Unlike 2011, when I could scarcely summon up 10 LPs I liked enough to muster the energy to compose an end-of-the-year list, 2012 was awash with stellar releases, interesting returns, and new discoveries.
My list here is shaped by my renewed enthusiasm in hip-hop. This enthusiasm has been dormant for some time. I had always kept apace with the big splash releases and the idiosyncratic left-field artists whose worlds overlapped with the world of electronica and various forms of dance music, but this was listening at a distance rather than full-on engagement. Revisiting the work of the Wu-Tang Clan throughout 2011-12 was perhaps the initial spark that renewed my enthusiasm, but it was the voice of DOOM that really drew me back in. It wasn’t that I hadn’t heard DOOM before, I remember being mightily impressed by Madvillainy back in 2004, but it was only recently that the power and force of DOOM’s voice and the genius and invention of his words, phrasings, and flow really hit me. Listening to DOOM has led me to revisit and explore the work of both Madlib and J Dilla and, as a consequence, I was immersed in the intricate sound worlds of these artists for much of the latter half of 2012 and was amazed at the daring, the detail, the humour, and the insight of the music they created.
The internet needs another year-end list like a proverbial hole in the head, yet I can’t resist. Such exercises, as ludicrous and provisional as they may seem, nevertheless serve some kind of purpose in thinking historically and in recognizing the limits of thinking historically. My 2012 is a travesty of partiality in two senses. It is, first of all, a record not of the” best” but of things I’m partial to, and, second, it is a record of my partial gaze since I’ve come nowhere close to listening to all the recorded output of the year. The list, I’m happy to say, is kinda all over the place. There’s definitely evidence of certain predilections and fascinations, but some interesting inclusions and juxtapositions as well. Part of the pleasure in compiling it was that I discovered what I liked rather than merely expressing it. The list has, to a certain degree, taken me by surprise and this, for me, points to the worth of doing it.
12. Neneh Cherry and the Thing – The Cherry Thing + The Cherry Thing Remixes
It was the extraordinary cover of Madvillain’s “Accordian” that initially drew me to this LP and then to its remixed companion, but what kept me there was the energy and eclecticism of its arrangements and the intimacy and flexibility of Cherry’s voice. Having been in love with “Buffalo Stance” in particular and Raw Like Sushi (1988) generally, it was a thrill to hear Cherry again. She’s a unique force, operating outside the constraints of commercial pop, and this collaboration with a Swedish free jazz ensemble ends up being a pure pleasure to listen to. As Cherry sings, “Keep your glory, gold, and glitter” (paraphrasing DOOM on her version of “Accordian”), there are richer sounds and greater rewards to be found elsewhere.
Video: Neneh Cherry and the Thing – Accordian
11. Four Tet – Pink
I don’t have the developed technical musical vocabulary that would allow me to describe the complexity of the shifting polyrhythms that make the tracks on Pink so mesmerizing, but they are there and they provided no end of musical pleasure this year. Following on from 2010′s more comprehensively integrated There is Love in You, Pink gathers together a series of 12″ experiments and explorations Kieran Hebden undertook on his Text label. There are bits on here that might fuel the whole “Four Tet is Burial” rumour, but there are others that might lead you to believe that he’s Steve Reich as well. There are the remnants of the idylltronica that characterized some of Four Tet’s earlier work, but what sticks out is his increasing use of voice. The hypnotic repetitions of “I remember how you walked away” in “Locked” sound like an extension of the phrases and fragments that litter J Dilla’s production. If Pink compiles the possible paths toward a proper follow-up to There is Love in You, then I can safely say there’s no wrong choice here. This is brilliant and I can’t wait to hear what comes next.
Listen: Four Tet – Lion
10. Saint Etienne – Words and Music
An album about the rush and excitement of pop music that has all the rush and excitement that characterizes the best pop albums, Words and Music amply demonstrates that Saint Etienne, twenty plus years in, still remain a potent pop force and pop’s greatest (meta-)practitioners. And if the album itself wasn’t enough, there’s a limited edition collection of unreleased tracks and b-sides, More Words and Music, that, if anything, is even better, from the gorgeous cover of Scott Walker’s “Manhattan” to the Birdie-esque “Jan Leeming.”
Video: Saint Etienne – Tonight
9. Pye Corner Audio – Sleep Games
After a string of releases on his own label, Pye Corner Audio finds a home with Ghost Box. It’s a natural match as there’s all kinds of affinities between the output of PCA and the GB stable of artists, from Belbury Poly (whose The Belbury Tales should really be on this list as well) to the Advisory Circle. Beyond all the usual hauntological explanations that would explain the power of this LP (the uncanny allure of the recent past, of residual technologies, and of the comforts and vague creepiness of the welfare state), the thing that distinguishes Sleep Games for me is its sense of the cinematic. John Carpenter is here in bits, but I really hear Sleep Games as the soundtrack for some great lost 70s Cronenberg film about the Onieric Institution, an experimental centre housed in brutalist block on a suburban campus run by a disheveled yet still robust and virile Oliver Reed.
Listen: Pye Corner Audio – Dead End
8. Daphni – Jiaolong
A companion, really, to Four Tet’s Pink in the way that Dan Snaith maps out new sonic territory and explores dancefloor possibilities. There’s the memory and legacy of Caribou in here, but it’s amped up and intensified, stripped back and simplified, in an effort to both think and feel rhythm and repetition. “Ye Ye” provides the purest pop pleasure, but it is the Daphni mix of “Cos-Ber-Zam” by Togo’s Ne Noya that stands out. Taken from an Analog Africa compilation and remixed to highlight its staggering central line, “Cos-Ber-Zam” amazes. The logic and feel of the album, incidentally, is all there in the design of the LP cover, iridescent repetitions overlapping and stretched to their limits.
Video: Daphni – Cos-Ber-Zam Ne Noya
7. Gravenhurst – The Ghost in Daylight
This was a real surprise for me this year, and may seem the odd album out among my general selections here. A quiet LP, largely acoustic and thoroughly melancholic, the Gravenhurst grew on me as the year went on. Released in spring, it’s torpor and tension struck me as more autumnal than vernal and I listened to it most in October and November when the skies were slate gray (like the album cover) and the days were growing shorter. Something in it reminded me of Bibio before his recent move to the dancefloor, all rural acoustic haunting, evocative of a natural landscape and containing the echoes of old architecture.
Video: Gravenhurst – The Prize
6. Scott Walker – Bish Bosch
It seems absurd to even include Scott Walker on this list. He’s of another realm and in a different category than the rest of everything at this point. He’s on his own, the intrepid explorer in sonic territories from which he only very occasionally sends missives home. Yet what marks Bish Bosch is its humour. As much as Walker still confronts the terror and the darkness and the deeper questions of philosophy, there’s a lightness of touch here as well. In the lead-up to the album’s release, Walker curated a selection of films for one streaming service or another and while many of the selections pointed to the kind of high European seriousness (Bela Tarr! Michael Haneke! Theo Angelopoulos!) you might completely expect, he also tips his hat (he always wears a hat these days, it seems) to the melancholic humour of everyone’s favorite dour cinematic Finn, Aki Kaurismaki. And if you hear these songs through the lens of Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana! they reveal lighter aspects and a nimble, rather than wholly sombre, world-view.
Video: Scott Walker – Epizootics
5. Burial – Kindred EP + Truant/Rough Sleeper EP
Two EPs and five tracks that add up to more than a LP constitute Burial’s output for 2012. All the hallmarks of the Burial experience (lots of echo, snippets of voice, bass rumblings) are there, but there is, especially on the latter EP, a purposeful expansion of the sonic template. The songs shift from one mode to another, showing an astonishingly diverse range of style and textures that hitherto would have been dispersed over several tracks. Still most reminiscent of that late night bus ride through south London that I’ve never actually taken, but pointing toward a more abstract nocturnal, a sonic night of soul.
Listen: Burial – Truant
4. Frank Ocean – channel Orange
I have little to add to all that has been said about this album. I bought it out of curiosity, listened to it out of admiration, and grew to love it out of sheer astonishment of the guy’s talent and vision. Sure, there are confessional elements that make it the stuff of interest, but Ocean is a tremendous storyteller as well, individual stories that are deeply allegorical, and individual incidents that reveal much about the predicament of the present. A pure pleasure to listen and the fact that it is a hit and has mainstream appeal is somehow incredibly gratifying. After years of listening to things wholly out of sync with the pop charts and the wider world of popular culture, it is frankly (pun intended) quite a thrill to have this be the thing that facilitates some provisional truce between me and popularity.
Video: Frank Ocean – Pyramids (Live on SNL)
3. Cate Le Bon – Cryk + Cryk II
To complex and compelling to be written off as a Welsh Nico, Cate Le Bon’s album and its supplemental EP brought together strains of psych, folk, rock, and pop in a way that absorbed and transcended its antecedents. Her voices allures, but it is the spaciousness of the sound, from the gothic cathedral organ of “The Man I Wanted” to the skronky free jazz-psychedelic conclusion of “Ploughing Out Parts I and II”, that distinguishes the album. Another in the contemporary line of idiosyncratic Welsh genius, following on from Gruff Rhys’s colossal Candylion.
Video: Cate Le Bon – The Man I Wanted (All Souls Church Organ Session)
Video : Cate Le Bon – Fold the Cloth
Video: Cate Le Bon – Ploughing Out Parts I and II (Live on Radio K)
2. JJ DOOM – Key to the Kuffs
I have no time for those who greet every DOOM release with the complaint that it doesn’t approximate the genius of Madvillainy. That’s perhaps an impossible task, so let’s just leave it behind and let the villain do his work. Keys to the Kuffs stands out for a few reasons. First, DOOM’s exile in the UK, a result of passport paperwork as far as I can tell, has led to several lyrical innovations, from the witticisms of “Guv’nor” to the brilliance of “Rhymin’ Slang.” DOOM still has the most extraordinary voice and delivery of any emcee and it stands out here dramatically against the electronically-inclined beats of Jneiro Janel, the JJ of the LP’s title. My favorite rhyme of the year, and not just because I spent some time in Iceland this summer, is DOOM’s “Catch a throatful/From the fire vocaled/Ash and molten glass like/Eyjafjallajokull.” I’ve no hesitation in saying that DOOM is a genius.
Video: JJ DOOM – Guv’nor
1. Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes + Captain Murphy – Duality
Looser and sparser than 2010′s Cosmogramma, Until the Quiet Comes is an extraordinary exploration of inner and outer space. The tone, texture, and atmosphere of the album suggests both floating and fluttering, water and air. The standout track is “Putty Boy Strut,” but it’s also anomalous, its frenetic beats a contrast to the drift and flow of the rest of the LP. It’s the kind of album that you can be immersed by and suffused with. And, as if that wasn’t enough, FlyLo, as Captain Murphy, released a mixtape in late November that revealed a further dimension to his talents. The Os Mutantes-sampling “The Killing Joke” is a gorgeous track bolstered by a Michael Caine sample, and a few ferocious verses that announces the Captain’s arrival on the scene.
Video: Flying Lotus – Putty Boy Strut
Video: Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes
Video: Captain Murphy – The Killing Joke
Given that I’ve already cheated and included 16 actual releases in this top twelve, I feel great shame asking for even more, but here are a further handful of releases that scraped the top ten and deserve recognition:
Belbury Poly – The Belbury Tales, Angel Haze – Reservation + Classicks EP, 1991 – 1991, Cornershop – Urban Turban, Go-Kart Mozart – On the Hot Dog Streets, Kendrick Lamar – good kid, M.A.A.D. City, Robert Glasper – Black Radio, Toy – Toy, Heems – Nehru Jackets, Django Django – Django Django, Moon Wiring Club – Clutch It Like a Gonk + Today Bread, Tomorrow Secrets, Joey Bada$$ – 1999.