above/Metal Blade Records ’10)
50. Dr. John – Locked Down (Nonesuch)
51. Kanye West Presents G.O.O.D. Music Cruel Summer (Def Jam/G.O.O.D. Music)
Updated 1/19: Nneka – Soul is Heavy
Searching For Common Ground
As of 8 January, Metacritic has thirty-two albums in its compilation of critics’ top ten lists (1). Of those thirty-two, only ten appear anywhere in my own list. Another eight I wrote about briefly in Honorable Mentions, three earned Dud status, four I’ve heard but haven’t commented on, leaving seven I’ve yet to hear. Some I have little interest in pursuing but probably will considering their widespread recognition (Swans, Taylor Swift), but several of the others I saw briefly on various websites or never heard of at all, so my uptake may or may not be slower depending on what free time I have. Still, I find this number surprising: I listened to nearly fifty more albums than I did in 2011, didn’t fall behind schedule the way I did the year prior, and definitely spent more quality time with not only what I recommended but also what I eventually brushed off or trashed, yet while there’s only one album in the 2011 Metacritic compilation I hadn’t (and still haven’t) heard, that number grew significantly in 2012 to seven. My gut tells me this is purely luck of the draw; there are seemingly infinite albums and only so many I can hear, so I somehow managed to let what would wind up as critical favorites slip through my fingers. Regardless, several albums I consider to be great were almost nowhere to be found in individual top tens: Jens Lekman made two, Todd Snider one, De La Soul zero. Others were surprising, too, for more obvious reasons: Sleigh Bells, 1; Madonna, 0. Then there are those which I don’t understand and am left feeling like an alien: Tame Impala, Cat Power, and Grizzly Bear.
There was a mock division last year between those who extolled Adele or PJ Harvey as their number one pick. Adele was a lightweight, a nice English girl who made pretty unrequited love songs that sounded a bit too much like Winehouse. Harvey, on the other hand, was for serious music listeners: Let England Shake was political, timely, thoughtful, and whatever epithets you can heave upon an album you’re convinced you should like if you’re a smart person. Both were beaten out (though not by much in Harvey’s case) by Tune-Yards’ Whokill in the Pazz & Jop poll (2). This year there isn’t any competition; Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange will win hands down. Not only has Ocean garnered twenty-eight number one slots, he’s also got the edge over Lamar in second place mentions (nineteen to ten) and is only one under in mentions anywhere else in the top ten (thirty-six to Lamar’s thirty-seven), but either way he’s got eighty-three mentions overall, Lamar hosting fifty-five, trailed after a big drop down by Fiona Apple’s thirty-eight mentions (3), the rest quickly becoming a free-for-all separated only by a few points. These numbers aren’t insignificant. Metacritic’s 2011 list featured 135 publications, 2012 is currently at 130, and yet Frank Ocean outweighs PJ Harvey’s total mentions by thirty-three with a striking twelve additional number one spots, a number that outdoes Lamar by a fourth. At the same time, forty-seven lists—a third or so of those tabulated by Metacritic—didn’t mention Frank Ocean at all, at least not in the top ten. And the numbers only go down from there.
Regardless, that number—forty-seven non-mentions—sat funny with me. Upon further investigation it became clear that many lists not mentioning Ocean were for niche markets: Decibel for metal, Mixmag for electronica, Kerrang! for shit no one else would pick, Magnet for white indie kids (ie all indie kids), American Songwriter for Americana and folk freaks (who demonstrate their naiveté with this line: ‘Who’d have thought that one of the most broodingly introspective batch of songs released this year would arrive on an R&B albums.’ Do they know what R&B is?). Fair enough to outline a canon which outliers will be measured against, but personally I’m not interested in hardline genre favoritism, where folkies like Mumford & Sons or Punch Brothers are given attention by virtue of their sound. I want an even hand, publications that approach what comes their way openly from artists far and wide, any slight prejudices understood from the outset (4). So I had to go for consensus elsewhere.
A different way to measure it would be to look at what towering institutions have recognized, in this case Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, both of which I constantly slag but are nevertheless the leading authorities in the United States, their influence disseminating across the board whether anyone wants to admit it or not. These also have enforced canons—Pitchfork the ultra-obscure and Rolling Stone the more streamlined—but their reach is still fairly broad. Yet I wound up empty-handed. Robert Christgau compared their top 50’s from 2011 in his essay “Dad Rock Takes a Stand,” and I thought it wasn’t a bad idea. Where Christgau found the two only shared thirteen similar titles between them, it’s dropped to twelve this year, eleven of which can be found on Metacritic’s top thirty-two. Of those twelve, five appear in my list. Interestingly, all of us put Frank Ocean at number two. Pitchfork opted for Lamar, very sure to let everyone know his proper debut is an event. Rolling Stone show their everlasting nostalgia by lauding Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball. Pitchfork gave Springsteen’s latest a 5.9, a continuation of their habit to dismiss many on a major label or over forty, or both—that is, if they even bother to review them. Even stranger, four of my top ten never received Pitchfork reviews (Todd Snider, De La Soul, Yonlu, Pink). An additional six (The Jezabels, Balkan Beat Box, Grimm Teachaz, Oka!, Bebe, and Ghost) weren’t reviewed either, whereas Rolling Stone covered a few, though not many. Don’t get me started on Spin.
That Pitchfork’s reach doesn’t cover the above is, my guess, caused by two things: 1) Conscious choices to avoid certain major labels and/or artists like the plague, and 2) the sheer impossibility of covering everything, regardless of how hard you try to establish that sort of credibility. For a site that publishes five reviews a day five days a week most weeks of the year, they’re covering over 2,000 newly-released in any given 365-day period. An impressive feat no matter what you think of their writing or aesthetic ideals. Rolling Stone operates by similar limitations: 1) Conscious choices to target certain major labels and/or artists like they’re gravy, and 2) the disinterest in covering everything, all the while trying to maintain your credibility. But if both of them missed several of my picks? It makes you wonder how Allmusic does it.
I wrote a shit essay at the dawn of 2012 describing the futility of music criticism in light of insurmountable releases and the subsequent non-consensus consensus that was 2011: plenty of good albums to love though nothing undoubtedly remarkable with the occasional pieces of schlock predictably hailed as genius (see: Bon Iver). I’d wager 2012 is even more this way with the notable and obvious exception: Frank Ocean (5). One thing must be kept in mind: the albums on Metacritic’s comp are vying for roundhouse critical adoration, so the fact that there are thirty-two albums with enough mentions to make the cut is remarkable in a different way. Still, I can’t help but think inclusions like Tame Impala, Jessie Ware, Grizzly Bear, and Alt-J (for example) are propped by people still hanging on to the indie thread. Oh sure, sure; Tame Impala is psychedelic, Jessie Ware a young, brooding pop wannabe-icon, Grizzly Bear post-Radiohead prog aficionados, Alt-J a, er, British band, so they’re not really indie. Right. The fact remains that hip-hop is still dominant, and the only serious ‘indie’ contenders are veterans who date back to the 90’s and probably wouldn’t want the label anyway (Fiona Apple, Jack White, et al). I’m no Grimes fan, either, but I can live the music, not dopey enough to not understand its appeal. At the end of the day, though, I can’t quite see how Tame Impala or Grimes or Grizzly Bear get by purely on sonics—not that I’ve never recommended an album solely on that—and not just that they get a thumbs up, but that they get propelled to the front of the list as a defining sound of 2012, something to remember the year by. If that’s the case, I’d just as soon forget it.
What Does It All Mean?
(1) Radiohead’s In Rainbows, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, M.I.A.’s Kala. It’s not that I haven’t heard great albums since then, but the more music I encounter, the harder it is for any single piece to have as great an effect on me.
(2) And to be honest, there are some stragglers at the end (Kanye West, Dr. John, Mark Lanegan) that will probably be relegated to an Honorable Mention in the future, but for now I’m sticking to my guns.
Searching For Common Ground
(1) Very quickly in case you don’t know: Metacritic assigns three points to a first place mention, two to a second place, and one for any other ranking in a top ten. Why they do it this way I’m not sure. You’d think an overwhelming number of number one picks would speak for itself, but I guess it’s the electoral college of music ranking.
(2) To be fair, the Pazz & Jop poll only includes American rock critics (at least it used to; not 100% sure at the moment), and while Harvey’s newest made an impression on American critics, surely the scales would have been tipped in her favor were British critics included, a group who couldn’t get over her or themselves.
(3) Apple is actually fourth overall; Tame Impala’s Lonerism sits at number three with thirty-seven mentions.
(4) Mine, for instance, is metal. But hey, I did include Ghost, even if they’re metal-lite.
(5) Throw in Kendrick Lamar if you wish, but there was little more agreement on him than there was Harvey, and while I dig Lamar and am as skeptical as ever about Let England Shake, I don’t consider good kid, m.A.A.d. city to be genius.