The 8 Ball 01.12.13: The Top 8 Albums of 2012
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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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.
Garbage – Not Your Kind of People
Beach House – Bloom
Christina Aguilera – Lotus
The Lumineers – The Lumineers
15: Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE
14: Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
13: Marina & the Diamonds – Electra Heart
12: Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
11: Pink – The Truth About Love
10: Jack White – Blunderbuss
9: Grizzly Bear – Shields
The folk rock revival is in full swing, and never was that more evident than when Mumford & Sons’ second studio LP dropped in September of last year. The band was certainly no unknown property after the success of Sigh No More in 2009, but Babel instantly put them on the A list, making them a household name with over 600,000 copies sold. That’s the second-highest sales debut of the year, behind only the commercial behemoth that is Taylor Swift and ahead of such juggernauts as Madonna and Pink. That huge sales week did more than just make the English folk group one of the hottest things running; it helped bring attention to a significant shift in music tastes in 2012. Pop stars still rule the charts, but rock–particularly folk-inspired rock–was on the rise. That being said, Babel is more than just a symbolic success for people who were sick of the “unce-unce-unce” of dance-pop; it was an artistic success for the band as well. While I personally would rate Sigh No More a touch higher than Babel, that is by no means a slant against this LP. Babel actually contains a richer sound that Sigh and if people want to complain that it is more polished musically, they can at least take solace in the fact that Marcus Mumford and his bandmates are just as talented at songwriting. From the powerhouse singles of “I Will Wait” and “Lover of the Light” to album tracks like “Whispers in the Dark,” “Not With Haste” and the rest, this is an album where “earnest” isn’t a crime against nature; it’s a creed. Folk purists have been falling all over themselves decrying the success of Babel, which as Bob Dylan can tell you is usually a good indicator that you’re doing something right.
Enter Shikari was one of my most pleasant discoveries of 2012. The group’s intriguing sound caught my attention on Spotify somehow and I found myself listening to their other work before checking out A Flash Flood of Colour. This is the kind of album that I would have never found myself getting into without this kind of introduction; describing them basically ends up comparing them overly much to Linkin Park or similar acts and really…when Linkin Park is only just now finding their way back to a cert ain quality level, listening to a group that is “similar to them” isn’t high on the agenda. However, Enter Shikari is doing work right now that is miles ahead of what Linkin Park did, even with Living Things being a step back in the right direction. The band has more energy and less of a tendency to fall into safe formulas that are sure to produce hits. The band has said that the album is “anti-political” and it isn’t hard to hear that in the lyrics, which are passionate and well-formed. From the opening track “System…,” in which frontman Roughton Reynolds calls out, “This house was doomed, but they didn’t care/they’d invested in a system that was beyond repair,” you know exactly where this group is headed. Their sound has some serious kick to it and restores some oomph to the alt-metal game that it has been missing for a while.
Rap music was in need of some new blood in 2012. While there are still some trailblazers keeping the quality of hip-hop high, the pervading of acts like 2 Chainz, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne and Pitbull dealt the genre a pretty serious blow. That’s why the rise of acts like Kendrick Lamar was such an important part of hip-hop music in 2012. Lamar has been releasing music since 2003 when he was sixteen years old, but 2012 was the year when he really blew up with good kid, m.A.A.d city. Lamar’s second studio LP goes in its own direction, shoving aside the hook-drive contemporary hip-hop sound in favor of a more atmospheric, low-key feel. Lamar isn’t interested in making the kind of hedonistic album that often assures chart success; he tackles social topics that make the album seem like a throwback to earlier times in hip-hop, but the sound doesn’t feel dated at all. How often do you see rap artists cover alcoholism with the kind of frankness that Lamar did on “Swimming Pools (Drank)?” Just about never, and that’s just one excellent tack on an album full of them, from the introspection of “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” to the epic storytelling of “The Art of Peer Pressure.” It is a lyrically-dense piece of musical work, marking a high point in Lamar’s career from both an artistic and commercial standpoint. At only twenty-five years old, Lamar is on top of the world and one can hope that he stays there for a long time.
As I said earlier, rock music has been fighting its way back into the mainstream, but largely with folk rock acts like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers or with the return of old-school rockers like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and hell, now even David Bowie is back. The rock invasion of the charts often feels like it needs a little kick to it, and Halestorm was on hand to provide just that. I know there are people who will scoff at this, but they shouldn’t be too surprised; I wasn’t kidding when I called this one of my favorite albums of the year so far in my initial review of it. Yes, that was in April but now, eight months later, it stands as one of my favorites. The band’s second album shows a definite sense of growth by the group, with the instrumental work of Joe Hottinger, Josh Smith and Arejay Hale delivering and Lzzy Hale’s powerful vocals taking center stage. The first word that comes to mind when I think of The Strange Case Of… is “fun”; it has been a while since I’ve heard a rock/metal act that has actually seems to convey a sense of. There is a playful tone around the hard-edged rock anthems where many of the band’s contemporaries seem too bitter over the fact that pop and rap rules the charts to achieve. It’s not a perfect album obviously and there are a couple tracks that are two formulaic, but even those are carried through by Hale’s vocal work. Standout tracks like “Love Bites (So Do I),” “I Miss the Misery,” “Freak Like Me,” “Daughters of Darkness” and “American Boys” make this a keeper for me.
There are people who continue to hope for a reunion of those icons of 2000 political rap-metal, Rage Against the Machine. Many of those people would be well-served to turn to Flobots, who are the new masters of the genre. The Denver-based group, who made their first major impact on the music scene in 2008 with “Handlebars,” returned in 2012 with an album potent enough to leave many of Zach de la Rocha’s best efforts in the dust. Flobots’ The Circle in the Square is one of those rare albums that manages to be relevant to current events without seeming instantly dated. The group’s sound has found a new groove that hangs somewhere in-between the hip-hop weighted Fight With Tools and the rock-weighted Survival Story; musically they have never sounded more comfortable and energized. Meanwhile the lyrics are impossible to deny, whether listening to the rallying cry that is “Run (Run Run Run)” or the low-key yet strikingly powerful “#OccupyEarth.” The group makes no attempt at hiding which side of the political spectrum they fall on, but for those who aren’t adamantly opposed to their position they provide one hell of an album; it is their best to date and easily one of my favorites of the year.
Nas will always be chasing Illmatic. There’s simply no way of getting around it; when you debut on the music scene with an LP that completely changes the game, people are destined to wait for you to top yourself or bring about something just as good, as much as they are destined to be disappointed. It’s just the nature of the industry and it has been a curse for the Brooklyn-based rapper. While Life is Good doesn’t leave his watershed debut in the dust, it may just be the closest Nas has ever come to equaling that album artistically. In the four years since his last solo album, the controversial Untitled, Nas went through a nasty divorce from Kelis and had a son with her; both of these events flavor Life is Good. But it isn’t what you might expect from the famously incendiary rapper. This is a surprisingly non-bitter album when you consider how dark it could have gone. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some strong statements; Nas is nothing if not brutally honest on this album. But it is more introspective than angry; time has healed some of the wounds and now he’s looking at things more evenly. Whether you look at “Bye Baby,” where he chronicles the dissolution of his marriage, or “Daughters” in which he reflects on the difficulty of raising a daughter right in the face of celebrity, this is a hard-hitting album and Nas is not above taking some shots at himself. The diverse guests range from Amy Winehouse on the exceptional “Cherry Wine” to Rick Ross on “Accident Murderers,” but in truth the album avoids the guest star-driven urges of the genre in order to stand on its own. That was a wise choice, as Life is Good stands as my favorite album of the year on the strength of Nas’ undiluted work.
Few returns to the music scene made me happier to see than that of Rush. The Canadian prog rock icons have had one hell of a year; it was announced that they are set to finally get their long-overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, and they hit one of the higher notes of their incredible career with Clockwork Angels. The group had not released an album in over five years and while the band has never been bad or even remotely mediocre, I felt that Snakes & Arrows was a little bit uninspired compared to the rest of the band’s work. As such, I was looking for the venerable group to deliver and to say they did so is an understatement. To me Clockwork Angels is, without any exaggeration, the band’s best album in at least a couple decades. The group delivered a more focused and impressive effort here, loosely written around the idea of a man on a quest to follow his dreams. Neil Peart’s lyrics are some of my favorites of his pretty much ever and the band’s sound is just as good as they’ve ever been. There are a lot of bands who have lost their way well after they reach the ten year mark or even fifteen, buried under the weight of their back catalogue and impossibly high expectations. Rush has been rocking for over forty years and is still going as strong as they ever have before.
Amanda Palmer is at the absolute forefront of new trends within the music industry, and her fanbase is right along for the ride. What can you say about someone who took a Kickstarter-funded album and, without the strength of a record label’s marketing machine behind her, took that very album–which is far from the mainstream dance-pop chart behemoths–to a top 10 Billboard debut? Theatre is Evil is not just a triumph for Palmer and her new backing band the Grand Theft Orchestra; it is a triumph for independently-produced music. Palmer has said that she wants to change the way that the music industry works, and she managed to kick down the doors and stride on into the party here. But this album wouldn’t be at the top if it was just a chart success; it’s also an incredible album in an artistic sense. Theatre Is Evil is alternative pop at its finest, with Palmer’s exceptional lyrical skill combining with a constantly-changing but never jarring sound. This is music that never alienates the listener but yet never dumbs itself down either; it manages the rare feat of being musically accessible and yet intellectually and emotionally challenging. Intelligent and pop-culture driven but never without heart, this a tour de force album and easily my favorite of 2012.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
I used this one once upon a time, back during my 5&1 days but this is a different column so I don’t consider it quite as much of a retread. (That and there are no good new-ish music videos). Felicia Day is one of my favorite icons of geek culture; the actress has not only appeared in a diverse number of geek-friendly TV shows but she has helped change the way that originally web programming is viewed, first through the pioneering series The Guild and then through her YouTube channel Geek & Sundry. She also occasionally does geek-friendly songs, such as this one. Enjoy “Gamer Girl, Country Boy” below:
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.