The 8 Ball 01.05.13: The Top 16 Albums of 2012 (#16 – #9)
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
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Last week we finished out our look at the worst albums of 2012, which inspired a fair amount of great discussion. This week we move on from the worst to the best. 2012 saw great albums from every genre from rap/hip-hop to rock and pop music. We had long-standing legends in the industry release amazing pieces of music right along with up-and-coming acts and those who make it a regular habit of dominating the charts in the current era. This week we will kick off our look at the best with the sixteenth through the ninth best albums of the year.
Caveat: All you had to do in order to qualify for this list was release an EP or LP in the year 2012 within the United States, and do a great job at it. Pretty straight-forward.
Passion Pit – Gossamer
Garbage – Not Your Kind of People
Beach House – Bloom
Christina Aguilera – Lotus
The Lumineers – The Lumineers
Fiona Apple has had a hard time being taken seriously by the music-listening public at large for the last decade and a half or so. To most people she will always be the waify girl who got up on stage and ranted about the world being bullshit while she was accepting an MTV Music Award, and then went on to make an album with a title that set a world record for longest title, and may have set another one for “most people who spontaneously rolled their eyes upon hearing about an album title.” That exceedingly long title got in the way of the fact that it was perhaps one of the best albums of the 1990s. Apple took a hiatus soon after and came back in 2005 with the long-delayed and critically-acclaimed Extraordinary Machine. For her fourth studio album, she went for that long title motif again; the full title is The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. (Hey, at least it doesn’t constitute its own paragraph!) We’ll just go with Idler Wheel. While I love her past work, Idler Wheel is perhaps her best work to date. The album is a beautiful piece of work, with arrangements that range from delicate to harsh but never unappealing. It is a very raw album thematically–as one might expect from Apple–but there is restraint when needed so that when she lets the full brunt of her emotional force the impact is that much stronger. This is undoubtedly a triumphant return for Apple, and one can only hope that her next album doesn’t take almost a decade to get to us.
Frank Ocean was one of the most talked-about artists in the industry in 2012. Whether it was people gossiping about his sexuality (which he came clean about just before Channel ORANGE’s release), his association with the controversial Odd Future or his guest appearances on tracks from the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar, all eyes were on him for the release of his solo album. To say that it took the world by storm is an understatement. The album is perhaps the most ambitious album of 2012, taking R&B and going in entirely unexpected directions with it. Whether it is his soaring vocals on “Thinkin Bout You,” his confessional standpoint on “Bad Religion,” his club-ready epic “Pyramid” or any of the other tracks on the album, Ocean isn’t concerned about staying within the lines and that’s what makes the album work so well. Channel ORANGE reminds me a lot of the works of Radiohead in that it takes multiple listens before the layers are really peeled back to appreciate all the secrets. But at the same time it has an accessibility that some Radiohead LPs end up lacking; while you gain more with each listen, there is plenty to enjoy with even that first spin through. This is a multi-layered and powerful debut from an artist who may well pull R&B from the overly-safe doldrums in which it finds itself.
Forty years after his first studio album, Bruce Springsteen remains one of the most relevant voices in American rock. Wrecking Ball, the New Jersey native’s seventeenth album, has been labeled as his angriest and most pointed album in his career and it is difficult to disagree with that assessment. As the opening track and first single “We Take Care of Our Own” opens, we are treated to thundering drums that immediately let us know that this isn’t an LP for the easy-listening set. And yet Springsteen isn’t raging just to rage; the album has the rock icon’s characteristic poignancy and depth. He takes aim at the people’s to provide each other with aid with the kind of sarcasm that would be overwrought and thus less impactful in the hands many artists; with Springsteen, it has just the right level of restraint to make it meaningful. From there the album moves on to a more down and dirty rock with “Easy Money” and proceeds to make its way through tracks with gospel, bluegrass, folk and good old-fashioned rock touches. The lyrical themes are incredibly relevant to current events but have a timeless sense to them; this is an album that will sound just as timely fifteen years from now. It is Springsteen’s singular vision all the way through and represents the sound of a true legend in the rock industry at what may just be his highest point yet from a musical standpoint.
One of my favorite things about 2012 in music has been the encroachment of variation in pop music. For the past several years pop has ventured almost universally into the dance-pop era in an attempt to keep things bubbly and upbeat. There is room for a lot of discussion as to why, but the charts have found themselves increasingly dominated by electro-club beats. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does turn the airwaves into a sort of indistinguishable Auto-Tuned soup. Thus, as a pop music fan the rise of new and different twists on pop music into the charts has been quite welcome to me. Marina & the Diamonds straddles that line between dance-pop and experimental pop quite nicely. There is undeniably a radio-friendly electro-pop aspect to her music, and to her credit she does that quite well. But on Electra Heart she ventures outside of the constraints of what top 40 radio considers its bread of butter just enough on each track to thoroughly distinguish herself. With her distinctive voice almost moaning her lyrics over the various melodic excesses, it forces you to stop and actually pay attention to her. On tracks like “Fear and Loathing” she tones back the musical production and lets her voice take front and center, making you realize that in fact she can actually sing quite well. It’s a surprisingly great album from an artist who has made great strides since 2010’s The Family Jewels, and I’m excited to see where she goes from here.
There are some who might think that Killer Mike is a new player in the rap game. Those people have probably forgotten his debut LP Monster, which was a top 10 record in 2003. And they certainly have missed the fact that in the time between he has released no less than four LPs. While none of those albums caught fire with audiences, the Outkast protégé has been consistently building his skills and this past year finally stepped to the forefront with R.A.P. Music. It is an album that takes on everything from political and social issues to the state of hip-hop itself and does so in impeccable fashion. The sound is classic hip-hop, with unimpeachable production from El-P and sees Mike at the finest of his career to date. While acts like 2 Chainz, Drake and Lil Wayne were dominating the charts to rap’s detriment, Killer Mike made his move and the result was a massacre from a critical standpoint. His flow is impeccable and his message is hard-hitting and unavoidable. Over a decade after his career took off, Mike has established himself a true force to be reckoned with in the rap game.
Hands down, Pink is one of the top three artists currently working within mainstream pop music. People can take issue with her outspoken social and political views, they can decry the fact that she’s not the best pure singer in the business and they can call her a poser when she tries to rock it up. But you can’t deny that she is one of the most intelligent lyricists in the genre and has found the perfect balance between mainstream acceptability and edge. Rihanna has an edge to be sure, but she tries way too hard to manufacture that edge. Pink genuinely rocks within a pop music framework. As I said, she is not the best pure singer but she does have a damned good voice and she puts that to use on The Truth About Love, throwing a rock growl into her stylings on “How Come You’re Not Here” and then toning it back for “Beam Me Up.” In-between you have brilliant satirical efforts in tracks like “Slut Like You,” which does in one song what Ke$ha has been trying and failing to do her whole career in terms of taking the power of sex back. She’s not afraid to cut loose for a little bit of fun either, such as “Walk of Shame.” This was the best that mainstream pop had to offer and while your appreciation of it may vary based on whether you like the genre, you have to appreciate what it brought.
After the White Stripes broke up in 2011, all eyes turned to Jack White with curiosity of how his solo album would fare. It was one of the most anticipated albums of the year and upon its release in April, it quickly established itself as one of the most critically-loved LPs at the time, a status it held onto through the end of the year. And it certainly deserved that status, as White stepped a little bit outside of his usual sensibilities to incorporate elements of other genres into his trademarked sound to great effect. It is the kind of album that you will either love or hate from the first seconds of “Missing Pieces”; that isn’t to say that the album doesn’t go in a few different directions after that–it is undoubtedly his most musically-diverse effort of his career–but the opening track does tell you exactly what to expect. The singles such as “Love Interruption” and “Sixteen Saltines” are all top-notch tracks and there is nary a flaw to be found in the album tracks either. This is one of the top rock albums of the year without question, showing that White is as much a force to be reckoned with on his own as he ever was with the White Stripes.
The Brooklyn-based indie rock band Grizzly Bear has been producing music since 2002, with their first album Horn of Plenty hitting the shelves in 2004. Shields is their fourth studio album and is easily their best to date. The group took a six-month hiatus after 2009’s Veckatimest and it did them good, with their return LP featuring fantastic songwriting amidst a beautifully resonant sound. The group’s psychedelic pop sound is infinitely pleasing to the ears and they are at the top of their game in that respect on Shields. On “Yet Again” they combine their skillful vocal harmonies with a sound out of time that makes for exceptional mood music but isn’t dumbed down either. The latter half of the album scales it back a little bit, that that makes it no less of a great listen. There are those within the indie rock genre who just bore me to tears, and then there are those who I absolutely love listening to. More than ever, Shields pushes Grizzly bear toward the top of the latter list.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
I’ve always been a huge fan of DJ Earworm, the San Francisco-based DJ who is best-known for his mashups of pop songs. Earworm has released a yearly set of mashups that compiles the top 25 songs of each year according to the Billboard album charts, which always sounds better than most of the individual songs contained within. Here is his 2012 mashup, titled “Shine Brighter,” for your listening and viewing enjoyment:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.