Looks like the Mayans were wrong. And thank God (or Quetzalcoatl) for that. Of course, the Mayan doomsday prophecy was gratuitously misinterpreted by the Western world and looking back, it’s embarrassing how easily we got swept up in it all. With that said, 2012 was indeed an eventful year...
London stepped up for a solid Olympic Games, and Barack Obama stepped back into the White House for another four years; Facebook bought Instagram for a billion dollars, and then lost upwards of 50 billion dollars after going public; 'Sandy' became synonymous with tragedy (the hurricane, and the massacre at Sandy Hook school), and the world lost two great Armstrongs (the death of the spaceman, and the 'end' of the bike-man); a crude and offensive YouTube video led to violent riots throughout the Islamic world, while a crude and offensive movie franchise finally came to its conclusion... hallelujah, the Twilight Saga is over.
Now as 2012 comes to an end - and we all breathe a collective sigh of relief that we're still here - it's time to look back over the best music released this year…
... You're expecting an ordered list, aren't you? You're ready to scroll down to number one, ready to disagree with my choice, ready to be outraged that I've ignored a certain artist. You are so ready, so excited, to tell me how wrong I am; how 'pretentious' or 'pathetic' or 'clueless' the list makes me look. Take a breath, calm down, cast judgments aside, relax. There will be no need for (mock) outrage since this year there is no ranked list.
"WHAT?!?" you scream, "I came here for an ordered, hierarchical list. How dare you!" I apologize for the inconvenience of having to form your own opinion. Seriously, I'm sorry. But I’ve compiled so many end-of-year retrospective lists and frankly I’m sick of ‘top ten’ ranking - and I know that secretly you are too!
Every year critics round up the 'best' (read: favorite) albums, and strive to identify common themes in the music. But does it really make sense to impose a narrative onto a list of albums? No, it does not. And forcing albums into a ranked order is almost as senseless (read: difficult). Ranking the top albums released in any given year is hard, really hard. Especially when no record clearly reigns supreme.
Yes, 2012 was an eventful year, but in this humble critic's opinion, it was not a stellar year for music. Unlike previous years, 2012 is coming to a close without a stand-out, hands-down, unanimously-agreed, hell-yeah "best album." There were some excellent records released this year, no question, but no album managed to clearly break away from the pack. No album captured the heart and spirit of the year; no album could be deemed 'generation-defining.'
For confirmation of this fact, simply compare the year-end lists of any number of music publications and notice the inconsistencies; nothing screams "weak year for music" quite like Rolling Stone Magazine selecting Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball as their top album of 2012.
We must accept the fact that there was no Bon Iver this year; no Suburbs, no My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, no Merriweather Post Pavilion, no xx (Coexist was painfully mediocre and entirely lazy, don't let anyone tell you otherwise). The aforesaid albums were more than just great records, they were landmark musical events. They captured something special, something elusive, and offered a glimpse of the future of their respective genres. Simply put: they 'defined' rather than 'dazzled.'
But there is nothing wrong with dazzling, and plenty of albums released this year dazzled the pants off me.
In 2012, the closest we have to a genre-pushing, 'defining' artist is the inimitable Frank Ocean. While channel ORANGE is perhaps the most 'important' album of the year, I don't particularly love it. But that's mainly because I loathe contemporary R&B. Ocean made an R&B album that I enjoy, and for that, he made my list.
My 'favorite' album of 2012 is Tame Impala's psychedelic triumph, Lonerism. It's an endlessly fun record that flows like the finest of wines (and soars like the most excellent of LSD trips), but it's not original. It's a snapshot of the late '60s music scene: the songs would be right at home on Revolver or Sgt. Pepper's. That's not to say Lonerism is a cheap Beatles rip-off. Tame Impala (read: Kevin Parker) breathes fresh life into an old sound, and creates a new soundscape of their own. But you'll have to listen to the album in full to understand what I mean…
So maybe there wasn’t as high a peak in 2012 as other years, but there was certainly no shortage of quality records. Instead of a ranked list, I present to you a selection of albums that are among the year’s best; six albums that represent the musical landscape of 2012.
Have I missed some excellent records? Maybe. Will I regret not including some other albums? Probably. Will this new format save me from stressful decision-making? Most definitely.
What follows are six of the best albums released in 2012, in no particular order:
Bloom is a perfectly titled record. And while I would never write anything as cringe-worthy as ‘the Baltimore dream-pop duo have bloomed over the course of their eight year career,’ I may just be tempted to make a flower reference. For the album unfolds like a delicate orchid, spreading its petals, blooming into something beautiful.
Bloom is moonlight music: for midnight people and insomniacs, who need a burst of phosphorescent ecstasy even more than they need sleep. The album is lush, yet not overbearing; thick with swaths of haze, yet wholly accessible. Bloom is Beach House’s best album by leaps and bounds; it's an album that is difficult to escape.
Standout tracks: Myth, Wild
Winners of the coveted Mercury Prize for 2012 (best album from the UK), Alt-J has been making waves across the world with their eccentric fusion of pop, electronica and folk. While some may be turned off by Alt-J’s distinctive vocal harmonies and raspy delivery, this is exactly why I love their debut record, An Awesome Wave. Their sound is unlike anything I’ve heard recently, and in our era of predictable and formulaic songwriting, true uniqueness is damn near impossible to find.
Standout tracks: Tessellate, Fitzpleasure
Killer Mike has been in the rap game longer than most, but has yet to achieve the mainstream attention he deserves; his sixth studio album R.A.P. Music should change that. The record bursts with hard-hitting, hook-heavy hip hop, and is produced to perfection by forward-thinking New York rapper, El-P.
Killer Mike’s rapping has never sounded better – his Southern growl is terrifying and electric – but it’s his politically-charged and socially-relevant rhymes that make R.A.P. Music one of the best hip hop records in recent history. Mike’s astute and clever lyrical style is a breath of fresh air among the materialistic swagger and braggadocio of the contemporary rap scene; as he says, “I don’t make dance music, this is R.A.P. / Opposite of the sucker shit they play on TV.”
Standout tracks: Big Beast, Reagan
If I were to describe Grimes’ fourth LP, Visions, I would use phrases like: post-Internet, nihilistic self-indulgence, synth-tastic triumph, digital impressionism, jubilant escapism. But then I would sound like some pompous jackass with a thesaurus. Besides, Grimes’ music cannot be defined by mere adverbs and adjectives.
One would need to splatter oil on a canvas, or dance to the sound of whales mating in order to describe Visions. It is bizarre art that can only be described by other bizarre art; art that revels in its eccentricity and refuses to submit to contemporary taxonomy. "Not knowing how to play music is my greatest asset,” Boucher once said, and her disregard for conventional instrumentation makes Visions almost anti-music. Grimes’ hyper-reality is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, but I dare you to ignore it.
Standout tracks: Genesis, Oblivion
“Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream” – These instructions from the Beatles’ ode to transcendentalism “Tomorrow Never Knows” is perhaps the best way to approach Tame Impala’s sophomore recording, the brilliant and kaleidoscopic Lonerism. The album is a hallucinogenic journey into the heartbreak and paranoia of songwriter Kevin Parker. Yet don’t for a second think that Lonerism is a depressing listen. Far from it. Parker’s melancholia is awash in impressionistic tones of joyous abandon and Technicolor escapism…
… Confused? Fair enough, for Lonerism transcends basic description and takes on a life of its own; it creates its own sentiments and leaves the listener in a sleepwalking daze. Drenched in reverb, tangerine trees and marmalade skies, Lonerism is the year’s best trip. Don’t fight it, relax and float away.
Standout tracks: Mind Mischief, Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
Frank Ocean’s major label debut, channel ORANGE, is a game-changing record. For one, the album was released just weeks after Ocean’s public confession of bisexuality – in the face of hip hop and R&B’s rampant homophobia, this was a daring and potentially paradigm-shifting revelation.
But channel ORANGE is game-changing in so many other ways, largely for it’s fusion of traditional and modern musical stylings. Ocean effortlessly switches from Motown crooning, to standout rapping (his verse in Odd Future’s “Oldie” is among the year’s best), and he’s created an album that is thematic, yet full of stand-alone singles.
While 2012 will surely be looked back on as the year of the Mayan doomsday prophecy, it would be better remembered as the year Frank Ocean changed the face of contemporary R&B.
Standout tracks: Pyramids, Bad Religion
I'm sure you disagree with my choice of albums to represent the music of 2012. I'm sure you hated at least one of the six records I chose, but I sincerely hope that you loved a few of them.
We survived the end of the world, my friends. Here's to 2013...