2012 was an incredible year for music across the board; there were honestly quite a few surprises from an incredible array of genres. Whether you focused on hip hop, metal, or pop, there were ample reasons to get excited about 2012.
Without further ado, here are my top five releases of 2012:
Swans certainly have an illustrious past; for a band with over thirty years of experience, The Seer certainly feels like an album that is a culmination of that. The entire album is a dark, harrowing journey that oppressively leads the listener through a two hour epic. While not entirely accessible, it is without a doubt an incredibly strong album and worthy of listening through the lengthy runtime. Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Jarboe make respective appearances on The Seer, and the collaborations give some metaphorical light to cut through the darkness that is this album. Overall, this is an album that defies genre tags and is a worthy listen for anyone willing to visit the experimental territory that Swans have crafted.
Frank Ocean-Channel Orange
Frank Ocean keeps some obnoxious company; as a part of collective OFWGKTA, one could be forgiven for thinking that this would be more of the of the same shock-value drivel that his peers have released in the past few years. Of course, this isn’t to say that there is the occasional stellar track to come out of Tyler, the Creator or Mike G, but Channel Orange is the very definition of consistency and excellence. Ocean’s soulful croon and impeccable falsetto very obviously carries this release, but his willingness to venture into interesting territories not normally reserved for soul/R&B is what makes this such an exciting album. “Thinkin Bout You” drenches the listener with bittersweet melodies about love that has long past, but more experimental cuts like “Pyramids” play with epic song lengths and more interesting structures. Even with stripping the creative music that surrounds it, the lyrics read like Ocean’s personal journal entries and it couldn’t be more fitting. You celebrate with Ocean’s victories, feel his pain about lost love, and reminisce about times that you weren’t even around for; all of this being done with candid lyricism and heart-rending vocals. Even with all of the positive things to say of Channel Orange, the truth is that it is incredibly evident that Ocean is still finding his feet and that this is certainly not his magnum opus.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis-The Heist
I have to admit, I had my concerns when “Thrift Shop” was being played on the radio endlessly and I would be lying if I said that song is not what stopped me from listening to The Heist within the first few months of its release date. It was silly and aimed for the masses, and while very fun, it just didn’t have the substance that I generally look for in hip hop. It is easy now to look back on that decision with regret, as this is easily one of the best hip hop releases to grace 2012. There is a often sought-after balance of serious subject matter and wry self-deprecation that just cannot be found for most artists, but Macklemore has a death grip on it, and it doesn’t look like he is letting go anytime soon. It is just so evident that he does not care what anyone thinks of him or his music; he puts his true self into each track without sacrificing the quality of the album as a whole. The “cool” perspective that floods the genre is eschewed in favor of the originality that spills forth from songs like “Ten Thousand Hours” and “Same Love”. The latter being a song that speaks of equal rights for homosexuality, with Macklemore musing on the irony of quoting a book “written 3,500 years ago” in relation to a current event. Quite simply, more artists need to take initiative like this; what Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have done here is touch on current events that needed a positive take in a more public situation. He should be commended for doing so, and still not sacrificing the musical integrity of The Heist. The best way to sum up this album is the following verse from “Ten Thousand Hours”:
“You see I studied art
The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint
The greats were great cause they paint a lot
I will not be a statistic, just let me be
No child left behind, that’s the American scheme
I make my living off of words
And do what I love for work
And got around 980 on my SATs
Take that system
What did you expect
Generation of kids choosing love over a desk“
I have had a very long love affair with mewithoutyou; the band has been one of my personal favorites for a long time. When Catch for Us the Foxes came out, it spoke to me in a way that I thought impossible; every anguished lyric that spewed forth from Aaron Weiss’ mouth might as well have come from my own mind. I spent quite a while chasing after another album that resonated with me as much as that album did, and the sad truth is that the combination of events that made CFUTF so special to me may never come again. With all of that being said, Ten Stories is an incredibly strong album. The passion that made them so wonderfully volatile on past albums and the sober, mature lyrics of later albums combine here in a perfect amalgamation of what mewithoutyou is all about. The groove-laden atmosphere and confessional-style vocals make it a more personal listen than other albums of this ilk, and the campfire-style storytelling of 2008 album It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright is used in less doses and thus works in the grand scheme of what Ten Stories intends to accomplish. It is a gentle reminder of the constant progression of the band as a whole; the raucous and post hardcore energy of “February, 1878” is met with the more gentle and acoustic-based “East Enders Wives”. It is indeed a nice retrospective on the styles that the band has embodied over the years, and it needs to be stated that I have never been happier to report that Weiss seems to have finally found some personal happiness (see jaunty “Cardiff Giant”).
Aesop Rock has always been known for incredible production and beats accompanied by a less than stellar flow, but Skelethon is improved in every way. Stream-of-consciousness lyrics fit the interesting and varied beats, giving the album an overarching feeling that it is more than just a run-of-the-mill hip hop album. Nothing here is forced, and the beauty is that Aesop doesn’t turn his back on experimental beats in order to make it sound more natural. The music ranges from ethereal and haunting (“Ruby ’81”), utilizing a dramatic spoken word approach, to employing an off-kilter keyboard and more traditional hip hop beat in “Fryerstarter”. His passionate delivery and incredibly involved lyricism have never been more on point than on Skelethon, and it is certainly fun to pore over the lyrics that he has so obviously immersed himself in. Going along with the sometimes exhausting and overbearing atmosphere, Aesop has kept this primarily his affair, only utilizing one guest spot. In keeping it a project that is wholly his own without other rappers contributing verses, he is able to better control the atmosphere of the listener’s experience which is key for the album as a whole. It is random, claustrophobic, and for some reason, makes complete sense when taking the entirety of Skelethon into consideration. The high level of lyricism present here trumps any other release of 2012, and the truth is that Aesop Rock has created the perfect aural soundscape for the haunting passion of his gritty lyrics.