The 50 Best Albums of 2012
It’s the same case every year at FACT with albums.
We sit down, moaning about how there’s not been as many great full-lengths as in years gone by, and by the time it comes to finalising the top 50 there’s a stack of worthy contenders – amongst them this year Jon Convex’s Idoru, DJ Earl’s Audio Fixx, Keith Fullerton Whitman’s Generators, Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel…, KTL’s V and Joey Bada$$’s 1999 – that just end up missing the cut. Consider that your honourable mentions list; what follows are the 50 albums that did it most for FACT’s staff this year. We’ll be posting 10 entries a day, concluding with the top 10 on Friday.
Use the arrow keys on your keyboard to turn pages (page 1/51)
50: BIGG JUS
MACHINES THAT MAKE CIVILIZATION FUN
(MUSH / LAITDBAC)
Fuck Funcrusher, the first album in over half a decade from Company Flow’s Bigg Jus is simply crushed. One of the most morbid hip-hop records you’re ever likely to hear, at times Jus sounds on the verge of madness; at others, he’s fallen into the pit completely. Machines’ production ranges from confrontational (‘Game Boy Predator’, ‘Food for Thought’) to candlelit (‘Empire is a Bitch’), but Jus’s performance is what stays with you: red-eyed, alone and completely devoid of hope.
Impossible Symmetry [full album]
Luke ‘Helm’ Younger’s background is in noise, and his previous releases can be broadly classified as such; but Impossible Symmetry is a different beast, more a work of arcane, concrète psychedelia; rhythm is often foregrounded, but with a subtlety and sensitivity far removed from the kind of crude noise/techno hybrids that have become so commonplace of late. We’re already very keen to see what he does next.
48: HALEEK MAUL
Slower than Chrome Lips, his collaborative mixtape with Supreme Cuts, Oxyconteen was our favourite 2012 release from teenage Barbadian rapper Haleek Maul. Somewhere between Spaceghostpurrp and Super Metroid, the production – courtesy of King Britt, The-Drum and more – trickles like drips in a dungeon, suiting Haleek’s burnt-out flow down to a tee.
47: THE XX
Following xx was always going to be a difficult task for the London trio, and it’s admirable that having established that rarest of things in contemporary music – a signature sound that didn’t sound like much else around – on Coexist they didn’t feel the pressure to change that formula, instead carefully honing it. There’s no shock of the new here, no moments that hit quite like those early xx demos and singles; instead, Coexist finds Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sims interacting more as lyricists and vocalists (second track ‘Chained’, where they finish each others lyrics, is a perfect early example), and all of the group’s members conducting their roles with more composure and confidence. Just as black’s never going to go out of fashion, the xx’s confession chamber guitar and simple-but-effective songwriting still has legs.
46: PURITY RING
Without compromising their rustic, Grimm fairytale undertone, Purity Ring turned in a chromed, hi-tech pop album. Dialling back their fey, touchy-feely side and cleaning up the ghosted-out abstraction of acts like Holy Other, they focus instead on invoking hip-hop’s bling-beautiful trappings. The final outcome is a trebly plastic-fantastic quality, rendering Shrines closer in tone and texture to coke-rap than ethereal indie. A rare example of a hipster band operating in real time with urban music, instead of a couple of steps behind.
45: ROBERT AIKI AUBREY LOWE
TIMON IRNOK MANTA
Employing elements of thrumming classical minimalism, ritualistic drumming, Rhythm & Sound-style dub science, kosmische and techno, Rob Lowe (the one from Lichens rather than Wayne’s World and The West Wing) created an LP of extraordinary poise, refinement and power. This is what avant-garde, soundsystem-savvy electronic music was supposed to sound like in 2012.
44: TRIAD GOD
(HIPPOS IN TANKS)
‘Sun Hing J’
NXB didn’t so much split opinion as cleave it clean in two – depending on which FACT staffer you ask, the New Cross resident’s sophomore mixtape is either remarkably special or downright specious. Still, we’ll always take provocative over pleasant, and those who bought into Vinh Ngan’s East-facing daydreams found plenty to fall in love with. Over a collection of heartsore instrumentals from London producer Palmistry, Ngan coos and maunders in Cantonese. The result is a wonderfully oneiric collection – amidst a phalanx of self-avowed outsider artists, this was about as strange as it got.
43: CARTER TUTTI VOID
2012 was the year when Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti sprinkled the final bit of dirt on the Throbbing Gristle tumulus, releasing the valedictory Desertshore/The Final Report double album. Curiously enough, however, it wasn’t that painstakingly curated farewell piece that lingered in the memory – indeed, Chris & Cosey’s real triumph was a haphazard, semi-improvised concert recording. Transverse documents the pair’s “gut-wrenching” live session with Factory Floor’s Nik Colk Void at London’s The Roundhouse in May 2011. Propulsive, muscular and unpredictable, it’s a heartening reminder that industrial’s first couple can still shock’n’awe with the best of them.
42: SCHOOLBOY Q
HABITS AND CONTRADICTIONS
(TOP DAWG ENTERTAINMENT)
Black Hippy regular Schoolboy Q wanted this tape to be “real dark”, and these gully tales of joyless hook-ups and false friends don’t pull any punches. Still, Habits And Contradictions is anything but bleak – as it happens, it’s just about the most elegant and adventurous rap tape we’ve heard all year. Whether he’s shredding indie nerds Menomena on ‘There He Go’, channelling Quasimoto on the ‘Groovline Pt. 1’ or tripping the light fantastic on ‘Sex Drive’, Q’s latest boasts an embarrassment of smart calls – plus, in from-the-frontline report ‘Hands On The Wheel’, the year’s bleariest house party anthem.
41: COCAINE 80s
EXPRESS 0G EP
Cocaine 80s: sushi at strip-clubs, big collars, guitar solos and permanent sunshine. On Express OG, the C80s project – Chicago producer No I.D. in collaboration with a series of vocalists – sounded even more accomplished than on previous EPs, without ever forgetting about the importance of the raw. The earthy ‘Take My Keys’ and ‘Unchain Me’ could have fallen flat in a different context, but placed alongside some of 2012’s bumpiest r’n’b jams, especially the spectacular, Nas-featuring ‘Chainglow’, they work perfectly as moments of calm in a numb-nosed race to the bottom: “going too fast to stop me, girl.”
40: BAT FOR LASHES
THE HAUNTED MAN
On her third album, Natasha Khan frees herself from the conceptual constraints of her first two offerings and is better off for it. Throughout The Haunted Man, Khan is self-assured about her craft: strong enough in her identity to be vulnerable and exposed. Her mimicry of Kate Bush outpaces her contemporaries (ahem, Florence) and sonically, the influence of austere, icy post-punk is a welcome development. The Haunted Man is not perfect, but with standouts like ‘Laura’ and ‘Lilies’, it’s a well-composed pop album.
39: BLACK BREATH
SENTENCED TO LIFE
The follow-up to 2010’s Heavy Breathing, Black Breath’s sophomore album found the Seattle-based group raging and restless, upping the tempo and intensity to breakneck levels. Slower moments such as ‘Endless Corpse”s majestic intro are mere teasers: Sentenced to Life is an album where faster rules, and where even the sludgy five-minute closer ‘Obey’, with its lead riff that swings like a rusty pendulum, is punctuated by bursts of double-time drums.
(RCA / BYSTORM / BLACK ICE)
Miguel seeks to craft R&B that is informed but not dominated by hip-hop, a form that looks back to the genre’s heights rather than its rap-hook-singing recent vintage. On Kaleidoscope Dream, songs like ‘Adorn’, ‘Do You…’, and ‘Where’s The Fun In Forever’ find him reaching for Marvin Gaye rather than R. Kelly. Overall, it’s a testament to his evolved songwriting, reverence to the past, and refusal to be pigeonholed. With contemporaries Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, he’s ushering in a new era of R&B.
(GREEDHEAD ENTERTAINMENT / CAMP & STREET)
Darkling make-out music from NY rap’s freakiest new voice. Where, say, Mykki Blanco keeps her club-rap/scuzz-punk personas separate, Le1f just hurls everything into the pot: industrial textures, 8-bit beeps’n’bleeps, footwork riddims and crunk tics all deliquesce into a heady jet-black gumbo. Le1f’s a captivating host, tilting from treble-time flow to come-hither (s)mutterings. He’s aided by a none-more-2012 roll call of producers: Morri$, Nguzunguzu and 5kinandbone5 are among the backroom boys turning out some of their best work to date. Mongrel R&B, with teeth.
BOGOTA RICH: THE PREQUEL
‘Fuck Shit In My Life’
What a year Gunplay had. It might, of course, also be his last as a free man – the Triple Cs member and Maybach Music Group affiliate is currently facing life in prison if found guilty of assault and armed robbery – but what a way to go out. After stealing the show with world-beating guest verses on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Cartoon & Cereal’ and MMG’s ‘Power Circle’, he released 2012’s leanest, meanest mixtape: a mere 13 tracks long, Bogota Rich: The Prequel was all impact, sporting the astonishing ‘Fuck Shit In My Life’ and ‘Jump Out’. A writer’s words can only do so much when describing a rapper whose appeal is as instinctive and physical as Gunplay’s, so we’ll let the man himself close this blurb – with a quote from a radio interview following his BET Awards brawl with 50 Cent. “I was by myself, like I usually am. Everything is fine. You can see the last wildebeest in the pack of buffalo, I jumped on them like a lion. Like the last wildebeest that couldn’t be fast enough and make it away, I latched on him and let him know. I redeemed myself with the donkey… If that would have been Miami, everybody would have been laid out.”
35: YOUNG SMOKE
Chicago up-and-comer Young Smoke has been on our radar for a few years at FACT, and the announcement that he was to release a full album on Planet Mu was a more than welcome surprise. Although not all of Space Zone hit the spot – some of its rowdier moments went on a little too long, for our tastes – when it found Smoke conjuring up visions of space-age snowfields and ice-cold airlocks it soared as one of the year’s most evocative listens; in Smoke’s own words, a record that “feels like [it’s] bigger than the world – they take you somewhere, make you feel like you’re somewhere different”.
34: LORENZO SENNI
Last year, AraabMusik won plenty of hearts (not to mention a fair few detractors) with Electronic Dream, an album that reimagined naff Eurotrance as ecstatic thug-rap. Lorenzo Senni’s Quantum Jelly, by contrast, isn’t going to lead to an Ultra Music co-sign, but it’s a similarly fascinating exercise in trance deconstructionism. The Milanese multi-disciplinary artist borrows the genre’s strobing lead-lines, and expurgates literally everything else. The results – spiralling Energy 52 hooks, left to hang in a vacuum, forever – are as enthralling as they are uncanny. Mego calls Quantum Jelly “non-uplifting”; we’d plump for “shard-trance”.
33: ALTERED NATIVES
TENEMENT YARD VOL.3
2012 saw the ever-restless (see what we did there?) Altered Natives finish his Tenement Yard series on a high. Closing on the elegiac ‘You Cut Me (Out of My Life)’, TY3 is an album that winks as often as it rampages, with an all-too-rare balance between not compromising and not taking itself too seriously. Who else would accompany a house record with a suicide note?
MUSIC FOR KEYBOARDS VOL.1
(HIPPOS IN TANKS)
Like some avant-pop Just William, d’Eon spent the year stringing us along with an assortment of hare-brained schemes and chucklesome pranks. The Canadian dropped a double LP about the archangel Gabriel’s adventures travelling the internet, composed a po-faced nationalist symphony on MIDI, and reimagined Blink 182’s pap-punk manthem ‘What’s My Age Again?’ as a 15-part piano suite. Still, you can only tell a joke once, and the one d’Eon release we kept returning to happened to be a tomfoolery-free zone. Music For Keyboards Vol. 1 is a delightfully airy collection of e.piano etudes – ranging from OPN-grade synth cascades to nebbish one-man fugues, it’s a thoughtful and unremittingly lovely set. Our favourite florilegium of the year – and not a squirt flower in sight.
LIFE IS GOOD
The facts: Nas is nearly forty years old, a father, and — as the album art notably relates — divorced from ex-wife Kelis. But on his 11th (!) studio album, he seems to have come to terms with all of that. Life Is Good is Nas’ best album in recent memory because it sidesteps the pitfalls that plague his post-Illmatic works. He tapped producers Salaam Remi and No I.D. to craft the type of retro beats with which he works best, and his lyrics are as tightly-constructed as ever. It’s a mature album that doesn’t feel like a chore to listen to, and that might be Nas’ greatest feat here: finding vitality after 20 years in the famously youth-focused rap game.
30: SUPREME CUTS
WHISPERS IN THE DARK
Supreme Cuts’ Austin Keultjes told FACT that “the best album would be a mixture of [Stevie Wonder’s] Songs In The Key Of Life and Goo by Sonic Youth,” and while that doesn’t quite describe the duo’s Whispers in the Dark, the album certainly is able to mix heart-on-sleeve honesty with cascading waves of sound. Songs like ‘E2’ and ‘Belly’ practically ache with yearning and regret, while the hardcore-via-footwork percussion fest ‘Val Venus’ aims for something more visceral. 2012 found the Chicago duo applying their sound to hip-hop talent as divergent as Main Attrakionz and Haleek Maul, but Whispers in the Dark is the finest document of their post-everything explorations.
29: RICARDO VILLALOBOS
DEPENDENT AND HAPPY
Sometimes the goliaths don’t get the props they deserve. Ricardo Villalobos, let’s not forget, released our fourth favourite album of the last decade – plus, in Fabric36, arguably the most mythologized commercial mix CD of our young millennium. It’s odd, then, that Villalobos’ first studio album in eight years seems to have made a fairly meagre splash. For sure, Dependent and Happy isn’t Villalobos’ boldest record, and it would be mendacious to call it his best. Then again, there’s still nobody else making techno this ingenious – Villalobos’ rhythmic flair and ear for the sensuous remain unparalleled. Dependent and Happy is a virtuoso lesson from the old guard, and we hope the class of 2013 were taking note.
28: ARIEL PINK & R. STEVIE MOORE
KU KLUX GLAM
The majority of Classic Albums are like haute cuisine: wonderfully well proportioned, and served without an ounce of excess fat. Sometimes, though, you just want to plunge into a buffet – and Ku Klux Glam is the year’s maddest, messiest smorgasbord. 2012 saw Moore, with some help from Tim Burgess and a few notable publications, make the leap from cult proposition to elder statesmen. This low-key 62 track collaboration with superfan Ariel Pink shows Moore at his most playful. On the menu? Self-reflexive funk songs; interviews set to music; jingles for non-existent products; scatological skits; schmaltzy soft-rock; rap battles; goofs and flubs; improvised playlets; a satirical ‘Round And Round’ remix; and much, much more.
27: SCOTT WALKER
On first listen, one’s immediate impulse is to try and parse Bish Bosch – to make sense of this exhilarating welter of language, this barrage of apparently disordered sound. Trying to unpick Walker’s quibbles, however, isn’t just foolhardy, it’s counterproductive: Walker’s latest opus is an album that needs to be felt, not solved. Substantially more playful than 2006’s jarring The Drift, the album skips from TG-grade industrial racket (‘”See You Don’t Bump His Head”‘) to mangled Afrobeat (‘Phrasing’) to high-riffage rawk (the 20+ minute ‘SDSS14+13B’). Walker’s lyric sheet, too, puts every other working musician to shame – he’s gnomic, endlessly quotable and, more often than you’d expect, riotously funny. Bish Bosch‘s genius is to bombard the listener with sense impressions – to excite the gut before the head has time to catch up.
Claire Boucher’s 4AD debut moved beyond the circumstantially lo-fi character of her early offerings Geidi Primes and Halfaxa for a profoundly inventive and just plain weird take on electro-pop. While the shifty rhythms can get a bit repetitive, they’re usually voiced differently, and they’re always paired with otherworldly synth-work that darts into uneasy, industrial territory. ‘Genesis’ and ‘Oblivion’ deliver on the promise of last year’s breakthrough single ‘Vanessa’, demonstrating Boucher’s ear for melodies and hooks, and the pair are worth the price of admission alone.
25: MAIN ATTRAKIONZ
BOSSALINIS & FOOLIYONES
On their first proper album, the Bay Area duo offers the finest testament to “cloud rap” yet, balancing spaced-out dreamscapes like the Supreme Cuts-produced ‘Love Is Life’ with heaping servings of revitalized G-funk. It turns out both styles suit Squadda B and Mondre M.A.N, whose abstractions are exquisite as ever. While Mondre told FACT they “don’t make no party music”, Main Attrakionz are surprisingly adroit at crafting slanted anthems, from the I-put-on-for-my-city ‘Do It For The Bay’ to the genre-defining album closer ‘Cloud Body’, which proclaims “Cloud rap / it’s that shit you could trust.”
24: THE INTERNET
PURPLE NAKED LADIES
(ODD FUTURE / SONY)
Perhaps 2012’s most pleasant curveball, this album from Odd Future’s Syd the Kid and Matt Martians was everything that OF’s detractors accuse the collective of not being: subtle, seductive and smart. Of course, Purple Naked Ladies isn’t a rap record; instead, its gently ebbing guitar and sample-based soul would have Jools Holland crawling up the walls were it not for the frequent references to drugs. Even on the album’s more difficult moments (the stuttering ‘She Dgaf’, for instance), it’s never anything less than an absolute pleasure.
23: HEROIN IN TAHITI
A suite of twangy, drug-hazed instrumentals which purport to be inspired by pulp movies – from surfsploitation romps to Mafia thrillers – and their soundtracks, but which move beyond pastiche into a realm altogether more creepy and compelling. A dark and dangerous doppelgänger to Washed Out’s insipidly aqueous pop.
(A1 / EPIC / FREE BANDZ ENTERTAINMENT)
‘Turn Off The Lights’
Druggy Auto-Tuned space ballads produced by Mike Will and others is an easy sell in any circumstances, but it’s easy to underestimate Pluto: after a false start in disposable opener ‘Parachute’, it grows into a record that hit us in ways that we never thought the Dungeon Family and Gucci Mane running mate’s music would.
At the album’s heart is the aching ‘Turn Off The Lights’, a club ballad turned otherworldly quest tale that’s one of the year’s very best singles, but there’s close competition from its little brother ‘Neva End’, the exultant ‘Straight Up’ and ‘Truth Gonna Hurt You’, perhaps the moment on Pluto where Future sounds most resigned to life in his quartz void of leaf and Gucci boots (“I need to get my act together / we changing up the weather / it’s so hard to be settled”). Rarely for a major label hip-hop debut, Pluto’s also smart with its guest appearances: Juicy J shakes up ‘I’m Trippin’ without straying far from the track’s subject matter (er, drugs), Drake slaughters the remix of ‘Tony Montana’ and even Snoop keeps the levels high on ‘Homicide’.
21: DEAN BLUNT & INGA COPELAND
BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL
When Hype Williams dropped the (still phenomenal) Do Roids & Kill Everything 7″ back in 2010, the talking point was their reading of Sade’s ‘The Sweetest Taboo’. No ludic sleights of hand, no swallowed laugher – just Inga Copeland quavering over a granular remake of the 1985 original. After sidesteps (Dean Blunt’s The Narcissist II) and backwards shuffles (2011’s comparatively unadventurous One Nation), Black Is Beautiful represents the pair’s first real attempt to explore that track’s mode of zonked psych-pop. Blunt and Copeland’s Hyperdub debut offers parallel universe chart fodder (‘5′; ’11’, Donnie and Joe Emerson cover ‘2’), ambient clutter (‘4’; ‘8’) and screwball dub (‘3’) – and, on ‘9’, a perfect synthesis of all three. It’s a crash-course tutorial in dream logic – music for falling through mirrors, for plummeting down rabbit holes.
20: SILENT SERVANT
‘Temptation & Desire’
It says a lot about the extent of recent cross-pollination between the techno and noise scenes that it felt entirely natural, in 2012, for Silent Servant to be releasing his debut album through Dominick ‘Prurient’ Fernow’s Hospital Productions label. But what made this album great was how honest and true to Mendez’s long-time influences it sounded, as he yolked together thunderous Basic Channel minimalism, kohl-eyed cold wave and scorching industrial into an electrifying and thoroughly coherent whole.
19: LANA DEL REY
BORN TO DIE
‘Born To Die’
The debut album from the most divisive pop star in some time did nothing but further polarize the conversation. Unfortunately, the conversation usually revolved too much around the idea of Lana Del Rey and not the music of Lana Del Rey. Whatever your opinions on retro-fetishism and her “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” PR spin, Born To Die is a phenomenal accomplishment: 15 songs (including bonus cuts, but not counting the expanded Paradise edition) with few if any missteps, a malleable but distinct voice, a well-oiled pop soundtrack that seamlessly fuses its many influences, and a pair of zeitgeist-defining songs (‘Blue Jeans’ and ‘Video Games’). When was the last time a record — and a major label debut, at that — could say all that?
Proof that you can’t keep a good man down: 2012 saw Wiley sign to just about the only major label that he hasn’t been dropped by, Warner Bros, and score his first number one with the perfectly average ‘Heatwave’. While keeping himself in webcams and Wimpy, Wiley also kept the streets alive with a series of freestyles – each labelled as Step 1, Step 2, etc and later compiled as the It’s All Fun & Games Til mixtape – that represented some of his fiercest material in years, nabbing beats from Darq E Freaker (‘Ironside’), Spooky (his remix of Masro’s ‘Utter Madness’) and more.
Speaking to FACT earlier this year, long-serving French producer I:Cube admitted that he was “fed up with the format of the album for dance music. I don’t think it’s really relevant anymore to make an 80 minute album with 10 minute tracks”, and described “M” Megamix as a means to release “all these bits I had lying around”, deliberately only spending five minutes on the record’s final tracklist. The result was 2012’s most immediate dance record and a successful exercise in both under-thinking and blurring the line between the album format and the club: the ADD mindset of modern music fans catered to by an artist who’s served his time and knows exactly what he’s doing in the studio.
16: FRANK OCEAN
As revelatory as his nostalgia, ULTRA mixtape was, it’s amazing that Frank Ocean was able to surpass himself on channel ORANGE. Sonically, the album owes as much to Pharrell as Prince, as much to Marvin Gaye as Keith Sweat. The album’s first half is impressive enough, kicking off with synth super-ballad ‘Thinkin Bout You’, the windswept ‘Sierra Leone’, and the ‘Benny and the Jets’-referencing ‘Super Rich Kids’, but by the time ‘Pyramids’ plays, it’s game over: a 10-minute, prog-R&B epic that doesn’t break under its lofty ambition – it embraces it. As the afterglow of ‘Pyramids’ is just wearing off, Ocean hits you with the sexuality-charged trio of gospel confessional ‘Bad Religion’, Andre 3000 duet ‘Pink Matter’, and the high-concept, easy-listener ‘Forrest Gump’. To quote Three Stacks: “that Ocean so motherfucking good.”
15: SAND CIRCLES
(NOT NOT FUN)
Plenty of records in 2012 invited listeners for a drive around imaginary cities: DROKK’s debut cruised the streets of Mega City One; Symmetry’s Themes For An Imaginary Film plotted a lengthy route through some neon-lit metropolis; Hecker and Lopatin’s Instrumental Tourist (quite literally) took the listener for a fantastical inner-city spin. The most impressive of the lot, however, was this secret weapon from Not Not Fun. Swedish producer Martin Herterich’s most substantial release to date is a windswept collection of urban threnodies and scrolling synthscapes. Motor City isn’t without its influences – there are touches of Kuedo’s music for replicants, and nods to Polygon Window’s misty electro – but it’s still wonderfully difficult to pin down. ‘White Sand’ operates at the intersection between Detroit techno and vintage shoegaze. ‘Innercity Haze’, meanwhile, has the dubby sensibilities of Peaking Lights, but swells like ‘Unfinished Sympathy’. Seatbelts advised.
14: JULIA HOLTER
Julia Holter’s out-of-nowhere 2011 LP Tragedy took its cues from Euripides, and, correspondingly, plenty of people worried that the L.A. artist’s follow-up would come accompanied by a big old dollop of hubris. They needn’t have fretted: Ekstasis is about as assured a sophomore record as we heard all year. ‘In The Same Room’ and ‘Our Sorrows’ offer sophisticated faerie pop; ‘Für Felix’, sounded like a transmission from the music hall at the end of the earth. And, in opener ‘Marienbad’, Ekstasis boasted the year’s most impressive opening salvo – a labyrinthine micro-opus, taking in dub, minimalism, chamber-pop and fusty partsong. There are ponderous moments, but when Ekstasis yanks out the stops, it’s got all the aura of an out-and-out classic.
Good things have come to be expected of Madteo, but no one anticipated that his first full-length would be as bold and brilliant as this. The NYC-based Italian has turned out a moody, exhilarating audio-collage that perfectly captures the rhythms and riddles of contemporary city life, and across it’s duration you’re treated to dissolute lounge-lizard house (‘Dead Drop’, ‘Gory Glory’), wobbly drone-scapes (‘Bugged In Gaza’), disorienting sound poetry (‘Vox Your Nu Yr Resolution’), eldritch R&B-techno compressions (the Drake-sampling ‘Rugrats Don’t Techno For An Answer’) and, on ‘Change We Could But Didn’t,’ hip-hop seemingly broadcasted from 30,000 leagues under the sea.
LATE NIGHTS WITH JEREMIH
When greeted with its first highlight, the minimal ‘Fuck You All the Time’, it’s tempting to view Late Nights with Jeremih as the ‘Birthday Sex’ singer’s sideways move into the filter-heavy “experimental” r’n’b world of The Weeknd et al. It’s a hunch that’s soon proved incorrect. Sure, Late Nights is great when it’s weird, but at its heart it’s a Pop – with a big fat capital P – record in the vein of Jeremih’s heroes Stevie Wonder and R. Kelly, and it’s never better than when it’s soaring. The euphoric, Mike Will-produced ‘773 Love’ is up there with both Jeremih and Will’s greatest moments to date, while ‘Late Nights’ and ‘Rated R’ are candlelit after-the-club jams of the highest order. Part of Late Nights‘ lasting appeal though is the fact that even when the production really goes for broke – on the Tricky Stewart-produced ‘Feel the Bass’, for instance – Jeremih keeps his shades on, balancing the storming backing track with an ice-cool performance.
Hazyville gave us the measure of Darren Cunningham’s curious sonic vision; the exuberant, genre-switching Splazsh saw him cast his eye out on the world; and R.I.P is the record where the Werk Discs boss turns his gaze inwards. Actress’ third LP is, by some way, his quietest and most hermetic record – even its muscliest moments (‘IWAAD’, ‘Shadow From Tartarus’) are glimpsed through a glass, darkly. What it lacks in novelty or chutzpah, though, it more than makes up for in sheer elegance. This scattered collection of marbled electronic miniatures, gauzy interludes and half-heard club fare is always diverting – and, at its best, absolutely heartbreaking.
10: WOLFGANG VOIGT
The human voice came under more assault than ever in 2012. Future brought AutoTune back with a vengeance; R&B starlets had their voices pitchshifted into oblivion by bedroom beatmakers; and a majority of house and techno producers did their best to scramble, shred or muffle all traces of the human. Not one, however, took a scalpel to a larynx quite like Wolfgang Voigt. The latest instalment in his Rückverzauberung “label-travel-project” saw Voigt create a unique brand of processed choral music – an eerie bombardment of noise that sounds like a choir wailing from across the Styx. Over two extended beatless pieces, he builds an overwhelming tidal wave of quavering noise. The final track, a ravishing slab of ambient techno, sees Voigt make a welcome return to the GAS sound of old. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes hellish, it’s a bold achievement – part voicebox, part black-box, and bracing from end to end.
‘The Seer Returns’
In 2010, Michael Gira reformed Swans and released My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, the project’s first album since the mid-1990s and a record that seemed too good – too powerful, too passionate – to be a comeback. In 2012, they bettered it.
Despite its size, at almost two hours in length with a 32-minute title track at its centre, The Seer isn’t a difficult record. Difficult to find the time to listen to, sure, but the process is never anything less than a pleasure. Gira spoke frequently about the importance of Swans as a live project in the year leading up to The Seer – a period where the group were regularly playing shows that lasted two or three hours – referring to “the elation, the joy of being inside the swirl, this [addictive] maelstrom of sound” in an interview with FACT. It shows: The Seer doesn’t just capture Swans at their most physical, with mountainous, muscular grooves driving its songs forward, it also appears to capture Gira in the conductor, or band leader role, before than that of a writer. Yes, there are lyrics, and at times they’re incredibly affecting, but The Seer is a record about forces before it is thoughts, and at points it seems to make time fold in on itself.
The Seer may go down as Michael Gira’s masterwork – in his own words, the album that took him 30 years to make – but even though the band (and supporting cast of Ben Frost, Karen O, Jane Jarboe and more) don’t march to the beat of anybody’s drum but his, it’s also an example of the alleged tyrant publicly giving in to music as his keeper. “It’s like a little bit of ecstasy every day…a quasi-religious experience.”
08: TERRENCE DIXON
FROM THE FAR FUTURE PT.2
‘Dark City Of Hope’
Placing three spots above Actress’s R.I.P in this list, the follow-up to reclusive Detroit producer Terrence Dixon’s original From the Far Future, released back in 2000, felt like the return of the king. Actress has referred to Dixon as an influence in the past, and although there are obvious parallels to be drawn between the ways that they approach techno, From the Far Future Pt.2 is darker and more direct than any of Actress’s albums. Its tracks don’t seem hazy or clouded over; instead, they’re undeviating and driven, tunnelling ever downwards, rarely distracted. ‘Fountain of Life’ sounds like a diver exploring an underwater cave; if Dixon didn’t abruptly pull the plug on ‘Dark City of Hope’ after seven minutes you get the impression it would go on forever; even the jazz-licked ‘The Switch’ features some of the most rampant high-hits you’re likely to find on a tune of its ilk.
07: JAM CITY
‘How We Relate To The Body’
Some three years after FACT, feeling more frisky than usual, declared Jam City to be the new messiah, the South London producer really delivered the goods. Debut full-length Classical Curves saw him move far beyond the rugged charm of the grime / house hybrids with which he first made his name, producing instead a fine-tuned, chrome-plated epic of dancefloor psychedelia, easily the most modern-sounding record on this list. From the Prince-meets-ghetto-house abstraction of ‘Strawberries’ to the Detroit-ish cyborg sweep of ‘How We Relate To The Body’, via the mournful, low-riding rap reverie of ‘The Nite Life’ (featuring Main Attakionz), this was an album that surprised, disoriented and delighted at every turn.
06: HOW TO DRESS WELL
On his second album, Tom Krell channeled real-life bereavement through an “opening-up” process, resulting in a more immediate album than the waking-from-a-dream Love Remains. The particular strand of indie-R&B that How To Dress Well typifies is woven tighter, with homage either direct (the Ashanti-quoting ‘Running Back’) or indirect (the aching, Babyfacish ‘& It Was U’). For his part, Krell’s falsetto becomes an even stronger through-line in compositions that are as layered as they are gauzy. Usually, when an artist sheds their “lo-fi” tag, the proceedings lose some soul and charm: in How To Dress Well’s case, a crystal clean production finds the sonic range as wide as the emotional one.
GOD OF BLACK
Yes, plenty of the material from God of Black was cleaned up and re-released by 4AD this summer – in an absolutely beautiful package, we should add – but we’d still rather listen to February’s grottier, grittier God of Black given the choice. A serious step-up from past mixtape Blvcklvnd Rvdix 66.6, God of Black marks the point where Spaceghostpurrp shed (most of) his skin as a Three 6 Mafia tribute act and established himself as one of hip-hop’s most intriguing new voices. It’s arguably SGP’s production that shines darkest here – sampled fire, recordings of distant trains and clashing chain-links melted down into magma and left to cool – but his casual flow on ‘Raider Prayer’ recalls Scarface in the Southern giant’s less paranoid moments; on ‘Mystical Maze’, he provides one of 2012’s most memorable opening verses. Then, of course, there’s God of Black’s non-SGP tracks: Klan Raven and Lil Ugly Mane’s nauseous ‘Twistin’ and Amber London’s G-Funk leaning ‘Low MF Key’ – though let’s face it, even we could rap over that beat and it’d sound great.
04: HORRID RED
(HOLIDAYS / TERRIBLE)
‘Nothing In My Heart’
It perhaps says something about the dearth of good indie records in 2012 that we had to look to a band that sings in German to satisfy our craving for quality guitar-pop. Comprised of barking (in both senses of the word) Teutonic vocalist Bunker Wolf, Edmund Xavier (the pseudonym of a US underground veteran whose past projects include avant-folk group Thuja), the mysterious Catholic Pat and Clay Ruby (a.k.a veteran doom-monger Burial Hex), Horrid Red are a motley crew, but their music is fabulously focussed and pure of purpose. Working within the minimalist, motorik jangle-punk template established in the 1980s by The Cure (circa Seventeen Seconds and Faith) and New Order, with the basslines shouldering the bulk of melodic duties, on Celestial Joy – first released in late 2011, but given a wider release through Terrible in February 2012 – the band offloaded 12 perfectly formed, hook-laden songs poised exhilaratingly between ecstasy and despondency, romance and rage.
03: COOLY G
Hands up: who expected Cooly G, a South London producer who first made her name through a self-released series of metallic UK Funky CD-Rs in 2008, and whose subsequent releases for Hyperdub have been at their most notable when at their heaviest (‘Phat Si’, ‘Narst’) to release an album of such subtle, addictive soul? Not us: Playin Me didn’t simply throw a curveball, it knocked us for six. The trademark Cooly weirdness is present, of course – on the warped breakdown of ‘What This World Needs Now’, the pillow-muffled dub of ‘Sunshine’, the way ‘What Airtime’ opens full of colour and eventually descends into a sketch – but, especially on its first half, Playin Me features some of the most human pop music released anywhere this year. Much was made of label-mate Laurel Halo’s exposed delivery on Quarantine, but for us it was Cooly’s untrained vocal performances that kept us coming back: its hard to imagine the tense ‘He Said I Said’, the now-or-never bedroom jam ‘Come Into My Room’, the album’s moment of closure ‘Up in my Head’ or even the cover of Coldplay’s ‘Trouble’ being sung in any other way, by anybody else.
02: LEE GAMBLE
DIVERSIONS 1994-1996 / DUTCH TVASHAR PLUMES
Before this year, Lee Gamble was known best as a member of the CYRK collective, and for making challenging computer music all about process, sonic disfigurement and deliberate abstraction. But he came up in the ’90s as a DJ on pirate radio and as an active participant in the jungle scene; there’s raver’s blood in his veins, and a deep-seated passion for dance music. Two major releases in quick succession on Bill Kouligas’s PAN label found him reconciling these two apparently divergent tendencies. The 10-track LP Dutch Tvashtar Plumes showcased a kind of twilight computer music: a gossamer-thin collection of ambient and deconstructed techno, it represented a comparatively accessible step on from his previous solo discs while still feeling like the product of an adventurous and inquiring mind. Diversions 1994-1996, meanwhile, was a breathtaking 25 minute composition for 12″ vinyl, assembled entirely from samples of jungle mixtapes from the mid-1990s. Unlike, say, the ludic trance recontextualisation of Lorenzo Senni’s Quantum Jelly, Gamble’s exercise in “cued recall” was a genuinely uncanny offering, with familiar elements – snare rattles, salacious vocals, horns – left to degrade or hang in the ether. Diversions was 0ne of 2012’s most wonderfully elegiac records, and Dutch Tvashar Plumes one of its most boldly forward-facing. A winning double-act indeed.
01: KENDRICK LAMAR
GOOD KID, M.A.A.D. CITY
(AFTERMATH / INTERSCOPE / TOP DAWG)
It’s difficult to talk about good kid, m.A.A.d city without tackling the critical metanarrative. It’s been two years since a hip-hop album garnered quite as much admiration from the critical plunderbund; if you want to get to good kid, m.A.A.d city, you’ve got to hack through a thicket of laurels first. Is there an element of hysteria at work in this mad dash to pay tribute? In a typically percipient article, hip-hop writer Noz cautioned against rushing to anoint good kid, m.A.A.d city – or, indeed, any other rap album – as a “classic”. Lamar himself takes a similar line: “It ain’t a classic yet – it’s got to be at least 10 years”.
Still, proceeding on tiptoe, we’d wager that a record doesn’t necessarily have to steep for years to earn big-C status. By their very nature, some virtues – formal ingenuity, singularity of voice, the shock of the new, sheer audacity – leap out at you on first or second glance. The Compton rapper’s major label debut thrills and surprises so often that it’s hard to imagine it falling out of favour. Lamar’s craftsmanship and good taste are plain to see – and those are values that tend not to pall with time.
good kid, m.A.A.d city‘s biggest surface achievements – the multi-layered, self-reflexive “concept” narrative; the stockpile of killer beats; Lamar’s chameleonic ability to flit between cadences and characters – have been well documented here and elsewhere. But good kid, m.A.A.d city‘s most striking feature is arguably how much Lamar thinks and raps like a critic. There’s not a single verse or hook on the record where Lamar doesn’t do something to sidestep expectations or dodge cliche – a warped intonation here, a carpet-pulling pause there. Lamar’s balked at the term “conscious rapper” but, in a way, it’s a perfect fit: Lamar’s always thinking on his feet, always alert to possibility, always looking for ways to quietly upset the norm.
And, of course, the songs are just so damn good. Peep the crunching, exhilarating ‘Backseat Freestyle’; the remarkably elegant dyad ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst’; ‘The Art Of Peer Pressure”s wonderfully ambivalent street storytelling; or ‘Good Kid’s’ chest-beating cry to the heavens. Save yourself the 10 year wait, and call good kid, m.A.A.d city what is: the most ingenious record of the year.