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THIS IS OUR MUSIC: Our Favorite Albums Of 2012

This is some text! Artwork by SHEPARD FAIRY

REDD KROSS
Researching The Blues
(Merge
)
You were born in an age of mockery, which would be followed by a decade of irony. You were 11 years old when you played your first gig, opening for Black Flag. Your bass was bigger than you. You named your band after the crucifix masturbation scene in The Exorcist. Early on you were fascinated by pop culture gone horribly wrong, you wrote punky odes to Linda Blair, MacKenzie Phillips and Frosted Flakes. You covered Charlie Manson. “No metal sluts or punk rock ruts” was your motto.You recorded six albums before calling it quits in 1997. A bunch of stuff happened, not the least of which was you adding bass to every song on The White Stripes’ Red Blood Cells. Fast forward to 2012, you release a new album. It’s not just one of the best albums of the year, it is the best album of your career. The title track is a Nuggets-worthy blast of ’60s garage punk. “Uglier” has the greatest Kiss chorus never made. “Dracula’s Daughter” is, without irony, one of the prettiest songs every made. “Stay Away From Downtown” is the greatest power-pop song since Cheap met Trick. Your name is Steve McDonald, your band is called Redd Kross and the album is Researching The Blues .– JONATHAN VALANIA*

*

JAPANDROIDS
Celebration Rock

(Polyvinyl Recording Co.)
Rock bands don’t write anthems anymore. The really good ones know its vogue to keep emotions in check, while the really smart ones know the money lies in pop ditties destined for reality-show whoremongering. Everyone else picked up a mandolin and moved to Americana. Rock — at least the pop-culturally significant, generation-redefining, stadium sing-along version — is dead. Long live Skrillex. Thank god the Japandroids could give a shit what I think. Their sophomore long-player sounds as if it were conceived in a bubble where the computations of what’s in haven’t penetrated, right down to the patented throwback design of their album covers. And while this all might simply be due to their inherent Canadian-ness, the eight rockers that make up the aptly titled Celebration Rock are more indicative of a band who can masterfully articulate themselves better than any other band on the market today. Forgive the commodity approach, but detractors have argued the chief liability on display is a reliance on generic tongues, what with their “Nights of Wine and Roses” and more nights where the salvo-fueled two-piece work the “Adrenaline Nightshift.” I say these are the things that built the city called rock and roll, and when Brian King and David Prowse tap into the maximum possibility of all that is an anthemic sing-along – such as the highest highs of “The House That Heaven Built” and “Evil’s Sway” – they burn with a cocksureness that is the definition of infectious. — JAMES DOOLITTLE

*

FRANK OCEAN
channelORANGE
(Def Jam)

Few artists rivaled Frank Ocean in 2012 for critical consensus, think-piece discussions and graceful navigations of sudden fame. But even after the dust settled from the buzz about his sexuality, his connections to the Odd Future crew as well as to Justin Beiber, and his soul-searching blog postings, channelORANGE remained: inescapable, subtle and brilliant. Even those of us with innate Autotune aversion found tracks like “Thinkin Bout You” and “Sweet Life” hard to resist: this is quiet storm / slow jam music with a hiphop sensibility, sung with inventive sensitivity and soulful intensity. The album plays like a dissection of modern anxieties, from the easy-target evisceration of “Super Rich Kids” to the lengthy intertwined strip club / Cleopatra narratives of “Pyramids” to the taxi cab confessional of “Bad Religion” and understated funk of being “Lost.” Vintage keyboards and synths and spacious beats provide the base for uncluttered arrangements: there’s always something interesting going on that repays close attention, but it all sounds easygoing and relaxed, with an underlying nervous tension. Ocean uses the breadth of his vocal range, from a melting falsetto to a sly talk-sung tenor, and his melody lines slide all over: they’re memorable but tricky. Most of all, channelORANGE intrigues: it draws you in, but keeps you unsettled; it glides by, but is full of barbs. – STEVE KLINGE

*

DR. LONNIE SMITH
The Healer
(Pilgrimage)

With age, trumpeters lose their breath, drummers lose their hit and vocalists lose their high note. But keyboardists have a tendency to maintain the physicality they need to play their instrument into the tippy-top of old age (watch Eubie Blake knock them dead in his 90s). At he age of 70, the organist Lonnie Smith that made those monstrously funky Blue Note organ records in the late ’60s has only become more devious and adept on the Hammond B-3. On The Healer, the first record released on Dr. Smith’s own label, Pilgrimage, The Doctor’s working trio gives the organist the best showcase imaginable, recorded live at gigs in Hungary & NYC. The range of sounds that Smith is able to evoke from his instrument is just astounding. Over the course of this expertly sequenced set of tunes, the mood goes from friendly, funky, to fierce and out of its frigging mind, always keeping a groove that has endeared Smith to jam band fans as of late. Highlights include the slow-burning opener “Backtrack,” a touch of jazz tradition with the Strayhorn tune “Chelsea Bridge,” the fushion-y “Beehive” and the churchy closer “Pilgrimage” bringing it home. It’s a performance so strong it may be the zenith of the mountain of groovy organ the man has churned up over his nearly five-decade career. – DAN BUSKIRK

*

JJ DOOM (JNEIRO JAREL X MF DOOM)
Key to the Kuffs

(Lex Records)
This collaboration came to fruition after Philadelphia-based producer Jneiro Jarel (also known as Dr. Who Dat?) shared an apartment in Los Angeles with the infamous MF DOOM (Daniel Dumile, the metal-faced emcee that ruled the hip-hop underground with an iron fist throughout the aughts). However, after DOOM’s unexpected deportation to UK (his birth country), the project took on a new meaning. DOOM shows a never-seen-before level of introspection on Key to the Kuffs. If you don’t know much about MF DOOM, his schtick is that he wears a metal mask and dons the persona of part-supervillain, part-emcee hybrid. The result is a strange fictional narrative that usually features over-the-top heist narratives (think Raekwon mixed with Dick Tracy), which is usually very insightful, but seldom offers anything personal. Key to the Kuffs should have been titled “Another Side of MF DOOM.” I’m convinced of that. “Winter Blues” features a romantic-side of MF DOOM, something I never would have expected. But he delves into weirder territory, questioning the safety of genetically modified foods, the cleanliness of bars and clubs, the thrills of going pop, and learning how to live anonymously in the UK. Overall, it’s very weird, and — because this is DOOM we are talking about — weird is good. – MATTHEW HENGEVELD

*

BOB DYLAN
Tempest
Columbia

The day we stop scratching our heads about the new Bob Dylan album is the day the terrorists win. Mercifully, this one’s no exception, and the questions abound: What does a “Duquesne Whistle” sound like? Why a song about John Lennon and why now? Why does Leonard DiCaprio appear in a 14 minute song about the sinking of the Titanic? How many razor blades must one man gargle before you call him a man who sings like this? How can anyone’s 36th album possibly be good, let alone great? The answers to your questions in the order they appear are as follows: It sounds like Charlie Sexton’s magic harp of a guitar, Tempest‘s secret weapon. There is no wrong time to write a song about John Lennon. Because he’s not singing about the Titanic, he’s singing about America. Eight. Because Bob Dylan is different than you and me. He’s stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains. He’s walked down six crooked highways. He’s stepped in the middle of seven sad forests. He’s heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley. He’s heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter. And he vowed then and there, with God as his witness, that the same thing would never happen to him.– JONATHAN VALANIA

*

JACK WHITE
Blunderbuss
(Third Man Records)

At the end of Under the Great White Northern Lights, a documentary about the White Stripes 2007 tour of Canada, Meg and Jack White sit at a piano. Jack plays and sings a quiet song while Meg weeps. It’s not clear what Meg is weeping is about, but the White Stripes broke up soon thereafter, and the scene is a metaphor for the end of the band and Jack White’s evolution away from that band’s strictly reductionist sound. This evolution is amply evident on Blunderbuss, Jack’s first solo release. First, Meg has been replaced with about two dozen studio musicians, and Jack replaced much of his distorted electric guitar playing with piano and acoustic guitar. Plus, the songs are more complex with better musicianship and more complicated arrangements. Jack essentially removed the self-imposed stylistic restrictions of the White Stripes and opened things up on Blunderbuss: “Freedom at 21” and “Take Me With You When You Go” feature drum parts more complicated and ambitious than anything Meg could have attempted; “Love Interruption” has a clarinet part, for cripes sake; and numerous parts of Blunderbuss approach jazz. Another way to look at Blunderbuss is that White’s music has evolved from the White Stripes primitive’60s garage blues to more complex early ’70s prog rock styles.  The riffs and breaks are fusion-esque and heavy, and the lyrics obtuse. I flashed back to pot smoke-filled dorm rooms with Yes blasting from cheap stereos. Thankfully, White’s skronky guitar lead always clear my head. The roadhouse vibe and honky tonk piano of “Trash Tongue Talker” reminds me more than a little of early Little Feet. “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” sounds like Muswell Hillbillies-era Kinks, and the country folk of “I Guess I Should Go to Sleep” takes me back to the country forays of the early 70s Stones. But White doesn’t completely abandon the White Stripes style. Blunderbuss’ wonderful first single, “16 Saltines,” would be at home on any White Stripes record, and “I’m Shakin’” gets back to the dirty, lo-fi blues that White is so good at . — MIKE WALSH

*

El-P
Cancer 4 Cure
(Fat Possum)

To say that El-P had a great year this year is, well, the understatement of the year. He might get some accolades for his supreme production on Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music (which easily ranks in the top 10 hip-hop albums of the year) but I think that his full potential was reached with his solo album Cure 4 Cancer. Dropping at the tail end of spring, C4C was a refreshing bit of quirky production coupled with El-P’s “Good Guy Greg” persona, and deserves the title Feel Good Album of the Year, despite the overwhelming thematic bleakness of the entire project. When deep fans of hip-hop are asked to name their favorite hi-fi producer, juggernauts like Flying Lotus and others of the Thom Yorke lineage of indie producers are too often given high praise, while El-P is so often overlooked. Production on tracks like “Drones Over Brklyn” (in homage and contrast to Outkast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad) is a dynamo, with whipping drums and Billy Joel’s “Stilletto” loop (made famous by Kool G Rap’s “Road to the Riches”). “The Full Retard” was the only track on the project that feels like a traditional single. Everything else seems to flow, tracks bob and weave from one the next without intrusion from pointless interludes or skits. “Tougher Colder Killer” features a classic back and forth between El-P, Killer Mike and Despot; the result is one of the most thrilling lyrical spars of the year. — MATTHEW HENGEVELD

*

KILLER MIKE
R.A.P. Music
(Williams Street)
El-P
Cancer 4 Cure
(Fat Possum)

Can’t have one without the other: R.A.P. and Cancer came out a week apart back in May, both were produced by El-P, and each ended up being the Best Of 2012 in the following ad-hoc subcategories. Best Opening Blast: “Big Beast,” the first song from Killer Mike’s album, was a badass posse cut that got the most out of guests Bun B, T.I. and Trouble. Best Two-Song Combo: “The Jig Is Up” and “Sign Here,” from El-P’s album, which cleverly fused his trademark paranoia, his exquisite boom-bap, and a mini-narrative about the psychological fringes of interrogation. Best Political Invective: Mike’s “Reagan,” which bluntly dissected major plot points of the ’80s but put a premium on resonance and currency. Overall, R.A.P. gets more love from the kids, and it made Mike relevant in a way his Outkast connections never could. But Cancer is the bigger victory, in terms of El-P’s usefulness as a hip-hop elder. Delivering ruff and tuff beats for other MCs is one thing. Setting yourself up to potentially make some superbly dark rap records in your 40s? Now that’s a reason to stay alive, yo. – JOE WARMINSKY

*

HEYWARD HOWKINS
The Hale & Hearty
(Self Released)

Heyward Howkins is basically a one-man band of joy helmed by Mr. John Heyward Howkins, a recovering geologist/e-book editor come indie-rock savant. Born on the not-so-mean streets of the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia, the son of a poet and a psychiatrist, his is a typical story: boy picks up guitar, puts down everything else and never looks back. If there was a more beautiful, idiosyncratic and intelligently-designed debut released this year than Heyward Howkins’ The Hale & Hearty, then I didn’t hear it. Imagine, if you will, M. Ward and Antony naked and slathered in milk and honey, sealed in a giant clamshell to baste for a thousand years. A millennium from now, long after the oceans have evaporated and the insects once again rule the earth, when the shell opens music-box style, there will be this magnificent pearl sitting there on the half shell, and when you rub it, much like when you wet your finger and run around the lip of a crystal glass, out will come the sound the enchantment, and it will sound like uncannily like The Hale & Hearty. — JONATHAN VALANIA

*

NENEH CHERRY & THE THING
The Cherry Thing
(Smalltown Supersound)

Neneh Cherry’s music career always seemed secondary to some other fabulousness she was engaged in that we would never be privy to. She had an international hit with “Buffalo Stance” back in 1988 and over the course of her on-again and mostly off-again career she has collaborated with Michael Stipe, Gorillaz The Slits’ Ari Up, Massive Attack, and Geoff Barrow of Portishead. On what is only Cherry’s fourth full-length in 23 years, she collaborates with the Swedish avant jazz group The Thing, for what is simultaneously Neneh’s most challenging record and The Thing most accessible. This isn’t a pretty lady in a cocktail dress, singing sweet standards, Mats Gustafsson’s saxophone can and does roar like a dragon, and the clanky and cantankerous drums of Paal Nilssen-Love, and the gigantic bass of Ingebrigt Håker Flaten would consume a lesser singer but Cherry can sing, growl and shout right back at them shout as the occasion calls. The tunes touch on Ornette and Don Cherry himself, and unexpectedly to fearless rock trailblazers such as Suicide and The Stooges. No matter the songs origins, everything is transformed into a freewheeling sound that makes for the most original jazz record of the year, a must-hear for listeners who yearn to stretch beyond the timid boundaries of rock. – DAN BUSKIRK

*

THE RAVEONETTES
Observator

(Vice)
Dynamic Danish duo The Raveonettes recorded their sixth album of candy coated sharp things at Hollywood’s legendary Sunset Sound Studios, birthplace of legendary California sun-and-drug-fueled LPs by Fleetwood Mac, The Doors and The Rolling Stones. The band dialed their amps down from their customary 11 and dusted off a piano and some acoustic guitars, while ghosts of albums past seeped into the tracks. To quote one of the lyrics the result is “flowers in the daytime and Lucifer at night.” Guitarist/singer Sun Rose Wagner and partner Sharin Foo’s vocals wrap around each other seductively as fuzzed out echo drenched guitars ebb and flow through a lush wall of sound. The songs are like shards of broken glass on the beach, each of them a little fragment of sunshine and pain. The dark lyrical themes are wrapped in a dreamy Cali pop gauze, resulting in a captivating but harrowing half hour journey through sunnylands haunted by the souls of the dead, lost loves, street walkers and lonely hearts. – PETE TROSHAK

*

ALABAMA SHAKES
Boys & Girls
(ATO)

After months of avoidance as my generation of relatively hip, middle-aged mouthbreathers raved over the debut album by Alabama Shakes I found myself confronted late one night with a performance by the band on PBS. I allowed myself to watch for a minute, thinking I’d chuckle the righteous chuckle of the dismissive rock snob and then move on. But I was wrong. Rather than the mix of college-boy hoodoo, jive, hokum, and beer commercial bluesology that I expected, Alabama Shakes simply hunkered down on some elemental soul music chord progressions and then drove them the fuck home with some Clash-worthy forearm rock and singer Brittany Howard’s Joe Cocker-esque histrionics. Any time I felt ready to reach into my deep bag of hang-ups I was thwarted. A song and a half into their performance I ceased attempting to find fault. Spittle had accumulated on my lips. The band’s charms are presented without distraction on Boys & Girls. The performances are warm and direct. Howard’s got killer pipes, a term that usually induces a cringe but applies here. The slow burn of “Hold On” doesn’t take long to explode. “Hang Loose,” my favorite song of the year, mixes a “Chain of Fools”-style intro and hippie ethos. The cynic in me still ponders whether the band is an indie-rock flipside to Sam Phillips’ ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel…” dream, but hell, this album is the answers to my prayers. – ED KING

*

GARY CLARK JR.
Blak And Blu
(Warner Bros)

In a live setting, bluesman Gary Clark Jr. is a force of nature. But Blak And Blu, his major label debut, finds him flaunting a chameleon-like versatility. The album opens with the Memphis Horns-style blast of “Ain’t Messin’ Round” and Clark then proceeds to give you a history lesson of the last 60 years of music in 60 minutes. Thundering rockers, Prince-ly falsetto jams and a Jimi Hendrix/Albert King mash-ups all sit comfortably next to each other in Clark’s world. He sandwiches the trippy abstract R&B of the title track between two of his signature songs, “When My Train Pulls In” and “Bright Lights,” and it all flows perfectly. He follows that with the swaggering Chuck Berry-channeling “Travis County,” then careens through a half dozen more musical styles — trip-hop, rock, metal, doo-wop, pop, blues — until the dusty closing went-down-to-the-crossroads stomp of “Next Door Neighbor Blues.” At first listen the album seems almost schizophrenic, but after a few spins you realize you are in the hands of an immensely talented musician who can seemingly own any genre he wants. – PETE TROSHAK

*

TAME IMPALA
Lonerism
(Modular)

Tame Impala tours with a full group, but on their recordings it’s all one guy: Kevin Parker. He holes up in his personal studio for months and writes and records, playing all instruments and then sends the tracks to uber-producer Dave Fridmann, who mixes it. With Lonerism, this results in a lush, atmospheric record with great melodies that is so unified it approaches a concept album. The overall vibe is trippy and introspective — every cut is saturated with layer upon layer of analog synths, guitars, studio effects, and distortion — and Parker’s high-pitched vocals multi-tracked and reverb-laden and uncannily Lennon-esque. But what sets Lonerism apart is its laser focus. The songs are almost all ruminations on loneliness — Parker works alone, so he’s lonely, and then he writes about it. Go figure. There are some obvious parallels to Brian Wilson and the infamous Smile, but Parker has the advantages of not suffering a nervous breakdown in the process and of having Fridmann to help him sort it all out. Unlike Wilson, Parker’s demons don’t overwhelm him, they sing along with him. – MIKE WALSH

*

J.D. MCPHERSON
Signs & Signifiers
(Hi-Style Records)

I have seen the future of the past, and his name is J.D. McPherson, a thirtysomething cuffed-denim Okie with lacquered hair, iron lungs and — goodness gracious! — great balls of fire. Signs & Signifiers, a bracing collection of tailfin rockabilly, rawboned R&B and sultry moonstruck balladeering, is hands-down the feel-good record of the year. Backed by a crack four-piece retro-rock posse — burlesque house sax, hellfire piano, slamming drums and de rigueur upright bass — McPherson brings his A game, sliding effortlessly from shredding growl to velvet croon, and making his banana yellow Fender guitar juke, jive and duckwalk with period-channeling vibe and precision. Rest assured the past is in good hands. – JONATHAN VALANIA

*

 

Johnny Cash
The Complete Columbia Album Collection
(Columbia / Legacy)
This thing is a monster. Johnny Cash, The Complete Columbia Album Collection spans 32 years, from 1958 to 1990, with 63 CDs covering 59 albums in replicas of the original sleeves, packaged in a tombstone of a box with a 200-page book, retailing for over $200. It’s Johnny Cash in all—well, most—of his iconic glory. The question is, do you need this much Cash? Or, put another way, is this much Cash worth all that cash?

We’ll get to that, but first, the history. Cash started his career with Sam Phillips and Sun Records in Memphis, and songs such as “I Walk the Line” and “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” he recorded there between 1955 and 1958 made him a star. (Bonus points to this Columbia collection for including a 28-song expanded edition of the 1957 Sun album Johnny Cash with His Hot & Blue Guitar.) He left Sun in part because he had ambitions that Phillips wouldn’t finance: he wanted to make a gospel album; he had ideas for concept albums.

His first Columbia album was 1958’s The Fabulous Johnny Cash, with the classic “I Still Miss Someone.” His last solo album before Columbia dropped his contract was 1985’s Rainbow, which suffers from dated synths but still includes the gem “I’m Leaving Now.” Columbia continued releasing his collaborations with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson (1990’s Highwayman 2 is the last chronological album here), while Cash put out a handful of albums for Mercury prior to his late career renaissance with Rick Rubin at American from 1993 until his death in 2003.

Obviously, if you’re a Johnny Cash junkie—and that’s a perfectly respectable thing to be, as much as being an Elvis or Dylan or Clash or Nirvana completist—you need this bountiful set. It includes 35 albums that Columbia never issued on CD, and the first mono CDs for the nineteen albums that came out between 1958 and 1967 (ponder that for a moment: 19 albums, most of them excellent, in ten years!). It also contains a 55-song double-set of non-album singles and guest appearances, such as his duet with Dylan on “Girl from the North Country.”

Also, any historian of American popular music of the 20th century will love this. Not only are the hits here, from 1963’s “Ring of Fire” to 1976’s “One Piece at a Time,” from 1970’s Hello, I’m Johnny Cash to 1985’s Highwayman, but Cash’s albums encompassed a broad range of styles that are the bedrock of white American music: rockabilly, country (& western), gospel and folk primarily, in the hundreds of songs he wrote, the hundreds that he covered and the dozens he sang with his wife June Carter and with others. While concept albums such as 1964’s Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian or 1972’s America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song or 1973’s The Gospel Road won’t be the first ones to grab for recreational listening, they provide a shadow history of American culture of the time, as do Cash’s various prison albums (Folsom, 1968; San Quentin, 1969; Osteraker, 1972).

And the casual, curious fan? Well, the boom-chicka-boom guitar—in the early years from Luther Perkins, later from Bob Wootton—might drive you crazy after the eighth or ninth album, and some the production of the early ‘80s stuff hasn’t worn well; and while the gospel songs are among the best, the biblical narrations that drop in to some of the concept albums can be heavy-handed (granted, Cash’s deeply authoritative voice is perfect for the material). But this set is endlessly rewarding. Not only are there the songs of Murder and Love and God (to borrow the titles of prior Columbia compilations) but also ones of Humor: Cash was great at novelty and kids’ songs, and albums like 1966’s Everybody Loves a Nut are intentionally hilarious. A set like this isn’t meant to be practical. It’s like an encyclopedia—it is an encyclopedia: it’s a primary source for the study of American culture; it’s an autobiography in song for an American icon. And, most importantly, it’s a treasure trove of listening pleasure.–STEVE KLINGE*

*

COMEBACK OF THE YEAR: The Second Coming Of The Sugar Man

Here’s a fairy tale for you. A mysterious, Dylanesque poet of the streets of Detroit makes a brilliant album of lush, faintly trippy folk-rock called Cold Fact. Like all too many great pieces of art, the album fails to find its audience. The artist gives up on his musical dreams and settles into a twilight exile of obscurity and back-breaking manual labor in the vanishing cityscape of the Motor City. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the artist, his music has sparked a fire and fueled massive social change across the globe in South Africa. His music is banned by the government, but everyone still seems to have a copy of it, trading it samizdat-style on 427th generation cassette tape dubs. It becomes part of the universal language of freedom there and the soundtrack to the toppling of apartheid. The people there dream of seeing the singer perform one day only to be devastated by the apocryphal word-of-mouth news that the artist long ago committed suicide on stage  — some say he shot himself in the head, others say he doused himself in gasoline and lit a match. Still, he will always live on in the music. Fast forward 20 years. A musical detective in Capetown puts together the puzzle pieces and figures out that the singer is in fact alive and well and living in the inner-city ruins of Detroit. Huge concerts are planned in South Africa. The singer arrives and is hailed as a conquering hero and plays to large adoring crowds. A documentary is made and his music gets rediscovered in America, including an appearance on 60 Minutes and a sold out U.S. tour. Only this isn’t a fairy tale, it’s a true story. The mysterious artist’s name is Rodriguez, and the name of the documentary is Searching For Sugar Man. Earlier this year, Rodriguez played a sold-out concert at World Cafe Live, proof that some times even true stories have fairy tale endings. – PETE TROSHAK

*Originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of MAGNET MAGAZINE. Used with permission as per our content-sharing agreement.

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