Nov 29 2012, 13h58
•If last year marked the crucial period when I bumped into Mother ‘Reality’ and Father ‘Self- Realization’ while walking down the street with my head down and my headphones turned all the way up, 2012 was the year that I chilled on the porch with my two newly-acquainted parents while listening to the sweet sounds that came from the stereo. It was a year where I embraced both the high and low frequencies that come with the sound wave that is life. I embarked on a new “career” only to realize that passion and job satisfaction outpace what any salary and/or benefits package that any corporation could ever offer. Additionally, I learned that when you crave an apple, sometimes you’ll have to wait for it to drop from the tree instead of just ripping it off the leaf. In other words, you have to allow life to happen as everything happens in its time. Even though, it often happens either quicker or slower than we’d like.
Of course, these life revelations occurred over the backdrop of some great music.
2012 was an interesting year for music, to say the least. The consolidation of music became complete. A #1 Billboard hit is now achieved, more or less, by a click from a mouse rather than sales or radio spins. Albums become celebrated as “classic” minute after its download has completed; only to be deleted from both hard drives and collective memories just a few minutes later. The variety of sounds and the endless avenues that can be traveled to hear it make for a mishmash of music--much of it disposable, to be sure--but with some gems buried beneath. The following releases are some of those butterflies that I caught amongst the all of the flies (top 5 first with the rest being in no particular order):
1. KENDRICK LAMAR, good kid, mAAd city
K.Dot’s major label debut catapults the most famous thing to come out of Compton since crack (and oh yeah, Niggaz with Attitude) beyond just being the rap press’ latest golden boy into the stratosphere with his sometimes loony, usually shifty and (almost) always brilliant Gemini brethren (see Miles, Prince, Andre, many say Kanye). Yes, good kid, mAAd city is Brilliant Black Male Music. Like any album from that genre, good kid has some violence (“The Art of Peer Pressure”), some sex (“Poetic Justice”), some drugs (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”), some religious guilt (“Sing About Me/I’m Dying From Thirst”), some puffed-up-chest machismo (“Backseat Freestyle”), some self-doubt (bonus track “Black Boy Fly”), and an ultimate cry for redemption (“Real”). It provides a cohesive narrative—with no skippable moments-- that not only reflects Kendrick’s 25 years as a Compton survivor-turned-musical Gemini savant but paints the picture for many good kids trapped in a mad city. Brightened by the mastering (and million-dollar co-sign) of that ex-Nigga with Attitude who now hawks overly expensive headphones and blessed with an individuality, soul, smarts—book and street-- and passion almost unmatched by any of his peers. Artful yet accessible, good kid, mAAd city is one of the few internet-age albums that may go down as the “classic” that the overeager keyboard jockeys anointed it minutes after its download was complete on their hard drive. Album of the Year, hands down.
2. FRANK OCEAN, Channel ORANGE
I’ll admit that I didn’t see this one coming. Oh, I’m not talking about the letter. I’m talking about Channel ORANGE. While I occasionally agreed with the “R&B savior” tag thrown on him by (mostly white) indie rock and non-R&B fans who seemed beside themselves to salivate over a young black male singer whose lyrics were more confessional and abstract than libidinous, sung over Coldplay and The Eagles songs that they instantly identified and wore a headband (and unlike Usher Trey Brown, a shirt), I was never truly blown away by Mr. Ocean. Until I clicked play and was taken away into Frank’s world. Even if I (am still) unsure if the hyperbolic hype that places him on a “savior” pedestal is totally justified, one cannot help but become intrigued by the world Frank paints so vividly. It’s an often melancholic one where love is painful and sometimes even shameful but not as heartbreaking as the people and places around him. Sad, sheltered vapid rich kids, drug fiends, detached sex workers and fugitives on the run are all observed with a neutral gaze. These stories are laid over relaxed production that airily thumps at certain times and quietly swells during others. Channel ORANGE is the masterwork that establishes Frank as a writer first, storyteller second and singer third. And potential future icon fourth.
3. JESSIE WARE, Devotion
Sometimes the old becomes new, the past becomes the future and the familiar becomes unfamiliar. See Jessie Ware’s debut. The 28-year-old South Londoner’s gift is not only her ability to meld the nouveau with the retro but the soignée, quietly confident manner in which she delivers it. Her voice—as clear and polished as any of her beautifully posh Kate Moross-directed videos—bridges the gap between Sade’s relaxed, airy tone and Whitney’s bombastic diva theatrics. In fact, “Running” is probably the best Sade single since “King of Sorrow” and “Sweet Talk”, which smoothly marries a nakedly mid ‘80s rhythmic bed with dubstep-y wobbles, suggests what “How I Know” would sound if it were remixed by Skrillex. Yet even if the insistent, verse-free “No to Love” deliberately thumps like an old Soul II Soul jam (right down to a smoky, Hackney-accented baritone rap) and the natural marriage of club rhythms and boldly soulful vocals on “Still Love Me” definitely bring Lisa Stansfield to mind, Ms. Ware’s soulful yet ultimately genre-less approach is all her own. Subtle elegance in a US Weekly-published Dave Guetta-produced and hash tag-obsessed world never sounded so good.
4. ROBERT GLASPER EXPERIMENT, Black Radio
Robert Glasper is on a mission to bring jazz, the oldest form of black music in America, out of the music halls and onto the boom boxes on the corner. And with an album as supple as Black Radio, he more than achieves his goal. Radio is a seamless play that is tied together by mood and groove even if its all-star cast evokes a wide variance of both. “F.T.B.”, a rousing instrumental from a prior release, is transformed into a rousing Ledisi showcase. Mos Def and Lupe Fiacso both spit so ferociously over the Experiment’s grooves that dark memories of Buckshot LeFonque and Us3 don’t come close to entering the listener’s mind. “Consequence of Jealousy” in its dark, moody sensuality is Me’shell personified. Lalah Hathaway and Bilal cover Sade and David Bowie, respectively, without losing either of the originals’ quiet, emotional urgency. Yet, all of this black star power never drones out the real star of this Radio station: Mr. Glasper’s piano virtuosity.
5. THEEE SATISIFACTION, awE naturalE
Imagine Erykah Badu, Kathleen Brown, Roberta Flack, bell hooks, MC Lyte and Georgia Anne Muldrow passing around a blunt in a funky city apartment during a rhyme cipher while CNN is on mute on the TV behind them. That’s how awe naturale sounds. Stasia and Cat’s official debut on Seattle’s iconic grunge label Sub Pop Records is iconoclastic yet approachable. It’s fiercely intelligent music that is still smart enough to never go too over the programmed minds of the majority. If Shabazz Palaces’ equally brilliant Black Up—the first hip hop release on Sub Pop; this is the second—was akin a dark, militant acid trip, awe naturale is like a marijuana high: brief, trippy, hypnotic, relaxed and amused. Take two puffs and groove.
FLYING LOTUS, Until The Quiet Comes
If Cosmogramma was the storm, Until the Quiet Comes, the great Mr. Ellison’s fourth full-length, is the calm. Celestial, sensual, gauzy and meditative, Quiet lives up to its title. Lest anyone mistake quiet for complete silence, FlyLo doesn’t forget the thump in his strikingly original soundscapes. Superstar guests (Erykah Badu and Thom Yorke, respectively) find their vocals chopped up and distorted as they are merely part of the dream that FlyLo is aurally recreating. The middle third stretch from “Putty Boy Strech” (when that bass comes in…) to “Electric Candyman”, especially, is nothing short of magical. Dreams never sounded so good.
DVA, Pretty Ugly
Psychedelic post-dubstep electronic soul recorded on another planet. Yeah, I’d say that it sums this one up.
1-O.A.K., Special Request
Oakland, Ca. has always kept it funky. Draw a line from Tower of Power to The Tonies to the Escovedos to Too $hort to E-40, Oak Town never lost its groove. Enter 1-O.A.K., whose debut seems determined to make sure you don’t forget.
ANA TIJOUX, La Bala
Rough as a favela in Brazil, lush as a rainy day in Paris, worldly as the residents that crowd the sidewalks in the Big Apple and uniquely Chilean, Ana Tijoux releases the insanely listenable La Bala, a top-to-back banger that is as smooth as it is charged.
ODDISEE, People Hear What They See
Who says a rapper/producer can’t create an album where his verses are as sharp as his production? Apparently, anyone who does hasn’t heard this album. Insightful and thoughtful rhymes that are free from pretention and killer production that’s smoothly soulful without forgetting the boom to the bap, People restores a lot of faith in not only Oddisee’s ever-expanding musical pallete but in hip hop as a whole.
NAS, Life Is Good
I made a prediction years ago that Nas would drop a late-career masterpiece. This year, my hypostasis became true. While, sort of. Life isn’t quite a masterpiece but it is a compelling listen. No weak beats (impressive for a Nas album), the crossover attempts, at the very least, are tolerable (see the Mary J. and Swizz/Miguel collabos) and no misguided experiments (remember “Who Killed It”? I’m still trying to forget it myself…), it represents a new chapter for Nasir. Even if it finds him in a reflective mood for the majority of its duration, from its warmly nostalgic yet thoroughly modern production to its subject matter. His brutal honesty about his own failings as a father (“Daughters”), husband (“Bye Baby”) and overall person (“Stay”) are grown man musings from a now-legend who’s seen it all but still has more he’d like to see.
Atmospherically funky Brazillian grooves. How can you not dig it?
KINDNESS, World, You Need A Change of Mind
On the surface, Adam Banbridge’s Kindness project can be eye-rollingly “too cool for school: “Here we go, another skinny, androgynous white British hipster who ironically creates a modern take on ‘80s funk. Wow, a slow jam take on a campy UK soap opera’s theme song. How ironic!” Yet, a few listens to World reveal that the actually-not-quite-white Banbridge (he’s half Indian) sincerely aims to be a one-man Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Despite it’s annoying derivativeness (“That’s Alright” is essentially a re-edit of Trouble Funk’s “Still Smokin’” that also lifts the hook from Escort’s “All Through The Night”), often listless and emotionless vocals and awkward song structures (“SEOD” and “House” both seem to wander aimlessly until they blossom into a groovy mantra and pretty pop song, respectively, a few minutes in), World is a strangely charming little album. Guilty pleasure of the year.
AB-SOUL, Control System
An initial listen to Control System can leave a listener with the impression that Herbert Stevens aka Ab-Soul is a really smart weed head who thinks so much that he forget to actually create songs over his admittedly tight production. Yet, first impressions are often wrong. Repeated listens reveal System to be the best album from the Black Hippy camp that is not titled Section .80 or Good Kid, mAAd City. Mind-blowingly intellectual and sometimes laughably juvenile—ruminations on the corruption of the American political system and mythology mesh with marijuana, hydro, pussy, ass, hoes, titties. But, that’s Ab’s appeal: smart as a whip, reckless with his heart on his sleeves (your eyes will water after listening to the crackling emotion of “Book of Soul”, an elegy to his late girlfriend, singer Alori Joh). Like his fellow Black Hippy, Ab is truly a good kid in a mad (mental) city.
TAME IMPALA, Lonerism
These psychedelic Aussie warriors’ sophomore effort is the best LSD trip you’ll take without taking a single tab. “Apocalypse Dreams” and “Mind Mischief”, in particular, are the best produced head trips you’ll experience all year.
FUNKOMMUNITY, Chequered Thoughts
There’s something in the water in New Zealand, I’m telling you…
MIGUEL, Kaleidoscope Dream
Cleaner than Abel, more approachable than Frank, Miguel is the people’s new-school R&B auteur. Babyface-ian LA slick one moment (the ridiculously overplayed “Adorn”), dreamily spaced out the next (the title track, “Don’t Look Back”) and cohesiveness throughout.
Fiona Apple- The Idler Wheel
Santigold- Master of My Own Make-Believe
Grizzly Bear- Shields
Michael Kiwaunka- Home Again
SWV- I Missed Us
ScHoolboy Q- Habits & Contradictions
Rick Ross- God Forgives, I Don’t
Animal Collective- Centipede Hz
Lupe Fiasco- Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album