List by Chandler Mays
The year is at its end. The holiday rush is over and everyone is gearing up for the New Year. It’s time to take one long exhale as we reflect on the wonderful music this year has brought us. We’ve already counted down 30 through 11, and now it is time to reveal the top ten albums of 2012. Here they are, in a very particular order:
10. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
I’ve long been a fan of Killer Mike as a guest rapper on other emcees’ albums, but I have never really enjoyed any of his solo albums. This condition has drastically changed after the release of R.A.P. Music, a hardcore southern-fried gangster rap record with a healthy dose of political paranoia. The reason this album is light years beyond Mike’s previous work is the amazing production from El-P, a renowned producer from Brooklyn who also released his own stellar LP this year. R.A.P. Music confirms the theory that the better the beats are, the more inspired the emcees become. The album opens with the most hardcore track, “Big Beast“, an adrenaline shot of a song with a machine-gun beat, gangster lyrics that can’t possibly get any more aggressive, and one of T.I.’s best verses in years. After the headshot opener, Mike’s lyrics become more inventive with “Untitled“. Also, I have to mention “Reagan“, a brilliant track where he talks about how Reagan’s war on drugs became a way to suppress urban youth by turning them into profits through the subsidizing of private prisons and the free labor of incarcerated workers. He then suggests that all the presidents since Reagan, including Obama, are nothing but puppets controlled by a military-corporate agenda. Believe in it or not, it’s a chillingly good song.
9. Zammuto – Zammuto
Zammuto’s self-titled release is the catchiest experimental recording of 2012. Nick Zammuto gets adventurous with digitized vocals, obscure samples, and jazzy song structures, then combines them all with a unique live-band sound to create a strange yet highly satisfying progressive synth-rock album. On the opening track, “Yay“, a crisp syncopated beat begins on the high-hat, then Nick’s vocals enter, modulated through a computer to create a skittish stuttering sound. Then the bass and synths kick in, sending the song into its full glory of experimental pop melodies. On “Groan Man, Don’t Cry“, the drummer once again leads the charge with complex stick tapping, then a funky guitar riff is introduced giving the song a gloriously groovy feel. The vocals, as they are on all the tracks, are heavily modulated, which might turn off some listeners, but find I it vastly entertaining. A lot of experimental albums are drowned in reverb, but this album is produced with stunning clarity, every sound perfectly mixed, wholly intentional. None of the tracks are wasted space and the album continues to grow on me, listen after listen.
8. Royal Thunder – CVI
This album was introduced to me by a friend who sings opera. She passionately carried on about it, telling me how jealous she was of the lead singer’s voice and how versatile it is. I decided that if someone who is professionally trained to use her voice as a powerful instrument recommends a vocalist, I should probably check it out, and thank god I did! Royal Thunder is an Atlanta band that plays heavy stoner metal with a tinge of psychedelia. Most of their songs are immersive journeys that pass the 6-minute mark, with epic guitar melodies that dance between bluesy, progressive, and classic riffing. Instrumentally, the album is a great ride, but it is without a doubt the vocal contributions of Mlny Parsonz that skyrocket CVI into ‘album of the year’ territory. Mlny’s voice sounds like an amalgamation of Robert Plant, Grace Slick, Ann Wilson, and Ronnie James Dio. She howls, roars, screams, and sings her way to hell and back with a technically masterful delivery that’s vicious and soulful all at once. This gives her an emotional depth that only a small percentage of lead singers possess. And the sheer range of her vocals is mesmerizing. Basically, Mlny Parsonz is a badass, and you should listen to Royal Thunder.
7. Woods – Bend Beyond
This marks the seventh album released by folk group Woods, who have been steadily churning out records since 2006. Bend Beyond is their most solid album to date containing twelve impeccable tracks of summery psychedelia with a pinch of melancholy added as a reality check. No matter what the weather is like outside, when I’m listening to Woods, the sun is shining bright, and the skies are blue. Simply put, this album without fail makes me happy. The psychedelic sounds present in Bend Beyond are slightly more stripped down compared to their previous albums, which allows the sheer power of the band’s ever-improving songwriting skills to shine through. The melodies and hooks on this record are so addicting that the ‘less is more’ idea is truly demonstrated within these songs. Woods begins the album with “Bend Beyond“, where you can hear the Neil Young influences coming through, and the instrumental interlude sound like psychedelic heaven. The second track is the lead single, “Cali In A Cup“, which is the perfect song to play while on a road trip with your friends. “Is It Honest?” might be the band’s most well written pop folk song to date. I could rave about every track on the album, but I’ll stop myself now and say that if you don’t have enough money to fly to California, just put on this record instead.
6. Dry The River – Shallow Bed
With an influx of indie folk in the music scene these days, it’s becoming more difficult for bands to set themselves apart from the rest and get noticed by the masses. Dry the River does not have this problem. With their debut album, Shallow Bed, the band blends sentimental folk melodies with an emotionally resonant heavy rock sound. Their songs seem to have split personalities, lying somewhere between the calm eye of the storm and the torrential hurricane force. Frontman, Peter Liddle, said in an interview, “I think people are surprised when they come to see us live. They expect us to be really calm and quiet but in some ways we’re the opposite.” This is quite true as I was able to catch the band in Nashville and was blown away by their intensity. Liddle’s voice has been bestowed from the angels themselves, embodying a delicate choirboy quality that lends a gospel sounding characteristic to the songs. In “New Ceremony“, he sings with such delicacy, “It’s anybody’s guess how the angel of doubt came down and crept into your bed.” Then the song builds momentum with aching electric guitars and violins, compounding momentum until it explodes into the chorus where he sings, “Shine a little light, don’t wrestle with the night, don’t think about the future. I know it’s gotta stop love but I don’t know how.” The more you listen to Dry the River, the more it becomes apparent that the members have backgrounds in hardcore and post-punk bands. They gracefully blend the beauty of folk music with elements of epic emotional rock and even post-rock. In “Weights and Measures“, you can really feel the impassioned excitement when Liddle sings, “Since there’s no one around here to see, I was prepared to love you and never expect anything of you.” This is a band to keep an eye on with such a stunning debut.
5. Lotus Plaza – Spooky Action At A Distance
Lotus Plaza is the solo project of Lockett Pundt, better known as the guitarist and multi-instrumentalist of Atlanta-based indie rock group Deerhunter. If you’ve ever seen Deerhunter live, chances are you didn’t notice Lockett all too much, as Bradford Cox would have most likely mesmerized you with his unique charisma and stage presence. However, Pundt is finally stepping up to the plate and proving to everyone that he is truly a phenomenal songwriter. Spooky Action At A Distance is a blissful album of dreamy psychedelic indie rock that is so vibrant and poppy that you’ll wonder why you haven’t noticed Lockett’s potential earlier. His first solo album, The Floodlight Collective, was released in 2009 only with the influence and support of his friends, as he is apparently quite a shy guy. You can notice this on his first album by the way he drowns all of his vocals in heavy reverb, as if he’s not confident of the way it sounds as opposed to being a stylistic choice. This is not the case on Spooky Action as he is much more present in the mix and you can actually discern his words and enunciation. Every track on the album belongs there with no excess fat to trim. Should Lockett Pundt keep making solo records? Absolutely. Should he leave Deerhunter? Absolutely not. Also, I think now is a good time to say yes, I listened to Lonerism. Yes, I enjoyed it. No, it didn’t make my top 30, and I think InnerSpeaker is much better.
4. Beach House – Bloom
What can I say about this album that hasn’t already been said all year long? Bloom is, in my humble opinion, the best dream pop album to date. It is dark, mysterious, alluring, delicate, and most of all, it is BEAUTIFUL. This is one of the few albums I actually swoon over. I usually can’t listen to it with a group of friends because they’ll think my reactions are slightly inappropriate. When Teen Dream came out in 2010, I officially jumped on the Beach House bandwagon. I thought it was a great record, one of the year’s better, actually, but I only listened to it maybe ten times. It was unfortunately phased out by some of the greatest albums of the century. Yes, 2010 was quite a competitive year, and Teen Dream didn’t have the staying power that Bloom clearly has. It’s strange, though, because Beach House hasn’t changed their sound much at all. They’ve simply refined and perfected their style to create their most matured release thus far. I have played Bloom too many times to count. I sleep to it. I study to it. I drive to it. I have sex to it. I work out to it. Well… I don’t work out… or have sex, but if I did, I’m sure I’d play Beach House. I feel like I’m preaching to the choir here when I say you should listen to Bloom. Your quality of life will be better for it. Myth and Lazuli are my favorite tracks, but the entire album is perfect.
3. Cloud Nothings – Attack On Memory
I tried countless times to get into Japandroids’ 2012 release, Celebration Rock, but every time I listened to it, I found myself wanting to turn it off and play the ferocious Attack On Memory again. This post-hardcore indie rock album was released in January, and has not left my disc changer all year. I had never heard of Cloud Nothings before this release as they were apparently making lo-fi emo pop rock on their two previous albums. Frontman Dylan Baldi wanted this record to have more of an organic live band sound, and he achieved that desire in flying colors by employing Steve Albini, who has worked with Nirvana, The Stooges, Pixies, and Manic Street Preachers, to engineer the album. As soon as I heard the opening track, No Future/No Past, I was hooked. Over an ominous guitar line and backbeat, Dylan Baldi sings one line over and over like a mantra: “Give up. Come to know we’re through.” His voice escalates from an unnerving groan to a tempestuously throaty scream until the song disintegrates into a cacophony of drums and distortion. This track sets the tone for the rest of the album, which does not disappoint. “Wasted Days” is a 9-minute opus that turned out to be my favorite song of the year. The lyrics exemplify my general mindset, which I’m sure many can relate to: “Oh I know my life’s not gonna change, and I live through all these wasted days. Never thought that I’d end up this way, and I know it’s gonna stay the same. I thought I would be more than this.”
2. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
This is the story of good kid, m.A.A.d city, a short film by Kendrick Lamar: “Sherane a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter” is the story’s opener, which is a flash-forward. A young Kendrick meets Sherane at a party. Sherane is a ‘hoodrat’ from Compton who’s family has a history of gang-banging. This makes Kendrick wary but doesn’t stop him from hooking up with her over the summer. One night, with sex on the brain, Kendrick borrows his mother’s van to drive to Sherane’s house. When he gets there, Sherane is outside waiting with two guys in black hoodies. Kendrick freezes as his phone rings, which goes to voicemail. His mother leaves a message asking where her van is. Cut to an interlude track, “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe“, where Kendrick the rapper deals with the new recognition and fame he’s receiving. Cut back to the narrative in “Backseat Freestyle“. This is linearly the beginning of the story, where Kendrick is in the backseat of a car with his homies, cruising around, doing what he’s good at: free-styling. Cut to “The Art Of Peer Pressure” , where young Kendrick must adapt to the expectations of hanging “with the homies”. The story plunges into a world of drinking, smoking, jumping rivals, and robbing houses. After robbing a house they’ve been scoping for months, Kendrick and his homies barely escape the police. Cut to a skit where his homies talk about dropping Kendrick off to “fuck with Sherane”, which starts to catch us up to the flash forward. “Money Trees” recaps the story thus far. The main line in the chorus, “Everyone gon’ respect the shooter, but the one in front of the gun lives forever,” is a reference to his Uncle Tony who got shot in the head in front of Louie’s Burger, and it also foreshadows future events. Kendrick’s mother then leaves another voicemail, reiterating that she wants her car back. “Poetic Justice” is Kendrick’s love(-ish) letter to Sherane, which then segues to a skit of the two dudes in hoodies at Sherane’s demanding to know where he’s from. They snatch him from the car and presumably kick his ass. This catches us up with the flash forward, and marks the halfway point of the story. Next, “good kid” introduces Kendrick’s conflict of being pressured by his peers to choose a gang to represent, and getting accosted by police who assume he’s a gangbanger. “m.A.A.d. city” brings more enlightenment as Kendrick furiously raps about the people he knows who were killed in the past. In the last verse, his vocals modulate as he describes how easily Compton kids fall from innocence, closing with the line, “Compton USA made me an angel on angel dust.” Cut to a skit of Kendrick’s homies picking him back up. They give him vodka to help get over what happened at Sherane’s. Cut to “Swimming Pools“, which demonstrates the dangers of alcohol and how it can be used as a vice to hold yourself back from your goals. The next skit reveals Kendrick and his friends cruising around, looking for the guys that jumped Kendrick. They find them and a gunfight ensues. During the shootout, Kendrick’s friend Dave is hit, and ends up dying in Kendrick’s arms. “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is two powerful songs on one track, separated by a skit. “Sing About Me” is about Dave’s death. The first verse is from the perspective of Dave’s brother, who says the blood is on Kendrick’s hands, but he appreciates that Kendrick was there for his brother. He hopes Kendrick will sing about him when he makes it big. In a chilling moment, Dave’s brother says, “And if I die before your album drop I hope- POP-POP-POP”… We can presume he died before the album dropped. The second verse is an angry message from a prostitute, who is the sister of Keisha, another prostitue who was raped and stabbed, and Kendrick wrote a song about her on Section.80. The third verse is from Kendrick’s perspective as he apologizes to Dave’s brother and Kiesha’s sister, saying that these tragic events helped change his life, leading him to use music as an outlet to escape from the violence. Cut to a skit where Kendrick’s homies are talking about going back and getting revenge for Dave’s death. Kendrick finally snaps and yells out, “I’m tired of this shit! I’m tired of fucking running!” This segues into “I’m Dying Of Thirst” where he talks of his fatigue over the perpetual cycle of death that occurs from running around and killing people. He desperately raps, “How many sins? I’m running out. How many sins? I lost count.” In the next skit, Kendrick is still with Dave when an unknown woman approaches to tell them that they are dying of thirst and they need to make a change for themselves by accepting God as their lord and savior. She leads a prayer with them, which then marks the first day of Kendrick’s new life. “Real” is about the new Kendrick reflecting on the past. Verse one is (most likely) directed at Sherane, verse two is directed at his homies, and verse three is Kendrick analyzing his peers and the events that brought him to this point. The song finishes with a voicemail from Kendrick’s father who says he’s sorry about what happened to Dave, and to not make the same mistakes he made. He hands the phone to Kendrick’s mother who tells him that Top Dawg called and wants him in the studio, and that he should take his music seriously and use it to “give back to your city” by giving words of encouragement to the youth of Compton. The tape ends and rewinds, marking the end of the story. The final track, “Compton“, is a victory lap where Kendrick raps about the violent city that spawned him and is doing just what his mother told him to do. Dr. Dre also gives an honorable verse where he symbolically passes the torch to Kendrick to represent Compton… Given enough time, good kid, m.A.A.d city will be viewed as one of the greatest hip hop albums ever made. In my book, it already is.
1. alt-J – An Awesome Wave
“∆” is actually the band’s name, but it is pronounced “alt-J” because it is the keyboard shortcut used on Apple OS X to insert the Delta symbol. There was some initial online ‘controversy’ surrounding the release of An Awesome Wave. Some were claiming alt-J to be the next Radiohead. Pitchfork immediately shat themselves and proceeded to give the album a review of 4.7 out of 10 stars, because god forbid anyone touches their precious Radiohead. The review was hilarious to read. You could sense the reviewer’s irrational fear of this new act as he desperately tried to negatively compare them to other bands and criticize the production, lyrics, and overall sound. Now let’s get to the bottom of this issue: Is alt-J the next Radiohead? As of right now, no. They’ve only put out one album, so it would be impossible to even compare the two bands at this moment. And to be honest, I doubt alt-J will ever put out an album that has as much of a cultural impact as OK Computer or Kid A. However, I will say that comparatively, alt-J’s undeniably unique debut, An Awesome Wave, is MUCH better than Radiohead’s debut, Pablo Honey, and acknowledging this probably scares some people. But I honestly don’t see the point of comparing the two bands in the first place. Just listen to the album and decide for yourself. I immediately fell in love with An Awesome Wave on the first listen, and my love for it has grown with each and every repeat. Lead singer, Joe Newman, has an extraordinary voice that might be off-putting to some, but I can’t get enough of. The Simon and Garfunkel harmonies on “Interlude 1” and the masterfully layered percussion on “Tessellate” immediately suck you into the strangely alluring sonic landscape of alt-J. “Breezeblocks” is a dark song about loving somebody so much you would rather see them die than leave you. “Something Good” is a beautiful song that describes the bond between a matador and a bull. “Dissolve Me” opens with a drug reference, but is most likely about a broken relationship. “Matilda” has a chorus that is impossible not to sing along to. “Fitzpleasure” is hard to interpret, but the drumbeats and the guitar work are undeniably masterful. I haven’t had this level of an obsession with an album since The National’s High Violet. I look forward to alt-J’s future endeavors, and until then I’ll be blasting An Awesome Wave.