This is the last in my “Best Of 2012” list trifecta to hit GeekNation. And as my last, it was also the most difficult since there was so much amazing music to hit this past year. After hours of editing, adding and then removing artists, I’ve finally forced myself to stick with what you see below. This list of 12 runs the gamut from Country to Hip Hop and hopefully will introduce you to a few new artists in the process.
12. Grizzly Bear – “Shields”
When I first heard Grizzly Bear’s 2nd studio album “Yellow House” four years ago, I had to feast my ears then upon their 2009 release “Veckatimest” as soon as it was released. If it were a CD and not a download that I had listened to, that shit’d be scratched to hell by now. Seriously, Grizzly Bear became one of my new favorite bands in 2009.
In 2012, they kept that status with their fourth studio release “Shields”. Their sound is difficult to describe. Dreamlike. Etherial. Ghostly. Lush. The four piece Brooklyn based group have a knack for making pop music with a texture of ambient beauty that seem to permeate through each track they make.
11. Heartless Bastards – “Arrow”
Before this year, I didn’t know Heartless Bastards’ music. I’m glad that has changed. This moody, bluesy, southern rock outfit wouldn’t be where they are if it weren’t for Erika Wennerstrom. She sings, she plays guitar, she writes the songs and seems to be the constant throughout the band’s ever changing players. And now on their fourth album, “Arrow” it seems like they are finally gaining recognition for their music.
The rawness of their earlier works seem mellowed and refined with the release of “Arrow”. But you can still feel that raw tension bubbling underneath the serene surface. And Wennerstrom still leads with that booming, haunting, yet beautiful voice that cements the band’s identity and sound.
10. Crystal Castles – “III”
Crystal Castles has made a reputation of putting out music that, for the most part, I like to refer to as “drug music”. Their first two albums have walked a fine line between chaotic and calm, cementing the duo’s reputation in the music world as being unpredictable. In their third album, aptly titled “III”, it seems like they’ve upped their downer intake. The result is a more mellow album. It’s still difficult for me to categorize them, though. Dark electro, maybe.
Recently, the duo changed their overall recording process, banning the use of computers in the studio, yet “III” is covered with the band’s DNA. The new album may be mellow but there’s still chaos in the haze. Don’t agree? Just put the track “Insulin” on repeat. You’re welcome.
9. Fun. – “Some Nights”
It took me a while to really give into the fun that is the indie pop band Fun. Their song “We Are Young” can definitely be considered the anthem of 2012 as it seems like that song was everywhere this past year. Finally, once I really did sit down and listen to “Some Nights” in its entirety, I found that I was not skipping tracks. That’s a good sign. Every song, no matter the tempo, is really good. And don’t get me wrong here, I hate the use of auto tune in music. But somehow, here it does not bother me in the least. I suppose I’m not alone in this opinion, as Fun. are nominated for 6 Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist and Album Of The Year.
8. Alabama Shakes – “Boys & Girls”
From a rather unknown dive bar band playing mostly cover songs, to performing SXSW, to opening for Jack White on tour last spring, it’s been quite a year for Alabama Shakes. I remember first hearing Brittany Howard’s voice bellowing through my car’s stereo one morning while heading to work and I was seriously taken off guard. There is something very classic about her singing style that makes one think of the likes of an Aretha Franklin/Janis Joplin hybrid of sorts. Howard is the lead singer, the songwriter, and plays guitar. Triple threat.
There are quite a few debut albums on this list, and this one joins them. The collection of songs that are featured on “Boys And Girls” range from gut punching, to lulling, but all with the pain and rawness in Howard’s vocals that make it rough to ignore. A love letter to rock music’s past, Alabama Shakes reminds us what good music really is.
7. Dwight Yoakam – “3 Pears”
Probably one of the finest country albums released this year was by none other than Dwight Yoakam. Mr. Yoakam went on a self assigned sabbatical which lasted seven years. And after this hibernation, he emerged better than ever. His classic laid back honky tonk style is still in full effect, yet it also seems like his voice has grown and might just be accomplishing things it hasn’t before. Featuring two tracks produced by Beck, if you’re not familiar with Dwight Yoakam’s work, it’d be completely acceptable to start with “3 Pears” and work backwards. Just ignore those Johnny Cash and Bee Gees covers. Not sure why those made the album.
6. Killer Mike – “R.A.P. Music”
For some time now, I’ve been yearning for today’s equivalent to one of my favorite albums of my childhood, Ice Cube’s seminal release “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”. For the most part, the rage and gritty rawness of the Hip Hop I grew up on has been replaced by commercial rap that, for the most part, sounds like some Euro House musician created.
So, it goes without saying that when I heard Killer Mike’s newest album “R.A.P. Music”, I damn near crapped a Euro House musician (don’t question my diet!). Here, Mike teams up with El-P and Williams Street to create something pretty fucking awesome. Like a love letter to Public Enemy, NWA, KRS1, and all the other shit I grew up on, “R.A.P. Music” does not have one single bad song in the bunch. This shit is thought provoking, it’s raw, it’s politically charged and will probably piss off your parents. About time!
5. Gary Clark Jr. – “Blak And Blu”
Here’s another artist with a debut album and hot damn, he’s made a perfect one. Gary Clark Jr. has already been compared to the likes of guitar icons Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. That’s a pretty cool place to be, if you ask me. On “Blak And Blu”, it seems that Mr. Clark Jr. has put blues, rock, soul and hip hop into a blender and hit the emulsify button. The outcome is so so tasty.
In 2010, Eric Clapton tapped Gary Clark Jr. to perform at The Crossroads Guitar Festival which ultimately led to his signing with Warner Bros. Hell, if Eric Clapton gives his seal of approval only to be followed by comparisons to Hendrix and Led Zepplin, I suppose there’s really not much else I can say besides GO GET THIS ALBUM!
4. Fiona Apple – “The Idler Wheel…”
When Fiona Apple resurfaced this year in the music world with her release “The Idler Wheel…”, I felt like a crazy ex girlfriend returned into my life. There’s something about her, seriously, that reminds me a slew of ex girlfriends I’ve had. But, with Apple, I’m welcoming in an open arms stance. I don’t need to date anymore crazy girls, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have some nutty women musicians on my radar. I say that in the best way possible.
The core of this album is Fiona Apple’s voice. Raw, biting, throaty and stinging like an acidic whisper, “The Idler Wheel” sneaks into your brain like that bug in Star Trek 2: The Wrath Of Khan. That analogy is weird, but it works here. What glues these vocals together are tracks that range from ambient noise to jazzy. And about the brain bug analogy, seriously, just listen to the album and tell me if your brain feels somewhat assaulted afterwards.
3. Jack White – “Blunderbuss”
I’m a fan of The White Stripes. So when “Blunderbuss” was released, I was a bit weary. Jack White’s vocals are always catchy and infectious but I wasn’t much of a fan of The Dead Weather or The Raconteurs. However, on further introspection of that statement, it may be due to my need for more Jack White and less the other people involved. So the weariness in question disappeared quickly as I first gave listen to his first solo album.
From a nod to Little Willie John’s vintage R&B hit “I’m Shakin”, to the country flavored “Blunderbuss”, the album jumps all over the proverbial music map. And that’s great if you want to see more sides to Jack White…which I do. Featuring a slew of mostly female musicians backing him up, the album features a hodge podge of musical instruments to paint the overall “Blunderbuss” picture – mandolin, pedal steel, fiddle. But Mr. White mostly maintains an acoustic stance with his guitar and vocals. And that’s what works here. And it works so well.
2. Kendrick Lamar – “good kid, m.A.A.d city”
It really is amazing how Hip Hop legend Dr. Dre is still relevant today. We recently hit the 20 year anniversary to his game changing album “The Chronic”. Since, he’s brought us artists like Snoog Dogg, Eminem and now Kendrick Lamar. I had first heard Mr. Lamar’s name earlier in the year when Dre performed at Coachella. However, 2Pac’s hologram overshadowed that discovery and it wasn’t until I really sat down and listened to “good kid m.A.A.d. city” that I got it. And when I say, “I got it”, what I mean is, this shit has been on repeat in my car for months.
Lamar is a Compton native which makes sense. The album is brilliant, with hints of gangsta rap’s past sprinkled throughout. Between the top notch production by that other Compton native and the lyrical swagger & flow of Kendrick Lamar’s delivery, “good kid m.A.A.d. city” easily stands out among this year’s hip hop releases as king.
1. Frank Ocean – “channel ORANGE”
Earlier this year, I attended the MTV Video Music Awards and witnessed Frank Ocean perform live. Probably the only highlight of that show, I had to find out more about this guy. Soon, I acquired his debut album “channel ORANGE” and I’m still blown away. Complex yet smooth, Frank Ocean’s voice seemed to somehow burrow its way into your soul.
What started out as a decent appreciation of this man’s work, soon turned into the realization that “channel ORANGE” is probably the best thing musically that has happened in 2012. Like a modern day Marvin Gaye, Mr. Ocean definitely gives modern day soul singers a run for their money. The man seems to exude talent and style with the natural finesse that is rare to find in music nowadays. And…did I mention this is just his debut album!?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, it took me way too long to put this list together. There are so many artists, so many genres, yet so little time. With that being said, I’m interested to see what albums would make your “Best Of 2012” lists. So, come on people, tell me your favorites in the comments below!
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