A Music Geek’s Top Albums of 2012
by Matt Grosinger on December 31, 2012
I connected a lot of dots in 2012. Well, it was more like I colored by numbers and filled in a lot of gaps that way. I have been in a handful of different scenarios in vastly disparate locations and methodically completed the tasks that each one required — internships, classes, dog sitting, etc. By the end of the summer I will have spent three-month intervals in four different cities, three of them being the largest in the country, and then finally my hometown, Cincinnati (ughhhhh).
During a three-month stint in Chicago, I lived with my friend Bob. He doesn’t have Facebook, he’s better at speaking drunk French than sober English, he’s from Cleveland, and his nicknames are “Goldfish Bob” (terrible memory/blacks out a lot) and “Stupid Bob” (see most items of list). Somehow, Bob was an incredible life coach. He had his life pretty together for someone whose most valuable personal item was a handle of Crown Royal. While I was fretting over things months in advance, Bob handled each 24-hour cycle one night at a time, and still managed to find a job and be reliably happy. Being able to focus on individual tasks and gleaning the bigger picture later is a skill that I always knew existed but never witnessed in carefree form. I just worry about everything all the time, so I needed to see that it could be done. One time Bob got locked inside our bathroom, but he never really got that mad about it. Sure, he didn’t want to wait an hour for our Russian landlord to pry the door open with a screwdriver, but he didn’t absolutely need to be anywhere else, so he was happy to camp out and have a story for later on.
Stupid Bob’s approach to life manifested itself noticeably in the way I listened to music this year: I was all over the place, but I wasn’t so much fickle as I was motivated by curiosity. In New York Magazine’s Year In Culture issue, music critic Nitsuh Abebe wrote that 2012 was the year that people stopped worrying about “mapmaking” and “embraced the notion of a messy, tangled wilderness.” Yes, I listened to Rihanna and the Sea and Cake back-to-back, but so what? Everything I listened to all made sense in a macrocosmic way by virtue of the fact that I enjoyed it.
This fall, I took an inexplicably difficult introductory painting course and made a pretty terrible self-portrait. When I was painting myself, I turned the piece upside down every now and then to decontextualize and make sure that the shapes and proportions all made sense. Only after I felt I could do no better would I turn the canvas back over and try to blend colors for a contiguous, streamlined look –the method was more important than the result, or at least that’s what I told myself. As everything started to blend together, I just hoped that the colors didn’t run too much. But I was cool with it when they did.
Below is my list; definitely looking forward to some colorful comments this year.
This year Mishka NYC cornered the market on ghoulish, off-kilter hip hop and electronic releases. The standout hip-hop album was a collaboration between Chicago’s Supreme Cuts and 16-year-old Barbadian rapper, Haleek Maul. Chrome Lips is straight eerie. With pitched-down, living-dead vocal overdubs and spectral synths, the album sounds like a bad acid trip in corn maze on halloween. Chrome Lips was as close as I came to watching a gory slasher flick in 2012.
22-year-old Alejandro Ghersi was Born in Caracas, Venzeuala, moved to Darien, Connecticut for preschool, moved back to Caracas for third grade, and finally ended up in New York in 2007 to attend NYU. Somehow, the linguistic implications of his itinerancy don’t fully explain the sonic oddness of Arca. Stretch 2 doesn’t even sound like the product of human creativity –more like a recovered alien transmission from some weasely, mewling life-form trying to make first contact with earth. I have been a nomad as well, and I definitely still use normal sounds for comunication. My guess is that Arca would have been making weird jams regardless of locale.
Theories of Aging sounds like you’re listening to a hodgepodge orchestral arrangement while buried a foot deep under December snow. Or sort of like how any eerie pastoral scene in a John Hawkes movie should sound. Am I just thinking of how I would have scored Winter’s Bone? Probably. Anyway, the main word that comes to mind when I listen to Theories of Aging is “Shhhhhh.”
7. Julia Holter – Ekstasis
I’m about to drive across the country from Cincinnati to Los Angeles and have tweaked my Google Maps route so that I can pass through the Four Corners and lay splayed out in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah, simultaneously. If someone asked me where I was at the moment I was in four places at once, I am not sure that I would have a good answer, even though I would have four equally correct answers. That is sort of how I imagine Julia Holter’s sound — equal parts classical, electronic, pop, and avant-garde. My favorite part of Ekstasis is that by incorporating all four of these genre’s, it is none of these things in particular. Just interesting. Well, also good.
In an interview with NPR this past February, Robert Glasper (the jazz pianist whose solid album did not make my year-end list) decried what he perceives as the current, stodgy condition of jazz: “If [Col]trane came back to life right now he’d be mad as hell if people were still doing the exact same thing he was doing when he died.” The funny thing is that while Glasper thought he was pushing boundaries by sort of obtrusively mashing jazz and hip-hop together, Stephen Ellison, a/k/a Flying Lotus, discreetly recorded one of the most innovative IDM/hip-hop instrumental releases of the year. A few months after that NPR interview, Flying Lotus created the album that Robert Glasper complained did not exist in pop culture. I like to believe it is more than coincidence that Flying Lotus is a distant nephew of Coltrane.
Aside from enjoying Amber Coffman’s voice, I really did not like the Dirty Projectors until 2012. People have said Swing Lo Magellan is their most straightforward album ever, and maybe that’s why I like it. I sort of took that as an insult and defiantly worked my way backwards through their discography to find that I now genuinely enjoy their earlier releases as well — Dave Longstreth’s voice, their nitpicky instrumentation and all. As I have been getting getting into the idiosyncrasies of the band, I have felt my tastes change in real time. It’s super weird. Almost as weird as the Dirty Projectors.
The track-to-track continuity of DIIV’s Oshin is unquestionably the most impressive aspect of their debut release. And not in a technical way that relies on studio tricks of fading and mixing, though the whole album sounds brightly polished. The fact that they are able to weave together disparate elements of shoegaze, dream pop, and Kraut Rock in a way that sounds seamless and natural is a compositional feat that no other album on this list accomplished so effectively. Oshin isn’t so much an album as it is a single arrangement in thirteen shimmering movements.
Peppy psychedelia and cheery, Lennon-esque falsetto aside, it is fairly easy to tell that Lonerism is a pessimistic, reclusive album. The album is full of inner monologues, repetitive mantras that alternate between motivational (“Be Above It”) and self-defeating (“Why Won’t They Talk To Me?”). However, one of the most distressing moments of the LP occurs on “Keep on Lying,” when Kevin Parker’s vocals cut out altogether. His ability to will himself with his own thoughts yields to the unintelligible chatter of what sounds like a social gathering. He is so removed from the scenario that language becomes alien, as a plaintive guitar hook replaces his thoughts and slowly spirals towards madness. Earlier this year, Parker admitted to The Fader, “I let this album nearly drive me insane… I actually thought this album was going to kill me.” Good thing he finished the album before the opposite happened.
2. Kendrick Lamar – good kid m.A.A.d. city
I recently went over a word limit for a blurb about Kendrick Lamar by about 400 words and no one said a thing. This is not because I am a mind-blowing writer, but because there is so much to say about good kid m.A.A.d city that makes even 600 words seems paltry. Kendrick’s album is a richly complex narrative about an individual’s necessary but destructive relationship with his own city and community. I can’t help comparing the album to Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs, as it presents a handful of seemingly disorganized vignettes that all inform a central plot line. Each song is a jagged puzzle piece to the larger storyboard, each frazzled, warped version of Kendrick’s voice a new character and a schizophrenic plea for refuge. Once you have gleaned all the necessary clues for character interactions and chronology, what you actually have is a methodical portrait of chaos.
This was the most compelling emotional story I heard all year. Sure you can point to all the criteria that make this album fantastic — vocal prowess, understated production, lyrical poignance — but none of that really matters when your instinct is to appreciate the gravity of the album first. Liking something without knowing immediately why is one of my favorite feelings ever, because I can tell I will likely become invested heavily in finding out. Such was my relationship with this album.
Rarely do I feel like someone’s art is an honest complement or extension of his or her persona, but Frank Ocean reached that transcendent plane this year — I can’t delineate where Frank Ocean the person ends and Frank Ocean the artist begins. He affects me to the extent that I feel voyeuristic listening to channel ORANGE. And even now I feel guilty writing about him, because that is probably the last thing he wants more people to do, and certainly the last thing he needs. But he struck a personal chord and undoubtedly impacted the cultural zeitgeist. At the very least, the price for that is recognition. Good luck at the Grammys, Frank.
Post List Notes:
My favorite song was a six-way-tie among Jeremih’s “773 Love,” Disclosure’s “Latch,” Sky Ferreira’s “Everything Is Embarrassing,” Jai Paul’s “Jasmine,” Major Lazer’s “Get Free,” and Kendrick’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe.” I don’t understand the fascination with Grimes one bit, but my least favorite song is still that fucking Thanksgiving song by that 12-year-old girl. I didn’t like Joey Bada$$ the first time I listened to him because I convinced myself that his sound was an anachronism, but then I stopped being an asshole and realized that 1999 was one of the best mixtapes of the year. D’angelo came back this year and restored my faith in creativity in general. I also checked my iPod’s play count for Voodoo and I have listened to every song well over 1000 times. I am still waiting for Azealia Banks to turn my world upside down with her debut LP. And my New Year’s Resolution is to take better care of my hearing.
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Post your favorites of the year in the comments below!