We've finally made it! After trudging through our genre-specific Best of 2012 lists - Pop/Rock, Electronic/Hip-Hop, Experimental/Ambient/Post-Rock, and Punk/Metal - the time has come to reveal Epitonic's Overall Top 10 Albums of 2012!
1. Grizzly Bear: Shields [Warp]
I was a bit late getting into Grizzly Bear, but when I heard 2012’s Shields, I was pretty sure it was the indie album that could sweep the Grammys’ 2013 Album of the Year, à la Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. Regardless of it not getting nominated, Shields deserved it (or maybe it’s too good for that mess). It’s very rare that a band does such a masterful job of crafting clever and accessible melodies and lyrics while also taking care to experiment with tone and avant-garde elements. Shields feels like a moody dream -- never morphing into a nightmare, but definitely taking some time to venture near some of the darker corners of the mind.
The album opens with the swirling chords of “Sleeping Ute,” on which the band plays with sound effects and deep, active synthesizers in between Daniel Rossen’s clear-voiced contemplation. The song mellows down into fingerpicked guitar and Rossen’s repeated declaration, “I can’t help myself.” “Speak in Rounds” opens with minimal yet compelling bass and drums that bounce under Ed Droste’s lonely lament. Acoustic guitar joins in shortly after, and wah’ed guitar and woodwinds push the song to its peak. The ambient interlude “Adelma” provides a minute of rest before Droste discusses the turbulence of a relationship in “Yet Again.”
What begins as a typically moody pop piano song in “The Hunt” gains dimension with woodwinds and nicely reverberating guitars and cymbals, creating the perfect backing for Rossen’s unique voice. “A Simple Answer” utilizes piano once again, beginning with quick, high-energy chords before the song breaks down into a quieter, half-tempo ending. “What’s Wrong” brings back the moodiness, allowing “gun-shy” to take advantage of the lowered mood for a kind of sultry groove. “Half Gate” slowly brings the dynamics back up, ending in busy drums and energetic, atmospheric guitar. “Sun In Your Eyes” makes for an excellent finale, with flowing dynamics from gently pulsing verses to grandiose choruses.
2. Swans: The Seer [Young God]
Experimental wrecking crew Swans have managed to do it again. Their 2012 masterwork, The Seer, is the outfit's second album since leader Michael Gira brought the project back into existence in 2010, and is a collection of some of the more primal and tonally expansive material they've ever recorded. Gira told the Quietus, "The Seer took 30 years to make. It's the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I've ever made, been involved in or imagined.”
The double LP opens with the tone-setting "Lunacy," which cycles through waves of droning guitars before shifting into a vocal-dominated build, with help from Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk of Low. The pulsating "Mother Of The World" showcases the incredibly tight drum work of Phil Puleo. Gira begins the track by rhythmically panting into a mic before exploring the off-kilter vocal stylings of Can’s Damo Suzuki, a running theme for The Seer
The LP's thirty-minute title track begins somewhat abruptly with the dissonant tones of bagpipes almost gasping for breath within the frazzled mix of drone. Although its length can be a bit taxing Sparhawk the title track has a lot to offer, including a horn piece played by Bruce Lamont. "The Seer Returns" is one of the more accessible tracks on the album. It pulsates along with smart bass swells from Christopher Pravdica as Gira speaks of an inverted star. "He's a greasy beast, heaving in a field of sticky black mud," spouts the frontman. He ends his verse with a decisive, “You. Have. A-rrived.” before the song appropriately gains intensity.
"The Daughter Brings The Water" and "Song For A Warrior" help to take things down a notch, and the latter of the two features lead vocals from Karen O. The sharpness of her voice melds really well with the deep bellows of Michael Gira. The anthemic "Avatar" shifts things back to a dark and punishing mood, with chimes played by percussionist Thor Harris.
Swans have become master shape-shifters and that fact is most evident on the whimsical "A Piece Of The Sky." The Seer's closer, "The Apostate," features some amazingly disgusting lap steel guitar from Kristof Hahn. Some of the heaviest and most percussive moments on the whole album are found within "The Apostate,” and it ends in a stressful mess with Gira shouting and chanting nonsense; some of the best nonsense you'll ever hear.
3. Frank Ocean: Channel Orange [Def Jam]
Frank Ocean, the R&B affiliated member of OFWGKTA, has proven himself as one of the most talented singer-songwriters of his generation. After working behind-the-scenes as a writer for pop stars Brandy, Justin Bieber, and John Legend, Ocean marked his territory as a performer with the release of “Thinkin Bout You” in July. His brilliant 2011 mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra., gave us a glimpse into Ocean’s world, but it was Channel Orange that really made the world fall in love with this 24-year-old singer-songwriter.
Between heartfelt lyrics and catchy hooks, the songs on Channel Orange are as vivid as they are unique. Blending R&B with hip-hop, tracks such as “Pink Matter” and “Super Rich Kids” get help from heavy-hitting MCs Earl Sweatshirt and Andre 3000 while “White” enlists non-other than John Mayer. However it’s the 10-minute opus of “Pyramids” that showcases Ocean’s songwriting abilities. Masterfully traveling from historical Egypt to a modern day strip club seems like an impossible task, but it is one that Ocean managed to take on with ease. Other album highlights “Bad Religion,” “Lost,” and “Crack Rock” do nothing but add to the albums master imagery and lyricism.
Frank Ocean recently told the Guardian that he isn’t guaranteeing a follow-up to Channel Orange stating, “The storytelling part of it is the most interesting and challenging part of the whole process for me... So much so that I might not make another album. I might just write a novel next. I don’t know!” Regardless of what he does next, it’s safe to say we’ll be hanging on every word.
4. Flying Lotus: Until the Quiet Comes [Warp]
At a time when the idea of “electronic music” carries the unfortunate stigma of lazy, obnoxious self-indulgence, Flying Lotus has cemented his status as one of music’s most talented and innovative figures with the release of his electronic groove masterpiece, Until the Quiet Comes. On this, his fourth studio album, FlyLo defies perceived stylistic limitations, melding an array of genres, moods and sounds to form a cohesive unit of vibe music supremacy.
With Until the Quiet Comes, Flying Lotus has produced a visionary collage of sound, effortlessly combining elements of jazz, club, and soul into a unique aesthetic all his own. The album maintains a consistent flow from beginning to end, constantly alternating styles from track to track, from thumping bass and head-bobbing club fervor (“Getting There,” “The Nightcaller”) to ethereal, dreamlike ruminations (“Tiny Tortures”) to deep, impassioned soul (“DMT Song,” “Only If You Wanna”), and even to Herbie Hancock-esque African drum beats (“See Thru To You,” “Putty Boy Strut”). Every song hangs on a repeating motif while the instrumental action develops and evolves on top, imitating the creative interplay of continuous grooves and leads commonly heard in jazz and funk. A dark, psychedelic restlessness lingers over Until the Quiet Comes, eliciting sensations of sleepless nights waiting for red-eye flights. Guest vocal appearances from Niki Randa (“Getting There,” “Hunger”), Erykah Badu (“See Thru To U”), Thom Yorke (“Electric Candyman”), and Laura Darlington (“Phantasm”) all work to reinforce the album’s overwhelming meditative power.
All in all, Until the Quiet Comes serves as a refreshing and invigorating evolution for modern electronic music. Flying Lotus’s unyielding inventiveness shines through, cementing his legacy as one of music’s most talented and daring artistic minds.
5. Cloud Nothings: Attack On Memory [Carpark/Wichita]
Cleveland, Ohio's Cloud Nothings are the little power-pop band that could. Over the past few years frontman Dylan Baldi morphed his basement recording project into the gripping live band that they are today. Cloud Nothings' 2011 self-titled album has a bit of a bite to it, but the real catalyst is this year's fantastic Attack on Memory. The four-piece get things started with the slow building "No Future/No Past," which explodes into a driving rhythm around the 3:30 mark. Baldi's raspy vocal chords begin to sound like they might give out at any second; it's all kinds of excellent. "Wasted Days" arrives next, and is a strong candidate for song of the year. Baldi plays a messy guitar and yelps "I thought I would be more than this" over and over again as guitarist Joe Boyer cycles through an angular, accompanying riff. Drawing from the bear-it-all attitudes of 90's emo and the murkiness of 80's post-hardcore, this raggedy troupe carve out a clutch and unexplored territory for themselves.
Attack on Memory is all the more impressive due to the fact that Cloud Nothings have managed to become gloomier and more aggressive without losing the facets that made them such a great power-pop band. "Fall In" is a great example of that, and the track's lighthearted nature is in fact endearing. Baldi and co. showcase their extreme precision on "Separation," with its interweaving guitar and drum parts. All of the lyrics on the album are great but the two songs that really stand out are "No Future/No Past" and "No Sentiment." In "No Sentiment" Baldi screeches through the waves of guitar, "We started a war / Attack on memory / No easy way out / Forget everything / No nostalgia / And no sentiment / We're over it now / And we were over it then." Baldi also reels you in with the "No Cut" hook, "I miss you cause I like damage / I need something I can hurt."
Attack on Memory set out to destroy how folks perceived the band, but I feel that's not the full story. The album vastly improves upon the skill-set that was becoming evident on their self-titled LP, and it also manages to do away with some of the more typical pop rock practices they had utilized in the past.
6. Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music [Williams Street]
Rap music has a new measuring stick. If there was ever any question about what does or does not qualify as “true” rap, Killer Mike has answered with unwavering certainty, redefining what it means to be a rapper in today’s cultural and political landscape. In his sixth studio album R.A.P. Music, Mike collaborates with Brooklyn’s El-P to form the most fitting MC-producer matchup in recent memory. El-P’s severe, brutal beats match up impeccably with Killer Mike’s vitriolic attacks on politics, religion, police, and the hip-hop industry as a whole.
Throughout the album, Killer Mike sheds light on the power and influence hip-hop artists have over black youth. He repeatedly lambasts the current state of hip-hop, demanding that black musicians stop glorifying the “money, cash, hoes” stereotype that is all too common with mainstream artists. In “Reagan,” Mike rails against these tropes, claiming, “We should be indicted for bullshit we incitin’ / Hand the children death and pretend that it’s exciting / We are advertisements for agony and pain / We exploit the youth, we tell them to join a gang / We tell them dope stories, introduce them to the game.” Mike is setting forth a call to arms for black artists to acknowledge the responsibility they have to their people.
And while his Atlanta roots and ties to Outkast are immediately evident on funky tracks like “Go!” and “Southern Fried,” the Killer Mike on R.A.P. Music is all business, acting both as a revolutionary and a storyteller. He urges his people to wake up, step up, and take control of their lives and communities. Tracks like “Anywhere But Here” and “Willie Burke Sherwood” give listeners an intimate personal account of growing up on the streets. But the final, eponymous track “R.A.P. Music” offers the most compelling summation of Killer Mike’s divine purpose: “I got things to do before I meet that glory in the sky / And my baby girl b-day six months away, she gonna be five / So I pray to the Lord he spare me, and I make it by and by / And I help souls stay out of Hell with what I testify.”
7. Sharon Van Etten: Tramp [Jagjaguwar]
Too often, the work of female musicians gets auto-filed in the “confessional” sector, a songwriting subgenre that encourages us to train our focus on Feelings rather than the skill it takes to make an individual experience feel universal, to tease empathy out of a listener. And while Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp is unarguably highly personal, shot through with scar tissue from self-doubt, social anxiety, and a relationship with a man who questioned her talent and ability to make it as a musician, it’d be a misnomer to write it off as just a girl with a guitar working through some shit. Tramp’s seeing a talent come into her own in real time, hearing her experiment and succeed with an expanded sonic palette, watching her discover the scope of what her songs can convey and express. Therapy asks you to look inward; Tramp finds Van Etten training her focus outward, showing the world what she can do and who she can be. Suck it, self-doubt; fuck off, terrible ex-boyfriends.
8. Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d. City [Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope]
Kendrick Lamar has officially created a classic. Amid the T-Pains and the Flo Ridas of the world, it’s refreshing to hear such an internally conscious lyricist. good kid, m.A.A.d city reflects on Lamar’s life path, from his upbringing in Compton to his modern state of mind. The narrative plays out much like a short film, introducing characters and story lines through voice messages and supposed recordings from the days events.
Prior to the albums release, Lamar released a handful of tracks that left fans in eager anticipation of m.A.A.d city. Among those tracks it was “Cartoons and Cereal” that truly showcased the 25-year-old MC’s avant-garde rap style. It’s the same Kendrick Lamar that we hear in this record. The album is as stylistically excellent as it is cohesive. It’s a varied and dense listening experience; an album that is just as worthwhile for underground hip-hop fiends as it is for casual listeners. Tracks like “Swimming Pool (Drank)” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” are radio friendly bangers but stick to Lamar’s confident and impressive flow. But it’s tracks like “m.A.A.d city” and “Compton” that truly capture his adolescent years and his acceptance of his inner demons and bitter memories.
With the backing of Dr. Dre, Lamar created an album that stands just as tall next to his stellar 2011 release Section.80. With such wide-ranging success it’s not hard to think good kid, m.A.A.d city as the quintessential rap album of our generation, however one suspects we haven’t heard the best from him yet. We’ve witnessed Kendrick Lamar becoming a man first hand through his music but it’s really just the future that he’s concerned with. And that’s a ride we’re more than ready to take with him.
9. Godspeed You! Black Emperor: 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! [Constellation]
“With his arms outstretched,” voices repeat until fluttering strings wisp in over bowed double bass, appropriately beginning Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s first album in a decade. The track, “Mladic,” moves forward in its journey with frazzled guitars droning in slight discord, eventually forcing the strings to conform. Additional guitars cry like gathering seagulls until quickly chiming bells take over with subtle strings and guitar. Cymbals join in to create a heavy pulse for the guitars and strings to cling to as the song begins to take flight. A powerful string melody hits just before nine minutes, giving the impression of an intense, hurried chase over the desert. As it begins to burn out, the strings start pulling the tempo down in order to end the song over the course of a few minutes with a finalizing melody. The last minute of “Mladic” resembles a street procession, with percussive clanging and car horns. “Their Helicopters Sing” is the first of two ambient tracks on the album. This track’s ambience is fairly unnerving, with clashing strings and odd, repetitive rhythms. It’s like watching a fleet of military helicopters flying overhead, knowing all too well that their destination will erupt in violence and despair.
The carefully plucked violin and droning guitar of “We Drift Like Worried Fire” seems to set the scene for impending doom before the two instruments switch places, loosening the mood and building to a cathartic peak of relief. But the plucking comes back. This time, metallic drumming encourages the strings to take a dark twist, but by the time the guitar takes a major role, the song again avoids taking a plunge into the depths. The second ambient track, “Strung Like Lights At Thee Printemps Erable,” closes out the album in a swell of groaning distortion that levels into a clear, airy tone.
Receiving this album on a grey October day, I spent the day at work and traveling around Chicago with a dark clarity. 'Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is one of the most emotionally powerful albums of the year, and for this reason, deserves to be listened to in the ideal time and place, whatever that may be for you.
10. Animal Collective: Centipede Hz [Domino]
This album is groundbreaking compared to Animal Collective's usual sound: full of reverb and field recordings, children giggling and heartstring-plucking hooks. Centipede Hz utilizes elements from every genre, with influences ranging from Portishead to Pink Floyd. Each track is layered with as many vocals, echoic soundscapes and guitar riffs as possible. And while these layers may sometimes swell up the listener's ears to the point of mental exhaustion, that may very well be the intent of this album altogether.
Centipede Hz is a daunting challenge in multiple ways. It breaks down preconceived notions people have before even listening to Animal Collective, and forces the listener out of their comfort zone and tests the limitations of their ability to let the music grow on them. This album is the quintessential, "Give it a couple more listens before you make your final verdict."
Chance the Rapper 10Day
Earth Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light II
Schoolboy Q Habits & Contradictions
Yeasayer Fragrant World