Saturday, January 26, 2013

Top 20 Albums of 2012

My track record for year-in-retrospect lists is not great. It's rare that I've finished one before the year is out, and last year I failed to even put a formal list together. 2012 continues my trend of spotty year-end lists, as I'm turning this one in almost a month into the new year and devoid of individual album descriptions in interest of finishing it before February. The list itself is relatively unordered, but see the below paragraphs for a taste of what these records are about.

Hip-hop has been on a creative upswing in the last year or so, evidenced by the fact that 3 of the year's best rap albums, the records from Black Hippy members Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q all didn't make the cut. However, the year also saw the first truly great album from Outkast/Dungeon family affiliate Killer Mike, produced entirely by alt-rap wunderkind El-P, an influx of awesome gay and lesbian rappers, the most exemplary being rapper/producer and Das Racist affiliate Le1f, producer Flying Lotus putting on his rapper cap for an album of stoned, pitch-shifted psychedelic rap that recalls MF DOOM, Quasimoto and elements of Odd Future as Captain Murphy, Meyhem Lauren puting together a hard, funny, classic-sounding and mostly-overlooked second album of 2012 (the first being this summer's solid Respect the Fly Shit) and 16-year-old Barbadian/Brooklyner Haleek Maul teaming up with Chicago production duo Supreme Cuts for a dark, moody future trap album, all of which I could by no means exclude from my year-end list.

Black metal has shown itself to be more than a one-trick-pony over the last 20-plus years, and the black metal records that I loved this year came from pretty much ever corner of the genre. The doomy Coloradans in Velnias brought a folk-flavored, ancient-sounding brew, while Nihill's Verdonkermaan was a lo-fi, occult tornado of riffs and blasts and Ash Borer turned in another LP of long-form, almost post-black metal brilliance (I'd say "transcendental black metal," if that term hadn't taken on a tainted character in the last few years).

The doom-and-drone-influenced post-whatever of Canadians AHNA and Californians Wreck and Reference came out of nowhere this year, and while similar compared to other bands on this list, each band took a unique and unexpected path to turn in an awesome album. AHNA's crusty, drone-sludge howl took my ears hostage with its bass-heavy, dirge-to-blast approach, and Wreck and Reference delivered a jaw-dropping, almost unclassifiable mix of post-punk, Swan-esque doom, drone, and noise that includes clean singing and replaces the usual guitar with an electronics-centered approach.

Grindcore and powerviolence continued their proliferation with another strong year that showed bands looking both backward and forward for inspiration. Cellgraft turned in an Insect Warfare and AssΓΌck-reminscent final release of ear-shattering traditional grind, Black Hole of Calcutta mixed the traditional grindcore approach with black metal and thrash for their satisfying second self-titled record, the Canadian newcomers in Violent Restitution blasted on to the scene with a gut-level LP that made them my favorite new grind band of the year, and Sakatat unfortunately heralded the end of their era as a band with their short-but-sweet first full-length. Dephosphorus transcended grindcore with their magnificent, skyward-looking debut LP, Column of Heaven mixed powerviolence and grindcore with noise and unusual instrumentation to tell a disturbing tale about a serial killer that's made more disturbing by its scope and basis in reality, The Kill delivered the snarling, blistering, no-nonsense breakout album I'd always been willing them to make and the Australians in thedowngoing continued their growth as an angular, tech-noisegrind duo with an equal interest in art and destruction.

While (good) indie rock was not as prolific as in years past, a few standbys brought creative and memorable albums to the table. Electronics weirdo Dan Deacon continued his avant-garde mixing of goofy electronic pop and classical composition with a warmer, more expansive album that's presented as a love song to the American landscape, and Ariel Pink (also a weirdo) brought an album that bridged the unrelenting strangeness of his older bedroom-pop material and the higher fidelity and tighter construction of last year's Before Today as well as paid reverence to lost-in-the-shuffle rockers Donny and Joe Emerson.

See below for album streams and samples, and keep your ears tuned in this year for a ton of great announced and already-released albums.

  1. Killer Mike- R.A.P. Music (Sample tracks: "Untitled," "Reagan," "Big Beast")
  2. Nihill- Verdonkermaan
  3. Column of Heaven- Mission from God
  4. The Kill- Make 'em Suffer
  5. Dephosphorus- Night Sky Transform
  6. Wreck and Reference- No Youth
  7. Meyhem Lauren- Mandatory Brunch Meetings
  8. Velnias- RuneEater
  9. Cellgraft- Cellgraft LP
  10. Dan Deacon- America (Samples: "True Thrush," "Lots," "USA Parts I-V")
  11. Sakat- Bir Devrin Sonu
  12. Violent Restitution- Violent Restitution LP
  13. Supreme Cuts and Haleek Maul- Chrome Lips
  14. Captain Murphy- Duality
  15. LE1F- Dark York
  17. AHNA- Empire
  18. Ash Borer- Cold of Ages (Samples: "Phantoms," "Convict All Flesh")
  19. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti- Mature Themes (Samples: "Kinski Assassin," "Symphony of the Nymph," "Baby (Donnie and Joe Emerson Cover)")
  20. Black Hole of Calcutta- S/T #2



    Really interesting, eclectic and cool mix there. I'll plead ignorance about the hip hop and indie, although I'm surprised I don't see Death Grips there as it seems everyone's been shitting themselves about that dick of an album.

    I didn't like Nihill at all and was severely disappointed with Cold of Ages as I was a huge fan of their demo work, split, and previous lp. They have a new ep in the works which is supposed to sound a bit older- so that's exciting.

    Regardless, cool list and happy you finally put it together.

  2. Yeah, I actually liked both of Death Grips' albums from this year (most grind fans I know liked the first mixtape better, but I was much more interested in the albums) and one of them would have probably made my list if it was a top 25.

    Nihill definitely grew on me, and we both know how much more I like lo-fi stuff than you do. I just thought it was kind of nasty sounding, in a good way.

    Cold of Ages I still liked a lot, even though I was also a fan of the Fell Voices split and the first LP (on a mostly unrelated note, I'm also so stoked that Fell Voices should be coming out with a new LP this year). It didn't have the kind of eerie atmosphere and that occult feel that the other recordings had, but I still liked the slightly raised production values and what seemed like a bigger focus on the instrumentation.

    Man, I've been so bad with keeping up with my writing lately. Still have to finish my review of that Cloud Rat and start working on one for the Sloth Herder record.

  3. the kill ahead of both dephosphorus and sakatat? i'll have think really long and hard on that before we stage the intervention.

    1. The order doesn't really mean anything, I just thought it looked nicer numbered.

    2. in that case, crisis counselors have been called off. please feel free to go on about your business.