Friday, January 4, 2013

The Best Albums of 2012

As promised, here are my picks for the best albums that 2012 had to offer. Some may be surprised, others may not, but on the whole I am proud of this list and what I have to say on each album's behalf (even if some pretty much speak for themselves). Cheers to the works going to be released in 2013! 

pssstt hey! There's an easter egg at the end. Thought you'd like to know.

1. Kendrick Lamar- good kid, m.A.A.d. city

Sometimes you’re told an album is a classic, and you just go with it despite any concerns your ears may have to make you believe otherwise. I myself resisted this album at first, mostly because I thought some of the beats were too standard for 2012, or even 2008 for that matter. Obviously, the focus really isn’t on the beats, but on Lamar’s ability to tell his coming-of-age story with vivid descriptions that would rival most professional novelists. Suddenly everything fell into place, and then I came to realize just how perfect the beats captured the harried spirit of 2012 anyway. Sign of a classic indeed.

Before the album was released, I used to have customers frequently coming into the Wooden Nickel Music store wondering where we kept our Kendrick Lamar CD’s. I was completely unaware of the towering hype surrounding the guy, so I naturally assumed he was just another rapper in the same vein as Rick Ross, Machine Gun Kelly, or even Meek Mill for that matter. Then good kid, m.A.A.d city was released, and much to my utter surprise and delight, it indeed looked like we had another prophet on our hands whose album seemed similar to the impact of The Marshall Mathers LP, which was released a full 12 years ago (if you can believe such facts). Okay, maybe it’s not breaking record sales like Eminem’s album, but both of their impacts on the given place and time they were released feels undeniable and damn near ubiquitous. If it weren’t for Taylor Swift releasing her album Red, in close proximity to this album, who knows how big it might have got, and how many more people it might have been able to reach.

Nevertheless, every bit of success this album and Lamar for that matter are currently enjoying is well deserved. I still can’t listen to “Swimming Pools (Drank)” without its chorus being lodged in my head all day. I frequently visit “Backseat Freestyle” whenever I want to hear the 21st century update of “Peter Piper.” Most importantly, whenever I need a good reality check, I turn to the album’s 12-minute epic centerpiece “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.”

Anymore, I’m growing more concerned about Dr. Dre’s ability to produce meaningful music since his focus these days seems to be hanging on obtaining a Forbes’ feature highlighting his Beats Headphones entrepreneurship (even incorporating a shameless endorsement spot on Rick Ross’ “3 Kings” track), but fortunately for all of us, he still hasn’t forgotten how to recognize pure talent and properly mix tracks. Just like Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion?) and Eminem before him, Kendrick Lamar deserves to be among the most valued of Dre’s protégés. If discovering Lamar and mixing his album causes the already long-overdue Detox to be delayed further, I have absolutely no complaints against that.

Pretty much the whole thing

02: Frank Ocean- Channel Orange

A few music publications have Ocean’s debut right up at the top of their lists, thus making it the prime contender for the Grammy award for Album of the Year, even if I have a gut feeling that it might go to Mumford & Sons’ Babel instead. But given all of its pervasive emotion that you can’t help but be affected by, perhaps what this album needs is a little humility. Frank is only human after all, but a concept album that soars and covers so much ground in 62 minutes needs to come back down to Earth eventually.

Thankfully, it rarely ever does. With an opener like “Thinkin Bout You,” you are lifted off the ground slightly with the soft strings, and when you realize that Ocean’s voice is too honest to be Auto-Tuned, you begin to realize how truly special this album is. It can be argued that Frank Ocean is the 21st century’s answer to Stevie Wonder, but while the inspiration and influence is there, Channel Orange still feels like it could also be classified as a rap album with how certain rhyme schemes come together. But tracks like “Super Rich Kids,” and “Crack Rock,” both possess rap’s grand musical swagger with the humbleness of R&B and Soul to create a truly inviting, and yet confrontational view on contemporary love.

Regardless of your stance on homosexuality or bisexuality, if you never knew about Frank Ocean’s declaration of his sexual preferences otherwise, you’d never deny this album is about all kinds of love that is present all around us, and not just your traditional heterosexual courtships. After all, this album was named after Ocean’s Grapheme–color synesthesia experience during the summer he first fell in love. If orange is the true color of love, we have Frank Ocean to thank for letting us know.

“Thinkin’ Bout You”
“Super Rich Kids” (feat. Earl Sweatshirt)
“Crack Rock”

03: Swans- The Seer

To me, industrial and no-wave music are pretty much one in the same, the only difference being that no-wave has a tendency to stray into the abstract. When the Swans, or more specifically, Michael Gira, started releasing music in the early 80’s with albums like Filth, or Holy Money, his no-wave sound strayed into the abyss. I still can’t listen to “A Hanging” at night without its horror movie grade sounds pervading my unconscious and haunting my already twisted id when I go to sleep. Gira is big on droning, but in his 30-year career, the droning was never boring, but instead conjured entities that made you wonder about the dark side of humanity.

In 2012, Gira achieved the culmination of everything he ever set out to convey with The Seer, which does indeed brilliantly encompass his no-wave beginnings, his morph into the alternative world in the 90’s, and finally, his desire to experiment with jarring ambience being the impetus for what is consistently being praised as his seminal masterwork. But what stymies me most about The Seer is how it has managed to earn all of these accolades, when most respectable music publications tend to thumb their nose at music that is this aggressive, overbearing, and inaccessibly spooky. To give you an example, Rolling Stone doesn’t feature this in their best albums of 2012 list, yet they ranked Green Day’s ¡Uno! at number 8. Then again, I’m reminded of how praise is fairly and impartially due when the right critics recognize a work for what it truly is. With The Seer, Gira has managed to give the popular music world the biggest middle finger imaginable, and those like myself who adore the album are suckling on its eccentricities with enthusiasm.

At a towering two hours+, you definitely get your money’s worth one way or another. Sure, you may feel exhausted by the end, but you may notice just how surprised you are when you realize just how quickly it goes too. The title track alone takes over half an hour to develop, build, and finally burst at the seams, but you never feel like Gira is wasting precious time and indulging himself in endurance levels that only he can withstand. This album may be more suited for seasoned music fans who purposely seek out the most impenetrable and inaccessible music that tests boundaries, but causal music fans who seek out The Seer will be rewarded too.

“The Seer”
“The Seer Returns”
“93 Ave. B Blues”
“Song for a Warrior”

04: Killer Mike- R.A.P. Music

I may have just started to listen to this album on the 18th this month, but even on the first listen, I could tell that this was no mere album, but a biting force to be reckoned with. If the name Killer Mike sounds even slightly familiar to you, it’s because one of his first gigs was rapping with OutKast back at the turn of the century in tracks like “Snappin’ & Trappin’” off of Stankonia. If that still doesn’t ring a bell, I know you must have heard his verse in “The Whole World.” Even at the beginning of his career, it sure looked like Killer Mike could easily be Big Boi’s apprentice with how his versatile flow seemed to morph this way and that as he rhymed in double and triple time without resorting to exhausting lyrical acrobatics that made rappers like Eminem look desperate to impress an audience. Killer Mike is the anti-Eminem in this aspect given how his spitting acts as a truly brutal complimentary piece to El-P’s hyper-aggressive and bass-heavy production.

Speaking of which, my first exposure to El-P was back in my Sophomore year of high school when I was in the throes of a deep obsession with Nine Inch Nails. On the single to “Every Day is Exactly the Same,” there was El-P’s remix of “Only” that stood out to me as one of the best remix jobs of any NIN song I’ve heard. El-P may have been around since the mid-90’s with rap groups like Company Flow, but his production work remains as exciting, contemporary, and brutally pounding as ever. His use of sampling is also something to sit up and take notice given how all of it sounds were mutilated to fit in with El-P’s signature sound. In a documentary called Copyright Criminals, he says with a slight smirk of confidence, “If you catch me, I didn’t do my job.”

Back to Killer Mike’s prowess as an incendiary rapper: the topic of politics may be a routine grind for most people, especially given our incredibly volatile times of political and economic woe, but his fuck-the-rich-and-corrupt rhetoric strikes with more importance and relevance than any of his peers could muster (even Big Boi). It’s also refreshing to hear a rapper who cares more about the state of his home country than money, drugs or women. More importantly, the album knows the importance of pacing, as its 45 minutes skates by with fury and relevance that most rap artists desperately wish they could employ. Rebellious African People Music indeed.

“Big Beast”
“Jojo’s Chillin’”

05: Cloud Nothings- Attack on Memory

As Dylan Baldi carelessly rips his vocal cords on the opening, “No Future/No Past,” you immediately get the idea that this could very well be the most necessary and vital emo album to be produced since Weezer’s Pinkerton, all the way back in 1996. I can envision Baldi being a gaunt, hunched-over figure with a malnourished body being suffocated with tight clothing, and greasy jet-black hair flopped over his face like a dirty towel shredded to mere tatters of fabric. Baldi’s emotional fabric is very tattered too, as he laments all his “Wasted Days,” and his unenviable ability to “Stay Useless.” For all the lameness one suspects to hear on Attack on Memory with incredibly emo descriptions like these, just this once you feel obligated to hear him out about his youthful angst.

From what I understand, this is more or less a noticeable departure from their self-titled effort whose cover even looks inviting and friendly. Compare that to the gray starkness of Attack on Memory’s cover, which features a blurry image that may or may not resemble an abandoned amusement park. With a thematic change like this, the album’s production couldn’t have been managed by anybody else other than Steve Albini. As an admirer of Albini’s no compromise approach to making a band sound aggressive, I feel that this is the guy most bands seek out whenever they want to make a “fuck you” album that tends to stand on its own in a band’s discography. Despite Baldi’s claim that Albini probably doesn’t remember what the album sounds like given his set-up-the-microphones-and-leave-the-band-alone approach (not to mention how Albini mostly played Facebook Scrabble during the production), it nonetheless has that essential Albini vibe that artists like Kurt Cobain, Black Francis (Frank Black?), Kim Deal, and PJ Harvey sought out when they were at a musical and career crossroads.

And for a relatively fresh and naïve band like Cloud Nothings to employ Albini’s sound so early in their career can only be a sign that perhaps Cloud Nothings don’t plan on doing this when they hit 30. It sounds like an album that was adapted from a journal of the most hardened emotional sentiments Baldi has to offer that speaks to so many people between the ages of 15-30. But it’s not exclusively for that audience. It’s for everyone who still feels misunderstood or just hasn’t found their true purpose in life yet, and passively wanders through all their wasted days.

“No Future/No Past”
“Wasted Days”

06: Dr. John- Locked Down

I’m a bit displeased to see that this album is being snubbed by some music publications on their year-end best-of lists. But why? Is it too funky and not R&B enough like his older albums? Does it sound too much like a Black Keys album considering Dan Auerbach was at the helm of producing the album? Or could it even be overrated? Nonsense. It may not be soft-spoken, so why is it being treated as such? Maybe I could be overreacting, but in no way do I feel that Locked Down is even slightly inferior to, say, Dr. John’s Gumbo, Gris-Gris, or maybe even In the Right Place. To have Dr. John release an album in 2012 that perfectly culminates what he does best must have been a sign that maybe all he needed to become relevant again was to place his new material in the hands of someone who is definitely in tune with modern music. And Dan Auerbach was the guy who made it all happen.

Just like with Dr. John’s Gumbo, the opening title track to Locked Down grabs your attention and just doesn’t feel like letting go until it feels like you’ve had your fair share of fun. Normally, I can tell a filler track from just the first 30 seconds or so of a song, but Locked Down turns out to be one of those albums that have mere moments of filler, not whole filler tracks. For an album that lasts 42 minutes, that’s quite an accomplishment that is not easily achieved.

Given that Dr. John’s classic albums were made back when he was a heroin addict, his sobriety doesn’t mean that his edge has dulled. With Locked Down, his edge seems to have gotten sharper, if that’s possible. Throughout his near 40-year career, to release an album like Locked Down, Dr. John has proven that there never was, and never gonna be another big shot like him again.

“Locked Down”
“Big Shot”
“Kingdom of Izzness”
“My Children, My Angels”

07: Godspeed You! Black Emperor- ’Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

It seems as though everything has be properly and anally aligned for Godspeed You! Black Emperor to release an album. But when the sun, the stars, and all of the moons in the galaxy are in their most desirable positions, that’s when fate itself reaches down to musicians like Thierry Amar, David Bryant, Bruce Cawdron, Aidan Girt & Co. to come together and create music that currently resides on mere plastic and vinyl discs that instead begs to be etched in obsidian or gold.

Exaggerative? Okay, maybe. But no matter how you feel towards the infinite instrumental jammings and ramblings of post-rock and noise groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, there’s something about ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! that needs to be heard by more people. Yes, even the teen and tweenagers who are lumped into the same kind of crowds that prefer Top 40 radio, and never explore anything beyond that. As artfully and meticulously executed as a song like “Mladic” is, this is more along the lines of true art rock for people who also have an appreciation for theatrics.

Clocking in at just over 53 minutes, it is by far the most concise and worthwhile album Godspeed You! Black Emperor has produced since they released their first album, F# A# ∞, all the way back in 1997. I know to people my age it doesn’t seem like a terribly long time ago, but considering this is just Godspeed’s fourth proper album, it seems as though we’ll have to wait until all the prophetic elements are in place again before Godspeed You! Black Emperor even thinks about writing material that conjures musical elements to create a physically tangible jewel.

“We Drift Like Worried Fire”

08. Tame Impala- Lonerism
Without Neil Young’s attempt at recapturing the psychedelic spirit of the 60’s with Psychedelic Pill, released within a couple weeks of this album, Tame Impala’s second album would be the only straight up psychedelic rock album released this year worth listening to, thus making the title, Lonerism, the most appropriate title imaginable. Not just listening to though, but actually reading into and wondering how the hell they’re managing to pull off oldie’s psychedelic sounds like these that actually sound relevant in 2012.

If you look at the cover, you find yourself outside of a gated community where people are relaxing, smiling, and having fun. Lonerism may be a loose concept album about the power that is to be found in being alone, but the music itself feels like such a collaborative effort that the whole thing feels conflicted. But in turn, that means there’s something new to be found with each listen, and those albums are the ones most worthy of recognition, are they not?

As long as the album feels, you just don’t get the feeling your time is being wasted. Even if I have my suspicions that some material on the album is filler, this lesser material is still worth more than most of its peer’s imitations of the real thing. From “Be Above It,” and onwards, Tame Impala wastes virtually no time getting to business and makes sure you feel satisfied for every penny you spent on it.

“Be Above It”
“Apocalyptic Dreams”

09. Deftones- Koi No Yokan

When it comes to longevity and persistence in the midst of adversity, no other alternative metal band can compare with the mighty, mighty Deftones. As consistently reliable as their discography has been, it seems as though they are getting better with age, and Koi No Yokan is definite proof of such a statement. Many of their 90’s alternative metal contemporaries cannot say the same thing.

But what makes Koi No Yokan truly note-worthy is how they manage to transcend above just the realm of often emo alternative metal material. Some keyboards are put to good use, and their shoegazing influences show up every so often to create wondrous atmospheres. Under the guidance of producer, Nick Raskulinecz (who also produced albums for Rush and Alice in Chains), the Deftones decided to carry on after bassist Chi Cheng’s car accident in 2008 (which he is still slowly, but surely recovering from), and released Diamond Eyes in 2010, which is often cited as the band’s best work. Koi No Yokan could just as easily be the Deftones’ new best moment, but how bittersweet it is that Cheng wasn’t able to participate in its recording.

Regardless of whether or not you would want to focus on its few potential shortcomings, there is a whole world of carefully arranged aggressive music to be explored within Koi No Yokan, which at this point, I should mention is Japanese for “Love’s Premonition.” With track titles like “Romantic Dreams,” “Leathers,” “Poltergeist,” “Graphic Nature, “ and “Rosemary,” one gets the idea that the Deftones have made an album about love that not only sneers at the traditional pop clichés, but acts like they don’t even exist. If that’s not admirable trait for a band that’s nearing their 20-year milestone, I don’t know what is.

“Swerve City”
“Romantic Dreams”
“Goon Squad”

10.  Metz- Metz
For reasons I won’t go into here, I’ve recently had to spend a fair amount of time in the waiting rooms of various medical facilities. I recognize that spending an uncertain amount of time thumbing through old magazines and crumpled newspapers while hearing the sick people around me hack into their hands is incredibly tedious, so to alleviate this, I made the wise decision of bringing my Zune with me as a companion. One of the albums I almost always sought out during this trivial time was Metz’s self-titled debut, whose cover accurately reflects the frustrations I felt both during the Fall semester at school as well as waiting endlessly in hospitals.

It’s very fitting that I would choose this album as my main listening companion because of how it makes the boring and tedious experience of hanging out in waiting rooms a very invigorating one. Plus, you also have song titles like “Headache,” and “Nausea” (perhaps even “Wasted”) to go along with a medical theme. However, Metz did not make this album with the intention of being a mere time killer (much less for people like me who really only listen to it in waiting rooms), but mostly as a rattling testament to the tedium of life itself. Look at the album artwork and try to empathize with the kid who has his head buried in his arms on top of a pile of school textbooks and binders. Instead of the kid crushing his weight on the books, the books are crushing their weight on him.

The sound contained within the album is also crushing, and what better way to kick off the album than with “Headache,” which gives you an idea of what’s to come for the next 25 minutes or so. As unbearably noisy as this album can be at times, it’s 28 minute running length feels like a brief excursion into an exhausted mind that keeps getting pummeled by the boredom around it. Likewise with boredom itself, you cannot escape it, but each time you listen to the album, you emerge with a sense of energy you didn’t even know you needed in order to keep moving on with your life.  

“Knife in the Water”

Extra Credit Honorable Mentions (a.k.a.: the albums I forgot to include in the original honorable mention list)

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
I’m not sure how this can be classified as an alternative rock album when there are so many piano tracks, upright basses, truck stompers, thighs, bouzoukis, teiscos, and other instruments that are anything but conventional for alternative. With the ground covered in this album, Apple could be the female version of Tom Waits.

Baroness- Yellow & Green
The ever-reliable Baroness gets stranger for the latest in their series of albums named after colors, and proves they’re a more digestible form of Tool.

Aesop Rock- Skelethon
Brisk and urgent as if Aesop Rock has yet to prove himself in the rap world, but is rarely unconfident or uncertain. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Worst Albums of 2012

The Worst albums of 2012:

I find it sadly ironic that some of my favorite artists released some turds this year that do nothing beneficial for their legacy. Anyway, they must be mentioned nonetheless so we can learn from their mistakes, and hope for something more worthwhile from them in the future. I would also like to note that just because I have named the following as the worst 2012 had to offer, they are actually kind of far from my least favorite albums of all time, not to mention that the albums I've listed herein could actually be better than a few titles I have purposely neglected to listen to. Likewise with any form of criticism though, it is simply a matter of opinion. Ain't that great?

Marilyn Manson- Born Villain
Shock rockers’ relevance with a mass audience wasn’t designed to last, and all Manson’s new album does to prove that notion wrong is to misguidedly try to re-shock an audience that has long since ditched him. It’s a sad case, but realistically true. It’s especially disheartening considering the man is a highly intelligent social critic, even though you may or may not choose to acknowledge it. It’s just too bad he would rather dwell in artsy-fartsy purgatory when there’s so much political and popular discourse to dissect and hold up in front of his audience to see how ugly it truly is. Manson’s strengths have always relied upon him doing just that sort of thing, and it worked brilliantly in his trilogy of Antichrist Superstar, Mechanical Animals, and Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death), but it may just be that political rantings seem too clichéd to him. His loss.

Whatever his reason for settling for mediocrity may be, it just didn’t translate into a relevant album that Manson fans know he needed to create in order to keep his career alive. In its defense though, it is loads better than anything he has done post-Holy Wood. But whatever Manson chooses to do for his next album, he damn sure better come out swinging like his own life depends on it.

Ministry- Relapse
Ministry’s turbulent sound has never been easy to digest, but this album might as well be the musical equivalent of a nut log covered in Gouda cheese. When Ministry announced their retirement in 2007, it was very fitting considering critics like myself were thankful that there was at least a few musicians in the industry who knew when to quit on a high note before they got overly stale. But, in true Al Jourgensen fashion, he decided to piss all over that favor, and actually named this year’s comeback album, Relapse. As if he didn’t already know that Eminem beat him to that idea a whole three years ago. 

As fast and furious as the Bush trilogy was, at least there were a bounty of memorable tunes that I actually knew lyrics to and frequently sang in my head. I’ve listened to Relapse at least 4 times this year, and I can only recall just “Ghouldiggers.” From there, Jourgensen & Co. relentlessly pound out millions of quickly-strummed notes, sometimes all at once, and employ a drum machine that is stubbornly stuck on a full-thrash setting. I speculated in my original review that former band mate, Paul Barker, was perhaps the system of checks and balances that a thrash junkie like Jourgensen needed to prevent Ministry’s work from becoming stunningly monotonous. Since Barker jumped ship in 2003, some of Ministry’s works have become mostly an endless blur of fury that ends up signifying very little.

Justin Bieber- Believe
As much musical potential as I see in Bieber, I just don’t believe he has come close to reaching it yet, despite what Bieber himself thinks. Mostly because of the huge albatross of corporate and popular expectations weighing down this potential like a lead millstone. I recently read that he will be releasing a more intimate acoustic album in the same style as the sort of material he put out when he was first being discovered by Usher (just for kicks, imagine Bieber’s own version of American Recordings). However, since he’s still the property of Island records, who knows how intimate this acoustic album could possibly be. Until we know for sure, all we have to base his legacy on as of now are lyrics like, “Swag, swag, swag on you/ Chillin’ by the fire while we’re eating fondue.” Not to mention how his prominent tabloid relationship with Selena Gomez was probably more note-worthy than his music.

Apparently in the world of pre-teen, teen, and tween bubblegum pop naivety, whoever has the ‘swag’ has the power to deprive them of their money and dignity. Listening to Believe only made me believe that I was slowly being lowered into a vat of pink taffy whose sticky-sweetness threatened to make me feel sick, then consume me whole. I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but until you’ve heard the thing for yourself, all you have to do is just believe in me rather than Bieber.

Green Day- ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, & ¡Tré!

As Green Day gets older, they remain the same age, much to the delight of their loyal fans, but much to my own chagrin. At least with albums like Warning and their rock operas of American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown, as mature, yet pompous as they were, they sounded like Green Day were growing up and acting their age. However, with this album trilogy, they not only failed to maintain an air of maturity, but they actually managed to regress musically too.

As sappy as I felt Justin Bieber’s lyrics were, they actually seemed appropriate for his age considering Billie Joe is now 40 years old, but still writing like he’s a sexually confused/frustrated/longing 16 year-old. Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to console or relate to your target audience of high schoolers, but for God’s sake, if you’re going to do it, do not say things like, “Won’t you be my bloody valentine?” or “Everybody’s drama queen/ is old enough to bleed now.” Those could just as easily be a lyric from the bottomless pit of emo alternative metal bands who wish to share their most sappy sentiments with teenagers who probably have bigger things to worry about like math homework or even if they should bother combing their hair today.

As loyal as Green Day fans tend to be, their loyalty is tested to the extreme with this latest “collect-‘em-all!” trilogy that tests how willing true fans are to separate themselves from at least 30 dollars of their money. I’m not sure if I can recall an instance where a band felt the need to take advantage of their fanbase’s loyalty to such an extent, but I am thankful I merely streamed the material instead. To separate myself from such an amount of money in order to hear a power pop first part (with far more emphasis on pop than their signature power style), a decent, yet also half-assed garage rock second part, and finally an anti-climactic mix of the first two parts in ¡Tré!, would certainly make me more than willing to publicly damn them, and let them know just how I feel with the sheer pomposity of their latest work.

But to save you and myself from an endless self-important rant on Green Day’s decline, I feel compelled to remind everyone, including myself, that this trilogy was merely the product of Green Day having actual experimentation fun in the studio for the first time since 1997’s Nimrod. If this trilogy is what they needed to do in order to recharge their batteries for a better album the next time around, then I guess I can condone this abundant display of mindless indulgence for now. Other than that, I don’t see myself revisiting this chapter in Green Day’s career anytime soon, or ever again for that matter.