Here we are, rounding the final turn before the official finish line of this Top 50 list. Yes, the #20-11 albums are a very crucial part of this list, even if they’re not exactly the cream of the crop. I love these albums almost as much as the ones that will come after them, so if you’ve not yet heard any of these, of course I recommend that you check them out. As it has with previous parts of this list, there’s a wide stylistic range of artists and records in this set, including some hip hop, R&B, punk rock, post rock, psychedelia, synth pop and even a record or two so experimental it’s tough to slap a label on them. I hope you enjoy what’s below, but if you’d like to catch up on what’s been covered so far, look no further than the following links:
You can find #20-11 right after the jump!
20. Cat Power – Sun
One of the most intriguing and exciting things about Sun is the ease at which Chan Marshall went from a quiet acoustic guitar and piano singer-songwriter to an artist that embraces electronic textures and technological advances. Even her 2006 album The Greatest, in which she had the Dirty Delta Blues Band at her disposal, was very traditional and old school. Suddenly, like a phoenix from the ashes, we get Cat Power 2.0, which seems like it wouldn’t work on paper. But apparently Marshall’s distinctive vocals are great when paired with just about any sort of accompaniment, even if it is some skittering synths and a drum machine. So you get some fun and pop-driven songs to start the album, complete with blushes of rapping and AutoTune, before tempos calm leading into the 11-minute adventure that is “Nothin But Time,” featuring a guest vocal from Iggy Pop. For all the anomalies and weird moments this album brings with it, there’s something truly special in these songs that not only leaves you feeling upbeat and positive, but with the thought that maybe Marshall has finally found some happiness in her very troubled life. It’s so kind of her to share that with us.
19. Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
I’ll freely admit that I don’t listen to a lot of hip hop, nor have I ever heard a Killer Mike record prior to R.A.P. Music. Yet when a few of my friends told me about the album a couple weeks before its release, they mentioned it was unlike anything they’d heard in the genre in recent memory. That was enough to inspire me to check it out, and boy was I impressed. It’s a very political record, but also goes much deeper than that while embracing the aggrandizing storytelling aspect of the genre. A track like “Reagan” is less about the actor-turned-President but rather the crack problems that plagued the country in the ’80s and the “war on drugs” the government waged that was strikingly ineffective. On “Don’t Die,” Mike tells a story about cops breaking into his house and the almost inevitable escalation towards violence that results from it. Even when the subject matter isn’t your thing, the sheer force by which these words are birthed into the world is staggering, and the talent behind the microphone has no equal. You listen to a track like “Go!” and your jaw just drops as it’s all verse with no chorus or hooks. This is the sort of record that reminds me of the great work done by N.W.A. and in some respects Wu Tang back in the day, which is to say they don’t make records like this anymore. I’m grateful somebody like Killer Mike had the fortitude to make this, and that the great El-P produced it in just the right way.
18. Jessie Ware – Devotion
R&B has had a big comeback year, and Jessie Ware’s Devotion was a big part of that. One of the things that makes her record so appealing is how earnest and genuine she sounds on every track, refusing to pander via flashy stunts like R. Kelly continues to do with Trapped in the Closet or being weird for the sake of weird like Erykah Badu has been trying lately. Nope, it’s just Ware’s powerful voice and some very straightforward tracks that are impeccably composed, marvelously written and catchy as all hell. Really it’s the vocal that sells everything though, breathing life into any stagnant compositions and gushing with emotion when the sounds around her give her the appropriate room. Many have compared her to Whitney Houston, and with the unfortunate death of a legend hopefully comes the birth of a new one.
17. Death Grips – The Money Store
Plenty of people hate Death Grips, and I can absolutely understand why. They’re brash, loud, outspoken and controversial. They take hip hop and turn it into punk rock by practically screaming it at you in a threatening manner. They were signed to Epic Records, then got into a fight with them over the release date of their follow-up to The Money Store, so they released the record themselves for free. It was a big middle finger to the label, and the erect penis that constituted the cover art of No Love Deep Web also felt like a big “suck it” to them as well. What’s more important than all this though is that The Money Store is a remarkably inventive, intense listening experience that is unlike anything else released in 2012. They sample sounds from everywhere, then twist them into things that are almost completely unrecognizable. It’s a kitchen sink’s worth of noise, paired with Zach Hill’s spectacularly insane drumming and the growl of Stefan BUrnett. To some, it will come off as nonsensical, abrasive noise. The longer you spend with it, the easier it becomes to see through the cacophony and physicality of these tracks to find the calm and gooey center within. It’s not easy, but then again few things worth doing are.
16. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
If you’ve listened to any of the Dirty Projectors albums released in the last several years, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what the band is all about and the type of music they make. Interesting and different are definitely two words that describe it well, what with unconventional rhythmic structures, vocal harmonies so intricate they’re almost inhuman, and wordplay that only a Harvard scholar could write. All that is still present on Swing Lo Magellan, but with a couple key differences. The song structures are far more pop friendly than in the past, which makes the songs easier to remember and enjoy. Topically speaking this is a very different album as well, with upbeat topics such as birth and love taking precedence and placing a sort of contented air over everything. The band has often gone out of their way to avoid such topics, but the sweetness really exudes growth and is a good look on them. More than anything else, Swing Lo Magellan is about the continuing maturity of band leader Dave Longstreth and how it’s helping him become the man he wants to be while we also develop into the listeners this band deserves.
15. Julia Holter – Ekstasis
A record like Ekstasis defies easy definition, and that’s both a help and a hindrance when talking about it. Bedroom pop is one way of describing it, mostly because Holter wrote and recorded the songs at home and there’s plenty of pop elements in place over the course of the album’s 55+ minutes. But unlike so many DIY artists with a fuzzy vocal atop a rather simplistic melody, things on Holter’s record are stuffed with elements and get slapped with a “weird” or “experimental” tag as quickly as you can snap your fingers. Art pop is a better way of putting it, because listening to these songs feels similar to staring at an abstract painting for an hour. You love the use of color, and are sure there’s a face mixed up somewhere in that random collection of shapes, but it takes a little bit to finally see the bigger picture. If you just sample one track, while it is a good indicator of the oddities that lie ahead, everything makes quite a bit more sense if you listen to the album from start to finish and find a context for the melange of instruments and vocal effects that appear and disappear throughout. Listen to opening track “Marienbad” and you’ll get organ, harpsichord, tambourine, a string section and more overdubbed vocal harmonies than you know what to do with. That’s just one example of many on a record that rewards patience and the belief that great art can come from great music, and vice versa.
14. Ty Segall Band – Slaughterhouse
Ty Segall put out three albums in 2012: one under only his own name, one as a collaborative effort with White Fence, and one with a bunch of misfits he calls a band. Arguably, all three records are great and all three deserve some sort of placement on year-end lists. The guy is nothing if not prolific, and almost everything he touches turns to gold not matter what style of music he’s taking on that week. In the case of the Ty Segall Band, a record like Slaughterhouse is in search of pure, unadultrated punk rock. The sheer aggression and searing vocals that go into an album like this come from a place of total insanity, and the cover art pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the music contained within. Reports state that the U.S. government has used loud and punishing heavy metal and punk rock records to keep prisoners and suspected terrorists awake for days in an effort to break their spirits and obtain classified information. Slaughterhouse feels like it’d be a pretty effective record to achieve that effect. For those of us looking to avoid such torture, sometimes it’s just great to have a record that feeds into whatever rage we’re feeling that particular day, with the reminder we can always turn it off. Rarely have I heard a record so tuneful and catchy that also is so dynamic and ferocious I’m almost scared of it. Turn it on and feel empowered.
13. Swans – The Seer
The Seer is not a record for the faint of heart or the calm of mind. It is a gritty and harsh album with songs that take you to the lowest depths of humanity and attempt to choke the life out of you. Throwing this record on as a lark in the middle of a sunny afternoon is the worst decision you could possibly make, as its pitch black moodiness will send you into a spiral of depression you weren’t otherwise prepared for. It is a double disc, two hour trip to a dungeon that’s equal parts post-rock, industrial, electronic soundscapes, haunting acoustic melodies and punishing noise. One you start something like the 32-minute title track, you can’t really stop until it’s finished, though the same could be said about the entire record. It is an exercise in careful and engaged listening, challenging you to make it from start to finish, then rewarding you for doing so. Michael Gira has said that this album took 30 years to make, and that it’s a collection of every single piece of music he’s ever been involved with – Swans or otherwise. He’s absolutely right, and the incredible expanse of time, space and style that went into this music is on display every minute of it. For all the dark, dreary and downright melancholy this album exudes, it’s sublimely gorgeous and thought provoking too. Carve out some time to take the journey and I promise you’ll understand why that’s necessary once it’s all over.
12. Spiritualized – Sweet Heart, Sweet Light
For a guy that’s been making music for more than a couple decades now, you’d think that Jason Pierce would be out of ideas and settled into the monotony of repeating himself in a cliched form. Upon first glance at Sweet Heart, Sweet Light, you might actually believe you’ve heard this Spiritualized record before under the name Amazing Grace. The confusion is understandable, given all the gospel choirs mixed with psychedelia. But here’s the thing: with time and age, Pierce has figured out a few things when it comes to songwriting and composition. These are things he keeps getting better at, which is why everything on this record works so incredibly well. It’s the most accessible and pop-oriented Spiritualized record to date, the clearest in vision and most precise instrumentally. Ironic then that he wrote most of it while in a prescription drug-fueled haze brought on by acute liver failure. If he’s this good when he’s a total wreck, imagine what he might put together with a clear head. Maybe we’ll find that out next time.
11. Chairlift – Something
Chairlift chose to use 2012 as the year to reinvent themselves and get away from the stigma of being an iPod commerical one hit wonder. They lost one of their main band members Aaron Pfenning to his own solo project Rewards, yet Chairlift seem to be the ones reaping them if Something is any indication. It’s a record made up of mostly throwback ’80s synth pop, but it somehow still manages to sound modern. Ordinarily such an album wouldn’t even register in today’s music landscape, particularly as the sound isn’t exactly at the height of popularity these days. Yet great songs are great songs, and this record is packed to the gills with them. Tracks like “Amanaemonesia,” “Met Before” and “I Belong in Your Arms” may be official singles, but “Sidewalk Safari” and “Ghost Tonight” are practically as addictive. Much credit goes to frontwoman Caroline Polachek’s songwriting and vocals, which stretch, bounce and ache in exactly the ways they need to on a particular song. She’s the heart of this record, but multi-instrumentalist Patrick Wimberly is the body, building the shell that brings everything together. To some, this is but an ordinary, commercially viable synth pop record. For those that have spent several months addicted to most of the songs on it, this is anything but ordinary.
TOMORROW: THE TOP 50 ALBUMS LIST FINISHES WITH #10-1!